Liddy, First to Fly
Liddy showed us her ankles during first recess. First one and then the other, lifting the cuff of her blue corduroys, as we sat by the broken picnic table in the patch of grass between the parking lot and the basketball court. Chloe and Liddy sat on the table itself, their feet on what remained of the bench; Mags and I sat in the grass, avoiding the jagged wood. There were small, raised white bumps on both of Liddy’s ankles. One on the outside of each ankle, a few inches above the rounded knob of bone. Perfectly symmetrical.
“Blisters from your boots?” I said.
“I don’t think so.”
Chloe tapped on her phone. “Ringworm,” she said, holding out her screen. Mags recoiled. “Oh, gross. Oh my god.”
Liddy glanced over before continuing to poke at the bumps. “It doesn’t look like that.”
“Maybe you should go to the doctor,” I said.
“They just look like zits to me,” Mags said. “Big ones.”
“My mom won’t take me to the doctor for some zits on my legs.”
“Can you stop being gross and showing them to us, then?” Chloe said, still fiddling with her phone. “We’ve wasted almost the whole recess.”
Simon L. ran by, chasing an escaped basketball. “Dogs pee there!” he shouted at me and Mags. “You’re sitting in dog pee!”
Liddy showed us her ankles again the next day. Only Chloe sat on the table, the remaining three of us in the grass. Liddy laid her legs across my lap and I lifted her sneaker close to my face. The bumps had grown, the skin noticeably thinning as it stretched, becoming translucent.
“There’s something in there,” she said.
Something did appear to be pushing up through Liddy’s skin, the size and shape of the tip of a pen, only white.
“Maybe Chloe was right, and you do have worms,” I said.
“Ringworm,” Chloe corrected, “is caused by a fungus.”
I couldn’t resist poking at it. “It’s hard, though. Would a worm be hard?”
Mags was looking over my shoulder, transfixed. “Ew. Ew, ew, ew.”
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“It’s more . . . uncomfortable. Like I can feel how tight the skin is. Like wearing clothes that are too small.”
“It looks like bone,” Chloe declared, from above.
“It’s weird that they’re in the exact same place. It’s almost like someone ran something straight through both of your ankles. Like the bolts on the neck of the monster in Frankenstein. Or Mags’s dog when he broke his leg and got that plate put in it.”
“Did you break your ankles and not remember?” Mags said.
We let this pass as a Mags thing to say.
“Anyway, you should go to the doctor,” I concluded.
“I don’t want to bug my mom with this,” Liddy said, pulling her pant legs back down. “She’s got a lot going on right now.”
Mags let out a horrified squeal.
“Wow,” I said.
“Shit,” Chloe said.
Liddy stood in front of us, holding up the cuffs of her jeans. The bumps were now bubbles of clear fluid, about the diameter of a quarter, the skin almost completely transparent. Within each one was a coil of something dark and unrecognizable, bringing to mind matted hair, a clog pulled up from a drain.
“You should go to the hospital,” I said. Mags nodded.
Chloe typed swiftly on her phone. “Maybe Mags was right, and they’re just blackheads. Sometimes people get huge ones that look kind of like that. See?” Liddy looked at Chloe’s phone. “So should I pop them?”
“Is it weird that I want you to pop them?” Mags said. “Like, I really, really want you to pop them.”
“Me too,” I said. Looking at them was almost painful, like watching an oblong, overfilled water balloon bounce across the scraped concrete of a pool deck.
“This website says you should sterilize a needle to do it, to prevent infection.” “Can we watch?” Mags asked.
Chloe looked up from her phone with a disgusted expression. “Mags!”
“Sure,” Liddy said. “You and Grace can come over after school. My mom won’t be home until late. She has a date.”
“I’m coming too!” Chloe insisted.
While Liddy hosed off her legs in the shower, Chloe lit a candle in Liddy’s bedroom—a scented leftover from Christmas, filling the room with the waxy, candysweet smell of artificial pine needles. She ran a sewing needle through the flame. Once it was cool, she dipped it in rubbing alcohol and left it to dry on a paper towel.
Liddy sat on her bed, her feet up on a clean white towel taken from the hall closet. We were going for a surgical atmosphere, or a ceremonial one—an appendectomy, a baptism—but instead it felt more like a game of pretend, the kind of game we’d only recently outgrown.
Chloe and I sat on Liddy’s bed with her. Mags sat on the floor, resting her elbows on the mattress with her chin in her hands, her face level with the bulbous horrors.
Liddy pressed the needle to her skin lengthwise, parallel to her leg, and slid it down to pierce the first of the two bubbles. We instinctively all leaned away, as though it would explode and spray the walls with pus, but Liddy had to draw the needle up to tear through the outside layer of skin. Clear fluid ran down her leg. She mopped it up with a hand towel.
When she lifted the towel away, we could see the matted clump that had been underneath, resembling a downy, slimy, just-birthed animal, newly ejected from its mother. Liddy got up and went back to the bathroom, and we followed. She left the shower curtain open as she stood in the tub and splashed the lump with tap water.
The coil unfurled. She turned off the water and fluffed it out with another towel, helping it along. “They’re . . . feathers,” I said.
A bird’s wing stuck straight out from the side of her leg, the span approximately the length of her hand. The feathers were dark grey, leaning black. The wing flexed away from Liddy, stretching to its full outward distance, before trembling and folding back, the tip pointing down once more.
One by one, we called our mothers and asked if we could stay the night at Liddy’s. One by one, our mothers said no, but we could stay for dinner. My mother asked if she could talk to Liddy’s, and I lied that she was in the bathroom and
couldn’t come to the phone. Dinner was a vague concept; we could reasonably stay until bedtime before Chloe’s parents would call her phone and the rest of our parents would call Liddy’s house phone.
Liddy lanced the remaining bubble, freeing the other wing. Clean and dry, folded down in a relaxed position against the sides of her legs, they were beautiful, with an oily, iridescent blue sheen, like crows’ necks in a certain light. They looked ornamental, an intentional contrast to her milky skin and the downy blond hair on her legs, like part of a circus performer’s costume.
The things we said, at first, just reasserted the obvious: are those really growing out of your legs, are those really wings? And then details: does it hurt (not really), can you control them (Liddy focused, experimentally, and the tips of the wings would drift a fraction of an inch; she couldn’t get them to unfurl completely again, and she couldn’t control them individually—“Like you can’t flare just one of your nostrils,” she explained).
“Why aren’t they growing out of your back?” Chloe asked. “Like an angel? It would be sexier if they grew out of your back.” Chloe was always making strange, knowing declarations of this kind.
“Do you think you can fly?” Mags asked.
“They feel . . . stuck,” Liddy said, again making the wings ruffle faintly. “Like they want to open and lift again, but there’s something in the way.”
“You should probably tell your mom now,” I said.
“Yeah, I should,” Liddy said, looking down at her softly twitching wings, with a faraway expression that meant she wouldn’t.
There was a way in which Liddy’s wings didn’t strike us as extraordinary. Everything was baffling and covert then, especially our own bodies, sprouting all kinds of outgrowths that were meant to be hidden, desperately ignored and not discussed, hairs and lumps that could be weaponized against us. On some level, it seemed like this would just be part of Liddy’s eventual adulthood, tucking her wings beneath sensible slacks and off to the office, just as our mothers scooped their breasts and rears into elastic and wire. And the realm of pretend—more darkly and indistinctly sexual than we let the adults know—had only just closed its doors to us. That the fantastical should leak out through Liddy’s skin seemed only fitting.
And though we never would have admitted it, we were growing bored of each other. We couldn’t actually remember how or why we became friends. It was a story our mothers told: what we said when we came home from our first day of kindergarten, inexplicably enamoured with each other, a story that embarrassed us now.
I wasn’t in the same class as the other three anymore. I had a classroom friend; we only talked during class and went our separate ways during lunch and recess. And sometimes—often—I realized I’d rather be talking to her about our egg launcher for science class, or the books we were reading, and all that I felt for Chloe, Mags, and Liddy was a kind of loyalty bond, an obligation. Mags had joined the children’s choir at her church, Liddy sometimes went to drop-in intramural dodgeball at the community centre, and Chloe was spending as much time with a glamorous older cousin as the cousin would allow. They would talk about these other friends in a way that made me aware of us drifting, and it terrified me.
Now we had something to bond us again, a new hidden world.
Liddy didn’t come to school for three days. We assumed that I’d been wrong about that look on her face, that Liddy had shown her mother and the adult, bureaucratic machine had kicked in. We’d see Liddy on the cover of Scientific American or Weekly World News, or she was in the hospital, getting her wings surgically removed. We imagined a tall, menacing doctor leaning over her as she drifted under anaesthesia, saying, “Don’t worry, you’ll be a normal girl again soon,” and digging the bones of her wings out from under her skin, those lovely, shining feathers tearing away in a mass of blood and viscera. (Chloe was the chief architect of these nightmares.)
On the fourth day, I called Liddy’s house in the morning, after breakfast. Her mother picked up, and I asked how Liddy was doing, said we missed her at school.
“Oh, how sweet of you to worry, Grace,” she said. “Liddy is fine. She just left for school, in fact. She had what my mother used to call a ‘growing fever.’ Do you get those?”
“No? I don’t think so. I don’t know what that is.”
“I had them at your age. A fever that lasts a few days, you sleep the whole time, and you wake up a teeny bit taller. Part of the growing spurts you’re all going through.”
“Oh. Uh, I’m glad Liddy is feeling better.” I hesitated. “And nothing else was wrong with her?”
“That’s the funny thing about growing fevers! How you know it’s not the flu or something else. You don’t have any other symptoms. You just sleep it off.”
Liddy’s mom always sounded excessively cheerful, and it made me uncomfortable, like she was constantly lying. I wanted to ask if she had also sprouted wings at our age. I tried to remember if I’d ever seen her bare legs, if she’d ever joined us in the public pool in the summertime. Would Liddy ever be able to go to the pool again? “I better get to school,” I said, finally.
When I arrived at school, I saw Liddy for just a moment across the blacktop before the first bell rang and everyone went inside. I couldn’t catch up to her in time to talk, but from that distance, she did look taller somehow, her cheeks a little more refined, her blond hair a little darker than before.
Liddy didn’t come out at first recess. Mags, who was in her class, reported that she’d stayed behind to talk to the teacher about what she’d missed while she was out sick. At lunch, we clustered behind the lone tree near the picnic table. We were visible from the parking lot but not from the basketball court. Liddy was wearing navy blue sweatpants, loose legs with an elastic cuff at the bottom. When she pulled them up, the cuffs held just below her knee.
The wings had grown dramatically. The point where each one connected to her leg had expanded up and down—no longer a point but a line, a full joint, stretching from just above her ankle to just below her knee. Folded down, against her leg, each wing traced the same curve as her calf muscle, rounded at the top, tapered toward the ground.
“I’ve been practising,” Liddy said. She glanced around, making sure no one could see us, and then stood with her feet apart, her legs forming an inverted V. The wings spread to a majestic span, flexing concave and convex as she flapped them slowly, back to front. They were angled slightly down and behind her, and their curving shape made the lowest, outermost part of each wing drag in the loose dirt, throwing up small, smoke-like trails of dust. When Liddy stilled the wings and folded them down again, they were noticeably stained by the lighter-coloured earth.
We were too stunned to speak at first, but I found I was quickly thinking about the mechanics. I’d had science right before lunch, where I’d been working on my egg launcher with my class friend. It wouldn’t just be sexier, as Chloe had said— whatever that meant—for Liddy’s wings to be embedded between her shoulder
blades, but more useful, too. She couldn’t get any lift with her wings scraping along the ground that way, and it intuitively seemed like it would take more force to get off the ground, with most of her weight above the wings, than if they’d appeared somewhere higher up on her body. They also seemed proportionally small, if one pictured Liddy as a bird, especially with her heavy, human skeleton, rather than the hollow bird bones that facilitate flight.
I started to explain some of this—why I didn’t think Liddy would be able to fly. Chloe interrupted. “We don’t know what Liddy’s bones are like. She’s pretty light. Maybe the wings aren’t the only thing that’s different about her.”
“They do drag on the ground, though,” Mags said.
“Maybe if you jump?” Chloe suggested.
“Maybe Liddy is like an ostrich or a dinosaur,” I said. “They’re not for flying, but they’d help stabilize her when she runs.”
“Or she’s like a chicken,” Mags supplied. “She can fly, just not much.”
“I think I can fly,” Liddy said. Her voice, I thought, had a new authority to it, was even slightly deeper than before. It broke us out of our speculative reverie, out of pretend. “I just haven’t figured out how, yet.”
“Try jumping,” Chloe said. Liddy jumped straight up in the air twice; each time, there was only a half-second of suspension, in which the wings fluttered frantically, not the full, swooping gesture Liddy had shown us before. “You need to jump from higher up,” Chloe said.
A basketball bounced past us, and Simon L. came running after it. Liddy tugged down the legs of her sweatpants a little too aggressively, and the low waist came down, showing the top inch of her pink underwear.
“The girls are showing each other their underwear!” Simon crowed, returning to the court. “They’re back there pulling their pants down!”
We stood close together, eyeing Simon with disdain. We’d been told we would develop a new interest in boys; they would suddenly become intriguing, infuriating. Looking at them would make us sweat our new, ranker sweat. For me that had not happened. They seemed yet more distant, less interesting, as the girls around me morphed in ways that were truly fascinating. As they grew wings.
After school, we went to Mags’s house. Their family had a large, fenced-in backyard in a kind of bowl shape, curving down from the road that ran behind. At
the highest point, just below the road, there was a grassy plateau atop a ten-foot retaining wall, before the smooth slope of the bowl. In the winter, it was perfect for sledding.
Standing on the ledge above the stone wall, the drop seemed higher than we expected, the grass below not quite as lush, a bare patch here and there. Liddy stood at the edge, her wings spread and puffed out. Her back to us, we couldn’t see her face. She faced the sun in the western sky, the light haloed around her.
Liddy took a small, neat jump forward, both feet leaving the ground at the same time. Her wings flapped fully just once, forward and back, before she hit the ground. She landed on her feet but tripped almost immediately, tumbling, somersaulting forward and down the curving lawn. When she recovered onto her side, she was at the lowest part of the bowl.
“Liddy?” Mags called. “Are you okay?”
Liddy jumped to her feet so quickly it startled us. She came running up the hill, scrambling back onto the ledge with us before we knew it.
“I feel like I had something there,” she said, panting. “I could feel a little lift.” Her grey T-shirt had fresh grass stains, and dirt was embedded in the skin of her forearms.
“We should do an experiment,” I suggested. “One of us should jump off at the same time as you. Then we could see if your wings actually slow you down.”
“I’ll do it,” Chloe said. She stood from where she’d been sitting with her legs dangling off the ledge, brushing off the seat of her pants. Her expression, incredibly, seemed bored, in need of a change, in need of attention.
Liddy was still catching her breath. “I want to do a running jump this time. See if I can get more air.”
“You guys have to try and jump at the exact same time in the exact same way,” I said.
“Sure, whatever,” Chloe said.
Liddy peered over the edge, and then took a few steps backward. “Let’s start from here,” she said, directing Chloe to stand beside her. “Mags, say, ‘one-two-three, go!’” “One-two-three, go!”
They ran to the edge. At the last second, her feet already in space, Chloe seemed to change her mind, awkwardly fumbling in mid-air as she fell with a shriek. Liddy released one foot and then the other with intention, arcing outward
as she jumped, looking graceful and fearless. Her black feathers glistened and we could hear her wings slicing through the air, a whooshing rush. All the same, she landed only a moment later than Chloe, if at all. Chloe landed in a crouch, and then sat back on her butt in the same spot. Liddy rolled all the way down the rest of the hill again. And again, she popped right up, hurtling toward us. It was unnerving, like a zombie in a movie who’s been hit by a baseball bat but won’t stay down. Chloe took her time, groaning as she pulled herself to her feet, trailing behind.
“That was better than the first time,” Liddy said, hoisting herself onto the ledge. “I really think I’ve almost got it.” There was dirt in her hair and streaked across the side of her cheek.
Chloe came up after her. “Je-ee-sus, that was scary,” she said. “I am not doing that again.”
Just then, Mags’s mom stepped out through the sliding glass back door and into the yard. She called out to us. “Mags?”
“Hi Mom,” Mags called back. Liddy’s wings were already retracted, folded flat, unlikely to be visible at this distance.
“I just got home. What are you girls doing up there?”
“Just, you know, playing.”
“Well, be careful not to fall!” she said. Chloe giggled behind her hand. “Do you girls want a snack?”
“We’re fine, Mom.”
“Have you seen your brother?”
“He’s in his room.”
“Your brother is home?” Chloe hissed. “What the hell! What if he’d looked out his window and saw the flying freak over here?”
“Hey,” Liddy said. A ripple passed over her closed wings.
“He’s in there playing games on his computer. He never comes out or raises his blinds,” Mags said. “I kind of forget he exists.”
“It’s going to get dark soon. Maybe your friends should start getting ready to go home, and you should get started on your homework?”
“Sure thing, Mom.”
As soon as the sliding door clicked shut, Liddy announced, “Okay, I’m going to jump again.”
“Are you crazy? My mom might see.”
Liddy let out an exasperated noise through her nose, like a horse. “This isn’t high enough, anyway. I don’t have enough time in the air.”
“Any higher wouldn’t be safe,” I said.
“I’m pretty sure we could’ve killed ourselves just from this height if we’d fallen the wrong way,” Chloe said. Liddy paced back and forth along the ledge.
“You know where you should try?” Chloe went on. “The Springboard.”
My mom had pointed out the Springboard to me when we drove past, clucking her tongue in disapproval. It was a place along the shore where a high cliffside jutted out over the ocean, where teenagers went to jump and dive in the summer. The tip of the rock outcropping was vaguely squared off, like a diving board. Officially, it’d been cordoned off for the last five years with a stout fence and a sign with red-onwhite lettering, but that hadn’t stopped anyone. Every summer, some kid broke their leg or their arm and the columnist in our local paper called for a higher fence. And over the decades, six teenagers had died, oddly in clusters: four one summer in the 1970s, and two the year they put up the fence. My mom was friends with the mother of one of the kids who’d died most recently.
That Saturday, in the late morning, we told our parents we were going to the mall and walked the three kilometres along the two-lane highway to get to the Springboard. It was too early in the year and in the day for anyone else to be there, but in the daylight, there was a risk that we would be spotted from the road. We’d dressed in dark colours to better blend into the strip of woods that separated the roadway from the cliffs.
We hopped the fence with ease. Liddy peered over the edge. Mags asked, “How do people get hurt doing this?”
“Mostly they fall off the wrong part of the cliff while waiting for their turn,” I said, “where the water is sometimes too shallow, in low tide. They’re usually drunk or high, and there’s a lot of them, and someone just gets crowded off.”
“So nobody gets hurt if they go off the actual Springboard?”
“No, sometimes people just hit the water wrong, or the tide is strong and they get scraped up while they’re swimming back.”
“What about the kids who died?” Liddy asked. I watched her taking off her hoodie and her T-shirt before answering. Underneath, she had on a black one-piece bathing suit that I’d never seen. Last summer, we’d all gotten matching tankinis— mine had been turquoise with stripes, and Liddy’s had been rose-pink with darker pink flowers. Her new suit was plain, the neckline a simple, austere scoop in the front and the back, the armpits cut deep.
I’d looked up the news articles, but they didn’t say. Chloe looked them up right then on her phone and couldn’t find anything more. Everything I knew came from my mom, and I didn’t know where her information came from.
“They always question if it could have been suicide,” I said. “Especially the last kid who died that summer in the seventies—he was the boyfriend of one of the girls who died, and he was alone when it happened.”
“That’s weirdly romantic,” Mags said.
“Rita’s done it dozens of times,” Chloe piped up, referring to her older cousin. “And she doesn’t have wings.”
Liddy was still wearing the sweatpants she’d worn all week over her swimsuit. The ocean was loud where we were, carefully sitting, carefully toward the centre of the outcropping, away from the edges. We sat in silence for a few moments. A seagull cried out in the distance.
“Are you scared?” Mags asked.
After a beat, Liddy replied, “No. It’s weird. It’s like there’s a part of my brain that knows I should be, but I just don’t feel it.”
When Liddy stood and added her sweatpants to the stack of her clothes, I had the sudden sense that we were saying goodbye. The spandex sheen of her black bathing suit matched the sheen on her feathers. I imagined the feathers growing up her legs, spreading, merging with her suit. I saw her blunt-cut blond hair darkening, wrapping around the sides of her head, puffing out as yet more feathers. I imagined this strange, upside-down bird creature with my old friend’s blue eyes, and I saw it alight, leap from the cliff. I saw it fly straight into the sun, vanish over the horizon. And I felt sad, but happy for her, too. She had become what she was meant to be, and maybe we all would.
As in Mags’s yard, Liddy took a few steps back to take a running start. Just as she started to sprint for the end of the board, we heard rustling in the woods we’d just come through.
It was our mothers, pushing through the trees as a unit, with Mags’s mom leading the pack.
“There they are!” she shouted. “Girls! What in God’s name are you doing here?” Liddy’s mom screamed.
Liddy had disappeared over the edge. Mags and Chloe were both on their hands and knees, crawling to the end to peer down at where Liddy had jumped. And I knew, suddenly, without looking, what they saw, what the mothers pushing past me would see as well: a girl with long, pale, unremarkable legs, falling fast, straight down into the ocean like a rock. I knew because all the mothers were here. If it had been just one adult, the magic could have lasted; she might have seen what we saw and been written off as crazy. But not four. Four adults can’t see a miracle all at once. Liddy’s wings would dissolve into the air or reabsorb into her skin without leaving a mark.
I still hoped Liddy would suddenly swoop up, flying past us, laughing with joy. But now Liddy’s mother was running the other direction, scrambling and jumping down the stomped-down path to the beach where the cliff-divers eventually swam up. My mother and Chloe’s followed, while Mags’s mother stayed with us on the cliff, alternating between shouting at us and staring worriedly down below.
You might ask: where were our fathers? Why was it only our mothers who were pulled from their Saturday routines for this—Liddy’s from work and the rest from home, from leisure, from caring for our siblings? And which one of us told, left the telltale clue? All of us would deny it later.
The three of us watched from above as Liddy’s mom ran straight out into the ocean, fully dressed in her dental-hygienist scrubs. We were all kneeling, more aware of the height than before. The sun made the water a blazing silver, dizzying to look at.
And then we saw Liddy’s head pop up out of the water. Her hair did look darker than before, more amber-brown than her true blond, but I suppose that’s because it was wet. She swam cleanly toward her mother. She paused to tread a few feet away. Her mother was up to her chest in the water, and we could tell she was still screaming, though not what she was saying. Liddy eventually, reluctantly, doggy-paddled a little closer, her feet still not touching the sand below, and her mother grabbed her by the arm. As her mother jerked her forward, Liddy’s head dunked under.
I ran for the beach. Mags’s mother went to stop me but I dodged around her, jumping and running down the rocks and crushed beach grass. When I got there, Liddy and her mother were out of the water. Liddy was on her hands and knees, her head hanging down, her sopping wet hair draped over her face. Her mother stood before her, fuming and raving, her scrubs soaked to the skin. She didn’t seem to notice what I, and my mother, and Chloe’s mother, were all staring at: the drenched, salt-ruined mass of feathers clinging to Liddy’s legs.