Wings are (unsurprisingly) hard to get used to. They make any kind of comfortable sitting impossible and stick out at awkward angles; I’m constantly stretching them out and folding them back in, a difficult feat with only about a foot of wing-room. Even though I know nobody on the subway can see me, I still blush and mutter apologies every time I shake my plumy feathers back into place. These aren’t even those cutesy little cherub wings you see fluttering on dusty plaster busts at your local cathedral; oh no, these are one hundred percent bona fide angel wings, twelve feet wide and clearly not designed for boxy subway seats.
I check my watch, and then realize it’s not there. That stoner teen at the apartment complex must have snatched it off me when he got the chance. Kid had the stickiest fingers I’d ever seen! I chuckle dryly and then stop. That wasn’t funny. None of this is. Sighing, I pull out a rumpled map of the subway systems. Not that it’s going to do me any good, at this rate. I have no idea where I’d get off, and even if I did, I couldn’t leave the train.
If the newspapers the stoic commuters clutch are accurate, I have been here for just over two weeks. I tried sleeping at first, but I figured I lost that privilege when I gained these useless wings. I don’t remember a whole lot about the night I appeared here. There was a blaring horn, the screech of rubber on concrete, and an intense fiery pain before my vision faded away. I have a vague sense of a vast brightness, suspending me gently for maybe seconds, perhaps eons. The next thing I knew, I was lying supine on the coarse subway carpet, face to toe with a pair of Nike sneakers. The first few days I spent flinging my body against the imperceptible barrier between me and the bustling station outside. No one seemed to notice me, even if I accidentally buffeted them in the face with my blundering pinions. I spent hours screaming obscenities into their faces or throwing discarded pens at their heads, to no avail. When I came to terms with my ethereal existence, I simply lounged about, staring at graffiti-streaked tunnels and listening to tourists ramble loudly into their cell phones.
On this particular day, I’m reading the poster ads across the aisle for the fifth time in a row. Nothing special; the millionth Iron Man movie, featuring the guy himself punching the utter crap out of an alien spaceship, a half-naked model using the newest smart phone, a friendly reminder to get your annual flu vaccine, and a shot of perfection in the form of Luigi’s never-ending pasta bowl and breadsticks. My mouth waters for the taste of food again. I guess no one ever said being dead was easy.
I’m so rapt on the succulent noodles (for only $7.00 on Mondays!) I don’t notice the subway carriage rumble to a halt, and a girl perch on the seat opposite me, until her head blocks my view. I glance down to meet her forget-me-not blue eyes and I nearly choke on my own saliva. I know those eyes. So blue…I wrack my brain, trying to remember.
She’s probably around sixteen, with a messy oak-brown hair that barely reaches past her sharp chin. Flurries of freckles dapple her face and arms. She’s wearing a white tank top declaring her love for New York, but the red heart has been mostly rubbed off. A stained pair of baggy cargo pants hangs loosely off her narrow hips, even with the thin black belt. I watch her erratically fold and unfold her skinny forearms, mirroring the movements of my wings. Her incredibly blue eyes flick from face to face, to the ground and up to the windows. Every once in a while, their piercing intensity grazes my own body and it almost seems as though she knows I’m there, for just a second, and then they race off again, like mice evading an unseen predator. Four stops later, the girl rises from her seat and walks stiffly to the door. On a whim, I follow after her, forgetting the barrier. I’m on the concrete outside before I realize it. The ghostly force has disappeared.
I only pause for a moment in wonderment, but already the girl is lost in the crowd. I curse lavishly, trying in vain to locate her. A tidal wave of speeding bodies surges past me, forcing my extended wings back. That’s when I realize they might not be useless after all.
I bend my knees and propel myself upwards with as much force as I could muster. My pearly appendages beat the stale air instinctively and I rise above the hubbub effortlessly. I feel my deadened heart flutter for the first time in forever. Flight: what a concept. Maybe it was worth giving up basic human pleasures for this stunning sense of weightlessness. I let myself tumble and swoop up to the vaulted ceiling. When I reach a satisfactory vantage point, I hastily scan the lively throng. There! The girl’s brown locks are bobbing swiftly towards the escalator, pushing against the crowd’s bustling flow. I soar smoothly overhead and alight on the step behind her. Once we reach the surface, she sets off again, striding purposely down the cracked sidewalk. The fresh air hits my nostrils sharply, and even though I seem to have no need for oxygen anymore, I inhale deeply. There’s nothing like a chilled twilight breeze after spending two weeks in a stifling subway carriage.
I gradually become aware of four or five greasy teenage boys that have been trailing us for the past couple blocks. I look at the girl and, by her obvious tension, it appears she’s noticed them too. She glances back hurriedly and makes an abrupt turn into a cramped alleyway. The boys angle after her. One of them, a bulky kid with neon green gages and a wife-beater, catcalls lowly. The girl keeps walking, muscles taut. He laughs harshly, drawing away from the other boys and towards the girl. Striding in sync with her, he slyly slips a thick arm around her slight waist. At this, she whirls around, and punches him square in the nose with surprising force. He doesn’t even flinch.
“You gonna play like that, huh, sweetheart?”
The boy grabs her wrists before she has a chance to react. The other boys jeer cruelly, surrounding the girl at their leader’s request. She struggles against his iron grasp, squirming like a kitten in a bulldog’s mouth. She tries to scream, but one of the cronies clamps a meaty palm over her lips.
I try in vain to stop them, but I appear separated from their world by an invisible, impenetrable veil. I can’t touch them; I can’t yell out for help, I can’t save the girl that seems so familiar to me.
That’s when it comes back to me. Ten years ago, a homeless woman and her daughter walked into a clinic where I worked as a receptionist, begging for my help. The mother was withering away, her frail body racked with sickness. I knew she wasn’t going to last long, not like this. But, perhaps against my better judgment, I forbade her from seeing the doctor. She obviously didn’t have the money, and people like that just kept coming back for more. Medicine is expensive, and I had no desire to waste any on someone who couldn’t pay for it. She was so sick, but I forced her back onto the street with no cure. I remember the little girl’s eyes as they left, huge and wet and so very, very blue. I saw the woman’s face only once more, being zipped into a body bag on the news as part of a story about the dangers of influenza. The little girl was no doubt left alone in this unforgiving metropolis. I never saw those sapphire eyes again. Not until now.
“I’m sorry!” I scream. “I am so, so sorry!”
With a roar of outrage, I slam bodily into the girl’s attacker. The veil is broken. He releases her and collapses on the solid cement. The rest of the gang stare slack jawed at me, eyes wide with horror. I must be a terrifying presence, eyes blazing, teeth bare, and luminescent wings spreading broadly, threatening to take over the dank space. “Leave!” I command. “Leave now, and never touch her again, or I swear you'll never get away alive!” They jump to their feet as one, scattering into the night like so many insects scuttling out from a freshly overturned rock. I start after them, but I realize they aren’t the ones that need my attention right now.
The girl cowers on the ground, sobbing silently. Her shirt is torn, and her belt missing, but she is relatively unharmed, at least physically. I don’t think she’s seen me, and somehow, I don’t think she ever will. I kneel, leaning silently over her skinny body and I lay my hefty wing tenderly over her back.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I know why I’m here, and I won’t abandon you. Not again.”