I wrote this for WOTW #5. It came in second, but I'm told that it would have won had my ending been better. Despite this problem, I hope you all like it.
A blackbird sang.
An old man reclined in his chair and reflected upon his life.
His senses, those long-loyal friends, were finally failing him. The greatest of his allies, Sight, had left him first. His relationship with Hearing was growing ever colder, and even Touch was beginning to drift away. Taste and Smell had fled in the night, to be together where they would not be underappreciated.
Without these comrades, these sensory pillars that supported his ailing mind, the old man knew only what he could remember of his surroundings. The darkness, the dank and musty odor of the rotting wooden walls, the sounds of creaking boards and scurrying mice were all lost on him. He had created this house and everything in it, and now was oblivious as it crumbled around him.
All he knew for sure was that his two greatest friends remained with him, and that they would be until the end. “My mind is filled with emptiness,” he said paradoxically. “There is so little I recall. Only the most important moments have stuck in my memory.”
He smiled weakly. “My oldest memory is of you, Axel. The day we met. How old were we? I can’t seem to recall.”
“We must have been seven or eight,” Axel answered him. “It was the day before school began. Grade Two, I think.”
“Yes, yes, I remember now. You’re right.” The old man smiled weakly, absorbed in memory. What little he could perceive of his surroundings vanished as he drifted into a narration of that day.
It had been a bright, warm and beautiful day. Driven by the youthful stress of the impending school year, the young boy had fled from the house to his backyard. A single tree sprouted in the corner, surrounded on four sides by the high wood fences. The branches on this huge tree began low to the ground, leaves dappling the grass beneath with shade.
The boy was stricken by a sudden impulse. He crossed the yard and reached for the lowest of the branches. With a strict determination, he began to climb. The tree at the time had seemed enormous in comparison to his scrawny body, but in retrospect he realized that it could not have been any more than twenty-five, or perhaps even fifteen feet tall, but it had seemed that he could see to the ends of the Earth. His attention was drawn not to these great expanses, however, but to a boy just a single yard away.
From his lofty perch at the top of the tree, the boy could see easily over the fence. His neighbor was a small boy of his own age, with sandy blond hair and a half-scared, half-interested look. He called up to the boy in the tree: “What are you doing?”
The boy looked down in surprise. “I’m climbing a tree, what does it look like? Who are you?”
“My name’s Axel.” He kicked aimlessly at the ground for a moment before looking back up and shouting, “Are you sure that’s safe?”
“No.” The boy grinned. “But I like dangerous things. Watch this.” He balanced himself carefully, pulling first one foot, then the other onto the highest branch. Crouching there like an out-of-place gargoyle, the boy grinned wildly at his neighbor. Then, with a single sudden movement and a flourish of his arms, he stood straight up.
Axel jumped nervously. “That’s really not safe! You should get down from there, please?”
The boy laughed. “No! It’s fine, I feel great! It’s like I’m-” He was cut short. A sudden gust shook the upper reaches of the tree, shaking the thin and whip-like branches at the top. The boy fell.
Yelping in surprise, Axel rushed to the edge of the fence. The boy landed heavily on a branch half-way down the tree with a quick shout of pain, bounced, and plummeted the remainder of the distance to the ground.
Bracing himself for the impact, Axel held his arms into the sky. The boy landed solidly on top him, sending both children sprawling to the cool, grassy ground.
The wind had stopped, but the branches of the tree continued to shake. With a rustle of leaves and feathers, a small blackbird settled on a branch. It cocked its head to the side, staring intently at the boys collapsed in a tangled pile, and it sang.
The old man’s senses returned to the present. “I would always call you the one who kept me alive,” he said wistfully, glassy white eyes glazed over. “And then of course there’s you.” He turned to where he knew his wife to be sitting. “Lydia, Lydia, I remember the day so well. The first day of highschool, you sat next to me in English. You never did anything in moderation, Lydia. Everybody you knew, you either loved or hated; and I gave you no reason to love me. But it all changed on one day, the greatest of my life. Greater even than the day we were married, because this was the start of our love and not just another step along it.”
The old man felt faintly a small pressure on his chest, but whether it was Lydia resting her head on him or simply his lungs compressing, he couldn’t tell. But he hardly noticed in the first place. He was once again immersed in earlier times.
A school cafeteria, dirty, loud, and bright. The boy, now almost twice as old as he had been in the earlier memory, was sitting at the end of one of the long and messy tables when somebody caught the corner of his eye.
Lydia had stood and was walking across the cafeteria. She was tall and slim, beautiful in a teenager’s incredible and immature way: wide hazel eyes, a soft and pretty face, not yet fully developed in mind or body.
The boy watched her detachedly for a few seconds before turning to look at Axel, seated across the table. “I’m going to go ask her why she hates me.”
Axel’s jaw dropped exaggeratedly. “You serious, man?”
“I’m always serious, Axel.”
“Bull.” Axel smiled lightly, but retained a determined gleam in his eye. “You know she’s going to kill you, right?”
The boy gave a snort of laughter. “Yeah, probably. Whatev’s.”
Axel threw up his hands. “Okay then. You have been warned. My conscious is appeased.”
The boy was already gone. He walked up behind Lydia and tapped her lightly on the shoulder. She spun around, her eyes flashing like steel as she recognized him. “Can I help you?” she asked, flicking her waves of coppery red hair over one shoulder. She had a soft, lilting voice that sounded as if she was always about to sing, but somehow contained undertones of sharp iron.
The boy’s stomach dropped, and he very nearly lost his nerve. Despite her intensity, he pressed on valiantly, motivated mainly by the desire not to make an idiot of himself. “Yeah, you can,” he shot back, hoping to sound confident. “Why do you hate me?”
So much for that effort. His question had sounded nearly pleading, even to his own ears.
Lydia half laughed, half scoffed. “Why shouldn’t I?”
Resisting once again the urge to flee, the boy desperately attempted to muster some semblance of control in his voice. “Why should you?”
“I asked first.”
No arguing with that, that was for sure. “I can’t think of anything I might have done to you. At least give me a chance before you judge me.”
Lydia folded her arms under her chest. “I don’t have time for that. There’re a lot of people in the world. If they don’t interest me with their first impression, I have no reason to care about them, let alone give them time to try and prove themselves.”
“Well, make an exception,” the boy urged her. “You won’t be disappointed. I like to consider myself terribly interesting.” The boy no longer had any idea where he was going with this. If Axel had asked him before what his response would be if Lydia had answered like this, he would have said that he would shrug it off and dismiss her as a bitch not worth his attention. But yet, here he was.
Lydia let out a short peal of laughter. “Alright, sure. I’ll make one exception.” She flicked her hair again. “You’re lucky I find self-confidence so attractive.”
The boy’s eyes widened. Oh shit, oh shit, please let him be misinterpreting-
“I’ll see you on Friday, and we’ll find out if you’re as interesting as you claim to be.” Lydia brushed past him, smiling to herself as she returned to her table.
Dumbfounded, the boy returned to his seat. Axel was waiting with a massive grin stretched across his face. “So how’d it go?”
Blinking to bring himself back to his senses, the boy stared at his friend grimly. “She asked me out.”
Axel’s smile vanished, to be replaced with the same jaw-to-the-table look as before. “What,” he said, toning it specifically to not be a question.
“You heard me.”
“Dude. That’s… that’s just…” Axel paused, searching his mind for what he could possibly say about this turn of events. Finally, he settled on a simple statement. “It’s a trap.”
The boy smiled. The more he thought about it, the more he warmed up to this idea. He was fairly certain he could impress Lydia, and after all, she did look amazing. “Yeah, okay Axel. You just keep telling yourself that.”
“No man, I’m serious. She’s going to freaking eat you or something...”
Ignored by everyone in the cafeteria, a blackbird landed by a window. It scratched at the glass for a second before pressing one eye up against it. Finally, it sang.
The memory began to fade and the old man felt himself pulled to the present by Axel speaking once again. “I admit it, I was wrong. You can’t blame me though. You were a scary person, Lydia.”
She laughed softly, confirming that the pressure on the old man’s chest was indeed her head. “I know I was a bit… standoffish, but I don’t think I ever descended to cannibalism.” Her voice was nearly the same as on that long-ago day; soft and musical, but it had lost its angry edge. “And look what happened. We hit it right off, and you were the best man at our wedding.”
The old man raised a hand; even that was a strain for his failing body. “You know why I asked you to come today Axel. I’m dying. And the time is here.” He shuddered to take breaths. “Both… of you know… how much I love you.”
His grip on the last remnants of his senses slackened, and they finally left him behind.
A blackbird sang.
Sirens called, rushing down the street. They stopped, footsteps began below, and then ascending the stairs. The door slammed open.
“Oh no, no, no!” A woman sobbed, rushed across the room and buried her head in a boy’s chest.
“It’s too late. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I always hoped that he would someday come out, and do something, something great, like he was destined to…”
“Doctor? What are you talking about? Destined?”
“This boy’s birth was one of the most unfortunate in human history.”
“Yeah, I know he was paralyzed, stunted, none of his senses worked, et cetera. But why was he ‘destined’ to do something great?”
“You’re ignoring the important parts. I’ve made it my life’s work to care for this boy. When he was little, his body was so feeble that the only way to tell he was alive was by monitoring his brain waves. And that’s when we discovered the magnificence of his mind. He never ate or drank anything his entire life but survived, like some of the Hindu monks in India, but he had this power from birth while they meditated for years to acquire it. His I.Q. was never pinned down, but it must have been higher than anything else ever registered. This boy could have been Shakespeare, Socrates, and Einstein --- all rolled into one.”
“Einstein? He reminds me more of Stephen Hawking.”
“That’s not fucking funny, Sam!”
“Lydia’s right. We always hoped that some day he would emerge into the world and do whatever great things he could with that amazing mind…”
“I’m sorry, Doctor Axel.”
“You know, his senses weren’t completely dead. There were three stimuli that always elicited a jump in his sensory input, though he could never respond in any way, and didn’t even seem consciously aware of them. The first was a blackbird that would occasionally land on that windowsill and sing to him. The second and third were Lydia and I.”
“I always imagined that he had lived an entire life inside his head. I wondered where I fit in… I hated this job at first. It was not at all exciting but when we discovered that he showed interest in me… everything changed. I began to love it.”
“I’m… sorry. I wish I had been able to know him like you did.”
“It’s alright. Come on, let’s go. We were too late.”
The door closed and the footsteps faded away. Outside the window, a blackbird sang.