About the Author
Alan Cumyn is the author of several wide-ranging and often wildly different novels. A two-time winner of the Ottawa Book Award, he has also had work shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, the Giller Prize, and the Trillium Award. He teaches through the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a past Chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada. He lives in Ontario, Canada.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend I
It started as a speck in the east, a hint of black that might easily have been a crow. The sky was full of crows in late September, crows by the thousands with their squawking, nervy calls, the way they would mass on a stand of leaf-losing trees, a fractured black cloud of them. It might’ve been a lone crow, and maybe that was why Shiels turned her head and looked up.
She was stepping out of Mr. Postlethwaite’s portable classroom, his forgettable English class, already checking her text messages. Autumn Whirl was less than ten days away, and the band was not yet chosen. Rebecca Sterzl was never going to get a handle on that committee. Shiels would have to step in herself, but how to do it deftly, without setting off a bomb? She needed Rebecca to function still for lesser duties. And then . . . a speck. Maybe a crow? No reason to even look. But she did.
Was it before, or just after, that a worm in her gut bit her? It was such an odd feeling. An organ pain, almost, from something inside, sleeping somewhere—her plumbing perhaps—about which she had been completely unaware. It had never bitten her before. There was no reason to pay attention.
The speck got larger. Even from a great distance it seemed possible to tell that the wings were not usual. They arched and seemed, somehow, blacker than crows’ wings, and became larger even though the speck was not heading directly her way but moving in a zigzag. Then the wings weren’t actually black but a sort of metallic purple. Royal, maybe, or what a truly harsh band might wear at a three a.m. blast with spook lights and a lot of stage smoke.
That’s one face-rake of a bird, she thought—“face-rake” being the term that Sheldon had invented, having stepped on a rake a few weeks before.
Zig, zag. North-south, north-south. How to explain this weirdness to Sheldon? For three years they had shared news of everything fractured. Like the parakeet impersonating a baby on the bus, the video of which he had texted her, with commentary. And Principal Manniberg’s hair loss pills, which he had left out on his desk for Shiels to see, as plain as day, and which she had told Sheldon about later when they’d been hacking into the student newspaper blog because they’d lost the admin password and they were the only ones who knew it.
Or used to know it.
They shared everything.
Now Sheldon wasn’t here, he was tutoring math lab in the south basement, so she had to be aware of every oddity for him, especially how the whole crowd of students simply seemed to know at the same time to cock their heads and gaze out over the sports field, the track. But the football players didn’t look. They were all smashing into the tackle dummies and whatever else football players smashed into. The cross-country runners were on the track. They didn’t look either, but kept running in little clumps of legginess. Shiels was only vaguely aware of them in the first few moments.
More than twenty kids were standing with their books and backpacks, and their skimpy blouses and short skirts, with bare legs or thin pants—everyone shivering. Probably five were standing exactly like Shiels, with phones out, supposedly checking the world. But the world was forgotten.
One freaking huge royal purple non-crow was cutting a path through the gray sky to their little patch of green.
“Holy crackers,” someone said.
Zig to the north. Zag to the south. Not a bite, now, in Shiels’s gut—if that was what it was. Something else. Something worse.
She wasn’t feeling any part of the cold wind.
Her phone fell out of her hand and bonked onto the hard old pavement. As she bent to pick it up, she thought: Martians could be landing, and I would still bend to pick up my phone.
The purple thing, “it”—he—was sharp in many places. That was becoming clear. Sharp in the cool angle of his wings—God, those wings!—and sharp in his gaze, in the way he looked them all over as he passed.
He stared right at her with huge, dark, ancient eyes. She flushed from the roots of her hair. It was as if a switch had been flicked to percolate.
He circled round—like a gymnast on iron rings, rippled purple muscles in a chest made for flying. Was that when she dropped her phone?
Did she drop her phone again?
A beast with wings circling, circling. And that spear of a nose. Shiels saw, like everyone else, exactly what he was going for—Jocelyne Legault, with her bouncing blond ponytail, oblivious to the danger. Those skinny, white, tireless legs in her yellow shoes with her pumping little stick arms, rail-like shoulders, boobless torso—her impossible body, really, kept impossible by her daily hours of leg-lung workouts around and around that dreary track.
“Jocelyne!” Shiels cried out. It was in her nature to act, as difficult as it was to shake off the stupefying sight of an ancient predator suddenly appearing high above the athletic complex. “Jocelyne!” Others, too, awakened, yelled to the cross-country champion. How many races had she won over the years? But she was modest to a fault. The only way she could possibly justify spending all those hours alone chugging around would be to win an Olympic gold medal in something. Was there even an Olympic event for cross-country running? Possibly not. She was a tiny, robotic, overachieving nobody—not Shiels’s summation, but rather what was commonly understood in the information cloud of all things Vista View High. Jocelyne Legault could outrun a sweating, grunting, gasping pack of two hundred leggy girls racing through backcountry trails, but she would never get a date to Autumn Whirl—would never break training in the first place. Impossible!
Yet all those social distinctions fell away like mist when the monster circled above her. Her stride did not falter. She was, as ever, alone. Was she sprinting? No, it was just that her regular pace was crushingly quick, so no one could keep up with her, not even the senior boys, who were clumped behind her, possibly lapped already. Jocelyne Legault was in her own universe, as usual, when the dark-eyed, spear-beaked thing circled closer and closer. Obviously aiming for her.
Bob-swish, bob-swish went her tidy blond ponytail.
What was Shiels trying to do, running toward her schoolmate? Did she think she could personally beat back the monster, send him flying off like so many crows squawking around the roadside carcass of a struck raccoon? (Crows were squawking far above, a murder of them, in the old estimation. Shiels knew the word, thought of it briefly as she and the others—others were running now with her—raced to save Jocelyne.)
The gates of the sports field were chained shut, loose enough to let in those on foot, one by one, but tight enough to discourage a bike or motorcycle, and absolutely too narrow to allow a vehicle. As she pushed through the small opening, Shiels thought maybe she should order one of the football players to drive his truck through the locked gate and scare off the purple fiend. Any number of football players drove trucks. The parking lot was adjacent, and probably eight or twelve young jocks would have raced into action if she’d unleashed the order. But the football players were still oddly oblivious to the threat. If they were an army, Shiels thought, we’d be lost in any sudden attack.
“Hey! Hey! Get off her!” she yelled.
She was through the opening in the chain gate, on the track now, sprinting, her version of a sprint. Her pants were loose enough and her shoes were sensible—she could be fashionable, on a given day, but usually went for comfort, which Sheldon respected.
She was the last person anyone would have expected to lead the charge against an invading beast. A leader in most other ways, yes, of course. But this too? Yet there she was. Others were following, though the football players were only just starting to look around.
“Jocelyne!” Shiels screamed. Finally the runner glanced over her shoulder, as if some competitor might be about to overtake her. The shadow of those wings darkened her face; her eyes lifted, her arm shot up just as the creature crashed into her like a leathery bag of rocks falling from the sky.
Shiels stumbled then too, but over her own feet, and nearly wiped out. When she recovered, the thing—it, he—was standing on the track in the north end, near the sprint start line. He had risen up on his skinny reptile legs, and had his wings outstretched—he looked enormous—with beak raised as if about to spear poor fallen Jocelyne Legault.
Shiels glanced around desperately, her mind for a moment full of the possibility that someone on the track might have a javelin she could hurl at the beast. But there was no such thing, all she had was . . . her phone.
She saw the thing brandish its glistening beak, like something out of a hopeless Hollywood movie.
She kept running.
“Leave her alone! Get out of here! Scram!”
Down shrank the menacing beak. In folded the wings. The thing seemed to deflate before her as she approached; it folded up, batlike, until it looked more like a skinny umbrella, reached out improbable little three-fingered wing hands, and drew the crumpled body of Jocelyne Legault to its deeply muscled chest.
His deeply muscled chest.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Shiels yelled, as if the thing could talk.
He opened his mouth, one might even say conversationally. She was within striking distance of him now—for him to strike her, run her through with that lance of a beak. But she did not feel afraid.
She was aware of everyone else having stopped many paces away. Even the football squad, decked out in armor practically, was keeping a prudent distance.
“Back off now,” Shiels said. “She’s just a girl.” It was her student-body chair voice, her elected official persona, and in this unusual moment some small part of her actually felt like a “body chair,” whatever that might be, a powerful piece of equipment (not furniture, although Sheldon often spun bad puns from the image)—a sturdy instrument of power.
And it—he—was somehow a boy too, Shiels thought, as well as a creature. A very odd three-fingered boy with chest muscles rippling up his . . . fascinating purple hide as he lifted the fallen runner, who seemed to have fainted. He held her wrapped in his wings. Shiels thought for a moment he would spring into the air carrying her somehow, yet she could see at once how impossible it would be in the current configuration. He was holding her in his winged arms, which he would need to fly anywhere. His legs had claws too, but he would have to transfer Jocelyne . . .
“Put her down!” Shiels yelled.
He looked at Shiels then, like someone terribly old . . . and improbably wearing, she just now noticed, a backpack. (It was purplish; it blended into his hide.)
The yawning open again of the terrible beak. The thing spoke. “Not zo . . . Engliz yet,” he said.
Jocelyne Legault snuggled closer into his muscled chest (how hard does he have to work to fly, Shiels wondered?) like she had never snuggled into anything before in her life.
The crows were scatter-shrieking, thousands of them, it seemed, filling the air.
Shiels knew it, almost all of it, in a moment: that he hadn’t come to eat them at all, or attack Jocelyne Legault. No, he was a student—a very strange student, the first of his kind ever to attend Vista View High.
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