Actions

Work Header

stray birds

Work Text:

The Department of Sudden Departures has a dove as its logo, a little smudge of green in its clenched beak.

Sana thinks about it all the time because her uniform has the same patch on the shoulder, because there are always two mourning doves that land in her garden around dusk. Because she thinks about that thing Mina used to say, her lip curling up in the first sequence of a smile— “Some things are just coincidences.”

Sana likes to sit out on her back porch with a mug of chamomile and watch the sun slur down, watching the birds flutter from the broken rose bush to the old salad bowl she keeps filled with fresh water.

Mourning doves mate for life.

That’s how they got their name.

One of them always ends up getting left behind.

+++

“In your opinion,” Sana reads from the form on her clipboard, “was the departed a charitable person?”

“He was a sweet man,” the old woman across from her says. Her hands twist around the tea cup on the table. “He— he tried his best. In the summers he used to go around the neighborhood and mow the lawns for—“

“Just a yes or no is fine.”

“Ah. Then yes.”

Sana ticks off a box on the sheet. “Did he use aerosol hair products?”

“No.”

There are one-hundred and fifty questions on the survey. Sana has them memorized, but she likes to keep her gaze fixed on the paper. For the first few months, she used to get trapped in long conversations about the departed, holding people’s hands, sometimes weeping with them, but now she just slides a card for the hotline across the table.

“Did the departed ever travel to Brazil?”

The woman’s eyes widen. “Is that— is that what they think?”

“It’s just a question.” Sana hates the conspiracy theory fodder that made its way into the survey. The fact is that there’s no reason for which people disappeared, or why they did, but the government had decided it’s better to have a few harmless red herrings than it is to tell the unsatisfying truth: ‘we don’t know.’

“We honeymooned in Brazil,” the woman whispers, cup shaking in her hands. “Fifty years ago.”

“We’re just about done. In your opinion, is the departed in a better place?”

There are pictures pinned on the walls and stuck to the refrigerator— the woman and her husband, decades younger, smiling on a tandem bicycle. Children and then grandchildren, dogs, mountaintops they must have climbed together.

“I— how could I know?”

“I need a yes or no,” Sana says softly.

“I hope so.”

Sana colors in the box beside ‘yes’.

+++

On October 14th the Department has a New Year’s party. Measuring time is different now.

It’s the third anniversary of the Sudden Departure. Sana sits through the hollow speeches from her bosses, the cello concerto played over a slideshow of celebrities and politicians who departed, the unnecessary PR presentation about how they’re doing the country a great service by direct depositing some stimulus into the survivors’ bank accounts.

“Isn’t it weird we call them survivors,” one of Sana’s co-workers mutters. “Like, what did they survive? It wasn’t a tornado or something. It was just pure dumb cosmic luck.”

Sana twists her hands under the table, trying to focus on the self-congratulatory platitudes the director is spitting into his microphone.

“What do you think?”

It’s instinctual to look to the source of the sound— the bunny-toothed girl Sana sometimes passes by on the way to her cubicle in the office, eyebrows raised expectantly.

“Uh. Me?”

“Yeah.”

“About calling them survivors?”

“Mhmm.”

One of the other co-workers snickers, but bunny girl slaps his arm.

“Well, I guess they aren’t really. Maybe it would be better to call them victims.”

Bunny girl frowns, just barely, but Sana feels like she’s said something terrible now, and she’s about to think of a better synonym, or at least try and explain herself better when the auditorium erupts in applause.

“Cheers to that shit,” one of her co-workers shouts, raising his plastic cup.

+++

When the Departure happened, Sana was alone.

She was in her kitchen, hair tied up messy, pinballing between the stovetop and the cutting board, listening to the cute weather girl chirping on the TV.

“It’ll be clear skies tonight,” she said, “but tomorrow expect thunderstorms coming in from the—“

And she was gone.

The camera cut back to the desk, both newscasters ashen as they apologized and quickly cut to commercials.

Three minutes later the world was just beginning to understand.

Sana, like most everyone else, spent the rest of the day on her couch watching the news. There was helicopter footage of the freeways, empty cars collapsed in victimless pile-ups. There were interviews with people who woke up from their naps to find their partners or children gone. Scientists and statisticians desperately drew out equations, but they all had the same answer— this shouldn’t happen, this can’t happen, but it has.

156 million people are gone and Mina is the most important one.

+++

The bass bends through the half-empty club, so deep and dark that it shakes Sana’s molars. The haphazardly stacked speakers shudder beneath the DJ’s throne.

After the anniversary party, her co-workers invited her out and she was all poised to say no but bunny girl had frowned again and Sana decided this was its own kind of apology— just a little suffering for someone else.

She can’t tell if it’s the seventh vodka cran or the strobe lights, but everyone is beautiful for once. In the constant, artificial lightning the dancers seem like a single organism throbbing to life out of this bleak ocean of noise.

It reminds Sana of the beginning, back when the earth was dark and wet and nothing had happened but so much was about to. That was before everything started getting cut in half, then quarters; the day from the night, the earth from the sea. Or, at least, that’s the story she believes about what happened.

She listens to music until she’s sure she’ll be groggy all the next day. She sits vigil with a glass sweating in her fist and surveys the hips of the dancers, trying to recognize something familiar, something magnetic in any of them.

When bunny girl splits from the herd, panting, skin shining with sweat, Sana watches her lift the edge of her shirt to wipe at her face.

Sana pours water from the orange cooler beside the bar and, cup in hand. “Thought you could use this,” she shouts against the song screaming through the speakers.

The girl frowns. She hooks a hand over Sana’s shoulder and pulls her ear down to her red lips. “You know styrofoam is bad, right? Evil, basically?”

Sana nods and rolls ice around her tongue.

“It doesn’t decompose,” the girl continues emphatically. “It’ll be here ‘til kingdom come.” She snatches the cup and tilts back to drink. A stray droplet of the chilled, chloramine-brined water leaks from the corner of her mouth down her chin, then descends the gulping line of her throat, and then to her collarbone and—

Sana shouldn’t be looking. She should be saying something like, “it’ll make a cute cockroach house.”

Bunny girl smiles around the rim. “For a humble nuclear family.”

Sana nods. She pulls at her own necklace where it stings against her skin.

“But it’s still evil. We have to do better, you know?”

And then bunny girl takes a big apple bite out of the cup’s side and chews.

The styrofoam squeaks against her teeth.

That’s some people’s response to the Departure. Sana’s seen plenty of the recklessness. But this girl is waiting, watching her, like she wants some sort of— what? Approval? Laughter? Disgust?

“I have to pee,” bunny girl whines. The grip on Sana’s wrist is an invitation.

+++

The club bathroom is standard— lit too bright for drunks, the stalls marked up with Sharpied obscenities and lists of people with STDs.

Sana doesn’t want to look, at that or at the girl, so she leans against the stall and closes her eyes and puckers her lips. Best to get this over with. It might even feel good.

But the bunny girl cackles. “I’m really going to pee.”

“Oh.” Sana unpuckers her lips, but keeps her eyes closed.

“Plug your ears.”

Sana obeys. Briefly, it’s dark and soundless. Which is nice. But it would feel better if—

“Do you want me to wash my hands before I kiss you?”

A smile eases over Sana’s lips.

+++

The bunny girl, whose name might be Nayeon— Sana caught a couple shouts as they slunk out of the club— makes a flurry of apologies for the state of her apartment. It’s cute, polaroids pinned to the white walls, clothes strewn across the carpet. Because why clean when the apocalypse is blaring across the earth? Why do any more than scrub out the pot you use, daily, to make what might be your last pasta salad?

Nayeon swipes some sweaters from the couch, and Sana dutifully sits on the bared cushion.

“I feel like I should brush my teeth first,” she says, still trawling around the apartment, launching empty beer cans into a recycling bin. “Don’t want you to choke on some styrofoam.”

“I’m invincible,” Sana calls, but she is left only with the muffled, vicious whir of an electric toothbrush from behind the closed bathroom door.

Sana reaches behind her back, slipping the zipper of her dress down. Ideally, this will be quick. Sana is half-hoping for that— she’s probably forgotten how to touch someone else.

When Nayeon comes out of the bathroom her face is bare. Wiped clear of the make-up, she looks younger. Smaller. Softer, until she smirks down at Sana and shimmies out of her skirt. “Eager?” Nayeon is as efficient as she is shameless. She unhooks her own bra, and Sana keeps her eyes up at the popcorn ceiling as she falls back against the couch.

Skin against skin is nice.

A warm mouth on her neck, her shoulder— also nice.

She lets out a little rehearsed moan, not wanting Nayeon to pause too long and—

“Oh.”

Nayeon sits up, still straddling Sana’s hips, but her face is pale. She thumbs over the ring on Sana’s necklace. “Is this…”

Sana gulps. “We can still—“

“Um. I’d rather not.” Nayeon softens the rejection with a sad smile, all this pity that makes Sana feel even shittier when she looks down at her body. Now it’s just silly, to be like this. Nayeon probably thinks she’s something horrible, like a cheater or a frustrated housewife or some other cliche. But that’s still a little bit better than the truth.

Twenty minutes it’s still awkward. Sana has gotten back into her dress, and Nayeon is now in her pajamas, fixing a snack in the kitchen. Sana isn’t sure if it’s for her too or if she should just slip out now before this gets even more humiliating.

Sana is still mulling this over when Nayeon comes back in with a bowl full of strawberries.

“The good ones,” Nayeon says, mouth full, “are red all the way through.” She holds the fruit out, showing how it only tapers to a thin streak of white at the very center.

Sana just nods and takes her own slice, sprinkled with sugar. She knows how this goes. Nayeon will talk until she feels less awkward, and then Sana will leave. That’s how—

“I lost someone too.” Nayeon’s fingers brush along the necklace’s chain. “A lot of people, actually.”

Sana looks down at her hands because that’s the only familiar thing in this room. “I just lost Mina. But your— it must be harder.”

Nayeon shrugs, leans back on the couch, then points at her lap expectantly.

Sana surrenders, her head cradled on Nayeon’s thighs, looking up to watch the other woman chew thoughtfully on strawberry after strawberry.

“It feels good to be close to someone anyways,” the other woman says finally. Maybe the silence bothers her too. Maybe she sleeps beside a phone instead of a person, listening to pre-recorded thunderstorms and hoping for a call from a person who doesn’t exist anymore.

“Is that why you go dancing,” Sana asks instead, lightly accusatory.

“Is that why you watch?”

Sana flushes and Nayeon’s eyes light up again.

This is the moment to leave. It’s always good to leave when people are smiling.

“Well, I should—“

“Yeah.”

It only takes a syllable to snap back into an itching silence.

Sana knows how to fix this.

She squares her jaw.

“Would you kiss me?”

Nayeon yawns. “Sure.”

Sana’s ancient heart clenches in her chest as Nayeon’s thumbs brush her jaw, tilting her head up to meet the warmth of her mouth.

Every nerve along Sana’s body piques to feel the tickle of Nayeon’s hair as it sweeps over her neck, the weight of hands on her neck, the drag of a tongue along the line of her lips.

They’re both kissing someone else.

+++

Sana expects it to be awkward at the office, so she brings headphones and crunches over her desk, never lifting from the paperwork as she inputs it into the Department’s system.

She works through her lunch break, just to avoid any bumps, and it’s nearing four o’clock when a package of Funyuns lands on her keyboard.

She knows it’s Nayeon before she untucks her earbuds.

“I’m in the middle of—“

“I can hear your stomach growling from my cubicle.”

“Oh. Well, I’ve been so busy that—“

“If you don’t like Funyuns I’ll forgive you.” Nayeon perches on the edge of the desk. “But if you’re telling me you’re willingly giving yourself carpel tunnel over this shitty gig I’ll scream.”

Sana would believe anything. “It’s not shitty,” she mumbles as she opens the bag.

“Why?” Somehow Nayeon can mix confrontational and conversational into a perfect cocktail. It barely burns Sana’s throat.

“I like helping people.”

“This isn’t a job interview.”

The laugh is Heimliched out of Sana’s stomach. “Then why did you ask,” she peals.

+++

It’s something like a friendship. Nayeon invites Sana almost everywhere she goes, and Sana goes almost everywhere.

Sana knows which division Nayeon works in— the crisis hotline— and that she uses the name ‘Chaeyoung’ when she answers the phone, though Sana doesn’t know why. She knows that Nayeon is a Virgo and was born in the Year of The Pig, which according to a take-out menu she dug up from her desk means Nayeon is ‘compassionate, generous, and diligent.’

Sana keeps her own answers clipped, always insisting how boring she is.

Nayeon just rolls her eyes in a friendly way, and then diverts back to herself. Sana can’t tell if it’s polite or narcissistic.

Weirdly it’s not exhausting. Whenever Nayeon drops her off at home, turning the radio down to say a firm, hopeful, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ Sana kind of wants her to come in. She kind of wants Nayeon to see the doves.

But it doesn’t really matter.

The world is ending.

+++

Sometimes Sana thinks about her own interview, answering questions about Mina, segmenting every memory into a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.

No, Mina had never been to Brazil. But they had gone to west of Mexico City to see the monarch butterflies after they got married. The forests looked like a gentle fire.

“Isn’t it incredible that they always know,” Sana asked Mina, and a few years later there would be a night that Mina doesn’t come back.

No, Mina didn’t use aerosol hair products. At least not often. She did use a different shampoo than Sana did and their shower had been divided into two sections of half-full bottles and washcloths. After she departed, Sana spent weeks deciding whether she should throw everything out, or use it herself, or keep it for the impossible day that Mina walked back through the door.

Yes, Mina is probably in a better place.

+++

“Did you get benefits?”

They’re parked outside Nayeon’s favorite burger joint, which is now Sana’s favorite, which is now maybe their’s. The car windows are rolled down, late October breezes filtering through the car.

“No,” Nayeon says behind a mouthful of fries. “I was deemed ineligible.”

“You really hate the Department.”

“Mm. I mean, what they do is good in theory. And it’s not like you can really put a monetary value on grief anyway.”

“But it would still be nice,” Sana smiles.

“I had this call today.” Nayeon is a genius at changing the subject. “And the guy was crying, asking me how I know he’s going to be okay, how I know a departure won’t happen again.”

Sana takes a sip of the soda they’re sharing. “What did you say?”

“Well, I didn’t have an answer. I think I’ve been so angry I haven’t had time to be afraid.”

Some kids run across the parking lot. Sana wonders how many friends they lost, how many parents.

“In a way— and of course I didn’t tell him this— I think I want to keep being angry because that’s easier.”

“Who are you angry at?”

“Everyone,” Nayeon smiles around the straw. “Except you.”

A dove flutters in Sana’s chest. “But what did you tell the guy?”

“I told him to go dancing.”

+++

The first snow comes early. Only the cardinals and chickadees stay in Sana’s garden. She switches out wine for hot chocolate, her seat on the porch for the armchair in front of the frosted window, and watches the white sheet fall over the trees.

Sometimes, usually when she’s alone like she is now, she gets the urge to call Nayeon and say ‘I want you, I’m ready.’ It shouldn’t feel so important. It shouldn’t hurt.

But Sana lived centuries without needing anyone and she only has to make it for however long the Earth’s wick has left to burn.

When she’s making dinner— TV off— Nayeon texts her:

Club tonight?

Sana drums her fingers against the handle of the frying pan. No, she types, I’d rather stay in…

Is that an invitation

So Nayeon comes over.

They eat, sitting on the floor with the cleared coffee table between them.

When she’s a little buzzed— Nayeon brought Baileys to pour into the hot chocolate— the other girl pounces.

“So where were you when it happened?” Nayeon waggles her eyebrows.

Sana tells her. She knows her’s isn’t flashy. She doesn’t tell Nayeon about all the phone calls she made to Mina’s voicemail, each dial tone another slash into her heart— her own, blank lockscreen against the images of smoke and tears on the television. Nayeon probably knows that. Nayeon probably had it even worse.

“Now you have to tell me yours,” Sana finishes breathless.

Nayeon smiles with tight lips.

“We’re friends.” Sana kisses Nayeon’s knuckles, then breathes between her fingers. “You never withhold things.”

Nayeon’s smile always splits her face. It always seems real. “Mine isn’t very safe for work.”

“We aren’t at work,” Sana bargains, pleads. Sometimes she feels flashes like this in her chest— where she wants to know everything. She wants Nayeon to be something small enough to hold, and with her hands feel every crevice, every little pain and smooth it down with her thumb.

Or she wants Nayeon to be vast enough to sink into like the pool of lava at the center of a volcano.

It’s hard to know.

“It’s gross,” Nayeon whines. “And sad.”

It barely takes any begging.

“Okay fine.” Her eyes are sparkling mischievously. “I was having sex. You know, like. Good sex. I was laying on the bed, and she was—” Nayeon glances down purposefully. “And I had my hand in her hair, pulling a little, because she always—”

Here her voice falters. Just a little. The first shake before the earth opens.

“She always liked that. I guess it’s not that special, to— I mean, that’s common, right? Hair-pulling? It’s not special.” Nayeon tries to smile but it collapses. “I feel like every day I forget something important about her.”

“I get it,” Sana whispers. “It’s the same with Mina.”

“I just have these dumb details,” Nayeon continues, eyes dazed like she’s in a trance. “Anyway, it’s supposed to be funny. I want you to laugh. She’s eating me out, and then I shift away from her. Just for a second, because I wanted to try and take my shirt off, which was stupid, because I was laying down, but I— And I keep thinking, what if I didn’t? Would she still be here? Or maybe, if I had kept holding her, maybe we would have departed together.” Nayeon takes a deep, brave breath. “But anyway, you can guess what happened. She was just gone.”

This is Nayeon who chewed styrofoam just to make Sana laugh. Nayeon who always gets something extra from the vending machine and tosses it across the cubicles to land in Sana’s lap.

Sana wants to love her so fiercely that maybe she can, just for this minute.

“Mina used to tell me— well, she studied migration. And her favorite one was these penguins in Antarctica, who spend their whole lives going from one end of the continent to the other so they can stay in the sunlight. But Antarctica is always getting— or, well, it used to be getting bigger. The sea would freeze over and they’d walk on it, and then the ice would recede and they would go back to the other side. Just, pinballing around, you know?”

“It must be fun,” Nayeon says, her eyes fixed down on her hands, “to feel like the world is on your side.”

“Yeah.”

“I think I miss that almost as much as I miss everyone.”

Sana drums her fingers on the edge of the coffee table. “Do you think any penguins departed?” But Nayeon wouldn’t know. Mina would. Mina would have something beautiful and organized to say about it, some scientific theory that Sana could use to help her sleep.

“That’s the kind of thing Momo would say,” Nayeon says and her face is all twisted up and Sana doesn’t want to see her cry. It’s a vulnerability that would break this safe little wall between them.

“There were also these birds that flew so much it was the distance from the moon and back three times. And— well, I used to think hummingbirds couldn’t sing, but actually they can, and— there are these doves that—”

“Do I make you nervous?”

No, it’s Momo who makes her nervous, and Mina, and all the empty spaces left. Is the right thing to do to fill them? Is the right thing to make gravestones and bury empty coffins and take the ring off her finger and slip it around a necklace chain? Is the right thing to merge all the big grief into a single circle and wait at the beach for the ocean to turn red?

“Because you make me nervous,” Nayeon sighs.

+++

“In your opinion, is the departed in a better place?”

“You know what I think,” the man leans forward. Sana can’t help but shift back in her chair.

“Well, I did just ask—“

“I think that, yes, two-percent of the world population is gone. But I bet you— I’d bet you money— that there’s another world, just like ours, and they lost ninety-eight percent of the population. Like we just split in two.”

“So.” Sana clicks her pen. “No?”

+++

In November, Sana takes a week off of work to fly to Mexico City, drive west to the fir forests, watch the monarchs fill the trees. There’s one for every leaf.

She calls Nayeon from the hotel room and for the first fifteen seconds, hearing it ring, a fear boils up but then there’s Nayeon’s voice, breaking like the sun through the clouds.

“There’s a thunderstorm right now,” she says. “Can you hear it?”

A few seconds of blankness.

“Of course when I say that it just stops.”

Sana doodles circles on the hotel stationery. “Why aren’t we sleeping together?”

Nayeon chokes out a laugh. “Why would we?”

“We get along. It’s the end of the world.”

“I need at least three reasons to sleep with someone.”

“So what were they? When you almost slept with me?”

“You’re fishing.”

“I’m not!”

“You’re thinking about me on vacation.” Sana can’t tell if Nayeon sounds proud or worried or indifferent. It’s impossible to tell without her face.

“Is that a third reason?”

“Sana.” Nayeon’s voice drifts off somewhere Sana can’t follow. “I don’t think this is a phone conversation.”

“Yeah. Sorry. I’m just sort of.” Lonely isn’t the right word. Or, at least, lonely is supposed to be a difference, a phase. So is grief, and grief might not even be appropriate.

Before the Departure, people would say when someone died they were ‘gone.’ They ‘passed on’. It was a euphemism to soften what used to be the worst, most inevitable thing. Maybe the universe had heard them in their hospitals and living rooms and said ‘no, this is gone. This is the thing you never knew to be afraid of.’

After Nayeon hangs up, Sana lays on the bed, ear pressed against the unfamiliar hotel pillow.

Sometimes she hates listening to her heart. She’s afraid she’ll hear it when it stops.

+++

“In your opinion, was the departed a religious person?”

“To your knowledge, did the departed have any allergies?”

“To your knowledge, did the departed drink more than 2 alcholic beverages daily?”

+++

“I think we should say everything we’re afraid of,” Nayeon says. They’re at their burger place. It’s raining and Sana never wants to leave. “I’m afraid it will happen again. I’m afraid you’ll be gone but I won’t, or I’ll be gone and you won’t. I’m afraid it won’t happen again and we’ll spend our whole lives waiting for something terrible to never come. I’m afraid it will be worse. I’m afraid if it’s better I won’t appreciate it. I’m afraid one day they’ll all come back and I’ll have to explain that, yes, I learned how to unlove. I’m afraid even in a normal life we’d hurt each other, but hurting is worse now because we’re already so sore. I’m afraid the Department is hiding something from us. I’m afraid the Department is clueless. I’m afraid it doesn’t matter what I think or what I say or what I do. I’m afraid I’m overreacting. I’m afraid you’re afraid of the exact same things, but that isn’t the same as— that isn’t exactly compatibility, is it? I’m afraid because I was about to say love. I’m afraid you’ll always miss Mina more and I’ll miss Momo more and we’ll be so unfair to each other.” Nayeon takes a deep, hissing breath. “I’m afraid to not miss them at all. I’m afraid to forget and I’m afraid it will kill me if I don’t.”

“Nayeonie.” Sana traces her knuckles, tense on the stick-shift. “Let’s go dancing.”

+++

It feels good to be shoulder to shoulder with enough people to fill a room. There are no gaps here for ghosts, barely enough space to breathe. All the survivors or victims or just people letting the beat filter through their bodies, all reduced to nothing but water in a pond.

For the first hour, Sana keeps a hand clenched around Nayeon’s elbow, their hips always bumping, their chests pressed together. She sings the songs she knows and when she doesn’t she yells secrets no one around her can hear.

It’s not the same as being happy or unlonely or safe but it’s better than just thinking about pain so much she isn’t sure she feels it anymore.

At some point she loses her hold on Nayeon.

No one disappears.

+++

The Department of Sudden Departures has a dove as its logo.

In a story that Sana doesn’t believe, a dove leaves a ship that holds the last of humanity and returns with an olive branch in its beak.

In a story that Sana only believes because it has happened to her, the mourning doves come back in the spring. Her house, Mina’s house, has pictures of Nayeon’s friends on the living room walls. Sometimes Sana says things that Momo would. Sometimes Nayeon doesn’t understand things Mina would.

But they sit on the porch in their rocking chairs, ankles touching, and so many birds are singing.