CHRYSALIS

 

 

 

††††††††††† So... I woke up that morning to discover my fingers were doing a fairly believable impression of little stuffed breakfast sausages. They were puffy and swollen. I tried to flex them, but they would bend only about halfway. They felt as though someone had injected them with Styrofoam while I slept.

††††††††††† The fact was that it was most likely water retention, a nasty little trick that my body pulls on me now and then. I eat healthy; I do my "eight minutes of torture" ab workout daily. I make sure that when I have a boyfriend over (which isn't often lately) that I take every possible precaution to protect myself--and this is how my body pays me back. By collecting every drop of water I drink (plus, I suspect, some which I never drank in the first place--perhaps absorbed from the air) until my Kate Winslet body is bloated like a dead, beached whale. (No, I am not exaggerating! I am a gross, disgusting object of revulsion around my period. I should know: I have to live with this body.)

††††††††††† Anyway... I put on a pair of stretch-pants, a pullover, and a pair of slip-ons so I wouldn't have to attempt to work buttons or shoelaces with my fatty fingers, and I went to work. I do database programming (SQL, mainly; not because it's the best, but because that's what the market demands) so I have the luxury of being able to hide in my office for ten to twelve hours with virtually no human contact. Unfortunately, my project leader came to my office at 9:00 and informed me that I had to give a presentation of our current project to one of the upper-level committees responsible for our funding, at 1:00. So instead of knocking out some productive code, I spent the morning assembling overhead transparencies, flowcharts, and graphs. I had only about twenty minutes for lunch, which was fine, because I intended to eat and drink as little as possible to try to flush my body out. During the presentation, I tried to keep my hands hidden behind my laptop's display as much a possible. Afterward, I had to stand and make business small talk with several of the attendees, and by the time I had made the long walk back to my office, my feet were also swollen and hurting. I pried my shoes off and let the two water balloons attached to the ends of my legs cool.

††††††††††† That night, I sprawled on the couch and watched television. I drank lots of water. (For some reason, drinking lots of water is supposed to help reduce water retention. Seems backwards to me, but I was willing to try most anything at that point.) I went to bed early, my fat little sausage fingers tucked beneath my pillow, and my fat little water balloon feet tucked beneath the comforter folded at the end of my bed.

††††††††††† I had strange dreams. I dreamt of being in wildflower fields where the blossoms were the size of my head. I saw myself moving among the wildflowers, and I seemed taller and thinner, like seeing my image stretched in a funhouse mirror. There was another thing that I thought was different or unusual about myself, but as I woke the details of my dream faded from the peripheral vision of my mind. I woke with something much more serious to think about.

††††††††††† I woke gasping for air and the blood throbbing in my head. The neck of the long t-shirt that I always wore to bed was cutting into my throat. My thick, swollen, bulbous neck. I struggled to pull it off. My arms were also stiff with bloat. This was no longer a case of simple water retention. I felt the first twinge of panic in my stomach. What was wrong with me?

††††††††††† I struggled out of bed and tottered to the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror. I had the round, heavy head of an infant. Every part of my body, the skin was stretched tight, seemingly ready to split. Oddly, other than suddenly looking like a sumo wrestler, I felt fine. In fact, I was hungry. But despite how I felt, there was no way I was going to be seen in public in this condition. Besides, I could barely walk.

††††††††††† I tried to call in sick, but my thick tongue formed only indistinguishable sounds. So I ended up e-mailing a note to work. That in itself took some time, because my fingers were too fat to operate the keyboard. I was forced to tap my message out one letter at a time with the eraser end of a pencil. Despite my vow not to be seen in public, I knew that I had to go to a doctor. Although I felt fine now, this could be the onset of some terrible, potentially fatal disease. I thought of the characters in Stephen King's novel "The Stand", whose necks became swollen like inner tubes right before they died, and I sat and cried a little at my computer out of the terror of the unknown. I would definitely go to the doctor--but in a little while. I was exhausted from hauling my newfound weight around the apartment, and I was beginning to ache all over, a soreness down in my bones. I frequently felt this way when I was coming down with the flu, and I thought again of "The Stand" and its flu-like symptoms.

††††††††††† I shook the terrible thought out of my head. It would do no good to draw imagined correlations between my problem and fictional characters. What would do some good would be to take something for my aches and rest before I visited the hospital. So I took a couple of Advil and crawled (more like flopped) back into bed for a short nap.

††††††††††† Only I didn't wake up again that day.

††††††††††† It felt like I had been asleep for only a couple of hours. I was groggy, and my eyes felt stuck shut. I tried to stretch my arms and legs, but it was difficult to move, like trying to swim through molasses. I began to panic. I tried to inhale, but was unable to pull anything into my lungs. Blind, unable to move or breathe, I wanted to thrash, struggle, but the movement wouldn't happen. Every muscle in my body tensed. My back arched. There was a crack, more felt than heard, like ice cracking on a lake, There was a cold sensation of the molasses flowing away, and I was able to arch my back further, until I sensed that I was more or less in a kneeling position with my head down. I struggled to sit upright. Finally, I felt cool air on my face and I could to breathe. I still could not see, but I could move my arms. I wiped at my eyes and discovered a sticky, syrupy substance coating my face. I opened my eyes a little, but the light was painful, and I could only make out blurred shapes. I tried to get out of bed, to get to the bathroom and into the shower, but I stumbled and fell off the bed onto the floor. I lay there a while, too weak to move. I think I fell asleep again, because when I opened my eyes next, I could see fairly clearly. And to be honest, what I saw frightened me more than when I was paralyzed, blind, and suffocating.

††††††††††† A puddle of ooze, purplish-clear, spread across the floor. Its surface shimmered oily rainbows. I lay in the middle of that puddle. On the bed, curling and half-dried, a whitish husk remained where I had napped. It had a horrifyingly familiar shape.

††††††††††† Crawling on my hands and knees, I approached the bed and knelt beside the thing. It was a grossly distorted mockery of a human figure. It lay on its stomach, arms and legs outstretched, the head facedown upon the pillow. A great split ran from the base of the neck to the tailbone, curling along the drying edges. With a hand trembling from†††††† both weakness and fright, I delicately lifted the head and turned it toward me. The brittle shell cracked and tore, and the head broke away from the body as I twisted it. But before I dropped it back onto the pillow in surprise and revulsion, I glimpsed enough of it to recognize that, through its ballooned, flattened visage, the face was my own.

††††††††††† I crawled to the bathroom and turned on the shower, hot. I slithered into the tub like an otter and sat on the porcelain and let the steamy water rinse the purplish slime from my body. For the first time since I awoke, I noticed my appearance. I was no longer bloated. In fact, I appeared to be thinner than before. What's more, my arms and legs looked longer. I peered closely at my feet. They were longer, narrower, and flatter. My toes were freakishly long, almost as long as my fingers. I looked at my hands. They, too, were longer and narrower, and the fingers extended by half their length. I'd seen fingers like these before, in an old silent vampire movie, "Nosferatu." Oh, god, had I become a vampire?

††††††††††† I pulled myself from the bathtub and took a few fragile steps to the sink. The mirror was steamed over. I wiped away the condensation with my hand and saw what I had become. I had become the image of myself from my dream, stretched and narrowed. From my height in relation to the sink, I guessed that I was a foot and a half taller. I had not been very tall before (5'4"), but now I was nearly seven feet tall! My head resembled the popular depiction of alien visitors--teardrop shaped with large almond eyes (still blue, thank god, not black) and a tiny, pursed mouth. My neck was abnormally long and thin. I pulled my lips back and snarled at myself. No vampire fangs, at least. And I had not lost my long, chestnut-colored hair, my one feature I had been proud of.

††††††††††† This part may be hard to understand (okay, no more so than my story so far, but maybe unusual given the circumstances). Along with my physical appearance, there seemed to have come a shift in my attitude as well. Instead of feeling frightened upon seeing myself in the mirror, I actually felt ok with what I had become. I felt more confident. I was more concerned about finding clothes to fit my new body than going out in public looking like an extraterrestrial female basketball player. Maybe it was that I had always felt insecure about my body. I was short, slightly heavy (baby-fat heavy, not junk-food-fat heavy. What I described as "Kate Winslet"--round cheeked, but still within the boundaries of trim), and not overly attractive. It was like I had gone to sleep as Janeane Garafalo and I woken up as Uma Thurman. It was like a narcotic which suppressed the fact that I had metamorphosized into something just the other side of human.

††††††††††† For now, I was just thankful to have my freedom of movement back. I was feeling stronger by the minute, and I began to think about something to eat. I felt like I hadn't eaten in days. But first, what to do about the mess in the bedroom?

††††††††††† I found a couple of old towels I didn't care about so much and mopped up the slime puddle on the floor. The shell (my "chrysalis" I suppose) was another matter. I couldn't exactly stuff it in the garbage can. I squeezed its foot between my thumb and finger. It crumbled into a thousand flakes. Okay, then. I pulled the bedsheet from its corners and bundled the chrysalis up. Then I pounded that sucker into dust. I carried the wad of bedsheet into the kitchen and poured the pulverized shell down the garbage disposal. I grinned. Easiest body disposal ever.

††††††††††† Next, it was back to the bedroom to find some clothes. There were very few items that I would fit into now. I pulled out a red dress. Once, it had hung down almost to my ankles. Now it was more like a miniskirt. I went to the full-length mirror and held it up to myself. Not bad. It stopped just above the knee, and for once a sleeveless dress with straps would be practical.

††††††††††† The whole time I stood there, I had had an itch on my back something fierce, right between my shoulder blades where I couldn't quite reach. Finally, I reached over my shoulder with the clothes hanger and nailed the spot. My back twinged, a small muscle spasm, and--pop!-- a pair of wings unfurled behind me! I think I shrieked (just a little). I clapped both hands over my open mouth. If I made any noise, my brain did not process it.

††††††††††† Stepping backwards slowly, the backs of my calves found the edge of the bed and sat the rest of me down on it. The phrases repeating themselves over and over in my brain began "Holy mother of Christ" and spiraled downward into a creative stream of expletives. I felt dizzy. I wasn't sure if I wanted to deal with this by fainting or throwing up. Evidently, I did both.

††††††††††† I came to again to find myself lying on my side on the bed, and a new mess to clean up on the floor. I stood up and tentatively stepped toward the mirror. They (the wings--I forced myself to use the word) were still there. Not a hallucination. Not an optical illusion. Honest to-god wings spiking out of my back, baby. Now, these weren't angel wings, or bird wings, or what the word "wings" usually brings to mind. These were more like... Well, they were bug wings. They were shaped somewhat like damselfly wings (swept-back, not straight out the sides like a dragonfly's), except with a boomerang curve which caused the tops to stick out above my shoulders and away from my head. And they were colorful. Bright red and orange and yellow. Wings on fire.

††††††††††† I reached behind me and gently touched one. I had expected to feel brittle foil, as a bug's wing. Instead, they were leathery to the touch. Strong. Powerful. I tried to flap them. I thought about flapping motions, but nothing happened. This wasn't as easy as I had figured. Maybe I was making too much conscious effort. I went deep down, focused on my individual back muscles, particularly the ones I couldn't really "feel".

††††††††††† My wings moved, ever so slightly.

††††††††††† I went back, clawed to rediscover whatever I had done to create the movement. They rustled, almost imperceptibly. Back, over that spot in my mind again. There? Yes, a faint dip and return. I settled on that spot, became familiar with its feel, learned to return to it at will. Concentrating, I brought the wings up and down. A real flap. The breeze from it rustled my curtains and unsettled my hair. I giggled. I laughed. I was a bird!

††††††††††† Well, not quite. There was still the small matter of flying. Surely these were more than ornamental. My mind went back to that spot. It took all of my concentration at first, but I stayed there, and I swept my wings back and forth, again and again, sending whirlwinds around my small bedroom. Papers flew. The bed sheets billowed and sailed off the bed. And ever so gradually I felt gravity disappear. My feet began to lose their sense of the carpet. And then my toes were kissing the floor goodbye, and I was in the air. Really in the air. Really flying. I was! I was a bird!

††††††††††† Then my head hit the ceiling and I fell to the floor like a wet washrag.

 

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††††††††††† Knowing that I was being foolish and probably making a mistake, I returned to work. The wings folded away neatly and were not even noticeable beneath my red dress (the same one I had tried on in my bedroom--at the moment the only item that fit me. I'd have to shop for a new wardrobe soon.) Of course, because of the wings I wasn't able to wear a bra. But my new stretched and thinned physique made that somewhat of a non-issue, if you catch my drift.

††††††††††† The stares and comments were to be expected. Most of my coworkers didn't recognize me right off. I explained patiently and repeatedly that I was dealing with a non-specific medical condition, and that my gaunt look was an unfortunate side effect of the treatment. No one asked how the treatment had increased my height so dramatically, and I did not volunteer an explanation for that bit.

††††††††††† I was delighted to find that my extra-long fivers enabled me to type extra-fast. One of the problems I've always had is that my fingers cannot type as fast as I can think. My brain has a tendency to visualize code in whole chunks. I know what it is that the program needs to do at that point, and I see it in my head as whole, modular pieces. However, my fingers are not nearly quick enough to keep up, and I inevitably lose my train of thought and have to scroll through the entire thing again in my head. Now I was flying through the lines, entering the scripts almost as quickly as my brain could conceive them.

††††††††††† In the evenings, I practiced flying. Only around my apartment at first, a foot or so off the ground and at low speed. I did this until I mastered maneuvering, starts, stops, landings. Then I drove a few miles outside of town to a small, unmonitored state park usually empty of campers. Teenagers occasionally hung out there, but not in large enough numbers to be a problem.

††††††††††† There was a large empty field adjacent to the campground, and a small river that cut through the hills and created a nicely unobstructed run. I wanted the privacy for two reasons. First and most obvious, the world probably isn't ready for me. At best, I would gather crowds who would follow me home, and I would never know privacy again. At worst, some xenophobic farmer or hunter would shoot me. Second (and I know that this is a terribly girlie thought in light of the circumstances), at that point I still didn't have any clothes that permitted the wings to protrude, so I had to fly topless. Somehow I was still more self-conscious about people seeing my boobs than my wings. Years of mental conditioning, I guess.

††††††††††† I got to be quite good. I could take off almost vertically, and could skim the treetops and swoop down the river run with the best and fastest of the birds. I flew above the cloudtops, saw the stars in a sky unpolluted by light or haze. I saw the city, an island of light in the darkness, the dim glows of its smaller companion towns perched on the cusp of the horizon. I breathed sharper, purer air than I had ever experienced. It flushed the buildup of pollutants from my lungs and gave me more energy and enthusiasm for life. For the first time, existing up there on the wild currents, I felt the expression of an individual, unbound by convention, unrestrained.

††††††††††† Then it all went to hell.

††††††††††† I usually parked my little red Corolla on the grass just off the road, where a grove of trees hid it from view of the main road into the park. I returned that night from a few hours of flying and descended gently on the passenger side of my car. Not until I was almost entirely around the car did I notice the two young men attempting to hotwire it. One was slumped in the drivers seat, fumbling beneath the steering column. His partner leaned in the open door, whispering advice. Obviously everything they knew about hot-wiring had come from 1960s outlaw movies, because the helpful one was saying things like, "Look for something yellow and black, man. Its always yellow and black." I know very, very little about cars, but even I knew that they would have better luck cracking the steering column with a screwdriver and bypassing the ignition. They probably would also have accomplished the task quickly enough to be miles away before I surprised them, which in hindsight might have been preferable. (Oh, did I mention that my clothes were in the back seat? And that my keys were with my clothes, had these morons thought to look?)

††††††††††† Initially, I was more startled and frightened then they were. I came around the car, suddenly noticed them, and let out a little shriek. They both went bolt upright, as though shot through by an electrical current. Helper boy whirled and saw me. The kid in the car didn't bother to look. He bolted from the car, probably intended to make a run for the trees. He slammed into his partner, who, transfixed, had forgotten to run. They quickly untangled themselves and lay on the ground, staring. Still stunned, I stared back, and the three of us created a comical motionless vignette for several moments.

††††††††††† Then helper boy started to cry. I mean really blubbering. "Oh, Jesus Christ, what is that?" His blubbering reduced him to barely audible mewling. Please don't hurt me, please don't hurt me."

††††††††††† His partner grabbed him up by the collar. "Shut up and run, Dave!"

††††††††††† They began to scramble away, mostly on all fours. I felt I should stop them; I couldn't allow my secret to be exposed. Dave's partner had a pretty good lead, but Dave still struggled to find his footing. I reached out to grab him by the collar, but missed and raked his cheek with my fingernails. I didn't intend to hurt the poor guy. Dave shrieked like the thing that gives banshees nightmares. He instantly found his feet and covered the remaining ground to the trees before I realized that he had slipped my grasp.

††††††††††† Well, I'd been seen. I ought to get dressed and get out of here. Leaning into the car to grab my clothes, I lingered to inspect the interior and see if they'd taken anything. Everything appeared intact. Suddenly, I was flooded in light. I looked up to see the headlights of a pickup truck rapidly approaching from the direction the two punks had run in. They were charging me, attempting to run me down! I had very little time to react. I let straight up and let the truck charge past. I half-expected them to turn and come back, but they appeared to be heading for the main road instead.

††††††††††† There have been many additional subtle effects from my transformation. One of those is much sharper eyesight. As the pickup sped away, I spotted an item among the scattered garbage in the bed. A purse. My purse! The purse I thought had been tucked beneath the passenger seat, well out of view. The worst thing that I could have had stolen. A little cash was inside, but not a lot. The credit cards could be cancelled with a simple phone call. But my identification was inside. My name. My address. And they had seen me. I had to retrieve it.

††††††††††† The truck was accelerating fast, nearing the park entrance. I raced after them. They barreled through the main gate and turned onto the highway. My wings tore at the wind. Ever so gradually, I crept up on them. The old truck seemed to have met its maximum speed, and it was all I could do to match it. Over the pickup bed now... I dropped low. Almost within reach...

††††††††††† Dave's partner most have looked in his rear-view and seen me. He looked back at me over his shoulder and yelled something. Dave turned, too, and screamed. I kept one eye on my purse--which constantly remained just a few inches beyond reach--and one eye on the cab. I was worried about what was in the cab with the two boys. I don't know my firearms, but I am familiar with the sight of hunting trucks and I knew that what was mounted in the rear window was either a deer rifle or a pheasant shotgun. And sure enough, Dave was trying to unsecure it from its mounts. The moment had met its crisis. Time to get desperate.

††††††††††† I brought myself down hard into a crash-landing in the back of their pickup. The wind got knocked out of me, but there was no time to recover. Beer cans, some tow chain, a spare tire, random loose tools, all oil-covered, assaulted me. I fumbled among the jostling cargo of crap and got my purse in hand. I looked up. Dave looked back at me down the hollows of his shotgun. I dove, twisting, out of the bed and felt the hot wind of buckshot skim by. I flapped frantically, tried to recover my flight, failed. I tumbled into the ditch. I was lucky that the county had not mowed in some time, and my rough fall was cushioned somewhat by long prairie grass, cattails, and ditch weed.

††††††††††† I lay in the grass for quite some time, panting, and listening for the truck to return. I heard nothing but crickets and distant tree frogs.

††††††††††† I could breath normally again, and I had convinced myself that they weren't coming back, I got to my feet and checked myself out. All of my parts were intact. I checked my wings; nothing broken, but the muscles deep within the center of my back screamed. Obviously this little adventure was going to stay with me for some time.

††††††††††† As I slowly limped through the air back to my car, I could not have known the full extent to which this night would remain with me.

 

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††††††††††† I decided that it would be best to avoid the park for a while. I stayed home the next day and made like a couch potato. I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of microwave popcorn. That night, part of the late local news was about me.

††††††††††† The newscaster--a young buck not long out of journalism school with tall, blow-dried hair and big teeth--introduced a piece about two guys who claimed to have encountered a giant birdlike creature in the Glen River Valley. The piece was all stock footage of the park and voiceover. The two men wanted to remain anonymous, but I immediately knew that they were my friends Dave and Dave's buddy. They said that they were attacked from above while hunting nightcrawlers. A shot of one man's cheek that did not reveal the rest of his face showed the scratches that I had accidentally given Dave, accompanied by their assertion that the creature had attempted to cut off his head with its "talons." Oh, I almost choked on my popcorn when I heard that! They said that the creature chased their pickup "at speeds well over 100 mph" and tried to smash through the rear window. As it did, they shot it in self-defense and it fell into the ditch. They went back the next morning but were unable to find the body.

††††††††††† And that was it. Thirty seconds of pure lies about me. Fortunately, nobody knew that it was about me, and the two most likely would be disregarded as hillbilly drunks. Still, it was now more important than ever that I not go flying for a while. The back roads would be filled with trigger-happy hunters eager to bag the Glen Valley Monster. I hoped that not many people had been watching. I mean, who really stays up to catch the tail end of the late news?

††††††††††† The next day I found out.

††††††††††† I try to tell myself that what happened next was a matter of fate, an unavoidable conjunction of stars and planets. It was really just plain bad luck. If the country had been engrossed in a celebrity trial or a Presidential scandal, the local news story would have died then and there. But as my luck would have it, the next day was a very slow news day. And on very slow news days, CNN goes fishing for local-interest stories. And they found me.

††††††††††† By the time CNN finished rewriting and further exaggerating the story, the Glen Valley Monster had become a "wave" of sightings by "dozens" of townspeople. It was seen peering into people's windows at night and was blamed for the disappearance of small pets. Dave and his buddy became two of many people whose cars had been chased in the Glen Valley area.

††††††††††† Our little town was suddenly on the map. Within days, out-of-state license plates were as common as dandelions. Most of these were sightseers, the curious who hoped to see (or shoot) a monster. The reporters came mostly in rental Fords or satellite-linked news vans. (There were only two of the latter. A story of this nature isn't usually worth the expense of satellite bandwidth.)

††††††††††† I decided that doing my normal routine was the best way to not attract attention to myself. So I went to work, where I kept to myself, as usual. (One nice side effect was that there were fewer than usual suspicious, appalled, sideways looks from the other girls. They were preoccupied with monster talk. A common opinion was "I've lived here my whole life and I've never seen anything unusual. I think they saw a big hawk.") As a precaution, I took to wearing a long coat, sunglasses, and a big floppy hat when in public. I looked a little bit like Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca," albeit stretched in a funhouse mirror.

††††††††††† Now, unlike most people, I don't mind waiting in line at the grocery store checkout. It's one of the few times when I already have found everything that I need, there is nobody talking to me or asking me to make a decision, and I can stand quietly and observe what's going on around me. The checkout line is a few moments of Zen for me. I was there in line, wearing my long coat and floppy hat, when I saw an artist's depiction of me for the first time. The attention-grabbing headline splayed across the front page of The Weekly World News read "HAWKGIRL TERROR RAMPAGE". Taking up the rest of the page was an artist's conception of a young couple cowering outside of their parked car. The girl was frantically trying to open the car door, her dress torn. The boy was waving a tire iron at a menacing winged beast hovering just above them. It was obviously female, with gigantic breasts to rival Wonder Woman's, its body covered with feathers. Its hands were outstretched toward the couple with claw-tipped fingers. Huge red eyes glowed above an open, shrieking peak. I looked really cool.

††††††††††† By this time, my apprehension and irritation was gradually becoming replaced by amusement. The Hawkgirl stories (or Butterfly Girl, or simply the Glen Valley Monster) had become so outlandish and unrealistic that I had stopped worrying about anyone identifying them with meek little me. I had still not flown since the night Dave and his friend broke into my car, but I no longer felt the need to hide from society. I dropped the tabloid into my shopping cart for some light entertainment.

††††††††††† Once back at my apartment, I pulled the shades, stripped naked, and unfurled my wings. It felt good to stretch them after keeping them bunched up beneath my clothes for so long. I retrieved the tabloid from one of the plastic grocery bags and perused it while flapping in place about a foot off the carpet.

††††††††††† Blah-blah-blah...rampage of terror...blah-blah...blamed on the disappearance of many local pets...blah-blah...mutilated livestock (that was new)...blah-blah...unexplained lights in the sky (that was inevitable...blah-blah-blah...reminiscent of the Mothman terror of the late '60s... Huh?

††††††††††† I re-read the paragraph. "These sightings are eerily reminiscent of the Mothman terror of the late '60s. Residents of Point Pleasant, WY, were hounded in 1966 and 1967 by a red-eyed, winged creature that peered in their windows and chased their vehicles. Mothman made his last appearance immediately prior to the collapse of Silver Bridge, which went down with a loss of 47 lives. Residents of this community wonder what fate Hawkgirl holds in store for them."

††††††††††† Mothman. Could it be...that there are others?

††††††††††† I have a computer that sits on a small desk in the corner of my living room. I rarely ever use it. After spending nine to ten hours a day front of a monitor and keyboard watching my newly compiled code generate newly discovered errors, I want almost nothing to do with computers once I am home. As a result, I don't have the most up-to-date hardware or software, but itís enough to get me onto the Internet. I turned the computer on and went to the kitchen to make myself a sandwich. I returned with my sandwich just as Windows warbled out its annoying little startup sound. Soon I was dialed into my ISP and watching web pages load at 28.8kps. (As I said, I don't have much use for a computer at home, so I don't plan to upgrade unless I absolutely have to. So I will tell you right now that it will do no good to inform me of the wonders of ISDN or DSL or Pentiums or Athlons, or Powermacs for that matter. I am a lowtech girl, but I am not an uninformed girl, so letís move on, shall we?)

††††††††††† A search on "Mothman" " brought back several hits. All but a few contained only a brief mention of Mothman while devoting pages of text and images to more popular beasts like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. One site, however, was devoted entirely to Mothman. There were many "then and now" pictures of Point Pleasant, including the infamous Silver Bridge, and sketches of Mothman based on eyewitness descriptions. I quite frankly thought that most of them resembled an owl, but the huge, glowing red eyes and its height in relation to nearby objects were certainly not owlish. The site also gave a complete, detailed account of those two years. Mothman was generally described as grey, seven or eight feet tall, with no head and glowing, saucer-sized red eyes in its chest. This last part I thought was especially unbelievable, but the web site's author didn't think so.

††††††††††† "Ancient lore is loaded with stories of people whose faces grow out of their chests. The Libyans believed in a tribe that consisted of monsters whose eyes were in their breasts. Sir John Mandeville wrote of the land of the Anthropophagi, an "Iyle where dwell men that have no heads and theyr eyes are in theyr shoulders and theyr mouth is on theyr breaste.' Shakespeare makes mention of the Anthropophagi in Othello, Act 1, scene 3: 'The Anthropophagi and men whose heads Do grow beneath their shoulders.' Even the ancient Maya had traditions of men whose faces were in their breasts. So headless beasts with eyes in their torsos are not unprecedented."

††††††††††† I ran my fingertips down the length of my elongated neck. Wasn't it possible that a different person could have been affected oppositely? Maybe this Mothman was a person like me, but whose transformation had given them more owl-like features, such as a neck that caused their head to appear to blend with their torso.

††††††††††† The story said that Mothman flew without flapping its wings (not likely, I thought) and that it often took off straight up (yes, I could do that). It was last seen beneath the Silver Bridge the day before its collapse, and has not been seen since, leading many people to believe that Mothman was trying to warn the town of the impending disaster. Or maybe the unlucky bastard had roosted in the girders and got caught in the collapse, I thought. There was much speculation as to what Mothman may have been. An alien from a UFO, a large owl, a sandhill crane, even the product of mass hysteria. Myself, I had a good idea of what Mothman might have been, and I was willing to put money down that my theory was the right one.

††††††††††† The web site had a section called "Other Winged People". It seems that bird-people have been witnessed for centuries. The 20th-Century sightings alone were a remarkable list. Kazakhstan, 1936. Chehalis, Washington, 1948. Pelotas, Brazil, 1951. Kyoto, Japan, 1952. Houston, Texas, 1953. Falls City, Nebraska, 1956. Da Nang, Vietnam, 1969. Now I could be added to that list.

††††††††††† The nearest, most-recently documented sightings were the ones from Point Pleasant, WV. It was unlikely that the original Mothman was still alive almost forty years later, but maybe I could uncover some other evidence there. I wasn't sure of what I was looking for, other than knowledge that there were others like me, that I wasn't a freak of nature (not an isolated freak, anyway). Most of all, I was frightened. Despite the courage and confidence that had come with my metamorphosis, I still was unsure of what would happen to me. Would I change further and become totally avian? Did I have as-yet undiscovered health problems? Would I die soon? I needed to find others like me who could answer my questions, who could tell me what would happen in the years to come. And I needed to be around people who would accept me without fear and who I did not feel the need to keep secrets from. And my best and only place to begin that search was West Virginia.

 

----------

 

††††††††††† In the weeks following my transformation, I had bought almost an entire new wardrobe to fit my suddenly svelte frame and altered most of the shirts and dresses to allow my wings to project through. I packed all of them into suitcases and crammed them into the trunk of my Corolla. I had briefly considered flying to West Virginia (and I don't mean by airplane). However, I am a girl of many needs, and hairspray, soft pillows, and clean silverware are among them. I had no intention of roosting in trees at night and living off bugs and berries. So I loaded up my car and set off the next morning.

††††††††††† I stopped at one of the local stop-and-robs to fill the Corolla's tank and grab some road munchies. The sole driveway to this place had always been a pain to get in and out of. Half a block down was a stoplight at a major intersection. Traffic was often backed up to or beyond the convenience store's exit, so sometimes you had to wait quite a while to get out. To make matters worse, the stoplight had separate left-turn signals, and traffic in one direction would often get a green light before the other. If your view was obstructed, you never knew whether traffic was coming toward you or not. My route out of town that morning meant making a left turn out of the stop-and-rob, and my view was blocked by a semi to my right waiting in line at the light. The road to my left was clear, and no cars appeared to be coming through from the right, so I chanced it and zipped my little red car out onto the road. Too late I saw the blue-and-white pickup as I cleared the rear of the semi. I swerved, but the pickup caught my rear bumper and pushed me into a spin into the oncoming lane. From the corner of my eye, I saw my rear bumper, gleaming in the morning sun, spinning like a propeller in the opposite direction. I tensed in anticipation of a collision from the oncoming lane, but I got lucky. The road was still clear from that way. My car hit the curb backwards, bumped over it and across the sidewalk, and rear-ended the convenience store's dumpster.

††††††††††† I had to sit for a moment to be sure that the wild ride was over. I was trembling, and my legs felt as if all the blood had been sucked out of them. Everything was really bright. Oh; my sunglasses had been knocked off. My big hat was also in my lap. I tentatively turned my head. No pain. That was good. And somehow my poor little car was still running. For some reasons I thought, "I need to go get my bumper."

††††††††††† The pickup had turned into the convenience store and driven up next to me. The driver was out and coming over to my driver's door.

††††††††††† "Hey, lady, are you okay?"

††††††††††† I turned and looked out the side window at him. We both froze for a couple of seconds, that moment when you recognize someone, but can't think of where you've met before. Then it hit me. It was Dave.

††††††††††† "You!" he cried

††††††††††† I was totally paralyzed. I couldn't even think of what to do as he pulled open the driver's door. My mind raced, trying to remember the very simple thing I should do to get out of this. But I could only stare as he grabbed my arm and tried to drag me out of the car. Then my reflexes got tired of waiting for me to make a decision and acted. I screamed.

††††††††††† The air filled with an inhuman sound. I did not even think that I was making it at first. It sounded like a screech owl fighting a cat while being broadcast through malfunctioning amplifiers. Startled, Dave dropped my arm and stepped back. It also snapped my conscious mind to attention and I began barking myself orders: "Foot. Gas. Go!"

††††††††††† I stomped on the gas pedal and shot across the sidewalk and over the curb and turned toward the light, narrowly missing yet another accident. At the intersection, I turned right again so I wouldn't have to wait for the light, and then I didn't stop until I was out of town. No blue pickup appeared in my rearview mirror. I probably scared Dave worse than he'd scared me. If the look on his face was any indication, I had probably forced him to go home and change shorts. I began to chuckle to myself. Soon I was laughing out loud, and I laughed for miles until all of my anxiety bled away in a massive giggle-fit.

 

----------

 

††††††††††† Point Pleasant sits on the Ohio River just a loud holler from Ohio. It lies in a peculiar, narrow strip of the country where grassy plains and cornfields commingle with scattered hilly forests, and the forested hills are contemplating becoming mountains but haven't yet worked up the enthusiasm. The town itself looks like most other midwestern towns. Other than a few store windows hawking Mothman t-shirts and souvenirs, you would never guess that a major paranormal event had occurred here. The long-lost Silver Bridge has been replaced by a more modern structure, but the town is otherwise unchanged from the 1960s. Following a map printed from the web site, I drove through the area where most of the sightings happened, the old military storage site the locals call the TNT.

††††††††††† Some of the buildings Mothman was seen in and around have been torn down, and only grassy fields remain. Even the old storage bunkers which once featured so prominently in the landscape have overgrown with grass. If not for the old pictures from the web site, I would have taken them for nothing more than oddly symmetrical hills. The roads themselves out there are two-lane, narrow and deteriorating. Some are little more than gravel paths. The terrain is long stretches of grassy fields punctuated sporadically by clusters of trees. It was easy to imagine the sense of desolation one must feel when out there alone at night. I decided to head back to town and find a place to stay. Sunset was only a couple of hours away, and I didn't want to find out how desolate the TNT was after dark.

††††††††††† I found a decent, quiet motel along highway 62 on the eastern edge of town. The young, dark-haired desk girl couldn't hide her curiosity over my appearance. I ignored her as I filled out the registration card. This was something I was beginning to get used to.

††††††††††† Finally, the girl said, "You play basketball?"

††††††††††† In fact, I had played basketball in high school. I hadn't been very good at it. I reckoned that I could probably show those stuck-up girls whom I'd had to play with a thing or two now. I smiled at the thought.

††††††††††† "Yeah. A long time ago."

††††††††††† "I'm on our high school team, the Wildcats. I've played the last two years, but I don't think I'll go out for it next year. I mean, I play alright, but there's a lot more politics than I thought there would be. You don't get to just play and enjoy yourself, you know what I mean?"

††††††††††† I nodded. "I think you should do what you enjoy. If life gives you a particular talent, and you enjoy it, you should run with it and do what you can with it."

††††††††††† "That makes a lot of sense. What do you enjoy doing?"

††††††††††† I thought about it a second. "Flying."

††††††††††† Sleep came in short bursts that night. Probably I had just worked myself up, but something about the stillness of the dark seemed unnatural. Even with the air conditioner thrumming, the air felt dank and heavy. An aura of dread hangs over Point Pleasant at night. It's so tangible you can almost hear it like the buzz of a cheap fluorescent light.

††††††††††† At a little before 3:00AM, I was lying awake, watching the rare passing car cast its headlights across the ceiling. Without warning, a shadow eclipsed the slit of light shining between the curtains. At first I thought that someone was just passing by, but the shadow remained. Someone was standing outside my window. I tilted my head, up and looked to the curtains. The dim light from the parking lot security lamp revealed the uncertain outlines of a huge, hulking shape just outside my window. And near the top of the window, unblinking, a glowing red eye watched me. I froze. Our gazes locked. After what seemed like minutes but was probably only seconds, the shape moved on down the walkway.

††††††††††† I threw the blankets aside and jumped out of bed. I pulled on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and ran out the door. At the end of the second-floor walkway, two red orbs shone in my direction from out of the shadows. Then a large, shapeless shadow separated from the rest of the blackness. In a flash it extended shadow wings and leaped out over the railing and soared like a kite into the night sky.

††††††††††† "You son of a bitch," I thought. "All this time I've been hunting you, you've been stalking me."

††††††††††† Silently, my own wings unfurled and I flung myself over the sail like a platform diver. In seconds I was high above the motel, circling and searching for my quarry. There. Caught for an instant in a streetlight. Following the highway out of town. Toward the TNT area. I gave chase.

††††††††††† I have no doubt now that the stories of Mothman flying in excess of 100mph are true. Even at top speed, as fast as I'd flown the night I chased Dave's truck, I could not hope to catch him. In fact, I got the impression that he was slowing up every once in a while, allowing me to remain on his tail. Why not? After all, this was really his chase, not mine.

††††††††††† It wasn't long before I found myself over the TNT area. Beneath me were the overgrown storage bunkers I'd seen earlier. From above, they were little more than gooseflesh on the land. I looked up again. Dammit. I'd lost him. I'd let my eyes off of him for one second and he had disappeared into the darkness. Dammit, dammit.

††††††††††† Powerful hands grabbed my arms from behind. I shrieked, the same screech owl cry as before, but this time my assailant was unshaken, I struggled and squirmed and beat my wings, but the stony grip never faltered. It pushed me down, down toward the bunkers. I closed my eyes as the ground rose to smash me, but at the last second we slowed and my feet gently touched the grass. The hands released me. I whirled, ready to fight.

††††††††††† The black shadow stood silent. It was taller than I, a good seven feet or more. Shadow wings folded in and melded with its inky blackness. The two glowing red orbs watched me, unblinking. Guess it was up to me to break the ice.

††††††††††† "So. You're really the Mothman, huh?"

††††††††††† The shadow said nothing.

††††††††††† "You do talk, right?" If I had assumed wrong, and Mothman really was a wild creature and not human, I could be in big trouble here.

††††††††††† "Lewis," it said.

††††††††††† "Hag your Pardon?"

††††††††††† "My name is Lewis. And I'm about as close to a moth as you are to a hawk." The words sighed out of him, like the sound of sand whispering through the neck of an hourglass.

††††††††††† "Lewis. Okay. Aileen." I extended my hand. A tendril of the black drifted out to meet it and briefly brushed my palm. It felt rough, bristly.

††††††††††† "You need my help," Lewis said. It was not a question.

††††††††††† "Yes, I need to know what you can tell me...about...me."

††††††††††† The glow of headlights appeared in the distance.

††††††††††† "I can tell you what you need to know," the sand whispered, "but we should go somewhere else. It's always risky for me to come back to this town. People here pay more attention to their peripheral vision than most."

††††††††††† "We can sit in my motel room and talk."

††††††††††† We flew back to the motel, taking care to remain high and away from lights. We slipped in much the way we had left. Moving about unnoticed was easier for Lewis. He became part of the night itself, so much so that I sometimes lost track of him myself, even while looking straight at him.

††††††††††† He situated one of the small straightback chairs in a corner facing the door and sat, unblinking. I switched on one of the small bedside lamps. In the pale yellow motel room light, he suddenly looked much less ominous. He was old. Even through the downy, dark grey feathers that covered him from head to toe his great age was obvious. His coat of feathers was so fine that it appeared to be fur from a distance. As I had suspected, his head and neck blended into his shoulders, creating a headless appearance in the dark. His face, though almost invisible behind the pinfeathers, was very human. He had ears, but they did not protrude and looked like small holes on either side of his head. The eyes...the eyes bothered me. I found it hard to look directly into them. In some respects, they were like every other human's, with grey irises and the sad, watery appearance that comes with age. But like mine they had become startlingly disproportionate to the rest of his face. At least three inches in diameter, they seemed to stare right through my flesh and bone directly at my soul. Eyelids were absent, enhancing their circular, saucer appearance. Every few seconds, a single, transparent membrane flicked across the eyeball. It reminded me of a cat's eyes. From deep within, his eyes reflected back the slightest light, making it very eerie and uncomfortable to look at his face with those two shining taillights staring back.

††††††††††† I sat cross-legged on the bed and tried to be polite and look directly at him.

††††††††††† "Forty years ago," he began, "I was a lot like you. Or how you used to be. I was a regular guy. I had a wife. I had a kid. I worked in a mill up the river from here, near Moundsville. One morning in early...1960, I woke up not feeling so good. All stiff; my joints were achy and swollen. I stayed home for the first time in four years. I told my wife to go on ahead to her job in town and to drop off our son at her sister's. I just felt really tired and achy and stiff. Nothing serious. At least, at the time I didn't think it was serious. I don't know how it was for you, but sometime in the late afternoon it was like my skin split open, and I wriggled out of my own body. I felt like a fly coming out of a maggot. I got to a mirror, and this is what I found.

††††††††††† "I was out of my mind, I didn't know what to do. I certainly couldn't let my wife and kid find me like this. I took the shotgun from the closet and headed into the woods, figuring to get far enough from the house and then kill myself. I would have, too, if I had remembered to bring shells." He chuckled, a very ethereal and satanic-sounding laugh that I knew was just another unfortunate side effect of his condition. Still, it gave me chills.

††††††††††† "The flying thing I discovered almost by accident. Then it was like a drug, you know? Being up there on the wind, on your own, in complete control... Pretty soon it made me forget that I wanted to kill myself.

††††††††††† "I worked my way down the river, staying in abandoned farm buildings. Once in a while I'd be spotted, then I'd have to move on again. I settled into the Chief Cornstalk Hunting Area, and I thought that I could stay there indefinitely. But it was more dangerous than I thought--lots of shotgun-toting folks wandering around. And of course I was eventually seen. After wandering around the state a little more, I came across the old army storage fields out there--the TNT. They were perfect. Most people don't know this, but that entire area is honeycombed with tunnels. I could move around the whole place without being seen.

††††††††††† "What brought it all down is partly natural events, but mostly my own fault. I got lonely. I missed my family an awful lot. I missed living like a normal person. I got into a habit of going to the outskirts of town and looking in people's windows, to remember what it had been like. What it was like to come home at night and have supper with my family, or to play with my kid, or even to sit and watch TV and drink beer. Of course I got caught once in a while.

††††††††††† "The other part was that the TNT became a very popular place for teenagers to park and make out. Or get drunk. Every night there were a few more cars to watch out for. Inevitably, I slipped up now and then and someone would see me. It didn't take long for stories to hit the paper. I just didn't feel like running anymore. So I stayed and tried to keep my head down and ride it out. I suppose you know the rest of the story from here."

††††††††††† I nodded.

††††††††††† "After the Silver Bridge went down, some people tried to blame me for it, as if I had the power to do something like that. A lot of the things I heard and read about me just weren't true. People tend to take a lot of unconnected things and put them together in their mind. Someone's dog runs off around the same time that someone else sees Mothman, and the next thing you know I'm stealing cats and dogs and mutilating cattle. It would've been sort of funny if folks hadn't been trying to take my head off with guns.

††††††††††† "What happened to me next is a lot like what's happening to you now, and it's happened more than a few times. A fellow named Silas visited me. It didn't happen out of accident, like some other folks have met me. He knew exactly where to find me. He knew what I would be doing, and when and where. He knew because he was like me. Not exactly like me; he looked perfectly normal, with a goatee and a fedora hat and a long, black coat. But beneath that black coat he had wings. Wings just like an angel.

††††††††††† "Silas told me that there were others like me and him. A lot of others. Many had gathered in a secluded place where they could live everyday lives without fear of those who didn't understand us. He asked if I wanted to join them. I would've been nuts to say no. So I went with him...and Mothman went away, too."

††††††††††† "So," I said, "you've came to take me away, too."

††††††††††† The shadow figure--Lewis (it was still hard to think of him in such ordinary terms)--nodded.

††††††††††† "So when I was looking for you, you already knew about me."

††††††††††† Lewis nodded again.

††††††††††† "How did you know? I mean, it was in the news, but how did you know it was me specifically?"

††††††††††† "I didnít know that it was you. Not until just before you left. I had been in the area since the news broke, searching mostly at night. I couldn't identify you until I heard you scream. In a way, it's lucky that that happened. Once on the road you would have been lost to me. Until you caused a sensation somewhere else, anyway. I never expected you to come here. Most people have never heard of me or don't remember the old stories. Probably even fewer would have put two-and-two together and thought to come to Point Pleasant."

††††††††††† "Actually, I'd never heard of you until one of the tabloids mentioned the Mothman sightings."

††††††††††† "Oh, yes. The tabloids never tire of me or Batboy. He's a hoax, by the way."

††††††††††† "I thought so much."

††††††††††† "Anyway, you still haven't answered my question."

††††††††††† "But... I have so many questions of my own."

††††††††††† "If you choose to come with me, there will be all the time in the world for questions. If you choose not to, then you have until sunrise to interrogate me."

††††††††††† I sighed, "It just seems so impossible. To just...leave."

††††††††††† "What is there to stay for? Do you have a wonderful job? A nice house you can't bear to part with? Loved ones? If you have pets we can manage a way to bring them. It's been done before."

††††††††††† "Um...no. No on all of those counts. I guess my answer is yes. But... Can I still ask you a few more questions?"

††††††††††† "A few. Then you should probably put out the 'Do not disturb' sign and get some sleep. We have a long trip ahead."

††††††††††† "Okay. What I want to know most is..." I had to hold back tears even when forming the words in my mind. "Why did this happen to me?"

††††††††††† Lewis shrugged. That's all he did, shrug. I wanted to belt him.

††††††††††† "What the hell kind of answer is that?" I cried. "I became a...a monster, and when I want to know why, the best you can do is shrug?"

††††††††††† "Nobody knows why," he said gently. "It's like cancer. I know that's not the prettiest analogy, but no one knows why it picks some people and not others. All I know or care about is that I'm in a position to help those people come to terms with it and show them haw to lead a better life with their new gift. And I have come to consider it s gift. The flying alone is glorious. But I have yet to meet anyone who has arrived at our little corner of the world and not become less selfish. Every single person who lives in our community is better to live with and be friends with than any one of the citizens of the outside world. I stopped asking why a long time ago, because I learned that it doesn't matter."

††††††††††† Okay, I was properly in my place. Already I was beginning to see ways in which I had been selfish toward this ordeal. When stories about me hit the paper, and the reporters and the monster-hunters had cane to town, I forgot about how pleased I was to no longer be frumpy and plain. In my mind I stopped comparing myself to Uma Thurman, and began comparing myself with Bigfoot and the werewolf. Now I sat across from a once loving father and husband and blue-collar worker who could no longer show his face in public. He was suddenly forced to live in the woods and eat god-knows-what to survive. And he had survived for over forty years this way. I was going on two months and had almost cracked. Worse, I still had my cozy apartment, and I could still walk into a store and buy Doritos without a second glance from anyone. I suddenly felt very, very small.

††††††††††† "I wasn't trying to make you feel bad," Lewis said. "The reality is, it doesn't matter so much why this has happened to you, as what are you going to do with it now?"

††††††††††† I nodded. My huge eyes were welling up with hugs tears.

††††††††††† "I have to know one more thing," I said. "Please don't take this the wrong way. Do we all eventually become...fully...feathered?"

††††††††††† He smiled (I think). "No. Everyone stays pretty much the way they come out. My change was more...extreme than most. Silas told me that there had only been a few who had changed so radically. Lucky me."

††††††††††† Behind me, the first light of morning was beginning to peek between the curtains and cast a bright sliver on the wall.

††††††††††† "I suggest we get some sleep now. We can talk more on the trip. If I may ask a favor... Could I use your bed? It's been ages since I've slept on a comfortable mattress."

††††††††††† "Be my guest," I said. I couldn't sleep anyway.

 

----------

 

††††††††††† Lewis wanted us to leave my car at the motel and fly the entire way. I told him that was ridiculous. We could take my car as far as we could and save some time and energy. I reminded him that it was no problem for me to go into places and buy gas and groceries. He protested that he couldn't be seen riding in a car. I told him no problem; he could wear my trenchcoat and big hat and no one would know the difference. Reluctantly, he agreed. But he made me go out to Wal-Mart and buy a small tent and a shovel. I didn't know what he had in mind for the shovel, but I knew butter than to ask.

††††††††††† We got on the road at sunset. Despite the disguise, Lewis felt more comfortable traveling at night. I suppose I would too if I had eyes that I could never close. He navigated us using the small atlas that I kept in the glove compartment. It took us a little while to get him clear on the concept. The man hadn't driven a car in over forty years, let alone read a modern road map, I had to explain that the colored double lines were interstates, and those were preferable because we could go faster. And we almost got into a fight when he insisted on taking a road that I just couldn't find. Finally I told him to give me the map and show me what he was talking about.

††††††††††† "Lewis, that's a river."

††††††††††† "But it's much shorter than what we're on now."

††††††††††† "Lewis, this is a car, not a boat. We can't travel 'as the crow flies' like you're used to."

††††††††††† "Oh, right. Sorry, I forgot."

††††††††††† I had to pretend that I was checking my blind spot so he wouldn't see me roll my eyes.

††††††††††† For three days he steered me southwest. We found small, unmonitored campgrounds to stay at. I took advantage of the time to get some of my other questions answered. He told me that there were twenty-one others at the colony. Most he had gone out and brought back himself, though in recent years his increasing age had meant sending others on especially long trips. Lewis was one of only a few left who originally came to the colony with Silas.

††††††††††† "However," Lewis said, "Silas himself was only one in a long line of gatherers. How far back the colony goes is anyone's guess."

††††††††††† "How long do you think it's been around?"

††††††††††† "Since always."

††††††††††† Life in the colony, he told me, was improvised, but not uncivilized. There were permanent buildings to live in, and windmills and solar panels provided adequate electricity. A couple of recent arrivals had used their skills to fashion a satellite dish from scrap, so there was television.

††††††††††† "Which has bean a great help in locating others around the world. It used to be we'd have two or three people scattered across the globe for up to a year at a time. Now we only go out when we have to."

††††††††††† I asked him how the colony had gone for so long without being discovered by outsiders.

††††††††††† "I used to ask Silas that question. All he'd say was 'When the eye of fate is looking the other way, don't ask why and don't make a lot of noise.'"

††††††††††† The one question he refused to answer no matter how I asked was where the colony was. He wouldn't even tell me its name. He said that if I were to be caught before we got there then I would have no information to reveal. The whole "spy game" attitude made me a little uncomfortable, but I understood their--our--need for secrecy.

††††††††††† Mostly, Lewis wanted to talk about current events, The colony's recent acquisition of television had given him a window into the rest of society which he had been without for almost four decades. He was fascinated with computers and cell phones. A former mill worker, he wanted to talk about modern machinery, particularly car engines. I'm afraid I wasn't of much help to him there. There seemed to be only one topic of modern society that interested him more than technology: "Friends."

††††††††††† "Do you think Chandler's gay? I think he's gay."

††††††††††† "I told you I don't watch that show. I hate it. All I know about it is what I overhear my coworkers discussing the next day. But I'm pretty sure Chandler's not gay, because he's married now. I think you're watching reruns on the wrong channel."

†††††††††† "You'll have to fill me in on everything I've missed."

††††††††††† "How about Tech TV? You ever watch Tech TV? I can tell you how far a USB cable can go before it achieves signal degradation."

††††††††††† On the third day, I discovered what the shovel was for. Somewhere in the desert between Guerra and Rio Grande City he had me take the car off-road into the scrubland of mesquite shrubs and prickly-pear cacti. There he instructed me to retrieve anything from the car that I wanted to keep, then to bury the car.

††††††††††† "I can't bury my car! I love this car."

††††††††††† "You can't bring it with you, either. You won't have any need of it after today. Not far ahead is the Mexico border. This is as far as we can go on the ground without attracting attention. From here, we travel by air."

††††††††††† "But that shovel I bought is just a little camping shovel. The handle is only a foot long. How am I supposed to dig a car-sized hole with that?"

††††††††††† "It's only sand. You can do it."

††††††††††† "I don't suppose you're going to help?"

††††††††††† He shrugged. (I hated that.) "I've gotten too old for this sort of stuff. Besides, I've already flown a few thousand miles to get you. So consider it, uh, sweat equity."

††††††††††† "Sweat equity, my ass," I muttered as I got out to retrieve the shovel from the trunk. In addition to the shovel, I also pulled out my suitcase and the towrope. Then I found a relatively flat and open spot and began to dig.

††††††††††† The south-Texas soil, by the way, is not all sand, despite what you've seen in the movies. It is sandy, yes, but a good deal of it is red clay. If it weren't for the arid climate, the ground would have been too hard for me to dig a hole deep enough to use as a toilet. As it was, after six hours of shoveling, I had excavated a hole as wide and deep enough to bury the Corolla up to maybe the door handles. I clawed my way out of the hole and threw the shovel down at Lewis' feet.

††††††††††† "That's it," I said. "I'm through digging. That'll just have to be good enough."

††††††††††† "It'll do," Lewis conceded.

††††††††††† With the car in neutral, we pushed my beloved little Corolla into its grave. We covered the exposed passenger compartment with the excavated dirt and planted some shrubs and tumbleweeds around for camouflage. Then I got some much-needed rest while we waited for nightfall.

††††††††††† It's true what they say about the desert getting cold at night. As soon as the sun disappears, the night chill seeps into your sweat-soaked clothes more quickly than you can believe. I never imagined that there could be a wind-chill factor without the slightest hint of a breeze. But when you've been toiling beneath the Texas sun all day, your sweaty clothes might as well be waterlogged clothes in subzero temperatures. Fortunately, I had had the foresight to modify a sweatshirt that I could fly in, so I was able to remain at least comfortable. Lewis had a good coat of insulation and never seemed bothered by either heat or cold.

††††††††††† From high above, the Mexican border is a ribbon of light stretching to the horizon in either direction. Here and there we could see the bright floodlights of INS patrol vehicles crawling along the ribbon. The breached parts of the border fence were obvious Morse code dots. Oddly, we didn't see any patrols near those spots. Then we were past the border and the terrain below became truly black. Although Monterey was a good two- or three-hundred miles away, I could still see its yellow glow from the other side of the horizon. Monterey slowly receded on our right as we continued south.

††††††††††† I think that Lewis had us follow the coastline for the most part, but it was too black for me to tell land from water. Lewis seemed to know the way well, and he even had an abandoned building chosen for us to spend the day in. He asked how I was doing after my first long-distance flight.

††††††††††† "Okay. Tired, but not exhausted."

††††††††††† "Are your back muscles sore?"

††††††††††† "No, but I don't know how they'll be in a few hours,"

††††††††††† He nodded, and seemed to be mulling something over.

††††††††††† "We'll wait and see at nightfall which route to take the rest of the way. We're a little ways outside of Tampico. We can take a short cut across the Gulf of Campeche, if you're able. But it's a full night of flying over open water. Nowhere to land if you get tired and can't continue."

††††††††††† I contemplated my suitcase, which I had been carrying lashed around my waist with the towrope. It hadn't felt heavy, but I was also on an adrenaline rush from digging a car grave for half a day. I told him we'd better plan on taking the scenic route.

††††††††††† Sure enough, by nightfall my back was screaming. I wasn't able to fly even a short distance, and we had to spend an extra day outside Tampico. Lewis was sweet and went out and found us food. He brought back corn still in the husk, beans, and strange but delicious fruit that I didn't recognize. All of this I assumed he had raided from farmer's fields.

††††††††††† "I should probably warn you," he said. "There isn't a good source of meat available at the colony. You'll have to go mostly vegetarian. There's fish once in a while. I think you'll be surprised, though, at how many new things you'll find that you'll like."

††††††††††† "Hey, I'm open to try new things, I'm not picky."

††††††††††† I felt much better by the next evening. Regardless, we gave in to caution and flew the rest of the way over land. The next long night of travel took us into Honduras. The last leg, he said, was long and much of it would be over water. But the air currents would be in our favor and carry us almost effortlessly.

††††††††††† He was right. The air high up was thin and biting, but the wind whipped us along amazingly fast. The moon was bright and huge and nearly full that night, and its light revealed a vast expanse of rippling whitecaps on the sea below. I found out later that we had spent much of that night over the Caribbean. I wished then that we had been able to see it in the daytime. I've since had the pleasure of flying over it several times by day. It's as clear and blue as the sky, and the reefs are colorful gemstones gleaming just beneath the surface.

††††††††††† As dawn broke over the curve of the sea, we came to the colony. Upon first sight, it was nothing more than an inhospitable cone of sheer rock rising straight up out of the ocean. But as we circled it became clear that its first impression was deceiving. Nestled neatly within the rocky cone was a lush landscape of forests and fields. In the distance, giant birds soared over the treetops. Then I realized that the "birds" were people. People like me. Lewis flew in close so he could speak to me.

††††††††††† "This is our island," he said. "Eons ago, it was a volcano. The lava hardened within it when it went dormant. Over time, the sea eroded away the outer shell, and the retreating magma caused the inner core to collapse. It's almost impossible to land here by boat, and too narrow to fly a plane into."

††††††††††† "Does this place have a name?"

††††††††††† "Its traditional name is Anthropophagus. But that's a mouthful, so most of us call it The Rock. It's technically part of the Los Roques chain of islands."

††††††††††† "The Rocks," I said, pulling on what little of my Spanish instruction remained.

††††††††††† We swooped down into a clearing within the forest and landed. Scattered around the clearing, disguised from above by sod, were several slug-shaped buildings. These, I found out, were really the overturned hulls of ships, many of them Spanish galleons. They've been here for as long as anyone can remember, and no one knows how they were brought here in the first place. Everyone presumed that these were the remains of ships that foundered on the reefs, dismantled and brought over the stone walls one plank at a time. Inside, they are divided into apartments. There was one waiting for me. It's small, but I need only a place to sleep. The rest of the island is like my playground.

††††††††††† Soon I was able to meet all of the others. I was amazed at the variety of ways in which everyone had transformed. Some, like Richard (whom I've since become rather, uh, close with) had the angel wings Lewis had described Silas as having. My good friend Veronica is a black, Portuguese-speaking woman with leathery bat wings. Dominic has fine silver hair instead of feathers, which gleams in the sunlight. All of these people once had average lives. They held traditional jobs and some had families. Them one day their lives changed, and through the efforts of people like Lewis, they were able to come to this place and be among those who didn't think that they were monsters or freaks.

††††††††††† We all have our own talents and skills that we bring to the colony. I used my computer skills to write a program for one of our three laptops to monitor the Internet for references to giant winged creatures. We've tracked down a few new members that way. Lewis has gotten too old to make the trip himself, so others go now. I've gone out twice myself. It's a good feeling, to pull someone from a seemingly hopeless situation and give them a new life.

††††††††††† Life here is pretty relaxed and unscheduled once the chores of daily survival are finished. (Most of the work consists of building maintenance and tending the crops over in the valley.) One of my favorite ways to spend my free time is taking long walks in the wildflower fields along the western rim of the crater. Some of the flowers come up to my chest and have blossoms the size of my head. And Lewis was right; I enjoy a lot of the new foods around here. These flowers are delicious.

 

 

 

--2002, W.A. Seaver