CONTENT WARNING: Baby Bird contains elements that readers might find disturbing or reminders of past trauma. Diligence and discretion is recommended.
“Okay. You guys ready?”
Mary-Ann and Rocko looked at each other. Rocko’s face was creased with nervousness, while Mary-Ann looked almost excited. They looked back.
“Ready,” they said in unison.
Melanie sighed. She looked down at the faux-wood gum-lined conference table in front of her, took a few breaths in and out, then looked back up.
“Mom, Dad…” she began. “There’s… something I want to tell you.”
“What is it, sweetheart?” Mary-Ann replied.
“You… might remember that guy I was going out with, last semester.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Well, I’m okay now, but… back during winter, he assaulted me. And I feel like you have the right to know what happened.”
Rocko suddenly shot up from his chair. “He… he WHAT?! Did the campus authorities do anything about it? Did he get justice? I’ll end up finding that bastard myself if I have to!”
Melanie felt a sudden urge of nervousness, her hands rubbing together in her lap as she looked down. But she snapped out of it, and looked back up, this time more with curiosity.
“I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard you yell, Rocko.”
Rocko suddenly snapped out of it as well. He stuttered a bit, dropping right back down to his chair and turning as red as a beet.
“S-s-sorry, I didn’t, um… I didn’t mean to…”
Mary-Ann, who sat next to him, began to grow a great smile on her face. At some point she was no longer able to hold it in, and began to burst out laughing. Melanie quickly followed with a smile of her own.
“Oh, don’t worry. I think you got your Mr. Shanahan down pat.”
While Rocko’s embarrassment lingered for a few more minutes, the three quickly went back to talking with each other casually, before heading off to lunch.
This whole roleplay was part of a wider initiative by Melanie to get her life back on track. That moment with Calvin, now two weeks ago, gave her the confidence that she needed to push forward to make it to spring break and tell Mrs. and Mr. Shanahan all they needed to know.
That very night was a Monday, and as was now tradition Calvin took Melanie to that old shopping complex at Cactus Plaza. In the past few sessions Melanie began to feel more and more comfortable talking about her life and her experience to those at the sessions. When she came in this time around, a few faces looked up and smiled at her in recognition. As Cassidy turned her head, she saw the girl enter.
“Hey Mel. How’d the test go?”
Melanie shrugged. “Who knows, honestly. It’s all in God’s hands now.”
Cassidy, in her notably deadpan fashion, took a sip from the water bottle she kept next to her chair. “Ah, screw’em. There’s more important things to life than calculus.”
The young brunette girl smiled, then took her usual seat next to an Indian girl she had gotten to know named Priyanka. A few minutes later, Cassidy started the session.
“Alright, today I want to focus on something special,” the older woman began, surveying those sitting in the chairs circling her. “I want you to think back to a lesson your parents gave you, at some point in your life. It can be about anything really. I know some of you have rather complicated relationships with your parents, but I think there’s something unique about parental lessons that triumphs over all others. It’s a bit of aged wisdom that sometimes the person who’s giving it doesn’t even know the value of. So, let’s take five minutes to think, then we’ll start going ‘round the horn.”
As the others began to murmur among themselves, Melanie closed her eyes and went far back into the recesses of her memory. There was a particular moment she had in mind, spurred on by Cassidy’s last comment: a bit of aged wisdom that sometimes the person giving it doesn’t even know the value of. She tried to remember all the details she could, and once she was satisfied she opened her eyes again.
The stories started, and eventually it landed on Melanie. She looked around the circle, first at Priyanka, then at Cassidy, then at all the others.
“My dad told me this story once… though honestly, I think he told it more for himself than for me,” she began.
“I remember it was right after I graduated elementary school, going into middle school. Maybe a week or two after graduation. He told me this story about a baby bird and a papa bird, sitting high up in a tree. The papa bird took care of the baby bird ever since she was an egg, but one day the baby bird began to develop her wings and asked the papa bird if she could try them out and fly. The papa bird, remembering the scary dog he saw the day before, forbid the baby bird from leaving its nest. The next day, the baby bird asked again – the papa bird remembered the pigeon he saw get zapped by an electrical line, and once again forbid the baby bird from leaving its nest. Finally, one more day passed, and the baby bird – quite pissed this time, from what I remember – asks papa if she can fly. The papa bird remembers the hunters, who always try to shoot them down, and again says no. This time the baby bird also asks, ‘Why won’t you let me fly?’. The papa bird responds, ‘Because, my little baby bird, the world is a dangerous place’. The baby bird looks at her papa, and says, ‘Will it ever stop being a dangerous place?’”
Melanie took a quick pause here to catch her breath. The others focused their eyes on her.
“I think the moral of that story is… the world will always be a dangerous place, and at some point you need to just leave the nest and realize how dangerous the world really is. And yeah, it’s true, there’s a lot of really bad things in this world. But there’s also a lot of really good things. And honestly, I’d be willing to bet that there’s more good things in this world than there are bad things. But you have to see it in order to understand that.”
As Melanie finished, there was a polite applause around the room which made her a bit embarrassed. But another part of her was glad that she told the story. She felt that, maybe like her father before her, she told the story more because she needed to hear it for herself.
After the stories finished and the session ended, Cassidy stopped Melanie at the door. “Thank you for putting in the work this week,” the adult woman spoke.
“Yeah, it’s no problem. Sorry for being kind of a shitass the first few sessions.”
The comment gave Cassidy a very rare smile. “Everybody’s a shitass for their first few. Sometimes they even stay that way. But the only thing that’s important to me is that it’s making a positive impact in your life.”
Melanie took a look at the woman, who she now considered something of a teacher. She smiled back.
“I think it has.”
Cassidy patted her softly on the shoulder. “See you after the break.”
Melanie began to walk to the door again, but Cassidy stopped her one last time.
“Oh, and Mel…”
Melanie turned around.
“…good luck with your parents.”
Melanie, now with a strong sense of confidence, gave the woman a smirk. She nodded, then walked out the door.
“Shit… this hunk o’ junk’s been acting up again…” Fifi muttered under her breath as she ineffectively banged her hand against her car’s radio.
“Could be worse. Calv’s car doesn’t even have A/C anymore.”
Fifi took a quick look at Melanie, before bringing her attention back to the road. “God, that’s right. That thing’s pure black, too. You could die in there during the summer.”
Melanie broke out in a fit of laughter. “Maybe if this was Arizona. I don’t think Washington ever gets hot enough for that.”
It was the first day of spring break, and Fifi was on her way to drop Melanie back at her parent’s house. It was only a few minutes later when the car pulled up to the driveway.
“You sure you gonna be good, girl?” Fifi asked once she reached the destination, a hint of concern in her voice.
Melanie thought about it for a moment. “No, I’m not sure. But I think this is the best chance I’m ever going to get.”
Fifi understood. She nodded, then mimicked a phone with her hand, putting it up to her head. “You call me as soon as it’s done, okay?”
Melanie’s roommate smiled, and hugged the girl in the car. Melanie got out, took a few steps, to the front door, and took a deep breath. She heard the sound of Fifi’s car pulling out behind her.
Melanie rang the doorbell. It took a bit longer this time – maybe four minutes or so – and she almost prepared to ring it again when finally it opened and she saw her father on the other side of the door.
“So, finally you’re home, kiddo!”
As Mr. Shanahan went in for the hug, Melanie felt her body reflexively begin to shudder. But she followed what she had been practicing: taking control of her mind, closing her eyes, taking a deep breath, and accepting the hug. It worked — her father’s hugs were a little bit tighter than anyone else’s, and it did make her a tad uncomfortable, but the moment went on without a hitch.
Melanie walked inside the front door, noticing a few pieces of furniture rearranged from when she last saw them. This time, her mother was right in the front, and greeted her with a big smile.
“Welcome back, Melanie!” Mrs. Shanahan hugged the girl as well, to which Melanie accepted with ease. “Are you hungry? You came just in time for dinner, you know. Your father’s favorite: roasted chicken and mashed potatoes.”
Melanie smiled. “Sounds amazing, mom. Is it okay if I put my stuff upstairs first?”
“Of course! I’ll have everything plated by the time you come back down.”
Melanie went upstairs with her bag and brought it into her room. It was the same as she had left it: Mean Girls, plushies, trophies, high school friends. She put the bag on her bed and then took a deep breath, gave one last repeat of all she had memorized, then walked back down to where the dinner table was.
Her father, as always, was the first to speak – this time scarcely a moment after they had started eating.
“So, how have things been, over at Hill Valley?”
“Well, it’s been good recently. Still hanging out with Fifi, Rocko, Mary-Ann, all them…” Melanie paused briefly. “But, there is something I’ve been meaning to tell you guys.”
“Is it about Nathaniel?”
Melanie looked up at his father. He had a smile on his face, likely expecting it to be good news.
“Been awhile since you’ve told us anything about him. I was wondering why I’ve been kept in the dark.”
“It, um… it is, but… it’s different.”
The expressions on her parent’s faces changed. Melanie kept her eyes focused on the meal in front of her, so that she wouldn’t be distracted while she told them what was now the most important thing to ever happen to her in her life.
“A while ago… back before winter break… Nathaniel assaulted me. Now, I’m okay – my friends have helped, I met this new friend named Calvin who helped, too… I’ve been going to group therapy, which has worked really well, and the college helped me through the process also. But I never told you two, and I felt you deserved to know, so I’m telling you now. I’m sorry for waiting so long.”
Melanie kept looking down. There was silence on the other side of the table, for what seemed like forever. Finally, she heard her mother – her voice trembling with grave sadness.
“Why… why did you take so long to tell us?”
Melanie felt like crying. She took control of her mind, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath – the tears went away. She opened her eyes again.
“I don’t know. I was just… scared. I didn’t know what to tell you, how to say it. I’d worry you’d get upset, then I’d get upset too, and everything would be a panic. I wanted to wait until it was the right time – until I knew I could tell you without it hurting.”
Melanie heard the coarse voice of her father next.
“This means… when you came back to the house, during the winter… it was right after it had happened.”
“And that… that was probably the real reason it took you a few days to come to the house, wasn’t it?”
Mr. Shanahan began to fiddle with his worn fingers. He did this for a while, before he abruptly stopped and spoke again.
“Melanie, I want you to look at me.”
Melanie, respecting the order, slowly moved her face to her father. He didn’t look angry. He didn’t look sad. In fact, it was the first time in her life that she couldn’t read her father at all.
“You said you’re doing alright now. Is that true?”
“Yes it is,” Melanie said, looking directly into her father’s eyes against all pressure. “I have people who love me. People who care about me. Friends, teachers, and family too.”
“Good. Because it’s true.”
Melanie’s father got up from the table, and Melanie did in kind. The two hugged each other, and her mother joined in not long after. The three stayed there under the light of the dining room, and for the first time Melanie felt herself strong enough to comfort even her parents.
It was now many months later,
near the end of the school year. Many things in Melanie’s world have changed now… but then again, some things never do.
“Yo, Mel! Eight o’clock time!”
Melanie groggily got out of the bed. She had on an old stained white t-shirt and a pair of black gym shorts. Her long brown hair dangled from her face.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Melanie said, wiping the hair from out of her face. “It happened again?”
“At some point you just gotta accept you need a new phone,” Fifi called out from the other room, having just finished taking a shower.
Melanie gave a deep sigh. “Thanks again, Fifi.”
“No prob, girl.”
Melanie went through her standard routine. She put on her makeup, brushed her teeth, and used the curling iron to make her short-cut hair a little more wavy. Out from her closet, she took out a pair of jeans as well as a pastel yellow turtleneck, which she put on over her head. She stood there, looking at herself in the mirror while Fifi brushed her teeth.
“I think yellow’s going to be the look this season.”
Fifi spit out her toothpaste, and looked up at her. “What, you a fashion designer now?”
“No, I just think this is going to be yellow’s year. Plus it looks good with the hair, don’t you think?”
Fifi looked in the mirror. “You’re the type of girl where everything looks good on you, and it drives me crazy,” she responded while walking out the door. Melanie looked back at the mirror, putting her hand on her hip, and gave a wink.
“You’re damn right I am,” she whispered to herself.
On her way to class, Melanie heard a familiar voice call out to her.
“Yo, Melanie! Nice wheels!”
Melanie skidded to a stop, kicking up the skateboard she was using into her hands. She turned to see who was speaking – it was a fellow schoolmate she hadn’t seen in a while.
“Hey, Maya! Long time no see.”
The silver-haired girl took a good look at Melanie from head to toe. “Didn’t know you knew how to skateboard. You picked it up recently?”
Melanie shook her head. “More like brought it back. I rode a lot when I was younger, got this from my parents’ house over the break. Was hoping it’d make me a little less late to Pacheko’s class.
Maya giggled. “I won’t keep you, then. Good luck!”
Melanie got back on her skateboard and ended up making it in time (two minutes late, but the class hadn’t started yet). After finishing her first class of the day, she walked with Mary-Ann to go have lunch with Rocko. Melanie’s two friends sat together in the booth of the cafeteria, while the girl herself eyed them from across the table.
“Well… how are things going?”
Rocko looked nervously down to his food. Mary-Ann spoke up first.
“Well, the lightsaber club’s been doing great. We’re up to around thirty people who show up every week which makes things really fun. And since Rocko and I are both co-presidents now, we can spread ourselves out more in terms of operations.”
Melanie looked on with a disappointed expression. “Well I’m so glad that the Hill Valley Lightsaber Club is going smoothly, but I meant more about… you know… the other thing.”
Mary-Ann began to blush. Rocko scratched the back of his afroed hair, and looked up.
“I’ll admit, it’s pretty scary being in a relationship. Even if you’ve known the person well beforehand.”
Melanie lit up with a smile on her face. She pointed a finger gun at the two, aiming it with one eye open. “I saw this one coming from a mile away, y’know!”
Mary-Ann let out a sigh. “Yeah. You and everyone else.”
“Still, I feel bad not going to the club this year. Just been busy with the therapy group. You won’t mind if I just drop in on one of the last sessions, right?”
“It’s no problem, Mel,” Rocko replied. “You’re welcome anytime.” Mary-Ann smiled in agreement.
That night was a Monday, and in what was now tradition Calvin drove Melanie over to the shopping complex. The two talked on the entire ride there, mostly about life, work, and school, and finally Calvin dropped her off at the front entrance.
When she walked in, she saw Cassidy sitting on the floor, fiddling with one of their plastic tables. Cassidy turned and saw the girl standing there.
“Hey Mel, can you help me with this? Can you hold that side straight?”
Melanie walked over, doing as she was told. “You’re finally trying to fix this?”
“Yeah, thing’s been driving me nuts for long enough. And with my sister coming into town this week, well I can only handle so many stressors at a time.”
Melanie let out a giggle. “Things that bad with your sis, huh?”
“No, no. I don’t dislike her, I just… she’s a little too namaste for me, you understand what I’m saying?”
“Maybe a little namaste is just what you need.”
Priyanka approached the two from behind. She held a basket of snacks in her hand.
“Umm… Mel, where should I put this?”
Melanie turned around. “You can just set it on that chair for now!” she answered, pointing to a chair in the corner. The girl nodded her head and walked over. Melanie turned back to Cassidy.
“Oh, you’re not gonna believe this – Mary-Ann and Rocko started dating!”
Cassidy let out a small smile while she screwed in a bolt on the table. “Those are your two friends, right?”
“Yeah, same ones. To be honest, I was beginning to think it would never happen. But I got the text about it over the weekend, and I confronted them about it over lunch today to confirm. It’s really happening!”
“Well, tell them I’m happy for ‘em. I think the screw’s in all the way now, can you jimmy the table a bit to make sure it stays in place?”
Melanie shook the table, and sure enough it kept stable. The two then turned their attention to rounding up the others in the room and getting the session started.
“Well, as many of you know, today is a bittersweet day,” Cassidy began. “This will be Mel’s last session with us. Now, Mel just joined us at the beginning of the year, but already I’ve seen such a remarkably beautiful improvement in her, as I’m sure many of you have as well. I asked Mel if she wanted to lead today’s talk with the group, and she said yes. So, without further ado… I’ll pass it to her.”
There was some polite clapping – with a few cheers here and there – that spread across the room. Melanie, with a little smile on her face, stood up to take Cassidy’s position. She waited for the clapping to die down, took a deep breath in, and faced all the others in the room.
“Listen, a lot of you probably think this whole thing is really dumb,” she began. “I did too, when I first started. And, to be honest, maybe it is really dumb. But what I’ve realized over the past few months is that just because something is cheesy, or dumb, or awkward, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.”
She paused, and began to nervously rub her thumb against her right hand. But she retained focus.
“Back in January, I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to live anymore. I thought this might be my last year on Earth. I was in the deepest, darkest place I’ve ever been in my life. And maybe I would’ve kept falling, if it wasn’t for a few things that kept me together and helped me out of that deep dark place.”
She surveyed the room. The others had her full attention, though some of the newer members kept looking nervously to the side. Priyanka gave Melanie a smile, and a look of confidence. Melanie used her as an anchor.
“The first, believe it or not, wasn’t the Healing Mission of Hill Valley. It was my friends. I have the privilege of knowing some fantastic people who care about me and support me, and they were the first people that reached out when they noticed something was wrong. And I’ll always be thankful for that. I know not everyone has people like that who they can rely on in their life, but that’s what the Healing Mission is all about. Look at the people around you – these are the same people who can help.”
Melanie took a breath before moving on.
“Of course, the Healing Mission has helped me, too. Ms. Cassidy has had a profound impact on my life, and while I certainly know she can be scary sometimes…” – this elicited a soft chuckle from the crowd, including from Cassidy – “…at the end of the day she’s here to help you, and I insist you reach out to her if you ever need anything at all. She’ll insist it, too.”
“And, of course, that brings me to the last thing – family. Family is a common topic among these sessions, and now I can understand why. I was terrified to tell my parents all of this happened. And, from the vibe I get in this room, I imagine most of you are as well. But I honestly think telling my parents what happened was the best thing I could have possibly done, and I really wish I did it a lot sooner. Sure, they’ll be upset – they’re your parents – but they also want to support you, no matter what. I was so scared that they would just freak out, and then the whole thing would be just a mess – but sometimes your biggest fears are things that will never really happen.”
Melanie took one more pause. She did a look around the room again – almost all those in attendance still seemed to be watching and listening patiently.
“Let me tell you one last thing. All those fears, those visions, those nightmares — they never really go away. But they don’t have to control you. You are able to define them just as much as they define you.”
Melanie stopped speaking after this last point. When the others realized she was done, they began to clap, and one by one stood up. Melanie internally was a little embarrassed about the whole thing, but part of her was glad her DECA skills were still present. At some point she felt a tap on her shoulder and turned around – Cassidy was there, her arms outstretched, a small smile on her face. Melanie smiled too, and they hugged.
On the last day of spring semester, Melanie packed up all her bags and hopped in Calvin’s car to drive to the train station to head home, since her parents were gone that week. As they drove past the forests of Washington Melanie looked out the window thinking quietly to herself. Eventually she asked Calvin a question.
“So, what will you be up to this summer?”
Calvin shrugged. “I don’t know. See where the wind takes me, I guess.”
Melanie looked over at him, and smiled. “I was thinking about getting a summer job, so I could buy a used car. About time I start lugging myself around to places. Besides, it means you don’t have to be my personal chauffeur anymore.”
“Oh, but I was just starting to get used to it.”
Melanie let out a little giggle, then returned to looking out the window. A bit later they arrived at the Hill Valley station.
Melanie got out of the car, and popped the trunk to get her bags. Calvin got out of the driver seat.
“You need my help with any of that?” he asked.
Melanie shook her head as she took out two duffel bags. “I don’t have that much. Most of my stuff I got home last week – this is just the stuff I needed right up ‘til today.”
Calvin nodded as he let the girl pass, as the outbound train reached the station, she turned back to the boy one more time.
“Looks like you got me here just in time. Seeya, Calv! Have a great summer!”
“Yeah, you too,” Calvin called back.
Melanie walked down to where the station was. As the door to the train opened, an elderly woman made her way out of the train car. Melanie gave her space to walk by, then entered the train. The doors closed not long after.
Baby Bird is based on the song “Hearts And Crosses” written by Amelia and Matthew Fletcher.