Shermy prodded the small yellow bird with the muzzle of his rifle, turning it over and over until he found the hole in its breast. It was dead alright. It was dead because he killed it, and for a moment he felt about as low as anyone could get.
What had he been thinking?
The little bird wasn’t doing anything to anybody; it was just building a nest. He had watched it for what must have been an hour, watching it arrive with a beak full of sticks, arrange them, flit off or more, return with more and arrange them. It was nearly finished by the time Shermy fetched his air rifle, loaded it and returned keeping its barrel trained on the nest resting in the tree branches. He had waited, as the mid-summer’s heat bore down on him, beads of sweat rolling down his forehead. And just when he wondered if something (like that mangy cat that lived next to Charlie’s place) had happened to that bird, it had returned, a blur of yellow against a deep blue sky dotted white cotton puff clouds. It had perched on the edge of its nest, its beak filled, its dark eyes searching for that perfect spot to place them when Shermy pulled the trigger. There was a loud POP and the bird had remained rigid for an almost comical moment. But then the twigs in its beak fell and the bird followed, landing with a soft THUD on the grass below.
Standing over the bird now, he lowered the gun as the weight of what he’d done fell on him. There it was –-
— and then it just wasn’t. A pellet through the chest, through the heart, and out the other side and it was over. The bird was dead before it hit the ground. The bird was dead before it realized it was dead.
At least that’s what Shermy told himself. But looking at that bird now, its black eyes fixed open and staring, he felt surprise that he managed to even pull the trigger. Before he would have chickened out, or the gun would misfire, or he wouldn’t have even thought about shooting it in the first place. But lately, he’d been having more thoughts like the one that guided him to his room and his rifle.
His entire life, Shermy felt like he was being guided by something else — something Great and Big like an invisible hand nudging him forward, guiding his actions, and even putting words in his mouth. But lately, it felt like that Great Big had moved on and forgotten about Shermy entirely. And ever since, Shermy’s thoughts had been his thoughts, that guiding hand nowhere to be seen. That’s why the moment he squeezed the trigger of the air rifle was such a surprise; that it was Shermy’s doing and Shermy alone.
He planted the butt of the rifle on the ground and, using it as a crutch, leaned in close. He stared at the bird, and as its blank eyes stared back at his he realized he’d seen it before. But that was impossible; it was just a bird. Even now he could hear other yellow birds chirping, calling out to each other, calling to their lost friend. But he couldn’t shake the feeling he’d seen it, if not before, than one exactly like it, hanging around this neck of town like it belonged —
Realization struck him as surely as his pellet had struck the bird. He had seen it before over at Charlie’s house, mostly, in the back yard. Charlie’s beagle seemed to have a fixation on it; not to chase or bark at it but to pal around with. Walking by Charlie’s (which was pretty much all Shermy did these days) he’d see that bird perched atop the dog’s head, or on its nose, or on the roof of the red doghouse. It was weird, like they were somehow communicating silently.
It made Shermy think of a lot of things; of how much had changed and how much was still changing. He remembered a time before that bird, when that dog was just a dog, and he and Charlie were the best of friends. He remembered comic books, and snowball fights, and walks to school as leaves crunched underfoot. Mostly he remembered baseball; it was the whole point of enduring ten months of school, for those two perfect months of summer at the ball diamond. Even though they lost every game, it was still summer, and it was just him and Charlie.
But things had changed. Times had changed. Charlie had changed. Charlie had new friends; that loud-mouthed girl with the sandals and her four-eyed friend, that black kid from the other side of town, the kid who was always at piano lessons, and loud-mouthed Lucy and her kid brother. Even Charlie’s sister was in on the act. His sister! Didn’t that just beat all? What kind of kid wanted to pal around with his baby sister?
Charlie, for one.
Shermy poked at the bird with the barrel, almost desperate for it to wake up, to chatter at him with annoyance and take flight. But there was no way it was waking up. Tiny insects were already buzzing around that hole, searching for a way in, the same way Shermy had been searching for his way back. The bugs were meeting with more success than him.
It seemed like Charlie hadn’t had time for Shermy anymore. It had been ages since Charlie – just Charlie – and he played together. Sure there was still the baseball team, the team he was due to join in an hour or so. He still saw Charlie at the sandlot, but was really Charlie’s team, and that team had less and less to do with Shermy every time they played. The action was on the infield, with Charlie and Lucy and the rest, but Shermy hadn’t played infield for a long time. He used to be shortstop, the essential link in the team. Heck, the most important link in the team. But it was Charlie’s team, and when Charlie up and told him he wanted Shermy in the outfield, he had figured it was just a one-time thing. But it wasn’t short-term or one-time at all; it was permanent. And who did Charlie replace him with? His dog! A dog playing baseball! And short-stop no less!
What was happening?
It was like Charlie didn’t even want to win games anymore. Charlie would cry up to the sky, cursing it and whatever all-powerful being lived up there for making his life so miserable. Shermy too began wonder if Charlie was right that the world hated him; the same world that for some reason was nudging Shermy aside. Maybe the Great Big had moved on to push Charlie into situation after situation, to force him to cry skyward, all for some unknown amusement.
But then he thought about it harder and he began to wonder if the Great Big was just a story; a myth, an excuse for Charlie and others to blame their troubles on something other than themselves. More and more, he’d begun to suspect that Charlie was the cause of Charlie’s problems.
Shermy wondered what the time was, and wondered -– seriously wondered –- if he should even bother going to the game at all. What if he didn’t? He could just not show up. That would show Charlie and Lucy and the rest what Shermy thought of all this and what he thought of them. They’d all be sorry for treating Shermy like yesterday’s news.
But deep down Shermy knew they wouldn’t notice at all. They’d stick someone else in right field and that would be it. Heck, in a month or less they’d have forgotten Shermy ever existed.
But the bird? No way would they forget about it. They’d know something happened to it and they’d come looking for it. They’d find it there in Shermy’s yard and know what he’d done and then there’d be no way back in for him.
And despite everything, he realized he wanted back in; he wanted to play ball, even if it was only the outfield. He wanted to play with Charlie again, even if they were doomed to lose. He wanted to belong. But as he looked to the tiny yellow bird on the ground before him, the tiny flies buzzing around the hole, he knew that belonging would never happen. Not unless he got rid of the darn thing, and fast.
“Whatcha doing, Shermy?”
Shermy gripped the spade and cursed silently. He was almost finished. The hole had been dug and all he had to do was drop the bird in, fill the hole, replace the grass and he’d be in the clear. Instead he quickly planted his foot on top of the bird’s body. Its tiny bones crunched beneath his shoe and he fought the urge to gag as he turned.
He knew it was Violet without having to turn around and look. He knew her voice, that petulant, demanding know-it-all tone. It seemed he’d always known her voice, just as he knew she’d be standing there, pony-tail bobbing as she spoke. And when he turned and saw Violet standing and talking, pony-tail bobbing, he didn’t hear anything. Violet talked at you, not to you, and over the years he’d come to learn to tune her out. It’s a trick Charlie taught him. “Just think of something else and pretty soon you’ll tune everything out,” Charlie had said sadly, and Charlie was right. Violet always talked too much for Shermy’s liking – sometimes him and Charlie would walk away from her only to look down the street to see her still talking, eyes closed, still gesturing, not knowing or not caring she was talking to herself. Oddly, Lucy had in recent years taken on more of Violet’s characteristics, to the degree that Violet seemed like a growing redundancy.
“I said, whatcha doing, Shermy?” Violet demanded.
“Nothing,” he muttered.
“You’re digging a hole,” she said. “What for?”
“None of your business.”
Violet crossed her arms and sneered. “Whatcha digging, Shermy? And don’t lie because I can tell when you’re lying. I can always tell.”
“Looking for pirate treasure,” he lied.
“I told you I could tell when you were lying,” she said. “There have never been pirates in this part of the country. If you’d said ‘Injun treasure’ or ‘cowboy treasure’ I might have believed you, but MWA MWA MWA …”
(If anybody could take a sentence and drag it kicking and screaming into a paragraph, it was Violet)
“BWA BWA BWA …”
Her voice sounded like a blaring trombone. Violet would make a good school teacher someday; she talked like one and acted like she knew everything.
“… MWA MWA MWA lying about it …”
He wondered where her friend Patty was. The two of them were inseparable. Maybe Violet couldn’t find Patty and that’s what had brought her to Shermy’s. Maybe Patty was already on her way, to sneer along with Violet. To sneer at Shermy –-
Hold on. Patty?
“PATTY!” he exclaimed, and somehow silenced Violet with his outburst. “That’s the loud girl’s name — the one with the big nose and the freckles!”
He looked to Violet, whose eyes had widened. He just as quickly looked to the ground.
“What is that you’re standing on?” Violet asked.
He looked back to her. “What? I –- nothing.”
Violet gave him a nudge and he staggered, revealing the crushed yellow thing that was a bird not ten minutes before. She stared at it an uncomfortable long time. She didn’t speak; she just stared. Shermy kicked at the ground with the toe of his shoe, trying not to make it look like he was wiping the bottom of it on the grass. The crushed bird had begun to leak what looked like ink.
“What happened to it?” Violet asked, her voice a whisper. “And don’t lie, Shermy, ‘cuz I know when you’re lying.”
Shermy didn’t lie. He told her everything. He told her about watching the bird build its nest. He told her about the gun and despite his realization just what bird it was, and he told her what he’d hidden from himself. He knew what bird it was. He knew all along. That’s why he killed it.
“I just wanted it dead,” he said softly. “I wanted it dead because it reminded me that I didn’t matter anymore, that they’d rather spend time with it than with me – with us.” He raised his eyes to meet Violet’s and expected to see disgust on her face. But what he saw was an expression he knew all too well; it was the one he wore almost daily now.
She wordlessly nudged the crushed bird with the tip of her saddle-shoe and sent it tumbling into the hole. Shermy pulled the spade from the ground and shoveled dirt in, and Violet replaced the divot of grass, stomping it flat with her foot.
“Should we plant a flower?” Shermy asked.
Violet shrugged. “Why? It was just a stupid bird.”
Shermy put the spade away and collected his bike from the garage and he and Violet walked it to her place so she could get hers. Soon enough they were pedaling through the neighborhood that once felt like their entire world but now felt impossibly small. In many ways it was. Home, school, the lot where they played ball – that was it. There was camp two weeks every summer, but Shermy hadn’t gone this year, while Charlie and Lucy’s thumb-sucking brother and even Charlie’s dog had. He heard of the adventures they’d had; whispered among the neighborhood kids who weren’t there, like that weird kid with the name that was also a number. How they knew without having been there struck Shermy as odd, like they had read about it in the Sunday funnies. But that didn’t matter. What mattered that Charlie was there and the others were here, forgotten.
“Pedal faster!” Violet ordered.
Shermy followed her gaze and he saw why; it was that redhead, the one with the Naturally Curly Hair, sitting on the curb ahead. He knew it was Naturally Curly because she never failed to mention it was Naturally Curly. She had her cat draped across her lap, and Shermy couldn’t be sure it was alive or not; it just lay there, like it was boneless. Maybe it was just a toy, because it fell from her lap and lay motionless as she stood and called out to them, her words lost to the roar of wind in their ears. Shermy stole a glance back to see Naturally Curly crying after them, her mouth a black hole punched through her pale face, her hair red in the midday sun. The cat still lay where she dropped it. When Charlie used to talk about (moon over, really) a red headed girl Shermy had thought he meant that one, but Charlie didn’t. Even when the one he did like moved away he still wouldn’t shut up about her. Charlie even went to go find her once, but Shermy never heard whether he did or not. Even if he did, he returned as sullen as when he’d left.
A thought intruded. Charlie went away, to find her. He was gone for a whole day. But where did he go? And how did he get there? The fact he went meant there were other places to go, didn’t it? Did the Great Big just up and let him go?
“It was just a stupid bird, Shermy,” Violet said.
“You were thinking about it.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Then what were you thinking about? And don’t lie, cuz –”
“Cuz you know when I’m lying.” Shermy cast a sideways glance at Violet, her ponytail pointing straight behind her as the breeze buffeted it. “I was thinking, when did things change?”
Violet looked at him, her dark eyes finding his, and he knew she had been thinking the same thing. “I dunno,” she said. “It used to be you and me, and Charlie and Patty were the only kids around. But then more kids started showing up. Some came and went, like that Charlotte Braun –”
“Ugh, her!” Shermy’s memory of loud, obnoxious Charlotte Braun was still fresh; her piercing voice, her demanding tone. Good thing for them she focused on Charlie. Bad for Charlie. “Whatever happened to her?”
“She just wasn’t that fun,” Violet shrugged. “If she was fun, if she was more than just loud, she might have stayed. Funny thing is you and me are the only ones who remember her. Maybe Patty does, but it’s like she was, I dunno, erased?”
Violet pedaled faster and Shermy struggled to keep up. They were sailing past the houses now.
“She left, but others didn’t,” Violet continued, bitterness creeping into her voice. “They stayed — Lucy and her kid brother and Charlie’s kid sister, and the rest. They stayed and we stayed, but to Charlie they were like new toys, not old ones like us.”
Old toys, thought Shermy. Is that all they were? Played out? Stuck away in a box and forgotten?
“Maybe we’ve been around too long,” said Violet, slowing her bike. “Maybe we got taken for granted. Maybe …”
“Maybe the Great Big got tired of us.”
Violet frowned. “The Great Big?”
Shermy brought his bike to a stop beside hers.
“Maybe it’s our fault, for not being fun or interesting, and the Great Big got bored. Maybe we had our chance and blew it, like Charlotte Braun.”
Violet set her kickstand in place and climbed down.
“Maybe, she said.
When she opened the front door, Shermy saw that Patty was wearing the same checkered dress and matching bow in her shin length hair. The color of both varied each time he did see her, but that bow was always there and never changed even when her hair color did. Some days – usually Saturdays or Sundays – he remembered her hair being blonde or light red or light brown, but today it was light brown. That was Patty – always in a state of change. Not the other Patty – the big-nosed loudmouth who always wore sandals.
“What do you want?” she asked, hands petulant on her hips.
“We want you to come for a bike ride,” said Shermy.
“Are you doing anything else?”
“Who says I’m not?” Patty sneered. “I’m a very important person with very important things to do, don’t you know?”
Shermy saw a bit of the other Patty – the big-nosed, sandaled one – in this one. It was almost like this Patty – their Patty – was a prototype of the one who would come along later. And once the new one was in place you didn’t need the old one anymore. He wondered which of Charlie’s new friends had replaced him and Violet. For a moment he thought it may be Lucy’s brother, the thumb-sucker always dragging that ratty old blanket with him.
“So if you don’t mind, I’ll be closing this door now,” said Patty, making a half-hearted move to do just that.
“We do mind,” Violet interjected. “We say you were doing nothing and who knows you better than us?
“I’m very busy,” Patty said, arms crossed, face crosser.
“Busy doing what?” Violet asked.
“Busy doing …” Patty frowned. “Oh that’s very strange,” she said after a moment. “It’s on the tip of my tongue but …” She shook her head, like she’d just awoken from a daydream.
“You were going to go and get your bike,” said Violet, slowly. “You were going to get on it and you were going to ride. You’re going to do this, because it’s been too long since you did anything.”
Patty stared, and Shermy stared, and for a moment nobody said anything. Finally, Patty nodded with a confused look on her face and closed the door.
“Because it’s been too long since anybody had us do anything,” muttered Violet. “Isn’t that right, Shermy?
Shermy could only manage a nod.
They rode east, then north, then west, crisscrossing streets, up one and down the other, covering every inch, foot and square mile of their tiny neighborhood. Moving down identical street after identical street, everything took on a flat, lifeless quality, like the houses they passed were just simple drawings, with simple lines and simple colors. It was like the street and buildings were being hurriedly drawn just a few feet ahead of their bikes just to keep up with the illusion that everything was real and there.
They rode past the school where so much of their lives revolved. They thought of the annual Christmas Pageant, and how Charlie had directed it one year that suddenly seemed like every year. Shermy got to be a Shepherd, same as every year.
They rode past the old vacant lot where Violet and Patty made mud pies over and over again one summer. It was where they planned their parties that they pointedly didn’t invite Charlie to. They told him they weren’t inviting him, which struck Shermy as cruel, given they never actually threw any party.
They rode past the old farmhouse, where they held their yearly Halloween Party. Not far from that was a Pumpkin patch, where some whispered a strange visitor arrived every Halloween night, provided it was sincere enough.
They rode past the field where a solitary tree stood. Charlie had lost no small number of kites to that tree. Charlie claimed it was a Kite Eating Tree, but that was just stupid. Still, even at this distance Shermy thought he could see a blue scrap of fabric nestled amidst the green, like the scraps from dinner.
They rode past so many places, each with a memory so vivid and colorful it was like they were living them all over again. Only those memories were just that — memories. There would be no new adventures, at least not ones with Charlie and Lucy and the rest. Not even the dog or that stupid bird. That part of their lives was over. Sure they’d still be around, lingering in the background, silent and watching but not participating, not like they used to.
Shermy thought again about the Red Haired Girl – not the Naturally Curly one, but the one Charlie had mooned over for ages. The one he went to find. That meant there were other towns, with other neighborhoods and other kids. It meant there was somewhere other than the streets Shermy had always known. If Charlie could visit them, maybe Shermy could escape and find a new place with new kids.
They stopped at the foot of a gently rising hill and left their bikes there. They climbed, Shermy again in the lead, Patty and Violet following. The day was warm as always, but not too warm. Sunny, with cotton puffs of cloud hanging still in the sky. Shermy was so intent on the path and what he knew he’d see at the top of the hill he didn’t realize Patty was talking to them until he heard her say
“Summer kids,” she said. “That’s what we are, aren’t we?”
Shermy slowed his pace so the girls could catch up. Soon enough they were walking in a row, in lock-step, pressing forward while Patty’s voice filled the air.
“When it’s summer, you see kids you never see in school. You don’t know where they are the rest of the time. Maybe they’re at some other school or maybe they go to ours and we never notice. Or maybe they’re just at home, waiting for the summer to come again so they can step outside. They’re here for a while, when the weather is warm and the days are long … but when fall comes and everyone goes back inside, they’re not invited. You may see them at Halloween or Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter or Arbor Day, but not like you do in the summer. You see them in the background, on a passing bus, or at a party; but not in the middle. Never in the middle. The middle is for other kids, not kids like –”
“Like us,” Shermy finished.
They marched in silence, the hill cresting just ahead. He could picture the view below it like it had been drawn on his memory, even though this was the first time he ever saw it from this vantage. Before he’d been in the middle of the action; now he was just watching.
Maybe this is what life was. Maybe this is what growing up meant. Maybe people didn’t end friendships over fights. Maybe people just grow up and grow apart. Maybe it was never anything as big as it is in books or on TV. Maybe real life just wasn’t like that.
Shermy reached the summit and stopped. He could see across the entire town, its low-rise homes, the school, and the corner stores. Further away he could even see what looked like skyscrapers rising from the downtown he never, ever saw. But he was more interested in what was going on below, at the sandlot, and the ball-diamond in the middle.
Charlie’s team was on the field. The team he should have been on but wasn’t. Charlie was on the pitcher’s mound, getting ready to throw out the first pitch. He saw Charlie’s dog again playing shortstop, and even at this distance he saw a small yellow bird with a tiny cap and glove fluttering above the dog. Had the bird been replaced so quickly, or had he killed another one entirely? Again, Shermy didn’t care. He was surprised he didn’t care, and the tears he felt forming at the corners of his eyes were tears of relief.
He didn’t care.
He didn’t care that there was some other kid playing his position in the outfield. He didn’t care that he recognize the kid, and he didn’t care that he didn’t care. He felt a weight lift from his shoulders and taking flight and as he took a seat on the top of the hill and watched, knew everything was going to be all right.
“Know what?” said Violet, sitting beside him. “I’m glad we’re not in the middle of things anymore. What kind of eight year-old needs that kind of pressure to be fun and interesting anyways? I mean, look at them!” She pointed down below and they followed just in time to see a fly ball descend and pop off Lucy’s head with a “BOINK” of a sound. They watched her teeter and fall, comical squiggles circling her unconscious form. “They’ll always be like that — they’ll never grow up. They’ll be back next summer, and the summer after that, and the summer after that one too. They’ll never change.”
“But what about us?” asked Patty, sitting beside them; “What do we do now?”
We do whatever we want to now,” said Shermy. “Don’t you see? The Great Big isn’t watching us anymore. It doesn’t care what we do or where we go or if we come back.” He gestured with a disgusted nod of his head to the game below. “Let them play their stupid games. Let Charlie lose, again. Let them have their parties, their popcorn and toast dinners. They want to stay a bunch of stupid kids, let them. Me, I’m going to get back on my bike and ride, down the street, out of this neighborhood, all the way to the edge of town.”
“And then?” asked Patty.
“And then I’ll just keep on going.”
Patty and Violet stared at him silent, their eyes as wide as saucers. His heart pounded heavier in his chest, as if it was as shocked by what he had just said as Patty and Violet. Shermy felt bile rise in his throat, like his words had. For a moment, but only a moment, he wished he hadn’t said that. He hoped they’d speak, tell him he was foolish, so he could back down, and just accept it. Accept everything.
“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” said Violet, finally.
Shermy stared back at her. She nodded, her pony-tail bobbing in agreement.
“We can come too, can’t we?” asked Patty.
“Of course,” said Shermy.
There was the hard crack of ball against bat, and a line drive knocked Charlie end over end, knocking his shoes, socks, and hat, yellow and black striped shirt off. He tumbled through the air and landed on the mound, lying there dazed.
A slow smile began to creep across Shermy’s face. Violet and Patty stared at him, their smiles soon joining his. He laughed, soft at first but getting louder. He laughed harder than he ever had, hands clenched to his sides, rolling over onto his back, the tears streaming down his cheeks. Patty joined him, and shortly after so too did Violet, and that the sound of their laughter filled the air and remained as the three climbed back down the hill, picked up their bikes and rode away.
And if the sound of that laughter reached the baseball diamond far below, no one could say.
— For Charles M. Schulz