Bird on Wing
Tap … tap … with the knuckles. A few seconds, louder … tap … tap … with a closed fist. The door swung open, and Leon sauntered into CC's room. She was sitting cross-legged on an oversized, worn chair with a notebook on her lap and papers strewn across the floor. A lamp flooded the room in a dome of bright light. She squinted up at him.
“Who said you could just walk in here? What do you want?” she asked, looking down again at her notebook.
“What are ya’ doing’?” His monotonic, crackly voice.
"I'm working. Go away."
He leaned lazily against the door frame. Pans were clanging in the kitchen, and Abigail's shrill, off-key voice drifted up the stairs. "Ma's singing again. Too bad we can hear her." He smirked and stepped toward her. Whiffs of gasoline and dirt wafted in the warm, stale air. “So, what are ya' doing?”
“Studying turtles,” she replied. "Now, get out of my room."
“I thought you were studying ants.”
“I was, but now I’m studying turtles.”
Leon glanced at a chart spread out on her bed. Turtle Species of North America crammed to its margins with photographs. "Turtles sure are ugly. Even dumber than ants,” he muttered, “why don't ya study something bigger, like elephants?”
“You study them if you’re so interested.” CC tapped her fingers on her notebook and rolled her eyes. “Good luck finding one nearby.”
“Waste of time. For lesser minds than mine.” A coil of frizzy hair fell over his eyes as he fluttered his black t-shirt, shooting fetid odors toward her. "Like my new shirt?" he mumbled, "my favorite color.” CC didn't look at him. Years earlier, Leon started wearing only black clothes. CC figured the devil’s river had barreled through his soul and washed all the good away. No color left on the outside. Montana and Abigail ran out of appeals -- to study in school, to find a decent job, to make some friends. But Leon liked trouble, and trouble liked him. He spent most days banging around Montana’s auto mechanics shop, bullying the mechanics, and criticizing anything in his path. Montana let him stay, paid him minimum wage, hoping he'd change. But Leon just became more of Leon. Every smile sardonic, every comment sarcastic, every expression scowled. Third oldest in the Mercy family, Leon seemed from the start a foreigner from some sunless, unknown land.
He was inside the room now, leaning against the wall, a few feet from her chair. “Been out to the slaughterhouse lately?” he asked in a casual voice, but his eyes were locked on her.
CC’s throat tightened. “None of your business. Go away and leave me alone."
“Sure been in your room a lot. Getting sick of spending all your afternoons there?"
"Again, none of your business,” she repeated, glaring at him.
“Must not be a lot of turtles roaming around the place.” His throat gurgled with each swallow. “Just anthills."
“Yeah, you idiot. Where do you think I got all those drawings?”
He snickered. "Sure must have liked something about the place.” His body stiffened, and he shuffled his feet, sliding his back up and down across the wall. “Back itches. Been working too hard.”
CC snorted. "Who are you kidding? You're a lazy bum. Everybody at the shop knows it, even Pa. You’re a joke.” She shifted in the chair, turning away from him.
A sinister grin crept across Leon's face. Sinews bulged along his hairless, wiry arms. Loathing CC lurked deep in his bones." Got a question for you,” he said, forcing a careless tone, though the ferocity of his hatred seeped into his voice. “Why were you and Virgil so late coming home on your birthday last week.” He hesitated, his head bent down, but steely eyes on her. “Asked Virgil, but he just got all red-faced and walked off.”
The question hit like a punch in the stomach. A spasm of panic as the image of the dead man crystallized.
"You OK?" Leon asked casually. "Looks like you just saw a ghost.”
CC coughed to chase away the vision lodged in her head. "I come home late all the time. Why do you care?"
Leon leaned forward, but his feet didn’t move. His unblinking eyes narrowed. "Just curious," he mumbled. "Looks like you answered my question, though, seeing as your face turned white." He burped. "Pretty funny. When you two are hiding something, Virgil's face turns red, and yours turns white. Hah.”
CC lunged from her chair and charged within inches of his face. “Get out of my room!” She inhaled his breath redolent of beer and smoke. “Get out!” She pushed him through the open door. Leon stumbled backward, almost falling down the stairs. His eyes flashed with anger as he steadied himself.
"Don't you ever touch me again, or I swear I'll kill you.” He clenched his fist and waved it across her face. "I know something happened at the slaughterhouse that day," he shouted. "Virgil knows too. Whatever it was, I'll figure it out, and you'll both pay, no matter what." He punched the wall and stormed out.
CC screamed after him. “Don’t you ever talk to me again! I hate you!” She slammed the door and stood with her palms open and fingers spread against the soft, warm wood of the door. The floor lifted and spun and tilted and dropped. She leaned against the wall to steady herself. Her breathing accelerated, short shallow breaths. Nausea again. She sunk into the chair, turned her head, and vomited, spraying the papers below her. Sweat dripped from her face and her mouth watered. She slouched back in the armchair, groaning, then retched again. Closing her eyes, her breathing deepened, and the sickness dissipated. She clutched a paper and wiped her forehead and mouth. A wave of calm, trembling fingers quieted. It was dinnertime, and she had to go downstairs. You didn’t skip dinner at the Mercy home. She rose, bracing herself against the wall, washed her face, brushed her teeth, and wiped up the floor. Abigail was calling her.
Everyone was assembled at the dinner table. Heads and eyes were locked on plates. CC gagged at the smell of the roast beef and potatoes as she sat down between Virgil and Harpe. Rhett was already on his second helping, and Leon was shoving forkfuls of mashed potatoes into his mouth. At least he isn't staring at me, she thought. Early autumn air drifted through the open windows, the descending sun casting rose and violet strands of light across the table.
"Now eat something, CC,” her mother ordered, “put some flesh on those bones. You're too skinny.” She plopped strips of roast beef and spoonfuls of coleslaw on her plate. "And comb your hair next time before dinner. It’s a mess.” She patted CC on the shoulders and hustled to her chair next to Montana. "Now, some of you have news to share, so who’s going first?”
CC tasted vomit at the back of her mouth. She pushed her plate away and concentrated on smiling. "I'm going to the University of Idaho in Moscow."
"Well, lo and behold," her father beamed. "I thought you were leaning toward Colorado.
“Yeah, I was, Pa, but Idaho isn’t as popular, at least not yet. "Fewer people."
Rhett clapped, and Harpe hopped out of his chair to hug her. "That's awesome, CC. Congratulations! You'll do great. You're so smart. Everybody says that." He glanced furtively at Leon. "Well, except for Leon."
Leon's voice cut in, icy and sharp. "That's because she isn't, Harpe. She’s stupid.” He swallowed another forkful of potatoes in one gulp, then turned to Harpe. "Besides, you both still have two years of high school left.”
She ignored him. Abigail broke in. "The University of Idaho admits students early if they've finished all their high school credits and received good grades. She’s done both.” Abigail bent down and kissed CC on the back of the head.
"I start in January and …," CC added.
"She's the youngest student ever admitted there," Abigail interrupted. "Your father and I are bursting with pride," her voice pitching higher with each word. She clapped and kissed CC again. "We're just tickled pink."
Montana got up and lifted his glass of water. "A toast to our CC." Everyone but Leon raised their glasses, and Montana walked over and kissed her forehead. "My little girl," he said again, beaming. It was one of Montana's favorite expressions. CC loved hearing it every time. Harpe set down a piece of rhubarb pie in front of her and patted her on the back.
CC glanced at Virgil, who was sipping his coffee, his pie undisturbed in front of him. "So, what do you think. Virgil?" CC asked hesitantly.
Virgil folded his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair. “Great news.” He dug his fork into the pie and raised it in the air to toast her again. Everyone raised their forks except Leon, who noisily pushed his chair back and slumped down.
Virgil raised his fork again and smiled. "Some nice mountains there. Climbing more than studying, I venture."
She smiled back. “Yeah, maybe.”
“Some treacherous peaks in those ranges.”
CC rolled her eyes. His way of worrying about her. “Better visit a lot. Make sure I’m safe.” She smiled, half expecting him to say yes.
“Got plans of my own.”
Abigail popped out of her chair and hovered over him. “Now, Virgil, honey, it’s your turn. Tell us your news.”
Rhett threw his balled-up napkin toward Virgil. “Going to medical school too, little brother?”
Virgil tossed the napkin back and hit Rhett in the forehead. Then he frowned at his mother. "Not a big deal, Ma."
“Don't be silly. We all want to hear." She slapped him lightly on the head. "You're as bad as your father at getting words out."
Virgil sighed and sipped his coffee. "I'm circling Alaska."
Rhett's head jerked up, startled and wide-eyed. "On foot?" he barked.
"Part of it. Motorcycle for some. Ferry or train when I can.”
“Are you out of your mind? Half the state’s in the Arctic Circle.” Rhett stared at him, wide-eyed.
"20%." Virgil pushed his chair away from the table, already irritated by the attention. He glanced behind him at Abigail. "That gonna do, Ma?"
Abigail leaned over and kissed Virgil's cheek. "Yes, it is. Now Rhett, never mind. There's no talking Virgil out of anything once his mind's made up." She glared at Montana, who was eating pie. "Montana, will you say something please? Cast my fears to heaven. You never open your mouth when you should."
Montana sat back in his chair and wiped his mouth with his napkin. "Well, seems we got two kids going to freeze to death hanging from mountain peaks."
Virgil took a bite of pie and nodded at Montana. Abigail shrieked. "Cast my fears, Montana. That's a terrible thing to say. I'm already worried sick that they're leaving home." She whacked Montana on the back of the head and stormed out of the dining room. Within seconds, she was slamming pans on the counter amid her shrieks and shouts.
Virgil glanced at CC. He knew she’d be surprised. She was looking down at the table.
"I’m going with you,” she declared.
"No, you're not."
She shoved her chair back, noisy scrapes on the floor. Stood with arms folded tightly across her chest, and walked out of the room. A second later, the front door closed quietly behind her.
"Should have figured she’d be mad, Virgil," Harpe said quietly, "she adores you."
"She's not mad. She's just disappointed," replied Montana. "She'll get over it."
“Serves the dumb brat right,” muttered Leon, “always following you around.” He studied Virgil’s face, waiting.
Virgil sat back slowly in his chair and glared at Leon. "Watch yourself, little brother, or I'll throw you into that wall." He walked over to Leon's chair and yanked it away from the table. Leon jerked forward to stand, but Virgil shoved him back and put his hand on the back of his neck. He tightened his grip.
“Knock it off, Virgil,” Montana announced, “right now.”
Virgil let go and walked back to his chair, and sat down. "Pass the coffee, Harpe," he said quietly.
“Get out of that chair, Virgil,” Montana snapped, “and go talk to your sister.”
Virgil pushed his cup away and stood. He spotted CC on the far end of the street, sitting against a tall maple in a pile of gold leaves, knees bent, head hidden in her folded arms. He knew she'd be there. He sat down on the other side of the maple, brushing leaves away, and leaned against the tree, pressing his back and shoulders into the rough ribs of the bark. Seconds passed, then minutes. The early night songs of nearby birds sounded in bold caws and cackles. An owl motionless on a distant branch.
More minutes passed. Virgil drew in the pungent scents of the autumn air laced with the promise of winter's cold. Leaves floated in swirls and swells, plummeting downward, each separate and alone. A leaf drifted into his skyward palm. He brushed his finger along its fragile veins and casts of yellow and orange. He cupped it with his other hand, folded it gently, then tucked it into his pocket. He shifted toward her. She was still sitting with her head tucked in her arms. Enough, he thought.
"You're going to college, CC," Virgil said, “and I'm going to Alaska." He stood slowly and looked her way. "I'll be back in a couple of years.” He started toward the house.
No lamps were lit. He surmised that Abigail was still pacing back and forth in the kitchen, wearing herself down, and Montana was still at the dining room table, waiting her out.
He turned the knob of the giant wooden door. Suddenly, a hand rested on his shoulder. CC with puffy, red eyes.
"You including all the islands?
"Any I can get to." Virgil's voice was soft and muffled.
"There's a lot of them." She wiped her sleeve across her face and sniffled. "Any climbing?”
"Can’t carry the gear. Save that for later trips."
"Maybe I can go with you on one of those. I’ll finish college in two years.”
They walked into the house. Still in his chair at the head of the table, Montana winked at them. Rooms filled with light as Abigail darted about the room switching on lamps. She hurried past Montana's chair and flashed a faint, warm smile at him. He reached for her arm, turned her toward him, and kissed her hand.