Do Mind the Mess Dripping from the Ceiling

Alex was a pretty normal kid. He did normal things, by kid standards.

Well, so long as those kid standards took into account the fact that he was thirteen and had a very independent creative streak.

He’d gotten a chemistry kit for Christmas and a magnifying glass and a butterfly net for his birthday.

And that was really where the problem started. They probably should have seen it coming, in fact.

He’d been outside for about an hour when his mother – preparing to host a party that evening with a group from church – looked out the window to see him laying flat on his stomach on the back deck, peering at a glass jar.

She continued cutting brownies and counting glasses for another minute or two, but there was something about the way he was lying on the wood of the porch and something about her mother’s instinct that told her that this was a good time to intervene.

Her instinct was about a minute and a half off, but she wasn’t going to figure that out for another ten minutes.

She went out to the porch, hands on her hips, and asked him what he was doing.
She loved Alex like the moon and the sun combined, but he was thirteen and she had a group of ladies from church coming over in less than thirty minutes. You have to walk a fine line between being a champion of creativity and independence and making sure that he isn’t planning on launching mudpies at the ladies as they come up the front walk.

Again.

He had been testing remote trigger mechanisms, and honestly, if any of them had little boys of their own, they would have known to watch their feet more carefully. I mean, anyone who has ever lived in a house with Legos knows that for the rest of their lives. But these were younger ladies, and the only children any of them had were precious little girls in pink and gold dresses. Alex’s mother didn’t even try to explain it. They’d get there. Someday.

“I’m looking at my pets,” Alex said. His mother frowned.

“Isn’t that my cookie jar?”

He nodded, his chin never leaving his fists.

She shook her head. She had meat in the crock pot that she needed to get out, and a cheese ball to form for chips. She needed to shut this down now and worry about what was actually going on later.

“Come inside now,” she said.

“But what about my pets?” he asked.

“Bring them,” his mother said, looking for the option that got him inside and up to his room as quickly as possible so that she could get back to preparing for her party. She waited, making sure he’d actually picked up the cookie jar and was bringing it inside before she went back to the kitchen.

At this point, she had four minutes left.

But she didn’t know that.

She pulled a sheet of cookies out of the oven, smelling them with a happy smile. Her grandmother’s recipe. She went digging for a trivet out of a drawer and put it on the table, putting a bowl on it and sliding the cookies into it, then she went to check the crock pot. The meat smelled of barbecue sauce and beef, and she went to get the rolls out of the pantry, pulling them apart and putting them into a wicker basket.

Three minutes.

She finished cutting brownies and put them onto a serving tray alongside a row of mixed nuts and cubed cheese, setting that next to the cookies, then she got the cheese ball out of the fridge and went digging through a cabinet looking for the serving tray for chips.
She had one. She’d bought it at an after-Thanksgiving sale the previous year, and she loved it. It had festive colors on it that every time she looked at it she had to remind herself that they weren’t necessarily fall colors, they were just pretty, but the design was one she loved so much, she couldn’t resist.

“How many times are you going to use a chips-and-dip tray?” her husband had asked, but she’d gotten it anyway, and she was going to darned well used it every single time she had people over, just to prove to him that it had been worth it.

Two minutes.

She got out ice, putting it into the ice bucket and went digging through the random utensils drawer for tongs, then went to get the stool out of the bathroom so that she could reach the party napkins above the refrigerator. She lay those out in a fan pattern, thinking for a moment about folding one into an origami shape of some kind – she’d taken a class at the home goods store a few years ago, and she still remembered a few of them – but she thought that it would be a little pretentious, and she didn’t want to waste the good napkins like that.

One minute.

Drinks. Drinks. She’d gotten them at the store, but for a moment she forgot where they were.

The refrigerator in the garage. They’d run out of room in the refrigerator in the kitchen with all of the leftovers from going out the other night, and she’d had to put them all outside. She needed to get those out to the table so that she’d be in the house when Barbara rang the doorbell; her best friend usually came over early to help with the parties, but they usually ended up mostly just talking, because as much as they loved having parties and getting together, they never did, and as soon as more than one of them was in the room, they were talking about this or that, and so Alex’s mother needed to get everything important done before Barbara got there.

She was bringing in the glass bottles of root beer and setting them in a tub of ice by the table, one ear out for the doorbell, when there was an odd noise.

Odd noises turned Alex’s mother’s stomach, because if she didn’t immediately know what caused them, there was every chance that she didn’t want to know what caused them.

“Hey mom?”

She drew a bracing breath and started for the front hallway.

“Alex?” she answered.

The explosion hit her in the face.

Wet, greenish, and full of bits and pieces of something.

“Alex?” she asked again, her tone quite different this time.

“I just wanted to see what would happen,” he whined.

“Alex, what was that?”

She was doing her level best not to let it drip into her mouth.

“Well, I found these really big bugs out back and I caught them with my net, and I was seeing what they liked to eat, and then I started trying things from my chemistry set…”

Her brother had promised her that there wasn’t anything interesting in that set. He swore it.

She looked at the ceiling, feeling something run down her hair and onto her back. She hoped it wasn’t alive.

And then the doorbell rang.

 

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The Stew or the Headdress

“You’re lost,” the bird said.

“I know,” Adam answered.

“You’re lost,” the bird said again.

“I know,” Adam said again.

Why did parakeets have to talk?

And why had Adam agreed buy one?

Leslie. That was the answer.

She was pretty and funny and had a temper like a rabid dog, and when she’d said she’d wanted one, he’d answered: yes, dear.

They’d looked at pet shops where their birds were clipped, but Leslie had said that that was immoral and unconscionable and so they’d gone to a private breeder who had sold them a parakeet who could fly, not just glide.

Which brought him to where he was now.

Lost.

With the most evil parakeet the world had ever seen.

“This is all your fault,” the bird said.

“I know,” Adam answered.

It was the same story for most of his bad life decisions.

Leslie had wanted to raise chickens, so they’d built a mobile chicken coop. They keep the grass short, she promised, and they eat the bugs. You hardly have to feed them at all.

The problem was that she wasn’t willing to eat them, and at the beginning she’d said that it was only natural that they keep a rooster, too, so soon their little mobile coop that they moved around the back lawn during the day – at least two or three times a day, so that the chickens didn’t get bored – was too small and Adam had to build a bigger one.

And he’d done it. He’d sold the rooster, but he’d built a bigger coop for the original six chickens and the eighteen blasted offspring that had made it through the first few weeks.

Every time one of the chicks had died, she’d brought it into the house crying and lay it out on the table, germs and parasites and all, and she’d said words over it. Three, four, five times a day. Baby chicks were fragile, it turned out, and mother hens weren’t very good at caring for them.

Leslie said it was because they didn’t have enough space. The other hens attacked each other’s chicks and killed them.

So he’d built a bigger coop. Now it took both of them to move it, but the bloody little things could run around in there like it was recess, and she’d been happy. And they’d sat out on the lawn watching the chicks play and they’d laughed and drunk beer.

Then she’d wanted a goat.

They were clever and funny and they would keep the edges of the back yard clean of long grass and rodents, and she’d always wanted a goat.

And the first goat had died. Coyote, she said. Neighbor dog, Adam thought.

So they’d gotten two more, because there was safety in numbers, and they’d built a shed for them to live in at night. And every morning before he got up for work, he went out and fed them and washed them – because they stepped in their own excrement overnight, and Leslie wouldn’t stand for them having it on their feet all day long. So he became a goat pedicurist.

And then she’d wanted a cow. A good milking cow, she said. Just imagine the breakfasts you could have, with a flock of chickens and a cow!

And the neighborhood finally put its foot down, so they’d moved. They rented a little cabin outside of town where the barn was three times bigger than the house, and they’d moved the goats and the chickens, and he’d been ready to tear down the goat shed and move it, but she said no, they needed a bigger one. Because they deserved more space, if everyone else was getting more space.

And a more solid chicken coop, she thought, because the coyotes out there in the woods might be bigger and meaner than the ones in the suburbs.

Adam thought that suburban coyotes might be pretty rugged beasts, seeing as how they competed with so many dogs for prey, but he didn’t say it because she wouldn’t have thought it was funny. He just built a bigger chicken coop.

And then came the pets. They’d gotten three Great Pyrenees to watch over the livestock. Never mind that the one killed four chickens before Leslie declared him an indoor-only dog, that was what they were for. They got a cat, and then another, and then another, because barn cats shouldn’t be lonely either, and then all three of them became indoor-only cats when Leslie thought she saw a coyote out in the front yard. They got a ferret, because she read that they were supposed to be really great pets – smart, interesting, creative, and inquisitive – but the blasted thing got stuck behind the refrigerator and when Adam tried to get it out, he’d squished it.

She hadn’t spoken to him for three days.

And then came the parakeet. You were supposed to talk to it every day, and groom it with your finger the way it groomed itself, and never let it sit on your shoulder or your head, because that was the stupid thing asserting dominance, and then you’d never be able to train it.

It only ever sat on Adam’s shoulder. Leslie taught it all kinds of things, and it remembered everything she ever said to Adam, repeating it in an eerily modified version of Leslie’s voice.

“You’re lost,” it told him again.

He’d opened the window because it was spring and it was nice outside, and he wanted to get some of the animal smell out of the house. He was tired of not having any space in the bed, and if he couldn’t fix that, at least he could get some of the nice woodsy smell in and the dog-and-cat smell out.

And the damned thing had flown out the window.

He’d chased it for hours, from tree to tree as it called down criticisms at him, until it finally got bored and flew down and landed on his shoulder.

“You shouldn’t let him do that,” it said.

“I know,” Adam had answered, taking out the leather tie he’d grabbed from the back of the sink that you used to keep it from flying when you weren’t actively holding its feet. They’d gotten the leather thing after the parakeet had mauled one of Leslie’s friends in one of their rare human visits.

“It wasn’t his fault,” Leslie had said. “He thought he was in danger.”

Adam thought that generally birds that thought they were in danger flew off, but what the hell did he know?

He tied the bird to his shoulder, because it would attack him with its beak if he tried to tie it to his wrist, and he’d started back to the house.

That was four hours ago.

He had no idea where he was.

The sun was going down, and the weather was fine, but he was well and truly lost, and the bird telling him so didn’t help anything.

He sat down next to a tree and folded his hands across his stomach, resigning himself to sleeping out here.

At the end of the next day, he’d begun feeling weak and he hadn’t found a road, any sign of civilization, or a drop to drink. As he settled down against a tree, brushing the parakeet off of his ear as the bird bit him again, he looked up at it and he smiled.

He didn’t know if he was going to get rescued and he didn’t know if he was going to find his way home. But as far as he could tell, what he had now was one final decision.

 

 

The next spring, a pair of hikers stumbled across a rotted corpse laying against a tree. They’d heard about the missing man the year before, so they weren’t entirely surprised to find him, but neither one of them could figure out the odd arrangement of feathers he was wearing around the crown of his head.

 

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