Mr. Huber, the math teacher, points a weary finger toward the back of the room, aimed at the empty desk to my left. A few of my classmates snicker as the new boy, tall with a crown of hair that holds high on his head, the sides cut short so he’s styled a bit like a broccoli floret, marches past. His beauty is obvious, and I can see all the girls giving him a twice-over, taking in the slope of his shoulders in his long-sleeve shirt, the press of chest muscle visible under the fabric, the tapered narrowness of his waist. He has the build of a budding soccer player.
He slips his backpack off his left shoulder, careful to keep a grip on his shirtsleeves. His hands are pale, cuticles trim, fingernails white as teeth with strong, clean enamel, and his hair is the texture and color of straw. Our eyes meet, and he nods and lets a smile flash across his face.
Not once does he look at the birdcage embedded in my back.
Mr. Huber drones on about derivatives, his bald spot shiny in the fluorescent light, chalk squeaking across the board as he draws arrows and xs and equal signs. He drops the eraser, and the new boy doesn’t chuckle like the other smart idiots. The room is full of the sound of pencils shuffling across paper and the sour breath of adolescence. Kids cough and don’t answer Mr. Huber’s questions. When I drop my pencil, the tip cracking and sending a snow of graphite across my notebook, it rolls to the floor. The new boy picks it up and offers it to me. The tick of the clock dims away like unfocused clutter in a film. I feel unzipped and airy and light.
When the bell rings, he gathers up his things and stuffs them into his bag, all except his textbook. I can feel him staring at me as I shut my notebook and toss it into the satchel I carry everywhere.
“I’m Aiden,” he says. His voice is soft and buttery. He stares at me with his salty seawater eyes, blinking.
“Leonard. Why don’t you pack that in your bag?”
He looks down at the book, where a pair of students—an Asian boy and a black girl—are smiling at each other and pretending to scribble something on graph paper.
“I like the weight of things in my hands,” he says. “What’s your next class?”
“History. It’s down the hall to the left.”
“With Mrs. Davenport?”
I nod. The birds in my cage start squawking. I ignore them. So does he, not breaking eye contact.
“You’ll probably get stuck by me again,” I say. “The only empty seats are in the back.”
I want to tell him everything. That my parents, like me, carry their own cages full of birds. That I have never slept on my back. That I barely sleep at all, because the birds caw and twill behind me, birds I have only seen in photographs and my bleary reflection, caught at awkward side angles and around the edges of my back. How they hate the dark and scrabble at my skin and the cage’s bars and they shit and it drips onto my mattress and feathers deposit themselves in my mouth, choking me out of my infrequent dreams. That I have pored over every possible way of removing the cage, dismissed by surgeons due to the way the bars are snarled around my nerves and muscles and spinal column. It presses constantly on my spinal column, compresses my lower lumbar. Weight and pain are regular as breathing and walking.
But I say none of this. Aiden smiles. The light catches on his cheeks. He has no freckles or moles or acne, no blackheads mottling his skin in tiny constellations. He turns toward the door, and I lead him down the hall to history, where my prediction comes true: he is stuffed in the back next to me. When class ends, he still has said nothing about the cage, inside which the birds flap and titter at the noise of students clogging the door. Mrs. Davenport rolls her eyes and picks a brown feather from her blouse when I pass.
The birds shit a lot during biology, leaving a mealy scent wandering around the lab, overpowering the stench of formaldehyde and preserved cow eyes. Mr. Kelley, my English teacher, sighs when I smile at him with a watery apology. He, at least, lets me sit on an ottoman and lean the cage against the wall. He keeps half the lights off in the classroom and has affixed black curtains to the windows that he draws shut when we watch Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptations of Shakespeare plays.
Sometimes my classmates ask if the birdcage hurts. I can see a hunger in their eyes to touch it, even with just one finger, but none of them do. They gawk and whisper and laugh and cringe while the birds peal and squawk in the din of the hallways, miffed by the slamming lockers and swirl of voices and squeaky, stomping shoes. Unlike my father’s jungle green parrots and my mother’s pastel yellow canaries, my birds are a variety: cardinal, blue jay, once a hummingbird and then a mourning dove. They transmogrify at will. When I asked my mother why, she smiled sadly and patted my head, saying that when I get older, the birds will sort themselves out.
“They simply will,” she said, as though that cleared everything up.
This is all to say that Aiden, through history and into the lunch hour, where he sits with me on a bench outside the cafeteria next to the humming vending machines—I’m not allowed inside, for sanitary reasons—continues to ignore the cage. But his silence on the subject isn’t the kind of obvious willful lack of acknowledgement that stinks of desire to know, to ask. He talks about his home life—he and his parents have moved from Stockton, California, for his father’s new job—and asks me about my parents (a pair of accountants who like to paint on the side, filling our garage with messy half-finished canvases and high-inducing fumes). I answer, sentences spilling out of me in waterfalls of language. I’m speaking so fast I don’t know what I’m saying, but I keep talking, talking, talking.
I don’t know what it is about Aiden that pulls me like this. I’ve had crushes, many, on the Katies and Megans and Amys that I’ve grown up with. I’ve stared longingly at the back of Mellisa Hartman’s head for three years of Spanish and never mustered the bravado to ask her to Homecoming or prom. Something about Aiden grabs at me, reaching into me like roots, ready to wrap themselves around my muscles and fat, push the bars of the birdcage away with a disdainful nudge.
Aiden, a vegetarian, takes small nibbles from a cheese sandwich while I talk. He doesn’t care that I’m eating turkey, he says, licking his tongue over his teeth every time he swallows. He listens to me finally tell him the story of the birds, his expression unchanged, his alabaster skin a motionless expanse of milk. He hardly blinks and doesn’t take his eyes off me, even when I pause to chew.
“What kind of birds are you hoping for?” he says.
“I have no idea. The invisible kind. The silent kind. The kind without feathers.”
“I think you’re describing air, not birds.”
“Air would be great. Air I can handle.”
“You really hate them, huh?”
Aiden nods, staring down at the blue tiles under foot. He squints as if there’s a message scrawled between his wide-spread sneakers, something only he can see, because when I look down all I see is the familiar squares, an expansive nicked ocean.
When I was a kid, I thought I would become a professional bowler. I loved the shoes, their hard shape and the way my toes pressed against the unforgiving leather, painted Republican red with raised, absurd stitching. But I always smacked the cage on my back swing, the bowling ball’s heavy clang upsetting the birds. Other bowlers complained about slipping on dripped feathers and the occasional white splotchy turd they then had to avoid on their approach. At the local bowling alley I’m allowed, only on Sundays, to use the very far lane. The cashier glares at me and chain smokes.
I mention my love of bowling and Aiden’s face lights up. He demands we go as he crumples up his empty paper lunch bag and swishes it into a nearby trashcan. Then he floats away after we make plans to meet that weekend. I want to follow him, to keep talking, saying anything and everything, to explain that the bird cage wasn’t always the size it is, that it grew up just like I did, like amorphous, intelligent handcuffs. That I can only ride in cars whose passenger seats can be forced way back so that I don’t squash my knees against the dashboard. That I’ve never flown in an airplane or ridden on a train. That my parents and I sit on bar stools at dinner and never go to fancy restaurants because we know they wouldn’t let us in.
That my world has, until now, been teeny tiny.
I wait, desperate, for Sunday. Sleep is even more elusive than usual on Saturday night, which I spend hunched on the couch watching movies stretched to four hours with commercial breaks. My parents hum and whistle and nudge one another while they cook dinner, then flutter into the garage to paint the night away. My body itches, the birds flustered and loud.
Against the beige-brown lanes and dark blue carpet creeping up the damp walls, Aiden is even paler, like a light bulb hung bare in a dank basement. The bowling alley smells like Lucky Strikes and stale Yuengling. He chooses a forest green ball, the color of his eyes, and his form is perfect, his right foot hooking back behind his left as he throws, elbow juttering out so that he can fling the ball with spin. On his first turn it curls in a gorgeous arc across the oiled lane for a strike.
“You didn’t say you were good,” I say when he clumps down in the chair next to me.
“You didn’t ask.”
We play three games, pausing in between each for snacks from the greasy concession stand: nachos, sodas the size of small bathtubs, mozzarella sticks that make our fingers glow with grease. We leave crumbs along the tabletop and neither of us moves to clean them.
When we’re done, Aiden leads the way to the counter, where we flop our shoes in front of the old woman who croaks out our total and rolls her eyes at me, glancing behind her toward the smattering of feathers surrounding the scoring computer. She clears her throat. Aiden whips out his wallet and pays before I have the chance to argue.
“You can pay for ice cream cones,” he says as we leave. His body hums with a tingly energy, and I want desperately to reach out and touch his fingers with my own. The sound of crashing pins fills my ears, and I tell myself it’s the noise of thunderous applause.
I imagine Aiden snug in my twin bed, pressed to my side, his shoulders cubbied under my chin. His chest is smooth and puckered with budding muscle, a tiny pinwheel of dark hair curled at his belly button and trailing downward. My fingers run up and down his bicep like I am tickling a piano’s keys. His raw, uncolored lips follow me, appearing whenever I close my eyes. When we finished our ice cream on Sunday, he drove me to my house; in his car, a small sedan, I allowed my body to ache and screech with discomfort as I sat crammed in his passenger seat, the birds cawing with displeasure, feathers poofing into the atmosphere that smelled like metallic air freshener from a can. Aiden did not seem to mind. We idled at the curb in front of my house saying nothing until I forced myself out, skittering inside.
“How did you and Dad find each other?” I ask my mother over breakfast on Monday.
She teeters on her barstool, a piece of buttered toast dangling from her fingers. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, well, you both have bird cages.”
“We got lucky, I guess.”
Her eyes fuzz like an unfocused camera lens. I know she’s thinking about my father, how they paint together, childishly streaking one another’s bare arms with their brushes. I can hear them shrieking with joyous laughter sometimes. When they cook, they dance, taking one another by the arms and waltzing across the linoleum while steaks burn or pasta boils. They hum at dinner and play footsie, their legs crossing toward each other in front of mine.
“I’m sure you’ll be lucky too,” she says finally.
I don’t tell my mother that I think she’s right, because I don’t want to jinx it. I don’t want Aiden to flutter away like so much feathery material.
“Could you just let them out?” Aiden says at lunch, peering down at the cage. He stands and pulls me up, then circles like a lion considering his prey. He bends down and looks at the cage’s bars. Though I’m always jolted with pain when someone touches them, I silently wish that he will stroke the metal.
“There’s no door.”
“Do you feed them? What if one dies?”
“They don’t die. They just disappear and appear at will. I don’t really take roll.”
“Hmm.” He tugs at the sleeve of his shirt, a brown-and-yellow Henley that makes him look like a bee, or a honey pot. “What if you had everything cut off but the bars in your back?”
“I guess I never thought of that.”
He stares off toward the vending machines, as if attracted by their dull hum and neon glow. He scratches at his wrist, one finger digging up toward his forearm. It occurs to me that this is as much of his skin as I’ve ever seen; even in the warmest weather, Aiden wears jeans and long-sleeves. His shirts never dip short of his clavicle.
Eventually he snaps to. “But I don’t think you should do something like that.” He bites into a cucumber sandwich, one of a trio of them cut into perfect squares.
“Because, Leonard.” He swallows and stares at me. It feels like the glare of the sun. “They’re what make you you.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
He catches my hand in his. I startle. “But it is,” he says. He shakes his head and looks away. “It is. It has to be.”
My parents go away for a weekend to an amateur artists’ convention, loading up their favorite canvases in the trunk. I invite Aiden over, promising video games, pizza, and more soda than we can stomach. He accepts, and we’re told by Mrs. Davenport to shut up. The class titters, but I don’t care. I spend my afternoon in a daze, the bars in my back throbbing like the cage has been plugged into an electric socket. During English the birds are so fluttery and loud that Mr. Kelley stops his discussion of Catcher in the Ryeand gives his head a little jerk toward the door, his eyes lamenting in my direction. I pick up my things and go, my classmates staring in silence as a trail of technicolor feathers flutters to the floor. They snarfle back their laughter.
I sit with the cage butted up against my locker and wait for the final bell. When it rings, the birds flap their wings in frustration and students pour out, giving me a wide berth as though I’m infectious and could turn them all into mourning doves or pigeons. The thought gives me a laugh as I picture the jocks and jokesters transforming in a puff of feathers, their new bird eyes wide and glossy with fear and confusion and an unsettling desire to peck at unripe corn kernels. I wait around for Aiden, wondering if he’ll meet me as school lets out and come straight to my house, but he’s nowhere to be seen. I trudge home, ignoring the pleasantness of the afternoon sky.
The house buzzes with emptiness and possibility. My mother has baked an apple pie, spice and cinnamon wafting through the living room. I plop down on the couch and scan through channel after channel, passing talk shows and children’s cartoons and CSPAN. SportsCenter announcers ramble about some massive deal for an up-and-coming quarterback, and I try to imagine what I would do with fifty million dollars. For that much money, some risk-taking doctor would have to be willing to excise the bird cage. Maybe I could pay someone to build me a bionic suit with a pair of robotic legs so that if the surgery left me paralyzed I could walk again, even if with a herky-jerky gait, and I couldn’t ever go in a swimming pool or run laps. Not that I do either now.
The birds, as if sensing my thoughts, begin to beat their wings and caw, so loud I can barely hear the television, and I almost miss when the doorbell rings. I vault up from my hunched perch on the couch and turn off the TV. The birds flutter and bat some more as their world tilts and tumbles, and when I reach the front door, I take a moment to let them settle before I swing it open. Aiden is standing there, a pair of sunglasses occluding his eyes, his uniform long sleeve shirt and jeans hanging tight on his frame.
“Nice shades,” I say. “New?”
“No,” he says, peeling them off. “It’s just bright outside.”
His sedan sits crooked on the curb, one tire biting into the edge of the yard, which has gone scuzzy with dandelions and is in desperate need of a mowing; my father calls up a lawn-care company sporadically, refusing, for reasons unbeknownst to me, to sign up for a regular schedule of weed whacking and hedge trimming. We live on a large, sloping lot, the back yard a series of bumpy hills like groomed moguls, difficult and time-consuming to cut. He once lost control of the riding mower he no longer uses and had to leap off as it tilted over on itself, spraying out dirt and churned grass. His parrots were in a flurry for hours afterward, the gilt bars of his cage bent and twisted. He complained of a neckache and his back throbbed for a week; he spent the time moaning into the carpet, lying facedown on a stack of pillows and blankets.
“Come in,” I tell Aiden, ushering him through the front door. He slips off his shoes, revealing delicate black socks, silken and sheer so I can see the outline of each toe. There’s something intimate and sharp about the sight.
We shuffle inside and sit indelicately on the couch, the berth of an entire cushion between us. For lack of anything else to do, I turn the television back on, and we watch Jeopardy!, neither of us shouting out many of the answers even though we just covered the Civil War in Mrs. Davenport’s class and there’s a whole category on it. Something is jangling and off-kilter; Aiden’s presence has suddenly become oppressive and confusing rather than the relaxing, glowing joy that it has been at school. Unlike when we sit on the benches outside the cafeteria, I can’t think of anything to say. I can’t quite look at him.
The birds rustle their wings.
“Are you hungry?” I say when the episode is over. “My parents gave me money to order pizza.”
“Want to play video games or something?”
We trudge into the basement, which smells sweet and sour: dried paint and the faint whiff of wet plaster. Aiden’s eyes go to the canvases leaning against the walls. I explain that my father has painted the abstracts with their smudgy slashes of color and burbling squares and circles and that my mother is interested in portraiture, but warped.
“Like Picasso,” he says, staring at one of them, its eyes buggy and coarse, the lips parted and turned to a forty-five degree angle from the lightbulb-shaped chin. The entire face is streaky, as if viewed through a foggy shower door.
“She’d certainly appreciate the comparison.”
We plop onto an old ratty couch, its plaid fibers ripped on the arms from the scratchings of a long-deceased cat. Aiden sinks back while I perch forward. We play Mortal Kombat on my old Sega; he wipes the floor with me three times in a row, my digitized body splashing pixelated blood across the screen as I’m tossed to and fro, my character’s cartoonishly huge muscles dangling in unconsciousness and death. After he drops me to a spiked floor for the fourth time, a jagged tooth of rock blown through my character’s torso, I suggest we should order something to eat.
Aiden hesitates, then leans forward, setting his controller on the carpet.
“Can I ask you something?” he says.
“Why am I here?”
The question is like a fish hook yanked through my cheek. Aiden is blinking at me, arms crossed not in aggression or annoyance but for the simple ease of it, his thumbs hooked around the cuffs of his sleeves.
I try to lean back to match his slouched shape, but the birds fuss the second the cage touches the couch cushions. They bawl and flail, and I let out a frustrated yelp when one beaks me in the back. I turn sharply to face him, sending the birds careening against the bars. I feel the cage shift beneath my skin like thick needles pressing against my muscles. Nerves shoot pain up my spinal column.
“You’re here because I want you to be,” I say. “Aren’t we friends?” I barely get the last word to leave my mouth, as if it is some creature unwilling to be birthed into the world, clawing to stay behind my lips and teeth.
Aiden won’t meet my gaze. “Yeah, of course we are.”
“Well, don’t friends have friends over to their houses?”
“I guess so.”
My heart is strumming fast, hard enough that I’m sure Aiden can hear the dizzy whoosh. I feel my blood pulsing all throughout my body.
“What’s wrong?” I say. I lay a hand on the cushion between us. He looks down at it like a dog unsure if he’s allowed to grab up his favorite toy or treat. I waggle my fingers. Aiden sets his own hand down as well, keeping the material of his shirt pinched between thumb and index finger.
“What’s that about?” I say, inching my hand closer to his.
“What’s what about?”
“This.” I point toward his clenched fingers. “You’re always tugging your shirts down over your hands.”
“Oh. That.” He looks away from me, toward the television screen where my dead character is still languishing in his blood and eviscera. “It’s nothing.”
“No,” I say. “It’s definitely something.” I reach toward his hand. “Tell me.”
“I can’t. I shouldn’t.”
“So it is something.”
Aiden pulls back, sinking into the edge of the couch like he could be sucked out of this world and into another. From the look on his face, he would welcome it.
I imagine all sorts of things. That he’s got scars from suicide attempts, or burn marks from being abused. That something’s wrong with one of his shoulders, collapsed in like a half-deflated balloon. Or maybe he’s gun-shy about how he looks, wishing his biceps were bigger, his forearms flared with more muscle.
“It can’t be that bad.”
Aiden gives me an appraising look, as if noticing the birds for the first time.
“How do you do it?” he says.
“Walk around with everyone staring at you. Doesn’t it make you feel like a spectacle?”
“Not when you do it,” I say, my tongue like a fat, raw beefsteak in my mouth. I feel a fiery streak in my cheeks. The birds caw, one of them pecking at my back. I feel tattooed.
Aiden sighs. “I’ve never shown anyone before.”
“Shown anyone what?”
He takes a deep breath and leans forward. “Will you close your eyes?”
There is a shuffling noise. The couch whinnies. The slippery static of shifting fabric fills the air. My hair tingles.
“No,” Aiden says. “But open them anyway.”
His shirt lays discarded on the floor next to him, a snaky ring. His torso is bare, his sheath of a body pulsing with tight, strong shape. Ridges of muscle stripe his chest.
But that is not what he is trying to show me.
Up and down the backs of his arms and shoulders and across his stomach is a soft plumage of white.
“Are those feathers?”
He clamps his arms across himself and looks down at his shirt, ready to tug it back on. As he bends, I take his wrist.
“No. Don’t.” I look him in the eye and run my other hand along one of his triceps. The feathers tingle against my fingertips, like they’ve got a heavy build-up of static electricity. Like they’ve been waiting forever to transfer what has been trapped in them. “I had no idea.”
“No one does. Except my parents.”
“How could I show anyone this?” His cheeks flare, red globes of color rising against his skin like campfires.
I lean forward and kiss him. My tongue presses through his lips, and with a short puff of warm, lemony breath, they break and he lets me in. I set my hand on the down of his back, my fingers pushing through the feathers.
He pulls back. “I never thought it would feel like that.”
“Good or bad?”
Aiden kisses me again in response, shoving me back so the birdcage sinks against the couch. We kiss deep and long, and I press my hands flat against his chest. If my birds are flustered, I don’t notice because I can hear nothing but the thump of my heart, can feel nothing except Aiden’s skin against my own and the warmth of his lips, the minty spittle moving from his mouth to mine. Blood whirls in my ears. When my hands are not touching him, they feel raw, as if everything, even the air around us, is harsh as sandpaper. He is the softest thing I’ve ever felt. His hands along my chest make me tremble, shooting hotness through my stomach and groin. I wonder how I have found this person like me. We look at one another, our mismatched skin, his white and puckered with so many tiny feathers like wriggling fingers, mine peach and blank, flat and uneventful.
I’m not sure what to do next. Aiden leans back and looks at me, then closes his eyes and murmurs with what I hope is satisfaction. Then he cants over and tosses his head in my lap, where I’m sure he can feel my erection on the back of his head. But he says nothing, only looks up at me.
“I haven’t done this before,” he says.
“I don’t really know how any of it works.”
I tell him not to worry. Neither of us moves, though the room pulses with life and heat and sweat. I want to take off my shirt, pull away his pants and see his full, total self, but I am frozen. Not out of fear. Not out of dripping, haranguing want—though there is plenty of that—but because the room is ticking with a sort of silence I have not heard in ages. The birds have gone quiet.
“Leonard,” Aiden says, reaching up a hand. “Your feathers.” He touches the closest bar of the cage. The sensation is sprawling and cool, like I’m being frozen.
And then there is a sudden flutter. The room spins, and I wobble like I am going to pass out, so I shut my eyes. The birds raise a high cacophony and the weight of Aiden’s head leaves my lap.
“Look,” he says.
When I open my eyes, the basement is filled with a swirl of white like we are in a snow globe: feathers, hundreds, raked from his body and thrown from my cage, floating through the air. They blanket the couch and carpet. They stick to my lips and eyebrows. I feel them on my toes. Aiden smiles. We are surrounded by downy whiteness, and I am overcome by a shuddering pleasure. I can picture us, buried together for an eternity, collapsed and secure under the weight of snowy feathers, warm enough to melt anything.