Innocent things aren’t meant to burn.
In an alternate reality of a beautiful, abstract world, a swan swam across the surface of what some had once called Heaven, spreading its wings and beginning to take flight. In this beautifully-tragic world of dreams, screams and queens, creatures lived, ate and drank off the imaginations of unconscious minds, in a world where they could live and die in the briefest of moments. One moment one would live, then the next they would die, struck down by the hammer of something so powerful it was beyond the compression of even those who controlled it. Magical, some might say, were they to peer through the looking glass of a sleeping man’s mind, but those who really understood knew the consequences of living in a perfect world.
To the south of Heaven stood what some would consider Hell. Horrible, some would say, were they to look through the looking glass of a sleeping man’s mind, but those who really understood knew the triumphs of allowing such a sleeping dragon to exist. Breathing fire, pluming smoke, exhibiting its purpose in a violent display of metal—it existed for one reason, and one reason only.
They just knew.
Breathing in a sigh of noxious relief, the swan raised its head and stared at the dragon. Alarmed, but not frightened, it pumped its wings and pushed itself back, closer to the string of dying amaranths that dusted Heaven in cherry red and pink.
In a place of green that killed all it touched, the swan knew the cherry would be safe.
It just knew.
Some call dreams the result of cells firing off in the brain in rapid succession. Others call them rapid eye movements, while many believe dreams are something special, something meant to be loved and cherished for all of time. For some, dreams brought nothing more than pain and misery, a constant companion to wake up with you during the day and tuck you in at night.
Just when you thought you were safe, the dreams came and got you.
For men like Kurt Hanson, his dreams were hell.
Roused from sleep by yet another surreal and terrifying nightmare, Kurt pushed himself into a sitting position and ran his hands over his eyes, trying as hard as he could to still his trembling chest and regulate his uneven breathing.
No matter how hard he tried, nothing seemed to work.
In the back of his mind, a child screamed for the light to be turned on.
Sighing, Kurt closed his eyes.
Grown men shouldn’t be afraid of the dark.
No one should, he thought, leaning against the headrest. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
There were no swans in here, no dragons threatening to jump out of his closet and eat him whole. What did he have to be afraid of?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Defeated, Kurt rolled over, slung his legs over the side of the bed, and stood.
With a shake of his head, he made his way toward the door.
It didn’t take too long for him to wander into the hall and make his way into the kitchen, into a place where happiness used to abound and where dreams used to be fulfilled.
Before the swans… before the medicine…
“Before the divorce,” he whispered.
How something so little could turn into something so big, he didn’t know. All he knew was that after he started having the dreams, and after he started leaving the house late at night to go see a psychologist to keep his problems from his spouse, his wife got suspicious and decided to end the marriage.
In the end, it didn’t matter. He didn’t need another person to suffer his dreams, especially not a woman he loved so much.
Making his way across the room, Kurt opened the fridge and pulled out a carton of milk. His choice beverage for late nights, he’d often warm it up and take it back to the bedroom with him after calming himself down. Sadly, that usually took a good hour of contemplation or a half-hour of reading, neither of which he could afford to indulge in.
“Gotta get up in the morning,” he chuckled, pulling his milk out of the microwave.
As a tenth-grade biology teacher at the local high school, his job afforded him few benefits. With his meager pay and employment options slim to none, he couldn’t afford to pass up any work, especially in the current state of the economy.
Raising his glass, Kurt set the rim to his lips and drank.
In the back of his mind, the boy told him to turn on the light.
“All right, all right!” he called, raising his voice over the roar of the classroom. “Settle down, guys. You had more than enough time to talk between classes.”
Pausing, Kurt waited for the students to stop chattering before he turned and began writing on the blackboard. With chalk in hand, he wrote Aves: The Classification of Birds.
“Now,” he smiled, “as you all know, my main interest in biology is the study of birds—or, like I’ve just written, Aves. As we all know, all species of animals are listed under the Kingdom Animalia. Now, the kind of animals that would fall into Kingdom Animalia are dogs, cats, pigs, horses, hippos, elephants—basically, anything that isn’t a virus, plant or fungus. Now, in the Kingdom Animalia, there are several different subclasses that fall underneath it. I’ve given you the class of animal the bird is—Aves—but I’d like you to tell me what the next classification is.”
As expected, the class said nothing. Some flipped pages in their biology books, while others simply dazed off into the distance, looking at things Kurt already knew weren’t there. This lapse of silence allowed him a look around his class. His eyes quickly fell to Bernice Sinclaire, a young Asian woman who’d quickly proven to be intelligent beyond her years.
Come on, Bernice. You can do it.
One of the few students who continued through their textbooks, Bernice looked up in time to catch Kurt’s wandering eyes. She smiled, but quickly bowed her head back into her book.
“I’ll give you a hint,” he continued. “It’s two words. The first starts with P.”
“Phylum Cordata!” Bernice shouted. With a blush, she bowed her head. “Sorry, Mr. Hanson.”
“It’s all right, Bernice. But yes—you’re right. Phylum Cordata is a class of animals that have backbones. Aves, like I just said, is the class birds fall in, and Phylum Cordata is the kingdom that birds are in.”
“I don’t get it though,” another boy said, then frowned. “What’s the point of knowing what class or what kingdom an animal is in?”
“To split them apart to classify them better,” Kurt said, crouching down to pull out a taxidermied woodpecker. “Like animals are placed into classes, they’re further divided into orders. See this woodpecker here? It’d fall under the Piciforme, which is the order of bird that has two front and hind toes for clinging onto vertical surfaces. Follow me so far?”
The enthusiastic ‘uh huh’ that followed made Kurt laugh.
“It’s confusing at first, but it’s really easy once you get into it. Basically, it’s broken down like this. Now, I hope you were paying attention, because I’m going to break down a bird for you.”
Beginning with the Kingdom, Kurt scrawled Animalia onto the board. Under that, he wrote Phylum: Cordata then Class: Aves. He continued all the way down to the Species, until the board resembled a work of scientific art.
Stepping back, Kurt set his hand on his chin to examine his work.
He could hardly believe he’d written that all from memory by the time he reviewed it a second time.
You’d think I’d have a better job with as much schooling as I’ve had.
“Mr. Hanson?” Bernice asked.
“Yes, Miss. Sinclaire?”
“What do you want us to do with this?”
“I’m… not particularly sure,” he frowned. “It’s a bit of writing—and a lot of work, especially for someone who’s never tried to classify birds—but I think it’s a good exercise. At least, it was for me.”
“You’re not going to,” a male student began.
“Oh no, Mr. Peters—I’d never give sophomore high school students a challenge.” Nervous chuckles followed Kurt’s statement. “Tell you what—anyone who’s willing to give me the bird that I’ve just classified will get fifty points of extra credit.”
“Fifty?” Bernice frowned.
“Yes, Bernice—fifty. It’s an awful lot of extra credit to pass up on, especially for those of you who are failing.”
Which is most of you, he thought, forcing a smile, despite the tension in the air.
“All right everyone, here’s what I want you to do for today’s assignment—and before you start groaning, don’t worry, you’re just reading the chapter on birds in your books.”
Kurt couldn’t help but laugh.
Even if teaching didn’t pay well, at least it could entertain him.
At around five o’clock that night, Kurt collapsed into his leather recliner and nearly fell asleep five minutes later. Tired from grading papers all day and trying to arrange a successful trip to the local raptor exhibit, he couldn’t help but begin to doze off.
When the smell of feathers and dust filled his nose, he shot forward and nearly fell out of his seat.
Gasping, he took a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair. Even his semiconscious dreams seemed to be filled with birds nowadays. Why, he didn’t know, but he didn’t particularly care. He just wanted them to end.
They won’t though. You know that.
“Yeah,” he sighed. “I do.”
The reality of his dreams and the emotions that came with them was all too real. With an anti-anxiety and sleep aid medication he’d been prescribed just before his wife left, no one could say that he suffered in vain. No one—absolutely no one—could say that what he experienced wasn’t real, and no one could even begin to question the sanity of a man who dreamed of birds and woke in cold sweats because of it.
Because they are real, he thought. Because it is real.
He went to bed with them every night.
If anyone knew, it was him.
In the midst of black despair, anything and everything could happen. Your heart could give out, your mind could implode, and the muscles in your arms could tighten, all because of a simple need to be understood.
Sometimes, when anxiety took hold, you lost control of orderly thought.
Normally, Kurt would have begun his night with the usual routine—eating dinner, flipping through his planner, rearranging upcoming assignments and reading, complete with a glass of milk. Tonight, though, that whole routine had gone out the window and decided to take a swim.
Racing through his heart like a runner on the grandest of playing fields, fear took hold and broke him in two.
The conscious part wanted to go to bed; the semiconscious one wanted to remain awake.
It’ll come back, the voice of trouble said. You know it will.
“No it won’t,” Kurt whispered. “Not if I don’t let it.”
It doesn’t matter if you don’t want it to—it still will.
“No. I’m stronger than that.”
Stronger? the voice laughed. Since when, Mr. Hanson? Since when have you graded your papers and given yourself an A-plus? Huh? Since when? When was the last time you did that, Kurt? When was the last time you went to bed without a pill? Or, better yet, when was the last time you went to bed with your wife? When was the last time you held her in your arms before she found out what you were doing at night?
“I wasn’t doing anything,” he sighed, closing his eyes. “I needed help.”
Help? Help? Since when has a man like you needed help, Kurt? Since when?
“Since I started dreaming and my life fell apart.”
Then pick up the pieces, old man, and put them back together. It won’t be long before whatever’s in your dreams starts trying to come to you.
“That won’t happen. Dreams don’t come to life.”
The voice silenced.
Kurt made his way toward the bedroom.
Before he could get to the end of the hall, the little boy inside him asked for the light to be turned on.
“Sir… Sir? Mr. Hanson?”
“Yuh-Yes?” he managed, raising his head. Through bleary, bloodshot eyes, he saw Bernice Sinclaire standing in front of his desk with a paper in hand. “I’m sorry, Bernice.”
“It’s all right, sir. I… uh… finished the extra credit.”
“Yes sir.” She passed the paper across the desk. “You classified an African fish eagle.”
One part of him couldn’t believe it, yet another part of him could. The part that could knew that Bernice Sinclaire hadn’t passed up a bit of extra credit in the two years she’d sat in a class, while the part that couldn’t questioned why a student with a perfect GPA would want to buff her grade up past its already-outstanding one-hundred-and-twenty-percent. Was it because her shy, gentle demeanor forced her to please anyone she met, or did it have something to do with the fact that, out of all the other students, Kurt paid the most attention to her?
Oh, he thought.
It all made sense now.
Bernice had a crush on him.
“Bernice,” he smiled, running the edge of his thumb along the Asian girl’s fine, exquisite handwriting. “I can’t believe you did this.”
“Because your grade’s already higher than any other student’s in the entire school. Keep this up and I’ll have to start flunking you.” Laughing, he returned his eyes to find Bernice’s face lit with a startled expression. Upon this revelation, he couldn’t help but laugh again. “Don’t worry, Bernice—I’m not going to flunk you. I have no reason to.”
“I know, sir.” The girl looked down at her feet. Somehow, Kurt resisted the urge to glance over his desk. He would see nothing more than Mary Jane’s—he already knew that.
“Was there something else you needed, Bernice?”
“No,” she said, beginning to turn. She stopped in the middle of her motion and turned her eyes on Kurt. “Is there something wrong, sir?”
“No,” he smiled. “I… I just didn’t get enough sleep last night, that’s all.”
Bernice said nothing.
She returned to her desk without another word.
It unnerved him more than anything to know that even a teenage girl could see the pain in his bloodshot eyes.
On long, lonely drives home from the high school, he thought of his wife and how he lost her because he sought out medical help.
It had started innocently enough.
One night, after waking up for the third time in a row, he forced himself from the drenched, sweaty depths of his bed and decided once and for all that he would be getting help.
That help came in the form of a psychiatrist named Jane Austerson.
Jane gave him more than just pills. She gave him a divorce.
After repeated calls to his home phone when he specifically instructed that all calls should be sent to his cell, Amanda came home one night to find five different messages that hadn’t been deleted from the answering machine. Because of a late night at the school supervising a local science fair, Kurt had forgotten about everything other than his job and what was in front of him.
When he got home that night, he found a note next to the answering machine.
The words still rang in his mind whenever he thought about that fateful night.
Have fun with Jane, the note read, because I’m sure as hell not sticking around to wake up alone at night.
She asked for nothing. Not the house, not his second car—nothing.
In the end, she wanted nothing more than a confession.
She never got one, because Kurt never had anything to confess.
Nothing you can do now, he thought, shifting gears and merging into the other lane.
For the most part, he’d let Amanda go over the years. While he still missed her presence—her warmth in bed, her smile in the morning, her touch at night—he didn’t blame her for what she did. Amanda had never been one to give in to ideas other than her own. Her parents had raised her that way. How could he blame a person for something so deeply-rooted in their conscience?
Because you were the telling the truth.
He didn’t bother to speak or voice his opinion.
Grown men didn’t talk to ghosts of unforgotten past.
The dragon belched.
Spewing forth a mixture of green and brown from the bowels of its gut, the long, metal-necked creature shifted. Smoke plumed from its nostrils and heat exuded from its surface as the contaminated contents of its stomach ejaculated into the river. The water—once blue, beautiful, and full of wondrous life—sizzled as the bile touched its surface. Parts of the tainted surface even exploded, sending chunks of debris into the air.
Frightened, the noble swan spread its wings, trumpeting its call as the surface near the dragon bubbled and changed. Green turned to brown, then slowly turned to black as the mud beneath the surface shifted. Strangled plants that dared to grow near the surface curled in defeat as their leaves turned black and their stalks gave way.
In the distance, ghosts with black snouts carried barrels marked with a symbol.
A tear spilled down the swan’s face.
After all this time, they’d finally come back.
“This here’s the great horned owl,” the raptor center tour guide said, raising his hand to point out the large, nearly-invisible bird sitting in a nearby tree. “They stand at eighteen to twenty-seven centimeters and can have wingspans anywhere from three to five feet.”
“They’re also found anywhere from subarctic North America to Central and South America,” Kurt added. “Right, Dr. Darian?”
“Yes,” Doctor Matthew Darian said, readjusting the wide-brimmed hat on his head. “They’re not usually found anywhere near El Salvador and near the southwest, but they’re highly adaptable to whatever environment they’re in. They’ve been seen nesting in rainforests, in deserts, even highly-mountainous areas. Once they choose an area, they’re usually there for life.”
“How come they don’t move around?” a student asked.
“Well,” the doctor said, “many animals are like us, young man. Once they find a place they like, they’re not very willing to leave.”
“Unless they come,” Bernice mumbled.
Almost all eyes turned on the young Asian woman,
“Pardon?” Darian asked.
“Them,” Bernice said. “You know… them.”
“Who’s them?” Kurt frowned. “Bernice?”
Bernice said nothing. Instead, she raised her arm and pointed.
Hidden in the distance behind a dusty hill and a brown, dying patch of deciduous trees, the beginnings of a chemical plant could be seen extending into the sky. Like a volcano, smoke poured from its surface, breathing new life to a world that never wished to experience it.
Smokes, toxins, chemicals—all flew freely from that tower into the sky.
All it took was one path—one mechanism—for them to be freed from the hands that made them.
“Oh,” Darian sighed. “I see.”
“What?” someone asked.
“What’s she talking about?” another added.
“Us,” Bernice said. “Them.”
“What do you—”
“She’s talking about encroachment,” Kurt said. He, too, couldn’t help but sigh. The thought threatened to force images of death and terror into his mind, but he managed to repress them, forcing them into the parts of his mind that he hid from the rest of his world. How he did it, he didn’t know, but he figured the process resembled the healing one; how, when Amanda and Jane entered his mind, he simply blocked them out, shoving them into the closet with the rest of his skeletons.
“Yeah,” the biologist said, removing his hat and running a hand through his hair. “I can only imagine how many birds and animals died or lost their homes when they put that damned plant there.”
“Many,” Bernice nodded. “Too many.”
Too many, Kurt agreed.
A bird flapped its wings nearby.
It wasn’t until he opened his eyes that he realized the air had not been disturbed.
“Mr. Hanson,” Bernice said.
“Yes?” Kurt asked.
“Was I wrong?”
“In saying what I said?”
“No, Bernice—you weren’t wrong about anything.”
Seated at the front of the bouncing, shaking bus, Kurt and his star pupil remained as silent as they could. While students in the back of the bus tossed spitballs and notes, and while the few in the middle talked in hushed voices, those in the front remained silent, indifferent to the words around them. Maybe it was because of the closeness of the girl who spoke, or maybe it was because the teacher sat nearby. Regardless, it spoke so much of what had happened back at the raptor center.
Unless they come.
“Unless they come,” Kurt nodded.
“Did you say something?”
“Nuh-No,” he managed. “No, Bernice—I didn’t.”
Bernice turned to look out the window.
A moment later, Kurt understood why.
No more than a mile away, the chemical plant continued to spew its gasses into the air.
At the foot of the metal monstrosity, what was once a beautiful lake continued to exist. Like a touch of heaven, it extended across the area and disappeared behind a patch of dead trees.
Just before the lake could completely disappear from view, Kurt thought he saw a cluster of dying amaranth growing along the shoreline.
It took all his willpower to make it through the day.
By the time he got home, he was ready to burst.
Faced with the all-too-true reality that his dreams could, in fact, be real, Kurt paced his kitchen and tugged at his hair, taking deep breaths in order to keep his head earthbound. It seemed that, at any moment, it could simply pop off his shoulders and go into orbit, rotating around the Earth until it finally burned in the atmosphere.
This can’t be happening, he thought, tears tracing the curve of his face. This can’t be real.
The lake, the raptor center, Bernice—nothing seemed right anymore. Fifteen-year-old girls didn’t magically know everything about birds, raptor centers didn’t stand a few miles away from chemical plants, and radioactive lakes didn’t exist in lands so tropical and lush.
It wasn’t lush though, Kurt—it was dead.
“Dead,” he mumbled. “Yes… dead.”
Nothing could live in those conditions. Just because he happened to see a patch of amaranths growing along a tainted shoreline didn’t mean a swan swam through those lakes, endlessly drifting across a cloud of green. It didn’t mean that a dragon breathed its fire and choked out its toxins, and it didn’t mean that dreams—no matter how surreal or bizarre—could suddenly become real, traced from the board of a magical artist in the sky.
No matter how coincidental the amaranths may have seemed, they were nothing more than coincidence.
Pushing himself through the cloud of doubt that plagued his heart, Kurt opened the fridge and pulled out a glass of milk.
He’d rather face his dreams where they belonged than in the real world.
With its head bowed, the swan picked what little grass, twigs, and pieces of mulch it could. Every so often, it would come across a complete stalk of dead greenery that would be useful in constructing a nest, but those times were few to none. What once would have been an expansive nine feet of grass, twigs and other organic nesting matter now consisted of no more than three feet of debris.
Though small, the swan would take what it could get, especially in these conditions.
Settling down inside its circular construct, the swan bowed its head and continued to watch the water. Alert, yet drowsy, it barely noticed the activity taking place across the lake, mostly because it didn’t need to. It’d become accustomed to the metal cats and the lumbering, sleeping dragon, as well as the ghosts that instructed who and what to where. What need did it have to watch them when they did nothing but destroy?
Closing its eyes, the swan began to take deep breaths.
One, two, three…
By the time it reached the fourth, it issued a long, hard cry, hoping someone would call back.
An avian scream shattered a false reality.
Shooting upright as fast as he could, Kurt reached up and ran his hands over his face, desperately scrambling to remove any and all traces of irradiated water. With moisture running down his face and fear coursing through his veins, he kept at it, scratching and clawing with the utmost abandon. Eyes popping out of his head, skin melting to his cheekbones, lips sewing together with needles fitted with acid, it took less than a minute for Kurt to realize he’d been dreaming.
Sighing, he collapsed back into bed.
“God,” he sobbed. “I can’t deal with this anymore.”
If his dreams were affecting him to the point of violence, he’d have to go back to the doctor, back to the woman who ultimately ruined his life.
Regardless, nothing would make him go back to Jane Austerson, not in a million years. She’d done too much to his life already. He needed no more involvement with her.
Rolling over, Kurt pushed himself out of bed, then crossed the room until he stood in front of the nightstand.
The beautiful bane of his existence sat no more than a foot away.
Ambien—his love, his friend, the one and only thing that kept him company in the dark hours of the night. Unlike anything else in his life, it had stuck with him through all the hard times. Through the blood and sweat, through the tears and fears, through the night and into the light—whatever his situation, whatever his location, Ambien was always there, watching over his sleeping mind from the bedside nightstand.
All good things must come to an end, the devil in his backyard said. All good things must come to an end.
“Yes,” Kurt sighed. “They do.”
Reaching forward, Kurt grabbed the bottle and made his way into the bathroom.
Once inside, he popped the lid off the toilet and dumped the pills down the drain.
His problem was gone.
Hopefully, another wouldn’t come.
Saturday mornings took the least of his effort. With no school and without any last-minute planning to do, Kurt laid in bed for most of the morning, repeatedly hitting the snooze button on his alarm clock until it stopped ringing altogether.
He only woke up because the phone rang.
Without looking, Kurt reached over and grabbed the phone.
“Hello?” he groaned. “Do you know what time it is?”
“Um,” a female voice said. “Noon?”
“Bernice? Is that you?”
“Yuh-Yes suh-sir, it is.”
Kurt sat up and pulled the phone’s body onto the bed. He readjusted his position before speaking.
“I’m sorry, Bernice—I didn’t know it was so late.”
“It’s all right, sir. I… I’m the one who should be sorry. I called you.”
“You can call anytime you want.”
Shit, he thought. I did not just say that.
He could only imagine how that could be taken out of context.
“I mean… if you need anything, don’t hesitate to call—I’m always here for a student.”
“I know.” Bernice paused. A faint clicking—possibly caused by nails or a pen—echoed through the phone and into Kurt’s ear.
“I don’t know how to ask this, Mr. Hanson.”
“Then ask however you think it should be asked.”
“Can… can you... uh... tuh-take—”
“What’re you trying to ask, Bernice?”
“Can you take me out to the lake?”
There—the bombshell, lit right in the middle of the hallway and detonated no more than three feet away. Connected by only a cord and activated by a girl’s voice, it rattled the inside of his skull to the point of incomprehension.
“Huh?” he asked.
“I want you to take me out to the lake, sir. You know… where the… where the amaranths were.”
So, despite his doubts, he hadn’t been seeing things.
This changes everything.
“Bernice,” he began, lowering his voice, “why are you asking this?”
“Don’t bullshit me, Bernice—I know what you saw just as well as I did.”
“Why’re you pausing then? Why not come right out and say it?”
“Because I saw something out there!”
“What’d you see out there? Huh, girl? Tell me! TELL ME!”
“I SAW IT!”
If two words could end the world, could end your life, what words would they be? Would they be the words you say on your wedding, or those you said at your grave? Would you say I do, would you say goodbye, then long to look at the sky?
At that moment, Kurt didn’t know what to do.
His mind had locked up.
A bird preened its feathers.
An avian screamed.
The sky opened.
A dragon tried to swallow him whole.
“Mr. Hanson?” Bernice whispered.
“Will you take me to the lake?”
He didn’t need to be asked twice.
“Why would they do it?” Bernice asked. “Why destroy something beautiful when there are so many other places to build?”
“I don’t know,” Kurt sighed, sliding up beside her. “I wish I could tell you, Bernice, otherwise I would.”
“I do too,” she whispered. “Then maybe I’d know why people would want to kill without mercy.”
Though he didn’t say anything, the answer sat on the tip of Kurt’s tongue, waiting to lash out at the girl like a snake to its ill begotten prey.
When Eve took the apple, he thought, she wasn’t thinking about the consequences.
Had Bernice thought about the consequence to her question? Did she consider that, since the dawn of time, men had killed for reasons so vile—so inhumane—it had begged to question whether or not they were really human? Did she consider the reasons why men killed—how, in times of desperation, a man would kill his wife for money, or eat his baby for food? Did she consider that, hundreds of thousands of years ago, men killed for mercy, for honor, for glory? Did she consider that famine could take control of a sane man’s mind and cause him to do horrible, unbearable things?
Did she consider that we’re the same way now?
Kurt highly doubted it.
“Why did you yell at me when I said I saw the swan?”
“You scared me. You said you wanted to go back to the lake and I thought… I thought…”
“You thought what?”
“I thought you might’ve seen something.”
“Something like what?”
Something like the thing in my dreams… Something like…
“The swan,” he said.
Kurt’s blood chilled.
Bernice said nothing. She merely waited for him to continue.
“Bernice,” he sighed, running a hand through his hair. “You’ve got to understand something. Now… before I tell you this, you have to promise to keep this between us, ok? I know you’re smart, and I know you wouldn’t intentionally try to hurt me, but I could lose my job if someone found out I was being so personal with a student.”
“I’m not going to say anything, sir. You can trust me.”
“I know,” he smiled, “I wouldn’t have brought you out here if I thought otherwise.”
Turning his eyes up, Kurt scanned the nearby area. From the trees to the rocks, to the tiny, minute details of dead or dying shrubbery, he observed everything, calculating each and every detail. He used this distraction in order to better serve his purpose.
How does a full-grown man tell a teenage girl that he needs medicine to help get him through the day?
How does anyone tell anyone anything?
Sighing, Kurt ran a hand over his face. He turned to look at Bernice shortly after.
“I’ve been taking anxiety medication for the last three months.”
Bernice stayed silent. Whether out of indecision or insecurity, Kurt couldn’t tell.
“I wouldn’t have told you if I didn’t think it was necessary,” he finished.
“Sir,” she sighed, closing her eyes. “That was when your wife—”
“Yes. That was when my wife left.”
“And you brought me out here because—”
“You asked me to.”
“Been dreaming about the swan too.”
Again, Bernice went silent. The sparkle that lit her eyes when she turned her head to look at Kurt only confirmed his point.
“You don’t have to give me the specifics, Bernice—just tell me what you see.”
“Ghost… dragons… cats with metal teeth… the swan.”
“What kind of swan is it?” he asked. “Tell me.”
Once nearly hunted to extinction for their feathers and skins in the Sixteen to Eighteen-hundreds, the trumpeter swan was well known for its distinctive call. Sounding like a trumpet played by the greatest of players, the birds could grow up to five feet long and live up to twenty or thirty years. They also mated for life, displaying the well-renowned heart-shaped courtship dance that was ever so famous during the Valentine season.
So, Kurt thought, looking out toward the lake. If there really is a swan on the lake, why is it here?
The possibilities began popping into his head almost immediately. What if the creature considered the lake its home—territory destroyed, yet sentimental? Could it be flightless by genetic default or from the affect of radiation? What about its current state of health? Radiation affected animals in different ways. Frogs could have multiple legs, fish could become transparent, kittens could be born one-eyed—why not birds immune to radiation? If it just so happened that the bird somehow managed to become immune to the chemical, what could that do for human science? What could a bird—an animal, not in the least bit related to humans—provide the medical world?
What if it’s something else though? What if… what if…
What if the bird was still mourning?
What if it had lost its mate?
Just like me, he chuckled. What if the damn bird lost its wife, just like me.
“Mr. Hanson?” Bernice asked. “Do you see something?”
“No,” he whispered. “I don’t.”
He only saw in his dreams.
Closing his eyes, Kurt tilted his head back and exhaled. His first cigarette in years in hand, he took slow, shallow breaths, exhaling only when he felt the need to release the smoke from his lungs. At this point, the only real connection to the world he seemed to have was the burn.
If he lost the burn, who knew what would happen.
Taking the longest breath he’d had since he started smoking, Kurt pushed himself forward and set a hand on his knee. Slowly, and with the utmost care, he dangled the cigarette just over the edge of the recliner, careful not to singe or burn the leather.
“All right, Kurt old buddy—like it or not, you’ve got a job to do.”
Next on the agenda—procuring a bird cage large enough to hold a trumpeter swan.
“You’re looking to catch a swan?” Matthew Darian frowned, carefully bringing a blindfolded peregrine falcon onto his arm.
“I have reason to believe there’s a rogue cob living around the lake.”
“You mean Heaven’s?”
“Heaven’s?” Kurt frowned. “Is that—”
“Yeah—that’s the lake all right. It’s called Heaven’s.” Darian grimaced as the falcon tightened its grip. Thankfully, his gloved arm ensured that no damage would be done. “It’s pretty much gone to hell over the past few years. We tried to relocate any wildlife we could, but… well, you know how radiation is—there’s not much you can do once you’re so far gone.”
“How many birds from there are here?”
“Oh… I don’t know, maybe ten, twelve or so. A lot of them got transferred to other centers or zoos in the area, or were reintroduced into different parts of the area. I wasn’t personally involved with the transferring. I just went out and brought whatever I could in.”
“You didn’t see any swans?”
“No. Not at all, which makes it even stranger that you think there’s a swan still living in the area.”
“It’s not only me.”
“A student of mine says she saw the swan too.”
“The other day, when I brought the kids with me.”
“Are you sure she wasn’t seeing things?”
“Bernice wouldn’t ‘just be seeing things’—she’s the smartest girl in the class. She wouldn’t see a trick of the light and say that she saw a bird.”
“How do you know?”
“Because she called me at home and said she saw it out on the lake. Added to the fact that she probably knows just as much about birds as I do, I think I’ve got a pretty solid argument, don’t you?”
“Yeah. I do.” Turning, Darian slipped the bird back into its cage and undid the blindfold. Once secured, the falcon hopped onto a low branch and proceeded to watch both men with indifferent, calculating eyes. “Look,” he continued, sliding his hands into his pockets. “I can lend you a cage, but only under the circumstance that you capture the animal and bring it back here. Anything else and I’m highly likely to lose my job. We clear?”
“We’re clear,” Kurt smiled.
“Just one question… are you really going to have a student help you catch a bird that’s half the size that she is?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugged, his mind already made up. “We’ll just have to see.”
Kurt couldn’t help but smirk.
“I don’t get it,” Bernice said, taking a step back as Kurt lugged cage out of the back of his truck. “How are we going to get it to go into the cage, much less get close to it?”
“Simple,” Kurt grunted. He dropped the cage down near the dead treeline and took a deep breath. “We camouflage it.”
“Sir… I hate to be rude, but what makes you think the bird’s going to go into an enclosed space like that?”
“Again, simple.” This time, Kurt reached into his pocket, withdrew a piece of string, then reached into his other pocket and pulled out a small, ticket-sized object. Orange in color and covered in plastic, he dangled it in front of the girl’s face, waiting for her to respond. “Know what this is?”
“Uh…” She paused. Without waiting for Kurt to offer any suggestion, she reached forward, took the tip of the plastic between two fingernails, and held it down so the light could bounce off its surface. “Pheromone.”
“I wanted you to guess,” he chuckled.
“Sorry,” she blushed, relinquishing hold of the tag. “Mr. Hanson… if I may.”
“What makes you think the swan’s male?”
“How big did you say it was?”
“At least five, six feet.”
“There’s the answer to your question. The females don’t get that big—only the males do.”
Crouching down, Kurt braced himself on the edge of the cage and prepared to tie the pheromone. With careful, steady fingers, he dangled the tag between the metal slats, then secured it when he felt it was in the right place. In the bottom left-hand corner, the tag wouldn’t be easily seen, especially after he and Bernice began the masking process.
“Ok,” Kurt said, pushing himself to his feet. “You ready for the dirty work, Bernice?”
“I… guess,” she frowned.
“Good, because we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Without another word, Kurt turned, opened the bed of the truck, and pulled out a long strip of tarp.
“We’re going to cover the cage with this,” he explained,” then cover the outside and inside in mud.”
“Mud,” Kurt grinned. “Whoever said catching a bird was easy?”
“Not me,” Bernice mumbled, accepting the gloves her teacher offered. “Oh well. It’ll all be worth it in the end, right?”
Nodding, Kurt sighed.
They could hope so.
Downwind and more than half a mile away, Bernice and Kurt watched the scene through large, telescopic binoculars. Taking turns and switching off every three-to-five minutes, Kurt watched the opposite treeline and the area beyond it, while Bernice surveyed the water, carefully tracing the shoreline with simple but precise movements. Every minute—every second—counted, especially when working on a deadline.
By dark, her father had said. Otherwise, I know who to call.
‘Who to call’ would be the local police department.
Kurt could only imagine the kind of hell he’d be in if he got caught with a sixteen-year-old girl on a Sunday afternoon. The ‘She’s just a student’ excuse wouldn’t fly over well, not with all the sex scandals going on.
If the parents decided to sue.
Knowing Bernice’s father’s overprotective and daddy’s-little-girl nature, he’d press charges in a heartbeat. It was surprising enough that the man had let his daughter go with a man more than three times her age.
Must not think I can get it up.
A snort escaped him.
Startled, Bernice jumped.
“Sorry,” he chuckled, reaching out to pat her back.
“What was that about?” she giggled.
“Nothing. Just thinking about old times, that’s all.”
Bernice shrugged and went back to surveying the lake.
It’s moments like these I wish I had a child.
Though he considered the girl to be a student and nothing more than that, just looking at Bernice forced parental feelings out of hiding and to the tip of his heart. Swimming like startled children in the midst of a shark attack, they fluttered about his heart, warming his chest and forcing a long-dead flower to bloom. His heart—his orchid—exploded, sending forth the energy which, normally, allowed the average man to decide to have children.
Sadly, though, Kurt wasn’t the average man. At fifty-three, his charming expression and outgoing demeanor were quickly fading. He’d long stopped dying his hair to its normal dark color and trying to hide the laugh lines with a beard. What purpose would it serve, if only to make him feel more secure?
I’m not out to impress anyone. Not anymore.
With the love of his life having flown from the coup, there was no reason to dye his hair or shave his face.
Like a fading memory, he would simply move forward, continuing to help whoever and whatever he could until the day he died.
“That’s why we’re here,” he nodded. “To help the swan.”
Taking one final glance at Bernice, Kurt accepted the binoculars and peered through them.
Sometimes, the looking glass could be dark.
Sometimes, all you had to do was rub it off. Then the fog would clear.
“It’s not coming,” Kurt sighed, shivering as the first drops of autumn rain began to fall. “We have to go.”
“But what about the swan?” Bernice frowned. “What happens if it goes in the cage and gets stuck?”
“It’s warm enough in there. We made sure of it. Besides, think of it this way—most trapped animals don’t have the luxury of a homemade shelter to spend the night in, do they?”
“I guess not,” the girl sighed, rising. “Thanks for bringing me out here, Mr. Hanson.”
“You don’t have to thank me.”
“Are we going to come out tomorrow?”
“Yeah. We’ve got to.”
“After school. Your parents will be working, right?”
“Good,” Kurt said, leading the way to his truck. “Meet me in my room after school tomorrow. That way, we can come straight out here without having to dodge around each other.”
Sliding into the driver’s seat, Kurt reached up and secured his seatbelt in place. Once Bernice did the same, he put the truck in gear and surged forward, back onto the dirt road that led toward the chemical plant.
For the next few minutes, neither Kurt nor Bernice said anything. With the haunting echo of the rain pitter-pattering on the windshield, nothing needed to be said. The sound alone spoke for them.
What you’re doing is wrong, it said. What you’re doing is against nature.
But so is what they’re doing, Kurt thought, trying as hard as he could not to look at the fading megalith in the rearview mirror. What they’re doing is more against nature than anything me or a teenage girl could do.
Did two rights make a wrong? Did two wrongs make a right? How about two rights and two wrongs—what did that make? Did they cancel each other out, or did they simply play their course, settling their karmic disagreement in one right and one wrong? Did those gods care? Did they care whether you took a swan from its natural habitat, and if so, would your debt be removed if you saved one from a slow and painful death?
At that particular moment, Kurt didn’t care about right or wrong.
He wanted to do something right.
By God, he would.
One by one, a bird ate pearls by the shore.
Deliberately stepping over the catastrophic remains of rotten flesh and tattered skeletons, the swan bent its head and removed each pearl from the centers of the creatures’ bodies. Oftentimes, it would simply duck its head through the ribcages and pull the pearls out unscathed, content with its reward. Those few times it suffered a wound, the bird would instinctively pull its head back, then dive back in, attacking the bones with its beak until they were all but shattered.
In this process, the bird began to bleed.
Because it bled, the bird gave life.
Starting with the grass, the ground around its feet bloomed in color. First, grass would spring forth from the dead and rotten mulch that littered the ground, followed by the butterflies that had lost their wings on a long summer night. Wrought from a needle and thread in the sky, the butterflies’ torn membranes would sew back together. Their wings, their eyes, their antennae and their proboscides—all would come together in the blink of an eye, as though death never kissed them and took them to his bed. These things—these beautiful, magnificent things—would start as one, then become some, then become much more.
When the blood touched the water, something miraculous happened.
A lily bloomed.
White in color, with a virginal pink undertone springing forth from the base of its stigma, the flower dangled in place for a single moment before drifting toward the center of the lake. As though menstruating, the color bled throughout the whole flower, tainting it whole until it finally turned a vibrant, bright pink. Once one flower matured, another was born, birthed from the gift of blood and the power of sin. They continued to bloom like this until, finally, the whole of the lake was covered with lilies.
As the swan continued along, plucking pearls from the corpses of long-dead animals, its spirit began to wane. Its eyes glossed over, its feathers started to fall and its skin began to rot. Starting with the chest, the membrane evaporated away until a beautiful viscus could be seen underneath. Pumping organs, bleeding veins, throbbing muscles and pulsing tendons—all dwelled beneath a surface meant only to reflect, not to be seen. In this act of kindness—in this act of pure, malevolent violence—the swan raised its head.
A pearl clasped between its beak, it began to cry.
Blood poured from its eyes and ran down the naked remains of its body as it slowly turned to dust. Bones broke free of a musculature structure and collapsed to the ground. Once settled, they’d burn, sizzling like summer on a long, hot day until, finally, they disintegrated completely.
When the bones fell until, finally, only the spine, skull and legs remained, the swan closed its eyes.
Its skull collapsed.
The pearl fell.
When it hit the water, the world bloomed.
All the swan ever wanted was a home—a beautiful, beautiful home.
A disturbing prospect rocketed Kurt’s mind as he made his way toward Bernice’s home, sending his thoughts into overdrive and his functions into failure. Dressed in his Monday’s best, he tried not to think about the dream and what it might have meant.
What if—by some odd, bizarre chance—the swan was already dead and gone, torn apart by the chemicals that rested in the water and grounds surrounding the lake? What if it managed to carry itself into a place he would never find? A hole, a tree, a hollow, a rock—it could be anywhere if it happened to die overnight.
Don’t think about that, he thought, drumming his fingers along the curve of the steering wheel. You’re not stupid—you wouldn’t have set that trap up otherwise.
Then again, what instinct had he followed? Not logical, because logical instinct didn’t govern itself by what a teenage girl said, and not mechanical, because a single part of his life didn’t rely on the existence of the swan.
If not logical or mechanical, what instinct had he followed?
Could he even begin to question natural instinct when he was on an anti-anxiety medication? Could he possibly, truthfully allow himself to wander in that direction, led by the hand of a drug that altered his mental state in order to make him feel happy?
No. Not in a million years.
Regardless, he hadn’t been the only one to see the swan.
Bernice was the key—the key to the lost, forbidden kingdom he had no chance of entering.
Pulling in alongside an old, beat-up suburban, Kurt disengaged the vehicle and cupped his face into his hands. Although he tried as hard as he could not to cry, he couldn’t help but shed a tear or two over the claw tearing away at his chest.
Get a hold of yourself, Hanson! Not now, not in front of a student!
Grunting, Kurt hurled his head back, only to slam it into the window that covered the back of the compartment.
“Fuck!” he screamed. “Fucking fucker!”
He jumped and hit his head on the ceiling.
“Oh, God!” Bernice cried, running to the driver’s side window. “Sir! I-I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean—”
“It’s not your fault,” he groaned, reaching up to rub the back of his head. “Don’t worry, Bernice—I’m fine. Just having a little breakdown, that’s all.”
“Are you ok?”
“Don’t worry—I’m fine. Just get in the truck so we can get this over with.”
“What’s wrong?” the girl frowned. “Why are you upset?”
“No,” he sighed, shaking his head. “Just… just get in, Bernice. I’ll explain on the way.”
The girl did as asked.
Not long after, Kurt started the truck and pulled out of the driveway.
He mowed his way through mid-afternoon traffic. In and out, up and down, left and right and side to side, it seemed that whatever way he went, he ended up stuck again, lost to the roads of the higher, mechanical gods.
“Goddammit,” he whispered, grinding his teeth together. “This is just what I need—to be stuck in traffic.”
“You could go out the back roads,” Bernice offered.
“I said you could go out on the back roads.”
“You never thought of that?” Bernice laughed.
“Uh… no,” Kurt said, returning his attention to the road as the traffic in front of him moved forward. “To tell you the truth, I’m not much of a back-roads driver. I get lost too easily.”
“Isn’t that what a GPS is for?”
“Let me let you in on a little secret,” he chuckled, lowering his voice as though others might hear him. “Teachers don’t make near as much money as they should.”
“I figured that.”
“I couldn’t afford a GPS to save my life.”
“Better safe than sorry,” she shrugged. “I guess you’ll be staying on the main roads then?”
“At least until we get out of town. From there to the lake is pretty much a straight shot through.”
“Bernice… before we get there, I want to tell you something, something that we’ll most likely run into with the bird we’re trying to rescue. Are you listening?”
“Yes, Mr. Hanson. I’m listening.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with this bird or why it’s staying in a radioactive area, but whatever it is, it can’t be good. I’m only telling you this because I’m not sure what we’ll run into. For all we know, the bird could be growing extra legs or rotting from the inside out.”
“You think we have a chance, Mr. Hanson?”
“A chance at what?”
God, I hope so, he thought, taking one last glance at Bernice.
He didn’t know what he’d do if he had to tell her the swan was dead.
Kurt waited for the needle to drop the moment he pulled off the road. Like a constellation set only to appear once every few years or a comet that passed the Earth every other century, disengaging the vehicle and preparing to step out of it felt like the last thing he would ever do.
In a minute, he would be out of the truck and on the ground.
In two minutes, Bernice would be at his side, waiting for him to lead them forward.
In three, they would find out whether or not the swan had wandered into their trap.
Come on, big guy—you can do this.
What would stop him, if only himself?
Nothing. Nothing at all.
They’d come too far to turn back now.
The only place to go was forward.
“You ready?” Kurt asked, looking up when Bernice appeared beside him.
“I’m ready when you are, sir.”
Ready as I’ll ever be.
With the thought fresh in his mind, Kurt gestured Bernice forward and began to lead the way toward the lake, taking extra care to direct them around the juts and dips in the path. Signs of human presence could be seen almost everywhere they looked. Litter blanketed the side of the road, chemical burns smiled from the safety of tree bark, and long-abandoned nests lay in trees, suspended by branches and only moving whenever the wind came up. Kurt imagined what this place might have looked like three or four years ago, before he moved into town and before the government decided to plant their roots.
It would’ve been beautiful, he imagined, with flowers in bloom and grass on the ground.
Greenery would extend as far as the eye could see. Amaranths would grow along the shoreline as they did now, but in abundance, while squirrels and other rodents would chatter in the trees, chewing nuts and speaking to one another in ways only rodents could. Birds would fly above, deer would graze in the distance, and swans would glide in the water, spreading their wings and bellaring cries of just, for this land was theirs and theirs alone.
Once upon a time, the world dreamed it could never be taken away.
Once upon a time, man evolved from simple, stupid apes and took control of everything.
We don’t deserve to live here. We don’t deserve to tear down forests to make our homes. We don’t deserve to dump our oils into the seas or pollute our breeze. We don’t deserve to crack the ground, fill it up and break it down. We don’t deserve to make our marks in the rocks or send our bombs to make our shocks. We don’t deserve this—we don’t deserve anything, not when we kill without mercy and eat with gluttony.
In the end, what did they deserve? Surely they didn’t deserve a home, because if they truly desired a place to live, they would’ve made room for the ones that came before them, and surely not space, because if they really, truly wanted somewhere to go, why not the sky, up in the mile-high? Their towers may grow and their explosions may blow, but never once had the sky been filled with filth. Never once had the sky been filled with foreign bodies to the point where they couldn’t populate it. Long gone were the giant birds of prey and the large whales that played. Long gone were the machines of legends, of dirigibles and steam-powered planes and cranes. Long gone were the shadows of time and the light of past, and long gone were the things of dreams, of physical rainbows and magical play bows. Long gone were the things that inhibited them, the things that, up until the twenty-first century, had restricted them from doing anything they wanted.
Long gone were the guilty inhibitions man had once harbored.
In the day and age they lived in, choices could be made.
Beautiful things didn’t need to die.
Nature didn’t need to be destroyed.
Homes could be made elsewhere, if only in the sky. Gasses could be natural, energy could be pure, and lives could be saved, if only they tried.
This is it, he thought, turning to look at Bernice. This is where the world ends.
A man named Frost once wrote a poem about how the world would end. In that poem, he talked about heat, cold, the disease of mold. He talked about what they’d do, how they’d be, how they’d see; and in that poem, he tried to warn them about the things they would do, about how they would bring about the end of the human race.
In that poem, Kurt had found meaning.
In that poem, Kurt had found hope.
And last but not least, he found a message, a message that everyone with a right mind should have already learned.
“Are you ready?” he whispered.
“I’m ready,” Bernice whispered back.
Reaching back, Kurt spread his fingers and took the girl’s hand.
Together, they walked forward, into a future that lay upon one simple swan.
Darkness shrouded the inside of the cage, blocking out any wary, unwanted eyes. In the midst of a clouded, darkened place, Kurt couldn’t help but feel a sense of dread growing inside him, locking onto his heart and pulsing like a rotten, black tumor. Every few seconds, a pair of tiny spiders would crawl up and down his spine, wreaking havoc on his mind and threatening to send his legs out from under him.
All it would take was one bite for him to pass out.
If nerves could kill, his surely verged on the edge of a heart attack.
“Well,” Bernice said, drawing her word out to get Kurt’s attention. “Do we just grab the tarp and pull it up or… what?”
“I’m… not sure,” he frowned. “Give me a minute.”
Of course, he didn’t intend on using the minute for decision. He already knew how he and Bernice would be removing the tarp. Just as the girl said, they’d simply dig underground, grab the secret, hidden flap, and pull it up, thus revealing something—or nothing—in all its glory. The fact that he wanted to use the minute as an excuse to waste more time did nothing to bolster his confidence.
It’s all right, Kurt. Whether it’s something or nothing, at least you tried.
“At least I tried,” he nodded, falling to his knees to begin the dirty task. “At least we tried.”
Reaching forward, he buried his hand in the mud.
Kissing, grappling, molesting, the ground wrapped around his fingers and began to make love.
A worm slid across his finger.
A rock scratched his hand.
A particle drank his blood.
The process completed, he tightened his grip on the metal rung of the tarp and pulled it out of the ground.
“Remember what I told you,” he said, pushing himself to his feet. “If it’s dead…”
“Don’t worry,” Bernice smiled. “We tried.”
Two words that seemed so little, yet meant so much.
In the last minutes of his normal life, Kurt thought of three things and three things only—his wife, his pills, and Jane Austerson.
When he lashed out and pulled the top of the tarp with him, he had one thing and one thing only on his mind—the swan.
In the blink of an eye, your world can change.
Kurt Hanson’s world changed when he turned and looked at the cage.
Inside, curled into a fetal position with its head resting near the front of its body, was the swan.
Bernice cried out in joy.
The bird ruffled its feathers and let out a low honk.
There it is, he thought, trembling, legs shaking and knees buckling. It’s here.
“There,” he whispered, bending down beside the cage. “It’s all right. We’re not going to hurt you.”
The swan brought its head away from its body.
In place of normal, white feathers, mute, tan skin lay under its eyes, crossing its cheeks until it finally faded from its jaw.
The swan had been crying, just like it had in his dreams.
Bernice joined him at his side.
“Is this it, Mr. Hanson?” she asked, setting the palm of her hand on the front of the cage. “Is this the swan?”
“Yes, Bernice. This is it. This is the swan.”
“How bad is it?” Kurt whispered.
“I’m not sure,” Darian sighed, reaching up to wipe a hand over his brow. “For the time being, we’ll just have to wait for the blood tests to come back and keep a close eye on it. There’s nothing else we can do other than that.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Radiation burns, as you’ve already pointed out. It also seems to have some feather damage near the proximal and a weakening of the calamus. Its feathers are just barely hanging in there.”
“Is it going to be ok?”
“Again, I’m not sure.”
Turning, Kurt looked up at the nearby cage the bird rested in. Head to its breast, it slept soundly and without a care in the world.
Probably for the first time in months, maybe even years.
“Will you be able to tell how long it’s been in the lake?”
“Maybe, maybe not. Depending on how and why the bird was able to live in such drastic conditions, it might be immune to the radiation altogether.”
“What about the chemical burns and the weakened feathers?”
“Again, maybe just an uncomfortable side affect. I highly doubt the bird would still be alive if it didn’t have some kind of advantage.”
“I guess you’re right,” Kurt sighed.
“What about the girl?” Darian frowned. “What’s her deal?”
“She’s been helping me catch the thing.”
“Why do you need her help?”
“If you haven’t noticed, Matthew, I’m nearly fifty-three-years-old.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know,” Kurt laughed, slapping the doctor’s shoulder. “She’s the one who spotted it. Besides—like I said, it’s getting harder for me to move around. She did most of the work when we were disguising the cage.”
“A girl who’s not afraid to get dirty,” Darian nodded, reaching up to rub his chin. “Sounds like a future wildlife specialist to me.”
Bernice looked up from the outside lobby. She smiled when she caught Kurt’s eyes, then returned to flipping through her magazine.
“What’re you going to tell her if the bird dies?” Darian frowned.
“Just what I told her before,” Kurt said, crossing his arms and leaning against the wall. “At least we tried.”
Before he turned to look at the swan, Kurt caught a smile on the man’s face.
Over the next few days, Kurt made repeated visits to the raptor center in order to keep an eye on the swan’s progress. During these visits, he would accompany Matthew Darian into the observation room, help tend to the ailing creature, and survey the results of the tests and X-rays whenever possible.
“I don’t know how it’s survived all that time,” Darian said, setting a sheet of test results on the nearby table. “It’s… just… wow.”
“It’s what, Mat?”
“Unreal is the only word I can think of.”
“Well… given the amount of radiation that’s in its system, it should be dead at least three times over.”
“Don’t ask me,” Darian shrugged. Sighing, he slid the paper into a manila folder and turned his eyes down it. Across its surface, S – 001 was scrawled in neat, if somewhat-scratchy handwriting. “Kurt… can I tell you something?”
“You can tell me anything you want to, Mat. You know that.”
“I don’t think the swan’s going to make it much longer.”
Kurt stayed silent.
What could he say to such a revelation?
“How do you know?” he finally asked.
“Just… the way it’s been acting. It hasn’t eaten since you brought it in a few days ago.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this?”
“I didn’t want you to worry.”
“Didn’t want me to worry? Are you fucking nuts?”
“I’ve spent the past three months dwelling on my life and you’re telling me not to worry?”
“Look,” Darian sighed, shaking his head. He grabbed the folder, walked around the table, and opened a file compartment. He slid the folder into its specified, alphabetized block. “I’m sorry, Kurt. I didn’t want you to stress on this, so I let it slide. If I’d’ve known you’d react like this, I would’ve never kept it a secret.”
“It’s all right, Mat. Don’t… don’t worry about it.”
Crossing the room, Kurt stooped down beside the cage and set his hand against the glass. Though not awake, the bird sensed his presence and ruffled its feathers, briefly shifting in order to compensate for the disturbance.
Like Dr. Darian had said, the swan had barely touched its food or water.
Why? he thought. Why now, after all we’ve been through?
The swan opened its eyes.
A crystal-colored tear slid down its face, perfectly lining with the burned gap of its feathers.
“It’s crying,” Kurt whispered.
“I said it’s crying.”
“No it’s not.”
Darian kneeled beside him, watching the swan with curious, intense eyes.
“How long have you been there, Mat?”
“Just as long as you have.”
Startled and unsure, Kurt turned his eyes back on the swan.
Like it never even opened its eyes in the first place, the swan continued to sleep.
Living, Kurt thought.
That night, he sat at the kitchen table with the single, overhead light bulb on. Dangling from a lone strand of wiring, it swung back and forth like a pendulum waiting to seal a Renaissance man’s fate. Like that Renaissance man, Kurt’s fate—and wellbeing altogether—hung in the balance, suspended by a single piece of string attached to a lit, burning switch.
Any moment now, the string would catch fire.
When the spark reached the trigger, it would explode.
Who knew what would happen after that.
Nothing’s going to happen. Your life doesn’t depend on what happens to a swan.
Maybe not, but it sure felt that way.
Lifting his glass, Kurt took a long, hard swig of milk, then stood and made his way to the sink. There, he ran water through the glass, all the while thinking of the creature and why it wouldn’t drink.
Can it even drink anymore?
He thought of his dream and how the swan turned to dust. Starting with its skin and ending with its bones, it collapsed from the inside out, eaten alive by something not living, yet not quite dead.
Chemicals don’t live, he thought, and they don’t die either.
To think that everything that happened to the lake had been caused by man was almost unbearable. An entire ecosystem—an entire paradise—gone, all because someone decided to build and dump on it.
Why did they do it? Why, of all things, did people want to cause suffering, especially to creatures that had no comprehension of what was happening?
“Why?” he growled. “Why why WHY?”
With each word, he slammed his fist on the counter, sending vibrations through the woodwork and an aching up his arm. Lacing through his nervous system like a bat out of hell, the pain connected to his brain in a series of electromagnetic shocks, forcing him to realize his action.
The little boy tugged on his shirtsleeve.
It’s time for bed.
Taking the child’s hand, he let the boy lead him back to the bedroom.
He didn’t forget to turn the light off.
He left it on.
“Yes, Mr. Hanson?”
“I want to tell you something. Are you listening?”
“Yes. I’m listening.”
“The swan might die.”
“I said the swan might die.”
“I heard you. I mean… why…”
“I don’t know. All I know is that it might not last much longer, maybe not past the week. I want you to come to the raptor center with me after school today.”
“But my father—”
“Now’s your last chance, Bernice. We have to say goodbye… before it’s too late.”
Bernice wanted to say goodbye.
Trudging through the throng of after-school crowds, she made her way to Kurt’s truck and clambered inside without a word. When she offered no greeting, Kurt gave no reply. When he offered no reply, she made no comment.
He didn’t dwell on the silence.
He started the truck and pulled out of the faculty parking lot.
Through the streets, across the canal, over the bumps and around the ridges, he made his way out of town and toward the raptor center. With the radio on low, nothing could be heard except fading static and voices as they left the vicinity of radio towers.
White noise filled his ears.
A swan skull entered his mind.
He blinked to clear the vision.
Why is saying goodbye so hard?
Omniscient gods could answer the question. Goodbye was hard because there was never another hello, never another hug or kiss. Goodbye was hard because you would never see the someone or something you loved so much again. One minute it was there, the next it was gone, just like that. What happened when grown men wanted to sleep at night but couldn’t because the little boys inside them wanted the lights on and teenage girls accepted the world face-forward without question or doubt? Really, what happened? What source of right and wrong skewed itself in order for such a thing to be possible?
Life? Death? Both?
Kurt expelled a held-in breath.
“I’m sorry,” he said, shifting gears so he could slow down. “I would’ve never gotten you involved in this if I’d’ve known this was going to happen.”
“How could you have known? It’s not your fault.”
“Still… I feel guilty.”
“I know what it’s like to lose people, Mr. Hanson.” Bernice paused. She looked down at her hands. What once used to be freshly-manicured fingernails were now only stubs of their former selves. “Do you remember what you told me, sir?”
“That, regardless of whatever happened, at least we tried.”
“Don’t think this is your fault, please. We already know whose fault it is.”
He needed no explanation.
“Kurt?” Darian frowned, looking up from his desk. “Miss—”
“Sinclaire,” the girl finished. “Bernice Sinclaire.”
“What’re you doing here?”
“We’re here to say goodbye,” Kurt said, draping an arm across Bernice’s shoulders. “We figured it would be better to do it now than later.”
“You’re right. It’s better you came now than later.”
“What’s wrong?” Bernice frowned.
“It’s on its final breaths,” the doctor sighed.
Neither of them said anything.
Standing, Matthew Darian turned, arched his back, and gestured for them to follow.
The whole while they followed the wildlife biologist, Kurt tried not to think about the swan and how, within a few minutes, it could easily die. He tried not to think about how he would feel, Bernice would feel, or what Dr. Darian would think when the swan breathed its final breath. Of all these things, he worried about the swan the most.
Is it suffering? he dared to ask. Is it in pain?
Knowing Matthew Darian, he wouldn’t have let the swan suffer. At this point in time, it’d probably be so full of medication that it didn’t understand where it was, much less that it was slowly but surely dying.
“This is it,” Darian said. “Are you ready?”
“I’m ready,” Kurt replied.
Bernice merely nodded.
With a final, reassuring tip of the head, Matthew turned and opened the door and let them inside.
Resting inside its glass cage and attached to a ventilator, the swan lay on its side, neck stretched out along the length of the floor. A low wheeze could be heard with each rise and fall of the bird’s chest. It didn’t take a scientist to know it was the machine doing the work for it.
“I’m sorry you had to go through this,” Bernice said, resting her head against the glass. “But you know what happens next, don’t you?”
The bird blinked. Whether it acknowledged or heard Bernice’s words was up for debate.
“There’s a place in the sky,” Bernice continued, “where all the beautiful birds and ugly ducklings go.”
If not a lake, where?
“I’m glad you got to spend the last of your life around people that cared about you,” the girl sighed, closing her eyes as a tear slipped from beneath their folds. “Thank you for reaching out to me. Thank you for letting me believe that anything is possible.”
Tears in her eyes, Bernice walked around the examination table and made her way out of the room. She didn’t bother to look back at her teacher or the doctor.
“Well, buddy,” Kurt said, taking his place in front of the cage. “I guess it’s time for us to part ways now.”
The swan nodded.
Kurt watched as a tear made its way down its face.
I don’t know who or what you are, he thought, pressing his hand to the glass. All I know is that you changed my life.
The swan opened its eyes.
Thank you, Kurt. Thank you for giving me one last chance.
With one last, final breath, the bird closed its eyes and passed into another world.
He thought he heard wings beating in the distance just as the ventilator went dead.
In a world of beauty, life and love, the innocent things aren’t meant to be burned. They are meant to take flight and never look back, to settle down and never leave again. They are meant to be happy, carefree amongst their kin. Their mothers, their fathers, their daughters and friends—they’re meant to look upon one another and see that, for the first time in their life, they really do care. They are meant to see that despite their differences, despite their trifles, they are meant to be as one.
From the ashes of a fallen empire, a creature rose from its depths.
Spreading its wings, the newly-christened swan took flight.
Behind it, another flew.
Together, and with the utmost care in the world, the swans flew into the distance, toward the land of the sparkling sea and the never-ending sun.
It didn’t matter where they went.
They had all the time in the world.