"Swoop" was previously published in Carrier Pigeon, with illustrations by Kristy Caldwell.
Copyright Christopher Stanton
Gwen finished wiping the Triscuit crumbs from Emily’s mouth.
There, she said. All clean.
Emily squealed and then ran in a circle on the grass, like a beagle chasing its tail.
I’m gonna swim now, she said. Her bathing suit had elephants on it. She was only four years old.
Okay, Gwen replied. I’ll be sitting right here in this chair. Reading my book and watching you like a good babysitter.
Swim, Emily said. She pitter-pattered across the lawn and jumped into the kiddie pool with a delicate splash. A few drops spilled over the side.
Gwen smiled and moved her deck chair into the shade. It was the end of June and the sun was blazing down upon her like a golden chariot. She’d brought her copy of Pride and Prejudice along, but Emily was so wound up, she decided she’d have to keep a constant eye on her.
Are you watching? Emily squeaked.
Yes Ladybug, Gwen called. I’m watching you.
Emily held her nose and ducked below the surface of the water like a scuba diver. She burst forth less than a second later, her blond curls plastered against her ears, a satisfied smile on her face.
Good job! Gwen said.
Emily splashed frantically and then tried to eat a blade of grass that had fastened itself to her bottom lip.
Gwen smiled and stretched out on the chair. She was nineteen and had just finished her freshman year at an all-girls college in New Hampshire, majoring in English literature. Her deep Southern California tan and optimistic smile had stuck out like a vicious pimple, but she’d made the best of it and made it back home for the summer relatively unscathed by the haughty stares of her pale, wool-skirted classmates.
Now she had lined up a summer full of babysitting gigs and helping her mother at the nursery. But deep down, there was part of her that felt like she was already drifting away from everything that was safe and familiar, toward loneliness and forced independence. Her three closest friends from high school were overachievers too, and they’d scattered to all corners of the country for college, not coming home for vacation because of guys or internships or both.
The thought of making new friends, of starting all over trying to earn someone’s trust, made Gwen’s stomach hurt.
Battlestar Galactica, Emily yelled, and splashed some more. Bees circled lazily above the dandelions that dotted the back yard of the Millers’ sprawling one-story home. Tucked away behind a wall of azaleas was Mr. Miller’s studio. Gwen had only peeked through the window, but she knew it was stacked with huge oil canvases, portraits of Japanese women with tiny breasts and scarred faces. She figured it was best not to ask about them.
A shadow swooped across the grass, casting Emily in darkness for a split-second. Both girls looked up, but there was only the sun and the white-gray sky.
I want Kool-Aid and scrambled eggs, Emily said.
You already ate, sweetheart, Gwen said. You’ll have dinner when your mommy and daddy get home.
It was well past lunchtime, but Gwen hadn’t eaten since the night before. She was fasting a little in hopes of shedding the freshman fifteen she’d acquired after multiple dinners of pot roast and mashed potatoes in the dining hall. Plus, she didn’t want to look like a total blimp at the beach, especially in front of all the cute surfer guys with tousled blond hair and baggy board shorts.
For a moment, everything churned forward in slow motion.
There was a powerful WHOOSH, like air pouring into the open window of a speeding car, as a monstrous bird swooped just a few feet above Gwen’s head. With a deafening screech, it grabbed Emily by the shoulders with gnarled red talons and carried her up into the sky.
Gwen’s heart stopped beating. Her book dropped off her lap, into the grass, as she stood and screamed.
The bird’s wingspan was enormous; twelve feet across at least. She couldn’t tell if it was an eagle or a condor or some prehistoric nightmare. All she could focus on was Emily’s feet, pedaling frantically in the air, as the bird soared over the house and toward the street, lifting the tiny little girl higher and higher.
Gwen stumbled to her feet and ran across the lawn in her flip-flops. She tore down the driveway and onto the Millers’ front lawn, shading her eyes against the brilliant glare of the sun as she searched the sky.
The bird disappeared over the house across the street.
Gwen followed, dashing across the street and up the driveway of the red brick house. She leaped over a bright orange tricycle and reached the high wooden gate that barred entrance to the back yard.
It was locked.
Gwen grabbed an empty metal trash can and propped it against the gate, her heart thundering in her chest. She hopped on top of it, the lid wobbling, and made a clumsy leap onto the hard blacktop on the other side. She gasped as she fell to her knees, scraping her hands painfully.
An elderly man wearing a white sombrero stood a few feet away, watering a patch of snapdragons. He dropped the hose and gaped at her. He wore tennis shoes with black socks.
Who’re you? he asked.
You gotta help me, Gwen gasped. Please. It’s got her!
He stared at her with confused, watery eyes.
Gwen left him behind and ran down the driveway to the back yard.
Emily! she yelled, searching the sky.
A passenger jet ambled in a perfect straight line, thousands of feet above her, gearing up for its descent into the airport. A few seagulls called to each other.
Apart from that, the sky was empty.
A dozen horrible thoughts churned across her mind then, but one crystallized before her: Emily trapped in an enormous nest on a wind-swept rocky ledge, screaming for her mother as the bird pecked at her with its razor-sharp beak.
Then there was a shout.
Gwen looked around frantically.
Another hoarse shout, this time from behind a thicket of spirea bushes that separated the old man’s house from his neighbor, the next street over.
Hey! Gwen screamed. Help me!
She sprinted across the old man’s neatly trimmed grass, past an ancient marble birdbath, to the bushes dotted with tiny white blossoms. A face appeared at the wire fence that marked the border between the properties.
Is that your baby? the man asked. He was Latino and not much older than she was, with a thin moustache and a green baseball cap. He wore a t-shirt with a landscaping company logo on it.
I’m her babysitter, Gwen said. Where is she?
That bird’s got her up in the sweetgum tree, he said. It’s got her way up at the top.
Is she okay? Gwen asked. Jesus Christ, what is it?
I don’t know, he said. We have to hurry. Can you climb over?
Gwen looked at the fence. It was a little more than eight feet tall. The wire squares seemed just big enough for footholds.
I’ll manage, she said. Just go get her!
The man nodded and disappeared. As Gwen began to climb over the fence, she heard Emily screaming then, a high pitched wail that prickled the skin on the back of her neck.
She was screaming for her mother.
Gwen felt the adrenaline surge through her veins. She grabbed at the wire fence and pulled herself higher, scraping her legs on the top as she swung her legs over. Instead of climbing down carefully, she let herself drop to the sandy soil on the other side. Although her knees buckled a bit, she kept her balance.
Come on, the man yelled.
Gwen fought her way through a tiny grove of lemon trees and found herself in another back yard. The house was huge, with an X-shaped swimming pool and a multi-tiered garden of pansies and impatiens. A barbeque grill sat unattended on the back porch.
A huge sweetgum tree stood in the corner of the yard. Gwen just had time to see the man grab a sharp implement from a tool box and disappear up the trunk like a squirrel.
There was another horrible scream. Gwen looked up at the tree and saw the bird beating its mottled black wings powerfully, sending bright green leaves and seedballs tumbling to the ground below.
And inside the tree, clinging desperately to a branch just out of the bird’s reach, was Emily.
Gwen ran across the yard and stopped at the base of the tree. She saw the man’s khaki pants disappearing through the leaves; she heard him panting heavily as he struggled to climb and keep his grip on the garden shears.
Go get her! Gwen screamed. Please!
Bits of bark rained down her as the man scrambled higher. Ten feet, twenty feet. Then thirty.
Gwen glanced at the tool box, sitting on the grass nearby. There were wrenches and screwdrivers but nothing she could use from the ground. If she threw something at the bird, she’d risk hitting Emily.
She took a few steps back The bird had a hold of the little girl’s foot. It shrieked like a banshee as it tried to yank her out of the tree.
Let go of her! Gwen yelled.
But the man was there; he took hold of Emily’s arms and pulled in the opposite direction. The bird pecked at the man with its ferocious, blood-spattered beak, but he was ready with his weapon. The garden shears struck deep in its neck and the bird withdrew, shrieking in pain.
Gwen ran underneath the tree again. She looked up and suddenly they were falling down through the branches toward her; the garden shears and Emily. She leapt to one side and the shears landed point-down in the grass, missing her foot by an inch. Emily fell parallel to the trunk, hitting her head on a few branches and then landing on a thick branch just a few feet above where Gwen stood.
Gwen climbed up and gathered the little girl in her arms. Her face and shoulders were covered with deep scratches. There were rips in her elephant bathing suit. Tears trickled down her face as she yelled for her mother.
Gwen hugged her tightly, wiping the dirt and leaves from her face. I’ve got you, she said. I’ve got you, Ladybug.
The man screamed then. Gwen looked skyward and she saw the bird peck at him, slashing his face again and again like a robotic machine. He struggled and cursed as it grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out of the tree. He tumbled to the ground and landed with a horrible thud, his face streaked with blood, his green baseball cap lying forgotten in a patch of dandelions.
Gwen put Emily down. Stay here, she said, her voice shaking. Don’t you move.
Gwen yanked the garden shears from the dirt as the bird alighted right in front of her, on a tangled mass of roots. It was even more enormous than she thought; its eyes like a shark’s, dull and lifeless, feathers mottled, talons covered with infected tumors.
Come on, then, she yelled.
It shrieked and snapped at Gwen, but she was ready. Raising the shears just as the man had done, she plunged them just below its eye and yanked them out viciously. The bird twisted and raised its talon, raking Gwen across her thigh, tearing skin with one burning stroke.
Crying out, Gwen raised the shears again and swung them at the bird like a Frisbee and released them, burying them in its breast. It beat its wings rapidly, stirring dirt and grass into a whirlwind as it left the ground, dipping low over the swimming pool and then disappearing around the corner of the house, the metal handle of the shears glinting in the sun.