Madison Cooper is a 24-year-old English major from Philadelphia, pursuing a career in creative writing. After working as a ghost writer for several years, she is now stepping out into the literary world under her own name. Cooper is projected to release her first novel, The Evolution of our Wings, this year, as well as a novella inspired by the short story Birds of a Feather. Cooper often gravitates toward science-fiction, and even more so toward post-apocalyptic settings. However, her work tends to blur the lines of genre. She views the wasteland as just a backdrop, one that strips life bare enough to give meaning to the unexplainable. `
Birds of a Feather
“You want some water, Sweetheart?” Feather said. “Don’t be shy. The rain overflowed the buckets last night.”
She fidgeted with objects atop the only piece of furniture in the house-- a wooden dresser that looked like it survived a fire. She placed the sad, robed woman near the front, side by side with the black book she wasn't capable of reading -- the one that apparently contained stories of men parting seas, ocean deep floods, and entire settlements dying of disease. She then lined the back of the dresser with a corroded brush she hadn’t tried to pull through her thick matted locks in years; her rusting cleaver; a fractured black cup; and the little round statue of a plastic pumpkin wearing a broken smile, which always made her laugh. She couldn’t imagine those creatures ever existing, hopping around, causing chaos.
Then, she started over, this time, placing the sad women in the back. She wiped her arm across her furry, sweat soaked eyebrows, but the heat instantly produced more. To escape the feeling of suffocation, she wore as little as possible, only a piece of cloth she double wrapped around her flat chest and tied in a knot, along with dark baggy shorts decorated in holes and stringy clusters of what used to be lace.
“We need to find food, even if we only catch one of those scaly things.” Luke was so
quiet today. “They’ll do you good. Mase said they don’t have much radiation, something about their cells.”
Again, he said nothing, but it was okay. He was just tired.
Feather clenched her tiny nose shut, before spinning around. The floor was nearly sliced in half, the wedge a breeding ground for smaller fractures. Most of them looked like widespread hands trying to escape the blackness. Roaches weaved through cracks in the stone, flies passed through sores in the walls, and growing veins of rust pulsed along every surface. Everything was the same as always, and now, Luke seemed another staple, lying on the stained mattress in the corner.
She breathed through her mouth, trotting toward him and squatting before the mattress, supporting her weight on her toes. He looked bruised from somewhere deep within. She brushed his eyelids open. They were hazier yesterday, much hazier. They’d be back to normal in no time; back to that glistening sky blue; back to staring at her from across the room in desire.
She swatted a fly off his face, then another and another. They wouldn’t leave him alone. She ran her hand through his golden hair, his scalp following her motions. His skin felt loose under her swaying fingers, like it was filled with liquid. She placed her hand on his chest. The slightest vibration of breath tickled her nerves. She could feel it; she knew she could. He was going to be okay.
“I’m going to find something to eat.”
She massaged his soft little earlobe the way he liked, but it felt as if it would turn to mush with the slightest rise in pressure, so she let go. She closed his gaping jaw. It fell back open as soon as she removed the force, more of that white foam spilling from the corner of his lips. He didn’t blink. She shifted her weight to her knees, her eyes darting to her fumbling hands.
“Mase was talking about getting the group together and finally leaving this place. He says we’re going to have to start chasing the food if we want to see tomorrow.”
He moved-- the slightest twitch. Feather’s body stiffened while her eyes ran wild,
scanning him, a tingly feeling forming in her organs. Maybe it was his chest, or his arm. Why hadn’t she been watching? She waited for another.
It didn’t come.
Wind crashed through the holes in the roof. She stood, her body aching. At least the breeze felt nice.
“I’m heading out, but you better make this up to me when you’re feeling good. I expect my food brought to me for five suns.” She laughed, feeling empty when it rang out. “You know I’m just messing. I’ll take care of you forever if I have to.”
He didn’t respond.
Feather grabbed the cleaver off the front of the dresser, scratching her sharp and dirty thumb nail under flakes of decaying metal. When she reached the door, she shoved the deadbolt to the side. Her breaths grew heavy, as if they were helping her summon the courage to open it. The top half of the door fell further away from its broken hinges the wider she pushed it open, making it difficult to close behind her. Luke always did this for her.
She wiggled some of her toes back into the holes of her boots and marched forward, crunching the uneven ground into compression or powder. The burning sun was the only real beauty she knew, the sky an anomaly of color in her dimming world. Below it lay a land of waste. Every phase of decomposing concrete, splashed with garbage, formed her rugged, still world. Vast mountains of wreckage, and creators just as large, ran all the way to the orange splashed horizon. Both barely standing pre-war houses, and post-war shelters built from the rubble peppered the community. It was easy to tell the types of houses apart, although most of them shared a similar vacancy.
Feather searched for life under cement blocks, in puddles, and in holes she dug with her callused, boney hands. A green scaly thing baked in the sun, but it must have felt her eyes on it and got away. They never filled Luke up anyway. She could do better.
Sweat poured from her scorching skin, and her shadow had begun walking behind her when she finally spotted a small, grey rodent with an explosion of fluff wiggling from its butt and a of couple extra arms. She froze, watching it dig through the sandy earth with its little claws, probably trying to find food too. This one wasn’t going to get away. Luke loved the furry ones. Maybe she’d even get a smile out of him.
She took her first step, placing her toes down first, most of them back out of their holes, but it was okay. It was easier to test the ground with bare skin. She added her weight, pound by pound on the burning stone, and started again with the other foot until she was close enough. She lunged through the air, swinging her cleaver above her head then slamming it into the rodent’s back in one motion. Blood spewed out when she dislodged the knife, dowsing its fur and staining the land. She didn’t wait for it to stop twitching before swiping it off the ground and making her way back. Glossy redness coated her hands and patterned her stomach with each step.
When she reached her shelter, she resumed the firepit that last night’s rain put out. It took longer than usual to get it going. The wood was wet. She ripped away the creature’s fur then smacked it on the rusted grill propped over the small flame. After staring into the world for what felt like hours, she picked the meat up and dropped it on a scrap of metal, the heat thrashing her fingertips. She rushed inside and placed everything she needed around Luke’s mattress, the plate, a bucket of rainwater, and their cup, before rushing back to close the door.
“That was a trip,” she muttered to Luke, sitting by his bed with bent knees. Her heart pounded into her ribs. “I hope you’re hungry.” It was just how he liked it, burned beyond recognition. “You have to get better soon, before Mase leaves. There’s nothing left out there, Luke.”
She dug her finger in the rodent’s seared wound, peeled off a chunk of meat, and dropped it into Luke’s open jaw. It deflated the bubbles, sinking to his fleshy tongue. His expression remained blank. Feather dunked the cup in the bucket and poured the water in his mouth. It pooled in his jaw, the piece of meat floating like a leaf in a pond. She fingered it down his throat. He didn’t move. A painful warmth welled in her gut, but she looked away, at the statue and the pumpkin creature, not letting it grow.
She jumped from a bang on the door, patterned in a familiar tune.
“Mase,” she muttered.
She scattered to her feet and answered, her arm trembling as she reached for the handle.
Mase held it steady for her while she pushed it open. When they locked eyes, his thin, flaky lips curved into a smile, his beard quaking with his motions. The sun shone behind his head, displaying all the tangles in his frayed, dark hair. His hazel eyes were wide, so clear and filled with life, moving in the subtlest ways. Although he was still, his body exude energy. She found his chest. Under his tattered, red stripy shirt, there was a rhythm. He almost didn’t look real.
“We haven’t seen ya in a while. I figured I should check up on you two.” He looked over her shoulder.
Feather shook her head. “We’re fine, just fine.” She smiled, puffing up her tiny body to block his view. Something was different about him. She couldn’t see as many of his bones. It made his scruffy jaw looked less defined. “What about you?” she asked. “You look good. Have you been finding food? It’s been so dry.”
He shook his head, lowering it, as if he just lost some of that sweet energy. “No. We’re moving soon, another reason I wanted to check up on you. Wanted to see if you ever talked to Luke about it.”
“Yes, yes I did. He thinks it’s a good idea.” She scrunched up her face. “I just need to
give him a little time.” He would be ready soon. She knew it.
“Is everything alright?”
“He’s just, you know, feeling a little under the weather, but he’s okay. How is
“Craig…” His eyes lowered along with his voice. “He passed.”
Feather’s heart cramped. Craig was a big meaty man, so strong and determined. “How?”
He looked at her funny. “Can I come in? I don’t like being out here too long.”
No. She steadied her breaths. “Sure, sure.”
Her body felt like it was draining, but she stepped aside and waved him in. Everything was going to be okay. This was good. Now Mase could tell her what was wrong, and give her advice on how to fix it. Then they could all laugh and be happy, as he told one of his long, trivial stories over water and rodent. Oh, she just loved when he used the pumpkin. Why didn’t she call him earlier?
He pushed the door toward the hinges while closing it behind him. Before he could lock it, his face swirled, and he gagged until it sounded like he was going to puke. She watched his eyes search, watched them land on Luke. He ran, his limbs stiff.
“Luke!” He bent over, covering his nose, a suppression in his new gags.
Her breaths became heavier. It was okay. Mase would know exactly what to do. He
Mase straightened himself after a moment of staring. “Feather, I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you tell me?” He shook his head and looked around. “Why is the body still here?”
The warmth in her stomach returned. She tried to make it go away, but felt it simmering.
No, no, no. She took deep breaths.
“What do you mean the body? He’s fine. I’ve been helping him recover, washing him, feeding him, telling him stories, singing his favorite songs.”
Mase once looked at her like he would’ve wanted her if she wasn’t taken. He always had a soft, hidden yearning in his eyes. Now, he looked her up and down like she was mad, his eyebrows scrunched so tightly they almost touched, and his mouth loose, but not loose like Luke’s. There was tension between his lips.
“Feather, he’s fucking dead.” He spoke loud and slow.
He wasn’t. She knew he was still in there, and she wasn’t going to let anyone tell her otherwise. Her heart beat waves of anger into her veins, making her fists clench. “Luke would never leave me!” Her voice sounded like a growl.
“He’s dead! Look at him!” He waved his hand toward Luke, but she didn’t follow it with her eyes. “He smells like he’s been dead for weeks. Feather, what are you doing? You could’ve at least put his flesh to use. Now he’s probably infested.”
“What do you mean put his flesh to use?” It came together without trying. “Eat him? I would never! You’re sick!” She murdered the images in her head. He’s okay, he’s okay, he’s okay.
“You at least need to get him out of this house.” He tilted his head, quieting his voice. “You’ve lost your mind, haven’t you?”
“No. He still has a chance. He’ll come back.” She shook her hands as she spoke, her
insides twisting. “Listen to me, Mase. He’ll come back. Please, just believe me. I know it. I know it in my heart, okay? He’s not gone yet. It’s not supposed to happen like this. He’ll pull through.”
“Do you not know how life works? They don’t come back, Feather. Did Bella come
Something in her exploded. “Don’t you dare say her name!”
Her voice felt like it had claws. She stomped forward, until she could see the wide, oily pores in his stupid face. Her body felt like an animal she couldn’t tame. She tried not to strike him.
“Luke is the only one who got me through. He is the only reason I’m happy, even now.
Just believe me, okay?”
He trembled with what looked like a contained rage. “Look at him, and tell me he’s
coming back,” he said, pointing to Luke.
She couldn’t move. “He’s a fighter! He’ll come back!”
“Look at him. He’s not coming back.”
This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. Everything taunted her-- their plans and dreams, like how they knew they’d grow old with more kids than they could count. They found each other when they were young and alone, and it made everything right in the world. It was all supposed to mean something. She tried to calm down. How could she make him understand like she did?
“Do you know who he’s named after?” she asked.
“And you told me your mama named you after a bird feather ‘cause of your eyebrows.
What’s your point?”
She flailed her arms. “Before the war, men used to travel around the black sky in giant ships. There’s creatures out there, things we know nothing of. One of them tried to destroy earth.
Luke Skywalker risked his life to save us. He saved the entire world.”
“I don’t know who told you that snakeshit, but you got it all wrong. Skywalker saved his world, not ours.”
A layer of tears blinded her, but she blinked it away. “You’re a liar! A fucking liar! My
Luke’s mother told me she named him after the greatest soldier on earth because she knew he would change to the world. She knew he had kindness in his heart from the moment she held him, she knew he would be great, and I knew it too.” She jabbed her finger into his beating chest.
“He’s coming back.” Her teeth felt like they were going to pop out from clenching her jaw so tight.
Mase looked like he could have laughed. “And how the fuck do you think he’s going to do that?”
She wasn’t crazy. It all made sense. “He already changed my world, and he’s not done.
He’s not going to leave me! Not yet! I won’t let him!”
She didn’t realize he thrusted her back until her feet were spilling atop one another, and she had to catch her balance. He bent over again, covering his nose tighter than the first time.
“We need to get him out of here.” He grabbed Luke’s arm.
She charged. “Don’t touch him!”
Her shoulder sank in his stomach as he tripped over the bucket then slammed into the wall. Air puffed out of his lungs, mocking the sound of the wind. Water soaked the floor, but she didn’t care. She backed up, collecting herself onto her knees.
“Get the fuck out,” she said, her voice dark and hoarse.
He picked himself up and walked to the door, turning around while searching for the knob. “I care about you, Feather. If you don’t accept that Luke is dead, you will die. That is a promise. We’re not going to wait for you. Open those big eyes, or die in denial.”
He left, slamming the door behind him, the thud lingering in waves of jagged echoes. But it was the silence following it that seemed loud.
It didn’t last long.
She roared, tears burning her eyes and soaking her face. A fire erupted in her core. Her attempts to calm herself with deep breaths only fed the flames. She collapsed, squeezing herself so it wouldn’t spread. It was too late. She felt it everywhere, in her blood, her muscles, her thighs, spreading to her toes, even in her head, which she smashed into the floor, over and over.
Somehow, she picked herself up and crawled to Luke, her knees scraping stony hills and valleys. She slid next to him, limp and pathetic, and placed her arm over his chest, whimpering into his side. He didn’t radiate warmth like he used to.
“Luke, I need you.” Her words felt like they were bruising her throat. They were thick
and filled with pain. “I know you can hear me. I know you’re in there.” She squeezed him, his flesh squishing like jelly under her weight. She howled. “I miss you so much. I miss your smile, and your laugh. I miss when you held me too. Please, just hold me. Please. I’ll do anything.” She sobbed like no one could hear her. “I’ll never be that happy again.”
He didn’t move.
She sat up, resting her weight on her elbow, and closed his jaw to kiss his limp lips. She caressed his face. His skin melted onto her fingers, revealing strips of bloodless muscle and bone. She breathed through her nose for the first time since his chest fell flat. Her stomach hurled, and she dry heaved, but there was nothing in her stomach to get rid of.
It was a sharp and sour, a rotten and sweet, morbid smell that could’ve put a hole in her lungs. She didn’t know how such a terrifying odor could ever come from such a beautiful person.
It was the smell of... no. She wouldn’t think it. She didn’t have to let him go. So, she laid there, his counterfeit presence her only reason for living. It might have been hours, or days.
The next time she found the strength to lift her pounding head, there were maggots swimming in the holes of his cheeks, eating his eyes, and bobbing in and out of his frothy mouth.
His skin was red and blistered, oozing with slimy fluids. He looked like a monster. She jumped up and wiped herself off, maggots smearing across her hands.
Luke was dead. He was dead, and she wished it was her. She scampered around,
disoriented and aching, until she found the shovel resting in the corner. She walked outside, letting the door bend away from the hinges, the weight snapping the remaining ones until the hunk of metal was flat on the ground outside. Her cleaver had been left out since she killed the rodent the day before, or two days before, or whenever. The fire had long burned out. She drug Luke by his slimy, soft ankles, his skin sliding out of place. He was so heavy, limper than sleep could ever achieve. She stopped when he was lying under the setting sun.
She charged the tip of the shovel into the dirt, stomping it before lifting it away and
tossing what she collected beside her, over and over, until there was a pile up to her knees and a hole in the earth big enough for a body. The sun had abandoned her, and all that was left was darkness. She lowered to her knees at the edge of the hole, peering in. There were glimmers of white contrasting against the dark soil. Her body was almost too heavy to move, too empty to power, but she managed. She tried to keep her balance as she sunk her nails into the dirt and gripped bone. She brought it to her world, brushing it off.
The skull fit snug inside her palm, and she remembered the way Bella’s soft fuzzy head felt, like she had never let it go. She could still feel the energy in the bone and soaked it up, the way dry land soaks up rain. Feelings of a foregone happiness swirled in her core like a blend of black and white. It was the last time they would ever be a family. She put the skull on Luke’s chest, and melted on top of him, letting the last of her tears fall out.
And then, they were just objects, and she was alone. She lifted the skull. It was just a thing. She looked at Luke, touching the skin that loosely draped his bones. He was an item now, just as inanimate at the ground under his body.
She placed the skull back in the earth. The permanent feeling of loneliness settled inside her like a black hole she could never pull her loved ones out of. She rolled Luke’s body into his grave. The first pile of dirt she scattered across his face was the hardest, but it got easier. By time the ground was whole again, she was numb. She threw the shovel and leaned against the house, not knowing what to do next, or where to go, or who to be.
“I’m proud of you,” she heard a voice say. She looked up to find Mase standing under the black sky.
There was no more anger, just something stale she didn’t bother dissecting. She put her head back down, bringing her knees to her chest.
“I’m sorry.” She could hear him walking toward her, his crunches getting louder, until he was next to her, tailoring the earth to his bottom before leaning against the wall too.
“You were right,” she said. There was a passion in her voice, but it wasn’t active. “I lost my mind.”
“I know how it feels. It’s hard.”
There was no combination of labels to describe what was going on inside her.
“You were telling the truth about Skywalker too, weren’t you?” She finally looked up at him. “He didn’t save us, did he?”
“Who knows? If you think he did, he did.”
“It doesn’t matter what I think. Even if he did, we’d still be in this exact spot. War still won, and there was no one to save us. He can be someone else’s hero, ‘cause heroes don’t exist on earth.”
“There’s heroes everywhere. The way I see it, there’s two types of people,” Mase began.
She didn’t know if she was in the mood for one of his stupid observations. Then again, it was the only thing she was in the mood for. She rested her forehead on her knees.
“There’s the people fighting for themselves, the ones who rape, murder, and steal your last bite of food, and then there’s the people fighting for each other, you know, the ones that’ll give their last bite of food to someone hungrier. When the new world starts, the ones fighting for each other will win. They always do.”
She looked around. “There’s not going to be a new world. We’re going to die. Everything is going to die. We’re sitting on a graveyard. Luke’s mother, my mother, their mothers and fathers. We’re sitting on everyone who ever died.” She sighed. “Everything will turn to dust, just like them. Skywalker turned to dust, and his legacy is turning to dust, just like my Luke. The world will turn to dust, and then every star in the sky will turn to dust, and then there will be nothing left to save. There’s no point. There never was.”
“There only is if you want there to be.” He put his hand on her chin, making her look
back at him, so she could see the emotion in his eyes. They looked like little stars of his own.
“There’s something inside all of us that can’t turn to dust. We’ve always known that. Life can never die, and if it does it’ll find a way to start again.” He let her go, but she still gaped up at him, hanging onto his words like they would pull her to shore. “Luke will never die, neither of them.”
She loved him for saying that. She almost smiled. She imagined Luke, what used to
power him, all his goodness, free without his maggot filled body somewhere. Yet, she couldn’t fathom what that would be like. Where was he?
“How do you know?” she asked, her voice as small as a child’s.
“We’ll never know anything. So, what do we got to go on? Feelings and instincts, two forces beyond our control, molded by something bigger than us-- mother nature, whatever that might be. My instincts tell me to care. My feelings tell me what to care about. That’s the only evidence of meaning I need.”
“My feelings are telling me to jump in that hole with him.”
“Bet your instincts aren’t.” He leaned his head back and gave a sort of sad chuckle.
“Listen, there’s still a whole world out there.”
All she saw was him, the only thing in her life that wasn’t an object. He had an energy powering him just like hers. He knew struggle, and pain, but more importantly he had hope. He was so animated it was as if his energy was reaching its hands out and icing her wounds. For a second, she didn’t feel so alone. Maybe he was right. Maybe she’d find purpose again, be part of the good that starts the new world. Maybe she was Luke Skywalker.
“I do care about you, Feather, but I should just get this over with.”
“What do you mean? You’re leaving?” She looked at Luke’s grave. As much as she
didn’t want to desert it, she didn’t want to die there. It was hard, but she made herself say it. “I’m coming with you.”
He sighed. “No, you’re gonna stay here, Feather. I’m sorry.”
Her stomach dropped, her mood dampening again. “Why?”
“You know, if it was winter I might’ve needed you to stay warm.”
“What are you talking about? I have other uses, I’m sure.”
His hand searched the ground beside him, a funny feeling forming in her gut.
“I know you do.” He said, stopping and looking at her. “But right now I’m a hungry
She didn’t have time to process the meaning before he buried her cleaver into her throat.