The Birds


Honorable Mention Writing to the Right-Hand Margin Prize in Non-fiction
Published: April 22, 2010

I passed through the vestibule and pushed our heavy red door open. The sky tore apart.   The lightning lit the whole block and for a second I could see my friend Alex waiting at the end of the street.

I squished through the yard, collecting mud and water on my bell-bottomed blues.  The jeans were my favorite, purchased on a lucky trip to the mall with Alex and her mother.  Alex’s mom was cool.  She didn’t tell me that my jeans were too tight when I tried them on even though they were. I was pinching and pulling, trying to force some air between my thighs and the wet denim when Matt appeared. I froze, forgetting to breathe as I watched him slam the door of his house.  Alex didn’t seem fazed.  She smiled and shook her long dark hair.  It glistened in the rain.  It was probably a secret hair trick from the Seventeen magazine my mother had expressly forbidden me to read.

I silently cursed my mother.  People called her “Saint Tamera” and so I was probably already sinning for hating her. She was perfect… and perfectly terrifying.   One toe out of line could elicit from her a look or comment that made being dangled by God over the fiery pits of hell seem pretty tame.   In fact, I would gladly rot in purgatory if I thought it might make me popular.

I sighed as I looked up at Alex.  She thought it was weird that I did what my mother said.  Her family was agnostic.

“Hi Matt!” chirped Alex. I rolled my eyes, and wiped my face with my sleeve.  He swiped some dark hair out of his eyes and smiled.

“What up Alex?” He answered.  I was sufficiently ignored. Matt was wearing Jncos and a black Sublime sweatshirt with the hood up.   His eyes were so blue they seemed to glow beneath dark eyelashes on his shadowy face.  I could hardly look at him without feeling like I could do something terrible.  I imagined screaming at the top of my lungs or shaking him.  The thought of touching him made me light-headed.  I was silent.

“Whoa. What’s in that bag?” Matt muttered.  I looked where he was looking.  Next to the hedge was a large white trash bag.  We lived on quiet Brooklawn Terrace, but at the end of the street, across from Matt’s yard, was the heavily trafficked Stratfield Road which rushed by and led to the darker, dirtier streets of Bridgeport. For my mother, dumping trash was a one-way ticket to hell.   If that was true, the whole town over was doomed.

“Ahhh!” Alex cried. My mind focused. “It’s moving!” she shrieked and giggled, grabbing Matt’s arm and bouncing with excitement.  God she is so ridiculous, I thought. But then, she was right. The bag vibrated on the pavement.   Matt inched closer. Do you dare me? His blue eyes narrowed.

“Don’t touch it!” I cried.  Alex elbowed me sharply in the rib and my face flared a deep red. Tears were forming in the corners of my eyes. Please don’t cry, I thought.  Matt stepped closer to the wet bag, scowling at me.  Alex squealed in delight.  With one last look at us, Matt jumped up in the air and came crashing down.

The sound that followed repulsed me beyond what I thought I was capable.  It was desperate, loud.  Something in there had been alive.   The tears were pouring down my face now, and I couldn’t help but think it was all my fault.  I stared for a moment at the bag, loathing myself and it.  I could taste the bitter stomach acid welling in my throat.   Matt’s face turned pale as he moved off the bag.  Alex stopped bouncing about and for a second, we were all silent.  Matt knelt down and slowly peeled back the white plastic covering.  He revealed two mangled birds. Their shiny feathers were slick, wet, and matted with their own blood. Their wings and feet were tangled together in sweat and dirt and there was an ominous spot where Matt’s sneakers had left their print. I wanted to stop looking even as my rational self clicked.  Cockfights in Bridgeport.

I turned back towards my stone house, trying to see straight through the rain and a dizzying image of a smoky basement, sweaty men and those birds.  I began to run.  I turned back towards the stop, wiping my face, hoping against all hope that Alex was headed towards me.  Instead, the bus had arrived. The deep pit in my stomach sank as I saw her laughing as she climbed the stairs of the bus and Matt behind her. My legs did not respond to my begging and pleading as the dirty yellow bus splashed muck my way.  Another clap of thunder rolled through the clouds.  There was steam on my face from the hot tears.  I lifted my head towards the dark sky and let the cool drops wash my eyes and nose.  The shock of what I had just done was intoxicating.    The thought was so ridiculous I almost laughed.   I’m going to skip school.

I walked past Matt’s house, ran past mine, and then slowed in front of Mrs. Heagerty’s door. I could see the glow of television through her window.  She was up.  I set a muddy clog on her front step, and stared at the doorbell. I wouldn’t have to ring it.  Her door was always open because she was always home.

“Mrs. Heagerty?” I called with hesitation.

I could tell she was surprised to see me, but a smile lit up her face under the tubes covering her nose. She was lying on her hospital bed just as she always was.  It smelled like a hospital in there, but I didn’t usually care.  It was warm and Mrs. Heagerty seemed to like me.  She was propped up just enough to see the TV, though she straightened herself up a little when I walked in. The kerosene lamp and the glow of the television were the only illumination.  There was a steep staircase leading to who knows what on the left side of the room and old-fashioned plates in every color hanging on the walls. The wallpaper was ornate, and flowery. It was peeling in a few places, and but the picture of Mrs. Heagerty’s dead husband was dust-free.  He peered at me from his gold frame.

I walked into her warm dark room, and sat on her brown corduroy couch. After a few moments my tears dried. We were both quiet. I watched Bob Barker call an enormous woman down from the crowd. The woman and her yellow nametag shook with excitement. Bob smiled his effervescent smile.  Mrs. Heagerty cleared her throat and cut through the laughter of the studio audience.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”  She asked.  I turned from the television set.  I thought about what I could tell her… the guilt swept through me like poison and I felt like maybe I should just accept my fate.  I gulped in some air, and tried to explain.

“Well, I was waiting in the rain for the bus, and then there was this bag, and I told Matt not to stomp on the bag, but Matt stomped on the bag, and there was birds in the bag, and they squawked, and then the lightning came down, and it was raining, and my jeans were wet.”  It wasn’t an explanation. I sounded wild. I looked up at Mrs. Heagerty with tears in my eyes.  Was she going to judge me? Call my mother? God, I was crying so Goddamn much… Would Mrs. Heagerty somehow know I had just thought the word Goddamn?  Mrs. Heagerty frowned.  I was cooked.  Hell was near.

“Matt Hazard is a simpleton. I’ve disliked that boy since I first laid eyes on him.” Mrs. Heagerty said simply.  “Would you like some tea?” A grin stretched itself across my face as I nodded, getting up to heat some tea on her ancient stove.  I didn’t know what a simpleton was, but I instantly knew I was safe.