Fiction · 04/12/2017

Birds of Prey

The cardinal landed in the crabapple that was still draped in wet, spring snow, and it was something about the weight of the bird, the way the branch bent under it, that made Brea stand up and go for the shotgun. A few weeks ago, it had been a butterfly, which had followed her inside and settled conspicuously on the kitchen table. She had dispatched it quickly with a dictionary, the weight of all those words, as if when the tiny metal wings crumpled a collective shout had gone up into the air, every word a weapon aimed at Nicolas, who was dumb enough to send a butterfly in March, to Vermont. She had thought to call him just to tell him to think of something better. He was funny, after all, and she was still married to him, though she planned to take care of that soon enough. She could, of course, call the police about his drones, but it pleased her, mildly, to thwart him in her own way, with her own drones.

And now a cardinal, of all things, but it seemed too early for cardinals in Vermont. Seeing the red blush of the bird in the tree made her smile a little; strangely enough, she realized she had been looking forward to this. It was a game of sorts, or had become a game, only now she realized how much energy it took to keep playing, to stay mad at Nicolas.

She stepped onto the covered porch in stocking feet, resting the barrel of the shotgun on her shoulder, and regarded the bird, who cocked its head, showing a black, gleaming eye, which, of course, was recording her. She gave a small wave, imagined Nicolas sitting in his apartment in New Hampshire, seeing her on the porch with the gun, realizing that he was an idiot for trying to spy on her. She wondered if he was waving back or if he had put his hands to his face. The cardinal would have cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. And there was something pathetic about the bird sitting on the cold branch. It almost looked like Nicolas in a way: its puffy mid-section and short, spindly legs, its feathers graying on the ends. She almost wished it were alive so she could touch it. But then she remembered the arguments, the steady deterioration of respect, all the angry words, and she leveled the barrel of the gun, knowing exactly what the spread of pellets would do at less than ten yards. She thought she could hear Nicolas holler across the miles as she squeezed the trigger.

As she knelt to collect the metal pieces and bits of red from the snowy lawn, she felt a touch of sadness like cold wind wafting through her chest, and she told herself she was being silly, and sentimental, that destroying the trespassing bird had been just. It was a drone, after all, and this was a drone war. Still, when she put the pieces in the trash, she could not bring herself to feel vindicated.

That evening, partly out of curiosity, partly because of the cardinal, she lifted the heavy bay door of the garage and pulled the white sheet off the winged reptile she had purchased a few weeks prior, after the chickadee had been lost in an ice storm. She had sent the chickadee in retaliation for a snowshoe hare that had hopped into her yard in January. That had fooled her for a day, until it malfunctioned and caught fire, a yellow-orange chemical blaze against the muted white of a winter afternoon. And, after the loss of the chickadee, she had purchased the reptile in a state of anger, wanting to make a statement.

It was horribly large, its elongated head almost level with hers, and bony with great membranous wings, not an exact replica of any true reptile but some engineer’s vision of what might have existed in the Triassic Period. People would call it a pterodactyl, and they would be close but wrong. It had a beak full of needle-sharp teeth, and inside it held the latest technology. It could fly hundreds of miles on a single charge, record days of video. It could even, if she wanted it to, speak in her own voice, which was already programmed. She had not intended to send it, not really. But she did wonder if Nicolas was sitting at his kitchen counter sipping a beer, or if he was scribbling away at a crossword puzzle. She wanted to see him walk to know if his knee was getting better, because he was stubborn and would not see a doctor. She tried to tell herself she no longer cared about him, but she knew it was a lie. Why they had been so cruel to one another these past few years was a mystery to her. There seemed no reason for it at all. And now this drone war, a sickening game really.

Still, she punched in the code on her phone and watched the creature come to life. It flapped its wings once, let them droop to the concrete, bat-like, and looked at her, a menacing gaze, exactly why she had bought it, and yet now it seemed far too aggressive. It looked, simply, like it might eat her. She took a step back and watched it move clumsily across the floor, its wings touching the sides of the gaping door, its neck crouched, ready for flight.

Wait,” she yelled, stabbing at her phone, searching for the command to turn it off, only realizing too late that she had inadvertently hit “Send.” She fumbled for the command to stop it but couldn’t find it, swiped uselessly at her phone as she watched the creature lift its heavy body into the purpling twilight. She thought of the shotgun, to shoot it down, but it was already traveling at a great speed. She felt her pulse in her throat, remembering the picture of Nicolas she had uploaded into the beast’s hard drive, his address also.

Already the drone was an ink spot against the darkening sky, hurtling toward its goal. And what was its goal? She no longer knew. She wanted it back now, wanted to warn Nicolas.

She scanned the app on her phone and managed only to lock the drone into “Attack” mode, her phone flashing red with warning. She would call Nicolas, for the first time in months, and tell him she was done with all of this, alert him to this approaching madness. Her phone flashed and buzzed in her hand. Call him now, she told herself, but for a few uncertain moments she watched the sky, not knowing exactly what she would say, not quite ready to hear his gravelly voice but knowing, somehow, he was waiting for the call.

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Mike Minchin’s stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Gargoyle Magazine, Vermont Magazine, Mud Season Review, and others. His fiction has received Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers and the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. He earned his MFA in writing from VCFA.