The sky has been blue-washed. There are a few white clouds rolling across the tips of the trees, but they are very far out of my reach right now. The trees whirl around me.
I turn slightly, lifting halfway up onto an elbow. I crane my neck forward and cough, over and over again, until finally a lungful of air is raked down my trachea. Tears are spilling down my cheeks, and I can’t stop them. I watch a few splash against the soft, damp floor I’ve landed on.
I take a deep breath and lean forward until my forehead is pressed against my forearm. I can’t help it. The bubbly, panicky feeling in my chest is beginning to overflow, and I don’t own the necessary skills to see it down safely.
I splutter and cough, sobbing into the earth. My eyes are open, and the tears turn the pine needles to a rough, muddy, wet brown. I don’t know why I’m crying. But I can’t stop.
He almost caught me. He almost had me. He saw me.
My chest tightens, and I sob harder, turning further into the ground to help let it all out. The tears are hot.
“Bird,” I mutter, and only cry harder. He’s gone. I can’t take off again. I’m lost.
I was heartbeats away from capture. I wouldn’t be able to fight back. I wouldn’t be able to even scream. I placed myself on a narrow precipice with no way to take off.
A few minutes pass in a bleary quiet that’s only interrupted by the hiccups that jarr my entire body down to the tips of my wings, sprawled out across the floor uselessly. I don’t realize that I’ve stopped crying until a few moments later, as I’m staring into a hole I’ve dug with my index finger. My eyes feel swollen and sticky, my cheeks have dried, and my breaths keep lurching. But the tears have ebbed.
I am smarter than that. I trapped myself.
His voice sends a lightning bolt through my limbs. I sit up so quickly that the blood runs through my body like sand in an hourglass.
“Bird!” I cry out, so relieved that I forget for a moment his betrayal. As he lands, I suck the word back in and look away.
I choose not to respond.
Thought to scare them.
“Well, you didn’t.” I think of Oliver’s initial startle. It wasn’t enough. “You could have stayed. You could have distracted them while I ran.”
Would you have known to run?
I open my mouth to snap, and then shut it and shake my head, glancing away again. “I’m not stupid,” I hiss through my teeth. “I ran. And I made it out on my own. I had no help from you.”
He clicks his beak, irritated.
Then why so upset?
I lock my jaw. It’s impossible to argue with him, because it’s impossible to be right. He’s always right.
I shake my head and wave a hand at him. “I was seen, Bird. I can’t even remember the last time I even associated with a human being.”
You’re human too.
I let out a long breath through my nose. “That’s what I said.”
You’re human. You were seen by human. Explain why this upsets you.
I level him with a gaze. “Humans-” I stop, biting my tongue. “Other humans don’t understand. They never have. Not even my own parents understand.” I sniff and sit up a little straighter. I brandish my wings slightly, unfurling them halfway. “Look at me. People see me and think, ‘burn at the stake.’”
I purse my lips. “You know what I mean. People aren’t just awed.”
How do you know?
“I-” I can’t answer. Instead, I cross my arms and set my jaw. I think of Oliver for a moment, and the curiosity written plainly on his face. What’s that behind your back? He wasn’t awed. And he wasn’t afraid.
Bird takes a few steps closer, until his beak nearly touches my wrist. He’s never touched me before, nor do I ever expect it. I wonder sometimes if he’s afraid that a touch would remind me that he’s a bird. I don’t know how I could forget.
Should meet more humans.
“And how do you suggest I go about that?” I start fiddling with the zipper on my jacket. I have half a mind to hide my wings, if only to feel normal for a few minutes.
He hops forward once more, and I suck in a breath at his proximity. He nearly landed on my foot. He leans forward and nibbles at the zipper, taking it from my grasp.
Wear jacket. Take a walk. Go be around others.
I furrow my brows at him. “I’m not sure I know how.”
He shakes his head.
Don’t be dramatic. Talk like you do to parents. To scientist.
I roll my eyes. Surprisingly, he doesn’t notice. “They’re different.”
They’re people, too.
I get to my feet, breaking the strange closeness. “Let’s just go home.”
He doesn’t say anything more. He watches me, head turned so that one eye can look directly at me. Then, with an odd little hissing noise, he spreads his wings and takes to the sky in one leap. He curves off through the canopy of the trees, vanishing into the cerulean backdrop.
I pause for a moment, an unfamiliar fear tickling my belly. I find myself gazing off in the direction of the cabin. I didn’t fall far from it. Maybe a few hundred feet.
My stomach ties up in a tight coil. Without another thought, I lift my wings and ascend through the trees, ignoring the strain in my shoulders.
* * *
The sun has freed itself entirely from the horizon by the time I find highway 93 again. Flying would be too dangerous now.
I find a clear place in a meadow to land, across the street from a large sports field. I quickly tuck my wings, fitting them like puzzle pieces back inside my jacket. They don’t relax for several minutes, so I have to wait in the shadows of a few trees for the bulge to settle. They can fold down surprisingly small ordinarily, but there is a dull ache now when they’re smashed against my back. I wonder how much damage I did.
Bird has long gone. I’m not sure where he goes during the day, but he won’t be back until later this evening. If I don’t wait for him on the roof, he won’t stay. I don’t know if I want to fly tonight. I’ve never doubted it before, but suddenly I want to stay indoors and maybe hide my wings.
I make my way through downtown Golden, locating a bus stop a few streets down from the college. I wait for about twenty minutes, perched on the very edge of the bench with my hood up. At this hour, only a handful of people even pass me, much less care to look at me.
I purchased a buss pass months ago, in case of this very instance. I guess I had forgotten that Bird made me plan for everything.
I board the bus, tapping the little black tile with my card. It beeps, and the older, dark-skinned woman behind the wheel nods at me, only half-interested. From underneath my hood, I locate an empty seat near the back, and hurry for it. There are a few college students sitting near the front, hardly talking. They all look bleary-eyed, as though they’ve never been awake this early before. After I’ve found my seat, I roll back my sleeve and check the time. Eight-fifteen.
It’s a two hour bus ride from here to my house. A drive would take less than thirty minutes, but the bus takes a wide path through Lakewood first, so I draw my legs up and watch as the world slowly rolls by outside the window.
I change buses once, and halfway through the second trip my head is nodding toward the window pane. I stretch my knees out, and fold them again. My wings start to press against the seat, as though claustrophobic, and I have to take several breaths to let them relax again. I lean my head again, and my eyes drift shut.