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SECOND PLACE: "The Swallow"

One family gets a crash course in the frailty of life

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Two days ago, the last time the girl called, the father lied and said that even though his daughter was too upset to say it in person, she had accepted the girl's apology. The girl wept and thanked him and the next day there was a small apple tree sapling on their doorstep, its root ball wrapped in burlap and a card tied to one of the branches with red string. Thank you for your kindness to me, it said. Carefully the father untied the card and slipped it into his pocket. At dinner that night he announced that he had decided to bury the ruined bicycles in the backyard and plant a tree on the spot.

"Why?" said the son-in-law.

"So we can move on," he said.

"Those bikes are evidence," said the daughter, her voice already taut and trembling.

"We need to move on," said the father, fixing his eyes on the daughter, and for the briefest moment he wanted desperately to be holding her again — the tiny 2-year-old her — as he faced off against this scabbed and wounded woman at his table.

Then the grandmother in her dry voice said, "Somebody has been stealing from me," and the table fell suddenly silent.

"Nobody is stealing, Mom," said the mother, reaching for the grandmother's hand. The old woman was clutching her fork like a weapon.

"Those bikes are evidence for the trial!" shouted the daughter, banging her fist on the table.

"Somebody in this house is taking what doesn't belong to them," said the grandmother.

The mother was trying to pry the fork from the grandmother's hand. The daughter pushed away from the table, but the corner of her wheelchair was hung up on the leg of the grandmother's chair.

"Move!" she yelled at the old woman.

"You're a dirty thief," said the grandmother to the daughter.

"And you're crazy," spat the daughter, and the father leapt up to pull her away. The mother had begun to cry.

"Don't you touch those bicycles," said the daughter as the father wheeled her back to her bedroom. "Do you hear me?"

"Yes," said the father, who later that night sat at the uncleared kitchen table in grim wonder after everyone else had gone to bed. "Perhaps," he thought, "what I need is a much simpler arithmetic: What is the sum of two severely wounded children, a demented grandmother, a shell-shocked father, and a mother worn to threads trying to care for them all? What do you get when you divide five adults by crippling injury, untenable rage, incurable madness, and no clear idea how to cope?"

He has no answer. He stands here bewildered as ever this fifth morning in a row before the tangled metal, this Sunday morning when the mother and grandmother are gone to church and the children should be waking up, climbing out of bed, hungry and in pain, with nobody to help them to the bathroom or make them breakfast. He leaves the garage and walks past the sapling lying discarded on its side in the graying grass of the lawn. It is already beginning to wilt. Inside the house he steps across the kitchen linoleum to the hallway that leads to his daughter's old bedroom. Approaching the doorway he hears again his daughter's muffled voice, again the frustrated grunting sounds of moving her stiff body from bed to wheelchair. Fuck, whispered between labored breaths. Fucking fuck, she says as he reaches for the handle.

He opens the door. The room is a soft brown. Light streams through the far window onto the dark wood paneling. They are on the bed, uncovered, a square patch of sunlight illuminating their naked middles. The daughter is on top, her casted legs stacked on the son-in-law's like a haphazard pile of logs. Their bruised and swollen faces are flushed pinkish, their scabby arms are clutching at each other as their comingled bodies jerk back and forth like a damaged machine. The son-in-law moans softly, his eyes clenched while the daughter hisses in his ear, and gaining speed the casts knock together and creak with friction, the mattress crunches and dust motes are frantic in the sunlight above their bodies.

The father stands in the doorway and watches. He cannot look away. Not now and not tomorrow, not in the classroom when the glare of the projector catches one eye and blinds him momentarily, not as the grandmother's body is lowered into the earth, not as his baby grandson settles into the crook of his arm and falls asleep, and not 11 years later in the corner of his empty garage when the father spies a bright ray of sunlight illuminating the weathered skeleton of a tiny swallow, a brittle ball of twig-bones latticed around a tapered skull. Picking it up, cupping it in his hand and holding its near-absent weight, he feels a stirring so alive and vital that he shudders and drops the thing, certain it is about to unfold its puzzle of bones and fly.

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