Bud Smith

She found a giant egg on the lawn. This is a gag, she thought. She looked around for someone hiding in the woods—she did this smiling, showing lots of white teeth; then crouching, then stabbing her cigarette out in the dirt. Nobody was around. She shook her head, brushed her blonde hair back with an open palm.

Behind her there was a little red house. She was isolated there, deep in that forest. Michelle looked a while longer at the woods, then at the egg, hoping Eric had put it there, coming all this way. She called out, “Hey, you here to bother me? What took you so long? I deserve an apology. You bailed on me.”

Something soared through the treetops, cracking branches, pine needles raining down. A massive shadow, gone in a second. Spooked, she picked up the egg—heavier than she thought—and hustled into the house. She propped the egg on the table next to the fridge. Locked the door. Locked the other lock on the door too. Slid to the floor, and laughed, and looked at the egg, and slapped herself in the face, okay, that’s enough.

That night, after wine, and bourbon, and three pills, she took a stick of purple lipstick and wrote ‘Happy Birthday!’ on the speckled shell. When she put her hand to the egg, it was warm. Was comforting somehow. Whatever had abandoned the egg, had given her a gift.

Those were lonely days.

In the morning she drove her diesel into town to get the mail. In the P.O. box was a very serious and official pink letter telling her that her unemployment insurance was cut off. Just a few days prior she’d been denied a disability claim, as if proclaiming, you are not all the way unwell, oh well. Michelle bought a newspaper and searched the jobs section. She kicked a metal pole and hurt her foot, and cursed. Then she crossed the street, limping, and asked for work, again, at the diner, and the bait and tackle shop, the Food Universe. Nothing. So she gave in, dug into her tight jeans and pulled the quarters out, and used the payphone at the gas station, calling home to the farm. She left a message on the answering machine. “Oh hey. It’s Michelle. I’ll try you guys again soon. I’m doing fine up here. Don’t worry about me. Maybe I’ll come see you soon? I said I never would. I’m such an asshole. Maybe, I’ll come by day after tomorrow? No reason. Would just be nice to see you. Okay, see you then. This is Michelle.”

When she got back from town, the table had collapsed. The egg, now quadrupled in size, was still wobbling on the kitchen floor. It’d grown while no one looked. Her ‘Happy Birthday!’ scrawl was distorted into something else.

The egg shook, and she flinched, falling against the counter, and creating a small avalanche of dirty plates and cups. She sucked her breath in, and decided she was going to change her life. Step one was to get the egg out of the house before it got too big to fit out the front door, and whatever was inside it, made her house its house.

Grunting, and heaving, she rolled the egg into the bed of her pickup truck. And then on the porch she smoked a cigarette, just watching it. There was a chill to the air, so she pulled a sweater over her dress, and watched dusk settle over the valley. For good measure, and for what it was worth, she took a blanket from the closet and placed it over the egg in the bed of the pickup.

In the morning, frost had covered everything. She pulled the blanket back, and placed her hand on the egg. It was even larger now. The size of her. Cool to the touch. She put her ear to it and she heard a coo. She covered it with the blanket again. The sun was warming everything up. The frost disappeared. She drove south. Gravel roads led back into her unhappy past. The pines shrunk into sleeping fields. She eased onto the interstate. In the rearview she saw the egg, jammed tight in the truck bed, unable to roll; she liked that. She didn’t want anything bad to happen to it. She took the exit. Barns. Silos. She sped up, and didn’t look at her high school on the edge of it all. That’s where things had been good, then great, then very bad; senior year punctuated with a breakdown. An attempt to take her own life! She woke up sewed back up, and, ah, here take these pills forever. She knew this was a speed trap. And look, there was the cop. But she was going slow enough. The same billboards. The same dogs running along the edge of the fence line, arf arf arf. Suddenly, she blinked and was all the way home. Her childhood ranch, buttercup yellow. Dad’s helicopter sitting there a couple hundred feet from the weeping willow. Mom’s nothing sitting nowhere over there by the nada and the zilch and the never mind. But flowers still in the window boxes. Fox glove. Lamb’s ear. Mom liked flowers.

At their table, Dad was all denim, as always. After the Air Force, he’d really dug into the whole working the land thing. Michelle guessed he was just all the way tired with the sky, had done enough in it. Mom had new lines on her face, a lifetime of grimacing. She was already shaking her head at Michelle and Michelle hadn’t even said a word. They were hard people who believed they knew what right and wrong was.

“How’s work?” Dad asked.

“There was a downsize,” she said.

“Lost your fancy desk job, eh?” Mom said.

“Yeah, lost my fancy desk job.”

Mom laughed, “Everybody wants a soft job. Everybody.”

“You were right,” Michelle said. “I never should have gone to college. What a dummy.”

“You said that, not me,” Mom said.

Dad added, “Michelle, don’t get cross. You understand how it is. Here we are expecting you to pay us back a little of the money you borrowed, and we’re finding out—”

“Actually, I was going to ask to borrow some more.”

Mom shook her head no. Dad said, “You’re not a little kid anymore. You’re going to have to face your responsibilities. More help, just won’t help.”

“I am sorry to hear about your job, though,” Mom said.

“It’s okay,” Michelle said, “I’ve been real busy.”

“Job search?” Mom asked.

“Little of that. But, wow, no, not exactly.” Michelle couldn’t stop laughing.

Dad set his fork down, stared through her. There was always the looming tension—would their daughter crack up again, go back in the facility.

“See, I found an egg,” Michelle said in defense, “I’ve been taking care of it. Boy does it ever take up a ton of my time.”

“Taking care of an egg … okay.”

“Pass the butter,” Mom said. Dad slugged back his milk.

The dalmatian whined under the table. She dropped a handful of raw broccoli. And the dog looked at it, and left in anger. And she laughed some more. It was so funny how she could make no one happy.

After apple pie, there was a small explosion. Truck tires had burst. The axels given out. The egg was so big now the truck bed had buckled out on both sides under the strain of it.

“Nice egg,” Dad said. “That was a good truck.”

“Junk now,” Mom said.

As it turned out, Mom and Dad were going on a three day train ride through the countryside. They had a private cabin and it was supposedly a very romantic getaway. Michelle drove them, in their car, to the train station in the rain. Mom didn’t like to leave the ground, and would not fly under any circumstance. Michelle would watch the house while they were gone, since she was already there, stranded there, really. Dad would help her figure something out, he promised, clutching her, hugging her, whispering, “I’m sorry it’s so hard, baby.”

Alone again in their house, Michelle thawed every steak from the chest freezer, left them on the counter, consumed none.

At dawn, as if the rays of the sun were an alarm clock, the shell began to shake—the shell started to crack.

The racket woke her up. She dressed and rushed down to the porch just as the beak burst through the shell. Feeling nothing, she watched the bird, roughly her height, wiggle free, chirping blindly.

The sun came up.

Birthday was born full-feathered, never really a chick. Her eyes changed from milk to clear all-seeing jade in only a day. Michelle fed her canisters of oatmeal, fish food, rice. Her wings, rapidly spreading thirty five-feet, wouldn’t work yet, but she flapped them in the dust underneath the clothesline, sending the bed sheets sailing. Michelle regretted the wasted steaks.

She drove her parents’ car into town, visiting the butcher, coming home with a dead hog in the trunk of the car, as a gift. But when she pulled into the driveway, Birthday was halfway through consuming the dalmatian. The dog’s legs hung from the eagle’s beak. She threw her head back, sucked the rest of the dog down.

The following day, Birthday began to fly.

A great shadow circled above the farm. Children walking through town shrunk in fear. Garbage cans were pulled into the heavens, emptied aluminum drums crashed down two miles away. Every stray animal, injured or slow, vanished overnight.

She was awoken by shrieking in the moonlight.

Birthday was perched on the barn. She walked outside and said, “Birthday, do you remember me? I am your mother.”

Her long wing reached down and Michelle took hold of a feather. Suddenly they were ascending, the clouds nearing, the dark fields below—a mile, and then another mile, below. She took a deep breath and the algid air was remarkably thin.

“Where to?”

Her eagle cooed.

At first light, they flew over the snow-capped mountains. At lunch, they followed the twisted rivers until they broke over sharp falls. By dinner, the frantic mess of the silver city was spilling below. She noticed a train pulling into the station, and realized she’d forgotten her parents at the station.

“Shit! We’ve got to land.”

Birthday responded, gliding towards the waiting platform. They came in hot, talons out, catching the metal railing. The train conductor yanked wildly on the brake. Over the P.A. system, he yelled, “Dragon!”

Michelle’s father opened his window, “Michelle! What are you doing?”

“I’m here to pick you up.”

“Oh god,” Mom said in disgust. “Let me guess, that’s the contents of your beloved egg?”

Michelle opened her mouth to speak, but before she could, Birthday lunged against the train and pulled mom out, crunching down on her head.

On they flew. Onward and onward. She washed the blood and mud and ash off Birthday with a hose. They were in a motel parking lot, just outside Cheyenne. The clerk was peeking out the window, his head just below the neon sign reading No Vacancy, and she pleaded, “We just need a minute, please don’t—” The curtains closed and she knew he was on the phone. No one really wants to help you in this life. When Michelle heard police sirens, both she and Birthday knew there would be no rest for them, no peace, they knew to leave society. They slept on a higher cliff, overlooking an eternity of rocky debris; the debris changing color through the day, pink with the dawn, and yellowing in the midmorning, and then in the white light of midday, the debris looked like chalk broke off, fallen here; as the day ended, the trash, the debris, the waste, took on a purple hue as night slipped over everything like an uncontrollable power. It was boring and Michelle was talking to Birthday like the bird was her therapist. She felt overcome by a numbness she pitied other animals couldn’t feel, couldn’t appreciate. They flew on, directionless because much of the world looks roughly the same—beautiful stuff that you get used to in just five short minutes of admiring it.

She didn’t guide Birthday, and Birthday seemed to have no plan, either. The universe showed its random, chaotic face. But then Michelle broke out of her trance staring into the endless nothing of rolling clouds, down below, hundreds of feet was a twisting road snaking through the mountain. A man on a red motorcycle, the patch on the back of the jacket a golden viper; the helmet of the rider unmistakably identified the person. Birthday swooped down. The man on the motorcycle must have felt like a mouse. He looked back over his shoulder and saw the giant eagle, and he must have screamed—he lost control of the motorcycle and off the edge of the mountain he went, riding it down like Evel Knievel. For over a hundred feet the rider and the bike fell, fell, fell like a stone. Just before they struck a crag of steely granite, Birthday caught the motorcycle in one claw, and the rider in the other. They landed on the floor of the canyon, a wind ripping through the mountain pass.

Michelle jumped off the bird’s back and walked to the rider, who was lying flat on his back. Shocked. Arms out in an X. His boots were trembling as his legs shook. She kneeled down and looked at herself reflected in the mirrored face of the helmet’s visor. Her figure looked distorted and wild; that’s how she felt, so that was fine, was suiting. She flipped open the visor and looked at the man’s face. “Eric,” she said. He was quiet, but making a sound like he was choking on the words. “Michelle,” he finally croaked out, and looking up at Birthday, he rolled over and puked into the dust.

In a minute he was sitting up, and having yanked the helmet off his head, he was no longer breathing as hard. His eyes went from Michelle to Birthday and back, over and over again. No one was speaking. “What is this?” Eric said.

“What’s what?” She pointed at Birthday, big as a house, looming over her shoulder. “This is my friend. She’s cool.” Michelle turned and rubbed Birthday’s feathers. She said, “You’re so cool, Birthday, aren’t you? You aren’t going to eat Eric, you’re so cool.”

Birthday lunged forward and snapped her beak on the rear tire of the motorcycle and then she soared off into the valley, leaving Michelle and Eric some privacy to talk.

“What is this, some kid of revenge?” “This wasn’t even my idea,” Michelle said. “I’m just along for the ride.”

“Where did you find it … the bird.”

“She found me.”

“Well that’s nice. I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“That we didn’t work out. I regret how I acted.”

“It didn’t work out, big deal. You hurt me though. You disappeared. You ditched me. It worked out fine, though,” Michelle said.

“Do you want to talk about things?”

“We’re talking. And no.”

“I didn’t mean to abandon you.”

“You’re just worried you’re gonna get eaten.”

“I didn’t mean to …” he stammered.

“Ah, everything is beyond everyone’s control. What a fun existence. Oh my God …” Michelle turned to look, Birthday was flying back into the mountain pass. She barely fit now, coming in for a rough landing, shrieking in Eric’s face.

“Birthday!” Michelle yelled, trying to hold back her laughter.

The motorcycle was gone. The motorcycle was never seen again. When he asked about the motorcycle, she said, “I think Birthday is fucking with you.”

Night fell. Michelle and Eric climbed back on Birthday and they flew over the darkened canyons. And they slept as Birthday flew them farther through the night. When Michelle opened her eyes, the sun was just coming up over the desert. Eric said, “Can you take me back to where I was?”

She said, “I think you’re coming along.”

“I don’t want to come along.”

Michelle slapped Birthday’s neck, and she glided down to the desert floor. Death Valley some people call it. Eric jumped off and stumbled away from them. He said, “Well, it was good seeing you again, Mellissa!”

“My name is Michelle.”

“It was so good seeing you, Michelle.”

He walked away.

She yelled, “You’ll die here! Come with me!”

He said, “It was good seeing you again, Michelle!”

Birthday beat her wings, sand blasted Eric. She took to the sky. Dawn came quicker, just the two of them.

After that Birthday flew north, towards the mountains at the tippy top of America. She ripped goats from the peaks, and Michelle cooked them at the fire, saying, “Guess I’m starving enough to no longer be a vegetarian.”

Michelle felt like one often does in exodus. Birthday wrapped her in her wings and they slept, nestled at the edge of a cave. A bear moaned down below, and it sounded like breakfast.

She called Dad from a ski slope pay phone.

“Where are you, girl?”

“I just touch-downed out of the clouds to tell you, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” he said. “You can’t really be sorry, can you? I don’t hear it in your voice. I don’t hear anything in your voice. I just hear me me me me me me me.”

“You’re drunk, I can tell.”

“So? So I’m drunk? I’m grieving the loss of two women I used to love. I’m on my way, you know. To get you,” he said. “Stay where you are.”

“Please just let me be. Please. Let us be. It’s for your own good.”

“No chance.”

The line went dead.

Their new life at the top of the world. Their new life swinging into tropical jungles. Life on Birthday’s back, talons extended, extracting sleeping lions from the swaying grass. In the tallest tree, they made a nest. The wavering heat of the day. The sky forever. Michelle threw her furs into the river, carried a rhino tusk, sweat every second. Her hair was one tangled dreadlock that she fantasized about shaving down to the scalp. She longed for paperback books and music other than Birthday’s shrieks. Or she longed to forget the human language entirely and revert back into prehistory.

When the helicopter came across the jungle, it was obvious, yet she said, wishfully, “That’s not for us, Birthday. They’re not coming for us.”

“Michelle!” her father shouted through the speakers. It was his helicopter. She began to hyperventilate. Birthday’s eyes met her own and she felt strong again—could breathe. She waved her father off. “Go away! Leave us alone!” She watched him through the glass, he put the microphone to his mouth and spoke, his amplified voice sounding like a monster, torn to shreds. “Give up!” She flipped him off. Machine gun fire pierced the jungle air, tut tut tut tut tut. A rattle of doom. Michelle ducked down and screamed; tut tut tut tut tut, bullets ripping into the giant eagle, who didn’t seem to notice, or care—tut tut tut tut tut.

The nose of the whirly bird dipped. Birthday beat her wings. The machine gun fire paused. Michelle though, Good, you’ve figured out it’s useless. A missile soared towards them. For a second, Michelle wondered what Hell would feel like when it kissed her. But as the missile got closer, Birthday opened her beak and swallowed it. Nothing happened. No ill effect. The helicopter wobbled in the sky, and then attempted to bank out of the way in retreat. But it was too late, Birthday was already in pursuit of her easy prey, calling out an attack cry. Wings whipping. Talons out.

Bud Smith is the author of Teenager (Tyrant Books, 2019), Double Bird (Maudlin House, 2018), WORK (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017), Dust Bunny City (Disorder Press, 2017), Calm Face (House of Vlad, 2016), among others. He works heavy construction building and destroying chemical plants, refineries, and generating stations. He’s on Twitter @bud_smith