It was a hot August day when Daniel moved to his new foster home. On the fringes of a nice suburb, the couple’s house sat alone at the end of the cul-de-sac. Around them lay the skeletons of unfinished properties, wood frames left vacant. It reminded Daniel of a graveyard; cold, empty buildings waiting for bodies to fill them.
While the other homes were fitted together, their backyards and front porches so close they could touch, Daniel’s home sat with its back to the trees. The unkempt forest rested almost right on top of the house, pushing up against the rear. Daniel watched the grove as they pulled into the driveway, its mass of swinging leaves mesmerizing in the wind. A series of telephone poles ran along the sidewalk, disappearing into the thick greenery, their tops swallowed up in the foliage.
Mrs. Burrow walked him up the steps to the front door, tired and fatigued. “Be nice,” she told him. “This couple wants you here, Daniel. Try to remember that.”
“Fine,” Daniel said.
Mrs. Burrow gave him a sympathetic smile and sighed before knocking on the front door.
It opened to reveal Mr. Blair’s bald head. He was dressed in khaki pants and a gray polo shirt. “Hello. How was the drive over?”
“Fine,” Daniel answered, ready as the typical speech followed. We’re so excited to have you. You’ll fit right in. It’s going to be great.
He let his attention wonder and noticed a bird sitting atop the roof, but if flew away before he could get a better glimpse of it. The door swung in to reveal mahogany floors running the length of the house. The entryway ran parallel with the stairs to the second floor and stretched all the way to the back where it fanned out into a grand living room. Mr. Blair lead them to the kitchen where Mrs. Blair stood tending something simmering over the cooktop. She turned to greet them. Her smile seemed plastic. “How do you do?” she said.
“Fine,” Daniel replied for the third time.
He drifted along with the conversation, not really paying much attention. Eventually he left the kitchen and wandered into the living room. It was nice with leather furniture and a hearth in one wall, but he’d seen it all before. Those windows, however. The entire back wall was crystal, windows that reached up to the vaulted ceiling and ran from one end to another. He stepped up to the glass, the forest outside reflecting verdant into the room and Daniel found himself unlocking the back door and stepping outside.
The spice of pine and sweetness of aspens overtook him as he walked toward the woods. It was so alive out here. He’d always felt more at home outdoors than, well, at home. He stepped up to the brim of the forest, the applause of thousands of leaves cascading in the falling afternoon air. Daniel stood transfixed before the view, watching the limbs and boughs sway in the wind, almost welcoming. Beckoning.
A flash of blue caught his eye high up in the branches. He looked to see a beak and glistening blue eyes looking back at him. It was the most beautiful bird he had ever seen. Its lower body was a rich lapis while its head and shoulders were dusted charcoal. He thought it might just be curious, but the longer he stayed, the longer it stared.
He was so engrossed by it he didn’t hear when his name was called. He turned around. “What?” He shouted back to the house.
“I said,” Mrs. Blair repeated from the porch, “come back inside, dinner will be on in a few.”
“Coming,” Daniel shouted back. He took several steps toward the house without turning his back on the woods, all the while the strange bird still watching him. When he finally went inside he looked back to see it was still there. Struck by an odd impulse, he gave a hesitant wave to the thing. It didn’t respond, instead flitting off somewhere out of view.
Mrs. Burrow had stayed for dinner at the insistence of the Blairs. The four of them sat down at a large dining table. Daniel reached for his fork when he noticed the Blairs with their heads bowed. His hand hovered over the table for an awkward moment before he tentatively withdrew it. He sat not knowing what to do as the Blairs finished their prayer. It was only when they starting eating that he followed suit. He’d learned to be careful with families like this. Some didn’t care what he believed personally, others were much more…forceful about their convictions.
The Blairs were not, however, as they seemed content to let him be on the matter and on everything else as well. A full ten minutes went by without anyone speaking. Daniel didn’t mind. It was a welcome change of pace from the typical barrage of personal questions he got at new homes. Did he like this? What about that? And how about school? Did he enjoy it? Really, why not? And on and on it went.
But they ate without disturbance. Rolls, pasta, roast, casserole, Daniel hadn’t realized just how much food had been set out. There must have been ten to fifteen different dishes. And the smell: butter, salt, bread, caramelized meat with herbs, it was good. Really good. But he couldn’t bring himself to try most of it. Doing so would require talking and they’d all been quiet for so long it fell wrong to break it now. Did the Blairs always eat in total silence? Unable to bring himself to talk, he passed the meal with whatever was in reach despite wanting to try things on the other side of the table.
Eventually when everyone finished Mrs. Blair got up to clear the plates. When she came to Daniel, she paused for a moment. She just stood there for a second until she seemed to get the courage to speak. “Would you like any desert, Daniel?”
“I, um…” Daniel said.
“We have pie, some angel food cake.” She smiled. Such a genuine smile. “I think we even have some ice cream sandwiches in the freezer.”
“That’s okay,” Daniel said, pushing his chair back. “I’m not very hungry.”
Mrs. Blair knit her brows together. The effect was an expression akin to giving someone a gift and them not liking it as much as you hoped. He asked to be excused and to his surprise there was no objection. A pang of guilt followed him up the stairs and made him stop on the second landing. He looked back down the steps and almost went back to join them, but just couldn’t. Not after not saying anything all evening. Not even thanking them for all the food they’d prepared which all looked so good. The guilt was made even worse as he considered they might have made that large dinner simply to try to find something he liked.
He turned to go to his room, done with the day and done with himself when he heard Mrs. Burrow’s voice from the front door. He crouched next to the railing to listen.
“He’ll come around,” she said.
“We’ll give him space,” Mr. Blair said. “I think we may have over done it.”
“We just want to make him feel at home,” Daniel heard Mrs. Blair say.
“Keep up that cooking and he’ll have to like it here,” Mrs. Burrow said. They all gave a nervous laugh and Daniel felt himself sink even lower. “In earnest, though,” Mrs. Burrow continued, “You’re doing the right thing. Give him time, how much depends on him.”
Mrs. Burrow told them she’d come by to check-in in a few weeks. And before she left, she cast a glance up the stairs. She didn’t say anything as she saw Daniel, only giving a wan smile before leaving.
Daniel dragged his feet as he walked to his room, fatigued from the day. He collapsed onto his bed which smell like mothballs. It would be a month, maybe two and then it would be back to the group home with all the other kids. Or would it? He was close to aging out. If he went back, how long would he be able to stay before they simply kicked him out?
I might not go back, a part of him whispered. He laughed at the thought, amused by his own optimism. This wouldn’t work. It never did.
So what now? He had no idea. He thought forward to when this home turned sour, about when he’d have to leave the group home. There was nothing beyond that. It scared him.
He nearly jumped when something struck his window. Probably a twig knocked loose in the—there it was again. Daniel crept from his bed on all fours towards the far window. He watched it for a moment. A sharp clack came from the pane and this time he saw a flash of color.
He stood up along the wall and sidling along it, peeked outside. A curious set of blue eyes looked back at him.
“Hello?” Daniel asked the bird.
In response, it pecked at the glass. Did it want to come in?
Intrigued, Daniel unclasped the lock and gently opened the window. The bird hopped onto the sill. It seemed to take in the room, cocking its head to the right and left. It turned to Daniel and bent its head towards the bed. Daniel frowned. It nodded toward the bed again. Was it actually trying to ask him something?
“The bed?” Daniel asked, feeling foolish.
“You…you understand what I’m saying?” Daniel said.
Even in the dim light, he could see it roll its eyes. “What,” Daniel said, “it’s not like this
happens all the time.”
It bobbed its head back and forth and Daniel took that to mean, “I guess so.” It then jerked its head toward the bed again.
“Um, sure,” Daniel said. It fluttered over and landed on his blankets. Ruffling its feathers, it snuggled into the covers, seeming perfectly content.
Daniel sat down next to the strange bird, wondering. “So…” Daniel started to ask, but stopped when the bird raised its wing up. “I’m just curious, how…” it waved its wing harder and Daniel realized it was actually shushing him.
“This isn’t yours, you know,” Daniel said. “I have to sleep, too.” In response, the bird shifted over a little. “Hey,” Daniel said, nudging it with his elbow. It snapped at him and skittered to the other side, its feathers fanned out, a row standing straight up on its head.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Daniel said, extending his hands, trying to placate the bird. “I promise.”
Cautious, but clearly determined, the bird snuggled back into the bed, but kept an eye on him.
“Not to be mean,” Daniel said after a few minutes, “but don’t you have a nest you could sleep in?” It gave him a look. “I mean, you are a bird, after all.”
It shook its head and Daniel frowned. “What do you mean ‘no?’”
It cocked its head, thinking. Daniel realized that without being able to talk, it was probably rather difficult to explain something like this. “Hang on,” Daniel said. He scrounged around in his night stand until he found a pencil. He didn’t have any paper other than sticky notes. It would have to do.
He proffered the pencil and paper. “Can you write?”
The bird nodded, although when it tried to grab the pencil with one of its feet, it slipped away. It tried again and again, but couldn’t seem to keep a grip on it.
“Use your beak,” Daniel suggested.
The bird gave him a look that could only be described as incredulous. But it shrugged and tried picking up the slender pencil in its mouth. This was a lot more successful and after two attempts, it managed to hold on to wooden shaft firmly enough to press it to the paper and
scribbled out a single word.
“You were a person?” Daniel asked. The bird nodded. “How did you get like this?”
Again the bird scribbled only for the lead to break. To his surprise, the bird jerked its head, tossing the pencil across the room and screeching at in frustration.
“Quiet,” Daniel hissed. “You’ll wake everybody up.” The bird shrank down, abashed. “Its okay,” Daniel said, “Sorry.” He got up to get the pencil but paused. Turning to the bird, he grinned. “I have a better idea.”
A few minutes later, the bird pecked at the screen of his phone, typing out a short sentence.
Something in the forest. Magic.
Now Daniel gave the bird a flat look. “Magic? Really?”
More pecking. I’m a talking bird. Yes magic.
“Fair enough.” He sat under the covers, the bird nestled up on his other pillow as he held the phone up for it to text on. “If you were human once, what’s your name?”
Daniel smiled, “ I like it.”
“Daniel. Nice to meet you Penny.”
She opened her beak and squinted her eyes. Daniel wasn’t sure what she was doing until he realized she was trying to smile. That made him laugh.
Stop laughing, Penny typed, it’s not funny.
“Sorry, sorry,” Daniel said. “It was cute, though.” He settled down further into bed. “So, something in the woods did this?”
“Any idea what it was?”
She shook her head.
“Do you have any family?” Daniel asked. “Have you tried talking to them?”
She paused for a moment. I tried, she typed, but they never notice me. I’m just a bird to them. She hung her head.
“You miss them, don’t you?” Daniel said.
She nodded. The room was quiet for several minutes. Daniel knew that feeling, that sense of isolation. It had been the only consistent friend he’d had through the years. He reached out and rested on hand on her back. She stiffened and he pulled back.
“Sorry,” Daniel said.“It’s just…I know the feeling.”
It’s okay, Penny typed. A paused before she continued. Do you have any family?
Daniel shook his head. “Dad’s never been in the picture and mom left me on a doorstep when I was three.” Daniel looked out the window, over the trees. “They say she had cancer, that she was trying to help me.”
Daniel shrugged. “You can’t miss what you never had.”
She pecked at the screen. Lonely?
“You get used to it,” Daniel said. It wasn’t true, though. He knew it was irrational, that it wasn’t good to humor the impulse, but a part of him always hoped his parents would come back. He’d even been tempted to try looking for his father as he’d known several other kids who’d gone in search of their folks after outgrowing the group home. He hadn’t heard back from any of them except for a chance encounter with one girl two years ago. She’d found her mother. She was even doing well, even friendly towards her daughter. But the love wasn’t there. The girl had told him with hollow eyes how empty it had felt. To meet her mom and it feel like nothing. After that, Daniel had given up on trying to find his dad. That left no one. Just him.
He looked at Penny, her head resting against the phone, eyes downcast, a human expression. “Hey,” Daniel said. She raised her head. “Listen,” Daniel said, feeling awkward but determined. “I don’t know what this was, I mean it’s magic which is crazy, but…” He took a breath. “If you want, I’ll help you figure this out.”
She perked up. Really?
Daniel gave her an awkward smile, “As much as I can. Again, we’re talking about magic
here.” He shook his head, “Just… magic. Wow.”
That’s okay. She gave her attempt at a smile and Daniel grinned. Thank you, she typed.
He set her pillow up on the window sill and cracked it open. If either of the Blairs came in and saw he had a bird, there would be some awkward questions to answer. This way she could leave in a hurry if she needed to. She snuggled down into her blankets and Daniel pulled his up, but didn’t go to sleep immediately. He lay thinking for a long time and was surprised to realize that for the first time since learning about his parents, he was looking forward to tomorrow. He fell asleep watching Penny on the window sill, the moon light behind her.
A thrush stood on a bough and watched the blue one go to sleep. How she got inside the house, he didn’t know but it burned him up to see her so close and yet impossible to grasp. He didn’t know why they wanted her, never needed to know. He was not the why, he was the how. The cruel, dark, twisted how.
He watched a moment longer, but she didn’t stir. Better to report what he had found before day break when he would have to hide again. They would be pleased with what he’d found, or as pleased as they could be.
The thrush flitted from the branch, its miniature silhouette dark against the moon even as it convulsed, writhing tendrils erupting from it, its body contorting, black against the moon until there was no trace of the small bird that had stood watch over Daniel’s house. Now there was only a mass of pitch, of black slime and scales as it soared into the starry sky, a shadow against the void before it dove into the depths of the forest that hid it once more.
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