Birds Aren’t Real - Uncharted

Birds Aren’t Real

By Rachel Luria

Evan Little lives in a narrow, blue, two-story townhome. His is Model A, which is the best model. His bathroom is to the left of his closet. Models B and C have their bathrooms on the right. His back patio overlooks the canal, which is the best view. Much better than the community pool because even though the canal is choking on radiation-green algae and rusted shopping carts and abandoned bicycles, and unclaimed corpses, it still has ducks. Ducks like Mr. Feathers.

Evan stands at his sliding glass door and looks out at the canal. He watches Mr. Feathers, and Mr. Feathers watches him. Watching him through the large pane of glass feels a bit like visiting a prisoner, and Evan would like to open the door and step outside and caress Mr. Feathers like the old friend that he is, but he can’t because of the riots. It’s been over a year now, and still, the asteroid hasn’t hit. But people are going kind of nuts from the suspense. In the early days, Evan still went out for the essentials—food, toilet paper, vitamins—but that was months ago. Now, he drones everything. He works from home. Even in his dreams he only paces the rooms of his townhome. Sometimes, in the dreams, his bathroom is on the right instead of the left. When that happens, Evan wakes up screaming.

Mr. Feathers is a Muscovy, the second most delicious kind of duck. His face is covered in fleshy red bumps like cystic acne. Most people hate the Muscovy. They say they are ugly, and they shit on everything, and they aren’t even a native species. But Evan loves these ducks. He loves the way they splash in the water and how the droplets glitter on their iridescent feathers. He loves their awkward, listing walk, their large, oblong bodies hefted around on short, skinny legs. Despite their unloved bodies, their imbalanced shapes, these birds fly. Their wings stretch, and they soar.

If it weren’t for the asteroid, Evan would be outside with Mr. Feathers, feeding him seeds and admiring the passion with which he preens. Evan presses his hand to the glass. Mr. Feathers waddles over and presses his rubbery foot to the glass, too. His feet are black and latticed with fine lines, each webbed toe tipped with short, blunt claws. Evan taps his fingers on the glass, and Mr. Feathers taps back. They both laugh. At last, the duck grows hungry and shuffles sadly away, sweeping his beak back and forth in the dirt. Evan watches for as long as Mr. Feathers is in sight. When Mr. Feathers flutters into the canal, Evan can see faint lines in the water muck as the duck swims away. The ripples linger, jiggling the algae like it’s lime Jell-O.

It’s 10 AM Monday. Time for his weekly Face2Face video conference with his work team. Evan balances his computer on his knees. He faces his sliding glass doors so he can keep an eye out for Mr. Feathers. His screen rings, and his meeting begins.

Tyler, the founder and CEO of ICU Surveillance, leads the meeting with Evan’s team, the marketing department. Evan is the copy editor—it’s his job to proofread their ads, their brochures, and their user guides. The Cindys, who are not twins or even sisters but nevertheless live together, dress alike, and speak as one, are the creatives. They write the copy that Evan edits. This is Evan’s work team. They encourage Evan to think of them as his work family to, in fact, refer to them as his work family. Evan is trying, but he forgets sometimes. They are more than a team, he reminds himself; they are a family.

“Morning, fam,” says Tyler. “How are we all doing this fine morning?”

“Very well, thank you,” say the Cindys.

“I’ve been a little anxious lately, if I’m honest,” says Evan.

Tyler frowns. He leans closer to the camera and squints at Evan. “I don’t like to hear that,” says Tyler.

“Thank you,” says Evan. “I appreciate your concern. It’s just the confinement, I think…”

“No,” says Tyler. “I mean, I don’t want to hear about it. Good vibes only, bro. Focus on the positive.”

“Oh.” Evan looks to the Cindys but they are sitting perfectly still. He thinks maybe their camera has frozen, but he sees the second hand moving on the large clock on the wall behind them. He counts the seconds, feels his heartbeat merging with the ticking clock. He thinks of what to say. Good vibes only. “Well,” he says, “There’s this duck who comes to see me every day. I’m not even feeding him anymore. He just comes to visit because he likes me. It’s really quite wonderful.”

Tyler and the Cindys wear the same face. It’s the half-smiling pity reserved for special needs children and three-legged dogs. “Um. Ok,” says Tyler. “Thank you, Evan. Moving on. Reports?”

The Cindys look at each other, communicate some message through their eyes, then each bends over and pulls out a folder full of papers, which they tap on their desk three times. Evan thinks he hears grinding when they move, like straining metal gears.

“We have a draft of the new print ad campaign and a new user guide,” they say. They begin to describe their work, and Tyler nods and laces his fingers behind his head. He asks questions, and they answer, but Evan can’t focus on any of it. He is listening to the grinding. What is it? Is it just his old computer? He leans in and listens to the keyboard, but it’s not his laptop. He looks behind him, into the kitchen, and strains to hear if the sound is coming from an appliance. Nothing. He looks back at his screens. The sound grows louder for a moment, then stops.

“Yo,” says Tyler. “You with us, dude?”

“What? Oh, yes. I’m sorry. I missed that last part, though. Can you repeat it?”

Tyler growls like a bear. He huffs hard enough to send the papers swirling on his desk. “Dude. You’ve got to focus. I asked how the edits were going on the company mission statement.”

“Yes. The edits.” Evan doesn’t remember ever receiving the mission statement. He can’t say that, though. Tyler will breathe hard again, and the Cindys will look at him with that bland contempt, and then maybe he will get fired. He will just have to make one up and pretend it’s a highly edited version of the original. “The edits are moving along. I should have them by the end of the week,” he says.

“Good. That’s what I like to hear, dude. Ok, fam. I’m gonna bail. See you next week.”

The squares with Tyler and the Cindys blink to black. A little red notification tells Evan they have left the meeting. Evan watches his face on the screen. It doesn’t look like his face, though it moves when he moves. When he presses the fat of his cheeks, the face on the screen does the same. When he sucks his lips into his mouth, it does too. It must be my face, thinks Evan. He sucks further on his lips until he is kissing the back of his throat. He thinks about the particles, and he spits out his lips, spraying saliva across the screen. His face in the computer looks shocked. Evan closes the laptop and walks to the glass door. He waits for Mr. Feathers.

Mission Statement. Mission Statement. A statement of mission. Mission to Mars. Mission Impossible. Mission Accomplished. Mission. Mish. Shun. Miss Shun. To shun. To miss.

Evan sings the words in his head again and again, hoping it will trigger some inspiration. He tries to envision a Miss Shun who will be stern but accepting and who will help unlock his potential and succeed in his assignment. He imagines someone who looks a bit like his fifth-grade teacher, Miss Todd, and a bit like a butternut squash. He is not inspired.

Evan doesn’t really understand what ICU does, let alone what they hope to achieve by doing it. They make cameras that can be distributed over air particles and activated by sneezing, sobbing, a strong wind, or voice command. Videos download to your dreams and can be stored in your subconscious for up to three lifetimes.

Who uses these systems? What are they for? Security? Spying? Entertainment?

Evan peers into the perspiration gathering on his glass door. Does he see a camera there? He can’t be sure, but he thinks he hears that grinding sound again. Gears turning. He steps away and tries to be invisible. He imagines his head dissolving into dust, then his shoulders, then his whole body until he blows away, swirling in the wind of his ceiling fan. He feels himself settling, landing on his lamp and sofa, bits of him floating onto the glass of his microscope. He imagines how he must look under the microscope, little pulsing blobs of cells. He thinks of a virus and imagines it crawling onto the slide with him, stabbing him with its hemagglutinin. He shudders and his bits reassemble and he is pressing his face to the glass door, but the grinding sound has passed.

Rolling his face from side to side, he looks for Mr. Feathers in the canal but he’s off on some adventure that Evan can only imagine. As he watches the canal, a fish leaps from the water, trailing a ribbon of neon algae. A red-shouldered hawk swoops down and snatches the fish from the air. The hawk flies up to the top of a telephone pole and tears the fish into bloody chunks. Bits of fish drop to the ground and the hawk licks its beak in satisfaction. Evan thinks nature is beautiful and vicious, and he wonders how Mr. Feathers will survive. He wonders if he should buy him a little hat and coat for protection.

Evan’s neighbor, Sarah, walks out to the edge of the canal with her little dog, Toto. She gestures impatiently at the dog, points to the grass, and shakes the leash in a giddyup motion. Evan is excited to see her. He thinks they could be very close friends because she has, on occasion, thrown some peanuts to the squirrels and she has never, not once in three years, played loud music that rattled his walls. Evan waves his hand but she doesn’t notice until her dog has squatted and begun to squeeze out a yellow turd. Then she looks away from the dog and to Evan, waving. Her expression doesn’t change.

“Hi,” Evan shouts through the glass.

Sarah points to her ear and shakes her head, so Evan shouts again. They repeat this exchange two more times until Sarah’s dog has finished defecating and Sarah walks reluctantly over to Evan’s door.

“Hi,” he shouts one more time.

“Why don’t you just open the door?” Sarah asks.

“Oh. Well. Because of the danger? The asteroid and the possible contamination from space particles?”

“You believe that shit? Pathetic.”

Evan doesn’t know what is shit. The asteroid and impending doom? Or the thought that glass could keep you safe. He brushes his finger across the door. He feels particles moving like grit. He notices fine cracks in the rubber seal around the frame and thinks he can smell the dog and its poo wafting into his home. He takes a step back, covers his mouth with his hand.

“What are you doing?” asks Sarah. “Are you recoiling? From me?” She crosses her arms in a way that, to Evan, suggests hurt feelings. Toto sniffs the ground and seems embarrassed on Sarah’s behalf. Evan feels guilty. Thinks he is probably being overly sensitive.

He drops his hand and steps back up to the glass. “Of course not,” he says. “I thought I might sneeze, that’s all.”

“Ok,” says Sarah. “Because that would be rude. And you don’t want to be rude, right?”

“No, of course not.”

“I didn’t think so. Maybe you should invite me in, give me a drink or something. You know, just to really apologize.”

Evan is excited for a moment. He can offer her some ginger tea. And some lemon cookies. And they can discuss that program, the one he is pretty sure she was watching. And maybe he can tell her about this mission statement and she can help him. They can work on it together. Maybe they will work so well together they can start a business and he can quit ICU and start his own family. And Mr. Feathers will come by and Toto can chase him but in a friendly way and Mr. Feathers can flutter about and it will all be good fun.

He is so lost in this thought that he nearly forgets about Sarah actually standing on the other side of the door, wanting to come in. “Well?” she says, and raps her knuckles against the glass. Evan startles. He doesn’t like the way Sarah is looking at him, shielding her eyes and peering into the house. He thinks about that grit on the window again. They could be space particles, small enough to slip in where even the wind can’t. The particles could be anywhere, even on Sarah. He shouldn’t let her in, for both their safety.

“I’m really sorry,” he says. “But I better be going. I have a lot of work to do.”

“Bullshit. You just don’t want to share. I know you’ve got food in there. I see your deliveries. Every day, they come. What are you? One of those hoarders?” She rattles the door handle, tries to pull it open.

“Stop that,” says Evan. “I’m not hoarding. Don’t even say that. That is a very serious offense.”

“Prove it.” After each word, she smacks the glass.

“I really must ask you to cease and desist,” he says. “I’m not ready for company.”

Sarah picks up her dog and storms off. Evan sighs with relief. He thinks she’s come to her senses. But then he hears a knock at his front door.

He walks to the door and looks through the peephole, but he can’t see anyone. “Sarah? Is that you? Are you there?” he asks, but gets no answer. He takes a step back. He waits. The knob rattles as if someone is trying to wrench it open. “Sarah? Please stop it. I can’t let you in. I’m only thinking of your safety.”

Quiet. Then, four beeps, like someone entering the entrance code on his door. It can’t be because his code is secret. But he hears the lock sliding back and then the door opens. Sarah and Toto walk into Evan’s home and look around.

“How did you do that?” Evan is too astonished to be frightened by the intrusion. “How did you know the code?”

“It wasn’t hard. You picked 1234. It’s like you were asking for me to break in.”

“I thought it would be so simple no one would guess it. No one would think I’d be dumb enough to pick a code like that.”

“Oh I knew you’d be dumb enough.” Sarah looks the room up and down while Toto trots to Evan’s couch, hops up, and lays down. “Not much stuff in here. It feels pretty sterile.”

“Thank you.”

Sarah looks at Evan as if deciding if he’s being funny or he’s crazy. Whatever she decides, her face shows no sign. She just says, “So. Are you going to give me some food or what?”

Evan is tormented, at war with himself. He is frightened. He hasn’t been this close to another person in over a year. But she only looks a little crazy, and he wants to be polite. To be a good host. “I have ginger tea and lemon cookies,” he says, and without waiting to see her reaction, he goes to the kitchen and makes a tray.

When he returns, Sarah is sitting on the sofa with Toto curled up in her lap. She’s looking out the glass doors at a flock of Ibis picking their way along the canal. “We have the best view, don’t you think?” she says. “So much better than the pool.”

“Yes,” says Evan. “I agree completely.” He puts the tray on the coffee table and sits beside Sarah. It is too much to hope for and he’s terrified to ask, but he must know. “What are your thoughts on the ducks?”

“The red-faced ones?”

“Yes.” He holds his breath.

“Oh, I love those ugly fuckers. They’re tough. Survivors. And sometimes, when they fly and the sun hits them just right, they are kind of pretty.”

Evan pours the tea. “I knew it,” he says. “I knew we’d be friends.”

When the tea and cookies are gone, and the sky is pink with the setting sun, Sarah gets up and brings the tray to the kitchen. By now, Evan knows that she has a sister in California, but they don’t talk. That’s she’s never had any kids though not as some kind of statement or anything. It just never happened. She works from home, even before the craziness, in medical billing. Her favorite show is a long-running British murder mystery, which Evan has never seen, but they talk about it anyway. She likes to describe show plots, and he likes to listen.

She has not asked him anything about himself and he’s volunteered no information. He is content to listen to Sarah and, to be honest, is a bit relieved. He finds himself boring. He’d be embarrassed to have to tell her about his small little life. Sarah stands and gathers her dog. She walks to the front door, as if to leave. But then she pauses, looks back at Evan. “What about you?” she asks. “What’s going on with you?” She sounds apologetic. Is she sorry because she has taken so long to ask or because she knows how sad his answer will be and is sorry to make him say it? Evan is about to say “Oh nothing” but then he thinks of his mission statement.

“Well,” he says. “I have to write this mission statement for work. But I don’t know what to say. I don’t really know what our mission is.”

“Just make some shit up. No one gives a shit about mission statements anyway.” Sarah pats Evan quickly on the shoulder, as if reassuring him. She seems relieved, as if she has completed her act of service. She and Toto leave. Evan can hear the lock rattle next door and then the low murmur of television.

A week has passed, and Evan does not have the edits for the mission statement. The best he could do was to make up a little jingle sung to the tune of an old children’s show theme song. His jingle goes, “Eye see you. You see me. We are happy se-cur-ity.” When it’s his turn in the Face2Face meeting, he sings this song.

Evan waits for the ridicule he knows he deserves. He is certain he will be fired and it will be a relief, actually. He’ll collect unemployment and have more time for Mr. Feathers. When the comet passes, he’ll find another job. A better job. Maybe at the zoo.

But there is no ridicule. He isn’t fired. Sarah was right. No one gives a shit about mission statements.

“Cool,” says Tyler. “Good work, Evan. Really, really good.”

The Cindys nod. They hum the song as they tap their stacks of papers. Evan imagines laughing with Sarah about this as they drink tea and watch the water.

“More good news,” says Tyler. “Sales are up. Way up. People are just burning through cameras. They are obsessed with posterity. This comet is the best thing that ever happened to this company.”

The Cindys applaud. Evan applauds too. He isn’t really happy. He thinks this is terribly sad—all those people trying to hold onto the world, any way they can—but is still so stunned by the reception of his mission statement that he just claps without even realizing, just following what is happening around him.

Tyler continues to describe their increasing market share. Evan’s mind wanders. He thinks about the canal. He wonders about the life below. There were turtles once. Tilapia. Catfish. The water is so black and mottled with algae that it’s impossible to see beneath the surface. But the water birds still tiptoe along its banks. White Egrets. Blue Herons. Pink Spoonbills. There must be life in the water, to attract the birds. If only he could see what the birds see when they stab into the greasy water.

“Can our cameras be installed in animals?” Evan asks.

Tyler is frozen with his mouth agape. Evan thinks there must be a glitch in the connection. But then Tyler’s mouth snaps shut. He’s only been thinking.

“Ok,” says Tyler. “Good point, my bro. I hear you. There are always more markets to exploit. I’m going to get R&D right on it.”

“So it’s possible. We could give cameras to animals and download their feed.”

“Absolutely. Put them on dogs, cats, rats. Set them loose in the city. The military and police will love it.”

“What about birds?”

Tyler leans into the camera as if he’s trying to look through Evan’s eyes and into his brain. The Cindys stifle an embarrassed laugh.

“Don’t be ridiculous, dude,” says Tyler.

“What do you mean? Why is that ridiculous? If we can put them on rats?”

“Dude. Are you joking?”

Evan can’t imagine what could be funny about his question. He is getting annoyed with whatever this little game is. Maybe this is payback for his ridiculous mission statement. Maybe Tyler was only pretending to like it, to string Evan along until this moment of ridicule. But he doesn’t have that little squint to his eyes, the squint he usually gets when he’s, in his words, roasting Evan.

Evan looks over his computer to his sliding glass door. Mr. Feathers is looking in, his red bumps glimmering in the sunlight. He looks back to his computer to see if Tyler is smirking yet, but he seems serious in a way that fills Evan with rage. He breathes in through his nose and out through his mouth. “What, exactly, would I be joking about?”

“About birds, bro. You know they’re not real, right?”

“What are you talking about? Of course, birds are real. I am looking at one right now.”

At this, the Cindys lose their cool. They laugh a loud, hysterical choking laugh. Evan looks back and forth between them and the also laughing Tyler. They are saying something clearly in ridicule of Evan, but he can’t hear them. He can only hear the high-pitched ringing in his ears. He feels the blood throbbing at his temples, and his vision swirls. he closes his eyes and tries to find calm in the darkness. When he finally opens his eyes, he still sees black. But it is only his computer screen. Meeting ended by the host.

It’s wintertime. The best time to live in Florida. You can breathe the air without drowning. Go for walks with minimal risk of heat stroke. In a normal year, out-of-staters would be rolling into town about now. Snowbirds, they are called. Which is a cute name and makes them seem friendly. But they are not friendly. They are not cute. They should be called Snow Turds, Evan thinks and then he laughs a loud barking laugh that echoes through his home. He is embarrassed by the sound and feels guilty about the profanity. If he’s honest, he’s a little on edge and not just because of the asteroid.

It’s that meeting and what Tyler said. What does he mean, birds aren’t real? How is that even funny? Why would people say Snowbirds if birds aren’t even real?

He can see birds right now, right outside his window. He sees a pair of Spoonbills standing in knee-high canal water, muck swirling around their legs. It’s rare to see Spoonbills in town in the best of times. It’s practically a miracle to see them now. Watching them dig their bills back and forth in the muck, Evan can almost understand thinking they aren’t real. They look too prehistoric. Too alien. Like something only someone on drugs could dream up, with their shovel beaks and leathery faces. A young couple walks along the canal. Evan waits to see if they will stop to admire the birds, but they march past without so much as a glance. They wave their arms at each other, seem to be fighting. Evan imagines they are just too self-involved to notice the Spoonbills.

Something explodes in the distance, rattling Evan’s windows. The couple cover their heads a moment and then run off in opposite directions. The Spoonbills flap about, their hot pink feathers burning bright. They would be beautiful if it weren’t for their faces. When they settle, they seem to be looking directly at Evan. Their orange eyes knowing and judgmental.

The longer Evan looks at the birds, the more unreal they seem. Their steps seem stuttering, like glitchy streaming video. Why didn’t they fly away at the blast? Don’t birds fly away from loud noises?

The birds move down the canal and out of sight. Evan tries to hold their image in his mind, but he can’t. Only the orange eye is clear in his memory, and it frightens him. His little song for work starts looping in his thoughts, and he sings along. Eye watch you. You watch me. We are happy security. He sings it again and again until he collapses and blacks out.

Evan is standing. He doesn’t remember getting up. He is at his sliding glass door, hand gripping the cord that would open the verticals. Why? Why is he here? But then the screams. The screams on the other side of the door. He knows those screams. They are animal and familiar. He pulls the cord and opens his door. There, just at the edge of his patio, is a man and he is holding Mr. Feathers by the feet. Mr. Feathers is screaming. The man swings his arm, whips Mr. Feathers above his head, and is about to smash the duck against the ground when Evan flies out and tackles him. They crash into the Live Oak, and the man drops Mr. Feathers, who lies limp in the dirt. Evan’s knuckles are bleeding; he scraped them against the bark. The man is thrashing, scraping his face against the tree, trying to break free from Evan’s grip, but he can’t. Evan has him wrapped in his arms and he is squeezing and squeezing like a constrictor. He feels something crack. Probably the man’s ribs. The man is thin and brittle and breaks easily. “Stop,” gasps the man. “Please. Please stop.”

Evan lets go but only because he sees his friend crumpled in the dirt. He picks him up and cradles him like a baby. His wings flop open and dangle in loose zig-zags. His legs feel like socks filled with broken glass. He is suffering but alive. “Why?” asks Evan. “Why did you do this?”

The man is bent over, clutching his side. The air smells of blood and sewage. There is no breeze to move it, so the smell hangs over them, drips into their skin. “Do what, dude?” says the man. “What did I even do to deserve you going off on me like that?”

“What did you do?” Evan holds out Mr. Feathers in accusation, then pulls him close. Presses him to his heart. “You tried to murder this beautiful bird.”

“I’m hungry, man.”

“Buy food,” says Evan.

“With what? I’m laid off. There’s no jobs.”

“I’ve got a job.”

“Lucky you. You gonna give me food? Money?”

Evan thinks. He could help this man. He probably would except for what he did to Mr. Feathers. “No,” he says. “You don’t deserve help. You’re a monster.”

“I’m just a man. A man’s gotta eat.”

“But not like this. Not this bird!”

“Whatever, man. Birds aren’t even real.”

“What are you talking about? This is a bird. A duck is a bird.”

“That’s not a bird.”

“Yes, he is.”

“No, it’s not.”

By now, Mr. Feathers is starting to squirm. Evan wants to get him inside. Give him first aid. “You’re crazy. That’s all. You’re just crazy.” Evan carries Mr. Feathers to his patio, but the man lunges and grabs Evan’s leg. Evan is able to lay the duck on the patio floor, just out of reach. He turns back to the man, who has blood on his lips, spattered on his thin, white shirt. “Let go,” Evan says. “I mean it. Let go and get to a hospital.”

The man laughs, wet and rattling. He digs his fingers into Evan’s pantleg, rests his face against his shin. Evan is standing with his legs spread in a V, one leg on the patio, one in the dirt. “What hospital?” asks the man. “There’s no more beds left. No room at the inn.” The man laughs again, then winces in pain. He drops one hand from Evan’s leg to press it to his side.

Evan hears sounds of violence. It is everywhere. That’s what’s filling all the hospital beds. The violence. He needs to get back inside. He needs to tend to Mr. Feathers, and they will ride this out together, safe in his quiet, still home. He looks at the man’s bony fingers still gripping his pants. He is so angry. Angry that he’s done this. That he’s endangered them all. He steps easily out of the man’s grip and kicks him hard in the face. He picks up Mr. Feathers and carries him inside. He closes the door, draws the blinds. Everything will be fine now.

About the Author

Rachel Luria is an Associate Professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Wilkes Honors College. In 2023, she was selected for the Lighthouse Writers Workshop Emerging Writer in Fiction fellowship. In June 2018, she was the Artist-in-Residence in Everglades, where she composed original fables inspired by the wilderness of the Florida Everglades. Her nonfiction was named a Notable Essay of 2015 by the editors of Best American Essays and her work has appeared in Arts & Letters, CRAFT, The Normal School, Phoebe, Dash Literary Journal, and others.

Filed Under

Related Stories


Ashley Bao

Read now

Room for Rent

Richie Narvaez

Read now


Paul Crenshaw

Read now

Icicle People or The Lake Effect Snow Queen

Jasmine Sawers

Read now