Years ago, when we got bored during study hall and Googled “Thayer Stokes,” we discovered his dad was a rich-ass tech entrepreneur with his own Wikipedia page. We all found that to be varying degrees of completely hilarious, since Thayer made the local news in ninth grade for getting high as a kite and crashing Daddy’s BMW into a stoplight. I let him cheat off me in Geometry because his hands were big enough to cleave me in half. When, one night, he slipped Xanax into a girl’s cheap beer, the rumors ricocheted into our collective consciousness and lodged somewhere between our knife-thin ribs. Our entire grade held our breaths, waiting for the cops to show up with handcuffs so shiny and stiff they’d hurt our teeth.
So when Thayer disappeared for days, we thought he’d for sure gotten his ass hauled to the Rosendale Youth Center, a pretty name for juvie. All of us except one agreed. Sammy Holwell, whom we called “dumbass” affectionately, swore that he one-hundred-percent-for-sure saw Thayer turn into a bird. We just laughed at him and figured he must’ve been tripping too hard.
A few weeks after Thayer’s disappearance, Charlotte Beryl’s cluster of church choir friends came in all frantic with dangling tongues and mascara oozing down their cheeks. Their voices dovetailed into one story: they’d been eating lunch on the front lawn when Charlotte’s face twisted in a way faces shouldn’t. She fell to the ground as her hair sizzled into wreaths of rose-gold smoke. Brown mottled feathers julienned her skin into shreds.
The one stupid thing they couldn’t agree upon was the goddamn species. One girl thought sparrow. Another insisted finch. Maybe wren, someone else said.
Afterwards, I couldn’t get this grotesque image of Charlotte out of my head. I kept thinking of feathers unfurling from her eye sockets. Her painted lips puckering and pulling into a beak. A mesh of honey-blonde corkscrew curls, ripping out by the roots. Her French manicure calcifying, claw-like. An eternal scream of horror caught in her throat, languageless.
This is what I remember most about Charlotte Beryl: In seventh grade, Charlotte came over because we had to write a report on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and since I still spoke with misplaced emphases and thickened syllables, nostalgia for home as a slipstream of wine-red silk, she decided I was yellow enough to be her essay partner.
When we finished, we were about half a page too short, so I showed her how to Ctrl+H to replace all of the size-twelve punctuation with size-fourteen. “You are such a supergenius,” she kept repeating, and even though I shrugged my shoulders in modesty, her words made me feel like I was a Pretty Big Deal.
Somehow, I got it in my dumbass head that we were friends after this, so the next Monday lunch, I walked over to her table, a cluster of white girls with matching sparkly barrettes, and summoned up the bravery to ask, “Can I sit here?”
A few of Charlotte’s friends eyed me and giggled. Their laughter jangled and clinked.
Charlotte couldn’t, wouldn’t look at my face; just dipped her fork into ranch dressing and shoved iceberg lettuce into her mouth.
Nobody said anything. I wanted to leave except I couldn’t. Couldn’t do anything except stand there, wishing to puncture and deflate like an abandoned balloon. I felt less real than these girls who had mothers and church on Sundays and last names that teachers could pronounce. I was a silkscreen silhouette with an accent I couldn’t unhook from my teeth.
“Ummm,” Charlotte finally said, which was somehow worse than saying nothing at all.
I laughed with my eyes wide open and said never mind.
In Mama’s urn, I store all my Beijing memories. A lightning storm with teeth. Afterwards, the sky wrung itself out, dripped peroxide. The Communist Youth League named me a Youth Pioneer so I wore my honglingjin, red scarf, to school daily. Sticker advertisements enameled over whitewashed apartment walls. Knotty sidewalks, knottier fruit. Mama’s lullabies until her throat ripped out of her voice. In the ocean-belly of summer, the cicadas sang instead, in oscillating chirps. Mosquito kisses. Shards of afternoon light winnowing through Mama’s jade pendant when she died. Later, Baba walked in on me blue and spasming, my honglingjin cradling my neck too tightly.
Afterwards, I dreamed of funeral pyres, a heaven I didn’t believe in. Sometimes rosary beads strangled me instead. Even when I was awake, swirling angels and paper corpses drifted past my eyes like mirages. I stopped wearing my honglingjin to school and got kicked out of the Young Pioneer battalion. Whatever–they were smarmy boot-licking motherfuckers, anyways.
In the days before Baba and I left for the United States, I spent hours practicing English, searching for the words to describe a longing for beak-faced boys with zits, or skies that swung open like switchblades, or myths where everything incinerated to bone. Anything to preserve the laws of gravity.
After Charlotte Beryl’s metamorphosis, the inevitable exodus swept through and left only air so quiet it choked on its own silence. Shop owners boarded up their windows and skipped town without retrieving their security deposits. Before they sped off, our neighbors gave me their daughter’s pink Barbie bike, even though I was about a decade too old for such a thing.
Only children and adolescents turned into birds. Half of my history class was gone by spring break. In the early mornings, the sky a milky rose, mothers tiptoed in the lonely streets, desperately searching for the children they’d lost to the skies and the trees.
Finally, we reached a consensus on the breed: song sparrow.
During gym class, Sammy Holwell collapsed on the basketball court, spine convulsing into a question mark. Someone muttered “fucking dumbass” and usually that’d be a riot, but this time nobody could muster a chuckle.
An entire sixth grade class went on a field trip and never came back. Our schools slowly emptied until they shut down altogether.
I held my breath for years, waiting, always waiting, but never felt bright crackling underneath my skin, never woke up with a mouth filled with feathers. Our town became a suburban conglomerate of guano and fading memories. I couldn’t remember if I wore a fire-embroidered cheongsam on my twelfth birthday. Eventually, I could no longer hum the melodies of Mama’s lullabies, the jasmine-tea songs that made me yearn for places I’d never been and people I’d never met. Even Mandarin bled off my tongue. When I said home in English, I felt the word reverberate on my lips, but it clattered like all hollow things do.
Every so often, I would see a bird soar over a sprawling orchard or plunge through the foaming twilight sky, and I was almost certain it had Thayer Stokes’s stocky body, or Sammy Holwell’s nervous twitch.
I wondered if the sparrows had forgotten their names, their families, their past lives. I wondered if they still remembered how to speak in their first languages, or if those words had been etched away by the incessant chirping and cawing. I wondered if they still searched for home, a light smudged on the endless horizon.
RONA WANG is an eighteen-year-old freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studying mathematics with computer science. She has won five Scholastic national medals and was published in The Best Teen Writing of 2016 and 2014. Her writing has also been recognized by the Sierra Nevada Review, the Claremont Review, and the Adroit Prizes. When not writing, she is involved with activism and the art of cat video appreciation. She is originally from Portland, Oregon.