Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
Teen Honorable Mention

Early Birds

by Matthew Herrema

Author Bio

Matt Herrema is a freshman at Henry M. Gunn High School, and a resident of Palo Alto. He only started writing frequently in recent years, and Early Birds will be his first public story.

Inspiration

I originally came up with the idea for Early Birds around late February to early March, before the quarantine, when me and a friend were just having a conversation. I don't recall the exact details of what we talked about, but one thing led to another, and the very basic concept of the Aviary was formed. We didn't plan on doing much with the idea, and it ended up leaving both our minds until I heard of the short story contest, and decided to write a story based around that original small concept.

It's not every day that you discover a man in a peacock suit rifling through your stuff. Today, however, was not a normal day for one Margaret Pierce.

She had just returned from a quick outing, and opened the door of the old, abandoned house she was using as a temporary home to find a strange man, dressed in an even stranger suit, going through her things. Even when on his knees, rummaging around in a threadbare backpack, the man had a sort of regal bearing.

Everything about him was reminiscent of a man of high status, his hair, the way he held himself, the way he elegantly and delicately tore her possessions out of her bag and tossed them to the ground, and especially his suit. It was royal blue, with gold trim, but the features that stood out the most were the peacock feathers all over the suit's right sleeve and left breast.

"I... who are you? What are you doing in my house?" Margaret lunged for her bag, but he spun around, whisking it away from her reaching fingers.

"I believe you have something of mine," he said, as he held the backpack over her, taking advantage of his greater height. He continued to speak calmly. "You took my wallet earlier this morning, no? at the café? I'm afraid I'll be needing it back now, thank you for taking care of it."

"I... I don't know what you're talking about," she blurted out, "Now get out of my house!"

The man chuckled. "Ignorance is bliss, madame, but you don't look very happy. And you can hardly call this old shack a home."

Margaret roared in anger and attempted to shove the man over, but he stepped neatly to one side and stuck his leg out, causing her to tumble to the ground. He stooped down and pulled the blue leather wallet out of her back pocket, slipping it into his own.

"Few are able to pickpocket me. Fewer still dare to. Either you are exceptionally skilled, or exceptionally stupid. Perhaps both. Which is it?" He extended his hand to help her up, but she batted it aside and stood up by herself.

"I do what I do, and I do it well. What's it to you? Who even are you?"

"Just a man, my girl. Just a man. But I'm a man who sees potential, and you, miss, shine brighter than a star."

"I... what in the world does that mean?"

"In due time, Margaret, in due time. Expect to hear from me soon."

Quicker than lightning, the man was out the door, closing it behind him. Margaret locked it.

Who was this man? How did he find her? And how did he know her name? Margaret spent a long time mulling over these questions, before eventually dismissing them. He was just some random guy, maybe a bit eccentric. He'd probably seen her name on one of her possessions? Did any of her stuff even have her name on it anymore? No matter. It was nothing. She'd never hear from him again, and she could continue her wonderful life out on the streets, knowing each day could be her last. Just like always.

The thought was as close to comforting as she was going to get.

It took a long time for her to fall asleep that night, as she tossed and turned on the old, stained mattress, resting on a broken bed frame. What if, she asked herself. What if this? What if that? What if everything? Meaningless questions, she knew, but she couldn't help but ask them. Eventually, mercifully, all her thoughts were wiped away by the cold abyss of sleep.

 

It had been two weeks since the guy in the suit had barged into Margaret's temporary home, stolen her wallet, and told her that he would see her soon. Well, it wasn't really her wallet, he had owned it first, before she stole it, but that was irrelevant. That bit also confused her. Until two weeks ago, no one had noticed Margaret's nimble fingers relieving them of the contents of their pockets for years. Not only had this guy noticed her, he had tracked her all the way back to the abandoned house she'd been staying in, and Margaret never saw him until he had wanted to be seen, a feat that was made all the more impressive by his ridiculous, bright blue suit.

She supposed that she should be in awe of him, but she was, for the most part, just ticked off. At least he hadn't noticed the fifty dollar bill she had removed from the wallet prior to his arrival. She had eaten relatively well these past few days, living off the dwindling scraps of the money. But nothing lasts forever, and soon she'd be back scrounging around for scraps once again.

She sighed, leaning back into her mattress, wishing she could just go back to sleep. But no, duty always calls. Duty, in this case, was petty theft. She had only just finished getting dressed when there was a knock at the door.

She froze.

Slowly, she crept toward it. It couldn't really be him, could it? I mean, he did say that he'd see her again, but... it was just ridiculous. There was no way it was actually him.

She undid the latch and opened the door.

It wasn't him. Instead, it was... well, nothing at first, until she noticed the package. It sat on her doorstep, as if it had always been there, with a little, blue, velvet textured envelope resting on top. Where a stamp would be, the envelope had a design showing what seemed to be a peacock's head.

Scratch that, it had been him. Or at the very least, it had been from him.

She fiddled with the envelope for a bit before giving up and tearing it open. She felt a little bad about it, as it was very fancy and most likely expensive, even though it was just an envelope, but for the most part she didn't care. Inside was a small slip of paper, which she pulled out and began reading.

"Put on the suit.

Come to the Aviary.

Take flight.

1366 Crown Street.

-P"

 

Suit? What suit? She turned to the package and tore off the tape, opening it up to find... a suit. Of course, where else would the suit be? It was black with white trim, and tucked into the breast pocket was a black feather with a large white spot.

She hesitated for a moment, but eventually made up her mind and began putting on the suit. This seemed like an opportunity, and she couldn't afford to pass one up.

After an agonizing twenty minutes, fifteen of which were figuring out how to put on the black bow tie that had come with the suit, she finally got dressed, albeit very sloppily. She made her way through the city, getting many odd looks from assorted passers-by who spotted her, the grubby urchin girl, sporting the flawless suit that looked like it was made only yesterday (and maybe it was).

At last, she reached it. 1366 Crown Street. It was a small building, at least compared to those around it, and it lacked any features, even windows, other than a small door and a little sign above the door showing a birdcage and the words "The Aviary" in plain text.

She stood in front of the door for what seemed like a year and a half, before finally mustering up enough courage to try the handle. It was unlocked. She paused again, before taking a deep breath and pushing the door open.

 

It was like walking into another world. The air was filled with music and birdsong, the latter originating from the dozens of birdcages of all shapes, sizes, and materials hanging from the roof, each one containing a different bird, from the humblest little songbird to brightly colored tropical beauties.

Each one had a different tune, and they all blended together into... well, mainly just noise. Lots of noise. But strangely, there was something slightly awe-inspiring about that noise. Perhaps it was just the incredible amount of money that someone had thrown away to get all these different specimens in this one room. Whoever owned this place had to be loaded.

The walls were a deep indigo, painted so as to resemble the overlapping feathers of some brightly colored bird. Booths lined the edges of the room, and a few tables were neatly arranged around the bar area. Brightly dressed women milled about, catering to the occupants of said tables.

The bar itself was made of dark wood, with fancy leather stools, contrasting with the many colorful bottles lining the shelves behind it. The floor was made of a similar dark wood, and the grain of each wooden plank seemed to take the shape of a bird.

"Hello, Magpie."

In an instant Margaret was snapped out of her trance, and her gaze whipped up to an indoor balcony on the other end of the room, where he was standing. That same strange man from two weeks ago, still dressed in that same suit, and still as obnoxiously perfect as the last time she had met him.

"Welcome to The Aviary."

 

Margaret raised one eyebrow and scowled. "My name's not Magpie, it's Margaret. And who the heck are you? What is this place? What do you want?"

The man simply chuckled. "I'm afraid that's not your name anymore. If you choose to join us, that is."

"‘Us'? Who's ‘us'?"

The man raised his arms, gesturing at his surroundings. "All of us!" He pointed at the large woman in a yellow dress singing and dancing on the Aviary's stage, inside a massive birdcage(naturally). "That's Canary. She's in charge of gathering and spreading information. She's also a terrible gossip, I'm afraid."

He pointed to the man at the desk next to the door. "Raven. In charge of planning, backup planning, backup backup planning, and knowing pretty much everything. They say elephants never forget, but they've never met Raven."

His hand then moved to the old woman behind the bar, hovered for a moment, then moved to the two people who looked to be security guards. They were both young, a man and a woman, and looked almost identical, but the man's hair was dyed red and the woman's blue. "Bluejay and Cardinal. Twins, brother and sister, and our... enforcers. They tend to do the dirty work."

"As for me, I'm-"

"Let me guess, peacock?"

The man looked surprised for an instant, then smiled. "Well, yes. I suppose it's not hard to guess, now is it? Now, you," he put his hand on her shoulder. She brushed it off. "You're Magpie. Because you-"

"Steal crap?"

"Another easy guess. Yes, as you put it, we want you in the Flock to 'steal crap'."

"But why? Why me? Of all people, why?"

"Well, first of all, Kestrel was getting tired of doing it, but to tell the truth," he gave her a wistful smile, "I see a little bit of myself in you."

"What? What's that supposed to mean?"

"Never mind. So, anyways, what do you say?"

"To what?"

"To the offer. To join us. Become one of us. Are you ready to take to the skies, Magpie?"

"I mean... it beats the streets."

He chuckled. "Then let's get you situated!"

Room nine, second floor. He told her that he had "Taken the liberty of moving all your belongings to your room," but everything she owned had been in the abandoned house when she re-abandoned it. Of course, moving her possessions before she arrived was no great feat compared to the other stuff this guy had pulled, so she wasn't all that surprised.

She found the room and tried the door, which was unlocked. Slowly, tentatively, she opened it up, and was greeted with a large, lavish room, complete with a comfy bed and a connected bathroom. The room was almost twice the size of her previous residence, and the bed matched. One of the colorfully dressed women she had spotted downstairs was folding a shirt that she recognized as hers, and she noticed Margaret as she entered.

"Well, hello there, ma'am! I was just finishing putting away your things, I'll be done in just a moment, don't you worry!"

Margaret was taken aback for a moment. No one had ever called her ‘ma'am' before, and neither had anyone done anything for her in a long, long time. She recovered quickly, and gave a small cough before speaking.

"That's, uh... that's all right. I can take care of it myself."

The woman clicked her tongue and frowned. "Are you sure? It's really no bother, it's my job, after all."

"No, really. It's all right."

The woman sighed before making her way to the door. Just before leaving, she turned around and smiled. "I'm Annie, by the way. Nice meeting you!"

"Yeah," Margaret said hesitantly, "Nice meeting you too."

And then she was alone. She decided that her first order of business would be to test out the bed. She hadn't known anything could be so soft, and it was nothing like the thin, torn mattress she was used to. An unexpected nap later, it passed with flying colors.

She was woken by the sound of someone knocking at her door, and she groggily swung herself out of the bed and lurched towards it. She opened it, and standing in front of her was a smiling man in a brown and grey suit, with longish hair and a beard to match.

"Meeting in ten minutes, Mag." He snapped his fingers. "Best get a move on, now. And fix your suit. It looks like rubbish. You look like a posh urchin with that getup."

Without waiting for her angry response to that incredibly offensive, yet undeniably spot on assessment, he turned on his heel and walked off. She allowed herself a few moments to fume, then quickly rubbed the sleep from her eyes, went to the large mirror conveniently positioned in the corner of her room, and tried in vain to fix her suit.

With just a few minutes to spare, she finally made her way to her destination with some helpful directions from Annie, who happened to be passing by. She debated waiting to enter, as she was slightly early, but decided against it. She had hesitated too often lately.

And after all, the early bird gets the worm.