From the author: A story of love and loss and hard choices, and also a talking bird.
“Spontaneous remission,” the doctor says. “The primary mass in your pancreas is gone. Your PET scan is clear. It happens sometimes.”
Callie stares at the doctor’s mouth, waiting for him to speak again, sure that she’s imagined what she’s just heard.
“No promises,” he says finally. “Sometimes it lasts. Sometimes it doesn’t. We’ll bring you back in eight weeks for another set of scans. If those come back clean, you can start thinking about making long-term plans again.”
Callie’s gaze drifts to the half-open window behind the doctor’s desk. A bird lands on the sill. It looks in at Callie, seems to meet her eye.
“Close your mouth,” it says. “You look like an idiot.” Callie’s jaw snaps shut. She turns her eyes back to the doctor, whose face is beginning to take on a look of concern.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I know this has been difficult for you, and this news is a bit of a shock. Do you need a moment?”
Callie shakes her head. The bird is still there, staring at her.
“Well,” the doctor says, “it was a bit of a shock to me, anyway—but in a very good sort of way. I think you’ll see it that way too, once you’ve had time to acclimate yourself to being healthy again. Stop by out front to set up your follow-up appointment.”
Callie nods. Today is the first of June, a month past her thirtieth birthday. Her future, which a moment ago had stretched tenuously to Christmas at the outside, is telescoping out before her to infinity now. She knows she should say something, but she has no idea what.
“He means you can go now,” says the bird.
The doctor is smiling blandly, hands folded on the desk in front of him. Callie climbs to her feet, and goes.
In the street outside the hospital, Callie looks up, searching for the bird. It was big and black, with tiny, beady eyes and a sharp-looking beak—a crow, she thinks, or maybe a raven. Callie finds the doctor’s window on the sixth floor, still standing open. The bird is nowhere to be seen. The morning was overcast, but it’s past noon now and the day is growing hot, the sun standing high over the hospital in a clear blue sky. She looks away. As she does, she feels a shadow pass over her, and a chill runs from the base of her spine to the back of her neck. She shakes her head, breathes deep, and starts the long walk back to the metro.
A feeling of unease follows Callie all the way home. The train is nearly empty, when it should be packed on a Monday afternoon. The walk back to her apartment seems strangely unfamiliar. She passes these same brownstones, this same corner store, these same cars parked bumper-to-bumper along the sidewalk, every day on her way to and from work, but today they seem oppressive and bunched-in. The trees along the sidewalk loom over her, their leaves too thick and too dark, their shade almost gloomy, even in the afternoon sun.
The stairs up to her apartment are narrow and creaking, switchbacking up the side of a three-story Victorian. She fumbles with her keys at the top, finally manages to get the door open on the third try. She hears the tinkle of a bell as her cat comes running. He mewls a welcome, then turns figure-eights around her ankles as she closes the door behind her.
“Hello,” she says. “Did you miss me?”
She hangs her keys by the door, and drops onto the couch. The cat hops up beside her. She strokes his back, feels the rumble of his purr.
“You’re all alone here,” Callie says. “Where is...”
She trails off, and her hand falls still. Who else would be here? A fragment of a giggle, a scrap of voice echoes in her head for a moment, but before she can grasp it, it’s gone.
She lives alone.
She’s always lived alone.
The cat, whose name is Martin, crawls onto her lap, kneads her thighs for a moment, and curls into a ball. She leans her head back, and closes her eyes.
Callie snaps awake in the darkness. Her head jerks forward and she gasps for air. She’d been dreaming of… but no, it’s slipped away. She leans forward, rests her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands. Martin leaps onto the couch-back behind her, puts two feet on her shoulders, rubs his face against her hair.
“I know,” Callie says wearily, and runs a hand down the back of his neck. “You’re still here for me.”
The next day is better. Callie wakes early, takes a short run through the neighborhood, showers quickly, makes a small breakfast for herself and for Martin. The strangeness that she felt the day before seems to have receded, lapping at the back of her brain only occasionally. She walks to the metro, takes the red line into the city, then switches to the green line for the ride back out to the office park where she’s worked for...
Trying to remember how long she’s been there makes her dizzy. She pushes that thought away.
The morning is quiet, verging on lonely. Callie’s co-workers know where she was yesterday. They’re afraid to ask her what happened, and she has no intention of bringing it up. Callie takes her lunch at a picnic table in the narrow, grassy space between her squat brick building, and the identical building next door. She’s finishing a turkey sandwich, just thinking about tearing open the pack of miniature chocolate chip cookies she packed that morning as a treat for herself, when she notices a crow perched on the lowest branch of the weeping cherry tree that screens her from the parking lot. It’s staring at her.
“Hey,” she says. “You’re the bird from yesterday, aren’t you?”
The crow tilts its head quizzically, then leaps from the branch and spreads its wings. It flies up, wings pumping, and circles twice over the buildings and parking lot. She pops a cookie into her mouth and watches. After the third circuit, it spirals down again. It comes to rest with a bump on the picnic table. Callie holds perfectly still. The crow’s eyes are black and unblinking. Its beak is long and curved and wickedly sharp.
The crow hops toward Callie with a half-flap of its wings. She slowly, carefully picks up a cookie, places it on the table in front of her, and slides it toward the crow with one finger. The crow tilts its head again, then strikes the cookie a lightning blow with its beak, breaking it neatly into six tiny wedges. The crow looks up at Callie again. She sits frozen. It picks up a wedge of cookie in its beak, tilts its head back, and swallows in two quick bites.
“So,” it says when it’s finished. “You remember me talking to you yesterday, huh?”
Callie nods mutely. The crow eats another wedge of cookie, then a third.
“Are you remembering other things?”
Callie shrugs. She has the sudden feeling that something important is happening, and that she’s missing the point entirely.
“I’m not asking whether you’ve got amnesia,” it says, a hint of irritation creeping into its voice. “I’m asking whether you’re remembering anything strange. Whether you’re feeling like things don’t quite fit, maybe?”
Callie looks away. A woman is walking between the buildings, maybe forty yards off. She glances toward Callie, but never breaks stride.
“I guess,” Callie begins, but she’s not sure where to go from there.
“You guess what?” asks the crow around a beak full of cookie.
“I guess things have been a little... off. Since yesterday, I mean. Since I saw you in the doctor’s office.”
The crow sighs, then takes another hop forward. Its beak is inches from Callie’s face now, close enough to take an eye if it wants to.
“I was afraid of that,” it says. “I’ve never had to jump anyone this far. Do you have any idea what the probability of spontaneous remission is for stage three pancreatic cancer?”
It stares up at her, until she realizes it’s expecting an answer.
“No,” she says finally. “I don’t.”
“Neither did I,” it says. “I had to look it up. Turns out, it’s really, really, really small. I mean, the multiverse is a big place and all, but I had to search long and hard for a line that had you coming away with a clean PET scan yesterday.”
A breeze ruffles the crow’s feathers, and pushes Callie’s long brown hair across her face.
“Anyway,” it says. “Things should settle out for you over the next few days. I mean, this is what you asked for, right?”
It’s staring at her again. She nods.
“Right. So let’s see how things go, huh? I’ll check back in with you on Friday. In the mean time, you’re healthy. Cheer the hell up, okay?”
This is what you asked for, right?
That question rattles around Callie’s brain for the rest of the day. Did she ask for this, whatever this is? She tries to think back to the night before her appointment. It was only two days ago, but the memories are confused. She remembers lying awake. She remembers the sound of soft snoring next to her, remembers wondering how he could possibly be asleep...
Who, exactly, he might be, and what he might have been doing sleeping next to her, she hasn’t a clue.
She remembers crying, though, smothering her sobs in her pillow. Later, in that deep part of the night when even tiny things can terrify, she remembers praying. Help me, she said, her lips moving silently in the darkness. She hasn’t set foot inside a church in twenty years, but there are no atheists in foxholes, or cancer wards either, apparently. Take this away from me, she said. I’ll give...
Again, Callie hears that echo of a giggle, briefly feels the afterglow of a small, warm hand in hers. She closes her eyes, tries to picture a face to go with these fragments, but the harder she reaches for it, the faster it slips away.
Callie receives a text on Thursday afternoon from an old friend, inviting her to dinner. Jana lives in Cleveland now. They haven’t seen one another in over a year. Callie agrees with a mental shrug, and suggests a place downtown, near the museums. Jana responds with an emoji that looks like a smiling pile of dung. Callie takes this as a yes.
“You look great,” Jana says. “How’ve you been?”
“Good,” Callie says. “I’ve been good.”
They’re sitting at a table near the back of the restaurant, between the door to the kitchen and a stairwell leading down to the restrooms. Jana sips delicately at a glass of house red. The waiter hasn’t brought their appetizer yet, but Callie is already half-way through her second vodka tonic.
“That’s great,” Jana says. “I haven’t heard from you in so long. I was starting to think you’d died or something.”
She laughs. Callie drains the rest of her drink.
“Well,” Callie says, “I did have cancer.”
Jana smiles uncertainly. Callie crunches an ice cube between her molars.
“I don’t get it,” Jana says finally.
“Nothing to get,” says Callie. “I had pancreatic cancer. Stage three. That means it was in my lymph nodes, I think.”
Their waiter comes by with a plate of calamari. Callie thanks him, and orders another drink.
“So what happened?” Jana asks finally. “I mean, you’ve still got your hair, right? How does that work?”
Callie shrugs, pops a ring of fried squid into her mouth and chews.
“I’m not sure,” she says. “I think a bird cured me.”
Jana’s eyebrows come together over the bridge of her nose.
“Yeah,” says Callie. “A crow, I think. Or maybe a raven? Do you know the difference?”
Jana shakes her head, and finishes her wine in one gulp. Callie shovels a handful of calamari into her mouth.
“These are good,” she says, then chews and swallows. “Hey—can crows talk?”
“No,” Jana says. “I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure ravens can, though. Like in that poem, right? Nevermore.”
“Right. Maybe it was a raven, then. Can they cure cancer?”
Jana shrugs. Her expression is one of concern now, bordering on alarm.
“Anyway,” Callie says, “I had cancer, and now I don’t. What about you?”
“Um...” Jana says, and slides her gaze to the kitchen.
“I know,” Callie says. “Tough to follow the whole miracle cancer cure, right?”
“Yeah,” Jana says. “I mean, I just got promoted to business development manager. That’s why I’m in town. I feel kind of stupid talking about that now, though.”
They pick at the calamari in silence. The waiter brings Jana a second glass of wine. The restaurant had been mostly empty, but it’s beginning to fill in now. When Callie finally speaks again, she has to raise her voice to be heard.
“Do you know what a multiverse is?”
Jana shakes her head.
“Neither do I,” Callie says. “I looked it up on the web. It’s got something to do with physics, but I couldn’t understand what, exactly.”
Jana looks around. There’s a couple seated just behind her now, but they’re focused entirely on one another.
“Why do you care?” Jana asks.
“Because of the bird,” Callie says. “It’s got something to do with why I don’t have cancer anymore.”
Jana’s eyes narrow to a squint.
“You mean it’s some kind of treatment? Like chemo, or radiation?”
“No,” Callie says. “I don’t think so.”
The waiter clears the remnants of the calamari, and a few minutes later returns with two chopped salads. Callie starts into hers, but when she looks up, Jana is staring at her.
“Callie?” Jana asks. “What’s going on?”
Callie chews slowly, then swallows. Her vision is oddly blurred, and when she speaks, her voice is barely more than a whisper.
“I think I had a baby,” she says.
Jana leans forward.
“I think,” Callie says, louder now, “that I had a baby.”
Jana sits back. Her jaw hangs slightly open.
“No,” she says. “You never had a baby.”
“I think I did,” says Callie, as a tear rolls down her cheek. “I think I had a baby, and I think I had a husband. When the bird fixed my cancer, I think that’s what it took.”
Callie looks for the bird on Friday morning as she walks to the metro. She sees a huge black crow sitting on a light pole near the station, but when she calls to it, it ignores her. This isn’t a talking, cancer-curing crow. It’s just a regular, parasite-ridden, carrion-eating crow.
Her morning crawls by in a haze of spreadsheets and pointless meetings. She’d planned on eating her lunch at the picnic table again, thinking that maybe the bird would meet her there, but when lunch rolls around it’s raining outside. She sits sullenly at her desk, staring at the water streaming down the window by her cubicle, and wondering if the bird might have forgotten her. Her afternoon drags by even more slowly than her morning, and by the time she’s ready to start home she feels half-asleep and worn thin, as if she’s been awake for days.
Martin is waiting for her when she gets back to her apartment. He rubs against her legs, then bolts through the half-open door.
“Hey!” Callie cries, but before she can go on she’s interrupted by a stream of curses. She turns to see Martin on the landing, wrestling with the bird. It beats at him with its wings, while he hisses and bats at it with his paws. Callie stomps one foot, and Martin leaps up onto the bannister. The bird flaps back until it’s pressed against her legs.
“Jesus,” it says. “Why didn’t you tell me you’ve got a cat?”
“You never asked,” Callie says. She reaches for Martin. He hisses again at the bird, then leaps into her arms. She pushes him into the apartment, and closes the door between them.
“Thanks,” says the bird. “Good God, I hate cats. Soulless killing machines, every one.”
“Oh, please,” Callie says. “If Martin had wanted to kill you, you’d be dead. He was just playing.”
The bird hops up onto the bannister and glares at her.
“Easy for you to say. Imagine if you were a social worker, and half your clients had tigers in their houses. That’s my life.”
“So is that what you are?” Callie asks. “A social worker? Here I was thinking maybe you were God.”
The bird laughs until it has to flap its wings for balance.
“God?” it says. “No, Callie, I am most definitely not God.”
“Okay,” Callie says. “So what are you then?”
The bird smooths down its wing feathers with with its beak, then walks to the corner of the bannister over the stairs.
“Technically,” it says, “I’m a packet manager. But that doesn’t help you at all, does it?”
“No,” she says. “It doesn’t.”
Callie sits down on the top step. The bird hops across to the railing, wobbles once, and then settles down into an uncomfortable-looking crouch.
“So,” it says. “This is basically your exit interview. Are you settled in?”
Callie looks up. A fat dark cloud is moving slowly across the slate-gray sky. The low evening sun paints the leading edge in pink and purple, but farther back, near the center, it’s almost black.
“Rain’s coming,” she says.
The bird hops back up onto the bannister.
“Take that as a yes?”
Callie turns to meet its gaze. For a moment, she’d forgotten it was there.
“I had a husband,” she says. “I had a baby.”
The bird’s head tilts slowly to one side.
“You remember that, huh?”
She looks away again.
“No. That’s the worst part. I know there’s something missing, but I can’t ever quite wrap my head around what it is. I get flashes, but...”
“Yeah,” it says. “That’ll go away soon. You’ll forget about them, and you’ll forget about me. I’m kind of surprised you’ve held on this long.”
Lightning flashes from the center of the cloud. Callie counts eight seconds before the distant rumble of thunder.
“Well,” the bird says. “I should be going...”
“Can you send me back?”
The bird stares at her.
“You had cancer,” it says finally.
“I know,” Callie says. “Can you send me back?”
Thunder sounds again, closer this time. The bird looks down at its feet, then away.
“No,” it says finally. “I can’t.”
Something warm and wet rolls down Callie’s cheek.
“Why not? You brought me here. You can send me back.”
“I can’t,” says the bird. “You’re not the only one involved, you know.”
Callie squints her eyes against a grit-laden gust of air.
“What does that mean?”
A hard, cold wind kicks up from the north. The bird has to flutter its wings to stay on the bannister.
“It means, this was a trade. You both wanted it, and there’s no backsies.”
“Right, a trade. Now if you don’t mind, I need to get back to the nest.”
“Wait,” Callie says. “You mean someone else has my cancer now?”
“Not someone else,” it says. “You. I mean, a different you, but still you. You wanted to live. She wanted to be loved. Fair trade.”
The first drops of rain spatter against the wall of the house, pushed almost sideways by the wind. Callie has to raise her voice to be heard.
“Maybe she wants to come back,” she says. “Maybe she wants to be healthy again.”
“No,” says the bird. “She doesn’t.”
The rain starts in earnest now, and Callie suddenly wonders what she’s doing outside. The crow on the bannister shakes its wings, gives a sharp, angry-sounding caw, and leaps into the air. It turns and climbs, riding the wind, wings pumping hard. Callie stands, and turns her face up to the clouds. Her cheeks are streaked with rain, and her shirt is soaked through already, wet and heavy and plastered to her body. Lightning flashes almost directly overhead, and the thunder follows an instant later, loud as the end of the world.
This story originally appeared in Fireside Fiction.