When I opened my eyes and saw a woman with crimson wings, I just assumed I was still drunk.
It had been a rough night, to put it mildly, and as a result, I wasn’t feeling too perky. So I just ignored whatever tricks my tired eyes were playing, rolling back over in bed and closing my eyes as I recalled the night before. I had been determined to avoid thinking about my crappy job and how nothing there was working out the way I had hoped. Being a receptionist in an ad agency wasn’t a death sentence, but some days, it sure felt like one.
So by seven that night, I had been on my way to meet my friend Maria for drinks. To my surprise, the walk had revealed a new antique shop in a building that had been vacant for months now. The light had spilled out from the door and windows, pooling on the sidewalk ahead of me as if in invitation. When I had drawn even with the window and peered around the open for business sign taped there, I had seen the distinctive flicker of candles.
It had been so inviting that I had simply walked in, hearing the jingle of the bells on the door as it closed. The sounds of the street had disappeared as if they had never existed. And there had been the shop proprietor, the cutest little old lady, complete with a shawl.
“Oh, hello, dear,” she had said, taking my arm as if we were friends. “You’ve come to visit. How lovely. Let me show you my favorite piece in the whole store.” She glanced at me, her eyes bright. “It’s not for sale though, so don’t get your hopes up. It’s to draw in the crowds, so I would love to hear what you think of it.”
By then, I had started to think that she might have been celebrating before my arrival, but I hadn’t been able to smell alcohol on her, nor was she sloppy or unsteady in any way. In fact, as she had led me through the dark and crowded rows of furniture, sculpture and artwork, all of it clearly the work of master craftsmen, I had decided that she might be a little senile, which had made me even less likely to pull away. So I had followed her all the way to the back of the store.
There she had stripped the sheet off a very battered, old-fashioned wood and metal arcade game of the type found on an ocean boardwalk a million years ago. But instead of a mechanical fortuneteller or crystal ball, there had been nothing but a small, dark genie’s lamp sitting there in dented isolation.
When I had noticed the woman looking at me as if waiting on my opinion, I had smiled weakly, hoping I looked pleased.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it, dear?” she had asked, her eyes bright and her hands clasped in front of her chest. “It’s a prognosticator of sorts, but a very special type. One of a kind, you know. There’s not another like it in the world.”
“It is certainly a sight,” I had agreed. “Clearly hand made.”
I’d even done my best to sound sincerely enthusiastic, despite my personal feelings on the matter. But she had looked at me with something close to a smirk, as if she could read my mind.
“It doesn’t look special, I know,” she had said, wagging her finger at me in good humor. “But those who judge solely by first impressions often miss so much.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know much about antiques,” I had offered with a polite wince.
“You don’t need to know anything,” she had replied, smiling fondly at the game like it was her grandchild. “Legend says it can grant wishes. Can you imagine that?” Her bright eyes had turned to me, her expression hopeful. “Would you like to try it?”
I had looked at the game once more, noting the rickety lever. It was obviously meant to engage the mechanics of the game, as there was no other option, not even a slot for a coin. But since I had suspected the next person using this antique might end up owning it when that lever came off in her hand, I had simply given that weak smile once more as I had shaken my head in denial.
“It looks very old,” I had protested politely. “I wouldn’t want to damage it by accident.”
“What, this, dear?” the woman had said, her hand on the lever. “Is this what you’re worried about?”
When I had nodded, making an apologetic face, she had shaken the lever almost viciously, actually moving the entire base of the game as she had. But surprisingly enough, the lever had not cracked off in her hand as I had feared. So when she had urged me towards it, I had stepped forward and very gently pulled the lever.
There had been the smallest pause, then the lantern had started to glow. As I had watched in shock, some kind of smoke or steam had spilled from its spout in a thick wave of color, as though a rainbow had been boiled down. It had become so bright in that dim corner of the store that I had been squinting within seconds.
“Make your wish,” she had said even as my ears had fluttered under a sudden, enormous pressure and my eyes had swept closed in reflex.
But given that golden chance of unfettered imagination, I had blanked entirely, my head just suddenly vacant. All I had been able to think was that I just wanted to get some control over my life so that I could be happy.
Suddenly, there had been a brilliant flash behind my eyelids almost like an explosion. When I had opened my eyes to see the lantern, it had been just as dented and dull as it had first appeared. Despite its earlier display, there had been no smoke or light anywhere, not even trapped in its spout.
“That’s amazing,” I had said in sincere appreciation. “I never expected it to work so well, old as it looks. I’m certain your customers will really enjoy seeing it.”
Her smile had only grown, even as it had taken on that smirking edge again, as if she had known something I had not.
“Some will, some won’t,” she had said as she had thrown the sheet back over the game.
Then she had taken my arm, propelling me to the door with a degree of speed, strength and vigor I did not generally associate with women of her advanced years. But as if she were immune to the laws of age and nature, she had hauled me through the store like I was a toddler. When we had reached the door, she had literally pushed me right out onto the sidewalk, a cheerful expression on her face as if she had not been manhandling me with a grip worthy of a pro fighter.
“Go on, dear,” she had said, her eyes twinkling with good humor at the expression on my face. “You’ve made your wish. Now make it come true.”
Then she had shut the door in my face as the shop had suddenly gone dark.
So I had continued on my walk to the bar, where my friend Maria had been waiting. At thirty-five to my twenty-six, she was like the big sister I had always wanted, so we had hit it off as soon as we had met more than four years ago. We no longer worked together, but our friendship had easily endured the vagaries of employment and housing.
So I had been thrilled to see her when I had arrived at the bar. Agreeing that our jobs sucked, we had set to drowning our career sorrows. Once that had been done, we had staggered off to our respective apartments, hers much more hectic than mine as it contained a child, two dogs, three cats and a husband, while mine just had a revolving retinue of dying houseplants. I had weaved my way home and up the stairs to let myself in before passing out on my bed.
So of course, when I had cracked my sore eyes to see a woman with huge, blood-red wings standing in front of my window, I had just assumed I was still drunk and shut my eyes. Now, I was just about to drift off again, snuggling down in my warm bed contentedly. I was thinking how vivid my dreams must have been for that to have flashed in front of my eyes after waking when I heard someone clearing her throat.
My eyes shot open again and there she was, large as life, inspecting her nails as if bored, those crimson wings open behind her like some kind of weird backdrop. After a gasp of pure shock at the sight, which caused no reaction from her, I simply huddled there, staring at her. The most insane ideas filled my head for a single moment as I noted the color of those feathered wings, a rush of panicked images in which my painful death by demonic forces was the only constant.
Then reality kicked in as I realized what was going on here.
We were only a month out from Halloween, so this had to be Maria’s way of showing me what costumes she had planned for us this year. Since we traditionally spent the early evening at her place, handing out candy to the building kids before going out for a drink, we always dressed up for fun. While this was a little dramatic for that duty, if she wanted to dress up as sexy devils this year, I certainly didn’t care.
Looking at the woman she had sent to model her idea, I figured this had to be one of her cousins. She was in her late twenties or so and just as pretty as Maria and everyone else in her very good-looking family. But she had an added bit of over-the-top gorgeous that would have made her the prettiest one even in that group, I decided.
Maria had done her face and hair like she was a supermodel, dolled her up in a leather vest and pants and then given her a costume-store set of devil wings to startle me. Since she actually looked pretty amazing, I could see how this woman had agreed to show up here dressed like that. But I could only imagine some of the comments she might have received along the way.
"Nice wings, but you forgot the horns and the pitchfork,” I croaked. “Tell Maria I said that’s fine, we can be sexy devils this year if she wants. I’d let you out, but I’m too hungover. Have a nice day and say hello to your family for me.”
Then I shut my eyes and slumped back down in my bed. There was a rustle and I opened my eyes to see the woman had moved next to the bed and was looking down at me. Up close, she was even prettier, her skin flawless and her dark hair shining even with the curtains drawn. I shook my head in misery, wincing at how it felt.
“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice painfully raspy. “I didn’t mean to be rude, so when you tell Maria about this, do me a favor and skip the cranky part. You want some coffee before you leave?”
All at once, those wings opened even wider.
They looked so real that I scrambled backwards, banging into the wall and almost falling off the bed. This close, the feathers were a deep, rich red, the color of rubies or blood and very beautiful. This cousin was the daring, stylish one too, obviously, because she had agreed to stroll right over here dressed like that, which just blew my mind.
As I was pondering that, the woman snorted with obvious scorn as she crossed her arms and stood there as if waiting for something.
“I hate this part,” she said, sounding tired.
“What part?” I asked, confused.
“This part,” she replied, bracing her feet as if readying herself for something.
Then those crimson wings moved and a gust of displaced air hit me, further shocking me for how strong they must be to do that without cracking or breaking. That was some serious engineering, I realized.
“What the hell are those things made of?” I yelped. “Spring steel and titanium?”
“Oh, yeah, sure, that’s it,” she said, smirking a little. “Idiot. Now get up, Melisandra. We have things to do.”
“Ugh, don’t call me that,” I complained as I pulled the sheet back over my head. “Only strangers call me that and I don’t like strangers. I really love your wings, especially the color, but please, just go away now so I can sleep. You can show me how they work another time, maybe when I’m over at Maria’s. I’m sure I’ll be fascinated by all the pulleys and wires.”
“This is why I hate this part,” the woman said, her voice once more tired and somehow disheartened as I heard the slightest rustle that sounded like she might have moved. “The initial denial, then the justifications, the reasoning, the panicked attempts to make sense of it all. It’s always the same with you people. I’m completely bored with it.”
Then she stripped the sheet right off me and there I was, lying there in my underwear.
“Hey, some privacy here!” I shrieked, scrambling upright and grabbing at the sheet even as she held it out of reach. “Stop that! That’s creepy! Get out or I’ll tell Maria!”
She rolled her eyes, then threw the sheet at me before backing away towards the door.
“Fine, I’ll go make coffee while you come to terms with this,” she said, sounding slightly annoyed.
She shut the bedroom door behind her, then I heard cabinets opening in the kitchen as she searched for the coffee. Now that I had some privacy, I sent Maria a text to let her know I’d met her wacky cousin.
>Your prank-loving cousin is in my kitchen, making coffee. I love her wings, so those are great, but I think we also need horns and pitchforks to complete the look.
By the time I had finished showering and getting dressed, she had replied.
>What are you talking about? Are you still drunk?
Rolling my eyes, I texted her back.
>Ha, ha. You got me good. She freaked me out BIG TIME when I first saw her. I love the costume, but won’t this be kind of pricey? Those wings look REALLY expensive.
Her reply came less than a minute later.
>Mel, I didn’t send anyone to visit you. Who is in your kitchen?
I felt all the hair on the back of my neck rise. Fingers flying, I told her everything I knew.
>Dark-haired, tall, gorgeous. Wearing leather and devil wings. She was here when I woke up and knew my name. I thought you had let her in as a joke. This is very freaky now that I know she’s not your cousin. Should I be worried?
Her immediate reply only made things worse.
>Get in your bedroom. Lock the door and do NOT open it until I ring the bell. I’m coming right now.
Now completely panicked, I locked the bedroom door, then texted her again.
>Should I call the police? She just pulled off my covers, showed me her wings and went to make coffee. I feel badly calling the police if she’s harmless. What should I do?
There was no answer, which meant that Maria was probably already on her way. Just in case, I grabbed the golf club I kept under my bed and waited there, trying to control my breathing. But despite my state of near panic, nothing happened aside from the comforting smell of coffee drifting under the door as the time passed.
When I heard the doorbell, I was out of my room like a shot, tearing right past the psycho woman to the door. I opened it faster than I had ever before in my life, lunging out to catch Maria’s arm and pull her inside, even as I started babbling.
“Maria, so great you stopped by,” I prattled. “What a surprise. Come have coffee with us.”
She caught my eyes and nodded reassuringly as she moved in front of me. When she saw the woman, she stopped dead and spun to face me.
“I thought you said she was wearing wings, acting like she might be having some kind of episode,” she said, frowning at me slightly. “Mel, this isn’t funny. You scared the crap out of me and I left my kid in the middle of his breakfast for this. Who is this?”
“That’s why I texted you,” I explained. “She does have wings. They fold up against her back so you can’t even see them until she turns around or opens them. I wasn’t kidding. I wouldn’t do that to you and certainly not on a weekend. I honestly thought she was your cousin and you put her up to this.”
“Nope, no cousin of mine,” Maria said, her head swinging to appraise the woman once more. “You have a name, honey? Do you know where you live or the number of someone we should call? Or do you need help of some sort?”
Instead of answering, the woman stood up and unfurled her wings once more.
“Holy crap!” Maria screamed as she leaped backwards without warning, almost knocking me over. “What the hell?”
The woman didn’t even look at her. Instead, her eyes met mine, her expression exasperated as her wings folded up behind her back once more.
“You had to bring friends?” she asked, her lips pursed in annoyance. “Really?”
“Lady, you’re standing in my kitchen wearing wings a month out from Halloween,” I protested before I could stop myself. “I woke up with you hovering over me like you wanted to smother me with a pillow. This wasn’t really a do-it-yourself event in my opinion.”
Meanwhile, Maria was having something of a crisis of faith, judging from the noises emanating from her as she lifted one hand to point at the woman.
“Your wings are the color of blood,” Maria shrieked, acting like she was losing her mind. “Why? What are you? I warn you, demon, my faith is stronger than anything you can do to me!”
“What did you just call me?” the woman hissed.
Startled by how offended the woman looked and wondering uneasily what else might set her off, I swung to face Maria, hoping to calm the situation. I didn’t want to get into a brawl in my apartment with some lunatic, even if we outnumbered her. I just wanted to calm this wacko and get her out of my life.
“Come on, Maria, chill out with the exorcism talk,” I said soothingly. “Her wings are amazing, I know. I thought they were real at first, too, so I get it. But stop ranting, because now you’re the one sounding like a lunatic, which is not helping. We need to figure out who she is and where she lives.”
Maria’s eyes bulged as if I had suggested she run naked through the streets during Fleet Week while yelling about free love. It was even more apparent from her next words that nothing I said was even going to make a dent.
“We need a Bible, a cross and a throw-down piece, just in case,” she whispered hoarsely, her eyes wild. “She hasn’t killed you yet, so I have to take the chance. I’ll be back with everything we need. Just keep her here and keep pretending you don’t know what she is.”
“A thrown-down piece?” I squawked. “Keep pretending? Maria, what the hell is wrong with you?”
Ignoring me, she bolted from the room and right out the door like her hair was on fire. By now I was more than a little concerned. While this crazy woman hadn’t done anything to me yet, she had clearly caused Maria to have some kind of fit. Sensible, no-nonsense Maria had lost her mind, babbling about religious supplies and illegal guns before running from my apartment like a wacko.
All over a person wearing the most realistic set of crimson wings I had ever seen.
I didn’t like thinking about this, especially not with the person in question sitting right in front of me, drinking my coffee, but I also couldn’t stop. So I did my best to firmly squash my absurd concerns and focus back on reality. Judging that I should resolve this before Maria came back and shot some mentally-ill stranger right in front of me, I spoke.
“That was my friend Maria,” I said carefully. “And you are?”
“You can call me Angie,” she said with a smirk.
“Well, Angie, it’s nice to meet you,” I said politely, smiling a little to take the sting out as I continued, “but why are you in my apartment and what do you want?”
She looked at me for a moment as if evaluating me, then she smirked again.
“You made a wish last night,” she said.
“How did you know that?” I demanded before I realized how that could be. “Oh, wait, that old lady sent you. Wow. She could have called or sent a note if she wanted me to see those wings. I would have come by. There was no need to go to all this trouble.”
The woman pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head like I was trying her patience before answering.
“You wished to gain control over your life and be happy.”
The hair on my arms rose as I remembered that I had never said anything aloud. There was no way that some stranger with menacing red wings and a bad attitude could know what I might have thought in passing last night. That sudden realization made me very nervous.
“How did you know what I wished for?” I asked, edging away from her as I suddenly recalled some of the things Maria had been screaming, the same things I had been trying not to consider.
“I know all kinds of things,” she replied, smirking just slightly again.
Demons weren’t real, I reminded myself as I looked back at her and thought about what had just happened when Maria had seen her unfurl those wings. But I refused to even consider it. No matter what Maria might believe, this was not a demon standing in my apartment because that was simply impossible. Such a creature did not exist outside of books and movies, I reminded myself as I looked back at Angie.
If this woman wasn’t mentally ill and lost, then she was part of some elaborate set-up or prank which Maria knew nothing about. That would be easy enough to prove by just examining her wings and seeing how they were attached to her back. After all, plastic plants could look utterly lifelike until you actually touched them or dug for their roots.
“Can I see those wings up close?” I asked quietly, estimating if I could get past her and out the door if things got weird.
She rolled her eyes before moving closer, her expression relaxed enough that I didn’t feel the need to run. Not yet anyway, I thought as she stopped and turned her back to me, no more than a foot from my eyes, the feathery material of the wings all bound up so that it fit tight to her back like a cape. I reached out and touched one of the crimson feathers, astonished to find that despite its menacing color, it was very soft.
“How do you make them stretch out?” I asked. “Do you have a little hidden button in your hand?”
“Yet again, another moron,” she muttered. “It never ends. It’s like a curse with you people.”
Once those wings unfolded, I almost gagged. They were grafted into her flesh, like someone had surgically implanted them, which made my skin crawl.
“Oh, wow, that must have hurt,” I gasped.
She turned around to look at me even as those wings folded tight against her back once more, her expression annoyed.
“I know you are not this stupid,” she announced. “So cut the crap and accept your new reality before I really lose my patience with you.”
That made me notice once more that those wings were red. And not just a bright, shiny red, but the dark, ugly red of a puddle of blood, shading to black at the very edges as if congealing. Along with that realization came all the disturbing thoughts I had been trying so hard to repress for the last several minutes, the same impossible ideas which had flooded my brain when I had first awoken to see her there.
I could suddenly hear Maria in my head, screaming Mel, you dumb bitch, she’s a demon!
I felt lightheaded as I suddenly realized that this was real. Maria had lost her mind and run out to get a Bible and a gun because there really was a freaking foot soldier of Satan in my apartment. But I still didn’t want to believe that. I just couldn’t, because once I did, it was all bad from there.
“There’s no button, is there?” I asked slowly.
She shook her head in denial, looking distinctly unimpressed.
“Do you have them from a government experiment?” I asked weakly. “Or maybe you’re a crime-fighting superhero? Or a friendly alien?”
She shook her head again, once more pinching the bridge of her nose in obvious annoyance, like my suggestions were absurd. Thinking of Maria’s reaction, I finally just asked.
“Are you really a demon like Maria said?” I whispered, my voice shaking.
Right after I spoke, I was hoping she might laugh or even make fun of me, proving it really was all a joke of some sort. Then she and her weird, surgically implanted wings would leave my apartment and disappear to wherever people with those kinds of fetishes gathered. But she didn’t laugh, roll her eyes or even mock me for my question. Instead, she just looked at me, her eyes narrowed and her expression less than friendly as my stomach dropped in sudden fear.
“I don’t like labels,” she said sharply. “Especially not that one.”
That’s how I knew I had a demon sitting in my kitchen.
_end of Chapter 1_
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