By Kerry C. Byrne
“The phantoms are cold tonight,” I say.
Ma sticks her finger in her mouth, sucking on it ‘cause she touched the pan while it was hot with the devil’s wit. “Worse than usual?”
Our house groans in the cold autumn’s wind and I feel the hint of them on my skin even in the kitchen. When I go out late they press their fingertips to my chest, scatterings of unseen assailants. Don’t like it much when they do that; my nipples get all hard and itchy, and the skin on my arms gets taut and fearful.
It’s been dark a while now, days sliding under rugs and nights stretched long over my head.
They can’t get at me inside, though.
I pump the dough between my hands, spreading it out and pulling it into small balls.
“How many?” Ma asks. She flutters at the stove again, her Irish cheeks red.
“About thirty, I’m thinking,” I say. “Lenny might bring the kids tomorrow. They like it when we have something sweet.”
Ma sighs. “Not the cookies, Madigan.”
“Oh.” I shift in my chair, one leg bouncing hard. The chair creaks. “Lots. More than usual. They like the night blanket tons.”
“Are you still going out, then?”
“I’m thinking so.”
I see the way her shoulders are tight, how they eat up her neck.
“You aren’t responsible for anyone but you, you know.” She says it gentle.
I finish folding the dough into small, oval bundles.
“Okay,” I say. She shouldn’t worry so bad about the phantoms. They only ever touch at me, never close enough to hurt. I feel their want and it’s enough for fear, but nothing ever happens.
Beneath the old oak table, I cross my ankles. I sit there quiet while Ma finishes making her jam and and puts the cookie pan in the oven. It isn’t until she’s moved into the living room and the dull roar of the television pounds on the walls that I pull on my army-green hoodie and slide out the door.
Outside, everything is foggy. Chills settle in my toes and I wince at the ghostly kisses on my cheeks. The dead Kitchener streets cross at bizarre angles—city planning gone wrong, Lenny used to grumble to me and my friends, after he went to college and started having those kinds of opinions about things. It’s easy to get lost, if you don’t drive. I peer into the distance for hints of minotaur horns or will-o’-the-wisps glinting in the streetlights. But I don’t get lost. I never have, since night came.
I could let them in today; the phantoms whistle at my ears. I could speak from their offered lips.
Instead I draw my sleeves down, my hood up, and traipse through the haze. Down this sidewalk again. Somewhere in the back of my mind I almost hope she isn’t there tonight.
I wait for Moira on the porch of the old Hawthorne’s Gate manor. Everything is heavy in the air, wraiths’ fingers still pinching at my neck and face, so I’m huddled against the crisp brick of the mansion. Once this was the prettiest block in town, the road out front of the faux-Gothic mansion covered in cherry blossoms in the spring. Now it’s a dark relic on a darker one-way lane.
All the trees are dead these days.
It’s almost an hour before Moira’s doll-thin shadow pulls around the side of the house, a dot of burnt light where her mouth should be. The wind’s picked up and I’ve pulled my too-big jacket over my chin, my hands buried deep in my pockets.
Moira exhales the smoke around her cigarette and into the wind, her hair angel-tousled.
“Hey, sweet pea,” she says.
“You took a long time tonight.”
Moira laughs, and tosses her cigarette butt on the ground, like always. It blisters there before she grinds her hooker boot heel into it.
“So … how’re they looking today?” she asks.
“I wish you’d stop that …” I say. The smoke sticks in my throat; tastes like a funeral home. Once I tried smoking a cigar but it itched and burned like cockroaches were eating me from the inside out. Ma’s sister died of cancer, anyhow.
“Aw, shuddup, Dee.”
I sigh. “They’re … beautiful.”
Moira grins. She glances over her shoulder, wandering in a haphazard circle as she tries to catch a glimpse of the gray wings only I can see that are rooted in her back. They flutter, stretching out almost narcissistically, even though she can’t know she’s doing it.
“Shit!” she exclaims, laughing. “I just want to see them!”
“Sorry.” I shrug. Then I nod to the door and we enter the crumbling house. Moira slips her arm through mine as we move through the foyer, the old door slamming behind us. Inside it’s musty as ever, but the phantoms drip off me and I don’t feel so damp anymore. The wind howls louder inside than out, though, and somewhere in the distance thunder growls a reply.
“I met someone new,” Moira says.
Moira smiles. She pulls me into what was once a sitting room. Now it peels with age, the carpet ragged with holes.
“Yeah,” she says. “He’s real different, too.”
We settle on the pile of rough velvet pillows that we tossed in the corner when we were eleven. Moira stretches out, long.
“Still don’t know why you don’t get someone yourself,” she yawns.
I pull the sleeves of my coat around my hands and sit a bit away from her. She lights another cigarette.
“Still don’t know why you don’t just stop that already,” I mutter.
Like every other night, Moira drinks gin. I drink gingerale.
She doesn’t stop smoking. Or talking.
There are footsteps outside and then he’s here.
“What big mouths you have,” he says, in a fool’s voice.
He leans in the doorway, naked down to the waist with purple rings the size of fists under his eyes. His jeans are clotted with grime and full of tears, and he wears his feet bare.
His wings are white.
I feel the scratching in my throat, the one that’s nothing like the phantoms, and rub my nose against the lip of my hoodie. His feathers are crisp, sharper than Moira’s, like beads of salt sewn together. I will myself to unsee them. Just a boy, without the wings. Different from the one who’s come the other times.
It doesn’t work.
“Who’re you,” Moira demands. Her words slur but you wouldn’t notice if you didn’t know her.
He sees me watching him, and smirks. I look down.
“Why, this is my bordello,” he says, a jaunt in his voice. “And you, Goldilocks, are trespassing on my land … Loudly.”
The boy settles onto the pillows near me. He nods to Moira for the flask she’s drinking from, and without a word she hands it over, her brows creasing in the middle. He takes a swig and keeps the flask. Rain teems down outside, the sound of each drop a finger-prick of time lost in my chest. It’s late and I want to go home.
Then he turns to me. “Hey.”
I wrap my arms close around my middle. “Hi,” I say to no one but myself. He smiles and goes back to Moira.
“So tell me about the new guy,” says the white-feather boy.
Moira leans towards him, her shirt dipping low. “You been eavesdropping on us?”
“I bet he’s only good for his cock.”
Moira gapes at him, younger now. “Fuck if you know!”
“What,” he says, and takes another drink.
At some point he offers me the flask.
My quivering hands come out of my sleeves again and I take the gin in my pop can.
“Thanks,” I whisper.
He leans close and his skin is cold on mine when we brush. “My name’s Dallas.”
I nod. “Nice wings,” I say, like a joke but not.
He stretches them out and flaps once before folding them back against his shoulders. “Thanks.”
I watch him watch Moira. The way he smiles when her feathers shiver.
The lightning comes hard, flashes plunging in through the fogged-up window. Moira leaps up, skidding to the side when she tries to regain her balance.
“I love thunderstorms!” she announces. Her flask is long gone, tucked into the top of Dallas’ jeans, but he’s been feeding her from it since she gave it to him. She’s worse tonight. Drunker than she usually gets when I come to the Gate.
“Moira …” I murmur. But she runs out of the room with Dallas quick to follow and they’re gone before I get to the next word.
I fumble when I get up. The sitting room tumbles. I don’t know how many times Dallas leaned over my cup; I let him, so I guess I’m like Moira that way. Maybe that’s my fault, too.
I can’t remember the last time I was drunk and it feels like years since the lights have been this bright.
My tongue is dry and rough. I hear the door open and I feel the phantoms scratching at the doorframe.
Then there’s the scream.
It’s too familiar. I don’t jump, even though I want to.
I stumble to the door, gripping the knocker to steady myself. Moira and Dallas stand side by side on the porch. He brushes Moira’s neck with his fingertips and leans in over her shoulder, whispering to her.
With his other hand he wrenches at one of her wings, the other already hanging loose. There’s no blood. Just feathers, everywhere. Moira’s dress flaps like a flag and she bends over the porch rail, croaking in pain.
I want to go. I want to rush out. I want to bundle her, small and light, in my arms and carry her home. But it’s so cold. It’s so cold, and the phantoms want me so badly--
I lean forward and one of them brushes my cheeks almost like romance.
And I step past the threshold onto the porch.
Something cracks. The pain in my shoulders is so deep it’s almost in my breasts. My ribs shudder under the pressure and the hurt that was always so quiet goes everywhere—a mess like honey.
I get to Moira. Push Dallas away and take her hand.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I say, but I’m already crying stupid tears. She doesn’t hear me. She never hears me.
Or maybe she just hurts too bad to speak.
Her wings break from her back and fly into the storm, two gashes left in her full of bone and grey down.
The pain gets worse and then it bursts. The wind pushes me up, away from Moira, into the sky. Dallas flaps his pretty white wings and follows me up, grabs my hand, pulls me higher.
We leave her on the porch, her hair angel-tousled.
Flown away quick, we toss in the sky. Beneath us Hawthorne’s Gate takes Moira in its maw and folds up, just brick and wood and mess, always mess.
Dallas takes us so high my breath comes quieter, shorter, harder. I pray he takes us into a star, so we’ll form some constellation that people can just know. They’ll see.
Tremors slip far under my feet. The manor is taken by the storm. My eyes won’t close. I stare wide at the wreckage of the Gate.
I see the times digging through the front yard for bones that ought to have been buried there. The hunts for the scent of decaying flesh in the basement. The stuttering conversations, the shakes I hide when she comes back, again and again, just for her to crumble back into the ground.
“Oh dear,” whispers the boy. His lips by my ear, his hands at my waist. His wings circle us both, bigger now than they were before—No. Not his. Mine, soft grey, just like Moira. The pain from birthing them throbs in me.
I am devoured by feathers.
His hands slide up my waist, over my ribs, and he cups my breasts. The phantoms turn circles between my feet. My wings vibrate, down to the tips of the feathers.
“Shall I take you somewhere you never have to leave?” he asks.
He’ll drop me. He will. He always does.
“Somewhere far? Some kind of paradise?” He teases me.
I feel the phantom fingers as they coil around my limbs. They knead at me, tickling gooseberries into my skin.
“Don’t you just hate it here?”
I open my mouth and the phantoms, crisp and clear, brush against my tongue. They turn pirouettes, and with every almost-breath I take them deep inside me. So close, a lovely black ice in my lungs. They quarrel with my insides at first, small prickles. Then they warm. Less wrong than they were outside. It’s a surprise: something new.
I grab at his hands, my mouth full of spectres, the ones who are full of regret.
“Stop,” I say.
And he does.
He doesn’t drop me. He isn’t even there; gone to some other doorstep, maybe, some other wreckage.
But I fall and it’s strange, without the push he usually gives, that rough thrust towards the gated grave. I can’t fly. They’re too new. But I don’t crumble on the way down, waste on the hard driveway pavement. I flutter to and fro in the storm, until I reach the ground.
My eyes close.
I wake up on the road in front of Hawthorne’s Gate with gravel on my lips, and something soft against my cheek. I sit up, blinking hard. My hands are rubbed red, my throat is full of words, and a fever creeps over my forehead.
The manor towers over me again. This is the same, the collapse and reconstruction, some demon rebuilding it so I can come back. I squint hard in the dark, see the dirt that streaks its sides like mismatched puzzle pieces. The starlight makes it almost warm. Like it used to be. Less ghostly and more of a real thing.
I press my hand to the soft thing on my cheek and come away with a single grey feather. My lips part, dirt falling onto the ground, and I take one long breath of the late summer air. This time, she’s gone. Too warm, I peel off my coat and tie it around my waist.
I trek up the driveway. Countless cigarette butts line the walkway, and both of their feathers are scattered over the lawn. I watch the corner. I’ve come back to the Gate twice in one night before. Sometimes more. I wait, and wait, leaning on the house, but she doesn’t come. No footsteps, no whistles, no raucous laughter.
The earth is wet. I crouch, and put my hand on the grass. It pricks me, mostly. Dead and brown. But in between I find the blades that spring and coil.
“Okay,” I murmur. I roll my shoulders back, feel the tension release. My chest is light.
I walk home under a canopy of stars, my wings catching in the wind and the phantoms dancing wild in my middle.
When I get home, the long night is over and it’s just-night, with the taste of sun down the street. I yawn in anticipation of morning. I am giddy for bed.
I put my key in the door and push it open. The ‘home is where the heart is’ knocker slides back and forth as I close the door behind me.
The television is still on, but I see the cookies laid out fresh on the kitchen counter. I peer into the living room and smile. Ma is curled up on the couch. Her snores feed into the laugh track on the TV. Most times she’s still up when I get back, with questions in her eyes and worry in the turn of her lips. I pull a blanket up over her shoulders and nestle it around her toes.
“It’s okay,” I whisper, and tuck her hair behind her ear.
I go up the stairs one foot at a time. The house is hot, and smells lovely.
Kerry C. Byrne is an autistic, queer and nonbinary writer/cat lover living in Toronto, ON. Their other fiction and poetry can be found in The Spectatorial and The Hart House Review, and has previously been shortlisted for the Friends of the Merril Collection short fiction contest. The rest of the time, they can be found working on Augur Magazine as Publisher/Editor-in-Chief—or maybe reliving their glory days as an award-winning collegiate a cappella singer in their bathroom. Find them on Twitter as @kercoby!