by ROBERT DALL
The address was somewhere near Newtown Creek, in the borderlands between Queens and Brooklyn but also between rebirth and decay: abandoned warehouses, chop shops, and fuel tanks slowly giving way to row houses, burger joints, and bodegas. They spiraled out from their starting point and surveyed the landscape like cartographers of blight, Bobby at the wheel and Will navigating, crawling along the BQE then crossing the Kosciuszko Bridge, feeling their way along the bumpy streets near Nassau Avenue. Finally they stumbled across the place, a narrow building with an iron gate knocked half off its moorings. They walked into a small entry with dark brick walls and a linoleum floor, empty except for a row of battered tin mailboxes and a freight elevator. The only light came from a skylight at the top of the shaft.
“We’d be transporting what?” asked Will.
“He wouldn’t say over the phone. Just ‘delicate items.’”
Delicate items. Will’s mind swirled with licit and illicit images— electronics, fine china, dossiers, drugs—as the ancient machinery clanked and the elevator car descended. They took it all the way up, to the sixth floor. By the time they got there, it was brighter than it’d been on the street and terrifically hot and airless.
“Loft space,” said Bobby. “Must be an artist or something.”
They came to an unmarked gray metal door. Bobby knocked twice, heavy echoing blows. No answer. They waited for a minute, fidgeting, then the door swung open slowly.
“Come in.” The speaker’s voice was raspy, and they couldn’t see his face in the dim of the entry, but the large room beyond was flooded with light: the far wall appeared to be nothing but windows, the kind that cranked open, and the ceiling was studded with skylights. The air was warm and moist and filled with a rich, acrid smell. There were a few battered pieces of furniture—a high-backed sofa, a roll-top desk, a pair of red leather wing chairs—surrounded by greenery—ferns, bamboo, ficus trees, even small palms, in large raised beds. In the branches of the trees, and in the rafters that ran beneath the skylight, perched dozens of birds: canaries, parrots, finches, parakeets, cockatiels, and, looking on from a large cage in the corner, a single toucan.
Will wandered into the center of the space slowly, as if being towed, feeling the damp heat of the place seep into his body, catching flashes of color— cage bars glimmering in the low sunlight, bright wings beating, rainbow streaks swooping from perch to perch and, on coming to rest, magically taking the shape of birds. This was wild, something out of a zoo, but all the wilder for being there instead; the jungle itself couldn’t have felt more exotic, more unreal. It was the raspy voice that pulled him back: “May I offer you something? A glass of wine?” The voice belonged to a tall, thin man, about sixty or so, in a frayed white shirt and chinos, standing in the doorway. He was severe and angular, with short, unevenly cropped white hair and small, hard eyes and a long nose—like a bird himself—and his manner was not friendly but gracious—arms spread, palms up, as if he’d been waiting all day and what he really meant to ask was Where were you?
“Some wine would be great,” said Bobby.
“Nothing for me,” said Will. The birdman nodded and disappeared around a corner without a word. Will gestured at the scene around them, shaking his head at nothing in particular; Bobby shrugged and sat down in one of the wing chairs as if he owned the place. A moment later, the birdman returned and handed a glass of white wine to Bobby, then motioned Will into the other chair.
“I’m Martin,” said the birdman.
Bobby and Will introduced themselves.
“Jamie tells me you’re right for the job. Clean driving record, sense of discretion, willing to travel internationally.”
Internationally? thought Will.
“That’s us,” said Bobby, without hesitation.
“So, I guess you’re wondering what it is I’d like transported.”
“Birds?” said Bobby, grinning. Sometimes with Bobby, there was a thin line between whether you were in on the joke or not, and Will wondered what side Martin would think he was on, or whether he would realize there was a line at all.
“Not just any birds. These are special birds, and I’m quite particular about how they’re handled.” Martin crossed the room to a high alcove where a pair of parrots, one brilliant blue and one green, both with yellow bellies, were perched. He patted his shoulders, one at a time, and the birds hopped on, bending their heads to be scratched and playing at his fingers with their beaks.
“They could bite these fingers clean off if they wanted to,” he said.
Will felt a little shiver run through him, part fear and part fascination: the birds were flamboyantly, insanely beautiful. Bobby just laughed. “You better stay on their good side, then.”
Martin stared at Bobby, a beat or two longer than seemed necessary, and shooed the birds back to their perches. He explained the basics: The parrots were intended for a friend named Ramirez, an old colleague (in what field, he didn’t say) with whom he shared his love of parrots; this Ramirez, a Mexican émigré, had returned to his native land upon retirement and assembled quite a company of his own. “Ramirez is, in a way, the reason I live well today. So the birds are my way of repaying a longstanding debt.”
“By car?” said Bobby. “Why don’t you just ship ’em?”
“Shipping live animals, especially across borders, is…complicated. I’m seeking couriers of judgment and discretion who can help avoid complications. These are macaws, from Amazonia, and they’ve been shipped enough. I don’t want them to travel another mile in some cargo hold.”
“Amazonia,” said Will. The name felt like a tropical breeze, summoning an image of forests so lush their green verged on black, of a sun burning copper and white shafts through the canopy. “You’ve been there?”
“I’ve never seen Amazonia. And, given its ongoing rape, I’m not sure I’d want to. Specimens like these are endangered and, if their habitat is destroyed, will soon be extinct.” Martin lingered over extinct as if fascinated by the word’s phonetics. “So, fellows. Jamie’s word aside, how do I know you’d be trustworthy couriers?”
Will’s doubts about the job, about Martin, about anyone he knew only through Bobby’s friend and sometime pot dealer Jamie, fled, at least for the moment. He scoured his mind for the right thing to say, anything that would let them be the ones to transport those magnificent birds, but he came up empty. He needn’t have worried: Bobby had been working on a response since the moment they stepped into the aviary—for years, in a way. He downed the last of his wine as if it were water, looked straight into Martin’s stony eyes, and said, “In a word: passion. We are passionate about preserving that bit of paradise; we are passionate about defending a vision such as yours; we are passionate about a job well done. We’ll handle this like professionals.” The instant he’d said this, the parrots stirred on their perches, squawking and ruffling their feathers. “Mutiny,” screeched the blue one; “Mutiny,” cried the green one, half a beat off.
“Talkers,” said Bobby. “That’s great.”
“‘Mutiny’ was apparently some past handler’s idea of a joke. But yes, they’re pretty fair learners.”
“Not in the same league as the African Grey, of course.”
“No. No, of course not.” There was a pause as Martin sized them up. “I think this may work out well. You’ll forgive me, though, if I sleep on it and get back to you.”
Bobby smiled. “Sure, we forgive you.”
Martin finally relented and smiled back: a tight little grin, apparently all he’d rationed for that afternoon. “Excellent. It’s a fascination of mine, the idea of redemption.”
“Really,” said Bobby. “Mine, too.”
Halfway down the Jersey Turnpike, Will couldn’t resist. Their dingy white van (which Martin had furnished them, along with a $500 advance) was flying down a long, open stretch of roadway, and he felt steady enough to worm his way back into the cargo bay.
“What are you doing?” said Bobby.
“Checking on the birds. They’ve been quiet.”
“Quiet is good. That means they’re fine.”
“Yeah,” said Will, meaning I am not listening to you rather than yes. He squeezed his bulk though the space between the seats and plunked himself down beside the cage, which occupied the center of the bay—it was large for a traveling cage, three feet long by two feet wide by three feet high, secured by a pair of bungee cords and covered with a silken embroidered dropcloth.
“Hey, birdies,” he cooed. The light in the bay was dim; he fumbled around for the edge of the dropcloth, but couldn’t find it. Then the van hit a bump, and he tumbled into the cage, knocking the dropcloth clean off. The birds, if they had been fine, weren’t any longer: they flapped their wings like mad, clambered up the bars, fell into a fit of squawking.
“Mutiny!” the blue one screeched.
“What the fuck is going on back there?” yelled Bobby.
“I got it,” said Will. He made some clucking noises in an attempt to soothe the birds, and put his hand up to the bars, but the green one lunged at him and he flinched. He tossed the cloth back over the cage and made his way, mostly crawling, back to the passenger seat.
“So,” said Bobby, “we’ve determined that they’re still here in the van.”
“Oh, shut up,” said Will. Bobby laughed out loud. But the birds did quiet down.
“Good birdies,” said Bobby. “Say, we don’t even know what they’re called. You remember Martin mentioning their names?”
“We don’t even know Martin’s name.”
“Sure we do. Martin. Maybe we should just call them Blue and Green?”
“I mean, is it Martin something, or something Martin?”
“Who cares? He’s the guy paying for the trip.”
“Half the trip, you mean.”
“So we get the other half from Ramirez.”
“Who is Ramirez?”
“He’s the guy paying for the other half of the trip.”
“Jesus, Will. Fine, there’s an element of risk involved here. We don’t know who Ramirez is, or who Martin is—not, like, intimately—we don’t know if we’ll have issues at the border, we don’t know if Ramirez will like the birds, we don’t know if he’ll pay us in full, we don’t know if he’ll be weirder than Martin. We don’t know. But isn’t that the whole fucking point? I mean, did we take this job for the money?”
“Of course not. It’s not about the money.”
“Right. It’s about the risk, it’s about not knowing—”
“It’s about doing right by the birds.”
Bobby’s face went blank. “Doing right…by the birds?”
“You said as much. To Martin. It’s why we have the job in the first place.” Will stared across the seat at Bobby, making his larger point by implication: it wasn’t just a job but a trust they’d entered into, a responsibility they had to discharge, perhaps despite themselves.
Bobby nodded slowly, as if just starting to realize what he’d gotten into. “So it is,” he said.
They made the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains by evening, and pulled off the interstate for a diner meal as darkness fell. Will kept sneaking peeks out the window, as if his gaze were all that was keeping the van, and thus the birds, in place; Bobby faced inward, reserving his attention for the waitress who’d brought them their chicken-fried steaks.
“Bet you can’t guess what we’ve got out there,” he said, with the sweetest smile he could muster.
The waitress gave him a withering look.
“No, it’s not like that. My friend and I are transporting precious cargo, and ten bucks says you can’t guess what it is.”
“I don’t make bets, fellas, and I don’t care what you’ve got out there.”
“Sure you do,” said Bobby. “Tell you what, let’s forget the bet. Guess what we’ve got in our van, and I’ll give you ten bucks.”
“All right, now I’m interested. Forget the ten dollars, just tell me: what’s in the van?”
“Parrots. From Amazonia.”
“Amazonia? Where’s that?”
“Paradise,” said Bobby, beaming.
The waitress considered this a moment. “So you boys want anything else tonight?”
Bobby grinned wickedly. “Now that you mention it….”
Will felt himself starting to blush, as if he’d said it—as if he’d steered the whole evening to this moment—and not Bobby. But the waitress just laughed. “Be good, boys.” She took their places back to the kitchen.
“She’s at least ten years older than us,” said Will, after she’d gone.
“Ah, jeez, Dad.” Bobby slurped his Coke. “No harm in playing the game, you know? Also no charge, which means more money to drink.”
Will looked around the diner, which sold nothing stronger than Mountain Dew, and gestured out into the darkness. “I think it’s a dry county or something.”
“I mean in general. Lots of road still ahead.”
“So, speaking of which…”
“Right, right.” Bobby pulled the map out from the corner of the booth and spread it across the table. He extracted a yellow highlighter from his pocket and traced the route they’d traveled—down across Jersey, Pennsylvania, a sliver of Maryland, into Virginia—then made an X to mark their current location. “One day down, four to go.”
They both knew the route by heart, but it felt good to celebrate their progress. Starting from Bobby’s X, Will scanned down the map to review what lay ahead: cresting the Appalachians and Smokies; dipping past Chattanooga and plunging into the Deep South—Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana; following the Gulf Coast through Houston, Corpus Christi, Brownsville; crossing the border at Matamoros and diving below the Tropic of Cancer; finally curling back north after Veracruz and arcing into the Yucatan, stretching toward the Caribbean.
“It’s going to get interesting,” said Will.
“It’s already interesting.” Bobby turned to take another look at the waitress, got caught looking, acknowledged getting caught with an angelic grin, was absolved when she shook her head and smiled back. How do you do it, man, thought Will, and he didn’t mean just get over with women. Is it in you, or is it around you, something you know how to tap into? And did you learn it, or is it just your dumb fucking luck?
“How about I drive?” he asked, on the way out.
“No,” said Bobby, “I’m feeling good.” Will didn’t argue.
They filled the tank and bought beer at the next place they passed, then found a motel outside of Roanoke. They didn’t even ask about the parrots, but sneaked the cage in when they were sure no one was watching. Bobby grabbed a beer and immediately flopped on the nearest bed, while Will tended to the birds: food, water, and what passed for cross-species conversation.
“Hey, precious cargo. How are you doing?”
“Mutiny!” both birds screeched, slightly out of sync as they’d been back at Martin’s loft.
“Cover the cage,” groaned Bobby.
“It’s been covered all day.”
“Cover the fucking cage, I’m begging you. Por favor, compadre.”
Will covered the cage. The birds tore around a bit, squawking and whistling, then the racket subsided. “Good birdies,” he whispered.
“Muchas gracias. Un mil gracias.” Bobby lifted his beer can in salute.
“Where’d the Spanish come from?”
“De todas partes y ningunas partes.”
Will shook his head.
“Everywhere and nowhere. Work in enough restaurants, you pick stuff up.”
Will got a beer of his own and crossed the room to open a window. They sat quietly, drinking, listening to the droning of insects punctuated by the occasional whoosh of traffic.
“What do you think his real business is?” said Will.
Bobby shrugged. “Who cares? We’ve got a specific job to do, we don’t have to get caught up in his business.”
“Aren’t we kind of caught up in it by definition? I mean, they’re his birds—”
“There you go with the birds again.”
“But they’re why we’re here.”
“No, they’re how we’re here. Why we’re here, where we take things, is up to us. Right?”
“Right,” said Will, because he didn’t know what else to say. Accompanying Bobby on his various adventures, mostly small and now, finally, great, hinted at something Will knew he should want. But what did he actually want? He was torn between his inclination toward safety and stability and his desire (as palpable, as physical, as sexual desire) to break out, to be free, to be…himself? or at least the self he wished he were. How could he not just know?
Will tipped his head back and closed his eyes. Maybe what he wanted was simply to take care of the thing in front of him. He opened his eyes and saw that Bobby, who’d driven all day, had crashed out on his bed. Will slipped out the door and around to the back of the motel, which faced a small wooded area, to sit and drink his beer and listen to the crickets chirp. There was a fragrance of lushness and decay in the air. This is wild. Then he remembered that the greatest wildness within reach was, ironically, locked up in the van. He wondered whether it really made a difference if they delivered the birds to Ramirez on schedule. They had the birds, and they had a beautiful momentum: it seemed like they could go anywhere, do anything, point the van down the road and wind up anywhere they wanted. And all at once Will knew what they had to do. Of course, it’s so simple. The hell with the job: they’d take the birds back where they belonged. He leaped to his feet, ecstatic, then stopped cold: something told him not to tell Bobby, not yet at least. For now, this was his private victory, knowing he’d figured it out, knowing the moment was—finally—his as much as Bobby’s.
They rose early and rocketed south with the birds secured behind them, hopping around and chirping with the cage uncovered. They’d turned off the air conditioning and opened the windows to let the humidity wash over them, the idea being to feel where they were going. Bobby was sure that if they covered enough ground, they could make Louisiana by nightfall, and if they made Louisiana by nightfall, they might as well keep going to New Orleans. It was a little out of the way, but only if you considered “the way” to mean the most direct route rather than the most interesting. Will was down with that, as long as he had his say. But he didn’t say anything, not yet.
He took his first turn driving somewhere in Tennessee. The day before, Will hadn’t wanted to stop the roll Bobby was on; today, he needed to get his own roll going, and when he said “C’mon, man, let me drive,” at their first break, Bobby smiled, shook his head, and dropped the keys in his hand.
“Just sit tight till I get us some coffee, big boy.”
Do not fucking patronize me. But Will didn’t say this; he just watched Bobby swagger off to the snack bar. He turned to check on the birds and discovered that they were watching him back. “I know the feeling,” he said to them.
Bobby came back with tankard-size cups of coffee and pointed down the highway. “Bayou or bust, baby!”
Will glowered at Bobby, who seemed not to notice.
“That means ‘let’s fucking go,’” said Bobby.
“Well, then.” Will started the van and pulled onto the highway and floored it, sending coffee sloshing and raising cries of “Mutiny!” from the cargo bay.
“Hey, Will, I—”
“You want to get to New Orleans or not?”
Bobby cast a sullen look across the seat. “It was a fucking joke.”
I’ll show you what’s a fucking joke. Will swerved into the fast lane and continued to mash the gas pedal: seventy, eighty, pushing ninety, the birds shrieking all the while. Not letting up till you say uncle. But Bobby just sat there, staring down the road, cradling his coffee. Will felt his pedal foot start to shake as the engine labored. He wondered whether something else would give before Bobby: would the birds have a coronary, would the van throw a rod, would they (this one was more when than if) get pulled over? You does this kind of shit all the time, and nothing ever happens. Maybe that’s why you’re not so fucking afraid of everything. Will resolved not to be afraid, either; he resolved to keep pushing, to go wherever this thing was leading them without flinching, above all not to take his foot off the fucking gas. And in the same moment, he felt his foot coming off the gas, as if it were beyond his control. Goddammit.
“Sorry,” he said, after some time.
“So, we’re okay?”
Bobby nodded. “Yeah, we’re okay.”
The tension dissipated in the soupy air. They sipped their coffee and sped out of Tennessee, barely clipping the northwest corner of Georgia, crossing Alabama, slicing into Mississippi and continuing to push south, eating and drinking and dispensing birdseed on the go as they rolled into the delta. They crossed into Louisiana near Pearl River, cutting across stretches of forest and bayou interspersed with the low sprawl of interstate towns, emerging into the outskirts of New Orleans. As they bore down on the city itself they could feel its energy building, thrumming in a low register, inescapable. They got off the highway at Basin Street and cruised the streets of the French Quarter at random, Will driving, Bobby swiveling his head out the window like a puppy.
“New Orleans!” he yelled, half inward at Will and half outward at whoever might be wondering what city they were in. It was a goof, but at the same time, Will knew, it was heartfelt, and simple—simpler than what he was wrestling with. He tried it on for size.
“New Orleans!” he whooped as they stopped for a light.
A couple of young women on the corner—one dark-haired and cocoa-colored, one blonde and pale—waved at them and whooped back. T-shirts and short-shorts and flip-flops and laughter. Maybe a few years younger than them, nineteen or twenty or so. Not going anywhere, it seemed, just hanging out.
“You girls need a ride?” Bobby called.
“Where you headed?” asked the dark-haired girl.
“Wherever things are happening! We give you a ride, you tell us. Deal?”
The blonde laughed. “We can probably find a party. If you want to go.”
“Oh, we want to.” Bobby opened the passenger door, jumped down to the sidewalk, and flipped his seat forward. “Hop on in,” he said.
We’ve got places to go, Will pleaded silently, but didn’t know how to make this clear in front of the girls. “The only space is in back,” he said, “but there’s the…”
“Oh, yeah.” Bobby turned to the girls. “I forgot to mention, you’ll be sharing the ride with a couple of prized birds. Parrots. From Amazonia.”
“Amazonia? Where’s that?”
“Paradise,” said Bobby, and the smile that spread across his face was almost beatific.
Will shook his head and turned his attention to the parrots. “Good birdies.”
“Mutiny!” said Green.
“Good birdies,” said Blue.
“Hey,” cried Will, “new words!”
But Bobby had missed it, and the girls didn’t care. So Will shrugged and welcomed them aboard.
The girls were going to Tulane, or at least had been—fall semester was a bit of a question mark—and the party they found was in a big ramshackle house near Audubon Park, a mile or so from campus. The place was crawling with fresh-faced boys and girls clutching red plastic cups of beer and sweating amiably; a few of the revelers might have been old enough for grad school, but Bobby and Will qualified as éminences grises.
“This is like a hundred parties back home,” muttered Will, already anxious to move on.
“But we’re not back home,” said Bobby. “We’re here.” He knocked back his drink and beamed, his face ringed by a halo of lamplight; he seemed to be radiating the light himself. We’re here: from Bobby’s lips, it sounded like a coherent philosophy. His eyes tracked left then right until he spotted the dark-haired girl they’d driven there, motioning to him from the other side of a crowd. “Meet you back here,” he said, then plunged into the crowd. It was as if he’d vanished into the jungle, and Will was left at the edge, unsure of the terrain.
He wandered from room to room, trying and failing to get more than a smile and a nod from the people he met, sipping from his cup for something to do, refilling it for something to do, repeating the process, till the scene around him grew as blurry and swimmy as the entire trip was becoming. He had to reshape things while they were still malleable; he had to tell Bobby his idea. They could leave right away. Unless Bobby was…. Shit. There was no good reason why Bobby and not he should be off somewhere with the dark-haired girl (hell, maybe both of them, the blonde girl was nowhere to be seen), seducing her for the short haul—or, God forbid, the long haul, convincing her to come along on the adventure of her lifetime. Will imagined the misery such a trip would bring for him, following them down whatever byroads they chose (in a series of 2-to-1 votes) by day and trying not to hear them fucking on the other side of thin motel walls (he would have the parrots for company) by night.
“Fuck this,” he thought, then realized he’d said it aloud. He wheeled away from the puzzled-looking kids beside him. All he’d been doing was walking around, thinking then thinking some more. His whole problem. Enough. He’d go check on the birds—it’d been a while since anyone checked on the birds—then grab Bobby, in the act if necessary. He weaved his way through partiers in the front yard and down to the street, where the van was parked in the middle of a line of cars. He put down the half-full cup of beer he’d been clutching, opened the door, and clambered inside. “Good birdies,” he said, in a soothing tone. Maybe he’d just wait there for a bit, sit with the parrots and—
But the parrots were gone. Will stood for a moment, leaning into the cargo bay, wondering if he was drunker than he’d thought, if this was a dream—maybe he’d dreamed the whole thing, maybe he was sleeping off another Friday night and he’d wake up and it would be another Saturday morning and he could have a cup of coffee and marvel at how wild a dream he’d had—but the bungee cords lying slack on the floor, the soft damp tropical scent in the air, told him that it was real. We’re fucked. We’re so fucked.
He plodded back to the house in misery, wondering how to tell Bobby. There was no good answer. He approached the porch, noticed there was no one left in the yard, saw a dense clot of bodies down the hall, spilling out of the living room. Maybe Bobby was among them. Just say it. He pushed his way through the clot then turned a corner and saw what everyone else was looking at: Bobby, wearing a pair of gloves and shoulder pads, playing falconer to the delight of the partygoers, a parrot perched on each shoulder. “¡Pájaros magníficos!” Bobby crowed. The dark-haired girl stood beside him, feeding peanuts to the birds one at a time.
Will felt profound relief and righteous anger flooding him simultaneously, feeling like a third emotion formed by the mixture of the two; he couldn’t separate them, and wasn’t sure he cared to. “What the fuck are you doing?” he yelled.
“¿Como se parece?” said Bobby. He sounded bemused, and more than a little buzzed. “What does it look like?”
The birds bobbed their heads up and down and flapped their wings madly, as if running a drill. “Good birdies,” said Blue.
“Mutiny!” said Green.
Will stepped through the crowd till he faced Bobby from a few paces away. “Look at them, they’re scared. C’mon, put them away.”
“They’re not fine,” said Will. “They’re not fine because they don’t belong here. But it’s gonna be all right, we’ve just got to do the right thing. We can fix it.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“I’m saying fuck Martin, and fuck Ramirez.” Will jabbed a finger into the air. The chatter had died down; everyone in the room was tuned in, waiting. Fuck them, too. “Let’s not stop in Mexico, Bobby. Let’s keep going, all the way to Amazonia. Let’s take the parrots home.”
Some kids in the crowd cheered this. “Take them home, take them home,” they started to chant. There was laughter in the air; whether it was general high spirits, or laughing at the notion of driving to Amazonia, or laughing at Will’s passionate drunken plea wasn’t clear. But Bobby wasn’t laughing. “Get a fucking grip, man. You don’t mess with people like that.”
“What, you’re scared of them now?”
Bobby scowled. “We’re sticking to the plan, Will.”
“The plan? You, of all people, should know there’s a time when you have to say fuck the plan.” As Will said this, he stepped forward and gave Bobby a shove—not especially hard, but enough to knock Bobby off balance. And to send the parrots flapping away. Lifting off from Bobby’s padded shoulders with powerful wingbeats, they were soon darting above and beyond the circle of onlookers, swooping out of the living room and into the airy darkness beyond.
Shit, I didn’t think they could really fly. Will was already in recovery mode, pivoting to chase after the birds, when Bobby tackled him from behind and brought him to the floor. Everything happened so fast, Will couldn’t distinguish surprise from physical pain from what he could only call grief. Face down on the floor, he felt several gloved punches landing on his back, one after the other, and realized that Bobby wasn’t going to let it go. If he’d thought of what to do next, he might have spun away and bolted out of the room, waited somewhere else till the madness had passed; he might have appealed to Bobby’s sense of loyalty, or to the durability of their friendship; he might have cried for reason in the name of the birds, in the face of the loss of such beauty. But he didn’t think. Instead, he sprang to his feet and spun around, and in the same instant swung his fist blindly and caught Bobby flush on one eye. All the while there was no sound, there was no one else around, time wasn’t moving anymore; it was just the two of them, working out something they hadn’t even known was there. Will felt the smack of impact, the scrunch of flesh mashing into bone; he watched as Bobby’s head snapped to one side, as Bobby spiraled down in stop-motion. It was only then that time started again and the circle of other people reformed around them and the air was filled with those people’s cries.
“Oh, fuck,” Will said in a strangled voice, “oh God, no.” But no one paid him any attention; they made straight for Bobby, who was still sprawled, bleeding, across the floor. Will’s remorse was almost immediately displaced by a familiar jealousy: Why side with him? He fucking started it. As he staggered back, sweating with exertion and fear, starting to feel his back ache where Bobby’d pounded it, Will couldn’t help feeling that, however awful this was, he had other things to tend to. He grabbed the birdcage, ducked out of the room, and ran.
Out in the yard, about ten people stood in a semicircle around a cypress tree, calling out and pointing up into its branches. Will felt his heart begin to lift, just a bit; this at least signified hope. “One, or both?” he asked.
“One.” He looked in the direction of the voice: it was the blonde girl they’d picked up, staring at him, eyes brimming with emotion, but in the near-darkness it was hard to say whether that emotion was anger or compassion or both. Then he looked up at where the others were pointing and saw Green, perched on a gnarled branch, cocking his head and looking down.
Will stepped forward and held up the cage. “Here, birdie,” he called. There was nothing else to do. “Good birdie.”
Green squawked, hopped forward on the branch, then swooped down out of the tree and atop the cage. He squawked again, clambered around the bars, made his way inside and crawled onto his perch. Will lowered the cage slowly, carefully, making sure to keep it level and to place it on the ground as softly as possible. Then he lunged for the door, latching it shut with a force equal to the delicacy he’d just shown.
“Sorry, buddy,” whispered Will. He turned around and saw everyone still watching, waiting to see what happened next.
“Has anyone seen the other one? The blue one?”
No one answered at first. A few people looked at each other, uncertain of the answer or how to give it. Then the girl—God, I still don’t know her name—caught his eye again.
“He flew that way,” she said, gesturing beyond the yard. At first, Will thought she meant out in the street, in one of the trees the lined the sidewalk, but then he realized that she was pointing up—as in, up and away—and that Blue could be anywhere.
“I see.” Will knew he must sound ridiculous, but it was all he could think of to say: he did see. He saw a choice before him—the choice between trying to make things whole when that might not be possible, when they might be irretrievably broken, and making something out of what remained.
Will smiled at the girl. He hoped the smile conveyed at least a little of what he wanted it to (sadness, gratitude, bewilderment). He carried the cage to the van and strapped Green into place in the cargo bay, then hopped out and walked around to the driver’s side door. There was a larger crowd now, strung between the porch and the cypress tree, waiting for him to come back. He peered into the crowd, scanning the faces as best he could, but Bobby wasn’t there. A once-heard phrase tumbled out of Will’s memory: It’s a fascination of mine, the idea of redemption. There were two ways to apply those words to the present moment; one way involved moving backward, the other forward. He climbed into the van, started the engine, and pulled away.
“Mutiny!” screeched Green.
Will pushed the pedal to the floorboard. The warm night air whipped in the windows and washed over him like rain, and the road opened up before him, a ribbon bounded by yellow and white and extending, unbroken, as far as his lights could shine.
Robert Dall’s short stories have been published in Hunger Mountain, Clarion, the Evansville Review, the Blue Moon Review, Acorn Whistle, and the Beacon Street Review, and his novel In the Box was a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. He holds an AB from Harvard University and an MFA from Emerson College and is a board member of the Writers’ Room of Boston, a nonprofit committed to providing workspace for emerging and established writers. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.