Johanna wakes to a white-bellied blur, a frantic smudge of a bird looping the motel room. It jerks sideways, something hunting or hunted, bounces off the window and scrabbles at the mirror. Its wings pop so loudly, the sound ricocheting off the pressboard walls, that at first she thinks there are dozens of them. Hundreds.

“Get the window.” Her voice is wet with sleep. She elbows Thomas lightly and he sits up. “Open it, let it out.”

But he is already out of bed, chasing the bird around the room in nothing but his socks. He is thinner than ever; his legs: sticks; his stomach: a wrung sponge. Light from the cracked window pools in his hips. Johanna pulls the blanket up over her head but he grabs one corner and tugs until she tumbles off the bed.

She is thinner too, her breasts small and peaked in the night air. But her hips are still wide, her thighs strong as ever. She stands, pulling the blanket tight and holding it over her head. 

“Higher,” she says and their arms swing in sync. They come around the bird, keeping it between the blanket and the window. It flies in a cramped circle, tighter and tighter as they shuffle forward, glances off the window pane. It dives straight into the blanket, trying to pierce the thin cotton with its beak.

Johanna gropes behind her with one hand, finds the doorknob. She twists and the door jumps open. They shake the blanket until the bird zigzags out.

They stand laughing in the open doorway, naked, sweating, starting to shiver, trying to watch the bird fly away, losing it against the clouds. The parking lot is scattered with old cars and RVs angled haphazardly between the evenly-spaced, perfectly parallel white lines. A tall patch of ragweed and a chain link fence, then the mumbling highway stretching from dark to dark between bubbles of grainy yellow streetlight. A caravan of early morning delivery trucks rumbles past, downshifting up the hill to the black silhouette of the hospital.

Johanna’s laugh fades first. “I don’t like sleeping through the night,” she says.

“Sometimes she’d wake us up every hour. Remember?”

“Don’t use that word. Not about her. I don’t want to have to.”

Thomas wraps her in the blanket, in himself. Waiting for her to tell him what to do. Close the door. Walk her back to the bed. Curl against her in the quiet, watch sleep hover overhead, as if suspended by strings from the ceiling just out of reach.

Caleb Ludwick

Caleb Ludwick's debut collection of stories, The First Time She Fell was a finalist for Book of the Year from Foreword Review. For the past decade, he has worked with agencies nationwide as lead writer honored by the American Institute of Graphic Arts, New York Type Director's Club, and permanent inclusion in the Smithsonian National Design Museum. Caleb attended the Yale Writers Workshops and was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers Conference.

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