Tracee Fields nodded to her classroom assistant indicating it was time to round up the children from their post lunch playtime. She was anxious to get them down for their naps, thanks to the beginnings of a migraine—twenty minutes of peace would be a blessing. She cleared her uneaten lunch from the desk and went to dim the humming fluorescent lights when her assistant shrieked, startling Tracee, followed by a domino effect of screaming four-year-olds. Tracee spun around in her tracks; her eyes froze on the chaotic scene.
The little ones were ducking, running frantic about the room. In the sea of chaos, her assistant crouched looking up at the ceiling, her hands held guardedly over her head. Tracee followed the girl’s eyes, locked and wide, to a blue bird flapping wildly from one light fixture to the next, spastically searching for a place to land.
“Okay, alright…it’s just a bird…just a bird.” Tracee winced as the pounding in her head went from a whisper to a scream. She panned the tops of the tall windows spanning the length of the far wall looking for where the bird had entered the classroom, but more important, where it would hopefully get back out. She feared the bird might smack head first into a glass pane and drop dead right before the children’s eyes—that’s all we need in a classroom of special needs preschoolers.
Tracee rushed to the center of the room where the children now gathered in panic.
“It’s just a bird. Everyone lay down on your mats. Lay down now,” She waved her hands through the air motioning to gain their attention, “…and Miss Tracey will get the bird out of here. Everything’s okay.”
There was no open window and Tracee could only imagine the bird had already been in the room, quietly unnoticed since morning. She cranked the top panes of each window, opening one at a time, five in a row, their glass tilted slightly inward but not obvious enough to assure Tracee that the bird would safely go out on its own volition.
“Lisa…” She turned to her assistant who was standing with Jessica Grenier, the bird fluttering around the little girl, hovering and finally landing on her arm. Jessica smiled bright. She rocked from foot to foot in what Tracee referred to as her happy dance. The other children stared wide-eyed; some terrified and some captivated. A hush fell over the room.
Tracee approached Jessica. “Okay sweetie, let Miss Tracee take this little guy.” She moved slowly, not wanting to scare the bird back into a frenzy. Now up close, Tracee felt a pang of fear, or maybe it was just the creeps, but this was no small bird. This was a blue jay in all its screeching glory and complete with a menacing pointy crown at the back of its head. The bird eyed her and squawked as if to dare her to reach for it. Easily the length of half her forearm from beak to tail tip, the bird remained on Jessica’s wrist, tilting its head as Tracee cupped her hands around it. As large as it was, its weightless fragile body gave Tracee the shivers. It screeched, squirming in her grip, scratching its pin-like talons against her flesh, and she impulsively let go. The bird made a fast round of the room, a blue blur like a race car taking its final lap; the children ducked and screamed again. The jay fluttered back and landed peacefully on Jessica’s shoulder.
Tracee shook her head in disbelief.
“He likes you Jess,” she said, more to calm her own fears than the child, who seemed blissfully accepting of the bird’s loyalty. Tracee, convinced now that she was prepared for the feel of the bird in her hands, cupped her palms around it once again, this time refusing to let go even as it attempted to tuck its chin and peck the heck out of her hand. It made a wretched noise, squawking and screeching.
“Okay, I’ll be right back.” Tracee raised her voice over the bird’s racket, “Get them down on their mats please.” She instructed her assistant while rushing for the door.
The long corridor was quiet, lined with closed doors to darkened rooms; the first floor reserved for three and four year olds; all well into their nap time. She passed the office and headed for the front door. She moved quickly, the stiff feathers of the jay vibrating in her palms as the bird attempted to break free continuously creeping her out. She used her side to hit the door with a bang and swing it open. The sounds of Manhattan blanketed by the bright sunlight delivered an instant recall of her throbbing temples. Through narrowed eyes she searched up and down the block deciding in which direction to release the bird. She opened her palms and surprisingly the brazen bird sat there for seconds which felt like moments, as if to scope its plan. She popped her palms upward into the air and it took off soaring. She swiped her hands together a few times then wiped them off on her thighs for good measure; she lost view of the bird and turned back inside—enough excitement for one day. She headed first to a bathroom where she washed then walked the silent corridor back to her classroom.
Inside, the children were not napping on their mats as expected, but once again gathered in a circle surrounding her assistant and Jessica Grenier; on the little girl’s wrist was the blue jay. Tracee glanced at the barely open safety windows hardly believing her eyes.
She tucked her chin and mouthed, “It came back in?” The younger woman nodded slowly, as baffled as Tracee Fields.
* * *
Seven men sat around the boardroom table, some talking sports, one checking his Facebook, but no one being as productive as they should be. This was an arduous project for an extremely demanding client that they had yet to please. At risk of losing the contract; their mandatory deadline was today—even if it meant staying until midnight.
“Well what’s wrong with that slogan? When’s the last time you played a video game anyway?” Matt tossed his pad down on the boardroom table.
“Pac man…I was twelve.” Julien shook his head and leaned back in his chair. “We can do better; they won’t buy it.” He felt his phone vibrate in the pocket of his slacks.
“Yeah, well, I played one last night.” Matt announced with beaming pride. Several of his co-workers laughed. “What? I did!”
Julien, peeking at his phone, saw the call was coming from his daughter’s school. “Excuse me.” He left the table to enter the hall.
“Yes, ’alo, this is Julien.” He listened to the school’s principal then, “No, of course we did not send her to school with a bird. What are you talking about?” He tried to make sense as he continued to hear her out. “Okay, well, take it away, non?”
Julien fell back against the wall, rubbing at his forehead in frustration. “No, no, no…don’t call my wife. I tell you, she is not to be disturbed. Look, I don’t know what you want for me to do.” He said. His French accent accelerating with mounting frustration; he couldn’t leave the office early again.
Matt appeared at the door not so softly whispering, “I think we got something here.” He beckoned Julien back into the room.
Julien held up a pausing finger and mouthed, one moment then turned his back from his co-worker.
“Can you keep her in the office until I can be there? Maybe one hour…a little more.” He replied.
At the far end of the hall, his boss, Phil, stepped out of his office. He smiled with a questioning gaze that made Julien nervous. He smiled back and nodded at Phil who disappeared into another door.
“I will be there as fast as I can.” He said, and then disconnected the call.
* * *
Julien weaved through the crowd of parents, nannies, and children, making his way into the school. There were several police cars lining the street and groups of parents gathered in packs along the walk. Some appeared sullen; some angry.
What now? What has she done?
Walking the hallway he passed the row of windows fronting the main office. He was met with the disapproving eyes of the office ladies who quickly turned away. As he rounded the door and entered the office, he saw two officers and a detective standing with the principal and what appeared to be an inconsolably distraught mother, another officer was taking notes as he talked with a staff member.
His blood pressure began to rise; he felt tightness in his chest. The secretaries were all occupied on their phones offering forced apologies and nervous reassurances. Julien attempted to get their attention; they all knew him well, but none looked his way. Frustrated and increasingly concerned he slammed his hand down against the counter, the crack of his flesh on the shellacked wood countertop instantly snapped heads in his direction—including the police. One woman, managing to keep her endearing phone voice while narrowing her eyes and pursing her lips at him, pointed with a snap of her elbow and a silent stomp of an Easy Spirit, toward the office of Beverly Springer, the school’s vice principal. As if on cue, Beverly appeared in her doorway.
“Come in Mr. Grenier.” She stepped backward against the door making room for him to pass. “Please have a seat.”
Julien scanned the windowless office; no sign of Jessica.
He remained standing. “My daughter, where is she?”
Beverly was tired and hardly in the mood. She sat down, no longer concerned with Julien’s comfort.
“Mr. Grenier, your daughter is fine. She’s in the teachers’ courtyard with Ms. Fields. I believe we were expecting you hours ago.”
“We realize that and Mrs. Grenier… Is she still collecting art in Europe, or is it a visit with her mother this time?” She paused, knowing her tone was unacceptable, she redirected her thoughts. “My apologies, but we had an incident here today. A child has gone missing; a child from Jessica’s class…Ewan Albright.
“And how does a child go missing from a locked school?” He paused, “…and what does this have to do with Jessica that you call for me to leave work and pick her up early?”
Beverly leaned back in her standard issue, high-back chair. “Do you have a pet bird at home?”
Julien laughed, “Do we have a bird?” He paused for the punch line, but she said nothing. “No, we have no bird. The principal already ask me this.”
“So there is no possibility that Jessica would have brought a bird…a blue jay…to school with her? You drove her to school today yourself? You haven’t rescued…”
Julien gave in and took a seat, interrupting her, “There is no bird. She could not have bring a bird to school.”
Beverly nodded discreetly. “Miss Fields insists the windows to the classroom were all closed, yet somehow there is a bird which refuses to leave your daughter’s possession and created utter chaos in the classroom after lunch today.”
“Did they have lunch outside today? Could she have found the bird outside?”
“No, lunch and playtime were both in classroom today. Windows closed, doors closed. The bird appeared out of nowhere. If you insist that she could not have brought the bird to school…maybe kept it in her backpack until lunch…then my only suggestion would be that the bird was quietly resting up in the lights and somehow took a liking to your daughter. Unfortunately, in all the commotion, attempting to catch and remove the bird, her classmate went missing.”
“I hardly believe Jessica’s goal was to endanger a student; or that she had a goal at all.” He replied.
“Of course not,” Beverly admitted, unsure of her own goal in this conversation— it was obvious Julien knew nothing about this bird. She wondered if this talk was nothing more than a way for her to stall yet another phone conversation with an angry parent concerned for the well-being of their own child and accusing the school of negligence, or perhaps to stall from again seeing the face of Ewan’s mother, desperately trying to understand why her son is not where he is supposed to be.
Beverly rolled her chair back away from the desk, “Let’s go get Jessica.”
Ewan’s mother was no longer in the main office, nor was the gaggle of police officers. The hall was quiet; echoing the exaggerated sound of the vice principal’s heels and Julien’s cane. It was a good day, he wasn’t relying on it as much as he did on some days; especially damp ones, cold ones, or mornings after his nightmares would awaken the pain as if it were new.
They approached the teachers’ lounge. “The courtyard is out this way.”
The next door took them outdoors to a manicured garden.
Jessica ran to him, the bird losing its footing and flapping into the air, Jessica threw her arms around his hips. Julien bent to hug her, all the while keeping his eye on the bird hovering a few feet behind his child’s back.
Julien stood up, a hand still bracing his daughter protectively against him. “It’s still here?” Somehow he had missed that information; though he couldn’t remember being told the contrary.
Beverly nodded. Miss Fields, arms folded, displeased with the hours wasted waiting for Julien, approached.
“I’ve tried everything Mr. Grenier. That bird refuses to leave your daughter…put the thing out the building three times and it finds a way back in and right to Jessica every time.”
“You didn’t tell me the bird was still here.” Julien mumbled to himself refusing to take his eyes off the jay.
Tracee Fields turned to Beverly, “I really have to go. The detective asked me to come to the station as soon as I could. I gave them all of the information….I don’t know what more I can tell them.” Tracee Fields looked on the verge of tears.
Beverly gave Tracee’s arm a squeeze. “No one’s blaming you. Just do what they ask and we’ll all pray that Ewan is found before dark.”
Tracee Fields excused herself and left the patio. Julien sat down on a brick planter beneath a small tree. He watched his daughter watching him. The bird, now resting on her petite shoulder beneath her almost jet-black hair, screeched loudly. Jessica grinned, she stood twisting her palms against each other in opposite half circles, back and forth as if to grind an invisible something between them. She rocked from one hip to the next, back and forth in a rhythmic dance of contentment.
Julien crooked his finger, beckoning her to him. Jessica scampered over. Julien reached out immediately grabbing hold of the bird. It’s squawking was deafening. For a moment it appeared Jessica would jump up and attempt to snatch the bird back, but she only furrowed her brow and rocked more vigorously. Julien got up and rushed for the door, with his free hand he held it open.
“Inside…hurry up.” He stood holding the door as Jessica scurried in followed by Beverly ducking beneath his arm to pass him. Julien stepped inside closing the door against his arm before tossing the bird into the air. “There, not very difficult.”
The vice principal smiled a crooked, doubtful grin. Since their acceptance of Jessica into the special education program, the school had had their share of battles with Julien Grenier, but Beverly had to admit, for all of his stubbornness and an occasional sharp tongue, he was charming.
“Easy, huh? Okay, I’ll walk you out.” She said, knowing what they would be greeted with the moment they stepped out on the other side of the building.
They took their time gathering Jessica’s things from her classroom; Beverly hoped she would be wrong, that the bird would grow bored, fly away.
Julien helped Jessica on with her jacket and backpack. “So the boy…what are they thinking?” He asked.
Beverly shook her head. “The father…possibly…we just can’t explain how he would have known there would be such a distraction today or when he would have made the plan with Ewan.”
“Ewan…he is severe, non? The father has no visitation?”
“Down syndrome. I’m told the father hasn’t seen the boy in three years.”
“Ah, yes. I know this boy.”
She knew what would be his next question and added, “The school is very secure. I assure you we will take every precaution to ensure nothing like this can ever happen again.”
Julien led Jessica down the hall; all three walking in silence past the office. He opened the door to the street and turned back to thank the vice principal when he felt wind strike his cheek. The jay dove past him and directly for Jessica’s shoulder.
Jessica squealed enthralled by the return of her apparent pet. Julien, expressionless and confused, watched as the bird poked its face through her hair.
Beverly looked away with a tightlipped smile—she didn’t want to laugh. She took a few steps backward, holding her hands up before turning on one heel and walking back toward the office. Julien was now on his own with Jessica and the bird.
He held the door wider. “Come on, let’s go.” He ushered Jessica onto the sidewalk past the few remaining officers and several news vans. He was glad they were all preoccupied; no one took notice of the large blue jay riding his daughter’s shoulder.
* * *
The warm bathwater was making Julien sleepy as he soaped a cloth and lathered his daughter’s neck and back. Jessica stared at her shriveled fingers just below the water. She hummed to herself lost in her thoughts. Julien listened to the tapping sound above him, he looked up at the shower curtain rod where the blue jay danced impatiently a few steps to the side and back, over and over, awaiting Jessica.
What do I do with you?
They had stopped on the way home to buy a cage…with a lock. But every time he put the bird in it, the squawking would commence and he feared the neighbors’ complaints would follow. His plan was to cage the bird in the morning, just before leaving for school. He would take Jessica to her classroom then drive to the local animal shelter where he would turn in the bird—clearly it had been someone’s pet or there was something wrong with it.
Julien’s eyes threatened to close; he was exhausted. He removed Jessica from the tub, wrapping a towel around her tiny shivering body, shriveled and dripping wet. He playfully roughed her up with the towel, her body shimmying in his control. She chortled loud and shrill. The bird swooped down with its sharp talons attempting to find its place on her bare shoulder; Julien swatted at the thing, not so much to hurt it as to shoo it back to its perch. He finished drying and readying her for bed. Dressed in fresh pajamas he led her to her room; the bird darting past them and landing on the footboard. He tucked her in and bent to kiss her forehead. Leaving the door cracked slightly, he made his way to the kitchen where he turned on the small television beside the refrigerator—anything to stay awake while doing the dishes and cleaning up.
The news was on and he immediately recognized the school. A reporter stood before the flagpole but by the time he focused on what she was saying, the screen flipped to a photo of Ewan Albright.
As the reporter began the details of the boy’s disappearance Julien’s eyes fell on the baseball jersey he wore in the photo.
He was last seen wearing this baseball uniform, a light blue and white top bearing the number 12 and a Blue Jay’s logo…he might also…
Julien backed away from the television.
What did you do?