The Greenhouse

  
MacGregor stumbled on a snaking root and sprawled headlong into the undergrowth.  The orange petals of a giant flower brushed against his face and he sprang back in horror, only to crack the back of his skull against a tree trunk.  

For a second, he was too stunned to move.  He leaned there, panting in the heavy air, gazing at the endless jungle canopy above through black spots that seemed to dance around above him.

The spots were just beginning to fade when he felt something curl around his ankle. Inky black tendrils of vine slid over the tops of his ragged boots.

With a cry MacGregor yanked his feet free and lurched away.  Sweat dripped in his eyes as he forced his legs to move at top speed, pushing through tangled growth and dodging low-hanging branches.

He was almost at the end of his strength when he burst out of the trees and felt the sun on his face.  The shock of it made him fall to his knees on the hard ground.  With a trembling hand he reached out and touched the packed earth.  There was no grass.  How long had it been since he had seen earth with nothing growing in it?

How long had it been since he had seen a clearing?

MacGregor’s last refuge had been a rocky cave, just large enough for him to lay down on the floor, in the side of a cliff of some sort.  Even there, the jungle had grown right up to the edge of the cliff and long vines had hung down over the opening.  It had been a miracle that he had found it, and he would have stayed forever, drinking from the condensation that formed on the stone walls, if hunger hadn’t eventually driven him out.  None of the plants in that area were edible.  He had tried, but the resulting stomach pain had only made things worse.

MacGregor felt the soft coarseness of dirt under his fingers. He hadn’t thought places like this existed any more.

Hardly daring to breath, MacGregor lifted his head to examine his surroundings.  

It was right there in front of him, larger than life and glittering in the sunlight that wasn’t tinged green from passing through leaves and branches.  A giant building, made of glass.

MacGregor stared it at, willing it not to be a mirage.  He blinked. It didn’t disappear.

Pushing slowly to his feet, he kept his eyes on the structure.  It had a giant, domed roof, also made of glass and topped with a golden knob.  MacGregor inched toward it, unwanted hope building with each step. Finally he was close enough to reach out and touch the glass.  It felt solid and smooth under his fingertips, clean and manmade, something else he never thought he would feel again.

MacGregor leaned forward, his nose almost touching the glass, then he jerked back suddenly, heart pounding.  A face! There had been another face on the other side!  Shuddering but unable to resist the fascination, he looked up again.  

A young woman stood just inside the building.  Her long dark hair was drawn back into a neat braid and her pale skin was clean. Clean! More astonishing, she was smiling, looking right at him and smiling a sweet and welcoming smile.  MacGregor stood up again.  

The woman gestured him forward and pointed to the left.  At first MacGregor found it impossible to take his eyes off of her, but as she continued to insiste, finally he looked where she was pointing.  A door.

A glass door, set in a glass wall, with shiny metal hinges untouched by rust.

Moving as if in a dream, MacGregor crossed to the door and opened it. He stepped into a tiny glass room, as humid as the air outside and even warmer.  He felt a moment of panic, but another door was right in front of him, and it opened just as easily as the last.  

MacGregor stepped through into an air-conditioned paradise.

The air was clear and dry. The sound of running water greeted his ear, along with another sound he hadn’t thought to ever hear again. Laughter. A warm, comforting smell met his nose, a smell he knew he ought to recognize but didn’t. Then it came to him: baking bread. Somewhere nearby, someone had put a loaf of bread in the oven.  Tears came unbidden to MacGregor’s eyes.

The young woman with the dark hair walked toward him, her smile warm and gentle. “It’s okay. We all felt that way when we arrived.”

MacGregor blinked as she reached a hand out for him to shake. Even this simple gesture seemed impossibly miraculous.

“I’m Holly,” the woman said. “Welcome to the Greenhouse.”

___________________________________

MacGregor had been at the Greenhouse for two weeks, but the constant fear that curled at the base of his spine had not let go.

Holly and the others told him several times a day that there was nothing to worry about, that he was safe here, that the Greenhouse had never been breached. This didn’t stop MacGregor from looking over his shoulder every few minutes.  

It wasn’t that he didn’t believe Holly.  He had seen the evidence of her words. The Greenhouse was built entirely of glass, so that he could see outside, could see the way the jungle stayed back, never touching those transparent walls.  He had seen the stream that passed under one corner and out the other side, no moss on its banks, no leaves floating on the surface.  He had seen the stock piles of food supplies, the neatly ordered garden just outside the walls. No weeds. No vines.

He had eaten the bread, filled his stomach completely for the first time in months.  He had taken a shower, washed away every bit of the dirt and sweat and then dried himself on a huge towel. He had forgotten what it felt like to have dry feet.

Still, something wasn’t right. Something wouldn’t let him relax.

It was more than just the lingering terror of a war survivor.  It was more than post traumatic stress.  This was an intuition, a premonition.  Something didn’t add up, and his mind couldn’t stop working on the problem, even as he ate well and did his share of the work and held an actual book in his hands again.

There were no safe places anymore.  The jungle covered everything now.  Its carnivorous plants had consumed almost all of the animals a good many of the humans as well.  Most of those that had learned to fight, to stay free and alive, had succumbed to disease or poison as they attempted to find food in an animal-free world.  MacGregor had heard of cities built out on the oceans, of ships strapped together and people fishing for their survival, but he wasn’t sure if those were myths or reality.  In any case, the ocean was far away, and no one traveling far these days survived.

There were no safe places. The jungle had a mind of its own and it could move. It had ripped apart cities and tunneled its roots into bunkers and crumbled fortresses to dust.  

No, there were no safe places.

And yet, he stood in one.

No one could tell him why.

That was the thing that really bothered him.  No one could explain what kept the jungle back. An old man named Harry Spaulding and his two grown daughters had been in the Greenhouse the longest, but even they did not know who built it, or how.  When they had stumbled across it ten months before, nearly dead from starvation, it had been fully powered, fully stocked, but completely empty.  They had settled in and never left. 

Since then, people had trickled in, usually one at a time, though occasionally in pairs.  Now there were thirty-eight people in the Greenhouse, and it had sleeping room for dozens more.  

Who had planned this place and then never occupied it? 

None of the other thiry-eight seemed to question their refuge.  Exhausted from the struggle to survive before they came, they merely accepted this relief, shed grateful tears for it, grew to trust it.  Now they were living their lives as if such a thing were normal.  Two couples had gotten married since arriving at the Greenhouse, and one was actually expecting a baby. How they could be joyful at the thought of bringing a child into this horrifying world was a thing MacGregor couldn’t understand.  He avoided the pregnant woman as much as possible.

No one ever went outside, except to work in the small garden, and even then, they kept close to the glass walls. No one on garden duty had been attacked, they said.  Whatever kept the jungle away from the Greenhouse, it seemed to include the garden area.  

MacGregor was relieved that at least they didn’t suggest planting the garden inside.  Nothing green grew inside the Greenhouse.  Ventilation pumps brought in oxygen rich air from outside and pumped out the stale carbon dioxide air the humans breathed out.  Holly had showed him how it worked.  Maintaining the systems was one of her jobs.  

MacGregor had stared at the air pumps for several minutes, something about it tickling the back of his mind, but he had been unable to put his finger on it, and then Carol Spaulding had come by and told them there were fresh cookies in the kitchen, and Holly had dragged him off to taste them, smiling with that way that lit her whole face as he tasted chocolate for the first time in years.

The moment with the cookies and the light on Holly’s face was golden.  For a little while MacGregor felt that life truly could be good.

But that night on his bunk, the clean-smelling sheets pulled up to his chin, his mind went back to the ventilation system, to the dry air, to the scientific perfection of this place.  

Something wasn’t right.

___________________________________________

MacGregor had been in the Greenhouse for two months when the next new arrival stumbled up to the glass walls.  The man was emaciated and too shell-shocked to even tell them his name.  The first night, he thrashed in his sleep and yelled the name Sonia over and over.  MacGregor took a turn sitting by his bedside, getting sips of water and vegetable broth into the man’s mouth and trying to not to see his own nightmares before his waking eyes.

Three days later, cleaned up and fed and decently clothed again, the man was able to tell them that his name was Blake.  Whether it was his first name or last wasn’t clear, but no one pushed him. No one asked him for his story.  No one asked anything at all.  They all had come here the same way.  For the first time, MacGregor felt a sense of belonging with this people.  He was one of them.  He even found himself reassuring Blake, as the man stared at him with haunted eyes.  It’s safe here.  You’re safe.

That night, Carlton Sparrow disappeared.

No one saw the old man leave the Greenhouse, but when they all sat down to breakfast the next morning, his place was empty.  A thorough search left no doubt that he was gone. After all, there wasn’t much room to hide.

At first, MacGregor felt a dark suspicion of the newcomer.  It seemed too much of a coincidence that Carlton’s disappearance would happen just days after Blake’s arrival.  When he said as much to Holly, though, she just shrugged and told him sometimes people wandered into the jungle. They never came back.  She seemed to take this as a matter of course, though MacGregor couldn’t think of any reason why a quiet old man would suddenly decide to leave safe haven and head into the deadly trees. He hadn’t seemed depressed.

Still, when MacGregor saw Blake later in the day, the man was barely able to sit upright.  It seemed ridiculous to think that he could have attacked anyone.

All of MacGregor’s suspicions were back, but he still couldn’t find anything definite to worry about.  Weeks and months passed. The Greenhouse remained safe.

Over the course of a year, MacGregor came to feel that the Greenhouse was home. It was a bit confining, of course, but there was always work to be done and plenty of company.  After his solitary months before arriving here, this normal interation with other human beings never got stale. Meanwhile, the garden flourished. They expanded it just enough that they were on the point of being self-sustaining.  Without his permission, hope began to sprout in MacGregor’s heart.

During that first year they had eight new arrivals and three more disappearances.  It wasn’t until the last one that MacGregor noticed that these comings and goings always seemed to even out the number of men and women.  He tried to shrug the observation off as coincidence, but it clung like a burr to the back of his mind.

Two more couples asked to be married.  MacGregor knew of at least three others who weren’t making it so official.

The Wilsons’ baby was born and thrived.  MacGregor saw the way the other women watched the child. He knew there would be more soon.

He began to spend all his evenings with Holly.  She liked to read books from the huge shelves out loud to him, and he whittled corn cobs with his knife.  He was getting pretty good, even if he did say it himself.  He was making a chess set.

One night before going off to bed, Holly kissed him.  MacGregor kissed her back in spite of himself.

A week later, three sisters stumbled out of the jungle.  They were all in their early twenties and looked surprisingly healthy for having spent so much time in the wild.  MacGregor assumed it had a lot to do with the long machete Ruth, the oldest, was carrying.  She looked like she knew how to use it.  He and Holly greeted the sisters and found places for them to sleep.  MacGregor saw their doubtful expressions and remembered all his own questions.  Somehow they didn’t seem as urgent any more.

The questions didn’t go away either.  

Two nights later, MacGregor lay on his bunk unable to sleep.  He thought of the look Holly had given him before bd.  They hadn’t kissed since that first time, but now he wished they had.

MacGregor got up and crept over the room where Holly slept.  There was almost no light, just dim emergnecy lights in the hallway, but when he opened her door, he could make out her still form and hear her peaceful breathing.

He almost walked away and let her sleep.  He wasn’t sure what made him step into the room.

The texture under his bare feet was the first thing he noticed.  It was soft and springy, nothing like the tiled floors of the Greenhouse.  It was a texture he knew.  

A sudden horror came into his mind, and MacGregor sprang back. He slapped the button on the wall and light flooded the room.  

Vines covered the floor.  Vines with leaves so dark a green that they almost seemed black.  Even as MacGregor watched, they crept up the side of the bed where Holly was sleeping.  

But the light had woken her.  Holly screamed.

The vines stopped their advance, wriggled a bit, and then pulled back rapidly, disappearing into a hole in the floor that quickly closed ast the tiles slid together.

MacGregor couldn’t move, his mind frozen with shock and horror. It was Holly’s sobbing that finally broke through.  Even as he ran to her, careful not to step where that hole had been, even as he took her in his arms, he knew what he had just seen.  He understood what it meant.

Still, he said nothing to Holly.  He held her until she was calm.  By then he had a plan. He had to be sure.

Together, Holly and MacGregor woke the others and gathered everyone in the dining room.  MacGregor explained and asked them all to stay put, to stay together until he came back.  No one argued. No one volunteered to come with him either.

It wasn’t until MacGregor was back in Holly’s room that he noticed Ruth had followed him.  Her machete was in her hand.  He nodded.

Together they pried open the false tiles and looked down into dark hole below.  MacGregor shined a flashlight into the abyss.  The light reflected back to him a few feet down.  Water, probably.  Nothing was moving.  

MacGregor dropped into the hole. Ruth was right behind him.  They headed off down the tunnel.  It didn’t go far before it slanted upward.  They moved more cautiously now.  

MacGregor stopped when his flashlight showed him exactly what he had expected to see.  The giant head of a reddish-orange flower waited just outside the tunnel.  It waved back and forth, even through there was no wind.  Its petals had been closed, but when the light hit them, they opened, revealing a space large enough to swallow a man whole.

Ruth gave a shout, and MacGregor tore his eyes away from the man-eating plant.  Vine were now wriggling toward them like so many snakes intent on their prey.  Ruth swung her machete in a vicious arc and severed the first reaching tendrils.

Both man and woman turned and ran back up the tunnel.  Vines such as these could be fought, but not in such an enclosed space.  

At the opening, MacGregor boosted Ruth up, and she reached down and pulled him up after her.  They threw the tiles back in place, knowing it wouldn’t buy them much time, and sprinted for the dining room.

When they burst through the dining room doors, a riot of color met them on every side.  The heavy fragrance of flowers was in the air.  Its sickly sweet scent filled MacGregor’s head.

He saw Holly and the others seated at the long tables, vacant expressions on their faces.  

“Everyone get up!” he yelled. “We have to go now!”

No one moved.

MacGregor seized Holly’s arm, dragging her to her feet.  He saw Ruth shaking her sisters.  

“THis place is a trap!” MacGregor urged Holly.  “We have to leave now.”

“This is a haven,” Holly said dreamily.

“No it isn’t!” MacGregor shouted. “It’s a farm.  They’re growing us, for food and probably for the carbon dioxide we breathe, too.”

“We’re safe here,” Holly insisted dully.

The perfume on the air was so heavy that MacGregor could hardly think straight. “No,” he protested, but not so forcefully this time. “No place is safe anymore.”

“They leave us alone here,” Holly murmured. She sank back down onto her chair, eyes drifting shut.

“No,” MacGregor said. They needed to leave. He knew it was urgent, but he couldn’t remember why. He forced himself to think. “No, they brought us…they need us…they’re…cultivating us.”  Yes, that was it, cultivating.  For food. For air. Like a garden. Like their garden outside. The corn was growing so well this summer. They would soon have things set up to last them forever. This place would be sustainable.  They could stay here their whole lives.  And be safe.  Safe.

MacGregor sat down next to Holly and took her hand in his. He saw Ruth still standing, looking around her in confusion.  It was always hard your first few days in the Greenhouse.  It was such a big adjustment.

MacGregor closed his eyes for just a minute.  He hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep.  Maybe if he just rested his head here for a bit before breakfast.  Ruth was breathing softly next to him.  He drifted off.

The windows in the ceiling opened and long stems of multicolored flowers withdrew out into the night.  The windows close again. 

The air inside the Greenhouse cooled.  The last of the perfume was pumped away along with all of the carbon dioxide the humans exhaled.

MacGregor dreamed of children splashing in a cool stream and woke to the smell of oatmeal cooking.  He smiled at Holly.  She smiled back.

The jungle stayed outside and watched from a distance.

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Why You Should Never Ignore the Prickle

Once upon a time there was a man driving along a straight lane just as it was about to get dark.  

He knew where he was going and had friends waiting for him at the end, and the scenery on both sides was perfectly peaceful, but still he had a funny prickle at the back of his neck.  He recognized the funny prickle.  It always came when something was not quite right.

Still he drove on as the sun slowly set, and he tried to ignore the prickle.

(Silly, silly man.  You should never ignore a prickle on the back of your neck.  Your neck knows things that the rest of you can’t quite figure out.  When it prickles like that, you should always turn around and change all of your plans.  Always.)

Just as the last rays of sunlight were streaming across the road, the man’s car sputtered and turned itself off.

He drifted a ways and the rolled to a stop on the side of the road.  Then he got out of the car, still ignoring the prickle, which by now was more like a jabbing under his collar.

He lifted the hood of his car.  Nothing seemed to be wrong.

He closed the hood and straightened up, looking around for the first time.  What he saw was quite odd.

  

As far as the eye could see stretched flat, neatly-clipped grass, marked off in giant rectangles by white paving stones.  On the edges of each rectangle, small cone-shaped hedges grew, each one surrounded by its own tiny fence.  This pattern was repeated over and over with eery consistency off into the distance.

Rubbing the back of his neck and refusing to worry, the man took out his cell phone to place a call to his waiting friends.

The phone was dead, and no amount of button-pushing or power-cord-plugging-in could make it come to life again.

The man no longer felt that he could ignore his prickling neck, but he also no longer felt that he had many options left to him.  His car would not move. His phone would not work. There were no other living beings anywhere at hand.

(Silly, silly man.  There are always options.  Sometimes you just have to look harder to find them.)

The well-manicured look of the landscape suggested that people did live nearby, though.  After all, someone had trimmed those hedges and put up those fences and cut that grass so low.

With no other option that he could see, the man and his pricklig neck began to walk down the white paving stones away from the road and (he hoped) toward some sort of house where he might find help.

He walked a very long time, past a great many curiously precise grass rectangles and even more oddly perfect cone hedges. 

He walked a very long time.

And eventually, he did see a house. Or what he thought must be a house.

The building was perfectly white and perfectly rectangular and each of its four corners touched the edge of a smaller building, perfectly black and perfectly cone-shaped.  The man had never seen anyplace so strange.  There was a large front door in the exact middle of the white rectangle, but no windows that the man could see.

With a great deal of prickling in his neck but still no other options, the man went to the big front door and knocked.

Silently, the door opened.  The man was blinded by the light that poured out into the night but he heard music from inside, so he didn’t hesitate long before stepping inside.

“Is anyone home?” he asked.

The door shut behind him.

The man’s friends wondered why he didn’t arrive that night, but they didn’t begin to be worried until the next day when he didn’t return anyone’s calls.  They drove down the long, straight lane, all the way to his home in another town, but they never found any sign of him or his car in all that peaceful landscape.

And they never saw him again.

Bombinate

  
It seemed like a good idea at the time.

When MegaCorp first rolled out their hum-activated bracelets, people flocked to buy them.

Both stylish and functional, the Buzzlet looked like a slim piece of jewelry and functioned like a portable computer.  Set to recognize the pitch and tone of its owner, each Buzzlet could be operated with a series of buzzes and hums.  Turn it on with a hum so soft no one but you could hear it! Call your mother with a quiet buzz!  A range of notes to play music, to search the internet, to record a conversation, to add something to your grocery list, or even to turn up the heat on your thermostat or open your garage door!

Interacting wordlessly and handsfree with the device that runs your life seemed like an elegant solution to the conflict between convenience and privacy.  The world was in love, and the object of its desire was a narrow metal cuff.

Soon everyone was walking the streets humming softly under his breath, driving along buzzing and chatting, issuing harsh bleats of wordless frustration in moments of stress.  It became nothing to see children sitting next to one another chatting via texts in a series of vibrating tones.  It was like a secret language had blossomed over night.  

Just as the Buzzlet became so inexpensive that it had spread to every corner of the globe, the side effects began to appear.

At first it was a few isolated cases.  The woman on the buzzing street corner who suddenly stepped out into traffic and was almost killed.  The child who nearly burned his humming parents to death when he intentionally set fire to the house. The couple who smashed their Buzzlets right before completing their murder-suicide pact.

It was easy to dismiss these as fringe events.  The world had always had crazies, people who seemed perfectly normal until the day they snapped.  Those who tried to draw attention to the Buzzlet connection in each case were ridiculed as nay-sayers and Luddites. 

The number of incidents increased over time.  Soon anti-Buzzlet cults rose up and even the world-famous Church of the Silence, which became known for its sound-proofed meeting chambers and members who walked the streets wearing noise-cancelling headphones. 

None of this stopped the popularity of the Buzzlet, however.  If anything, these protests were a kind of free advertising, and there were rumors that MegaCorps encouraged some of its high-profile detractors to speak out. Anything to keep the world talking about the Buzzlet.

Scientists had taken notice of the upswing in violence and began to conduct studies.  A few were well-funded, but many were condemned to obscurity until the Greenfield case brought them out of the woodwork.

George Greenfield was a respected senator from a wealthy New England family.  He was an early adopter of the Buzzlet and became known for interrupting high-stress debates on the floor with loud buzzes, ostensibly for taking notes but also conveniently distracting for his opponents.  Of course, others copied this strategy, necessitating new rules for Senate debates.  But even once use of the Buzzlet was banned from the chamber, Senator Greenfield continued to wear and use his Buzzlet prominantly, right up until the day that he brought a homemade bomb to a meeting on the hill and blew up two senators, three lobyists, and an unknown number of aids.

Suddenly the media was flooded with scientists touting their studies that hums and buzzes activated more than a computer chip.  Certain centers in the human brain were also agitated by these noises, they claimed, and over time this agitation built up into uncontrollable violent impulses.  Studies were still in progress to understand exactly why or how it could be countered, but in the mean time, scientists cautioned against use of the Buzzlet until more data had been collected.

Of course, MegaCorps produced its own scientists to debunk these findings.  They spoke at length about neurons and synapses and sound waves, muddying the waters just enough to keep public opinion divided.  The majority of people, by now completely dependent on their Buzzlets, carried on as normal.

The world was full of buzzing.

As always happens, there came a tipping point.  Naturally, it was in August, one of the hottest Augusts that North America had seen in decades.  Some have argued that the heat contributed to what happened.  Others say it was just coincidence.  It scarcely matters now.

All that matters is that in a matter of weeks, forty percent of the population of the western world turned from average citizens into berserkers, full of violent rage.  Homes were destroyed.  People were slaughterd in their places of work. There were massacres in the streets.  

When the violence had finished running its course, the population was decimated and the humming was silenced.

The world was full of silence.  

Those that remained to rebuild found that they had very little to say.  

And the bees, which had begun to die out in the world humans had created, thrived again and buzzing was left to their domain.

Battle of the Birds, Pt. 2

ID-1006838

Jessie had always wanted a pet bird.  She loved the way little birds hopped around and their chirpy songs.  She had begged her mom to get her one for her birthday, but her mom said they were noisy and carried germs and it was a horror to clean out their cages.  Jessie promised to do all the work, but her mom was having none of it.  It was a small satisfaction that she also said a firm no to Jason having a pet snake, but Jessie still felt that her mother was being unfairly biased.

She was playing in the yard when she first saw it.  A sweet little robin was sitting on the fence, its little red belly standing out against the rest of the soft brown.  It looked her right in the eye, and Jessie would have sworn she saw a twinkle there.  It didn’t fly away when she walked slowly closer.  It just gave a little hop and landed back where it had been.   Jessie walked right up to the fence, barely daring to breath.  Slowly, she held out her hand.  The robin cocked its head to one side and held its ground.

“You are the cutest thing,” Jessie said softly.  “You know I won’t hurt you, don’t you?  Aren’t you the smartest and sweetest little thing?”

The robin ruffled its feathers and stared back at her.

“Do you want to be friends?” Jessie murmured.  “I could show you my room.  You’d like it in the house.  It’s warm and safe in there.”

The little bird hopped again, and Jessie held her breath.  Then it hopped right into her hand.  It was so small that it fit perfectly in her palm.  Jessie felt happier than she’d ever felt.

Slowly, slowly, and very carefully, Jessie walked into the house.  Fortunately, her mom was in the basement folding laundry.  Jessie carried the robin into her room.  After she had shut the door, she set it carefully on the bedpost.  The robin hopped up and down, then fluttered from place to place in her room, exploring.  It gave a little twitter, not loud enough to give them away but just enough to show that it was happy.  Jessie laughed.  This was the best day ever.

**************

At the dinner table that night, Jessie couldn’t stop grinning.  She ate all her food and only at the last minute remembered to complain about the green beans so her mom wouldn’t get suspicious.  Then when no one was looking, she put a few in her pocket to feed to the robin.

Jason started in with some story about how his friend Jimmy had been attacked by a cardinal.  He claimed that it landed right on Jimmy’s head and pecked his ear until it bled.  Jessie rolled her eyes.  Jason was such a liar.  Just last week he had eaten the last four cookies in the jar and then made up a story about a homeless guy coming by and begging for food.  It was pathetic.

Back in her room that night, Jessie fed green beans to the robin.  It twittered again and then sat perfectly still while she kissed it goodnight.  Jessie snuggled into her bed and felt the robin snuggle down on the pillow next to her.

*************

At school on Monday, Jessie felt like she was carrying around the world’s best secret.  Not only did she have a pet bird, she had caught it herself and it ate right out of her hand and slept on her pillow.  She wanted to tell all of her friends, but she didn’t think any of them would believe her.

“You guys will never guess what happened to me this weekend,” said Madison Snively.  “A little bird flew right in my window and landed on my bed.  At first I was scared, but when my dad came in to get rid of it, it landed on his shoulder and started singing.  It was so cute.  My dad looked it up.  It’s a finch.  We’re going to keep it.”

Jessie had always disliked Madison Snively, but now she positively despised her.

************

Every day that week, Jessie rushed home from school to check on the robin.  It was always waiting for her, snuggled up on her bed or hopping around her dresser.  It always greeted her with a happy twitter.  Jessie would spend the afternoon in her room, feeding the robin seeds or lettuce and doing her homework with it perched on her shoulder.

She still hadn’t told anyone about it.  Four more girls at school had talked about their new pet birds.  Apparently getting a bird was the newest fad, like silly bands that you had to feed and clean up after.  Jessie didn’t like feeling like part of a fad.  Her robin wasn’t like that.  He was a friend, not some pet she would drop when it was no longer new and cool.

On Friday, she bumped into Jason’s friend Jimmy in the hallway.  He had a big bandage over one ear.  She remembered Jason’s ridiculous story about the cardinal and wondered what had really happened to Jimmy.

That day on the way home from school she passed a huge raven sitting on a mailbox.  It cawed loudly and obnoxiously to her, and Jessie hurried by as quickly as she could.  Creepy old thing.

*************

Saturday morning was sunny.  Jessie saw that robin was sitting at the window in her room, staring outside.  She thought maybe he wanted to go out and fly around for a while.  She hoped he didn’t want to leave forever.  She wondered if she should let him out for some air.  If she did, would she ever see him again?  Maybe she should just keep him locked up safe inside.  After a while she decided that was cruel. She opened the window.  The robin flew out.

Jessie ran downstairs and out into the back yard.  She watched as the robin fluttered up into the trees.  She heard the twittering of many birds, and then a whole flock of them swooped up out off the trees and off into the distance.  Jessie almost cried.  Her robin had gone with the other birds.  She would probably never see him again.

**************

No one was in the woods that day.  No one saw the great flocks of tiny birds that swooped in and landed on every available branch.  No one heard the echoing rustles and twitters and warbles as they waited.

Several people noticed the circling hawks.  Men and women stopped to comment on how they had never seen so many in one place before.  A few children ran inside, telling their unbelieving parents that they had seen owls and eagles.  One old man counted thirteen ravens fly past his front porch.  He went inside and locked the door.  It was a day for bad luck.

No one was in the woods that day.  No one saw the hunting birds descend or the songbirds launch their attacks.  No one saw owls fall under the weight of dozens of starlings.  No one saw an eagle taken down by a hundred finches.  No one walked under the trees where ravens’ bodies littered the ground and feathers drifted down like fall leaves.

The next day, the sky was clear of birds of prey.  No one thought anything of it.

************

Jessie almost cried with relief and joy when her robin came home early the next morning.  She woke up and there he was, sitting outside her window.  She opened the window and let him in, noticing that his wing was a little crooked and there was some dried blood on his feathers.

“Oh, you poor thing!” she crooned. “Did something try to get you?  Come here.  We’ll fix you up and keep you safe.”

Jessie spent the day taking care of the poor sweet robin, never imagining that all across town little birds were coming home to their new families similarly injured and being cared for just as she cared for her robin.

That night, Jessie once again shared her pillow with the little robin.

She fell asleep happy and never once gave a thought to how sharp its little beak was or how quickly it’s tiny claws could move.

It was the last time she would overlook such important things.

Image courtesy of Paul Brentnall at freedigitalphotos.net.

Battle of the Birds

“They’re all afraid of you, you know,” said the owl to the raven, who was trying to smooth out his ruffled feathers.

“Then they’re not very bright, are they?” croaked the raven.  “I was just trying to warn them that the cardinal has made his home in those trees up there.  Why was that a reason to throw rocks at me?  No good deed goes unpunished, I guess.”

“It’s your dark color and raspy voice, I think,” the owl mused. “They find those things creepy.”

“Oh, go back to sleep if you can’t say anything helpful,” snapped the raven. “It’s not like I can change my feathers or my voice.  And I still don’t think those things would matter if that stupid poet hadn’t written that stupid poem.”

Never….more…,” chuckled the owl.

“Shut up,” said the raven.  His feathers were back to normal and he looked properly disgusted.  “You don’t exactly have the friendliest reputation with them.  All that flying around at night when everyone else is sleeping.  Are you telling me that isn’t creepy?”

“Yes, but they love me,” preened the owl.  “They think I deliver mail for magical people.”

A derisive caw was the only answer that deserved.

“Don’t worry,” said the owl, his voice getting sleepy again.  “Look.  They didn’t listen to you.  They’re about to go into the woods, so you’ll get the last laugh after all.”

“Serves them right,” said the raven, but he didn’t mean it.  His black feathers hid a very soft heart, and he really hated that two-faced cardinal.

As the owl went back to sleep, the raven flew up over the distant woods, just to keep an eye on things.

*********************

Tommy had an uncomfortable feeling.  He wished they hadn’t thrown rocks at that nasty raven.  True, it had freaked him out perched on that fence post and cawing at them like it wanted to eat them for lunch, but he would have just hurried away if the other boys hadn’t dared him to hit it with a skipping stone.  He hadn’t wanted to look like a chump.  And for a minute it felt good.  His rock was the only one that landed.  He’d always had the best aim.  Still, his grandmother had told him once that people who were cruel to animals would be visited by crows in the night and have their eyes pecked out.  Of course he didn’t believe that.  But he didn’t feel comfortable.

His friends were laughing and joking as they ducked into the woods.  Tommy laughed with them.  He didn’t want to seem weird.

Jimmy saw the cardinal first, pointing at its bright red body and daring Tommy to hit it with another rock.

“Nah,” Tommy said. “That’s a cardinal. They never hurt nobody.”

Jimmy said it was too small anyway.  Tommy heard the taunt in the words, but he ignored them.  Just like he tried to ignore the cardinal as it hopped from branch to branch, following them.

When they got to the stream and the log that made a rough bridge across it, the cardinal was still with them.  Tommy watched it as he waited his turn to cross.  He had always liked cardinals, liked their bright color and distinctive plume, but this one felt wrong.  It sat glaring at them out of one beady eye, and Tommy wondered why he had never noticed how black a cardinal’s eye could be.

On the other side of the creek, the boys came to the meadow where they usually played ball.  A strange rustling sound greeted them.  Carl had the ball under one arm, but no one started the game.  Instead, they all stood staring around.  In every branch of every tree were birds, not scary birds, just little robins and sparrows and finches.  They chirped and twittered and sang, a cacophony of cheerful noise.

“What the…? Where did these come from?” Jimmy asked.

“My sister’d go crazy if she saw this,” Jason said.  “She’s always beggin’ my mom for a pet bird.”

“You could take one home,” Carl said. “Enough to go around.”

Tommy said nothing.  That uncomfortable feeling was growing.

Something whooshed right past Tommy’s ear, and he ducked without thinking.  The other boys laughed.

“Just that cardinal, scaredy-boy.  You think it was going to take your head off or something?” Jimmy had barely finished the words when the cardinal landed on his own head.  “Hey! get off me!  Get off, you!”

Jimmy batted at the top of his head, but the cardinal just hopped out of the way of his waving hands and pecked hard at Jimmy’s ear.

Jimmy screamed.  “Ow!  Get it off!  Get it off me!”

Tommy and the other boys rushed at Jimmy, yelling to scare the bird away.  It landed two or three more strong pecks on Jimmy’s head before flying off to the top of a nearby tree.  Jimmy was yelling and crying and blood was dripping down his forehead.  Carl had dropped the ball and was yelling already under the trees, yelling at them all to get out of there.  Jason and Tommy grabbed Jimmy by the arms and hurried him away.  Even with all of Jimmy’s yelling, Tommy could hear the silence behind them.  Every single one of those sweet little birds was silent and watching them.

“Tweeeee, twerp, twerp, twerp, twerp!” the cardinal called loudly.  Tommy heard the taunt in the song, but he ignored it.

Suddenly all the birds burst into joyful song again.

The boys ran full-out down the path, leaving the twittering meadow to the care of the bright red bird, calmly smoothing his feathers.

*******************

The raven circling high overhead saw the red spot and heard the laughter of his little friends, and his heart was heavy.  He had known that cardinal was no good, but he hadn’t heard that so many had flocked to his side.

The raven watched as the boys ran crying through the woods.  It was too late for them.  They had already proved that they couldn’t listen.  The hunting birds needed to be warned, though.  The success of this attack would just encourage the cardinal to make more.

The raven wheeled away, his harsh caw drowned out by the wind and the sound of a thousand tiny wings.

******************

To be continued…

The Other Side of the Corn

I posted this one back on 2010, inspired by something my son said in the car when we were visiting Indiana.  My kids were little then, and I was afraid to tell them stories that would be too scary, so I never actually told them this one.  [Insert evil laugh.] They are older now.  And we actually live in Indiana.  In fact, we’ll be visiting a farm soon.  It’s the perfect time.

“Corn fweaks me out. Evewy time I see the corn, it fweaks. me. out.” -Scott, age 3

On the other side of the corn field, life is different. It’s quieter for one. A lot quieter. And the air is warm, no matter what the time of year. The sun seems somehow closer, hotter, but not as bright. And no wind stirs the leaves of the silent trees.

I never meant to go there. I was only going to go for a short walk. I just wanted to get out of Grandma’s stuffy house for a little while. I pushed my way past the first few stalks, tracing a path between the rows. At first, I enjoyed the way the stalks behind me blocked my view of the moldering old house. I relished the feeling of being alone in my own private place. I walked on.

Before long, the solitude began to feel uneasy. The corn was higher than my head, so I could see nothing and feel no breeze, but the sun still beat down on my head. I was uncomfortably warm. I had never noticed before how sharp the edges of corn leaves could be. They left invisible cuts on my arms as I brushed past them. I turned to go home.

I couldn’t. The way behind me impassible. It was as if the space between the rows had never existed. I pushed ahead anyway. The tiny cuts turned into bigger ones. I walked on and on, trying to form my own path, but I never seemed to come to the end. I wondered if I was walking in circles. All sense of ordered rows had disappeared. The heat had become unbearable, and now the secluding height of the corn stalks felt threatening. With every step I was more irrationally convinced that the corn was clutching at my arms, purposefully trying to hinder my progress. I struggled on.

Then the corn relented. It thinned out even. In a matter of moments, I was stepping free of the corn field. But my grandmother’s house was nowhere to be seen. Nor did I see the road that should have run past this field and led to her driveway. Instead, I saw a strange farm house with a barn and several outbuildings. There were trees and an old truck parked out under them. It wasn’t so hot here, but the air felt dead. The light was strange. It was the sun.  Something about it was wrong.

Going back through the corn field was impossible. I shuddered just to think of it. I didn’t much like the look of the farm house either, but asking for directions seemed like the only option. I went up on the porch. The steps creaked just as farm house steps should. I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. I peeked in the window. The place had furniture, but I couldn’t see anyone around. It was unnaturally quiet. My footsteps on the hollow boards of the front porch echoed across the yard. I knocked again and waited for no answer. I turned to go.

It seemed I had no choice but to follow the road, though I didn’t want to. Surely it would lead me back to something I would recognize. I began to walk.

I hadn’t gotten very far when I heard the dog behind me. In the general hush, the clicking of his toenails against the blacktop was very distinct. I stopped and turned. He stopped, too, and stood looking at me, white head cocked to one side of his black body. Where had he come from? I hadn’t noticed any dog around the farm house back there. I hadn’t noticed any animals at all. Come to think of it, I hadn’t even heard any birds in the trees or crickets chirping in the grass.

The dog seemed harmless enough. I kept walking. The click, click of his toenails continued. He was still following me. I stopped. He stopped. I walked on. He walked on, click-clicking steadily. The noise now sent a shiver up my spine. I stopped and turned again. “Shoo!” I said. “Shoo! Go home! Shoo!” The dog just looked at me, not even panting in the warm, dead air. He obviously had no intention of “shooing.” I walked on, with the dog behind me. I walked a very long time.

The sun was going down now. Why wasn’t I getting anywhere? The road stretched on ahead of me, apparently endless, cornfields on either side, unbroken by any lane or pathway. This wasn’t right. Why was it so quiet? Where did this dog come from? Soon it would be dark. I knew I couldn’t face walking down this road in the dark with that dog clicking away behind me. I looked at the corn. I had no choice.

The dog didn’t follow me into the corn. That’s the best thing I can say.

What I endured, walking though those rows and rows of corn, stalks looming over me, leaves brushing my face with a biting caress, darkness getting ever deeper, I don’t care to tell. I became convinced that the corn was never going to let me go, that I was doomed to struggle forever.

Then I saw a light flash out over the stalks. Someone had thrown open a door and artificial light beckoned from somewhere not too far away. I pushed on. I pushed through. At last I was free. My grandmother’s house was in front of me. It’s rotting front porch had never looked so welcoming.

Inside the house, my grandmother was rocking and knitting. She didn’t even look up to where I stood, filthy and scratched, in the doorway.

“Been for a walk in the corn?” she asked.

 

The Broken Mirror

One of our happiest summer traditions is a blazing fire in the fire pit, s’mores, drinks, and stories.  The kids like them scary.  The parents like them funny.  Everyone takes a turn.  This is the one they pried out of me the other week, not exactly high drama but good for a little shiver on a hot night.

IMG_3067

Once upon a time there were three children who lived with their parents in an ordinary neighborhood on the edge of town.  They had lots of friends all up and down the street, and they spent hours playing basketball and running through sprinklers and riding bikes and climbing trees with their friends.  The three kids were lucky, though, because they lived at the edge of town and the dense woods grew right up to their back fence.  There was a little gate in their fence that led out into the woods, and the three kids loved to slip through the gate and play in the woods.  They were the only ones with such a convenient gate, so they often had the woods to themselves, which was just the way they liked it.

One summer day the three children were busy building a fort in the woods.  They gathered interesting sticks and smooth stones and the occasional piece of old fence or broken garden pots that neighbors had thrown out under the trees.  The middle child (and only boy) knotted an old rope around a branch for lifting things up, and the oldest fitted things together to make rough walls and a floor, while the littlest poked about among the leaves on the forest floor gathering beautiful odds and ends to decorate their playhouse.  That was how she came to find the most wonderful treasure of the afternoon.  Nestled in the moss at the foot of a tall pine was a shining silver circle.

The little girl picked it up, brushed off some dirt, and turned it over.  It was a mirror, cracked down the middle but set in a silver case that held the pieces together.  She was so excited when she saw it that she ran immediately to show her brother and sister.  They all agreed it should have a place of honor in the playhouse, and they worked together to rig a little shelf for it to sit on.  So the afternoon passed happily, and the playhouse came together nicely, and as they worked, each of the children would glance over from time to time at the little mirror and think how pretty it was glittering on their wall.  They each thought to themselves that the playhouse reflected in the mirror was much more magical and wonderful than the playhouse in the real world.

As dinner time approached, they knew they wouldn’t have much longer to play, so the oldest called a meeting.  “This is the best playhouse we’ve ever made,” she said, “and I think we should try to keep it as nice as possible.”  They all agreed.  “We all need to promise right now that we won’t tell anyone else about our playhouse or let anyone else come back here to find it.  That way no one will wreck it.”  Her brother nodded, but the littlest furrowed her brow.  She had been looking forward to showing the playhouse off to her little friend down the street.  “This is really important,” her big sister explained.  “If anyone else comes here they might knock things down.  They might break our mirror or take it when we aren’t looking.”  The littlest couldn’t bear the idea of something happening to the mirror, so she agreed that the playhouse would be their own special secret.  “I wish we could play here forever,” the oldest concluded, “and that no one would ever bother us, but we’d better go home for dinner.  If we aren’t on time, Mom and Dad may come looking for us, and then they would find out where our playhouse is.”

Again they all agreed, and they hurried through the trees towards their own little gate, each casting one last look at the mirror glittering on their playhouse wall but none noticing the little flash of light that burst out of it just before they were out of sight.

They went into their back yard and up the back steps into the kitchen.  Instead of their mother standing at the stove finishing dinner as they expected, they found the room chilly and dark.

“Mom!  We’re back!” they shouted.  No one answered.

“Dad!  We’re back!  Where’s mom?” they shouted, sticking their heads into their father’s study.  No one was there.

“Mom?  Dad?” they yelled, stomping up the stairs.  The house was completely silent.

The kids searched every room.  They were all empty.

They went out into the yard and yelled again.  There was no answer.  They went into the front yard and shouted as loud as they could.  No one replied.

As their own shouts died away, the three children noticed that the street was unusually quiet.  They began to get a very, very uncomfortable feeling in their stomachs.  The littlest felt tears already poking out of the edges of her eyes.

They thought maybe they should ask some of the neighbors if they had seen their parents, so they went next door and knocked.  No one answered.  They went across the street.  The house was seemed deserted.  Up and down the street they went, ringing doorbells and peering into backyards.  Everyone was gone.

Everyone.  Suddenly the middle child gave a great yell.  His sisters came running.  He was standing outside the last house on the street, pointing at the front door.  The girls immediately saw what had made his face go white.  The door had a tiny window in it, larger than a peephole, but still just as perfectly round.   It was edged in silver and a crack right down the middle.  It reminded them distinctly of something they had once thought beautiful, but this didn’t seem beautiful at all.  Standing here on the empty street, all alone, that cracked window looked ominous and disturbing.

“They’re all cracked,” said the littlest.  She was pointing at the rest of the house.  Sure enough, when the kids looked closer they saw that all the windows, whether big or small or square or rectangle, had a single crack running right down the center.

Slowly they backed away from the house and began to move toward home.  That was when they noticed that all the houses were the same.  Cracked windows.  Cracked windows.  Cracked windows.

The kids began to run, and they ran all the way to their house, through the front door, up the stairs, and into the girls bedroom.  There they stood, panting and clutching each other until the oldest said with a tremble in her voice, “I think we should go into the bathroom.  Remember what Mom always said when we talked about tornadoes?  No windows in the bathroom.”  She was looking at their bedroom window and its enormous, dividing crack.

They crept into the bathroom, and the oldest turned on the light.  There before her, she saw herself reflected in the mirror, and she had a crack right down the middle of her face.  She grabbed her sobbing sister and backed out into the hallway.

“You know where we need to go, don’t you?” said her brother.

“Yes,” she said.

“I’m scared,” said the littlest.

“We know,” said her siblings.  “We are, too.  Let’s do this together.”

Slowly and carefully now, trembling with every step, the three children went out into the back yard, through the little gate, and into the woods.  Shadows were falling all around, making the trees look taller and more menacing.  They made their way to the playhouse and stopped just outside.

“Who’s going to do it?” whispered the oldest.

“We all will,” said her brother.

Together they went into the playhouse and took the mirror off the wall.  On the count of three, they hurled it out the door as hard as they could.  It flew through the air, a glittering arc, as beautiful as ever in spite of their fear.  Then it smashed into the trunk of a tree and burst into a million pieces.  This time they all saw the flash of light that darted out on impact.  Together, they breathed a sigh of relief.

“Do you think that did it?” asked the middle child.

“I don’t know,” said the oldest.

“I hope so,” said the littlest.

“Kids!” called their mother.  “It’s time for dinner!”

And the three happiest children in the whole world went in to eat and to tell their parents all about their new playhouse and their plans to invite over every kid on the street to play in it.

The last campfire tale I told them:  The Window.

Another scary story: Little Red Didn’t Listen