“And the winner is…” The cold, hard voice echoed in Niobe’s mind. The words spun around into darkness, twisting and turning into the deepest and darkest corners of her thoughts. She had trained for this for thirteen years. Thirteen years of grueling work. Thirteen years of tears and sweat and blood. And it all came down to this one moment. Niobe tapped her fingers on the hem of her long silk dress. Thump. Thump. Thump. Her heart beated like the wings of a hummingbird, quick, fast, tense.
Her fingers kept on tapping. Her eyelashes opened and closed. One silver tooth bit on her lip. The lady appeared to be relishing the contestants’ suspense.
“Ahem,” The lady cleared her throat. Niobe wanted to tug the words out of her mouth so that she could finally hear them. The want was like a hundred pound weight on her back, it ached and ached so much that she was afraid she would die if she couldn’t take it off. The lady’s gold eye glinted down on Niobe.
“Well,” she paused. “This is certainly interesting. For the first time, there has been a tie.”
Murmurs spread through the group of kids like water flowing in a brook. The words slipped over each other and mixed together, giving Niobe a brief glimpse at what the others must be feeling.
“For the first time…”
“Wouldn’t the elders prevent this from happening? And…”
“I hope I’m one of them…”
Niobe greatly agreed with this last voice. She had missed too many playdates, persevered through too much pain, for this to be lost. She had given away her childhood for this contest. Niobe had no friends. All she had had for the last thirteen years was work. And she intended for it to pay off.
“Ahem,” the lady repeated. Niobe was tempted to sarcastically throw her a box of cough drops. “The tie is between two students . . . Carson and . . .”
It was as silent as a barn owl’s wings.
Niobe’s breathing became rapid. Her small, thin fingers started to toy with her hair; the ragged sharp ends disappearing in and out of her flesh, the feeling of some silky feathers slipping in and out. This is it, she told herself.
Waves and waves of joy washed over her. She was leaping, she was shouting. She didn’t even know what she was doing – all she knew was that she was happy.
There were roars of cheers. Fist pumps were risen, smiles were broad, and everybody was somehow jumping. They all had been taught to sacrifice their own desires for the better. Niobe spotted a girl forcing a grin as tears ran down her face, and a boy who opened his wide wings and immediately flew off. They weren’t as good at it as the others. But then again, wasn’t she? How would she have felt if someone else was chosen over her? She would have felt deep, indescribable shame. She would have felt guilty. She would have felt furious. But that hadn’t happened.
And it won’t, Niobe thought decidedly, her fingers latching into a fist as her eyes hardened, or at least, she thought, not if I have any say.
Her competitor was off to the side, and she watched him for a second, observing his worthiness. He was surrounded by children, the different types of feathers spilling over each other, black over white, pebble gray over silver. Niobe felt a tiny bit of her heart drop into her stomach as she heard what the other angels were saying to him. “Carson, you’re amazing!” “You’ll be the best guardian angel!” “Remember when we were training once and you flew me to the ground? I knew right then that you were destined for it.” The words were kind, she knew. In fact, they probably were the most honest and true words that she had ever heard. The other kids were cheering for him, rooting for him. Others had known him their whole lives.
What did she have? No friends, of course. That would distract from her work.
Niobe remembered when she was little, with small wings that were just developing, and a curiosity of the world. She had wanted to play with the other kids her age. She had pleaded, in fact.
“Please, Mama! Just once! It won’t get in the way of my training!”
And her parents had answered her.
“No.” That was it. That was done. The band-aid was off. Niobe had felt quick, hurtful pain, but then it was gone, and she no longer needed other’s company. But did she still want it? Niobe felt something thick rise in her throat, and hot pinpricks tingled in her eyes. She swallowed.
One of the girls from Carson’s group was heading over. She had chestnut hair, with beautiful primaries coming out from the ends, and her wings were curved and long. Niobe stifled her tears and forced a small smile. She looked into the emerald eyes, and she recognized something in them that startled her. Warmth? Towards her? The girl even gave her a nod, and Niobe could hardly believe it. Was this it? Was she going to make a friend? Maybe they could plot together about how to sneak into the lady’s room and give her boxes and boxes of cold remedies. Maybe they would laugh together and braid each other’s hair with their feathers, or even – or even do preening. Preening! Niobe had missed the soft feeling of fingers etching between her wings, scratching and folding, and slipping across the back. Her parents had said she was too young for them to do it anymore, so she now used a brush, which hardly lived up to the closeness and trust she had felt while preening with them. Niobe checked the girl again, just to be sure that what she had seen was real. It seemed to be true, and, shocking her immensely, the girl was also smiling! Pearly white teeth and all!
What should she do? Ask her name? How she was doing? How long her had training been?
The girl opened her mouth. Niobe paused in her wonderings.
“My name’s Myristica. And, I’m sorry to say, in my humble opinion, Carson’s got you beat. Come next morning, flies will be buzzin ‘round you, ‘cause they can smell that you’re dead meat.”
The girl stalked off for a few steps, then sprung her wings open, the dark, mahogany color spreading out for up to thirteen feet.
“Just to be honest.”
And with that, Myristica leaped up into the air, sleekly moving her wings, shifting in the up drafts. Her dark shape disappeared quickly into the cobalt blue blanket that was the sky.
Niobe doubted that the girl wanted to be friends with her anymore.
She coughed for a second. Maybe I’m coming down with a cold, she thought. I might need some cough drops.