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City of Birds

The Captain opened his eyes and the shattered face of a street lamp jerked into view above him. Water slapped rhythmically against the hull of the airboat. He wiped the salt from the holes of his eyes, from his beard, his fingers up against his caked lips. He drew off a flake of skin, put it in his mouth and chewed it. A jarring sunrise revealed the endless run of the waterway, angles of concrete entering and exiting the water. He looked down parallel lines of street lamps following the curve of some absent road. Dark gaps in the water ahead where the overpasses rose and fell. A pair of cormorants perched on the roof of an emerging truck cab, drying their wings in the sun. He had never seen so many birds.

He moved to the edge of the boat, reached down and brought up a handful of brackish floodwater. He passed it over his face and through his hair. Out of habit, he moved a hand down to his pocket, circled his forefinger over the face of a watch he kept there. Under the pilot seat was a squat jar of muddied water. He unscrewed the metal lid and touched the rim to his lips, took down just enough to remind his body how thirsty it was.

Behind the airboat a set of pylons rose out of the water, suspending an overpass with two slanting feeder roads at each end. A banked course of gravel led up to the rise. The Captain stepped from the boat and onto the scree, feeling it moving beneath him, his boots filling with fouled water. Flotsam gathered in the gutter; rubber thongs, plastic coat hangers, cracked water containers, dental floss, a toothbrush, pill bottles, a steady migration of translucent shopping bags, like jellyfish. He moved the junk around with his boot and surfaced an asthma puffer. He picked it up and pressed the canister down and it coughed up a fine mist. He shook it and puffed again, this time into his mouth. Pin pricks of moisture in his throat. He put the thing away in his pocket and started up the bank.

in the water below him,
two lines of clenched traffic, stretching to the horizon.

A car was parked on the left incline. The paint was fresh and blue like it had just rolled out of the yard. Sam sat against the rear tyre, his head resting on his knees. The Captain walked up to him and Sam raised his head, his face a set of angles, every part of him reduced. Sam pushed the heel of his hand into his stomach. Cramps every morning now. The Captain held out the water jar and Sam took it with both hands and cradled it against his lips. The sharp turns of his adam’s apple as he drank. The Captain’s shadow closed around Sam. All that water trapped in the body, he thought. In the skin, the bone, the blood, the organs. How muscle stored more of it than fat. How the thinner they got, the closer to water they became.

He looked through the windshield of the car. Parking tickets curled against the glass. He put his hands against the driver side window. A street map open on the passenger seat. Computer parts stacked in the back. He tried the handle but it was locked. He went back to the boat and returned with a metal coat hanger and eased it between the rubber flaps of the window seal. Down in the innards of the door he found the lock and pulled it. The door clicked open.