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Everyone could tell that the black speck barely visible against the watery sky was Chuck. We knew it was Chuck primarily because of his smell, but mostly because of … no, in retrospect, Chuck had an especially distinct stench. We could see his gimpy wing once his came lower. The scorching sun’s heat bounced off the burnt ground below us and rippled through the air, throwing Chuck’s outline blurry.
We spent as little time as physically possible on said burnt ground. Sand gets in your tail feathers, if nowhere else. Instead, we sat on the peak of the derelict roof, the cactus beside it, and the poles that held up the telephone and electricity wires. Marsha always wanted to sit in the cactus. We let her. Everyone else managed to get their feet covered in prickles when they sat on the cactus.
Chuck was circling lower. The columns of heat rocketing into the sky made his endeavor more difficult, but any one of us could tell you that Chuck was a master of falling out of the sky. The ability was a benefit for him when food turned up, but a detriment when he actually wanted to stay airborne. Chuck’s cousins made room for him to land on the roof.
“Hey, guys!” panted Chuck. “Smell dinner yet?”
No one answered. The oppressive heat meant that food would turn up soon, so worrying was unnecessary.
“Chuck,” sighed his mother, Charlotte, “Don’t be a pig.”
We all sat as still as possible to avoid growing excessively warm. One imperative movement, however, was the systematic sweep of our environs that every flock-member performed with his or her eyes from time to time. Tyler looked twitchy, but we put that down to his hunger.
Wally’s head snapped up. The rest of our heads snapped in the proper direction as the smell Wally had scented reached us as well. Chuck took off first. We let him, because he needed a head-start due to his gimpy wing. But then the race was on. Slowly, to conserve energy, we threw ourselves into the air and towards the source of Wally’s smell. Heat throbbing off the sand pushed us high enough to make it over the rocky hills nearby. Marsha and Chuck dropped behind, while Charlotte and Juan wheeled higher to slide ahead of the others as we arrived at dinner.
And what a dinner. Tyler’s beady, little eyes lit up at the sight of an entire deer smashed up on the side of the road. Juan arrived in time to get both of the ungulate’s eyeballs, but Charlotte shuffled in beside him and had a good beakful of brains before Hilda hopped over and knocked her aside.
All of us squabbled and tiffed about who had which place first. What dinner essentially came down to was less how talented a debater you were, and more how well you could knock Tyler out of the way and get a gulp of liver before apologizing to his giant Uncle Frank. Frank, thankfully, had had a whole jack rabbit to himself last night and wasn’t quite up for an all-out brawl with Chuck over who was going to get the stomach.
We looked over our shoulders at an unusual noise that could mean uninvited dinner guests. It was Paula, shuffling her talons on the asphalt uncomfortably.
“What’s wrong with you, Paula?” snorted Charlotte through a beakful of the stomach Chuck had momentarily disregarded.
Paula switched her wait from one scaly foot to the other. “I’ve been thinking, and-”
We moaned to ourselves. Paula fell out of the nest twice before she learned to fly. It meant bad things when she thought too much.
“-and I don’t know how comfortable I am eating dead animals.”
Hilda rolled her eyes and fluffed up her feathers. “Paula, what else are you going to eat?”
“Well, by the smell of it, little prey animals eat plants. Why can’t I?”
“Because you’ll die, Paula,” snapped Frank. “We eat dead stuff. It’s what we do.”
We presented various, similar, unsympathetic arguments to the philosophic Paula. She didn’t budge. Charlotte eventually clacked her beak and said, “Listen, chicky, how can you not want to eat this? It smells like dinner, and it looks like dinner, so who’s to say it’s not dinner?”
“But we didn’t do anything to deserve it,” protested Paula. “We didn’t kill it, or grow it, and it’s not an insensate plant. How would the deer feel if it were still alive?”
“It’s not,” frowned Chuck. His mother hit him with a seemingly-accidental feather flap to the face.
“I know it’s not, but what if it was?!”
Hilda and Frank appealed with a bored glance to Juan, still busy stuffing his face. He looked around when Charlotte said his name.
“Paula,” Juan began slowly, “we have always eaten dead stuff. Why would it be wrong, apart from your previous stated reasons that have been logically refuted by the others?”
“It’s icky!” screeched Paula. “Eating raw creatures that have been sitting out here in the sun growing all kinds of filth and attracting other carion-eaters than us!”
Chuck abruptly jerked his beak out of the deer’s innards.
Juan blinked slowly at Paula. He seized a leftover bit of the deer’s brain to hold up in front of Paula’s face. “Close your eyes, please, my dear, and inhale deeply.” She did. “Now tell me, what do you smell?”
“I smell the decomposing pieces of a deer’s brain. There are microbes, I can tell, reproducing there as we speak. I smell the filth the deer has been laying in, and the horrid industrial smells from whatever car hit the deer.”
“And what else?” pressed Juan.
“I smell – oh, it smells good. I can smell all the nutrients, and how good I’ll feel tomorrow. Nice and full. It smells warm, and-”
Paula snapped the brains from Juan, swallowing them in a gulp. We went back to the deer with renewed enthusiasm. Paula even raised the gumption to shove Tyler aside to get at the last of the lungs. He bit her, but Hilda and Charlotte lauded Paula’s effort.
As the sun touched the mountains in a signal of its intended disappearance, a coyote slunk up and chased us away. Little of the deer was left, but the coyote and accompanying small birds set to it with a will. We were too stuffed to fly back to the roof on the other side of the hills, so we hopped about in the setting sun and digested.
“I’m sorry about disrupting dinner,” Paula apologized, preened herself.
We exhibited various expressions of exasperation.
“It’s alright, Paula,” Chuck answered her kindly. “I felt like that once.”
Tyler scoffed, “I can’t imagine ever not wanted to eat.”
Frank cuffed them all with his wing and shuffled off to a distance where his nap wouldn’t be disturbed as easily.
The coyote sneered at us on his way back to his lair, but we didn’t heed him. He was as full as we were, and accordingly no threat. Hilda fretted to Juan about where tomorrow’s meal would come from, but as we slid asleep, food was not a worry.
Food comes to those who wait.
Those who wait usually get dead stuff.
Dead stuff tastes like chicken, which is no problem for us.