On an otherwise typical evening, while settling into bed, Suzy felt a sudden urge to say goodnight to her husband. Quickly, before her resolve could fail her, she swapped her Cleveland Browns sweatshirt for a pink kimono and brushed her fading auburn hair. It was time for another dye pill, she observed, peering into the mirror, and a MyTox injection for those furrows between her eyebrows.
As casually as she could, Suzy headed for the basement. She did not wish to interrupt Gary’s work. Only to offer him encouragement.
In the bluish light, Gary’s laboratory resembled an aquarium. Tanks of various sizes, with shapes lying or floating inside, lined the walls. Numbers and letters, reflections from the holographic computer, flickered against the glass like tropical fish. But aquariums are peaceful places, relatively speaking. Here, a high-pitched whine seared the air, underscored by violent sloshing.
Gary stood over the central tank, zapping what looked like a large eel with a pair of electrodes. The eel’s thrashing and splashing had soaked Gary’s t-shirt and coated his heavy black gloves with a sheen. Pausing on the stairs, Suzy nearly cried out to him to stop tormenting the poor creature. However, she reminded herself, this was no eel. The sole employee of his own boutique enterprise, Gary grew replacement limbs for amputees from their own DNA. Orders were backlogged, thanks to the New World War, which had been going on … in fact, Suzy couldn’t remember how long. Almost as long as Gary had stopped coming up to bed.
“Who’s the arm for?” Suzy shouted, after Gary had failed to detect her presence on the stairs. She pictured a beaming war vet, hugging their children with both arms once again. Gary called his company Better Than Ever, and with good reason: the limbs he made were stronger, more flexible, and yet more subtly sensitive than those they replaced. Suzy liked to think of these marvelous appendages as well-earned compensation for the soldiers’ suffering.
“Guy who’s shipping out in December,” said Gary, zeroing in on the wrist with his electrodes. His gloves flashed like diving porpoises above the froth. The arm’s fingers jerked, one by one, into a fist.
Suzy’s carefully crafted smile collapsed. “The guy’s going back into combat after losing his arm?”
Gary lifted the electrodes out of the water. His thick, cloudy goggles obscured his eyes. The arm sank, relieved, to the bottom.
“Actually, it’s his first tour. The Army decided to skip the middle step.”
“They’re creating a super-elite force with different limbs adapted for different specialties. This guy’s going to be a sniper, see, so I’m adding extra sensitivity to the fingers.”
Suzy pointed at the tank. “You mean … the Army is going to cut off people’s arms and give them yours?”
“Now you’re thinking.” Gary waggled an electrode beside his temple to indicate Suzy’s newfound smarts. “We’re still in the prototype stage, but if the experiment succeeds, the payoff is going to be huge. I’ll have to get a bigger lab, hire employees …”
“Jesus, Gary. How can you stand there and talk about payoffs? What you’re doing is barbaric.”
“And war isn’t?”
“Of course war’s barbaric. What makes you think I don’t think war’s barbaric? But you’ve just tossed the whole moral compass overboard. How much is the Army paying you, anyway?”
“Why do you ask? So you can buy yourself another Aerocar? Or how about another trip to Bali? You want to take Steph out of her fancy private high school?”
“No, but …” Their daughter was thriving at Fashion Valley School, which aggressively nurtured her talent for design. And the Aerocar really was a necessity—although it got four miles to the gallon and flew just two feet off the ground. Suzy liked how it roared, raging against gravity all the way to the grocery store.
“Making money from prosthetic limbs is one thing,” she explained, repeating a discussion she’d had in her own head many times, and less frequently with Gary. “I mean, it’s still war profiteering. But you were at least giving people their lives back. Now you’re making them into killing machines.”
“Does it occur to you,” Gary said, gesturing alarmingly with the electrodes, “that with more effective fighters, we can end the war faster? Fewer people will have to die in the first place. That’s the payoff. These people are proud to sacrifice for their fellow soldiers, for their country. We need more like them.”
Gary plunged the electrodes back into the tank. The arm flung itself against the walls, arcing up and out of the water. Gary seized it by the wrist and forced it back down. The fingers spread themselves against the glass as if crying for mercy.
Suzy ran upstairs and launched herself onto the sultan-sized bed. Why did she even bother arguing with Gary? No matter who they might have been when they were younger, they were now morally compromised suburbanites—no better, and no worse, than anyone else. They had reached equilibrium, from which there was no escape.
“Soothing Mist,” Suzy said. “Maximum strength.”
The wall register emitted a faint hiss.
Clutching a pillow, Suzy awaited her embrace by the rose-scented cloud of vaporized antidepressants. The Soothing Mist option had convinced her to upgrade the IntelliHouse system to Premium. That was the best decision she’d made in ages. Soon, all that was wrong would seem right again.
Just as the SM kicked in, Suzy had a vision. She saw—or rather felt—herself lifting off the ground and gliding through the hazy air above her and Gary’s lakefront mansion. She circled over the alpine roof, the box-like hulk of her Aerocar in the driveway, the sprawling green lawn splashed with flowerbeds. She sailed over the lake into silence.
She tossed off the bedclothes and ran back down to the basement. Gary was making the arm bend and straighten, apparently perfecting its saluting skills.
“What about wings?” Suzy shouted.
Gary lifted the electrodes out of the tank. He pushed his goggles onto his head, causing his black hair to stand up in spikes—rather adorably, Suzy thought, the SM tickling her. Dark lashes outlined Gary’s lovely gray-green eyes.
“Think of it, Gary. Why do angels, which are idealized versions of people, have wings? Because flying is humanity’s greatest dream, and the one we’ve found hardest to achieve. Airplanes, Aerocars, skydiving—none of them cut the mustard. People want to fly under their own power. That’s because we don’t just want to be in the air. We want to be transformed. You can transform us, Gary.” Suzy waved her arms in enlarging circles. “With wings, we’ll have a birds-eye view of our homes, our neighborhoods, our whole lives. We’ll see how everything is interconnected and stop trashing the world for our own selfish interests. We’ll become our own better angels. Plus, no one has to cut anything off. The wings are an add-on. You just graft them onto people’s shoulders.”
Gary stood motionless, electrodes poised above the tank. His beautiful eyes widened, and he smiled. He hadn’t smiled like that since forever.
“Who,” he asked, “would get the first pair?”
“Me,” Suzy said.
Gary grew two iridescent white wings for his wife. They originated from cells pinched from inside Suzy’s cheek and crossed with a swan’s DNA. Over the next month, as the wings took shape, Suzy’s whole body gleamed with hope. She requested lower doses of Soothing Mist at night. She even took a turn with the electrodes as Gary stood behind her, gently holding and guiding her hands. The wings did not so much thrash as undulate.
* * *
Suzy awoke staring at the recovery-room floor through a face-sized hole in the bed. The linoleum was flecked with gold, like a fairytale egg. She sensed an aching in the general area of her shoulders. She reached behind her and grasped a handful of feathers.
It was true. The surgeon had given her Gary’s wings. Giggling with delight, she ran her fingers through her feathers, even softer than her three-hundred-thread-count sheets back at home.
Before long, however, Suzy noticed a problem: although her fingers detected every downy tuft, every shaft, every primary, secondary, and tertiary feather, the wings themselves registered no sensation whatsoever. She could not feel or move them. She grabbed a wing and shook it, igniting a shrieking pain in her shoulder but nothing else. The wing flopped against her back like a towel.
Suzy burst into sobs, her tears falling through the hole in the bed. She now bore a pair of drooping, dead weights on her back. She had permanently altered her body in a dangerous operation, and for what? Not health or beauty, the usual reasons, which others could at least understand, but for the betterment of humankind. The SM must have given her delusions of grandeur. There was no one like her on the planet now. She’d have to have her clothing altered, or custom-made with slits in the back. How would she sit in a restaurant? Would she leave feathers everywhere? What about bathing? Would she have to preen?
She felt a gentle hand on the small of her back.
“Suzy? What’s wrong? What can I do?”
For a moment she thought she was still under anesthesia. Gary was speaking to her like he used to, back in college. In those days she had cried constantly. A dead crow in the gutter made her collapse, wailing, on the sidewalk. Most men feared such undisguised sadness, but Gary had been drawn to it. They had met at a party, where he had found her sobbing in the corner over a ceramic elf someone else had broken. I know, he had said to her, stroking her back.
Gary explained that it would take a while to build the neural pathways to operate the wings. She would have to spend two weeks in the hospital’s rehab facility, undergoing three sessions of PT per day—with no Soothing Mist. But Gary would be with her every step—make that every flap—of the way. He had arranged to take two weeks off from work and would serve as her physical therapist.
“Are you sure?” Suzy asked. “I mean … all those backlogged orders … How can you …?”
“It’s important for my research,” Gary said. “I need to observe every detail of your recovery. But,” he added, kicking at something invisible on the floor, “I also want to be here. With you.”
Her sacrifice, Suzy thought, was already worth it.
* * *
The next morning, Suzy sat on the edge of a table in a large therapy room, swinging her legs in anticipated frustration. The skin of her thighs stuck to the paper covering the table. She should not have worn shorts; she could hardly expect to move around much this first day. Gary had also brought her a halter top, anticipating the problems she’d have getting dressed. When he’d tied the strings at the neck and back, Suzy had shuddered at his gentle touch. But now she hunched, cold and vulnerable, in the sterile light. Against the far wall, another patient stood like a stork on her new leg. The woman wobbled and grimaced as her therapist frowned. The leg clearly wasn’t one of Gary’s.
For his amputee clients, Gary had developed a step-by-step program to help them connect their minds to their new limbs. He proposed the same program for Suzy.
“Imagine,” he said, “sending a beam of light down your neck, through your shoulder, and into the wing.”
“A bead of light?”
“Even better. When the bead hits the wing, let it spread out and touch every feather. Excellent. Now send another one. Another. How does that feel?”
“Good,” Suzy said. She closed her eyes and watched the beads slide, like raindrops along a telephone wire. Gary stroked the small of her back.
Less than twenty minutes later, one of the beads came back. She twitched her left shoulder—the new one.
“Got it!” she shouted. Gary looked up from his virtual pad, with which he’d been filming her and taking notes at the same time.
“Amazing,” he said, shaking his head as she slowly lifted the left wing and then the right. “Usually it takes several days to make contact.”
There they were. Just as if they’d been there all along, waiting for Suzy to remember them. She jumped from the table and spread her wings, examining their undersides as if for hidden pockets. But she had never owned any coat so deep, so rich. She folded the wings around herself. The feathers tickled her bare shins, and she laughed.
Gary wrapped his arms around her. He petted the wings as one might pet a cat. Suzy leaned into him. He smelled the way she remembered, like he’d just finished showering, even though he hadn’t. Last night he’d slept on a cot in her room and was still wearing the same jeans and t-shirt.
“You’re a natural,” he said.
“So are you,” she said.
She meant he was naturally kind and gentle like this. Over the years his work had stripped his nature away and left a nervous, bristling creature behind. But if the flying experiment turned out well, that would all change. Instead of profiting from others’ suffering, he could simply make wings for people who wanted them. And make them happy.
* * *
The next morning, dressed in a track suit with holes cut in the jacket for the wings, Suzy walked with Gary to the rehab facility’s outdoor exercise area. Gary pointed to a bench.
“We’ll start simple. Just jump off and glide to the ground,” he said.
Wings and arms flailing, Suzy clambered onto the bench, anticipating the crack of the asphalt footpath against her face. Well, why not, if Gary was here to pick her up? She spread her wings, closed her eyes, and jumped.
But instead of pain, she felt a delicious, slightly frightening lilt in her stomach—the same feeling she sometimes got when gunning her Aerocar out of an intersection. A cool glissando passed through her body, her feathers and her new shoulders and wrists. She opened her eyes and watched the lawn slide beneath her, like a carpet being pulled away. A sudden breeze lifted her, and she rose toward the second story of the facility, where an astonished nurse met her gaze through a window. Suzy laughed. The air whispered secrets. She banked right, glided about fifty feet, and landed on her knees on the grass.
“Love it,” she said to Gary. She could say no more. Words felt like a bolus lodged in her throat. Gary knelt beside her, stroking her back and peering intently into her eyes.
In the afternoon, Suzy practiced more takeoffs from the bench and then took running starts from ground level. By flapping her wings, scooping and pushing the air like a swimmer, she gradually increased her height and distance. On one foray she circled the fountain, an ornate pyramid of cherubs, fish, dogs, and goats, drunkenly celebrating a happier time in history. But what moment could be happier than this one? The fountain’s soft spray—and her own tears of joy—cooled her face. If only Steph were here to see this, instead of home studying for her draping midterm. Her old mom wasn’t so lame after all, was she?
Suzy landed in front of Gary, who made several enthusiastic marks on his tablet.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
Suzy nodded and grinned till her face hurt. The words would not come to her.
Gary resumed taking notes. As he worked, a shadow seemed to pass over his features, but it came and went as quickly as a bird.
That night, Suzy awoke to the sound of Gary twitching and whimpering on his cot. He held his hands over his ears; his elbows touched his knees beneath the thin blanket. Suzy slid out of bed and shook her husband gently by the shoulder.
He sat up and clutched her hands. “What? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she smiled, though finding even that single word was a labor. She pulled him to his feet and enveloped him in her wings.
Suzy’s hospital bed was not much bigger than the cot, but it was sturdy. They discovered, to their delight, that Suzy’s feathers tickled them all over.
The following morning, she completed three laps around the facility, to the cheers of the patients and therapists who had gathered to watch her. Gary pronounced her ready to go home.
* * *
Suzy stood in her backyard, at the edge of the bluff overlooking Lake Erie. She wore leggings and her old Browns sweatshirt, in which she’d cut two wing-holes. It occurred to her that she should ask Steph to make her a special flying wardrobe—something aerodynamic, perhaps with lightning bolts down the sides. Not that Steph would take any creative direction from her. In the last few years, Steph had lost all respect for her mother. Stunningly confident in her own abilities (thanks to that nurturing private high school), Steph had no patience for Suzy’s—oh, what was the word?—hesitancy.
It was true that Suzy had not done much with her life, nothing close to what she’d expected when she’d clasped her fine arts diploma and held it aloft to the exuberant applause of her parents (now deceased). She had wanted to teach art in some underperforming urban school, believing that the mere presence of beauty in students’ lives would raise their aspirations. What had happened in the last twenty years? To Suzy, to Gary? Even last night, after their wonderful time in rehab, Gary had seemed to pull back again. He had stood in the bedroom doorway as Suzy arranged her wings across the bed’s expanse. But instead of joining her for another downy tussle, he had said, “I have to check on something downstairs.” He had spent the night in the lab.
A seagull sailed past Suzy and swooped out over the lake. The bird cupped a wing, as if beckoning. Spreading her wings, Suzy stepped off the bluff and followed.
God, the silence. Just the wind in her ears, the soft rustling of her wings and the light flapping of her baggy sweatshirt. The cool autumn air flowed over her breasts, across her belly, between her legs, just as Gary had run a feather up and down her naked body the other night, conjuring gasps in its wake. Why hadn’t he come to bed last night? But the reason no longer mattered. The obligations to understand, solve, explain, repair, create—the mind’s relentless, senseless hectoring—receded with the shoreline. Below, a pod of giant carp leaped and plunged through the gray waves. Up ahead, the sun freed itself from Cleveland’s downtown skyline, exploding into brilliance. Like a raven she’d once watched on a windy day, Suzy did a barrel roll. The sudden joyous dizziness made her whoop.
She sailed along the shore, approaching Rockdale Park, where fall’s beginning edged the trees with yellow and red. A man threw a tennis ball down the beach for his dog to chase, before pausing to stare, stupefied, up at Suzy. She waved at him and then raced the animal, beating her wings and overtaking it just as the cement pier announced the end to public property. The dog skidded to a halt in the sand. It was a good thing, Suzy thought, there were no barriers like that in the air. That was the whole point of flying, wasn’t it? Already walking, driving, shopping—all those grid-enclosed human activities seemed absurd. Some birds even spent their entire lives in the air. What were they called, again? Arc something?
Suzy opened and closed her mouth, trying to physically yank the word out of her mind. But all that came out were grunts, ah-ah-ah. This had happened before, during rehab. Gary hadn’t remarked on the problem, likely assuming that she had never experienced pure happiness and thus had no words for it. Suzy had also made that assumption, and she wished to continue making it, despite the deep, alien resistance that she had begun sensing in her mind. Words simply would not form. Suddenly nauseous, she banked and dug through the air toward home.
Suzy landed with a thump on the lawn. She opened the back door and turned sideways to walk through it, as she had learned to do so her wings would not get stuck. Leaning her elbows on the kitchen island, she tried to remember that stupid bird’s name, and why she had even wanted to know it in the first place. Overhead, her collection of copper pots bounced the morning light off each other, as if playing a game.
Steph clomped downstairs in the LED boots she’d designed herself. According to her current obsession, they displayed an animated version of some medieval Japanese battle. She had tied up her hair, deeply black thanks to a recent dye pill, in a Samurai topknot. A decorative katana hung from her black shoulder belt, angling across her white mini-kimono.
“Orange,” Steph said. The refrigerator made a humming sound and dropped a peeled orange down the produce chute. Then: “Hey, Mom. How was your flight?”
It was all Suzy could do not to leap for joy. Her daughter never initiated conversations. Even when Suzy had come home from the rehab facility yesterday, Steph had simply stood and stared—whether in horror or admiration, it was impossible to tell—and then walked away without a word. Suzy leaned hard on the island, biting her lips together. Anything she said or did could shatter this delicate moment.
“I saw you this morning,” Steph said, dismantling the orange with her squared-off black fingernails. “And I was thinking. I’d like to get some wings myself. I mean, I get that it’s a big operation, so I’d probably need your permission or something. But I think what you’re doing is amazing.”
Suzy clasped both hands to her heart, lest the overwhelmed little organ burst right out of her chest. She pictured the two of them, mother and daughter, flying together over the lake. Laughing. Barrel-rolling. Talking.
“Oh,” Suzy said. “Ah.”
Steph had Gary’s lovely eyes. They narrowed in puzzlement. Or was it disdain?
“Something wrong?” Steph asked, munching on an orange section.
“Ah,” Suzy said, shaking her head frantically.
Steph shrugged, glanced at her telebracelet, and tossed the rest of the orange in the composter. Her sword clattered against the door as she headed off to school, where she would talk with other people all day long.
Laboring to form the question she had to ask, Suzy hurried down the basement steps.
Gary sat at his holographic computer, flicking through row after row of evenly spaced letters. Exhaustion had carved deep shadows around his eyes. His hair stood on end, as if he’d been running his fingers through it all night.
Suzy’s question had already dissolved. She grabbed her wings and shook them.
“What,” she said thickly. She pointed to her mouth and started to cry. Even her crying sounded weird now—more like honking.
Gary ran his fingers through his hair.
He said, “I suspected this might happen.”
Suzy sank onto the bottom step and instinctively wrapped her wings around herself.
Gary nodded toward the letters floating in the air in front of him. “It seems that the swan’s DNA …” He ran his fingers through his hair again. “Swans are known for their aggression. And so, their DNA turns out to be sort of … territorial. Wherever it’s introduced into another body, it begins to take over.” He paused. Suzy closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wall.
“Obviously the first thing to go would be your words, since, you know, swans don’t talk. After that, well … I expect you’d start to lose your human consciousness, at least as you recognize it. You’d become a sort of …” Gary sucked his breath in through his teeth. “Hybrid.”
Of course, Suzy thought. She had always suspected that happiness would cost more than she was willing to pay.
“We’ll have to take the wings off immediately,” Gary said. “While the effects are still reversible.”
Suzy shifted her wings and watched the blue light shimmer over them. An insight struck her, more an ache than a thought: it was not simply a matter of possessing something beautiful. For the first time, she felt that beauty was a part of her. They were one and the same.
Suzy’s head throbbed; her neck strained forward as words darted from her like fish. She didn’t have long to decide. Soon, with her words, her mind would go, and she wouldn’t be able to make any choice at all. Of course, she couldn’t continue to function as a wife or mother. Perhaps she could become a kind of pet, like a winged outdoor cat, nesting on the roof, coming and going as she pleased. Or maybe she’d just fly away.
“Scientifically, of course, this is a great step forward,” Gary said, flicking to a wire-frame diagram that looked like the winged Suzy. “And you should be really proud. Even though this didn’t work out as we hoped, you’ve made an enormous contribution to …”
Suzy’s expression cut off any further praise of her contribution. Gary turned the computer off.
He came over and held his hand out. Suzy stared at the creased, damp palm. What was he offering? What did he want?
“I’m sorry,” Gary said, wiping his eyes with the back of his wrist. “I didn’t think … I mean, I hoped … But I shouldn’t have … I never should have …”
Suzy wanted to forgive him. But she no longer understood what the word meant.
* * *
In another fourteen-hour operation, the surgeon removed Suzy’s wings. After that she underwent several weeks of speech therapy, recovering nearly all her language. Not that she needed it very much. Every conversation with Gary seemed to lead to a fight, and so they tacitly agreed not to bother talking. Steph remained as sullen in Suzy’s presence as ever, if not more so. She couldn’t seem to forgive her mother for letting go of some dream she’d had. Suzy could not think what that dream might have been.
She retained no memory of the wings or of flying. Only occasionally would a flash pass through her—the giddy queasiness of a barrel roll as she undressed for bed, a glimpse from above of an antique fountain when Soothing Mist settled on her skin. As for the scars that formed rough commas around her shoulder blades, she attributed them to a forgotten childhood accident. A series of MyTox treatments soon erased them.
* * *
Not long afterward, on an otherwise typical evening, Suzy was settling into bed when she felt the urge to say goodnight to Gary. Changing her new Indians sweatshirt for her kimono—which still seemed oddly easy to do; an impediment to dressing had somehow gone missing—she brushed her hair and silently recited her litany: Do not criticize. Do not even appear to criticize.
Gary stood beside the main tank, making notes on his tablet. A pair of wings lay peaceably in the water. Like a sleeping cat, a memory stirred in Suzy and settled back down.
“Who are the wings for?” she asked, pausing on the stairs. She pictured, for some reason, a small child soaring around her backyard as her parents cheered her on.
“Guy who’s shipping out in a few months,” Gary said.
Gary eyed his wife carefully. “The Joint Chiefs are very interested in one of my, um, recent experiments.”
He explained that for decades, the military had tried and failed to create drones with human-level intelligence. But Gary had discovered that the desired effect could be achieved by attaching wings to people. True, the wings would gradually erode the soldiers’ language and memories, but they would retain enough emotional intelligence to give them unprecedented skill in targeting.
“There will be no more errant strikes on civilians,” Gary said, bouncing on the balls of his feet as his excitement—or anxiety—mounted. “And the loss of so-called human consciousness is actually a plus. The Winged Warriors won’t be able to remember or discuss anything they’ve done. Their vulnerability to PTSD goes way down. It’s a win all around. War is about to become far more ethical.”
This time, Suzy thought, Gary really had gone too far.
“War is not ethical,” she shouted. “What the hell makes you think it could ever be ethical? This is the most barbaric thing you’ve ever done.”
Gary swallowed hard and stared into the tank at the dormant wings. He looked so sad that Suzy could not bear it. She wanted to wrap him in a cloak she no longer wore and sing to him. But as she descended the stairs, his face hardened.
“Has it ever occurred to you to say a kind word to me?” Gary said. “I’m killing myself down here, and all you ever do is find fault.”
“Killing yourself? You are not the victim here, Gary. I swear, your ability to rationalize your actions is astounding. Sometimes I think you’re a lost cause.”
“So are you.”
Suzy threw up her hands and trudged upstairs. She would never understand why she bothered with these little incursions into Gary’s territory. She didn’t even know what she wanted from him in the first place.
She slipped into bed.
“Soothing Mist,” she said to the wall register. The rose-petal scent drifted over her.
* * *
Albatross. The word sounded in Suzy’s mind like a seam tearing open. She whispered it to herself again, and felt herself lifting, gliding over turbulent dark water.
Ann Gelder‘s fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, Flavorwire, Lost Balloon, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. Her first novel, Bigfoot and the Baby, was published by Bona Fide Books and is now a podcast.