Laura Elias

To Touch the Sky

(Content Warning: go to the end to see the specifics)

November 3rd was the day the feathers first appeared. They shimmered a blue every time I raised them to the light to inspect them and rested as a light gray gloss. They first appeared on my forearm as an itch I couldn’t scratch away, then when my skin grew raw and red, the first patches of iridescence appeared. And finally today, seven days, later the feathers traveled to my back. They took up the upper portion and trailed down my spine, stopping at the small of my back. Feathers dotted my arms in half dollar sized splotches. My whole body ached as the feathers seemed to eat their way through my skin and into the light.

I hadn’t told anyone. It was more like I didn’t have anyone to tell, anyone who would look at me in real concern that is. So instead I kept it a secret and fretted to myself quietly during the day and loudly at night. During the day, I would move about in a haze, throwing smiles haphazardly around, hopeful they’d cover any doubts anyone had. But at night, when I was alone, I would change. Sobs would rack my body. My skin would itch and burn as I scratched, trying to rip the feathers off. I would fall asleep on a tear-stained pillow and blood-soaked sheets and in the morning my eyes would be puffy and my skin scabbed over.

I snapped my button shirt over my shoulders and shook my thoughts away. I had work to get to and even the tug in my gut wouldn’t stop me  — not today, at least. I had bills to pay.

I stared at my reflection in my bathroom mirror as I buttoned up the shirt, watching as the feathers and burgundy scabs slowly disappeared behind white fabric. Both felt scratchy against the pressed cotton shirt. As I pushed the last button through the hole, my eyes flicked up to meet my reflection. My brown eyes were dull and I looked like a skeleton with my dark sunken under eyes and sharp features. I sighed, pulling my hair into a tight bun before looking away from the mirror. My eyes that once shone a beautiful brown, now dull, were a testament to what I had become. The hollows of my eyes reminded me of sleepless nights spent alone. My feathers mocked me of what could be, but what my skin wouldn’t let me be, and so instead I began to look away from the mirror. It always told me things I never much liked.

The first words I heard at work that morning were: “Elena, You’re late.”

 It was a statement.


A fact.

I lifted my eyes to see my boss, a burly man in his late forties, look at me with dark creased brows. This had been the third time this week I had been late and I could tell my boss had run out of patience. He was usually a generous man who overlooked tardiness, but I had made this my usual routine as of late.

I forced a sheepish smile. “Traffic,” I shrugged.

We both knew my answer was bullshit. There was no traffic on this side of town. The side where no one ventured unless they had to work in a dead-end factory job.

He grunted and gestured for me to leave the breakroom and head to my station. I moved with stiff limbs to my station deep in the factory. I was in charge of inputting numbers into the system that packaged the frozen peas. It was a boring job, but it was one that brought in money.

I reached my station in the back of the factory and began checking over the numbers and adjusting the machine’s speed. When the clock finally struck 8:30am, I pressed the GO button, and a loud beep left the machine letting everyone around me know that frozen peas were about to be packaged and sealed.

I stood in the same position for a few hours before my feet had begun to ache and my hips had grown stiff. The factory had grown a bit warmer and sweat collected under my arms and around my hairline. Lunch was called and I sat in my usual seat in the back. I sat alone and let the chatter of the others surround me as I focused on eating my sandwich. 30 minutes later lunch ended and I headed back to my station.

For the next 4 hours until 4:30pm I stood in front of the packaging machine. I would watch the frozen peas roll across the conveyor belt, up the machine, and down into the open mouth of bags. Once they were full I would follow them to where the bags would be sealed shut with a single stamp of a hot rectangular iron. When my eyes grew tired of watching this progression, I let my mind detach itself and listen to the rouge frozen peas ping off of the metal machine.

I jerked up but instead of feeling a soft mattress underneath me, I teetered and fell. I flailed my arms, but as I felt the wind brush against them, I realized they weren’t arms, but wings, and I realized that the wind filled them. I felt my wings expand and my body shot into the sky. I let out a squawk instead of a yell, feeling the wind and my wings against it. I bobbed in the air unsteady. Panic filled me and my mind went to those itchy iridescent feathers, but a second later I looked up. My eyes filled with nothing but green leaves just beginning to tinge into orange. My heart stopped beating for a second and my breath stilled as I took in the colors of the forest, the blue of the horizon, and a small lake sitting beneath it all.

 I tilted my wings forward, willing myself to touch the ground. I wobbled and cut into the air unevenly. I tripped over feet and feathers, landing right into a muddy puddle. I squawked and flapped my wings, my feet looking for grip in the slippery mud. Once my feet sank into the mud, I straightened myself and folded my muddy wings down to my sides, and looked down. Ripples spread around me, but I was too focused on the reflection of a bird looking back at me.

My Saturdays were usually spent quietly cleaning my small modest one-bedroom apartment and occasionally channel surfing, but this Saturday my mother had knocked at my door. I had just begun scrubbing my kitchen floor when I heard the knock. My body ached as I picked myself off of the floor. I had woken up on the floor next to my bed, a reflection of a bird seared into my mind. I had decided to deep clean hoping that the distraction would push last night’s dream from my mind.

As I stood, I dropped the brush into the bucket of sudsy water before I opened the door with my comically large yellow rubber gloves to my bleach blonde mother. I stared at her silently as her pink lips opened in a greeting and her pink-toed shoes took a step towards me. Arms wrapped around me and she whispered how good it was to see me in my ear before stepping back and asking me to go to brunch with her. I gave her a stiff smile as I felt my feathers throb to the beat of my racing heart.

The small diner was stuffy. The loud clang of plates and silverware cut through the fog in my mind and I refocused my attention on my mother.

“-nd I was thinking about you…”

A waiter glided past our table.


I sharply lifted my head up and met my mother’s eyes.

“Are you even listening?”

I studied my mother. Her light eyes and warm skin were nothing like mine. Her pink lipstick had settled in the cracks of her lips, expanding and shrinking with each word she said.

“-eally Elena, just settle down. Migue did.”

Our waitress came up to our table and slid our plates to us, silencing my mother for a second. My mother thanked the waitress with a bright smile and I thanked her quietly. Silently I began to cut into my waffles, looking away from mother and her spinach frittata.

My mother sighed. “I bet your brother would put you on the schedule at his McDonald’s. Anything better than working in that pinche factory at the edge of town.”

Silence stretched out before us and one second turned to two and to three. I kept my eyes trained to my plate, pinching the pad of my index finger to keep my face neutral.

“ verdad, it’s time. Elena, ponte las pillas.”

I could feel her frustration. She wanted something, anything from me at this point, but I couldn’t give it to her. Not in the way Miguel did and not in the way my little sister would someday. I knew she was angry. Angry and sad, that I couldn’t be more than she could be. That I was inútil and that I wasted the opportunities she never had.

Mother’s warm hand touched mine and I jumped, snatching my hand away as I looked at her. She looked alien, this woman who gave birth to me, hand stretched out to me, pink lips pursed, and dark eyebrows drawn. I stayed silent, looking at her as my skin itched. She sighed and picked up her fork.

Sundays were saved for grocery shopping. It was a whole day affair for me ever since the feathers had shown up. For two hours, give or take, I would coach myself to leave my apartment, scared that as soon as I stepped out that my secret would be known. By the time I stepped into our local wholesale grocery store my nerves were frayed. Every moment after that was spent with sweat trickling down my temples as I felt the unnatural scratch of feathers against my shirt. And once I reached my car, I would drop my bags into the trunk and take a shuddering breath. But today was different.

Indifference sat at the base of my stomach today and as I walked the isles and let my eyes slide over every product. My cart was empty except for the dozen eggs that sat at the bottom of the cart. I spent hours gliding through the aisles, half searching for the food I needed and half-listening to the squeak of wheels.

The sky was tinged a rosy orange and I was in the middle of it. Cold air flowed over my wings as I sailed through the air. My body moved steadily in the wind, my wings easily cutting through the air. This time I wasn’t disoriented. I was a bird and I relished in the colors and coldness.

Smells overlaid the sky, creating a patchwork, but my brain focused on home, a sweet scent of pine and moss. I felt alive, my mind tingling with all the sensations. Wind on my feathers, turning them cold, my heart steadily beating in my chest, and the scent of home.

The sky was vast and I imagined my small body’s graceful flight through the setting sun. If I had a mouth it would have been wide in a smile, tears welling in my eyes, as I flew away from what I knew and toward what was a home calling my name. I was untouchable and free.

Apathy had found its way into my heart, but a small grain of desire held its ground. Desire not for the reality of my factory job or the incessant nagging from my mother to be anything but myself, but instead, I craved what I found only in dreams: flight.

I craved the delight I felt as I soared above everything, the cold air numbing my wings, the strong beat of my heart, decisive in its purpose to find home.  I missed the vastness of the sky. I missed and wanted and so I hiked that Monday after work, searching to capture that feeling in my waking hours. My feathers seemed to know my craving because they itched and turned raw as I hiked up. They grew irritated as if they too wanted to be free of their confines.

It took me over an hour to pick my way through the rocky mountainside. I reached the top with my muscles warm and with sweat trickling down my spine. My breaths came out heavy and I hungrily gulped more of the cold air in. I stepped over tree roots, walking towards where land met sky. The unknown feel of the sky on my skin tugged me forward and once I broke past the trees and to a rocky edge, I stilled.

The light air ruffled the hairs that had come undone from my ponytail. I drank in the sight, the smell, the feel of this moment. The forest was alive with color and so was my mind. Afternoon light shone down on the carmine trees and the rocks that peeked out from the tree’s foliage. I took a deep breath of chilly air and sighed it back out warm and content. A genuine smile shone on my face as I spread my arms, trying to touch the clouds and feel the wind, but it wasn't enough. I was a glutton and my skin itched and itched, begging me to taste the sky too. With fast and jerky movements I wrestled my long-sleeved shirt up and over my head, keeping contact with the scene in front of me.

Finally, when my raw skin touched the cold air around me, my whole body sagged in relief and pure pleasure.

I had spent the next hour before nightfall up on the rock. My cheeks turned red with cold, but my delight remained and it wasn’t until the crunch of foliage under boots that I snapped out of my trance. The smile left my face and I quickly searched for my shirt and pulled it over my head. It had been a park ranger telling me it was time I left. He watched me as I picked myself up from my perch and turned my back to the sky.

That night with the chill of the mountain air still on my skin, I heard a knock on my door. The small dopey smile that had been on my face the whole afternoon melted off my face as soon as I heard it. I didn’t move but stayed sitting on the couch, maybe I could ignore it. The knocking got louder, more persistent, and rattled around in my head, pushing out all the contentment I had gathered that afternoon.

So instead of ignoring the knocking, I pushed myself off the couch and made my way to the door. I pulled it open without looking through the peephole. As soon as I saw who was standing on the other side, my eyelids dropped into their practiced half-lidded neutral gaze.

My mouth stilled, quivered, and lifted into a slight smile before I said, “Miguel.. Dani. What brings you by?”

My words were as stiff as I felt, as practiced as my whole life was, and I hoped in this instance it worked for me like it always had. My eyes traveled to Miguel’s right hand and the plastic supermarket bag clutched in it. It rustled when he stepped forward and it rustled when he wrapped his arms around me. I stiffened and forced myself not to squirm. Slowly, I raised my arms and wrapped them around him. My eyes flicked to meet Dani’s, who’d been staring at me. I gave her a small smile, but her eyes stayed trained on me. We were both on guard.

“It’s really good to see you, Ellie,” Miguel mumbled into the crook of my neck, “Really, it is.”

I pulled myself away from him, the hug now uncomfortably warm. Miguel stepped back wrapping his left arm around his wife. I stayed silent just looking at them, trying to puzzle out why they were here. It wasn’t often that my brother visited let alone with his new wife. It made my scabs itch and my stomach uneasy. I wanted to peace I had moments ago and none of this.

“Can we come in?” Miguel’s question was hesitant, “I brought chicken.”

He raised the plastic bag, the rustle echoing his unspoken plea. I could smell the faint smell of fried chicken as I looked at his outstretched arm, the chicken like an offering. I gave them a small nod.

“Uh.. sure.”

I shuffled back, pushing the door open, and ushered them into my small entryway. I stared as they took off their shoes and lined them neatly against the wall. They peeled off their jackets holding them awkwardly in their arms for a second before I snapped out of my trance and jumped to take them into my arms. I pushed past them into the kitchen and hung the jackets on the barstools tucked under the kitchen’s peninsula countertop.

Miguel set the bag down next to me and reached to touch my shoulder. Before his hand could touch me, I spun around to face him and Dani. His hand dropped against his jeans, but he kept his eyes on me. His eyes were sad, looking at me with bright brown eyes. Dani stood behind him, anger in her hazel eyes.

I swallowed the lump in my throat, pinching the pad of my pointer finger, before giving them a big smile.

“Let’s eat.”

Dani and Miguel talked quietly as I grabbed plates and glasses of water for everyone. I focused on the task at hand, grabbing plates and cups for them, to eat, to get through this, and to get my apartment to myself again. I turned back around to face them and set everything down in front of them. Immediately they reached to grab the plates and serve themselves.

“Thanks for the chicken, Miguel,” I said as I grabbed a drumstick.

He gave me a warm smile, one that reached his eyes. Maybe he had missed me. Even if he had that didn’t mean I had. Anything Miguel-related came with an ache that would offset anything else I would feel, so I just stayed away.

“So you got a man yet?” It was Dani. She was always straight to the point.

I looked at her, light brown hair, unblemished skin, and shining eyes. She was everything I couldn’t be.

“Dani.” Miguel gave her a pointed look.

She shrugged, “What I was just asking. You know your mamá wants to know too.”

My shoulders tensed at the mention of my mother. Dani knew was she was doing. Her eyes glinted and the small uptick of her mouth confirmed it. Miguel sighed and put down his piece of chicken.

Mamá asked me to come.” Miguel raised his hands in defense before I could say anything. “But I wanted to see how you were doing.”

I rolled my eyes, my neutrality slipping. Miguel never came to visit because he wanted to. He was my mother’s ambassador, the peacemaker, and I was the war. Dani stayed silent watching how I would react. She never liked me much. I was too much of a problem, a stressor in Miguel’s life and her suegra’s life.

I took a long sip of my water before setting the glass down and asking, “So what did she want you to tell me?”

Miguel looked uncomfortable and picked at the chicken on his plate. Dani stayed silent, watching this play out. I bet this was her entertainment of the night, maybe even the week, depending on how this played out.

“She wants you to come work for me.”

“Like I would ever do that.”

Miguel sighed and gave me a tired look. “I know, but you know mamá is.”

“Ellie, your mamá only looking out for you,” Dani said in a sickly sweet voice.

Miguel nodded, all innocence, saying, “She wants to see you more, but you’re always working, Ellie.”

Ellie. It’s what Miguel used to call me when I was little when we were close, but now the name reminded me of someone I wasn’t anymore.

“I can’t.”

Dani’s eyes glinted when she asked, “Why?”

“I like my job.”

“Oh we know that’s bullshit, Elena,” she retorted with a scowl.

My eyebrows furrowed and I pinched the pad of my finger harder. My skin itched with dried sweat and my feathers throbbed underneath my long-sleeved cotton shirt. My emotions barreled against me, fighting to be let out. My other hand twitched with the need to scratch and my left foot shook. My whole body was begging to run because it knew the answer and it knew no one would like the only answer I had: that I needed to be free of my mother’s expectations and that meant avoiding her and not working for Miguel.

Miguel stayed silent looking at me and Dani kept staring at me with a knowing smile.

“It’s because she’s jealous of you Migue,” Dani said.

Yes, I was.

Miguel shifted his eyes to his wife and back to me begging me to answer.

“It’s because your mamá is proud of you Migue.”

Yes, she was.

“It’s because -”

“Daniella! Para!” yelled Miguel.

“You know it’s true,” hissed Dani.

I was quiet as Miguel and Dani started to fight. I caged my anger, my hurt, my jealousy inside of myself. I knew Miguel didn’t mean to make me feel this way, but what could he do when I had felt so small for so long? Miguel had a wife, a career, a mother. He didn’t need a little sister to drag him down, so I stayed quiet as they fought, letting their emotions build and explode loudly while I waited to be alone. Again.

I didn’t sleep that night. Instead, I sat on my bed, knees to my chest, and just let myself unravel. In the twilight, the tears came slowly at first. Then faster and louder, and softer, then louder again. I was crying for the person my mother had wanted me to be, the person I worked so hard to be before I realized I couldn’t be that person. I cried fat ugly tears that shook my body as my feathers throbbed. I screamed, ripping at them, opening scabs, and making places for new ones to appear. I felt as my arms and legs grew slick with blood as my face became a mess of tears.

For once I didn’t care if my neighbors could hear me. I didn’t care that my sheets were once again getting stained in so much blood, I would have to throw them out again. I didn’t care that I let mamá and Migue and Dani get to me again. I didn’t care. I just let myself feel. Feel all the anger and pain and futility of my situation. I was alone mostly by choice, but I had grown used to it. I had grown comfortable with my cyclical life and then the feathers and dreams started and I wanted more. I wanted to fly. To feel the wind on my skin. To fly to a place that was undeniably home. To a place, I belonged.

I stayed all night long in my red-stained bed. I cried and tore at my skin for hours until my heartbeat slowed and my tears dried with my blood as the morning sun came. I folded my emotions neatly back into myself, sitting with my knees hugged to my chest.

I didn’t peel myself off of my bed until mid-morning. Work was the last thing on my mind as I rolled out of bed. My skin was sore and I was sure it was red, even without all the dried blood. My eyes felt puffy and my cheeks stiff with the dried tears.

I walked into my bathroom and for once gazed at myself in the mirror. My arms were covered in flaky dried blood while my eyes were ringed with a deep purple and were puffy. My once light blue oversized sleep shirt was smeared in rusty dried blood. It was stuck to my skin and when I pulled at it I winced as it tugged against the hairs on my body. I sighed and stepped into the shower, turned on the water, and watched as rusty water dripped off of me and into the drain.

After my shower, I shuffled around my apartment, mindlessly rubbing my bandaged arms, looking for anything to do. I knew it was pointless to go to work. My Tuesday shift would have been over at one and I had only stepped out of the shower at noon. Instead, I sat on my couch and felt nothing, but the gentle throb of my battered arms. My heart ached to the beat of my bruised arms and ripped feathers and suddenly, I wanted to feel the wind again.

I had been happy before Miguel came, up on that mountain. Alone. With the wind. I had been happy and I wanted that again.

Without a second thought, I shrugged on a light sweater, shoving seeds, granola bars, and a half-empty water bottle into a backpack before walking out the door with my car keys in hand. 

I spent the rest of the day until sunset in a safe haven. I went back to the mountain and explored the different paths. I walked and looked at the way the sun shone through the canopy as it shift closer to the horizon. I sat by a stream for a while and dipped my legs into the water, allowing the cool water to surround the raw skin on my legs. My feathers glistened in the water and I felt myself smile at them. I ate like a bird, eating the seeds and a few granola bars I had packed when I felt hungry. I drank with small sips from the water bottle I had brought. I didn’t care about anything else, but just being in the moment.

I had saved the mountain top for the sunset. I had taken my time climbing, relishing in the stretch in my muscles and my heavy breathes. It was worth it once I reached the top. Its cool wind enveloped me once again and my smile came back. I took off my sweater and unbound my bandages letting my feathers breathe in the air. They didn’t itch. They felt at home here too.

I once again watched as the sun dipped below the treetops, setting the sky alight with oranges and pinks and as it slowly faded into inky indigo. My heart thrummed as I looked on at the beauty and my feathers felt like a gift up here, connecting me to everything around me.  I stayed up on the mountain looking out at the forest as unending as the ocean until a park ranger came for me again.

When I turned my back to the sky, a small sorrow fell on my shoulders. I needed this. I needed the sky and the wind and the trees. I needed the freedom they gave me in my dreams. I turned back one last time looking at the dying sun and the dark sky above it, before turning back around and heading down the trail to my car. To reality once more.

Once I reached my apartment, I climbed the stairs to the roof, much like I had hiked up the mountains hours ago. I was searching for a cliff within my small town. I needed to touch the clouds, the wind, the sky. The exhilarating feel of the sky on my skin pulsated through me and pushed me forward. I was running on pure desire.

Once I reached the door to the roof and I quickly pushed it open. Vaguely I heard the clang of the metal door opening and its rusty hinges swinging open with a groan before I felt the sharpness of the autumn air. I stepped out into the night air and was enveloped in a sky full of stars. Tiny pinpricks of lights surrounded me as vivid and real as the frigid night air.

In moments I had walked over and found myself a new perch on the side of the building. My feet dangled as I just felt and drank in the stars. My mind remained empty except for the feeling of this moment until the sky slowly turned to a soft blue and my eyes closed in sleep.

I dreamt of birds this time, not of myself. I dreamt I was small, as small as a dandelion, and snuggled within their down feathers as they rode the wind. My cheeks were chapped, rosy red, and snot dribbled out of my nose down my lips, and off my chin. But I didn’t care. My eyes were wide as I took in the dark shadows of the clouds. They got bigger and bigger until I was hurtling through them with all the rest of the birds, and then again. And again. Until I woke up.

I heard the ring of my phone first and then the soft shuffling of gravel came next. I groaned and picked up my head to see I had fallen back onto the roof. My skin chafed painfully against my shirt and the gravel. I had fallen asleep on a bed of gravel and with a moan of pain, I dropped my head back onto the rooftop. My phone continued to ring and I reached into my back pocket and found nothing. Without lifting my head or opening my eyes to the morning light, I stretch my arms, reaching blindly to search for my phone. Moments later my fingers crawled and tightened over my phone. I felt it buzz in my hand and arm as I brought it to my face. I popped an eye open and saw my boss's name on the screen. I sighed and let my arm fall back onto the gravel-covered roof. I was late, but what was another missed day.

Instead, I heaved myself up into a sitting position and looked out. The sun was inching its way up and by its position, I could tell it was mid-morning. I could almost hear the distant whirl of machinery and the soft pings of frozen peas hitting metal as my phone started to ring again.

I was back on the mountain. The soft morning sky looked over me as I stood on the edge of the cliff. A fresh breeze wrapped itself around my shirtless torso. Large patches of feathers shone in the morning light and I breathed in deeply, a soft smile on my chapped lips. Tears gathered in my eyes as I gazed out at the orange and red treetops swaying in the soft breeze. My breath puffed out in big clouds as small hiccups came out of my mouth. My tears dripped warm on my cold cheeks and my want was so strong that I choked on my breath. Then everything was softness as my tears clouded my vision.

I felt the cool scrape of rock as my knees buckled and suddenly I was hugging my knees, head up looking at a watery forest. I rocked in my crouch, teetering side to side before I spread my arms and fell.







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