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We looked out over the water, Saga and I. The surface was grey and a little agitated, as if the lake itself felt unsettled by the eerie green of the sky and the dark winged things wheeling in the distance. It could be anxious for both of us, then. I was reeling hard enough from having Saga here, when I hadn’t seen her in the flesh for nearly eight months.

The boulder we sat on was scratchy against my stockinged calves, and the waistband of the stupid skirt I’d thrown on pinched uncomfortably. But with her presence glowing at my side, I could put up with it. I could put up with anything.

I’ve got no self-control. I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye.

She really was changing. I could see a difference even from when she’d come knocking on my window half an hour earlier. The dark grey tint had spread to the skin on her shoulders. Her face and neck were still pale, but shadowed by sooty veins. There was something about the bones, too, a subtle shift toward robustness and strength.

And of course, there were the fangs and the claws and the big batlike wings.

“They suit you,” I said.

“What does?”

“The ... ” I gestured haplessly, encompassing her newness from head to toe. “All of it.”

“Aw, thanks.” The corner of her mouth tugged up in a shy smile, flashing sharp teeth.

“Honestly, I’m a bit jealous.”

I hadn’t planned on telling her this. The step from there to do I want you, or do I want to be you? was too small. But it just slipped out.

“Oh?” The tilt of her head was new, avian. Had she picked up the gesture deliberately, or did she do it on instinct?

“Yeah.”

“Why’s that?”

“You know. Dysphoria stuff.” The word felt embarrassing and clumsy in my mouth. I tugged at my skirt again, unthinking. I’d worn it because I wanted to look nice—admittedly, I thought of this as an occasion—but the closeness of the waistband brought on horrible awareness of my own flesh. “That feeling of something off all the time. I’d fucking love to be able to just ... change.”

“I know what you mean,” she said quietly. “It’s like I don’t have to climb out of my body anymore, because my body started becoming me.”

“Damn. I wish.”

What Saga had now was an approximation of a girl’s body, a thousand times closer to a girl’s soul. What would that look like for me? What shape did my soul have?

Our eyes met and caught. It felt like a moment that would have lasted, if it hadn’t been interrupted by a shadow passing overhead.

We glanced up in unison. One of those flying creatures swooped low, scanned the ground, then glided back out over the water. It was much bigger than I’d thought. Its wings looked like Saga’s, but it had no discernible face.

I must have flinched, because Saga said, “Don’t worry. They won’t hurt you.”

“Is that what you’re ... becoming?” That eerie facelessness made my skin crawl. Saga’s long, thin nose and freckled cheekbones—where would they go, if that thing up there was her destiny?

“I think so,” she said, voice almost a whisper. “I can hear their murmurs in my mind. I can tell what they’re thinking—I just know. And they know me the same way. So, they won’t hurt you. They won’t hurt Hazim, either, or Mary, or anyone else important.”

We were quiet for a moment, gazing out at the opposite shore. The lights were on in the windows there. A subway train crept over the bridge in the distance. Who, or what, was driving it? Who were the passengers? After all, the creatures like what Saga was becoming weren’t all that had come through.

On the walk here, we had passed a segment of the street where the asphalt was torn up, as if something huge and indifferent had tunneled beneath it. A massive ridge of rubble plunged down the road, then veered sharply to one side, vanishing under an apartment building. The doorframe and ground-floor windows had been smashed to bits.

What did this? I asked her, and she shrugged.

I don’t know, but it’s probably better not to find out.

She had brought me up to speed during that walk, while I gaped open-mouthed at the caustic sky.

A few months back, Saga had said, I left my place for the first time in ages. I told myself I could do it, but of course I regretted it as soon as I was too far away to turn back. It even started raining, like the world was rubbing it in.

I was hiding out in an alley between the station and the supermarket, trying to calm myself enough to go in and face the cashier. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, and when I opened them again it was just there, in the space between a wall and a lamp post: a patch where no rain fell at all.

The air there was shimmering a little bit, like it does early in the morning sometimes—that storybook lighting. So, I walked over—like a kid, you know? I couldn’t help myself—and then I just ... stepped through.

The place I ended up wasn’t somewhere else, exactly. More like ... a few degrees to the left, blink and you’ll miss it. The shapes were the same, but the light seemed to come out of the ground, not from the sun, and I couldn’t see any people. For once things were still.

But they were there. They saw me, saw that I was like them, and they wrapped their wings around me until I began to change. I don’t know how long I spent there, but I’ve never felt more at home.

Eventually, she found another crack. The other world spat her back out, but parts of it came with her. And now the sky was the wrong color, we were being invaded by ominous bird-creatures, and Saga had come straight to find me. Knocked on my third-floor window, said I look different, but I can explain, and the thrill of seeing her overrode the fact that she had flown, that she had wings. I had rushed to throw on something presentable and join her outside.

We had wandered aimlessly until we ended up here, at the lookout point just past the park. The terrain sloped downward, overgrown by long grass and the last straggling wildflowers, even a raspberry bush that produced small, sweet fruit in the summer, but which was now just a tangle of thorns. We’d forgone the benches to perch on this huge rock, swept here by a glacier long ago. Below was the water—the sort of water I wasn’t sure what to call, technically a lake but too sprawling and interconnected to really feel like one, a reminder that ours was a city of islands, the ocean never far away.

I pulled my legs up and wrapped my arms around them, so I wouldn’t have to feel the lichen on the boulder catching on my tights. I stared at my wing-tip shoes—they seemed an ironic choice, suddenly—as a million things I could say crowded in my mind.

I worried about you.

I wish you would have let me know you were okay.

I feel like I’m always the last person you tell about anything.

“I’m glad you came over today,” I said instead. “We haven’t talked in a while, so ... it’s good to see you’re well.”

Saga fidgeted. Even in this new body, her mannerisms were mostly the same. “I should have been better about staying in touch.”

This concession, admittedly, made something inside me glow golden-soft. I curled in on myself, embarrassed, as if hiding that kernel of warmth from her view.

“I haven’t used my phone in ages,” she went on, and that I could admit was fair—her claws looked less screen-friendly than Mary’s most elaborate gel-tips. “But that’s no excuse. I’m sorry, K.”

“It’s okay,” I said, hating the bitter tinge I was unable to wipe from my words. “I don’t want to be a chore you have to tick off your list.”

“It’s not like that. I wanted to answer when you reached out to me, but it’s like ... it’s like there’s this animal that lives inside my ribs. It sits on my lungs and makes it hard to breathe.” Her wings curled into a protective cocoon. “I want to break free of it, but I’m paralyzed in the beam of its stare. And the more I struggle, the harder it looks at me. It doesn’t blink.”

“Hmm.” If I had an animal inside me, then it must be a snake. Always coiled around me, squeezing wherever it was most uncomfortable, oozing venom into my veins. “Sounds like anxiety to me.”

“Yeah.” The word half-whispered.

“Sucks, huh.”

“Badly.”

I knew this was ridiculous, given the circumstances, but I couldn’t help but feel relieved that she hadn’t been ignoring me specifically. For months, I’d failed to rid myself of the expectant flutter I felt every time I checked my phone in the morning. Every time I realized the last message was still from me, sent date receding further and further into the past, that anticipation would crumple into chagrin, and I would attempt to console myself by wondering if she did this to everyone. That opened the discomfiting possibility that she did not, and I’d think ugly thoughts about whoever she was talking to, if not me.

But she hadn’t been annoyed with me. She had just been on the other side of the rain.

“So.” I swallowed, cringing a little at the too-loud sound of my throat clicking. “What happens now?”

“Well ... that’s kind of why I wanted to see you now, while I still can.” The ends of her dark hair wriggled around her face, independent of the wind. “I’ll keep changing. Their thoughts are getting louder. By the end, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to hear myself.”

“Oh.”

“But before it gets to that point, I’ll be going away.”

She turned to me, her eyes glowing—literally; the whites had gone yellow and luminous.

My mouth felt dry, suddenly. “That sounds pretty permanent.”

“Yes, I suspect it will be.”

My chest squeezed, a stone of finality settling behind my ribs.

I wasn’t going to tell her. She had worked through her shit. Hell, she was on her way to another plane of existence. I wouldn’t tie her down with my own need for catharsis.

Stuck in my night-thoughts, I often wondered if she knew. Had she figured it out a long time ago, from my long glances and too-quick responses to anything she sent? Or was she blissfully incapable of overanalyzing every interaction, living in a world where I was a good friend and not intent on complicating things with my tangled mess of feelings? Whatever the case, she wasn’t bringing it up, so I wouldn’t, either.

I would spare us both.

Would I regret it on my deathbed? Maybe. My chance at a cute monster girlfriend tossed into the sea, all because I didn’t buck up and confess—Hazim would be so disappointed in me. He had seen right through me during a million game nights and museum outings and shopping trips. I knew he would disagree with my decision. He might even be right. It was possible that I was making a mistake, confusing sound intuition with the insistent chorus of my fears, but the certainty of having picked a path is better than nothing.

It’s fine to grieve the road untaken. I would never be the person who told her how I felt, and I could cry about it later if I had to.

“Saga,” I said, “I’m really, really happy for you.”

My voice held. Saga beamed.

“That means a lot, K. More than I can say.”

She wanted to catch up with me, too, and I let myself have the glow that gave me. As silly as my problems seemed in the face of her transformation—not to mention the fundamental shift in the fabric of the world—it was nice to have a space to vent. Still in school after all these years, finally getting the diagnosis that explained why so much had been so hard, but not sure how to stop the learned self-hatred that ran so deep.

She listened, an earnest furrow between her brows. Once, she grasped my forearm with that clawed hand, and when she squeezed, I felt her strength sink into me, holding me up just by being there.

I asked if she’d been to see our friends. She hadn’t, yet—I felt a thrill of satisfaction at being first—so I told her about Hazim’s new apartment, reminded her to ask him about his plants. He had enough space for them now, could finally cultivate the indoor jungle of his dreams. Mary was still abroad, but Saga was delighted to hear that her webcomic had taken off. The last time Saga had spoken to her, she had been in a deep creative slump.

If things made any sense, I mused out loud, this dimension-shifting weirdness should have been happening to Mary: far away in a city whose popular mythology had already prepared it for Godzilla and aliens and every flavor of natural disaster. Not here, in our irrelevant corner of the world, with its mediocre cop movies and terrible weather.

Saga laughed—joyous, full of fangs—and said I shouldn’t underestimate a place where the sun can vanish for months at a time.

We talked for hours. About video games and cafés and whether the internet would still work now that the world had shifted. About the advantages of a body that had morphed into a shape not made for clothes (since clothes, we agreed, never seemed to be made for bodies). About food: Saga said that what she ate now had to be caught between realms, but she would miss noodle soup too much not to try her luck if she got the chance, and I asked if that meant there would still be soup, and she replied sure, or what would even be the point?

“It’s getting dark,” Saga murmured finally. The color of the sky had deepened, taking on the olive tinge of an old monitor. “I need to go soon.”

“Already?”

She nodded. “You should get back too, before it’s too late.”

“I guess so.” A raincloud was forming in my ribcage, heavy with unshed tears. “Saga?”

“Yeah?”

“I ... I’m gonna miss you.” I had hoped I could say it casually, but my voice came out wobbly, every word soap-bubble soft.

Saga’s face creased with a concern that broke my heart all over again. I’d spent a hundred late nights doubting that she cared, yet here was the reassurance I’d wanted, written in skin and sinew.

Maybe she didn’t care the way I wanted her to, but she wasn’t indifferent to me. Not at all.

“I won’t disappear,” Saga said. “I’m going to be all around. Watching out for you.”

The soap-bubbles burst, then, and in their fragile rainbow wake came all the sobs I’d sworn to save for the silence of my room. Hot tear-tracks coursed down my face, and Saga’s hands found mine. Her skin was cool and reptile rough. She held on firm and unyielding. I gripped back, as tightly as I could.

I didn’t want to let go. I knew I would need to.

Eventually, I stopped crying. There wasn’t much left to say, after a display like that. We didn’t hug—awkward with the wings, and Saga had never been much of a hugger. She offered me a wan smile that I did my best to return, but the expression my face managed felt grotesque and misshapen.

Then Saga snapped her wings open. Their insides shimmered with oil-slick colors. She cracked her neck to both sides and leapt.

Powerful flaps carried her up and up and up. Every word I’d left unsaid rose in my throat. They fluttered there like panicked birds, all feathers and talons and manic fear, as I watched her shrink to a speck and vanish.

The words’ struggles grew weaker. I swallowed them back down.

I sat alone on the boulder above the not-quite-sea, dry tears crusted on my cheeks, slouching in an uncomfortable skirt. Another train slid across the bridge. My chest felt strangely hollow.

I reached for my waistband and undid the button. I pulled the zipper down an inch, sighing as the fabric eased away from my skin.

The old world was gone, and I’d have to relearn myself as she remade it.


Editor: Aigner Loren Wilson

First Reader: Belen Edwards

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Charlie Valenti is a Swedish-American writer based in Stockholm. Their work has previously appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies (as C. S. Marten). They write stories about earnest people, melancholy places, and the worlds hiding just beneath the surface of our own.
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