This story appeared in Untrue Stories, Volume One, by Pantoum Press in 2012 and features a zombie Macaw. Polly want some braaaaaiiins?
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A Kiss of Thorns
by Mitch Lavender
“Mom, why do you feed the damned bird meat?”
“She likes it, and don’t use foul language. I’ll wash your mouth out with soap.”
“Sorry I swore. I’m not seven years old, you know.” Even as I said the words, I felt like I was still a child, still living with my mother and still being told what to do.
Mom was always fawning over her stupid Macaw, Jezebel, teaching her to say something new, or just carrying on about how she was such a pretty bird.
“Pretty bird! Pretty bird!” Jezebel would mimic back in that creepy, ventriloquist voice that parrots have. My skin crawled every time the bird spoke, that head cocked sideways with its eye on me, seemingly dead but still seeing me. Watching. Bringing shivers to the back of my neck.
“What happened to fruit? The thing used to eat fruit.”
“She likes hamburger more.”
“Big freak show, if you ask me.”
“Go to your room!” She commanded.
As I closed the door behind me, it was one of the many times I was grateful for my aged mother’s Alzheimer’s. Though she wouldn’t remember that exchange ten minutes later, Jezebel, a volatile, feathered tape recorder, might repeat anything that was said and reignite synapses that were otherwise dormant, sparking the discussion anew. Damned bird.
Even when I was a kid my mother loved that bird more than me. “Jazzy Jez” she called her, referring to the way she would bob up and down on her perch when music played. Birds like this form an attachment to one person and barely tolerate anyone else. The bird hated me, and I reciprocated. Mom would enter Jezebel in shows, often winning some prize for plumage or… whatever. The ribbons are displayed proudly on the walls of her room. There were no pictures of me or my father, rest his soul.
Mom’s Alzheimer’s had grown worse over the last couple of years, and with that, she couldn’t live alone. I insisted that she move into my house, along with Jezebel. It was the right thing to do. She needed supervision, and they wouldn’t let her keep Jezebel in a nursing home due to the strict rules about pets. It would have killed her to lose the bird, so Mom moved into the guest room and so did Jezebel.
Jezebel behaved different after the Northwest Texas Macaw Foundation’s bird show two weeks ago. I drove Mother there, her fussing over the bird the whole way. The show was cancelled; something about the virus everyone is talking about, and public gatherings not being allowed, but not before Jezebel got into a fight with a mean looking Cockatiel. Jezebel didn’t seem injured, but acted kind of weird afterwards. She wouldn’t speak, and clawed at the mirror in her cage. Mother obsessed with getting her well, but a trip to the vet did nothing to make things better. That’s when Mom started feeding her raw hamburger. Jazzy Jez calmed down then and seemed more like her old, capricious self after getting some McDonalds. She even started speaking again.
“Where’s the beef?” Mom taught her to say.
Now that they have shut down the schools and my place of work due to the virus, I’m stuck at home with both of them. Most stores have closed, too. It’s hard to find an open gas station and vegetables are in short supply. Apparently, the virus spread from Mexico, and since most vegetables for the Southern United States comes from there, tomatoes, lettuce and other produce were rare if not unavailable. Last week, Houston was quarantined; no one allowed in or out. That could happen here. I’ll have to stock up on whatever supplies I can find. The newly enforced curfew said you had to be indoors before sunset.
I left Mom alone with the damned bird the next morning and went out looking for an open store. They were all closed and the roads were oddly absent of cars, but I stopped at a roadside stand selling Tyler Roses and bought a dozen for $5. My father used to bring yellow roses home to Mom from time to time; a demonstration of how much he loved her. “Despite your craziness, I love you.” It always melted Mom’s heart, and whatever troubled her about the day seemed to fade for a bit. I hoped these would have the same effect.
“You been into town?” the kid at the stand asked.
“Not yet. Hope I can get some food.”
“You’ve got a gun, right?”
“Sure,” I lied, getting back into my car with the flowers. “This is Texas. Who doesn’t have a gun?”
“Shoot for the head. It’s the only thing that works.”
I peeled out and drove to the nearby store. I was able to pick up some hamburger and soda, but they didn’t have much else. The shelves were picked over; ransacked, really. The sign outside said, “No bread, milk or produce.” Or much of anything else. Several armed National Guard were outside and they looked nervous. One approached me and handed me a flyer that had NOTICE printed across the top.
“Have the riots quieted down?” I asked. The guard didn’t look at me but I noticed his knuckles whiten a little on his M-16. I didn’t press him for conversation and continued out to my car.
“Go home, sir. Lock the doors and stay there.”
I turned around and asked, “Is it really that bad?”
He glanced at me sideways and the look in his eyes told me it was. “Got a gun?” he asked.
“Find one. Wait.” He unholstered his pistol and handed it to me, grip first. “This is the safety. Leave it on until you need to fire it. Use both hands and aim for the head. It has twelve rounds.”
I gawked at the gun being handed to me. “Why are you doing this?”
“Thank you,” I said, grabbing the grip and feeling the weight of the weapon. “I really don’t think this is…”
But the guard had turned and was already walking away. I don’t have a license to carry a gun.
I had collected flowers, meat, Cokes and a gun. None of the things I set out to pick up when I left this morning. The notice had all the things we’ve heard over and over for the last few weeks now: Avoid crowds, beware of people or animals acting strange or violent, stay indoors at night, lock the door, and drink only boiled or bottled water. And it had a new one – don’t try to leave the city. It didn’t say quarantine, but that’s what it meant. I’d better get home.
After parking in the driveway, I carried the food and flowers into the house and locked the door behind me. There was no one outside for as far as I could see. Leaving the supplies aside, I went back to see how Mom was doing. I hadn’t told her I was going out because she never remembered, anyway.
I took the roses and knocked on the door to her room. “Mom, are you up?”
“Mom, are you up?” quipped the parrot voice inside. I hate that bird. Turning the handle, I pushed the door open.
The first thing I noticed was the dark brown stain around my mother’s still body. The gashes torn into neck and face made her unrecognizable except for the nighty that I knew was hers. Perched on her chest and ripping at the flesh was Jezebel, blood covering her brilliantly colored breast and face.
“Where’s the beef?” Jezebel said, spreading her wings and laughing, “hah hah hah hah!”
“Mom!” I screamed, but I knew she was dead and had been for a while. The blood had dried into the carpet and turned brown. This had happened sometime last night. I stared at her body. You just had to feed her hamburger, didn’t you, Mom?
Jezebel flapped her wings and flew towards me, bloody and rasping, “Play that funky music, white boy!”
Instinctively I swung at the bird and slapped her down to the floor with the bunch of roses, but she came back at me as I stumbled out into the hall. I held up the roses to cover my face and the bird landed on them, flapping wildly and crying, “Kiss! Kiss!” The thorns raked my cheek, and I swung, slamming Jezebel into the wall with the bouquet. I turned and ran.
As I raced through the living room, I heard Jezebel singing the theme to Golden Girls, one of Mom’s favorite shows. She hopped around the corner and cocked an eye at me.
“Thank you for being a friend. Traveled down the road and back again. Your heart is true. You’re a pal and a confidant.”
I rounded the counter into the kitchen. Gun! The gun is in the car! Jezebel spread her wings and flew up and over the counter, landing on the faucet over the sink.
“Who’s a pretty bird?” she cried.
I grabbed the two pound package of hamburger and swung down, knocking her into the sink. I had her trapped beneath the meat and her wings beat wildly in the basin, but I continued to press down. I heard bones cracking, but still she fought back with more strength than I would have imagined. Jamming down harder with both hands, her head moved to the garbage disposal drain and I mashed her into it.
“Where’s the beef?” she cawed from inside the drain. “Son! Help Me! Help me!” she mimicked my mother’s last words, and I flipped the garbage disposal switch and the blades powered to life, grinding the head off the shuddering animal.
I pressed down until Jezebel stopped twitching. When I let go, I left the disposal running, grinding away at nothing. The bird’s legs still stuck out of the drain at impossible angles, splayed by the package of hamburger.
Quarantine or not, I’m out of here! Once in the car, I pulled the pistol from the glove compartment and turned the safety off. I had enough gas to get me out town and maybe to Oklahoma. Maybe things are better there. I made it as far as the city limits, behind miles of other cars also trying to leave.
When the officer came around to my car and told me to turn around and go home, he saw the scratch on my face and pulled his gun. “Infected!” he shouted, and two other police ran over with guns drawn.
“Out of the car. Out of the car!”
I complied and they shoved me to the ground and bound my arms, taking the gun.
“How long ago did you get those injuries on your face?”
“These? They are from roses. Just scratches. Two hours ago, maybe?”
Hoisting me up to my feet, they shoved me to a fenced-in area with a bunch of other people, also bound or handcuffed.
“It’s just scratches from thorns! That’s all. That’s all.” My voice trailed off as they locked the gate and walked away.
“Thorns on roses! Just thorns!” I shouted anew, but they weren’t listening. Before nightfall, the pen was full of people they deemed ‘infected’ and they started executing the infected methodically by firing squad. I’m in the next group.
I love you, Mom, and damned that bird to hell.