Red Feather ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Reggie Ferry died in the middle of the school year in fifth grade. His body was embalmed and placed in a child-sized white coffin and held for visitation for a day and a half at the Archer Brothers Mortuary on Clemenceau Street. After a brief non-sectarian funeral service, he was laid to rest in his family’s cemetery plot, along with grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and a baby sister who died when she was only five days old, years before Reggie was born.
In the fifth-grade classroom, the teacher, Miss Goodacre, left Reggie’s desk vacant to honor his memory. In defiance of separation-of-church-and state laws, she placed a small wooden cross on the desk to remind everybody, not only that Reggie had been there and was gone, but that it could happen to anybody. There wasn’t anybody in the class who didn’t understand this.
Reggie dwelt in the spirit world but, as is often the case with young people who die, he didn’t know he was dead. He continued to go to school every day and back home again. After a few days, though, he began to be aware that some things were fundamentally different.
When he was at school, for example, he could see and hear people but they couldn’t see or hear him. He waved his arms and talked very loud but they just ignored him as if he wasn’t even there. Sometimes they walked right through him, which at first he thought very rude. He was never called on in class and didn’t have to do any work if he didn’t want to; the teacher didn’t even look his way or pay any attention to him. When he discovered that he could rise in the air and hover near the ceiling and look down on everybody else, he was delighted. Whatever it was that had happened to him, he wished it had happened much earlier, say in kindergarten or first grade.
At home he stayed in his room. His mother no longer called him for dinner, but he didn’t mind because he always felt agreeably full, as if he had just eaten the most satisfying meal on earth. In the evening when his mother was watching television, he would go and sit beside her on the couch but she didn’t pay any attention to him and never asked him what he wanted to watch. When he stood behind his father and looked over his shoulder as he read or dozed in his chair, he (his father) wasn’t annoyed as he always had been before.
Other things were different, too. Time and distance seemed to have become rearranged somehow. He was at home in his room and then he was at school without any conscious effort on his part and without remembering how he got there. He was at his grandparents’ house working a jigsaw puzzle and then he was at the supermarket with his mother looking over the choice cuts of meat or standing in the drugstore looking at the new comic books that had just come in. He was riding his bicycle down the street and then he was in the bathtub up to his neck in bubbly water. Places changed so fast that he could hardly keep up, creating a kind of kaleidoscopic effect that he found a little dizzying but not unpleasant. The places he found himself in were always good places where he had been happy.
Then there was time. When he looked at the alarm clock in his bedroom, at the clock on the wall at school, or at his mother’s grandfather clock in the dining room, they were all blank, meaning the faces were there but the hands were gone. Who would steal the hands on the clocks, he wondered? It was a question he would have to defer—along with lots of other questions—to a later time.
One day when he was walking home from school, he saw a girl wearing a black beret with a red feather in it coming toward him on the sidewalk. He could tell from the way she was looking at him that she was seeing him and not just a blank space. When she came even to him on the sidewalk before passing him, she touched him on the arm and said, “You shouldn’t still be here.”
“What?” he said, but she was gone in the blink of an eye.
When he got home, he wanted to tell his mother about what the girl had said to him, but he knew it was no use. She wouldn’t be able to see or hear him no matter how hard he tried. He was beginning to feel lonely and isolated and he didn’t like the feeling.
In the spring his mother and father brought home a baby they had adopted. His name was Jackie and he was ten months old. The house, which had seemed a little morose since Reggie died, was once again filled with noise and activity. Any time Jackie made a sound or a gurgle, Reggie’s mother and father were right there to see what he wanted or to make sure he was all right. They put their faces right down in Jackie’s face, made silly squeals and grimaces, and generally made fools of themselves. Reggie couldn’t remember if they behaved that way when he was a baby or not. He wasn’t exactly jealous but concerned that they seemed to care more for Jackie than they had ever cared for him.
They converted Reggie’s room into a room for the baby. They put all of Reggie’s possessions—clothes, shoes, underwear, books, model cars, games, etc.—into boxes and put them in the basement. They replaced Reggie’s bed with a baby bed and filled the drawers of the dresser with baby clothes. They took down Reggie’s pictures and artwork from the walls and replaced it with stuff for baby.
One afternoon after Reggie’s mother had given Jackie a bath and had put him down for his nap, Reggie went into the room that had been his room but was now Jackie’s and stood over the baby bed and looked down at Jackie. He expected Jackie to be asleep, but he was fully awake and looking directly at him. Reggie knew right away that the baby, as with the girl on the street in the beret, was seeing him and not just empty space.
“I know who you are,” Jackie said. “I see you even though I know they can’t.”
“How is it you can talk?” Reggie asked. “You’re just a baby.”
“Who says I’m talking? Can you see my lips moving? There are other ways to communicate other than speech, you know.”
“Do you know what happened to me?” Reggie asked.
“Yes, I know. The same thing that happens to all of us.”
“How can I get back to the way I was?”
“You can’t, but there is something you can do.”
“Don’t you know what I represent?”
“I represent your freedom. Now that I’m here, you can move on.”
“Move on where?”
“They’re waiting for you. You’ve been hanging around here too long.”
“I don’t want to go away.”
“What do I do?”
“Go tell your mother goodbye and then leave the house for the last time. Walk down the street toward the park. On the street corner down there, a car with a driver is waiting for you. You’ll know it when you see it.”
His mother was folding laundry. He went up behind her and held onto her wrist for a few seconds and then let it go. She stopped what she was doing and looked down at her wrist as if she had felt his touch but didn’t know what it was.
With a backward glance of farewell at the house he had lived in his whole life, he began walking down the street. Three blocks down was a black car gleaming in the sunshine. He knew it was the car that Jackie was talking about because it was like no other car he had ever seen. He opened the door to the back and got inside. As soon as he closed the door, the car began moving. When he thought to look at who was driving, he saw it was the girl in the black beret with the red feather sticking out of the side.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Don’t you know?” she asked.
“Why don’t the clocks have hands anymore?”
“No more questions now,” she said.
“Where is it we’re going?”
She met his eyes in the rearview mirror and put the tip of her finger to her lips to make him stop talking. All he could do was look at the feather in her beret. It was the most beautiful red he had ever seen in his life.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp