The two boys rolled down the large hill for a third time before taking a break from their activities, both sufficiently covered in grass stains and dirt. Dylan laid spread eagled in the grass, panting through his grin, Thayne beside him on his stomach. The pair had been best friends since either of them could remember and had often been mistaken for brothers, what with their matching gold hair and blue eyes and denim shorts. In fact, they were even wearing the same t-shirt today: a white circle with a star cutout on the chest, Thayne’s in red, Dylan’s in blue. Their favourite shirts.
Coming out to the countryside for a vacation had been a late present to Thayne from his parents for his thirteenth birthday, and he’d been excited about it for weeks. Dylan’s parents had surprised him with the present of letting him go with Thayne as an early present for his own thirteenth birthday.
After regaining their breath, the boys decided to head for the small creek in the woods and catch crayfish. They didn’t have a bucket or anything, but nor did they intend to keep any anyway.
The path was winding and more than once the boys got a little turned around until they came upon a house. The structure was old, made up of wood that had been twisted and bleached by the elements; it almost seemed to grow out from the forest itself. Many of the windows were boarded up and the porch swing creaked ominously as it swayed in the wind.
“Mom says this is the old Montgomery house,” Thayne said. “She used to tell me scary stories about to keep me from getting too close, but as long as we’re careful, we should probably be fine to go inside.” Thayne was walking up the creaky wooden steps to the door. Dylan just stood there, staring up at the bleached wood structure.
“What kind of scary stories?” Thayne shrugged.
“The usual kind: anyone who’s ever gone inside has disappeared and such. The whole story includes the daughter of the house dying in a fire that burned down her school house and the mom going insane from grief and never leaving the house again, etc.”
Dylan blinked as he remembered researching urban legends for school. “But that actually happened, didn’t it? The girl and the fire, I’ve read about it on the Internet. There’s an actual grave for her in the cemetery.” Thayne shrugged.
“A lot of urban legends have some kind of basis in reality, even if barely. Now stop being a chicken and come on.”
Reluctance and intrigue warred with each other in Dylan’s brain as he slowly climbed the porch steps. Each board complained under his weight and he wondered if they might just give out underneath him. Thayne tugged on the door, using his body weight to jerk the ancient, weathered wood free, and they stepped inside.
The pair entered a large front hallway, a moth eaten rug and an inch thick layer of dust muffling the sound of their footsteps. To the right and left were large rooms, devoid of anything but dust and peeling paint. In front of them were a mostly rotted through staircase and a hallway.
“Not even if you paid me.” Dylan’s said flatly when Thayne gestured up the stairs. Thayne laughed and they moved down the hall. The first door they tried was either locked or stuck, so they quickly moved on.
The boys weaved in and out of the numerous rooms, finding more dust, the occasional piece of faded and filthy furniture, and most oddly: folded paper birds of every conceivable colour.
At first it was only three or four in a room, but they just multiplied. It got to the point where the boys could hardly walk without stepping on them.
“Jeez, paper birds everywhere. Who had time to make all these?” Dylan picked his way across what appeared to have been a sitting room once upon a time, trying not to crush any of the fragile creations.
“Do you think they’re the type that flaps?” Thayne picks a bird up off a nearby table and tugs on its head and tail. The bird tore right down the center with a loud rip. “Guess not.” He placed the pieces back on the table and moved on. Dylan couldn’t help thinking that the shadows from the ripped paper looked like bloodstains on the dark wood.
The pair moved on, into a sunroom; furniture covered in dirty white sheets, large windows coated in filth overlooking the backyard. There was a faded portrait of a family of three on the wall.
“That must be the girl who died,” Thayne commented. “Hold on there’s an inscription.” As Thayne wiped at the dust of the frame, Dylan observed the picture. The rather attractive girl seemed to have been about his age, her lustrous dark hair and bright green eyes given to her by her rather stern looking mother, but her lips seem to quirk in such a way as to indicate a hidden smile, much like her father.
“Here it is,” Thayne said triumphantly. “It’s mostly in that gibberish language-”
“Yeah that, but it’s got names: Johnathan and Burnadette Montgomery, and Maria Montgomery. I guess Maria’s the daughter.” Dylan hummed a noncommittal response as he moved away from the picture and toward the window. Something about that girl’s eyes gave him the heebie jeebies.
Dylan squinted through the grimy glass into the backyard. There was all the usual dead grass, weeds, and-
A cross. There was a cross in the backyard, which meant there was a dead body in the backyard and holy crap-
Dylan forced himself to take a deep breath and stop panicking. It was probably for a family pet or something, relax. As if it would further convince him of the grave’s innocence, he wiped away some of the dirt and dust from the window with his sleeve and stared even harder at the cross.
There was a bright green paper bird sitting on its arm.
Forcing himself to believe it was just an odd memento from one of the locals, Dylan moved away from the window.
“C’mon, Thayne, I’m bored. Let’s get out of here. It’s almost dinner time anyway. ”
“How do you know?” Dylan gave his friend a deadpan stare as he gestured out the window to where the sun had sunk low in the sky, casting everything a sickly orange. “Oh. Fine, let’s go. There’s nothing interesting here anyway.” The pair retraced their steps, visible in the dust, back to the front hall. Thayne pushed against the door and frowned. He pushed again, harder, but still nothing. “It’s stuck.” Dylan scowls.
“Very funny, Thayne. But seriously, let’s go. I’m getting hungry.” Thayne scowled back.
“You think I’m faking, you get over here and try.” So Dylan did try and found that yes, the door was stuck tight. He pushed with all of his strength and it didn’t so much as creak. As he backed away to reconsider the door he noticed a paper bird on one of the front entry tables, it’s sharply folded headed pointed right at the boys.
Almost as if it was looking at them.
“Did you put that there? Cuz that’s not funny, Dylan, that’s creepy.” Thayne sounded agitated as he shoved a few more times at the door. Dylan shoulder checked him in frustration.
“You’re the one that’s been messing around with them. How do I know you didn’t put it there?” Thayne rubbed his arm where Dylan hit him, an outraged look on his face.
“What’s your problem?!”
Dylan gestured around them. “My problem is that my best friend got me stuck in a creepy old house that’s probably condemned, and it’s getting dark soon!” Thayne scowled petulantly and stomped away.
“Shut up. C’mon, let’s find another way out if here.”
The two moved back down the hall, only to stop short at what was clearly a locked door being slightly open.
“I’m serious Thayne, this is not funny.”
“I swear it’s not me! I was with you the whole time!”
The pair stood nervously before the door before, without talking about it, move in unison to open it fully.
There was a veritable army of paper birds inside, all different colours and sizes, practically stacked on top of one another and every last one pointed at the door. At the boys.
“Holy crap,” muttered Thayne.
The birds aside, the room seemed to be a small bedroom; a bedframe along one wall, a near empty bookshelf along another, a desk crammed in the corner. Thayne tiptoed his way across to the bookshelf.
“Check this out, it’s a diary.” He cracked open the front cover and gasped. “It’s Maria’s diary!”
“This must have been her room. Guess she was into paper birds. What’s wrong?” Dylan asked upon seeing the frown on Thayne’s face.
“The entries are dated for after when the fire happened. It sounds like she survived.” Dylan shrugged.
“It could be fake; somebody could have planted it here to mess with trespassers.” Thayne shrugged and nodded, shifting the book in his hands. Something slipped out from between the pages, landing face down on the floor.
“It looks like one of those old polaroid shots; on the back it says ‘Got my bandages of today!’” He flipped the photo and recoiled. Dylan came over and grabbed it.
It was undoubtedly Maria and yet looked nothing like her. Her full curls had mostly burned away, leaving a few black wisps and thick, jagged burn scars that licked up her neck and over her face and scalp. One of her eyes seemed to have melted shut and her remaining eye drooped. It was impossible to tell of she was smiling or not.
Dylan put the photo firmly faced down on the shelf. “Ok, so probably not a fake diary, then. What does it say, read a few pages.” Thayne jerked a nod and reopened the book.
The bandages came off my hands today. The doctor had me fold little paper birds to test how well I can move my fingers. The first one I made correctly was the same purple as Mother’s dress. It was so pretty.
I can almost understand Mother’s fears. Thomas already pulled my hair and got ink on my dress, who knows how mean he would be about the burns. He really was cruel for a boy so pretty. I’ve actually made a paper bird, the exact same blue as his eyes. Such a pretty bird.
I’ve had the maid procure more paper for me. I’ve made so many already, they’ve started to spill out of my room. I now have one for everyone from my old classes, from the brown one for Davie’s hair, to the pink one for Lizzie’s ribbon. I even have a green one for Mr. Cogswort’s ratty old coat.
I’ve decided not to make a bird for my tutor, Mr. Ratherson. He’s hateful and rude. The other day, he stepped on my Papa bird! I was so angry with him that all my birds gave him paper cuts whenever he touched them. I would much rather he becomes a paper bird.
Mr. Ratherson has stopped coming. I have a new paper bird the same tan shade as the ruler he always smacked across my desk. It’s actually kind of pretty.
My birds are the only friends I will ever have, but they are enough. They will love me and protect me always and from everything. Even after I’m gone.
Thayne finished reading and Dylan thought. He thought about Maria’s official grave, and how it says she died ten years before the last dated entry in her diary. He thought about the unmarked grave in the backyard. He thought about how the bird on the grave was the same green as the eyes of the girl in the portrait. His hands shook as he crossed to the door, determined to get out of there. The sound of rustling paper indicated Thayne was close on his heels, paying no mind to the birds he was kicking.
Except Thayne hadn’t moved; he was still standing by the bookshelf, holding the diary. He was looking at the floor around Dylan’s feet and his face had turned white as a sheet.
Dylan looked down at all the paper birds pointed at the door, as if on guard. All the paper birds but the ones around Thayne’s feet that were pointed at Thayne himself- wait, that wasn’t right, they were all looking at the door when the boys came in, how- ?
A terrifying, impossible idea occurred to Dylan; one he absolutely did not want to test, and yet his feet were already moving. Slowly, carefully, he picked his way back toward his friend, watching as the moment he moved behind a bird, it swiveled to keep him in its sights.
The birds were watching them.
Dylan stood side by side with Thayne and they both stared out at the army of paper birds, all turned to watch stare accusingly back at the boys. There was a moment of silence in which Dylan’s heart was seizing it beat so fast, blood like ice pounding through his veins, freezing him, he couldn’t move-
Thayne shattered the moment by slamming the book shut in his hands. Dylan thought he heard his friend mutter a high pitched ‘nope’ before he dropped the book to the floor and ran out of the room, destroying countless birds as he moved. Thayne’s trail of destruction reminded that they were just paper; fragile and easily damaged. They couldn’t hurt him, not really.
Mechanically, Dylan picked up the diary and dusted it off before slotting it back into it designated place on the shelf. He then crouched and considered the torn and crumpled paper birds, picking up a deep purple one. The worn paper felt smooth and thin to his fingers.
“I don’t know how to make paper birds, and I don’t have anything to fix them. There’s nothing I can do.” Dylan didn’t want to think about what might be listening to him, he just knew he didn’t want to be here anymore. He wanted to go home. So he put the bird down gently, got up, and left the room to find Thayne so they could leave and he could call his mother.
“Thayne? Thayne! Where’d you go, man? We still gotta find a way outta here!” As Dylan approached the front hall, a fresh breeze brushed passed his cheek. He picked up his pace to find- yes!
Relief flooded through him as the front door stood open. Thayne must have burst through it with the help of his fear turned adrenaline. Dylan hurried through the doorway and down the porch steps.
He was walking back down the dirt path to Thayne’s family’s cottage when the wind shrieked in his ears, sounding oddly like a giggling girl, tugging his hair and clothes back toward the house and stirring up dust around his ankles. He looked back at the house, wondering if he hadn’t just imagined what had gone on there. A spot of colour caught his eye.
It was a paper bird, sitting on the flat porch railing, bright red against the bleached wood. Dylan stared at it; he knew that wasn’t there when the boys first arrived. He returned to the porch and gently picked up the bird, flipping it over in his fingers. On its back was a white circle with a star cutout, exactly like Thayne’s favourite shirt.
Like Thayne’s shirt…
He put the paper bird back quickly and backed away, heart suddenly thumping. The wind whistled again, and this time Dylan clearly heard a little girl whisper in his ear. Such a pretty bird…