These days, his father doesn't talk much about words. He is tired from the long days at the library that grind his eyes into sand; he comes home surrounded by a hush, as if it's soaked into him from the stacks, the cool sweet-stale air, the gloom that hovers at your shoulder, barely pushed back by the single light in each aisle. Bird doesn't ask him, either, for the same reason his father doesn't like to talk about his mother: both of them would rather not miss these things they can't get back.
* * *
Still: she returns in sudden flashes. Like scraps of half-remembered dreams.
Her laugh, sudden as a seal's bark, a raucous burst that threw her whole head back. Unladylike, she'd called it, with pride. The way she'd drum her fingers while she was thinking, her thoughts so restless she could not be still. And this one: late at night, Bird ill with a rasping cold. Waking from a sweaty sleep, panicked, coughing and crying, his chest full of hot glue. Certain he was going to die. His mother, draping a towel over the bedside lamp, curling up beside him, setting her cool cheek to his forehead. Holding him until he fell asleep, holding him all night. Each time he half woke, her arms were still around him, and the fear that rose in him like a ruffled thing grew smooth and sleek again.
* * *
Together they sit at the table, Bird drumming a pencil against his worksheet, his father studiously combing through the newspaper. Everyone else in the world gets their news online, scrolling through the top stories, pulling phones from pockets at the ding of a breaking-news alert. Once his father had, too, but after they moved he'd given up his phone and his laptop. I'm just old-fashioned, he said, when Bird asked. These days he reads the newspaper, front to back. Every word, he says, every single day. This is as close as he comes to bragging. Between problems, Bird tries not to look toward the bedroom, where the letter lies in wait. Instead he studies the headlines on the front page that screens him from his father. SHARP EYE OF NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH FOILS POTENTIAL INSURRECTION IN DC.
Bird calculates. If a Korean car costs $15,000 but lasts only 3 years, while an American car costs $20,000 but lasts 10 years, how much money would be saved over 50 years by purchasing only American cars? If a virus spreads exponentially through a population of 10 million, and doubles its rate of growth every day—
Across the table, his father inverts the newspaper.
There is only the essay left. Haltingly, Bird picks his way through the assignment, building a lopsided paragraph word by word. PACT is a very important law that ended the Crisis and keeps our country safe, because—
He is relieved when his father folds the paper and checks his watch, when he can abandon the essay and set his pencil down.
Almost six thirty, his father says. Come on, let's get something to eat.
* * *
They cross the street to the dining hall for dinner. Another alleged perk of the job: no one has to cook; handy for a single dad. If, through some unforeseen delay, they miss dinner, his father scrambles—a blue box of macaroni from the cupboard, perhaps; a scanty meal that leaves them both hungry. Before his mother left, they'd eaten together, a circle of three at the kitchen table, his parents chatting and laughing as they ate, afterward his mother singing softly as she washed the dishes and his father dried.
They find a spot in the back corner of the dining hall where they can eat alone. Around them, students cluster in twos and threes, the low murmur of their whispered conversations like an air current in the room. Bird knows none of their names and only a few of their faces; he's not in the habit of looking people in the eye. Just keep on walking, his father always says if passersby stare, their gazes like centipedes on Bird's face. Bird is grateful that he isn't expected to smile and nod to the students, to make small talk. They do not know his name either, and anyway, by the end of the year, they will all be gone.
They have almost finished eating when there's a commotion outside. A scuffle and a crash, the screeching of wheels. Sirens.
Stay here, Bird's father says. He runs to the window and joins the students already gathering there, peering out onto the street. All around the dining hall, abandoned plates grow cold. Blue and white lights strobe across the ceiling and walls. Bird does not get up. Whatever it is will pass. Stay away from trouble, his father always tells him, which to his father means anything that attracts attention. You see any trouble, his father once said, you run the other way. This is his father: trudging through life, head bowed.