From the top of the Farm’s rusted water tower, Seth watched a red SUV bump its way down the gravel lane toward the gate. The path was overgrown with brambles and thistle weeds; barely visible were the old gravel tire grooves from back in the day when the Farm allowed visitors. Seth watched the vehicle carefully zigzag around the pot holes—holes Seth had scooped out himself with a shovel a few years after his momma died as a preventative measure. Seth watched as the vehicle drove all the way to the end of the lane, stopping where the lane bumped into a rusted iron gate hooked to a rusted fence made of chicken wire. He watched as the car idled for several minutes, a thirst building in his mouth as he waited to see if they’d turn back. But they didn’t. When one door opened, all four doors opened, and out four people piled.

Seth could see right away that they were a real nice family. Even from way up on the water tower he could see how nice they were and it tingled his belly and made him feel warm, like he had just swallowed a big gulp of sunshine. He could see they were really nice and good looking and must have come a long way to see the Farm. No one else had accepted his invitation so he felt a particular affection for this mom and dad and two girls. Yes, yes, he had promised himself and the remaining two Farm animals that he wouldn’t allow any more visitors after his momma died, but these people showed up here on his property expecting to enjoy a one-of-a-kind adventure; and he could tell they were real nice. Besides, those old love birds Charlie and Beth might enjoy having someone new to feed them crackers.

Through the over-sized cage, Seth poked Charlie with a stick. “Wake up, Ol’ boy. We’ve got visitors.”

Charlie squawked and sputtered before opening one suspicious eye to glare at Seth. There wasn’t much left of his once colorful feathers and he was looking quite pasty, like a cooked bird, not at all like the exotic love bird the Farm had once boasted. Curled up next to him was his lover Beth. She had been such a beautiful, flighty thing when Seth’s momma first captured her. Seth had been just a boy himself, not even in puberty yet but he knew Beth was a goddess, a gorgeous creature with golden hair down to her waist then, but now she had saggy tits and skinny chicken wing arms. Seth didn’t much like to look at her anymore. Maybe that’s why he had started sending out one-way tickets of information about the fabled Farm to different channels on the Internet. It was all Beth’s fault.
There were lots of people who were willing to explore new, undiscovered places, abandoned houses and buildings. Places like the Farm, except Seth didn’t plan to let the world see the Farm. Or Charlie and Beth. It was just a way to get people there. And what luck to have such a nice family show up. Sure he had made a promise not to lure anyone here but that was a long time ago. That was right after his momma died, right before he realized Charlie and Beth weren’t love birds anymore. Why would they be with the way Beth looked now? Charlie didn’t want any of that and neither did Seth. This was all Beth’s fault. That this real nice family from Idaho was here at the Farm and would never go back home was definitely all that old bird Beth’s fault.

He heard them then, the family coming closer to the house. All they’d have to do was go around the back and they’d find the unusual petting zoo. There once were a lot of exotic mammals but they’d all died, except Charlie and Beth. And now the two love birds were huddled together squawking up a lot of noise. Seth knew what they were saying because he spoke bird. Run run run, squawked ugly, wrinkled Beth. Save yourselves, squawked pasty, balding Charlie. No worries though. This real nice family didn’t speak bird.

25 Comments

  1. Len Kuntz

    AJ,

    I like the voice in this. There’s an uncertain sweetness to the narrator which slowly disintegrates as things proceed. The bit about the mother’s death was intriguing, and while I like where you dropped it in, I wonder if you could consider just elaborating a little more about how the death impacted the narrator.
    Your use of the narrator as a distant spectator adds observational strength and adds to the building, ominous tone.
    I also loved the ending, as it’s both comical yet creepy.
    The only other thing you could consider on a rewrite is dropping a few of the “nice family” inferences.
    This was a fun read. Thank you.

    Len

    • AJ Miller

      Thank you, Len. I appreciate your comments and suggestion to remove the repletion of “nice family.” I think you’re right that it’s overdone. ~AJ

    • Jennifer Fliss

      Great scene opening, the details and word choices go well together. I really love the repetition that appears in this. It really lends itself to a voice and not just your standard narrator. And the whole piece already has this fascinating symmetry to it too. Weird and unique, creepy. I hope we get to see this piece out in the world someday!

  2. Lucy Logsdon

    I like the humor and darkness of that last line a lot!! “This family didn’t speak bird.” It is both playful and scary and gives me insight into the guy’s mind—I think a few more comic touches like this earlier on would work great. I like the dark tone of the piece—the quiet scariness of the farm. And this piece is about on my level of scare—spoooky, eerie—but not scream fast dark. Overalll, I’m liking it.

  3. Meg Tuite

    Hi AJ,
    favorite line in this: “holes Seth had scooped out himself with a shovel a few years after his momma died as a preventative measure. ”
    It’s creep moves at an exquisite pace. I would definitely knock out many of the ‘nice’, but keep it at the end. And ‘love birds’ stopped me twice. But, it’s really campy and damn fun. Great work! LOVE!

    • AJ Miller

      Thank you so much, Meg. I appreciate your thoughts on this piece.

  4. Sara Comito

    Hi AJ, from atop his perch like a bird himself, the narrator sets up a voyeuristic tension and the capitalization of The Farm and references to when it once allowed visitors all contributes to the creep factor. What was this place, really? The fact that he sends out vouchers, although it’s forbidden, also adds to that. Unusual petting zoo is a great phrase. I think the love birds are not birds at all, but people, right? Trafficked into being an exhibit out of jealousy and spite. I may be dense, but it might be worth deciding if it could help be a little more explicit about that for a minute before ending with your final sentences, which I love.

    • AJ Miller

      Sara, thanks for this feedback. Yes, they are humans who have been forced to live as birds. I think you’re right in that I need to make that more explicit in the next draft. Thank you for reading!

  5. David O'Connor

    AJ, right from the first line I was invested– the water tower, the SUV, the whole world created through clear description was super engaging. I wonder if there is some room for dialogue somewhere, I’m a sucker for dialogue, helps build the character. Really amazing details, feels like you might have a longer piece here, well worth pursuing! Great job.

    • AJ Miller

      David, thank you so much for these comments. I like the idea of putting some dialogue in. Actually I started to switch POVs to the family for one section and had some dialogue there but realized I was going to run out of space for the workshop so I chopped it. I’m happy that you think this could be expanded because I have some ideas for switching POVs and showing a perspective from the family’s. Really appreciate this feedback. Thank you!

  6. Trent

    AJ –

    As others have noted, I like the surroundings.
    There’s the isolated kind of vibe. As though this is a kind
    of not-so heartland kind of history, with this farm.

    Makes me wonder about the narrator – he’s baiting people, it seems.
    Makes me think he’s close to slipping up, and something’s about to
    go bad…

    Very colorful!

    • AJ Miller

      Trent, thank you so much for reading and commenting. I really appreciate it!

  7. Aimee Parkison

    AJ,

    This story is scary—like really scary in surprising ways. It builds gently through highly textured atmosphere. The first time I read it, the ending slowly dawned on me. The second read showed me how skillfully you foreshadowed something was very wrong at the farm. I was held captive for a moment there in pure terror at the thought of what we were really seeing. Like is this really what I think it is? I loved that feeling of being startled and confused and the slow horror of the realization. The surreal and sinister mix so well in the ending. It becomes so dark, so comic, almost like a madman’s circus exhibit. Totally unexpected but totally earned.

    I agree with Sara in that things could be just a bit more explicit, but I don’t want it to be too explicit because I really like that moment of surprise when I started slowly realizing just how creepy and dark this story was going. Keep going a bit farther at the ending when we get to the revelation. The ending is so wonderfully inventive and horrifying that you could linger on the grotesque marvel of the unexpected moment you’ve brought us to. Show a bit more by giving a few more moments of the family on the farm, perhaps going into the moment of their discovery. This is the moment your narrative is shining. Linger on it. You’ve trapped the reader in terror the way the characters are trapped. Let us feel it a moment longer by closing in like a camera moving from close-up to close-up of the exhibited “wonders” or the family’s reactions to the “birds.”

    Overall, this is amazing, innovative horror! I think you might send it to Midwestern Gothic, The Dark, Conjunctions, Gulf Coast, and/or Noon.

    Best, Aimee

    • AJ Miller

      Aimee, first I want to say this workshop rocks! I really have enjoyed every single moment of it. The funniest thing that happened was last night I turned off the lights to go to bed and startled myself because I was convinced someone was standing in front of me. Oh my god, I’ve scared myself during this weekend with all the movies and stories and writing. It’s been so much fun. And it helped get me out of a writing rut! Thank you thank you thank you!

      This feedback is phenomenal. I’ve enjoyed reading what you write on everyone’s stories and you are so thorough and thoughtful. I’ve learned so much during this class and I can’t wait to edit and revise my pieces. I never expected you to recommend markets so that is a wonderful bonus gift. For a fabulous weekend filled with creepy writing–thank you!

  8. Jennifer Fliss

    Great scene opening, the details and word choices go well together. I really love the repetition that appears in this. It really lends itself to a voice and not just your standard narrator. And the whole piece already has this fascinating symmetry to it too. Weird and unique, creepy. I hope we get to see this piece out in the world someday!

    • AJ Miller

      Jennifer, thank you for this feedback. I appreciate the encouragement. I thought the repetition created sort of a non-standard narrator, at least that’s what I was going for and I’m glad you thought so too. Thank you so much for reading!

  9. Kathryn Kulpa

    Hi AJ,
    This has a rural/folk horror atmosphere that reminds me of the original (and still the best) The Hills Have Eyes: this eerie, isolated farm, and the unsuspecting ‘nice family’ who stumble into its horrors. I like what you choose to reveal and what you choose to leave unsaid. I got the impression that Beth was an ordinary human woman who was captured for this ‘petting zoo,’ and I wasn’t sure if Charlie was an actual bird or some kind of hybrid creature, either born with feathers or engineered that way by Seth and/or his mother. (Which made me think of another classic horror film, Freaks.) Will the family be killed or turned into future residents of the zoo? Having the story filtered through Seth’s unemotional, matter-of-fact POV just heightens the scare factor.

    • AJ Miller

      Kathryn, Thank you! I appreciate your comments and now I’ve got two new movies to watch. I stopped watching horror movies a long time ago because I get scared so easily. ha! So this class has really pushed me past some of my fear limits. On revisions I’m going to make it clearer that Charlie and Beth are captured humans who have been forced to live as birds. Thank you for reading!

  10. Gloria Garfunkel

    AJ, I love the creepiness of this story with its water tower distanced point of view. I actually love the repetition of “real nice family.” Every time he thinks it, he seems more and more single-minded and ominous. It makes sense that he would reduce his nefarious plans to such a mundane phrase. It suggests a low intellect and a monster-like semi-human quality which is enhanced by his ability to speak bird. Each time he called the family “nice” I felt squeamish. You build up the suspense of a horrifying outcome for this nice family without ever mentioning what actually happens to them. I love that. Great piece of horror.

    • AJ Miller

      Gloria, thank you for this feedback. It’s really helpful. You identified what I was going for with the man and he’s also living an isolated life on the farm which is really creepy to me. I appreciate these comments. Thanks for reading!

  11. Emily Bertholf

    Hi AJ. The voice in this is so strong and well written and you stay with is through out the whole thing. This reads to me like an opening of a movie, not a first or early draft. Well done! I’m thoroughly creeped. This is so well crafted as a flash, but it played just like a movie in my head.
    The first paragraph, I already got that the guy was probably a bit off kilter, and was kind of expecting four police like a squad to come out of the vehicle after the man-made pot holes and the narrator perched on the water tower. My expectations were subverted and the tension immediately jolted when a family with children tumbled out instead. I knew we were in for trouble then. You didn’t disappoint!

    I also like the repetition of nice family, it builds the character and also made me squeam. Maybe cut one, but not too many… trust your ear and gut. I thought there were a couple places that he explains things which you could omit and let the reader dwell in the uncertainty a little more. One example, is in your opening, which is so great, you could omit “as a preventative measure” because the action itself and the actions that follow already show us. Little things like that.

    I also first thought the birds were actually birds and then started to realize or believe they were people. I wonder if you want to expand, there could be opportunity to add one or two more subverted images that reveal the distortion between what the farm was before momma died and what it is now, or what the family expected to see and what they’re in store to see. Again, I could see this unfold into a whole horror movie, and I’m super impressed with how much you conjure in a tight flash of an old, forgotten farm. Flash or film, you have my buy in! Love this!

    • AJ Miller

      oh wow, Emily, thank you for such thorough and thoughtful feedback. I’m so glad you liked it and thought it was creepy. I actually saw this one as a movie in my head as I was writing it, so it’s interesting to me that you read it like that too. So many creepy things about this guy and farm I wanted to include but I ran out of space. May have to expand. Thank you for reading!

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