Birdman

Birdman

by Tabitha Mix © March 2017

On February 18th, Charles pulled a bird feather out of his stomach. It was long and black and sleek as it slid from its white sheath and opened up. It shone blue and black in the bathroom light.

The feather wasn’t stuck in there. It wasn’t jammed in or glued on. It was growing from his stomach, like so many hairs, all bundled together. He had been brushing his teeth when he noticed it. There, on his shirtless belly, was a thick tuft of what looked like black hair. He left his toothbrush hanging in his open mouth, drool spilling out, as he bent over to look closer at this thing — this abdominal mustache he seemed to be sprouting. Then, with a pair of his wife’s tweezers, he pulled it gently out.

No pain. It came out like it had been made to come out and he stood in the bathroom, toothbrush still hanging in his mouth, examining it.

His wife opened the door and the toothbrush fell out and clattered on the floor, making a mess on the neat blue tiles.

“What are you doing, Chuck?” she asked.

She tossed her towel off and climbed into the shower.

“You look like a moron.” The water turned on. “Get out. I have to get ready for work.”

Charles obliged, leaving his dirty toothbrush on the floor, his mouth full of foam. He took his feather out to the white light from the picture window in the living room. There, looking closely, he could see the little barbules on the hairs — a fractal, endlessly repeating itself in miniature.

He wiped some of the toothpaste from his mouth and went into the kitchen, feather in his hand and held close to his face. He never looked away from it as he dug in a junk drawer for a tiny magnifying glass, something that might have come in an eyeglass repair kit or a child’s chemistry set.

He sat down under the picture window and looked carefully. Then, as if a new idea had come upon him, he stood and raced up the carpeted stairs and into the bedroom, which he returned from with a smart phone.

A few deft slides of his fingers over it and he began to compare pictures. It was, without a doubt, a bird’s feather. Growing out of his stomach.

He hit a button on the phone and lifted it to his ear.

“Hey, Miriam. Tell Dan I’m sick, okay? I’ve got all the Hereford things caught up. They’re in the top drawer of my desk. Feel free to open it up…And Miriam? Tell him I might be out for a few days. Okay?…Thanks.”

 

Charles waited for his wife to leave for work. No kiss, no goodbye. She’d been like this for a while, ever since Camden had moved out. It bothered Charles. He didn’t know why she’d changed. He missed their son, too — his endless stories about Alex andDestiny, his football games, and his plans to become a radiologist — but he didn’t give up on her. Maybe she only loved him as a father and now she didn’t want him around. Maybe she was just bored. Whatever it was, he didn’t care today. He only had feathers on his mind.

Birds on the brain.

He sat down at the desk in the corner of the living room and tried to search Google. Then he tried to search WebMD and then PubMed. Out of options, he tried posting to several health forums and spent the next forty minutes compulsively checking them.

Then he ran to the bathroom to check the rest of him — with two mirrors in hand — for more feathers. And there, on his back and right near his kidney, another feather was sprouting. This one was still pin-like and wrapped in its juvenile sheath.

This one was harder to get out — not because it was stuck but because it was in an inconvenient spot.

What if I have cancer? he thought. What if I have some rare kind of cancer that’s re-initiated some old, long lost gene from the dinosaur age that grows feathers?

What if Tiff finds out?

He shuddered at the thought, although the likelihood of his wife actually seeing him nude seemed slim at this point in their relationship.

Then he spent the rest of the day on the computer reading about junk DNA and dinosaur phylogeny.

 

When Tiffany came home, she spotted Charles hunched over the computer in a dark room with two black feathers taped neatly to a piece of cardboard in front of him, scattered Post-its and a scribbled notebook on her usually-sparkling-clean glass and chrome desk.

“Chuck, what are you doing?”

She peered over his shoulder and he quickly clicked the window closed. He was looking at feathered images of dinosaurs.

“Is that…animals?”

“It’s a science website.”

“Are you looking at animal porn?”

“No! It’s a science — nevermind.”

She gave a soft sound of disbelief and walked out, into the kitchen where he could hear the refrigerator door open and close. He heard her hard heels fade into the dining room where, no doubt, she was eating one of her pre-packaged salads with a tiny fork. She ate them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner most days and was as thin as a wire but not half as flexible. Sometimes, he thought she might bend over to get in her car or pick up a dropped nail file and snap in half, cracking and splintering like so much brittle acrylic.

He waited another minute and then re-opened his browser, restoring his session in the process.

Dinosaurs. Lovely dinosaurs, with their long legs and bird brains and probable feathers. He examined the artist’s rendition of a Chirostenotes, painted blue with big wet eyes and a tiny beak.

I’m turning into a dinosaur, he thought.

There was a hard slam in the front room that made him jump, followed by an engine turning over and the unmistakable sound of Tiffany’s Mercedes pulling out of the driveway.

She didn’t say goodbye.

And I’m turning into a dinosaur.

He leaned back in his chair and thought about that. Both of those things. Maybe it was better, since he was turning into a dinosaur, if she simply didn’t come home. She probably wouldn’t. Not for the first time, Charles thought that she might be going to her boyfriend’s house. He thought that maybe his name was Matthew, since a Matthew had been texting her and he heard her laughing and saying things like, “Matthew, you’re so funny,” during a four hour marathon phone conversation last week.

I bet Matthew isn’t turning into a dinosaur. I bet he’s still fit.

Charles looked down at his own soft belly, covered in fine hairs and (maybe) feathers.

I bet she’s saying, “Matthew, you’re so fit,” right now. “You’re so fit and not a dinosaur, like old Chuck. I hate Chuck.”

Charles couldn’t cry — not right now with feathers growing out of him — but he stared listlessly at the screen into the eye of the Chirostenotes and wished he would go extinct, too.

 

On the morning of February 19th, Charles found seven new feathers growing out of him — all over his abdomen and chest and back. He didn’t know what to think and he thought he’d tried every search engine he could, but there was nowhere else to turn, so he went back to his computer.

After several hours, he pulled up an obscure site — black-screened. Flashing red pentagrams and goat’s heads greeted him on what was probably some teenager’s private rebellious phase. The “Last Updated” date was April 20, 1999. In there, he found a spell to turn your enemies into birds. It involved a black candle, a ritual sigil, and a chant in Latin or Greek or something. Charles examined it excitedly for several minutes before brain fatigue set in and he collapsed in his chair, depressed.

With a very heavy hand, he lifted his phone up, flipped through his contacts, and called his doctor.

“Doctor Byrnes isn’t in. Can I help you?”

“I’ve got a problem. I’m growing feathers.”

“I can send you over to the nurse practitioner. She might be able to help.”

“Thanks.”

Pause.

“Can I help you?”

“Hi. I’ve got a problem. I’m growing feathers.”

“Feathers?”

“Yes.”

“Do you mean that you have a feather lodged in your skin?”

“Lots of them. I grew seven last night.”

Pause.

“Okay. Would you like to make an appointment? I have an opening tomorrow at four o’clock.”

“Sure. Thanks.”

Charles stared ahead with the dead phone to his ear, looking into the computer screen, past the flashing red goat heads and pentagrams. He thought about trying to contact the “Webmaster” on the bottom of the page but decided he was already in a large suburban home somewhere, probably staring at a computer screen trying to solve his middle-aged health crises.

 

At four o’clock on February 20th, Charles was seated in the cramped waiting room of Dr. Byrnes, family practitioner. Across from him was a woman with heavy makeup, heavy bracelets, and a heavy body reading Women’s Weekly with interest. Beside him was a frail old man hacking up a lung into a bloody tissue. Charles stared ahead. He could feel the feathers itching, but he willed himself to ignore them. There were seventeen all over his torso, upper arms, and thighs this morning. He decided to leave them in since he was pretty sure that the nurse wouldn’t believe him otherwise.

On the TV in the corner of the room a tall man was questioning some kids about their drug habits. Most of them were proud, especially the dealer. The man next to Charles hacked in his tissue. The woman turned a page. And finally, at half past four, the receptionist came to the edge of the waiting room and called for Charles Armstrong.

He followed her down a long hallway into a small room with a hard exam table and a sink in it. There he was instructed to change into a gown and wait. There were no drug dealing teenagers or large women or hacking old men in here to keep him occupied, so the time moved slowly. There were no clocks, only Norman Rockwells. He looked at the dripping sink and the neat boxes of non-latex gloves in graduated sizes next to it. There was a biohazard chute in the room that looked out of place — maybe because of the brightness of the orange of it. He blinked.

After many long minutes, Jessica Redcroft, FNP-BC, arrived and asked him what he needed without looking up from her clipboard.

“I’m growing feathers, like I said on the phone.”

She murmured a hmm without looking up.

“And where are they?”

She had a pen out and ready to go.

“All over. My back, my legs, my stomach. The first one was in my stomach.”

“Are you in any pain?”

“They itch. That’s all. They don’t hurt when you pull them out, either.”

“That’s strange,” she said and looked up, concern overcoming her features. “It seems like that would hurt.”

“I know! I thought so, too, but it doesn’t.”

“Can I see them?”

“Yes!”

Charles was delighted that she was paying attention. He’d never been here before and had anyone take an interest in his problems. It was always, cough, breathe deeply, lift your arms, say ahhh and then nothing.

He pulled down the top of his gown and proudly showed her his feathers. She moved in close and almost oohed and ahhed over them. They were obviously a medical anomaly of the highest order.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. Can you wait here a moment?”

Charles nodded and rearranged his gown while the nurse left to go fetch something. She came back in seconds with Dr. Byrne, who smelled like Italian dressing and had a napkin in his pocket.

“Let me see this, Mr. Armstrong,” he said.

Mr. Armstrong obliged and the doctor bent over him with an otoscope, looking closely at the feathers.

“Mr. Armstrong, I’ve been practicing medicine for almost forty years and I’ve never seen a man growing feathers before. Are you in pain?”

“Itchy.”

“Hmm.”

The doctor and nurse examined all his feathers for several minutes. The nurse took a picture with her phone.

“Mr. Armstrong, would you consider allowing me to track your condition for the purposes of a case study? I’ve been looking for a good patient for a while and you have the most interesting problem.”

“Ummm…”

“I can pay you a small sum and guarantee your anonymity.”

“I…ummm…guess so.”

“Excellent. Do you think I can give you a call tomorrow morning so we can set up a regular appointment? It’s only that Mary has my schedule and I’m not sure when I’m free.”

“Yeah. Yeah, why not.”

“Excellent. Thank you, Mr. Armstrong. Jessica.”

The doctor left in high spirits, whistling down the hallway.

“Are you going to be able to do anything about it?”

The nurse shrugged and signed something on her clipboard.

 

On February 21st, at 9 am precisely, Dr. Byrne called.

“I have twenty, now. Twenty in all, that’s three plus the seventeen I had yesterday…Yeah, I can take a picture…What address?”

Tiffany was standing in the hallway watching him with a sharp expression. Her arms were crossed across her thin chest and her crisply bleached hair and flat-ironed was fanned out over her shoulders.

“Yeah…I think that Saturday mornings are good…Ten’s fine…Yeah, okay. I leave for work at seven, so maybe six-thirty? Sounds good…Thanks…Bye.”

“Who was that?” Tiffany said quietly, making Charles jump.

“The doctor.”

“The doctor?”

“Yes.”

Charles’ distrust was visible on his face. Tiffany tended to make fun of him for being a hypochondriac, but he wasn’t really. He just wasn’t aging as well as her and tended to get problems, like feathers growing out of his torso. Maybe it was because she was so careful about her weight or maybe beacuse she was just blessed, but she never had things like this happen to her.

“I just have a small issue, is all. The doctor wants to —”

She cut him off with a wave of her hand. “I don’t want to know. Just tell me if it’s going to cost anything.”

She pushed her way past him and down the stairs, where he heard the TV turn on. The unmistakable opening theme to Last House Standing floated up the stairs on the warm air.

He stood in the hallway silently for another minute wishing that Jessica would come by and care about his feathers.

 

On February 22nd, Charles woke up with most of his chest covered in black feathers. Some of them were pin-like and sheathed but many were in various stages of unfurling, their liquid black and shine giving him a moody look as he examined himself in the mirror.

“Maybe they aren’t so bad,” he said to himself. “They’ve got a certain something. A kind of charm.”

He paused as he heard Tiffany sliding drawers in the bedroom open and closed.

“Maybe I might keep them.”

A drawer slammed hard.

“I’m going to the store,” she called out through the wall. “Don’t wait up for me.”

She was going to Matthew’s. He could read her mind.

The front door slammed and her car took off, carrying its driver to her secret-not-secret lover’s.

Charles turned back to the mirror and he just looked silly, now, with feathers all over his body as if he were a black chicken. His shoulders fell and he sighed. Maybe this would all end soon. Maybe Dr. Byrne would find his cure and become the hero of his own paper.

He covered himself up in a heavy coat, even though it was a balmy sixty degrees today, and headed out the door. From there, he drove seven miles to a neighborhood of nearly-rural McMansions, fast red cars parked in their driveways with basketball hoop halo-ing them. He stopped in front of 107 Fern Road, the address that he found scribbled out in one of Tiffany’s notebooks while he searched for something to write his fears on: cancer, genetic disorder, evolutionary reversion, being a dinosaur.

There was Tiffany’s gray Mercedes parked next to a motorcycle. The open garage displayed a weight rack, a neat cork organizer with light power tools, and a red sports car, like every other house here — the store. The one that Tiffany would be at all day and Charles shouldn’t wait up for her because of. This store.

He pulled away with a little screech of his tires, suddenly angry that she would do this to him. But the feeling died with its first breath. Why would she want him? He was turning into a dinosaur. He had feathers growing out of him right now. He could feel them under his shirt, stiff and itching.

He drove to the local lake and parked next to the dock where he watched the water until hunger and thirst forced him to leave at sundown.

 

Tiffany didn’t come home until after midnight. She climbed into their bed and seemed to fall asleep in an instant. Charles was still wide awake and staring into the dark.

The next morning, he discovered that even his fingers had now sprouted tiny little downy feathers. He was, for all intents and purposes, entirely feathered. His face had feathers. His feet had feathers. When Tiffany saw him, the look of revulsion on her face almost made him sick. Of course he’d known that it would, that’s why he’d hid it from her. But it still stung, especially after yesterday.

“Miriam,” he said into his phone as Tiffany side-stepped him in the kitchen, her mouth curled back in disgust. “Yeah, I’m still really sick. I’m not going to make it in…Okay thanks. Tell him I said I’m sorry…Okay…Bye.”

“Aren’t you going to lose your job if you keep calling in like that?” Tiffany said from the bathroom doorway, her face still distorted with disgust.

“Probably.”

Suddenly her voice went up like a fire alarm, shrill and loud. “Then how are we going to pay the mortgage?!”

“I’m fine!” He was shouting. “It’ll be fine. I’ve got Dr. Byrnes looking at it.”

“What if you lose your job?”

“I won’t.”

“You should go to work.”

“I can’t go like this.”

“Why not? You can’t talk on the phone and type with…feathers?” She punctuated the word “feathers” with a dismissive wave of her hand and then turned and slammed the bathroom door. Charles heard the lock click.

He took another breath and then picked up his phone.

“Miriam? Hi. I might be able to make it in, but there’s something you should know…”

 

“Charles, this is too much.”

Dan dropped a pile of files onto Charles’ desk as if to say that the files were too much — and they looked it. There must have been four fat ones in there, at least, with papers sticking out at odd angles and paperclips dangling.

“You can’t come here like this. You’re obviously not well.”

Charles looked up at Dan, who was framed against the beige fabric of his office wall and underlit by Charles’ little desk lamp. He looked enormous like that. Even the pit stains on his crisp button down were terrifying.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that you’re covered in feathers. What the hell is that? Some kind of joke?”

“No..I just…”

“You can’t wear feathers to work. It isn’t appropriate.”

“I’m not wearing them, I’m growing them.”

“Growing?”

The look of incomprehension coming over Dan’s face was almost comical. He leaned down and lowered his head until it was level with Charles’.

“Growing?”

“Yes. I’m seeing a doctor about it, but until he figures it out, I have feathers. I said I was sorry. Didn’t Miriam tell you?”

“No. She probably thought you were joking.”

“Oh.” Dan was usually pretty quick about people. That’s why he’s the boss and I’m the peon.

Dan stood back up and crossed his arms, deep in thought. His frown lowered, raised, lowered again.

“Do you think that you’ll get this worked out by next week?”

“Umm…yeah. I think I might.”

“Okay, tiger. Why don’t you just take some vacation time and get yourself together, alright? You look like you could use some rest.”

Charles’ face was mostly covered in thick black feathers. He looked like a crow.

“Okay, Dan. If you think that’s best.”

“I do.”

 

On February 24th, Charles woke up in the bed alone. Tiffany was nowhere to be found. He looked in the house, the basement, the garage, but didn’t find her or her gray Mercedes. He gave up and went to lay on the couch.

No work. No wife. No jokes. He was actually becoming an ancestral being — a dinosaur or ancient birdman or something — and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He called Dr. Byrnes at their scheduled time and broke down in tears on the phone.

“Can you please help me? My wife’s left me. My boss nearly fired me. I don’t know what to do?”

“Calm down. I know you’re scared. But think of it, you are a modern genetic masterpiece. Next Saturday, I want to get some blood work done and send it to a lab in Houston. There’s a guy at the University of Texas who can parse this all out and find out what’s happening.”

“Yeah? Do you think he’ll have a cure?”

“A cure? No, he isn’t a doctor. Well, a PhD, but that’s not really —”

“I need help!”

“Okay, okay. I’ve found a few things in the literature. Have you thought about just plucking them out and going on with your life?”

“Yes, but there are too many. I tried yesterday and…four hours and I barely made a dent.”

“Maybe you’ll molt soon and they’ll go away.”

“Funny.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll see if I can come up with something. There’s a dermatologist downstairs who might have some ideas.”

“Thanks. Thank you.”

“And Mr. Armstrong?”

“Yes?”

“Try to keep your spirits up. Nobody likes a whiner.”

 

By sunset, Charles was to be found in the bathroom, staring at his reflection in the near dark. Tiffany was still gone, her car still parked somewhere else— probably 107 Fern Road while she was inside getting scent-marked with Matthew’s cologne. Charles was naked, not that it made much difference anymore. His entire body was feathered and the feathers seemed to be getting thicker. Now his chest was puffed out, shaped more like a bird than a man. His arm feathers were getting long, too, as if they were shaping themselves into wings.

“Not a dinosaur,” he mouthed at his reflection.

He raised his arm wings and looked at them. He lowered them. Then he did it few more times but fast. The toilet paper fluttered and a few things in boxes blew off the bathroom counter.

I’ve got a lot of wind in these wings.

He stared at himself until it was dark, when he went outside to see if his wings would do what wings do. He waved them and tried to hover up on them. When that failed, he tried taking it at a run — then a run and a jump — then a flying leap off the front porch. A light flicked on in the house across the street and someone was visible in their front window, framed against their dim yellow living room lamp. Charles felt too self-conscious to continue and, feeling foolish, went back inside.

Tiffany never came home.

 

By March 1st, Charles had lost his job. He hadn’t bothered to call or go in. He hadn’t bothered to search for Tiffany. He hadn’t bothered to clean up or go out. He didn’t want food, anyway. Or rather, he wanted nothing but food, but not human food. It disgusted him. He wanted bugs. He picked all the beetles out of the basement, and then the spiders.

At seven in the morning, he was on his hands and knees — if you would still call them that — searching for insects in the walls when his phone rang. Still sane enough to answer, he picked it up with his curiously elongated toes.

“Dr. Byrne…yeah, sorry…I lost track of time…yeah, I know…I can’t drive…no, I really can’t…umm, yeah you can, but it’s a mess…it’s been tough…okay, I will…thanks…squawk.”

Charles paused, afraid that he might have squawked at the doctor, but then a centipede skittered across the floor and he forgot about everything but that.

In less than an hour, Dr. Byrne was at the door. He didn’t knock but came inside. The place smelled like a bird cage and he stepped back from the odor that greeted him. Once his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he could see the wreck of the place. Charles had torn open all the soft furniture and drywall in search of bugs. There were chicken scratches on the hardwood and bird droppings on the thick white pile. The doctor took a steeling breath and stepped forward.

“Mr. Armstrong? Where are you?”

Mr. Armstrong was hiding in the basement, his self-consciousness overcoming him. He was very clearly not himself anymore — not just a Charles with feathers but a not-Charles, some demon thing born of a genetic mishap or a magic spell or something. He felt like a monster — a clumsy, loveless, monster.

“Mr. Armstrong? I’m here to help you. There are some people at Berkeley that are interested in your case. They’ll give you a place to sleep in the lab if you come with me.”

“Squawk!”

“And food.” The doctor looked around. “They’ve got food.”

Charles came out.

He was a bird.

 

The lab technicians at Berkeley’s genetics lab were very kind. They fed Charles three squares of mealworms and beetles a day. They petted him and said he had lovely feathers. He was glorying in all this attention, but something continued to bother him. Not even the kind words of the underclassmen as they pricked his wings for more blood could ameliorate the gnawing anger that was overtaking him.

Maybe he should go back and find Tiffany — key her beautiful Mercedes in Matthew’s driveway. Maybe he should spear Dan right through his pit-stained shirt with his shining yellow beak. Maybe he should burn his house down and fly around the ashes and fan the flames with his giant wings.

A lab technician patted him on the head.

“Squawk.”

“You’re a good boy, aren’t you? Aren’t you?”

She dangled a mealworm in front his face, just out of reach.

“You’re a good boy.”

He was a good boy. She gave him the worm.

 

On the night of March 18th, Charles glided down the heat rising out of the chimney at 107 Fern Road. There, in the moonless darkness, he landed with a light thump on top of a fast red car. He scratched at it a little with his talons and then hopped down. He turned his head and looked into the front bay window. In it was the black reflection of a couch — and on it, Tiffany giggling in Matthew’s lap as he pulled her over himself and started to tickle her. She was wearing ballet pink pajamas with lace on the edges and holding a white pillow. Her face was scrunched in mixed pleasure and irritation. This was the last thing that Charles saw before he raised his wings and went crashing through the window.

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