The Secrets of Seashells (Pt. 3)

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The third chapter of my first attempt at a novel. If you like what you see, vote for it here: https://t.co/vDsApIrilT

Nera woke to a flapping sound near her head, and afraid that one of the multitude of birds that had chosen her tree as their slumber spot had found a way to wriggle into the room through the tiny slit she had left for fresh air to enter the room, she shot up out of bed with her hands around her face. The image she’d seen in the old cop’s eyes of her father with holes in his clothes and scratches in his flesh from the birds and other beasts had haunted her dreams, and she didn’t want to awake to the same fate. She flailed about squealing like a little girl who’d seen a scary mouse or bug or other innocuous thing that childlike eyes transform into a terrifying monster. The flapping continued, but now awake, she could hear that it wasn’t so much a flap as a rustling sound.

Daring to peek, Nera opened one eye, and when no feathered tormentor plucked out her one eye, she opened the other. No bird had entered in the night. No demon had come to take her soul. No mouse had scurried along to nibble on her flesh. The candle had burnt itself out, leaving a pool of cold hard wax on her nightstand, and next to the congealed wax lay the gift box. The humid air and the nighttime breeze had wrested the tape loose. The flapping she’d heard was the paper taunting her awake, “Open me!”

In the safety of the morning light, the little box seemed harmless. She could see now that the words Congrats Grad weren’t completely worn away on the rest of the package, only mostly, and she could see that under the paper the box was indeed a gift box for jewelry. The gilded logo of the jewelry store where her mother shopped exclusively twinkled in the sunlight streaming through the window.

Jewelry couldn’t be so harmful. Especially not jewelry ten years old. In the frightening darkness, with the shock of her father’s death and her mother’s probable guilt looming above her, Nera had imagined her mother making her an accomplice, perhaps hiding some clue in a box to let her know of her plans to kill Nera’s father. Maybe even the poison she used, hidden away in the box so that Nera could have alerted the cops before he’d passed.

After a night’s sleep, and now that she could clearly see that it was indeed a jewelry box, Nera no longer believed her mother to be so callous. Did she kill him? Maybe. Would she force Nera to be an accomplice? Most definitely not.

While her mother had grown to despise Nera’s father, and all his late hours, and his inattentiveness to family matters, she had always adored Nera. Their relationship had bordered on sisterly. Nera had always assumed it was because Storhm had missed her actual sisters. She rarely spoke of them, and never by name, but when she did, it was with a fondness, and a sadness.

Nera remembered her mother baking soufflés one weekend, on one of her father’s many business trips, and she had been humming a tune Nera didn’t know.

“My sisters and I used to sing this whenever we’d bake. It was our magic tune for making the soufflés rise just right,” she’d said.

Her mother had lots of little songs for making things turn out just right. There was a cleaning song, and a song for missing keys; a song to be sung when you couldn’t sleep, and one for when you were late. The songs for different moods were the most important, though. Storhm had a song for every mood, to change it, or to extend it, and she believed with every ounce of her being that they worked. Nera could hear the song for turning sadness into happiness even now.

It was the song her mother had sung the most while Nera was growing up.

Nera sung it now as she opened the gift her mother had left her nearly ten years ago. With each note, she felt her spirits rise a little more. Of course her mother would be found. A few more notes, and she knew without a doubt that her mother hadn’t killed her father. A few more notes, and she wasn’t even sure if the dead man in the morgue was her father.

She let the wrapping paper fall to the floor, smiling at the glistening emblem atop the box. The song was nearly through, and Nera did feel better. The sadness was all but gone. She turned the box and heard the little jingling sound she’d heard last night. A light tinkle, like bells floated out of the box, becoming part of the song.

Nera lifted the lid, and stopped, just shy of finishing the song. All the sadness came flooding back. Her father was dead. Her mother was missing. Her mother might be a murderer. Her mother had given her a gift of the one thing that had always frightened her in her childhood.

On a red pillow, inside the little box, sat an owl brooch, identical to her mother’s clip, with the same angry looking eyes, and wild puffed up feathers. It was as if the brooch were angry at her for leaving it in the box so long. It was a beautiful piece of jewelry, if it hadn’t been so angry looking. Nera could see the intricate details, the delicate silver work, each feather was fashioned separately and mounted in place as if someone had taken an actual owl, shrunk it, dipped it in silver, and then embellished it with jewels.

The eyes were wrong, though. She wanted to look at them, but she was afraid to. They were a little too big, and the wrong color. Her mother’s owl clip had had green eyes, the same as her mother. These were blank. There was no color in them. No pupil, no iris, no color at all.

She stared at them, knowing that they couldn’t see her. Just as the dead can’t see, neither can jewelry, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that they did see her. They were judging her, looking her over, as she was looking over the brooch. These non-seeing eyes had made her feel small and insignificant, and then they blinked.

Nera screamed. Again, the squealing little girl, but this time with true terror in her voice. She let the brooch drop, beautiful gilded box and all, and went racing down the stairs, straight out the front door, down the semi newly painted steps, and into the arms of an alien being all in white. With a hiss and whir of sound the thing spoke, as it tried to hold onto Nera’s flailing arms.

“Ma’am, calm down,” it said. “Ma’am, what’s happened?”

Nera punched and kicked at the all-white hazmat suit, hysterical from all the excitement and the intensity of emotion. She'd only been home two days and already she’d experienced several extreme highs and lows. The death of her father, confronting the thought that her mother was a murderer, the memory of her first time with Bobby, the memory of prom, her one good memory of her parents, actually running into Bobby, seeing her father dead and frail and empty, the memory of that hideous owl clip, and now to find she’d been given a scowling owl of her own, and to have it blink at her? It was too much.

“I need air,” she eked. Her flailing had become fanning as she frantically tried to get some air into her lungs. "I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe…”

She saw a police vehicle pull up with the young cop, the one she’d gone to school with, behind the wheel just before she collapsed into the arms of some unknown man in a hazmat suit, wearing only the shirt she’d had on the day before and a pair of plain white undies.

Down seemed up, and the sky above her was a hazy tan color, all faded like an old photograph.

The clouds shifted into forms both known and unknown. Here, a cloud stood out from the haze as it marched across the sky like a gallant steed. It was small at first, just a white speck no bigger than a pebble, and then it began to race across the sky, shining white and regal with an equally pure white mane and tail, and a single horn of gleaming silver that left streaks across the muddy sky before dissolving into tufts of fluffy cotton waves.

A beautiful mermaid flipped and twirled amongst the cloud waves, her tail shimmering with all the colors of the rainbow around a single black rock, a mountain in the sepia toned sea above her head.

There, upon the single rock, was a fluffy giant with an enormous orb across his shoulders, and he heaved his shoulders in a deep sigh as a beast with a hundred heads swam through the murky sky around him, nipping at his legs and thighs. Nera watched the giant open his mouth to roar, but instead of sound, a lion leapt from his gullet and pounced on the back of the hundred headed beast. With claws of jade and teeth of diamond, the lion clawed and slashed at the creature, but each head it took, two more would grow in its place, sparking a very faint memory in Nera’s brain. Something from college tickled the back of her mind, but she couldn’t quite grasp the full thought.

She heard the clucking and the caws before she saw them, the throng of birds that burst forth from the black rock to fly in unison directly towards her. She heard the clinking clanking of metal with each thrumming beat of their many dozen wings, yet as they neared, she saw birds of flesh and feather, their dark wings blotting out the fantastical clouds from only moments before.

Nearer and nearer they flew, and Nera started to notice little details that seemed just not quite right about them. There were patches of human flesh among the dark feathered storm. Nera thought she could see several with breasts, the sagging breasts of the witches and crones from her mother’s old story books mostly, with a pair of young perky nipples here and there strewn amongst the horde. Occasionally, where there should have been feathers, she could see fingers flapping at the tips of the wings, and more than one of the large black birds had long flowing tresses from its head.

The largest of the flock, whether it was larger in actual size, or just the nearest, Nera couldn’t tell, but it had the head and bust of an old woman, and around her neck, she could see a thick heavy chain of silver and gold links. From each link a dozen or more thin chains were clasped, and each of those chains was wound around the foot of another of the birdlike creatures in the throng, creating a net of living monsters, with this one ancient beast at the center.

She could see the bird woman’s lips moving, but she could hear no sound other than the flapping of the many wings. The old woman seemed to be repeating the same phrase over and over again. Her deep green bloodshot eyes stared deep into Nera’s mind. Nera wanted to close her eyes, but they were fixed on the creature. She could see her teeth then, sharp and pointy like daggers, with bits of rotted meat stuck between them, and the smell of death began to overtake Nera’s senses.

Nera could feel herself tipping backwards, but could do nothing to stop herself. All she could do was stare at the head of the old woman, where dirty grey hair whipped around her face in the wind of the multitude of winged creatures.

Closer they came, and Nera could hear a hoarse whisper repeating over and over again: “What have you done? What have you done? What have you done?”

“What have you done, George? What the hell did you do?” whispered a young man’s voice near Nera’s feet.

She opened her eyes to the sight of the young cop, Scott, glaring at a tall, tanned gentleman, presumably the aforementioned George, wearing a hazmat suit halfway, the arms of which had been tied around his waist exposing a navy blue t-shirt with dark yellow trim. She was lying on the couch in what had been her parents’ living room, and her feet were propped up on the arm, causing the blood to rush to her head, and in the soft morning light, she could see that among the many renovation projects her father had started yet not quite completed, was the painting of the living room in a textured swirl of beige and taupe. The soft whir of the ceiling fan and the clink of the decorative pull chains could be heard as the two men whispered accusations at one another.

“Man, I didn’t do shit!” George countered in a gruff whisper with a twinge of anger at the edges. “I thought the place was supposed to be empty?”

“And I thought I told you to wait for me in case it wasn’t! Sarge is gonna kick my ass if she found something we missed.”

“What’s this ‘we’ shit? I just clean up the place. Finding stuff is all on you, pal.”

“You know where you can stick that ‘pal’ stuff, right?” Scott spat as he poked George right in the chest. “What did you have to go and scare her for? I almost had her calmed down enough to talk yesterday, now she’s gonna clam up all over again. Fuck!”

“I’m telling you, I didn’t do shit!” George spat right back. “She came flying out the house screaming about some damned bird. Nearly beat the shit outta me!”

“Yeah, I bet she did some real damage. You’re so delicate,” Scott chortled. “She weighs what, all of 130 pounds?”

“My ass!” Nera piped up. “I weigh only 122, thank you very much.”

She sat up, the blood draining back into her feet where it belonged, causing a second wave of dizziness to overtake her. To counteract the dizzy spell, she leaned back against the back of her mother’s country blue couch and looked up. The pull chains on the ceiling fan had been replaced. Where before, they had been just ornate balls, now they were silver and gold birds.

“More fucking birds,” she whispered.

At least her dream was starting to make sense.

“Nera!” Scott came around to the front of the couch and touched her forehead with the back of his hand. The look on his face said he wasn’t really sure what to do from here. He’d obviously seen some mother do the same thing to her child to feel for temperature, but, having never done it himself, he was unsure how to tell whether Nera was alright. He flipped his hand back and forth, touching her head alternately with the back of his hand and the palm before finally touching his own head, his dark eyes darting back and forth looking over every inch of Nera for signs of damage or distress.

Up close and personal, Nera decided he was attractive. His sandy brown hair was sheared close to his head in the preferred cut of military men and law enforcement. Nera wondered if perhaps he’d done a tour of duty before he came home to be a cop. His pale face and neck had become freckled and weatherworn in that way that happens only to someone who spends a great deal of time out of doors, and the creases in his forehead and at the edges of thin, taut lips were deeper, more hardened than that of the average cop, of which Nera had dated a few. Cops were hard, that was true, but servicemen were harder and they cared more due to the death and destruction they saw firsthand; the genuine concern in this young man’s face was hard to fake. Nera noted the way his eyes lingered ever so slightly over her chest as he scanned her body. She arched her back in a strategic stretch before sitting upright again, letting a little moan escape her lips.

“I mean, Miss Attwater,” he said finally, his eyes jerking back up to her face. His pale, freckled flesh began to turn a nice shade of crimson.

Men were so predictable.

A loud chuckle broke the moment and Nera turned to see “George” plopping down in her father’s oversized armchair, arms crossed across his chest mirroring the tied arms of his hazmat suit at his waist.

“Interesting,” he said.

“Miss Attwater, let me introduce George Crisp,” Scott said as he stood, relieved to be able to shift the attention away from the potentially awkward moment.

George nodded.       

“He’s here to clean the crime sce--“ Scott nearly choked on the words, “I mean, your dining room.”

“How do you do, Miss Attwater,” George said, emphasizing her name just a touch too sarcastically for Nera to be comfortable, with a slight lisp. “Our earlier introduction was much too informal, I’d like to correct that, although I do enjoy being accosted by young women in their underwear. Doesn’t happen nearly enough in my line of work.”

“I imagine not,” Nera said as she covered herself with the throw pillows that had been unceremoniously dumped on the floor to make room for her on the couch. Something about this man unnerved her a great deal.

Whereas the young cop, Scott, wore an expression of concern and compassion, this man didn’t seem to care about anything. Though she was looking right at him, their eyes never managed to meet, as if he was intentionally avoiding her gaze, and she couldn’t tell what color they were behind the goggles he had yet to remove from his face. His hair was dark and curly, much curlier than Bobby’s head of wavy locks. Though he sat in a completely relaxed manner, the muscles of his arms and chest were, tight, as if ready to strike, coiled like a cobra leery of being tread upon. 

“I imagine in your line of work all the women are rather too stiff to put up much of a fight, which must work in favor for your love life.”

“I don’t date the women from here. Have you met the women in this town? They’re all a little bit stiff,” George shot back.

“George isn’t from around here,” Scott interrupted.

“I can tell,” Nera said, glaring at the man who was lounging in her father’s favorite chair.

He’d taken to running his hand along the arm, picking at a loose thread every now and then and humming a low song. He’d thrown one leg over the other arm, making himself comfortable. The sight was enough to anger Nera. All her life, her father had sat in that spot. The chair had changed, but the spot was always the same. Two identical bare spots in the floorboards marked where her father would rub his feet in a circular motion in the evenings after work.

George did not belong there, or in this place at all, for that matter.

“Now, if you don’t mind, I’d appreciate it if you get out of my father’s chair,” she said in an icy tone, with a strangely friendly lilt, the kind used when people are trying to kill with kindness.

“Why?” he asked, “It’s not like he’s going to need it any time soon.”

Nera was on her feet before she realized what she was doing. The pillows fell back to their spot on the floor, and Nera was clenching and unclenching her fists. The coldness in her soul seemed to be seeping from her every pore. Her nipples stood erect in the shift of temperature. A sound, part moan, part growl started deep in her chest, and the clanking sound of the pull chains of the fan could be heard just over the sound of flapping.

The light from outside vanished, breaking Nera’s murderous glare. Dozens of birds came swooping in through the door, which the men, in their haste to get Nera back indoors, had forgotten to shut. The image from her dream flashed before her, and she could see the breasts and fingers and human hair where none should have been. Then with a blink, the image was gone again, and all she could see were normal, everyday birds flying into her living room. For a moment, she thought they were going to swarm her, and she dropped to the floor.

“What the hell?!” Scott had already dropped into a crouch, with his gun at the ready, unholstered and safety off.

Nera looked at him, and she could see the calm of an army man just barely covering the surprise of a young boy. He was still so young.

Across the room, George had taken cover behind the armchair, while one after another the birds dive bombed the armchair. They flew straight with sharp beaks like arrow points right into the armchair. Some pierced the fabric there and stuck, like actual arrows in the chair, while others snapped their necks on impact as they bounced off into a fluttering mass on the floor. Over and over again they flew at the chair until only two birds were left. These two were much too large, the same birds who had watched Nera the night before, though she had not noticed them then. The light glinted off the silver and gold chains around the birds’ feet. One of them opened its beak to let out a caw when a thunderous boom went off next to Nera.

Next to her, Scott had let off a single shot, aimed out the door, but now, with both feet firmly planted, he aimed at the birds who were hovering just over the coffee table. With a screech, they flew out the door, with Scott quickly behind them.

“Note to self,” George muttered, peering over the armchair at the pile of flapping, dying birds, “don’t ever piss you off again.”

“It’s a good idea not to piss people off in their own home,” Nera said, eyes still wide with surprise, “but, just so we’re clear, what are you referring to?”

“Birds? I imagine those are pets of yours or something, right? It’s a nice way to kill without getting blamed,” George said as he stood and gestured to the birds.

“I had nothing to do with that! How could I have anything to do with that?” Nera questioned the man who mere seconds ago had angered her so much she had wished him dead. Had she caused the birds to die in his stead?

“Like you don’t know what you are,” he said in a hushed tone, coming around the chair inspecting the mass of dying birds with the tip of his boot. The pile tumbled slightly, and a few birds with enough breath in their lungs squawked and clucked in agony.

“And just what am I?” Nera asked, placing both hands over her ears to hold out the sounds of death. There was genuine fear in her voice, making it difficult to hold her volume to a normal level.

“Shhh!” George said, reaching one hand toward her to cover her mouth. Then thinking better of it, he whipped his hand back as if she’d snapped at it. “Scott can’t know. He’s only human.”

“We’re all ‘only human,’” she whispered back.

“Keep telling yourself that sweetheart,” the man said back. With the “s” in sweetheart, he let his true tongue slither out between his teeth, and then again as he tasted the air to determine how close or far Scott was.

“What the hell are you?!” Nera stared at the forked tongue as it waved in the air.

“More rare than you. Now hush! Scott will be back in three, two, one.”

“Well, they’re fast, whatever kind of bird they were,” Scott said as he strolled back into the room, his right hand still on his gun, though he’d holstered it. “Is everyone alright?” he asked as he surveyed the feathered corpses strewn about the room.

“I’m fine, I’ve seen messes like this before,” George said, putting his hazmat suit back on the way it was meant to be worn, “although this doubles my workload for the day. You better make a report of it so I get paid.”

“Always thinking about yourself,” Scott sighed with a roll of his eyes. “Nera, are you alright?” he asked with that genuine concern back in his eyes. He placed a hand on her shoulders, gently lest she break under the pressure of his fingertips.

“Under the circumstances?” she tried to manage a laugh, but it came out flat. “I need to get out of this house.”

“Put clothes on first, sweetheart,” George said, with just a hint of a lisp as he walked out the door to get his supplies from his truck.

“Dammit, George!” Scott yelled after him. “Don’t mind him. He’s mostly harmless.”

“Hardly,” Nera said under her breath. “You said before he wasn’t from here. Where is he from?”

“We were stationed together overseas. After we both got discharged, he needed a job and a place to go, and I needed a friend who understood what I’d seen.”

“What did you see?” The curiosity was beginning to overtake Nera, and if she didn’t find some outlet for it, she’d end up asking about his tongue, which she sensed was forbidden for some reason.

“A lot of bad things,” Scott said. “If you really want to know, we can talk about it sometime, but this is probably not the time or the place. And…” his eyes wandered down to her bare legs.

“Yeah, I’m not dressed for it,” Nera let out a real laugh then. It was a small laugh, but the tension was beginning to subside.

Apprehensively, Scott said “And I need to take you to the station; I’ll need to get a statement about what happened this morning.”

Nera sighed. “Let me get dressed.”

She could hear the waves crashing on the shore not far from her house, and the sound brought a new song to her mind. She began humming as she walked toward the stairs, but stopped to ask, “Do you suppose we could stop for breakfast on the way? I’m starving!”

“You know what? If you can hold out, let’s do the statement first, and then I’ll take you to lunch, it’s nearly that time anyhow. How long has it been since you had a burger from Gerty’s?”

In answer, she smiled and raced up the stairs humming her own song for happiness. 

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