The One that Crawls hugged his stomach. Fear and hunger battled therein. One told him to stay hidden; the other demanded he claim the discarded burger beckoning from the street beyond the alley.
The buzz of neon lights flickering in the large parking lot across the road had been the only sound for the last hour.
So he risked it. He struggled out of the dumpster, arms bearing the burden of his deadweight legs like rocks chained to his torso.
The half-eaten clump of oily meat was sludge as he chewed it. Like everything else he found, it made him sick to his stomach. It looked and smelled like food, but it wasn’t. Not really.
A strip of gold foil was all that remained of the burger’s wrapper. He turned it over and over in the muted streetlight, loving the way it shone when held at the certain angles. He folded it carefully and tucked it away.
The misted rain falling beyond the alley’s dilapidated fence was just as pretty. It never stopped: an endless sheet of glittering sprinkles falling from the black sky, their beauty swallowed by the dirty concrete below.
It beckoned him, as always, that soft mist. Its kisses echoed ones now so colorless in his memory they might have only ever been dreams.
He had to steal another moment in it — just a second or two, and then back to the alley.
His shoulders were even bigger now, he mused, as he struggled through the gap in the fence. That forced a smile to his lips. A warm flame flickered in his chest as he admired their shapeliness. But as he settled himself onto the curb, those broad shoulders only highlighted the miserable sight of his legs: two withered branches, twisting over each other like the roots of a dead tree.
He caught some of the falling raindrops on his tongue, and imagined he felt their light warming his insides.
“Hey!” a voice cried from beyond the mist. “It’s that one that crawls again!”
The One that Crawls nearly bit his tongue. Several figures rounded the corner of a nearby building, their upright postures making them giants. Angry red eyes burned in their dirty faces. Their heavy boots rapped the pavement in unison as they closed in.
The One that Crawls tried to pull himself along the sidewalk. He didn’t make it far before the first boot found his side. The spatter of someone’s spit on the back of his neck emphasized the point. The soft rain was replaced by a hail of kicks.
“Get away from here!” one roared. “You don’t belong here!”
Hands violated his pockets, stripping him of all the shiny things he’d collected since the last time they’d seen him.
“Look!” cried another, producing the golden foil.
Rough hands forced The One that Crawls onto his back. One of his attackers crouched over him. The wrinkles of the man’s pale skin were filled with grime, the thick clumps of his beard matted with filth.
“This isn’t for you,” he growled, licking at the dried sauce of the wrapper.
“Neither are these!” screeched a woman just as hard and filthy. She stripped The One that Crawls of the flimsy shirt he’d found only three nights before. The contents of its pockets were already in the hands of the gang. She moved to take the shreds of pants tied to his legs next, but hesitated over those buckled limbs like they were hazardous waste.
“I’m s-s-sorry,” The One that Crawls whimpered. “B-but, everywhere I go…”
“Eww, it’s disgusting,” a younger woman shrieked. “Just shut up! Shut up you…freak!”
This sparked another flurry of kicks.
The One that Crawls was all paddling arms and see-sawing knees as he tried to escape. The road received him as coldly as the mob raining blows upon him. The asphalt gave nothing, demanded the use of limbs he couldn’t employ. The pack’s rage escalated, as though he was just simply refusing to move any faster.
He grasped at the air itself as he was shunted across the road. And, as they launched him over the side of the parking lot’s lower level, he flew. For one breathless moment of wild flapping, he flew.
Before crash-landing on a row of rusted cars.
He rolled end over end and hit more concrete. He cowered in the shadows until the sounds of the pack faded in the street behind him.
Tears forced their way from his aching temples. The rows of rusted cars became a copper blur. He pressed a hand to his nose and mouth, lest the sobs rocking his chest draw the attention of anyone else.
Somewhere in that sea of copper was a wink of aquatic blue. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, blinking away tears as he tried to focus on the shimmering thing near his feet.
It was the lid from a soda bottle. He licked one finger and wiped the dirt from it to reveal its rich turquoise logo.
There were suddenly more voices, growing louder, somewhere on the level above. The One that Crawls scuttled awkwardly to the stairwell, hunkering in the blackness beneath the metal-grate stairs.
He held his breath. A procession of legs descended.
Only after the last pair of feet disappeared did he dare uncurl his fist and admire the soda pop lid. He held it up to the slivers of light penetrating the gaps between the steps. Twinkles of blue and green danced across its rim. His mind escaped on those glimmering shards, dreaming of a world filled with such brightness.
When his eyes refocused in the stairwell, they met another pair staring back. A small boy, frozen in half-step, had spied him through the cracks.
The faded baseball cap on the boy’s head looked as though it was once a similar color to the lid. The One that Crawls held the bottle cap out to demonstrate, offering a nervous smile.
The boy frowned at it, then at its owner. “That monster is down here!”
An army of feet shook the stairwell. The One that Crawls tumbled around the pointing child and began his desperate climb. Muscles like protruding rocks pumped in his arms as he hauled himself up, step by step, his tangled legs a pendulum banging against the stairs.
The stairwell trembled with the force of his pursuers.
Fire numbed the pain in his arms as he ascended. There was growing fluidity in the motion. He started to pull as much at the air as he did the stairs, clearing two at a time…then three…then four.
But for all his speed, he was still losing ground. The thin grates reverberated as the first pursuer closed in. A hand grasped at his legs, but The One that Crawls’ arms were stronger. With a final, terrified push he cleared the last six steps of the stairwell.
The top level was sparse, sprinkled with a few more cars as dusted and forgotten as the ones below. The One that Crawls tore away. His rippling arms cleared more and more ground with every lunge. Fear shot ice through his arms, however, as he found himself at the edge of the building.
Behind him, a wall of screaming men and women blocked the way back. He was trapped.
“Why does it keep hanging around?” someone cried.
“Why doesn’t it just it die?”
“What did you do to the kid?” roared one large man.
“Get away from us! Go away!”
The One that Crawls glanced from one repulsed face to another. Hate oozed from filthy pores no matter where he turned.
“Get rid of it, now! For good!”
“Stomp it…stomp it!”
The One that Crawls raised his burning arms in defense, but his determined attackers found every exposed inch. Walls of kicking legs denied every attempt to crawl away.
He grasped at the ledge behind him, tried to pull himself up out of the whirlwind of pain.
“There, the ledge!” someone yelled. “Send him over the ledge!” The blows shifted to a concerted, organized force.
The One that Crawls rolled with their blows. Some fire within him drove him to that ledge. He ached to swim out into the open air, dive away from the fear and the pain. The fatal conclusion to that leap was of little import compared to the blissful release he’d enjoy — if only for a moment.
He flung himself from the ledge as soon as he was on it, arms slicing the air like a swimmer breaking the surface of the water. Ecstatic cheers erupted behind him as he fell. He stroked the air again, relishing the absolute freedom of movement. His arms were ablaze, bearing him across the wind.
The weight below his waist disappeared.
The legs of The One that Crawled shattered on the concrete a dozen stories below. Thin slits of pain tore along his arms. The skin perforated from the tip of his little fingers to the base of his neck. Bright orange feathers with yellow tips burst from those fissures, paper-thin with a metallic sheen. Larger feathers of the same sprouted from the mess of his abdomen, unfurling into a tail almost twice as long as himself.
The air was a malleable thing, a thick atmosphere he could climb like solid stairs or cast aside like a thin curtain.
The faces below froze in caricatures of terror. He banked in their direction, his blood pumping electricity as they scattered for cover. He made several low swoops over their heads, the unwashed masses falling over each other in their rush to lower ground.
They meant little from up here, now. That entire land grew rapidly darker the higher he climbed.
A sudden urgency pulsed through him. He flew straight up now, pulling himself higher and higher into the misty rain. It thickened as he reached the ceiling of black cloud. The city was all but swallowed by shadow; few of the old buildings reached high enough to penetrate the black blanket of the sky.
There were fractures in that black ceiling. Sparkling water, illuminated by some brightness above, poured through these cracks, thinning to fine mist over the cold, dark city below.
He moved into the nearest waterfall. It was warm, and thick like treacle. He climbed higher still, right up through the crack…
…and found that the solid black cloud was just the crusted underside of the beauty above.
Miles of white cloud stretched to the horizon. On the peaks of the buildings tall enough to poke through, perched on ledges and busts, were others like him. Rippling arms held them in place, their torsos ending in illustrious tails tapering behind them. The sky was full with them. They moved from perch to perch, pitched and rolled in impressive formations. The largest groups, though, were those gathered around the shiniest windows and decals.
The One that Crawled spread his arms, considered his own form. When the radiant orange of his feathers caught the light, his arms looked like they were filled with shimmering gold. It was so striking that a couple of men polishing a faded statue on a nearby building had noticed.
And they were impressed.
A woman with feathers of dazzling purples and pinks whooshed by, disappearing nose-first into the clouds. She emerged seconds later, arcing into flight. Rivulets of sparkling water streamed from her feathers. As she banked overhead, he could only stare.
Her feathers glistened like purple gunmetal. Streaks of silver shimmered in the long pink hair cascading over her small, silken frame. When his eyes reached her face, hers were locked on him. She smiled, shyly, before diving back into the cloud.
Pausing just long enough to admire the sunlight blazing inside his own wings again, he pitched down after her.
Rodney J. Smith is originally from Melbourne, Australia. Most of his stories are dark or surreal, filled with people and places that aren’t quite right. For more of his work, visit rodneyjsmith.com