A rickety apartment building sat on the outskirts of suburban Anchorage, stained with lines of melted water from years past. Snow crunched under our feet— someone was skimping on snow shoveling— as we approached the concrete building. I don’t know how a concrete building looked rickety, but it sure succeeded. The sun had already ducked out for the day, but light from the windows and the odd flickering street lamp kept the building lit. All I could think as the wind blew around us was that the complex looked like a giant L-shaped Tetris block with a parking lot on the inside angle.
“I remember her place being a lot nicer,” I said as we ascended the stairs.
“Guess she had to move.” Stella said. “‘t’s expensive up here.”
True enough, but I felt Nell was really scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Stella had a bit of trouble during the climb with her crutch— the ceiling lights blinking on and off didn’t help— but we reached the upper floor without incident. There were more leaks coming through the ceiling than I deemed acceptable. It also looked like the cheap carpet was rolled out across the floor of the hall without fastening it to anything. The rough rug peeled up at every corner. A chill crawled across my skin as a waft of air blew through the building.
“Jeez, they need to fix this place up a bit,” I mumbled.
Stella hugged her shoulders with a shiver. “Oh yeah.”
I knocked on the door marked with metal numbers as room 307. The only way I could tell it was 307 was because the 7 left a mark on the door behind it. The number itself was missing.
A few clunking and shuffling noises later and the resident fumbled the door open. “Hello?” Nell stood at the entrance, standing on one talon and wrapped up in a fuzzy pink blanket. The other talon was used to open the door. It had been several months since our last visit, so I forgot how stark the contrast was between her fair skin and the blue positive/negative tattoos just behind her ears. Her naturally multi-colored hair was tied back in a loose ponytail that flopped over her shoulder. Though she had bags under her eyes, she mustered a smile for us.
“Hey, guys, how’ve ya been~?” Nell said with a bit of whimsy in her voice. We came together for a light hug, and I remembered that she barely came up to my ribs. Regardless, I felt the hair on my arms stand on end.
We exchanged greetings, and she showed us inside.
The interior of her studio apartment was like night and day compared to the rest of the building. The walls were streaked with yellows, blues, and psychedelic patterns straight out of the 60s. In the narrow mess of a kitchen at the entrance a bead curtain hanged in the doorway to the bedroom, gently swaying from when she went through it to answer the door. Some trash bags sat next to the door, and dishes sat scattered around the sink.
Nell skipped ahead of us into the bedroom, and I noticed a cord hanging from the blanket. Instead of trailing behind her or leading to an outlet, it looped up to the back of her head. Attached to a hair clip near the root of her ponytail was a small outlet slot. From that, two prongs stuck into her unruly locks. Tiny trails of light traveled across them, shifting through her hair as she walked. In my experience, hair didn’t conduct anything but static except when wet. Crazy thunderbird biology was probably at work.
After braving the mess that was the kitchen, we came into the disaster that was her bedroom. I couldn’t see the floor for all the clothes, magazines, and electronics scattered around the bed. One wall was taken up by two sliding doors for the closet, which were both top-to-bottom mirrors. It only seemed to compound the mess.
The thunderbird hopped onto her circular bed and tucked her legs under her blanket. “Sorry ‘bout the crap everywhere. Been sleeping all day, so I didn’t have the chance to clean up.”
“It’s fine,” Stella said. She seemed unable to look at any one thing before finding something else of interest. Personally, I was wondering why Nell had one of those metal static balls lying in the corner on its side.
I set our suitcases against the wall. “Did we wake you up?”
Nell rolled her head to the side sleepily. “Yeah, but I should get up. Got work in a couple days. Don’t wanna mess up my sleep. Make yourselves at home, guys.”
Stretching her wings to either side, she let the blanket slide off her shoulders, revealing an oversized black tank top that went past her thighs and barely managed to cover her chest. On the front it had a white stylized lighting symbol in a circle from a famous video game franchise. I may or may not have spotted a Super Nintendo in her closet as I watched her get up and head for the bathroom.
My stomach churned. “You have anything to eat? I could make something.”
She opened her mouth wide in a yawn. “Uwahaaa~ yeah, do whatever you want.”
Stella and I did as she suggested and made ourselves at home, starting with cleaning the kitchen. A few shouts into the bathroom gave me the location of the trash chute. After we were able to see the linoleum tile again, we ran the dishes through her clunky dish washer. A few paper towels and cleaning spray later and the stove was once more serviceable. By that time Nell had gotten out of the shower.
“Whaaa~t‘re you guys doing?” The thunderbird asked as she tied her hair. She had already put on her “gear,” as she called it, including a nose ring, tongue ring, and a pair of copper hoop earrings, each bent into audio jacks at the bottom of the loops. Whether they worked or not, I didn’t know, but I wanted to plug them into something.
I kicked an errant piece of uncooked pasta around on the floor. “Your kitchen sucks.”
“We’re making it not suck,” Stella added.
As I scooped up some of the ribbons of pasta and put them in a fresh trash bag, Nell looked on with a confused expression. “So, uh, you guys can stay forever if you want.”
I laughed, but Stella was too concentrated on her task to take part. “We’d have to pay rent if we did that.”
“Naw, dude, I’m serious. If you’re gonna clean my place and make me food, you can stay’s long’s you want.”
With that, I put some water on the stove to make us some healthy floor pasta. She had some frozen blocks of vacuum-sealed fish in the freezer, so I put them still-wrapped in some warm water to thaw them. I had no idea what I could do with them, but some kind of shredded salmon pasta sounded good. Stella got to work on clearing the floor in the bedroom for me to lay out a sleeping area.
As the water started to boil and billow clouds of steam through the vent above it, a strum of strings sounded from the bedroom. My head turned to look, but I couldn’t see much of the room beyond the beads. Nell must have put on some music. That was my initial thought as I turned to check the status of the defrosting fish blocks, but soon enough the strums began again. This time they were the variable twangs of strings.
Curious, I poked my head through the curtain of beads. The girls sat next to each other at the head of the bed. Nell, clad in just a pair of shorts and a t-shirt much too large for her, held a guitar in her lap. Stella had her MP3 player out with one ear bud for both of them. With one wing draped across the front of the old acoustic instrument, Nell used the claw of her single digit to pluck the strings while the other fumbled with the tuning keys.
The corners of the thunderbird’s mouth twitched as she tried to get the correct tones. “C’mon, c’mon, c’m— there we go.”
Stella let out a short, steady note from the song I couldn’t hear while Nell plucked the strings to match it. “You got it?”
Nell nodded. “Yeah, yeah. Just needs t’be a bit sharper here.”
“I didn’t know you played guitar,” I said from within the beads.
She glanced up at me before going right back to tuning. “Yeah, been playing since, uh, high school, I think?”
I went back to the boiling water and dumped the pasta in the pot. “Have you ever played in a band?”
A long whining note sounded from the bedroom, followed by Nell’s deep sighs. “Nope. Nobody thinks I can play the way they need me to, even on a bass.”
It made sense, to be honest. With only a pair of thumbs and maybe some help from the crest of the wing, harpies were probably more suited to different instruments. Actually, I couldn’t think of an instrument that did suit them. Their lack of full hands pretty much put them off the majority of instruments made for humans.
“You wanna learn?” She asked.
A few seconds passed before I realized she was talking to me. “Me?”
“Yeah. I still got some beginner guitar books around here. Somewhere.”
I leaned against the counter, keeping an eye on the food. “Never thought about it.” The only music I ever did was the required stuff in elementary school. I played the drums and never looked back when we finished the course.
“Do it~!” Stella called. “If you play, then I can sing! Oh! We could totally have jam sessions when we get home!”
Now there was a thought. “Huh. That might be fun, actually. I’ll think about it.” The idea sent a peasant anxiety through my gut.
With pasta cooking and fish about as ready for baking as I needed, I opened the oven and stuck them inside. At least she had clean baking sheets, but given how the rest of her dishes were so filthy, she probably just never used them in the first place. Judging by the number of forks and bowls and leftover jars of sauce, she probably ate pasta and noodles every night. Not to sound like my mother, but Nell was living like a college student. Although, I didn’t have much right to complain.
The music in the other room never went beyond a few strums at a time before the food was done and we arranged ourselves around the bedroom floor. Both girls gave compliments to the chef.
“So,” Nell said with a mouthful of food, “What’d you guys do in New York?”
“Mm!” Stella mumbled through her own food. I wondered what sort of sick joke stuck me with so many people who talked with their mouths full. “We went to Central Park, we got some free food from my favorite restaurant ever, stayed in an awesome hotel room, and watched the fireworks.” Succinct, as usual, though things technically didn’t happen in that order.
Nell swallowed her pasta. “Where’d you go to get free food?”
“An Indian place,” I said. “Stella knows a chef there, so we got some leftovers and stuff at the back door.”
She tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. “Leftovers.”
“They were good, so-“
“No, no, hold on. Your guys’ idea of a date is getting sloppy seconds in some alley behind an Indian joint?”
Stella and I looked up from our meals. I went first. “I guess?”
The thunderbird threw her wings upward. “That’s it? Like, no late-night dinners? No clubbing? No movies or lunch dates? Come on, this’s basic date stuff.”
That brought something to mind. “Hey Stella, have we ever gone to a movie theatre together?”
Again she was chewing, but shook her head in response. “Mm-mm. We just watch ‘em on our TV.”
“Also, we’re in Unalakleet,” I added.
The thunderbird sitting across from me groaned. “But come on, you were in New-fucking-York~! Sounds like you guys barely did anything! Was that your first date or what?”
That was a good point. “Actually, yeah. Maybe. We’re working most of the year, so we can’t just jump around the state doing stuff.”
Nell placed her plate on the floor and grumbled to herself, “Hmm. This bugs me.” I couldn’t help but chuckle under my breath. “I feel like you’re both missing out on so much. I should dress you guys up and ship you off to a good place downtown. I know a guy who knows a guy. I’ll call him in the morning.”
“’Dress us up?’” Stella repeated.
“Well, yeah. I doubt you two brought anything fancy for a nice grown-up date like you very well should’ve.” She started sounding like a teacher talking down to some kids who forgot their homework.
A sense of opportunity rose in my gut. “Stella wore a fancy dress last month.”
My girlfriend shot a blushing glare at me. “Jeff, what the hell?”
Nell’s reaction was a much more smiley one. “Seriously? I wanna see it!”
After convincing a flustered and obstinate Stella to put on the only dress she owned and show her friend how very beautiful she looked in it, she holed herself up in the bathroom with her suitcase. Several minutes passed as Nell eagerly waited with her eyes glued to the bathroom door. I went ahead and took our dishes into the kitchen in the meantime. Unfortunately, the dishwasher was still running the load of dishes we put in it when we arrived. A good hand washing by hand was always good, but I didn’t want to miss Stella’s entrance, and left the plates in the sink.
The click of the doorknob practically echoed through the bedroom as we both waited in silence.
Though it was the third time, I never got tired of the sheer novelty of seeing my girlfriend in a dress. The ribbon of the halter top was lazily tied at her nape, and the skirt portion was wrinkled from being stuffed in the suitcase. Her tail feathers stuck straight up behind her through the slot above her butt, twitching with anxiety.
“Oh, nice~,” Nell said with a smile. She started circling Stella like a vulture, analyzing her from every angle. “Did you pick this out yourself?”
She mumbled something to herself before answering. “One of the office ladies in the hangar helped me look for one online, and they said this one looked good.” Ah, so that was how she ordered it without using my computer.
“Very nice. That lady’s got good— uh, what’s this?” Nell poked at the hem with a wing.
With a twist around to look. “Uh. That’s a wine stain.”
“How long’ve you had this dress?” Nell’s hair and feathers spiked upward with static as if prepared to hear something she didn’t want to.
Stella twiddled her thumbs and avoided her gaze. “A couple months?”
With a shake of her head, Nell wrapped her wings around Stella’s neck and pulled her close. “You poor, poor child. You’ve already stained a full white dress and you don’t even care.” She was shorter, so she ended up pulling Stella down a little as she nuzzled irritating static into my girlfriend’s cheek. “Don’t you worry, I’ll help you outta this fashion rut.”
“Ow. Ow! Please let go. Ow!” The tips of Stella’s hair stood up by the time her friend released her. One would think she would have been used to the little shocks already. I decided it would be more fun not to help.
Nell pulled away, keeping her wings on the other harpy’s shoulders, and said, “Stella? We’re going to the mall tomorrow. And we’re gonna pick out something awesome for you.”
My girlfriend’s demeanor visibly slumped in disbelief. “No! I don’t need a—”
Nell placed some feathers over Stella’s mouth. “Shh. Hush. Everything’ll be okay.”
It took everything I had to keep myself from laughing.
Then Nell shot a charged glare in my direction. “And you! What sorta getup did you wear?”
Uh oh. “Uh, khakis and a sweater, I think? You want to see them, too?”
Her eyebrows furrowed. “What the hell kinda nerd are you? Fuckin’ sweater and khakis? I don’t even need to see them. I’m picking out something for you, too.” With that, she tromped over to the dresser tucked in her closet, clutched a bunch of clothes between her wings, and tromped into the bathroom.
“Don’t I get to say no?” I asked.
“No!” The bathroom door slammed behind her.
* * *
The majority of the next several days were spent at one of the several malls in Anchorage. Not once did she take both Stella and myself out at the same time. Apparently she wanted our outfits to be a surprise to each other on the night of the date. There were the usual Men’s Warehouse stores and other mainstream places, but she took me to numerous hole-in-the-wall stores that dotted the streets of downtown. Multiple times I was measured, checked for color compared to my eyes and skin tone, and made to pay for grooming supplies.
When I wasn’t getting measured up and down by flamboyant tailors or felt up by flirtatious monstrous women in the dressing room, I was back at Nell’s place waiting for the girls to get back from Stella’s own forays into the fashion world. I lost track of time more often than was probably acceptable, whether it was spend bundled up in the apartment surfing the web on my phone or walking around the neighborhood in an attempt to relieve the boredom.
At some point, I found Nell’s old copy of “Beginner’s Guide to Guitars,” and wormed it into my daily routine. The book was the right size to set on a music stand, had color diagrams, and was frayed enough that the staples along the spine were coming apart. The music stand she owned was a mess of bent wires with a broken stand, so I sat on the bed and assumed some terrible posture to look over the guidebook on the sheets in front of me. The Intermediate and Advanced versions sat open in the corner, both threadbare and well-used, but I didn’t touch those.
Learning and practicing during the day left my fingers cold and numb thanks to the weather; I wore my comfy gloves for a reason, after all. Nonetheless, the instrument intrigued me. Nell got back from work around seven in the morning, after helping to clean up the club and ready it for the daytime operation as a restaurant. Before she went to bed she helped me practice, showing me how to place my fingers along the strings and helping me get the tuning right. She had an old electronic tuner lying behind her dresser that I used. Her physical difficulties with guitars were understandable, but she dwarfed my evolutionary advantages through her sheer experience.
She helped me a lot, but at the same time she wasn’t as effective at teaching me as someone else would have been. The very way she had to hold the guitar wasn’t the same as in the book or on the videos I looked up online. Instead of holding the neck up with her left wing, she held it forward across her lap so that her claw could rest cross the strings. She had to wear her hair in a ponytail all the time because it would drape across the face of the guitar if she didn’t. Her large, cumbersome wings and long feathers didn’t help, either. Still, she blew me out of the water on all of the simple music I tried to play.
The morning of the fourth day, I sat up in the bed with my back propped up against a pile of the many pillows Nell kept close by. Sometime in the night, a sleeping Stella found herself a cushion for her head on my legs, her limbs splaying out every which way. As I flipped through videos and news articles of interest on my phone with one hand, I ran the fingers of the other through her hair. Her gentle breath was only drowned out by the whirlwinds that whistled through the concrete building. It was still dark outside, with a dim morning blue keeping the street lights lit.
I looked up the weather and sunrise times for Anchorage. Present time, 9:03 AM. Windy with heavy cloud cover in early morning. Clearer skies expected as the day progresses. Sunrise expected at approximately 9:52 AM. Seemed about right.
Through trial and error I grew apt at moving Stella around while she was still asleep. After extraction from the sheets, I headed for the bathroom and washed my face. The water was close to freezing, but it was nothing I wasn’t used to from the cabin in Unalakleet. Speckles of dried water dotted the mirror and I got a good look at my face. It really did feel like weeks since I last shaved. I looked like a caveman.
My outfit, wrapped up in a bit black plastic bag, gently swung back and forth on a hanger dangling from the bathroom door.
With a sigh, I concluded that I needed some coffee.
Then I remembered Nell only had tea.
It would have to do.
As soon as I headed for the kitchen, a gust of icy air blew through it into the bedroom. I heard the front door quickly latch before seeing a bundled-up Nell hop through the curtain of beads and hunker down in front of the heater in the wall.
“You okay?” I asked. A glance at the bed told me Stella didn’t move an inch at the ruckus.
A shiver sounded from my friend. “It’s r-r-really cold today.” Her stark blue coat had a sort of cape that covered her shoulders and most of her upper arms. The rest of it went down to her knees. Like most other harpies, she wore nothing on her feet or legs besides a single silver ankle bracelet on her left talon.
Stepping around her, making sure not to shock myself on her feathers, I said, “I was about to heat up some water anyway. Want some tea?”
“Yes. But after!” She pointed at me with a wing that nearly poked me from halfway into the kitchen. “The guy I asked to fix you up said he’s sick. So I’m cutting your hair today.”
I shrugged my shoulders as I turned the knob on the stove. “Okay? Want me to look through a magazine to tell you what I want?”
“Nope. Don’t even think about it. You don’t know what you want.” She snapped open the front of her coat and shuffled it off her shoulders. Underneath was a rib-knit sweater with buttons along the shoulders. It looked like you’re supposed to pull it up from around your legs instead of over your head.
What she said was more or less true, but that was still rude. “What if I don’t like it?”
“You won’t. My haircuts are always the best.”
Whatever. “You’re really working hard on all this, though.”
“This whole date thing for me and Stella.”
She headed for the stove and knelt down to warm her face by the kettle. “Yeah, so?”
For some reason, it felt like it would have been rude to ask her why. Did she need a reason to set up her friends on a fancy date? Probably not.
Then I looked down and saw my boxers and undershirt. “I should probably put some pants on before getting my hair cut.”
“You do that.”
Call me uncultured, but the tea still tasted stupid, even with pants.
While Nell set up a folding chair in the bathroom, I got dressed and grabbed a towel to keep the hair off. She insisted I shave first, showing me a picture of a generically handsome man in a magazine. He had a thin moustache, a tuft of stubble below his lower lip, and another line on his chin. Was he an actor? Probably. Despite my best efforts, however, I couldn’t look like the handsome man. Even without the cuts it looked like I was trying too hard to look cool. We decided to just cut it all off.
I had to search around my cheeks with my fingers to find spots I missed, but the feeling of silky smooth skin was rather welcoming. Not to mention that the aftershave balm Nell picked out for me was soothing as hell. It had been so long since I’d seen my chin that I barely recognized myself. Did I always look so rugged? Probably a side-effect of flying planes.
Next came washing my hair, which Nell just did for me in her sink. Luckily the water heater kicked in and it was at least warm enough to not freeze my hair in place. After that, Nell proceeded to surprise me at her dexterity with scissors. She had to use a pair especially made for her to hold (with insulated rubber handles of course), but she managed to make it feel like getting a haircut by a professional.
“You’re good at this,” I said as she tilted my head with a gentle nudge.
“Well,” she said, “when I first started school I thought I’d join the beauty department or some crap. But it can be hard to make a career out of that when you don’t have all the fingers most people got. Getting electrocuted all day sounded smarter.”
“You get electrocuted at work?” Another tilt and she sheared off some hair from over my ear.
“Sometimes. The sound system’s old. I’ve been trying to renovate it, but I’m the only one who can work on it safely. Turn this way, please.”
I did so. “Doesn’t that violate safety requirements or something?”
She smirked at me through the bathroom mirror. “Damn right it does. They require an electrician to be on-hand whenever it’s in use. That’s me.”
I made a mental note to never visit the night club at which she worked.
Minutes passed as she snipped my hair this way and that. While she cleared my forehead of hair I wondered to myself what kind of outfit Nell prepared for Stella. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t quite picture her in anything fancy except for the dress she’d already worn. Aside from that, perhaps some office attire like Janet’s? The thought of her wearing a full pair of pants drew a smile to my lips.
A few patient minutes later and Nell took a copper colored bottle of something out of the medicine cabinet.
As she sprayed it onto my hair, using a small towel over her wing to shield my eyes, I shivered. “Ugh. I have bad experience with hair gel.”
She spurted out a laugh. “For real? What happened? Also, run your fingers through your hair to the right. From here on.” She drew a claw gently along my scalp to mark where I would start the brushing.
I did as she ordered, running my fingers through my slick dark hair. My formerly shaggy locks of hair were very much gone, leaving neat and uniform strands three inches to the tip. It was so long since I had short hair that I felt a little naked.
“I was in middle school. One of the other kids in class was using hair gel to spike his hair. I was jealous.”
“Ha, I know where this is going.”
“Probably. I asked my mom for some of the stuff she used and tried to do it myself. I ended up with some kind of modern art for hair. It was curly and straight at the same time and went everywhere. I don’t even know how to describe it.”
Nell laughed aloud and grabbed a comb from beside the sink. “Alright, you can stop brushing. I got it now.” She continued to brush my hair in the same direction I did, making sure to cut any wayward curls and shocks of hair that were left behind on my otherwise tidy head. “Okay, what do you think?”
I was so caught up in the story and the brushing that I forgot to look in the mirror. The top was slicked to the side, leaving long slender lines across my scalp. My sideburns were shortened and evened out to the middle of my ears in length. The tips of my hair peaked over my forehead slightly, and not a hair touched the back of my neck. I looked downright suave.
She leaned over my shoulder and made eye contact with me through our reflections. “Who is this handsome guy, huh?”
A perpetual smile got so stuck to my lips that I had to hide it with a hand. “I like it.” Standing up from the chair and draping the towel over it, I put and arm around her shoulders and squeezed. “Thanks, Nell. This is awesome.”
“Aw~.” She leaned against my chest and put a wing around my middle.
Our heads both whirled around to look into the bedroom. Stella stood in the doorway with wide eyes and some spectacular bedhead. Before I could tell her “good morning,” she shuffled into the bathroom and started circling me, eyes on my head. Nell stepped back, hiding a smirk behind her feathers.
“Stella, you okay?” I asked. Several times she stood on the tips of her good talon and ducked under my arms as if to see if what she was seeing was real.
With a start, she reached up and clasped either side of my head with her wings and eyed me anxiously. “It-it’s you!” she stuttered. “It’s you, but new! Like, exciting and new, but still you! Your face is smooth, too. This is so cool!” She leaned in and gave me a kiss so quick and spontaneous that I barely registered the feeling on my lips. “You need to cut your hair more often!”
I didn’t have the heart to point out the inherent flaw in that statement, instead electing to hug her to my chest. “Good morning to you, too.”
Stella squeezed her eyes shut and hugged me back, a talon popping into the air behind her.
“Ugh,” Nell scoffed. “You two are nauseating in the morning.” She turned the knob on the sink and washed off the comb and scissors. “Okay, girly, your turn.”
My girlfriend stopped hugging me just long enough to ask, “For what?”
“For me to do your hair. Come on, I told you days ago.”
The excitement drained from Stella’s face. “Do I have to?”
“I’ll look dumb, though.”
Nell quickly grabbed Stella and pulled her in to nuzzle her static-charged cheek against hers. “Don’t you ever say that about yourself, girly. Don’t you worry, I’ll take good care of you. Okay, Jeff, leave us be.” She gently batted me away with a wing, shocking me up and down the hair on my legs.
“Ow. I’m going already.”
As I let them be, one of my hands involuntarily reached up and felt at my hair. It started to harden and set after just a few minutes. Meanwhile, gray light became visible through the blinds. The wind wasn’t blowing nearly as hard as it was over the last few days, giving me a twinge of optimism about the rest of the day.
Finding nothing else to do, I grabbed the guitar book and started flipping through it. I still only had a tenuous grasp on how to read notes on the practice sheets. Nell said it would take time, but I wanted to practice as much as I could before our vacation ended.
Soon enough, Stella’s voice rang through the bathroom door. “How long’ll I have to sit here?” It sounded like her hair deserved more attention than mine.
Nell’s voice came next in response. “Forty five minutes. Maybe an hour.”
“Really? What’ll happen if I take this stuff out early?”
“You’ll die. Of embarrassment. Because you didn’t let me do your hair right.”
There was a pause. “Fine.”
I was a simple fix, but apparently Stella needed hair therapy.
As they proceeded with small talk, I went and put on an actual shirt to block out the cold. Nell told us we could turn on the heater whenever, so I did just that. For the next hour I made myself a bowl of cereal, drank my gross tea, and let my thoughts wander. The internet on my phone was for wasting time. Will the wonders of werecat videos ever cease? Probably not.
Eventually I snapped out of my internet-induced stupor and thought to wash up my bowl. I got another ready for Stella out of habit. The hum of a hair dryer sounded from the bathroom when I went back into the bedroom.
“You sure this looks good?” Stella said. Never had I heard her sound so unsure of something. She sounded like she was about to cry.
“Babe,” Nell called above the hair dryer, turning it off before continuing. “You’re dynamite. Now go out there and knock his pants off. Seriously, I’ll just hang out in the yard if he wants to go at it after seeing you.”
Stella moaned. “Ugh, I don’t know, I look dumb.”
I heard a sigh, and with a crash the bathroom door swung open. “Hey Jeff! Come take a look at your lovely girlfriend!” The air filled with the spiky smell of hair product, and a few small strips of what looked like tin foil tumbled out onto the carpet.
My heart skipped when she finally made eye contact with me. Partially obscuring her eyes, Stella’s usually light brown hair was given a darker shape with several streaks of chocolate. Before, she had steady waves, but Nell somehow curled the lower half of her locks that dangled over her shoulders. A pair of bobby pins kept her bangs out of her eyes while some arcane and flowery hair tie kept a curled bun together at the back of her head.
I only just saw her asleep with her normal style just an hour ago, but she looked like an entirely different person. It was exciting and new, but still her.
All I could say was, “Wow.”
* * *
Nell convinced us to leave at different times. Given the short days, we planned to get coffee at a café in the afternoon, then a movie, then an early dinner around 5. The place was only a few minutes from the apartment complex, so I walked there myself. It helped me get used to my new Alaska-approved dress shoes, anyway. They were turdy, had a thick slip-proof sole, solid laces, and they went about an inch higher along my shin than normal dress shoes.
The textured gray coat we got for me the other day fit me like a glove. It had three buttons worth of length that stretched down to just above my knees. Nell told me to keep only the top button buttoned when I was outside. I had a black turtleneck over a couple more layers, so I was warm enough anyway. The neck, however, was loose enough to let some air in. It was probably more “fashionable” than a completely weather-proof version.
Once I located the corner café, I sat in one of the outside chairs. It had long since stopped snowing. Off in the distance, the sun managed to peak through the clouds. Beams of light shined through the rolling roiling gray and onto the windows of office buildings in a yellow haze. Every now and then a sting of ice blew on the wind and down my neck. That was the last time I let Nell convince me to wear such a crappy turtleneck.
I checked the time. 1:09 PM. Nell was probably dead to the world and was probably Stella on her way.
“Hey, man,” rang a familiar voice.
Turning my head to look down the cracked sidewalk, I saw harpy standing a few paces from my table. Of course, I expected to see Stella. It was most definitely her, but I didn’t quite know how to react.
Around her shoulders was a black arm-length cape with two buckles on the front and short slits on either side for her wings. It flowed over her shoulders like molded clay, her newly curled hair brushing against it with every step. Underneath it was what looked like a skirt of thick warm fabric that stretched down to her knees. Two large creases along the legs gave it flexibility and a fair range of movement while still looking slim. As the cape swished around I saw that the skirt and top were a single sweater dress sort of deal. I needed her to remove the garment on her shoulders to see the rest, though.
I muttered, “Hey.” Was I staring? Probably.
She fidgeted and scratched her ankle with a talon. The cast was still on. “Hey.”
We probably would have gotten stuck in a loop if I didn’t break it prematurely. “You, uh, wanna sit down?” Damn was this awkward.
A wave of relieve washed over her face at the prospect. “Yes.” She yanked the other chair out from the table and slumped down onto it. For whatever reason, she didn’t take the cape off.
“You look great, by the way.”
She looked around, as if to make sure nobody heard what I said, and smiled. “Shut up.”
We decided to get in the short line for some coffee. I got a plain old coffee with whichever beans the barista recommended while Stella got a little bottle of orange juice.
When I took my first sip, she stuck her tongue out in disgust. “Ew. How can you drink that stuff?”
I shrugged. “You’ve never seen me drink it in the hangar? They have three coffee machines.”
A shiver crawled up her back. “Ugh, I don’t even want to think about that.”
“It doesn’t taste great on its own, but it keeps me awake. I need it on long flights at work. If I fall asleep it’s game over.”
She shifted her weight in her iron wrought floral chair. “Yeah, but why not tea like with Nell?”
It was my turn to stick out my tongue. “Now that stuff’s gross. It’s just leaf juice. And you don’t drink that stuff, either.”
“Yeah, I just use the wind my face to wake up. If I fall asleep while I’m flying it’s probably because someone drugged me or something.”
“Well, you’re out like a light when we go to bed. Are you just a morning person?” On work days she always got up and at ‘em before me, but she slept in more than I did on our days off. Which was it?
“I guess I’m a morning person?” She took a sip from her juice, using a straw I grabbed for her. “But ever since we got the new bed, it’s been harder to fall asleep.”
“Why’s that? You getting insomnia?” I wondered if she still didn’t like to sleep in the same bed with me to some extent.
She did her best not to make eye contact. “It’s all your fault for having such a pretty sleepy face. You keep me awake.”
I laughed over the lip of my mug. “You better not take pictures of me when I’m asleep.”
“Why not? I bet you’ve taken tons of me with that dumb camera phone you got.”
“Nope, I promised not to take any without your permission, remember?”
After a moment of recollection, Stella bent forward in a laugh. “Oh man, that day. That was the best!”
“Nell doesn’t think so.”
“Well, she’s a dumb.”
“Heh. Well, she did get us a reservation at a fancy restaurant, so I can’t hate on her too bad.”
“How does she even know a guy who knows a guy in a restaurant that you need a reservation for?”
That was certainly a long questions. “No idea.” My coffee was still half full before I decided I was done with it.
The next hour or so was spent on small talk; the weather, the city, how much we were looking forward to work, and of course planning when to go to the annual melting glacier viewing. Our next destination was the movie theatre. We got our tickets, sat in one of the couple seats in the back of the audience, and got comfortable. It was my first time in a theatre in Alaska. You’d think they would at least try to warm up the building during the winter, but no such luck. Things were just as cold as they were outside. We got no snacks. Didn’t want to get our new clothes messy, after all.
As people milled around and got into their seats between us and the silver screen, I looked up a plot summary of the movie we were about to see. It seemed popular enough for a romantic comedy, but most of the people in the seats seemed to be in high school.
“Is this what Nell considers a ‘grown-up’ movie date?” I asked.
Stella bobbed back and forth in her seat to a hummed rhythm. “Guess so.” At least she was smiling.
I’d been on dates to the movies before, but it felt different with a steady girlfriend. Before, I sat next to the girl with the hopeful expectation of maybe a make out session by the end of the night. Casanova I was not, so that rarely happened, if ever. With Stella I felt much less anxious.
As the opening trailers started playing, Stella shuffled my arm off the armrest and planted her elbow there. I glanced at her and subtly set my arm next to hers. Before she knew it, my arm was under her wing. She looked up at me through her freshly styled bangs with a raised eyebrow.
She shrugged. “You wanna go, buddy? I’ll mess you up.” I knew she meant business because she used “buddy” on me.
Truly that is the real challenge of having a steady girlfriend in the theatre with you: fighting over the armrest.
Good thing I was cleverer than that. “Nah.” I lifted her wing and pulled the armrest up between the backs of our seats.
“Well,” she said, “that’s fine, too.” With that, she sidled over to me and leaned on my shoulder.
From what I gathered, the movie was about a kikimora janitor who was trying to get with a wealthy businessman. Definitely date movie material. Despite the coffee from earlier, the movie put us both to sleep in about thirty minutes. At least we were comfortable for the one and a half hour run.
* * *
After quickly fixing our respective bed hair in the theatre bathrooms, we called a taxi to take us to the restaurant. Never in my life did I take more taxis than in the last few weeks. I was turning into a regular connoisseur of the things. Thankfully the one we got only smelled a little like cigarettes.
At a little before 5 PM the sun was charging over the horizon, but the sky was more or less devoid of clouds. If we just flew my plane a few laps around the city instead of going out to dinner, we could have seen a great Alaska sunset over the mountains. I made a mental note to convince her to watch the sunset with me sometime.
“It’s called ’Crow’s Nest,’ right?” Stella said as we got dropped off at the curb. The place was part of a hotel along the main drag of the city.
It took only us ten minutes to realize we didn’t know where the restaurant was, and asked a valet about it. The joint was situated on “Tower 3,” as the he called it, so we made our way there. An elevator ride and a few hallways and we stepped into a place with a massive all-around view of the city from twenty floors high. Scratch what I said earlier about asking her to watch the sun set sometime; we were at the perfect place for just that.
I was hasty in calling it a “joint,” too. The carpeting looked brand new, every time we turned a corner we saw a new vase of flowers, and the hardwood walls looked like it sprang out of some kind of fancy living magazine. The clientele looked so well-dressed that I felt we didn’t have a chance of measuring up to their expectations in the first place. To my surprise, however, nobody paid much attention to us. Good or bad, we didn’t seem to stand out.
Our waiter took us to a small table in the corner of the restaurant, giving us a massive view of the city.
Stella unbuckled and removed her cape before sitting down. Beneath it was the rest of the one-piece outfit I saw earlier. The thick fabric made it look almost like a sweater, but it hugged her sides and chest as if it were tailor made just for her. Double layers and two columns of four gold circles traced down her front, giving her chest a bit of an extra umph that I found quite attractive. Giving it another look, there were rows of buttons along her shoulders. The ones on the front were probably just for show, it being another outfit that harpies pull up from around their legs. The collar had a short knit scarf attached to it that fit loosely around her neck. Meanwhile, the skirt angled neatly off of her shapely and slim hips. It was almost a triangle, the bottom side of which hovered around her knees.
I, being the gentleman that I am, handled Stella’s chair for her as she sat down. She seemed to appreciate it this time instead of giving me a look.
“Could I interest you two in a bottle of wine?” Our waitress asked. She was a rather pretty Yuki-Onna with short hair done up with a series of clips behind her head. Her outfit was, like all the other waiters, black pants, a white dress shirt, and a dark vest.
“Uh,” Stella glanced at me, shooting an excited smile my way. Then she straightened up. “Ahem. What do you have?” Classy.
The girl smiled. “Oh, we have a cellar of 10,000 bottles.” Stella’s eyes grew wide. That was quite a collection. “Would you like a recommendation?”
We settled on our waitress’s recommendation, which was some French wine I couldn’t pronounce. According to her, it was very light and suitable for those with a low tolerance. Stella requested a straw. A classy one, at that. The ice woman said she would see what she could do.
Stella tucked her wings in her lap as she looked around the restaurant. “This is so fancy!”
She fidgeted. “Makes me a bit uncomfortable.” With that, she stood up from her chair and reached for the buttons on her shoulders with her claws.
“Just taking this thing off. Too warm for it.”
Not once did I expect there to be something publicly decent underneath it; I guess the sweater skirt thing wasn’t the whole outfit. With some quick flicks of the gold buttons, she slid it carefully down her torso and stepped out of it like a pair of pants.
My eyes went wide. If we were in more private company I might have cat called her. In a gentlemanly manner, of course.
The final layer removed, she wore a strapless and sleeveless black dress with horizontal wrinkles in the top that stretched down slightly past her hips. Hanging from there was a tiered black skirt with ruffles all around. It was much shorter than the top layer of her outfit, but upon closer inspection the skirt was almost exactly as long as her tail feathers when she aimed them down. Finally, her bust size comically shrank during the stunning transformation.
I picked my jaw up off the floor, but dropped it again when she turned to put her clothes on her chair, flashing her bare nape and shoulder blades. It took a deep breath through my nose to force my eyes away. No need to stare right?
My eyes didn’t agree. “You look amazing.”
She froze for a moment and purses her lips. “Thanks.” A new stiffness affects her movements as she sits back down in her chair.
I knew it was considered rude to do so, but I leaned forward and rested an elbow on the table. “Good to see you can take a compliment now.”
She fidgeted in her seat and picked up her big rectangular menu. “Still not used to it.”
“That’s fine. If you wore this outfit all the time, I might not ever stop complimenting you on it.”
Our waitress brought us a pair of wine glasses and the bottle we ordered, pouring us some freshly chilled wine and leaving us to decide on our dinner. Stella’s straw was red and transparent, complementing the white wine nicely. It was, indeed, the fanciest straw I had ever seen.
Stirring drink absentmindedly, she said, “Did you always use lame lines like that with girls?”
“Nah, but don’t worry, I have a whole list of lame lines just waiting to be used on you.” Sliding my glass along the pristine white tablecloth, I stop it just short of hers. “Cheers.”
A smile. “Alright. To what? Us?”
“Hmm. To Nell. For getting us a reservation, clothes, and haircuts.”
“Alright. To Nell!” Stella nodded in agreement, clinked her glass against mine, and sipped daintily.
I continued. “That nosy, nosy bitch.”
She almost spit out her drink with a suppressed laugh, covering her lips with a wing. Some well-dressed people from nearby tables turned to look, but we didn’t get any glares or anything. It took a few moments for her to regain her composure, but that went to hell when I laughed along with her.
As we ordered our food, she never lost that smile.
I got salmon and prawns with lemon sauce, and she got the massive ribeye.
When our waitress left us once more, Stella said, “Hey,” swishing her glass of wine in her claw. “What do you think woulda happened if Boss didn’t room us together?”
Another sip of wine and I was empty. Time for another splash. “I’d ask him why he didn’t tell me about it.”
She tilted her head. “What do you mean?”
A lump of anxiety dropped into my throat. “Well, he sent a shout-out to all the people who were looking for roommates at the time. He said there was a ‘new girl’ coming and she needed a place to stay.”
“Oh yeah? I thought he just shoved me in there with you?”
I shook my head. “Actually, I volunteered for you to stay with me.”
A furrowed brow of curiosity. “Really?”
“Yeah. I didn’t know a thing about you at the time. I just—” I stopped for a moment and looked her in the eye. “To be honest, I was lonely by myself.”
A furrowed brow of concern. “Even with, like, Dan, Beth, the twins, Russell, and all the guys in the hangar?”
“Well, they were great. Don’t get me wrong. But I already spent a winter up there. I was by myself for a long time with all the storms blowing over us. Really, I thought any company for the winter would’ve been amazing.” My eyes were drawn to the smooth light liquid swishing to and fro in my glass. “Imagine my surprise when you showed up.”
Her laugh in response had a reluctant and nervous pitch. “Guess, uh, you weren’t expecting someone with feathers?”
I forced a chuckle. “Not at all. I was stupid. When I saw your flight uniform and learned you’d be flying mail using just your wings, I really believed you’d drop out after a month of work.”
“Proved you wrong by a bajillion times, didn’t I?”
“Yeah.” Setting my glass down, I let my arms rest on my lap. “For the first year with the airline, I think I only felt good while I was flying. Up in the sky, I felt like I could do anything. See anything. It was like watching a crystal clear movie every time I took off. Compared to that, coming home to an empty little cabin with nobody to tell, that was—” another pause. “It was tough.”
Stella looked around, as if wondering when our food would get there. It was a rough topic.
A really lame line popped into my head. It was so very bad, but I had to say it. “I wasn’t lonely after you moved in, though.” She looked back to me. “Because I brought a piece of the sky home with me every night.”
It took a moment, but soon enough an exasperated look manifested on her face, though the red in her cheeks betrayed her. “Oh my God, did that come from your list of stupid lines?”
“Just thought of it, actually.”
“Well stop it. I can’t handle all these cheesy lines, man” She couldn’t hold eye contact, and the corners of her pursed lips quivered in her attempts to quash a smile.
A deep breath. “It was the same for me, though. About flying, I mean.”
I rested my chin on my hand. “How so?” Elbow on the table again. Will I ever learn?
She shrugged and shook her head. “All I wanted to do was fly around. Didn’t care where it was, as long as I could go wherever I wanted.” She set down her wine glass, too. Carefully. “When I started in Unalakleet, I really didn’t like it when I had to follow a schedule and junk.”
If that was true, she never showed it to me. I sighed, but it soon grew to a chuckle. “I can picture you and Boss at each other’s throats about that kind of thing.”
Another sip and she shook her head. “Oh no, I told him straight up. I didn’t want, like, a super solid schedule.”
“What’d you guys end up doing?” I actually had no idea how she chose her destinations every morning. She clearly had a system, though.
“We, uh, what’s the word. Compromised?” I nodded, and she continued. She stuck her tongue out a little between her teeth. “Basically, I got him to agree that I got to choose my first stop of the day.” After a sip of wine, she looked off to the side in faux innocence. “And that’s always the village closest to your first stop. Every day.”
My processes halted for a moment before fully grasping the gravity of what she said. “So, you fly with me almost every day because… you specifically asked Boss to let you?”
She casually nodded her head. “Yeah, somethin’ like that.” Was she already tipsy?
Red filled my cheeks and I covered my mouth with a hand to hide my shit-eating grin. “And how long ago was that?”
Again with the tongue between the teeth. It was adorable. “About, um, I dunno. Few months after I started? ‘Round the time we bundled up for that first winter break.”
All things considered, that was more than a year ago. “So. That long, huh?”
Her eyebrows raised and lowered seductively. “Took you long enough.”
Last year, my sheer mental density probably could have overtaken a black hole. Then again, it took her a few months to figure out how I felt, too.
It was all I could do not to get up and kiss her. The only thing I wanted was mess up her sexy new celebrity hair, peel her out of that tight dress, and lose our bet all over the table. Scratch that; she could keep the dress on. It was short enough for easy access, after all.
Our food arriving snapped me out of my overly lewd imagination. She was a yuki-onna; she would have understood, right?
“The Salmon and prawns with lemon sauce,” our waitress said professionally as she set an oval plate down in front of me. “And, of course, the ribeye.” She set a rectangular plate down in front of Stella, who had long since started drooling. “Enjoy! Is there anything else I can get you?”
All I could think of getting was a raincoat, before Stella could start bloodily ripping her meal apart with her teeth. “We’re good. Thank you.”
Before Stella jumped face-first into her plate, she reached for her knife. Her wing stopped on its way, never touching it.
I just finished cutting a bite of fish. “What’s up?”
She put her folded wings in her lap. “Would you mind cutting this for me?”
“Sure.” Moving my chair around to her side of the table, she scooted over a bit and watched me work my multi-fingered, utensil-utilizing magic on her slab of ribeye.
“Get that piece right there in one bite. Yeah, that’s good. Good combo of meat and fat. Yes. Good.” I don’t think she blinked even once as I sliced up her meal for her.
As I finished up and she gazed gleefully at her plate, however, I found myself wanting to stay on her side of the table. After some contemplation, I moved the flower vase in the middle of our table to the windowsill.
“What’re you doing?” Stella asked.
“We’re too far. Gonna sit next to you. And we’re going to watch the sun set.”
“Is that how adults usually have dinner dates?”
“I don’t know, but it couldn’t hurt to start.”
She probably didn’t notice, what with all of our talking, but the sun was still just barely peeking out between a cloud and the mountains by the sea. Showing how polite she could be, she waited for me to situate my own meal next to hers. The noise I made attracted a few wandering eyes, so I made sure to hurry up and not spoil the moment. Once I sat down, everything was good. We could see nobody else in the restaurant as we watched the landscape colors shift with the dipping sun. It was romantic, and that’s what I was going for.
My elbow bumped against hers as I speared my bite of fish. She bumped me back without looking up. The orange glow of the sky spread from the horizon to the clouds above us, bathing the city in golds and reds as we gazed down from the 20th floor. With my own meal cut up, I put my free arm around her back and pulled her a bit closer. Strangely, she didn’t bump me back.
Was she shivering?
“Stella?” Looking down at her, she held her fork in her trembling claw as she chewed her first bite of dinner. Tears were welling up in her eyes. “Stella, are you okay? Hey!”
Our waitress was nearby and quickly power-walked over to us with concern in her eyes. “Is everything okay?”
I spoke in a hushed tone as I stood up. “I don’t know, she—”
Before I could finish, Stella dropped her fork onto her plate, stood up, and tackle-hugged our waitress. “It’s. So. Goo-huh-hood~!” The poor waitress’s eyes widened as she did her best to keep my girlfriend and herself from falling onto the floor. I put and arm at her back and she managed to stand upright once more.
Well, that was sure something. She never cried when I made her food.
“Who makes this?” Stella asked sternly in the poor blue girl’s face.
“Uh, th-the chefs make it in the kitchen and—”
“Could I meet them? Please?”
The next few minutes were spent with Stella asking each of the two dozen kitchen staff for a hug. From young washers to older and wiser head chefs, both human and monstrous. Though they all had something better to do, each one let her give them big lift-into-the-air hugs that left either her or the employee breathless. The sun set over the horizon before she was finished.
* * *
“Jeff?” Stella said from my right, practically attached to my arm as we walked down the sidewalk.
“I. Have a new favorite restaurant.”
“Oh yeah? What happened to Nilam?”
“He’s in New York and therefore unreliable.” I love how she’s a talkative and, somehow, articulate drunk. At least she wasn’t shit-faced.
“Well, we can’t come here all the time, either. You saw those prices, right?” Nell paying for the reservation was great and all, but the food itself had monstrous price tags.
“We need to go back at least once a month. We can split the bill, I swear. I wanna try the halibut next time.” For a moment she released my arm, holding onto the sleeve, and let herself pirouette alongside me. “Ah~, this was so much fun, man!” I kept my hand above her as she completed her spin, her cape and skirt flipping upward, and fell back into me with a drunken laugh and an airborne talon.
“Careful, that cast doesn’t come off ‘til next week.”
A long, yet happy, sigh. “I know, I’m fine.” Once more, she clamped onto my arm and walked alongside me. “But I c’n walk regular again next week.” She buried her face into my arm and laughed. “That’s gonna be great.”
With my other hand I tousled her hair, to which she giggled. She’d regained the good spirits I hadn’t seen in her for what felt like months. Having her back in (mostly) fighting form did nothing but warm my heart. Merely enjoying the walk with the woman on my arm, I looked to the partly cloudy sky. Patches of gray obscured the dark blue of the night, save for the bright orb of light that dangled over Anchorage.
I heard Stella take a few deep breaths through her nose. Curious, I glanced down. She was smelling and kissing my arm. Not only that, but her eyes were half-closed in a stupor I’d only seen her fall into once or twice. All I remembered of those nights was that they were nights with full moons.
Hot sweaty goosebumps roiled up my back. During those previous episodes, at least she wasn’t drunk.
“Hey, uh,” she started, looking up at me with a chuckle and a blush, “Wanna go back?” She looked up at me with the best bedroom eyes I’d ever seen her use on me. She probably practiced it in the mirror. “I mean, Nell’s at work now. Right?”