After several years of avoiding the genre altogether, I have decided to come back to horror with this new short story. This one was originally intended to be published by a horror magazine. Instead I have chosen to make it free to read. It’s good to be back.
Without further ado: “The Bench”.
It had always been her.
She couldn’t say if there was a reason for it. But she did know that every morning that she went to the park as a child, early in the morning, an older woman, perhaps in her sixties, would come to the park bench right at the big hump in the road near the lamppost. She was always dressed in the most whimsical of outfits, wearing bright blues and pinks, and most often with a nice big hat to block out the sun as she did her work. She did always have the kindest smile to work with, and carried a large bag of “gourmet birdfeed”. At least, that’s what was written on the bag.
She would begin by tossing a small bit of birdseed there on the street. As soon as the feed hit the ground, the trees above would begin to rustle. First there would be one, then two, three … soon, a great big crowd of chickadees would come down from the trees and nibble happily at the feed, chirping happily as though thanking the woman for her gift. The woman would smile as she did, reassuring them, as a mother would assure a nervous child about sitting on Santa’s lap.
One time, when she was about six years old, she had walked over to her mother, who had been chatting with a family friend while Darla played on the jungle gym. “Mama,” she asked, “can I ask the old lady something?”
Her mother and the family friend gave each other a glance before responding.
“Sure, come with me.”
Her mother walked Darla down to the bench. The birds moved out of their way like Moses parting the red sea, still chipping at the seeds.
“Miss Goldstein,” Darla’s mother prodded, “my daughter wants to talk to you.”
The old woman turned her head towards them, the sun finally hitting her face. Her face was wrinkled as though from decades of smiling.
Darla shyly walked towards the bench, tilting her head down ever so slightly, with her hands clasped behind her back.
“Ma’am, why do you feed the birds every morning?”
Miss Goldstein chuckled, her eyes nearly closed from the force of her toothy grinning.
“Well, they’d eat me alive if I didn’t.”
Darla’s eyes widened, looking at the birds. Her mother cackled.
“Miss Goldstein, you’re too funny!” She turned to her daughter. “Don’t worry, Darla,” she consoled, “she’s just being silly.”
But Darla couldn’t help but notice her mother’s eyes shifting occasionally to the chickadees as they walked back.
Time passed. Darla grew older, and soon Miss Goldstein and her chickadees was barely even a memory in her mind. In the years that followed, she married her high school sweetheart, Gina Wilder, had three kids, and got a job as a news anchor at the local TV station.
But times got tough for the Wilder family, and it came to the point that they had to do something. When Gina suggested they sell the car, Darla decided to instead just bike to work, which for her was only five minutes away. She quickly found the fastest route – right through the old park.
The park had since been mostly abandoned. During the recession of the 90s, the city had decided that it simply did not pay to continue upkeep, and people didn’t want to pay the extra gas money to drive there. And so they didn’t. Vines had begun to grow over the old jungle gym, the swing-set, the merry-go-round, and the lamppost. But they did not grow over one place:
There, much to her shock sat an old woman in pink, with a young nurse to accompany her. She looked much older now. She had a breathing apparatus, a walker to her left, and wrinkles so deep they encompassed her entire face. As Darla biked past, she saw Miss Goldstein tossing the seed from her bag. As she did, the old chickadees began to appear one by one, as before.
Darla smiled. She had a little time.
She stopped the bike and came by the bench, sitting next to Miss Goldstein.
“Miss Goldstein,” she asked, “do you remember me?”
Miss Goldstein looked at Darla, an only somewhat knowing expression on her face. “Carlene?”
“No, ma’am. I’m her daughter.”
Miss Goldstein nodded, breathing heavily through her machine. “Very much alike.”
She watched the birds gobbling up the seed as fast as they could.
“All these years?”
The old woman continued to toss seeds occasionally.
She turned around, her toothy grin revealed only a few teeth left. “Didn’t I tell you?”
The memory of that day almost thirty years ago flooded back. She looked at Miss Goldstein, at the bag, then at the birds. She stood up from the bench quickly. “Yes, I suppose you did. Have a nice day.”
She got back on the bike and headed to work.
Months went by, and she began to notice that Miss Goldstein did, in fact, have a schedule. Every morning at eight o’clock precisely, she would show up with her bag of birdseed, and every morning the little birds would come in drones to eat it up.
Then one morning, Miss Goldstein was not there.
Neither were the birds.
When she got to work, she read the latest news story on the teleprompter. Her heart dropped in her chest. Miss Goldstein, former owner of a well-liked pet store chain, had passed away that morning. But the murder was still confounding the police. When they had come to the scene of death outside her nursing home, her body was not entirely there. Though they were not to show the full scene on the news, all that was left were her bones, and her eyes had been removed from the sockets.
Darla biked to work that next morning, her mind still on Miss Goldstein’s death. She originally thought she might want to go around, but decided to take a look at the park one last time.
Upon coming to the lamppost, she parked the bike and walked to the bench. To her shock, there on the bench sat a small, crumpled bag. She looked back and forth, then un-crumpled the bag.
On it were the faded words “gourmet birdseed”.
A chickadee chirped behind her.
She turned around and smiled – until she got a closer look.
A flap of skin hung from its beak.