I stood in the kitchen next to my mother, helping her put the finishing touches on dinner. I could hear my father laughing his hearty laugh in the kitchen, everyone else was silent...he must have told one of his jokes. I carried the casserole and the asparagus, and my mother took the chicken. We had to make several trips. People were smiling and talking and being friendly. I could see my dad going around graciously filling everyone’s glasses. The more they drank, the funnier he got.
The last dish we carried to the table was red jello.
“I saved you a seat,” my little brother said.
“Thank you, Tommy.”
I sat next to him, and he flashed me a toothy smile.
“Hey, after this, do you want to go for a walk in the forest, see if we can find any birds?” I whispered to him.
“Yes,” he said, “can we go now?”
“No, we need to have Christmas dinner first.”
“But I don’t know any of these people.”
The other guests stared at us.
“Me neither,” I said, “but you don’t want to miss the food, right?”
“Jello!” He said.
I felt a thousand eyes turn towards us.
“Yeah Tommy, if we leave now you won’t get any jello,” I said.
“We could just take it with us.”
“That’d be impolite.”
Mr. Huxley, the local mailman, turned to face us. His chair creaked under his large figure.
“So, Dora, how’re you finding your new school?” He asked.
I smiled. Mr. Huxley always stopped on his mail route to speak to me. He would say that he enjoyed talking to me, but he liked taking a break even more. ‘Keep talking kid, keep talking, if you stop now I’ll have to get walking.’
“It’s very different,” I said.
“Well, there’s only one high school here, so everyone knows everyone.”
“Right, except you because you didn’t grow up here.”
A few of the other guests probably thought he was being offensive. I didn’t mind, he was right. I was trying to stay positive, but there was something very wrong with this place. No, I just haven’t gotten used to it, that’s all. Mr. Huxley was a nice guy, but he had a way of getting in your head.
“Yeah. Also, it seems like football and cheerleading are everything, forget about other sports, debating, drama, all that stuff,” I said.
“I think that’s a good thing,” Sean Paulson, another guest, argued, “it’s nice to see so many of our kids get sports scholarships.” He was the head of the PTA, and his son Denice Paulson played quarterback on the Junior varsity team.
“It doesn’t matter,” Mr. Huxley said with a big smile, “we have one of the lowest graduation rates anywhere.”
“But our football team brings the town pride and honor,” Sean said.
“It’s not what’s best for our kids, I was running back on the varsity team and college team in my day, now I use all those skills to deliver the mail. I was so focused on football I hardly even remember what I majored in,” Mr. Huxley said.
My dad and I were the only ones who laughed. Sean stopped talking.
“Can we go now?” Tommy whispered.
“Not yet, we need to finish dinner.”
Tommy looked around the table. Everyone looked back at him with different degrees of smiles. His eyes started twitching.
“Excuse us for one moment,” I said.
I took my little brother’s hand and lead him upstairs into his room. It was round and wooden, and vines were growing thick against the window. Creepy. We sat on his bed in silence, and I waited for him to calm down.
My thoughts drifted to the future, what I would do when I graduated high school. When people ask me why I want to study psychology, I never say it’s because of my little brother. Nowadays that’s part of it, but he never had these episodes in our old home. He was always this pure, fun-loving kid, like a dove, but recently he’s become timider. That’s why I have to sit down there and smile and laugh, I can’t afford to let myself crack like him. Change is the toughest, longest marathon you’ll ever run, and I wasn’t going to stumble. I had to keep running, so I could be there to pick up my little brother and help him finish the race.
Tommy’s hyperventilating slowed and his eyes stopped twitching. I made swirls around the covers with my hands, whistling a quiet, casual tune while I waited for the last sparks of his meltdown to die out. What were these episodes? Anxiety attacks? My parents were so busy with the move taking Tommy to see a psychologist had fallen to the bottom of their priorities.
Then there was me. What was I in my old school? An athlete, a theater kid, a band kid, a debate geek, and what was I here? Some girl who talked to the mailman and hung out with her little brother. I looked over at Tommy, his frown was relaxing into a smile, like a rainbow after a storm. A dove returning to the ark with good news. A ping of happiness shot through me, so what if I hung out with my little brother more than I did with people my age?
“Are you feeling better?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said in a quiet voice.
“Do you want to go back down there?”
“Yes,” he said.
I nodded and gave him a big hug. We let go and I looked into his eyes, pale brown, no longer twitching. We got up together and walked downstairs. The guests were talking and laughing, and it looked like several of them would need to take a taxi home. Tommy and I walked in through the kitchen, and as soon as we stepped into the dining room it was as if someone had turned down the volume. The laughter died out, conversation slowed, and a vague feeling of discomfort settled over us like a thick fog.
It was just me, I’m sure it was just me. I pushed the feeling of discomfort out of my head and focused on finishing dinner. Sean Paulson, his wife, and his son Denice were the first to leave. Everyone else soon followed, except for Mr. Huxley. He finished the last bit of jello before getting up.
He waved goodbye to us at the door, wished us a merry Christmas, and left.
My mother closed the door, and there was a feeling of relief, like loosening up your belt after a good Christmas dinner and sitting back on the couch and taking a nap.
“We did it, John,” my mother said to my father.
“We did it, Bethany,” he said back.
I had to fight off a wave of sadness that threatened to knock down my Christmas spirit. My parents looked like they each aged one hundred years. Since when did we have to work so hard to get our neighbors to like us?
I was shaken out of my thoughts when Tommy started tugging on my sleeve, an expectant look on his little face.
“Can we go on a walk?” I asked my parents.
“I don’t know honey, it’s already so late,” my mother said.
“Oh come on Bethany, it’s not a school night,” my father said.
“Fine,” she said, “but take your dad with you.”
The three of us smiled and nodded. I held Tommy’s hands while he stuck his feet into his boots, then I helped him zip up his jacket.
A knock on the door stopped everyone dead in their tracks. Who could it possibly be? My father walked past us and looked through the peephole. He opened the door just a crack.
“Hi,” came a raspy voice from the other side, “sorry to intrude on you so late, I understand you recently moved into the neighborhood and I wanted to give you a welcome gift. I live across the street.”
My father glanced back at my mother, who nodded. He opened the door. The man’s appearance made me shiver. He wore a long black coat, his jet black hair was slicked back and his eyes were something ancient and withered, almost yellow.
“Thank you so much,” my father said, taking a big wrapped box from the man.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the man. He was wearing a stone-cold, serious expression, but just beneath the surface of that lurked a smile, like he was laughing at us. He turned around, flapped his arms, and flew away. Strange.
“Didn’t you send invitations to everyone on the street?” my mother asked my father.
“Yeah, I thought so…”
“Fine, never mind. Here, give me the gift, we’ll open it tomorrow on Christmas,” she said.
My father nodded and handed the big box over. He held the door open for us, and we waved goodbye to my mother as we left.
We took a left turn and walked on the road that stretched across our neighborhood. There were about eight houses on each side of it. Streetlights cast an ominous yellow light over everything. Tommy said it reminded him of cheese, but to me, it was something different...it was the glowing eyes of a monster hiding in the dark.
The road stretched on, and the houses were replaced by thick forest. We turned left, into the woods, and my father used his phone as a flashlight to illuminate a path in front of us. It was narrow but otherwise smooth.
The woods were a dangerous place, restless in the howling wind of the night. Dad made both of us promise not to tell mom he let us go here after dark.
“Tommy, no running ahead. Please stay next to me and Dora,” my dad said.
“Sorry,” Tommy said.
Tommy was a hunter, prowling the woods in search of birds. On our first day here, while the movers took everything into the house, we all went on a walk in the woods and Tommy spotted a beautiful bird. He said it was white, with golden eyes. Nobody else had seen the bird, and Tommy was never quite the same. Ever since then, he has been determined to show it to us.
There was a rustling in the trees behind us. I turned around to look, my father didn’t.
“It’s just the wind, Dora,” he said.
Since when was the wind so delicate? So agile? It was as if something, or someone, was sneaking through the trees. I wanted to go back, but I was sure there was something behind us. Someone behind us. I could hear the flap of wings. I walked next to my dad, Tommy led the way. We followed him deeper and deeper and deeper, until…
“I think there’s a bird behind us,” Tommy said.
My father kept walking as if he didn’t hear what Tommy just said. I waited for my little brother to throw a fit and berate my father for not listening, but he kept walking as if he didn’t say anything. I turned around, and sure enough in the trees behind us was a group of crows. What was that called...a pack? No, a murder. It was a murder of crows. They were laughing at us. We kept walking into the woods, gaining speed now. Then, my father and Tommy disappeared, and I was alone. A runaway train, no option but to keep chugging along into the darkness. Maybe if I could just make it past this tunnel. The path got narrower until there was no path, just total darkness. I turned around, a thousand yellow eyes pierced the darkness behind me. Yellow, darkness, yellow, darkness.
“Help!” I woke up with a start.
Tommy rushed into my room in his red pajama onesies.
“What’s wrong?” He asked.
I looked at him for a long time, studying his face. His eyes began twitching, so I looked away.
“What happened yesterday?” I asked.
“Christmas eve!” Tommy answered with a big smile.
“Let’s go downstairs! There are presents under the Christmas tree! Oh, and we’re waiting for you to open the box from our neighbor.”
“The one with the yellow eyes?”
“What?” Tommy looked scared.
“Never mind, I’ll be right down.”
Tommy nodded and ran out of my room. I heard him jump down the staircase. I forced the birdman out of my head and threw on a pair of jeans and a white top.
“Dora, come on, we want to open our weird neighbor’s gift together!” My father said.
I ran down the stairs. My family was in the living room, gathered on the floor around the big box the man gave us. It was wrapped in white. My father opened the top and glanced in, he chuckled. My mother peeked at it and frowned. My little brother looked excited. There was a loud caw from inside the box.
My father reached his hand in and pulled out a big golden cage with a single crow in it. Its eyes were yellow. They didn’t blink or twitch. It cocked its head to the side and looked over at me.
“We can’t keep this,” my mother said.
“Yes, we can, please! Please! I’ll take care of it,” Tommy pleaded.
“We’ll think about it,” my dad said.
We ended up keeping the bird. It was a lost battle when my little brother named it. ‘Its name is Tommy, just like me!’
The bird never blinked. Its eyes never twitched. Until one day, before going to school, I looked at it for a long time. Its eyes began twitching and I could hear it gasping for air, just like Tommy. I left in a hurry after that.
Mr. Huxley was doing his morning route.
“Hi Mr. Huxley,” I said in a dull tone.
“Hello, is something bothering you?” he asked.
“Well, kind of, do you know anything about the guy who lives across the street from us?”
“Oh yeah, you’d be surprised how much you can know about people based on the type of mail they receive. Now, I haven’t delivered anything to that guy’s house in fifteen years, so he’s probably a bit of a loner. Sometimes I see him standing at his window and watching me with those weird eyes of his. I don’t know how to describe it, it’s like they’re…”
“Right, my advice to you is to stay away from that man.”
I had career guidance in school that day.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” My teacher asked the class.
“I want to be a psychologist,” I answered.
“Why?” the teacher probed.
“So I can help people go through big changes in their lives.”
I heard laughter behind me. I turned around, the class all looked bored. The moment I faced my teacher again, the laughter started up again.
“Stop it! You’re all pathetic, you know that. All you care about is football and cheerleading and you’re all going to grow up to be mailmen or weird old loners who give people birds. I, I, I don’t want to be here anymore!”
I turned around again, and the laughing disappeared. The class looked scared.
I didn’t say anything for the rest of the day. I was that weird girl who yelled during class, I went and ruined any chance I had to make friends. I was going to end up alone like the weird bird-man.
I read Tommy a bedtime story that night. So what if I don’t have any friends? I still have my family. I had Mr. Huxley, too, and if things really took a turn I could go and befriend the weird bird man.
I wasn’t paying attention to the story. I finished reading, closed the book, and stood up.
“Good night, Tommy,” I said.
I switched off the light and turned back to look at my little brother. His eyes were yellow in the dark. I stood there for a long time, his eyes didn’t twitch, they didn’t blink.
I ran downstairs. The crow’s eyes were no longer yellow. I stared at him for a long time, and they began twitching.
This was too much change for me to handle. Was my little brother a bird now? I waited to pass out again, to wake up with Tommy jumping on my bed asking if I was alright, but that never happened.