Once, I took you to a safe house tucked away in a skeleton of a forest. It crouched there like a dark Baba Yaga cottage under trunks and branches that curled their gnarled bifurcations over the place like claws.
We wandered the woods, picking through nature’s detritus and picnicking under wasted trees. After dinner we danced to blaring music, shouting lyrics at the top of our lungs. The floor vibrated under our feet from the bass and our drinks sloshed, your eyes glittery, mine honed as steel.
Until you passed out.
It ended then. I cut the music. Cut the lights. And sat beside you cross-legged on the carpet in the quiet, only memories awake to haunt me. There was no one else in the dark but me, and I was made of crazy.
I left you there, all haphazard limbs and sleepy drool in the middle of that Baba Yaga forest, and I drove back to the city.
I crept back through the passages.
I slunk back into the grid.
Into the Compound where orphans roved around partying.
They were hungry-eyed and irreverent: drunken grins, hazed expressions, and drugged-up limbs that grasped at my lithe figure. Barely standing on tottering legs, they goaded one another to acts that would get them caged later in the night.
I didn’t find Lunar among them, and without my phone to track wristbands, I had to search the traditional way.
I was sure I’d find him buried deep in another girl’s pleasure, riding the shudders of her ecstasy with his own.
I found many of them like that. In janitor’s closets, bathrooms, in the dormitories. Their jaws slack and bodies spent.
I almost gave up. I’d reached the top of the Compound, a place of cobwebs and echoes, but footprints on the floor led me to a rancid hellhole of a room.
There, on a bed in the light of the open window, lay Lunar—alone, asleep.
We were still human then.
Why start there?
Maybe I want to go back to a simpler time.
Our world was still at war, of course, divided into the United Other Countries and us, the once-so-vaunted Americas united under the governing auspices of the Coalition, but what is war if the bodies aren’t exploding on our own doorsteps? When the bombs detonate an ocean away?
The only corpses I’d encountered before the mutation were those in a concrete lair twenty stories underground.
Not that you knew about that, even though you were my best friend. All the way up until we were twenty-two, all I ostensibly had to worry about was school: my industrious figure hunched over a lab table; Prof waxing eloquent over new formulas, his poufy hair developing its own personality, all agog…
And Lunar Davith Adurian. The scarred, smirky guy I fantasized about.
He was always near me—nearer. Pausing in a space of heat behind me, his breath by my hair, the murmur of inattentive classmates nearby.
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 demure eyes that barely dared to glance back, because I always had to be Father’s dutiful daughter.
I put on a pretty mask, a diligent guise, and I acted obedient to the wristband on my arm like all the rest.
You could call me virginal. Disciplined.
Aboveground, I always played the shy, sweet innocent.
Until the mutation when the game changed.
That’s when I let this happen.
I could have stopped what they did to you, but I didn’t. I let them turn you against me, let you suffer while they manipulated you, and even though we have you back now, you’ll never be the girl I knew, the one who saved me so many times. The friend I wanted so much to shelter in return.
You think I don’t know exactly what’s reflected back when you look in the mirror? The bruised sorrow sunken under your eyes after the things you and your wings have done?
I let that happen.
You should hate me for it.
I hear Jace’s murmurs to you in the dark, consolation I should be giving you, and I hate myself even though I know that’s the last thing you’d want.
I shouldn’t eavesdrop on your sorrow, but perhaps I think I deserve it.
That’s why I’m telling you this, Anza; I need to tell you the whole truth of what happened after the Coalition destroyed our humanity and made us something else.
I know your side from your deposition: I listened to your sorrow, your solace, your darkest deeds, and I need to tell you my side now. Tell you what you mean to me and what it cost me to let them take you and use you.
Use you against us.
It happens during Chem class.
Anza could have painted it: our final moments as humans.
Sunshine. Bored students, our feet scraping the floor, our fingers drumming our desks. Anza’s falling asleep, her hand paused in the middle of sketching hobgoblins in a fairy forest. Creepy Hattie is tittering under her dark curly hair, the cylindrical oxygen tanks on her back smacking against her desk chair. Lunar is lounging in his desk behind me, rolling a scalpel between his fingers: around and around until it flicks at the corner of my vision. Swish, swish… Make a wish, but don’t come near.
Prof’s gaze quests around the room, his thin body aquiver like an excited terrier. He wants to do a demonstration of scarlet fire, to show how it alters organisms without killing them. “Do we have a volunteer?”
Lunar kicks my desk. “Cascade’ll do it.”
Because I always do it—for him. He volunteers me just so he can run his thumb over his bottom lip and check out my ass, and I perpetuate his vice with my candy-sweet demeanor.
I didn’t know much about him before the mutation, only this:
When we were seven years old, he limped into class nursing a split lip and bruised cheek, a gash by his left eye stitched up so tight it nearly forced his eye shut. He was still wearing preppy clothes then: 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?’
Clothing at odds with his 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, fond of their chastisements, scolded him: 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 and studded belts replaced the tailored duds of Mother’s love. Buckled boots that thudded on the floor like my heartbeat.
Still, he watched me. His gaze swore he would spill blood without a second’s remorse or an ounce of mercy.
Curious, I’d looked it up; I’d found out what had reduced a high-class kid 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 madness. He’d taken 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.
Now, fifteen years after that, Lunar Adurian’s demeanor spits in the face of the world. His face could have been carved by a ruthless god, each feature snipped from a bird of prey and altered for Lunar’s human visage: hawkish nose, severe lips, cheekbones molded from all angles.
His intense black eyes bored straight into my abomination of a soul.
Everyone else only sees him as a scarred jerk. Even Anza calls him a walking semen-sack, but me?
I see someone pissed off enough that he doesn’t give a shit that he’s not invincible. He would fight the world anyway.
And I need someone who can walk the desolate horizon of my inner world, someone who would leave any resistance in sprawled defeat and soaked in froths of blood.
But he never touches me.
He’s only become a master at getting just close enough that I can smell his leather jacket, his peppery skin.
Just close enough for my heartbeat to know he’s there.
Close enough for everyone to witness how his mere proximity leaves blush stains on my lips.
But he’s not close now.
I walk to the front of the room like the compliant student I am for Prof’s experiment… but Prof has a spider in his hand.
That’s important, because that’s where my fear starts.
I won’t touch it, so Prof hands me the red fire igniter instead.
That’s important, too, that I get the fire and Prof gets the beast… because that’s when the mutation hits.
A rip down my spine. A moment of shocked surprise.
Spinal discs snap—pop pop—
We smack on the floor, collapsed from our desks. Our cheeks hit cold grime while our spinal cords wrench into a hundred pieces. Skin bursts open above them and things root in our marrow—and wriggle through our tissue. The muscles inside our backs shift in pools of blood.
We writhe on the linoleum, no breath, no scream, our fingers curled on nothing.
Until feathers unfold from our shoulders and whisper over our skin, their buoyancy tugging us upward. Our torn skin weaves back, whole, and our spines click-clack back into place. Our clothes remain intact, the wings having ghosted through the material.
We don’t understand their nature yet, how they can alter from solid feather to airy wraith to deadly substance in a moment of instinct.
Tottering, dazed, disoriented, we stagger up from anguished collapse, all of us unfurling wings of different hues.
My feathers are the lipstick-red of a faithless kiss, the fire of arousal licking beneath them. Heat rolls through my shoulders like a sunset spreading under my skin, an extension of the blush only Lunar can tease to my skin.
Then Prof rises, a victim like us.
Wings of beetle-black swoop out behind him, his hair awry, his hands aquiver, and panic rules his darting gaze.
His feathers begin to move, to swarm. Spiders tumble off his wings in legions, in droves.
They skitter toward me as one unit while more cascade from his wings and plunge into the teeming host of them already on the floor. The students nearest him scramble back, knocking into desks and exuding the salty secretion of sweat.
Run! I think, but I can’t move—thrown back into a waking nightmare—
The taste of insect and spider on my tongue, in my throat—No, those aren’t real—
Eight-legged forms in my mouth—Those aren’t real!—
But they crunch and glide in my teeth, their little pinpricks on my arms—they’re under my skin! It’s like the simulation again—
But I can’t move and the spiders swarm around my feet in a roiling ocean, the squirming floor going black and students screaming. My feathers sear blistering hot up my back, shooting heat up my spine.
The spiders are crawling through my skin—
Fiery scorch spikes through my nerves and arachnids race up my legs. The air erupts in a sizzling blast as the feathers over my shoulders expand into forked tongues and dragon’s breath and—
Prof is no longer human when I emerge.
Lunar is hauling me to my feet, his wings of metallic silver spitting off sunlight like contempt. The other students have mashed themselves into a classroom corner, 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.
What just happened?
Wings tore from our shoulders, and mine—
Prof’s feathers turned to spiders and I was hurled back into the simulation from years ago – the terror, the spiders under my skin—the terror—
Breathe! The spiders aren’t real—they’re not inside your organs.
But my wings had felt my fear and turned to flame, a heated blast over my shoulders like boiling snakes.
Now I’ve turned Prof into a frenzied alien creature set ablaze, his skin shining like the surface of the sun, a bright orange webbed through with crevices like a desert, and he’s still alive. Students scream and squeeze tighter into the corner, their new wings contracted close to their shoulders. Desk legs squeal across the floor and blend with the guttural noises from Prof’s burned throat.
I did this. My new wings—turned to fire—this can’t be real. What are we?
What did this to us—the Coalition? But how? Why aren’t we waking up?
What are we?
Prof’s wings have incinerated down to skeletal spines behind his shoulders: blackened tongs that open and close attempting to unfold an expanse of feathers already singed away. His agony vibrates in my eardrums.
I lost control. I have wings that turn to flame, and Anza—
My frantic gaze locates her pale and pinned against Jace by the wall, their new wings contracted close to their backs. She’d been so close to my wings’ blast of fire.
It could’ve been her. I could’ve hurt her, the person who saved me a thousand times without even knowing, the girl who believes in impossibilities and happy endings.
What if the wings do this again and it’s her screaming like Prof? The girl who threw herself in front of a bullet, who kept me from driving off a nowhere road to oblivion, who kept so many of my filthy secrets.
Secrets that, if I’m honest to the core of my soul, make me a monster.
I can’t risk her. I can’t—I don’t know what I am now.
Something has to stop me before I lose control again.
Prof could do it—stop me. He’s in an agony of pain, his body made of smoldering ember.
I just have to goad him and make myself his victim. He’s mindless with anguish, and I did this to him, so…
I step into the decision.
My open arms invite him. “Come get me, Prof! I did this, and I’ll do it again!” Come kill me before I kill everyone else…
Before I kill the one person who matters to me above all the rest.
But I’m not the only killer in this room.
Prof comes after me, his alien body pain-crazed and eager to burn its maker, but Lunar reacts in a split second of primal instinct and goes for Prof.
He shoves past me in a streak of glossy hair and black leather jacket, his metallic feathers reshaping midair into—
An entire array of blades. Sunlight stabs off concentric rows of sleek descending knives.
They slice through Prof’s orange flesh and sever his burning limbs from his torso. Ribbons of bloody pink tissue unravel from the stumps and slide off the bones poking out. He collapses to his knees. His armless body still glows ember-orange.
He thumps sideways to the floor, crunching the singed spiders. His sheared cranium rocks to a standstill atop the arachnids, his shocked eyes still alive for milliseconds after decapitation.
And there, at the front of our sun-drenched classroom, he perishes.
We’re not human anymore.
I’m shivering still, with reams of devastation coursing through my veins.
The other students paw at their new wings and trip over their desks in a futile sprint to escape fate, but the wings have already rooted in our musculature and twined deep into our bodies. There’s no escape.
The air feels singed, Prof’s torso still pulsing fiery red-orange like a live ember. One lone sunbeam casts a benevolent band of light over his burnt carcass, but his body’s edges are blackening into charred meat. His severed head resembles a lump of coal with a rough, glistening black layer of char coating his teeth.
I did that to him, to an innocent man excited about his job, who’d done nothing more than been mutated like us.
As if I don’t already have enough corpses for my conscience to keep at bay. Too many of them pack my mind, blood-dark and icy cold, and they do not dwell in peace.
But this time I killed on accident—because of my stupid fear, the stupid spiders. Their dead, mashed bodies floating…
“Cascade.” Lunar’s black-clad body blocks out the sunlight, the nightmares. He steps through the pervasive sting of old chemicals and the scent of scorched flesh, the chorus of jabbering voices and stampeding panic. His studded belts flash in sunlight that shines on, unaware of our bewilderment, our shock, just as he’s uncaring of the glowing spiders crunching under his buckled boots.
He alone recovered after the wing mutation and thought ‘screw this’ when he saw me burning Prof. He’d stumbled forward to stop my crazy, ducking under firepower that could have slain him and demolished the entire school, and he’d taken me down wrapped in his arms.
And when I’d stepped up to the edge of my demise, goading Prof to slay me, Lunar had seized that treacherous notion by the scruff of its neck, said, ‘Fuck you’, and hauled me back. He slew Prof and kicked the world away from me as if it were a mangy dog.
The screen in front of the classroom flickers to jovial life.
“Residents of Haven! I bid you all good day!”
A normal life.
That’s what you gave me, Anza, with every late-night movie, every pillow fight, every midnight-munchies fest with popcorn and ice cream.
You gave me what I’d always craved.
What I never got at home.
You gave me a place where I never got hurt.