Birdcage

It was time to get rid of the wallpaper.

Gordon wasn’t sure why he had put up with it for as long as he had. He’d lived in the house for 10 years, and the wallpaper had come with it. It had been the first home he’d looked at, and despite the wallpaper, it had called to him: a small brick bungalow, right for a young bachelor with no discernable taste, boring but well-maintained. His brother, Tom, a contractor, had come along and given the structural integrity a cautious thumbs-up. “You can just get rid of the wallpaper at some point,” he’d said without prompting, their mutual understanding of its ugliness unspoken.

The wallpaper was cheap and tacky. It was a dull white with a large pattern – empty brass birdcages woven with garlands of bright blue flowers, each birdcage the size of Gordon’s head, spaced about six inches apart. It was both offensively banal and optimistically bold, and it covered his entire living room.

“Why are all the birdcages empty?” Tom wondered aloud between mouthfuls of pizza and beer. “Flowers eat them, or what?”

They had just finished moving all of Gordon’s things into the new house. Hector, Gordon’s friend from work, said, “That’s the first thing you think? That the flowers ate them? The hell’s the matter with you?”

In response, Tom picked up a black magic marker and drew a crude representation of a bird in one of the cages next to the archway that led to the dining room. Beside it, he wrote, “Feed me, Seymour.”

Hector laughed. Then he asked, “Who’s Seymour?”

Tom said, “Ask your mom.”

Now, 10 years later, Gordon stood in his pajamas at three o’clock in the morning, a glass of water in hand, staring at the messy little black marker bird. Russell – an ugly, brick-shaped little dog with a smashed face and bulbous eyes – snored loudly in the bedroom.

Gordon couldn’t recall the last time he’d had a decent night’s sleep; insomnia had plagued him since childhood. In recent years, he had used his sleeping disorder to work on projects around the house; the way he saw it, he got three or four extra hours per day, and he wanted to use them. He was often a zombie during the day, anyway. Better to use power tools when he was at his most alert.

He usually woke up around the same time, two or three o’clock in the morning, restless, troubled by vague concerns he couldn’t quite grasp. Exhausted but wide awake, he would fix things, or rearrange things, or clean things, or sand things, or paint things. The previous year, he had refinished his kitchen cabinets over the course of three sleepless nights. Last week, he had built Russell a doghouse for the back yard.

Tonight, wallpaper was on the agenda. He would test the edges, see how easily it peeled away. If he could, he would peel it all off; otherwise, he would rent a steamer that weekend and deal with it then. Part of him would be sad to see it go, sad to say goodbye to Seymour the Graffiti Bird.
Only a small part, though.

He took the last gulp of his water and set the glass on an end table he had restored one night in the winter of ’09. Then, he began looking for seams. There was one near Seymour, but sentimentality moved him along; he would remove Tom’s handiwork last. He moved to the other side of the dining room archway to the largest wall, where found another edge that was lifting away. He took hold of it and gave a gentle but firm tug.

To his surprise, the wallpaper peeled away easily. He ended up with a large sheet of it in his hands, a large section of bare white wall before him.

“Hm,” he said aloud to no one, pleased by his easy progress and feeling self-satisfied. He found another edge and, still careful, slowly lifted and tugged. This second piece came away almost as easily as the first, but with a bizarre difference.

The removal uncovered the edge of a door.

Gordon stood there for a moment, puzzled. There was bare white wall, but also the edge of what could only be a doorframe, in the same dingy shade of walnut as all the other wood in his house, and within that, the edge of the door itself, also walnut.

The wall in which the door sat was about six inches thick, separating the living room from the dining room. In the dining room, there was no wallpaper, and there was no door.

“How?” Gordon mumbled. A door would have stood out from underneath the wallpaper; yet, where the wallpaper still hung, the surface was flat.

Overcome with curiosity, Gordon began to tear the wallpaper away more vigorously until he had uncovered the entire thing – a door that had, apparently, been covered by wallpaper this entire time, but which he had somehow never noticed, less than a foot away from the open archway leading into the dining room.

It was an ordinary door that looked like all the other doors in his house, with a brass knob that certainly never could have been hidden by wallpaper.

This was, of course, impossible. Yet, there it was.

He gingerly reached up to touch the door. There was nothing unusual about it. He felt the doorknob; it was cold. He turned it, and pulled the door open, expecting to see lath and plaster.

Instead, there was a room, about the size of a small bathroom.

Dumbfounded, Gordon stepped around the archway to look into the dining room. The dining room looked normal. He looked back on the other side of the wall at the open doorway, leading to a room that should not have been there.

“What the hell,” he whispered to himself. He became vaguely aware that Russell had stopped snoring.

He turned and went into the kitchen, where he yanked open his junk drawer and pulled out a flashlight. As he passed through the dining room on the way to the living room, he looked again at the dining room wall, which was perfectly ordinary, and certainly showed no signs of having a closet jutting out of it.

He went into the living room and clicked on the flashlight, peering into the mystery space that had somehow found a way to be there. It was empty, just a small room, maybe five feet by five feet, with a walnut floor and ugly birdcage wallpaper.

Gordon stepped inside. It was cold, about 20 degrees colder than the living room. He touched the walls, shined the light upward, found nothing but an ordinary ceiling.

“Super fucking weird,” he mumbled. He shined the flashlight along the wall, looking at the ugly, empty birdcages and blue flowers. One of the birdcages, he noticed, had a black smudge on it, like shoe polish. Gordon, despite knowing better, reached out tentatively to touch it.

Suddenly, a wave of nausea hit him, a strong one, strong enough to bring him to his knees. He gagged, dropping his flashlight. It clicked off just as the door slammed shut behind him, taking the light with it.

Panicking and disoriented, Gordon clutched his stomach and clamored for the door, but found that he could not get his bearings. He slumped back to the floor and began searching for his flashlight, feeling around on the floor in the dark, dry heaving, ears ringing. He could hear Russell’s rasping, phlegmy barking, frantic, out in the living room.

He could also hear birds.

Crows, specifically. The cawing of crows. It grew louder and louder as he struggled.

Finally, his hand found what it sought. He turned on the flashlight, found the door and lunged for it, wondering if he would find that it would not open.

It opened easily. He tumbled out into his living room, nausea clearing away almost immediately. He scuttled on all fours away from the door, which once again slammed shut, silencing the cacophony of screeching birds instantly.

Breathing heavily and sweating, Gordon sat there, unsure of what to do, Russell clamoring to lick his face. He looked at the clock on his cable box. It was a little past seven thirty.

“Jesus,” he said.

He had entered the room just after three A.M. and had spent maybe a minute or two trying to get back out. How could over four hours have passed?

He slowly pushed himself to his feet and brushed himself off, although there was nothing to brush. He rubbed Russell’s chin and tried to process what had happened to him. It occurred to him that he must have hit his head in the room and fallen asleep, dreaming the attempted escape. It was the only explanation he had, although it hadn’t felt like a dream at all. It had felt real.

He studied the door, bewildered. What would happen if I went in there now? He tried the knob, but it wouldn’t open.

It was all too strange to comprehend. Gordon knew he should have been afraid, but he wasn’t. Instead, he was curious, and there was something else at work in his mind, something he couldn’t quite grasp. At any rate, he didn’t have time to dwell on it, because he had to go to work.

He briskly conducted his morning routine under Russell’s watchful eye. Instead of slipping out through his doggy door and rolling around in the yard as he normally did when Gordon got ready for work, the dog followed him and stared at him as he brushed his teeth, splashed water on his face, applied deodorant, got dressed.

“Go on,” Gordon said to the dog as he put food in his bowl. “Go outside, go poop.”

Russell just stared at him. Shrugging, Gordon went to work.

That evening, he and Hector met up with Tom for a beer. He told them about the night before.

“It’s really weird,” he said. “There’s no way wallpaper could’ve covered that door without me noticing all this time. I mean, wallpaper can’t cover a doorknob without me seeing that there’s a damn doorknob.”

Hector, who took most things at face value, was properly in awe. “That’s crazy! How’d it get there, you think?”

“I dunno,” Gordon said, shrugging.

Tom was less supportive. “So… you found a magic door under your wallpaper.”

Gordon scowled. It sounded stupid when put that way. “I found a door under my wallpaper. I didn’t say it was a magic door.”

Tom raised an eyebrow. “So you’re saying a non-magical door magically appeared in your house, with a magic room behind it that makes magic bird noises and gives you magic time travel powers?”
Gordon sighed in exasperation. “No, asshole, I’m saying—”

“It gives you magic nausea,” Hector interrupted. “Like magic puke.”

Gordon and Tom stared at him briefly before turning back to each other. “It’s there,” Gordon said. “I’ll show you.”

So, after finishing their pitcher, they went to Gordon’s house, where Gordon was met with disappointment and confusion.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” he said as he stared at the blank wall. “There was a door here last night. There was a room.”

“Well,” Tom said thoughtfully. “We don’t really know its properties. Maybe it can turn invisible.” He cupped his hands over his mouth. “Magic door,” he called out. “Art thou invisible?”

Gordon was too stunned to be annoyed by his brother’s sarcasm. He felt around on the wall where the door had been. “It was right here,” he said.

Tom made a cawing noise.

Hector, who was holding Russell and petting him, said, “Maybe you were just dreaming, you know, and you were just opening your closet door or something. Like sleepwalking.” Then he said, “Russell stinks, man.”

“No,” Gordon said. “No, no, no.”

“He really does. Like hot garbage, kinda.”

“There was a room here.” Gordon ignored his friend. “Last night, there was a room. I went into it, and I was in there for a minute, and there was a black smudge on the wall and I could hear crows, and I came out and it was four hours later, and it wasn’t like this, it was a room.”

Tom ruffled Gordon’s hair. “Probably did have a dream, buddy,” he said. “Relax. And give Russ a bath. Jesus Christ, he smells like a dead goose.”

Gordon knew what Russell smelled like. He also knew that he had neither dreamed nor imagined the door, or the cawing, or the nausea. When Tom and Hector left, he stared glumly at the blank wall, hating it. Around 10 o’clock, he felt surprisingly drowsy, and so he went to bed

He fell asleep far more easily than he normally did. He dreamed of birds.

Then, like clockwork, he woke up around three, gritty-eyed and exhausted. In the initial haze, he thought he saw something move in the dark, near his dresser, but it was likely a leftover from his dream. There was nothing there when he turned on his lamp and got out of bed.

He went into the kitchen for his nightly glass of water; then, he marched into the living room.

There was the door.

“Ah ha!” Gordon said loudly, pointing at the door. “Ah ha!” He heard Russell snort in his sleep somewhere in the house; the bathroom, from the sound of it.

Gordon grabbed the doorknob and flung the mystery door wide open.

There was the room. Gordon’s flashlight sat in the middle of it.

He stepped inside and clicked the flashlight on, shining it around the room once more. It was the same as the night before, small and empty with the same ugly birdcage wallpaper, except the oily black smudge had grown into a huge, uneven stain the size of a car windshield, covering the wall nearly completely.

Gordon stared. “Gross,” he whispered. A horrid stench radiated from the spot.

Recalling what had happened the previous night, he felt compelled to try to touch it, to see if the result would be the same. Swallowing, he reached for the stain.

Nothing happened.

Encouraged, Gordon touched the wall. A greasy black substance coated the spot; the wall beneath it was soft, as if rotting away. He prodded slightly and his fingers pushed into the wall as if it were a wet tissue.

Agonizing nausea knocked him to the floor again as the door slammed shut behind him, the cawing of crows growing louder and louder. He struggled to his feet and tried to get his bearings, looking for the doorknob to escape. Beyond the din, he could hear Russell barking again, high and panicked. He turned and reached for the doorknob.

As he grasped at it, he heard a whispering voice beneath the clamor of squawking crows, a voice too dark, an ancient black thrum, a voice he could barely understand: “Release me.

Then he was falling through the door and onto his knees in his living room. The door slammed shut behind him, cutting off the sound of the crows. Russell was warbling in relief, jumping at Gordon’s face, licking the air around it.

Gordon’s heart raced. The voice in his ear had been audible, not imagined. He was certain of it.

He looked at his right hand. His fingers were clean, no trace of the black substance.

He got to his feet and turned to face the door. It sat in the wall, looking ordinary. He tried the doorknob, but it wouldn’t budge.

Gordon went into the kitchen, where he poured himself a glass of water as Russell trotted in circles around him, fussing. He found his cell phone on the counter and called in sick at work. He let Russell outside into the yard and blocked the doggy door with a cinder block he kept nearby for such purposes (Russell had a habit of desperately wanting to come inside when he would most be in the way). Then, he went back into the living room to work on removing the rest of the wallpaper. Starting where he had left off two nights prior, he began peeling it away, moving around the living room counterclockwise.

He uncovered nothing but white wall, all the way around.

He finally came to the last panel of wallpaper, the panel adorned with Seymour, the black magic marker bird that Tom had added on Gordon’s first night in the house. He looked at the drawing for a moment, feeling at first like something was different about it, and then noticing what it was.
The writing next to the bird, in Tom’s blocky print, no longer said “Feed me, Seymour.”

It said, “Release me.”

Gordon blinked a couple of times, looking away from the drawing and back at it to see if he could reset the image somehow, make it the way it had been before. He rubbed his eyes. But every time he looked, he saw it.

Release me.

He turned on his heel and went back into the kitchen for his cell phone. He called his brother, who, thankfully, answered.

“Tom Weaver.”

“Tom,” Gordon said, trying to keep his voice calm.

“Yes, we’ve established that.”

Gordon felt the words come out in a tumble. “The door came back. The door came back, and the bird sounds, and this time…” he swallowed. He could hear his voice getting higher and his words coming faster, but he felt like he couldn’t stop it, like he would lose his breath if he tried. “…this time, there was a voice, and it wanted me to release it, and now Seymour is saying it, and I took down all the wallpaper but Seymour’s wallpaper, and something’s wrong with my house—”

“Woah,” Tom interrupted. “Gordon. Slow down. What about a voice?”

“Come over,” Gordon said. Then he hung up before Tom could say no.

He ignored his phone as it chirped at him, as Tom tried to call him back to get more information; ignored Russell as he cried on the back porch to be let in. He went into his bedroom and changed into jeans and a tee shirt. He went back into the living room and stared at Seymour.

Release me.

He went back over to the door and tried to open it, but the knob would not even turn. He went back to Seymour, staring at the impossible letters, trying to figure out what was going on. Back and forth he went, wondering if he was losing his mind, wondering if going insane felt this real. Then, he got an idea.

He went through the kitchen to his side door, heading outside and into his garage, Russell barking at him from behind the chain link fence of the back yard. Once inside, he grabbed a crowbar, as well as the cordless reciprocating saw Tom had gotten him for his birthday.

As he was sliding the garage door shut, Tom’s truck pulled into his driveway.

He picked up his tools as Tom got out of the truck. “Gordon, what the hell are you—”

“Come on,” Gordon said, pushing past him and heading back into the house.

Tom scolded him as he followed. “I have a job, you know. I can’t just run off. I have subs to supervise, workers to monitor, shit to do that doesn’t involve dealing with your crazy ass.”

Gordon stomped into the living room and turned to point out the door and the drawing to his brother, who continued complaining.

The door was, again, gone.

Gordon felt his jaw drop open. He set the saw and crowbar down on the floor, harder than he should have, and rushed at the blank wall, feeling anger well up. The surface of the wall was smooth and white.

“You took off the rest of the wallpaper,” Tom said, looking around the room. He looked down at Seymour. “You leaving this here?”

Gordon pushed his brother out of the way to look at the drawing, a magic marker bird with “Feed me, Seymour” scrawled next to it.

“NO,” Gordon said. “No, it wasn’t like this. It didn’t say that. The door was there, I went inside, the slimy thing on the wall was bigger, there were crows screeching at me and there was a voice, and this was changed.” He punched the wall in frustration. “I’m not making this up, it was all here, goddammit.”

Tom was silent; a rarity. Gordon walked back over to where the door had been and stared hatefully at the blank white wall, arms crossed, wishing a multitude of disastrous happenings upon whatever it was that was doing this to him. Russell was losing his mind on the back porch.

He could feel Tom’s eyes on him. “Gordie… what’s going on, here?”

Gordon started slightly at hearing Tom call him Gordie, a name he hadn’t heard since childhood. He looked at his brother, whose face was lined with concern.

“I don’t know,” he said. He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“There’s no door,” Tom said. “There was never a door.”

Gordon did not respond.

“You need to start getting some real sleep,” Tom said. “That’s the issue, here. You lose enough sleep, you start to lose your mind.”

“I’m not losing my mind,” Gordon replied, hearing the petulance in his voice but unable to let go of the idea that it belonged there.

Tom clapped him on the back. “I have to go back to the site.” He walked over to the front door, stepping around curls of discarded wallpaper. “Feed your dog. Take a nap.” Then, he was gone.

Gordon stood there in the living room until he heard the door to Tom’s truck slam shut. Then, he went into the kitchen and poured food in Russell’s dish, hearing the dog barking on the porch but not making a connection between the two.

Was that it? Were three decades of bad sleep finally catching up to him?
He went to his bedroom to ruminate on his predicament, checking the living room one more time on the way to see if the door had reappeared after Tom’s departure. It hadn’t.

He lay on his bed and closed his eyes, feeling overtired and sapped of energy. When he opened them again, it was night.

Alarmed, Gordon sat up. Moonlight filtered through the vertical blinds on his bedroom windows. His nightstand clock was blinking at 3:00.

In the corner of his room, he heard a muffled sound, something strange and throaty, animalistic, a low hooting. A dark shape moved there, just beyond the reach of the moon, something taller than his dresser, something hulking.

Gordon’s pulse rose. He squinted into the shadows.

The dark mass froze, and the room went quiet until a clacking sound began, sharp, like scissors snapping.

“Who’s there,” Gordon said. It came out cracked, adolescent.

The clacking stopped. The shape moved once more. In a strip of moonlight that crossed in front of the dresser, for a split second, Gordon thought he saw feathers.

Gordon quickly reached out and turned on his bedside lamp.

The room was empty.

He let go of a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

Was he dreaming these things? Were they hallucinations resulting from lack of sleep? Was it as Tom suggested?

He got out of bed, feeling disoriented. He was still dressed. Russell was not in the room.

He went to the bathroom to relieve himself; he noted that Russell was not there, either. In the kitchen, he saw that Russell’s kibble from that morning had been scattered all over the floor, the dish upturned.

Something was very wrong.

“Russell,” he called out. “Russ, c’mere, boy.”

He waited, listening for the sounds of Russell’s claws on the hardwood floor, the sound of his labored breathing through his flat, wrinkled face. He heard nothing.

“Russell,” he said, louder this time. “Russell, come.”

Nothing.

Gordon’s stomach dropped. He slowly moved toward the living room. Standing in the archway, he saw that the floor was still littered with torn wallpaper; his crowbar and saw sat where he had left them.

To his left, he saw that the drawing of Seymour, the magic marker bird, was gone. In its place, an oily black smudge.

To his right, he saw that the door was wide open. A trail of dark muck streaked the floor, leading into the impossible room.

Gordon picked up the crowbar with shaking hands. He opened his mouth to call to Russell again, but no sound came out.

He crept into the living room, trying not to step in the black sludge. He peered in through the impossible doorway.

A dark mass stood within, large, as big as Gordon, a shifting silhouette that ruffled and bobbed. Two black orbs glinted at him, intelligent but alien. A horned beak the size of garden shears snapped once.

Gordon clutched the crowbar tightly and felt tears prick his eyes. “What do you want,” he said.

A deep voice boomed at him, so loudly that his skull rattled: “I AM FREE.” The thing burst forth from the room, a mass of black feathers, talons like meat hooks, knocking a screaming Gordon to the ground. He heard the beat of huge wings and the chilling, predatory shrieks of something primordial. Then, his head struck the floor and everything dissolved into nothing.

***

Tom could hear Russell wailing in the back yard when he got out of the truck, and the wailing turned into manic barking at the sound of Tom’s voice.

“Russell,” he called out as he walked up to the gate. “Hey, Russ. Hey, fatty. Hey, boy. It’s okay.” The dog was frantic, running in circles around him, crying in what sounded like abject despair. He was dirty.

Tom hadn’t heard from Gordon for several days, but that wasn’t uncommon. Thus, he was surprised when he received a call from Gordon’s neighbor, an old high school friend. The neighbor said that Gordon’s dog had been barking outside for days, and he didn’t want to call the cops and get Gordon in trouble, and he gave the dog some water, and it wasn’t any of his business, but it was really starting to bother his children, and could Tom please take care of it?

As he tried to open the back door, Tom met some resistance from the cinder block that Gordon often used to block Russell’s doggy door when he needed to keep the dog out of the house. After some pushing and wrangling, he managed to move the block and push his way into the kitchen. Russell clambered inside, lapping up water from his dish as if he were dying of thirst. Dog food was scattered all over the kitchen floor.

“Gordon?” Tom called out. He went down the hall to the bathroom and then the bedroom; there were no signs of his brother. He came back into the dining room and kitchen and went into the living room. Nothing.
Tom scratched his head under his baseball cap, trying to figure out where Gordon could have gone. He’d been having a hard time of it; was this the point where he should file a missing persons report? He never would have left Russell unattended for so long, trapped in the back yard with no food or water. Something wasn’t right.

He took his cell phone out of his pocket and looked up the non-emergency number for the police. Before dialing, he looked around the living room. It was the same as it had always been, same beat up furniture, same fireplace, same ugly wallpaper.

That gave Tom pause.

“Didn’t he rip off all the wallpaper?” Tom muttered to himself. He could’ve sworn that on his last visit, the floor had been littered with wallpaper, and the walls had been bare. Yet, now, the wallpaper was up, in place, as ever. Even Seymour was there, waiting to be devoured by a hungry blue flower.

Tom stood in the center of the living room, dumbfounded. He walked up to the wall, the part where Gordon claimed to have seen a mysterious door, and touched the wallpaper. Beneath it was plaster and lumps of paste; nothing more. He ran his hand along the wall toward the floor and felt more of the same.

As he reached the floor, something there caught his eye, something sticking out from beneath a chair, something black and pointy. He grabbed it and pulled, discovering that it was the tip of a large, black feather, as big as his forearm.

He studied it for a moment, confused. Then he dialed the non-emergency number.

As the other end of the line rang, he looked out the picture window that faced Gordon’s front lawn. He noticed a crow had landed on the porch. It looked right back at him and screeched loudly before taking off.

The phone kept ringing; no one was picking up. He would have to go to the station.

He put the phone back in his pocket and went into the kitchen. He put a leash on Russell and led him to the front door.

As man and dog left the house, Tom had an overwhelming feeling that he was being watched. He looked back at the house.

There were hundreds of crows.

Tom stared in amazement at the house, which was covered in the large, black birds. They perched all over the roof, all along the power lines, on the flower boxes, on the weathervane, atop the chimney.

They were all holding perfectly still and looking right at him.

The unnaturalness of it all propelled him. He scooped Russell up off the ground and shoved him into the truck, climbing in after him. He started the engine and peeled out, screeching his tires. As he accelerated down the street, the crows began to caw, all at once, and he could hear it long after he had driven away.

 

 

 

To read an interview with the author, click here. 

3 thoughts on “Birdcage

  1. Very well written! It held my attention till the very end, making me both wonder what was really going on and hoping for Russel’s fate to be a good one, poor guy 🙂
    I would have given a few more clues about Gordon’s fate as it was now rather open, but that didn’t harm this story at all.
    Excellent writing!

  2. Great! I hope you do write and publish more!!! Very captivating! I’d love to read the next chapter

  3. Subtle horror coupled with a tantalizing mystery made Birdcage a brilliant short story. I am going to remember this one and perhaps retell it at a campfire.

Comments are closed.