There’s a girl next door who puts dead flies in her sandwiches. She catches them on curls of flypaper, which she hangs from her porch, and uses tweezers to remove their bodies once they’ve stopped twitching. Most times they leave their legs behind but not always. On a typical day she’ll catch around twenty but last week I heard her count to thirty-six. She transfers the flies to a slice of rye bread, squishing their bodies into glossy lashings of butter. When she’s finished, she folds the bread in half and places it in her lunchbox next to a bruised banana and a slice of malt loaf.
At school, my friends’ eyes grow wide when I tell them. Then they shake their heads.
“We need to see for ourselves,” says Owen.
I try to reply but my mouth gets stuck on the first consonant and I end up popping like a goldfish.
“We need proof, Stutter-man,” says George.
The following morning, Owen and George call for me before school. My mum’s still in her nightie and I’m halfway through a bowl of Sugar Puffs. I stop eating to show my friends up to my bedroom.
They gasp when the girl appears on her porch, tweezers in hand. Owen wants to confront her, but I grab his arm and shake my head.
“After school,” I say. “While my m-m-mum’s in w-work.”
Later, we form a wall in front of my neighbor’s house and watch the girl as she arrives home. I stand at the end nearest my house, wishing I’d never told anyone. The girl slows down when she sees us.
“Are you the girl who eats dead flies?” asks Owen.
The girl shrugs.
“We saw you put them in a sandwich.”
The girl thinks about it. Then she nods.
“Come inside and I’ll show you.”
We follow her into a dark hallway that smells of earthworms and leaf mulch. The walls and floor are covered in scraps of plastic, fabric, string, bark and dried leaves. Underneath a lampshade, I can see the jagged glass of a broken lightbulb.
We shouldn’t be here. I want to apologize and leave. The girl closes the door before I can find the words.
“Step on through,” she says, gesturing towards the kitchen.
The walls of the kitchen are lined with cupboards, a sink, a fridge, and an oven. Like the hallway, the floor is a mess of twigs and straw and other soft materials. In the center of the room is a large, rectangular dining table with six chairs. The table has long scratches in its wooden surface and a giant, porcelain fruit bowl in the middle.
“Meet my parents,” says the girl.
I look around, confused, and then I spot them perched on top of the wall units. Like gargoyles. Their bodies look almost human — him in a lumberjack shirt and jeans, her in a sweatshirt and jogging bottoms — but for tufts of dark feathers around their wrists and ankles. Instead of feet, they have long, banded toes ending in claws. And their heads — those terrible, feathered heads — have gunmetal beaks and enormous black eyes. I turn to run but only make it as far as the hall before something hits me from behind.
I wake up to the sound of screaming, followed by a wet, gargled plea. My chest feels heavy and my arms won’t move. I open my eyes and there is blood everywhere.
I pull hard against the thick coil of rope that binds me to the kitchen chair, but it’s useless. Owen is tied up next to me. On the other side of Owen, George’s eyes have been gouged out and tears of blood pour down his cheeks. His mouth is open and I’m pretty sure his tongue has been torn off. His neck has been ripped to ribbons. I look away in disgust.
“Don’t scream,” says the girl, sitting opposite us. “They don’t like it.”
Next to me, Owen mumbles. He’s shivering and he smells of urine.
“You need to sing,” says the girl. “Like this.” She opens her mouth and a tune comes out, wordless and without joy, but enough for me to recognize Greensleeves.
One of the bird creatures hops up onto the table, its claws digging fresh grooves in the surface. And then I notice that the fruit bowl is full of mealworms, ribbed and writhing in their own feces, each one several inches long and as fat as a sausage. The bird creature pecks one in half with its beak and leans towards the girl who opens her mouth wide. The still-wriggling worm is passed from parent to child, who accepts it dutifully. I feel sick. I fight the urge to scream.
“It’s your turn now,” says the girl. “Sing.”
Owen shakes his head and screws up his face. “I’m not singing. Not for that.”
The other bird creature hops up onto the table and the two of them look down on Owen, heads twitching, their eyes fierce and expectant.
“No,” says Owen, sliding backwards.
I want to plead with him but the words are jagged rocks that get stuck in my throat.
Sunlight catches the sharp edge of a beak as the first bird creature stabs downwards. Owen chokes in surprise as they peck at his face and neck, and I turn my face away to avoid being sprayed with his blood.
Opposite me, the girl is still chewing. “How about you?” she says. “Will you sing?”
One of the bird creatures plucks another worm from the bowl, ready to feed it to me.
I tell myself I can do this. I know songs. I’m in the school choir. And I don’t even need the words; it’s enough to sing the tune.
But I can feel my stutter waiting for me.
It wants me to fail.
This story took first place in our Monster Flash Contest!
Christopher Stanley lives on a hill in England with three sons who share a birthday but aren’t triplets. His stories have been published by Unnerving Magazine, The Molotov Cocktail, and Aphotic Realm, and are forthcoming in The Third Corona Book of Horror Stories and SFFWorld’s Dying Earth anthology. His novelette, The Forest is Hungry, was published by Demain Publishing in their Short Sharp Shocks series in April 2019. Follow him on Twitter @allthosestrings