The bus arrived late and with a broken rotator. We sat on the vinyl seats watching pools of sweat form in the folds of our clothing. Our fingers plumped like little corndogs. Good air is hard to come by, we reminded each other. We opened all the unstuck windows and flapped our hands across our faces. Most days, the breeze made our mouths taste like sawdust and our eyes feel like stone. We contemplated removing our damp shirts and wearing them like headscarves.
The land passed in dappled shades of brown as the bus swayed and lurched our bodies in unison. We saw the junkyard filled with broken cars. There was the gas station, grown over with crabgrass, and then the treatment plant, like a pair of copper onions globbed together.
All birds around here were dead, and we stared, slack-jawed, at their piled carcasses along the road. The bird hills were as tall as stop signs, each marked by an orange flag. The flags slumped in the air as if to signal that once, somebody had considered the notion of mortality, or that eventually, someone might move the birds elsewhere. It was a reckless and sloppy job, and the whole world felt like an old refrigerator gone bad.
We assumed it had to do with the heat, or maybe it was the air quality, or maybe both. Rumor spread that all the amateur taxidermists were stealing the bodies under the cover of night. We wondered if this was a crime. We wondered who preyed on the birds, if they were piled elsewhere. We wondered how to get black market birds of our own.
We passed a heap tumbling down from the side of a one-bench bus station. Inside, a man sat and smoked a cigarette. As we passed, the man moved his hand toward the birds like a game show display girl. This is all for you, he didn’t say. He wore sandals with grey socks. He looked tired—the kind of tired a man gets after having transcended some barrier and found nothing new on the other side. Grief, God, the slow crawl of a blind man from daylight.
At the office, the air rotation was on full blast. We lingered beneath the vents until our arms sprouted goose bumps. The scrolling marquee beside the door said, “Heard about bus, but you do know it’s budget season.”
There had been layoffs. There had been downsizing. A limitation had been placed on the variety of fruit delivered, now bi-weekly, to the office. It’s all bananas. A few apples and recently, a peach, sent upstairs via the chute. When there had been figs, they came from a place we swore wasn’t real. A yellow sticker read Product of Northern Falls. A blue sticker read 100% Real Organic! We peeled the stickers and placed them in patterns on our desks, our imaginations filling with visions of cold, watery places.
Sometimes upstairs cuts the rotation, and we all walk around, pretending not to choke. We’re all drinking a cocktail of last week’s sneezes dashed with the acrid smell of deodorizing body spray. A month ago, we found a study linking this spray to respiratory degeneration and air pollution, so we printed the informational packet and hung it in the break corner. We are kings of irony. We all had a good laugh.
We can’t remember exactly when the birds died. We were working overtime. It hadn’t rained in a few weeks. Business was good because the air filled with sand, and people wanted to keep their bedrooms from collecting dunes. And then, out of nowhere, it rained twenty-thousand birds all over the place. We thought it was a hailstorm until we realized the sun was out. Crows stuck down chimneys, pigeons kebabed on iron gates. We watched a pair of robins slide down the office windows, their wings splayed as if reaching for one another.
According to experts, that many birds shouldn’t have flocked in the first place. It was as though they migrated straight to our coordinates like a death drive. We took the opportunity to issue a press release announcing a self-cleaning filter system upgrade because upstairs thought this apocryphal event would usher a buyers’ market.
We contracted twenty-seven self-cleaning filter system upgrades in twenty-four hours. We broke records. We shook hands. We thanked the drought and the heat, and even the birds, but we knew we were criminals in a world of excess. It was our job to be like that.
The birds soon appeared on the wrong side of windows, perched on branches, bricks, or an unlaced boot. We imagined the buyers of these talismans—faceless clouds who remained inside with the windows caulked. The birds would be delivered through a chute, lest anybody open their doors. In secret we desired birds of our own. We desired eyes that could stare us down worse than the lidless paintings of holy saints.
In the end, upstairs received a peregrine falcon, likely a client gift, which came in a gift-wrapped box through the wrong chute. There was a little blue ribbon that someone had taken the care to curl with a pair of scissors. We cut the box with a key. Inside, the falcon perched on a twig that would, in nature, be too weak to withstand a breeze. There was a bit of glue around the left eye, a glass orb recklessly inserted and looking backwards over the wing, giving the bird an air of cocky reassurance, or maybe a sense of fright. It scared us half to death. We sealed the box with tape. We knew it was a glance that did not say that’s alright, I know it’s safer here.
Fraylie Nord is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Volume 1 Brooklyn, The Billfold and is forthcoming in Oblong Magazine.