I love flying.
I loved to take my ultralight aircraft up into the air. I loved being alone with its motor purring behind me as I looked down on the scenery below. I loved the freedom and the solitude.
I don't fly in that ultralight anymore.
Was it dangerous? Probably somewhat. Though the danger isn't why I don't use the ultralight anymore. I remember the story of a child that exclaims to an airline pilot about his job. "Isn't it scary?" To which the pilot replies, "Not if I do it right." I worked very hard to do it right. I took all the precautions. I didn't fly if the weather wasn't right. I stayed on the ground if I felt ill.
Which is why that day came as such a shock.
I knew I was going to have a rough day at the office. I worked at McKay Motors as an engineer. I had to make an important client presentation that morning, so I thought a pre-dawn flight would be just the thing to relax before the big day. The weather was perfect. The wind was still. There were no clouds. The eastern sky was just a bit lighter than overhead. The stars still twinkled. It was all quite idyllic, just the tonic I would need to face the day.
It wasn't long before I was in the air and cruising over the town at a half-mile up. The streets were lit up by streetlights, forming paths through the darkness. I could see a few cars below by their headlights. This would be the perfect way to greet the dawn.
Just at dawn came a solo flyer's worst nightmare. I blacked out. I had never done that before.
I woke up to see sky beyond my feet and ground above my head. My first response was fright, not the usual cool I needed just then.
Everyone has had the experience of lying in bed and just about to drift off when there is a thought of falling or tipping. The body does a violent jerk. The heart thuds for a moment and the person is wide awake again.
The fright caused my body to jerk like that. My heart thudded. I was most definitely awake. Strangely, before I had a chance to give it much thought, I felt a bit of wind resistance and felt myself turn so that I was face down instead of head down. I leveled off.
Some strange thoughts quickly fought for attention.
Where was the engine noise?
Why was I face down? Ultralights have seats.
Where were the ultralight's controls?
Did I fall out? Did the safety harness break?
What was now holding me up?
I glanced toward my waist and extended my legs, which I had bent to put my feet above me. I was still wearing my flight jumpsuit and boots, but no sign of the ultralight. Other than no plane, everything seemed normal in that direction.
I glanced to the right. The wing was still there -- but it seemed a lot closer than before. Waitaminit! Why was the wing covered with feathers? I turned my head to the left. That wing had feathers too!
I seemed to be stable as I glided over the town, so I didn't want to do anything drastic. I carefully pulled my right glove off, making sure I wouldn't drop it. I then carefully felt around my head. Yes, my helmet was still in place and intact. My face felt normal and my head didn't throb.
I reached around to feel my left shoulder. Feathers! That was enough of a fright to make my muscles jerk again. I quickly stabilized. I reached again. Yes, there were feathers. I could also feel my fingers on my shoulder - but it didn't feel quite like my shoulder. And it wasn't only because there were feathers in the way. I felt outward along the leading edge as I turned my head. This was indeed the wing I saw in my first glance. I felt closer to my neck.
This strange wing was attached to me! It seemed to arch over my shoulder. I felt along it, even putting my hand into my jumpsuit, which seemed to have a brand new hole to accommodate the wing. I felt around the hole. It seemed to be properly tailored, not ripped. Of course, marveling that my jumpsuit now had a carefully tailored wing opening paled in comparison to marveling that I had a wing.
I carefully took off the left glove and stuffed both gloves into a pocket. Then I used the left hand to explore the right shoulder. I could stick my hand between my shoulder and the wing only so far. The wing was mostly behind my shoulder but part of it also reached over my shoulder and seemed to attach to my chest. It was hard to determine anything else with my jumpsuit on.
I stretched my arm out underneath the wing. It extended another three feet beyond my fingertips. That caused a bit of turbulence, so I quickly pulled my arm back.
I did the same with right hand at the right shoulder and arm under the right wing. At least I had a matched pair.
I had a strange thought. Here I am flying without any visible airplane and with wings sticking out of my back and doing a good job of holding me aloft. Had I died during that blackout and become an angel? I thought about that for a few moments and decided I had insufficient data.
I had now flown beyond the edge of town. I had also lost a bit of altitude. Could I do more than glide with these wings? I might as well find out now that I was up here.
How do I figure out what muscles control them?
I brought my hands up to my chest, stuck my elbows out under the wings and moved my elbows up and down. The wings certainly flapped, but I could feel the turbulence around my arms. I stopped.
I thought for a bit about what I felt moving and tried moving just that. The first few attempts caused my arms to move too, but soon I could flap the wings and leave the arms still. That still didn't feel very smooth.
I heard a flock of geese approach below me. From my viewpoint, I watched what they did with their wings. I imitated how they twisted the tip to slide through the air on the upstroke and to catch the air on the downstroke. In a few minutes I had it worked out. This was really cool! I could pretty much keep pace with the geese, though I didn't want to lose altitude just yet to join them.
Next I learned how to steer, how to bank for a tight turn and to just make slight adjustments for a gentle curve. I enjoyed this immensely!
My chest, back, and wings began to feel tired. I suddenly realized I've been up here a while. My business meeting! I glanced at my watch. AAHHH! It was to have started 10 minutes ago!
I could fly and be there in no time!
No, that wouldn't work. All the stuff I needed for the meeting was in my pickup truck. I banked around and flapped those wings as hard as I could to take me back to my truck which was back in the field I used for a runway.
The town isn't very large, maybe fifty thousand, including the army base. One doesn't have to go very far out of town to get to fields. Though there are working farms all around, this particular field had not been plowed for several years. I knew the owner as a friend of a friend. He mowed the weeds and didn't mind me using it as a runway.
I circled the field as I descended. Where was my truck? A black truck big enough to hold the ultralight could not have been hidden in a treeless field. Was it stolen? The truck was only a year old, but nondescript, and insured, so I wasn't too concerned about losing it other than the hassle of replacing it. I would be in serious trouble if my meeting materials had been stolen! There was no truck in the field, but there was a black horse about where I had left the truck.
A more important question than what happened to the truck. How do I land this thing?
I came in low and lowered my legs. It didn't take much to realize I was going way too fast for that type of landing. I couldn't move my legs fast enough to match my current speed. Any attempt to land would probably result in a face plant. I flapped my wings again to gain altitude for another attempt.
So how does a bird do it?
I glided around the field until I spotted a bird. I watched it land in a tree. Ah! Don't land like an airplane. Use wings to brake and drop to the ground.
I came in low and slow. In the middle of the field, I cupped the wings. I dropped all right. On my butt. With a twist to an ankle along the way. I was lucky -- not much hurt beyond my dignity and it appeared only the horse witnessed that. If these wing are permanent, I'll have time to work on finesse.
The painful landing did provide the missing piece of data. I was not dead.
I got to my feet and felt a little wobbly. A little change in arm or wing position made me feel off balance. It took only a moment to figure out why. I was much more top-heavy than I had been before. Walking without stumbling would take some practice.
I inspected the ground as I walked over to the horse. There they were, tire tracks from the truck. I followed them to where I was sure I had parked it. The tire tracks stopped there -- on either side of the horse. There were no tracks leading away, neither forward nor backward. It is very difficult to drive backwards and exactly match existing tire tracks. It's not so easy doing it forward either. I had driven the truck to this spot. No one had driven it away. It wasn't there. What happened to it? Towed away by helicopter?
I then realized there were hoofprints only in this small area between the tire tracks. The horse had not walked to this spot. Was the horse flown in as the truck was flown out?
I took a look at the horse. It was BIG! It looked strong. The coat was black except for the white stripe down the nose and the white long hairs on the legs that covered the hooves. I funny thought went through my head - I have a black truck with whitewall tires and now there is a black horse with white stockings. No, I wasn't the idiot that thought whitewalls were just the thing on a truck.
I went up to the horse. He seemed to greet me as though we had been old friends. He was already saddled with what looked to be fine equipment -- not that I was a judge of that since I had never ridden a horse before.
I now faced a dilemma. My truck was gone. I'm late for a meeting. There is a horse in front of me that clearly belonged to someone. That someone doesn't appear to be around here. Do I take the horse?
I took the horse.
It was a struggle getting into the saddle since the horse was so big and I was such a novice. As soon as I picked up the reins -- though not knowing what to do with them -- the horse started forward, fortunately headed towards town. He moved off at a good speed, though not at a gallop. I was how a half hour late for the meeting. Even so, I really didn't want to go any faster.
While the horse trotted on, I opened the saddlebags. I wanted to see if there was anything that would identify the owner. The saddlebags were empty.
McKay Motors was on the same side of town as the field, so it didn't take long to get there. I had no idea how to guide the horse, but it took me straight to my parking spot. How did someone else's horse know where my office parking spot was? That little surprise was mild compared to the next one -- the parking lot was empty! Well, not quite. There were a few piles of manure.
I walked over to the lobby door. A roughly printed sign said, "Closed Indefinitely." I had never seen McKay motors closed except for holidays. Why would it close today? There were certainly no plans to close when I left yesterday. I would have to call the boss later to find out what happened.
I heard some strange noise so walked around to the side of the building. Another surprise! The lot that was supposed to contain the completed carts was filled with horses. How did they get there and where was our inventory?
Not much more to do here, I might as well head home. I remounted the horse. As soon as I picked up the reins, the horse headed out in the right direction. He knew the way to the office, he just might know the way to the house. Weird.
McKay Motors is on the edge of town. There is a lot of "town" along one side, fields along the other sides. In coming to the office from my landing field, I usually saw no other cars. Between the office and home there was usually a lot of traffic. Strange, all the traffic was on horseback with lots more horses along the curb! I had never seen this many horses in town before and here they were in one block with more visible in the next block. Another piece of my brain fired off a neuron just then -- there were no cars!
I saw a boy standing in a yard, perhaps all of 5 or 6 years old. He was watching the horses. He seemed fascinated by them all. He looked at me when he heard my horse approach and I could see his surprise. He ran over to me. The horse obliged by stopping. The boy called out, "Hi Mister Angel!"
"Hello," I replied. "You think I look like an angel?"
"Yeah!" he said. He had a big grin. "You look just like the angel we had on the top of our Christmas tree! My mommy says angels are good people and everybody had their own angel to keep them out of trouble. She says I have one too! My angel must not watch me much. I still get into trouble. Are you somebody's angel?"
"I'm not really an angel," I said. I'm a person, just like you."
"Aww, you're teasing me. People don't have wings! Only angels have wings."
I realized there was no sense in arguing with the wisdom of a child.
"Well, if I'm a guardian angel, I had better find my person." I waived goodbye and shook the reins. The boy waived back.
I went back to pondering the lack of cars and the abundance of horses and managed to do that without interruption for a few blocks. Riding a horse was an advantage. The horse apparently knew the way, even if it wasn't mine, and wouldn't hit anything. I could just enjoy the ride. The disadvantage was that it was a much longer ride.
I saw a guy watching me intently from the front porch of a house. As I got closer, he stepped inside for a moment, then reappeared, casually leaning a rifle against the door behind him. "Don't come any closer," he called out. "You aren't taking my wife just yet."
I jerked back on the reins and the horse stopped at what was probably the edge of his property. "I don't intend to ever take your wife," I said.
"Don't mock me!" His hand went back to the gun. "The Angel of Death always comes. My wife has been sick for a long time, but she is not ready for you. She isn't that sick. Now get out of here!"
Again, I didn't dare argue, though I did wonder that he thought he could kill the Angel of Death. I pulled the reins to the side and spoke to the horse. Thankfully the horse obliged, and I went back up the street. I guided the horse around the block through voice and reins as best I was able. Soon the horse seemed to pick up the route again on his own.
I was approaching my home street and recognized a few faces. One or two even called me by name and commented on my wings.
I passed the church near my corner, one that was way too conservative for my tastes, though I had met the pastor a few times. The pastor, a Reverend Hawke, came out to me, shouting as he walked. "The end of the world is at hand! Even now Gabriel rides before you! Repent! Repent before Gabriel blows his trumpet! Repent and be saved! You can still get into Heaven if you repent before the trumpet sounds!"
A commotion like that will draw a crowd. The horse had stopped as the crowd gathered. The pastor reached me and grabbed onto the bridle. He now spoke to me as he bowed low. "Welcome Gabriel. I pray you find me and my flock worthy of heaven."
I stared at him for a few moments, dumbfounded. "I'm sorry to disappoint you but I'm not the angel Gabriel. I'm only Gary Bell. I live in a house down the street." I pointed. "We've even met a few times. I've only had these wings since dawn when I fell out of my ultralight plane."
He looked at with great respect. "I'm sorry sir Gabriel. My ears must be playing tricks on me. It sounded like you first denied, then confirmed you were Gabriel. Please forgive my mortal weaknesses and make me fit for Heaven." He bowed low again. "I stand ready to serve."
I glanced around at the crowd. Most of the expressions were of bemusement. If Reverend Hawke wanted to play the idiot, that was fine with them.
I decided I would have to play the part, even if just a little bit. "I am sure you lead your flock well. Please release my horse. I have to practice my trumpet playing." He let go of the bridle as if burned by it. The crowd parted as I flipped the reins.
I made the rest of the way home without further incident. I parked the horse in the driveway. I didn't have the remote for the garage door opener. That was in the missing truck. I went through the front door and opened the garage from the inside. Once the door was up, the horse walked in, stopping where I normally parked the truck.
A horse that I have never seen before knowing my parking spot and my house was just too weird.
Once inside, I called Mr. McKay. As soon as he answered I said, "Mr. McKay, this is Gary Bell. I'm sorry, but I lost the materials for today's meeting."
"It won't matter," he said. He sounded weary.
"What do you mean it won't matter?" I said.
"You don't know?"
"Well," I said, "I saw that the plant was closed by the time I got there today. I lost track of time during my morning flight." Mr. McKay knew of my fondness for my ultralight.
Mr. McKay sighed. I could almost hear him thinking I'm dealing with an idiot. He said, "Where were you at dawn?"
"I apparently blacked out at dawn, fell out of my ultralight, and somehow sprouted wings. I lost track of time because I was trying them out."
"Interesting! And what have you noticed since then?" he prompted.
"There are a lot of horses and don't seem to be any cars. I can't find my truck. I rode back into town on a horse that was grazing where my truck was parked."
"That horse didn't have a radio. You haven't heard the news reports." He was merely stating the obvious.
"No sir. And I just got home."
He sighed again. "It looks like you were caught in whatever it was that destroyed my business." Destroyed? "At dawn, all of the finished carts were turned into horses. Jackson was driving one out to the inventory lot and became a centaur. Eric, that fool, hopped into a cart as we made it operational to see if whatever it was that did it was a one time event. He's a centaur now too."
He went on. "It appears that whatever it was turned all cars into horses and apparently combined you with your ultralight."
"I'm not sure I understand that last part," I said.
"You didn't fall out of it. The ultralight is now a part of you."
He said, "So there is no need to be a vehicle company if all the vehicles we build turns into horses. That's why I closed the plant. I don't know if I can ever reopen. That fool boy of mine thinks we can make money by turning willing people into centaurs. You can be sure I put a stop to that nonsense real quick!"
I couldn't tell him what I was thinking just then, so I said nothing. The silence dragged on for a moment.
Mr. McKay said, "I think I know what happened to your meeting presentation stuff. You didn't lose it. They are now a part of the horse." He paused for a moment. "Don't worry about it. Those ideas won't be any good now anyway."
We said some other pleasantries and our goodbyes and hung up.
It was time to see what I had become. The first thing was to get out of my jumpsuit. I was amazed it had just the right zippers near the new wing holes so that the back would separate and I could get the jumpsuit off without pulling it over the wings. The t-shirt under the jumpsuit had strategically place snaps so that it could be removed the same way. I also removed my shoes, socks, pants, and briefs then went into the bathroom to stand before the large mirror.
What I saw in the mirror looked very much like a Renaissance painting of an angel.
The wings stood above my shoulders similar to an angel, but also arched over my shoulders. The wings connected in front as another collarbone or like the part of a cape that would be fastened at the neck. The wings rose out of my chest muscles, which were massive! The chest itself was still very much covered with human skin and the expected amount of hair.
I turned sideways to see a bit of my back. The wings met along my spine from the base of my neck halfway to my waist. The muscles within them appeared to bulge. The skin on my back under the wings looked to be about the same as before. From the joint above my head, the wings hung nearly to the floor. There was no fear of kicking them as I walked as the part that hung down was more to the side.
I stretched out both my arms and wings. I quickly saw I couldn't do that inside the bathroom, so moved to the larger bedroom. My wings did indeed stretch three feet beyond my fingertips on either side. They barely fit in the bedroom and the bedroom was fourteen feet long.
I extended a wing forward -- and had to move the arm forward as well to get it out of the way. I ran the other hand through the feathers, noticing the feel of feathers in my fingers and examining several feathers in detail. The feathers were firm and a glistening white, almost iridescent.
I examined the rest of my body closely. I appeared to be the same height as before, but checked it just to be sure. My waist was a lot smaller and my legs and arms thinner. The image of a stork came to mind. Apparently, I was now built for the air, not the ground.
The hair on the top of my head (and on the rest of my body) was the same ordinary brown as before. There was also enough beard stubble that I would have to shave in the morning.
A wild thought popped into my head just then. Wouldn't an angel look more authentic with a beard rather than clean shaven?
I wanted to see how much these wings weighed, so stepped on the scale. I was one quarter lighter than before, not heavier!
Say hello to Gary Bell, angel.
It was now time for lunch. I was hungry after all that exercise of flying. When I sat down to eat it, I realized chairs with backs were not good. Leaning against my wings was not comfortable. It appeared I would be sitting on stools for the rest of my life.
As an engineer, I was curious about the structure of the wings and how they fit around my arms and into my chest. After lunch I made an appointment with my doctor, in spite of my fears of being held captive as a research specimen.
The only clothing that fit around my wings were the jumpsuit and shirt I had worn when I was changed. I would be able to buy pants and shoes off the rack (thought the pants had a much smaller waist size) but I wasn't going to be able to buy any shirts or jackets that way. The weather and my modesty dictated that I shouldn't have a bare chest. It was time to see a tailor. He was able to use my jumpsuit and shirt as a model to make a new wardrobe. I gave all my old clothes to charity and gave the tailor a lot of money.
It was only two days until I saw the doctor, but by then he had seen Eric McKay and Jackson. He was intrigued with my wings, but he had gotten over the surprise.
The doctor did x-rays, an MRI, and blood tests. He checked my nervous system and my strength, including the strength of my wings. We talked about his findings.
The x-rays and MRI showed that my chest and back had an extra layer of muscle. The outer layer controlled my wings, the inner layer controlled my arms. My leg and arm muscles were not at all as strong as they had been. In contrast, my wing muscles were a lot stronger than my arms had ever been.
My bones were hollow in the manner of birds. I could have lots of problems with broken bones.
A DNA test showed that I was no longer human. If I successfully mated with a human my offspring would probably have wings but would be sterile in the manner of a mule.
I grew up in the church, meaning my parents made sure I rarely missed a Sunday. I think I learned all its lessons well. I even took a Bible course or two in college. While I had memorized many verses and had read most of it I was no Bible-thumper. I couldn't take it literally because of what I knew from science. Don't get me wrong. I considered myself a believer, but definitely not a literalist.
I had joined this particular church when I moved to town several years ago. That had given the other members a chance to know me and my goofy sense of humor. They marveled over my wings, but knew me too well to even consider I had become a literal messenger of God. I was certainly not Gabriel to them. The thought of it made them laugh. I was the same Gary Bell they had known who just happened to end up with a pair of wings. I appreciated that bit of normalcy. The rest of the world had become strange enough.
I was quite annoyed when the service started the next Sunday and our regular, liberal minded pastor announced the guest preacher was Reverend Hawke.
When the sermon began, Hawke launched into his rantings. "I see that Gabriel sits among us today. This is a sure sign that the end is near at hand! It is a sure sign this congregation is called to repentance! The time left is surely only a matter of days. You must get your lives in order! You must confess all of your vile sins to the Lord! You must follow the straight and narrow!"
He soon launched into his definition of the straight and narrow. I could see from the faces around me how well that was being received. Calla, the single mother, was looking daggers at the preacher as she couldn't stay home with her daughter even if she wanted to. Irene, the divorcee, held a tissue to her nose as she refused to stay with an abusive husband and had gotten a divorce. Jim and Pete, more married than most couples, shook their heads. Steve, the biology teacher, had a grimace on his face. A few others rolled their eyes thinking, "Here we go again."
This guy was needlessly torturing my friends! I realized with this particular pastor I could do something. I flipped through my Bible and found the passage I wanted. It was in the book of Matthew, the 23rd chapter. Carrying the open Bible, I stood and walked towards the pulpit.
Reverend Hawke noticed me immediately when I stood. He realized what I was doing by the time I had taken a step. He stopped in mid-sentence to say, "I see Gabriel wants to speak to you himself. Pray that he hasn't chosen this moment to sound his trumpet!" Hawke bowed low as I approached the pulpit and stepped aside. I could hear a few in the congregation chuckle at the man's actions.
"Woe unto you teachers of the law! Hypocrites!" I said when I reached the pulpit. "You tie up heavy loads and place them on men's shoulders, but you yourselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them!"
I closed the Bible and turned to him. "If I blow my trumpet today, it will be for you and you alone! You are distorting the Lord's message for your own purposes, so that you can be master over others. You insist that everyone follows rules the Lord never
intended. You declare morality more important than love. You declare that others must have a faith like yours or their faith is a sham. You shut away the Lord's diverse world. You are forcing out those the Lord loves. You have turned his message of love into one of hate. If I blow my trumpet today, it won't be to take you to heaven!"
I stopped and heard a few people quietly exclaim, "Amen!".
Hawke was visibly quaking now. I turned to the congregation and suddenly felt very self-conscious. I felt my face burn. I returned to my stool. I didn't realize I was such a talker.
Hawke just stood there.
Our own pastor led Hawke out the door then returned a few moments later alone. He went to the pulpit. "Reverend Hawke is resting now. It appears he will live through his fright." He paused for a moment. "I want to apologize for letting our guest convince me to let him speak to you today. He was so insistent that I thought it easier to let him speak than to put up with his verbal tactics. I'm sorry I didn't stand up to him and sorry for what he put you through. I want to thank our resident angel for doing what I could not."
Life settled back into a routine after that, though quite different than before.
Reverend Hawke mellowed a lot. He still thought of me as Gabriel which gave me a chance to influence his intolerant theology. I talked to my own pastor a lot so that I did not abuse the privilege.
A few months after the EVENT, I managed to get a condo on the top floor of the tallest building in town -- though that is all of seven stories. It severely stretched the budget but it has been worth it to get such a nice perch to take off from. The seller had even cut the price once he saw how appropriate it was for me.
With my engineering background it wasn't long before I did a complete analysis of my wings. I was surprised my analysis showed my wings were inadequate to get me off the ground! This was a much more thorough analysis than the famous "bumblebees can't fly" report. Eric McKay reminded me that magic is involved. The same magic that created me must be what allows me to fly.
I still do some engineering work for McKay Motors, now Centaur Industries. On the day of the EVENT the ultralight company found their inventory has suddenly changed to condors and quickly closed. I had to recreate the plans for a "working" ultralight corresponding to the stripped down carts they used to create centaurs.
I married Janet, a fine woman who changed while sitting in the ultralight I created while holding an egg of the Eastern Blue Jay. Her wings have a beautiful pattern of blue, white, and black. In spite of the size of the bird that colored her wings, they are almost as large as mine and certainly as functional. Nearly everything in her new wardrobe is a matching shade of blue.
My son Jason was born two year later. Janet was disappointed that the last half of the pregnancy kept her grounded. Not long after he learned to talk, other kids teased him about his wings, which have the same bright blue pattern as his mother's. They called him "jay" as a taunt. Much to our chagrin, he named himself Jay. He is now learning to use his wings and progressing quite well.
I'm no longer a full time employee at Centaur Industries. I have another job that few others can do. I spend a good deal of time flying over our town. I serve as eyes in the sky. I can do all sorts of things that policemen in helicopters used to do back when we had helicopters. A town does need its guardian angel.