click for homepage

              The Barcelona Review

Author Bio




The boy who lived at the end of the cul-de-sac was a horrible, nasty boy. His skin was sickly-white. As green as the innermost flesh of winter melon. Metal braces bucked to hold back strange, long-looking teeth. And his eyes—those were arguably his second-worst feature. Blacker than marbles, those eyes, with practically nothing behind them. Except when they whirred. His eyes, they whirred, whenever the boy thought up a particularly evil idea. The boy’s absolute first-worst feature was his propensity to climb trees, and with a pachew, pachew, he’d shoot holes through birds with his Crosman SNR-357 BB pellet gun.
       Before all that, the horrible, nasty boy had just wanted to be like his father. His father flew planes. The desire had started out innocently enough. It started with the fledgling love of building model airplanes in his room with cement, sandpaper, and a hobby knife. But then that love matured; the hobby knife was cast aside. Real live things with breath and heartbeat eclipsed the sad, plastic surrogates for flight. There was a certain thrill that came along with shooting things dead. There was, too, the skinning and fleshing and studying of the parts.
       Into a shed in the backyard, the horrible, nasty boy would take his birds. There, he’d pluck at the bird’s fine, pimpled flesh, watch how its tissue stretched with his trusty pair of forceps. The insides were hot as sun-sore plums, feathers glossy as melted Hershey’s. Sometimes, the bird would die with its beak cracked open in pain-song, which gave the boy a feeling of ennui. He discovered he wasn’t so interested in death itself, not so interested in the insides: of sawing pink and purple flesh from bone, scouring yellow fat deposits with a metal brush, or scooping tacky brain ooze—all of which may have delighted other boys his age. Yes, there were interesting divots in the collarbone, but no. What the boy really wanted to study was the bird’s wings. He sought to understand the laws.
       The other children would watch as the boy carried his kill to the shed. Then for hours: drilling sounds, the faint buzz of a high-powered saw, a pound-happy hammer. Because there was a padlock on the door of the shed and because the windows were blacked out, nobody could tell for sure what happened inside.
       When he wasn’t in his shed, the horrible, nasty boy was the ringleader of the neighborhood children and reigned over the rest of the cul-de-sac. When he wanted to play, he’d walk to the center of the street and whistle low and long. The children would stumble out of their houses in a daze to come stand before him. Then, arching one kettle-black brow, the boy’s eyes would whirr.
       The game was this: each child would run and hide, and the boy would go and find them. Such a painfully ordinary game this was—at least in the beginning. Yet, if a child were to be found, things became a little stickier. The unlucky child would have to make a choice. Either be shot with the pellet gun from five paces away or accompany the boy into his shed. At this point, the children were riddled with pellets and neon green plastic BB bullets. Never had a child chosen the shed. Because of the birds and because of the sounds they’d heard, the children feared the shed.
       One time, the horrible, nasty boy found the twin red-headed girls hiding in their garage refrigerator. This time, he did not allow them to choose the BB gun. The twins felt uneasy, but they knew it was pointless to argue. They followed the boy into the shed. Meanwhile, the other children waited. They waited for the usual drilling sounds, the faint buzz of a high-powered saw, a pound-happy hammer, but all was silent.
       The girls did not emerge from the shed until evening. And as it turned out, their fate was worse than a measly neon green plastic BB bullet. It was something evil and something with wire and pliers and glue. Eventually, two crucified Jesus figures stumbled down the street from the direction of the boy’s shed. As they appeared under the streetlight, the twin girls’ arms were bound to horizontal strips of cardboard as long as each of their wingspans. If you squinted and ignored the wire, they appeared nearly as angels. Angels who welcomed the darkness.
       But it was difficult to ignore the wire. And then of course, there were the feathers. Hot glued and piercing into the girls’ arm flesh were an assemblage of feathers. He had done it—or at least tried—to turn them into birds. At the very least, he had given each a botched set of wings.
       It did not appear the girls were in torturous pain. They ambled home. They cried. It took hours for them to remove each feather and cut themselves out of the binding. They wouldn’t have known it before, but because their arms had been stuck in such a strange position for so long, it hurt to put them down. And finally, there were all the little burn marks from the piping-hot glue.
       Three days after they had been winged, the twin red-headed girls hatched a plan. That morning, they rang his doorbell. When the boy opened it, he was pleased to see his girls.
       “What do you know,” he said, “there are two red-feathered birds on my doorstep.”
       “Your two red-feathered birds would like to bake you a cake,” they sang together.
       The boy looked confused at first. “But it’s not my birthday,” he said.
       “No matter,” said the twins. “It’s our treat. Tit for tat, and all that. We so loved the wings you gave us.”
       The boy smiled. What beautiful wings. He couldn’t wait to do it again. And after all, who was he to turn down a perfectly lovely cake? “What flavor will it be?” he asked.
       “Whichever flavor you like,” was the answer.
       A dreamy look crossed his face. “How about a hummingbird cake?” It was his favorite cake of all.
       The girls looked at each other and grinned. “Yes, a hummingbird cake would be quite nice.” The other girl motioned to him this time. Into his ear she whispered, “There’s one more thing. A secret surprise. The cake we will make is magic. It will allow you to sprout wings and fly.”
       At first, the boy had trouble believing her. But he shrugged and agreed to meet the girls later that afternoon.
       The girls went home and got to work. They whisked flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon into a large bowl. They cracked eggs and stirred vegetable oil. In plopped a dash of Emperor’s famous vanilla extract, canned pineapple, shredded coconut, sliced bananas, and toasted pecans. The girls poured the batter into three greased and floured pans and put them into the oven. While the cakes baked, they beat cream cheese, butter, powdered sugar, and more of the vanilla. They decorated the cake with the frosting and pecan halves.
       When they were finished, they knocked on the boy’s door again. This time, they brought the rest of the neighborhood children who had been told of the magic cake. The boy opened the door and looked at the cake. It looked like a regular old cake, but he didn’t say a word. He so wanted to believe he could fly.
       “The trick is to eat the entire thing,” one of the twin girls said.
       The boy took a seat on his front stoop. He made his hand into a claw and snatched a handful of cake. An explosion of cheesy sugar; a tropical coconutty delight. “Mmm, it’s so good,” he said.
       He clawed at that cake again and again as the other children watched. They were just as interested in seeing what happened, though after a while, they shifted from foot to foot and gave each other sidelong glances. They didn’t want to make the boy angry, but nothing new was happening. Still, they kept up the pretense, just in case.
       Among the children, was one skeptic. The child called Tommy eventually piped up, around the time the boy had cleared half the cake. “It must be a normal cake,” he said, disappointedly. “Don’t you see? It’s all a farce.”
       At first, the boy looked startled. He stopped to consider the cake in front of him. But the rest of the children started clapping enthusiastically, pushing for him to finish. The boy ignored Tommy’s comment and went back to demolish the cake—he even picked up the plate to lick it clean. As the plate clattered to the ground, the boy let out a smelly burp. And just as soon as he did that, his shoulder blades felt itchy as all get-out.
       “Are they coming in?” he asked the others. He tugged the back of his T-shirt down for them to see. “The feathers? They’re coming, aren’t they?” He sounded tickled pink.
       “Looks red,” Tommy said. “Could be a bug bite.”
       “I think I can see something,” another child said, kicking Tommy in the shin.
       “It is starting to work,” the twin, red-headed girls said in sync. “Only we must go higher up. The feathers should be coming in fully. And any minute now.”
       The children formed a single-file line. They followed the boy and the two red-headed twins out of the neighborhood. One by one, they went up a hill and then another, up to the highest point in town. At this height, they could peer over the rim of the world.
       But there was one more hill even higher still. “Climb up,” the girls told the horrible, nasty boy. “Higher,” they encouraged. “The feathers, we can practically see them now. You can feel them, can’t you?”
       “Yes,” the boy said. “Yes, I think I can feel it.” He removed his T-shirt and shorts at once, realizing his clothes were impeding his wings. Climbing the final hill, he stood at the edge in his underwear. He was right; it was true. He felt his bones lengthening, webbed muscles thickening. Pinpricks of heat and then hundreds of feathers tore through the follicles of his skin. The feathers spread across his shoulder blades, his back, down the length of his arms.
       The boy started flapping his wings, feeling their new leathery feel, their new weight. More wondrous than anything he could have imagined, they breathed and settled, had minds of their own. Below him were the hushed whispers from the others, but the boy focused only on the yawning stretch of blue in front of him.
       A fantastical image crossed the boy’s mind then of meeting his father’s plane in the sky. He imagined the look on his father’s face when he discovered what his son could do. It was that proudful thought which pushed him to draw back on his haunches. He waited there, testing the strength of his hamstrings, wings pumping at the ready. He shot himself out—heaven-bent but aiming first for a brilliant sun. And upon that leap of which the boy was always capable, he felt himself lifted.

© Lindsay Forbes Brown 2024

The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization