All posts in Fiction

  • Polymorphism

    Jackie could feel the butterfly in her chest.

    The doctor promised it wouldn’t hurt and he was right. The insect made a vibration on her breastbone, ticklish and light. She pressed her hand against her skin. The day-flying creature’s fluttering had replaced the motion of her heart after so many people — mother, husband, friends — poked and prodded that blood-pumping muscle to a stop.

    She felt the space filling in with the thrash of wings. She gasped as her body seemed to morph, take shape, and mimic the feeling of flight.

    But the doctor forgot to tell her that the imitation of a heart can never fill you.

    It just leaves you waiting for the wings to spread out, for life to move on.

  • Musa Qala

    Helmand Province, Afghanistan

    Andam stood in the shade of the tree line and stared at the enemy through the shimmer of the orange fire. He was close enough to feel the heat searing his face. The squad of policemen and three American Marines stood watching, ghostly mirages through the heat of the blaze. While Andam’s poppy field burned, the Marines smoked cigarettes. They each kept the finger of their free hand on the triggers of their rifles, slung across the front of their bodies.

    Baseer held onto his father’s leg, arm wrapped tightly around the knee, head pressed against his thigh.

    “Go fetch your sister and bring her inside to her mother,” said Andam, his eyes never leaving the men.

    Baseer let go and ran away into the woods, his short legs pushing him around dry bushes and over ditches.

    Andam stood watching the fiery image of the intruders as they walked down the path leading away from Andam’s farm. Every few steps, one of the Marines turned to look back at the pile of charred poppies. The Americans’ faces carved in stone. The Afghani policemen laughed amongst themselves and slapped each other on the shoulders. Andam knew the policemen—all corrupt and hiding their own illicit activities—and would deal with them eventually. It would not be as easy to rid his home of the Americans.


    Andam pissed himself waiting for the enemy. His gray beard itched after two days of hiding. His warm trouser leg stuck to his thigh, and the air smelled of salty urine and sweat. He’d lain in the dust of the empty mud compound, Mosin-Nagant sniper rifle lying next to him on the ground. Andam’s elbows had rubbed raw through his sleeves, and red patches stained the ground where he propped himself up in the gravel, watching.

    Eddies of dirt whipped over the tops of the hills. Between clouds of spiraling dust, a squad of Marines approached. Andam’s pulse thumped in his ears as he picked up the rifle. Pulling the rifle up to his shoulder, he ran his hand over the worn, wooden butt-stock. His grandfather’s blood had spilt on this same rifle many decades ago, turning one of the knots on the heel of the wood into a shape Andam always thought resembled a bloody eye.

    He looped the sling around his right arm. It closed around the notch where bicep meets shoulder, tightening the butt-stock to his body for accurate firing. Weapon firmly in place, he froze to select a suitable target. Andam’s black turban absorbed most of the sweat pouring from his forehead and scalp.

    The squad of thirteen men in desert camouflage uniforms patrolled the outer compounds and farms of the district. Their heads swiveled, scanning the area, eyes and weapons linked and ready to engage any target. Andam lowered his head to peek through the scope mounted on the rifle.

    The crosshairs floated over the faces of the foreigners. The first soldier in the column, a round-faced man, cheeks flushed red from the heat, served as the point man of the squad. Another man chewed tobacco and spit a slick brown stream into the dirt.

    Andam moved the sight across each face. One soldier looked directly at Andam as he scoured the surroundings with hawkish, squinted eyes.

    He aimed the sight onto the face of the one who followed the squad with a holstered pistol and a small medical bag slung across his back. Andam remembered men with those bags running through an ocean of dead and dying, while his mother and other women had grabbed fistfuls of tan uniforms and begged for help.

    The scope fell on the smooth, clean face of a dark skinned man. He wore a small black bar on his thick armored jacket and scanned the other soldiers, as well as the surrounding countryside. The soldier’s eyes were slightly slanted with bright whites and piercing pupils, eyes that looked like his father’s when he fought past occupiers.

    Andam pulled the sling into his upper arm as tight as he could bear, jaw muscle pulsating as he bit down from the pain. Below the leather sling, his arm tingled from the constriction of leather. He leaned his head down and to the right and pressed his cheek onto the top of the butt-stock. The lines in the scope were perfectly still, resting between the eyes of the dark-skinned officer.

    Andam recalled his father’s eyes, still bright when he lay in the dirt dying from a foreigner’s bullet many years ago. The wide, vacant eyes had stared at mother while she knelt in the dirt and wailed.

    Andam wriggled to adjust his prone body in line with the rifle. The sights settled for the last time on the dark skinned officer’s unprotected forehead.

    The officer wiped sweat off of his forehead with the back of his hand and flicked it away with a snap of the wrist.

    Andam took a slow, deep breath, exhaling it and holding his lungs empty to maximize his stability. The scope bounced a hair as his pulse fought the tightened sling over his bicep.

    The young officer smiled, perfect white teeth flashing at a child who walked by the patrol.

    Andam lowered the rifle, blood and feeling screaming back into his forearm, then hand. He dropped his forehead down onto the stock. After this death, some other foreign boy will just come back for more vengeance—a perpetual course, once it has begun. And when did it begin? With the tanks and bombs? Men on horseback with rifles? Invaders with swords and shields?

    Andam lifted his head. The patrol continued past the compound. Andam sighted in again on the back of the last man’s head, just under the lip of the helmet. He squeezed the grip of the rifle until his palm cramped. His chin quivered. Andam pulled the trigger back until the involuntary twitch of his index finger, from his pulse radiating in to his arm, could fire the round.

    The last Marine’s head disappeared below the line of the hill, a hill dotted with rocks and red flowers that obscured the next field to be burnt. Andam released his hand, the trigger, and his clenched jaw, and exhaled his firing breath. He lifted his head to gather his things and go home. Baseer would be waiting and wondering where he had gone for so long.

    A tiny flash glinted from the barrel of a hidden American sniper. Andam’s right eye disappeared from the impact of the 7.62 mm round, while his brains evacuated through the back of his skull in a red mist. Blood spurted from the eye socket, then flowed around his nose and down his chin. His head remained upright from the surprise of the shot. The blood streamed from the tip of his chin onto the ground, mixing with the fine desert sand to form a viscous, black puddle, his grandfather’s long dried blood now obscured on the wooden stock.

    After the first few splatters dropped from his face, his body realized the fatal blow. Andam’s face dropped into the dirt and blood.


    “Father? Father?” called Baseer as he wandered between the abandoned compounds. The sun had set. Darkness filled the gaps between the empty mud huts.

    “Father? Father?” said Baseer as he entered each hut and compound. Approaching the last one, he squeezed his small body through the space of a broken plywood door.

    “Father?” asked Baseer as he walked up to a body, lying face down in the dirt. He asked again. “Father?”

    Now, quieter this time, “Father?” while nudging the foot with his sandal.

    Baseer took a few cautious steps to the head of the corpse. He crouched down, but didn’t touch the misshapen skull and blood-matted hair.

    Baseer sat down and crossed his legs, staring at the dead man. A camel spider lurked into the room and backed itself into a corner. As the clouds cleared throughout the night, the moon cast a white glow onto his father’s body.

    Baseer nodded off during his vigil, despite the pops of gunfire that echoed from all directions—some as close as the other side of the compound wall, some farther down into the valley. The firing was almost always followed by shouts in English or the familiar screams of his neighbors.

    Baseer heard Pashtun whispers and the crunch of footsteps in gravel along the outside wall. The lurking fighters were unable to stifle the discharge of their rapid breathing. The racket of gunfire echoed into the empty hut. Baseer could distinguish the rapid, metallic clatter of the weapon’s bolt while it showered bullets into adjacent compounds. When the firing ended with an empty click, the slap of running sandaled feet disappeared into the distance. The heavy stomp of boots followed seconds behind. Baseer remained seated next to his father’s body while the sounds of battle surrounded him.

    As the sun began its red ascent into the eastern sky, the nearby skirmishes had moved elsewhere, leaving the village silent.

    The bottom half of the Mosin-Nagent lay lodged under Andam’s body. Baseer stood, grabbed the barrel, and pulled, but the rifle was firmly wedged under the corpse. Baseer leaned farther back and grunted, straining to break the rifle free. It began to inch loose from under the weight as he leaned back as far as he could. He jerked the barrel side-to-side, finally setting the rifle free and sending him back into the dirt from the momentum.

    The little boy stood up, hefting the sling over his dusty, brown tunic, and wedged back out of the jammed door. As he walked home in the quiet night, the butt stock trailed behind him and carved a deep path in the dirt.

  • Trolling for Easter Porn

    On a tattered plain below the jagged bluffs of Shadow Mountain, a lone warrior faces three swordsmen. The dark fists of Thanalon, Destroyer of Worlds.

    “Prepare for the next world, lone warrior. What sayeth thou?”

    “I sayeth, where the chicks at in this dickfest? I need a maiden before work.”

    Upon making this declaration, the lone warrior laughs out loud. Inexplicably, one of his opponents reports himself to be rolling on the floor laughing, though he is still just standing there… on a tattered plain below the jagged bluffs of Shadow Mountain.

    The basement snaps into darkness when you close your laptop. A cone of light from your cell phone greys the edges of things: the trip of tangled clothes in the corner, furrows of abraded lint on the diamond puffs of a sheetless mattress, the crenelated inscape of balled-up wrappers. You have only ten minutes before your grandmother will call down from the kitchen. Cinnamon dulce spices the air.

    Disturbing those fools in Warrior Worlds has not been enough. You need an entity self-described as female to wish you an erotic good day, someone who will prove herself female with a photo, something you can believe in, bulwarks of flesh against an inevitable lessening.

    “Why not,” you mutter.

    Browser open and bookmark clicked, you brace for the initial panic of the white room. You log on and into a world made real in your mind’s eye. Since your father’s death, you bury the old you, the real one (you can’t tell anymore), under an electronic pyre of chatroom Fuck yous, Suck this, and I got your moderator right here. In silicate mourning you mimic the cancer that lurks around corners, that drunk driver hot at your six o’clock. And if you are lucky enough, brusque enough, with a lingo that drops its pants in public, you win the golden ticket: a skin pic.

    The next site is one of your favorites. As a cook yourself, you see it as business and pleasure, education and obsession.

    A kitchen the size of a cathedral. Chefs in bulbous hats. Eggs whisk in tinny bowls. Trays clank into ovens. A figure emerges.

    “The only way to separate yolks is by hand. Any trained chef will tell you that. If you want to save time by using some stupid gadget, be my guest.”

    You imagine Masterchef1772 as a walrus with a grey beard in a blue chef’s coat. You are chastising a beautiful blond, Ms.AintNoYolk, who replies: “I never said I would use the separator. I was only asking if anyone has used one. I’m trying to speed up production times for a breakfast food truck.”

    Another interloper, Julia’sWildChild, part chef, all cock blocker: “I’ve used them before, NoYolk, and I can tell you they work—gentle and fast.”

    Finally! You finger a minor chord of insult on the keyboard.

    “That’s how your mother likes it. Heh heh heh,” says WetPastriesWanted.

    “You!” Your grandmother calls from the basement steps. All whisking stops. Chefs collide. Bowls of batter spill.

    “You! You’ll be late for work.”

    She says more about the baking she needs help with. You say little. She cannot remember the last time you said much of anything. You kiss her forehead as if you smell a memory vague in the grey of her hair and then lumber off for the restaurant. Through the window she spies you texting and crosses herself.

    Even when using your cell on a city bus, you can live in discussion threads. That something simulating life can be going on in the small silence of the machine in your palm makes you remember sitting in front of the crucifix. With your grandmother’s lips kneading the Spanish of a Hail Mary in your peripheral vision, you would stare into the beatific anguish of the thorn-crowned face and you would imagine a vibrant world of relatives alive again, smiling and winged, circling your grandmother’s whisper. The alternative worlds that you enter digitally, even while riding the bus, make you believe in messianic eternities.

    Erma L. from Wakusha is an old woman with long white hair. She sits on a bucket and has a watering gun in her gloved hand. She’s going on and on about winterizing roses. Soon, Sally N. from College Station will come back into the greenhouse.

    Some guy runs in crawling with ants. He recites all the things he’s tried to get rid of them from cayenne pepper to boric acid. You cannot wait one more aphid-killing minute for Sally N.

    The greenhouse ripples when she enters. Tulips bow as she describes the lattice she is building. It is for morning glories to grow across a dorm window. It’s made from paperclips, scotch tape, and old shoelaces. You nearly drop your hand trowel as you watch her work. Soon you will say something to get her attention. Something nasty would be best, what you want to do to her. Part of you knows it will have the opposite effect.

    When she text-speaks again, she explains that she needs flowers on the window to screen others from looking in at her and her roommate.

    This could be it—the two-girl prize.

    A commotion on the bus causes the greenhouse to shimmer. Two young men harass an old woman who clutches her purse. With your nose in your phone, you escape, squeezing by suits and hoodies, ducking under hands hooked for dear life on ceiling rails.

    Sally is still in the greenhouse. “Do other creepers grow well attached to morning glories? Also, do I need to add anything to my pots?”

    In defiance of the shifting bus, your fingers move deftly on the phone. “I got just the vine for you, Sally,” you reply. “Send me a pic of you and your roommate first.”

    The two girl prize will be a single photo of two hot girls that you bring to vivid life on the tiny screen in your hand the way bunched-up paper from a freshly unraveled straw will snake up and stretch out if gently touched with liquid. It’s a trick your father showed you when you were small, before the cancer that did not take him or the car crash he was never in, before that stint in Fulsome that no goody-two shoes like him ever got or that time overseas fighting for our country that no coward like him would ever go through with. He showed it to you before being sucked up into the ether like the zeros and ones, adding up to all those invisible fuck yous lurking behind every flashing Viagra ad.

    Later, you and your fellow cooks are in the weeds, getting an earful from Chef.

    “The food is coming out sad as hell!”

    Onions and butter percolate. Chef’s face is an enormous beet with yellow teeth and a lazy eye. With all the screaming, the hiss of the grill, and the clattering of the plates, you cannot hear yourself think. Sally must still be standing there in her overalls thinking about sending you that picture you asked for. When she sends it she will be real. Moles, acne, extra pounds maybe, all vouching for the truths of her body.

    The line cook elbows you out of your reverie. “Chef has the hots for Sophia.”

    “Knock off the patter!” Chef growls.

    During a break, Sophia interrupts your websurfing. She is short with crooked lips. Her hair is dark, a head full of blackbirds. She likes the placid way you accept everything she tells you—her plans to get an apartment, the potential everyone says she had in school, how jealous her best friend is of her. You sit quietly as she converts memory into words and cigarette smoke. She feels depths within her when you listen like that.

    For your part, you do not mind Sophia. She doesn’t complain about your texting. The locust sound of it in your hands. And if you concentrate, you can sink into yourself in her presence, nearly alone with the carnal possibilities of Sally N. from College Station, who surely never slept on anyone’s couch, who probably had two rooms all to herself growing up, one just to play in; who would never in a million years anticipate that she would undress in the wee hours to snap revealing photos of herself for that foul-mouthed cretin from the gardening blog.

    But she would, you think—or, at the very least, she might. This is a numbers game and you are like your Uncle Chico who is addicted to the lottery, a dreamer.

    Sophia and her talking are still there. Your phone buzzes in your pocket.

    The message is from Sally. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

    As Sophia’s monologue floods the alley behind the restaurant, you are high and dry, dreaming of the freckles on Sally N. from College Station, a foxing on the onion skin pages of her flesh. But then you remember in a painful flash that first time you flipped a digital finger to the universe.

    A dozen or more commentators tromp into the white room to discuss Catcher in the Rye. They are high school kids, probing for essays due the next day. You are here to pass a reading quiz for a class at community college so you bend the space to fit your fears and to chase them away by turns. Leather couches and wooden wainscoting, oriental rugs and a roaring fire, a terrier curled up beside it. You are not finished with the novel and wish desperately not to finish it by the sleeping dog. The kids pose and chat, idly showing off.

    “Holden is a Christ figure. Down with phonies!”

    “I cried at the end. But the middle was derivative.”

    “Did you catch the Easter symbolism?”

    You drop a few one-liners about what you’d do to them in the rye fields.

    They gasp in their tweed suits. Dropped brandy snifters shatter the hardwood. One appalled little phony does a spit take so hard it knocks the toupee off the butler’s head.

    Then come the inevitable diagnostics.

    “Clearly, he’s a misogynist,” says one.

    “I don’t hate all women, just ugly ones like you.”

    “Clearly, he’s a perverted old man,” says another.

    “Don’t confuse me with your dad, and tell that punk to quit texting me!”

    “Clearly, he’s a repressed homosexual,” says one.

    “Why? You got your tiny wiener out thinking about me?”

    “Clearly, he’s a serial killer,” says another.

    “I wet the bed and hurt small animals while killing that coochy!”

    Then, Ms. Smartypants reminds them why they are there.

    “You know that scene where Holden sees the ‘Fuck you’ graffiti where the children would see it? That’s exactly what he is. Not the guy who wrote it, but the graffiti itself. He is the graffiti.”

    You open the novel to the passage, reading it over and over. Others chime in to agree. You think about the graffiti in your neighborhood. Most of these kids have only seen it from a distance, scrolling by through windows, scrolling by as if on screens.

    Pat the dough, depress the form, place on tray. Pat, depress, place. You do not mind helping your grandmother, but you do not move quickly.

    “It all smells so good, Mrs. Muñoz,” says Sophia icing cookies.

    “Call me grandma. All of his friends used to. Now, it is only him.” Your grandmother is rolling dough. “He helps pay bills and bakes for the church.”

    Finished prepping, you check messages on your phone.

    “Look at what he did for me last night.” Your grandmother points to the window above the sink. “For my herbs.”

    Above pots of climbing thyme and cilantro is a latticework: scotch tape, paper clips, and old shoelaces.

    “He’s handy, too, I see,” Sophia says.

    “My bunuelos,” gasps your grandmother. “I cooked them too long. They taste like tocino, like bacon.”

    You and Sophia try them. No one admits to bacon.

    “That Perez woman will talk. She or that Sanchez woman will complain.”

    “Don’t worry,” Sophia says. “I’m sure they’ll love your food.”

    Hours later, at the church, Sophia greets people with your grandmother. A train of judging women scrolls by to inspect the goods. Sophia uses a marker to personalize the confectioner’s boxes with a “Gracias” or a smiley face. Between customers your grandmother hints about going to live with your Uncle Chico in Texas, saying that she would not worry about you as long as you had a friend like Sophia. You nod at that and walk away. But Sophia interprets your nod. More specifically, her mind puts something in that nod and replays it with that extra something concealed as an original element. Sophia sees you beyond the crowd, alone on your chair against the wall with your nose glued to your phone, but her mind’s eye replays that nod.

    A radical thought enters her mind. She fishes her own phone out of her purse and excuses herself to your grandmother. At the end of the hall, she finds the bathroom and situates herself in an empty stall, uncapping the marker she brought with her.

    Elsewhere, the buzzing of old women disrupts your trolling. The one your grandmother is afraid of, Mrs. Perez, speaks so loud it is difficult for you to drift into your greenhouses, auction halls, English libraries, or cathedral kitchens.

    “Did you taste those horrible bunuelos? They taste like shoes covered in grease.”

    Shrill laughter. Then an incoming message. A picture. It takes a few seconds to unscroll on the screen of your phone. Smooth belly flesh. Crisp white panties. A hand pulling the elastic waistband—scrolling down—cotton panties and what lies beneath. That area is oddly visible through the panties, the way wrinkles around the knuckles show through latex gloves. A message is written on the white triangle in magic marker: “Sophia misses you”—the final “y” is punctuated with a smiley face, the same kind Sophia put on bags of sugar cookies a moment ago.

    You save the pic and close your phone. You will rejoin your grandmother and Sophia—the giver of the golden ticket, an unexpected benefactress of the bulwark against the lessening. You will tell your grandmother how amazing her bunuelos are, and how people like them because of the bacon. But before that—

    “Mrs. Perez?”

    The women turn to face you. Some turn as white as their hair. One woman covers her mouth with a handkerchief. Perez stiffens at the sight of you.

    “Fuck you,” you say cheerfully to them. “Fuck you, you ugly old bitches.” And as you walk back to your grandmother’s table, Sophia smiling devilishly, you can nearly taste the Easter graffiti like bacon on your tongue.

  • 9 Ways She Could Have Gone

  • I Dance People

    This one is particularly beautiful.

    I spotted him outside the metro station. He was not the type I’d normally go for, but sometimes you have to try something different on purpose. It keeps you on your toes. He was one of the easier ones to master. I studied him for mere minutes. I sort of circled around the guy, the way I normally did. I would overtake him on the street and then pretend to forget something, about face, and walk in his direction. Or I would run around a block so that, from an alley, I could observe him from the side.

    Most remarkable about this man was that he was so full of mirth. There was a spring in his step, but not in an annoying bubble-headed optimist way. It was more playful, a countenance suggesting that he considered life to be a joke. His blonde hair was voluminous, and stood up as an extension of his forehead. It bounced because of his springy step. This made him look quite cartoonesque to me. He wore baggy pants and a long sleeve Garfield shirt.

    A loosely fitted garment was always more tricky because it obscured the intricacies of someone’s movements for me. This man, however, moved so straightforwardly that it was a done deal. He knew exactly where he was going and was absolutely faultless. He never tripped, never hesitated, never walked up against an oncoming pedestrian—or did that little sideways dance that people do, both going left, both going right, both not moving. This definitely made my job easier, because clumsy actions were the hardest to anticipate.

    Once I learned him, I started shadowing, sidling up to him from a shop. From that point on we formed a single file. I mirrored his springy walk, the way his arms were slung lifelessly aside his body, the slight bobbing of his head. I had observed exactly how he responded to red lights, when he’d ignore them, and how he’d come to a stop if he didn’t. I so perfectly timed my movements that my feet would hit the ground at the same time as his, and that our breathing aligned, so as to ensure that he would not discover me by sound.

    Then of course, people have this sixth sense that pertains to something behind them. They can feel someone stare at them, even from behind. This is one of the hardest things to counter, to master and control. It concerns making your every move effortless, instinctive, unconscious. The reason you feel that stare is because there is an actual tangible transfer happening, a bit of concentration that leaks, out of the eyes, into the back of the head of the target. Therefore, the trick is to be a complete natural, to really be the person in front of you, and not to try to be, and especially not to try to read. You should do that before the shadowing.

    I call them dances. I dance a person. Once I learn the dance, I always remember it, so that I can still dance many people that I have long since lost track off. Some may have even died, which means I might be carrying with me something unique, a pattern of physical motion that everyone thinks has long since perished. This thought has a strange allure.

    Once I’ve learned a dance, I get bored with the teacher quickly. Predicting someone’s every move sucks out all the excitement of a person. I need to actually break free with some force though. I need to shake off the dance with a shock, which is why, as we head underground to catch a metro, I push him off the stairs.

    This one is particularly beautiful.

  • Thea’s Birds

    Thea hates when Rod calls her Cynthia, her real name.

    “If you’re so determined to drop your past, then make it official and change it. You don’t even suit Thea. You’re more like a Verna–”

    “Yeah right,” and Thea snorts the same way each time Rod teases her. Maybe I’m not quite ready, is what she thinks, never saying it aloud.

    “–or a Bernadette. I’ve always loved that name.” He stretches out loved until she smiles.

    “Sure you do. You’re so full of shit. You watch, one day I’ll do it. I’ll come home from Vital Stats and I’ll be a new woman,” and it’s here that Thea changes the subject, the only thing she’ll change for a while.

    Rod soars along Taylor Drive and Thea lets her head loll against the headrest. With half-open eyes she feels the cooling breeze through an open window. She follows the palette of autumn leaves—the burgundy, pinot noir, merlot, shades of wine that Thea tries to ignore. She has a perverse thirst for wine, any color and any sweetness, almost any time of the day. Any number of triggers can make her thirsty. She figures it stems from the genetic predisposition handed to her on a blackened silver platter.

    If she isn’t careful, she gazes back to the countless nights her father arrived home late, weaving unsteadily through the kitchen with noisy demands that his dinner be served immediately and shouts of, “Who cares what GD time it is? I’m GD hungry!” A cock-eyed compensation was that her mom might be equally plastered so never played doormat to the old man who stunk of Pall Malls and Old Spice, not spicy enough to camouflage the double Jacks and cola that leached from him. Even his unwashed hair smelled boozy.

    “Then get your own GD dinner! I’m watching a movie!” was the usual response, that and the sound of her mother’s highball glass as it smacked the TV table permanently stationed at the side of her recliner.

    The noise of this ceremonial yelling snaked up the staircase, slithering straight for a room where two young girls tried to avoid the drama. It was a jigger of years before Thea’s father realized that dinner was rarely served, not for him and not for his daughters who listened to him trip over scattered pots and cans of food, anything he could pull from the cupboards in his stumbling fury.

    Little did Thea’s mother know that each time her children witnessed these late night tirades, a chill left their hearts flash-frozen. By adolescence, both girls were mentored in the futility of relationships; later on, the futility of life. Rage was their faithful tutor and before their lives were through, both women would experience the heartache of several failed marriages.

    “You need your space? I’ll give you space,” yelled more than one soon-to-be ex. The men’s faces and bodies changed; the sound of each slamming door was identical.

    Thanks for squat and diddly, GD Jack Daniels.

    Thanks for Rod. Hard working, attentive, empathetic Rod.

    For no apparent reason, perhaps a streak of movement that breaks the cloudless sky, Thea and Rod glance up at the same time. They watch a large bird lowering to land on a power line, its dark wings outstretched and its legs extended. “Cormorant” is the word that comes to Thea’s mind.

    In a burst, the bird is gone. Electrocuted. With a quick explosion of smoke, black feathers rain to the ground as their car speeds by.

    “Oh my God!” Thea shrieks. “Did you see that? Did you see that bird fry?” Although she cranes her neck over the headrest, they’ve already left the scene. “Stop!” she shouts. “Go back and find out if it’s still alive!”

    “It’s not alive and I can’t, the traffic’s too heavy.” He glances in his rear view mirror. “There’s a tow truck right on my ass.” He sounds more mad than upset, his clenched knuckles white on the steering wheel.

    “Did you see it explode?”

    “I did. It was horrifying.”

    It’s at this moment when Thea knows she loves Rod more than she can calculate, simply for using the word “horrifying.” And she knows he’s not mad at her. He’s angry at the city’s encroachment onto wildlife, lands that were verdant forests a decade earlier. Mad because there is no triumph in adding another mall to supply more hardware, electronics and dollar-store plastics.

    Her previous boyfriend was less sympathetic when it came to wildlife. In their final months together, Daryl complained daily about two pigeons that tried to build a nest on their townhouse patio. Even though they dirtied his plastic storage containers, Thea attempted to defend them—extending her arms to stop him and when that didn’t work, pulling on the back of his shirt—but Daryl noisily chased them away. “Flying rats, piss off!” With patience exhausted, he secured a plastic tarp over the works and eventually the pigeons gave up on their nesting.

    Winter approached and Thea realized her Sorels were stored in one of the half dozen containers. She peeled back the tarp. Wedged between two containers was the featherless body of a baby pigeon, frozen in a nest built from guano. Its dehydrated head tilted upwards, hopeful.

    Thea lowered to her knees and wept hard and fast, not because the world would want for one more pigeon but because the bird had starved to death despite its parent’s attempts to reach it. That’s why the two birds returned to the balcony for several days after Daryl covered the boxes. She wept because she was certain Daryl knew what he was doing when he unfurled the blue plastic and would refuse to admit his part in the event. She wept because she knew he’d end the conversation before stomping out of the room by saying, “It’s just a stupid bird,” and interrupting her reproach with, “Why are you so mental?”

     Rod has given her The Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher and a handcrafted twig bird feeder for her recent birthday. While nothing can replace the loss of their baby, born too early and burdened with challenges, it’s a well-intentioned distraction. For several minutes a day, when she flips through the pages and studies the photos, she focuses on birds instead of the fragility and unfairness of life.

    Both of them are silent on the drive home from shopping. Rod never once says, “It’s just a bird.” She loves him even more for letting her feel sad. She thinks of sprawling fields of green grass when she closes her eyes and pictures his face.

    She opens her bird book moments after hurrying through the door. The grocery bags on the counter can wait. Double-crested cormorants reside in many locations throughout North America. They nest along the coast from southwest Alaska to Mexico, and on lakes from central Alberta to James Bay and Newfoundland. And there it is, central Alberta. It was a cormorant.

    Nests are constructed from sticks or twigs and are located in trees or on the ground. Both adult birds incubate from two to four light blue eggs for 28 days by wrapping their feet around them, and care for their young until they become fully independent, about 10 weeks after hatching. 

    She moves to their computer and does a quick search: Humans have historically exploited cormorants’ fishing skills in China and Japan, where they have been trained by fishers. Cormorants have been persecuted by humans as fish competitors and in the past, this species was almost extinct. She wants to stop reading the screen yet can’t when she comes to the part on reproductive failure and malformation caused by pesticides and other toxins from the fish they eat. Crossed bills, club feet, eye and skeletal deformities – 

    “Okay, that’s enough!” she speaks aloud, although she knows she’s alone in the room. “Rod?” She abandons the humming computer to look for him. He isn’t in the house, not in the basement. She slips on her runners and walks outside to explore the yard. That’s when she sees the open door and empty garage.

    “Can I choose the names?” Thea asks, admiring the pair of parakeets, one green and yellow and the other a powder blue, the same shade of eye shadow she proudly wore in grade eight. After seeing the cormorant, these look so small and delicate. Rod purchased a ridiculously large cage, large enough to house a pelican. Two pelicans.

    “Of course, they’re your birds.”

    “I’m going with Kate for the female and Jon for the male.”

    “Please tell me you’re not naming them after Jon & Kate Plus 8.”

    “I sure am.”

    “They broke up years ago. They’re not even a couple.”

    “Maybe they’ll get back together one day, even though she’s a bitch. I’m trying to be optimistic like you.”

    Rod sighs and fills the water feeder. He smiles at nothing in particular.

    “I was worried when you took off like that. You were gone for so long.”

    “I wanted to surprise you with these. You always said you wanted–”

    Thea interrupts: “You always said you hated to see birds in cages.”

    “Not this cage. Look at the size of this sucker, biggest the pet store had.” Rod runs his hand over the top, stopping when he feels a rough edge of metal and smoothing it with his nail.

    “Where will we put it?”

    “What’s wrong with right here? Besides, the woman at the store said you can let them out, once they’re used to you and once they associate their cage as home. She also said they can learn to talk. These ones probably won’t, though.”

    “How come?”

    “Something about them bonding with each other. She offered to sell me a single bird.” He thinks about this for a few moments. “No way, that seems too lonely. Did you know that parakeets can live to be fifteen?”

    After several minutes of silence, Thea finally speaks. “I’m going with Jane. It’s a good name, strong and simple.”

    “Instead of Kate?” Rod asks, holding the slender cuttlebone between his fingers like a cigar. One bird starts to preen the other’s head, a sign they’re settling into their new home.

    “For me, silly.” She notices that Rod’s left eyebrow sits higher than the right. Funny, she never realizes until now. She wants to reach out and touch him. Doesn’t. He is too devoted to filling the feeder, spilling more seed on the rug than in the container. She doesn’t want to interrupt this tender scene, one she has already labeled and bookmarked. One she will refer to many times over the coming years. Through the failed in vitro. Through the rehab.

    “I’ve never known a Jane before.” This time Rod stops and turns to her, his expression suddenly serious.

    “You do now.”

    He resumes his assembly and shares another tip from the pet store on how they shouldn’t put anything with a shiny surface in the cage or the birds will see another parakeet and want to play with it instead of them.

    “These birds have more toys than me.” She hands over a ring and ladder contraption, and then tosses him a bell. “They’re lucky birds.” If anyone is excited, it’s Rod. Better not get too attached, she thinks, not sure if she means to the birds or to him. That shadow passes quickly and is replaced by the hope there’s still a drop of sherry left in the bottle Rod keeps with his Asian sauces over the stove.