Behind the vines was a blue, iron-barred door with no lock that he could see. Beyond the door was a narrow, dark cave and from within the cave, came the noise again.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Tyler’s fingers wrapped around the bars, the iron cold in his fist. He pushed his face against the door and watched his breath snake out of his mouth and into the darkness beyond.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The noise echoed inside the cave and now that he had discovered the location, it seemed silly that he’d though it was a bird. Chills crept up his legs. If it wasn’t a bird, what was it?
“Hello?” His voice was barely a whisper but it bounced off the stone walls and came back to him with a hiss. Only his voice. His cheeks warmed realizing he’d expected an answer. Rachel would have a new arsenal to use against him if she’d heard him talking to an empty cave.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
But this cave wasn’t empty.
“Hello,” he said louder. Tyler leaned his body into the iron-barred door and it gave way just an inch, scraping along the dirt floor at the mouth of the cave. He gave another push and the door inched again. His tongue was chalky and thick and his hands slipped on the bars. He squared his shoulder, and braced himself for a good hard shove.
Tyler spun around and lost his footing. He fell into the door, forcing it inward.
“Jesus, Rach!” He picked himself up and brushed the wet, cold earth from his jeans and elbows.
“What are you doing way out here?” She peered beyond her brother into the darkness of the cave. “And what is this?”
“It’s…” Tyler stared at the open door. He strained, listening for the tapping, but nothing came. “I don’t know. Probably for wine, or canned stuff.”
“This far from the house?”
Tyler shrugged. “Let’s just go clean out that back room.” He ignored Rachel’s sarcastic remarks as he pushed past her down the hill. He didn’t want to clean out his grandpa’s things anymore than he had before, but for some reason he wanted his sister away from that door.
“He had way too many bricks of whatever this stuff is,” Rachel said as she tossed something into a box marked, burn.
Tyler pulled out what she’d discarded. “You can’t throw this out!” He hadn’t meant to shout, but Rachel was tossing out bricks and bricks of the suet that their grandfather had instructed Tyler to set out during the winter months. The suet was shaped into squares and wrapped in clear plastic.
“What are we going to do with that?”
“It’s suet. For the birds, I guess.” Tyler moved the bricks into an empty box alongside the three pairs of binoculars he’d decided to keep. He stared out the big bay window, trying to spot a finch or a cardinal among the thick oaks, and imagining his grandfather doing the same. “Suet in the winter,” he could hear him say. “Water in the summer.”
With the two lakes and the tributaries, Tyler wondered why the birds would need fresh water in the summer, but James Cunningham wasn’t the sort of man one questioned.
The woods seemed colder in the evening air than they had that morning. The ground was still damp and Tyler kicked up leaves in hues of red and gold as he trudged up the hill to the blue iron-barred door. The binoculars hanging from his neck were heavy and comforting. A piece of his grandpa he could carry with him.
He listened for the tapping but the woods were silent, save for his own heavy footfalls. Rachel had left the house to find more boxes in town, and something about that door called to Tyler. He’d left a note for his sister, but didn’t tell her where he was going. For a walk, was all she needed to know.
As he approached the cave, Tyler noticed the door was once again closed. Had Rachel shut it before they’d left this morning? He didn’t waste time calling out to the darkness. Tyler pushed open the door and stepped inside. He reached into the pocket of his windbreaker and pulled out half a brick of his grandpa’s suet. A peace offering, in case there was a bird trapped inside. Tyler crumbled pieces of the melted fat and dropped them like breadcrumbs along the dirt floor as he ventured into the dark. He tapped a stone along the wall, the same way he’d heard it before.
Tap, tap, tap.
He walked in farther.
Tap, tap, tap.
Shadows melted into each other.
Tyler’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he wondered just how deep this cave went, and why it was here if not for storage. Up ahead a dim light danced in the wall. Another exit? A hole above? Tyler stuffed the remaining suet back in his pocket and headed for the light.
It wasn’t another exit, and it wasn’t a hole. It was a fire, in the center of the cave in front of a flat stone wall. And next to the fire, Tyler didn’t find a bird.
“You not James Cunningham,” the creature said, without looking up from its task of crumbling dried leaves over the fire. Tyler stood frozen, staring down at what looked like a girl, but wasn’t. It was small, the size of a child, but its ears were large and misshapen, folded over and pointed. Its nose was like a beak, shining gray in the firelight, and its hair was greenish and dry, matted with twigs and leaves.
“Where is James?” it asked.
Tyler wet his lips before he could speak. “He died.”
“He—I’m sorry. Who are you?”
The creature turned toward him and stood, reaching a height of just three feet. Its eyes, steely and sharp, were a glossy silver gray. Tattered strips of linen served as a dress and its large feet were naked and scabbed.
“James called me Cobalt,” she said. “What you bring for me?” She gestured toward his pocket. Tyler’s fingers found the suet wrapped in plastic.
“Suet. I thought there might be a bird—”
“No, no,” she said. “That suey not for birds, silly boy. That suey made by James Cunningham. That suey belong to me. Give, give.” She hooked a crooked finger in the air.
Tyler handed her the suet and back away as she devoured it. He wanted to press the creature about her origins and how she knew his grandpa, but something told him to keep quiet.
“James gone,” she said. “Good, good.” The creature, Cobalt, smiled. Its teeth were straight and clean, though not at all human. A horse, Tyler thought. Or a cow. Teeth made for grinding, not tearing flesh. The thought was oddly comforting. “James just listen to hills. You, you do more. Much more. James trust you.” She snickered.
James trusted Tyler to listen to the land, to love it and care for it the way he had. There was no way Tyler could ever sell, not now. But could he tell Rachel about Cobalt? Rachel wasn’t like Tyler. She wasn’t like their grandpa. Tyler wrapped his fingers around his grandfather’s binoculars, feeling a surge of pride and courage.
“Yes,” Tyler said. “He did trust me. But he never said he brought the suet to you, he said to—”
Cobalt laughed. The sound echoing through the cave made Tyler wonder if there were more creatures in the shadows. “No, no, silly boy. James not bring me suey.” The temperature in the cave seemed to drop as the fire dimmed. Cobalt stepped toward him, her feet dragging and making trails in the dirt as she moved.
Welcome to Tangled Fiction, where three YA writers collaborate to complete one story!
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday one TF writer will post a piece of the same story. Each of us will be responsible for one beginning, middle, and end in a single month. The fourth week will be full of surprises, we're sure, and we'll share them with you when we know what they are.