by Sherri H. Hoffman
Those Mackey boys from up the road always teased Howdy. Called him Retard.
Sandra stepped down off the school bus, and before it had even pulled away with a puff of dust, the boys started throwing horse apples at the back of Howdy’s head. Howdy walked alone toward the wooded lane where Sandra knew he lived with his mother, although no one had seen her much since the flu outbreak back before Christmas. Howdy did all the shopping now, brought the brown chicken eggs to the grocery in his mother’s old wicker baskets. Ailing, he said when inquired after her health. His jeans hung low across his narrow hips, and his clean white t-shirt stretched across his broad, straight back, unflinching, even when the Mackey boys switched to small stones.
Stop it, you animals.
Sandra loves the Retard. Sandra loves the Retard.
Sandra called Howdy’s name, but he didn’t turn around. She had to run to catch up.
Howdy! What ya’ doing, Howdy? Can I walk with you?
Howdy slowed, bent forward, held a single finger up to his lips, then spread his hands low and wide. Sandra followed his crouch, holding her skirt down against her bare legs. Sunlight glinted off a filament of fishline stretching into the underbrush.
What is it? Who put this here?
His long, fine fingers lifted the line, held the tension, walked forward as if climbing the invisible thread. A scrabbling in the leaves, thump-thumping in the brush startled Sandra back a step.
Oh! Something’s there. Some animal. Howdy! It’s something!
The fishline looped around the bird’s yellow-stick leg. Its black wings were half-shrugged, half open, its yellow beak open and panting. Howdy called to the bird, soft clicks with his tongue. Sandra crouched closer, close enough to smell the musk of him, his hair, his skin warmed with sun. She leaned in, almost brushing up against the curve of his arm.
It’s beautiful, Howdy. A beautiful bird.
He wound the line around his fingers, cooing soft now. The bird’s yellow eyes were wide and still, its wings drooping. It flapped weakly and hop-hopped one more time. Howdy’s fine, long fingers cradled the bird, folded in the curve of wings, stroked the iridescent black feathers that shimmered like oil.
Howdy turned. His cheekbones were sharp ridges over the equally sharp jaw line, his full, red lips parted just so.
Let me touch it, Howdy. Pet the bird.
Howdy’s eyes were flat, black pools like tar. His right eyelid slanted lower, twitched. His hands held the bird out to her.
Sandra touched the shiny black of the bird’s feathered head. It sagged forward, its neck limp as grass, snapped. She sucked in her breath.
Howdy’s eyes narrowed. He smiled. A casual flick cast the dead black bird away into the bushes.
Sandra backed fast. Howdy’s hand caught her wrist, long bony fingers closing in a vise.
His full lips rounded, clicking soft with his tongue, and his other hand clamped hard over her mouth.
Winner October 2007 Student Choice Award: Whidbey Writers (10/07)
Winner Editor's Choice Award: 2007 VERY Short Story and Narrative Prose Poem Contest, Lunch Hour Stories Magazine (3/08)