What The Birds Knew
Is there anybody left?
By Rick Hartford
We are sitting in our back yard in our Adirondack chairs, facing each other.
We say nothing, my wife Mimi and I.
We communicate via text on our iPhones..
We have made a pact to never leave each other’s side.
We have made a pact to never take anything for granted.
It was early summer when we first heard the birds send out the warnings. There was no mistaking it. Their warnings were urgent, almost frantic.
And then there was no sound at all, save the wind through the trees.
The birds knew it was close.
And to make another sound would lead it right to them.
It is happening again.
The birds screaming.
And then absolute quiet.
Our world becomes a silent movie as we walk to the basement hatchway. I had already oiled the hinges. Barefoot, we ease down the cellar stairs, gently move the lock— again greased — into place. And sit. And wait. In the dark.
When we hear the birds singing again we open the hatch and emerge, blinking in the bright sunlight.
Most of the people in our neighborhood are gone. We continue to search for anybody who remains.
There was a time in the recent past that we talked over the fence with the Johnson’s. Tears ran down Doris Johnson’s cheeks as she told us that they had to put down the family’s two Cocker Spaniels, Rosy and Fred, because they couldn’t keep them from barking after the warnings.
Their two children, Alison and Buster, 7 and 9, had locked themselves in their rooms and wouldn’t come out for days, other than midnight raids on the fridge.
Now their house is silent.
That is the most frightening thought. That we could be all alone.
The electricity has been off for a week. We worry about what will happen when the weather turns. It is already late September. There are no street lights. No lights in the houses. No light in our hearts.
We used to hear occasional howls of misery. They have stopped.
When it first came we were living under the assumption that help would be on the way, that the military would defeat it. That we would be rescued. We were glued to the television and radio and the internet for updates. Loud explosions and machine gun fire could be heard in the distance as fighter jets flew frighteningly close to the treetops over our heads.
All we have now is white noise.
There are no more planes or helicopters in the sky. The highways are littered with abandoned cars. There are no more policemen. In the city four miles away whole blocks have burned down without a fire engine in sight.
We saw a neighbor, Ralph Hood, a big fellow in his 40’s walking down the street, shotgun in hand, glancing to the left and right like he was on patrol. It grabbed him from above, dismembering him as he was pulled up, the gun clattering to the ground as he rose to the top of the 80 foot maple trees. A bloody leg dropped in the middle of a scream, landing atop a manhole cover.
That was the moment that I had an idea. Looking at the manhole cover.
Did it know anything about the network of storm sewers underneath the streets? Could that be our Underground Railroad? My wife is worried about methane gas. I worry about rats.
For now it is better to stay at the house where we still have some food and water. We talked about taking the chance and going the eight blocks to Stop and Shop, creeping through the back yards We decided against it. It would be a wasted trip. The store is certain to have been stripped of everything.
We are better off searching our neighbors’ houses when they are abandoned. The thought of all of us coming together to fight a common enemy seems laughable when it’s every man for himself. There is no one to talk to. No leader to rally us.
Years ago my wife’s father made her a periscope. It was this wooden toy with a couple of mirrors, but it did the job. We have it placed in the basement window facing the road in front of he house. Most of our vision is blocked by the rhododendron next to the house, but we can still see something of the street.
We were in the back yard when we heard it.
Sort of a swishing sound from out in front of the house.
We made our way to the basement window and looked through the periscope, taking turns.
I saw a young boy, he looked like Peter Pan to me, dancing down the middle of the street, a saber in each hand, slicing into the sky above his head. Sparks snapped off the blades as they sliced through some unseen electric medium. Above his head moved what looked like a black raincloud, or a swarm of a million flies.
How is this boy alive? Why is it that he isn’t being pulled aloft to a screaming death?
I abandoned the periscope and ran upstairs to the front door and eased it open. The boy had passed by, but was close, so I whistled. It got his attention and he spun around to find the source. I whistled again and waved. My wife showed up behind me. “Close the door!“
I reluctantly did so and lost sight of the boy. Frustrated, I knew that I couldn’t chance going outside, but I felt that what was happening was important. That we might never have another opportunity like this.
We both went to the kitchen. We hugged. I pulled out the Sterno stove so we could make come coffee. I turned to get the matches and saw his face in the back door window. “He’s here, Mimi!”
I opened the door. The young boy wasn’t young. He just looked that way from a distance. He was rangy and muscular and he had the eyes of a person who had been around the block. I pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and put a cup of coffee on it. He grinned and nodded and then tasted the coffee.
“Excellent. Thanks,” he said.
“We’ll have some scrambled eggs and toast ready in a few minutes if you like,” Mimi said.
He nodded and put he coffee down.
“Boy, you two are a sight for sore eyes,” he said. “I haven’t seen anybody since I started my little pilgrimage about a week ago. It is Sunday, right?”
I nodded. “What’s your story, friend?”
He smiled. It was the smile of a con man that was about to play you, moving those three overturned cups front of you, swirling them in circles as he held your eyes.
“My name is Starbuck,” he said. “I’m an acrobat in the Flying Circus. We’ve been stuck in the city since this whole thing with the hive — that’s my name for it. I have no idea what it really is. Anyway, the thing was killing everybody. The clowns were running in circles as it picked them off. The fat lady tried to hide in a portable toilet but it got her as she was stuck in the door. The lion tamer somehow got away with Rex and Sofi, two of our lions. It cut the ringmaster down as he lashed up at the black cloud with his whip. It cut his head clean off and it landed on the ground with his top hat intact. Amazing.”
“So what did you do?” I said.
“I had two sabers from my act. I blindly sliced up at it as I ran. And you know, it was funny, I kind of hit a nerve there. It backed off. It backed off like I was scaring it, or hurting it. I don’t know. What I did know was that It wanted me bad, but the blades kept it back. Anyway I decided to make a break for it and the damn thing followed me all the way out here. I was hoping I would find people. I ran into you. Now you two tell me what happened to you.”
As he ate his eggs and toast we filled him on what had happened in our little world.” When we were done, I asked him what his plans were.
Starbuck looked down at his sabres lying on he floor.
“Nothing left to go back to. I have to advance. It aims to cut me down. I thought for sure that It would have had me by now. I know that everybody’s got a judgement day and I ain’t trying to avoid mine. But I wonder if you two could buy me some time.”
Miimi and I looked at each other. I felt a shiver down down my spine.
I looked Starbuck in the eyes.
“What did you have in mind?”
“Do you two have a car?”
“Well, this thing doesn’t go out at night. I don’t know the reason why, but it don’t. Here’s what I want you to do. I need you to trust me on this one. Get all of your valuables together. Your money and some clothes and everything you hold dear to fit into a bag for each of you. Then we are going to make a run for it to the Mexican border. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what waits for us there, but the weather is better, and if I can blow this thing off here it may just desire to head in the other direction. I want you both to stay in the trunk. As soon a I know the coast is clear I’ll pull over and let you out. But it’s important that you stay out of sight at first because if it catches up with me I can’t promise I can protect you. If the worst happens, you two just lay low and wait it out. I’ll show you the switch that opens your trunk from the inside. Just wait for half a day and then continue on without me. Can you do this? There is no future staying here. You know that.”
I looked at Mimi and then back at Starbuck.
“I think we will take our chances here, Starbuck. You can head out there alone. Take the car. There is a full tank of gas.”
I looked at Mimi, who had a strange look on her face. Fear. I turned back and saw that Starbuck had a pistol in his hand.
“Sorry you two love birds. No choice on the menu today. The whole thing with the swords is baloney. Back at the circus I took a chance and offered to get the thing food if it let me live. There is just one of them here but there are hundreds across the country, even the world, gobbling down everyone up in sight. I know it will get tired of me sooner or later, but right now I’m its meal ticket. I am raking them in when they see me with the swords. I’m a magnet.”
“We have money,” Mimi said. “We will give it all to you. And gold. Diamonds. We had put them away for bad times and those times are here. I will give it all to you if you promise to let us go.”
Starbuck’s eyes narrowed. “Okay, old lady. Let’s see what you got. But first we need to put gramps here in irons for a moment.
Starbuck produced a pair of handcuffs and clicked them around my wrist and the iron pipe to the gas stove. He patted my face with a calloused hand. “Stay put, pops. We’ll be right back to set you free.”
Mimi went to our door that leads to the cellar and started down the stairs. Starbuck grabbed her by her arm and pulled her back up.
“Sorry, lady. I’ll go first in case you have any surprises you’ll want to pull on me down there. This old boy wasn’t born yesterday.”
Mimi looked down at the floor, defeated. Starbuck grinned. “See?” he said. He took the fist step down, and then another. And then he said “Shit. Look at all those bones down there!”
It was then that-Mimi hit Starbuck in the back of the head with the ball-peen hammer she had in her apron. The carney pitched down the stairs and landed at the bottom with a solid thud.
Mimi came over and helped me out of the cuffs after searching Starbuck’s pockets for the keys.
“Thanks Mimi, I said. “Looks like you brought home the bacon again.”
She smiled. “I”ll start the fire. He had a point though. We can’t stay here much longer. We’ve eaten everybody in the neighborhood.”
She was right, of course. But I didn’t want to leave our home behind just yet. We had time to think about it for a few days now.
“I’m just glad he was an acrobat and not a clown,” I said.
“Why is that, dear?” Mimi said.
“Because he might have tasted funny.”