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He found a woman on Tinder, but then she wanted to meet for the first time at her house. No woman had ever wanted to meet him at her house. They had some sort of rule book: a public place, a neutral location, an escape plan. Already, she wasn’t following instructions. It gave him an uneasy feeling.

He parked on the street to avoid penning her in. There were two cars in the driveway, and he had no way of knowing which one belonged to her. 

She had told him that her name was Audrey. It seemed plausible. In one of the photographs, a bandanna had held back her dark curls. She’d been outdoors, smiling, perched on an enormous rock in front of a deep gorge. She wasn’t his usual type, but he was going through a dry spell. She looked earthy and efficient.

When she answered the door, though, she seemed like a different person. Shiftier. He wasn’t sure, truth be told, if this was even the same woman. There was a slash of red lipstick across her mouth, but otherwise, she might have forgotten that she was expecting company, if that’s what he was. Her hair was pulled up in a ponytail, and she was wearing a tank top and a pair of jean overalls. 

So maybe she was the same woman after all, just brusque and unsmiling. It was possible that she hadn’t remembered their arrangement—maybe that was all—or maybe she didn’t like the look of him. He was attractive, especially in a shirt and tie, but still, everyone had their likes and dislikes, and it had happened before. He wasn’t proud of that, of course, but she wouldn’t have been the first woman to bow out before the night really got started. 

But then that didn’t seem to be the issue. She took his arm—a bit roughly, even—and said, “Don’t leave the door hanging open,” and pulled him inside. 

There was a certain smell. He couldn’t place it at first, or the sound: a kind of rustling. An unsettling sound. Then there it was again, the uneasy feeling, and he thought about how women compared notes and talked about red flags. 

This Audrey person pulled him into the room with the birds. There were cages and cages of tiny multi-colored birds, and a few flying loose around the room, too, which must have been why she wanted the front door closed. 

The smell in the house was faintly musky, unpleasant, but he covered his discomfort by saying, “This is quite a collection.” 

He was trying to maintain eye contact with her, to avoid looking back toward the door, but she wasn’t looking at him. In fact, if anything, she seemed to be avoiding his gaze, and it occurred to him again that this odd, dowdy woman with her overalls and her room full of birds might find him undesirable. 

Although he had lost interest the minute she opened the door, this thought perversely made him try harder. 

“You have beautiful eyes,” he said, but if she heard him, he couldn’t tell. She was lifting a green parrot onto her shoulder. The bird squawked loudly, then imitated a fire alarm. “Run for your life!” the bird shouted. 

He laughed uneasily and said, “Wow, he’s very talented.” 

The Audrey person gave him a dead-eyed stare. “Yes,” she said. “He can imitate anything.” 

He tried to turn on the charm. He smiled and said, “Maybe we could go sit down.” There was still a bottle of wine in his hand; he’d already forgotten about it. When he held it up for inspection, the bird on her shoulder said, “Ooh la la,” and imitated cries of pleasure.

Audrey seemed unfazed—she said nothing—but he felt his cheeks go red. 

“It’s a good year,” he added, but now he thought that maybe she didn’t even drink. He couldn’t remember what they’d talked about before the meeting. He’d met a lot of women, and after a while, they all blurred into one, just another person who existed outside his body to give him sexual satisfaction. When he’d confided in his sister that he’d been meeting women on Tinder, she’d said, “Don’t you feel like you’re using them?” and he’d said, “Aren’t they using me, too?” They’d shared an uncomfortable silence because she lived with her husband in the suburbs with two kids and a manicured lawn, and what did she know about desire? Nothing, he thought, observing along the hemline of her shirt a toddler-sized handprint made of spaghetti sauce, or possibly ketchup. 

He’d had too much to drink and turned talkative, which he always ended up regretting. His sister was the oldest of the three of them and almost as judgmental as their mother had been before she’d had her stroke. 

“Hey, asshole!” the bird screamed in his face. He was so startled he almost dropped the wine bottle.

“Careful,” Audrey said, rescuing it, and she led him into another room, the kitchen, though it had apparently been outfitted in the 1940s and looked more like a set for a quirky children’s television show than an actual functioning kitchen. The appliances were too large, the colors too bright. The cabinetry had all been painted a sunny yellow. 

Audrey sat him at the red-topped table, in front of a pair of oversized amber salt and pepper shakers, and brought out two wine glasses. The bird had beady little eyes; when one blinked, the other continued to glare at him. The clock on the wall seemed frozen in place. He could hear the smaller birds scratching around in the next room. 

“Would you like to kiss?” Audrey asked, and he couldn’t think of anything he wanted less in that moment. Up close, Audrey’s lips were chapped, and at her shoulder the bird’s rheumy eyes were fixed on him. He imagined being pecked or scratched. But then she said, “If not, that’s OK,” with an insolent little shrug, as if it made no difference to her one way or the other, as if he were the problem, and he could imagine her describing him to her friends and laughing. 

He said, “Of course,” and he would have liked to have a slug of bourbon first but all he had was the wine still in its bottle on the table, and she hadn’t even taken out a corkscrew yet and he couldn’t very well say yes, but it would help to be drunk first, and she was already sizing him up, so he just stood, pinched his eyes closed, and leaned forward, aiming for her mouth. He landed an unsatisfying smack somewhere just to the side, and when he opened his eyes, she looked oddly pleased, as if she’d been vindicated, and he was sure all over again that she’d sized him up and expected nothing, or less than nothing—and so he took her in his arms and kissed her for real this time, pressing his body against hers. He was surprised to feel her give a little under him, and to feel himself react, but the bird must have tightened its grip on her because she yelped in pain and lifted it off her shoulder.

The bird hopped angrily across the kitchen floor, muttering and swearing. Audrey inspected her skin, which was bleeding now, though not profusely, and so she pulled him closer, fitting her body to his. He could feel her hot breath on his face and hear the birds rustling and squawking nearby. 

“Maybe we should go somewhere more comfortable,” he said, but he was still thinking of the wine; he needed something to take the edge off. He caught sight of the parrot, pacing back and forth under the table now, glowering at him like some evil spirit from a folk tale come to life, as Audrey ran her hand up one leg and unbuttoned his waistband. 

He inhaled sharply, caught between shame and desire, and she pointed toward an open doorway. Through it, he could see a bed—also kaleidoscopic and cartoonishly oversized—and the blood pounded in his ears. 

Then in the distance he heard a door open and close, and Audrey said, “That’s my husband,” and a muscular man carrying an old-fashioned metal lunch pail walked in, looking like a construction worker straight out of the comics page, and he knew then that this was their fetish—the naughty housewife, caught by her man. So maybe the husband was here to catch him and throw him out, or maybe to watch—whatever it was that got them going—and maybe his sister was right and he was too old for these games. He didn’t know. But at any rate, he was here now, with his pants pulled down and Audrey’s hand on his thigh, and the bird was still under the table screeching and glaring at him. The husband stood in the doorway with his bulging muscles and his lunch pail and there was nothing to do but laugh, was there, or cry, and close his eyes and raise his throat so that Audrey’s husband could either cut it or kiss it.

Leah Browning is the author of Two Good Ears and Loud Snow, flash fiction mini-books from Silent Station Press. In addition to writing, she has edited the Apple Valley Review since 2005. She is originally from New Mexico.