By Jenn Reese, illustration by Frank Sipala
3 March 2003
Anne sat in one of Charlotte's wingback chairs and draped her wings carefully around the soft leather. It felt so good to sit. Anne had spent all morning at her Tuesday tasks, and this gathering was her reward.
The glass sliding door was open and a cool spring breeze poured in through the screen. Charlotte, dressed in a snazzy faux-leopard pantsuit, waltzed in from the kitchen carrying another tray of snacks. Veggies and dip this time. The carrots and mushrooms were fine, but Charlotte never used low-fat ingredients in the dip. Anne looked down at her thighs, invisible beneath the soft fabric of her daisy-print dress. No dip for her.
"So," said Charlotte, plunking the tray down on the glass coffee table and almost falling into another chair, "who's getting what for Naomi's engagement party?" She leaned forward, grabbed her wine glass from the table, and fell back against her chair. Anne saw several of the feathers on Charlotte's right wing crumple awkwardly, but it wasn't her place to chide.
"I ordered the serving dish," Anne said. "The white one with two painted irises, the one on the registry."
Trish, sitting on the couch and no doubt comfortable in her black jeans and T-shirt, snorted. "I'm not getting them a pot to piss in," she said. "That bastard's no better for her than the last one, and I'll be damned if I'm going to support him, them, or anyone even remotely involved in this exercise in human folly. I feel sorry for her kid, though. I'd buy her a present if I thought it'd do any good."
Trish held a moist napkin in one hand and her four-year-old son Lathrop in the iron grip of the other. She wiped his face in two practiced swipes. Anne's husband Franklin called Trish a dyke. Trish called herself a dyke often enough, but Franklin meant something totally different by it. Anne preferred not to think about it. She felt sorry for Trish for other reasons. Her eyes wandered up to Trish's multi-colored wings, clumped and dull. She should have gone to a decent salon, not tried one of those home dying kits. It was so . . . well, it wasn't very nice.
Charlotte laughed and sipped her wine. "Well I suppose you have a point there, Trish." She crossed her legs, the faux leopard skin scuffing along her thighs. "But it's Naomi's life, and she has every right to piss it away."
"But Marinda . . ."
"Yes," Charlotte said, "it is a shame about Marinda. Growing up without a father is often a blessing compared to the other options. My Derek is doing just fine without one." She grabbed a mushroom, dipped it twice, and plopped it into her mouth. Anne couldn't take her eyes off of Charlotte's wings. They hovered behind her like angry clouds. Years of smoking and neglect, and downright abuse, had left them mottled and smelling of nicotine.
"So what are you getting them, Charlotte?" Anne asked, lowering her eyes. "Something off the registry?"
"I don't know. Maybe I'll hop down to the craft store and throw something together. Naomi really likes flowers, and it would be more personal that way. . . ."
Trish snorted again and released her son, who bolted for the other side of the room. "Bullshit. You just want out of the obligation. Money problems again?"
"No," Charlotte said, then laughed. "Yes, actually."
"Can I touch a feather?" Derek asked. He whispered, even though his mother was still out dancing with her boyfriend, even though Gwen had already touched him in places far more private. They'd played this game before, on other sleepovers, and he always whispered when it came time for the wings.
Gwen giggled. "Sure. But try not to ruffle them too much. It tickles."
Crickets sang. The mesh screen surrounding the porch protected them from mosquitoes, but not from the moist summer air or the distant sounds of tires screeching. Derek wiped his palm against his sleeping bag and reached for Gwen's back. Long wings, sleek and graceful, jutted out from her shoulder blades. He reached for a feather on her right wing and ran one fingertip along its length. Soft, firm, brittle; a bundle of contradictions.
"Doctor Anderson says my wings are the biggest she's seen for someone my age," Gwen said. "My parents have a lot of money saved. I'm trying not to get my hopes up, but they're considering the operation."
Derek drew his finger across the feather again, watching the barbs separate and reform. A smudge of dirt? No, just a shadow. He wiped his hand across his sleeping bag again, just to be sure, and returned it to Gwen's wing. "Huh?"
"Flying. With the operation, and a few years at the Center, the doctor says I've got a good shot at someday being able to fly."
He pulled his hand back, let it drop to his lap with the other one. Gwen turned to face him. She fitted her shirt across her chest and reached around her back to fasten it.
"I'm so excited," she said, her voice sinking into a husky whisper. "I know I shouldn't be, that I'm just lucky. But flying, Derek! Can you imagine?"
Derek swallowed and stared out through the screens. The woods surrounding his mother's house stared back, malevolent. Even the moon spied on them, its crescent a disturbing keyhole cut from the blackness.
The bug-zapper crackled. The faint stench of charred insect drifted closer. The neighbor's dog barked relentlessly, giving the night a heartbeat to add to his own.
He turned back to Gwen. Her face in the moonlight glowed even more beautifully than in the sun. When she sat in front of him like this, he could almost forget about the wings.
"Look, I'm tired," he said.
"Fine, but tell me what's wrong first."
He stared down at his hands. "Maybe I'm upset that you're going to be at the Aviary Center. High school's going to be shit without you."
"I'll write a lot, and you'll be busy with soccer," Gwen said. "You'll make varsity next year, and you'll end up in the World Cup before you hit 20. I swear it'll happen, Derek, I swear. You've got what it takes."
Derek started to answer when he caught a noise coming from the darkness. He tilted his head and listened.
A figure emerged from the woods, a girl in cutoffs and a faded button-down shirt at least five sizes too big.
Anne kept her wings unfurled behind her as she sat, like a great snowy cloak. Franklin always told her to sit like that whenever she could because it maximized her best feature. Wings were a gift to men as well as to women, he said, and it would have been selfish of her to disagree.
"Lathrop seems to be over the worst of his temper phase," Charlotte said as she watched the child play with the pieces of some plastic toy in the corner.
"Yeah, we reached an understanding of sorts," Trish said. She shrugged. "There'll be a new phase tomorrow. It never seems to end." For a moment, Trish's tough expression softened, and Anne saw the lines in her face. Too many lines for thirty-three.
"How is Derek handling high school?" Anne asked.
"Well enough," Charlotte answered. "Still no girlfriend that I can tell."
"But you've had the talk already, I hope?" said Trish. "Boys don't stay boys long after they get their first--" Trish looked at Anne. "After they hit puberty."
Charlotte laughed. "Lord, yes! I even offered to buy him the condoms myself. Figured it would be a lot cheaper than an abortion clinic or a wedding."
"Or a trip to Mexico," Trish said bitterly.
"God, Anne, it's not that big a deal," Charlotte said. Anne realized that her mouth was hanging open. She closed it, blushed, and searched frantically for a response. Charlotte saved her. "You'll understand when you have children. You can put all your effort into stopping them from fooling around, or you can let them go and see what happens."
Anne remembered the stories that Naomi had told her. Naomi had said Charlotte used to trade feathers for cigarettes to men in bars, just to make her husband angry. And she never gave away a bad feather, just a clean one. Charlotte always said she earned those dirty feathers, that they were as precious as her children. Light glared off the oil stains in Charlotte's feathers and sank into the dark smudges. Anne's stomach lurched.
"We have the damn wings, we should have halos too," Trish said. "Mothers get two."
Charlotte laughed. "I used to have a halo, but I traded it for a healthy son."
Anne forced a smile. Charlotte was fond of that line, fond of the martyrdom gained from two failed marriages. No, Charlotte had traded her halo for one dance at a bar. One dance with a man who treated her like an angel.
"God gave us wings," Anne said, her eyes lowered, "but we have to earn the rest."
"Derek? Gwen? You guys still up?" the girl said.
"Marinda?" Derek's pulse skipped in his throat. He scrambled to his feet and met her at the door to the patio. Up close, her brown eyes receded into the puffy redness surrounding them. Her hair, mousy in sunlight, seemed full of shadows tonight. He opened the door for her. "What are you doing here?"
Gwen came up behind him, stood to his right. Marinda blinked for a few seconds and seemed to wobble in the breeze. Then she was in his arms, hugging him and sobbing in his ear.
"Jesus," Gwen said. "What happened?"
Warm drops hit Derek's shoulder and soaked into his shirt. He did nothing but hold Marinda close. He had dreamed about this moment for months. Marinda with her ragged shorts and silken wings, the desire of every boy in class and the envy of every girl. Her warmth pressed against him, along his thighs, his stomach, his chest, his arms. His body responded to her immediately, and he shifted his stance so she wouldn't know.
"Shh," Derek said. "It's okay." He breathed deep and ran his hands along her back.
Marinda flinched and jerked away.
"Oh my God," Gwen said. "Her wings."
Derek's stomach clenched. "That bastard took you to the clinic. He's not even your goddamned father yet!"
Marinda nodded, brought her hands up to cover her face. Gwen hugged her, pulled Marinda close and stroked her hair. Marinda's shoulders shook with fresh sobs.
"That bastard," Derek said again. "That fucking bastard!" He pounded his fist into the palm of his other hand. "Goddamn son of a bitch! Why the hell would your mother agree to that? Why, Marinda?"
"Stop it," Gwen said. "It's done. Your pissy macho talk isn't helping anyone."
"Yeah, well, it's helping me."
"Fine, then why don't you find a nice dark corner and curse till you're blue? Lose the shit or take it somewhere else." Gwen maneuvered Marinda across the patio and onto her sleeping bag. She reached for a box of tissues, but Marinda shook her head and continued to cry.
Derek stared at them. Marinda sat cross-legged on the blankets with Gwen's arms wrapped around her shoulders. Gwen spoke, a constant stream of words perched at the edge of Derek's hearing. Gwen's growing wings fluttered and shimmered behind her like a short, silvery cape.
"What are you telling her?" he said.
Gwen looked at him. "I'm trying to help, unlike you. Besides, you wouldn't understand. You have no idea what she's going through."
"What are you talking about? I don't have wings. None of us do. Now she's just like us." Derek picked up one of his mother's paperweights from the table: a glass bird trapped inside a glass bubble, trying to peck its way free. He wrapped his hand around its smooth surface and traced the cracks near the bird's beak with his thumb.
"You don't know what the hell you're talking about," Gwen hissed. "You don't know, and you'll never know. Not having something is totally different than having it and losing it."
"Bullshit." Derek slammed the glass paperweight against the table.
Gwen glowered. "It's not bullshit. Wings make all the difference in the world."
Marinda wailed. Gwen turned back to her instantly, her voice soothing. "I'm sorry, Marinda. God, I'm so sorry."
Both of the girls' faces reflected the pain Derek felt in his chest. Heat, guilt, anger flashed like a strobe light in his mind. He released the glass bird and fled to the safety of his room, deep within the darkness of the sleeping house.
Anne stared across the table at the remnants of food and the last half of their third bottle of wine. It was getting dark. Only two hours before Franklin would be home, so only forty-five minutes before she had to go home and start making dinner. She liked to make him something special on Tuesdays, since she felt so guilty. He worked so hard all day, and here she was gabbing with the girls.
"God, it's been so long since I've had a good fuck," Charlotte said.
Anne's face twitched, but she said nothing.
"New boyfriend not so good in the sack?" asked Trish.
Charlotte shrugged. "Adequate. Nothing more than adequate."
Trish smiled. "I tell you, I've tried it both ways, and women should be with women. You have no idea what you're missing."
"Hey, I experimented in college, just like everyone else," Charlotte said.
During conversations like this, Anne stayed very still. It wasn't as if they would encourage her to join in the discussion in any case, but she hated to draw attention to herself. She was afraid she might say something that would anger the other two. They might think her a prude, but Anne felt comfortable with her choices, and proud of her chastity. Franklin was the only man that she'd known in that way.
"Experimentation doesn't count," Trish said. "You have to do it with someone really experienced."
"Well, if things don't work out with Charles, perhaps I'll let you set me up with one of your friends," Charlotte said, and laughed.
Trish shook her head. "You can make jokes if you want, but I know what it's like. And besides, there's very little chance of getting knocked up this way."
They all looked over at Lathrop, who sat on the floor watching television.
"There are worse things than being knocked up," Charlotte said quietly, but Anne couldn't imagine what she meant.
Derek threw himself onto the bed. Lamplight from the street poured in through the windows. His head spun. His erection was gone, probably for good, and his body still throbbed from his argument with Gwen.
What difference did wings really make, anyway? Marinda was still the same person, still hot enough to tempt every guy with a pulse. Maybe it wasn't such a big deal after all. Maybe Marinda and Gwen were overreacting. Later on, Gwen would apologize. She'd laugh and joke with him until he agreed to forgive her.
But Gwen was going to the damn Aviary Center. Someday, Gwen would fly. He thought of the news footage, all those women jumping up and down on trampolines, their hollowed bones and reinforced skeletons. Some of them stayed in the air for such a long time. They glided without effort, without struggle. They made it look easy. On their faces he read triumph and victory, and even pity for all the losers like him. Losers who couldn't fly.
Derek scanned his room, his mind suddenly clear. Movie posters plastered the wall at odd angles, overlapping and tearing and faded in spots. His clothes bunched and twisted inside the half-open dresser drawers. Three soccer trophies, a picture of the team after last year's championship game, and an old bottle of root beer, still sealed, collected dust on the bookshelves his ex-stepfather had built for him two years ago.
On the far wall hung a mirror, and in its upper right corner, a picture of Superman: flying through the air without wings, his red cape billowing in the phantom wind.
He ripped that picture down first. Tore it off with a single jerk of his arm. A little tuft of paper remained tucked into the mirror's rim. Derek opened the closet door. He pulled out a cardboard box and dropped it in front of the bookshelves. Into it he threw the trophies, the photos, the bottle. The posters, taped and stapled and glued, came down in tearing masses.
Afterwards, Derek lay on the bed and stared at the white starkness of his room. But it didn't help, not even a little.
Charlotte stood in the doorway. "More cheesecake, anyone?"
Anne shook her head. Trish groaned.
"Fine. Lord, I'm stuffed," Charlotte said, heading for her chair. "Does anyone mind if I unzip my pants?"
"Go for it," Trish said. Her son lay sleeping in her arms, his small head nestled into the crook of her tanned arm. Trish's wings billowed and curved around, protecting mother and son in bright, poorly-colored majesty. Trish looked young again, younger than thirty-three.
Charlotte sighed as she unbuttoned her slacks. She fell back into her chair, crushing several feathers behind her, and reached for her Merlot.
"So what are you really getting for Naomi?" Charlotte asked.
"The serving dish. I already told--"
"That damn painting she's always drooling over at Freda's gallery," Trish said. "The one with the three tigers and the moon."
"God, she'll love it. And we'll get to stop hearing about it every time we walk down that street," Charlotte said.
Anne frowned. "Isn't that awfully expensive? I thought you were still paying alimony?"
Trish shrugged, her shoulders hitting her two dangling silver earrings. "Naomi's been good to me."
"Yes, but that kind of money--"
Anne felt the splatter of red wine across her legs and the bottom of her wings at the same time as she saw Charlotte's large round eyes and empty wine glass. Anne leaped to her feet.
"A towel! A towel! Get me a towel!"
"Calm down, honey, it'll be okay. It's just a little wine," Trish said.
"God, I'm so sorry, Anne. Let me get some tonic water." Charlotte ran into the kitchen.
Anne stared at her speckled feathers, trying to see how many were affected. So many spots! "Franklin. What's Franklin going to say? Oh, God. Oh, God. What am I going to do?"
Charlotte ran back in with a rag and a plastic bottle. "Hold still. Let me see what I can do."
Anne watched, numb, as Charlotte rubbed her dress. The red marks faded immediately, and Anne breathed deep. Charlotte dabbed more tonic onto her towel and started on a wing. Crimson smeared across the perfect surface, sinking into the crisp lines of the feathers and staining them bright red.
The room spun. Anne's heart pounded faster, her legs wobbled. Trish gripped her left shoulder, steadied her left arm. "It's okay, sweetie. It's okay."
"I'm so sorry," Charlotte said, her own wings blustering across the table and floor, dragging themselves through the errant splashes of wine. "It was an accident. Franklin will understand."
"No," Anne said, clutching Trish with both her hands. "He'll never understand."
The story "Winged" (but not the art), by Jenn Reese, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
If you redistribute this story, please include a link to
Jenn Reese has degrees in English and Archaeology and has been writing speculative fiction since 1995. She currently resides on the edge of Western Civilization with her fabulous husband, two cats, and three computers. Visit her website to see her other publications and read her online journal.
Frank Sipala is a freelance illustrator. He works digitally using photography and the computer. His work can be described as having a dark nature with a fantastical atmosphere and can used for a number of publications including books, editorial, and music. For more about him, see his website.