John Lawrence had expected the padded room to be white, but it was brown. There was a window in the soft door and a longer one high in the wall. He probed the floor with a bare foot; it was like stepping on a spongy bed. "Christ, I feel like you're gonna put me in a strait jacket."
Dr. Moskowitz chuckled as she held the hypodermic to the light. "Actually, it's a marvelous room for children. There's almost no way they can hurt themselves in here, not counting fingers and teeth, of course."
"Of course." Holding his skinny arms out as if he were walking on a tightrope, John stepped into the room, bounced around for a moment before looking back at the psychiatrist and asking, "Where should I lie down? D'you want me to park where you can see me from up there?" He indicated the long window.
"The center of the room, please," replied the woman. She stepped out of her sandals before following John in. "If you start thrashing about, you don't want a wall nearby, even if it is padded."
Great, John thought sourly, lying down. In the off-green pajamas he wore, he looked like mold growing in dirt. Looking up at the doctor, he envied her tan and the muscles that aerobics had developed. "Were the other volunteers cured?"
"Many appear to have experienced a reduction in their anxieties. But we can't guarantee anything. Luciniden is still experimental, you know."
"Yeah, I know." John remembered his interview with the woman, the array of charts (and permission forms to sign) she had trotted out. He hadn't told her that he half-hoped he would be fatally allergic to Luciniden. Wanting to die was not a good reason for volunteering to take the drug.
On the other hand, if it worked as promised, he would no longer feel suicidal. Or depressed to the point of total inaction. He figured that between the minor chance of dying and the pretty good chance of recovering, it was worth the risk of getting more screwed up than he already was. Hell, he thought, if I go crazier, maybe I'll get the guts to use that gun after all.
"It's time," said Dr. Moskowitz. She took John's right arm, gave him a quick injection, taped a cotton ball over the puncture, and slid his glasses off his nose. "The Luciniden should start to affect you in about five minutes. Stay lying down so you don't fall over when it hits. The effects can last anywhere from a half hour to four hours. When you come out of it, I'll help you interpret what you saw."
John lifted his head to watch her blurred form go, let it drop onto the soft floor when the door closed. His arm stung where the needle had entered, but the pain only sharpened his excitement. God, I can't believe this is finally happening! I just wish she hadn't been so vague about what's gonna happen. The doctor had talked about his "problems taking coherent form inside your head so you can confront them directly," but she couldn't explain exactly what the Luciniden would do--or what John was supposed to do once it kicked in. His knowledge of fantasy and SF came into play when he tried to draw more information from her. Would he confront his "sick self" and be forced into single combat with it? Would he have to defend himself against the accusations of his estranged parents and old enemies? Her answer was disappointing. "Anything's possible. Abstract patterns, lovemaking, fights with old enemies... we've had all that and more. The scenario seems to depend on the individual, and right now there's no way to predict who'll experience what. There seems to be a correlation between creativity and situation complexity, but the data are still inconclusive."
Well, God knows I'm creative, John thought, shifting position slightly. And all the stuff I've read about being in mental worlds oughtta help. Maybe I can even control what happens! He closed his eyes and concentrated on having his fears manifest in the form of an ant, and himself wearing large boots.
Maybe half an hour later, he opened his eyes. Nothing had changed; he felt no different. Shit! He sat up and announced, "Nothing's happening."
A loudspeaker crackled. "Are you sure?" boomed Dr. Moskowitz's voice. "No strange visions? No odd sounds or smells?"
"Everything's the same as before you gave me the stuff."
A babble of conversation began, ending with, "John, I'll be right down." A few minutes later the woman came in with an armload of medical equipment. "My assistants are testing the mixture we gave you. In the meantime..." She took his temperature and his blood pressure, measured a few other things. As she was finishing, a man said over the loudspeaker, "Dr. Moskowitz, the Luciniden we used and the solution in the hypo checked out okay."
The woman sighed. "Thanks, Todd."
"What's the matter?" John demanded, a sick feeling in his stomach.
She looked at him, her face unreadable to his nearsighted eyes. "A few subjects don't react at all to the drug, John. You appear to be one of them."
"What? Of all the crappy--you never told me about that!"
"Yes I did. I told you right up front that about two percent of users are not affected."
"Goddamn it! I didn't come here so nothing could happen!" John started groping among the medical devices. "Gimme another shot!"
"No." Dr. Moskowitz's hand shot out and grabbed his, forced it away from the equipment. "We gave you the maximum safe dose for your body weight. We won't take the chance of an overdose, no matter how ineffective the Luciniden is."
Resentment flared in John. Not only had he been cheated out of the only hope he had for sanity, but this woman also had to remind him what a wimp he was by being able to keep his hand immobile. But then he felt tears coming, and is anger turned inward, forcing his eyes to remain dry: nobody saw him cry. As a result, he seemed to calm down; and Dr. Moskowitz released her grip and began to talk gently about John attending regular therapy. Hardly hearing what she said, he nodded at intervals as she led him back to the examination room to reclaim his glasses and get dressed. An exit interview where he said the word "No" a lot, a list of psychologists' names clutched in his hand, and he was out on the street and walking home as if nothing had happened.
When he was out of sight of Dr. Moskowitz's office, he crumpled the list and tossed it into a dumpster. "Stupid shrinks don't know shit about what's wrong with me," he growled. He'd tried a Freudian, a behaviorist, a past-life therapist, even a primal screamer. All idiots. No way was he going to blow any more money on them. After all, he could function in the real world. Didn't his boss tell him what a good copyeditor he was? Didn't his coworkers laugh at his jokes?
It wasn't his fault his job burned him out so he couldn't write any more.
When he'd gotten the copyediting job four years ago, he'd celebrated, for now he was involved in publishing! Writing for a living! Connections! Soon he'd be churning out novels, winning the Nebula and Hugo awards for everything he did, called "the smartest man I know" by celebrities.
Bent day after day over other writers' inferior prose, constantly jumping up to check facts, arguing for ten minutes over a single comma... During work, John longed to write stories. But when he did go home for the day and sit in front of his computer, the urge to write faded, and he'd end up playing a computer game or watching TV. In bed, guilt consumed him, and he'd swear that first thing next morning, he'd get started on that story he'd had in his head for years, or his play, or his script for his comic book.
And in the morning? "Oh, I'll feel more like it tonight."
Over the years, his social life stagnated; he never cleaned his house; he became too apathetic to find a new job. When he found himself thinking about suicide, he tried psychologists, but they merely filled his head with gibberish and emptied his pockets. The last one, however, told him about the Luciniden project.
"Thanks a lot, buddy," John muttered, plodding down the sidewalk. "What am I supposed to do now?"
He came upon a newspaper box. With vague hopes of finding another Luciniden-type project, he bought a paper, began to leaf through. But about ten pages in, he yawned. He turned the page, yawned again. The type blurred before his eyes, the words turning into smudges. His head started to sag to one side. God, why'm I so tired all of a sudden? I slept okay last night...
Oh, the sidewalk looked so comfortable. Just the place to take a nap. John yawned and curled up, his head on the newspaper. As he began to drift off, Dr. Moskowitz's face rose moonlike over him and said, "That's stage one finished, Mr. Lawrence. Stage two is about to begin."
"Stage two," John mumbled. "G'night." The last thing he was conscious of was a hand loosening the buttons on his shirt; then he slept.
Light (indoor light).
Sound (the clop-clop of horses, the rumble of a heavy cart, someone walking on a wooden floor).
Smell (roses, urine, feces, rot).
John blinked. He was lying on his stomach on a bed, naked but for his underpants and a soft blanket on his back. Where am I? What hap -
John wailed as his stomach collapsed into itself. Oh, it tore, it burned! He tried to push himself up, but his arms had no strength, and he collapsed. "Help!" he cried. "Someone get me food! I'm dying! Help!" Frenzied, he tore at the pillow with his teeth, fighting to rip pieces from the fabric.
The door crashed open. Someone rushed to the side of the bed, jingling. "Oh no!" wailed a woman. "I forgot you'd be hungry! Can you--no, you can't!"
"Get me some food!" John begged, turning his head to face his rescuer. Without his glasses he saw only a colorful blur. "Please! I'm starving to death!"
"Yes, of course!" the woman cried--but she didn't run off! All she did was reach towards nothingness!
Suddenly something brown appeared in her hands. An unimaginably wonderful smell gave John the strength to sit up and snatch the platter of food from her. He crammed lumps in his mouth, barely chewed, and swallowed, almost choking; but that pain was nothing compared to the bliss of feeling every scrap tumble into the black hole of his stomach. From somewhere a jug appeared; he gulped from it greedily, water spilling past the corners of his mouth and running down his bare chest. And for a while his world was only bread and beef and water, the grease on his fingers and the crumbs on the bed, the strength of his teeth.
Only when he put the last bit of bread into his mouth did he notice how sore his jaws were. Swallowing quickly, he hefted the platter. "How much did I eat?"
"A lot," said the woman. "I apologize for not having food ready for you. I should have remembered you'd be hungry. Are you full... what's your name?"
"John. John Lawrence. Yeah." He grinned and rubbed his belly. "Thank you, whoever you are! You saved my life!" He hugged her--she was surprised by this move and didn't hug back--then abruptly released her.
Why had he been so hungry?
Why was he supposed to be hungry when he woke up?
And how had the woman gotten the food?
Now he remembered reading, the sudden fatigue, sinking to the ground--Dr. Moskowitz's face and voice. "What happened?" he demanded. "Who are you? Where did you take me? Is Dr. Moskowitz around here?"
The woman ran her hands through her long black hair. "I'm Linda, the Gatekeeper. And no, Dr. `It's a Moss-Cow' isn't here." Her tone became bitter. "Don't I just wish the bitch was! She'd learn what she can and can't do to us!"
"She--she would?" The words didn't roll easily off John's tongue because he had begun to shake. There was something terribly wrong that refused to enter his conscious mind,
something soft on his back, the blanket had stuck to it while
hanging from his back, two things
tugging at his back
soft under his thighs, tickling his calves
he was sitting on them
they were part of him.
No. He was mistaken. Delirious. With an uneven laugh he reached back with a trembling hand, touched -
"Aaaaaah!" He rocketed out of bed, sending the platter flying, and stumbled across the room, trying to run away from the two things that hung from his shoulder blades. "What happened to me?" He whirled around and grabbed Linda by the front of her dress. "Where's my goddamn glasses? Where the hell's a fucking mirror? I've gotta know what happened to me!"
"Let me go! I'll get them!" the woman squeaked, struggling against his grip.
John released her and hopped away, whining as something soft bounced against his legs and back. His heart pounded like a pile driver. An eternity later, Linda pressed the glasses in his hand. As he crammed them on, fumbling to get them straight, she waved her arms. A sparkling mist appeared in front of John and coalesced into a reflective surface. Suddenly he was looking at himself
He stared for a few seconds, said "Oh," and fainted.
He awoke on the floor in Linda's shadow as she bent over him, worried. "Go away!" he cried, shoving her in the chest. With a cry, she staggered back and fell on the bed. He scrambled up and dashed to the mirror again.
The things on his back were white fringed with blue. Even folded they brushed the back of his calves and protruded over his shoulders. Dazedly he turned to the left, to the right, and the things were always there, huge light feathered screens pushing against the air with every move he made. Crazy no this can't be no no I'm going it's not possible it's a dream--
Then, through the tangle in his mind, a sanity-saving idea poked straight up. "The Luciniden," he breathed. "It kicked in after all!"
"Oh, no," Linda said as she got up painfully from the bed. "This is no hallucination, John. This is real. Don't believe me? Check the details."
John stared at her, half-amused, half-afraid... and suddenly he was aware of a strand of hair lying the wrong way on his head, an itch, grease under his fingernails, the feel of his bare feet on the cold, smooth wooden floor... a million tiny details all screaming the impossible at him: This is real. She's real. These wings are real. Trembling again, he reached back to touch the right wing, his right wing, pushed a finger between his feathers, his stiff quills protested like hair rubbed the wrong way, he touched skin, his skin...
"Oh, Jesus." John sank to his knees on the floor, holding his head. "What happened? What's going on?"
Linda didn't answer, just touched her body where John had struck her. From her palm a blue light shone, and she bathed herself in it for a few seconds. Her face blossomed with relief. Then she straightened up. "You, poor soul, are the victim of a very weird plot of the CIA. Essentially, you've been drafted to fight for Uncle Sam on another world."
"Why?" John mumbled.
"Well, they want to control this place. And they found it easier to shanghai folks like you and me--people without family, with mental problems that might make us disappear--to do their dirty work instead of their own valuable people."
"But--why did they do this to me? How did they do it?"
Linda's smile was not at all happy. "Because you weren't worth anything as plain John Lawrence. That's what Luciniden really does--it knocks you out and mutates you into something useful while they put you in the transporter and send you over." She raised her arms. The blue light appeared in her palms, spread over her like an aura, outlining her ample chest and slender waist. With her dangling earrings, gold bracelets, and long multicolored dress, she looked like a gypsy. "Me, they turned into a witch. A pretty one, to boot. You wouldn't believe what I used to look like. Give you a hint--my problem was obesity." The blue light winked out. Linda walked over to John and put a hand on his shoulder. "That's the one good thing about this deal. I bet you were never this muscular on Earth."
"Didn't you notice?"
John forced himself to glance in the magic mirror, to look past the wings. The stranger that stared back was lumpy. Not Schwarzenegger, exactly; more like an extremely fit ballet dancer, with hard ropy muscles lining his arms and legs and a chest that a weightlifter would have envied.
"Of course, it's not really that great," the woman said. "I'd regain every pound in a second just to get back to Earth. It's pretty awful here. Well, the meadows beyond the city are nice, but not to live on another planet for."
John couldn't stop staring at himself. "Where are we?"
"The planet is Arla, the country is Tevra, and the city we're in is Scadda. We exiles call it Scabby. It's basically medieval London. The streets are covered with garbage, everyone's sick, and nobody knows anything. Except the wizards, but that's who we're fighting, so they're no good.
"By the way," Linda added, "don't let the common people see your wings. Magic is about as warmly embraced by them as people with AIDS are on Earth. Worse, actually--I've seen a couple of exiles torn to pieces."
"Uh-huh," murmured John, not really listening to her. He made a fist and gaped as the muscle bulged. Then the penny dropped, and he froze. "They will?"
"Yup. I'll have to make you a magic cloak to hide those wings. That's one of my jobs. I get new exiles acclimated and cleaned up, so to speak."
Abruptly unable to look in the mirror, John lowered his head, gazed at a spot on the floor.
Linda somewhat awkwardly stroked John's head, then moved to the room's door. "I'd better get to work on your cloak. I guess I don't need to tell you not to go outside. You can stay in here or look around the house. I'll be in the room with the blue door--please don't disturb me. There's more food and water in the kitchen if you need them. Oh, there's a chamber pot under the bed. God, I miss toilets."
Their eyes met for a moment, hers pitying, his haunted. She smiled sadly at him, then left the room. As the door closed, the mirror dissolved into silver sparks. Some struck John, who hardly noticed the tingle they produced as he slowly stood up. He shuddered as the weight of the wings bore down on his back. I've gone crazy the Luciniden must have driven me nuts you can have details when you're crazy
"Dr. Moskowitz, the Luciniden's made me think I've gone to another planet and grown wings," he said loudly, addressing the wall where he hoped the observation window was. "I'm seeing the padded room as a bedroom. There's a bed with white sheets, that's where I woke up. There's also a chest of drawers and a couple of wood chairs. The floor's wood too. And there's a window with blue curtains--lemme see what I see through it."
He lifted a corner of the curtains--was he really looking through the window in the door to the padded room?--and peeked out. Please God let me see the corridor. "Fuck!" The sight that greeted him was overwhelmingly brown and wrong--shabby buildings, scrawny horses, throngs of short peasants, streets that were more mud and feces than stone. The glass didn't fit well in the window, and the stench that seeped through the cracks made him gag. It was sunset, and two moons, one large and round, the other small and irregular, were visible in the sky, giving everything faint double shadows.
Christ this is real this is real this is real
No it is NOT!
"Is that what's supposed to happen?" he demanded, voice getting louder. "I'm gonna realize how minor my problems are compared to this? Well, it's a real shitty way of doing it! I mean, I already knew I didn't have the worst problems in the world! That never made me feel happy about having them!"
He fell silent, hoping Dr. Moskowitz's answer would rumble through the air like God's, proving that this world was purely mental. But the room stayed quiet.
The forbidden thought whispered: What if it really is real?
No way! he screamed at himself. Stuff like this isn't possible! They can't even clone people yet, and they sure can't grow wings and muscles on them!
And because if it is real, I've been turned into a freak.
The realization shook him deeply.
"A freak! Stuck on some goddamn grimy fantasy world ten jillion miles from Earth, and I can't ever go back! Even if they let us go home after we win this fucking war, I can't go like this! Je-Je-Jesus, they'll dissect me, they'll p-p-put me in a b-b-bottle, they'll - "
He choked on the words.
The door opened. Linda, looking exhausted, poked her head in. "I'm sorry I didn't--oh, dear," she said, seeing his expression. "This is really hitting you hard."
"Hitting--me hard?" John's misery went on the back burner as tremendous anger flared in him. "Oh, no, I'm perfectly normal, this is so fucking wonderful, how could I not adjust just like that?" He snapped his fingers. "I just loved waking up trapped on another planet! I'm so happy to be a mutant for Uncle Sam!"
"I didn't mean - " the woman began contritely, but John interrupted her:
"You know what the best part of this is? I just figured out. I can't win! If it's real, I can't go back home, and if I've gone crazy, I might as well not be on Earth!" He tried a humorless grin, but it dissolved into agony. "I'm screwed either way! Why did I ever take that damn drug?"
Linda eased into the room carrying a long black cloak. "It's not all bad, John. We've become healthy and beautiful, we get to experience real magic--I remember one woman, a fantasy fan, she was so excited to be here - "
"Then she's a moron!" John barked. "I'm a fantasy fan too, but I didn't want to be a fantasy character! I wanted a normal life, not a supernormal one! I want to be human, not some kind of--" He couldn't continue without bursting into tears.
"Well," began the woman, but she shook her head as if to dislodge her next words. "Why don't you try the cloak on," she said, holding it out. A flick of her finger, and the mirror reappeared. "Hurry and look. I can't maintain it for long."
Grabbing the garment from her, John threw it over his new limbs, watched the mirror as they melted while the cloak apparently settled on his shoulders. He took off the cloak, and presto! His wings sprang into existence.
"Good, it works," Linda said in relief. "I'll bring you some clothes if you feel like going out later. Oh, lord, I've got to get rid of this before I pass out." She waved her hand at the mirror, which dissolved -
Oh God! John realized. That's what's happened to my life!
Suddenly the experiences of the day rose up in a huge wave of terror and pain, washed over John, knocked him to the floor. He curled into a fetal position, hands gripping the cloak, wings jutting out like white knives in his back. My body's gone it's gone it's gone make it come back please God let me be me again I want to be human somebody stop this I want to die...
After that he didn't think much at all.
Like a broken toy, John lay on Linda's bed, arms and legs splayed limply over the sides. A flickering lantern sat on a table in the corner. His shallow, labored breathing was the only sound he made. Though he gazed at the cracked wall behind the bed, he had long ceased to see it.
Then came a stirring, an unfamiliar twinge in his brain that he did not want. He whined and thrashed feebly, trying to shake the feeling out. It would not leave, it grew in intensity, and he jerked harder, rocked from side to side, even flipped on his back in desperation. "No... I can't... I can't," he moaned, tearing at his hair. As if exploding from the pressure, he flung himself into a sitting position--
and he was stifling! The walls were closing in on all sides, pushing the air away, squeezing his life out! He was being crushed, smashed!
Outside, he must get outside!
Such a shock of longing tore through him that all his other pains melted away. For a moment he stared wide-eyed at the lantern as if it had generated this desire. Then he leaped up, pulled on the pants and shoes Linda had left him, pressed his glasses on his face, and threw the magic cloak over the things on his back, barely noticing them for the first time in their short existence. Two long steps and he was out of the bedroom; six more took him to the front door. He wrenched it open and plunged into Linda's yard, shadow twinning in the double moonlight.
The warm, stinking night air caressed him, hinted of riches just out of reach. He took several deep breaths and smiled. Everything was right for a moment. But then his smile faded. He needed something more...what? He had no words for it, just the certainty that he wouldn't find it in the house or the city. What glowed in his mind, like an emerald among ashes, were the meadows beyond the city. John shuddered with desire as he imagined fresh cool air, rustling green grass, limitless space.... Linda's gate was locked, but John climbed the fence easily and dropped into the city.
Under the light of the two moons he made good progress, walking swiftly past dark shops and covered stalls. A brisk wind played with his cloak, made it billow out around his legs. He clutched the edges with one hand and fingered the clasp with the other to make sure it held. It wouldn't do to have the cloak blow off...
Soon the moonlight diminished, partially swallowed by the buildings, and John was forced to slow down as he picked his way between piles of garbage. His footsteps slapped on the cobblestones, echoed off the buildings as if they were inches away from him. His heart began to race; he was enclosed again! Tunneling through town like a worm, the weight of the earth pressing on him from all sides--except up. He looked at the infinite, starry sky and was strengthened, and boosted his pace as much as he dared. The meadow... oh, the meadow...
Ahead, several tattered men stood in a little knot next to a house, one drinking from a skin. Their mutters died as John approached, and as he passed he could feel their stares bore into his--
into his back.
Oh, they knew. They knew! Everyone could see the things on his back as clearly as if he'd been naked. Whispering, pointing at the freak, perhaps pulling out a knife to throw... John shivered and hugged the cloak so close to his body, he could barely take a full step. Now the pull of the meadow was countered by a push to go back and disappear into Linda's bedroom forever. His pace slowed to a crawl as the tug-of-war raged in him. He whimpered, unable to bear the thought of returning to that trash compactor of a room--a staggering step, another person looking at him, and the room, empty of eyes, became paradise. But it wasn't!
Still, however slowly, he went forward; the meadow-pull was strongest, and tormented or not, he was closing on his goal...
"GIVE IT BACK!" a man roared from nowhere and everywhere. John jerked sideways, lost his balance, and stumbled forward, windmilling his arms--his cloak billowed out behind him, his wings could be seen! He screamed, grabbed handfuls of cloak, and fled down the street, splashing through garbage. His head swam with pictures of a mob coming after him, torch-wielding, pitchfork-waving. "Kill the monster! Kill it!" they shouted as they broke down doors and tipped over carts, finally pulling his cowering body from some inadequate hiding place. And they bore him to a pyre, tied him to a stake, and touched a match to kindling...
But none of this would happen in the meadow.
He skidded to a halt, astonished by the thought.
Then he was running again, mind finally closed to all but his goal as he hurtled past everything Scaddian.
Soon he escaped the city, was amid farms rich in space, but they were not what he needed; they were ordered, bounded, enslaved. John continued running until Scadda was as far behind him as Earth, until there was nothing but grass to the left, grass to the right, grass ahead and behind. Then he stopped.
"Yeah..." he exhaled, grin spreading, fatigue vanishing. Space! Blessed, huge freedom! He spread his arms to embrace the dark horizon and twirled around, laughing. Then he began to lope, enjoying the feel of wind on his face. His stamina was boundless, his body throbbed with energy; I could run forever! He couldn't contain his excitement any longer, he leaped into the air--
The moment his feet left the ground he knew.
He wanted to fly.
John barely kept his balance as he landed. He giggled nervously; he'd never even thought about what wings did. They were grotesque appendages, hideous with the power to feel and be felt--things. He couldn't associate anything even vaguely pleasant with them. Him, flying? What an impossibility!
But he craved the sky.
Shedding his cloak and kicking his shoes onto it to weigh it down, he slowly spread his wings. His skin crawled; O unfamiliar muscles! The feel of the wind pushing at the wings sparked excitement in him; and when he moved them back and forth, the spark burst into intense pleasure. Trembling with the force of it, he flapped harder, stretched on his toes; but he knew instinctively this would not make him fly. He broke into a run, clumsily flapping. His pleasure increased, but his altitude did not, and too rapidly the pleasure became insufficient, like a drug whose dosage had to be constantly increased. Desperately he jumped, flapping like mad, but the air would not accept him and he fell to the ground. Springing up, he ran harder, leaped, dropped rejected, began even more fiercely anew. Again and again he battled the sky, clawing at it, screaming so that foam bubbled from his mouth; but he could not defeat it.
Then he paused, panting. Eyes ablaze with determination, he wiped his mouth along the back of his arm, gathered his strength,
shot off across the landscape,
flung himself into the air, parallel to the ground,
For one indescribable moment he hung above the planet, suspended on two fragile wings--
and in the excitement he forgot to flap.
With a gigantic thud, both physical and mental, he plowed into the grass.
For a long time he lay where he was, numb with spirit-pain. He could not fly. Though he had been airborne, he couldn't sustain it. His maximum effort had failed, and he knew with sickening clarity that he could push himself no farther, would never attain more. He could not fly. He pretended to be an eagle, but he was no more than a kiwi grubbing for worms. They were things, not wings!
He could not fly.
Slowly sitting up, John stared at the sky which had so cruelly denied him access, and he began to cry. Hot, bitter tears glittered in the double moonlight as they rolled off his face. "Fuck!" he screamed at the stars. Fuck it all! Goddamn son of a bitch! I hate it! I hate it ! I want to die! Take me home! Oh, God..."
He tossed away his glasses, put his face in his hands, and sobbed.
It was a while before he lifted his wet face into the breeze. The wind mocked him as it ruffled his hair and feathers painfully. The urge to fly raked at his innards, and the knowledge that he never could raked at his mind.
As he groped for and donned his glasses, an anomaly on the horizon caught his eye: a ragged dark line, barely visible. Through his turmoil he sensed something important about that line, so he struggled to his feet and trudged over, conscious that his wings bounced at every step.
Soon he was staring into a canyon whose far edge was perhaps a mile away and whose beginning and end were not visible from John's vantage point. Though there wasn't enough light to make an accurate guess, the thing seemed well over a quarter of a mile deep.
Fascinated in spite of himself, John knelt at the edge. He expected to see rock formations poking up from the bottom, but this canyon was empty. Its sides were smooth, and some spots glittered as if they'd been polished.
She didn't say anything about the Grand Canyon being nearby, he thought. I wonder if the bad guys are on the other side. Maybe they made it. Funny how calm he was now. Especially considering the idea that popped into his head. If I jumped off the side, I bet I could fly. Lots of room to fall. Nothing to hit on the way down, either, but I'll need a running start to clear the edge.
John blinked. "What the fuck am I doing?" he shrilled, scrambling away from the edge. "I'm going completely in- "
If I fly, great; if not, well, death's better than all this pain. He began to back up, preparing to leap. The ground was grassy and even, no hidden things to
"Help! I can't stop myself! Help!" John screamed, grabbing at the air
step on, no depressions to stumble over. When he judged his distance sufficient, he stopped, pocketed his glasses (didn't want them falling off in midair), took a deep breath, readied his wings,
and ran as hard as he could, bare feet pounding on the turf, calm, confident, assured
five four threetwoone
"OhmygodNO!" John shrieked as he plunged into the horrible blackness of the canyon, flailed his arms uselessly, and dropped like a stone.
Tumbling down end over end wind resistance on wings hurts oh God oh Jesus I'm dead I'm dead I'm going to be bigger than Asimov FIFTH PLACE in a national high school writing contest once I get my freelance career going get a real degree English is worthless I hate literature all I want to do is write once I get my freelance career in gear I hate copyediting all these people who can't write getting published and I just languish here I'll get my freelance career started so I can quit I'll write tomorrow I'll write after I win a hand of solitaire I've never published anything and now I'm going to die...
Okay, John, stop watching your life and do something before you go boom.
Calmly, professionally, John twisted around in the air until he was falling headfirst. He pointed his toes, pulled his arms to his sides, and hooked his thumbs in the corners of his pockets. A creature of four limbs again, he readied himself, readied, readied....
Wings flung out, angled, whoooooosh! He pulled out of the dive, soared on stiff wings towards the other side of the canyon. He smiled despite the wind flattening his face, perhaps because of it. A different instinct took over then, and he flapped his wings, uncertainly at first because the muscles were new and the pressure against his wings was tremendous, then with more strength and confidence, until the strokes were smooth and regular, propelling him forward at an even pace. He smiled again for a job well done--
"Jesus Christ, I'm flying!"
The shock of realization made John break stride and nearly stall, but he was now so aware of his wing muscles and how they worked that he caught himself before he lost altitude, pumped harder, steadied. Flying, he was flying, flying! Incredible, fantastic, magnificent! Ecstasy surged through him as he knifed through the air, borne on wide white wings; he was a jet, an eagle, a god!
The cavern wall loomed. Effortlessly, in full command of his new limbs, he angled up, flew out of the canyon. Bird plane superman! The ground dropped away, dwindled, and he was the only one in the universe; oh, the space, the freedom! "Eeeyow!" he sang, zooming to his right. He flapped harder, then drew his wings in and dropped, pulling out and soaring back up at the last possible second, his toes skimming the top of the grass. "Yee-hah!" He rose, he dove, he danced across the wind, screaming his joy; and yet there was tranquillity in his face, for there was no pain in him any longer.
"Thank you, Dr. Moskowitz!" he cried, rocketing straight up. "Thank you for doing this to me! I can fly! I can fly!"
Dawn was glimmering in the sky when John finally landed, backwinging furiously to drop heavily on the grass. Much of the adrenaline that had powered him had drained away, leaving him serene and peaceful. I'm whole, he thought. The canyon was some distance behind him, and he didn't know where in the meadow he was, or where his cloak was, or even if he was on the correct side to return to the city. But he didn't care. If I'm on the wrong side, well, I'll just jump in and fly over. As for his new mission in life... I'm theirs forever, he vowed. Just as long as I fly a lot. It was all worth it. I'd go through it all over again. And I don't care if I ever go back to Earth, either. Hell, I don't want to go back.
Linda will be glad I've come out of it. She was really nice to me. I'll have to apologize for screaming at her. I hope she doesn't think I left her house to kill myself or something. I better hurry back to let her know I'm okay.
But first, John thought, sinking to the ground and folding himself up in his wings, I think I'll take a quick nap.
Immediately he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep...
... from which he awoke into brown.
"Huh?" he mumbled, rubbing his eyes. "Where'm I? What's - shit!" He jolted awake as he became aware of the padded floor that he lay on, his green pajamas. He sat bolt upright and frantically felt his back--smooth! His arms? He couldn't see them well, so he ran his hands along them. His face crumpled.
"John?" The voice was tinny over the loudspeaker, and most unwelcome. "Can you hear me? Has the Luciniden worn off?"
"Dr. Moskowitz?" John's voice rang with disbelief.
"Good, you are out of it. That's fine. John, you were under for just over three and a half hours. Not a record, but longer than the average. How do you - "
"Dammit!" John screamed over the psychiatrist's words, pounding his fists on the soft floor. "I don't want to be here! Why did you have to bring me back? Do you know what you took away from me?" He burst into tears, not caring who saw him cry any more. "Send me back, fuck you, send me back!"
"... so I suspect you created this unusually realistic fantasy because you unconsciously knew you needed to forget it was a fantasy," Dr. Moskowitz said, sitting over John while he lay on a couch, his eyes bloodshot, his nose runny, his hand resting on a box of tissues. "I doubt your experiences would have affected you so profoundly if you knew they were imaginary."
"Yeah, I guess," John muttered, sniffing. Telling her about his "dream" was one of the hardest things he'd ever done, and it annoyed him that her attitude toward it was so coldly clinical. "Did any of it mean anything?"
"Oh, yes! Over the next six months we'll analyze all the dream's details, but my immediate assumption about the wings and your physical condition is that they were an outward manifestation of your writing talent, expressed in such a way that you wanted to use it but were simultaneously repelled and frustrated by it."
"Why were you repelled, do you think?"
"I dunno." This was stupid, this was pointless, why was she babbling at him? The Luciniden hadn't cured him--if anything, it had left him more depressed than ever, knowing he could never fly again. He slid his hand under his back and felt around, trying to remember where the wings had been attached.
"Can I take a guess?" the woman asked.
"I think you don't really want to write."
John was startled out of his gloom. He sat up on the couch. "I do so! I mean, I've wanted to be a real writer for years! I'm loaded with ideas--" He blew his nose. "Look, it's not like deep down I know I'm bad so I'm subconsciously scared of finishing anything and finding out how bad I really am. I am good. I won a contest in high school, my professor at school told me I was the best writer in the whole graduate class--" He spoke faster and faster, trying to outrun the boulder of truth that was rolling down the hill behind him. "I'm not afraid of success, I show my stuff to people all the time, the guys at work keep asking me to finish things so they can find out what I'm gonna do to the characters..." His voice trailed off as the boulder nipped the tip of his shadow.
"Why don't you finish anything?" Dr. Moskowitz prompted gently.
Because I get bored with the stories, John thought, but he couldn't bring himself to say it, because it brought the boulder within arm's length.
Wait--a fork in the road. Mentally he dove down it. "How come, if I don't really want to write and the wings were my talent, I flew? Doesn't that mean I do want to write?"
A tiny smile creased the doctor's face. "That's certainly something to consider." An alarm started to beep, and she stood up. "Well, Mr. Lawrence, our time's up for today. Next week we'll go into more detail about the wings and the significance of Linda. But do think about what we've discussed."
Distracted, confused, a little frightened, John barely stayed long enough to set his next appointment, then hurried out of the office building. He felt a powerful sense of deja vu as he approached the dumpster where he had, in his dream, thrown the list of psychologists; he peeked in to see if the ball of paper were there. It wasn't, and he didn't know whether to be glad or disappointed; he had too much else to think about.
Do I really hate to write?
I hate writing when I'm forced to write, he admitted.
But no one's forcing me to write!
I'm forcing me to write. Always saying, "If only, if only," pinning all my hopes on writing a story to get me out of my job. That sounds like forcing to me.
But then why did I fly?
God! Remembering how it felt, he ran forward, spread his arms, and leaped into the air, hoping the wind would catch his jacket and send him soaring. But all he did was land awkwardly on the sidewalk.
Suddenly, the dream started to make sense. The city probably symbolized his bleak job and life; winning through to the meadow meant he wanted a clean slate, a new beginning. The canyon had to be a literal interpretation of his depression, and by immediately leaping off the side, he proved his willingness to get well, whatever the cost.
But what did he gain by flying? John struggled to come up with a parallel reward. Happiness? Not really, not if he couldn't fly again. A memory that no one else had? A scene for a story? Big deal. A greater insight into his problems? Maybe, but they weren't solved.
Deep in thought, John arrived at his house. He went in, removed his jacket, and was about to toss it on a chair when he noticed, as if for the first time, the clothes all over the floor, dirty dishes in the sink and on the counter, junk mail piled on his computer. How could I live like this? he thought, hanging his jacket in the closet. Tomorrow morning I'll get the dishes. Nah, I better do them now.
After he finished, he fired up his computer, more out of habit than anything else. He stared at the main directory, but none of the games interested him. (How could they, when he'd lived the damn things?) What he really wanted to do, he found, was write down the dream before it faded. So he summoned up his word processor, watched as the program's green screen--meadow green--came up.
An hour later, he had five pages of plot about how the CIA found Arla in the first place and how the wizards of that planet were reacting to the sudden influx of outworlders with magic powers. Startled, and quite pleased, by his productivity, John paged through the material--and knew he would eventually finish this story. He grinned, almost shyly, then resumed writing.
His hands flew over the keyboard.
See the "About the Editor" page. This is by no means my first non-Beatle story, but it's one of the few I have that I've actually finished.... This story was an attempt to turn chapter 9 of With Strings Attached into a regular (non-fanfic) fantasy short story.