Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Bird and the Riley by David Crozier

 There is a peacock on the wing of the plane.

 
Riley can see from where she is sat, where the scratchy material of the airplane seat rubs against her back, that there is a peacock perched on the wing of the plane. She can see a lot of things around the plane, none of which are very interesting – her mother sitting rigid in the chair next to her, fingers prying absentmindedly on the rim of a can of crisps. It makes a dull noise. A few rows behind, there is a baby crying, an alarm clock that she cannot reach to turn off. A stranger to her, the person in the aisle seat sniffs at regular intervals and wipes his sweaty nose with a grimy looking tissue. Chattering, mumbling, screaming baby, itchy fabric of her chair; Riley counts the things she sees and hears and smells and feels. She makes a tally in her head of all the senses violated, a list to tick at an offending noise in her head. Like a computer, she calculates how long it will be until these annoyances add up to the equation – the one where she overloads her systems and shuts down completely.
 
So she distracts herself with the peacock outside the window.
 
It peers from a distance at her, its beady eyes looking like ripe berries in its bush of sleek feather-leaves. Its beak is a grey hook hanging off its startling blue head; feathers on stilts poke from its cranium. It occurs to Riley that they should be swaying in the wind – they are motionless, save for when the bird cocks its head and they jostle like palm trees. Tail fanning out behind it, she can see even through the muggy glass of the window how the feathers make eyes that stare right back at her, and her computer-brain comes to the conclusion that they could trick a predator easily; they almost look real through the porthole. They, as well, are frozen. The ice-bite of the wind out there doesn’t move them, the peacock stands proud and still.
 
In only a few seconds, her CPU brings several search results to the front of her thoughts. There should not be a peacock out there. It’s impossible. That is a logical error in the world’s code – a peacock could not have gotten onto the wing, and it certainly could not stay on the wing at the speeds they were flying at. But triumphantly it stands out there, challenging her with its existence of green and blue.
 
Then, it trots forward. Leaning its head towards the window, the Bird and the Riley gaze at each other. Maybe it is trying to say something, but she cannot understand, it does not speak her binary.
 
It begins tapping its beak on the window.
 
Why has no one else noticed? Riley thinks. She turns to her mother, calling to her, but there is no reply. Her mother’s eyes are like marbles in her head, her fingers clockwork pistons as she thumbs over the still unopened can. The peacock is still pecking; Riley reassures herself that this glass is designed for airplanes, a bird’s beak can’t even put a crack in it. As that command gets delivered through her system, the window splinters slightly.
 
Gripping the arms of her seat, Riley runs through her irritation list. The baby is still crying – it sounds like a recording now, playing on loop, not a child of flesh and blood. It sounds like its vocal chords are made of tape and its body is a chassis. The peacock slams its beak against the portal to the outside; she strains in her seat. When she calls out to her mother, her voice sounds like treacle, thick and heavy and muffled.
 
Tap, tap, tap on the glass. She realises with alarm that she cannot recognise her mother. She knows the noise – the scraping on the can – but her face does not pull up any search results in Riley’s browser-brain. There is a crack running perpendicular to her arm on the seat; Riley begs her mother to see it, to see the bird, yet she is beginning to believe that she has turned invisible.
 
With the baby still screeching in its metallic voice, the crack in the window spreads like butter across the glass and finally it opens. The mother-who-is-not-her-mother stares ahead with pinball eyes, the stranger in the aisle seat sniffs into his hanky.
 
Riley crawls out of the window. The glass bites her knees, the sharps glinting like crystals in the sun. The peacock waits for her outside, its personal fan fluttering with anticipation. When she reaches it, it spreads its wings – its masses of tarpaulin and glue – and flies away. Riley’s CPU has expired.
 
With squinting eyes she looks around, standing on the wing of the plane with no breeze and no chill. The sky is an ocean of white froth and deep, deep blue. She looks down, looks where there should be land below – or sea, twinkling in the midday sun.
 
There’s just more sky. Out on the wing of the plane, Riley looks out on an endless sky. She can’t hear the baby anymore.

© David Crozier

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