by H.K. Nicholson

The evening air was cooling fast, this would help calm the atmospheric distortions and the shimmering would decrease, making Ryan’s view clear, or at least it should have. But things now started to became hazy. Ryan raised his head, across the street in the vacant lot behind the Richland service station was a large pile of leaves burning. Leaf burning was one of the things that Ryan really liked about fall, unfortunately it made for poor viewing. The pile consisted of leaves of all shades and hues of red, yellow, and orange. Ryan looked back into the telescope; the mountain was all but hidden in the haze. Ryan started to take the scope down when he saw a patch of clear sky above the orchards along Grimes Avenue, beyond Mape’s Ranch.

Unlocking the barrel, Ryan swung the telescope to this clear piece of sky and refocused, his view was filled with the sight of thousands of birds. They were too far away to be seen by the naked eye. Through the telescope he could recognized the different species by their silhouettes and the way they flew. Large flocks of blackbirds looked like feathered balls rising and falling, folding and expanding. Crows were crossing back and forth with the younger ones, playing a game of aerial tag. They would chase each other, tumbling through space like fighter pilots in a dog fight, eventually falling behind and having to catch up with the flock.

By changing focus, Ryan could now see large numbers of ducks and geese in the background. They seemed to be heading both north and south at the same time, looking for a place to settle down for the night. This was becoming interesting. Ryan changed the focus again, the foreground and background condensed and merged. The light was also changing, bringing his hand up to his brow to block the side light from streaming in. Ryan could smell the gas and oil that permeated his flesh. He could not remember a time in his life where this odor wasn’t part of his being, tainting body and perhaps his even his soul. Colors were changing; the sky was going through the transition where day passes into night

Ryan had become so engrossed that he no longer could hear the near by traffic or feel the cooling air flowing around him. The colors were so vivid, and they seemed to run together like watercolors on wet paper. The blue-gray haze from the smoke gave way and now seemed to carry the essence of all the burning piles of leaves into the sky, and was now declaring, “This is who I was. Look at me one last time.” Yellows and oranges with reds deepened in the denser stratified formations of smoke.

The birds took on the appearance of a giant mobile, hung from the ceiling of God’s nursery, with the golden edges of the fog bank below them. They started to rise higher and flew in tighter circles stirring the air. It was as though they were caught in some invisible vortex, a vortex of their own making.

They flew higher into the evening sky, there to dance into last days light. Now, Ryan seemed to be pulled by that same whirlwind. His eyes filled with colors, his fifteen-year-old mind opened and his soul took a deep breath. He felt cleansed, lost in a cinnabar sky among a million beating wings, he felt at home and comfortable.

“Hey! What the hell do ya think you’re doing?” The voice was forceful and commanding. It yanked Ryan’s spirit from the air through the telescope, and slammed him back into this shoes. His hair stood on end, and gooseflesh covered his body. He had heard this voice only once before, when he was eleven-years-old.

That day, he and his friends, Terry and Philip, were shooting their pellet guns along the river. They were competing to see who could kill the most. Everything was fair game; birds, lizards, rats, anything except humans. This gave them a lot of latitude. Ryan excelled at this game; it became easy to take life. They thought it was good practice for when the nation might call them to go to war; at least it was their excuse for the game. Mostly it was just their justification for their actions. If the country ever needed eleven-year-olds in war, they were ready.

On this particular day, Ryan shot a young magpie. It was wounded and was hanging from a limb, upside down by one leg, at the bottom of a cottonwood tree. The poor bird was terrified and was crying out. Ryan knew that its calling would bring other magpies to the tree, trying to help their wounded brother. That’s just what Ryan was counting on. In a matter of minutes, he had shot three more. Then a voice yelled up from the base of the tree, “What the hell do ya think you’re doing? Leave my birds alone!” That day, Ryan had seen only the faceless human form at the base of the tree. Now that man stood behind him.

Spinning around, Ryan stared into the gentle, smiling face of his friend, Sam Bird. The vision at the base of the cottonwood tree was still frozen in Ryan’s mind, his eyes were open, but the image of Sam was not registering. Sam’s mouth was moving, but Ryan couldn’t hear the sound coming out. He was caught in the electric silence that now enveloped him. His ears were buzzing and crackling and his heart seemed to race around his rib cage like a hyperactive hamster. Within twenty seconds, Ryan regained his composure. His look of shock was now replaced with that of shame for what he had done four years earlier.