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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Impossible Bird

Patrick O'Leary

Tor Books

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1962—We're in This Together


Danny and Mike were brothers.
They grew up in a big white house outside of Saginaw, Michigan, surrounded by fields: corn across the dirt road, green fallow to the west and, on the other side, beyond their next door neighbor the widow McNulty's, endless rows and rows of sugar beets. It was a fair hike out through the backyard garden of vegetables, past Uncle Louie's bomb shelter, over the cold, cold stream they were just old enough to leap, up the hill of dry weeds, and through the apple orchard where they used to catch fireflies, to the golden field of ripened wheat—where they lay, side-by-side on their backs, as if they'd fallen from the sky. Watching the white clouds slide by slowly in the perfect blue of a late summer day.
"You ever think about dying?" Danny, the eight-year-old, asked.
Mike, the ten-year-old, answered, "Sometimes."
"I been thinking about it. Ever since we caught the fish."
Two weeks before, they had found a sucker in the shallows of the stream. They put the slippery silver fish in the rain barrel under the downspout behind the back porch. It only lived a few days.
In the distance they could hear Mr. Schlitbeer threshing in his combine. Taking in the harvest. The golden stems swayed above them. The patch of bent stalks they lay upon was soft and dry and comfortable.
Mike was chewing on wheat—he'd press his hands together as if in prayer and rub the kernels between his palms to shed the chaff, then pop them in his mouth and crunch away. They tasted like sweet cereal, and they expanded as he chewed.
This was gross to Danny—the more careful of the two. He wasn't putting anything in his mouth. "Gort."
Mike smiled. "Barrada."
"Nikto," said Danny.
"Your world will be reduced…"
"To a burned-out cinder."
Then they did their best to mimic the theremin theme of the famous black-and-white movie they'd just seen on TV: the music they played whenever the robot was going to kill somebody. They lay there, humming the same mechanical ghostly whine through their noses. It ended in a fit of giggles.
Mike said, "I still say the soldiers didn't feel it."
"They were disintegrated!" said Danny.
"Yeah, but they didn't scream."
"The deathray was too loud. I betcha they screamed."
"I was watching their mouths," Mike assured him. "They didn't scream."
"That doesn't mean it didn't hurt," Danny said.
"Maybe they were shocked," Mike said.
"In shock," Danny corrected.
"Same thing."
"No. Remember when we touched the cow fence?" Danny asked.
It was a dare. To see if it was electric or not. And, of course, Mike had taken the dare. Mike, taller, stronger, faster, with a head of curly blond hair. A joker. The one kids always picked first for kickball. The first suspect whenever there was trouble at school. An average student with the exception of art: he had a talent for drawing. His favorite thing: girls. Mike touched the wire and felt the numb tingle slide up his arm. And jerking away, he had touched Danny and passed the shock on.
Danny wouldn't have touched the wire if you paid him. He knew better. Danny, shorter, rounder, quieter, short brown hair. His faintly bucked front teeth, his thick lenses that made his eyes seem bigger than they were. A model student. His report cards recorded his scholarship and conduct as impeccable. His favorite thing: books. Still, Danny was glad Mike had shared the shock. And passed on the knowledge secondhand.
They had screamed, then laughed. Then rubbed their arms.
"I bet aliens do it different."
"It's a movie, Danny. It doesn't have to make sense."
"Heinlein makes sense."
"Oh, shut up about your damn books."
"You shouldn't swear. It's not polite."
"Crap. Piss. Butt. Dick."
"Stop it. I was just saying: his stories—you believe them." Mike was silent, chewing. Danny continued, "Like he writes: ‘The door dilated.'"
"What's dilated?"
"Like an eye. You know, when the iris closes 'cause it gets too much light."
Mike had studied that. "So?"
"So it's not just tricks. It's the future. It's on a spaceship and a round door makes a better airlock."
"Airlock?"
"In case there's an accident. Like a hull breach."
"What the hell's a hull breach?"
"Mike…"
"Mike," he mocked, doing a perfect imitation of his brother. "Shit. Poop. Nipple. Tit."
Danny sighed. There was no stopping him. "A hull breach is like a leak. Except not water but vacuum."
"Vacuum?"
"That's like nothing."
"Nothing?"
"No air to breathe. That's what space mostly is. Vacuums."
Mike tried to imagine that much nothing. He couldn't. The universe had to be made of something. How could it be mostly nothing? He hated it when his little brother knew stuff he didn't. "That's nonsensical," he said, using Dr. Klinder's word.
"No, it's not. It's science. Anyway, books make more sense."
"But they're boring," Mike said. "Give me a movie anytime."
"You can reread books."
"You can see pictures again."
"Yeah, but you have to pay another quarter. Library books are free."
"Screw the library."
"Mike."
"Hey. Wouldn't it be great if we had our own theater? And we could watch our favorite movie over and over."
Danny thought about it. "And we wouldn't have to pay."
"What if it was, like, small like a TV." The idea excited Mike. "And you could watch it all by pressing a button. And reverse it in case you didn't get a part."
"Or go forward to the end. Real fast. Skip the boring parts."
"Yeah, and freeze it if you had to pee," Mike said. "And move the camera to see the things you want to see. And talk to the actors. And look for the boobies."
"And turn the sound up real loud," said Danny.
"Gort!"
"Barrada!"
"Nikto!"
"And all the popcorn in the world," said Danny.
In the distance, they could hear Mr. Schlitbeer's combine coughing, then stalling out.
The stalks of wheat around them calmed and stilled as if someone had taken all the wind out of the world. They did not return to their upright and locked positions; they leaned. But there was no wind.
Some 200 yards above them, a round object oozed into their line of vision. It made no sound. A silver dot surrounded by a haze of white, hovering in the sky like a gigantic staring eye.
For an infinite moment they were treated to a bird's-eye view of two boys lying in a golden field. Two tiny dark stick figures side-by-side. Abandoned. The picture would stay with them for the rest of their lives. They never talked about it. But the images they retained in their separate minds were identical, as if they had two copies of the same photograph.
As easily as the object appeared, it passed beyond their sight.
Neither boy moved a muscle; they couldn't even look at each other.
"Let's go watch it!"
"You first," Danny said reluctantly.
"I can't move," Mike said. "I wanna move, but I can't."
"Me neither. Mike. I'm scared."
"How come we can talk if we can't move?"
"Deathray," Danny said.
They both lay there in the wheat field. Frightened, but curious too. Not wanting to miss their deaths.
They never heard the motor on the combine restart. But after a time, the stalks around them straightened up and leaned once again in the gentle breeze.
"A saucer."
"Or a Frisbee," Danny said.
"Too high," Mike concluded, still looking up.
"Danny said, "Maybe we just made it up."
"Bullshit."
"Mike…"
"Dick. Wiener. Gina."
Danny asked, "What's a gina?"
"That's what girls got instead of wieners."
"Really?"
"Jeez, don't you know nothing? That's where the babies come out."
"I thought they had an operation. On their bellies."
"Naw, they come out between their legs. Or they're adopted like us. Didn't Stinko tell you yet?"
He shouldn't call him that, Danny thought. He asked for the whipping. "Uncle Louie told you?"
Mike nodded. "Gimme some Juicy Fruit."
"Haven't got any." Danny rolled his eyes. "You know, it wouldn't kill you to say please every once in a while."
"Why?" asked Mike.
Danny sighed.
They lay in the wheat thinking: Deathrays. Little movies. Heinlein. Wieners. Ginas. Dilate. And where the babies come out.
They found they could turn their heads. There were dark bruises around both of their eyes, as though they had been fighting for an hour, both of them giving as good as they got, until finally exhausted, they'd collapsed beside each other. A draw.
Danny giggled. "You look like a raccoon."
"Look who's talking," Mike replied.
Silence as they both remembered, or tried to, the missing time, the time they spent without each other. Danny in the hospital with trench mouth. Mike in Buffalo, "visiting relatives." The first time they'd ever been apart.
"I missed you," Danny said.
Mike was quiet for a time. "It wasn't that long."
"It felt like forever."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Me neither."
The wind breathed in the wheat.
"I thought we were dead," Danny said.
"Me, too."
"Maybe we're dead and we don't know it."
"That's nonsensical."
They turned to look at each other then. The wheat shushed above them.
Danny put his hand on his brother's heart and felt the rhythm. "You've alive."
Mike did the same to his brother. "You, too."
They kept their hands there. On each other's hearts.
"If I die," Danny said, "will you die, too?"
"Sure."
"Promise?"
"Sure."
"Swear?"
"Cross my heart and hope to die."
"Stick a needle in your eye?"
The wheat waved back and forth and back.
"Sure," Mike said finally. Though it was the same word he had said twice before, it sounded different.
A pause when everything seemed settled.
Then Danny said, "You won't leave me?"
"Don't worry about it," Mike assured him. Then, "Nobody's leaving anybody." Finally, "We're in this together."
And it was settled.
Their faces were so close they could feel each other's breaths.
Mike sat up and they discovered they could stand. They stood and watched the skies for the silver disc, but it was nowhere to be seen. Then they saw they had been lying in a small square patch of dying khaki wheat. The rest of the field around them had been harvested.
They walked home through the empty field over stubble, dead chaff, and dirt. The sharp, rotting tang of autumn in the air.

Copyright © 2002 by Patrick O'Leary