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STILL, BIRDS by Nick Gregorio

Joe’s head bursts and fills the office with blue birds. Singing, chirping, flying figure eights around the ceiling fans. The red-faced, foamy-mouthed ranting Bill just popped Joe’s head with should’ve produced something more vicious. Snakes exploding in every direction like those gag cans sold at junk shops in malls. Or badgers, gnashing their teeth, snarling, sinking their teeth into people’s calf muscles. But blue birds flying, tweeting Jackson 5 tunes, swooping, diving, gliding, barrel rolling over the network of cubicles is…I guess that sort of thing just doesn’t add up for me.
Standing in a mess of bird nest that acts more or less like a bed for Joe’s body, so he can regrow his head in comfort, I clench my teeth to keep my own head from popping. Last Wednesday, rhesus monkeys leapt from my shattered skull, threw clumps of dung at everyone in the office—but mostly at Bill. By the time my brain was finished stitching itself back together, the suit he’d worn that day was in a ball on my desk. The note on top of the heap told me to dry clean the thing. Immediately.


The Monday before that, late getting back from lunch, I kept tapping my toe on the gritty linoleum in the fast food restaurant down the road a bit. Couldn’t stop looking the kid behind the counter up, down, up, down, while he built order after order on tray after tray. Struggled to not stare at the number on my receipt. Not a single tray of food was mine, and not a number that came whimpering from that kid’s mouth was on the crushed piece of paper in my fist. I filled the place with bees. When I came to, I had to apologize to a bunch of blotchy, swollen people with my new hair matted with honey.


And the day before that I was home on the couch. Doing nothing in particular. Had to clean wads of earthworms and dirt off the walls, the hardwoods, the couch, the coffee table. Brinkley, my golden retriever. Once the worms had begun to dry up and stick to my driveway, I googled names of therapists, made a list. But once the ink had dried on the last letter of the last name, the worm thing was another funny story I could tell my buddies at the bar. They’d laugh, we’d drink, and the worms would’ve been ground into the driveway enough by then that it’d be like they were never there at all.


Six months or so ago, my general practitioner told me that exploding my head could be a stress reliever, even a cathartic event. “But considering the frequency at which you’re blowing your custard,” she said, “And the often morbid and violent creatures that fly out, I can’t say it’s exactly healthy.”


Even on the pills, I was still spraying my desk down with maggots. Showering the lunch room with piranhas. And because of the hatchling crocodile incident a month or so back, a portion of my paycheck will be relegated to Dana-from-accounting’s hospital bills for the foreseeable future—finger reattachments are neither cheap, nor guaranteed.   


Ever since, though, people manage to smile when we happen to lock eyes. They ask me to happy hour. Or make sure I get a piece of cake during office birthdays—especially Joe.


Still, “How about that game last night,” and “Doing anything fun this weekend,” and “Think we’re going to skip over fall and go directly to winter again,” can become tedious. At best.


I’ve named all the birds by the time Joe’s head grows back. Melody is the plump one who perches on computer monitors whenever she gets tired of the fan circuit. Chorus is the quick one who darts between people’s legs, around their heads. Song likes the acoustics in the bathrooms the best. Tempo flutters from shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. Note stands, chirps, chirps, chirps under the nozzle of the water cooler, enjoys a little bath anytime someone needs a paper cone of water.


And Mark opens the fucking window and lets them all fly the fuck away.


That’s when Joe stops by my cubicle, calls me bud.


“I’m fine,” I say. “Thanks for asking.”


“You don’t look fine.”


I unclench my fists, my jaw.


Relax my eyebrows, my shoulders.


Catch my breath.


“I’m good,” I say.


Joe says good, knocks on the top of my cubicle wall—like, knock-knockknockknock—to mark his exit.


“Joe?”


He turns, raises his eyebrows.


“Why did birds fly out when your head blew up?”


A smirk, a shrug. “I don’t know. I like birds.”


“Me too.”


Joe says but like it’s a question.


“But birds never fly out of me.”


Joe nods, says, “I just like to remind myself that most everything doesn’t matter, and I’m the only one who gets to decide what does.”


“Aren’t you afraid?”


“Sure.”


“And still, birds?”


“Still, birds.”


Joe’s knuckles on the cubicle again.


Knock-knockknockknock.


Out the window, Melody and Chorus and Tempo and all the rest of them, they fly new patterns. They zig-zag, barrel-roll, zip to, fro. They sing that Jackson 5 tune again. And I can hear them even though they get farther and farther away.


My head out the window, I’m listening, watching their blue little bodies turn into black specs on a blue sky. They’re singing tweedily deedily dee, tweedily deedily dee.


People call my name.


Joe first.


Bill next.


Then Mark.


Dana.


They start yelling my name.


Louder.


Even louder.


But I keep watching, singing along, watching.


And then I feel it.


The pressure.


It’s going to happen again. Again.


And just before my head breaks open, I cross my fingers for birds.

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