Short Fiction by Elizabeth Royer
Did you ever notice, with all the birds in the sky, that you hardly ever see a dead one?
The first time in my life I ever had a drink was at my brother Nathan’s twenty-first birthday party. I was sixteen, so we didn’t tell Mom. That was eight months ago.
“What are you talking about, Jay?” Nathan had called out from behind me.
Had I said that out loud, the thing about the birds? I paused to gaze at the stars. “Maybe I’ll be an astronaut.”
“Look out for the falling birds!” Nate hit me with a full body tackle before I could brace myself. We met the ground with a grunt, rolled, and came to a stop flat on our backs.
“Thought you wanted to be an artist.” Nathan gave me a light slap in the gut with the back of his hand.
I shrugged. “That was last week.”
Nate snorted a laugh. “Construction worker, doctor, engineer . . . you’d better get this worked out before college.”
“Maybe I’ll be everything.” I ignored the blade of grass Nate was poking into my ear. “Maybe I’ll do one thing for five years, go back to school, learn something new, and just go on like that until I’m ninety.”
A momentary silence and the retraction of the blade of grass made me turn my head toward my brother to find him watching me intently. He gave an understanding, if not embarrassed, smile. “Might as well,” he agreed, rolling onto his side to face me. “You got all the time in the world now, right?”
But that was eight months ago. That was before the cancer came back with a vengeance.
Toni and I used to play the Maybe I’ll Be game. She was thirteen the last time we’d played; I was fourteen. Next to Nathan, Toni was my best friend in the world. She was funny and smart; I was awkward and shy. I was one of the new kids, hundreds of miles from home, but Toni had practically grown up in the children’s hospital. She was my smiling, sarcastic lifeline of normalcy.
“I don’t think birds ever die,” Toni had told me one morning in a breathy and serious voice that made me fight back a smile. “They just spread their wings one day, jump from the tree, and become part of the wind.” She fluttered her hands between us in imitation of a bird shedding its solid form to become . . . air.
I draped an arm across her shoulders and leaned in close. “You are the weirdest person I have ever met.”
Toni narrowed her eyes, flashed a smile, and reached her arm around my waist to tickle me.
I open my eyes to find Mom leaning over me. “Everything okay? You were laughing.” She looks amused, but at the same time, guilty that she’s almost smiling in the cold glow of the florescent light that’s mounted on the wall behind my hospital bed.
I take in a slow breath and realize that I need to tell her now. Not much has changed, but everything is different. I just . . . know. “Call Nathan,” I say, and Mom’s breath catches for an instant, even though I’m sure she already knows, too. “Call Nate and Dad.”
I briefly hope that Dad doesn’t bring his new wife. She’s okay, but I barely know her. For that matter, I don’t really know Dad too well, either.
Nathan and I used to fight all the time after Dad moved out. I always wanted to be with my brother, and he always wanted me to be someplace else. But somewhere along the line, he’d decided I wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t my diagnosis that did it, either. I think it happened not long afterward, when he taught me to play the guitar. At first he didn’t want to, but I was a persistent little sucker, so he finally gave in.
Nate pushed me like I’d never been pushed before, and it hurt the way it does when somebody is loving you and hating you at the same time. Back then, I thought it was because he couldn’t stand to be around me and wanted me to quit. I totally believed, once the soreness in my fingertips turned to calluses and my cramping hands gained flexibility, that I’d won and he’d lost, because I had proven I wasn’t a quitter.
Now, I know better. It took me a while, but I finally figured out which of us gained more in that little clash of willpower. Nate was smarter than I’d taken him for.
I watch the second hand of the clock on the wall as it measures the loss of time. Nate has to buy the tickets, get to the airport, get on the plane, fly to the next airport . . . and the clock ticks along, oblivious to my fatigue, unaware that it brings my brother and me closer together and farther apart with each silent twitch. A few more seconds, a few more seconds . . .
For a long time, Toni wanted to be a teacher. Then, she wanted to be a doctor. Then, a dog trainer. A sickening tightness crept into my chest, though, the day she told me that all she really wanted to do were all of the things the other girls out there could do with their lives.
So that night, in her room, just before dinner was brought in, I became her first date. Then, I was her first kiss – slow and steady, gentle and soft, just like Nate had told me. We went to her senior prom at seven (she wore a stunning puppy-print gown, complete with bunny slippers), and at seven-forty-five we were married by The Reverend Snuffle Bear. It was a tough first year, but at eight-twenty-three, Toni gave birth to our firstborn – Fancy Froggy. We had three more kids after that, all fuzzy and stuffed, and when they’d all grown up and gone off to college, Toni pulled out the world atlas that she kept in the drawer beside her bed. Paris, Rome, San Diego, Bermuda – we traveled the globe together. We climbed snowy mountains, explored the Grand Canyon, and splashed in the warm salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
At eleven, we asked one of the nurses for another chair, and we sat ourselves in front of the window to spend the rest of our days rocking away on the front porch while our grandchildren caught lightning bugs in the front yard.
I went home two weeks later. A week after that, Toni’s mom called to tell us she was gone. Sometimes, afterward, I would lie in my bed trying to remember her scent, her smile, her voice; and every so often, I could swear she was right there with me.
“He’s been sleeping a lot.” Mom’s voice is soft and strong.
I open my eyes to see who she’s talking to and am surprised to see Nate. It’s like he appeared by magic, like the people in those books about the kid at the wizard school. No tickets, no airplane, just poof, in my room. I smile at him when he looks at me, and then I wish I can take away the look he’s giving me, even through his return smile. My deepest sadness comes not from a shortened life, but from knowing that I will leave my family behind.
Thoughts of Heaven cross my mind, but it’s an image planted in my head as a child: ice cream before every meal, and Santa Claus brings you presents every day, and it never rains unless you want it to. There are angels and harps and velvety green grass, and the people you’ve already lost are there waiting for you. It’s okay, but it isn’t where I want to be. I mean, I wouldn’t mind getting to know my Grandma, but that alone sure wouldn’t make Heaven worthwhile. Not yet, anyway. As much as it bothers me, I can’t imagine a Heaven that will make me happier than my saddest day on Earth because even on my worst days, Mom and Nate are always there.
I lean back into the bed, which feels warmer and safer than it did before. I turn my head to the side and see that it isn’t the bed I’m leaning against; it’s my brother. He’s slid himself in behind me, one leg on either side of me, and wrapped his arms around me like he’ll never let go. I wonder if I should tell him it won’t do any good.
Dad is at the end of the bed looking like somebody punched him. Dad never did deal with the whole thing too well. I try to smile at him, but I’m not sure if I’ve pulled it off. He reaches out and squeezes my foot, though, so maybe I did.
Resting his cheek against my head, Nate entwines his fingers with mine and rubs his thumb across the top of my hand. I watch a muscle in his forearm flex as he does it, and I can picture him playing his guitar, and throwing a baseball, and holding me down on the living room floor until Mom finally comes in from the kitchen and tells him to let me up already. I’ve never been as strong as Nathan, but he says it’s the other way around.
Some part of me I’ve never been aware of makes me sink back into Nate a little farther, and he tightens his grip as mine loosens.
The only time in my life I ever had a drink was at my brother Nathan’s twenty-first birthday party. I wonder if he’ll ever tell Mom.
Faintly, I hear somebody calling. I strain to hear the voice, struggle to get closer, and then, I know – it’s Toni. “Jump,” she tells me in her laughing singing voice. “Jump from the tree, Jay.”
I lean back to my brother, and he turns his head to hear me. “Maybe I’ll be a bird,” I whisper, and he lets out a choked sob, but nods.
“Fly away,” he whispers back, his breath warm and moist against my ear. “We’ll be okay.”
His sadness overtakes me, and I want to tell Toni no, I don’t want to leave them; but now, something’s happening: a light, a warmth. I squeeze Nate’s hand to let him know I’m going.
Instead of moving away from him like I thought I would, though, I’m pulled closer to him – closer, and closer, until I’m more a part of him than I have ever been in my life. I feel him, every element of him, every breath, every thought, every memory, every truth, and it’s not just him. I can feel Mom, we’re one again, and now Dad; I finally understand my father, I finally see what his love looks like. Even Uncle James, six-hundred miles away, sits bolt upright in his bed when I come to him.
Grandma, gone since I was three, is here, too – I can feel her, and Aunt Jenn, and Toni, and even Harley, blind as a bat and deaf as a post the day we put his wagging tail to rest; they’re all a part of me inside of them – layer upon layer of infinitely overlapping souls, strong and warm and binding.
I sense the tremor of grief that shudders through the room, but it is tempered by the joy that surrounds me. I am somehow within all of them, my family and my friends, along with all the others they have also loved and lost. I feel them, I know them, I understand them; I am everything they are and will ever be.
I’m here, Nate, I say, and for a brief instant, understanding shadows his subconscious. I haven’t left at all. And when that realization sets in, when I know that I’ll always be with them and they’ll never be alone, it occurs to me that I finally understand what Heaven is.
Elizabeth Royer was born and raised in New Jersey, received a Bachelor of Science degree from Rutgers, and continued on to earn a Master of Science at Penn State University. Most of her professional career involved technical writing and editing. She currently lives with herhusband and three children in upstate New York, where she writes young adult and upper-middle-grade fiction with the hope of having some of her stories published.