Black wings spasm on the ground, the promise of flight broken out of them. The bird moves like a ball of rubber bands, unravelling itself in swift, random bursts and kicking up coughs of dry earth. Michael stands back and watches, the slingshot hanging limp in his hand, so loose that the gentlest of breezes could blow it free. But there’s no breeze today; the air is too thick, too hot.
Although he can’t explain how he knows, as the bird spins — or maybe it’s the ground spinning — he’s sure if he closes his eyes or moves his head, he’ll throw up, so he stares and he swallows and he doesn’t move an inch. Inside, though, he can’t control the blood which froths at his ears and swirls round his skull and it’s the blood, he realises, making him dizzy.
In a flourish, the bird lunges and loops towards him, crashing at his sandaled foot. Its crooked wing flops across his bare toes as though it’s pleading. He remains frozen until the feathers, cold and waxy, twitch further up his foot and then the tension explodes and he backtracks with a squeal, instinct sending out a kick that finds only air. Panicked, one hand tightens around the slingshot while the other dives into his shorts pocket and drags out a dozen ball bearings that fall and scatter like silver candy. He manages, somehow, to keep one pinched between his finger and thumb. Fumbling, he loads it into the leather patch and then, holding his breath, he draws it back. The tightness in the tubing reminds him this is a big boy’s toy. He shouldn’t even have it. His father would kill him if he knew. His brother will kill him if he notices it missing. Right now, he doesn’t care.
Aiming through the fork, his arms, his hands and the whole world tremble. The bird shuffles towards a patch of grass, slower now, less frantic and he notices it doesn’t make a sound, except from where it claws the cracked earth. A wing — maybe where Michael’s earlier shot hit — drags behind. Between the shaking prongs of the slingshot, it doesn’t seem much like a bird anymore, but it’s determined. It wants to live. It reminds Michael of a movie he saw where a shot-down pilot crawled through the desert looking for an oasis or rescue. The pilot had been determined, too, but he still died. All the determination in the world hadn’t saved him and while Michael tries to focus on the bird as it swims sidestroke to that little island of grass, this is the thought he can’t push away.
From the knuckles to the shoulder, Michael’s arm burns and the shakes intensify. A minute ago, the sickness in his belly threatened to carry him to the skies but now it weighs him down, grounds him. His nose creases into a grimace. Pain pulses along his arm. His vision melts. If only he could stop shaking. If only he’d stayed out of his brother’s room. If only he’d aimed too high. He blinks and water streaks down his dusty face, gathering into a clay egg at his jaw line. The bird reaches the grass and stops, exhausted or dead.
Michael closes his eyes and lets go of everything.
Gavin Broom lives in the Scottish countryside with his wife and his cat. At the time of writing, he doesn’t own a house at the beach.