A haunting free short story for October

crows

Sometimes I am struck by an idea that doesn’t fit the rest of my ideas, isn’t going to sell, but just wants to be written. I’ve published some of those stories as bonuses to my more “likeable” stories. But I have one that I’ve been wondering for some time what to do with. Maybe someday I’ll include it in an anthology. But today, I feel like sharing it. I may take it down in a week, like Kristine Kathryn Rusch likes to do. Or maybe I’ll leave it up.

In the mean time, enjoy a strange and haunting tale about a girl with feathered friends who are anything but friendly.

FEATHERED FRIENDS

Judy Goodwin

It all started when Myra was twelve.

She was playing outside on her bike–a little carefully, because earlier that day there’d been a red spot on her underwear, and she’d gotten the rather dubious congratulations from her mother for ‘becoming a woman’, which had come complete with a hug, and a box of what she felt could only be described as adult diapers. The pads were bulky, awkward, and totally uncomfortable, and they interfered with her riding.

Not surprisingly, she was in a foul mood.

Birds were chattering in the treetops above her, making quite a racket–she wondered if there was a cat nearby, that they were making the fuss about. As her bike passed under the tree, a large flock of them took to the skies, swooping and diving and crying out harshly, coming uncomfortably close to her, wings brushing her shoulders, her hair, the handlebars of her bike.

She stopped to shoo her hands at them. “Go away, crazy birds!” Large birds, she noticed–black birds, starlings. One landed right on the wheel of her bike, regarding her with its shiny black eyes. “Shoo!” she cried at it, but it only squawked at her, fanning her with its wings.

Myra cried out, as a starling landed on her back, claws digging in through the fabric of her t-shirt, scratching her skin. A second bird landed on her arm, a little sparrow, and before she could react, it was pecking at her pale freckled skin, cutting, drawing blood. The bird on her back pecked at her neck, and Myra screamed, flailing her arms at them, knocking them off her. Birds cawed and swooped at her, and in a panic, she began pedaling, as quickly as she could, back for the house, waving one arm at them to deter them, feeling the sharp tearing of beak into her skin.

She threw the bike down and ran the last few feet, opening the screen door and scrambling at the doorknob with bloody fingers, getting it open. Cool darkness greeted her; she flung herself through the door, then slammed it, feeling feathered wings beating at the wood. She huddled in the darkness, cradling herself, watching drops of blood fall on the white tile.

Her mother found her that way.

#

That first day, she’d thought it was a freak occurrence, just something out of the blue, but it soon turned out that it was something she was going to have to learn to live with. Every time she went outdoors, the birds were there, circling, waiting for a chance to strike. Myra was forced to wear a raincoat, long sleeves, hat, gloves, and glasses, regardless of weather, to protect herself from the sharp beaks and talons. Worse, she always felt muddle-headed, foggy, as if her brain were sloshing through soup, trying to work. She had dreams of mirrors, glass, reflecting the birds’ wings, flapping, spatter of blood on the floor, like rubies.

Her first day of high school, Myra put on her rain cap, coat, and gloves, secured the backpack on her back, and sighed as she caught a glimpse of herself in the hallway mirror. She looked like a freak show. Sure, she could take off the gear once she was inside the walls of the school, safely inside. But her image would already be ruined, probably for the entire length of high school. Long, dank black hair hid her pale face; glasses hid the rather remarkable silver eyes.

Throwing a scarf across her face, she opened the door and made the dash for the bus, flocks of sparrows calling out at her, swooping around her head like an angry hive of bees.

The other kids soon started calling her Myra Magpie.

#

Graduation day should have been a wonderful occasion. Myra was an excellent student, one of the brightest in her class, and she’d earned a full scholarship to any college within the state. But she couldn’t attend the graduation ceremony, of course; it was held outside. She couldn’t stay more than five minutes outside, except in the most miserable weather, or attract clouds of angry birds.

She received her diploma in the principal’s office, a week after everybody else did. And cried.

#

College was a nightmare, every day. It wasn’t that large a campus, but it was large enough that one couldn’t park their car outside each building, which meant that Myra had to hightail it down bike paths, waving a book to ward away feathered fiends as she tried to make her classes.

Teachers were concerned about her health. She was growing paler day by day, and not just from being indoors most of the time. It was as if her skin was paper thin, her veins showing up starkly in contrast to the skin, which seemed to hang off her bones. Her face was gaunt, her hair lifeless and dull. It came out in clumps when she brushed.

Winter was the best time of year, because then most of the birds left south for warmer climates, as snow covered the ground and icicles sparkled in the trees. It was only then, in the bitter cold, that Myra truly felt happy. She could stand in the sunlight, looking at the ice and the white cloud of her breath. At such times, she felt like she belonged to something greater. Her roommate thought she was crazy.

Spring came, and with it, the birds. Myra had almost forgotten them, when she was walking home from class one day, a bundle of books in her arms. It was still chilly, so she was wearing a coat and scarf. No sunglasses, however. She caught a glimpse of a dark wing before a talon tore into her cheek.

She screamed, and threw a book at the offending bird, clipping it on one side. It crashed to the ground with a squawk, and she ran over to it, stomping on it with her tennis shoes, kicking it until it was a bloody mess.

“That’s it! Leave me alone, you horrible menace!” Myra kicked it once more for good measure. To let out the anger, finally! But a shadow moving fast along the ground caught her eye. She raised her head to look at the sky, and let out a long, low moan.

There was a whole flock, which must have been hiding in the trees, all taking to the air now, circling her like vultures. It was a good hundred yards to her car; she’d never make it before they all attacked her. Already her cheek was bleeding, and she could swear that only attracted them more. Why couldn’t they just eat seeds? Why her?

Three birds swooped down and attacked her shoulder, pecking holes in the sweater; she beat them off, but more came, surrounding her, pecking, scratching with their sharp claws. She could feel her fragile flesh tearing, even as she tried to defend herself, kicking and screaming as she felt cloth and skin rend, tear away.

They descended upon her like flies to a rotting carcass. She sobbed, curled into a ball on the ground, just trying to protect her face and watching the grass around her turn red with blood . . . she reached out to touch a sparkling droplet, like a ruby, and realized something.

Her hand was made of crystal.

It was as if beneath the shell of papery skin, bone and flesh had transformed into glass, perfect in every detail of her hand. Skin hung in tatters, shredded by the birds, but beneath, her crystalline hand moved, solid and yet fluid at the same time, and amazingly transparent. She peeled away the bloody layers, revealing more; her arm, elbow. The birds finally left off from their pecking, hopping about on the pathway, regarding her with bright beady eyes.

“You knew all along,” she accused the birds, stripping away more, revealing what had lain beneath the skin–for how long? Since that first day they’d attacked her? How had they known? Myra shed her clothing as well, freeing herself from their drab weight. She shook off the last of the red droplets and stepped out into the sunlight, radiating it from within. She looked like a star descended from the heavens, or perhaps a snowflake. Clear, and clear-headed at last, and light as a sunbeam. From her back, pecked clean by the birds, unfurled a pair of crystalline wings.

Following the birds, she took off into the sky.

 

-end-

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