“This all looks very good, Mr. Epping,” said the worn man in the similarly worn brown leather chair as the tip of his nose peaked the sheet of paper Jackson had handed him upon arriving. Jackson shifted in his chair and smiled a little too widely. He still hadn’t quite figured out what to do with his moist hands, resolving for the moment at least to clasp them in his lap and hoping it wouldn’t look terribly feminine.
“I’m glad to hear it, sir,” he replied, nodding his head a few times. “I’ve been wanting to come here for years.”
“Yes, well, your reference letter opened the right doors,” the dean replied, his raised eyebrows creasing his forehead several times. “Remind me how you knew Dr. Doyle. He was scant on the details in his letter, and, well, it’s not as if I could ask him. I had thought myself that he had stepped away from academia.”
“Yeah, he did. I didn’t know him like that. I’m just his neighbor,” Jackson explained, sitting back in his seat. The leather creaked a little behind his back. “It’s like this:”
* * *
I met Atticus by chance, when I was just a kid. You see, he lived in the house right next to mine. Our yards were separated by a rotting fence pockmarked by holes you could stick an eye or a hand through to grab a sprig of the catnip he grew in patches by the fence or see the cardinals or jays or chickadees that flocked to the feeders between the two big trees in his yard. I’d never seen Atticus himself aside from a glimpse here or there, and my parents had told me to leave him alone, but when the back door had opened and a bright flash of red had zipped out and right through one of the larger holes in our fence, I didn’t even think twice about it.
The dash of red across our yard had ended in my mother’s boxwood shrub, and I stood there, wide-eyed for a moment, before dashing back to the house to grab the butterfly net. Implement in hand, I crept over, step by quiet step, until I could see the bird preening, perched on one of the branches. 3…2…1…
And through some fluke of luck, the red body and blue-green wings and yellow claws were inside the netting. I barely had time to admire the bright colors before a sharp pain erupted from my hand as the bird pecked at me once, twice, and I was running to the next house, rapping on the front door.
“Mr. Doyle! Sir! I got your bird!” I yelled, waiting, and after a moment (and a few more ornery pecks) pushed the door open and walked in. (Whatever you could say about trespassing, I wasn’t just about to let the bird go outside.)
The hall I walked into was a cramped little affair, dark wood paneling enclosing me and the rather upset bird on both sides. As I pushed the door open, it made a clear arc of floor by pushing a series of still-wrapped newspapers off to the side, and I had to step over a few more as I continued on to the back of the house.
The back room opened up considerably from the rest of the house, a skylight letting sunlight down from the open sky and dozens of cages lining the walls, filled with varieties of bird I’d never even seen. The cheeps and caws in various pitches formed into a kind of white noise in the background. Sensing his return was inevitable, the bird I’d captured wriggled out of my net and flew up to one of the branches suspended by the ceiling, not before stealing the Northbridge cap from my head. Just then, the old man I assumed to be Mr. Doyle wrenched shut the back door, a disgruntled set to the hard line of his lips.
“What’re you doing in my house?” he demanded immediately, bushy eyebrows set like ramps down to the bridge of a broad nose. His steely grey eyes nearly matched the bright white hair that had faded up his forehead with time.
“I, uh, just wanted to bring you back your bird, Mr. Doyle,” I explained, pointing up at my unfriendly companion as it seemed to glower down at me from over the cap. The old man’s caterpillar eyebrows shot up.
He looked up at the bird, then said, “He doesn’t seem to be terribly grateful, does he?”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so I just shook my head. Mr. Doyle snapped his fingers and pointed up at the bird and it flew down to him, landing on his extended arm. Mr. Doyle grabbed the hat from him and a small swatch of the fabric from the cap ripped off in the bird’s beak before he could get it free.
“First of all,” he said, lifting his arm to emphasize the bird, “this is not just ‘a bird’, but a Jubilee Macaw. Nietzsche is his name. Second, it’s Dr. Doyle. I didn’t spend eight years studying for people to forget the Dr.”
“—I, um, I’m terribly sorry, Dr.—”
“Third of all, where did you get this?” he asked, tossing the hat back at me. I grabbed it and frowned at the torn bit.
“My brother graduated there, sir. Michael Epping.”
“Michael—” the old man stopped, a vague, thin smile forming on his lips. The expression seemed out of place between all the frown lines etched into his face like marble. “Yes, I suppose I can see it. I wondered if you were related when I saw the mailbox. How’s Michael doing now?”
I shook my head, holding the hat between my hands.
“He’s fine. Not too much news lately,” I said, leaving no one in the room convinced.
Not much news was true. Michael had been siphoning money off from our parents to “cover his expenses” after college, and when they’d finally started asking what those expenses were, he’d left home. I emailed a few times to see where he was, but I hadn’t heard from him in months. He was just taking some time to get his life together. He’d get past it, find himself a job, straighten up. I knew he wouldn’t stay like that for long. Michael was too smart for that. He had too much potential.
“He came over for dinner, sometimes, back when I lived across the street from campus,” Dr. Doyle had begun to say, slowly, intentionally. “That was—” he paused “back before my friends here moved in. Good man. Sharp. Real tortured artist type.
“I don’t suppose you plan on following in his footsteps at Northbridge, do you?” he asked before I could answer his last question, fixing his sharp gaze on me as Nietzsche prodded at the collar of his shirt.
“I’d sure love to,” I admitted, rubbing the back of my head with my free hand, “but Michael got in on a scholarship. Full ride. It was the only way he could afford it. And I’m not dumb, sir, but I don’t think I could match up to all that.”
“It’s for the best, anyway,” Dr. Doyle said as he shooed Nietzsche off his arm, brushing off the spot he’d landed on as he spoke carefully, lingering at the end of each sentence. “You won’t learn anything there worth the price. I’d know.”
I bit my tongue, wrinkling my cap in my closed fist.
“I’m still going if I can,” I protested. “I think just being there sounds worth it. But, uh, I’d probably better get going, Mr. Doyle.”
“Michael always called me Atticus,” he said suddenly, closing some of the other birds in their cages as he walked around the room. “You will do likewise from now on.
“Do you like birds, Mr. Epping?”
I stopped halfway out the room, looked back at the old man amidst the flurry of red and green and blue wings, and shrugged noncommittally.
“If you come here once a week to help me take care of these fellows, I suppose I will see what I can do about paying you for it. Something to save up for Northbridge, if you really decide it’s worth it. Or to start saving up for a car or something practical like that. Up to you, of course.”
I grinned and slipped my torn cap back on my head.
“I’ll see you next week, Atticus,” I said.
* * *
We settled into a sort of routine, the old man next door and his flock of feathered eccentricities and I. I’d come every Friday, pushing aside the growing pile of newspapers in the front hall, spend half an hour disposing of bird droppings and feathers with Atticus watching through a pair of silver-rimmed glasses. Some of the birds took to me quickly, others (like Nietzsche) still flew down to flap their wings in my face or dig their sharp claws into my shoulder as I disturbed their homes. Several weeks in, Atticus asked me to clean up the detritus in the front hall, supervising from the front steps and staring at me from under heavy eyebrows like rainclouds. I carted several armfuls of dusty, yellow-wrapped rolls of thin, grey paper out to the trash before Atticus called me back to read him one that had caught his eye as I passed.
That became a part of the routine too. I’d read something safe from the sports column (soccer, usually) as Atticus sat back in his scratched wooden chair. I learned quickly that if I chose a current event, Atticus would sit forward in his chair with a far-off glare like a disappointed father and the frown lines on his face would have the chance to set just a little bit deeper, so before long I started reading sports instead, content for him to watch through half-closed eyelids and wryly cuss out whichever players hadn’t lived up to his expectations. At the end of each day, he would press the envelope with my pay into my hand and tell me simply and unsentimentally,
“Now go away, Mr. Epping.”
“See you next week, Atticus.”
One week, as he’d stared up at the birds zipping around in the sunlight up above, he’d told me, “Now go away, Michael.”
I turned and left, forgetting my goodbye, and when I got home, I passed the closed door next to mine with a superstitious quiet, slipping the envelope in my growing school fund.
When Mom and Dad found out after a couple visits that I’d been going next door to visit Atticus, the dinner table got quiet. I was staring at my chicken, gearing up to defend my newfound job, when Mom spoke up.
“Well that’s nice, Jack,” she said simply, with half a glance up at Dad between sentences. “Michael always liked Dr. Doyle’s classes.”
“He did right by Michael,” Dad agreed, shaking his head with a small smile. The corners of his lips flickered up and down for a moment. “Set him up well for finding a good job.”
Things got awkwardly quiet for a moment, save for the scrape of a spoon on the side of a bowl, and I blurted out,
“He’s got a lot of birds now.”
No one really knew how to continue conversation after that, but Mom smiled and Dad sank back in his seat just a hair. Once I got enough conversational gumption back, I told them about Nietzsche and Kant and Locke and the rest of the birds, hoping I didn’t jumble the very specific species names Atticus had told me, slowly like I was five years old. It made for filler enough to get Mom to the point of finishing her food and beginning to clean up. Dad offered to help tonight. That seemed to be that, so I kept from mentioning Atticus from then on.
* * *
Atticus spewed the saying that there was no stupid question, like most teachers, without even realizing it, and I tended to give him a run for his money on that. Mostly bird questions, a couple soccer questions that started jostling in my head as I read the sports pages for him. He’d always had an answer for me, and as he spoke sometimes he’d absently lift up an arm and the brilliant blue from Locke’s feathers would wobble through the air until the rather unsteady hyacinth macaw landed on his forearm, adjusting his grip by stumbling a step into his shoulder. Explaining things to me, he’d always lose ten or fifteen years of the lines on his face. Sometimes he’d even approximate a smile.
The first time I caught him off guard, I asked a question that had been bumping around in my head for the last few months, since that first visit. It wasn’t wise, no, but I told you I’m smart. Wisdom is an entirely different game, and like soccer, it isn’t one I’m particularly skilled at.
“Atticus, why did you retire?”
The older man’s eyebrows assumed a warlike position.
“I don’t care for the work anymore,” he said with an air of finality.
I was in the middle of tying up a garbage bag of bird droppings and I was obviously missing a cue, since the conversation didn’t stop there.
“Why not? Michael told me you were the best thing to happen to Northbridge in the last fifty years.”
“They’re doing fine without me.” Stop talking, Epping.
“But didn’t you love it?” I asked, getting a little carried away in my own daydreaming. “Don’t you miss helping people become exactly what they want to be?”
The first couple years of school, Michael had come back from school and talked circles around the rest of us explaining philosophy and government and history like we’d all been on the same page. When he realized from the glazed eyes we weren’t, he’d always laugh as the tips of his ears went red. The rest of us would laugh too, glad to see him so enamored with his life and, in my case, so glad to see him going somewhere. In motion. Things stood still too often in our sleepy kind of neighborhood. But not Michael. Michael was going somewhere. He could’ve gone anywhere he wanted.
“I wasn’t helping anyone.”
“But Michael said—”
“He’s the last person you should cite, Epping. You of all people should know we ruined Michael. He was top of my class at first. He outshone everyone, including me. And now that we’re done with him, where is he? Not on speaking terms with his family. Probably retching somewhere in a gutter and using that keen mind to find another fix.”
It was worse than a slap in the face. I didn’t know whether to jump to Michael’s defense and deny what Atticus was saying or ask him how he knew. I must’ve stuttered out the latter without quite intending to, because Atticus took his glasses off and kneaded his creased forehead with the heel of his hand.
“He came to me a few months after he moved out, begged me for a little help to get him going again. Bags under his placid eyes like shackles. He kept his hands clasped in his lap to try and keep them from shaking. I asked him to get help first, told him I wouldn’t give him a dime until he did, and he stood up, pushed his chair in, and walked away without another word. I haven’t heard from him since.”
I stammered out, “He’s n-not…he just n-needs some time to…”
“For God’s sake, open your eyes, Jackson!” Atticus roared, slamming a fist down on the arm of his chair. The birds fluttered restlessly up in the rafters. “Ignoring what happened to Michael won’t undo it.”
I turned and walked home without my envelope, and instead of passing the closed door down the hall, I walked into Michael’s pristine, sterile room. It shouldn’t have looked so perfect. Shouldn’t there have been something wrong with it? Anything?
Ten minutes later, I looked at crumpled sheets and scattered books with torn out pages and trophies smashed against the ground with Midas’ sparks glittering on the floor and took in heavy breaths and realized a very simple fact that made me hate Atticus, hate Mom and Dad, hate myself like I’ve never hated anyone.
Michael wasn’t getting better.
I was angry and he wasn’t even there to take the blows.
* * *
I spent the next six weeks being angry. Mom and Dad made me clean up Michael’s room as soon as they found out what I’d done, but we didn’t talk about it any more than that. They left me alone, but I could feel the unspoken tension every time I was around them, so I took my meals up to my room and avoided them. I tried to send Michael an email once or twice, but I couldn’t get it right. I deleted a handful of attempts that didn’t get past a line or two and then gave up.
But I understood now. I spent hours staring at the birdfeeders hanging outside Atticus’ house and slunk through the house every time I had to leave my room and I got what he must’ve felt like. Mom and Dad could see I was struggling with something, but they weren’t willing to poke it with a ten-foot stick.
I couldn’t bear it any more, so after six weeks, I found myself standing on Atticus’ doorstep, squeezing my eyes shut and rapping on the door.
“Come in,” his voice carried from the back room and I slipped inside, coming to a stop in the doorway with my cap in my hands and my gaze on the floor.
“Atticus, I’m s-“
“The birds’ve missed you,” he cut me off. He nodded over at the cages, adding, “You can still do your job, can’t you?”
I blinked once, then put my cap back on and started cleaning feathers out of the bottom of Nietzsche’s cage.
“I shouldn’t have yelled at you,” he said suddenly, after a minute or two’s silence.
I looked back. Atticus’ gaze was on the birds in the rafters.
“You came to say your piece, didn’t you? Go on, then.”
“You sure you wouldn’t rather ignore the problem? That seems like it’s the popular approach.”
“I’ve done enough of that. I should’ve done more for Michael when he came to me,” Atticus said, scratching the back of his neck. “I might mess up with you, but I’ll be darned if I do it in the same way.”
“You didn’t mess up with him,” I protested, turning around to face Atticus and dropping the bag of feathers. “He always talked about you like you were his hero. You didn’t know what was going on. That’s not your fault. It’s ours.
“We didn’t want to see him the way he was sometimes. He’s a genius, like you said, but there were times before he left for school when he’d come home with a speeding ticket or not able to walk in a straight line. Sometimes he wouldn’t come home at night. The times he did and I tried to talk at him, he screamed at me. He’d always be quick to apologize, to make sure he hadn’t hurt anybody, so Mom and Dad just…accepted it. I guess they just figured so long as he was sorry, it was fine. None of us wanted to see him like that.
“We should’ve helped. We knew. But I just thought if he was trying to get out of here, to improve himself, maybe that was all he needed. That that kind of chance would fix anybody, right? I loved him, and I was rooting for him, and if I thought he wasn’t getting better, then…”
“If your older brother couldn’t do it, how could you?” Atticus finished, and a shiver ran down my back hearing him say it out loud.
“I needed him to be perfect and he wasn’t. So I tried to pretend he was anyway.”
Atticus sat back in his chair and rubbed his forehead with his hand. Locke flew down from the rafters and landed on his shoulder, looking down at his owner with his head crooked.
“It’s not your job to save your brother, Jackson,” he said finally, wearily. “Or mine either. Michael has made the choices he’s made, and it’ll be his choice to find help when he’s ready. When he does, be his brother. See him. But don’t stop living your life because he chose to throw away a part of his.”
* * *
“The next part of the story might sound strange,” Jackson warned, as the dean sat back in his chair and took his glasses off to clean them.
“Well, go on,” he prompted with a light wave of his hand.
“Well…Atticus was right. I tried to move on, found myself a job at the place down the street. I kept coming to Atticus’ house to tend to the birds until the day he came back from the hospital and he called and asked for me to come.
“And as I was stepping out from my front door, I looked over and I heard the slide of his backdoor through the fence and out shot blues and reds and greens like you’ve never seen, color in action and motion as birds flew up into the open sky and across dim grey tiled roofs. A rainbow Exodus.
“When I came in and found Atticus sitting by the open door, staring over his newspaper at me like I was late, and I asked him what had happened, he just shrugged one shoulder and replied testily, ‘letting things go’.
“Locke was still sitting there, on the top bar by the skylight, and since he wouldn’t go, Atticus kept him until he passed, then gave him to me in the will. He’s also, uh, Atticus’s funding a large part of my tuition here, if you accept me,” Jackson mentioned, running a hand up and down the back of his neck. “It’s a scholarship, the will said—
“To start living the way you choose. Jackson Epping is no one’s shadow. You’ve earned this, son.”
* * *
Rachel G. Rathbun is an avid writer, reader, and D&D player from Massachusetts. She is currently studying English at Cedarville University in Ohio with the goal of pursuing a career in editing and publishing. She has previously been published in nonfiction in the Cedarville Review.
featured photo by Nathaniel Lawrence