My feet make too much noise on the dirt. The pine needles that shed for the winter are strewn across the rough ground, protecting my bare feet from stones and other shrapnel left behind. My wings trail across the ground, overturning leaves as I go. My back strains with the effort of keeping them even somewhat aloft.
I peer up at the sky when the trees break overhead. Pink and blue streaks are smeared against the black, but Bird has yet to arrive.
When I check that the cabin is as uninhabited as usual, I pick up the pace and jog up the slight incline. The woods are dark and eerily quiet nearby, but it’s too early still for birdsong this deep into the mountains. I can hardly see my feet as I reach the broken wooden steps of the quaint house.
I reach out for the slanted posts that once held the porch straight. I avoid the door and instead lean in towards the nearest window. The place seems even more ghostly than normal.
Satisfied, I find the knob and silently slip inside.
The house is dark and musty, but much warmer than outside. Blood instantly rushes to my toes and fingers, and my wings flutter away the last of the cold. They find their place at my back, tucked and folded neatly, but the tips still brush the dank floor.
I feel my way sightlessly toward the stone fireplace. Bird suggested I leave some wood, and I’m thankful for this. I don’t have any desire to go searching now. I find the dry, brittle pile of tinder and, beside it, the three hefty logs I’d somehow managed to roll up to the house. The lighter is propped against the logs.
I shovel a bit of tinder into the fireplace, into the center of the ash bowl I prepared last time, and nose the lighter in underneath. At first, it doesn’t light. I click it several times before a faint glow casts strange shadows against the brick of the fireplace. The lowermost bits of tinder catch, and I lean in to blow on them gently.
Bird always said that starting a fire is man’s greatest invention. That it stands as tribute to man’s great patience. I can imagine that without the lighter, I would have long ago given up the idea of a fire. Within minutes, a fragile little flame dances at the heart of the kindling. When I can feel the heat on my face, I carry the largest log in and carefully set it on top.
I wait, perched on the mantle with my knees drawn up, until the flames have chewed their way up the sides of the log. Once the feeling has settled back into my appendages, I get to my feet and look around to survey any damage left by passing animals. I’d covered all the windows months ago with old sheets my mother never used, but still they find their way in every so often.
The plush armchair seems intact in its place a few feet from the fireplace. I run my hand along the back of it and lean over to peer down the hall and into the kitchen. The food I had stored and tied up in sheets along the ceiling also seem as though they held up. I’d doubted any bears would visit, anyhow.
The stack of books I’d left still stands next to the chair. I crouch and flip through them, gathering them up into one hand as I reread the titles I’d scanned a hundred times. Pride and Prejudice, The Count of Monte Cristo, Robert Frost’s Poetry. There are a dozen more, but these are my favorite. I pick up the book of poetry, drop the rest into an untidy pile, and maneuver my way onto the armchair with my wings fanned over one arm. I find a bottle of water near the books and down half of it as I wait.
Getting much faster.
I glance up. Bird comes skipping down the hallway, his sharp talons leaving little marks along the wood floor. I set my book aside and sit forward.
“I didn’t go any faster than last time.” I shrug. “I think you’re getting old.”
He clicks his beak.
He hops onto the fireplace and shakes his head. In the light of the fire, his onyx feathers gleam with a purple tinge. His eye finds me.
When to be home?
I take a deep breath and sit back again. “It’s a Sunday. So, never. My mom is probably okay with me being gone. She’s having a party today.”
“Yeah. Lots of people.” I swallow and pick at my nails. “So I’m yours all day long.”
He blinks and tilts his head this way and that.
I shrug again. “I thought it would be worse. When I was flying, it hurt pretty bad to go that fast. Now I can barely tell.”
I bite at my lip. “Probably. I’ll eat something and drink some water and then we can go outside once the sun comes up and you can teach me how to fly fast comfortably.”
He snickers. It’s a strange sound in my head.
Teach you to take off.
I shake my head. “That was an accident. I haven’t done that in at least a month.”
Still happened. Remember heart.
“I will. I’ll show you, I can take off really well. I don’t need to practice.” Knowing him, that would take all of our time, and I want to spend it more productively.
Hm. Tell me about vet.
The blood drains from my face slightly. “Dr. Tyler?” He clicks his assent. “She came over yesterday.”
“My mom told her I needed a trimming. She wants to limit how much I’m flying. She thinks the more time I practice, the more I admit how strange I am.”
Hard to ignore.
I level him with a gaze. He clicks his beak several times, obviously pleased with himself.
“Dr. Tyler spent a few hours up in my room. Took a couple inches off the top.” I bring my right wing around to brandish the joint. A few feathers are missing, but the damage is nearly unnoticeable. “Mostly to show my mom. But we just spent time together, like usual.”
Hm. No science?
This was what I’d been afraid of. “No. She hasn’t talked about that since.”
Will come up again.
“She didn’t mean anything by it. She would never do anything without my consent. She would even risk pissing my mom off before jeopardizing my trust.”
He clicks a few more times, and for a moment I think he’s about to answer. But a sudden hush falls over the cabin, dampening even the warmth of the fire. I freeze, glancing around without moving. The morning has begun spilling into the rooms, but only barely. Bird turns in a little circle, gazing around the room.
There is a sudden crackling outside. It is so abrupt and so loud that my body jerks slightly. I am on my feet within the space of a heartbeat, my wings unfurling just a bit in a flight response.
There is another noise outside now. Like footsteps. My chest cavity freezes over. I turn to look at Bird, and I can sense his fear in the hair along the back of my neck.
And then, too late, the doorknob is turning. Before I can put out the fire, run, or even duck for cover, the door has opened just a crack and a voice shouts far too loudly.
I can’t catch my breath.
A large figure steps inside, waving at the lines of dust in the air.