L. Neil Smith's
Number 278, July 4, 2004

"It would be worse than dying."

The Cardinal
by Bob Tipton

Exclusive to TLE

"Do you hear that?" Caroline asked.

"What?" replied Jeffrey.

"The cardinal. There." Caroline jabbed a finger towards the sill of the front window. "Isn't he just great?"

The car was parked nose-in to the garage, so Jeffrey had to crane his neck around in order to see the window. Hesitantly, he raised his right arm and rested it across Caroline's shoulders so that he could more easily turn to see. It felt strange to be parked in his parent's garage in the middle of the afternoon, and this slight physical contact made him feel a little nervous.

"Oh, yeah. I see him." he replied. "But, what's so special about him? I mean, you see cardinals all the time." In the back of his mind, Jeffrey was hoping to steer the conversation away from the cardinal, and back to the matter at hand. It was already four o'clock, and his parents would separately arrive home from work sometime around five thirty. He and Caroline had planned for this afternoon since Monday, and he didn't want to have one of his parents opening the garage door before they were finished.

"How can you not see what's special about him?" Caroline asked as she poked the glass of her passenger window somewhat in the direction of the cardinal. "Look at how red he is? Have you ever seen a cardinal that red before?" Caroline seemed to be getting agitated, like it was really important to her that Jeffrey understand about the cardinal. Jeffrey decided to take another look just to keep the peace. He didn't want a little argument like this getting in the way of their plans, and he didn't like having Caroline upset with him.

"Hey, you're right!", Jeffrey admitted, and meant it. "He really is awfully bright, isn't he? I wonder what makes one bird so much brighter than the other birds." The cardinal really was beautiful. The rich, deep red of his body contrasted sharply with the blackness of his face. Jeffrey knew that it was only the male cardinals that were bright red, something to do with attracting females. Almost without knowing it, Jeffrey smiled a half-smile as he thought about that. "That's true for all species, it seems", he thought to himself. He was thinking of some of the other boys in his class, boys that were always struggling to follow the latest trend in order to be "cool". He'd never really been "cool". He was nice enough, an ok athlete, but he never really seemed to understand what the other kids thought was "cool". He knew he was smart, but that didn't seem to help. Before Caroline, Jeffrey had never had a girlfriend. He wasn't even sure if he had one now. He and Caroline had never messed around, but it seemed like they never ran out of things to talk about, and that seemed to be enough for both of them.

"I don't know what makes one so much more red that the others." Caroline said. "He just seems to be so much more than the others, doesn't he? Like he's almost a different species entirely. A species all to himself."

Jeffrey turned back to face the front of the car, but he left his arm on Caroline's shoulders. It felt nice to touch her, even in such a small way.

There was a long pause in the conversation, broken only by the occasional chirping from the cardinal. It wasn't an awkward silence: Jeffrey and Caroline had never seemed to feel uncomfortable just being together. The would often talk and then sit together for long periods in an amiable silence, like it was enough to just know that the other person was there.

While they sat, Jeffrey's mind wandered. He thought about his kid brother, two years younger, who had just started high school this year. Tommy seemed to be doing ok. He was a popular kid, easy to get along with, and having an older brother who was a junior seemed to give Tommy some "street cred" with the other freshmen kids. Jeffrey worried how Tommy would do once Jeffrey was gone, but he had decided that Tommy would be fine. Tommy's Socialization scores were high. Not high enough to make the school counselor worry, but high enough that it looked like he'd always fit in with a crowd. Jeffrey's Socialization scores, on the other hand, were a problem. He had already been called into the counselor's office twice this year to discuss his "attitude problems". The counselor had accused Jeffrey of trying to be some kind of independent, of thinking that he was better than everyone else. The counselor had even suggested that Jeffrey might harbor antisocial tendencies. When the counselor had said that, Jeffrey's throat had gotten so tight that he could barely breathe. Seeing his fear, the counselor had relented, and had agreed to send Jeffrey to Group Camp this summer to try and straighten him out. That was two weeks from now, but there was no way Jeffrey was going to spend a month chanting slogans with a bunch of misfits, even if he was a misfit himself.

Thinking about the Group Camp made him think of his parents. They'd been pretty broken up when they'd spoken to the counselor. "Why?" his father had asked. "How? We always made sure he played with other kids. He started pre-school at three, sure, but that's only one year later than most kids. He couldn't go the first year, the Medical Services Office said so!" At this point, Jeffrey's dad had thrown up his hands and collapsed back into his chair. He had begun to plead with the counselor. "Please." he'd asked. "Please, give him another chance. Group Camp will be a black mark on his record forever. Please, can't you just give him another chance?". He'd actually clasped his hands together as if to pray while he'd said this, his head bowed slightly as he looked up to the counselor.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Reynolds, but I've already been more than generous by sending Jeffrey to Group Camp rather than classifying him as anti-social." The counselor had then flicked his hands towards Jeffrey's father, as if to dismiss a servant. He'd switched off the vid-link, leaving Jeffrey and his parents staring at a blank screen. Jeffrey had clenched his fists as he felt his anger start to grow, but he'd pushed it back down. You never really knew for sure if the vid-link was actually off. The whole conversation might have been some sort of a test, and even if it wasn't, all vid-link conversations were saved. That way, they could be reviewed later if better emotional response recognition software was developed. They'd feed all of the recorded conversations through the software and get some more details to add to the Responses Database. Getting angry with authority figures wasn't a good response to have tied to your name.

Jeffrey had narrowly avoided being labeled anti-social, but Caroline had never had a chance. Her feelings had always been out on her sleeve for everyone to see. By the time she'd been transferred to Jeffrey's school, Caroline had already spent two summers in Group Camp, and it hadn't made any difference. The last straw came on Monday. She'd refused to stand and recite the pledge for a second time when the stupid Public Broadcast had gone on the blink halfway through the morning pledge. Everyone had waited at their desks for twenty minutes while the Tech Services guy had worked on the system. It was a law, see, you couldn't start classes until everyone had recited the Pledge. So they'd all just sat there, waiting, until the video of the flag waving started playing again as a preamble. Everyone had stood up, hoping they'd get through it all this time. Everyone, that is, except Caroline. She'd just sat there with her arms crossed, fuming. When Mrs. Harriman had shouted at her to stand up now, Caroline had blown her top. She'd screamed about how it was a waste of time having everyone sitting on their hands just because the stupid pledge hadn't been finished. She'd stood up, crossed the room, and thrown her textbooks out the window from three floors up. When she'd tried to climb a chair so that she could rip the flag down from above the chalkboard, Jeffrey had known that she was the bravest person he'd ever met, and that he loved her.

So. That's how he and Caroline had gotten to be sitting in a car in his parent's garage late in the afternoon. He looked over at Caroline, and he could see that she'd begun crying. Saying nothing, he wiped her cheeks with his left hand while he pulled her close with his right. He kissed her, once, and then settled back in his seat.

"I'm going to miss Mom and Dad." she whispered, so softly that he could barely hear her.

"Yeah, I'm gonna miss my folks. And Tommy, too." he replied.

The sat in silence for a moment.

"You'd better close that window so the cardinal doesn't get in." Caroline prompted.

Sighing, Jeffrey got out of the car and walked around the back to the garage window where the cardinal still sat. As he came around the rear fender, he stumbled over something. Looking down, he saw that he'd tripped over a garden hose. He carefully placed the end of the hose back into the car's tailpipe, and checked that the other end hadn't come out of its spot where it was pinched into place by the slightly open rear window.

"That all looks ok." he thought, and he started to sob. They'd talked about just running away, but they knew they'd never make it. Their IDs would be tagged as soon as they were missed, and it was impossible to do anything without a good ID. They didn't know if anyone supplied fakes, and they had no idea how to find someone like that, anyway. In the end, it was Caroline who'd suggested it. "I can't live as an anti-social." she'd said, "Zombied out on Smoothers, working the worst jobs, not even remembering what I used to be like. It would be worse than dying."

Turning back to the window, he was surprised the see the cardinal still watching him, its head cocked in some sort of avian question mark. Suddenly irritated, he shooed it away and closed the window. He walked back to the car, got in, and closed the door.

"Ready?" he asked, looking at Caroline.

"Y-y-yes." she answered, her chin quivering, as fat tears started to roll down her cheeks.

"Okay." he said, and clicked the garage door opener. Behind them, the door noisily made its way down to the pavement.

He started the engine, revved it once, then listened to make sure that it was idling smoothly. Satisfied, he placed his feet flat on the floor, well away from the gas and brake pedals. He pulled Caroline close to him with his right arm. Jeffrey closed his eyes and waited.


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