October 21, 2009
By the time the Volvo came to a stop by the waterside, the sun was already being tucked into covers of pink and gold. Pedro the Lion was loud in the speakers, but Leighton’s ears listened only to the hum of the engine. He remembered the lines that formed around his father’s mouth when he told him about the trip, much like ripples emerging from a pebble dropped in a still pond. The hug he gave him when they said their goodbyes was longer than usual, but that wasn’t saying much. Aunt Vivian’s lips were always a little loose after a shot or five of tequila; she told Leighton once that his father had a hard time looking at him, because he so strongly resembled his mother.

Leighton stepped out of the car and stretched his gangly legs. Sliding his shoes off, he stepped gingerly into the warm sand. A nearby seagull looked up at him warily, standing defensively over the carcass of a rotting crab. The water lapped playfully at Leighton’s toes as he walked down the beach. He reached the bench and sat down to face the sea, where the waves were muffled by the ebbing tide.

His mother used to bring him here. Leighton remembered the excitement he felt when he woke up to her singing in the kitchen and packing paper-bag lunches. One time they stopped by the office to pick up his father; he shook his head sternly, but ended up in the backseat with Leighton after very little convincing. It was the last time Leighton could really remember him smiling. He always slept the whole way home, but her ringing laughter filled his dreams. That was before she got sick.

Leighton’s first pet had been a fish, named Fletcher. One morning when he was four years old, he woke up to find the beautiful blue beta floating peacefully at the top at his bowl. When he told his mother, she put the limp fish in a little pink box and they got in the car for the familiar drive up to the Cape. His mother explained to him that Fletcher was no longer with them, and had gone to the same place as his Grandma Maisie and Uncle Billy. Alarmed, Leighton asked why Fletcher would go to Heaven without him. His mother smiled and took his small hand in hers. “Heaven’s not a place that you go when you die, it’s that moment in life when you actually feel alive.” Together, they buried the fish in the sand, and watched the sun melt into the horizon.

That was the last memory Leighton had of his mother’s long chestnut hair. Her cancer had been in remission for a long time, but when he was five it came back with a vengeance. Within a year filled with blue gowns and frequent hospital visits, she too had joined Fletcher, Grandma Maisie, and Uncle Billie. The trips to the beach came to an end, along with her frequent singing and laughter on the car rides home. Looking out over the water, Leighton realized he had never gone in without her slender arms wrapped protectively around him. He doubted he ever would.

Leighton got up to leave. He wasn’t sure what he had been looking for, but he hadn’t found it. Life wasn’t fair; neither was death. His heels kicked sand up into his eyes, already filled with hot tears. He reached his car and began to fumble with the lock, when out of the corner of his blurred vision he saw a faint flutter of wings. It was a small sparrow, tucked away under the curb. Panicked by the appearance of the tall boy, she tried desperately to fly away, before her wings collapsed wearily back to her sides. Leighton watched her futile attempts at flight, until she gave up and fixed him with frightened eyes.

Moving slowly to avoid startling her, Leighton sat carefully on the ground to watch her. Looking more closely, he realized that her right wing was broken. She was a plain looking bird from afar, but up close Leighton saw that her dark plumage and beady eyes were beautiful. What was it like, to be a bird with a broken wing? In one fell swoop, her freedom was taken from her, and her life in the sky was only a memory. Leighton wondered if she had a family. Looking more closely at her, she appeared to be in a lot of pain, but the bone was healing; she would probably live. He wondered if she wished that she had died in the accident that crippled her, or if she was even capable of such a thought. He wondered if he would rather die, or live the life of a broken-winged bird.

The memory of his mother’s laughter filled his senses once again. She had been so happy. The cancer had taken her life, but how could she have spent it in a hospital bed? Leighton’s heart went out to the crippled bird, and he grabbed his shoe from the pavement, preparing to deliver the fatal blow that would set her free for the last time. This time the bird didn’t flinch, her piercing black eyes burning into him, begging him to kill her. He didn’t. Instead, he turned and ran into the sea.

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