“He shot it,” Samuel murmurs.
“Who shot it, dear?” his mother asks, kneeling before him and pulling him into her arms. She holds him tightly as he begins to cry. He tries to force the words from his lips, but can’t.
“The new neighbor,” Will says for him. “Samuel’s scared of him.”
“Am not,” Samuel mumbles, indignant, his voice muffled by his mother’s scarf.
“Are too,” Will says. His voice harbors no spite. “We all are.”
Their mother straightens up, biting her lip, her head tilting thoughtfully to one side. She places her hands on her hips.
“What should we do with it?” Samuel sniffles, dragging the back of his hand against his damp cheek.
“You should bury it,” their mother replies softly. “Give it a proper burial. Get a nice stone to put on top. One of the smooth ones from the riverbed, maybe.”
Samuel gazes forlornly at the little body cupped in his brother’s hands. The bird’s feathers shimmer in the kitchen lights. Its head is curled under one wing, as if it were asleep.
“O-okay,” he says. Will nods slowly. He leads Samuel out to the backyard. They pick up a plastic shovel from the sandbox and carry the bird past the playhouse, past the fence, through the tall grass, and to the center of the grove of scrub oak trees. Will offers the bird to Samuel so he can dig the grave, but Samuel recoils at the sight of it.
“I don’t want to hold it,” he says, emphatically shaking his head and stepping backward.
Will shrugs and retracts his hands. “You get to dig, then.”
Samuel sits on the prickly grass and drives the toy shovel into the dry dirt. He jabs it over and over into the parched soil to no avail. He throws it down after a minute and pulls his knees up to his chest, hugging them and hiding his face.
Will sighs and sets the bird down next to a tree. “Here,” he says gently. “It’s okay. I’ll do it.” He picks up the shovel and wiggles it into a crack in the earth. He begins pulling scoops of crumbling dirt out of a shallow hole and turning them onto a pile. Samuel unfurls and watches his brother widen and deepen the hole.
“Does that look good?” Will asks.
“It’s good,” Samuel responds.
“Okay. Let’s…let’s put the bird in there.” He lifts the bird into his hands and carefully eases it into the grave. “Do you want to cover it up?”
Samuel shrugs and looks away.
Will stares at him in concern. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s that boy,” Samuel mutters, picking up the shovel and using it to push pebbles from side to side on the ground beside him. “He shot the bird.”
“But I do! I do know it!”
“You didn’t see it.”
“It doesn’t matter! He did it!”
Will closes his eyes. Expressionless, he takes the shovel from his brother and begins to slide the dirt back over to cover the bird. “Yeah, okay. So?”
Samuel looks at him in confusion. “So?”
“So, what? What do you want to do about it?” Will asks.
“What do you mean?”
“You say this kid shot the bird, and you don’t like that. Are you going to sit around and be upset about it or are you going to do something?”
Samuel pauses. “What…” he looks down and shuffles his sneakers in the dirt. “What do you think I should do?”
“That’s up to you,” Will replies, “but I’ve got your back.” At this, he smiles a little.
They pat the dirt flat over the grave and walk back to the house in silence.
Samuel lies awake that night and thinks about his neighbor—the one who shot the bird. Samuel doesn’t like him. He’s a grade above Samuel in school. He’s big and strong and mean, and he had shot the bird. Samuel wonders why. The birds fill the sky with boisterous songs and brilliant colors and help eat the squash Samuel sets out for them after dinner. They flit between trees in his yard and perch on fence posts to tell their stories to the world. The birds are filled with light and joy. Why had the neighbor boy killed one?
Will, too, lies in his bed and traces imagined constellations between the glowing star stickers on his ceiling. He worries about Samuel. His little brother struggles in school. He has few friends and gets picked on—especially by bullies like their new neighbor. He can’t read quickly and takes a long time to learn new things. Will loves his brother and wants to help him, but he doesn’t share classes with him and can’t seem to help him learn faster. Will also fears that Samuel cares too much. Will cares about many things—he cares about his grades, his handwriting, cars, and his family—but Samuel cares about everything, even the dead bird they had found in the yard. Will worries that he will not always be there to protect his brother.
The following day is a Thursday. The sky is cold and grey. The trees dip and sway in gusts of wind and the clouds threaten rain. Will and Samuel walk to the school bus stop together and split ways once aboard to sit with other friends. Will asks his friends about their science fair projects. Samuel sits next to his best friend, Soren, and tells her about the neighbor boy and the bird.
“That’s awful,” she says. “That poor bird!”
Samuel nods. “I want to do something about it, but I don’t know what,” he says.
Soren considers. “We can talk to him,” she offers.
“He’ll just laugh at us,” Samuel sighs.
“We can tell a teacher, then.”
“About the bird?”
“What can they do?”
“I don’t know. Nothing, I guess.”
The two of them weigh ideas for the remainder of the ride without success. Will walks away down the hall with his friends and Samuel walks with Soren. On their way to class, they run into the neighbor boy. He leans casually against the lockers lining one wall. He wears a dirty coat two sizes too big for him. His hair is shaggy and uncombed, his eyes bloodshot but alert.
As Samuel and Soren approach, he calls out, “If it isn’t Sam the Man. Come over here, buddy.” He grins—a malicious grin that curls unnaturally up on his face. Samuel freezes in place.
“I-I have to go,” Soren stammers. “I’m sorry.” She dashes away, clutching her books to her chest, braided pigtails bouncing. Fearful, Samuel turns to face the boy.
“What’s the matter?” the boy taunts. “Are you afraid I might—” He lifts a hand and levels two fingers at Samuel’s chest as one might aim a handgun. He pulls the imaginary trigger. “…shoot you?”
Samuel flinches and the boy laughs.
“Get out of here,” the boy cackles. “Go to class or whatever.” He turns to saunter away.
“Why’d you do it?” Samuel shouts at him.
He stops and looks back with a glare. “Do what, punk?”
“Kill it. Why’d you kill the bird?” Samuel demands.
The boy seems at a loss for words. He blinks and his mouth opens and closes a couple times, like a goldfish’s. Finally, he grits his teeth and glowers at Samuel.
“It’s a stupid bird, man. Get over it.” He storms off, rubbing his arms and hunching over to hide behind the collar of his coat.
Samuel stands and watches him walk away. The bell rings and Samuel shuffles toward the classroom, unfazed by his lateness. The neighbor boy puzzles and unsettles him. Samuel wants to know more, but he’s afraid.
He and Will meet up at lunch and Samuel relays to his brother the encounter with the bully. Equally unsettled, Will mulls over this new information and they split ways once more.
On the ride home, the bus rolls to a halt at the brothers’ street corner and they clamber down the steps. They both tear off running toward home in the downpour. Their mother isn’t yet home from work, so they let themselves in and make sandwiches to eat. Will is washing his hands at the sink when he gasps and stops. Samuel looks over and follows Will’s pointing finger, dripping with soapy water, to a bird lying in the empty birdbath hanging outside the kitchen window. Samuel begins to cry. Will shuts off the water, dries his hands, and runs over to hug Samuel.
“It’s okay,” he soothes. “It’s just a part of nature.”
“No,” Samuel hiccups. “He shot that one, too.”
Startled, Will stands on tiptoe to see the bird more clearly. Samuel is right—broken shafts of feathers cave in where a bullet had torn through the bird’s fragile body. Will’s expression hardens.
“I’ll be right back,” he says. He crawls onto the counter, opens the window, and takes the bird in one hand. He shuts the window and hops down, slipping into his shoes and stomping out the front door. Samuel watches in silence. He pushes the chair back up to the counter and sits down to look at his sandwich and pretend to eat it.
Will strides boldly down the street and hammers on the neighbors’ door. He waits. A woman pulls open the door.
“Do you live here?” Will asks coldly.
After a pause, the woman replies, “Yes?”
Will gazes up at her, defiantly meeting her narrowed gaze. “Do you know the boy who lives here?”
The woman’s penciled eyebrows lift. “He’s my son,” she says. “Why? Has something—”
Will shoves the dead bird toward her and she cries out.
“Tell your son to stop killing the birds,” Will orders.
Indignant, the woman’s brows draw back together. “He would never—”
“Just tell him to stop,” Will repeats firmly. He drops the bird on the doorstep and sprints away.
“Hey!” the woman yells after him. “Get this—come back and get this bird, young man!”
The third time the boys find a dead bird, it’s after class a week later, lying under a tree beside the entrance to their school. Furious, Will scoops the bird into his hands. Gazing down at it, his sadness at its needless death overshadowed by his rage. He tells Samuel to wait and sneaks the bird back into the building. Among the bustling chaos of the aftermath of the last bell, he manages to squeeze past a group of girls and arrives at the bully’s locker. Glancing furtively around, Will opens the locker and stuffs the bird inside. He slams the door shut and leaves.
The next day, Samuel’s second class is interrupted when a piercing scream tears through the hall. The teacher leaps to her feet and dashes out to investigate. The boy stands alone in the hall in front of his locker. He stares at the floor between his feet, where the dead bird has fallen. He shrieks again, unable to tear his eyes off the bird. Samuel and his classmates crowd the doorway behind the teacher, straining to see over each other. The teacher runs over to comfort the boy, and Samuel is suddenly filled with guilt.
The principal arrives shortly, along with a couple other adults who guide the boy outside. As he passes the doorway to Samuel’s classroom, Samuel glimpses his eyes—wild, frantic, terrified.
“I didn’t do it,” he croaks, over and over. “It wasn’t me.”
The boy doesn’t come to school the next day. Weeks pass. Will and Samuel discover no more dead birds and later find out that the boy and his family moved away to another town. Samuel feels both content and nervous. He no longer faces his daily tormentor in school and doesn’t worry about seeing dead birds when he walked to the bus or goes out for recess, but the image of the boy’s crazed eyes won’t leave Samuel’s head.
Will feels similarly. He lies in bed one evening reading a book when a strange desire seizes him. He swings his legs over the edge of the bed, steps into his slippers, and trudges outside. He looks around in the eerie silence and fading light, uncertain what brought him there. He scans the yard. No intruders lurk in the shadows. No dead birds lie on the grass. He reluctantly steps back inside. He locks the door.