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Authors: Mary Alice Monroe

Skyward (9 page)

BOOK: Skyward
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“We’re here,” his mother announced as she turned off the highway onto a narrow gravel road in the middle of nowhere. When she stopped at the gate, she waited for him to climb out and open it, watching him like a hawk each step till he climbed back in the truck. When he settled in she reached out and slapped the back of his head.

“What?” he asked with a scowl.

“Sit straight and do something with your hair,” she said, her mouth turned down at the corners. “You look like you just fell out of bed.”

“I’m gonna be scrubbin’ bird shit, Mama.”

“Don’t talk to me like that,” she warned, her voice rising. “You just change that attitude, hear?”

Brady rolled his eyes and slouched farther into the seat. He’d heard that expression so many times it blew right over him like the wind.

“You want to do right in there so there’s no more trouble. We’re counting on you, son, to get this whole incident behind us.”

Brady kept his lips tight, horror-struck that he felt a cry about to burst out and tears stinging his eyes.
They were counting on him….
Didn’t she think he knew that? Didn’t she know what this was all about, anyway?

He turned his head away from her, crossing his arms and leaning against the door. As his mother shifted into First and began pulling off, he caught sight of a big ol’ white rooster sitting up on a pine bough. It seemed to look him straight in the eye as Brady passed.

Flocks.
Most birds of prey are considered solitary and breed in single pairs. Sometimes, however, raptors will come together to form large, cohesive flocks for migration or to form communal roosts in winter. Flocking is also a means of protection for smaller raptors as well as a means to gain information about food sources.

6

THE COASTAL CAROLINA CENTER FOR BIRDS of Prey was a small five-acre sanctuary surrounded by the 350,000 acres of wildlife refuge. All that protected land was seen by many folks to be too much to set aside. Others believed it wasn’t near enough.

Harris was of the latter frame of mind. Not that many years ago, Harris could drive for miles without seeing much beyond salt marsh, pine woodlands and scattered homes burrowed along black-water creeks. It was a bird heaven. Raptors, shorebirds, songbirds—they all could migrate through the free coastal Carolina skies, find plenty of food sources in the maritime forests, perhaps even decide to take up residence, if only for a breeding season. Now, new subdivisions littered the highway, bringing with them high wires that crisscrossed the sky, speeding cars, noise, trash and the destruction of natural habitat.

His work could be pretty discouraging. Every day there were calls for help. He’d gone to pick up hawks whose wings were broken from flying into electric wire while in fast pursuit of quarry; picked up countless owls and vultures with head trauma after being hit by a car while eating roadkill; treated ospreys whose chests and talons were ripped open by improperly disposed of fishhooks and line; put down a suffering raptor shot needlessly from the sky or poisoned by the misuse of sprays and insecticides. Over the years, he’d come to realize that most people weren’t even aware that there was a lot society could do to prevent these senseless casualties.

Truth was, most people didn’t know what the heck wildlife
was.
Folks—good folks—moved to big, new homes carved out of the wilderness, eager and excited to live among all that natural beauty. They lived day after day right smack next to a black-water creek or a vista of marsh, maybe even had a dock, and didn’t have a clue what to do with it. They’d never learned how to cast a net or a line in the creek, or pull up a crabpot from the dock loaded with the most succulent meat God put on earth, or squished their toes in the pluff mud searching for hidden clams. Rather, they walked in clean-soled shoes along tended paths in a park, peeked at nature and breathlessly declared it wild.

But Harris figured if they learned to play with what lay in their own backyard, they’d learn right quick what wild
was
and what wild
did
and be eager to protect it. Education was the key.

Today, however, his commitment to education was being sorely tested. Harris placed his hands on his hips and waited at the edge of the parking area at the raptor center while an old Chevy truck rounded the bend and whined to a stop. He wasn’t happy about this young hooligan coming to the center, but the court had argued that allowing Brady Simmons to do community service in support of the raptors he had defiled was an important form of education, perhaps even a message to the community.

Well, maybe, he thought as he watched the disheveled teen in baggy jeans, sweatshirt and torn jeans jacket slink from the truck and slam the passenger door with force. There was work that needed doing, but he’d sure as hell not let that kid anywhere near his birds.

The driver was a stout woman, pale and pasty, dressed in faded black slacks, a cable-knit green sweater and tennis shoes. Her blond hair was the same color as the boy’s, only streaked with gray, so he figured she was the boy’s mother. But that was where the comparison ended. Brady Simmons was tall for his age, with a boy’s leanness and a man’s broad shoulders. A troublemaker, he thought, tightening his jaw when he spied the spiked hair and pierced ear.

The woman led the boy along the dirt path with a rolling gait. “Mr. Henderson?” she asked in a rural drawl. When he nodded she said, “I’m Delia Simmons, Brady’s mother. This here’s my son.” She turned to locate him.

The boy came up behind her, hands deep in his pockets, head ducked and eyes averted.

“Brady,” she said sharply. “Say hello to Mr. Henderson.”

Brady raised his eyes and shot out his hand so fast it barely touched Harris’s before he retracted it back to his pocket, mumbling “hello.”

Harris could see the frustration raw in the mother’s eyes at her son’s lack of manners. But he remained silent, doing nothing to make either of them feel more relaxed or welcome. His resentment against the boy and his father, and thus this woman by association, was like an unhealed sore on his hide.

“He’s here to do whatever you tell him to do,” Delia Simmons declared. “He knows what he done was wrong and he’s here to make amends.” She nodded her head several times, as if adding exclamation marks to her statement.

“We’ll keep him busy enough.”

“Uh-huh. That’s good.” Another nod. She must have sensed which way the wind was blowing for her son, be cause she looked Harris full in the face, her pale eyes appealing. “He’s real sorry for what he’s done. Brady’s a good boy. Works hard around the place. Helps me with the kids, that’s for sure. He’s smart, too. The teachers tell me so all the time, and he’s never caused us no trouble before. Fact is, I blame his father for the mess Brady’s in, him bringing the boy into the government woods in the first place. We’re hoping that he’ll do his time here and that’ll put this whole mess behind us.”

The line sounded too rehearsed to suit Harris. The boy shuffled his feet and looked off at some point in the far distance, no doubt wishing he were there. Wishing he were anywhere but here. Harris gave Mrs. Simmons a stern glance that told her this was not some parent-teacher conference she could bluff her way through.

“The whole mess, as you put it, will only be behind us once that eagle is healed from the load of pellets that hit her. It’ll be behind us once your boy learns that shooting federally protected birds is simply not tolerated. You see, Mrs. Simmons, the only reason I agreed to allow your son to do the community service here at my center is because I have the hope that your son will learn enough by being around raptors not to ever
want
to shoot them again. Nor any other bird—not an eagle, hawk, owl, not even a sparrow. And that he’ll pass on what he’s learned to his peers.
And
his family.”

Then he shifted his gaze to the boy. “You got that?”

Brady swung his head around, eyes widened in surprise at the direct question. Recouping his cool, he shrugged noncommittally, then looked down at his feet.

“I didn’t hear you,” Harris said.

“I
get
it.”

Harris studied the boy, but his passive expression revealed little besides contempt.

“Then that’s settled,” Harris said to Mrs. Simmons. “I expect him here every Saturday morning at nine sharp and every Wednesday afternoon by three. We won’t be waiting on him to show up. Three late shows and he’s out. You can pick him up today at two, unless he wants a lunch break, in which case you can pick him up at three. He brings his own meal, water and whatever else he wants. Any questions? No? Then we’ll be seeing you later this afternoon, Mrs. Simmons.”

“I’ll be here at two, since I didn’t make a lunch. Hear, Brady?”

“Yes’m. Two o’clock.”

Harris turned to the boy. “Come on, then,” he said, catching himself from calling him
boy.
“Let’s get started.” He fixed him with a stern look. “I hope you won’t make me think this was a mistake.”

Harris found Elijah in the rear of the clinic, cutting long strips of AstroTurf. Already he’d covered two six-foot perches. They were leaning against the wall looking tightly fitted and clean.

“Hey, Lijah! Mind if you slow down a bit? There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

Lijah turned from the perch he was bent over to face him, a greeting on his lips. The smile of welcome slipped, however, and recognition sparked in his eyes when he saw the blond young man at his side. He straightened from his task and turned to face them with his shoulders erect.

Harris waved the boy closer. He followed with dragging feet. “This here’s Brady Simmons. I suspect you know who he is.”

Lijah nodded without comment. Even in his baggy jacket and faded pants, Harris thought a king could not be more regal. Turning to the boy Harris said, “This is Mr. Elijah Cooper. It was his eagle that you shot.”

Surprise and confusion flickered across Brady’s features. Harris was gratified to see the boy’s cheeks flush before he ducked his head.

“Lijah, you recall we talked about this boy doing community service here?”

“I recall.”

“And you’re fine with that?”

“I don’t have a problem, long as he don’t give me a problem.”

“Right. I thought it only fitting that I put him in your charge, if you’re willing.”

“I’m willing.”

“Well, there’s no shortage of chores to be done, we both know that.” He looked around at the rows of stacked dog kennels lined up along the wall. Each one of them was filthy with streaks of black, green and white smears of bird mutes, spores of mildew, mold and mud. “Looks like we’ve got an overflow of kennels that need cleaning. We could maybe start him off with that.”

Brady’s head shot up. “I thought I was going to be working with the birds.”

Harris’s eyes flashed. He wanted to tell him hell would freeze over before he’d let him touch his birds. He took a moment to rein in his anger at the kid’s arrogance before saying in a level voice, “Let’s get this understood right from the start. No one gets to care for the birds without approval. Not any volunteer. And you, Brady Simmons, are not a volunteer. You’re going to have to work extra long and extra hard to earn that approval from me. We’re all here to serve those birds. It’s not the other way around.”

“That be right,” Lijah interjected with feeling.

Brady shot the old man a wary glance.

“You’ll start working with a by-product of birds. See that bottled soap over there? And those scrub brushes? And that hose? Lijah here’s going to show you how to use all that stuff along with some of that muscle power you’ve got to scrub clean every one of those kennels.”

Brady’s eyes smoldered in dismay at seeing the fourteen dog kennels ranging in size from small to extra large. “All of them?”

“Well, that’s all there are for now. More come every day. They’ll keep you busy.”

“But…they’re covered with caked-on bird shit!”

Harris was enjoying the boy’s agony and had to hold back a smile. “We prefer to call it mutes. Makes it somehow easier. But the truth is, bird shit is just part of living with birds. You’ll be scrubbing a lot of mutes in the next six months. Mutes from kennels, mutes from perches, mutes from pens, mutes from towels. We all do it. Pretty soon you won’t think twice about it. Isn’t that right, Lijah?”

“Don’t bother me none.”

Harris grinned, then turned to the boy. “See what I mean? So, I’ll be leaving you in Lijah’s excellent care.”

Harris could readily see from the boy’s mutinous expression that none of this was sitting well with him. But there wasn’t a darn thing he could do about it. Brady Simmons would have a lot to reckon with in the next few months. Every act had consequences, and young Brady was about to find that simple truth out.

Ella sat at the oval wood table chewing a pencil nub and making up what was turning out to be a very long grocery list. The situation was dire. After she’d finished cleaning up that pitiful breakfast, she’d spent the better part of an hour prowling through a dank-and-dingy pantry and dusty, overcrowded cabinets. There were old, dented pots and pans, very few modern conveniences and a scarcity of food in the shelves other than tinned goods and condiments, most of which were unsuitable for a diabetic diet.

Marion would need a diet low in sugar, fats and salt with plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. She’d need lots of good snack food, too, so Ella had added boxes of raisins, packages of cheese and crackers, small cans of juice and nuts to the list, all stuff that could be packed up if they went out somewhere. Looking over the list again, she thought they’d all be healthier in the long run, even if it meant there’d be no more late-night snacks of chocolate chip cookies for her. She sighed as she picked up her coffee cup. Late-night cookies were her one bow to decadence, but she couldn’t very well eat cookies when little Marion could not.

She added a few more cleaning supplies, then smoothed out the list with her palms, satisfied. When she saw a child in the hospital, it was an emergency situation. She patched up a problem as best she could, then sent the child off. This time, with Marion, she’d be able to
prevent
the problems. She could make a difference in the quality of the child’s life. Even the length of it.

The image of a small boy lying still on a hospital bed flashed through her mind. Ella removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes, the pain of the memory pricking fresh. She would not fail
this
child, she vowed.

Opening her eyes, she checked her wristwatch. It was high time for sleepy little girls to wake up and have their blood tested.

The backstairs to the attic bedroom were very narrow and steep and they creaked under her feet. She pushed open the narrow door to a marvelous room bathed in winter’s pale light pouring in from two gabled windows. It was a child’s room, small, but airy because the ceiling rose to a point. Her lips spread in a smile. The walls and gingham curtains were both a lovely, little-girl pale pink. A Berber rug kept the floors toasty for bare feet. There were the usual toys and dolls tossed in baskets along the wall, a small white table-and-chairs set, and affixed to the wall with pushpins was an assortment of Marion’s artwork.

Ella walked to the single bed nestled under an eave and gazed down at the child sleeping half in, half out of the blankets. What was it about the sight of a sleeping child that stirred a woman’s heart so? she wondered. They held the innocence of angels in their faces. As she watched the child’s rhythmic breathing, saw the soft blond hairs stir with each breath, she felt her commitment to the child surge with renewal.

BOOK: Skyward
10.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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