Urijah got his first concussion when he was three years old, when he pecked at a bowl of cereal. When he was five years old, he got his first stitches from hopping head-first into the bathroom sink. When he was sixteen years old, he had dislocated his shoulder for the ninth time while overzealously flapping his arms at the edge of his Madison, Wisconsin driveway. Not many people grow up to believe they are a different animal entirely, and Urijah’s single mother, Kelly, hoped he would eventually grow out of it. Occasionally, one can find an instance of a creature in nature thinking it belongs to a different species, but it’s usually one of those rare instances where an orphaned ducking was raised by a cat, or something of the sort. Kelly was very human, however. She had a very human habit of smoking almost a pack of cigarettes per day, which she started when Urijah was about four or five. She had very human frizzy, blonde hair, very human thin, cracked lips, and a very human disappointment with herself every time she looked in the mirror. She also required the human eight hours of sleep per night, something she hadn’t been afforded by Urijah since he was in kindergarten.
At first glance, Urijah looked not unlike the bird he imagined that he was. His nose was long, hooked, and was once thin, but as he grew older, his nose became swollen and battered from years of pecking. His eyes were small and round, not quite at the side of his head, but surprisingly far apart. He had his mother’s thin lips, but his father’s large chin, which often disappointed him because it distracted from his nose. Or beak. Standing six feet, four inches tall, Urijah was sizably larger than an average bird. His arms were disappointingly short, however, with a wingspan shorter than six feet. He compensated his size with his weight, stepping on the scale at only 140 pounds.
Every morning, Urijah screamed. He would get out of bed and stand tall, leaning back a bit and letting his arms dangle. He would pop his mouth open and wail in pairs: one short scream followed by one long scream. He would pause for a moment, and then double-scream again. Interestingly enough, if one were to interpret his screams as Morse code, they consistently translated to “AAAAAAAAAA,” ending whenever his mother would open the door. When she opened the door to his room, he quit screaming and got dressed.
Urijah embodied many bird traits. He had a distinct fear of cats, hopped around on his two legs instead of walking, and constantly swiveled and cocked his head, scanning the room and scene around him. If there would be other birds present, his reaction would depend on the species. He naturally hid from birds of prey, but was largely sociable to most birds besides the robin. For whatever reason, Urijah always hated robins.
The traits of his bird-like behavior traced to his infancy, when instead of crying and wagging his arms around in pursuit of breastmilk, he would merely open his mouth towards the sky and wait. Once in a while, baby Urijah would cheep, but usually he would wait. Since when he was only a few months old, Kelly knew that something was fundamentally off with Urijah. As he got older, she implored an unthinkable number of doctors and researchers to diagnose him with autism just so she could have some closure to his condition. But they wouldn’t. It wasn’t dissociative personality disorder, and Urijah wasn’t receptive to antipsychotic medication. He could be sedated, but not changed.
Some closure came around his tenth birthday when he and his mother flew to Boston to stay at the Boston Children’s Hospital for some brain scans. For the whole four-hour plane ride, Urijah delightedly wiggled in his seat and looked out the window. Four straight hours of wiggling.
What the teams at Boston Children’s found made too much sense to be true — Urijah’s brain was essentially that of a bird. He had some developed human brain tissues, like the Broca’s area for speech, but for the most part, he was literally a birdbrain.
One Tuesday for breakfast, Urijah ate his standard bowl of mixed seeds and dried fruits as his mother watched and smoked a cigarette. Kelly had undergone training and licensing to homeschool her son, understanding that he would never stand a chance at fitting in with his peers. After finishing her cigarette, she got her academic materials ready. Despite the fact that he believed he was a bird, Urijah spoke English surprisingly well, therefore Kelly usually focused on conversation during their lessons. They wrote and they read, but mostly they talked.
“What did you think of the story, Urijah?” Kelly asked him.
“What story?” replied Urijah, nibbling on a few sunflower seeds he had saved.
“The Most Dangerous Game, it’s a short you were supposed to read last night.”
“Who wrote it?”
“Does it matter?”
“Right, I read it. I remember now,” Urijah lied.
Kelly sighed and sat back in her chair. She looked off, originally out the window, but her attention was snagged by the relentless racket of the wall clock. She pulled another cigarette from her packet of Djarum Black, but didn’t light it. She held the body of the black-wrapped cigarette between her thumb and ring finger, caressing and touching over the filter with her index. In her head she began to count down from 300 and focused on inhaling through her nostrils and exhaling through her mouth. This morning, breathing proved a bit more difficult that usual: her left nostril wasn’t cooperating and was burning every time she inhaled. She cupped her free hand over her nose, warming the incoming air. Somehow that helped.
Urijah slammed his head against the table, cutting Kelly’s countdown short. She hissed at him, baring her teeth clawing at the air. Urijah startled, sat back and looked at the cigarette which was now in his seed bowl. Kelly stood up and walked over to a kitchen cabinet a few feet from the table, opened it, and dug through papers until she found a copied and stapled copy of The Most Dangerous Game. She pulled it out, handed it to Urijah, and told him to read while she stepped out to breathe.
“I’m gonna head out for a minute, get started on reading and then we can discuss it.”
“Then can I get scratches?” Urijah chirped. His favorite reward was to have his head scratched with an instrument built of popsicle sticks and q-tips.
“Yes,” Kelly laughed, “if you can prove to me that you really read the story, I’ll give you scratches before we study more.”
Urijah cooed, which Kelly had long ago learned meant “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she said, and scratched his hair as she went for the door.
As she walked down the hallway which lead to the main entrance, she ran her unlit cigarette along the mantlepiece lined with pictures. Most were of Urijah on different occasions: birthdays, local travel, some of the few times he tried non-fruit-or-seed foods, and one which was a series of photos of him in his Halloween costumes. Every year he dressed as a bird.
But then Kelly got to one photo which was of herself holding a Urijah as a baby, and his father with his arm around her. Her cigarette bumped the edge of the picture frame, and she stopped and took it off the mantle to look at it. She tried blowing some of the dust off the picture, but most of it clung on rudely anyway. She thought about how young she looked, even though she was clearly tired in the picture from Urijah keeping her up. Her smile was wide, her teeth were white, and the man wearing a denim shirt embracing her and their son had his face scratched out of the picture.
Her phone vibrated, and she checked and saw her friend Audrey had texted her.
what r u doing rn?? read the text.
Studying with urijah, what’s up?
Kelly looked at the three dots pulse their way along the bottom-left of her screen. She waited for a few moments, but then the dots disappeared. As she started to move towards the door again, the typing notification dots reappeared, disappeared, and reappeared once more.
Are you alright?
do u wanna get coffe?
I can’t, I told youI’m working :(
She looked at her phone, and then looked back down the hall at her son. He was sitting at the table with one hand at the top-left of his photocopy of the book, the other in the crease between the pages, reading diligently. Kelly looked back at her phone and sent,
Actually yeah, I’ll get a “coffe.” See you soon!
She called back to Urijah, “I’m going to get coffee with Audrey, I’ll be back soon. If you finish before I get back, I want you to write me a page about your thoughts on the story, OK?”
“A whole page?” complained her son.
“A whole page. And for every extra page you write, I’ll get you a bag of sesame seeds. How does that sound?”
Urijah perked up at the notice of sesame seeds. He looked over his shoulder at his mother, smiled, and cooed.
“Oh my god! It’s been so long, I missed you, I missed you, I missed you!” squeaked Audrey as she hugged Kelly at the café.
“I missed you too.”
“How are things? What’s new? How old is Urijah now, fifteen, sixteen?”
Audrey furrowed her brow and let her mouth drop open. She half-mouthed, half-whispered “eighteen?” and grabbed a handful of her playfully curly, brown hair to tuck back behind her ear. “What’s he gonna do for college?”
Kelly glared at her. “Sorry,” said Audrey as she tucked her chin to her shoulder, “dumb question.”
“It’s okay,” comforted Kelly, “let’s get the coffee first, and then we’ll catch up.”
The two ordered and received their coffees, but not without an argument when Audrey insisted to pay for both. Under jesting threat of violence, Kelly prevailed and paid for her own coffee. The two then sat at a table near a window and chatted for the better part of twenty minutes. Audrey shared that she had recently gotten a promotion which made her feel conflicted: on one hand it was great to be getting more money, but the new position wasn’t making her happy or fulfilled. Kelly gave her some generic advice on giving it time and that her gut will tell her what the next move is, and in doing so, realized she was getting bored of their conversation. Kelly answered every question Audrey asked about Urijah with canned responses like “same old, same old,” or “he’s coming along.” At the end of their time together, they hugged once more, but Kelly just thought about how she couldn’t wait to get home to Urijah.
“Baby, I’m home. I’ve got three baggies of sesame, so how many pages did you write for me?” Kelly called out as she started to take her boots off by the door.
But there was no answer. With an empty paper cup in one hand and a shoehorn in the other, she looked up and called out Urijah’s name. Silence. She walked down the hall, one boot still on her foot, and found that The Most Dangerous Game was open to its last page, with two handwritten pages beside it. But on top of those was a blue index card which read:
Momma, I learned how to fly.
I will always love you and never forget you.
Kelly tossed her cup and shoehorn onto the table. Running to the stairs, she accidentally knocked over Urijah’s chair. She charged up, flew into his room, and saw that his window was open. “No, no, no, no, no,” she muttered audibly. She shuffled to the window, but stopped short of it. She thought of looking down at her driveway and seeing her son mangled and twisted, laying in a pool of blood with shards of bone ripping out of him from wherever landed first. He’s light, she thought, maybe he’s not that hurt? She gripped at her own stomach and closed her eyes as she stuck her head out the window. First she listened: no whimpering, no crying, no cooing. She thought that then he might be dead and she didn’t know if she could handle seeing her son no longer living. But she rationalized that she already stuck her head out to see him, in pain or not, and that if he died from the fall it’s better than the agony that was absent. She counted down from three, not three hundred, and opened her eyes. The son-less pavement looked back at her.
Two months after Urijah’s disappearance, the local police department formally declared the case cold. There had been no evidence of foul play and there had been no evidence of harm. The only traces of his disappearance remained the note and his open window. A young detective had stopped by Kelly’s house to tell her the development, apologized profusely, and assured her that if there was anything she needed, all she had to do was give him a call. He walked back to his car, squatted back in his issued, black Buick, and drove off while Kelly watched. When he had driven around a bend in the road and the trees completely silenced the sound of his engine and his tires, Kelly went back inside.
She locked the door behind her and went to the kitchen table where The Most Dangerous Game remained open and unmoved with Urijah’s notes beside it. The index card was gone, however, long ago taken and held on to by the local police force. Across the table, where Kelly had sat on her last day with Urijah, lay a pile of empty picture frames and the removed pictures beside them. She took her seat, lit a cigarette, but set it in an ashtray to burn off as opposed to smoking it. She grabbed the pile of photos with one hand and an open pair of scissors in the other. One after another she flipped through the photos of Urijah which were on the mantelpiece, all of which now had his face scratched out. She pressed her thumb up against the flat of the blade of her scissors and used the rounded tip to go from one picture to the next. One after another, even the Halloween costume series, depicted a gangly, faceless boy who now meant nothing to Kelly. The pictures were glossy, the faces were matted and gnarled from scratching. That was, until she came to the photo of the three of them — Kelly, baby Urijah, and his father. She hadn’t yet scratched this picture of her son, so she placed the photo down and pressed it against the table with her left hand. With her right, she gripped the open blade and pressed its rounded tip to the side of baby Urijah’s face, and exactly as she was about to start scraping, she felt her phone vibrate in her pocket.
She slammed the scissors down and inhaled through her nose, tucking her chin and puffing her chest and shoulders as she did so. As she exhaled, she groaned a little, and looked out her window as she began to count down from ten. By the time she reached four, however, her patience had run out and she pulled her phone from her pocket. Audrey’s smiling face filled the screen, and Kelly took a little pleasure in swiping across it to pick up.
“Hey,” Kelly flatly started.
“Hey girl! How’re you doing?”
“I’ve been better, Audie.”
“I just wanted to call and check in on how you’re doing,” Audrey squealed.
Kelly didn’t have the time to finish explaining how she was doing, because Audrey jumped in with details of her own life. She talked about learning to love the new position, how she was going to take a vacation soon, and how in her new financial freedom she had found a way to enjoy life more. Both little and big things. Kelly put the phone on speaker and set it on the table. She felt uncomfortable having Audrey brag so close to her head. But then Audrey asked something that peaked her attention very quickly, asking “have you found time to enjoy things more?”
Kelly snatched the phone off the table and put it back to her ear. “What do you mean?”
“Well, just that you have less responsibilities now. Have you been getting out? Sleeping in? Taking time for, you know, you?”
It took her a moment to process her friend’s question. Kelly had been sleeping in, and she did have time to do what she wanted. The issue was, Kelly realized in Urijah’s absence that the only thing she wanted was her son back. “Audrey, I miss Urijah.”
Audrey was uncharacteristically silent. “I’m not saying you don’t, I…”
“I’m not on vacation from him,” Kelly jumped in, raising her tone as she continued, “I didn’t catch a lucky break. Yeah, I’ve been sleeping in. Yeah, my pantry is seedless. I don’t know what to do with myself.”
Kelly was just short of yelling now. “I wake up at 10 and I hate it, my house is silent and it scares me, what do you want me to say? I’ve been getting in-home massages for the past two months? There hasn’t been a day where I didn’t talk to some detective or policeman who looks at me weird, or where I haven’t browsed random forums hoping to read something of some fucking bird-boy. I want my son, and I want my little bird!”
She hung up the phone and tossed it on the table, but angrily touching a dot on a screen wasn’t cathartic enough. She screamed, and repeatedly slapped the phone until it was sufficiently hung up.
She sat back, looked out her window, and counted down from 300.
Later that afternoon, Kelly pulled in to her driveway. She opened her trunk and took out a large, cardboard box with a few holes cut out of each side. She hadn’t locked the front door so she gently kicked it open and went straight upstairs. She turned in to Urijah’s room, set the box down on his bed, and opened the top. She took a step or two back, and after just a moment, a cockatoo popped its head straight up. It hopped out of the box and latched on to the rim, cocked its head at Kelly, and croaked. She crossed her arms and smiled at her new companion.