A Kiss of Thorns (short story)

This story was originally published in 2012 in an anthology, It Didn’t Happen This Way, Untrue Stories, Volume One. I’ve touched it up a little, but the story remains the same. I hope you like it.


“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, Mom. 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, its head cocked sideways with its eye on me, seemingly dead but still seeing me.  Watching.  I shivered.

“What happened to fruit?  The thing used to eat fruit!”

“She likes hamburger more.”

“Fucking freak show, if you ask me.” 

“Such language!  Go to your room!”

As I closed the door behind me, it was one of the many times I was grateful for my aged mother’s Alzheimer’s.  She wouldn’t remember that exchange ten minutes later.  As for Jezebel, she was like a volatile, feathered tape recorder that might repeat anything that was said and reignite otherwise dormant synapses, sparking the discussion anew.   Damned bird.

Even when I was a kid, my mother loved that bird more than me. “Jazzy Jez,” she would call 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 my father or me; rest his soul.

Mother’s Alzheimer’s had grown worse over the last couple of years, and with my mother’s advanced Alzheimer’s, 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 Mom 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 differently 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 canceled; 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 at the show.  Jezebel didn’t seem injured, but she acted weird afterward.  She wouldn’t speak and clawed angrily at the mirror in her cage.  Mother obsessed with getting her well, and a trip to the vet did nothing to make things better. That’s when Mom started feeding her hamburger.  Jazzy Jez calmed down then and seemed more like her old, capricious self after getting some McDonalds’.  She liked raw meat even more, and she started speaking again.

“Where’s the beef?” Mom taught her to say.

Now that they have shut down the schools and my workplace 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 come from Mexico, tomatoes, lettuce, and other produce were rare if not completely unavailable.  Last week, Houston was quarantined entirely; 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, and the next morning, I 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 it would have the same effect if I gave them to her.

“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 went to the nearby store.  I could pick up some hamburger and soda at the grocery store, 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.

“No.”

“Find one.  Wait,” he said, upholstering his pistol and handing 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?”

“Take it!”

“Thank you,” I said, grabbing the grip and feeling the weight of the weapon. “I really don’t think this is necessary…”

But the guard had turned and was already walking away.  I don’t have a license to carry a gun, I thought.

I had collected flowers, meat, Cokes, and a gun—none of the things I set out to pick up when I left this morning.  Reading the notice I had been handed, all 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 better get home.

Pulling into 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.  Putting the supplies down, I went back to see how Mom was doing.  I didn’t tell 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 then laughing, “hah hah hah hah!”

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

“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.  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!” She cawed.

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 the flowers, flapping wildly and crying, “Kiss! Kiss!” The thorns raked my cheek, and I swung wildly, slamming Jezebel into the wall with the roses.  I turn and ran.

As I turned the corner and ran 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 happily.

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 of 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 of the shuddering animal.

I held down firmly 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! Running to the car, I pulled the pistol from the glove compartment and turned the safety off.  I had enough gas to get me out of 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.

The officer came around to my car and told me to turn around, but then he saw 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 some roses.  Just scratches.  An hour 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 us methodically.

© 2012, 2021 Mitch Lavender

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