Authors: Elisa Freilich
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
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New York, NY 10016
Copyright © 2013 by Elisa Freilich
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Diversion Books edition September 2013
For all my family, past and present. I carry you with me always.
“So spoke they, sending forth their glorious song, and my heart longed to listen…”
The fluttering of the birds’ wings against the windshield produced a steady noise not unlike the whirring of a fan.
He looked over at the pained face of his wife. She was at the peak of labor, her contractions only two minutes apart. Her water had broken several hours ago, and despite his demands to leave immediately for the hospital, Helena had insisted on waiting it out, determined to relish the birth of their first child in the comfort of their own home.
Joshua had only conceded knowing that in Ridgewood there wasn’t likely to be much traffic. Their worst delay might be having to wave to a familiar pedestrian.
But this roadblock could never have been foreseen. They were everywhere—the feathers, the flapping wings. When the first one had landed, a snowy white creature with clouded jade eyes, he had thought nothing of it. Swerving gently, Joshua was surprised that the bird held its ground, welcoming its identical twin, who swooped down and landed firmly on the hood of the car.
And then an avalanche.
Identical white birds streaming down in droves, their verdigris eyes boring curiously beyond the windshield.
She cried out in pain.
“Please,” she pleaded with her husband, her voice barely above a whisper. “Please get me some help.”
Joshua looked over at his wife. Her milky complexion, now blue as a flame, had taken on an unnatural translucence, revealing the frenetic pumping of blood through her veins.
But trapped inside the chrysalis of feathers and beak, there was no way to maneuver the car forward. Or in any direction, for that matter.
“I’m so sorry, baby, I can’t see a thing…”
He tried prompting the flock to leave with a few angry bursts of the horn. But the sound only propelled the beating of their wings. And with each new unwelcome visitor, a sterile labor and delivery room became a fantasy reserved for another universe.
Dialing 911, Joshua tried maintaining his composure. He could sense the operator’s skepticism until Helena let out a fortuitous moan, lending an undeniable truth to his tale. He tried pinpointing their location. Where
While he attempted to gain his bearings, Helena became entranced by the thumping of the giant wings. The percussion was a sponge, soaking up her anxiety at being trapped. The vibration of the wings made its way down her spine, relieving the immense pressure in her belly.
With a burst of sudden clarity Helena knew that this was going to be the birthplace of her child. Right here, on Thornton Road. There would be no hospital and no Dr. Schein. Joshua would have to deliver this baby and she felt it coming. Fast.
The birds continued to flock to the car, forming a layer three deep. Nestling their heads into one another, they hastened the rhythm of their wings, their movements in perfect unison. She stared them down and, as they returned her gaze, the balloon that was her swollen body was untied, her pain released in a slow and steady stream, replaced by an utter sense of calm.
There were only the birds now.
Never mind the fruitless attempts of her husband to open the car door against the impenetrable suction. No recognition of his own panic, his own understanding that if she didn’t make it through this, there would be no tomorrow for either one of them.
And still, the birds remained.
The creatures lifted their heads up, one by one, revealing their aged green eyes. Helena basked in the comfort of the winged voyeurs, grateful for the way they had reversed the current of her pain.
“It’s coming,” she whispered to Joshua.
Joshua surrendered any vestiges of calm to which he had been clinging, his face a mosaic of horror and shock.
“What? You mean now?”
And before Helena could even answer, the child emerged. Joshua caught the tiny creature in the bath towel they had grabbed as an afterthought just before leaving the house.
“Oh my God, Helena, it’s a girl!” His voice trembled, unable to find solid ground. “She seems perfect! Oh my God—”
Helena looked down at the child. She was perfect. A small silken tuft of brown hair sat like a crown atop her delicate skull. Her fingers were long and graceful, tiny papery nails topping each one. Her lips were full, forming a perfect ruby heart.
Joshua started wiping the child clean, offering his wife words of endearment and praying that the paramedics would arrive soon. But his words floated away like particles of dust. There was no room for them in the air, which had become filled with the cries of the newborn.
The thumping of the birds’ wings began to fade, offering center stage to the cries of the baby. Gradually, one by one, they flew away, forming a perfect arrow as they soared into the dusky sky.
When the last one was gone, the baby’s cries became a tornado, sucking away all other sounds and sights. The storm of the infant’s tears held within it a somnolent melody, every sob the next movement in the tearful symphony.
Joshua and Helena struggled to keep their eyes open; deep sleep was suddenly beckoning them. The sounds of the child were a quicksand. And they were being pulled under.
Just as they were about to be submerged completely, the arrival of the paramedics jolted Helena, awakening her maternal instincts. She drew her new daughter to her breast, amazed at her ability to nourish the child from her own body. The baby fell silent as she began to suckle, breaking the dreamy spell that had been wielded by her tears.
Helena ran a gentle fingertip over the velvety cheeks of her new daughter. They would call her Portia, just like they had talked about.
“I will never grow tired of hearing your voice, little Portia,” whispered the proud mother to her new daughter.
She could never have known then that for the next sixteen years the child would not make another sound.
Portia turned the volume up on her iPod as the bus pulled up in front of Charlotte’s house. Jeff Buckley’s anguished voice coursed through her as he alluded to that magical secret chord that David once played for the Lord.
Not the most upbeat of the more than 7,000 songs she had accumulated over the years, but there was something about the lyrics to “Hallelujah”
that always calmed her. And this morning she really needed an extra dose of calm.
How could Helena have stressed me out like this on the first day of school?
She had recently taken to referring to her mother by name—of course, to Helena’s face, she still signed out “Mom,” though this morning a few other words had come to mind.
A fresh wave of anger washed over her as she recounted the morning’s events.
Things had actually started off well. Portia had allowed herself a few extra moments in front of her mirror, admiring her finally wireless grin. Figuring that she was now a sophomore and should therefore look the part, she had even applied a smattering of blush and lip gloss before heading downstairs.
She knew that Helena would comment on the length of her skirt, and her mother did not disappoint. Before she even took the last stair, her mother charged her, giving the plaid skirt an ineffectual tug.
“I can’t believe those new uniforms I ordered didn’t come yet. You’re lucky your father had an early meeting. He’d never let you out of the house like this, Portia. When did your legs get to be so, so…” Portia watched her mother struggle for the right word—knobby and gangly were suddenly no longer in the running. “Umm…sultry?”
OK, so that wasn’t necessarily a compliment one wanted to receive from one’s mother, but Portia took it in stride and had even affected a mock pose, hip jutted, one arm raised gracefully in the air.
“Oh, sweetie, you look beautiful.” Helena stroked her daughter’s cheek with the back of her hand.
And that’s when it happened. The gesture that had landed Portia a million deadly blows over the last sixteen years. Was Helena even remotely aware of the pain she inflicted every time she passed the pad of her thumb over her daughter’s useless lips? Always with that
imperceptible flash of disappointment in her eyes.
Almost—but not quite.
Portia’s mental recap of the morning was interrupted when Charlotte Trotter boarded the bus, her expression as sullen as ever. She tried waving to her neighbor and was, as had become the case over the past five years, ignored. Oh well. She wasn’t in the mood to deal. She had her own wars to wage as she braced herself for the one line in Leonard Cohen’s lyrical masterpiece that had always cut her to the quick. The one where, against her victim’s will, the seductress draws a hallelujah from her broken lover’s lips.
Is that what Helena was expecting? That the mere touch of her fingertip would draw words, a single word, even a sound from Portia’s silent lips? Portia had spent years trying to accept her voiceless self. All those doctor appointments, each diagnosis more inconclusive than the next. One time she was sure that they had finally cracked the code. A small mass detected at the base of her larynx would no doubt be what was causing the problem. But further testing showed the growth to be benign, not even worth removing. After this final letdown, Portia swore she would never allow another doctor to take a light to her useless throat.
She had hoped by now that her parents’ expectations would have dwindled just like her own. After all, it’s not like they had any lack of communication. Between signing, texting, and e-mailing, Portia felt like she was always mid-conversation with her parents.
When she was little, she used to indulge in lofty fantasies that would have her telling her parents over and over again just how much she loved them. She imagined thanking her father aloud for every time he kicked a soccer ball around with her or her mother for always alphabetizing her spelling words—an assignment she dreaded above all others.
But the years of silence wore on and, as Portia grew up, so did her fantasies. Reciting a Shakespearean soliloquy or def jamming a Nicki Minaj track were more probable goals these days.
Most recently, though, Portia had decided that fantasizing was a total waste of her time. Well, with one exception that is.
The birds were the one thing she couldn’t resist. Not just the reality of them—their colors, their wingspans, each one’s unique flying pattern. But Portia also felt a constant need to eavesdrop on their calls, to be enveloped by their chorus. She loved nothing more than to spend hours getting lost in the aerial conversations of her favorite creatures, superimposing her own thoughts and feelings into their beautiful cries. All the things that she herself could never say. Could never sing.
Her favorite was the Red-winged Blackbird, whose male would sing out fervently to attract a female mate while the female would chatter back at him like a fishwife. Portia spent many hours projecting her own inane conversations onto these creatures.
“Yo, Blackie, I saw you at the bird bath today wooing that Blue Jay, Azure. What gives?”
“Come on, Robin, meet me in my crib. You know my nest only has room for two…”
But that was her only fantastical indulgence these days. Mostly she tried to stay grounded in reality and to focus on the positive things in her life. She had a family who loved her and friends who made her feel almost completely comfortable in her own skin.
And then, of course, she had Felix.
As the bus approached the tree-lined RPA campus, Portia decided to bury the wounds that her mother had inflicted that morning. She was only minutes away from seeing Felix.
And one thing she knew for sure was that voice or no voice, she was always the same to him.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Portia found that, true to his text last night, her locker was right next to Felix’s. He must have called in a favor with the principal—a perk of calling the head of the school “Dad.”
Where was Felix anyway?
She scanned the crowded hallways and spotted Kate, one of Felix’s three sisters, talking to an impressively tall and broad guy.
Must be someone on the football team.
Portia liked Kate and thought of weaving her way over, but she preferred the comfort of the social sidelines and began setting up her locker instead. Looking around, she couldn’t help but note that her locker décor was minimalist, to say the least. She spotted her friend Jacqueline Rainer across the hall, placing an obscenely large magnetic mirror in the center of a collage of pictures. She often teased her friend about her vanity, though secretly wished she could soak up some of her self-confidence.
Yeah, well, if I looked like Jacqueline, I’d also be hanging a mirror front and center.
And the locker to the left of hers was a virtual Teen Beat shrine, pictures of pop stars cut and plastered about in a free-form collage, outrightly accusing her own locker of being completely lackluster.
Hanging a magnetic message board on the outside of the door, she thought for a minute of what else she could add to spruce things up. A picture of J.K. Rowling? Steve Jobs? These were the true idols of her life.
As she unpacked her last notebook, she remembered a picture she kept in her wallet of her and Felix—a snapshot from when they were little and had fallen asleep together in the hammock, contentedly nestled into one another. It was one of her favorites. She was taping the picture to the inside of her locker door when suddenly a grip on her shoulders startled her.
Turning around, Portia expected to look right into the familiar black eyes of her best friend, but instead found that she was now barely eye level with Felix’s jawline. And what was this? Was there actually a five o’clock shadow on that jawline?
Taking in the full view of her evolved Felix, suddenly she realized that
had been the giant she had spotted with Kate before. He must have grown a foot in height and breadth while he was away!
Feeling tiny beside him, she craned her neck to assess him. What were once features too bold for his childish face—a nose too long, onyx eyes burrowed deep inside his brow—had now settled comfortably onto this more mature countenance. And it wasn’t lost on her that his expanded physique really knew how to exploit the slim cut shirt of the school uniform.
His mess of black hair had also grown over the last three months and was the perfect finishing touch to his evolution. Resisting her inclination to reach out and tousle it, she allowed a huge smile to erupt as she wholeheartedly approved of the boy-turned-man who stood before her. She wouldn’t have classified Felix as conventionally good-looking, but in terms of exoticism, her best friend was deserving of high marks. Besides, conventional was boring.
“You got your braces off! Why didn’t you text me?!” His voice was deeper than she had remembered, but the clarity of his speech was as impressive as ever. Ever since he had lost his hearing, Felix prided himself on honing whatever verbal skills he had already acquired in the first seven years of his life.
Portia signed her reply.
“I wanted to surprise you.”
“Well, you did—you look awesome! Maybe now you’ll even smile once in a while.” He pulled her in for a bear hug.
She could feel the definition of his biceps through the cotton of his shirt. Quick to pull away, she signed, “You must have grown a foot!”
He smiled. “I know—my grandmother couldn’t stop feeding me! It was unbelievable! You should have seen the feast she laid out for mine and Dean’s big birthday bash!”
“Yeah, well, you can’t blame her—not every grandmother gets to celebrate her favorite grandsons’ birthdays on the same day,” she signed enthusiastically. “My summer was also a total food fest—Helena had the Food Network going 24/7. My dad and I felt like Hansel and Gretel the way she was stuffing us!” Portia squeezed an imaginary inch at her belly.
“Trust me,” assured Felix, “you don’t look like a Gretel.”
“And you don’t look like a Felix. At least not my Felix. Were you working with a personal trainer out there in the boonies of Quebec? You’re busting out of your shirt!”
He shrugged and ran his hands carelessly through his mess of hair, revealing a giant scab, shaped a bit like the boot of Italy, looming high on his forehead.
“What happened to you?”
His face hinted at mischief as he touched the wound. “Oh, this? That was how my grandfather celebrated the Felix–Dean birthday this year. He bought us ATVs! I guess we got a little carried away—no big deal.”
“Yeah, well, you always get carried away when you’re with your cousin—”
“You mean my brother from another mother—”
“Yes, your brother from another mother. And your grandfather’s not exactly helping things by buying you guys ATVs—”
As their banter continued, Portia was momentarily distracted by a sudden warmth radiating throughout her body.
“Are they running the AC in here today?”
“Not sure,” Felix said offhandedly.
The heat persisted, prickling her skin, and was quickly followed by a mild tickle in her throat.
Ignoring what was probably just a case of first day jitters, Portia realized that Felix was taking in her full person just as she had done with him.
“Anyway, wow,” he said, “where’s the string bean I left here before break?”
She wasn’t sure how to address his reference to her recently formed figure.
“Guess I’m a bit of a late bloomer,” she signed, avoiding his eyes.
“Guess so,” he answered approvingly. An awkwardness ensued. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so, umm, tan…”
“Yeah, well, I think my bird-watching bordered on obsessive this summer.”
“I’m sure it did. You’re such a freak, Portia,” he said playfully.
Portia would have ordinarily come back with a witty retort, undoubtedly aimed at Felix’s own obsessions with hockey or football, but the tickle in her throat was worsening, segueing into an unwelcome constriction. She tried swallowing away the clog in her windpipe, her eyes tearing at the effort.
Bent over his locker, Felix failed to notice her malaise.
“So yeah, anyway,” he stood back up, looking like the cat who swallowed the canary, “I have something for you.” He revealed a wrapped gift from behind his back and placed it into Portia’s hands.
“What’s this?!” she mouthed silently. Gift exchanging was not usually part of their repertoire.
“It’s just something I saw that I wanted you to have.”
Portia looked up into Felix’s eyes. Sometimes it was hard to see beyond the thick black fringe of his lashes. But once she got past, she could still see the spark. That same spark that she saw in that little boy who had saved her all those years ago.
How long had it been since that fateful day? The day she secured what Felix adoringly called the “Ridgewood Prep World Cup.” A bit dramatic for a third grade soccer match, but it had been a pivotal event for both of them.
Lifting her tiny self into the air, Portia had pulled off a mind-blowing, goal-scoring bicycle kick. It was one of those perfect moments until, out of nowhere, Zachary Wilson knocked her down to the ground, his anger fueled at being upstaged by a girl with pigtails and tiny cleats.
She had landed with tremendous force on her right knee, and the whole class had braced themselves for the ear-piercing cries that would surely follow such an attack. When none came, they had assumed that Portia was fine and immediately turned their attention back to Zachary, who was being carded by the coach.
“Are you OK?” he had approached her. She wondered at the uniqueness of his speech and looked up at him, her eyes misted with tears, revealing the answer to his question.
She shook her head and pointed to her throat, indicating its uselessness. He shook his head back and, to her amazement, pointed to his ears, indicating their equal measure of uselessness.
He had propped her up against his shoulder and supported her weight all the way to Nurse Leucosia’s office. And from that moment on, they were inseparable.