There was a man on the bridge throwing pieces of bread, which meant pigeon wings and pigeon beaks and pigeon droppings. His eyes smiled and his flabby arms danced as he littered the sky with crumbs.
“Could you stop that?” I said. I squeezed by on the edge of the sidewalk.
“Got to keep ‘em friendly,” he replied.
A dump truck grumbled past. I threw my hands in front of my face amidst the cooing and beating wings.
I glared at the man. “Why, exactly?”
He breathed at me—heavy, odorous, and rapid. He smacked his lips with moist satisfaction. When he opened his mouth there was a gaping, toothless hole.
“They’re coming down from the mountains, and they don’t like birds,” he said, leaning on the railing. He dug his long nails into a bun, tearing it in two.
“Ah yes, that makes sense,” I said, and continued to walk.
“Hey!” the man shouted. I looked back at him. He tilted his head in the direction of the water. “Stay clear of that mess, will ya? Awfully dangerous.”
White waves of a rushing river passed beneath the bridge. For weeks it had been rising and falling, leaving an inch of sand each time it dropped back. Sand on the grass, sand on the sidewalk, sand on the steps. In many places the sidewalk had fallen into the water, the bank underneath eaten away.
Julie was waiting, so I hurried on. I took the path along the river to an old brick building. A raindrop landed on my nose as I reached the door.
When I reached the fourth floor, I saw Julie at our usual table, close to the windows and overlooking the river. Outside, the rain was picking up.
“You’re late,” said Julie.
“You’re not surprised,” I said. I sat down, keeping my eyes fixed out the window.
Julie frowned. “What are you looking at?”
“He’s still out there. He’s going to get soaked.” I pointed a finger towards the man on the bridge, surrounded by his pigeons. He showed no signs of discomfort as the rain came down harder. The birds were less tolerant; one by one they found shelter under the bridge. “He told me to be stay away from the river.” I looked at Julie.
She sucked on her drink. “The bird man?” she asked as she looked out the window again.
“Yeah, the bird man.” Then I told her what had happened on the bridge.
Julie lifted her glass off the table and picked at the ice cubes with her straw. “He’s right about the river. Don’t know about the pigeons.”
“It’s moving pretty fast now.”
“Faster than you think. It can suck you under before you know what’s happening. A girl was pulled under this morning. They’ve been looking for her all day.”
Julie shrugged and set her glass down on the table. “The world’s a scary place if you insist on being stupid.”
“I’m sure it was an accident, Julie.”
“I’m sure it was too, like those kids who accidentally shoot themselves.” She glared at the tablecloth. “Some parents are criminally thoughtless.”
A waiter stopped by our table. “Anything to drink?”
I looked at Julie and she nodded. “We’ll both have one of these.” I pointed at Julie’s glass.
“And are we eating tonight, sir?”
I looked at Julie again. She shook her head. “Just some chips,” I said.
As I handed my menu to the waiter, I glanced out the window. The water rose with the pouring rain. Bobbing on the surface was something large that moved with the liquid comfort of a fish. It floated under the sidewalk and slipped into a hole.
“Still looking at the bird man?” asked Julie.
I jumped. “No, I thought I saw something in the river.” I looked at the bridge—the man and his pigeons were gone. The only movement came from the falling rain and the rushing river.
“Probably did. There’s all sorts of garbage that gets caught up in this. Makes me sick when the water goes back down.”
We watched the river. Our drinks came, twice, and the minutes went by, not stopping to pay attention to our conversation. In half an hour the rain stopped. The last edges of yellow sunlight worked their way down the glass buildings across the river.
“That was quick,” I said.
“Usually is,” said Julie. “Water’s gone up three feet though.”
There was a slow moving pool where the river had been. It covered the benches and the sidewalks. A few small trees were in water up to their lower branches.
“It should clear out soon,” I said, “and speaking of, I’ve got to get going.”
“Last to show up, first to leave. You really do care about me, don’t you?” said Julie as she chewed on her straw.
“Of course I do. You’re my favorite. I don’t even talk to anyone else.” I pulled a twenty from my wallet and put it on the table. I walked to the elevator. When I stepped outside I was assaulted by the smells of water. The clean smell of rain gave strength to the tang of the river. I glanced down the sidewalk and was happy to see the river falling back to its bed. Plastic bags and bottles drifted and rolled as I started to walk. The fading twilight left me feeling transcendent. I looked at the towers of the city and felt they would fit in the palm of my hand. Even the mountains in the distance were pocket sized. I made eager progress and quickly found myself where the sidewalk dipped low under another bridge. The little remaining light didn’t fall here. I took small, careful steps forward. My foot splashed into an inch or two of water. The river was still retreating. Another cautious step, and my toe hit something heavy and soft. I reached down and felt cold skin. Quickly, I searched for pulse and breath, but found neither. “Oh god,” I said to no one.
I grabbed the body and pulled it from under the bridge. In the faint light I saw a young girl, maybe five years old. She was wrapped in river weeds. Long scratches covered her arms and legs, but there was no blood.
“I told ya it was dangerous,” said a voice behind me.
I spun around and saw a towering man. The sun was down, the world had grown, and everything was two sizes too big. I couldn’t see a face in the dark, but I recognized the smell.
“What did you do to her?” I said.
“I didn’t do nothing! They did it. I tried to stop ‘em. I told ya it was dangerous.”
“They did it?” I shouted. “They did it?”
“Yes,” he said, backing away from me. “I tried to help.”
“You’re making it up. You killed her, and you’re making things up.” He was trying to turn around. I stepped into his face.
“I didn’t do nothing!” He pushed my chest with both hands.
I stumbled backward and landed with one foot in the river. A sharp pain shot up my heel. I tried to pull it up, but it wouldn’t move. I screamed in frustration.
The bird man looked at my foot, eyes wide with fear. “They’ve got ya! I told ya it was dangerous.”
I was furious. “You did this! And you did something to that little girl!”
“I didn’t do nothing,” he said as he started to walk away.
“Where are you going?” I yelled.
He began to run.
My foot was jerked backwards. I slammed against the sidewalk. Another sharp tug and I was pulled into the river.
The cold water crashed around my head in wave after wave. The river was moving much faster than I had thought it could. I struggled to keep my mouth above the surface as I was swept downstream. My arms grew heavy and slow. There was a great weight pulling at my foot, and it was still hurting me terribly.
I was spending less and less time above the water as the stiffness overtook my arms. When they could move no more, I sank quickly, dark water closing over my head. I looked down into the water to find the source of my pain. It was difficult to see clearly, but there was a writhing shape, sinewy and scaled. A clawed hand gripped my ankle.
I twisted and pulled, but it was no use. I was trapped, and for a moment I was still. A dozen pairs of burning eyes stared at me from holes in the riverbank. And then out came claws, out came lean shiny bodies, out came thick webbed legs.
They were here.
In the water above me I heard a splash. Diving towards me was a bird, a long neck and a sharp beak, followed by two, maybe three more. They swam quickly past me, down into the darkness. Above me there were more splashes.
Soon the water was full of wings and claws and beaks and scales. It was impossible to see anything clearly. I was buffeted and nicked, scratched and clipped. Panicking, I kicked and thrashed. Then I discovered that my leg was free.
With burning lungs and arms and legs, I rushed up. I broke the surface and gasped. I moved to the sidewalk under a barrage of diving birds. Slowly, inch-by-inch, I pulled myself out of the water. Rolling onto my back, I breathed and watched.
The birds were large and black. They were diving still, plunging from the air at reckless speeds. They came up from the water with pieces of arms and legs, scaly grey flesh torn apart and swallowed.
“Had to wake the corm’rants,” said a voice behind me, “down at the lake.” I sat up on one elbow and saw the pigeon man. He sat with his hands on his knees and his mouth open wide. He breathed even heavier than he had before. He gave me a toothless grin. “Ha!” he shouted, slapping his leg. “They don’t mind so much when they get a little snack. Keeps ‘em friendly.”
Zach Walchuk is a writer and software developer living in Denver, Colorado. His stories have been published in Potluck and Beyond Imagination magazines. A happy husband and expectant father, he likes to find the possible in the everyday. For more from Zach, follow him on Twitter and Medium.