Remnants of the Nest
by Gregory E. Lucas
Sunday morning. Ricky lay in bed, eyes closed, barely awake, but conscious of the irritating rumble of a motorcycle drowning out the enchanting music of birds in the backyard. The motorcycle’s noise faded and the birds’ flute-like tones returned, even sweeter than before.
I ought to learn to play a flute. I’ll ask Mom or Dad about getting one today. But he believed they’d think the idea odd, and besides...
Something terrible has happened, his instincts told him. He sensed that the birds also knew this. The birds quieted. But only a few seconds later their music enlivened the tree.
Sunshine splashed Ricky’s face and stung his eyes as he opened them. He swung himself off the bed. Dressed only in his boxer shorts, he hurried through a mixture of cold air and sunny spots toward the thud’s origin. He looked out, anxious for a clue.
Birds were skipping from branch to branch of the tall oak. The closest branches looked near enough to touch if he chose to lean over the sill and stretch his arms. The tree resounded with happy blends of melodies, and he wanted to join in. He reached as far out as he could without endangering himself, and he took hold of a green leaf, then the rough bark of a special branch, one that had given him joy and hope and that he had admired for the past week.
Birds clustered at the bottom of the tree and kept up a loudening cacophony.
The blue eggshells that he had admired each day and loved for their delicacy and their promises of new life lay scattered on the ground, split into countless fragments. Remnants of the nest stuck to several branches at different levels below the branch that he touched.
The only two cardinals among the flocks of dark birds that’d set on the tree this spring had flown to different ends of the tree. One cardinal, perched at the top, partially concealed itself behind green leaves on a branch nearby, as if it felt ashamed; the other perched on a lower branch, on the opposite side of the tree. It was the male, Ricky could tell, from its larger size and from its excessive flapping and pecking, and it flaunted its fiery wings and robust chest brazenly on the tip of a skinny branch. Sun and shade dappled its glossy feathers.
Ricky shifted his attention from one cardinal to the other, while the birds below pecked at the shells and ate their fragments, ate the spilled half-formed lives that had existed within. Other birds tore into tinier pieces the portions of the nest that had been lodged between twigs and leaves on its tumble down the tree.
You didn’t wreck it on purpose, did you? he said to the cardinals, though not aloud, just thinking the question. Destroy your own nest, your home, your family? Maybe wind knocked it off? Ricky tried to detect a breeze, but the air remained motionless. No one — no birds, no people, would intentionally destroy their home, right?
“So, what’s her name?” His mother’s voice sounded so loud that Ricky thought he’d forgotten to close and lock his bedroom door. He ducked back inside and felt surprised to see it still closed.
“Don’t. Don’t go accusing me of stuff.” His father firmed his defense by pausing between every word and delivering each syllable with controlled venom.
A door slammed. Footsteps in the hall. His mother, he believed, had decided to retreat into her bedroom and leave his father alone in the hall where Ricky heard him muttering.
“I got drunk last night,” his mother said, “but I didn’t get stupid.”
Ricky, as soon as he heard his mother’s shrill voice overriding his father’s cusses, understood he’d gotten it wrong; she had slammed the bedroom door shut on her way out of their bedroom and pursued his father, determined to retaliate.
“You’re stupid to drink like you did when you know—”
“I’ll drink anytime I feel like it, you...”
Ricky had never heard his mother use so many horrible curse words that soon followed, and the pitch of her rage made him tremble. A chill mitigated the sun’s comforting touch on his back and legs. He pictured his parents glaring at each other.
“Bad enough your depressions wreck everything; now you get drunk, too.”
“Know why? Cause you never—”
“There you go again. Saying I never listen. I’ll tell you—”
“No, I’ll tell you. Maybe if you hadn’t had sex with some pretty little bimbo last night—”
“What’s her name? She’s gotta have...”
Ricky leaned over the sill and willed himself to listen to the birds instead of to his parents’ argument.
“A name,” his mother continued. No use. He couldn’t drown out her voice, not even after he covered his ears with his palms. Her words became muffled as she continued to shout outside his door, but the words she had already spoken echoed in his head, and even with his utmost effort he couldn’t quiet his mind.
He removed his palms from his ears, leaned farther than he should have, so that he might hear the birds more clearly, hoping that a small choir of them would lessen the nightmarish sounds within his house. He considered lunging for the nearest branch so that he could grab it and swing himself from the house into the tree. Even farther out he leaned. He needed to extend a few more inches to grip the branch where the nest had been.
The yelling inside pushed him so far out that his weight stayed as forward as it could get without his losing his balance and tumbling out the window. His bare tummy slid across the window ledge. Pain spread across the scraped skin below his navel, and then he realized that he still wore no other clothes except boxer shorts.
“Ricky.” Three loud knocks on the door. His father’s insistent voice shook the door as much as his knocking. “Open up.”
“What the hell you doing?” his mother said.
His father pounded on the door again.
Ricky realized what he must do. It would work if he didn’t think too much or hesitate. He stepped back inside and took a pair of jeans from the hanger in his closet next to the door. The shadows of his father’s feet crept under the door, into the bedroom. They seemed part of a horror movie that lodged disturbing images in his brain. He slid his jeans on while standing by the door, and realized that he’d never forget the eeriness those shadows evoked.
“What do you want with Ricky?” his mother said.
Ricky picked out a T-shirt from his well-ordered drawer. He kept his room impeccably neat. Every item had its place. And no one ever told him how to arrange his belongings; it was all his own doing. He finished dressing and grabbed a backpack from his closet, but he didn’t throw clothes into the pack haphazardly, no matter how anxious he felt to get out; he gathered socks, shirts, underwear, and one more pair of jeans, keeping it all in order.
Although he didn’t understand why he sometimes cried in front of people, why so often he couldn’t sleep or put nightmares out of his mind when he wanted to dream of pretty girls instead, he knew why he packed up so neatly, why he kept his room precisely arranged.
Mystified as he had become by so much in his life, by the strange behavior of his parents especially, by his own cowardice and by his lack of control over his thoughts about his father’s shadows that would haunt him for a lifetime, he understood that he kept everything — his room, his desk at school, his closets, drawers — orderly because it countered the chaos rampant in his house.
His father rattled the knob, pounded the door, and said, “I’m getting out of here.”
Another set of shadows crept at the bottom. “Not with Ricky.”
“Get away from the door.” His father’s voice sounded as cold as steel on a wintery day.
His mother’s and father’s voices mixed incoherently, reverberated in his mind as they would inside a cave. He lifted his mattress up and pulled out fifty-four dollars that he had saved up from allowances, gifts, horded change from school lunch money, and just plain luck, as when he had found a ten-dollar bill on the floor of J.C. Penny’s a few days before last Christmas while he and his mother bought presents to give his father: shirts and pants that were the wrong size and as mismatched for his father as his parents had become for each other.
He divided the money almost equally between his back pocket and a front compartment of his backpack. Shadows shifted and more light spilled onto the bedroom floor from underneath the doorsill. He heard his mother’s back sliding against the door, thudding, and her struggling to keep his father from the door. Then — a terrible shriek. Had his father hurt her?
“Open up.” His father whacked the door. “We’re going fishing.”
His mother cried and her sobs so tightly constricted her throat that it took him a second to decipher her words: “It’s all my fault.”
Ricky fastened the straps of the backpack to his shoulders, ran toward the window. He believed he could grab a limb and swing his body onto it if he didn’t think about it, because that would only make him too afraid to go through with it.
His father lowered his voice to his mother. “Cry all you want.” But it sounded more sinister. “I’m fed up with your scenes.” He rattled the knob more forcefully. “Fishing, c’mon.”
Ricky rose on his toes so that he could reach out an inch more to grasp the branch. The sill cut him below his waist, but he extended himself farther out. Anticipation of running away overruled his pain. He gripped the branch and imagined sliding down the trunk, setting his feet on the ground.
“What’s wrong with me?” his mother said. The frantic tone of her voice mixing with her erratic breaths frightened him. He pictured her plopped down on the hallway floor, legs splayed wide, spine against the plaster wall, head hanging low, and tears gushing.
“Your mother’s making another scene. It’s nothing. Open up, c’mon.”
No more. He tightened his grip on the branch, started to pull free of the house, free of its turmoil, but he let go of the branch and lowered his heels to the floor. He hated the selfishness that had almost made him abandon his mother during her breakdown, but also hated the weakness that had kept him from setting himself free.
He stepped away from the window, toward the door. Even as he swung it open and looked up at his father, he imagined the thrill of pulling himself onto the limb, straddling it, and then grasping one limb after another. In his imagination, he scraped his hands on branches. He let go of the lowest one, slid down the rest of the trunk, and sprinted across the backyard.
“What took you so long to open the door?”
“I was getting ready.” He removed the pack from his shoulders and held it down at his side so that his father could see the proof.
“It’s my fault,” his mother said. “Everything’s been my fault for a long time.” Her voice sounded calmer, and she wasn’t plopped on the floor like he’d envisioned her. She stood with her back against his parents’ bedroom door, her hair disheveled and her face a strange mix of pale patches, smeared eye shadow, and red blotches. Since she didn’t conform to the way he’d pictured her when he’d been standing behind the closed door, he felt tricked.
Somehow, they both always lured him into feeling sorry for them and worrying about them. He berated himself; what a mistake he’d made. He’d blown an opportunity to escape. Other chances would turn up though, he told himself; and he wouldn’t squander the next one.
Copyright © 2017 by Gregory E. Lucas