Fiction: Canary

When they told me they were getting a divorce, my parents took me to the pet store. I was thirteen by then, and had been waiting for them to figure out how to break the news for two years before they mustered up the nerve. I didn’t need a consolation. Practically none of my friends had married parents, so I knew what divorce really meant—two Christmases and fewer fights. I’d easily trade the mortgage for that. But if they were going to buy me a pet to make themselves feel better, I wasn’t going to stop them.

Dad was pushing the glow-in-the-dark fishes pretty heavily, because he didn’t want any animal that required him to scoop up shit. Mom wanted something cute and conventional that she could show off to her book club friends. I left them arguing by the poodles and went over to the cages where the hamsters and rats were kept.

I didn’t like the way they moved, the rodents, all jittery and anxious like they had coffee in their weird little straw-bottles instead of water. I wondered for a moment if that was something I could do, if I bought one. Get a rat hooked on caffeine and set it loose in the city.

Mom and Dad found me pretty quick, and Dad took one look at the rat and shot his eyebrows into his receding hairline. “What are you doing over here?” he asked, like he was begging me not to say I wanted a rat.

I didn’t, not really, so I made something up quick and pointed across the aisle at the chinchilla. “I think I might like one of those.”

Mom laughed. “That’s not a pet. That’s something you make coats out of.”

That stung a little, but I didn’t actually want a chinchilla so we moved on to the next aisle before they could start bickering again. We were surrounded now by birds, chirping and singing and cooing at one another, pecking at the bars. One was even hanging upside down from the top of its cage like a bat.

They all went quiet out of nowhere, except one. It was yellow, bright, singing at the top of its lungs. I looked at my parents. They looked at each other. We bought the canary.

I called her Calliope because I was deep in that Greek mythology phase you go through in middle school when everything you feel takes place in epic proportions that only old legends have the scope to encapsulate. I carried her cage back and forth every other weekend and cleaned it out myself. Her song sounded a little like a car alarm. Mary Yang told me that only boy birds sing, but I figured it was a bird and as long as it was caged up and alone it didn’t really care one way or another what I called it.

Sometimes I would talk to Calliope in my room at night because I couldn’t really tell Mom or Dad the things I was thinking. I had friends, but the one-layered middle school variety of friends who you knew from algebra or jazz band and you only ever talked to in algebra or jazz band. They didn’t know one another, and they didn’t know about the other facets of my life. I didn’t like my foods to touch.

With Calliope it was different. For one thing, I kept her in a cage so she couldn’t go anywhere. She was a bird, so she couldn’t tell anyone. And when she cocked her head and went quiet it felt like she was listening for real, like she was sympathizing and understanding.

I told her about how embarrassing it was when the teacher paired me and my crush Johnny Cochrane together for a science lab when I had a bad breakout, or how I got my first period in second period and I had to be sent home because I bled through my pants, or how Madison and Kayla were in a huge fight and I couldn’t even say anything about it because they’d accuse me of taking sides and then I’d be the bad guy to both of them somehow. I even told Calliope about how Mom got a new boyfriend she thought I didn’t know about, but how sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear her with him doing it in her room. I wondered if Dad knew she had moved on so fast. I wondered if he would, too.

It was pretty easy to talk to Calliope, and after a while she started kind of cheeping back at me when I spoke like she was commiserating. I tried to show Dad, once, and dragged him to my bedroom to show that Calliope would talk to me, but she didn’t do it with him around. He said something like, “If you wanted a bird that could talk, you should’ve bought a parrot.”

When he left I turned to Calliope and gave her my meanest scowl. “Traitor.”

I flopped onto my bed—less comfortable than the one at Mom’s but with a prettier comforter—and shut my eyes for a few minutes, breathing slow and deep to control myself. I felt like crying suddenly, even though there was no reason to. I didn’t want to cry, and that made it even harder not to.

Suddenly Calliope spoke, but this time it wasn’t just chattering.

“Don’t cry,” she said, and she said it with my voice.

I sat up straight, my eyes suddenly dry, and I opened my mouth to respond, but all that came out was a meek little peep.

“It’s going to be alright,” Calliope said.

I tried to cry out and found myself singing her usual whistling call.

“Open up my cage.”

And I did.

“Now open up your window.”

It was unnerving to watch her talk. She just slightly opened her beak, and didn’t move it at all when the sounds of her speech changed. The words flew out like they’d been recorded, and as I opened my window I cheeped something to that effect.

“It won’t be for long, love,” she said, and suddenly I felt my arms go cold and goose-pimpled.

“I’m going to fly away now,” she said. “And you’ll never see me again. But you’ll have your voice back, and you should really use it to talk to someone other than a bird.”

I twittered indignantly, and she cocked her head to the side a little. “Really. You’re thirteen years old. Have some agency.”

And with that she took flight.

I twittered and cheeped and sang and called until my voice became my own again, yelling, “Wait!”

But she was already out of my sight by then and there was nothing else to do. My father burst in after a moment and took in the scene—the open window, the empty birdcage, the wild, raw look in my eyes—and said, “Oh, honey,” and I ran into his arms and cried.

Fiction: Black Cat

We had a cat. She was oil-gushing, midnight-piercing, charcoal-crumbling black, so we called her Black Cat. It was simple, really—no debate or anything.

Sometimes we’d set fires in the backyard. We’d gather up all the twigs in a pile, away from the uncut grass. Black Cat would sit and stare at the fire all glassy-eyed, like she was waiting. Even when the ashes stopped glowing, she’d stay there, watching.

That was how we found her in the first place. It was summer and the sky was stark and starless, and the grass was brown from weeks without a storm. They told us there was a wildfire advisory, so of course we had to set something ablaze. Everything caught just like we’d hoped, and after the smoke and the flare and the fizzle, we saw Black Cat just out of the reach of the light, with her eyes gleaming steady.

We watched her back, playing chicken to see who could go longest without blinking. She won by mere seconds—once we both cracked, she shut her eyes all slow and opened them back up real lazy-like. She followed us into the house when our yawns told us it was curfew, and that was that.

We never saw her eat, but we knew she did. She was lithe, all fur and bones, but when we’d leave out saucers of milk and little dishes of chopped up meat, they’d be empty by morning—licked clean, even. She didn’t seem to like to do a whole lot while we were watching, really. Anytime we were in the room she’d just sort of stop whatever she was doing and curl up. She didn’t even really meow.

She could purr something mighty, though, like a motorcycle engine rumbling in her chest. Sometimes she’d sit in a little patch of sun on the carpet and kind of buzz. Her eyes would always be open, looking right into the light even though we told her it was bad for her vision. She wasn’t much of a listener, that Black Cat.

She definitely didn’t like strangers. One time about a month after she showed up, Mrs. Davenport from next door came over to check on us and was asking all about where our parents had gone. We didn’t really want to tell her the whole thing because we didn’t want her to call Child Services, but lucky for us Black Cat was there and she jumped up and bit Mrs. Davenport right on that wrinkly, flappy skin beneath her arms. We had to say all kinds of sorry and pretend we were mad at Black Cat for show, but it got Mrs. Davenport to leave and stop asking all her nosy questions pretty quick.

The fire we set that night was extra big. We even went out in the woods behind Kevin Rothschild’s house and got some sassafras twigs because he told us sassafras makes real nice-smelling smoke. We made a kind of monster pile of twigs and grass and a few bigger sticks that had fallen down the last time it had stormed—we weren’t so sure about cutting down trees ourselves and anyway our axe was all busted off the handle so it wasn’t much good for anything. We stacked it real tall until it kind of looked like it was gonna fall over, and then we lit a match and threw it in. We didn’t realize Black Cat was outside with us until she bounded over and hunched down real close to the fire like she was gonna pounce on it. The flames were dancing in her eyes, and she looked a little scary right then, real powerful, like a piece of the night sky torn down and brought here to the earth.

The fire started to pop and hiss when the sassafras caught, and Black Cat started her little buzz-purr-rumble so it was competing with the fire. The wind started howling too and it was a kind of eerie little orchestra. We both got goosebumps even with the fire crackling right there in front of us.

We remembered that one time before Mom left when she told us that the night was not a thing to be trifled with. She always liked big words like that, trifled. We knew she was dead serious because her breath smelled like tequila. She only told the truth when she was wasted.

Black Cat kept rumbling something awful, and we didn’t realize it but we’d started shrinking together until our arms were wrapped around each other tight. Black Cat was a feral creature and we couldn’t really own her, we knew that now. She opened her mouth all wide and we could see the little red stains on her teeth where they’d sunk into Mrs. Davenport’s arm earlier. The fire made her tongue look orange.

The wind picked up some more and the fire got real tall all of a sudden, and we wanted to move but were too scared to try it. Next door Mrs. Davenport’s porch light flickered on.

The fire got bigger and bigger and Black Cat got louder and louder and then there was a knock at the gate and everything all stopped. The fire was just embers, and Black Cat was sitting there purring all quiet-like and normal, with her mouth closed and her eyes just yellow-gold again.

We got up after a moment and went to the gate. It was Mrs. Davenport and she insisted on coming into the yard because of course she did. She was always kind of pesky, used to gossip to all the neighbors until they realized she was talking about them behind their backs. Now she was kind of lonely and sad, but still a real busybody with no sense of what was her business and what wasn’t. She came right over to our fire pit and looked right at it with a strange sort of grown-up contempt, the look they get when they think they’re too good for fun things, and we felt something kind of like pity until she opened up her thin little mouth.

“You kids have got to get yourselves under control. Where are your parents? Where’s that deadbeat mother of yours, that trucker father? What kind of people leave two rowdy boys alone in a house like that?”

Those were exactly the kinds of questions we’d been asking ourselves lately but it hit differently to hear her say them out loud. One of us started crying. The other got all jumpy-nerved and tense.

We didn’t have anything to say and she wouldn’t soften just looking at us. Kept muttering to herself as she started to stamp out our fire with her big pink slippers.

“Stupid kids, bastard parents, what do you expect? You can’t have a neighborhood with this kind of riff-raff running around all the time setting fires, of all things.”

She was going and going and we were stuck still in place and Black Cat started rumbling again, loud like before. The wind joined her like they were duet partners and suddenly the fire caught up again. The tops of Mrs. Davenport’s slippers caught, and instead of kicking them off she just sort of yelped and bent down to beat at the flames with her hands. Black Cat leapt up and bit her again, right there in the face, purring all the while, and the fire grew and grew. Now we were both wide-eyed and open-mouthed, but we didn’t say a word as her blood dripped onto the twigs and the orange flames climbed her stupid bathrobe, her ridiculous papery skin. She might have been screaming but the wind carried it away.

The moon emerged from behind a cloud and the trees looked like they were dancing in the gale. We could hear the cicada hum now, and when the fire dipped down again Mrs. Davenport was nowhere to be seen, not even her bones. Black Cat sat licking her bloodied claws and an owl hooted somewhere close by. We pulled apart, looked at one another, looked at Mrs. Davenport’s flickering porch light, gaped at the sky full of stars. When we looked back down, Black Cat was gone, and she had taken the smell of the sassafras with her, leaving only green grass scent and the pines on the breeze.

Fiction: Cheshire

I kept all your milk teeth in an old jam jar, you know, after taking them from underneath your pillow. Over the years I paid you twenty dollars in singles and collected an ever-increasing rattle, holding you while you cried and bled and healed and teethed again. You never lost your faith in the Tooth Fairy or Santa or the Easter Bunny, even when you were ostensibly too old not to wonder, and I had to fill you in over steaming bowls of pho at the corner store on Second and Main and you did your best to fight the tears but they came strong as ever.

You were a late bloomer, a real shrinking violet when it came to speaking up, and the other moms would always tell me how to fix you with honey in their voices and arsenic in their eyes. Don’t you think he’s a little strange, they’d always ask, and haven’t you tried music therapy or tae kwon do or did you give him the MMR vaccine before he started to talk? It was that sticky smile in the asking, the way their questions sounded like accusations, the pseudoscientific bullshit they’d shoot me with until I stopped showing up to parent functions.

So bright, you always were, though, and curious, but your fear grew in lopsided like your upper left canine. You gave no thought to reckless things, stepped into traffic to see how headlights look up close, but shrank at little things like raising your hand or talking to the boy next door. I always told you life was a fragile thing like the little glass doll you used to love that fell and lost her head. You never listened.

Rough and tumble, you racked up scrapes and bruises faster than I could count, but as you aged the nature of them changed. Your eyes grew purple underneath from late nights studying, your wrists callused from resting against the keyboard. Your teeth straightened out on their own, almost like you’d willed them to when you found out how damn much braces would cost. You were always stubborn like that.

Anyway, all this is just to say that I still had your teeth rattling around in my bedside table when you graduated, and I still had your teeth when you moved away to college on the opposite coast, and they sat in the jar still rimmed with residue of age-old peach preserves when they became all that was left of you.

They kept you in cold storage for almost a month while I made up my mind because I knew you couldn’t bear the thought of being chewed by worms, but I couldn’t let them turn you to dust. Those are your options, they told me, take your time (but not too much). I could hear the parentheticals, and I could hear the tick-tick-ticking as the clock wound down. I didn’t know what they’d do to you if I couldn’t decide. But I couldn’t decide.

You’d never believe it if I—no, you would. Only you would, because when I was talking to you with my mouth half-full of noodles you stopped me with watery eyes and made me promise never to lie to you again. I held fast to that promise just as soon as I gulped down the broth and we were always straight with each other. You used to tell me things, but you stopped. Sometimes I wonder if…

But you were cold and hard and smooth, like a diamond in one of those fancy steel drawers, and I was hours away because I couldn’t afford the plane ticket out with all the cost of the funeral I was delaying. I slept with the windows open like always, letting the sound of rain on rustling leaves try to steady my breathing. I was curled into myself beneath the blankets and I remembered the way your hair used to smell when you were little, sweet and clean like day-old shampoo and a hint of sweat and fabric softener and vanilla. I couldn’t cry.

But something scuttled at the windowsill and when it wouldn’t stop I looked up. In the dim illumination of the city’s light-polluted glow, there was just the fuzzy outline of a squirrel, slick aerodynamic body belied by a bloated silk-spun tail, perched and staring with glassy eyes. I froze, a shiver sliding up my spine, and could only watch as the squirrel leapt down to the nightstand and bent over, its small busy hands tugging at the drawer.

Everything that followed was sounds. A whoosh as the drawer opened, a thud as the squirrel leapt in, and the sound of rustling as it burrowed, searching, searching. The rattle of teeth as it found its mark.

It lifted the jar and leapt out of the drawer holding it, though by all odds it shouldn’t have been strong enough to do so. And it shook the jar some more, scampering back to the windowsill on two stubby legs, and in a last brief flash of lightning before it jumped away, it smiled, and that squirrel had your teeth.

I called up that minute when a gunshot thunderbolt swept the squirrel away and no one answered, of course, because it was the middle of the night, even in your time zone. But the next morning I looked out at the little mound of overturned dirt beneath the roots of that oak you used to play by, and I called them and told them to bury you in the ground before winter because that wasn’t you anymore, not really. You were a beautiful boy, you were, and now you are only a smile.