Neither one of us noticed when Big Bird entered Mom’s hospital room.
My brother and I were sitting on either side of her bed, arguing about who had less room to take her in, when out of nowhere she said, “There you are.”
We both looked up, thinking our baby sister — we still call her that, even though we’re all in our forties — had finally remembered our mother was sick. But it wasn’t baby sis, it was Big Bird, standing at the foot of the bed.
It was a man in a suit, actually. A middle aged, olive-skinned man with saggy cheeks and a nose that ended in a slight bulb. His hazel eyes bulged, and had bags under them, the kind that some people just have even when they’re not tired. Of course, he might honestly have been tired — I had no idea what his day had been like.
“Do you know this guy?” my brother asked me. Leave it to him to talk about someone else in the room like they weren’t even there.
“Excuse me,” I said to the man. “Are you looking for someone?”
He shook his head so slightly, the only thing that gave him away was the movement of those few spindly feathers sticking up above the rest of his bright yellow plumage. I thought about how warm it must be in that costume and pulled my sweater around me. I could never understand how they expected sick people to get better lying in the cold. I tucked the bedding closer around Mom’s legs — at least the sheets were soft, and they’d given her extra blankets.
“You looking for the next bed over?” asked my brother. The patient on the other side of the curtain added a quiet snore to the discussion. They were asleep most of the times we came to visit.
Mom’s voice was soft but firm: “No, he isn’t looking for anyone else. He came to see me.”
My brother and I made wide eyes at each other over her bed before looking at her, simultaneously, like we were in some movie.
“Mom, do you know him?” I asked.
One raised eyebrow skewed the rest of her face into a topographical map of disbelief. “Do I know him? ‘Course I know him, honey.” She beamed back up at him. “It’s Big Bird.”
I put my hand on hers, avoiding her tender, inflamed knuckles. “No, I mean the man.” I stroked the back of her hand with my thumb. Her skin was softer than the underside of my arm.
“You kids always loved him,” she said, chuckling. “But look here, Bird, where’s that Cookie Monster? My babies used to laaaugh at him…”
“Cookie Monster’s not coming,” said the man in the Big Bird suit, sadly shaking his head again.
Mom stopped laughing. “No, I suppose he’s not.” Not looking at anything in particular, she reached over with her free hand and patted mine.
My brother stood and took a step toward the man. “Look, what’s going on here?”
“Hey, don’t blame me,” said the man, holding his wingtips chest high in something like a just-the-messenger gesture. Mom leaned her head back onto her pillow.
“I mean it, man, get the fuck out of here.” My brother took another step toward the man, squaring his shoulders and clenching his hands into fists.
Wingtips still up, the bird backed out of the room, taking one last glance at Mom before heading down the hallway.
My brother and I blinked at each other. Voices drifted in from the corridor, but I heard no hint of the surprise or puzzlement I would have imagined with Big Bird roaming the halls. My brother stuck his head out the door and looked both ways before turning back to me and raising empty hands. “He disappeared.”
Mom’s hand slipped off mine. The one I was still holding felt cold, and her eyes were closed. I waited for her chest to rise and fall with her breath.
My brother returned to the other side of her bed. I squeezed her hand, and he shook her arm lightly.
My brother kept calling her. My head felt light, and it sounded like he was under water. My skin seemed to pulse with every beat of my heart. I wasn’t sad, though — I was pissed. After all Mom had done for us, what kind of sad-sack, flightless angel of death was that to send for her?
“No,” I heard myself say. “Na-ah. That’s not how she’s going out.” I shook Mom’s shoulder and looked up at the ceiling.
“Nope. Nope, nope, nope.” I pointed up at the ceiling tiles. “You’re gonna have to try again, that’s not cuttin’ it.”
Mom’s body twitched, then she raked in a breath and coughed until I thought she was going to fall out of bed. I gave her a sip of water from the bedside table, then she sat up straighter and patted her hair into place. “What happened?”
We told her about the man in the suit, and her asking for Cookie Monster, and her slipping away, and at first she looked at us as though we had lost our complete minds.
Then she smiled. “You kids, you make me laugh.” And then she did, hand on her stomach, releasing one of her low, sweet, rolling streams of laughter.
Eventually she drifted off to sleep, my brother and I each gripping one of her hands. Her roommate snored lightly behind the curtain. Every few minutes, we looked out the doorway for Big Bird, ready to kick his ass; and if Cookie Monster had come and made me eight years old again, and Mom well, I wouldn’t have missed anything else that had happened since.
Tara Campbell (www.taracampbell.com) is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction editor at Barrelhouse. Prior publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Booth, Strange Horizons, Monkeybicycle, and Jellyfish Review. She’s the author of a novel, TreeVolution, a hybrid fiction/poetry collection, Circe’s Bicycle, and a short story collection, Midnight at the Organporium. She received her MFA from American University in 2019.
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