Nobody Here But Us Chickens
The sharp Autumn air chapped Erica’s lips and she wasn’t in the mood to get up for some lip balm. She set her alarm. Every night she would make a promise to herself to wake up at 5:45 to get herself ready for school and look good. Every morning she would hit snooze on her digital alarm clock exactly seven times, leaving herself only 15 minutes to throw on her crumpled jeans, oversized sweatshirt, wrangle her frizzy hair into a ponytail, and (mostly) brush her teeth. Erica wanted so badly to look like the girls at school who arrived at homeroom in mascara and matching socks. But the cold air outside of her comfy bead was her kryptonite, and her good intentions were lost to the promise of a few more minutes of warm sleep.
Every morning, Erica would jump in the back of the car where her brother and mom waited impatiently. She was shy. She would have described herself as nerdy, but not the smart type of nerdy. Erica always felt like she looked the part of the nerd without the test scores to match. She was a below-average student and a big people pleaser. This was her saving grace among the teachers. Also, Erica was blessed with a great group of friends. Her friends were the opposite: they looked cool but their report cards proved some nerd brains behind their cute haircuts.
Erica worked hard in school. Super hard… Although she never saw an A on a project or paper or test. That specific grade seemed to come so easily to the girls she hung out with. Her friend Sara could write so beautifully, dishing out English essays in an hour. Like, yeah, really, an hour. Jessica was in all the AP classes all while juggling piano and swim team. And Theresa traveled around New England because she won chess championships... against actual adults. Erica wasn’t jealous, she was intrigued. And, honestly, at times confused. Why did her brain feel so different?
On the Tuesday of this story, after homeroom, Erica had math. Now, she wasn’t just a ‘people-pleaser.’ No. Erica was a full-on suck-up. That day, she’d volunteered to wash the blackboard for Mr. McKinnon. Erica would have been taunted as a kiss-up or teacher's pet if she was also a straight-A student. But because her homework would come back with a B- on a good day, her goody-two-shoe antics were wildly overlooked.
As the bell rang, Erica sprinted to her locker to grab her science book. Science was her favorite class but not because of Science. It was the only subject that did not include an AP version, so it was the only class she had with her friends. Mrs. Pritchard taught it. She was the human version of a cactus. And absolutely none of Erica’s kiss-ass tactics worked.
The week prior, when Erica raised her hand to go out of class to get the TV and wheel it in for some sort of National Geographic segment on life forms, she told Erica it would be wise to use the five minutes to reread the chapter on photosynthesis as her homework did not reflect the level of understanding to pass the test. Ouch.
Erica was determined to break Mrs. Pritchard, and her playing hard to get only encouraged Erica to try harder. Erica could deal with many things, but not being the teacher's favorite was not one of them. She grabbed her book and ran to class, not wanting to be late for two reasons 1. That would not help in her quest to win over Ms. Pritchard and 2. Because she absolutely had to sit with her friends.
As Erica was walking down the hallway she passed Mr. Kent’s room. He was the other science teacher. Mr. Kent was a short man with a big beard and an even bigger smile and held the title of ‘nicest guy in school’. Erica wished she got him this semester. She had no doubt that she would’ve already secured his admiration. As she passed the door she slowed down. Erica Townsend was certainly not going to get caught running in the hallway. As soon as she passed the door she stopped. Mrs. Pritchard was leaning against the wall, talking to Mr. Kent. Now, Erica might have been a kiss-ass but she was also nosey as shit.
She strained her ears to hear Mrs. Pritchard’s voice,
“‘I don’t know what is going on with kids today. It seems they have no motivation to go above and beyond. I have smart students but no one goes the extra mile. Why did I go into teaching if I can’t inspire these kids? It depresses me endlessly.”
It was at this exact moment that Erica decided that she was going to blow away Mrs. Pritchard with some sort of Herculean effort and validate her entire professional career. Erica liked pressure.
Erica dashed through the door as the bell rang and ran to the empty desk next to Sara. Erica and Sara had been friends since the fourth grade. Besides being super smart, Sara was wildly fun, according to her peers, and a bit of a “loose cannon,” according to the parents. Erica's mom was fond of saying, “When Sara was in the house, you knew it.”
Sara was not the type of friend you would sit on the bed with to gossip or talk about boys. Sara was the friend you would build forts with, choreograph intricate dances with, and occasionally make flour bombs to throw out the window at the neighborhood kids. She didn’t care what anyone thought. This personality trait posed a minor issue to Erica. Because, frankly, she didn’t give a shit about being any teacher’s favorite anything. She already held the ‘smartest kid in class,’ title and felt her energy would be wasted working for another one.
Erica was mulling this fact over in her mind when Mrs. Prichard marched into class and wasted no time getting down to business. Her chalk strokes on the blackboard made Erica’s skin crawl.
“You will partner up today for a joint project,” Mrs. Pritchard announced as she scribbled unintelligibly.
Erica and Sara looked at each other and, without a word, confirmed that they would work together.
Ms. Pritchard continued, ‘This particular project is going to take six weeks. I think we can all agree that that’s a real commitment. Together you will pick an organism. Can someone please tell me what an organism is?’
Dammit thought Erica, her hand wasn’t the first one in the air. This was probably a good thing. She didn’t have a clue what an organism was anyway.
“A living thing,” said someone with both fast reflexes and a working knowledge of 7th-grade science.
The project was to pick an organism and grow and nurture it. Each participant had to keep a diary of the changes they observed. Erica whipped her head to Sara with excitement. She spoke so quickly that Sara told her to get a hold of herself. Erica repeated the conversation she overheard in the hallway. She explained that they had to do something big, and monstrous, they had to go above and beyond to wow Ms. Pritchard so she wouldn’t quit teaching. Now’s a good time to mention that Erica was a bit of a drama queen.
The classroom buzzed with students discussing their options. Bacteria, plants, and chia pets were tossed around. Erica and Sara gave each other a look. "Amateurs," they whispered to each other.
They huddled at the end of the table and flipped through their science book for ideas. Erica turned to page 183, the beginning of the chapter entitled Life Cycles, and right there printed on top of the page was her answer. Erica shot her hand straight in the air so fast and so high it looked as though she was having some sort of straight-armed seizure,
“Ms. Pritchard,” she yelled in a high pitched voice that didn’t sound at all like a desperate lunatic, “Sara and I will grow… chickens.” Mrs. Pritchard raised one eyebrow,
“You mean, you’re going to hatch eggs?”
Erica took a split second to remember the beginning of a chicken’s life.
“Yup. Eggs. Then chickens. Right.”
Erica took her time walking home from school that afternoon. The adrenaline rush had worn off and was now replaced with worry about how the hell she was going to get her parents on board with this chicken growing - sorry - egg hatching scheme.
Now, where Erica lacked in academic aptitude, she excelled in a few random skills. Like lying. She wasn’t malicious. Really. Her fibs were rarely meaningful. But she was very good at them.
That night at dinner Erica explained the project to her family. She told her mom, dad, and brother that all the groups were given different organisms to document and grow. The boys at her table got some weird form of bacteria that Erica stressed could be very dangerous for her family's health. Yes, Erica was so happy she was not assigned bacteria because that could send every one of them to the emergency room with an undiagnosed illness that would leave them blind or deformed. Erica looked and her mom and dad in the eyes, “Or dead.” She paused to let that thought sink in.
Erica took a deep breath and explained how overjoyed she and Sara were when they were assigned harmless, cute, and fuzzy… chickens. Erica's parents stopped chewing and without even looking at each other started laughing.
“And, I’m assuming,” her dad said between bites of pot roast, “that Sara’s parents are supportive of this taking place at their house? Because you’re not hatching eggs here.”
Erica tried to fight back the tears threatening her eyes. How was she going to impress Ms. Pritchard with her project without chickens? The chicken project needed… chickens.
“Wow,” Erica’s older brother pressed his lips together and nodded his head, “You’re a dork and a real weirdo.”
Erica excused herself from the table and ran to her room to call her chicken project partner. This time, she couldn’t hold back the tears.
“My parents said no,” she sobbed into her Garfield The Cat desk phone. Sara did not return her misery.
“Hold up a sec-”
“Ok,” Erica sniffled into the receiver.
As Erica wiped her nose with the back of her sweatshirt sleeve, she heard yelling,
“MOM!I HAVE A SCIENCE PROJECT WITH ERICA AND WE HAVE TO HATCH EGGS CAN WE DO IT HERE?”
Erica couldn’t hear the response. She felt her heart sink to the bottom of her stomach. In retrospect, the whole thing could be described as silly or ridiculous. But, in that prepubescent moment, Erica felt like her science teacher’s only shot at professional happiness was resting on her twelve-year-old shoulders. And Erica took that weight seriously. Sara returned her voice to a normal volume, “Yep, no problem, we can do it here.”
And that was that. They spent the next weekend getting an incubator, heat lamps, matching notepads, and finally fertilized eggs. The local farmer suggested they get a dozen because it was not guaranteed that all the eggs would hatch. Sara’s mom didn’t even flinch.
At the start of the six-week project, their observation notebooks had the same entries: eggs looked like… eggs. Erica worried that Mrs. Pritchard would be disappointed so she lied about seeing movement. Oh, Erica…
Three weeks later, after writing about twelve brown eggs doing absolutely nothing for all 21 days, they noticed a small crack in one. This was very exciting. Erica almost felt bad about lying. Then, basically overnight, all the eggs started to hatch. All, all but one. They buried the dead egg in Sara’s mom’s houseplant. (Yes, that started to smell a month later.) So this is how the two girls found themselves with eleven baby chicks in Sara’s basement.
The previously boring observation books became fun with descriptions of light yellow fluff, poop, pecking, and chirping. Erica would go to Sara’s house every day after school to see her chicks. They named them all and set up a wooden enclosure with wood shavings and heat lamps. The girls grew very attached to their newfound babies.
Soon, Erica’s chicken-filled afternoons had to come to a temporary end. Her family had a trip planned and were leaving town for two weeks. She made Sara promise to take notes every day and keep a close eye on them. They were so cute and fluffy and Erica was going to miss them dearly.
Fourteen days didn’t go by fast enough for Erica, as soon as she got back she was so eager to see her chickens. Sara met her at the front door with a look on her face that Erica couldn’t quite place.
“What is it?” she asked worriedly, “are the chicks ok?”
Sara took a deep breath, “I moved them into the shed. They… they - they started to fly.”
Sara grabbed her arm and pulled her across the driveway to the tool shed that looked like it might collapse into itself at any moment.
As soon as the shed door opened Erica saw a flock of chickens bursting out, flying and squawking all around her. An absolutely cacophony of bird noises and feathers and erratic movement from all directions. They looked crazy with giant eyes and molting feathers, darting around the axes and tools and other sharp objects that Sara’s parents stored in the space.
Erica just stood there, dumbfounded. What in the Hell was she supposed to do with all these giant, flapping, frantic, stupid, crazy birds?
They needed a plan. The Project was due on Thursday and although they had all the pieces: pictures of the stages, the observation notebooks, and a big poster board with a diagram of the life cycle, neither felt like those pieces of paper really represented their work. They wanted Mrs. Pritchard to SEE their chickens. All the other kids were going to bring their Petri dishes and plants to the presentation on Thursday, but even free-spirited Sara knew they could not bring eleven chickens into school.
Sara thoughtfully chewed the ends of her hair,
“You know, Mrs. Pritchard lives on Woods Ave…it’s a five-minute walk …you wanna surprise her with our babies?”
By now you know Erica. And you know that her answer was a resounding YES.
The girls rummaged through Sara’s garage trying to find something that they could put the chickens in for transport. They found a red RadioFlyer wagon with wood fencing up the sides and decided this would be perfect. Actually, they knew it was nothing close to perfect but it was their only option. They wheeled it out and dusted it off.
Now, one might ask how they managed to put eleven energetic chickens in the wagon and make it all the way to Mrs. Pritchard’s house, but Erica doesn’t remember. She does remember that the five-minute walk took closer to half an hour since every two seconds chickens were jumping out and running away. They were a pre-teen mess of a walking poultry circus.
By the time they got to poor Mrs. Pritchard’s house, Sara was wheeling the wagon and Erica had two chickens under each arm. They unlocked the fence to the enclosed yard and saw no harm in letting their feathered friends run loose to blow off some steam.
Sara bounced up on the porch and rang the doorbell. No answer. It had never crossed the girl's minds that Ms. Pritchard would not be home. She pressed it again. And again. The chickens had calmed down and were pecking about the yard. They definitely looked happier than they did in the tool shed.
So the girls left them there. Eleven Chickens. In their science teacher’s front yard. With a note, of course.
Now, no one was there to see how poor Genevieve Pritchard reacted when she came home from brunch with her girlfriend to find eleven chickens shitting all over her manicured grass. One can assume she wasn’t thrilled. Erica’s parents were immediately contacted (perhaps Mrs. Pritchard had an idea about Sara’s?) and her father roped off the back of his Volvo with wire and came to pick them up. Erica knew she was in trouble.
The chickens were relatively easily relocated to a farm two towns over. Sara and Erica tried to hug them and say goodbye. But, they were chickens and just ran across the field to the waiting feed.
Then Erica had to spend the rest of the afternoon cleaning out her father’s hatchback. She was depressed. This is not how she’d imagined this project ending. She knew by her father’s tone how much trouble she was in. It was a disaster, a failure, and now her poor teacher would quit her work in education and become The Old Woman Who Lived In The Shoe and would waste away to nothing while living in a hollow-ed out tree. Erica’s imagination was quite the ungrounded beast.
At school on Monday, the pit in Erica’s stomach threatened to swallow her whole. She paced outside the classroom before the second-period bell rang. She couldn’t bring herself to face her teacher. She slumped down in the alcove outside of the bathrooms, willing herself to get up and carry her poster board into the room. But she was paralyzed with dread. She didn’t think that she could do it. And then her ears perked up. She heard Mrs. Pritchard’s voice-
“So, then, I come home around noon and -” Mrs. Pritchard chuckled, hard, “you won’t believe it. The girls had left-” now the chuckles were turning into full-blown laughter, “eleven full-grown,” she was laughing so hard now she couldn’t get the words out.
“What, what?” Mr. Baldwin, the history teacher was now laughing too. It seemed to be contagious.
“Chickens!” Mrs. Pritchard managed to choke out. Erica peeked around the corner of the wall. The two teachers stood in the hallway, holding each other’s shoulders, fully cracking up, tears streaming down their cheeks, gasping to catch their breath.
Erica’s emotions flip-flopped. She didn’t know what to make of this. She had made Mrs. Pritchard laugh? Truthfully, this was the happiest that Erica had ever even seen an adult in her life. But it wasn’t for the reason she intended. Unsure of herself, she waited until her teacher pulled herself together and quietly followed her into the classroom.
She did not get an A on the project. It was Sara’s first B. (A B+ to be exact but that’s not how Sara saw it.) But maybe they had aced their real intentions? We think so. For the rest of the semester, Mrs. Pritchard could not look at either one of the girls without chuckling. So, something worked.
Also, PS, since this incident twenty years ago, both of these women have been vegetarians. They really loved those chickens.