Greetings boils, ghouls, and other creatures of the night!
A warm welcome back to Night Terror Novels’ ongoing flash fiction series, The Theatre Phantasmagoria, and to our Flash Fiction Fridays—where we bring you fresh dark fiction of 2,000 words or less at the end of every week.
With The Theatre Phantasmagoria, a new theme is announced each month, and by the end of said month, four stories are selected from our call for submissions to be featured here on the site in a Friday post. These pieces will also be published in a “wrap-up” anthology at the start of 2023, showcasing the original works that debut here at Night Terror Novels throughout 2022. If you’re an author yourself and this has piqued your interest, please find details regarding the flash fiction theme for our October submission window here.
The theme for September’s submissions was “Chem Trails, Crop Circles, & Cryptids”: stories about aliens and extraterrestrials, UFOs, or tales inspired by other conspiracy and fringe theories, urban legends, and folklore. We enter the ninth month of our Theatre’s offerings tonight with “The Bird, Frozen in Time”, Drew Huff’s story of an immortal, irradiated bird and the way the truth can be twisted to suit our own narratives. You can find out more about the author featured in today’s post down below, including links on where to find them elsewhere.
We here at Night Terror Novels hope that you enjoy today’s terrifying tale, and remember to check back in on Fridays for future showings in The Theatre Phantasmagoria …
Welcome to …
The Theatre Phantasmagoria
‘Look, you wanna see it or not?’
You blink, one leg thrust into a bone-white Tyvek suit. ‘Huh?’
The senior tech tugs on his respirator and grunts.
‘That bird from the ’70’s. The fuckin’ thing’s still down there,’ he says. ‘You gotta see it.’
‘I’m good,’ you say.
The Tyvek suit strangles your shoulders. Sweat pools under your armpits. The A/C in the change trailer’s already shot. Hot air smothers, thick with change trailer smell—nitrile, Tyvek, ancient linoleum, all of it undercut with more sweat. Geiger counters chirp in the corner.
Simple job today—babysitting three electricians as they repair a tank waste probe.
You skim a baby wipe around the rim of your full-face respirator. It’s useless. Deep zits ferment in a ring around your face. The respirator’s rubber seam clogs the same pores every single day. Screw on poison-green chemical filters. Press the rubber into your face. Tug straps into place and tighten. Suck in and hold—negative pressure check. Blow out, feel the rubber cling in an airtight grip—positive pressure check. Respirator’s on. You give the senior tech a nod.
The electricians don their respirators.
July sun fries the wasteland beyond the door.
The senior tech clomps a gloved hand on your shoulder. ‘You’re seeing the bird. Okay?’
He snorts. ‘I can babysit three fuckin’ electricians for two minutes on my own. C’mon. The scientists wanted their beauty shots last night. Camera’s still underground. Go take a look after these guys set up.’
‘You aren’t screwing with me?’ you ask. ‘It’s real?’
‘Jesus Christ,’ you say.
She’s gonna get so creeped out when I tell her—
A cold trickle. You swallow back the words. She’s gone now. Probably found someone better. It’s been two weeks. She probably didn’t even care about the breakup, or you. She’s out having fun with her girly friends, laughing over candy-coloured manicures, wasting money on girl-perfumes designed to cloy your nostrils into submission.
Babe, you’re mad at me. Tell me, she always said.
You snapped, as always, I’m just sitting here! I worked a ten-hour shift! I’m tired!
You clench your radiation meter. Metal bites into your gloved palm.
It’s 110 degrees outside and climbing.
Time to work.
And good luck finding someone with a higher-paying job than me.
When everyone’s ready, you venture out into the chemical graveyard, circa 1940-something, and the contamination meter clutched in your other hand begins to scream.
Do you glow in the dark? She was only half-kidding when she asked, so you cracked open your work-assigned textbook and explained the equations.
Attenuation coefficient, because gamma could be depleted but never fully stopped. Like trying to stop smoke with a chain-link fence, babe.
Half-life decay, for obvious reasons.
Decay pathways. All the major hits—thorium, actinium, uranium, plutonium.
Look, it’s a great paycheck. I’m part of a union and everything, you said.
She stared at the table. She lined up Taco Bell sauce packets.
Your ex-girlfriend finally asked, Yeah, but what do you DO?
You rattled off some patriotic answer. Something cooler than the truth. No, you didn’t glow. You did a shitload of bureaucratic paperwork and once had to endure an entire training about the correct way to line and initial mistakes. There weren’t any glowing elk roaming around the area. No three-eyed pigs. No men in black, seizing random bozos. You hadn’t even seen a single UFO.
You babysat the buried mistakes of the past. Underground tanks of toxic waste.
Is that bird thing really true?
It’s just a dumb story, you said.
Tell me, she said.
Dry heat bakes through your Tyvek. Every breath of air takes more effort, sucking through the filters. One of the electricians—new, younger than the rest—eyes your shrieking contamination meter.
‘It does that. Just ignore it,’ you say, trudging on. ‘The background radiation makes it go nuts.’
He gives a thumbs-up. We approach the work area.
Enter the graveyard, marked by metal valves. It’s tomb-silent, even in the open air. An anodyne surface. A flat expanse of gravel with industrial shoots like budding mushrooms. Pipes. Hulking filter banks gleam. Dirt crunches under your rubber-overshoe-clad feet. Wrapped around random objects, yellow plastic decays under the constant barrage of desert sun.
You speed-walk to the area first and work technical smears across the components. Hold the smears up to the meter, listen for fluctuations. None. No loose contamination so far.
You nod at the senior tech. ‘We’re good.’
‘All right,’ he says, and points at the thing you’ve been ignoring, a few tanks over. ‘Go take a look.’
Do I have to?
But he’ll gossip later if you don’t. The new kid didn’t have the stomach for it. Kid’s a weirdo. It’s just a bird. It’s even kinda funny, if you think about it right. I mean, look at the poor fuckin’ thing.
You walk over to the camera probe. The viewfinder’s a pristine tablet, hooked up to a camera probe jabbed into the underground tank. A snarl of blood-red cord strangles around a valve.
A vent looms in the viewfinder. Below it, waste spasms. Saltcake crusts along the surface of the dirty-gold fluid, breaking into flakes. Rust carpets the interior wall of the underground tank.
Perched on the vent edge is a frozen bird.
It happened in, like, the ’70’s, you said to her, Things were different back then.
Your ex-girlfriend’s eyes glazed over when you talked equations. So you handed her something she’d understand. Your amber necklace. A thumb-sized cognac pendant dangled from a chain, complete with entombed mosquito.
Yeah, she said, What about the immortal radioactive bird?
The legends made the truth more palatable.
They’d replaced a filter a few decades ago. Something like that. It left a space open on the external part of the vent, and before they’d sealed it off, a bird flew inside.
When it got close to the tank waste, it froze.
The radiation instantly killed it.
It nuked the flesh with latent heat and fried away any pathogens … so the bird didn’t rot. It remained underground, preserved forever.
The radiation. It’s invisible amber, you said.
She looked at you for a long time, face expressionless.
You know that werewolves and vampires and all that were just people’s ways of explaining ancient serial killers, right? It’s all banal evil, babe. Stick to the legends. They make more sense, you said. Pretend the bird’s still alive if you want.
But I can’t now. That’s the problem, she said.
She stormed out exactly a week after that, pastel talons digging into her Gucci purse, and all she left you with was a Look, you’re boring. Sorry.
It’s a generic bird. It was a generic bird. A kingfisher. A swallow. Maybe a wren. Something small and drab. Its eyes have long-since shrivelled into aseptic hollows.
Flyspecks of white dirty the feathers.
Something clenches in your guts. Too still. Not right.
The senior tech’s gaze tingles along your back. Judging. The immortal radioactive bird doesn’t come flying out of the vent, thirsting for the blood of radiological workers and craftsmen. It sits. You stare past it and study the saltcake crust for thirty seconds. Then you head back to the job.
The senior tech grunts. ‘Pretty cool, huh?’
We finish watching the electricians work.
Everyone files back into the change trailer, slapping instruments and tools onto the survey table. We shed our sweat-soaked Tyvek skins. Peel off respirators. Doff in the prescribed manner.
‘They didn’t know what the fuck they were doing back then, you know,’ the senior tech says, while we’re surveying tools out of the zone.
He shoots me little glances out of the corners of his eyes. He won’t face me.
‘The past is the past. They couldn’t have known. They just dumped the reactor waste where nobody would see it,’ he says.
‘You can tell everyone you saw the radioactive bird.’
He runs a smear over a pair of battered wire cutters. ‘Or tell ‘em something better. Pretend the thing’s alive.’
Change the legend, change the past.
You can turn your ex-girlfriend into a monster via telling. Or make the bird live.
‘Thanks for showing me,’ you say.
You run into the senior tech later that night, in a grungy IPA-microbrewery bar, and he’s chugging back beers with your other co-workers in front of the T.V., laughing, there under the amber overhead lights, and when you catch his eye from your corner booth—Diet Pepsi only, please, and just me tonight, thanks—he startles for a tenth of a second, then slips his gaze right past you and continues joking.
At one point he mouths, Jesus fuck, kid, go get laid!
You’re a cancer. You know it.
And you sip your Diet Pepsi. You fail to flirt with the waitress. When you give up and decide to focus on her swinging rack and the smell of her peachy body-spray, a lump hardens in your throat.
‘I work out at the area,’ you say. ‘You know the stuff I could tell you?’
She shrugs as she refills your Pepsi. ‘That’s nice.’
You pay. You slink home, in bed by ten p.m.
I’m important, you chant, because why not? I deserve better. I’m not scraps. I’m not a bank for women to rob.
She’s coming back. She’ll say she loves me.
Invent a legend. Make it real.
It has to work someday, you know, but when you finally drift off, all you can see are the dried-out husks of your ex-girlfriend’s eyes, and her hands, daubed in honey-coloured waste, speckled with bits of down, feathers and lice clogging her scalp, all of her preserved deep underground in invisible amber where she can’t leave you, no longer a person but an imago of one.
Your bird, frozen in time.
About the Author
Born and raised in eastern Washington, DREW HUFF enjoys writing stories that explore the intricacies of human relationships, abuse, trauma, and the horror that often unfolds from these. Her short story, “It Wasn’t a Wedding Cake”, is being featured in Hungry Shadow Press’s anthology, It Was All a Dream, and another short story, “Old World Birds” is being featured in Death’s Head Press’s anthology, Hot Iron and Cold Blood. Her short story “Same as it Ever Was” is being featured in Night Terror Novel’s charity anthology. She is currently querying her novel, Free Burn, and working on several short horror stories.
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