The day the full season schedule came out, Patrice got a text from Brad. two days in ARI before yotes. u wanna go see the desert w/me??
Everyone knew about Brad’s obsession with the desert – deserts in general, the Sonoran in specific. Nobody knew what the hell to make of it. “You’re from fucking Halifax, man,” Torey had said one time when Brad turned up with some random fact about Gila monsters. “You should be into clams or lobster or some shit.”
“Oh, I’m into clams,” Brad said, with a wink that had more cheese than filth, and that had been the end of sober discussion on the topic of deserts.
Patrice didn’t know what the hell to make of it, either. Brad running his mouth in Patrice’s ear was a comforting constant, yet the why of his desert thing had never come up, somehow – a kind of casual avoidance that did not invite questions.
Patrice wrote back, sure.
Brad was oddly circumspect this year as they flew from Denver into PHX. His usual enthusiasm at the sight of sand seemed a little restrained – not so much that the guys noticed, no one except Patrice, because he was watching.
He waited for Brad to say something about the plan they’d made four months ago, and he waited some more, and finally, over breakfast the next morning, he said, “So, you wanted me to out to the desert with you? To… commune with nature?” Or whatever it was Brad wanted to do out there.
Brad looked up, startled away from the eggs and bacon that he’d been eyeing with such fixed concentration. “Yeah? You still want to?”
“Do you still want to?” Patrice asked, because that seemed better than Do you not want me to go anymore?
Brad’s face lit slowly. “I mean, yeah, man. Yeah. Really, you want to go?”
“You asked me.”
“Yeah, okay.” Brad grinned at his eggs. “Tonight? It’s easier that way. “ Before Patrice could ask what exactly was made easier, Brad added, “Don’t tell the guys, huh?”
“I don’t want ‘em to feel left out, you know?”
“Sure,” Patrice agreed.
“Hey, you’re in salsa country now. You gotta put some hot sauce on those eggs.” Brad pushed a bottle of it across the table until it clinked against Patrice’s plate.
Patrice forgot again for most of the day. Coach had the PK unit running drills, and Patrice was too busy looking for pucks to steal and send up-ice to Brad, as sure of him as an extra limb, to think about hot, dry things like sand. Or Gila monsters, for that matter.
But Brad kept giving him meaningful looks at dinner, eyebrows high enough to float off his head. Once he zipped his lips shut with theatric flare, as though it were Patrice, sitting quietly with his steak and salad, who ran the risk of tipping people off to their... mysterious nighttime expedition.
Some of the guys were heading out to a bar afterwards. “Me and Bergy are gonna go catch up on those Kardashians,” Brad said, latching onto Patrice’s elbow and tugging him towards the curb.
“Really?” Patrice asked when they were alone.
Brad had a taxi service open on his phone. He didn’t look up. “Kim’s hot. So what?” He left Patrice to consider that existential question for a while, and then he finished and stuck his phone in his pocket. “Look, Bergy. Thanks for coming.”
“It’s important to you,” Patrice said. That seemed safe. So it’s important to me seemed less safe, as follow-ups went, and he held it in.
“Yeah, but it’s weird, right? What the fuck is Marchy’s deal, what the hell does he care about a bunch of sand. I’m a hockey player, I’m supposed to like ice.”
“We all have things we love.” Patrice paused. “Like the Kardashians.”
Brad barked a laugh. “Fuck you, man.” He shoved Patrice off-balance.
As Patrice righted himself, something else that had been off-kilter settled back into place, too. “I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “Thanks for sharing it with me.”
Brad ducked his head. Patrice could only catch a glimpse of his smile, small and pleased. “Yeah, man. Sure.”
Waiting for the taxi to arrive, it occurred to Patrice to wonder how they were going to get to the desert. “I rented a car,” Brad said, flashing Patrice a grin: smug as hell. “I do every year.”
“Every year?” Patrice repeated. That comfortable understanding of what this night was going to entail suddenly shifted out of skew again. Brad was apparently beyond shyness at this point, though; he shouldered Patrice companionably and didn’t say a word.
The taxi took them to Enterprise, and Enterprise gave Brad the keys – to a Porsche. Of course. “Live large, dude,” was all Brad had to say about that. He typed an address into the car’s GPS and toggled the voice directions off. “Okay?” he asked Patrice.
“Okay,” Patrice said, nerves tingling now with the certainty that something was going to happen.
They stopped at a 7-11, where Brad picked up two shrink-wrapped six-packs of bottled water and one big package of beef jerky. “Supplies. Always take water when you’re going into the desert.”
“We’re coming back tonight,” Patrice said. Telling was better than asking.
“Sure, but we probs won’t make curfew. That’s cool, right?”
Patrice let his head fall back against the headrest and laughed. “Sure, Brad. That’s fine.”
Brad kept an eye on the GPS until they merged onto the freeway, and then he switched it off and rolled the windows all the way down. The window noise shut down any feeble ideas Patrice had of asking what the fuck was going on here. He found he preferred it that way. He breathed the dry desert air and watched for cactus, although this stretch of road was flat and straight enough and the landscaping aggressive enough that there wasn’t much to see, only the velvety darkness that stretched beyond the street lights.
Forty minutes later, Patrice started seeing signs for a state park. Fifteen minutes after that, they drove past a campground, and a minute further on Brad pulled into an unpaved, unlit parking lot.
He turned off the engine. For a moment everything was still, even Brad. Patrice waited. Finally Brad nodded to the dash. “Yeah. So. You ready?”
Brad nodded once more and got out of the car. Patrice followed suit and came around to Brad’s side of the car. Brad flashed him an unreadable glance, and then he yanked his t-shirt over his head and tossed it into the open window. “Don’t freak out, okay?”
“Okay,” Patrice said, beyond bewilderment now and into a zen kind of anticipation. He could wait for Brad. He could wait a long, long time if he needed.
Brad rolled his shoulders and rubbed his hands together. He muttered to himself. He ducked his head and threw his shoulders back, and then, as Patrice watched, a shadow seemed to spring from Brad’s back. Then it was two shadows, one from each shoulder blade, and they grew and grew independent of the headlight beams. In the time it took to blink they’d turned tangible and solid.
They were wings.
“Brad?” Patrice said. It was the only word he could find.
Brad turned. The wings flapped above his head. They were massive, six meters to a side, with brown feathers on top, speckled with white, and creamy white feathers on the underside. The tips were dark.
The tips of Brad’s feathers.
“Yeah, so,” Brad said. “So this is my desert thing. Weird, right?”
Patrice pulled his focus away from the wings to Brad himself, who was watching with single-minded focus as Patrice took all this in. “You’re from Halifax,” Patrice said dumbly.
When Brad shrugged, so did the wings, flapping up enough of a breeze to stir the hairs on Patrice’s face. “It only works here. I don’t know. I thought cactuses and stuff were cool since I was like, two, and then one summer my parents brought us on vacation to see the Grand Canyon and it just happened.”
“Yeah.” Brad ventured a half-smile, one corner of his mouth turned up. “I come out every summer now – you know those camping trips?”
Patrice did vaguely remember them. Brad talked a lot about going off the grid and hunting jackalopes. Someone had had to clarify for Dougie once that jackalopes were fictional. “So you come out here and you do… what?”
“Oh, dude!” Brad’s eyes lit up. “What, you think I just fuck around on the ground with these things?” The wings gave a sudden flap that blew Patrice’s hair back. “Check it out.” Brad turned and walked few strides away. He bent his knees, the wings beat once, and he launched into the air. He was out of the headlight beams in half a second, but Patrice knew where he was by the shouting, a joyous, wordless cry.
The sound grew more distant and then stopped. Patrice had an inkling of movement in the air, and the next moment, Brad landed feet-first on the gravel. His chest was heaving, but he was grinning as wildly as Patrice had ever seen, as bright as in game seven on Vancouver ice at the sound of the final horn. “So,” he gasped. “So that’s what I wanted to show you.”
“You have wings,” Patrice said. He was still stuck on that fact. “You can fly.”
“No passengers, sorry. I think technically I shouldn’t even be able to get off the ground solo, but what are some magic wings without magic flying, you know?”
Patrice circled Brad. The headlights cast everything in light so bright it washed out all color or shadows so dark Patrice couldn’t see anything at all, but even so he could admire the way the wings moved, the way they shifted as Brad shifted – the way they answered to his whims as easily as any of his other limbs.
“They’re incredible,” Patrice said.
“Right?” Brad said, half smug and half something else. Just pleased, maybe.
“Can I touch them?”
“Sure? I mean, yeah. Go for it.”
Patrice reached out and traced his finger along the firm, smooth shaft of a feather. Then he ventured out to the softer part – he didn’t know what it was called. Doubtless Brad knew. Very possibly Brad had told him, in one of his regular regurgitations of desert flora and fauna and climate. “What kind are they?” Patrice wondered.
“Uh. The magic kind?”
“I meant what species.”
“Oh.” Brad rolled back onto his heels as he considered this, and the wing Patrice had been touching suddenly stretched out laterally, barely missing Patrice’s head. “Well, they’re clearly raptor wings, you can tell by the shape, and the coloring’s kinda red-tail hawk-ish. But a red-tail hawk has a wingspan of maybe a hundred thirty centimeters, and mine is, you know. Bigger.”
Patrice reached out to touch again. To stroke. The wing was so soft under his fingertips – so tangible, for a pair of shadows.
“Listen, I figured I’d fly around a little, if you won’t get bored.”
“I think I can manage,” Patrice said, stepping back to give Brad taking-off room. “Off you go. Shoo.” He flapped his hands. Brad caught sight of it out of the corner of his eye, and he laughed.
“Back in a bit,” Brad promised, and then with a sharp thwap of wings beating air, he was gone.
Patrice settled back against the side of the Porsche. He took out his phone, but then he stuck it back in his pocket. He reached inside the car window and turned the headlights off – to save battery, he’d tell Brad if he asked, but that wasn’t it.
That velvety blackness surrounded him, except for a soft white glow to the west, in the direction of town. He closed his eyes and breathed in the dry desert air. There was a sharp tang to it. He thought maybe Brad had identified it once as sage. He let his ears open and take in the desert sounds: distant voices from the campground, a yip that maybe was a coyote. If he held very still, not even breathing, he thought he could hear the beat of massive wings. If he opened his eyes, maybe he’d see them, a darting shadow that blotted out the stars.
But he didn’t open his eyes. He listened to the click of the cooling car engine and the intermittent yip of the coyote, and he breathed the desert in until the sharp-sweet scent of it seemed to settle into his chest. And finally, finally he heard those massive wings for sure, and then a heavy scrape of gravel as Brad landed a few meters away. “Pretty great, huh?” Brad said, softer than before, as though the dark made volume unnecessary. As though the only two people in the entire world was them.
“Yeah,” Patrice said. “I can see why you love it.”
“It?” Brad took a couple of steps closer. Air around Patrice stirred gently.
“Yes. Thank you for showing me.”
“Yeah, well.” Feathers brushed Patrice’s arm – unintentionally, maybe. “You’re my favorite, you know?”
Brad said shit like that all the time, as casual as breathing, while all Patrice’s truths stuck in the back of his throat. But it was dark, and Brad’s secret, incredible, impossible wings shifted in the air. Surely this once, Patrice could manage to say one true thing. “You’re my favorite, too.”
“Yeah?” Brad stepped closer. Abruptly Patrice was aware of wings folding in around him, nudging gently at his back. Fingers brushed against his and threaded between them. “That works out pretty well, then.”
“I guess?” Patrice said, too surprised to hope.
Brad laughed softly to himself. “C’mere.” He tugged on Patrice’s hand, and Patrice bent, and Brad kissed him like Brad did everything: with complete abandon and a lot of tongue.
It was just like Patrice would have imagined, if he’d ever dared. Finally, breathless and with a twinge in his back, Patrice straightened. “Should we head back to the hotel?”
Brad heaved a sigh. “Fuck, probably.” He shifted his weight and grunted, and suddenly the ever-shifting feathered curtain around Patrice was just… absent. Gone like it’d never been, like Brad was just standing there shirtless because he was Brad: inexplicable.
Except his fingers were still tangled with Patrice’s, and he didn’t seem inclined to let go. “You’ll come back with me, though, right?”
Patrice’s pulse was still beating too fast. Distantly he heard a howl that could have been a coyote. He held onto Brad’s hand, and he said, “Yeah, Brad. I’ll come back.”