Linnet waited with her eyes closed for the door to open and her mother to peek in. Waited for her to touch Linnet's shoulder blades lightly and pull the covers up and go. Linnet knew that touch in her bones, as if it had happened every night of her life, even when she had been sleeping. An imprint, a memory of the skin itself. Not like a caress-more like a nurse taking a pulse or checking for swelling.
It made no sense. But then, so many things about her mother made no sense. Like why she told the school Linnet had a heart murmur, when she really didn't. Like why she wouldn't let Linnet cut her hair. Like why she would never talk about any relatives, including Linnet's father. Like-
The itching interrupted her thoughts. Linnet grabbed her hair and twisted it out of the way, reaching back with her hand and scratching one shoulder, then the other. Something was wrong with her. Beneath the itch was an ache. And there were weird bumps on both shoulders.
Her mother's light footsteps. Linnet almost missed them. She stilled her movement just as the door opened, leaving her hand flopped back over her right shoulder, as if she had fallen asleep in that position.
Her mother's gentle fingers. Her gasp, so light Linnet could barely hear. She reached out and grabbed her mother's hand. "What's the matter with me?" she cried. "Do I have cancer? What's wrong?"
Her mother bowed her head in the darkness and wept, cupping the two itchy places on Linnet's back with hands as small as those of a child. Linnet, too, was tiny. At eleven, she was as small as an eight-year-old.
The words ran together. "I'm so sorry, I wasn't sure." She caught Linnet into a fierce hug. "Oh, now what do we do, I won't do it, I won't." One hand tangled in Linnet's long hair; the other held her hard. "I'm sorry," she said again, her breath hot against Linnet's head. "But they'll see."
"See what?" asked Linnet, scared by her mother's tears, half-crying herself. "What's the matter with my back?"
"Wings-you're growing wings."
"Huh?" asked Linnet, even more bewildered than before. "Wings?" She felt numb, slow, dense. None of this made any sense.
"I was so afraid of this."
"Why did you think I was going to grow wings?" Linnet asked.
Her mother let go. She turned on the light. Her face looked pale, rimmed with a rainbow from the tears caught on Linnet's lashes as she squinted against the light.
Her mother began to unbutton her shirt. Linnet shrank into herself, more scared, smaller. She had never even seen her mother in a swimming suit. Some of her friends' mothers, but never her own. Something was very wrong.
The delicate fingers undid the buttons. Her mother turned around, so her back was to Linnet, and, head bowed, she slowly dropped her shirt.
Two scars bloomed like flowers on her back. Without knowing she was going to, Linnet reached out. Her mother flinched, and Linnet drew back. "No, it's okay." Her mother's voice was almost inaudible. "Go ahead. You can touch."
But Linnet didn't want to. "Where were they?" she asked, even though she knew. Her voice shook. Her stomach felt sick. Her shoulders ached and itched.
Her mother pulled the shirt back over her shoulders and buttoned it before she turned around. She raised her chin. "Wings," she said.
Linnet just stared. "People don't get wings."
"When I was ten years old," said her mother, "my shoulder blades began to itch and ache." She sounded as if she were telling a tale she had practiced in her head but never told anyone. "My mother wrapped a strip of cloth around and around me." She touched Linnet just above the place where her breasts would grow. "Here and passing under my arms. Tight. So tight I thought I couldn't breathe. My back hurt. Every other day, my mother took off the cloth and made me take a bath. She wouldn't let me touch my back. After I was dry, she bound me up again."
Linnet just sat, her own back resting against the wall.
"This went on for weeks, months, over a year. And then one night the phone rang just as I was getting out of the bath. My mother went to answer it . . ."
Sarah McKenzie's eyes were clouded with pain. "I took a hand mirror and looked at the reflection of my back in the mirror over the sink. Wings-squashed and twisted and flattened by the binding. But wings." She reached one hand over her shoulder, as if she still felt them there. "And then my mother came back into the bathroom and found me looking at them. She screamed and broke the mirrors and made me promise never to tell anyone and never to touch them. And I never did." Her hand dropped.
"But your back . . ." said Linnet.
"When I was almost twelve," said Sarah, her voice hardening, "my mother decided that even the binding couldn't hide them anymore. She fed me as much brandy as I could drink, tied me to the table, and cut off my wings. I almost died. When I was fifteen, I ran away."
"But why didn't you get wings when you were little?" Linnet asked, meaning also Why am I getting them now?
Her mother's face turned red. "I think it has something to do with puberty," she said.
Linnet wanted to squirm. Here she was this little shrimpy kid who looked as if she were in third grade, chest as flat as a field, and she was about to start her period. And grow wings. She flopped down on her pillow and sobbed.
Gentle hands caressed her back. "You need some time to yourself," said Sarah. "Call me if you need me."
The door closed behind her, and Linnet was alone in the dark, with wing bumps on her shoulders. This was why her mother had given her the name of a bird. And this was why she had never seen her mother's back, even in a bathing suit or sundress. She could see the scars in the air before her, even when she closed her eyes.
She did not sleep soon or well.
Dreams of bleeding from her shoulders, having her hands bound, hearing her mother scream as great, feathered wings were ripped from her shoulders-
"Stop, stop, stop." It was her mother's voice. She gripped Linnet's hands tightly; there was blood on Linnet's fingers. "You have to stop-you'll hurt yourself."
Linnet wakened the rest of the way. The deep, maddening itch was still there, but it was accompanied by stinging pain.
"You were scratching yourself." Sarah cautiously released Linnet's hands.
"I can't stand it," said Linnet, working her shoulders up and down against the sheets.
"You can," Sarah said flatly. "I'll help, but you can."
Linnet thought of her mother as a child, what she had withstood: the binding cloth, the brandy and the knife. "Okay," she said.
Sarah sprinkled uncooked oatmeal into a deep, warm bath. "I'm not sure how much this will help, but stay in as long as you'd like."
"I'll take you later, if you feel like going. Just call me at work and I'll come get you. Copies R Us will survive for half an hour without me."
After her mother left the room, Linnet slipped out of her nightshirt and lowered herself into the water. It stung for a second, but then it was better, much better. She settled in deeper, with just her face and knees above the surface. What kind of bird was she, anyway, that liked water? A penguin was the first bird that came to mind. She sat up rather fast.
"Mother," she yelled in the direction of the closed bathroom door. "Mother!"
Sarah stuck her head in. "Does it help? What do you need?"
"It's great," said Linnet, shrugging off the questions. "Can I fly? If my wings grow out? Or will they be like penguin wings?"
There was a silence, and then her mother's bitter voice. "How would I know?"
"Maybe your mother knows," said Linnet, without thinking.
Sarah flung the door open. A wave of cold air hit Linnet. "I have not seen that woman for thirteen years. I hope she's dead."
Linnet sank back down into the warmth. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
"So am I."
It wasn't until Linnet peeked up again, over the edge of the tub, that she knew the door was closed and her mother was gone.
As the water cooled, thoughts flooded through her. She was growing wings. Maybe she was an alien. Could she be from another planet, where everyone had wings and they flew through a weird-colored sky? Or could she be some sort of mutant, like the three-legged frogs they'd studied in science, changed by pollution or radiation or something? Wings.
Linnet turned on the faucet, scooting her feet out of the way and swishing the hot currents toward the back of the tub until the water level reached the overflow drain and started gurgling out. She slowly lay back, submerging until only the tiniest oval of her face was exposed to the air.
A shiver ran through her. Perhaps someday she would be able to fly. There could be no other reason for having wings, could there? The unbidden images of ostriches and penguins popped up again, and she shoved them aside.
She felt her face settle into a stubborn expression. One thing was for sure: she was not going to let anyone bind her wings or cut them off.
The note she took to school was simple: "Please excuse Linnet from the first two periods. She wasn't feeling well. Sarah McKenzie." Linnet was grateful for her long, wavy hair, which made a curtain over her back; she wished it covered her face as well. Would the wings have feathers? She would have to ask her mother. Perhaps that was a safe question.
"What was the problem, Linnet?" asked the school secretary, taking the note in her efficient fingers.
"I just didn't feel well." They had discussed what to say and thought it would be better not to settle on a specific area that might then be examined by the school nurse.
"You didn't have a fever, did you?" The secretary's voice sharpened. It was against school policy to come to school within twenty-four hours of having a fever.
"No," said Linnet.
"Well, you certainly are pale." The secretary looked her over, apparently made a decision, and impaled the excuse on a metal spike. "You're too late for the hot lunch count. Did you bring a cold lunch?"
"I had a late breakfast," said Linnet. Miraculously, this was her first lie of the conversation.
"Go ahead and go to class, then."
It was impossible to keep from scratching. Linnet caught herself doing it again and again. Others caught her, too, both students and teachers. "Linnet's got cooties," she heard one boy say, which caused a general laugh.
"If she does, she caught them from you," Roxie said back. Roxie was the closest Linnet had to a best friend, which meant they hung around at school together sometimes, since Linnet's mother never let her have friends over. Plus Roxie was always busy with soccer or gymnastics or something, and she tended to hang out with the rest of the jocks most of the time. She and Linnet didn't actually have much in common, but she was friendlier than most of the kids. Still, she wasn't the type of person that Linnet could tell about wings.
None of the grownups said anything, except the librarian, who rather liked Linnet and felt sorry for her because she had to stay in the media center rather than go to gym. That fictitious heart murmur! Now Linnet could understand why her mother had made it up. In middle school, she'd have to start using a locker room. If by any chance the wings were still a secret by then, the locker room would be the kiss of death.
The librarian leaned over her. "You are squirmy today, Linnet," she whispered. "Is something the matter?"
Linnet shrugged. "Not really," she said. Unless you count growing wings. "I guess I just . . .had too much sugar . .. for breakfast . . . on my cereal, I mean."
"Maybe you'd better have toast tomorrow-and skip the jelly."
Fortunately, with all the accusations of abuse around the country, there wasn't a teacher in the school who would touch a student, or Linnet would have received a pat on the shoulder right about then.
"Ms. Penn," she said, just before the librarian could turn away. "Are there any stories about people who can fly?"
The librarian scrunched up her face the way she always did when she was thinking. "We have some mythology books about Icarus. You know, the boy whose father made wings and-"
"No, I mean people with wings."
"How about angels? We might have something on angels."
She wasn't an angel. Was she? "No, not angels. People."
There wasn't anything, really, except for folktakes and fiction and some stuff about levitation. Nothing about people with actual wings. Except, of course, for angels, and that seemed rather unlikely. Wouldn't a person know if she were an angel?
She tried a Web search, too. Plenty of stuff on airplanes and flying disks and hockey teams. Birds. Insects. Flying squirrels. Bats. She was about to give up when she saw a Web site called WingNet, about various myths of people with wings, including current urban myths. "Myths," she muttered. "Hah. I could tell the about their stupid myths." There was an e-mail address, and her fingers hovered over the keyboard for a second, but it made her uneasy to think of someone being able to find her. Then the bell rang for the next period, and Linnet quickly logged off so no one could tell what she had been searching for.
By the time the school day was over, the itching was unbearable. Or by the time the itching was unbearable, the school day was over. Linnet ran outside, hoping she'd see her mother's gray car so she wouldn't have to ride the bus through noisy, crowded stop after stop. She had to get home. She had to.
And she did, crying all the way in the passenger seat. "I can't-" she started to say once, but a glance at her mother's back stopped her short.
Wings. Forming beneath the surface of her skin. Emerging.
Once they were out, tiny and jointed, the itching stopped. Still, her fingers found their way to her back, exploring the topography of the small, growing protrusions. The new, downy feathers were reddish brown, like the hair on her head, so the sight of them in the mirror was shocking.
But Linnet did like the feel of them-soft over strong. As for whether they would be big enough to allow her to fly, it was hard to say, but she thought maybe yes; they seemed to be growing every day.
She found it hard to imagine the twisted, stunted things they would become if they were bound like her mother's wings. Linnet felt waves of anger toward her unknown grandmother. How could she? And yet both she and her mother were beginning to understand, as the wings grew and strained against the fabric of Linnet's shirts. How could she not?
Sarah didn't look at Linnet's wings. Hardly ever talked anymore. When she didn't think Linnet was looking, she embraced herself, fingertips touching the horrible scars hidden beneath her blouse, and wept silently.
The assistant principal called Linnet into his office. Linnet sat very straight, not leaning against the back of the chair. She adjusted her hair and held her head still.
"Is something bothering you?"
"No," said Linnet. She never shrugged anymore; the wings were getting too big for her to do anything to call attention to her back.
"Everything's all right at home?" His voice was kind, but his eyes were clinical. Linnet knew that anything she said, and things she didn't say but he suspected, were going to be written down and put in her file.
"It's fine," she said.
"Your teachers tell me that you seem upset a lot these days."
Linnet fought back a wave of sadness before it got to her eyes. "It's nothing," she said. "Really."
The assistant principal sighed. "Very well," he said. "If you ever need to talk to someone, though, you can come to me. Or to one of your teachers."
Sure, tell one of her teachers that she was growing wings covered with fine, auburn feathers. "Thank you," said Linnet. She rose carefully and backed out of the room. Soon, though, she wouldn't have to tell anyone, because the wings would be visible in spite of her long hair and loose clothes. It was a good thing school was almost out-one week to go. Then she could hide in the house for the summer. What would happen in the fall, though? She thought of her grandmother's knife and shuddered.
After supper, Linnet had taken to locking herself in her room with a stack ofbooks. The public library had a lot of stuff about flying and wings-even if it didn't exactly apply to her situation. She read poetry, novels, nonfiction about the mechanics of flight, even picture books searching for clues and comfort. If there were winged people in human history, she would find them.
By evening her wings ached from the confinement of her shirt, so she took it off and put on a bright green haltertop that did not interfere with the wings' movement. When she had first done this, the bare wings had made her feel self-conscious. Gradually, she had grown more used to them, although a sudden glance in the mirror still made her stomach lurch.
She was learning how to move her wings: how to spread them wide, how to fold them-although she didn't do this much in the evenings, since they'd been folded against her back for hours. And she was learning how to flap.
The first time she flapped her wings, she banged the tip of one painfully on the edge of her dresser and knocked a ceramic frog on the floor. One bulbous eye was chipped and two toes broken off.
Now she knew where to stand to flap safely-at the foot of the bed, holding onto the bedpost, with her back toward the locked door. Homework papers fluttered about as her wings disturbed the air. She ignored them, feeling fierce and wild and alone in the world.
Except she wasn't, couldn't be. There had to be others like her and her mother. There had to be someone who knew.
There has to be someone who knows. The thought would not leave her. Someone knew whether winged people could fly. Someone knew why they had wings in the first place.
Linnet flapped more and more slowly until she was still, clinging to the bedpost, sweating with exertion and fear. Then she folded her wings and unlocked her door.
She had never bared her wings to her mother. She hesitated, a chick perched on the edge of a branch. Then she opened the door.