“HE-LLO!” screeched the parrot, in a pitch so high, annoying would be an understatement.
Glaring angrily, I stopped unpacking and gave an exasperated sigh, and then threw a book at its cloth-covered cage in the hallway. It rattled with a disgruntled squawk. Serves it right.
Since I got up an hour ago, that bird just never shut up. Never. And I've always hated parrots, especially the way they talked – stupid, dumb birds imitating human speech in grossly unnatural, accented falsettos. They weren't even cute like my cat, Curie, who was just as smart and friendly as she was cute.
That bird belonged to the previous owner of the apartment, some eccentric old lady who Ed said bailed out a month ago. Ed, or Edith, my best friend who was also a Realtor, had recommended this place just a week before, and I moved in today, just as soon as I could. Though Edith got on my nerves at times – calling me Maxine instead of Max and deliberately telling half-truths – I had really appreciated her help. There weren't that many cheap rental units around the inner city nowadays, especially in places close to Menlo Park.
The new apartment was rather nice. The rooms were rather large, though there was a displeasing, musty odor that smelled old. Some of the old light bulbs had burst, or stopped working, but I could replace those easily. It was a little dark because of that, but all in all, it was still much better than that old shack I was in before.
Come to think of it, Ed was so awesome and helpful for getting me a place like this. Ed's such a good friend, even if she makes fun of my name (Maxine Maxwell.) Not many of my friends could put up with my capricious, fluctuating, and easily irritable attitude. Ed was the only one who really stuck by her. For Eddie though, maybe I'd change that, maybe cut down on the cussing. But this parrot – this stupid, god damn parrot...
“HIII!” it screamed, flapping its wings and rattling the cage.
GOD DAMN IT, THIS BIRD HAS GOT TO GO.
I jammed my fingers down on her phone and speed dialed. “Ed, I need your help.”
“Oh hello, Maxine,” Edith's bubbly yet dreamy voice drifted through the telephone. “How was moving in? Do you want me to come in and help?”
“It's this stupid fucking parrot,” I glared at its cage. “It won't shut up, no matter what I do to it. It only knows the words 'hi' and 'hello,' and it never even talks to me when I directly talk to it, though it just mouths off randomly. I swear, if it opens its ugly little beak again, I'm throwing it and its stupid cage off the balcony.”
She laughed her breezy laugh. “You never were good with animals, Max. I never understood why Curie likes you. Fine, I'll come around to get the parrot in the next few days and drop it off in a shelter.”
“Make it the next few years, because I know you'll forget. Whatever, I don't need your help. I'll just toss the bird in the closest high-kill animal shelter I can find.”
I heard a long, drawn out sigh of Maaaaaxxxxx.... “I'll come over on Thursday, I promise. In the time being, try to keep yourself from strangling Schro.”
“Schro? That's the thing's name?”
“Yes, the previous tenant in the building always called him Schro. She was really fond of the bird; I think she had it for two decades. Weird name, huh? She was such an interesting old lady before she passed away.”
Silence for a second. “Passed away? Ed, you told me she LEFT.”
“Um... That's what I meant by saying left. I thought I was being polite and ethical.”
“No. More like manipulative and sleazy. The woman died in this house, and you didn't even tell me-”
There was an unnaturally high, rather uncomfortable giggle. “Look, Maxine, don't be such a drama queen. The old lady had a very natural death, alright? She was ninety something anyway. Sorry for not making that clear earlier.”
“Fine. FINE. You better have told me everything.”
“Everything important. By the way, no one's claimed the previous tenant's things. She has no will or descendants, and I think the police might have left some stuff behind.”
“Sure, whatever. See you Thursday.”
I heard her say “But Max-” but hung up the phone irritably and tossed it back onto the bed.
Stupid, annoying, unhelpful Edith. Never helped anyone for a day of her life.
I got off the carpet and surveyed the bedroom floor, now cluttered with partially unpacked cardboard boxes. There would be time for that later; I glanced at the clock – 12:30 – had to get lunch first. There was a refrigerator in the kitchen. Maybe I'd check if there was anything inside it, clear it out, and get groceries later.
I opened the door, and strangely enough, every row was fully stocked – there was a few dozen eggs, five yogurt cartons, a partially unfinished bowl of oatmeal, a new package of bacon, some assorted vegetables for salads and more. Wow, that old lady kept a lot of food. Maybe I shouldn't eat it though, it's kinda against ethics and social norms to eat a dead person's food...
Screw oppressive cultural constructs. I peeled the lid off a yogurt carton.
There was a kitchen drawer with silverware, and I took out a spoon. I had just tasted the first mouthful when she heard a muffled bang, and the parrot screech again, “HI!” just as a cold draft blew through the room. A window must be open, the wind had blown in, and probably opened or closed some door.
I walked back into the small hallway, which was connected to a bedroom and a study. Both doors were open. I looked into the bedroom – no open window – and then went into the study.
I heard the bird scream again from the hallway: “HII! HE-LLO!”
The study was empty, just a desk and a few potted plants, and an empty bookshelf. The police must have removed all the important papers the old lady had; after all, someone had mentioned that she was some sort of scientist. It was uncommonly cold in the room, and I shivered, and noticed the window near the desk was open, and walked over and shut it with a resounding bang. As I headed back to the kitchen, I noticed something dark wedged in between the desk and the bookshelf, and bent down to pull it out.
It was a binder, relatively new looking, cluttered with notes with slanted, spidery handwriting. I randomly flipped through the pages and research papers. It was mostly confusing and incomprehensible things, but I went through it anyway, just out of detached curiosity. Hold on. That was strange... That drawing of the vent-
I studied the ink sketch carefully now. It wasn't just of any vent; it was a drawing of some sort of strange device in a plastic vent-like enclosure. The vent had a strange pattern, but a similar pattern, something I had seen before. I looked upward. It was the same air conditioning vent in the study, six feet or so off the ground.
“HE-LLO!” said the bird, back in the hallway. Gawd, it was so annoying.
Numbly, I reached for the vent – pulled off the lid that came off easily into my fingers. I peered into the hole, confused. At the back of the hole, it was the mechanical apparatus shown in the picture, with labels across it, one reading WARNING / HIGHLY RADIOACTIVE and the other, DO NOT TOUCH / TOXIC / HYDROCYANIC ACID. A green light flickered on, and it gave a quiet beeping sound.
Well, shit, weird old lady was hiding dangerous chemicals in her apartment. Freaky. Maybe I should call the poison control center. I gingerly replaced the cover of the vent. What if the old lady had committed suicide by ingesting that stuff? Ed, I needed to call Ed. I flipped my phone open.
“Ed. What the hell?”
“What is it this time?” Ed's voice asked nervously.
“There's some deadly chemicals the old lady left around, so cut the crap and tell me the truth. How did she die?”
An anxious cough. “Look, Maxine, I didn't think it was that important. It's a strange case. I'm sorry.”
“Just TELL me. Did she poison herself?”
“It was just a heart attack, okay? There wasn't any poisoning. But there are some things that were weird but it's probably a mistake.”
“When one of her old friends found her collapsed in the bathroom, she had been dead for months. That's what the coroner said. Nobody was really visiting her, so no one noticed what happened until it was so late. She was such a hermit anyway. But that's not the strange part.”
“Neighbors she knew kept telling us that only days before she was found, they heard her voice and strange sounds in the apartment. And there was some colleagues who knew her that said they talked to her just hours, days ago, and they had the phone records and emails to prove it. I thought it was some prankster, alright? Someone probably thought it was funny to impersonate her after she died. Maybe – maybe it was the bird, imitating her.” A brief pause. “Max, don't take it so seriously, okay? You always do. It's not a big deal; she had a heart attack...”
My throat felt dry. “Ed, you should have told me.”
“I know. Honest to God, I'm sorry.”
“Just a few more questions. What did she do when she was alive?”
“For her job? I think she was a physicist, though she had gone off her rocker after her husband passed away. I heard she went a little crazy and kept talking about immortality and people thought she was going insane, since she was so old.” Ed paused. “She lived long though. I heard she had advanced pancreatic cancer and arthritis. It was a miracle that she hadn't died earlier.”
“Ed. What's the parrot's name again?”
“Oh, the African Grey? It's Schrodinger. Why?”
“... I have to think. Call you later.” Click.
Something seemed so wrong at the back of my mind. The old lady, that parrot, the hidden device in her study. It fit and didn't fit. Something was wrong, very, very wrong.
Slam. Somewhere in the kitchen. What was that? Another draft? I hastily closed the door to the study again, and hurried back to the kitchen. Nothing seemed wrong, but then I glanced at the table.
The yogurt was about half depleted. The spoon that was in the container was missing.
There was no way. I left that spoon in the container, had only taken one small mouthful of it. There's no way that almost half was eaten, definitely not. I hadn't moved the spoon; I was so sure of it.
I glanced around nervously, and noticed that the spoon was in the sink. Okay, it was possible, just possible, that she wasn't paying attention and put the spoon in the sink. No big deal. But I had left the kitchen drawer open, now it was closed...
I tried to fight off the feeling of panic.
Wait a moment. The refrigerator...
Had been dead for months.
I opened the door again to check for sure. Everything seemed fresh, nothing seemed spoiled, just like it had earlier in the day. A few dozen eggs, two bananas, a bunch of salad greens, five yogurt cartons. Could it be possible, in a regular refrigerator, for food not to be spoiled after months?
Calm down. There's no one here but me, and nothing's wrong; I'm just being hysterical. It felt cold again, my skin rose with goosebumps, but I'm just imagining things. Someone must've left food in the apartment somehow. There had to be a plausible explanation for it.
“HI!” the parrot screeched, and I heard the sound of feathers flapping, claws and beaks beating on metal.
The parrot. And Ed said she had been dead for months. No one fed it. No one fed it. No one fed it...
I mechanically went over. My hand clutched the cloth cover on the cage. I swallowed. Then dragged it off.
It was dead. It had been dead for months. I had taken just enough med school to know how long it takes for animals and humans to decompose into shriveled, skeletal black carcasses and a few scattered gray feathers... and it had been speaking – this can't be right – there was no way.
Just hysteria. Hallucinations. Disorders. Clear your head, Max. You're not the kind of person to go off like this. You need to clear your head. It's some sort of dream. I just need to think more clearly. I feel like I'm forgetting something...
Curie. Where was Curie again? I looked into the hallway. Didn't I leave her and the carrier in the bedroom? The bedroom door was open... but I had closed it when I left, I had closed it when I left!
Forget it, I need to find Curie. I ran into the bedroom, and saw that the cat carrier had been unlocked, though I didn't remember unlocking it. A cat, she was a cat, it seemed familiar... something about cats... something about Schrodinger... I had to find her. “Curie?” I called out, running through the rooms frantically. “Curie, where are you?”
Somewhere in another room, with that same voice again... “GOOD-BYE!” How. But it's dead. The bird...
I heard a yowl in the other direction, and without thinking, I ran into the closest open door behind me looking for her – the bathroom. I flipped on the lights.
The glass mirror stretched down the length of the hallway. And I saw it, standing right there. Right behind and next to me.
Black, completely black, shriveled, decomposed, sunken eyes; my eyes. Lipless, drawn over teeth - the smell - musty, black smell, death piercing breaking of glass. Both our mouths open in a scream.
A light bulb shattered and the cold, dark, pulling me down, down to the floor, tightening in my chest.
I blinked. It was a dream.
I was in the study.
I looked at the clock. 12:30.
That musty, strong smell again. And it's so dark. I opened the window, but it didn't let that much light in.
Strange... my limbs... they seem rather dark...
There was a voice coming from the adjoining bedroom. It was somebody on the phone. That – that was my voice.
“Fine. FINE. You better have told me everything.”
Then a moment of silence.
“Sure, whatever. See you Thursday.”
I opened the door to the study quietly. She – me – walked right past me in the hallway, like I wasn't even there, into the kitchen.
What was happening? Was that some sort of flashback? It doesn't make any sense. Just a weird vision, I had a headache anyways...
I looked into the bedroom again, and heard Curie meow in her cat carrier. It had been a while since I had let her out, I probably should...
I went over and unlocked the carrier. Curie stared at me, frozen – then hissed at me, curling against the side of the carrier, fangs showing. She had never acted like that before... Maybe she was stressed out from the moving and the change of environment. I got up reluctantly and left, leaving the door open.
I went back to the kitchen again, and I saw her standing in front of the refrigerator holding a yogurt container.
Schrodinger screeched, “HII! HELL-O!”
She – or I – put down the spoon and walked towards the hallway, passing right through me – translucent-like, like she was almost see-through. Walking right through me... Was this an out-of-body experience? There is no way this is happening... It feels surreal, like a dream...
But I could touch things. I had closed the door. I had opened the window. Numbly, I picked up the spoon, tried a mouthful of yogurt. I could taste things. I was real. I was physical.
The yogurt, however, tasted disgusting. It tasted bitter and spoiled, like it was years past its expiration date. I coughed a bit and put the spoon into the sink.
“HI!” Schrodinger. He was alive, wasn't he? This all could be a dream. For a moment I lifted a corner of his cover up to look at him.
I heard a loud bang in the other room. She must have closed the window.
He was actually a rather pretty bird, an African Grey with sleek, white and old, silvery gray plumage. All that before – I must have been imagining things earlier. Okay, maybe I do like birds. Cats weren't that great though. Curie can be such a brat sometimes.
“HELL-O!” He was staring at me. I just knew he could see me – and for the first time, he was talking directly to me. Maybe he was talking to me the entire time...
I heard her come back. She looked around wildly, looked into the fridge, and then pulled the covers off the birdcage. Schrodinger ruffled his feathers and looked at her, then at me, then cocked his head to the side.
She backed away and gasped, and then rushed through the hallway. “Curie? Curie!”
I followed numbly and watched and she ran back and forth through the hallway. There was nothing to do. I just stood in the frame of the bathroom door and watched.
“GOOD-BYE!” Schrodinger screeched.
She passed through me into the bathroom. Then I knew. I knew...
The light bulb burst.
I was in the study. I was in the bedroom.
There was that smell again.
I opened the window.
I stopped unpacking and gave an exasperated sigh, then threw a book at the cloth-covered cage.
The cage rattled with a disgruntled squawk.