The Place Where the Birds Don’t Sing

birds3(1)
Artwork by Joshua Insole

 

I know it’s not much of a defence, but I really didn’t know how much damage it would eventually cause. This confession of innocence doesn’t undo the events that followed that fateful Wednesday morning in mid-March, I know that, but hopefully it will be understood that I didn’t mean for any of it to happen — either by accident or design. I doubt I could have stopped it, anyway. But if there’s one person who could’ve possibly seen it before it hit, it was me.

On that note, I think it’s worth pointing out that I didn’t even know what thing was. I doubt anybody else would’ve either, at the time. It was Cherry who initially pointed it out, as we walked beneath the skeletal branches of the trees, some of which were starting to show the first buds of flowers. The blossom trees waved their pink pom-poms gently in the breeze, shaking off the powder that coated their branches.

“What’s that?” she said as she chomped and smacked audibly on her trademark gum from which she’d earned her moniker. She squinted in the bright sunshine that shot daggers into our eyes.

I had, admittedly, been daydreaming as we walked along the path, dragging our sleds behind us in the snow. “Hm?” I asked, after being so rudely pulled from my walking sleep. “What’s what?” I said, as our footsteps crunched hungrily in the fresh snow. Somehow, the world around us was simultaneously as loud as a parade and silent as a tomb. A preternatural hush had fallen across everything, as if the world were hibernating and had yet to wake from its winter slumber; the blanket of white muffling all sounds from the town. And yet, birds called and sang their love to one another from invisible perches, voices melodic and fragile, songs indecipherable and beautiful. Even though the snow had fallen only the night before, it was starting to melt in the sunshine. Somewhere, not too far away, I could hear water dripping. The world might not be fully awake yet, but it was beginning to stir — rolling over from side to side beneath its duvet, grumbling at the thought of getting up.

Cherry grinned. “Off in LizLand, were we?” That was the little name for the place my mind often wandered off to. Cherry had come up with the name. Oh, she’s spending a minute in LizLand, she’d tell the teacher when I was caught off-guard and asked to answer a question. I smiled sheepishly in response and nodded.

She nodded. “Thought so. Anyway, as I was saying,” she said, raising her eyebrows, “what’s that?” She appeared to be pointing to a destination on the other side of the wire fence, which ran alongside the path we were currently walking. During the summer months, the field beyond that wiry barrier was a mixture of brown and green hues, all manner of vegetables sprouting from the earth, the scent of fresh manure stinging the nostrils of those who came close. Now, the lot was crisp and silvery, the snow beyond the metal squares of the fence fluffy and unbroken.

I scrunched my face up like a discarded shopping list. “I can’t see what you’re talking about, Cher.”

She sighed with exhaustion. “My God you’re blind!”

I pushed my glasses back up my nose with a dorky grin that showed too many teeth. “Why, that’s affirmative, Captain!” I said in a nasally voice. Cherry rolled her eyes in response, but I could see the smile that twitched at the corners of her mouth. I smirked. “Don’t act like you don’t love me,” I said and reached for her with the grabbing gimme-gimme hands of a toddler, making smooching, kissing sounds.

Cherry snorted and pushed me away with a grimace. “Get off, Liz!” she said with a laugh. “You’re so weird!”

“I never claimed to be otherwise,” I responded, matter-of-factly.

“And that’s why I love you, you big weirdo,” she said and reached over to ruffle my hair, which I avoided, albeit not very gracefully. This was typical back-and-forth for our friendship, and I won’t pretend that it makes any sense, but, hey, who said relationships had to abide by normal rules of logic? She was cool, I most certainly was not. She was naturally good at sports, and I… well, let’s just say my dad always told me I had two left feet. She was drop dead gorgeous and got a lot of attention from the opposite sex. I, on the other hand, was what my mother had previously described as “a plain Jane”. Gee, thanks Mom. But I was content to remain in my jeans and t-shirts (sporting either quotes from sci-fi T.V. shows or logos from obscure 70s prog rock bands), feet shoved into converse every month of the year.

Many people might look at our friendship and think that we’re the classic odd couple. And, to an extent, they’d be right. Cherry — real name Chelsea — and I were like chalk and cheese, yet, somehow, we just clicked. Some of her more popular friends thought I was a bit odd (which was true), whilst some of my dorkier friends thought she was stuck up (which was untrue). It never really bothered us. Why should it? We enjoyed each other’s company and that was that. Why complicate it by overanalysing it? Some people can get so caught up in social standings and subdivisions and groupings that they trap themselves in specific circles. “Be happy, have fun, and to hell with everyone and everything else,” Cherry used to say. I’ve come to think that she possessed wisdom that belied her age.

Cherry stopped walking and gestured more aggressively towards the frozen field. “But — seriously — what the hell is that thing, Liz?”

Frowning, I dropped the lead to my sled and cupped my hands around my (frankly filthy) glasses in order to try and block out the sun. “I don’t see what you’re—”

For a second, something glinted in the sunlight. The frost and snow were reflecting the light back at us in dazzling and pretty ways, but this was different, this was something—

“Something metallic?” I ventured, pondering out loud.

“Yeah, but what?”

“I dunno,” I said, honestly. “Some piece of farming equipment, maybe?”

Cherry was silent for a second, and then shook her head. “Nah. No way. It’s too shiny for one. Most farming stuff is all rusty and brown, isn’t it? Besides, what kind of farmer would leave something outside for the winter? Wouldn’t they, y’know, put it away? Keep it safe?”

“Maybe they forgot about it?”

“Yeah, maybe…” She didn’t sound convinced. “Wanna go take a look at it?”

I looked at her sideways. “No, no way, Cherry. I’m not playing truant and trespassing all in one day,” I said, shaking my head.

Cherry lifted her head back and laughed at the sky. “Liz, you’re missing art class and drama. Art class and drama. You’re hardly skipping anything worthwhile, are you?”

I ummed and ahhed for a second. “Well… I suppose not. It’s not like I’m missing maths or English—”

“Heaven forbid!” said Cherry dramatically, raising the back of her hand to her forehead and pretending to swoon.

I raised my eyebrows at her. “But I’m still bunking off school with you. I never bunk off school.”

Exactly! You never bunk off school, so why worry? Nobody’s gonna care, you’re a good kid. Besides, we both get good grades, right? The school’s too busy dealing with the kids who bring knives and pot into class to worry about anything else. They’re also too focused on the kids who can be outsmarted by a pigeon. We keep getting As, you and I, babe,” she said with a wink, putting her hand on my shoulder, “and we ain’t got nothing to worry about.”

I winced at the poor grammar but knew better than to correct her. She wasn’t bad at English, she just intentionally messed it up to irritate others. If I pointed it out, she’d just dive further into the mistakes of the language and pretty soon I’d be hearing phrases that wouldn’t sound too alien coming out of the mouth of a cowboy from the 1800s. Strange sense of humour, that one. “Exactly,” I said, imitating her. “I never bunk off school. Baby steps, Cher, baby steps.”

“Aww, c’mon. Live a little.”

“Live a little by climbing a fence and finding a piece of forgotten farm equipment?” I asked, dryly.

Cherry perked up. “Exactly! Live life on the edge!” she said, raising her fist to the sky. “Say yes to danger! Pee into the wind! Face down your fears with a grin! Feel the adrenaline coursing through your veins and learn to know what it finally feels like to be alive,” she said, widening her eyes in mock awe. She raised her hand, shaking. “Do you see that? That’s goosebumps, babe! Goosebumps! Don’t you feel it? The electricity in the air, crackling like… like… a thing that crackles! I don’t know about you, but I don’t think—”

“Oh my God, fine!” I said, throwing my hands up into the air. “Fine! Just — oh my God — just shut up!” I said, guffawing. I dragged my sled over to the side of the fence, where I planned to collect it once we returned but never would. I turned to the fence and tried to hoist myself over and failed miserably.

“No upper body strength,” said Cherry in a sing-song voice. “Here.” She crouched down on one knee and laced her hands together. “I’ll boost you over.” If it had been anyone else but Cherry, I would have protested at the embarrassment. But as it was my best friend…

“Giddy up, cowgirl!” I said as the well-practiced cheerleader threw me over the fence.

“Up, up and away!” she called as I flipped over. I want to say that I landed gracefully, but I doubt anyone would be surprised to learn that I landed butt-first. I leapt up, trying to wipe the snow from my jeans before the moisture could soak through, pretending I didn’t hear Cherry cackling, clutching her belly. Once the last of the laughter had trickled away and she’d wiped the tears from her eyes, Cherry kicked her sled over next to mine with the I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude some teenage girls seem to have perfected, and then vaulted over, nailing the landing perfectly. I gave her the side-eye for that and stuck out my tongue.

“Show off,” I said, rubbing my slightly damp derriere.

“Always,” she said, then performed a little bow. “Now, let’s go find our treasure!”

“Aye-aye, Cap’n!” I snarled with one eye screwed shut, firing off a salute.

“Like I said, complete weirdo,” she muttered under her breath as she wandered over in the direction of the thing that would eventually collect every soul in a ten-mile radius.

“Hm? What was that?” I called after her, following her footprints in the snow.

“Oh, nothing, nothing,” she said with a grin, waving the question away, continuing on her way. I bounded after her like a puppy, jumping from footstep to footstep. It wasn’t elegant, and I looked like a complete goof doing it, but there’s a certain kind of friendship where you have no filter over what you say and do because you don’t need one. That’s the kind of relationship Cherry and I had. When we were in each other’s presence, we simply did what we felt like doing — there was never any judgement (although there was often a lot of ribbing). I’m slightly embarrassed to say that it’s probably because of this that I didn’t see the signs.

It didn’t take us long to find the thing that had so quickly derailed our hike into the wilderness. When we set off that morning, we had aimed to get to the old mountain pass through the woods; Cherry said she’d been up here with some boys (“Just fooling around, nothing more!” she’d pleaded, innocently) and claimed there were some wicked slopes to ride down. I’d taken a bit of convincing, although, in hindsight, I wish I had protested more.

Cherry went straight to it, as if drawn by a magnet. Looking back, perhaps I should have noticed the change in her gait as we approached the thing. “Elizabeth,” said Cherry beckoning me, “come closer.” Her entire posture had changed, and I wondered briefly if she was scared. There was also a slight crack in her voice that I didn’t like, so I rushed up to join her.

I stopped dead in my tracks by her side, mouth suddenly very dry.

“What the hell is it?” I said, furrowing my brow, and then answered my own question: “I really have no idea.” I stared at it for a second, and then crouched down to get a better look at it, resting my hands on my thighs like an archaeologist. “What are you?” I whispered at my doom.

It was a small metal sphere, partially embedded in a mound of snow. It looked shiny and silver, reflecting the light gorgeously. It was impeccably smooth. The snow around it appeared to have been partially melted, as if it had landed here whilst quite warm. It looked absolutely perfect, there wasn’t a single blemish or flaw on it. It was so immaculate that it almost didn’t look real.

I gazed into it, feeling myself entranced. I could see my own reflection in it, upside-down, as if hanging from the very earth itself. I felt myself being pulled closer and closer. As I stared, I noticed the darkened silhouette beginning to shift and change, to warp, the eyes growing and moving, the mouth expanding, and—

A hand dropped onto my shoulder.

I jumped and screamed, spinning around. Cherry took a step back, raising her hands, face emotionless.

I gasped and pressed my hands to my chest, feeling my heart juddering inside. “Jesus Christ!” It was as this blaspheme was erupting from lips that the first of the awful realisations struck. My racing heartbeat hiccoughed irregularly. “The birds,” I croaked, suddenly very cold. “They—” I wet my lips with my tongue. “They’ve stopped singing.”

“Collect,” said Cherry in a flat voice. I barely heard it. The blood in my veins was turning to ice. The air in my lungs was forcefully expelled.

“It’s so quiet,” I said, voice barely above a whisper.

“We need to collect,” she said. I was about to ask her what the hell she was talking about, when my last earthly words died in my throat. Behind Cherry, on the far side of the bit of field we’d trekked across, a person was standing.

Watching us.

Goosebumps prickled up all over my body, and my stomach seemed to drop. Two things happened next, simultaneously: the second and third of the awful realisations.

First, came the understanding the other person in the distance looked exactly like Cherry. Not just like Cherry, but an identical carbon copy. The shape of her body, the curve of her hip, the curl of her hair, the colour of her jacket. It was Cherry. But the face… oh, God, the face. The eyes were two gaping black circles that seemed to be ragged holes torn into her soul, and the mouth was stretched wide open in a scream, but there was nothing inside that mouth, there was nothing, nothing but void, nothing but darkness and at the same time, at the same time—

At the same time, I noticed that, out of the corner of my eye, as I was staring in horror at the other Cherry who was all wrong, she was all wrong all wrong, I noticed the Cherry standing in front of me starting to change. Darkness appeared and started to spread across her face, like ink droplets exploding in water, like flames licking hungrily across paper, her face (her face her face) started to warp, her eyes blackening and widening, her mouth growing and stretching and growing and growing and when I forced myself to look back at her, I saw I saw I saw I saw—

Cherry was holding the sphere (she brought you here she’s not her what is she what is she what). She was cradling it, like a baby. She was rocking it, stroking it (he’s got the whole world in his hands) with the claws that belonged to no human, the fingers long, the skin a diseased colour, the nails dirty and rotten and falling off. In that frozen moment, the microseconds tick-tick-ticking away in my mind, I saw the face of Cherry – the real Cherry – inside the orb. She was screaming, pounding her hands against invisible walls. And then she was gone and the Cherry that wasn’t Cherry was tilting her head backwards, almost like she had done when she had laughed, but there was no laughter here, there was no laughter no laughter no laughter (never again never again never laugh there’s no more—)

A sound like rushing static sliced through the air, and the very world around me rippled. Have you ever seen a movie on one of those old VHS tapes? You know how the image sometimes wobbled and rolled? Well, that’s what happened. I felt it pushing through me, from the top of my head down to my toes, snapping my neck (I can taste blood I smell blood it’s like copper it’s blood I’m bleeding), splintering my bones, cracking my frail human frame—

And those eyes, those eyes, I couldn’t look into them, I couldn’t (couldn’t couldn’t) there was nothing nothing there they were empty there were two there were two there were two and I couldn’t run and I couldn’t run and the world was rippling and I’m sorry so sorry it’s tearing the world it I can feel it it’s pulling me in it’s taking me—

 

3rd April 2020

 

Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest

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