Home > Birds of California

Birds of California
Author: Katie Cotugno


Chapter One


The Heidelberg jams again on Thursday, so Fiona is standing on her tiptoes with her fingers twisted deep inside its mechanical bowels when the bell above the door of the print shop chimes its echoey hello.

“Hey there,” she calls, straightening up and coming out of the workshop, wiping a smudge of toner on the seat of her overalls as she takes her spot behind the counter. “Can I help you?”

The guy nods. “I’m picking up a banner.” He’s probably five years younger than her, twenty-two or twenty-three maybe, dressed in a short-sleeved button-down festooned with a hundred tiny Hula girls and a USC cap turned backward. There’s a braided rope bracelet looped around one tan, beefy wrist. “Sigma Tau cookout?”

Ah. “Sixteenth Annual Spring Weekend Sausage Fest?” she asks.

Hula Shirt grins. “Bratwursts Never Say Die,” he confirms, muscly chest puffing a bit. “That’s us.”

Fiona nods grimly, pulling the poster tube from a cubby on the wall behind the counter and unrolling the massive banner for his inspection. It turned out fine—better than fine, even, considering Fiona herself caught three different spelling errors in the digital version they sent over—but when she glances up for Backward Cap’s approval she finds him peering back at her, eyes narrowed above the plastic frames of his sporty sunglasses. She braces herself like a boxer about to take a punch.

Sure enough: “Hey,” he says, pointing with one thick finger. “Aren’t you—”

“Boss!” Richie pokes his head out of the workshop, dark hair swinging. He’s still screwing around with the printer, waving the manual frantically in her direction. “Sorry. Can you give me a hand back here?”

“Sure thing.” Fiona shoots him a grateful look. It’s their tacit agreement: he rescues her from conversations like the one that is about to occur with Fratty Matty here, and she doesn’t give him a hard time about coming into work baked out of his gourd four out of five days a week. “Sorry,” she tells Sausage Fest, rolling up the colorful banner and tucking it safely back inside its cardboard tube. “My colleague will take over.”

The guy ignores her. “You are,” he says. He’s still pointing, smiling the self-satisfied smile of a contestant on Jeopardy! who won with the wrong answer by only betting a dollar. “Riley Bird, right?”

And there it is. Fiona sighs. She’s come up with a lot of creative answers to this question over the last five years, but lately she finds she’s too tired to muster anything but the truth. “Yup,” she admits. “I used to be.”

“I knew it.” The guy grins, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket.

Fiona cringes. “Oh, can you not—” she starts, but he’s already snapping the picture, thumbs flying as he sends it off, presumably, to all of his fellow Sigma Tau Bratwursts with a caption she would be willing to bet is not Look at this private citizen minding her own business at her place of employment.

“I can’t believe you work here now,” he says. “My roommate had a poster of you up on our wall last year. The one with the lizard,” he adds helpfully, as if it would be any other poster besides the one with the lizard. It’s amazing how many people still tell her that, honestly; it’s probably the second most common thing they say, after I saw on Twitter that you died.

By now Richie has stepped in to ring him up, swiping his credit card and handing him the banner, sending him on his merry way. Fiona is about to go another round with the Heidelberg—her dad is the only one who really knows how to fix it properly, but since he’s basically stopped coming into work, she and Richie have been holding it together with spit and tape—but instead of leaving, the guy reaches out and grabs her wrist across the counter.

“Listen,” he says—completely oblivious to the way she flinches at the contact, her whole body coiling like a cat knocked off a sill. “Sausage Fest is usually a pretty good time, if you’re around this weekend. I know my roommate would love to meet you.” He winks. “Although, who knows, maybe I won’t even tell him. Might want to keep you all to myself.”

Fiona manages not to laugh in his face, but barely. “That is . . . quite the offer,” she says, extricating her arm from his damp, sweaty grip, “but I’ve got plans.”

Sigma Tau fixes her with a deeply skeptical look, gesturing around at the empty shop. “What,” he asks with a smirk, “too busy working here?”

Fiona’s spine straightens. She hangs on to her temper with claws and teeth these days, but she can feel it starting to rise in her chest and her shoulders, Bruce Banner popping a button or two. Her parents started this business before she was born. “Electroconvulsive therapy,” she whispers sadly. “Shock treatments.”

One benefit of having been exhaustively captured on film doing all kinds of extremely questionable shit is that for a moment she can tell he has no idea if she’s serious or not. Then he shakes his head. “You know what?” he says. “Forget it.”

“Don’t worry,” Fiona assures him, “I definitely will.”

Sausage Fest’s mouth twists meanly. “Crazy bitch,” he mutters, then shoves the poster tube under his arm and stomps out of the store, the chimes above the door ringing cheerfully one more time.

“Sorry,” Richie says once he’s gone.

Fiona shrugs. “It’s fine,” she assures him. It’s not, really, but that isn’t Richie’s fault. They go through some iteration of this one-act play at least once every few days, with bicycle couriers and equipment repair technicians and brides-to-be selecting fonts for their letterpress wedding invitations. Once there was a stretch of nearly a month where no one recognized her; another time, when Darcy Sinclair’s gossip blog posted a blind item—Which notoriously wild Bird has returned to the family nest with her feathers tucked between her legs?—they had to close for a full week until people got bored and stopped hanging around outside hoping for a lookie-loo. It occurs to Fiona that they should print up a sign like they keep in warehouses to track how long it’s been since anyone lost an arm in a baler: No one has asked Fiona about the lizard poster in ____ days.

It’s not like she doesn’t get why people are curious. She was a child actress, the squeaky-clean teen darling of the UBC Family Network—starring in their flagship critically acclaimed dramedy Birds of California as the plucky daughter of a widower ornithologist who lived in a wildlife sanctuary—for four wildly lucrative blockbuster seasons.

And then, to hear everyone tell it, she lost her fucking mind.

Eventually she and Richie get the Heidelberg working again and print off a batch of alumni newsletters for a fancy prep school, plus an order of pamphlets about gingivitis for a local periodontist’s office. Fiona spends an hour sitting at the worktable with the folding tool to get the creases straight, securing the tidy stacks of brochures with rubber bands and packing them neatly into a box for shipping. When she was a kid she always thought she’d die of boredom if she had to work here, but now she finds she actually kind of likes the anesthetic repetition of it, the numbing tactility of the paper in her hands. Sometimes it’s nice, being able to forget.

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