Please not a chicken
As Lara Mulligan lay in the bath, swishing her hand through the foam, there was no denying that she was turning. Into a birdgirl. Her panicked brain spun.
The water was warm. The steam was lavendery. The candle was glowing and flickering.
And there, right there, at the top of her right thigh, she could feel a wet clump of new feathers. She leaned forward and crept her fingertips down her leg, flinching as she found the patch of rough scales, now four fingers width across. This thing was progressing. Facts. She flopped back and shlopped a mini wave of water over the edge of the bath.
See, this was why she preferred not to know. It was terrifying.
She’d spent an hour before getting in the bath trying to work up the courage to do a naked mirror assessment in her room. But her brother was next door, and her parents downstairs, and she just…couldn’t handle it.
She breathed a warm, lavendery breath in and out of her nose.
She lay there for a moment more, but she felt like a mockery of her mother trying to solve things with a bubble bath. And old, so old. Candles and lavender were patronising and poking at her, not helping in the slightest.
She stood up as sharply as she could in this slippy bath and yanked on the chain of the plug. The water slugged then gurgled. She stood with her hands on her bony hips staring at it drain.
“You done?” came the voice of her younger brother, Stevie.
“Don’t come in!”
“But are you done?”
“I need the loo.”
Lara grabbed the biggest towel from the rack, whipped it around her, and stepped out, mad and dripping, onto the peach bath mat. She listened intently. She couldn’t hear Stevie breathing outside the door, but she also couldn’t hear him padding down the stairs. She tested the door. Yes, locked. She flipped the lid of the loo down and sat on it.
What was she going to do? She’d hoped, like an ostrich hopes, that sticking her head in the sand of her schoolwork would make this all go away. She’d tried plucking out the feathers as they appeared on her thighs, but that had just left her sore and blood splotched, and even itchier when they grew back.
She’d doom scrolled through images of other birdgirls last night, but that had just left her sleepless and tossing under her tartan duvet. They were all way prettier and more…developed. Doves in the making.
She flipped up the bottom flap of her towel and peeked down at the clutch of browny-grey feathers.
“God have mercy,” she prayed. “Please don’t let me be a chicken.”
The girls on Instagram had been turning into all kinds of birds.
If facts were facts and she was turning, and there was still no cure, then she at least wanted to be a worthwhile bird. Something cute or graceful. She’d seen a picture of one girl, over in Alaska, who was seemed sickeningly proud of a patch of green-gold feather on her ribs, claiming #hummingbird.
Tears prickled and burned in the corners of her eyes, and she folded over to dry them on the scratchy towel.
She didn’t want to turn. And if she had to, she just knew that she was going to be a plain old chicken or a pigeon or a dirty gull. Sure, you could get fancy chickens, but she would be one of the brown industrial ones.
As she sat back up, she could hear the socked shuffle of Stevie’s feet coming up on the stairs. She dared him to say something, so she could yell at him. She so wanted to yell. But he padded softly by her, in the direction of his room.
If she wadded up all the towels in the rack and screamed into them would Stevie or her parents hear. Unlikely? But already she felt stupid at the thought.
Instead, she walked herself out of the bathroom, bundled herself into her pyjamas, and curled up under her duvet, re-emerging instantly to check the clock. It was only 6:30pm. On a Saturday night. She needed to act more normal than this, or her parents would have questions. Yes, she could plead sickness, but with all the news reports of the Avian-Change they’d be worried and all up in her business right away. That was the last thing that she needed.
What she needed was to get a grip.
Get a plan.
She started playing through various options of running away. The appealing ones (train, plane, fancy hotel) all required money that she didn’t have. The other (walking, hitchhiking, sheltering…somewhere) all sounded terrifying and worse than terrifying.
It was cute when he said ‘knock, knock’ as a chubby five-year-old’. But now…She beat her way out from under the duvet. And yelled…
“Can I come in? It’s important.”
She launched herself out of bed, across the room and opened the door a crack.
“What do you want?”
“Can I show you something?”
“Do you HAVE to.”
“Well obviously not. But kind of yes.”
Now he had her curiosity pricked. She pulled the door towards her, and waved him in. He loped over to her bed in his tracksuit bottoms and manky old t-shirt and flopped down, then flipped some duvet over him, covering both his body and his face. He groaned.
“I thought you wanted to show me something, not lie there like a burrito.”
He sat up, and butt shuffled back until he was propped up against her headboard, still partly scrunched up in the duvet.
He tentatively worked the leg of his tracksuit bottoms up over his knee. Revealing a patch of yellowy-brown scales.
“I think I’m turning.”
“You can’t be,” she said, eyes fixed on the spot. She advanced and went with the urge to poke it. Firmly. Stevie flinched. She could tell he was holding his breath. How was this happening? From every report she’d seen, it was only happening to girls.
She sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at his face. His eyes were shut and his mouth was clenched, like he was a soldier waiting for her to report whether or not he still had a leg.
“Any feathers?” she said, reaching for his hand. He flinched and then squeezed her hand so tight it hurt.
“Yep. On my thighs.”
A calm settled over Lara. It felt as though she’d been to medical school, or dentist school or some kind of school where these kinds of things… were just things you dealt with. What should she say? She couldn’t promise a cure, although she would like to.
Before she could think of anything smart and reassuring he said, “Will you help me tell Mum and Dad?”
Huh. That sent a jolt to her ribs. And then another wave of calm. She could be the supportive sister. See what they said. See what happened next. But that was the problem. They would panic. The whole house would explode with appointments and action. With yelling, and dropping things, and disagreements sparking the air.
“Do you want them to know?”
Stevie opened his eyes and looked at her and then gave a small, sharp shake of his head.
Nearly every fibre in her own tense body wanted to keep her secret, but there was a corner of her heart that belonged with Stevie, and it cramped.
“Scoot over,” she said.
They both shuffled and squiggled until they were shoulder to shoulder, propped up against the headboard, knees bent. Lara nudged him and then held her own breath as she pulled up the leg of her checked pyjamas.
“Snap little bro!”
She heard him suck in his breath, and then felt the shine of his grin. “No way!” he whispered, like he wanted to yell, but was in a church.
He held out his fist and she bumped it. Her chest hurt.
He rested his head on her shoulder.
“Do you care what kind of bird you’re going to be?”
She shrugged and felt his head jog.
“What colour are your feathers?” she said, then choke laughed at the ring of these words. She might as well be saying, ‘How do you like having a grapefruit for a head? Is it juicy?’ She shivered at the weirdness. The newness of saying these things out loud.
“You know that oil stain in the garage, kind of like that.”
“That could be good though. Raven? Crow? Starling? They’re all pretty smart. Maybe you’ll be less of an idiot?”
He thwapped her knee gently.
“Though I don’t know if they have scaly legs? We’ll have to look that up.”
He sat up a little straighter. “How about you?”
“Well, pretty shitty brown.”
“Are you thinking…chicken?”
“I am thinking chicken.”
She waited for him to crack some joke in her face, but a quiet settled around them. Like they were at a mini funeral.
“Can actual chickens fly?” he asked quietly.
“Well, if they’re not like in a cage.”
“I don’t think so. Are you hoping you’re going to get some wings?”
“Nah,” he said, elbowing her. “I would never leave you.”
She swallowed. Great. Now he’d just fixed himself to her, and she needed a plan for them both. She felt the weight of it, but also the warmth of it. How did they end up like this, two friendless, stressed out turning-birds, in a stressed out nest. Is this why God gave you brothers? Another creature who shared your blood. Gross. But also weirdly great.
“Well then…” they both said.
I had an image of a girl, plucking out feathers, and leaving the skin like an extreme version of what it can be like after epilation. So….