Home to Roost
Four minutes before the alarm, and Trina was already awake, eyes open. Even in the dim light of pre-dawn she could trace the intricate lines of the cracked plaster on the ceiling. Some mornings, the lines coalesced into starbursts; other days, they reminded her of a detailed pirate’s map, the marked footsteps meandering here and there.
She threw back the covers and remembered—as she had every morning for the last three months. Any pirate treasure would stay buried for now. Amber, the 9-year-old lump in the bed, face buried in her pillow, was the daily reminder that the contours of her world had changed.
Pulling on leggings and an old T-shirt, Trina tiptoed out of the bedroom, down the stairs and out into the steamy July morning. Her niece could stay asleep. Trina hadn’t wanted to be a parent or a fill-in parent, but late on a chilly spring afternoon, sun glare masked the tractor trailer on the bend and her sister, Leigh, pulled out from a side road when she should have waited. For the first month afterward, Amber spoke gibberish, panicking Trina and puzzling the school counselor. And just as suddenly, the girl slipped back into normal speech, announcing at dinner one night, “Can we raise chickens?”
What could Trina say but yes? She knew Leigh would have expected no less of her.
So Trina was now also a farmer of sorts, with five hens in her rural back yard. She opened the coop door and emptied pellets into the feeder. Clucking softly, the Rhode Island reds clustered around her, already pecking at the food. Hallie, Hannah, Harriet, Hazel and Heidi—Amber had named the chicks the day they’d brought them home.
“How can I tell them apart?” Trina had protested.
“You will,” Amber said. “When they grow up.” She had chewed on a strand of hair, pondering. “I think.”
And so they had a pact, she and Amber. Trina would feed and water the flock and tend to the coop, and her niece would check for eggs, waiting for the first one to be laid.
There was no rooster—maybe later, they agreed.
After the round of pellets, Trina emptied and refilled the coop’s water receptacle. She checked that the mesh over the outdoor pen was secure, protection against the neighborhood red tail hawk.
“Any eggs yet?” Amber called from the back porch steps. She was still in her pajamas.
Trina shrugged. “I didn’t check.”
“I’ll do it,” her niece said, sprinting barefoot until she stood next to Trina. “Maybe today’s the day.” She was grinning with excitement.
Amber disappeared into the coop’s interior and was gone several long minutes. When she finally re-emerged, Trina was startled to see her eyes brimming with tears.
“What is it?” Trina said.
Amber held up both hands to her, palms out. There was not one egg, but two.
“At last!” Trina smiled in relief. Who needed buried treasure? “They are the first of many, I’ll bet.”
Amber, still somber, said softly, “The hens wanted to send a message from Mommy and Daddy, so they made two first eggs instead of just one.”
Trina gently hugged her niece. “I miss them, too.”
The garrison commander had barely closed his eyes, ready for the escape that sleep would grant him, when the duty officer shook his shoulder. Newbolt was new but competent, so his lapse of protocol—waking him instead of dealing with the crisis on his own—surprised the commander. The fear in Newbolt’s eyes was genuine, though.
“Another checkpoint problem?” For more than two months, the Runeheads had been slipping past the guards, somehow blending in with the regulars on the route into Locke Town. The garrison’s whole purpose was to monitor the traffic in and out of the city, to stop the Runeheads from gaining a foothold there.
“No, sir.” Newbolt was nervous.
Mosby sat up in bed and reached for his tunic. “What then?” He dressed quickly but thoroughly, aware that the chill of this alien night would knife through him if he wasn’t prepared.
“It’s the blinking light, sir.”
Inwardly, Mosby groaned. It was difficult enough to keep the garrison fully staffed because of its remoteness from Earth-based settlements. Throw in a race that lacked humanoid features and resented the soldiers’ presence. Now he faced his latest challenge, dispelling rumors of the Runeheads’ telepathic control of energy. Three men in the last week had requested a transfer after reporting a flashing light that immobilized them.
“Show me.” He followed Newbolt out to the perimeter gate. The guard station was awash in floodlights, but the brightness stopped a few feet out and the terrain beyond was inky, empty and quiet. “Shut off the lights,” Mosby ordered. He and Newbolt stared into the sudden darkness for several minutes. With his hand on his stunner, he wondered if he could trust Newbolt. Perhaps the duty officer and the others who had seen the phenomenon were in the first stages of hallucination disorder. He would need to file a report, encourage them to seek treatment, and ask for additional staff while they were on sick leave.
“There,” Newbolt hissed.
Mosby scanned the blackness, hoping he would not see anything.
“There—do you see it?” Newbolt’s voice quavered. “What is it? It’s got to stop.” He disappeared into the night.
“Newbolt, wait.” Mosby listened for his footsteps but heard nothing. He moved to switch the floodlights back on, but above and to his right, a green light began blinking. It was small but insistent, and it was moving. “Newbolt?”
“In half a mile, turn right onto Oak Avenue,” GM said.
“No, no,” Tom T. cut in. “That’s incorrect. He’ll want to turn right on Elm.”
“Absolutely not,” GM countered. “Oak Avenue is the fastest way to get to the destination.”
“In one thousand feet, turn right on Elm Avenue,” Tom said.
“Never mind.” GM sighed. “The idiot missed the turn anyway. How many times does that make on this trip? Six?”
“I’m not sure he’s even listening,” Tom said. “Let me recalculate the next step.”
“Got it!” GM crowed. “Continue on this road for four miles.”
Tom stayed silent for a few moments. “Five miles, and then merge onto Route 492.”
“That route will put him there three minutes later than mine,” GM said.
“And there’s a gaper delay,” Waze piped up. “It will add thirteen minutes to the total travel time.”
“Know-it-all,” Tom said, then continued with a hint of smugness, “But he complains about you sending him on squirrely routes. Let’s go with GM’s suggestion of four miles.”
“We’re down to three miles,” GM said. “Continue on this road.”
“You already said that,” Tom said. “But I suppose you can’t be too careful. Knowing him, he’ll make the turn too early.”
“Or not at all—again,” GM said. “If he never pays attention, why bother activating all three of us?”
“In a quarter mile, turn left onto Ardor Lane,” Waze said.
“Where the hell did you come up with that?” GM said. “He’s not interested in the scenic route.”
“Ardor Lane,” Tom mused. “Isn’t that where Sabrina lives? We went there often enough.”
“Attention.” GM raised her volume slightly. “In one mile, turn right onto Church Street. The destination will be on your left.”
“Maybe he’s changed his mind,” Waze said. “What time is the wedding?”
“I think it’s twelve-thirty,” Tom said.
“And we’ll get him there with a half hour to spare,” GM said. “Nothing like cutting it close.”
“He’s making a U-turn,” Waze said. “Watch for slow traffic at the next intersection.”
“Don’t turn, don’t turn,” Tom shouted. “You’ll regret it.”
“Done,” Waze said. “Your new destination is Ardor Lane.” There was pride in his voice. “Sabrina, here we come!”
GM sniffed. “And I so wanted to see them throw the rice.”
Joe cradled the cockatiel in his hands, then extended one of the bird’s wings to trim the flight feathers. His flock of birds now numbered eight, and one pair had three eggs incubating. The birds shrieked and twittered around him as the morning sun though the skylights lit up the aviary.
“Easy there,” he said softly, gently turning the bird and trimming the other wing. The bird’s mate was preening on a nearby branch.
After releasing the cockatiel, he surveyed the aviary. Carey was coming by in twenty minutes, expecting a tour. Would she like it? It was important to him that she understand his passion. These birds were precious to him—they kept him sane. He walked with effort to the doorway and looked back one more time.
He had met Carey a month ago, when she sat next to him at a township meeting. He had come to make a statement about the pending municipal budget. She was there to see her friend’s grandson get a community award. They got to talking and discovered that they had both lost spouses. They both read voraciously, he about the Civil War and she about women’s history. And she loved birds. Joe had vowed to himself that no one would ever replaced Amelia, but he was drawn to Carey’s joie de vivre. She wasn’t pretentious, and she seemed genuinely interested in him.
Joe’s arthritic hip wouldn’t let him go birding with her, but she said she was intrigued by his cockatiels.
But now he was nervous. Twice he checked his reflection in the hall mirror, smoothing his thinning hair. When he saw her drive up, he felt as he had all those years ago, when he and Amelia were on their first date. Could love happen twice in one life?
“Joe, you look pale. Are feeling alright?” Carey wore a peach scoop-necked shirt and tan capris. She looked lovely.
“I’m fine, fine.” He ushered her in the door and accepted her gift of freshly baked bread.
“I thought we might have a slice or two after we look at the birds.” She looked around at the modest living room, and Joe was pleased to see her nod in approval.
The aviary was at the back of the house, in a room that had once been the den. He had built a screened foyer that allowed him to look into the aviary before entering it. Most guests got only that far—a chance to see the birds but not handle them. Joe took Carey into the room itself. When a bird landed on his shoulder, he transferred it to her hand. He pointed out the markings that made cockatiels unique. He told her about building his flock after Amelia’s death. He showed her the nest with the three perfect eggs.
“Would you like one of the hatchlings?”
Carey shook her head. “Thank you, Joe, but I think the baby birds belong here, with your flock.” She seemed to sense his disappointment. “Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the offer.” Her eyes twinkled. “In fact, I will take one of the hatchlings—as long as it stays in the aviary. That will give me an excuse to come here as often as you’ll have me.”
I regularly turn to my writing critique group to share my WIP and gain valuable feedback from fellow writers.
But I also find much value in my monthly book group—and not just because I love to read and then discuss what I’ve read. I marvel at how divergent opinions can be about a book. I’ve wondered at times: Are we talking about the same novel?
Sometimes—actually, rarely—the group coalesces in full delight about a book. More often, some love it, some find it so-so, and some are outright sorry they read beyond the first chapter.
Of course, sites like Goodreads offer ratings and reviews on books for people who don’t have or don’t want to be in a book discussion group. But sitting together with a glass of wine and a plate of snacks is my preferred way of finding out what others think about that new novel or latest work of nonfiction. (My group reads both.)
As a writer, I also see how my take on a book is often at least somewhat different from a nonwriter. I can get caught up in the craft—how do the sentences flow, why did the author use that story structure—and forget that most readers just want a good story. The structural elements are important; they are the solid framework upon which the good story is built. But many readers are willing to give a pass on less-than-perfect structure if they are compelled to keep turning the pages to find out what’s going to happen.
It’s often a reminder to me that as writers we can’t predict what will appeal or connect with readers. One example is Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. While I thoroughly enjoyed the novel—the crisp narrative, the layered characters, the grim depiction of war—I was disappointed in the ending, which I thought was a cheap shot, the equivalent of a story in which the main character wakes up to realize it’s all been a dream. But one member of my group gave an alternative explanation. For her, the ending with its surprise reveal represented the awful price the soldiers paid: that they forfeited their future, of what might have been. I had to agree.
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