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It was the Monday morning when Polly decided to kill her sister’s parrot.
Polly sat down on the couch and held a mug of the good coffee, the one she wasn’t supposed to drink – the fancy one made from rhino liver or cat pee. The little bag of beans cost her sister Summer forty bucks from the organic food store on Mulberry, but it tasted like the description. Polly had only made this cup for it to go cold between her hands.
When Summer asked Polly to house sit for her over a long weekend, she wanted to want to say yes. Moreover, she wanted to sit in Summer’s one-bedroom apartment, and forget her own five roommates with one bathroom and her ten-an-hour salary job, where she was not invited to staff retreats in Massachusetts.
“No wild parties, please,” Summer said and winked.
Polly winked back and said, “I don’t make promises I can’t keep,” even though they both knew that when they went places, Summer would leave Polly in lieu of her friends, wearing mom jeans and crop tops with bubblegum voices. And whenever someone would see Polly, they would hug her and say, “Oh, great, Summer’s here!”
It was the Monday morning, sitting with the lukewarm cup between her fingers in this silence, when Polly heard the voice for the first time.
“God, yes, GOD, give it to me! Yes! Just like that!”
The word twin plucks a certain kind of linguistic string. The twah of the noise twangs inside your mind, like the solitary off fiddle, the uncanny, the psychotic twins in a browning hotel hallway. But really everything was much more wholesome than that, at a time.
In the delivery room, Polly’s sister glided out of their mom, pink and plump and cooing. She was a loaf of bread from a beginner’s kitchen, just perfect by accident. Their dad held her close and they named her Summer, because she was to be a season of sunshine in their lives.
Polly was born five hours later, with a lot of labor and panic by the doctor, covered in placenta and vaginal residue, crying until she passed out.
When twins are in the womb, they touch each other, handle each other’s delicate eye areas as gently as their own. In the womb, they form this unbreakable bond, deciding the nature of their relationship before they can even open their mouth to breathe. Kind of like a window painted shut.
It was the Monday morning twenty-odd years later and Polly had just heard a disembodied erotic exclamation from somewhere in her sister’s Pottery Barn apartment.
“Yes, yes, god Michael!” The chirpy-edged words echoed against the ecru walls. “Just like that.” Crow.
Adrenaline began to crick its fingers, pinch Polly’s shoulders. A stir from down the hall. Michael rising. But it couldn’t be Michael making the noise – the noise that sounded uncannily like her own voice, reverberated through a tinier doll throat.
A prehistoric scream shuddered, rickety and piercing, from a guttural corner of Summer’s reading nook. Polly turned, and there she saw him against the bookshelf, between Oprah’s autobiography and a pristine copy of Practical Magic. Just like that, it clicked into place.
Summer’s parrot. Oscar.
Did you know parrots blush when they’re in love? Well, Oscar loved Summer like a clipped wing – unmoving, irreversible, debilitating love.
When Polly was small, she looked up facts about parrots in an amateur stunt to somehow trick the bird into loving her best. The smartest living parrot knows more than 1,700 words. The oldest living parrot was eighty-two when he died. The heaviest parrot in the world, dead or alive, weighs five pounds and cannot fly, even in the wild. It’s too fat.
Oscar the parrot was old and fat. He always had a slightly droopy, discerning look about him – the kind of facial structure that typically graced politicians and mail office clerks. Each side of his pink and red plumage sagged over his perch. He had a sprig of an orange feather that shot upwards from his beak through the center of his head, like the one firework let off prematurely on the Fourth of July.
When the twins were children, Oscar learned every name except Polly’s. Friends would come over and be delighted by his ability to pull accents out of the puff of his chest, like a person from a hat. Their mother always whistled while she made pancakes on Sundays and Oscar would whistle too. Their father said Oscar had clearly lived many lives. But really, the bird just mimicked the sounds of the television. Polly knew this. He had the ability to pick up tones of voices as soon as he heard them. Except, that is, whenever Polly wanted him to.
Sometimes, when Summer and Polly first got Oscar, Polly would leave her bedroom in the night. She would sneak, feet light and creaking down the carpet of the stairs, into the living room and up to his cage. She’d unzip the pink cloth of his night cover, and crouch between the nesting tables and the smaller television by his cage. She would whisper to him. “Polly, Polly, Polly,” she’d say, slow and calculated, as though she were trying to summon herself in a bathroom mirror.
Oscar’s black eyes would flutter open, immobile, his head twitching this way and that in the quiet of the shadows.
“Polly, Polly, Polly,” she’d repeat, with more zeal.
And the bird would say nothing. Silence.
“Michael,” the bird teased Polly. She stared at him. He cocked his head and opened his beak. His tongue rolled around his mouth like a shriveled snail inside its shell.
Polly lowered her eyelids into a shrewd squint. She placed her hands on her knees and looked into Oscar’s black eyes. He, in turn, scratched the side of his candy floss neck with his gnarled claw and returned to stillness.
“Why are you staring at Oscar like that?” Michael asked.
Polly jumped and turned to face him. He’d appeared around the corner from the bedroom, in Summer’s favorite pink bathrobe. Polly felt the familiar prickle of satisfaction that overtook her whenever she looked at Summer’s boyfriend. Summer and Michael had been dating for just shy of two years.
He looked her up and down and licked his dry lips. She tried to ignore the furls of pink, the satisfied smirk on his face that always reminded her of the expression of a baby being fed by a spoon. She tried to ignore the way satisfaction gave way to the wave of sweet, sickly shame of having an affair with her twin sister’s boyfriend. “Michael,” she said.
A guttural crescendo rang from Oscar’s beak. “Michael! Michael! Give it to me, fucker!” Whistle.
In the light of day, here in Summer’s apartment more than a decade later, Oscar finally learned a name Polly had taught him.
The twins’ mother would say that Polly had been an early bloomer, but really, she’d just been fat. Eventually Polly learned, after many days at the mall with her mother selecting clothes to flatter Polly and to fit Summer, that even identical twins can be different sizes. The doctor claimed, as they grew, the girls were actually likely fraternal, but just very similar looking. Summer’s delicate skin fell like butter across her bones, whereas Polly’s swarthed in dips and bulges across her thighs and arms. Summer’s cheekbones were high and pert, whereas Polly’s were full and opulent.
What’s interesting about being a fat kid is that you’re getting bigger and people see you less. Double that when you have a mirror image that is more beautiful, affable and intelligent than you. And even though Polly was no longer the fat girl as an adult, there was still a shadow cast against her self-image, like the dark side of the moon. Polly had developed a coping mechanism or two over the years.
Coping mechanisms named Michael, who she’d met at Summer’s Christmas party at her place of employment. Summer had been too preoccupied assuring the bows on all the fake presents were just so, and did not notice the ominous swaying of the tinsel tree in the office’s far corner.
Coping mechanisms named Steve, Brandon, Kevin, Justin, Christian. Coping mechanisms in bathroom stalls, hands against the softness of her, pushing her flesh against walls, into pillows.
If Polly couldn’t be loved best, she could cheapen the love her sister received, like an echo that cuts off the end of each and every word, and interrupts thought before it can grow.
Polly couldn’t figure out how she had forgotten the stupid bird.
“What are we going to do?” Michael said.
“I don’t know.” Polly considered Oscar. He twitched his head and then relaxed into perfect stillness. It was easy to forget about the parrot. Amid Summer’s vintage boxes of potpourri or collection of unique rose bottles, he just felt like another decorative feature. Sometimes, even after all these years, Polly wondered how Summer even remembered to feed him and didn’t polish him instead.
Polly lifted a finger to Oscar’s feathered face. A crescendo of her moaning erupted from the plump bird.
“It really sounds exactly like you,” Michael said.
Oscar malted as he flapped his wings and emitted a mating call with feminine flourish. Polly winced. Michael placed an awkward hand on her shoulder. It felt like a movement to be comforting, but then Michael just let his hand hang there, and Polly shrugged it off.
“Summer’s going to be back in a few hours,” Michael said. “The bird can’t be here.”
“Like how?” Polly asked.
“Maybe we could hide him.”
“Oscar’s a living thing, Michael, not a broken vase.”
“Maybe we can open the window? Set him free and say he flew out?” he said.
“Oscar’s wings are clipped. Even if I threw him out the window, he’d probably just fall and die.”
Polly and Michael’s eyes met.
“No,” he said. He laughed.
Polly laughed. They couldn’t kill the parrot. They were hysterical. He stopped. She stopped. They looked into each other’s eyes, knowing and unknowing every nuance of the stare. But they suddenly realized that Polly’s laugh had continued, disembodied from herself.
They turned to face the bird, shivering with laughter not his own.
“Oscar, stop it. Stop laughing,” Michael said to the bird.
It was Polly and Summer’s sweet sixteen. They had a shared birthday cake, Summer’s favorite yellow cake with white icing, with Summer’s name first.
“I can’t believe my little girl is sixteen,” their father said to Summer. His muscles twitched in his face as he noticed Polly beside him and extended an arm around her shoulders too. “Both of them.”
Summer was unusually quiet. Her boyfriend at the time, a senior named Brett, pulled her into his lap at the table. He tickled her ribs with his calloused fingers and Summer squirmed away from him. Those same calloused fingers had been inside Polly’s mouth that morning as she and Brett tried to be quiet in the bathroom, and she tried not to think about it as Brett’s fingers cupped Summer’s jaw and kissed Summer’s peachy lips.
“Make a wish sweetie,” their mother urged. She poked both Polly and Summer toward the cake. Summer’s friends all crowded on the other side, flip phones in candle light.
Summer leaned down. Her face was grey against the pink fondant roses nestled into the thick lashings of buttercream. Did she know? Polly wondered. Summer looked at Polly for a brief moment. She knew, Polly was sure of it. Summer took a deep inhale in, turning back to the cake. She opened her mouth to blow out the candles, then promptly vomited.
Everyone gasped. Hands flurried into hair, pulling it back from the offending scene. Summer’s guts clenched and unclenched beneath the thin fabric of her dress. Brett scoffed and leapt backward, brushing imaginary puke from his front. And it took Polly a moment, a single moment in all of this, to realize she was laughing with relief instead of panicking, before she stopped.
“Oh my God, Polly,” one of Summer’s friends said through a simpering grimace. “Are you seriously laughing right now?”
“Cut that shit out, Polly,” her mother snapped.
But the laughing didn’t stop.
“Stop laughing, God damn it,” their mother said, her back to Polly, her arms around Summer. “Your sister is in pain. Is this a joke to you?”
The laughing continued.
“Your mother said stop,” their father yelled.
Everyone looked at Polly, still as a painting. “I’m not laughing,” she said.
But still it continued. In the pink corner of the room, lit only in the flow of the streetlights outside the window against the lines of his cage, Oscar trilled and trembled with her laughter.
“What the fuck does it matter, Polly? Let’s kill this thing and get it over with.”
Polly stepped between Michael and the perch. She felt the twitchy scratch of Oscar’s claws on the wooden bar beneath him. Oscar’s beating little heart, the size of a marble, inside the pink puff of his chest. She had never wished anything in her life dead more times than the parrot. She once looked it up; its brain was the size of an unshelled walnut. An unshelled walnut which met both sisters at the same time, and still felt Polly’s desperation to be seen and shunned it, at least inside Polly’s mind. But that walnut brain had also, after so many years of neglecting Polly’s voice, learned something. Really, she knew now a parrot’s attachment is as random as the hands we are ever dealt in life, and if she had fucked enough of her sister’s boyfriends that even the parrot was repeating her fake climaxes, maybe she had done so enough.
Michael clearly, for his part, did not agree. He lunged past Polly to grab the bird. Polly snatched the parrot off its perch and sheltered him in her arms. Oscar’s wings beat against her. His beak clicked. “Yes, yes, Michael!” he yelped, his character breaking and Polly’s tone leaving his voice. He clacked his beak over and over, wildly swinging his body over Polly’s wrists, squawking. A sharp, ripping pinch tore through the skin of her thumb. Without thought, in the face of this pain, Michael’s grabbing hands, his wide frame overwhelming her, she threw Oscar.
The blood from his beak showered in a perfect, arcing splatter across Summer’s framed photographs on the window sill. The twins’ grandparents’ wedding photo, one of Summer and Michael at the beach, and one of Polly and her, teenagers, on prom night, Oscar on Polly’s shoulder. The parrot slapped the bookshelf with a sickening smack, his wings twitching. Michael grabbed Polly’s hand and tore the robe from his naked body. He staunched the bleeding from her thumb and panted. The silence came up to meet her with a resounding thump of adrenaline to her heart.
“Michael? Michael, is he dead?” she asked him.
“God, I hope so,” Michael said. He pressed the robe harder into Polly’s hand, the pink soaking with burgundy. The parrot lay still, a feather dangling off the edge of his wing. Polly wasn’t sure, but in that moment, she could almost hear something crack, like a walnut shell, into many pieces.
Summer’s prom date Brett arrived at the house with a corsage made from lilies. Summer’s dress was black, velvet, long. She was as gently curved and unconsciously beautiful as a dusky rose bud. She grinned and place her lips against his cheek. “Thanks, Brett,” she said.
“Hey, no problem,” he whispered.
They kissed again. They pulled back.
Framed in their love, Polly yanked the hem of her purple fit and flare from the plus girls section and itched the strap that Oscar clung to. Summer had placed him there a half hour ago and his death grip had never released.
“Just one second,” she said now to Brett, and took Polly’s hand. Summer guided Polly back up the stairs. Polly obliged without question, as was always the dynamic. They slipped through the door and entered their shared bedroom. Summer sat down on her bed and turned to Polly. Polly and Oscar stood in the doorway and stared at her, a pirate duo on prom night.
Summer patted the bed. “Can we talk?” she said.
Polly nodded and moved to the bed. She shifted her weight uncomfortably onto the duvet.
“So, tonight is prom night,” Summer said.
“I know,” Polly answered.
“So, you know what happens on prom night.”
Summer laughed, her laughter chimed like bells, the kind your neighbor hangs on their porch and they make you want to murder them every time the wind blows. “No, I mean, Brett got us a hotel room.”
Polly felt the pink in her cheeks equalize against the parrot beside them. She nodded. “Oh,” she said.
“So,” Summer said. “What do you think? Do you think we’re both ready to do this?”
Polly didn’t want to say that she already knew Brett was ready, because he already had. Twice. Instead she moved her head from side to side. She tried to smile in a way that was encouraging and not plastic. “Why are you talking to me about this?”
“You’re my sister,” Summer said. She took Polly’s hand in hers and looked off to the side. “Plus, all my friends have had their firsts already, and I know you’re the only one who would understand.”
“Why would I understand?” Polly said. Her hand began to sweat inside Summer’s palms. She shook, imperceptibly rustling the lilies of Summer’s corsage.
“Because you’re obviously a virgin too,” Summer said. Obviously, she plucked the word like a weed in a flower bed.
Polly nodded, slowly, and collected her thoughts. “I think you should do it,” Polly said. “Make it special.”
Summer hugged Polly. Her arms expanded over Polly’s wide shoulders. She sniffed, in that emotional heady way of pretty girls. “Thanks, Polly. You always tell me just what I’m thinking anyway.” As Summer hugged her sister, Oscar’s wings flapped and his claws tightened against Polly’s skin.
When the girls came back downstairs, Oscar still gripped Polly’s shoulder strap. Summer reunited with Brett and took his hand in hers.
“Say cheese!” their mother said, appearing on the other side of the happy couple with the flash of a camera. It popped and whizzed and Oscar flapped his wings offensively, letting out a guttural screech.
“This is the young man we have heard so much about.” Their father appeared from behind their mother. “Put it there.” He held out his hand to Brett.
They shared a strong two-pump handshake and released. “Good to finally meet you, sir,” he said.
“We’re so pleased Summer found such a handsome date. Polly is a bit of a wallflower,” their mother said. She whispered this like how people whisper that someone has a terminal illness, or an obvious disfigurement. “Let’s get a picture all together. Brett in the middle!”
The kids shuffled in. Polly placed a hand against Oscar. She attempted to scoot him off. She felt the string of her strap begin to give.
“Funny,” Brett muttered in Polly’s ear. Flash, pop whizz. “You don’t seem like a wall flower to me.” He brushed his hand lightly over the line of Polly’s ass.
Anxiety seized her gut and Polly yanked at Oscar who chomped indignantly onto her ear lobe. She felt a piercing, sharp, fleshy rip, a knife against apple, and warmth gushed down her neck. Polly screamed.
“Oh, gosh, just one second,” their mother said. A flash, a pop, a whizz.
Michael stood there that Monday morning, naked, and flitted the bird, with pinched fingers, out the window into the breeze. Polly squeezed her eyes shut. She tried to remember when this had all started, when her desperation to be seen and heard had gone so far.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Michael said. But his name could have been Brett, Steven, Justin, Brandon. It could have been a plethora of names and people, standing naked in Summer’s apartment, while Polly bled into her favorite bath robe and their pink parrot of their childhood lay probably dead on the sidewalk four stories down. There are only so many equations and swirling sums you can pull, before you realize the only indispensable part of a problem is yourself.
Polly thought to say something, but they both heard it. The key in the door.
“Hello?” Summer called from the entry hall. They heard the thump of the door closing. The wheels of her bag roll across the Cherrywood floorboards. The clack of her heeled brogues. “It’s cold in here, is a window open?”
Summer rounded the corner. The grin on her face slid off and dripped unpleasantly onto the ottoman. She took in the room. The blood across the window sill, her family photos. The empty stand where Oscar once was, tumbled on the floor. Her boyfriend, naked. Her twin sister, in his tee shirt. For the first time, Summer seemed to really see Polly, and she seemed to nod and shake her head at the same time as she took it all in.
Summer shifted, her eyes shrewd and discerning. Then, she spotted the bloodied pink bathrobe in Polly’s hands.
“Is that my bath robe?” she said.
When Summer and Polly first got Oscar at the pet store, it was the first time Polly’s parents had ever listened to her over her sister. Summer could only see the kittens, the guinea pigs, the puppies. Everything cute and girly, anything you could sanely name Fluffy. Their parents had told them they would share a pet and the responsibility for it.
Polly saw Oscar in some dusty corner, in a cage. It looked as though no one had even so much as noticed him in years. She thought the mail clerk expression on his face, this tiny Winston Churchill in this pink body, was so endearing. She pointed him out to Summer and Summer wrinkled her nose at him. “Ew gross,” she’d said.
And yet he’d still loved her best.
Summer and Michael did not last, and neither did spring, or the spring after that.
Polly and Summer have enjoyed separate birthdays and cordial family dinners. Their parents relay regards. Polly goes to parties where people are happy to see her. No body asks where Summer is.
But then at a party recently, Polly hears a story. A story of a parrot, who speaks in British accents and holds tea in the den of a friend of a friend’s family home. Recently, they discovered it can also croon merrily along to half of Taxi Driver. It also seems to continuously laugh, in this shrill, familiar sort of cackle. “You laugh like her parrot,” a drunk girl tells Polly on the sticky couch.
Polly smiles politely and sips her beer.
“Hey, guys,” the drunk girl cries. “You gotta hear this. Isn’t it funny? Laugh, come on. Laugh, Polly.”
But Polly does not. “I can’t just laugh whenever the fuck you want,” she tells them.
Polly does not tell them, however, that sometimes when she walks home, along certain side streets or in certain neighborhoods, she is gripped with the sound of her own laughter. It eeks out of the marrow of her bones, vibrates through the crevices and somehow escapes disparate of her voice and breath into the air of the night. Sometimes when this happens, she looks into the black emptiness of darker corners and strains to see something within it. She taps the volume button on the side of her phone, she lowers the music to just a hum and she waits for the croons, the shrill reptile shriek that might accompany, only to find the silence of the world meets her just as surely as the shadows of her feet meet the ground.