The doorbell rings, gnawing on my ears. I just need to remove that thing. It’s not like anyone comes to visit. Nor do I want them to.
Who could that be? Mom and Dad? Doubtful. They’ve never come to visit. Jake? He’s too busy with his new wife to even remember his younger brother. Friends? I’d need some first.
I scramble my way out of the recliner. “Coming!” I yell.
Knock. Knock. Knock. Ring.
Knock. Knock. Knock. Ring.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Is that Jingle Bells?
“I’m coming! Stop!”
I rip the door open, ready to chew out whoever’s at the door. But no one’s there. The sun blares off the days-old snow on the lawn. It’s blinding.
I hate snow.
But it’s useless. Whoever was there is gone now.
“Thanks a lot!” I yell at no one in particular.
Chirp. Screech. Screech. Screech.
My heart races. I know that call. There’s one thing I hate/fear more than anything in life: birds. Their creepy stick legs. Nasty feathers. Beady eyes. And their chirps, tweets, caws, screeches, squawks, whatever. They make my skin crawl.
The sound is too close.
It’s at my feet! My eyes trail down and I see it. Devil eyes stare. Head tilted; wings tucked away. It perches on a tiny piece of wood inside a small spherical cage.
I jump back.
The red around its eyes blends into a black trail leading across its face and down its neck like a creepy ninja turtle mask. A bright, blood orange beak opens and closes, opens and closes as though it’s a zombie and I’m prey.
The thing’s wings expand, flapping up and down hiding zebra stripes down its rather plump belly.
Some would call it beautiful. I call it a winged pest. A fat freak.
“Get away!” I shout.
It glares back at me, but of course doesn’t move; it’s in a cage. I slam the door. But when I do, the screeching starts up again. Loud and obnoxious. The longer I leave the door shut, the worse it gets.
Exasperated, I swing the door open.
The bird is motionless. I creep around it and off the porch. This must be a prank. Maybe a neighbor kid left it here. I scan the road. No one in sight. Christmas lights gleam and light up the snowpack on the ground, but other than a few parked cars, the street is empty.
“This isn’t funny. Get your bird and leave me alone.”
I wait for someone to respond.
The bird screeches behind me. Turning, I notice it’s pushed itself up against the front of the cage, staring in my direction. Its tiny mouth opens slightly like it wants to talk, but then closes again.
It’s a bird, I remind myself. It can’t talk or think or do anything other than bother me.
That’s when I notice a red tag hanging down from one of the bars. The bird follows my gaze, then places the paper between its beak and flings it toward me. It flops on the floor spreading open. Large, black flourishes are inked onto the page. Some kind of writing. Eyeing the creature, I bend over and pick up the tag. It reads:
Merry Christmas, Richie. It’s been a few years since I’ve heard from you, but I think you could use a gift. Take good care of him.
You Know Who
Actually, I have no idea who you are. And if your idea of a gift is a stupid bird, then I hope I never do.
“You better get your bird. I’m not taking it into my house.”
I look down at the bird, and it lets out a series of squawks that I swear are a bird’s version of laughing.
“Let’s see who’s laughing when you freeze to death!” I slam the door and shuffle to my favorite recliner. A movie blares from the TV.
I hate Christmas!
My mind is racing. I can’t calm down. I just imagine the bird in that cage on the porch planning its escape and attack on me. I picture its beady eyes zeroing in on me, swooping down, and pecking my skin off.
A banging sound upstairs. Now what? I rush up there thinking something fell, but then my fears come alive when I see the bird somehow out of the cage headbutting the window in my bedroom.
It jumps back, floats for a second, then settles back down and continues the banging. It notices me and goes crazy! It flips, spins, and screeches. All I keep thinking is if it comes in, it’s going to kill me. I know that. Just like I know drinking bleach will mess up my insides.
To my astonishment, the bird flies away, and I’m able to breathe for a second. But before long, it’s back, flying right toward the window as fast as a rock thrown by the neighborhood bully. It’s not slowing down.
As much as I don’t want that creature in my home, I don’t want to watch it smash into my window either, so I dash toward the glass, unlock it, and slide it up in the same moment the fat freak floats through the gap.
I scream. I’m not proud of it, but I scream as loud as a tornado siren. I throw up my hands to protect the soft parts of my face and brace for impact.
And I wait. And wait.
It’s quiet. Did it fly downstairs? I hope not. I don’t want it down there either.
Opening my eyes, I’m surprised that it’s perched on the foot of my bed. Calm. Beak opened slightly
“Get out of here!” I yell.
It adjusts its wings, but doesn’t move. I grab a blanket and try to shoo it away. Like a statue, it’s unnaturally still. I’m obviously not a threat.
“Don’t make me call animal control,” I threaten.
It makes that odd laughing sound again.
“I’m not joking.”
I pick up my phone to make the call. That’s when the bird makes its move. It rushes me, but instead of biting, it grabs my phone out of my hand with its sharp beak, and flings it out the window.
“You little pest! You’re going to pay for that!”
“What is your problem?”
I try to run for the door, but it hobbles in front of it and blocks my exit, casually pacing like an annoying security guard. Now I’m livid. I yell and scream trying to scare it off, but the beast just scratches its wing with a claw and chills.
I start to panic. I have no idea what to do. I have no way out, no phone. If I ever figure out who cursed me with this monster and get out of here with my life, I don’t know what I’m going to do, but it won’t be nice.
I flop on my bed, trying to think of a way out of this, but I’m exhausted and can’t focus.
Next thing I know, it’s dark outside. I must have dozed off. In my confusion, I sit up and rub my eyes. Looking across the room, I notice the bird standing on my dresser, right next to my television.
It switches from one leg to the other and bounces a little.
“Hey, monster, how long was I out?”
“That long?” I say. “You just been sitting there this whole time? Why didn’t you attack?”
It tilts its head. And for the first time I don’t have the feeling it’s going to hurt me. It almost looks thoughtful.
“Well as long as you’re here, how ’bout you bring me the remote?”
With no expectation it understands my request, I stand up to do it myself, but as I do, it actually floats over to my desk, pulls up the remote in its mouth and claws, and flies it over to me. The remote drops into my open hands.
Flying back to the dresser, it stares up at the TV as though I’m not even in the room. What is going on? I must still be asleep or something.
“Do you understand me?” I ask.
It nods again.
“What are you?”
It turns its head and looks into my eyes. Its mouth opens. I wait.
Because birds can’t talk. But I didn’t think they could follow commands either. I think I may be losing my grasp on reality. If that’s the case, I’m going to enjoy a show before my mind goes.
The next day, the bird lets me leave my room. I was afraid to try, but after explaining what I was doing, it lifted a wing and pointed out of the room as if saying there’s the exit.
Now it follows close behind as I head outside to search for my phone. When I find it under a bush, I pace in the backyard while I text a couple of co-workers. Most don’t respond, but the ones who do are adamant they didn’t get me a bird or any gift for that matter. I contemplate texting Jake and my parents, but I decide I don’t want to start up a line of communication again.
I rack my mind, but I can’t think of anyone who would gift me a living creature. I can barely take care of myself. And I have no idea what to feed a bird or how to take care of one.
“Hey, bird. What do you eat?” I ask.
It walks away.
“Where are you going?”
I follow close behind as it continues its trek to the front door and jumps up on the step. It points with its beak toward the cage. The cage hasn’t moved, but now it’s filled with bird seed up to the bars. I don’t remember that from yesterday.
“Huh,” I say. “Go at it.”
I watch as it jumps onto the cage and picks at the seed through the bars. What an odd creature. Odd, but not as scary as I thought.
“I’m going inside.”
It looks up, eyes wide.
“Don‘t worry, I’ll leave the door open.”
“Hey, bird! I think it’s time we give you a name. Any ideas?”
He looks up at me with those tiny eyes of his. He closes them for a moment, then flaps his wings and flies up onto the kitchen counter. He begins pecking at a loaf of bread.
Then he flies over to the toaster and points with his beak.
He flies over to the bread, then flies back to the toaster.
He jumps up and down, flapping his wings, then spins in circles.
“Toast. I kinda like it,” I admit. “Okay, Toast, what should we do today?”
“Wow, now you’re quiet? How ’bout we go for a walk?”
He shakes his head.
“Okay, a drive?”
“Where should we go?”
Without hesitation, he flies over to the refrigerator. Hanging from a magnet is a picture of my parents. Their smiling faces stare back at me. He pecks at it.
He continues his enthusiasm.
“I can’t. They don’t want to see me. I don’t want to see them.”
He begins flying in circles.
“You’re impossible. Choose anywhere else,” I say.
That’s when he flies to Jake’s engagement photo.
My shoulders slump.
“I meant anywhere without my family.”
Toast flies back at me and begins ramming into my chest. Over and over and over.
“You’re not going to change my mind.”
Toast sits in the passenger seat. I drive.
I can’t believe I’m doing this. I haven’t spoken to my parents since the day they let their little secret out. I mean, it should have been obvious. Jake and my parents are tall, blond, and athletic. I’m, let’s just say, not.
But it still came as a shock. I can’t understand why they never told me. Or why they waited until Jake’s wedding to lay that bit of trivia on me. But it happened and now I’m living with the fact that I was lied to my entire life. Even by Jake.
“Why are we doing this?” I ask Toast.
He perches silently in his cage.
“You’re ruining my life. You know that, right?”
“I don’t know what you’re expecting to happen when we get there. ‘Oh hey, adopted kid, we accept you now that you’ve got a bird.’”
I shake my head.
“Not going to happen.”
We drive in silence for another 10 minutes until we pull up to my parents’ house. It glows from multi-colored Christmas lights. A wooden Nativity sits atop compacted snow. Same decorations they’ve put up since Jake and I were kids.
They’ll be eating dinner right now. Just like always. Jake might even be there with Millie.
As I sit on the side of the road, I remember Christmas’ past. The time I spent with Jake anticipating our gifts. Waiting up all night for Santa to come down our chimney. Trying every year to catch him in the act.
I think about my parents and all they’ve given me. They always made me feel special. I had everything I ever wanted and more. So much so, that I had no idea I wasn’t their blood.
It never mattered to them. It never mattered to Jake.
So why does it matter to me now?
“You’re right. I’m being petty.”
“But they lied to me.”
Toast screeches quickly in succession.
“I guess they didn’t really lie. They just never mentioned it.”
“It doesn’t really matter. You’re right. Maybe I should just suck it up and let go.”
Toast spins around in his cage, jumping up and down.
I breathe in deeply, bracing for what may happen next. I look up and there they are. My family standing out in the cold. They’re waving. Smiles across all their faces.
My eyes well up. It’s been too long.
Every reason for not seeing them disappears in that moment and all I want to do is celebrate Christmas with those I love.
And my bird.
December 24th—Late Night
A crash wakes me up from my sleep.
“Toast!” I yell as I bolt upright.
He’s sitting right next to me in my bed.
“What was that?”
Toast flies up and out of my door. I follow.
But he doesn‘t until we get downstairs. He flies by the chimney and perches on a stone set in the wall. A huge ball of light fills the room. I slam my eyes shut, but behind my lids I notice the light slowly fading. When I open them again, the room is near dark, and someone I never expected stands in front of me.
Someone I haven’t believed in since I was 9 years old.
His white hair and beard shine through the darkened room. His red suit fills the negative space between the chimney and me. He is massive!
I shake my head. I’ve completely lost it.
“Am I asleep?”
“Oh, ho ho no sir. You are finally awake.” He bellows, and I’m sure I see a literal sparkle emanating from his eyes.
“But you aren’t real,” I say timidly.
“I’ve heard that so many times, I don’t take it personally anymore. But I am 100% real. You’ve been watching my partridge for the last couple of days.”
“Yes, indeed. I’m so glad you were able to discover his name. He’s my favorite pet. Don’t tell the reindeer.” He puts a finger up to his mouth and winks.
I’m speechless. Nothing makes sense.
“Well, Toast, are you ready to come home?”
I look over at Toast, who’s staring back at me. Understanding in his eyes. He turns to Santa and shakes his head.
Santa laughs. “As I suspected. Well then, if Richie wants, you can stay.”
“Yes!” I shout, too enthusiastically.
“Then it’s settled,” Santa declares. “Toast, I will see you around. Richie, I trust you’ve learned what you were meant to. I will not be sending anymore birds your way.” He lets out a hearty laugh, twinkles his nose, and disappears.
And as quickly as he appeared, he’s gone again. Toast flies up to my shoulder. It’s the first time he’s ever been this close to me. I smile and pet his feathers. He spins in circles.
He’s a pest, but he’s my pest.