Monday, January 14, 2019

Wingwork by Chris Panatier

An ageing fairy struggles to do her rounds; by Chris Panatier.

Carol was getting old. Real old. And her bones weren't feeling all the travel anymore. Flying first-class was okay, she guessed, if you'd never experienced the thrill and freedom of the open air as she had for so many decades - was it decades already? Airline seats cramped her fragile wings no matter the cabin.

Oh, how she wished she could hide them away. Her wings, the tools of her trade, had once been a source of pride, lustrous as pearls and whip flexible. Now they crinkled against her back, shrunken and desiccated. The older she got, the harder it was to find anything that might give them the jolt they needed to kick into gear. She'd chugged coffee, triple espressos, Kool-Aid, soft drinks, and even guzzled honey straight from the bear's head, but all failed to rejuvenate them.

Thankfully, her fellow passengers were mercifully aloof, never visibly acknowledging the obvious. Being a fairy that could no longer fly was humiliating enough. And if Jack hadn't racked up so many frequent flyer miles before his heart got him, she'd be out of the job for sure.

The flight attendant brought Carol's usual, a ginger ale with a squeeze of lime and eleven packets of sugar. She stirred it to syrup as memories of the old days rekindled. At the top of her game and with able wings, she'd been unstoppable, covering ground like the dawn itself. Airplanes, by contrast, were tedious, painfully slow. And that's before you tacked on all the time lost to security lines, misplaced baggage, and weather delays. There was a time she could do thousands, even hundreds of thousands of pickups in a single night. She'd been a marvel. Like a magical hummingbird.

Now she was lucky if she cleared five or six homes before morning. The only way to get the job done nowadays was to farm the balance of the work to the younger generation, the millennials. To her knowledge, she'd been the first of her line to turn to subcontracting rather than outright retirement. Subcontracting! Who would have thought? It was admittedly difficult, with hours upon hours spent on scheduling, coordination, and payroll. Some might say it was barely worth the effort, but what else was there? Canasta with the biddies? Daytime television? Not for Carol. Travel hassles and weather delays were always preferable to Bluebonnet Meadows, a soft prison of pill cups and spittle-soaked Sudoku.

The plane met ice and snow as it touched down at Cleveland Hopkins. As they taxied to the gate, passengers popped their collars and donned jackets while mouthing vague rebuttals to global warming. The cold never much bothered Carol. Her metabolism, at least when flying manual, was extraordinary. Like a wood stove in her core it kept her toasty through the coldest nights, even when garbed in the official uniform, a snug one-piece cut skimpy for speed.

The baggage carousel rumbled to life. Carol withdrew a notepad and ran over her checklist. The younger fae scoffed at her ancient ways, but she'd never needed to return home for a forgotten item, now had she? She slid the stump of a pencil from the spiral, flipped the pages, and touched the lead to her tongue.

One large canvas duffle holding ten empty duffles. Check. One personal trunk containing three cartons of orange drink and uniform. Check. One variety pack of Pixy-Stix? Check. Change purse with lanyard? Check.

On the next page were the names she'd chosen to handle on her own, the rest having been assigned out to the rookies. Andrew Clausen, Sofia Melange, Bradley Wu, Emily Boatwright, Shawna Johnson, and if she had time, Martin Thackery. Geographically, they were clustered so she'd be able to do it all in a single cab ride, assuming everything went smoothly.

Outside Passenger Arrivals, frosty air infused with jet fuel cleansed her sinuses of the terminal's odor. They all had it - a rank, vaguely ureic scent, sharp with mildew and glazed in a layer of industrial cleanser that sat atop rather than cutting through. She wouldn't miss that in retirement.

A tightly bundled cabbie helped her get the duffle and clothes trunk into the back seat. Carol climbed in after.

He buckled in and his eyes went to the rearview. "Where to, miss?" A Russian accent. What was it about the Rust Belt that brought such high numbers of Russians into taxi service? Not that she was prejudiced.

"I see you're getting some cold weather here," she said.

"Um, yes, miss." Cabs piled up behind. One honked. "Miss? Where do you like to go?"

"Yes, of course..." She flipped through the notepad, held it to the overhead light. "Okay, here we are. Ambler Heights, yes. We can start on Elandon Drive."

"You got it." He eased onto the accelerator. "You have friends at Ambler? Some rich folks over there."

"Oh, we have work all over the place, mister..." she glanced to the cabbie license suspended from the mirror, "Kud-nessof."

"Kuznetsov," he said. "It's okay, it's a tough one. Call me Gavrie."

"Gavrie?"

"Yes, ma'am?"

"I am going to put on my uniform, Gavrie. Is it okay if I change in your back seat?"

"Um, sure. I won't look."

"I knew you were a gentleman."

Gavrie pressed his eyes forward.

Carol opened the trunk and withdrew a tidy bundle of clothing. She dropped her slacks, exposing thin legs prickled by the cold, and rolled up a pair of light pink tights. Off came her sweater and collared button-up. Over the tights went a mint leotard with slats through which she threaded her wings. Finally, she removed a pair of violet hair bands from around a wad of tulle. The fabric puffed into a gold-fringed blue tutu, which she slipped over the leotard. Her white tennis shoes went back on and she slapped down the velcro straps.

"I'm dressed. You can look now."

Gavrie did. Then right back out the windshield.

Carol gathered her white hair into bunches and tied two pigtails with the bands. Around her neck she hung a change purse from a yellow-green braid of yarn. She folded her clothes into crisp rectangles and placed them into the trunk.

"Gavrie?" she asked, pressing down the latches. "Will we be going near Lakewood Park?"

"Not really."

"Well." She paused, looked out the window. "We'll need to detour that way. Can you take me to Lakewood, the Edgewater Pier first?"

He tapped the meter. "That will add some serious expense to the fare."

Carol caressed the change purse. "That's just fine. I have plenty."

They rode on through Westpark, scraped the Northern edge of Cudell and the West Eighties, then rolled under Highway 20 to the shores of Lake Erie. The temperature took another dip and Carol stifled a shiver. They were close to the water even though she couldn't see it.

The cab rolled into a parking lot near the pier, fenced in on three sides by chain-link and choked with brown weeds.

"This is fine, right here," said Carol, taking up one of the empty duffles and nudging the door with an elbow.

She trotted, sprite-like, through the headlights and to a pile of cast-aside traffic barricades. Nudging one over, she stuffed the bag into a crevice, then returned to the cab where Gavrie's furrowed brow met her gaze in the rearview. She grinned crisply.

They made nine more stops.

Near two o'clock a.m. they crossed onto the well-manicured streets of Ambler Heights. Gavrie, who'd been quiet for some time, fidgeted in his seat. "Miss? I know I should mind my own business, but..."

"What is it, Gavrie?"

"What kind of work do you do?"

"Oh, Gavrie, aren't you the jokester. You know what I do."

"I really don't."

Carol smiled knowingly, like they were both in on it. "Maybe you've not been privy to all the recent changes. With the loss of my wings..." Her voice quavered and she set her hands in her lap. "I've had to outsource much of my work, but I still like to be involved with collections."

"What are you collecting?"

"You are so funny, Gavrie. Like Jerry Lewis." She watched the houses go by. "Seventy-five-oh-six, stop right here."

The car ground to a halt in front of a stately brick two-story with an American flag hanging limp beside the door. Carol reopened her trunk and lifted a plastic carton of orange drink. She peeled away the plastic seal and held it forth. "Gavrie?"

"Ah, no thanks," he answered.

Carol guzzled the top third of the jug and pressed the lid back on.

"You live here?" asked Gavrie.

"Don't be silly. Andrew Clausen lives here. I'll be right back." She opened the door with authority.

She skipped up the cobbled walk to the butter-yellow door but didn't knock. She glanced through the entryway window. The house was asleep. Turning back to Gavrie, Carol shhh'd him and stepped over a row of pansies toward a stone path at the side yard.

She danced over a hose and pirouetted around the patio furniture. The back door held when she turned the knob. The windows were also sealed. Mildly frustrated, she backed away and considered the home. She'd just have to break in. She preferred not to, but what choice did she have? She pried a loose brick from the walk and looked for the window least likely to have people behind it.

A shaded casement at the corner of the home seemed the right size for a powder bath. She walked into the grass and readied the brick, but hesitated. She scanned over the back porch and spotted it. A doggie door. What luck!

Carol got on all fours and stuck her head through the plastic flap. No dog materialized. With a little effort she flossed through, careful not to snag a wing. In the old days, people didn't lock up so tight. Never mind it. Little Andrew would be delighted she'd gone through the trouble.

She wiped her shoes and spotted the stairs down the hall off the front entry. Kids were always on the second floor. She tiptoed up. A board creaked. She stopped and perked her ears for awakenings. Everything would be ruined for the boy if she were seen.

After soft-shoeing her way to the landing, she took stock. The years had sharpened her feel for layout. Long hallway with a door at the end: parents. Two doors down the opposite way: that'd be the children. The boy would be on the right, the girl on the left. With her toes en pointe, she glided down the hall.

Carefully, she pressed the door open until it was wide enough to pass and tucked her wings so they wouldn't scrape the frame. She slipped inside and there he was, Andrew Clausen, sleeping away.

Recognizance said the loss was a lateral incisor. She went to the purse at her neck. Her fingers found a quarter and she pressed the clasp shut with a muffled click.

Another click behind her.

A whisper, "Shut up and don't move."

Still facing the sleeping boy, Carol held up her hands, said, "It's okay -"

"Shut up, I said. Now. Quietly, step backward into the hallway with me."

Carol turned to see a man in flannel pajamas holding a revolver. "Do you mind if I just -" She held up the quarter and gestured to the child.

"Move. Now."

"Alright, alright." She shuffled backward out of the room.

With the gun aimed at her face, the man eased by and pulled the door to, then led her downstairs. Mrs. Clausen stood at a narrow wall next to the refrigerator. "I called the police -" she turned from the window to the captured burglar. "Oh my God!"

Seeing the frail old woman in the full light of the kitchen, Mr. Clausen seemed to relax. He let down the hammer on the gun, slid it onto a high shelf, and crossed his arms. "What were you doing in my son's room?"

"He's lost a tooth if I'm not mistaken."

"You can't be serious," said Mrs. Clausen.

Carol grinned innocently, showing her own perfect teeth. "A lost tooth is no laughing matter."

Mr. Clausen was unmoved. "Why do you know anything about my son? Are you from the school? His dentist?"

"Do you really not know who I am?" Carol asked. "What do you think these are?"

She angled her back to expose the useless wings.

Mr. Clausen made a face, glanced at his wife, then back to Carol. "What do I think what are?"

Mrs. Clausen squinted and leaned in, her eyes seeing something. "What is that?"

The curtains flashed blue and red.

"Come on, lady, let's go. Maybe the cops can figure out where you escaped from."

"I'll explain that it's all just a terrible misunderstanding." She followed him to the front door.

"It's no misunderstanding. You broke into our house," he said, reminding her of the crime.

"Not true at all." An innocent shrug. "I used the doggie door."

A baseball mitt sat open on the hallway table. Carol set the quarter in the pocket.

A pair of cops met them halfway up the walk. Another team had Gavrie under interrogation next to his cab.

"Evening officers," said Mr. Clausen. "I'm sorry to have to bother you about all this... uh, I think we have a case of..." he cupped his hand, mouthed dementia.

"We'll take it from here," said one of the cops moving next to Carol. "Is everyone inside alright?"

"Yeah. I found her in my son's room, but he's fine. Didn't even wake up. Maybe she's just lost."

"I'm not lost, gentlemen," said Carol. "I'm in Cleveland. On purpose."

"Come on, ma'am," said the closest cop, taking her gently by the arm, "let's get you warmed up in the car. We'll find out where you belong."

"Well alright, but only for a few minutes. I have five more homes to get to tonight, and that's before I make pickups."

The officer gave her a long look, an even mixture of incredulity, sympathy, maybe a touch of amusement. "Yeah, okay. Let's just gather ourselves for a minute, 'mkay?"

He led her to the car. She shimmied into the back seat so as not to scrunch her wings against the vinyl. It was warmer in the car, she had to admit.

The officer plopped into the driver's seat and blew into his hands, threw her a glance in the rear view. He picked up the radio. "What's with the cabbie, Hal?"

Through the windshield Carol saw the officer closest to Gavrie take the mouthpiece from his shoulder. His voice came through the dashboard. This guy says he's been taking her around town. She's making drops, can you believe it?

"Are you kidding me?"

Naw. We have a car headed to a staging lot over at Edgewater to check on one.

"Buzz me when they find it." He hung up the mouthpiece and swiveled in his seat. "What exactly have you been doing, lady?"

Carol adjusted one of her pigtails. "My job, officer. Just like you."

"And what is that, exactly?"

Carol shook her head and rolled her eyes. "I'm the Tooth Fairy."

"Yeah, and I'm Santa Claus."

Carol frowned. "No, you're not."

"Look, we're going to have to take you to the precinct. I mean, technically you've committed burglary. Where's your ID? Who can we call? What nursing home did you break out of?"

"I didn't break out of it, I just walked outside and took a cab to the airport like I always do. I used to fly on my own, but my wings have seen better days. I'm sure you noticed."

"Tell me about the drops."

"Drops?"

"The bags you left all over town. You're distributing? Is the cabbie part of it?"

"Distributing? No. We do Collections - well, the young ones do most of the wingwork, but you understand."

He sighed and turned back to the wheel.

"Oh!" Carol exclaimed, digging into her coin purse. "Officer?"

He sniffed. "What is it?"

"Can you take this money and give it to Gavrie? I almost forgot to pay him." She shoved her arm through the plexiglass window and let the change tinkle into his open hand.

"This is a buck twenty-five."

"Well, he was very kind."

"Yeah, sure," he said, dropping the coins into his shirt pocket. He sighed and deflated some, then reached for a brightly colored aluminum can set in the cupholder. His fingers crept to the pop top. He dug his middle finger underneath and cracked it forward in an explosion of mist.

A heavenly witch's brew of scents bloomed in Carol's nostrils. Cherry extract, shiver-inducing sour apple, and watermelon bubble gum came in waves of blinding sweetness that sent saliva washing over her tongue. Wedged among the kaleidoscope of flavors was a hint of something new. Caffeine, stimulants, B-vitamins, and guarana. Her pulse quickened and her legs began to shake. She had to have whatever was in that can.

The cop was glaring at her. "You okay?"

Her eyes didn't stray from the can. It was all she could do not to explode.

The radio crackled. We found the bag.

"Whoa -" He took up the mouthpiece. "Yeah, Hal. What's the poison? Scrips, I'm guessing? Oxy?"

No, man. It's teeth. The whole bag was full of teeth.

"What?"

Seriously. Cam sent pictures, come out here.

The cop dropped the receiver and pointed through the narrow window. "I'll be right back." He shouldered the door and rumbled out.

Carol lunged through the opening and seized the can. In an instant it was at her lips, the concoction inside a magical potion, an elixir straight from the fountain of youth, running down her throat and infusing her veins. Having exhausted the contents, she gasped for breath and considered the empty vessel. It was far larger and more colorful than anything she'd ever before seen. ADRENO-LION.

She crushed the can into a petite accordion and dropped it to the floor as the beverage's mystical power surged through each ligament and tendon. The old sinews of her carriage lost their stiffness, bowing within her as she swayed, euphoric. Muscles grew limber and elastic. And then something unexpected. Her wings, their scrunched saran-wrap membranes, began to relax. They took on shape and spread wide at her back.

Trembling and uncoordinated in their rebirth, they twitched and fluttered. Carol leaned forward to make space and willed them up and down, hoping to spur them on. Soon they clicked, beating automatically like a heart restarted. Faster they went, blurring at first then becoming invisible with speed, leaving only a pair of glowing crescents where her wingtips turned the air to fire.

The cops had already confiscated one bag of teeth. They wouldn't get the other nine.

Standing tall from the back seat, her wings cut a path through the patrol car's roof like a wire through clay. She sprang into the air above Elandon Drive as the cops dove for cover. Gavrie remained frozen in shock.

She alit upon the cab. "I gave your fare to that one, Gavrie." She gestured to a nearby bush that concealed a policeman. "You get it from him okay?"

He managed a nod.

"Well," she said. "I don't know how long this will last, so I'd better be on my way."

"You still have handcuffs on."

"Oh, do I?" She pulled her wrists apart and the cuffs fell harmlessly away. "You've been so kind, Gavrie." She bent and put a kiss on the bewildered man's forehead.

"Goodbye, Miss..."

"Tooth Fairy," she said, casting her eyes to the stars. "For tonight, anyway."

Her wings lit the night and she took to the sky like a flare.

7 comments:

  1. Interesting take. Good characters.

    She seemed to know that the soda was a fountain of youth elixir and could restore her wings. So wouldn't she have gotten one right away? Or asked the cabbie for one?
    Seemed to be too much of a happy coincidence.

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  2. $1.25 for a cab ride? Maybe Cleveland is different or tooth fairy never rode a cab before. Seems she would have been busted regularly. I'm being picky.

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  3. Yes, you're being picky. Obviously this is just the tooth fairy being innocent and whimsical. Don't read too much into it.

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  4. I love this character so much. I can really hear her. Bravo on a super-creative piece.

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  5. Having wings sounds hard. I still don't like to fly!

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  6. Great story kept me entertained from start to finish

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  7. Great story. I thought it was an excellent example of taking an idea and making it into a story. Well done.

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