He pulled ajar his bedroom door ever so slightly and cautiously, and squinted down the hallway for his lurking parents. Reassured that they were off snoring somewhere in the house, he slipped out of his room with his backpack on his shoulder. The floorboards were creakier than doors in overdramatic horror films, so unless he were as soft-pawed as a cat, there was no way to tiptoe inaudibly. Passing by the grandfather clock, he didn’t have to check the time to tell it had been exactly 02:37 am. He had done this before, after all. But he knew he had to rush.
Once Alexis sneaked out of the house through the ceiling-to-floor window in the living room and hurdled over the fences, he pedalled his bike apace, cutting through the nocturnal gloom. It had been chilly lately, and one could feel it in the wisps of fog scattered around like wet swabs of cotton candy.
A cold sweat moistened his nape and matted his hair. The backpack rattled as the tires sped away from the city to the morbid thorn woods.
Monsters dwell there, they say. Crowded teeth and five eyes.
Eva in kindergarten said that once her aunt’s great grandfather found bloody entrails and human bones just outside the woods. Alexis laughed at the thought while the city lights faded away in the pervading mist.
He checked his fluorescent watch again. 02:51 am. 12 more minutes.
He rode faster as the sharp wind blew against his skin, turning his face paler and cheeks redder. Strands of perspiring hair stuck out from under his helmet like unkempt hay and straw.
Alexis pulled a hard brake just at the demarcation of the woods, but only to fish out his mask and rubber arm pads. The trees could get…pokey.
Heaving exhausted breaths, he inhaled cold air and wore the mask. The pads were on. He already knew the path. He was the only one who did.
Just as Alexis flitted inside, the brambles and thorns began clawing at him, leaving nicks here and lesions there, as if they were teasing him, playing with him. He flinched when a crooked branch splintered on his cheekbone above the mask just below the eye. “Damn the Saints and all the vodka they ever got drunk on!” He cursed under his breath.
Alexis didn’t particularly entertain the idea of giving himself up to the mercy of the thorn woods, what with all the carnivorous monsters actually lingering around. He could hear a peculiar, gruff squawk nearby. But he was overly fond of the rendezvous he had with her.
With about three minutes left on the clock, he finally entered the glade and collapsed. This was one of the very few spots in the woods where the trees looked away and the verdure saw both sunshine and moonbeams. A rocky stream splashed in its course and he never knew where its inception or destination was.
Alexis splayed on the grass and panted enervated breaths. He watched the mist twirling from puffs of exhaled air. The blanket of ebony sky was peppered with stellar sequins. He counted the stars and the seconds, until he heard the flapping wings he yearned for.
There, amidst the stars, was the black pair of pinions beating like they had emerged from the yellowed pages of a fairytale. And carried afloat by the wings, there was she. Alexis had watched this surreal moment quite a few times before, but he never got used to the mesmerism of it all. She descended with her spiraling horns and barbed tail.
He sat up. The first night he had seen her flashed in his eyes. He was scampering away from his bullies and had hurtled into the woods. He sprinted until he realised he was as good as lost. Lucie was soaring above this glade. “Lucie Ferrall,” she had spoken. She had black veins stitching her alabaster skin. Alexis would not have been so petrified and blacked out if it were a vampire or tyrannosaurus instead. You knew what those things were, but creatures like Lucie never crossed your mind. If they crossed your path, however, there was never a second time.
But for Alexis, there had been. And as Lucie sat beside him and folded her pulchritudinous wings, he remembered it was the fifth time.
“I see the woods didn’t spare you again,” she pointed at his face.
“I haven’t given up hope yet.” He laughed. “They might actually like a human someday, you never know.”
“Why do you keep coming back, Alexis?” Lucie Ferrall hugged her knees and smiled with her jagged teeth peeking out.
“No better place to be,” he replied simply, peeling off his mask and arm pads.
“They don’t see me the way you do.”
“You’re not a monster.”
“Humans are the real monsters. They just don’t look like one.”
“They’re blind to it but…”
“It’s just unfair, you know?” She cut in. “You humans compel us to prey for self-defense, and then call us demons and ostracise us. Who ever blames the hornet for stinging?”
“You sound kind of…ornery. Is everything alright?”
Lucie let out a glum sigh. “Your Queen…her pet Valkyries hunted down one of my brothers tonight.”
He stopped short. What could he say to comfort her? While he couldn’t point fingers at his own kind, he couldn’t defend hers either.
“It’s okay. I don’t hate them,” she said. “I just pity you humans. You can never see beyond what your two eyes make you see.”
“Not everybody is like that,” he offered.
“There’s you, so I guess there are others like you. But a bouquet can’t make a garden, Alexis.”
He only nodded, not having a riposte. When a few minutes had passed, the silence proved too much for him.
“I got you something,” he said, fishing in his bag.
“Again? What is it?” Alexis noted the slight uplift in her voice.
“I still haven’t finished the pastries you gave me last time. They’re tasty, but kind of sandy and bitter.”
“It was chocolate flavoured, Lucie! It’s already too sweet for us!” He found what he was searching for, but kept pretending otherwise to pique her interest.
“It’s a small bag! You can’t dunk your head in it.”
“Okay, okay. I’m bringing it out.”
“If it’s something stupid—”
“It probably is.”
Alexis brought out a glass jar. He still had his biker gloves on, the ones that exposed his fingers, so he could still hide what it contained.
When he unfurled his fingers, Lucie’s shoulders drooped.
“That’s just a bunch of wires.”
“It’s a bunch of delightful wires. We need to go into the forest.”
She crossed her arms. “Why?”
“I need darkness.”
“Oh, you could’ve just said so.”
Lucie’s magnificent wings fluttered before they closed in around them. They were suddenly encompassed by blackness. The feathers nudged him nearer. It felt like a small dark cave to Alexis. Their cave.
“Careful. They can get a little scratchy,” she said. “So, show me how delightful your stupid wires are.”
Alexis stuck his hand into the jar and struggled to find the tiny switch in the dark. When he turned it on, a golden illumination broke through and lit up their cave, as if they were bathing in sunshine at night. The edges were dark like a vignette frame.
“So you like it or—” Alexis began but trailed off when he looked up at her.
Lucie was staring intently at the jar of fairy lights, her sharp teeth peering from behind her slightly parted black lips. Her eyes were dilated. She didn’t have irises, rather obsidians bordered by scarlet traces, like two stony spheres placed into the sockets.
When she regained her voice, she whispered in a trance, “Is this magic?”
Alexis replied with his gaze on her, “Can’t think of any better term to phrase it.”
“Can I touch it?”
“Of course! It’s for you.”
“You’re giving this to me?”
“Yes. There’s plenty where I come from.”
Lucie’s coarse fingertips hovered around the jar carefully before coming into contact with the glass surface. Her breath hitched. “This is so delightful!” She took it from his hands and examined it with the keen eyes of an inquisitive child. Alexis smiled and doubted if any pair of human eyes ever feasted on fairy lights like hers did.
“It’s sad to think humans have magic like this, and yet they’re such terrible creatures,” she spoke somewhat absentmindedly.
Alexis knew he should have said something to support his kind, but he could not think of a very good comeback. She wasn’t wrong, after all. Humans had fairy lights, Christmas carols, fireworks, celebrations, snow globes — little things of endless gratification only if you looked close enough, and yet they couldn’t quite get their heads out of buckets full of ideas of war, bloodshed, and gore.
“They’re like fireflies!” Lucie beamed, interrupting his train of thought.
“They are fireflies, just powered by electricity.”
“Oh, humans made these?!”
“See, they flicker too.” He switched the key to the middle and the lights began blinking rapidly, as if someone was turning it on and off fast. Lucie’s wings shuddered in delight and wrapped around them more closely.
“THEY ARE AMAZING, ALEXIS!”
Alexis grinned and watched the one his kind had dubbed a monster be enraptured by sparkly gold fairy lights. The monsters were grotesque, sure. Crowded teeth and five eyes, yes. But an expressive foe was far better than a contriving friend.
Suddenly, she gripped his arm and whispered in such a low leery voice he could barely discern her words. “Wait! Is the light… bad for them? I mean, if I bring these delightful wires out in the light, will it harm them?”
Alexis wagged a finger on her face, as if forbidding a child. “They must never see light or they may…perish.”
Lucie gasped and enveloped it protectively. Alexis decided it would be more appeasing if she lived an imperial lie. He liked the way her crude hair waved down her shoulders. He liked the scarlet lines in her obsidian eyes. He liked her. And he knew that she would never be welcome in his world. Lucie was right. They’d never see any more than their bigoted eyes made them see. They would cut off her wings — her fascinating wings — and enslave her or dissect her in forensics and spill her dark viscous blood out of her ivory skin.
He shook off the thought with a shudder. It didn’t matter. Not in their golden vignette cave.
The contusion under his eye twitched. Here, they weren’t Alexis the human and Lucie the winged monster. They were only a sneaky boy and girl bathed in the spangles of luminescent fireflies in their golden vignette cave, while the waxing slice of moon poured lustre like a silver chalice.