By JJ Rushmore
The owl was close by. A Barred Owl from the sounds.
In that tall pine over yonder. Rusty had been searching for its roosting spot all spring. Finding it now was small comfort. He couldn’t even record it in his field journal.
The journal was part of a dark blob ten feet to his right, along with his backpack and camera. And cell phone. That’s where his stuff ended up after he tumbled off the overlook just before sunset.
His belongings might as well have been ten miles to his right.
As the darkness deepened, cool air rolled off the hillside. It carried a foul stench. One that turned his stomach. It suggested death and decay.
The owl’s call and the echo of its mate suggested night was almost over. But he had thought that several hours ago. At least he’d wished it so.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. He knew better than to stray off the main path. But the sunset was spectacular, and he wanted to photograph it from the overlook. He knew the viewing area wasn’t paved like the main trail. It wasn’t handicapped friendly.
Rusty hated that word. He’d avoided applying the label to himself since it happened. He was different, that’s all. Everyone was different. Some were shorter. Some were taller. Some were faster. Some ran on two legs.
He ran on wheels.
This time the wheels were his downfall.
That’s a cop-out, Rusty. It wasn’t the wheelchair’s fault. He shouldn’t have come to the park so late in the day. He shouldn’t have come to the park alone.
Cindy advised against it, so of course he argued with her. She stopped answering his texts.
Way to go, Rusty. You ticked off the one person who likes you for what you are.
When he fell he pitched headfirst down the incline. He landed on his back, head pointing downhill, his right ankle wedged in the fork of a bramble bush. He could sit up but couldn’t reach to untangle himself. He couldn’t reach his cell phone. And of course, he couldn’t bend his legs.
That part wasn’t new. He hadn’t been able to bend his legs since it happened. At least not without help, and there was no help on this lonely slope.
Stop saying that. It didn’t just ‘happen.’
‘It’ had been his own fault. ‘It’ had been a dumb move, a bad decision. ‘It’ had been a fatal decision.
Not for him. He got off easy.
Private Jackson caught the worst of it.
Sarah Jackson was one tough warrior. She lived to be a soldier. She was the equal of any man in the platoon. LT told Rusty to show Jackson the ropes. LT wanted an experienced guy to train the newbie.
Like Cindy, Jackson had warned him.
“Where are you going, Rusty? LT said stay on the main road.”
“LT’s a wimp. Besides, I know a short cut.”
“Chill, Jackson. I know my way around.” After all, he was a veteran. His Iraq tour was almost up. And he’d been in the zone a lot longer than the lieutenant. The LT was too cautious.
Rusty was still grinning at Jackson when they hit the IED. It tore the Hummer apart like an aluminum beer can in a lawn mower. It sent them both flying. Sarah Jackson didn’t make it.
Rusty woke up in Germany where he spent several weeks in Landstuhl Med Center. They removed the shrapnel from his spine and sent him stateside.
Once home, the docs at the VA did all they could and said the rest was up to him.
He tried the rehab thing. He worked the parallel bars and built his upper body strength, but the legs remained numb and lifeless. The legs may have been numb, but he still hurt. Phantom pain, they called it. Drugs failed to ease the discomfort and the exercises only served to aggravate it. After several months he quit.
Rusty gave up on his legs, but not his life. He bought a van equipped with hand controls and moved to a veteran’s home. There he met Cindy. She was a CNA, pretty, vivacious, and cheerful. Rusty needed cheerful.
Rusty’s refusal to wallow in his misfortune impressed Cindy, while her smile totally captivated him. Plus, she liked him without that pitying look he so often received.
He enrolled in the local community college and took computer courses. He played guitar for his fellow vets every week. He visited the Audubon park and pursued his old hobby of birdwatching. Which is how he ended up on his back, headfirst down a hillside.
Twitchers. That’s what they call birdwatchers in England. He didn’t know where the term originated, whether the Brits thought it was the birds who twitched or the birders themselves.
Rusty shivered in the morning chill. On the hillcrest above, the brightening sky revealed the silhouettes of three large birds. They sat frozen in the leafless limbs of a gnarly oak.
Vultures. I forgot they stank so much. That explains the stench.
The one on the lowest branch turned his head in Rusty’s direction. He looked different from the other two.
The rising sun bathed the tree in light. The birds stirred, stretched their wings, and held them in thunderbird pose to absorb warmth from the golden rays.
Two of the birds were Turkey Vultures. The locals called them buzzards. Carrion eaters.
“I’m not dead yet, you bastards!” He found it hard to sound menacing laying on his back, hanging upside down by his foot.
The third one, the one on the lower limb, was a Black Vulture. They didn’t always wait for their victim to expire before dining. The Black Vulture was as much predator as scavenger.
The sun rose higher and the air turned warm. The vultures roused themselves and flapped their wings. Each bird picked up one foot and set it down on the branch and then repeated the movement with the other foot.
Avian calisthenics. Ha.
Gradually all three birds focused their baleful eyes upon Rusty.
One by one the birds flew to the ground. Sweat collected on his skin, but not from the growing heat. They ignored his shouts and curses as they hopped and hobbled down the hill toward his legs. The rank odor grew stronger as they approached.
There wasn’t much to throw at them. The few dry leaves he could reach sailed a foot or so and stopped in mid-air. The hard-packed clay yielded nothing to his clawing hands. Sitting up and waving his arms failed to stop their relentless advance. They would pause, take one hop backward, and continue forward.
The two Turkey Vultures stopped about three feet away. Their hideous heads were red with white veins, like raw flesh mixed with suet.
Blackie took two steps forward and pecked at a pantleg.
“Hey! Cut the crap! Get outta here!” Rusty added arm-waving and leaf-throwing to his shouts. The bird threw him a coal-black stare and proceeded with his meal.
“Stop it! Stop it!” he screamed. The vulture grabbed his chinos and tore a ragged hole near his calf. The bird jabbed a hooked beak into his leg and ripped out a hunk of bloody flesh.
Rusty screamed again. With each succeeding peck, he writhed and squirmed. He sat up and flailed at his attacker with no effect. He repeatedly jerked in contorted sit-ups as he strained to reach his assailant.
He heard something pop.
His legs and hips exploded in excruciating pain. Both legs twitched in spasms of agony. He heaved himself up in one last attempt to stop being eaten alive and miraculously reached the startled bird. He gripped its neck with both hands and twisted hard, but the bird struggled violently, flapping its wings, clawing, and squawking. He swung the bird from side to side, beating the creature’s body against the ground until its neck broke and it lay limp in his hands.
Rusty moaned in pain as his breath came in ragged gasps and his heart pounded the rhythm of a marching band. He stared dully at his bent knees, knees he had bent to reach the ravenous buzzard. He removed his shirt and tied it around his mangled leg and released his trapped ankle from the bramble bush. He crawled to his backpack. And cell phone.
“Yes?” She didn’t use his name. She was still mad.
“Hi, it’s me. Look, I’m sorry, Cindy. I was a jerk. You were right—I shouldn’t go to the park alone. Will you forgive me? Please?”
Silence. A sigh. “Yes, I guess so. Where have you been, anyway? You didn’t come back last night.”
“It’s a long story. But first I need some help. I need an ambulance—but don’t worry. I’m all right. I’m going to be all right.”