Aviators Chapter 7

(Jessie artwork credit to Mithril at: http://www.pixiv.net/member.php?id=9140955)

“Do you fly a lot?” a small Asian child asked.

I adjusted myself on my yellow bean bag before answering. “It’s my job. I’m on vacation right now, but I usually fly five days a week.” The girls that surrounded me huddled up so I couldn’t hear their giggling, not to mention the game plan for their next question. My butt slid to the side when one part of the bean bag suddenly deflated. Mine must have been broken. Or maybe one of the girls squeezed out from under me, I couldn’t tell with them running up and around me and under my arms and grabbing my hair. There must have been more than a dozen of them; more than half the population of the orphanage.

One of them called out, “What’s the name of your plane?”

“Uh.” Did they think all planes had a special name or something? “It’s a Cessna 180.” Their questions were getting stranger and stranger at every turn. What color is my plane? What did I get for my most recent birthday (nothing, actually)? Why did my boots taste so good? Why this? Why that?

“My turn!” a Werewolf— probably the one who was friends with Stella— scooted forward through the shallow rainbow sea of bean bags and little girls. I honestly don’t know when they managed to surround me. Clever girls. She shot me a sly look, like she was about to get me in trouble. “Who flies better, you or Stella?”

That’s one way to get me in trouble, tiny child. Bravo. Okay, Jeff. Tread carefully. “I’m better at flying planes. And I can’t fly without one, so she’s automatically better at flying without one.” Nailed it. Why the hell did Stella leave me alone with these terrifying creatures? They had the power to dismantle my life at a moment’s notice. No telling what they would ask me next. Maybe riddles?

“So hey,” I chimed in before they grouped together again to discuss their next move. Those with proper ears pricked them up, while the rest looked at me with large little girl eyes. Terrifying. “Where did Stella end up going? She left in a hurry.”

I saw Cleo slither her green self into my peripheral vision as the rest of the girls stood around wondering about my question. She said, “She left to go see someone.”

What a traitor. “Isn’t it a bit late for that? You guys ate dinner already.”

The tip of Cleo’s tail pointed upward and swayed back and forth while she clutched her book to her chest. “Well, she’s allowed, so…”

Uh oh. “Sorry, I know. I was just wondering.” A nervous smile from the Lamia was probably the best I was going to get out of that one. Out of nowhere, little Jessie pounced onto a bean bag next to me. We eyeballed each other for a few seconds before I reached forward to scratch her head. She fell over in a lump of growling happy tiger happy sounds.  “Did she say how long she’d be gone?”

Cleo shook her head. “No, she didn’t.”

Another pair of the girls climbed up onto my shoulders, forcing me to use my hands to keep them balanced. This did not please Jessie, who jumped at my leg and gnawed on my pant leg.

The Lamia chuckled at my misfortune. “If you don’t want to play anymore you can just ask them to stop.” Some girls stuck their tongues out at her.

With all the finesse I would otherwise have used with Judy, I let myself fall down to the side and plopped them down onto some other bean bags. “Okay, yeah. I think I’m done for now, kids.” The majority of the room erupted in disappointed sighs, making me wonder how few visitors they actually got during the winter.

I needed some fresh air regardless, despite the smells of New York. “I’ll just be going outside for a bit.” I found Sister Maria reading to some girls in one of the rooms and told her I was going out front. She said to press the buzzer when I came back, and to watch out for some neighborhood denizens. The girls watched me with disappointment as I bundled up with my coat and sweater and stepped outside.

A chill drove up my legs when a waft of air went under my pant legs. Were there bite holes in them? I was really starting to miss the sub-zero temperatures of Alaska, which was weird given the chills I just had. Either way, I hopped my way through the snow-free dirt plots and swung the gate open. Had to keep moving to keep warm. The street was dark save for a few flickering street lights and the dull glow from nearby windows. I couldn’t see the stars above me despite the otherwise clear skies.

The moment I turned to walk down the sidewalk, I noticed someone leaning against the wall of the adjacent building. It may have been dark, but not dark enough to keep me from recognizing her.

“Stella?” I said, keeping my voice low in the echoing streets.

She didn’t turn her head to look at me, but grabbed her crutch from its lean against her wall and started limping toward me. I never thought I would describe her walk as a limp, even when she got the crutch.

“The kids said you went to see someone?”

Stopping in front of me, she muttered, “Yeah.” All I saw was her beanie before she let herself slump against my chest. “I’m tired. Carry me inside.”

Yeah, that was a cry for help if I ever heard one. “Hey, did something happen?”

“Nah, just… complicated crap.” Stella took a deep breath through her nose, pulled back her shoulders, and cracked her neck. With a big burst of visible air from her lips, she yelled (probably a bit too loudly) “Okay! Okay, I’m fine.” Finally, she looked at me. If I didn’t know better, I would have deemed her perfectly okay.

Good thing I knew better not to press it, too. “I just came out to take a break from those kids. They’re brutal!”

She shoved my shoulder playfully. “You can handle a few seven year-olds.”

“Not when ninety percent of them have claws and teeth that can tear my boots apart.”

“Pff. Come on, I can do that, too.”

“But it’s you. You, I know how to handle.”

She sauntered closer and gave me a smirk. “So you can ‘handle’ me, huh? You’ll have to show me when we get to the hotel.”

Ah, that’s right. “Hey, so where are we staying tonight, anyway?”

After a moment, she raised an eyebrow. “Ha. Ha. Real funny.”

I shook my head and gave her a sidelong look. “You did… get us a hotel, right?”

Her eyes widened. “I… thought you did!”

We stared at each other, both wondering what was going on.

Luckily for me (or unluckily; it didn’t matter) I figured it out first. And I only had one thing to say. “Shit.”

“I, uh! We could just find a little hotel somewhere and—”

I put up a hand. “I know. It’s fine.” Couldn’t help but laugh at our predicament. “I thought at least one of us would be prepared to stay in New York for a week.”

Stella covered her head with a wing and looked at the ground. “Ugh. I messed up, Jeff.”

Putting my brain to work, I started listing off possibilities. “Want to just find some tiny back-alley hotel somewhere and see if we can get a room for cheap?”

“Hmm. We’d probably have to carry our suitcases with us— I mean, you would have to— until we found someplace. That’s really unfair.”

Couldn’t agree more. “Do you have any old friends who wouldn’t mind us crashing at their place?”

She let out a heavy sigh. “The people I knew the best probably wouldn’t appreciate us dropping in on them like this.”

“Like who?” I was curious about her non-orphan New York friends nonetheless.

“Uh… there’s Dragon friend, who will remain nameless. We don’t talk about my Dragon friend.”

It was as if she was begging me to ask. “Right.”

“I had a few human friends, but they’re into… bad business.”

Uh oh. So she used to know (or still knew) criminals? That was news to me.

“The few harpy friends I had all moved to other states before I did.”

Nell came to mind. Wouldn’t mind dropping by Anchorage to see her on our way back north.

“And I think my Salamander friend moved to a different apartment complex, so I wouldn’t know where to look.”

As I started to shake my head the orphanage came into sight again. Of course, the obvious solution would be to ask to stay the night before grabbing a hotel the next day, but that seemed inappropriate. Nobody would mind if Stella stayed, but letting a guy stay in what was essentially an all-girl Children’s Home? My sensibilities told me we would have to find some back alley hotel for the night on the cheap.

“I’ll bet Sister will let us stay, though,” she said with a twiddle of her claws, nervously glancing away from me. And to think I just mentally told myself that that very idea was bad. The guilt on her face overshadowed anything I might have been able to say to deny the proposition, but I had to try.

“Well, don’t you think it’d be bad for me to stay in an all-girls orphanage?”

Biting her lip, she thought for a moment. “We’ll have to just ask to make sure.”

Well, that was the simplest method. Together we hit the buzzer in the fence. Once more, the rickety chain link door opened without a hint of motorized parts and we walked back inside. Maria must have asked the kids to all get ready for bed. All of the toys that were on the floor had vanished in our absence. Only Cleo was still lounging in the front room on a series of bean bags, book open in front of her. She gave us a little wave as we made our way down the hallway. Some muffled giggles and yelps sounded from beyond the closed doors, though all lights except the ones in the hallway were off.

“Sister’s room is in the way-way back,” Stella said as she hopped ahead, barely using her crutch. Instead she elected to just jump on one leg most of the time, only using the crutch when she lost her balance. Though I knew not to tell her, I was ready to catch her at any time in case of a fall.

As for the “way-way back,” we went past the dining room and took a right. Opposite from the door that lead to the kitchen, we trekked down another short hall that had some small wall compartments filled with various toys, blocks, and baby supplies, plus a door labeled “Linen Closet. No touching!” The last part was underlined three times, but every “i” was dotted with a pink heart. The rest of the writing was with a black marker, making me wonder exactly which of the kids vandalized the warning sign. Then again, it might have just been Maria.

At the end of the hall was a big red door with the word “Caretaker” emblazoned across the top in a rainbow of multicolored block letters. Given the career she chose, I couldn’t fault Maria for unprofessionalism.

Stella reached it first and gave it a few sharp taps with her free wing. “Sister?”

After a few moments of mumbling from the other side, the Fairy called out, “Come in!”

As soon as Stella reached for the doorknob it turned and swung open on its own. Inside was a well-lit office of sorts stacked two stories high with many little balls of white light dangling in the air near the ceiling. Above us the lights gave the entire room a gentle ethereal to it, as if we had just entered some new world.

The first level held a small desk as its center with an old computer sitting on it. Various toys and game boards sat strewn across the plain tan carpet. Book cases filled with children’s books and magazines flanking the desk, along with a couple more lights that steadily bobbed up and down between them. The second level looked like it wasn’t reachable without flight; a short balcony of sorts stuck out of the wall slightly with rails barring it off. Said balcony lead to a little open door, which I could just barely see had a bed inside. The upper walls were covered with shelves upon shelves of books, like something out of an Elven library.

Fairies and their magic. Show-offs.

It wouldn’t have surprised me to see a few real trees growing in the gaps between book cases. Instead of a real tree, however, there was a vast finger-painting of a colorful “tree” that snaked up the back wall, created by tiny hands and claws across all four walls of the ground level. A few smatterings of paint and claw marks were scattered across the shelves on the upper floor as well. Each hand, paw, and talon print had a name scrawled across it. There must have been at least a hundred of them.

A Family Tree, presented and created in the chaos of children’s imagination.

In such a setting, I couldn’t help but imagine how wonderful a childhood it would be to grow up here. Being an orphan definitely sucked, for sure, but Sister Maria did so much in her attempts to help make up for that fact.

The Fairy in question was hovering around the upper level reading a book that was almost as big as she was. It floated in front of her at her behest with a wave of a finger.

“Do you need something?” she asked.

While I was busy staring at the light show, Stella nervously got to the point. “We, uh, actually don’t have a place to stay tonight.” The look on her face as she tried to break past the guilt looked like she had just hit her head against a wall. “Could we stay here for the night?”

Maria flipped a page in the book she was reading. “Alright. Your old room isn’t being used right now, so go ahead and make yourself at home.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Well that was quick.”

“Yeah,” Stella said, “I haven’t stayed her for years.”

She floated down and set the book on her tiny desk. “I don’t have a reason to kick you two out, do I? And with all the donations you’ve been sending I can’t leave you out in the cold!” Wait, Stella was sending donations? Since when? And how much? “And Stella,” she gave the woman next to me a smile, “you can stay here any time. You know that, right?”

My lips curved into a smirk as some warm fuzzies filled my stomach. A glance at Stella told me she was fighting back the urge to hug something or cry tears of joy. Probably both.

“Thanks, Sister,” I said, putting a hand on Stella’s shoulder. She leaned her head on it.

Returning my words with a nod, Maria said, “Sorry to ask, but I have to go over some things about one of the girls, so would you mind giving me some privacy?”

“Yeah! Yeah, no problem! And thanks!” Stella rushed out of the room as fast as she could, a skip in her crutch-assisted step.

“And no funny business! Both of you!” the Fairy added.

Rushing after her with a wave to Maria, and closing the door behind me, Stella lead me back to the hallway. Though I was used to her usual cheeriness it felt like she had truly become a happy little kid again as she careened through the hall despite her injury.

Beyond a few ceiling-hanging paper snowflakes, Stella pried open one of the hallway doors and entered while I went to grab our suitcases from the front room. Cleo was still there, but had taken to laying on her side with her book instead of her back. Her attention turned to me as I picked up the suitcases, which were behind the welcome desk in the corner.

“You two aren’t staying somewhere else?” the Lamia asked, setting her open side down on a nearby bean bag.

To be honest, I expected her to keep reading the book. “Yeah, we don’t have a place to stay for New Year’s yet, so we’re crashing her for tonight. I, uh, hope you don’t mind.”

Cleo shook her head. “Not at all! If Stella’s staying, then the others would love to play with her in the morning. And I love it when we have visitors!”

Considering my limited knowledge of the Lamia species was somewhere between “snake ladies” and “polygamists,” her words could have meant anything I wanted at the time. Tread carefully, me. Get your mind out of the gutter. Maybe Stella and I were spending too much time in each other’s respective pants? The teenager’s bright, sincere smile helped purify my thoughts, though.

“We’ll stay as out of the way as we can. And thanks!”

I picked the suitcases off the floor to keep them from rattling loudly down the hallway. Inside the room, Stella was doing her best to get the little twin bed ready with some linens. On its own, the room was very bare-bones. Unlike the magical color of Maria’s office, the walls were blank and a single light hanged from the ceiling. The bed was tucked in the corner while a desk took up space against the opposite wall with a large window in the wall between them. At least the light was actually bright and nice looking instead of something out of a slummy apartment. Finally, a large clean rug was placed in the center of the room.

She had already taken the time to remove her sweater, which was left in a heap in the corner, so I put our stuff next to it so we wouldn’t forget later.

“Here, let me help,” I said as I grabbed at the sheet corners she couldn’t reach.

“Thanks.”

Together we stretched the sheet across and lifted up the mattress to tuck them in. “It almost feels like we’re remaking our bunk bed.”

“A little.” With a laugh, Stella hopped upon the head of the bed and let herself fall onto the mattress in a plume of dust. She smiled at the ceiling. “This is nostalgic, though. It smells the same. The old cracks and patterns in the ceiling are the same.” A glance at me. “My roommate’s different, though.”

I crouched by bed and rested my head on my arms atop the sheets. “Who was your roommate back then, anyway?”

A pause, but she never looked away from the ceiling. “Natalia. We were the same age and could both fly, so I guess Sister thought it would be a good idea to put us together. At least Natalia had actual arms.”

Standing up, I went to get my toothbrush from our luggage. “Is this that Dragon you were talking about earlier?”

Stella got up from the bed, too. Probably saw what I was doing. “Yeah, that was her.” She remained silent as we made our way to the bathroom at the end of the hall, just before the kitchen. The silence reminded me of what she told me of this Natalia girl. I decided not to ask anything more about her as we brushed our teeth in the quaint little bathroom. It had an old-fashioned standing tub with a row of colorful rubber ducks and plastic battleships. Who knew little girls liked to play naval warfare in the bath, too? I sure did when I was seven years old. Good times.

Other than the tub, the bathroom had a single rectangular mirror above an old ceramic sink. The room also held diapers and powder and other supplies, though I didn’t see very many toddlers besides Jessie around the place. They must have already been in bed by the time we showed up.

We brushed side by side for a few minutes before I took my turn to spit. Stella was having a bit of trouble.

“You want help?” I asked.

“Uh-uh.” She furrowed her brow and used both of her wing claws to grab her toothbrush, prying her mouth open with the plastic tool. Luckily, I succeeded in not laughing at her as she tilted her head with the brush to get a better angle. A thin strand of drool slipped out from the corner of her mouth. Letting out a yelp, she leaned over the sink to let it drop into the sink. As she moved, the toothbrush got bumped out of her claws and clattered into the sink.

“Ah, no! Pteh.”

Time to be annoying, using the exact same tone and inflection. “You want help?” Nailed it.

She spit down into the drain and craned her head back, giving a hard sigh toward the ceiling. “Fine.”

I washed the brush off and reapplied some toothpaste to it. Though she opened her mouth for me, she crossed her wings in front of her and leaned against the rim of the sink. As I went to work, I did as I always did and took her chin gently with my thumb and index finger to help tilt her head where we needed. Stella already got most of her mouth, though, so I didn’t have as much work to do.

“Did you have to do this when you lived here?”

She shrugged. “Uh-huh.”

“I don’t know what must have sucked more, trying to learn how to do it yourself or the fact you couldn’t do it on your own. Okay, done.”

After going “pteh” into the sink, she lazily hobbled toward the door.

I followed her into the hall. “You okay?”

A big yawn, covered by a big wing. I couldn’t help but think of how unnecessarily large her wings were for the job. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just sleepy.”

As we stepped back into the room and shut the door behind us, I put a hand on her shoulder. “Hey.”

“Hm?”

As she turned her head, I leaned down and kissed her, making her jump a little. “Breath check.” Then I walked to the bed to get my sheets and comforters ready.

“D-d-don’t do that while we’re here! And don’t copy me!”

“What, are breath checks your thing?” With a flourish I draped a sheet across the rug in the middle of the room.

“That’s right.” Facetious.

“That’s a shame, I thought it was our thing.” Next came the comforter.

“No. Come up with your own thing. I only do the breath thing with you, so think of something you only do with me.”

Did I have something like that? “Alright, I’ll think of something.” And finally came the pillow.

Hobbling closer to me, she asked, “By the way, what’re you doing?”

“Sleeping on the floor.”

Her head tilted. “Why?”

“Have you seen the size of that bed?” I grabbed the extra sheets and blankets a while ago and she was only just then asking about them?

“Yeah, so?”

I sighed. “I guess it’s harder for you to tell because you’re tiny, but both of us won’t be able to sleep in that.”

“I’m not that tiny.”

Standing up from my work on my ruffled little floor bed, I approached her. “Watch this.” I lifted one hand and placed it on her head and kept it at the same level as I drew it toward my chest. “You are exactly this tall. You barely reach my heart.” To be fair, I was relatively tall, but she was a little bird woman. “Also this.” In one move I crouched down, wrapped my arms around her stomach, and lifted her off the floor. With proper lifting etiquette, it was easy.

“Whoa, hey!”

“And you weigh exactly this much. You don’t take up much space compared to me.” I put her down, careful not to bump her injured talon against anything. “Get it?”

She gave me a look of strained contemplation. “I still don’t get it.”

I sighed.

“Hey, don’t give me that.”

“Sorry. I just thought we’d be uncomfortable if we shared such a tiny tiny bed.”

Stella rolled her eyes and shrugged. “I could just cuddle up on top of you. It’s not hard— we do it all the time.”

Huh. True. “What about your leg?”

“You let me worry about my leg.” With her crutch she lifted the bottommost sheet I set up on the floor and flipped it over into a pile. “Meanwhile…” She hooked my arm and yanked me over to the bed. “You worry about getting comfy for me. The doctor prescribed me rest and relaxation, you know.”

Indeed she did. With a smile and a shake of my head, I slumped onto the mattress and settled in as she turned off the ceiling light. Shut into complete darkness, it became difficult to situate ourselves. She set her crutch down on the floor and climbed on top of me, being careful not to scratch my undershirt or the sheets with her sharp bits. In a mess of skin, undergarments, and feathers, we somehow got into a comfortable position with her lying down slightly to my side. She rested her head against my chest and wrapped her wings loosely around my head.

A sigh escaped Stella and she soon came to a halt, replacing her usually quick and deliberate movements with steady tired breaths. The minty fresh exhalations warmed my neck as she unconsciously shifted herself on top of me, straddling one of my legs with hers. About as comfortable as I could get, I laced my hands together at the base of her back. Just above her tail feathers. My only worry was how I would be able to fall asleep with her, essentially, lying down with a thigh on my crotch.

* * *

Woken up by the alarm on my phone, we both got up and dressed, managing not to wake up any of the kids. Fresh sunlight shot pillars of yellow across the cool floor of the dining room. It was only about 8 AM, but some of the kids were already up, helping Maria get breakfast ready. Jessie was saddled up in a high chair, plastic tray and all. She smiled, snarled, and scratched at me when I walked by. Rambunctious little thing.

I was still a bit groggy, but Stella hobbled right on into the kitchen where she got a nice big hug from Maria. Besides them, two or three of the older girls dashed around the kitchen. They gathered various bowls, spoons, plates, and place mats. Most of the place mats were those old plastic things; sturdy and scratched up and colorful. They were just right for a bunch of tiny little beings of destruction.

“Need any help?” I called into the kitchen.

Almost immediately, Maria fluttered in front of me and shoved a stack of bowls into my arms. “Put these on the table, will you?” With that, she fluttered off and grabbed some boxes of cereal from a cupboard. She was all business during breakfast, which was going to be cereal by the looks of it. The leaning tower of plastic bowls in hand, I started distributing them across the table. Once my ten or so bowls were set, I went back and was unceremoniously given six or seven more by a blur of a werewolf. I just hoped it would be a cereal I liked, though I doubted the kids would enjoy stuff like Raisin Bran.

When I turned back toward the table there were more and more children running around. Cleo was down the hall herding them toward the dining room, looking quite distraught as a gray-haired werecat yanked her hair on the way by. When the little cat saw Maria fluttering around getting the table ready with me, she stood up stock straight and dutifully pounced into her chair. The pair of centaur sisters I saw a glimpse of the night before trotted past Cleo with a certain clumsy grace. The poor lamia seemed so done with the rest of these kids. Although, some of them were latched onto her and covering the length of her in little blankets. Were they trying to keep her warm?

The frantic pitter patter of tiny feet and hooves and paws soon diminished as they each filed into one chair or another. Stella managed to get a nice stool. I only got a little wood chair that probably couldn’t hold my weight for too long. Cereal was poured (Cheerios), milk was passed around, and Maria said grace. No hand-holding, though. Guess that was more of a west coast thing? Or maybe a human thing? I didn’t pay attention to the prayer regardless. Still closed my eyes and everything to look mature in front of the kids.

As soon as the “Amen”s were said, the clinking of metal and plastic spoons filled the room. Some spilled, others tried to steal a spoonful from their neighbors, and the majority chatted with food in their mouths. So that’s where Stella got it; she was one of the ones talking with her mouth full. It was annoying, but the whole scene gave me the same feeling some old songs give me. A sort of pride in being senior to so many people— the younger generations who look up to you. It was as if I was classic and they were the recent top one hundred. I found it hard to describe the feeling. If I imagined an oldie song, like something from Louis Armstrong, then the scene almost brought a tear to my eye.

Crap. I think I want kids.

Eventually.

Maria, who was just a few chairs down from me and Stella at the head of the table, asked, “So, do you two have any good stories from living in Alaska?”

As I finished a bite of cereal, the younger of the two centaur sisters who sat across from me cried out, “Yeah! Yeah! It’s really cold and windy and stormy, right?”

I swallowed. Still not used to their pace, at any rate. “Hey Stella, what’s a good story we can share?”

“Hm?” She swallowed hard to clear her big mouthful of cereal. “Kuh. Well, there was that one time Nell came to visit.”

A smile came to my lips. “Oh, yeah, that’s right. The one and only time she came to see us. You were there, so you should tell it.”

Setting her spoon down next to my bowl, I glanced at the nearby kids and their attentive eyes. As the rest of the table ate their cereal, she animatedly told those paying attention a tale of heroism and folly. Of trials and tribulations. Of a pair of harpies and a small Alaskan power plant.

* * *

So Nell’s this girl, a bit younger than me and Jeff. She lives in Anchorage. Has been for a few years, I think. Works at a club downtown. There were three or four other thunderbirds there, but they were crotchety old ladies. Didn’t like me at all. Nell messes with speakers and makes sure everything’s working right. Real technical stuff. I think she wants to be a DJ.

Anyway, she came over to Unalakleet one time. Didn’t even tell me or Jeff or anything, just showed up and asked to see me and Jeff and how we work. I was still new-ish to the job, still conditioning and stuff. Luckily it was in the middle of spring. Boss put her to work with me. She’s not really athletic or anything, though, so I ended up carrying everything on the way to a power plant in a village that was close by. Really, she didn’t help at all. Just yacked at me the whole way.

Nell usually wore raunchy leather and earrings that should just freeze her ears in that weather. She’s even shorter than me, but she had these huuuuge wings! I guess she had a good charge or something. Kept her hair in a ponytail and had little tattoos behind her ears. A plus sign on one side and a minus sign on the other. Because batteries. At least she didn’t wear a skirt, and at least she had her own goggles. I didn’t have any extras, so she was on her own there. For her trip to see us she at least wore pants and didn’t show her stomach. Still skin-tight, though.

When we were almost to the power plant she asked me, “So you do this all the time?” It was cold and I didn’t want to talk and the wind was blowing and man was she annoying to fly with sometimes.

I said, “Yeah. Five hours a day, six days a week. Moving up to six hours this winter.”

“I didn’t see much in your village.” She already wanted to talk about something else! “What do you even do for fun?”

“Snow sports, mostly. Sledding, snowball fights, singing with the choir at the school, more sledding. There’s a gym, too.” Then I felt a bit sad when I realized I couldn’t ski or snowboard. I blame her.

She nudged me in the back with one of her talons. Kids, never bump someone who’s flying, it’s dangerous. “Jeez, you’re still just exercising and stuff?”

“I sort of exercise for a living, so I have to keep up. Now shut up, we’re here. Gotta act all professional and junk.” I swooped down and landed outside a sort of box-looking building that had one door and one window and a few antennae on the roof.

Outside the power plant, she hung out in a tree while I went inside to deliver the stuff. Fuses and junk. I was supposed to give them to an engineer guy, but didn’t see anybody in the building. There wasn’t much room inside. Most of it was a big wall of metal and little doors with lightning symbols on them. They said it was urgent, so I came to the plant first instead of other places that were on the way. I was dumb and didn’t listen to the reasons why it was important, though.

Then, bam! Nell yelled from outside, “Stella!”

I left the delivery boxes inside, grabbed my bag and went outside. Nell was hovering above the power plant. “What, you bored?”

She looked real scared, shaking her head like it would fall off. “I was flying around, and there’s a snow mobile thing stuck a few miles that way!”

Thanks to that, I finally remembered that the engineer, who was supposed to fix the fuses or whatever in the power plant, lived in the other village next door. He took a snow mobile to fix stuff. Not a lot of local engineers who can work on the plant, I think. We didn’t have to say anything before we went and followed the usual snow mobile road to get the guy. It was more than just a few miles, though. I think Nell has super vision or something, because I could barely see the guy. Luckily, it wasn’t snowing or anything that day. Clearest blue sky I ever saw.

So we eventually got to the guy. It was a lot easier to fly without the stuff weighing me down, so I got there before Nell. The guy was all slumped up against the side of his snow mobile, tools spilled everywhere and a broken wheel tread thing. I think it fell on his leg when he caught an edge on the ice or something. There was a bunch of uneven snow for, like, twenty feet where he tumbled around. There was a big bend in his leg, too. Didn’t matter how it happened, though, he was stuck out in the cold with a broken leg! And knocked out! Probably getting frost bite!

I tried to radio our contact in the village to tell them what happened, but nobody was answering. I was dumb and didn’t listen to why the power plant was urgent. Turns out their power was out. Like, all the way out. So no radio in the village unless they had one hooked up to a battery or something. Someone probably had to tell the engineer over the phone, but I didn’t have one with me. Just my radio. So I called Unalakleet and asked them to call the hospital and the village and tell them about the engineer. No answer. I was dumb and forgot that my radio was short-ish range.

Nell got all panicky, almost pulling her hair out. “What do we do what do we do what do we do?”

I was used to hearing ‘bout people getting stuck in the snow sometimes, but never had to help a guy with a hurt leg. But Jeff always went over first aid and stuff like that with me. Said it would come in handy. I actually had to get CPR certified like everyone else in the airline. So I looked around for a long wrench or something and tried to remember how do make a splint.

I asked Nell. “You have anything to tie this with?”

“What? For what? What’re you doing? Ah! Don’t touch his leg! It’s all— ah!” She’s squeamish.

So I was like, “Hey! We need to help this guy, so help me help this guy!”

Nell finally knelt down in the snow and held the engineer’s leg still while I used a cord from his emptied toolbox to tie the wrench to his leg. Then I took off his thick top jacket and wrapped it around both his legs. It was hard to tie everything, especially the sleeves of his jacket. Because, you know, talons. We didn’t have the whole body-sled thing that the doctors used, so we had to carry him back by flying him. Nell held onto one of his arms and I got the other. Even together, though, it took us a good while to get him all the way to the power plant. The village was still a ways off.

When we got back we sit him up against the wall in the power plant, since it was a bit warmer inside. Nell was still jumpy and panicky.

“When will the ambulance get here?”

I gave her a look. It wasn’t the time to be dumb. “We’re in Alaska, Nell. We have helicopters and planes, not ambulances.” I felt the engineer’s hand to my forehead. He was getting really cold and stiff. “I need you to warm him up with something.”

“With something what?”

“I don’t know, can you give him nice little shock or something?”

“Stella, for the last time, electricity doesn’t work like that!” She was starting to talk really fast, too. And she was always sore about what I said. I still think it’s funny.

I did my best to wrap my scarf around his neck and tucked his hands in his sleeves. “Well I don’t know how we can keep him warm, then. Find something in the utility closet!”

Before Nell could talk back, the engineer started to move again. He was getting shivers all over, holding his arms around his stomach and trying to figure out where he was and why his leg hurt so much. He was swearing up and down until I told him to calm the heck down. Scared the crap out of Nell when he woke up, too. His name was Eddie, and he didn’t remember anything that happened after he crashed his snow mobile.

“Hey, hey. Anything we can do?” I asked.

He was still breathing pretty hard. “Did you call the hospital at least?”

“Oh yeah, we tried that a while ago. But I don’t have a phone, and my radio’s too short range to call Unalakleet.” It was looking a bit grim, actually. A bit too grim to tell the story to you kids.

“What about the fuses?” He asked.

I pointed at the boxes in the corner of the room. “Right over there. But you gotta rest, buddy.”

Eddie did his best to sit up, but his leg hurt too much. “The village has been out of power for two days already. If they don’t get it back up soon, they won’t be able to sustain themselves for much longer.” He listed off a bunch of things that needed to get back up and running, like cooking appliances and heaters and lights and stuff. So yeah. It was actually really, really important that he fixed the fuses and whatever else was broken.

It took a couple seconds, but Nell suddenly said, “Just tell me what to do. I can probably do it.”

Eddie and I were like, “Whoa, she means business.” She was usually snippy at me, and was scared out of her mind earlier, but she looked at him with this look. This look that told us, “I got this.”

I can’t even explain how the rest went. Nell opened up the fuse box and pried out the bad ones. Or whatever ones had something wrong with them. Eddie pointed at some weird doodad in the fuse box, called it something I didn’t understand, and Nell did something to it. I think I heard a big old “ZAP” sound at some point, but she didn’t even flinch. Eddie was scared she hurt herself, but she just moved on to the next fuse or whatever.

I asked, “Whoa, where’s all this coming from?”

“Shh! I can’t concentrate with you talking!” Rude, right? “The fuse box at the club is crap, so I have to fix it all the time. And unlike you, I actually went to school!”

I took offense to that. We yelled bad words at each other until Eddie told us to shut up. Don’t use bad words, kids, it’s rude.

Anyway, Nell worked as a tech for stage shows and everything, I knew that, but I had no idea she was basically an electrician. Nell crossed wires, inserted fuses, and a bunch of other downright magical stuff until Eddie told her to push the big lever up into the “On” position. And just like that, bam! Or whoooosh, whatever. The power plant started working again!

* * *

She truly had such a way with words. Breakfast had long since finished by the time Stella’s story was over. Around half a dozen kids surrounded her, teetering on their chairs in awe at the tale. Maria, Cleo, and I were stuck with cleaning the bowls and place mats in the kitchen. Still, I kept an eye on her through the door to the dining room.

“What happened to Eddie?” The younger centaur called out, hand raised as if she were in class.

Stella chuckled confidently. “Nell fixed the power plant and all, but she was really out of shape. She was still tired from the first time we carried Eddie to the power plant, so I had to carry him to the village on my own after we radioed them about the situation.” The kids around her whispered among themselves giddily. Meanwhile, Stella leaned back in her chair with her nose to the sky and a proud pompous smile on her face.

“I remember you being really sore and tired for the next week, though!” I called into the dining room. She told me to be quiet.

Strangely, the moth girl in the group stepped forward. She wore a bulky blue jacket with equally bulky snow pants. Probably planned to go outside and play in the snow. However, she ended up staying for the whole story.

Staring wide-eyed at Stella’s talon cast, she asked, “But what happened to your leg?”

Stella’s smile faded as she looked down at the little moth girl. “Huh?”

“You said Eddie was hurt? When did you get hurt?”

It took her a moment to process that. “Oh. Oh! No, that story was from months ago, back in May. I hurt my leg just a few… days ago.” Setting her chair back down in proper standing position, Stella brought the knee of her injured talon to her chest and wrapper her wings around it. It was as if she was trying to keep it safe.

“Hey Stella!” I yelled, startling both Maria and Cleo with the break in the silence.

She perked up. “What’s up?”

“Where do you think we can get a good hotel to stay in? I was thinking one close to, I don’t know, Central Park?”

Kicking the chair behind her with her backside, she hopped over to the kitchen doorway and planted her wing claws onto the door frame beside her. “Yes.”

Excellent timing to cheer her up, me. “We can start looking for a place today, then.”

She skipped into the kitchen and hooked her wings around my middle and popped a talon into the air behind her. The impact nearly made me drop the plate I was washing. At least it was made of plastic.

“Thanks! You’re the best person today and it’s great.” I felt her nuzzle against my back for a second before she broke away and pranced back to the dining room and beyond with some of the kids trailing behind her. To be honest, I couldn’t tell if she was acting normal or not. She was always excitable, but not nearly to the degree she was displaying. Especially not after looking so suddenly depressed at the mere mention of her hurt talon.

“You mean I wasn’t the best person yesterday?” I yelled.

“Shut up!” With that, she was gone. Only the vague echoes of her voice were left.

To think I thought of asking her to get ready to go right away. Once I saw her with the kids around I felt like there was nothing in the world that could tear her away from them. Play time is serious business, and boy did it look like she needed some.

“Speaking of which,” I said in Maria’s direction, “Sister?”

She was drying the dishes at the end of our washing line of three. “Yes?” Of course, she was using sparkles to levitate all the dishes and whooshed the water off with a wave of her hand. Cheater.

“Do you mind if we leave our things here while we look around today? It’d be hard for us to lug them around until we find someplace.”

Maria floated a plate into the cupboard. “That’s okay. I do have to ask you a favor, though.”

Uh oh. “What is it?”

“If I give you a bit of money, would you mind picking up some things from the thrift store on the corner before you go out looking?”

If it meant we could otherwise call the previous night free, I was up for whatever. “Yeah, I can do that. Do you have a, uh, list or something?”

She reached behind her head and yanked out a folded piece of paper. It was in her habit the whole time. I didn’t ask her why, seeing as it didn’t look like her robes had pockets. Might as well put it in your hat, right? At least it wasn’t a particularly extensive list, just some child-sized sweaters, mittens, winter hats, and two pairs of adult-size leather boots.

“So… why the boots?”

Maria shrugged. “Jessie’s still teething, Jeffry.”

“Why not use something cheaper? Like, one of those dental chewing things?”

“Well, your Alaska boots are just about the only thing I’ve seen survive her. If she doesn’t have something good to chew on, she goes after the furniture. And boots are cheaper than furniture.”

As if on cue, a small lump of fur nudged up against my leg. All I saw was a blur of orange as my left foot was attacked from behind by little claws and chomping teeth.

Sighing, Maria “picked her up” and said, “Until you get back, Stella, Cleo, and I can keep her busy.”

I checked my footwear for any damage. Still just a few scratches on the hard surface layer of leather. “Got it.”

She looked at the jinko in front of her and scratched her behind the ears. “Want to read a story, Jessie?” The child let out a happy yowl in place of an answer. I made sure to give her some scratches before I went to get ready. She definitely had the fluffiest paws.

I just needed to grab my wallet and phone from the room and put on a sweater before heading for the front door. Stepping around a wrestling ball of fur involving a werecat and werewolf, under a fluttered moth, and in between a small group of chattering mice, I found Stella about to hunker down on one of the bean bags in the corner.

“Hey,” I said, motioning for her to come over.

She tentatively hopped up to me and smiled big. “What’s up? Sister’s about to start story time, and I’ll be helping.”

I didn’t know how she planned to help read a children’s book, but I did know that the smile on her lips was strained. It held behind it something that I probably didn’t want to delve into. The thing is, the act almost kept me from telling her that I noticed.

I put a hand behind her head and gently pulled her to my chest. “You okay?” I whispered.

“Uh.” Though initially surprised at the little hug, she soon eased into me. Probably listening to my heart beating against her ear. “Yeah, I’ll… just give me a bit.” We rocked back and forth where we stood. Some of the kids stared.

“Alright. As long as you need.” I rustled her hair a little, planted a kiss on her head, and pulled her close. “Love you.”

She nuzzled against my sweater, took a good long deep breath, and let out a wistful sigh. “Love you, too.”

* * *

Thanks to the power of GPS apps and other technology I never knew about (whose idea was it to connect absolutely everything to the Facebook account I made in college?), I had myself a quick walking route straight to the thrift store. It was a chilly and gray day, and the air unfortunately hadn’t improved any since the previous night. I thought science was working on that sort of thing?

The streets were absolutely bustling despite it being so soon after Christmas and so close to New Year’s. Taxis still taxied people, commuters still commuted, and busses still bussed people. I’m probably not using one of those words correctly. Regardless, it made very street crossing a chore. The last time I walked around a densely packed city sort of area and had to wait for a light at the crosswalk, I was probably still in school. Every turn was filled with sights, but every street crossing was filled instead with frustration and impatience.

But the traffic lights and crowds weren’t what struck me the most as I walked the streets.

On the front window of every tall or important-looking building was a sign, similar to a parking sign. It read in big red letters:

            CAUTION
    NO FLYING WITHIN 100 FEET
  VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED

Another sign, similar in style and size to the last one, was posted at the mouth of an alley between two apartment buildings.

            CAUTION
   NO WEBBING WITHIN 30 FEET
       MINIMUM FINE $366

Signs like them were scattered just about everywhere. There was a weight limit per individual posted just outside the entrance to the subway. A bus sputtered past me with a sign just like it. A manhole cover had “Do not enter, professionals only” chiseled into it. A revolving door had a makeshift paper posted on the window next to it asking those too large to use the back entrance. A café told prospective customers not to bring their talons and clawed feet inside uncovered, saying the floors would get scratched.

It took only two or three streets later for me to realize exactly why Stella wanted to leave the city for Alaska.

Considering the number of signs I saw, it was almost fitting that the one lone clerk at the thrift store was an arachne. She wore an old-looking knit sweater under what looked like a fishnet vest, and had her hair blown to one side in a pixie cut. Her eyes were shaded a dark blue with makeup with a similar shade on her lips. Looking none too pleased to be there, she rolled a lit cigarette between her lips. The little wave she gave me was one spurred on only by her duty to bring about customer satisfaction. From among the thick rows of clothes racks, I managed to wade my way through them past the untouched summer section and a series of book bags until I found the children’s section in the back.

With a fistful of small dresses and shirts and pants, plus the two pairs of leather boots, I approached the glass counter. Inside the transparent case was a series of shelves holding smaller discarded and unwanted trinkets in disheveled rows. A few plastic rings, some fake diamond necklaces, and a series of old sports watches from the 90s. I think two or three of them didn’t have dust on them.

The arachne, who actually looked a bit younger than me, silently started taking the hangers off the articles of clothing. As she did that, two of her legs reached up to the register behind her and started typing away. I ended up with a pile of clothes in front of me when I realized I didn’t have a bag.

“Do you have any plastic bags I can put these in?” I asked.

She glanced up for a second before going back to dismembering the hangers. “Nope. We ran out a few days ago. Nobody’s gotten new ones.”

Well crap. I looked around the store. There was a trash can in the corner with a trash bag inside, but I didn’t want to bring it all back in one of those. Behind the counter, the little rack where you put the stack of plastic bags was indeed empty.

“I’ll be right back,” I said. She responded by staring at me and taking a drag of her cigarette.

Seeing no alternative, I sidled between some densely packed racks of clothes and took a look at some of the messenger bags hanging on the back wall. Most were made out of cheap material and may as well have been shirts without a head hole for how sturdy they looked. There was even a denim one made out of an old pair of jeans. It ended up in a thrift shop, so it either didn’t work out or made it for the sole purpose of selling it. That actually doesn’t sound like a bad investment if you don’t like your jeans anymore.

I grabbed the sturdiest-looking one I saw; a slightly frayed brown messenger bag with one long adjustable strap and four or five side pockets held closed with Velcro. It had a nice wide bell shape to it and was fairly light as well. Not bad for the ten dollar price tag. Adding the bag to the pile at the counter (or rather, adding the pile to the bag), I paid the unthankful clerk the whole $37. I think I saw a Starbucks cup on the counter behind her as I left. Couldn’t decide if she was crafty or just a caffeine-holic.

With the bag slung over my shoulder, stuffed full of clothes, I whipped out my phone. If the magical device could divine the locations of thrift stores, then it could probably show me the way to a cheap hotel, right? Wouldn’t want to bother Stella with the little details of our trip while she’s catching up with friends. Not to mention searching through a city that barely allows any sort of monstrous freedom might dampen her mood. I could pick a hotel, grab a room, and ride the bus back to the orphanage before lunchtime. Probably should have asked Maria if she had anything for making grilled cheese sandwiches, because I still hadn’t gotten my fix.

It took some fiddling at a bus stop, but sure enough I found the proper search function on my phone. Several prices popped up on a map across my screen. I flipped my finger across it until I found Central Park and punched the address into my GPS. Apparently I just entered the west side of Queens, and the park was just a half-hour bus ride away. Seriously, why didn’t I ever know about such incredible techno-magic? It even told me which bus was coming next and how much it cost!

As I gazed upon the glorious rectangular piece of technology in my hands, that very bus came to a screeching stop in front of me. Startled out of my stupor, I stepped up into the vast machine. One of those weight restriction signs was plastered on the steps. I chose to ignore it and paid the fare. There was more people on the bus as I expected; two or three people had to stand up in the aisle. Most passengers were human, with a few non-humans mixed in. I spotted a pair of elven ears and a fluffy paw holding a rail. It made me wonder if they were the only ones capable of riding the bus without a fuss like humans could.

The bus shuddered forward with a roar before I could grab a rail or handle. Thankfully I was quick enough to grab a vertical bar before falling over onto a businessman’s lap. Any later and I’d be up to my ears in another guy’s pants. And I don’t like that kind of thing. At least the ride was smooth when we didn’t stop for anybody. Which was every stop.

As some people got off, several seats opened up. I did my best to offer them to people who were riding before me, but constant insistence on their part let me sit down. Weren’t New Yorkers supposed to be mean or something? Huh. The more you know. The aforementioned elf woman was in the seat behind me, giving me a little wave, which I returned. I even got the window seat, letting me look out at all the buildings we passed. None of the structures weren’t tall and imposing, and many of them were of varying styles and architectures. My neck started hurting with how much I turned to look up at them all. Compared to where I grew up, New York was larger than life.

“Is this seat taken?” a feminine voice called above the rumble of the bus.

“Yeah, sure!” I said without turning to see what my new bus neighbor looked like. Light vibrations went through our pair of seats as she gingerly placed herself next to me.

As another bus whizzed by, the woman said, “Beautiful city, isn’t it?”

“Uh huh,” I mumbled. Too busy checking out the pillars on the walls of a building across the street.

She chuckled. “You must be new here if you’re looking so hard at everything.”

“I am, actually. It’s my second day here.” Might as well greet the person willing to make small talk with me on the bus. Turning to look at my new friend, I noticed that much of the bus was empty. Save for a few of the aforementioned women of exceptional species, the rest of the humans were absent. A weight dropped in my gut when I finally looked at the woman next to me.

The woman certainly looked professional, with her voluptuous body cast in a gray business suit, complete with pants and a deep crimson neck tie. Her dark hair was similarly tied together neatly in a bun. The buttons of her blouse looked like they could barely contain her chest. With dainty fingers she adjusted a pair of oval glasses perched on her nose. She sported a small mole below her full red lips. The sides of her head sported two horns that curved forward to sharp points just behind her eyes.

And those eyes? They were red.

“Well,” she said, “I hope you enjoy your stay.” Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed her devilish tail move to lie across her lap.

Nothing could have prepare me for the rest of that day.

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