Carol dreamt of flight.
In sleep she flew past the city limits of her hometown, high above familiar schools and stores and offices. And up higher, where sky became space, became beyond, where there was room to fly, to spread wing after wing after wing. There were stars there, and something more.
Here she saw in all directions, a slow shift of perspective from one point to the next, a kaleidoscopic slideshow that fit to her mind as naturally as breathing. In dreams, it felt as though she should be able to see everywhere at once, just as she should be feather light and wandering. In dreams she soared.
Carol woke on the floor beside her bed, arms outstretched as if in flight.
“Of course you dream of flying.” Her father always said, “What else would an angel dream about?” He kissed her forehead like a blessing; she was a prayer answered, a precious gift to an aging couple told they’d never have children.
Now well into her teenage years, Carol didn’t think she could play pretend at childishness for much longer.
Carol dreamt of fire.
Against backdrops of dark sky and flickering stars she cast great flames like shadows. Fire flowed from her fingertips, her wingtips, and spiralled off into the night. She could taste it on her tongue, hot and iron tinged, felt it rise within her throat and escape in sparks with her breath.
It surrounded her, never consuming, only dancing at her edges, turning her to a comet that blazed through the sky, commanding the attention of all who saw it.
She woke to the scent of coffee, the warmth of breakfast preparations underway.
“Soon I’ll be back to cooking for two,” Carol’s mother said, wistful and teasing, not for the first time. With every home-cooked meal she urged Carol to eat more, insisting she had one last growth spurt left in her.
Carol dreamt of feathers, fangs, faces, forms that stretched beyond the soft bipedal body she slept within.
In dreams she became more than skin and bone, eternally shifting like the flames she breathed, the wind she rode. Her approachable face and warm eyes were multiplied, made different, unrecognizable in their reflection but so right upon her frame.
She woke with a start well before dawn, an itching in her skin.
No amount of pacing and stretching could shake the feeling that her muscles were too tight, her body too confining. The breeze through her window was light and warm, the short reprieve between a humid summer night and a hot, sun-bathed day. Carol wanted nothing more than to push out the screen of that window, to climb into freedom.
But her parents slept one room away, breathing slow and steady, and she couldn’t bear to leave them like this.
She tiptoed from her bedroom to theirs, stepping feather light on old wood floors. She came to stand at the foot of their bed, reaching out to tap at her father’s ankle the way she had when she was younger and looking to hide from a nightmare in the safety of her parent’s bed. Her hands were larger now, different than they had been then, but he woke with the same shallow breath that had always accompanied her childhood touch.
“Carol,” he said gently, and though she had worn it for years the name rang strangely to her. “Angel,” he said instead, sitting up to face her, and it sounded right. “What time is it?”
Carol looked to the analog clock on the bedside table, a series of glowing numbers turned meaningless under her gaze. She said, “It’s time.”
Her mother woke at the sound of her voice. Soon she was sitting upright too, expression flattened to disappointment.
“It’s early,” she argued, voice thick from sleep. “It’s too early. Can’t we wait just a little?”
The numbers on the clock glowed, unchanged, the moment dragging.
“It’s time,” Carol said again, and her mother’s shoulders sagged in acceptance.
The sky was clear overhead.
Stars still lingered in the late-night darkness while early morning sun crept up along the horizon. In the front yard of their home, Carol’s parents came to see her off. The unspoken promise that she would see them again, one way or another, was little consolation for the ache of separation.
“You could stay,” her father said, not a plea, but a reminder. Carol shook her head.
“We’ll always be here if you need us,” her mother added. Carol nodded.
Years ago they had asked for a child, and she had become one for them, for as long as they needed. She had answered their prayers then, but she couldn’t be a child anymore.
Now her parents watched her with the same joy and wistfulness shared by anyone seeing their child grow and change, satisfied just to see her be, delighted to see her be herself. They stood by, transfixed as she transformed, her wings outstretched, wisps of flame at her every edge. She stretched and shifted, multiplied, took on teeth and tails and indescribable shapes. She had never been less human, and never more their daughter.
Carol’s form settled slowly, as much as it ever would. The fires in her burned low, controlled. Her wings folded, closing the space between, ushering her parents in to say goodbye. But when she tried to speak, all her mouths worked uselessly; there was too much to say, and no way to explain it in language they could grasp. An embrace said more than a phrase ever could, and she held on as long as possible.
Dawn’s light crept closer, beginning to tint the world gold, surrounding Carol like a halo. Her father placed a kiss on one of her foreheads. Her mother smoothed down feathers where her hair had been. They stepped back to give her room as she flexed her wings, gazes turned up to where she would soon be.
Carol took flight.