Birds was first published in the collection One Step Beyond by Subatomic Books (2008). This short story is currently available as part of the Birdsong collection from Doublebunny Press.
Me & Coney, we saw that shit happen. It’s like three in the morning and we’re driving home from Cleveland, Kitty and Noey passed out in the back ‘cos they drank ’til they screamed at each other during load-out and Coney’s the only one sober enough to drive the van—when Coney says, she says, “What the fuck was that?” and stamps on the brakes. It’s like a fuckin’ meteorite zooming past us, and the van’s skidding out in the gravel of the median strip, spinning, and then we’re facing the city, watching it.
It’s some kind of fireball the size of a tank, you can’t miss it. The other cars, they’re all pulled over on the side of the road, watching it, too. Then the thing gets some air under it – heads up into the clouds over Cleveland, and you know it’s tearing up the miles ‘cos it looks small all of a sudden and then disappears. And just as Noey’s pulling himself off the floor next to me, saying, “What the hell, Coney?” there’s this amazing BOOM and the whole goddamned sky lights up like daytime. Then Kitty says from somewhere in the back, “Oh, that sounds bad. That sounds real bad.”
Cleveland’s not gone, but we all think it is at first, ‘cos the lights are all out.
* * *
We figure to go to Sandy’s, ‘cos she’s a mom, right? And people with kids, they’ve got that preparation thing going on – breakfast, school closings, sneakers that fit, you know. Also, Sandy’s always got food made and we’re all getting hungry, but we know we gotta get as far from Cleveland as we can. None of us can say why we don’t want to stop, we just know. And then Coney says, after we’ve been driving for a while, she says, “How come, do you think, no one’s driving out of the city?”
Noey’s been dialing numbers on his cell, trying his friends in Shaker Heights, his sister’s apartment on Euclid, the bar we just left an hour ago. No one picks up. He keeps trying for a while, and then we hit a patch with no signal and he gives up to dig around in his bag for his pills.
Noey says, “We stop next. I’ve gotta get my prescriptions refilled, OK?” I tell him yeah, we’ll find a drugstore, and he’d better not have a seizure on stage ‘cos it freaks out the girls. He asks, “Do you think it was a bomb?” Then Kitty asks, “Do you think it was the only bomb?” Coney says, “Maybe it wasn’t a bomb – nothing caught fire, right?” She says, “It really looked like a meteor, y’know?”
None of us says anything else. No one else thinks it was a meteor.
* * *
Sandy doesn’t think it was a meteor. She says she saw some footage on TV and it looked like a bomb. She’d know, too, after the time she spent in Israel. But there hasn’t been any TV for a few days, it went out with the electric. She says she’d like another look to vouch for it.
She’s kneeling on the living room rug next to Noey while he twitches. There hasn’t been a drug store open for a few days, either. She thinks we should press on with the tour – safest place is to keep moving. But we should find Noey some of his pills before much longer; this shit’s ridiculous. She says, “You can’t cross the country with a brain-damaged bass player and no pills. It’s been less than a week and he’s a fuckin’ mess.” Her kids push their toys around them on the rug like people go into convulsions in the living room all the time. I dunno, maybe they do at Sandy’s house. She wonders out loud if she’s got any valiums left and if they’re good anymore.
That night Noey tries Cleveland again. He hasn’t got an answer yet. Kitty says no one picks up in Chicago. She says, “I think everyone’s gone there, too.”
Me and Coney, we sit with maps and figure out the dates. If we leave out the big cities, there’s seven dates left to play in twenty-two days. Huntington’s the next stop. Coney figures we can break into a Walgreen’s and be there day after tomorrow, on time.
* * *
But then Noey won’t take the pills.
After all the bullshit involved in breaking in the back window of the pharmacy and then scrounging through what someone who broke in the front left over, and finding what’s probably the right pills, he won’t take them. He says he doesn’t want to take anything he’s not a hundred percent sure of, it took too long to figure out the right mix of chemicals. Him and Kitty get into it, her shouting at him, “What? Falling down pissing yourself is better?” and him insisting that he can’t go into a coma when all the hospitals are like ghost towns, yeah, it’s better. It’s a really shitty drive to Huntington.
Huntington has lights. Turns out everyone has lights now, we just happen to be in Huntington when they come back on. Whatever. It means we can plug in. We don’t ask questions – the bar’s full. We load in, we soundcheck, Noey has a four minute fit on the nasty wood floor, we all proceed to drink.
There’s a steady stream of people who turn up to drink and talk. It’s all theories and circumstances – sunspots, cell reception, a lot of phones are out, all the big cities ring to no answer. The grid got knocked out for a while and the electric’s just come back up. But everyone’s nervous – there’s no news, no TV, no radio, either. One guy says his friend drove out to Pittsburgh after he couldn’t get his girlfriend on the phone, and he hasn’t come back yet. No one who’s driven out has come back yet. There’s no word, just guesses. People are getting drunk to fill up time until they get answers and have something to keep busy with. No one’s been going to work ‘cos the power’s been out, and now it’s Friday night. They want to know what we’ve seen. There just isn’t that much to tell. We get on stage around ten.
And everything’s fine until it suddenly isn’t. We’re playing stuff off the CD – songs that hit the radio a few months ago. People are familiar with it, they’re enjoying themselves. Some of the kids in the front are singing along, even. We’re having a good time, four or five songs in.
Then the bass cuts out. I look over at Noey and he’s standing there with this faraway, glassy stare like he gets right before he falls down. And then . . . well, then he’s just not there anymore. But that really makes it sound too simple – he kind of . . . Well, he kind of explodes.
I blink and there’s a fucking ton of little birds all over the place. His bass hits the floor with a slam and a rising hum of feedback, in the middle of all these little brown birds, sparrows, flying like they’re in a centrifuge where Noey was just standing, flying around and around, and then they break all at once, and make out for over the crowd. I stop playing to stare. Kitty and Coney stop to stare, too. The whole bar comes to a grinding halt. The birds – there must be a few hundred – they bank off with this insane precision, and go out the front door.
Kitty says, “Oh . . . Well, that’s new.” Coney drops her sticks and walks real slow through to the door. The crowd parts for her without a word. She looks outside and then turns back in. She says, “Well… Well, he’s gone, I think.”
* * *
Uncle Dave, the soundguy at the Asbury Park gig, clearly doesn’t believe word one we have to say about Noey. He thinks we’re joking, making light of the fact that our bass player split on us. He tells us, “I remember working with these bands at Fort Apache – someone would get pissed off and make like they were boycotting the session. They always turned up in the end, though. Don’t worry, he’ll turn up. Always do.” It’s also clear by the way he keeps looking at me practicing that he hopes Noey shows up.
I’ve been attached to Noey’s bass like we were together in the womb since Huntington, trying to write lines to play that Coney can cue off of. We’re both nervous about the set tonight. She says, “He was really stunning, you know?” And I don’t know if she’s talking about his playing or the thing with the birds.
We’re sitting in a booth to the side of the bar, me with the bass, her tapping on the table, and it feels like it might just come together. Doors don’t open for another hour, so there’s that.
And then there’s the gasp out of Kitty at the bar. She’s knocked her drink into her lap, rushing to point at Noey.
“Yer bass player’s here. Told ya,” Uncle Dave growls from the soundboard.
“You assholes left me in Huntington – what the fuck?” He’s filthy and wearing someone else’s clothes. You can tell ‘cos his sleeves are too short and he’s got the backs of the sneakers folded down under his heels to make his feet fit. Coney and me, we’re out of the booth in a second. Kitty stammers, “You. You—” and can’t get anymore out. Coney says, “We thought you— what happened to you, man?” He asks her to buy him a beer. His wallet’s gone missing with his clothes.
It takes three beers for us to understand that he has no idea what birds we’re talking about, that he came to without any clothes on, behind the bar yesterday and had to steal clothes out of a dryer in someone’s cellar. He hitched all the way here to meet us. He’s really hurt that we left him behind. Coney tells him that we looked for him, and we really did. He thinks we’re fucking with him about the birds, that we ditched him ‘cos he seized on stage. Kitty shakes her head and leaves. By the time she comes back with clothes out of Noey’s bag, he might believe us. Kitty says, “Hey, do you want some of Sandy’s valium?” He says no, he just had three drinks. Is she trying to kill him?
We get almost all the way through the set when it happens again. There’s the reverberating bang of the bass on the floor and the cyclone of sparrows that nearly beats the door guy senseless before he opens the door and they shoot through like a geyser. That’s the end of the set.
Josh, the guy who set up the show, comes to pay us while I’m packing up Noey’s gear. He’s pale as snow. He says to Coney, “I was up in Princeton after the Flash.” That’s what people are calling it now, the Flash. He says the whole town’s empty – except for the crows. Day after the Flash he was out there with his roommate, walking around to see what happened. Nothing but a sea of blackbirds. Trees were full of them, lawns covered, every roof black with birds, a sea of inky feathers. And while he’s gaping at the birds, he realizes that the roommate is gone. One minute she’s there, next it’s just him and the crows and her car keys where she was standing. He called for her and then when she didn’t answer, he got in the car and drove back as fast as he could. A day after the power came back on she showed up at their apartment. Still has no idea how she got there. She won’t leave the apartment.
We spend a good two hours looking for Noey and then lock ourselves in the van for the night. Maybe he’ll find his way back to the last place he saw us.
* * *
It happens again in Weston, before we get on stage, even, it happens. Phones aren’t picking up in Springfield, so we decide not to go there. It happens in Canton. It happens in Sturgis, too, but this time when he explodes, I pick up the bass like this shit happens all the time, which I guess that it does now, and we finish the set. That night at load-out the van is covered – covered – in bird shit. “This is completely uncool,” Coney says when she sees it. Kitty says, “At least it’s not fish. I mean, picture it,” she says. “Noey goes bang and all of us scatter, trying to scoop him into a glass of water. We’d have to set up an aquarium before soundcheck.” Coney thinks it might be better than this.
What’s really bizarre is how it gets so normal so quick. It’s our fucking finale now. Or our mid-show climax. Word’s gotten out – crowds are turning up just to see the magic exploding bassist. He’s been getting mad admiration. The girls hang all over him from the minute he shows up
News is starting to filter in, more stuff like Princeton. One of the bartenders tells us Ann Arbor’s doves as far as the eye can see. The drummer from the opening band says that they left Austin after watching the Congress Street bats have at it with boat-tailed grackles. There’s a story going around about a payphone in Boston that was answered by the call of a million blue jays. I sit at the bar and listen to the stories while watching Noey try to go about his business as people interrupt him at it.
He looks rough. It’s not just that he’s barefoot again; he’s looking threadbare all over. The girls don’t help it. They descend on him at the stage during set-up. They all want to touch him, they reach for his face, pet at his hair.
In the bathroom he and I stand at the sinks. He doesn’t want to go out there yet, he says it’s too much. He just wants to play and enjoy it. He says after the show tonight he wants some of Sandy’s valium; it’s got to be the seizures that do it, it sure feels like it is. He’ll try the pills. He just wants to play. And the flying, he remembers it now, it’s making him tired. The coming to and not knowing where his shoes are is pissing him off. “The girls, they don’t get it,” he says while washing his face. “It’s like being pulled apart. But they think it’s something else, something freeing. It takes everything I’ve got not to lose parts of myself.” He wipes his face on the sleeve of his stolen sweatshirt. “Do you know? This one girl begged me to teach her how.”
The place is packed tonight. It’s a long space, but skinny, with a straight view of the back door from the stage. The door guy’s been told that it has to stay open – it has to. He says he knows, he’ll keep it open.
We’re all the way through the set before it happens. For a minute there when it dawns on me we made it through to the last song, I think that maybe we’ll get off easy, that it won’t happen at all, that we’ll have just a quiet, regular show. But then there’s the moment –- the bass cut, the clatter of the instrument hitting the stage, the throb of feedback, the batter of wings. Coney smacks the big cymbal and thank you, goodnight. We start to unplug as Noey flies away.
It’s girl squeal that gets my attention. There’s still a knot of girls in the middle of the floor, and they’re all crowded around this one girl who’s holding something. I put down the cable I’m winding and walk over to see, and when I get up close the girls all shush up quick. I ask real nice, “Hey, whatcha got there?” and she turns to face me.
A sparrow. She’s holding it with both hands as it struggles to get free. “Oh my God, let it go!” shouts Coney from right behind me. “Let it go!” she yells and lunges for the girl, but the girl’s faster than her. The door’s still open and she runs right out. Coney starts chasing her, but someone knocks her down. The girls who’re left pile on top and pound on her until she stops moving. I see Kitty take off out the door, so I go to Coney, pull her limp and muttering up off the floor. I hear myself screaming, “What have you done! What did you do that for?” All the while I pray that the girl loses her grip on the sparrow.
* * *
Moorhead is a fucking nightmare. We get there half an hour before we’re supposed to go on and the agent is bullshit we missed the seven o’clock load-in call. Coney tries to explain: the drive through St. Paul and the assault of magpies, how it was like driving through a black and white blizzard. She takes him outside to see the van and the spiderwebbed windshield. He has no sympathy, not even for the day-old bruises on her face. He has a packed house and we’re late. He yells at Coney that we’re unprofessional, and where’s our bassplayer? “He’ll show up,” Kitty tells him in the small flat voice that’s all she’s been able to muster since yesterday. She says, “He’ll show up,” without any confidence. Coney starts to cry and goes around to the back of the van. I tell the agent we’re fast, we don’t need a soundcheck. We’ll go on on time, just start the opening band, we’ll be ready by the time they’re done. He says, “Just use their gear. Don’t bother to unload,” and storms back in.
The place is full beyond capacity and sweating, and the crowd is all staring at me holding the bass. After the first song someone realizes that Noey isn’t with us. There’s a mutter through the crowd of, “That’s not him,” and, “Who’s that?” By the third song they’re turning from curious to angry, not paying any mind to the music at all. We start the fourth song and a bottle hits me square in the chest. I’m standing there stunned when Kitty pulls the bass off me and starts pushing me backwards toward the green room. “Come on,” she’s saying. “We have to go now. Come on!”
People are climbing onto the stage, chasing after us. Coney leads us through the stage door and puts her back up against it, yelling, “Hurry!” while Kitty and I try to find something to wedge in it. Kitty gets a chair under the doorknob and I push the couch against that. We climb out the window and run for the van.
We can see the van across the blacktop, there at the edge, parked by the vacant lot, and we run at top speed. Coney’s crying again, I can hear her sob as we run. Someone’s yelling back behind us, rounding the venue. We’re almost there. Coney pulls out her keys and trips at the same time, and the keys fly out of her hand, clattering across the pavement. She and Kitty both dive for them and fall on each other. I’m pulling the two of them off the ground and the crowd is gaining on us, and I’ve got Kitty’s arm, and Coney’s getting up from all fours, and they’re close, and –
From the grass of the vacant lot, hundreds of sparrows come up all at once, flying between us and the mob, pecking at angry faces, beating at them with their wings, screaming their tiny high curses in a language of brown birds. It’s enough. It’s enough time to get in the van and floor it for the highway.
* * *
We haven’t seen him since Bismark. He was there, circling over the auto glass shop, a thing of feathers and a collective call, the sound of a needy wheel turning. He swooped twice and lighted for a second on the van. When he rose, he dispersed in all directions. There are no more shows left, and we haven’t seen him since Bismark.