The Flock

The boys flock screeching to the locker room, their faces red and wild from the cold. One runs, arms outstretched, as though attempting to take-off. Another rushes, flapping, to his locker. A third hops onto the benches at the centre of the room and, his head thrown back, croons loudly. His throat swells, victorious; his was the winning football team.

One boy follows afterwards, calmly and more quietly than the rest. He does not screech or flap his arms, and if his face is red or wild from the cold, it is because it is his face, and helpless to be otherwise. He cannot change his face, although he has wished for this many times before.

The room fills with the flutter of sleeve arms as the boys begin to get changed. Socks grow long where they are pulled from the toes; longer, longer still, until they tear from ankles and snap like synthetic sinew through the air. It is early afternoon and the autumn wind is playing with the tree outside the window. Red leaves press like outstretched hands against the opaque glass.

The same boy pauses, his sweatshirt around his shoulders, and studies the scarlet palm-prints. Their redness reminds him of other things: burst berries, flushed cheeks, the colour of split lips and the stains down the arms of his school shirt. He wonders how a colour can be so many things, how it can mean so many things, and still be beautiful. It is just a colour, after all, the same wherever it is seen.

He stares intently for several seconds, the world around him fading beneath the bright red of the leaves. Then he loses himself once more in his sweatshirt. The name label, which tickles his neck and then his face, reads Bran Thomas. The room smells damp and feels cold against his goose-pimpled skin.

Around him, the others prance and preen. Sometimes their faces are expressive, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Other times, it seems, they barely have faces at all. One is studying himself in the mirror above the sink, moving left, then right, his reflection doing likewise in the glass. From where Bran stands there is no nose, no mouth, no face that can be seen, but he imagines a sharp beak and two unblinking eyes in their place. He knows that beak. He has felt it before, or one like it, and the ceaseless peck of its words.

Shouts ricochet from the locker room walls. When they reach the communal showers they distort, in that way all sounds do when they bounce from bathroom tiles. Bran hears jubilation in those sounds, and taunts, and mimicry; so much mimicry. It is cacophonous in his head. He wishes that worms turned in the ground beneath them, or that the pink throats of their parents hovered above, come to regurgitate food into their mouths, silencing those hungry beaks for one solitary minute!

The shrieks escalate, grow shrill. He steps back to his locker, which is already open, and shields himself behind the metal door as the boys fly into a flurry of movement. His little heart rattles, like a cage of frightened lovebirds in his chest. He fears for his sanity in the midst of such madness. He fears he is the mad one, the outsider of the flock.

He thinks of lovebirds, and wonders why they are called such. Do they love? Are they more than birds because of it, or indifferent except in name? What of scaredbirds too, and deadbirds, and whatdoesitallmeanbirds?

One of the boys falls into his locker, so that the door swings into Bran’s face. It is a senseless gesture, accident or otherwise, and Bran feels reaffirmed. He feels pain too, where the door has struck his nose. He sinks to the floor. The rich metal-taste of red fills his mouth.

The tiles are cold beneath his feet. Blackness encroaches on his vision, then whiteness, growing from the strip bulbs above. The bird-boys circle overhead, beaks clacking, and he hears malice. He hears stupidity and joy and inconsideration. If there is an apology, he cannot hear that. He does not think there is.

Bran’s toes scrunch slowly, over and over, feeling the mud that has been trawled in from the playing fields. With conscious effort he takes a long breath. The fluttering in his chest begins to slow. The grit between his toes is grounding. It is a moment, the moment, in which he realises he is not like the other bird-boys. They hop and screech and peck for giblets, their beaks black, like the crows in the ditch behind the football field. They are a faceless flock, drawn to shiny things, or thrashing insects in the ground. Their bones are light. Their forms slight.

Bran’s chest is heavy with petrified lovebirds. They sit like stones behind his ribs and he knows he will never fly. He will never be as the other bird-boys: the crows, the magpies, the voracious playground vultures.

They swarm from the locker room, these other boys, the corridor ringing with their shrieks and the beating of their feathered arms. Bran is left alone, with the grit between his toes, the slap of scarlet at the window and the taste of the colour in his mouth.

~ Thomas James Brown

© Copyright 2012 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.

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About Thomas Brown

Thomas Brown is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Southampton, where he is exploring the relationship between horror and the sublime in literature. Literary influences include Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite and Thomas Ligotti. He writes dark, surreal fiction.

22 responses to “The Flock”

  1. Adriana Noir says :

    Oh, Thomas! This is excellent, my friend. I loved the visual yarn you weave. I’m not sure why, but the faceless clacking reminded me a bit of that horrific thing from the Hellraiser movies! *shudders*

    I also really liked the duality of this story. One could take it at face value and simply relish in the wonderful horror you’ve spread before us or perhaps draw a connection between the birdboys and schoolyard bullies. Very interesting!
    As always, your writing is an absolute pleasure to read and this was very well done. Thank you for sharing!

    Like

  2. Tyr Kieran says :

    Thomas, The imagery was fantastic. Bran’s solitary “differentness” seeped from the page (screen). I could feel his subtle disdain at the bird boys. I think the greatest horror element of this story is the potential future actions of Bran. Great Implied horror tale!

    Like

  3. Joseph Pinto says :

    I simply love the many interpretations a good horror story leaves open. That’s part of the magic of writing great horror fiction – some may be straightforward, in your face thrills and chills; while other tales leave your mind spinning.

    You’re a magician on this one, Tom, & honestly, I don’t wish to quite figure it out. I rather enjoy reading ‘The Flock’ over multiple times and always perceiving something from a fresh angle. It’s not easy at all developing character, plot & tension in a flash piece, but I believe you’ve done just that and more.

    Thank you. Excellent story!

    Like

  4. Nina D'Arcangela says :

    As always Thomas, the voice behind the tale you tell wow’s me with each piece. I feel the loneliness of the one ‘boy’ denied the opportunity of belonging to the pack, while at the same time clearly hear his judgement of them, as they have judged him or perhaps, he has judged himself. Beyond the metaphoric conveyance of the emotions, I love the bizarre nature of the story as it progresses from common perception, to confusion, to the realization that this isn’t what the reader was expecting.

    I find this passage particularly heart rending:
    ‘Bran’s chest is heavy with petrified lovebirds. They sit like stones behind his ribs and he knows he will never fly. He will never be as the other bird-boys: the crows, the magpies, the voracious playground vultures.’

    The awareness of being different can be devastating. You have done a wonderful job of expressing that in this piece.

    Like

  5. Thomas James Brown says :

    Your comment is uncannily mindful to the motives of the story, Nina. I have tried to write something that can be read in a variety of ways – as a surreal horror, schoolboy conflict, or a metaphor for our world. There is nothing quite as disorientating – or lonely, I think – as our sense of self, surrounded by the maddening flock that is the rest of faceless world.

    Like

  6. zkullis says :

    There is so much to this story, Thomas. The way Bran saw the noisome boys reminded me of descriptions of the “Low-men” and Type One vampires at the Dixie Pig in “The Dark Tower VII” by Stephen King.

    These exressions of Bran’s loathing of the flock spoke volumes to me about the distance he felt between them and himself.

    The way you held the imagery through the story, from the shallow and birdlike qualities of the flock to your use of colour and sensory input to communicate, it all cried out for Bran.

    The question I am left with is who is the mad one? Even though Bran fears for his sanity, I feel more connected to his utter humanity than to the avian groupthink that drives the flock. Sanity defined by group norms can be dangerously opressive.

    Great stuff!

    Like

    • Thomas James Brown says :

      I’m so glad that you experienced the story on so many different levels, Zack. From the issues explored to the techniques used, you really seem to have immersed yourself in ‘The Flock’. Thank you for the comment!

      Like

  7. moondustwriter says :

    A lesson is here as well
    You write a story with a wonderful parallel to the real world
    feelings are profound and the squawking loud

    Like

  8. Hunter Shea says :

    Oh boy, did this take me back to high school (I went to an all boys school), and the fear of not being like everyone else, coupled with the fear of exactly being like everyone else. I could actually smell the old locker room as I read this. If writing like this is Damned, we should all be so lucky to be truly Damned.

    Like

  9. blazemcrob says :

    This is a great story, Thomas! Besides the duality and the importance it imparts to the story, I am particularly taken in with the color “red.” One color; so many attributions. The tasting of a color at the end of your tale was truly superb. What majesty there is in having one sense intermingle with another.

    Blaze

    Like

    • Thomas James Brown says :

      I think the senses are such useful devices when writing, even more so when you consider the emotional and psychological aims of dark fiction. The senses enable readers to readily relate to and feel part of a piece of writing, important when it might otherwise require them to suspend their disbelief!

      Like

  10. Daemonwulf says :

    Thomas, my friend from the land beyond the Great Waters… My apologies for not sharing my thoughts earlier. Actually, I DID share my thoughts, however it appears the Great God of WordPress erred, or more likely there was some problem on my end, somewhere between the chair and the keyboard. *toothy grin*

    I very much liked this tale of childish angst and general woe. Most especially I appreciate your use of setting and tone to stimulate the reader’s emotion. It’s especially effective when set in that bastion of pre-pubescent male-dom, the locker room — a locale that often serves as the world’s largest pot where burgeoning machismo and awkward angst mix together into an uncomfortable stew. Your attention to detail adds greatly to the general unease and discontent that permeates the piece. Even though quite a ‘fantastic’ world you’ve created, it’s quite realistic when reading between the proverbial lines. Very good stuff!

    Like

    • Thomas Brown says :

      Thanks, Daemonwulf! I too have just noticed this! Glad to read that you have been so receptive to the piece. I think detail is important when writing as it is the little details that together bring the story to creative life!

      Like

  11. Copious Corpses says :

    You write of my youth almost precisely; scorned not because they thought I was different, but because I did, and had singled myself out as not “of them” and chose to seek out some of my own rare kind rather than pretend at chirping.

    I concur with your Damned colleague, Nina, on her choice of favorite and for the same reasons:
    ‘Bran’s chest is heavy with petrified lovebirds. They sit like stones behind his ribs and he knows he will never fly. He will never be as the other bird-boys: the crows, the magpies, the voracious playground vultures.’
    You show the weight he carries of and from the stone wonderfully too. Very human piece, with a definitive threat of future unbridled aggression lurking.
    Under his cool is a raging turmoil.
    Enjoyed this piece a great deal. Thank you.

    ~CC~

    Like

    • Thomas Brown says :

      CC, thank you for taking the time to read my writing and leave a comment. It makes my day to learn that individuals such as yourself have enjoyed one of my stories. I love that you connected so strongly with it, and identified with Bran. Keep reading.

      Like

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