by Lindy Biller
Around sunset, Mama calls me out onto the deck. “Come here, princess!” Her friends are visiting and the backyard is French gray and the musk of citronella is overwhelming. In the torchlight, I can’t tell if the raspberry smudges of their mouths are colored in with wine or lipstick. “I was just talking about your art,” Mama says, her eyes bright. “Show them!” So I go to the kitchen and get my pictures from the fridge and bring them out. Cross-hatched sketches: pomegranates and sunflowers and bunches of grapes. The ladies ooh and ahh and Mama tells them I’m gifted. “Her teacher says drawing is a nice hobby,” she says. “She’s already getting A’s in math and science—well, in everything, really—so I figured, why not? And look at these! At age twelve!” I squirm, spine hunched, even though I know Mama is silently urging me to stand up straighter. “All with dollar-store pencils,” Mama adds. Of course she would point this out. Her friends have money, like us, and they compete to see who can spend the least of it. Their children are smart and beige and carefully curated. Their houses are minimalist paradises in clotted cream, powdered sugar, fresh snow. There are so many names for white. The ladies pass around my drawings until they reach me again—damp now, from their lotioned hands, from the humidity, maybe from the prosciutto and gruyere slices sweating on the acacia board. “Your friends must envy your talent,” one of the ladies says, winking, and I wince as though she’s slapped me. Friends. “Can I go in?” I ask. Mama nods, chirps a quick love-you, as sweet and singsong as our lovebird, who is probably preening or sleeping or hopping around her wire cage. I go inside and magnet the drawings to the fridge and stop by the sitting room. The smell is overpowering here too—a Glade air freshener, vanilla, to cover up the birdcage smell. Our lovebird is quiet and alert. Kiwi, we call her. She’s apple green, with a vermillion throat and black eyes. There used to be two. Mama heard somewhere that you’re supposed to buy lovebirds in pairs, so that’s what she did. They were the perfect pops of color. Exotic, a conversation piece, small enough to hold in your hand. While I was at choir rehearsal and Mama was getting her nails done—clear polish with French tips—Kiwi killed the male. Ripped it to shreds. Maybe with her talons, maybe her beak. I don’t know. It was horrible. Mama hired someone to clean up the mess. We kept Kiwi, just her. She doesn’t get any tacky, primary-colored toys from the petstore. Only things we already own. A small silver bell that Mama got as a wedding favor. A wedge-shaped door stopper. Chunky necklaces I’ve outgrown, the beads made of wood or cream-colored plastic. Mama says Kiwi won’t know the difference. Mama says she’s such a good little bird, so quiet. Carefully, I open the cage door, reach inside, grab the door stopper. Kiwi doesn’t peck my hand or cheep out a warning, but she looks at me, unblinking. “I’m sorry,” I whisper, closing the cage. In my bedroom, I wedge the door shut. Then I slide the rectangular tin of Prismacolor pencils out from under my pillow. Pry off the lid. They’re still where I left them. Spanish orange, mulberry, terra cotta. Canary yellow, Copenhagen blue. For weeks, I skipped lunch and saved up my dollar bills and hungered through history and pre-algebra, just to buy them. Under my bed, the real sketchpad—my skin burnt ocher, if you press softly, my hair soaked in chocolate, my slashed-open chest pouring out five shades of green. From outside, a chirrup of voices, my mother’s frightened, warbling laughter. From the pencil tin, a fresh-shaved wood smell. I press it to my face and breathe.
Lindy Biller grew up in Metro Detroit and now lives in Wisconsin. Her fiction has recently appeared at Flash Frog, Trampset, Pithead Chapel, and perhappened. She works as a writer at a small game design studio.