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A year after the snow day that changed her life forever, Anna finds a wounded bird

On Tuesday morning, a sheath of crystalline white over the bedroom window obstructed Anna’s view of anything else outside. Snow day, she thought, and without explanation, a feeling of dread crept over her. School would be canceled, she knew, and the fact was confirmed by her mother at breakfast.

Anna stared out the kitchen window, which the snow had somehow bypassed. The trees sagged, deposits of heavy whiteness weighing them down. Beside the window, an evergreen dropped a load of snow suddenly and then sprang back up, splattering white powder over the glass windowpane.

What was there to do if school was out? Anna wandered listlessly around the house, did some simple extra-credit homework from her fourth-grade class, and finally sat down with a book and tried to focus. But her mind kept wandering away from the lines of print on the pages, and her mother, taking notice, said, “Maybe if you go outside and play, you’ll feel better.”

Inside, Anna disagreed. Her mother couldn’t possibly understand what she was thinking, what the snow was reminding her of. But Anna obeyed anyway, slowly tugging on her big boots and throwing a jacket around her shoulders. She didn’t want to go out, even if staying inside meant doing nothing at all. Because last winter, on the first snow day of the year, Anna had done a terrible thing.

Girl with Birds

She didn’t want to think about it.

Slowly, perhaps because the boots were half a size too big, Anna trudged outside into the snowdrifts that greeted her on the front doorstep. She shut the door quickly so that cold air would not invade and displace the natural warmth of the house. It had snowed just a little more than a foot last night, and the texture of the snow was just right for shaping snowballs or rolling up a gargantuan snowman. It should have been a perfect day.

But it wasn’t.

Anna tried to have fun. She had piled up about fourteen snowballs before she realized that there was no one to have a snowball fight with. She had rolled the three individual sections of a snowman before she remembered that she could not stack up the sections by herself; they were too heavy and bulky for her to lift on her own. So after exhausting her efforts, she collapsed onto the soft snow. The impact of her body on the ground was gentle, and a spray of clean flakes drifted onto her face, refreshing and cooling.

Still, something was wrong. It was too . . . quiet. The front lawn was so empty. And Anna knew why, although she didn’t like to think about it.

If Sharie were here, she would have broken the silence that kept Anna forever trapped in her head. She would have let loose her storehouse of silly jokes, filled the frigid air with her ringing laughter. She would have chattered away about starfish and robots and the books that they both liked.

Except Sharie wasn’t here, and the only chatter Anna could hear was that of the birds. And it was probably her own fault.

*          *          *

One year ago . . .

“Bye, Anna,” came the voice from the other end of the telephone, and then there was the click of that person hanging up. Anna put down the phone too, then called loudly to her mother: “Can Sharie come over and play today?” She crossed her fingers, then waited for a response.

“There’s no school today, so I don’t see why not,” was her mother’s answer. “I’ll check with Sharie’s parents first.”

“I can do it,” Anna said hurriedly, because she already had done it, calling Sharie’s house beforehand because she knew her own mother would say yes. This way, Sharie would be able to come over a few minutes sooner, and they would have a few more minutes’ worth of fun. A few more minutes meant a lot more than it sounded.

Anna waited anxiously by the door in her coat, hat, and waterproof mittens. When her friend’s familiar car rolled up in front of the driveway, she threw open the door and ran out, yelling. Sharie was there, bundled up in a snowsuit and smiling, as she always did. Anna’s mother came out too, exchanged some quick words with Sharie’s father in the driver’s seat, then took one of the snow shovels propped up against the side of the house as the car drove away. (Sharie’s parents always seemed to be in a rush, Anna had realized some time ago, but she also knew it was scarcely their fault.)

But that didn’t matter now. Now, it was time for them to have fun. Anna and Sharie played joyfully in the snow together. They tried to see how high they could throw the snowballs into the sky, instead of at each other, shouting “We’re freeeee!” until crabby Mrs. Rayley from next door yelled at them to stop. They accompanied Anna’s mother in shoveling snow from the front walk, although they soon got distracted before making much progress. They built a snow fort, and even when it collapsed, they didn’t mind.

Except Sharie wasn’t here, and the only chatter Anna could hear was that of the birds. And it was probably her own fault.

“Let’s have a snowman contest,” Anna suggested, after the two of them had taken a short break from play, lying on the ground and sprinkling snow on each other’s heads. Sharie giggled and nodded enthusiastically, and immediately set about finding a hard chunk of snow to roll around. Anna looked for one too, though it took her a while to find a good piece. When she finally found an icy lump, she packed it over with snow and rolled the snowball over the front yard, around and around. This took quite a while, and Anna began to think about the possibility of making a two-tiered snowman instead of one that needed three snowballs.

When she decided her base was large enough, she rolled it over to where Sharie was building and began rolling a second part. This took less time, but by the end, Anna was exhausted from pushing the wedge of snow around. She tried to lift it onto the base of the snowman, but to her dismay, it wouldn’t budge.

She tried and tried, straining every muscle in her arms and torso. But even after that, the stubborn snowball refused to move but a few inches.

Suddenly Anna looked over at Sharie, and she was shocked to see her friend lifting a snowball onto the top of two already stacked ones. The now-finished snowman was almost the same height as she was. “My snowman’s name is Binker Bonker,” Sharie said triumphantly. “What about yours?”

Anna felt her face grow hot. Binker Bonker’s form seemed to blur into a white smudge before her eyes. She wasn’t exactly mad at Sharie, but she just felt awful. Why was Sharie able to lift giant pieces of snow and not her? Why was Sharie able to build a snowman in record time like this? Acting from sudden impulse, Anna snatched up her little blue snow shovel lying nearby and lifted it high in the air, preparing to bring it down with a crack upon her own ugly, unfinished snowman’s body.

But it didn’t hit the ground, not right away. It struck Sharie’s nose with a hard blow, and suddenly her face was covered in red, red all over, warm red that dripped onto the snow and left tiny crater-like holes in the ice, dark and accusing. Red was Sharie’s favorite color, Anna suddenly remembered, but at that moment, the awful thought only made her want to throw up.

She didn’t, though—she couldn’t move. She stood there, gaping in shock until Sharie began to cry. And that was when Anna’s mother came to the rescue, rushing over and taking Sharie inside. Anna followed numbly, leaving the snow shovel stuck in the ground.

As her mother cleaned Sharie up, Anna tried to open her mouth and apologize. But the words refused to come out. The next half hour was excruciatingly quiet, with Sharie holding tissues to her nose to slow the blood, and Anna sitting uncomfortably beside her. It seemed a relief when Sharie’s father finally returned to pick her up.

But in a few hours, the phone rang. Anna’s mother went to pick it up while Anna herself was sitting glumly in her room. She pressed her ear to the wall, half of her hoping that the call was just for her mother’s work or something of the sort, while the other half longed for Sharie’s voice on the phone. The words for an apology were ready to come out now, and Anna would say them in a second if only—

“Yes, of course I’ll tell her.” Anna’s mother spoke into the phone quickly. “Goodbye, Sharie. Good luck with your family’s move.”

And when Anna heard those words, she felt her heart drop.

*          *          *

A cool wind brushed Anna’s face, and that was when she realized there were tears on her cheeks. She angrily brushed them off. Why should she cry because of a simple memory? She should just bear the pain, and she chided herself. It was less pain than Sharie had endured that day, and probably for many days afterward.

Sharie had to move around the country; she was never in one place for more than three-quarters of a school year. Did she even have new friends now? Because Anna sure didn’t. The kids at school barely spoke to her. Kaiden, the smartest girl in the fourth grade, virtually ignored her. Anna never used to care, not when she actually had a friend here. But now, with Sharie halfway across the country, it was different.

Suddenly, a dark streak in the sky interrupted Anna’s thoughts. It passed overhead so quickly that when she blinked, it was gone. Had it just been her imagination? She couldn’t be sure. Sitting up, she glanced around the crystal-white front yard.

There. A few feet away lay a dark shape, twitching violently in the snow. Anna ran over to investigate. As she approached, her breath caught in her throat. Blood was splattered on the snow, a glaring crimson against the no-longer-pristine white. For an instant, Anna saw the shovel in her mind, her own clenched fists throwing it down, and then the drops of red . . . but no. This was a bird, a small one, who was injured.

Injured! Anna turned and ran back to the house as quickly as her boots would allow her. She threw open the front door, gasping. “Mama!”

“Wait a minute, Anna.”

“But there’s—a bird—and it’s hurt! Help!” Anna tried to catch her breath.

That got her mother over quickly, with a cloth in her hands and a confused expression on her face. “Where?”

“Outside in the snow,” Anna said, pointing outside. “I think it was flying, and I just saw it fall . . .” She faltered, the rest of the words stuck inside a lump that was forming inside her throat.

Her mother hurried outside, but Anna hung back for a second. What if the bird had broken a wing, or a leg? Or worse, what if . . . what if they were too late? She swallowed hard, but forced her feet to move in the direction of the door.

Her mother had been examining the bird closely without picking it up. When she saw Anna cautiously approach, she stood up. “I think it’ll be okay. Get a box from the kitchen.”

Anna obeyed and quickly returned with a box, one she hoped would be the right size.

A few feet away lay a dark shape, twitching violently in the snow.

Back outside, Anna’s mother gently took the bird out of the snow, her hands wrapped in a cloth. She placed it into the box that Anna held out. The little bird—it looked like a sparrow—was shivering, but it lifted its head to see the human hands above it.

Anna tried to smile at the small creature. It was probably just her imagination, but she thought she saw it smile back. Could birds even smile? Anna didn’t know. She followed her mother, carrying the box carefully into the house and setting it down beside the door.

She sat by the door and stared at the bird for a while, without bothering to take off her wet boots. Well! This gave her something to do on an awful snow day, without being constantly reminded of last year’s events by the cold air and white powder. Yet as she watched the little animal, she couldn’t help but feel sad. She couldn’t help but wonder if her mother was wrong and it was really severely hurt. She couldn’t help but wonder if the bird perhaps missed its family, was lost and had been flying in the wrong direction for days.

Anna began taking off her wraps while still keeping an eye on the bird. It chirped weakly when she finally got her boots and coat off. In spite of herself, she smiled and kept watching the bird until her mother called her for lunch.

*          *          *

The next day, the layers of snow had turned to muddy brown slush that made the roads slippery, and school had reopened. Things were back to normal, more or less, and to Anna, that was a relief. School was routine; life was now routine.

Throughout the day, throughout the usual fourth-grade class when Kaiden and the other kids said nothing to her, Anna’s mind kept wandering back to the bird. When the bell signaled the end of the school day, it was a relief to hop on the bus and get back home. Upon entering the house, Anna immediately went to check on the little brown bird—her homework could wait.

The bird was sitting in the box, surrounded by bits of seeds. In the back of her mind, Anna wondered where that birdseed could have come from. But to her disappointment, the bird itself didn’t seem to have healed at all. Anna tried to tell herself that it had only been a day since she found it, and she was no doctor anyway— still, that was cold comfort compared to the sight of the weak little animal moving around, shaking its head and trying to look over the walls of its enclosure. She carefully took the box outside, making sure not to wobble it as she opened the front door. Maybe the bird needed fresh air.

After she set the box down beside her, Anna sat down on the doorstep glumly with her chin in her hands. Would it ever heal completely? Did anything ever heal completely?

In her experience, nothing ever did. There were some things in her life that just never came back. Sharie would never come back. Sharie was the only person who understood Anna, and she was never coming back. Now Anna had no one to confide in, no one who could understand her loneliness. That was why she had started spending so much time with this creature, this little bird, who couldn’t possibly understand a word she said.

Suddenly the front door behind her swung open. Anna nearly jumped off the doorstep in surprise. But it was only her mother.

“Hi, Anna,” she said, smiling as she shut the door. “How was your day?”

“It was fine,” Anna replied. “Normal, I guess. But I wanted to come home.” She kept her gaze focused on the animal in the box, even as her mother sat down beside her on the step.

“Are you okay?” Anna’s mother sounded concerned. “I know you’ve missed Sharie for a while.” When her mother spoke those words so suddenly, out of nowhere, Anna looked up in surprise. “I’m sorry that she had to move away. I know you felt bad about the day before—”

“How did you know?” Anna blurted out. But as soon as the words came out of her mouth, she realized the answer. It was her mother who had brought in the bird that fateful snow day, wrapped in cloth. It was her mother who had provided that mysterious birdseed, which should not have been mysterious at all. And now it was her mother who knew what she had been thinking for the entire past year.

“But . . . you’re right, Mama,” Anna said quietly, and she finally looked up. “You’re right. I was just thinking about Sharie today. I really”—she had to cough to clear away the sadness welling up inside her throat—“I really miss her.”

Anna tried to ignore the threat of tears that hammered against her throat. It would be stupid to cry now, she knew, especially in front of her mother. But she had to continue truthfully. “I’m sort of lonely,” she choked out. “People aren’t mean or anything like that . . . but no one talks to me at school. No one ever did, besides Sharie.”

Anna’s mother gently wrapped an arm around her. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “You know, I’m always here if you need me. I would hate for you to be lonely when you live in a house with someone else.” She sighed. “Maybe I can get Sharie’s address for you. I know it’s been a long time, but . . .”

“Sharie’s address?” Anna looked up in surprise. “How could you find that?”

“By digging through my contacts and asking her parents. I’m sorry I didn’t think of it sooner.”

“It’s okay,” Anna said. “I didn’t want to ask about it. I know you’re busy, and Sharie’s parents are too. Did you know that she has three siblings?”

“No, I didn’t know that.” It was Anna’s mother’s turn to be surprised. “But you’re right, I didn’t want to bother them, either. I know that both her parents have jobs in different places, and they have to move around a lot. I guess I was afraid to ask them anything.”

She hadn’t asked her mother about Sharie or how to take care of the bird or how to stop being lonely. But maybe her mother had the answers she needed.

Afraid to ask. The words struck Anna in a strange way. Hadn’t she been that way this entire year too? She hadn’t spoken to people at school, and that was why they didn’t speak to her, of course. She hadn’t spoken much to her own mother either, Anna realized guiltily. She hadn’t asked her mother about Sharie or how to take care of the bird or how to stop being lonely. But maybe her mother had the answers she needed.

“Well, I would like that,” Anna said honestly. “I’d like to write to Sharie. I wonder if she still remembers me.”

“I’m sure she does,” Anna’s mother said, hugging her daughter. “Though people change, so I wouldn’t expect her to be exactly the same as you remember.”

That would be scary too, Anna thought. If Sharie responded and didn’t seem the same person . . . but that was getting ahead of herself. Things might turn out okay, she told herself. They just might.

*          *          *

A week had passed, and it was Tuesday again. Anna ran home from the bus stop and into the house, where her mother was waiting. Today had been a good day; Anna had been able to help Kaiden with a math problem. They had talked a little together, without too many awkward pauses in between. Anna told her mother about it as they walked, side by side, out of the house.

As soon as they stepped away from the door, the bird stirred from the box that Anna’s mother was holding in her arms. It suddenly flew up, then seemed to be confused, and alighted on the bare branch of a shrub nearby. For a moment, the slightest bit of apprehension crept into Anna’s mind. But she silenced it quickly and reached for her mother’s hand. They both watched as the bird quivered on the branch, then suddenly launched into the air—it had apparently recalled how to fly, to Anna’s relief. It circled once overhead, then began to fly away, it seemed, southward.

Anna grasped her mother’s hand tightly, smiling. Now they could just barely see the faint shape of the bird in the distance. It dipped and soared in the open sky, and Anna’s heart soared with it.