Our house is dark. More than ten thousand households are without electricity, according to the announcer on my portable hand-cranked radio. He sounds like he’s been crying.
Our cat is running from room to room, searching for something to hide under. I’ve chopped up all the furniture and nailed it to the windows. Nothing can get in — I hope.
My wife has pushed our heavy dining room table against our front door. Good for her. She’s not ready to give up. Not yet.
We hear noises outside: wings flapping and a hideous pecking and scratching against our vinyl siding. And of course the squawking.
My only flashlight went out an hour ago. All we’ve got left are some lavender-scented dollar store candles. They don’t provide much light — perfect for a romantic dinner but useless for this crisis. They don’t even smell good. They smell like cheap lavender underarm deodorant. Already I’ve got a headache from them.
My wife runs to me, and we hold each other close. The pecking and scratching is louder now. The cat cowers at our feet. The squawking rises to an insane pitch: “Hello! Hello! Who wants a cracker? I love you! I love you!” Taunting us. They’re taunting us.
The cat’s fur is standing straight up. She appears twice her normal size. A neat trick, but I don’t think it’ll do her much good in this situation. I envy her, though. If I could puff myself up to twice my normal size maybe I’d find the courage to make a run to the car. But then I remember I drive a subcompact. If I were all puffed up like the cat, I’d never fit behind the wheel. Maybe I could spread out in the back seat and let my wife drive. Nah, if I was puffed up twice my normal size we couldn’t even get the doors closed. We’d be sitting ducks. I told you, it’s a subcompact.
I crank up the radio and raise the volume so we can hear it over the pecking and squawking outside. The announcer is talking fast. Little by little we make sense of what he is telling us.
Not long ago, to the surprise of ornithologists, a colony of tropical parrots made itself at home near the old Albany Steam Station. These “monk parakeets” as they are called, built a heavy nest on a switchyard tower, causing this power outage.
Fifteen birds make up this colony. Police suspect they are escaped pets, or the offspring of escaped pets. Their ringleader is a large myiopsitta monachus believed to have arrived in this country illegally by cargo ship. Whether he falsified documents, or merely hid under a shipment of bananas, is unknown to us. But he is here, and he is stirring up trouble.
A man walking down the street enjoying a Ritz cracker was pecked to within an inch of his life. A local Cracker Barrel restaurant was burglarized. The Nabisco factory is in flames. A truck delivering a shipment of saltines to an Italian restaurant was commandeered and diverted to the switchyard nest. It’s our crackers. It’s our crackers they’re after.
For years they watched with envious eyes as we nibbled our hors d’oeuvres, made mindless small talk over our canapés, feasted on our sesame, our multigrain, our whole wheat crackers, the crumbs sticking to our chins in tempting little beak-sized bites. They watched us. And waited. All they needed was a charismatic leader to inspire them into action. And he is here.
The announcer stops talking. For a moment there is dead air. Then comes a muffled scream. This is followed by several sickening thuds (the poor man being beaten over the head with his own microphone, evidently) then more dead air. Finally we hear a different voice over the airwaves, a high-pitched singsong cry: “Can you say your name? My name is Polly!”
My wife grabs the radio from my hand and hurls it to the floor. It explodes into a million pieces. The stinky, flickering candles throw weird patterns against the dark walls and boarded-up windows.
Suddenly there is a flutter of wings from behind our mantel. “Oh my God!” I shout. “The chimney!”
Something has emerged from the fireplace. Something fat and beaky and feathery, with a pointy head and a proud, mad glint in its eyes. Somehow I understand that this is the alpha male monk parakeet, the ringleader, the top bird. A pungent smell hits my nostrils. The cat has voided its bowels. Or was it me?
Finally the thing speaks. Despite its limited vocabulary, the malevolence it radiates is palpable. “Pretty boy! Hello! Hello!”
With the strength of a superman, I lift the dining room table and toss it away from our front door. I scoop up the cat and grab my wife’s hand and we run outside to the car. I whisper thanks to the Creator when the ignition sparks immediately. The parakeets hadn’t thought to tamper with the engine. Maybe they’re not as smart as we’d feared.
I shift to reverse. Tires squeal as I lurch out of our driveway. There is a squawk from under the car, then a spray of feathers. “I think I got one of them!” I yell.
My heart is pounding as I turn onto Main Street. In my rear view mirror I see the cat staring out the window at the horror we’ve left behind. My wife snaps on her seat belt and curses under her breath. I shift into high gear and aim for the Interstate. There is no traffic, no sign of life anywhere.
I punch the radio on, hoping for some news, some sanity, anything at all to make sense of what we’ve endured. I hear static. I search until I hear a bright, high-pitched voice boom from the car speakers: “Squawk! Hello! Squawk! Hello!”
My wife turns off the radio. I check the fuel gauge. We’ve got a full tank. My plan is to drive north as far as I can, where the weather is too cold for tropical parakeets. I can almost feel my body relax.
Until I hear a flutter of wings from the back seat, and a shriek from the cat.