It was 6:59 on the clock sitting on the nightstand of an outpatient room. The cold cry of the wind filtered through the seams of the windows, but it was not enough to wake the man lying on the gurney and the woman reclining in the chair next to him.
But then the clock hit 7:00 and a chubby female nurse entered the room, killing the hooker the man was fucking in his dream and silencing the baby the woman was holding inside hers. They both opened their eyes at the same time and entered the reality of their living world.
The man’s name was John Smith. He was thirty-seven, slightly overweight, slightly balding, and slightly bored with his marriage to the woman next to him. Her name was Meena, and although her three-syllable maiden name symbolized her family’s Indian heritage, her generic married name was the reason she’d almost planned to refuse to wed the man next to her. The only reason she said I do three years ago was because the man with the generic name had become an attorney, and she realized that she would never have to work a day in her life, until she became a homemaker, a job that made her work every day in her life.
Meena’s day usually consisted of adding birdseed to the backyard feeder, making breakfast for John, tackling a cleaning project such as vacuuming, dusting, or cleaning out the fridge, shopping for bargains, and preparing dinner. Now three years into her marriage, Meena was used to her new job; in fact she craved it. For her, repetition meant safety, and safety meant a long, happy life. However, today was unusual.
The chubby nurse saw John’s chest rising and falling quickly, his eyes darting around the room, his thumb twisting his wedding ring in circles.
“It’s okay,” the chubby nurse said, looking into his eyes.
John took a deep breath. Meena moved to his side and gripped his hand.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” he said, a quiver in his voice.
“We talked about this, honey,” Meena replied.
There was a brochure on the nightstand showing a gray-haired man smiling and holding a golf club. The title on the brochure read, “Testicular Cancer and You.”
Suddenly, the rook appeared at the window, perching on a light fixture. The cold wind ruffled his feathers as he watched the three bodies inside the room. He squawked, but the glass reflected back his cry.
The chubby nurse looked at the rook—his sharp beak, his black feathers, his piercing eyes.
“What’s wrong?” John asked.
“Just a bird,” she replied.
“Oh dear,” Meena uttered.
“What?” John said.
“I forgot all about the birdfeeder.”
John narrowed his eyes. “Really? You’re worried about the birds?”
Meena exhaled. “It’s what I do every morning, add seed to the birdfeeder in the backyard.”
“That thing is getting in the way of my golf swing. I was trying the other day to dig it up, but we don’t have a big enough shovel in the garage.”
“Don’t you dare touch that feeder. Those poor birds will get mad.”
“Why do you care about feeding the birds anyway?” he said.
“Because I like birds. I enjoy watching them eat.”
“I never see birds in our backyard.”
“I think a squirrel is eating all the seed. I never see birds either.”
“Then stop feeding them. We need to start saving money.”
“Start saving money? What are you talking about? It’s just birdseed,” she said.
He yanked on his patient ID band. “What kind of husband, what kind of man, am I going to be after this?”
“We’re going to take care of you,” the chubby nurse said. “The doctor explained that you will have implants inserted during this procedure.”
John started crying.
Meena wiped his tears with a tissue.
A male nurse entered and nodded at his colleague.
“It’s time,” the chubby nurse said.
The male nurse unlocked the bed. Meena leaned down, kissed her husband, and whispered, “You’ll always be my man.”
As the male nurse wheeled him out of the room, John locked eyes with the rook outside the window; his heart stopped.
“Ma’am, the procedure should take about two hours. You are more than welcome to have a seat in our waiting room,” the chubby nurse said.
“I live down the street. I’m going to run home,” Meena replied.
The chubby nurse gripped both her hands. “It’ll be fine. The doctor has performed this procedure hundreds of times. Mr. Smith is still going to be your husband, your man.”
Meena’s stomach sank. She exhaled and closed her eyes.
The chubby nurse saw the rook snap his beak outside the window before fluttering into the air.
He flew above the outpatient clinic and circled around the building. His stomach cried as he saw a group of pigeons on the roof pecking at something. The rook landed on a power transformer next to them. He squawked, scaring the pigeons away, and then pecked at the piece of rubber. He spat out the refuse and squawked even louder, his stomach twisting. The rook eyed an open door on the power transformer and the wires inside.
He launched into the air and saw a green car leaving the parking lot. He coasted alongside of it, watching the woman driving inside.
Meena pulled into her driveway and entered the silence of her home. After removing her jacket, she picked up the mail lying on the floor in front of the mail slot. On top of marketing postcards and coupon books was a letter addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith.”
The scent of her husband surrounded her. A shadow in the kitchen shifted.
“John?” Meena said, her brow furrowing.
She followed the trail of her husband’s scent into the kitchen, but suddenly it vanished. Meena opened the letter. She scanned the paragraphs, finding phrases such as “Diagnostic testing not covered,” “Insurance coverage Denied,” and “Patient responsible for 100%.” At the bottom of the letter, she read, “$113,419.87.”
The rook landed on a branch outside the kitchen window and saw the woman standing inside. He let out a cry.
Meena heard the bird and exhaled, setting the mail down on the table. She entered the pantry and filled up a scooper with birdseed.
The rook flapped his wings and squealed, his beak opening and closing.
Meena walked toward the back door when the curve of her husband’s face stopped her. She studied his warm smile, the shimmer of light inside his brown hair. The picture of her husband on the fridge tugged a tear from her eye.
A blue jay squawked outside another window.
Meena jumped, dropping the scooper. Thousands of tiny seeds rolled around the floor of the kitchen.
The rook attacked the blue jay, sending it flying.
Meena broke down. She began sobbing. The tears were too much for her eyes as they fell to the floor and connected a dozen seeds.
Meena dropped to her knees. At first, she used her hands to form a little pile of seeds, but she was getting nowhere. Meena crawled to the cabinet under the sink and grabbed the dustpan and broom. If she picked up every seed on the floor, the kitchen would return to normal, her life would return to normal.
As the minutes ticked by, Meena was not alone. The rook was perched outside the kitchen window, watching the woman crawling on the floor and picking up seeds—his seeds. The rook wished he could enter the home, hop around on the floor, and indulge in food. It seemed he could easily swoop in and feast, but he was not dumb like so many other birds; he knew a barrier was blocking entry into the room, an invisible barrier called a window by the humans. After a half hour, the rook flew into the air and circled the house.
As Meena finished sweeping, she grabbed the cordless vacuum and began sucking in every crevice—under the cabinets, next to the fridge, under the stove.
The rook soared into the air back to the outpatient clinic. His blood was boiling and not even the cold morning air could cool it.
Deep within the operating room, John lay on a cold table, surrounded by a half-dozen men and women in masks. An endotracheal tube was down his throat and was connected to a ventilator. The machine sucked in and out. A hose was connected to oxygen on the wall and a power cord was plugged into an outlet.
A doctor grabbed a scalpel next to a dish containing two synthetic testicles. He sliced open John’s scrotum. Blood oozed out.
The chubby nursed dabbed the area with gauze, slowing the bleeding. She looked at John; he remained detached, his mind off in some dreamless world.
On the roof, the rook landed on the open door of the power transformer. He saw the bird’s nest of cables and wires. His stomach let out a cry, which escaped through his beak. The rook dove inside the transformer and attacked the cables. Sparks flew and transferred through the bird, energizing him.
Inside the operating room, the doctor sliced off one of John’s testicles. Blood and cancerous matter surrounded it. Suddenly, the lights flickered, and then darkness filled the room. The ventilator turned off and the vital sign monitor died. Everyone froze, the sound of silence flowing through the room.
“Where’re the backup generators?” the doctor said.
Two low-wattage lights turned on. The ventilator started beeping.
“Why isn’t the battery kicking in?” the doctor continued.
The respiratory therapist started pressing buttons on the ventilator, and then pounded its side, but it simply mocked him with beeps.
“The patient is not breathing!” a female nurse shouted.
The chubby nurse checked his neck. “No pulse, Doctor!”
“Start compressions!” the doctor yelled.
The chubby nurse started compressing John’s chest; blood squirted from his severed scrotum. She looked into John’s half-open eyes and saw a tear form.
“What the fuck just happened!” the doctor shouted.
On the roof, the rook flew from the power transformer, a renewed energy in his wings. He flapped back to the house and landed on the same tree outside the kitchen window.
Meena was still on the floor, the cordless vacuum expelling its last breath. When the batteries died, she grabbed the main vacuum cleaner. As she snaked and sucked, the kitchen appeared to return to normal, but then one more little seed would pop out, hiding near the leg of the chair or in the stripe on the tile.
Meena had not eaten, had not even sipped water. And she had no clue how long she had been on the floor. She was almost done, almost back to normalcy. And then she seemed to have done the impossible. She stood in the middle of the kitchen, eyes searching the floor, the drone of the vacuum surrounding her. After thirty seconds without seeing a single seed, her mind said she was done. When she switched off the vacuum, the ring of a phone was echoing throughout the house. How long had it been ringing?
Meena grabbed her cell phone, but before she said a word, her gut said there had to be more seeds behind the fridge.
“Mrs. Smith?” the phone emitted.
Meena looked at the vacuum, squeezed the attachment in her hand, felt the phone against her ear, sensed the dried tears on her cheeks.
“Mrs. Smith? Are you there?” the phone continued.
She registered the voice. It was the chubby nurse. Suddenly, John flashed into her mind. She dropped the vacuum attachment. “Is John okay?”
“Ma’am, I was looking for you in the waiting room.”
“I’m at my house. I’m sorry. I just got sidetracked. Tell John that I’m on my way.” She looked around for her purse.
“Ma’am, it’s important that you get here,” the chubby nurse said.
“Just let me speak to him. I was trying to add some seed to the birdfeeder, but I had a little accident. The kitchen is all clean now.”
Meena walked into the living room as the rook followed her and landed on a lamppost outside the window.
“I’ll explain everything when you get here,” the chubby nurse continued.
Meena stared at her husband’s smile in a picture on the bookshelf. “Explain what?”
“I don’t want to do this on the phone.” There was a tremor in the chubby nurse’s voice, a tremor that twisted Meena’s stomach into a knot.
“Do what? What’s going on? Put my husband on the phone!”
“Ma’am, the power went out. We, uh…”
“Tell me what’s going on!” Meena shouted.
“He has… Oh God. Are you home? We’ll send someone over.”
Meena clenched her fist. “John has what?”
The chubby nurse remained mute.
“Tell me what the hell is going on!”
“The power went out… There was supposed to be a battery backup in the ventilator. They all should’ve been checked. We never do an operation without checking the battery in the ventilator.”
“Stop rambling!” Meena said.
“John has passed…”
Meena dropped the phone. She just talked to John; she just left his side. But when she glanced at the clock showing 9:25, she knew she hadn’t just talked to John and she hadn’t just left his side.
Another picture on the bookshelf caught her eyes. It showed a woman smiling, the wind seducing her dark hair. She was inside the arms of a man with a pudgy face and a gleaming smile. Meena knew the exact day, the exact time that the photograph had been taken. That’s because it was her and her husband, Meena and John Smith, the minute after the clock had struck the New Year.
The rook was still outside the living room window. He was beyond hungry, beyond sane. It was now eat or die, and the rook was not going to die. He watched the woman standing still.
The room began to spin. Meena fell to the floor, bashing her head into the side of the coffee table. She landed on the ground, face up. Blood ran down her neck. Meena was still awake. Her eyes were still open to the world. But there was something gravely different about her. Her mind was not there inside the body of the woman lying on the floor; it was trapped inside a void of white, a void without walls, without doors, without life. And the only way out of the emptiness was to find the man with the key.
The rook watched the woman pick herself up. As she moved up the stairs and into the master bedroom, the rook followed her, resting on the branch of the oak tree outside the window.
The woman’s lungs inhaled a deep breath, the scent of her husband lingering. She went into the bathroom, the rook still able to ogle her.
His and Her sinks took her focus. There were tubes of makeup around Her sink. A stick of deodorant was behind the faucet. The woman’s mouth released the word Ladies’, which was written on the label.
On His side were shaving cream, a razor, and aftershave. Her vocal cords repeated the word Men’s three times from the label on the deodorant next to the sink.
The rook watched the woman drop her sweatpants and remove her camisole. Only a tan-colored bra and panties covered her body. She put on His faucet, the sound of the water echoing inside the confined room. The woman’s hand grabbed the Men’s deodorant and began rubbing her underarms, the smell invigorating her senses.
Inside her mind, the white void still imprisoned her, but suddenly she could see her husband in the distance of the open space. He was wearing a hospital gown and he was running away. “John!” the voice in her mind shouted, but he was too far away. She lost sight of him.
A cold breeze ruffled the rook’s feathers, but he kept watching the woman staring at the running water in the bathroom, blood traveling down the side of her neck and her body. She wiped the blood with her fingers, and then ran her hand under the cold water. The color red swirled down the drain. She grabbed the can of shaving cream—the thick and rich kind, the kind that real men used every day, including her husband. She shot half the can into her palm, the mountain of foam falling onto the counter.
The spicy scent sent Meena’s mind into overdrive. She ran faster and faster.
The rook watched her lather her face, the colors of white and red mixing. Then she grabbed the razor. The motion seemed natural for her hand, as if it were part of her morning routine. But on the third pass, the razor sliced her chin. Blood escaped from the wound, yet the woman’s face remained emotionless.
As she opened the aftershave, her mind saw her husband. He was fifty yards away inside the vastness of white. Meena ran toward him. “John!” the voice in her mind yelled.
Her body in the bathroom slapped aftershave onto her face. The alcohol attacked the fresh wound on her chin, but her face didn’t flinch.
As her mind ran through the emptiness, her husband vanished into the void.
Inside the bathroom mirror, her eyes saw her husband ready for work standing behind her. But when she turned, it was only his black shirt, black tie, and black slacks hanging on the back of the bathroom door.
The rook’s belly let out a cry, but all he could do was watch the woman don the outfit hanging from the door—buttoning the shirt, hooking the pants, tightening the belt to its last loop. Then the woman flipped the tie through the hole and knotted it.
The clothes caressed her skin, wrapping her body with John. The smells of his sweat and cologne hiding inside the fabric stimulated her mind and took her closer and closer to the man she pined. Meena could see him running in front of her, twenty feet away. She was approaching him, trying to surpass his speed, yet she was not gaining any ground. “John! John!” her mind shouted.
Inside the bathroom, her eyes saw a bottle of pills on the counter. Her vocal cords formed the words on the label, “John Smith. Ibuprofen 800 milligrams. Take one tablet for pain only as needed.”
The rook watched the woman pop the lid off the bottle. She put one pill into her mouth.
Her mind was catching up to John. He was only ten feet away.
Her hand tossed two pills into her mouth, then three, and then dumped the whole bottle inside, her teeth chewing.
The rook watched the tablets pouring from the bottle. He opened and closed his beak rapidly, an instinct ingrained into him as a helpless youngling, dependent on his mother for food, for survival. And although he depended on the woman in this house for food, she was now the antithesis of his mother.
The woman’s eyes closed.
Her mind saw John. He stopped running and turned to her. She caught up to him, her crutch, her husband, her life. His green eyes were warm, his smile inviting. He was wearing a suit and tie, polished and primed, just as she remembered him every morning.
“Let’s go back to bed,” he said, his warmth settling her senses.
Meena turned and saw their bed in the middle of the white void. She walked with John and lay in their bed, staring at the white surrounding her, nestled next to her husband. She was warm, relaxed, his masculine scent lulling her. She wanted to stay here with him forever.
The rook watched the human dressed in black skulk to the bed. At first, he questioned whether it was the woman or the man of the house. But the baggy clothes and the slicked hair could not fool him. The woman was all alone inside the cold, dark room. The rook shrieked and flapped his wings violently, feathers flying into the air.
The woman lay lifeless.
The rook pecked the glass of the window.
She ignored him.
He pecked harder, using all of his energy. He channeled his fury into his beak. Without food, he would perish. Peck after peck hit the window, and then finally the dagger penetrated the glass. A spider web traversed from the entry point. The rook pecked again; the glass shattered.
The cold from the outside rushed into the house. The rook squawked as he swooped into the room he had watched morning after morning. He landed on the black tie the woman was wearing. He wanted her to wake, to feed him, but seed was not enough to curb the hunger festering inside him. The rook hopped up on her face, his claws digging into her skin. White foam bubbled from her mouth. The look of death was in her eyes. The rook squawked. His belly needed food.
Downstairs, the front door burst open. A police officer stormed inside as the chubby nurse followed him.
“Mrs. Smith!” the chubby nurse shouted, listening for a response, but only the sound of silence returned. She noticed blood on the carpet.
“Mrs. Smith?” she said, this time a shiver in her voice.
The police officer could only watch, his heart pounding.
The chubby nurse looked into the kitchen. Sweat formed on the back of her neck. The vacuum was standing in the middle of the cleaned floor. Meena’s cell phone was lying under the kitchen chair.
A cold breeze filled with death crossed her neck. She looked upstairs, and then shared a glance with the officer.
The chubby nurse crept toward the bedroom, the cold air gripping her. She peeked inside and saw a body in the bed. The smell of aftershave punched her. She wanted to say the woman’s name, but she couldn’t. As she stepped into the room, she saw a black dress shirt, slacks, and a tie covering the person in the bed. As she moved closer, she saw the slender body of a woman.
A movement caught her.
As she approached, she saw the rook near the woman’s face. Then it all hit her—the blood, the foam bubbling from Meena’s mouth. The chubby nurse jumped on the bed. Meena’s left eye was missing; the rook was pecking out her right.
“Get away!” the chubby nurse shouted, lunging at the bird. She was inches from clutching him, but the rook fluttered around the room, squawking.
The chubby nurse held Meena, but her body was cold, lifeless. “Wake up!” she cried.
The officer ran into the room and fired his pistol at the rook. One blast hit the ceiling and another pierced a picture of Meena and John on the wall.
“Help me move her to the floor!” the chubby nurse yelled.
They moved Meena onto the floor. The chubby nurse started compressing her chest. There was a tear in Meena’s eye, a tear in the same shape as her husband’s.
The rook escaped through the window unscathed and perched on the branch. His belly was still not full.
The rook watched the nurse working on the woman, but he was done with this home, with this neck of the woods. The rook flapped away from the house and toward the outpatient clinic.
An ambulance was parked out front. Two paramedics were wheeling a gurney toward the back of the vehicle. A white sheet covered the patient, but his cold left hand dangled off the side of the gurney.
The rook recognized the glimmer of the ring on the left hand. He swooped down toward the gurney, but the paramedics swung their hands.
The gurney bounced, John’s body shaking. Suddenly, one of his testicles rolled off the gurney.
“Get out of here, damn bird!” one of the paramedics shouted.
The rook hopped between their legs.
“Get away!” the other paramedic screamed, kicking.
The rook snuck around them and stabbed John’s testicle on the ground.
The paramedics stopped dead and watched the bird fly to the top branch of a tree with his prize.
The rook pecked past the cancerous tissue and devoured the meat of John’s testicle. His belly was finally full.
The rook soared to the top of a mountain overlooking the entire town. He landed inside a nest where four younglings chirped and opened their beaks. The rook regurgitated a concoction of Meena’s eyeball and John’s testicle and dropped equal pieces into the mouths of the younglings.
A female rook landed in the nest and rubbed against him. Her beak was smaller, her eyes less piercing, but her feathers were just as dark. She opened her beak wide as he vomited a bloody mixture into her mouth. The rook extended his wing, protecting his family while they filled their bellies.