The Quotable

Pretty Bird

Baby was Julian’s bird, and she hated me. The feeling was mutual. I liked having Julian as a roommate, but I could barely stand to be in the same room with his stupid bird, which must have driven Julian crazy because he loved Baby. I don’t know how he felt about me.

The first time Baby bit me, I bled like crazy. At first, I was so surprised, I just sat there with her gnawing on my finger, but pretty soon, I started screaming. Julian tried to pull her off, but she wouldn’t let go. By the time she did, practically my whole finger was covered in blood. It looked worse than it was, but I didn’t have a chance to tell Julian that. He took Baby and ran into his room to have a panic attack. I guess he felt like it was his fault, which wasn’t true, even though I couldn’t help thinking it at the time. He could have at least come back out to see if I was okay. He didn’t, though, just stayed in his room all night. Eventually, I gave up waiting for him and went to bed. The next morning, he was still holed up in there, which was awkward, because the maintenance guys were coming to do a safety inspection.

I knocked on the door, but he didn’t answer. “Julian,” I said, but that was as far as I got. I couldn’t think of a tactful way to ask him to pull it together.

He didn’t answer, but I opened the door anyway. I didn’t see him in there, so I figured he must have gone out while I was asleep. He’d hardly left the room all month, and it was a mess. There were dirty plates with food stuck on them and half-empty coffee mugs, I don’t know how old, lying on the dresser alongside old school papers, photographs, unopened mail, and stacks of CDs, most of which were missing their cases. It looked like every piece of clothing he had was lying on the floor. There were plastic hangers sticking out of the pile by the closet.

I bent over an old mug and picked it up. It was Julian’s favorite, the one with the dinosaurs on it. I was still holding it when I felt something pull on my hair.

“Pretty bird,” it said. It was Baby. My hands shot up to my head in panic, and I dropped the mug, spilling moldy coffee onto the rug. I couldn’t stand the thought of that ugly bird in my hair, picking at me like she picked at herself.

Baby was pink and scabbed from her neck to her back, with only a tuft of green feathers on her head and tail to remind you it was a bird you were looking at. Julian got her when he was just a kid, when her feathers were long and shiny and covered her whole body like a bird’s feathers should. That first summer, Julian kept her out of her cage all day, teaching her to say things like, “pretty bird,” and, “I love you.” It was true: she did love him. I once saw a picture where she’d let him put her whole head in his mouth. They were practically inseparable from June until August, so that when school started and Julian had to leave her in her cage for eight hours a day, she panicked and started plucking out her feathers with her beak. She did it for years, picking at herself until she was naked everywhere her beak could reach, even after Julian went out and bought bigger and bigger cages for her. He thought it was his fault. He’d fucked her up, loving her so much. It had fucked him up, too. As long as I’d known him, he’d been claustrophobic. I guess he had seen enough of what cages had done for Baby.

I started to clean up the mess from the mug I dropped, but I froze when I saw Baby leering at me again. She had blood on her beak. It was hideous. I couldn’t understand why Julian would leave her out like that, especially while I was recovering from when she’d tried to eat my finger. It pissed me off. I left the room and shut the door, trapping Baby inside. Julian could clean up his own mess when he got home.

Julian didn’t come home, but two days later I got a text from him. “KATE,” it said, just my name. That was all I got after three days.

“WHERE ARE YOU?” I texted back. I heard his phone beep from inside his room.

I felt sick. I kept thinking of Baby flapping around there, picking her scabs while Julian sat in the middle of his piles of trash. It wasn’t anything I wanted to see.

“COME FIND ME,” he texted.

“You’re in your room, dumbass!” I shouted through the door.

He didn’t have anything to say to that. “Pretty bird,” Baby squawked.

I opened the door but he wasn’t there. Baby wasn’t there, either, but I could hear her yammering in the closet. The door was closed, so he must have been in there with her. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to open it. I couldn’t imagine what he was doing in that closet. I knew for a fact he was terrified of it.

“I know you’re in there,” I said. My voice sounded shaky.

The last time he’d gone in his closet, he’d had a panic attack. It was mostly my fault. We were stoned and screwing around and I chased him in there. One minute he was laughing, and the next he was wheezing his head off, ripping at the buttons on his shirt to get them undone. He got the shirt unbuttoned and moved on to his skin, clawing at his naked neck and chest with his fingernails, like he wanted to open his skin up, too, and let the air in. I wanted to help, but eventually he told me just to go away so he could calm down.

He was always unbuttoning his shirt when he was panicked, like he couldn’t stand for even the fabric to touch him. Julian hated being touched, hated being held, almost as much as he hated small spaces. He was particularly suspicious of people who loved him, the ones who always needed to hug him, to hold him, like they were liable to suffocate him if he didn’t keep his distance. It wasn’t exactly great for his love life. He liked me, I think, because I was fat and asexual. I was always very careful not to touch him. I always left a sliver of room between us, even when I’d trapped him in the closet and he was shaking and gasping for breath.

Now he was in the closet again.

I tried to listen for his panicked wheezing, but I couldn’t hear anything, so he must have been okay. I turned away and fixated on a rotten apple core. The room was really starting to reek.

“Come out and talk to me,” I said. “I miss you.”

I don’t know why I said that last part. It was pretty clear he wasn’t coming out.

I guess that this must sound pretty messed up, but I was actually pretty pleased when Julian stopped leaving the apartment because I had him all to myself. We had some good times together, like when we’d get stoned and try to scare each other. That was the idea the day I gave him the panic attack. The game kept escalating until eventually he got a steak knife and chased me around the apartment with it. Then I chased him. It was scarier for Julian, though, because I chased him into the closet. I can’t imagine how scared he must have been to actually go in there. I must have been terrifying with that knife.

He was right to be scared. The truth is, I was in love with him. He was fucked up but he was beautiful, and I wanted to touch him so badly. It got very hard to give him his space after a while. Sometimes, when we were sitting on the couch, I’d sort of rest my arm against his, very casually, as if I didn’t even know it was there. I just wanted to know what my chances were, like if he’d notice and move his arm right away or leave it there awhile. He didn’t move it. I don’t know if he noticed or not. Baby noticed, though, and she hated it. She would light up on his arm and glare at the space where our arms touched, like she would snap if I came any closer.

The day she bit me, Julian was sitting on the couch in the living room, just sitting there in the dark, petting Baby.

“Pretty bird,” she said as Julian stroked her beak with his index finger.

“Pretty bird,” he said back, and ran his finger down her raw, pink flesh. “Pretty bird,” he said again. I didn’t like the way his voice sounded.

“What are you doing?” I said. I didn’t mean it the way it came out.

“I don’t know,” he said back. “Sit down if you want.” His voice was shaky and quiet. It was the first thing he’d said to me in a week.

I sat next to him on the couch, careful to leave a space between us.

“I lost six pounds,” I said. “One-seventy-two now.”

He didn’t have anything to say to that. I don’t know why he should have. It was a stupid come-on, and I regretted it almost immediately. I took a Dorito out of the bag on the coffee table to make it seem like I could care less about the weight. Maybe he’d think I lost it by accident.

Julian took a chip, too, and broke a piece off to feed to Baby. When she was done with the chip, she chewed on his fingertips, little nibbles like she was kissing them.

“I love you,” Baby Bird told him, and kissed his fingers.

“I love you,” he said back, and kissed her forehead.

I felt like an intruder. Baby’s eyes were half-open, watching me as Julian stroked her naked skin. I shifted my hand a millimeter toward him, and her mouth strained open, ready to attack. I guess this was a kind of warning.

“She hates me,” I told him. My voice cracked when I said it.

He looked at me really funny then. He was smiling, but I saw his eyes and he didn’t look happy, just blank. Sort of empty. “She doesn’t have to,” he said, and he took my hand on purpose and held it up to his lips where Baby could see. “I love you,” he said, and kissed my hand. He did it just like he did with Baby Bird. “I love you,” he said again, only it wasn’t so much to me as about me, and for her benefit. It didn’t bother me, though, because he’d held my hand, and kissed it.

Taking his cue, I smiled, and I stretched my hand out to hold Baby. “Pretty bird,” I said, even if I didn’t believe it. I tried to stroke her beak with my finger.

That was when she bit me.

After that, Julian disappeared into his room and I didn’t hear from him until he texted me. I thought we’d stopped playing games, but I was wrong. I’d chased him into his room, and now I’d chased him into his closet. He didn’t have anywhere left to go.

The day after he texted me, my phone rang. I knew it was Julian before I answered it. His car was still in the parking lot. I’d been watching it for days. It hadn’t moved once, and I still hadn’t seen him.

“Just come out here and talk, you fucking freak,” I told him. It was weird how scared my voice sounded. He didn’t say anything back, so I hung up. When my phone rang again, I heard Baby squawking at me on the line.

“I love you,” Baby said. “I love you.”

I walked down the hall to his room and pounded on the door.

“Pretty bird,” Baby said, and I heard it echo on the phone. I was still holding it to my ear.I went in. Julian wasn’t there, and the closet was still closed. Baby was back in her cage, flapping and jabbering at me. “Pretty bird,” she kept saying, “pretty bird.” It was driving me crazy.

“Just shut up!” I yelled at her. “Shut up!”

The second time I said it, she got quiet. That’s when I heard the noises in the closet.

There was crying, sort of, a soft, blubbery whimper and heavy breathing that matched my own. I took a step toward the closet, kicking a pile of clothes away from the door. My hand shook as I placed it on the knob, but I turned it anyway and pulled the door open, fast, like I was afraid Julian was going to disappear before I saw him.

Julian didn’t disappear. He was sitting very still, his legs curled up underneath him like he needed to make room for himself in that disgusting, smelly closet. The floor under my feet was sticky. I moved away and tried not to look at his mess.

“Sorry,” I said. It was stupid. It was the only thing I could think of.

“Sorry,” I heard back, just as soon as I had said it.

It wasn’t Julian’s voice that I was hearing. It was mine. His phone was on the floor, next to his feet. It was opened, but he wasn’t holding it. His hand was balled up in a little fist against his chest. His shirt was open. His fist was wrapped around a knife. There was blood drying on the places where he’d cut himself, deep, wide cuts he’d made all over his throat and his chest. I think he did it to help him breathe, but the cuts didn’t help. He punctured a lung and suffocated.

He’d been dead for four days when I found him. I must have looked funny when I heard that. I got some funny looks, too, like what kind of person would have a dead guy in her apartment for so long and not notice. I didn’t tell them the dead guy was sending me text messages.

“He kept to himself,” I kept saying, along with, “he was afraid of suffocating.” Eventually people stopped asking me questions.

They buried Julian in a box like they bury everyone else, and I didn’t want to see him shut inside it so I didn’t go to the funeral. I held on to Baby and took her out as much as I could even though she bit me practically every time I opened her cage, until today, when I found her lying dead inside it. My fingers are still scabbed from where she used to bite the nail beds. There’s a cut from where she bit me yesterday, and it hurts, and the more I think about it and the more I think about Julian, the more I keep crying. I cried when I found her dead, and I kept crying even after I got a shoebox from my closet and shut her inside it.

I felt awful putting her in there. She was ugly and neurotic and mean, but Julian bought her these massive cages to live in because he loved her and he didn’t want her to be scared. She was just a fucked up bird, but he loved her. She didn’t deserve to be buried in a box.



Rachel Kempf was named one of the "Best New Voices of 2006" when her essay "Tricycle" was included in Random House's Anthology Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Authors. She graduated with an MA in English from Truman State University in 2010, and has since moved to Austin, Texas, where she works as an e-book editor, watches copious amounts of horror films with her husband, and writes screenplays. Her short script "7 Minutes" was recently produced by Midwest Entourage Entertainment and will be released to festivals later this year. In addition, her award-winning plays have been produced in New York, Chicago, Washington D.C. and various cities across the Midwest.


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