by Paige Duke
I set my feet like he taught me, tighten my grip, and nod. All too fast, the ball is flying at my face and I’m swinging with all my might. At nothing. Again. This was fun the first six times, but the novelty is wearing off.
“Okay, rookie.” Mateo says, walking toward me, doing his best to hide that smug smile. “I’ll show you one more time.”
“Nuh-uh, I don’t want your pity coaching. Throw it again.” I play tough girl to show I’m not mad, pretend I don’t mind looking ridiculous.
Three more failed attempts and I can’t keep up the act anymore. My back is burning, and the adrenaline rushing through my tensed muscles is screaming for release, willing me to take flight.
I drop the bat and walk in a little circle to calm myself. I’ve mastered my impulses. I’ve learned to suppress my powers day after day, and this is the thing that’s going to unhinge me? That I can’t hit a baseball. Pathetic. Mateo walks to me across the dirt field and with each of his steps, my frenzy loses ground.
He picks up the bat and holds it out to me, “Come on, let me show you one more time, I think you’re getting there.”
I roll my eyes, “Right.”
But I take the bat anyway and walk to stand in front of him. Maybe I’m missing on purpose, I realize. Because when he puts his hands on me to fix my grip on the bat, to guide my arms in the swing, to hold me against him a second too long—I can forget myself. Forget myself utterly. Inside his arms, I’m not a creature who slipped through the Veil, this forever caged and crippled halfling, I’m just a girl falling for a boy.
But it’s dangerous to forget. Selfish to let my guard down. And yet, I don’t know any other way. I can’t go back to those friendless, terrifying early days. Mateo is my only light in this gray and foreign world. I can’t give him up, but it’s not fair to hold him back either.
“Like this?” I say, swinging one more time, letting his arms guide me.
“Mhmm, all the mechanics are there, just gotta keep your eye on the ball.”
“Yeah, it’s that easy,” I say, ready to pull away, but he’s still got hold of me and his breath is hot on my neck.
He’s kissing the curve of my jaw and I’m just letting him, drifting into that fog of oblivion.
“Pax, you suck at baseball, but you are a goddess. Anyone ever tell you that?”
My eyes snap open, “Not in so many words.” I pull away, but his fingers are insistent against my elbows.
He turns me gently to face him. “Why are you fighting me?”
The world is chirping crickets and cool wind all around and the electricity of Mateo’s fingers against my skin. And there’s that absurd thought again, Just tell him. You can trust him.
Right, because a girlfriend who suddenly sprouts wings won’t be a problem. Love conquers all . . . all you need is love . . . all that human optimism will break down in the face of the Other.
But his eyes are so insistent, so pure, and then he’s kissing me, and I’ve lost myself. And against my will, I’m kissing him back. His fingers are restless, at my cheek, my back, my waist.
Alarm bells go off.
I tear myself away. I am aching and guilty and selfish. The hurt on his face is unbearable.
I take two steps back, ignoring my better judgment, willing myself to do the right thing, to cut this off before I can hurt him any more. “I have to tell you something—show you, I mean. I’m sorry I’ve hurt you. But we can’t—I’m not—you won’t . . . ugh.” I don’t have the words to do this. So I turn and run, lightning fast, unleashing my power for the first time in so many months. I pull my jacket off and feel the wind at the open back of my shirt, soothing the fire that’s raging there at the unfurling of my cramped wings.
I’m airborne, I am free. I’m gaining height, soaring over the empty fields. Just get out of sight, far enough not to see him. I won’t have to face him again, he won’t come knocking at my door after this.
A whooshing fills my ears, and suddenly I’m spinning out of control, my arms pinned to my side. The sky is tumbling.
I’m falling. Plunging. But I can’t get at my wings. And the ground is too close—
The impact never comes. I’m floating, right side up again, set down gently onto my feet, looking impossibly upon another winged creature.
“Is that all?” He says, grinning.
“What, Pax? You thought you were the only one who ever wandered through the Veil?” Mateo laughs, “And here I was thinking I smelled bad or something.”
He is a thing of beauty, his bare skin in the fading light, the gloss of his wings jet black. But the sight of him is blurring through my tears. It’s all catching up to me: I’m not alone, I don’t have to hide, I won’t have to hold Mateo off.
His arms are around me again, his laugh is soft at my ear, “Aw, Pax, you’re such a rookie.”
By Dani Nicole
That’s all I see when I open my eyes. When I blink away the veil of my previous life and inhale the breath of a new one. I scan my memory, searching for clues.
How did I die? Who am I now?
But as I think of my life so far, it answers me in haze of darkness. Nothingness.
I am nothing except what I am now. I stand up in a field of grass, hills rising up all around me. I’m in a valley, where the setting sun casts shadows that dance across the green.
One foot in front of the other. One exhale after each inhale. This life smells like fire. In the distance, smoke swirls up toward the sky, consuming a falling building.
Did I die in a fire?
I try to remember the sensation of burning. Of my skin consumed with flame. Did I choke, or scream, or try to put myself out? Did I die instantly, or did it take millions of seconds impossibly compressed in the span of minutes?
More steps toward the smoke, away from the place I was reborn.
Cold air frosts my bare arms. The tank top I wear does nothing to shield me from the ruthless wind. I wrap my arms across my chest and duck my head as I walk into the gust, away from comfort and warm and… knowing things.
As I walk, a song comes to mind. One that I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to keep.
In the sun,
In the sun she fades
Gone is the girl, the angel brave
She rides toward the earth
And rests upon her grave
Gone is the girl, the angel brave
And yet, there is a familiarity around me that shouldn’t be there either. The electric feeling in the air, the looming presence of danger.
I’ve been here before.
Impossible, but surety ripples through me. Assurance. I know these hills. I know that fire, that smoke and when I look at it, that desire. That desire to burn, to watch whatever’s inside crumble to the ground.
It was me.
I set the fire.
Memories prickle in my head like goosebumps on my skin. Flashes of ash and light and heat and sorrow and screams of death. The sun shifts in the sky and out of my peripheral vision I catch my shadow. Two eloquent, long wings extend from my shoulder blades, the feathers waving in the wind.
But when I reach behind me, I am greeted with only flesh and bone.