He leans back on the couch, his right hand firmly clasping his left and his eyes fixed on a thread dangling from her sleeve. Her office is small, but it feels cosy. Intimate. Every object is exactly where it needs to be, from the desktop calendar by the phone to the yellowing cactus on the windowsill.
‘How long ago was it?’ she asks, her beautiful dark eyes prying into his.
‘Three days ago,’ he replies.
‘Tell me what happened, James.’ Her voice is gentle, tentative. It makes him want to look up into her face.
He takes a deep shuddering breath. ‘I was driving up Coolidge Road…’
‘Where were you driving to?’ she prompts.
‘Nowhere really,’ he rubs a hand over the back of his neck. ‘Well, I was going…you know, there, again.’
‘No, I don’t know, James,’ she says gently. ‘Where were you going?’
‘To see the eagles at the top of the hill. They have a nest in the rocks that hang out over the gully.’
‘Is it the same spot where you jumped last year?’
She scrawls something into her notepad and he uses the precious few seconds to compose himself.
‘And then what happened?’
‘When I got to the top, I parked my car and waited for them. I just wanted to see them. They make me feel like… they make me feel.’ His eyes run over her bookshelves distractedly. ‘I waited all day, but they didn’t come. I had to stay, though.’
‘There was an egg in the nest, and I started to panic. I thought that maybe they abandoned it,’ he tries to smile, knowing how stupid he must sound.
Her eyes remain impassive.
He goes on, stumbling awkwardly over each word. ‘I climbed over the barrier and made my way to the nest. The egg looked bigger than any I’d ever seen.’
‘Were you afraid of climbing on the edge of a cliff like that, with no safety harness or rail-guard?’
‘No, I just…I just needed to rescue the egg. It was so vulnerable out there on its own. So fragile. The nest was in the branches of this dead white tree which hung over the edge of the cliff. I climbed out. My hands were shaking so much, but I couldn’t stop myself. I had to save the egg. I needed to.’
‘Why did you feel you need to?’
‘I don’t know,’ his voice cracks and he stops talking. He looks at her soft auburn curls and somehow they make him feel a little better. He goes on. ‘When I was close enough to reach out to the nest, the branch cracked. I tried to shuffle back, but it broke and I should have fallen, but…’
‘I didn’t. There was nothing beneath me and I felt completely weightless. That’s when it happened.’ He locks his eyes on that loose thread on her shirt. ‘I – I grew wings.’
‘Like an angel?’
‘I guess so, but, not really,’ he looks up at her to gauge her reaction. Her eyes are still and expressionless. ‘They were massive, and full of colour, like parrots’ wings. I had no control. They did everything themselves. It was like instinct or something. I could feel them making a rhythm in the air behind me. I could feel every beat they made.’
‘Do you believe you were flying?’
He answers with such conviction that she stops to make another note in her notepad.
‘What happened next?’
‘I saw the egg falling down into the gully, so I dove after it.’
‘Did you catch it?’
He grows pale. ‘No. It smashed into the ground and broke.’
‘And then I woke up on the ground behind the barrier. There was blood on my head.’ His shoulders start to shake. He breaks down like a frightened child as tears flow down his cheeks. More out of instinct than logic, she rushes to his side and holds his head against her as he sobs into her shirt.
She throws her keys down onto the kitchen counter and drops her purse on a chair. It had been a long day. Her receptionist had booked all her appointments back to back, which she hated because it left her little time to record all her patient notes.
James was one of her regulars.
He had phoned a couple of days ago begging to see her before their next scheduled appointment, so she stayed back late so she could fit him in. He had started seeing her after a failed suicide attempt in the previous year.
She tried to remain impartial with her patients.
It was common practice to keep a clinical distance, but every time he came in he’d look at her with his beautiful desperate eyes as though he was silently begging her to save him.
She would have to mark him as an at-risk patient.
Going back to the place where he first jumped was a bad sign, and the hallucinations were getting worse.
She slumps down onto the couch and flicks on the TV. The screen flashes across a weather map of the state, followed by a perky blonde journalist in front of an abandoned car at some outlook in the hills.
Her heart freezes solid in her chest.
“I’m standing here in the location where the footage was taken of the winged creature, dubbed “the angel”.”
Her smiling face gives way to footage of a man with wings gliding over the hills before disappearing into the gully.
“Scientists are still scrabbling to unravel this mystery. While some are convinced that this eight-second footage has been digitally edited, others remain certain of its authenticity.”
The reel runs over and over on the screen, first in real-time, and then in slow motion.
‘Well I’ll be damned,’ she whispers.
The man’s vibrant feathers gleam under the sun’s glare. He turns and she recognises James just before he dissolves into the distance and his pixels vanish from the screen.