Tooth and Claw
Clary had always wanted wings.
The ones she wanted existed only in her imagination, though. She'd seen people with claws and scales on the television, but never people with wings. She thought about it often: first, her arms would lengthen as the bones received their new instructions, her skin would get a bumpy rash, and she would wake, one day, to find the buds of feathers pushing through her skin. Clary had never been infected with a phage, but she could imagine the wings as clearly as if she'd seen it on the evening news.
But the wings her mother presented to her were cut from butcher paper. On the waxy side were long strokes of green marker, to represent veins. Insect wings, maybe, though the edges of the paper were torn to look like feathers.
"I found them in the basement, in some old school stuff," her mother said. "You want them?"
The night before, Clary had been locked in the closet for two hours, and her mother must have felt guilty.
"I don't want paper wings."
Her mother stiffened.
Immediately Clary realized her mistake. "I mean--I really do like--"
"Why do I bother, Clara? It's always the same with you."
Clary backed away from her mother slowly, as if she'd startled a strange dog.
"Don't you walk away from me. Clara!" Her hands gripped Clary's shoulders, digging into the soft tissue between her neck and shoulders. Clary's breath started to come in short gasps. She hated anyone touching her, but her mother was the worst. Clary felt the vibrations of her mother's angry voice in the fat of her cheeks, down her neck, through her chest.
"Look at me. What's wrong with you?"
Clary opened her eyes. She concentrated at the mole on her mother's forehead. Even now it was smaller than yesterday.
"When I do something for you, Clary, I expect you to say 'thank you.' Why can't you be like your brother? Why can't you use manners like a normal person?"
Clary tried to stop listening. She had learned long ago how to blur the sounds together until they were no longer words. She concentrated on the mole. Her mother couldn't afford phage therapy, but now you could catch a phage from a door handle or by sitting next to someone sick on the bus. They were everywhere, and it seemed her mother caught all the lucky ones. One of the cancerous moles on her cheek had already turned into a pink patch of new skin.
"Answer me, Clara." Her mother was breathing hard like she'd been running.
The jumble of noises Clara had last heard meant nothing.
"Yes?" she said, cautiously.
Her mother's mouth twitched upwards, but it was not a smile at all. "You little brat," she said, her voice dead calm. "Get in the closet. I don't want to see you."
Clary felt relief as soon as the hands left her shoulders. She ran to the hall closet and shut herself inside.
The light clicked and Clary blinked in the sudden dark.
"I'll let you out when you're ready," her mother said on the other side.
Her mother thought that the closet was punishment, but it wasn't. Clary liked the enclosed space, smelling of rubber and feet. It made her feel safe. Clary first did what she always did when she was in the closet: she checked to make sure she was all there. She ran her hands against her head--ears, hair, check. Over her shirt and thighs, down to her inward-turning knees, her socked feet-check, check, check. The ritual calmed her. When she was younger, she used to pretend that she'd caught the phage that caused blindness, and that all of this was practice for her future life. But Clary had never caught a thing.
She was the only person she knew who didn't. There were plenty of people out there who didn't get infected--the news said so--but she wanted so much to turn into something else. It seemed almost like magic, the way the RNA in the phages joined with a person's DNA and changed it forever. The phages reminded the DNA how to make genes it forgot ages ago, or told the DNA how to make new things.
Clary lay on the floor and reached up to run her fingers up and down the sleeve of Gabe's coat. Her mother had forgotten it was in here; she no longer used this closet except for punishment. On Gabe's birthday--the day that would have been his birthday--their mother had gathered up all Gabe's toys, his clothes, his velcro shoes-and had thrown them out into the street. Most of it had blown away or been picked up by street cleaners, but Clary still occasionally found a sock in the gutter or a wheel from a toy truck in the grass.
Outside, her mother shut the door of her bedroom and turned on the television. The sounds from the TV were harsh and ragged and Clary realized it wasn't the television at all. Her mother was crying.
At dinner, her mother opened the closet door. Like always, they pretended nothing had happened. "It smells good," Clary said. She knew better than to ask to go over to Benito's house for dinner.
Her mother lit a cigarette with the butt of the last and inhaled deeply. "Chicken."
They sat on the couch and her mother turned on the news. Clary pulled the trays from the oven and set them on the coffee table. By then her mother had lit a third cigarette. Clary had a fuzzy memory of her mother trying to quit, back when she had been diagnosed with cancer. But now the lung cancer had shrunk and disappeared into healthy pink tissue; even now, her mother was getting better. The phages she'd caught gave her new genes so she could heal herself.
Clary ate her chicken, and let the square of mashed potatoes--still frozen in the center--melt in her mouth by the forkful. Her mother stabbed at hers but ate nothing.
The news was following the latest of the phage outbreaks. Clary watched carefully, paying extra attention when the announcer discussed the phages that had become airborne. Anyone could get that kind. Anybody could get chitina and grow insect scales rather than hair and nails; anyone might grow wings. The phages had been built to heal, but they picked up genes from animals they infected. Now they were strange and unpredictable.
The latest segment covered the reanima phage. Clary ate her brownie with her fingers and watched the dead come back to life.
"Intended to extend life, this viral particle has taken a terrible turn." The camera cut to the image of hands working themselves out of a black body bag. "Once free of the morgue, they--the bodies--attempt to go on living their normal lives. These 'zombies' go to school, to work--they even pick up their dry cleaning. But if you see one, don't be surprised if they don't say 'hello.'" None of the victims, so far, has been able to speak."
On the screen was a man in a filthy shirt standing at a street corner. He wasn't wearing any pants, but none of the passerby seemed to notice. He pressed the button on the street pole and waited to cross the street. Other than the pants, he didn't look different from anybody else. A scientist explained: "Luckily, this virus runs its course in approximately twenty-four, thirty-six hours." Clary watched the man from the street corner collapse, dead once more. She kept her eyes straight, though she wanted to look at her mother.
Gabe had not caught the virus. He had stayed buried.
"When I'm dead," her mother remarked, speaking around her cigarette, "you make sure to cremate me."
"I will," Clary said. Her mother looked at her sharply, but Clary kept her eyes on the TV.
At school, Clary was the only student who wanted to spray the bleach on the desks. She liked the pattern that it gave her days: every hour, she collected the spray cleaner from behind the teacher's desk and cleaned the desks, starting with hers and going clockwise.
"You are such a dear," Mrs. Wegner told her. "Honestly. Those laws!" She shook her head and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Make sure to get Robbie's, Clara. Oh! And Maritza's. She won't be back, either."
Robbie's desk was tacky with the fluid that had leaked from his skin. Clary sprayed it twice and wiped down his special seat. He'd been in Clary's class since the first grade--five years. She carefully wiped around the bolts in the chair even though it looked like no one would need it. There were plenty of empty desks.
When Clary got to Benito's desk, she gestured for him to help her, but he made a face and looked away. She didn't need help--she could finish her classwork and still have time to spray and wipe the desks every hour--but everything was more fun with Benito. She felt relaxed around him.
"C'mon," she said in an undertone, half-joking. "Help me wipe. Or I'll spray you."
"Pssh! I do enough of that at home. You sound like my sisters."
Clary set her bottle of spray on top of his fractions booklet. He could have been in pre-algebra, like she was, but Benny liked to play dumb: he insisted it made things easier. "Three sisters, and you want me to believe you clean? Yeah. Right."
He looked wounded for a moment, but he couldn't maintain the expression. He took the stack of brown paper towels and started to follow her, scrubbing at the desks Clary had sprayed. He had a cosmetic phage like the one her mother once caught, one that told his body to destroy scar tissue. Clary's mother had been fine, but Benito had been in a car crash when he was eight, and now his old wounds broke open at least once a week. He caught up with Clary, but he didn't stand too close. He held up the paper towels to her, like proof.
"You forget," he said, smiling, "that my sisters have claws."
Clary smiled and sprayed the next desk. The other students, used to the procedure, lifted their books and papers when she passed. She took extra care to spray around Juana's ruined arms, then took a towel from Benny to help wipe up the shed skin that had piled on the desk. Clary didn't know what kind of phage Juana had, but it made the girl scratch at her skin hard enough to draw blood. Juana inspected the skin under her nails--it was gray and flaky, like the stuff rubbed off of lottery numbers--and after a moment's hesitation, popped her fingers in her mouth.
Clary looked at Benny. Maybe once he would have laughed; not anymore. Benny dropped his eyes and gave her the wad of used paper towels. "Here." He limped back to his seat.
Clary pretended to shake out the damp paper towels over the trashcan. No one wanted to be Juana, or Dean there with plastic wrap around his new, external lung that hung from his throat like a wet pink rag. But she didn't want to be the person she was.
She took a piece of Juana's skin--gray and transparent, like the shed skin of a snake--and brought it up to her mouth. It didn't taste like anything. She shoved the rest of the towels into the trash.
When she turned, Benny was staring at her from his seat. He knew what she was up to. She felt her cheeks flush and gave him the most challenging stare she could manage. So?
He looked away, and he didn't smile. Instead, he opened his book of fractions and started to write. Clary went to her own desk and started to read the instructions for her next assignment, for social studies: a diorama of Aztec life. The words blurred on the page, and she concentrated harder. After a while she gave up and made circles on the paper with her pencil until the sheet of paper gave way and she had a ragged hole right above NAME. She concentrated on her insides to see if she felt any different, wondering if she could feel Juana's phage multiplying in her cells. But she felt the same as she always did, and the feeling lasted all day.
After school, she met up with Benito at the usual spot: a spiderweb of cracks in the sidewalk that marked where the school grounds ended. They didn't have to say a word: he had left his backpack on the ground and stood a few steps away, and Clary picked it up and slung it over her shoulder. Because of his ever-opening injuries, Benny walked with his head at an awkward angle, and he'd stopped growing years ago. Even without a backpack, Benny walked tentatively, like he had rocks in his shoes.
From Oak Street to Willow they talked about the Aztecs.
"You gotta make a temple," Benny told her. "Show somebody getting their heart torn out."
"They didn't do that all the time."
"Yeah, but when they did, it must've been great." Benny nodded like he could see the scene before him.
Clary had opened her mouth to answer when Benny tripped.
He went down, arms flailing; Clary dropped the backpacks. "Benny!" She took one step towards him and then immediately stepped back. "Are you okay? Benny?"
He groaned. Clary gathered herself together and knelt down by his head. A small rivulet of blood dripped from his nose onto the sidewalk. "Should I get your mom?"
"No. No, I'm fine." He pushed himself up with his hands, wincing.
"Yeah, you want some?" He stood up gingerly and wiped at his nose with the back of his hand. She must have looked terrified, because he tried to smile reassuringly. "I'm fine, Clary. Happens all the time."
Clary picked up the backpacks and swung one over each shoulder. Benny stood and shook himself, sighed, and started walking.
His voice now sounded like he had a cold. "Clary, he said. "You know I saw you." He used the other hand to wipe at the smears on his cheek. "Why do you keep doing stuff like that?"
"You want to be like Juana? Like me?"
"I don't know," she said. "I wouldn't mind being you."
Benito shook his head tightly, then winced and rubbed his neck. They were getting closer to their neighborhood: there was more plywood on windows they passed, and every other house had a weathered For Sale sign. The air began to smell of smoke; someone was burning garbage. Benito's limp had grown worse and now they moved only one sidewalk crack for every five steps.
"Hey, you know what I'd want? If I got another phage?" His voice was lighter, playful.
She could tell without looking that he was smiling, and it made her want to smile back. They'd played this game since kindergarten, back when they thought that phages could turn them into dinosaurs or monster trucks.
She pretended to think. "A phage that makes your skin into suit of armor. Like a rhino."
"Nah. I thought about it. I'm gonna get that muscle-y one. Like the one that wrestler got. Get ripped."
Clary hid her smile. Benny was shorter than she was, and still wore the cast-off shoes that Clary had worn in the third grade. "You going to be Superman?"
"You think I can only do super?"
Benny punched the air, pretending, but the move must have hurt, because he winced and rubbed at his neck and shoulder. When he spoke, his voice wasn't playful anymore. "I get it, you know? I'd pay anything to be somebody else."
They were getting closer, and Clary felt her stomach clench.
Benny gave her a single sideways glance. "You're staying over, right?" He didn't wait for an answer, just nodded to himself.
Clary snapped the heads off a handful of grass seed. She'd known Benny so long that long that thanks would have embarrassed both of them. "Yeah," she said, her throat tight.
Benito's house was only two houses away from hers. Benny's father had been killed by an unknown phage: when they opened him up, they found his heart was covered in dark fur. Benny's mother always set a place for him, even when the rest of the family ate in front of the television.
Rosie, the middle sister, was watching television with the volume turned up all the way. She had claws rather than the second joint in her fingers, and she'd painted the claws red, so when she waved to them it looked like her hand was trailing blood. She saw Clary's two backpacks and laughed. "Look at you, little man. Got your girlfriend working."
Benny turned a dusky red. Hurry, he mouthed at Clary. She followed him down the stairs into the quiet of the basement, running her hand over the rough wood of the unfinished walls. No one else came down here. Benny had laid out a sleeping bag on the hard dirt floor, and that was their island.
Benny threw himself down on the sleeping bag. He plucked at the balls of lint that had formed on the surface. "You ever think about running away?"
Clary sat as far from him as she could and still be on the sleeping bag. He got touchy when his sisters said things. "They're stupid," she said.
"No. Really," he said. "I've been thinking about it." He plucked at the lint balls faster and faster. "We could take a tent. Or maybe go live in one of the houses no one's in anymore. Hide."
"The school would tell them where we were."
"We wouldn't go to school." He sounded so certain of himself that it frightened her. Clary wondered if he'd thought of this before, if this had been a plan all along. She liked school. She liked the pattern it stamped on her days. "We have to go to school."
He raised his head. "When we gonna use fractions?"
"Come on. What would we eat?"
"I don't know. Steal stuff. I have my scout kit."
Even thinking about it made her mouth go dry. Clary wiped her wet palms on her jeans and tried to breathe deeply. It was hard to sit still. Normally Benny's basement felt safer to Clary than any other place in the world, but now it seemed large, filled with dark corners. She wanted to run home and curl up in the closet.
Benny outlined his plan: they would take money with them, he explained, and use it to buy food until they figured things out.
"You really want to do this?"
He looked up from his scout kit. "I'll go if you go."
She tried to make her voice sound normal, but her body was shaking. "I can't."
"We could live in one of the abandoned houses."
"I can't." Her voice broke on the last word and she realized she was standing up. She felt like she was going to explode. The nervous energy thrummed in her blood and she knew that she had to get out of the basement. "I can't, Benny. I've got to go."
Benny forgot himself and reached for her, like he was going to hold her back. "Wait--I--"
But she was already up the stairs.
She didn't stop running until she had her hand on the closet door. She collapsed inside and concentrated on the darkness and the smell of Gabe's coat. In the closet, nothing could harm her.
Clary waited in the dark until her heart slowed and her palms dried.
When she finally climbed out of the closet, her muscles were stiff and sore. Her mother was in the living room and looked up with confusion. "How long have you been in there?"
"I don't know."
She ground her cigarette into the ashtray. "I'm sorry. Did I--when did I send you in there?"
Her mother's pupils were contracted to pinpricks and Clary knew that she wouldn't remember a thing.
"It felt like forever."
Her mother flinched. She went to hug Clary but then remembered and stepped back. She wrapped her arms around herself instead. "I've very sorry," she said.
Clary couldn't help it. She didn't wait for Benito in the morning, but hurried on to school by herself. She couldn't look at him when she bleached the desks. She didn't meet his eyes when he left put a note on her desk. He wasn't safe anymore. She scrubbed at the desks so hard her fingers became red and raw. She picked up the note and felt a stab of panic so sharp that she gasped and let the note fall to the floor.
She couldn't help it, but she knew it was wrong. She reminded herself that Benny was her best friend, but her body didn't remember. She wrote him a note with I'M SORRY written twice. After lunch she sat at her desk and cried.
"Clara, dear, what's wrong?" Mrs. Wegner asked, forgetting herself and touching Clary on the back. Clary startled and curled closer into herself, and after several long moments Mrs. Wegner left her alone.
After a few days it became easier.
But without Benny, the way home was much, much longer. The sky seemed incredibly vast and threatening. She started to tell her mother that she was sick, and her mother didn't seem to care one way or another. "It's nice to have you home," her mother told her on the second day. But she didn't say what was nice about it, or seem to remember that Clary was in the house at all.
On the third day of staying home her mother came to the door of her room. "You really all right?" she asked. "I mean, you just have a bit of the stomach flu."
"Maybe I'm getting a phage."
Her mother nodded. She turned to go, then paused with her hand on the knob. "Was it your little friend? Is that what you're upset about?"
"Why? Did Benny come over?"
Her mother looked confused, then surprised. She walked back into Clary's room and sat down on the bedspread, her face gentle in a way that Clary remembered from a long time ago.
"No," she said. "No, he didn't come over."
The words that came next were not really words, not to Clary. It sounded like her mother was speaking in a foreign language. The things that came into her mind were things that she'd always known: Benito had been sick for a long time. With his awkward gait he had a tendency to fall. Two days ago, when walking home from school, he'd tripped and hit his head on the curb. The impact had snapped his once-broken neck. A dark fog threatened to take over Clary's brain: she wanted to run into the closet.
She concentrated; she made her mother's words come back together. "I'm amazed it didn't happen sooner, with a phage like that. But the lady who called from your school said it was instant. He didn't feel anything."
The fog in her brain threatened to overwhelm her. It was dark as thunderclouds, and she found herself rocking back and forth on the bed.
"Clara? Clara?! Don't you start that again!" Her mother's voice was starting to become angry.
One thing in the fog became clear: Benny was like the closet. He was the right way home. Oh, how she wanted to run to the dark, closed space! If she kept rocking, her mother would send her there, so she slowed, gripping the sheets on both sides of her body. It was so hard to keep still. She wanted to move, to run. She wanted to check Benny's house. She took deep breaths and imagined her wings growing on either side of her: her fingers didn't end in the crumpled sheets, but extended beyond the bed in long brown feathers.
Her mother was looking at her. She seemed puzzled, as if she didn't know what to do. She shrugged and patted down her pockets for a cigarette. "You going to be okay?"
Clary thought harder than she ever had in her life. She considered the numbers. There was not going to be enough time, not nearly enough.
Clary looked her mother in the eyes and nodded.
She gathered what she might need. It was a strange feeling, to no longer be afraid. She was nervous, a little, but having made the decision she felt some measure of peace. She thought about how terribly she had failed Benny, and yet how she knew with absolute certainty that he would not fail her.
Clary sat in her room and waited.
I will not be afraid, she told herself. I will not. When the nervousness threatened to become real fear, she imagined that she had indeed been infected. Surely there was a phage that could make her brave. There had to be.
After five hours, she heard the tap on the window.
His neck was bent to the right and caked with blood. He was pale and his eyes had a slight cloudy film.
Come on, he mouthed.
Clary pushed out the window screen. It had only been propped up against the frame, and it fell with a clatter. Neither of them flinched. Benito's hand was smeared in drying blood, but Clary took it anyway.