Aviators Chapter 4

The partially lit ceiling of the cabin never looked so alien. Every morning since the season ended, without fail, I woke up before Stella. She didn’t have to warm up for work again until March, after all. Whether I had to pry her off me or slink out of bed, I did so in darkness. At the moment I lay there, my underwear sliding off and the covers thrown every which way. Stella was absent. I blinked a few times to get the stickiness of sleep out of my eyes before looking over the edge of the bed.

A winged figure stood clad in underwear and a tank top before the stove, humming and shaking her hips and cheerily tapping one of her talons on the wooden floor to a slow funky beat. With a spatula clutched in both of her thumbs she poked at a gooey yellow mass in the frying pan before her. The smell of salt and grease filled my nostrils the moment I thought to take a whiff.

“You’re making eggs?” I said, not sure if it was a question, more surprised she was cooking instead of me.

Stella turned around and shot me a smile. “Hey~!”

“Why eggs?”

“I’m a falcon. I eat other birds for breakfast!” Fair enough.  She paused for a moment to fumble with the spatula while I pulled up my boxers. “Want some?”

I dropped down from the bed. “Yes I do.” Walking up behind her, I leaned down and moved her hair out of the way to kiss her bare neck.

She let out a laugh and raised her shoulder against her ear to keep my lips away. After play-fighting for a while she gave the eggs a moment to themselves, wrapping her wings around me and standing on the tips of her talons to kiss me proper. For a moment we stood in the kitchen and enjoyed each other, rocking back and forth to no apparent rhythm.

“You conked out a bit early last night,” She said into my chest.

I tried to remember what happened and recalled having a great deal of fun. One could call it one of those “wild nights” I’d heard so much about. The same musky smell of sex still lingered in the background. So we were in bed, doing our thing, finished the thing after a while, then the aftermath was a blank.

“Did I shut down again?” I asked with a chill of embarrassment.

Stella laughed into my chest and nuzzled her cheek against me. “You passed the fuck out, man.”

“Ugh.” That’d make it the third time in the last few weeks. “Sorry. You could’ve woken me up.” Though it was embarrassing to say, the cleanup must’ve been a hassle for her.

My girlfriend rocked us back and forth. “I think I’ll take it as a compliment.” Guess I won’t deny something like that. I kissed her ear and moved to grab a couple plates from the cupboard. She held onto me and followed me around the kitchen as I did so, watching my hands as I retrieved all the necessary items. It was difficult to walk around, but I didn’t mind.

“You got no idea how hard it was when I woke up.”

“What, making eggs?”

“No, not jumping your bones while you’re asleep like that.”

I glanced down at my half-naked self and smirked. “Like what?”

She gave me a look. “Not my fault you get morning wood every day.”

Actually, it was. I kissed her on her forehead. “I already said I’d think about ‘wake up calls.’ ‘Til then, thanks for observing the List of Bedroom Etiquette, dear.” I even tacked it to the wall right next to the bed so we both would remember.

“Yeah yeah.” She gave me a sidelong look and smirked. “I’m just surprised you haven’t given me any wake-up calls, Mr. Early Bird.”

It took a mountain of effort to suppress the hard-on she just gave me. “Don’t tempt me.”

The eggs were quite good with a bit of pepper and hot sauce, effectively distracting me from my carnal urges. It was usually hard to get good eggs shipped in from the lower 48, but when we did they were a great treat. I sat at my desk and read the mail I retrieved from the hangar the day before. One letter from my little brother, one from my little sister, and one from both my parents. It didn’t take more than a wild guess to know what they wanted to talk about. Little brother Matthew still hated school, little sister Judith still loved snowboarding, and my parents, Jorge and Gwen, wouldn’t shut up about me coming down for Christmas.

Both Stella and I went to our respective homes last winter, but my family and I hadn’t had much real family time for a while. Throughout the year they sent pictures of along with their letters. Folds and wrinkles along the edges of the envelopes showed how much they went through to get to me. Most of the pictures were from Judith, at least a dozen of them depicting her attempting to go off jumps on her board. The others showed them at dinner, birthdays, or laying around the house. Matthew got sick back in September, apparently.

“So how’re they doing?” Stella asked with her chin on my head, having long since finished shoveling her breakfast into her mouth.

“They’re good.”

“Did Matt send anymore music?”

It felt a little strange how she called someone she never knew by name already. “Nah, nothing this time. He said he’d give us something if I come down, though.” Matthew sometimes sent a CD or USB stick with the music he recently discovered. Whether it was to show off his musical taste or because he just wanted to share, it all ended up on Stella’s MP3 player.

“Anything super great going on, then?” She asked, lazily grinding her chin into my scalp. I retaliated by messing up her hair with both hands. She retreated with a playful yelp.

“I’m thinking of going to visit for Christmas, actually.”

“Wait, what?” I turned in my chair to see her giving me a worried look. She leaned to the side in a questioning sort of stance with her wings drooping at her sides.

“They asked if I’d be coming down for the holidays. Christmas is in a week, so I thought I’d go.”

She grumbled. “How long’ll you be gone?”

“I don’t know, maybe a couple weeks, since New Year’s is right around then, too. It might be hard getting back up here, depending on the weather. Might have to stay with Nell in Anchorage if the weather’s too bad.”

She approached me again and crouched in front of me and shot me a glare. “What am I supposed to do for two weeks, then?” Good point, actually. Unalakleet isn’t exactly a tourist attraction during the winter; not even the choir kids practiced together. “I won’t be working, the gym’ll be closed, I can’t go outside for two minutes without freezing…” There was a glint of annoyance in her eyes.

I stacked the letters together and put them in the drawer filled with the rest of them. It contained around a dozen letters per person collected from the past two years.

Straightening myself in the chair to face her, I said, “Yeah, I know all that. So how why not come with me?”

It took a moment for her to process my words. Soon enough, Stella’s eyes soon grew wide and blank. “You mean, to meet your family and… stuff?”

I couldn’t suppress my smile if I tried. “Yeah. Take a look at this.” I fished out my parents’ letter and tracked down a line with my finger. “Right here.” I cleared my throat and said in an old lady voice, “We would love to meet this girl you keep telling us about! We’re so glad you could find somebody in Alaska, so bring her down for Christmas! Make sure to keep warm and—’ Kuh, oh God, I can’t talk like that.”

Stella let out a laugh and shoved my shoulder, spinning me in my chair. “Oh man, this is, uh… Do they really want to meet me?” She switched from laughter to realization to worry in a sparse few seconds.

With a push off the chair I knelt down in front of her. “They’ll love you.”

The worry in her eyes compounded before looking off to the side at nothing in particular. “No, they’ll… they’ll think I’m weird and—”

“Hey, none of that. Everyone’s weird, and so’s my family.”

“I bet they’ve never seen a dumb-looking muscly harpy before. Ugh, just thinking about it feels bad!” She covered her head with her wings and shrunk into herself.

“Oh come on. Your magazines have harpies in them all the time; being a fit harpy isn’t that special.”

Her wings came down and I was met with a pair of annoyed eyes. “Want to try that again?”

Shit. “Uh… Your muscles are lovely and I like them very much.”

“That’s better.” She still bopped me on the head with a wing.

“Sorry, it came out wrong.”

She chuckled and leaned in for a quick peck. “Don’t sweat it, man.” After taking a deep breath and flopping backwards onto the floor, she said, “I’ll go with you.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Stella hauled herself up and gave me a mischievous smile. “But I’m taking your ass to New York for New Year’s.”

* * *

First thing’s first: I called my family with one of the airline’s satellite phones to tell them we were coming. The morning of our departure, three days before Christmas, we took the time to say goodbye to our friends. For the next month or two we wouldn’t be able to see the people we otherwise worked with every day. Beth, Dan, and the twins came to the hangar to see us off. Though the adults gave us their good wishes and reminders to fly safe, Anna and Michelle told us to bring back presents. Russell was too busy playing cards and being a grizzled old man to say goodbye.

By far the simplest route home was from Unalakleet, to Bethel, to Anchorage, to Juneau, to Seattle, and finally to Carson City in Nevada with pit stops in-between. It would take us three and a half days of traveling. I made sure to grab some energy drinks just in case we fell behind schedule or I missed nap time. Things would have been simpler if Stella could also pilot, but I didn’t see the need to bring that up.

Once there was a break in the stormy weather we were the third plane in line to leave. At ten in the morning the first lance of sunshine broke through the clouds in days. Nowhere else in the states was winter defined entirely by such relentless storms. They came from the sea one after another every year and, save for the necessary and the bold, packed away the majority of smaller planes for the season. Winter was less a time of year and more of a massive wall that sealed all but the most southern Alaskan cities from the rest of the world.

As we left Unalakleet behind, I remembered why so few people decided to make a living up there. Many coastal villages still relied on a good fishing season to make it through the winter; any kind of shortage left them at the mercy of nature. Alaska is usually known as the kind of place you visit rather than a place to live. It has very few of the luxuries of the lower 48. We didn’t serve a hundred million burgers every day or sell out summer action movies at the box office. If anything, the airline was the most profitable and oft-used business in the state. Although, that did make things a lot simpler. Living, surviving, and experiencing were at the top of my list on most days.

For Day one, we took our time navigating to Bethel, where we ate and rested for day two.

Day two took us straight to Anchorage. The weather was very slightly more favorable for flying and we had a smidgen more daylight. To keep costs low, we simply slept in the airport until we were scheduled to fly out.

Day three was more of the same: flying and napping.

Late afternoon on Christmas Eve, we were coming up on Carson City. The wintry city sat tucked up along a valley between mountain ranges. From horizon to horizon a thin layer of snow sprinkled atop the landscape of suburban neighborhoods, crowded warehouses, and rolling hills.

“I can’t believe you talked me into this, Jeff,” Stella said into the mouth piece of her radio.

I briefly stole away from concentrating on flying to catch a glimpse of her in the co-pilot seat, rocking back and forth nervously. She stared at me intently as if I just told her to skip dinner.

With a crack of my aching neck I said, “You wanted to come with, didn’t you?”

“Yeah I know but I’m only just now… processing that I’ll see your family in, like, an hour!” She was shaking; something she didn’t usually do even when she admitted to being anxious.

“I didn’t think you’d be so nervous, actually.”

“I’m not good with parent-type people.”

“Beth and Dan are parents.”

“Yeah, but these are your parents.”

“Stella, they’ll love you.”

She covered her head with her wings. “Parents never like me.”

I rolled my eyes at her stubborn attitude. “Give them a little credit, will you? They seemed fine with you when I mentioned you in my letters. Hell, my sister sends me at least five more questions about you every month.”

Stella slumped in her seat. “Oh yeah, you have a sister.”

“Yeah, you’ll have enough to talk about as long as she and my brother are around.”

“Ugh. Still stupid-nervous.”

As my plane shook through the tempestuous winter clouds, I looked at the girl sitting next to me. Clad in what I assumed was her warmest clothes, a thick sweater and a pair of short snow pants, she pulled her legs to her chest and shrunk into herself. The woven fabric bunched up around her neck and hid her mouth. It looked as if she hoped never to speak again, fearful what sort of judgment my family would pass down on her at their first meeting if she said something wrong.

Pulling one of my gloves off with my teeth and letting the garment fall in my lap, I said, “Hey,” and rested my hand on her armrest.

She looked at it with glazed-over eyes and tilted her head as if wondering why it was there. After a moment, she lifted my hand with a folded wing and rubbed it against her cheek. My chilled fingers met with her warm skin, relieving them of their icy rigidity as she gave it more cuddles. Every so often she tugged my closer, until she leaned out of her seat with both wings wrapped around my arm.

I let out a happy sigh. “Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get my hand back.”

“Thanks,” she muttered dreamily. “Also shut up.”

* * *

“Welcome to the Carson City airport. Please report any unattended packages or luggage to security personnel.”

I never was a fan of big commercial airports. Just flying in on my tiny plane and it took an hour to get through the line at security. Stella had to use the body scanner meant for Centaur and Arachne women because her wings “may hide thin or easily hidden plastic explosives or contraband.” It looked more like an aquarium than anything else. I was separated into the normal line while she had to trudge through another one filled with much larger women than herself. As we waited, I took every chance to check on her. A Kejourou was in the same boat as Stella, except I guess her hair was a security risk instead of wings. I took both our suitcases with me.

Following my scan was a pat-down, after which I was allowed to grab my luggage from the x-ray machine conveyer belt and leave. The jumble of ordinary humans on my side of the security checkpoint pushed and shoved without ever touching each other, as if the littlest bump or brush would cause a scene. Stella’s comparatively small line of around a dozen women barely budged by the time I was out.

There was a row of empty seats along the wall, so I sat down and waited. I’d been sitting down for most of the last few days, so stretching my legs in front of me sent relief spiraling through my limbs. My knees popped and ankles cracked before I let my feet hit the floor again.

Stella was next in line, but the Kejourou who was in front of her was taken aside for questioning. Three human men and a hard-looking oni stood guard around the mortified woman. Something about a hair clip she forgot to remove before stepping inside the scanner. Some other blue-clad guys stood off to the side waving their metal detectors over an innocent purple floral patterned hair piece.

“What is your business in Carson City? Where did you get the item in question and when? Do you have proof of purchase to support these claims?”

The poor woman responded to every question in broken English.

A look in Stella’s direction was all it took to know what she felt about the ordeal. She tapped her talon against the dusty tile and gave the security staff a prolonged death glare, her lips curled up in disgust. When she looked at me from the line, I put up my hand and mouthed the words, “calm down.” I got an eye roll and hard sigh in response.

We both heard the horror stories about people getting shot in airports for the most asinine reasons. She also knew that the security staff usually got away with it; always justified and always in the right. Normally I would say they were just doing their job, but there’s a point where it gets excessive.

The Kejourou was let go after maybe twenty minutes of interviewing. Stella stepped up to the plate next, extending her wings upward as the machine rotated and hummed around her. Meanwhile, the Kejourou looked around the checkpoint for a few seconds before her eyes fell on me. I straightened my back on reflex. A smile spread across her red lips before she glided away, her hair billowing behind her like a million black flags. The sharp clicks of her sandals echoed among the low rumble of airport activity until she faded out of sight. I craned my neck to watch her leave.

I felt a pair of wings wrap around my neck from the side. From the black and white speckled feathers I knew it was Stella. When I turned my head to greet her she suddenly pulled me against her stomach.

Hooking an arm around her thighs, I asked, “Everything okay?”

Stella rocked back and forth for a while before answering. “That sucked.”

A Centaur had just stepped out of the scanner with no less than three security personnel ready to start the pat-down. Several of the ladies in the line stole glances in our direction. Most of them smiled.

Her grip around my neck tightened. “And I saw you ‘mirin’ that lady back there, don’t even lie.”

Got caught. “Sorry.”

With the checkpoint out of the way, we headed for the roundabout pickup area in front of the airport to catch a bus. We elected to get a hotel room close to the airport to change and rest before grabbing a cab to my parents’ place. It was definitely a homely sort of hostel, what with multiple letters of the sign left unlit. After going through the cold lobby we got our key and hauled our luggage to the elevator. The carpeting was a gross red color and the wallpaper had weird gray and brown zigzags. Not exactly a five-star hotel. The first thing Stella did when we entered our room for the evening was jump onto the bed.

“Ugh, I’m so sick of traveling,” Stella muttered as she lay sprawled across the mattress. The mattress was bigger than ours back home, so she had plenty of room to get comfy.

I checked the time on the alarm clock by the bed. 4:23 PM. “I told my mom we’d be there in time to help with dinner, so we should leave pretty soon.”

A sigh big enough to inflate a balloon billowed from her mouth. “Time to get dressed, then.” With that, she vaulted off the bed and nudged her suitcase toward the bathroom.

“You’re changing? I thought you were going to wear this?”

She rolled her head side to side as she continued to kick her luggage through the bathroom door. “Just thought I’d try something.” With some fumbling, she closed the door behind her. Though confused, I looked over my own outfit; a pair of warm work pants, a navy dress shirt under a brown sweater, and my favorite pair of Alaskan boots. I never told her it was a particularly fancy occasion, either.

Regardless, I flipped on the TV and waited for her. For every commercial I watched she muttered an expletive to herself in the bathroom. Shuffles of clothing and near-slips on the tile floor sounded through the room. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to squeeze into a spandex suit or beat up the shower curtain. Either way, the floor was probably getting scratched all to hell by her talons. I made a mental note to remind her to file them down every now and then.

I jumped a little at the bathroom door suddenly jerking open and bumping against the wall. “Okay, I’m finally ready!”

My jaw went slack. With her wings folded tight to her sides in remaining frustration, Stella stood before me in a stark white one-piece dress. Sleeveless, it was built like a halter top with the front covering up to her neck with the back completely open down to her waist. The dress reached just above her knees and had small snowflake-shaped details on the hem. Clutched in one of her claws was what I guessed was a simple shawl of similar design. She also let her hair down.

“Shut up,” she said.

My lips gave form to a smile. “I didn’t say anything.”

“You were thinking something.”

“Yeah I was.” I walked up to her and pulled her close. “You look fantastic.” As she planted her forehead on my chest in response, I said, “But please tell me this is a one-time thing.”

It took her a moment to react and look up at me. “Huh?”

“I like you a lot better in your lay-around-the-house clothes.”

Stella’s lower lip drew upwards to barely contain an awkward smile. She cried out, “Sh-shut up!” and kicked me in the shin.

* * *

Riding in a taxi smelling of moist cigarettes, the driver took us away from the main drag of downtown Carson City. We lived in Alaska, so the Nevada cold wasn’t nearly as bad. However, in our arrogance, the chilly air crept up on us. We were so used to such extreme temperatures that we didn’t notice it slowly slither into our bones. We snuggled up instead of whining about it.

“Almost there,” I muttered as the driver rounded the corner of a snowy urban street. Every front lawn sat covered in snow while the sidewalk showed signs of salt being distributed to melt the ice. Soon enough the spidery trees and cookie-cutter houses of various colors started to become familiar to me again.

Stella wiggled from my grasp and sat up straight. She took a deep breath and blew it out through pursed lips as hard as she could.

I placed a hand on her leg. “How’re you doing?”

A chill ran up her spine. “I could probably lay an egg and not even notice.”

“I’ll keep that in mind in case we run out of eggs.”

She lightly smacked me with a wing as the taxi pulled up to the curb. I heard Stella swallow as she looked through her window at the house.

Covered in a thin layer of snow, a brown two-story house stood inside the curve of the street such that its driveway was narrower than the rest. The roof was lined with stringy lights that hanged down in drizzles of wire every few inches. No idea why Mom insisted on using icicle-shaped lights when they could just not bother breaking off the real ones. A series of stepping stones made a path from the sidewalk to several concrete steps before the blue front door. Bushes flanked an old rickety bench that sat beneath the large window on the face of the house. Through the glass I saw parts of the same Christmas tree my family used every year.

We stepped out of the taxi after paying. A bubble of nostalgia filled my lungs once I breathed in the familiar neighborhood air, and promptly coughed at the thickness of it. Though I took it for granted, Alaska really spoiled me with its air quality. It was like breathing cool, pine-scented, liquid air up there. At home it was as if someone dumped in a bit of engine oil and milk. The exhaust from the taxi as it sputtered away didn’t help.

“You ready?” I asked Stella.

She stared at the house for a moment and took another deep breath. “Yeah! Yeah, let’s go.”

I didn’t buy it for a second, but nonetheless gave her a nod and led her up the steps. Leftover snow crunched underfoot as we approached the wreathed door and gave it a few good hard knocks. A few seconds passed. I almost knocked again before a series of tiny muffled footfalls sounded from the inside.

Acidic excitement filled my stomach as the door unlatched. Inside was a young girl with long dark hair, clad in sky blue pajamas and slippers.

A massive grin on my face, I said, “Hey, Judy!”

With big eyes and a surprised smile, my little sister jumped into my chest with a shout. “Jeff! Merry Christmas~!” Luckily, Stella trained me well to withstand tackles like that. I locked my arms around her and picked her up, hugging her tight.

“The heck? You grew, like, two feet since last time I saw you!” I set her down and stepped onto the hardwood floor inside the house.

Before she answered, she glanced at my girlfriend and said, “Are you Stella?” Uh oh.

The harpy stood in the doorway like a deer in headlights. “Yeah! It’s, uh, nice to meet you.” She cracked a nervous smile and took a step towards my sister.

Judith stared at Stella’s folded wings as if they were made of diamonds. Walking circles around Stella to look at her from every angle, she cried out, “You’re so pretty!”

Again, deer in headlights, except now she was blushing something fierce. “No, I’m uh— this outfit’s just for today— I don’t usually wear this kind of thing and I look like crap at home all the time, so—”

“Whoa. Stella.” I put a hand on her shoulder. “Just take the compliment.”

Stella looked from me to my sister, who started looking closely at Stella’s feathers, and gnawed on her upper lip for a second. A nervous laugh under her breath “Thanks, Judy.” My sister gave her a big dumb little kid smile in response. “Where did you get those pajamas? They look sooo comfy!”

Dull footsteps resounded through the house from above us as they spoke. “Who just came in?” a young man’s voice called down the staircase. A series of stomps down the steps later and a teenager with long brown hair and unkempt stubble peeked under the ceiling to see down into the entryway.

“Hey, man!” I called up to him. “Been a while!” I tilted my head and gave my brother a suspicious sidelong gaze. “You really grew out your hair…”

He smirked and removed a big pair of headphones from his ears as he trudged down the carpeted stairs. “You got pretty shaggy, too.”

“Really?” I asked Stella, who shrugged in response.

“You haven’t cut it since summer, I think.”

I took a lock and pulled it taught in front of my eyes. “Huh.” Regardless, Matt and I gave each other the mandatory one-armed man-hug. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas.”

Judy chimed in as soon as she could. “And he brought Stella!” Then she leaned in to loudly whisper, “His girlfriend!”

Matt looked at Stella, who looked a little flustered that Judy introduced her for her, and said. “I was wondering who this was.” Luckily, he doesn’t sweat the little things. “Nice to meet you.” To my horror, he extended his arm to her for a handshake. Stella stood staring for the split second it took him to realize his mistake and pull it back. “Crap, uh, sorry.”

Stella shook her head, “No, hey, bring that thing back. We’re doing this.” She stuck out a folded wing with her alula extended upward like a thumb.

Tentative, Matt reached and locked “grips” with her.

She put on a big smile. “Great to finally meet you!”

As much as I wanted to laugh at her calling his hand “that thing,” I couldn’t help but feel proud of her for diffusing what could have been a very awkward situation.

“One thing, though,” I said, “handshakes are usually with the right hand.”

She glanced down at her left wing, with which she shook Matt’s hand, and gave me a perplexed look. “For real? That’s a thing?”

“Yeah. It’s fine, though.”

“Huh.” Guess she didn’t mind. “Anyway, Matt, the music you send Jeff is always great!”

Matt’s drowsy eyes lit up at the mention of music. “Yeah? You have a favorite band?”

“Not really a favorite. If it’s catchy, or I can hum it, or I can sing it, then I usually like it.”

I turned to my baby sister as the two spoke. “Where are Mom and Dad?” I figured they would have heard us and came to check like Matt did.

Judy pointed toward the rear of the house. “They’re in the backyard making dinner.”

Stella visibly shuddered mid-sentence and turned to me. “You, uh, wanna go?”

While Judy went upstairs to get changed, the rest of us went to see my parents. The back of the house held the kitchen, dining room, and living room. The wall had no less than three wide windows that looked out onto the concrete patio in the back yard.

Walking through the humble abode, I noticed Mom got a new rug for the living room. It was a floral gray-scale sort of thing that didn’t quite fit with the old blue couch that sat in the middle of the room. A surge of nostalgia hit me with every shape and line on the walls and ceiling. It felt like only yesterday I kicked the wall by the fireplace and broke the bajeesus out of my toe.

Through one of the back windows I saw a couple heads bobbing near Dad’s grill. With Stella hiding herself behind me, and Matt tucking his hands in his sweatshirt pockets, I yanked open the rickety sliding glass door.

My parents turned from the silver-clad grill at the gravely sound. Dad had lost so much of his hair he could have just shaved off the horseshoe shape that remained and basically look the same. His narrow pointed chin held a tiny tuft of a brown beard. The clothes he wore for Christmas Eve didn’t look any different than what he wore to work: a button-up and khaki pants.

My mom wore her hair in a bun and dangled a few light pieces of jewelry from her ears and wrinkled neck. Her oval glasses sat perched atop her nose as her old lips pressed together into a knowing smile.

“Jeffry!” she called, walking towards me with open arms. Practically towering over the short woman, I coiled my arms around her in a big ol’ hug. Dad was too busy poking at a massive slab of steak to come over for one.

Mom and I exchanged our Merry Christmases. Dad and I waved to each other. Our baseline understanding of each other was still solid. When she let go, she put her hands on my cheeks and looked over my face.

“Oh, you’re so scruffy! When was the last time you shaved, boy?”

It took me a second to roll that thought around in my head. “Last week, I think?”

My mother released me. “Well, I’m so glad you could show up!” She glanced behind me and asked, “Is this that ‘Stella’ you keep telling us about?”

The harpy in question cautiously stepped forward, one of her talons almost catching on something on the patio. “Uh, hi!” Oh God, she was trying so hard not to fuck anything up that I had to suppress the urge to laugh. “I’m Stella. It’s rea— very nice to meet you!”

“Yes, yes. Uhm, Jeffry?”

Back to me already? “What’s up?”

Mom put on a disappointed frown. “I thought you said you were bringing your girlfriend, not your roommate?”

The color drained from my face. I could have sworn I told her through our letters that Stella and I had started dating? Did I misspell something and she got the wrong impression? I thought to look at Stella to see her reaction, but couldn’t for the life of me bring myself to turn my head. Even without looking I felt her stare boring holes in the side of my head.

I cleared my throat. “No, Mom. Stella and I started dating back in September.”

Mom gave a tentative look at Stella, then back at me. A false smile came to her lips. “I see. Well, thank you for coming, Stella. We would have had lots of leftovers without you.” She really had no idea. “I’m Gwen.”

“Yeah, it’s really great to meet you!” A claw yanked at my sleeve. “Jeff, can I talk to you for a sec?” The forced smile on Stella’s face sent a chill up my neck as she pulled me off toward the door and back inside.

Judy put on a worried look while Matt pulled out his phone and pretended to be busy texting. I swallowed, “We’ll be right back.”

Once we returned to the front entryway, Stella turned from leading me and looked me in the eye. “What the hell, man? You didn’t even tell your family about us?”

“Hey, I’m just as surprised as you!”

“You said you called them and told them I was coming with you!”

“Yeah, I said, ‘I’ll be bringing my girlfriend.’ The last time I checked, you were the last girl I wrote to them about being my girlfriend. So yeah. Something probably got mixed up somewhere or maybe I misspelled a word, I don’t know.” I scratched my head like an idiot while Stella did her best not to look positively fuming.

“I just wanted your parents to look forward to meeting me.”

Couldn’t help that point now. “They are! Just… in a different way than they were expecting, I guess.”

For a good long moment that left me in a hot sweat that stuck my undershirt to my skin, she glared at me with her big brown falcon eyes. After a deep breath she blew some air in my face, which flipped some hair out of my eyes. It was actually quite refreshing given how much I was sweating.

With a claw she pushed her shawl out of the way, reached up to my face, and started messing with my locks. “Your hair really is shaggy, actually.”

With a mental sigh of relief, I gently pushed her wing down. “I don’t know, kinda like it. Just need to get it out of my face.” I presented my arm to her, as any gentleman would. “Come on, let’s get everything straightened out.”

Stella rolled her eyes with a smile and hooked her wing under my arm. “Alright, fine.”

* * *

As the meat was being prepared in the kitchen, Stella and I set the table. Matt disappeared somewhere in the time it took me and Stella to come back from our little talk. Judy as mashing the mashed potatoes, asparagus was steaming in a ceramic container, and Mom took a hot loaf of bread out of the oven. Probably a super market brand of bread. The mixture of seasonings, butter, meat, and sauces sent plumes of delicious smells through the house. It really felt like home again after having been gone for so long.

With the table set, everyone sat down in their seats. Mom and Dad sat at the ends, with us youngsters on the longer sides. I was next to Dad while Stella, unfortunately, was next to Mom. When I pulled Stella’s chair out so she could sit, she raised an eyebrow gave me a look like “come on, man.” When I refused to budge, she sat down anyway. Judy giggled at the exchange.

Mom looked over at my siblings, and they held hands together in a ring around the table to say grace. I would have rolled my eyes if Dad didn’t ground me for doing it when I was twelve. With a nod to Stella, I slipped my hand under her claw. My dad did the same without much regard for her wing.

Closing her eyes, Mom said, “Heavenly Father, we thank you for this food, for family, and for safe travels of our loved ones.” I kept my eyes open as she continued her prayer. Across from me sat Judy, who stared at her plateful of meat and potatoes as if she would dive in face-first at any moment. In my attempt not to laugh I glanced at Stella. She wore the same expression.

“Amen.”

Everyone around the table except Stella called out, “Squeeze!” and gently clutched each others hands before breaking apart. Stella instantly snapped out of her food-induced stupor and frantically looked around the table, leaving her wings slightly raised after my dad and I let go. I went straight for my mound of mashed potatoes.  

“Uh…” She set her wings down at her sides. “What was that squeezing thing?”

I almost coughed up my mouthful of food.

Mom smirked. “Well, when Jeffry was a little boy, he always squeezed our hands when we said grace. I guess he thought it was mandatory or something.” I faced away from Stella and pretended to be completely absorbed in the tablecloth pattern. “Once at church, after the final prayer, this tiny little boy yelled ‘squeeeeeeze!’ in the middle of a crowded service!”

Stella covered her mouth to keep in a laugh, but couldn’t hold it in for the life of her. “Pfff! Sorry! Sorry, Jeff. Ahem! I’m good.” At least she was enjoying herself.

Matt rolled a stalk of asparagus between his fingers. “We hear that story every time someone comes over for dinner.”

“It’s a good story, though, isn’t it?” Dad said with a mouthful of food.

“Oh yeah,” I grimaced, “great story.” Stella playfully bumped me in the shoulder.

After a moment of family-wide chewing, Stella bumped my shoulder a second time. “What’s up?” I asked.

She looked up from the plate, her claws fumbling with her utensils. “Oh, sorry. I can’t get my wings over the table that easy. Could you, uh, cut this up for me?” The steak on her plate had a long shallow cut down the middle with haphazard cuts all across the top.

“Yeah, sure.” Stella scooted over so I could reach her plate and cut her steak up into bite-sized pieces. My family looked on curiously.

“Do you have to do that a lot?” Matt asked.

“Not really, actually,” Stella replied. “I usually just cut my food in my plate on the counter. And we don’t have a table, so I don’t have to elbow in anywhere.”

Mom shot me a look. “You don’t have a table?”

I paused from cutting Stella’s steak. “Uh. It’s a really small cabin, so having a table in there with two people makes it feel crowded.” Not to mention Stella’s wingspan.

She still shook her head in disapproval. “Living like you’re still in college. Honestly.”

Stella and I shared a nervous glance at each other before I finished cutting her food and for a time nobody spoke. Judy gazed ruefully at the asparagus on her plate while Matt got another gob of mashed potatoes on his. Mom and Dad went about their business, doing their best to act like proper dignified parents or something.

“So hey, Stella,” Matt said, breaking the silence. “What do you do up in Alaska?”

At last, a topic we could latch onto!

Stella finished chewing her bite and said, “First thing’s first. This is reeeeally good steak!”

For the first time since we arrived, Dad perked up and smiled. “Oh yeah? Glad you like it.” Now that I think about it, the grill in the back yard was new. That would make number six, as far as I could remember.

“But anyway, I fly paper mail to the towns around Unalakleet.”

Matt gave an approving guy-nod. “So you fly a plane?”

Stella and I both gave that a good laugh. She said, “Why would I need a plane with wings like these?” In a dramatic flourish she brought up her wings, the feathers of one brushing against the back of my head, and flexed her muscles. Despite the lack of open hours at the gym lately, she was as sleek and defined as ever. I couldn’t tell if Mom was impressed or disgusted. Dad and Matt both gave slow manly nods.

Judy, meanwhile, looked on in wonder. “You fly around by yourself?”

“Yup!” Stella wore a proud smile. “I get to fly all over the coast and meet tons of people.”

“Are there other harpies in Alaska?”

“Sure. But I’m the only one in Unalakleet.”

I took my chance to add, “I fly exceptional women sometimes, too. A lot of harpies don’t like flying in planes, though.”

Stella grimaced. “Yeah, it’s weird getting used to flying when you’re… not really flying-flying.”

“Excuse me for not ‘flying-flying,'”

She nudged me in the side. “Come on, you know what I mean.”

Matt spoke up after grabbing a slice of bread. “Isn’t it hard flying up there, though?”

“Oh yeah. Harder than flying around the rest of the US, anyway. The weather’s just too different. That’s why I gotta stay fit.” She thought for a moment, then chuckled to herself. “Jeff gave me a hard time at the end of the season when I came home sore every day.”

“Sounds rough,” Dad said with a mouthful of asparagus. I winced at the noise his gnashing teeth made. Lucky for Mom and my siblings, they seemed used to it.

“Yeah, it can be. For real, though, Jeff gives the best massages.”

I didn’t know if mentioning the massages was a good or bad thing. Mom seemed uncharacteristically quiet as she listened to the conversation.

Judy spoke up. “It’s prolly because Mom’s a doctor. She gives me massages sometimes after snowboarding, too.”

Stella brightened in Mom’s general direction for the first time that night. “Oh, I didn’t know you’re a doctor.”

Mom daintily wiped her lips. “Orthopedic surgeon, actually.”

“Uh… sorry, I don’t know what that means.”

Mom stabbed a piece of meat with her fork. “I figured. Harpy and all.”

My face paled. She said it as if it was the most natural thing. Judy and Matt took brief glances at me and Mom before going back to eating in silence. Dad continued eating as if nothing happened.

When I looked at Stella, I expected her to confront my mother. Mom sure needed it every now and then, with her attitude. Instead of the usual indignant glare Stella usually inflicted on people who made such remarks, she looked down at her plate. She didn’t seem particularly sad or upset. If anything, she looked tired.

I spoke before I had time to think. “I always heard you say ‘orthopedic surgeon’ when I was still living here, but never really knew what it meant until I was in college.” I had no idea if I was helping or not. Regardless, I continued. “But yeah, Mom worked on peoples’ bones and stuff. She’s retired now, but she showed me how to get rid of joint pains when I was a kid.” Not that I had much joint pain with my whopping one year of organized sports.

My girlfriend rocked her head back and forth. Then, a smile. “You’re a good teacher, then, cuz Jeff’s hands oughta be insured!”

Bittersweet tinged my thoughts. Stella didn’t talk back to or get angry at my mother for being so rude, and for that I was proud of her. At the same time, I wished she at least flung some potatoes at her.

* * *

The rest of the Christmas Eve dinner went without incident, unless tellings of embarrassing stories counted. My siblings and I cleared the table while Mom grabbed dessert and Stella spoke with Dad on the subject of grills. The dessert dish for the evening was some kind of cranberry tart, which Judy and Matt snatched up in a hurry. Stella and I got one small slice each as the kids and Dad relocated to the back yard. We followed suit.

With the sun set, Dad picked up several small logs from the side of the house while the rest of us arranged some old wooden lounge chairs around a fire pit. The pit was a cheaply built metal mesh bowl of sorts with a wide rim for drinks and plates. Dad started the fire in it with some crumpled up newspaper pages he stuffed under the wood. Stella and I sat next to each other as the yellow light grew inside the pit.

“Why don’t we have a fire pit, Jeff?” Stella asked. She already had a smear of cranberry on the edge of her mouth.

“Because Dan and Beth have one?”

“I’ve never seen them use it before.”

“We can ask when we get back next month.” When I leaned back in my chair and put my feet up on the edge of the fire pit, Stella lifted her legs up and crossed them on top of mine. The fire roared as it spread across the rest of the logs. Matt rolled his eyes. Judy smiled sheepishly. Dad pulled out a bottle of wine.

I did a double take. “You drink wine, Dad? You always struck me as a whiskey and Coke kind of guy.”

He brandished three cross-hatched crystal glasses and set them on the rim of the fire pit. “What made you think that?”

“Because you always drink whiskey and Coke.” Even the glasses he took out were the ones he usually used for his drinks.

He motioned toward the bottle, asking if Stella and I wanted some. When we nodded, he smiled and poured a good amount into a glass. “Just thought it would be nice to talk to Stella with a bit less hard liquor around.”

“Oh.” When I took the glass from him I wondered why he changed so suddenly. Did he actually remember the one time I told him in my letter that she’s a lightweight? Either way, he gave her a considerably smaller amount than mine. When she almost fumbled with it in her claws, she gave me a quick nod to tell me she had it under control.

“Cheers.” Dad leaned in with his glass raised, and the three of us clinked them together. Matt and Judy gestured their dessert plates at us from the other side of the pit.

As we were getting comfy, Mom called from the back door, “Jeffry, could I speak with you for a moment?”

Just when we were settled in, too. I motioned for Stella to lift her legs off of mine so I could get up. She seemed ready to be left alone with everyone but my mother by that point. I set my tiny plate on the fire pit on my way back inside. Mom was in her and Dad’s office, a small room stuffed to the brim with papers with two back-to-back desks on either end. She was reaching for something up in the equally crowded closet.

“Would you get that wrapping paper for me, please?” she asked.

Without a word I reached above her head, nabbed a roll of red and green paper, and handed it to her. A glance at the upper shelves showed she still kept huge stacks of old wrapping paper from since I was a kid, making me wonder why she got new rolls at all.

“Late on wrapping stuff?” I asked.

“Just a little. I haven’t wrapped Judith’s gift yet.”

As she pulled a small package out of a drawer I said, “By the way. That was pretty rude earlier.”

She almost glanced back before going back to wrapping. “Jeffry, I’m concerned.”

“Huh?” Did I look sick or something? Maybe my current scruffiness belied some inherent hygienic deficiencies? At least, that was her usual choice of words when she told me to stay healthy.

“This whole… flying thing,” the words came out as if it tasted bad to say them. “You’ve been working for it ever since Papa Raymond died.”

Grandpa? “What about it?”

“I realize you were very upset when he died. I thought maybe flying planes would help you get over it, so I let you. But…” Mom stood up from the gift she was wrapping and turned to face me. “Enough is enough, Jeffry.”

I shifted my weight and leaned against the wall; she definitely had a dialogue ready for me. “Go ahead. Say what you want.”

“It’s just, ever since he passed away—” yeah, try “crashed,” mother. “— you’ve been doing things only he wanted you to do. You let go of several potential engineering jobs just to fly more. Then you went to Alaska and didn’t talk with any of us for months. This is becoming too much just to cope with a death. You don’t need to let this become your whole life!”

I sighed. “Okay, first thing. I told you when I graduated high school what I wanted to do. I went to school so I could learn how to fix my own plane. I’m doing what I want to do, and I’m really fortunate I can. Hell, I even met Stella up there, of all places! I’ve been living my dream ever since I met her.” A though occurred to me. “Speaking of which, I’ve been meaning to ask you. How didn’t you know she was my girlfriend? I told you about her in my letters.”

Mom crossed her arms and said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, “Well, I didn’t think for a moment it would last.”

My jaw crept to the side in suppressed annoyance. “Okay, what?”

“Well, she’s a part of this! This whole flying thing. I figured the whole thing was temporary to begin with, and so was she.”

“The plan was always to keep flying ’til I can’t, Mom. Stella never had anything to do with how much I love flying. But, well, the overlap sure counts for something.”

“Jeffry, please, she’s just an uneducated harpy.”

“She graduated high school, though. Not her fault she couldn’t pay tuition when she started living on her own.”

“So now she’s leeching off of you.”

“So when she was my roommate she was fine, but the moment we started dating she became a leech?”

Mom shook her head. “I won’t condone this if you decide to marry this girl.”

“Wait…” I paused, letting her words sink in. “You think I brought her so I could get your approval?” She shrugged her shoulders and gave me a critical look, as if it should be obvious. “You’ve got it all turned around. I don’t come to ask for your approval. I came to show her off.”

She threw her hands in the air. “Oh, I get it. You’re defying your mother and now you want to flaunt it in my face! With such loose morals she’ll leave sooner or later.”

I couldn’t help but shake my head. “This isn’t about you. It never was.” A few steps closer to my mother and I suddenly towered over her. “I am proud to be with Stella— beyond proud! She’s the best thing to happen to me since I moved to Alaska. You don’t have to like her, but you at least have to respect her. She’s not just some girl I ran into one day and decided to hook up. She’s… she’s my Stella. Whether you like it or not.” As corny as it sounded, I never felt more right, standing before my mother.

Mom kept her arms crossed and looked up at the corner of the ceiling, trying to act aloof. The “adult” version of eye rolling, or the heavy sigh that kids do when getting a good talking to.

Okay, deep breath. “But in a way, it’s lucky my job is dangerous, since I know it’s better not to leave things like this with people.” For a moment she looked back at me, only to turn away again as if to tell me to finish talking. “I’m glad you’re trying to look out for me, but I can take care of myself. I know what I’m doing; I’ve lived on my own for years. Would it really be that hard to trust that I’m doing what I want to do with my life?” I leaned in a bit, waiting for an answer.

A short silence stretched between us, her eyes sometimes darting back to me. It would have been perfectly within my expectations if she decided to drop it all without saying anything. We would go back to the rest of our family and Stella and probably not talk for a few months until I sent a letter. Knowing her, she would grudgingly forget the entire argument and write back as if it never happened.

The silence only ended with the light clicks of her shoes as she walked out of the room.

A weight dropped into my stomach with every tap. When she was out of sight, I glanced down at the present she was wrapping. She only got three corners folded in. For Judy’s sake, I finished taping the last edge and set it down on Mom’s desk.

“Merry fucking Christmas,” I muttered to myself. Errant thoughts permeated my mind like bugs digging through my skull. In a way, she brought up some valid points. What if I really only wanted to fly because of Grandpa Ray? Did I even like it in Alaska? Would I really just leave Stella one day? A chill rose up my spine. The mere presence of these illusions sent my mind awhirl.

As I set the gift down, a series of footsteps tromped down the hall toward me. Probably Judy, judging from their swift frequency. I grabbed the gift and hid it behind a stack of papers before Stella and my sister burst into the room.

“Jeff! Jeff!” Judy cried, more excited than I’d ever seen her. Though she was supposed to enter middle school next year, she wore a positively shining child’s smile.

“Come on, please don’t say it!” Stella pleaded, extending her wings across my sister’s front.

Crossing my arms, I watched them wrestle a little before Judy slipped from Stella’s grasp and stumbled over to me. My sister yanked me down to her level by my sleeve and whispered in my ear, “Stella said she’s in love with you!”

Well, that was a bit disappointing. When I looked up to see Stella’s reaction, her face was hidden under her wings. What caught my eye, however, was a series of reddish drops of liquid that stained the hem of Stella’s dress.

I sighed and asked, “You’ve had too much wine, haven’t you?”

She peeked at me from between her wings. “Uh… only a little too much.”

* * *

Back at the hotel, Stella wobbled against my arm as we rode the elevator to our floor. The harsh yellow lighting reflected off the tile floor and practically blinded me as I did my best to keep her steady. Slung around my wrist was a small plastic bag with a piece of leftover steak wrapped up in foil. Wrapped around my neck was Stella’s shawl, which she twisted around me on our way through the lobby.

The doors soon opened and we were on our way through the Red Sea of horrible carpeting. “Come on, we’re almost back.”

“Uh huh,” was the only response she gave. One of her eyes couldn’t remain open and she struggled to keep the other afloat. Her steps never went in a straight line down the entire hall.

“Man, a couple glasses of wine and you’re out like a light,” I said as I fumbled with the hotel key.

Stella smacked her lips. “Nuh-uh. I pheel pretty gooood Jeff.” I couldn’t tell if she “felt good,” or just called me a “good Jeff.”

Inside the room, I hauled her through the dark and plopped her on the mattress before turning on the bedside light. It gave off much less illumination than I expected, leaving all but the bed in dreary dark. The brown and gray zigzags on the wallpaper looked hideous even when I couldn’t see them.

I kneeled down next to the bed and gazed upon Stella’s near-sleep expression. Her wings sat lazily over her stomach, her head reclined on a pillow and her hair scattered every which way. The bedside light shined on her face like a spotlight as her eyelids struggled to remain even the tiniest bit open.

“Hey, you can sleep if you want.” I reached for her and moved some of her locks out of her face.

Stella moaned a bit and turned her cheek into my hand, a slight smile appearing on her lips. “Nah, I want to stay up for a bit.”

“Why’s that?”

With a surprising display of effort, Stella sat up and heaved herself off the bed as if she wore lead weights. A few hops to her suitcase and a few hops back to me, she held a small envelope in her claws. Scrawled across the front read, “Jeff.”

“Merry Christmas.” The proud smile on her face stretched her cheeks and melted my heart.

I thanked her and gave her a hug, for which she managed to muster some effort despite her condition. “Oh, that reminds me,” I said, and got into my own suitcase. From within I pulled a gift bag and presented it to my girlfriend. “Merry Christmas!”

Stella snapped awake. Though it took a moment for it to register, her jaw went slack and her eyes grew wide. “Oh! I-I never usually get presents!” She snatched it away with surprising accuracy and did her best to open it. With some fumbling she managed to fish her gift out of the bag. “Oooooh~!” A new pair of red-rimmed goggles, with anti-frost technology, designed for skydiving and high-altitude hiking.

“Do you like it?” It took some doing to hold back my laughter at her reaction.

“This is so cool this is so cool this is so cool!”

“Stella, use your words.”

“Fuck you!”

“Atta girl!”

An echo of her laugher filled the room as she tackled me onto the bed so far my head landed just short of the wall. She nuzzled my chest and gushed, “Thanks soooo much, Jeff! This is the coolest thing ever!”

I caught my breath and adjusted myself underneath her. “Kuh. Glad you like it. I was scared you’d think it was a bad color or something.”

She lifted her head and got all up in my face. “Nuh-uh! This is seriously cool and oh God my present looks so lame now.” As quickly as she came up, she went down. “I’ll just take it back and—” When she moved to take the envelope from me, I lifted it above my head.

“Hey, that’s no fair,” I said with a smirk.

“No, no! It’s bad, just give it back!”

“No take-backs on presents.”

With a curled lower lip she face-planted onto my chest. “Just get it over with, please?”

Though I didn’t know what she meant by that, I took the envelope in both hands and tore open the top. Inside was a twice-folded sheet of paper with nearly a dozen lines.

“I-it’s a, uh, list of… things I love ‘bout you,” Stella stuttered into my chest, her voice trailing off by the end.

Looking it over, it really was. After a moment of contemplation, I nudged Stella. “Would you read it to me?”

A look of horror developed on her steadily reddening face. “I-I guess I could… do that.” Through some shuffling around, Stella lay on her side with the paper clutched in her claws. She stared at it as if it would jump at her if she said a word.

“You okay?”

“Yeah! Y-yeah, I’m fine. I got this!” With one final breath, she started.

     “1. You smile a lot
     2. You’re the best pilot I know
     3. You do “the thing” with me even if you might get in trouble for it
     4. You say I’m smart, even though I’m not sure it’s true
     5. You say you love me even when I’m not the best
     6. You keep me and my nest warm at night
     7. Your stubble
     8. Your hair
     9. You give the best massages
     10. You make love to me
     11. … You’re still with me and I think you like it”

I read along with her over her shoulder, each and every word scribbled down in pen. She crossed out some points, added others with arrows, and rearranged them in a complete mess of a list. It didn’t look like much, but before I knew it, I felt tears well up in my eyes.

Stella put the sheet next to her on the bed. “Uh… Jeff?”

Before I knew it I’d already pulled Stella close, my arms locked around her shoulders. “I think I really needed that, Stella.”

“Wha— huh? I, uh, I don’t get it.” The flustered girl in my arms struggled to turn to look at me, but couldn’t quite get all the way around. “Come on, man, what’s up?”

“Sorry. Give me a minute.”

She remained silent as I leaned in and touched my face to her back. For the stupidest reason I could think of, I shed happy tears onto her skin, muttering to her how much I loved her.

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