SAM W.

The Pictures

Wings

Millions watched as the president ascended the steps to the podium. She shook hands with carbon-copy bureaucrats who meant less than nothing to the public and then positioned herself in front of the hidden teleprompter. She fiddled with a pen on the stand, sighed, straightened her tie, rubbed her forehead, and cleared her throat. She had done this often; she was, after all, the president. But today, it was different. Today, the muggy air folded over anyone unlucky enough to be outdoors, and the sharp breeze bit like something out of Jurassic Park. The grey skies, promising evening rain, were the perfect backdrop for a play that everyone was watching, but no one really wanted to see. The clicks and flashes of reporter’s cameras set a twitching tempo for the president’s words.

“This week has been like no other.”

She paused.

“This week, the world has seen things that we thought were the stuff of legend. Our understandings of life, and science, and reality have been shattered. We cannot begin to fathom what this means for the future.

“This is a time of change. As we try to understand how this happened, and why, we need to set aside differences. We need each other’s support. We have no idea whether this new… thing… even means us harm. We need to make sure that our fear, and confusion, do not overwhelm us and cause more destruction. And death.

“Los Angeles cannot happen again. We were not careful there. And that carelessness caused lives- innocent lives- to be lost. In future encounters with this new creature, or man, we need to find other approaches. So we are setting up a temporary office to facilitate encounters and try to sort out fact and fiction, for the safety of the public and the peace of mind of everyone…”

~o~

ONE WEEK EARLIER

    Mathias Pedersen tried to ignore the loud voices and thumping music as he eyed the hallway. He could see no easy path to it from where he was standing in the middle of the living room. If he made his way over to the refreshments table, though, he could maneuver down it acting as if he was getting a drink, then jump over to the midcentury lamp, down and around the sofa table, then into the hall , avoiding the family room by way of the jack-and-jill bathroom, and out the back door. It might work. He prepared, waiting for an opening. Then the gaggle of people right in his way moved a little bit, and he strode purposefully to the chips n’ dip. He made it and turned, stopping only to grab a soda. The lamp was right there, shining with a warm glow. He stepped around it and to the small table. So close. Mathias readied himself and pushed his foot forward on the first step to freedom when he heard a voice.

“Hey, Matt!”

Damn, Mathias thought.

He turned, slowly.

“Hey, Tony.”

“Where you headed?” Tony asked.

He strained a smile. “Just outside.” Tony was about to argue, but by some stroke of luck, he got distracted and waved Matt off with an ‘Okay, cool’. Matt decided not to waste the chance. He darted down the hallway and out into the warm Los Angeles night.

 

    The waves were quiet as they slipped up and down the beach. Matt rested in one of the deck chairs that were haphazardly placed on the sand. The noises from the house were muted behind him. He took a sip of his soda and gazed out at the silvery water. He could hear the music behind him strengthen and weaken as people moved through the doors. Sometimes the noise was too much for him. Quiet like this was nice. Maybe he should just go back to his house. But it was nice, outside. He was fine with just the chair, the drink and the rhythmic waves. Matt’s head sank back. He closed his eyes, but then something stirred the sand back by the house. Someone was walking out to his chair, or the one next to it. Of course. There was rarely a moment’s peace. He sighed and pushed his gaze behind him to see who it was. Brown hair. Unbuttoned overshirt… white tee. Guy, relatively fit. Probably about twenty years old, like Mathias himself.  Longish shorts. Clean-shaven. Jacob, right? There were a lot of guys like him at college. He stopped and look down at Matt.

    “Can I sit here?” he asked.

    “Yeah… go ahead.”

    Jacob sat down on the chair and reclined. Matt glanced at him, and then looked back to the water. “Jacob, right?”

    “Yes.” Something in his voice made Matt look at him again. Jacob was smiling, slightly. His eyes were nervous but they teased him for forgetting his name.

    “Sorry…” Matt found himself saying. “I get names and faces mixed up.”

    Jacob laughed softly. The sound stirred something in Mathias. His heart skipped a little bit.

    “It’s fine,” the other man said. “I’m easily forgettable.”

    “Don’t say that about yourself.”Matt said.  Jacob gave him the teasing look again. “I mean… well... ” his words stumbled. Matt stopped and felt himself going red. What is wrong with me tonight? he wondered.

    Jacob chuckled again. “Really, it’s fine,” he said. “I know what you mean.” He lapsed into silence and looked out at the ocean.

    Matt found it hard to stop looking at him. Maybe it was the drink? He swirled it and sipped, but it was just soda.

    Jacob still looked a little nervous.

    “Do you like the party?” he asked.

    “Yeah, well, I mean, kind of, but it’s nice out here,” Get a grip, Matt, he chastised himself.

    Why? another part of him asked.

    “I like it quieter too.”

    “Oh, really? Cool.”

    “The sounds of the waves are really calming, aren’t they?”

    “Mm-hm.”

    Matt felt a little left behind by his thoughts. He thought he knew where this was headed, but he wasn’t sure. He had never really felt like he was feeling about a… guy… before. But it was nice, right? He was noticing Jacob a lot more than he had ever before. He swallowed, and before he could stop himself, a question came out of his lips, one that had been asked before, but never in quite this way.

    “Do you maybe want to go and buy a drink? With me?”

    Jacob looked at him, and paused, and answered.

    “Yes.”

    And Matt fell in love.

~o~

    The warm California morning lightly pushed the curtains of Mathias’ townhome windows into the bedroom. It brushed across the blankets and the sleeping form curled underneath. Mathias felt the breeze, and shifted on the bed. His eyes slowly opened. He looked out onto the tree branches outside the window, and the stucco houses across the street. He could see the sky, smattered and dappled between palm fronds. Drifting through the window on the breeze came a tang that forebode rain. He sat up, with some difficulty. The covers twisted around him like swirling campfire smoke. He extracted himself and sat on the edge of the bed. Wasn’t quite ready to stand up yet. The wind brushed his bare chest, ran across his stomach, and tickled something on his back. Maybe he should get up, he thought. Then he stretched, and behind him something stretched too. Muscles in his back he didn’t know existed moved, and twin curtains of white arced up on either side of his head. Matt gasped, and then he sprang up and spun around, but they followed him and were still where they were before, next to him, and he looked, slowly, and then he saw what they were.

    They were wings.

    He stood there, transfixed. They were huge. They stretched out and around, folded against his back. He reached out a hand, tentatively, like they would bite. His fingers stroked the length of the thing and the feathers at the end, some as long as his arm. It twitched, and the nerves in it told him of his own touch. He tried flexing the new muscles in his back. The wing on his right side swept away and cleared the top of his dresser with a crash. Matt stumbled and fell on his knees.

    There was a thumping from somewhere else in his townhome. Matt froze. Then the sound of a door opening, muffled footsteps, and a knock.

    “What the hell was that, Matt? You okay in there?” said Jacob.

Then Matt remembered the night before; meeting the other man, heading out for a drink at a bar, then how it was so late that he invited Jacob over to spend the night in the guest bed. Despite the situation, Matt still felt his heart stir at the sound of his voice.

“Matt? You okay?” There was more concern in his tone.

Matt tried to respond coherently. “I’m… I’m not… really sure.”

“Hold on, I’m coming in.”

“Wait!-” Matt shouted, half climbing on to the bed to keep Jacob out. But it was too late.

Jacob opened the door. “So what’s the problem…” He trailed off.

    There was silence.

“Ah,” Jacob said quietly, “that’s the problem.”

Matt paced back and forth in the guest bedroom, running his hands through his hair and across his face. Jacob was sitting on the bed, staring at him and occasionally asking questions.

“So you have no idea how it happened?”

“None! I just woke up and I had… had…”

“Wings.”

“Wings! Yes! And now I’m going to break things when I turn around, and have to cut holes in my shirt, and I won’t be able to talk to people or see them and I’ll go and live in the woods! And be all alone!”

“Hold on! Hold on!” Jacob stood up and walked over to him. He reached out and placed his hands on either side of Matt’s jaw. “Why are you so scared?”

“Jacob! I have wings!

Jacob grabbed Matt by the shoulders and shook him a bit. “Matt! You have wings! Wings! I don’t know about you, but I think that is pretty awesome. How many other people on Earth have wings? Zero!” He paused. “Well, if you got wings it has probably happened to someone else, but- nevermind, it’s beside the point! Either way you are part of some very exclusive club! It’s, like, the uniquest-est thing that can ever happen to you! Wings! Seriously!” He pushed Matt in the chest a little.

Matt tried to calm down. He sat down, slowed his breath, and then covered his eyes for a second. When he looked again, the fear had subsided.

“I guess… I guess you’re right. I just need to calm… down. Okay. I have wings. What do I have?”

“Wings!” Jacob said.

“And that’s… okay. That’s okay.”

“Is that a problem?” Jacob asked.

“No, Matt said, “No, it’s not. It is not a problem that I have wings.”

Mathias smiled. Jacob smiled too.

“Not a problem.”

“Now,” Jacob declared, “the question is what to do about them.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, who will know? Who should we tell?”

“Why would we tell anyone?”

“It’s going to get out there eventually. Best to do it on our terms, right?”

“Yeah.. that makes some sense.”

“So who should know?”

“Someone in the government?’

“Yeah… but who?”

“How about the governor?”

“Sure… He’d understand, right?”

They made the call.

~o~

FOUR DAYS LATER

 

    The TV in the corner cast a dull light into the room. On it, a reporter was speaking in front of a low, long building.

    “The debate over the Los Angeles angel is continuing and seems to have heated up to a hot topic for next year’s presidential elections. Both parties and all candidates are including his fate in their pledges. Meanwhile, the Catholic church is trying to claim him as a gift from God, and both paranormal researchers and scientists are asking to study him. Numerous other groups want him classified as a sub-branch of Homo Sapiens, and some others want him off the human classification altogether. As of now, little is known about his condition or origins, as the officials are rather tight-lipped. In a press conference, the governor of California stated…”

    The “angel” lay curled on a bed on the opposite wall. Mathias didn’t need the reporters telling him about the protesters; he could hear them outside. His room was somewhere in some building out in the far reaches of Suburbia. He would have to assume it was normally peaceful. Now, however, the entire place hummed with a mad energy of people rushing back and forth outside, all trying to figure out what was going on. Matt looked at the door behind the glass wall. Any moment that door will open, Matt thought. The researchers had just left, they said, and would be ‘back in a second’. They were always back. One thing he had noticed is how busy and frantic everyone had become. All Matt had to do to calm down is remember what Jacob had said on that first day. His mind stumbled and his heart danced at that name. Jacob. A sliver of sanity in a world of chaos. It had been four days, Matt counted, since he had seen Jacob. The only reason he didn’t ask for the other man was because he didn’t want him to be pulled into this too. He had told him before they were separated not to come and see him. Then there was a noise outside in the hallway, and the door slid open again and the lights flicked on. He looked up. It was one of the guards. They stood in the corner during interviews and brought him food. This lady was nicer, though. She was a little warmer and kinder around him when no one else was there, and she told him in a whisper on the first day that her name was Marie. She’s the only person who remembers I’m still human, he thought. The scientists came in after her. There were three, and they all wore nametags. Perez, DeMar, and Jordinski.They sat down in front of microphones on a table.

    “Well,” DeMar said, “We tested some more results. We still have no idea how this happened.”

    “Any thoughts?” asked Perez.

“None, like the last five times,” Matt replied.

“Hm.”

Jordinski looked awkwardly at the other two. “We also… made a decision.”

“Oh really?” Matt raised his eyebrows.

“Yes. I can see you have the TV on. Then you know that you have become a bit of a spectacle to the outside world.”

“Oh, the one I never see anymore? I forgot that existed… thought the thing I’m watching was some sort of sitcom,” he said sarcastically.

“Anyway, you are causing lots of debate out there. People are getting nervous. So really the best thing to do, we think,  is… ah…”

“Fix the problem,” DeMar offered.

Matt went cold.

“What… what does that… mean, exactly?”

“Well, we could probably just take off the wings, but we can’t be sure that would calm everyone down. So we are going to have to get a little more drastic. You are throwing modern science on its head, you see. It’s really for everyone’s good.”

Marie shifted awkwardly in the corner.

“You’re going to kill me?” Matt shouted.

They looked at each other. “Well… yes,” Perez said. “We truthfully rather wouldn’t. But desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say. We’ll prepare the examination room. Marie will escort you there.”

They left.

Marie’s eyes were wide. Matt was too shocked for words. She opened the door at one end of the room, and came in to help him up. They walked out to the hallway, and there Matt finally found his voice again.

“Please… don’t do this. You heard them.”

“I did,” she stuttered. “But they are my bosses. I can’t violate their orders so directly.”

Matt’s heart sank.

“Which is why,” she said with a stronger voice, “we’re going to have to make this look good.”

“What?”

She was speaking quickly now. “When we get up here, at the turn in the hall, there will be a fire extinguisher. We’ll pretend that you clocked me with that and then ran off. This building is so old and meaningless that there aren’t even any security cameras. It should work.”

“Thank you,” he whispered.

They reached the turn. The extinguisher was bolted to the wall with two metal strips. Marie grabbed it and roughly pulled it out. She looked at the hallway for a second, quietly murmuring, then tossed it away and pulled out her gun.

“You go out. Back the way we came. There’s a door at the end of the hall into the kitchens. The first shift of cooks just got out. They should be empty. Head through, and at the other end by the refrigerators there’s another door that goes outside. Head there.”

“What will you do?”

“I’m going to knock myself in the head to get a bruise. I should be fine… it’s a pretty good setup we have here. Now run!”

“Thank you.”

She grabbed the gun by the barrel and hesitated. “First time I’ve done this,” she admitted, then whacked the handle against her forehead.

“Ooh.” Marie dropped to her knees. “Go!” she muttered.

He went.

The kitchens gleamed silver, while still managing to be covered in grime. He ran through to try and find the refrigerators when a noise made him stop. Ambling around a corner came a tall, solid old lady wearing an apron and a hair net and pushing a cleaning cart. Her expression was unreadable and didn’t change a bit when she saw him. Her nametag read ‘Darla Fig’. She kept walking.

He didn’t know what to say.

She stopped, and started mopping the floor.

“Hello?”

She was silent.

“Please don’t turn me in.”

Darla turned to him. “Why would I do that?” She kept cleaning.

He couldn’t answer this.

“You aren’t scared?” he asked.

“Why would I be scared.”

“I- I have wings.”

“Oh,” she said with a bit of sarcasm. “I didn’t notice.”

“You don’t… care?”

She turned to him again. “Kid,” she said, “Not a person on this earth cares as little as me.”

He had never got a reaction quite like this.

“But…”

“You want me to put it to you straight? As I see it, you’ve got wings. I ain’t got wings. That is not my problem. When you’ve been in this life for as long as I have, you learn that there are people. Not good or bad. And you can’t be worrying about all of them. They are all people and they are all not my problem. I don’t care about their this-and-that. If you got wings, that’s not my problem. If that banana could tap-dance and sing acapella, that is also not my problem. I go to work and I go home. Nothing else is for me to deal with, or worry about.”

He stood there silently, and he thought he understood.

“Thank you,” he said, running for the door.

“Don’t mention it.”

~o~

 

    Mathias could hear the sirens calling to each other in the near distance. He ran through the freeway overpasses, darting behind trees and over scrubby hills. To get back to the townhome, he had to head through downtown. That was a problem, but if he was quick he might be able to make it. The buildings loomed like a maze in front of him. He was moving now through the outer rings of office parks and housing complexes. Soon, he decided, he would try to get on roofs. Might as well make use of his wings. He ran, and ran, and jumped, and soared. His feet touched the tile of a roof, and then a layer of pitch. And then he was bounding over roads and sidewalks. Trees swept by below. It was exhilarating, this almost-flight. He smiled into the wind for the first time in days. He could make it through downtown. It was just jumping. He leapt again and then as his feet touched down he heard another siren. There was a police car coming down the road behind him. But he had made it. He pushed off and clung to a fire escape on a higher building. Scrambling to the roof and soaring to the next one. Sounds crashed like a river in the downtown streets below; cars and people and sirens all swirling together. He ran to the next ledge and threw himself over it, but then the door on the roof of his target opened and officers poured out. It was too late to stop, and there was only one thing for it. He landed, and they ran for him, and then he pushed straight up and soared over their heads. His wings fluttered, and he careened out into the skies of Sixth Street. He glided down, but wasn’t worried about landing wrong. He was high enough up that he could end on most any building. He aimed once again and came down, but then an enormous wind buffeted him. A helicopter was fast approaching from above, and its whirling blades pushed him like the North Wind. He went careening off into a side street and then an alley and only managed to slow his descent a little before tumbling to the ground. He could hear feet pounding and voices roaring outside, and he struggled to his feet. They hadn’t seen where he landed. When he peeked out of the alley, his view was of something out of a Hollywood movie. Cars were stopped and people were running amok. Police ran between them, trying to restore calm and find the angel. It was complete chaos.

 

    Complete chaos, caused by one man, thought the police Captain (Angel Division). He had been put in charge of bringing this guy in, and that he would do. The three scientists had been very clear; capturing this man fell at the top of the priority list, and that was also above protecting the public. Do what you have to. Bring him in alive or dead. It’s for the greater good.

He turned and addressed the man standing at the back of the room.

“Go ahead and release the tear gas. It’ll clear out most of the public and then you can go in and find him. Don’t bother to be careful.”

“But sir…”

The Captain looked at him.

He coughed. “Yes, sir. I’ll start right away.”

 

As Matt looked out of the alley, a white smoke exploded from the officers. It swept and spun and billowed as if the city’s ghosts had risen to the air. Mixing with the smog already lining the street, it cut off vision as quickly as a fog bank. People screamed more, and retched. The smoke rolled into the alley, slowly rising. Matt couldn’t see and he started to cough. Then his wings accidentally flapped, and they blew out a hole in the haze around him. He blinked in surprise. Again he flapped, and again the smoke retreated. He stepped out of the alley and found that if he brought the wings close to his face and then opened them, they pulled aside the curtains just enough to breathe. He walked like this and made his way through the cars and trucks towards where he thought the road continued. Suddenly a blue uniform emerged from the fog trailing smoky streamers. It stopped, and he saw it contained a gas-masked officer. The man stood frozen, hand on gun. Matt moved towards him. He whipped out the gun and fired. Matt ripped off into the fog. There were more shots responding like bird-calls in the distance, and the confusion mounted. Smoke was clearing around them and he could see forms pounding through the fog. People spun and danced and fell to the ground with screams of pain. He ran to the one nearest him. A dark stain covered her shirt. A bullet had found its mark.

He kneeled next to the woman. She turned her head, slowly, up to him. Her eyes widened, but she did not move away. He asked her, desperately, “Are you all right?”

    He already knew the answer.

    She coughed, and fear gripped him. But then it settled, and her eyes caught his once more. Her lips spread, and he leaned in just in time to hear the words

    “You’re an angel.”

    Then she was quiet.

    He slowly sat up, her last words reverberating through his mind. Angel. Angel. Angel.

    If anyone had looked into his eyes then, they would have seen an overflow of emotions. They jumbled and pooled and flowed down into his mouth and came out as three words.

    “I’m a monster.”

    He launched into the sky.

~o~

 

    Jacob sat on the bed, nervously running his hands up and down his legs and through his hair. It had been four days. He stood up to check the windows again when the door opened downstairs.

    “Oh thank God!” he shouted as he ran down and threw his arms around Matt.

Matt hugged him back fiercely, then turned his head and pressed his lips to Jacob’s. They stood like that for a second, then pulled apart. Matt untangled himself and held the other man at arm’s length.

“Do you want to stay with me?” he asked.

“Of course,” Jacob replied.

“Then get your things, we’re going.”

~o~

 

    The president was finishing up her speech, now.

    “...next few days. Caution is the key. Like it or not, this is a new time we live in.”

    She reached the end. Everyone applauded politely. She moved to leave the stage, then stopped. A thought had come to her. She stepped back to the microphone.

    “Los Angeles has been called the ‘City of Angels’. That carries so much more meaning than we ever could have predicted now.”

    She walked off the stage.