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Winged Instruments
part 4
by Feech

        I sit among Gabe, Kent and Jezalyn on their long sofa and look at my slacks. There aren't any wrinkles to smooth out so I just sit there. I feel comfortable sitting like this, and I wish I could show it, but I don't know how to. Gabe is thumbing through a telephone directory looking for the perfect place to eat.
        Jezalyn leans into Kent, rubbing the side of her head against his hip. He slowly ruffles her nape-feathers.
        I think of something at least somewhat emotionally involved to say. "Are your parents living, Kent?" They already know what happened to mine. I've been good about talking about it without overreacting in front of anyone, but maybe it's masochistic to bring up anything close to the topic on my own. It's all I can think of that sounds like I really care what goes on in their lives, though.
        He nods, sort of moving his glance off to one side like he's not sure how to look at me, either.
        "They are, yeah."
        I'm not sure whether to say anything else to that or not. Gabe snorts at the telephone directory.
        "_Your_ parents," Kent says, pointing to Gabe, as if the blue-brindled man said something specific, "_your_ parents, they're frightening. Especially the Reverend."
        "The Reverend is the Reverend Carter, Gabriel's father," Jezalyn explains to me.
        "He's amazing," Kent emphasizes.
        Gabe hruffs noncommitally. "Yeah, he's all right."
        "Are you kidding?" Kent rubs Jez's feathers with a little more emphasis, talking with his hands while he's still touching her. "There's a hole where my parents were supposed to go, you know, and he just walks in and dumps in all this dangerous level of affection like he's trying to kill me by overfeeding. You're used to it, so you don't know. Try not having anyone act like that around you for most of your life and then get hugged by your dad."
        "What do you mean, Kent, about your mom and dad and Gabe's dad?" I inquire, hoping it's an intimate enough question but not too intimate.
        "Oh, I... I just don't see them much, they pretty much left me alone."
        "How alone?"
        He looks at me, finally. "All alone. Just alone."
        I get frightened. "I have heard of people dying from that. Children can die from that." Somehow I'm afraid he might still die from it, even though he's here and he's already said that Gabe and Jezalyn and Gabe's people fill in the spaces.
        Kent nods. "I know. Don't worry. There was a housekeeper, saved my life. Told me I was a good kid."
        I try to keep my face straight and dignified, but I think of empty houses and it's difficult. "Some people... Some people just die when they're alone. I learned about it in a film at school that I was watching in the library. It said people need to be with someone. It said they could just die because they'd rather not do anything else."
        "Don't worry about it, now," Gabe says, "None of us is alone. What about Chinese..?"
        "It's all right, Gabe's right. You're not alone, Judith. We just had Chinese last night, Gabriel." Kent pats my shoulder. I can't explain to him that I don't even feel worried about me. Jezalyn grinds her beak in that comfortable way, but I think she's trying to make me feel better.
        All I can think is that one of these people might drift off into the other room or something and leave before we can say anything to them. Maybe they all will, and I'll be the only one left. And I won't go into the other room at all because there won't be anything I can say. I know it doesn't make any difference worrying, and it doesn't make any sense to be worrying about it _now_, but I feel like I almost want to worry. Like I want to feel the unease.
        "The housekeeper wouldn't have been Thai, by any chance, would they?" Gabe asks casually, to draw attention away from my anxiety.
        Kent grins. "Yes, she was. Is. She went back to Thailand with her family, but not until I graduated. Her son Bobby told me that she said... that my parents were fools."
        "They are," snorts Gabe. "Threw away about the cuddliest, sweetest kid in the country. I can't say I have much respect for them, Kent."
        "Yeah. Well." It's hard to tell whether Kent is uncomfortable with that or not. "Well, yeah, she's Thai. And she went with me when I had my learner's permit and had to have a licensed driver in the car to learn how to drive. She--"
        Gabe snorts again, this time pleasantly. He certainly has a repertoire of many emotions in the antelope voice. "Thai food I guessed must have come from other than your parents, but I wouldn't have known the driving did." He turns to me. "Kent _loves_ Thai food and driving."
        I nod. I smile a little. "I know. I've been out with him and Jez, so I know."
        "I like singing, too," Kent adds, not necessarily in a defensive way; maybe he's sad thinking about the housekeeper. "I could do that by myself."
        "I love singing, too," I say.
        "I know you do," Kent tells me immediately. "You have a fine voice, too, Judith. You are a wonderful singer."
        Gabe speaks. "Well, I think I got one thing from my dad, and that's the propensity for lecturing..."
        "And being good at it," Kent adds to Gabe's words.
        "Well, as that may be. But yeah, he's certainly quite a speaker."
        "The Reverend's like that even when you just talk to him," Jezalyn offers. She stretches her beak-joints and looks at me hopefully, wanting me to cheer up. "Walks up and starts speaking to you. Only he always reaches out with his arms, too, like he's going to wrap you up in what he's saying."
        "It's a habit I could stand to get into," Gabe muses.
        "Well, he's got presence, that's for sure," Kent agrees.
        I look at the floor. I stand up onto it and head for the restroom, but so they'll know why I'm going I have to explain, "I used to have a dad like that." Then I just leave, quickly. I shut the bathroom door and lock it and try to cry, but I'm too collected and can't. I just shake a lot.
        They don't come after me. I'm not very pleasant company, ever. I just always don't know what to do with myself. I should never have brought up the topic of parents. I just don't know how to go about any of this. Even with practice and months going by it's so hard to learn how to do any of this.
        I don't look in the mirror. That's the last thing I need. Finally there's a tap, low down, at the door, and I know it's Jezalyn knocking with her beak. "We're going to get ready to go out now, you ready? You all right, Judith?"
        I hold my face tight in my hands for a second, then swipe a brush through my hair once or twice and stand up and straighten my shirt. "Yeah. I'm fine."
        I step out, careful not to step on Jezalyn. "Jez, I'm sorry about that. Do they think I'm stupid now?"
        "Of course not. Pick me up?"
        I lean down and she climbs onto my arm. For a moment she acts like she's off-balance, like she has to nudge her beak into my chest to steady herself, but then I don't think that's what she's really doing. I'd hug her, but I don't know if she likes her wings touched without good warning. The feeling of being nuzzled a little is nice, though.
        "You sure you feel like going out, Judith?"
        "Of course. Anything's better than St. Mark's food."
        She looks up at me, still leaning in a little. "You don't need anything else, anymore time? To talk about anything? Your parents..."
        I shrug. "It's okay."
        She shakes her head and makes a small clicking sound. "I thought you'd be upset, you know, after you left the room like that... Are you sure, Judith? You just never seem to get upset. And I would. Get upset, I mean. Anyone would."
        "I get upset."
        That doesn't really leave it open for more discussion on her part. I look at her and wonder where it goes, sometimes, when I was just clutching at my face like it should come off in my hands, and now I'm composed and I'm telling the truth when I say I'm ready to go out. I think I am, anyway.
        Jezalyn slides her beak across the top of my hand, but then smiles with her eyes and feathers. "Well, if you're sure, then we're set to go. If you're sure."
        "I just don't see how you're so calm all the time."
        I nod. "So, shall we?"
        "Yes." Jez holds my arm evenly in her black feet. I touch the side of her cheek, once, then we head out.

* * * * *

        I wake up remembering that I had a dream and wishing that I hadn't. This one didn't have my mother in it. Instead, girlfriends from past school years stood with me on a platform, a wide gangplank sloped up towards a glittering ship that was white-sailed and lanterned against the black sky. Strangers were there too, all colors and in many kinds of clothing and jewelry and hairstyles. Beside me stood Leah, shiny black Oriental hair done up in curls as if she'd just been to a hairdresser's.
        I was in the form I've woken up in, this lanky male white thing. My hair spread light and brown over my shoulders, and I held one thumb upside-down to my lips and nibbled the nail fretfully. I haven't done that since I changed.
        No one seemed to mind or notice my sex or my color. We were going onto the ship, that much was plain. There was no place to back off into, the only way was forward onto the ship on the night-mirrored waves. I was anxious, we were all anxious, because we wanted to be brave but there was no choice but to walk onto that ship and make the trip 'they' wanted us to make. There was a name of a leader, but it can't be right, now that I'm awake; it was the name of an African leader, and I don't see how he could be the leader of the slavers. Although I guess whoever could make money, sold.
        Leah leaned close to me and said, "Well, I have one plan. We have to just refuse to get off. When they land the boat, we have to refuse to get off."
        "They'll kill us all," I said, but I felt like I was withholding something.
        "We'll _all_ refuse to leave the ship."
        "No," I told her, biting my thumbnail. "We can't resist. If we do, we won't end up later on in America."
        The dream didn't go on long after that. There was nowhere for it to go. There's nowhere for me to go, either. I'm lying here spread out in my plain-white school bed, sweaty from sleep, and I don't want to get up because all day I'll be remembering what I said in that dream. I'll go through the motions, but there's not really anything else that's as important as this.
        Maybe my mother can't even recognize me in this shape. If she could, she would probably be ashamed of me. No wonder she wasn't there.

* * * * *

        I pick up the flecked-grey plastic razor and hold it to my cheek. The boy's face in the mirror is already wincing reproachfully at me. He knows he's going to bleed all over that sorry new face of his before I'm done.
        I grit my teeth. Supper was the same. Limp vegetables and linen-colored breads and 'tortillas', neon yellow lemon bars and about a hundred pairs of slacks and shoes sliding and kicking in and out of benches and chairs, going to and from the supper line and back and making a lot of noise about it, too. Not one girl in the whole house. I'm not anyone's daughter anymore.
        I clench my fingers around the razor handle and feel a sickness below my ribs, about Jezalyn... I'm not _anyone's_...
        Wherever it all went, wherever I put it when I wasn't using it... Maybe these places don't have the depth or strength I thought they did. Wherever it is in me or around me. It should be easiest to set it aside, always has been. Reacting is harder work, I thought. But it's happening now before I can set it away.
        "You ruin everything!" I shout it at myself, but I don't even flinch. I look furious. "Fuck you!"
        She has to have lost someone, or she wouldn't be with Kent and Gabe. She _said_ she had a bad experience with SCABS, practically left the question wide open for me the first day we met, and, "You never said anything!" I sneer at my reflection. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. I am ashamed of myself. Idiot. Coward. Just because _I_ don't want to hear about hurtful things that happened to someone I like. Just because _I_ don't... I grumble things even I can't understand. Sure they all have to listen to _your_ life story, have to run out of the room when they say something about them_selves_, never once, never _once_ "Why-- aren't-- you-- CRYing?" I threaten my reflected, reddened face with the razor, but he doesn't do anything. No tears, nothing. If he can't cry, fine. He'll bleed. Think you can't cry, huh? Fine. Fine then.
        Sure, spend the whole winter break crying like there's no tomorrow well then I'll _give_ you what you want. There is no tomorrow. We already wasted the _whole_ _stupid_ _past_.
        I pry my right hand off of the plastic razor with the fingers of my left hand, let the thing drop pitifully into the sink, slide open the medicine cabinet and shine out a replacement razor and flick the casing off. I can see what I'm doing, but I am apparently too stupid to stop myself. That's okay. Pale, pale skin like this... Ghostly things, they work together. Wan, empty-eyed undead with blood trickling from them because it's the only color they can find, anywhere.
        That's not true, says someone else, who isn't quite so upset about supper and Christmas. They have color, too. You wouldn't bleed if your heart wasn't beating.
        "What the fuck kind of sense is _that_ supposed to make?" There's only a little pressure required to make a cut, I should know. I do it to my _face_ often enough. "What am I trying to do, swear long enough and loud enough someone will come in here to tell me to behave, and force me to put the damn--"
        Call someone. Call Sister Margaret or Mr. Traynor.
        I'll make the cuts _long_. That way it'll work better.
        Anyone can be an angel. Not everyone-- is that true what some people say about suicide? I almost pause. I wasn't moving anyway, I notice. So holding still doesn't put the action any further away.
        I hate the light in my room. I try to think-- to think-- where does this shade have some color? The blade glints, but I don't even move it; it glints on its own. Like somebody lit it and left it burning. There must be other people in this house. I'm not doing anything to talk to them. I haven't done anything at all.
        "Shut up!" I yell at myself, even though I haven't said anything. I cringe at my shrieking tone.
        "Hold still. Just hold still."
        I hold still. If I move to slice my skin, I'll start shaking and I won't be able to do it right. This is just great. I'm in the middle of ending this and I can't move a muscle.
        I have got to be the worst betrayal, just in what I am. I touch the metal to my wrist.
        That works. I drop it-- it is painfully cold.
        I back into the phone and touch the buttons with the back of my hand, watching that blade as if it's going to float into me and finish the thing itself. I speak, shakily, as soon as connection is made and before there are any voices.
        "It's me... I need to talk to somebody..."
        "Judith, hi." It's Kent. I don't ask for Jezalyn. I just start talking.
        "I'm sorry... to call... I can't, I mean, I had to... Can somebody come get me?"
        "Sure," Kent says cheerfully. I hear shuffling going on in the background, and then he turns off the sound on his end for a second, but he's still connected... He turns it back on and speaks again: "We'll just stay on the phone while Gabe comes over and gets you. Then in about fifteen minutes you go wait in the entry hall for him, okay?"
        Kent knows better than to let me off the phone until then. I don't sound very steady. Plus, I didn't ask for Jezalyn, so he knows I'm not just calling to talk, and wouldn't be even if I sounded all right. "I'd get Jezalyn, but she's in the shower right now. I was just watching some recorded sketch comedy from the seventies. I don't know if you've ever seen..." He just keeps on talking. All kinds of mundane things. That razor blade is still glinting at me like it might fling itself into my hand of its own volition.
        "Kent... I want to... there's a... I was trying to use a razor blade and I..."
        "You all right?" He means have I cut myself.
        "I haven't done anything. It's just-- I didn't do anything."
        "Gabe'll be there shortly, why don't you just spend the night with us, we can call the school once you're here and let them know you won't be back tonight. How's that sound?" He chuckles. "You should see this sketch. You and Jezalyn can settle in on the couch later and watch it."
        "Okay..." I'm starting to feel a little relieved. If Kent knows that blade is there, it won't be so likely to strike.
        "It's all right, Judith," Kent says in a gentler tone than he's been using. "Have you eaten or drunk anything we should know about?"
        "No. Just... I didn't do anything. Kent?"
        "Yeah, Judith."
        "You've said I'm a lot like you. Did you ever try it?" I hope that's not an insulting question.
        He takes awhile to answer. "No... but that doesn't mean anything. I mean, it just never really occurred to me. I didn't get that-- this isn't the right word, maybe, but-- 'creative' with it...
        "One time I was alone, before I had Martian Flu, I was probably twelve or something, and I'd been drinking various alcohols from my parents' bar... I usually just drank whatever they had around, and if they noticed they didn't say anything. I'd do this when it was night and the housekeeper had gone to her own home and I felt like being quiet... I went into the medicine cabinet and thought about taking some medicine for an upset stomach and a headache, both of which I had and I probably didn't even relate it to the drinking at all. I thought about the pills for awhile and then I closed the cupboard and went upstairs and went to bed. And I woke up feeling awful but I didn't take anything until the middle of the next day. I didn't know then that it could kill me. I thought about it later, when I learned that in school, that mixing any sorts of drugs and alcohol can kill you, and I thought, if I had happened to take some pills for a headache I could have died and wouldn't have ever known what I had done. But I didn't do it."
        I look at the medicine cabinet in my own room and don't say anything. I wish he didn't have to stay on the phone and tell me these things. It's my own fault for never asking about what matters in the first place.
        "You there?"
        I clear my throat. "Yeah."
        "All right, no worries. You're a good kid, Judith. You have talent coming out the ears, and you're pleasant company. Remember that."
        I don't know what to say to that, but I'll remember it, as he says. And he keeps on talking. Once in awhile he makes me answer him, so I do.
        I start glancing at my watch, and finally it's been fifteen minutes and Gabe should be downstairs.

* * * * *

        Gabe's eyes are set in such a way that he can look at me and drive at the same time. Something about his look is cold, and I know he has about a hundred reasons to be angry with me, but I didn't know he knew about any of them. It hasn't taken him long to figure out why I called, not any longer than it took Kent.
        "Jezalyn will be glad to have you over," Gabe tells me as he drives. "I don't think she's enjoyed herself as much with any other people she's met in this city."
        I hunker down into my side of the seat and feel rotten. He's making me think about what it would mean if I did it, and I don't exactly need it rubbed in. But, then again, maybe he's right. I shouldn't forget what they say about how selfish it is and all that. But still, he has to make me feel all rotten about Jezalyn... I frown out my window at the brown night-- it's brown and slushy, February-style, and I shove my hands into my pockets and try not to think about cold.
        "I wouldn't have done it," I whisper, defensively.
        "Hrmph. Judith, maybe you don't know this, but Jezalyn didn't talk to _anyone_ for months after she came to live with us. Not anyone. Do you know what that means?"
        My throat tightens. I didn't know any of that, but of course I wouldn't, because I never asked. The thought of Jezalyn speechless doesn't seem real. I reply quietly and harshly, "I wouldn't have. Anyway I don't see..."
        "Yeah, well, I hope you start to. She considers you one of her best friends and I don't care to see anything like that happen to her. I _really_ don't care to."
        "Please don't be angry."
        "I'm not supposed to be angry? Were you going to stop me from being angry if you did it? She doesn't enjoy anyone like she enjoys you. I'm supposed to ignore the possibility-- that you could have done it?"
        "No." I shake my head, and it aches. He's not even scaring me. I just feel relieved to be going to their apartment, and somehow all churned up inside. I feel more worthless now that I didn't do it, in a way. But if he didn't want me here, he wouldn't be angry. I feel ripped apart, like I have to hold still to stay together because there are lines where I'll separate if I move. It's no use apologizing for taking up their time. It doesn't matter whether I would have done it or not, because I came close either way and that's frightening. I think I've frightened Gabe. I know I've frightened him.
        His voice rumbles, and I feel it vibrate the places where I could break. The car becomes more comfortable as we drive. I glance at Gabriel and shudder when his eyes flash under a streetlamp, before we've passed into another block of darkness. "So help me, Judith, so--" he slams a thinly furred hand on the steering wheel.
        I cringe further against my side's door.
        "I think you can tell I'm a little upset."
        He snorts, and licks his dark black-blue lip with his tongue, and his eyes turn from angry to worried and back again. "So are you going to _refrain_ from trying this in the future?"
        I nod, shakily.
        He growls, a sound I know comes from him because there isn't any weather tonight for thunder. His hands grip the steering wheel dangerously for a moment, then he says, "There is no way we would have expected this, not on our own. I'm glad you called."
        My hands tighten around my ribcage and I hunch further down. "... so am I."
        Under the next lamp, Gabe's fur and horns glisten, but his eyes don't flash so sharply. Several more turns and we're at their apartment, pulling into the alley that leads to a parking lot in back.
        "Here." He means to stay where I am. I do, rubbing at my eyes to clear them even though I haven't been crying. I feel like I should have been, but I'm too empty. Gabe comes around to my side of the car and offers me a hand. I take it, and he takes up almost all the weight of lifting me from the seat and into the damp, chill parking lot. He puts an arm around my shoulder. I don't take any steps towards the building. All I've thought of that I could say to Jezalyn has fled my mind.
        "Take me inside," I say helplessly.
        "Go on inside. No one's stopping you."
        I look up at him. He's back to a neutral expression, but I imagine I see some warmth there. "Well?" He asks.
        I lean just far enough off balance that he'll put both arms around me and hold on, and he does so. He runs a hand repeatedly over my shoulder, until I stand up away from him again. Teachers don't hug you. I don't think they're even supposed to. Maybe they would if I asked; I don't know.
        I nod. I may as well apologize to her now and get it over with. I don't know whether to apologize to my parents or not. "She really didn't talk? Not say _anything_?"
        He nods, breathing out harshly, not quite a snort, more an agreement breath. "That surprises you."
        "Well, she sings, and instruments and stuff... you know..."
        "Yes, I know."
        "I used to be someone who fit my name. My parents wanted to take the name of who they came from. I'm supposed to be an Asanti, and look at me. I'm just... I'm not..."
        "Well, I've never seen anyone like you, not exactly like you."
        I think about that. I shiver and wrap my arms around myself again. Still, I take a step away from the car.
        "Maybe... What do you mean by that?"
        "Who's to say? Maybe this is what you become. You remember them, don't you?"
        "Of course I do."
        "See, then, this is what you become. You're not the same as someone who wasn't Asanti, Judith. This isn't about everyone turning into something identical to everyone else."
        He's right, so right it's painful. I have the same disease as Jezalyn and I could never make the sounds and music she can. "Kent said I have talent coming out the ears."
        Gabriel laughs. It's startling after his low-voiced sternness, but puts me more at ease in a moment. "He said that, did he? Well, he's probably right. You're an unusual kid. We like you."
        "I mean that as a compliment."
        I nod. "Okay." I reach out with one hand so I won't have to walk inside alone.

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