Palo Alto Weekly 16th Annual Short Story Contest
2nd Place - Young Adults 15-17 year olds

Bird

by Laurel Lathrop


I saw the dead bird when I was walking in the woods one morning. At first it was just a patch of light brown against the darker path, but then I saw the black clawed feet and stopped cold. It was a bird, with black shining eyes, a yellow beak and those claws. I couldn’t move for a few moments; then seeing the soft feathers I felt like brushing my finger down its side. But that would mean getting close to those staring eyes and open beak and curled little claws. And, against my will, I remembered lectures about bird-borne diseases. So I started my legs moving and walked around it, and then there was someone else.

A girl stood on the path, wearing a deep-red silky dress, long reddish curly hair falling over her shoulders and down her back. She was staring at the bird too, so I couldn’t see her face. She smelled like crushed mint leaves. I was surprised to see anyone there, especially someone who I hadn’t heard coming, so I stood watching her until she looked up at me.

"Sad, isn’t it?" she asked. I nodded. She had gray-green eyes with pale eyelashes. Her face was fair, with freckles on her nose and light purple shadows under her eyes.

"I wonder what happened," I said.

"I don’t know," she said. "Doesn’t look like an animal killed it. Maybe it just fell."

The thought made me shiver: a bird falling out of the sky, dropping like a stone through the trees and onto the forest floor.

"What’s your name?" I asked, looking away from the bird.

"Lucy."

"I’m Nora," I said, smiling. "So why are you in the woods?"

"I couldn’t sleep," Lucy said. I nodded sagely. She smiled a little as she asked, "Why are you in the woods?"

I shrugged. "Just wanted to get out of the house."

She nodded. "Want to walk with me?"

"Sure," I said. "Where are you going?"

"Nowhere, really. So it makes sense to go together."

"Definitely."

I glanced again at the dead bird as we started walking, but Lucy didn’t look back. We walked in silence for a few minutes, and I looked around. I had never been on this path before. I didn’t walk in the woods often, and when I did I stayed on the main trail that made a loop, grazing the shore of the lake.
After a while I asked Lucy, "Do you live near here? I’ve never seen you before."

She looked straight ahead as she answered, "Yeah, I live nearby. My parents own a resort by the lake, renting boats and stuff. I hate the lake, though. I walk out here whenever I can." She glanced at me. "Where do you live? I haven’t seen you either."

"I live a few hours away, but we have a summer house here, for vacations."

We kept walking through the forest. Occasional sunbeams broke through the leaves and made yellow splotches on the path. Whenever Lucy walked through a beam it caught the wispy curls around her face and made them bright as flame. She walked softly, her red dress rippling around her ankles. On anyone else I thought the dress would look old-fashioned, silly, but Lucy somehow made it appropriate.

"So you live by the lake?" I asked. She stopped and turned, meeting my gaze with her gray-green eyes.

"Yeah. All my life. I’ve never been away from here."

"Do you ever want to get away?" Stupid question.

.She stared at me. "Yeah." She started walking again.

I was getting uncomfortable. "Lucy?" She turned. "Where are we going?"

For a moment she softened. "You’ll see when we get there." I felt a little better as we kept walking. After a while the path started getting steeper; each step took effort and I began breathing hard. I was wearing a loose t-shirt and shorts, but even these started feeling uncomfortable.

Lucy was now several steps ahead of me. She looked back every once in a while as if to see how I was doing. I was about to ask her how much farther we had to go when the path straightened out and I saw a break in the trees ahead. Lucy’s pace quickened and she broke through the trees far ahead of me, so I watched as she stepped out into the sunlight. Her dress and hair flared bright red as the sun hit her and I thought she looked like something from a movie. I made it to the end of the path, and stepped between the last trees.

We were on a rocky outcropping, gray stone flecked with mica that glittered in the sunlight. The cliff thrust out over the woods, then dropped about twenty feet back down into the trees. Everything below us was green forest, swaying in the breeze. I could see the lake off to the left, a puddle of molten silver, shining so brightly it hurt my eyes. The sky was classic blue with a few perfect clouds. I stood there blinking in the sudden sunlight. Then I saw Lucy.

She was sitting, legs tucked under her, near the edge of the rock. Her hands were in her lap and the breeze ruffled her hair. Her face was turned toward the sun, eyes closed. She looked like a princess from a fairy tale. She was beautiful.

Eyes still closed, she said, "I love the sun on my face."

I went over, sat near her and turned my face to the sun too. My head felt awkward flopping back on my neck and the sun turned the inside of my eyelids red, making me feel like I was going blind. I brought my head back down and opened my eyes, and Lucy was looking at me. Up close, she looked different from how she had seemed in the forest.

"It was so cold in the woods," she said, shuddering. "It’s much nicer out here."

I nodded. "It’s nice. Why didn’t you tell me we were coming here? You said you weren’t going anywhere."

"This isn’t anywhere important. It’s just a trail I like." She closed her eyes again and sighed. "I’m so tired…"

I noticed the lavender pools under her eyes.

"Why are you tired?" I asked.

"I told you, I couldn’t sleep."

"Why were you sleeping in the day?"

She opened her eyes and looked at me, expressionless. I felt like a child, with endless silly questions. "Sorry," I muttered.

"I used to sleepwalk at night," she said suddenly. "I would wake up in the middle of the night and I would be in the kitchen or on our porch. Once I was on the dock, and I was still walking. If I hadn’t woken up I would have gone into the lake. I told my parents we needed to lock the doors at night, but they didn’t believe me. I started locking my bedroom door, but they found out and took the lock off. Then I got scared and stopped sleeping at night. I read, did homework, sometimes took walks. During the school year I slept in the afternoons; in the summer, I slept during the day. But today I couldn’t."
For a moment I sat there, not sure whether to believe her or not. She was tired, I could tell that, but in the sunlight Lucy didn’t seem like someone who would sleepwalk.
"When did this start?" I asked finally.

"Five months ago," she said, looking right at me as if daring me to doubt her. "One night I woke up and I was in the hallway. A week later I woke up in the kitchen. And so on. I woke up on the dock in April. That’s when I stopped sleeping at night."

"How’d you keep your parents from finding out you were sleeping all afternoon?"

"I said I was doing my homework."

"Your parents never came into your room for three months?"

"That’s right. They don’t like me very much, it’s easy to ignore me."

"I’m sure your parents like you."

"Not enough to trust me!" she said with sudden anger. "They wouldn’t let me lock my door! I was terrified I’d drown myself some night while I was sleepwalking, and they thought I was making it up or dreaming or something. How could they think that?"

I watched her, pale cheeks suddenly flushed, eyes bright. Somehow her anger distanced me from her. She was after all, just a girl who liked to wear old-fashioned dresses and wander in the woods. Maybe she had insomnia, but that didn’t mean she sleepwalked, had almost walked off the dock but conveniently woke up. It didn’t mean anything about her parents either, though she might not get along with them. I watched her, felt sorry for her, but I did not believe her.

She saw this somehow because her face whitened. She said quietly, "I don’t know why I told you. You don’t believe me. You don’t know what it’s like."

She turned away from me, staring off over the forest. Her hands played with a section of her dress, wrinkling and smoothing it between her fingers. Her skirt and hair rippled in the breeze.

I sighed and shifted position, wondering if I should go. There was no reason for me to be there. The thought hit me that she might fall asleep; she seemed tired enough, and the sun was soporific. That would give me a chance to leave. I didn’t like the thought of Lucy waking up alone, but she had no right to expect me to stay with her. I wanted to stay a little while longer, though. It was beautiful on the cliff—the blue sky, the breeze, and the green forest beneath the glittering rock. She would fall asleep soon and then I could leave.

I rested my cheek on my knees, feeling the sun on my face, and looked out at the lake. It was so bright I could only see it with my eyes half-closed. I had walked by the lake on the trail and I couldn’t imagine being afraid of it, as Lucy seemed to be. But I had always seen it in the daytime. At night it would be different… I closed my eyes and pictured it.

The lake at night, stars in the black water, waves lapping against the dock. The trees stood dark all around, whispering in the wind that wrinkled the surface of the lake. I was fascinated by the water, deep and dark. Then I was being pulled toward it, faster and faster until suddenly I was underwater, the thick stillness surrounding me. I was blind, darkness pressing against my wide-open eyes, and then suddenly I saw something worse than blindness. Below me, so deep that it must have been on the bottom of the lake, I glimpsed a piece of red silky fabric, waving slowly and gently. The water was crushing me, bearing me toward the bottom and I opened my mouth to scream and then my head jerked up off my knees and my eyes were wide in the bright sunlight. I was gasping and the breeze cradled my damp face. Slowly I stretched out on my stomach and looked over at Lucy.

She was asleep, curled up with her arms beneath her head, legs slightly uncovered by her fluttering dress. Her face was calm, mouth slightly open, eyelashes pale against her flushed cheeks. Her eyes were still shadowed with purple. Her hair flowed over her arms and shoulders in tangled red curls. She looked helpless; for the first time I could picture her afraid. I watched her shoulders rise and fall. Then I propped myself up on an elbow, reached out and brushed a curl away from her face. Her hair was soft.

I lay back down against the sun-warmed rock. I watched her. She never moved. I watched her, every slow breath she took, until she woke up.