by Nancy Hightower
"What's it like?" she asks, and he knows better than to tell her but she nudges him in the arm again. They had instructed him to tell her stories. Help her get through the pain, they whispered as they wheeled him into her room. The first thing he saw was a moonscaped little face, deep pock marks and shiny red folds of skin crisscrossed over where her nose should be. Don't ask her what happened, just spin her one of those fantastic tales of yours…
"Tell me, please." They are eye to eye — he in the chair, she in the bed. Her arms are crossed now to show him she is getting impatient. He smiles, knowing what she wants; the little imp. He knows neither of them could get very far in this state, even if they had help.
"First off, the sun's too bright where I'm from." He spits on the floor. "Can't see a thing when you're that far up. Damn ground glitters like diamonds, especially after a fresh snow. All the white surrounding you, except for the trees…."
Her brown eyes widen. They're so dark he can't tell where the iris begins and the pupil ends — she's an alien being, just like him, caught in this sterile little hellhole (you're not an alien, Nurse X keeps telling him. You had a skiing accident).
"One of them got you, didn't they?" the girl whispers, and he's about to tell her how only a Vernit, one of the elder trees, could snatch a Flier right out of the air if he were gliding low enough.
Don't go scaring the girl, Marcus. Out of nowhere a white-coated orderly steps in between them to mop the spittle he so emphatically deposited upon the floor. Make it one of those nice stories so Bebi can get some sleep tonight. Why do you want to keep her awake with stories about monsters?
Marcus doesn't consider himself a monster, even though he can kill large game with one swipe of his claws (now bandaged lumps and much smaller), although the Vernit are a different matter. The orderly leans against the mop, as if resting after such strenuous exercise.
"Don't you worry," he tells Bebi. "No Vernit could ever catch me." It's a lie, of course. A Vernit had caught him. It was the reason that he was here in a wheelchair, but if they didn't like him talking about it, so be it. "It's the risk one takes to see that sea of snow split open by fire, and it's where the ice worms perform their mating dances. You've never seen such art from above, little one. Circle upon circle carved into and around the fire chasm, where it is warm enough to lay eggs."
The girl points towards the door as the orderly disappears. "That one moves too quietly," she says under her breath. "Every time I try to get out of the bed he's there."
"Can you walk?" he asks, trying to piece together what happened to her. Burn victim, they had muttered, but the girl remembers no fire. Her shoulder blades are heavily wrapped in gauze but no other part of her appears to have suffered burns, except her face.
She pulls up her hospital gown to show tiny feet. "I've tried when they're not looking. It's hard." She frowns. "As if I'm not used to them." She wiggles her toes.
He looks on wistfully — his legs have been amputated below the knees. His never resembled anything like hers, anyway. Fliers soared through the ice mountains upside down, their long, webbed feet crossed, out-flying even the largest of birds.
She smoothes her dressing gown back over her legs. "When do you think we can leave?"
"Healing as quickly you are? Soon enough," he lies. Her face is more pink than red at this point, and her hair, which had been shaved off, is trying to grow back, but only succeeding in small black patches. No, leaving here isn't contingent on getting better; otherwise, he would have been discharged over a month ago.
"I wish they would let me play with the other kids," she sighs, "but the nurse says I could still catch something contagious."
"That nurse says a lot of things," he starts, but then a doctor walks in and says that their visiting hour is over. An orderly wheels him back to his room on the first floor. He sees fewer children running about the main room today than he's seen in weeks and wonders where they have disappeared to. There are no women patients anywhere; just children on the second floor and broken men on the first. The men shuffle by him, muttering to themselves, not looking up.
I know it's difficult, Nurse X says to him later in their session. She's so close to your daughter's age. His daughter died in a car wreck the year before his skiing mishap. At least, that was the story they kept feeding him, but he had no daughter. Fliers can't procreate — they are the guards of the city they're born into. No family ties to keep them bound to the earth. The trees are their houses; at least, the ones that don't see them as a tasty meal.
You can't fly, Nurse X argues. Her tone is always gentle when she corrects him, thin lips set in a half smile. Those feet you claim to have had — they were skis. You fell into the trees while on a jump, and that is where these images are coming from. Let's talk about the loss of your lower legs —
And the fact that he hasn't seen a woman patient?
Women and teenage girls are in an entirely different wing, Marcus, she sighs. Her smile tightens. Once you get stronger with your interactions with people, we'll take you around the hospital and you can see. Let's talk about who you were before the accident. She shows him a picture of a little girl with short dark hair (almost the same color as Bebi's) and a woman who must have been her mother. He's not sure how old Bebi is — maybe seven or eight? The little girl is a few years younger. Maybe five. He recognizes neither of them, even though the nurse keeps saying they are his wife and daughter. His wife?
She left, after your daughter's accident.
Was he responsible for his daughter's death?
Nurse X refuses to answer. Let's work backwards. Let's discuss the skiing accident. You were on a black diamond trail; remember how fast you were going?
He remembers nothing but flying through the air, scouting for the ice worms that tried to burrow into the city. They were shallow travelers, leaving long lines of their path in the fresh powder. His job was to find them, head them off and extricate them mid journey. They often didn't stand a chance against his claws but some gave up a good fight if they were full grown.
"A Vernit grabbed me on one of my patrols," he explains. They were the true predators — they would eat ice worms, fliers, anything that ventured near them. "I was tired, sloppy, didn't see it on my left."
He doesn't bother telling her about the nine foot worm he seized right as it was about to enter the outer city lines. Once it penetrated the city, a Creeper would have to be let loose, and there was inevitably a loss of life during that chase. This worm knew it was almost inside, wound itself quickly around his body as he was trying to climb the elevation. They almost both fell to their deaths.
You went off course and flew into the trees, she counters. It's amazing you're even alive and kept so much of your legs and hands, given the extent of your injuries. We can fit you with prosthetics soon.
He nods, trying to seem agreeable. He doesn't want anything to do with their human limbs. Why bother with walking when one could fly?
But true healing, Marcus, happens when we own our stories. This fantasy life only keeps you isolated and doesn't help you interact with reality. First we must work through your accident, then we'll move on to your daughter's death. Your conversations with Bebi have really helped lift her spirits, and she'll need that strength in the coming weeks.
The muscles in his neck tense up. He has no deep seated affection for the girl, but they've brought him into her room to talk twice a week for the past month. At once he saw she was like him, not of this world. Not of his species, certainly, and nothing akin to the different peoples he had seen in the city or the forests, but something about her seemed familiar. They were wounded aliens. Captives.
He leans forward. "What's going to happen to her?"
The nurse scribbles something down on the chart in front of her, and he can tell his reaction pleases her in some way.
The wounds on her back aren't healing like they should. We're keeping a close eye on her, but we may have to take her back in and clean them out. It's a painful procedure — and her recovery might be slower this time. You can help her with that.
He tries to keep his face impassive. Fliers don't form emotional attachments to anything. It is part of who they are.
She's been murmuring odd things in her sleep. We need to get her calmer. Try to remember your daughter. The nurse slips the picture of the girl and her mother underneath his bandaged fist — whatever was left of his claws. You can both begin to heal through this experience.
• • •
They wheel him back to his room. There's a thing that lies in the bed across from him, wrapped head to toe in a filmy gauze coated in aloe. They say it's a man, but the shape is too bulbous for a human body and thus far Marcus has only heard gurgling noises emanate from what he supposes is a mouth. We needed to pad his torso to protect his organs, the orderly explains. We're not sure he's going to make it, but we've named him Ash. Usually they draw a curtain between them, but not tonight. Tonight he sits alone with his thoughts and a picture of two people he's never seen before, listening to Ash's wheezing. They can call him human if they want, if it makes them feel better.
But humanity isn't a choice. Born with claws for hands and extended feet, you're a Flier; born with abnormally large eyes and double rows of teeth — you become a Creeper. One lives outside the city; the other underneath. A wife and child? Those were for another man, another life. But Nurse X is never going to let him leave this hospital thinking that. Oh no, he'll be trapped here forever unless he starts playing their games.
Over the next week he has more sessions. He is never taken outside, and wonders if there is sun and snow on this planet. He wonders if they can see the stars in the sky or if they've been washed out by all the tower lights as in his own capital. He tries to forget his world as Nurse X asks him questions about the girl in the picture, tries to figure out what it is that she wants.
Do you remember taking your daughter for bike rides? She shows him a picture of the girl on what must be a bike. It looks like a ridiculous contraption. Try to think of the wind on your face, how it felt going down a hill. What does she sound like? Is there laughter?
He closes his eyes, and the only sound he hears is screaming. He jerks back, unsure of what it means.
No, Marcus, close your eyes again. You were remembering something. What was it? It doesn't have to be laughter.
He does as she asks, whispers something to the nurse about a little girl screaming.
You are starting to remember the accident, Marcus, let yourself go there.
He lets himself drift deep into the past, but all he sees is blinding white and a cruel blast of winter air on his face.
What are you feeling?
He's terrified, but doesn't tell her that he is flying through the air faster than a hawk, trying to reach a little girl that an ice worm snatched up in its toothless jaws and is taking back to its lair. The ice worm senses a chase, speeds along the surface toward its nest, while the girl's screams echo throughout the canyon. It is only a matter of feet now, and he dives, reaching out a claw to scoop her up. She reaches out a hand, seeing her chance to be saved, but in that moment, the ice worm burrows down, and they are lost in the deep snow.
He wipes away the tear running down his cheek and silently curses the nurse, who is jotting down more notes. Doesn't she understand that there was no emotional depth to explore, only issues of injustice? The girl was someone's daughter, and they had set her outside the city for the ice worms. There was no way that children could have wandered past the guards, but in times of famine or political unrest, parents would sacrifice one of their own in order to save the family. It was almost always a girl.
What do you remember? Nurse X asks again.
Play their game. He talks in the vaguest terms possible, of screams carried along the winter wind, of trying to save a little girl but not being able to. "It's all still so fuzzy," he claims, looking as helplessly cooperative as possible.
Nurse X nods. It's a beginning, Marcus. You're starting to remember.
"When can I see Bebi again?" He worries about her, wonders if she is okay.
In a couple of days. She's not been doing so well. Here, keep this new picture.
Back in his room, Ash's gurgling is incessant; it tries to move but the two limbs that could resemble arms wave about in odd patterns. It is not a human gesture, but an animal one.
"Can you hear me?" he asks it from his bed. The gurgling stops momentarily as if in response. "Can you speak?"
Ash babbles something that might be words, but he can't understand them. The limbs start to flail about more dramatically.
"Listen, they'll come in here the more you do that. Lie still until it gets dark and less of them are on duty." He's not sure Ash understands half of what he is saying, but soon enough, the arms lay still.
He finds himself growing anxious about Bebi. His legs became infected shortly after arriving here. He is still not sure how he lost them. One moment he was flying through the air, tall evergreens on either side of him. The next, he was snatched up by a Vernit, whose branchy arms were about to rip off his head. He remembers hearing a unfamiliar whirr and then a whoosh of air before waking up here on his back. Those first few weeks the upper part of his legs would ache badly, and then there were needles that delivered an endless sleep. At times he was out for days and awoke with new dressings and in worse pain. But whenever there was pain, there were the needles to erase the pain. Perhaps they did the same thing to him that they were planning to do to Bebi? The thought keeps him up late into the night, so late that he is awake when Ash begins to stir in the pitch black room. From the rustling sounds and labored breathing, he understands that it's trying to roll over, and for a moment worries that it might be able to. He's not sure if it can move without legs — perhaps its mode of transport is its upper limbs. That might be all it needs to get some kind of traction to jump off the bed.
But no, the rustling stops after a moment, and the only sound he hears is Ash's labored breathing.
"Fra. Ma." The words are croaked from the one passageway left open for it and have a strange kind of echo. Its voice, while not human, is definitely female.
He tenses, waiting to see what else the thing will say.
He hears her strain against the dressings, rubbing the two limbs this way and that.
"Stop, they will come in here if you struggle like that," he warns. He wonders if he should hit the red button himself and ask for the orderly to come look at her, but something, the predator sense that all Fliers are born with, tells him not to.
He waits, but hears no more from her for the rest of the night. That struggle she just had might have expended her reserves. Tomorrow, he will figure out exactly who Ash is, and what.
• • •
But Ash's body is gone by morning.
"Have to replace the dressing," the orderly says, when he asks about her. "Came off in the night somehow. Poor thing doesn't understand it's for his own good."
It doesn't make sense, why they keep calling her a him, unless, perhaps, Marcus is the only one to have heard her speak? There is no time to process all this as he is wheeled into Bebi's room. Her face lights up when she sees him, although she has a tube hooked up into her arms. The bandages around her shoulders are thicker.
"It hurts when they touch me there," she says in a small voice. "It's been hurting worse at night. They took off the dressing yesterday and said my back wasn't healing properly."
He feels like the correct response would be to reach out and pat her leg in sympathy, but his claw is only a small bound thing at the end of his arm. Keep her calm. "The nurse says you've been talking in your sleep. Any stories to rival my own?"
"Sometimes I dream that I am flying with you." She casts down her eyes. "I know that's not possible. All Fliers are boys."
"Not true. Girl Fliers are twice a vicious as any boy Flier. But they often reside higher up in the mountains in bands, whereas we fly alone."
She gets that stubborn look in her eye. "But I fly with you, I'm sure of it."
He looks at her legs. "With those feet?"
The little face gets serious. Her lip threatens to quiver again. He has taken a wrong turn. "Then again, maybe your dreams are signaling that you're not getting sicker, but better."
She perks up a bit but doesn't offer any more information about her flying dream, having been discouraged thus far. He looks at the patches of hair, the flaps of skin that make something of a nose. "You could be changing into what you really are," he offers. "Those bandages are just to keep you from getting infected as you morph." He thinks about the gauze that had Ash wrapped up so tight she could barely move, and his own hands. What if these dressings weren't keeping all the bacteria out, but something in? "Tell you what," he whispers, suddenly feeling sick and afraid, "When I come back tomorrow, we'll talk more about how you fly. Try to remember those dreams."
Back in his room, he stares at the little girl in the picture. He imagines Bebi and her sparse hair. When he is wheeled into Nurse X's office later that afternoon, she congratulates him on getting Bebi to open up about her dreams. She had stopped talking to the doctors, and they were worried about her pain levels.
"Can I see her tomorrow?" he asks, and again she scribbles something down in her notebook.
I'm not sure. We have to take her into surgery sooner than anticipated, given that the fever is starting to rise. His stomach turns again. There's something she's not telling him. Suddenly, an alarm sounds. Feet running. He wonders if Ash has escaped somehow, but this is a fleeting concern, for Nurse X has rushed out of the room, leaving her notes behind. He wheels over, catches a glimpse of his chart. Marcus P. Schizoid Personality Disorder. Memory integration thus far only semi-successful. Medicate if necessary.
He reaches over, clumsily picks up the charts with his bound hands and pushes the first sheet up, page after page until he finally sees Bebi's name. Abnormal growth. Possibly cancerous. Amputation required. The nubs on her back are not infected but possibly growing into an undiscovered form. She is scheduled for surgery in two days.
The alarm has stopped, causing him to flatten back the pages and wheel away from the nurse's chair. When she enters, her face has lost its normal placid countenance.
He attempts to show concern on his face. "Is everything all right?"
Yes, Marcus, thank you for asking. She jots down another scribble. His question has brought back her smile. She believes she is making progress. One of the patients had an allergic reaction — that sometimes happens when the treatment is experimental.
He holds up the picture of his daughter, the one who looks so much and so little like Bebi. "Was I responsible for her death?" He waits, doesn't even realize he's holding his breath.
She hesitates. We'll tackle that next week, if you're ready.
He nods, stares at the picture, traces the outline of the little face. "At least let me see Bebi before she goes into surgery; she was so scared."
Again that hesitation. We'll see how she fares tonight, okay? No promises. She ends the session early.
Ash's body is wheeled in that evening. She is wrapped in new bandages end to end; even the two limbs have been taped to her side. They have let him sit longer in his chair today, especially since he has not put away the picture of the girl. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches the orderlies hook Ash up to needles and tubes. They have her in dreamland, where perhaps she wanders these halls as a human.
The sight makes him worry about what will they do to Bebi in a few days. Perhaps they can save her, yes, if she is truly dying. But what if she isn't? The girl might wind up like Ash and him, subject to operations where any part that wasn't human was cut out, bound up. If she is truly sick, then it is also possible that he has a wife somewhere. A dead daughter. Which reality can he dare to live in?
A desperate, hoarse whisper finally emerges from Ash. Fre Ma.
He wheels over to her bed, leans towards the exaggerated, bulbous form just to hear better. "What? What do you want?"
Fre Ma. Free Ma. Free me. The rough words grow clearer.
He is a Flier, a predator. He understands what to do.
Because of the commotion today, the lunch tray has been left in the room. The plastic eating ware is not sharp but it is enough. He grabs a knife and tries to saw through the gauze. It is not easy to do, not without hands, but his arms have not lost their strength — these arms that could pick up an ice worm. He saws, furtively glancing at the door, expecting it to open at any moment. Ash lies very still, seeming to sense what is going on. He first frees the limbs, and she holds them down while he begins near what must be her face. He tears through the dressing to find coarse hair, soaked in some kind of chemical. There is a strange heat emanating from her. He tries not to think about what he is unleashing, what she is capable of. He is giving himself over to this narrative — they are strangers in this world, held captive. Enough of the bandages have come off to reveal a furred face with more than two black eyes staring at him; he frees more limbs, which begin to wriggle.
He wheels back as Ash's legs twist themselves out of the needles. He has already opened the door when he hears her roar, Fly!
It's now a race. He wheels down the darkened corridors, turns to the elevators. The alarms sound. Screams and a burst of red light cause even more chaos, allowing him to wheel into an open elevator and punch the button for the second floor. He still has the knife from the room and tries to saw through his own dressings, but at this angle it is impossible. The door opens and he is surprised that no one is there to stop him. All is quiet on the children's floor. He wheels down the hall to Bebi's room. She is sitting up in her bed, crying.
"Shhh. Shhh." He comes to her side. "Do you trust me?" he asks.
She nods. Cancer, they say.
Choose a world.
He bends over, lets his teeth gently graze the tape securing the needle in her arm. Then he pulls tube and needle out with his mouth.
Bebi whimpers only once, but as soon as he holds out his arms, she crawls into his lap.
"Hold on," he whispers. Her little arms wrap around his neck as he heads out into the corridor. There are many people running now, and there are shouts on this floor too. They hear an explosion which rocks the building and starts the sprinklers above. Ash, he thinks. It is raining now and the lights are off except for a dim blue bulb that offers barely a glow. They find the elevator and many people rush out — nurses, guards, doctors. No one seems to notice them in the dark. They go in, hit the button for the first floor. The door opens to show Nurse X.
Marcus! she yells, face both shocked and oddly exultant.
He rams the chair right into her, wheels hitting her shin and knocking her over. Bebi holds on, not even looking at her, and Marcus swerves past just as the nurse reaches out to stop them. Down the corridors they go, trying to find one that leads to the outside. He has never hunted for it, never wanted it, but now, all he can dream of is the wind on his face and of sky, even if it is no longer his sky.
Finally, he sees it — two glass doors that have been shattered. Something else has already escaped. On the other side, a desert horizon. A group of doctors spy them from across a room. He heads for the entrance and in a heartbeat clears the door, followed by shouts of watch out when a giant form suddenly cuts them off. Marcus swerves and barely has enough time to register a multi-limbed, fanged creature with flames racing down each leg. Bebi holds on tighter as he races forward, feeling like he is lost in a dream. Ash's voice hunts them from behind. Fly fly fly! He feels heat surrounding them. Bebi furiously claws at her bandages, somehow rips them off just they approach a makeshift ramp — there is no place else to turn. In a flash he sees once more the little girl in the worm's mouth, her hands reaching up for him. In another moment, they turn into a daughter's arm grasping her daddy as metal crunches and glass shatters. The wheels meet the ramp. A cry from Ash, as her spider form fully blazes into a fireball. Up and up they go as the wounded nubs in Bebi's shoulder burst open to release giant gossamer wings. Does it matter whether the wings are real or not? They are finally together, lifted higher and higher into the starless night, never to fall again.
Copyright © 2014 by Nancy Hightower