Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Mystery at the Desert Aviary

Here is a short story murder mystery I wrote.

The Mystery at the Desert Aviary

   Before birds, Bernard’s great passion was the dinosaur. When he was nine, his bedroom walls were adorned with posters of various mighty dinosaurs. There was a snarling T-rex in one corner and a stoic Apatosaurus in another. But then he found a baby bird lying helpless and fragile on the grass. Any stray cat or clumsy foot could easily kill the small creature. Bernard hunched over the baby bird while she looked up at him and chimed a low chirp. Bernard scooped up the bird in his own small hands and climbed the tree to find the bird’s nest. Throughout the rest of spring, he would climb the tree and check on his baby bird. He watched as the little fledgling grew bigger, braver and stronger. Ever after, he forgot all about dinosaurs and instead cared only for birds. The T- Rex on his wall was replaced with a picture of a crow. Instead of the Apatosaurus, The American Robin stared proudly from its illustrated perch.

     He was grown now, surrounded by the desert and living in a sun-bleached and sand splattered house. Next to his house, Bernard had his own aviary. He built it himself. It was a dome, made out of tinted glass, wire mesh and wood. Inside, he planted small trees and shrubs for his bird. Bernard’s birds all sat on different branches. They chirped and cawed and squawked and squeaked.

    The aviary made him famous in the small town where he lived. It was a town full of eccentrics, but ‘Bernard the Bird Man’ was many townsfolk’s favorite eccentric. Bernard felt pleased that his name went so well with the word ‘bird.’ It was a word that made him calm, and when mumbled in the mouths of others, his own name made him calm too.
   Bernard loved all birds, from the plainest house sparrow to the ostentatious peacock. His favorite parts of the day were the mornings and evenings when he fed his birds. He liked to see them swoop down from their perches and collect the scattered seeds he left for them.
   With his bag of bird seed tucked under his arm, he shuffled in slippers from his house, past the cacti, toward the aviary. He could always hear bird songs as he walked toward the aviary, especially in the mornings. But on that day, they were more vocal than usual. He heard one of the crows cawing angrily.

  “It’s okay.” Bernard cooed as he walked in. But as he stood at the entrance, he noticed something strange. In the middle of the aviary was a slumped figure. When he walked closer, he saw the figure clearly. A dead girl. Or woman. It was hard to tell. She was young, anywhere between the age of fifteen and twenty-two. He leaned down and tried to find her pulse. Before his fingers pressed her flesh, he noticed red in her palms. Blood, Bernard thought. But when he looked closer, he saw that in each hand were small red jewels. When Bernard pressed his fingers against her right wrist, the jewels tumbled from her palm and scattered on the ground. As soon as his fingers touched her, Bernard shivered and felt nausea swell in his stomach. The girl was so still that Bernard felt the need to move. He squirmed and shifted his weight around. He knew the girl was dead, but he wanted to bring her closer so he could cradle her and tell her that everything would be all right if she only try a little harder to breathe.

   Some of the birds flew down from the tree branches and picked up the jewels between their beaks. As they flew back toward the leafy branches with their trinkets, Bernard stood up from his crouched position and walked back toward his house.

   Inside, Bernard sat on his couch. It was an old green couch that smelled of spoiled pudding, but it was soft. He picked up the phone on the end table and dialed the police.

   “There is a dead woman in my aviary.” His throat ached when he said it. After the words were out of his mouth, he analyzed their tone, feeling flustered at the flatness. He waited and listened and answered the phone operator’s questions.

   After the police arrived, they took the girl away in the ambulance. Bernard remembered the girl’s cold skin and knew there was nothing an ambulance could do for her. He imagined the EMT sitting next to her in the silent ambulance, a frown on his face as his empty hands rested on his lap like two sand bags.

   For the rest of the day, officers and investigators combed over the aviary in search of clues. Bernard felt anxious when he thought of all the strangers disturbing his bird’s habitat. He imagined the birds hiding in their branches, staring down at the top of heads as the people mulled about below them.

  Eventually, a detective came inside Bernard’s house to interview him. She sat cross legged with a pen in one hand and a pad of paper in the other. Bernard sat on his old couch while the detective sat across from him in a cushioned chair covered with pillows and a crocheted blanket. After sitting down, she picked up one of the pillows and examined the embroidery on it.

  “My late wife made that.” Bernard said, “She was so talented. She could make anything. She made the blanket you are sitting on too. Would you like to see a picture of her? I have several on my mantle.”

  “That won’t be necessary Mr. Merchant.” The detective said but Bernard saw her glance toward the mantle. His wife, through the decades, smiled back at her.

   “She was a beautiful woman.” Bernard said.

“Mr. Merchant, I need to ask you a few questions.” The detective said.

“No need for formalities. You can call me Bernard.” Bernard said with a slight smile that created crinkles in his sagging cheeks. There was no way for Bernard to know, but he looked maniacal for a moment with his half smile and arched eyebrows. The desk light was on and it created shadows in his face that were not normally there. Bernard saw a fleeting expression pass over the detectives face but he couldn’t make out what the expression meant.

   “Where were you last night?” the detective asked.

“I was here. I spend all my nights here.”

“Can anyone account for your whereabouts?”

Bernard wondered if anyone besides police detectives used words like ‘whereabouts.’

“Well no.” Bernard answered. “Now that my dear wife Tilda has passed, I am usually alone. Except for my birds of course.”

The detective sighed. “Okay Mr. Merchant. You are going to have to come down to the police station with us for further questioning.

Bernard looked out his window toward his aviary and thought about his distressed birds. He thought about the girl, who must be at the morgue by now.

“Okay.” Bernard said. “Anything I can do to help.”

  Bernard felt exhausted when he came home from the police station later that night, but he couldn’t sleep. Whenever he closed his eyes, he thought about the unnamed girl in his aviary. He thought about her delicate face, slack and blank in death. He wondered what sort of expressions she use to make when she was still alive. He wanted to cry for the girl and all she had lost. But after his wife had died, he promised he would never cry for anyone else again. It was a final gesture of love and commitment he had made to Tilda. He had allowed himself to sob for her. While he sobbed, he felt close to her again, like she was still alive. He remembered what she use to look like when they were young, and how they use to go on picnics together. How her hair glowed gold in the sunlight and how the collar of her dress flapped around her neck in the breeze. When he sobbed for here, he could even smell her, that familiar scent of lavender and powdered soap. So Bernard would let his heart break for the girl he found in the aviary, but he would no cry for her.

   Later, Bernard would find out her name was Mabel. Mabel Roxanne Smith of Missouri. And she wasn’t a girl at all, but a woman of thirty-three, the same age as his own daughter. He didn’t know how he could have been over a decade of in his estimation of her age. He thought death must take something out of people to make them look young again. But then he remembered Tilda in her coffin and how she looked two-hundred years old.

   Mabel’s murder case went to trial. Bernard, the only suspect, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

   After his trial, Bernard told the news camera’s he was innocent. Then news crews all looked at him and smirked.

   As he was being led away after the trial, Bernard saw the detective who had admired his wife’s embroidery. She was looking at him and biting her lower lip. Wind blew loose strands of hair around her face. Bernard tried to reach up his hand to wave, but he couldn’t. His hands were cuffed and a police officer held stiffly to his left arm.

   The only way to get into Bernard’s aviary was with a key. There was no sign of a break in on the day Mabel was found. The prosecutor argued that Bernard was the only one who could have put Mabel’s body in the aviary. There were other potential suspects. A friend of Mabel’s said she was seeing a new man who could have been involved. A coworker said she was unnerved by an overly friendly neighbor. But in the end, it was Bernard who was convicted.

   “Circumstantial evidence!” Bernard’s lawyer yelled. But Bernard saw the faces of the jury. They were furious that a young woman’s life could end so violently and abruptly. Some of them had daughters of their own. Some of them were women with their own brushes with the dangers of the world. And no one else was there to scowl at except Bernard. So throughout the trial, the jury scowled until the trial ended and they convicted Bernard.

   Bernard spent a year in jail before an appeal set him free.

  The first thing Bernard did when he arrived home was to check his aviary. All he saw were bird bones and two skinny crows who cawed at him anxiously. Bernard knew what the bones meant. The town believed he was guilty. If they thought he was innocent, someone would have come to save his birds, but instead they were afraid to show any support for Bernard, so they let his birds die.

   “Poor things.” Bernard whispered. He brought the two crows inside with him and let them eat stale bird seed of his counter top. His unused house smelled of old cigarettes and strangers.

    For his first day of freedom, Bernard ordered a large pizza and ate slice after greasy slice while watching sitcom reruns on TV. The crows flew around his house, landing on picture frames and the tops of lamps.

   Every night in prison, Bernard had dreams about Mabel although he knew nothing about her. He wanted to learn more about her, but he was not allowed too. Through his dreams, he learned that she liked blueberries, that she often forgot to cover her mouth when she sneezed, and that she liked to read nature magazines which she always read back to front. In his dreams, she never spoke, but sometimes he would hear her laughing. Her laughter always sounded like a bird chirp. It was strange hearing the familiar bird sounds coming from a woman’s mouth.

   Now that he was free, he wasn’t sure exactly what it was he wanted. Maybe to solve the mystery and discover who really murdered Mabel. But maybe he just wanted to know who she was. Their lives were intertwined now.

   Bernard went to the library to research Mabel. He had no computer of his own. He had grown up in an era where people found out things through the pages of books and he still felt more comfortable learning surrounded by pages even if he wasn’t using them.

    Before heading to the library, Bernard called his daughter, Sheila. The phone rang and rang, the signal bouncing around somewhere else, in the empty air. Bernard imagined his daughter’s phone buzzing inside the hollow of her purse while her attention was elsewhere. On her baby or her husband or the minutia of life.

   While sitting in front of one of the library’s computers, Bernard learned about Mabel. When she was still a very young woman, she moved away from Missouri to Northern California. She made the move shortly after losing her parents. Mabel’s own parents died in a car accident. Before her death, Mabel worked as a receptionist at a dentist’s office. But in her spare time, she painted landscapes. She liked to take walks in nature with her watercolors and a pad of paper. Someone had made Mabel a webpage to memorialize her and this is where Bernard learned the most about her. He looked at her paintings. They were beautiful pictures of meadows and forests and the seaside, all places she had been to in her real life. Bernard learned about her pet dog, Spot, who now lived with her brother. He learned about her best friend, Lily. He learned about how Mabel volunteered at an after school reading program. But all the written descriptions of Mabel didn’t help Bernard the way he had hoped.

   Bernard hoped that when he learned about Mabel, he could be sure she really had lived once. He wanted to feel her presence in his bones. Instead, reading about her best friend and her dog felt like reading about a book character. Her paintings were the only thing he truly connected with. Looking at her depictions of the sea crashing on the rocky shore or a forest of tall trees made Mabel feel like a real tangible person, but only fleetingly. So to Bernard, the mystery was no longer ‘who killed Mabel,’ but rather ‘who was Mabel.’ He decided the only way to find out was by traveling to the places she had painted. Although Bernard was not artistic, he decided to bring paints with him so he could try to see the world in a different way.

    Bernard felt his quest was especially fortuitous, as if some higher force was smiling down at him in kind encouragement. Mabel had lived in the same part of California that his daughter currently lived in. He had not seen Sheila in several years, and he now had a granddaughter to visit. He packed his car with a suitcase and his two crows. The crooning crows perched on the head rest beside the drivers seat. Bernard headed toward California.

  His daughter sounded tired when he called to tell her of his visit. Bernard remembered when Tilda was a new mother. The exhaustion had worn her down. She was dazed with fluctuation of weariness and joy.

    “Dad,” Sheila said on the phone, “I’m really too busy with the baby for visitors.”

    It wasn’t all she said. She thought it was weird and unhealthy, ‘his fixation’ as Sheila referred to it. But Bernard knew it was the right thing for him to do. He had a reservation for a motel near both Sheila’s house and the woods Mabel use to explore with pen and paper.

   On the drive, Bernard sung along to old rock classics on the radio. Sometimes, his crows cawed from someplace in the car. He stopped at a gas station and bought himself coffee and a pack of peanut butter cookies for his crows. The flat desert began to morph. The landscape curved into hills, the straight roads arched and turned. Bernard looked in his rear view window at the last bits of landscape that could actually be called desert.

   People who are not from the desert don’t know what it is like to leave it. It is hard to leave a place so obviously lonely and stoically proud of its desolation for somewhere else, crowded with friendliness but still lonely.

 While driving, Bernard thought of the strangeness of Sheila and Mabel had living in the same town. Maybe they had even passed each other on the street, made eye contact and nodded a ‘hello.’ The town was a small coastal town, nestled in the redwood trees. Bernard could understand why Mabel would want to live there. Everywhere he looked, there was scenery of nature that must have inspired the amateur landscape painter. But Sheila, who moved here because of her husband’s job, was not the outdoorsy type. Sheila liked contained and comfortable places.

   Bernard arrived at his motel shortly before dinner. He made plans to meet up with Sheila and her family for dinner at the restaurant near the motel.

    “Hi Dad,” Sheila said when she arrived late to the restaurant. Her curly hair was forced straight and shimmered like a blond stream parting her back. In her arms, she held Bernard’s grandchild. The little girl was pudgy and rosy cheeked. Her little hand was in her mouth and she sat gnawing with her toothless gums at the fingers. Her husband, Alan, stood next to her. Alan had been handsome as a younger man, but now he was ordinary. His belly expanded outward, his eyes were heavy and tired. Though, there was still something mischievous in the eyes.

    Sheila and Alan sat down in the booth across from Bernard with the baby in a high seat at the end of the table. Bernard marveled at his granddaughter, her tiny hands, her round face.
   “She looks like you did when you were a baby.” Bernard said, in between bites of bread stick.

   “She’s got Alan’s eyes though.” Sheila said.

  They were quiet for a moment. Sheila gazed at her daughter. Alan took a large bite of pasta. Bernard could hear the background murmur of other families talking. He could hear the sound of people chewing near him. He thought it sounded like a great beast, the murmur the beasts breath, the chewing the sound of the beast anticipating his next meal.

   “So Bernard,” Alan interrupted the silence. “How are your birds?”

   “Oh, I only have a few crows now.” Bernard said. He couldn’t talk more about his birds now. He couldn’t talk about his still skinny crows, hopping or swooping around him, cawing but trying to say something coherent. Or how he had dreams of the sparrows and the peacocks at night, just bones, with feathers attached here and there. They rattled and rasped and leaved trails of withered feathers behind them. Bernard instead started to tell an anecdote about a man he met in prison named Blinky-Blue. But Sheila interrupted, trying to sway the conversation away from prison talk.

   “The baby, her first word was mama, just like me.” She said over Bernard’s description of a bizarre tattoo on Blinky-Blues forearm.

   “Your first word was mama, wasn’t it? I remember how proud Tilda was. She was so happy to hear your little voice call to her.”

  “Dad, you know this is weird, right?”

  “What’s that, Sheila?”

  “This mission you are on to find out more about Mabel. You are free, you should let it go.”

Bernard sighed. “Maybe I should, but I can’t.”

 “Are you trying to find the person to seek revenge since you had to spend a year in jail for a different crime?” Alan asked.

“No.” Bernard said but his cheeks flushed red at the question.

“Are you trying to find out who the murderer was to clear your name? Because you know, those people in your town will never be convinced of your innocence. They will always think it was you now, even if they find video of someone else doing it.”

Bernard’s cheeks flushed even redder. He thought of his abandoned birds. “No. Mabel and I are connected now. I owe it to her. I found her, she was in my aviary.”

“But Dad-,” Sheila started to protest.

“Did you catch the football game last night?” Alan interrupted. This time it was his turn to have red cheeks. Neither Alan nor Bernard liked football much. But it was the first thing he could think of.

 Bernard was grateful for the change of topic. “No, but I heard it was an exciting game.”

For the rest of the dinner, Sheila seemed sullen as she stared out the window. Alan and Bernard talked about things neither were very interested in- more sports, the expense of plane travel, and who they thought would be the next president.

   That night while Bernard tried to fall asleep in the squeaky motel bed, he worried about Sheila. He wondered how things would be different if Tilda was still alive. Sheila had sunk into a sullen moodiness at the age that many kids do, but she had never quite come out of it. It didn’t take much for her to withdraw, to fold her arms across her chest and to stare off into space.

   The next day, Bernard drove to a forest where Mabel had painted several pictures of trees. Bernard walked into the forest admiring the trees. The tree trunks were rough and full of cracks and crevices, but soft paddings of moss skirted on the bottom of the trees. Everything was beautiful in the woods, the curling ferns, the shimmering slugs that inched across the trail, the sorrel with their heart shaped leaves. He inhaled deeply and smelled the moist earth, the pine and the decaying leaves. Bernard found a particularly beautiful tree. He sat down in front of it and brought out his sketch book. He tried to draw the tree, but soon he was distracted by a bird humming on one of the tree branches. Without even meaning to, he drew the bird instead of the tree. The bird on his page looked nothing like the bird in the tree, but he liked it anyway. He was proud of his drawing, his odd bird with disproportionate features and a strange look in its eyes. As she walked further into the woods, he drew more birds until he had a stack of funny birds tucked under his arm. Back at the motel that night, with the buzz of an old sitcom on the tv warming the room, he painted the birds with watercolors, making them more fantastical then before.

    Bernard continued following in Mabel’s footsteps and the next day Bernard went to a beach that Mabel use to paint at. Again he drew the birds. Seagulls with beaks twice the size of their heads, ospreys with tiny wings the shape of a baby’s cradle, sand pipers with legs like sky scrapers. When he returned to his room again, he taped his paintings onto the wall alongside printouts of Mabel’s work that he had brought with him.

   He called Sheila earlier in the day to set up another time to meet. He told her about the birds. Sheila said, “Dad, you are not going to solve the mystery of Mabel by painting birds.” She said it in a callous tone. Bernard thought she must have forgotten that Mabel was once a real person.

She was right though, Bernard would not solve the mystery of Mabel. Although maybe he almost would.

   Before falling asleep, he had been thinking about his old birds, but he had been dreaming about the sun when he woke up. Something had woken him up, the sound of birdsong. His crows sat above him on the head board of the bed. They were silent and looking toward the paintings on the wall. Bernard looked too. The murky glow from the streetlamps were streaming into the room, illuminating the wall with a glow. He saw that the birds in his paintings were moving. They were dancing and flapping their wings. The birdsong he heard were the birds in his paintings. Soon, the birdsong turned to voices. Bernard could make out actual words. “Bernard, Bernard,” they said, “Look in the basement, look in the attic. Under the floor boards where the bird bones rest.” Bernard shuddered, but he was compelled by his curiosity and disbelief. He got out of bed to have a closer inspection of the birds. “Look in the basement, look in the attic.” They hummed as Bernard stood right in front of them, examining them. He blew on the pages. The pages rustled along with the birds feathers. “Under the floorboard,” they said, “Where the bird bones rest.”

                “It wasn’t a dream.” Bernard thought with certainty when he awoke the next morning, even though now the painted birds were still and silent. He didn’t know of any basements or attics to look into. He didn’t know if the birds were giving him clues or just singing an ancient bird song that he never before could understand the meaning of. But he didn’t want to look anywhere. He thought that maybe he didn’t want to know. He thought maybe it would be better to just let Mabel always be the beautiful girl found dead in his aviary. The young woman who painted pictures of the sea and pictures of trees. A mystery that would never be solved.

                Bernard tried to not think about the talking birds later in the evening when at his daughters house for a barbeque. It would probably be one of the last truly nice days of summer. When he got to the house, Sheila was in the back of the house with the baby.

                “She’ll be here in a moment. She is nursing the baby.” Alan said.

                Bernard and Alan sat outside on lawn chairs. “Have you found anything out about Mabel?” Alan asked.

                “No.” Bernard said, not wanting to tell Alan anything about the bird paintings.

                “I hope you find something out.” Alan said, “I never told you this and I really don’t know if I should now, but I met her once.”

                “You knew Mabel?” Bernard asked.

                “I didn’t know her. I went to the dentist office she worked at. I talked to her once. Not about anything important. Just the sunny day. But I remember her though. She seemed nice.” Alan said.

                “It wasn’t me, you know. I wouldn’t. I mean I couldn’t do anything like that.” Bernard said.

                “I know Bernard. I never thought it was.”

                Bernard wished he felt relieved by Alan’s faith.

                They heard the shuffle of Sheila coming down the hall. When she emerged into the kitchen where the two men stood in silence, she stared at them suspiciously.  But then the baby in her arms started to ramble incoherent baby wisdom and Sheila smiled down at her baby’s soft head.

                On the back patio they played cards while drinking lemonade or gin and tonics. Bernard looked at his daughter from across the card table and wondered something he had wondered many times before. He wondered if Sheila knew that he wasn’t her biological father. He had met Tilda when Sheila was already inside her. Just a bunch of cells the size of a peanut. And by the time Sheila was the size of a grapefruit, he already loved her. Both of the hers: Sheila and Tilda. And when Sheila was a watermelon in his new wife’s stomach, he would press his hand against the spot she liked to kick to feel the little thump-thump of her developing feet. And finally Sheila was in his arms, a little person. His little person.

                But as she grew, she sometimes didn’t seem like his little person at all, but like a little stranger. Her narrow eyes weren’t like his or Tilda’s. Her blond hair cascaded down her back like a cloak from another tribe. Someone else’s face was hiding in Sheila’s features, and sometimes it scared him.

                But then she would do something that was ‘him’. She would use an expression of his. She would profess the same enthusiasm for peanut butter and sliced strawberry sandwiches. And Bernard would know that it didn’t matter. That everyone’s child seemed like a stranger sometimes, but Sheila was his daughter.

                But what Bernard didn’t know was that it was a different secret Sheila knew. A secret that made Bernard seem like a stranger to her. When Sheila was fourteen, she had seen her father once with another woman.

   Sheila and her mother had been at the ice cream parlor, waiting in line when they saw Bernard with the woman. They noticed the woman first. Her hand was on Bernard’s back. She had a ring on every finger, but on her left ring finger was the largest ring, a red ruby that looked familiar to Sheila. The man turned to look at the woman. They saw the man’s face. It was Bernard.

                Just as Bernard was leaning in toward the woman’s face, Tilda grasped Sheila’s hand and hustled her out of the shop.

                So when Bernard worried that Sheila was lost to him, part of her had been lost. She didn’t trust her father any more.

                It was the worst thing Bernard had ever done in his life, to cheat on is wife. He still loved his wife while he was cheating. But the worst part for Bernard was that he loved the other woman, Clara too. Years later, he still wondered about her, still lusted for her and still missed her. But still, he loved Tilda more.

                Sheila never found out what her mother thought of the betrayal. Her mom had stayed with him, so that was answer enough. Her mother had forgiven him. But Sheila never fully could. Not for her sake or her mothers. She couldn’t understand why her mother was so willing to pretend the whole thing had never happened.

                Now his Sheila was a grown woman full of her own secrets, Bernard thought. He looked at his daughter from across the card table.

                “You are a lot like your mother now.” Bernard said to her.

                “I am nothing like her.” Sheila said.

                He was going to argue, to tell her that they were similar in so many different ways. But he was tired and he could tell Sheila was too.

                “I should go, sweetheart.” Bernard said.

                “I’ll walk you out.” Alan said.

                “Bye Dad.” Sheila said, and watched her father walk away. After he closed the screen door behind him, she sighed and stared up at the sky where she saw the stars faintly glittering, millions of light years away.

                The screen door clattered when they opened it to go back inside. Bernard grabbed his jacket, his keys and a plate of leftovers with plastic wrap covering it. The baby was somewhere in the back room sleeping.

                “See you soon, Bernard.” Alan said. His eyes were bloodshot with limp bags underneath.

                Bernard mumbled a reply. As he walked along the kitchen floor, his shoes squeaked and sounded like birds chirping.

                It used to be that Mabel only visited Sheila in her dreams. But one day during dinner, Sheila felt something brush against her ankle. When she lifted the table cloth and peered underneath, there was Mabel’s ghost. She had her legs bent, her arms wrapped around them and her chin resting on her bare knees. Mabel’s back was resting against Alan’s legs, but Alan didn’t seem to notice. He had been eating dinner as usual. Spaghetti sauce splashing against his face, a noodle or two dangling from his mouth before he slurped it up.

                When Mabel noticed Sheila staring at her, she placed her finger in front of her mouth. “Shhhh.” She ordered.

                Sheila screamed.

                “What’s wrong?!” Alan said, and put his head under the table to see. But Mabel was gone.

                “I thought I saw a spider. It’s gone now.”

                But Mabel wasn’t gone.

Later that night, Sheila woke up and felt something cold pressing against her back. She thought it was Alan until she turned over and found herself staring directly into Mabel’s ghostly eyes. Mabel’s head was resting in the crook of Alan’s arm.

                “Mine.” Mabel said. “MineMineMineMine.”

                “Go away.” Sheila said and held her breath in hopes it would stifle the hum building in her chest.

                But Mabel shook her head and flopped her arm across Alan’s chest. She burrowed her face into his side.

                “Go away.” Mabel said, repeating Sheila’s words.

                Sheila ran to the window and opened it. The cloth curtains swayed and the sound of buzzing wires and street lights came into the room. Sheila grabbed a newspaper from Alan’s night stand and shooed it at Mabel, as if she were trying to get a bee out of the room.  Instead of flying out of the room, Mabel began to disperse like smoke until she was only empty air.

                After the barbeque, Bernard went back to his motel room and lay down in his squeaky bed. The crows had made a nest on top the lamp out of scraps of motel stationary and pieces of sheet they had ripped with their beaks. While Bernard tried to fall asleep, he thought of all the women he had loved. Not just Tilda and Clara, but Sheila and his own mother and his first girlfriend. He had loved many people in his life, but he was alone now.

                Bernard woke up in the middle of the night. He heard the same flutter of feathers from his paintings. The birds were flapping their wings and flying around the pages. Sometimes they flew slightly outside the page, a tip of a foot hanging slightly outside the picture or the edge of a wing brushing against the motel wall. “Bernard.” They said, “Was it you, was it you? Was it you, Bernard?”

                “No. No!” Bernard said. “It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me.”

                One of Bernard’s crows cawed from some dark corner and Bernard rested his face in his palms and sobbed into the calloused flesh.”

                At the same time, Sheila woke up because she thought she heard her baby crying. But when she pulled herself fully out of sleep, the house was silent. Alan was still asleep beside her. His mouth slightly open, one arm reaching toward her, the other anchored on his chest. Despite it all, she felt a surge of love for Alan.

                Sheila got up to check on the baby anyway. Her baby lay peacefully in her crib, dreaming of colors. Sheila leaned down and whispered “Things will be better for you, I promise you that, little one.”

                Sheila’s baby opened her eyes. They didn’t flutter open gently and slowly, like a baby awoken from sleep. They opened quickly and in a flash. But Sheila was not looking into her babies eyes, she was looking into Mabel’s eyes. Her babies face was changing too. It was morphing, the plump red cheeks hollowing and draining of color, the little nose elongating. The face that stared up at Sheila’s was not that of her babies anymore. It was Mabel’s face. “Mine.” Mabel said. “Mine, Mine, Mine, Mine.”

                Sheila realized then that it was true. Her daughter would grow up to be exactly like Mabel. Sheila realized that she would never be able to protect anyone, not even her own daughter.

                When Mabel was little, she was the type of kid who took home stray animals. Once she found a blackbird mauled by a cat. The bird was lying in the middle of the sidewalk, washed out chalk pictures of heart and smiley faces surrounding it. He was on his side, his body limp and crooked, but his little yellow eye blinked. When Mabel got close, he tried to flee. His wings jittered frantically, his yellow eye orbited around, searching for an escape. Mabel knelt down. She scooped the bird up in her hand. With her index finger, she lightly pet the top of his head. She cooed “it’ll be okay.”

                Mabel brought the bird home and nursed it back to health. Once the bird was healed, she set him free even though she wanted to keep the bird as her little pet. But for years afterward the bird would visit her. She would be outside reading or drawing and the bird would land on her shoulder. She always had birdseed in her pocket that she kept for her bird friend.

                One summer evening, Mabel woke up one the middle of the night and saw the blackbird sitting on her bed’s footboard. The bird stared down at her with his yellow eyes. She felt a shiver of dread convulse her body. The little bird looked sinister in the dark. His eyes looked angry, like coal glowing in a fire.

                “Get out.” Mabel said, the sleep still congealing in her throat. “Get out, get out!”

                The blackbird still stared at her. The bird remained motionless. He did not even flinch at the sound of her words. It seemed as if he wasn’t even breathing. Mabel picked up a pillow and threw it at the bird. The bird flew away, out the open window. Mabel felt relief surge through her. She never saw the bird again.

                Years later, when she was an adult, she would forget about the night she found the bird in her room. She would only remember that when she was a kid, she saved a blackbird. She remembered that the bird would sometimes visit her in the garden, but then it mysteriously stopped visiting her. “Maybe it died,” she thought, “Or maybe it flew off to some other part of the world.”

                A week before Mabel died, she went to the beach with her best friend Lily. They walked along the shore, picking up shells occasionally, and kicking the sand with their bare feet.

                “The first time I ever saw the ocean, I was with my grandma. It was an amazing sight after all those years of just seeing Missouri. Mabel said.

                “I can’t remember ever not seeing the ocean.” Lily said.

                “When I’m here, I feel like everything is going to be all right.”

                “Everything is going to be all right.” Lily said and put her arm around her friend. Mabel learned her head briefly on Lily’s shoulder.

                “Someday, when we are very old, let’s move to France, adopt twenty cats and become eccentric old bohemians together.”

                “Okay,” Lily said and laughed, “France, 2060, see you there.”

                “See you there.” Mabel replied.

                Above them, seagulls swooped and squawked. Behind them, the sound of footsteps shuffling through the sand. 

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