Featured in Colorado Review
Bad Things That Happen to GirlsFiction
Published Fall 2015
Winner of the 2015 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, selected by Lauren Groff
Birdie worked at the Rite Aid, and then she didn’t. Like snow clouds coming apart, it was that easy. All she had to say was “I quit,” and it didn’t matter that the blue apron trembled as she untied, folded, and laid it on Guy’s desk, or that he protested loudly in the bewildering, sports-related dialect to which she’d grown accustomed over the years.
“Fourteen seasons, Bee. I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t mean it: You are the MVP of Store #165. Player of the decade. Without you, strikes and balls rolling across the playing field.” A space heater in the background on too high, and Guy dabbing at his neck with a handkerchief, sweating in disbelief. She knew she was letting him down. The other employees called him nasty names while smoking in the parking lot, but Birdie, who didn’t smoke, had always found his bad teeth and elephantine bellow endearing. She even liked the work. The repetitive motion of matching each item to its twin on the shelf. The round chill of coins. The American expressions, too, pleased her mouth with their formulaic poetry that promised resolution to every problem. How can I help you? Cash or credit? Did you find what you were looking for?
Watching Guy frown and shake his head, she felt terrible guilt, almost wished to take the words back. Guy had “drafted” her fresh out of English classes at the community college, back when she could only find middle-of-the-night work vacuuming offices. She’d been pregnant then and sharing a bed with her teenage sister, Olga, in the drafty alcove at the back of their cousins’ house. The cousins, who already resented the time and expense of sponsoring their immigration from Romania, had not been pleased when a pregnant belly appeared on their thirty-one-year-old spinster cousin. With their scowlings and mutterings, Birdie had begun to fear her unborn child would grow up like Cinderella, ash-covered and invisible. The Rite Aid job had rewritten their futures. It made Birdie independent and American, made her daughter American. All thanks to Guy.
“Trish turns thirteen tomorrow,” Birdie said. Her daughter’s name, that magic word, fortified Birdie’s resolve, made the vision as muscular and detailed as memory: the RV they’d buy, the silver ribbon of road unfurling before them. They two alone at the edges of the country, leaping over the Martian stones of Utah, toeing the Pacific’s ferocious surf, loading their shirts with fresh, orchard peaches in Georgia, nectar soaking through the fabric, infusing their skin with sugar. They’d take turns picking spots on the map and live on the road for as long as they wanted. At night they’d bed down on the RV’s sofas, at home anywhere, whispering stories back and forth as the stars flickered on outside and the wind rocked them to sleep. She had to quit, of course. For Trish.
“Well shoot, Bee. Happy goddamned birthday from Uncle Guy, but I’m not sure what a crapping thing that has to do with you leaving me all bases loaded. The girls haven’t got you into their union business, have they? Crapping pay inflation. That’s the kind of thinking that ruined baseball, and I won’t have it in my clubhouse. So you want to leave? Fine. Door’s thataway.”
Guy threw himself back in his chair as if waiting for Birdie to retrieve the apron and shuffle back to her post. Until the record blizzard in spring, Birdie herself hadn’t believed she’d ever leave this job. Not she who showed up fifteen minutes before each shift, who never argued, who did not drink, who worked Christmas Eve and Thanksgiving Day uncomplainingly. But during the two long and perfect snow days last April, Trish had confessed she was losing herself, said, “Please don’t make me go back to regular life.” How could Birdie explain to Guy, who had no children, what happened to girls? What was happening to her daughter? Over the last two years, she’d watched sparkling Trish become a turtle. Middle school had curved her shoulders, caused her to hide in bulky clothes and hoodies and disguise her golden princess hair in a plain ponytail. Birdie had read the magazines by her register. She knew about anorexia, bulimia, wrist cutting, low self-esteem, binge drinking, and the availability of drugs at younger ages than ever before. An American child shouldn’t suffer so, and yet grave danger shadowed Trish.
“I’m sorry,” said Birdie, now.
“Christ, Bee. You been drinking the magic Kool-Aid? Because the Russian Bird I know would not split with zero days notice. She’d get her butt back to the floor and write a nice apology note to Mr. Guy. You listening? Bee?”
But Birdie was not listening. Chin down, heart pounding, Trish-Trish, Trish-Trish, she was walking out.
The idea had come to her in April. Two days after the spring blizzard fell over the streets and parks, reshaping the town in seamless mounds. The changed landscape, the substitution of bright, blank quiet for human noise, made any hope seem within reach. Birdie expected the vision to dissolve the way dreams and stories did. A week after the blizzard, the temperatures rose to eighty. Beer bottles, damp newspaper, and potholed cement reappeared. Joggers filled the sidewalk, with nipping dogs on extendable leashes. But the vision remained. For as long as Birdie could remember, she had done what she was supposed to. As a girl, she followed her mother; as a young woman, her hawk-nosed younger sister. She got jobs and kept them, earning to support first Olga and then Trish. She had been born to care for and protect, and until the snowstorm, it seemed simple: food, shelter, and love. Trish’s confession flipped this on its head. You could do everything right and still fail your child.
She didn’t tell Trish about the plan. She didn’t know why. She had always told Trish her thoughts and dreams. But this, this felt different. Jittering inside her, jolting her awake at night, causing her to put three price tags on one Tylenol bottle and none on the next, making her lose the plot of an episode of Sweet Valley High so many times that Trish switched off the set in exasperation, saying, “You’re not even watching!”
Birdie did and did not like the feeling of keeping a secret. The gap it put between her and Trish—she didn’t like that. But she liked the jitters. Like some wild jungle cat—a yellow-eyed râs—was prowling around the house, spying down from the treetops at her bus, purring from behind boxes in the Rite Aid storeroom.
She almost told Trish at least once a day. Each time Mindy Jacobson called and Trish’s expression went hard and false, Birdie imagined jerking the cord from the wall, cradling Trish in her arms, coming clean. Somehow, though, she hadn’t. After a while, it seemed better, waiting until the money was all there, making it a surprise.
Money turned out to be difficult, though. Trish had a three-thousand-dollar college fund—a us treasury bond gifted by Olga—but when Birdie tried to cash it, the bank manager said smugly, “Not without the minor present.” Birdie did have a savings account, though—$2592.70 to be exact. Then, at home, the cracked five-gallon container, their Disney World fund, where she and Trish dropped their spare change. When Trish noticed the jug missing, Birdie said she’d needed it to pay bills. “It’s okay, I understand,” said Trish, lids lowered in a disappointment more excruciating than if she had yelled, I HATE YOU MOM, like a teenage girl on television. Had Trish known so little good, Birdie wondered, that even this small thing she hadn’t dared hope for? She wanted badly then to follow Trish to her bedroom door, wave the little bankbook before her so she could see, as Birdie did, the trickle of motion within the numeric cascade. She got as far as calling Trish’s name, but when Trish turned, her face was full of an unfamiliar and frightening distance. “I’m sorry,” Birdie murmured only and Trish, monotone, replied, “I know.”
Finally, Birdie sold things. Those Who Gave Us a Name, by Transsylvania Phoenix, and the other electric-guitar albums she’d listened to obsessively as a child. A kayak left in the yard by their landlord. A pair of real pearl earrings. A hand-me-down bicycle Trish rarely rode and thankfully hadn’t noticed missing. Even Trish’s Happy Meal toys found a buyer in the Sunday Bargains section of the classifieds.
All of these objects held meaning, each mattered and caused pain when parted with. The pain brought Birdie back to other separations—her mother’s long sadness and sudden end, her father’s absence, the departure from Bucharest—and, as then, the leaving created a space of melancholy, yearning, and poignant significance. That pain, like the stretch and weight of pregnancy, made the plan real.
In December, though, the bank account still held only five thousand dollars. Enough for a cheap RV, plus a year of food if they bought only lentils and the soft vegetables bagged up beside the grocery store entrance. By then, they’d surely figure out a way to make money—maybe the handwoven potholders Trish’s scout troop had once sold door-to-door?—but they’d still need to pay for gas. So last week came the hardest parting: a Yiddish edition of the Brothers Grimm that Birdie’s mother had managed to smuggle through the Holocaust. Kept sealed in cellophane on a shelf in their Bucharest apartment with the dictate to never so much as breathe upon it, the book had been presented, suddenly, to Birdie on her own thirteenth birthday. The script on the front page was faint but legible, and the lettering smelled of dust. To Faige, From Mama.
“No shit,” said the rare-books buyer, peeling it out of its plastic. “This is real?” Birdie had not been able to watch him cart it away. But when the bank teller stamped the new account balance, $6043.03, the book crumbled into departure’s dust, gusted away.
Birdie’s guilt dissipated into excitement as she walked home from Rite Aid. The thought of telling Trish at long last made her giddy, and she hummed fragments of half-remembered songs while hopping over slush puddles. The crooked tree fingers scraping at the gray sky made her think of witch hands, curse-bound princesses and the spells that freed them. She pictured Trish’s mouth curving as the meaning of Birdie’s news penetrated. They would spin around the kitchen, clasping each other’s hands. Trish would whisper breathlessly to the ceiling, Thank-you-thank-you-thank-you, happier than she’d been last birthday when Olga had given her a CD player.
But Birdie had forgotten Trish would not be expecting her until evening. A long note on the kitchen table in Trish’s careful, square penmanship said she was at the mall with Mindy and friends, and post-script, Mrs. Jacobson had invited her for homemade fried chicken afterward. Not calling cuz I don’t want to get you in trouble with Guy. Mindy says I’m being a worrywart anyway and that you’re “decidedly non-neurotic for a mom” so you won’t mind. AND so anyway also, Mrs. J will drive me back by bedtime. Xoxo, T.
Of course it was okay. It was only one dinner. A silly meal. No reason to fuss. Still, a part of Birdie couldn’t help noticing that this was happening more lately, these disappearances of Trish’s, and what if . . .
What if, Birdie didn’t know, but underneath the clattering refrigerator motor, the râs slunk invisibly, silently. Patience winnowing.
Birdie slept through Trish’s arrival and woke, trembling with anticipation, early in the morning. Several hours later, she tottered into Trish’s room, balancing a crookedly frosted cake. Trish’s hair snaked across the pillowcase, her scrubbed skin glowing as she stirred to the odor of chocolate. She looked brand new. A thirteen-year-old miracle, this girl.
Birdie fingered the hair’s silk tips, kissed the slightly damp forehead.
Trish cracked an eye. “Cake for breakfast?” she said, voice too sleep-groggy for Birdie to tell if she was pleased. Trish’s hand curled out from under the sheet, pulled a sweet morsel loose. She was. “Cake for breakfast, cake for lunch, cake for dinner,” Trish singsonged and reached for another bite. Just beyond their house, dawns lined up, linking yellow arms: Trish chewing cake on the RV’s steps, against a dusty desert sunrise. How she’d pause to murmur, You saved my life, Mom, you know it? If Birdie got the RV tomorrow, they could be in New Mexico by mid-week.
“I have an idea,” said Birdie. “The snow is so pretty. Let’s skip Big Boy. We’ll go for a walk, only us two.”
Trish pushed upright. “But Mindy and Auntie Olga are already invited.”
“So?” Nervousness gripped Birdie. She pinched cake into her mouth, but it was dry and the crumbs stuck in her throat. It had baked too long. “We’ll say you came down with a cold.”
Trish stared like Birdie was crazy. “You want me to lie to my best friend?”
The distrust stung. Birdie stretched a wide smile. “No, angel,” she said. “I’d never ask you to do that.”
Brunch was a tight-throated mistake. Birdie knew from the moment Mindy Jacobson breezed into the restaurant, immediately drawing Trish’s nervous attention and making Olga stiffen, irritated. Mindy ordered foods children weren’t supposed to like—egg-white omelets and café au lait—and questioned the waitress about ingredients and artificial colorings with a poise that made Birdie anxiously guard her own speech for errors.
“And for the birthday lady?” said the waitress.
Trish always ordered the short stack with a side of sausage and extra whipped cream. She and Birdie both liked to drag the pink meat through the syrup before bringing it to their mouths.
With a glance to Mindy, Trish sucked in her cheeks and folded the menu closed. “Omelet sounds really good. I’m going to have one of those, too.”
“No pork link?” said Birdie, but Olga was already back to the financial lecture she’d begun on the ride over.
“Stocks,” said Olga. “That’s not an investment. That’s gambling. Gambling, he says, is putting money in a failing industrial economy. To which I say, ‘Whose money, sweetheart?’ What’s Danny going to do? Sell off a few collector’s items? Wait for his father to keel?”
“Over,” said Mindy.
“Excuse me?” said Olga, elongating her spine in the way Birdie knew so well.
“It’s—the expression is keel over. I was just . . .” Mindy smiled and shrugged.
“You were just.” Olga glared. “You were what.”
“Sorry if I offended, Ms. Harrison,” said Mindy, sounding not sorry at all.
Trish glanced from her aunt to Mindy to Birdie, looking worried. Birdie knew how she felt. Tired. Tired and giving up. Alone or together, Olga and Mindy were the same theatrics, the same selfish person pulling everybody else into a fight they didn’t want, a broken smoke alarm that kept going off.
“Angel,” murmured Birdie, reaching across the table for her daughter’s cool palm. She wished yet again that she’d insisted that morning, made a scene as her sister had no difficulty doing. She wanted Trish to understand. After tomorrow, they’d neither of them have to endure these two or anyone else like them. Not the mean girls at Trish’s school, not the bickering cashiers at the Rite Aid. They were so, so close to gone.
Trish squeezed Birdie’s hand quickly before letting go.
“Guys, can we please talk about something else?”
“Poor ’Sha. We’re ruining her birthday.” Mindy spoke in baby talk, but Trish didn’t seem to mind. Instead, she shot Mindy a pleased, clammish smile and leaned her head on Mindy’s shoulder.
“I’m having a decidedly non-ruined birthday,” said Trish, returning the baby voice. Mindy, in her dyed-blue hoodlum hair, grinned.
Inside Birdie, inside her chest, the râs moved. Paws treading her heart. Blood quickening. “I want to give Trish her present now.”
Everyone turned, Olga and Mindy aimed like twin rifles, Trish nodding her encouragement, looking relieved.
“So okay,” said Olga. “Go for it, then.”
Trish looked up at her, patient, waiting. Despite the overlarge sweatshirt and bent posture, she glowed, a seed of goodness at her center that the Mindys of the world could only covet. A true princess.
“It’s a special story,” said Birdie, “for a special, special girl.”
A little twitch of communication too fast to catch passed between Trish and Mindy.
“A story?” said Trish, her voice a bit high. Birdie nodded.
“Once upon a time—”
“Oh please,” said Olga. “You think a teenage girl wants a bedtime story?”
“Mom,” said Trish. “Do you think maybe we should actually do this later?” Trish raised her eyebrows. Olga and Mindy would mock, she meant. They would not understand Birdie and Trish’s private language. Birdie wanted to laugh at how much that didn’t matter. Let them make fun. Too late they would see they’d been outsiders all along.
“Now is right,” said Birdie, and it was. She could feel the story taking her over. The rush and heat held for so long behind a wall. It felt like much longer than eight months she’d been waiting. Since Trish was born or longer. Since she was Trish’s age, lost and terrified, a girl shut in a stone tower.
“Once upon a time, there was a beautiful girl.” Trish blushed. Birdie smiled back. “A princess named Trisha, born with such long, beautiful, golden hair that a jealous sorceress made a curse—”
“‘Long golden hair!’” interrupted Mindy. Birdie tried to continue, but the rude girl spoke over her. “Wait, wait, wait. This is too crazy, Ms. Iancu. Tell her, ’Sha.”
“I can’t,” said Trish. She looked upset.
“Girlfriend, it’s the exact right perfect moment,” said Mindy.
“I don’t think it is,” said Trish.
Frustrated and confused, Birdie shook her head fiercely. “You don’t have to do anything, angel.”
“No offense, Ms. Iancu,” said Mindy, “but she unquestionably does have to tell you this.”
Birdie took a breath. “The sorceress made a curse—”
“Fine,” said Trish to Mindy. Trish raised her honey-brown gaze. The lashes trembled slightly. “I want a haircut.”
Birdie looked involuntarily to Mindy for explanation. She didn’t understand if “haircut” meant something other than what she was used to it meaning. “A haircut? But we trimmed last month. It grew so, so fast?”
“Ms. Iancu, you don’t understand. She’s going to cut off all her hair. You know, buzzed?” Mindy passed two hands over her own scalp.
“Buzz?” echoed Birdie.
“Essentially bald,” said Mindy.
“Bald!” hooted Olga. “Like that—the Irish singer, whatshername, the one you loved so much, Feygele. That sad lesbian.”
Trish flushed. “Not bald,” she said gruffly. “Just, shorter.” She hunched back into the booth, pulling the sides of her hood so only a red wedge of face showed. This was some ugly joke Mindy had pushed her into. Trish had Rapunzel hair, the hue of reaped cornfields, smooth light wrung from Birdie’s own near-black frizz. Even Trish’s birth father, a one-night mistake, had been a dark-headed Turk. The blonde, a fairy’s blessing, had come from nowhere.
“A little trim is no big thing,” said Birdie. “We can do it this afternoon, if you want.” Trish did not want to be bald, Birdie knew. In tales, villains cut beautiful hair as punishment, the shorn heroine forced to wander, exiled, in brambles and rags. Trish loved to have her hair braided, Birdie’s fingertips imprinted with that silk weight, dense as water winding around itself. There was some confusion, that was all. Trish wanted it shorter? So they’d take off a few inches, bring it up to her mid-back. Once on the road, Trish could grow a whole cape of hair, fly it like a yellow flag into the wind.
“With no hair,” said Olga, “people will suspect she has cancer. Put her outside your store with a donation bucket and a beanie—you could actually earn the big bucks.”
“Ha!” Mindy cried. “You should. Don’t you think, ’Sha? Like when we sold Girl Scout cookies, except this time you’d have leukemia or whatever.”
Trish made a sound that could have been a laugh but that Birdie recognized as hurt’s veil. Birdie raised herself awkwardly behind the booth. The saucer-shaped light fixture beamed down upon her alone. She felt its enclosure, the mild heat on her cheeks drawing blood forth. Through the windows at the other end of the restaurant, a plow heaved the parking lot into cliffs of white.
“Once upon a time, the evil sorceress locked Princess Trisha up in a tower. She made a curse and the beautiful princess fell into enchanted sleep. Only great sacrifice—great love—could break this enchantment.”
“Mom, please.” Trish put her hands over her forehead. “This is a really cool present, but can you just please save it till we get home?”
“Shh,” reassured Birdie. She needed to say this now. All of it. For Trish’s own good. “But the sorceress did not understand the power of true beauty. The princess’s mother saw her light from the other side of the kingdom and vowed she would rescue her daughter, no matter how many mountains and forests lay in her path. The mother walked a long time and had many difficult adventures. Finally, on the princess’s thirteenth birthday, the day the curse would become permanent, she climbed the girl’s braid into her tower and opened a magic door in the wall.”
Olga made a face of mild amusement. “Done now?”
“Good story,” said Trish, but she looked glum.
“I am about to tell the ending,” said Birdie. And then she did. In a few giddy breaths, she unraveled the months of secrets, the plan, Guy’s skepticism, the funny names on the road map, Lickskillet and Goosepimple, Pie Town and Why.
“Think of it,” Birdie said. “Everybody there curious, asking, Why Why? Now we can be the explorers, go and find out.”
They made so much noise, Olga and Mindy especially. It was to be expected, but Birdie only cared about Trish, who kept repeating “You quit your job?” as if she’d heard nothing else.
“Everything is okay, my darling. Everything is wonderful. You need not worry. Remember when you were little, I used to wake you up in the night and we’d walk together through the streets, pretend we were the last human beings?”
Trish’s voice came out strained. “But we’re not the last human beings. We have to pay bills—and—and rent—”
“But it will be like we are! I saved money, so much, and we won’t have rent. With the RV, it’s better. You live where you park. You don’t pay to a landlord.” Birdie wished she could make her understand. Their lives would be languid, a sweep of unguided motion, rain’s transit from cloud to drainpipe to sea, the awesome land unfolding, the layers of earth and rock, deep wells, full, fat blue skies along the destinationless journey. They would call Olga only briefly, from pay phones, hanging up when their quarter ran out. Birdie would leave behind Mindy’s address, and pretty soon, Trish would forget about her and the rest of middle school. Pretty soon, she would be too happy to look backward.
“You are insane,” Olga was saying. “Danny always said it and foolish me for defending you. I’d tell him, talking kooky is different than acting crazy. It’s a no-brain job, I said, but at least she works. She puts food onto the table. She raises her kid, which is more than some mothers. But now, Faige, what do I tell him? What do I believe?”
Trish clutched Birdie’s hand and Birdie clutched back, smiling. She wanted Trish to see: They were done with fear.
“If you say you’re sorry,” whispered Trish, “Guy will hire you back. I know he’s a jerk, but he likes you and you’ve been there forever.”
“What am I saying?” said Olga, leaning between them. “How terrible of me, making such assumptions. You’ve probably been setting aside for this trip—excuse me, lifestyle—since she was born, yes? That’s how Uncle Danny financed that ridiculous boat. Socked away his bonuses, liquidated his 401(k).” Olga tapped a pink nail on the edge of her plate.
“Except that’s not smart investing, is it?”
She stared around the table, daring someone to answer. Mindy had gone quiet and Trisha, pale. But Birdie, for once, did not care what her little sister thought. Her opinion, good or bad, no longer bore weight.
“Smart investing,” said Olga, “views long-term returns instead of short-term gain. Thinks twenty years ahead.” Olga pinched Birdie’s arm, hard. “Twenty years, Feygele. You understand? Not when Trish turns fifteen. Not when she turns twenty-one. She’ll be thirty-three, mother of your grandchildren. Grandchildren. Did you consider that? How it will be for them, their bubbe toothless on the street? Or better: like Trisha’s grandmother. Dead.”
The râs curled its lip, rejecting this prod. It pawed to the door and glanced back.
“You don’t need to worry,” Birdie said and stood. “Come, angel. We’ll take the bus.”
On the bus, though, Trish was strange. She didn’t talk, and when she looked up, she seemed translucent, face large and flat and empty. At home Birdie tried to interest her in board games. Then she spread the table with road maps and national-park maps and municipal maps from West Virginia, North Dakota, Oregon, but Trish only nodded dully and said, “I think I’m going to lie down.” Through the closed door came the sound of quiet talking, and when Birdie eased the kitchen phone from its hook, she heard Mindy.
“Bipolar, maybe. A kid at my old school was one. He used to draw on his chest during class. People laughed, but he wasn’t doing it to be funny.”
“This is way worse, though. I mean, what do I do? She basically wants to kidnap me. And that story—that was really weird, right? I mean, what’s wrong with her?”
“You can call her a b-word, you know. It’s not illegal.”
“No, I can’t.”
“You can. Just try.”
“For real, just do it.”
“But she’s not one of those, though, Min. She doesn’t mean it. She’s just—she’s—I think she’s actually crazy.”
Birdie held the receiver away from her ear, straight out. That awful Mindy, she thought, though it was the second voice that seared. A voice that doubled over Trish’s, eclipsed it.
Birdie’s mother had loved peasant devil stories, possession stories that mixed with real-life tales of soldiers who pressed pistols to children’s heads, ordered them to stop crying, then shot them anyway. The soldiers laughed, her mother said. That’s how we knew they were possessed. Birdie hated the brutish devils. She would beg instead for enchanted combs, ball gowns, magical beasts. She thought she’d left the devil stories back in whispering Bucharest.
The tiny, dim voices murmured from the receiver. Birdie hadn’t heard what she thought she’d heard, she told herself. It hadn’t been Trish, not her Trish, not really. The râs held her in its placid gaze, licked a haunch. Turning from the cat, Birdie gently set the phone into its cradle. Animal breath wrapped around her and filled the kitchen. It smelled like meat, like blood. The seared place in Birdie’s chest pulsed.
She pushed open the window, let the brittle air scrape her clean.
If Birdie was honest, the last good time had been that April blizzard.
They called it global warming, for that amount to come down after two solid months of spring. When Trish woke up, she said it looked like magic.
Mindy Jacobson lived down a long dirt road that would be obstructed for days after the rest of town had been cleared.
All the same, Birdie was surprised and pleased when Trish, so serious since the beginning of sixth grade, said yes to sledding. They walked to the golf course, imagining themselves as Antarctic explorers, spotting penguins, polar bears, and gleaming UFOs en route.
“Look at that. He’s trying to disguise himself.” Trish indicated the bundled man walking his poodle.
“Three scarves,” agreed Birdie. “I think he is Martian.”
That winter, Trish had grown tall and heavy. She weighed down the front of the sled and together they zipped over the hills, gained air with a shriek before thumping into the loose drifts.
Toward sunset, they lay in the snow, passing back and forth a thermos of hot cocoa.
“You’re really fun sometimes, Mom, you know that?” Trish had said. Birdie’s knee ached, but she didn’t care. Trish’s words evoked a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment, as if she were a younger child her daughter had offered to befriend.
As fun as Mindy? Birdie wanted to ask but said only, “You don’t wish a friend your age came?”
Trish rolled sideways to sip from the thermos lid. “Nah. Not really. Being with kids, they . . . You have to be a certain way. Like, you have to be cool but not weird. You have to be original, but if you’re too much like yourself, they tease you. Even your friends. It just gets kind of tiring.” Trish pressed the thermos into the snow and lay back again. Overhead, the clouds drifted rag-like in the river of sky. “Sometimes it’s like I can’t even remember who I really am.”
Birdie sucked cold air, restraining tears of compassion. Usually Trish related good things about school, nice stories about a math test or a funny mix-up in the cafeteria, but these last months she’d seemed so closed, Birdie had wondered if some darkness was being concealed. Now, it broke her heart.
“Snow angels?” asked Trish. Birdie obediently swished her arms and legs. Hers looked like a moth and Trish’s, a sun pierced by a glass mountain.
Trish wasn’t laughing anymore. She’d turned her back to the red line of the horizon. Ahead of her, night. The moon collapsing into the earth.
Oh my Trisha, Birdie thought.
From behind, Trish looked like a picture of Birdie taken around the same age, the sole photographic remnant of her childhood in Bucharest. Birdie could never think of who might have held the camera, what adult stood behind her to capture that sad portrait, observing her as closely as she now observed Trish. Birdie knew from her cockeyed hat that the photo was taken shortly after Olga’s birth, a few months before their mother’s newly un-pregnant body washed up on the stone bank of the Dâmbovița River. Birdie’s grandfather had been thrown from the same worn-smooth section of bridge; he’d been running from the Iron Guard during a pogrom, one of thirty drownings that day in 1941. Birdie’s mother told the story each morning on the walk to school. “He left me behind,” she would say, the metallic river quivering below as if alive.
In the photo, young Birdie—Faige then—wore a dark wool coat; against the spring evening’s falling dusk, Trish’s snowsuit looked dipped in shadow. They were the same, Faige and Trish. Two girl-shaped smears against winter, two ghosts.
A candy-bar stripe wound around the RV, black on gray in the smeared Xerox. $3400, the flier said. Some problems, it said. But Birdie didn’t need to read the handwritten list of ailments. She could already feel the vehicle expanding around her, roomy on the inside like a diner on wheels, smelling of warm vinyl and fog, exactly as imagined.
Birdie punched the digits into a pay phone, listened to it ring.
Last night, she and Trish had eaten mac and cheese in front of a show where a cartoon father chased a cartoon son around the living room, threatening to beat him. Trisha had laughed at every joke, a harsh, false laugh that lasted too long, and when Birdie tried to bring up the topic of a departure date—Wednesday would be good, but if Trish was antsy, they could leave Tuesday—Trish said she had a book report to write and could they talk later? “You don’t need to do any more reports,” Birdie had protested to Trisha’s retreating back.
“If you’re looking for a Spaniard, you got the wrong number.”
For a second Birdie forgot the purpose of her call. She stumbled, vowels compressing on her tongue. “Do you sell—are you selling RV?”
“Oh hell, a Ruskie.”
“Romanian,” she corrected.
The man found this funny. She didn’t know why, but then often she did not know why people thought things humorous. The man, whose name sounded like Dylan or Daemon, lived past the edge of town. Birdie didn’t want to tell him she didn’t have a car. She was afraid he wouldn’t sell her the RV without a car. She needed it fast. By three o’clock, when Trish’s school got out. She wanted to be parked on the curb, her RV shimmering among the boring normal cars the other parents drove. She needed to break through to Trish, to make her hear.
The problem was distrust. Somewhere, something had cracked, made a rift that went on expanding. Birdie had blamed it on Trish’s friends, on Mindy especially, but after last night, she wondered. During the blizzard, Trish had said, “I don’t know who I am anymore.” Now, she called Birdie crazy. That was the sound of a hurt girl, a girl whose mother had let her down.
When Birdie was still learning English, they’d read a book together about a baby bunny who wanted to run away from his mother. I’ll run to the circus, he told the mother. I’ll sail from you. The bunny piloted out into a stormy sea, but his mother turned herself into a rabbit-shaped cloud. No matter how mad the bunny got, the mother rabbit floated above, filling his sail, keeping him safe. He never had to be alone.
Daemon’s address was further than she thought. Several times on the long walk, Birdie turned around as if she might glimpse the last lonely bus stop miles back. It felt wrong out there, the sky swollen a deep purple, fields of untouched snow raised five, six feet off the ground, no houses.
Periodically, Birdie reached into her pocket to the bank envelope, to warm her fingers between the soft tongues of the bills. Hundreds felt different. They must print them on more valuable paper, she thought. It was just after she took the envelope out to smell it (it smelled like oil and like Trish’s toddler scalp), that the black mailbox appeared, a plowed driveway behind.
Diamond was his name, short, talkative, and with egg in his moustache, and when he asked where she’d parked, Birdie found herself lying.
“My husband, he dropped me back there.” She waved toward the empty road.
Diamond didn’t like that, but, he said, Ruskie or not, Birdie looked most of the way hypothermic and had better come on in for coffee. She wanted to see the RV—only cars and a small van were scattered in the snowy yard—but Diamond insisted. She followed him over a porch erupting with frost-fringed clothing into a meticulously decorated living room. Doilies and porcelain knickknacks and embroidered cushions lined shelves, draped over chair backs. The house looked how she had imagined America pre-immigration. In her mind, such a home had seemed sweet and cozy, but perching on the edge of the sofa, while Diamond poured cream into a pink teacup, she felt afraid.
“Like ’em?” Diamond said. Birdie realized she was staring at one of the knickknack shelves. Ceramic children with enormous eyes posed kneeling for prayer, watering a potted flower, extinguishing birthday candles.
“Yes,” she lied.
“My wife called ’em the kids. I said if her children planned to come out ugly as all that, might as well not bother.”
Diamond reached for a girl figurine wearing a bunny suit and squinted into its pastel felicity. “Had it my way,” he said, “I’d use ’em for skeet.”
Birdie nodded. Skeet sounded like skate and like sleep, and sleet. She’d always liked the sound of sleet. Quick, wet, alive—a jackrabbit bounding across the surface of winter, white on white. Diamond tossed the doll in his palm. His gaze drifted to window, the blank sky hanging over the graveyard of cars. She wondered where his wife had gone.
“I’ve finished,” she said, balancing her teacup next to a trio of disquieting squirrels. Diamond was still staring out the window. “So we can go see the RV now?”
“Your man left you in a tight spot,” said Diamond. “When’d you say he’s coming back?”
“He’s—I didn’t,” she said, remembering her story. “He said it’s for me, I decide what I want.” She pinched bills from the packet, careful to conceal the rest. The smell of money oil rose between them and she saw Diamond’s face change, calculating.
He cleared his throat. “Can’t wait much longer, anyhow.”
The wind was at them as soon as Diamond opened the door. It whipped Birdie’s cheeks and stiffened her lungs with each breath. She started walking toward the barn at the end of the driveway, but Diamond waved her in the other direction. He led her through the network of ripped-open cars, some so rusted they looked like part of the landscape, until they reached the windowless white van she’d seen when she arrived.
“No,” she said. “I wanted the RV. The camper. From the advertisement.”
Diamond’s mustache bushed over his mouth. “Sold it last week,” he said. “This is what I got left.”
“No,” she protested, her voice climbing, “On the phone, I said RV. I said I wanted this RV, and you said, yes, come, I have it.” Truthfully, she didn’t remember him saying much at all, other than to tease her about her accent. Was it possible he hadn’t mentioned the vehicle? She could not remember. She felt befuddled and fumbling, uncertain of how she’d arrived, of how she would leave, as if, asleep, she’d encountered another dreamer who insisted the dream was his.
“Better anyway, this one’s more up your alley,” he was saying, holding a lighter to the rear lock. “Know a fit when I see one.” He tugged the handles, and the doors burst open in a spray of ice. Birdie swallowed a gasp. The plain body of the van concealed a replica of the living room in miniature, only with a propane tank, metal sink, and figurines masking-taped to the wood countertops. Above a flowered couch, a sampler swung from fishing line: Home Sweet Home.
“Customized it myself,” he said. “Go on—test her out.”
Because there seemed no other choice, Birdie climbed in the back. It resembled a living room but felt like a human-sized dollhouse, a box that would suffocate you once closed.
“Like it?” Diamond leaned on one of the doors, blocking the light. Snow had begun to fall, and thick flakes landed on his shoulders. She couldn’t see his face. She nodded. “Wife hated diy, but you’ve got sensibility. I know. Seen you inside my house, looking around. Two of a kind, you and me.” In silhouette, Diamond put a finger to his temple, made a cocked pistol.
Birdie had begun to shake in earnest, her teeth gnashing together. Fragments of magazine images floated in her head, previews for horror movies, masked men with chainsaws, men with faces melted off. She could feel Diamond tracking her. And the imprint of his voice, two of a kind. What did he mean?
Time slowed to nothing. A space pressed outward from her temples, pushed the sides of the van wide. Shadows thickened. The narrow trail of outside light burned. She felt the râs, a white-and-orange blur in the corner of her vision. It leapt inside her body. She stood.
“I want to get out now, please,” she said. The silhouette didn’t move. Râs-like, she lunged, knocking past his outstretched arm.
“Hey—watch it!” he said, clamping his fist around her shoulder before she could tip into the snow. It hurt. She twisted away. Inside the frame of beard and mustache, Diamond flushed. “Calm down there, missy. No one’s making you buy anything.”
“I want it,” she said. Suddenly, fiercely, angrily, she did want it, even more than she’d wanted the RV.
With numb fingers, she pulled the thirty-four folded bills from the envelope. Held them toward him.
“Take it,” she said, like a cowboy in a Wild West movie. “It’s your last final chance.”
From the front, the van glowed like the inside of an ice castle. Birdie hadn’t driven in years, but her body remembered, cleaved to the shape of gearshift and pedals like she’d been born for them. At the end of Diamond’s drive, she threw the van into park, came around back, tore the ceramic children free, and hurled them, poom-poom-poom, into a drift. The pale sampler she saved for last. She did not know what had happened to Diamond’s wife and did not want to know. It frisbeed from the driver’s side window as she skidded off.
Olga would have called her insane for driving a dirt road at the onset of a snowstorm, but Birdie shivered with laughter the whole blinded way. She glided through stop signs and more than once raised her foot from the brakes to let the van swim its way out of a swerve. Vibrations siphoned up her arm, the road leaping under her, a second body.
Emergency signals broadcasted out over radio stations, and back in town, storm sirens screamed, but rumbling through the spiky trees, Birdie felt the world had been wiped clean for her alone.
Dusk pulled tight its wrapper of wind. Town, an orange haze, melted away at the touch of her headlights. Visible through the snow were only the few low cars that pulled up beneath her window at stoplights. Sleepy arms pressed to the glass, while debris like misplaced histories littered the backseats—sheets of paper, cassette tapes, fast-food cups separated from their lids. The vulnerability of these people and their small lives awoke a new sensation. Tenderness and pity mixed with elation. But this was mainly a feeling in the background; the rhythm of driving demanded Birdie scan for ice, relax into a turn, press or let go of the gas, press or lift from the brakes. She understood, finally, the obsession with cars. They erased everything: past, present, one’s own self-awareness. To drive meant to become movement itself.
Labor. Pain and push, the sensation of being torn apart from the inside, overwhelmed by impossible expansion of skin, joints, and heart. The sensation of her former self in shreds in a metal hospital pan, while she swelled, bruised, bloody, tidally large to crash around the newborn, its skin raw, its expression of betrayal and desperate need. Her daughter.
At the sight of their pitch-black house, windows stacked with darkness, that birth-blow hit Birdie for a second time. Only this time, the pressure of love and irrevocable change was matched by panicked guilt. Since before getting into the van, she’d barely thought about Trish. It was late, she knew that much. She’d been gone hours. It must have been near bedtime. Normally, Trish got home around four. Birdie would find her blasting music or sprawled reading in front of the television. In the winter, Trish turned on every lamp in the house, including the bathroom. Birdie didn’t mind. It made her happy to see Trish at the epicenter of so much light.
Inside was chilly, layered in shadow, eerily quiet.
“Angel?” No answer, not even the trickle of the fish tank that Trish thought sounded like a man peeing in their toilet. That idea recalled itself to Birdie with disturbing force, as did the sensation of Diamond looming over her. Only now she felt Trish instead of herself, trapped and alone. Someone could have walked right in if Trish had, as she often did, left the door unlocked. Trish could have been kidnapped, or killed—or worse.
What if Diamond had seen Birdie throwing away his knickknacks, become enraged, and taken off in pursuit?
“Come out, come out wherever you are,” she called. The playful refrain petered into the darkness. Birdie tried the kitchen switch, then the living room lamp. Nothing. The storm had knocked the power out. If Diamond had followed her home, Birdie reminded herself, he would have gotten there after her, not before. But what about an accident? If some streetlights were out too, if Trish had stayed late at school—perhaps intuiting that Birdie planned to meet her—she could have been hit by a car on the icy streets. She should call the hospital. The phone’s petulant dial tone bleated across the kitchen, and Birdie stood in the dark, listening to its blare, its anger, the injustice of it wanting from her what could not be given.
Through the window, trees whipped the night sky. She put down the phone. The only numbers she knew were the Jacobsons’, Rite Aid, and Olga’s, and she could not bear to confess to any of them that she’d lost her daughter. When Trish was three, Birdie had called Olga, frantic, sure she’d been kidnapped. Before her sister could arrive, though, Trish had crawled yawning out of a laundry hamper. She’d only been napping.
Birdie stumbled down the hall and flung open the door to Trish’s bedroom.
Purplish light fell across Trish’s rumpled bedclothes and band posters. Mindy had gotten her into this loud, mean rock. Screaming girls who wore too much lipstick and didn’t brush their hair, the kind who smuggled pregnancy tests from Rite Aid under their safety-pinned shirts. Riot music, Trish called it, and that was what it sounded like. Glass breaking. Fear. Rage. When Birdie was a little girl, her mother had taken her to a parade. Something official, with speeches and children reciting in unison. What had stuck with her, though, what she remembered, was the line of rifle barrels nosing over the crowd. She hadn’t known the shots were celebratory noise. How could she? The sound tore her eardrums like they were made of paper. It was the world that seized anything beautiful, anything beloved or pure, and squashed out the hope. Mindy was the worst kind of friend, because she instigated without getting caught, used vulnerable girls like Trish as experimentation grounds, to be discarded if they failed to excite. Like how Mindy taunted Trish over the phone. What if she had suggested Trish run away in this violent cold, said, Just do it . . . ?
Susan Jacobson answered on the first ring. In the background, the noise of kids being herded to bed. “Min says she saw her leave school at the usual time,” said Susan. “But I wouldn’t worry. Trisha’s a sensible girl. She probably just conked out in a nook.”
Fear pressing against Birdie’s insides, she thanked Susan and hung up the phone. She knew it was senseless but couldn’t help thinking of Diamond, how he’d seemed at first normal, then piece by piece became a monster. Had he guessed from something in Birdie’s demeanor that she had a daughter waiting at home? Could he have devised her address, arrived before her in a smaller, faster car, taking a roundabout route? Couldn’t someone like that do anything?
Beset by flood or rats, depending on the season, the basement evoked feelings of biblical plague and transatlantic passage. Only the landlord went down there. As a little girl, Trisha believed a devil inhabited the hot-water heater and could not be convinced to so much as peek down the stairs. She would never have gone down voluntarily, Birdie knew.
Descending, Birdie felt the shadows shudder. It was dark, so dark, and then, from a corner, frail light stuttered across the cement from a slender gap at floor level. The unfinished bathroom.
“Angel?” she breathed.
Through the door, the shish-shish of metal. Sharpening knives, steel wings, hooks rubbing together.
She gripped and turned the knob.
A flashlight leaned against the mirror, illuminating in jagged slices and at first, she saw two girls, two Trishas, grabbing at their heads, pointing twin blades at twin scalps. Pitted, misshapen.
Scissors. Their metal wings flashed.
She meant to cry out, No, but her throat was blocked. At the moment Trish turned, Birdie’s flailing hand caught the scissors blade-first, and she felt—with an odd relief—her palm split and bloom.
Butchery. Trish’s head like raw meat, chunks of blonde sticking up, nicks in the skin. Someone had done this to her.
“Let go, Mom! Please, I promise, it’ll look better when I’m done.”
Birdie felt the heat of Trish’s pulse as she dragged her up the creaking stairs, to the front door.
“Now,” she was saying. “Now. I want you to see.”
They stood side-by-side in the cold, their breaths making shapes that flew up and broke apart. The van shimmered whiter than the snow. Birdie felt herself calming.
“We leave tonight,” she said.
“I don’t understand,” said Trish. She was crying. “What did I do?”
Yesterday, Birdie would have surrendered to the tear tracks freezing on Trish’s cheeks, but now, finally, she grasped what her mother had tried to tell her. How the devil—darkness—seeped into people, soldiers, strangers, but those beloved, too. Angels with teary faces. Daughters.
“It’s okay,” said Birdie. “We will fix it.”
“But I don’t want to be fixed. I just want you to—”
Trish fell quiet as the rear doors swung open. Bits of masking tape and fishing line stuck to the walls and a fresh gouge from one of the figurines ran the length of the counter, but already Birdie saw how it would go. They’d get a foldout couch, paint the walls a pale blue. Pencil in clouds. Pretty soon they’d forget they’d lived anywhere else.
“What is it?” said Trish in a tiny voice. She sounded how she had on the first day of kindergarten. Uncertain, and needing her mother.
“This is home now,” said Birdie. She said it gently, but she was telling, not asking.
Trish took a step back.
“My angel,” Birdie said, “I love you.”
Trish raised her scalped head, her round face. Somewhere, the branch of a sap-frozen tree snapped like a gunshot. “No,” she said, petal-soft. Then: “You bitch.”
Something exploded inside Birdie. She reached to grab Trish, hold her to her. She needed to feel her heart. But Trish took another step and turned. Birdie’s fingertips grazed the back of Trish’s coat as she broke into a run.
Birdie ran after, sliding on the ice. She fell once and rose. Trish, inky ahead, certain movement, zigzagging past the other houses. Birdie’s boots refused to grip. Her knee burned. She fell, then fell again. The last time, something crunched. She pushed up, ice grinding into the heels of her palms, but pain dropped her back down.
Cold seeped under her coat and the blue air bit her cheeks. She felt odd, as if a part of her were floating out there, accompanying Trish from above. A mother cloud. Below, Trish, ink on snow. Below that, a muted thunder like echoing gunshots. They did that, she remembered. They echoed in the place they’d hurt, the invisible hole they’d ripped in you, in the sky. They ripped through the sky. But the sky was made of bleached rags. It didn’t matter. You couldn’t tear what was not whole, thought Birdie. If you tore a cloud that was your mother, it would reshape around the wound.
Luke Dani Blue earned her MFA from San Francisco State University. Her fiction has appeared in
Fourteen Hills, Midnight Breakfast, and Bluestem, and won the 2014 Wilner Short Story Award. She teaches creative writing in California.