MARY’S PARAKEETS by Michael Penkas

Frank shouldn’t have hit his wife nearly as often as he’d done. He was a big enough man to admit that to himself, but he had trouble admitting it to Mary, on account of his being dead.

Not that he hadn’t tried. Within the first year of his death, he’d figured out how to extend himself beyond his earthly remains and actually walk about in a ghostly form. It was trickier than he would have imagined when he’d been alive and mostly depended on his understanding that his thoughts were no longer confined to his head. Still, the further he moved from his remains, the more difficult it was to maintain a clear line of thought.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to go far to find his wife, since she’d buried him under a garden in their backyard.

Near as Frank could determine, all dead people could talk. The problem was that they spoke very softly. But if a living person was very quiet, left the television off, and was in the right place, they could hear the dead. And Mary had always been a very soft-spoken person, so it had been easy for him to speak to her … at first.

He’d spoken to her when she was cooking, when she was reading, when she was folding laundry, and even when she slept. He’d never actually apologized, technically, but he had admitted that he shouldn’t have hit her as often as he’d done. A lot of those incidents had, he’d admitted, been overreactions. And really, that last time he’d hit her, after she’d asked him how they were going to pay their bills, had been his mistake. He’d thought she was blaming him for not being able to find a job, when in fact she probably was just looking for his input on how they were going to deal with all of their bills.

He would even admit that, after he’d hit her, the way he’d threatened her, she was probably right to smash that iron into his skull. In any event, it had surprised him how little having his head bashed in had hurt and how quickly he’d died. And, really, he didn’t mind being buried out in the yard. Sure, a cemetery would have been nicer, what with the other dead people nearby to keep him company, but Frank had always been more of a solitary soul. Mary had been one of the few people he’d allowed to share his life and even then, well, he wasn’t so good at sharing, even with her.

Obviously, Mary had set up the garden initially to conceal his corpse. It was so obvious that he couldn’t understand why the police didn’t question her about it when she’d reported him missing; they’d certainly been full of questions whenever they came out on those domestic dispute calls, but when it was a missing person, they didn’t seem nearly as invested. Her sister was the same way, always quick to notice every bruise and limp (even the ones that hadn’t been his fault), but never a word about the garden. In fact, sometimes that bitch would just stand beside his resting place and smile, like she knew.

In any event, being dead had made Frank a much better listener. Mary would sometimes spend an hour or two tending the carrots, tomatoes, and other vegetables, humming songs she heard on the radio and sometimes talking to him in that same soft voice that used to bother him so much when he was alive. He never recognized the songs, as she still listened to modern music, even forty years after he’d died. And as for the things she told him, he barely recognized any of that either. At first, he’d thought that Mary was changing, becoming a different person now that she was a widow. But he’d eventually realized that she was simply becoming more honest about herself, her dreams, where she wanted her life to go … things he might have noticed if he’d been as good a listener when he’d been alive.

Of course, he was often tempted to answer her, to engage in a true conversation rather than this one-sided listening. But he couldn’t. It wasn’t being dead. It wasn’t that she was a bad listener. It wasn’t even that he was afraid to admit he’d been wrong.

It was the parakeets.

Shortly after he’d managed to re-enter his house, shortly after he’d begun speaking with Mary again, his wife had purchased a parakeet. It was a little blue and white budgie named Sam. And Sam had hated Frank. And every time Frank walked into the house, Sam would start his squawking and screaming, repeating the same dozen phrases Mary had taught him over and over again.

It was six years until Sam finally died … only to be replaced within three days by a green and yellow budgie named Kermit. And Kermit had hated Frank too and did the same screaming and squawking.

And the worst part of it was that Frank hadn’t even been able to take any satisfaction over Sam dying because his wife had buried that bird right beside the garden he rested under. And now every time he strayed from his resting place, the feathered bastard would follow him, pecking and repeating those same phrases over and over again, albeit in a softer squawk.

And when Kermit died, he was buried next to Sam and replaced by Gonzo, who eventually died and was replaced by Scooter, who eventually died and was replaced by Fozzie, who eventually died and was replaced by Beaker, who eventually died and was replaced by another bird, then another and then another. Apparently all of the birds were named after characters on some television show that had come on after he’d died. And when each of them died, they were all buried around his garden. He was certain that Mary had intended for them to keep him company, but all they managed to do was prevent him from keeping her company.

Mary had never re-married, which he liked to imagine meant something. Maybe only that she knew he’d loved her, even if he hadn’t been so good at showing it all the time. She’d also never moved out of the house, although she no longer lived alone, having long ago converted the top floor into a pair of apartments that she rented out to college students. Even surrounded by so young people, his wife never seemed to grow old. Her white hair only looked like the same old blond with sunlight glaring off it. Her wrinkled skin just made her look more alive than porcelain flawlessness. Her eyes were the same, deep blue and still sharp. And maybe she moved a bit more slowly and maybe she sometimes stepped outside and forgot why she’d done so, but to him she was more the woman he’d married than when he’d married her … if that made sense. Which it didn’t have to.

But every time he tried to speak with her; every time he wanted to tell her how much he still loved her; every time he wanted, finally, to say he was sorry for all of it; the dead parakeets would rise from their tiny graves and start to peck and squawk, making it impossible for him to focus enough to speak. Every time he forgot why he was dead, the parakeets would remind him with the one phrase Mary had taught every one of them.

It was the reason she kept buying parakeets. It was the reason she couldn’t stay there for more than a couple of days after one had died before buying a new one. It hadn’t been a coincidence that she’d bought the first one shortly after Frank had begun entering the house again. She’d taught every parakeet the same phrase and, whether or not she believed in ghosts, there was no question who those three words were meant for. They were the last three words she’d ever spoken to her husband before he’d died and, even in death, the parakeets would repeat those words whenever he tried leaving the garden. Over and over again.

“Shut up, Frank!”

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