Aphelion Issue 278, Volume 26
November 2022
 
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A Weekend Getaway

by Mark Humphries




1

 

Wilma waved her husband over to the window and raised a finger to her lips. 

She whispered, “Don’t move.” and gestured through the pane.

Jim was still holding an overnight bag in one hand. He followed his wife’s stare out to the glowing snow. He searched the tumbling stone walls and vast whiteness beyond. The cottage door was ajar, icy air was blowing into the kitchen and the car boot was half-unloaded. His eyes swept the rock-strewn farmyard. There was an overturned wheelbarrow, but his eyes met nothing more than a rugged, windswept tableau. 

He eased down the load and asked, “What am I looking for?” He shivered in the draught.

Wilma beamed and pointed. “There… Under the wheelbarrow. A wagtail!”

Jim squinted and spotted a small, camouflaged, black and white bird strutting around next to one of the handles. He grinned and rubbed his wife’s back. “How did you spot that?!” Another arctic gust blew through the kitchen. “Come on, let’s finish unpacking everything.”

He reached for the bag and then Wilma hissed, “There’s something else!”

Jim felt his wife’s fingers dig hard into his flesh. “Ouch. What?!” 

Wilma stepped closer to the misted pane and tugged her husband’s arm. “Over there on the wall.”

Jim pulled free and then flinched.

An enormous, shaggy black bird with a blood-red beak and blazing yellow eyes was glowering across the farmyard at the couple. Jim released a nervous giggle and asked, “What is it?”

Wilma moved closer to her husband and replied, “I’ve no idea. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Like a massive vulture, it cocked its head.

Unblinking, it unleashed a sudden ear-shattering squawk and batted its huge black wings. Snow exploded forth mingled with feather shrapnel. A rabbit darted for cover in a nearby field.

Jim and Wilma both stepped away from the window. He volunteered, “I’ll close the door.” She nodded but remained in the bird’s glare. He added, “And the car.”

At that moment, the gigantic creature swung its powerful limbs and launched itself into the snow shower. With an almighty screech, its eyes pinned on the husband and wife, it plunged towards the kitchen window. Wilma screamed and Jim closed his eyes as he swung the overnight bag upwards into a protective shield.

An instant before impact, the monster angled away from the glass, the two-cowering prey beyond, and dived at the wagtail, as it dashed for safety. In one powerful stroke, the immense beast’s beak snapped the other bird in half. Its severed lower torso spun through the air and bounced off the wheelbarrow’s underside. 

The triumphant colossus arced back onto the stone wall and began tossing its head back and forth.

Jim heard his voice whisper, “What’s it doing now?” Wilma didn’t reply. Her mouth opened but there was no sound.

The hateful creature answered… It leaned back on its icy perch and then its entire body whiplashed forward. A tiny object twirled through the glacial air.

Husband and wife jumped away from the glass as the wagtail’s decapitated head thumped against the pane. Wide-eyed, Jim and Wilma gawped at the bloody smudge left in the victim’s wake.

With a final furious shriek, the winged murderer surged away into the falling dusk.

Wilma realised her palms were wet and her shoulders were aching. She turned to her husband and noticed his new pallor. She breathed, “Fucking hell.” Jim nodded but didn’t reply. She looked back through the blood-stained window. The white farmyard was still. Like icy waters following a killer whale hunt.

Jim peered at the open kitchen door and said, “I’ll finish unloading.” As an afterthought, he added, “Probably better if you stay inside.”

 

2

 

Wilma scrolled through local birdlife websites and pursed her lip. Jim sat beside her on the sofa and flicked through TV channels. He glanced at his wife and said, “Leave it now, darling. You’ve been looking for ages.”

She shook her head and sighed. “It doesn’t make any sense. There’s nothing like it in the Pennines.” She hesitated. “Or in the UK. I can’t find anything.”

Jim reached for his wine glass. “Maybe it’s something to do with climate change. I don’t know. A freak occurrence. A tropical bird flying the wrong way or something.” He took a gulp and stroked his wife’s arm.

Wilma frowned and closed the laptop. “Why did it attack the wagtail and throw its head at the window? It was all so… cruel.”

Her husband nodded and switched to the TV guide. “I don’t know, Wills. Perhaps, it was a territorial thing. Anyway, Shopping Date’s coming on. Do you fancy watching that for a bit?”

She shrugged. “I’m having a shower.” The wooden steps creaked under her footsteps.

Jim leaned back into the sofa and peered at the dancing flames in the hearth. They had booked this secluded cottage on a last-minute deal. After Wilma’s recent work stress, they needed this weekend getaway. Peace and quiet away from the office and city. The bizarre bird behaviour had unsettled them both, but the wine and warm log fire were already dissolving any lingering tensions. Drowsiness comforted his body and his head began to loll.

Wilma’s scream slapped away the sleep.

Jim jerked off the sofa and raced up the stairs. He barged through the bathroom door and saw his naked wife pressed against the wall, her towel held up as a flimsy barrier.

Inside the bath, the bird looked even more gigantic than before. Like a pterodactyl it spread its monstrous wings, hissed and snapped its ruby beak. Its enraged yellow eyes flashed on Jim and Wilma as its shaggy head snapped from one to the other. Icy droplets sprayed onto the couple’s faces as the beast shook its powerful limbs. Soaked feathers and snow splatted the tiles. Glass shards littered the bath and Jim felt a cold gust blast through the empty window frame.

The creature shrieked and launched at Wilma. A wing bashed into Jim’s face and swept his glasses against the door. Blinded, he heard a clacking noise as the bird gnashed at his wife’s face. She clutched the taut towel and screamed as her hair became entwined in the beast’s snapping beak. 

Jim scrabbled around and grabbed the nearest object. A shampoo bottle. He swivelled, aimed, and squeezed in the bird’s direction. The soapy jet splashed onto the creature’s craned neck. It squawked and jolted towards him, yanking Wilma’s trapped hair as it lunged. She lost her footing and crashed to the floor.

Jim shouted, “Will you just fuck off!” and squirted again. This time the shampoo hit its yellow target. Blue liquid drenched the winged beast’s angry eye.

The bird screeched, flapped, and flailed as it retreated through the open window frame and out into the night.

Jim grabbed Wilma’s arm and snatched up his glasses with the other hand. Together, they lurched out of the bathroom and slammed the door shut behind them.

The cottage had many more windows.

 

3

 

Wilma touched Jim’s shoulder as he dragged the bedside cabinet towards the final window. She pointed, “Look over there.”

He stopped and peered through the glass.

On the horizon, there were two farmhouses about a mile apart. Ultraviolet lights blinked on and off on both levels.

He frowned. “What do you think it means?” 

Wilma bit her lip. “I think we need to leave tonight. This is getting way too weird.” She slumped onto the bed and rubbed her knotted hair. Her finger touched a sodden feather. She winced and tore it out. 

Her husband sat beside her, took the soaked debris from her hands and tossed it into the bin. He replied, “We can't, Wills. The roads are impassable. We’d get stuck in the snow.” The wind rattled the windowpane and they both shuddered. “Besides, I’d rather be in here than out there in the dark with that bloody thing flying around.” They leaned into each other. “It’s supposed to clear up tomorrow. Then we’re out of here.” He grinned. “Stay off the moors.”

Wilma smiled. “You’re an idiot, Jim Duncan.” They hugged and snuggled under the covers.

They didn’t sleep for long.

 

4

 

There was a piercing crack and thuds against the wall. Screeches and scratches tore through the rafters. 

Jim and Wilma threw themselves from the bed and crawled towards each other. They heard more snapping, crashing, smashing, and banging from above and below. Caws and squawks crushed the cottage. Wilma screamed above the deafening onslaught. “I think there’s more of them!”

Her husband paled as more whumps hit the outside wall and the floor vibrated. He shouted, “I think they’re inside too!” The bedroom door trembled and rocked under repeated pounding.

Wilma peeked at the cracked window above the bedside cabinet and spotted a flapping flash of yellow in the darkness. “They can’t get into this room, can they, Jim?!” He glanced at the throbbing black shadow at the thin strip of uncovered broken glass, but didn’t answer. Cold sweat glistened on his creased brow.

She scuttled across to the suitcase, flung it open and started yanking on clothes. For a moment, Jim wondered what his wife was doing and then he understood. He joined her in piling on the meagre protective layers.

A splinter snapped off the bedroom door and the scraping grew louder through the ceiling. Plaster showered their hair and the floor jolted beneath their knees.

Jim shoved into his last jumper and lumbered to his feet. The thick padding and restricted movements offered little confidence. Wilma rolled upwards too. Like two Michelin men mired in a crazy aviary, they gawped at each other.

An agitated blood-red beak jabbed through the window, and they heard more cracks. There was a snapping noise as one of the bedroom door hinges sagged. Jagged lines appeared in the ceiling. 

They exchanged a clumsy embrace. Neither could reach their lumpy arms around the other. Jim whispered, “I love you.” in his wife’s ear and handed her a chair. He scanned the room before opting for a bedside lamp. Maybe he could swing it like a whip or club. It felt flimsy in his sweaty hands.

He flinched as more wood and plaster landed at their feet.

He gripped the slicked cord and looked at Wilma. “Get ready!”

The cacophony consumed them.

 

5

 

Time slowed as the raging darkness poured in.

In a feverish, desperate fight for survival, Jim and Wilma swung, jabbed, clubbed, stabbed, kicked, bit, and hacked their way through beaks, talons, wings, and skulls.

Blood and sweat poured into their eyes as they choked and spat feathers. With lacerated cheeks and hands, they stumbled around the room. All sense of direction was lost. Black, feathery rage filled the bedroom.

Jim tripped and fell to the floor. He heard himself grunt as Wilma trod on his hand and crashed in a heap somewhere near him. As a beak slashed his forehead and he swung the now-broken bedside lamp to ward it off, a thought detached itself from his battered body, “This is the last country getaway we’re doing.”

And then a blinding light filled the room. 

Jim closed his eyes and wondered if this was the start of the tunnel.

 

6

 

“Go on! Get out of it! You horrible buggers!” 

Jim sensed panicked flapping and screeching. He heard a thump and something landed nearby. He opened one blood-drizzled eye. 

One of the birds was staggering near the bedside table. There was another whump and snap as a muddy boot connected with the creature’s chest.

Light flashed into Jim’s pupil. He blinked and flailed with his arm. The beam jerked away and continued its erratic journey around the bedroom. There was more kicking and cursing.

Jim heard something sliding along the floor towards him as Wilma’s slashed hand slipped inside his own.

He planted a bloody kiss on her cheek.

Then blackness enveloped them both.

 

7

 

Jim clutched the steaming tea with Wilma beside him at the kitchen table.

A hunched, bearded farmer sat opposite them. A roll up cigarette hung from his scraped, nicotine-stained fingers. 

An ultraviolet lantern stood between the couple and local.

Wilma stared at the man in disbelief. Plasters, gauze dressings and antiseptic cream coated her slashed face. “So, this happens every year, Mr Barrels?”

The farmer shook his head. “No, miss. We never know when the buggers are coming. Last time was maybe four years ago.”

Jim and Wilma exchanged glances. The husband asked, “How do you know when to be ready then?”

Mr Barrels inhaled his roll up and showered the table in tobacco sparks. He grunted, “It’s the sheep, sir. Day before, you always lose a couple. Less birds hereabouts too. It goes deathly quiet, sir.” His cigarette crackled as he took another pull. 

He stood up and reached for a mud-splattered woolly hat. “Well, I’d best be off.” He pointed at the ultraviolet lantern. “You keep that close and you’ll be all right. The buggers hate that.” He sniffed and stubbed out his cigarette. “Lord knows why. They’ll be gone by tomorrow.”

Mr Barrels shuffled to the door and hesitated before turning back to face the couple. He scanned the bird dropping-covered floor, scratched walls, cracked windows, splintered doors, and cratered ceiling. Concern furrowed his bushy brow. “You make sure you don’t lose any deposit.” He smiled. “Cheerio.”

And with a wave, Mr Barrels disappeared into the darkness and snow.

THE END


2022 Mark Humphries

Bio: Mark Humphries teaches ESOL in Leeds, England, where he lives with his wife. His stories have appeared in Horla, East of the Web, Tales from the Moonlit Path, Trembling With Fear and Idle Ink. He also has a forthcoming publication in Schlock! Magazine.

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