By Hayden Sidun
For the seventh time that day, the wooden cuckoo bird came out of its birdhouse and sang its typical song. Terrence often thought about what an appropriate title would be for such a beautiful song. Perhaps the song’s anonymity contributed to its beauty, but he was okay with not knowing.
He sat on the couch and watched the evening news, listening to the peppy yet exhausted voice of the program’s sole anchor, the dapper Michael Buchanan, blaring from his surround sound ceiling speakers as the evening news entered its second hour. Michael had spent so much time at Terrence’s house all those decades ago that he began to think of Michael as the second son he always wanted.
But times had changed, and Michael had stopped coming around decades ago. Yet Terrence still always tuned in to listen to his stories as enthusiastically and intently as he did when the anchor, then just a young child, showed the first inklings of his interest in journalism. It sometimes reminded him to think about his own son and wonder how he was doing, but the thought often only existed in the back of his mind. Michael was more tangible than that, more concrete to Terrence than just a passing thought. Alas, the news anchor had probably forgotten all about Terrence by then.
Terrence’s dinner, a frozen tray of potatoes and gravy, sat in a box in the freezer, patiently waiting to be opened and microwaved. He had eaten all the other meals he had purchased the week before and would soon need to make his weekly trip to the grocery store, a once-simple task that became more and more difficult over the years. When the bird finished its song and retreated to its birdhouse, Terrence arose from the couch, walked into the kitchen, and opened the freezer, the intense cold hitting his bare arms like he had opened the door to a far-away tundra. A shiver ran through him, and his arm shook when he reached into the freezer and took out the frigid dinner box. His nose cringed when he lifted the plastic cover, releasing the same unholy odor as his other frozen meals, and he held his breath until it was surrounded by the sealed-in heat of the microwave.
The doorbell rang once, overcoming the microwave’s buzzing and even the anchor’s voice on the speakers. A smile formed on Terrence’s face, and he walked through the kitchen and the living room, the doorbell ringing again. No one visited him except the mailman (who was always in a hurry, even if his mailbag was empty), and he wasn’t expecting anyone at that hour, nor had anyone asked to stop by. But the beaming old man continued toward the door, wondering who might be standing on the other side of the door. Terrence grabbed the door handle, gave it a slight twist, and slowly pulled the door open.
“…Jeffrey?” he said, no other words coming to mind.
“I thought you’d forgotten how to get here,” the old man said, stepping aside as his distraught son walked inside, dragging a suitcase behind him.
“I did. Grace dug this up and gave it to me,” his son replied, showing Terrence a crumpled yellow sticky note. The words appeared as mere scribbles, illegible pencil lines on a piece of paper, but the old man nodded anyway, closing the door behind his son.
“How is Grace?”
His son shrugged. “She’s fine,” he said shortly, letting go of his suitcase.
“And your daughter…what’s her name again? Audrey?”
“Yeah. She’s fine too.”
“Good.” The microwave beeping, Terrence walked to the kitchen, stopping in front of the television. He looked at his son, who stood in the living room, his hands in his pockets. “I have Michael on the news if you want to watch him. You remember Michael, right?”
“How could I forget? Son of a bitch nearly killed me, remember?”
Terrence rubbed his forehead, continuing toward the kitchen. “I’m sorry, Jeffrey. My memory’s not what it used to be.” The microwave’s incessant beeping gave Terrence’s attention to his dinner. It was hot, hotter than beach sand on a summer afternoon, and the wet steam arising from the dish misted his face, but he smiled when the plastic tray burned his hands. He looked at Jeffrey and held the tray up so he could see it. “Want some dinner?”
“I said no.”
Tray in hand, Terrence walked back to the living room and sat on the couch, placing his dinner on the end table. He patted the cushion and looked at his son, who inched toward the couch and lowered himself. Jeffrey looked at his hands and played with them in his lap, otherwise sitting still. Terrence picked up the remote and turned off the news, asking his son, “Why did you come here?”
“Do I need a reason to see my father?” Jeffrey snapped, his head turning toward Terrence.
Terrence chuckled. “Come on, Jeffrey. Get a grip. This is the first time we’ve seen each other in well over a decade. You don’t disappear from someone’s life like that and then show up without reason.”
Jeffrey shrugged and whispered, “Grace doesn’t want me around anymore.”
Terrence shook his head. “Oh, Jeffrey. Is everything alright?”
“No!” Jeffrey yelled. “Nothing is alright anymore!” Agonized, he pushed himself onto his feet and walked toward the door. He grabbed the door handle and looked back at his father. “It was a mistake coming here, Dad. You can’t help me. I’ll only burden you.”
“Nonsense, Jeffrey. Tell me how I can help you.”
Jeffrey let go of the door handle and fell to the floor. He looked at his feet and buried his face in his hands, and though he never looked up, he could feel his frail father’s presence next to him. Terrence kneeled next to Jeffrey and patted his son on the back; it was perhaps the closest embrace the two had shared in decades. Jeffrey sniffled, and behind his hands, he asked, his voice muffled, “Do you have a spare bed?”
“I only have mine. I turned your bedroom into an office back when I thought I’d never see you again.”
“You can sleep in my bed,” Terrence replied, so soft and faint Jeffrey could barely hear him. “I’ll take the couch.”
Jeffrey looked up at his father, his bloodshot eyes meeting his father’s, two cloudy white eyes that used to be glimmering and opulent. “You’re 88 years old. I can’t ask you to do that.”
“Nonsense. I’m 88 years old, yes, but I’m perfectly capable of sleeping on a couch.”
“Shut up and take the bed, Jeffrey.”
The sternness in his father’s voice took Jeffrey by surprise. Lost for words, he nodded as he picked himself up. He grabbed his suitcase and walked toward the hallway, dragging his suitcase behind him. When he disappeared behind the wall, he let go of his suitcase and stepped back into his father’s view, tears clouding his vision. “I was going to come back eventually, you know.”
“And you did.”
“Yeah, but not like this. Not because of why I’m here.”
“Maybe not, but you came back anyway, and you’re welcome to stay for as long as you need.”
Jeffrey nodded. “I don’t see any pictures of me on the walls,” he hesitantly observed.
Terrence flashed a faint smile. “There’s one on the nightstand. I’ve said ‘good night’ to it every night since you moved out, but now that you’re really here…well, I guess I don’t have to anymore.”
Jeffrey picked up his suitcase and stepped behind the wall, only his head in Terrence’s view. “Good night, Dad.”
“Good night, Jeffrey.”
As Jeffrey walked down the hallway toward his father’s bedroom, the only things drowning out the silence were his father’s coughing and a few suitcase wheels rolling down the decades-old shag carpet.
Jeffrey sat up in his bed and rubbed his face, his vision blurry even in the darkness. Even in a closed-door bedroom down the hallway on the other side of the house, he could still hear the incessant singing of the wooden cuckoo bird, its unknown song blasting throughout the house, ripping through the silence of the night as a bullet rips through gelatin. He picked up his phone, the bright screen blinding him. It was only three o’clock in the morning. There’s no way Dad sleeps through this, he thought, throwing the blankets off, his feet touching the shag carpet. He sauntered over to the door and opened it, walking down the hallway, his hands acting as his eyes in the darkness, the birdsong getting louder with each step.
The darkness turned to blue light when Jeffrey reached the living room, the television illuminating the room and his sleeping father’s face. He walked toward the light switch and flicked it up, drowning out the darkness and dimming the television just a little. On the couch sat Terrence, his body slouching, his head sunken into the cushion, his mouth ajar, his eyes closed. Jeffrey walked over to his father and tapped his shoulder. “Dad, get up and turn off the clock,” he whispered.
When Terrence didn’t respond, he grabbed his father’s shoulder and gently shook it. “Dad, wake up.”
He shook a little harder and spoke a little louder. “Dad?”
Jeffrey swiftly moved his hand to his father’s wrist and let go, his hopes of going back to sleep as long gone as his father. It was only when Jeffrey draped his father with a blanket that the cuckoo bird stopped singing and retreated to its birdhouse, and he sat still on the couch with his father by his side, wondering if he should destroy the clock or call 9-1-1 first.
Hayden Sidun is a high school student whose short fiction has appeared in The Dillydoun Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Literary Yard, Button Eye Review, The Chamber Magazine, and Potato Soup Journal. Outside of school and work, he is involved in local politics and often finds himself surfing the Internet in the middle of the night. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, of which he is a proud native.