By Paul Alex Gray
The engine growls as the bus jolts up the winding road. The passengers have slid open windows letting in a breeze tinged with smoke and the splintered scents of the city below.
The man who now calls himself Mark sits by his son. Ryan stares at his phone, swiping through stories with barely a blink. He doesn’t see the road falling behind them, an asphalt snake twisting through parched scrub and grass.
Mark’s wings itch, buried within his back. He can feel the long peak feathers scratching at his insides, slick and hot, longing to be let out. He imagines the air outside, thin and free. The feeling sets his heart racing and he has to quell the desire to unfurl right there in his seat.
The bus driver has the radio playing. The voices jump and crack across the seats, bouncing through minds. Angry voices filled with venom. Strongmen shouting and rallying the common man, calling for those of other skins to return to where they came. Remarks spat with abandon, harsh and hateful, calling down those that fly.
Mark looks around cautiously, trying not to catch the eyes of those around them.
The bus rounds a sharp turn, heaving and moving upwards. The city is now visible out below, a dried out void half-hidden in smog. Mark is still amazed at its sheer size. The immenseness of it all. So many people, packed together.
It’s not like the places Mark remembers. Places where the hills were coated thick with vegetation. Mist shrouded trees with leaves a span wide. Brilliant flowers of every color and hanging vines that hid peering eyes and the cries of birds. Lands lost to him now.
Mark turns back to Ryan who is now staring out the window. His shoulders are turned in, hunched up. They should be broad, held high. There hasn’t been enough time. Too many days lost. Wings need strong shoulders or they’ll harden up and become brittle.
The bus slows, the gears crunching as it hauls its way up the final slope. It waits at an intersection, engine rumbling. A truck thunders by, trailing debris in its wake. They move off after it, the scent of pine slowly rising.
“Dad,” says Ryan. “We’re here.”
Mark stands suddenly, pulling on the cable. The bell rings and the bus heaves and pulls to a stop, spraying dust and grumbles. As they step off onto the dirt road a scowling man and a woman with hair more blue than silver mutter something under their breath. Mark tries to rid his mind of the remark.
What do they even come here for?
He wills the heat in his chest to subside as he steps out into the dusty air. They wait until the bus disappears before walking into the shrubs lining the road. His heart is pounding, the strong bones hidden in his back tearing and pulling red marks across his skin.
They move in silence as the daylight fades and the trees begin to rise up. There is a taste of moisture here. A whisper of ocean and cloud and the remnants of rain. The wildness grows around them. Few signs exist of anyone else having been here. No scattered beer bottles or cigarette butts.
"You know I was about your age when I leaped,” says Mark.
He’s surprised how breathless he is. His body is coated with sweat. He takes a drink of water and motions for Ryan to do the same.
“It’s a bigger deal there. Right?” asks his son.
Mark takes a swig of water. It tastes bitter and he washes and spits some out.
“It’s a big deal anywhere,” he replies.
Ryan gives him a blank expression in response before turning out to face the woods around them. It is silent but for the weakest of winds. They wait for a few moments in silence.
"Did you go at the same time?" says Ryan eventually.
Mark feels a tremor in his shoulders. There’s a memory of plummeting that he’ll never shake. That first leap. A mountain lush with green and fragrant with hope. His father and his sister beside him. The whisper of a new day slipping across the horizon.
Seeing his sister soar before him. Laughter all around as they chased each other. A peal of happiness he had long left behind.
"She went ahead of me," he says quietly. "Come on, we should go."
The trees are thicker here. Pines clutch at the rocky ground with roots like talons. Mark can feel the wind now. Its caress is a familiar beckoning. Many times he’d have willed it to rise up, stronger than a hurricane to sweep him away.
He will never tire of the wind. He is always yearning for it.
Last night he had gone to the rooftop after work while his son was out with friends. There upon the stone ledge Mark sat, feeling currents race by, basking himself in the wreckage of a distant storm. He did not fly although he desperately yearned to feel the salty wind. He couldn’t risk flight in the city. He simply stared in silence and thought of the weight within his chest and his back. His slick feathers more earthbound than swept with sky.
He imagined the future as something that is passed along.
A distant rumbling spills around and they glance up. High above the arching branches a jet glints for just a moment, thin trails cut behind it.
Mark takes off his shirt peeling the wet fabric from his skin. Dust and grease line his arms and the backs of his hands. He pauses before opening his back. The skin peels as the slits widen. His wings push out, long sinewy muscles tearing free. He unfurls them carefully, bones cracking amidst the smell of blood. Dull red feathers quiver.
Ryan’s feathers are brilliantly colored, white and gold and rose. They shimmer in the half-light. He holds his wings close, the tips curled inwards.
"Let's leave the things here,” says Mark. “Eat something small. And take a big drink."
Insects drone around them, a noise that seems to echo the warm wind. It is forceful in its presence. It calls to them. They’ve been too long on land.
Together they wander downwards, to a place where the trees break and there is nothing beyond. They stare out at the sky. It rises endlessly above a valley ripped from the earth. The sun winks from behind a scar of ribbon clouds. A handful of stars shine brightly.
"We’re late. Quickly, practice filling and emptying."
They move to the rocky cliff edge. Far below and to the right is the clearing. A simple flight, almost direct. Ryan leans out, one leg forward and arms held wide. He squints as he leans and lets the wind fill his wings.
Mark curses himself. He should have started years earlier. He shouldn’t have left it. There was a time this moment could have been branded with a smile and bright eyes and the yearning to discover something new.
"That's it. Good,” says Mark. “Don't twist too fast. If you lose it, pull them back slowly."
His feathers thrum.
"Want to watch me again? You haven’t practiced for a while."
Ryan scowls and turns back. “No Dad, I’ve got it.”
"Ok," he says placing a hand on Ryan's shoulders. They are warm and strung taut. His wings have grown. Ryan flinches and moves from his father’s touch.
The sun is fading. The heat of the valley slips away with every breath.
Ryan leans out, his wings wide open, their colors glittering against the dying light. Mark can’t help himself but reach out and he helps to adjust his son’s wings. Ryan allows his father to lift the curves ever so slightly, to help capture the wind. Mark bites his lips, conscious to limit his touch. He is fleeting, simple, respectful. He pulls his hands back and admires the arc.
There is a sudden flash of light. Mark cries and leans out, watching his son hurtle downwards.
"Wider!" He shouts.
Ryan opens his span, trembling briefly as a few feathers slip loose. Then they fill out, sparkling bright and wide as he begins to glide.
Mark leaps out, swooping down to follow close behind. His heart pounds as they spin and soar on the embers of the day.
Ahead of him he catches what he’s sure is the sound of laughter and the emptiness inside him rips and tears and he is swept back.
The gusts whip around threading through the watching woods and rising into the darkness. Heavy and simmering with words unspoken, the winds carry the night far and away, to distant lands where raindrops cling to flowers and vines.
Paul Alex Gray enjoys writing speculative fiction that cuts a jagged line to a magical real world. His work has been published in Spelk, 365 Tomorrows, Between Worlds and others. Growing up in Australia, Paul traveled the world and now lives in Canada with his wife and two children. Paul spends his days working for an artificial intelligence company that's teaching machines how to think. He spends his nights dreaming up stories. Follow him on Twitter @paulalexgray.