The freeway was a parking lot. We sat in the same spot in the middle lane for at least twenty minutes. I gave up hope after ten minutes and put the car into park, shifting into a more comfortable position. All three of us made phone calls home warning our parents we were definitely going to blow our curfews if something didn’t change soon.
“Must be bad,” Jodi said quietly, staring out the windshield, trying to see past the sea of cars with little luck.
“Look, they’ve shut down northbound,” Steven said from the backseat, and we all turned to look out the driver’s side. The freeway was totally empty on the other side of the barrier.
“Oh no, that means the ambulances can’t get through on our side.” I felt a knot twist in the bottom of my stomach. We had seen car accidents before, hell we lived in southern California, statistics said there was a car accident every minute out here, but if they shut down the opposite side of the freeway, they were desperate. I could hear the distant wail of an ambulance, but it hadn’t grown any louder in the passing minutes. Unfortunately, we were at a spot on the freeway where the shoulder was practically nonexistent as the freeway curved along the line of the shoreline. Just a few hundred yards up and the freeway opened up to four lanes with wide shoulders on either side. Chance was a cruel bitch sometimes.
Two police cruisers and a fire truck raced past us on the other side of the freeway, heading south on the northbound side, and I whispered a little prayer for their success and safety. Even as the words slipped from me, that knot in my stomach twisted tighter against my spine, making me feel as if I hadn’t just had a large dinner.
“What’s wrong?” Steven asked, leaning forward between the seats to get a better look at my face.
“I don’t know.” I shook my head, watching the disappearing lights of the emergency vehicles as they rounded the mountain.
“Why do you feel sick?” Jodi asked, feeling what I was feeling.
“I guess I have a bad feeling,” I said, knowing I sounded vague.
“Like you want to go help?” Steven asked. He sounded like he was relating something he was hearing through a hole in the wall.
“Kinda,” I said with a nod. “Not that we could get there, and what could I do that cops and EMTs can’t?”
“Oh, I’m sure you could do a lot,” Jodi said with a smirk.
“Besides, you could get there,” Steven said. “Maybe Jodi and I couldn’t, but you can.” I turned my head to look at him and he raised his eyebrows at me as if I wasn’t getting the obvious implication. “Your wings, Shay,” he finally said with a dramatic sigh and eye roll, making me blanch.
“I can’t control those yet!” I all but yelled when I realized what he was talking about. I had discovered over the summer that I had the ability to sprout enormous feathery wings out of my back, black and terrible like some avenging angel, that were strong enough to carry me and another grown person. When I had used them spontaneously to save Jodi and me from a group of homicidal water nymphs that looked more like a Disney nightmare version of the Little Mermaid, I found out I had them because I was supposedly an earthbound guardian angel. With enough concentration, I could call the wings to life, but they weren’t discreet by any means, so I hadn’t found much time to practice with them. Along with that, it hurt more than anything else I had experienced in my life when they sprang from my back. Needless to say, I was a little leery of them.
“Well, what a perfect time to try them out under fire,” Steven pressed with a daring smile. He reached forward and nudged my shoulder encouragingly. “It’s the middle of the night, there’s very little light, and someone’s in trouble.”
“You don’t know someone’s in trouble.”
“Dude, they shut down both sides of the freeway and so far only one fire truck has made it there.”
“Okay, fine,” I said, “but there are hundreds of people around!”
“But it’s dark; if you hug the cliff, no one will see you,” he said, nodding ahead of us where the southbound curved where the beach spilled out and rocks rose up to meet the barrier.
“Dude!” I said, turning wide-eyes to Jodi for some help, but she just looked back at me with a shrug. “Are you serious? You agree with him!”
“I don’t know, but I feel sick because you do, so I know something’s wrong, or at least not going right. If you can help, shouldn’t you?” Jodi put up a hand to stop me from reacting just yet. “I don’t think it’s the perfect time to road test them, but what if someone’s dying, Shay? If you’re really a guardian angel, you should help. You’d tell us to do it if we could.” And that was what stopped me from arguing. Jodi was right; if she were the angel, or Steven, I would be encouraging them to help where they could. What the hell had happened to my life?
“Fine,” I said, defeated. “I don’t know what the hell you two expect me to do, but fine!” I nearly yelled as I ripped my seatbelt off. “One of you’ll have to get in the driver’s seat in case they get traffic moving.”
“Dibs!” Steven yelled as I opened the door, and he was already jumping smoothly through the front seats and landing in the driver’s seat.
“Just pretend like you’re going over there to pee,” Jodi said, pointing over to the bushes on the right side of the freeway.
“Classy,” I muttered, slamming the door in Steven’s smiling face, and weaved my way past the stopped cars onto the hillside. I ducked my head and crouched in the bushes, wondering just how I was going to get to the accident. And more importantly, what I was going to do when I got there.
I gave up on keeping my head down as I made my way through the brush; it was dark enough that no one seemed to notice me anyway. Once the ground started to fall away towards the beach, I half climbed, half slid down the soft sand and loose rocks until I came to the uneven ground. The ocean was lapping just a few yards away and the beat of the soft waves pulsed through me at complete odds with the static up the rocks from the stopped traffic.
From my new vantage point, I could see where the break in the traffic was and the cluster of the accident thrown into stark relief from the swirling red lights of the cop cars. I couldn’t see how many people were running around from where I was, but I could see a few open doors on the cars at the head of the jam, Samaritans running to help the injured due to the lack of emergency personnel.
“Well,” I whispered to myself, blowing out a breath that did nothing to slow the hammering of my heart, “here goes nothing.” I flexed my fingers and rolled my head around my shoulders, trying to loosen up.
With one last glance around to make sure no one was looking, I reached up and pulled my sweatshirt off and over my head, bundling it up and setting it up on a high rock to keep it from the encroaching tide. I was probably going to rip through my shirt, but modesty kept me from stripping it off too; at least I could come back for my sweatshirt to cover up the tattered remains of my shirt.
I settled myself on my feet, digging my heels into the sand for balance, and closed my eyes to concentrate. I closed my mind off from any distractions, making the sounds of traffic fall away, and the latent emotions of worry and impatience slipped from me. All I was aware of now were the smell of salt in the air and the pulse of the ocean. I reached deep into myself and tapped into the swirling magic that filled me, waiting to be called on, waiting for moments like these.
Letting it rip through me, I felt every cell in my body for one heart stopping moment. Nerves on fire and a wind swirling around me that wouldn’t touch any other living being, the first tingling itches began between my shoulder blades. I fought the urge to shrug against it. The tingling grew into a slow burn as I tried to keep control of the change, hoping if I went slowly, it wouldn’t hurt as much, but so far, the pain was just as deep.
Beads of sweat broke out along my forehead and at the back of my neck. I twitched my nose, ignoring it, letting the heat in between my shoulder blades grow, spreading through my upper back. I had an image of a surgeon’s scalpel running up the skin in my back, muscles flaying open, the burn bursting white hot, pulling a strangled sound from my throat through clenched teeth.
A new weight hung from my back, the muscles reshaping to support the hinges of my wings, and my shoulders hunched forward before I held myself straight, able to blink through the pain as it receded. I could feel the warm trickle of blood slip down my back, the waistband of my jeans absorbing it even as the skin healed and molded in a new pattern. A shiver rocked through me, ruffling my feathers and making me laugh at the absurdity of the movement and sound.
But there I was, standing on a dark beach with giant, black feathered wings arching over my head, and the pain was fading quickly. I took a moment to savor that feeling, knowing it would hurt just as much to hide them away again. The sounds and emotions of the stopped traffic flooded my awareness again and I felt a rush of guilt for taking so much time to accomplish my transformation. I had to get moving to find whatever it was that was still making my stomach clench in worry.
“Now, let’s see if I can do this with some finesse this time,” I said to myself as the seldom used muscles in my back flexed, lifting my wings and spreading them wide. I had tried to practice a couple of times in the last few months, but the pain of bringing my wings into this plane was so discouraging, I hadn’t gotten the hang of it yet.
I pushed my wings down in one great flap, pulling my feet off of the ground instantly. I had found a straight take off was more effective than trying for a running start, which usually had me accidently catching an air current and blowing me backwards. I had promised myself once I felt confident enough, I would try for a running leap off a cliff like some movie heroine, but tonight was not that night.
I dipped my head forward to fly below the line of the cliff that the freeway curved around, keeping to the shadows of the rocks as I followed the shoreline. My foot caught on the rocks a couple of times, nearly making me tumble back to the beach, but I managed to pull myself straight with another powerful beat of my wings. Soon the rocks were a gray and black blur under me as I sped towards the accident.
The pain of the injured hit me first, quickly followed by the panic of the searchers. It made me falter, as if tripping on a rug, and this time I fell, hitting the rocks and scraping my cheek and hands when I tried to catch myself. My wings curled around my body a moment too late to stop it, but they protected me and cushioned the rest of the fall. I caught myself on the rocks before I hit the water; here, where the freeway finally had a shoulder, the water rose up high on the rocks, leaving no sand to walk on. It was awkward gaining my feet again as I had to split my concentration between my balance and keeping my wings up and off of my back, out of the water.
“Oh my god, that man is dying.” I was panting through the pain in my chest and I knew the poor bastard in the upside down car above me was breathing through blood and a broken rib had punctured his lung. The EMTs were prying his door open with the Jaws of Life, but something in my soul told me he’d never see the ER. He wasn’t answering the wailing cries of his wife and I hoped his last words had been sweet ones.
Tears burned before they fell down my cheeks as I mourned the man I didn’t know, but he wasn’t the one knotting my stomach; whoever that was, wasn’t on the freeway anymore. I pushed myself up to stand, pin wheeling my arms to catch my balance. I swear the damn wings weighed as much as the rest of my body. I wiped my hand over my cheeks, the scrape burning against the salt of my tears and the grit on my hands. I didn’t have the luxury to sit and cry with the man who was dying above me. Somewhere here in the dark was someone else fighting away death on the edge of a blade. I let instinct lead me as I picked my way over the rocks. My foot slipped on a loose rock and I nearly fell into the water, my boot got wet, and the tip of my right wing trailed in the water.
A muffled cry struck my ear, sending a pang of fear down my spine. I was nearly on top of whoever it was, but I couldn’t see them. I took a few more precarious steps forward, bending down until I could brace my hands on the rocks in front of me so I could peer over one the size of a Volkswagen. There, hidden in the deeper shadow cast by the small boulder, I caught sight of a pink jacket just before the water lapped over it to hide it again.
The metallic tang of blood filled my mouth and a pain in the back of my head started to throb, threatening to throw me off balance. A head injury, did I dare move them? What if I made it worse? What was I supposed to do? Fly them up to the freeway and just dart away into the night? When did my life become a comic book?
“Mommy.” The weak cry warbled as the little girl’s mouth filled with water, making her cough and choke.
“Shit,” I cursed, lowering myself to lie on my stomach to get closer. “Why is it always kids?” I reached into the small cavern created by the shifting of rocks and water and my fingers trailed over her jeans. I managed to pinch the hem of her pant leg.
“Mommy?” she asked, voice frail and terrified.
“No, Amanda.” Her name just suddenly came into my mind as I struggled to pull her closer to me so I could get a grip on her leg. “But I’m here to help you, okay?”
“It hurts,” she said, tears evident in her voice, and my heart clenched against it.
“Don’t move too much too fast, okay?”
“I’m going to try to get you up to me first, okay? Then we’ll get you up to your mommy.” I inched forward on the rocks until I was balancing on the flat of my hips, the muscles in the small of my back contracting to keep me from slipping into the cavern with Amanda.
“I’m dizzy,” she said as her body finally offered resistance against my pulls and I knew I was going to have to lift her up at this point.
“I know, Mandy,” the nickname came easily to my lips, “but I need your help now. I need you to give me your hand, can you do that?” She didn’t answer me, which scared me for a moment before I felt her body shift under my hand that was holding her to keep her from drifting away.
I held out my free hand, hoping for her to be able to see me better than I could see her and she’d take it. I felt her fingers brush my hand as she blindly grabbed for me and missed. I heard her whimper, soft and painful.
“It’s okay, Mandy, just try again, I won’t leave you,” I soothed, straining to keep my hand stretched towards her. The tips of her fingers touched mine, but didn’t fall away this time as she struggled to reach me.
“Good, keep trying, nearly there,” I encouraged. Her fingers trembled, her strength failing her. I sucked in a breath and dipped forward to grasp her wrist, fighting the urge to rock backwards and lift her head up too quickly.
“Good girl, good girl,” I said, trying not to lose my breath. “Now, I need you to try and sit up, but do it slowly, okay?”
“Okay,” she warbled again and I felt her leg move from beneath my hand until I was touching only water. Her hand was no longer taut in my other hand, and I pulled gently, drawing her closer to me.
“Dizzy,” she whimpered again, and I reached for her with my free hand, finding the tangle of her hair and cradling the back of her neck gently. A thicker, slippery substance that I knew wasn’t water coated my fingers as they tangled with her hair. I let go of her wrist and slipped my arm around her waist and pulled her into me, cradling her tiny body against mine.
“Good girl, just relax now, okay?” I whispered to her as I hooked my toes into the gaps between the rocks to give myself some leverage. With every muscle in my body contracted, I lifted us out of the tiny cavern, clutching Mandy to me.
I felt my wings shift and concentrated on those muscles, letting the powerful wings work to lift me off of the rocks and get Mandy out of the dank and dark. She was trembling in my arms, shock setting in, letting me know I had minutes at best to figure out how to get her up to the EMTs.
“Stay with me, Mandy, don’t go to sleep yet,” I whispered to her as I gave one forceful beat of my wings, pulling us completely off of the rocks to hang in the air, slowly pumping my wings to keep us up. It was a strange feeling as the adrenaline pounded in my veins, making my fingers tingle as I gripped Mandy.
The arcing red lights flashed on us as I chewed on my lower lip, wanting to just fly up there and set her down in the arms of an EMT. But then they’d see my face and reports of an angel would hit the news and I’d have to keep my wings hidden long enough to forget how to fly. I had worked too hard over the last few months to lose that now.
I could feel the blood seeping from Mandy’s head drip down my arm, funneled through my fingers. Panic threatened to break me, but I closed my eyes and beat it back. I could panic later when Jodi and Steven were around to hold me against the wracking sobs, but right now a child was dying in my arms. I needed to get her to help; panic had no place here. I saw the dark figure of an EMT crouched on the ground near one of the mangled vehicles; his back was to the edge of the cliff as he examined a spray of glass. I could feel his confusion all the way out here. He was trying to figure out why glass was here, leading towards the cliff. This was where Mandy was thrown through a windshield to fall down the rocks and bash her head as she landed in the cavern.
I glanced away from him and saw everyone else was still running around tending to the injured they could get to, trying to save as many as they could since they had already lost the man with the punctured lung. Frustration fueled them as much as their own convictions; they were just not willing to lose another. The man examining the shattered glass stood, drawing my attention back to him.
“Okay, Mandy, time to go see mommy; are you ready?” I asked her calmly.
“Please,” she begged, and I pressed a kiss to her forehead before I looked back up to the EMT and opened a channel between us, sending awareness to him, willing him to turn around and see me. My heart pounded as he stopped, his head lifting as he turned slowly to look out at the sea.
His shock reverberated back to me when he saw me there, drifting in the air, cradling the bleeding child to my chest. Right then I wished I had the ability to emit some eerie glow around me to make it seem like one of those miracles people talk about so they would just write his vision off later. But instead I was a salt rubbed, scraped, and dripping mess, nothing what you expect when you finally get to see an angel. I hoped he wouldn’t be too disappointed tomorrow morning when the shock wore off.
I nodded to him and propelled myself forward, towards the cliff and the lean of rocks, beckoning him to me through our open channel. He took a moment before he shook himself visibly and then scrambled for the edge of the road and reached out towards us. Bringing myself close enough to pass Mandy to him without hitting the rocks took more skill than I thought. As it was, my feet scraped them and my wings faltered as I stretched my arms out.
“You saw her on the rocks,” I said, letting power fill my voice as I spoke. “You saw the glass and checked over the edge, and there she was.”
“There she was,” he repeated slowly as he gathered Mandy into his arms, cradling her against his chest as he pulled himself back up on the road. He gave a slow blink and I beat my wings forcibly to push myself back in the air away from the rocks, hanging over the water. Mandy lifted her head out of the crook of his shoulder and looked for me. When our eyes met, I lifted a hand and waved at her, my heart swelling when she waved back with her tiny hand.
“Go,” I whispered to the man, knowing he could hear me with the channel between us. I turned my body, opening my wings over my head. Light from the traffic glinted on the tips of my feathers, making them sparkle silver before I struck out back towards the clear beach.
I hit the wet sand at a run, my legs desperate to keep up with the momentum of my wings when I reached the ground. I stumbled as I tried to slow down, my arms going out in a pinwheel as I caught my balance, but the tips of my wings trailing in the sand worked best to stop me. I don’t know how I managed to keep from falling to my knees, seeing that it took me nearly twenty feet to actually stop.
“And now for the hard part,” I mumbled to myself as I folded my wings as closely to my back as possible. The first time I hid my wings, the residual magic from the angels that had helped us worked to keep my transformation almost painless. Unfortunately, tonight I was all on my own, facing the daunting task with no help whatsoever.
I could already feel sweat break out on the small of my back as I anticipated the pain, making me stall. There was no spell or incantation for me to recite; it was purely force of will that brought my wings to life and hid them away later. I needed to find someone to help me make this easier to use this new ability for the greater good because the anticipation of pain was starting to induce panic attacks.
I closed my eyes and drew in a long breath, blowing it out through my mouth as I flexed my fingers, trying to keep my hands open so I didn’t cut my palms with my nails if I clenched my fists. I spread my feet shoulder width apart and imagined my body without my wings. I felt the swirling magic come to life inside of me, reaching behind me, tingling along the nerves and veins that ran through the hinges of my wings. A slow burn flared to life in my back and I concentrated on keeping my jaw slack, afraid to clench it.
I fought to keep the image of my body standing on the beach, sans wings, clear in the front of my mind as the slow burn started to grow, searing my flesh. I tried not to see my body burning alive as I felt my skin shift and mold. Soon the heavy weight that was pulling my body up and back disappeared and I dipped forward, keeping my balance as the sand shifted over my feet. Sweat trickled down my back into my jeans, inching its way over my skin. Coupled with the pain in my back, it made me want to scream.
My skin molded over my back, knitting back together where my wings no longer sprouted. I could see the raised, angry red welts in my mind, knowing the shiny white scars would be more defined in the morning. The pain receded slowly until I was left shaking as the adrenaline died away and my pulse stopped pounding in my ears. I wiped the tears from my cheeks, hissing against the sting of the scrape on my cheek I had forgotten about. The knot in my stomach loosened its hold against my spine and relief flooded through me, making my already shaking body feel weak. Mandy was going to be okay. Even though I didn’t know her and didn’t know if her mother had caused the horrific accident that threw her into the rocks, at least I had the peace of mind of knowing an innocent little girl would be okay.
A cold wind swirled around the beach, finding its way up my shirt, chilling me and reminding me that my shirt was in tatters. I sighed as I held the cloth against my stomach, not wanting it to lift in the wind as I made my way over to the rocks, searching in the dark for my sweatshirt. A sob of relief broke from me when my fingers closed on the still warm cotton.
I worked the hooded sweatshirt over my head, wincing through the residual pain as if I had been whipped; I managed to get it on to cover my torn shirt. All I wanted to do was sit down and catch my breath, but I was still shaking and I knew, like little Mandy, I risked going into shock and needed to get back to my car before that happened. At least if I passed out in the car, Steven and Jodi could get me to help. If I passed out here, I’d be lost in the tide by morning.
“And I thought sprouting wings was the hard part,” I said to myself as I looked up at the sloping hill covered in brush and brambles, the only way back to my car.
“Well, here goes.” I took a step forward into the bushes, opening my awareness to the dry earth around me, stealing little snatches of energy where I could, and tried to concentrate on Jodi and Steven’s signatures to pull me to the warm interior of my beautiful car, even if I couldn’t drive it myself tonight.
Thorns scraped my hands and twigs caught on my sleeves, but I was grateful they weren’t scratching my arms and the sweatshirt was thick enough not to tear. I nearly rolled my ankle more than once since it was too thick and dark for me to see where the loose rocks were hidden among the bushes. But when the sharp scent of exhaust filled my nose, I was never happier to breathe in the pollution. I blinked in the artificial light as I pulled my body free of the last bush between the freeway and me.
“Dude, are you okay?” a girl called out to me through her open window, staring at me in surprise.
“Huh?” I managed.
“Where did you go? I saw you go into the bushes, like, twenty minutes ago,” she said, frowning at me. Had it only been twenty minutes?
“Yeah, I tripped and fell,” I said, shaking my head and rolling my eyes to look properly embarrassed. “Lame, right?” I managed to laugh as I passed her car; she smiled sympathetically enough before she turned to the boy in the driver’s seat. But I didn’t care when I heard the giggle come from the interior of their car.
“Shay! Oh my god, are you okay?” a familiar voice asked, and I looked up to see Jodi standing outside of my car, uncrossing her arms and rushing over to me to help guide me the rest of the way. “Dude, you’re shaking!”
“Just tired,” I breathed before I crawled into the backseat of the car and curled up on the bench seat, drawing my knees up to my chest and closing my eyes, letting the shock settle in and the deep black take me.