Description for Night Birds
Lucy’s grandmother may be a witch, her school’s lunch lady might be a murderer, and a mysterious figure stalks her in the small South Carolina town where she lives. The chapters explore themes of mental illness, religion, sexual orientation, witchcraft, and death through the eyes of this plucky girl growing up in a haunted house in the 1960’s. Charming, provocative, funny, and creepy as Hell, Night Birds will shake you up before leaving you all warm and fuzzy inside.
First Chapter of Night Birds
Daddy called me Rooster, since most mornings he found me awake when he arose. I was a bird, but not that one. No, I was a night owl, up most of the dark hours watching and listening in the quiet.
I didn’t start out that way. I’d begun in life sleeping soundly.
What troubled my sleep started with the steam whistle at the cotton mill where my father worked. Normally it blew at shift changes, 8AM and 4PM. If the whistle sounded any other time, folks sat up and took notice, because that meant something terrible had happened.
The mill had a long history of terrible things happening. The worst stories that went around town had always been about accidents at the mill. Of course they grew more dreadful still as the tales passed from one child to another on the playground, around campfires, and under the bleachers at little league games.
The first time I truly noticed the whistle, I was five and knew nothing of these legends. The moment the sound startled me, a big shadow crept over my backyard and I looked up. A blimp, I would later learn, but in that moment the shadow belonged to a silver monster in the sky, and the whistle had been its scream. As the thing drew closer, I heard an ominous droning. I scrambled for cover under my porch. The drone got louder, then changed pitch, moving off into the distance.
I saw movement in the corner of my eye, something pale among the short brick columns supporting the house. A girl, about my size. She wore a pink sack, more like a nightgown than a dress. What was she doing under my house? Maybe she was playing, and I could join in. She stared at me with big, dark eyes in the palest face I’d ever seen.
“Little girl,” I called out, and made my way on hands and knees between the columns through the sand, sticks, and leaves that had been blown under the house. My knee pressed down on something sharp and I stopped to look. A toy car, one of my brother’s, I guessed.
When I looked back up, I could not see the girl. Searching for her, I crawled forward, calling out “Hello? Little girl?”
I heard my parents’ muffled voices and crawled to a spot directly under the kitchen where, once before, I’d listened to a conversation between Mama and Ruth, the woman hired to help around the house.
“I hate that sound,” I heard Mama say sharply. “I nearly jump out of my skin every time it blows.”
I thought she meant the silver monster’s scream, and wondered if she’d become frightened like I had.
“Hate it all you want,” Daddy said, “but I’m the one who has to go down there. Whatever has happened is not going to be pretty.”
He wasn’t afraid! His footsteps crossed the floor to the door, then the back porch, and crunched into the drive as he hurried to his car. Maybe he would go scare the monster away. Dust from his hasty departure blew under the house, choking me. I had to get out of there.
I’d forgotten all about the strange girl.
Inside the house, I found Mama staring out the kitchen window. She had a troubled look, standing with her hands tightly gripping her elbows.
“What’s wrong, Mama?”
She started, rubbed her hands hard against her apron.
“Is Daddy gonna be okay?”
“Yes, he’ll take care of it.” she said, her voice sounding far away. “Go wash your hands for lunch.”
Just to see her in such a swivet, I knew I should be troubled, but I also knew Daddy would fix everything. He always did.
Standing at the bathroom sink, I rolled the soap in my hands and thought about the little girl under the house. Though she sure looked strange, I’d be looking for her to play with first chance.
When Daddy came home and we sat for dinner, I asked him about the screaming sky monster.
“Is that a cartoon?” he asked.
“No, It’s in the sky.”
“Oh, an airplane,” he said.
Mama laughed, said, “You have quite an imagination, and kissed me on the head.
Mama had smiled at me, so I knew she wasn’t afraid anymore.
All seemed right with the world again.
~ ~ ~
Some weeks later, at Mrs. Eunice Cleary’s house, I sat in the waiting room while she finished giving a piano lesson to the student ahead of me. I winced at each sour note while thumbing through a comic book that became more frightening with each new page. I’d picked it because I knew the Archie ones by heart, and had found all the hidden objects in the one copy of Highlights. Turning the page, I discovered a picture of a woman on a bed, her mouth wide in a terrified scream, as snakes slithered out from between her legs. I wadded the comic book up and shoved it under the couch cushion. Wiping my hands on my shorts, I did my best to forget what I’d seen. Somehow I knew I wasn’t meant to see that, and had to wonder how it had gotten there. I didn’t look at the student leaving, embarrassed at the thought that he might know what I’d seen.
My turn to enter the music room. Mrs. Cleary sat in her chair the same as always, but she hunched oddly, as if shrinking into its cushions. Red rimmed her eyes. The room smelled sweetly of oranges. She set down the orange she’d been peeling when I entered and wiped her hands on a napkin alongside a bowl of peels. Another bowl held several oranges. Someone had eaten a lot of the fruit. Mrs. Eunice blew her runny nose into her napkin.
“Would you like one, dear?” she asked.
“No ma’am,” I said, “I’ll get sticky on your piano.”
“Of course,” she said, “what am I thinking?” She bent over and wept, her shoulders shaking.
I stood there not knowing what to do. Had I done something wrong? Should I have taken the orange?
She mopped at her face, sat upright with a weak smile, and patted the piano bench. “Sit down, child. Despite our heartaches, we must all carry on.”
What heartache did we suffer? I wondered. Then the thought occurred that she meant strictly her own heartache.
“Please open your book to the new lesson.”
I thumbed past the pages with gummed, gold stars on them to the new piece I’d been practicing at home.
Before I’d played a single note, the cuckoo clock’s bird called four times from out in the waiting room, followed by the scream of the silver sky monster.
Mrs. Cleary cried out, buried her face in her napkin, and started weeping again.
I looked toward the window. Though I’d heard its scream a few times, I hadn’t seen the monster or its shadow since the day I hid under the house and saw the pale girl. Hidden indoors, I felt much safer.
“Dear child,” she said. “I-I’m so sorry, but I must go lie down.”
I took her sticky hands in mine and looked her in the eye. “It’s all right,” I said, trying to calm her. “It won’t come after us. It’ll just fly on by.”
She stared at me for a moment as if I wasn’t there, then took her hands back, sniffed, and said, “You may sit in the waiting room until your father arrives.” She hurried from the room.
Left with just imagination to answer my questions, I had to wonder if the monster had come after her before, maybe chased her. I looked around the room, saw the oranges and peels, Mrs. Cleary’s discarded napkin. She’d left the door to the rest of the house open. She never allowed that. What was going on? Maybe she’d eaten too many oranges. I ate too many plums once and pooped my pants. Maybe something like that had happened and she was embarrassed.
Remembering the horrible comic, I decided I’d rather wait for Daddy on the doorstep. Outside, to my surprise, I found him leaning against our car in the drive. Seeing me, he looked at his watch, dropped his cigarette, and snuffed it out with his foot.
“Ready to go early, huh, Rooster?”
“She heard the monster and got all upset.”
He frowned, turned his eyes to Mrs. Cleary’s door and back to me. “I see.”
He opened the car door. I gave him my lesson book, slid across the seat to my side, and we started for home; away from the horrible comic, the smell of oranges, and Mrs. Cleary’s mysterious heartache. Unsettled, I huddled into myself, my knees drawn up to my chest, my hands bunched up under my chin. I would have liked to hug Daddy, but I couldn’t while he drove the car. My summer clothes felt too thin, the sun too bright.
I felt Daddy looking at me. He reached over, opened the glove box, and pulled out my Bunny, the stuffed one I’d had since before I could remember. I grabbed the toy and held it tight against me, resting my chin between its ears.
“You’ll have to forgive your piano teacher,” Daddy said, glancing at me with an earnest look, “She lost her husband a few weeks ago.”
“Lost him? Did the monster in the sky get him?”
He gave me a funny look, then shook his head, “No, Rooster, he was in an accident at the mill.”
“Will he be found?”
“No, honey, it’s not the same kind of lost. He’s passed away, gone to heaven.”
“That’s forever, right?”
“Yes, and that’s why she’s so sad.”
Not understanding, I grew quiet and nuzzled bunny tighter. The familiar smell of the stuffed animal rose up and helped ease my mind.
Daddy glanced at me once, twice, and said, “all living creatures pass away sometime.”
“Well, not quite all.”
He meant that animals would not go to heaven. We’d had a conversation about that once before, one I didn’t like.
Thinking about how Bunny would never leave me to go to heaven or anywhere else gave me comfort. Because the stuffed animal wasn’t exactly alive, it would never die.
But I could lose Bunny, accidentally leave it somewhere. Imagining Bunny lost and alone someplace dark and dreary brought back all my unease.
The little lost girl under the house sprang to mind. Had she been misplaced?
And how did I know she was lost?
(End of first chapter of Night Birds)
The novel is coming soon from IFD Publishing, and will be available in paperback and ebooks from all major online retailers