“Flock” by Caspian Gray
They met in a birdcage, in those last precious days before they became birds themselves. They were too panicked to ask each other’s names. The boy beat his palms against the wire bars as impotently as he had beat them against the giant’s fist; the woman brushed her fingers first against her sternum, then along the cage floor, even through the boy’s kinky hair, to prove that she was not mad or dreaming.
“Don’t touch me,” the boy said, making the order into a question.
The woman drew away. “Are you hurt?” Her hands still moved restlessly, diffident as butterflies. They were in a ramshackle attic full of cages whose inhabitants were sparrows as big as she was.
“I didn’t know,” said the boy. He slumped against the bars of the cage. The woman watched the wire press indentations into his shirt. “I didn’t know there were giants in Ohio.”
“Oh.” The woman squatted next to him, careful to keep their shoulders from brushing. “I didn’t know there were either, until today.” She paused. “What’s your name? Where did the giant take you from?”
“Avery.” The boy’s eyes were as brown as tree bark. “I was in the backyard, working. Who are you?”
Avery blinked. “Jack is a boy’s name.”
Her expression did not change. “But if we’ve been kidnapped by giants,” she murmured, “the only way we’ll ever escape is if one of us is named Jack.”
“But how will we escape?” Avery asked.
Jack shook her head. “I don’t know. I guess we have to wait for the giant to come back. I guess we’ll have to see him face to face to know his weaknesses.”
It was hard to imagine any weakness in that hulking, sinister form.
Jack stood up and paced the outline of their cage. It was only one of many, suspended on a thin chain from a wooden beam supporting the tenuous roof above. Each of the other cages held starlings or mourning doves or waxwings, not the beautiful tropical exotics of pet stores. They rustled in their cages and murmured to each other in quiet chirps.
Avery stood up. His hands were bruised from fighting the giant, so he used his feet to kick at the bars of the cage, yelling each time the soles of his sneakers connected.
The birds around them came awake. First there was the swish of feathered wings, then clawed feet moving restlessly on wooden perches. The fee-bay, fee-baying call of a chickadee, quickly joined by other voices. Some of the birdcages around them were wicker, some wire like their own, some brightly colored modern plastic. The sudden chatter was as irritating and ordinary as weekday morning birdsong–but these chirps were deeper, emanating from such cavernous chests.
“Why,” asked Avery, yelling to be heard over the birds, “would you put animals in an attic?”
“This is a rookery,” said Jack. “A dovecote.”
Of those two words, Avery recognized only rookery. He guessed that it meant a place for birds to live.
“What are we doing here?” He spoke at a normal volume this time, so that Jack had to move her ear almost to his lips.
She shrugged. “Maybe we’ll learn how to fly.”
“Don’t make jokes,” he muttered, looking to Jack exactly as thirteen as he was. They sat near each other on the cage floor, waiting for the flock of birds to quiet. It was cold in this attic, or this rookery, or this dovecote. The birds fluffed their feathers, becoming enormous puff balls as their prattling songs faded away. Jack and Avery huddled close, until finally, near sleep, they pressed themselves skin to skin for warmth.
“The earth shook,” said Avery. “The rabbits were freaking out. I dropped their hay everywhere. The giant was a walking mountain. Its face was a silhouette big enough to eclipse the sun. I ran away.”
He paused, wrapping his fingers around the wire bars.
“I made it over the rabbit hutches in one leap, but the fence around John Martinez’s field slowed me down. I thought I was safe in the corn, even though the leaves of the dry stalks cut me.” He held out his scratched forearms as proof. “But the giant’s feet were islands, as big as farmhouses. It was pointless to run.
“I could still see my parents’ house. Dad wanted me to repaint the shutters this week. I thought, if I could just get there, everything would be okay. Then the giant reached for me.”
Jack reached out to touch Avery’s shoulder, then stopped and pulled away.
“He missed me, the first time. Then he made one of his hands into a wall in front of me, and one a wall behind me, and scooped me up just like we carry baby rabbits. I tried to fight him off, but what could I do, you know? What could I do.”
The streaks of sunlight that came in through the chinks in the wall were the deep yellow gold of afternoon. That was all they could tell about the world outside the attic–it was day. There was a porcelain bowl of water in their cage, wide enough and deep enough that both of them could stand in it. A bright green plastic bucket full of seeds was hooked to the cage wires from the inside.
Avery walked over to the bucket of seeds and ran his hand through grains of millet the size of tennis balls and sunflower seeds so large it took two hands to hold them up.
“Is this to eat?” he asked.
Jack looked at her reflection in their tub of water. Already, a few downy feathers floated on the surface. Her reflection frowned back at her. Avery walked up and dipped one of his hands in the lukewarm water.
“Are we supposed to take a bath? That’s not for drinking, is it?”
Jack crouched down and lifted a palmful of water to her lips. She spat it out on the cage floor. “It doesn’t taste clean,” she murmured, standing up.
“This is unsanitary,” said Avery, half-yelling. “This is crap!” He paced around the cage, thumping his fingers along the wall of bars until it hurt too much to keep going. “I’m hungry,” he added quietly, as if the words were a surprise. Jack crossed the floor of the cage and held out a sunflower seed.
“Is this even human grade?” he asked, taking it. “I mean, what we feed the birds at my house, you’re not supposed to feed it to people.”
Jack picked up a grain of millet and crushed it between her hands. She licked one of her palms.
“It’s not bad,” she announced. “Not good, but not…”
“Not bad,” Avery repeated. He tried to crack the sunflower seed with his bare hands, pretending that Jack wasn’t watching him. Finally he resorted to dashing it against the cage floor. The seed inside was still huge. He gnawed at the edge.
“It tastes weird.”
Jack held out her hand. Avery passed the seed over to her. She nibbled on it and then handed it back, leaving crushed millet handprints on the side.
“It’s not salted,” she explained. “Sunflower seeds are only good if you salt the hell out of them.”
Jack finished licking the crumbs of millet from her hands, and Avery kept chewing on the sunflower seed. Neither meal was satisfying. In the heat, the tub of water looked less disgusting.
“It’s probably full of bacteria,” said Avery, kicking the porcelain. The water rippled. There was an acidic smell to the air, from all the cages. None of them had been cleaned for a long time.
“Maybe it’s better now,” said Jack. She dipped a hand in and tasted it again. “Still disgusting,” she decided.
Avery kneeled next to her and followed suit. He winced, but didn’t stop drinking. Even warm, the soft texture of the water felt good against his tongue. He closed his eyes and ignored the taste.
They were still hungry. It was still hot.
“So,” said Avery. “When do we escape?”
The flock of birds around them fluttered wildly. Jack eyed the lock to their cage door between mouthfuls of millet. It was large enough to put her whole hand through the keyhole. The light coming in between the slats of the wall did not hit it well enough to illuminate the lock’s inner workings.
“I dunno,” she said. “Stick your head in there and see.”
Avery walked over to the door and stood on his tiptoes. It was a strain to touch the bottom of the lock with just the tips of his fingers.
“Are you tall enough to reach it?” he asked.
Jack walked over and, instead of answering, wrapped her arms around his knees and lifted him into the air.
Avery puffed out a breath, wobbled for a minute, then steadied himself against the wire bars. With the extra lift, he pushed a few fingers inside the hole of the lock.
“I don’t know.” Jack shrugged, shaking him. “Unlock it.”
Jack didn’t answer. Avery prodded at what might have been a tumbler, or what might have been some obscure piece of giant lock for which there was no human equivalent.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think it’s broken.”
Jack’s arms started to shake with the effort of holding him up. She dropped him harder than she meant to and he stumbled.
“How long will we be here?” he asked, looking at the birds. “What does a giant want with us anyway?”
Jack shrugged. They sat together in the heat.
She was sitting in her kitchen, watching the coffee maker. These grounds were on their third round of hot water; they no longer had much to offer but a few thin threads of caramel color.
She clung to each cup, imagining that in those threads was all the caffeine she needed for the long day ahead.
The giant’s footsteps came to her first not through noise, but the ripples in her coffee pot. She thought she was seeing things, or that her coffee maker was finally giving up.
Even after she was sure that the ripples were real, it was a few breaths before she felt the vibrations in her shins.
When she lived in California, before she ran out of money and returned with head bowed to Cincinnati, this would have been the prelude to an earthquake. Now she closed her eyes and prayed for the kind that shattered cities, rather than the kind that only knocked trinkets off of shelves.
The vibrations intensified. She felt them in her throat.
There was screaming.
Jack ran outside because that was what she heard her neighbors doing, thumping down the staircase calling to each other.
She stopped in the doorway and would have stayed there, frozen with shock, if the egress of more panicking people had not pushed her out. The giant walking down the street was large enough to have escaped the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Each time one of its feet came down on the pavement, dust shook free from the brick duplexes on either side of it. People were hanging out of windows with cell-phone cameras, they were running and yelling. The asphalt beneath the giant cracked with its weight.
Jack felt, more than anything else, relief. So this was how the world ended. She had always imagined something more modern, more nuclear, but there was a certain poetry to a giant rampaging through the city, something classical and reassuring. Except that the giant, as was eventually proven by more than a hundred videos on YouTube, was not rampaging. It was merely passing by on the only road wide enough to accommodate its girth, even going up on tiptoes to avoid crushing parked cars. The giant was coming, and then it was going, and then nothing would change after all.
Jack’s disappointment turned to fury and ate its way through her like stomach acid. If this was it, she wanted more.
The giant wore leather shoes sewn together with thread as thick as her thumb. It took such few steps for the giant to pass her that it was already half a mile down the street. Jack sprinted after it. Her lungs had not burned with such effort in years, not since she was a child playing girls-chase-the-boys at recess.
Jack leapt onto its shoe and climbed up, using its ample leg hair as hand holds. She reached the thick, rough fabric of its trousers and clung to the bottom of them. The fabric was too stiff for her to bend and grip. Jack did not realize until that moment how much her years of working in the back room at Pizza Hut had deteriorated her muscles. She clung to the giant’s leg hair and punched it, all the rage that wasn’t strong enough to pull her up at least strong enough to cause harm.
“You asshole!” she yelled over and over again. “You asshole!”
The giant reached for Jack with two meaty fingers. It pinched her head between them and brought her up to its face. The pressure of its grip was incredible; she was afraid her head would pop like a grape. The giant’s craggy nose was so big that Jack could have rappelled down it.
The giant said something. Even if it was speaking English, its sheer volume tore out any sense that Jack might have made of its words.
“Take me!” she yelled. “I want out of here!” There were tears like intruders running down her cheeks. “Take me.”
Did the giant understand? Was her voice even loud enough for its enormous ears to make it out against all the other noise of a city on the verge of riot?
It dropped her in one of its coat’s many pockets. She banged against something smooth and round, like a marble or a beach pebble or the back of a weather-beaten skull. Jack found her footing and clung to the fabric, waiting.
Jack looked away as Avery arced his pee out of the cage. It was a long wait before they heard it splash against the floor. Avery faced the other direction when it was Jack’s turn to pee, though he was curious. After the sound stopped, there were still a few long moments before Jack told him he could turn around again.
“Did you notice,” she asked slowly. “Did you notice anything when you peed?”
“Yeah. We’re really high up.”
Jack twisted her fingers in knots. Avery thought that he should be a man and comfort her, but neither of them had washed their hands.
Avery shook his head and waited.
“Are you even old enough to have pubes yet?” Jack snapped the words out too fast. It didn’t make them any less embarrassing.
“Were they feathers?”
One of Avery’s hands dropped to touch the front of his pants. “No.”
Jack’s voice was pitched higher than before. “Because,” she said, enunciating each word with care, “I have never had feathers before. Anywhere.”
Avery turned away from her and slid a few fingers underneath his boxers. He pulled the hem of his pants out far enough to peer inside.
“I. Have. Feathers.” Jack’s tone was as much wonder as anger or fear. She looked at the caged birds that surrounded them as if seeing them for the first time. The birds closest were quiet. They cocked their heads first one way, then another to return Jack’s stare.
Avery’s blood was full of coolant.
“Jesus,” he whispered. “This isn’t… This isn’t…” He stopped, unable to think of what this wasn’t, except everything. A question bubbled up to his lips, frivolous against his fear.
“What color are the feathers?” he asked, gesturing at the birds around them. “What kind are you going to be?”
Jack rested her palm against her crotch. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I’m afraid to guess.”
They looked at the birds around them, wondering who they used to be.
Before the giant came to see them, when there were no more seeds and the water was too foul to drink and both of them had sprouted feathers in places more obvious than armpits and the pubis mons, Jack and Avery made a plan.
The giant, with its shoulders tucked in and its head held low to keep from hitting the birdcages, was not the same in its own attic as it had been striding through open country or stepping across I-71.
It sought their cage out among all the others.
“You are looking well,” it said. Its English was accented, not with a pattern that Jack associated with any human country. Though the giant spoke quietly, the wind of its voice made it difficult to understand. Jack met the giant’s eyes, but Avery turned to face the other direction. The hint of a beak was showing in the new curve and length of his nose.
“We’re starving,” said Jack. “We’re thirsty. We want to bathe.”
The giant tapped the bars of the cage next to the porcelain bowl. “I gave you a bird bath,” it murmured. The tap shook the cage so violently that Jack barely kept her feet.
“Yeah? And what were we supposed to drink out of?”
The giant smiled. “The bird bath.” It looked past her, to the back of Avery’s head.
“Are you alright?” it asked.
“No,” snapped Jack, moving slightly to block his view. “I just told you everything that’s wrong.”
The giant reached up and twisted the cage around, trying to get Avery to face it, but he kept sidling away.
“Look at me,” the giant ordered. A bit of voice crept into its whisper. The ease with which it could deafen them made Jack shudder. She forced herself away from such thoughts. That was not the story that this Jack wanted to tell.
The giant walked around the cage. Avery stumbled as he ran to keep from facing it. Jack started climbing the bars of the cage. The giant flicked at her with one enormous fingernail. Jack held tightly to the wire despite the rocking. From this angle, when she stuck her head between the bars–far out enough for the giant to easily twist it off–she saw the lock.
Avery tripped over the porcelain bowl and hit the floor hard. He sprang back up again. Jack envied him his youth and courage.
The giant stopped twisting the cage. It still turned lazily, dizzying her. She tried to focus her eyes on nothing, to quiet the nausea. The giant caught the cage again, jerking their movement to a stop, and pulled a key out of its pocket.
The key went into the lock. Jack tried to memorize its shape in that half-breath of motion, the way its contours must force each tumbler into perfect position. The giant squeezed its hand inside the opening. Avery’s scrambling stopped being a ploy and was born instead of earnest fear.
The giant pinched his torso between two fingers. Avery went completely still. Jack had never seen a human being look so small.
The giant pulled him out of the cage and held him up to the light in its palm.
“You’ve already started beaking,” it said, squinting with eyes as large as Avery’s head. In its pride, its volume was devastating. After the shock of the noise, Avery regained enough of himself to try to pull away. The giant stopped him easily, lifting one of his needle-thin arms to check the process of the feathers growing in the crevices of his skin. The down growing over his black chest was white as white.
“I’ll bring food,” the giant decided, putting Avery back in the cage. “And water.” It smiled its nefarious smile and left, locking the wire door.
Eventually, Avery calmed down.
“I didn’t know,” he said, more than once. “I didn’t know I’d be so scared this time. I thought that maybe giants were something you got used to.”
“You did fine.” Jack’s guts were twisted inside her belly. “I’m the one who messed up.”
Avery looked up and met her eyes. The very idea of failure made it hard for Jack to open her lips.
“I didn’t figure out the lock.” She took a breath. “I saw the outline of the key.” Jack walked over to the bird bath and dipped a finger in what remained of the fetid water. She traced the key’s shape on the metal floor.
“I couldn’t see inside,” she said. “I thought maybe it was some kind of giant lock, that there was magic. But it’s just a regular lock and key, and I don’t know how to make it open.”
Avery looked at his feet. “I thought,” he admitted. “I hoped maybe there was a magic word or something.”
Jack drew her dry fingers across the water, wiping out her sketch. “Ay-ver-ee,” she said. “Ay-vee-an. Maybe you were always meant to be a bird.”
Avery ran a hand along the feathers over his clavicle.
“I don’t want to be a bird,” he said. “Even if this is what my whole life has been leading up to. I don’t want it.”
Jack didn’t know how to reply. I do. Me neither. Let’s get out of here. Let’s at least try to face this with dignity.
None of the words were right.
Instead of waiting for her to speak, Avery stood. He went up on the tips of his toes, still too short to reach the lock. Jack went over to lift him, but he’d already started scrambling up the wire bars. He could fit one of his arms into the lock elbow deep.
Jack stood below him and watched. When Avery’s feet slipped, she moved her shoulders beneath them. She looked down at her feet to avoid watching his hands and hoping.
“You know we’d have to wait anyway,” she murmured. “Even if we get the lock, there’s still the fall.”
Avery made a low humming noise, either to agree or disagree. “We won’t have to wait long,” he murmured. He spoke slowly, all of his concentration focused on his hands rather than his words. “I think actually we’re going to have a pretty narrow window, before we’re birds but after we have enough feathers for wings.”
When Jack closed her eyes she pictured them as angels, though it was too late for that. Their faces were already hawklike, their pinfeathers were coming in full of itch, their fingernails were long and thick and curved.
They were too twisted, too ugly to be angels who floated down to the ground and then back home. She would never soar over America laughing, making everyone jealous of her great adventure.
They would just be monsters.
She slumped down. Avery had to cling to the lock to keep from slipping with her.
“Steady,” he muttered. “Stay steady.”
Jack straightened. “Any luck?”
She stood there, supporting him while he worked, until her shoulders ached with his weight.
“You’re killing me,” she announced, deadpan.
“Sorry.” Avery wrapped his feet around the bars, clinging there and still pushing inside the lock, trying to move tumblers that were not meant to move for him.
“I don’t think the giant’s going to bring food for us,” she announced. “Or water.”
“I hope he doesn’t,” said Avery. “I think I’ve almost got it.”
Jack sat with her back to their porcelain bowl, watching as it became increasingly clear that Avery did not almost have it.
“What do you wanna eat?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” Avery’s voice was still distant. “Steak, I guess. That’s the best thing people eat.”
“Mashed sweet potatoes,” said Jack. “With butter and brown sugar. Tons of brown sugar.”
“Huh.” Avery’s whole head disappeared inside the lock. His voice echoed out of it. “That sounds pretty good.”
“Maybe turkey,” Jack added. “Cranberry sauce. Just a whole Thanksgiving, I guess.”
“Will eating turkey make you a cannibal? Can we still eat poultry after this?”
Jack lolled her head back against the porcelain. She had to pee again. The process had become less embarrassing as the days passed. Still, she wanted to put it off for as long as possible.
Something clicked inside the lock.
Something else clicked. Avery pulled his head out, wearing a smile so full of unselfconscious pride that Jack was reminded again, eerily, of how young he was.
The cage door swung open, taking Avery with it. He dangled from the wire for a few heartbeats, over the dirty wooden floor so impossibly far below. Jack moved towards him slowly, to keep from rattling the cage. Avery was trying to swing the door shut again, but it only swayed as he shifted his weight. Jack pressed against the wire between the hinges. The door was heavy without a fulcrum.
“It’s fine,” said Avery. He looked so happy, dangling over the precipice. “I did it!”
He shook with silent laughter, making it even harder to close the door and pull him back inside.
They left it carefully ajar. Jack touched Avery’s chest and his arms and the back of his neck, grateful to find him intact and victorious.
“I was afraid,” she admitted. “In fairy tales, when birds leave their cages, they turn back into whoever they were before.” She pulled gently at one of Avery’s breastfeathers, making sure it didn’t fall away.
“Even if they did,” Avery said. “We’d last long enough to hit the ground.” He ran a hand through his hair, only to have a clump of it leave his scalp with his fingers. More feathers were growing in beneath.
“We need our wings soon,” he said. “Or we’ll never make it.”
“We’ll make it.” Jack took the clump of hair away from him and scattered it through the bars of their cage. They watched it drift to the ground.
“What about the rest of them?” Avery whispered, avoiding her eyes. “Do we rescue them? Do they even know what they were?”
Jack looked around them, at the swirl of drab plumage and incurious eyes. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t think we’ll get that lucky with every lock.”
Now their wings just had to come in before the giant returned.
Avery began to practice flying hours after he almost fell to the floor. Jack watched him climb to the top of the cage.
“You’re not ready yet,” she said only once, in case he was.
He wasn’t. The jump to the floor of their cage was only that, a jump, and he limped around for hours on a sore ankle.
They didn’t talk much. There was a fear in both of them, vining through the bloodstream, that the giant would keep its word and return with food and fresh water and a way for them to bathe. That it would see the open door and lock it, or move them to another cage, or use some giant’s spell to finish their transformation. That they would never leave.
Jack’s feathers were coming in a mottled brown, not the same white as Avery’s. She was losing mobility in her fingers; two of them were fusing together. There was no pain to the process–each change was a surprise that she stumbled upon accidentally. It helped to watch Avery. Probably he was watching her the same way. His lips were thinning, losing their color to blend in with the skin of his face, his chin and nose growing out and coming together. She ran her fingers everywhere, trying to measure by touch her own transformation.
This waiting was the worst kind.
“Do you think,” said Avery. He paused, using his fingers (already too gnarled to repeat his trick with the lock?) to stroke his newest feathers. “I mean, the wings will come in before… before we finish being birds, right? Before we…” He gestured to the other cages. “Before we that.”
Jack shrugged. She was afraid to risk a lie, unwilling to reassure Avery when she couldn’t reassure herself.
Avery climbed to the top again. His jump down was still mostly a fall, but this time there was a certain spin to it, a bit of glide.
“I think we’re almost ready,” he said, getting to his feet. Jack looked at the bruises on his knees.
“No.” She swallowed. “It isn’t time yet.”
Avery tapped his fingers against the bars of the cage, faster and faster. The birds around them seemed to understand their nervousness. The attic was full of noise.
Hidden in the utter darkness, Avery claimed that he had finally flown. Jack felt the vibrations of his feet hitting the cage. It was too dark to see his jump. The fear that he was lying crept in under her skin, the fear that in his youth he was unable to distinguish between impatience and suicide.
Avery fumbled for her. His talons brushed against the back of her hand; her newly hardened skin didn’t recognize the sensation as pain.
“Please,” whispered Avery. “Before we run out of time.”
There was no sound of the giant on the stairs.
“I’ll go first,” said Avery. “If you hear me scream, or don’t hear anything at all, you’ll know it’s too soon.”
Jack clutched his hand.
“It will be okay.” Avery pronounced each word so carefully. Perhaps his beak was getting in the way. “Let’s jump.”
Jack squeezed his hand one last time, then let go. Avery pulled away, tracing his fingers along the perimeter of the cage to find the door.
“Wait,” she croaked. “Let’s go together.”
“That’s dumb.” Avery’s footsteps stopped. “I mean, if something goes wrong. I don’t want both of us to die.”
“We have wings,” whispered Jack. “We can’t fall.”
Avery’s voice sounded like a boy’s again. “Okay,” he said. “We both go down together.”
“Up,” said Jack. “We’re going to soar before we land.”
Something in her wanted to say “before we hit the ground,” but she bit the words back.
Jack stumbled around the cage, feeling for his hand or the break in the wire. When she finally found it her weight knocked the door open and she almost fell out of the cage. Only Avery’s grip on her wrist held her back.
She wanted to hold his hand when they jumped, but they needed both arms to fly.
They crouched together in the doorway, shoulders brushing.
“On the count of three,” Jack said. “One, two–”
The air rushed by her as Avery jumped, his hand snapping out of hers. She strained to hear the flapping of his wings. There was a sound, like sheets or heavy curtains in the wind. Then Avery yelled, a scream of unadulterated joy.
“It works!” he yelled. Jack didn’t know if he was still in the air or if he’d already landed. “We’re really real!”
It was a rollercoaster. It was airplane turbulence. It was the last second of every falling dream, right before she woke up.
The angle at which she held her arms changed her direction. Flapping them was difficult; her own weight was too much for her muscles.
It was gliding, not true flight. She wondered if her bones were hollow.
Jack hit the ground harder than she expected and bruised her ribs in the fall. She lay there until she heard Avery scrabbling nearby. When he touched her, she felt his laughter rather than heard it.
Something hit Jack on the nose. She realized it was a feather from one of the caged birds above.
“Did you…fly?” she asked.
Avery was still laughing. “Of course.”
“Enough to get back up?”
“What if we can’t pick the locks?” Avery asked. “What if they don’t want to leave? What if the giant comes back? What if he catches us again?”
Jack swallowed. The words he won’t battered against her closed teeth. This might be their only chance.
“Let’s go,” she said. “We’ll come back for them.” She felt too heavy to fly.
“Can you see the door? I don’t know where the door is.”
“Stay close. Hold my hand.”
There was light. It was a thin line of orange along the wall.
There were world-shaking footsteps coming up the stairs.
Jack and Avery scrambled hand-in-hand for a hiding place along the door, close enough to the wall to creep out as soon as the giant entered.
It came in holding a candle. They waited, barely breathing, hoping that the flickering shadows didn’t suddenly abandon them. In its free hand, the giant was holding what looked like a tub of water. Jack was struck by the fear–quickly dismissed–that some part of the giant was kind.
It moved past them, into the jungle of cages at head-height. Avery and Jack crept along, keeping close to the wall. Their footsteps were covered by the rustling and calls of the birds, now twice disturbed from their slumber.
The stairway down was as impossible as the sheer drop of a cliff, but there was light at the bottom to guide their way. Avery met Jack’s eyes, then moved back several paces. He sprinted forward and flung himself into the air. For a long moment gravity pulled him down in its fist, and then Avery flung his arms wide and let those brilliant white wings carry him aloft. From the back, their newfound deformity was invisible. Avery looked more angelic than any biblical etching Jack had ever seen.
She followed, each of her movements a clumsy shadow of his. Avery flew as if he knew what he was doing; Jack wondered if each of those jumps from the top of their cage weren’t the same as a baby bird throwing itself over and over again from the nest.
She knew that the giant had seen them before she heard it roar. Jack folded her wings and prayed that gravity was faster than the giant’s fury.
It chased them.
She and Avery ran, jumped, flew. The second story of its home was nothing like the barren attic. There were carpets and furnishings, even paintings on the wall, with tiny background figures the same size as she and Avery, rendered in only the blurriest detail.
Maybe they were only blurry because she was flying past them, quicker than she had ever run. Avery flew ahead of her, with the awkward grace of a bird accustomed to moving through a city landscape.
“Damn you!” the giant yelled. “Stop it! Come back to me!”
Without the cage to hold her in, Jack was not afraid of the giant’s comic book villainy. She and Avery were invincible.
“There!” yelled Avery. He turned his head when he called to her, almost crashing into the headrest of an ornate wooden chair. “A window!”
It was glass. For a horrible moment, Jack thought that it was closed, that Avery was about to be a bug against a windshield. Then she saw the dark line between the sill and the window itself. It was cracked open, just enough for Avery to squeeze through. He slipped out and disappeared, hidden from her by the reflection of the room’s interior. She saw herself for the first time in her new face. It was less terrible than she had feared, but there was no secret beauty in her transformation. Like Avery she was just…between.
“Thieves!” the giant shrieked. Jack did not know what it thought that they were stealing, except themselves.
She tucked her arms close to her body and bulleted through the window.
Avery jumped off the window sill and plummeted down, waiting until the last minute to spread his wings and let the wind carry him back up again. Jack didn’t know what to make of this fresh audacity.
The giant flung open the window behind them and stuck its head out into the air. Its enormous hands stretched towards them, but for the first time the world was larger than the giant. They escaped with ease.
“You can never come back!” the giant screamed. “When you take off your wings, you will never fly again!”
They kept going, deep into the night. The air was cold, not just in the wind of flight, but even when they rested in the moonlight, their muscles unused to such work.
“Where are we?” asked Avery, looking around. The needles of the pine tree they were sitting on were as large and unwieldy as swords.
“Giantland.” Jack shrugged, squinting at trees in the distance that looked smaller than mere perspective would make them. “I think we should go that way. Eventually there will be water. Eventually there will be food.”
“Eventually,” said Avery. “There will be people. We’ll find our way home.”
Jack closed her eyes and pictured her apartment, in that neighborhood where her name was not Jack and her bills were always late and the police waited, waited, waited to show up after being called.
In the other direction, the trees still looked like giant trees all the way to the horizon.
“I miss my parents,” said Avery. “I mean, it’s dumb. But I miss my mom. My little brother doesn’t take very good care of the rabbits. We raise rabbits, you know.”
“I didn’t.” Jack rustled her feathers. “I didn’t know anyone raised rabbits. What do you do with them?”
“Sell them to people. For pets, mostly.”
“Is that…Is that your parents’ job?”
“No. My parents are both middle school teachers. We just do the rabbit thing because we like rabbits.”
Jack shuddered, suddenly, at the thought of all Avery’s family’s rabbits, those eyes peering out from their cages, no matter how roomy or well designed.
She thought of all the birds in the giant’s attic.
“I don’t think.” Her mouth was dry. There was barely enough spit to swallow. “We left some…people… behind. I think that I should rescue them.”
Avery rustled on the branch next to her.
“Go that way.” Jack pointed in the direction the trees seemed to shrink towards normal size. “You’ll find…somewhere. Maybe once you’re back, you’ll turn normal again.” She thought about what the giant had said. “Maybe you just have to take your wings off.”
Avery wavered. “People need to be rescued,” he said.
Jack touched his cheek with the only finger whose soft pad was still usable under the talon. “Avery, you’re a kid. You’ve got a family that loves you. It’s killing your mom not to know where you are.” I wanted these wings, she thought. You didn’t.
“Come back when you’re done,” said Avery. If he had any of the same doubts that she did, he hid them away from his voice. “Come see me. I don’t want to be the only one.”
Jack kissed him, as much as their beaks allowed.
“Be safe,” she said. “I’ll think about you.”
Avery leapt from the tree branch in the direction that America might be. Jack watched him until he was nothing, until the moon could no longer find his feathers.
She reached her arms towards the sky.
Jack didn’t know if it was in her power to rescue the other birds. She didn’t even know if she was brave enough to try.
But now that she had her wings, she wouldn’t let anything take them away.
|Caspian Gray currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he shares an apartment with a tall man and a small dachshund. He is a used car salesman whose work has previously appeared in magazines such as ChiZine, Interzone, Nightmare Magazine, and Black Static.|