Fiction · 07/18/2012

Cloud

Everything is covered in shit.

When the birds first arrived, everyone was taking pictures. Jimmy and I rode our bikes down the streets, pointing at houses covered in starlings. They looked like oil slicks spreading from roof to roof. The trees were filled with their chirping babies and the sky would occasionally go dark when they rose together in flight. News teams and professional photographers clogged up the downtown taking photos of the phenomenon. They split it straight across their tongues and spat it at the camera. They were all so proud of our new bird collection.

Phenomenon — they said it like we were special.

Everyone is gone now of course. Hudson is just the bird town now. We are a freak show — we would be listed in some tourist’s top ten destinations if it wasn’t for all the poop. Our cars are covered in white bird shit; it eats straight through the paint. Half the kids in town have something wrong with their lungs. We are choking on air filled with feathers and feces. Most of my brother’s friends carry around inhalers and wear surgical masks when they go outside. I tie a bandana around my face and wear a hat to keep their constant droppings out of my hair. Jimmy wears his Dad’s motorcycle helmet and has to keep Windexing the visor.

We are told this all will pass by parks officials and some short fat man from the government, but the birds don’t seem to agree. They gather in large patches in our front yards and observe us through the glass. They rattle our windows in the morning and sing songs to one another when we try to sleep. They almost never blink and all their eyes look like spilt change. They steal tinfoil and barrettes and old batteries from our garages. They eat our garbage and they do not look away. Sometimes they rise and fall like a tide through the air, blocking out the sun and swallowing the rain. You can hear their wings beat in unison. They have no rhythm though — just a buzzing noise like grinding teeth. No matter where you go, the birds are always watching.

“What you two want gas for?” Orlando says. He carries an umbrella over his head outside the gas station booth. It is already spotted with droppings. Orlando runs the station and owns two others down by the highway. He sometimes details Jimmy’s Mom’s car to keep the shit from ruining her paint job. The three of us stand around the pump and try to fill the gas can. Jimmy and I found it after school in a janitor’s closet. The cleaning staff kind of gave up when the birds arrived and a lot of people decided to pull out of town. No one will notice that it’s gone.

“We need it for the lawn mower. You know, to cut the grass,” Jimmy says.

“What grass? Birds been shitting all of it to death. Too much fertilizer.”

Orlando isn’t wrong. Most of the grass in town is already dead. Trees and plants are losing their leaves. My parents spend their weekends trapping the starlings in cages paid for by the government. They kill the birds by applying thoracic compression, according to my Dad. Basically, you squeeze them to death with your hands. You wear gloves and you wait until their hearts explode or their lungs collapse or whatever comes first, I guess. My parents are paid by the pound and are told to put the birds in plastic garbage bags. Every Monday two garbage trucks roll down the streets and collect whatever people could catch that week. All the bags are splattered with bird shit by the morning. The birds have begun to figure out the traps.

“Well, we can still ride on the mower, can’t we?” Jimmy says and hands Orlando five bucks. Orlando shakes his head and starts to dart back toward his booth. The glass walls are covered with pictures of Jimmy Buffett and ocean views. Jimmy says Orlando only wishes he was from Florida. He is too pale. He would burn up if the birds ever left and the sun came back again. Sometimes we catch him trying to play guitar at night. He sings from inside the booth at the top of his lungs. You can’t hear anything over the birds though, so he just looks like a mime.

We strap the gas can into the basket on the front of Jimmy’s bike. His Mom doesn’t know about our plan, but we stash a lot of our stuff at her place. My parents have taken over our garage with nets and cages and the stench of rotting feathers. Orlando tries to yell something after us about safety, but we are already gone, our legs pumping the pedals down the speckled streets. Small children watch us from the windows and above us the thrum of wings remains unending. We live permanently under a cloud and breathe filtered air. We are the only people outside and we would not have it any other way. We will not be cowed by all these fucking birds.

+

“This is not going to work. We need a longer hose or something. Maybe a bigger motor or like a water gun kind of thing. Air pressure? You’re supposed to be good at science, Tony.”

The birds only killed one man since they arrived. I mean, they’re slowly killing us all, I’m sure, but this was almost premeditated according to Jimmy. This was a homicide.

“Look, I can go back to your place and take a look if you want, but I don’t know if a hose is going to do it. We might be better just trying an oxygen tank or something.”

“And where are going to get one of those?” Jimmy says.

We are in the woods behind Jimmy’s place. There are birds in the trees around us, but they keep scattering whenever we start up the mower. It was Jimmy’s idea to build this machine. Something like a flamethrower on wheels to clear out the sky. Something to burn up all these winged oil spots and put an end to the surgical masks and rain coats. I thought high school was going to be full of girls in skirts and spaghetti straps, but the birds kind of ruined all of that. Everyone is all bundled up. We don’t even trust the ceilings inside the school. You can hear the babies squealing for food up in the rafters and down in the empty drains. They invade every space and stuff holes full with wrapping paper and old plastic grocery bags.

“Try and start it up again. I will go back to the house and try to find some more hose.”

The trees around me are made of dead branches and slimy bark. Jimmy’s backyard is fenced off from the woods, but that doesn’t mean the birds don’t like to settle in his yard. They hop away from me as I try and skirt around the abandoned barbecue. This was where Jimmy’s dad trapped a bunch of them after the last of the news teams began to trickle out of town. Once the cameras realized the birds were here to stay, most of them lost interest. They could always check in with us again in a couple weeks and file a report about the air pollution. The birds would not dictate their schedule. They were free to leave. Jimmy says we should go too, but he’s not ready yet. There are still too many birds here in Hudson. There are too many beaks to feed.

It was Jimmy’s Dad who was trying to cook steaks out in the backyard with an umbrella over his head when the birds swooped down to poke at his meat. Maybe he didn’t realize they were in there when he slammed the lid shut, or maybe he just didn’t give a shit. There was a scream at first, apparently. The sky went dark for a second. Jimmy described a cloud of wings and bright eyes descending from the roof to swallow up his father’s body in some feathered suit, their tiny beaks piercing his skin. Their shrill squawks drowned out his voice and the air smelt like burning hair, but it was all those feathers in the barbecue. Jimmy’s Mom pulled him away from the window. It lasted maybe fifteen minutes until his Dad stopped moving. His Mom was the one who remained composed when the cops arrived to take a statement. She was the one who led them to the corpse. The birds left most of the body behind, but the eyes were gone. The medics carted the body away under a blue tarp, but Jimmy said it still left a wet trail behind. The birds still don’t go near the barbecue and Jimmy says all they fear is fire.

I push my way into the garage and look for a longer piece of hose. I don’t really think this plan is going to work. If anything, one of us is just going to end up on fire. There really isn’t anyone else to hang out with though. Jimmy and I are the only one who will go outside. Most of the girls stay indoors and phone each other. Sometimes they just sleep or write messages in soap on their windows until the bird shit covers them again. We used to leave all the girls letters about our plan to burn out the sky, but they didn’t write back. No one really thinks we can pull it off. I don’t really blame them, but Jimmy seems to think girls aren’t worth our time anyway.

The garage is full of all his Dad’s stuff. Clothes and diplomas and fishing equipment are stacked up against the walls. Jimmy’s Mom dumped it all out here after they buried his father just outside town. She lets me stay over most nights when I get tired of listening to my parents strangling as many birds as they can for the government. My little brother says it’s like listening to someone treading water forever, but he’s a big fan of understatements. He uses headphones to block out the sound, but I swear all the chirping cuts right through the foam. It sounds like popped balloons or piñatas imploding inside the walls around me. It never seems to stop.

I step into the house still searching for the hose. Jimmy’s Mom keeps everything clean. There are no dishes in the sink. I sleep on a fold out couch that is tucked away every morning. Everything is in its right place. I move through the house looking for something to help us spew burning gas into the air. A funnel or a piece of pipe — there really isn’t much to find. Voices clatter down the stairs and I try to ignore them. With all the birds outside, most of us have to use the phone to reach each other. Some of the older houses out here still use a party line. Jimmy’s Mom is always on the phone with someone. I can hear her laughing up there. Then somebody who sounds like Orlando starts talking about moving and I stop at the bottom of the stairs.

“Look, I don’t need to stay here. I’ve got money from when my old man keeled over. He has an old house down in North Carolina or something. We can move down there, take the kid. I don’t really care what happens. I just can’t stay here any longer, Kelly.”

“Jimmy won’t want to go. He still wants to — ”

“What, finish off the birds? No, Kelly, this is a fucking ghost town. No one is coming by here. Oh, they might come for the bird anniversary or to take pictures of all the dead shit out here, but no one is moving into Hudson. We’re slowly draining out all the people until it’s just old timers and the poor fuckers who think they can win against these goddamn starlings. The things reproduce faster than you can blink. It’s a lost cause.”

“I know, I know, alright Orlando? I hear you. You wanna be the one who tells Jimmy? His Dad’s still buried here. All his friends are here. His school is here. He is still trying to be a kid. He doesn’t even know about you yet and now you wanna move him a thousand miles away?”

I try to sneak out the back door. Their voices are rising, but I know Orlando’s right.

“If it means getting away from this endless rain of shit? Hell yeah, Kelly.”

There is no way we can win. We can only try and run.

+

“What is it?” Jimmy says. He’s got the mower stuck in the mud again. He’s pushing it out of a hole and back up into the clearing. I try not to say anything, but he grabs me by the shoulder.

“You couldn’t find the hose or what? Come on, Tony. Do I have to do everything? Jesus.”

Jimmy starts stomping off towards the house, but I call after him.

“You don’t wanna go back there man. Let’s just finish up here and then…”

“What’s your problem, man?” Jimmy turns back towards me. He’s covered in sweat.

I say nothing and climb onto the mower. I try to back it up into the clearing, but Jimmy grabs the steering wheel. He tries to turn it off, but can’t get a handle on the key.

“Look, if you don’t wanna do this, that’s fine, alright? Just stop making excuses, Tony.”

I stop the mower. Jimmy won’t stop staring at me. His hands still clench the wheel.

“What is your problem, huh?”

I swallow and try to stare up into the trees.

“Orlando and your Mom — they were talking. They wanna go…”

“Go out, go what? Whatever he wants to do… Look, what is your problem?”

“They wanna move you down to Carolina or something. They wanna get out of town before everyone else leaves and Hudson just dies. And he’s right, man. I mean, he has a point.”

Jimmy lets go of the wheel and sit down on the ground. I don’t move from my seat.

“He thinks he’s my Dad? Is that it? I knew he was like, friends with my Mom, or whatever, but… he thinks he can take me down there? When we are doing all this shit here? Did they say anything about my Dad? What did my Mom say? Did she say it was a good idea? She knows that we own this house right? And that you and I are trying to get rid of all these things?”

I don’t want to say anything. I try to make eye contact with the birds around us. They are gathered on the branches, but they aren’t saying much. I want to crush them in my hands.

“He said he has a house… and I mean, well your Mom wasn’t happy, but Orlando kind of had a point. Like, who else goes outside besides us? No one is out there on the street at all.”

“That stupid pale fucker,” Jimmy says. His face goes red and I can see foam rising in his mouth. He spits onto the ground and I remember when Rachel Henderson shot him down in the fourth grade. He took all her pencil crayons and ran each one through the sharpener at recess until only shavings remained. Jimmy pulls his Dad’s motorcycle helmet and slams the visor shut.

“Nobody wants to fucking help. They’re all too busy planning with each other.”

Jimmy takes off into the woods and I’m left sitting on the lawn mower. The birds begin to cackle around me. I fire up the mower and try to ride it out of the woods. I want to follow him and explain this was all a mistake. We can still finish this project. We can still burn out the sky.

The mower gets stuck in the mud again and I am forced to walk.

+

Eventually, I catch up to Jimmy at Orlando’s gas station. He has smashed all the glass and is tearing down the pictures when I arrive. White sand beaches and Jimmy Buffett’s moustache flutter away into the wind past my face. The birds circle above the destruction, but refuse to swoop down for a closer look. Jimmy tears apart every image as I approach. He is still wearing his helmet and it is splotched with white arcs of shit. He turns and spots me riding toward him with the gas can dangling from my handlebars. He raises two middle fingers in my direction and runs toward his bike. I drop the gas can and keep pedaling. My lungs are filled with phlegm.

“We aren’t finished yet!” I scream through my bandanna. “We aren’t done! Come back! You can stay with me, man! You can stay, alright?”

Jimmy keeps pedaling away from me. His legs have always been stronger than mine. He thinks he can outrun this cloud. I scream after him as my muscles begin to surrender. They burn and burn and eventually I have to stop before I throw up or pass out into a ditch. Jimmy tosses up a tail of dust behind him as he hits the road out of town. He passes the sign welcoming everyone to Hudson. He passes the graveyard where they put his father and all our grandparents. He thinks he can beat them, that he can escape the cloud lingering above us all. Jimmy passes the final corner toward the highway. I can only see the glint of his black helmet now. He thinks he’s gone.

I look up into the sky above me. Everything is black and the wings go on forever.

+++

Andrew F. Sullivan was born in Peterborough, Ontario. He has an MA in English in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto. Sullivan’s fiction has recently been published by Joyland, The Good Men Project, Monkeybicycle, The Cleveland Review and Riddle Fence. He no longer works in a warehouse or as a butcher. You can find him at: afsullivan.blogspot.com.