Isabelle Lee | Art by Kelly Yeh
“I heard that hummingbirds die when they stop flying,” August said.
We were sophomores in high school, months into the start of the first semester. It was a Thursday afternoon just before the end of our lunch break, and August and I were sitting out on the grassy field where a large birch tree shaded us from the blistering sun. Oftentimes, August would be surrounded by the hoards of students vying for his attention, most of whom wholeheartedly believed they knew him inside out. But today was a good day. We had slipped away just before the bell rang and found repose in the secluded area behind the bleachers.
He was looking at me expectantly now, awaiting my answer to his statement.
I laughed. “It’s just a myth. How would they ever sleep?”
He seemed disappointed by that response. “I guess so,” He replied.
There was a pause before he said: “Sometimes I feel like that, you know? Sometimes I think I’ll die if I stay still.”
I watched as the golden light reflecting off of the top of his head threw flickers into the air. “You’re always active, August. When are you ever staying still?”
Even now, he was moving, his fingers picking at the grass, pulling up thin strands and rolling them together harshly. He was sitting with his knees to his chest, but his feet tapped against the ground.
He wrinkled his nose and threw a ball of grass at my chest. “I mean just—in general. My life is so… motionless? That isn’t the word.”
Between the two of us, August had always been the better speaker. When I spoke, words came out of my mouth jumbled, fractured, indecipherable. August’s voice was smooth, and he never stuttered. He had a gift for making people listen and want to keep listening.
Yet in that moment, I watched as he struggled to articulate his thoughts. Just when he opened his mouth again, the bell sounded from the speaker across the field, signaling the start of the next class period.
“I get it,” I said quickly, watching as his eyebrows furrowed in irritation. “I really do.”
He could tell I was lying—he could always tell these things—but he shrugged and turned away. When I reached down to pull him up from the ground, he didn’t meet my eyes. We crossed the field in silence.
After that, he never brought up the hummingbird again, but sometimes I would think of it when I watched him. I imagined him as a little bird, invisible strings attached to his wings, pulling him towards the earth as he tried to propel himself up and away.
We grew up in a small town by the ocean, where the days passed slowly and the outside world seemed a faraway land. August and I met when we were six years old. There was a small playground near our houses featuring a weathered blue slide and a single set of metal monkey bars. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for us. We carved our names into the chipped paint on the monkey bars using sharp pieces of tanbark and deemed ourselves the rulers of the world.
But like most good things, it didn’t last. The world around us stayed static, creeping by sluggishly and monotonously. But August changed, so quickly and abruptly that it left me wondering which version of him I had even known all along. He became popular among the students in school, and among the adults around town.
August smiled most of the time, now, when he thought people were looking. I think that’s why our friends believed he was always happy, but maybe they were just too busy feeling bad for themselves. It’s easy to pretend someone else has no problems when you’ve focused all your energy on worrying about your own.
But I like to think I was different. I like to think I knew him a little better than the rest of them. I was never able to completely learn his heart, but I tried.
Our parents were close friends, and they delighted in the friendship August and I had. From a very young age they would let us sleep over at each others’ houses. It was like growing up in two homes, my clothes and other belongings split between my bedroom and the drawers of his closet.
One night towards the start of our junior year, I was woken with a hand pressed against my shoulder. It was August. His eyes were wild and frantic, and he was saying something, over and over, voice rising and falling in staccato. I couldn’t understand him, newly awake and sleep-addled.
“What is it?” I murmured, pushing myself up from the bed. His hand slipped off my shoulder and fisted in the sheets between us.
“I want to leave. I want to leave.”
“Leave?” I turned to the digital numbers blazing from his nightstand. 4:43 am. “August it’s the middle of the night. Where do you want to go?”
He stood up from the bed, hands shaking as he paced back and forth like a caged animal. He kept muttering the same words over and over. I want to leave. I want to leave.
“August calm down.” I didn’t know what to say.
But he was no longer hearing me.
“I hate this place,” he cried. “I hate this town. I feel like I’m going to die here. I feel like I’m suffocating.”
I remember it clearly, that even in the depths of his panic, his voice didn’t stutter.
“August,” I said desperately.
It took an hour for him to calm down. He kept saying that he wanted to leave town, that he felt like he was going to die. There was nothing I could say to console him, so I sat down on the bed and pulled my knees up to my chin and waited for him to come back to the world.
When August’s eyes finally focused and his breathing evened out, he turned and looked right at me with dead eyes. That’s the only way I could describe them. There was nothing in that gaze, no feeling or emotion. My voice betrayed me as I tried to force myself to say—something, anything. Not a single word left my lips.
After a moment, August climbed back into the bed, laid down next to me, and fell asleep.
I stayed awake for the rest of the night, staring at the rise and fall of his chest, trying hard to convince myself that he was okay.
When we were in fifth grade, our English teacher had asked August to read aloud in front of the class. He’d done it before many times, but in that moment he’d found himself unable to speak. As the room went silent, he stared down at the book in his hands with wide eyes, trying to force words out of his mouth. When the tears came, they were silent—pale streaks that ran down his face and neck.
There were other incidents after that. Fire alarms made him shriek and cover his ears. Storms caused him to panic, sometimes to the point where he refused to come out of his room for days. The elders in our town brushed it off. They said he was just sensitive, overdramatic, theatrical. Some thought he did it for attention.
But August never complained about the way he was referred to, the mask of a sheepish smile ever-present on his face. Secretly, I could tell he despised it. I just wasn’t sure which he hated more, those belittling words or how much he thought they might be true.
And I guess I understood their reactions, though they repulsed me. August was our golden boy, beloved by most, beautiful and blinding in a way that was rare in the rural area we grew up in. They didn’t want to think he might be hurting because he was meant to be perfect. They projected their hopes onto him, ones that they would never be able to live out on their own.
On his eighteenth birthday, I took August to the beach. Our friends wanted to have a big celebration, but in private he told me he wasn’t in the mood for a party. In the end, I was the one who canceled, saying that I wanted to go out with August alone, just the two of us.
August was in a mood when I arrived at his house that day. I didn’t know what had set him off, but I was careful not to probe too much into it. August hated to be asked about his feelings, and he especially hated when I made a big deal out of them.
I could tell he felt a little better by the time we were close enough to smell the ocean air. He was walking faster, and he leaned into me, head falling slightly against my shoulder. I took it as a sign that it was okay for me to talk.
“The school year is ending soon,” I said tentatively.
“I can’t believe we’re going to be university students soon.”
“Not that it’ll be any different, really,” I continued. “Same group of people we’ve always been with.”
Realistically, all of the schools in our area could be combined into one. Everyone went to the same elementary school, middle school, high school, and then university. There was no variance in the process, no excitement either. I had always thought there was a beauty in the monotony of our lives, an alluring tranquility.
But I should have known that August never felt the same way. I should have known that he had always wanted to escape this place.
That day was the first time he confessed to me that he was going to leave town. It was also the last. He was gone not long after, far too soon for me to comprehend how quickly our lives were about to change.
The Christmas August turned thirteen, his father decided to take us on a road trip into the city. Our two families piled into a huge truck and headed off early in the morning. August and I had never once left town before, and even the stormy weather couldn’t tamper our excitement.
It was snowing heavily by the time we arrived three hours later, though no one seemed to mind. A tarp had been pulled over the back of the truck and we huddled together for warmth. Or rather, I clung on to August while he fluttered around, eyes wide with wonder as he took in the sights around us. He was captivated by the view, but I was captivated by him. Back then, he’d already begun to change, from the August I knew to the one he became. But on that day I caught a glimpse of his past self, peeking through the windows of time.
Christmas had fully set in all around us. Holiday lights and decorative ornaments sprung up outside buildings and alleys, bringing light to the darkened streets. We bought cups of steaming chocolate from a small café and watched as the world came alive. People went by singing and dancing, wearing costumes of red and white. It was like nothing we had seen before.
I wish I could recall more of what happened, but everything passed in a blur, and before I knew it, we were home, in the small town where nothing else existed.
Yet if there’s anything I remember from that night it’s this: August’s face never shone so brightly as it did those hours in the city. On the way back, as the lights around us faded, the mask of his usual veneer returned, almost as if it had never left in the first place.
The day that August departed, he came by my house one last time. It almost felt like a normal summer afternoon, except that he dragged a large yellow suitcase behind him.
We stared at each other for a moment. Finally, he reached out and pulled me in for a hug.
“I’ll miss you,” he whispered.
Tears stung the backs of my eyes. “I’ll miss you too.”
The air was still, then—almost impossibly so. We parted, and he looked up at me. “See you soon?”
I smiled at that. “If that’s what you want.”
August shook his head and said, “I’ll be back. Wait up for me.”
We embraced again, before he headed towards the car where his mother was waiting for him. With a final wave, he was off.
And that was it. August left town. I watched as the trails of dust left in his wake fell back to the ground again.
In the trees nearby, a hummingbird fluttered amongst the blossoming twigs. Its delicate wings beat hard, desperately struggling against the gravity that chained it to the stagnant world. One beat, then two, and finally he was flying upwards—higher and higher, a silhouette dancing in the million hues of the sky.