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THE BIRDCAGE by Tyler Marable

Quicksand. What an odd substance. It grips, pulls, yanks. It seeks to drag you under. You struggle for all that is dear, but the more you flail, the more the quicksand sucks you in farther. So you breathe in deep and try to stay calm. Stop fighting, just lie back and wait to rise to the top of this rare circumstance. It seems counterintuitive, but that is how one conquers quicksand.

I had been floating above the mud that threatened to smother me in its misery for some years—four I believe.

Although the Southern sun burned bright, darkness enveloped the inside of my dorm room. Laughter filled the hallway outside, students on the way to class. I’d almost forgotten what laughter sounded like. Strange. How can one forget something as common as a blade of grass? And yet, laughter was foreign to me. It never filled my room.

I rose from bed, head swimming and throbbing, a memento from binge drinking the night before. The clock read 11:15. I had missed biology class again. One more absence meant automatic failure. How could I even go to class? Today was the day. The clock read 11:17 and the wall calendar read October 21. The day Robin died.

What time did you pass away? 11:40, 11:50?

I fell back into bed, plunged my face into the pillow.

The quicksand has returned, I see.

A knock at the door startled me. I said nothing, did nothing, thinking they’d go away. Another knock came, not as polite this time.

I buried my face further into the pillow. “What!”

“Open the door, Sam.” Mike’s voice was muffled by the wall, but I could tell he wasn’t paying a social visit.

I almost ran to the door, damn near snatched it open in annoyance. “What?”

“We’ve had complaints from other students of excessive noise.”

“And?”

“I’m a residence life coordinator. It’s my job to take care of grievances and conflict,” he said, his voice filled with bravado. How pretentious. Mike took his job, and himself, a little too seriously.

“Well, I don’t have any friends over. I don’t play my TV too loud. What’s the problem?”

“Cut the bull, Sam. I know you have a pet in here. Where’s the bird?”

“What bird?” I said. Mike tried to cross the threshold, but I held steady. He stepped left; I stepped left. He went right, so did I. “Why would I have a bird in here?”

Please keep your beak shut, Petey.

Mike gave me an irritated look. “What’s that on your refrigerator?”

I looked over my shoulder. Petey’s birdcage sat on the mini fridge, a towel draped over it. I had forgotten to put him back in my closet the night before, in my drunken stupor. Alcohol had been a wonderful remedy, but it was not without its side effects. If I found myself sinking further below the quicksand, five shots of bourbon pulled me to the surface. Yet it was my self-prescribed medication that put me into this predicament—if I had been sober the night before, I would have hidden Petey.

Mike pushed past me. He snatched the towel off the birdcage and took one look at the robin. “You’re out.”

“Mike, I can explain.”

“I got to report this. You’ll probably be kicked out. You’re already on academic probation.”

“I found him on the quad. His wing was broken.”

Mike didn’t care. He was already leaving.

I grabbed his arm. “Mike, just let me set Petey free. No one will know.”

He ran his hand through his hair. What would he do? When forced between doing his job and giving someone another chance, Mike always did the former.

He sighed and said, “I know you’ve been through a lot, Sam. But you got to let the bird go. And do not let this happen again.”

“Okay,” I whispered.

I pulled back the curtains and opened the window. Sunlight exploded into the room. I hated light. My room looked better dark. Mike didn’t leave. He stood there, his arms folded, making sure I got rid of my only friend, my new roommate.

I set the birdcage on the windowsill and opened the door. I imagined Petey would strut out, walk around the windowsill, and stare at me with wide googly eyes. And I’d have to say something like, “Go on. Get out of here, you stupid bird.”

But he flew off without a word. Without a thank-you for saving him. Without a goodbye. Robin didn’t say goodbye. Didn’t get a chance to. Mom didn’t say goodbye, either.

“Don’t let it happen again,” Mike said.

* * *

The fall air sneaked in under my jacket. I peered out of the hunting tent at rolling hills leading to nowhere. I imagined death to be the same. Rolling hills leading to nowhere.

“So, I heard Mike made you get rid of your roommate,” Andrew whispered, his words visible in autumn white.

“Yeah.”

“That’s why you’re here?”

I gripped the rifle tighter in annoyance. “Shut up. You’ll scare away the game.”

“It’s been a while since you came hunting with me. Thought you forgot about ole Andrew.”

“I didn’t forget about you. Been busy. That’s all.”

“Busy doing what? Drinking? Feeling sorry for yourself?” He flinched. He knew he’d gone too far. “Look, Sam, I’m sorry. It just—”

“Yeah, you are sorry. A sorry son of a bitch.”

“You calling your own aunt a bitch? I knew you were screwed up, just not that much.”

“Will you knock it off?” I said. “I’m trying to hunt.”

“I’m worried about you.”

“Why?”

“You never come out of that room. I only see you in class.”

“And that’s a problem because…?”

“It’s a problem because it seems like you made your own prison. It’s a problem because you weren’t always like this. Not until. You know?” He looked downrange. Probably thought he saw a deer. No. There was something else in his eyes. Was it hurt? That look was unfamiliar in his eyes. It was at home it my own, for I saw it every day when I gazed into the mirror. But in Andrew’s opal eyes that look of hurt was odd and out of place—a stranger hiding among the blue.

“Until what?” I said.

Andrew kept those opal eyes down range, blinking rapidly. Was he trying to expel that stranger of hurt from the blue, or was he fighting back tears? “I lost Robin, too, Sam. You weren’t the only one,” he said.

Foliage shook two hundred yards away. A buck ambled from the tree line into the open. The most beautiful creature I’d ever seen. Next to Petey of course.

A doe trotted out next to its lover.

“A twelve pointer,” Andrew whispered. “Leave the doe alone. Don’t let the buck get away.”

I gripped the rifle tighter. “He won’t.”

Adrenaline flowed through my body and crept into my limbs. My arms quaked. The gun swayed. The deer seemed to be trembling. Was he afraid? No. It was I who was afraid. I gazed through the scope, the crosshair dancing across the buck’s center mass.

Andrew patted my shoulder. “What are you waiting for, Sam?”

I started to squeeze the trigger. The buck nuzzled its lover then looked at me. Did it know I was about to end its life? Did it know I alone held its fate in my hands? Not destiny. Not some imaginary god. Only me. Did it know I was about to make the doe a widow?

I lowered the rifle.

“What are you doing!” Andrew’s whisper almost grew into a shout.

“I can’t,” I said.

“Then give me the gun.”

He reached for the rifle. I pulled it away. “Let him go. He’s with his mate.”

Andrew couldn’t contain his excitement any longer. “He’s a twelve pointer!” he shouted.

The startled deer bounded off. Both of them.

“Damn it, Sam.”

I said nothing.

Andrew sighed. “The Sam I used to know would have put a bullet through that buck’s center mass. You used to enjoy the sport of hunting.”

“Hunting is not a sport,” I snapped. “In most sports the other team know they’re playing.”

“You’ve changed a lot, Sam,” he said.

I was tired of him saying that. Of everyone saying: “You’ve changed.” Isn’t that what people are supposed to do? Far as I am concerned, if you don’t change you are not living life right. Or perhaps, if you don’t change, life hasn’t found you quite yet. Because once it does, life will shatter everything you once believed in. Life will destroy everything you once were and rebuild you to its liking. It don’t always put the pieces back in the right places, either. Life will fashion you to its own choosing. It seeks to change you for better or worse.

“I have changed,” I said. “I wish I was the same girl you knew so long ago. Samantha. Your little cousin.”

Andrew said nothing. He always had a problem keeping his lips shut, speaking at the most inopportune times. A real extrovert. He’d become introverted as soon as the conversation got too heavy, though.

He reached into a pocket and pulled out a cigarette. Forgot he still smoked. Oh, that’s right. Andrew only smoked when he drank, or when conversation did not come to play about his lips.

His lips found no words, only a Marlboro.

We sat there in silence, listening to the world. And that’s all I needed. Just silence and his company.

A shot in the distance shattered the peace. Seconds later another shot rang out, echoing through the countryside.

“Two shots,” I said. “Who needs two shots to take one deer?”

“Not everyone is as good with a rifle as you are, Sam.” Cigarette smoke danced with Andrew’s words and mingled with condensation. “I think we should head back.”

We packed up the hunting tent and began our long journey back to Andrew’s truck. Frost crunched underneath our feet, the only conversation to be heard. Sometimes the best conversation is no conversation. Being silent and listening to the ballad of the world is as nice as a chat with a seldom seen friend.

We entered the tree line. I wondered if our new acquaintances were hiding among the woods. Were they surreptitiously stealing glances of the hunter who had spared their lives? Were they secretly thanking me? A silly thought to have, I know. Andrew’s shouting probably scared the deer into the next county. But I was sure the deer would thank me in their own way. By loving each other.

As we walked the woods, I found our friends were not hiding among the pines. They lay dead just off the trail. A doe and a buck. Only the buck was missing his head.

“There goes our deer,” Andrew said. “Looks like someone took a trophy.”

“Who would do such a thing? Cut off the head and leave the body to rot. They left the doe, too.”

“There’s been talk of assholes doing this,” Andrew said. “What a waste. We can’t take the doe; it’s not the season. Not sure I want to take the buck, either. It’s—”

“We can’t let them stay here,” I said.

“Why not?”

“It’s just…”

“Leave ’em for the buzzards,” Andrew said. “I don’t feel like loading them on my truck anyway. I didn’t shoot them.”

Andrew walked on, but I didn’t budge. I stood there gazing down at the doe and her decapitated lover. The doe stared up at me, her eyes devoid of life, blood dribbling from her mouth. Robin looked the same that day I had killed her.

“What are you waiting for?” Andrew called.

“Nothing,” I whispered.

* * *

Two weeks went by. I lay in bed thinking of the deer. Did they know their lives were about to end that day? Robin didn’t. Nor did I think my life would end with her passing. I don’t think I ever lived a day after that.

Something tapped against my dorm window. I shot up. Another tap came. I went to the window and drew back the curtain.

Andrew stood on the quad with Wesley standing beside him. Wesley was holding pebbles.

I opened the window.

“Hey, Kappa Sigma is throwing a party tonight. You coming?” Wesley asked.

“Um… no,” I said.

“You’re right, Andrew, she has changed.”

“People seem to do that, you know?” I said. “And why didn’t you just call or send me a text? Is this the ’90s? Throwing rocks? You’re going to break my window, idiots.”

“We tried calling,” Andrew said. “You wouldn’t answer.”

My phone was off, as always. “I’m not going to a stupid party.”

“But—”

I shut the window and lay back down in bed.

Another pebble tapped against the glass.

I sighed and went back to the window.

Both Wesley and Andrew stared up at me with puppy eyes. They knew no one could resist that look. They knew no one could say no to that.

“No!” I said and closed the curtain.

Who needed a party? I was having my own. I poured myself another shot of vodka and gulped the fire in one dreadful swallow. That made six shots. Wondered if I could get to ten.

I lay back down. Although I was still, the room spun around me like a surreal carousal. My thoughts swam, and I nearly drowned in them. I thought about what Andrew had said about me changing. I thought about the deer. I thought about Robin, that day I had killed her. I thought about Dad…. I thought about Mom.

Another tap came at the window. I couldn’t believe it. I jumped out of bed. “Andrew! I’ll kill—”

My words snagged in my throat once I pulled the curtain back. There on the windowsill sat my old roommate. Petey tapped the window with his beak again. I opened it. The bird trotted in, looked around, then flew to the mini fridge.

“You’re looking for your birdcage, aren’t you?” I went to the closet and pulled Petey’s cage from the top shelf. I opened it. Petey flew in and took his perch. “I can’t believe you came back.”

I placed the cage on the fridge and just smiled and watched Petey.

I can’t believe you came back… You came back home.

I couldn’t keep the bird in my room. Mike meant business. I would be kicked out if Petey was found. I draped a towel over the cage and sneaked out the dorm to my car.

I sat in the passenger’s side.

Fun fact for the common alcoholic: a police officer can give you a DUI for sleeping in your car if the key is in the ignition and you’re in the driver’s side seat. So I set the birdcage in the driver’s side and let my seat back and just lay there and stared at the robin.

“You came back,” I whispered. “Back home.”

Something wet glided down my cheek. I sat up and looked in the rearview mirror. I was crying, my eyes sparkling in the streetlight.

* * *

When I awoke the next morning, I drove home.

It’d been awhile since I’d seen Dad, much less spoken to him. So ringing the doorbell was an uncomfortable experience. I stood there three minutes, staring at the damn thing. Or was it three lifetimes?

Finally my finger hit the bell.

I could hear Dad coming, his cheap boots click-clacking on the hardwood. He still wears those things?

The door opened. Dad’s eyes were complacent at first, the look of a man expecting ordinary company. His eyes widened when they met mine. “Samantha.”

“Hey.”

“I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I know.”

He opened the screen door and stepped out on the porch, cleaning his glasses with his shirt. He put them back on. “It’s been—”

“Four years,” I said. “Well… almost four. Can I come inside, this is getting heavy?” I gestured to the birdcage.

“Of course, of course.” He held the door and ushered me inside.

The living room was the same. Same furniture, same TV, even same smell.

“I was just about to eat dinner,” Dad said. “You want to join me?”

“Not really.” My stomach grumbled. I hadn’t eaten all day; I had spent it driving. “I just came home because I wanted to know if I can leave Petey in my old room. I can’t keep him in the dorm. I have feed for him. I’ll come back every so often.”

“Oh, you got a pet.” Dad’s voice was dejected. “That’s the only reason you came home? Yeah, you can leave him.” He walked past me on the way to the kitchen, not stopping or turning around to say, “Just shut the screen door on your way out. The spring’s broken.”

I stood there a second. He’d changed. I suddenly knew what Andrew and everyone had been saying about me. Dad had changed. He was sad. That goofy father who gave me piggyback rides as a child, who put on swing music and danced around the house, who made me a smiley-face breakfast every morning was gone.

I set the birdcage down and chased after him. “I actually lied earlier. I’m a little hungry.”

He turned and barely grinned. “I know. Your stomach has been talking since you got here.”

I followed him into the kitchen. “So what’s for dinner?”

“Ham sandwiches.”

Should have known.

Dad used to be a wizard in the kitchen, a real Wolfgang Puck. I assumed that stopped after Mom left the world. He had no one to cook for.

He reached into the fridge and grabbed some mayo. “Take a seat, Sam.”

I sat at the table. Dad made sandwiches with no toppings. Just plain ham and mayonnaise. He pulled a bottle of wine from a cabinet and set in on the table along with two glasses.

“It ain’t nothing fancy,” he said. “Sorry, it’s all I have to drink. Unless you prefer tap water.”

I preferred red liquor to red wine. But alcohol was alcohol. It had been too long since my last drink—over twenty-four hours.

“Wine is fine,” I said.

He poured us both a glassful and took a seat and started eating. We just sat there in silence—awkward silence—nothing but the wall clock ticking and tocking.

“How’s school?” Dad asked with a mouthful, not even looking up from his sandwich.

“It’s okay…”

“…”

“…”

Tick tock.

“You learning anything?”

“I guess…”

“…”

“…”

Tick tock.

“You’re a psychology major, right?” he asked.

“Chemistry,” I said. “You’ve changed.”

“Huh?”

“You’ve changed.”

His gaze left mine and went down to the table. “Don’t we all?”

“Yes, but not for the better sometimes.”

He scoffed. “Wouldn’t you know.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He looked up. Looked right into my eyes. His stare had never been so piercing. “Linda wanted you there.”

Now it was my turn to look at the table. My eyes left that new serrated gaze of his. “What?”

“Your mother wanted you there.”

“She wanted her little dyke by her bedside?” I said through gritted teeth. “I thought I wasn’t her daughter.”

“She was sorry, Samantha. She knew she was wrong to disown you for being gay. I told her as much, several, several, several times. She just wanted to see you one last time while she was in the hospital, before she passed away.”

“…”

Tick tock.

“Samantha…”

I wanted to cry. A lump sat in my throat. “What the hell do you want me to say?”

“Say something. Say you miss her.”

I started to cry. “I miss her, I miss her, I miss her. I miss Mom. I miss Robin.”

“I miss your mother, too,” Dad said. “I heard what happened to Robin. It’s—”

“My fault.”

“Huh?”

“I was drunk.”

“But you weren’t driving. Were you?” Dad asked, voice filled with alarm.

“No. She had to drive because I was drunk. She took the keys.”

“Andrew said she had been texting while driving.”

I nodded but said nothing.

Robin had been texting. I was passed-out drunk in the passenger side. I should have been the one driving. Why was she texting? Robin was brilliant. She was going to be my little doctor someday. Why did she do something as dumb as texting and driving? Why?

Why was she texting her ex-girlfriend?

“I shouldn’t have been drunk.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Dad said. “You got to stop blaming yourself. Andrew said you won’t even come out of your room. Said you made your own prison.”

“Andrew doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“He said you’d done caged yourself like your friend in the living room.”

Petey chirped. Just a singing while Dad and I had the toughest conversation in our lives. I wondered how birds did that—they sang while imprisoned, after losing loved ones, with each sunrise. No matter how cruel the world got, they kept on singing.

“I’ve done the same after Linda died, after losing you both. I think you might be depressed, Sam. You need to talk to someone. If not me, then to a doctor. To a psychiatrist.”

“I’m fine,” I said.

He took a sip of wine. “I know what you’re going through. Others may say that out of sympathy. But, Sam, I know what you’re going through. I’ve been drinking myself into comas. I’ve been depressed. Hell, I’m depressed about being depressed. I don’t feel like a man, you know? Other people are going through much more harder things than I, and I’m acting like a wussy. I’m depressed about being depressed. The more I try to fight it, the worse I get.”

“Quicksand,” I said.

“Huh?”

“It’s like being stuck in quicksand. The more you struggle, the faster you sink.”

“Well, how does one escape quicksand?”

I shrugged. “You have to stop struggling, lie back, and try to float on the surface.”

My father nodded. “Yeah, but I think it’s better to have someone throw you a lifeline and pull you out. At least out of the kind of quicksand we’re in.”

“I guess so. Can we just eat now?”

“We forgot to say grace.”

I rolled my eyes. “You know I’m an atheist.”

“You used to believe,” he said. “In fact, Reverend Williams asked when you were coming back to church years ago.”

I rolled my eyes even harder. “Reverend Williams? That slicked-haired, womanizing, adulterous, hypocritical, snake-oil salesman. He’s reason enough not to go back to church.”

“Jeeze,” Dad said, “tell me how you really feel.”

“I will. I don’t believe in God anymore. I don’t want to believe in a God who’d send Robin to hell just because of whom she loved. How can I believe Robin went to hell for loving me?”

“I know you think I’m an idiot,” Dad said. “I don’t know too much. I don’t know as much as you, my little chemist. But I know God didn’t send that little sweet girl to hell for loving you. He gave me you and your mother, and for that I praise His name every day.”

I said nothing.

“We don’t have to say grace if you don’t won’t to.”

I said nothing.

Dad made more sandwiches. We just sat there in silence, listening to the clock and Petey’s chirping. I smiled to myself as we broke bread and sipped cheap wine. We were having communion.

* * *

I got Petey situated in my room, said goodbye to Dad, and headed back to Auburn University. Dad was sure to tell me to come back and see him again (he said it a bazillion times) and I thought I might take him up on the offer.

During the drive home, I kept thinking about what he had said. Sometimes to escape quicksand you need a friend to throw you a lifeline.

I did a U-turn instead of heading back to my birdcage of a dorm room.

I stopped by the store and bought groceries.

The drive back home took no time. Curious how driving anywhere takes longer than driving home. Maybe because home is where we belong.

I rang the doorbell and heard Dad’s cheap boot click-clacking against the hardwood. The door opened. Dad was even more surprised to see me this time than the first.

“I thought you could make me that famous Parmesan chicken of yours,” I said. “A little mac and cheese, too.”

He smiled. I loved it. That smile of his. “I’m a little rusty. I haven’t cooked for anyone since…”

“Well, you better shake the rust off.” I shoved the bag of groceries into his arm. “You’re going to be cooking a lot. I like pancakes, eggs, bacon, and grits at seven. I eat dinner at twelve and supper at six.”

“But don’t you have to go back to school? Driving all the way to Auburn every day is going to be rough.”

“I can take the rest of the semester off,” I said. “The deadline to withdraw is next week.”

He just smiled again. He didn’t say anything. His glasses fogged up.

I suppressed a nervous giggle. Why was he acting like this? “I can come inside, can’t I?”

“Of course.”

My father welcomed me back inside and shut the door.

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AUTHOR BIO:

Tyler Marable studies psychology and creative writing at Jacksonville State University. He hopes to become a great doctor, novelist, father, and husband one day.

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Birdcage”

With the quicksand image that opens and underscores it, author Tyler Marable delivers a story that hooks the reader from the beginning, builds a mystery, and provides three surprises: the main character’s gender, her sexual orientation, and how Robin died.

While we do not normally compare stories that we publish, readers may find it interesting to look at this piece and “My Shattered Caterpillar Jar” in this issue to see two authors’ different and successful takes on the same theme of a father and child reconnecting. To us this demonstrates the diversity of writers’ imaginations in taking established themes and crafting new and interesting stories from them.

[Note from the editors: PLEASE DON’T TEXT WHILE DRIVING!]