Penned In

Chicken Feathers. Released under Creative Commons CC0.

So we sat crowded around the kitchen table that evening, me and Mom and Claire. We ate scrambled eggs. Mom might have planned the menu to coincide with her news, I don’t know. She always hated cooking to begin with and after Dad left and she got her second job at the book store, dinner got pared further down.

Claire, in fifth grade—six years younger than me—carried on about chorus; how she auditioned for a solo but felt unsure because Rachel Brodsky also auditioned and Rachel is the music teacher’s favorite, blah blah, blah. Usually Mom hangs on Claire’s every word. But that night, she just said, “I’m sure it will be fine, sweetie.” I listened for my phone, which sat atop the dining room table. Where we hardly ever ate anymore. Why carry things to another room when it’s just the three of us? Mom rationalized. I’d changed my text notification tone twice but it didn’t matter. I’d soon associate the new chime with the next taunting message.

Mom pushed her bandana up off her forehead and fiddled with her ponytail. Then she looked at me and smiled: a real smile, like she’d just seen something that made her really happy.

I put down my fork. “What?” I said.

Claire took her elbows off the table and shut up.

“Guys, I’ve been thinking,” Mom began. Claire and I looked at each other.

“About?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “I’ve been saying for a while that we need to be more mindful about where our food comes from.”

“We have a garden,” I pointed out. It wasn’t much of a garden but we did get a decent crop of tomatoes and zucchini and even a few ears of corn every year.

“Vegetables are great, Sydney,” Mom pointed out, “but at some point, it might be handy to know how to raise something other than vegetables.”

I rolled my eyes. Here we go, her “world-is-coming-to-an-end” rant. Melting polar ice caps and droughts and food supplies crashing and oceans acidifying and how my generation is going to pay for the sins of hers and all the generations that came before, right back to the very first farmer who planted the very first seeds and decided to stay put and harvest crops rather than hunt and gather and that’s when the game changed for good. Not tonight, not tonight, I silently pleaded. I had to study for my bio test and I wanted to text Aidan.

Mom finally came out with it. “I’d like to try raising chickens.”

The rest of dinner was about what you’d expect. Claire shrieked a little and bounced in her chair and peppered Mom with questions about baby chicks and how many would we get and where in the backyard would we put the coop and what about coyotes and Mom smiled at her little protégé, her budding urban farmer. I sat there, looking down at the pieces of egg on my plate, feeling a flush of annoyance mixed with something else I couldn’t name.

If this had been a movie or a TV show, I would leave the table and call my best girlfriend and bitch about my mother’s crazy-ass, labor-intensive plan and how I can’t stand chickens because of that time when I was five and the chicken at the children’s zoo flew right up into my face and scared the crap out of me. But I didn’t really care enough about chickens to pitch a fit. The chickens were just another project. Claire and I had no choice. People accuse teenagers of being self-absorbed but sometimes the only way you can deal is to shut most of it out. Click. Change the channel. Click. Turn on your iPhone. So that’s what I did. I shrugged and said “Whatever,” mostly because I knew Mom didn’t like me to say that.

People accuse teenagers of being self-absorbed but sometimes the only way you can deal is to shut most of it out. Click. Change the channel. Click. Turn on your iPhone. So that’s what I did.

Then I asked her this, “Do you know anything about raising chickens?”

“Not really,” she said. “But we’ll learn.”

My thumbs tapped the table top. Even if my phone were handy, I wouldn’t vent to Aidan in a text. Our relationship was too tentative for that. And I don’t have a best friend anymore—just because Aidan and I kissed a little bit at that party a month back. It wasn’t a real kiss, either, just part of a stupid game, the one where you have to pass a lifesaver to the next boy in line with a toothpick between your teeth. If the lifesaver hits the floor, you zoom in. So one second I’m standing there staring at the little red candy ring sticking to the carpet in Courtney Elliot’s basement, cheers and whistles filling my ears, and the next second Aidan and I are locking lips. I guess we let it go on a little too long. I guess one of my ex-best friend Emily’s new drama club friends likes Aidan. How was I supposed to know? Anyhow, one of them, probably Brenna, launched this sneaky texting attack, calling me Aidan’s latest booty call and other shit. Emily sided with the drama club crowd. Aidan sided with me, to his credit. We’ve gone back to being just friends. We’ve never talked about the party. About the kiss. About the way—just for that one moment—our body heat could have melted the world.

~

Mom took Claire and me to a poultry farm a few hours northwest of our Chicago-area suburb. “No rooster,” she said on the way there. When we arrived, it looked small, as farms go. An old, comfortable-looking house and some chicken coops and a small building housing chicks. Claire peeked in and saw the chicks, the color of buttered popcorn, all fluffy and fluttering, peeping and bustling in a cage underneath a warm light. She was sold. Mom and Sharon, the farm owner, and Claire and I stood in the big fenced-in yard and watched chickens scratch soft dirt. The weather had turned chilly again, that annoying chill that you can’t shake no matter how many layers of fleece you pile on, which you resent because it’s May. Mom says I could stand to put on some weight and then I wouldn’t be so cold all the time. As if plumping out will help my image at school. Thin is in. Always. One of the few things I’ve got going for me anymore.

A fat rooster approached, lifting his feet carefully, neck jutting out a bit with each step. “Oh, he’s gorgeous! Can we please get one, Mom?” Claire begged. “Then we can have baby chicks, too. And you wouldn’t have to wake me up for school anymore.”

Mom sighed. “We already discussed this.”

Sharon looked down at Claire. It’s not fair. Claire’s got these dark, delicate looks that make people stare. I have Mom’s thick, strawberry blond hair, but it doesn’t seem to count. “Honey,” Sharon said to Claire, “if you think roosters only crow at daybreak, you’ve got another thing coming.”

As if on cue, the rooster stopped, cocked his head and looked up as if he had something really important to say. Then he let out a shrill “Er-er-er-er-AAAaaa…” that trailed off into a sheepish croak. We laughed. “You really want that underneath your bedroom window?” I said.

Mom shot Sharon a glance. “Typical male,” she said after a pause. “Strutting around making noise and not much else.” They shared an older-woman laugh. As I watched them together, I realized there were so many things about women I didn’t know and didn’t know if I wanted to. I wondered whether Mom was referring to Dad. But Dad never strutted. Before he left, he was usually at work. At home, he’d sit behind his newspaper or laptop or watch TV after Claire and I went to bed. He moved out two years ago, halfway through my freshman year, when I was fourteen. Claire was only eight. Mom was forty-two, which is not as old as it seems. She says now that Dad did her a favor, that he completely changed after they got married and settled down. They had wild plans and dreams but it turned out he dreamed of climbing the corporate ladder at the pharmaceutical company and later, falling in love with one of his colleagues. Original, right? When I told Mom about Emily completely changing, she said my whole world would open up when I graduate and go to college. Some of the most important people in my life are out there, waiting, she says. Emily and Brenna and the rest will be nothing but names in a yearbook.

But from what I’ve seen from my parent’s lives, the world shrinks down even smaller once you marry and get a job and have a couple of kids and a house in the suburbs. Which is why I’m not signing on. Houses are money and time pits, I’ve heard Mom say often enough. And our suburb has about as much personality as overcooked white pasta. We moved here for the schools, which are supposedly great. Other things aren’t so great: teachers sucking up to the wealthy kids—kids whose parents are doctors, kids whose parents serve on school boards; they even dress like the wealthy kids. It’s just disgusting, the whole thing. Get me the fuck out. I want to travel. And of course I’d like to have money, not because I’m materialistic but because money buys freedom. If you don’t have much, you work two jobs, like my mom, who, as far as I can tell, isn’t free at all. She has Claire and me. And a mortgage. And now, chickens.

Sharon pulled some feed out of her mud-smeared jeans pocket, squatted and coaxed over a big black hen. In one smooth motion she grabbed it, pinning its wings to its sides, and stood. “This is Gracie,” she murmured, cradling the bird. “One of my best layers, aren’t you, sweetie?” Gracie squirmed and squawked, then quieted as Sharon stroked her. “When you pick them up, make sure you hold their wings,” Sharon told Mom. “Otherwise they flap and get all squirrely. It’s good to start handling them right away, so they get used to it.”

Mom nodded. I admired Sharon’s ease with her little flock. I’d like to be that good at something; I just don’t know what. By junior year, you’re supposed to have life figured out; college major decided on, kicking ass in your AP classes, tons of extracurriculars, a smoking hot social life, a touch of danger, and all the while, that lovely 3.8 GPA. Aidan feels the same way about life—the not figuring it out part—which is one reason we got to be friends this year. We both play alto sax, competing for first chair. Mostly he gets it. I’m not disciplined enough to practice as much as I should. He lives in a smallish-sized ranch house in a neighborhood similar to mine. Maybe that’s why I feel so comfortable around him. Or did, before that party.

By junior year, you’re supposed to have life figured out; college major decided on, kicking ass in your AP classes, tons of extracurriculars, a smoking hot social life, a touch of danger, and all the while, that lovely 3.8 GPA.

The rooster paraded past. Strong spring sunlight struck his green-black tail feathers into a shimmer. I couldn’t look away; as though someone had raided a box of crayons to color his golden feet and tomato-red comb, his burnt-umber feathers. I envied his flair. He didn’t have to sit around all day waiting to squeeze out something that hurt like hell as it slid through—how could it not?—only to have someone take it away and break it into a bowl for breakfast. Or dinner. He didn’t have to worry about what people said behind his back.

Mom and Sharon talked forever. Sharon grilled Mom about our backyard. How big was it? Completely fenced in? Did she know for a fact that our village allowed chickens? How well did she know our neighbors? Were they likely to complain? Mom asked about pullets versus chicks. How many? What breeds did best in our unpredictable but sure-to-be-cold winters? Speaking of winter, how about last year’s polar vortex? And how about those Big Oil-funded politicians who claim heavy snows mean there is no such thing as global warming? They do nothing but deny, deny, deny while the whole world goes up in flames or sinks into the sea. Don’t they get there’s no Planet B? Which is probably a good thing, because if there were, the Koch Brothers would have already bought it and the one percent would be making their plans to evacuate messed-up Planet Earth. At least some people, the smart ones, the ones with hardy backyard chickens and vegetable gardens, would be able to feed their families. Sharon was right there with Mom. When she nodded her head, her long, gray-streaked braid slid up and down her back.

While they took turns ranting, I ambled toward one of the coops. It was painted a cheery turquoise blue. I walked up the wooden ramp and stepped inside, blinking in the dim light. The coop smelled of grain and pine shavings and only a little bit like shit. I would become all too familiar with the different types, colors and smells of chicken shit later in the summer, but my nose detected only a slightly rotten, musty odor. About ten hens sat fluffed in the box nests or on wooden perches. A few clustered around a feeder. Some were fat and reddish-brown like the rooster, and others were smaller, prettier, white speckled with black. They looked like those cheesy figurines you see in country-style breakfast restaurants. The coop felt cozy. It muffled the noises from outside: traffic on the nearby highway, a dog barking, the murmur of Mom and Sharon’s voices. The hens clucked softly, a soothing sound that seemed to come from somewhere deep in their throats. One brown hen on a nest shifted slightly, and I caught a glimpse of an egg underneath her, as smooth and tan as a lake stone. And right then, I got it. It wasn’t really the chickens, or even their eggs, that Mom was after. It was some sort of peace.

~

Mom and Claire picked up the pullets a few weeks later. I stayed home. Claire had been touchy that morning, out of sorts simply because she couldn’t find her favorite hairbrush. I knew it wasn’t about the hairbrush, it was about Claire’s body beginning the slow process of turning itself inside out. I couldn’t help feeling glad. Maybe Mom was about to lose her perky, pre-teen sidekick and get another surly girl. I heard her use that word once when she thought I was out of earshot. Surly.

After they left, Dad came to reinforce the back fence with chicken wire. Carpentry isn’t one of Mom’s many skills. I’d heard her talking on the phone to Dad a few days earlier, heard her hiss, “It’s the least you can do.”
 I sat on top of the backyard picnic table texting Aidan when Dad came into the backyard, carrying his toolbox. He waved. I raised my hand in an “I see you but I’m busy” type of wave and went back to tapping with my thumbs. “Sup?” Aidan had written. “U at yr dads?”

“No he’s here,” I sent back, “putting in fence for chicks.”

“Cool.”

Dad stood a few feet away, looking a little peeved. He’s the one who left, after all, and before he left, he didn’t pay too much attention to Claire and me. But now when he comes over, it’s like Claire and I are expected to roll out the red carpet. He still has this dad power over me, though, so I clicked off my phone. He set his toolbox on the picnic table and I let him hug me. He wore a T-shirt I didn’t recognize and his hair was spiked a little with some gel, but he smelled the same, Lever soap and coffee and some mysterious male scent.

“So what does your mother want done, exactly?” I pointed to the gaps between the ground and the bottom of the back fence, where the wood had rotted. He eyed the coop, a wooden “gypsy wagon” smaller than our tool shed. It could be wheeled around the yard to avoid killing the grass. Inside were nesting boxes and straw and feeders and everything else young hens could want. Mom and Claire wanted to paint it funky colors, but what with Mom’s jobs and Claire’s chorus, homework, and social life, they’d run out of time. I waited for Dad to make some crack about the project, but he just walked over to the chicken wire and gave it a shove with his foot to unroll it. I followed.

“What’s new, Sydney?” he asked as he squatted to open his toolbox.

I shrugged. “Nothing.”

He looked at me a little bit longer than necessary and I wondered what Mom had told him about my falling-out with Emily. She doesn’t poke into every corner of my social life like some kids’ mothers do, but I tell her things when we’re both in the mood. She knows I’m not friends with Emily anymore, but she doesn’t know why.

“Any boys in your life?”

“Not really.” I paused. “I have a friend. Just a friend.”

“Good.” I waited for more. But Dad didn’t say anything and I didn’t know if it was because he didn’t want to pry or he simply didn’t care. He pulled out a pair of wire cutters. “Hold it down, why don’t you.” I pushed down on top of the chicken wire roll while Dad clipped at a section long enough to cover the gaps in the back fence. “What do you think about this?” he asked as he worked.

“You mean the hens? Nobody asked me.”

“I’m asking you.”

“I think it’s okay,” I said. “Apparently you can treat them like pets. Claire’s all over that. She’s still mad we didn’t get a kitten after Toby died.”

“That sounds like Claire.”

I looked up. The sky looked like a normal springtime sky. The air felt warm and humid. Epic clouds hung overhead, towering puffs tinged with gray. Were they too large? Was some sort of extreme storm brewing? I hated to admit it, but Mom’s talk had seeped into me. It seemed I couldn’t trust anything anymore. Not my friends. Not my parents. Not even the weather.

“Mom’s spazzing out about climate change,” I said. “I think that’s part of the reason she wanted the hens. We need to be more self-sufficient and all that.”

I wanted Dad to say she was overreacting. I wanted him to say Mom’s climate change phobia was one of the biggest reasons he left her for someone else. “Your mother,” he began, and stopped. Snipped at a few more sections of wire. “Your mother cares deeply about things,” he said finally.

“Even the things we can’t do anything about?”

“Especially those things,” he said. He gave the wire one last clip and drew back as the sharp edges sprang free.

~

By the time Mom and Claire came home, Dad covered every bit of the backyard fence with chicken wire. He even built a smaller, portable pen. That’s Dad for you. He’ll complain but then do more than you asked. We walked around front. Claire scrambled out of the back of the station wagon, lifting out Toby’s old plastic carrier. I stepped closer and peered inside. I saw grayish-white feathers and heard a small scuffling: the sound of little claws scraping plastic. Mom lifted a second carrier out of the back of the wagon and set it on the driveway. She and Dad hugged with their arms but not their full bodies. Her lips kissed the air near his cheek. I didn’t know if they felt genuine affection for each other or put on a show for me and Claire. I had a harder and harder time picturing them married.

“Claire Bear!” Dad exclaimed, folding his arms around her. Claire held tight for a moment, then squirmed to break free. “What have we here?” Dad asked.

“Five pullets. Six weeks old,” Mom said. She smiled with that same thinly-concealed pride she showed every time Claire and I aced a test or grew an inch taller. As if she’d brought a new baby home. My skin crawled. “They’ll start laying by fall.”

“We’re going to name them after flowers,” Claire announced. “Sweet Pea, Chickpea…”

“A chickpea isn’t a flower,” I told her. “Anyway, who said?”

Mom shot me a look. “I didn’t think you were interested, Sydney,” she said. “I thought we’d let Claire name them.”

“Well, I assume I have to take care of them, too,” I said.

“Why don’t you each name two, and your mother can name the fifth?” Dad suggested. His phone buzzed and he fished it out of his pocket. “Hey,” he said. He turned his back slightly and lowered his voice, but not before I caught his quick flash of a smile, a smile not meant for me or Mom or Claire. I swore the air grew warmer, denser, as my breath caught in my stomach.

“I don’t know, Syd,” Mom sighed. “Claire was talking about names all the way home. You didn’t even want to come.”

I looked at Dad. He was still murmuring into his cell. “Sure, I’ll swing by there on the way home. See you soon. Love you.” He put his phone away and turned back to us.

“It’s okay, Mom,” Claire said, smiling up at Dad. “Sydney can name some of them, too. No biggie.”

“Good girl.” Dad beamed at her. I felt like kicking something. A scrap of memory flashed into my mind: Claire in her Disney princess pajamas, prancing and dancing, singing and “Alvin and the Chipmunks” song loudly but in tune, putting on an adorable show for Dad, who’d lowered his newspaper to watch and smile.

“How about literary characters?” Mom said. “Or famous women authors. Jane Austen, Emily Bronte…”

No. Not Emily. Not that name. I shrugged and slouched. “If you’re going to go that route,” I said, “you might as well name them after the British royal family and be done with it.” Like my other bad ideas, I don’t know where that one came from. But suddenly they all looked at me, smiling as if I’d said something brilliant. I have to admit, I like the way that felt.

“Cool!” Claire said.

“We can have Princess Diana,” Mom jumped in, “and Queen Elizabeth, of course, and Sarah Ferguson, and what are her daughters’ names?” While she talked, Dad moved away. He wanted to leave. Go back to his new, different life that no longer included us. Or chickens. I pushed a tendril of frizzed-out hair off my face. My T-shirt clung to my back, plastered there by moist, thick air. Unnatural air. Air that caused Mom to want the chickens in the first place. As I listened to the pullets scratch around in the carriers, I longed for my old, safe life, when I took both my parents and the weather for granted.

~

A week or so later, I headed to the kitchen for my first cup of coffee, totally out of it, and just about stepped on one of the goddamned chickens. Eugenie. Claire’s favorite. Who was getting pecked by some of the other pullets. We should have waited to discover their personalities before naming them, but Claire didn’t want to wait, and so ironically, Princess Diana was the biggest bully of the bunch. Eugenie squawked and flapped and scurried under the kitchen table. Mom sat at the table, hunched over the New York Times. We live in Chicago, but we get the New York Times. She nudged Eugenie a little with her foot, but didn’t look up.

“What’s the deal?” I asked. “Since when do the chickens get to come in the house?” I was more curious than anything else. Were we just going to, like, abandon all the household rules? Were we going to start eating off the living room floor and stop cleaning the bathrooms? Didn’t Mom care that Eugenie would shit everywhere?

“It’s just for a few minutes, just until Claire leaves for school. Look at her neck. She hardly has any feathers left, poor thing.” I peered under the table. Eugenie’s defiant little eye met mine. Her neck looked impossibly skinny. A stick of pocked, pinkish-gray flesh supported her head, which still sported feathers the color of toast. She looked like a grotesque stick puppet. When I raised my head Mom still stared at the paper. Usually she bustled around in the morning, in a hurry to leave for work. Her wet hair dampened the back of her blouse and her face looked pale, lined. She hadn’t yet applied her makeup. I felt a chill settle in my stomach.

“Mom. What’s wrong?”

She sighed and pointed to the newspaper. Scientists had confirmed the west Antarctic ice sheet was irreversibly melting. Maybe this sounds selfish but I felt relieved. Antarctica is so far away. “Didn’t we already know that?” I asked.

“This is new information, Sydney,” Mom said. She pushed her hair back behind one ear, fiddled with her earring. “What this means is that it’s already too late. Even if the entire world stopped burning fossil fuels, right this second, the melting can’t be stopped. Sea levels will keep rising. God knows what will happen to the weather…” She gave me a hard look. “Maybe you don’t understand yet,” she said, “but this is your generation’s nine-eleven.”

If she’d said that six months ago, I would have been like, “Whatever.” But something had changed. Maybe it was my recent conversation with Dad. Maybe it was the oddness of the morning, Eugenie scratching around the kitchen floor like she was taking shelter from a hurricane. I could hear the electric coffee pot sputter as it belched out the last drops of brew. The refrigerator hummed on. An SUV zoomed past on the street outside our house. If I strained to listen, I could hear the constant whisper of cars on the expressway to the west, their invisible emissions rising into warming air. Air that was melting Antarctica. Eugenie slipped out from under the table and scratched at the floor near the sink, exactly as she did in the backyard. Then she stopped and squatted, and a white glob slid out of her butt and plopped onto the floor. I glanced at Mom. She looked younger, more vulnerable without makeup. If she didn’t leave for work soon, she’d be late. I stepped to the counter for the paper towels. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered cleaning up a mess that wasn’t mine, but it seemed important, right then, not to stress Mom further. “I’m not an idiot,” I said as I wiped up the shit. “I understand the science. I know this isn’t great, but it’s not like anything is going to change in our lifetimes, right?”

We both stood up at the same time. I had to look down to look her in the eye. “Maybe not in my lifetime, Syd,” Mom said softly, and again I felt that chill.

I edged past her to the garbage can, threw the wadded paper towel in hard. Mom stood waiting, as if she thought I might want a hug. Or maybe she hoped I would hug her. Once, shortly after Dad moved out, Mom had a job working as a paralegal at a downtown law firm. Then her position was eliminated and there were some seriously scary months when we’d come close to running out of money. During that time Mom leaned on me. Once she even said, in tears, “What am I going to do now?” She apologized later, and not long after that got a different job. But that fear stayed with me, of everything collapsing and my mother not being strong enough to cope.

“I have to get ready for school,” I muttered as I edged past her. From upstairs came the sound of water running in the bathroom. Claire was up.

I stomped upstairs and slammed my bedroom door. She dumped this on me before I had to leave for school. Where every day I had to deal with shit, all the people who either teased or ignored me because of that stupid party. And it wasn’t really about the party, it was about Emily wanting to ditch me and hang with her cool new friends. Every day I had to walk into that building with my world-weary game face on, and I had to succeed in every possible way. “Be positive. Be proud. Be a Warrior,” is our school motto. And not only that, I had to look hot while pulling off all of the awesomeness. Now more than ever. I had to show Emily I didn’t need her. I wanted Aidan to notice me, needed him to. Which meant I didn’t have time to listen to Mom spaz out about melting glaciers. I had to go straighten my fucking hair.

~

I don’t know what I’d prefer to public high school. I’d hate to be home-schooled, even if Mom did have the patience for it. I’d hate to sit at the kitchen table and listen to the wall clock tick while I studied political science or trig. Sheltered. Alone. But there are some days when I just cannot stand Riverfield High School. I can’t wait to leave. Go off to college, a big one somewhere, with whole city blocks full of people, students my age who don’t know me. Don’t know Emily and Brenna and the whole messed-up scene. Don’t know my mom. Don’t know about the five scrawny little pullets in our backyard.

Does Mom remember high school? Hallways so long the people you can see at the other end look no bigger than my pinkie fingers. Laughter ricocheting off hallways, lockers slamming, shoes pounding up and down and up and down the stairs. Voices murmuring, thumbs tapping on phones. A million smells—sweat and cleaning chemicals and fried food and stale chips and lip gloss—all mixed together to form one vaguely unpleasant School Smell. Thousands of kids mixed together, swirling and flirting and fighting. Recently Mom got all jazzed about introverts; I guess we’re kind of a thing now. Social media is full of articles listing the Top Ten Myths About Quiet People and how some of the most successful people are introverts, Bill Gates and George Lucas and J.K. Rowling. But if you’re not famous, if you’re just an average teenage girl, no one cares that you don’t like to spend your days cooped up with a bunch of other kids in varying stages of meanness and maturity.

After I did what I could with my hair and watched Mom scoop up Eugenie to take her back outside, after I gulped down some breakfast and headed out to the bus stop, I stood at my locker working the combination. Then I felt someone standing right behind me. A slice of white T-shirt out of the corner of my eye. The crowd swirled around him while he waited for me to turn.

“Hey, Aidan.”

“Hey.”

“Where are you off to?” Ever since his growth spurt last year, I’ve had to look up into his face. He’s got a sweet smile. He’s one of those boys Mom says will “grow into” their looks—he’s lanky but potentially beautiful, like a half-grown German shepherd.

Aidan shrugged. “Spanish.” Lockers slammed. People streamed past us. But in that moment it was as if we were separate from it all. A rock in the middle of whitewater. The eye of a storm. A gypsy wagon in a backyard. Aidan’s eyes flickered a little way from mine, but otherwise he stood still. He doesn’t fidget the way many boys do. Something pleasantly heavy slid through me.

“How are the chicks?” he asked.

I rolled my eyes. “I found one in the kitchen this morning. Mom let her in—she’s getting bullied.”

“No way,” he laughed as we started to walk down the hall.

“I swear,” I said, “my entire family has gone off the rails.”

“Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around,” he said. We approached the top of the stairway to the first floor. I moved closer to Aidan to avoid a crush of kids. Our shoulders bumped. “Come over and see them sometime,” I said. I added, “You can help me clean up chicken shit,” just so we could both laugh it off.

But Aidan didn’t laugh. He shot me a quick look with his earth-colored eyes and said “Sure, that’d be cool.” Then he said, “Gotta go,” and ran down the stairs and I watched him recede down the first floor hallway until he was no bigger than my thumb.

At the bottom of the stairs, I turned a corner and just about ran into Emily. She was alone for once, unguarded. Our eyes met. She’s got these incredible baby-blues and pale skin and a little pointed kitten chin. In junior high I used to tease her, tell her she looked like a space alien, and she’d just laugh. It’s me, Sydney, I wanted to scream. Don’t you remember me? Don’t you remember all the crazy sleepovers when we’d stay up late and watch MTV and spy on your big brother? Don’t you remember making friendship bracelets and trying to sell them door-to-door in fifth grade? Don’t you remember our epic karaoke contests? Does none of it matter anymore? Maybe my thoughts showed on my face. Maybe those memories floated around us like too much CO2 in the air because Emily’s face seemed to soften a bit. She looked young and unsettled, a little like Mom had that morning. “Hi, Emily,” I said, but I couldn’t quite keep the sarcasm out of my tone and with a quick toss of her head, she brushed past me and up the hallway, gone.

~

Aidan came the following Friday. It was a rare, empty spring evening: no end-of-the-year band banquet or choral concert or soccer game. Mom worked the evening shift at the book store. Claire was somewhere inside. I sat on top of the backyard picnic table, cell phone—its text chime silenced—and ball point pen by my side. Should I doodle on the pristine rubber tops of my Converse sneakers? I picked up the pen and tried to twirl it between my thumb and first two fingers. The pen spun out of my grasp and skittered off the picnic table. I hopped down to pick it up, and tugged at the edges of my shorts before I sat. Aidan hadn’t seen these shorts. The last time I wore them, Mom looked at me like I was somebody she used to know, somebody she’d run into at the grocery store or dry cleaners, somebody whose name she couldn’t quite recall. “I’m glad you’re proud of your body, Sydney,” she’d said. “But.” “But what?” I’d asked. A pause. “Never mind.” “Legs that go on forever,” I’d once overheard Dad say, and he wasn’t talking about Claire.

On top I had layered: tight cami and flowy sleeveless tank over that, a top that would show off my shoulders and draw attention from my tiny boobs. I’d slicked my hair and pulled it back into a ponytail. It was already curling in the humidity. Not much makeup: just a touch of lip gloss. I didn’t want him to think I was trying too hard. But I’d spent more than an hour getting ready.

One minute he wasn’t in the yard and the next, he was. He looked exactly as he looked at school: slightly messy hair, T-shirt that needed ironing, cargo shorts. My nervousness dissolved. It was just Aidan, after all, the boy I’d known since fifth grade, the first chair alto sax player. Just him. Did his eyes open wider as he approached? Did he stare at my scrap of shorts, my legs? But then his gaze shifted and he let out a laugh, a peal of pure boy-delight.

“That’s freaking awesome!”

I hopped off the picnic table, feeling both irked at the chickens for snatching the attention and proud I had something no one else at school could claim. The gypsy wagon stood in the center of the yard, one of its sides now painted purple—leftover paint from Claire’s latest room makeover. Claire had scrawled hearts and peace signs over the wagon’s little doorway. The portable pen sat next to the wagon, enclosing the wagon’s doorway and small ramp, so the chickens could move back and forth between the two. Four pullets pecked at the grass inside the pen. I saw the scene through Aidan’s eyes. It was as if he’d stepped from a suburban neighborhood into another world entirely. As if I were a citizen of that other world, I grabbed his hand, as if his warm palm, his fingers and bones, were mine to claim. “Come meet our girls,” I said, pulling him forward.

We looked down at the pullets, at black and white Beatrice and brown Princess and Queen Elizabeth and Sarah Ferguson. Eugenie, I assumed, was in the house with Claire. Aidan held my hand for a beat longer he needed to before letting go. He smelled of damp cotton and sun-baked lawn and something stronger, more pungent—aftershave? Had he put it on for me? I moved closer to his side. He looked at me quickly, then back at the hens. “So Rich is having this party next week,” he began, then stopped and stared at the gypsy wagon. “What the fuck?” I followed his gaze. We watched Eugenie walk slowly down the ramp and scuttle to a far corner of the yard.

“What’s wrong?” I said. “You mean you’ve never seen a chicken diaper before?”

“That is just mental.”

“Yeah.”

Eugenie’s rump, just under her tail, was covered by what looked like a little bag of fabric, red with white polka dots. “It’s so she can go inside and not crap everywhere,” I explained. “My sister thinks she should be a house pet.”

“But she’s outside,” Aidan pointed out. He was laughing now and I tried to join in, but I felt annoyed. I wanted Aidan to look at me. I wanted to hear more about the party.

“Claire was supposed to take if off before she put her out,” I said. Damn Claire. I stepped over the chicken wire into the pen. “That one,” I said, pointing to Princess Diana, a malevolent fluff of brown feathers near the feeder, “keeps going after Eugenie.”

“Oh.”

I wanted to walk to the park or around the neighborhood or watch Netflix in the family room. Anything but this. But I squatted in front of the hen. “Here, Eugenie,” I coaxed, but she wasn’t used to me and skittered away, right over to Princess Diana. Princess Diana was already nearly twice the size of Eugenie and still growing. She would always get her way. Just like Claire. Even as I watched, she cocked her head, her beak parting slightly, preparing to lunge. I stood up. Princess Diana’s neck jerked forward. I watched my own foot kick the chicken, hard. A sound like a fist hitting a pillow. A squawk and a handful of brown feathers fluttering in the air. Length of chicken wire swaying. Princess Diana crumpled on the ground.

“Jesus, Sydney.”

I couldn’t look at him. Sniffed back a sudden sting of tears. “She’s such a bitch,” I said. But Princess Diana no longer looked like a bully. She looked broken and small. I bent over her. She opened her eyes and stared at me, panting. I thought of Sharon. I thought of the baby chicks under the bright warm light of the brooder. Thought about how I’d never hurt an animal before. If Mom had seen me, I’d be grounded for a month. Claire? I looked at the dining room window but the glass threw back the late afternoon glare. If she’d stood and watched, I couldn’t tell.

I turned back to Princess Diana. I was relieved to see she’d struggled to her feet. I wanted to pick her up, place her into Toby’s old carrier, and drive her back to Sharon’s farm. “We have to give this one back,” I’d say to Sharon as she approached the car, wiping dirt off her hands and onto her faded jeans. Maybe she’d invite me in to her kitchen, which would have a rag rug on the floor and something fragrant cooking on the stove. I’d sit at the table and she’d push a plate of Snicker doodle cookies toward me, dark with cinnamon sprinkles. The kind Mom used to make before she got too busy to bake. “What’s wrong, honey?” she’d ask in that tone of voice she’d used for Claire. And I’d spill it, all of it. Sharon would tell me not to worry. I’d believe her. She’d tell me to come back anytime.

I heaved a sigh. The hens scratched and pecked at my feet as if nothing had happened. As if my presence in their midst was totally benign. I didn’t know them the way Mom and Claire did. I hadn’t bothered to feed them. I didn’t take the time to stroke their smooth, silky feathers. When they did start to lay eggs, Claire would find the first one, nestled underneath Queen Elizabeth or Eugenie or the Princess. She’d close her fingers around it gently and skip through dew-soaked grass with her prize. Mom would crack that egg into a bowl and scramble it up for Claire’s breakfast.

Before Eugenie could scurry away from me again, I scooped her up, pinning her wings the way Sharon had showed us. “Can you get the door?” I asked Aidan. I stepped past him, walked across the grass, and dropped Eugenie onto the dining room floor inside. “Claire!” I shouted. “Your hen’s back inside.” From upstairs came the muffled sound of laughter. Claire was in her room, talking on the phone. It was only a matter of time before the competitive gaggle of girls she hung out with turned on each other. I’d rather Claire be the victim, I decided. I’d kick the shit out of her if she bullied anyone.

On the way back out to the backyard I stopped by the kitchen, grabbed the open bottle of Pinot Grigio from the fridge, and two drinking glasses from the dish rack. Aidan sat atop the picnic table, waiting. He was shaking something out of a red and white pack. “Here. You look like you could use this,” he said as I approached. I set the bottle and glasses on the table, took the cigarette from him. “I didn’t know you smoked.”

He shrugged. “My brother gets them for me sometimes. I didn’t know you drank.”

It was my turn to shrug. Generation Whatever. Mom said that once in a fit of annoyance. She and I have had plenty of talks about drinking and smoking and drugs and sex. I know all the reasons not to do just about anything. When she came home later she might smell the smoke on the clothes I’d picked out so carefully for Aidan. But if my generation was having its nine-eleven, what possible difference could one cigarette make?

I sidled up to him on the picnic table, let him light my cigarette. Took a deep drag. It wasn’t my first time, and I didn’t cough too much.

“Feeling better?” Aidan asked. I nodded. “Sorry I spazzed out before,” I said. “There’s been too much shit lately. Family shit. Emily shit…”

“Fuck those guys.”

I took another drag on my cigarette and set it on the table. “Easy for you to say,” I said, the smoke roughening my voice. “I bet no one’s called you a crashy ho. Or a slang slut. The bitches don’t even have the courage to say it to my face. No one goes after the guys. It’s always the girl’s fault.” It takes two to kiss, I almost added, but didn’t.

“Slang slut?” Aidan laughed as I poured the Pinot.

“Careful, dude, you’re hanging with a slang slut,” I said. We clinked glasses.

“I’ll hang with you anytime, slang slut,” Aidan murmured. We drank and smoked and talked. Watched the chickens. Maybe it was the nicotine entering my system, or the wine smoothing out my smoke-singed throat and my nerves, or maybe it was sitting so close to Aidan, but it seemed less than important that Princess Diana was still not completely her chicken self. One wing drooped. She tilted slightly to one side.

I picked up the black pen. “I don’t know how to draw Antarctica,” I said, and realized my tongue was moving slowly, as if it were numb from cold. “I keep thinking it looks like Australia, but that’s not right.”

“I think it’s maybe kind of circular,” Aidan said. I leaned over and pressed the tip of the pen to the top of my shoe, over the toes that had kicked the chicken. A steak of brown dirt from the pullet coop marred the shoe’s tip. The pen slid too quickly over the ice-slick, rubbery surface. “Shit,” I said. I’m no artist even when I’m sober.

My drawing looked like a jagged bird’s head with a crooked little beak on one side. “Oh, jeez, just give me the pen,” Aidan said. I handed it over and he slipped from the table and knelt at my feet. His hair had lightened since the weather turned warm.

I reached for the wine bottle and lifted it right to my mouth. I remembered what my mother had said about the thawing ice sheets. Imagine a full bottle of wine uncorked while it’s lying on its side. No way to stop that.

Aidan covered the top of my jagged, drunken Antarctica with tiny penguins. Icebergs sweating droplets ringed the margins of my shoe top. He added a face to one, a mouth wide in a horrified scream. “I’m melting!” he wrote. “Wow,” I said. “I didn’t know you could draw.”

“Yes you did,” he said, without looking up. He was right. There were many things about Aidan I used to know but had forgotten as we’d grown. A mosquito whirred and whined near my left shin and I swatted at it and jerked my leg. “Hold still,” Aidan said, snapped almost, and grabbed my ankle. “Don’t move or you’ll wreck it.” I didn’t move but not because I didn’t want anything wrecked. The place where his fingers met my skin suddenly seemed like the most important place in the world. Moments began to topple. I felt a rush of light and heat. It was almost too much to bear. I reached for the bottle again.

“Are you sure your mom won’t miss that?” Aidan murmured. “No,” I said. “But I don’t care.” I loved the way the wine made me feel, the way it made the lavender sky so high and deep I could fall into it. A white gull floated by overhead and higher out, a silver jet slid past without sound, its plumes of pollution too far away to be seen. Aidan still held my leg, his head still bent over the ruined continent on my shoe. I put down the bottle and watched my hand move toward the top of his head, waited for the moment when my fingers would touch the top strands of his hair. The moment when he would look up and meet my eyes and we would both know everything had changed. And maybe not for the better, but I couldn’t help it. I just didn’t care what got wrecked.

 

by Gail Wallace Bozzano

 

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 Gail Wallace Bozzano is a former journalist and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago. She is a 2015 recipient of the Ragdale Rubin Fellowship and the 2016 winner of the Michigan Writers Cooperative Press Chapbook Contest. Her work has appeared in Grub Street, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Literati, Cactus Heart, Hair Trigger, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband and three children in the Chicago area.

 

 

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