For Adelaide’s whole life, the view from her bedroom windows had been the side of the Fitzpatrick’s house: puckered white siding streaked black-green with mildew. Several years ago, a grey stain shaped like a horse’s head had appeared.
Today, though, she saw sky: a blanket of thick, dark grey, lumpy clouds.
Her father had told her this might happen, and then later, it was all over the news. She’d memorized the words: gravitational force anomaly.
Adelaide opened both windows and stood at the one on the right. Mechanical birds swooped in crazy parabolas. They soared and plummeted, made frantic by a yellow bungalow drifting into their flightspace. A shiny, rust-colored falcon chased a flapping flock of small copper birds.
She pressed hard on the plastic levers that held the window screen in place. The tips of her fingers whitened, the levers refusing to budge.
Then – snap! The screen released, popped out, and sailed toward the ground.
Adelaide stood on her tiptoes and stuck her head out as far as she could without her feet entirely leaving the floor. The ground wasn’t that far away, maybe two stories down. The screen had landed where she guessed their front porch had been. Below her, the Fitzpatrick’s house hovered a few feet off the ground. The trees in the greenbelt behind their cul-de-sac stood firm.
The air felt the same as ever–dirty and damp. The guy lines looked just like her father had described. The line nearest her was tethered to a metal anchor she had watched a work crew drill deep into the ground last fall.
Anomaly anomaly anomaly. It sounded like a made-up word.
Six of the small copper birds clung to the guy line, their stupid little heads swiveling.
A steel hawk wheeled past. Adelaide flinched and fell backwards, landing on the dusty purple carpet with a bone-jarring thump.
“Mom!” she shouted.
No answer. The wool carpet tickled her bare calves. The thick rolls of clouds were darkening as more thick clouds pressed in behind them. Another storm coming in? Her stomach did a little flip.
Wait. Her mom had gone to her yoga class. The studio was three blocks away. A month ago, her mother had announced that she was old enough to be left alone for an hour or so. Her voice had been flat, as though she was informing Adelaide of an official government policy, as if she herself had no choice in the matter.
A bird – one of the smaller ones, probably – must have flown into the remaining window screen and bounced off. Its impact left a dent in the screen.
Adelaide’s father had explained that scientists had discovered that gravitational force anomalies were related to the way the earth’s crust was slowly rebounding from the pressure of the glaciers that had covered their province during the Ice Age. The up and down and wayback of this had confused her, and she couldn’t remember if he had told her what the scientists predicted would happen next.
Her mother had been in a hurry to leave. She swore at Maxim for rubbing against her black stretch pants, and told Adelaide she would be back in an hour-and-a-half unless she stopped for coffee after class in which case she would be gone longer than that.
The last time Adelaide had asked her mother a question–why the inside of the candle flame was blue–her mother said please please please stop asking me questions. She said she had no idea why one goddamn thing happened, and why didn’t matter because they were all going to hell in a hand basket.
Her father said they needed to be gentle with her mother. Last summer, Grandma Fourier had died of bubonic plague in Colorado. On Valentine’s Day, Adelaide’s mom shattered a tooth on a piece of French bread. The day she had the tooth pulled, she learned her position had been made redundant in a bank merger.
Adelaide didn’t feel any different, laying on the floor, and her room didn’t look different. Book pages ruffled on her desk from the wind breezing in through the open windows.
Once, at the dinner table, her father had tried to explain why large things like buildings might float away while small things like girls and cats and canopy beds would stay fixed in place, but her mother said stop, please stop, and he did.
Maxim strolled past Adelaide’s face, swishing his white tail across her nose. Adelaide was curious to know if the other houses in their cul-de-sac were floating, but Maxim kneaded his paws into her tummy a few times and settled in there, purring loudly.
Sometime before Christmas her father had shown her mother and Adelaide the shelf in the coat closet where he’d put the escape ladder and demonstrated how to hook it over the kitchen window sill. As long as they watched where they were going, they would be able climb in and out of the house safely for as long as necessary.
Through the open window she heard a voice. Maybe the voice was calling her name.
Not long ago, her father had told her that when the mechanical birds were first introduced they sang and squawked and screeched just like the birds they were modeled after. But people had complained about the racket. In the absence of birds, they had gotten used to the quiet.
“I’d like some quiet.” Her mother was watching a talent show.
Her father lowered his voice and continued. The people complaining–that was why the later models, the ones they had now, were silent.
The voice seemed to be coming from the other side of the house now. If it was a voice and not the Fitzpatricks doing something noisy in their yard.
Silent birds, her father said. It’s a bloody shame.
Her mother rolled her eyes. Birds are the least of our worries, she said.
There used to be 200 billion birds in the world, he said. Imagine that.
Adelaide had started to cry and her father tucked her into bed and read her a story about a family of trains. He gave each train a slightly different accent. Before he turned off the light he told her he was sorry. She was so smart he sometimes forgot that she was just a little girl.
The voice Adelaide heard now, possibly calling her name, was shrill and metallic. It sounded exactly like the sound one of the copper birds might make.
Valerie Vogrin is the author of the novel Shebang. Her short stories have appeared in print in journals such as Ploughshares, AGNI, and The Los Angeles Review, as well as online at Hobart and Bluestem. A story, “Before the Shot,” appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2015, published by Queens Ferry Press. In 2010 she was awarded a Pushcart Prize. She teaches at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.