First a word of warning. This story isn’t YA fiction. It’s horror written for a mature audience, whatever age you may be.
Rags and alligator skin shouted at the sky in an angry language before turning heels on the celestial offender. A filthy sheet fluttered around the man’s shoulders as he staggered over to a gleaming, beige car. He shook a tin can at the tinted windows, but abandoned the unpromising scene to give chase to a stray dog.
Hamilton peeked over his dashboard to make sure the man was gone. He downed a few pills and wrestled with his conscience again. He considered leaving her alone, going back to his safe, familiar home and buying another ticket to the bird show. But he raised his binoculars to watch the woman enter the motel with a man.
He noted her time of arrival in his diary where it mingled with information about her purchases from the liquor store–mixer and tequila. Always the same thing. In a margin, he had scribbled a note about the way she twitched when she was swept up by large crowds. He hypothesized in neat and frilly script. Nervous disorder? Xenophobia? Drugs?
The illustrations of hawks and sparrows had thinned, giving way to the rise of this new subject. She hadn’t made it easy. Her gypsy lifestyle was hard on Hamilton. She always traveled by night. The woman and her two suitcases. Hamilton, used to a ten o’clock nightcap of tepid milk and vanilla extract, had almost lost her a number of times during these twilight transfers. Sometimes she’d shoot down an alley and Hamilton would have to find the outlet in time and without appearing obvious.
Then there was the bevy of lovers, or dealers, she brought to her ever-changing residence.
But Hamilton worked hard at prudence and patience, aided by foxed copies of The Vigilant Owl in the passenger seat. He flicked open his favorite issue and sipped cold coffee, determined to keep his eyes open and see this new man leave.
Because he never did see them go. Inconvenient coincidence chaperoned them out onto the shadowed street to disappear while he catnapped. Hamilton felt ill when he awoke with the certainty that they were gone, but this time he’d stay awake, he thought as his head lolled.
Heran squatted between two empty cars in the zoo’s parking lot and fished a small bottle out of her purse. She emptied it into her mouth, closing her eyes as the hot liquid raced down her throat.
The empty bottle shattered below the undercarriage of an SUV. Heran weaved through the packed cars, meandering on her way to the end of a snaking line. She let her thick black hair obscure her eyes as she shuffled toward the entrance with the crowd. Once through the gate, she stumbled out of the throng. Long legs took her up an incline where the crowd thinned.
In front of a glass structure, Heran pressed her hot face against a cool panel and closed her eyes. The arrow tip of a whistle startled them back open. Beyond the glass and upward, flocks of birds stared back, silenced.
She turned away to rest her back against the glass and fished a wad of paper from her purse. It received a cursory glance before being reburied deep in the battered handbag’s cavity. Heran almost turned her head back toward the birds but changed her mind and continued down the path to the stage.
A peal of applause echoed around the small stadium. The handler had been going on about the jungle expedition, but now that the cricket-creak of chairs had exacerbated into a froggy groan, it was time. She outspread her arms with a flourish and rotated her square, porcelain smile full-circle.
“Without further ado, I introduce you to the Staggerwald hinksy,” she said.
A thunderous flapping of wings, a sudden rush of air, and a bright fan descended to scatter light across the spectators. They peeked through splayed fingers to gape at the camouflaged cage above the stage. To watch the beast float onto the gnarled branch of a painted steel tree where the rope around its leg ended in a strong knot.
The audience took a sharp suck of gamy air and held it until the hinksy settled. The bird’s eyes darted around before roosting straight ahead.
The handler chose a child from the audience and allowed him to pet the bird. The hinksy’s head jerked back as the child’s sausage fingers pushed down its feathered flank. The handler smiled back at the audience as the child continued to explore the muzzled bird’s soft planes, rousing another round of applause as she gestured at the spectacle.
Hamilton popped a couple of pills and cursed the handler under his breath, crumpling the soda cup in his hand. He had almost made contact. For a split second, just as the hinksy had settled into itself, it had caught Hamilton’s pointed stare. Not only caught, but perceived. Understood.
He was on the cusp of recapturing a moment that had escaped him so many years ago. But now it was being suddenly and cruelly intercepted by audience participation. Hamilton crossed his arms and shifted his gaze as the child clambered onstage.
“Doctor says no,” said Hamilton’s mother.
He had heard this coming before he even asked to go outside to play with the other kids. Hamilton shuffled back to his perch on the window seat in the spacious living room, where he could watch the crows caw and swing above the adobe-tiled skyline. A white circle puffed into existence around Hamilton’s nose pressed up against the glass. He waited for the diminishing rustle of satin against suiting.
And he did hear the rustle, but then a grunt. A cold hand wrapped around Hamilton’s wrist, pulling him off the seat and into three layers. Sweater, vest, jacket. His mother clenched her jaw the length of the drive, but she bought him a red balloon from a cart at the zoo and succumbed to his appeals to see the bird show with only the pretense of a fuss.
Hamilton rested a feverish cheek against his mother’s arm, clasped her hand, and nestled into her powdery musk when the condor appeared. And when the handler coaxed the bird into showing its wingspan, Hamilton thought his heart would stop. His hand jerked to his chest and he lost hold of his balloon.
The condor’s head ticked in the direction of the airborne object and then down at the slack-jawed boy. A chill shivered across Hamilton’s skin as his eyes locked with the bird’s. Hamilton lost himself in sinew, muscle, power. He dropped his mother’s hand and prepared to take flight. But the handler signaled to the bird and it turned away, leaving him empty-handed. Grounded.
Heran’s incubated anger threatened to break loose. She felt herself rise to stand above the crowd and see the child’s hand on the hinksy. It had been hard enough to stare into the glassy eyes, to watch the graceful neck droop, note the struggle against the muzzle. To witness the handler bare her teeth at the cowed god.
Here was the last thread of Heran’s self-control flapping from the fat grip of the child onstage. He held a feather, a shard of sky above the Aegean Sea, ripped from the being’s wing.
An itching, a burning, lit under her skin. Something dark and wet peeked from a cluster of pores edging one shoulder blade.
There wasn’t anything to be done now. She couldn’t help the creature. She could only run.
A long time ago, when Heran was a young woman wading in the golden tide pools on Shillkrik below the gliding forms, she told her mother she was leaving home.
“There are so few of us left,” her mother had said, looking ahead at the great rock snowcapped with bird dung and bristling with clammy, graphite quills.
“I know,” was all Heran returned.
Heran watched her mother’s regal profile disappear as the woman turned to kiss foreheads. A gull cried overhead as a tall pane of water dashed into a thousand pieces against the corroded rock.
Hamilton was staring but the hinksy was forgotten. Something else transfixed him. A woman seated toward the back had stood up; remained standing even as the show continued and those around her half-turned their dismay in her direction before retreating from the sharpening specter of her indignant beauty.
But Hamilton couldn’t look away. He wanted to give the hinksy another try, except her eyes had found his. They were locked there. And he saw. But she was off. Climbing over legs, picking over feet, flying through the exit.
Hamilton limped down the front row aisle, aware of the unguarded annoyance turned at him. His sweat glands were in full bloom by the time he reached the exit.
“Excuse me—“ Hamilton tripped on the uneven concrete outside of the zoo as he reached for the woman.
She pulled back, glaring as he lurched at her. Just before Hamilton recovered his footing, she raised her hackles and he brought his arms up to shield his face, but her shoulders dropped when she spotted the object in his hand.
Hamilton followed the direction of her gaze and gestured for her to take the tiny bottle of tequila.
“It fell out of your purse,” he offered.
The sun expanded and intensified in the charged sky over Hamilton’s head as the woman stared at the bottle. He put a hand in his pocket and let a fingertip brush the reassuring ridges of a pill bottle cap there.
But he pulled his hand away from the pill bottle when the woman’s shoulders began to shake. Hamilton thought she might cry, but she snatched at the tequila bottle, scratching his palm with a sharp nail, and walked away.
Hamilton, palm tingling, stared after the woman, watching her down the liquor like water.
The rest of Heran’s day hung on the verge. She spent it recovering in her motel room. A woman splashed and laughed in the pool below. For a while, Heran sat at the edge of her bed, listening to the woman and her male companion, and the smacking, jingling of the upset water. She watched the light and the moving shadows in the cracks of her door.
She shouldn’t have gone to the show. Should have stayed indoors where it was safe. But from the minute she had found the ad in the magazine she’d pretended to read while stalking that man, she’d been unable to stifle the urge to see the discovery.
The great predatory bird from the unexplored shock of subterranean jungle. Only now, in her room, plugging her ears to the squeals of breathless joy coming from the pool, could she admit to knowing all along what she’d see in the hinksy. Her self-deception might have exposed her, but that man had come along.
That man. She didn’t like the way he’d looked at her. But if he hadn’t stopped her. Hadn’t returned that bottle. She’d needed it badly.
Heran cradled a drink in her hands and frowned at the stark, white walls.
Tequila slithered down Heran’s neck and trekked the ravine between her breasts—a cold-bellied snake making for the warm, salted water. She turned her head away from the cracked door, from a snippet of clothes covering the stained carpet and tousled bed, cigarette butts drowned in beer bottles, tired synthetic curtains sagging from their rods.
In the bathtub with a margarita, Heran tried to relax. Milky tendrils of tobacco smoke slunk into the bathroom. She breathed them in and, on the exhale, closed her eyes and let her body sink deeper into the tub.
The Gattling gun ululations of a man clearing phlegm from his lungs nearby stilled the steady rise and fall of her chest.
“Watcha doin’, baby?”
Heran’s mind slurred as she pinched a sip from the rim of the same plastic water cup left by the sink of every motel room as far back as she cared to remember.
She opened her eyes to a young man blowing a cloud out of his nostrils. Heran took a good look at him. He was nothing like the usual catch. Rough types with strong bravado and insurmountable weakness. The kind of weakness that drew them to someone like her. No. This one was all peach fuzz and uncertainty. Was it laziness or hunger that had compelled her to take him home?
Was she getting sloppy? Heran gritted her teeth against an ice cube. A finger dented her cup.
“Hey, come on. Why don’t you come to bed?”
Heran cracked the ice between her teeth and closed her eyes again. She waited for his retreating footsteps. Something dropped to the floor with the heavy whoosh of curtains falling. She looked at him, now with his pants around his ankles and a nervous smile flickering across his mouth.
Her muscles twitched, mindless of the Epsom salts.
With a swing of her arm, she sent the dregs of her margarita flying across the room to dash against the wall.
In the blip between his shock and fear, Heran swung herself out of the tub. The orbit of her outstretched legs met the crease behind the man’s knees and sent him off his axis. He fell back, swallowing air, reaching out into empty space for something to break his fall. The back of his head cracked against slippery tile.
His eyes rolled around in his head. A black, slick crown rose from the red darkness beneath the surface of his sickening spiral. A brief moan shook out of his throat.
As his eyes stuck on Heran’s engorged pupils, a fan of daggers flickered into the revolving periphery around her face.
Heran’s talons punched through skin, muscle, and bone. Her fist sucked up out of raw, wet flesh then unfurled, talon by talon, to display a glistening red muscle, a geoduck plucked from the sticky soil. Its viscous fluids pumped out of torn ventricles.
Heran brought the man’s heart to her mouth and sank sharp, white teeth into its luscious center. His blood, rich and thick and curdling like custard, oozed down her chin. The bow of Heran’s back bent deeper over her meal. She tore into the muscle as fine, black feathers burst from her angry skin.
She dropped the meat to grab the tub’s sill as the seams along her shoulder blades split, allowing two black icebergs to emerge from each. Saliva threaded down from her open mouth. Her wings broke free with a fine spray. Heran’s hand reached out to explore the tattered, ruined relics before she could stop herself. She lowered her forehead to the ground and bit down hard on her lower lip to stave off a sob. Heran grit her teeth, squeezing her shoulder blades, retracting feathered bone.
After, she let her body quake against the tile. Her lips curled, baring fangs as she cried soundlessly. She pushed off the floor and crawled to the nightstand. A screwcap plinked against the chipped tabletop. Heat shot down Heran’s throat, mellowing to warmth, dulling the razor’s edge of pain and memory.
A doorbell bleated above the country ballad playing in the near-empty convenience store. At two in the morning, it was empty except for the cashier, the man making his way in from the door, and Heran prowling the aisles with a large box of heavy-duty trash bags and a bottle of lighter fluid in the crook of her arm.
Heran pretended to read the ingredients on a bottle of margarita mixer as she watched the man approach from the corner of her eye. He hesitated a little ways down the aisle so she flashed a smile at him.
“Let me get that for you,” Hamilton stuttered.
Heran glued the smile to her face as she studied him. She surrendered her items and a bottle of mixer and he walked her down the aisle. The light brightened around Heran. The lines sharpened.
Hamilton paid and they left the store together.
“Are you walking? I can drive you home,” he said beneath the flickering neon clown looming over the parking lot. His car was beige and familiar.
Heran’s wide eyes rested on Hamilton’s until he surrendered his to the gritty pavement. She was standing by his car door when he looked up again.
Heran got lost in the passing scenery and the night smells ripping through the car windows. She came to as Hamilton exited the highway. The urban streets gave way to narrow passages lined with track homes and defeated storefronts. They pulled into the motel’s horseshoe parking lot.
Hamilton took three pills while Heran shut the car door, downing a travel bottle. She fell back as they walked past room after room. He stopped at her door. She kept her eyes and smile on him as she fished her keys from her purse.
All of the lights were on. The room was unpretentious in the raw glare. Hamilton dithered in a rare unoccupied circle of space.
Resting her back against the door, Heran turned the lock behind her and relaxed the muscles in her face until her eyes were slits and her mouth a frown.
“You shouldn’t have followed me,” she said with a voice supple as oiled skin.
Beads of sweat pearled above Hamilton’s brow. Heran scented the sour, earthy odor radiating from his body.
“No…” said Hamilton.
“You tried to trick me.”
Hamilton’s cheeks juddered as he shook his head.
Heran’s frown deepened. “This was a trap,” she said.
Hamilton raised his hands to face his palms at her. His scratch had healed by now. His breath came out in ragged gasps. “I just wanted to know you,” he said. “I-I wanted you to know me.”
A tear tracked down Hamilton’s cheek, gathering sweat. “We belong together,” he croaked.
“I see.” She cocked her head. “You want to take me into your nice home. Feed me and care for me. You want me to show you the world. Free you from yourself.”
Hamilton choked out a breathless laugh. “Yes.” He took a step forward. “Yes.”
Heran’s frown broke. Hamilton thought she might cry.
She opened her jagged mouth. “I don’t belong with anyone.”
Hamilton experienced a moment of confusion before the pain overwhelmed everything. Then came a sensation so foreign and deep–sharp, and sweet, and total. Hamilton was awash in the mute power of Heran’s eyes. The world expanded infinitely and she disappeared in a supernova of black feathers.
The room reeked of bleach. A garbage bag bulged out of a large suitcase lying open on the linoleum floor. Heran stretched her back and rolled her neck before standing. She tore a wad of cash from Hamilton’s wallet before dropping it on top of the plastic bag. Hamilton’s pocket change amounted to five nights in a new motel.
It was time to pack again. She would burn the suitcase in an alley along the way to somewhere else. Heran sat at the edge of the bed and rested her gaze on the bag. She felt a pang of something. She reached for the bottle of tequila on the nightstand and swirled it around. Saliva washed through her mouth. It carried the taste of Hamilton.
Heran put her ear to the bottle to hear the amber liquid crash against the glass. It took her back to the sea. To a time long ago and a place unreachable.