An Alarm Clock for Luz
Last winter, when I lived alone and slept poorly, I dreamed about a rook. In this dream, the bird speared its way into my back while I wept for what felt like months. Soon, I was awake, but the dream sensations hadn’t subsided. Alone in the darkness, I heard something clearly. A live bird’s call. I left my bed and stood in the doorway. The sound was coming from the corner opposite me. It echoed out of the heating vent, filling the living room. I sat on the floor, knees-to-chest, and listened. The bird cried for five minutes or so then ceased.
What to do, whom to tell, how to report this?
The manager of my apartment building had a simple explanation. “Crows nest on the roof,” he said, his bloodshot eyes scanning my face. It was the next afternoon, and we had just crossed paths in front of the building. “Sound carries.” He waved me aside and began climbing the stairs, stopping halfway to spit into the bushes.
For the next three mornings, I awoke to the alarming noise of a bird in distress. Its shrill caws and beating wings insisted: I am here, listen to me. I am here, listen to me. A steady rhythm, it would not stop.
Those evenings, I retreated to the house of my not-quite boyfriend, who was employed as some kind of engineer. I passed the time with him until nightfall. When I returned, cold, I kept my bedroom door shut.
On the fourth morning, the bird was still raging. I’d had enough. I called my mother. This was our first conversation in seven months. She greeted me with a scolding in Spanish, the tongue I had long ago bitten and held. She asked what I wanted. I told her about the things that had been happening lately. “Please, just tell me what you think,” I said. “Who died, or is dying, or will die?”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “[The day it started] would have been your grandmother’s birthday. Maybe she is saying, ‘hello.’”
A satisfactory explanation: the next morning was silent.
That afternoon, the engineer drove us to the beach. The weather was chilly and the sky paled grey with the suggestion of rain, but we went, anyway. From the pier to the lifeguard tower stretched a lonely picture of the offseason. No umbrellas or barbecues. No surfers in the water, either.
“Perfect,” he said.
I had learned, in our time together, that the engineer felt most at ease in open spaces absent of crowds. No crowds. Crowds made him jumpy.
Alone, we had a good time at the beach, joking around, collecting shells, and eating the sandwiches I had made for us. On the way home, however, the engineer didn’t speak to me, wouldn’t respond to me when I spoke to him. This wasn’t new. He had moods. The bird, my nerves, my questions—he had nothing to say about any of it.
“Sorry,” I said.
Shameful tears filled my eyes. I rolled the window down. A light mist brushed my cheeks as I focused on the passing scenery. I counted twenty-five palm trees, weak and waving in the wind. One tree for each year of my life.
The rest of the drive was quiet. Outside my apartment, I offered to fix dinner for us. The engineer shook his head. He couldn’t stay. He had to work on an important project. If he needed a distraction, he would drop by later. Maybe.
I gave him a spare key, just as a hand appeared on the driver’s side window. The apartment manager was hunched beside the car, tapping the glass. Move away from the loading zone, he signaled. The engineer nodded. He turned to me and put his hand atop my head the way someone might appease a dog. “You’d better get going,” he said.
Upstairs, I skipped dinner, fell asleep and had a nightmare. Encircling me were young women who, while nondescript, seemed to represent me. Figure after figure unscrewed her mechanical jaw to reveal a rotten cavern of molting teeth and pulpy gum sockets. Behind the group and elevated, a silver-haired, black-eyed woman yanked at the sutures binding her lips. Someone, somewhere, spoke my name.
Nauseated, I called the engineer from the swamps of my pillowcase. No answer. No answer. No answer.
In the bathroom, I fumbled with the faucet, cupping icy water in my shaking hands. My face looked especially sullen and ugly under a harsh fluorescent light. I could see dried blood in the cracks of my bottom lip.
It was after midnight when I called my mother. I didn’t think I would reach her, but I did. I mumbled words into the phone, trying to describe the dream and this feeling I had, whatever it was, a steady sense of unease.
“Oh, Luz,” she said. Her voice broke. Whether it broke from drunkenness or pure sadness, I couldn’t tell. She sighed. “In my dream last night, we lost your sister.”
On my nightstand sat a prayer candle, dusty from neglect. I narrowed my eyes at the slumped wick, the way it cowered without its flame. “What’s that got to do with all the fallen teeth?” I asked, though I suspected I knew the answer. The knowing was faint, but it was there, a latent intuition that I would grow to inhabit; left behind, an old self, just a husk of ignorance.
* * *
I slept very little that night. The next morning, Sunday, I was supposed to meet someone for breakfast at a place in my neighborhood. I arrived early and settled at a table near the window. A server approached me holding one menu. I said that I would be waiting for a friend. He told me his name, Felix, and asked if there was anything he could bring me in the meantime, an order of toast, maybe, because I was looking sort of faint.
“A little bit.”
“I get it. Hangovers. Let me get you a coffee, then. It’s on the house.”
“It’s what? Oh. Thanks.”
I put my head down on the table and closed my eyes. On my walk to the restaurant, I had felt lightheaded, even more so after the apartment manager had pulled up beside me in his red pickup truck. He leaned on his horn and yelled that I was late with my rent check. I had turned it in days ago. He didn’t remember. “You’re imagining things,” he said, and sped away.
Now, my pulse was picking up. I needed someone to talk to about oddities and omens. My friend would be there soon. A friend from childhood, the kindest and funniest person I knew. Gone for years from San Diego, but back for a few short days. Here for a baptism. A godmother by now. She would understand everything. Part of it, at least. She had been raised on superstitions, too.
“What do you need?”
I raised my head. Felix had returned to the table and was placing a plate and cup in front of me. He asked if I still wanted to wait. Yes. I assumed my friend was running late, but I had forgotten my cell phone back at the apartment.
Felix shrugged. “Happens.”
“It’ll be fine,” I said, brushing away the crumbs from a packet of sugar. I tore off a bit of toast. It was dry, my throat was dry, and my jaw hurt as I chewed. Then it occurred to me that most of my body hurt. I held pain all over, in my temples, in my shoulders, in my ribs.
One cup of watery coffee downed, then another. The neon arms of the wall clock had swept away thirty minutes. The restaurant was filling up quickly. As he hurried past me, Felix drummed his fingers on the tabletop: what are you going to do?
I searched outside the window. People went by, walking dogs, pushing strollers, jogging in pairs. A row of empty storefronts stood across the street. Above them, a bird hopped across the utility wires. Behind me, a piece of glassware fell from a table and shattered on the floor. I would give it five minutes. I would wait five more minutes for my friend to show up and hug me, laugh with me, assure me, without doubt, that we were young and not going anywhere.
NATALIE QUAVE received an MFA from San Diego State University. Her writing has appeared in Fiction International. She lives in the Bay Area, where she writes fiction.