With eyes the color of jaundice and coal, Demon watches me from his perch on the skylight. This is my dominion, this tar beach—a rooftop, seven-stories removed from the grind and glare of East 57th Street; here, I am queen, but this demonic thing has come to challenge my rule. He lounges and waits. Disdain, a silent gauntlet tossed onto the grayish roof between us, mocks me as I set aside most of my things and approach, my feet crushing pea gravel with the sound of grinding bones. As soon as I get close, swinging my bottle of holy water, Demon hisses and jumps up, his tail lashing and flinging off yellowish spangles. He bristles as he heads for the fire escape. I heft the squirt bottle and bring it to my lips.

“Bless you, super cat repellent.”

Demon doesn’t acknowledge my dominion of the roof so much as he despises being wet. Tail thrashing, he’s nearly across the length of the elevated glass pyramid when he stops and peers over the edge. Cats are usually curious about two things: dumb stuff that gets them killed or any small animal that they think they themselves can kill. Up here that’s usually birds, and I don’t allow that. I’m crazy queen bird girl, after all.

I charge toward Demon just as he pounces from the edge of the skylight. There is a frantic fluttering of wings and a mad mewling of cat and a surge of speed from me. I round the knee-high wall that holds up the skylight in time to see Demon lunge at a black, middling-sized bird. A bird that holds its ground with wings extended, the left one obviously broken. The bird hops and swings its right wing, smacking pinions across the cat’s muzzle.

“Hey, cat! Go away!” I yell, as he arches and hisses, dancing away from the bird and me. We form a wall—black bird and black girl. The enmity between us and the feline is a burnt-oil stench in my nostrils.  I raise the bottle. “Ain’t nothing you want here, cat.” And squeeze the trigger.

Demon spits one last time and then pelts away—a soggy gray comet trailing dirty yellow sparks. I turn my attention to the bird, which lowers its wings and cocks its head, regarding me with a shiny black bead of an eye. “Who are you?” I ask, crouching down to get a better look. “And what’d you do to your wing?” I reach out, aware of the sharp beak, and tentatively stroke the breast feathers. It turns a little, and I notice the dark gray feathers on the back of its head and neck. I stroke these and it steps closer to me, its aura shifting to purple. “Are you tame? Do you have an owner somewhere?”

I carefully reach under its belly and lift, feeling the bird relax in my palm. Holding it next to my chest, I go back to my task of filling the bird feeders that are strung on a rope near the stairs. Soon, sparrows, finches, and titmice are lined up on the low parapet around the roof, waiting patiently for breakfast. I step back and watch them swoop in.

“Welcome, my aerodynamic subjects. Eat, drink, and be birdy.”

In my hand, the black bird makes a soft crak-crak-crak call, similar to a crow’s caw, but not nearly as harsh. I’m shivering, so I head for the stairs. Clomping down them, I start to shake off the chill of January. My teeth finally stop chattering by the time I reach my apartment and let myself in. I hear rattling in the kitchen, and my foster mom pokes her head around the corner.

“Morning, Gret!” Pat peers through her glasses at the black feather puff cradled in my hands. “What’cha got there? Find another stray?”

“It was on the roof. I think its wing is broken. Demon tried to eat it for breakfast.”

“Who?”

“Darrin…the Shulzeburger’s cat.” I shake my head. “Who names a cat Darrin, anyway?”

“Bewitched.”

“Huh?”

“TV show. Back in the sixties. The husband was named Darrin. He was the only normal person in a family of witches.” Pat smiles, I guess at my lack of response. “That’s where they got the name from.”

“Huh…interesting.”

“Yeah, and don’t let Mrs. Shulzeburger hear you call her cat Demon.” Pat waves a spatula at me. “She thinks the world of that fuzzball.”

I glance down at the bird in my hands. “That fuzzball likes to kill birds. It’s bogus.”

“Natural order.” These words float from the hallway, and they’re followed by Joan, my other foster mom. She steps over to me, her movements those of a dancer. “Oh, he’s a handsome fellow.” She puts a finger out and the bird allows her to stroke its head.

I feel the sensation of gentle waves rocking the air—the manifestation of Joan’s love. “I haven’t determined its sex yet,” I say. “I think it has a broken wing.”

“Oh, he’s a boy all right.” Joan’s brown eyes flash humor before she wanders over to Pat for a chaste kiss. “What’s for breakfast, lady?”

The two duck into the kitchen while I head for my room. I hear more kissing, and then, “Gretchen, did you have breakfast?”

“Yeah,” I call over my shoulder, “I had a muffin and orange juice.”

“You want some tofu scramble and tomatoes?”

I flinch a little. “Sure. In a bit.” I quicken my step. “I’ve got a bird to fix.” My bedroom door thumps closed behind me and I hope that they’ll be hungry enough to eat all of Pat’s bean curd extravaganza. Shaking my head, I reach for my rescue box—my cobbled-together kit of medical supplies for animals. All of the peeps at the local veterinary offices know me and several of them covertly donate expired supplies to support my bird-rescue habit. One-handed, I spread out a towel on my desk and lay the bird down.

“You need a name,” I say to it while getting some gauze out of the box. I’ll need to make a figure eight dressing to stabilize the wing. Judging by the wing droop that I saw earlier, I’m guessing it’s the humerus bone that’s broken. Its wings are already folded, so it’s an easy matter to simply wrap the injured one up, using the other bones of the wing as a splint. This is the best I can do for the break. Once it’s wrapped around in gauze, I reach for the Coban tape and secure the gauze in place before making a few turns around the bird’s body to secure its wing to its side. “There ya go. Couple of weeks and you’ll be chasing the—” oh, what the heck, Joan has a fifty-fifty chance of being right “—the ladies around the park.”

I set him on his feet, and he stretches out his right wing and casts a gaze at me, cawing in that soft way, almost like he’s trying to speak. “Okay, fella. I’d like to figure out what you are, and you need a name too.” I go to my bookcase. The books, mostly paperbacks, jammed onto and spilling off of the shelves look like they need an apartment all their own. I pull out my battered, door-stop copy of Sibley and Monroe and flip pages. The bird looks like he belongs in the Corvidae family, but he’s definitely not a raven or a crow. Maybe a grackle, but he has the wrong coloration.

Crak-crak.

“What?” I look at him on the dresser. “You cold?” I retrieve him and lay him on the bed next to me before returning my attention to the book. I find his page after a few minutes. “A jackdaw?” The book says that jackdaws are native to Europe. “What on earth are you doing in New York?”

“Gretchen?” There’s a tap on my door. “Your scramble is getting cold.”

I sigh, wishing for bacon. “Okay. I’ll be there in a second.” I glance down at my newest patient. “I sure hope you like vegetables, bub,” I whisper. “Hmm, bub’s not so good.”

My gaze strays to the book beside my pillow, the one I was reading when I fell asleep last night. I lift it. Faust by Goethe, which I discovered is partially about me—the girl Gretchen, whom Faust falls in love with. I find the page I’d been on and read it aloud to the bird:

“FAUST

By Heaven, that girl is wonderfully fair!

In all my life, I’ve seen none to compare;

Most sweet and virtuous and pure,

And yet just a little bit undemure!

Lips red as roses, cheeks flush’d pink and clear.

Never will I forget, till I’m to the grave,

How she cast her gaze down and swiftly gave,

An imprint that deep in my heart lies:

How bereft her speech was—yet full despise!—

Of gilded prattle, but instead was rather most sincere!”

I glance at the jackdaw. “You like Faust?”

Craaaaaaaaa.

“Hmm…Mephistopheles?” I ask and scan down the page and read:

“MEPHISTOPHELES

There, her? Coming from confession thence?

Her every sin, the solemn priest’s absolved,

For ’hind her chair, I surely listened unobserved.

As she, innocent as a child, I profess,

Sat pure, with no sins she need confess.

Forsooth, no power have I o'er souls so blest.

“How’s that? Mephistopheles?”

Crak-crak-crak!

“Oh?”

He starts pecking at me.

“Stop!”

He stops and cocks his head to look up at me. Crak-crak-crak!

“Okay,” I say. “Mephi–Stop–heles, it is.” If birds could smile, I imagine he would be grinning.

“Gretchen…”

Pat loves being a mom, and part of being a mom is taking excessive joy from feeding other people—even when those people really don’t want to eat the mom’s cooking. I sigh and roll off my narrow bed, bringing the bird and the bird book with me. As I put the book back on the shelf, Stop snuggles against my chest. I look down and laugh, and then open the door.

“Hey…do you like tofu?” I have plans. “Oh, I bet you’re going to love it!”

The door slams behind me and my boots thunder on the stairs. Stop flexes and bobs around on my shoulder as I navigate the steps two and three at a time. Reaching the bottom, I pop the handle on the front door of my building and push out into the April morning sunshine. School is almost over—graduation beckons like a beacon of hope—and then my birthday happens. In a little over two months, I’ll be an adult. And free.

As soon as I hit the front edge of the stoop, Stop crouches, spreads his wings, and launches himself into the sky. The first time he did that, after his wing mended and he was well enough to go outside, I’d thought my heart would burst from joy as I watched the recipient of my patience and concern take wing and fly again. I had been sad too, of course. I always am when I watch a wild animal leave my care. He had soared away—a bittersweet moment. That night, as I sat in my room doing homework, I’d heard a tapping on my window and opened it to find Stop sitting on the sill. His outline became blurred as he’d hopped into the apartment, and I snatched him up and cradled him, turning his ashy feathers black with my joy.

“Silly bird,” I say, as I watch him flap up and over the roofs of the buildings to go heaven only knows where. I inhale the warming air of spring, and it snaps and sparkles—tickling my nose as it goes down. The scents that assault me are whelming up around my eyeballs by the time I reach the end of the block, and the little, barren trees shimmer just faintly as if sensing the coming of summer’s heat.

I don’t see Stop again until after I get the books that I’d wanted from the 67th Street branch library. I step out, pushing the thick doors of bronze and glass from my path, and Stop comes sailing over the parked cars and the low iron fence in front of the building, executes an awkward mid-air loop, and plops to the ground at my feet. I watch the vortices he raised disperse and spin down like toy tops, and wonder about his sudden clumsiness.

“Only two points for that shady landing.”

Crak! Crak-crak-crak!

“Oh?” I go to step around him, but he flaps out his wings and hops in front of me. “What’s up, silly one?”

He jumps up, flapping, and hangs in the air before me. Weird. I raise my arm for him to perch, but instead he just grabs ahold of my shirt sleeve with his talons and keeps flapping, pulling my arm along with him. “Okay, okay!” He’s been behaving oddly since yesterday. It’s nothing I can put a finger on; he’s just not himself, exactly. I walk in the direction that he’s trying to go, and he leaps off my arm, turns a twist, and muscles away toward the park across the street. I skirt the fence and check traffic before crossing after him.

Crak-crak!

“Yeah, well, I can’t fly over cars like you. If you don’t want your meal ticket flattened by a bus, you better chill.” My satchel bangs against my hip as I run across the street and onto the newly sprouting lawn that separates the basketball courts from the rest of the park. Stop circles a trash can near the tall fence that surrounds the courts and flutters to rest on the rim of the can.

Crak-crak!

“I’m coming.”

He paces, sideways, back and forth along the rim, cocking his head down—looking in—and then back up again at me. I scope out the filthy trash bin. “I’m not really happy with your choice of perch. You walk on my pillow, you know.”

Crak! He chides me and flaps his wings.

I see something move in the can, under a crumpled-up take-out bag. I lean closer…a squirrel? I don’t really want to reach into a trash can, so I pull a pencil from my bag and push the greasy paper out of the way. A miniature blue-skinned woman stares up at me. She’s just a doll. But then she moves.

“Whut…?”

She cowers down, trying to dig deeper into the vile trash. Crak! Stop dips his head toward the blue woman, who squeaks in fear and redoubles her efforts. My vision tunnels. “What are you?” I reach into the filth and gently grab ahold of her, taking care to avoid her ladybits. She struggles as I look around, wondering where the hidden cameras are. Stop jumps onto my arm, his footfalls stalking closer toward her.

“Not food, Stop!”

He ignores me and leans closer to her. Her struggles cease and she simply watches my bird as I watch her. Skin of deep cobalt—except where garbage clings to her—she gleams in the sun like a sapphire statuette. She’s bald and naked and her tiny ears are pointed like Mr. Spock’s. And I’m at a loss as to what to do now.

“Look, Momma!” A child’s high, lilting voice startles me from my dilemma-soaked reverie. “She gots a bird on huh arm!”

“She has a bird on her arm, sweetie,” a woman says, “and it’s not polite to point.”

I turn to find a little boy staring raptly at Stop while a modestly exasperated woman tugs gently on his hand. They’re not freaking out about the blue woman I’m clutching. The boy shivers in excitement, and the woman—his mother I’m guessing—releases his hand. He’s at my side like a shot. “I’m sorry,” she says, “he’s just fascinated by animals.”

“No problem. So am I.” I crouch down so he can get a better look at Stop.

“Can I touch ’im?” he asks.

“You should say may I, and yes, you may.” The woman smiles a bit, perhaps at my contribution to her son’s grammar, while the little boy raises his hand, drops it a little, and finally raises it again and runs his fingertips across the shiny black feathers of Stop’s wing.

Crak.

The boy giggles. “He so pretty!”

“What do you think of my little blue woman?” I whisper to the boy.

He looks puzzled. “He a bird, not a lay-dee.”

“In my hand.”

His gaze shifts to my hand and the look of puzzlement deepens. He shakes his head and returns his gaze to Stop. “Pretty birdy. Can he sing?”

“I don’t think so. I tried to teach him a few months ago, but he never did get the hang of it. He can sound like other birds though. Would you like to hear?”

The boy’s blue eyes widen—impossibly farther—and he licks his trembling lips. “Yes!”

“Stop…what’s a crow say? What’s a crow say?”

Stop and the little blue woman both look at me.

Caw! Caw-caw-caw!

The boy smiles.

“Say hello, Stop. Say hello.” I stroke his gray nape feathers.

Stop utters a sound vaguely like the word hello, and the boy erupts in delighted giggles.

I try again. “So you can’t see the blue lady in my hand?”

He ignores me as Stop continues to make noises that almost sound like words. I glance back to the little woman and notice more details; I begin to appreciate that she’s not a miniature human. She’s the color of a can of Pepsi, for one—well, a little lighter, actually—and her face is distorted, almost insect-like, with enlarged, almond-shaped eyes that lack a white part—in fact they look all black. Her chin is prominent, mouth wide, and her nose is nearly non-existent, merely a pair of vertical slits beneath a small protrusion of flesh. The body likewise is oddly proportioned, the limbs long and slender and fragile looking.

Stop jumps up, splits the air with his wings, and soars away over our heads.

“He flied away!” the boy yells.

“Flew, Joachim,” the mother says, reaching again for the boy. “Tell the nice girl thank you for sharing her bird.”

Enormous, shining eyes find mine and an infectious giggle leads off an enthusiastic, “Thankou!” His still-chubby arms encircle my neck for a few seconds—I feel the warmth of his puffy, angel cheek against mine and my heart melts, just a little—before the boy runs the two steps to his mom. They leave, hand-in-hand, with him talking in an excited jabber of jackdaw-like words. Overhead, Stop swoops around in silent circles. How come the boy and his mom couldn’t see the blue woman-thing in my hand?

Crak!

I’ve always seen stuff—auras and odors and whatnot—and sensed things that other people couldn’t, but I’ve never seen a full-on miniature person-like thing before. It’s a new experience.

A shadow passes over me. I look up in time to see Stop fly off to the circle of tall trees at the center of the park. There are six of them, surrounding a glade of grass and surrounded in turn by a concrete path and some iron benches. I like to come here to read when the weather is warm enough. Having a park across the street from a library was a stroke of someone’s genius.

Crak!

Stop is perched in one of the trees and is flapping his wings hard enough to cause a tropical storm in the Amazon basin someday soon. As I stand up, he stops flapping and peers at me from under the barely there canopy of tiny, new leaves. He bobs up and down before scuttling back and forth along the branch. “Dude, what?” I cross the lawn and the walkway, stopping beside the large tree, a black locust according to the sign at its base. “What?”

He pecks at the trunk with his beak.

“Are you woodpecker now?”

Peck, peck. He looks down at me. I look up at him…and see several other blue-skinned people things up higher in the tree. “Oh.” The blue lady thing struggles in my hand, so I turn her toward the tree and hold her close to the bark. A snap of static electricity stings my fingers right before she jumps out of my hand and scrambles up the trunk. I rub my sore fingers as I watch the blue lady join the others. Stop sails off the branch and across the park, headed towards home. “You’re welcome,” I call after him. “Ungrateful pigeon.”

I take one last look at the tree and its cadre of miniature, blue people-things before heading home too. I’m nearly at my apartment when Stop flutters out of the sky and drops onto my shoulder—crak-crak—and begins grooming his feathers. “Yeah, thanks for getting your bird lice all over me.” I chide him, but I’m glad to have him back. It’s almost scary how much the little turd has ingrained himself into my life. He’s my near-constant companion and friend. And heaven knows, it’s not like I have a ton of friends busting down my door to hang with me.

I twist the key in the balky lock to the foyer of my building and hit the stairs, powering my way up four flights to the apartment. Inside, I find Pat and Joan on the sofa and I lean forward, over the sofa’s back and down between them, to give them both a hug. The scents of Moms fills me with peace as Stop flutters up and flies off to the breakfast nook to his favorite perch—the top of the farthest chair.

“Hello, baby,” Joan whispers.

“Hey-oh, kiddo,” Pat says and grabs my hand in hers. “Dinner at six. You wanna watch some tube?”

“Sure.”

They make space for me, and we laugh through some sitcoms while we talk about the day. A few times I almost mention the little blue lady thing, but catch myself. When the news comes on, Pat bounds off the sofa and heads for the kitchen. “Grub-rustling time,” she says and disappears around the corner. Joan lifts the remote and turns the volume down before turning herself on the cushion and locking her gaze with mine.

“Where are you going,” she asks, “after you turn eighteen?”

My heart flutters in my chest. This is a topic that my caseworker wondered aloud about six months ago and then dropped. I’ve not wanted to think about it since. Joan and Pat have been fostering me for the better part of a decade, but they’re under no legal obligation to provide a home to me after I become an adult. “Um, I could get a job. Find an apartment, maybe with one of my classmates?”

I say classmates because I don’t have any friends, real or imagined, at my school—there are all sorts of color and money and culture issues walling me off from being a friend, per se, with most of the other kids in the social pressure-cooker of a preparatory academy that I go to. I’m one of the handful of kids on the charity scholarships—the ones that the wealthy alumni fund to make themselves feel good—the look how inclusive we are, allowing poor, minority kids to be graced by the same education we were privileged with thing.

Ha! Not the same experience, though.

But, I’m not complaining; I appreciate everything I’m getting in the way of an education, and I still bless the day that someone noticed my high test scores in middle school and thought to dig a little deeper into the person behind the numbers, instead of writing me off ’cause I was a ‘poor, colored girl.’ But really, it’s still asking a lot to bridge the chasm between me—a broke and supposedly broken abandoned kid with an absent father, a crazy biological mom, and a pair of lesbians for foster parents—and the social set where even the least wealthy of the paying kids are driven to school by their gleaming Swedish au pairs in equally gleaming S-class Mercedes Benzes; that trench is a bit too deep, wide, and white for me to get across.

The few other ‘Charity Chicks’—as we scholarship girls call ourselves on the down low—can’t exactly be counted on to be friends; the spots we fill are competitive after all, and any one of us slipping down too far academically, doing illegal stupidity, or causing excess drama could be dismissed without appeal, remanded to our neighborhood public school. That thought alone serves as the damn Damoclean instrument—sharp and perilous—to keep me focused, head-down, and working.

Sometimes charity, no matter how well-intentioned, can be a toxic proposition—well, that and Alec—in this case, leading to my lonely existence as I try to keep everyone, particularly the boys, at arm’s length basically all the time so I don’t risk losing what I’ve got. I’m really looking forward to the whole hellish experience being over so I can leave and breathe free for a change. I’m tired of having to wear a halo to avoid being choked by the noose, you know? I’m looking forward to going to college; to having friends again, maybe even a boyfriend. That’d be nice.

I had a boyfriend—once. Yeah, him…Alec. Toxic. At first, he was sweet and funny and cute, and it didn’t hurt that his parents had cash, cars, and a nice crib on Central Park West, or so I heard. We started dating my first semester there. He’s older by two years and dropped money and affection on me. We had a lot of fun. And kisses. He was a sweet kisser. He also liked to grab my butt and my boobs, and I kinda let him. But when he tried to put his hand in my pants, I said no. He asked, he cajoled, he tried to negotiate and rationalize, saying how much he wanted to make love to me—to “tighten our relationship and make us closer.” I said no, I was saving myself for my forever guy.

Smirking, he asked if he could be my forever guy. I held up my empty ring finger, left hand, and said, “Dunno. Guess we’ll have to see.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

He looked at me then, with an expression I’d never seen on his face before, but one that I recognized, and said, “You’re not the kinda girl I’d take home to mom.”

“’Scuse me? What’s that supposed to mean? I ain’t good enough for your mom? Pul-ease. I’m good for it all. You wanna hit this? I want bells first, dude.”

He laughed then, his expression almost pity. “You don’t get it, do you? You couldn’t be my wife; only the bit in the back.”

I slapped that cute face then, drawing blood from those sweet lips.

He glared at me and poked at his lip. “What was that for, Bitchen Weird?”

Bitchen Weird. Yeah, that’s when I learned about my nickname amongst the boys at school. The next day, the rumors greeted me before I even made the front doors—look, it’s Bitchen Weird, the HIV-positive lesbian feminazi ho—just vary the order of those, and similar words, depending on which knot of kids I passed and you get the idea.

But seriously? He wanted me—seems a lot of guys did—and couldn’t have me, so he torched my life. Like I said, it’s a big trench.

That was three-and-a-half years ago. I pretty much just kept my head down after that and ignored everyone there, throwing myself into my studies. I survived, but it isn’t fun, or even remotely pleasant most days. I wanted friends, even a boyfriend, but I didn’t play the game, so I got iced, socially. Fortunately, it’ll be over soon, and then—

“You could,” Joan says, pulling me back to the subject of what I’ll be doing after graduation and my birthday.

I swallow the desert in my throat. “Should I?”

“We’d be sad, but you should do what you need to do.”

Did I hear her correctly? “Does that…do you mean you’d be happy if I stayed? May I stay?”

Her smile is sweet with relief. “Of course you may, baby.” She reaches up to push a curl of hair from my face, and her brown eyes sparkle a little more than usual. “We hoped you’d want to, but we weren’t gonna push it.”

I throw my arms around Momma Joan’s neck and squeeze. “Thank you! I love you both.”

“We love you too.” She squeezes back. “But we want our little bird to have the room to fly, should she desire it.”

“Someday,” I say, smiling, “but not today.”

“Great!” She takes my hands in hers and winks. “Let’s see what my wife is pushing off onto us for dinner tonight.”

Crak-crak!

I peel my eyelids back and look up at Stop, standing on my chest. What is it with boys and boobs?

Crak!

He bobs up and down before flapping away to my dresser—his normal perch. “Hush, silly.” I roll onto my side and try to find my dream again, but I hear him flutter over and he lands on my upper arm.

Crak.

I crack open an eyelid and the clock tells me it’s just a little past six a.m. “Dude, seriously…it’s Sunday and the sun isn’t even up. Go back to sleep.” I feel a tug at my hair, so I shrug him off. “Go away!”

I hear his wings, followed by a tapping on the window. I pull my blanket up over my exposed ear. I will win this contest.

Tap-tap-tap.

I stick a finger in my ear.

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap.

“Ugh! You’re such a lame pet.” I throw the covers off and launch myself at the window, but he flies away before I get there. He lands by the door and begins pecking at it. “What?” I open the door and he flies out toward the living room. “Okay.”

I hear pecking on the front door.

“Your brain is so gone.” I bump my forehead against the edge of my door, wanting nothing more than to close it and go back to bed, but I don’t want Stop waking either of my moms. I pull on a jacket, grab my keys and a flashlight, and jam my feet into my boots, stomping out without bothering to lace them. Stop is standing by the door, looking expectant in the beam of the flashlight. I unlock the door and he scuttles out of the way before flying up the stairwell. “Sure, great idea.” I pull the door closed and lock it before following him up. I find him at the door to the roof and I unlock it. He’s out like a shot. “Good riddance.” Just before the door closes, I hear the scream.

I push it open again—the light of the single bulb above me spilling out across the tar roof—and listen. Over the hum of the city and the distant thump of a helicopter’s rotor, I hear a scratching near the water tank. I flick the flashlight back on and scan the rooftop. “Hello? Do you need help? Say something or I’m gonna call the cops.”

Another scream—thin and weak—from near the water tank draws me out into the pre-dawn. The door closes, cutting off the bright light of the landing. Shadows menace. I play the beam of my flashlight over everything, feeling my heart pound in my neck. More scratching. I circle around the tank, giving it as much clearance as I can. Out of nowhere, Stop rockets out, past my head, calling wildly. He circles around and heads back to the narrow gap between the tank and the roof parapet. I hear more scratching, and then an angry mewl.

Demon!

My boot tops clap around my ankles and the chill wind cuts through my pajama pants as I surge forward into the gap. I hear thrashing wings followed by another scream, this time crazed with panic. The light is chaotic in the tight space, mixing with images of black wings, blue skin, red blood, and gray fur crackling with yellow avarice. Another blue person thingy is clutched in Demon’s jaws. She gurgles and goes limp as I kick out at the cat. But he moves, as cats are prone to do, evading my foot, and my boot goes flying off into the darkness, followed by Demon. Stop sails after the cat as I hobble, dirty grit poking my bare foot, after both of them. The air is foul and toxic and sticks to my skin like a scummy rime of hostility.

Where’s my boot?

I hear Stop calling from around the bulk of the tank, and then a pained mewl and a juddering hiss. Frantically, I search, and find my boot wedged up next to some vent pipes. I’m lucky it didn’t go over the edge of the roof. More flapping and scratching reaches my ears as I pull the boot free and jam my foot into it. I get round the tank in time to see a blur of gray launch into the air, paw raised, and smack at a hovering black shape. I watch as my bird, seemingly in slow motion, tumbles through the air in a plume of black feathers.

“Stop!”

Demon killed my friend—my only friend! I charge the wretched cat, which stands its ground, hissing and fur bristled, back arched and legs spraddled out over the blue and red smudge on the roof. I’m closing the distance—my feet thundering in boots and my jacket edges flying out like dark wings—prepared to hit Demon with my flashlight, until he jumps. At me.

I swing wild, missing, and feel a jolt as fifteen pounds of tom cat hit my chest. I hear myself cry out as four sets of claws sink into my skin. What is wrong with this cat? I smack him with the flashlight and grab at him with my other hand. There’s a venomous yowl and cat hair in my hand, and then more pain and shock as Demon’s face is abruptly in mine. Teeth flash in the half-light, and I feel pain bloom along my jaw. This cat is insane! I pull harder and club him again just as a black cloud erupts from nowhere, enveloping my head. I feel a flash of pain as claws and teeth pull out, and another yowl fills my ears as Demon comes away into my hand, his head clutched in Stop’s talons.

“Stop! You’re alive!”

The cat spits and twists, and I let go of him. For a split second, Stop holds Demon up in midair by his head before releasing him. Demon falls at my feet and I kick at him reflexively, sending him across the roof. Somehow my boot stays on this time. He lands with a thud and pops up to his feet, glaring at me.

“You want some more, you freak?” My whole body shakes and my hand spasms on the flashlight barrel.

Stop swoops down over him, making a sound almost like a cat hiss, and Demon finally gives up and pelts toward the edge of the roof. I collapse onto the tar, trembling and heart pounding, and watch as Stop drops down next to the little blue lady—a pixie, I realize. That is what she is.

“Is she alive?” My voice sounds more tremulous than I can ever remember. He pokes at her with his beak as I take deep breaths and tentatively feel the cat bite on my jawline. What got into that beast? That was some crazy crap.

Crak! Stop looks up and does his bouncy thing before hopping into the air for a second. He eyes me, meaningfully it seems. The pixie makes a small noise that might be a groan, and Stop hops again.

“Okay.” I stand on quivering legs and lean down to gently scoop her up. Despite the pain, I smile as Stop flies over to the stairwell door and perches on the roof. I’m grateful that he wasn’t killed. I unlock the door in the dawn-glow and squint against the flood of illumination that falls on me when the door opens. Stop sails down the stairs, and when we get to my apartment, he flies past it.

“What are you doing?” I whisper at him.

He flies back up the stairs and craks at me. Follow, he seems to be saying. I look at my torn and soiled pajamas, and then the pixie, whose color seems to be fading.

Crak!

“Okay, I’ll come,” I say and follow Stop downstairs.

We make a strange procession—a bird leading a bloodied girl cradling an even more bloodied, miniature, blue, alien-looking woman-thing—but we are hardly the weirdest thing I’ve seen in the city, so I doubt we’ll draw too much attention. We go quickly up 1st Avenue and arrive at St. Kate’s Park just as the sun rises over the East River and spills honey marmalade light down 67th Street. Stop flies over to the tree he made such a fuss in yesterday and perches on the same branch. He looks over at me. Crak.

“Yeah.”

The dew spots my boots as the tips sweep through the new grass. The pixie stirs in my hand. Perhaps she can hear the chattering of the other pixies in the tree. I approach the locust tree with some hesitancy; it shocked me yesterday, after all. Little blue people scamper down the trunk, holding out hands toward me—toward the lady in my palm. I smell the sour cabbage scent of their anxiety. “Okay.” I extend my arm, and the little people reach into my hand and lift the pixie away from me, carrying her up the trunk and out of sight. I feel warmth suffuse me; I’ve done something remarkable and remarkably good. Something I can’t tell any other living soul about, aside from Stop. My twitching legs jerk, making me lose balance, and I open my hand to catch myself against the trunk.

No shock this time, except the words that ring softly in my body, ‘Who are you?’

I glance around, feeling my heart pound again. I start to pull away from the tree, trying to get my unruly legs to cooperate.

‘Don’t leave, please.’ I feel the voice vibrating up my fingertips and through my arm. That’s weird…pixies, a demonic attack cat, and now a talking tree. My mind turns to my mother, strapped into her bed in the state mental hospital, and I shake my head. Not me. Not me too. No, not me at all.

Because this isn’t insanity; this is....magic! Magic. I’m sure of it. I mean, it has to be. It has to.

I push my hand back against the tree and feel a wonderful, warm sensation flow across my belly. “Um, Gretchen…” I say, answering his earlier question. The tree is undeniably male; I can hear it in his voice and feel it through my hand—the male vigor and energy. Masculinity—a subject all at once alien, intriguing, and dangerous.

‘Umgretchen.’

A laugh slips out of my mouth at the absurdity of this situation. “No, just Gretchen…only Gretchen.”

‘I understand, Gretchen. I am Hoom.’ I can sense amusement in his voice.

“Hoom. I—it’s nice to meet you. What are you doing to my skin?” I touch the skin of my abdomen. The sensation there is pleasant, almost overwhelmingly so. It feels like a hand rubs me tenderly with a silk cloth.

‘I don’t know. What does it feel like?’

I describe the sensation to him.

‘Very interesting. Do you enjoy it?’

I bite my lip. “Yes.”

‘Then I won’t change anything.’

I wait for the penny to drop, but it never comes. “How can a tree be talking?”

‘It’s a long, sad tale, and not one that I wish to bore you with at the moment. Tell me about yourself.’

“Not much to tell, Gretchen Thyrd, Gemini, seventeen years old—”

‘You said Thyrd? That is a unique name. Who is your father?’

I swallow back the bitterness that question causes. “He died. Probably before I was born.”

‘Interesting. I did not mean to cause you distress.’

“It’s okay. I just don’t like talking about my parents.”

My mom gave birth to me and went straight back to the fruit loop locker. No help there. My dad died heroically, I’m sure, and that’s why he never came to claim me when I was born or to rescue me from foster care—back when my foster care was bad, I mean, back before Pat and Joan took me in. It’s good now, they’re good, they’re great. But, you know, I can’t even begin to handle the thought that he, like my mom, is a failed parent or a deadbeat, so he must be actually dead. “Why are you asking about my last name? Thyrd isn’t that rare, is it?”

‘Spectacularly so.’

I nod, thinking that I’ve never met or heard of anyone with my name, even my mother. “Okay.”

‘I knew someone, long ago, with that name. I wonder if you’re related?’

I feel a longing in my chest, a desire for connection. “Maybe.”

A jogger runs by and I catch the double glance he makes. Yes, okay, my appearance is a little weird, even for the city. “Listen, I’m in pain and not really dressed for this. I need to get home and clean up these cuts.”

‘Yes, I sense your injuries now.’

My skin, where I was bitten and scratched, itches a little, like ants crawl on me. I reach up to my jaw and feel nothing but dried blood.

“Whut?”

‘I healed you.’

“Um…”

‘My way of saying thank you for saving my pesky.’

“Your what?”

‘The pesky. You call them Tinkerbells, I believe.’

“Oh, no...pixie. We call them pixies.”

‘Ah. There was a little girl here, a few days ago, playing with a pesky doll that she called Tinkerbell.’

I nod. “Yeah, I’ve seen those. Not the same.” I glance up the trunk to the knot of blue faces peering from a hollow. “Not the same at all. Seriously, what is going on? Blue doll-people and a talking tree.”

‘Do you doubt me?’

I can hear him. I can feel him, whatever he’s doing to my belly. I can see the pixies. I take a deep breath and choose to not be ruled by my mother’s disease. “No, I don’t.”

‘Good. I like you...Umgretchen.’

I can hear the gentle teasing in his voice and it makes me smile. “I think I like you too, but I’ll know better once you tell me what you are.”

He laughs. ‘Fair enough.’

I notice a woman, with a leashed dog, stopped on the path and watching me without looking directly at me. She’s clutching a cell phone. “Listen, I’ve gotta go or the police’ll be here soon to take me down for questioning.”

‘I don’t understand.’

“The clothes I’m wearing. They’re pajamas...for sleeping. And there’s blood on them. And I’m standing here talking to a tree. I’m getting looks.”

‘Ah, yes. That I understand. You’ll return?’

I think about his question for a few seconds. I really am having a conversation with a tree. It seems so…crazy. Crazy magical. But he seems nice, and my cuts and scratches are gone, so... “Yes, I will.”

‘Wonderful. I look forward to it. Goodbye, Gretchen.’

I pull my hand from the trunk and the oily silken feeling on my belly evaporates. I exhale—hard. “Goodbye, new friend,” I whisper. Turning away, I wave to the woman with the dog before striding toward 1st Avenue and home. The park was already one of my favorite places to go, and now I have something else to look forward to; something wonderful. I hear wings behind me and feel Stop drop onto my shoulder. I reach up and pet him. “Thank you for getting that cat off my face.”

Crak!

“And thanks for introducing me to the tree.”

I pause for a moment at the corner of 1st Avenue and 66th to watch the sunrise, and turn for a shorter moment to look back at the park. I can just barely see the tree around the edge of a building and the people beginning to fill the sidewalks. “That was quite an adventure, hmm? We defeated the demon, saved a pixie, discovered magic, and it looks like I’ve made a new friend.” I glance sidelong at Stop. “Does he talk to you, when you sit on his branches?”

Crak!

“Okay,” I say and smile, “that means I’m not crazy after all.” My stomach rumbles. “Mmm, how does breakfast sound? Maybe Pat made tofu scramble again.”

Craaaaap?

I laugh at his appropriate reply and pet him again. The sunlight spears across my path at 65th street and I can’t help but think that my future is as bright as that golden-orange shaft. “It’s gonna be a good day. A very good day.”

Crak!

 

 

© Jason T. Graves, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

 

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