Beyond the cracked sidewalk, a patch of dry brown grass, and the telephone pole with layers of flyers in a rainbow of colors, there stood a twelve-foot high concrete block wall. There was a small shrine at the foot of it, with dead flowers, burnt-out candles, and a few soggy teddy bears. A lot of graffiti filled the wall, but the biggest word of all said: Rejoice!
Chewing his thumbnail, Jaycee sat on an elephant-sized boulder in Greenview Park, far from the wall. How he hated that word: Rejoice. Rejoice? You couldn’t rejoice until every last loved one was found. Lots of people had found missing persons in the aftermath of the hurricane… but he still hadn’t found Dad. He felt the crater deep in his stomach start to widen.
After the hurricane had ripped through the Greenview trailer park, the tallest structure left standing was that wall, which had been part of the Greenview Lucky 8 strip mall. At the height of nature’s rampage, the wall had protected a dozen people and by habit folks still congregated there, a landmark that now provided shade.
Jaycee watched a Ford minivan arrive at Greenview Park and discharge a passel of kids and two adults. They all had big round freckled faces, as if there’d been a sale on them at the body-parts store. These folks were not searchers, he could tell; they did not even look once at the wall. The kids raced to the ball diamond while the parents took out a cooler and boxes of food and set the stuff on two picnic tables. Sea gulls began a slow circle overhead.
From his pocket, Jaycee fished out a candle stub and Dad’s old lighter. He leapt gracefully from the boulder and crept toward the wall, trying not to look at that R-word, the word he hated, lest it jinx his prayer. He lit the stub and tried to think of prayerful words.
Words were a splashy ocean to play in, but not so much fun to pray in. Jaycee prayed now, though, because he’d heard that praying was what you did for those who had disappeared. In between cycling around to hospitals and the temporary camps, that is. Then he crept back up the elephant-boulder and watched.
The family looked happy-happy. Their mother was still alive. They did not have a father ripped from them and tossed up God-knows-where, who was maybe sent to an unknown clinic or emergency relief tent. Or worse.
Jaycee squinted at the noisy birds overhead as he gnawed his thumbnail. The littlest kids were eating snacks and one had spilled her food. Goldfish crackers, the kind Jaycee loved. The birds were jostling and pecking each other over the crackers. The gulls were joined by a sprinkling of pigeons—and—and what was this? Jaycee stared, his thumb falling from his mouth. A large bird with a red head and body, and wings striped yellow and bright blue joined the flock. A parrot?
* * *
Rainbow the parrot flew in a widening gyre, her great yellow-blue wings outstretched, her scaly dark feet tucked close to her belly. Sunshine! Air currents! Wide open spaces, wheee!
Once or twice a month, out of sheer parroty devilment, Rainbow played “naughty girl” and escaped from the old lady’s house. Rainbow would stay away a couple of hours, sometimes even overnight, but she always allowed herself to be lured back by a juicy slice of fresh pineapple left on the back step, followed by a gentle neck-scratching session from the lady.
Jaycee watched the kids finish their game of scrub and get out some toys: balls, kites, and an electric car that got snarled up in long grass. They sang Happy Birthday to a boy named Healey. He put on a foil-laminated cardboard crown. Healey opened a present, squealing with delight. His parents argued over how to set it up, but soon the device was dipping and swooping in the sky. Healey grabbed the controller. “A drone! Yaaay! Watch me take down the enemy!”
* * *
Predator! Here! Now! Rainbow shrieked warnings to her comrades, but no one spoke parrot patois. She saw the predator zoom after a pigeon—then veer away. Then it zoomed after her… and it veered away. Hawk or falcon or vulture… Rainbow couldn’t tell what kind of predator this was. It flew unnaturally, so she couldn’t use her standard manoeuvres to avoid it. Soon avian anarchy arose: all the birds were swooping, cawing, shrieking, even bumping into each other.
“Hey! A parrot!” yelled Healey. “He’s mine!”
Zzzzzt! Rrrrrr! A loud noise shocked Rainbow. The whirring jagged propellers terrified her. Wham! Madly dodging the drone, she collided with the twelve-foot wall. She felt her wings crunch. Her body dropped like a feather-covered stone, with only the soggy teddy bears of the shrine to break the fall.
Small sweaty hands grabbed at Rainbow, lifting her up. “Now look what you’ve done!” a high voice wailed. Another voice cried, “That’s unfair! You made him get an accident—you won’t take care—unh! Unh!” As one kid started to punch another, Rainbow fell and landed on the soggy bears again.
Through her partially open eyes, Rainbow could see the round faces of three kids above her. She couldn’t move. She felt more afraid than she’d ever been in her life. The kids started a pushing match, shoving and stumbling very near to her limp body.
Then other hands darted in, lifting her, carrying her quickly away. She felt the grid of cold wires of—what, an upside-down cage?—no, it was a bicycle basket—underneath her. A dark-eyed kid looked down on her there, helpless in the basket, and whispered, “Oh, Mr. Bird, I’m gonna get you outta here. You’re safe with me!”
Rainbow heard kids yelling behind them. She heard the click-click-click of the bike, slow at first and then speeding up, with trees and signs passing by. The yelling grew quiet. Her thoughts drifted. The old lady used to ride a bike—Rainbow fondly remembered chewing on the leather seat—but that had stopped when the old man went away. Rainbow did not know what had happened to him, but many things had changed right around then. The old lady’s pretend feathers had changed from colorful to black and she had put away the old man’s big black leather bag. Rainbow simply accepted that her parrot-brain could not understand all the behaviors of the featherless birds. She only hoped these creatures would live and let live.
Click-click-click. She looked up at the kid as he huffed and puffed, swaying a little as he drove the bike. Horns honked, tire treads crackled, loud engines came and went. The kid lurched to a stop outside a pizzeria, which Rainbow recognized from the blast of hot air that assailed her. She heard the kid’s voice saying, “DeMarcus! Look what I found! Can we keep him?”
“Well… I guess.” Another face, that of a teen-age boy, who smelled like pizza, looked into the bike basket. “He looks a little beat-up. Was he hit by a car?” DeMarcus said, and his eyes slid to look at the first kid.
“No, he got scared by a bully with a drone and flew into a wall,” said the kid, trembling with excitement. “Look, he’s so beautiful …he looks like he was born in a rainbow!” Rainbow, hearing her name, quivered. The kid’s slender fingers stroked her plumage. “Come home and help me with him!”
“Sure, I’m just getting off work.” DeMarcus carefully put a warm box and a cold can of soda in the basket beside Rainbow. “You take these, Jaycee. I’ll follow right behind.” He rolled up his apron, tied it round his middle, and hopped on another bike. “C’mon, let’s go.”
* * *
When the ride ended, Rainbow was lifted again. Jaycee slid her body onto a soft pile of clothing among the boxes in the garage. He pulled an old coat over the top, creating a cave that emanated the powdery sweetness of old ladies.
DeMarcus lifted Rainbow’s head and touched her beak to some water in a hubcap. She lapped it with her tongue. He broke the pizza crust into bite-sized pieces and left them where her tongue could reach them. Much later, she heard him practicing his orations like songs. Like the old lady chanting her prayers, the orations were a comfort.
Yo! Lissen up! In one ear
but don’t let it out the other
Hurricane came and vacuumed up my father.
Help me look for my ole busted dad.
Best darn dad a fella ever had….
Rainbow drifted in and out of consciousness. Her feet tingled, her wing throbbed, but the water and food helped. She recalled the old lady eating pizza, like when her grandchildren visited, and they all shared food with Rainbow. (Hawaiian pizza was her favorite, with double pineapple.)
Jaycee talked to Rainbow all day, trying to coax her to say something. At first, he timidly tried things that he’d heard parrots say in cartoons: “Polly wanna cracker!” and “Shiver me timbers!” These made Rainbow cock her head in puzzlement. Then he took to chanting his brother’s songs, often mixing up lyrics. The louder and more confident his delivery, the greater notice Rainbow took. To a parrot, loud orations are declarations of love! She struggled to her feet, rolled her beak in a circle and cawed the single phrase of love she knew. She had learned it from the old man with the black bag: “Awk, take two aspirin and call me in the morning!”
Jaycee gave a small shriek and called DeMarcus over. Rainbow looked at them both, stepped back and forth, rolled her beak in a circle, and said, “Awk, take two aspirin—” Then she toppled over, panting from the exertion.
* * *
The brothers kept making the rounds of hospitals and homeless shelters, looking for their father. After every rain, they put up fresh flyers with Dad’s photo and their contact info. DeMarcus and some other teens formed the hip-hop group Greenview Hurricane Survivors, and began planning a benefit concert to raise awareness of missing persons.
“D’you think the hurricane dumped Dad one state over?’ Jaycee asked one night at bedtime. He had stashed Rainbow in her parrot-lair in the garage, and the worries had started to dig anew at the crater in his stomach.
“Our luck is changing,” said DeMarcus, who wanted to keep his worst speculations hidden from Jaycee. “Lissen up. We’ve got Mr. Bird. We’ve got the 30-Day Benefit Concert. We will show Dad’s picture there. I’ll keep practicing my orations.” The brothers kept riding their bikes all over the city to put up posters on hoardings and shelters and telephone poles.
The Greenview Hurricane Relief Agency arranged for a family support worker, Jeannine, to visit the brothers. She told DeMarcus he must return to school in September because he was under sixteen. “It’s important to set a good example for your brother.” Jeannine assessed Jaycee’s academic skills: “You’re slipping in maths, but your reading scores are impressive.” The verdict made Jaycee laugh and he chanted, “Yo! I need my education / to further my oration,” and that night he fell asleep thinking of dozens of words that rhyme with education.
Rainbow’s wing hadn’t fully mended so she often perched on Jaycee, whom she adored as only a parrot can. She wanted to be near him at all times. Her grip on his bony little shoulder could be painful so Jaycee took to wearing Dad’s old ten-pocket hiking vest, the one with padded shoulders. It was way too big for him but the faint smell of Dad’s old sweat and campfire smoke comforted him.
Jaycee and Rainbow sat for hours on the boulder, watching people pray at the temporary shrine at the wall. Construction crews scooped up dirt and brown grass. The crater in his stomach was still there but did not seem as deep. He had to stop gnawing his thumbnail because Rainbow insisted on tasting it, too—Ouch!
Jeannine visited twice a week, and soon found an old rhyming dictionary for DeMarcus to perfect his rhymes. “Jaycee, why don’t you audition for the 30-Day event, too?” she said. “You guys could go on as the brother act.”
* * *
On the protected side of the boulder, Jaycee practiced his hip-hop moves, just like he’d seen the older kids do. With Rainbow on his shoulder, he chanted:
Ayo, Mr. Bird, it's time.
It's time, Mr. Bird (aight, Mr. Bird, begin).
Straight out the poor dungeons of rap.
“Haw, haw! You suck!” yelled a sturdy kid who rode up on a shiny new bike. His freckled round face looked familiar. “And you know what? You’re stooopid! Your dad’s not really missing. He just couldn’t stand looking at you—”
Oh, no. Healey!
Then Healey’s two buddies rode up. As if on cue, the three of them dropped their bikes. “You sound like a girl!” Healey said, advancing on Jaycee. “Here’s a rhyme: your bird / looks like a turd! Haw! Haw!” The two buddies brayed laughter.
This was too much. Jaycee raised his hands, about to cover his ears. Suddenly Healey’s right arm darted out. Jaycee’s nose exploded with pain. He forgot all about the creature on his shoulder. A swell of anger burst the dam of emotions inside him.
He lunged at Healey, swinging his right fist. He missed the nose but left a nasty red patch on Healey’s cheek. His left fist swung and plowed into Healey’s face. Meanwhile Jaycee’s ear filled with the unholy racket of an attacking parrot.
“Aiii! Aiii! Get this killer vampire vulture offa me!” screamed Healey. Flapping her great blue-yellow wings, Rainbow grabbed Healey’s shoulder with her talons and sank her sharp strong beak again and again into Healey’s ear lobe. The notches turned pink, then red.
She raked Healey’s scalp with her talons and beak, all the while screeching at maximum volume, like gigantic fingers on a gigantic chalkboard.
“Enough! Enough!” Healey screamed. Tears oozed from his Jabba-the-Hut eyes. Squinting with pain, snot dangling from mouth, he stumbled to his bike, bumping into the other boys and cussing them with all his might. The trio fled, their bikes madly zig-zagging on the gravel.
Healey’s bike collided with the wall.
“Serves you right, you… you…” Jaycee hesitated, searching for a suitably powerful insult. In a flash he remembered the horror of the day he had witnessed the glorious red-yellow-blue creature ram into the solid wall. “You… drone dirtbag!” Jaycee shouted. “You drone dumbass!”
He stuck out his arm, a signal for the parrot to get on his shoulder, and Rainbow flapped onto it. Once Jaycee’s nose stopped dripping, he cycled home, saying over and over, “Mr. Bird,” to which Rainbow replied, “Take two, awk... take two.” When he got home, still shaking, Jaycee flung the door open, calling out, “Halloooo?”
No answer. Rats! DeMarcus was at work—exactly when Jaycee was bursting with news of his victory.
“You’ll never believe it,” he shouted to the empty house. He sang: “I’m rappin’ to the bird / gotta use my words” but couldn’t get beyond that. “Take two aspirins, awk!!” Rainbow cawed and cawed. The duo was stuck in a sound-groove.
One look in the mirror brought Jaycee to tears. He was a mess. If Dad had been there, Dad would’ve cleaned him up. Dad would’ve wanted to hear all about it. Dad would’ve said, “I hope you walloped the other guy.”
Jaycee put aside the wet facecloth and stared at the reflection of his eyes, dark and glassy, with spiky eyelashes that looked like he’d been swimming. He looked different and it wasn’t just the purply nose. “We did it, Mr. Bird,” he said, leaning over to blow a tickle of air on Rainbow’s neck.
She cocked her eye at Jaycee, and then at the gorgeous bird in the mirror. Then back at him. She stroked his ear with her blood-stained beak, in that tender way of a loving parrot. “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning!”
Jaycee suddenly thought of a funny way to extend DeMarcus’s rhyme:
Yo! Lissen up! In one ear
but don’t let it out the other
Hurricane came and vacuumed up our father.
Father gone missing
And we be reminiscing
All the good times, a-hugging and a-kissing.
So lissen up! When you hear hurricane warning…
Then he tickled the parrot’s neck until she cawed: “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning!”
* * *
The 30-Day Benefit Concert was a wild success, especially for “Mr. Bird, the rapping parrot.” It was broadcast nation-wide. Tips for missing persons flooded in. The brothers found their father, an amnesiac victim who had mistakenly boarded a train to Chicago and shuffled wordlessly around O’Hare Airport every day, convinced someone would pick him up.
Before Greenview Hurricane Survivors disbanded, the group decided to give one last thank-you concert to their fans. The applause began right after the emcee introduced “the breakout artist of the year, Jaycee B!” The spotlight swivelled to the boy rapper as he strode on stage. The sudden piercing brightness startled his bird. By reflex, Rainbow tried to fly away. Jaycee, in the adrenaline haze of performing, and the stress of remembering his baroque rhymes, did not even register the light weight that fell from his shoulder and scuttled behind a loudspeaker.
But the newest roadie noticed the parrot. This roadie, dressed in faded black jeans and T-shirt, had short-cut grey hair, one half dyed violet. She was not much for the heavy lifting, but she was hired because she could sort and wind the dozens of cords like nobody’s business. Plus, she never messed up the convoluted coffee-and-donuts order. So they had welcomed her on crew.
Before the next song started, the new roadie ducked behind the loudspeaker. She threw a silk scarf, emanating a powdery sweetness, over the trembling creature. She gently scooped the bird into the crook of her elbow and silently rejoiced. Rainbow nuzzled a familiar arm and cawed, “Awk, take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”