by Graham B.
A girl caring for exotic birds stumbles upon a horrifying secret.
"Dammit, Chloe! If these birds get out, they won't come back!"
Chloe looked up from her Ransom Riggs book in confusion.
"What are you talking about, Uncle Jake?"
Jake's voice drifted up to her room from outside, just audible over the tweets and shrieks of over a hundred exotic birds.
"You left the door open on two cages!"
Chloe frowned. She hopped up and went to the window, where the familiar, musty scent of feathers hovered about her head.
"I didn't forget! I always close them!"
She heard muttering down below and decided to join her uncle among the aviaries.
Between the cages, the sound of birdcalls was deafening. Flashes of color danced within the darkened cages as the birds hopped from perch to perch, tilting their colorful heads to watch Chloe with perpetual suspicion as she walked by. Her uncle was standing next to the budgerigar cage, trying to affix a new water tank. The budgerigars flitted about inside, a twittering rainbow of furtiveness.
"Uncle Jake, I didn't leave the cage open."
"It was open when I got here. You did feed the birds this morning, didn't you?"
"Maybe the birds opened the door. Some are pretty smart."
"Not budgies. Listen, Chloe. I'm retired now, and I don't pull in as much money as I used to. I need these birds to supplement my income."
"I know, and I'm sorry."
Jake finished with the water tank and walked over. He ruffled Chloe's hair.
"It's okay. Just don't let it happen again, all right?"
Jake walked away, leaving Chloe alone among the cages. Chloe closed her eyes, and let the sounds of the birds wash over her. Chloe liked the birds, their colorful feathers, their smells, and didn't mind helping out her uncle with the aviaries over the summer. She also knew that if Jake managed to sell enough of the exotic avians, there might be a Nintendo Switch in it for her. Her father had hinted as much a week ago.
The noise intruded on Chloe's reverie. She turned around and found it. It was the door to the rosella's cage. Chloe rushed over and pushed it closed before the birds could get out. The door hadn't just been opened. It was broken. The noise had been a bar from the cage door detaching like a spring. Chloe looked under the cage and found the spool of baling wire. She carefully wired the door shut.
Chloe realized that the birds had gone silent. She could hear the rustling of feathers and the click of talons on wooden perches, but no calls. The rosellas appeared to be looking past her at something. She turned, wondering if the neighbor's cat, Bonkers had wandered into the aviary. The cat was no threat to the birds, but the birds never trusted the little predator.
There was no sign of Bonkers, yet the birds all seemed to be staring at something. As she watched, the birds' heads all tilted as one, staring at an object as it moved in their midst, something Chloe couldn't see. As Chloe watched, she realized that their line of sight was getting closer and closer to the rosella cage--where she was standing.
Chloe shuddered as a chill fluttered up her spine. She backed away and hurried to the house.
Inside, Jake was pouring Kool-Aid from a pitcher into a glass.
"Want some?" he asked, and Chloe suddenly realized that her throat and mouth were completely dry. She gratefully accepted the glass and chugged the whole thing in one go.
"Thirsty?" asked Jake, smirking.
"The door to the rosella cage is broken," said Chloe. "I wired it shut."
"I'll have to fix that later. Thanks for taking care of it."
Chloe fidgeted for a moment.
"Did you see the birds acting strangely?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, acting like something's there, even though it's not. Like they're seeing ghosts."
Jake guffawed, and poured himself more Kool-Aid.
"They're birds. They would startle if you blinked too hard. Why? You see something odd?"
Chloe shook her head.
"Just me, I guess."
Jake looked at her for a moment.
"Are you okay, Chloe?"
"I'm fine! Did Aunt Kay like the birds?"
"Yeah, though she probably wouldn't like me selling them. She had this crazy idea that I should cut 'em loose, let them fly free."
"Yeah, had that kind of spirit. I guess that's why she flew the coop, to Argentina."
"I thought you said she went to Brazil."
Jake shot her a narrow-eyed look.
"Yeah, that's what I meant. Just loved her some Brazilian soccer."
Jake threw out his cool-aid without finishing it.
"Well, I'm going out. I've got some errands to run. If I'm not back by five, can you feed them?"
Chloe nodded, but something inside her churned her stomach. She cast a glance over to the back window, through which one of the cages was visible. The birds had gone back to their sonic cacophony.
She was halfway through her book, and the sun was low enough to start illuminating inside the cages when the phone rang.
"Chloe? I got a flat tire. It'll be a while. Make sure you feed the birds, okay?"
Chloe said yes and hung up. She went downstairs and outside. The low sun had taken on an orange cast, which dulled the birds' plumage. She went to the shed and pulled out the bin of birdseed. As she approached the cages, she saw the birds' eyes glinting in the sunlight. They were like little black wells, deep and unreadable. They stared at her, and made no sound. Chloe shivered, despite the summer heat. She approached the first cage, bin under her arm.
The familiar sound drew her attention. Chloe saw the door to the cage, hanging by a single bar. The parakeet inside eyed the opening.
"No!" said Chloe. She dropped the bin and ran to the cage. As she tried to put the door back in place, the parakeet hopped over and bit her on the finger.
Astonished, Chloe jerked her hand back, her finger smarting. The birds had never bitten her before. The door swung free, and the parakeet hopped out and fluttered away.
"Oh no!" said Chloe. She started toward the cage, but six more parakeets escaped before she got there.
Ping! Ping! Ping!
The sound came from more cages. Chloe hurried over. Now the cockatoos had clambered out and were perched on top of the cage. Doors swung loosely, or rested on the ground, leaving the cages wide open, and the birds were taking full advantage. As Chloe watched helplessly, the birds suddenly took flight in a colorful mass and launched into the sky. They fluttered about above the house aimlessly, then winged away westward, into the setting sun, and toward town.
Chloe ran back to the house and grabbed her phone, then paused. What was she going to tell Jake? He would be furious! His nest egg had just escaped, and he wouldn't buy that the doors to every last cage had decided to break simultaneously. Chloe sat down on the couch and pondered her options, end decided that she had none. She was bemoaning her situation when the phone rang.
"Is this Chloe Williamsen?"
The voice was deep, rough, very official-sounding, yet friendly.
"This is Sheriff Townsend. Are you inside?"
"Close all doors and windows and don't go out. We're sending a car for you."
"What's going on?"
There was a pause.
"I've got some bad news for you, Chloe. I got your number out of Jake Williamsen's phone. You're his niece, right?"
"Did something happen to Uncle Jake?"
"I'm afraid he's been the victim of some sort of animal attack. He didn't survive."
Chloe almost dropped the phone. She gathered herself.
"Are you still there, Chloe?"
"Yes," she whispered hoarsely. "What happened?"
"Well, it's been hard to put together. He was next to the road with a flat tire, waiting for a tow truck. Witnesses say a swarm of birds came right out of the sky and attacked him. Bit and scratched him to death."
Chloe didn't reply.
"That's not all. When your aunt disappeared, Jake told us she had run off with a guy."
"He said she went to Brazil--or Argentina."
"Yeah, he told us something like that. But, we found some papers in his glove compartment. A love note from guy who wasn't him. Also, her passport, so she couldn't have left the country. Any way you can shed some light on this?"
"My deputies should almost be there, Chloe. They're going to search the place. I'm sorry, but that house is a crime scene. We need to look for evidence."
"Look under the bird cages," whispered Chloe.
She turned and stared through the back window at the empty cages.