You saw me after the mutation.
When I tore myself open, stepped up to the edge of my demise, and goaded it to come kill me.
Then Lunar seized that treacherous notion by the scruff of its neck, said, ‘Fuck you’, and hauled me back.
We used to be human.
Just normal twenty-two-year olds alive in 2294, going to the requisite final year of school in a world that was divided into two halves: ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Them’, of course, being the United Other Countries, and ‘us’ being the once-so-vaunted Americas, now united under the governing hand of the Coalition.
The two halves of the world were at war, although it didn’t affect us, did it?
You and I were just students, chatting from class to class, our generation more innocent than any before us because we were the first ones to grow up under the umbrella ‘protections’ of the wristbands.
Dubbed the Virgin Generation, we were a bunch of awkward celibates whose wristbands popped us with shocks if we so much as kissed without being registered. But we couldn’t register until we turned twenty-two, and even after that we’d have to wait a month to screw, after which they only permitted us one ‘happy act’ per week. All because – purportedly – too much heavy breathing would suck up the oxygen that OxyGene’s precious generators were producing.
The wristbands kept us in line. If you had sex, you got caged. Punch someone else and you got shocked. Rape someone and the wristband trackers would hunt you down. Kill someone and you’d end up in No Man’s Land.
Everything was monitored. No violence allowed. No crime. We were safe.
All I had to worry about was school. My diligent figure hunched over a lab table. Prof waxing eloquent over new formulas, his poufy hair all agog.
And Lunar Davith Adurian.
The scarred, smirky guy I fantasized about.
He was always near me. Often nearer. Pausing in a space of heat behind me. His breath by my hair. The murmur of nearby classmates not paying attention.
Sometimes he’d linger so long my fingers would tremble on the beaker before me, the flames of the Bunsen burner shearing too close to my skin.
Then he’d shift, on the verge of something, and I’d duck my head and whirl away, my hair a copper fall of cowardice shielding me from him and the world.
I was a timorous thing with a dusky blush on my cheeks and lowered eyes that barely dared to glance back, because I was the shy, sweet innocent.
And you, Anza.
My best friend.
You painted hobgoblins and fairies in your artwork, happy endings and impossibilities in your outlook, and yet you badmouthed my rich, indulgent father in public because you knew the truth wasn’t always what everyone saw…
Here is what I knew of Lunar before the mutation:
When we were seven years old, he limped into class nursing a split lip and a bruised cheek, a gash by his left eye stitched up so tight it nearly forced his eye shut. He was still wearing preppy clothes: a wine-red sweater-vest over a crisp white shirt and pressed beige pants, clothes that said, ‘My mother loves me. See this bowtie? See the polished shoes?’ At odds with that beat-up mouth and stitched forehead.
His gaze fixed on me.
Those eyes infested with threats.
He watched me all the time after that as if he knew what I was learning behind closed doors.
Our teachers scolded him, of course, fond of their chastisements: pompous lectures for him to stop eyeing the rich girl and pay attention. But he passed classes anyway and watched me still. His clothes grew shabby, his sweater frayed, his shoes scuffed, and eventually ripped white t-shirts and torn black pants replaced the tailored duds of Mother’s Love. But still he watched me. His gaze swore he would spill blood without a second’s remorse or an ounce of mercy.
I knew it because I’d looked it up.
I’d found what had taken the high-class kid and reduced him to this ungroomed punk who wore unrelenting black and constant hate.
His father, high up in their luxury suite, had contracted the Vaxen Plague and descended into a sick core of madness. He’d taken up a knife and cut out his wife’s heart, then turned the bloody blade on his son.
But Lunar Davith Adurian had no wish to die that day.
Eight stab wounds later, his father was dead.
Fifteen years after that, the Coalition mutated us all.
It happened in the middle of Chem class.
You could have painted it:
Sunshine. Bored students, their feet scraping the floor, their fingers drumming their desks. You were falling asleep. Creepy Hattie was tittering under her dark curly hair. Lunar was rolling a scalpel between his fingers: around and around until it flicked at the corner of my vision where he sat in the desk behind me. Swish swish…
Prof wanted to do a demonstration of scarlet fire, to show how it didn’t kill organisms, but altered them.
He needed a volunteer.
Lunar kicked my desk to volunteer me, as he always did, just so he could thumb his bottom lip and check out my ass.
I walked to the front of the room… but Prof had a spider in his hand.
That’s important, Anza, because that’s where my fear starts.
I wouldn’t touch it, so Prof handed me the red fire igniter instead.
That’s important, too, that I got the fire and Prof got the beast.
Because that’s when the mutation hit.
It slashed down our spinal cords like knives severing the discs. Skin burst open above the pop of bones, and things rooted in our marrow and wriggled through our tissue, shifting the muscles inside our backs like leaking sacks of blood that squelched against our spines.
We writhed on the floor, no breath, no scream.
Until feathers unfolded from our shoulders and whispered over our skin, their buoyancy tugging us upward.
Tottering, dazed, disoriented, we staggered up from our anguished collapse, each of us – all of us – unfurling wings of different hues.
My feathers were rubies in sunlight. Scarlet fire. The lipstick-red of a faithless kiss.
Our bodies were battered but our clothes were intact, the wings having ghosted through the material.
We didn’t understand their nature then, how they could alter from solid feather to airy wraith to deadly substance in less than a moment of instinct.
Then Prof rose. He had become a victim, too, his wings beetle-black, his hair awry, his hands aquiver. Panic ruled his darting gaze… and his feathers began to move, to swarm.
Spiders tumbled off upon the floor, in legions, in droves.
I told you the spiders were important.
Prof’s spiders skitter toward me in a mass, more tumbling from his wings and plunging into the teeming host on the floor. The students beyond him go berserk and knock into desks as they scramble back, exuding the salty secretion of sweat.
I taste insect and spider—No—they’re not real—
Eight-legged forms on my tongue—Not real—
But they crunch in my teeth and glide in my mouth, their little pinpricks on my arms—
Run—but I can’t move—the spiders swarm around my feet in a roiling ocean, the squirming floor going beetle-black and students screaming. My feathers sear blistering hot on my back, shooting heat up my spine and the back of my neck. No—
The spiders are crawling through my skin.
A fiery scorch spikes through my nerves as arachnids race up my legs. Not real—
But the air erupts in fiery blast and boiling snakes, the feathers over my shoulders expanding like forked tongues on a dragon’s breath and—
Prof is no longer human when I emerge.
Lunar’s hauling me to my feet, and he has wings, too, of metallic silver that spit off sunlight like contempt. The other students have mashed themselves in a corner of the room, some mindlessly screaming, others in a frantic daze. Lunar’s face is stark white, his lips bloodless.
Beyond him screams Prof, his skin like smoldering lava, fissures running in jagged webs across a blazing orange torso.
I did this. I did this to him when he was blameless, just a professor who loved his job, and now—
His wings have been incinerated down to skeletal spines behind his shoulders: blackened tongs that open and close as if attempting to unfold an expanse of feathers already singed away.
I lost control. My new wings kindled into a conflagration that killed Prof’s spiders and got him, too. Only it didn’t kill him. It altered him into this frenzied alien creature set ablaze.
I can’t control my fear of spiders, and now I have wings that turn to flame. What if I’d done this to Anza? What are we now? What did this, and how? The Coalition? But why? Why do this?
But it doesn’t matter, because I’m even more dangerous now than I was before, and something has to stop me before I lose control again.
Prof could do it. He’s in an agony of pain, his body made of smoldering ember.
I just have to goad him and make myself his victim. I did this to him, after all, and he’s mindless with anguish, so I spread my arms wide.
“I did this, Prof! And I’ll do it again!” My open arms invite him.
Come kill me, Prof, before I kill everyone else…
But I’m not the only killer in this room.
Prof comes after me, his pain-crazed body eager to burn its maker, but Lunar goes for Prof.
He shoves past me in a streak of glossy hair and black leather jacket, his metallic wings reshaping midair into concentric rows of sleek knives.
Sunlight stabs off the entire array of feathers transformed to blades as they slice down through Prof’s transformed flesh and sever his burning limbs from his torso. Ribbons of bloody pink tissue unravel from bones poking out of the remaining stumps.
His momentum thumps him to the floor, his armless body still glowing ember-orange. His sheared cranium rocks to a standstill on the singed spiders, his shocked eyes still alive for milliseconds after decapitation.
And there, at the front of our sun-drenched classroom, he perishes.
In a fictional world, Lunar and I would bolt now, hand in hand.
We’d unearth secret passages threading under Haven, escape the oxygen strictures, and flee past the fiberglass forest into the sweltering wastelands. There, we’d scream defiance under the stars and screw till our minds atrophy, desert sand in our toothy grins.
But running has no point.
There’s no escaping a system set up by my father.
Its metal is entrenched in my bone, and I am the golden poppet of his world, his gilded doll whose hands and feet he manipulates just how he wants them… in uses I don’t always approve… but he is the master and I’m the wind-up: click click click.
Now go, knife in hand, sweet smile on your lips.
The other students may rant or panic and paw at their new wings, tripping over their desks in a futile sprint to escape a fate that has already ensnared them, but it’s already done. The wings have rooted in our musculature, twining deep into our bodies. They’ve coiled through the tissue of my back and shoulders and integrated into the muscle, and now, in my own deep dark inside, I’ve gone as still as a hollow glass figurine already accepting this new fate.
Lunar steps through the chorus of jabbering voices and stamping feet, drawing me back into a classroom where the pervasive sting of old chemicals and the scent of scorched flesh char the air. Where the wings just tore from our shoulders for no reason I can conceive of and Prof’s feathers turned to spiders, reawakening my terror – reviving remnants of the simulation from years ago – and the wings that ripped from my back reacted to that fear and turned to flame, and now…
I ruined Prof, an innocent instructor. The center of his torso pulses a fiery red like a live ember, the edges blackening into charred meat. His decapitated head resembles a lump of coal, with a rough, glistening black layer of char coating his teeth. One lone sunbeam casts a benevolent band of light over his burnt carcass.
My stupid fear. The stupid spiders.
I’m shivering still, quivers like insects under my porcelain skin.
Even now I taste their dead, mashed bodies afloat in my saliva among squirming living ones. I swallow reflexively, but they clog my throat and eat away the inside of my trachea in small chomps, nibbles on the underside of my flesh—
They’re not real. You can’t fracture again.
Father already put me back together once, and oh-so-wrong.
“Cascade.” Lunar’s black-clad body blocks out the sunlight, and the memories fall away, severed back into exile.
Lunar was the one who saved me in that classroom.
When my terror took hold and my wing fire blazed past my panicked screams and engulfed Prof and his spiders, everyone – even you, Anza – shrank back in terror. All of you were stupefied by the wings that had just ripped from our backs, dumbfounded by mine combusting into an inferno that was devouring Prof. Stunned speechless at him altering into an alien creature.
Lunar was the one who thought ‘screw this’ and stumbled forward to brave my flame. He ducked under firepower that could have demolished him and slain the entire school, and he took me down wrapped in his arms.
He threw his life into peril, into mine.
He’d started out hating me – we all knew that – and maybe puberty had mucked that hate up a little, then the teenage years even more, but at some point in the past few years, it had changed completely.
He’d become a master at getting just close enough that I could smell his leather jacket, his peppery skin.
Just close enough for my heartbeat to know he was there.
Close enough for everyone to see how his mere proximity left blush stains on my lips.
You only saw a scarred jerk when you looked at him.
I saw invincibility. A guy whose face was carved by a ruthless god that had snipped every feature from a bird of prey and altered them for Lunar’s human visage: the hawkish nose, severe lips, and cheekbones molded from all angles.
Intense black eyes that could bore straight into my abomination of a soul.
He could walk the desolate horizon of my inner world and slaughter all the adversity there. Leave my foes in sprawled defeat and soaked in frothing blood.
He’d slain Prof to protect me, leaving me stranded in the living world and thunderstruck by what he’d done. What no one – not even you – had ever done for me before.
For the first time, someone had fought back for me in a world of rife machinations.
Powdery motes dust the radiance around us as Lunar steps close, oblivious to the students’ cries, the glowing spiders crunching under his buckled boots. His silver wing feathers that were knives seconds ago now reflect the sunbeams; they throw slivers of light in the air around my vision and sparkle between my lashes.
“You gonna be alright?” The glaring sun harshens his sharp-edged features as he shifts until the leather of his jacket whispers against my arm. “Cascade.” His narrow face fills my world, comes so close to my breath. My feathers unfurl against his leather.
“Tell me you’re alright.” One of his hands glides up my arm, the sun turning his fingertips as warm as honey drizzling over my skin.
It makes me feel glazed. Like bygone days when Father’s training pushed me beyond the threshold of endurance and I lay drenched in aphrodisiacs and sweaty sheets, imagining Lunar with me in the sick sanctuary of my sick mind, my eyes shut on my panting breaths, my hands… Take me away from here.
But phantoms cannot save; figments merely disappoint the imagination, and fantasies can only keep one sane for so long.
Lunar was the first one to kick the world away from me as if it were a mangy dog.
Is it any wonder that when he curled his hand around the back of my neck, I went light as a fiberglass leaf up against his chest?
Pressed to his heartbeat, with sunlight warming his zippered leather jacket against my cheek, I breathed in the oasis of serenity in his embrace while his fingers sifted over the feathers of my folded wings. It made everything inside me glossy and hot. Intense.
Is it any wonder that I smiled?
You, Anza – the girl you were then – couldn’t protect me. You lived in a world mostly untouched by darkness.
Lunar and I navigated a world steeped in it.
You spun me fairy tales and light.
Lunar took me in taint and darkness.
You banished the nightmares.
He butchered the demons that chased me there.
But I needed you in a world unsullied by the dark.
Imagine it like this: I fought and endured in a space of stark delineations and cutting edges; that was my reality, but when I turned a corner and saw you, the saw-toothed rims would yield and I would reach for something not meant to be grasped forever.
Not meant for someone like me.
A normal life. That’s what you gave me with every late-night movie, every pillow fight, every midnight-munchies fest with popcorn and ice cream.
You gave me what I never got at home.
You gave me a place where I never got hurt.