Birds of Paradise

Winter, 2017–2018 / No. 40
Illustration by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

When Chris died, I went to live in the forest. Some nights there are five or six of us, sometimes just Tims and me. I’m the only girl. Tims tends to philosophize the bad stuff away, like today, when he slipped on some stones crossing the creek because he had a bottle of wine up his sleeve.

“Shit happens,” he said, bleeding away. “Shit happens to everybody, right?”

I’ve joined a kind of community. We pick through other people’s recycling. Or we ride shopping carts down the hillside. The hills we choose to ride are steep. I mean hella steep. The steeper the better. Not San Francisco steep, but if we could find some like that it’d be sick. The closest the Lower Mainland’s got to San Fran hills are in North Van. Land of mountains and the kingliest scenery you ever laid eyes on. The mountains and the sky—a little piece of heaven. On a sunny day the sky is so blue against the clouds you’d think you were looking at a Van Gogh painting.

Being a picker’s not bad: you can find treasures in other people’s garbage, like last week when another picker gave us a brand new pair of Pierre Cardin shoes, never worn, still in their box, that he’d found next to someone’s recycling. “Not my size. Want them?” Tims put them on right away, even though they looked kind of funny with his Tilley hat, AC/DC shirt, and cargo shorts, but he wore them, no socks and all, and put his old sneakers next to another recycling box for someone else to find.

I watched Tims riding the hill in his brand-new Pierre Cardins on the shopping cart he’d been collecting empties in, thinking those soles will last about forever. Which is good, since he uses his feet to brake and steer. He party-yelled, “Woo-ooo!” Raised his fist.

Some people sort their returnables and leave them in a bag next to their recycling for us. Other times we have to dig through their blue boxes, but it’s no big deal. Most people ignore us. Not too many tell us to leave their property. Sometimes people even ask us if we want to wait while they go into their basements to grab us some more beer cans.

I found a cookbook and an old toy chest from what must have been the nineteen-fifties. The outside was a bit banged up, but the inside still had that beautiful old paper on it, a bit yellowed, with great cartoon pictures of farm animals and stuff. It had a strap to close it and a pretty Lucite handle. Now I carry my extra clothes in it.

I’m thinking about the freedom of nothing left to lose. That’s where adventure begins, learning to live in the moment. I never worry about the future because I don’t look too far ahead. I ask myself, “How do you feel this second?”—not a minute ago or a minute from now. Even if I’m freaked out, I force myself to look at the present. I tell myself that this way of life is a liberation.

Since Chris died, we, or especially me, started thinking of weird shit we could do to talk to him again, like having a séance or something. What I really wanted to know was where the heck had he gone? Why did he die? Why did he have to leave us on a day as pretty as a painting?

I asked Tims how he felt about opening a line of communication. Tims was too drunk at the time to answer. He sat with a stupid elfin grin on his face, looking into the flickering light of the Coleman lantern, our pseudo campfire.

“Fuck,” I said under my breath. “Fuck,” I said again, louder this time. “Don’t you believe in ghosts?”


Tims waved his beer in front of his face, as if he were trying to cast a spell. He’d been nursing this last one for twenty minutes—it was probably warm.

Moron. I downed my beer, crushed the can, and chucked it into the bushes. Tims the waste case wasn’t going to help me, and didn’t seem to give a shit, even though Chris was dead. I stood up.

“This is fuckin’ boring.”

Tims raised his finger, as if about to say something important. Then, he said, “Yeah, well, so? What the fuck you want to do about it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Something.

“What do you suggest?”

“I’m tired of sitting around.”

I grabbed another beer.

I figured if we just started walking, walking out of the forest, to somewhere, anywhere, something would occur to us. Something would happen. If we walked far enough, it had to. We’d walk right into it.

The day of the accident we were on Hastings Street. Maybe there was black ice on the road, I don’t know. I heard the squeal of car tires and the sound of a windshield shattering. By the time I’d spun around, the white Honda was kissing a telephone pole and the car that hit it had revved out of control and was stuck in reverse, doing doughnuts in the Main and Hastings intersection. The breath of people who stood around made white puffs in the air. I remember watching it the way you watch a movie: you keep pressing Rewind, hoping you’ll notice something different, something that will shed light on the rest. But you can’t stop real life, hit Pause, freeze time.

This is how I remember the driver: his body tilted out of the driver’s-side window, arm dangling over the door frame, his eyes open wide, like one of my sister’s dolls. His sunglasses crooked across his face.

I could see two more people in the back seat, through the window; the girl’s rabbit-fur jacket was covered with broken glass and the dude next to her was moaning.

Chris, who hadn’t said a word until now, said, “Fuck, man.”

When the car stopped spinning, Vince went running toward it. Gas is the worst car smell of all. A tiny spark can turn a leak into Hades—use a ten-pound extinguisher on the flames and they pop right back up again, burning hot and fast, and the stink stays in your nostrils for days. When you smell it, watch out.

I thought maybe Vince was going to do something heroic—check a pulse, start C.P.R. Smoke was coming out of the hood. It’s hard to reconcile your version of a hero with a guy who reaches for the dead man’s sunglasses and puts them on his head, signs “victory” like some kind of deranged athlete.

Tims and I see Vince now in front of the Mac’s. His face is a map of all the places he’s been. He decides we should head to the beach. He keeps burning his mouth on the melted processed cheese that dribbles out from between two pieces of soggy shit-nuked English muffin. He has his hand under the sandwich, trying to catch the chunks before they fall. Some do anyway and he eats them right off the sidewalk.

“Gross. That’s so ghetto,” Tims says.

“Don’t judge. I’m hungry, O.K.?”

I take my boots off on the beach, tie the laces together, and sling them over my shoulder. I love sand between my toes, even when it’s cold. “Who wants to swim?”

“Too cold,” Tims says.

“Are we skinny dipping?”

This from Vince.

Way down the beach we see a campfire. Preppy North Van kids party down here. The children of doctors and lawyers. Kids who go yachting, who take lessons. Whose schools teach them how. Who ski on weekends or before dinner because Grouse Mountain is in their backyard. Who grew up next door to Bryan Adams. Who get cars for their birthdays.

“Looks like a party,” Vince says, nodding toward the orange glow.

“Wanna check it out?” Tims asks, grinning.

“Why not?” Vince says.

I almost expect him to do the mad scientist laugh: Mwah-ha-ha-ha.

I’m looking at the fire, so that’s why I don’t notice and step in something wet. The moonlight illuminates it and when I bend over for a closer look, it’s not seaweed but something white. A shoe. I unlace the runner.

“Fuck! Hold up, guys.”

But no one waits for me, even when I tell them there’s a sock inside.

Forget me leading any kind of parade holding my find aloft. By the time I get to them, Tims and Vince are already warming their hands over the flames. The boys around the fire are wearing cotton sweaters and leather boat shoes and sitting on a log. They have a guitar, a cooler full of hot dogs and beer, a forty of vodka. They’re playing Bob Marley songs. They look like nothing bad ever happened to them their whole entire lives.

I don’t trust people who never worked hard for anything, never had it rough. They have no foundations, haven’t been built from the bottom up. Like ice cubes, Chris once said, describing certain types of people—solid on the outside, but they melt in the heat. I’ve always wondered what I could have done different, wonder did I throw him under the bus? I couldn’t fake what wasn’t there, but is it possible he saw love in our hookups? I don’t even know what love is. Then I realize I’m giving myself too much importance, and who do I think I am? Maybe the truth was I didn’t know Chris that well. Maybe no one ever really knows anyone, and that’s about the saddest thing I can think of.

“How’s it going?” I say to the pretty boys on the log.

On cue, Vince takes a seat next to one of them, perches at one end of the log. Tims sits on the other side, squashing them in.

“Now isn’t this nahce,” Tims says with a southern drawl.

Vince is the one to grab the bottle of vodka—Silent Sam—and guzzle. “Good fire, boys,” he says. He keeps the bottle between his knees.

“So, you gonna offer us a beer, or what?” Tims says.

“We’ve killed before,” I say, and it’s eerie how all our eyes meet and how we’re all thinking of Chris. “Better do what he says.”

I raise the shoe.

We drink their vodka, eat their food, and play their guitar. They don’t do much but wander off to take the occasional piss. We let them—we’re not holding them hostage. They brought hammocks—planning to camp out on the beach—and we consider stealing them.

Tims puts his arm around me and says, “This is my girlfriend and I’d do anything for her.” He’s totally blasted but it’s kind of cute the way he stares at each guy in succession with this narrow-eyed ninja look, like, “I’d rip your beating heart out of your chest if you tried to hurt her.” I have to admit, sometimes it helps to take a long view of it, to pretend things mean something even if, right afterward, he just wanders off to take a piss.

About two in the morning, one of the teens says, out of the blue, “The cops have a parabolic dish.”

He starts ranting, all paranoid and shit, says people are spying on him.

“Take a pill,” Vince says.

“He’s on, like, ’shrooms,” the other guy says. “We both are.”

The nervous dude is totally peaking, saying, “Why’d you call the cops? Why’d you call the fuckin’ cops?”

That’s when he pulls a .44. Everyone leaps up.

“Hey, hey, hey. Put that shit away.”

I look deep into his eyes, trying to make some kind of connection. I even take a small step toward him to show I mean no harm, Buddy. I’m on your side. I stare at him long and hard, until I can tell it’s doing more harm than good.

When I look around, the nervous dude’s friend has disappeared. Flash, bang, and the guy’s shooting.

I run for the nearest big-ass log and hide behind it. Fuck. I’ve never been shot at before. The bullets come so close they ping off the sand and grains fly up, hitting my bare legs. There’s nothing to do but roll up into a ball.

I turn and see Tims not ten feet away from me. Passed out. He’s snoring so loud I can hear him. I want to throw something at him, to wake him up. Jesus. If the sound of gunshots won’t wake him up, nothing will.

How many rounds did the guy bring down to the beach? What’s a kid from North Van doing with a gun?

I hear Vince’s voice. Then what sounds like him slapping the kid on the back. I peek out from behind the log and see Vince has excavated some pot from somewhere. He rolls a joint and passes it to the kid. For a while there’s nothing but low tones. Then a chuckle. I don’t dare move. The kid fires the odd shot at the moon. Vince laughs. This goes on for so long my limbs grow stiff from my crouched position.

Vince points to a distant log, turned upright.

“That one. You first.”

The kid shoots.

“Me now.”

“No way.”

Vince shrugs.

“Fine, I’ll use mine,” he says, patting his jacket. Then, just as I’m thinking, “Since when does Vince carry a gun?” he says, “But mine’s not so good for birds.”


Vince elbows the kid and reaches for his gun, struggling just a minute to get it out of his grasp.

“This one’s better.” With some satisfaction he says, “This is good.”

When Vince smiles, his cheekbones are like plums in the moonlight. He gazes happily at the polished steel glinting in his open palm. He aims at the horizon and, while the kid watches, shoots the gun out over the water.

“Quit fucking with me, man. Give me my gun.”

“Where’s your other bullets?” He aims the barrel at the teenager’s head. “Give me them and I’ll show you.”

The kid shakes his head.

Vince stops, scratches his back with the gun, then rifles through the bags the teens brought, still aiming the .44.

“Lucky for you I’m here. These birds attack everything around them. Out of anger. Starting with your stomach.”

He picks up the hammocks they had brought down.

“They fuck with people who sleep outside. Get warm in your belly button. But they don’t like it when the weather is bad.”

I think of maggots and other creatures that burrow, things that feed off the dead—like the rotting corpse of a raccoon I saw last week.

Vince reloads, shoots out over the water. He’s defused the situation. You can find that. Not a weak spot. But a soft spot. You find that in a person. And then just ride on that.

I decide it’s safe to come out of hiding.

He sees me.

“You O.K.?”

I nod. I want to tell him I know about finding the sweet spot, but Vince is busy shooting and the other guy has wandered off somewhere. In what’s left of the beach firelight, Vince smiles and his eyes reflect something I don’t understand.

Yasuko Thanh won the Journey Prize for the title story in her collection Floating Like the Dead. Her upcoming novel is To the bridge. She first contributed to the magazine in 2017. Last updated fall, 2022.