by William Falo
The smell lured her and she circled closer to the ground. The dead deer was on the side of the road near the entrance to a bridge. She wanted to be the first, but another vulture landed next to the roadkill before she got close. It was the ones he circled with more than anyone else. They glided many miles together over all kinds of terrain. She tried to land next to him, but her landing was clumsy. A kid once shot at her and clipped her wing leaving broken, dangling feathers. This made it hard for her to land, causing her to fall over or hit something, much to the amusement of the other vultures.
She fell on her beak when she landed and scratched her neck. He hissed. It was his way of laughing at her. Above them, the sky darkened with black forms circling closer. They ripped into the dead deer’s flank tearing away pieces of meat. She stopped and looked around. The solid ground always contained danger. Like the deer, they could be hit by the fast-moving cars and there were always people who tried to hit them. Her dangling, broken feathers became bloody from the kill.
The other vultures landed, one after another. It became too crowded and skirmishes broke out. She tried to stay next to her roosting partner, but she lost track of him. The ground vibrated and a few wise vultures took flight. Taking off, at the approach of danger, proved slow with wings so large.
She hopped up and down hoping he would notice. It was too crowded and there wasn’t enough time. She took off and just cleared the approaching truck. It smashed into the dead deer. The deer disintegrated as she circled above looking for him.
Black feathers floated down like ashes from the sky. She knew it was him. The smell didn’t lie. The feathers settled on the ground next to the road. She landed next to them and placed her head down on them like they were a pillow.
The other vultures drifted away. There was no food here now. A few called to her, but she stayed by the feathers. She couldn’t leave.
Hours went by and the sky darkened. He always roosted next to her in the tallest tree. How could she go back to their favorite tree and have an empty spot next to her? She remained by the road and when a car went past, she laid on top of the feathers so they wouldn’t scatter in the wind. She drifted to sleep.
The sound of screeching woke her. Danger. A bright light shone in her eyes and she stood up. The car stopped near the entrance to the bridge. The lights went out and the darkness returned, but she wasn’t alone.
A human took off a mask and talked into a small box, then walked under one of the bridge lights.
“I don’t care. Nobody else will ever love me as he did,” the human said, as she climbed onto the bridge railing. “I’m lonely.” Her face glistened. She wiped her eyes. “I miss him.” She made strange sounds like she was in pain.
She stood up and the human looked in her direction.
“Stop.” She dropped her phone into some bushes below the bridge. “Look what you made me do.”
She spread her wings and the human gasped. Her wingspan is six feet and it can be intimidating.
“You’re a vulture.”
She flapped her wings.
“I’m Chloe and I’m not scared of you. I don’t care what happens to me. In fact, I’m going to jump.”
A car came across the bridge and it sent the feathers in every direction. She tried to catch them, but there were too many. She let out a sad sound.
Chloe ran and caught all the feathers, then put them back by the side of the road. She looked at some of them closer and saw the blood on them.
“I think I know what happened here. You lost someone and you can’t leave.” She looked at the damaged wing feathers. “You’re broken like me, but mine is on the inside.”
She hopped back on the feathers. Chloe sat on the railing near her. “I lost my fiancée. He died in a motorcycle accident.”
She made a sad sound.
“I wanted to end it tonight,” Chloe continued, “but maybe you showed me others are grieving too.”
She moved closer.
“Maybe we have to learn to move on.”
She backed up. No human has ever touched her. They cause pain. Her damaged wing was evidence of their cruelty.
Chloe gathered up the feathers then dug a hole in the ground under a tree with something she took out of the bag she carried. She put the feathers in the hole, covered them, and made some marks on top of the grave.
“Now, you can visit here whenever you want. The feathers won’t fly away. If you stay here you will die and if I stay here I will die, too. The feathers are safe now. You can go home.”
But she stayed by the grave and looked at the human.
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to jump. Maybe I can help other people.” She put the mask over her face and walked away. Chloe stopped and pulled down the mask and looked back at her. “Animals, too.”
She took off and flew down under the bridge and picked up the small box that the human had dropped and flew above her. She dropped the phone. Chloe caught it. She circled once and saw Chloe waving, then headed toward the trees where the rest of the vultures waited for daylight to circle the skies again.
In the morning, she noticed empty spots in the tree. Missing vultures. A few others stretched their wings and she saw damaged feathers. Others balanced on broken feet, some scratched at scars, one had a band around a leg, and one was missing an eye. They were all broken. It was a dangerous world for vultures.
When she flew back to the grave of her partner, she rested her head on it for a long time. She couldn’t get the strength to lift off again. She missed him. Why go on? A car drove by and she remembered how the human named Chloe had helped her. That one thing gave her hope. In the distance, she heard the other vultures. They were circling in the sky. She put her head on the grave one more time then spread her wings and took off, flying toward the other vultures as they circled higher into the sky. They might be a broken and a ragtag gang, but they were her family.
William Falo lives in New Jersey with his family. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Vamp Cat Magazine, Fictive Dream, Litro Magazine, Fragmented Voices, the Australian charity anthology Burning Love, Train River’s first fiction anthology, and other literary journals. He can be found on Twitter or Instagram