The following is a short story that takes place before the events of Our Only Hope. In the novel, Hope already has her wings. But how did she get them? How did she learn that this was a secret that must be kept? Read on to find out.
My brother was being completely unreasonable. All I wanted him to do was help cut off my deformations. But, no! He just kept refusing. We stood in his small, empty dining room, which was nothing more than an open area adjacent to the tiny kitchen. I toed a pealing strip of linoleum on the floor.
“Come on, man,” I continued to press. “I won’t be a baby about it. You’ll never see me cry. Just do it. Cut off those weird growths on my back.”
“No, Hope,” Brian refused for the hundredth time. He crossed his thick, tan arms over his broad chest and leaned back against the wall. He wouldn’t even look at me. He just stared off at nothing about ninety degrees to my right, so that I only saw him in profile. His jaw was set—strong, square, and taut—and clearly expressed his resoluteness.
“Why?” I finally asked. All evening, he’d offered no reason for his refusal. He’d simply said no over and over.
His nostrils flared as he sucked in a deep breath. He closed his eyes while he slowly exhaled. He kept them closed while he took in and let out another deep breath. Brian’s muscled arms dropped to his sides and he opened his eyes. For the first time in quite a while, my brother turned his head and focused his flat gaze on me. He stared at me with a blank expression, not answering my query. He seemed to be appraising me, but his face gave away nothing as to how he felt.
Seconds ticked by, turning to minutes. I began to feel uncomfortable under his scrutinizing contemplation. It had been quiet for long enough that I was worried that the indecipherable whispers would start again inside of my mind. They’d only started when I woke up a few days ago to find my sheets bloody from the eruptions of the growths from my back. I was starting to worry that I was losing my mind. I learned quickly, though, and had soon discovered that quiet brought on the whispers. So, I ensured that I was never around silence for too long.
My eyes darted around, inadvertently showing weakness by expressing my lack of confidence while in his presence. I had no idea what he was thinking, until I heard the small huff of air he exhaled through his nose when I’d looked away from his penetrating and intimidating stare. I knew that sound. It meant I’d earned his disapproval. I knew that I’d done wrong in his eyes.
He continued to say nothing. It’d been several minutes since I’d last spoken. I met his gaze again.
“You will do as I say,” he said in a tone that told me I dared not defy him. “You will not maim yourself, nor will you ask anyone else to do so. Whatever is growing on your back, you will allow it.”
“No buts,” he bellowed.
I squeaked before I clapped my hand over my mouth. My brother was a big dude, and he knew how to be scary. Having been beaten up by him countless times as a child, I was long ago conditioned to obey his mysterious orders when I knew he was serious. And he was clearly earnest about his secretive instructions. As serious and mysterious as a shark bite in the middle of the desert.
“If you ever succeed—or even attempt—to cut off your deformations, then I will…” He fell quiet and reverted to staring at me with that stern but ambiguous expression.
“Beat me up?” I offered.
“Hope, if you ever cut off your wings, I’ll kill you with my own bare hands.”
I gasped. “How could you say that?” Tears sprang to my eyes. “I’m your sister. How could you say that to me? Mom and Dad and Grandma just died. Taniya ran away and I can’t get ahold of her since her phone got shut off. I’ve lost everyone! How could you say that?”
“You’ll hate me if I explain and I’m wrong. You’ll hate me less if I keep you in the dark for now. I have to ask you to trust me.”
“You just threatened to fucking kill me? What is wrong with you? How could you—”
“Shut up and listen for once, would you?” He heaved a sigh and ran his hands through his hair. “Look, you don’t know what it’s like being the oldest. You have no idea what kind of responsibility was hoisted onto my shoulders when Mom and Dad died.”
I scoffed. “Don’t be such a fucking martyr. Jesus tits, dude. It’s not like you had to finish raising us. We’re all adults.”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “And yet you clearly are incapable of taking care of yourself.”
“This shit isn’t my fault,” I exploded. “I didn’t do anything to cause this to happen. It’s not like I asked for this or even could have prevented it. I, in no way, caused this cancer to grow on me.”
His explosion of laughter was so unexpected, I stumbled backward a few steps. “Cancer?” he bellowed through his guffaws. “You think that’s a cancer on you? Oh my god, Hope. Have you even looked at your back?”
I shook my head, stunned to muteness.
The laughter came to an abrupt halt. He stared at me again, only this time it was with a gapping jaw. He blinked a few times, looked away from me, and muttered, “Moron.”
“Moron,” he repeated as he focused on me once more. “Idiot. You fucking dolt. You haven’t seen them and you want them cut off.” It wasn’t a question. He was stating a fact that he found entirely absurd. “Get in the fucking bathroom. You have to see this.”
He was already halfway turned, expecting me to follow him down the hallway, but he froze as soon as I refused. “No?”
“I don’t want to see it. I’m sure it looks gross. I can’t really feel it with my hands, just the…” I swallowed my revulsion a few times and tried again. “I can only feel the tips of it.” Tears sprang to my eyes and in just a few seconds I was bawling. “They’re getting bigger every day. I can’t hide it much longer. It hurts like hell to bind them flat against my back. I’m going to have to quit my job soon.”
He took four long steps over to me and laid his huge hand on my shoulder. Had he wanted to, he could’ve probably crushed all of the bones he held in his massive grip and rendered my arm useless for the rest of my life. “Hope,” he said in a tone so soft and gentle, I was stunned all over again. “You really, truly must see what has erupted from your back. If you’ve ever trusted me in your entire life, you must trust me now. It will not make you sick. You…” He gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. “You really need to trust me on this…business.”
If I’d ever trusted him? Of course I trusted him. He was my big brother. Despite all of the bruises, skinned knees, pulled hair, stolen treats, broken toys, and everything else he’d put me through in our childhood, I trusted Brian with my life. I knew that when it really came down to it, he was older and wiser than I was. True, his years weren’t that much more than mine, but he’d grown up as the eldest grandson to a tribal elder. He’d spent much of his life being privy to wisdom I’d never get a glimpse at as a woman, let alone as the second born. My brother was much older than his years. He’d also been right before. With our parents dead, and me unmarried, he was my keeper. Not that that meant a whole lot anymore, except that he was supposed to give me away at my wedding someday.
He didn’t need me to agree aloud. He must’ve read the answer in my face, because he gave me a small, rare smile before he led the way down the hall. I stepped into his dark, tiny bathroom and ran straight into his back. He spun around, grabbed me by my shoulders, and positioned me with my back to the mirror. He covered the top half of my face with one massive hand, but I could feel him reach for the light with his other hand. Dim illumination seeped in around the edges of his large palm.
“Keep your eyes closed,” he ordered me.
“Are they closed?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“Close your eyes.”
“They are closed.”
“I know you’re still lying to me.”
He grumbled a sigh and removed his hand from my face. He held a small shaving mirror in his other hand. “Look,” he whispered.
I steeled my nerves by taking a deep breath before I shifted my gaze to the mirror he held. I could only see half of my back, but that was enough. Half was all I needed to see in order to guess that the other side would be exactly the same, only reversed. I knew instinctually that this had to be the case because wings always come in pairs.
And this was definitely a wing.
There was no denying it, no matter how much I wanted to. I’d been a bar waitress for years, so I knew what a damn chicken wing looked like. The protrusion on my back was the exact same shape, only part of the “drum” section was within my back, connecting it to my other muscles. Then that meant…
I grabbed the mirror from my brother and angled it so that I could see my whole upper back exposed above the top of my camisole. I flexed my back muscles, trying to find the connection to my wings.
“My wings,” I murmured. “You said it before,” I realized belatedly.
“Yes,” he whispered.
I was growing fucking wings out of my own back and holy shit—I’d just made them move. I’d isolated the muscles that controlled them, that were growing within them. I made the tips of the wings extend, so that the last two sections formed a straight line.
“Cheesy crust and crackers on toast,” I mumbled as I let my wings fall slack again.
“You can’t ever cut them off,” Brian asserted once more.
“I promise I never will.”
“You have to trust me. You can’t ask a lot of questions, because I won’t be able to answer most of them.”
“Okay, I will,” I said in an absent tone as I continued to study and flex my wings.
“Okay as in you will trust me?”
“And okay as in you won’t ask questions?”
“Oh, I will,” I promised. There was no use denying my highly inquisitive nature. The man had grown up with me. He knew that my queries would often seem to have no end. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
Brian heaved a heavy sigh. “Hope,” he said in a warning tone. “Part of trusting me is letting this play out. Just see what happens as they grow, okay? Don’t tell other people, don’t show anyone else, and don’t demand answers that I can’t give yet.”
“But you do have answers?”
“I might, someday. But I don’t have all of the answers. Not yet. So just roll with it, alright?”
“I bet you are,” I mumbled, unable to take my eyes off of my wings. I was certain they’d get bigger and sprout feathers. If I looked closely, I could almost see thin, white shafts beneath the surface of my newly grown skin. I wondered how large my wings would be when they finished developing. Large enough to fly? “Do you think that someday, I might be able to fly?”
Brian didn’t answer, so I checked his expression. His eyes gave away nothing, and neither did the set of his jaw or the shape of his mouth. He wore a face that was a vault for his secret thoughts and feelings, a blank canvas on which any possibility could be imagined.
“You won’t tell me, will you?” I finally inferred.
His lips pressed together into thin lines. He crossed his arms, glanced out the small window, and heaved a sigh. His dark eyes darted back to mine, this time filled with trepidation. “I should not tell you this.” He hesitated again, gauging my reaction to see if I would let him leave it at that. But I’d heard in his tone that he’d decided to give me an answer. I was willing to wait until he came out with it. His eyes took on a shade of sadness and his shoulders dropped infinitesimally. “I don’t believe you will. The chance that you’ll grow wings big enough and strong enough to support you…it’s pretty damn slim. It almost never happens.”
“So there have been others before me? This has a precedence? You know what I might expect?”
“I might know what you could possibly expect. But, I cannot know all possibilities, since those are endless. Every experience is unique and should be seen through untainted vision by one unclouded with pointless expectations. Why do you think life doesn’t come with an owner’s manual?”
“Har-de-fucking-har,” I sassed him. “This is serious shit. I want you to tell me what you know.”
“Are you dense or just deaf? Did you not hear what I said? I cannot and will not tell you anything I know. You need to be blind in this. Get it?”
I scowled at my big brother, but I knew the effect was lost on him. When he made up his mind, that was that and there was no changing it. “Fine.”
Someday, I’d get him to tell me. But it certainly wouldn’t be this day.