For months afterward, everyone asked you where you were the night that the birds flew over the town. They blacked out the sky and filled the streets of tranquil neighborhoods with a husky warble that coalesced into a great monotonous drone. In the morning there was more than one telephone line down across the city. If Clare hadn’t been in the right place at the right time, she would have missed it entirely.
She hadn’t even known there were that many birds in August, a dry, dusty town on the edge of the Uinta Basin. When you wanted to talk about August, you either talked about the Uinta Basin, where two ranchers had seen the ghost of a direwolf twenty years before (“the most haunted place in Utah!” people said with a touch of pride), or the bank downtown, which a thrifty developer had sent through the mail, brick by brick. But one evening in April, she heard shouting coming from downstairs.
She looked up from the letter she was reading. The creases were worn. She’d committed it to memory by the fifth time reading it. In her other hand, she held her grandmother’s sapphire ring. She’d received it on her sixteenth birthday, almost an afterthought next to the beautiful Waterford crystal vase her mother had been saving for the occasion. She hoped that impression was correct. An afterthought. Just a by-product of another generation, or something they’d happened to own, like a laundry machine or a spatula. She hadn’t quite convinced herself yet, but if she didn’t save up soon she would have to sell it. The deadline to register at Portland State was coming up.
She put the letter down and slowly descended the stairs. Mom and Leah stood at odds in the half-light of the dark entryway, Mom’s gravelly voice clashing against Leah’s high-pitched whine. The TV buzzed in the background, on a break from one of the police dramas her mother liked to watch, a series of ads taking its place temporarily. Corky’s Pest Control! 1-800-901-1102! Delco! Bringing the future to you!
“You can’t be serious.” Mom said.
Leah shot back. “I am completely serious!”
“I don’t see what the point is. I’m not going to let you go around, risking getting in trouble with the law.”
Leah scoffed. “The law? You couldn’t care less about me ending up on some police officer’s bad side. You just care about your job.”
Both were red-faced, too involved in the argument to notice her. Clare coughed softly to alert them to her presence. “What’s going on?” she asked.
They both turned to face her. Leah’s unlaced boots were still on her feet. She had on the same blue t-shirt she’d been wearing the past few days, screen-printed with the words “Save the Birds”. Underneath the words was a cartoon of a blue grosbeak, looking determinedly forlorn. Mom had carelessly pulled her hair out of its tight ponytail after she’d gotten home from word and piled it into a messy up-do with strands. An alligator clip stuck out at an odd angle.
“Your sister has decided that she’s an activist now.” Each of Mom’s words leveled disdain at Leah. “You should see what she’s put up on the fridge.”
Clare turned and squinted. Leah had taped a newspaper clipping of Delco Gas & Electric’s announcement up, with the sort of tape that would leave a mark when you tried to pull it off. Which Mom had, judging from the tugged-up corners. She realized she didn’t need to read the small print to know what it said; words had already gotten around that Delco was planning to raze the birds’ breeding ground and put up another power plant and “distribution facility”.
“Can you talk some sense into her?”
Clare was struck by the wavering that crept into her voice. This was a woman who cut red onions without wiping at her eyes, tossed knobbly half-moons into curries laden with cayenne. She wasn’t used to giving in, not to Leah or anyone. Yet the older she got the more Clare noticed the dark circles under her eyes, the caked-on makeup, the pliancy of her resolute will.
“Talk some sense into me? I’m not four years old!”
Clare turned to Leah, eyebrows raised. She started to speak, but Leah cut her off.
“Look, all I’m saying is that I care more about nature than the endless developments in this city. And you should too, you both should.”
“I don’t care?” Mom fixed steely gray eyes on both of them. “I don’t care? You’d better start believing that I do care―maybe not in your birds, but there are things I care about too.”
“Oh, maybe being able to provide for my daughters. I think you should probably care a little more about that.”
“But you don’t care that I could lose my job if my boss at Delco sees you on the news?”
“They wouldn’t,” said Leah quietly.
“Legal assistants are a dime a dozen around here, Leah. They’d have a new one in two days.”
Clare tried to change the subject. Another thing had been on her mind all night, one she’d been trying to broach for weeks.
“Mom…the deposit…we have to pay it in two days.”
Her mother turned the steel fully onto her, so that Clare could feel its force drawing her in. “Later.”
“Fine. I can see I’m not needed here. Let me know when you’re done arguing.” She walked back up the stairs, anger peppering her throat, and made up her mind.
She left the house, slamming the door hard. The light around her seemed to have taken on a dusky, red quality, like a nascent sandstorm had come down from the hills and was beginning to swirl around her, waiting for its chance to spin out and engulf everything around it. She turned the corner at Harpwell and Green and headed left, not stopping until she got to the pawnshop.
It had to be worth something, didn’t it? She’d kept the acceptance to herself for two weeks after receiving it, trying to conceive of a plan that wouldn’t send her mother into a tailspin of worry. Mom had ferreted it out almost immediately on pure instinct, assured her it would all be okay. What a lie, Clare thought bitterly. She knew this was a petulant thing to do, but she didn’t care.
The bell tied to the door echoed hollowly as she squeezed inside the door, which seemed permanently stuck so that it could swing no more than a quarter open. No one else was inside, save for a boy behind the glass counter. He was holding a plastic black box, examining it from every angle, slowly and deliberately. Clare walked up to the counter, drew the ring out of her pocket, and plunked it onto the glass. The small sapphire glinted in the halogen light.
“Hullo,” the boy said, drawing his eyes away from the box reluctantly.
“How much can you give me for this ring?” she asked. She was aware she sounded rude, but it didn’t matter.
“You work here, don’t you? How much can you give me for this ring?”
“I don’t do that.”
“You don’t do what?”
“Look, I don’t know how. And the owner’s not here. You’re welcome to leave it here, if you want.”
She snatched the ring back and stuck it in her pocket, cheeks burning. Was she the sort of person who made ridiculous demands now? “No, I can’t just leave it here.”
“Have it your way, then. She’s here on Tuesday evenings, Thursday evenings, and all day Saturday and Sunday. Come back then.”
He sighed and turned back to the plastic box he was toying with. Clare studied his face. He had a rash of freckles sloping over his nose, coming to rest fully over rounded cheekbones. His eyes were a muddy brown streaked through with gray, framed by loose black curls. He couldn’t be more than seventeen years old; she supposed he must go to the high school across town.
“What are you looking at?” he asked.
“Oh―sorry.” She hadn’t meant to stare. She felt the sandstorm swirling at her feet subside, and blood rush into her face to take its place. To distract him, she pointed to the box. “What’s that?”
She’d had never seen anyone shed surliness so fast. His frown disappeared, replaced by a lopsided grin. She leaned in, resting her elbows on the counter. Suddenly she was in even less of a hurry to get home.
“It’s a Holga!” he said.
“A camera.” He turned the box around. Now she could see the lens sticking up from the main body, an ungraceful cylinder jutting away from the rectangle that formed the main frame. A cheap sticker set above the lens, peeling from all four corners, proudly proclaimed “Holga 120N”. Clare was astounded. She was used to seeing tourists’ and classmates’ beautiful, sleek DSLRs, not rudimentary plastic cameras that looked like they’d fall apart in her hands.
“I’ve never seen a camera like that. Where did it come from?”
“China. Or Hong Kong. It’s based off an older Soviet camera called the Lomo. Ever heard of that one?”
“No,” Clare said, vaguely feeling like she was being tested. The acceptance letter burned in her back pocket. Look at all the things beyond this town you have no awareness of!
“Neither did I,” he said, smiling easily. “I had to look it up by the words on the front,” he continued. “They made it back when 120 film was super cheap to make, so working-class people could capture special moments, but by the time it got into production, boom!” He slapped one hand against the counter for effect. “Photography moved on.”
“So how did this one get here?” she asked, interested in spite of herself.
“Someone dropped it off last week. I’m not even sure why we bought it.” He turned it around so she could see―or not see, more accurately―the hairline crack between the main frame of the camera and the slot where you put the film in. “Look at the width of that slat.”
“It’s not that large.” She tilted her head. Isn’t it supposed to be like that?
“Makes a big difference on film. This camera’s famous for light leaks. And other distortions.” He clicked the door open. “Luckily, I just got the film for it, so I can start testing it out. Not like I have anything better to do around here.” He produced a roll of shiny black film from beneath the register and in one deft motion inserted it into the back of the camera. The film slid smoothly into place. The boy quickly shut the door―to prevent the light from destroying the film all at once, she supposed.
“I should probably tape the door shut, but I want to see what it looks like with the natural leaks first.” He walked out from behind the counter and passed through the aisle closest to the window, pausing in front of each object sitting on the wooden shelves, considering one, ruling it out, over and over. An antique vase, a bunch of silk magnolias, a large blue teapot with a crack in the lid. Finally he selected a small figurine of a cypress. Clare blinked as the camera flashed.
Then he whirled around to face the window. An old dreamcatcher hung suspended from a nail pushed into the drywall above the sill, its turquoise beads illuminated in the sunset. One string had loosened from the circular frame, but the others held taut. He wound the film and snapped a quick photo of the dreamcatcher too, catching its slow, listing arc.
“Can I see them?”
He smirked. “Sure, when they’re developed. Try Sunday. The owner will be here then too, so you can sell that ring of yours.” He sidled back behind the counter. “What are you so anxious to sell it for, anyway?”
Clare’s stomach burned. “A chance at getting out of here,” she said, turning on her heel and walking out.
When she got home, Leah was upstairs in their shared bathroom running a brush through her thick, tangled hair like she wanted to pull it all out. She didn’t turn her head as Clare slid the bottom drawer of the old jewelry box open and deposited the ring safely on the threadbare satin. Clare slid the drawer closed gently, taking her time with it, waiting. Sooner or later, Leah always had something to say.
Clare examined her sister’s impassive face in the mirror. She dampened a washcloth and ran it over her face, removing the remainder of her mascara in thick black streaks. Finally she turned to leave. A voice thick with disappointment filled the small bathroom.
“Could’ve used your help, you know.”
She turned around to face Leah. “How?”
“Mom listens to you more than she listens to me.”
“That’s because I don’t take sides. You do. ”
“Okay, sure. Blame it all on me being a ‘know-it-all’. I’m just trying to stand up for something I believe in. Like you’d know that feeling!” Clare felt her mouth fall open, but Leah continued. “What do you even need to go to college for, if you’re so brilliant anyway?”
She tried to muscle past Clare, but Clare caught her arm. “First of all―”
She could see Leah deflate, her shoulders hunch in, and see the inaudible intake of breath as she rose up again and composed herself.
“Sorry. But you know that’s why she’s on edge.”
“Because I’m going to college?” Clare let out a sigh. “Most parents would be happy. And I don’t know. She doesn’t seem to care. I need to pay the deposit soon and she refuses to talk about it.”
“Yeah. Look, I get why you’re frustrated. Mom doesn’t listen to most people.”
“Yes, and that’s the entire problem!”
Leah shook Clare’s hand away. Her eyes lit up. “Yes! Maybe I came on a little strong. But the point is to make people listen. To say something. Or save something.”
“And you’re going to start with a bird’s nest? And then what?”
“That’s not the question. The question is what happens if we don’t.” Clare leaned against the closed bathroom door and crossed her legs, waiting for an answer. Leah thought for a second, tilting her head to the left.
“It’s…what we could be. No one listens to anyone anymore.”
“I don’t know how that factors in, Leah.”
“Okay, well, where did you learn about the dinosaurs they excavated from the hills?
Strange question, but Clare bit. “The Natural History Museum, I guess.”
“And what else?”
“I don’t remember.”
“You don’t!” Leah slammed her hand down on the counter. “No one does. All anyone remembers is the oil and gas companies coming in and taking over, before either of us were born. There aren’t any other stories.” She straightened up and looked Clare dead in the eyes. “So now we’re a truck stop on a highway, and we have weird fake dinosaurs, and we make fun of history and deliver crappy geology lessons to ten-year-olds who stop for Hot Pockets on their way to the ski resorts. Aren’t you tired of that? Don’t you want to stand for something?”
Clare ended up going back to the pawnshop on Sunday. She still had the ring in her pocket, wrapped in a small piece of black fabric she’d cut from an old tank top. Truth be told, she still hadn’t decided whether or not to sell it, but she still found herself ambling toward the pawnshop after her waitressing shift at Benny’s Parlor downtown. Halting, meandering steps conspired to carry her in its direction. Leah’s words bounced around in her head, though she hadn’t seen her sister since Wednesday night.
Behind the counter was a plump woman with thick brown hair cut short, wisping in small curls around her head and framing her face. She turned around to greet Clare with a wide grin.
“Hi. What can I do for you?”
“Hi.” Clare stepped inside and closed the door gently. “I’m Clare.” Introductions seemed like the place to start with this woman, since she’d been so rude to the boy last time.
The woman smiled even wider. Clare could see that some of her red lipstick had rubbed off onto her perfectly white, if slightly crooked, teeth. She didn’t seem like the self-conscious type, though, more like someone to whom the possibility of smearing her lipstick like that wouldn’t have occurred. Clare already liked her intensely.
“I’m Debbie. Come to buy or sell?”
“Sell.” Clare took the ring out of her pocket and laid it on the counter. The sapphire was unbelievably lovely, she thought, as she laid it down on top of its makeshift pouch on the counter once more. Her hand shook a little as she withdrew it.
Debbie thought so too. “That’s gorgeous. I’ll have to inspect it. Mind if I take it in back real quick? Be back in a jiffy.”
“Fine with me,” Clare said.
Debbie picked the ring up gingerly and disappeared through a door that she hadn’t seen before. She waited dutifully for a few minutes until her legs started to stiffen. She took to wandering around the aisles.
A large framed watercolor of the Uinta Mountains hung at the back of the shop. The mountains were purple at the tips, fading into the grey-blue of ancient rock at sunset. The sparse desert stretched out from the mountains’ base. A couple of old toy car models, chrome fenders bending out proudly before them, sat on the shelf closest to the counter. The dreamcatcher swung lazily on its frayed leather string, groaning softly under the weight of its long feathers.
She was so engrossed in watching the slow shifts of the dreamcatcher that she jumped when the shop bell rang again and the boy she’d seen before walked in. She turned around quickly. He smirked, and she glared in reply.
“Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to startle you,” he said. “Actually, I’m glad you’re here.” He drew an envelope out from under his arm. “Want to see these? They’re pretty fantastic.”
“The photos from the other day?” she asked.
“Yep. Picked them up just now.”
“I’d love to,” Clare said.
He spilled them onto the counter. Inside the envelope were several prints she didn’t explicitly recognize as the ones that he’d taken in her presence. A dog, the reflection of an eye.
“Can I look through them?” He nodded.
She sifted through the glossy prints until she found the two that he had taken the first time she visited, and caught her breath. In the first, the figurine of the cypress stood to one side of the foreground. The edge of the shelf it sat on led the viewer’s eyes backward, until they reached Clare herself, standing in stasis at the other end. She hadn’t realized he had photographed her too. Half of her face was illuminated by a bright shaft of light falling across the bridge of her nose. The photo as a whole had darkened corners, like a vignette, an effect she had never seen occur in an unedited photo like this.
And the dreamcatcher! Clare held it up to her face to examine it more closely. He had been right about the light leaks in the camera. The entire circle of the dreamcatcher drifted through the photo, dancing in auras of black and white. Some spaces in the circle were white, so that you couldn’t make out anything but the dark threads strung together, and in others brilliant orange light shone through, dappled with white. The street angled out toward her subdivision in the background, catching the low outline of the mountains. The twilight far away contrasted with the sable that spread delicately over the top of the frame.
Clare loved it instantly. She wondered if he had any film left to experiment with. She’d never seen anything like it, and she hungered for more.
She sifted through them, awed by the way lighting and leaks could change the look of a dog in the street, the sun coming over the mountains, even the look of fresh pavement. The boy looked over her shoulders while she sorted through them, commenting on a few, including the dreamcatcher.
“That one’s not bad. Not a huge fan of the leaking, though. I taped up the camera after that.”
“You should untape it. The effect is amazing,” she said. “Unexpected. Gorgeous.”
“Talking about that camera again?” Debbie said, walking back through the office door.
Clare put the photo down. Her heart pounded. “So…what about the ring?”
“It’s not worth much, I’m afraid,” Debbie said, folding it into the black fabric and spilling it back into her hands. “Beautiful, truly, but there’s a small flaw in the sapphire. Sorry, dear.” Clare slid it back into her pocket. “You should keep it anyway. Family heirloom?”
“Wonderful things. Not something to lose, if one can avoid it,” Debbie said, furrowing her eyebrows. There was a sadness in her voice, but she didn’t continue.
Clare stroked the ring in her pocket, remembering her grandmother twisting it around her finger absentmindedly while she read. Book after book, insatiable. Clare’s mother kept some of those books in the house―the diaries of Anais Nin, e.e. cummings’ poetry, large bound copies of Neil Simon plays. Stuff they didn’t read, but kept on top of shelves in large, haphazard piles. A rush of relief washed through her. She’d have to find the money to register another way, but Debbie was right.
“But look at these photos!” Debbie had moved on to examining them. “I told Liam that camera was no good. I’m convinced otherwise now. Good thing he tested them.”
“Only one,” said Liam sheepishly.
“What about the other one, then?”
“There’s another?” said Clare. She couldn’t describe why she wanted it, but she did.
“Yep, sitting in the office. Apparently,” she said, glancing at Liam and mocking a stern glare, “it hasn’t been tested yet, so it’s yours for ten dollars if you want it.”
“I’ll develop the film for you,” Liam said.
“How?” she said. “And…why?”
He shrugged. “There’s a lab in Salt Lake I can mail them to. Just do me a favor. Get into trouble. Have some fun.”
At first she concentrated on small details. A sudden piece of glass on the sidewalk. A nickel caught in the act of dropping into a music box at the history museum, her fingers hovering just above the frame. For Leah, she went to Dinosaur Land and selected the gaudiest dinosaur she could find, a T-Rex made of thin sheets of metal and painted a cloying pastel pink. She knelt below it―at the base of the white and red primroses the docents had planted to frame the monstrous construction―put her eye to the viewfinder, and tilted her head up and back until the dino’s head was level with the bottom of the frame. Without winding the film up again, she went into the foyer of the Natural History Museum and took a shot of the fragments of dinosaur bones sitting in a glass case.
She gave the film to Liam on Fridays to have it developed, and got it back the following Wednesday or Thursday. When he returned this batch, she found that the one of the dinosaur was her favorite. The double exposure had produced a shot of the pink dinosaur’s gaping slash of a mouth, the sun shining through it. The bone fragments were jumbled at the base of the dinosaur’s neck, stretching into it, and their yellow discoloration bled into the candy-pink. Clare turned it over and over in her hands, looking at all the corners and angles where it bled into the black vignette the Holga produced so well. She almost couldn’t believe she had taken that one herself. It seemed to insist that there was another just beyond the boundaries of the photograph that she had missed. She returned to Dinosaur Land a couple more times after that, just to try to reproduce it, but she never could.
When she found that she was content with all of the small bits of the city she’d photographed, she graduated to experimenting with people. Leah, penciling in her eyebrows and puckering her lips. Liam, at the pawnshop counter. Debbie, a small chick she had hatched sitting in her cupped hands.
Clare loved these photos. They made her think of the multitudes of worlds contained in the ten-square-mile radius of August. It started to seem so much bigger, shaking itself out from the dust it languished in. Breathing suddenly, vitally.
One Sunday morning she drifted down the stairs, drawn there by the scent of cinnamon, and found her mother making French toast, methodically soaking brioche in eggs and cinnamon, transferring it to a sizzling pan, then again to the waiting plate on the kitchen table once the slices were cooked.
Clare sat and watched, tracing her fingers over the cherries on the cheap plastic tablecloth.
Her mother turned, grinned, and went back to her careful assembly. She hadn’t been so relaxed in ages, Clare thought. She snapped a photo, her mother so unreactive to it at first that she thought she hadn’t heard her winding the film or taking the picture.
The disagreements had been getting worse. Tension greeted Clare the moment she walked in the door, most days. Her mother and Leah didn’t speak more than twenty words a day to each other. When they did talk, one would stop in the middle of their sentences, afraid even to skirt the subject of the birds accidentally. They’d drop the conversation instead. The sharp pauses, Clare thought, carried the weight of something worse.
She wolfed down a couple pieces of toast, slathering them in butter and syrup. Mom dropped down into the seat across from her. “Can I have that photo once you get it developed?”
Clare looked up at her, startled. “Sure.” She reached for another large slice.
“You sound surprised! I guess seeing it would be enough.” Her mom laughed.
“I guess I just didn’t know you’d want it,” Clare said.
“Well, why not.” Her mom looked at the small, toylike camera swinging around her daughter’s neck. “No one’s taken a photo of me in ages…Where are you getting these developed, anyway?”
“I have a friend who does it for me.” Clare stuffed a forkful into her mouth to avoid any more questions. She hadn’t introduced Liam to her mother yet.
“Nice of them to do that. Same one who gave you the camera?”
“No, I bought it from the pawn shop on 42nd.”
“Ah, Clare.” Mom sighed. She nibbled at a bite of the French toast she’d made and sifted through the pile of mail that was always sitting at the edge of the table. “Something else is going on in your head, I can see it. You’re a steel hummingbird. Nerves like a trapdoor, energy like a madman. Determined to get somewhere.” She put the pile down―bills, Clare could see―and stared glassily toward the stove. “Both my children are. Hard to know what to think of it. I don’t suppose you know where your sister is?”
“I’ll text her. She’ll probably answer. I’ll get the photo developed. And a couple others you might like,” Clare said hastily.
“Thanks,” Mom said, lurching up like she’d forgotten time was passing. “I’ve got to get to church.”
Clare switched back to landscapes shortly after. Subjects didn’t always want to stay in their frames.
One afternoon she asked Liam to take her out beyond the city limits. She wanted to get closer to the mountains. The snow had begun to melt off in rivulets, revealing small spots of black, brown, and gray among the formerly white expanse. Clare supposed it was probably wishful thinking that she could capture any of it, but her sister was beginning to bring friends home on Thursday afternoons, friends who would sit at the kitchen table and lounge on the sofa and write anti-fossil fuel slogans on pieces of cardboard while slurping sodas loudly. Mom didn’t seem to mind―on the contrary, she was resigned at this point―but Clare preferred the old silence, her quiet spaces.
Liam’s old Toyota promised such a space. He picked her up, touting a new Canon that Clare stared at, feeling a biting envy poke its head over her shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay, you can test it out too!” he said, laughing.
They turned out of the high school’s parking lot and onto Route 79, driving east. Soon the brick building fell away to a dusty flat expanse of desert. Leaning her head against the sill of the half-open window, Clare could hear the throaty strains of unseen birds concealed in the sparse bushes. Dimly, she thought, Those must be the ones Leah keeps going on about.
As if reading her mind, Liam asked, “Do you hear those birds? I bet they’re the ones your crazy sister keeps telling you about.”
She swatted him, maybe a little harder than she had intended. “Leah’s not crazy! She just…wants to be listened to.”
“Listened to? Why? Just…her?”
“No! You’ve met her. Does she really strike you as the type to pour her time into this just so she has an outlet to speak?”
“Of course not. Just wondering. About listening. Lots of people become activists because they want someone to listen to them―but only them. I tend to like the ones who want to be heard collectively. Which I guess is why I like her. But, you know, it’s what you actually speak for and sustain. What is she speaking for―when this is all done, I mean?”
Liam could swing from serious to playful and back again in the space of a minute. Clare appreciated it, the way he made her think. In another world, less focused on leaving August, she would have been more interested in him than what he had to teach her―even though in the moment she wouldn’t have given up the long, sparse drive into the mountains even for Portland. “Both, probably. Leah’s always needed to be part of something.”
“Part of something? You say that like you’ve never needed to be part of anything.”
“No, that’s just the way we are. She always wanted to join team sports, be in after-school clubs, that sort of thing. Such an extrovert. Whereas I―” Clare grinned― “am wayyy more comfortable sitting on my own.”
“Psshhh, you’re always part of something. Even if you don’t want to be. You, for example, are a part of this town, which I know you don’t really like, but I see the details you notice about it.” Liam had slowed down to reach a dirt turnout. “August is in your head, always will be.” He turned onto the narrower, unpaved road. “Almost there. Can I ask you something?”
“You’ll probably hate me for it.” He stuck out his tongue.
“Probably not. I mean, I can’t. You’re my ride back.”
“Don’t you want to be heard too?”
“Never thought about it.” Clare stretched her legs out so that her knees pressed against the dashboard. “Not like Leah does.”
“But sort of like it, anyway.” Liam’s eyebrows knitted together.
“What gives you that idea?”
“Well, what are you going to do when you move away?”
“I haven’t really decided yet. The point is, I can do anything I want, right?” Clare thought of her grandmother’s ring and books again. She’d narrowly made the deposit, using cobbled-together tips from a couple hurried, extra shifts at the parlor and the coin jar she kept out of habit. A warmth electrified her fingers. “I’ll figure it out when I get there. I’ll do some exploring. I’ll…find somewhere I can think. Away from the shouting everyone seems to do around here.”
“Yeah, but you do want to leave.” She could see him thinking in the way that his hands moved back and forth across the fake vinyl of the steering wheel. “So you can be heard, I think. At least, it seems like it.” The car started to rock gently over the unforeseen gullies and crevices in the service road toward the Uintas, distorting Liam’s reflection in the mirror. “Why are you so interested in taking pictures if you don’t want to be heard through them? Or preserve some sort of memory in them?”
“What do you even mean? To preserve a memory? I’m just having fun. Killing time,” She steadied herself against the door as the car hit a rough patch of dirt.
He looked at her cryptically. “Everyone wants to be heard in some way. Even if they don’t admit it.”
“Now you’re being cryptic.”
“So I am.” The half of his face Clare could see lit up, lips pulling back to reveal a grin. “It’s kind of my natural state, haven’t you noticed? I’m just the resident―WHOA!”
The car lurched forward. Clare and Liam went with it. Clare’s knees knocked and scraped painfully against the dashboard. Her head flew forward, stopped by the force of the seatbelt on her chest. For a second, there was only dust swirling around the car.
“Oh, Jesus, I’m sorry Clare…wasn’t expecting that…” Liam’s voice came to her distantly.
In another second or so, she’d recovered from the shock. She looked back toward the rear of the car. They’d crested over a small hill in the 4-Runner, and just below it was a hidden pocket she assumed one of the tires had caught the rim of. Liam had momentarily lost control of the wheel when it did, and they’d lurched forward along, slightly off track, about fifteen feet. Not prettily, either. They’d swung to the side slightly, and the left front tire was sticking off the road and into the brush. Clare fervently hoped it hadn’t been damaged.
Liam looked a little dazed, uncharacteristically unsure of himself. “Clare, I’m really sorry, I should have been paying better attention to this road, it’s unpredictable…” he started.
“It’s ok, don’t worry about it. Are you ok?” Clare said hastily.
His eyes clouded with relief. “Yeah…I’m fine,” he said. Clare watched his face, the way he sucked his cheeks in. His jaw had gone from defiantly set to unsure, the ghost of a shiver somewhere in it.
“You’re fine. Listen, let’s check the tire and make sure your new camera’s all right, then maybe we should turn back.” She exited the passenger door before he could say anything, pausing to look at the purpling sky above her for a suspended moment before setting herself back to her task.
Two weeks passed without seeing Liam. It felt like the days hurtled on frictionless. His words mingled with Leah’s in her head. Being heard. Preserving.
Leah came in through the front door close to midnight on a Monday. Clare could hear the door creaking, meaning she hadn’t bothered to reach down and push on the bottom hinge so that it wouldn’t creak. Her Doc Martens thudded against the wood in the entryway. Clare figured she was just going to bed, so she was surprised when, three minutes later, Leah burst into her room and sprawled out on her bed.
She looked up from the math final she was studying for. Leah was picking mud out of the soles of her boots. It fell onto Clare’s comforter, but Leah was too busy fuming to notice. She started a rant Clare could barely understand.
“The director of conservation in Salt Lake City…Evan doesn’t seem to think we should reach out at all…doesn’t matter…”
“Slow down!” Clare said. “What’s wrong?”
“No one is going to show up to our protest on Saturday,” Leah said. “And no one is going to care after that either. Because my idiot co-organizer, Evan, doesn’t think it’s worth reaching out to news stations.”
“But…that’s necessary, right?” Clare said uncertainly.
“Yes. It should be the first thing we do. Nope. Not with him. He lives in a vacuum, I swear to God. ‘It just doesn’t matter if there’s no coverage.’ ”
“What does the rest of…your group…think?”
“I don’t know. He’s pretty forceful, it’s hard to stand up against him.”
Clare nearly laughed. Her sister had more fire in her than anyone she knew. It was hard to imagine anyone matching or exceeding her.
“Why are you smirking?” Leah sat up. “This is a very real problem, you know. Did you ever learn what happened when the Industrial Revolution started in England?”
“Huh?” Clare blinked, hard.
“Do you know what happened?”
“Is that a trick question?”
“No.” Leah sighed. “What happened in England, in Manchester, is that they started building factories. And the factories spit out soot. And within fifty years all the white birds in the area died out, and got replaced by black birds, which hid the soot better. And soon nobody even remembered what color they had originally been at all.”
“That was two hundred and fifty years ago,” Clare said.
“But it’s still going on! We’re always taking places and then ruining them, first with our big pink dinosaurs and then with factories that belch out crap and change environments right down to the colors of birds’ feathers.”
“Delicate ecosystems.” Clare said quietly.
“Delicate ecosystems. With something like a memory.”
“If you want to put it that way, sure. Actually that’s not bad. Can I write that down?” Already the wheels in Leah’s head had started spinning again.
“Sure, I don’t mind. Hey, why don’t you just reach out to the news channels on your own?”
Leah rolled her eyes. “I thought of that already.”
“So why not?”
“It’d be so hard to plan anything like this with them ever again. They’d just think I’d do whatever I wanted without their input.”
“Who cares? This is the big one, right?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“And what about after this?”
“I’m not sure.”
“So go for it. Call Channel 5 and Channel 10. You have nothing to lose. Might even bring you into contact with activists outside August you can work with someday. Think big.”
“Okay…but what if they don’t show up?”
“Well, then, I can take some photos, we can develop them and use them to document what happens.”
She could tell that Leah was stifling a laugh. “Always the photos. I mean, I’m sorry. I’m sure they’re great. But how are they going to help? They don’t speak.”
“No, but they show all the people who are probably going to show up, because you told them to do something that matters with their Saturday afternoon when they could have been anywhere else.”
Despite Leah’s first dismissal, Clare could tell she was listening. When she’d given the dinosaur photo to her, Leah hadn’t liked it at first, but later Clare noticed it stuck between the green frame and the glass of the mirror in Leah’s room. She went on. “I’ll show you when they’re developed. We can create an archive of sorts. Documenting what you’re doing, right here, in this city, in this moment.”
Leah murmured noncommittally, “I would love that. But why do you suddenly want to help me so much?”
A prick of annoyance stabbed Clare in the shoulder. “You’re my sister. You obviously care.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t want to. Before.”
“I’ve been thinking about it. A lot. Photography…it makes you look at things differently. You get these photos back from the lab and it’s like something you’d forgotten coming back to greet you. I think you need that sort of remembering.”
Later, after Leah had slipped upstairs, Clare lay on the couch, flipping through one of her grandmother’s old books. Through the window her mom had left cracked slightly open in the living room, she could hear leaves rustling against the house, a coyote whining far away. She’d texted Liam about developing the new pictures.
His honest responses always startled her, almost as much as his seeming interest in spending time with her. Thought you didn’t want anything to do with that stuff. Has Leah finally gotten to you?
That was Liam. Incandescent one moment and sarcastic the next. It wasn’t that, though, she thought, shifting to find a more comfortable position on the couch. Even though she’d tried, she couldn’t separate herself from the system ingrained in her family, its muscle memory.
At 4:00 on Saturday, Clare ducked into the coffee shop across from the bank, bought a three-pack of chocolate-dipped madeleines, and nabbed the single sunlit table by the window.
It was soon apparent that most of the people in the coffee shop were there for the protest―or demonstration, as they were calling it on their signs. Rectangles of cardboard were spread all over the large communal tables on the other side of the shop. Teenagers, most of whom Clare recognized, filed into the shop and asked the good-natured barista for pens, then hastily traced the outlines of words on them, laughing and talking. Clare munched on the madeleines slowly, savoring the melting chocolate, then the crumble of the cakes, waiting for Leah to join her.
She settled into reading a beat-up copy of Emily Dickinson poems she’d gotten from the school library when her phone buzzed. Leah’s name came up on her screen. Hey, the meeting is running a little long.
Okay. What’s going on? When will you be here?
Not sure yet. Is anyone at the bank yet?
No, they’re all in the coffee shop making signs.
Are there lots of people?
Twenty or thirty.
Leah sent back a parade of smiling emojis. Awesome! I KNEW the fliers would work. I’ll try to be there soon. Could you take some pictures?
Clare put her book away and finished eating the last cake. She slung her backpack over her chair and walked toward the mass of people filling in their block letters. As she got closer, she could see all the small details drawn on the handmade signs by people who had gotten bored waiting for the demonstration to begin. Birds, peeking their heads out of nests, adorned the signs and in some cases decorated the block lettering. Flowers ringed the edges of the cardboard, growing around and through strict lines of barbed wire.
She felt almost invisible as she moved among the tables. She kept her camera at the ready, looking at what people had written: “Save the Birds”, “August Doesn’t Need Your Dirty Energy”, “A Bird in the Bush is Worth Two Executives”. Multiple times she raised the viewfinder to her eye, only to find that the photo wasn’t quite right, or wouldn’t turn out because of the lighting in the coffee shop. No one seemed to notice her indecisiveness, though. They chatted amongst themselves.
“I heard that Danica from Channel 5 is coming.”
“Leah Connor said that Channel 10 is going to show up too.”
“You think it’ll actually work?”
“I don’t know, I just hope the news shows up in the first hour. I have lacrosse practice tomorrow.”
Finally, Clare found a subject. A girl she didn’t know was concentrating on filling in words on a larger piece of cardboard at a table in the corner, while others sat next to her chatting and twirling pens in their fingers. All three were dressed in the same blue t-shirt that Leah had worn down by now from so many washes. Her mouth was slightly open, her tongue visible between her teeth. Clare studied the slow movement of her broad-tipped purple marker as it completed its slow revolution inside the traced outline of an “O”, then moved on to an “S”. The illustrator’s movements were deliberate and slow; she never looked up at Clare.
Clare brought the camera to her eyes again, stepping back slightly and to either side until she found a spot where a shaft of afternoon sunlight, peeking in through the floor-length windows, illuminated the girl. Perfect. The ray could light up the whole photo. The cardboard rose from the edge of the table slightly and unevenly, probably torn open from a delivery box. But that was the point, right? You used what you had.
The illustrator sat in the corner, still largely unaware of Clare’s presence, while the two other girls leaned toward each other, their elbows resting on the edge of the sign. One clasped her hands together under her chin. Each concentrating on something. Clare snapped the photo. Then she wound the film again and walked up to the edge of the table. The word she saw now was “Dinosaurs”. “Keep the Dinosaurs in the Ground,” the whole phrase read. Beneath were two dinosaurs, standing at the bottom like sentinels: one skeletal, the other wearing a cartoonish smile. It was a replica of the pink plastic dinosaur Clare had captured for Leah.
“Can I take a picture?”
The illustrator looked up, drawn out of a reverie. She squinted at the Holga. “Sure,” she said. Clare quickly clicked the shutter button. The girl squinted at Clare after hearing the click. “What kind of camera is that?”
“Oh, it’s a Holga.” Clare felt strange; she was used to letting Liam do the explaining.
The girl had more pressing matters to attend to than the camera, though. “You’re Leah’s sister?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“Cool. Hope you post these on Facebook so we can all see them.” She went back to filling in the words. Clare exhaled.
The girl obviously wanted to be left alone, so Clare went back to flitting amongst the groups at tables. The sky began to darken outside and it began to get cold. She put on her cardigan. People’s conversations circled around her―the excitement, the liveliness―so much that it began to bubble up inside her too. She took a few more photos. While she was at the cash register trying to order a latte, someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned around.
He hugged her warmly.
“I heard this was going on, didn’t know you’d be here though.”
Clare squinted at him. “You know my sister’s been planning this for ages, don’t you?”
“All right, I confess, I was hoping I would run into you. Counting on serendipity, maybe.” His gaze shifted to the side. “Listen, about the crash.”
She put a hand on his arm. “Liam. It’s okay. We weren’t hurt. Right?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m fine, really. No secrets here.”
Clare laughed. “Good. Well, you convinced me to come here, you know. I think it’s actually going to be really cool. Thank you.”
For reasons Clare couldn’t fathom, this round of film took longer to develop. She asked Liam if it was because she’d handed him so many rolls. No, he shrugged, I don’t know what’s taking so long. Rob must just be really busy. One week stretched into two, then three. She read an article in the newspaper about Delco breaking ground on their new “energy services facility”.
Two hundred people had shown up at the protest, a fact that Leah kept repeating excitedly was groundbreaking for a city like August, where the company carried so much influence. Channel 5 had shown up, but not Channel 10, and the footage had only run for a day or so before being pulled. Clare kept telling her sister it was a start, promising the photos too, but without developed prints she could only offer words Leah didn’t seem to hear half the time. Still, the photos were coming, she told herself.
It surprised her, the lengths she went to to alleviate Leah’s angry silences and her mother’s petulant ones. They were equal but opposite forces, with a way of knocking over framed family photos and leaving dishes with food crusted onto them in the sink for days, miring Clare in guilt. In response she tried to protect one’s feelings from the other, to calm and dig them out of their trenches.
She got home from the parlor one night to overhear shouting on the second floor.
“―complacency, which is why we’re all in this mess in the first damn place and some people think it’s okay―”
“―don’t you start swearing at me―”
“Why does it even matter?”
“It’s not respectful, Leah, you know that, and anyway that so-called ‘complacency’ is what allows you to live the life you do and even have time to think about your pet cause.”
“My ‘pet’ cause?”
Clare slipped back into her flats and locked the door. Soon they’d quit, each unsatisfied with the other’s conclusions, and Leah would retreat to her bedroom and lock the door while Mom took over the living room and turned on Survivor or the latest DVR-ed TV show. Clare headed toward their favorite bakery for a box of chocolate eclairs, Mom’s favorite dessert.
Her neck felt empty without the weight of the Holga, but it was nearing 8:00 and the sun would set soon anyway. She was sweating by the time she got to the bakery, even after tying her light sweater around her waist. The warmth of summer would arrive in full force in a couple of weeks, maybe even days. Inside, the bakers, preparing maple-glazed donuts, eyed Clare with a wearied suspicion. They were about to close and unwilling to cater to the sort of customer who would make themselves at home at one of the robins-egg-blue tables and force them to stay another hour. Clare selected three chocolate eclairs and two coffee ones―Leah’s favorite flavor―and left quickly.
Heading back home, she looked up toward the purpling sky when she heard a loud, metallic clink above her. There, above the nearest house was an oval, hanging in the sky. Motionless for a moment, it moved toward her and she could make it out better. A bird, turning on its wings to reveal its full shape.
Clare didn’t think much of it, but as she continued down the street she began to hear more and more clinks. They sounded like two kitchen pans being banged together by a six-year-old. She tucked the box of eclairs under her arm and put the other over her left ear, hoping to avoid some of the noise. It just seemed to get louder, and a low bzz, bzz, began to reverberate in her head.
Looking up again, she saw a whole flock of birds heading her way. No, a flock was too small a word to describe them. More like a mob. There was soon more black than purple in the sky. As they passed over her, she figured out that they were moving north, in the opposite direction she was going, away from Delco’s new facility. Leah was probably watching this out of her window, gathering further ammunition.
People began leaning out of upper windows, shouting across the street. Did you see that? Did you HEAR that? Where did they all come from? Why are there so many? Clare walked between the hastily asked and answered questions unnoticed. The buzzing and chirping continued. To her, it sounded confused and hurt. Some of the darting shapes were flying in all directions, she saw―north, then east, then north again, having no idea where to go. Clare wished she had her camera to capture it, but it was already dusk and they wouldn’t have shown up well. Then the street went dark, which stopped her in her tracks.
One of them must have flown into the power lines. Or ten. Or twenty. All the wide living room windows and overhead kitchen lights Clare had subconsciously been using to light her way disappeared. The neighbors’ friendly shouting and banter stopped all at once, then picked up again as they tried to figure out when the lights would be back on. Hey, how long till you think the fire department notices? Are we on the hospital’s backup generator? Damn birds.
Clare switched on the flashlight on her phone and traced a slower path down the street. When it became apparent that the neighborhood was not, in fact, on the hospital’s power supply, people began lighting candles. Clare shifted her eyes to the sudden pinpricks of light. It had a very different feel. Instead of displaying people inside houses like dioramas, the light was hemmed in as they brought it to their faces in order to pick their way down the stairs, cupped by the instruction booklets held up to the flame so that they could figure out how to turn their own dusty generators on. Without knowing it, they all had the same instinct, to find a way to light up and continue with their lives.
At Clare’s house, Mom was probably in the kitchen, trying to figure out which switch to flip to turn the lights back on, without accepting that it wasn’t something she could fix. Leah would come down the stairs looking for the long, tapered dinner candles in the kitchen, which none of them had used or even seen in years. After giving up, she’d go around the house looking for something to do, absentmindedly looking through the fridge for a snack in an excuse to eat whatever might possibly go bad. Clare thought she’d find them like that, sitting at the table across from one another, eating week-old American-cheese slices, finally having nothing to do but talk.