a bird in a tree at night
My little brother prefers corners. He likes sitting quietly in them, and I just wish people understood that sitting quietly in a corner is not universal code for I am sad, I am lonely, please save me.
All it means for sure is that the quiet kid in the corner would like to sit quietly in the corner, and can we not ascribe our own sets of values to quiet kids in corners the world over? It’s not like it costs us anything. It’s not like we were using that corner to begin with. And look, I’m sure there are some
quiet kids in some
corners who are sad and lonely and need saving. All I’m saying is, let’s not assume they all
are. Silence and sadness are not the same things. And I wish more people understood that, is all.
“Okay,” says Ali, and she holds back my hair so I don’t get vomit in it, and even though I can’t see her, I know she has that look in her eyes, the soft one, the one she saves for when she wants me to know I am seen. And so I ramble about quiet kids, and she knows I’m talking about my brother, Will. She knows this because she sees me.
“You won’t love me after this,” I say.
“There’s no way you love me after this.”
“I mean, it’s mostly you who loves me, anyway.”
I laugh between heaves and feel the sudden urge to plant character flags. “This doesn’t mean anything, you know.”
“I know,” says Ali.
“I’m a responsible adult, basically.”
She says, “Just breathe, Evan,” and I wonder if she was in the basement back at the party when Heather said that thing about all the important stuff in life being easy. Like how our bodies breathe on their own, even when we sleep, and how our hearts keep beating no matter what, and that’s when I had to leave the party. Were you there, Ali? Do you know why I had to leave the party? I left because the heart is a muscle. I left because of what happens to muscles that don’t get used over long periods of time, and even though that basement was packed with people, all I could hear were mottled voices, all I could feel were cruel hands, all I could see were hungry eyes.
Do you understand, Ali? I left the party because of atrophy. And if I think too hard about it now, I’m afraid I’ll stop breathing. If I think too hard about it, I’m afraid my own heart will stop beating, and then whose heart will glow to Will?
“Mine,” Ali says. “And anyway, that’s not why you left the party.”
“No. You left for the same reason you drank three and a half vodka tonics. Which, for a constitution as delicate as yours, is roughly the equivalent of injecting a shrew with enough sedative to fell a baby moose.” Ali gathers a loose strand of my hair, gently tucks it into her fist behind my head. “You got shit-faced and ran because of what Heather said about Will.”
I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and stand up straight. We’re in the park down the road from Heather Abernathy’s house, which is as far as I could get before my stomach attempted to annex my internal organs.
“Heather Abernathy is a sack of shit,” says Ali. “And her name should be illegal, it’s impossible to fucking say.”
O, Ali Pilgrim! She of the soft eyes and quick wit, whose heart is pure, whose amity is fierce, and whose hammer never missed a nailhead. No one understands us, what we have. It’s not in books or movies. I’ve never once heard a song and thought, Oh, that’s Ali and me.
When two people spend most of their time together, misinterpretation is inevitable, though not surprising, given the world’s preoccupation with the Horny Teen. It’s like it never occurred to anyone that I might love my best friend simply for being awesome. (And to be clear, I am routinely horny, just not for Ali.)
Anyway, they don’t write about us, even though we exist all over the place.
“You okay?” she asks.
“I feel like my stomach punched my throat in the dick.”
Ali nods. “I find your biologically acrobatic metaphor appropriate.”
In addition to the tears, the throbbing head, the furious retching, it’s also late August in Iverton, Illinois, a uniquely miserable combination for anyone prone to crotch sweat (yours truly), so yeah, I’m a blessed mess, basically.
The park is silent.
A bird sits quietly in a nearby tree, watching us.
“Have you ever seen that?”
Ali turns to look. “Yes, I have seen a bird before.”
Right, but I read this thing once about a scientist in the seventeenth century who believed birds migrated to the moon, because all he knew was that his favorite birds disappeared at the same time every year. He even calculated how long it would take to get to the moon, which apparently coincided with migration cycles, and since science in the 1600s wasn’t exactly flush with cosmic data (vis-à-vis atmospheric pressure in space), when he theorized that birds were sustained by excess fat on their interstellar voyage, and when he said they slept through most of their two-month journey to the moon, everyone was like, Yeah, probably, that’s it
“You’re a chatty drunk.” Ali looks from the bird to me. “Though most people get less
“I’ve just never seen one like this. At night. Sitting like that.”
I imagine this bird soaring through the outer reaches of space, alone and asleep, and it’s the most peaceful thing.
A song plays from one of the houses surrounding the park; it’s quiet but full, a beautiful kind of sad. I close my eyes and listen to the woman singing, imagine the notes floating from a nearby window, bouncing around the playground equipment, the trees. Her voice is a whispery echo, intimate and tortured, and even though the lyrics are imperceptible, you don’t need to perceive them to know her pain.
With some songs, the scar is obvious even if the wound isn’t.
“I am concerned about you, Evan.”
I want to tell her she should be. That my old life is a building collapsed, my new one a sad composite fashioned from rubble. But before I can get the words out, nausea roils again, and I must return to the bushes. Ali resumes her posture of protection, pulling back my hair as I let my insides out, and I think of the ways Heather Abernathy was wrong: breathing isn’t easy, not for me; maybe I don’t have to tell my heart to keep beating, but it’s a runaway train these days; mostly, Heather Abernathy was wrong when she said that thing about my brother. “Heather Abernathy is a sack of shit,” I say, and now I’m crying as I vomit, and Ali sort of hugs me with one arm, guards my hair with the other.
The song echoes through the park; the bird sits quietly on high.
“I’m a responsible adult, basically,” I say.
Ali says she knows, and I wonder how it’s possible to love someone so absolutely and hate them so entirely for seeing me so completely.
Copyright © 2023 by David Arnold. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.