Cages of steel and stone made especially for birds of trimmed wings, who have long ago forgotten that they can even fly. Long, raised beaks that block their view and heavy curved nails that nail them to the ground so they can only walk, and sometimes skip, not knowing that they could be tucked away among the pearly clouds. Dark birds, colourful birds, white birds, transparent birds, loud birds and quiet ones too, they all feel an itchy emptiness in their breast, not realising that the answer lies in their now self trimmed wings. The falcons, eagles and owls fly above them with nonchalance and might, with a freedom they claim to offer but never truly deliver, for the other birds are their prey. So the caged birds look at them and dream and hope and think that one day, if they keep their nails on the floor and their beaks high, then one day they too will become a bird of prey, flying free among the others, looking down on all the ones that were too weak or too unworthy to become like them. But that never happens. Only the ones that stop trimming their own wings are the ones that get a chance to soar.
I woke up with a headache and a drooling mouth. When I tried to clean it I found out that my hands were shackled to the wall. As I tried to make sense of my situation, my eyes met another pair, which silently gazed at me. He said something, but his voice was merely background noise while my brain attempted to untangle the thoughts racing through my mind.
“Can you hear me?” He shouted at me. My line of sight shifted towards his worried expression.
“Yes, I hear you… What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. Were we kidnapped? I was hoping that maybe you had some answers. What do you remember?”
“I remember my warm bed.” I replied. Perhaps if I close my eyes I’ll wake up there again. His only reply was a shadow of frustration that briefly perched on his brow. But it didn’t linger for long.
“So what’s your name?” He asked, almost as naturally as someone who chats up a stranger at a bar.
He was about to say something else, when the door was opened. David curled himself up even more against the wall as a man walked in. He kneeled in front of me and grabbed my cheeks with his boney fingers, turning my face one way and then another, while he seemed to conduct a very superficial inspection of my state. When he was satisfied, he dropped his hand on my leg and smiled with a mouth so ugly that most of his teeth had already ran away.
“What a fine specimen we have here,” he giggled. I didn’t enjoy the sudden intimacy, so I kicked him in the ribs. Being not much more than a walking skeleton, he was easily thrown across the room. When he got up, I recognised the fire in his eyes and took his kicks and punches without complaining.
“Tiny but feisty, hum?” He snarled at me on his way out.
David blabbered something about me being crazy and to keep my head down, but I was more worried about assessing the situation, so I ignored him. It must be so distracting to have all those feelings demanding constant attention inside your head. I never understood why normal people are so fond of emotions. Right now, his were turning him into a depressing ball of human sweat.
In the midst of my thoughts, I realized that he was trying to ask me something.
“What do you do for a living?”
“Does it matter?”
“No, but… I don’t know, talking helps…”
It took me a second to decide what I would answer. Telling him the truth would cause him either to freak out even more or to start yelling at me again. My patience has its limits.
“You don’t want to know. Now calm down, and shut up.” He seemed taken back.
“Why don’t I want to know?”
I forced myself to breathe in and sigh out. “Look, all you have to know about what I do for a living is that I’m used to this kind of situations. So let’s make a deal: I promise to get you out of here alive if you promise to keep your mouth shut and do what I say.”
“Escape? Can you do it?”
“Do we have a deal?”
He thought for a while. He was probably weighing his slim options, whether he could trust me and whether he actually had a choice. Finally, he agreed. He got a morsel of hope and I got some peace and a much needed helping hand. Everyone’s happy. And they say I’m not a people person…
A few hours later, the door opened again, now revealing the bag of bones that had paid me a visit before, followed by a chubby tall guy, wearing a mafia stereotype and holding a black clipboard.
“We’ll have to do the girl first,” said Mafia Guy, scrutinizing the papers on his clipboard. “The other one is running late. Get her ready.” He took a last look at me and disappeared, leaving the door half open. Probably, my short stature and girly look gave me the appearance of a job that could easily be handled by one person. I was appreciative of the opportunity but also slightly offended.
Bones walked towards me with a key in his hand. As soon as I heard that ‘click’, I quickly moved my arm away from his reaching hand, and landed my fist on his face. He fell backwards and I threw my legs around his neck. I pulled him closer as he struggled and covered his mouth with my free hand to keep him silent, while trying to use my full weight to smother him until his consciousness drifted away. Then, I seized the key that had fallen next to us, released my left hand and went over to free David. Frisking Bones quickly, I found his gun, checked it for bullets and that it was ready to fire.
After putting my head carefully out of the door, I realised that our room opened into a hallway with a flight of stairs at the opposite end, leading up. David followed my steps cautiously, with wide eyes and fidgety hands. The first door on the right was open and we could hear voices, so that’s where I started. With my back against the wall, I listened attentively and was able to distinguish two voices. Let’s hope there isn’t a mute in there as well, I thought. I gestured David to stay put and I slid in, firing the borrowed gun at two men dressed in surgical gowns. In a matter of seconds, there were no more voices, but simply a heavy silence floating in the room. I told David to get in and look for answers in the pile of documents lying on the table, while I stood by the door waiting for anyone that might have heard the shots. I could see that he was shaking as he went in, and he didn’t get much better once he noticed the two bodies on the floor. Reluctantly, he went through the papers scattered on the table.
“Oh god…” He muttered.
“Calm down, what is it?”
“It’s… organ lists. With prices, names…”
So, we were dealing with organ hunters. That explained it. The bastards almost forced me to do a good deed.
“These papers,” he continued, “these are medical files.”
Medical files? They had access to my file? I moved away from the door and had a look. Sure enough, there was my medical file, along with David’s and a few others.
While I was distracted inspecting the papers, something moved by the door. In a split second, my instincts took over and I ducked under the table, pulling David down with me, as a wave of bullets hit the wall above us. Under the table, I took aim at the shooter’s legs and when he fell I took aim at his head. It was Mafia Guy. I waited a while and then got up, dragging the terrified dead-weight with me. I handed David the man’s gun, who looked at it as if it was about to bite him.
“You know how to use that?” I asked. I took his resigned countenance as a yes. We moved on to the next door but it was locked.
“Let’s just get out of here.” David begged.
“Not yet.” These people needed me for a reason and they had access to a lot of information. After all, finding matching donors for organ donation wasn’t easy and they wouldn’t leave a witness walking about. I wasn’t going to live my life looking over my shoulder, and going to the police was out of the question for me. This had to end here.
We headed to the last door and walked into a large, pale surgical room. Poorly hidden behind the surgical table, I found a nurse shivering and sobbing in a pool of tears, which I quickly put out of her misery. I could hear David gasp in horror behind me. I didn’t care. I wasn’t leaving witnesses that might come after me. Suddenly, my eye caught a familiar face. Crouching behind one of the machines was my doctor. The one that was always generously paid to fix me after my assignments and to keep what happened in his office away from the police’s ears.
“Care to explain?” I asked him as he was getting up. He looked at me for a while and then greeted David, who was as shocked to see him as I was. I could see the fear in the doctor’s eyes, even though the old man liked to play tough.
“Well, what do you want me to say?” He responded defiantly. “Taking a crook like you away from this world could almost be considered a civic duty.”
“I prefer the term contract assassin. So what? Didn’t I pay you enough?”
“Are you kidding? They are giving me over £100.000 for your heart alone. And something close to that for Mr. Hill’s liver.”
My heart was being sold for £100.000? My little black heart was finally worth something. I was flattered.
I saw that the doctor had noticed the gun in David’s hand and guessed what he was about to suggest.
“Mr. Hill, as you can see, there is a lot of money involved here and, if you help me, a part of it could be yours. The rest of the men are bringing the patient for the transplant as we speak, and they will soon put an end to this little stunt of yours. But I can talk to them on your behalf. After all, this lady is a very bad person. You’d be saving innocent lives…”
So the patient was coming over to us? Good, I would like to have a chat with the idiot who got me into this mess. I looked at David, curious about what he would decide. Somehow, I wasn’t very surprised when his shaking hand starting to point the gun at me.
“Here I am saving your life and this is what you choose?” I asked, amused.
“You’re just saving yourself! Even if we do get out, you’re probably going to kill me too.”
My reply was to shoot the gun out of his hand and to put a bullet in the doctor’s head.
I bandaged David’s hand while he stared at me in confusion, and we finally went up the stairs. He followed me around in a silence of contrition, as I inspected each room until I was sure that the house was empty.
It was night outside and the cold air hit me like a wall of ice when I opened the door. There was nothing but forest all around us and a little dirt road that started from the house and disappeared into the trees.
I pushed him out.
“Off you go now. Follow that path and you should find your way out.” He seemed surprised. “I promised I would get you out, didn’t I? What are you waiting for? Run!”
And run he did. Probably thought I would shoot him in the back. That’s people for you. They always assume I’m as petty as them. They forget that in order for them to hurt my feelings I would need to have feelings in the first place.
I hid in the house and only had to wait for half an hour before they arrived. Two escorts with their guard down and a sick man. It was a fast job. I took their guns just in case, as well as a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, and headed downstairs to get the files. David’s too. The records of our existence were soon reduced to a pile of ashes.
Once outside, my nostrils took a deep breath of fresh air. I lit a cigarette. I figured I might as well. After all, being healthy almost got me killed.
(This story was created for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge)
The woman with black hair and green eyes smiled warmly as the man behind the counter handed her the key to her room. He was starting to tell her how to find it, when he stopped mid sentence and decided to take her there instead. The place was quiet, too quiet, and he couldn’t stand the silence that resounded throughout the whole building, grating his ears as nails on a board. He led the way while the woman followed in silence, as if a holy ritual was being performed with every step. When they reached the door to her room she thanked the man and he bade her goodnight, turning away to return to his designated post behind the counter. Now, back to the orchestra of cracking floorboards and rain splattering against the windows, he thought about her. A spectre of white, marbled skin, under a veil of hair as dark as the deep corners of a forbidden forest, had walked into his modest B&B so silently that he only realised she stood behind him when he heard her voice. Her face looked like it had been dried by the passing of the years, her thin body sinking under a black dress of mourning and reverence, a body that seemed to him so out of context away from the golden coffins that are gently cradled by the voice of eternity under the ancient sands of the Nile.
“One night,” that’s all she said to him. He tried to read the name she had written down in his book, but her handwriting was impossible to decipher. He heard the kitchen door opening and closing and recognised the cotton steps heading towards him.
“I’ve finished helping mom in the kitchen. Is there anything else for me to do or can I go to bed?” Asked his daughter.
“Go to sleep, child. We have a new customer so make sure to help your mother tomorrow morning with breakfast”.
“Of course,” she replied.
“Was everything to your satisfaction?” was a sentence that readily jumped out of his lips every morning.
“Yes, very much so,” the woman replied. “Actually,” she said contemplating the room around her, “I’ve realised that this house is a lot more beautiful than one might notice at first.”
“Thank you. It’s an old house and much of her beauty has been eroded by time. I would like to restore her but I’m afraid the business isn’t doing very well at the moment.”
“That’s a shame,” she replied. “To allow such a beautiful place to go to waste… I like old things, you see. Old things are thumb stones to all the memories that lived and died around them. Like this watch, for example,” she removed a silver, hand sculptured pocket watch from her purse and showed it to the host. “This watch is as old as time itself. It has seen the rise of mankind and it shall be here to see its fall.”
“If it was here before mankind, then who made it?” He asks.
“Not who, but what,” she replied. “But that doesn’t matter at the moment. I want to give it to you as a thank you for having such a pleasant stay. It might help you. Keep it here, close to the front door and good things shall come through it”.
The man was not convinced and refused the expensive looking gift at first but the woman insisted so vehemently that he eventually accepted. Before reaching the door she turned and said:
“When good things happen… well, don’t question too much. Never try to discover how the watch’s mysteries come to be. It will only break the spell. Make sure you always remember this.” And, with that, she left.
The man looked at the beautiful watch resting in his hand, time reverberating gently through his skin with ever tick and every tock. He let out a long sigh. If he sold it, he thought, perhaps he could get enough money to improve his business. “I’ll do it tomorrow”, he decided, for he had a day of work ahead of him. He opened a drawer and placed the watch carefully in it. He starred at it for a minute before finally closing the drawer and going about his work.
That day, the mood of the skies changed quickly, with a sunny winter morning turning into an evening of dark stormy clouds, fat with rain and thunder. Throughout the night, the rain knocked against the roof tiles and the windows, like a wet monster begging to be let in, while the wind whistled the ancient songs it had learned far away, bringing with it razors of cold and desolation that swirled around the old house, grazing even further its already beaten surface. At midnight, as the host and his family lay asleep in their beds, oblivious to the changes happening outside, everything went quiet for a moment. Then, with all the force of a torrent, wind and rain forced open all the doors and all the windows, and all went dark inside the old B&B. Family and guests got out of their beds in panic, running about the house closing windows, shutting doors, holding candles that kept being blown off even when there was no wind left in the room. Eventually, things calmed down and everyone was able to return to the land of forgotten fantasies that awaited them in their wooden nests.
With morning, came the sun. The host was still getting dressed when his daughter ran into his room.
“Dad! Dad! We have guests!” She shouted.
“What are you doing? Can’t you see I’m not ready yet? Go downstairs and check them in! ”
“I’ve been doing that, but there are so many of them. I need help!”
In hearing this, the man hurried downstairs. When he reached the bottom of the stairs he looked perplexed at the amount of guests flooding his living room. He ran quickly to the counter and started taking names and handing out keys as fast as he could. His little B&B was full by nightfall and the host struggled to find an old forgotten ‘Sold out’ sign that his memory assured he still had, hidden under a pile of dust somewhere.
As the days passed, the guests kept coming one after another and he easily forgot about the watch and the strange woman who had given it to him. It was only when he opened that drawer looking for a pen that he was reminded of that morning. Now, he began to take her words more seriously. Could it be possible that the watch had caused all of this? He took the delicate object out of the drawer and held it in his hands in order to see it better. He opened it and closed it again. It was indeed a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, but could it really be magical? That seemed nonsense to him. After some time, finding that he couldn’t keep it to himself any longer, he decided to tell his wife and daughter what had happened, so as to get their opinion on the matter. As he told them about the woman, the watch, and the warning that she had made before leaving, he was amazed to find excitement in their faces instead of the surprise that he was expecting.
“That explains it,” said the daughter.
”Yes,” replied the wife.
The man looked at them not understanding what was going on.
“We didn’t tell you anything before because it sounded so silly, but every morning since that day, when I go down to the kitchen, the fridge seems fuller than before and most of the breakfast has already been laid out on the kitchen table,” clarified the wife.
“And I,” continued the daughter, “often find that things have been cleaned and tidied, both in the guests’ rooms and in the rest of the house.”
Even though they were unsure in what to believe, they nevertheless agreed to keep the watch where it was. They also decided never to go downstairs during the night, in case they might disturb the forces at work and lose all of their good fortune.
Day after day, their B&B seemed to never lose its charm. The rooms were always clean, the flowers were always fresh, the garden was always tended and, every now and then, a brand new garden gnome would appear, like a colourful flower that sprouted during the night. But, remembering the warning that the woman had given, the family never tried to figure out how all of these things were happening. At first, their curiosity was gnawing at their imagination, but soon it all became routine and they grew accustomed to all the mysterious helping hands working around them. And so, they lived happily for a very long time. Most of the guests ended up returning several times and some of them even became long term residents, so the little house was soon filled with new friendships and familiar faces, which made the family’s work and life much more pleasant than before. Of course, every now and then, a guest would leave during the night without paying, but these were rare and for the most part their guests were all pleasant and respectful.
One evening, a new couple checked in. At first they seemed perfectly nice but, later on at dinner, after having had a few drinks, the couple began to fight in the middle of the dining room. The other guests were visibly disturbed and a few went up to their rooms sooner than usual, but not without complaining about the noisy couple. The host, who was very tired after a long day of work, gathered all the patience he still had left in him and was able to persuade the couple to retire to their room. During the night, however, the husband became hungry and decided to pay a visit to the kitchen, in order to get something to eat. Half asleep, he dragged himself through the corridors in the darkness, his hands following invisible patterns on the walls. When he reached the kitchen door, he stopped. A dozen child-like voices could be heard singing in unison on the other side, their melody accompanied by an orchestra of kitchen sounds, such as plates and pans, and things boiling and cooking. The man opened the door and went in.
“It was him, officer!” Shouted the woman behind two salty rivers of tears, raising her shaking hand to point at the host. “He was rude to us last night and then he went up to our bedroom and took my husband!”
“Please, madam, I would never do such a thing,” retorted the host. “Your husband has had quite a lot to drink last night. I’m sure he simply wandered off somewhere while you were asleep and will turn up eventually.”
“What did you do to him, you monster? Where did you hide him?” The woman was understandably distressed.
The police tried to get her to go home but she refused. She decided that she wouldn’t leave the B&B until her husband was found. The police, however, without finding any sign of a crime, assured the wife that her husband probably had just left. These cases were common, they said. After all, the couple had been fighting that night and there was no reason to believe that anyone had any real grudge against the man. The officers eventually left, leaving behind a vague promise that they would look into it further. The wife, however, was determined that something had happened. She knew her husband and she was sure that he wouldn’t leave, not like that. No, it was that host! He clearly had taken a dislike to her husband. She could tell by the way that he talked to them that night. Sure, they were a little loud, but nothing that would merit such a rude attitude. No, her husband didn’t run. It was the host! He did something to him during the night and she was determined to find proof of that.
Hours later, she lay in bed listening to the faint noises that floated gently in the dead of the night. The old house moaned, the invisible mice chased each other inside the walls, the wind sang haunted lullabies that made the trees dance under a ceiling of stars. Unable to fall asleep, she got up and silently headed for the kitchen to get a glass of water. As she opened the door, her eyes faced a sight that made her wonder whether she was still in her bed dreaming. In front of her, a great number of incredibly tiny people went about the kitchen cooking and singing and cleaning. They all stopped at the same time and looked at her. A little winged person took flight and stood hovering in front of her nose for a while, before blowing a strange powder into her eyes.
When she woke up she was lying on the kitchen table, tied up well and tight, unable to move any part of her body except her head. All around her, at the edge of the table, the little people seemed happy that she had finally awaken.
“Who are you?” She asked.
“We are a very ancient race,” one of them replied. “Our name has been lost in time.”
”Let me go! Why are you doing this to me?” She shouted.
“You saw us. No one is allowed to see us. No one is allowed to know of us.”
“You! Was it you who took my husband?”
“Yes. He found us here, so we took him.”
“What did you do to him?”
“We ate his soul,” was their dry reply.
“What?” She could hardly believe her ears. “You killed him! You monsters!”
“No, we didn’t kill him, he’s very much alive.” The woman became relieved at the sound of those words.
“Really? Where is he?” She asked with renewed hope.
“He is in the garden”
“That’s not possible. Are you sure?”
“Yes, that is the punishment.”
“Please let me see him!” She tried to fight against the ropes holding her down, but without luck.
“Don’t worry, you shall see him soon.”
The next day the host let out a sigh of relief when he found out that the woman’s room was empty and that she was gone. All that excitement was affecting the atmosphere in the house and he couldn’t wait for things to go back to normal. This whole affair seemed quite strange to him, but then again he was used to ignoring anything that seemed unusual. And so, after some time, he was able to put the whole thing out of his mind. As he was walking down the stairs his daughter was coming in from her morning walk. “Good morning father”, she greeted, “Have you seen the new gnome that we have in the garden?
(This story was created for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge)