I can pretend the moment I looked down at my feet and saw huge striped paws instead of my leather boots was the precise point in time that my life turned upside-down, but I know it isn’t. That day, I mean. You know my life’s been the opposite of normal since birth. I just didn’t really do anything about it until two days before I shifted for the first time.
Mom and her best friend are in the kitchen like they are every morning. They’re talking about nothing and everything, life’s tiniest and biggest problems. Just like always.
So, I wake up feeling a little bit jealous, like always, because Mom actually has a best friend, and I have you. Except you’re not there. You’re an ocean away, a screen apart. And I’m not handling it that well, to be honest.
“How did you sleep?” Mom interrupts my routine self-resentment.
“Fine. Hot, but you know,” I say, because I’m lonely but not angry. Not anymore.
Mom’s best friend hums in agreement. “August. At least we get these nice, long summer evenings, right?”
Mom and her best friend can say things like that so easily, but I can’t stomach the little comments like this one. Not without thinking about the sunset, those long radiant beams that stretch into the sky for miles, the light that calls the wings of our kin to lift in flight and salute the sun’s crossing of the horizon. Not without thinking about what that sunset looks like from the sky, too.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s the best. Speaking of, I won’t be home for dinner. I’m on fledgling duty tonight.”
“Okay. Do they need more help?” Mom asked.
I shake my head. “I think they got plenty of volunteers at school.”
“You sure?” Mom double checks.
I nod and put on a real smile, because even though being lonely sucks, it feels worse knowing Mom is the closest thing I have to a best friend in kin lands.
I agree, it’s awful for me to say that about my mom, especially knowing that two days from that very typical morning, everything about my ordinary, ground-bound life was going to change. But cut me some slack, okay? This is days-ago me, the on-the-brink-of-freedom young woman who’d spent nearly two decades learning that loneliness was the only consistent part of my life. It is pretty angsty and melodramatic, but please don’t judge me to harshly for it.
“You coming?” The tall and long-limbed girl asks.
An outsider might say the girl who speaks to me is beautiful for the sheen in her hair, the glow in her skin, or the glimmer in her eyes. They might even make lewd comments about the shape of her body, which I admit, I’d stared at more than once when even daydreams couldn’t keep me occupied during raven history lessons. But to me, it is the shimmer of blue in her glossy black feathers. The graceful obsidian silhouette against the cerulean sky. The piercing power in her unblinking, avian gaze.
She’s my first ever crush, long abandoned now, but it had never been her human looks that caught my eye. I admired her from afar—from the ground. And still, without ever taking flight, somehow I fell. I fell for a dream that I could only stand to reach for through my adoration. My attraction to the girl didn’t last, but the fantasy I let myself chase through her never dimmed, a burning in my chest that my kin say comes from my missing half.
I shake my head with a small smile. “No. I gotta make a call first. I’ll catch up.”
She gave me a beautiful smile full of even, straight, white teeth. “Okay. Give me a lift?”
I nod and wait for her. That was what is expected of me, a human. To her, a hollow.
There is a small pop as her body shifts across the veil, changing between her human and her raven skins. The transition takes a full minute, but once she pops back across the veil, she reshuffles her feathers along her back and gives a small shake of her head. She looks up to me and hops on the ground twice.
I bend at my knees, dropping both my hand to the ground and my eyes. It’s not my place to look down on my kin, especially while she’s in her raven skin.
My old crush hops into my hand, her weight as light as a softball, her talons sharp as knives. She is careful not to grip with any strength so as not to cut my skin. I stand up with practiced balance, keeping my hand perfectly steady, and launch her into the air the way I’ve done for so many others of my kin.
She flaps her wings and masters the air. She flies a circle above my head once before breaking through the canopy. My eyes linger on the tail feathers I’ll never catch before she soars out of sight.
Leaving me on the ground. Leaving me looking up.
My feet move without thinking. I pull my phone and dial the top number on my Favorites list.
You don’t pick up. I know you couldn’t have so I don’t mind. I just want to listen to your cheerful tone that is so clearly recorded in your voice message. The familiar sounds soothe the aching exclusion I feel staring up at the canopy.
The tone beeps.
“Hey babe, I know you couldn’t pick up right now I just…” I just what? I’m getting so tired of working to make sure that anger and resentment don’t creep back into my heart? That I’m impatient to move on and away from the flock and all of the disappointment I face here? That even though I’ve spent my whole life living in my house, living with my family, that I feel like home had been taken away when you left for your dig?
“I just wanted to hear your voice again so I had to listen to your voice message. I love you and I can’t wait to video chat soon.”