by Margit Elland Schmitt
The first time Steve saw the junkie - really saw her - she was on the fire escape
outside his son Matt's room, sitting next to the bird feeders and looking like she
was drowning in the rain. He crossed to the window and had a fleeting impression
of a thin face beneath pale, draggled hair, and the flying tail of a long, dark coat.
Then she took off, vanishing in a clatter of feet down the stairs, and Steve found
himself with both hands pressed cold against the window, his breath fogging the
"Dad?" said Matt. "What is it, Dad?"
Matt. Sitting up in bed with his sandy hair sticking out at all angles. He wore
fuzzy, footie pajamas, and had a faded pillow case safety-pinned round his
shoulders for a superhero cape. Matt was only five. Steve didn't want to scare him.
He could see that the window was still locked; ran his fingers over the mechanism
to be sure. He closed the curtains to shut out the rain, the junkie, and the night in
one swift motion, and wiped his hands on his jeans.
"Thought I saw something in the bird feeders," he said. "Probably a sparrow."
"A really big sparrow? Or maybe it was a rat," said Matt, more intrigued than
That was part life in the city, where pigeons and rats, alley-cats and squirrels, were
what passed for wildlife. Matt didn't get outside much these days. The room was
littered with picture books and building blocks, with one corner entirely devoted to
the dirty laundry Steve kept telling himself he needed to get to. A domino trail led
from a Lego castle guarded by a stuffed dragon, back and forth to the mysterious
shadow-world under the bed, and out into the hall.
There were binoculars on the night table next to the medicine bottles. Matt had
decided that if he was stuck inside, he was going to watch birds through the
windows. The bird-feeders had gone up the next day and drew plenty of visitors.
Most days, Steve came home from work and Matt had some story or other about a
rare crested blue jay or pigeon sighting. Leah, the sitter had a copy of the Birds of
America, and Steve tried to throw as many birds as he could into bedtime stories.
Matt could go on about feathers and beaks, nests and eggs for hours on end.
Steve thought of it as a good luck charm. Since the bird feeders had gone up, Matt
had started responding to the medication. He had energy now, enough to be restless
and cranky, to be bouncing off the walls. He'd broken a lamp playing catch with
himself against the wall. He'd found a screwdriver and taken apart the toaster.
Steve ate his bread untoasted in the morning and didn't complain. Anything,
anything was better than relapse.
Before he'd gotten sick, Matt hadn't been a bird lover. Digging in the dirt, yes.
Climbing trees, yes. Dinosaurs, dragons, bugs and blasters, yes and yes. But then
they'd found the tumor and given up the house with the yard, given up a hundred
other things, so they could come here, where the experts were supposed to make
things miraculously better. Instead of miracles, they had had bills and emergency
room visits, and an endless wait to see if this round of chemo would take. And
now, after all this time, the birds.
Matt's mother, Sharon, had loved birds.
"Where was I?" Steve sat down at the bedside chair and picked up the storybook
"Was it a rat, Dad?" asked Matt. "Or just a bird?"
"Neither," said Steve. "I just thought I saw something, and it turned out not to have
wings or a tail. Where was I?"