The tiny hospital room, cramped with the medical machines nobody was using, steadily grew stuffy the longer I stayed. We were approaching four hours without a single visit from a nurse or doctor. Stella’s foot and head were already wrapped up good and tight with pristine white bandages, while the rest of her was adorned in the stereotypical hospital gown. Even with a good shot of pain killers in her system she was able to maintain idle conversation. Unfortunately, that was all she was able to do and not much else. I couldn’t come up with anything interesting to talk about, given the circumstances. Still rattled, both of us.
Though it was obvious given we were in a hospital, a heavy sense of mortality hanged in the air. Who knew if the last person to use the room lived through their ordeal? Well, the hospital did, but we certainly didn’t. Were they in an accident like Stella, or were they in for some debilitating disease? Did it hurt, or were they numb to the pain? All I could do was scoot a chair up next to Stella and flip through a traveling magazine she wanted to read from the lobby. I figured they wouldn’t mind, but a lot of people touched those things, right? Probably covered in germs and junk. Best not tell the doctor where it came from and throw it away afterwards. They clean these rooms after each patient leaves, right?
As I turned the next page, the door to the hallway opened slowly, allowing the low rumble of hallway hospital activity to temporarily flood the room before they closed it behind them. She was a tall statuesque female doctor. I missed meeting her when Stella got off the ambulance, but she seemed nice enough. She was clearly of African American heritage, sporting long black hair slicked all the way back into a pony tail such that her hair line was a solid unbroken crest across her forehead. A relatively unsightly mole was placed on her cheek, even darker than the rest of her. I doubted I would have needed to bring it up, but made a mental note not to stare.
“How are you feeling, Stella?” The doctor asked with a warm smile and cool unbroken tone.
Stella rolled her head back and forth. “Neck still hurts a bit, but those there drugs sure work.”
The doctor nodded her head and wrote something down on her clipboard before walking up to the other side of the bed from where I sat. “Here, let me have a look at your stitches.”
Stella turned her head so the doctor could move her bangs out of the way. A line of tiny black spidery wires stuck out of two joined folds of skin above her eyebrow. “Alright, the swelling’s down. No inflammation.” She jotted something more on her clipboard. “Okay! We got the results of the X-rays back.” I swallowed nervously. “And I have good news!” Ohthankgod. “You have no fractures in either your skull or your leg. And, luckily, there is no notable head trauma beyond the cut on your head. But, the entire gripping area of your right talon has superficial bruising and several tears on the skin. Your middle digit is especially injured.”
My girlfriend’s demeanor visibly darkened. “What about the claw? The broken one on the, uh, middle one?”
Dr. Doctor sighed as she flipped through her papers. “It broke rather close to the root. We can cover it up in a temporary cast, but it will be sensitive for some time until the roots heal from the trauma. For that, we have some pain killers for you when you’re discharged. In the meantime, I will have to ask that you do not fly for the next four weeks. You don’t want to risk a fall. An awkward landing could complicate things, as well. After that, I would still suggest laying off the foot for another four weeks just to be safe.”
So, eight weeks of no flying? For the life of me I could not picture Stella hobbling around on crutches or, God forbid, in a wheelchair. Work didn’t start up again until mid-March, but being unable to partake in her favorite activity would just—
“Okay.” Stella said, eyes locked with the doctor’s. “I can do that.”
Both the doctor and I gave her a pair of raised eyebrows.
The lady wrote something down and said, “Other harpies usually throw something at me when they get hurt like this. I was all ready for a hissy fit, too.”
Stella gave her a weak smile. “I did that a long time ago. I sprained my wing when I was a kid and got scratchy with the guy who told me not to fly for a while.”
I put a hand on her shoulder and massaged it a bit with my thumb. “You’ll have to tell me that story sometime.”
The doctor gave a relieved “Mhm,” and tucked the clipboard under her arm. “We just need to do some paperwork and you’ll be out around dinnertime.”
* * *
On our way out later in the evening, Stella was given a specialized crutch meant to be used by harpies and other women with wings instead of arms. It was adjustable in three different parts and had a sleek looped design that put less stress on the claw and wing holding it. Stella immediately held it up to her shoulder and pretended to use it like a laser gun or something. Dr. Doctor (I never did catch her name, crap) was not impressed with the childish display, but it sure made a few of the kids in the lobby laugh. Dad picked us up, and we were back home in minutes. The ride was generally silent, but Dad and I shared a knowing nod. That’s all we needed, really.
As I opened the door for Stella, I called, “We’re back~!” into the house.
Thumps of Judy steps winded through the second floor before she came barreling down the stairs, clad in a blue onesie that still just barely fit her. “Are you okay?” she called as she rushed towards Stella.
With a duck down to Judy’s level I football blocked her with an arm. “Whoa, careful! She just got back from the hospital.” I picked her up by the middle while she kicked and reached for Stella, who was busy figuring out the step up from the porch with her crutch.
When she noticed I was holding Judy back, she shot me a glare. “Don’t keep my Judy hugs from me. Let ‘er go.”
With hesitation, I set Judy down on her feet. “Don’t hug her too hard, okay?”
“Hey,” Stella said with a wing to the back of my head. “I got hurt, but I’m not made of paper.”
With that, Judy planted her face in Stella’s stomach and wrapped her arms around her waist. A bit taken aback from the sudden show of affection, the harpy very tentatively put her free wing around the back of my sister’s head. Every so often she gave me a sort of distressed look.
“Are you gonna be okay?” my sister mumbled into Stella’s shirt.
She chuckled. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. Just gotta rest my foot for a bit.”
As they released each other from the hug, I heard Matt come down the stairs behind me. His hair was a bit disheveled and the bags under his eyes were more pronounced, as if he was in bed until just a few minutes ago.
“How’re you guys doing?” He asked as he stepped down into the entryway.
Stella and I shared a glance.
“We’re okay,” she said with a smile.
“Jeff told us about all that happened with the plane before he went to the hospital. You guys could’ve told us what was going on. We could’ve helped or something.”
For a moment I avoided my brother’s gaze. “Yeah. Sorry, I didn’t want you guys to panic.” There was also the point of how exactly he could have helped, but I resisted the urge to add that.
He rolled his eyes. “We still have to live with Mom. We’re used to being scared pretty much all the time.”
Ha. “Good point. Where is she, anyway?” Aside from her, everyone was present and accounted for.
Another eye roll from my brother. “When we got home she was all worried and affectionate. That was great. Don’t get much of that. But after I told her what happened and how Stella got hurt, she said she had to go back to the church for a project or something. I just tried to call her when you guys came in, but she turned off her phone or hung up.”
I sighed. “So… Typical her?”
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Yeah.”
“I see.” My family remained silent. Stella, on the other hand, gave us some inquisitive looks back and forth between my brother and me. “I’ll be right back. Need to give her some choice words before we leave tomorrow.” Whipping out my new phone I headed for the back yard.
Stella muttered a short, “Wait, what?” before I turned the corner in the hall.
Matt called out, “But her phone’s off, so—”
“I know, I got it. Just give me, like, ten minutes.” On my way toward the back door I sifted through my contacts for Mom’s cell phone number and pressed the little green call button. Sure enough, the call when to voice mail after a ring or two. So she was screening her calls before hanging up, huh? Luckily, I already had a rant waiting just for her. Maybe more like three or four.
The voice mail tone rang in my ear as I reached the back yard. “Hi, Mom, it’s your son. Just, uh, wondering if you’ll come see us off. Stella and I are leaving real early tomorrow, so this’ll be the last time to see us.” I paused. “You know, you might just delete this voice mail when you hear me say this, but if you don’t want to thank the woman who saved the lives of all three of your kids from unexpected landing gear failure, you can fuck right off. Because that’s what happened.” I knew her well enough; she would cut it off just around there.
“If you think being wrong about someone is bad for your rep, what about being wrong and heartless? I never even saw you before, during, or after we took Stella to the hospital after she nearly lost her leg saving your children—” The voice mail service cut off. She must have been listening in and decided to shut me up.
One of them was bound to stick eventually.
“I can do this all day, Mom. Stella’s alive, by the way. Just can’t fly for two Goddamn months. She even paid for her own medical bills. Imagine that! It’s almost like she earns her keep!”
“Jeff!” a familiar voice shouted from the direction of the house. I turned to see Stella standing in the doorway at the house. With a furrowed brow and pursed lips she said, “Quit it, that’s enough.”
“Enough?” I echoed in my head. It wasn’t even close to being enough. Even adults needed a good talking-to when they did something wrong, right? Why would Stella be angry at me for trying to defend her?
She started hobbling over to me through the back yard on her crutch, her bandaged talon swinging above the concrete with every step. “We both know what happened, Jeff.” Thrusting her face mere inches from mine with a glare that could pierce stone, she muttered, “If she wants to ignore me, let her. You don’t need to prove to her how apparently great I am.”
The tone of the voice mail cutting off again sounded from my phone with an electric bleep. “Apparently I do.”
“No! Jeff, you— ugh! You don’t get it!”
“What don’t I get?”
With a claw she hooked the collar of my jacket and pulled me down to eye level. “You don’t have to defend me like this. If she wanted her mind to be changed by you, she’d’ve done it already.”
“If anyone is going to change her mind about me, it’ll have to be me doing it. Not you! So put that stupid phone down!”
At her words, a swelling of guilt rose up in my chest. I put a hand over my face, looked off to the side somewhere, and slid my phone back into my pocket. “Sorry…”
“And you shouldn’t talk to your mom like that!” A wing smacked me upside the head, with unusual force compared to the last few times. I wasn’t about to call her out on not having a mother, though. “If you want an excuse to be mad at her, I’m sure you’ll think of something else. Just keep me out of it.” She passed me her crutch, standing on one leg. “And this thing’s real hard to get used to! Help me back inside!”
I felt at the bump on my head. “Uh… That’s all? I thought you’d berate me a bit more?”
“I can, if you really want it.”
“Heh. No, that’s fine.” Taking her wing and looping it under my arm, I helped her limp toward the back door.
* * *
After eating some leftovers from Christmas dinner and lazing around watching Netflix with my family, we decided to say our goodbyes. Little Judy gave us a particularly tearful one before Stella and I took a cab back to the hotel near the airport. Dad insisted that he pay for the cab fair. We needed to pack all of our stuff and get ready to check out around 5:00 AM. That gave us plenty of time for some sleep. With her injured foot making it difficult to mill around the hotel room putting things away, I took up the reins and packed her stuff, too. Knowing her, she would forget something anyway. Besides that, her crutch was getting in my way every time I had to pass her.
“Seriously, just lay down. I got this. Dr. Doctor prescribed rest and relaxation for you, remember?” I was almost finished, regardless.
Stella scoffed. “She just said I shouldn’t fly— wait, ‘Dr. Doctor?’”
“I never caught her name.”
“Pff. It was Dr. Taylor. Come on, man.” After thinking to herself for a moment she let herself fall backwards onto the bed. She would probably have smacked me again if I said anything, so I left her alone. In the meantime, I thought of what to say about her and those smacks; they were starting to hurt.
Then I came across the dress she wore the night before. I got a good look at it earlier, but couldn’t help but remember her wearing it. Damn was she cute.
“I take back what I said about the dress. You should definitely wear it more often.”
Stella spurted out a combination of a spit-take and burst of laughter. “No. No way. We should just donate it to Goodwill or something.”
“Come on, you rocked it last night.” I folded it whatever way seemed correct, wondered for a moment if I should have put it on a hanger, and tucked it into her suitcase. Thankfully, she wasn’t the kind of girl to pack seventy two pounds of extra crap while on vacation, so her baggage zipped closed easily.
When I looked at the bed, she was staring at the ceiling with her wings crossed in front of her chest in contemplation. “You thought I looked good in it…?”
I kicked off my shoes and socks, and slipped my sweater off over my head, before standing beside the bed. “To be honest, I think you would look good in anything. Within reason.”
“I mean it.” I climbed onto the bed as she turned over and faced away from me. “Hey.”
“Could you turn around for me?”
She turned her head to look at me, her eyes wandering nervously. “My wings’ll get in the way.”
“No they won’t. Come on.”
Still tentative, probably due to her bandaged talon, she rolled over on the wrinkled white sheets and placed one wing under her head to rest on it and the other down at her side. Looking her over, Stella’s features had drooped somewhat since we got back from the hospital. She was beginning to develop a set of bags under her eyes that she never had before. Instead of her usually wide and cheery eyes, her eyelids had stooped halfway down in a struggle to stay awake.
I took both hands and placed them on her cheeks. The contact visibly soothed her as she pressed her lips and nose into the one between her and the pillow. With some awkwardness I scooted closer to her and slid the rest of my arms under and over her until her face was level with mine.
A sigh. “I’ll try not to worry too much about you, Stella.”
She looked away. “It’s fine.”
“I know you don’t like it when I worry too much. It’s something I need to work on.”
“Jeff… We already talked about this a while ago.”
True enough. We were supposed to have dealt with the issue already, but it was me who kept digging it back up. “I know. Sorry if I sound like a broken record. I do have something to add, though.”
Her eyes slowly came to meet mine. “Yeah?”
Looking her over, up close, her current expression gave me a gut-wrenching sadness. Her usually excitable and easy-to-find smile was gone in her tiredness. Less than half a day ago she was too busy enjoying herself to be tired. Then I had to ruin it. Because of me, she can’t even fly without a doctor’s orders.
My eyes grew damp. “I’m sorry. About today, I mean. I didn’t check things properly. The airport may have lent me those landing skis, but it was my responsibility to make sure they worked on my plane, too. In the end it was you who paid for my mistake the most.” Her brow furrowed and eyes narrowed, shaking her head as I continued. “I’m just so sorry, Stella.”
“No, no. Jeff. Stop it.” She planted her forehead against mine, from which I retreated when I felt her stitches. In response, she knocked her skull against my eyebrow. Again with the violence. I wanted to complain, but let myself wonder how her injury was doing after that headbutt. Instead of giving me time to wonder, she shot me an angry look. “You can have as many check lists as you want, but that doesn’t keep things like today from happening.”
“Wha-? Yes they do! The more things I’m sure about, the less chance of things going wrong!”
“Exactly! It’s just a ‘less chance’ that it’ll happen. You can’t. Control. Everything!” That was when I saw ripples of tears in her eyes as well. “Jeff, you’re a great guy. You take responsibility for everything you do, and that’s really cool. But damn it, accidents happen!” She sniffed, never losing her glare. “What we do every day is dangerous. You’ll go crazy if you keep thinking everything’s your fault, or that something bad will happen if you’re not there. Shit happens. No matter what you say or do. So just…” Clamping her eyes shut and letting some tears squeeze out, she buried her face into the crux of my neck.
How ignorant I was. Oh, how very pathetically little. Not everything begins and ends with me. I truly am my mother’s son.
But oh how happy I was that we were still alive to argue about such tiny things as responsibility. It came to me all at once. In the morning we were making love, and in the afternoon we almost died. Maybe we were left a little battered and shaken from the ordeal, but we were alive. The feeling of Stella’s narrow shoulders in my arms and the warmth of her breath against my neck told me she was still there. I could no longer keep the sting in my eyes in check. There was nothing more to hold it back.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured, holding her tight to my chest.
That only made her lean into me harder. “You’re a big fat jerk and you… just don’t get it sometimes.”
“I know. You’re right. All of it’s dangerous. And… Thanks. I that today. Thank you so much, for putting yourself out there for me and Judy and Matt. You didn’t have to do that.”
There was a pause before I felt a sad little kiss on my neck. A quiet sniff. “Yes I did. Shut up, Jeff.”
Speed bumps cropped up in my breathing, turning it ragged. “I’m just… grateful. That you’re still here.”
Another sad-feeling kiss, higher up along my neck. “Can’t get rid of me that easy.”
I blinked away some tears and nuzzled against her hair. “Famous last words, right?”
She smiled against my chest— I have no idea how I was able to tell, but I could. “Yeah, yeah. Turn over.”
Though a little excited, I skeptically released her and rolled onto my back. Slowly, to keep her foot from bumping into anything, she moved herself on top and lay down on me. Instead of her usual seductive bedroom eyes, she put on a sincere, wide smile before leaning down to kiss me.
It was gentle, soft, and real. Her lips and mine lightly molded to each other, every peck a new sensation. With my eyes closed I could easily imagine her shape and firmness as we explored together. My lips were a bit flat, while hers had a beautiful firm edge to them on the front that poked mine before pressing into mine in earnest. The slow speed we unconsciously agreed on let me feel every tiny wrinkle in her lips with my own. Together we soon branched out and examined each other’s faces. Cheeks, necks, eyes, ears, noses, and everything between. Why we did this so infrequently was beyond me. Was it lack of time for it after work? Too many old movies to watch in bed? None of those were particularly good reasons.
“You have a tiny mole on your right eyebrow,” I said.
Stella laughed lightly into my ear, sending an enjoyable shiver into my head. “And you have a scar on your head.”
Oh, that old thing. “That’s from when I fell off my bike. I think I was eight or something.” I scooted lower and started taking her tank top off. Luckily, she helped me get it off her without a word. In turn, we both eased my undershirt over my head before falling into each other again, skin against skin.
I wasn’t turned on as much as I believed I should have. With Stella kissing my chest and rubbing her cheek against my bare skin, I just wanted to do the same to her. To take in her scent and touch and form with as much care as possible. Sex barely entered my mind before going back to touching her, as if I could reach a deeper understanding of her through my fingers and lips.
It felt like the first time I truly examined her body; her skin, her ears, her feathers, her hair. Everything. When I kissed my way down her legs I noticed several scars on her knees. They were all in the same spots a kid would skin their knee from a fall. She was always the rambunctious sort, then. Not that there was any doubting about that.
As Stella let out little sighs, I rested my head on her lap. At once a feeling of calm washed over me. There was nothing but her thin boy shorts between me and her, but nothing sexual came to mind. It was just peaceful. Plain and simple.
She bent forward and kissed my ear.
“I love you,” I muttered under my breath before burying my face in her firm belly.
Stroking the back of my head and parting locks of hair with a claw, Stella said, “I know.”
* * *
The utter flatness of Kansas left me wondering how the weather in the state even functioned, let alone existed. If you knew where the warm and cold fronts were, then how was anyone surprised ever by storms? I could see storms and clouds and clear skies coming from a hundred miles away, easily. What kind of easy mode were those people living in? Luckily we only had to stay for one night in a motel by the airport. The haze of the following morning was bright enough to blind me even with sunglasses on. With boring Kansas out of the way, our next stop was New York.
So, another eight hours of flying and pit stops for us. Luckily, Matt lent us a nice little collection of music. The band Ludo had some surprisingly catchy songs. And we sang them together as loud as we could to keep the boredom from overtaking us.
“I want it with whipped cream on it
“Baby gimme gimme gimme your love
‘Cause I need it guy oh you gots to feed it
You can’t beat the heat that beats in my blood.
“Yeah you got sweet lovin’ still hot from the oven
All the muffins that a girl could desire
But I’m not g-g-g-gonna give up all the money
‘Til y’admit you want to sit by the fire~!”
We looked at each other and put on big dumb smiles.
“I think I just lost my mind~!”
“I think I’m entitled to your body gotta
Little problem with personal space and I’ve been
Poundin’ the jaeger. My breath and behavior
Have been driving the patrons away.”
It’s funny because their lead singer was a Red Oni. Funny in a sort of “real life in music” kind of way. According to Matt, the band traded in their male singer for her during the albums production. She basically took over the direction the band was going. Thank God for Monstrous Excuse Laws; as long as nobody gets hurt physically or mentally, it’s all good. That was as far as my understanding went, anyway.
My only worry about the singing was Stella’s happy head-banging and the suggestive looks she shot in my direction at pretty much every line of the song. Despite being thousands of feet in the sky and still in stitches, she was still planning our next sexual venture. Given the subject matter of the song, however, I didn’t blame her.
Singing together was cheesy as hell, but I didn’t particularly mind. After all, we were alone, and my singing partner once embarrassed herself in front of the entire fleet and didn’t even notice. That kind of confidence rubs off on you. Especially when I can’t sing worth a damn in the first place. Still not sure how that works. Maybe it’s because she sang well enough for the both of us. A “C” student and an “A” student still averaged to a “B” student.
“Stella?” I asked as the song continued.
“What’s up?” She’d started chewing on some nuts from a crinkly bag and hummed along to the music. I really should bring up my hatred of open-mouthed chewing one of these days.
“Anything you need to go over with me before we get to the city?”
A cough and swallow later and she managed to answer. “Kuh. Bleh. Yeah, sure. Give me a sec, I’ll think of something.” After shoving the empty and crumb-filled packet into the shopping bag of garbage beside her, she dusted off her feathers and looked out the window in thought. For a stretch of moments that could easily have been used to think of “Need to Know” facts for me, she gazed out at passing clouds. Unlike Alaska and Carson City, the clouds were much less gray and rainy. As we flew past some towering cumulonimbus, taller than any man-made structure, the flat layer of mist around it gave way in some spots to reveal a stark few neighborhoods of suburban America. I could only describe the fluffy clouds as giant white pillows or something else bedroom-related. I am a man, and I do not claim to be that clever. I didn’t blame her, though; they were some damn pretty clouds.
Blowing some breath at the window to fog it up a bit, she said, “Okay! Stuff you should know… Ah, you’ll want to stay away from the subway. You’ll suck at it.”
“Huh? Why would I suck at it?” Seemed like an arbitrary thing to be bad at. It’s public transportation, not rocket science.
“Yeah, that’s why. You don’t know enough about it to know that there are tons of rules nobody’ll tell you.”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Oh come on.”
“Okay, next thing.” Bah. “Never. EVER. Walk on the same side of the street as a succubus.”
“Are there a lot of them in New York?”
“Not as many as in Vegas, but I think most of them are registered in New York.”
“But yeah. I don’t know what I’d do if your bones got jumped by one. Avoid them; they won’t be able to control themselves around that pretty pretty face.”
“Did I mention I love you? Cuz I do. Anyway, next one!” I could not help but chuckle at her quick pace. “No bar fights.”
“I’ll try to hold myself back.” It wasn’t easy to forget Beth’s impossible strength, and she was the nicest Oni I had ever met, out of the three I had known in my life. The other two bullied me in high school. Then again, they bullied everyone else, too.
“And don’t give a Tanuki your money, or they’ll find a way to take the rest of it.”
“So, nothing I wouldn’t otherwise do.”
“Right. Also, you know Central Park? My favorite place in the world?” I made sure to take the hint. “There are, like, twenty Trolls living there. No idea how they manage it, but the grounds keepers don’t have the heart to kick them out. Don’t give them change if they ask for it. They always get free food and junk from people passing by, especially the… cops…”
Well, that was a new one. “You okay?” No answer. “Are the Trolls that bad?”
That at least got a snicker out of her. “No, not that. Uh. Did I ever tell you about my Dragon friend?”
“I don’t think so?” First I’d heard about it, I was pretty sure.
“We both grew up in the orphanage and we were the same age. Pretty easy to be friends that way. But anyway, we both wanted to… be police officers when we were growing up.”
“A bit of a stretch from what you’ve been doing for a living, don’t you think?” Way to point out the obvious, me.
“Heh. Yeah. We… don’t talk anymore. Complicated girl stuff.”
“I’ll bet. What happened?”
“Hey. I said that it’s complicated girl stuff.” Of course.
“What happened to wanting to be a cop, though?”
She curled up and rested her head on the armrest. “I don’t know. I just wanted to help people when I was a teenager. But all that went to hell when we got in a big fight with her in Central Park. I ended up hurting a bystander by accident.”
“Whoa, what? You don’t strike me as the type who just fights like that.”
A moaning, depressed laugh rolled out of her mouth. “I was a nice kid at first, I think. Sister Maria helped with that. Then I was a little shit for the longest time, starting with that fight. I was just pissed at everything because of how it went down and made some bad decisions. Guess my rebellious phase just came late.”
“Hey, come on. You just said you wanted to help people. That’s a good thing, right?”
“I totally started that fight, though. It was over something stupid, too.”
For a moment I decided not to say anything. She seemed to be remembering some real stuff. Time for a timely change of subject. “Do you still want to help people, though?”
At the question, she rocked back and forth in the adorable way she does. “Yeah. I think that part’s come back.” I watched her shift around to sit up properly in her seat. “Sorry I never mentioned this before, but… well, I kind of… decided to start training for the Alaska Search and Rescue next year.”
Several things clicked in my head behind the scenes. The extra hours from the end of the season, unending exercise routine, and incredibly strict diet all pointed to steady and thorough preparation. All in all? Pretty damn cool.
“When will you be starting?”
“Huh?” She shot me a wide-eyed and bewildered look. “You’re not gonna worry about me and ask me not to do it because I’ll be flying through storms and scary mountains for hours and hours in storms looking for hikers or hunters or snowmobile drivers and might freeze to death cold and alone out in the wilderness?”
“That was… oddly descriptive for you. Did you memorize that?” I think part of it rhymed, too.
“Uh… maybe?” The confused look didn’t leave her face, a slight flush filling her cheeks. Damn. How could my girlfriend be so adorable?
“Alright, come on,” I said before sticking my arm straight out in front of her. “Calm down for a sec and I’ll tell you about my ‘worry’ shtick.” Looking tentatively between me and my hand, as if it were a trap, she pulled it toward her face and nuzzled the back of my fingers with a sigh. “You calm?”
“Okay. So. Just to make sure we have a full understanding, and because I’m bad at this kind of thing, I reserve the right to worry about you in silence, but I will always respect your life decisions not white-knight you and junk.” She laughed at “and junk.” “So don’t be afraid to tell me things.”
“Hm. Okay.” After a heavy sigh she released my hand and slouched in her seat. “So yeah. Meet any Dragon cops, just turn around.”
“Pff. Wouldn’t that make me look suspicious or something?”
She gave me a raised eyebrow. “Jeff, you’re the least-suspicious-looking guy I’ve ever met.”
“Is that why all the Succubi in New York will want to jump my bones?”
“I’ll work on my Russell impression, then.”
“The ‘grizzled old man’ part or the ‘completely uninterested in female contact’ part?”
* * *
Contrary to popular belief, the air in New York was not as bad as people often said. It was, in fact, so much worse that I gagged when we stepped out of the plane. It smelled as if a diesel truck drove nonstop until the end of time for the sole purpose of perpetuating the massive machine of a city. The thick and heavy clouds I had to fly through to land at the airport did not help matters as they added snow and slick slush to the runway. The evening lights from downtown lit up the streets for miles around in an eternal twilight. With the ground and clouds as barriers to contain the light, it truly was the city that never slept.
The procession that took us into the hangar was less than friendly, with a Lizardman practically yanking our two suitcase out of the cargo area and tossing them in my arms. After the show of rudeness, she told me to go talk to the manager to finish all the paperwork before she walked away to tow my plane into its new home for the week. The hangar itself had scattered oil stains and water leaks sliding down the concrete walls. If they let my wings freeze over, I swear I’ll totally complain to the manager or something.
Not much I could have done, actually; they would probably apply anti-freeze for free if the hangar didn’t insulate properly. Their hangar, their employees, their rules.
It being New York and all, it took us less than thirty seconds to hail a cab and an hour longer than anticipated to reach our destination on the other side of town. Bright lights filtered through the frost on the cab windows like looking at fireworks from underwater. Everything was moving and flashing colors everywhere so quick that I couldn’t keep up with all of the signs and cars and traffic signals. I doubt I would have been able to drive us myself if we had a car; there was just too much to see!
The longer we drove, however, the less lights lit up the night. It became apparent that the orphanage wasn’t anywhere near downtown Manhattan or any of the other popular stretches of New York. I was a bit disappointed, but everything was still new and exciting all the same.
“There it is!” Stella called out, leaning her head out the window of the taxi. Among the bustle of the city, this street was narrower and much less crowded. Dead grass and weeds lined the perimeters of the old brick buildings, with some lots having been cleared and readied for new construction projects. I was no expert, but it definitely looked like an older neighborhood. After paying our driver, I carried our luggage behind Stella as she led the way down the street. I made sure she bundled up before we left the airport, so she had a scarf around her neck that she couldn’t take off easily because of how I wrapped it. It was pretty funny when the wind blew it in her face, actually. Does that make me a bad person? Probably.
“You grew up around here?” I asked before lifting the suitcases onto the curb.
“Yeah. Ever since before I could fly.” Unfortunately, I didn’t know at what age harpies usually learned how to fly. Hopping on one leg, she led me further down the sidewalk. The more I saw of the street, the more chain link fences I saw acting as barriers between the various properties and concrete curbs. They came in all variety of heights and densities, probably from all kinds of construction businesses, but one of them stood out above all the others. Rising a good tree stories off the ground, one of these fences encased its property like a giant cocoon. There was so much metal that I could not see what the building within looked like until we were standing right in front of the flimsy wall of iron.
Stopping in front of me abruptly enough to make me stumble, Stella declared with an outstretched wing, “This is it!”
We stopped right in front of a gate embedded in the giant chain link fence. Finally able to get a look at the building beyond, it looked like an old school house. The snow-covered front yard was littered with colorful half-buried toys and small playground equipment, and a winding series of circular dirt plots led up to the porch. It was getting dark and cold, however, so nobody was playing outside. Nonetheless, I could almost feel the gleeful laughter of children from beyond the school house walls. Just to the right of it was a small sign that read, “St. Mary’s Children’s Home.” A twinge of anxiety and dread throbbed through my throat at the thought I might have to sit through a sermon.
Stella was much less nervous than I was, given that she was pounding the buzzer over and over again until someone cracked open the front door. As if she just realized something important, she smoothed out the sleeves of her multicolored sweater around the skin on her wings, and adjusted her beanie to be as “straight” as possible.
With a smile that stretched her cheeks to their limits, Stella called out, “Sister!” with a wave of her wing.
I recalled Stella telling me about Sister Maria. In my head I always pictured an elderly Hispanic woman, stout and bent over from her never-ending duty to care for the children of New York who no longer had family to depend on. She probably had kind eyes and a wrinkled smile with some teeth missing. Then again, Stella never told me her caretaker’s age, so she might only be in her 40s or 50s at least if she took care of Stella until she was eighteen. Sister Maria definitely wore a habit in my mind; she totally wouldn’t be a Sister if she didn’t, right?
A motherly sing-song sort of voice resounded through the front yard. “Is that who I think it is?” Such a thick Brooklyn accent. No wonder Stella slipped into it every now and then if she grew up in the area. At least it wasn’t the stereotypical chain-smoking coughing sort of accent. The voice of the one beyond the fence was quite smooth.
Without anybody touching anything, the gate door swung open and an airborne blur of black and white whizzed through the opening to tackle Stella with a hug. “Stella~!”
Swinging the hugger around on one leg in a fanciful pirouette, the huggee cried out, “Sister~!”
Latched onto Stella’s front, with a wide smile and childlike blush on her face, was a Fairy woman whose arms barely met around the harpy’s back. She was maybe a little shorter than the height of my knees, which was rather large for a Fairy, to be honest. She didn’t look Hispanic, and probably wasn’t that old, but she was wearing a nun’s habit that squarely framed her delighted, wrinkle-free face. One out of four or five points isn’t so bad. It was the most important point, too.
The two women let go of each other, the Sister floating away with a sparkly flutter of her translucent wings. “Oh, Stella, what happened here? And here?” She floated herself downwards until she was parallel with the concrete sidewalk to look at Stella’s bandaged talon, her legs floating slightly above the level of her head. It was as if gravity meant nothing to her, or she was swimming through air like she was underwater.
Stella gave her a nervous chuckle. “We had a bit of an accident when we were out west.”
“‘We?'” The Fairy woman turned just in time to see me prop our suitcases against the fence. She rushed up to meet me face-to-face quicker than I could see. “Oh!”
“Ah!” Well, that was a sudden outburst. I nearly jumped out of my boots.
“Are you this ‘Jeff’ person she’s told us all about? Every time she calls, she always talked about Jeff this and Jeff that.” Oddly descriptive. Probably on purpose.
“Uh, yeah! I’m probably that same Jeff.” Ugh, too awkward-sounding.
Without much more incentive than the sound of my name, she grasped my right hand with both of hers and shot me a smile. “It’s so great to finally meet you, Jeffry!” Releasing my hand as quickly as she grabbed it, she did a quick flip through the air towards Stella and put a hand on her shoulder. “Our Stella always gushed and gushed about you whenever she called.” My girlfriend looked away from me with an uneasy laugh. I couldn’t help it, either; the red filled my cheeks before I knew it. It was of course embarrassing to learn something like that from the one who was essentially her guardian for the majority of her life. There were few secrets between those two, surely.
That, of course, did not keep the sense of pride from welling up inside me for it. “And you are…?”
“Oh! Where are my manners?” The Fairy woman dusted off her robes and gave me a midair bow. “I’m Sister Maria, the caretaker of St. Mary’s Children’s Home.” I had a feeling she practiced this introduction. “Well, let’s not stand out here in the cold. Come in! Come in!”
With a flick of her wrist, she pointed a tiny finger in the general direction of our suitcases. Like something out of a cartoon, a plume of sparkles burst from them before they began hovering off the ground. My eyes followed them as they scooted themselves past me and through the front gate, my limbs otherwise frozen in place as I watched. Sister Maria followed after our luggage with one finger raised, swaying back and forth as if conducting them as part of a little performance.
I made sure to pinch myself on the cheek with the scratchiest fingers of my gloves.
Okay, apparently this is happening. Neat. One sometimes forgets that magic is a thing when so few people can actually use it. Fairies in particular have become a rare sight. And none of them ever wanted to come live in Alaska. I blame the overabundance of snow and icy death, personally.
I felt a pull on my arm as Stella hooked my sleeve with a claw and yanked me through the gate. “Jeff, come on!” The moment I turned to look at her, she pulled my arm close and leaned on my shoulder so I couldn’t see her face.
“You okay?” I asked as she hopped alongside me on one foot, holding her crutch under her other wing.
Instead of voicing her answer, she just rubbed her face into my shoulder with her eyes squeezed shut. When finished, she faced straight ahead and somehow managed to pull me along despite her hurt foot. We walked up the steps of the porch just as Sister Maria magic’d it open for us. Judging from the lights coming through the fogged up windows, the kids inside were still awake.
As the door opened, a warm twilight glow spilled out onto our feet. Before us was a reception area that led to a long hallway with dark hard wood flooring. Each side of the hallway held no less than five doors, each illuminated by a hanging lamp. I might have thought it to be a simple schoolhouse if not for the plethora of toys littered across the floor, multicolored paper cutouts hanging from every doorway, and little blurs of activity everywhere I looked. Seeing it all let me remember what it was like to see the world colored through a child’s eyes, however briefly. Some of the kids in the common area didn’t even bother looking at us, but what surprised me the most was that there were both human and monstrous girls playing together. No less than a score of them, at that.
Among the rush of evening playtime, I was able to spy a Moth girl milling around a ceiling light, a pair of Lizardmen wrestling, a Werecat scratching at the wall, three Large Mice bounding after each other (sisters, perhaps?), and a lone Elf looking snooty. They were just the youngest-looking monstrous ones I could see jumping around, to say nothing of the few teenage ones trying to maintain order or the human girls scattered among them of such racial diversity they would make Sesame Street blush. The bustle of activity in the orphanage belied the silence of the evening streets outside.
Several kids came up to Stella as soon as they saw her. Of that group there was a Werewolf with light gray fur, a green-scaled Lamia teenager with glasses and short blond hair holding a book, and a pair of preteen human girls of Asian descent. Some unfortunate kids tripped over the Lamia girl’s tail on her way over. She neglected to notice and the ones who fell picked themselves up and powered on. No crying allowed, I guess.
As soon as they came into view, Stella sprung from my arm and glided over to them, shouting, “Cleo!” with boundless glee.
The snake girl let out a squeal of excitement, extending herself off the floor with her long body to catch Stella in the air with a hug. “Stella! Nobody said you were coming!”
Cleo the Lamia swung Stella back and forth for a moment, the younger girl’s tail coiling into a spring below them, before Stella managed to say, “Surprise!”
As they nuzzled their cheeks together, I was just glad she wasn’t getting coiled around by the Lamia girl. Now that I think about it, Stella left New York a little more than a year ago, so she probably knew most of the kids present if she still kept in contact after turning eighteen. From the looks of things, she was still fresh in their minds. All I could imagine was a bunch of kids doing Stella things, like running, flying, and being tough and adorable as hell. Not a bad image at all.
When I saw Stella getting lowered back down to the floor where the other kids were waiting for their hugs, I called out, “Watch the foot, Stella.” She didn’t need me to tell her, but just in case.
“I know!” With fluid grace, she stepped down onto the floor with one talon and put all of her weight on it before letting the bandaged talon dangle a few inches from the reflective hardwood planks.
Stella and the other girls began talking manically with each other. Questions of how she had been, what happened with her foot, and who I was, were all fired this way and that from different mouths. Stella looked like she could keep up with them easily, but I could not for the life of me follow their barrage of questions. All I could do was cover my mouth to stifle a yawn. The long day of traveling was catching up to both me and my wobbling legs. I was sitting on my ass for most of the day, after all.
“Jeffry?” The tiny nun floated near me and tugged me toward the hall by my sleeve. “I have some coffee in the kitchen if you need some.”
“That’d be pretty great, actually,” I said, blinking some fatigue from my stinging eyes.
Stella and the girls looked like they had some catching up to do, so I nodded and followed our host down the hall. Half of the doors down the corridor were still wide open. Inside one room was a pair of centaur girls sitting on the floor, the older one reading to the younger one from a large hardback tome of sorts. It made me wonder if they were learning magic from Sister Maria or something. In another room a few human girls, of ages varying from toddler to teenager, were getting ready for bed. They each looked distinctly unrelated, but the older one helped out the younger two.
Sister Maria opened a door into a sizable dining room with a long wood table in the center. Every chair looked like it was from a different set than the last, ranging from a black-painted metal yard chair to a tall plastic stool to a rickety-looking high chair for something toddler sized. The walls were decorated with countless paper trinkets and crayon drawings. Some parts of the wall that had cracks or claw marks on them were partially covered up by the drawings. Understandable. Have to keep things colorful and bright to keep the kids happy.
Through a door on the other side of the dining room was the kitchen. It was definitely well-used, with some outlines of stains on both the counter and tiled floor. An open cupboard showed stacks of different sized and colored plates. A strip of masking tape on the fronts of the cupboard doors read “Cups” and “Pans” and so on. Two refrigerators stood across from each other on the far end. In a fashion that I guessed was standard for orphanages and schools, many of the heavier tools and pans and machines were kept on top of the cupboards and refrigerators inside plastic tubs, which were bolted down to prevent slippage. How did Maria keep Moth girls and harpies from getting up there, though? Honor system, perhaps?
“Please, Jeffry, pull up a chair in the other room,” Maria said with a wave of her hand as she levitated a coffee maker out of an upper bin with a pointed finger. “I’ll be right out.”
Fair enough. Wouldn’t want to get in the way of power beyond my understanding, especially when it’s in a kitchen; that just makes it more dangerous. So, I pulled up one of the few adult-sized chairs at the table and sat myself down. Flanked by the noisy kids in the front of the building, and the clanking Maria was making in the kitchen, my leg moved restlessly up and down on the ball of my foot. With so much stuff going on it felt wrong somehow to stay put. I wanted to leave Stella to catch up with her friends, but I wanted to meet them at the same time. Maybe she planned to introduce me later?
With a defiant roar something tiny latched onto my bouncing foot. I pulled my chair back from the table with a start and looked down to find the culprit. Beneath the table, claws curled around my ankle, was a tiny Jinko. Possibly two or three years old, tops. With short orange and black hair tied back into a set of pigtails, massive claws each the size of my boots, and a cute little snarl, she vehemently gnawed on my blizzard-grade boots. Sometimes she batted at the laces and nibbled the side with baby her canine teeth. The fur on her arms and legs were far fuzzier-looking than pictures of adult Jinko I had seen. Like a kitten’s fur. Her stripes had not fully come in yet, either.
On top of everything, she was wearing a pair of one-piece bear pajamas with the hood down. The sleeves only went so far up her arms and legs, so it gave her a somewhat jarring “fur” pattern that was somewhere between a bear and tiger. Every now and then she looked up at me as if expecting a reaction.
“Uh…” I muttered. The girl pulled back under the table in surprise, crawling on all fours as if ready to run away. After a moment of contemplation and a suspicious gaze, a fanged smile grew on her lips. Then she went back and pounced at my boot a second time. When I pulled it back, she let herself drag across the smooth floor along with it, her grip tight. “Jeez.”
“Is something wrong, Jeffry?” Maria called from the kitchen.
“A, uh, a little Jinko’s got my foot!”
Maria shouldered her way through the kitchen door. Once out, she floated toward me with a pot of coffee clutched in both hands under her, clearly straining under the weight, from what her frequent bobs and weaves told me. What was she, a helicopter? Placing the coffee pot on the table with a thunk and a slosh, she peeked down under the table where the Jinko growled and hissed, batting at her with her big fuzzy paws. To the little girl’s credit, she could probably hurt a fly.
“Hello, Jessie!” she said with a wave. Little Jessie responded with a high-pitched growl. The Fairy turned to me. “Don’t worry about her, Jeffry. She’s just teething.”
“Heh. Okay.” That didn’t relieve my boots of bite marks, though. Not that they couldn’t handle a little punishment, of course, but they were still there. As Maria retrieved a mug for me from the cabinet behind me, I asked, “How do you take care of all of these girls on your own?”
She poured me my coffee before answering. “It’s not as hard as you think. The littler ones think I’m their playmate.” Understandable. Then again, I saw Jessie crouching with her rear in the air ready to pounce on my boots once again. Clearly I was her new playmate. “And the older ones help around the place, so I don’t gotta worry ‘bout much.”
The instant Jessie leapt from under the table at my feet again, Maria pointed a finger at the tiny tiger girl. In a brief flash of light, Jessie froze in midair in a swirl of sparkles before floating into the air, kicking around in an attempt to get away. Again, Maria was using her shiny sparkle glitter magic. I doubt that is the technical term.
“Of course, magic helps plenty.” Maria chuckled and brought the Jinko closer. Before Jessie could fight back, she flipped her belly-up and reached for her stomach with both hands. “Isn’t that right, Jessie?” Belly scratches. “Isn’t that right?” Belly scratches on a tiny belly with tiny hands. Despite curling up and clawing at the Fairy a little (to no avail) Jessie closed her eyes, stretching her arms and legs lengthwise with a little happy growl.
After the belly scratches were over, Maria “stood” in front of the airborne cat and said, “Now, Jessie. Don’t chew on shoes while they’re on someone’s feet; they’re still usin’ ‘em!”
Jessie looked at me for a moment before gazing down at the floor in shame. “Okay…”
“Good girl.” Maria floated above her and gave the girl a little peck on the forehead, then set her back down on the floor. “And what do you say to the nice man for bitin’ his shoes?”
She looked up at me with her golden feline eyes, twitchy and attentive, before muttering, “Thorry…”
Okay, the bite marks on my boots weren’t that bad. They can take it. “It’s okay.” I reached a hand out and scratched Jessie behind the ears. With a shy smile, she went bounding back under the table, bumped her way through some chairs, and toward the hallway. As I followed her exit with my eyes, I saw several faces peeking around the half-shut door. Some with fuzzy ears, some with scaly hides, and still more with feathers. All of them dashed away in a herd of laughter the moment I laid eyes on them.
With the tiny tiger toddler gone, Maria added some sugar and cream into my coffee before scooting it over to me.
“So if magic helps,” I said after my first sip of coffee, “why not use it all the time? I mean, you carried the coffee pot in by hand earlier.”
She landed atop the table and smiled. “Well, if I use it for absolutely everything I’ll eventually get tired. Can’t have that when there are kids runnin’ around.”
“How does that work, anyway? You can just move things with your mind?”
“No, it’s not like that stuff from those science fiction movies; it’s just… magic.”
Huh? “I mean, you control it with your mind, right?”
She shrugged. “It’s more like wigglin’ your toes.”
That’s a Fairy analogy if I ever heard one. I take a sip of coffee. “But you do that with your mind, too, don’t you?”
Maria let out a hearty laugh. “Please, Jeffry. We’ll talk about this all night if we don’t watch it.”
“Sorry, I was just curious.”
“It’s no trouble, Jeffry. Parents ask me all the time.” She awkwardly looked down at the table. “Sometimes they look more interested in me than the kids.”
Right. Orphanage. Parents came in to find a kid to adopt. I very nearly forgot that little detail despite all the young people in the building. I grew up with blood-related family, but this disjointed hodgepodge of species and age groups was Stella’s family.
“You can call me Jeff, you know.”
“Pff, I figured. I just like the sound of ‘Jeffry,’ you know?”
“Heh. Fair enough.”
With a flutter of her wings, Maria hopped onto one of the stools on the opposite side of the table from me. For the first time, I saw that she wasn’t wearing shoes under her nun robe. Well, she doesn’t need to touch the ground, so it made some sense.
“But enough about all that magic junk. Tell me, Jeffry. What’s it like living in Alaska?”
Ah, a topic to latch onto!
I set my coffee down and rested one leg over the other. “Well. Let me tell you.”
The instant I started talking about the state I called home, Maria’s eyes remained transfixed on me. It was as if every word was something new to her. I spoke about planes, the weather, annual melting glacier viewing (seriously, that’s a thing), traditional Alaskan cuisine, and the tiny cabin in which Stella and I lived. Maria gave a constant string of exclamations, like “Oh my!” and “Really?” as if I were discussing some sort of great philosophy with her. With eyes that reflected keen interest and unbound curiosity, I felt like she was doing her best to remember every little detail. Stella probably told her plenty about Alaskan living, so it was strange that she seemed so interested in everything I said. Nonetheless, I told her about the usual structure of the bush plane “season” and how Stella pushed herself harder than usual at the end of the last season.
“I thought she felt a bit stiffer than normal,” Maria said with a concerned tilt of her head.
I assumed she meant in the sense of muscle. “Yeah, she earned that. She’s worked hard.” The last sip of coffee, filled with leftover grounds at the bottom. “Bleh. Just wish she’d be more careful about it.”
“Oh, don’t do that. She’ll just get mad.”
“Ha. Yeah. Been there, done that. To be honest, still working on that.”
We shared a laugh before I followed her into the kitchen to wash out my mug. By the time we went back to the front of the schoolhouse, Stella and the other girls had relocated to a pile of bean bags in the corner. Though I probably should have expected it, they were still talking the night away.