It all began when someone left the window open.
The love bird cocked its bright green head at the shut door of Woodren’s third floor bedroom, perched on her bedpost. Its bright black eyes glittered, listening for the sounds of Woodren’s footsteps. None came. It ruffled its feathers impatiently; waiting for Woodren to come back with some water for its thirsty beak.
The love bird’s first memory was of Woodren: her clear gray eyes expressing her great happiness through them and not through the tiny curve of a smile on her thin pale lips. Her small white fingers pressed on the syringe gently, and a hot, mushy substance that tasted of apples and bananas went down its throat. The tiny black beak clattered against the plastic syringe greedily. “Aw, you poor baby. You’re hungry aren’t you, my Hoopsie-girl?” she murmured.
She then later taught her baby lovebird to fly with the patience of a mother. As soon as its wings started flapping feebly, she lifted Hoopsie up on the palm of her hand above her head and drew her hand away quickly, teaching the lovebird to fly and landing on Woodren’s soft bed. On cold nights, Woodren would wrap her favorite emerald green scarf around Hoopsie and place her behind the television where it was always warm and sellotape the electric sockets and wires so that Hoopsie was safe.
Woodren never even considered snipping the feathers of Hoopsie’s wings; she would never hurt her darling creature, and snip of its greatest glory. She would comb the feathers with a miniature pink Barbie brush, noticing how blue feathers had started to appear on Hoopsie’s wings and red ones slowly layered beneath the blue as time went by.
Showering Hoopsie was the hardest of all. Aunt and Uncle Palmer had no idea that Hoopsie even existed and revealing her presence would leave both Hoopsie and Woodren with no home. Late at night, Woodren would have to sneak out to the bathroom on the first floor (not on the second floor because that one was right next to Aunt and Uncle Palmer’s bedroom), down the stairs (taking care to step over the thirteenth stair that groaned so loudly), turn on the taps quietly and wash a sleepy Hoopsie with warm water.
Her two youngest cousins often made fun of her for the funny smell that stuck on her clothes sometimes. Linda and Lucy, her bratty twin cousins, asked in their scornful sing-song voices, “Why do you lock your room Woodren? Scared we’ll find all your old ***** clothes under the bed that you wouldn’t let Ma throw away?”
“No, maybe she’s scared we’ll find naughty magazines? If we do, we’ll tell Pa and you’ll have nowhere to stay ‘cause Pa says that type of behavior is sinful and he won’t tolerate it in his house!”
Woodren found it in her heart to look upon her silly cousins as childish entertainment. What did they know of the love she had for Hoopsie? “No, I’m scared you’ll find the monster under my bed and start crying for your Ma”
Linda narrowed her blue eyes, “I’m telling Ma you mentioned Lucy’s fear of the monster under the bed to her face! Besides, you don’t have anywhere else to go. You live on Pa’s charity. Ma said so.”
It was the lowest of insults based on a harsh truth. Woodren’s mother had died of cancer when Woodren was very young and her father followed her mother not a year after with heart grief. Her mother had asked her younger sister to take in Woodren; they were her only relatives and had stopped being fond of her once their own two twin daughters arrived and Mr. Palmer started to have to work harder to feed the six bellies at his dinner table. She just became another mouth to feed.
The only person Woodren got along well with in the household was her eldest cousin, Max. Max rarely spoke in anything but grunts, thought of his two little sisters as annoying brats, refused to say more than two sentences at a time to his simpering mother and loudly obnoxious father and often came and sat in Woodren’s room with his large feet against the wall, stroking Hoopsie’s head in silence. She really was fond of Max sometimes. He could be so thoughtful. Just two weeks before, for her birthday, Max had bought her maroon silk curtains with white birds imprinted upon them. He had even gone further than that and stitched in white thread, “Happy birthday. I love you” a red wonky heart followed and then “From Hoopsie.” Simply imagining him sitting there with a huge, thick curtain holding a tiny needle in his bear-like paws, cursing as he stabbed his rough fingertips and fumbling clumsily made her shout with laughter.
It was Max’s idea to buy Hoopsie a big metal cage and attach it to a branch on the big tree in their garden with a piece of shoelace, hidden among all the green leaves. That way, when Hoopsie sang Woodren wouldn’t have to blast her music and radio at the same time or pinch Hoopsie’s beaks shut when her Aunt or Uncle come to yell at her if she was deaf or crazy or both. And that way, Woodren’s room wouldn’t have its twangy smell of bird **** and Woodren wouldn’t have to be paranoid all day long at school, wondering if nosy Aunt Palmer had broken into her room and found Hoopsie. And that way, she could leave her window open during the day, trying to rid her room off the nutty, sugary smell.
Max’s room was on the same floor as Woodren, the third floor. Every morning, bright and early before school, Woodren would run with a small lump in her sweater and the keys to her locked room jingling on her wrists to Max’s room. Max would barely acknowledge her as she ran across his room, opened his window and climbed out like a monkey to the branch that pushed against his window sill. She crawled along it with speed and sat there, with her legs hanging down and the branch between her legs, fumbled for the cage door above her head, made sure there was enough water and food to last Hoopsie for the day, popped Hoopsie inside with a quick kiss, arranged the fan-like fresh morning-smell leaves to cover the cage completely and skate back towards Max’s window.
Hoopsie mourned with a few high whistling notes. She hated being away from Woodren during the day- waiting for the moment when the sun was getting hot, and Hoopsie was tired of chatting to the birds in the nearby trees, when Woodren’s sharp little white face with its explosion of frizzy black hair would appear in between the leaves with her happy grey eyes and let her fly around the tree before calling, “Hoopsie” followed by her signature tilting whistle. But for now, and for every morning till noon, Hoopsie would have to wait.
“You don’t think they’ll find her do you?” Woodren would ask Max as she clambered back into his window. It was their daily morning ritual.
“No. Pa told Ma that it’s all about privacy now that I’m a growing-up boy. I’ll lock my door; promise.” He would reply back, completing their ritual.
“Are you still eating lunch with that Ed kid?” he asked, completely breaking their ritual this morning.
“Yes.” She was completely surprised. Not only was Max breaking a routine, Max of all people, he was doing so by asking her a question about her personal life.
Woodren eyed Max strangely. To her, Max was her huge cousin that somehow managed to communicate with a variety of different grunts and hated cutting his hair because of his fear of sharp objects; but to the rest of the school and neighborhood, she knew Max was the “strong and silent” handsome tall boy, every girl’s dream, with his shaggy blonde hair.
“Why?” her gray eyes grew rounder when suspicious instead of narrowing.
“You don’t have many friends at school.”
“You know I don’t get along with any of them but Ed. I don’t like being friends with people unless I actually like them… unlike all the other girls at school.”
“I don’t like you staying around the Ed kid too much.”
Woodren felt a little glow of affection for Max in her heart. She understood why Max was worried. Ed was unstable with the rest of the world. He did what he wanted to, he said exactly what he wanted to and he wasn’t afraid of anything because he didn’t care what anyone said. He was the kid that the no parents wanted their children to stay near. There wasn’t anything Ed hadn’t done before.
Despite what everyone else thought, Woodren knew that his morals and sense of good and justice were strong in his heart. And when it came to Woodren he was always there for her since he moved to the neighborhood more than half a year ago. No matter how many offending remarks he made, she felt he had become the only stable thing in her life in spite of him being so apt to change. She had learned to depend on him.
At the breakfast table, Woodren’s gray eyes slid over from Linda to Lucy to Aunt Palmer to Uncle Palmer and rested on Max the longest. Until she had come to look at Max, all four of them were identical in their attractive features and identical in their pinched-up, suspicious and petty expressions glazed over with a courteous mask. Max’s blue eyes, though the same shape as Aunt Palmer’s and the same color as Uncle Palmer’s, expressed a good heart and sincerity.
Her first subject of the day was an art lesson. All she had to do was sit comfortably, a palette with swirls of colors, paintbrushes, charcoals and pencils, a *** of water, and a fresh-smelling page. Usually she drew herself as a monster, or Linda as the devil- disturbing pictures that made people believe she was “talented”. But today, it came to her all of a sudden she’d never done a good, worthwhile painting of Hoopsie. Sure, her tables and notebooks were filled with carvings she’d doodled in class but never something she would want to keep.
She started to sketch Hoopsie on her bed post, eyeing the nuts Woodren had stolen from Aunt Palmer’s snack cupboard. She drew Hoopsie in the big tree and painted a metal cage around her. Somehow, the silver cage ruined the picture completely, making Woodren grimace. When the paint dried, she erased Hoopsie from inside the cage and drew her beside it, her small black feet gripping a twig.
Woodren remembered how elegant birds looked when she looked up into the sky, and saw them with their wings spread out and imagined feeling the wind rush through her feathers and ripple down her head and spine, with a heaven of azure blue surrounding her, shooting through clouds cold and refreshing like a sprinkler in the garden. Maybe that’s what freedom tasted like. She tried drawing Hoopsie soaring in the sky before she realized she’d never seen Hoopsie soar like other birds do, because Hoopsie had never done so.
Broodingly, she packed up when class was dismissed, slowly and thoughtfully. Somehow, that small beginning of a painting had darkened her frame of mind completely. Still ruminating, she headed down the hall way to eat lunch.
“Woody!” Hearing the sound of that voice, she momentarily forget her unease and Woodren’s thin, pale lips spread in a smile even before she turned around to him. Ed was the only one who ever called her that. His oval head was covered in small black bristles and one of his black eyebrows rose as he smirked with his pink lips curving down. The diamond earring in his ear glinted like his teeth did. He caught her eyes with his hazel ones; his eyes were warm and lively. His mouth formed words that were witty and charming and could always make Woodren laugh.
Woodren put a look of amazement on her face. “You came to school today.”
“What are you talking about? I’ve been coming to school nearly all month.”
“That’s why I’m surprised.”
He hit her arm lightly. A few girls nearby turned around and giggled when they caught Ed’s eyes. Woodren remembered when Ed had first come to school. All the prettiest girls at school kept sidling over to him and batting their eyelashes. Ed had taken one look at the curves on their bodies; his eyes flickered over their face, a little bored, and continued his conversation with Woodren as if there had been no interruption.
It was a mark of their friendship three weeks later when she told him about her family. His hazel eyes had burnt hotly. When he was angry, his voice was quieter, but strained as if the passionate anger behind the words were being controlled with the greatest effort, “People who ruin other people’s happiness on purpose and with joy are just plain evil.” He told her that he hated the monsters that kidnapped children, crippled them, not only in body but mind too, and forced them to beg, far away from those that loved them. Here followed a stream of facts, all said in the same tone that both scared and impressed Woodren.
“How do you know so much about it?” she had once asked him.
He looked at her with an odd gleam in his eyes, “Because I care.”
Now he was looking at her without breaking his gaze, the same odd gleam in his eyes, searching her face. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” She had still been brooding over Hoopsie in a cage, and why the picture upset her so much.
“Woody, tell me what’s wrong.”
Every time Woodren mentioned Hoopsie, Ed would go silent or make an offending remark about the way that Woodren took care of Hoopsie. Over a very short time, Woodren had learned never to mention Hoopsie’s name and though it drove her crazy with frustration, she knew Ed would never tell her reason the why if she tried to pry it out of him. Knowing not to answer truthfully, “I told you, nothing”
“I can tell when you’re lying. Your eyes grow whopping and your mouth pouts to the right.”
He looked at her searchingly before giving up with an irritated sigh.
“Come with me.” The chair scraped as he pulled out and pushed the table away from him. His tall frame dwarfed her.
He brought her to the back of the school where teachers and students never went, leaned against the wall and lit a cigarette. “You want to try one?”
“I don’t smoke, Ed”
“Why won’t you even try it?” The tone he used when he was about to state something that began an argument leaked into his voice smoothly, like oil. Woodren opened her mouth to list the damaging things it did to your lungs and heart but his voice had begun in its rapid, silky tone:
“Because society has brain washed you so that if you smoke when you’re a child, you’re a horrible ungrateful creature that will never go far in life. But when an adult smokes, it’s okay. You don’t smoke because people and teachers tell you not to try it. Well I say, **** them. These are the best years of your life. Do what you want, try everything so you can make the choices of your life later with a rounded experience and knowledge. I’m not saying get addicted. You have to be strong if you’re gonna be a risk-taker…” he inhaled deeply and exhaled in a husky voice, “I just thought you always went on about how you were such a strong risk taker.” He blew a cloud of heavy smoke above her head. “Oh, and of course you won’t try it because Aunt and Uncle Palmer said it’d be sin, isn’t that right?” he asked with a tantalizing grin in a mocking tone. He watched her face contort with anger, his hazel eyes dancing with glee. He knew he had hit at the bull’s eyes. No one ever jeered at Woodren’s inner power and then put her on the same note as her Aunt and Uncle.
A sudden snarling sound flared from her. She didn’t have to listen to anything Aunt and Uncle Palmer said… they never did anything worthy intentionally. She knew that. He was just stupid. She swore at him and knocked the cigarette out of his hand with a smart slap before storming away. An amused laugh from behind her made her ears tingle pink.
As soon as school was over, she pushed pass Ed who was waiting for her and ran back home. Opening the front door of the house, she scurried up the stairs to the third-floor and knocked on Max’s door. When she opened it, Max was already holding Hoopsie in his big hands. Hoopsie sang with joy when she saw Woodren.
“Hoopsie-girl” Woodren whistled with a tilting note that Hoopsie identified instantly. Hoopsie flapped over and landed on her shoulder.
“By the way,” said Max, “she must have knocked over her water because it was wet on the bottom of the cage. She kept trying to drink it. She’s thirsty.”
“Oh you silly Hoopsie! Why did you knock over the water? You know I’m supposed to have 8 cups a day?” she pampered the lovebird with caresses and endearing words before hiding Hoopsie in her shirt and running back to her room.
Woodren placed Hoopsie gently down on the bed post