Content Warnings: homophobia/transphobia, mentions of bullying, mentions of parental abuse
"Mockingbirds" by K. Noel Moore | Short Fiction; 3,500 words
Content Warnings: homophobia/transphobia, mentions of bullying, mentions of parental abuse
The sleepy village of Three Brothers, Arkansas, awoke one by one, each with the same feeling of dread deep in their stomach. September had arrived.
Georgia Downs, the preacher’s daughter, woke with her father’s bible under her pillow. She tucked it into a pocket of her school bag; surely the Power of Christ would shield her.
Jeffery Charles, the mechanic, woke with a hangover; he’d drank himself into a celebratory stupor, for the previous day was his nineteenth birthday, and he was safe.
Ernest and Ella Woodburn, and so many other parents of teenagers, ran to their children’s rooms at the crack of dawn, thanking the Lord when they found their little darlings still in their beds.
From the shadows, we watched, and we waited.
“I hate this,” Cass said to Sunny. The sunset light, speckled with the attic’s dust, mingled with the smoke of the pair’s stolen cigarettes. “I hate the waiting. It’s awful, but I think I’ll be relieved when someone finally disappears.”
Sunny coughed on his own smoke. “Have you wondered if there’s a connection between the disappeared?”
“What, so we could figure out who it might be, and…what, protect them somehow? Or kill them to protect the town?”
“Jesus, Cass. Dark.”
She sighed. “Yeah, I’ve wondered. Thing is, I hope there isn’t a connection, because if there is, that means I could be next.”
Sunny’s eyes widened slightly. “Oh — your aunt,” he said. “I’d forgotten.” Fear must have addled his brain; the names of the taken were etched in the collective memory of Three Brothers. They were all but impossible to forget. Daisy Yaw. Artie Finch. Henry Graves. Patricia Wolfe. Rhonda North — the aunt Cassidy North would never meet. “I’m sorry.”
She waved it off; Cass was too proud for sympathy. “Are you scared?” she asked, with no mockery in it.
“Of course. The whole town’s scared. Aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” she answered, “I’m scared, too.”
The village is a fly sealed in amber, a relic of centuries past — miles away from anything, surrounded by near-impenetrable trees and accessible only by dirt paths. A population that never passes five hundred, made up of families: grandparents, parents, children, cousins, living together like wolf packs. They leave for nearly nothing; they have their own doctors, grocers, news-printers. Self-sufficient. God-fearing. Afraid of the dark.
They know deep in their bones that they’re right to be afraid. They see our hands, reaching for them from between the trees, but they know we only have the strength to grasp them every thirtieth year. They count down in apprehension just as we count down in anticipation.
Twenty-nine, twenty-eight…seventeen, sixteen…five, four, three, two, one.
“We should leave town.”
Cass rolled over, propping herself up on one elbow. “What, run away? Right now?”
“How would we do that?”
“Get up. Go home. Pack our bags. Get in my POS dad’s POS car. Drive. Keep driving until Three Brothers is a distant memory.”
They wouldn’t dare speak of this anywhere but the clearing, the clearing where only they ever went. Only the young and the daring would pass the treeline, and they were the most daring of the young. In the thick, dark woods, a checkered blanket beneath them, they felt invincible, even knowing their words amounted to a kind of treason.
“What do you think is the farthest place from Three Brothers?” Sunny asked after a moment.
“You’re still talking about this?”
“Just answer the question.”
Cass thought about it. “Portland. Philadelphia. San Diego. Syracuse.”
An airplane passed so far overhead, it was nothing but a blur of red and white. “We could get on a plane,” Sunny said, pointing. “Leave the States.”
“Now you’re talking. We could go to….” She fished for the name of a distant city. “Dublin.”
“Tokyo.” Another plane flew by, headed in the opposite direction. “You really think it’s that simple? We leave now, and this…thing can’t get us?”
“I think it might be that simple.”
Cass’s mouth twitched into the barest smile. “We could go, you said. Never even thought of leaving without me.”
“Of course not.” He wound his little finger around hers. “I’d never go anywhere without my little sister.”
Cass spent the next day in her head. Pretending and imagining. Imagining and pretending.
Pretending her mother didn’t notice her folding her clothes, putting her most beloved things into a bag.
Imagining where she and Sunny might go, and how they might get there, and what they might do when they got there.
Imagining — trying to imagine — what happened to the boys and girls with the winged shadows, after they were taken and before they were returned.
Pretending the rest of Three Brothers didn’t exist. Only her, and her kindred spirit.
In the midafternoon, she found Sunny tucked away in his usual corner of the minuscule Three Brothers Public Library (next door to the K - 12 School, which had no library of its own). Sunny was called “bookish” by those who cared to be nice to him, “antisocial,” “surly,” and “possibly sociopathic” by everyone else; most of them, of course, had no idea what sociopathy actually was or looked like. All they really meant to say was that, with the exception of Cass, Sunny preferred books, stories and knowledge, to people. She found him scraping his fingernails against his teeth. “Good God, Sunny,” she greeted him, “don’t do that.” She gave him a quick, light handsword blow to the wrist, knocking his hand away from his mouth.
“Sorry.” He brushed flakes of black polish from his lips.
Cass sat on the floor beside him. She noted the book at his feet, a Raymond Chandler he’d picked up at a used bookstore in Little Rock. They’d visited it the capital together over the summer; he’d bought nearly a dozen of those cheap vintage mysteries.
“What happened?” she asked in a near whisper.
He shrugged. “The usual.”
“Don’t give me ‘the usual.’ What?”
He handed her the book, and, wordlessly, Cass flipped through it. Some pages had been ripped out, some were caked with dirt, and many had words — horrible, degrading words — painted over the text in black.
“Flint Parker and Julian Finch,” Sunny muttered. “They stole the book, and my last bottle of polish, from my locker, and they ruined it. Spilled the rest of it in my backpack.” He scraped his nails against his teeth again. “I shouldn’t have worn it in the first place.”
On the back cover were painted the words: YOU’RE DEAD.
Cass closed her eyes and let her head fall back, hitting the shelf, knocking loose a ratty E.L. Doctorow volume that looked like a first edition (and probably was, considering how often the Library’s collection was updated).
“Let’s go,” she said after a moment. “Like you said. Let’s get out of this damn town tonight. We’ll go to…I dunno…to California. To the Castro.”
Sunny managed a smile. “Cass, the Castro hasn’t been the gay neighborhood for years.”
“It’s still a much better place to be gay than here. In San Francisco, we wouldn’t be the only queers in town. Far from it.”
Sunny stared at nothing. He was thinking about it, really thinking about it, Cass could tell. “All right,” he said at last.
“Are you serious?”
“Yes! But I didn’t think you’d take me seriously.”
“I do. If you’re going, Cass, I’m going with you.”
Cass stood. She handed the ruined Farewell, My Lovely back to Sunny and reshelved Ragtime. “I’ve already started packing,” she confessed. “How long do you need to get your things in order?”
He considered. “Until…until Thursday. Three days from now. I would go tonight if I could, but I don't think I can.”
She nodded. “Midnight,” she said, “on Thursday. In the clearing.”
From the journals of Samuel Yaw, October of 1868: Something has taken my Daisy. I praised the LORD when she was returned to us, after so many days lost in the terrible woods, but I can do so no longer. May He forgive me, but I can no longer praise Him, for the thing that He returned to me is not my daughter. She has her same face, speaks with her same voice, but I know some devil has ahold of her. Her shadow is twisted — it moves on its own, is sometimes too long or too wide, sometimes shows wings or horns or tails. Sometimes two heads! She murmurs aloud in her dreams, and I often find her in the fields behind our house in the dead of night, and must chase her as she runs for the trees. Oh, LORD, help me! Help her! Help us all!
Scraps recovered from the burned journals of Artur “Artie” Finch, January of 1899: I feel so strange
I, I, I am one, my name is Artur Finch.
Doctor’s notes on Henry Graves, December of 1928: Patient is running a high fever, in and out of a raving state. When conscious, patient is generally subdued and occasionally catatonic, rarely speaks except to complain of stomach+head cramps. When raving, patient screams that he has been poisoned (blood tests reveal no trace of any known poisons). Speaks in an unknown language possibly Indian in origin. Refers to self in plural. Patient has also made three attempts to leave the hospital without authorization. I recommend subduing Mr. Graves through medicines or other necessary means to prevent another escape attempt.
News report on Patricia Wolfe, September of 1958: 15-year-old PATRICIA WOLFE joined the ranks of Three Brothers’s returned yesterday, slightly shaken but otherwise the bubbly girl she always was. Time will tell how her story develops.
Wolfe’s disappearance and return has prompted scholars of Three Brothers history to propose patterns. There isn’t much known about the disappearances, but what is known is this:
Every thirty years, a citizen of our town vanishes. Three days later, they stumble back into town, confused but uninjured.
Over several ensuing months, these individuals succumb to illness and madness, dying within the year.
These events always take place between September and December.
The victims are never younger than fourteen, or older than eighteen.
Obituary of Rhonda North, April of 1989: On Sunday, at 3:39 a.m., Rhonda Cassidy North succumbed to the unknown illness that plagues the taken ones. She was seventeen years old. Rhonda is survived by her mother, father, and sister Alexandra. The family asks for privacy in these trying times.
Sunny pulled into the clearing at 00:01 Thursday according to his military-style digital watch. One minute after midnight, and Cass was nowhere to be seen. He pulled out his phone, only to find he didn’t have a signal. He didn’t know why he expected one. The cell service in Three Brothers was unreliable in the center of town, never mind out in the woods.
The thought of being seen — not that there was likely anyone there to see him — made Sunny nervous, so he switched off his headlights. Total darkness, and the sounds of the forest (the breeze, the crickets), enveloped him. It was comforting, a blanket of night.
Underneath it, he felt the poison in the ground. It set his stomach rolling as if he’d spent weeks on the sea.
Someone banged on his window. He jumped, startled, and switched the lights back on. It was Cass. She opened the passenger-side door.
“You’re late,” he said.
“It’s all right. So was I.”
“By a minute.”
“That’s my Sunny. Can I put my bags in the back?”
“Of course.” He counted the suitcases; four between them, and Cass had her school backpack. He had his father’s wallet in his inside coat pocket, too. He’d found it in the glove compartment, with two hundred dollars in cash and a single credit card inside. The credit card, he would save for an emergency; surely that was the first thing the police would track, once his father reported him a runaway and a thief. The cash had been a relief to find; with the money he’d saved, hidden in socks and the pockets of jeans, he now had nearly four hundred dollars.
What a fool’s dream — going all the way to San Francisco on four hundred dollars and a prayer.
Sunny took a deep breath, and let it out again. “Cass….”
“Don’t think about it, Sunny. Just drive.” She stared out in the direction Sunny guessed was west. Toward California. Go west, young man. Neither of them were proper men, but west they were going nonetheless. “Just drive.”
Miles away, days before, Cass’s eyes snapped open.
She was lying on her back, on a bed of pine needles. The stars above were familiar yet unfamiliar. She rubbed her eyes, groggy for a moment, before reality sank in.
“Oh, my God.” She scrambled to her feet, running her hands through her close-cut hair. “Oh, shit. Oh, my God.”
She screwed her eyes shut, desperately seeking a memory. The last thing she remembered was sitting at her desk, writing a letter to her mother to explain where she had gone. She remembered overwhelming guilt. She remembered wondering if her departure — losing Cass as she had lost Rhonda — might kill her mother.
If I stay here, she’d thought, it might kill me.
No, it wouldn’t. It would hurt her, but she was a fighter. She would survive.
She remembered him in the bathroom, desperately rubbing makeup off his tear-streaked face…stomachaches and migraines induced by constant anxiety…bruises and burns imparted to him by the man who was supposed to love him the most. YOU’RE DEAD, painted in stark black on the pages of a stolen book.
Three Brothers would kill Sunny, if he stayed.
Cass got to her feet. Her bones were powder. “Hello?” she shouted, finding that her throat ached. “Hello! Is anyone out there? I need…I need….”
It was getting harder to shout. Cass had a sense that her tongue was forgetting how to make words. “Hull…hall…hello….”
Her head was spinning, or maybe the ground beneath her was spinning, she wasn’t sure. “Sunny!” she called, as her energy began to ebb. “Sunny, are you there? Help! Help me!”
Cass shivered in her heavy coat. “Cold?” Sunny asked. She shook her head. “Scared?” Sunny asked. After a moment, she nodded.
He linked his little finger with hers, slowing the truck so he could drive one-handed. The feeling of skin — his on hers, hers on his — was odd. Not uncomfortable, only odd. He hoped he hadn’t flinched. Cass seemed startled by his gesture, but after a moment she smiled.
“I like this,” he said.
“Do you remember the first time th—” He caught himself. “The first time we did this?”
“Sort of. God, we must’ve been how young? Three, four?”
“We were five.”
“Oh!” Cass snapped her fingers. “I remember. We saw it on Star Trek.”
“Mm-hm. I was obsessed with Star Trek at that age.” He chuckled. “I had a crush on William Shatner for the longest time. It’s how I knew I was gay.”
“When’d you know I was gay?”
“Well, when you told me, I guess. The day we came out to each other at the same time.”
“You dirty liar. You knew before that. Hell, I think maybe you knew before I knew.”
“All right, yeah, I did. I knew when we were thirteen, and you dressed up in your dad’s old things on Halloween to be Frank Sinatra. I saw something in you then. You were different from what my mom and my sisters said girls were. I don’t want to say you were ‘manly,’ but….”
“You can say that. It’s true.”
Sunny nodded. “I was womanly. Still am. Always have been. It’s what connected us.”
“I knew you were gay that Halloween too,” she informed him. “You wanted to be Marilyn Monroe.”
“I remember. Only, unlike you, I didn’t have the balls to go through with it.”
“You should do it this Halloween.”
“I will! We’ll go to a gay club in San Fran’, with me on your arm.”
“Until I inevitably find someone hotter to go home with.”
“Not if I find someone first.”
They both fell silent as they approached the sign: You are now leaving Three Brothers, AK. No “Thank you for visiting.” Certainly no “Hope you come again!” Sunny pulled the car to a full stop, taking in the view: the unassuming border between Three Brothers, and everything else.
“Gun it,” said Cass.
Sunny shot past the sign as fast as he dared, and both took their first sweet breath of the outside world.
Sunny was vaguely aware that he’d lost time since arriving in this strange otherworld. He was sitting against a tree, at the edge of some version of the clearing where he’d cloud-watched with Cass so many times. The sky was empty. Everything smelled of lavender and rot.
A song came from the trees — wordless and mournful and beautiful. The song of a hundred years of blood and waiting. His eyes filled with tears at the sound of it. He summoned the dregs of his voice to ask, “Who are you?” of the singer; with the dregs of his strength, he sat up.
A circle of blue light surrounded him. In the light, he made out forms that could have been bits of people — a hand here, a nose there.
His mouth forgot language entirely. Sunny found he was perfectly happy to forget it. All he wanted, all he needed, was to stay in this clearing, listening to this song.
A blue-light hand brushed over his. The song drew him deeper. The blue-light hand became his own. His own hand became blue light.
The song drew him deeper.
Sunny parked the truck at a twenty four-hour rest stop. A massive yawn shook his body. “We need to sleep,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Maybe we could take shifts?”
“Remind me where we are now?”
“We should be about twenty miles from Texas.”
Cass nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll drive those last twenty miles. You sleep. We can find a motel for the night when we get to Texas.”
“Can we afford that?” He rubbed the bridge of his nose; thinking of money, something so unfamiliar, hurt his head. “That’s another thing we need. Money. For food, and an apartment, and….” Why were human bodies so costly to maintain? “I only have four hundred dollars,” he confessed.
“Um.” In the faint light of a streetlamp, he saw her cheeks grow red. “We’ll get by. We’ll need to find a solution when we get to San Francisco, but we’ll get by until then for sure.”
Sunny’s brow furrowed. “How much money do you have?”
She cleared her throat and fidgeted. “I have seven thousand dollars.”
A little bird flew up from Sunny’s stomach and lodged in his throat. “You have how much? No, no, you don’t actually need to tell me again. Cass, where did you get seven thousand dollars?”
“The girl’s grandfather left it to her,” she said, slipping for a moment. “Some kind of special account, meant to be locked up until she — I — went to college. I figured out how to access it.”
“You used your college money for this?”
“Well, yes. Is that surprising?”
Sunny shook his head. “I guess not. I just figured…I figured you’d want to go to college.” He figured everyone who had that option wanted to take it, everyone whose parents cared enough to send them would want to go.
“I wanted to get the hell out of Three Brothers. College would have done that for me, sure. So will this, and faster, before….” She trailed off, before giving him a fierce look. “I’m not going to regret this, Sunny. We did the right thing. We need to stay as far away from Arkansas as we can, at least until New Year’s. After the thirtieth year…maybe. Maybe then we can go back.”
“No, we can’t. You know we can’t. Not while that town still stands.”
“You’re right,” she said softly, casting her eyes down. “Not while that town still stands.”
He yawned again. “I need…coffee.”
“You need sleep. Here, let me drive; I’ve already napped.” She handed him a dollar bill.
“I hate coffee. Get me whatever soda from the vending machine looks like it has the most caffeine and sugar. I’ll drive to Texas.”
We were happy, once.
Honga, the Osage called us: the Earth People. They respected us, and not only out of fear of our power. We lived in harmony with Man, in those days.
Then came the Yaw brothers — Samuel, Daniel, Josiah. They claimed our land for themselves; when the Osage refused to give it to them, they took it. They spilled the blood of other Men into our Earth. They burnt our trees.
The blood and ashes the Yaw brothers left in their wake poisoned us. We barely clung to life on our own land; it took us decades of Man’s time to build up the strength to make our move.
Taking humans was the only way we could be free. Always near the equinox; always young ones, but not so young that they could not survive on their own. In each new body we tried to escape. In each new body we were held back.
The Men of Three Brothers will celebrate this thirtieth year as the first with no disappearance; Cassidy North and Sunny Black are runaways, only runaways.
They are free.
So are we.
The forest-as-Cass stepped from the shower, observing its new body. It couldn’t be an it anymore, or an us; this body was a singular entity, not many-in-one like a forest was, and Men wouldn’t call another Man it the way they called the forest it.
No — they would. They called Cass it, for she was an in-betweener, and that kind of cruelty was reserved for in-betweeners.
In a town like Three Brothers, being an in-betweener could even be a death sentence. Cass had discovered that when she was fifteen and fiery, and asked Claire Kierkegaard to the Winter Ball, and Claire’s brother threatened to kill her. He drove past her house with a shotgun in his front seat. Sunny told her he’d been at the dance; though Sunny wasn’t his primary target, he’d hidden in the bathroom anyway. (Cass didn’t go to the dance, of course.) After that, she kept her fire to herself.
Herself. Itself. Hirself. The forest-as-Cass found it liked hirself. It was individual, but allowed its owner the freedom of the forest: to grow outside of boxes. Humans so loved their boxes, but the flower and the earthworm cared nothing for them.
Sunny banged on the door. “Cass? You ready?”
“Just about!” Cass dressed quickly. (Cass, ze thought again. My name is Cass.) Ze looked down at hir shadow on the tile — already, it was very nearly human.
The forest-as-Sunny knocked once again. “Cass, seriously, we need to get on the road.”
“Right,” she called back, “I’m coming. I’m coming.” She stepped out of the bathroom. “Let’s get going.”
They linked fingers. In the strange, crowded, unfamiliar world of humans, it was all too important that they stayed together. Many-in-one.
“California or bust,” said Sunny.
“California,” Cass repeated, “or bust.”
Born in Nashville, raised outside Atlanta, and currently a full-time college student in Carrollton, GA, K. Noel Moore has been writing stories of various lengths and genres ever since she could hold a pencil. She self-published her first book, the Depression-era ghost story Undertown, in 2018; her queer short fiction also appears in briars lit. She IDs under the genderqueer umbrella and is pronoun-indifferent, but uses she/her in bios for convenience. You can find her tweeting @mysterioustales, or blogging at theoutlawwrites.tumblr.com.