Ian saw Percy on a tree branch, perhaps thirty feet above him. Ian breathed a little easier. He hadn’t lost the bird quite yet.
“Percy?” he called softly. What was he going to say? The bird didn’t like him. Come on down and shit on my back again.
Percy ignored him. The bird’s attention was completely absorbed in something on the tree branch. Something Ian couldn’t see. A snake? Ian hoped it wasn’t a snake.
Something delicate fluttered over Percy. A hawkmoth? A hummingbird? Ian couldn’t tell in the gloom. It fluttered, paused for a moment over the back of Percy’s head, and then dropped like a predator.
Percy straightened for a moment and seemed to look puzzled. Then, he screamed and tore off into the woods at full speed. In a moment he was gone. Ian could never catch him.
Back at the house, Ian used the hose to wash his shoes and his legs. He wanted to run inside, lock the door and hide in the cellar. But that would have meant tracking mud into the house. He didn’t know where Percy was, but he did know what Pauline would do to him if he tracked black mud across the creaking floors and threadbare carpet.
Acceptably clean, he went inside, closed and locked the door. He changed and dumped the filthy clothes into the washer.
He sat in the darkened living room. Outside, the sunset and dark seemed to flow out from under the trees.
What was he going to tell Pauline? She’d never believe he didn’t let Percy out on purpose. What was she going to do to him?
Maybe he’d better run. Stay away until she calmed down—and when would that be?
He drummed the heel of his hand against his forehead but he couldn’t think of anything.
Something came in the window. He looked and saw it was Percy.
Percy watched him from the windowsill. Then he glided across the room and landed in front of the cage. Percy walked inside, across the bedding, and then hopped up onto his perch. He turned and faced Ian.
Ian followed him into Pauline’s bedroom and closed the door. The bird watched him. Cocked its head. Watched him some more.
Ian stared back. There was something different about him.
Percy just watched him. No sound of contempt. No turning and excreting towards him. No stamping his feet. Nothing.
It was unnerving. Ian made sure the door was secure. Percy had come back home by the Grace of God and no one the wiser. Maybe the bird had been scared by something in the woods.
Percy cocked his head one way, looking at Ian out of his left eye, then cocked his head the other and looked at Ian out of his right. “Ian’s a good boy,” he croaked.
Ian staggered back as if he’d been struck. Percy had never said that. Not once.
“Good boy,” Percy repeated and looked at him again, first one eye, then the other.
“Who are you and what did you do with Percy?” Ian said in a half-joke.
No answer. Just one eye. Then the other. Now it didn’t seem like that much of a joke.
He heard Pauline on the front porch. Home early. That could mean she was already drunk or getting ready to get drunk.
“Ian?” she bawled as she came in the door.
Drunk already. No help there.
Ian came into the hall.
Pauline smiled at him and leaned forward, steadied herself. “Good boy,” she said. “Get Mommie a drink, will you?”
“Mom?” he said hesitantly.
“Yes?” She looked at him.
“What about Percy?” Pauline said, suddenly cold and murderous. She stared at him.
Ian froze. He didn’t know what to say. “Did you want to check his eye?”
She relaxed. “You scared me for a minute. Next to you, Percy is all I have left of your father. Not much, I know. But you’re all I got.”
Ian went to the other room. He got himself a glass of water and drank it. Percy had always been a hateful animal. What had happened to him now? And could Ian be blamed?
“Ian?” Pauline called. “Get me the vitamin supplement and the antibiotics. I think Percy has a mosquito bite or something.”
Pauline fed the supplement to Percy and rubbed the antibiotic on the back of his head. Percy kept watching Ian. Ian watched them both. Pauline put Percy to bed and covered the cage.
Later, Ian snuck back downstairs. Pauline was passed out on the sofa. On a normal night, Ian would have left her there. As hard as it was tiptoeing around her in the morning, it was easier than trying to move her. But tonight, he couldn’t abide the idea that she would be sleeping, helpless, with Percy nearby. Who knew what would happen?
He covered Pauline with a blanket.
Ian walked into Pauline’s room. He lifted the cover from Percy’s cage and looked inside. Percy stared back at him.
Ian watched him for a long time. Watched the way Percy turned his head. Watched how he watched Ian. This wasn’t Percy. It was a thing that looked like Percy and tried hard to act like Percy but couldn’t quite pull it off.
Percy kept watching him.
“You’re not him,” whispered Ian.
Percy did not respond.
That had to be it. The moth-thing had killed Percy and replaced it. That had to be the explanation. Ian let the cover fall back over the cage. He could feel Percy’s stare all the way back to the sofa as he grabbed a pillow and lay down on the floor, the only thing alive between Percy and Pauline.
When Ian came in the door from school the next day, Pauline was sprawled on the couch again, asleep. Percy was perched on the couch, his head down near her head, staring at her closely.
“Get away from her!” cried Ian and rushed the bird.
Percy flew into the air and landed on a chair, now watching Ian as closely as he had been watching Pauline.
Ian went to the window and opened it. He went behind Percy and tried to rush him outside but the bird wouldn’t go. Finally, it flew into the cage.
Half crying with frustration and dread, Ian locked the cage and went to check on Pauline.
There was a bottle on the floor next to her and she stank of metabolizing alcohol. Her face was flushed but unmarked.
Ian went into the kitchen and poured himself some juice. What was he supposed to do?
He heard something from Pauline’s room. As he entered the doorway, Percy froze, the cage door half open. The bird pulled the cage door closed and flew back to the perch.
The Percy-thing could cozy up to his mother and do anything.
He could hear her snoring in the other room.
Ian stared at the bird. The bird stared back, cocked its head at an unnatural ninety-degree angle, and then looked back at him.
Shoot it, he thought. Sure Pauline might beat him half to death but it was worth it to keep this thing away from her.
Martin Bones had left Pauline a small collection of pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Pauline had drilled into Ian the violent penalties that would happen should he ever play with them. Ian had known the combination of the safe since he was six. Beyond a token rebellion represented by opening up the locked safe, staring at the array of guns, and closing it again, he had left them alone.
No matter what, you were supposed to take care of your mother.
Ian unlocked the gun safe. You didn’t grow up in rural Missouri without learning a few things about guns. If Percy started flying around, Ian wanted to be able to hit him. A shotgun was the thing.
He loaded the twenty-gauge and snapped it shut. Then, he walked back to Pauline’s room. Ian looked through a gap in the cover. He couldn’t see Percy. He pulled off the cover.
Percy stared back at him, clinging to the cage door. Unblinking.
Ian cocked the shotgun. He pointed it at the bird.
“Don’t shoot,” said Percy distinctly in Pauline’s voice.