The bird seemed to be saying his name. He was sure it was his groggy, half-asleep imagination, but as he stirred awake, he heard it again; clipped, three-syllable chirps saying: Christopher! Christopher! Christopher!
He turned in the bed and saw the pale glow of dawn through thin white curtains. He sat his stiff, middle-aged frame on the side of the bed and let the sheet fall off his bare back.
Christopher! Christopher! Christopher!
It sounded like it was right outside his window. He leaned forward and drew open the curtains. Through foggy eyes he looked out amongst the smattering of gangly hickory and walnut trees that dominated his yard. He then scanned the willow that brushed its branches along the top of the covered porch below his window. He didn’t see a single bird. But what he did see sent a bolt of fear through his body.
* * *
Underneath the vine-like branches of the willow sat a truck. A 1970s brown and gold pickup, single cab, with an extended bed obscured by crumpled beer cans. Just the sight of it made a waxy layer of sweat coat his torso.
Christopher took a shaky breath and stood, and as quietly as possible, tiptoed into the hallway and down the stairs. Normally, the rich smell of freshly made coffee would have been comforting, but he lived alone.
* * *
He tried to move quietly, but the shrieking hardwood of the old house’s first floor announced each step like a shrill violin. He turned down the hallway and into the kitchen. There, at the maple table, Knox sat waiting. A white coffee cup obscured his nose and mouth but over the rim, Christopher could see the cold eyes of the man he betrayed twenty years ago.
“Morning.” Steam was chased off the top of the cup when he spoke. His tone was light, like he was going to nonchalantly ask how he slept next. Knox took a loud sip and set the cup on the table, right next to a black 357 magnum revolver. He had the pistol lying there as casually as if it were his cellphone.
Christopher remained standing in nothing but his blue boxer briefs, frozen at the edge of the kitchen. “You got out?” sleepy gravel cracked his voice.
The man nodded. “Turns out a life sentence ain’t forever after all.”
Christopher licked his dry lips. Looking at his friend’s face again sucked his mind back twenty years, to the last time he saw it: They were both being led down a dark concrete hallway, hands cuffed, with two black-suited agents on each arm. They were taken to separate interrogation rooms but exchanged quick eye contact and a micro-nod of camaraderie before breaking off.
Christopher remembered how his anxiety exploded the moment they locked his cuffs to the table and the agents took their metal seats on the other side. Both deserved to be behind bars, the agents had said, but they’d settle for one if they could make it stick. So, the first one who talked would get the deal: Immunity.
* * *
Knox broke Christopher out of the memory with more casual chitchat. “I was surprised I could get that old truck of mine to run after it sat for twenty years.” He then looked at him hard with dead eyes, “but it’s funny how some things can come back to life after you think they’re gone, you know?”
The remaining coffee began to burn in the pot, turning the kitchen air bitter. Knox took another sip and then set the cup out of the way and sighed. “You must have sung like a bird, Chris. I wasn’t in there five minutes before they drug my tight-lipped ass away.”
Outside, a woodpecker began to beat on the cedar siding. To Christopher, it sounded like the frantic, rapid pounding of someone trying to tell him to get out. Get out now.
Without another word Knox lifted the revolver and leveled it at Christopher’s bare chest. In the screaming silence a single sound cut through:
Christopher! Christopher! Christopher! The pistol fired and the bird flew away.