Totem, Part 2

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Part 1

Sandy was pissed. Derrick, her co-worker, had called in sick just as she was preparing to go home—though he certainly hadn’t sounded sick when she answered the phone—and with only an hour’s notice, her manager had asked her to stay while she found a replacement. Well, she thought as she placed new racks of bread dough into the oven, at least she was getting paid overtime.

Absently, she fingered the ivory bracelet around her wrist. It had been a habit of hers, ever since she found it in a cardboard box filled with stuff that had once belonged to her grandfather.

They’d always been close, and his death four years ago from a stroke had hit her hard.

He didn’t die with much—there was no trust or will, nor were there any significant assets to disburse—and everything that had ever been his was packed into a single box and immediately forgotten.

Then Sandy, now twenty-one, came home from college for the summer and rediscovered it in a dusty corner of her mom’s house. It was like stepping back into the past, that box, like Sandy had gotten into a time machine and toured all the best years with her grandfather. There was the chessboard and accompanying silver pieces he said his own father had given him when he was eight. The faded tweed jacket he’d worn almost every day, even though it made him smell like mothballs.

And, of course, there was the bracelet.

She’d seen it once on a shelf when she was nine. It had looked so pretty, and she’d asked if she could have it. But then her grandfather had turned to her with a funny look she’d never seen before, and after a moment of prolonged silence, he’d said it was an important family heirloom and that she couldn’t have it until she was older. That was the last time they spoke of it, and she forgot about the bracelet until the day she found it again inside the box.

It still looked pretty, she thought when she rediscovered it twelve years later. The craftsmanship was incredible, unparalleled by anything else she’d encountered before, and wearing it made her think of happier times. So she began to put it on each morning, a ritual that became as important as showering or brushing her teeth.

Now, twiddling it back and forth between her fingers, Sandy pushed the empty cart into the storeroom and took up sentry behind the cash register. With the lunch hour over, she hoped there would be few customers left before her manager came to relieve her.

That was when a fluttering mass of black caught her eye.

She turned. There, on the concrete beside the window, a tiny flock of blackbirds staring at her through the glass.

Not at me, she corrected herself. Why would they be looking at me?

And yet.

She peered into their dark, shiny eyes like plastic beads and was sure she saw a spark of recognition.

No, she was imagining things. That was certainly something she was good at. It was why she’d chosen English for her major, the reason she retreated to her room each night to write.

Birds, she reminded herself, weren’t smart like humans. She didn’t know how she looked to them, or if they even noticed her at all, but she doubted very much that they were looking on purpose.

And yet.

“Sandy?”

Her head whipped back like a bungee cord. There was a hollow smack as her hand hit something in front of her, and when she turned once more, it was just in time to witness the spray of cardboard cups that showered the tiled floor.

“Sorry, Mona.” Sandy felt her face flush, and she ran around to the other side of the counter to pick them up.

“You all right?”

“Fine. Just a little distracted.” Sandy’s cheeks burned.

Mona regarded her through slitted eyes. “Good thing I wasn’t a customer.”

Sandy didn’t say anything, only set the cups back down and wilted a little inside.

Mona could be kind and was always fair, but when she caught you doing something wrong, like daydreaming and not paying attention, she would come down on you hard.

Sandy expected her to say more, but the woman just placed her hands in her pockets and grunted.

“Just got off the phone with Charlie. We had to swap some things around, but he’s agreed to take over the rest of Derrick’s shift.”

Thank God.

Mona glanced up at the clock, then looked down at Sandy with a weary smile. “The hour’s just about up. You go on and run home. I’ll take over until he gets here.”

“Thank you.”

After Mona checked the register, Sandy clocked out and charged into what remained of the hot summer day. It was easy to forget just how hot it could get when you spent most of the day in an air conditioned building. She pulled off the sweatshirt that had saved her from freezing only minutes earlier and tied it around her waist.

The birds were still outside when she passed by the window, only now they’d turned and were once more staring up at her.

I must have startled them by walking outside.

A perfectly reasonable explanation. All the same, a strange tingle crawled across her skin. There was just something about those eyes that bothered her, and there was nothing reason could do to convince her that these were ordinary birds going about their ordinary bird business.

There were six of them, standing side by side in front of the window. Like a prison line up, she thought. One of the the birds in the middle chirped, a plaintive, questioning sound, and a moment later, the others took a couple of highly synchronized steps forward, never taking their eyes off her.

They clearly had more than a passing interested in her, and she found herself backing away, repelled by this sudden intrusion of the bizarre into what had otherwise been a usual day.

The other birds started to chirp, this time at each other, as if they were not birds at all, but a group of bickering old men. Back and forth, back and forth. Then they seemed to reach an agreement, and a moment later they were marching toward her as one.

This is too weird.

Sandy continued walking backward, heart stammering, palms clammy.

Wait, those birds seemed to say, come back.

But Sandy wasn’t interested in what they had to say, and she didn’t stop retreating until she stood in the parking lot beside her car. When her hand finally closed on the door handle, a spring inside of her uncoiled. She jammed her hands into her pockets. Yanked out her keys. Threw open the door. Slammed it shut behind her.

When at last she pulled out, she glanced through the passenger side window. She was just in time to watch them spread their wings and shoot into the sky.

Read part 3 here.

Author: Jeff Coleman

Jeff Coleman is a writer who finds himself drawn to the dark and the mysterious, and to all the extraordinary things that regularly hide in the shadow of ordinary life.

4 thoughts on “Totem, Part 2”

  1. Omg…I need to know who these birds are! Do they deserve to get the bracelet? Or do they deserve to remain in their bird bodies?!?! Lol OK I’ll be patient. See where you take this little experiment. 😊

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