I owed him my life, and then one day, he came to claim it. The card arrived first, announcing his intention to visit. In appearance, it was no different from the last birthday card, or the one before that, or any other card he had sent: the same stiff over-square envelope licked carefully from end to end, then fastened down with clear tape; the same loopy flourish on the first letter of my name— not my real name, mind you, but the one he always used for me—as if outlining a sketch for a gilded manuscript. The card, the handwriting, everything was the same in every detail, except it was not my birthday.
It was the day after Christmas in places where people cared about such things, and the mail had been delayed as a result. A day, two days, a week … when you lived upriver, you learned not to rely on such things. Time passed like the currents. At times slow. At times quick enough to pull you under. Ten minutes earlier, I had waved at the postman’s boat from my stunted dock, clipped a leash to Reginald’s collar, and chained shut the door.
“Where you go?” demanded Jazmin the parrot, a perfect mimic of my own voice.
“The store, Jazmin. Just the store,” I replied, and Jazmin seemed to lose interest, tucking her beak under her wing. I had named her my real name ten years ago when I first arrived, so at least I could say it aloud.
On a good day, without Reginald’s eternal campaign of pissing on every tree and post, I could run the mile-long trail into town and arrive ahead of the mail boat. Today my leg was playing up, and by the time I arrived, the mail had already been delivered in the neat rows of identical green buckets which stood in for post boxes. I caught my breath while I watched the mail boat churn the water to foam and pull back out into the current. The travel-battered vegetables that now lined the rickety shelves gleamed fresh with spray from the river.
Reginald splashed his feet in the water bowl, turning it the color of miso soup. “All good up your end?” asked Harv, the storekeeper, without taking his eyes from his betting form. It didn’t need a response. It was always all good up my end of the river.
That was when I saw the birthday card. I didn’t need to open it to know what it meant, but I feigned something approaching the small joy one might expect at seeing it there in my post-bucket, the third from the left. I had only come for milk, but I took two baskets from the stack near the door and filled them with canned tomatoes, drinking water, cauliflower, carrots, chicken stock, the makings of a feast, and the best bad wine Harv had. It was enough to seem welcoming but heavy enough to be a burden.
“I might take Reginald on the long trail, Harv,” I said, handing him my credit card. It had the name of a stranger, but it always worked, and if ever it didn’t, another would arrive in the mail. Same loopy handwriting. Same square envelope. “Say… there’s a friend coming in on the ferry. You mind asking him to bring the groceries up when he comes?”
“Looks like he’s turning into someone special?” said Harv. He wiped the shoulder of the wine in search of a price. Whatever it was worth when he bought it, I bet it was worth five times that now. He showed me the faded sticker and the paltry sum of twenty dollars just to be sure I was okay with paying so much.
“He’s just an old friend,” I offered. “Nothing more than that.”
Through the smudged window, I could already see the ferry rounding the bend. It was a long way off, and the current was against it, but as soon as it hit the inside bend, it would hug the shore and pick up the pace. Eleven knots might not seem that fast, but it was the relentlessness I couldn’t match.
I untangled Reginald’s leash from around his feet and jogged back along the trail. If the sender of my birthday card were on the ferry, he wouldn’t be able to see my house just yet. The groceries would buy me twenty more minutes if he didn’t suspect anything was up. But I had to be waving at him from my usual spot on my dock, or he would know for sure that something was wrong.
“Time to go,” I told Jazmine as soon as I reached the house.
I opened the door to her cage, sliced open a bag of seed, and hurled great handfuls into the air as far away from the house as possible. It filtered through the leaves where the trees fell away steeply to the river. He would kill her first – I was certain of that. With her voice the same as mine and my name unaltered and comprising one-tenth of the bird’s entire vocabulary, he wouldn’t be able to resist the symbolic punishment. Hopefully, Jazmine would be out of sight on the rocks below. At least this way, she would have a chance. I tied Reginald to the front door and reached the dock just as the ferry came into view. For a moment, I harbored the notion that he might not be on it – that he might somehow have forgotten the debt I owed or seen my diminished self as a currency no longer in use. But then I saw him, the sun glinting off his white hat.
I waved. He waved back.
My heart was pounding. The adrenalin already telling me what to do. I counted my breaths. Tried not to look hurried. I made myself saunter back up the stairs to the house, knowing he was watching. Then, when the ferry passed out of sight behind the headland, I unclipped Reginald from the door, and we fled through the woods together.