Of course, I remember the song of the sparrows in the morning.
I remembered how huge the Appalachian hills seemed from my house in the holler, the rivers that almost reached the treetops in the spring, and the crunch of icy snow in the winter. I remember the peeling paint of my back steps, where I strummed covers of the same five albums on my beat up six string. I remember the track where I had practice and the winding forest path my old neighbor, Lauren Fischer, and I would run every morning.
I remember a lot about Lauren.
I remember that tiny strand of blonde hair that poked out from her part. I remember her old brown leather journal. I remember her long stride, and the sound of her foot connecting with a soccer ball.
Some mornings, I can still hear the sparrows sing.
8.29.2014- the summer between the fourth and fifth grades
“It’s so nice to meet you, Mrs. Lawrence, come inside. Oh, a pie, how sweet! Yes, the kids are here somewhere. Lauren? Our new neighbors are here!”
I remember handing Lauren’s mom my older sister, Phoebe’s, coat. I watched Lauren’s little sister, Emily, drip a trail of bird food on the kitchen floor, a chicken following behind him and pecking at it.
I remember hearing a crash from outside: Lauren’s mom opened the back door and we saw Lauren sitting cross legged behind a tree, feet covered in mud and holding a slug. She looked up at her mother, who gave her a disapproving look.
“Come inside. Emily! Stop doing that. If you don’t clean that up, you can’t have any pie.”
Emily looked at her reproachfully. The chicken squawked.
“I’m going to steal that chicken, Alex,” Phoebe said to me as we sat on the couch and Emily got a broom. Lauren washed her feet in the kitchen sink.
“How do you steal a chicken?” I asked.
“Like this.” Lauren hopped down from the counter, strode over to the chicken, grabbed it around the middle, and held it away from her as she carried it back and towards the front door.
I got up and followed her outside. She knelt by the faded yellow chicken coop and urged the bird inside. The bird seemed to glare at her from behind the mesh window, irritated.
“If we don’t tell her what we did, she’ll freak out,” she said, wiping her hands on her cotton shorts.
It was true. I remember that at some point during the meal, Emily realized her bird was missing and slammed her fork down and yelled, “Where is my chicken?”
And I still remember that secret look Lauren gave me when he said it.
3.14.2016- sixth grade
It was early that morning. I remember opening my eyes when I heard a small crash next door. I jumped out of bed and shoved open the window.
It was Lauren. She was wearingwore a pair of running shoes, and when she saw me watching her from my window, turned red.
“Why are you making so much noise? People are trying to sleep here.”
She opened her window and stuck her head out. “I’m going for a run. I’m doing track, remember?”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot. Can I come with you?” I asked, casual tone hiding the quickening of my heart.
Her gray eyes squinted at me for a moment before she nodded, and smiled. “Yeah, sure. Don’t slow me down.”
“No promises, ‘kay?K.” I then shut my window and scrambled out of my pajama pants and into a pair of shorts. My old Led Zeppelin shirt would have to do for now.
I shoved my feet into my sneakers and walked outside, the dewy grass outside our houses getting my shoes wet. I knocked on her door quietly so I wouldn’t wake anyone up. The chicken squawked hopefully at us from its coop.
Lauren opened the door, looking half asleep and downtrodden.
She smiled up at me, the irritation melting off her face, and we turned and started running.
“What’s Led Zeppelin?” she asked over my panting as we neared the two-mile point.
“What’s wrong with you? You’ve never heard ‘Stairway to Heaven’?”
“Oh, my God.”
5.18.2017- seventh grade
“What’s your time for the 200 again? I forgot,” my friend Dan asked.
“Twenty four thirty two,” I said.
“Nice. I guess all those runs with your girlfriend make you faster, huh?”
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
“What did you get for this one?” Lauren asked our friend, Jack Harrison, leaning over to see his paper.
“I haven’t done it,” Jack said, looking up from the pig Latin translation book he had found and was reading out loud.
Dan glanced at me. “How do you say ‘pig Latin is a dead language’ in pig Latin?”
Jack glared at him, a smile creeping at the corners of his mouth.
“You’re upsetting your boyfriend, Dan.” Lauren turned to Jack and laughed.
We were sitting in the park, and our table was covered with acorns that had fallen from the tree above us. Dan was tearing them up into little pieces and making them into a collage of something.
“Are you making a collage of my face?” I asked, leaning forward. “I’m gonna write a song about your big ugly nose.” I started strumming.
Lauren groaned over her math homework. “Alex, stop. N, no one listens to rock anymore.”
“I still listen to it,” I said to her. “And what do you listen to? Country?”
“My music is amazing,” Lauren said.
I sat back. “Look, I listen to what I can play, and I can actually sing rock. I can’t sing like Keith… Dustman.”
“Try again,” said Lauren.
Jack spoke up. “Can you play anything good, though?”
“I don’t think I know anything you would like,” I said. “But I think you would like it if you actually listened to it.”
Lauren leaned forward, homework forgotten, eyes shining. “What can you play?”
“Taylor Swift,” Jack said.
4.17.2018- eighth grade
“I love mornings,” I said wistfully, tugging my jacket around my shoulders.
“I hate mornings,” Lauren said, jogging beside me. “Our runs make them better, but they still suck.”
“Can we change the song?” I asked, reaching for the earbud cord between us. Sparrows sang and leaves whistled in the trees above our heads. Other than that, the road we were running was quiet and we were alone except for the corn on the other side.
“Oh, I love this song.” Lauren’s pace quickened.
I had to go faster too. “Why do you like Foreigner so much?”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “‘Juke Box Hero’ reminds me of you.”
“Pray tell.” I was suddenly interested.
“You’re obsessed with getting out of here,” Lauren said. “I don’t know. I think we have that in common. That drive.”
“I wrote a song,” I said.
“I know.” Lauren rolled her eyes. “You made me listen to it about a million times before you released it.”
“I had to make sure it was perfect.”
Once we reached our street again, Lauren slowed and we stopped for a moment. We sat on a park bench, and she leaned her head onto my shoulder, still listening to her single earbud. I smiled to myself, and tried not to disturb her.
4.28.2018- eighth grade
“I feel like what people are like in the airport is their true personality,” Dan said, tossing a grape into his mouth.
“And how they act when they’re in love,” Jack said. “Joan Jett over here would play some song for the girl she liked.”
I kicked a rock at him. “I wouldn’t sing anything, because I wouldn’t do the song justice. I would burn a CD, or make a mixtape or something.”
“Hey,” Lauren said as she walked over to me, swinging her water bottle. Her hair was parted and pinned out of her face with a clip, but it was still kind of falling in her face.
I handed her an earbud.
“Where’s Ben?” Lori asked, looking around.
“Probably putting salt in his water,” Dan said. “Do you remember when he did that?”
“Oh, definitely!” Ben yelled as he raced up the pavement, slapping Jack’s hand. “Love me some salt water.”
Lauren and I trailed behind them, not listening, our earbuds still playing our playlist.
Later that night, I was sitting in my room, the mixtape I had made for Lauren in one hand. The songs I had put on for her all meant something to both of us, but I wasn’t worried about that.
I really wanted her to listen to the mixtape. I had worked really hard on it. But would she know that I was giving it to her because I liked her?
I tucked it into the pocket of my track jacket and hoped she wouldn’t realize.
5.11.2018- eighth grade
I laughed, opening my eyes. Above me, fine rain misted from the sky. Wet sand tickled my neck from the sand pit. I could hear Ben, Dan, and Lauren laughing from the side of the runway.
“Come on, Alex, that was on purpose! You can’t fall that many times!” Jack gestured at me, imitating falling all over himself.
Coach Howes was irritated. “Alex, get up. Okay. Lauren Fischer! Where are you?”
Lauren, who had been walking away from the runway, whipped around and started running back towards us, arms perfectly straight and pumping past her legs.
I started laughing again, standing and doubled over and trying to shake the sand out of my hair. I can still remember the sight of it flecking the damp red of the track.
Lauren, Dan, and the rest of the distance runners had finished their six laps and were approaching the runway. By the time they were all done long jumping, track practice was over, and I had watched Lauren fall into the wet sand on purpose three times.
Everyone was heading inside when Coach Howes tucked his clipboard under his arm. “Alright. Fischer and Lawrence, two more laps.” Coach Howes hoisted his bag of equipment over his shoulder and started down the turf towards the door in the fence.
I remember Lauren leaning forward, hands braced on her knees, a tiny strand of blonde hair kicking out of her part, a sheen of sweat on her forehead, before bouncing up and clapping twice. “Come on, Alex. It’s only an 800, you’ll live.” She said this all very fast and started jogging.
“Lauren, it’s raining,” I complained, but started after her anyway, going a bit faster to catch up.
She fell into step beside me. I don’t really remember what we talked about during those laps, I just remembered the rain slowly stopping and Lauren’s breathing beside me, and then her asking for my jacket.
Now is where everything sharpens into minute detail. I remember the cloudy gray of the sky and the creamy white clouds. I remember the colors on her sneakers. I remember the sparrows singing in the trees.
I had forgotten about the mixtape. I gave the jacket to her.
We walked up the hill to the door to the locker rooms, and Lauren paused to tie her shoes. I remember the realization I had, and how I whipped around.
But when the jacket pooled on the ground, Lauren noticed the bulge in the pocket. She took the mixtape in her hand, with her name scribbled on it.
To this day, I don’t know how to describe the look that was on her face. It was like she was feeling so much at once, but was trying not to let me see anything.
Lauren stood, swallowing, sitting back on her heels and staring at it. “It’s a mixtape.” Her cheeks were red. I couldn’t tell if it was from running or embarrassment or something else.
I shrunk into the door, heart thumping wildly in my chest, waiting for her to say, do something.
Lauren turned it over, looking at the song list on the back. That tiny strand of hair fell out of her part again, so tiny that it didn’t even fall in her eyes. She looked up, expression unreadable.
I watched her, still waiting.
Lauren tucked it into the jacket pocket and stood, walking over to me and took my hands in hers and kissed me.
1.23.2021- junior year of high school
“Does track look good on college applications?” Dan asked as we leaned over textbooks in the library.
“It better, ‘cause if not we’re all screwed,” Jack said, crunching loudly on a chip and earning a glare from the librarian. “Except Alex’s gonna be the next… Lynyrd Leppard, and Lauren is good at everything.”
“‘Lynyrd Leppard’?” I repeated.
“I am good at everything,” Lauren said, grinning and leaning back in her chair, arms crossed.
“Thank you, everybody, that was very helpful,” Dan said. “Seriously, though. I need to know if I should do another club or something.”
“I think you’ll be fine,” I told him, twirling my pencil.
“Yeah, well, you don’t need a lot of extracurriculars for the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame,” George said, irritated, before crumpling up his chip bag.
I shrugged, my dog tags shifting over my sternum, smiling a little. “That’s true.”
“Look at her, she’s so smug,” Lauren observed, tossing her pencil down. “Okay, she might be set, but her only talent is music, so don’t get too jealous.”
“Is that what you tell yourself?” I asked, amused.
“So the more you pack into your schedule, the happier you’ll be when everyone’s getting their letters back from colleges,” she continued, ignoring me, and going back to her essay.
“Wait, can we come back to the only-talent-is-music thing? I’m good at running,” I argued.
“You’re okay.” Lauren didn’t look up.
Ben laughed, glancing up from his phone.
Dan interrupted, pointing his pencil at me. “Don’t call me and ask for money when you’re thirty- two and still trying to get the music thing going.’”
“I’m going to California,” I explained. “Gonna get a record deal.”
There was a chorus of commentary following this, and I leaned back, imagining myself playing a brand new guitar in front of thousands of people, all chanting the lyrics to my songs.
4.14.2022- senior year of high school
Our footsteps beat out a familiar pattern on the road as we ran down the small street with the singing sparrows, the one that you couldn’t drive down. It was a serene, misty morning, the sky a cloudy gray and the grass dewy. The trees were silent overhead, so I could hear Lauren’s breathing on my left.
“Can we take a break for a minute?” I asked her.
She looked over at me and nodded, taking her earbud out. “You tired?”
“No, that’s- that’s not it. Uh, I have a song that I wanted to add to our mixtape.” I pulled her phone out of my pocket and typed in her password, then switched it to “Juke Box Hero”.
“I like this song,” Lauren whispered, voice wavering.
“I still have something to prove to myself,” I told her. “I have to go.”
Lauren bit her lip and looked down. “I know.” She took a deep breath. “I’ll wait for you.”
We both looked down at the ground and watched as the sun rose and sparrows stopped singing.
I had felt so sure then. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice.
I wonder whenever I see kids with mixtapes of my music. Or when I sign a poster for a girl who’s wearing a clip in her hair that isn’t really keeping it out of her face.
I start wondering when I wake up, because in my dreams, it’s early in the morning and I’m running down a misty street, and I’m counting my steps like the beat of a song, one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and. In my dreams, I’m running a red track, lap after lap after lap…
I start to wonder whenever I hear the song of a sparrow.
4.25.2025- twenty-one years old
I could feel the beat of the drums in my heart, thumping and throbbing, as my guitar’s last chord blared through the speakers.
Blue and pink overhead lights filtered over the massive crowd, and it made it hard to see any faces. But I knew they were there.
The whole crowd was screaming at the top of their lungs, waving and clapping. I pumped a tattooed arm into the air, grinning widely, and I knew there were a few tears in my eyes, making my eyeliner run a little.
“Thank you, New York!” I yelled into my microphone, heart beating wildly, and the stage went dark.
I don’t know exactly when I realized that my journey was over. But it happened. And I knew that it was time to go home.
I drove slowly that night, listening for the sound of the sparrows, but I couldn’t hear any.
The sky was a clear crimson above me, and as my old car moved along the road, memories slowly came back to me.
My alarm ringing, and jumping out of my bed to turn it off.
I parked my car and got out, hands in my pockets. On the other side of the tiny street, fields of overripe corn waved in the breeze.
Pulling on an old band shirt and a pair of shorts. Filling up my water bottle.
The street that I was walking on led into the sun.
Shutting my back door and walking over to Lauren’s.
My boots were quiet on the dirt, and then on the pavement, and then on grass, and then on her front steps.
Knocking on her back door, and when she opened it, saying…