Perched under a retreating twilight, the slow-wave half eyed watch of nocturnal torpor roused from roost to relieve that ever-present physiological need: metabolic replenishment. Since fluffed up post was unable to offer a sated base, hunger demanded desertion. But first the return of dawn necessitated another daily tradition. Full throated whistles trumpeted a shrill gurgle over the canopy, forcing involuntary salutes from iridescent wings. The call to action went suspiciously unanswered. Dishonorably discharged by social belonging, pensive reflection was abandoned for more immediate essentials.
Taking off into the ultraviolet morning, obsidian photoreceptors scanned the sweating sunrise on a mission for food. A novel thaw uncovered agricultural topography but the Pennsylvanian countryside was still airing out the winter—neither seasonal seeds nor foraging insects were topside for the intestinal track of this migratory nomad. Instead, a domestic updraft geysered the scent of tart berries and unshelled kernels into the jetted fowl’s olfactory organs. Following the aromatic odor to a barn red farmhouse with a shuddered white trim, the Sturnus vulgaris swooped out of the breezy blue to fall upon landed ledge.
Cocked head gave a cursory look at the cavern within, acutely spotting what smell had targeted—a half-eaten slice of toast lathered over with creamed peanuts and strained jelly. Stale crumbs egged the common fowl to come nourish itself in wanton splendor. Butter yellow beak opened with glee. After a quick waddle forward, pepper plumage sheened with emerald dash and chocolate tips triangulated in for a flyby.
Too soon it felt the room’s enclosure. The unnatural surroundings primed instinct to turn for the exit. Too late it banked an immediate right into scattered sunlight. Smacking against perpendicular glass, body became entrapped between wooden blinds. Hollow crown pecked at glass, rattling and battling the bulls-eye pane to no avail. The nascent comprehension of its aviary inferiority complex spiked into its cortex.
Ethan awoke to the racket at his window, staring in disbelief as rosy wrinkled legs knocked against physical shade. He sighed and pinged off the old coil mattress. He walked over to the pitiful creature, his looming presence causing the starling to flail in desperation. Ethan reached with his hands to pry it free but once he touched the animal went into hysterics, flapping and failing. Ethan stopped, thought, then grabbed a long-sleeved shirt on the back of his desk chair and wrapped it around his right fist. He slowly moved the mound under anisodactyl feet so that eight wrinkly toes could clench soft support. He then used his left hand to gap the snare ajar.
The passerine frantically gasped, inhaling and exhausting the situation with agitated insanity until its sable eye stared back at human iris sky. Restraining a blink out of fear of severing the connection, Ethan began breathing aloud, deeply exaggerating each lungful of air in a slow, steady rhythm. He kept his wrapped fist beneath tiny talons until they seized at the cloth. He then dragged his arm away from the window. The bird consented then hesitated, ignoring its freedom to observe with mouth agape. Ethan looked at the bird, then at the window, then back to the bird, his head gesturing the go-ahead. The bird looked at the window, then at Ethan, then back to the window before taking off, dipping out from whence it came.
Having spied into the soul of a godly Samaritan and summarily evacuated itself, the avian brain attempted to reconcile its existential crisis by pondering self-actualization. Starved introspection, however, neglected to notice the shadowing ravenous raptor closing in from above. Corporeal weakness, no matter its discipline, had no place on the interrupting winds of spring.
Airborne carnage out of sight and out of mind, a self-enamored Ethan smiled over his resourcefulness. Then he grimaced at the garment turned security branch. His feathered friend had left an ammonia-laden muck memento just before its leave. Ethan inspected the rectangular panels, finding them also covered with pasty panicked excrement, and sighed. He unraveled his shirt and began cleaning the mess the departed had left behind.
“Before you all leave for vacation, I wanted to take these final minutes to puzzle the class with a riddle. What is the one thing that can never run out and never expire, that we cannot create but life needs to transpire? Anyone?”
The sophomore chemistry teacher checked the room of students, their attention directed to any direction but hers.
“Come on, just because you’re not looking at me doesn’t mean I won’t call on you. How about another clue: If you desire you can set it on fire.”
She found a face illuminated by the cellular screen glowing beneath his desk.
“Adam, why do we eat food?”
The pupils turned to the ruby chubby cheeks in a matching polo.
“Because it’s delicious?”
The class laughed. The teacher sighed.
“True, but not what I was looking for. We eat food because what’s in it. What’s in food? Susan?”
The pupils turned to the raven haired scrunchy.
“No, calories make you fat.”
“You need calories to survive Susan. One nutritional calorie is equal to four Joules. Now, what’s a joule?”
“Like a diamond?” a pencil skirt asked.
“Not a jewel, Tiffany, a joule.” The teacher spelled the difference on the whiteboard. “A joule is a measurement of power, and your body uses the calories it takes from food to power itself. That power over time is the equation for…anyone? Ethan?”
Ethan had been daydreaming through the window at group of bickering sparrows. His neck spun back towards his teacher.
“That’s right!” she beamed. “Watts.”
“Like a light bulb?” Tiffany asked.
“Exactly. And what do light bulbs use? Susan?”
“Yes! And Adam, what is electricity?”
“Food!” he answered enthusiastically.
“Energy!” The teacher’s shoulders slumped, the wind stricken from her sail, but the bags under her eyes were a persevering shade of purple. “Watts are a measure of energy. And that, students, is the answer to the riddle. Every day you consume nearly thirteen thousand watts of energy.”
The class stared back, silent. Nothing was registering.
“What’s the first rule of teaching,” she reminded herself. “If you have fun, they have fun.”
Exasperated, she looked to the clock, its hands angling closer to the impending ring of the bell. The thought of her post-work glass of wine wafted through her mind, causing her to subconsciously sip at her thermos’s bitter brew of consolidated caffeine, the coffee thick with the week’s discarded remnants.
“And that’s the last of mine,” she said as the bell rang. “I will see you in ten days. Have a wonderful spring break!”
Without giving the lesson a second thought, the class cheered and funneled out into the hallway. The sound—lockers slamming, bags zipping, friends cliquing plans—of excitement over what may happen in the coming days was palpable. Ethan made his way through the hullabaloo in order to catch the first bus before overhearing two seniors.
“Dude, you are not going to believe what just happened. We were finishing up the test in AP Calculus when guess who walks through the door?”
“I don’t care.”
“Yea dude, you do. Remember last year when we had chemistry and the senior physics classroom was across the hall? Every time we saw her we would call it a—”
“A goddamn Kay day! Kay Taft is here? Goddamn!”
“You know it. You should have seen her. Back from college and oh my god. Blouse popping, miniskirt singing. I bombed the last few questions but so worth it, goddamn!”
“She’s always fine but some days, man, goddamn. Is she still around?”
“Dude, I wouldn’t. Mr. Whitaker nearly shat a brick he saw her. Right now he’s busy swallowing his wedding ring. You show up and he’ll never forget or forgive.”
“Argh! I can’t believe I missed a goddamn Kay day. Goddamn.”
The two then looked to see Ethan.
“What the fuck are you looking at, Sonder?”
Ethan put his head down and backtracked up the stairwell. He meandered across the second floor until he heard that laugh. Its unforgettable chime piqued nostalgic goosebumps across his skin like iced honey to the small of the back. He chased it down the hall to a pair of tan heels under a denim hem way above the school’s approval. An innocent blouse with one too many unbuttoned leaned against the door frame of the math lab, a teacher hovering over until Ethan’s appearance made it step back and glower at the unwanted interruption. Kay noticed the change in temperament and followed the glare over her shoulder. She smirked.
“Ethan!” Kay exclaimed. “I was hoping I’d catch you.”
Ethan looked at Kay. She looked back.
“What, you don’t talk anymore?”
Ethan slowly lifted his eyes. “Do I have to?”
She smiled. “Not anymore.”
Kay turned back to place her hand on the older man’s shoulder, her pink lips pouting forced dismay. “It was so good to see you Mr. Whitaker. I hope you have a great vacation. Thanks again for all of your help last year. I never would have gotten accepted if it weren’t for your recommendation.”
“It was my pleasure. Don’t be shy now. Hope to see you again real soon.”
He leered longingly at Kay before shooting a menacing scowl at Ethan. Ethan gulped but Kay gave a knowing grin.
“Don’t mind him,” she whispered. “He gets off to missed opportunities.”
Kay noticed the empty hall and a vending machine tucked around the corner. She smirked with glee.
“Hungry?” she asked.
“I haven’t eaten since midnight.”
“Great, I can show you a trick I learned.”
Strolling over to the snack dispenser, she crouched to see what kind of lock was on the door.
“Tubular,” she said. “These are a little trickier.”
Kay removed two hairpins from her braid, the golden locks tumbling past her shoulders. She placed one of the thin metal pieces between her central incisors and bit at the flat tip while folding the rest until it reached a ninety-degree angle. She then wrapped the other in in a circle around her pinky finger, tightening it up until the scrolled wire matched the circumference of the lock with enough slack left for a grip.
“I have money,” Ethan said, rubbing the back of his neck. “We could go grab a slice of pizza.”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
Placing the angled hairpin in the top slot, Kay forced the metal into the lock and pushed it against the side and lifting so the circular piece could fit below. She jostled then it until she heard the all in-line click, gave a little push and the metal bar popped out.
“Ta da,” she said, grabbing the handle and turning it clockwise, opening the vending machine door. “Take your pick.”
Ethan grabbed a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips.
“That’s it?” Kay said. “How about something for the effort.”
Ethan checked to make sure the coast was clear then took a roll of wintergreen lifesavers.
“You daredevil you,” Kay said, closing the door.
“You’re not going to take anything?”
“I don’t see anything I like.”
Watching Kay watch him, her gaze placating his conscience, Ethan opened the wrapper. The wafting stench of artificial flavoring reminded him of his famished appetite and he stuffed a handful of the crisps into his mouth.
“How do they taste?” she asked.
“Best I’ve ever had.”
Her eyes dazzled. “I have that effect.”
The two began walking down the stairwell and towards the exit. As they approached the main doors, her grin winced with anxiety.
“I just remembered that I have to stop by the records office. I need to pick up a copy of my transcript. But would you be up for a meet tonight?”
“Sure,” Ethan said, chip bits dropping from his open mouth. “But you know you how my mom gets when I’m out with you.”
“Then don’t tell her,” Kay said, brushing the crumbs off Ethan’s shirt. “We could just walk and talk at the usual place. I’ll text you when I’m ready.”
“I don’t have a phone, remember?”
“Right,” she said, her lips pursing under her narrow eyes. “Like that would ever be useful. How about elevenish then?
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Ethan said.
“Good,” Kay replied. “Don’t miss your bus now.”
“Right,” he said, throwing out his bag of chips. “Thanks again.”
“Anytime. And Ethan?” Kay called out. “Don’t be too, too late.”
He smiled and quickly exited the doors.
Kay waited for a seconds then walked up to the doors. After seeing the bus depart, she pushed the doors and walked to the parking lot.
She paced to a loitering vehicle then entered at the passenger’s seat.
“How’d that go,” Mr. Green cooed. “You lovebirds going to sit in a tree?”
“Just take me home,” Kay replied.
“Ethan,” Leslie called. “Dinner.”
Ethan opened his bedroom door to the smell of oiled onions frying over garlic. He slipped on wool socks and made his way downstairs. The stickers placed for him were long gone, removed by his mother’s painted fingernails several weeks after the funeral. The gummy adhesive remained, and thanks to five years of dust and dirt the starry outlines left a barely visible etch upon insulated floorboards. He tread over old footsteps as he descended the staircase.
Buddy, their Australian Shepherd, was on the couch with her head on a marmalade cushion. Her face greeted Ethan with the universal expression of being neglected. Behind her was Ethan’s father, pacing in his slippers, ledger in hand and the cordless phone to his ear.
“Hey Greg, Terrance here. Doing well, could be better. I’m calling about the Class B Delaine Merino fleece you asked me about over the holidays. Yes I know it would be selling before the majority goes to market, that’s the idea… How’s the yolk? It’s fine, raw but definitely viable for commercial use…Of course I’ll send you a sample. How soon? One second.”
Before Ethan could creep by Terrance shucked the phone off of his shoulder, placing the receiver under his palm.
“Ethan, I’m going to need your help tomorrow. We’ve got to start shearing early this year.”
“Dad, it’s not even April.”
“Tell that to the sheep. They’re already overheating. You’re on vacation, aren’t you? Help me tomorrow morning and I won’t bother you for the rest of the week.”
Terrance returned to his phone call.
“Sorry about that…Mutton? Do you mind if we wait until after the ewes finish lambing? Then I’ll have a better idea of which rams I can offer up for Easter.”
“Ethan?” a voice called from the kitchen. Ethan followed it into a coral-colored dine-in galley. Steam gushed out of a bubbling pasta pot to mist the overhead cabinetry while tempered glass lid rested atop of the hushed kettle. Blue gas-lit burners also warmed a copper pan sizzling with ground veal rounded out with Parmesan and breadcrumbs. On the counter lay the remnants of the night’s ingredients: smashed garlic clove skin and the root of a bleeding onion, empty cans of peeled tomatoes and a flattened cardboard box of ziti.
“Mom?” Ethan said.
“Tell me how this tastes.” She pushed a wooden spoon covered with red sauce at him.
Ethan did as he was told. Too rustic, not enough body. It needed sugar.
“It’s great mom.”
She shined. “How was your day?”
Ethan started setting up the table. “It was fine.”
“Did you learn anything?”
Terrance walked into the kitchen and helped himself to one of the meatballs frying in the pan.
“The phone died again,” he said, offering the rest of the bite to Buddy. “We really should get a another one.”
“Don’t tease the dog,” Leslie said. “Watch the sauce.”
She opened the pantry and took out one of a dozen new cartridges lying in wait. She used a knife to pierce the packaging, grabbed a replacement, then removed the phone’s back casing and swapped out the dead batteries, deposing them in a drawer filled with other drained electric cells.
“If you think it’s the phone we can get a new one,” she said. “Again.”
“Only if you think it would be best, hun,” Terrance replied, stuffing another meatball into his mouth. “Hey Ethan, guess who I saw today?”
Ethan swallowed hard. He glanced at his mother who was cutting up sweet basil with a chef’s knife on the white plastic cutting board.
“That little firecracker next door. Looks like Kay’s back from college.”
“OW!” Leslie yelped. She ran her hand the faucet, but wilted away from the rush of water as her face dripped with pain. She pressed her apron against the flesh but the canvas compromised as the crimson bled through.
“Are you alright mom?” Ethan immediately was by his mother.
“How bad is it dear?” Terrance examined her palm to see the incision pulsing across the length of her life line. “Why’d you have to go do that?”
“It’s not like it was a well-thought out plan,” she countered. Buddy whined over the commotion, her tail tucked between her legs.
“It’s not deep enough for stitches, so that’s a plus,” Terrance said. “I’ll be right back with the first-aid kit.”
Ethan viewed his mother, her eyes wide and stressed, dread coursing through her veins and on to her sleeve.
“I feel weak,” she said. She blanched, that vibrant cheer of a minute ago seemingly draining from her incision.
“It’s going to be alright,” Ethan soothed, rubbing her back. He pulled up a chair and helped his mother to it. She nodded, bit her lower lip, but could not move her arms despite the vermillion spilling out of her. She covered the sight by reusing her dress smock, pressing it to keep pressure on the wound.
“You won’t leave me, will you Ethan?” she asked, her eyes seizing upon her son.
“Of course not mom,” Ethan nodded. “I’m right here.”
Terrance returned with a plastic bin containing cotton swabs, adhesive bandages, salve, and rubbing alcohol.
“Alright, let’s take a look.”
Ethan watched as his father tended to his mother. At first glance his parents’ relationship was as strong as ever, but ever since Owen’s passing their harmony had grown out of tune. Living on the farm seemed to have rejuvenated his father. Coincidentally, whenever a conversation steered in the direction of their lost son Terrance made a point of acknowledging the loss by creating deeper connections with those around him.
Leslie, on the other hand, would remove herself from discussing anything remotely related. The constant vigil had made her reticent and fragile, ruining the world she had created around her. Former expectations of a warm happy sunset were drowned in a ceaseless frost of doubt and suspicion. Her time, her effort, her hopes, everything had succumbed to a fear of loss that had yet to happen. Waiting for the other shoe to drop had gotten the better of her. The wrinkles and the flashes and the thinning hair; she had aged in all the ways women curse.
“There we go,” Terrance said, tightly wrapping the finishing touches on the binding. “In a couple of days it will be as good as new.”
“Dinner is ruined,” Leslie replied, tears in her eyes. “What are we going to do?”
Terrance and Ethan shared a disjointed frown. Buddy left the scene, unable to understand the dismay percolating among the family.
“I can make sandwiches,” Ethan offered as consolation.
Leslie caressed her son, the leftovers of a reluctant stain, and began to sob.
The patterned shadows from the electric netting of the sheep’s paddock lapped over Ethan’s swift feet, the ground supple under his polished brown shoes. He had worn his pair of cool blue jeans and a dark dress shirt that he left untucked to ensure he did not appear to be trying too hard. His gelled hair matted on his forehead while his eyes searched for a sign of her, his complexion a mix of exerted cherub rose and pale panic. Anticipation fueled every breath and perspiration wrestled with deodorized aspiration.
Entering the clearing just before the maples, Ethan spotted Kay thanks to the crackling sparks of the glow-in-the-dark wintergreen between her teeth. She had worn a summer dress, light and airy with pastel tones of fuchsia and violet, topping her torso with a tight white pullover that hugged her femininity.
“Sorry,” Ethan called out as he shuffled over, wiping his brow.
“Finally,” Kay said, biting down on her candy. “Anyone ever teach you the difference between tardy and rude?”
“Sneaking past my parents took a little more time than usual.”
“That’s been going around.”
She swallowed her chewed up candy and began walking into the forest, the waxing gibbous glinting off her blonde hair. Ethan followed.
“More trouble with Roland?”
“He always thinks he’s right,” Kay scoffed. “He never apologizes. I swear the clearest form of communication is when I hear him speak behind my back.”
“Who does he talk to?”
“Oh, nobody. I’m just tired of him always picking at me to be who they want me to be.”
Ethan paused, trying to find a connection to what Kay was saying. He remembered a line he had been reading before dinner. He cleared his voice.
“They fuck you up, your mom and dad,” he quoted. “They may not mean to but they do. They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra just for you.”
“Where did that come from?”
“This be the verse. Something I was reading before dinner.”
“I like you Ethan.”
“Well then, I must be doing something right.”
Kay could feel Ethan watching her. She shied from Ethan’s eyes, barely able to mask her rue from amity. As they stood in a spongy meadow, the ground soft and supple with moss and clover, Kay pensively looked at the moonlight shining off the lea.
“It was near here, wasn’t it?” Kay said.
“Yea, it used to be,” Ethan replied. He pointing to a mound of dirt and rock. “Over there used to be the aquifer. It would still be bubbling up through a well if my dad hadn’t blocked and drained it.”
“What happened to all the fish?” Kay asked.
“We tried to sell the trout but no one wanted them. People told stories, said the fish had been tainted by my brother. That when he got pulled out they had taken bites out of him. So we had to wait until the fall for enough of the water to evaporate.
“All summer long we would catch animals—eagles, bobcats, a black bear or two—picking off the trout as the pond got smaller and smaller. My dad bought Buddy on account of all the predators, wanted to make sure the flock would be alright. But with all the trout just there for the picking, why deal with sheep, right?
“Anyway in October my dad hired a guy to bulldoze the whole thing, and we had gathered around to watch. At that point what was left of the fish had pooled into a handful of pockets. The worst environment something could live in, these frenzied fish flopping around in their own filth and foul water, nothing left to eat but your neighbor’s back. The machines flattened it over in minutes. All that was left were a few dozen silver tails sticking out of the turned over soil.”
“Sometimes I feel like that,” he said. “A fish caught in a shrinking puddle, waiting to be bulldozed by the inevitable.”
“I feel like that day everyday,” she said. “I hate it so much. Realizing how weak I am. But it taught me what I was. It taught me how to get used to that loneliness, that isolation. I used to think that if only my asthma hadn’t…I could have gotten help sooner, maybe even—”
“Stop,” Ethan interrupted. “Just, stop.”
Kay stood silent, a pause that grew into a moment of silence. Knowing she needed to change the tension, Kay turned brusquely at the hip. Ethan’s eyes moved to her, shooting down until he was caught in the act. Kay seized the moment to pick on Ethan’s attire.
“You look good,” she said. “I like the shirt.”
“This old thing?” Ethan stuttered with recollected indignity.
Kay’s fingers went down to Ethan’s thigh. She tugged at where the denim went slack at the knee, lifting the pant cuff to show a hint of navy sock. Ethan gulped.
“And you match, very nice.”
“Is that important?”
“It is,” Kay nodded. “It’s called pattern recognition. Whether you’re aware of it or not, is one of those elements that helps you survive. That’s why you have to be particular. Somewhere deep in our brain is the need to keep it all together.”
“Did you learn that in college?”
Kay moved in and pressed up against Ethan, dragging her fingernails across the side of Ethan’s torso, raising goosebumps across his skin.
“That’s what I learned in college,” she purred.
Ethan stood tall despite his legs locking up as he throbbed from the sensation, the blood pumping to the opposite poles of his body.
“I know that look,” she said, her eyes widening at Ethan’s involuntary squint. “I know that look, too,” she repeated as he blushed. “You’re like a baby learning what’s good in the world.”
The tip of her tongue grazed over soft lips as her hands guided Ethan’s arms around her waist. She traced her fingertips up Ethan’s spine, over his neck and gently pushed his nape. Their foreheads pressed and nuzzled. Uncontrollable magnetism had taken over.
Below their feet the soil stirred, awoken by the scent of irresistible ichor. Turning under dead leaves and erupting between the blades of grass, subterranean lives borne off snails and worms stunted for this moment.
Molting in the warm winter night, driven by a force beyond their nature, hatched larvae took to the air under the forested moonlight. Together they flew, ignoring each other for something greater, compelled to converge on the same point that had drawn them out, that gave them reason for being.
Kay felt the air squirming around her and screamed at what she saw. Ethan opened his eyes to see the swarm gathering around him, the sound of a million wings arriving with sudden earsplitting thunder.
There was no menace in their approach, simply longing. The insects began to land on Ethan. Despite his best efforts to swipe them off, his hands were too slow and they were too many. Their hooked limbs tied up in his clothes and on his skin and in his hair. Blinded and deafened by the horde, Ethan extended his arms to shake them off but the countless tiny legs accepted the opening to pour in further, filling every crevice.
Sprinting several yards away Kay turned back to see Ethan no longer but instead his buzzing outline crawled over by the living cloud of exoskeletons. His arms swayed and the mass followed, and even when he stepped on their abdomens tens of thousands flew in to replace those that were lost. He was engulfed by flying fire.
Then, they all went silent.
Choreographing their bioluminescence in unison, the fireflies radiated an electric light, illuminating Ethan’s human figure against the darkness. Their flicker began to pulse like a heartbeat, the rhythm stilted in its pace, gaining energy until it beat faster and faster until each beetle shined bright, their collective beacon bordering on blinding as Kay winced and raised her hands from the brilliance.
And then they all burnt out. Falling to the earth, their lives tapped and their essence dried out, they cascaded from Ethan and landed from whence they came. Their extremities curled inwards and ticked off the last of their infinitesimal existence.
Ethan’s senses kept ringing but he was now free to witness the tens of thousands littered at his feet. He stepped out of the pile, leaving two empty footprints among the darkened field of bodies as he crunched forward. He shook his head and brushed the twitching remains off his shoulders and out of his shirt.
He glanced up to see Kay, her lungs wheezing and her eyes white with terror. Ethan slowly started towards her.
“No,” she screamed. “Stay away. I’m out. I can’t do this anymore.”
Kay ran off, leaving Ethan with nothing but the husks of life gone wrong.