Iris Yu

Birdbath

Lina and I are chugging fruit punch in Becky Anderson’s backyard when the birds start dying. Becky raises a toast to making it out of high school in one piece, nevermind the fact that we all lost ten pounds and stopped eating bread, and all of a sudden there’s a sparrow in her drink and she can’t stop screaming. It’s the first one—there’s a moment of pause, like the wind is inhaling, before the others follow. They drop from the sky like rain, unending. Lina shrieks, jolts into me, accidentally dumps half her drink down the front of my shirt.

“Shit,” she gasps, “Sorry.” The juice blooms across my chest like a neon bloodstain.

“It’s okay,” I say. The crowd swallows up the sound of my voice. Everyone is running, except for Becky, who has retreated to her kitchen, pressed up against a windowpane with skinny limbs shaking and eyes fixated on the rest of us trampling her tulips to death. I almost reach back to grab the cups on the grass, stack them neatly for the trash can, but I figure whoever ends up picking up the dead birds will have to get the litter too.

The birds are still falling and I never knew there were this many in the sky in the first place. Lina holds her hands above her neck the way we used to during elementary school tornado drills; I follow suit, even though I hate the awkwardness of running with my head down and both arms up, and we lurch through the surging crowd together, jostled around by bony girls and their himbo boyfriends and the ten dead birds at their feet.

There are feathers in Lina’s hair by the time we make it to her car, and my ribs ache from getting elbowed by a football player. We slam the doors behind us and the thump rings circles in my ears, the din outside muffled.

Lina hisses from the driver’s seat, cusses under her breath. I turn from staring out the window at Jennifer huddled under and shielded by the boy she broke up with last week—Lina’s knuckles are red all over, glossy from hand sanitizer rubbed over the nick.

“Robin,” she says by way of explanation. “Its beak hit me on its way down.”

I tug tissues from the box and dab at the congealing hand sanitizer. “Poor thing,” I say.

“Me or the bird?”

I crumple the tissues into a ball of splotchy red and white and ignore her. “That’s a lot of blood for such a tiny cut.” More wells up from the triangle of skimmed skin, and I dab at it.

“I don’t have bandaids,” says Lina. A bird thuds down on the roof above and she jerks her hand away. Even from inside the car, I can hear the irregular drumbeat of dead bird hitting pavement, over and over again.

Her other hand is digging through the glove compartment. “I have this, though,” she says, and pulls out a Taco Bell sauce packet. DIABLO, it reads. Devil.

She tosses it to me and I think back to our first Taco Bell run, how our skin and sweat stuck together as we huddled over a Cosmopolitan article on her bedroom floor. How we read that spicy food burns calories and raided her kitchen looking for something stronger than Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, how we pulled up to the drive-through and ordered 140-calorie-tacos and asked the cute college boy at the window to hit us with the hottest sauces they had.

I tear open the packet as she starts the car. “Where are we going?” I ask. Some of the sauce oozes from the edge, and I lick it off. Lina shrugs, watches me tilt my head back and squeeze the packet onto my tongue. I sputter when it hits my throat, but the burn of it is comforting. Familiar.

“Want another?” Another bird hits the roof and this time, we ignore it. “My glove compartment is full of them.”

“Later,” I say. “Where are we going?”

Lina cracks a grin. “To watch the sunrise. Duh.”

“It’s twelve a.m.”

She shrugs again and shifts gears. We back out from Becky’s oversized driveway and the car shakes over a hundred little speedbump-bodies and I want to ask if running over a beak could pop the tires. I want to ask if anyone will hold a funeral for the birds like they held a funeral for Avery in sophomore year.

“The sun doesn’t rise till six,” I say instead.

“We can take a nap.” The car shudders over five birds in a row. “Or play a card game.”

We drive until the juice stain on my shirt dries. I go through two more sauce packets and Lina downs three at a stop sign. I wonder when we went from 140-calorie-tacos and 0-calorie sauce packets to just the sauce, if it was gradual or one of those things that just happens; I don’t remember much from the last four years of high school, except for the antiderivative of cosine and my weight at the end of each June.

Lina stops the car in a parking lot with no street lamp and kills the engine. Her hands are gangly and white against the steering wheel as she slumps backwards, and I know without having to touch them that they’re ice cold.

“I feel bad for the birds,” she says. Her eyes are closed and I’m sure she’s thinking about Avery, about the way pictures of the three of us were pasted into Driver’s Ed powerpoints as a warning to drive safely or a memorial or both. Maybe we stopped eating tacos after we found out about the accident—I struggle to remember if Avery ever came on the Taco Bell runs, but all I can remember is that she was the skinniest of us three, and I guess it became a competition to take the spot left behind afterward.

“Yeah,” I choke out. For a moment, we stay like that—still and quiet and sad.

“Go to sleep,” she says, finally. “I’ll wake you when the sun comes up.”

///

There are three more empty sauce packets when I shake myself awake. It’s still dark and Lina has her door half open with her legs dangling out of it, a lit blunt between her fingers.

“You’re smoking.”

She glances at me over her shoulder. “And you’re awake.”

“I thought you said you’d stop.”

“Yeah, well. The world’s ending.” She takes another hit, exhales hard and heavy. “It’s almost eight and I’ve been waiting for the sun for two fucking hours.” I look outside, then at the clock, then back outside. Something a little like fear and a little like bile burns in the back of my throat. “At least it stopped raining birds.”

“Birds can’t taste spice,” I blurt out. Lina turns around, studies my face in the dim light of the dashboard glow.

“I know,” she says, “Avery’s mom used to feed their birds spicy seed so the squirrels wouldn’t steal it.”

“Oh.” My tongue goes slack—I picture the sun lodged behind my teeth, swollen in my throat. Freshman year, a bluebird landed on Avery’s shoulder when we were taking homecoming pictures. They always loved her.

“Yeah,” says Lina. “Want one?” She lifts up her other hand, the one without the blunt, and offers it to me. Another sauce packet rests in the curl of her palm, and I take it gratefully. I wonder when the two of us became more bird than girl, when our dresses started hanging off spindly frames like feathers. When we stopped caring about spice and embraced the burn of it as a remedy. I wonder if we could ever go back.

“Cheers to the end of the world,” she says, “Or whatever the hell this is.”

“Cheers,” I echo. We tilt our heads back and sputter when the sauce hits our throats.

Iris Yu is a Chinese-American student from northeast Ohio. Her work can be found in Vagabond City Lit, Sine Theta Magazine, and Eunoia Review, among others. She is an alumna of the Iowa Young Writers Studio and an avid earring collector.

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