Beakless by Justin Herrmann
It’s my week with Madison. My first week, in fact, since things have been settled. She’s been gaining weight at her mother’s, and, I believe, has stopped speaking proper sentences.
“McDonald’s, Dada?” She’s all smiles and singsong in the rearview.
We’ve had a late cold snap, which has kept tourists off the water, so I keep Madison home from daycare. When I don’t work, I’m a couple drinks in by this hour. This week, I need to be better. “No,” I say. “I know a place with burgers worth eating.”
“McDonald’s,” Madison whines, which settles it for me: no McDonald’s.
Jenny takes our order. I get Madison milk, burgers for us, coffee for me, watch Jenny pull tap handles, fill glasses heavy with amber. The lighthouse across the bay remains as dark in bad weather as it does in good, but it’s the most photographed thing here by my estimation, except fish, living and dead.
Madison eats her entire burger. Even the tomatoes, onions.
“Thank you for that yummy burger, Dada” she says. She chews the last of my pickle, loud like her mother.
“Let’s have dessert, Sugar,” I say. I don’t normally let her have sweet things.
When Jenny comes, I order Madison soda water and cocktail cherries. For myself, something that looks similar.
Outside, an eagle lands on the dumpster. Then another. The first eagle is aggressive, tries to force the other away. Unusual behavior, until I realize the top half of its beak is broken clean off.
Jenny returns, drinks full, cherries shining, Madison’s face glowing.
Madison notices me watching the birds. She says “Mean birdie, dada.” She watches my face for reinforcement.
My hands, steady, the glass slick with condensation. “A slow, undignified death for that creature,” I say, and immediately regret it.
I tear the paper wrapping from a straw, hand the straw to Madison. She’s not used to the bubbles in her drink. She makes pained faces, sips cautiously, savors the cherries.
My house is her house now, but it doesn’t feel like it.
“Let’s have one more,” I say, “then let’s go pick out new bedding for you,” I say.
“Can I have more cherries?” she says.
“Cheers,” I say, raising my glass, the beakless bird frantically tearing trash bags, pecking rotting carcasses, unable to grasp.
Justin Herrmann is the author of the short fiction collection Highway One, Antarctica (MadHat Press 2014). His stories have appeared in journals including River Styx, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Bull: Men’s Fiction. He lives with his family in Alaska.