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Last Flight

Bret Parent lives just outside of Boston with his wife, twin girls, and two dogs. He isn't entirely sure how this writing thing works, but he's determined to figure it out. He rarely tweets, but when he does it's @Bret_M_Parent

The bird stood, unmoving, its drab feathers and unblinking eyes reminiscent of the stone statues people used to jam onto their lawns back when appearances mattered.
The man had been watching from behind a rusted-out sedan. Experience told him to leave well enough alone; walk back to the house and pretend it wasn't there. But something kept him watching. The chirps. Every few minutes or so the bird--or something pretending to be the bird--let out a soft, pained chirp.
From this distance he couldn't tell if the bird's beak opened and closed in time with the sounds or if its tiny chest fluctuated with the rhythm of those piercing sounds. But they continued all the same. Faint and fading, they were sad little things. Like broken bells on Christmas.
He moved forward, his hand out half in fear, half in... he didn't know. Empathy? If that was true he was stupider than he imagined. Caution, then. He could justify these actions if he convinced himself it was out of caution. Wiggling his fingers, he hoped to catch the bird's attention. Sweat collected between his fingers, behind his ears. He drew closer. His body tensed.
Nothing. Not a whisper of movement. Was it dead? Frozen stiff from the overnight cold snap? Or was it in shock? Did birds go into shock?
Dust exploded. Wings, once lacquer-stiff, burst outward, heaving the bird into the air. Caught off guard, the man stumbled backwards and crashed to the ground. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Back on his feet, he raced towards the woods, hoping to make it to the supply cache he had hidden there. If he could retrieve it without delay--his best time was a minute and half--he'd still have a chance. But something caught his eye. A fluttering. And against his better judgement, he stopped mid-stride.
As if tethered to the ground, the bird flew in quick, jagged circles, jerking from side to side before snapping downward and crashing to the ground. Its wings beat against the dirt as it skipped across the grass into the space below the stairs. There, it thrashed against the boards, its tiny body thumping into the wood. When it emerged, it's feathers were ruffled and broken. It managed to flop into the yard where it disappeared behind an old table.
Searching, the man couldn't exactly see where it had settled. He considered breaking for the woods one more time, but again came that mournful, delicate chirp.
The furniture resisted him at first. When he found this plot months ago, the disused and moldy patio set had seemed the perfect cover. A new sort of camouflage for this new world.
Tossing aside a wicker chair, he found it. There, on the ground, one leg bent at a gruesome angle, quite obviously broken, the bird pushed off with its remaining good leg in an attempt to crawl toward the house. It settled under the lip of the siding and stopped, its chest pistoning from the effort. There was something frightening in the way it moved. A broken animal using what was left of its life to crawl away and hide, just so it could eke out a few more desperate moments.
Closer now, the man could see how small the bird was; the overhang provided about an inch of shelter, nearly enough to cover its entire body. He reached down to grab it then, thinking better, went to the backyard and retrieved a rag.
It was soft in his hand, delicate in its helplessness. The previous flurry had robbed it of its remaining energy so when he bent to pick it up, it offered no resistance. Had he not been able to feel its heart beating against his palm he would have assumed it was dead.
In the distance a siren blared. The man reacted only a little. A slight jump in his shoulders, nothing more. The bird lay broken, its breath coming casually, reluctantly. And then, sparingly.
The man looked away. Suffering had become so common. So ubiquitous. To stare at it felt indulgent. Grotesque. He brought it to the side yard facing the woods and looked around.
Placing the bird on a stone, he found another of equal weight and hefted it up, hovering it over the animal. The bird made no sound. It did not attempt to escape. It was dying and somewhere in its shattered bones, DNA-deep, it understood this fact. The man raised the stone, held his breath.
It dropped. There was a sickening, wet pop. Then nothing.
Removing the stone, he peered down at what remained. Sprockets lay strewn across the fractured body. Oil leaked from tubing that spilled out like rubber intestines. A tiny microphone rasped.
The man was in the woods before the swear left his lips. Scout relays varied. They could be minutes away, or seconds. Either way, they were coming. In the distance, the siren wailed. The man broke through the tree line, sparing only a brief glance at the rough clearing just beyond: three graves, hidden from anyone but him. He gave them one final thought, and was off. They were coming. And nothing survived once they arrived.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, January 19th, 2022

Author Comments

This story is dedicated to the bird who inspired it. As well as Richard Matheson whose Twilight Zone episode I shamelessly stole the title from. Both gone before their time.

- Bret Parent
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