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From torched Skyscrapers, men grew wings. ~Gregory Maguire
The city lies quiet, peaceful and lonely. Standing upon the rubble, a child glances up, eyeing you dispassionately. He is small, not more then six or seven, but his eyes speak of ages past. His hair may once have been blond, but now it is little more then a tangled mess of mud and leaves. His clothes are in bad need of mending, and the blanket that he has strewn over his shoulder is threadbare already, no aid against the chill of evening that fast approaches.
“Hello, mister.” He calls, his voice almost lost to the cool wind that blows through the shattered windows and wrecked structures. He shifts to his side, and absentmindedly begins to fiddle with a grey speckled feather- it has just fallen off of the giant wing that is folded upon his back. The other is still obscured under his makeshift cloak, but now that one has been seen, it is easy to tell he has a pair. The wing unfolds and stretches to its’ full length, at least double the size of his tiny frame. Impossible, maybe, but there stands an angel, looking up at you with the eyes of an old man.
“You’re probably wondering where all the people went…” His voice is like ashes sifting down onto a cold fireplace. “The country used to be strewn with them. Men, women, little kids. All of them were busy as beavers, caught up in their own private realities. But then we came.”
You may be thinking of backing away, or perhaps turning around and running, but his little eyes are looking into your soul- are you afraid of what they might see?
“My name is Lariel. I’m eight and a half next Tuesday. It’s silly, isn’t it? Counting down on the last of the calendars? I dunno what will happen when mine runs out of dates. Maybe there won’t be any more Thursdays, or Fridays or Sundays. I wonder if that would be such a bad thing…”
“I bet you’re wondering why I’m sitting here, instead of playing with my sisters and brothers. Well, it’s because they have all left. They’re off scavenging among the ruins. I mean, a kid’s gotta eat, doesn’t he? But no, I’m not hungry right now.”
Lariel’s stomach growls at that moment, obviously empty, but he pays it no heed. Instead, he takes your hand. Such warm little fingers fit perfectly into your adult sized palm. With strength unexpected from one so small he pulls you over to a particular pile of rubble that is a little less dusty, a little less random then the rest. He has made a bench here. Lariel removes his blanket from his back and spreads it across the makeshift bench, then sits down, obviously expecting you to join him. When you finally do force your muscles to sit, he cuddles up onto your arm like a lost puppy. Though dirty, he does not smell unpleasant. A hint of peppermint candy is evident on his breath, and Lariel offers you a mint before continuing his story.
“All those people died because of the virus. Our friends the scientists were trying to make more people like me and my brothers and sisters! Those people were rolling on the ground and crying from the pain, but none of their friends or doctors could find out how to fix it! They tried and tried, though.” Lariel’s childish laughter fills the air for a moment before he continues, while talking he has begun to fiddle with your hands, playing with each joint and scratching at your nails. He ruffles his wings, shifting to a more comfortable position, then continues to explore your hands. He is becoming almost uncomfortably warm against your side, but it would be rude to pull away from a cold, lonely child, wouldn’t it?
“Anyway, eventually so many people were dead that there were no graves left! Even if there had been, I don’t think there were any people left to cover up the bodies, and all the priests and rabbis that would have said prayers were dead themselves.”
“What are you?” Is probably the most pressing question you wish to ask, but Lariel seems to know it before you even have to part your lips.
“I don’t think I really care very much. Now there is so much more room for me and my sisters and brothers to play! Before, we were all cooped up in these little cages, with nothing to do! Now that the scientists can’t keep us locked up, we can do whatever we want!” He giggles, and cuddles deeper into your side. A large beetle crawls from a piece of rebar onto the concrete bench, and Lariel takes one hand from your wrist to pick it up and pop it in his mouth, chewing noisily on his crunchy tidbit.
Is it only now that you come to notice the vague feeling of unease you’ve had in your stomach? Though human noises have been gone from the city for many months, why aren’t there any birds? Where are the squirrels and rabbits and wildlife that should be trickling back to reclaim their territories?
Before you can frame a question, the child begins chattering again in a singsong manner. “Us angels are the only ones left, mister! Every now and then, people like you come and join us for a little while! But mister, I see that you’re scared. Don’t be! We’ll take good care of you! I’m really happy that you’ve come to play with us. Do you like to play hide and seek?”
The sound of crunching gravel comes from behind where the two of you sit. Perhaps you already know what is there, and perhaps it would be better to pretend that you and Lariel are the only ones around, but you know better. Glancing over your shoulder, you can see the children. A dozen or more, all dressed similarly to the one sitting at your side. They grin, baring teeth like razors.
“Lariel! You know that you shouldn’t grow attached to your food before you eat it!” Shouts a beautiful teenage girl standing about fifteen feet away. It’s time for you to stand up, but it seems as though you’re moving underwater, arms and legs barely able to function.
Lariel rises next to you, small and lithe. He pouts, his game apparently ruined. “Oh, Dorian! Don’t be so fussy! I was just about to explain the rules of the game to him!”
The one who spoke, Dorian, laughs, tossing back her head and ruffling her wings, just as a woman might clap her hands in delight.
“Lariel, dear, the only rule is to run as long as you can. So… Mister, are you ready to play hide and seek? We will give you a three minute head start. When you’re found, you will be eaten. Any questions?”
Your feet feel like lead and you’re light headed, but Lariel shakes your arm, bringing you back to the present. “Good luck mister! I hope you’re more fun then our last playmate!” He giggles, hugging you around the waist, the steps back, joining his family.
“Ready? Set, Go!” Dorian drops her arm, and now it’s your turn to take off. Run. Run now!