A Caged Bird // Kassidy Hart
The moment I turned eighteen, I dropped out of high school and bought a dirt brown 1990 Chevrolet Chevy Van. This wasn’t exactly the life path my foster family dreamed up for me, but we all knew it was better than ending up in jail. They helped me fix up the van: taking out the back row of bus-like seats, adding a mattress that was firm and not covered with stains, putting in carpet that didn’t smell like puke, and replacing the dinosaur of an engine with one that could get me farther than the corner store. On top of all that, they also gave me some spending money for food and gas. I had only moved in with them a few months ago but they seemed to want to support me.
I liked them. This was rare and unlike the fifteen other families I had been with throughout the last twelve years of being in the system. Physically, I didn’t fit into their picture-perfect family. My long, curly blonde hair and light tan skin contradicted their black, pin-straight locks and deep blue eyes. Despite this, they made me feel safe when they were around. They accepted me, broken, and never expected me to just be better. I knew they were aware that I was a flight-risk. I’ve heard them talk about my need to find my own way in this world and leave my traumatic past behind. So, I knew they wouldn’t fight me on leaving.
I always looked forward to getting out New York, but as the day neared, I began to feel a bit of regret. I cared for this family. If they would’ve asked me to stay, I would have in a heartbeat. But they didn’t ask. And I didn’t mention it because that wasn’t where I belonged.
Once the van was ready, I said my goodbyes. Once I was gone, I couldn’t look back or else I was scared I’d feel something more than pain for this town. I wasn’t quite sure of where I’d end up, but my heart was pulling me toward Florida for now. I had to see my sister. We were so close when we were young, protecting each other through everything, but she left for college three years ago and I hadn’t seen her since.
I began driving, making short stops to see the cities that were barely out of arms reach as I grew up. I saw the large, stainless steel skyscrapers of the Big Apple that I thought only existed in movies. I walked the East Coast’s rocky beaches that sat beside freezing cold waters. I ate out of food trucks that smelled like taco grease and beer. In only two short weeks, I was knocking on the door of a bright yellow apartment building.
“Chris! What are you doing here?” she exclaimed as she ran out, barefoot, to embrace me in a giant bear hug.
“I had to come see you. See the place that you seem to love so much.”
Her skin was a dark olive pigment, making me believe she lived in the sun. Her hair was like milk chocolate with bright blue and pink highlights that were revealed only when she swung her head back and forth. Her curls were abundant and convinced me she was meant for island life, which confused me a lot because as long as I could remember, her hair was pin straight. She just looked happy.
“Oh, ha, well. Here it is,” She continued. “Not much, but it’ll suffice. The school has really helped me, finding me a great externship that pays great and comes with housing. They must like Marine Biology majors… Enough about me. Sweet ride you got, little brother!”
Brittney threw on her shoes and ushered me towards the bright, sunny campus. She was excited to give me an exclusive tour, pointing out every building that held at least one of her classes. We finally we made it to the school’s nature conservation center, which was built halfway over the ocean. This was the building she spent most of her time in, the reason she was in love with what she studied. We sat on a small wooden bench that faced the building and she began sharing with me some of her favorite memories of rescuing animals. After she ran out of stories, we sat in silence.
When the silence became deafening, Brittney suggested we go to small diner that was right down the street. On the way I tried to get her to talk about everything else that has happened these last three years. She easily fell for it when I acted interested in her love life, unnecessarily describing this basketball player she was head over heels for. Inevitably though, the conversation came to a lull and she brought up my plans.
“For what?” I ask, chomping down on the last bite of my gluten-free, dairy-free, low-carb, no sugar vegetarian pizza with tofu (I would have much rather preferred a piece of greasy, Little Caesar’s pepperoni pizza.)
“For… life, I guess.”
“Well, I don’t really know. I don’t want to waste my time in school though.”
“So, you’re just gonna ride around in that van?”
“I mean, yeah, that’s what I was thinking for now, I guess.”
She scoffed under her breath then grinned.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, I just always knew you wanted to see the world. It’s the classic tale of the caged bird becoming free, flying away.”
I remained quiet, thinking back to the dog cage I spent so many nights sleeping in as a child. It was a punishment style my step-father embraced and my mother was too frightened to fight against it. I remember yearning to break out, to run away, to escape. To just keep running, never looking back.
Finally breaking the silence, Brittney told me she had to get back home to finish a research paper. I asked for good places to park my van and she said she could buy me an extra parking permit so I could stay in Florida at her campus until I figured out where I was going next.
It took me a while to leave Florida. My whole point of leaving New York was to experience the world, of seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and the vast golden cornfields I read about in textbooks. Maybe, one day, I’d get to see the romantic Eiffel Tour and eat authentic Italian pasta. But, in this moment, I just couldn’t find the strength to leave my sister, my blood. I loved her and felt protected by her, even if I only actually saw her three times a week. After six months, she asked to meet me back at the vegetarian pizza place.
“Chris, I know it’s hard, but you need to go.
“Woah. Good morning to you, too.”
“I’m sorry, but there’s no easy way around it.”
“You want me to leave?”
“I just think you need to get out. Go out into the world. Find an adventure. Look for the unlikely. Start moving, at least. Because as long as you stay here, you’re stuck.”
She was right. Like always. But I didn’t know where I would go. Over the next week, I started thinking about it, looking up routes to drive. Then, I got a call.
“Uh…hello?” I answer the phone nervously, my palms sweaty and shaking.
“Is this Christopher Lundgren?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Mr. Lundgren, this is Colleen from Binghamton Rehabilitation and Care Center. You have no idea how hard it was to find your contact information. Your mother checked herself out about a week ago but didn’t leave a number that we could use to touch base with her. We were wondering if you had heard from her?”
“Oh, uh, no I haven’t heard from her.”
I didn’t know what else to say. After all these years, and everything she put me and Brittney through, I didn’t think I wanted to see her, let alone hear from her. Did she even have anything worth saying?
“Alright. We knew it was a long shot, but it doesn’t hurt to try.”
“Do you know where she went?”
“I couldn’t disclose that information even if I did, but I can tell you who picked her up, if you care to know.”
A rustling of papers.
“It looks like… a man named Justin L. signed her driver consent forms. There’s no last name.”
“That’s okay, thank you.”
Justin L. Also known as Justin Lundgren.
Oh my god.
The phone call ended, and my head was spinning. My dad picked up my mom from rehab. Out of nowhere. He knew she was in rehab all this time. He had to have known Brittney and I were in foster care all these years.
This was way too much information for one call. Five minutes ago, I wasn’t even sure if my parents were alive, and come to find out they’re together.
I did a quick search on Google to see if I could find out where he lived. I needed answers and I couldn’t wait. Maybe this was the unlikely adventure that I needed.
That’s all I could find out. It would be back tracking, and so broad I might not be able to find them, but I had to try.
It didn’t take me long to get to the state, but I didn’t know which city he and my mother would be in, so I started on the far West side and began asking around. I’d stay in the cities for a few days, to make sure I checked every business at least twice before leaving to go to the next one.
“Do you know a man named Justin Lundgren?”
“Has a man named Justin Lundgren came through here recently?”
I easily began losing hope through this tedious process.
I had a fake I.D. I had purchased a year or two back when one of my friends convinced me I looked old enough to pass for twenty-one. So, I figured I’d put it to use and began bar-hopping. First, it was just to ask about my parents, but then it was to ease my nerves.
I drank beers, shots of vodka, whiskey, rum, and more. Anything to forget that my parents didn’t want me. Not now. Not ever.
The night I was in Durham, I was shit-faced and felt more alone than ever. I met a guy who said he was going back to his apartment to smoke, inviting me to tag along. I didn’t think I’d find my dad tonight, so I said fuck it and ended up at this random guy’s house.
I knew I wasn’t in my element, especially because all these people around me were strangers. But they all seemed to be having a good time, no one worried about anything.
After what felt like a few hours, I tapped on a girl’s shoulder to ask her for the day and the time. She looked down at her phone.
“August twenty-second, two thirty a.m.”
“No way it’s August twenty-second.”
“Yeah huh. Look,” she said, showing me her phone.
“Oh shit, dude, it’s my birthday,” I said squinting and turning away from the brightly lit screen.
“Well, in that case, bottoms up!” she said, proceeding to shotgun a whole Budlight.
I grabbed my keys out and started to make my way to the door. It felt like I was trapped in one of those games where the pathway just keeps getting longer and longer. I could barely see straight, holding onto random people as I made my way to the door. The guy who invited me must’ve caught me trying to escape because the next thing I knew everyone was gone, and I was lying on a couch with my coat and shoes on. My keys were nowhere in site.
I woke up to a large crash. Barely being able to open my eyes, the sun peered through the shattered tinted window. I started to sit up but was stopped by a gun in my face. A man with a ski mask made intense eye contact on me.
“Give me your wallet!”
My head was pounding. I was panicking, patting for my wallet. Where did I last have it?
“Hurry up, you piece of shit!”
“I can’t… I… don’t know where…”
A door swung open. I’m not sure who it was, or what happened after that, because I heard a blaring gunshot, and everything went pitch black.
It’s quite ironic, actually. Dying only a few hours into my nineteenth birthday while I was on my way to find my parents together and sober. I never thought in a million years I would live to see my nineteenth birthday or the day that my family seemed even a little bit put together. I waited so long for this all to happen, for pieces to fall into place, and now I didn’t get to see it all happen for myself. I didn’t get to experience the happiness.
It only makes sense, I guess. Birds stuck in cages don’t get to just freely fly out into the great abyss to find adventure waiting for them. The great abyss is shit. There’s eventually a stopping point where the atmosphere changes and birds can no longer obtain oxygen. Not even the world wants caged birds to fly free and happy.
Kassidy is a sophomore majoring in Secondary English Education and minoring in Journalism. She loves writing and hopes to inspire her future students!
I’m Riley Custer and am a senior Biology and Studio Art student at Morningside College. When I’m not in the studio, I love spending time with my cat, drinking coffee, or hiking.
Lesley Valerio Chairez is a senior Art Education major