This story is featured on Jim Bronyaur’s #12Days of Christmas 2010, and has been listed on Preditors and Editors Poll for 2010. (To vote for it, you can go here: http://critters.org/predpoll/shortstoryh.shtml ). For those of you that didn’t get a chance to read it on #12Days, here it is:
Four Little Birds
By Lori Titus
Chloe fantasized about killing herself. There were so many ways that she could do it. Any number of household items would do the trick nicely. Six years earlier, when she was seventeen years old, she’d attempted suicide . Despite the pain and the blood loss, the cut she made across her wrist was too shallow to kill her. Now, she knew better, knew just how to make the cut that would open her artery.
Standing alone in the kitchen, she took a knife from the cabinet and held it up to the light. She could see her reflection in the blade. For a moment, she thought of fairy tales, the stories she read as a child. Swords and daggers were always the key to some great mystery, the symbol of faith and sacrifice.
Chloe blinked. She had no greater purpose to commit herself to. And she’d long ago lost faith in anything. She put the knife down on the chopping board.
From the refrigerator, she gathered her ingredients: cubes of beef, carrots, potatoes. And of course, the onions. She peeled back the skin and chopped the onion first. Chloe had learned that the one time she could truly be left alone in the house was when she was cooking. It was something that the children could understand; that she had a need to eat and be satiated, that she needed it to be strong and healthy. And they wanted her well. So they never asked questions. It did not seem to concern them that she cooked inordinate amounts of food for one person, or that the meals took so long to prepare.
Maybe it was because time moved differently for them. Upstairs, in the room they shared, they played in their own world. Very little about her concerned them, other than the fact that she was around when they asked for her. Still, she could feel them, like a low grade buzzing in the back of her head. The oldest, Michael, ordering the others around as usual. He couldn’t be much older than ten – Chloe smiled at the thought – but he had all the wisdom of an old man. Selia the next oldest, was eight. She spoke very little, her blond hair falling in ripples around her long face and pointed chin. Peter was seven. He spoke with his eyes, with his exaggerated motions, but rarely with words. The others said this was because he’d lost some of his hearing after a bad ear infection . The youngest, Nina, was the one who really controlled the rest, Chloe always thought. It was those big brown eyes, the roundness of her face. Her dark hair spilled over her shoulders like a veil.
Chloe swiped at the corners of her eyes with a paper towel and put the meat in a pot to brown. Only a year before, Chloe lived a different life. She’d lived in a small apartment in the city, a few blocks away from the University. A bartending job on nights and weekends brought in good money, enough that she handled her simple expenses easily.
She looked out the window. The wind gusted. The sun played hide and seek behind the clouds as it had all day, casting long gray shadows across the expanse of land. The house sat at the edge of an old farm. The ground was fallow now, brown, resting. It seemed it was always that way, as long as Chloe could remember. There were no stalks of corn or rows of squash, if there ever had been. She had it in her mind that the ground was cursed. That was why nothing could be produced from it.
Chloe shuddered. The day before she’d heard the weatherman saying that it would snow early this year. She hated the snow, because it meant she was imprisoned in the house. The coming of snow meant that she would have to go and get provisions. That was the worst thing of it, because she remembered how she’d been brought to them each time. Though time seemed to blur and stretch before her, the night when she first came to the children was always vivid in her memories.
Chloe remembered. She was walking home after work, because she’d had a couple drinks after closing time with some friends. The line between friends and customers was sometimes blurred at Vinny’s. The regulars began to feel like old chums. Now and then someone would buy her a drink in lieu of a tip. Her car was in the parking lot, but it was only two blocks to her place. So rather than risk it, she decided to walk back to her apartment. “You sure about that?” Tom asked. He was the guy who bought her drink. She’d caught his glance a few times, and she could tell that he liked her. He was harmless, but she knew he wouldn’t mind the chance to get her back to the apartment alone, and see if he could make something more of the evening.
“No, I’ll be fine,” she insisted. “See you next Thursday, right?”
He looked rejected, slipping his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, sure.”
She was halfway home when she heard it; the gentle rushing of wings. A crow landed on the ground a few feet from her. The bird tilted its head, regarding her with its black eyes. It cawed, and then took flight.
Chloe was relieved to see the lights of her apartment building come into view. The downstairs neighbor always kept her house brightly lit. Her own apartment upstairs was black, and the parking lot was lost in shadow.
She heard the voice. At first, she thought that she imagined it. Then a shadow detached itself from the side of the building. The little girl wore a faded dress with a pink sweater over it. She stretched out her brown eyes, her hands crossed before her. “Lady, help me.”
“What are you doing here?” Chloe asked. “Where is your Mommy?”
Something flashed in the child’s eyes. “Yes. Where is my Mommy?”
When Chloe woke again, she heard the flapping of wings. She was laying on a wood floor. Looking upwards at the ceiling, she realized that she was in an attic. In the dimness, she saw a child. It was the little girl from earlier. She sat Indian style, only a few yards away. Chloe blinked, not believing her eyes.
In the girl’s hands was a pigeon. It struggled in her grasp. She cooed to the creature. Bringing it to her lips she broke its neck, greedily lapping the blood up with her tongue, even as some of it dripped down her chin.
“She’s awake,” came another voice. The others came to stand before her. Children, three of them – two boys and a girl. “I’m Michael,” the oldest, and tallest of the brood said. His hair was long and brown, falling over his forehead, leaving his eyes in shadow. He crossed his arms.
“Where am I? Why am I here?” Chloe demanded.
“Shhhh,” the girl soothed. Her blond curls fell forward as she kneeled down beside Chloe.
Chloe tried to move, and became panicked when she realized that she couldn’t get her limbs to respond.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Michael said coolly. “Don’t try to struggle. It will just make this whole process uncomfortable for you.”
The blond girl was holding Chloe’s left wrist. Her fingers traced the blurred line of her scar.
“Ah. So you’ve wanted to die before. Would you like to die now?”
Chloe tried to shake her head, but it was no use. Tears came to her eyes. “No!” she cried.
“Selia,” Michael snapped. “You’re frightening her. We will all have a little drink from her. Be careful. You know what happens when you get greedy. We don’t want a repeat of the last time.”
The girl discarded of the pigeon, coming to stand with the others. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “My name is Nina,” she said, smiling.
“Enough with all that,” Michael said. They all drew closer, forming a semi-circle around her. “There’s time for her to know all of us later.”
Selia put Chloe’s wrist into her mouth. The coldness of her lips and soft tongue were shocking, like having her skin plunged into ice water. Selia bit down , her teeth sinking easily into Chloe’s flesh.
When Chloe woke gain, she was laying on a narrow bed.
She was still in the attic . In the darkness, she could hear them – the children. Though three of them slept, their minds were active. She could see in the darkness, shapes floating near the ceiling. Their bodies levitated as they rested. Their forms were dark, and she thought of the crow she’d seen on the street, just before she was snatched. That was one of the children, she knew it now, down to the marrow in her bones. They could change form. Chloe felt Nina before she saw her. The little girl got up on the bed. Climbing onto her body, Nina placed her cold head on Chloe’s breast.
“What will you do with me?” Chloe asked.
Nina smiled. She moved , settling into the crook on Chloe’s arm.
“Children are rather like pets, don’t you think?” Nina said softly. “People expect that children should belong to someone that will guard and provide for them. It’s a limitation that comes with possessing these bodies. I told Michael so. But one gets tired of roaming. So we took these bodies because they were available.”
“What are you?”
That brought a laugh from the girl’s lips. “A form of demon, I guess. You can feel us now, in your blood. You know that, don’t you?”
“We need someone who can do things for us. Vouch for being a parent. Someone who can go out alone without being questioned. We need a Mother.”
“You’re saying that you won’t kill me?”
“If you do what we say, you’ll be fine.”
Chloe shook her head.
“You’ll see, it won’t be bad at all. You’ll bring us what we need.”
“I saw you eat a pigeon,” Chloe blurted.
“That was nothing,” Nina said. “We raise pigeons. They make good snacks. Just like you humans like chicken.”
You humans, Chloe thought. Demon. Nina admitted that she and the others were not human.
“You’ll see,” Nina said with confidence. “I picked you for a reason. Sleep now,” she said, hooking her small arms around Chloe’s waist.
And though it was against her will, she was asleep in moments.
Thunder cracked through the air, shaking Chloe from her thoughts, and rattling the house. She listened. The children were talking upstairs, but they didn’t seem concerned by the coming storm. Of course, the weather would not scare them, Chloe thought bitterly. They aren’t really children.
Michael’s voice came to her then, strong, clear as if he spoke into her ear.
Go where I tell you.Chloe turned off the fire beneath the pot, and took a ring of keys from the kitchen drawer. She almost forgot to grab her jacket as she headed outside. She was greeted by the smell of dirt and ozone in the air. A fat drop of rain hit the top of her head as she opened the door to the truck.
Joshua Redmond rolled down the window of his SUV. He liked the smell of rain. A group of dark clouds gathered on the horizon, angry boilers by the looks of them. The rain was only drizzle, but he saw at least one lightening strike.
It wouldn’t be long.
He always made it home quicker when he took the back roads, and this gloomy afternoon was no exception. On a good day, he usually left a job site by five. But today, he told his crew to do what they could in the morning to cover the house they were working on, and go home. The men were done well before 2:00. He was looking forward to a quiet evening, a hot dinner and some football on television.
He was a quarter mile from home when the rain started to come down in sheets.
Joshua slowed the car to a crawl. Peering out from behind the windshield, he saw a truck sitting on the left shoulder of the road. The emergency lights were flashing, reflecting against the muddy water puddles on the ground. He thought about passing, waiting until he got home to make a call to the local police station. He would have if he hadn’t have seen the profile of the driver—long dark hair against a shoulder, and a red parka.
Joshua parked, got out of his car, and approached the truck. He tapped against the glass. The woman inside jumped. She’d been looking down at something in her lap.
The woman rolled down the window—he saw her cranking the knob back and forth, and gave him a sheepish grin.
“Sorry to scare you,” he said, hands shoved in his pockets. He was already getting soaked, despite his boots and jacket.
“No problem. Just trying to get a signal. My cell phone never seems to work.”
“Yeah you can kinda forget about getting reception out here. Do you know what’s wrong with your truck?”
She threw her hands up. “I don’t know. Engine? Fan belt? It’s always something with this piece of shit.”
He grinned. The truck looked like it was made in the late sixties. The girl appeared to be about twenty two, by his guess. She was very pretty—big round eyes and a little silver stud that poked through her eyebrow. It made him wonder if she had piercings or tattoos elsewhere? He felt a shiver down his spine thinking of it.
“Where are you trying to get to?”
“Home,” she said with a sigh and a shake of her head.
“Where do you live?”
“Holt Road, off the 20.”
“Well, at least it’s not far.” Joshua paused, looking up the road.
“Look, if you want to get home quick, I can drive you. I don’t think anyone is going to mess with your truck. That way, you can call someone from your line at home.”
“If the electricity is on,” she said.
He shrugged. “Yeah, there’s that. What do you say?” He switched feet, impatient for the woman to make up her mind. The icy rain was making its way down his back.
“If you don’t mind,” she said.
“Not at all.”
“Come on, let’s get in my car then. I’m Josh. What’s your name?”
Josh turned the heat in his car up nearly full blast. Chloe was shivering, and after a few moments she began to relax. He smelled her scent. Something soapy, probably the shampoo she used. For a while she kept her eyes on the road, her hands nervously clutched in her lap. He turned the radio on and kept it low. Lady Antebellum crooned in the background.
“So you live on Holt. That must be the old Bishop house.”
She blinked. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
He shook his head. “Wow. You know, I’m not a superstitious person, but I don’t think I could live there.”
“Oh. Chloe. Are you kidding me? If you’re not, I’m sorry…”
“I don’t know anything about the house‘s history. Why don’t you tell me?”
“Well, I guess whomever sold it to you was going on the hard sell. Do you have any family, anyone living with you?”
“Then maybe you won’t have any problems.”
Chloe could feel the children in her mind.
Selia was watching. She could feel the touch of Nina’s dark eyes fastened upon her. The smallest boy, Peter, whispered something about flying, and if he were allowed to go.
None of them were paying attention to the conversation between Chloe and Josh until he uttered the words Bishop House. “Come on, you can’t tease me like that and then not follow through,” Chloe said. “What is it they didn’t tell me?”
“Well, a whole lot. My family has been in construction for generations. My great grandfather built that house, so you know, we always hear all the scary stories people have. But this made the news. You’d have heard about it if you were living here at the time,” Josh paused, tapping the steering wheel with his index finger. “Seems things happen up there in fours.”
“There was a young family that lived up there,” he said. “The husband was military. So the wife was here alone. She had four children- two boys, two girls.”
The children were screaming. Chloe had to push the noise down to hear as Josh continued the story.
“The youngest boy was sick one winter. That much we know, because she took him in to see a doctor. He had a really bad ear infection. She was told that he had developed a mild case of pneumonia, but that the infection in his ear was so bad there was some loss of hearing on his left side. People speculated a lot about that. Why hadn’t she brought her child in earlier? Did she feel guilty about neglecting her little boy?
“She used to write her husband. At some point she started talking about having trouble sleeping. She was hearing voices. By the time the husband got her last letter, it was too late.”
“What happened to her?”
“She gave the children hot chocolate to drink, laced with sedatives. They were pills from her own prescription. Not enough to kill an adult, but easily enough to stop a child’s heart. She put them to bed. And of course, they never woke up.”
“Two girls, two boys,” Chloe whispered.
“It’s hard to imagine a mother doing such a thing on purpose, and she was an educated woman. She poisoned those children. And then she took her husband’s hunting rifle and killed herself.”
“Why didn’t she just take the poison herself?” Chloe asked.
“Beats the hell out of me. You don’t hear too many stories about women shooting themselves. Maybe she was ashamed of what she’d done? Who knows. At least, she didn’t shoot the poor kids. Hopefully they weren’t in pain. Weird thing is, they never found the children‘s bodies.”
“Never found them…?” Chloe said.
“Not a one. We only know what she did to them because of her suicide letter. But she never explained what she did with the bodies.”
Nina’s voice came to Chloe, low and clear as a bell. The Mother was a barrier to us. She was a sensitive. She felt us in the house. We wanted the children. Four young bodies to inhabit. There was no place for one like her, a human who recognized demons, even though we didn’t have a physical presence. So we made her do something to bring the children to the brink of death. And then, we made her kill herself. You had better be quiet. Because we want this man beside you, and if you don’t bring him to us, we’ll kill you both. Chloe could feel a stirring in her blood, heat. Something constricting her veins.
She bit her bottom lip, holding back the urge to scream. She dug her fingernails into her palm and then asked a question.
“What else happened in that house?”
Josh saw the change in her expression. “Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I’m not. Just tell me…what else.”
He shrugged. “I don’t rightly know,” he said. “Just that the Bishop place has a bad reputation, from far back.”
Chloe looked up, and saw a flash of wings in the air.
Something black hit the driver’s side of the windshield. The glass cracked. Josh hit the brakes. The tires squealed as they skidded against the rain slicked road.
The car went into a spin.
“He’s beautiful, Michael,” Nina said.
They stood together in the attic. The others floated around them in the rafters; Peter and Selia were in their bird form, sailing back and forth through the air.
Joshua laid at Nina’s feet. He was bloody and unconscious, unharmed. Chloe had administered a drug to him by injection, as Michael ordered her. Chloe stood wide eyed.
“How did we get back here?” she asked, hoping one of the children would answer.
The last thing she could remember was driving in Josh’s car, and him speaking the word, Bishop. Michael looked at her with a smirk. He reached out to touch her, caressing her forehead with his fingertips. “Shhhhh. Don’t worry. This will all be over soon.”
Nina stepped forward, taking Chloe’s hand. “Come. Let’s go to one of the rooms downstairs. You should get out of those muddy clothes and shower. And when you lay down, you’ll sleep, and feel better when you wake up.”
A tear fell from Chloe’s eye as she turned away from Josh. Had she dragged him all the way back to the house through the mud? Was that why every part of her ached? She was soaked to the bone, so cold that her teeth chattered. Nina led her away, and as they continued down the stairs, Chloe heard Josh screaming.
Chloe stood naked in front the bathroom mirror.
The shower was on full blast, the delicious steam swirling around her. She cried. She wanted to scream. The children were very happy. She could hear them in the background, a low rumbling in her skull. She thought about breaking the mirror. It would take one shard to do it. She shook her head. She had done this before–lured men here to their death for the benefit of the children. She couldn’t remember the details, but the knowledge was there, like cold metal pressing against her skull. How long could she go on this way?
After her shower, she put on a robe and slipped into bed. Sleep was what she craved. Oblivion, but just for a while. She skimmed the edge of the sleeping world, where shadows danced behind her eyelids, and then morphed into the black wings of birds.
When Chloe heard tiny footsteps, she did not open her eyes. She knew the gait all too well. Nina slipped into bed, pressing her little girl’s body against her, seeking warmth. She whispered in her ear, so close that Chloe felt her lips.
“Thank you,” she said softly. “You have been so good.”
Chloe muttered something in reply, but it sounded garbled, as if she were trying to speak under water.
“Hush,” Nina said, and clasped the woman’s wrist with her tiny hand.
She sat up.
Pulling the robe away from her skin, she ran into the bathroom, to look at her body. She had forgotten what it felt like to be so tall. She marveled at her generous breasts, the curves of her hips. With a giggle, she noticed a tattoo on her back that she’d never known was there. She traced the contours of her face with her fingertips, stopping to touch the silver stud above her eyebrow.
Walking back into the bedroom, she noticed the body of the child she had inhabited. What a small, powerless form. She stretched, enjoying the tension in her muscles. The child’s body would have to be taken care of, she thought, her lip curling in distaste.
Michael came into the room. No longer a boy, he inhabited the body of the man called Joshua. He stretched his arms out to her, and she embraced him.
“Adult bodies again,” he said with a grin. “Do you like this one?’
“Of course,” she said with a smile.
“We’ll find other bodies later, for Selia and Peter. We won’t need to take children anymore.”
She shook her head in agreement. “We can make children of our own.”
©2010 Lori Titus