Ari froze as she caught sight of the light creeping in from under her bedroom door. The sound of the vacuum coming to life reached her moments later, and her mind stuttered at the sound.
“Mom,” her voice broke. It was barely a whisper. Joy and panic built inside her, filling her with a restless energy. Her eyes darted to the clock on her bedroom floor. The numbers on the digital face lit up the darkened room with a cheery shade of blue.
5:45am. Ari took a breath and headed for her dresser, her feet silent and sure as she traversed the clutter that covered her bedroom floor. She’d been up all night; she should have been watching the clock. Her mother would expect her to be on her merry way to school, not still in her bedroom. Not skipping school like Ari had been doing for far too long now. Ari eased one of the drawers of her dresser open and grabbed her clothes. She tossed her pajamas in the direction of her air mattress and changed into her preferred outfit, jeans, and a baggy shirt. She paused and listened towards the door. She could hear the vacuum moving relentlessly down the hall, the creek of the floor as her mother got closer.
Ari cursed and turned to her bedroom window. She pressed her hand against the foggy glass and felt cold seep into her skin. She frowned, and turned back, tossing aside a banana peel from last night, and snatched her hoodie from the floor.
Small fingers moved deftly to the window latch, fumbling slightly before catching the hook and releasing the lock. With a soft grunt Ari shoved the panel outward and inhaled deeply as the chilly humid air invaded her room. She didn’t waste time and slipped through the gap. The dirt beneath the window muffled her landing. Worn and used, she’d kept it clear of debris for moments like these. Ari turned back and nudged the window pane back into place behind her. She pulled her tackle box and rod free from the bushes and headed off into the dark of the morning. The chill air clung to Ari and she shivered, feeling the hair on the back of her neck stand up. They were nearing late spring; the morning should have been warm. The silence seemed to push in around her, and she shifted her weight.
A dog barked somewhere in the neighborhood as Ari climbed up a tree in her backyard. She paused for just a moment, her eyes catching movement from one of the lit windows in her house. Her mother was there, brown hair so dark it was almost black, pulled back in a ponytail, in clean clothes and not her usual nightgown. She was still vacuuming. The longing tugged at Ari as she watched. Her mother was back. She wanted to run to her, to pretend everything was normal, and spend the day helping her mother do whatever it was she wanted to do. Instead she dropped down into the dew-covered grass beyond the back fence and ran.
The street lights were dim, but they lit her way well enough. Ari followed the lights out of her neighborhood. From there the way was easier, and she kept to the shadows, occasionally ducking behind damp bushes to avoid the shining head-lights of a car. She’d feel a flare of panic as they slid over her hiding spot and a rush of restless energy as they moved past.
Ari didn’t look back as she fled down the dark streets. She wasn’t running away, not really, but Ari found she couldn’t stop the loneness that gripped her chest, or the tears that wet her face. The truth was more complicated than running away, and not something her fourteen-year-old mind really wished to ponder.
An unfamiliar bird called out as she ducked behind some trees to avoid another car, and Ari startled at the sound. It was then that she saw the glint of the street lamps on water. Her breath caught, and she could not stop the grin that broke out across her face.
Darting quickly, she nearly slid down the hill at the back of the library, her shoes and socks already soaked from the dew. She stumbled forward, feeling happy as she slid to a stop at the water’s edge.
This was her spot. Few others ever ventured to the lake behind the library. So, it became hers. Her place to read, or fish, or just to get away. The place where she felt safe, the place where she went when home wasn’t enough. Time seemed different to her here. Removed from the rest of the world.
The dark morning around the lake was calm, but not quiet. The water stirred occasionally with the restless energy of hungry fish. The songs of cicadas and tree frogs filled the air, and hearing their melodies, Ari allowed herself to relax. The earthy smell of the stagnant lake water permeated the air. The golden street lights flickered occasionally, but they were still bright enough to see by.
Ari reached out for her tackle box and flipped the tab on the outside. She began unpacking her things, her hands moving delicately over each object. The box had been her mother’s, back when she had felt like fishing. Back when she’d had more good days than bad.
Her mind danced away from that thought, drawn, and repulsed like a moth to a flame. Her mother would probably still be cleaning by the time she got home. Would she still be having a good day? Ari hoped she would. Perhaps they could do something together. Watch TV, go out to eat even, if they had any money left. Ari’s hands tightened and she hissed a curse as a fish hook pricked her thumb.
Ari flinched away as something large and ghostly white landed next to her in the grass. Her eyes met gold eyes in a white face, and she froze. It was a bird. A large white bird. Ari knew instantly what it was, as she’d seen a few of them around before, though never so close. It was a snowy egret.
“Hello. Aren’t you pretty? Can I help you with something?” Ari asked as she watched it curiously. She relaxed slightly as it stood there, and smiled. The bird just looked at her, and then started to preen. Ari moved slowly, and reached into her tackle box, removing a small bag of bait fish. She opened the bag with her knife and tossed one of the fish towards the bird. The egret jumped, cupping the air with its wings and flapping, but it soon settled back down. It eyed the fish for a moment, and then looked at her curiously, jabbing its long sharp beak forward and swallowing the fish whole. Ari grinned wider and tossed the egret another fish.
“You’re very strange, you know? You’re the first egret to ever approach me before.”
Ari paused and checked her watch. It was almost 7am, yet the sky was dark still. The sun should be up by now. She frowned as a chill raced down her spine and made her shiver.
Ari tossed another fish to the egret, her fingers suddenly stuff and clumsy. She ignored the sense of disquiet creeping over her and focused on feeding the egret. She tossed him all the fish she had until the packet was empty.
The air felt cold again, and Ari shifted on the ground. “It’s just a cold day,” she said to the bird. “Nothing to worry about. You’re here, right? You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t safe.” Unease settled low in her gut, and Ari twisted her fingers in the still wet grass. Memories, triggered by her apprehension, threated to rise in her mind, bringing images of darker days. Of her mother, lying in bed, unresponsive.
But today was a good day. Ari fought back against her memories and fear with the image of her mother vacuuming. “Today is a good day.” She said aloud through clenched teeth. It would be afternoon before long. She could head home, see her mother. They would act like nothing was wrong. Play card games, watch TV. It would all be fine.
A cry rose in the dark, loud, unnatural, almost a scream. The egret flinched beside her and took off into flight, heading out across the night-darkened pond.
“No! Don’t leave me!” She felt the loss of the bird’s silence and simple companionship as an ache in her chest. The air seemed to chill even more around her, as if the bird had somehow staved off some of the early morning cold.
The egret landed in a small wooded area on the other side of the pond. Ari blinked and rubbed at her eyes. She was sure she’d never seen that small woods before. As the dark tangle of trees rose up, the tips of the leaves just caught the yellow glow of a street light, giving the woods an otherworldly appearance. She found herself standing, though she wasn’t entirely sure why. Something about the woods called to her. Ari jerked forward, heading for the woods, her rod and tacklebox abandoned in the grass. Her shoes slipped slightly in the grass as she ran, but she managed to keep her footing. She reached the trees and pushed into them, just as the street lamps flickered and went out.
The woods closed around Ari. She glanced back once but could not see her fishing spot anymore, or the library building. The bushes rose up around her as she pushed deeper into the woods, scratching her arms, her face, catching in her hair. She tripped, her legs hung up by vines that would not break. Fear got her back up on her feet. Fear kept her moving. The darkness joined the bushes, and Ari felt herself struggling to breathe. She was smothered. She would die here. She would lose her way; she would never find the egret, never see her mother again. Her mother…
Ari saw her mother again, lying in bed. She waited for her to breathe.
The night broke with the strange screaming cry again, and Ari lurched forward as panic burned in her veins and silenced her thoughts. The briars tugged at her legs and she tripped. There was a sudden, crippling pain, and her world went black.
Ari groaned as she awoke. Her head was throbbing quite painfully, and her vision was blurry. She struggled to remember exactly what had happened and where she was, but the memories were jumbled in her mind and they were hard to piece together. Groggily she rubbed her eyes and slowly sat up, her heart pounding with every inch of movement. She groaned again and blinked, a blurry white shape taking focus in front of her. It was the snowy egret. She smiled feebly and started to push herself to her feet when the bird suddenly beat its wings in her face and she fell backwards with a gasp. Ari gripped her head in pain and glared at the bird.
“What the heck bird?” She watched it, silent and curious as the bird lifted a long white feather, so much like his own, and placed it in her lap. She gazed at the bird and reached out gently, her fingers grasping the still-warm shaft of the feather. Ari felt a strange buzzing in her head and lay back down as dizziness overtook her. The world swam around her eyes and her fingers reached out to clutch at the ground beneath her.
Ari tried to breathe. What was she even doing here? She needed to get home. She needed to see her mom. She needed every good day her mother had. Ari moved as if to get to her feet again, and this time the bird allowed her to rise.
She looked down at the bird and it met her gaze with an intensity she hadn’t expected. She stuttered back a step. The bird was tensed, huddled in a half crouch, as if it would fly at any moment. Sound filled the air as something crashed through the bushes nearby. Ari flinched at the noise, and the bird opened its wings, its beak parted slightly in a pant. There was a moment of silence before something dove through the bushes again, the sound louder and closer than before. The bird opened its beak wider, but instead of a bird like noise, Ari heard words.
“We don’t have much time, so I need you to listen to me carefully!” Ari stared hard at the bird. She felt too warm and dropped to a crouch in front of the egret, not trusting herself to stand. Her thoughts tumbled wildly through her mind.
“Did you just talk?” she asked. How hard had she hit her head? Was this even real? The wind picked up around her in a shrill moan. It cut through her hoodie and Ari shivered.
“That feather you’re holding is allowing me to speak to you. I need you to accept that.” Ari looked up at him, confusion tangling her thoughts. She opened her mouth to speak, but the egret cut her off.
“You’re going to have a lot of questions, and I’m sorry for that. I don’t have time to answer them for you. What I need right now is for you to run. Your life is in danger Ari. Trust me and run. Run!” She swallowed hard and nodded, gripping the feather tightly as she turned and fled. Her head pounded, but the pain was muted by the strange fear that began to rise inside her again, leaving her skin damp with sweat. It was still dark out, and the shadows seemed to grow around her. Ari broke free of the woods and sprinted back towards the road. Her mind raced with panic and disbelief. What had just happened? Had she really spoken to a bird and listened to it? But if her life was in danger, could she really afford to not listen?
Ari darted towards some back neighborhoods, but the streets were not familiar, and she felt as if a hulking nameless monster hid behind every corner, watching her. Her breath was tight in her chest and gathered in the chilly air. She saw an alley off her to left and darted down it, afraid to look behind. Afraid to stop running. She hesitated only a moment as she reached an intersection she did not know. Which way would take her home?
A bird called out, loudly behind her and she jumped. The call was strange, one she had never heard before. Ari turned and looked back.