Nelson Towers spent most of his time oiling the feathers. When he had taken the job he had been enticed by the prestige, the travel, and the pay. He quickly came to realize that his work was to be reviled, not celebrated, that everyplace he traveled was more depressing than the last, and that he was mostly paid to oil the feathers. But at least the pay was good.
In the early days he had worked with a small penlight, its thin beam shaking nervously in a sweaty palm. He tried to use it sparingly, but the shape of the wings was foreign to him, and he often found himself flicking it on and marveling at their rough form. He worked when it slept, which was often. He dreaded being in its presence.
Now he worked in total darkness. He knew how it lay as it slept and where to step as he moved around it. It hungrily lapped up oil and soaked it deep into its plumage. For a thing that spent most of its time sleeping in dark, quiet places, it needed to be constantly fed.
He hadn’t looked at it in weeks. He had never seen the whole thing at once, nor did he want to. When he worked, it slept. When it worked, he turned away.
Saying that Lexington had let itself go would have been an overstatement. Towers had always considered the town to be a dump. It now just had the outward appearance to reflect that.
He had tracked it here from Harper’s Ferry over the course of two long days, and each mile North turned his mood darker. The sky too, darkened with his countenance. Fall this far North was never pleasant, and the road was full of packed cars trundling South. Sleepy children ogled his truck as it drove carelessly over the dotted white lines. His whole side of the highway was barren. It seemed as if the entire North had packed its bags and moved out. Towers was used to this by now. He tried not to take it personally.
When he finally pulled into Lexington Center, it was night. His digital watch read 11:04 in garish green numbers. The buildings hung low with muted colors. The store windows were dark. Some had been smashed in, revealing emptied shelves. This strip was dominated by banks, boutiques, and frozen yogurt stores. Towers slowed his truck down at the intersection. It would be around here somewhere. He switched off the engine and hopped out, leaving the truck in the middle of the road.
In the back, wedged between large drums of oil, his little printer whirred and spat out a sheet of paper. He tore it from the machine. “St. Cuthbert,” it read, simply. The smartest, richest, and most powerful people in the entire world had gathered in the City and built an array of satellites that could track both its and his position every second of every day to the meter. He had been given a printer with a radio duct-taped to the side. The City loved to cut costs for people who didn’t matter. Towers crumpled up the paper and tossed it into the street.
Leaves crunched under his feet as he plodded over to the sidewalk. Three days ago the square would have been bustling. The restaurants would have rolled out their patios to soak in the last few days of warmth left in the season and the air would have filled been with warm light, idle chatter, and wisps of cigarette smoke. There would be a line out the movie theater door for the eight o’clock showing of whatever was on. Kids would be lounging around the large green lawn in front of the church, waiting for some interesting trouble to spring to their minds.
The church’s facade had always made him nervous. But Allison had loved the lawn, so he had pretended to love it too. When they were younger, they would chase each other around it in endless loops. When they were older, they would sit against the trunks of the trees, talking for hours in the shade.
The lawn was filled with leaves now. Towers walked across it, his hands jammed deep into the pockets of his brown jacket. The stained glass face of Mr. Christ stared down at him. Towers lingered outside and met his eyes defiantly. Now it was Towers who had the upper hand. When the bird was done with this town there would be nothing left. He turned off his glowing watch and tried the door. It opened inward to his touch, and he slipped inside quickly, closing it behind him.
The Church of Saint Cuthbert was dark. He could see high above him hints of starry sky through the colored glass. And he could hear it breathing. He hadn’t been able to detect its soft, fluttering breaths, at first. He hadn’t even thought that it needed to breathe. Now, like it or not, the sound of its breath was the sound of his home.
Towers approached it, ducking under a sharp wing. He moved slowly, feeling his way through the darkness. It had moved the pews aside to fit its bulk into the space just below the pulpit. He sat gingerly on the edge of one of the pews and reached out a soft hand. He stroked the side of its face, feeling its feathers prick him as he did. It was thirsty. He stuck his index finger into his mouth and sucked the blood away. He walked back to his truck, pulled an oil barrel onto his little cart, and wheeled it back to the church. He worked till just before sunrise, then returned to his truck. He smoked a cigarette and threw the butt into the street. It smoldered on the asphalt, the square’s single spot of light. He watched it burn out slowly.
Towers slept deeply, and woke at eight as his watch alarm beeped. It was dark. He had a cot in the back of his truck, but he often slept in the front seat, as he had last night. It was probably the hunger that had woken him, or perhaps just the loud rumbling of his stomach. There was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his glove compartment, but when he opened it it was all squashed and malformed. He slammed the compartment shut. There was always other food somewhere.
He rolled out onto the street and immediately felt his legs go wobbly. He leaned against the side of his truck and gave himself a moment to fully reenter to world of the waking. His neck was killing him, and he rolled it back and forth a few times. When he was young, he had been told never to do a full rotation, or he’d hurt himself. How or why that would happen had never been explained, but he was still careful.
When his legs were behaving again, he made his creaking way down the strip, past the church, and into the wooded streets of Lexington. He hadn’t set out with a specific goal in mind, just that of getting some food from somewhere, but he quickly realized where his legs had begun to take him. He had had a lot of firsts in this town. Why not say one last goodbye to the house of his first love? Besides, they had always fed him well. They might have left something good behind.
He took a break at the top of Weeks Street, perched at the peak of the small hill there. These streets felt the same as they always did. Quiet. He flicked his penlight on. Even back when he lived here, he had needed light to navigate. The streetlights were few and far in between, the streets badly paved and lined with ditches and trees, and when the sun set it did so completely.
He used to sneak out late at night, and scurry across this exact route. There was a tree in Allison’s yard he could scurry up to reach her bedroom. Or sometimes she’d meet him in the woods, and they’d spend the night wandering. Of course his starting point had been different, back then, but that house had been knocked down and paved over a long time ago. Time had changed the shape of the route. Trees had fallen and slopes eroded. Feet stamped down new paths. He cut from street to yard to forest and back to street, his feet unsteadily but automatically moving dutifully below him.
He was so carefully looking down that it took him until he stepped from the sidewalk to the short trimmed green grass of the front lawn to notice what was wrong. He could see the grass. How green it was. He looked up in bewilderment. The front windows of the house were awash with light, a latticed shadow scattered across the yard. There was never light. Why would there be light? The electric companies should have turned off the power a long time ago. Mr. Song had always had a backup generator; he was always very proud when the power went out but the house stayed lit. But it couldn’t have run for this long without being refueled.
“Who is it!” A voice called out, more accusation than question.
Towers’s head pounded. He hadn’t heard another voice in so long. He opened his mouth to respond but found his mouth dry and his tongue fuzzy. He coughed, unable to form coherent vocals. He hadn’t spoken in longer.
“I warn you, I’m armed,” the voice threatened.
Towers stood rooted in place. His cough was really working its way through him now, heaving out big wracking lungfuls of air. He put a hand up in a placating manner, vaguely in the direction of the house’s second story.
“I’m coming out!” The voice warned, and Towers heard the front door slamming open. He looked up, but the bright windows were ruining his night vision and all he could make out was a large black shape barreling towards him. The shape skidded to a halt a few yards away, brandishing an implement in a threatening manner. “Jesus, is that you, Nel?”
Towers seemed to have regained some control of his breath and managed to squeeze out a raspy “yes,” before beginning to convulse in coughs again. The shape, now clearly a broad shouldered man was a carefully combed over patch of white hair, approached and laid a hand on his shoulder. Towers flinched away, but felt a firm grip of fingers squeeze tight.
“You don’t look so good, Nel,” the man muttered. “Get inside, I’ll get you a drink.”
Towers felt himself ushered through the door and into the gleaming house. The front door led directly into the dining room. He had always felt uncomfortable at meals because of this. The looming door implied to him that they were always expecting company. Mr. Song pushed him around the table and into the kitchen beyond, which spilled out into the living room. A staircase wound its way up to the second floor or their left. The back door stood, locked, on their right. Mr. Song laid the rifle on the kitchen table. He opened a cabinet and threw Towers a bottle of water. “There, that should help.”
Towers hastily tore the cap off and gulped the water down gratefully. Drinking was such a vital process that he surprised himself with how long he could forget to do it. He crinkled the empty plastic sheepishly, raising it in a half salute. “Thank you,” the sound of his own voice was strange, but he liked it. “I guess I needed that.”
Mr. Song was looking him up and down with a blank face that Towers couldn’t quite read. The man had always made him nervous. He had never felt as if he had earned his trust. “Little Nel,” Mr. Song murmured. “Haven’t heard from you since you ran off to college.”
“It was hard to keep in touch,” Towers shrugged. It hadn’t been. He didn’t know what had stopped him. He suspected that he was a coward. He did know that he hated being called Nel. He hated Nelson more. He had always liked Towers though. Short, strong. Towers and Song. They had fit well together.
A woman appeared in the stairway. Her long red hair had gone straight with age and was held back in a loose bun. She looked tired. And very angry. Mr. Song turned to her. “Look who showed up!” he said, loudly.
Mrs. Song looked into Towers’s eyes, and he immediately felt too uncomfortable to meet her gaze. “Nel,” she breathed out. “I didn’t think we’d ever see you again.”
“Neither did I,” Towers replied, his heart beginning to pound. “Why are you still here?”
Mr. Song frowned. “Because it’s my house.” Mrs. Song glowered at him. “Sorry,” he corrected himself. “Our house. It’s our house! I’m not letting the City take that from us just because that idiot President said they could.” He took a few deep breaths. Towers put the empty water bottle down. He very much wished that he had not come here. “But what are you doing here, Nel? Are you looking for Allison?”
Towers shook his head. “No.”
“Well, good, she’s long gone. Virginia. College too. You would’ve known that if you had called her, Nel.” Towers smiled awkwardly. He glanced at Mrs. Song. Her visage was stone. Mr. Song frowned. “So why are you here?”
Towers paused. No use lying. “I followed the bird,” he said. His voice came out low and raspy, almost a whisper.
Mrs. Song didn’t move. “Followed the—” Mr. Song repeated, lost. Then his face hardened. “So that’s what they taught you at that school. How to sell out your home to the City.”
“Actually,” Towers found himself correcting, “I work for Drummel. Which is owned by the Hollis Corporation, which is owned by Nanover, which is owned by the Echo Conglomerate. No one works for ‘the City.’”
“We’re not leaving,” Mr. Song stated bluntly. His fingers twitched. Towers took a step back towards the door, pretending to adjust his stance.
“You have to, Mr. Song,” Towers said. “All of you.” He glanced at Mrs. Song, who had turned her gaze to her husband. “It’s pointless. Everyone knows that. Tomorrow morning there won’t be anything left.”
“We are leaving,” Mrs. Song put bluntly. Towers’s head jerked towards her. She stood stock still, and her gaze was so caustic he was briefly worried that he might turn to stone himself.
Mr. Song turned away from them, and hunched his shoulders over the kitchen table. His fingers found the rifle’s stock. “I will not leave,” he said vehemently. Towers couldn’t tell if he was addressing Towers, his wife, or himself. “I worked for forty years to buy this house from the bank. It’s mine. No one can take it. Not even the City.”
“Then don’t come,” Mrs. Song shrugged. Towers suspected that this was not the first time they had had this discussion. She turned to Towers. “I hear people like us are going West. That there’s still something on the coast. Do you know if that’s true?”
Towers nodded. “I know some people are going there. So there’s something. For now. I don’t know what.”
“Something is better than nothing. It was nice to see you again, Nel. I’ll be upstairs, packing.” She climbed the stairs and was gone.
Mr. Song waited until she left, and then picked up the rifle. He turned quickly and aimed it at Towers. His face was impassive. Towers shot his hands up. “Come on, Mr. Song,” he pleaded.
“What if I just shoot you right now?” Mr. Song asked.
“They would send someone else. It would take another week, but it would all be gone just the same. And they’d send you to prison for life when they found out what you did.”
“Who would send someone?”
“Drummel,” Towers replied.
Mr. Song took a step towards Towers. “What if I shoot you now, and then shoot whoever is in charge over at Drummel.” Towers moved to speak again, but Mr. Song cut him off. “Maybe not me. But maybe another angry man does. What then?”
“Hollis would promote someone new, and they would send someone else, and Lexington is gone all the same,” Towers said.
Mr. Song lowered the rifle. He looked tired. Towers felt a surge of pity for the man. “Why are you doing this, Nel? This is your home too.”
Towers shrugged. “It’s a job, and someone’s going to fill the position. What does it matter if it’s me? I might as well be the one getting paid.”
“How much, Nel?”
“Enough to live on. You need to get out of here, Mr. Song. It isn’t safe.”
Mr. Song let the rifle drop back onto the kitchen table. “What’s the point, Nel? There’s nothing for me in the City. I’m too old. And you’ll just catch up to me, eventually.”
“You can go West, Mr. Song,” Towers felt himself pleading with the man. “There’re something for people like us,” he cut himself off, and frowned. “Like you out there. There’s still work.”
Mr. Song was shaking his head. “No, no there isn’t. Not for me. I worked in the same library for forty years, Nel. Just down the street. What would I do out there?”
Towers shrugged. “Live.” Mr. Song lowered himself heavily into one of the kitchen chairs. Towers took the chair across from him. “I didn’t pick this place. I wouldn’t have picked this place. But the City did. People like us, Mr. Song? We don’t get to make choices anymore. People like me follow the bird. People like you run from her shadow. You’re right, there’s nothing for you out there like the life you used to have. And if the City had anything for you, you wouldn’t be here now. But that’s no reason to stay. Go be with your family.”
“What do you care what happens to me?” Mr. Song wasn’t looking at him, really. He seemed to be focused on the old electric clock on the other end of the kitchen. Towers didn’t have to turn to see it. Its black hands floated above a brightly lit blue face.
“I spent more time here than I did in my own home,” Towers said. Mr. Song frowned. “You didn’t ask for a third child, but you let me know I was always welcome.” Towers rose. “Goodbye Mr. Song.” On the way out he noticed that the dining room table had been set for four. He shuddered, and left through the front door.
On his way back Towers climbed through the broken window of a gas station and helped himself to some stale power bars from a display in the back. He crossed the street to the old high school. A looming, brick building, it had never laid claim to anything special, neither architecturally nor academically. Towers went around to the side and sat on a wooden bench that overlooked the soccer field. Taking advantage of a rare gap in the tree cover, the moon shone down on the grass. He unwrapped a power bar and bit into it.
“Sit down with me,” Towers called out into the night.
A boy joined him on the bench. He hungrily took in Towers’s features, from the rough main of stubble to the blackness under his nails to the rings under his eyes.
“Why didn’t you come downstairs?” Towers asked.
The boy chewed on his lip. “Mom wouldn’t let me.” Towers offered him a power bar. The boy waved it down. “I don’t want to leave, Nel.” Towers flashed him a look. “Sorry, Towers.” He rolled his eyes. “She got to call you Nel.”
Towers threw away the first wrapper and cracked a second. “Doesn’t matter what you want, Sam. I want an office job, with fresh coffee every morning, but I took a test and it told me I wasn’t smart enough, so here I am instead.”
Sam bore down on his lip in silence. Towers finished his second bar. “How is she?” he asked at last.
“I think she’s fine. She’s at college. Virginia.”
“I came here from Virginia.”
“Oh?” Sam asked. Then his face hardened. “Oh.” He kicked at the dirt. “Is there anything left?”
“No. Nothing. It’s all the City’s now. But most people got out.” They lapsed into uncomfortable silence for a few minutes before Towers could find any more words. “Did she ever talk about me?” Towers put down the rest of the bars. He had lost his appetite.
“We didn’t talk much,” Sam said. Towers narrowed his eyes. The goalpost was catching the moonlight and shining a brilliant white in the darkness. “You never called.”
“Come with us, Nel. We can find her.”
Towers shook his head. “I’m not your brother, Sam.”
“But,” Sam started to say, before Towers cut him off.
“No. I have a job to do.”
“What happens when you’ve been everywhere?”
“Haven’t been everywhere yet.” Towers moved to his feet. Sam scampered up after him. Towers’s eyes had fallen onto the dark shape of the high school. “I’m sorry you never got the chance to go. It was good there. I think I may have peaked there. If happiness is any metric. I don’t think it is anymore.”
“Can I see it?”
Towers started walking. “Sure.”
“No lights. Just listen.” The church rose up in front of them. He and Samuel Song had been here together many times before. The circumstances weren’t too different. Just worship of a different power.
“Can’t I just see it for one second? Please?” Sam asked.
“No.” Towers said. “No lights on her, not even for a moment.”
Sam relented and nodded. Then, his eyebrows knitted together. “Her?”
Towers paused, hand on the wide doors. He shrugged. “I call her Bluebird.” Can a machine be alive? He wasn’t sure, but he had been alone with her for so long.
“My mother told me that bluebirds steal eggs from other birds. I thought that was very sad when I was little. Still,” he pushed the doors open, and lowered his voice to a whisper. “They are beautiful, aren’t they? Take my hand.”
Towers led Sam into the dark church. The Bluebird shifted as she slept. She was hungry, and she was almost ready. Towers liked to imagine that she could dream. Perhaps she dreamed of a tired man with soft hands. He took Sam to a pew in the back and sat him down. “Don’t move, don’t make a sound,” he whispered.
Her wings had unfurled since the last time he was here. He stepped inside of them and felt their faint heat around him. He ran his hand along their length. His palm bled. She sighed in her sleep. She must be hungry. She always needed so much oil before she worked. Sam fidgeted in the back. Towers sat inside of its wings and leaned against her, waiting out the minutes in silence.
This was wrong. Silently, he moved back to where Sam was sitting, took his hand, and led him from the church. Outside, Sam frowned at the blood and wiped his hand on the door, leaving a red print behind.
Towers folded his arms. “You need to leave.”
Sam nodded. But he lingered. “Is it true though, what they say about them?”
“That it was an accident. Discovering them.”
Towers smiled. “I used to think that too.”
“Yeah. Used to.” He put a finger on the streak of blood on the door, tracing its path down the grain. “I think I wanted to believe that we wouldn’t willfully make something so…” he stopped, and took his hand back, wiping it clean on the back of his pants. “Well, anyway, we would. We did. It’s a new world, the City. It’s better there. But it doesn’t care about the old world out here. And it won’t stop growing until there’s nothing of the old world left.” He looked Sam in the eye. The younger boy turned away. “You have to go, Sam.”
Sam nodded, mostly to himself. “This is it, then?”
“I don’t know what to say, Nel.”
“Goodbye, I guess.” Sam stuck out a hand, and Towers awkwardly took it. Blood squeezed out from between their fingers.
“If you see her,” Towers began. But then he stopped. He had no idea where that thought had been headed.
“Nothing. Don’t tell her about me.”
Sam looked away uncomfortably. Then he reached into his pocket and took out a watch. It was battered and cheap, and light in Towers’s palm as Sam handed it to him. “I found it in her room,” Sam said, still not meeting the older boy’s eyes. “It’s yours, isn’t it?”
Towers turned away. His eyes were wet, and his cheeks flushed with shame. “Yeah,” he muttered. “Thanks.”
Sam bounced from one foot to another for a few moments, and then turned to leave. The trees swallowed up his slight frame.
Towers waited outside for a few minutes, and then went back into the church. In the dark he sat, turning the watch over and over in his hand. The morning he left, he had told her how he felt. Then they kissed. Then he got in the car and drove away. “Eight o’clock tonight,” he said, before he rolled the window up. “I’ll call you.” He took off his old watch and gave it to her. “So you know when it’s eight,” he said with a smile. She swapped it with her own, which was digital and sparkling new. She set an alarm on it for eight, and then gave it to him. “So you don’t forget,” she smiled back.
For seven years he had kept hers. He had always assumed she had done the same.
He sat there till just before the sun rose. Then he slipped out of the church, oil untouched, and went back to his truck.
Towers lit a cigarette, slid it between his lips, and started the car. He paused, his hands on the wheel, the truck idling loudly underneath him. He drove up Weeks Street and took the long way around to the house. The sun began to peek its head up from the horizon, and thin rays of light filtered through the trees as he stepped out onto the lawn. The house was dark, but he thought he saw a shadow move in one of the second story windows. It looked out across the street at the boy and his truck and then slipped away.
Towers felt a wave of bile rise up in his stomach. What pointless, destructive protest.
He drove a few miles South as the sun rose. He parked his truck on the empty highway and sat on the hood, facing North and leaning back against the windshield.
She woke. Her rising body, propelled by powerful wings, shattered the roof of the church. The steeple fell, its ringing bell cutting through the soft bird calls of the early morning. The church collapsed. The square collapsed. The trees melted. She beat her wings painfully, heavily, each pulse of devastation draining what little oil remained. She was hungry. So hungry. Towers watched. She screamed in frustration. And then she gave up, and flew North.
Towers finished his cigarette and flicked it to the ground. He felt his eyes closing, and let it happen.
He woke at noon, the sun glaring directly down into his red eyes. He licked his dry lips, pressed a hand onto his rumbling stomach, and got back into the truck. It roared to life under his touch. He would have time to take care of himself later.
When he had first taken the job he would always return when it had finished to marvel at its work. He would drive around the perfect, empty circle. No ruins, no signs of life. A clean slate. Weeks later, when he had a rare moment of free time, he would come back to see what had become of the land. Sometimes the City itself would have taken it, its shining glass buildings popping up overnight like weeds. Sometimes it would be a sleekly automated farm, or a rumbling mine, sucking the earth dry to feed the endlessly growing City.
He didn’t know what Lexington would look like now. He didn’t know if Weeks Street had been far enough from the church. He was too tired to care.
He took the first exit West that he could find. At the bottom of the ramp he found himself blocked by another car. He slowed, and got out of the truck.
Sam Song smiled from his perch on the hood. He turned to his mother. “See? I told you he’d come.”
Mrs. Song arched an eyebrow from the front seat. Towers went around to the back of his truck and pulled the fax machine into the street. There was a printed paper in the tray, but he left it there without looking. He smashed his boot into the machine and felt it crumple under his weight. If the City needed to talk to him they could drive West themselves. Then he grabbed his cigarettes and lighter from the dashboard, stuffed them into his pockets, and left the door open and the keys in the ignition. He slid into the passenger seat of the Song’s car. Mrs. Song nodded at him. He nodded back. She started the car and they slipped away.
That night, on the road, Towers was woken by his watch alarm. He looked at the bright numbers. Eight o’clock.