Bird  by Rae Stringfield

Competition: Short Story Challenge 2020, Final Round

Genre: Open  Subject: Comeuppance  Character: A ne'er-do-well

Length: 1,250 words

Original Illustration by Yevgenia Nayberg

 

          It was the summer after they rerouted the freeway away from our town, when our dads and some moms left to find jobs as our cupboards ran dry. The summer we were so hungry we committed blasphemy: snuck into the church basement for the plush nativity scene we’d sewn in home ec, excavated bean-filled bodies and ate like gluttons, plucked off accusing button eyes before burying limp frames in the woods. It was the summer we first stole a bottle of spirits and laughed till we couldn’t breathe when we forgot how many syllables were in abdomen—abdobomen, abdomenen. The summer we learned to curl our hair on the hot metal rods of the playground, to smash wild blackberries in palms and finger their bright pigment onto one another’s lips. It was the summer of Heidi’s wreck, a hit-and-run. We didn’t want her to be dead, but she insisted she was.

          At first we tried to talk her out of it, to prove she was alive through pinching—“Like how in dreams you can’t feel pain, ya know?” “Dreams and being dead aren’t the same”—or asking passersby to greet her. But nothing worked. People could see her, she explained, because she was a particularly strong haunt. So for a while we stopped trying to convince her. We decided, as her friends, if she really needed to be dead then we’d just have to allow it, even if it caused some problems. But summer was almost over.

         “Our moms are saying—Ow!” An elbow into ribs.

          Heidi didn’t look up from the wildflowers she braided. “What are they saying?”

          “Nothing.”

          “Tell me.”

          Out all night, they were saying, on her way to becoming a harlot.

          Heidi sighed, as if gossip was beneath her now she was dead. “They’re only saying that because I’m a girl. If I was a boy, they’d say I’m a vagabond. Or mysterious. They’d be scared of me.” She tucked in the last stems, reached behind her to hang it from the edge of the gravestone.

            It was a beautiful wreath—sunset yellows, oranges, and reds woven along a kudzu vine—but we couldn’t say so. Nobody ever mentioned, not since that first night when her grandmother—hunched and grey, possibly the oldest person in town—woke the neighborhood, shouted herself hoarse that Heidi was missing. We’d been the ones to find her, curled atop the fresh mound of dirt, bunches of wildflowers adorning the stone: Rose Ward, loving mother departed too soon. Come home, we’d begged, even tried to drag her, but she swore and swatted us, said the dead sleep in the graveyard. So we brought her blankets, stayed by her side as late as we could—some nights till our moms came for us, others till we couldn’t stand the bugs, till we heard an animal in the woods, or grew scared of how small we felt under so many stars. We tried to explain to her grandma, but her memory was going; soon she forgot Heidi was supposed to live with her at all.  

         We didn’t tell Heidi all the things our mothers said:

         Pity

         Hopeless

         Ne’er-do-well

         Bad influence

         Sad, but…

         Might be time to keep ours away from her

         If she doesn’t go back to school, that will be the end of it

         We needed her to decide to live again. We had the list—we’d bullet pointed what Heidi told us about the wreck, clues to help us find the person responsible. We investigated every car with broken headlights, staked out the gas station to tail any suspicious outsiders come to town, until we were left with the one we couldn’t make sense of: Bird. We badgered her for days—what kind of bird?—pleading for any detail. But all she wanted to do was braid or lay on the grave, stare at the clouds.

          Heidi used her thumbnail to X a mosquito bite on her ankle, another on her forearm. “Do you think being dead is my penance?” She wanted to sound casual, but we knew better.  

          “Penance for what?”

          She stared as if we should’ve known from the start. “For eating baby Jesus.”

         “Don't be an idiot.” We’d decided a firm stance was best at this point, but the way she flinched sent a ripple through us—not that firm, a glance between us confirmed.  

         “Don’t you listen in church? Jesus wanted us to eat him.”

          “Yeah, it’s communion.”

          “But,” Heidi tucked her feet into one of the sheets we’d brought her, stained red-brown by the still-raw earth where she slept, “that was adult Jesus. And what if communion’s just for bread? Not for beans…”

          “Heidi, listen. The only person who needs to worry about penance is the one who killed your—”

         “Killed me,” Heidi interjected, eyes fire.

         “We’ll find them,” we swore again.  

         “We’ll burn their house down.”  

         “Sink their skull in with a rock.”

         “Push them off a cliff.”

         “Fork their eyeballs out and fry em up.”

         “Force them to eat their own eyeballs for dinner!”

         “They’ll get their comeuppance.”

         “Stop it!” Heidi’s voice was raw. She clenched the sheet, twisted and wrung the fabric. “You’re saying it like it’s a joke. Or a game. Someone’s dead—I’m dead. Don’t you care?”

           For a beat we were shocked still, then we converged, absorbed the force of her sobs with our bodies. When she quieted we thumbed her tears, kissed her face, finger-combed her tangled hair. We Xed her mosquito bites for her. We picked more flowers from the edge of the woods, promised to plant roses. We remembered she really could’ve died.

           It was the summer Heidi needed our help to put her pieces back together. So we unfolded the list again:

          Broken headlights

          Out of state plates

          Bird

          “Please tell us,” we begged. “Tell us what happened when you died.”

          The bird swooped in front of the car. Heidi’s scream lasted forever, she told us, bled into the cry of the tires when her mom swerved, into the groan of wilting metal when the front of the car behind them sprouted through her mother’s door. When she opened her eyes next she lay with her face on the pavement. She could see the bird, most of its body flattened. While she waited to die, she told us, she watched its intact wing lift, catching gusts of wind from each car that sped past till finally someone stopped.

          “But by then I already knew I was dead,” Heidi said. “I screamed to save the bird, and I killed us.” She sat against the headstone, clutching knees to chest, and for a moment we saw her as our mothers must—swollen eyes, grimy fingernails, hunger of reedy arms, rumpled of unlaundered clothes. We saw the tired of gossip promising it will only get worse, and we knew why Heidi was dead.

          It was the summer we didn’t know what to say, but knew where we needed to be. The summer we dragged everything we owned to the graveyard, shouted at our moms to leave when they tried to take us home. It was the summer we learned to fish with shoelaces and baby pins, learned not to frighten so easily at the rustle of leaves. The summer we stayed up so late our drowsy eyes blinked stars into lightning bugs. It was the summer we chose to be dead, too, for a little while, for as long as it took to bring Heidi back to life.

 

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Rae Stringfield is a writer and freelance editorial consultant who lives with her dog, Gavin. When she is not reading or writing, she can often be found exploring the nearest mountain trails or renovating her 1993 Fleetwood Jamboree.

 


 

 



 

 


 

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