The Bird Man
“Jenny, can you come here for a second, please?”
Jenny placed her powder pink pencil in the center of her calculus textbook to save the page, and closed the cover. She’d been staring blankly at her worksheets, pretending to do math, while straining to hear her mother speak in hushed tones to the police officer in the foyer.
“Coming.” She leapt up from the drawing room table, slippers shuffling excitedly along the marble floor to the entrance of the mansion. It had been so long since something provocative happened in this tired old estate. Even if it was a felony, at least it was a break from Spring golf tournaments, races, and vaseline-teeth dinner smiles.
“Jenny, this is Officer Charles, he’s here about the burglary.” Jenny’s mother was pale, shaken, and would have clutched her pearls had they not been stolen.
“Good evening, officer.” Jenny shook the policeman’s hand, which he grasped firmly, accompanied by a determined nod, the quiet promise of a government official to serve and protect the aristocracy of New England.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jenny. Iris, is it alright if I ask your daughter a few questions?”
“Not at all, please. Oh—my lord, I’m so sorry, I haven’t offered you anything—would you like a cup of tea, or something to eat? Madeline’s gone to bed, but I can put something together from the kitchen.”
“It’s quite alright, Iris, for goodness’s sake, it’s one in the morning.” Iris’s eyes continued to bulge anxiously, mind trawling the night for anything else to be jumpy about. “Now, Jenny,” Officer Charles adjusted his belt, releasing a slight squelching of leather and fabric and zippers. He looked at her with brows furrowed as seriously as a thirty-something cop in a typically criminal dead zone could. “Did you hear anyone enter the house this evening?”
“Were you awake?”
“I was studying, in the first floor drawing room.”
“Studying! At this hour?”
“It’s Princeton or bust, officer.” A round of lazy chuckles.
“Your mother tells me someone entered through the window of the third floor lounge, and managed to steal multiple boxes of jewelry items from the master walk-in closet room.”
“Diamonds,” Iris interjected shakily. “Not just diamonds—old jewels, antiques, gifts.” Jenny nodded solemnly. She had no idea just how much worth in jewelry alone the Hawthornes owned, but should she be accepted into Princeton, their value would pay off her tuition, with room to spare. “Thank Jesus he didn’t get into the safe.”
“Jenny, is there anyone you know, anyone from the academy, maybe, who could have known that your father is in Taiwan this season? It’s just the two of you in the house, if I’m not mistaken, besides Madeline and Jack in their houses on the property?” Jenny’s blasé friends were too busy with their fireball whiskey, bonfires on the beach, and scrambling for Plan B to give any notice to swiping old, tarnished jewelry. It’s not like they needed the money.
“No, sir. No one.”
“There have been a handful of burglaries in the area, recently, and I’m not going to lie to you, ladies, most of the houses have been hit more than once or twice.”
“Good lord.” Iris paced the foyer, silk robe swishing as she walked.
“I’m going to go ahead and have someone stationed here on the edge of the grounds for the next couple of nights, just to make sure everything’s secure. And as always, if you see anything suspicious, let me know.”
“Thank you, officer.” Officer Charles tipped his hat in an old-timey way, and the door swung shut behind him.
“Jesus, Jenny, can you believe it?” Jenny’s mother embraced her aggressively but lovingly, and Jenny hugged back. “If anything had happened to you—I can’t even think about it.” She backed up, hands on Jenny’s shoulders, locks of greying hair falling into her face, as grave as she had ever looked. “We’re putting double locks on your windows and bedroom doors. Maybe you should even stay with Charlene and Rachel for a few nights.”
“Mom! I’m fine. And I’m not going to leave you alone in this house, even with Officer McFinally-Has-An-Opportunity-To-Leap-Into-Action. The burglar will see the cop outside, and he’ll leave us alone.”
“I’m serious, I’m not taking any chances after—“ Iris lowered her voice to a dismal whisper, “—after the kid from West Hills went missing.” Jenny’s teen eyes rolled in her head, as is customary.
“I really don’t think a missing kid has anything to do with petty theft. They’ll catch this guy, and maybe you’ll get all your stuff back. Even if you don’t, you’re safe, I’m safe, there haven’t been any reports of assault linked to the burglaries. It’ll be okay.” Sighing at length, and seeming to take this to heart, Iris nodded and went to ascend the stairs.
“Alright. I believe you. Even through your father’s degrees and rampant ego, I really do think you’re the smartest of all of us.”
“Goodnight, Sweetheart. Try and get some sleep, I’m sure you’ve got some kind of exam tomorrow or something.”
“I’m too smart for exams. They just give me the A and send me home. Goodnight, Mom.”
Jenny lay awake in bed, trailing her fingers along the canopy. In the dim Edison lights of her room were the outlines of her armchairs, abandoned violin, childhood rocking horse, wall of memorable movie tickets receipts, and pink quilted photo board, where pictures of friends and family were tacked lazily in rows.
Would he come back? Did he know she was there? Would he come for her? Jenny dismissed the thought briefly, before running to rip open her curtains and squint out past the porch and topiary lights, into the darkness of the acres of wooded property behind the house. She wondered if whoever it was who was out there was staring back.
“Robbed blind, were you, Hawthorne?” A paper ball hit Jenny in the back of the head. She swung her locker shut, smoothing her hair, as the common chaos of the high school hallway buzzed around her.
“Talyn, you goddamn idiot.” Talyn smiled a toothy grin, his square head bobbling atop his blazer and tie, like a reject football player figurine. “Yes, I’m a pauper now. Where’s my gruel?”
“I got your gruel right here, bitch!”
“You are so gross.” Tanned, polished Mary-Anne approached in the same navy uniform Jenny wore. “Marry me.” Mary-Anne pulled Talyn in for an unskilled kiss. “No, but, for real, everything’s cool, right, Jenny?”
“I put up a fight of unrivaled chivalry and fortitude, and I escaped with my life.”
“Did you see him?”
“Nah. He got in, took some shit, and absconded. Cops are going to be hovering around the estate for a while.”
“This is how most pornos start, you know,” Mary-Anne whispered. “The switch of a latch, a tall, dark stranger entering through the window—“
“More like entering your window!”
“Talyn, that doesn’t make sense, you’re ruining my bit.”
“Guys,” Jenny hoisted her leather bag over her shoulder. “You’ll be the first to hear all about the Hawthorne-burglar sex scandal as long as you drive me to Planned Parenthood immediately after to get tested.” The bell rang, and the hordes of upper crust youth siphoned into classrooms, forced to become the future of tomorrow.
“Are we getting crunk tonight?”
“Yes, Mary-Anne, let’s get crunk.”
“At the beach?”
“Your mom still early to bed, early to rise?”
“I’ll grab you at ten.”
It was after 3am when Jenny stumbled to her front door post-seaside gossip-fest. After several squinting, concentrated attempts to fit the key into the lock, she got in, turning to drunkenly wave to the officer idling outside in the roundabout.
“I’m not drunk, I’m cool, I’m fine,” Jenny giggled to herself, ascending one set of stairs, then another. “I’m not drunk, you are.” She opened her purse, dropping her keys inside, and heard a window slide shut.
She froze. The second floor was dark, save for a small night-light plugged into an outlet down the hall. A soft rustling sound came from two rooms to the left; the study, with the door closed. “Oh, fuck,” Jenny whispered to herself.
Someone shuffled lightly around inside the room. She heard the desk drawers slowly open and shut, paperweights be picked up and set down. Her heart beat against her chest with such veracity as if trying to burst out. Jenny, you have to do something, her brain echoed, vision swaying, brows furrowed. Finally, the whiskey took hold as it would a viking, and Jenny threw her purse down, ran down the hallway with a valiant battle cry, swung the door open, and smashed the light switch.
What she found was a man. No; a young man. And feathers.
His spindly arms were tied with rows upon rows of raven’s feathers, woven together with twine, fashioning a set of wings that fell nearly to his knees. Across his nose, a hooked yellow top half of a beak, strung around his head with the same string. Clad in black, his wings struggled to contain the small boxes he had been haphazardly stacking in his arms. Stringy black hair was just long enough to partially obscure his terrified eyes, infused with the panic that kept him as paralyzed as Jenny was. Finally, Jenny quietly cleared her throat.
“Are you okay?”
With this, the man frantically dropped his spoils from the study, yanked the window open, and leapt outside. Jenny ran to the window in time to see him swing down the storm drain, jump from a first floor balcony onto the grass, and disappear into a grove of trees. In a dazed stupor, she heard the sound of her mother’s footsteps pounding down the hallway.
“Jesus Christ, Jenny, get away from there!” Iris ran to yank her to the doorway. “It was that man again, wasn’t it?” Jenny blinked. “Did he hurt you? Did you see who he was? Jenny, are you drunk?” An aggressive knock at the door—the police.
“Okay, ma’am, I’m going to suggest that both you and your daughter find somewhere else to stay for the next couple of days,” Officer Charles expressed, with genuine nervousness this time. “He ran into the woods from the back side of the house, but we didn’t get a clear look at him. We’re not sure from which direction he accessed your home, but we believe it might have either been from the trees on the north side and onto the roof, or up through the cellars.”
“The cellars are inaccessible,” Jenny murmured. The sobriety, along with the accompanying headache, was beginning to kick in.
“Then I know this is an old home, but I think you should install more security systems, with alert signals at each possible entry. Jenny, are you alright? Did you see him?” Jenny squeezed her eyes shut, and opened them wearily.
“No clothing, hair, or weapon description? No mask?”
“No, no, nothing. I didn’t see him. He left before I turned on the light.” Jenny wasn’t quite sure why she felt compelled to lie. Less trouble, she reasoned. “It…seems like he dropped everything when he heard me coming.”
“Well you sure scared the shit out of him,” Iris remarked. “I could hear you shrieking from the third floor.”
“I don’t want to cause you any more distress than you’re already in, but I advise that you spend tonight at a hotel. Goodman Plaza is close by. I hear their room service is fantastic.”
“Right, well, I’ll take your word for it. As much as I want to stay, for Jenny’s safety, we should go. Thank you, Charles, really.” You’re thanking this guy for completely overlooking a man in a giant bird costume, Jenny thought. Iris leaned in to her. “And Jenny—if you were allowed to be in your room this week, you would be grounded to it, do you understand?”
Jenny awoke the next morning in a springy bed in Goodman Plaza, indifferent, before adorning her uniform and diligently walking to the academy nearby downtown, making her way to American Politics class.
A classmate acquaintance slid into the empty desk beside her. “Hey, Jen. You’re on the news. This is your house, right?” Augustus held up his phone, playing a back-tracked livestream of the Channel 5 News. Their classmates were instantly magnetized to the gossip, and they huddled around Jenny and Augustus as if they would bleed out if they didn’t catch a glimpse. A sleek woman with expert annunciation feigned concern to rattle off the latest in Birch Hollow news.
“This morning in Birch Hollow, we’ll take a look at the search for daughter and sister Amy Stringer that has officially been called off, and a second break-in at the Hawthorne estate, indicating that the serial burglar in the area is still on the loose.”
“We’re doing the best we can,” Officer Charles dutifully spoke into the camera. “We have confirmed sighting, and it won’t be long until he gets sloppy enough to be caught.”
“Ah, shit,” muttered Jenny. The classmates scattered as the teacher walked in. Jenny fiddled anxiously with the ring on her right hand. The window, the bird man, the feathers, the police, flashed rapid fire on repeat behind her eyes.
“Don’t worry,” fellow classmate Aki whispered from the desk behind her. “He hit my house too. Twice, and never came back. Probably just some idiot teen trying to catch a cheap thrill.”
“Not that cheap of a thrill,” Jenny added, pulling out her powder pink pencil to take notes until the lead ground down to a stub.
Iris’s cousin Charlene and her daughter Rachel agreed to take she and Jenny in with open arms for as long as they needed. Iris’s assistant and the groundskeeper were to stay at Goodman Plaza until further notice, which they had no objection to. Jenny thought Charlene and Rachel were nice enough. Charlene’s husband Rick had since passed away, leaving her with the house, about a mile away from Jenny’s, and a sizable bank account. Charlene spent most of her day making and selling fresh jams in the kitchen for something to do. Rachel went to the private school in the next town, and spent an hour a day styling her flowing, red hair.
“Your fingernails are always gross,” Rachel remarked, side-eyeing Jenny, as the two ate dinner with TV trays on the couch. “Are you gardening or something?”
“I grow my own food.”
“No you don’t.”
“I grow my own food, and we eat it. Vegetables. Just piles and piles of vegetables. Check our cabinets and fridges, all empty.”
“You’re so weird.”
The television buzzed with some kind of reality show, with people yelling and competing. It dissolved in Jenny’s vision as she mindlessly pushed around a pile of mashed potatoes with her spoon. Who was he? Why was he dressed like some reject Avenger? Why did he look so sad?
She lay awake in the tackily plush second guest room, wondering the same thing, over and over. She saw the layers of sleek, jet black feathers, his tired eyes. The beak and twine around his face. Arms full of someone else’s things.
Would he still be there?
Jenny sat up in bed. Rubbing her eyes, she grabbed her sweater, slipped her feet into her sneakers, and quietly made her way down the stairs, and out the door.
It was spring, but it was still moderately chilly. She shivered as she half-jogged down the paved path from the house, making a right turn down the road toward her home. Cicadas whirred and owls called periodically. The air smelled of dew and forever fresh cut grass, and the wind pushed it through the trees, the leaves lightly brushing against one another in a soft arrangement. Her sneakers padded on the pavement, before she hopped up onto the grass to cut through to her parents’ property. After about fifteen minutes of walking, she saw him there.
He stood on the lawn a few yards ahead, backlit by a topiary light. His arms were folded, feathers wrapped in front of him like a gothic cape. Jenny swallowed. She didn’t know what she expected, but she didn’t fully expect to see him there. Her heart raced like a nervous gerbil’s.
“You can come closer,” he croaked, clearing his throat, seemingly nervous, as unsure as she was. Jenny hypnotically stepped one foot in front of the other, and as she approached him, she realized just how tall he was. Pushing six feet, his wingspan was even wider then it had seemed the night in the study. She stopped a few feet from him. “I’m—I’m sorry,” he stammered, feathers rustling. “For scaring you.”
“Hey, you know…that’s okay,” she was shaky herself. “Everybody does dumb shit sometimes. I was drunk when you met me, so.” A pause, which the breeze swept through. The cicadas buzzed. He smelled like earth. “Why are you stealing from rich people while dressed like a bird?” He frowned beneath his makeshift beak.
“It’s a long story.”
“I’ve got all night.” She looked around. “But I…can’t bring you back to Charlene’s, and the cops are watching my place.”
“Do you…promise you won’t kill me?” He laughed quietly.
“I promise I won’t kill you.” Jenny slowly sat down on the dewey grass.
“Then you can sit with me.” Apprehensively, the young man sat down, throwing his arms to the sides to move the feathers, giving him room to kneel on the grass. He wrapped them around himself, an avian cloak. “What’s your name?”
“I’m a criminal. Do you really think I would give you my name?”
“Jenny,” he sighed. “That’s very cute.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s disgusting. What am I supposed to call you? Bird Man?” He shrugged, ruffling his feathers. She gave him a once-over. The feathers were even larger up close, with an oil-slick sheen, bound together so meticulously they were a mix between a boy scout project and high fashion. His eyes were dark, piercing, tormented in a very victorian way. “What did you take from my parents?” He shifted awkwardly. “I mean…look, I’m not going to judge you, we’re rich as all fuck, and some people don’t have much. Some people don’t have anything. It’s obnoxious that you break into people’s houses, but, for what it’s worth…if you need it more than we do, which I’m suspecting you do…”
“I can give it back.”
“No—no, I mean, that’s alright. Keep it.”
“Yeah. Keep it.” They were startled by a far-off car door slamming shut, a dog barking. A moment passed with no consequences.
“I don’t sell it all, you know,” he said. “I collect things.”
“You collect the diamonds of millionaires.”
“I collect jewelry, trinkets. It’s just easiest to get it from you people.” Jenny laughed. The man reached into his pockets behind his feathers, producing a handful of small rings; gold, silver, vintage, embedded with small gemstones.
“Holy shit,” Jenny whispered. “Are these ours?”
“No,” he said, placing them in Jenny’s hands. “They’re from around the neighborhood. I like these, so I carry them with me.”
“So the bird thing—it’s because ravens collect shiny things?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s the gist of it.” He watched her turn the jewelry over in her hands. “I never felt truly like a person. Never quite like myself. The collecting started first, and, the rest just followed, I guess.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
“A few years, in this area. I’ve only had this nest for about two months.”
“Nest?” Jenny asked incredulously, passing the rings back to him. “What, you live in the trees or something?”
“You’re shitting me.”
“Honest.” She pushed her hair back.
“God, you’re the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to this town.” He chuckled, chewing at his thumbnail. “Where’s the nest?”
“About a mile west of here.” He pointed out past the Hawthorne estate.
“On our property, maybe?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Can I see it?”
“I don’t know about that.”
“I don’t know about you, you ask a lot of questions.”
“You’re a bird man who robbed my house. I’m entitled to questions.” He burst out a reluctant laugh, and so did she. He was entranced by her genuine, glossy-lipped smile, and she by his cracked and weary one. He inhaled deeply and looked up at the stars, tapping his foot against the grass in thought. Jenny waited, hands folded in her lap.
“You know what, sure. I’ll show you the nest.”
“Yeah. Come on.” He stood, reaching down to take her hand, and pulled her up beside him.
They walked silently over the uniformly groomed shallow hills of Jenny’s family’s property, and into the trees to avoid the house itself. Twigs snapped beneath their feet. The trees grew taller, lusher, closer together. The moon proved surprisingly bright, casting an ivory glow on the woods as they moved out toward the edge of the estate.
“I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t been this deep into our land since I was a little girl.”
“It’s nice out here, you should give it a shot.”
“I can’t believe Jack never caught you out here.”
“What, the guy on the riding mower who’s always stoned? Please.” He stopped in front of a towering hemlock tree, and pointed up. “Ladies first.” He interlocked his hands for her to step into them for a boost. Jenny’s eyes lit up and she sprung upwards into the tree with the bird man’s help, clumsily swiping for branches to hold onto. Her sneakers rubbed at the bark as she pulled herself up, bits crumbling from the tree and falling below. Tacky sap stuck to her fingers as they wrapped around knots of the branches while she climbed. “You’re not very graceful.”
“Bite me.” She squinted upward. “Where is this thing?”
“You’ll know it when you see it.” Jenny’s stomach twisted slightly, a fear of heights threatening to bubble. And then, she saw it.
A massive cluster of branches, sticks, twine, and fabric, as big as a full-size bed, fashioned together in the shape of a raven’s nest. Crimson maple leaves lined the interior, along with a few plush fleece blankets. Stacks of books provided platforms for boxes—cigar boxes, jewelry boxes, small, opened safes. Jenny climbed carefully into the nest.
“Don’t worry. It won’t fall,” he called, climbing up after her.
“Oh my god,” she whispered, running her fingers along clusters of jewelry woven with threads into the nest. Diamonds, white gold, Bulgari watches. Trinkets and baubles hung from the branches above, sparkling like a series of stars among the hemlock needles. Her eyes widened with wonder as she ran her fingers over them, and they clinked together like tiny chimes. The Bird Man climbed in after her. “How long have you been collecting all this stuff?”
“Since I was a kid, I guess.” He settled in, adjusting his feathers, ruffling his greasy hair.
“Can I ask how old you are?” He frowned for a moment.
“Somewhere around 19.”
“You don’t know your own birthday?”
“I left home when I was young. My mom died, my dad was a wreck. Used to beat me up. It wasn’t really…safe to be around. I had an older brother who left home without warning and never came back. So I did the same.”
“Wow. Where? Here?”
“Down South.” Bugs chirped, a few birds flew from trees nearby. The serenity of the forest night slowly settled upon them like Egyptian cotton. “How old are you?”
“Seventeen.” He seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. She laughed. “You can take off the costume, if you want.” He shifted awkwardly.
“No, that’s alright.”
“At least the beak, so I can see your face.” He cautiously reached behind his head and undid the twine, beak falling from his head. The string had left an indent along his cheeks, which were round and pale. A small nose and slightly upturned mouth were revealed. Jenny smiled. “You’re cute.” He chuckled.
“You’re a liar.”
“I would never.”
“You’re not so bad yourself.”
“I’m charmed.” She leaned back against the branches, shifting in an effort to get comfortable. “Do you live here? I mean—do you shower here, eat here?”
“There’s a luxury vacation home about two miles from here that’s abandoned, save for the Winter. People around here can pay blindly for utilities, so there are a handful of wayward heathens that crash in the place, politely enough. Runaway teens, drug addicts, mostly. Kids who left the fireplace comfort of their parents’ homes for…something ‘greater’, I guess.”
“Are you friends with any of them?”
“Acquaintances. They think I panhandle downtown. They don’t know about all of…this. They’d take me for everything I’m worth.”
“And you’re worth a lot.” The Bird Man sighed and leaned back next to her.
“You’re not kidding. I pawn a lot of this stuff, down in Burnt Ridge and Pocumbasset. They know it’s all poached, they don’t care. They like the money.”
“That’s far away, man.”
“I do a lot of walking.” He did his best to covertly scan her up and down. Soft pink sweater, straight, dirty blonde hair, big inquisitive eyes, and skin like cream. She noticed. “Alright, Jenny. You’ve grilled me enough. My turn.”
“Do your worst.”
“Have you lived in Birch Hollow all your life?”
“Yeah, my great, great grandfather built this place in the olden days, and the Hawthornes have been here ever since. My dad’s side has old, old money, and my mother’s inheritance wasn’t bad either. That spells fancy cars, ski trip getaways, and disposable cash for me.”
“How do you dispose of it?”
“I dunno, milkshakes, mostly.” She chuckled incredulously at herself. “I don’t know, I don’t really go out much. I study, keep to hobbies. I’m not a huge fan of people.”
“You seem pretty personable to not be a huge fan of people.”
“Yeah, well…I like you, I guess.” His pale skin would have blushed if it could.
“What are your hobbies?”
“Collecting, kind of, like yourself.”
“Baseball cards? Coins? …You a stamps girl?” She laughed nervously, fidgeting with her ring.
“I don’t know, it’s…kind of weird and embarrassing.” The Bird Man motioned to his nest.
“Please. Look at me.”
“I…don’t really talk about it. I don’t know! It’s weird!” She was adorable, and he reveled in it. “It’s kind of thievery too, I guess. Like, art collection.”
“Art collection. I’ll accept your vagueness, for now.” She liked this, all of it. A lot. “Ivy league in your future then?”
“Princeton. I work my ass off, but we all know that shit doesn’t matter if you’re a Hawthorne. My masters is one fat check away.”
“You deserve it, I’m sure. What’s your area of study?”
“Science. Biology, namely.”
“Fancy.” A moment of counting stars passed. Jenny silently ran a finger down one of the bird man’s raven feathers. He pretended not to notice.
“Shit, what time is it?” She looked at her watch. “God, it’s three. I have to get back and bang out an essay before 8am.” She scrambled up, smiling at him as she stepped onto a branch outside of the tree. “Um…will I see you again?”
“You know where to find me.” He sat up.
“One more question—you were still lurking around our property tonight. Were you stalking me?”
“Maybe.” Her stomach turned in soft butterflies. “Goodbye, Jenny.”
“Goodbye, Bird Man.” Jenny carefully descended the tree, dropping onto the grass.
She walked the green, rolling path back to Charlene’s, head down, smiling at the ground. She quietly clicked the door shut upon returning to the house, booted up her laptop, and resumed her essay on the importance of applying stents to clogged arteries, feeling wrapped in a sense of warm satisfaction until she fell asleep.
Post classes, Jenny, Mary-Anne and Talyn gathered together in Talyn’s parents’ basement for a study session which, in so many words, was a marathon of getting high, eating Cheetos, and glancing at a textbook once an hour while Iron Chef played in the background. Jenny chewed on the end of her prized pink pencil, staring into middle distance, a frank half-smile pasted to her face. Mary-Anne shook her head and crammed Cheetos into her mouth.
“Jen. You are giggling like a schoolgirl,” she said while crunching.
“I am a schoolgirl.”
“Shut up. You know what I mean.” Intrigued, Talyn’s ears perked up.
“You finally get your burglar porno?” He asked, hands folded beneath his chin, batting his eyelashes. Jenny shrugged. “Wait, you didn’t really, did you?”
“It’s not really worth talking about.”
“Oh my god. Mary-Anne, Jenny is fucking a jewel thief.”
“Fascinating,” Mary-Anne swiveled around in circles in her chair. “Are you going into business together? You going to rob us next?”
“Seriously, Jenny,” Mary-Anne threw Cheetos at Jenny’s face, which were deflected expertly. “If this is an opportunity for you to stop being a third wheel, by all means, burgle us.”
“I thought I was a part of this relationship! I already bought my wedding gown for our ceremony!”
“Fine, you wanna be coy about it, be coy about it. I’m just glad you got dick in your life.”
“Well that’s presumptuous,” Jenny accused.
“Am I wrong?” Jenny took a moment, her smile widening.
“Ayy!” Mary-Anne and Talyn threw their arms in the air, and proceeded to applaud. “May your mystery man bring you many a hard day’s night.”
“And many a hard-on.” Talyn pointed at Jenny before miming a hand-job onto his face.
A day went by, two. Three. Jenny ripped through textbooks, novels, essays, pounding out everything she could in hopes of having enough time to visit the Bird Man at night. But come three or four in the morning, she was exhausted, and wouldn’t have enough time to trek across the grounds to his nest and spend the hours she wanted to, before coming all the way back. Weekends became her only opportunities to see Mary-Anne and Talyn, under the watchful eye of a suddenly overprotective Iris, who had now enforced an 10pm curfew because of the missing persons reports. Rachel was largely a shut-in, on the phone with her long-distance boyfriend upstairs when not in school, while Charlene canned sweet jams in the kitchen all weekend. And Iris, a die-hard real estate broker and workaholic, spent Saturdays and Sundays working from home—largely in the sunroom, facing the woods. In a house of early risers, slipping out in the middle of the night was easy, and her only chance. Jenny wondered if the Bird Man was watching her. Every now and then, she would smile out the window of her guest bedroom, hoping that he was.
On the fourth night, she returned to Charlene’s, exhausted. Her muscles ached. She washed her hands, splashing water onto her face. Taking a deep breath, she looked at her watch. 10pm, that’s enough time. She quickly changed, grabbed a Tupperware of leftovers, tiptoed out, and traipsed across the lawns to the nest.
Squinting among the trees, she stumbled around staring upwards, trying to find the right one to climb.
“Looking for this?” The Bird Man leaned against a tree a few yards away, pointing up.
“Hey!” Jenny jogged over, throwing her arms around him. He froze; then slowly closed his wings around her. “Um, I brought you some cold chicken drumsticks.”
“You sure know how to impress.” He helped her up into the tree, and they settled into the nest. She opened the container.
“I forgot napkins and stuff, I’m sorry…but, they’re barbecue, and they’re really good.” He laughed.
“I think you might be even crazier than I am.”
“You may, in fact, be right.”
They gnawed on cold chicken, sitting cross-legged in the tree, soft breeze swaying the strung up jewelry and hemlock needles. They talked about Jenny’s classes. The monotony of math, the intrigue of anatomy. They talked of her friends, Jenny enthusiastically explaining everything about Mary-Anne and Talyn and their sweeping mansions, much the same as her own.
“You could rob them too you know,” she said, half-seriously. “I swear, Mary-Anne’s parents are drunks. They wouldn’t even notice.”
“That’s alright. As you can see, I’m preoccupied at the moment.” They smiled giddily at each other, and Jenny went to close the bones back into the container. “Er—wait.” She paused. “Um, you can actually leave the bones here, if you want. When they’re dried out, they make excellent decoration. I can string them along the tree, up there.” He pointed. Jenny’s heart fluttered.
“Yeah.” She handed the container to him. “I mean, I’d be worried about looking like a freak but, you’re already come this far.”
“No—no, I love it.” She moved closer to him, round eyes sparkling. She bit her lip, looking around. “Tell me about these.” She ran her fingers along a cluster of gold chain necklaces, woven into the side of the nest.
“Well, these I actually took years ago.”
He explained the history of the necklaces, a patch of rings, and a strip of watches, wristbands all linked together like a garland. They talked, and he became more effervescent as he rambled on. Eventually, the ember of conversation burnt down to a soft glow, and Jenny ended up in the Bird Man’s wing as they stared at the stars through the needles of the branches.
“I’ve never had a boyfriend before,” Jenny blurted out, a baffling non sequitur that made her cringe at herself.
“No kidding? But you're beautiful.” She reached for his hand. “I’ve never had a girlfriend before, either.”
“That, I can believe.” He chuckled. He turned to face her, close enough to feel her peppermint breath. She scanned his dark eyes deep in their sockets, stringy hair, chapped lips. Intoxicating in a way she didn’t know she had been looking for. A beat of nervous breathing, then he leaned down to kiss her.
It wasn’t practiced; a bit strange at first, maybe even harsh. But as the moment passed, it became warmer, smoother, and the flow of their lips caught one another, finding the softness they sought. 1am came and went, 2am, 3am. The birds began to rustle in the trees at 4am, and the whir of the cicadas faded. At nearly five, the Bird Man broke from her, lightly brushing her hair from her face.
“You have to go.”
“I know.” She pressed her face to his. “I don’t want to.”
“I know. I don’t want you to either.”
“Bird Man, what is your name?” He swallowed, hesitating. “You don’t have to tell me.”
“Jacob.” Jenny smiled brightly.
“Jacob. How biblical.” She used all of her strength to rise, and swing her legs over the nest. “I’ll come back.”
“Jenny, wait.” He sat up on his elbows. “I can walk you home, if you want.”
“I wish, but I’m dead meat if I’m caught with you.”
“I don’t get a lot of news where I hang out, but I’ve been hearing about people going missing,” he said, eyes narrowing slightly. She leaned over into the nest.
“I’ve grown up here my entire life. I’m safe, I promise.” He sighed with resignation.
Jenny sat at the dining room table with Rachel, who donned a pristine maroon uniform, and carefully cut her waffles up into analogous squares. Jenny stared at her toast, eyes drooping uncontrollably, as she leaned on her elbow, hand against her chin. She momentarily fell asleep and jolted back awake, bumping the table, causing everyone’s orange juice to splash from their glasses.
“My lord, Jenny, you really need to get some sleep,” Iris rubbed her hand across Jenny’s back, only serving to make her more tired. “You’ve been studying like crazy. Don’t be afraid to take a day off of school to recharge.”
“I’m fine, Mom.”
“My friend’s sister’s cousin knew a kid,” Rachel chimed in, chewing on waffle, “who studied so hard that he didn’t sleep for four days. And then, he died. From not sleeping.”
“Rachel, really,” Charlene shook her head, gathering dishes from the table.
“I’m not kidding, Mom. He just straight up died. But he also got accepted to Harvard, so.” She shrugged.
“Oh! Jenny, I didn’t tell you,” Iris pointed a spoon at her. “We’re moving back into our place tonight. The police haven’t caught anything on their watch, and after the last incident, they suspect that that idiot isn’t coming back.” Jenny nodded, relieved that she’ll be closer to Jacob’s nest. “I’m grabbing Jack and Madeline after I drop you off at school. You can come home after you’re done tonight.”
After classes, Jenny came home. She peaked out her bedroom window at the expanse of trees in soft mist below, and bounced happily. Two more days of studying for exams, and she’d be able to see him again. She became struck with the idea of bringing him something—a gift. A bauble, a piece of jewelry. He hadn’t been able to steal in so long, what with spending his nights waiting for her to return. It wasn’t fair. She went to her expansive bathroom, shifting candles and toiletries around the marble countertop, thinking.
She pulled open a drawer, rustling through the haphazardly disorganized contents. Extra soap, tampons, razor blades, cotton swabs, bobby pins—and found the small jewelry box she was looking for. Inside was a brooch; a sapphire encrusted bluebird, passed down from her late great-aunt. She smiled, stuffed it under her pillow, and opened her English textbook, too distracted to read through a thing.
“I didn’t think you were coming tonight,” Jacob called as Jenny climbed up his tree. “It’s three in the morning.”
“Yeah, I know. I had to take care of something. I’m sorry I look so gross. But I couldn’t wait, I had to see you.” Jenny hopped into the nest, wiping the sweat from her face, hastily presenting the jewelry box.
“What is this?”
“Open it.” Jacob looked at her with devious suspicion, throwing his arms back before dragging his feathers forward as he kneeled in front of her. He opened the box. His eyes widened.
“Oh my god Jenny, this is beautiful. Where did you get this?”
“It’s passed down through my family. It’s pretty, but…I have no use for it. It’s sat in my drawer gathering dust my whole life.” He took it out of the box, holding it up to the moonlight. Dim light danced over the jewels, a soft sparkle hitting each sapphire as he turned it. He squinted at it.
“Yeah, it’s a bluebird. I figured you’d like something new for your collection, because you haven’t been able to go out and steal for so long. Whenever I don’t add to my collection for a while, I get anxious, so I wanted you to have it.” He moved closer.
“Now this,” he opened his left wing, carefully pinning it to a pair of feathers, “is definitely something I will carry with me.” Her smile couldn’t hide her elation as he wrapped his arms around her. “Look.” He nodded upward, and Jenny looked up to see the chicken bones, dried out and strung around the trunk of the tree, entwined with thin ropes of gold and punctuated with oversized jewels. Just when she thought she couldn’t be any more dazzled, her heart was flung further into grace. She scanned each bone as they hung with a charming inconsistency around the circumference of the tree.
“It’s perfect,” she whispered. They stayed together until the sun broached the edge of the estate, and Jenny made her way back home.
Jenny slept through the next day, her mother calling her in sick to the academy, and bringing her a bowl of soup and some juice every few hours. Jenny didn’t have a fever, but she was exhausted. Her muscles strained and her eyes were dry, the lack of sleep plus physical exertion pressing on her until she popped. Mary-Anne, concerned, but also looking for a reason to come over, dropped by after school, toting a squished up peanut butter and jelly sandwich in cling-wrap as a gift of comfort.
“I brought you this…sandwich.” Mary-Anne thrust it into Jenny’s face, who sat pale and sluggish in bed. “I thought I should bring something, but I didn’t feel like cooking anything.” She searched Jenny’s face, genuine concern beginning to bubble. “Jesus, Jen, you look like shit.”
“Thanks.” Jenny delicately unwrapped the sandwich and began picking at the parts that hadn’t been soaked through with jelly.
“Has your man been taking care of you?”
“No, he’s been busy.”
“Too busy to lovingly take your temperature and tell you you’re beautiful even when you look this gross? Some knight in shining armor.”
“No, I don’t blame him. He means well, he’d come if he could.”
“Are we ever gonna meet this guy? I’m beginning to think he doesn’t exist.” Jenny tapped her foot anxiously in bed. “What keeps him so busy?”
“Work, mostly. He works a ways out of town. At an aviary.” Mary-Anne sucked her teeth.
“And his name?”
“Jacob what?” Jenny stirred. She hadn’t even thought to ask. Apparently, she had paused too long.
“You don’t even know his last name, do you?”
“I don’t know, it doesn’t really matter.”
“Does he even live here? Does he live with his parents? What school does he go to, how old is he—“
“Yes he lives here, no, he doesn’t live with his parents, he doesn’t go to school, he’s nineteen, is that suitable enough for you?” Jenny became increasingly more frustrated. Mary-Anne quieted.
“Sorry, I just get kind of worried, you know. He’s an adult, I’d be worried to trust him.”
“I’m almost eighteen years old, I think I can handle an adult.”
“I just get nervous, Jenny. You know that people are…”
“Going missing. I know. He’s not going to kidnap me, or spirit me away. He’s a good guy.”
“Yeah? What’s he like?” Jenny leaned back in her bed.
“Tall, dark. Black hair. Pale. Tragic history. Heart of gold.”
“Leave it to you to get hooked by a goth.” Mary-Anne sat beside her in bed, turning on the TV. “I’m guessing he hasn’t met your parents yet.”
“No. And I don’t plan on it.”
“Your mom is pretty dope, I don’t think she’ll mind that he doesn’t come from money. Your dad, on the other hand…”
“They’re going to stay in the dark, as far as I’m concerned.” Jenny leaned her head on Mary-Anne’s shoulder as The Price Is Right played softly.
“Do I get to meet him?” Jenny sighed.
“I don’t know. Maybe at some point.”
“Alright.” Mary-Anne took a bite of the sandwich she had brought, and they both dozed off as the TV hummed.
Spring began to turn to Summer. The leafy trees reached peak kelly green, the evergreens’ needles became brittle. There were fewer joggers on the scorching streets, more tube tops and tanned skin, and a constant stream of Jenny’s classmates and neighbors hitting the beach, taking cruises, heading to Paris, Berlin, Tokyo. Leaving for Australia to ski in the outback’s Winter.
Jenny’s father called in to video chat once a week, Iris growing increasingly forlorn as his work visa extended his stay in Taiwan, to close a deal and begin construction on a new high rise. Jenny was sad, to an extent, but to a greater one, relieved. Her father was sweet, but assertive, and protective. He would ask questions.
Jenny brought Jacob a cooler that she’d fill every few days with bags of ice, carrying soda and uncooked hot dogs and crackers in her backpack out to the trees. She brought leftover ribs, pork chops, steaks, for bones to be dried and hung among the gold and silver. The walk out to the nest in the middle of the night hauling the mansion’s largely overlooked snack loot was a strain on her shoulders, but to her, it was worth it.
No matter how much she gave him, being greeted by his tired smile was everything in the world. Better than an A+ on exams, better than nights out on the shore with a case of beer and her friends. He had given her a reason to get up in the morning, and she wanted to give him everything. Iris had shifted all things valuable that were left under lock and key to small safes set into the walls and scattered throughout the master bedrooms and closets, so Jenny defaulted to sifting through her own jewelry, choosing the prettiest pieces to deliver to the woods. He adored them all.
She spent late nights in his feathered arms as he read her classic novels he lifted from the library, detailed embarrassing things he had found in the homes of the aristocrats he stole from, and stroked her hair as she dozed, softly waking her up as the sun rose. He gifted her a small feather from his wing, which she tied around her neck with a stolen silver chain. Talyn and Mary-Anne shook their heads, baffled at this esoteric man tying feathers to their best friend, but took comfort in Jenny’s happiness. She would regale them with vague stories about his personality, his kindness, and interests. She had become inspired, creative, industrious. She worked harder on her collection than she ever had. She was in love. When junior year ended, she would be able to spend full days out in the woods while her parents were at work, finally seeing Jacob in the daylight. Maybe they could have picnics. Maybe he could actually get some sun.
Nearing the last days of the school year, a murmur fell upon the academy. Jenny stared straight ahead as she slumped in her desk before American Politics class, 8:30am wearing on her as hard as it ever would. Slowly, she noticed that the bustling students in the classroom weren’t as discordant as they usually were. She turned around. The kids were whispering. She poked Augustus.
“Hey, you usually seem to have the scoop. What’s going on?”
“Do you remember our sophomore math teacher, Mrs. Denner?”
“She’s gone. Like, straight up gone, they can’t find her.” A chill came over Jenny’s shoulders, defying the Summer heat.
“When did they find out she was missing?”
“Wednesday, she just didn’t come to school. Or Thursday, or Friday. Her husband’s tripping balls about it, obviously, her kids are freaking out. This is the fourth day of emergency substitutes.”
“She got got!” Called Marcus from the back of the room, audacious, but with a twinge of nervousness. “Just like all the others.”
“She was probably just sick of teaching math to idiot kids,” Augustus reasoned, not believing his own words. “You know, she lived in your neighborhood, Jenny.” Jenny tried to swallow, coming up dry.
“Yeah, I know.” Their AP teacher entered the room, disheveled, smoothing his beard and adjusting his tie. He looked anxious, but never mentioned Mrs. Denner’s disappearance, and continued on with class as normal.
“Little help here!” Jenny called from below the hemlock, thrusting up a picnic basket full of leftover turkey legs, green beans, and yams.
“Christ, Jen, can’t you put all that in your backpack?”
“Backpack’s full of root beer, love!” He shook his head, climbing down to grab the basket. “What am I going to do with you?”
“I don’t know, hang out with me until we grow old and die?”
“I can swing that.” He kissed her, and helped her into the nest. She opened the basket and squinted at it in the darkness.
“Let’s see, there’s silverware…here, napkins…fuck, I forgot a bottle opener for the root beer.”
“I’m sure I have something embedded in this thing somewhere, don’t worry about it.” They unpacked and ate, foreheads perspiring in the June heat. Jacob’s feathers took a dark, color-shifting sheen in the moonlight. Jenny basked in it. A dog barked far off in the distance. They managed to wrestle the soda open with a pair of old cuff links, and clinked bottles.
“So my dad suggested I enroll in Summer classes.”
“Summer classes? Aren’t you smart enough already?”
“Yes, I damn well am smart enough.” Jenny took a swig of root beer. “He thinks it’ll dazzle the Princeton admissions officers, and he’s not wrong, but…” She shook her head. “I don’t know. I just feel like, that’s not really necessary, you know?”
“You’re right, extra effort isn’t worth it to get into ivy league. They’ll let anyone in.” She shoved him in the arm, rustling his feathers.
“You know what I mean. Maybe I’m being too reliant on my family name.”
“If you can get away with it, why wouldn’t you?” She nodded.
“Truer words were never spoken.” A cluster of small birds fluttered from their tree above them to one nearby. Jenny sighed dramatically, playing with her ring. “And, if I went to Summer school, I’d still be on the same schedule. Which would mean…it would still be near impossible to divert my parents on the weekends, I would have to study after school, and I could still only see you in the dead of night. I wouldn’t be able to come here during the day. But if I didn’t have class, say, on a Wednesday, my parents would leave for work, I could come spend time with you—“
Jenny abruptly noticed that Jacob’s downturned eyes had become even darker than usual. He rubbed his nose, pushed his hair back. He was nervous.
“Is everything alright?” Jacob cleared his throat.
“Yeah, yeah. It’s fine.” Something waited on the tip of his tongue, and she could feel it.
“What is it?” She asked a bit more gravely.
“Jenny—“ he pushed the basket out of the way, and moved closer to her. “—I want to talk to you.”
“I haven’t been entirely honest with you.” A stone splashed into Jenny’s gut. She blinked.
“I’m not who you think I am.”
“Okay,” she said once more, shakily.
“I told you I’m nineteen. That I’m from the South. That I left home, that I’ve been stealing, and that I’ve been crashing in flophouses and abandoned seasonal homes for the last five or six years. All of that is true.” She breathed a sigh of relief. He paused, unable to form his next sentence.
“Are you leaving me?”
“No! God no, Jenny, I love you to death.” Jenny exhaled a grateful and perplexed laugh.
“Alright. That’s good.”
“But…I didn’t leave home because it was a tumultuous environment.” Jacob picked at his thumbnail. “I left because I got bored. I came from money, too. Big money. Like you.” Jenny nodded uncomfortably, attempting to erase the things she had been told in her memory, and replace them with the new ones. “My mother never died. She’s alive. Back home with my father.”
“And your brother?”
“Went off to college when I was a kid. Came back for holidays, called, sent cards. He’s a good guy.”
“You just got up and left?”
“Yes. I left in the middle of the night, spontaneously, viciously unprepared. I hated the money, I hated the blue-blooded attitude, the pillars, the stained glass, the maids, the yachts, the soirees, all of it. I hated them. I was young, I couldn’t compare myself to them. I didn’t know what I was, but I wasn’t that. They were as mediocre as people could be—straight laced, not an independent thought among them. Boring. I couldn’t bring myself to care, about any of them. I didn’t care if they lived or died. Their existence to me was irrelevant.” He breathed deeply, searching for composure. “Anyway. I was a young teenager when I left, and if I had used any of their credit cards, they would have easily been able to find me. So, that was my first robbery. I walked straight into the closet, grabbed what of my mother’s virtually abandoned jewelry I could stuff into my bag, and I started walking.”
“Did they search for you?”
“Yeah, they did. My bag and shoes were missing, so they pegged me as a runaway. Nobody cares much to stop a kid walking along the side of the road minding his own business, so even with the flyers, the news reports, milk cartons, probably, I don’t know—after a while, they just stopped. I probably walked from Charleston all the way to Myrtle Beach before I felt comfortable enough to hitchhike. Still…I can’t help but think that they didn’t put as much effort into finding me as they could have.”
“It’s crazy how fast people can give up on finding their loved ones,” Jenny said, slowly nodding.
“The bird thing…happened gradually. As I headed up north, I picked a spot to camp in the trees, way out past a gated community. I fed the ravens with what little food bank bread I had leftover. In turn, over time, they brought me things. Nuts, bolts, bits of ribbon, coins; small, shiny objects. I collected them. I was such a fixture there that year, they would even dive bomb dogs that came too close to our trees. It was wild.”
“And you collected their feathers.”
“Yes. They were strong, clever, practical. My role models. I took them as my identity and picked up spitefully robbing the rich, which is too easy. Sort of like Robin Hood. Except I’m the only one who benefits. And even now…I still can’t part with these feathers. So, yes, I am certifiably crazier than you are.” Jenny shifted her weight. The maple leaves rustled beneath her. She gazed past Jacob into the trees. His eyes searched hers warily, waiting for a response.
“Yes. The loathing of luxury, of undeserved leisure, opulence, comfort. Birch Hollow is infested. Beige, simple, boring. Nothing. I don’t want to go to Princeton. But I have to. Because my father’s money avalanched down from everyone who went before me. But…sometimes we have to follow our hearts.” She brought her hand to his face, brushing his stringy hair out of his eyes. “Even if it means taking from other people. They hardly notice the difference, anyway. The world keeps on turning.” He exhaled, grinning, bewildered. “But…one thing I don’t understand, you hate us all so much—and I would, too—but here you are, with me.”
“I hate them, Jenny, not you.” He pressed his face to hers. “You’re different.”
“I’m a freak.” Jacob laughed.
“Yes. Just like me.”
The stone in Jenny’s gut dissolved, warming her stomach, and then, her whole body. How could I have gotten so lucky, she thought to herself, as Jacob moved beside her and spread a wing across her back. They lay against the side of the nest, the sounds of the night once again in the foreground. The tension was slowly released, the contentment restored, the feeling of Jacob’s dry, fair hand against hers. He swept his fingers across her hand, stopping at her ring.
“You know, I never did ask you.”
“Yeah.” Jenny fiddled with the orb of obsidian set in an ornate silver band. The detail had softened slightly with age, but its structure and elegance had endured. “It was my grandmother’s wedding ring. My parents had already married before she died, so it got handed down to me. I guess the idea is that when it’s time for me to get married, I’m supposed to slip this under the table to my fiancé to be, who is meant to propose with it, or something.”
“It’s gorgeous. Truly. All of the mansions I’ve ransacked, I hardly ever see black stones like this. And certainly none this tasteful.” Jenny beamed. It took mounting restraint to prevent herself from offering it to him. She took a deep breath.
“I’ve decided…I want to show you my collection.” Jacob leaned up on his elbow.
“Yeah. But not yet!” He laughed.
“I want to make sure it’s presentable, okay? I’ve actually never shown anyone before.”
“I’m incredibly honored.”
“It’s not much, but I’ve spent a long time on it. It keeps me busy, you know?”
“I know exactly what you mean.” She ran her fingers through his feathers.
“I love you, Bird Man.”
“I love you too, Bluebird.”
The weather reports warned of Summer storms moving up though the Atlantic to the east coast. Jenny’s father Sam returned from Taiwan slim, stern, and determined. Upon his arrival, he questioned his daughter briefly about her friends and her social life, before eagerly switching gears to her studies, offering a long-winded lecture about classes that she’d heard so many times she could repeat it beat for beat. Jenny agreed to take a community college Italian course to appease him. She went to the nest as often as she could, and the increasingly difficult task of maneuvering around her parents, their assistants, and the frequent housekeepers to traipse out across the exposed back property to the woods during the warmer days left her anxious and exhausted.
Each weather report on the news was reciprocated by another update that a local resident had gone missing. Sam requested Jack sweep the property in his golf cart after dark; once at dusk, and again late at night, pushing Jenny’s curfew back to 9pm. Despite which, it remained shockingly easy to dart out in the middle of the night.
Talyn and Mary-Anne were off in Milan with Talyn’s family, giving her room to alternate pacing uncomfortably and focusing on her work. She received a first-class post card with a photo of the Milan Cathedral on one side, and a note scrawled on the other. Beside the cathedral, scratched with ballpoint pen, were a crudely drawn stick figures of themselves, Jenny, and a blob with question marks in the center. The clearly coffee-splattered opposite side read:
It’s humid as fuck here and the historical landmarks are boring. Come with us next time and bring your obviously made-up boyfriend.
“Obviously made-up” had been sloppily scratched out. Beneath it, in neater handwriting:
Wish you were here! Love and kisses and sappy shit. - Us.
She flung the postcard across her bed. Their love is so effortless, she groaned. If only it were that simple for all of us.
Jenny brought Jacob a tarp she hauled out of the basement, helping him string it up over the bones and hanging jewels, connecting it to a nearby tree to give the nest some cover from the rain, should the storm come through. Her fingers twitched as she threaded braids of twine through the eyelets, hoisting the tarp onto the branches.
“Jenny.” Jacob took the twine from her hand, wrapping it around the branch himself. “Are you okay? What is up with you recently?” She stuttered a breath, rubbing her eyes.
“I don’t know, Jacob, I’m stressed out. This Summer class is fucking with me. Evading my parents is a nightmare. And my friends don’t believe you exist, because all I do is nebulously gush with no concrete evidence that I’m not an insane person.”
“You’re not an insane person. And it’s okay. I can spend my days taking care of my own affairs at the Winter house. I’ll probably have to spend more time there after the storm rolls in, anyway. For now, I can see you at night, and you’ll get into school next year.”
“I would have to move.”
“Ah, the elephant in the room.”
“What if I didn’t go?”
“Jenny, I’m not going to uproot your future.” Jacob chewed on his thumb nail as he watched her, concerned. “What, you want me to take you around the country as a traveling jewel thief? You want your own feathers?”
“No. I don’t know. I’m sorry.” He sighed, stretching his arms and encasing her in his wings, kissing her forehead. She rested her head on his chest.
“It’s fine. We’ll take it day by day.” She sighed, relaxing in his arms, feathers tickling the back of her neck. “You’re the sweetest thing that’s ever happened to me. You give me everything, and when that’s dried up, you give me even more. I hope you know that no matter what happens, I won’t let you go.” The tarp above crinkled lightly in the breeze, and the soft chimes of hanging trinkets clinked together underneath.
“It’s almost ready.”
“Your art collection?”
“Yes. And when it is, I’ll come get you.”
As promised, the rain began to pelt against the bay windows of the mansion, rolling off the awnings and down the gutters. Jenny paced her room, her bathroom, her walk-in closet, chewing her lip and hoping Jacob wasn’t soaked through. Her parents had friends over late that Saturday evening; they sat in the first floor dining room facing the trees as they drank wine and discussed stocks and television and flushed, tipsy politics. Their non-problems were stoked into authentic problems by the banality of posh lifestyles and cool, air conditioned homes. Jenny spun the ring on her finger and sat in front of her bedroom window, breath fogging the glass, as she stared past her own blurry reflection into the woods. Jacob deserves his own air conditioned home, his own mansion, she thought, as the condensation dripped down the glass onto her windowsill. There lay jewelry boxes on trinket boxes on heirloom boxes, dug out over the last few months, all piled up and empty.
The next morning, Jenny waited impatiently for Madeline to finish the laundry, before jetting into the mud room to gather the last of the supplies needed to produce the aesthetic she wished for her collection. Arms full of wire, tools, twine, and screws, she used her elbows to open the remaining unchecked cabinets to scan for means of last minute application. Jenny’s eyes darted eagerly back and forth, and her mother leaned her head in from beyond the door frame.
“Yes?” Jenny gently placed her armful of wares on top of the washing machine, standing on tiptoes to peer into the top shelf of the cabinet.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for some tools for a project.”
“A project, for what? Italian?”
“Yeah, they want us to make a diorama. Of, you know. Renaissance stuff.”
“Cheeky for a college course.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. Kids these days.” She rummaged around with her fingertips before abandoning the shelf and moving on to another cabinet. “Do we have nails?”
“I think Jack keeps a bunch in the garage.”
“Jenny,” her mother came to put her hands on her daughter’s shoulders. “Slow down. I feel like I haven’t spoken to you in ages.”
“Sorry, Mom. The bulk of school is over, but I’m still busy.” Her mother sighed, smiling weakly.
“Endlessly determined. That’s my girl.”
“Always.” Jenny gathered everything back into her arms.
“Honey, couple quick questions before you disappear into academia again.”
“Charlene wants to invite us over on Thursday night. It’s for Sarah’s birthday.”
“Sarah? Blonde Sarah? With the jockey thing?”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“No thanks. Horse people freak me out.”
“That’s fair. We’ll go without you then. Second question—the O’Hallerons drove over last night as everyone was leaving and asked if we’d seen their dog recently. It wanders over from time to time. I know you’re not much of an outdoors person, but I figured I’d ask if you’d seen the little guy around.”
“Alright. Well, I’ll leave you to your…whatever that is that you’re doing.”
“Thanks, Mom.” Jenny dipped out toward the garage.
“Oh! And Jenny?”
“Have you seen my tennis bracelet? The white gold one?”
“No, sorry. You know I’m not a jewelry person.”
“Hmm. I probably took it off to type, maybe it got knocked off somewhere. I’ll ask Madeline.”
“Sorry I don’t have any answers for you.”
“Life’s more mysterious without all the answers. Anyway—nails should be in the annexed garage, in one of those steel bins against the wall.”
“Thank you, love you, bye!” Jenny tottered off to the garage, length of twine trailing behind her as she went.
Three days later, it was almost complete. That’s it, she ruminated, looking around at the nearly finished product. She dusted her hands off on her jeans, and set off for the woods.
Rain still splattered against the lawn, fat drops splashing past the tree branches and onto the hood of Jenny’s raincoat. The wind, though lukewarm, blustered the water at erratic angles. She pushed through the storm, sneakers squishing through the grass to a layer of rising mud. She reached the tree. The sound of the rain pattered against the makeshift tent of the strung tarp. Grasping at the branches to pull herself up, the bark crumbled in her hands, and she slipped sharply back to the earth after a few attempts.
“Hey!” She called. “Can you help me up?” There was no answer. The rain beat against the makeshift roof of the nest. “Jacob?” Jenny called, a bit more weakly, as she squinted up into the tree.
“My bag and shoes were missing, so they pegged me as a runaway.”
Jenny feverishly shook the thought from her mind, and grabbed branches as tightly and as quickly as she could, sneakers slipping multiple times on the way up, palms scratched from loose bark.
The nest lay empty, bones and trinkets swaying in the wind, water splattering against the sides of it. Jenny sat down upon a fleece blanket, alone in the nest for the first time. It felt awful. She scanned for his shoes and bag, but neither were found.
Did he up and leave?
Did he get arrested?
Did something happen to him?
“No,” Jenny said, out loud, feigning confidence for herself. “The storm is bad, and he’s staying in the abandoned vacation home like he said he would be.” Clearing her throat, she searched the twigs of the nest with thin fingers for luxury fountain pens. Plucking a pen with an ink cartridge, she ripped a blank page from one of the unmarked books in a stack beyond the blanket.
Meet me tomorrow night at 9pm in the backyard of my house, in front of the left French doors. No one will be home.
I can’t wait to see you.
She stuck the note beneath the book, and descended from the tree. This is my only chance, her mind bubbled mercilessly as she squished her way back to the house, rain unrelenting. Giddiness clashed with anxiety as she quietly padded her way back inside, and up to her bedroom.
Jenny sat in an overstuffed leather chair in the second floor living room the next night, foot tapping restlessly, as she waited for the town car to depart with her parents in it. The rain hadn’t let up, and it lashed against the windows with continuing aggression. Still, after twenty minutes of waiting, Jenny saw the headlights burst on, and the car circled through the cobblestone roundabout. She ran up and pressed her nose against the glass, watching as it slowly rolled down the driveway, and down the road to Charlene’s. She dashed up to her bedroom, to take one final look at herself.
In her immense bathroom mirror, she saw herself, for the first time, as the person she really wanted to be. In a short, powder blue dress with a Peter Pan collar and capped sleeves, with a piece of raven’s feather hanging from a delicate silver chain around her neck. With soft dirty blonde hair half-up, tied at the top with a matching ribbon, spotted with white polka dots. She saw herself as a woman, of responsibility and independence; a woman whose choices alone dictate her future. She saw, in her own round eyes, ability, capability, and potential. The strength of a woman not constrained by her roots or her environment, but of her own free will and desires. She saw a woman in love, who was certain that she would do anything for the man to whom she was devoted. She looked into her own face, and she knew that he was worthy of her affection, and he deserved every ounce of it.
Jenny grabbed a tube of lip gloss and uncapped it, gliding the rollerball across her lips. She watched, mesmerized at her own reflection, as the peach gloss slid and framed her delicate mouth. He may even ask you to marry him tonight, she thought, pursing her lips together. Butterflies buffeted her stomach, beating in time with the rain on the window.
Taking one last deep breath, she grabbed what she needed, and headed downstairs to complete the final steps before Jacob arrived.
The clock struck nine, and Jenny waited on the back porch of the mansion beyond the awning. Her pink umbrella was raised over her head with one hand, and a long, thin, forest green jewelry box lay in the other. An electric lantern sat at her feet. Knee jerking uneasily, she tucked the jewelry box into her dress pocket. Five minutes passed, then ten minutes. She stared out into the blackness beyond the topiary lights, the forms of the trees a darkening gradient as they disappeared into nothingness. The rain was beginning to come down in torrents. Too nervous to run inside for a sweater, Jenny’s arms prickled with goosebumps. With each passing second, her heart grew wearier. He hadn’t gotten the letter, she concluded, arm weakly lowering the umbrella. He hadn’t gotten the letter, or worse…he hadn’t cared enough to come. Nine fifteen, and nothing but the rain, the darkness, and her heart in her throat.
Then—a figure moving past the trees. Jenny squinted into the woods, and watched as, sure enough, the Bird Man made his way across the grounds from the darkness. The nets of lights canvasing the topiary bushes pushed a soft light across his wings, which he kept folded about himself. He was a shimmering shadow, drifting along the earth, feet shrouded in the mist that blanketed the grass. His pale face became visible, streaked with soaked pieces of jet black hair, vulnerable to the wind and rain. Relief couldn’t touch what Jenny felt—she sighed until she laughed to herself, smiling goofily as he approached her. He grinned himself as he came close enough to see her face, despite being drenched and battered with rain along the way.
“You’ll die of a cold!” Jenny struggled to lift her umbrella up above his head as he met her on the porch. He wrapped a wing around her and took the umbrella for her.
“I think I’ll make it.” Jacob dripped onto her as he leaned in for a kiss. “You look quite stunning tonight, Bluebird.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere.”
“It got me here, and that’s good enough for me.” They kissed beneath the powder pink umbrella, Jacob tasting the rain and her peach lip gloss.
“How does it feel to be back?” He wiped the hair out of his eyes and glanced around.
“A bit terrifying, to be honest.”
“Well, you can relax. My folks are back at Charlene’s for a few hours, and depending on the volume and momentum of wine, perhaps the night.” She motioned back to her house. “You can come in, if you’d like…” Jacob hesitated, letting out a nervous laugh. “Yeah, that’s okay. I don’t blame you.”
“Isn’t what you’ve got to show me inside?”
“No, actually—it’s a bit of a walk, is that alright?”
“Yes, of course.”
“It’s this way.” Jenny took the lantern, switching it on, and led him across the vast backyard of the estate, around the right side of the house. “It’s nothing compared to what you’ve woven up there in the woods. I don’t think anything comes close to that.”
“You’re responsible for the best pieces.” They walked with his wing around her, shielding her from the buffeting rain. His feathers rustled violently as the wind picked up, and their walk became a jog. “Damn, where is this place?”
They made their way out past the sunroom, the greenhouse, the garages and the sheds. In an abandoned stretch of the land lay a cellar entrance in the grass. Old fashioned and installed at an angle, the wood paneling had seen better days, the boards warping, with chunks shredded out. The doors met in the center, and were held in place by two rusting industrial padlocks.
“This must be some fine art you’ve got down here, girl.” Jenny giggled, dropping the lantern and producing two keys from her dress pocket. One a standard looking door key, the other a bit key with a circle at the end of its long handle. Jacob held the umbrella over her and she wrestled the locks open. He gazed around the property, seeing nothing but grass, foliage, and lights on in the windows of a few faraway houses. Gathering the padlocks in her arm, Jenny swung the right door open.
“Okay, let’s go.” She motioned for Jacob to go first. He closed the umbrella, and hurried down. Jenny grabbed the lantern, stepped in, and pulled the door shut.
The cellar entrance was finely constructed; brick walls formed an arched walkway into the darkness, spiderwebs and cobwebs intertwined down the length of the dimly lit ceiling. The dirt lining the floor of the hallway was packed down and flattened, for the most part, save for lumps and shallow divots every few feet. Jacob shook the water from his wings. The rain pounded against the boards of the cellar, and Jenny tossed the padlocks to the side of the stairs. She took the lantern and turned the brightness up, white light splashing down across the bricks, giving their faces a ghostly glow. She glanced at Jacob, shadows in the hollows of his cheeks and the sockets of his deep eyes. Everything felt right.
They padded down the hallway, the sounds of the rain dissipating as they went. The corridor was exceptionally lengthy, and Jacob’s raised eyebrow got the best of him.
“How long does this thing go?”
“Pretty long. This place is old as hell. My great grandfather used to use it as a wine cellar, but my parents never really had a taste for the stuff. They threw most of it to a charity auction, the rest resides in much more substantial wine racks in the basement of our place. You’ll see in a minute.” At the end of the corridor, they came to a round red door with an ornate gold knob stuck in the wood.
“This your big secret?”
“No, not yet.” Jenny turned the knob with some effort, and pushed the door inward. The fluorescence of the lantern shone against rows upon rows of wine cellar racks, hollows for each bottle arranged into opulent patterns of zigzags and stars. Their shoes tapped against the muted red bricks as they made their way through. Hundreds of empty wine compartments lay bare and strewn with cobwebs, save for a few bottles, which had gathered an obscene amount of dust.
“You know,” said Jacob, “I was about to say ‘I can’t believe something so huge and ostentatious has been abandoned like this’, but, I really can.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s for the best, though. Twenty-five rooms in that house, and with my parents, their assistants, and the housekeepers always flitting around like bees, it’s still hard to be alone. This way.” Jacob watched the light glint off of a long-disconnected chandelier as he followed her to the back of the room. A patched-up square door made of plywood, no taller than Jacob’s shoulders, sat propped against the far wall. “I’m sorry this is such an affair.” She went to move it.
“Jenny.” Jacob placed a hand on her shoulder. She stopped. “No one knows you come down here, do they?”
“No.” She turned. The metal handle of the lantern squeaked slightly. It illuminated his features, grave and pale.
“No…I paid Jack a long time ago to stay away from the cellar. He thinks I get high down here.” The wooden walls and ceiling dampened all noise, the small sound of Jenny’s shoe shifting against the brick scraping noticeably. “Why?” Jacob’s feathers rustled as he moved his hand to the back of her neck. Her voice became quieter. “Would you like to live down here?”
“No. I’m fine where I am.” Her sharp eyes stared into his. Every breath felt cacophonous, every dust mote seemed to make a sound as it landed. “I’m just glad you have a place to get away from everyone.” Jenny laughed softly.
“Well, if I didn’t, I would have lost it by now.” She ran her left hand up his arm, slowly wandering over the quills of the feathers, the woven twine that held them together. He lowered his wing, trailing his hand down her back. Jenny turned, and shoved the plywood covering out of the way, revealing a low crawlspace. She beckoned for him to follow.
Crouching down, they shuffled through a second cobwebbed corridor, narrow and musty, dust so thick they could taste it. His feathers brushed against the dirt walls as he made his best attempt to keep his arms around himself. After about a hundred feet, they reached another makeshift plywood door. “Okay,” she looked back, smile bathed in white light. “I’m turning this thing off. Just go where I tell you to.” At that, Jenny switched off the lantern, leaving them both in absolute darkness. The sound of Jenny scraping the door against a cement floor could be heard. She reached behind herself until she felt his hand blindly reaching for hers, and she pulled him forward. Jacob slowly moved his arms around himself, and was met with empty space at all sides. He stood up straight, and was pulled a significant distance into the room, footsteps echoing slightly. A syrupy sweet, astringent scent filled his nostrils.
“Honestly, I’m at a loss here, Bluebird. I have no idea what is going on.”
“Don’t worry!” He heard her amble across the room. “Ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.” She threw a switch.
The soft electric ting of strings of dim, bulbed lights in various sizes went off one by one, their golden glow shining upon the room, which took after a vast garage.
Jacob inhaling and exhaling through his nose was the only noise to be heard.
A mass of human figures in varying stages of decay hung from thick steel hooks, bolted to the ceiling. Arranged in a staggered pattern, they alternated missing extremities and skulls. A legless form, an armless form, a headless one, and so on. A man with no hands, a woman with no feet. A child with no jaw, tongue hanging limply against his neck. Each throat had been slit ear to ear.
Those in the forefront retained their full flesh, skin yellowing and drooping about the nose and mouth, lips becoming lavender and fingernails tinged blue. Their hair hung in their faces, stringy with browned blood and sweat. Half-lidded eyes stared at the floor as their forms slumped forward, hooks embedded deeply into their backs, sharp ends protruding from their chests and shoulders. Three women and two men hung toward the front, recently departed, as though you may even feel their breath if you held your hand up to the ones who still had faces.
Behind them, a second set. The mottled flesh here was not as supple as those before them; veiny hands, throats and cheeks swelled with fluid, putrefying liquid leaking from the eyes and orifices. In many places of exposed flesh of the three men and two children, the skin had ruptured. Maggots’ eggs clustered in the corners of the mouths, portions of the faces, arms and legs, where they applied, missing bits of mass. Their flies darted silently up toward the lights, dancing nimbly around one another. The hair on the men and children who retained it was missing in patches, some still stuck to their wet, splitting cheeks. Jenny’s schoolteacher swung softly among them.
In the back, against the wall, hung a generous arrangement of skeletons. A torso with legs, a figure lacking arms, another with no hands, another with no skull, continuing on through the crowd of them. They dangled crudely held together with bundles of wire, screws and pins holding the legs to pelvises, vertebrae to ribs. Completely cleaned of tissue, the bones’ grey, rigid segments rubbed against one another as they swung, ever so slightly, behind the decay. Of those with heads, every tooth had been removed.
Among the strings of golden bulbs, twine hung below the ceiling, draped this way and that from wall to wall. Intestines, tendons, and ligaments lay stretched along it, woven into place with lengths of pink ribbon. Fishing line pierced the organs every few inches, canines and incisors and molars dangling from the display.
In the center, before the crowd of corpses, in the centerpiece, strung up with wire hooked to the ceiling, floor, and walls, was a human recreation of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man; a naked male figure composed of parts from different cadavers. Two arms raised above his shoulders, two arms raised straight at his sides. Two legs below him, two more raised above those. Skin sewn to bloated flesh, bloated flesh stapled to bone. The man’s body hung cobbled together in random fashion, a skeleton tibia to a decaying femur, a molding rib cage to a fleshy clavicle. He was as though a mantle of different vases had fallen and shattered, and the pieces had been glued together to form an independent vessel. Fingernails lay scalloped down his extremities like crooked fish scales. Across the back of his shoulders from fingertips to fingertips, lay a cape made of a series of faces stitched together like patchwork, holes in the gaping mouths and eye sockets revealing the mob of bodies behind them. The sagging faces were awkwardly formed behind his body, in tiers, to mimic the appearance of wings. The long-haired head sat uncomfortably upon the lopsided neck. Pieces of faces of varying color and integrity had been stapled together around a crooked mouth, drooping nose, and grey, lopsided eyes, that were held open wide by bits of fishing line fastened around the head.
Before him, elevated upon an intricate framework of grey bones arranged into a platform six feet high, a slowly decomposing child of about twelve years old sat propped up on a decadent makeshift throne of ribs, feet, and hands. Toe and finger bones were fastened together to create a halo-like configuration atop the chair behind the boy. His eyes were removed from his skull, and sat in his pallid upturned palms on his lap. He was wrapped in a coat of matted auburn fur. The headdress of the O’Hallerons’ hound dog with pointed ears, lower jaw absent, lay fitted upon his head.
The flies buzzed more strongly, clinking against the hanging teeth. A few of the bulbs flickered gently, pressed against the tissue of the entrails.
“I’m sorry about the smell,” Jenny admitted. “I swear I ran fans all day and night.” She looked at him, steeped in soft golden light. “Well…what do you think?” Jacob’s lungs were threatened by the vigor of his breath. He dug his fingernails into his palms. “Speechless? I thought you might be.” Jenny crossed her arms and proudly turned to her installation of gore, biting her lip.
“Jenny,” Jacob eked faintly.
“Yeah?” Jacob’s eyes flitted from one body to the next, one lump of fleshy remains to another.
“What have you done?”
“What do you mean?” She made her way to him.
“You can’t do this.”
“What are you talking about!” She laughed. “Of course we can!”
“No, not we.” Jacob took a step back, shutting his eyes, and opening them to be faced with the same scene.
“Jacob, wh—don’t act like these people didn’t deserve this. They were all trite, monotonous monsters. I knew them all, one way or the other, and they were useless, lifeless to begin with. You said yourself, you don’t care whether they live or die.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he mouthed. She ran her eyes over his concerned face, his tight lips, his trembling fingers. She was nervous now, smoothing down the sides of her dress.
“You don’t like it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You can’t kill people!” He shouted. She flinched, then shook her head, baffled. She raked her fingernails through her hair.
“No, no no, no. But you said you were a freak, just like me,” her eyes began to well up, peach lip quivering. “What about the bones in the tree?”
“Food, Jenny! Animals, not human beings!” He scanned the scene in horror, the dislodged eyes in the child’s palms stared back at him. She produced the green jewelry box from her pocket.
“You didn’t even let me give you your gift.” With two shaking hands, she slowly handed it to him. Tears stained her rosy cheeks.
“Please,” Jacob clasped his hands around hers on the box. “You did this to everyone here? Alone? Slit their throats, bled them out? Did they deserve to die? What about your friends? What about your parents, you talk about them all the time! They’re good people!”
“They're the same as all the others, don't lie to me! Your parents loved you too, and you abandoned them!” He searched her eyes; the same innocent, pink-pencil girl he loved, in a room full of bones.
“Jenny, don’t do this. You can’t—“ He ran the fingers of his left hand across her right one. A gap lay between the third and forth digits. He looked down to see Jenny’s four of Jenny’s perfectly polished fingers. Where the ring finger had been, there was only a stump; a flap of skin stitched down against the palm, and sealed with wood glue. The jewelry box rattled in her shaking hands. She cried in soft, stuttering gasps.
“But you said that you loved me.” He recoiled, staggering backwards. She advanced, wiping her face and smearing her makeup. “You read to me! You kissed me, you said you would never let me go!” Jacob’s heel caught a piece of rope, and he fell backwards hard onto a tarp, smashing a cluster of jars of formaldehyde. The yellow liquid ran across the concrete, releasing a sharp, acrid odor. Jacob fumbled to stand, his slipping feet catching his wings, breaking clusters of quills on his feathers. “You said you never felt like you had a home. Like the rich deserve to be robbed.” He scrambled away from her, tripping on an axe and a coil of wire. She leapt to him as he struggled to stand, grabbing him by the shoulders. Incredulity flushed her face with fire. “You said you talked to ravens!” She shouted into his face, sobbing. “You said you were crazier than I am!”
“Yeah, well, I fuckin’ lied.”
Jacob thrust her backward and she staggered and fell. The jewelry box fell from her grip and smacked onto the concrete, tumbling onto the floor, releasing a pale white finger with a pink-polished nail, adorned with an obsidian ring.
“Jacob!” He grabbed the lantern, ran to the crawlspace and dove into it, lungs burning with ammonia and dust. He searched the lamp with shaking hands for the on switch as he ran through the tunnel. Exiting into the wine cellar, he heard her following him, scraping something heavy behind her on the ground. Finally, he found the switch, and light flooded the room. As he turned while he ran to see if she had caught up with him, he snagged his left wing on an abandoned rack of wine. As he pulled at the feathers, attempting to rip them away, she emerged from the crawlspace, dragging the axe behind her. “I’m not going to hurt you,” she sputtered, blowing a loose piece of hair out of her eyes. “I love you. And I mean it.” He frantically tore at the twine in his wings that was caught on the wood. “I just want to change your mind.” Jenny approached him, and he aggressively swung the lantern at her. She stumbled back. “Jacob, I just want to talk!” She clumsily swung the axe into the rack, and he ripped his wings from the display, bunches of feathers dropping and gathering on the ground.
Jacob ran and smashed open the round red door, sprinting down the corridor to the exit of the cellar. “Just tell me how to love you!” She called down the corridor. She lost light as she ran, lurching forward with arms outstretched, fumbling for the golden doorknob. Reaching it, she emerged to see Jacob dashing down the arched hallway, bleeding long black feathers upon the ground, white light of the lantern bouncing as he ran. “What did I do wrong!” She shrieked desperately as she followed him, feet faltering upon the divots in the ground.
He climbed the wooden stairs, reached the cellar door, and shoved upwards. It was stuck. He pushed again. And again. She reached him. “Don’t leave me,” her voice cracked in his ear, as she pulled on the patch of feathers that remained on his right wing. Mostly bare rows of twine now hung off his arms and fell around his body. His palms bled from splinters from the cellar door. “We can make a new life together, just the two of us.” Her wet, round eyes were smeared with mascara, her remaining cold, white fingers trembling upon him. “Please,” she whispered. Her pale blue dress was marred with dirt and the fresh red blood from the wound on her hand that was beginning to reopen. Jacob swallowed, and hesitated, lowering his hand from the door. She smiled weakly. “We can go wherever you want. We can go West, to the Redwoods. We can live in the trees. We can make you new wings.” He brushed a hand against her face, pushing a strand of dark blonde hair behind her ear.
“I don’t think I need wings anymore.” Jacob smashed the lantern upward against the door, cracking the bulb and bursting the door open. Rain fell in torrents against the lawn in the darkness. Jacob climbed out of the cellar, grasping at patches of grass as he loped forward into the storm, and broke into a run.
“Jacob!” She screamed, struggling to pull herself up out of the entrance with her injured hand. She panted and squinted as she watched him run, not in the direction of the nest, but into the neighboring properties. His feet smacked against the saturated grass as he pulled the twine from his arms, feathers falling in the wet darkness of the wind. His figure darted across the long yard and over a fence, before finally disappearing into a neighboring yard. Just like that, her bird man was gone. “Jacob,” she whispered, crawling onto the grass, and sitting in the rain. Water fell upon the cellar stairs and began to flood the entryway below. Jenny choked with short sobs, tears washed away as they fell.
Minutes passed, maybe hours, as Jenny sat soaked and buffeted by rain in her pale blue dress on the estate lawn by the cellar door. After some time, the red and blue flash of police lights cut through the deluge. Two police cars pulled up along the road fifty yards from where she sat. A moment passed, and light from an industrial LED flashlight splashed across the lawn. They scanned the property for a moment, before eventually landing on Jenny. Two policemen with umbrellas made their way to her, flashlight bobbing as they walked.
“Jenny? Is that you?” Officer Charles asked incredulously as he approached, accompanied by a policeman she had never seen before. “Christ Jenny, what happened to you? Did he get you?” She looked up at him with blank eyes, and he crouched down beside her, shielding her from the elements with the umbrella. “You’re covered in mud, what happened?” Jenny blinked in the rain, heart bled dry. “We got a call that the damn robber we’ve been looking for was making his way across your property. Your parents are coming back any minute.”
“Hey, Chuck,” the other officer pointed his flashlight down the cellar stairs. “There are feathers down here.”
“You got a bird problem in this cellar, Jenny?” Officer Charles asked sincerely. She shook her head. “Are you alright? Do you mind if we go check it out?” She didn’t respond. He handed her the umbrella. “We’re going to take a look down here, alright? He might be hiding in the cellar. I’ll radio for someone to come get you.” The two policemen made their way down the stairs and into the corridor, now muddied with steadily rushing rainwater. “If you see anything, holler for us, okay?” He placed a hand on her shoulder before descending into the cellar. She listened to them enter the corridor and pick up handfuls of feathers, speculating about parrots and crows.
Hours ago, for the first time, she had felt light within herself. Fireflies. Lightning. An ardor she was so sure of, she would have bet everything on it—the moon, the stars, her own skin and bone. And she did. Now, she was drowning. First on the inside, then outside, in the rain. The pain in her heart throbbed worse than the amputation on her hand. Life’s cruel lesson wasn’t that the world revolved thanks to the cogs of lifeless greed. It was that the gears between the cogs, that seem to shine with such glossy steel, would rust just as easily as turn at all. The world swarmed with lies, with liars. Alone, then, the words tumbled around in her mind. Alone, after all.
Jenny breathed in, and exhaled deeply, emptying her lungs into the night air. She closed the umbrella and turned, lowering her feet onto the cellar stairs, descending halfway. The officers muttered quietly, perplexed, at the end of the hallway, the rays of their flashlight barely reaching the exit. Jenny reached up, pulled the cellar door closed, and padlocked it shut.