When Talus says he’s going out for a cigarette what he really means is he’s going out because the pain is burning white-edged holes through the film of alcohol and pills. What he really means is he can feel the muscles of his back calcifying. He can feel the itching where the barbules rub his naked skin.
Riley ignores him even when Talus snaps his fingers an inch from the boy’s ear. The guttering light from the TV bleeds the boy’s face to the pallor of fresh clay, a tiny golem motionless on the couch. Maria directed him not to let Riley watch TV. But it’s the only thing Talus found will distract the kid.
Don’t go anywhere, Talus says. Riley stares slackly at the screen. Talus grunts.
He shuffles out into the hall, along the carpet to the stairs. He should go into his own apartment for this, but he is always in his apartment or Maria’s, watching Riley. Sometimes she makes breakfast for him when she returns from the ER in the morning. Over toast and eggs she tells him stories of splintered bones and ruptured organs, smears of blood and crosshatches of thick black stitches. He always pictures Maria and her fellows circling the gurneys like acolytes, faces masked.
He should go back to his apartment but he wants to see the city. There is never anyone on the roof, anyway.
Talus props the door open with a chair he brought up a long time ago and picks his way among the pipes and vents extruding from the roof like periscopes. As he walks he pulls off his sweater—XXL, though he is only five-eight and made entirely of bones—and undoes the web of belts that crisscross his naked torso.
The belts fall away one by one, leaving behind angry imprints in his skin. Talus breathes deep and groans. A moment of pain is followed by relief as the wings unfurl. Then a rush of air and a crack of joints as they snap out to their full span.
He stumbles to the edge of the roof and leans against the rail. He has trouble balancing with the wings spread. Huge and bulky, they catch the air in unexpected ways.
Below him rolls an irregular grid of warehouse roofs. He can see the empty yard of the gravel factory, the water-treatment plant, the canal.
In the distance, cars and semi trucks drift along a freeway like glowing protozoa on a nighttime current. Beyond it the skyline, and a clot of heavy dark clouds. Talus imagines it, a shadow-city in the sky, full of looping spires. He imagines a cloud against his skin.
Flexing sore muscles, he flaps. Just once, experimental.
He imagines his feet peeling away from the roof.
Then a noise makes him look behind, and he freezes with wings outstretched. Riley is standing there, among the pipes. Their rusted mouths vent steam into the night air.
You don’t smoke, he says.
You don’t smoke. Riley looks at Talus with clinical interest. You don’t smell like my mom.
The boy continues, You didn’t come out here to smoke.
Talus can’t argue with that. Riley stares at him a moment longer.
Take me flying.
Take me flying or I’ll tell.
Talus makes a noise that is part laugh, part yelp. The wings twitch. The feathers rattle.
Later, Talus will return to his apartment. In his bathroom he will stretch the wings as far as he can. He will stand in front of the wall-length mirror, admiring the wings’ shape, the even row of white pinion feathers that line them like serration.
Or he will take a pair of garden shears, the big kind used to lop off stubborn branches. He will reach back over his shoulders and hack through skin and bone and the wings will fall away. Blood will hit the cold tile floor. And even once his back has scarred over, the wings will still be there, a presence flaring wide behind him like a corona or a ghost.
Or he will bind up his wings and never untie them, no matter how cramped and sore they get. As the years go by, his skin will knit over, new and smooth, the wings subsumed into his body. He will walk without hunching over. Sometimes, between his shoulder blades, he will feel an itch.
Corey Mallonee grew up in Maine and lives in central New York.