SHort Prose COntest 2017 Runner Up:
The Summer After the Summer Father Was Carried Away by the Bomb
by Ryan Habermeyer
We had heard rumors of the pelicans but nobody believed them until a Tuesday in August. Ashes blew in from the East. Five hundred fifty-two days without rain. The soybean crop wilted. The ice cream ran out. There was talk in other towns of the same. Everyone had a theory how to bring back the moisture. We looked at the cloudless sky and believed things had to change.
They appeared innocently, that pod of brown migratory pelicans. We spied on them, perched on ashen rooftops downtown, and they eyed us back. Their feathers were slick with mange and every time one spread its wings we could see the skin pulled taut over the breastbone.
Before sunset, the pelicans circled the empty water tower. Without warning, they dove. A ritualistic kamikaze. There were hundreds, maybe thousands. When their bodies hit the pavement they crackled like fresh celery split in a sink. A woman said it was the beginning of the end of days, but she misunderstood. The birds were confused, not religious—the glare on the asphalt had the sheen of lake water. We must have looked like abnormal fish.
Gathering up the carcasses we noticed they were all nestlings, small and bony, no more than a year old. Watching the pod fly into the horizon we could not help but feel this was the answer to our prayers.
That night, after gnawing pelican bones to the marrow, we had our first rain in months. It lasted three minutes.
Two days later the first child disappeared. She was last seen on the bridge with her mother and father, balancing on the railing with flailing arms as if it were a circus tightrope performance.
Later the water tower and abandoned crane became popular locations. Families without means used rooftops. We each made an offering. The newspaper kept a list of names alongside the day’s weather forecast and rain tracker. It ran on page two.
Shortly after my mother removed brother’s mattress from his room and boarded up the shattered window we often heard the wild flapping late at night. I believed it was an injured bird in the attic, but my mother insisted it was only the sky gratefully squeezing out another drop of rain.
Ryan Habermeyer earned his MFA from the University of Massachusetts and PhD from the University of Missouri. His debut short story collection, The Science of Lost Futures, won the BoA Short Fiction Prize and will be published next year. Beginning August 2017 he will be Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Salisbury University.