Authors: Jennifer Anne Kogler
jennifer anne kogler
To Jeremy and Jordan,
my very own Sam and Eddie
“Expect everything, I always say,
and the unexpected never happens.”
The Phantom Tollbooth
he bird swung lifelessly by a silken string from the corner of the wooden eave of the house. The McAllister twins craned their necks upward to get a closer look.
“I think it hung itself,” Sam said, unable to take his eyes off the swallow. Moments before, Sam had spotted the lifeless songbird hanging from Lee Phillips’s shingled roof and insisted his sister accompany him to investigate.
Fern’s bird knowledge was no greater than that of most twelve-year-olds, but she would have recognized a swallow anywhere. After all, the swallows were a big deal in San Juan Capistrano. Each March, they would make the six-thousand-mile journey from Goya, Argentina, to San Juan Capistrano. San Juan was world famous for its weeklong celebration of the swallows’ return, the
Fiesta de las Golondrinas
, which included the Swallows Day Parade. This particular swallow, though, was lost—the swallows weren’t supposed to arrive in San Juan for months.
As Fern looked up at the dead swallow, a wave of panic swept over her. Taking a deep breath, she told herself that getting her brother worried wouldn’t help. She filled her head with dewy morning air, fighting to regain her poise. She glanced at Sam; he hadn’t noticed any change in her demeanor.
a little spooky,” Fern said, looking at the dead bird, “but birds don’t do that kind of thing, Sam.”
“How do you know that? Have you ever been a bird?” Sam asked.
“No, but neither have you.”
“Exactly. So we can’t be
it didn’t hang itself.”
“Birds fly, chirp, lay eggs, and poop on people. They don’t commit suicide.”
“I think you’ve got a pretty narrow-minded view of birds. You’re a bird bigot.”
Fern smirked despite herself. “You’re crazy, Sam, you know that?” she said, looking at the lifeless swallow through the dark tint of her sunglasses.
Sam pivoted away from his sister and returned his gaze to the bird. His mood darkened instantly.
“Think about it—if you migrated all the way from South America to California and then realized that your friends and family were gone, you’d be feeling pretty desperate.”
Sam shaded his eyes from the sun so he could have a better look. Its puffed-out white chest made the swallow appear defiant in death.
“Look,” Fern said, pointing at the half spiderweb that was loosely attached to a nearby branch. “It flew into that web and got part of the thread caught around its neck.”
“A spiderweb isn’t strong enough to hold a bird up,” Sam said.
“Maybe it’s a wire from the roof,” Fern offered.
“We should say a few words,” Sam said, eyeing his sister.
“A few words?” Fern questioned.
“You know, to commemorate its life or its journey or something.”
“And people say I’m the weird one.”
Sam halfheartedly scowled at his twin sister. “Yeah, well, I’m way better at hiding it.” He smiled, picked up a stick, reached up, and tapped the bird with it. The swallow began to swing like a miniature piñata.
“Come on,” Fern said, desperately wanting to take her eyes and mind off the small creature. “We’d better start walking or we’re gonna be late.” She hoped Sam couldn’t tell how distracted she was. “I don’t want to give Mrs. Stonyfield another reason to hate me.”
“She doesn’t hate you,” Sam said. Fern rolled her eyes at him.
“Fine, you’re right, she kind of hates you.” Sam laughed and ran across the Phillips’ lawn, down La Limonar. Fern, happy to run from her worries for a few moments, chased after him.
The twins made their way to St. Gregory’s Episcopal School, passing the house where their mother grew up, known as the Moynihan home. There, they were often told, their mother was instilled with the severe Catholic discipline of her deceased Moynihan parents, both Irish immigrants. Once past the old Victorian house, the twins made a sharp left and took their usual shortcut through Anderson’s Grove. Fern, dressed in her brother’s hand-me-down blue corduroy pants, slip-on Vans, collared polo shirt emblazoned with the school crest, and Breakfast Sunglasses, slowed to a walk. She was consumed by thoughts of the Voices.
That’s what Fern called them—the Voices—probably because whenever she heard them, there were no bodies attached. They came to her out of the dry San Juan air, as if someone—and not always the same someone—was whispering in her ear through a funnel.
That very morning, Fern had heard them again, louder than ever. She had been lying in bed, waiting for her alarm to ring. Her spine had stiffened when she realized that, once again,
was the topic of conversation. This time, though, there were specific details. Maybe, she told herself as she tried to calm down, the dead bird was just a strange coincidence. As she and her brother continued toward St. Gregory’s, Fern replayed exactly what she’d heard in her head.
“Vlad is in town.” The male voice was so loud and so near, Fern thought its owner must practically be next to her. She frantically scanned the room and realized she was utterly alone. The Voices were back.
“How can you be sure?” the second, more familiar voice questioned.
“Scores of birds have been dying unnaturally—flying into windows, plunging into pools, electrifying themselves on power lines.”
“Maybe it’s a coincidence,” the second voice offered.
“It’s no coincidence. Every single instance of birds acting irregularly has meant one thing: Vlad is close by. He’s in San Juan and he’s after the girl.”
“You mean Fern McAllister?”
“You can’t be certain of that! He’d have no way of knowing she’s here or that she’s an Unusual. Blimey,
don’t even know if she’s an Unusual!”
Had Fern been in a more advanced stage of transmutation, she might have been able to hear the whole conversation Mr. Joseph Bing and Mr. Alistair Kimble were having, nearly four miles away in the law offices of Kimble & Kimble. Fortunately for her sanity, she was like a radio with a broken antenna, receiving only patches of signals and broadcasts.
Fern had heard the Voices for the first time a few months ago, when she’d heard her name uttered by a man’s voice. A woman responded, saying that she “didn’t believe for a second that a girl could be allergic to the sun.” Fern had no idea why she was being talked about, but her name wasn’t mentioned again. It wasn’t long before Fern figured out who was talking from the context of the conversation: Lee Phillips’s dad was chatting with a woman who wasn’t Lee’s mother. Certain cues, such as when Mr. Phillips told the woman to “hurry and leave before my wife gets home,” made Fern sure the two were doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing.
Such information was hazardous for someone who was teased as much as Fern was. When Lee Phillips cornered Fern by the swings after class, Fern had nowhere to run. Lee towered over Fern, taunting her.
“You’re disgusting.” Lee hissed as Blythe Conrad stood behind her. Lee pointed at the sun blisters that had erupted on Fern’s face.
“How does your mom even look at you without wanting to puke?” Blythe said, raising her voice. Fern said nothing, cornered by the fence on one side and Lee and Blythe on the other. A group of students moved around the girls, forming a loose half circle.
“I bet your mom wishes she could send you back,” Blythe continued, feeding off the energy of the crowd around her.
“I bet that’s why your
left,” Lee continued. “He couldn’t stand having an ugly daughter.”
“At least my father isn’t having an affair.”
Fern let it fly without hesitation, though she was sorry as soon as the words left her mouth. Lee, who had a nagging suspicion of this very fact, was in tears for the rest of the day. Fern had no explanation for how she knew about Lee’s father, other than that she “just knew.”
Although Fern’s assessment turned out to be true (less than three weeks later, Mr. Phillips had, on the very same day, filed for a divorce from Mrs. Phillips and asked Sally White’s mother to marry him), the revelation caused Lee to redouble her efforts to torment Fern. It also gave Fern a “spooky” reputation at St. Gregory’s and landed her a weekly appointment in the school psychologist’s office. There, Mrs. Larkey, a woman with thick red glasses and spiked black hair, would try to get to the bottom of Fern’s “behavioral problems.”
These ongoing sessions, during which Fern avoided such questions as, “Why don’t you talk about your father?” and “Do you understand the difference between positive attention and negative attention?” and “Do you hate your twin brother, even a little?” usually lasted an hour. Then Mrs. Larkey would throw her hands up in the air, frustrated by their lack of progress, and send Fern back to class. Sam called these appointments “Interviews with the Freak Doctor.”
If Fern told Sam about the Voices, she knew he would be the last person on Earth to narc on her, or even judge her, but she didn’t want to burden him. Sam was fiercely protective of his sister, even if he secretly wished she didn’t need so much protecting.
Today, as the twins rambled through rows of blossoming orange trees in Anderson’s Grove, Sam an inch and a half taller than his sister, they didn’t look like brother and sister at all. They also didn’t look like best friends. Fern walked to school with a heavy heart, wondering who Vlad was and why he was looking for her; wondering where the dead swallow fit into things; unable to shake the feeling that somebody, somewhere was talking about her. Not that this last part was terribly unusual. Fern McAllister, though she hadn’t realized it yet, was the kind of girl people talked about.
There’s usually one in every family: the misfit, the black sheep, the oddball, the outsider, the nonconformist. Fern was weird. Not only that, Fern was also in an unfortunate period of her life for weirdness. Being weird in the regular world usually meant being tolerated and sometimes even applauded. Being weird in the seventh grade, however, meant being persecuted. Like all those who are truly weird, Fern was a rotten judge of her own weirdness. She could never tell what part of herself people were going to react to, so she could never have hidden it even if she had wanted to.
To everybody who knew her well, though, there was no doubt that Fern McAllister was very different from other children. When at age two Fern developed her first pair of baby teeth, both canines, both pointy, her doctor pronounced it “very odd.” When at age six Fern claimed she could communicate with the family dog, Byron, her mother found it “exceedingly bizarre.” By the time she was twelve, Fern had developed several other strange habits. She read the weather page of the newspaper every night and either agreed or disagreed with the forecast for the following day. She’d maintained a streak of two years and seventy-four days of correctly predicting the next day’s weather. She filled a flowerpot with dirt from her mother’s garden and stowed it under her bed because she claimed she couldn’t sleep without it. She wore dark Ray-Bans while she ate her oatmeal in the morning, which she called her Breakfast Sunglasses, because she insisted that her eyes had to wake up “gradually.”
All of these things were viewed by her two brothers as “kinda crazy,” but they figured she’d outgrow them. Fern’s mother, Mary Lou McAllister, refused to take such a laissez-faire approach. Worried about her daughter’s social future, she tried to curb some of this odd behavior. As far as she knew, Mrs. McAllister had stopped Fern from communicating with the dog, Byron (although she had to admit that she would never be able to stop Byron from communicating with Fern—she did not, after all, speak Maltese). Still, many of Fern’s idiosyncrasies remained. It was too exhausting for Fern’s mother to try to extinguish them all.
In truth, by the time Fern was twelve, her behavioral plate was beginning to fill up with so many odd habits, strange comportments, and bizarre activities, there was very little room for the more standard side dishes of childhood.
Her appearance certainly didn’t help matters. Fern’s closest relations were all blond and freckled in varying degrees. But Fern more closely resembled a real, live black sheep than she did either one of her brothers or her mother. Her long Sharpie-colored mane set her apart from her family. Many of the McAllister neighbors had taken to calling Sam and Fern the Salt and Pepper Twins. Even Fern’s blue-tinted contact lenses couldn’t dull the penetrating paleness of her eyes. She looked a lot like Snow White’s suburbanite little sister.
Despite all this, being labeled an oddball hadn’t become unbearable for Fern. She had Sam, and Eddie, her older brother, and, for the most part, found it easy to escape to her own world. Unlike Sam, Fern was one of those people who had a very short memory for sadness and distress, especially when it came to her own. After wearing the Wonder Woman cape from her Halloween costume to school the day after Halloween, Fern was teased mercilessly. “I’m just ahead of my time,” she explained to Sam and her mother, refusing to let the naysayers bother her. “The cape keeps me warm and it doesn’t have a zipper like my jacket, so my hair never gets caught.” Fern saw her glass as always half full, even when it was filled with curdled milk.
Though it was true that Fern had displayed some of the hallmarks of a problematic childhood, in spite of everything, most people, including Fern, still thought her life remained within the boundaries of normal. Her family had successfully built a barrier that kept the great majority of Fern’s oddities from the outside world.
Although the McAllisters didn’t yet know it, the levee was about to break. After today, Fern McAllister would never pass for normal again.
While cutting through Anderson’s Grove, Sam turned his attention to his sister. A breeze rustled the waxy leaves around them.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing,” Fern said, still afraid to tell Sam about the Voices.
“Are you thinking about the swallow?” Sam asked as he kicked up dirt beside her.
Fern hesitated. She knew Sam would not let up until he had an answer. “Maybe. I don’t know,” she said.
“Told you we should’ve said a few words.” Sam whacked his sister gently in the arm.