Mom only has two pictures of me, both clippings from The Gazette. In the first, she’s holding me at arm’s length so you can see the afterbirth dripping from my wings. The second is a close-up of the wings themselves: dark and segmented like a wasp’s.
I spent all of high school in a knee-length blue parka, but of course everyone knew about the wings. This was Cleery, pop. 800, for chrissakes. A six-year hospital junket had transformed me into a distrustful, unenlightened kid and my mother into a chain-smoking Seventh-day Adventist. She took me on a round of talk shows and tabloids and spent most of the money on scratch tickets before bringing me back to Cleery for twelve years of small-town awkwardness.
The worst thing was, I couldn’t even fly. I was eighteen when I finally learned what my wings were for.
I thumbed a ride out of Cleery the day after graduation. I didn’t tell Mom — didn’t feel like watching her try to hide her relief. She’d always said, “Don’t hide your lamp under a bushel, Laura,” except for every morning I put on that blue parka. Then she didn’t say a thing.
It was Dale Carter who pulled over on that freezing spring morning. Dale Carter of the wheat-farming Carters. Dale, whose too-short shorts showed his junk when we all sat cross-legged in third grade. Pale, dense Dale Carter.
“You shouldn’t hitch,” he said, cranking down the window of his dad’s Chevette.
I tried to think of a comeback, but Montana is fricking cold so I just got in. He’d been leaning over the seat, supporting his weight on the door handle, and when I opened the door he lost his balance and fell.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, cheeks blazing.
Dale Carter’s one of those guys you feel bad for, even if he’s annoying as hell. He couldn’t help wearing his emotions on his sleeve. Part of me identified with that — not being able to hide what you are.
Dale re-buckled and looked both ways before pulling away, even though we both knew there were no other cars. In Cleery you can see a mile down the road in both directions.
“Where to, Dale?”
He turned to answer, but his eyes widened and his mouth fell slack.
“What?” I asked.
“Sorry. I was just thinking. Doesn’t it hurt your wings, to sit with them folded underneath you like that?”
I wanted to ask if it hurt his brain to string together a sentence longer than six words, but instead I found myself answering him. “They’re pretty durable, you know — chitin? Bees and wasps’ wings are made of it. They use it for tons of stuff, actually — medicine, strengthening paper...”
Maybe I answered because Dale didn’t ask in disgusted fascination like the rest of them did, instead simply because he wanted to know. I’d never had anyone to talk to like that — most people didn’t really want to know.
“That’s really cool,” he said. “I’m going to Great Falls to pick up a guy to look at our crop. Eyespot fungus is slaying us this year.”
A loud crack exploded outside, and then the telltale flapping of a flat tire. Dale cursed. Turns out he didn’t have a spare.
“Really, Dale? You’re driving a forty-year-old car with no spare?”
He could have pointed out that at least he had a car, but he didn’t. “Yeah, it was stupid,” he muttered. He hung his head and I felt like an asshole.
“No, I’m sorry. Your farm’s just a couple miles back, right? We’ll walk.”
In the pink blush spreading above the flat horizon, Dale looked up, and I saw that he wasn’t so pale — you just had to see him in the right light. Looking into his blue eyes, I realized I’d never really known Dale Carter at all — for eighteen years I hadn’t let myself know anybody.
“You can’t... fly us, can you?”
I sighed. I’d always been jealous of bees and wasps — at least their wings actually worked. “No. I’m just a freak.”
“Naw, everybody’s got something. I have this really weird mole in my armpit.”
We’d been walking for an hour by the time the sun warmed our backs and dipped the sagging wheat beards in gold. I took off my coat outside for the first time in six years.
Dale turned to face me, walking backward through his dad’s field. The sun through the isinglass panes of my wings made amber squares of light flow over his face. Dale had given me something that morning, a window to a different view of the world. I wished I could return the favor but I didn’t know how, so I just extended my wings and let the tips trail through the sickly field — a wreck of spindly blades and yellowing stalks.
Two weeks later, I was back at Mom’s kitchen table looking through the Classifieds when the telephone rang.
“Laura?” Dale sounded uncertain.
“Yeah?” I was more excited than I wanted to be.
“Can you come on by? We, uh… I need to show you something.”
Before, the entire field had been dying. Now, a brush stroke of brilliant green traced the path we walked two weeks ago — as if my wings had painted it back into health.
“Dad says it was the chitin,” Dale said. “He says he should have known — we just needed more bees. The chitin stimulates the plants’ disease defenses.”
I stood frozen, too stunned to reply. Dale came to stand in front of me. He put his hands on my shoulders.
“Laura,” he said. “Can this be what your wings are for?”
The way he said it, as if he were asking not for an explanation but for permission, the way his fingers on my shoulders felt so strong they could toss me into the air, I knew the answer. I finally knew what it was to take flight.
Sarah Beaudette is a nomadic writer, currently living with her husband and sons in Guanajuato, Mexico. Her work has appeared in The Masters Review and Necessary Fiction among other publications. She spends most of her time mispronouncing orders at the bakery and making cultural faux pas. You can find more f her original work at theluxpats.com.
Wings is a Fiction War Finalist entry.
Please do not reproduce without permission from the author.
Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: