He lost his wings.
There was an ache where they should have been, though ache wasn’t quite the right word. There was a void around his shoulder blades beneath his T-shirt. It felt uncomfortable. Wrong.
When Jessemine rolled his shoulders, instead of feathers unfurling there was just…air.
Without his wings, he was nothing. So, full of nothing, he tied back his long gold hair, donned jeans and a relatively clean black T-shirt, grabbed a coat, and took himself off to get as drunk as someone like him could get.
The bar was mid-week quiet. A few groupings at the tables near the back. The soft click of balls hitting each other at the one pool table angled so you had to skirt past the action to get to the grotty toilets.
Some soft music Jessemine didn’t recognize underlined the calm, comfortable feel of the night, all plaintive vocals and acoustic guitar.
But inside? Jessamine was anything but calm. And he hadn’t known comfort in what felt like a hundred years.
The bartender, a white dude with a goatee, early 30s, set another Jameson on the dark wooden bar top. Jessemine—Jesse—was the only patron at this end of the long curve of mahogany. A man and woman sat at the opposite end, engaged in one of those quiet, flirtatious conversations that blocked out the rest of the world. Jesse didn’t know whether to feel jealousy or disgust.
Mostly, he just didn’t want to feel.
“Want to keep a tab?”
“Yeah, man. Thanks.”
Jesse raised the heavy lowball glass, with two fingers of amber liquid cradling a single massive ice cube. Taking a careful sip, he rolled the smooth liquor across his tongue. It was mellower than what he usually liked, and sweeter, but what are you gonna do? Bar like this didn’t stock Laphroig or Ardbeg. He looked at the rows of bottles on the back of the bar. Shades of green and amber. Clear for the vodka and gin. A few beers on tap. Dim lights that glinted off the glassware.
A world inside a world. A place where you came to celebrate or to escape your problems.
Sometimes? A bar like this felt like a place you came to die.
It wasn’t so much that Jessemine had lost his wings. Really, there was no way for that to happen. He’d forsaken the ability to will them forth. To call upon his better nature. His wings lay dormant in the in-between, while he was trapped inside his mind in the here-and-now.
Trapped inside memory and regret.
Jessemine had lost not only his wings, but his shine. He wasn’t sure exactly when that part had happened. Sometime in the last week or so.
He looked across the bar to the silent television. Some talking head bleating on about another war. There was always a war. Or a flood or fire. Disease. Some disaster or another. It was a wonder humans were able to survive at all. They were such weak creatures. So fragile.
At least it wasn’t sports night, when this bar would fill with fans screaming at the glowing box and spilling beer and greasy chips on the dark, shadowy floors.
He liked bars on off nights. A few hardcore patrons drinking quietly after work. Or having conversations that didn’t have to include the whole room in drunken loudness. Jesse turned his head to scan the place. He sat sideways to the room. Easy to keep tabs on the door, and the whole space, all the way to the back. Easy surveillance, without having to be obvious about it.
Four guys played darts in the back, next to the pair of women engrossed in their game of pool. Another trio of women leaned across the table of a scarred booth, jeans and dark sweaters a contrast against the red seats. He wondered what they were talking about. Could be relationships. Could be stock options. Could be that local mining for natural gas was messing with the water table again.
He’d watched people for centuries: working in the fields or the trades. Cooking, cleaning, spinning, caring for children. He’d watched commerce, celebration, discovery, famine, and yeah, war.
He watched people’s souls. Sometimes he didn’t much like what he saw. Other times? They shone so brightly, it brought tears to his eyes.
“My heart beats only for you…” sang a woman’s voice on the sound system.
“Bullshit,” Jessemine mumbled. The bartender looked up from where he was washing glasses, dunking them into suds and letting the three stable bristle-brushes do the scrubbing. The bartender sent an inquiring glance, one eyebrow raised. Jesse shook his head. What he needed, the bartender didn’t have in stock.
He missed her.
Sarah. Missed her long dark hair. Her wild laugh. The way she furrowed her pale brow when she was working on something in the lab.
That was the ache. Not his damned missing wings.
Sarah had just…dropped… from the window after the men had cornered her there, thinking he would catch her, as he watched her descent from above.
He saw that look on her face that said “I trust you.” A look he would carry until his presence finally winked out of existence, however many æons from now.
He had been too slow, stumbling toward the window, screaming, as three men held him back. The men had drugged his wine. Jesse had fought them anyway. Even slowed down, he had hurt them. Vases crashed in the apartment. Tables shattered. Just as Sarah had fought alongside him until that fatal moment when they had lost to the forces of devolution and despair.
They had lost to the ones who would keep this world in thrall.
But Jessemine had lost more than just another battle. Sarah had been lost, because of his failure. His wings had been lost. His soul was forfeit.
He had come to earth to learn. And to serve the Bright Ones who were seeded here so long ago. The shards of light whose task was to repair this stinking world.
People like Sarah…
The code was in all human DNA, and some of the other animals too: octopi, whales, silverback gorillas, condors, tortoises. The brightness was there in all of them, but needed activation. His bosses never knew, watching Earth, who exactly would awaken. Though conditions were set in certain places, too much was out of their control.
But he’d also come searching…
Jesse touched his face, running fingers lightly over his cheekbones. His jaw. He healed too quickly to be sore anymore, but the skin was still sensitive to his touch.
Sarah wasn’t lost either. He had to stop using that stupid word. His wings weren’t lost, he had left them behind in his grief. Sarah wasn’t lost. She’d lain broken on the sidewalk, then her body put into a bag and taken away.
The women at the table gave a loud guffaw. They must have been drinking for awhile. He needed to catch up to the rest of the bar, clearly. He lifted his glass toward the bartender, who nodded, giving change to another solo flier at the middle of the long sweep of polished wood before grabbing the green glass bottle and sauntering over to pour.
The Bright Ones were always meant to save the place. To eat the fruit, gain the knowledge, figure things out, and help spread the news. Sarah was his latest charge. She’d been getting closer and closer to something that felt important to the larger pattern, something that would shift the wheels a quarter turn.
It was his job to protect her.
Jessemine didn’t deserve his wings.
“Two more.” That voice was unignorable. Deep as the ocean, smooth as the down on a week old baby starling. Jesse had felt him approaching, but ignored him. Maybe he would leave.
Raniel. Big. Beautiful. Well, all angels were beautiful, but Raniel was particularly well formed. With his broad shoulders, chiseled face, flared nose, and perfect dark skin, the Golden Mean had been made to his measure, not the other way around. Renaissance artists had literally slobbered, open mouthed, at the sight of him. One of them had even shit his pants, not from fear, but from the sheer inability to process so much beauty.
Raniel had learned to tone it down since then. The women from the booth still noticed. They’d grown quieter. Jesse glanced at them. Smirked. They were perfectly still. Barely breathing. Not even able to go into preening mode. “Gobsmacked” Sarah would have said.
Yeah, Jessemine had truly lost his shine. Those women hadn’t even given him a cursory glance.
The bartender set two more whiskeys down. Jesse finally turned to look at Raniel. Raniel stared right back. Massive shoulders strained at the deep red dress shirt he wore. Jesse felt underdressed as usual. At least his T-shirt was clean.
“You didn’t kill her.”
They both took a long drink of the sweet amber.
Raniel sighed and placed a hand on Jesse’s shoulder. It felt cool and went a little way toward easing his discomfort. Where Jessemine was a Protector, Raniel’s job was Healer. Jesse fought against his brother’s gift. He didn’t deserve it. But right now? Raniel was strong. Much stronger than Jesse.
Finally, he gave in, relaxing into Raniel’s presence, letting a healing trickle flow through him, twining its cool stream with the warmth of the Jameson inside his churning gut.
“You always did take too much on,” Raniel said as he worked. “We aren’t supposed to take things this personally, you know? Maybe it’s time for you to come back in from the field. Visit Haven. Take a rest.”
Jessemine tensed at that, fighting once more against the release of his anguish, his grief. “No. I failed. My soul is forfeit.”
He needed to suffer. For as long as it took.
Raniel laughed softly, shifting his hand from Jesse’s shoulder to his arm. He took another sip of whiskey.
“To forfeit your soul, you’d have to do a lot worse than allow yourself to be drugged and lose a person in the process.”
Jesse shook his hand off his arm. “Fuck you.”
Raniel grabbed his wrist. No light touch this time. Bone and muscle gripped him until it almost hurt. Jesse set his glass down, hard, on the wooden bartop. Took a shaky breath. Being a chosen Protector was supposed to make Jesse better. So he could help the Bright Ones find their destinies. So all the worlds and the in between were knit back together again. Made whole. Not this sundered, shattered, mess.
Jesse raked his fingers through his long golden hair, dislodging the rubber band that held his locks in place.
When had the world gone so wrong?
Raniel leaned in, voice urgent and low, breath raking Jessemine’s cheek. “You think you’re the only one to care? You think you’re the only special one who made a big mistake? You think you’re the only one who failed in your mission or had someone die?”
Jesse pried the fingers off his wrist. Grabbed his coat and stumbled toward the steel clad door, pushing through it and onto the darkening street. Looked around for a cab. Cars whooshed by, booming bass and rattling with treble.
Raniel was a few beats after. Must have settled the tab. “Jessemine, stop. Slow down. Think.”
Raniel touched him again. Jesse blacked out. Before he fell he had one thought: “I didn’t know I could faint.”
Jessemine’s sandpaper dry eyes blinked as he looked up at the pale yellow ceiling of his apartment. He squinted toward the windows. White sheer curtains moved in a soft, cool breeze. From the look of the light, it must be early morning. Just past dawn.
Raniel sat calmly at his side. He’d pulled the purple arm chair up to the white couch Jesse was laying on. Sarah had loved that chair, and would always sit in it when she came to visit. Jesse struggled to sit up, blinking at the light. He must have slept through the night. Raniel had put the whammy on him. Typical. Healers always think they know best.
“Orange juice?” he croaked.
Raniel padded to the kitchen. Jesse could hear him getting a glass. Shutting the fridge. Liquid pouring. He walked back into the living room, red shirt and dark trousers still pristine.
“How do you do that?” asked Jesse, as he took his first swallow. Oh. Good. Not as good as freshly squeezed, but still good. A little tart under the sweet.
“Stay so clean after carrying me home from a bar, and then watching over me all night.”
“It’s just my nature. I watch over people. And Healers need to be clean, so we are. I am. You haven’t figured that out yet? After all these millenia?”
“I just never thought about it before. It didn’t matter so much when we all wore robes. I hated those things. Always got in the way during a fight.”
And if it was a Healer’s nature to be clean watchful? What was a Protector’s nature? Wasn’t that to keep people safe? To keep the shards of light burning until the time of the Great Change?
Raniel cleared his throat.
“You don’t have to give up your wings, you know. You can still fly.”
Raniel shook his head, then fished into his back pocket. Brought out a phone and began scrolling. Held it out. Screen too bright, but Jessemine could still make out the image.
It was a photo of a child in a brightly woven shawl and a red hat, face lit with a smile, hair straight and black, white teeth with gaps waiting for adult teeth to fill in.
“Yes. In Arequipa. Down near Chile.”
“Another girl.” Jesse drank more juice. His breath was coming more easily.
Raniel shrugged. “She’s just the next one on the list. Grandmother is a shaman. She’s been having dreams about DNA. Twining serpents, made of light and fire.”
“The girl has?”
Raniel nodded. Stepped forward. Placed his hands on Jessemine’s temples. Jessemine saw it then. Saw it again. That thing he hadn’t thought of in a long time. He’d been too fixated on Sarah, on her research, on her laugh. On her beauty. He’d fallen in love with the particular. He always did.
Every single time.
“See the big picture, Jessemine. Look.”
Jesse saw. Pinpoints of light on mountaintops. In cities. On the ocean floor. Clusters of light. And isolated beams. It was light, though. Bright Ones, shining. All over the world.
“It’s happening,” Jesse whispered the words, half afraid to speak them aloud. It meant he couldn’t give up. Or could he?
He had failed. He was not worthy…
“It is. Are you ready?”
No, his mind screamed under Raniel’s cool hands. I’m not ready. I’ll never be ready. Leave me alone!
But his body knew better. His body betrayed him. It always did. His cells were called to protect the light, no matter how shitty he felt. No matter how much self pity he swam inside. No matter how much he wanted to lose his mind to alcohol and time.
Jesse began gasping, lungs clawing for more air. It came on quickly, his nature. Overpowering. Something shifted along his back. Between his shoulder blades. He writhed on the couch, trying to make room. Seeking comfort that might never come again. Seeking an end to the pain.
The pain of growth. Of change. Of time moving on in endless spirals. Æon upon æon.
Raniel lifted his hands away from Jesse’s head. Stepped back.
Finally, Jesse stood. His lungs filled and his eyes rolled back in his head. There. His wings moved out, shifting, moving in between the weave of the soft fabric of his T-shirt, getting bigger.
Flexing, he raised them up. The feathers went all the way to the ceiling. He could feel his cells begin to hum inside him. Feel the shine return.
He shrugged his shoulders. Up. Down. Flexed his fingers. Testing.
Close his eyes. Found his center. Sent off a quick and wordless prayer.
Then he looked at Raniel, who stood, calm. Waiting.
“If the host will still have me, I guess I’m reporting for duty.”
Raniel nodded. His own wings unfurled, larger than Jesse’s, so big the tips poked through the ceiling. He brought Jesse into his strong, healing embrace.
Jesse felt the last of Sarah’s spirit go winging on its way. The ache of her absence remained, but there was nothing to do about it anymore.
Fucking bosses up at Haven never gave him more than a week or two to mourn.
“What’s the girl’s name?” he asked his brother.
Venus. The morning star.
Jessemine closed his eyes, and breathed in all the pain and beauty the world had to offer. He breathed in Sarah’s voice. The feel of morning air upon his skin. The sunlight, filtered through white curtains.
He breathed in the promise of a new day filling his heart. His mind. His wings.
Finally, Jessemine was ready.
T. Thorn Coyle
October 2014/August 2021
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