Katie M. Flynn is Fiction Editor at the Indianola Review. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Carve, Flyway, Monkeybicycle, Paper Darts, and elsewhere. She’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice and holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco. Recently, she completed her first novel about love, revenge, and uploaded consciousness. When she’s not writing, she’s teaching herself classical guitar, nerding out over chess, or chasing her two kids through the wilds of San Francisco.
Bury the Bird
It’s lunchtime and I’m at the attic window, curtains parted just enough to see down to the girls in their uniform plaid, smoking on our corner. I don’t know why they’ve chosen this spot—cars speed down Bosworth, plenty of foot traffic, what with the corner store and the laundromat and Sal’s Empanada Shop, which got written up in the Guardian last year. We’re not Cortland Avenue or Diamond Street, but we stay busy, and the girls have a way of standing, hip cocked, one arm cinched across the waist, the other bent at the elbow, and a way of casting their eyes back at you like you’re an after-thought, an apparition, not really there—I don’t like it. I often fantasize about marching over to their private French school and telling on them.
Instead I tell Daniel over dinner. He’s home late from his Potrero Hill studio, his filthy nail tips frowning at me with a murky brown mix of paint.
He says, “You smoked in high school. What’s the big deal?”
“It’s not the smoking so much as the way they do it, out in the open, so brazen or stupid—I can’t decide which is worse. But they should be smart enough to go sit on the steps.”
Agatha the Great has already wolfed down her plate of mac and cheese, the only food she’ll eat lately, and she’s taking in her single show for the day. She did an “okay job” at school, her teacher Ms. Patty said at pick-up, and that’s good enough for me, so it’s Dora the Explorer tonight, with her big exclamatory voice and big expectant eyes, hypnotizing Agatha into a near vegetative state.
“It’s not safe on the steps,” Daniel says, “you know that.” The steps—they’re at the end of our street, leading up to busy San Jose Avenue with its commuter traffic and small homeless encampments in the shadow spaces below the footbridges.
“Safe. That was never the point when I was a teenager.” When I was a teenager we burned tattoos into our forearms with the lighter-heated tips of paperclips and started a band. I wrote all of abortar’s best songs from the pink stucco fortress that was Orange County before blasting onto the LA punk scene just as it was dying. They needed us, sweating and spitting and showering the pitting crowds with diatribes cased in character plays, songs with names like “Sheila E wasn’t easy,” which is really about race politics and the wage gap, or “Skinny Gene,” about a girl who devours skinny pills until she’s so hungry and out of it she eats herself. I can’t listen to those old songs anymore. They’re all so bald, like a bare bottom in a car window, taking in the wind, for the world to see.
“All the same, tattling on them? What are we Puritans? Old geezers with nothing better to do?”
He says “we” but really he means “me,” and I stab the air between us with my fork. “We aren’t kids anymore,” I say, wanting it to hurt, “and we haven’t been for a long time.” San Francisco has had an expanding effect on Daniel, forty pounds maybe, and I’ve never said a thing, about how it makes me feel, his endless eating, like we’re not enough, like he’s saying fuck you, let’s be friends.
As I storm off to the kitchen he calls, “Doesn’t mean you have to be an asshole!”
“Language!” I shout, even though we both know I’m the one with a gutter mouth. I shovel my dinner into the compost bin and leave the dishes.
Down in the garage, I wail on my alternately tuned guitar and wordlessly sing in the studio Daniel built for me. These days, I make noise, improvising, alone. Sometimes I record, posting cuts of my sessions on SoundCloud. A hundred people or so like them. They ask me when the next album is coming out. Is abortar ever going to do a reunion tour?
I never respond to the comments. What am I going to say? Gloria finished her PhD in Comparative Lit not so long ago—took her forever—but now she’s got a sweet associate professorship at Oberlin and she takes her students on bike tours and leads poetry readings and she told me not so long ago on Facebook that she doesn’t miss our band days, not at all! I don’t have a handle on Flor’s whereabouts. She went to Mexico City for a while—their punk scene’s amazing, she’d gushed over email. That was a few years ago, the last time she wrote me. I follow her Tumblr, but it seems to be on some sort of global tour. The most recent shots from Thailand and Burma and Vietnam are embarrassingly predictable—men with wrecked teeth squatting on the side of the road, food carts and crumbling statues of the Buddha, and Flor, oily brown and barely aged, in a sarong and one of those cone-shaped sunhats.
By the time I climb the stairs, it’s late, my hands throbbing. The neighbor’s dog is going nuts, riling the others, the dishes haven’t been done, and Daniel’s in bed with Agatha again. I watch their slack sleeping faces, identical mouths forming Os, and I know it, this is family, but I also know that getting into our queen bed alone is the most delicious thing.
In the night, I start to sitting. Moaning—coming from the street. I go to the window and look up and down the block, but all I see are the hooded strangers who dig through our trashcans, collecting the recycling, and the only sound is the night shudder of broken glass.
I wake to Agatha in bed with me, Daniel gone. New York City, I remember, four nights, too used to it to be jealous. When I met Daniel in ’92, he’d methodically mark the roads between ethnic neighborhoods with official-looking boundaries, labeling them “Race Lines,” and scale plastic surgery centers to paint great cuts of a woman’s thigh on a platter scattered with parsley. But this was before he got an agent and we moved to San Francisco, where people are more “responsive” to his work. Now he gets flown all over the world to paint murals and show his art, and his more famous works have been reprinted on hats and t-shirts and skateboard decks that Agatha the Great and I sometimes see on the heads and torsos and kick-flipped skateboards of the Mission and Lower Haight.
I walk Agatha to school, passing light poles lined with sad handmade posters announcing missing pets, with their Xeroxed pictures and offers of reward. Agatha’s in a mood, running ahead, shouting into the rafters of the overpass. At least she waits at the corner. I take her hand, and she tells me, “Mommy, I want to stay home with you,” and oh, my heart stutters. But I have plans to visit that French school after drop-off, and we’re already on our way, and doesn’t she want to see her friends? I’ve even showered, washed my short dyed-black hair. I tell her Saturday, we’ll have a day together, just us. She likes this idea and seems okay at drop-off, crying a little, which is better than what it was like in the beginning, when she’d scream for me at the door while Ms. Patty restrained her.
I go down to the French school to lodge a complaint. They must start later because the school’s front steps are swarming with teenagers, and I have to excuse my way through them. Just another hag mom, I’m sure they’re thinking, if they’re thinking about me at all.
The office secretary is an unsmiling blonde with a long hooked nose and a French accent. “Yes?” she says when it’s my turn at her desk. And suddenly I’m aware of all the people in the room, kids with forms to turn in and teachers getting coffee, other parents waiting for their turn at the desk, all of them listening, and I can’t believe I’ve become this woman.
“I don’t know their names, but there are three girls in your school’s uniform who stand on my corner smoking every day during the lunch hour. I have a small child, and I don’t need her exposed to—” I want to say second-hand smoke or better, such a nasty habit, though maybe too judgmental—but the secretary interrupts me, pen in hand, “What is the intersection?”
It’s lunchtime, and I watch from the attic window as a staff member comes upon the girls smoking. They don’t even try to hide it, arguing—I can’t hear what they’re saying, but I imagine it has something to do with their rights to privacy, how this is off-campus, not the school’s responsibility, and so on. Then, one of them looks up, in my direction, and I press myself against the wall. When I dare to steal a peek, the girls are gone. At the other end of the block, the homeless man with cerebral palsy is coming down the stairs from San Jose Avenue. He was one of the first people I came to recognize on the street when Daniel and I bought this house six years ago. I watch him try the doors of all the cars parked on our street, looking for one dumb sucker.
A few days pass without a sighting, and I think it’s over, I’ve done my civic duty, until I find a dead chicken on my porch. It’s not a dead chicken like the kind one might buy from the supermarket, but an actual chicken, feathers and all, that has been murdered. The head’s missing, and it’s got a deep cut down the middle of its chest, its clawed feet twined in red ribbon. I fetch my rubber gloves and a hefty bag, dispose of the thing, surprisingly light, bloodless, missing organs? I don’t study it too closely. Then I walk the bag over to Rita’s.
She answers the door in her pink robe, long gray-brown hair stringy from the bath. Emerson, her yippy terrier, urinates right there on the rug.
“Are you missing a chicken?” I ask her.
“I don’t think so.”
“You might want to check.”
Rita waves me in. It’s the first time I’ve been inside her house. We talk a lot on the street, and I like her, and I think she likes me, but it’s never advanced from there. Her house is cluttered, books and cat towers and houseplants and shelves full of tchotchkes veiled in dust. It smells like cat and there’s hair everywhere, and I mouth-breathe until we’re in the backyard, and Rita’s unlatched the coop, counting chickens. “I am! I’m missing a chicken.”
I hold out the garbage bag. “Someone left it on my porch.”
We call the police, and in the time before the two officers come to question us, I think about whether I’m going to tell on the girls a second time. I know I should. I mean, I have Agatha to worry about—I don’t want her targeted—but the old feeling is rising in me, dissent. It’s been years since I’ve felt it, living in idyllic tolerant San Francisco. Sure, we have our problems, but God, compared to LA, or worse, Orange County? It’s obvious the girls mean business, but what they don’t know is I do too.
When the two officers come to question us, and they ask if anyone might have a grudge against me, I give them a perplexed look. “A grudge? I don’t think so.” They want to take Rita’s chicken as evidence, but she won’t have it, in tears now, shouting at them to do their job, patrol more often, what are you going to do, take DNA samples?
I help her bury the bird in her backyard. Then I get a call from school to pick Agatha the Great up. She’s been bullying another child. “What do you mean bullying?”
The office secretary sighs. “She got into the face of another child, threatened bodily harm.”
“Threatened bodily harm?”
“Can you come in?”
The other mother is very upset. An emergency meeting has been called while Agatha slouches in the office chair, complaining she has to poop. The office secretary tells her to go on then, and Agatha passes me on the way to the bathroom like she doesn’t know me.
In the office with Wayne, the school’s youngish principal, and the other mother, who is much older than me and the earthy type, with undyed paling hair and expensive orthopedic sandals, I begin with an apology and the other mother shifts in her seat to face me. “I want to know what you’re going to do to make sure this never happens again.”
I turn to Wayne. “What exactly did she say?”
“Well, I wasn’t there, but I understand from the parent volunteering for lunch recess duty that she threatened to smash Vida’s head.”
“What? That doesn’t sound like Agatha.” This is a lie; that sounds exactly like something Agatha the Great would say.
Wayne raises his thick bourbon-colored eyebrows at me like, go on, so I say, “I will certainly talk to her about it at home, and of course there will be consequences.” They both look at me expectantly, like I’m supposed to do something more, but what else can I do? Am I supposed to beat her, put her in therapy, what? “It’s not like she’s said anything like this before.”
“Well, actually,” the mother says, “Vida’s been coming home complaining about your daughter for weeks.”
“Well, for starters, she gets in Vida’s face, sits too close to her in circle time or assembly, growling when she tries to get away.”
I glare at Wayne. “Why is this the first I’m hearing about this?”
“Honestly, it’s the first I’m hearing about it too,” he says, which I think he thinks gets him off the hook, but really makes him appear incompetent.
“What are you going to do about it?” the other mother asks again.
“Well, like I said,” I start, and I can hear how defensive I sound, “I hope that after a talk, it won’t happen again, but as far as assurances? They’re not cars or blenders, are they?” It’s kind of a joke, and I mean it to cut the tension, but it seems to have the opposite effect. The other mother is glaring at me hatefully, and I realize she’s really mad, mad at me, as if I’ve failed as a parent. Now I’m mad.
“I mean, they’re five years old,” I keep on—why am I still talking? “They’re going to test boundaries, make mistakes.” And the other mother gawks at Wayne like, do something!
“It is concerning,” Wayne says, not looking me in the eye, “if this sort of behavior continues we’ll have to suspend her from school.” And then he smiles, he fucking smiles! It takes tremendous willpower not to destroy him with my gutter mouth. God, to be a parent, to care so much—it’s draining the life out of me.
Something I will never tell Agatha: we considered killing her. Neither of us said it, but it was all we could think about for weeks. We’d recently moved to San Francisco, we were still acclimating, and I’d played a few shows. It wasn’t so bad, and I thought about writing some new songs, and people were so nice to us once they figured out who we were. Kids were always trying to get us to come to their art opening or their band’s show or their Ocean Beach bonfire, but that made me feel old, and being pregnant, well, that was something new, and sure, I was curious. “I like kids, don’t you?” I asked Daniel once we knew. “Sure I like kids,” Daniel blinked back at me. He never told me definitively that he didn’t want it, or that he did, and then it was too late, and it was a relief, really, not to have to decide. We both worked at being happy about it, and the cool kids, they threw us the coolest shower, where we received an impractical but artisanal array of vegan cruelty-free gifts. Your baby is going to be so amazing, they all cooed, fingering my pear-shaped belly. There was a Pagan blessing.
In the mirror the next morning, I see that my hair’s gone completely gray. It’s not a big deal—I’ve been dyeing for years—but I’ve never heard of such a thing, hair dropping its color overnight. I look so terribly old, and there’s no time to do anything about it before the walk to school, hiding under the hood of my sweatshirt, Agatha freaking out, crying and storming ahead, shouting back at me, “I don’t know you!” I walk behind her all the way to school, trying not to cry, to let the other parents’ staring shame me. Agatha sprints through the doors, not for her classroom so much as from me, and I don’t follow her inside. On the way home, I stop at Walgreen’s for a box of dye and go home to redo my hair, and when I pick Agatha up in the afternoon, I get another “okay day” from Ms. Patty. Agatha walks ahead of me, arms crossed at her chest, grunting at me if I try to pace her. At home, she gets her own snack, a granola bar, and she goes into her room, drawing at her table. I ask her if I can join her, but she refuses to answer me.
The next day, when my skin cracks and turns gray like parched mud, Agatha the Great loses it. She cries as she dresses herself and claims her lunch from the counter. I try not to freak out in front of her, telling her Mommy’s got a rash, to eat her breakfast, and she does, wolfing down her oatmeal, nearly choking she’s eating so fast and crying still. She won’t let me comfort her, and when I try to follow her out the front door, she shouts, “no,” and raises a palm at me. “What if you get lost,” I call, but she’s speed walking down the street, hunched under the weight of her too-big backpack, headed toward school, and I can’t go out of the house like this—I can’t.
I call Daniel, tell him he has to come home immediately. He sounds sedate, like he’s stoned or hungover—I have no idea what he does in New York. He says he can’t and makes me scream at him that this is very fucking serious, I’m sick, and if he doesn’t come home, I don’t know what. He catches a flight the next morning, but by the time his plane’s reached cruising altitude, my eyes have gone red. After Agatha’s gotten herself off to school, I order color contacts from the internet and wait for the lunch hour. Then I go to find the girls, hiding my face under a baseball cap, a pocketknife tucked in my sleeve.
They are on the stairs, smoking.
“What did you do to me?”
“We are just children. We have no power, per se,” says the one with thin white hair to the middle of her back. Their features are different, their hair colors and cuts and skin hues and shoes, but there’s a marked sameness to these girls, and it isn’t the school uniform. They seem to move together, not at the same time, but like a ripple effect. One of them takes a drag from her cigarette, then the other, the other.
“I have a daughter. She’s only five. I have to be there for her.”
“You will,” the one with dark soft curls says, and they all nod in turn. “You will be there for her no matter what.”
“Not like this. I can’t be like this.”
They laugh and stub out their cigarettes, throw on their backpacks and push past me. I grab the backpack of the last one, with short dark hair like mine. She wheels around, her tongue unspooling from her mouth, long and serpentine and snapping. I’m not sure how, but I catch the thing midair, and the girl, she hisses at me, nails curling into claws, scratching at my wrist, drawing blood. I drag her to the ground by the tongue, slip the pocketknife from my sleeve and switch the blade. “I will cut your tongue out if you don’t reverse it.” She shrieks and the others join her, hitting a frequency I have never once managed in my days of making noise. It’s eardrum bursting, the pain exploding my head. I bring the knife down, severing the tongue from the girl’s mouth. It bleeds explosively, purple, and before I know it, I’m sucking on the tongue, sucking it dry, the girls running and screaming.
Someone comes upon me on the stairs as I’m finishing off the bloodless gray tongue. It’s the homeless man with cerebral palsy, and our eyes meet, and I’m so hungry. He seems to see it, my hunger, hustling up the stairs as fast as his stiff weak muscles can move, until I’m upon him, so swiftly, pushing him down on the sidewalk of busy San Jose Avenue. All those passing cars, and not a single one stops as I eat.
I take up residence under the footbridge, watching as my daughter passes overhead, led sometimes by my husband, sometimes by a stranger, a woman, young, college-age probably, with the stink of fragrant lotion and infectious youth. I gnaw on the bones of my victims to keep from pouncing.
It’s the woman today, wearing running shoes and leggings and a messy ponytail. She has a cheerful bounce to her step, and Agatha is holding the woman’s hand as she clomps down the stairs, singing quietly, a song for herself, in a gentle and girlishly off-key voice, and maybe it’s a happy song. I can’t tell from here in the shadows.
At night when I lurk, I see posters on light posts with my old likeness and the strange phrase: Have you seen me, as if I were hunting myself. I look so impossibly young, with choppy self-shorn bangs and chubby baby cheeks—when was this photo taken? Even if I hadn’t been turned into this—this thing I’ve become, not alive exactly, but not dead either—it was a poor choice for a picture. I haven’t looked like that in years.
I eat a bike messenger before I go home, in case Daniel’s there, or worse, the woman he’s hired to mother my child—I can’t control my hunger, and I don’t want Agatha to lose any more people. Life has already been so hard for her. Was it my fault? Was I not loving enough, did she know that I considered killing her? Luckily the place is empty. I go down into my garage studio, amp up my guitar, only I can’t remember the first thing about playing.
I light a cigarette from the pack I swiped from one of my victims. What does it matter now, anyway? The song that comes out is worse than a child’s, so elemental it calls them to me, the others turned—who knew there could be so many? I can hear them through the soundproofing as they collapse the fence with their pushing, heaving with misery and love, so much love, snapping jaws and moaning to my wordless song.