Burned Toast

By James C.G. Shirk

Short stories, Horror, Paranormal


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6 mins


   Have you ever watched birds pecking away at the seed you’ve thrown on the ground in your backyard and noticed how they sometimes all take flight for reasons unknown?
   Charlie Pearlman used to wonder the same thing.
   She doesn’t now.

                                             THE BIRDBATH WOLF

It came as if by magic—a specter, a phantom, a murky construct of something not quite tangible. The ephemeral being appeared in the mottled darkness of the backyard hedge and immediately began to survey his hunting ground.
A few feet away, a clutch of recently arrived wrens hopped around the rim of a concrete birdbath bowl. Some of the busy bunch dipped their beaks into the refreshing water while others chirped and kept watch.
The shadowy being who had just appeared felt little concern. There was always one who seemed to sense its presence, feel the threat. But, as usual, the bird could not identify exactly where its concern resided. The only course of action available was to fly to the relative safety of the shadows in the bushes.
Which was exactly what this predator counted on.
A moment later, the wren’s wings unfurled, each feather spreading to capture air, as muscles attuned its wings to proper loft and angle. It took hasty flight toward the supposed security of the bush, and the rest of the flock reacted accordingly, dispersing in alarm.
With the possible exception of God, only Charlene “Charlie” Pearlman, who was watching from her second-story bedroom window, bore witness to what happened next.
A flash of movement inside the shadows, and one of the fleeing birds disappeared. Only a single, white breast feather floating lazily in the late summer air, gave evidence to its passing.
Charlie leaned back from the camera. Too fast again, she thought. I need to anticipate him better.
Back before her accident, she often wondered why birds suddenly took flight like that. She’d frequently seen such behavior around the birdbath but could never figure it out. As far as she could tell, seldom did something occur to scare or threaten them. They just took off for no reason. But now, she knew better.
Licking at her lips, she let her tired eyes drift close for a moment. After watching for hours, she felt a cauldron of mixed emotions: excitement, sorrow, anger, regret. All that and more churned inside of her.
Rooting for the birds to make a clean getaway was a hopeful but ultimately self-defeating endeavor. In her heart, she endured the sad truth of that reality. Safety for all never seemed to happen; one always fell to the beast. But it didn’t mean that the day would never come when all would get away. One had to have hope about such things. Charlie’s life was built around that premise, for it was hope that carried her nine-year old quadriplegic body.
She returned her attention to the world outside the window again. The lush environs of summer, and the attendant life basking in its fold, existed in stark contrast to her hygienically clean bedroom. Down there, a homemade swing still dangled from a limb of the immense oak tree in the backyard. And that’s where it happened. What her father always referred to as the incident. One moment she was fine, the next everything below her neck—even her lungs—became useless.
In the early days, right after the fall, her mother couldn’t be in her room for more than two minutes before her eyes filled with tears. She’d gotten better about it over time but not by much. As for her father, he was bending backwards to act normal, but she could still see the guilt lurking behind his eyes. He carried his responsibility (and guilt) around like a sack of coal ever since it happened.
Was it just last year? She let her mind drift back to that day.

“How many birds do you think there are in the world, Daddy?” she asked, as she snapped another shot with her trusty Cannon camera. Juncos and wrens pecked around on the ground beneath the birdbath, enjoying the seed he had spread there. A laptop rested on the table beside her. The screen displayed photographs and habitat information for black-capped chickadees.
Charlie, at the prompting of her favorite teacher, had set a goal of photographing at least twenty-five bird species over the summer for an upcoming fall science project. Personally, she was going for twice that, because it was what she expected of herself. Her IQ was somewhere north of 150, and she attended an advanced-curriculum school with other gifted children.
“To tell you the truth, I’m not sure, princess,” he answered. “Certainly, in the whole world, there must be billions and billions.”
“That seems like a lot. I don’t see that many.” Her dark-brown eyes searched the open sky overhead.
“Look it up.” Her father egged on her precociousness at every opportunity.
She sat down and punched laptop keys, sorting screen choices, until she found what she wanted. “This site says there is a relatively stable population of 200-400 billion birds in the whole world.”
“Wow, that’s more than I thought,” her father said, his surprise genuine.
Charlie frowned. “I don’t get the stable part though. If there are that many and they all lay lots of eggs, seems like there would be more every year. We always see robin families with lots of young ones in the yard, right?”
Her father shrugged. “Many of the young…don’t make it.” She knew he had a hard time saying die in front of her. The car accident that took her older brother, Erik, still haunted him. “And of the ones who reach adulthood,” he went on, “don’t have very long life spans.” Pulling off his glasses, he wiped at his eyes before gathering himself again. “You’d have to research each species to be sure.” He replaced his glasses and turned to her. “I didn’t know the project was concerned with world-wide population statistics. I thought it was just about our native migratory birds.”
Her forehead wrinkled as she pinched her lips together. “It doesn’t, but I am just curious. Our teacher told us nature always keeps things in balance, so that many birds must be born for a reason. But, Daddy, if billions die every year, where do they go? We don’t see them lying around the yard or the street or anywhere. Seems like they’d be all over the place, doesn’t it?”
Her father definitely didn’t want to get into a discussion about animal predation. “Beats me.” He promptly changed the subject. “Hey, I’ve got some work I promised to do for Mommy. But would you like to swing for a bit before I get started?”
Charlie readily agreed. As long as she could remember, having him push her in the old swing was one of her favorite things in the whole world. She jumped off the deck and skipped happily toward the swing.

It seemed like forever ago now, and as horrible as what happened to her was, Charlie still felt a smile creep across her face as she looked out at the swing. She remembered the wind as it whipped her long, brown hair around her face, heard herself pleading with her father to push harder, and felt the unbridled joy in her heart as he gave her one last giant push. It had lifted her upward and upward into the pale blue sky, until she slipped.
A frown chased the smile away.
That’s what everyone said anyway, that she slipped. Her memory, however, didn’t quite match that assessment. She recalled something else happening as she reached the apex of that fateful aerial sojourn. At the top of the loop, eyes half-open as she enjoyed the momentary perfect balance between force velocity and gravity, she saw a flash of beautiful light. It surprised her.
Everything slowed to a crawl. A few feet in front of the swing, a fat bumblebee hovered. Its stubby wings slowly rotated around its large body to keep it airborne, in spite of its geometrically impossible self. On the ground, a robin heaved a worm from the soil. The bird’s labors were slow and laborious, as if the worm were unbelievably strong or unbelievable long. And then, for the briefest of moments, she saw movement in the grass. There by the hedge, a strange animal lurked, surrounded by the same beautiful light. It appeared to be stalking a towhee.
To Charlie’s amazement, the beast stopped and looked up at her. Its face was long and narrow, like a ferret, with long incisors protruding from its upper and lower jaws. It was the eyes that struck her most, however. They were crimson red and looked hungry.
The beast gathered itself.
In a micro-second, it dawned on her. He considered her a threat. A scream rose up her throat as she watched it jump. Too late! Sharp teeth grabbed and pulled at her tennis shoes. She slid forward on the swing seat, her fingers instinctively tightening on the ropes. But the force exerted against her seemed impossible, given the size of the animal, and Charlie felt her body being yanked from the swing and flung into the void. She spun, head-feet-head-feet. The world around her looked like a crazy kaleidoscope, replete with rampaging colors, merging rainbows, sparkling flashes, and then…nothing. Not even pain.
Afterward, time returned to normal. She couldn’t tell anyone about the backyard intruder, because she was the only one who saw it. Who would believe her? In her mind, she came to think of it as a wolf, a black nightmare sent to terrorize the birds of her backyard world for reasons she didn’t, couldn’t know. What she did understand, however, was the reason behind her fall.
It wasn’t for nothing. She was chosen to reveal the existence of the wolf to the world. It was why she was bound to her bedroom window these days. Her purpose was to be a sentinel, an avian guardian sent to rid the world of the bird-murdering, girl-crippling abomination. And the only way to do that was to expose its existence.
But how could she explain the beast existed to a world that wouldn’t accept anything so obviously impossible without hard proof? She had to find a way.
Six months after the fall, Charlie had responded favorably to intensive physical therapy sessions and experimental nerve stimulation techniques. Her body was successfully re-routing parts of her nervous system. Limited muscle control had resumed in most of her upper body and improved daily. Additionally, her lungs were partially functioning, so the ventilator was only needed at night for sleeping. When she could talk again, she told everyone her unequivocal goal was to walk once more.
Her doctors were somewhat chagrinned by her progress. They recommended a more palliative approach, but Charlie was determined to do more than just learn to live with it. So far, she’d been proven right. For that, she was extremely grateful, because it meant she was able to use a wheelchair during the day. Being upright allowed her to pursue her other goal, her guardian goal.



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