Thunderbird

This is a short story I wrote last summer.  It was an attempt at trying to write a quieter piece of fiction, sans the action and abundance of swearing that usually permeates my stories. It is quieter and there is less swearing, so in that sense it was a success.

When Mason was four his father stopped coming home. After a few days his uncle Jack came to the door, dressed in black.  Mason couldn’t hear the words that Jack said, but Mama did. Mama cried for days. Uncle Jack took Mason to the store, where Mason was fitted for a tiny black suit, with a tiny black tie. When he came home he showed it to Mama.  She wiped away the tears from her now red face and had told him how handsome he was.  Then she cried some more.

There was a funeral, but the casket was empty. Mama threw her arms around it and cried anyway. There were more new faces than Mason could count, each telling him they were a friend or family member. Each telling him that everything would be ok, and that if he ever needed anything, anything at all, all he had to do was ask. Then they would leave. Then there had been cakes and pies and other food that was far less interesting to Mason. Lots of food. He felt bad that he enjoyed the cake so much, since everyone was so sad, but still it was a good cake. After awhile everyone had left, even uncle Jack, and Mason sat in the living room playing with a toy truck. Mama walked by, still crying, and wrapped herself in an enormous cloak of black feathers. “Take me with you…” She was mumbling and looking at the ceiling.  Mason had never seen the cloak before, but it shimmered in the light.  At one angle the feathers were almost green, and some almost purple, but mostly they just looked black.

“Mama, what’s that?” Mason asked. She paused and looked back.

“It was your father’s.” Mama said.

“Can I have it?” Mason asked. Mama looked shocked, then shook her head.

“No baby, not now.”

“Ok Mama. Can I have it when Daddy comes back?” Mama didn’t answer.

***

When Mason was twelve his mother got sick. She couldn’t work anymore and had to give up the house that had been their home for Mason’s entire life. Uncle Jack came over to help Mason do the packing.  There was a tiny door under the stair well that Mason had been afraid of his entire life. He’d never bothered to go inside due to the childhood fear and had never seen his mother use it for anything either.

“Don’t we need to clear out that space?” Uncle Jack asked, motioning to the tiny door.

“I guess.” Mason shrugged. If he was honest he was still a little scared, but he’d never tell that to his Uncle Jack. Jack Hall was a war hero, afraid of nothing so far as Mason knew. He couldn’t bear the embarrassment of being afraid of the tiny little door and cramped black space beneath the stairs.

“Well, don’t just stand there. Get to it, we don’t have all day.” Uncle Jack said. Mason nodded, but didn’t budge. “You’re half my size squirt. You gotta drag out whatever is in there.”  Mason took a deep breath and reached for the brass handle. He felt foolish, but who knew what lay on the other side of this door? It could be monsters. Aliens. Monstrous aliens.  Mason exhaled slowly as he timidly turned the door knob. Crack! Mason jumped back and yelped a bit as an old push broom fell from the doorway. Uncle Jack laughed for ten minutes straight after that.

It took Mason over an hour to drag out all the clutter that had been crammed into every spare inch of the space under the stairs. He was no longer afraid of its darkness, though he was no friend to the musty little space. If he’d known any good swear words he might have used them as he came across the final piece of clutter in the closet. As he didn’t, he had to satisfy himself by giving the big steamer trunk a swift kick. It was a solid old trunk, the kick left his toe stinging, and too heavy for him to drag to the door.

“Uncle Jack, what do I do with this? It’s too heavy!”

“Open it up squirt. Maybe you can bring the pieces out, then the trunk will be lighter.” Dust flew everywhere as Mason opened the trunk. His eyes went wide when he saw the contents: a dagger, a wooden mask, and a cloak of black feathers.

“Cool.” He whispered. Mason picked up the dagger and stabbed at the air, making sword fighting sounds as he did. He shoved the dagger in his belt and lifted the wooden mask. The mask was carved in the shape of a bird’s skull.  It was brightly painted with reds and oranges. As he lay his hand on the cloak of feathers, the feathers tickled his palm. They felt warm on his fingertips, even though everything else in the musty closet had been cool to the touch. It felt odd, though Mason couldn’t really explain in what way. He pulled the cloak out and dragged it to Uncle Jack. “Check it out!” Mason said. Jack’s eyes went wide when he saw the cloak and dagger.

“Those aren’t toys squirt.” Jack grabbed hold of the dagger and pocketed it. He started to take away the cloak as Mason’s mother rounded the corner. She screamed.

“Get that away from him!”

“Teresa, it’s ok…” Uncle Jack began, but she cut him off. Charging in she yanked the cloak away.

“You don’t touch these! Do you understand?” She was angry and Mason flinched back, nodding as he did. “Go to your room!” Mason did as he was told, and through the thin walls he could hear the shouts back and forth between his mother and Uncle Jack. That night he snuck back to the space beneath the stairs, but the steamer trunk and its contents were gone.

***

“This homework isn’t going to do itself young man.” Mason’s mother said as she cleared a spot at the small table in their apartment. She placed a plate of food in front of him, but Mason barely acknowledged her presence as he increased the volume on his mp3 player. She pulled one of the ear buds out of his ears, and the tinny sound of rock and roll blaring from the miniature speaker filled the silence. “Did you hear me?”

“Yeah. I’ll do it later. Can I go over to Jack’s?”

“Not until you finish your homework.”

“I need his help on it.”

“I can help you with your homework, what do you need?” She asked as she began to shuffle the papers  strewn across the table into some semblance of order.

“I don’t think you can.” Mason said, trying to pull the papers back from her.

“What is it?”

“Nothing. Never mind, I’ll go to Jack’s later.”

“Mason.” She used the business tone of voice.  Mason hesitated, not wanting to answer. “Mason.” She repeated.

“I’m writing a paper about family. I need to know some stuff about Dad.” Her face flickered, but the seriousness remained. After a slow awkward moment she turned away.

“You can go after you eat your dinner.” She tapped her fork on her plate for a few seconds. “I’m going to call your Uncle, to let him know you are headed over. Finish your dinner.”  She stepped away from the table to make the phone call. The conversation was muffled by the apartment walls and Mason couldn’t make out most of it until the end.  His mother screamed, “Absolutely not! I forbid it!” then slammed the phone back into the wall receiver. After a few minutes she returned to the table, her eyes red and wet on the verge of tears. “Maybe it’s better if you go another night, sweetie.” She told him as she slipped into her chair.

“But Mom…”

“No buts. You can ask me your questions, or just skip it. If your teacher insists, she can talk to me.” There was no arguing with her when she was like this, so he didn’t. Instead he finished his meal in silence and returned to his room to work. At ten he turned out the lights and listened, waiting for the sounds that would tell him his mother had gone to bed for the night. Finally the canned laughter of some sitcom died out and the television in her room went silent.

His backpack was ready and waiting on the fire escape outside his open window. He looked up at the narrow patch of sky that was visible between his building and the next. Light pollution kept the stars from shining, but he knew they were up their and dreamed of them often. He hopped up onto the railing of the fire escape and leapt the short distance to the next building, the rubber soles of his skate shoes gripping the brick wall just long enough to allow him to kick off and bounce back to the wall of his own apartment building. Each kick slowed his descent just enough that he landed safely in the alley way, grinning as he did.

A short bike ride later Mason stood knocking at Uncle Jack’s door. “Oh jeez squirt, what’re you doing here at this hour?” Jack stood in the door wearing only a pair of shorts and scratching his head.

“I needed to talk to you.”

“I know you got a phone.” Jack said as he lit a cigarette and rubbed at his eyes.

“Mom would have heard.”

“Speaking of which, I got the distinct impression from her that you wouldn’t be dropping by tonight.” Mason didn’t answer. “Fine, fine, come on in. Gimme a sec to get dressed.” Jack disappeared into his bedroom. Mason could barely make out the sounds of a muffled voice, then moments later a very angry half-dressed woman stormed out from the bedroom and out of the apartment. Jack emerged from the bedroom, pulling a t-shirt over his head. “Whoops.” He said as he went to the kitchen and pulled open the fridge. “You want something to drink squirt? All I really got is beer.”

“I’m not sure I should have a beer.” Mason said.

“I’m not sure you should be sneaking out in the middle of the night, but you’re probably right. The laws here are pretty wacky about this sorta thing.” He took a deep drag off his cigarette then blew smoke out through his nose. He picked up his keys from the counter and spun them in a circle on his finger as he thought.  “Come on, let’s go.”

“I don’t want to go home until I get some answers.” Mason said.

“Not taking you home, squirt. Now come on.”

Jack’s ‘61 Fleetside pickup sputtered and knocked as he killed the engine at the top of the hill. “Stupid piece of junk, you buy something new, you expect it to last.” Jack said under his breath as he kicked the floor board.

“New? This truck has to be older than you.” Mason laughed at what he was sure was a joke.

“Right, yeah. Meant new to me.”  Jack stepped out of the truck and dropped the tailgate, plopping down and staring up at the night sky. Mason followed suit. “Still a piece of junk. Anyway, out with it kid. What do you want to talk about.” Mason watched the stars quietly for a full three minutes. He hadn’t been out of the city since his mother had sold their home.  It was the first time he’d really seen the stars in four years.

“I want to know about Dad.” Mason said. Jack nodded and lit another cigarette.

“That much I gathered.” He exhaled a plume of smoke. “Why now? He’s been gone for twelve years.”

“At school…” Mason crossed his arms and sighed. “I’m different Jack. I want to know why.” Jack took a long hard drag off his cigarette, then flicked the butt off into the distance.  The embers exploded on the ground and little sparks of orange danced in the darkness.

“We’re all different kid. Especially at your age.”  Jack produced a beer from the cooler in the truck bed and popped the top. “Look, I’ve made promises to your Ma. You really don’t want me to start breaking my promises.” He took a sip and passed the can to Mason. “I can’t really blab too much, but you and I can have our own secrets if you like.  Every family does.” Mason accepted it and took an experimental sip. The bubbles tickled his palette, but the harsh bitterness of the beer twisted his face up involuntarily. Jack chuckled in moonlight, watching with great amusement. “Tastes like piss, huh?”

“Yeah.” Mason agreed and set the can down on the tail gate. “Why do you drink it?”

“If you keep it flowing, it takes the edge off. Fuzzes the hard edges of life.”

“So the family secret is that we’re alcoholics?”

“Not the rest of ‘em. Least probably not. I guess I might qualify. The rules are a little sketchy.” He popped the top on another beer and took a long hard swig. Mason shook his head.

“Look, thanks for the beer, but this isn’t really…”

“I know squirt, it’s not what you’re looking for. Don’t know that you will ever get that. Ask me some questions I guess. If I can answer ‘em, I will.” Jack lit a cigarette and offered it to Mason. Mason shook his head.

“Those things will kill you.” Mason said.  Jack smirked.

“Sure kid.” Jack knocked the ash off with a tap from his forefinger.  “Well ask. Dawn’s in a couple hours, you don’t have much time.”

“What did my Dad do for a living?”

“Can’t tell you that.” Jack said and Mason frowned.

“Ok. When we moved, and I was twelve, that trunk full of things.  Those things that got Mom so mad. They were Dad’s things, weren’t they?”

“Yep. She wasn’t mad at you, you know?”

“What were those things?”

“Again, can’t tell you.” Jack blew smoke rings as he leaned back on his elbows.

“Was…Was my Dad a dancer or something?” Jack scrunched his face up then burst out laughing, his full body shaking as he laughed as hard as Mason had ever seen him laugh. As the laughter subsided and he caught his breath he shook his head.

“No. No you’re Dad wasn’t a dancer or something.”

“The feathered cape? A weird mask? Who has that kind of stuff. I figured it was a costume or some weird cult thing.  I was really hoping dancer and not cult.”

“Don’t worry about the cult either. Look, what’s important to know about your Dad, is that he was a good man. He stood up for what he thought was right. Sadly, it was one of those things that got him killed, but that don’t mean you shouldn’t stand up for what you believe in. Like I said, I can’t say too much on account of your Mom, but your Dad was a good guy and there is a lot of him in you. Hell, you look just like him.”  Jack paused and sipped at this beer. “Trust that, when you’re worried that you’re different. It’s not always bad to be different.” Mason sat in silence for a minute then looked back to the night sky.

“Jack, do you ever wish you could fly?” Jack followed Mason’s gaze up to the purple cloud floating slowly across the moon.

“Not my thing. Your Dad loved it though. He said he was never really at home unless he was in the clouds.”

“So he was a pilot? That’s cool.”

“Let’s get you home kid.”

***

Mason swatted at the alarm clock, knocking it off the bedside table but not silencing it. He pulled the pillow up over his head, but the screeching was still too loud to go back to sleep. Mason surrendered and sat upright and jerked the cord from the wall socket, stopping the offending howl. There was a knock at his bedroom door.

“Yeah?” He said.

“We need to talk.” His mother said from the other side of the door. “Hurry up.” She added. Mason groaned, but dressed quickly.  As he emerged from his room his mother was pouring him a bowl of cereal. “Sit.” Mason did so without protest. “I had an interesting chat with your uncle this morning.”

“What?” Mason said through a mouthful Nutty O’s. His face betrayed his shock and concern.

“Don’t worry, he said to tell you that your secrets were just as safe as mine.” A slight scowl encroached on her still face, but she fought it back. “He made me promise not to get mad at you. So I won’t.”

“Oh.” Mason wasn’t really sure how else to respond.

“If you ever pull as stunt like that again, I will be though.” She frowned and put a hand on his. “I don’t know what you two got up to. I don’t need to know. But if you ever sneak out or go anywhere without permission, it’s your ass and you better believe it.”  Mason had never heard a swear word pass his mother’s lips, so it had power when one did. She sat back and lowered her eyes. “I just worry.”

“Mom, I’m not a kid anymore.”

“Yes, actually, you are. You might not feel like one, but sixteen is still a kid.” She once more fought back the scowl that struggled to cross her face. “I lost your father, and I’m not going to lose you too. So you have to listen to me, at least for a little longer.”

“You’re not going to lose me Mom.” Mason said, seeing that his mother was becoming genuinely upset.

“Mason, honey, there is so much you don’t understand. Things would change too much if I told you, so for now, just let me hold on to my little boy for a little longer.”  She sipped her coffee then forced a smile. “I have to go to work, I got an extra shift.  You good to get to school on your own?”  Mason nodded. She left in a hurry after that, leaving Mason on his own to finish breakfast and get to school. As he finished his cereal, he flipped through the mail that was stacked on the edge of the dinner table. Most of it was junk, but a bill from a storage facility caught his eye. He didn’t know they had a storage shed and wondered what his mother could be keeping there. What he did know, was that the chest of his father’s things were nowhere in the apartment. A quick Google search and he had a map to the storage facility. It wasn’t too far off, so he decided to stop by on his way to school.

Mason hadn’t planned on there being a keypad lock on the gate to get into the storage facility, and almost abandoned his little quest when he saw it. Instead he showed the bill to the attendant and explained that his mother had asked him to pick up some things, and must have forgotten to give him the code. Either he was getting good at lying, or the minimum wage the attendant was being paid was too little for him to care.  Mason was buzzed through and he proceeded back to shed forty-two. Again he was thwarted by a lock on the door of the shed, but after a few guesses he was able to figure out the combination. The day his father had died. Mason pulled the lock off the door and paused. He felt a little guilty.  He was late for school and invading something that his mother clearly intended to keep secret from him.  He wanted some answers though. Maybe they’d be inside.

The bay door rattled loudly as it rolled up into the ceiling, leaving only a bit of nylon strap hanging down to pull it back closed. The shed was completely empty, save the giant steamer trunk that Mason remembered vividly from that day four years prior. He knelt down in front of it and exhaled slowly before popping the catches that held the lid closed. The lid creaked as he flipped it up, and made a thunk as the latch set to keep it open.

A stack of pictures sat atop the pile of other contents.  Mason examined one of the snapshots. Uncle Jack stared back at him, his arm slung over the shoulder of a man who looked just like Mason and someone who looked like his mother, or if his mother had a daughter.  So young. The man must have been his father, though Mason couldn’t remember his face. His father and Uncle Jack looked the same in every photo.  Not his mother though. She changed a little in every photo, he could see his mother grow up next to them, turn into the woman he recognized now. The clothes and hairstyles changed, but Jack and Dad were a constant. Mason stopped, shocked as he turned to a photo of his Uncle Jack showing off a shiny brand new truck, the sticker still in the window. It was the same truck he’d ridden in just last night. The truck now showed patches of rust and belched smoke when you pressed the accelerator, but Jack didn’t look a day older. Inside of Mason’s head something popped.

Mason frantically gathered as much as he could from the trunk and shoved it into his backpack. He pulled the snapshots out of the frames and shoved them into his pockets. He pedaled his bike as hard and fast as he could and didn’t let up until he was knocking on Jack’s front door. There was no answer, so he stepped forward again, slamming his fist against the door. Finally he heard a lock click and the door swung open.

“Where’s the fire, kid?” His uncle asked, squinting at the morning sun. Mason stepped past him into the living room of the apartment. “Hey, shouldn’t you be in school?”

“Shouldn’t you be old? Like my mom?” Mason asked, his face was red with exertion and anger.

“What? Your mom’s not old.” Mason produced a photo of Jack with his mother, when she was no more than eighteen.

“Older, then. You look the same.” He said, holding the photo aloft. Jack whistled between his teeth and grinned.

“Our family ages gracefully, you’ll be glad of it when you’re a bit older.” Mason pulled another photo.

“How much older? When I’m fifty years old, like your truck?” Mason tossed the photo to Jack.

“Calm down squirt…”

“Don’t call me squirt. You and Mom have been lying to me all my life. Keeping secrets, keeping me from knowing who my Dad was.” Mason sorted through the pictures in his hands. “I mean, this is him right? That could be me standing next to you.”

“I told you there’s a lot of him in you. Now just calm down, let me get your mom on the horn, and maybe we can sort this thing out.”

“I think I’ve given you two enough chances. I’m going to find my own answers now.” Mason turned to leave.

“Kid, come on, hold up…” Mason slammed the door before Jack could finish.

Mason leaned his back against the wall of an apartment building just a flew blocks down from Jack’s place. He focused on breathing and the cold hard bricks against his back, trying to calm himself down. After a quick look to each end of the alley way he began to pull his father’s possessions out of his backpack. The cloak tickled and felt warm, just as he remembered. He felt a little foolish, but flung the cloak over his shoulders just to see how it fit. He couldn’t imagine what his father had used it for, but it felt right once it was wrapped around him. Despite his minor embarrassment he left it on as he sorted through the other things. The dagger he drew from its sheath, testing the edge.  It looked sharp, but wouldn’t break his skin when he poked it into his finger. Mason shrugged, placing it back into its case, which he then shoved in his belt.

“This stuff is so weird.” He said to the empty alleyway as he held up the eyeless mask, in the shape of a bird’s skull. A dog’s bark startled him, quickly followed by the sound of claws on pavement as a huge dog rounded the corner.  It paused briefly when it saw him, then approached cautiously. Mason took a step back as the dog advanced towards him. “Stay back.” He said, waiving the dog off. It whimpered and shook its head. Mason wasn’t sure why, but he felt compelled to put the mask on.  He lifted the mask with both hands, and the dog growled as it charged him. As the mask slid down over his head he slipped into darkness.  He could just barely hear his Uncle Jack’s voice shout, “No Mason, wait!” but he didn’t wait. He smiled as the mask covered his head completely and he spread his wings for the first time. His father had been right, the clouds truly were home.

 

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