Joseph sat down on a park bench, weary and defeated. He didn’t want to be awake.
He didn’t want to be alive.
He was exhausted. Alone. His friends—good people who had loved him for most of his adult life—were nowhere to be found. That had been his fault, really. He had systematically shut them out of his life. But still. He thought they would at least try to reach out to him.
There were many riders on their fancy bicycles doing laps around the pond. Joseph sort of envied them. From his vantage point, what they were doing seemed monotonous and trite. They found enjoyment within their never-ending circles—loops that had no definitive beginning or end, rides that meant utterly nothing. They were going nowhere. They wanted to go nowhere. Wasn’t that the American dream, though? To exist, but only partially. To cover as much ground as possible, but still stay close to home, within your safe, defined loop. It was an interesting thought.
He leaned back, letting his arms hang over the back of the bench. A mother was pushing a stroller in front of him, assuring her crying child that everything was going to be alright. He chuckled to himself. Who was crazier: the man overthinking his existence on a random park bench, or the woman telling her child a bald-faced lie?
Everything was not going to be alright. Everything was never just alright.
To call it a mid-life crisis (or whatever buzz word was trending on the Internet that day) would have been misinterpreting the situation. A crisis usually pertained to something out of one’s control. That wasn’t the case for Joseph. He was in full control of what was happening. He had been planning it for a long, long time—the better part of two years. It wasn’t easy to eliminate oneself from the world. It took incredible discipline and courage. The office parties, the clubs, church, or lack thereof—wherever people could see his face he quit attending. He became self-employed. He was, in military terms, MIA. Getting rid of his digital footprint proved harder. First, he deleted his social media accounts. He stopped using his email and his phone (except when necessary). He made sure that when someone searched his name, nothing came up. According to the online world, he didn’t exist. According to the real world, he was a ghost.
But that wasn’t good enough for Joseph. Cutting out his friends and technology didn’t erase the noise from his life. It was still there, turned up to a painful decibel. Distractions. Temptations. They didn’t go away; they came at him harder. He couldn’t focus. His stress levels increased; his heartbeat added a few more thumps than before. And the migraines, God, they were excruciating. That old Dr. Seuss book his mother used to read him every Christmas came to mind. What was it the Grinch was always grumbling about?
The noise, noise, NOISE!
A pigeon landed near his feet. He looked down at the bird and tried to shoo it away. It didn’t budge. Two others landed next to it. The birds gyrated their necks and cooed. Two of the pigeons ran underneath his legs and grabbed onto a soggy old fry with their beaks. The fry broke in half and they gobbled it up. The pigeon who had missed out on the snack ruffled its feathers, upset with the lack of sharing. Joseph clapped his hands, finally getting them to fly away. They joined a large group of pigeons congregating near a trash receptacle. They bobbed their heads in unison, an eerie sight to behold.
Joseph shook his head and looked across the paved walkway at the pond. The water was one shade of green shy of being a swamp. Lili-pads dominated the outer edges, as did an assortment of trash that hadn’t quite made it into the receptacles. A white swan (which was more brown than white) floated at the center. He couldn’t tell if it was real or if it was one of those inflatables. It seemed too big to be a living thing, too ugly not be fabricated.
It always felt like there was something unfinished in Joseph’s life, something that needed to be done now, now, right now! He lived in a small house with little amenities. Instead of a TV, there was a shelf of books and one of those old school twin bell alarm clocks that never worked. The time was stuck at 8:43. The blinds were kept shut, and most of the lights were turned off except for a few lamps used for reading. It was more dungeon than house, but that was what he wanted. That’s what it took to get rid of the noise.
Eliminate the light; embrace the dark.
But had it really worked out like he wanted?
Joseph was too lost in thought to realize that another pigeon had landed near his feet. It wasn’t until he stretched out his legs that he inadvertently struck it with his shoe.
“Get out of here!” he said, waving his hands.
A woman who was jogging by shot him a look.
“Sorry, there was a bird …”
Yeah, her eyes said to him. Sure there was, crazy man.
Three more pigeons flew down and landed at the end of his bench. They started to gyrate. The whole thing was beginning to get ridiculous. All Joseph wanted to do was to come to the park for a little peace and quiet and these birds were ruining everything.
“Shoo!” He clapped his hands. “Shoo! Shoo!”
They flew back to the trash receptacle where a full-on party was commencing. There must have been at least fifty birds now, doing a dance that was something out of a ritualistic cult. Joseph found their actions to be nothing short of horrifying.
A little over a year ago, Joseph had tried something new to get rid of the noise: getaways. They weren’t anything spectacular, just little vacations here and there to places where time had stopped somewhere around 1985. The hotels were quaint. The technology was lacking. It had worked well for the first few trips, but the people … they became too vocal. They couldn’t give him ten seconds of silence without coming up to him and saying hello. They were like those annoying little popup ads that used to fill his computer screen when he was trying to work. They had nothing important to say. Nothing of value. Hello? About what? What was there to talk about to someone he didn’t know?
The park was the only place where nobody bugged him. There was some noise, but it was muffled, as if he was wearing earmuffs. Everyone was at the park for a reason. Maybe it was to exercise in a never-ending circle. Maybe it was to play on the playground, or fish for bass in the pond. Maybe the reason was that there was no reason. Like him, it was to escape something: your kids, your spouse, your depressing life. There was also the fresh air to consider. Sometimes, his house got too stuffy. He needed to get outside, even if it was only for a few minutes.
There was a light tap at the base of Joseph’s neck. He turned around. A pigeon was hovering above his head. It jutted its head forward, trying to peck at his face.
He swung at the bird. “You little …”
The bird dodged his swipe. It swooped lower and managed to nip at his arm. A faint spot of blood spilled from the cut. Joseph was beside himself with anger.
“You cut me! You cut me!”
Four more pigeons flew down and started pecking at his legs. His thick jeans kept their beaks from breaking the skin, but it still hurt. He erupted off the bench and spun around like a tornado. One of his errant swings punched a pigeon in the breast. There was an explosion of feathers followed by a chilling screech. The other birds angrily retreated.
A solid minute passed by as Joseph stood in front of the bench in stunned silence. He looked around to see if anyone nearby had seen what had happened. Their eyes didn’t lock on to the strange man trying to regain his bearings after mad birds had attacked him. Maybe he was sitting on the pigeons’ favorite bench. Why else would they be attacking him? He had done nothing to provoke them.
He took a walk halfway around the pond and found a different bench to sit on. This one seemed cleaner than the last. Less pigeon poop. He found a stick next to the bench and threw it into the pond, a good way to release his anger. It floated for a few seconds before getting tangled in some algae. It was stuck there, maybe for good, until it would eventually sink to the bottom. Like his life, it wanted to move—it wanted to break free—but it was being held back by its surroundings.
One day, it was going to drown.
He sat down. He put his hands over his eyes and started to cry. The peace he craved was nowhere to be found today. The life he wanted was an illusion, a pipe dream that was no more achievable than climbing Mount Everest in his skivvies. He was about to have a full meltdown when he felt a peck on his cheek.
It was a pigeon.
“Leave me alone!”
The bird cooed and started to drill its beak into his ribs, fast like a woodpecker. Five more pigeons descended like fighter jets. They attacked his head and his shoulders, drawing blood at the base of his neck. He screamed and swatted at them, but this time, they didn’t retreat. They were on a mission for blood.
He grabbed ahold of the bird that looked like the leader. With both hands, he strangled it until he felt its neck snap inside his palms. Other pigeons landed underneath the bench, trying to shimmy their way up his legs.
“Away with you!”
He stood up and stomped his feet on the paved walkway. Blood splattered all over the paved trail when his shoe connected with a pigeon’s head. They screeched at him and started attacking his back. He ran over to the grass and rolled around like he was on fire. Stop, drop, and roll his elementary teacher had taught him. He never imagined the application working for a pigeon attack. They flew away.
He sat up, disoriented and a little dizzy from the ordeal. There was blood all over his clothes. Some of it was his, some of it was the birds. It looked like he had been to war, and maybe he had. These birds weren’t just angry with him; they were trying to kill him. That was clear to him now.
A few men on bicycles passed by and didn’t acknowledge him. That was ok. He felt embarrassed about everything, as if he had done something to deserve this. He stood up and walked over to the restroom to get himself cleaned up. He didn’t think he was ever going to come back to this park. What if the pigeons were diseased? What if the thing that was driving them insane was now swimming around in his blood? He needed to get out of there.
A sound …
It was coming from the bathroom. He stopped to listen and almost threw up on the sidewalk.
There was cooing coming from inside the bathroom.
He placed his hand on the push-door and the cooing got louder. He looked down.
Feathers were being pushed out from under the door.
Cooing. More cooing.
He stumbled over to the playground that was on top of a small hill. All of the benches there were empty because the overprotective mothers watching their children needed to stand within ten feet of them at all times. He took a seat and tried to compose himself. He started to wonder if he had gone completely insane. Pigeons were hunting him like prey, the same birds that people fed like pets. The only trouble they ever caused was crapping on every known surface to man. There had to be a joke in there somewhere.
He watched a young girl climb the steel spiderweb on the playground. When she sat down on the hexagon-shaped top, there was a look of accomplishment in her eyes, beaming brightly to those who were watching. He wished he could go back to how she felt—the innocence (and possibly ignorance) of not knowing about all the noise that existed. How wonderful it would feel to be so naive that nothing could bother you; where climbing a small spiderweb was the best that you could do, and that was ok. That was good enough.
The young girl climbed down from the spiderweb and joined a group of other kids who were running around in the mulch. None of them congratulated her for what she had done. Maybe it wasn’t a big deal to them. It certainly was a big deal to her.
Two pigeons came from above and slammed their heads into the back of Joseph’s neck like a torpedo. The force knocked him into the mulch. Dozens more came at him from all sides, pecking, cooing, God, the cooing was exasperating. They had a system now. They weren’t going to leave him alone until he was a broken man—a dead man.
He started to crawl away from the playground. He screamed for someone to look his way, but no one did. They either couldn’t hear him, or they did and felt no pity. He saw the pond and thought that maybe if he got to the water the pigeons would leave him alone.
One arm in front of the other.
The birds pecked and pecked at him. His wounds started to burn. He could feel blood running down his skin. People passed by—mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters—yet no one looked down at the man lumbering along like a worm.
The water was cold when his hands reached the outer edge. It stained his fingers black. He didn’t care. He propelled his body out into the water. Algae and other seaweed stuck to his clothes. The birds continued to peck, but some of them flew away, perturbed by the splashing of his hands. He was about twenty feet away from the edge when all but two birds remained, nipping at his head. He let his body sink under the water; only his head floated on top like a bobber.
He went under. Just for a second. The water stung when it touched the wounds on his head, but only at first. After that, it felt refreshing. He was able to plant his feet into the muddy bottom and stand underwater.
He came up for a breath of air and was instantly met with violent pecking. Four pigeons now. They flapped their wings next to his ears. He went under again, this time longer than the first. He had never been very good at holding his breath, but he had never been in a situation where he needed to hold it like he did now.
He swam out to the center of the pond where his feet could no longer touch. The swan that usually floated there had flown over to the other side. It was a living breathing thing after all. The pond was much deeper than he had anticipated. Beneath his kicking feet was a black hole, an abyss. That didn’t bother him, though. He was used to the dark. The dark was where he felt the most at home.
He went under.
Then came up again.
Every time he came to the surface, there were more birds. They were relentless. He wondered how long he could keep at it.
Deeper, he thought. He needed to go deeper; stay longer under the water than he ever had. Until he couldn’t see the sun shining from above.
Until he couldn’t see the birds.
He took a deep breath and sank to the bottom of the pond. His body disappeared into the murky blackness. A revelation occurred to him where it was completely dark: he wanted to stay. There was no ambition to come back to the surface. The birds had defeated him. How silly was that to think about? How utterly ridiculous?
His lungs started to scream at him. His mouth opened and he began to swallow the water. His eyes looked down at the bottom, closing now as he started to drown. What lay there surprised him, if only at first. With his last breaths, he found there to be nothing surprising about it at all.
The entire bottom of the pond was covered with human remains.
* * *