What I Write
Lisa needed to stop picking at her fingernails, but their unevenness called to her and compelled her. Even if she wasn’t touching them, she could feel the jagged edges, and sense the wrongness.
As she ripped a hangnail from her thumb, momentary pain flashed, and a spot of blood appeared at the corner it came from. Later, it would hurt more. It might even throb as she showered and tried to sleep. Later, she would regret pulling the piece off. But for now, the fingernail wasn’t quite right.
Her latest therapist, Emily, pulled Lisa’s hands apart and sighed as if resigned to bad behavior from a child. Emily was supposed to specialize in Autism, but Lisa suspected the rest of Emily’s patients were several years younger.
Lisa hated counseling, but if she skipped her appointments, her adopted parents might get in trouble, or worse, they might worry. Less than a month remained until she turned eighteen, and the state stopped paying for the sessions. Then she could quit without feeling guilty.
“What about friends?” Emily asked.
“I have Kestrel. Why do I need anyone else?”
“Kestrel is your sister.”
“She was my best friend first.” Lisa used her ring finger on the same hand to try and finish smoothing out her thumbnail.
“Don’t you think you should have more than one friend?”
“College is supposed to be about exploring who you are and trying new things. Forming new friendships that might last a lifetime.”
For Lisa, college was the path to a well-paying job. To making sure that she’d never have to depend on someone else financially, and to pay Kestrel’s parents back for all that they’d given her. More friends would only get in the way, and take up time. Time that was better spent on studying or reading. Books were as good as friends, weren’t they?
Not that she was completely against the idea, but, well, people didn’t exactly rush to talk to her. Supposedly she glared at everyone, but it wasn’t intentional. Her default expression wasn’t a smile. And if a girl wasn’t smiling, then she must be angry. Apparently. Besides, Lisa didn’t even know how to start a conversation on her own. Or feel the need, with Kestrel around.
Emily offered her a pad of paper and a pen. “Here. Try doodling instead.”
There were two spots of blood on her fingers now. She took the proffered items and stared at the paper, trying to ignore the sensations that beseeched her, but with no idea what to draw.
Emily settled back in her chair. “Have you considered joining a club? Something outside of academics?”
“Isn’t the animal shelter enough?” She and Kestrel spent a few hours volunteering there each day. It had been Kestrel’s idea originally, but Lisa had become the most dedicated. Animals were safe, like books. Unlike people.
“Do you talk to anyone there? Not customers, but other volunteers?”
Lisa shrugged. “We talk to get instructions, find out how the animals are doing, and if there’s been any adoptions, or new arrivals.” She rubbed the top piece of paper underneath her fingernails, pushing into the tender skin of each digit.
Emily pursed her lips as she glanced at the clock. “I’m going to give you a homework assignment.”
A knot of dread formed in Lisa’s stomach. Normal homework she didn’t mind, but homework from therapy always meant doing something uncomfortable. And she was a perfect student, so she couldn’t skip it.
“I want you to find someone new to talk to. Have a real conversation with them. Something more than just instructions at the animal shelter or a question about a class assignment. Find out their name, where they’re from, and something interesting about them.”
Panic flared briefly, but Lisa pushed it away. It was just a short conversation. How hard could it be?
A bird’s scream pierced the serenity of the Virginia walking trail. It contained agony that no creature should have to endure. Lisa raced down the wooded dirt path towards the cry.
Kestrel’s footsteps followed close behind.
The desperation of the call matched a moment from Lisa’s past, when she had screamed until her voice gave out. She could not let the plea go unanswered.
“Screee.” Fainter this time, the noise came from behind her.
She turned around and moved at a slower pace. Her heart beat fast as she searched for the bird among the trees.
Dark red hair flashed in front of her as Kestrel caught up.
Lisa’s gaze combed through the dense mass of oaks, pines, and other greenery.
Close. Below her.
“There.” Kestrel pointed to the bottom of the creek that ran parallel to the path.
Caught in a mess of old barbed wire, the black bird’s struggles tightened the wires and caused the barbs to cut into it.
Lisa dropped her backpack, climbed down the small ditch, and thrashed through masses of branches and vines to reach the bird. The smell of crushed honeysuckle filled the air.
“Watch out for poison ivy,” Kestrel called from the trail.
Lisa smiled at the motherly tone.
“Can you get something to cut the wire with?” she asked. “I don’t know if I can untangle it all.”
“I’ll be right back.” Kestrel’s footsteps faded rapidly away. It wouldn’t take her long to run the short distance back to the animal shelter they volunteered at.
“Easy now,” Lisa said to the bird. Either it knew she came to help, or had decided to play dead, for it stopped its struggles. During its initial panic, however, the bird had forced its way deep into the rusty tangle. Carefully, Lisa unraveled the top layer of loose strands. The wire resisted her efforts; it cut her hands and sprang back to the coil if she didn’t keep hold of it. The thick grass and weeds surrounding the wire obstructed her view.
Kestrel returned and passed a pair of long-handled wire cutters down.
Lisa cut off the parts of the snarl that were easy to get to. Soon, only the wire closest to the bird remained. Carefully, she picked up the bundle of feathers and metal.
The bird squawked.
She carried it up to the path, so she could see the remaining wire more clearly.
She set it on the walkway and Kestrel helped her remove the rest of the wire. At last the bird was free, but blood showed where the cruel barbs had pierced it.
Lisa wrapped her jacket around the bird, then used one hand to hold it against her side. It pecked at her, but she ignored the pain and shifted it so its beak couldn’t reach her fingers. “It needs medical care. Wasn’t Dr. Katie–“
Kestrel shook her head. “She’s already left for the day.”
Fear gripped Lisa for a moment, until she remembered that the vet clinic should still be open. She picked up the smaller pieces of wire from the path, careful to avoid cutting herself on the sharp points, and placed them in her jeans pocket. The larger pieces would have to wait, but at least these would not harm another animal.
Tendrils of her brown hair had escaped from her ponytail and mingled with sweat to stick to her cheeks and forehead.
“Don’t touch your face until you’ve washed your hands,” Kestrel said. “I wasn’t kidding about the poison ivy.”
Lisa stopped barely in time, her free hand mere centimeters from her face.
Kestrel retrieved Lisa’s backpack. “Wow, this is heavy. Did you change your major to Geology when I wasn’t paying attention?”
Lisa flushed. “It’s just my textbooks and a few novels.”
“What happened to the e-reader mom got you for graduation?” Kestrel grimaced as she shouldered the bag.
“Used textbooks are cheaper, and a lot of older books aren’t available in e-form.”
Kestrel gave her an odd look, but didn’t probe further.
They hurried to the animal rescue. It was fortunate enough to have three separate buildings: a large concrete facility for dogs, a house-sized one for cats, and a small mobile trailer for everything else. Lisa sped to the third. The scents of pine shavings, ferret musk, and animal droppings greeted her as she opened the door. She set the bird on a clean newspaper, then washed her hands in the nearby utility sink.
Kestrel pulled out a large bird cage. Dust flew off it and filled the air.
While Kestrel wiped down the cage, Lisa steeled herself to call the vet clinic. What seemed as natural as breathing to others was like wrestling lions to her. She had to plan out everything she was going to say. The therapist that had diagnosed her with Asperger’s called it a script. Pretending she was acting out a role did make it easier, but didn’t make it easy.
What if the receptionist didn’t take her seriously? What if they didn’t care about a common black bird? How could she phrase it so they wouldn’t dismiss her outright?
Lisa dialed the vet’s office and her palms sweated as the old phone line crackled and rang. She went over the three elements of the first part of the script in her head: greeting, introduction, reason for the call.
A cheerful voice said, “Hello, this is Hardin Veterinary, how can I help you?”
“Hi.” Her mind blanked for a moment, until she remembered her lines. “Uhm, this is Lisa, at Crossfield Animal Rescue. I’ve got a new one that needs attention today. Can you fit us in?”
Kestrel raised an eyebrow.
“Let me check.” The clicking of keys on a keyboard replaced the voice. “If you can get here in the next thirty minutes, we can squeeze you in.”
Lisa breathed out in relief. “We’ll be there. Thank you!”
Walking, her preferred method of travel, would take too long. She hung up and faced Kestrel. “I’ll have to borrow the shelter’s truck to get there in time.”
“You hate driving that thing.”
Lisa had never mastered the stick-shift and didn’t like the noise the big truck made. “Yeah, but I don’t want you to miss Chem lab, and it’s the only vehicle available.” She placed the bird, still wrapped in her jacket, inside the cage, then took a spare towel from the closet and draped it over the top. They always did that in movies; perhaps it would help keep the bird calm during the drive.
Kestrel frowned. “You’ll miss class too.”
“I know.” Lisa ignored the guilt that threatened to consume her. She’d rarely missed a class since third grade, and that hadn’t been by choice. School was everything to her. Her obsession. Her big chance to prove her birth parents wrong–that she was worth something. But she couldn’t just leave the bird and hope it survived until the next day.
She filled in the check-out sheet and entered the code to unlock the box with the truck keys.
As they exited the trailer, another volunteer entered. She stared at Lisa. “What happened to you?”
Lisa checked for blood on her shirt, then realized the problem. She’d taken off her jacket while wearing her volunteer T-shirt, exposing her arms. The pink scars that covered them stood out on her tan skin. Her cheeks burned with shame. “It’s nothing.” She brushed past the girl, desperate to get away.
Kestrel’s face had gone white. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, as they walked to the truck. “I didn’t notice. I’m so used to seeing them at home… I think I have something in my backpack.” She rummaged through it and pulled out a green-and-blue flannel jacket.
Lisa set the cage down, careful not to jostle the bird, before pulling the long sleeves on. A large weight left her chest as the fabric covered her arms. “Thanks.”
“What are sisters for? Now, give me the keys,” Kestrel said. “You’ll have to keep the cage from sliding.”
Lisa squirmed with impatient worry as she stood in the whitewashed waiting area of the clinic.
The receptionist pulled out several pieces of paper and fastened them to a clipboard. “I need a name for the records.”
“Uhm,” Lisa said. “Do you know how to determine the gender of a bird?”
“I don’t think you can,” the receptionist said. “Just call it what you’d like it to be.”
Lisa peeked into the birdcage, under the towel, as if expecting the bird to give her a clue. No luck. “How about Sammy then?”
The receptionist smiled and wrote it at the top of the chart.
“Isn’t that…?” Kestrel asked in a whisper.
“Yes.” The bright lights and smell of disinfectant conjured memories of Sammy’s namesake. The last time she’d seen her half-sister, Samantha, had been in a hospital, her body broken and bloody from their stepfather’s abuse, never to wake up.
“You’re just in time,” a vet assistant said. She grabbed the chart and led them to a room that smelled even stronger of disinfectant. Photos of happy cats and dogs lined the walls.
Lisa pulled Sammy, still swaddled in her jacket, out of the cage. The bird’s bright eyes swiveled to take in the surroundings and its heart fluttered through the thin cloth.
“What have we got here?” the vet asked as she entered.
Lisa unwrapped Sammy and handed the bird over. “I found her caught in barbed wire.”
The vet examined Sammy with care. “It’s got a lot of injuries and some of the punctures look deep. Small birds are pretty fragile and don’t handle shock well.” She paused, then continued in a sympathetic tone. “The most humane thing to do might be to put it out of its misery.”
Lisa glared, her own heart pounding. “I didn’t rescue her just to put her to sleep. She deserves a chance.”
The vet hesitated, but then pulled out alcohol and cotton balls.
Sammy squawked and struggled as the vet cleaned the wounds. She handled the bird deftly, without getting bitten or scratched. A shot of antibiotics, and the ordeal was over.
The vet left and an assistant came back with a hot, clean towel to wrap Sammy in. “She needs to be kept warm. Right now, your biggest concern is shock.”
On the way back, they stopped at a pet store for supplies. Lisa cringed at the total on the register. Between this and the vet bill, which she’d paid since Sammy’s treatment was her decision, she’d nearly maxed out her small credit card limit. She hated owing money. Could she get enough extra work hours to cover it before the bill arrived?
Darkness surrounded the shelter by the time they returned. Chem class had ended long ago and they would be due at the library for their work-study shift in fifteen minutes.
“You go ahead,” Lisa said. “Tell Ms. Finney I’ll be a few minutes late, but I’ll make it up.” The head librarian would complain, but Lisa couldn’t help that. “And thanks.”
Kestrel turned back. “For what?”
“For not saying ‘It’s just a bird’.”
Kestrel smiled and winked. “Us avians have to look out for one another.” She waved as she walked back to campus.
Lisa settled Sammy’s cage near a window. She filled the food and water trays and hooked up the heat lamp they’d bought at the store.
Sammy hadn’t stirred from where Lisa had placed her in the cage at the vet office.
Under the bright light, iridescent blue and green feathers tinted Sammy’s head, back, and chest. Lisa pulled out an empty chart and clipboard, filled in all the information, and clipped it to the cage.
Sammy still hadn’t moved.
Lisa frowned and rattled the food dish. “Come on girl, you have to eat.”
Sammy stared at her.
What could she do to get Sammy to eat or drink? She’d only been at the shelter for a few months. There’d been no birds, and more experienced volunteers had handled the emergencies. She dipped her fingers in the water and dripped some onto the black bird’s beak.
Sammy ignored it.
She took Sammy and a food dish out of the cage. She held the bird in one hand and used the other to hold the dish up to its beak. “Eat, Sammy, please.”
Sammy didn’t even try to peck her.
Memories of Samantha, covered in blood on the hallway floor, intruded. Lisa had begged her to wake up, but had been behind a locked bedroom door. That was when Lisa had started screaming.
NO! She choked back a sob. Not again.
“Come on Sammy, please!” Her voice cracked as she attempted to use sheer force of will to heal the bird. The room spun and nausea hit her. She leaned against the table, breathed deep, and waited for the sensations to pass.
The air appeared to shimmer around Sammy.
Lisa blinked several times, until her vision cleared. Exhaustion filled her. She breathed deeply again, then juggled the food dish one last time.
|What I Write||
Novels: Fantasy, YA, strong romantic subplots
Novellas: Fairy-tale re-tellings
Short Stories: mostly speculative in some way and primarily flash so far.
My fantasy tends towards faeries and unicorns rather than war and politics. My SF is often “science fantasy.” My horror is usually about medical problems or childhood trauma. My main characters are often autistic, whether its explicitly stated or not.
“The Definitions of Professional Attire” – Factor Four Magazine
“Erroneous Conclusions” – Daily Science Fiction (also translated into Vietnamese by SFVN)
My Write-a-thon Goals
1) Write 500 words a day on average. Can be for any story.
2) Finish revising my Tengu novel (Chapter one is the excerpt on my profile).
I haven’t done this before, so have zero expectations.
If anyone donates $25+, I’ll write a short story (probably flash) based on whatever they suggest (no erotica and nothing offensive). I don’t promise it will be a *good* story, but I will send them the first draft in email and if it is ever published, will mention them in the author notes.