flash fiction

Birds of Prey by Tiffany Promise

Birds of Prey | Tiffany Promise

My dime-store bouquet—stargazer heavy—and his mam’s old ring perch uselessly in my lap. Re-upped from my sister’s 2001 prom, my dress is snagged with disappointment and Zima. It fits just fine. 

We were supposed to get hitched today. But on the way to the church, Dusty squeaked clean: It was only meant to be a one-night thing. Not a lifetime. But he has morals.

We’re parked in the church parking lot, but I refuse to get out of the truck. I’d worked for an hour to get my makeup just so, and now my face is a swamp. Inky tears, loosened lashes. My fresh fuchsia mouth—a wound. 

I want to scream. To tell him that it’s all his fault. That our baby will have the beady black eyes of a beast. Veiny wings, wiry fur, a forked tongue. I know this like I know my own name. Our first time together—right here in this shit pickup—he’d almost called me “Betty,” but recovered with a quick “Birdie.” Close enough.

Perched on the tailgate, Dusty guzzles. One Coors after another. He tosses the empties into the truck-bed, forming a little golden mound. I think about climbing into that mound, settling down amongst the rest of his trash.

When Dusty finally comes around to my window, slurring, I roll it down. Just a few inches. “Birdie girl, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that. I don’t not love you. It’s just…” He trails off and cracks open another beer, spits a brown gob on the concrete. I know exactly how his mouth tastes right now, just like it did that first time: foamy with spittle, bits of sweet tobacco clinging to his lips.

“My name is Nightingale,” I whisper into the tacky bodice of my dress. He’s already out of earshot.

We met at a Halloween Party six months ago. I was dressed as a fairy—wings made of pantyhose and coat hangers, a bunch of glitter. He was John Wayne. Or maybe he wasn’t, but I like to remember him that way: handsome and stout, a rugged scuff to his boots.

On my way to find the keg, I was sideswiped by Krispy Kritter who was headbanging alone in front of his boombox. My wings smashed the floor, my dress split up the side. See-through with shame, I froze. Until John Wayne reached down and took my hand. He walked me to the washroom and shut the door behind me.

“Just come inside so we can get this over with,” Dusty begs through the stuck-shut truck window. His voice is barbed. I always knew he didn’t love me, but I thought he would’ve been able to keep it hush. “Everybody’s waiting.”

I spit at the glass. Warble his reflection.

Surprised, he steps back and punches the tailgate. His knuckles split wide. Our baby’s mouth will be blood-colored, too. Shriveled and sulfur-stinking with fangs sharp enough to pierce a throat. 

Nursing his hand, Dusty mucks up the front of his rented tux. I think about going to him, wrapping his paw in a torn-off segment of my dress and cradling it to my chest. But I will never—not ever—again.

He’s singing an old Hank Williams song, losing the lyrics into the top of his beer can. His face looks green. He wobbles. Our baby will be a water balloon. It will smash the second it falls out from between my legs. No one will be there to see the burst—mostly clear, just a tinge of pink—so I’ll soak it up with old kitchen rags and bury them in a shoebox out back.

I hear a muffled thud and look back. 

Dusty is collapsed on the tailgate, his eyes closed against the sun. His pearl-snaps glitter and bands of wavy light stream from his body making him look like a saint. Our baby will be a god: cornsilken curls, plump red lips. I’ll pat down his feathers with baby oil every morn, fatten him up with my own creamy milk. 

Dusty is collapsed on the tailgate, his eyes closed against the sun. His pearl-snaps glitter, his neck is bent at an odd angle, his boots hang off the tail. He looks like a sock without a foot. 

Please, God, help me. I don’t know what to do anymore, I pray, twisting my hair around my finger. My eyes climb heavenward, right up the church’s spindly steeple.

I see a vulture circling. His heavy body thrums the air. It’s not the sweet, smooth glide of a nightingale, but a clumsy swoop, meant only for destruction. With his hooked beak, he’ll pick at a carcass until it’s empty. Til’ there’s nothing left but dirty white bone. 

Our baby will be dead before it’s even born. Probably dead already. A gaping, weeping hole shot straight through the center of my universe.

Birds of Prey by Tiffany Promise was selected as the winner of the 2023 HoneyBee Prize in Fiction by Roxane Gay. Here’s what Ms. Gay had to say about the piece:

Birds of Prey is a confluence of contradictions. There are events in a person’s life that are often joyful but as this economic story unravels, it is clear that there is no happy ending to be found here. Written with a bold and unique voice, this language-driven story about predator and prey is a masterful example of what flash fiction can be.

More about the author:

Tiffany Promise (she/her) is a writer, poet, chronic migraineur, and the mother of two wildlings. She holds an MFA from CalArts and has participated in the Tin House and American Short Fiction workshops. Her work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Okay Donkey, Jarnal, Francesca Lia Block’s new literary magazine, Lit Angels, and elsewhere. Tiffany lives in Austin, Texas.