Ash, not many years away from entering adulthood, continued with his morning ritual as he had since he’d been trusted to feed himself his own breakfast. Shirtless, he sat on the edge of his bed, stretched his arms above his head, and walked down the hallway to where the soft light from beyond the window barely lit the hard backs of the chairs at the kitchen table. He sat alone and reached inside the chipped porcelain bowl to grab an apple that was past ripeness. As he chewed around the browning spots, he dabbed at the edges of his lips with his open hand, trying his best to contain all of the fruit’s juices. Outside, the moon said goodbye to another night.
Ash’s father emerged with daylight and came into the kitchen. He, husky and balding, patted his son’s back. After wrestling matches and baseball games, it was the same—the unspoken language they both knew.
As the father began to walk away to find his own nourishment, he turned again to his son.
“What is that?” the father asked, harsher than he intended. His cracked hands pushed, again, harder as they rubbed his son’s back.
“Haha,” Ash said. “I’m a beast, Dad. I told you that you should train with me.”
“Yeah, that’s not happening,” the father said. “I’m serious, though. There feels like something’s on your back.”
Ash hugged himself trying to feel. “Are you joking?” he asked.
The father flipped on the light switch and led his son into the hallway to the mirror. “My God,” he said. His eyes bulged as he looked, not directly at Ash, but at the boy’s unusual reflection.
Ash slowly turned his head to see his image. Instantaneously, whatever sleepiness he possessed vanished. He swatted at his own body. Afraid of who—what—he saw. He spun in circles, bending his arms toward his shoulder blades and slapping at what sprouted from him. “Get them off! Get them off!” he cried.
The father grabbed Ash’s arms and held him still. Ash struggled to catch his breath. But the father wrapped his arms around his son. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” he said. He drew his son into his embrace. Ash’s breathing slowed.
This was the father’s job—to comfort his son.
“Let me look again,” the father said, his hands delicately inspecting the boy’s skin. Two small, translucent calamuses, sprouting pillowy barbs, dug into Ash’s back.
“What’s going on?” Ash’s mother asked, appearing from the darkened hallway.
The father looked into his son’s eyes before he spoke. To reassure him. To tell him it would be okay. Then, he grabbed Ash’s thick shoulders, and he turned his son so she could gaze upon her son’s back.
She didn’t speak. She couldn’t. Her hand clutched her lips so tightly that nothing could escape.
“It’s wings,” the father said.
The doctor looked away when Ash unveiled the pair of unusual wings from under his heavy shirt. But the old man recovered quickly, clearing his throat. “It could be a cancer. Or a benign growth,” he said sternly. “Either way, it needs to be removed.”
Ash and his parents agreed.
The doctor didn’t hesitate when he took a pair of sterilized scissors to the boy’s back. He guided the blade into the boy’s sallow skin and snapped the thin stems of wing—first under one shoulder and, then, the other. The bloodied bundles of budding feathers fell atop the steel operating table and looked as if they were misplaced bouquets of tattered wild orchids.
The doctor was still in the room, when a nurse called for him again. “They’re returning,” the nurse said.
“Sew him up as best you can. We’ll wait on the results to know more.”
The nurse did as he was told.
The father and the mother didn’t cry when the doctor told them the news. They wanted to see Ash.
The doctor led them to his hospital room. “Stay the night if you’d like,” he said in a tired voice.
When they opened the door, Ash was asleep, turned on his side. He woke only briefly—to ask how the surgery went, but before they could answer, he was already back asleep.
His sprouting new plumes fluttered in the cramped room’s manufactured breeze. His bandages were under him, broken apart, on the floor. His scars already invisible.
An apologetic nurse finished tying Ash’s left foot to the edge of the bed. “Just in case,” she murmured. She grabbed a blue blanket from the closet and placed it on his legs.
The father and mother went to hold their son’s hands. “I wouldn’t,” the nurse said. “He could be contagious.”
She met their desperate hands with two bags. “His feathers,” she said. “They’ve been decontaminated.”
At the father’s first attempt to doze, a pair of frantic voices in the hallway caught his attention. “What did they say?” he asked the mother.
She didn’t answer him. Instead, she reached for the television remote. “I’m turning it up,” she said.
There were more winged children. Boys and girls. Different ages. From countries all over. Canada. Tanzania. Spain. Bolivia. Thailand. Reports updated at the top of each hour. Dozens. Hundreds. Thousands.
The father and the mother wept.
As the sun rose, Ash flew wildly in his room. His wings strengthening and growing at what seemed like each minute. The nurse who’d tied him down videoed him when he took flight. “It’s for the doctor,” she promised.
“Try to calm down, son,” the father said, reaching for Ash. “Come on. Try.”
Ash was still enough to hover above them—the father and the mother—these two souls whom he loved and loved him in return.
His mouth opened. And closed.
Then, he tried again, but it was no use.
His feathers fell on them, and it was as if they understood what he couldn’t find the ability to say.
Before noon, broken farmers seeking the only thing they were capable of loving voiced quick solutions. They offered their empty barns and barren fields. Their containers full of nothingness could be made alive again. “It’s only temporary,” they insisted. “Until the kids are back to normal.”
They could keep the winged children safe. They could care for them. They could watch over them. Their words, though, broadcasted on screens and speakers throughout the world were static variations of blind assurance.
Of course, the powers agreed.
The farms were established before the weekend, with newly-ordained “keepers” at the helm. Cleaned troughs and assembled cages shined as the keepers awaited the children.
“We’ll keep him indoors,” the mother insisted to the nurses—and, then, to the doctors. “He won’t burden anyone. He’s our son. It’s our right,” she explained, her voice growing louder with each declaration.
“He will not be going home. Your son isn’t your son right now,” the doctor said.
“But he is. He has always been our son,” the father interjected.
“You’ve lost him,” the doctor said. Realizing his pitilessness, he corrected himself. “For now,” he added.
The keepers went to retrieve Ash first. Boy 1 the paper said. The father and the mother stood at the entrance of Ash’s hospital room door and blocked the six protected men. A cameraman followed behind the keepers. “They are just trying to help,” he said.
“Yes. Themselves,” the father replied. He stretched his arms from one wall to the other, his legs stout and firm. The mother did the same behind the father.
But they were only stones to be stepped on by the new kings.
The keepers did not speak. Not to the father. Not to the mother. And, when they reached him, not to Ash.
The boy, flying, arched his body toward the men, his wings powerfully rocking the flimsy walls of the room and beating against the window. He looked majestic with his rolling golden wings, which were already larger than the bed below the boy’s body.
His mouth opened. He tried to call. To scream. To cry. Finally, his voice broke through. But it was a new sound—a shriek of otherness that pierced through the entire ward of the hospital that shattered the glass and buckled the tiles beneath him.
As the keepers crouched, the father and the mother raced frantically to their son to clutch him. “Ash!” the mother called. “My boy!” the father followed. But they knew of nothing to tell the boy because they knew of no comfort they could utter. They sought to touch him—to calm his heart, but the gloved, cold hands of the keepers stole their embrace.
The keepers unfolded the black tarp tucked under the largest man’s arms, and they stretched it across Ash’s outspread, beautiful body. His wings fought the heavy sheet, but the men swarmed him.
He, this spectacular winged boy, fell to the ground and succumbed to their power. His feet twitched in submission.
The keepers injected him with a sedative and dragged him down the hallway. His feathers dislodged from his back and littered the floor. “We’ll follow the road to our boy,” the father said. The mother already was, picking up each feather as she went all the way to the fuming truck and its dirty trailer where the cameraman ended his recording.
Two of the men stayed behind and strutted to the desk to sign the papers. Then, they went to the nearby rooms and grabbed the other recently-admitted winged children.
The keepers took them all way.
They were the ones, too, who received the praise when, on that initial transport day, only three winged children dissolved into the sun.
At the local farm, after he awoke, Ash cradled himself in the back of his dark cage. Morning and night became the same. He didn’t want to see the others because he didn’t want to see himself.
The father and the mother bagged Ash’s feathers and took them home. They made no distinction in the clean feathers the hospital staff had already given them from the unwashed. They were all priceless relics of the boy who held their joy.
For the keepers, the feathers were a nuisance. Replenishing. Scattering. There was no easy way to contain them.
In the hospitals, they were decontaminated and bagged. Eventually, they were sent away as keepsakes of the past.
But on the farms, it wasn’t as easy. The keepers bagged and tied. Bagged and tied. Bagged and tied. Reminders of the present—and indicators of the unknown future. Incinerators arrived, but those contrived fires were only temporary relief. There were always more feathers in the waiting no matter how much the keepers swept, gathered, and burned.
After the initial week of isolation, the keepers agreed on evening visiting hours. The only time Ash truly came alive was when the father and the mother came to see him, which was every time they were allowed.
During these hours, the keepers unlocked the shiny doors and ushered the physically unchanged inside. “Welcome,” they sang. “Enjoy visiting your children.”
The father and the mother walked among many other families who came with the same purpose.
Although the keepers prescribed specific clothing, few obeyed.
The gray interior sparkled underneath the layers of bleach that permeated the air. Feathers and hay littered the walkway to each cage, which were placed side-by-side along the walls and in the center to form rows.
The farm that held Ash held thousands of winged children split among seven barns. “We clean at the top of every hour,” one keeper explained, as he walked the facility in his protective attire. “It’s an ongoing task.” He laughed to himself.
Ash’s wings flapped furiously against the dense metallic walls that enclosed him each time he saw his parents. He flew to them and rubbed against the bars, their hands petting his ever-growing back of wings.
The father and the mother cried when they saw the linked chain that wrapped around his foot.
“You are so beautiful,” the mother said.
They slipped him apples. He squawked as he tore the flesh from the red fruit and tossed pieces into his mouth.
He put his back to them and flapped furiously again and again throughout the visit, creating a storm of feathers that encircled them.
They picked up each loose fragment of their son, and Ash cawed when they did.
His voice grew louder when they dropped each feather into the bags they’d brought from home.
“If we can’t take you, we take what you give us,” the father said.
After the visitors left, the keepers wheeled the cages into the field, where they allowed the children recess. When the keepers loosened the locks, stretched chains polluted the play yard’s packed sky. A pile of cinder blocks polluted the corner of the open space. “Just in case,” one of the keepers warned the children.
As their wings buzzed in the warm air, their voices cried loudly—creating words that only they could ever know.
Their bodies flew to the peaks of the adolescent pines, and, then, toward the light of the moon. The metal clinked and broke their ascension. Their bodies collapsed to the ground, with their wings still beating. Defeated, but not permanently.
When they gathered their strength, they lifted off the ground again, repeating until morning. Stronger by the hour.
Wars ended. New ones began. There was always something new to make a headline. The plight of the winged children lost its sensation.
The father and the mother continued to visit. Some of the other most devoted did, too. But many who promised love and compassion gave up on their unusual children.
The children, even those without visitors, continued to offer their feathers to anyone who would take them.
It was no surprise when the father and the mother came to visit Ash with their own set of sewn wings, which they draped over their backs. “We got tired of you being the only special one,” the mother whispered.
The other visiting families saw the parents’ display of affection and mimicked their winged creation.
After a full week of no new diagnoses, the winged children rose with the sun and announced their departure with a synchronized piercing cry. From the keepers employed at the farms to the doctors wondering if their unusual surgeries were over, humans everywhere turned toward the sound.
The cages were broken. The barns were dented. The children were in the sky. Higher and higher. Some still had chains dangling from their legs. With others, it was impossible to tell if they still carried that part of the human world or not because the feathers clouded the sky and fell like rain.
So many of the humans hid under buildings to keep out of the way.
Others merely said, “Good riddance.”
Ash, leading the winged into the sky, looked below one last time. He was curious about what they, these uncompassionate humans, had become. But, then, he focused on love. It still existed. He knew so because he heard two familiar voices calling just behind him. “Ash, our joy. Our beloved boy.”
Bradley Sides’ writing appears at BULL, Ghost Parachute, Occulum, Rose Red Review, and Syntax & Salt. He is an MFA candidate at Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Florence, Alabama, with his wife. His debut collection of stories, Those Fantastic Lives, is forthcoming from City of Light Publishing. For more, visit bradley-sides.com.
photo by Landon Parenteau (via unsplash)
“What They Left Behind” will be appearing in Bradley Sides’ debut short story collection, Those Fantastic Lives.
Coming October 2021 from City of Light Publishing.