Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
Teen Honorable Mention

To Save a Pigeon

by Cayden Gu

Author Bio

Cayden Gu is a freshman at Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto. He loves reading, especially historical books, and he writes (when he can) to materialize his random ideas into something more concrete and to help himself slow down and reflect on his own life. Outside of reading and writing, he enjoys playing basketball and fantasy football in addition to learning about history, current events, and aviation.

Inspiration

Honestly, I just wanted to write a story about pigeons being on the brink of extinction because I thought it could never happen. Pigeons flock in cities all across the world and in a way define a city, so I thought that a world without pigeons would be a weird and interesting concept to bring to life. From there, I just tried to make the story sound as realistic as possible by adding some other future potential effects of climate change and characters to complement the pigeons.

Outside the window of my cramped working space, the rainwater fills the streets, reaching the bottoms of the broken windows of the small shops, where vendors sell what they can: dried seaweed, canned tomatoes, bags of dried beans, refurbished radios, and survival equipment. Paint fading from the previously vibrantly colored buildings makes the makeshift town look like a child's coloring project. From the apartments that stand atop each of the skinny, cramped shops, a few people lean on their precarious balconies looking down, likely thinking "What next?" Like the rest of us, they are probably considering where to go and whether they'll be alive tomorrow. Below, the stench of the water is of a mixture of sewage, rotting who-knows-what, and petrichor. Makeshift wires for electricity and communication extend over the street like a tangled web, some low, some high. Beyond the city are the decaying, skeletal remnants of Las Vegas, and beyond that, the desert mountains.

I amble back into my room. As an environmentalist, I enjoy several privileges (relative to the camp), such as my own 400 ft2 room on the third floor filled with research equipment. Most of the room contains necessities for the pigeons in my care. Only one corner occupies my belongings: a cot, a dying computer that contains a word processor where I write this journal, a radio, several fading pictures of my family, a topographic map of Nevada, a glowstick, clothes, a first-aid kit, and my books and notes about pigeons. Half of the room used to be filled with pigeon food, but that was months ago. Now, their food only takes up a mere sack in the corner, while their cage takes up another five feet.

In the cage, Mike, the spotted-brown rock pigeon prunes his feathers. Junior, the white fantail pigeon, stands as straight as a tree looking outside, while Fluffy, the previously overfed homing pigeon, sleeps in the corner. With the lights having gone out several weeks ago, the only light source is my perpetual glow stick. But I'm running out of sugar to keep it going.

Since February, my travelling companion Patrick, who I met on the outskirts of Yosemite, and I have called this ramshackle place home. Part of the first wave of people to reach this Western Nevada town, we were among the many refugees from California. The camp has been overflowing with people, so many have to either keep going or set up tents in the outskirts of the camp. Throughout the day, smoke billows near the southern fence where more than three dozen wood-fired grills work day and night baking bread to feed the hordes of hungry people. At night, people huddle together in the dark for warmth, as only a lucky few have blankets.

But last night, the torrential rain began flooding the camp, drowning several as they tried to escape. The screams woke up the pigeons, who then woke me up. When daylight broke, I could see the long procession of people leaving the camp through the flooded streets on makeshift boats and heading up Mount Charleston.

With the situation growing gravely worse, I have to make a decision. I am on the third floor and safe for the time being, but I have to act. I have to do something for the pigeons and myself. I know that if I were to leave and head for the mountains, I may survive, but the pigeons would certainly freeze to death at high altitudes of Mt. Charleston, if I could even manage to carry their cages up the mountain. With the current scarcity of food, somebody would certainly find the pigeons to be a delicious snack. If I were to set them free, there would be nowhere for them to go and no food for them to eat. If we stay, within a few more weeks, our supplies would run out and no one will have enough resources to share with us. That may be our best shot at survival, but even if we survive until then, what will we do?

I hear a knock on my door and find my neighbor Patrick, who lives two floors above me, standing in my doorway. He's a tall, scraggly man in his fifties. An older Indiana Jones. He's wearing cargo pants, mud boots, and a holey t-shirt. His long grey beard has grown bushier, and his usually long fingernails are neatly trimmed for the first time in months. His bags are packed and stacked in neat piles in the hallway outside. Without asking, he barges into my room, scans the space, and begins moving my water filtration system and first aid kit into an empty duffel bag.

"What're you doing?" I ask. The room darkens as the clouds block out the sun, and my glow stick flickers. I try grabbing his shirt and pulling him away, but he wriggles out of my grip.

"Packing. We've got to leave." He tosses my water bottle into the bag and scurries around the room looking for the rest of my essentials. A flash of lightning suddenly illuminates the room for a brief second.

"I'm not leaving." I stand in front of my food shelf. I don't want Patrick to take my food too. Thunder bellows outside, and the windows rattle.

"You're not gonna wait this storm out, are you?" His eyes worry, and he points out towards the dark clouds in the distance.

"I mean, I kinda have to. Some people still care about these pigeons." I watch him attempt to stuff all my belongings into that tiny container. I notice an inflatable raft sitting in the hallway and wonder if he really thinks he's going to drag everything up Mount Charleston in that.

"Look, you can't. Those pigeons aren't worth your life, for Christ's sake. Haven't you ever chased those pesky pigeons who were stealing your food when you were a kid? They're stupid birds that are only good for BB gun target practice. Besides, this storm's gonna kill you for sure if you stick around." His eyes grow wider and he pulls out and refolds a few items before stuffing them back in.

"Why are you being so crazy? The pigeons need me. And what about your family? What if they finally make it here?"

At the mention of his family, Patrick changes. His demeanor shifts from frantic to hunched over like a sad puppy. I almost feel bad for mentioning them. It's like speaking of the dead.

"If my family ever comes, they'll find my note that I've already left. We have to look out for ourselves." He continues packing, albeit he moves slower than before.

"The problem is...the world isn't just about you and me. It's not about every-man-for-himself," I retort.

He shrugs and resumes packing. I realize how old he looks, old enough to be my dad.

"We're not having that argument again. And besides, it's not like I'm completely all for myself. Remember, we helped each other get here. Who helped you carry those damn birds across the desert? Who gave you the last of his antibiotics when you were burning with fever last month?" Patrick counters, walking past me to pack my food into the bag.

I look at the pigeons and listen to the sound of the rain. It pounds on the window like a continuous snare drum roll. My neighbor goes back to stuffing my essential belongings into the bag, and I realize that the only reason I'm still alive is because of him.

"Stop packing," I tell Patrick, "I can't leave."

Patrick stops packing and sighs loudly. He glances down at the bag where almost everything has been packed and then looks back at me.

"What do you mean, you can't? Of course you can."

"If I can't save these pigeons, then all my work for these past years is for nothing."

"Look, I get you're a dedicated environmentalist and all that, but if you die, the pigeons are still screwed. You can still save yourself. We just gotta get up that mountain to the supply camp. Besides, I'm not unpacking everything I just packed." He points at the bag filled to the brim. It reminds me of the good ol days when I packed at the last minute to go on vacations.

"Alright fine, I'll stay here and die then. At least I served my purpose."

"You're a lunatic. That makes no sense. Trust me, this once."

"But how can I go up that mountain knowing that I'm a failure? Wouldn't that just defeat my life's purpose? I can't do it. I spent all those years in college, all that research, for what?"

"I hate to break it to you, but the world ain't perfect and you're going to fail. People fail. We failed ourselves and the planet. Maybe in the future you can make yourself another purpose, but if you stay right now, you wouldn't even have that," my neighbor responds all while finishing up stuffing all my belongings into the bag.

With the streets acting as the walls of a rushing river, the camp will soon be flooded. The main street is already too violent to place a raft in and jump on, but there's still the back alley that remains as a peaceful river. If we don't leave now, that will also turn into a torrent.

Patrick's statement has some truth in it. I could stay, and although I will probably die, I won't feel too sorry for myself. On the other hand, if I leave with Patrick, maybe I have a greater purpose in life than protecting the pigeons.

"Alright, I'll let the birds go and we'll go," I finally say seeing that leaving would be the best option.

"Great, that took forever. Now let's go before you change your mind again," my neighbor says slightly annoyed by how long it took to convince me.

I open the pigeon's cage and let them walk out. I place the last of their food in big open containers for them to eat, but also open the windows in case they want to leave. My neighbor, waiting impatiently at the door for me to finish, throws me my bag of my stuff, and we head downstairs. After dumping our stuff into the little lifeboat, we jump on and my neighbor starts rowing with oars made out of two analog clocks and a broom handle. I watch as my home for the past few months fades out of view, hoping that the pigeons will somehow manage to survive on their own, at least until I can come back here when the floodwaters recede.

Five miles later, we reach the base of the mountain where the lifeboat no longer serves a purpose. From here, it's a two-day trek on rough terrain up the mountain carrying our supplies up with us. All the way to the top, a long train of people slowly hike their way up.

At the end of the second day, with the gate of the camp in sight, I hear a series of faint cooings in the distance. In the dark, it's difficult to make out anything other than some campfires of people settling down for the night.

"Something wrong?" my neighbor asks. With my frail arms, he's been carrying almost double the load of others. I can tell from his panting and his sweat that he's exhausted, but he refuses to stop in hopes that we can get a warm place to stay for the night.

"No, I just thought I heard something," I say, turning back to the trail. I wonder if my exhaustion has begun playing mind games on me.

It's warmer than I thought it would be at the top, making the thick raincoat I brought just a heavier burden on myself. Overhead, I hear the undeniable flapping of wings. "It must be the crows that live in the camp. I've heard that they've been able to survive off corpses for some time now," my neighbor tells me without even glancing up.

 

The flapping continues, even when we pass through the gates of the camp at the top of the mountain, and I keep staring up, wondering why those birds won't leave. Did they think that Patrick and I were about to die and we would be their dinner?

Suddenly, three birds come flying straight down at my head. My first reaction is to duck and save my head, but when I look up, I find the three pigeons flying around my head. Mike lands on my shoulder, Junior lands on my arm, and Fluffy lands on my head.

"Well I'll be damned!" Patrick exclaimes, watching the pigeons in amazement, "I thought they were doomed the moment you let them out!"

Breathing a sigh of relief, I stroke each one on the head. If they had decided to come find me, I will still protect them and save the pigeons. At the camp, I locate the WWF tent where several other environmentalists work to save their assigned species. I use their radio to call WWF headquarters, who promise a large shipment of pigeon food and supplies next week. After receiving a room from the camp directors, I move in and unpack my belongings and leave the pigeons in a battered cage given to me by a colleague who failed to save a species of dove. I'm exhausted from the long day and immediately pass out.

The next morning, with the sun passing through the loose wood boards that make up my cabin, I'm forced to get up. I sit up on my little mat on the dusty, creaky floor. At least it's better than sleeping in a place on the verge of being flooded. When my eyes finally adjust to the lighting, I notice a small round object in the corner of the pigeon's cage. I feel as if I've seen that object before, and in a moment of enlightenment, scramble to get my book on pigeons. After dumping out all my belongings from the box and finding the book in the pile on the ground, I flip open to page 47 where I find a diagram of a pigeon egg. Comparing the diagram to the round object, I realize that the round object really is an egg. For months if not years, I went without seeing a pigeon egg, and I had almost forgotten what they looked like. If that egg hatches and the pigeons lay more eggs, then maybe the species could revive itself. Maybe there's hope for the pigeons after all.