Volume 34, Number 3

The Robin

Kymberlee Rosen

I dropped my backpack at the foot of the stairs. I had stayed at school finishing some homework until just before dinner, timing it out just right. The less time I had to spend in the house of doom the better, but I also knew that if I came home even a second later, Mom would call in the FBI. She worried about everything these days, to a ridiculous extent. I was in no imminent danger, being gangly with stringy brown hair, a flat chest and knock knees.

“Veronica Marie. Where have you been?”

“Jeez, Mom, you know exactly where I’ve been.” And then, under my breath, “You probably tracked every step between here and school.” Last year she made me download Life 360 on my phone, and ever since she's monitored my every movement. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve gone through what she has.

“Can you come into the kitchen, please?” she called from the back of the house.

“Can’t I just go to my room ’til dinner’s ready?” I was hoping to avoid a conversation until Dad was with us. When he was in the room, she buzzed around him like a fly, and I could fade into the background going mostly unnoticed.

“Just come here.”

No sense arguing. That would just send her into one of her spirals that always ended in her spending the rest of the night in her room sobbing. As I walked past Dad’s office, I could hear the ice tinkle against the side of his glass and wondered what number he was on.


“The new neighbor asked if her son could join us for dinner tonight. She had somewhere she needed to be.” She threw that bit of news over her shoulder not leaving her post at the stove.

“Isn’t he like 14? Can’t he feed himself dinner?” I asked, not expecting an answer. He was in my class, and even if he was super smart and skipped a grade or was stupid and had been held back, I was still in the margin of error with his age.

Mom went on, more to herself than to me, “She was really cagey when I asked where she was going. Kind of an odd family.”

“You can say that again,” I mumbled. I knew exactly how weird this kid was. He never spoke and spent all day just staring out the window. Never opened a book to even pretend he was paying attention. Mrs. Johnson called on him a couple of times, but he never spoke. She gave up after the first week. That was strange, too, not like Mrs. Johnson to give up. But that was her problem. I had enough of my own.

“What was that, honey? Never mind, he’s out in the backyard. Just go keep him company until dinner’s ready. Won’t be more than twenty minutes. I’ll call you.”

I pushed open the screen door to the full extent of the spring and let it slap back against the jamb with a loud WHAP! I wanted my displeasure on record.

“I’ve told you a thousand times, Veronica Marie! Do. Not. Slam. That. Door!” I heard her yell from the kitchen. Allowing my feet to pull my weight down two steps, I let my butt fall on the step behind and dropped my head onto my knees. The neighbor kid was on the far side of the yard. His tousle of blond curls barely visible, bent behind his plaid shirt collar. He was squatting in front of the tomato garden that ran the length of the fence behind the garage. His back to me, I could see the tip of a stick mirroring the small circles he was making with the other end in the dirt. He did not turn or even flinch when the screen door had banged. I waited for a minute watching him. Finally, I broke the silence.

“You better not be wrecking those tomatoes or my mom will have a meltdown. Literally.”


“Hey, I’m talking here,” I gave my best Robert DeNiro impersonation. My dad was a huge fan and against all Mom’s objections, had let me watch Taxi Driver when I turned 13. His defense was that, as a teenager it was time I learned the world had an ugly side. Little did he know I would only have to wait another month before finding that out firsthand.

Still no acknowledgement from the other side of the lawn so I decided to venture over to see what could be so interesting. As I drew up behind him, I saw what he had been poking at. A wounded robin lay in the dirt and from the look of it, it didn’t have long. It wasn’t making any noise. Just halfheartedly flapping the tip of a wing.

“Gross! What are you doing?”

He dropped the stick, and I saw him run his hands quickly across his face before standing up.

“I’m Vern.” I said and thrust my hand toward him in a weird attempt to shake hands. Not sure why I thought that was the proper greeting for this surreal situation.

“You’re in my class.” When he spoke, his eyes examined every inch of his own fingers and ignored my hand. I let it drop to my side.

“I wasn’t sure. You never seem to pay attention to anything.” Halfway through the words dropping out, I realized it could be taken as hostile, but that train had left the station and for some reason, I could not stop it.

“I do. Anyway, my name’s—”

“Andrew, yeah, I know. Same class, remember?” God, this is going great. Why can’t I be normal?

“You think it’s gonna live?” he asked, returning his gaze to the dying bird.


“But it can’t die. It just can’t.” There was a faint catch in his throat.

“When it’s time for someone to go, we just have to let them go.”

His eyes flashed, and before I knew what was happening, he had thrown both his hands against my shoulders, and I sat down hard in the dirt landing firmly on one of my Mom’s tomato plants.

“Hey, what the fuck?” I yelled at his back as he fled down the driveway and around the fence. Of course, this was precisely when my Mom stuck her head out the back door and yelled, “Dinner. Come clean up.”

Back in the house, I tried explaining the situation, but it was no use. I ate my dinner in my room, and she took a plate wrapped in foil next door. She didn’t come home until after nine and even though I wouldn’t really be asleep for another two hours, I pretended to snore when she peeked in.

The next morning Dad went out to the yard with a shovel and an empty shoebox. Mom told him he wasn’t to bury the dead bird in her garden so he placed it in the box and put the box on top of the trash can before returning the lid and rolling it down the driveway. Andrew wasn’t at school that day, and when he returned the day after, he just looked right through me as we passed in the hallway. He sat in his usual seat, inspecting the world on the other side of the glass.

The weather was getting nicer every day. With less than a month of recess left in my life, and the sun beating through the windows, I made the decision to go out to the playground. I had avoided social situations this year. There are only so many times you can stand the “how are you doing?” accompanying the pitying head slants and awkward questions of “how did he do it?” that fourteen-year-olds ask. So I had opted to spend every recess in the library, but today was just too nice. Besides, I had to make the most of these breaks before leaving it all behind for high school next year. I sat at the top of the long shallow steps that led to the tetherball courts and the lone basketball hoop. I watched the other kids like Dian Fossey studying gorillas. Some played tetherball. A couple of boys argued about the logistics of the last shot in their game of horse. The rest stood in groups, their heads bowed toward the center discussing the most important gossip of the school and who liked who or who the cutest member of BTS was. Last year I would have been in one of those groups, but now it all seemed so unimportant. I felt a presence behind me. I waited for whoever it was to go past and down the steps but instead they sat down.

“Sorry,” Andrew said.

“For what?” I said without turning around. I was determined to forget he existed.

“You know. For shov—”

“Yeah, whatever. No harm, no foul.”

“How's the bird?”


He picked up a stone from the side of the path and tossed it down the steps watching as it bounced to the bottom and landed in a puddle scattering grey shadow flowers blooming on the sidewalk and then just as quickly, fading.

“Your mom told me about your brother.” Another stone bounced down. “That sucks.”

“Oh, do you think?” It was bad enough that everyone I had ever known knew the whole sad story. Now even people I’d just met knew. Would this follow me forever? “Did she tell you I was the one who found him?”

“Fuck. That must’ve been brutal.”

“No shit, Cap’n Obvious. Maybe you should be promoted to admiral.” Another stone, another splat.

“My Mom’s gonna die.”

“Yeah, we’re all gonna die.”

“No. For real. She’s got cancer.”

A shrill squeal went up from the edge of the playground. A girl with a long blond braid ran after the boy that had just pulled it. A fat cloud hung in the sky and squirrels searched for last fall’s treasures around the trees that lined the road next to the building.

“Fuck.” What remained of recess was spent tossing stones down the steps into the puddle.

For the rest of that school year, we walked home together. He always wanted to get straight home to be with his mom, and even though I wanted to avoid my house, I went. One day I asked him, “What’s gonna happen after?”

“After what?”

“You know.” My toe caught an uneven piece of concrete, and I took several giant steps before finding my balance. “After your mom—”

“I’m gonna go live with my dad in Seattle.” He cut me off so I wouldn’t say the word. “It sucks ’cuz I barely know him, and I’ve only met his wife once. She’s a real treat. Spends all day drinking coffee and watching the Real Housewives of Wherever. Then orders takeout and switches to Chardonnay.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that. We crossed the street, and the topic turned to the latest show everyone was binging on Netflix, New Girl. He seemed to be glad of the change of subject, going on about the antics of Winston and Furguson.

I barely listened and then blurted, “I think it’s my fault. My brother, I mean.”

A dog barked violently from behind a fence as we passed and we both jumped to the other side of the concrete.

We passed two more houses before he said, “Why would you say that?”

I didn’t respond. Another house passed.

“I don’t care what you did or didn’t do. Your brother did what he did all by himself. It had nothing to do with you.”

Before I knew what was happening, I was sobbing. Giant gobs of snot ran down my lip, a flood of tears soaking my face, and my breath came in gasps. A lot of people, including my overpaid therapist, had said that to me in the last year, but this was the first time I actually heard it. Andrew put an arm around my shoulder and held me close as we walked the rest of the way.

Most of the summer was spent trying to make each other forget all the shit we carried around. Sometimes, we rode our bikes to the mall to get ice cream or coffee or just walk around but usually, we went down to the creek on the other side of the field behind our houses. There we spent hours wading in the shallow water, looking for crawfish and minnows. Or lying in the grass and watching clouds pass through the leaves of the giant oak tree that bent over the creek. We made up stories about what our lives would be.

On the third of July I snuck into my dad’s fireworks stash in the garage. He would never notice I took anything because fireworks were something he always did with Jeremy. Now he couldn’t bear the Fourth. I grabbed a handful of Chinese firecrackers. Andrew and I took them down by the creek. I slipped off my Chuck Taylors, tied the laces together and dropped them in a pile with the firecrackers and the bag of Doritos I had pilfered from the pantry. The plan was to munch them while we shot off the crackers but first, I was hoping to cool down my feet. I waded into the icy water. I was almost to the other side when I saw Andrew grab the crackers and take off running. He was scared my dad would hear them and we’d get into trouble, but I didn’t care. Dad rarely paid me any mind, so I guess I figured if he did at least I would have his attention for five minutes.

As fast as I could I hobbled through the creek trying not to fall on the slippery rocks, snatched up my sneakers, tucking the right one into my armpit and throwing the left over my shoulder and took off. I was faster than Andrew, and when I caught him, he was in for a swift punch. Then the sky became the ground, and the ground was on top of me. A white-hot pain shot through my foot. I looked up at it floating over me and an old worn board was stuck to the bottom of it, the point of a rusty nail poking out the top of my foot. I let out a scream that sent a flock of crows into the air.

Within minutes, which felt more like hours, Dad was there scooping me up and carrying me to the car. Andrew trotted behind. At the hospital I got three stitches in the top of my foot, three more in the bottom and a tetanus shot in my arm.

I missed out on all of the holiday celebrations. Sitting on the couch with my foot propped up on two pillows and Mom bringing me iced tea and a hot dog, Dad sat with me, and we watched Independence Day and 1776 and began a new fourth of July tradition of our own.

By the end of August the stitches were out, and I was released from my mother’s hovering eye. On the last day of summer Andrew and I packed a picnic dinner to take out to the creek. We lay on our backs in the tall grass and watched fireflies dance in the leaves.

“My mom’s not gonna go to chemo anymore,” Andrew broke the silence.

“That’s awesome!”

“No. It’s not.”

I was confused. I raised up on one elbow and looked at him. Slowly he turned his eyes to me, and I saw the deep pools forming in the corners, then spilling over and racing toward his ears. He reached up and placed a hand on my breast. It felt awkward and wonderful and new. Tiny explosions shot through my stomach. I bent my head down and gently laid my lips on his.