A haunting piece of flash fiction set in the Australian bush.
The birds don’t come here anymore—not since the burned-out husk appeared in the woods. No one knows how it came to be here. The grass in the clearing is green, the surrounding trees unmarred. Yet the car’s innards are scattered about like this was a crime scene someone tried to obliterate.
Riding through the silent woods, you’d never suspect that ahead lies the burned-out husk of a car. I know this car. I see it on the roads every day, cruising through my sleepy suburb, usually painted a cheap off-white or navy blue.
The birds don’t chatter anymore. I used to speak to them. I tried to see what they see. I used to be able to hear the beat of their wings, because the rest of the woods are always silent.
I stop pedalling and set my foot down on the dirt path. Every noise too loud. I wait for the silence to settle back in. If I wait a little longer, I know the birds will come back to me.
I wait, the burned-out husk beside me. The last rays of sunlight too weak to touch anything down here.
I wait, the bush too static around me. But there, I see it—a small dark bird bouncing along the path towards me, its tail fanning out to show off a quivering blue streak.
I could catch him—if I wanted to.
He hops in a zigzag pattern. I wonder if he knows I’m me, if he’s anticipating my next move. He stops. Cocks his head up towards me. I think he knows I’m here. But he couldn’t outrun me even if he tried; his foot is bleeding.
‘Oh, no,’ I whisper.
I swing my leg across the frame and lower my bike to the ground, soft as an autumn leaf. He’s twitching, trying to decide whether or not he should flee now. My sneakers crunch on the dirt; a lingering echo in the dormant woods. He stills.
I crouch down; my breath becomes static. We’re so close.
‘Come here.’ I beckon with my fingers. But he isn’t looking at me anymore.
His gaze slants up to the charred remains of the car beside us. He steps backwards, his eyes on me again. They should be glittering like pools of night sky, but the sunset won’t allow it.
I rise without moving my feet. My body turns towards the car, but my eyes won’t leave his.
‘What have you seen?’ I breathe.
I feel myself leaning forward, feel my arms extending, and before I even realise it, he tries to take flight.
I’m on my knees, scrambling forward and clapping my hands over his injured body. The fleeting warmth of life slips under my fingers, but when I unclasp my hands, the space inside is empty.
A tuft of feather finds a cradle in my palm. I throw it to the ground and stand.
Heat rivulets down my shins. My knees are red raw, dusty tangled ridges adorned with fragments of stone and plant matter.
From my right comes a weak chirp.
He’s here. He knows he misjudged me. He knows I’m here to save him.
I mount my bike and begin circling the burned-out husk. The glittering shrapnel in my knees wiggles further into my flesh as my legs bend and straighten with each pedal.
I glance in through the car’s blown-out passenger-side window. Pressed into the seats are a few flattened bottles and a few smashed ones.
Maybe that’s how the car exploded; maybe someone tied a burning cloth to the bottles and hurled them through the windshield; maybe the glass shattered and burrowed into the passengers’ skins; maybe their eyes were ripped apart, eyelids ribboned, eyeballs melted when the fire caught; maybe their hair curled and singed and shrivelled; maybe their bones burned; maybe that’s what the black stuff coating the skeletons of the seats is; maybe it’s ash; maybe it’s the remains of the people who knew their killer’s identity.
I hear him again, this time scampering in the underbrush. My arms tilt the handlebar towards the sound and the wheels of my bike follow.
The birds don’t come here anymore. They never linger—not like they used to.