When I went to college, I didn't have a lot of money. I was heavy on student loans. I had a little bit of financial aid, but it didn't cover much, and I thought I could scrape by better if I went to off-campus housing instead of adding those fees to my pile. I had an overnight job moving boxes around a warehouse, so I looked for an apartment nearby, figuring it would be easier to commute in for my classes a few times a week during the day than to try to make it to work on time every night on public transit. Warehouses don't tend to be in the best part of town, but I wasn't too concerned. I take pretty good care of myself. Some weirdo tried something, I was pretty sure I could manage. I was young and confident.
You know, a moron.
The place I found was an apartment in what clearly used to be a big house that got chopped up, subdivided, and sold off. Probably several times. It had probably been really impressive when it was built, but the whole area was basically just a slum now. My room clearly had been a closet when the building was new. Now it barely held my tiny bed, a little table, one folding chair and one TV tray, and a doofy kiddie-sized toilet basically just sticking out of the wall, with a waist-high cubicle wall to make it a "bathroom". I did have a window, basically an old air vent about eight feet off the ground with some cloudy glass glued in. I had to stand on my bed to see out of it. Still, it was priced low enough that I could easily afford it, though even the rock-bottom rent hadn't made it very popular. I rarely saw another resident, and never the same one twice.
Between classes, work, and walking to the friggin' bus stop all the damn time, I didn't have a whole lot of spare time, but what I had I sure didn't want to spend folded up in my little cubbyhole, so I took to walking the neighborhood. There was a corner shop that sold hot dogs and overpriced sundries, and a couple of seedy bars amid the empty storefronts, pawn shops, and payday loan joints.
One thing that really caught my eye was another house-cum-tenement right next door to mine. No rent signs on that one, but it was apparently packed, because every night when I left for work around eleven, the lights in all the windows were on. The odd part was all the birdhouses. Every window had at least one, and most had more. They were mounted on the windowsills or hung from the eaves. The scraggly, diesel-choked trees out front were sagging underneath the weight of the little wooden houses. All the black circles beside the bright, curtained windows made a striking contrast, and it all seemed delightfully quirky. I sometimes wished I was a photographer, just to capture that image, though now it gives me the cold shudders to think about it. Those dark holes, and the filmy, almost membraneous curtains...
Anyway, at the time, I just thought it was a marketing gimmick of some kind, some desperate stab at attracting hipsters. "Come visit the Bird House! PBR on tap!" I didn't pay it much mind, and I went about my life.
Another odd thing about the neighborhood was the lack of homeless people or vagrants. Not that the city as a whole was overridden with poverty or anything, but like the man said, "the poor shall be with us always." Most of the other bus stops had one or two panhandlers loitering, trying to look appropriately deserving of charity from busy commuters. Despite being about the most dirtbag neighborhood in town, I only ever saw the occasional homeless guy, and none of them stuck around for long, except Roddy.
Roddy usually hung out near one of the bars, creatively named "Bar." He had a great big fuck-off beard that made him look like a filthy sunflower and he was built like a brick shithouse. I gave him a nod when I passed in the early morning, and we got to recognize each other a bit. One day, he asked to bum a cigarette off me.
"Sorry, man," I told him. "I don't smoke. I got some doughnuts, though." I held up the bag in my hand, where I had a couple of day-olds that I'd intended for breakfast before I ran in for class.
Roddy looked at me for a second, then shrugged. "Sure, that'll do. Thanks, brother."
After that, I made it kind of a point to bring an extra doughnut or bagel or muffin with me on my way home. Roddy seemed to appreciate the gesture. At least, he never turned me down, and sometimes he'd invite me to sit with him while he smoked and he'd ask me about what I was studying, how my classes were going. He was pretty cagey about himself, but I was, as I mentioned, a young idiot and so happy to have someone to talk with that I blathered on about my whole life history to date. If poor Roddy had been a stalker or a creep, he'd have had the easiest mark in the world in me.
Roddy used to make pretty cryptic remarks about my night job being "lucky." I offered to put in a word for him, see if I could get him a post there, but he turned me down.
"I have a job," he said, tapping his big radish of a nose. "I have a responsibility." I asked him what he meant, but he just changed the subject. "You ought to move away from here when you can. It's not good for someone young and smart as you to stay here so long. Did you bring any bear claws?"
Things continued comfortably enough like that for a while until I showed up for work late one time too many and mouthed off to the dock foreman when he reprimanded me. I was pretty sure I'd land another job immediately. (Young and dumb, man. It's a hell of a drug.) But I decided I'd enjoy a little vacation of sorts before I started applying again. Come six p.m. or so, I set out for "Bar", planning on a night of drinking and darts to celebrate my new freedom. Roddy was there, nursing the cheapest beer in the house. His eyes about bulged out of his head when he saw me come in while the sun was still up. He cut short my cheerful greeting.
"Why aren't you resting before work?" he demanded.
"I'm fired," I told him, grinning widely.
Roddy shook his head and muttered into his beer. "Oh, dear. Oh, no. This is bad. This is terrible news."
"Nah, it's fine," I drawled, signaling to the surly bald bartender. "I'll get another job in a minute. They're always hiring at McDonald's, if nothing else. I'm here to party tonight, though!"
Roddy glanced at the window and tugged at his beard. "Yes. That could work. We could stay here for one night, maybe." He turned back to me, and I didn't notice then how forced his smile was. "You're buying, though. This," he indicated his half-empty bottle, "was the last of my cash for the day."
Well, we ended up having a hell of a rollicking good time, in terms of sheer alcohol intake. A few more grizzled regulars trickled in, looking haggard and nervous, but a few drinking contests later and everyone forgot whatever was worrying all of them. Even the dour bartender loosened up a little. His mouth almost curved up enough to be a flat line, I mean. But he had lots of cheap beer and vodka, and there was a dartboard and a pool table with almost all the balls still on it, and I had fully given up on going to class tomorrow.
When Roddy and I stumbled out around two in the morning, we were singing half-phrases of songs and laughing like morons at the fragmentary non-sentences that were all we could spit out. We staggered down the street, supporting each other as best we could. Almost none of the streetlights worked, of course. I told Roddy I had a half a bottle of whiskey stashed in my room and took his close-lidded nodding as acquiescence. We were nearly to my house when there was a noise like someone whipping a bedsheet overhead and Roddy seemed to sober up in a moment. He looked around himself in horror as if realizing where he was for the first time.
"Wha's wrong?" I said, laughing again. Everything was funny right then. The noise came again from above, like a flag in a high wind.
"Inside!" Roddy hissed. "Quickly now, before they all come!"
"Hey, man," I protested faintly, but Roddy's bulk was no illusion, and his powerful grip steered me into the foyer of my building. "What are you talking about?"
"The empty men," Roddy said. "The wibble-wobbles. Goddamned batwing abominations. This is their place. They were here from long before, I think. The city came up around them, and they don't like it. They never did. They keep it clear, clear as they can, anyway. The sunlight, they can't abide that. Too thin, maybe. It burns 'em. But they can stand the twilight, and that's when they go hunting, usually."
I blinked at him muzzily. "Roddy, you're talking bullshit."
"No, goddammit, I'm trying to save your life. Coming and going in full darkness, you were fine. By then they're out flying high, eating bats or God knows what all, all a-drifting on the wind. You wouldn't see them, so you wouldn't be a threat. And by morning they're all tucked in their little houses, folded up and wadded away like linen tablecloths. But you got to be careful now. They'll have seen you with me. They'll think you know, too, so you'd better know for real."
"Fuck, man, I'm too drunk for this." I leaned on the wall, which sagged under my hand unpleasantly.
"Let's go get drunker," he responded grimly. "I'll tell you my story."
In my room, Roddy gave a sour look to my tiny window and stood to jam my pillow into the opening before he'd rest. I sat on the floor, not wanting to cuddle directly on my bed, the only other real place to sit with two of us in there. I fished my bottle of Jameson out of my nightside stand (a cardboard box with an alarm clock resting on top) and passed it to Roddy, who took a long, slow drink.
"I found them by accident, the empty men. Came here to work in the chair-making factory. That closed down long ago, before you were born, most likely. It was a bit of a boomtown then, new buildings going up all over and the old houses, the estates, all a-getting tore down. They tried to tear _that_ one down," he gestured with the bottle neck toward the Bird House, "and paid the price, sure enough. I don't know the details. I hadn't seen them yet. But I know that the plans for this part of the city got scuppered and brushed under the rug real quiet-like, so's no one would ever say they'd had 'em. Well, soon enough automation came along and one man could do the work of ten on the production line. No one gives a cuss about company loyalty or caring for the workers anymore, so you know what that meant: nine men in the line for the soup kitchen. I had a lot more free time on my hands, and I was a curious sort then. I snooped into all sorts of things, even got my P.I. license, got a bit of a business going for myself. I was looking for yet another missing husband and came along down this way on a tip from a waitress who'd seen him and his new girlfriend leaving the restaurant all tipsy. Well, I didn't find him. I found _them_."
There was a gust of wind then, or I thought it was. The window rattled a bit, and there was a whooshing noise along the side of the house, almost like someone had dropped a tarp. Roddy gave the outer wall a dark glare, half hatred and half terror, and took another drink.
"I was parked across the street, pretending to be asleep in my car. The door of that house over there, that _nest_, opened, and one of them stepped out. I thought it was just a man at first, maybe my man, and so I watched real close. God, I wish I hadn't. They can look like people, if they roll themselves up just right. Anyway, this man, or this thing that was looking like a man, came out into the half-dark street. It held up one arm at the streetlight, like even that much light hurt its eyes. And it looked around, and then it... unfolded."
I made a noise of confused disbelief, but Roddy waved me to silence and spoke again, moving his arms to try and describe what he had seen.
"It sort of blew up and away, like when you puff on a dandelion head. It unfurled and stretched out until it was tall as the house it had stepped out of and near as wide, thin as a sheet of muslin, and growing and shrinking all the time, borders never still, pulsing like a heartbeat. It hovered for a moment, then swirled up and surrounded that streetlight. There was a crack and a hiss, and the light went out. Then I thought I saw a translucent patch of night sailing up to the clouds, like enormous wings with no bat attached, and then it was gone." Roddy's voice cracked and faded, and he lifted the bottle of whiskey but only held it in front of him, staring like he'd forgotten how it worked. "I hadn't had more than a second to choke down my shock when I heard the flapping, a flapping like a whole flock of geese all panicking at once. Not here, though. You never see any birds around, have you noticed? Nothing that lives in the air. The house... all those little houses... the holes... they can fold up small, see, so small you could put 'em in your pocket, or they can spread out and swallow a car... too many of them, my boy, too many to count. God, what I witnessed that night." He shook his head slowly, his eyes blank and unseeing. "One of them must have seen me, one of that crowd. Their scout missed me, and doomed me, because one of them saw. They been following ever since. Maybe they can read, got my license plates. Who knows if they even talk to each other, or how? But they knew. They knew I'd seen them, and that meant I was dangerous. They got their weird ways, things they can do, the way they stretch and fold. Not just themselves, no. I went into hiding, after what I saw. Wouldn't go out under the open sky in the darkness, me, nor even the twilight. Full daylight, or morning. They hate light, hate the sun most. Did I tell you that? I keep an eye on them, try to warn folks away, the vulnerable ones, the ones who might try to sleep outside. Not safe here." He shuddered. "God damn, that sound, that wibble-wobble-whoosh, that fucking noise they made. Flapping wings, but no birds." He giggled, slumping a bit. "No birds at all."
I was quick enough to catch him as he tilted and fell, unconscious. I laid him down onto my lumpy mattress and tossed my sheet over him. He was snoring, which I took as a positive sign. I made sure he was facing sideways so that he wouldn't choke if he vomited. I hunched myself into the corner and wadded up my blanket for a pillow and a bit of warmth. The wind rustled along the wall again, like searching fingers, and I suddenly felt like I wanted to keep the lights on for the rest of the night.
When I woke up, Roddy was gone. I had the most monstrous headache you can imagine, and my tongue might as well have been replaced with cotton balls that had been dipped in battery acid. The pillow had fallen out of the window at some point. I replaced it, made my bed, and gathered my stuff for a trek to the YMCA for a shower. I considered breakfast and choked down bile. I would have tried the hair of the dog, but the bottle was empty.
The door was locked. Had Roddy stolen my keys? No, there they were in my jacket pocket still.
Outside, the morning was unpleasantly cold. I tucked my hands into my armpits and started off, but I was distracted by a sound from the alleyway. The area between the two large houses contained threadbare grass and perfunctory gravel, and was where the large trash bins the building shared were stored. I saw a couple of stray dogs there, barking and snarling as they fought over something on the ground. Bright red blood spattered the whole area; it looked as though someone had dumped a whole side of beef into one of the cans. My eye tracked the red stains, which drew an uneven, stuttering line along the ground... up the wall of the Bird House.
Poe wrote about the Imp of the Perverse, that internal impulse to do something you know in your bones to be stupid or wrong or harmful, the voice that whispers "jump" when you look over a high ledge or gives you the image of suddenly jerking the steering wheel sideways on the highway, just to see what would happen. I felt in the grip of that self-destructive influence then, as I walked to the front door of the Bird House and knocked loudly. There was no answer, but I heard a soft sound from inside, a rustling and a murmur or moan. The imp prodded me again, and I tried the handle.
It was unlocked. I pushed it open.
What I saw... have you ever seen a beehive? Not the outside, the man-made boxes or papery hulls, but the inside? Holes, some dark, some filled, and a constant sensation of movement in every direction. Little birdhouses, all shapes and sizes, lining the walls, in some cases just bored right into the brickwork. In the middle of the room was a large curtain running from wall to wall, some type of heavy pink cloth anchored at the four corners into four of the uncountable holes in the walls. Except... up at the top, right in the center, was a great bushy beard like a dirty sunflower. I tried to scream, but my breath caught in my throat. I took a step backwards.
That's when I heard the flapping noises, from somewhere on the other side of that unspeakable barrier. Whatever I thought I was seeing, wherever I thought the organ meat and bones outside had come from, my courage was shattered, and I ran like hell, back out into the hazy morning sunshine.
I never returned, not to that house, not to my apartment, not to school, not even to that city. I don't have Roddy's sense of duty or dedication. I'm a coward, and I've run as far as I can. I don't go out at night. I stay away from the windows. I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks from odd stimuli, like a flag flying in heavy wind or a movie scene of a sailboat on the ocean. And every night, I wake up screaming from my dreams.
Because in my dreams, I remember. I relive that scene again and again. The house, the holes, those god-awful holes. The sound of wings. And Roddy, Roddy's skin, no bones, no blood, just a vast flesh-colored expanse, and at the top, his face, flaccid and limp like a discarded Halloween mask.
And his eyes, blinking in terror while his drooling lips tried to form words.