The Vulture, Pt.1
Adam let out a generous yawn, covering his mouth like he was taught to do. He had hardly slept the previous night, favoring an empty sketchbook and crayons to his blanket and pillows. He drew birds. An entire aviary. Tiny bent letter Vs made up the majority of this menagerie, but there were rugged depictions of ducks, parrots, and tiny, innocuous, twittering birds he didn’t know the name of. Dominating each page he drew on, however, was an immaculate bald eagle; his personal favorite. He made sure to keep within the lines when coloring his eagles. When he drew his eagles, his pace slowed to a crawl. He delicately crafted each one, squinting and reassessing as he went along. Those unfortunate eagles that were not to his standards were balled up and tossed across the room towards his trash can. His birds kept him in a fervor until he finally passed out on the floor with a yellow crayon in his hands at the ungodly hour of ten. His mother found him this way the next morning, her heart leaping into her throat before she saw that he was merely sleeping on the floor. Despite his bubbling excitement for his family’s routine Sunday outing, the delirium of waking up before eight on the weekend tempered his spirit. He was in and out of sleep in the car, only being jostled to full consciousness when the family’s sedan rattled into a gravel parking lot. He lurched his body as far as his harness of seatbelts would allow, just barely able to peer past the blinders on the side of his seat to see into the lot. They were parking, which means they were there. He was no longer sleepy. He ran his thumb along the belt release, ready to fly out of the car as soon as his mother opened the door for him even though the car hadn’t come to a full stop yet. He never took his seatbelt off before the car was off, like he was taught.
Adam’s father, Trevor, had parked the car, but left it on. This was an agonizing trait that Trevor was infamous for, at least to his wife and boy. Normally, Adam thought nothing of this, even figured there was a practical reason. Today was different, though. Today, Adam needed to get out of this car as soon as possible so the outing could truly begin. He bored his anxious stare into the back of his father’s head. His father sat, ten and two on the wheel, just staring. Exhaust puffed out of the muffler and the old four-door vibrated in place. Adam only now realized how cold it was. The car’s heat didn’t truly hit the backseat most of the time, but he didn’t complain. He knew not to complain about his father’s brooding either.
Trevor shut off the engine. The car stopped vibrating. Adam knew what was next. In the vacuum of silence, Trevor sighed. It was a prolonged sigh. A sigh that demanded to be acknowledged. The permeating chill was reignited, ignoring Adam’s windbreaker, wading effortlessly through the layer of flannel he was wearing, and slipping down his spine. He shifted and cringed, creaking in his car seat. Adam hated that sigh before he could truly process what hate was. Even at seven years old, he had learned quickly, as had his mother, that Trevor’s Sunday outing ritual was not to be disturbed. Not for fear of a strike across the cheek or a belittling tirade, but because Trevor would whine. Adam didn’t understand it as whining as much as he did a deeply unsettling escalation of his father’s vibe, but Tiffany, Adam’s mother, certainly classified Trevor’s protests of “leave me alone” and “I didn’t want to do this” as a whine. A whine decidedly worse than just letting the man sigh and wait. So, they sat and they waited until Trevor had decided that Tiffany would not throw her hands up in surrender and ask that they “just go home”. Adam, uncharacteristically patient for a child, was about to forego precedent and bring about a whine from his father if it meant they could leave the car. He was about to pipe up. “Can we please go?” was just about to escape his lips when his father beat him to the chase.
“Alright”, his father announced, “let’s get this over with.”
Adam clicked his belt release before his father could finish the last syllable. Tiffany, with equal stiff speed, exited the car to gather her son. As she helped her son out of his seat and to the ground, she couldn’t bring herself to look at him. This happened every goddamn Sunday, but she couldn’t hold back how the bile rising in her throat at the sound of that sigh poisoned her expression. She didn’t want her son to catch the brunt of that contempt. They rounded the back of the car and stood, waiting again for their patriarch to shuffle his way out of the car and to them. With sparse attendance this morning, Adam had a clear view of the entrance of his mother’s pick for their Sunday outing. No sulking father could ruin this for him, Adam was sure of it. Tiffany, infected by her son’s unwillingness to give into the chill or his father’s black hole of a personality, smiled herself.
Tiffany absolutely insisted on Sunday outings as a family. She never had them as a child. Trevor, whether she was willing to admit it or not, was much like her father when she was growing up. There were rarely family outings, and it was always a fight to get him to even talk to his kids. She didn’t want her Adam growing up without family time; without knowing what was important. “It’s really not that hard”, Tiffany would brag to her mom-friends, “to find things to do with your family when you have an internet connection.” She found most of her Sunday outing spots on the web. Today’s outing, in fact, was the result of a recent web search. The LeBlanc Center for Birds of Prey was everything she looked for in a Sunday outing: outdoors, less than an hour away, cheap and fun for her son. Educational was a plus.
Tiffany took off towards the entrance with her son in tow as soon as soon as Trevor had stepped out of the car. From a distance, Adam could make out a bestiary painted on the archway entrance. All sorts of birds were depicted there, some he knew, some he didn’t. He scanned the archway back and forth until…yes, there in the left corner. The bald eagle. The one painted here was far better than he thought he would ever be able to draw. His heart pounded.
Their shoes crunched against the gravel unevenly. Adam had to practically run to keep up with his mother, his breath huffing out little clouds in the chilly air. He turned only once to look at his father. Trevor slinked across the gravel, more interested in his shoes than their destination. Adam looked back to the archway and to the eagle painted there.
He had seen the iconography of the bald eagle plastered everywhere in his short life. On textbooks, toys, cartoons, the new, in morning school broadcasts, on top of flagpoles for crying out loud. The bird was practically a celebrity to him. A visage of dignity and power. His mother had promised him that the Center for Birds of Prey would have a live, honest to God, bald eagle. Maybe even two. Maybe even three, Adam now thought with the electric jubilance of a child. He could hear some of the birds now, with their high-pitched shrieks and repetitive calls. As they crossed under the archway at the entrance, Adam had forgotten all about his weariness, all about his father’s sigh. That was until his father spoke up again. “How much did you say this place was, again?” Adam’s father called out.
Adam and his mother turned. Trevor was standing, defiant, on the exterior side of the arch. “The site said eight dollars a ticket.” Tiffany called back.
“Any kid’s discounts or anything?”
“I don’t think so.”
Trevor scoffed. “You know, eight dollars a ticket is like…how much it would cost for hamburgers for each of us.”
“We can go to lunch after this.”
“We can go to lunch instead of this.”
Tiffany was having none of it. She dropped Adam’s hand and stomped back towards her husband. “Trevor. We are having family time. End of discussion.” She whispered harshly.
Trevor held up his hands in a mock surrender. Tiffany stomped back towards her son and jerked him forward, closing in on the ticket booth. Adam knew his mother was angry, he just wished she didn’t pull him around by the arm. He tapped his mother’s hand. She looked back at her son and his furrowed little brow of distress. She lightened her grip but did not fully let go. Once they all see the eagles, Adam thought, everything will be fine. The cacophony of bird calls was like air raid sirens at this point. All manner of birdsongs complemented each other. The window of the dual administration building and ticket booth was shut as they approached it. There was a cobblestone path leading left and into the Center itself. Already there was a large wooden cage, fifteen feet by fifteen feet, that Adam could see. From this distance, Adam couldn’t make out what was in there. Tiffany rang a call bell just outside the window.
After a moment, the window slid open and a jovial, jowly old woman poked her head out. She revealed herself with a smile, directing it at both Tiffany and Adam individually before speaking. Behind her, recessed farther into the office, some Center employees sat around a table, drinking coffee, having breakfast, and softly bemoaning weekend work. “Good morning!”, started the ticket taker, “Welcome to the LeBlanc Center for Birds of Prey. Happy to have you on the weekend. Been here before?”
“No, first time. I saw you all online and figured we should give it a shot.” Tiffany smiled back.
Adam stopped listening. He turned back towards his father. Trevor was still about six feet away from the window behind him. He was fishing around in his wallet for cash. Adam decided to instead focus on the birds’ calls, trying to discern which one was the bald eagle. He realized he wasn’t sure what they sounded like. Whatever it was, he was sure it was majestic. He fantasized about a bald eagle throwing open its beak and emitting a lion’s roar. He giggled to himself. Too majestic, perhaps.
Tiffany, after getting the total from the ticket taker, turned back towards her husband as well. He was now sorting his cash with a slow, passive contempt. To bide time, Tiffany continued her conversation. “So, how many species are currently here?”
“The Center currently houses twelve species of raptor. The only ones you won’t see today are the burrowing owls. We just got them in so they need to be in isolation for a bit. Here, let me get ya’ll a pamphlet and a map.”
As the ticket taker bent below the counter to get them, Adam tugged on his mother’s jacket sleeve, a single word stuck in his brain. “Mom, did she say raptor?”
“No.” Trevor said. He had his money ready.
They all heard a laugh from behind the counter as the ticket taker came back up. “I never get tired of that. Every time we get a school field trip, or a group of kids come in, there’s always one keen one that thinks we’re some sort of secret dinosaur zoo.” She beamed down at Adam. “A raptor is what we call a bird of prey, darlin’. If it’s got sharp claws and eats prey, it’s a raptor. Not a velociraptor.”
Adam reddened but grinned along with the old woman. The only thing that could have made seeing a bald eagle better, admittedly, was if it was a dinosaur.
“Here’s the money.” Adam’s father butted in, stepping forward. The ticket taker’s smile was broken for just a second. She had noticed the dour man earlier but had forgotten he was there. She took the money and sorted out the change. She handed him back a few coins but consciously handed the admission stickers and other accoutrement to Tiffany.
“Just a couple more bits of info –“ she started, but stopped as she noticed Trevor stomp off towards the interior of the Center, towards the first cage. Her mouth shut and she couldn’t help but to grimace. She turned to Tiffany. “You all need to put those stickers right on your jackets, okay? Make sure he does too. Like I was saying, just a few more things. All the birds here have been injured or are sick in some way or another. Some of them are here to be rehabilitated but most of them can’t be released back into the wild. Some can’t fly well or can’t catch prey, so we keep them here to live out their lives in comfort.”
Adam’s stomach dropped out a bit. He didn’t want to see sick birds. He didn’t even know birds could get sick.
“How do they get injured?” Tiffany inquired.
“Well, all sorts of ways.” The ticket taker replied, matter of fact. “Shot, hit by cars. Why, we have a hawk here that flew right into an airboat propeller and sliced his wing in half.” Adam winced, but the ticket taker kept her smile alive. “Don’t worry about it none, honey. He was a fighter. You’ll actually see him in that first cage there where…where your daddy is.”
Adam and Tiffany looked down the path towards the first cage. Sure enough, Trevor stood, shoulders slumped, hands in his pockets, staring at the cage. A silence hung in the air. Even the birds had stopped calling as the cool disdain for Trevor lingered.
“Just remember your stickers go on your jackets and have a great time.” The ticket taker concluded, and she slid her window closed. Adam tugged on his mother’s sleeve again.
“What is it, honey?”
Adam pointed at the call bell wordlessly. He was too nervous to ring it himself. Tiffany did it for him. The window slid open again.
“Was there something else?” the ticket taker asked, poking her head out.
“Go on, Adam.” Tiffany urged.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Where’s the bald eagles?”
“Oh, a patriot!” The ticket taker let out another grandmotherly laugh. “We save the best for last. Those are at the other end. The whole path is a circle that leads back here and the eagles are at the top of the circle, okay? You can usually hear them before you see them, but from the sound of it, they’ve been pretty calm this morning. We have two, male and female, Lucy and Swanson.”
Adam flashed his teeth, vibrating once more with excitement. “Thank you!”
“You’re welcome, honey.” The ticket taker slid the window closed again.
Adam didn’t want to wait. He wanted to zip past his father, past all the hawks, falcons, kites, owls, and whatever else went squawk in the sky. He had a mission. It was now he that was leading his mother by the arm.
“Adam”, Tiffany started, “Adam, slow down. Don’t you want to see the other birds?”
Adam didn’t slow down, he let go of his mother’s arm completely, he began a trot towards the end of the path. His short legs couldn’t carry him very far before his mother caught up with him, lifting him in the air.
“But mom, the eagles!” Adam whined.
“Yes, yes, I know, the eagles. But we came here to see all the birds, right? If we just looked at the eagles and then left, it wouldn’t be much of an outing, would it?”
“Just let him go look at the eagles, Tiff.” Adam’s father grumbled.
Tiffany ignored her husband and plopped Adam in front of the first cage. The cage was mostly bare. The floor was dirt and hay and there were a few artificial branches poking out from the sides and back wall. On one of these branches, closer to the floor, were two red-tailed hawks huddled close together for warmth against the cold wind of the early morning. One was still asleep, its head tucked tight against its breast feathers. The other, however, glared out at them. It bobbed and twitched its head up and down, left to right, making sure to capture all angles of these newcomers, these potential threats. It let out three identical shrieks. Adam took half a step back, wincing and covering his ears. Tiffany drew him close and read out the informational plaque in front of the cage to him. He didn’t pay much attention; he was too focused on marveling at how big they were. These two must nearly be about waist high on him. His mother finished reading off the plaque. “They’re pretty, huh Adam?” she remarked. Adam didn’t respond. Both father and son simply stared.
Tiffany peeled the sticker tickets from there paper, placing one on Adam and herself, and holding the last out to Trevor.
“I’ve got your ticket. You need to put it on your jacket.”