By Jacqueline Carter
We passed skeletons littering the roadside.
Poor desert orphans with limbs stretched out for flight that will never come; fingers distended and warped; ends tapered into razor-sharp claws, their jaws hinged open in silent screams. The world has become an open wound; a festering infection fueled by poor, desperate souls clinging to the yoke of their humanity, grinding the shell of some lost purpose under their heels until it resembled nothing but fine dust.
The symptoms of the mutations were easily overlooked at first as the storms began to increase, lightning-struck, dry desert hills. But every storm brought more – mutations, dust in the air – igniting our lungs with some viral infection that couldn’t be stopped.
In the end, they put the humans in cages to keep them safe.
I’m the only one who remembers what it was to crave food, so I attend the caravans of stragglers we’re driving in for preservation. They stir as I trudge closer and all but one recede like a tide, pull away from the proximity of the blighted. One of them, an older man with dark, steady eyes and a face grim with well-lived days watches me. We stand there, he and I, like strangers sighting ourselves in warped and mottled mirrors after years on the road; seeing traces of ourselves there but our features distorted – distant cousins in shape and size. Old, crumpled catalogues of memory etched into lines and captioned by time’s unyielding erosion.
One of the humans is a small girl.
The youngest we’ve captured. She’s been quiet for days, staring out at the sun-bleached hills. Resignation is a bedfellow of despair; they conspire in long, fruitless days and settle over shoulders, pressing deep bruises into these dredges of a once dominant race. The wind rustles through spindly desert plants and our wings drop feathers; gathering and whirling behind the procession and it’s a starved, dried out gasp of pleasure she makes, this human child.
A fine quivering noise; a threadbare note drawn across taut, ghostly strings. It’s a strange sensation, nothing so ostentatious as an ache but the mildest, barest flutter around my newly grown wings. I reach to touch the edge of one, where its roots lay nestled deep. Laughter again, fine and fragile as a spider-web and just as easily brushed aside. My fingers come back bearing traces of blood.
Does it hurt, they always want to know, when the transformations begin?
Do we feel pain, some agonizing riptide swelling inside every vein, propelling us into the skies? Preparing us for the moment when wings push through our skin; our fingertips begin to lengthen and memory blots and fades – until our identity becomes little more than a drying stain.
“No,” I offer back each time, “I don’t feel it at all.”
“Maybe you’ve just forgotten how,” had come the reply once. I study the blood on my fingers and think: No, I have not forgotten how.
The caravans rattle on and so do we.
Jacqueline lives in Melbourne, Australia and when she’s not preoccupied with the stories she weaves in her head she works as an administrator and spends her time being a fan of all things pop culture. Jacqueline has had stories published in Fray, Ad Hoc Fiction and Flash Fiction Friday.