This a story inspired by an announcement made during a Writers Cooperative meeting at the Everett Public Library. They asked that whoever left the unattended box containing two birds to come and collect them. I couldn’t resist. I didn’t realize the story was set in the same world as one I’d written earlier – A Plague of Magic. I hope you enjoy it.
Two Birds in a Box
It all began with the birds.
I was in the library, along with dozens of other fine and not so fine specimens of humanity. Light globes floated above us, illuminating the dark room. Days were growing shorter as they marched relentlessly toward fall. A month past midsummer and I could feel myself grasping for the sunlight already.
The woman sitting at the table across from me wore several layers of clothing, one over the other. She stank. I didn’t say anything. It must be hard to find a shower when you’re homeless.
I wasn’t far away from being in that situation either and just the thought of it brought tension to my chest, shoulders and neck. Being out on the streets these day must be horrifying. Crowds of the mad and Talented out every night. Fighting with anyone, but especially police, FBI and the National Guard. It was like living in a war zone. And it was being played out in most big cities across the country.
Not that Everett was big, but obviously, big enough.
I shifted in the hard wooden chair, adjusting the legs of my baggy capris, trying to get comfortable.
The cool, dark, brick building was old, with heavy wood tables and dinosaurs of computers. But they worked and free was the right price. I searched online for a job. Submitted resumes for things I was over qualified and un-qualified for. Desperate. Silently, I slid the chair legs across the thin dark green carpet and stood.
Done, I was done. I’d submitted a record 130 resumes in three hours. Didn’t mean any of them would pan out. Or if they did that a job would last long. Most people fully expected the world was ending, what with the Talented wreaking havoc everywhere they went. But hadn’t that worry been around forever? Predictions of the end of the world went back thousands of years at least.
I stuffed notes and thumb drives back in my black messenger bag and slipped the strap over my head and one shoulder.
An announcement came over the sound system, “Your attention please. Will whoever left a cardboard box with birds in it near the outside elevator, please retrieve it? Thank you.”
Wackos, the world was full of wackos.
I stopped at the library cafe on my way out and bought a latte. It would be my last splurge until I got a job. I sprinkled cinnamon on it, just for effect and sipped the brew from the paper cup as I walked out into the blinding sunlight.
It had been really hot recently. Well, hot for this part of the world. We were on the rainy side of the mountains, so the temperature had finally become summer-like and ninety degrees was unbearable if you lived in an apartment on the west side of an old building with only one window. Few people had air conditioning in this part of the country. If I had a spare couple hundred bucks I’d buy one of those window inserts. But I didn’t. I needed to save my money in case a job offer didn’t arrive soon.
I walked around the corner of the building to the elevator down to the parking garage. There sat a smallish cardboard box, the flaps folded tightly closed.
I remembered the announcement. Why would anyone leave two birds in a cardboard box?
No one was around.
I moved closer, touched the box. I heard noises of something scrabbling around in it. I peered in and saw four pairs of black eyes. Crows or Ravens. I didn’t really know the difference.
“What are you doing in this tiny box?” I asked them, not expecting a reply.
“Our friend put us here. He said the right person would find us and take us home.”
Was I the right person? Probably not.
“Who is the right person?” I asked.
“You are,” they said.
Now realize, they weren’t talking with words. I heard their raucous voices in my mind.
I just stood there, staring. I wasn’t an animal speaker. I wasn’t anything. In a world where magic now fluttered off plant leaves, misted through the air and echoed off of buildings, I was among the Untalented. A Commoner, as they called us. The Magic Plague had come and gone and I hadn’t been infected.
I was all right with that. I’d settled into my life with low expectations. Job, apartment and a life with books. Living life vicariously. Well, at least before I got laid off, along with half the department when our company merged with another.
I’d immediately downsized to the tiny, cheap apartment I now lived in and began job hunting. That was six months ago. I still had enough money for a few more months. And if they passed the emergency bill to extend unemployment for just a while longer, I was sure I could hold out long enough to find a good job.
“Take us home with you,” said the piercing voices inside the box.
“I live in an apartment. I can’t have pets, what would I do with you?”
“We’ll be no trouble. Really. You need us.”
“Oh hell,” I said, picking up the box and carrying it with me. I could at least take them home and give them some water. They looked like babies.
It was a two block walk to my apartment. The sun blared down and the heat on the pavement was intense. There was little greenery to cool things off. Any plants had been completely dehydrated and stood, yellow or brown, crisped.
Sweat trickled down my ribs, beneath my blue T-shirt. My long hair was wet, sticking to my neck. Finally, I entered the foyer of the building and climbed the stairs to my studio apartment. Even the stairwell was hot. It was an old building, built in the 1950’s. My apartment was on the fourth floor. I didn’t take the elevator because it rarely worked these days. I didn’t want to get trapped in it again. Last time I’d spent three tense hours in it with two dodgy-looking guys. I’d had a knife, pepper spray and witty banter, but vowed to never put myself in that situation again.
I unlocked my door and opened it. Locking all four locks behind me. I set the box on the battered coffee table and opened the lid. Put my bag down next to it.
The birds fluttered a bit and stared at me.
“I’ll get you some water,” I said, going to the cabinet and pulling out one of my two glasses. I filled it from the tap and set it on the table. “Sorry, it’s not filtered. Can’t afford that these days.”
The two birds took turns perching on the rim of the glass and drinking.
I switched the fan on so that at least the hot air would blow around, making me feel like it was cooler. I sat down on the narrow bed next to the coffee table and slipped out of my running shoes, letting my bare feet touch the wood floor. Even the floor felt hot. If I didn’t have strange, talking birds in the room, I probably would have undressed and just lay there naked, but they made me feel self conscious.
“Thank you, we were very thirsty,” said the smallest one.
The larger one had more roughed up feathers and looked younger. They told me their previous owner had been an old magician. Of the stage variety.
“Why did he leave you at the library? In a box? For anyone to find? Why didn’t he just let you go?”
“It was his time to die, he told us. He wanted us to find a new home and to help someone. We chose you,” said the older raven.
“We’re too young to be on our own yet. Many others opened the box you know, before you came. We sent them away, but we liked you,” said the young one.
“We can help you?” they both said.
“Help me what?”
“Use your magic.” they said.
“I don’t have magic. I’m not Talented.”
“Yes you are. Your magic is just slowly coming on. It will be more powerful than most. You’ll need to learn to hone it quickly,” the older one said.
I wanted to laugh, but something told me that would be impolite.
“Do the two of you have names?”
“I’m Nightfall,” said the older one, who was very black, “and she’s Darkness.” Nightfall cocked its head at the larger raven, who was slightly paler.
“Are you male and female?”
“No, we’re both female. We were born the same year.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Yes, very,” said Darkness.
“What do ravens eat?”
“Meat, seeds, nuts, we love mice.”
I had some almonds in the fridge, so I got those out and put a handful on the coffee table.
“If you open your window, we will catch more food later. After dark,” said Nightfall as she downed her third almond.
It took me half an hour to wrestle the screen off the window. What was I thinking that I could keep ravens in my apartment? I spent the evening cooking some soup, reading and watching the young ravens explore my apartment.
I woke at three in the morning as the mob came down the street. Nightfall and Darkness were perched on the open window sill, I could see them dimly lit by the moon. I peered out, watching the Talented move up the side street. Every night they attacked part of the city, terrifying people and making the world afraid and ugly.
Magic swirled around them like a hazy, golden cloud as they walked along, wearing long robes and glittery costumes. Anything outlandish seemed to be the dress code. Carrying torches which made the throng glow with life. They transformed parked cars into baby elephants which got up and walked along with the mob. They set fire to buildings and dried out foliage. The few trees on the street began to burn.
I could feel rage welling up inside me.
“You must go confront them,” said Nightfall.
“Otherwise your anger will damage you.”
“It’s true,” said Darkness. “Go down there. Stop them.”
“I can’t do that. Even if I did have magic, which I’m not sure I believe you, I wouldn’t know how to use it.”
“Humans learn their magic by doing.”
“And I’m supposed to confront an entire mob of Talented, who know how to use their magic?”
“Pick off the stragglers, first.” said Nightfall.
We went back and forth for several minutes, Nightfall and I.
Meanwhile, Darkness had raided my open closet and brought several articles of clothing out.
“Dress,” said Darkness.
“Now, before it’s too late. I can feel your anger building,” said Nightfall.
She was right. I felt like I’d punch a hole in my coffee table. I had never done such a thing. Ever.
I slipped out of my sleep shirt and into the black panties and black leather bustier from another era of my life. Then put on a short black skirt and socks, over which my heavy black boots went.
Darkness had an eyeshadow brush in her beak and expertly applied loads of black, so that I almost looked like a raccoon. Nightfall dropped a tube of lipstick in my hand and I put some on. I looked like I was going to a concert, not attacking a mob.
“Let’s go!” they said.
I opened my door and they flew out and down the stairwell. I had to run down the stairs to keep up. The lobby was dark and deserted.
I opened the door and we were outside.
“Rub your hands together, feel the magic build and be ready to come out your fingers,” said Nightfall, her instructions making no audible sound.
I did as I was told, watching the approach of the crowd as they turned the corner and started up my street. I stayed in the shadow of the doorway and awning, leaving the door open enough to run back inside and rubbed my hands together. I could feel energy building inside me, it made me jittery.
Nightfall and Darkness perched on waist high stone gargoyles which stood on either side of the door. Hopefully, they weren’t visible to the mob.
The crowd moved past, not seeing me until there were only three people at the back. I could smell the smoke down here. They burned trees and shrubs with some garbage across the street.
“Now, put your intention into your hands and shoot a ball of light at them,” said Nightfall.
Nightfall repeated the instructions.
I looked at my hands and said silently, “Take away the magic of those who would harm others.”
I envisioned a ball of light shooting out at the crowd. I felt a tingle in my hands as the light left my fingers.
My pathetic ball of light went three feet and dropped into the street. It was the size of a dodgeball.
But I had the attention of the three trailers who were walking backwards and looking for trouble. They pointed at me and laughed. Which pissed me off and scared me at the same time. They began to walk my direction.
“Stronger,” said Darkness.
“She’s not ready,” said Nightfall. I could almost hear disappointment dripping from her voice.
My mouth felt dry and pasty. I took a deep breath and put forth the same thought, but this time I put some energy behind the ball of light. I lobbed it high and watched as it exploded over the crowd like fireworks and then dribbled down. My entire body throbbed from the exertion.
About that time the police and National Guard showed up. Police behind the crowd, National Guard in front.
I opened the door. “Inside, I said.” Darkness and Nightfall dove in through the opening. I slipped inside the door, locked it and peered out the window. The ravens swooped and dove around the small lobby. They made no sound, but I could tell they were elated.
Arrests were being made. There was some struggling, but no more than in an ordinary demonstration. No magic was being done. I couldn’t tell if I’d taken away their magic for good or if it was just momentary.
I, the Talentless, had Talent.
Energy ran through me now, instead of anger. I felt my connection to the earth below me and the sky above. I had channeled the available power and actually accomplished something. I had helped stop a night of violence and destruction.
I stood downstairs at the window, watching until all the mob was arrested and taken away. Then I climbed the stairs, the ravens soaring up the stairwell. The sound of their beating wings echoed like thunder. I was panting by the time I got to the fourth floor, bustiers were not meant to run in.
I unlocked the door and they streamed in and perched on the coffee table, grooming themselves.
I closed the door behind me, locking it.
“You did it!” said Darkness.
“You know this is just the beginning,” said Nightfall.
“It is, isn’t it?”
The mobs that were the Talented had formed in every city, holding everyone else hostage.
I stood dumbfounded, watching the two ravens arrange their feathers. My entire body shook with energy. It would take me a long time to master it. I’d been lucky and I knew it.
I plunked down on my saggy bed, afraid that I’d fall down. That much energy ran through me. I’d need to figure out what to do with it all.
I slowly began to realize that I hadn’t found a job, I found my life’s work that day.
Darkness, Nightfall and I were a team.