Home > All the Birds in the Sky(4)

All the Birds in the Sky(4)
Charlie Jane Anders

“I found her right on the outskirts of the woods near the house,” her father told her mother. “She must have gotten lost and found her own way out. It’s a miracle she’s okay.”

“You nearly scared us to death. We’ve been searching, along with all of the neighbors. I swear you must think my time is worthless. You’ve made me blow a deadline for a management productivity analysis.” Patricia’s mother had her dark hair pulled back, which made her chin and nose look pointier. Her bony shoulders hunched, almost up to her antique earrings.

“I just want to understand what this is about,” Patricia’s father said. “What did we do that made you want to act out in this way?” Roderick Delfine was a real-estate genius who often worked from home and looked after the girls when they were between nannies, sitting in a high chair at the breakfast bar with his wide face buried in equations. Patricia herself was pretty good at math, except when she thought too much about the wrong things, like the fact that the number 3 looked like an 8 cut in half, so two 3s really ought to be 8.

“She’s testing us,” Patricia’s mother said. “She’s testing our authority, because we’ve gone too easy on her.” Belinda Delfine had been a gymnast, and her own parents had put several oceans’ worth of pressure on her to excel at that—but she’d never understood why gymnastics needed to have judges, instead of measuring everything using cameras and maybe lasers. She’d met Roderick after he started coming to all her meets, and they’d invented a totally objective gymnastics measuring system that nobody had ever adopted.

“Look at her. She’s just laughing at us,” Patricia’s mother said, as if Patricia herself weren’t standing right there. “We need to show her we mean business.”

Patricia hadn’t thought she was laughing, at all, but now she was terrified she looked that way. She tried extra hard to fix a serious expression on her face.

“I would never run away like that,” said Roberta, who was supposed to be leaving the three of them alone in the kitchen but had come in to get a glass of water, and gloat.

They locked Patricia in her room for a week, sliding food under her door. The bottom of the door tended to scrape off the top layer of whatever type of food it was. Like if it was a sandwich, the topmost piece of bread was taken away by the door. You don’t really want to eat a sandwich after your door has had the first bite, but if you get hungry enough you will. “Think about what you’ve done,” the parents said.

“I get all her desserts for the next seven years,” Roberta said.

“No you don’t!” said Patricia.

The whole experience with the Parliament of Birds became a sort of blur to Patricia. She remembered it mostly in dreams and fragments. Once or twice, in school, she had a flashback of a bird asking her something. But she couldn’t quite remember what the question had been, or whether she’d answered it. She had lost the ability to understand the speech of animals while she was locked in her bedroom.

2

HE HATED TO be called Larry. Couldn’t stand it. And so, of course, everybody called him Larry, even his parents sometimes. “My name is Laurence,” he would insist, looking at the floor. “With a U , not a W.” Laurence knew who he was and what he was about, but the world refused to recognize.

At school, the other kids called him Larry Barry or Larry Fairy. Or, when he got mad, Scary Larry, except that this was a rare display of irony among his troglodyte classmates, since, in fact, Larry was not scary at all. Usually, this was preceded by an “Ooh,” just to drive the joke home. Not that Laurence wanted to be scary. He just wanted to be left alone and maybe have people get his name right if they had to talk to him.

Laurence was a small kid for his age, with hair the color of late-autumn leaves, a long chin, and arms like snail necks. His parents bought him clothes one and a half sizes too big, because they kept thinking he would hit a growth spurt any day, and they were trying to save money. So he was forever tripping over his too-long, too-baggy jeans legs, his hands vanishing inside his jersey sleeves. Even if Laurence had wanted to present an intimidating figure, his lack of visible hands and feet would have made it difficult.

The only bright spots in Laurence’s life were ultraviolent PlayStation games, in which he vaporized thousands of imaginary opponents. But then Laurence found other games on the internet—puzzles that took him hours to figure out and MMOs, where Laurence waged intricate campaigns.

Before long, Laurence was writing his own code.

Laurence’s dad had been pretty great with computers, once. But then he’d grown up and gotten a job in the insurance industry, where he still needed a head for numbers, but it wasn’t anything you’d want to hear about. Now he was always freaking out that he was going to lose his job and then they would all starve. Laurence’s mom had been working on a PhD in biology, before she’d gotten pregnant and her thesis advisor had quit, and then she’d taken some time off and never quite gone back to school.

Both parents worried endlessly about Laurence spending every waking minute in front of a computer and turning out socially dysfunctional, like his Uncle Davis. So they forced Laurence to take an endless succession of classes designed to make him Get Out of the House: judo, modern dance, fencing, water polo for beginners, swimming, improv comedy, boxing, skydiving, and, worst of all, Wilderness Survival Weekends. Each class only forced Laurence to wear another baggy uniform while the kids shouted, “Larry, Larry, Quite Contrary!” and held him underwater, and threw him out of the airplane early, and forced him to do improv while holding him upside down by his ankles.

Laurence wondered if there was some other kid, named Larry, who would have a “let’s go” attitude about being dropped on a mountainside somewhere. Larry might be the alternate-universe version of Laurence, and maybe all Laurence needed to do was harness all the solar energy that hit the Earth during a period of five minutes or so and he could generate a localized space-time fissure in his bathtub and go kidnap Larry from the other universe. So Larry could go out and get tormented instead, while Laurence stayed home. The hard part would be figuring out a way to poke a hole in the universe before the judo tournament in two weeks’ time.

“Hey, Larry Fairy,” Brad Chomner said at school, “think fast.” Which was one of those phrases that never made sense to Laurence: People who told you to “think fast” were always those who thought much more slowly than you did. And they only said it when they were about to do something to contribute to the collective mental inertia. And yet Laurence had never come up with the perfect comeback to “Think fast,” and he wouldn’t have time to say whatever it was, since something unpleasant usually hit him a second later. Laurence had to go clean himself up.

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