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Birds and Paradise by Cezarija Abartis

There had been a time when Jim was not the senator, not the governor, not the President. Outside the window, the sky was a flat, endless blue above sand and curling waves that  moved in and out, daily and forever. Marine One had flown the family for this vacation, and now the weekend was over. Three birds kited on the winds. To a child it would seem as if the birds were delighting in freedom and skill, but Jim supposed the birds were constantly circling for crabs and small fish. The gulls screeched. When he was a child he put his arms out straight from his shoulders as if to fly. His grandfather had taken him to Gull Lake and thrown breadcrumbs on the water. When the gulls flocked to the bread, his grandfather aimed his shotgun at the hungry creatures, the crack of the shotgun staying in Jim’s memory. “Don’t like those dirty birds,” his grandfather muttered.

To young Jimmy, the birds looked clean.

“Scavengers.” His grandfather spat out tobacco juice. “They eat other birds’ young.”

Jimmy pressed his hands to his sides. He wanted there to be just good birds in the world, but some birds were bad, according to his grandfather. The birds flew away, but two spun in the water, blood fanning out where they floated. He wanted there to be just good grandfathers, too, but this one drank and sometimes hit Grandma. Jimmy feared to be beside him, though he was never himself beaten.

The President’s vacation was almost over, and the family would be flying back to Washington. Jim allowed himself a moment, just one, of self-pity. This job was costly. Why had he pursued this office? Because he was the man for the job was the standard answer, and the country needed him. But there were other answers. The warmth of crowds, the hands reaching to touch their idol, the instant service of those around him  –  such devotion was like bread to him.

When he started up this ladder, he had imagined he was doing it to renew the country and inspire the next generation. A part of him still thought that.

His daughter, Madeline, ran into the living room chasing her son, Riley, who raised his chubby hands and chortled, “I win!” An agent followed them in, smiling.

Madeline dropped to her knees in front of Riley and blew kisses into his cheek. “You win!” She  wiped a smudge from his forehead and winked at Jim. “Think Riley’ll follow in his grandfather’s footsteps? Will he be President?”

“I wanna be a pilot,” Riley said. “I wanna fly rockets and go to the moon.”

“I wanted that too once,” Jim said. “I wanted to fly like a bird.”

“Did you fly?” Riley’s face was pure and open, still for a second.

Jim was still too, as if waiting for the gunshot. “That’s a question for interpretation.”

Riley escaped from his mother and ran to the porch, pointing. “Birds,” he said. He picked up a popsicle stick and threw it like a spear at the birds strutting on the sand.

Madeline embraced Riley. “Don’t do that. You might hurt them. We’ve got to pack. You can help me. Grampa has work to do.” The agent followed them into the house. A seagull circled above the frothing waves, against a sky that stretched its lilac light to the sun.

Cezarija Abartis’ Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Pure Slush, Waccamaw, and New York Tyrant, among others. One of her flashes was included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 list of flash fiction. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Her website is