M Pepper Langlinais
We had wings once.
Big, glorious wings that started snowy at our shoulders and turned dusky at the ends. Mine were the shade of lavender that graces the sunset, and my sister’s were the pink color of dawn. I keep a feather from mine in a carved wooden box.
We had names, too, that twisted the tongue, so we changed those because our agent said we had to. Now I’m Melody and my sister is Aria. I find the names uninspired, but Otto says simple names are best, ones that are both easy to say and kind to the ears. He must be right because we play to packed houses every other night.
“Oh, gods, another journal.” That’s Aria, coming in and catching me writing. If you’ve ever been in the constant company of someone for three thousand years, you know how you can get on one another’s nerves. “You should be getting ready,” she says. All this time, and she still hasn’t figured out that what takes her two hours takes me ten minutes. She says I have no pride in our work and my looks.
I miss my wings.
I would fly away if I had them, except not really because I don’t have anywhere to go.
We wear synthetic wings on stage. That’s part of the . . . What did Otto call it? The gimmick. Teens pin up pictures of us in our wings and gowns, and Aria likes to show me all the fan art online, always us with big wings. “Like angels!” so many people write, which goes to show how little they understand. We are the furthest things from angels, the absolute opposite. We are sirens.
Though we were angels once, too, of a sort. But we failed to protect the one we were meant to, and we were stripped of our wings. I’d almost rather Demeter had taken our voices instead.
“What are you even writing?” Aria asks. She threatens to come over and take my journal away. “You can’t possibly have anything to say that you haven’t already,” she says. And she’s right. I go round and round in my head with the same thoughts chasing one another like a whirlwind. They only release me when we’re on stage.
It’s not that I love the singing so much, or the attention. But I love the precision and the focus. Each show, I challenge myself to be as technically perfect as I can be.
Aria doesn’t worry about perfection outside of her looks. She says it’s more important to be passionate. “That’s what they respond to,” she tells me. “Desire.”
“What do you desire?” I ask.
“For them to love me. Like the sailors did.”
“The sailors all died,” I point out.
Aria is disappointed that none of our fans has committed suicide over her yet. This, to her, is the mark of success.
“Odysseus didn’t,” Aria says darkly. Odysseus angers her, even though he’s long dead and we’re still here.
I do wonder how long we’ll be able to do this. For one thing, people will begin to notice we don’t age. We can play the plastic surgery game for a while, but not forever. Then again, fame in this day and age is like a shooting star. There and gone. We may be finished before anyone ever notices our perpetual youth. That idea comforts me a little, that we aren’t stuck like this indefinitely, probably not for very long at all.
Aria is still brooding over Odysseus, I can tell from the way she picks things up off the dressing table then slams them down again as if she could break apart his very memory in lieu of the way she failed to break his vessel. I’m glad he got away. I’m glad someone heard our song and lived to tell of it. Our music was different then, so the songs we sing now—stuff Otto hires people to write for us—does not have the same effect on humans. I think deep down Aria is dying to try something, just to see if she can still do it. During every show I am tense and worried she might. But so far she has stuck to the set list.
“What do you desire?” Aria asks suddenly, slapping a brush onto the table as if it has mortally offended her. Or maybe she’s angry because she feels obligated to ask but doesn’t really want to know.
“Wings,” I say without thinking and then wonder if it’s true.
Aria snorts, and it is so ugly a sound from such a beautiful woman that I am startled into laughing. Which only annoys her.
“Go put yours on then,” she tells me.
“It’s over an hour yet until the show,” I protest.
She stares at me in the way she knows will send me crawling away to do as commanded. I will do anything to get away from her glare. She should have been born a Gorgon.
Slamming my notebook shut, I get up from the couch and go in search of my costume. It is the same color as my wings once were, a shade the wardrobe woman called “wisteria.” Aria’s is mauve. Mine is far prettier. The corset is set with little crystals and pearls, and the skirt is frothy and stops at my knees. Aria’s dress has a long train in the back that I have to avoid stepping on during the show. She believes the train makes her appear grander than me.
The wings are not real, of course; they are worn in what Otto calls a harness. The straps are clear so the wings can appear more natural, but the straps bite into my flesh, and I think I have permanent scars under my arms. The wings are large, larger even than my real ones were, but not nearly as heavy.
I can’t put the wings on until my hair is up and out of the way, so I venture back to the dressing table, creeping out like a mouse avoiding a cat. Aria is sitting there putting on makeup for the third time. I see her stormy slate eyes slide to their corners to watch me, but she keeps her face turned resolutely to her reflection. Her hair is not up yet, either, which surprises me since she tends to do much more elaborate styles that take longer.
Aria sets down her frosted rose lipstick and says, “Help me with my hair,” which is as close as she ever comes to a truce. I obediently go to stand behind her and brush, pull, twist, pin her brown-gold locks into place.
She is the fairer of us. My hair is darker, my eyes sea green rather than storm blue, my skin olive where hers is white. She receives more fan mail, but I don’t mind. It would not be worth Aria’s irritation to be more popular.
“I’ll do yours now,” Aria says, springing up from her chair and astonishing me yet again; she never offers to help unless she thinks I am somehow making her look bad. I glance at myself in the mirror to make sure this isn’t the case. Does she see something I cannot?
Aria laughs when she sees my self-consciousness. Her laugh is not any lovelier than her snort. It’s what books call “throaty,” but also harsh, like a bird’s caw.
“You’re fine,” she assures me. She places her hands on my shoulders and pushes me down into her vacated seat. Her fingers are thin but strong, like talons, right down to the gleaming, filed nails. She pulls at my hair none too kindly, like an eagle pulling apart its dinner. But she works quickly and with confidence, and soon enough my hair is up in the most complicated arrangement I have ever worn.
“I learned it during the Regency period,” Aria says. “Do you remember?”
Of course I remember; we are both cursed with clear memory. We had performed in opera houses all over Europe, the toasts of the town, but considered too low to be good company. Aria had hated that. But she’d loved the clothes and the hair.
“When our stars fall, you could open a salon,” I suggest, only half joking. I am testing the water, so to speak.
Aria laughs again, but it is almost a snarl; she does not like to think there might come a time when she won’t be famous. “And what would you do?”
“Become a writer.” There, I’ve answered again without thinking. Where do these words come from?
“Get your wings on,” is all Aria says.
We can hear the crowd long before show time. They get quieter for the opening act, which is a group of handsome young boys Aria personally selected. They wink and nod at us on their way out to the stage, and I duck my head, too shy to smile back. Aria does, of course, and looks like she might swallow them whole. They are as handsome as any of the sailors we lured, these modern would-be Greek gods.
We watch their set from the shadowed sides of the stage. The singer also plays guitar, his shaggy dark curls dripping sweat within minutes. He is cute, but I like the one on the other guitar. His hair is just as shaggy but lighter in color, like caramel, and he sweats less. I could go the rest of eternity without moisture after so long on those rocks.
“You should talk to him,” Aria says. Once again she has intuited my thoughts.
Desire, I think. Do I desire this boy? He seems so young to me, though physically we are about the same age, passing in the modern world for our twenties. And I will never find someone as old as me in spirit, not anyone but Aria.
“I wouldn’t know what to say,” I remark.
“It’s easy,” Aria says. “Tell him how much you like their music. Be able to say which song is your favorite,” she adds, making it sound like a warning. “They always ask.”
In truth, all their songs sound alike to me, and half the time I can’t tell what they’re saying anyway.
“Which is your favorite?” I ask.
“The lead, of course.”
“I meant which song,” I say. Leave it to Aria to go for the front man.
She waves a hand. “Oh, gods, just name one. But you’d better really like it because if he falls for you he’ll sing it to you constantly.”
I nod at the sweaty singer. “Has that one fallen for you?”
Aria grins in an unpleasant way. “Several times.”
She could have them all if she wanted; I suppose I should praise her for her apparent restraint.
The boys finish in varying degrees of perspiration. They thank the crowd and wave and file off stage. As he passes, the caramel-haired one smiles at me and says, “Hey.”
“Hey,” I squeak back.
Aria narrows her eyes at me then looks back over her shoulder as the last boy—the drummer, he’s always slowest—disappears around the corner. She’s irritated because he spoke to me, not her. Worse, none of them spoke to her.
It will take ten minutes or so for them to turn over the stage for our set. We have lights and crisscrossing walkways and big screens. We’re supposed to enter from the top of the walkways, one of us on each side, and walk down to meet one another at the center of the stage. Aria always tells me my walk is boring. “Swing your hips,” she says. I’ve tried it in front of the mirror when she’s not around, and it looks ridiculous, so I just walk my usual way, which is difficult enough in the platform shoes.
It takes me a minute to realize she’s no longer beside me as I watch the roadies set up. My heart leaps into my throat because I’m sure she’s gone after the guitarist just to prove to herself, and me, that she can have whoever she wants. She’ll have him wrapping steel strings around his throat or something if I don’t stop her. So I find myself rushing backstage in hopes of catching her in time.
But instead of finding Aria, I run directly into Caramel-Hair as he is strolling back toward the side stage. Moving in a frantic blur, I very nearly collide with him, but he quickly reaches out, hands on my arms, to prevent us from crashing.
I am not used to being touched by anyone but Aria, and only then when she’s helping me with my hair or costume. The warmth of this boy’s—man’s; he is a man in this day and age, if a young one—hands only proves how cold natured I am; I feel like I might melt if he doesn’t let go. Yet at the same time I am reluctant to throw off his touch. I look up to see his grin, and it feels as warm as his hands. Like sunlight.
“Whoa,” he says. “I was just coming to see you.”
“Me?” I ask. My relief that he is all right mixes with anxiety over where Aria might be. What if she is looking for him? What if she sees us like this and it makes her even more irate?
“You realize this is the first time any of us have heard you talk?” he asks. “I mean, we’ve heard you sing, but you never talk to anyone.”
“I . . .” I want to tell him that isn’t true, but I suspect it is.
“So when you said ‘hey’ to me earlier, I thought maybe there’d been a breakthrough,” he continues. And now he releases my arms and holds out a hand. “I’m Bryce.”
I stare at the hand for a moment, temporarily unable to remember what I’m expected to do with it. Finally, I grasp it and discover I am warmer than before. Some of Bryce’s heat has bled into me somehow. “Melody,” I tell him.
“I know.” He runs his hand through his hair, but as it was already mussed, his action does no damage. “You’re going to have to get out there in a minute, but maybe after the show . . .?”
I wait for him to finish. When he doesn’t, I ask, “After the show what?”
“We could . . .” He shrugs one shoulder. “Hang out?”
I do not know what is involved in “hanging out,” but I’m certain Aria will not approve. Not unless she is also invited.
“Can Aria come?” I ask.
I nod. I need to get to the walkway before Aria comes looking and finds us talking. “Okay,” I say. “After the show we can hang out.” The last two words tangle my tongue.
Bryce laughs, and it is low and warm—everything about this young man is warm, and it fascinates me. “You’re not American, are you?”
“No,” I say. “Is that bad?”
He shakes his head. “It’s adorable. See you later.”
And I scurry off as the first notes of our opening number blare, the word “adorable” echoing through my mind.
Aria waits on her walkway; I spot her as I scramble up to take my place. Her expression is severe, but as our cue comes she breaks into a wide smile and saunters down the ramp, hips in full swing. Challenging myself again to perfection, I try to match her pace, so we meet at the same moment, but I end up there a step ahead, earning me a brief glare before Aria returns her brilliant smile to the roaring audience and begins to sing.
She is, I think, a better singer than me though there are many critics who call us indistinguishable. Hearing that always upsets Aria, but I don’t mind. We were made for the same purpose, after all. Why shouldn’t we be more or less alike? In voice if not looks, since our voices were our reason for being.
We sing together on the chorus then I sing the second verse. Most of our songs are shared in this way. I spy a few signs in the audience; most are for Aria, but a few attest undying love for me, too, turning the M in my name into music notes. Aria doesn’t mind so long as she has more.
Some of the fans wear fake wings as well. I discourage this behavior because I don’t think it’s fair to the people around them who have trouble seeing or keep getting sideswiped. In interviews I’ll sometimes mention it, and I’ve noticed fewer over the past several concerts, but there are always some. People are thoughtless, selfish in the pursuit of their own pleasure. Or maybe, I hope, they just haven’t read the interviews yet.
We stroll this way and that on the stage. We sing and do choreographed dance moves. Aria embellishes hers to the crowd’s delight. I stick to what I know and have practiced. Still, my usual focus lags and my mind wanders. I think about “hanging out” with Bryce. Where will this occur? What does it entail? “Adorable” is a good thing, is it not?
My inattention causes trouble before long. I miss a step, and Aria glares again. I’m sure the audience can’t tell the difference, but Aria clearly believes I am ruining everything. To make matters worse, as I correct myself I tread on her train. I’m quick to jump off before it can tear, but there is a definite print from my shoe on the gauzy fabric.
Aria looks daggers at me, and her big smile as she sings is more chilling than cheerful. I am so worried about what she might do after the show I almost forget to come in at the chorus.
My misery needn’t wait so long, however; Aria’s ire must be immediately satisfied. She begins to change the lyrics. She knows I cannot improvise nor keep up. I flounder, clinging to the song I know as I would to those rocks millennia ago, but now Aria has changed the tune as well. Have you ever tried to sing one song while listening to another? I warble to a stop, unable to continue.
Aria goes on. She creates all new dance steps. I stop moving, rooted to a spot stage right. I stare out at the audience, and they are still roaring. To me, it sounds like jeers. Their open mouths appear hateful.
My sight blurs and tears spill. And still Aria is singing, dancing, the crowd screaming, screaming . . .
I blink away my tears as the horror rises in me. Our fans have their hands clapped to their ears. Those open mouths are hateful; the screams are from pain. Aria, I realize, is singing one of the ancient songs. The Greek is so natural to me, I had not noticed. But it is killing them.
I think of Bryce backstage, listening, maybe dying at that very moment. I see the blood coming from the front row’s ears, noses, eyes. In the balcony, people are throwing themselves over the railings, just as the sailors used to jump off their ships. And I stand there frozen as Aria’s song reaches a high-pitched crescendo.
Motion from across the stage breaks my stasis. Bryce is standing there, wide-eyed, yet miraculously unharmed. I want to run to him, but Aria stands between the two of us. If she sees him, she is liable to rip his eyes out with her bare hands. Still, his eyes connect with mine, and he gives a nod, as if we have agreed on something. But I have no idea what he means by it.
And then he launches himself at Aria.
And for lack of options, I do, too.
We are immortal, my sister and I, but live by the grace of whatever gods are left. Which is to say, they can intervene and end our existence if they see fit. In the last three thousand years it has become clear that we either have been forgotten entirely, or there are no gods left on Olympus. Whichever it is, it comes to the same.
Bryce knocks Aria to the ground, and she makes a strangled sound, but at least her singing has ceased. He is sitting on her by the time I reach them, and she is indeed flailing and clawing at him. As I get closer, I see what has saved him—he has crammed his feedback buds deep into his ears. I am momentarily warmed by his swift thinking, then immediately alarmed at what he must think of us. He will want nothing to do with me now.
But there is no time to brood. Aria has raked the side of Bryce’s face, his arms. She is shrieking as she tears strips off his flesh, but to Bryce’s credit he holds her down despite the incredible pain she must be causing.
“Shut up, you harpy!” he says, and slaps Aria. It stuns her to silence and she stops moving, blinking up at him in utter shock. For that moment everything is still. Then Aria bucks and screams, “I’m a siren!”
“You’re evil!” he shouts in her face.
The words wound me, even though they are directed elsewhere. I am, after all, also a siren, made for evil.
Bryce pins Aria’s arms and looks at me. “Tear a piece off her dress, would you?”
Aria throws me a look that promises much agony if I do as he says. I kneel down and rip a wad of cloth from her train, reasoning it was going to have to be replaced anyway. I hand the fabric to Bryce, who wads it up and holds it to Aria’s face.
She turns her head this way and that, lips pressed shut. All the while, she continues to try and buck him off, but she is slight and he is not.
“Kick her,” he tells me, and Aria’s eyes go wide at me. You wouldn’t dare! that look says. So I do it. I kick her in the ribs, and her mouth opens to scream and Bryce shoves the wad of gown into it, deep, so that she cannot even spit it out.
“More fabric,” Bryce commands, and I reach for the remainder of the train. “A long, thin piece if you can,” he says.
I manage to do as he asks. He forces Aria’s wrists together and says, “Tie her.”
This time I hesitate. I stand there with the bit of cloth fluttering in my hand, the beading on it sparking under the lights. I find myself looking around for help, for someone else to do this. The roadies? No sign of them. The tech crew? I see our man slumped over the board. The arena is filled with bodies, some writhing, many more frighteningly still.
“Melody!” Bryce calls me back to the task at hand. His eyes are pleading. “You can’t let her get away with this.”
Slowly I bend and wrap Aria’s wrists together. “Tight,” Bryce says. So I wrap them so tightly her slim, pale flesh puffs out over the material. Aria tries to protest but only chokes on the wad in her mouth. She drums her heels under Bryce and he grimaces. “We’re going to have to do her legs, too.”
This time I rend my own dress. It seems only fair. Bryce sits on Aria’s legs while I tie her ankles together.
Only then does he remove the buds from his ears. “Are you really a siren?” he asks.
I hang my head.
Aria squirms on the stage like a magician’s trick gone wrong; she is no escape artist.
“All my band mates . . .” Bryce says, his voice breaking.
My head droops farther. “How did you know?” I ask. “To put in the buds?”
Warm fingertips find my chin, lifting it gently. “Just a guess,” he says. “Or quick thinking. When I realized her singing . . .” He looks to where Aria is now trying to roll her way to the side stage, though her fake wings make it difficult. “We should call the police.”
“And tell them what? That a mythological creature killed a stadium worth of fans?” Will I be blamed, too, I wonder?
“Good point,” Bryce sighs. “If we tell them something went wrong with the sound system . . .”
“Then we’ll have to explain why Aria is tied up,” I remind him. Untying her is not an option.
Bryce takes my hand in his and squeezes. “You’ve lived a long time.”
I blink up at him, not understanding his point.
“You’re, like, a siren from the myths, right?” he goes on.
“Yes,” I say, still not following his logic.
He looks again at Aria who has run into a wall and is having difficulty maneuvering around a corner.
“So you’ve had to change your identity . . .”
“Ah,” I say, as comprehension dawns.
“Let’s go,” he says.
My gaze goes over the mass of bodies. Bryce squeezes my hand again, prompting me to look at him. “You can’t do anything for them. But this is going to be insane enough for law enforcement. If we disappear, well, it’s just one more weird thing.”
“Aria will tell them we did it. I did it,” I say.
“And what are they going to believe? That you somehow sang people to death?” Bryce asks.
I eye him with wonder. “Yet you accept it without question,” I marvel.
“I must be bewitched,” he says with a grin. “Come on. We need to go now, before the police arrive.”
“I just have to get one thing from the dressing room,” I tell him. We run offstage, jumping over Aria’s squirming form, and I grab my notebook and my wooden box. Then we are off, out the backstage exit and into the world.
The news coverage is extensive. Survivors from the concert are interviewed repeatedly, but none of them seems to remember the same thing. The police cannot put together the puzzle of what happened.
As for Aria, she was found electrocuted. “As if a strong cable had been applied to her chest,” the reports say. No mention of her being bound. At least two examiners say, “It’s almost as if she was struck by lightning.”
I send up a silent prayer of thanksgiving.
Bryce and I cut and color our hair. For a few months, we travel and take odd jobs that don’t require IDs. Then we decide it’s time to settle down. Aria was always the one to get us new names and passports, but this time I must be brave and do it myself. For us.
The day Bryce asks, “Can you have children?” is the happiest day of my life.
“I don’t know,” I admit. “But we can certainly try.”
And maybe, I think, they will be blessed with wings.
M Pepper Langlinais is an award-winning screenwriter, produced playwright and published author. She is best known for her Sherlock Holmes stories. Her next novel, CHANGERS: MANIFESTING DESTINY will be released by Evernight Teen in summer 2016. Find all her available work on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/M-Pepper-Langlinais/e/B008FBOSPE/