by Aimee Ogden
Lincoln is in the kitchen smearing peanut butter onto the last few crackers in the box, the ones that are chipped and cracked but still salvageable. He clicks the knife hard against the edges of the peanut butter jar, crinkles the cracker sleeves too, but he can still hear his mom crying upstairs, and Aunt Jen’s voice raised in counterpoint. He slams the cupboard door and for a moment there’s just the crash of wood on wood in his ears and not the noise from above.
It’s not fair. It’s not fair that he has to pretend nothing’s wrong while one big long parade of wrongness marches up and down the stairs and through the hallways of his house twelve times a day. Mom came home to die and everyone wants Lincoln to act like she might just come waltzing down into the kitchen tomorrow morning to make everyone pancakes and complain about Congress.
There’s a thunder of footsteps on the staircase, but when he glances up hopefully, it’s just Aunt Jen, her arms full of wadded-up sheets. An acrid ammonia odor cuts through the background radiation of antiseptics. Lincoln breathes through his mouth as he puts away the peanut butter and tears up the cracker box for the recycling. Aunt Jen doesn’t greet him as she storms through the kitchen, but after she opens the basement door with one foot she pauses. “Sweetheart, get out the Lysol spray and the paper towels, will you?”
“I can clean the mattress liner.” He crushes the end of the plastic cracker sleeve in his palm, smashing the last few bits to dust. “I don’t mind.”
“I’ll do it. I’m just going to throw in a load of— Lincoln! What did you do?” The laundry cascades to the floor in dreamy, fluttering parachutes. Aunt Jen lunges to the counter to pull an envelope out from underneath the dirty knife. Her shirt hem collects a greasy wad of peanut butter, and leaves a brownish streak behind on the paper. Lincoln can still make out the words For your eighteenth birthday scrawled in shaky blue ink. “Jesus, Lincoln, can you not pay an ounce of attention to what you’re doing?”
As if he can do anything but pay attention to what’s going on. He knocks the plate of crackers into the sink and the plate strikes the stainless steel with a resounding chime that echoes on and on as it rolls on its rim and the sound drives him up the stairs, two at a time. He locks the door behind him and sits down hard with his back against it.
Muffled curses precede Aunt Jen up the stairs. She bangs on his door once, twice, three times. She shouts at him to come out and apologize and clean up his mess. He waits. Sure enough, after one more round of knocking, Aunt Jen swears again and storms away. When he puts his ear to the door, he can hear her apologizing to his mom for making her wait.
“It’s okay.” From his room, he can hear his mom’s soft words. She’s not crying anymore but the pain is curled up inside her voice, trying to burrow its way out. It would be better if she just set it free. “It’s okay, Jenny, I’m fine.”
Once, Lincoln’s mom washed his mouth out with soap. He can’t remember exactly what he’d said — some jagged-edged word he’d picked up at school and turned against one of the other kids, maybe? Afterward they both cried and she promised never to do it again. There’s not enough soap in this eternally scrubbed-clean, wiped-down house to wash away a lie like I’m fine. Lincoln pushes off the ground and flings open his bedroom window and shifts into the crow-shape as he launches himself outside.
In the crow-shape, Lincoln is still Lincoln, both more so and less: the pared-down outline of himself, only the essentials left. The Cliffs Notes version of his own brain. He sweeps the air with his wings, beating the ground farther and farther away, until the world is nothing but endless violet-stained sky.
When he’s in his human-shape, Lincoln thrashes to exhaustion against the cage of rules that constrain his shifting. When he’s purely human, it feels as if there should be a way to wrench the magic sideways, to break it or bend it into some new form. A way to heal, to cure, to bring to life. But when he’s the crow, things are what they are. A boy who is also a crow can’t steal the sickness from his mother’s body like a shiny trinket, and he can’t peck away tumors like glistening white grubs hidden within her flesh. He can only glide high above her pain, and his — and only for a little while at that.
Awk awk-awk. The familiar vocalization brings his head around to search for the crow it came from, and his body quickly follows. When his wings tip, he catches shear, and drops rapidly. He recovers, with a few vigorous flaps, and falls into Dove’s slipstream. She caws again, and he rasps out a response in kind.
Dove is the name he gave her — crows don’t have names of their own. A childish idea of a joke, at first. Before he knew how closely they would pull into one another’s orbit. But it fits, somehow. There’s a peacefulness to her. A promise that there can be an end to the war raging inside his skin. Together they glide through the afternoon, their shadows sliding one over the other.
They drop from the sky onto the sidewalk on Walnut Street, where a squirrel’s twisted corpse slowly cools with the fading sunlight. Dove hops close first, slices into its belly with her beak, and tears free a hunk of flesh. She tips her head back to swallow, then turns it to the side to fix him with one beady eye. He struts closer and joins her to gorge on the still-fresh meat.
Before he learned to shift, Lincoln-the-human would have turned up his nose at the warm delicate liver of a fresh kill. Before he learned to shift, he also would have said he could never love a bird. But here he is, and so is she.
With gore still streaked on his beak, he wants to fluff out his feathers, show her the gleaming black of his fine good health and the broad powerful expanse of his flight muscles. He wants to sing her a song to quicken the already flutter-fast rhythm of her heart, to stroke his beak through the wonderful dark mystery of her feathers and have her stroke his in turn. He doesn’t love her in the same way that he loves his mom or dad or Aunt Jen, or even the same way that he loved his eighth-grade boyfriend. This is something unique and different, and terrible for its fragility. If — when — Mom dies, the family might move. And even if they don’t — what if Dove builds her nest in Mrs. Riviera’s yard and she knocks it down with her cane, or what if a hawk snatches the fledglings on their first flight? The dismal possibilities stack up and Lincoln is small and powerless in their shadow.
Dove looks up from the picked-over squirrel and caws again. The sound sends Lincoln up and into the air, homeward bound.
* * *
No one hears him crash onto the roof and in through the window. Or if they do, they chalk it up to a typical teenage mood, slammed door or banging drawers. Lincoln doesn’t know what typical teenage anything feels like anymore and he’s tired of Dad and Aunt Jen trying to shove all his problems into his age, like a one-size-fits-all t-shirt that he can only squeeze one arm inside.
He stands in the middle of the room, trying to remember what he was doing before he was a bird: both now, and in a broad existential sense. A snarl from his stomach interrupts his ruminations. The crackers he abandoned earlier are probably still lying in the sink. He slouches down the stairs in search of those, or something better.
Dad’s at the kitchen table, hunched over a plate streaked with pasty lines of cooled cheese sauce. He looks up at Lincoln’s arrival, and the wrinkle between his eyebrows deepens. “Done sulking in your room? We’re happy to let you have your privacy, Link, but you make it hard to remember that when you act half your age.”
Lincoln isn’t the one who named his kid Lincoln so that he could call him by a nickname from a favorite video game; comments from Dad about immaturity don’t carry a lot of weight. He ignores Dad and lopes to the stove, where a large pile of noodles still wallow in sticky sauce. No need for a plate; he’ll finish what’s there. He takes the pot and the serving spoon to the table and drops to a seat at the opposite end from Dad. “No, thanks,” says Dad dryly, “I don’t need any seconds.”
A machine gun rat-a-tat of footsteps shooting down the stairs. Aunt Jen lopes into the kitchen. “Oh good, you’re both actually eating something with protein in it.” She puts her hands on the counter and stretches her shoulders and back through a series of quasi-yoga poses. “Lincoln, did you do your laundry yet? If you don’t have clean socks for school tomorrow I don’t want to hear about it at seven in the morning.”
“Yeah.” He stuffs his mouth with the serving spoon to make an excuse for not saying anything more.
Dad has his phone on the table, scrolling through apps with his thumb. “Finally supposed to freeze tonight,” he says cheerfully. As if talking about normal bullshit like the weather is a normal thing for this family to do right now. “Might kill off those damn mosquitoes.”
“Oh, no,” says Aunt Jen, and leans back against the wall. “I’m not ready for snow and all that yet.”
Lincoln pushes back from the table, one arm wrapped around the cold stockpot. “Can I eat dinner in my room?”
“No,” say Dad and Aunt Jen at the same time. Lincoln slumps in his chair and chews cold macaroni till his jaws hurt. He eats with his mouth open, so that his tongue smacks thickly and the macaroni glops between his teeth. By the end he’s made himself nauseous, but neither Aunt Jen nor Dad correct his manners, and he can’t hear them blabbing on about the weather and the neighbors and whether the stupid Packers are going to win this weekend.
* * *
After dinner he stands outside his parents’ bedroom door. His mother’s bedroom door, that is; Dad’s sheets are thrown out on the living room sofa. “I could read to you,” he says. He keeps his voice low, so that if she’s asleep she’ll stay that way, so that if she’s hurting too much to hide it she can pretend she’s not awake to hear him. He leans into the door as he speaks, and the cheap composite wood shifts against his weight. “One of your weird Mom books. Or A Separate Peace. We have to read that for English 9.” He waits for an answer. “A Separate Peace is bullshit anyway,” he says, lips against the white-painted grain. No one corrects his language or his literary opinions, and after a moment of floorboard-creaking silence he retreats to his room.
* * *
Lincoln lies in bed with the box fan in the corner cranked up to its maximum speed. His bedroom gets cold in the fall and winter, but he can’t sleep without the roar of the fan competing with the wind’s dull whine. Tonight, actually, he can’t sleep either way. He wrestles with the covers, pulling them on and kicking them off, until they’re a hopeless tangle. He shoves them off the edge of the bed with one foot and they land with a soft whuff on the floor. Now he’s too cold and too tired to get out of bed to tuck the sheets and comforter back in.
The branches of the oak tree scratch at the glass, inviting him to shift out into the night. The moon’s cold pale light crawls up his bare legs and leaves them itching. He wants to do the right thing. But he doesn’t know how to know what the right thing is, nor who, exactly, it would be right for.
When he was little, he thought that knowing the right thing to do was something you learned when you got older, part of the process of Becoming a Grown-up. Now he knows that grown-ups don’t know anything about what’s right and what’s not.
He doesn’t know, but he suspects, that sometimes there’s no right thing at all — only a thing that hurts the least.
* * *
Before the first Friday sunlight spills into his room, Lincoln is awake, perched on the footboard of his bed — still human, merely anxious. Already dressed for the day, he makes his hoodie zipper sing shrilly as he yanks it up, down, up again. As he huddles there, waiting for a decision to land on his shoulders, the first sounds of morning creep down the hallway: muffled footsteps, the flush of the toilet. Words, too quiet for him to understand. The pipes in the walls creak and grumble and Lincoln is in the bedroom window before his head realizes that his body has already long since decided.
His arms fold into wings and the weight of him falls away. He pumps against the air, pushing higher and farther away, and casts his raucous call for her. The shape of her caw is carved on the banner of his breastbone, and he hopes the same is true for her.
But when he flies over the town, casting his shadow across the sloping roofs, she does not lift into the air to meet him. The cold air burns his lungs and his croaks grow hoarse. It’s mating season and there is no such thing as an engagement ring between crows. He’s never offered her a proper courtship display. She might even think him another female, a companion but not a mate. Perhaps she’s already taken a partner.
Crows bond for life, but no one ever promised the life would be his.
Disappointment fills the hollows of his bones, makes him heavy. He swings groundward, toward a knot of other crows hopping about in the Piggly-Wiggly parking lot. There’s a moment in between his dropping into their orbit and his realization of what gravitational mass has pulled them close. A moment when understanding tries to hide its head beneath its wing.
The flies are not confused. They congregate at their feast and their brisk vibrations are a hymn of gratitude. This twisted wreck of spilled guts and loose feathers is their daily bread. One crawls across the glassy black pearl that was once an eye. Lincoln waits for a blink that will never come. He looks at his warped reflection so that he doesn’t have to read Dove’s name into the twisted lines of ribs and the frozen curl of claws.
“Kraaa,” says another crow, hopping closer to the corpse and then back again. The caw might mean mine-mine-mine or car or man-child, but in context the most likely meaning was cat. Lincoln flaps his wings hard, but doesn’t leave the ground; several other crows scutter away from him. Context: Dove’s splintered bones and dull fly-picked viscera.
Flies. The flies have to leave her alone. She’s dead but that doesn’t mean they all have to pretend it’s all right, that the shape that held her is nothing now. He hops to her and pecks viciously at the one on her eye. It takes wing with a shrill whine and instead of chitin he gets a gelid burst of salt-sweet liquid.
Only his flapping wings save him from tumbling over backwards. He beats them harder, blocking out the sun that dares to shine on these bloody bones. A sky that would let her tumble from its grace doesn’t deserve her. Cat, he cries bitterly, or perhaps it is mine-mine-mine! that he shrieks. He covers her with his body and here next to her, on top of her, he is saturated in the sweet-rotten smell of her. He preens a stray feather from her neck and sets it free. Then he puts his beak to the torn strip of flesh at her throat and rips it free. When he cants his head back it tumbles down his throat, carrion-love, fetid and nourishing.
The sweet web of her pancreas, the tang of her liver. He is collecting the bits of her and even as his beak works on this purest and most frightening instinct, his body moves too, his cloaca shoving dryly against the hollow ruins. Everything is wrong but everything is right too, as right as it can be, him without her and her within him. His cry rakes his throat raw.
He shatters the air with a beat of his wings and staggers back. Dove stands on the other side of the corpse from him, and cants her head. “Awk,” she repeats, curious, concerned.
His gorge rises, sorrow refusing to be washed away by nauseous relief. He staggers away, dragging his wings as if they are broken, as the other crows scuttle back and forth and croak their confusion. Dove follows, hopping after him. She stops with an alarmed cry when he shifts. He’s a boy again by the time he clears the parking lot and though he has no too-heavy wings to bear up against, he runs all the way home as if they are still there trailing behind him.
* * *
He climbs the downspout to get back up to his room. The gutter shrills its alarm when he puts his weight on it, but it holds long enough for him to drag himself in through the open window. No one comes to ask about the noise, and Lincoln doesn’t make it any farther than the floor below the sill. He puts his arms over his head and wets the carpet with confused tears.
A knock wakes him from a shallow, huddled sleep. His neck hurts, his left arm tingles numbly. “Honey,” says Aunt Jen through the door. “Your dad’s at work and I have to get to the grocery store before the lady from hospice comes this evening. I hate to ask it of you, but since you’re home from school already…” Her words fall away. She doesn’t know how to ask even this smallest and most precious thing of him.
She doesn’t say anything else, just stands there; he can see the shadow of her feet beneath the door. He rises on hollow-boned legs and crosses the room and when he opens the door she stumbles as if she were leaning against it. “Lincoln,” she says, and worry hides itself in the folds of a familiar frown. “How late were you up last night?”
He looks aside and his dresser mirror deals him a glancing blow: the skin around his eyes as red as open sores, whites spiderwebbed with pink. When he shrugs, his skin shifts paper-thin across his bones. He could tear it away and leave Aunt Jen with nothing but a handful of black feathers. If he clings to the crow-shape for good, there will be grief. However hard he beats his wings, he can’t fly away from that, but crows at least know how to say goodbye. They know that it needs to be said.
The hairs on his neck prickle, as if they would rather be feathers. He leans into that electric possibility, the safety of knowing that he could be elsewhere. That he could be Dove’s. If he needed to be. If he wanted. His hand finds the doorjamb and the hollow-core wood whispers promises of home. “I can keep an eye on things. It’s fine. I don’t mind.”
She smiles without really letting go of the frown. “Okay. If you’re sure it’s not too much trouble.”
“Okay,” she says again, and once more before she turns. “Okay. Thanks, sweetheart.” Her body turns toward the stairs and her head follows last, so that her gaze clings to him a little longer. Then it breaks free and she hurries down the stairs, her frayed ponytail bouncing shoulder to shoulder.
Lincoln waits for the dull chatter of the keyring, the slam of the door, the distant thunder of the Hyundai’s engine. Only then does he pad downstairs.
The workaday noises of the kitchen — the fridge’s frustrated dust-clogged fan, the dishwasher’s sloshing — swallow up the sound of his bare feet on the linoleum. He’s a ghost in this space, but not his own ghost. Someone else’s.
The box is in its customary place, shoved up on top of the microwave, out of sight but never out of mind. When he takes it down, the peanut-butter-stained letter lies on top of the pile. He sits at the table and takes that one out first. The envelope is heavy, and not only with words; its paper is thick, the color of milk with a little bit of coffee, the way Lincoln drinks it. His finger slides into the tiny open space at the corner of the flap and he pulls until he hears the seal start to rip. Then he freezes. There’s a sharp-edged comfort in resting here on the moment’s cusp, a cage of hollow bones around him that knows his shape and that he could shatter with a shrug. He could be a boy or a bird. He could fly high over his grief and let his shadow skim over it lightly, or he could let it hatch and learn to love what emerged naked and raw from the remains.
He jerks his wrist, and tears the envelope.
The paper whispers as he draws it out and flattens it on the tabletop. I wish I could know you as an adult. But that man, whoever he is, casts a long shadow backward and I can see you in its outline — He takes out another envelope and rips into it, all hesitation sublimated by the pressure here. When you meet that person, whoever they are, and you just know — Another envelope. The kind of father you’ll be — Another. When your dad takes you out for your first legal drink, don’t let him drag you to Priestley’s, that’s an old people bar! Tell him I said he has to —
All around Lincoln lies a flock of torn white wings. One last letter waits in the bottom of the box. This one is stark white, a plain cheap letter-sized affair, flimsy and light under his touch. It’s not even sealed and there’s a word on the front he hasn’t seen before: If.
If I have to leave you early
He unfolds a piece of lined notebook paper. Its left margin is uneven where the shredded remnants of spiral binding have been cut away. He moves his fingers over the paper as he reads and the deep imprints left by the pen guide him as he goes.
My dear Link,
It’s Thursday, the fourth of June, and we just got back from the doctor. I think you already know something’s wrong, but I have to find the words to tell you that the news wasn’t what we were expecting. And it wasn’t good. So maybe if I can figure it out here, first, I can find a way to say it out loud. Maybe that will make it real. I’m not ready for it to be real yet. I’m not ready to imagine not watching you grow up, find your way in the world, make a space for yourself in it.
He tears the letter in half, tears it again, crushes the pieces down into points and shoves them into his mouth. He chews, the paper communion-wafer soggy on his tongue, and swallows, and shreds the envelope too to follow it down. His lips and tongue burn with paper cuts and the paper presses uncomfortably against his gorge. A fullness, a certainty, him without her and her within him, a part of him, the ink-curled shape of her pain running in his veins.
* * *
He opens the door without knocking. She lies in bed, neither asleep nor awake but some crepuscular state in between. A pen droops between her fingers and a piece of stationery rests on her lap; when he looks at it, the ink marks have the size and shape of words but none of their meaning. There haven’t been new letters for a long time now — or at least, none that have arrived in the box downstairs.
Sun streams in through the windows, and there’s a draft from the bad fitting. In the old birch outside, there’s a flicker of movement. A stir of black wings, perhaps, or maybe just the wind in the branches. Lincoln closes the curtains to close off the cold air, and replaces sunlight with the small familiar glow of the overhead light.
He takes the pen and paper away first and sets them on the nightstand, in between bottles of pills and boxes of vinyl gloves. She mumbles an objection, but doesn’t reach for what’s been taken.
The bed isn’t the queen-sized one where Dad used to sleep too, but a smaller one, the kind with sides that fold up and where the mattress can lift to make a recliner or lie flat like a bed. Dad’s shape is still here though, the valley of his shoulder and side carved into the thin mattress in the little space left beside Mom. Lincoln crawls into that hollow. He moves carefully but the bed judders when it takes his weight and he sees the tremor that crosses her face. He swallows his sorries and lays his head on the pillow. He doesn’t want to imagine his life without her either. He touches her hand, waits for a flinch or frown, and finding none, clasps it tighter. For the space of this breath, at least, she is still his, and that is a small silent celebration of its own.
Her chest rises, and rattles as it falls again. Tears slide out from beneath her shuttered lashes. Lincoln kisses her cheek, and salt-fire burns his lips. For a moment, the faraway light in her eyes burns a little brighter. Then she closes them again, and lets her head fall to the side. He closes his too, and lets her grief lick away the marrow of his bones to make room for itself beside his own.
* * *
About the Author
Aimee Ogden is a former science teacher and software tester; now she writes stories about sad astronauts and angry princesses. Her short fiction has also appeared in venues such as Clarkesworld, Analog, Escape Pod, The Dark, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and her novellas Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters and Local Star are forthcoming in 2021 from Tor.com and Interstellar Flight Press respectively. A graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop, she also co-edits Translunar Travelers Lounge, an online magazine of fun and optimistic speculative fiction. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her family and a very good dog named Commander Riker.