“Buffalo Girls,” by Sarah Diemer
Stevie and her father are the last people to live on their street in Buffalo, NY. Stevie thinks the city is dying and can’t wait to leave. But, one night, she sees something very strange in the middle of the street: a buffalo with wings.
(photo by e_monk)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
by Sarah Diemer
I get home from school in time to see the moving truck pull up to the house.
“We’re losing the Fillmores. Fuckin’ economy,” says Poppa, pulling another drag on the cigarette that dangles from his grease-covered hand. “Movin’ out to Utah or some shit,” he tells me almost conversationally. I drag my bike up on the porch and stand beside him as he gazes out at the moving van, at Mr. Fillmore trying to back it up over the curb and onto the lawn. The Fillmores have been our next-door neighbors as long as I’ve been alive.
“You know what that means, Stevie?” asks Poppa, one brow raised as he pulls in more smoke, blowing it out the side of his mouth. “It means we’re fuckin’ alone on this street. That’s it. The last ones standin’, you and me.” He pats his chest and gazes at me affectionately, jutting his chin in the direction of the Fillmores’ house. “Getting’ so fuckin’ empty around here, a fuckin’ herd of fuckin’ buffalo could plow down this fuckin’ street.”
I gaze over my shoulder at the cracked pavement of the sidewalk and road, the dandelions aggressively pushing their way through the cracks in the asphalt.
“You and me,” says Poppa again, pushing his dirty hand through my hair, ruffling it like he used to when I was a lot shorter.
“You and me, Pop,” I tell him, shoving the bike through the front door.
That night, I see the first one.
My social studies teacher is naïve and stupid. I’m not sure which is worse. Mr. Rambold actually thinks that Buffalo could “turn around as a dying city.” That people could move back, that jobs could be made, that its economy could be resurrected. He talks a lot about the history of Buffalo during class, which is stupid, because we’re supposed to be learning about the ancient Greeks or some shit. I don’t give a flying fuck about the city of Buffalo. It can die for all I care.
Like everyone else here, I can’t wait to leave.
I’m thinking about Mr. Rambold that night as I crush the ramen over the boiling water, try to drown the floating lump of seasoning with a wooden spoon. Poppa’s sitting at the kitchen table, his eyes closed, the cigarette dangling from his mouth. I know his joints are aching because he took an extra pain pill before I started making dinner. He works at the trash can factory in Alden, and they’ve actually been giving him overtime lately, which is good, because we’re behind on some stuff, but when he works more than the usual amount, he takes more pain pills, and he hurts more, and…
I glance up at the window over the sink. I don’t know why I do. I’m pissed at the pot of noodles, that my pop hurts, that Mr. Rambold is fucking naïve and stupid, and that’s when I look up and see it through the cracked glass.
It’s almost as tall as the Fillmores’ moving van, precariously parked on their front lawn, and almost tilting over the curb. It stands in the middle of the road, and its head is turned, watching me.
It lets out a snort that carries through the open window, and then it spreads its massive wings, pumping them once, like a warning.
I drop the wooden spoon. It clatters across the kitchen linoleum, lands against my father’s boot. He picks it up wordlessly, gets up, limps to the sink and rinses it off as I continue to stare out the window. Pop glances up and out the window, too, to see what I’m looking at, but shrugs, hands me the spoon.
He doesn’t see it.
“Watch the noodles,” I tell him, and then I’m out the back door, down the steps, standing against our chain link fence.
The buffalo pumps its great brown wings once again, snorts in the dying light, the sunset flashing off his wide, golden eyes. He tosses his head, turns, and slowly moves off, between the row of opposite houses.
I trot back up the stairs, lean against the door when I close it.
“You all right, Stevie?” asks Pop, lighting up another cigarette.
“Sure,” I lie.
“When the Pan-Am Expo came to Buffalo at the turn of the last century, it was truly a golden time, not only for the city of Buffalo, but for…”
I’m staring out the window and trying to ignore Mr. Rambold. I don’t know why, but I’m in a mood today. Maybe it’s because I saw a fucking winged buffalo out my back door last night.
I’m going nuts. Just what we need.
Snickers. Coughing and laughing. I glance up at Mr. Rambold who’s standing over my desk, arms folded, head to the side as he considers me.
“Right,” I hazard, leaning back, trying very hard not to roll my eyes.
“Miss Nickels, it’s really not escaped my notice that you seem to regard my love for our fair city with a bit of derision. Is that correct?” he asks, mouth in a thin line.
I shrug. “You moved here,” I tell him, trying to keep my voice neutral. “I’ve lived here my whole life.”
“So you don’t believe, though history has shown that it’s possible and has occurred time and time again, that a city can right itself and make itself better, can—in fact—relive its glory days?”
I open and shut my mouth. “The last people, ‘cept for me and my pop, moved off our street last night,” I tell him then, considering my words carefully. “There are tons of vacant streets. No one can find any work…” I don’t want to tell him that one in six houses in Buffalo is abandoned, because it’s make me sound like a smart ass, but I really want to wipe that superior look off his face. He folds his arms, gazes down at me indulgently. I kind of hate it.
“Yes, but if we could get corporate backing, get businesses to move back to Buffalo, we could…”
God bless America. The bell rings. We all leap up, shove our crap into our bags.
Mr. Rambold has no fucking clue.
“…so he’s an idiot,” I finish, grumbling to Poppa.
“Since when did you start to hate Buffalo so much? You’re too young to be so fuckin’ cynical,” says Pop, rubbing at his knees from his seat at the kitchen table. I roll my eyes, poke at my hoagie. “I’m serious, Stevie,” he mutters, leaning forward, tapping his finger on the tabletop. “We got each other, yeah?”
“Yeah, Pop, but…”
“And we got enough to get by, yeah?”
“I mean almost not really, but…”
“Why do you think I’m taking extra shifts at the factory?” he asks, leaning back in his chair. His face looks haggard, pained, and for a long moment, I’m so angry at myself I can’t speak. Pop is doing the best he can for us. He is.
“I’m supposed to get more shifts at the restaurant soon,” I tell him, to change the subject, to get him to stop looking so hurt. “It’ll be good that we’re both working so hard,” I tell him, taking a big bite of my hoagie, smiling around it. But he’s looking at the tabletop now, not at me, as he takes another pull on the cigarette, coughs a little as he scratches his nail against the plastic of the table.
I finish my dinner, get up, take my plate to the sink to rinse it off.
I breathe out, staring.
In the middle of the street, silhouetted against the sunlight that moves between the abandoned houses across the way, the buffalo spreads its wings, raises its head.
I pedal as fast as I can, but it’s not fast enough. I’m still ten or so blocks from home when the sky opens up on me.
“Fucking great,” I mutter, pulling up my hood, peering through the torrential curtains of water hanging in the air. I packed my books in plastic bags before I left school, but there’s still a chance they’re going to be ruined.
Almost all of the streets on my way home are abandoned, or have one “survivor” house that’s occupied. Like our street, with our house. One in six houses, Mr. Rambold. I breathe out rain water, slow the bike down and stop for a moment under the overhang of a boarded up sub shop. I zip my coat up a little higher, shove my hands into pockets and lean against the building.
I usually like this road in summer, because there’s a lot that was never built on—or maybe the house was demolished a long time ago. Either way, there’s an empty lot that in spring and summer, grows hay and wildflowers. It’s so beautiful, and you can hear the bees, see the butterflies. It always puts me in a good mood to see it, and even though it’s raining, and freezing right now, I can see at the corner of the lot a shock of daffodils poking their heads up. I peer through the rain, blinking.
There’s a buffalo in the lot, munching on the daffodils. It’s as soaked as I am, rain dripping down its horns, its face.
A few other bikes zip past me—more kids from school. But then I hear the screech of brakes, and a bike pulls up alongside me.
“Hey,” Allison whispers. We don’t really talk—she transferred from another Buffalo school last fall when hers closed. She pulls her hoodie tighter around her face, looks at me, biting her lip.
Together, we stare at the buffalo. And then, blinking at each other.
“Oh my god, you see it, too?” I whisper. She takes a gulp of air, nods, rain leaking down her face like tears.
“You really see it?” she whispers to me, and I nod, transfixed.
“When did you start…”
As we watch the buffalo munch on the flowers, unfurling his wings and shaking the rain off them, we move a little closer together. Thunder bellows across the sky and the buffalo lifts up its head, snorting, blowing water out of its nose.
Our breath rises like smoke, merging together.
She’s at her locker when I get to school the next day. She’s sort of leaning against it, trying to look nonchalant, I’d guess, because the minute she sees me, she’s bolt upright, and moving across the packed hallway to me.
“What the hell is it that we’re seeing?” she asks then, when she’s close enough to speak in a tight whisper. I shrug, open my own locker, dump my bag inside.
“A buffalo with wings,” I mutter, slamming the door shut.
“Don’t you think that’s odd?” she asks, following me down the hall. “I mean…what if this is a mass hallucination or something? What if the water’s got chemicals in it? What if…”
I turn, and she runs into me, and I steady her for a heartbeat, my fingers curling over her elbow. Her skin is so warm, and when she looks up at me…well. My stomach flops against my ribs for a heartbeat. Which is, of course, weird. I guess I just didn’t really notice her before. Or maybe it’s because she never noticed me before.
“Or maybe we’re just seeing a buffalo with wings,” I tell her. And feel a little stupid afterward, but what are you going to do? It’s the truth.
She looks up at me, head to the side, considering it.
“Or there could be chemicals in the drinking water,” she says, almost as an afterthought.
“What are you doing after school?” I ask, leaning against a locker. I’m super smooth, take after my dad. Meaning, I’m not at all.
She smiles at me, eyes flashing. “Let’s go find some buffalo.”
There’s two of them in the empty lot this afternoon. Allison and I watch from under the overhang of the old store, trying not to let them see us. Not that it really matters, I don’t think, if they’re figments of our imagination or some shit.
Allison hands me a piece of gum, blows a bubble out of her mouth. I’m trying not to notice things like the shape of her lips, or how warm her fingers are when she hands me the gum.
“Ours is the last house on the street that’s occupied,” she tells me, gazing at me with her nose wrinkled. “Yours, too, right?”
My stomach flops around inside of me because she knows that.
“Yeah,” I tell her, shoving the hair out of my eyes. “Do you think that’s what makes us able to see them?
She shakes her head, shrugs, blows another bubble. “Maybe. They’re really beautiful.”
I wrinkle my nose, too, watch them for a moment. They’re huge, bigger than the moving van, probably. Their wings, when they’re open and pumping are almost as tall as the withering saplings along the corner of the lot.
“I wish they’d fly,” I say, almost to myself.
But they don’t fly. They keep eating the grass, stomping their feet, swishing their tails.
Allison falls against me when she mounts her bike. I catch her, my hand around her waist. She grins up at me, says “thanks.”
I grin like an idiot all the way home.
Pop’s sitting at the kitchen table, his head in his hands. Fear stabs my gut over and over as I drop my backpack, clear my throat.
When he looks up, there’s a single tear, running over his wrinkled cheek.
Fuck. I can’t breathe.
“They laid off a bunch of guys at the factory today,” he says then, after a long moment, takes the cigarette from behind his ear, lights up. “Me, too, Stevie.”
I sit down at the table, watch the smoke drift up from the stub between his fingertips.
“You know what comes next, honey,” says Pop. He sounds so sad. So sorry. I glance up at him, try to smile.
“It’s okay,” I tell him, reach across the table, squeeze his hand.
“I called your aunt Mandy. She’s going to take us in for awhile. There’s some factories in Syracuse. I should be able to find work pretty easy.”
Just like that, it’s over.
“I’m sorry,” says Allison when I tell her, her eyes wide. Teary. “I’m going to really miss you.”
“Yeah,” I mutter, wheeling my bike along, staring straight ahead. I clench my jaw. “I’m going to miss you, too.”
We’re walking down the center of my street. There’s no cars, no reason to stick to the sidewalks or the side of the road.
We reach my house. Pop’s gone to the realtor’s office. We’re not holding out on being able to sell the place. Maybe we’ll go bankrupt. I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.
But we’ve got each other, yeah? It’ll have to be enough.
“Hey,” says Allison, when we stop at the bottom of the steps. I turn to her, breathe out when I see her crying. “Sorry,” she mutters, dabbing at her eyes with a bit of her sleeve. She reaches toward me, and then she’s hugging me tightly.
I close my eyes, reach up, put my arms about her, breathe her in. What might have happened if I stayed? I don’t think she was like me. But maybe she was. We both saw the buffalo, after all. It’s over now. I’ll never know.
I breathe out, open my eyes as I begin to feel the rumble beneath my sneakers.
“Oh my god,” I whisper.
Walking down the center of the street is a herd of buffalo. A “herd” might not be the right word…there’s too many of them to make a herd. Hundreds and hundreds—going back as far as I can see, disappearing around the corner of the street. They walk sedately, easily, their wings folded along their backs, though occasionally, you can see one unfurl in the mass of buffalo. They pass us, going up the street, turn around another corner. Gone.
Allison takes my hand, draws me to the steps. We sit together, and for two hours, we watch the parade of buffalo move slowly up the street. Allison squeezes my hand so tightly, I can’t feel my fingers, but I don’t care. I squeeze her back.
“Maybe…” Allison whispers into my ear, her lips against my skin, her breath smelling of bubblegum. “Maybe it means that the city’s going to be all right?”
Maybe. I don’t know. I used to think it was doomed forever. Now? I’m not so sure.
Either way, right here, right now, it’s just us. Two Buffalo girls together, watching something weird and beautiful.
Allison squeezes my hand tighter, rests her shoulder along my arm.
And the buffalo move along.
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Sarah Diemer is an award-winning author of lesbian young adult (YA), speculative fiction. Her debut novel, The Dark Wife, the YA, lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth won the 2012 Golden Crown Literary Award for Speculative Fiction, and was nominated for a Parsec Award (first two chapters of the audiobook). She writes her lesbian adult fiction under the pen name Elora Bishop, including the Sappho’s Fables: Lesbian Fairy Tales series, which she co-writes with her wife, author Jennifer Diemer.
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