“Don’t go talking to her,” Sarah said, “She’s crazy.”
Dennis turned around to face away from where I crouched in the dirt. His back was towards Sarah and the sanatorium yard as opposed to deeper into the woods.
“What makes Lily crazy?”
“One time she claimed she had found fairy wings but actually she had ripped them off a butterfly-”
“I did not,” I interjected.
Sarah stomped her foot and pointed a finger at me, “Did too!”
I looked away from her, down into my grubby hands curled around the baby bird.
“Its okay,” I cooed to it.
“What are you holding?”
Dennis had snuck up behind me and I instinctively covered the bird. Dennis knelt beside me in the dirt and untangled my hands to reveal it.
It was all scraggly fluff and had a bald head, eyes merely slits and mouth agape for food.
“I think it fell,” I said, peering up among the dappled leaves.
Sarah was beside me in an instant.
“You should get a nurse. An adult will know what to do.
“I'm not showing this to a stupid nurse,” I replied.
Sarah huffed and ran off, “Then I’ll get one. Don't go anywhere.”
Dennis and I looked at each other and shrugged. Then he took my hand and pulled me further down the path.
We walked for a few minutes over the uneven terrain. Dennis, who was in worse condition, was struggling to keep up, having to stop every minute or so to cough.
“You know...sometimes me and the boys come out here after lessons,” Dennis said.
I nodded and kept walking, eyes trained on the forest floor.
“You should come with us,” he said, “I can get the boys to stop saying all that stuff.”
At that I stopped and looked at him, “They'll still say the same jokes. They've been calling me weird since the day I came here. The nurses will talk to them and it'll do nothing.
Before the nurses did talk to them and they said worse stuff than now. It will not get better and so if you like me as a friend I'm sorry, but you won’t last.
The only human I can count on is myself.”
Dennis looked stunned and then surprised me with a question, “What non-human can you count on?”
A man stepped out from behind a tree. He was dressed in a red leather suit and wore huge leather gloves. He had two huge bird wings that extended out of his back and folded around his shoulders.
He had huge eyebrows and yellow eyes, a hooked nose, and yellow teeth. On each shoulder sat a bird and more flew around him. The birds were all sizes, big and small and all colours too.
The man walked forward and placed a hand on my shoulder, curling around my body and reaching for the baby bird. I gently transferred the baby over and into the man's hand.
The bird began to rapidly grow through it first stages of life, eventually flitting away into the flock about the man's head.
The man looked down his nose at me, nodded a curt nod, and turned away. His wings unfurled and with a swoosh the man had taken off from where he stood, all his flock following behind.
“Who-or what-was that?” Dennis asked in shock.
“King Cardinal,” I replied matter of factually, “He rules the birds.”
“He has wings.”
“It would be a bit silly for the king of the birds to not have wings, don't you think?”
Dennis considered that for a second, “I guess,” he relented.
“You won’t tell Sarah and the others about this, will you?”
Dennis gaped, “How can I not, Lily?”
I scuffed my shoe through the dirt, dragging my foot back and forth, then I looked up at the sky. It was so beautiful.
I desperately wished I was a bird but the closest I’d ever gotten was King Cardinal giving me a ride on his back. It had been a liberating experience and I didn’t want to give it up.
I coughed hard and turned back to Dennis.
“If you don’t tell them I’ll introduce you to the others like King Cardinal,” I said.
Dennis narrowed his eyes and looked me over, “Deal.”
I stuck out my hand, then noticed it was dirt and wiped it on my dress, then stuck it out again. Dennis laughed.
“Deal,” I said.
And just like that, all the little fairies and gnomes and other creatures that had been watching us came out of hiding.
We played until they sent out nurses to search for us, calling us back to the world of mortals. Humans felt so weak now that I knew what true power looked like.
It didn’t help that I was surrounded by the sick and dying anyway. Weeks passed and Dennis and I continued to venture into the forest behind the sanatorium.
He stopped hanging out with the boys and spent all his time with me. We planned, carefully, so carefully, until the day came that we wandered into the forest and didn’t turn back.
Not then, not ever.
King Cardinal was there to greet us too. He looked at us, two children on death's door, and leaned down, opening his back for us to ride away on.