Farah wipes the dust from her hands onto her jeans, and the worn white hills turn fuzzy gray. Like mountains after the sun melts the snow, and the smog pours in. She stares down for a moment, the pattern more interesting than the topology of yet another dying town. This is the fifth anonymous town they’ve stuck her in, or is it the sixth? The witness protection program is more exhausting than glamorous.
Squinting back the tears, she stares blankly out the windows at the sad little trees and the brown yard. Birds are chirping, but instead of bright it feels monotonous. Walking back out to the rental truck, she suddenly notices a neighbor on the porch across the street. Farah waves, and turns intentionally to watch the birds bicker in the branches before he can respond.
Abe waves, but she doesn’t see it. New neighbors are fascinating, in this quiet place. The best entertainment he gets outside of NCIS and football on the TV. He watches, trying to guess why she moved here. Her hair is a black cloud that lags behind her, bouncing in opposition.
The jackdaws, sparrows, and finches from all around seem to have set up choirs in her trees, trying to impress the new resident. Abe watches her bent over the fence watching all their dancing, and feels a prickle on his skin like she can read his mind through the back of her head, using her hair as a satellite dish.
He gets up, painfully, and walks inside. “We finally get to meet the gal who bought Jolene and Paul’s house. Looks like a single woman, hon.”
“Well there goes the neighborhood,” his wife jokes. “Now with your knees how they are, don’t you dare go offer to help move. What kind of sandwich do you want for lunch?”
He doesn’t answer at first, thinking of songbirds singing in the impossible dark nests of the new neighbor’s hair.
Several weeks pass, and after the usual brief awkward introduction happens where Lynn passses along a tray of brownies, all Abe sees of Farah is a wave from his porch when she works in the yard. Birds circle her like they expect something better. When he’s out there alone, they’ll sit in trees all along the street. Yet when she steps out into her yard, a magnet, they all seem to circle her. She doesn’t even notice, he muses. I think I would notice if all the birds danced for me.
In the grand tradition of boring jobs, Farah has found herself a beauty. She works the late shift at the gas station on the edge of town, the one close to the interstate and the bars and the strip club. It’s pretty quiet, and it lets her have time to think.
Sometimes she almost thinks of bringing a book, but that feels profane. The station has an aura of peace and waiting. She likes it better than home, sitting behind glass, chewing gum and thinking until random chaos sails in the door.
Well, now wait a minute. Isn’t that old guy the neighbor across the way? She waves. “Hey there! Al, was it? I’m sorry, I’m real terrible with names.”
He nods, unable to meet her stare. “Abe. Good to see you, Farah.”
“You’re up late.” She looks at the clock on the wall as it ticks past 3, wondering what it means that he remembered her name and she couldn’t remember his.
“Well, a bit early actually.” He shrinks back inside his jacket like a turtle. “Ran out of milk. I didn’t know you worked here.” A weird gesture with his hand, then he shoves it in his pocket.
“Yep. Almost every night, ten till six.” Deciding she’s somehow making the poor guy nervous, she stares at the second hand on the clock as he shuffles off to find his milk.
As he’s walking up to the counter, some regulars from around the way come in. Wasted as usual. She sighs, and smiles. “Hey Winona. Hiya Rogue.”
“Heyyyyy,” comes a too-loud refrain from two drunken strippers, partying their way into her quiet late night like usual. She doesn’t mind. They’re funny. Good kids.
Farah almost snorts at the goggle-eyed Abe as he turns back to plop his milk on the counter. He leans in and says, “Yikes!” in a fake whisper.
“Tell me about it. They’re here every night. Reliable like a broken clock.”
He pays, looking back awkwardly at the gals who are eyeing him up with winter coats and nothing on their legs and loudly asking how he’s doing. Abe looks so out of place here, thinks Farah, as she passes the change into his shaking hand.
And just like that, he’s shuffling out the door. “Good to see you, Abe!” she yells.
“Oh, you know him? Think you can get me a number?” Winona laughs way too hard and slaps her knee repeatedly. The door clanks, and the two of them unspool yet another story, trading mistakes and misrememberings through a haze of giggles. Farah drums her fingers on the counter, feeling oddly flighty, unable for once to laugh along with them.
Abe is falling asleep on one of those nights where he took his medication after dinner instead of before, and he knows the dreams are going to get weird.
“I love you, sweetie,” he mumbles.
Lynn smiles. “I love you.”
Next thing he knows, he’s a younger man again. They live in a different, unfamiliar house. But when he goes outside, across the street is Farah’s house.
He slowly steps down his walk and into the street. A spiral of sparrows forms above his head, and when he looks up, he laughs. He can conduct the flocks like an orchestra with his hands. They fly in formations and sing an intricate rhythmic song. When he looks back down, he’s on her porch.
“Yes?” She comes to the door, and he can see in her eyes she knows him well.
“I just wanted to let you know, the birds love you,” he says.
“Oh, do they?” She smiles, and opens the door. Somehow he is kissing her neck and the sparrows are singing and they are in the bed now and her skin feels like the paper that the universe is written in and he is inside her and they are moaning in a rising spiral as the birds outside rail and the birds inside flutter and they are somehow becoming and he feels himself turning with the orgasm he slowly, blissfully becomes a flock of starlings and wrens and cardinals as his mind seeps out into the birds and he knows her mind is doing the same.
They don’t have any bodies any more, they are only birdsong.
Abe doesn’t wake up, that night. Becoming birdsong is his final dream, accompanied by a massive heart attack. He dies with a smile, and Lynn doesn’t wake up until morning.
At the gas station, Farah combs through her unruly hair, only partly listening while Rogue tells an absolutely vile story involving a gloryhole and a disease usually only carried by corpses.
The moon is full, and for some reason, the chickadees and whippoorwills are singing so loud even Winona cocks her head. “Rogue, shut the fuck up for a sec. What the hell is all them birds going crazy for?”
Farah nods, and goes over to the door. “Pretty weird.” But it looks like just any other night, with the fluorescent light pouring out into the cracked lot.
Lynn shakes her head, staring at her plate. “Really, thanks for coming to help out with all this, you guys.”
“Well, thanks for cookin’ Ma. You didn’t have to, you know.” Mark gestures with a slab of meatloaf.
Cara coughs. “So, uhh, I did find some, uhh, things… while cleaning up the computer.”
“Well, you know what we always say.” Lynn sighs. “No secrets in the Martin house.”
Mark nods, but Cara coughs again. “Well, umm… let me ask it this way.” She turns to Mark. “Does every man have a giant archive of porn?”
“Oh dear,” says Lynn, just as Mark chokes a bit and says, “No, well…”
“I mean, do you?” Cara puts down her fork.
“No. There’s the internet there, if you ever need it, you know?” By now Mark is turning a radish red.
“Well, okay. I just didn’t know your dad very well. Was he ever, uhh, was he ever a pilot?”
“What? Oh, god no.”
“No, dear.” Lynn shakes her head and chuckles, lost in the past. “Abe was deathly afraid of flyin’. He did love bird watching though.”
Leaning over, Mark whispers to Cara, “You can tell me later, just spare Mom, okay?”
“Spare me, nothing!” Lynn bangs the table with her fork. “I said no secrets in this house!”
“Well, uhh, ahem. How to say this. Abe had quite the collection of, uhh…” Cara squeezes her eyes shut and says it as fast as she can. “Airplane stewardess porno.”
Lynn stands up and starts stacking the dishes, just trying to keep moving, but clearly in shock. “But I don’t understand, he was always terrified to fly!”
Outside, the crows trade bad jokes, waiting for Farah to set foot outside again and give them a purpose.