“Bubbles is gone,” Lily says, tamping her foot in front of an open refrigerator, a dollar’s worth of cold air escaping onto the linoleum floor.
“Move out of the way, Sweetie, so Mommy can look.” Cassandra drops to a knee and impatiently digs out jars and juice boxes until she finds the plastic whale. Lily thanks her with a kiss. Cassandra tosses the whale in her bag, locks the dented apartment door, and flip-flops along the urine-yellow passageway, past a congregation of gnats worshiping at a light fixture. Down a flight of stairs and she’s at the pool, where her son Atticus is already violating the no-splashing rule. It is dusk, the best part of a summer day for most Southerners. Each day, she looks forward to only this, watching her children swim at the Biltmore Gardens, a neglected but friendly residence in an affordable bedroom community, the equivalent of coleslaw on Charlotte’s real estate menu.
The regulars are mostly young parents. They sit around the pool while their children also violate rules like no diving and no running. The pool is rectangular, shallow on the ends and only a meter deep in the middle, where, in theory, a net could go for water volleyball. Half of the underwater lights are out but the remaining ones create a nice ambience. There are never enough lounge chairs and the lawn crew always blasts clippings into the water, but for four months a year, the pool is the beating heart of the Biltmore.
Cassandra walks through the gate and smiles at everyone smiling at Lily. She is a cute kid, polite for a five-year-old. That is no accident. A noise overpowers the treble-heavy Top 40 coming from a phone. Hundreds of crows, maybe a thousand, shriek and flutter on the branches of scattered oaks near the boundary of the complex. Cassandra walks toward the sound in wonder, making her way to a faded picnic table near the chain link coyote fence. She drops her things onto its splinter-rich top, sips at Mommy’s adult orange juice, and admires the roiling black mass.
Lily tugs her toward the pool. Casandra’s skin cools from bottom to top as she enters the water, erasing her weight. As a heavy kid, floating was magical, the great equalizer that made her dream of flying, of not having to run everywhere. She drifts toward the center of the pool and flips onto her back. No stars yet, only Jupiter and a cornflower canvas above her. Lily becomes a mama whale and demands that Cassandra, her baby whale, nurse. Lily never tires of this. They dodge the older kids playing tag, swimming and nursing, as they do every night. Not even alcohol can make this fun. Cassandra invents a reason to return to the picnic table.
A large crow lands at the other end, startling her. The animal’s head darts about at first. Cassandra reaches for her juice and unscrews the cap absently. The animal’s black feathers absorb all light, but its eyes reflect the sky back at her. It is healthy and large, bigger than a soccer ball. A low, curious squawk eases the tension, a softer sound she expected. The bird picks at some crumbs on the table, then returns its focus to her, twisting its head to make sense of her.
In her youth, Cassandra kept birds in a homemade cage that her father had built out of chicken wire, 2x4s, and cardboard, the same materials he had used for her dollhouse. They couldn’t afford pet store birds, so she populated it with whatever the woods provided, mostly injured sparrows and jays. They all died quickly, shitting and pecking to the end, backed into a corner despite the food and her loving words. The crow in front of her is more cautious than afraid, looking at her expectantly, like a teacher waiting for an answer. But she has none. The crow turns suddenly, hops to the end of the table and jumps into the air.
“Hey,” says a husky female voice from behind. Cassandra knows the names of many people who don’t know hers. The woman, Gwen, birthed the terrible twins. Every child in a five-kilometer radius knows the names Ivan and Igor. Gwen’s boys will be in Lily’s kindergarten class come the fall. This terrifies both mother and daughter. Atticus, a head taller than either, could fend them off individually, but not in tandem.
“Got any smokes?” says Gwen. “I’m dying.” She has a beer in one hand and a phone in the other. Her cutoffs drip onto bare feet with green toenails. Cassandra wonders whether she won or lost the fight that discolored her left eye and cheekbone. She herself has no siblings, and has never throw a punch. In the fleeting years she knew her parents, they barely raised their voices at her.
“Sorry,” says Cassandra, her hands tightening around her own empty bottle.
Gwen clicks her tongue and lets her shoulders drop. “Nobody fucking smokes anymore.” She walks back to the pool and repeats the request without compunction. Cassandra climbs onto the table, her back to the pool, swatting mosquitoes, waiting for her name to be called, hoping the crow will return.
Wynter scoots from the microwave to Cassandra’s table in the break room and drops a hot glass container onto the table.
“Motherfucker.” She shakes away the pain.
“You know anything about crows?” asks Cassandra, twirling the last of her spaghetti onto a fork, flicking tomato sauce onto a colorful scrub top. Wynter blows on her leftovers and dares a bite.
“As in the bird?”
“Got one pecking at your window?”
“Almost,” says Cassandra. “I was at the pool last night and this enormous crow was staring at me. For like a couple of minutes. Spooky, right?”
“Reincarnation,” says Wynter, chewing with her mouth open to disperse the heat. “Mike must be dead. Needs a hundred bucks to buy some karma.”
“That’s about right.” Cassandra makes a funny shape with her mouth and checks the wall clock. Three minutes left. She digs a wallet out of her large patterned bag that could hold anything required of motherhood and retrieves a pair of singles. “He called. Guess where he ended up?”
“In the hospital,” says Wynter.
“No,” she says, pointing an index finger. Mike is the father of Atticus and Lily, a dull and irresponsible man, little changed since high school, where they met.
“West and north,” says Cassandra, standing now, her fingers working the smashed corner of her candy money.
“Idaho?” says Wynter.
“How did you guess that?”
“It’s a crap magnet.”
“I’ve heard its really pretty there,” says Cassandra.
“Still. What did he want? A loan?”
Cassandra tilts her head to one side and nods.
“You didn’t send anything, did you?” Wynter asks.
Cassandra rolls her eyes, as if to suggest that she hadn’t actually sent him $300 so that he could buy a few tools for a carpentry apprenticeship, a job that actually suited him, he claimed, that would mean child support. She knows not to send money, but a few minutes of pressure and she gives in. A modest piggy bank, minimal shaking required.
“Are crows dangerous?” Cassandra asks.
“You’re not going to adopt it, are you?” Wynter never hides her exasperation.
Cassandra turns to the vending machine and makes her selection. The candy falls. She retrieves it and leaves the break room without looking back.
The next day is even hotter. The family of three get to the pool just after dinner and pile their belongings onto the picnic table. Sparrows and cardinals flitter about, but no crows. Cassandra follows her kids to the edge of the pool and sits, her lower legs and calloused feet submerged.
“So hot,” says Grace, an elderly woman sitting in a nearby chair. Both women are compressed into one-piece bathing suits, but Grace, with white hair, reddish brown leather for skin, and bunions, does not share Cassandra’s embarrassment at her appearance. Grace is the apartment complex’smatron and chief intelligence officer. Anyone around her is fair game for conversation, so Cassandra readies herself for many rounds of nursing whale.
Igor races by and leaps into the air, tucking his legs into a cannonball. The splash covers her face and arms. Igor surfaces and hops to the edge to do it again.
“Hey,” says Grace. “You. Young man.”
Igor tries to ignore her but she is too loud.
“Apologize to her.” Grace points. “You got her all wet.”
“It’s alright,” says Cassandra, shaking the water from her glasses and looking at Igor expectantly.
Igor backs away, his eyes on Grace. Everyone is watching. He spots his brother in the water and leaps at him, landing with an awkward splat, then stays underwater as long as he can hold his breath.
“Little shit,” says Grace. She exchanges looks with a mother sitting across the pool, both of them shaking their heads. “No unaccompanied minors. I don’t whip my grandkids but that one needs it. Or handcuffs.”
“Really, it’s alright,” says Cassandra and she slips into the pool.
The shadows have taken the picnic table when she returns. A pair of crows clear the fence after she sits down. Their wings spread and their tails tuck, slowing them for a graceful landing on the table.
“You’re back,” she says. “And you brought a friend.”
The larger crow has a white bottle cap in its beak, similar to the one on Cassandra’s juice bottle. It drops the cap onto the table and looks at her. The other bird hops about the table.
“Thank you,” she says and moves forward to retrieve the gift, but the birds back away. “That is so thoughtful. So observant.” She slowly unscrews her own cap and lays it on the table. Both birds peck at it. The one that is only a bit smaller nabs the cap and jumps to the grass. The other turns back to her and caws softly.
“You must be a pair,” she says. “On a date. Want something to drink?” She pours a bit of juice in the remaining bottle cap. The crow drinks as the other returns to the table. She refills the cap and digs a cracker out of her bag and crumbles it onto the table. The birds eat greedily. The scene repeats for a quarter hour, when Atticus approaches and the birds take flight. A dash of blood sits at the corner of his swollen lip.
“Ivan kicked me,” he says.
“Was it an accident?”
“They were trying to dunk me.”
She dabs at the blood then wraps him in a towel and pulls him onto her lap. He grabs a fist full of crackers and melts into his mother’s love.
Cassandra showers, makes breakfast and lunch for all, then wrangles the kids into her unaffordable new car and, at peak stress, drops them at Big Adventures Summer Camp before speeding to her job by 8:30am. Once on the clock, she can relax, mostly doing one thing at a time. Wynter is already at the clinic this morning and has left a copy of Birds of North America on her chair.
“How thoughtful,” says Cassandra, flipping to the index.
“My ex was really into birds. Still is. Used to drag me to the coast to go bird watching. Figured it might be useful.”
“Are you sure you don’t need it?”
Wynter shakes her head. Her still-wet curls bounce around her ears. Shesmiles at the sight of Cassandra standing with her bag hanging from the crook of her arm, as if waiting for a bus, flipping pages.
That evening, the crows are waiting on the picnic table when she arrives.
“What have we got here?” she says, noticing a lump of green plastic in the center of the table. One of the birds hops forward and nudges what is a toy soldier, its muscular body covered in deep scratches. She grasps the toy between her thumb and index finger, aware of how dirty it might be but unwilling to offend her new friends.
“Thank you. And I brought something for you too.”
She retrieves two pieces of bread from a plastic bag, the heels that her children refuse to eat, and tears the first one into a pile for each bird. They do not hesitate. More crows land on the table, but do not challenge the pair.
“You must be a couple,” she says and thinks of her parents. She ponders reincarnation and dismisses the idea.
“Let’s call you Nina,” she says, pointing at one, “and Jerome,” switching to the other. She can already tell them apart. Both make a variety of noises but each has a default, like an audible name tag. Nina’s is longer, growing in pitch and volume. Jerome’s is a short and flat, like a short letter “A.” She assigns them human intelligence.
Lily approaches from the pool. Atticus comes eventually and together, the family watches the birds eat and preen. Two boys try to coax Atticus back to the pool but are captivated by the scene. Cassandra keeps them at a safe distance, requiring silence. Nina is the first to depart. In the field, the murder is settling down for the night. Jerome caws once, as if to say goodnight, then leaps into the air.
Throughout July, Nina, Jerome, and their offspring visit at dusk. Each night, they bring a gift for her. Trash by most standards, but not hers.
“They mean something, I’m sure of it,” says Cassandra between faxes. She is at the nurses station. Wynter is on hold with a pharmacy, working her cuticles with the back end of a pen.
“So they’re like psychic mediums or something?” Her raised eyebrows suggest annoyance.
“No. Not that,” says Cassandra. The pharmacists picks up and Wynter orders antibiotics. Cassandra waits for the call to end.
“Crows use tools. They’re smart.”
“But they’re still animals,” says Wynter.
“There’s a pattern. It means something.”
Wynter moves to the hallway and motions that she’ll return shortly. Cassandra takes a call, stalling for time. Wynter returns just as she hangs up with an insurance rep denying coverage for an expensive new asthma medication.
“Here’s what they’ve brought me: a toy soldier, a tampon, an earring, a lighter, coins, cigarette butts, part of a diaper, bottle caps, a toothbrush, bullet casings, chopsticks, exploded firecrackers, parts of a tire, and a contact lens case. In that order more or less, which might be important.”
“They bring you something every day?”
“Yes, early evening, between 7 and 8pm.”
“Wow,” says Wynter. Her pinched faced suggests that she has not taken the crows seriously until now. “Every night?”
“And you’ve ruled out reincarnation, even though you’ve named them after your parents.”
“What are they trying to tell me?”
“It’s really amazing,” says Wynter. “Still. It’s all trash. It’s what they find in the field.”
“Well yeah, but.”
“What do you think it means?”
“Death,” says Cassandra sharply. “The soldier, a bloody tampon, bullets, firecrackers, a lighter. The contact lens case might mean they want me to see this all more clearly.”
It’s almost 5pm. Wynter pulls off her thick cardigan and gathers her belongings to transition from their over air-conditioned office to the inferno of her locked car.
“Me maybe?” says Cassandra. “Them? The planet?”
Wynter places her free hand on Cassandra’s shoulder. “Honey, I hate to disappoint you, but they’re just animals.”
“It’s just trash.” Wynter selects her ignition key from a tangled ring and moves toward the exit.
“You think it’s that simple?”
“Yes. Maybe they want you to clean the place up. Gotta run. You can introduce me to your friends tomorrow night.”Dr. Stephanie Williams passes Wynter on her way out and approaches the nurses station, holding something her hand.
“Hey there, Yolanda,” says the doctor. She has worked at the clinic for seven months. This is the third or forth time Cassandra has not corrected her. They are the same age, in her early 30s, but the similarities end there. “Interested in a baseball game tonight? I have four tickets I can’t use. 7:30pm start.” She fans herself with the tickets.
“Oh my gosh, how nice of you. Thank you so much.”
The doctor lays the tickets on the taupe formica countertop separating the two women, the two worlds, and Cassandra takes a single ticket into her hands to examine the details.
“Take all four. Otherwise they’ll go to waste.” The doctor is pleased at the impact of her generosity.
“Thank you, thank you.” Cassandra catches the doctor smiling at her and quickly returns her regard to the tickets. “My kids will be thrilled. They’ve never been to a baseball game.”
“Enjoy,” says the doctor. She places her bony hands in her lab coat for warmth, spins, and walks back to her office.
Cassandra doesn’t know why she lied.She saw a home game earlier in the season. The local minor league team rarely wins, so free tickets are not hard to come by. The concession stand prices took her breath away, but the game did not, remaining tied at 0-0 into the sixth inning, when Lily melted down from boredom.
She takes out her wallet to stash the tickets, looks again at the 7:30pm start time, and thinks of who at the Biltmore might enjoy a night at the ballpark.
Grace and a half dozen kids gather round the picnic table as Cassandra settles in. It is exactly 7:30. Lily and Atticus no longer swim right away, and are familiar enough with the pageant to be surprised at the crows’ absence. Then Grace gasps and points to a spot low in the sky. The crows, like circus performers, land to light applause. Cassandra spreads her arms to hold the children back. By now, she is a minor celebrity. Jerome places part of a tail light on the table. The children edge forward to see, making the birds nervous until Cassandra gently backs them away with her soothing voice. Ivan doesn’t listen and grabs the red shard of plastic.
“Ivan,” she says, “You’re scaring the birds.”
Ivan ignores her and holds the gift to the fading sun.
“Ivan, put it down,” says an older girl.
“Put it down, stupid meany,” says a boy. Ivan scowls at him, distracted. Cassandra plucks the gift from his fingers and places it on the table for everyone to appreciate.
“If you can’t respect their space, you need to leave,” she says. Ivan rubs his short blond hair and backs up a few feet before running off to the pool to mob his unsuspecting brother.
“Must be from a car accident,” says Grace. “Clever little devils. What do you think this one means?”
“Stop, maybe?” says Cassandra. “Be careful?”
Grace presses her lips together as if to disagree. “Do you think Nina and Jerome know what a car is?”
A shoe flies by Cassandra’s head with a whoosh, and the birds alight. Igor runs back to the pool as the assembled children turn and yell at him. Cassandra follows him and searches for Gwen, but like most nights, she is absent. When Igor surfaces near the steps, Ivan is the first to yell at him.
“Igor,” she says in vain. Igor dives underwater. Ivan jumps into the water and pulls him up by the hair. Igor comes up swinging and shocks his brother with a quick jab. Ivan is too stunned to defend himself. Igor comes at him with both hands and pushes his head into the pool wall. The thud is neither hollow nor brittle. Blood trickles down Ivan’s forehead as the boy screams at his brother, who watches without emotion, walking backward toward the center of the pool.
In her apartment, Cassandra sets Ivan down on her oversized gray couch and turns on every light in the room. It is reasonably clean and organized given her children’s ages. Ivan is wrapped in a towel, holding the edge of it to his forehead. Lily and Atticus share an armchair opposite him, watching in silence.
“When will your mom be home?” Cassandra asks as she returns to the room with medical supplies.
“Is she at work?”
She pulls his hand back to examine the wound. The cut is deep, two centimeter in length.
“What does your mom do for work?” she asks as she cleans the wound.
“She works on the roads.” Ivan winces with each cleansing touch.
“Has she done that for long?”
“A few weeks.”
“Well,” she says, looking at her phone. “It’s 8:45pm. I’m afraid your mom will need to take you to the emergency room. You need stitches.”
This surprises him as much as his brother’s attack. He begins to cry and she pulls him close. Lily approches to console him while Atticus continues to stare, slack-jawed.
The doorbell chimes and Lily runs to the front door. The sound of crickets flood the room, along with the smell of cigarettes.
“I’m looking for my son,” says a voice from outside.
“Mom?”says Ivan.A second later, Gwen is holding him tightly. She is wearing afluorescent yellow t-shirt, tar-stained jeans, and boots. His arms are wrapped around her waist.
“Thank you so much for taking care of him,” says Gwen after a lengthy hug. She is sweaty and exhausted, as if she has not slept. “I’m so sorry. I can’t keep these two out of trouble.”
“Oh gosh,” says Cassandra. “Just glad to help.”
“I need stitches,” says Ivan. Gwen pulls back the gauze and grimaces, as if the pain is her own.
“I work at a clinic,” says Cassandra. “I can bandage him up but it’s a deep cut. He’ll have a nasty scar unless you close it up right.”
“How much will that cost?” asks Gwen.
‘You don’t have insurance?”
Ivan couldn’t see her shaking her head.
“I guess we could wrap it tight and then I could bring home some butterfly bandages from work tomorrow.”
“Is that too much trouble?” asks Gwen.
“Not at all.” Cassandra smiles at the boy with genuine affection. “Ivan might have a Harry Potter scar when we’re done with this.”
Lily and Atticus giggle. Ivan looks at them defensively.
“I’m Gwen,” she says to Cassandra, her hands occupied, her eyes contrite.
“Cassandra,” comes the reply. “This is Atticus and Lily.”
Gwen smiles at the children, then kisses her son’s head and rocks him, gratefully.
Ivan and another boy are waiting at the picnic table when Cassandra, Wynter, Atticus, and Lily arrive. It’s a Friday. The adults are tipsy. Cassandra checks Ivan’s wound and applies a fresh bandage. He has obeyed her directive to stay out of the water. A storms threatens from the west, darkening the sky prematurely. The crows have not yet arrived. Cassandra distributes bread crumbs and hopes.
Jerome arrives without Nina and deposits an old baddage on the table.
“See,” says Cassandra. “These birds are fucking smart.”
“Mommy!” says Lily. The other kids just grin.
“Is that Nina?” asks Wynter.
“There she is.” Nina flutters over the fence and lands on the ground. She makes no sound as she looks at Cassandra. Her head is still. Several crows land on the table to eat, but she stays below.
“I’m worried,” says Cassandra. “West Nile Virus is wiping them out. Big-time.” When the crows depart, Nina does not move. Cassandra picks her up gently, walks to the fence, and tries to place her on top, but Nina takes flight, staying low to the ground until she disappears behind the scrub.
The next evening, it finally rains. Lightning keeps everyone indoors. The day after, a familiar child stops Cassandra in the parking lot as she and the children arrive home, and asks them to come to the pool immediately. There, a group of children are gathered around the picnic table. Some are crying. On the faded wood lies part of Nina, black, dusty, and lifeless. On the fence, stoically watching the human spectacle before them, sit Jerome and a half-dozen crows.
The following day, Cassandra begins a college application and buys a used Zoology textbook for $41.29. Jerome arrives that evening with the other crows, but no gift. The pageant continues, as it has for the past five weeks, but in declining wonder. A young girl asks her if Nina is in Heaven. Cassandra looks at the girl with an attempted smile that dissolves into a quiet sob. Ivan takes her hand and tells her not to be sad. Beaks peck at bread while their audience looks on.
Until a glass bottle smashes into Cassandra’s face without shattering. Her glasses fly off her head as she falls backward. The birds leap into the air and the assembly searches for the source. She hears Atticus scream her name but she cannot see him or anyone else. Her balance falters but she is not afraid. Her eyes regain focus. She touches the bridge of her nose and her fingers come away wet with blood.
The help she expects doesn’t arrive. Instead, a quarter-circle has formed around Igor, rapt with his demise. He is yelling in bursts, rushing about the weedy green between the fence and the pool’s tiled deck. His arms thrash at the air. His movements are erratic, panicked. Black streaks swoop down from above, barely visible in the weak evening light, tearing at his face and pecking his skull as they pass.Within a few quick breaths, he too is bleeding, disoriented, almost helpless.
Cassandra rushes him. Igor tears at her hair and clothes when she lifts him to her chest, an arm under his back and knees. He almost kicks his way free when she spins and shakes him, pulling him into her with all of her strength. She is swearing at him, unloading years of frustration and pain while she saves him. Their blood mixes on each other’s clothing. He is now afraid to move. The crows halt their attack. Jerome returns to the picnic table, cawing aggressively.
Cassandra loosens her grip and Igor wriggles free, calls her a fat cow, and runs to his apartment, wiping his eyes with his torn, bloody shirt.
The assembly has moved to her living room. The gash on Cassandra’s eyebrow throbs as Grace cleans it.Lily holds her left hand. Atticus leaves her side to show another boy his figurine collection. Despite the attack, the gathering becomes a impromptu party. The swelling of her eye is dramatic, but this is nothing, Grace assures her. Pete, her younger brother, God rest his soul, split his head open on the corner of a brick building when an improvised bicycle ramp gave way during a neighborhood stunt show. She honors every detail of the story.Ivan opens a butterfly bandage from his reserve stock and hands it to her, and she carefully closes the wound.
“That was a bit Hitchcock,” says Grace as Cassandra arranges cut fruit and chips on the kitchen table. A half hour has passed. “You’re like some kind of god to those birds. They weren’t gonna stop.”
“It’s called mobbing,” says Cassandra, using a toothpick to stab a tasteless, fist-sized strawberry. “That’s how crows attack predators.”
“Predators,” repeats Grace with a grin. “Guess he didn’t like his brother changing sides.”
There is enough noise to hide the door chime. More neighbors, Cassandra thinks when she finally hears it, paying their respects to the bird lady.
“Can we come in?” It is Gwen. She is wearing the same yellow t-shirt and dirty jeans, dragging Igor by the wrist. Her humiliation and lack of patience intensifies as she pulls Igor into the hushed room. The children have stopped playing. He lunges for the door and knocks her off balance, but she recovers easily.
“Apologize.” She is almost screaming. Igor squirms and turns away as best he can with a captive arm but everyone has seen his eyes. They are royal red and devoid of whiteness. There are red claw marks on his checks and neck and dried blood in his hair.
“Apologize, Igor.” She is not hitting him, but his hand is purple from the strength of her grip.
“APOLOGIZE,” Gwen screams and the child collapses onto the ground. She lets go and stands against the door, blocking his exit. Her breath is quick. Her eyes flit between Igor and Cassandra, who approaches the child on all fours. He cries for a long time, hiding his face.
“Igor,” she says finally and pauses for a reply that never comes. “Those crows, they’re part of my family. They have names. Did you know that?”
Igor has stopped crying. He lies face down on the beige shag carpet with his knees under him, his lacerated hands covering his neck.
“Nina and Jerome,” she says. “I named them after my parents.”
Igor rubs a gash on the back of his head quickly. All of the children surround the apartment’s front door, waiting for justice, perhaps a whipping, some form of punishment that, from their vantage point, he so badly deserves.
“My parents died when I was a teenager. And I miss them so much that I thought naming the crows after them would help. And it did. For awhile. Until Nina died.”
“Why did you throw the bottle?” asks Gwen.
“Answer me, Igor. Why’d you throw a bottle at Cassandra?”
“Because,” says Igor into the carpet.
“Because you named me Igor. That’s what Igors do. Throw bottles. At fat people.”
A laugh escapes from Atticus before Gwen’s eyes silence him.
“Do you want a new name?” asks Cassandra. She places her hand on his back. “You don’t want to be Igor anymore?”
Cassandra rubs his back and he does not resist. “OK,” she says finally. “But before we change your name, Igor, you should know something about the crows.”
“What?” he asks.
She exhales and meets at the eyes trained on her. “They know things that we don’t. And now they’ll be watching you. They’ll know if you are mean to anyone in this room. If you hurt anybody. If you disobey your mom. They’ll certainly know if you ever call me fat again.”
The seriousness in Cassandra’s voice makes the assembled children share a concerned look.
“As it is, they may never let you go to the pool again. They know what you’ve done to me and they will never forgive you. The only way you can swim is if I protect you.” She removes her hand. His brother lays down next to him on the floor.
She knows this will not happen. The following week confirms it. The crows never return. She is dethroned, but what bothers her more is their distrust. She is human and blamed without differentiation. She takes Lily and Atticus for forgiveness walks in the neighboring field. The crows caw at them, and more than once they are shit upon, but they never identify Jerome. Instead they find an illegal dumping area, the source of the gifts.
“Can you be nice to everyone here, Igor?” she asks. “We’re all you’ve got.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he says without hesitation.
She crawls closer and slides her thumbs under his armpits, lifting him. He weighs nothing. His legs instinctively wrap around her hips when she settles him on her left side and his face presses into her neck.
“OK, Sweetie, what’s it gonna be? What’s your new name?”
“You decide,” he says.
Cassandra looks to Gwen, whose eyes are not quite as red as her son’s. She nods, as if finalizing an adoption. Cassandra exhales again and looks at Lily and the others for inspiration. None of the children even blink.
“If Lily had been a boy,” she says to the room, lifting Igor again as she stands and steps to Gwen, placing the son in his mother’s arms, “I would have named him Forrest.”
The boy latches onto his mother and turns to look at the sound of this new name. He is bewildered by the unexpected compassion. He stares at Cassandra then looks to his brother, who is smiling up at him. “Forrest?” he asks.
“It’s a fine name,” says Grace.
“Forrest,” he repeats softly. Atticus knows this story and nods. “Can I go swimming tomorrow?” he asks, as he wipes his nose on his mom’s yellow shirt.
“I don’t know, Forrest,” says Gwen. “We have to get there first.” She offers a hand to Ivan and walks to the door. The gathering begins to chatter. Cassandra opens the door for them and Gwen kisses her cheek on the way out and apologizes twice.
“It’s OK,” Cassandra assures her, but Gwen is already lost. She is weeping, but her face is more rage than sadness. Cassandra puts her arms around the family of three and cannot resist the collective emotion, but there is catharsis in it, a breakthrough that will never fade from memory. They are not suffering alone, misunderstood.
Gwen collects her wits suddenly and is gone, walking her boys down the piss-yellow corridor toward her own studio apartment.Cassandra stands in the doorway, watching them go, enjoying the expensive mix of air conditioning and humidity on her skin.Still so hot, but summer is almost gone.