The Birds

I am roughly shaken awake. A Brother, face pale in my dark room. “It is time, we have to do it now! They are already at the door.”

I sprint down the stone steps, my coarse, heavy robes impeding my flight. I dash from the living quarters into the bustling courtyard. The sun is starting to come up, but it is still dim. Torches are lit, men in dark robes whisper urgently. The space is humming with activity, yet the only sounds are the whisper of flames and soft patter of feet.

We mustn’t wake them.

The monks are assembled, we quickly move to the livestock barn across the yard. This hour, between night and day, they are most vulnerable.

We must destroy them all.

The quietest, bravest monks have already freed what few animals are still alive, but a goat cries shrilly, and it has begun.

The air is suddenly alive with shouts and grunts, flames engulf one corner of the barn, then another. The hay doused in oil is quick to light, and the air burns, thick with acrid smoke.

Startled hisses and shrieks from the barn, high in the barn, the rafters. They wake.

The barn is not burning as fast as we had hoped, and they will take advantage.

We circle the barn, chewing garlic, holding our rosaries aloft. Prayers join the screams of rage and pain.

We mustn’t let them escape.

Soon they bolt from the building strong and swift, blurs of tattered rags, claws, fangs and terror.

We must hold the circle.

The smoke is so thick it is hard to see, I hear the cries of monks, in pain, in prayer. I hear my Brothers fighting, dying.

The circle is broken, the fire was not fast enough, and now chaos reigns. I see a Brother bleeding on the ground, eyes vacant. I see the charred remains of a beast, smoldering still.

Running, screaming, cries for help. Smoke is all I see.

Then I wake up.

Hive

Sometimes, when it was really quiet, she could hear a soft buzzing in her head.

It wasn’t always in the same spot; usually at the base of her skull, sometimes closer to the front, near her nose.

“Sinus pressure.” She dismissed her worries. “It is allergy season, after all.”

But the humming was getting louder. She could feel a vibration in her skull. She was beginning to get worried, jumpy. When her hair touched her face or her neck, it felt like the many legs of an insect, insidiously creeping over her skin.

The twitchy feelings were maddening, and the thrumming was getting stronger, more insistent.

She decided to get a haircut. A short one. She walked into the first place she saw, an old-fashioned barber shop with a striped pole in front.

“We don’t do women’s cuts.” The barber informed her.

“Buzz it.” She demanded.

The sound of the shaver was a roaring hum, the vibration over her scalp felt glorious. It drowned out the sizzling drone inside her head.

As he unclipped her smock, the humming returned.

The barber handed her a mirror, and asked, “That is quite the scar you’ve got there. Where’d you come by that?”

“On my head? I don’t have any scars on my head.”

“Sure enough you do, right above your neck.” He spun her chair so she could see for herself. He pointed, “Just there.”

An angry, purple-red mark was etched into her skin. “I don’t know where it came from…” She murmured. She reached to touch it, and it pulsed against her fingers. She felt it hum and throb.

The buzzing in her head resumed at full force, even louder than before. And now it hurt.

“Are you alright?” Asked the barber, folding the smock. “I would get that checked out.”

“I-I’m fine. Just a headache. I must have whacked my head on something… thanks.”

The pain was getting worse, she could feel it creeping behind her eyes. She hurried home, trying to ignore the thrum of activity in her head. It was in her neck, too. She could feel the vibrations shudder through her shoulders.

Her fingertips felt numb, as if she had been shocked. She collapsed on the couch, breathing heavily. Her skin was crawling, the buzzing had become a roar.

I should go to the hospital. She thought before losing consciousness.

*****

When she woke up, it was dark. It was silent. She sat up slowly, and gingerly touched the back of her neck; the wound was still there. It hadn’t been a dream.

She stood up and stepped on something with a sickening crunch. She choked back a scream and stood still. The buzzing started again, but this time it was not in her head. It was in the room. A hissing, throbbing hum that made her hair stand on end. There was no mistaking it.

The buzzing in her head was the same noise that filled the room.

She carefully reached out and turned on the light.

Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

Every Tuesday at sunset, the clockwork monkeys gathered on the street outside my window. Clicking and chattering. Gears grinding and wheels whirling. Red glass eyes winking, copper tails twitching and sparking on the cobblestones.

I was getting damn tired of these monkeys.

The first time they appeared, the monkeys stayed on the street. Passersby stopped to laugh and point at the creatures, waiting for some sort of show to begin. But there was no magician or tinker to entertain. Just the flash of scarlet eyes as the last rays of daylight splashed across the alley. As the sun went down, the clatter of tiny metal paws and empty stares were more ominous than humorous, and the bystanders quickly departed.

The clockwork monkeys turned to face my window, one by one. They waited.

As the first stars started to twinkle in the sky, the monkeys began to disperse. Gone as quickly as they had appeared, they skittered into the night with soft clicks and clacks.

I shook it off as some sort of practical joke gone awry.

The following Tuesday, as the sun went down, they were back. This time no passersby paused to point. Eyes averted, vendors went about closing up shop, their patrons hastily withdrawing as soon as the first monkey made an appearance. Even the always crowded café across the way was empty. A few monkeys rattled amongst the tables, others crowded in front.

There were more this time. I lost count at twenty, as they continued to click-clack and tick-tock into the usually bustling alley. The only noise was the chatter and clatter of the clockworks twisting movements. The monkeys turned to stare, one by one, tails a-twitch-twitch. Then stillness.

Week after week, the mechanical monkeys stared into my window, each week edging a little closer.
As the weeks went by, I noticed something even more worrisome than the ever-encroaching metal creatures.

I saw my neighbors were no longer watching the monkeys. They were watching me.

My street had never been so quiet.

So I did the only thing I could.

I shut the blinds.

The Curious

Alice was tired.

The Tree had brought her here long ago, when she was just a child. At first, it had been fun. She had explored and played; the Hatter and the Queen had been the most gentle of playmates. Then the Hatter went Mad, and the Queen turned Red.

Alice decided it was time to go home.

She went back the way she had come, along the trail that the Tree That Wasn’t Really A Tree had shown her. She walked and walked, trying to avoid the stares of her former friends. Creatures she had once shared tea with crept menacingly closer, eyes clouded with the madness. The Madness. It was getting worse, spreading faster and faster, paranoia and rage. Fear and anxiety.

Alice hurried.

The path was different than before. The trees loomed taller, darker, leaves thick with malice. No friendly rabbits lead the way, no caterpillars offered advice. Then she came to the Gate. The Gate was shut. She pulled with all of her might, but it held fast.

“Please, Alice. Can you hear me?” a soft voice sighed. “Can you squeeze my hand? Alice?”

She had been ignoring the voices. She had been hearing them since she first set foot in the Wonderland, loud at first. Demanding, insistent.

Go away. She had thought fiercely. Leave me alone. I am happy here. But the voices remained. She was able to block out nearly all of them, and the few she could still hear were merely whispers. Now, though… she was not happy. Wonderland had gone Dark, and strange things were on the move. It was time to go.

I’m here! She cried with all her might. I am here! She slammed her fists on the Gate. Please! Hear me! Help me! I don’t like this anymore! I want to go home!

The voices were silent.

The Tree! The Tree showed me the way in, it must show me the way out! She could see the long branches spreading past the Gate. The roots crept almost to the path, but fell short, just out of her reach. With each moment, they seemed a little farther away. The Tree That Wasn’t Really A Tree was abandoning her. The Tree had tricked her.

“Oh, Alice. Why did you leave us this way?” the soft, kind voice had returned. “Why is she like this?”

A deeper voice responded, “I don’t know. I don’t think she is ever coming back to us. We have to let her go. She’s already gone.”

No! Screamed Alice. No, I am here! Right here! Just open the Gate! Please! She sobbed and cried. Thrashed and fought. Alas, the deed was done.

Alice was trapped in the Dark Wonderland, with the Madness.

Years and years passed in the Dark Wonderland, where all wonders had fled. The Madness grew.

Time wore on. As she grew older Alice was able to focus her energy, and could almost see out of Wonderland. She could almost open her eyes, almost move her mouth. She realized what had happened. The Tree had tricked her, trapped her in her own mind. Stolen her sanity, and now her body appeared vacant. The voices she heard were her parents, speaking over her body, trying to communicate. Praying she was still there. And they were giving up.

Her spirit withered. She felt herself fading and slipping.

Alice splintered in her second decade.

Alice shattered in her third.

The Tree had won.

Alice was the Dark Wonderland, and the Dark Wonderland was Alice.

The Changeling

Changeling

 This is not my brother.

 My brother has eyes that smile. His grin is wide, his laugh contagious.

 The stranger looks at me from my brother’s eyes. His mouth smiles, but his eyes are dark and empty.

 There is something missing.

 He has been replaced by something inhuman, invasion of the body snatchers.

 This is not my brother.

My older brother Deshi has always been my idol. My earliest memories are all related to Deshi; toddling after him as he ran in the grass outside our house, sharing a slice of birthday cake, Deshi teaching me to tie my shoes.

“C’mon, Hy-eeeeee!” laughing, he would drag out the vowel to make it sound like he was calling for a pig. Sooooo weeeee. It alternately made me cringe and laugh throughout our childhood. Deshi was three years my senior, and I was the dedicated little brother who clung to his coattails. He was never the type to get annoyed with my clingy nature, he was patient and kind. His teasing was gentle, loving. Even if his pig-call caused my cheeks to redden, it never caused me to pause when I ran to him.

School was easy for Deshi. He made friends effortlessly, excelled in sports and academics. Deshi breezed through life, and I was happy for him. I was pulled along in the wake of his popularity; if people knew Deshi, they knew his little brother Hyun, too. I was far more reserved, but the general admiration of Deshi seemed to spill over to me by proxy. Desh and Hy Su. We were a social unit until Deshi had to leave for college.

He chose a college far enough away to drive home for holidays, but not close enough to pop in easily for the weekend. I saw him less and less over the first few months of his college education, and my senior year of high school. When he did make it home, his smile seemed a little less wide. His eyes were losing their sparkle.

When I said as much to our mother, she softly ruffled my hair and said calmly, “College life is not so easy. He is probably just stressed by his courses. Don’t worry.”

So, I listened to my mom. I ignored the warning signs, and went about my daily life.

When Deshi came home that summer, things were different. Even my parents voiced their concerns over his changed demeanor. He was still excelling; in fact, even more so than before. He had already been approached by an accomplished law firm to join their practice when he completed his time at the university. Every move he made was calculated for success. Something was missing, though.

His eyes were now cold, flat… dark. Deshi the Shark.

He no longer had time for family; we were not part of his calculations.

A few years passed. Deshi was a corporate lawyer, receiving promotion after promotion. He was ruthless in his endeavors to make it to the top, to be the best.

We saw him less and less, and every time we saw him, a little more of Deshi was gone. The smile on his face was not the smile I remembered anymore.

The last time I saw Deshi, was at my college graduation. We posed for pictures. Smiling hugely, the stranger that Deshi had become put his arm over my shoulders, and said, “Hyun, do well.”

Startled, I turned to face him as the camera flashed. For an instant, I saw my brother again. Really saw my brother. He had tears in his eyes, his smile was sad, but genuine. Deshi, my brother.

Then he was gone again, back to the emotionless, empty shell. Deshi the Robot.

He did not attend the graduation party. No one expected him to. The ambitious lawyer was too busy for parties, for family.

I thought about the camera flash, seeing my real brother hidden away behind the eyes of a stranger. He was still there. Could I help him? What was wrong with him? I was soon distracted by my mother excitedly pulling on my arm to meet more family friends gathering to celebrate my graduation.

Later that night, after the festivities had ended, I lay on my childhood bed, feet almost hanging over the end. My head was buzzing from the party, the alcohol, from seeing my real brother… I took a deep breath, put one foot on the floor. Suddenly I felt the world drop out beneath me, like I was falling from a great height. I gasped and sat up, heart lurching in my chest. I had experienced the sensation of falling when almost asleep before, but never had it felt so real. It took me a long time to relax enough to attempt to go back to bed.

In the early morning hours, we got the call from the police. Deshi had taken his own life. My parents were a mess, inconsolable. I took the phone from my father as he supported my sobbing mother, and I walked to the kitchen in a daze.

“How did he do it?” I whispered hoarsely. “How did Deshi die?” I didn’t really need to ask. I already knew, but I had to confirm my suspicion.

The policewoman on the phone hesitated for a moment. “It was a few hours ago. He walked to the roof of his office building… he took the stairs, all 27 floors.” She paused again. “I am so sorry. He jumped.”

Days later, and still no questions answered. Deshi was dead. Deshi had killed himself. On paper, his life looked amazing; success, money, attractive, popular. We grieved, and struggled to understand the change that had come over Deshi in recent years, and what would cause him to end his own life.

I asked to see the security footage from his office. The police had stated that there was no evidence of foul play, and that cameras had caught almost every image of the last hours of Deshi’s life. The officers had tried to talk me out of watching, telling me that the footage was deeply disturbing.

I was lead to an interrogation room, where a laptop was set up with the film ready to go. I just had to push play. The officer who had been helping me gently squeezed my shoulder. “Are you sure you want to see this?”

I nodded mutely.

She sighed. “Okay. Be prepared, it is pretty jarring. We have already spliced together the footage, so it goes from one camera to the next, with brief pauses in between. Do you want something to drink? Coffee?” I shook my head, staring at the laptop as I sat down slowly. She nodded again. “Okay, let me know if you need anything.” She quietly shut the door behind her.

Closing my eyes for a moment, I took a deep breath, and pressed play.

The security footage was crystal clear. In movies and on the news, clips are always so blurry and grainey, it is hard to make out details. This was a mega-money corporation, who employed mega-lawyers that charged by the hour, and they paid mega-bucks for crystal-clear surveillance of their skyscraper.

I saw my brother enter the building. Close ups of his unsmiling face as he swiped his badge. He climbed 27 sets of stairs. Slowly, deliberately, his expression impassive; he looked mechanical.

Deshi the Automaton.

Each stairwell contained a camera, not even a full second passed that was not on film. Deshi was alone in the last minutes of his life. He reached the last floor, and paused. He stood before the door that led to the roof, perfectly still, for 1 minute and 17 seconds. If the time stamp was not still running, I would have thought the frame was frozen. Then he turned to face the camera. He smiled, his eyes open, serene. He opened the door and stepped out.

The camera on the roof was directly above the door, facing outward. I watched my brother walk to the edge of the roof. Then he stepped off, and was gone. No hesitation. Just gone.