June 7, 2021

Episode 10: SONG BIRD

Episode 10: SONG BIRD

Previously... Receiving Clerk Conway was asked to look into an angel statue and a missing mail carrier named Kenji on behalf of the Dead Letter Office. During the investigation, Conway encountered a strange lost fisherman and some odd postcards with...


Previously...

Receiving Clerk Conway was asked to look into an angel statue and a missing mail carrier named Kenji on behalf of the Dead Letter Office. During the investigation, Conway encountered a strange lost fisherman and some odd postcards with unsettling connections to his past. After finding Kenji's body holding a phone, Conway called the phone number on one of the postcard and received some disturbing information: he couldn't recall his own last name, and realized he was being set up. And what did the lost fisherman mean when he said Conway isn't real? At least not yet?

Now, a new face has arrived at the DLO to sort through the mess Conway left behind: claims adjuster Wren is on the case. On their first day at the office, karaoke night at a dive bar turns weird and Conway finds himself somewhere he shouldn't be.

Some lyrics from Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads

"Fool" originally by Frankie Cosmos

(CWs--mild spoilers: birds, bugs, brief blood, alcohol, smoking, brief harassment, very mild body horror, some strong language, romance?)

TRANSCRIPT: 

CONWAY ON TAPE:...gonna pick up the phone and dial this number.

WREN: Now you’ve heard everything I have. Conway’s vanished, leaving only a trail of disconnected audio memos for me to follow. His last known location was here, at the Dead Letter Office of ******* Ohio. He was supposedly asked to investigate a large package in some other post office, but the DLO has no record of this request, and no idea where he went.

Hello, I’m--wait, am I supposed to introduce myself, or is this more of a formal...Okay.

Then let’s start at the beginning, where I come in. I want to be as thorough as possible. No loose ends.

I had just hung up a bird feeder on the front porch. I like watching all the little birds stop by. The robins, the jays, the sparrows, their colorful plumage and vibrant songs. They take turns plucking seeds out of the holes in the cylinder and sing their small hearts out. 

It was an afternoon, still a little chilly. Summer hadn’t quite hit full swing. A couple of Carolina Finches were pecking at the small bugs and shells left by their brethren on the concrete. The birds weren’t aware of the hawk landing in the tree behind them. They’re not aware of the movements of empires, the fluctuations of markets that destroy their homes. They only see what’s in front of them: the sky to the ground, the egg to the dirt, is now. A moment later and the raptor descended on the surprised prey in a flurry of chirps and flaps. The small birds scattered in a panic, one slammed into the window then took off and the other found itself tangled in the freshly torn mesh on my screen door. Having missed its chance, the hawk turned, soaring far out over the houses down the block. None of these birds would be lunch that day.

This was a relief. I didn’t want to see my visitors get eaten. I mean, I eat chicken already, it’s not all that different, but I still feel bad for the little birds. I figure if I were an animal, I’d be like them, picking at seeds and singing my little song. Noteworthy to those paying attention, but a background detail--a bit player in the grand scene--to others. Realistically, though, I could just as easily be a hawk. Hungry, waiting patiently on the sidelines for my chance, disliked by most. Reaching out and missing. Chronic bad luck. 

I heard my phone buzz on the coffee table, but I had to get this finch out of my screen first. I opened the heavy door and found the thing flapping and screeching, its foot caught in the screen. I gently unwrapped the fabric from its leg, despite its vociferous protestations, and it burst free, tearing through the air to join its friends on the telephone wire.

I went back in and answered the call. It was the DLO. I was being transferred to some nowhere post in Ohio. Supposedly a temporary assignment, though I guess they all are in the long run. There was a case there that needed an expert’s opinion. They always manage to have the worst timing. 

Yes, if I were an animal, I’d probably be the scrappy songbird. Or maybe the hawk. Or maybe I’m just the beetle lodged in the finch’s beak, surrounded by a vast unknowable world, an ocean of interconnected things and events totally beyond my comprehension, then summarily devoured without a second thought.

*Intro music*

WREN: Hello, I’m Wren, claims adjuster for the Dead Letter Office. I’m here to determine if Conway disappeared on the job, and to judge if the DLO is required to make an insurance payout to his next of kin. I’ll be examining his audio memos and the dead mail backlog in his inbox for any clues as to his whereabouts. 

The following audio recording will serve as evidence for his case. Public release of this or any other evidence is strictly prohibited. Some names and facts have been censored for the protection of the office. 

Now in cases like this, it’s important to take in more than just the events. I need a feel for the atmosphere, the scene, the anxieties. I need to understand not only where Conway is but how he is. And how he got there. What was ahead of him in his work pile may have influenced what was in front of him: the past outlines the future, and the future colors the past.

So with this simple understanding that what’s to come is sometimes the driver of what was in mind, let’s begin with the next piece in Conway’s backlog. Dead Letter 17216. This was found on a review website, written by a civilian named Mel. An unconventional entry to be sure, fitting for an unconventional case. She wrote the following:

MEL: "And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself, "Well... how did I get here?"

Friday night, dive bar on the north side of town. Easy to miss from the outside, unmistakable inside. 

Like nearly every friday, I pushed through the swinging door and was enveloped in neon light and pulsating music. I was cleansed of my stress by giving in to song, to cheering along and dancing arm in arm, to reunions and meetups. Friday is karaoke night at the Song Bird, the premier queer dive and diy venue in town. Stickers for a thousand defunct bands with names like “Two Dog Folly” and “Slumgrinder” cover the walls and pillars. Even if all they did was play a couple house shows in the fall of 2013 before disbanding, their legacy will live on here, until it’s composted in the churn of revolving vinyl and covered by hopeful new names and faces sprouting forth from the paper loam. Local artists hang their weird paintings up for sale, and greasy food simmers in the kitchen in the back. On karaoke night at the Bird, I’m alive. It’s the one time each week I get to pretend there’s something more to my boring life, more to me, than the usual routine. To reach out for something, anything beyond ordinary. Or to drop the poetic language for a while, I like to blow off steam after work by singing really loud at strangers. 

I came in that friday, and a woman I’d seen a few times before was sitting in the last booth. She had been coming to the Bird for a few weeks, but never met up with anyone, never sang, never even said hello as far as I could tell. She would quietly watch people sing and pick at the duct tape on the peeling plastic booth before leaving without a word.

What was her deal? She had jet black hair, the kind that’s almost blue or green in this light or that. Big dark eyes. Always wearing a black choker with a little pendant on it. I assumed the whole mysterious silent thing was intentional, part of her vibe. So on this sweltering august evening, I was going to find out exactly what her deal was, and maybe finally have something interesting in my life.

It was slow at the Song Bird that night despite the weather. The bar was only half-full by 11. I had just finished my second song, and saw the woman in black head out the back door where the smokers congregate to shoot shit and blow smoke. I stepped off stage and went out for a smoke, too.

And there she was, looking up at the moon and taking in the hot summer air. Someone else was under the awning, letting out a plume of vapor into the sky. The woman in black turned my way. Her hair shimmered under the tangerine light as she moved. I locked eyes with her, but her gaze was intense, her eyes absorbing all light and thought. I hesitated. Her attention was almost too much.

MEL: “Smoke?” I managed to spit out as I fished for the gold pack in my bag. She gently nodded. 

I told her I’d seen her a few weeks in a row now, but I never heard her sing. She pursed her lips, and spoke softly. 

AVERY: “I don’t really like being on stage like that. I’m just here to listen.”

I had an eerie feeling I’d heard her voice before, but I couldn’t place it. Did I actually know her and I just couldn’t remember it? Because God, that would be embarrassing.

MEL: “You sound so familiar. Do you know Jackie, maybe?”

She said she gets that a lot, and the corner of her mouth inched upward into a slight smile. I finally grabbed hold of my pack. I pulled out a cigarette and lit it, inhaling deeply. I grabbed another and held it between my fingers, offering it out in her direction. A lock of her hair fell onto her cheek as she leaned forward. She swept the dark strand back behind her ear, where it hung just partway down her neck below dangling silver earrings. Her parted lips touched the cigarette. I was about to let go and offer the lighter when her teeth clamped down, snapping the cigarette neatly in half. She tilted her head back, half of the thing still in her mouth, her form illuminated by the incandescent glow above. She swallowed it, then looked back at me. The half-eaten cigarette fell from my limp hand. My mouth was hanging open, my own cigarette stuck to my lip and smouldering. I gawked at her for a moment, just totally stunned. The woman behind me tucked her vape into her pocket and hurried inside. A section of ash that had been building up fell, and I realized I’d been holding my breath. I let it all out at once with a cough. I held the pack out to her with a shaky hand.

MEL: “Okay, uhhm do you want another?” I wasn’t sure if I was joking. 

She held up her hand politely and shook her head, as if she was declining an hors d'oeuvre, and not like she had just eaten a cigarette out of my hand. I took another drag, and then stomped it out under my boot.

I was feeling a little light headed. She was a little bit taller than me, in a black skirt with matching tights and collared shirt. I asked her name. She said Avery. I opened the door for us to head back in.

MEL: “Well, Avery, I’m Mel. I’d love to hear you sing some time.” 

I smiled and gave her the awkward finger guns I do when I’m nervous, then turned to go back inside. The dizzy purple stage lights and sneering guitars dazed me as I entered, and also conveniently masked the look on my red face. I heard a rush of air, peered back through the closing door, and she was gone. 

Next week a group of friends and I walked to the Song Bird. I was fidgeting with my lighter in my jacket pocket the whole way. I was secretly hoping to see Avery there again, despite what had happened last time. It was a strange first impression, sure, but a strong one. When we got there, she was in her usual spot, cool and collected. I tried to play it cool, too. I nodded and waved as we walked by, my lighter tucked between my thumb and palm. Her eyes intently followed the shining metal as it moved. Then she blinked hard a few times and gave a brief wave back. I asked her if she was going to sing tonight. She looked down at the table and tucked her hair behind her ear. She ran a fingertip along her neck and gave some noncommittal answer. I told her she could join us any time, if she wanted to.

A few drinks and a few songs in, the bar was pretty packed. I pushed my way through the crowd at the counter to get a refresher when I saw two men near Avery in my periphs. One was resting against the table and pointing at her necklace. She looked uncomfortable. I took a sip of my new drink, slammed a few dollars on the bar, and jostled through the dancing throng in her direction. The guy pressed one hand on the table and leaned over her. He reached for the black ribbon around her neck with his other hand. She physically recoiled, but he didn’t move. I shoved my way through the crowd and yelled over the tone-deaf crooner on stage.

MEL: “Leave her the fuck alone!” 

The men looked up with a start, then chuckled when they saw me, small, alone. I glanced toward the bartender. He understood. He slowly made his way out from behind the bar and toward the table. The guy hassling Avery held his hands up. The two of them scoffed and slurred under their breath as they left through the swinging door. 

MEL: “God, Sorry Avery,” I spoke loudly over the woozy atmosphere. I asked her to sit with us. She didn’t seem to be listening. Instead, she furrowed her brow and her eyes lit up. She rose, then swung the door open and stepped out. I could see the two jerks loitering under the chalky streetlight. The door swung back, and I could see her approaching them. A shorter swing outward and they had some kind of twisted up look on their faces, but I could only see the back of Avery’s head. As the door did its final bow and closed, they were running, screaming. I swore I saw streaks of red running down their faces. But again, a few drinks in and a few songs in, so...

Then in stepped Avery, calmly adjusting her choker and dusting off her skirt. She gave me a nod and followed me to where my friends were sitting. I introduced her to the crew. When she spoke, one of my karaoke pal--Sam--gave me a weird side-eye. I shrugged it off. Avery’s chill, I thought, they’ll figure it out. She’s a little eccentric, maybe, but cool. She’s got her own thing going. Kind of jealous, honestly. I don’t think I have a really distinct vibe or unique look, but Avery certainly did. I wanted to be like that, to be like her. Or was it be with her. I don’t know.

Samantha was looking at me as I stared off into the projector. They thought I’d said something, swore they heard my voice.

Sam asked Avery what she does. Sam, you angel, you knew I was desperate to learn more about our mystery woman. 

AVERY: “Oh I uh...collect things. I fly pretty often, too.” 

Ah, a trust fund kid. I should have known. You don’t usually stay that effortlessly hot working the graveyard at Wendy’s.

Before I could learn much more, it was my turn at the mic. Avery stopped me for a second. As I stood up, her nimble fingers pulled some unseen fuzz out of my hair. I tried to thank her but my throat went dry for some reason.

And then I was up on stage, yelling about yearning or anarchy depending on the night, and my friends were on their feet, mingling and swaying. Avery was still sitting among the empty chairs. She was watching me, bathed in swirling dots of light, now pink, now blue. Her lips were moving slightly along with the lyrics. I shut my eyes and belted out a chorus. When I looked into the crowd again, Avery was gone. Afterwards, my friends said she had to go. Early morning. Bummer.

Next week, the booth at the back was empty. I gotta be honest, I was disappointed, but not too surprised. Nothing interesting ever happens to me. She was too good for me, anyway. She’s probably out doing something cool, maybe with a boyfriend. Another work week slurry slipped by, and we checked into the Song Bird again. 

I hit the notes, but my heart wasn’t really in it. When you’re doing karaoke, heart’s what matters. No one’s here for a concert, they want to sing along to the fun songs they know. If you get up and do some jokey track or esoteric stuff, everyone’s gonna think you’re a jackass. You have to be sincere. And wow did I turn achingly sincere when I saw Avery filter through the crowd mid-Blondie song.

She stood and hopped back and forth among the rippling crowd and vivid afterglow. I pointed to Avery as I recited the lyrics, and she beamed and turned a little red. It didn’t last, though. She winced, and her fingertips felt for the ribbon on her neck. She darted out back. I pulled Jackie on stage and handed off the mic.

I trailed after her. I didn’t want her to slip away again. I pushed through the back door. The air was heavy and hot on my skin. I asked if she was okay.

She was facing away from me under the awning. Around us, the city was busy with late summer reverie. I heard firecrackers somewhere a couple blocks away, and sickly houses lining the road overflowed with rancid frat energy. 

AVERY: “I just...I don’t know why I came back. I shouldn’t be here. YOU shouldn’t be here, with me.”

I started to ask why, but she didn’t look like she wanted to answer. She just studied the gravel under feet and her hand went instinctively to her neck.

MEL: “Whatever it is, it’s fine. I just shouted bad french at a room full of strangers. Do I look like I have shame? It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a bunch of dirty money or a boyfriend or whatever, I’m not here for that.”

I gently took her arm. Her skin was a little clammy despite the heat, but she didn’t withdraw.

MEL: “Let’s go. I think it’s just about your turn...if you’re comfortable.” I didn’t want to pressure her, but I figured it may do her some good, help her break out of her shell.

She sighed. Her shoulders sank. She kicked a few pebbles near her feet.

AVERY: “Okay, one song.”

I led her by the arm back into the bar. I gave her a small card and pen in case she really did want to request a song. We sat together quietly for a while, me throwing back my fizzy drink and her slowly dipping her head down to take tiny sips at her dark concoction. Eventually, I saw her covertly write something on the card and sneak off to deliver it to the host.

Samantha whispered something to me when Avery was out of ear shot. Sam had apparently just figured something out. They saw Avery at Queen of Cups a couple months ago and thought she sounded just like this other girl. Some asshole who always did like 7 minute songs there. Hadn’t seen her in a while though. Then they said something that made me uneasy.

They said that Avery sounded just like me now, but...quieter. I didn’t quite understand, or didn’t want to. I thought she sounded weirdly familiar, but really? Me? No way. Jackie leaned over Sam’s shoulder, and confirmed it.

I stared at the small glass in my hand, or rather through the glass, through the smudged tile floor, through the concrete foundation laid sometime in 1996, through the dirt and the fossilized skeletons of extinct things slowly rotting into fuel for our own extinction, through the earth’s burning anxious core, and stopped just short of actual introspection.

They shut up when Avery made her way back and drank the dregs of her cocktail. I bought her next drink.

The hazy dayglo hands of time crawled on drunk toward the inevitable cursed sunrise, until I heard the host announce the next singer. It was Avery. She looked like she didn’t expect to actually have to sing. I told her I’d do it for her if she felt like backing out, but instead, she asked me to hold her drink and hopped on stage. 

Avery stood awkwardly behind the microphone. The drum machine kicked in, the speakers rattling the bottles around the bar with every quaking bass and twinkling cymbal. She held onto the mic stand, her feet close together. Then came the seismic synth, bubbling up from some deep unknown. She swayed gently along to the music, her black skirt sweeping site to side.

The lyrics came up on the backdrop. She took a deep breath on the last rest and pulled the mic close to her mouth. Too close. It bumped into her chin, and feedback squealed through the bar. Surprised by the sudden shriek, she shoved the mic away. But the pendant on her silk choker was caught on the microphone. The ribbon tore from her neck and fell to the stage floor. I saw the small charm glint in the stage light. It was a silver feather. She reached for it so fast I could hardly register what was happening. But something was already in her hand. Something dark. 

No, not in her hand. Coming FROM her hand. A black feather. Then several more. They sprouted from her skin, ran up her arm and rose above the collar of her shirt. They burst forth and covered her body almost entirely in downy black, slowing in a ring along the edge of her neck where the choker once was. Her black shoes split open, revealing four sharp talons. She screamed and backed away. The music thrummed and wobbled in the background. I looked sharply to my left and right, maybe for help or maybe just for confirmation that I wasn’t losing my mind. But the patrons were no longer around us, and the rest of the bar beyond the stage seemed to vanish entirely before me. It was just Avery, the microphone, and me under the spiraling multicolor spotlights and crashing cymbals. She hid her face in her newly formed wing and shouted.

AVERY: “GO!”

I didn’t budge.

AVERY: “Well? Are you not afraid? Is this not when you call me a monster? I told you you shouldn’t be near me! And you were concerned about wealth. I...I only watched you sing so I could take your pretty voice. Every month, I must roam the city, seeking tongues to add to my collection or else be silenced. I stole your song! Don’t you get it? I’m a beast, a thing that shouldn’t exist, cursed to sing a thousand songs in a thousand voices but never my own. So run now, while you can, and never speak of me, never think of me again.” 

She was towering above me now, her voice--I guess my voice?--echoed through the room.

AVERY: “Fine, if you won’t go on your own, Mel, then I’ll make you.” 

She stepped toward me, her claws smashing into the stage and sending splinters flying. She spread her wings, easily twice my height. She was angry, but she was shaking. There was something more there, wasn’t there? This wasn’t just about stealing my voice or whatever. She was afraid.

I moved toward the stage. I reached up and took the tip of her soft wing in my hand. Time to call her bluff.

MEL: “Avery...you have to understand...this just makes you even cooler. Have you ever heard of Howl’s Moving Castle?”

She tilted her head. She didn’t know what to say. So I climbed onto the stage beside her. Tears streamed down her face in lines of streaky black eyeliner and trickled into the down where her shoulders used to be.

MEL: “Nevermind, come on, let’s finish the song. I’ll do it with you.” I started moving to the music, clapping and faking my way through the lyrics to a song I didn’t know very well.

She locked eyes with me again, and there was her deadly gaze. It made my knees feel weak. Made me feel like I was the only person in existence. Then she let out a bitter laugh. She sidled close as we shared the mic and closed out the track, shoulder to wing.

As the last of the twinkling keys faded out, I picked up her choker and held it out to her. She motioned with her head at her wings and looked apologetic. Ah, no hands. Right. I wrapped the smooth black silk around her. My heart jumped into my throat. My mouth was dry. She looked down at me and spoke softly.

AVERY: “And I don’t have a boyfriend.”

As I finished tying the ribbon, I pulled her close and kissed her.

As the black band closed around her neck, the talons receded, the feathers disappeared in a whirlwind and she was once more the mysterious girl in black. The bar materialized before us, and my friends cheered in the audience. They apparently hadn’t seen any of what just happened. I pulled away from her lips, feeling a little on the spot now. I stepped off the stage and helped Avery down. We got back to our chairs and sat in the pulsing silence.

She looked terribly exhausted but I was humming with adrenaline. She rested her head on my shoulder. Her dark hair unspooled from behind her ears in circles, like minutes dripping ever onward into pools of dusky hours on that buzzing summer night.

That was a year ago, and we’ve been dating since. Sure, cleaning up the feathers can be a pain. Yeah, sometimes she’ll mimic my friends or enemies to get a rise out of me. And it can be hard to pull her away from the mirror when I need it in the morning. Yes, she loves to preen. I file her talons and she paints my nails. Never a dull moment. 

Mom is pretty chill about it, dad doesn’t really get it. You know, usual relationship stuff. 

And I’ve never been happier.

Anyway, 4 / 5 stars for the Song Bird, would recommend, just wish the bathroom wasn’t missing ceiling tiles.

Melody’s review on Ye**

 

WREN: Nothing to be found here relating to the disappearance, unfortunately, but I think I do have a deeper understanding of this office itself. It’s lively, unpredictable. Prone to kick or bite. An unsteady bridge over a raging river. Why did you stick your hand in the current, Conway?

I believe the higher ups will also want to take a look at this. I’ve scrubbed all information surrounding this review from the site. I will forward a printout to the appropriate parties for further investigation by the DLO. As a side note, I have also bookmarked the Song Bird’s address for...independent study later.

OUTRO

CONWAY: The winged creature stood before me, wreathed in smoke. It didn’t speak, but my mind was nevertheless flooded with images and sounds: a small town, waves breaking on the shore, an old mall, a video store, a lighthouse turned upside down, a hand reaching through the dark, a busy signal, a cave.

After the smoke cleared, I shook my head, and the thing was gone. I coughed and went to cover my mouth, but found more resistance on my arm than expected. I looked down and saw a briefcase handcuffed to my right wrist. Old battered tan leather, heavy as all hell, with one of those little three number locks. I spun the dials around a few times, trying all the obvious numbers and then the funny ones (I’ll leave which those were to your imagination). I was hoping through sheer luck it would pop open, but no dice. The woods were dark, and I could hear the crickets singing in the tall grass around me. The foliage overhead was too thick to see the stars, and I had no phone or compass on me. I couldn’t just stay there, so I heaved the briefcase up and started walking in...some direction. 

My mind still felt a little hazy, and the chilly air nipped at the raw skin under the cuff. I wandered around the woods for some time, no trails and no end to be found. Eventually I came upon a clearing, and in the center of that clearing was a red leather chair. Little cuts and dirt scattered its surface, some various grasses and vines growing up its legs. It looked like it had been out here a while. On the seat was a puffy little bird. It was tearing long strands of paper out of some old magazine. I approached slowly, and the bird didn’t seem to scare. It took one of the long shreds of paper up into a nearby tree. I reached for the magazine. A cheap local publication, now soiled and sun-bleached, advertising all of the amazing stores and products on offer at a new mall. A grand opening. The date on the cover was 1980-something. I flipped through the remaining pages, crinkled and stiff as they were from being soaked and dried over time. Pretty typical stuff inside: an arcade, a theater, a Sears. The last page caught my attention, though. It was a blown out photocopy of one of those mall maps. You know, a little star saying “you are here” and everything. But the star wasn’t in the mall like usual, it was outside, among some clip art trees. I was getting mighty thirsty by then, and had no real clue where I was going. This map was my best bet, so I rolled it up and stuck it in my back pocket. 

 I surveyed the path ahead of me in what was hopefully the direction the map intended. More tall grass, snagging branches, and thick woodland. By this point the weight of the case had worn on me, and my wrist was irritated from the handcuff. What the hell was in this thing? What exactly had I gotten myself into? I trudged forward, wearing on into the night for what seemed like hours. Dark foliage still expanded in every direction, stretching as far as I could see. My right shoulder was sore, that arm sagging with the heavy case. I swiped some thorny branches out of the way with my free hand, but the branch swung back, catching me in the abdomen. The thorns tore through my shirt and left a gash on my stomach. Blood slowly trickled down and soaked into my shirt. Certainly nowhere near life-threatening but it sure stung like hell.

I tried heaving the briefcase in front of me with both hands to give my poor right arm a break. I held it close to me, closed my eyes, and took a step forward in my best estimate of the mall’s direction. That’s when I felt the air change around me, a breeze hit my face and soft dirt crumbled under my shoe. I opened my eyes and looked around. I had just stepped out of a corn field, the rich dark earth exposed from the season’s plowing. I dropped to my knees. I was so happy to be out of those woods I didn’t notice the three figures in front of me at first.

I looked up with a start, and saw three people in dark robes standing about 5 yards away from me in the middle of the field. The morning sun had just started peeking over the flat horizon, and the dark figures stood out in sharp contrast to reaching stalks of corn. They had animal masks on, dark things with long beaks. Like those plague doctors wore in the middle ages. Each one was holding some kind of paper.

CONWAY: “Did you do this? What do you want from me?”

They didn’t respond.

CONWAY: “All I did was call a phone number. I was just looking for a coworker who’d gone missing, I wasn’t looking for trouble.”

But apparently trouble’d I indeed found. The three birds stepped closer to me in unison, then flipped the torn papers they’d been holding. They were pages ripped from the magazine, each one with one big number on it. I pulled the briefcase in front of me and spun the dials to those numbers. The lock clicked open. Finally I could see what was in there that was so damn important it had to be handcuffed to my wrist and dragged around the woods. I lifted the lid and it was rocks.

Just rocks, of various colors and sizes  Regular, usual stones. You know, sometimes you have to laugh because well...you could finish that one. I dumped the rocks out into the field. I still couldn’t get my wrist free, but at least the case was lighter. When I rose to my feet again, the bird people were gone. And in the distance, I saw a building, surrounded by a vast gray sea of empty parking spaces and rusted street lights. A tall sign at the entrance used to show all the stores inside, but now it was just empty scaffolding.

It looked like I’d found the dead mall.

WREN: Now before I sign off, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the people doing all the work in our field. So thank you to intrepid carrier Flo, and to our lovely receiving clerks Jessica and Gadz. You are what make the DLO function. For the Dead Letter Office of ******* Ohio, this claims adjuster Wren signing off.

*WREN, slightly off mic*: Okay. *indecipherable noise* What? No, no, it’s off. You can see the little red light’s not on anymore. So! How was my first record here? *indecipherable noise* Not bad, I hope. Not used to being directly on mic, I’m more of a behind the scenes kind of thing, you know. *indecipherable noise* Yes, he did sound strange in his early recordings. I wonder if he was worried about his accent coming off a little too folksy so he kind of toned it down. *indecipherable noise* Yes, okay, I will do that. Just the, just the backlog, okay, yes.  I can do that. See you tomorrow.