There was once a man on Cherry Street who grew wings.

At least, this is what Lyra Williams told everyone who asked, and later anyone who could listen. Until the day she died, small and white-haired in the sun-washed Victorian house on the corner of Cherry and 22nd, she told his story. Of the neighborhood children, she was the only one who had stayed, amongst the crime and the old biddies, and the smog that rolled over the single-peaked rooftops from the paint factories downtown; she was the last of the neighborhood when the eldest had gone, and the young couples and immigrant families and the smell of new paint and sawdust began to move in. There was something that bound Lyra to that street, that tilted her head expectantly (now perhaps entirely out of habit), to the west at the stroke of six o’clock every evening.

Some said she was waiting for her wings, too.

* * *

It was the same old story, Gen knew, as he sat by her that night. The same story Lyra had told him and his siblings when they were young, their friends and schoolmates and girlfriends and wives and children when they had all come to the house over the years. But there was something lugubrious about the dimming shadows that night, something in the waning sunlight streaming through her bedroom window; it caught the contours of her face, tracing the creases, and made Gen start at how tired she looked.

“You remember the story, Gen,” she whispered. The years had whittled her voice down to a soft rasp.

“Of course, Mom.”

“I want you to . . . I want you to remember it, Gen. So when I’m gone, you’ll know where I’ve went.”

“Mom, what are you talking about?”

She brought a small, steady hand to the edge of the bed sheets and grasped his fingers in hers.

“There was once, a man with wings,” she began.

* * *

When Lyra was six, her father suddenly left. It was strange, she could not remember how she’d known it: when she came home from school, her mother was crying uncontrollably at the kitchen table and her father’s hat, usually hung on the coat rack on the inside of the front door, was not there, and for some reason Lyra turned around and left. She mounted her bike and, not quite sure what she would do, decided to ride until the strange numb feeling inside her had worn away. She made it to the end of the block before hitting a rock that sent her flying onto the pavement. It was only half the pain of the skin scraped from her bare knee and elbow that made her cry, loud and without abandon on the sidewalk, where she had fallen, until the man who lived in the house behind her came out. He was tall, thin, solemn; he was relatively new to the block and kept mostly to himself, and yet unlike the new family that had moved in across the street from Lyra’s house, no one seemed to bother him. A long, curious looking scar ran from his temple to his chin. Lyra blinked, looking up at him through bleary eyes, and he offered to clean her cuts.

“You live down the street, don’t you?” His voice was like the yellowed pages of library books, dusty and subdued.

She nodded once.

“Maybe I should just take you home to your mama, I’m sure she’ll fix you up just fine. Is your mama home?”

At the mention of her mother, Lyra thought she would burst hysterically into tears again and instead lied, shaking her head no.

The scarred man scratched his head, straightened his back.

“Well you’re hurt and I can’t have a poor girl bleeding all over the street. Go ahead and come in, I’ll patch you up.”

And he turned into the gate and began to walk back up the steps into his house. Lyra sniffled and, slinking through the open gate, scrambled right up behind him.

The house was newly built, the wooden floors kept clean and polished, the cupboards and broad bookcases dust-free – but it was strangely and mostly empty. In the good-as-new cupboards and bookcases there was no silverware, no cups and pans, no thick-bound rustic novels or skinny paperbacks. Besides those, the rooms were nearly void of furniture, with the exception of one large armchair, a single, lonely looking bed, and a small, similarly empty desk. The man told Lyra to “go on and take a seat” in the armchair and he disappeared into another room. Lyra was too young to be scared of strangers and the man, scar and all, was not threatening.

When he returned with a bottle of iodine, a gauze pad, and some plastic bandages, he cleaned her wounds, soothing her as she squirmed, applied the bandages, then stood up. She stared at his face with the expressionless curiosity of a child.

“Well kiddo, I hope you feel better. I suppose I’ll let you get on with your day now,” he smiled.

“How did you get your scar?” she asked.

He was a veteran, she found out, a sergeant who had fought in a great war overseas and had lost many men and now, after completing his tour, had returned home to a town that was no longer his, living off money from the government.

“I don’t know how much of that you understand,” he smiled. “But this scar was from the knife of a bad man,” and he left it at that. By then the sun that had shone through the house’s great windows all afternoon had disappeared and Lyra said she ought to go home. He walked her to the door and said it was nice meeting her.

The man did not expect her to come to his door the next day, nor everyday (except Sunday when she had to help her mother at church) for the next two months, but she did.

They became friends that autumn. She was ever thirsty for the stories he told – not just of the war (in fact, that was the topic he least liked to talk about), but his days as a youth, riding horses and fighting bandits and diving into treasure troves at the bottom of the deep blue bay (later Lyra knew these tales were not true, but remembered them fondly all the same). After school she would meet him for a late afternoon snack at his house, and sometimes they walked out in the sunlight, the reds and browns of fallen leaves crunching beneath their feet. But as winter came, the man seemed less and less jovial, even sad, and one day he didn’t come to the door at all.

Lyra was tenacious, and bored that day; her mother wasn’t home, gone downtown to look into some insurance broker, and her home was empty and void of stories of tigers and alligators and high-speed horse-back chases. His door was unlocked and she stepped boldly into the hallway behind it.

“Hello?” she called, but there was no response. “It’s me, Lyra!”

She found him on the lone single bed, staring out the window. There was the shine of small tangerine-colored bottles, the kind her mothered took colored pills out of when she had a headache or felt sick, scattered on the bed, the white caps around his feet.

He looked up soberly at her widened eyes.

“Lyra,” the man said quietly.

“Are you okay?” she questioned softly.

He looked at his feet silently.

“Lyra, do you ever wish you could go far, far away . . . you could spread your arms, like a bird, and just take off?”

Lyra looked at him sadly. She could feel the distance that had grown in him.

“The day I met you,” she whispered. He shifted on the bed.

“When I was fighting, I wanted so badly to leave. I wished it could all be over, and no one else would have to die . . . that I could just grow wings and lift myself out and fly home.” The way he turned, the sun seemed to emblazon the scar. “And then I finally did leave, they were all dead. Every single one of them but me.”

Lyra saw him crying.

“I would give my own life for any one of them to be here right now. I never did anything to deserve to live, not more than any of them,” he choked, and she suddenly wanted to touch him, to hold his much larger hand in her own and wipe away the tears.

“I know it won’t change a thing. Nothing I do ever will. But I can’t go on like this.” He looked at her frozen in the door.

“I hope whenever you want to fly, your wings will be there.”

And then he opened the great window and stepped out.

Lyra felt her breath catch in her throat. The black numbness overwhelmed her as she walked, her steps like sleep, to the bed and looked out over the window’s edge.

There was no sign of the man on the pavement below.

* * *

“They never found him,” Lyra was saying. “I told your grandmother, everyone, but there was no body. No one ever saw that man again.” She closed her eyes; every time she told the story it seemed to take a great energy out of her. “They sold the house. His things were put out in the street. I grew up, but I vowed never to forget him; and I told everyone. I told everyone he had grown his wings, because there’s no where else he could have gone.”

Gen watched her as she spoke, before he knew it, he had become filled with the same wide-eyed awe her words had stirred in him when she first told the story all those years ago. It was not a fantastic one in the least; with the exception of a man that flew (and even that, he often thought, was most likely just a fragment of her imagination), it was the tale of a lost girl and a depressed vet. Things like that happened every day. But the way she told it, every time, drew him in and gripped him until the last line.

“I can tell you want to go,” Lyra squeezed his hand and let go. “I won’t keep you much longer, you need to get back to your family.”

Gen opened his mouth in protest but stopped; his mind had wandered but it was getting late, and Lyra had always had that sensitivity about her.

“But promise me, Gen, promise me you’ll remember.”

“I swear, Mom.”

He embraced her and kissed her cheek, and as he made his way to the door she spoke again.

“Your wings were always there.”

“What Mom?”

“All of you. I made sure of it.”

The question curled at the corner of Gen’s mouth but when he turned Lyra had closed her eyes and settled beneath the covers.

Out on the street, the house was painted in the brilliant orange hues of the sunset, the pavement cast in shadows and breaks of color. As Gen walked to his car the wind stirred his clothes and a feather, delicate and white as snow, crossed his path.