Note to respectable readers: I take pride in my work but I'm not, by any means, overly sensitive when it comes to constructive criticism. I teach creative writing and dish it out every day. It would be contradictory of me to be averse to feedback, don't you think? So there is only one rule here: BE HONEST!
Note to potential literary thieves : I don't really care about posting or not-posting work on the internet. If you want to steal this chapter, go ahead. You still have to write the rest of the novel. Good luck with that. Plus I've got a hat full of other ideas I can use. You don't.
I remember the first time I saw a bird-man.
How do you forget something like that? It's like the first time you hear your parents arguing or the first time you see a red-tail hawk rip a field mouse to shreds. At first it shocks you. Then time goes by and you keep thinking about it, and the more you think about it the more it makes sense. And before you know it, the thought is bouncing around inside your head like an annoying song in music class and eventually you just accept it because there's nothing you can do to get rid of it.
That's exactly what happened to me when I saw King Bird-Man for the first time.
It all happened a year ago, the week of my twelfth birthday. I say all because there's a lot more to it than just a bird-man sighting.
I was at the sink washing dishes after supper. It's one of my chores, but I don't mind it. That way Mom doesn't have to do everything by herself. I turned off the water and threw the sponge in the sink. "I'm going for a ride!" I yelled.
Mom was folding laundry in the living room and watching TV. Her hand was covering her mouth and her eyes were watery. She was watching one of those cheesy talk shows. The kind where everyone sits in a half circle and the special guest shrink tries to fix your family while the audience watches like it's some kind of weirdo circus act. Mom cries when she watches those shows. She says they get to her. But I'm not stupid. They remind her of Dad. Everything reminds her of Dad.
"Be home by dark, Eddie!" she said.
I grabbed my bird journal and nocs (binoculars) off the hook by the front door. I tucked the journal in my backpocket, slung the nocs around my neck, and the screen door slammed shut behind me. If you're a birdwatcher like me, it's important to never leave home without these things. You never know when a golden eagle or a peregrine falcon will pounce on a rodent and rip it to pieces right in front of your eyes. And if you're not prepared, you won't be able to document the whole incident. And then no one will believe you ever saw it. If you want to be a real birdwatcher, if you want to be taken seriously, documentation is the most important part.
You see, I like birds, but not just any old birds. I could care less about sparrows and songbirds and robins. They fly around and chirp and sing and poop on windshields. I like real birds. Raptors. The birds with laser eyes and sharp beaks. I mean, who really cares about bright-colored feathers and annoying sing-songy chatter? That's all girly stuff.
With my nocs strap criss-crossed over my shoulder, I hopped on my silver Predator bike and took off down the street. Sometimes I patrol the neighborhood like a sheriff. Mom says I get it from Grampa. He used to take me and my cousin out in the country in his police cruiser and let us blare the sirens so the whole world could hear, when really no one could hear anything because we were in the middle of nowhere.
But this time I wasn't keeping watch over our neighborhood. I was headed for the house down the street. When someone moves to a town like West Plains, they need to be checked out. Small towns run a certain way and if people don't fit in then, they just may have to leave. Grampa told me that once while we were eating burgers. After he finished talking, he coughed a bunch of times and then took off for the bathroom. A couple weeks later, his emphysema got real bad. A couple weeks after that, he went to sleep and never woke up.
I turned the corner and skidded my bike to a stop in front of the house. A UHAUL truck sat in the driveway. It was supposed to be white, but it was so dirty it looked like someone had dumped a bag of charcoal over it.
I walked my bike low into the ditch and set it down. Dad bought me that bike at Dan's Sporting Goods. I remember the day I got it like it was yesterday. I took an hour to pick it out, but Dad never lost his patience like Mom does. When I told him I wanted the silver Predator, he just nodded quietly. At the counter, Dad scribbled on a check, ripped it out, and handed it to me. I took the check and stared at it. One hundred and forty-nine dollars was the most money I'd ever held in my hands.
In the driveway two moving guys unloaded a couple of boxes from the UHAUL. They were pretty big guys who looked like bodyguards or pro wrestlers. Once they were inside the house, I crept through the side yard and snuck around back. I tried my best to be quiet. The last thing I needed was my new neighbors catching me snooping around their new house.
A tall fence stretched all the way around the backyard. I'm five-foot four and a quarter, so by standing next to it I could tell it was at least eight feet tall. I needed something to stand on but all I found was a couple of toy trucks and a rubber snake, all stuff the Lathams had left behind.
"What the--?" I said. I ducked and covered my head. When I first heard the noise I thought something prehistoric, like a giant pterodactyl, was attacking me. I knew if I looked up it would be hovering over me like an alien spaceship, ready to grab me by the neck.
The sound happened again. This time I could tell it was coming from behind the fence, somewhere in the backyard. I had to find a way to boost myself up to see what it was. A bunch of trees surrounded the house, but none of them had branches low enough to climb. There was one thing I had overlooked. A half-deflated basketball. It was the same ball I used to whip Timmy Latham's butt in HORSE every day after school.
I picked up the ball, dropped it next to the fence, and stood on top of it while holding onto the top of the fence for balance. I raised up on my toes and pulled myself up, like I was doing a reverse pull-up in gym class. It was enough to barely see over the fence. The backyard was smaller than I remembered. It was empty except for a covered porch and a bright pink shed in the far corner.
I could only keep my eyes above the fence for a few seconds at a time, then I had to lower my feet onto the basketball to rest my arms. When I did that, the basketball squished under my weight and kept moving back and forth, so I kept a tight hold on the fence for balance.
The screen door under the covered porch creaked and opened. I did another pull-up to see who was coming out of the house. It was a dark-skinned man with silver hair and a long beard. But that wasn't the weird part, not even close. A giant parrot was standing on his shoulder. It was the biggest bird I'd ever seen. Red feathers covered its head, a yellow band wrapped around its stomach, and the wings were bright blue. Its long red tail feathers pointed straight down and its beak looked as big as my fist. You only see these kinds of birds in three places: books, the jungle, or the zoo. And since the closest jungle is in South America, maybe Mexico, and the closest zoo is three hours away in Cincinnati, I didn't have much experience with parrots. But thanks to the Encyclopedia of Macaws in the West Plains Middle School Library, which has my name listed on the checkout card three times, I knew the bird was a scarlett macaw.
The dark-skinned man offered the macaw his gloved hand and the bird stepped off his shoulder strap. Underneath the shade of the covered porch, he unhinged the door to a wire cage and set the macaw inside. It stepped onto a long skinny bar, where it perched next to another bird that looked exactly like it.
My arms began to shake so I lowered myself onto the basketball. I shook out my hands one at a time to get the feeling back in my arms and then took a deep breath and did reverse pull-up number three, which was more than I had ever done in gym class.
The screen door squawked and opened again. The first thing to come outside was a pair of long tan legs. The girl's hair was long and dark and it brushed the end of her back. Her short blue dress made her look as tall as a high schooler. But I've seen the zits of high schoolers who ride the bus, and her skin was too perfect for her to be that old. I immediately hoped she was in middle school. She didn't have to be in seventh grade, just middle school. That would work just fine.
The girl said something to the silver bearded man but the only word I understood was papa. Papa turned to her. He gestured with his hands while mouthing a few words, but no sound came out of his mouth.
My arms began to tremble and my grip weakened. It took all my strength just to keep my eyes above the fence. I was about to lower myself onto the basketball again when a big yellow dog came sprinting around the corner of the house. It was barking and growling. Its long hair flapped up and down and so did its lips. It ran toward me and knocked the basketball out from under my feet, which left me holding onto the top of the fence with my feet dangling in the air. The dog growled some more and pulled at my shirt. At the same time, one of the macaws screamed, "Intruder! Intruder!... Intruder! Intruder!"
At the same time, the girl and Papa turned and looked at me.
With everyone looking at me and a big hairy dog pulling at my shirt, I didn’t know what to do. But it didn't matter, because that's when my hands slipped off the fence. The last thing I remembered was staring up at a cluster of dark stormclouds while falling backwards towards the ground.