Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

Caw

Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap;
Which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God
feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls?

—Luke 12:24

He looks at me, and I am his. A steady rhythm of flickering light cast from above, pursuing me like a shadow. I scurry through tunnels, crawl through gutters and across fields, and always he is there. Relentless, wearing me down, toying with me. I escape it, breathless and relieved. But when I look down into the puddle of water at my feet, he is me. Black eyes slowly displace my brown, like thick tar pouring slowly into my pupils. Soft red lips stretch into a hard, pointed beak. Oily black feathers spread across brown, hairless skin. And when I open my mouth to speak, words become an unearthly caw that shakes the trees.

• • • •

The rotting carcass of a crow is pierced on a stake in the middle of the cul-de-sac, a grotesque scarecrow forewarning interlopers while simultaneously heralding the end of the world. It only pisses off the crows. Their cawing wakes me from my nightmare before the sun rises above the horizon.

Shaken from my starvation-induced stupor, I awake in the ransacked living room of an abandoned home. We slept in a huddle for the heat, five strangers thrown together by circumstance and an uneasy cooperation. We met just days before, but I can’t remember their names.

It’s been 183 days since the first murders attacked, and I’ve been running for at least half of that. A pandemic of prophetic proportions, it infected humanity with an ailment we could not predict with an algorithm nor cure in a lab. It was biblical. Before communications went dark, the media called it Corvus. And we are the remnants.

Why stop running now?

I’m tired, so tired.

My head is aching.

Can’t think straight.

My body hurts.

I just need to rest.

More sleep.

I saw the old man first. He opened a window as I raced across suburban yards, hurling my body over fences, the murder closing in. I kept my eyes on his pale white, liver-spotted hands waving me forward, and ignored the chaos behind me. I dove, and he dragged me through to safety with trembling but steady hands. Another body slammed the window shut behind me. I remember the thud of crows hitting the glass behind me, unable to stop the speed of their dive and meeting a cold, bloodied death against unrelenting glass.

With the old man was a teenage boy, Black like me, and my heart swelled. I wasn’t the last one! Survival had heightened old hatreds. Folks were even less welcoming now, and my body was a target in more than one way. But this young man had made it. His smiling brown face felt like home.

An unlikely pair, the teen and the old man found refuge in this large, colonial home just days before my rescue. The original owners were long gone, either taken by the crows or relocated to the South American sanctuaries for the wealthy. The old man and the boy had set up camp in the living room—the boy providing the strength and optimism of youth, the old man lending his wisdom for survival. They welcomed me with awkward smiles, and assured me that although there was little food, here I would find safety and rest.

The woman and child arrived two days later. Stumbling into the cul-de-sac, the woman was a broad and sun-burnt middle-aged white woman. Even half-starved, she possessed the taut muscle tone of a former college athlete—strong softball, lacrosse vibes in this one. She dragged a small Asian child by the hand with the condescending magnanimity of an evangelical at a mission camp. The child squirmed in her grip, but reluctantly followed behind, eyes downcast, body tense and poised to bolt. She did not know this woman.

A handful of crows watched lazily from tree branches and telephone pole perches as the woman knocked on door after door. We too watched as doors swung open to offer refuge, but the woman would only grab the child and back away. I did not fault her distrust. I could only imagine the trauma she experienced on the road. My own travels had been hard, and I wasn’t traveling with a child. Running is never easy when there is nowhere to run.

When she knocked on our door, she found a kind, harmless old man at the other end, and entered with an exhale. She seemed less certain when she set eyes on me and the boy, but by then the door was shut, and the little girl was making herself at home. The boy and I tried to be less intimidating, grinning stupidly, offering them food and blankets with deferential tones. The world was ending, and we were still code-switching.

Some things are hard to switch off.

The little girl looked to be no older than five or six. She was shy, but smart enough to recognize relief, and immediately dove into a bowl of lentil and ham soup. The woman explained that the child had been abandoned and she had picked her up along the way. After traveling together for days, she was confident that the girl did not speak or understand English. But when I looked into the child’s sweet, round face and intelligent eyes, I saw comprehension there. She would speak when she felt safe.

When we are safe, we find the words that escaped us in conflict. Right now, no one is particularly chatty. So, we remain strangers. A new reality has emerged—a primitive, scavenging existence where we can scarcely trust one another, and loved ones are a liability. Not so different than before. As good as it is to rest, I know that I am not safe with these people—it only takes one. When I forget, my nightmares remind me.

• • • •

The girl is awake now, too. She sits in a corner, away from the heat of the huddle. She stares at me with wide, wild eyes and pulls a blanket closer to her chin.

“Are you having nightmares, too?”

She does not answer, but I understand. We’re living a nightmare.

“Are you hungry?”

She nods eagerly.

The embers burn low in the hearth, so I throw in the leg of a chair. The furniture was cheap, and it took short work to break it down for firewood. It’s been harder to find food and fresh water. I throw the last pot of clean water on the heat and pour in the last packet of dehydrated soup. Someone will have to go out for more supplies.

In the distance there is the shrill of a caw, and my body involuntarily shivers. “I’m not going back out there,” I say as much to myself as to the universe, but I know it is a lie. If we stay, we starve. If we starve, we’re extinct—the entire fucking species. Stakes are too high to cower and hide. I spent six years in the Ivy League proving my intellectual prowess to people and institutions unworthy of the effort, but it didn’t prepare me for this shit.

I’m on the verge, really at the edge of my sanity. Songs sooth and stories help process what my conscious mind refuses to accept. I begin to hum an old tune—some distant memory of a nursery rhyme melody. The story flows easily from my lips. The cold cruelness of the words brings an odd relief, to finally acknowledge what my mind has been fighting to deny:

With eyes to black
And feathers fine
This crow has taken
What was mine.

The flames seem to rise and dance as I sing softly so as not to wake the others. The child crawls towards me, her movements tentative. So, I continue to sing:

Glare so piercing
Voice so raw
It ripped my soul out
With one nasty caw

She sighs and rests her head on my shoulder. I wrap my arm around her and slowly rock:

It dances now
With arms and legs
Denies my pleas
Cackles as I beg

The child begins to giggle, a peculiar response to words so dark—but little kids are always drawn to the ominous. Perhaps it is a primordial instinct, before little girls are indoctrinated with a social propriety that instructs them to prefer dolls to the dead. We no longer live in that world.

Her laughter is infectious, and I too find myself chuckling at the absurdity of it all. We snicker through the rest as I pretend to peck her like a crow:

Hunts me
Throws stone at my wings
Snatches me
Ties me up in strings

“That’s not an appropriate song for a child.” The woman stretches awake, her blond Karen-cut plastered ridiculously to one side of her head. The first thing she asked for when she arrived was a pair of scissors to maintain her “let me talk to your manager” mystique. I’m certain she had a family of her own once, and ruled them with the iron-fist intolerance of an HOA-fascist planning a gluten-free bake sale to restore a Confederate statue. And I’m her gluten.

She likes to scold. It’s only been a few days, but I’m already tired of her reprimands.

So, I tickle the child and obstinately finish our song.

Remember, remember the wise words of old
Centuries ago, it was foretold
Never ever look a crow in the eye
Lest ye want to die.

The child erupts into a fit of laughter, squirming away from my tickles.

“What should we call our song?” I ask her.

“Caw!” she shouts.

The perfect name.

Karen rolls her eyes and pushes me aside to check the pot. “Hmm, thought I smelled soup.”

“That’s the last packet.”

She doesn’t look at me. “Then you should tie up your hair so it doesn’t fall into the little soup we do have left,” she scolds between sips.

My hand moves self-consciously to the tightly coiled curls that surround my face. I can’t remember the last time I combed it out—too busy surviving—but I’m certain it isn’t falling into the soup. Still, Karen’s words bite. Memories surface of second grade ballet and thick coils that could not fit into the uniformity of the perfect bunhead. I step away from the pot and pull my hair into a tight poof with a bit of string. Karen nods in approval—and damn me—I smile back.

“I’ll make a run for more,” the teenager volunteers. “I’m quicker than y’all.” He stands up from his pallet on the floor, blankets dropping from his body to reveal a black sweatshirt with a familiar logo from what seems like another world—Reebok. He could be my brother with his mahogany skin and hair that mirrors my own.

“Good idea,” Karen tells him.

I feel bad that I’ve forgotten the boy’s name, but I’m not going to let him sacrifice himself for strangers—even if one of them is me.

“We’ll figure something out,” I interject. “I’ll double-check the pantry for canned goods.”

“There’s nothing in that kitchen but rotten food and roaches,” Karen snaps.

Reebok and I exchange a glance.

“Can’t hurt to check again—” he begins.

“Fine,” Karen cuts him off, “I’ll check. You, don’t burn the soup.” She hands me the soup spoon and breezes out of the living room before we can say anything else.

“She’s the worst,” Reebok says.

“The absolute,” I agree.

Is it a wonder that Baby Girl pretends to not speak English?

• • • •

The sun pierces the curtained windows, so I begin to fold the blankets and pillows scattered about. This may be the apocalypse, but it doesn’t have to be messy.

Karen returns from the kitchen empty handed.

“Nothing?” I ask.

“Not a single can,” she answers, but she looks away nervously.

I frown.

She avoids my eyes, and turns to stir the soup, staring intently into the depths of the pot.

I glance at Reebok, but he only shrugs. So I turn back to the blankets.

“Morning,” I whisper with a gentle shake. The old man has been a restless sleeper, tossing and turning, walking the house all hours of the night. I’m glad he was finally able to get some rest. If we’re well-rested, it’ll make a supply run that much easier. But when I shake the blankets, expecting to hit the old man’s sleeping body, there is nothing there but more blankets.

Last night, exhaustion and lack of nutrients pushed me into the deepest sleep I have had in over a hundred days.

Could I have dropped my guard so easily?

When did the old man rise?

Why did someone pile up the blankets to look like a sleeping body?

“Hey, where is—?”

My question is cut off by the shrieking cry of a murder. We rush to the living room window. The sun is suddenly blocked by dozens of cawing crows, and the sound is unbearable. The rhythmic whipping of their wings sets pace to ear-splitting shrieks—the war cry of hell beasts, coordinated and focused on a single target. It chills me to my bones, and I thank God that this time the target is not me. As the murder descends, an unnatural fog moves with it, and the unmistakable scent of sulfur. We can smell it through the double-paned glass.

“Dear God,” Karen cries as we cover our noses with collars and sleeves.

Through the fog emerges a sprinting figure carrying a sack of supplies slung across its shoulder. I can see the imprints of canned goods and water bottles through the fabric. They run in a zigzag, trying to shake the murder from its back, but the crows follow in supernatural pursuit, predicting its every move. The figure turns right, the murder is already there. The figure dashes left, the murder heads it off.

“Come on,” Reebok cries, “You can make it!”

And before we know it, we’re all shouting at the fleeing figure—a young man, really, a kid—encouraging him on as he tries to reach the shelter of one of the homes. Canned goods and supplies fall from the sack, but he cannot stop. He’s in a full sprint now, mere yards from the open entrance of a door, the silhouette of other survivors encouraging him forward. God, he’s fast—but not fast enough.

The murder dives.

The crows surround the boy, halting his run. The boy turns, but there is no longer a route of escape. Heavy wings encircle him, flapping through the air in a dizzying spiral that escalates in speed until it transforms into a single black ribbon whipping mercilessly around this poor kid. We can barely see what happens next, but it is enough. Human hands snatch fowl from sky and tear into them with his only weapon—teeth. The bloodied bodies of crows are thrown onto overgrown lawns and front porches. But there are too many, and the murder is not easily deterred. They peck and claw, not enough to do permanent damage—just enough to break the spirit. The murder moves in closer, the ribbon tightens, and the boy falls to his knees. His howls can be heard over the incessant flapping of wings.

I cover Baby Girl’s eyes with my hand—she shouldn’t see this—but she shakes it off and presses her face against the window. Again, I understand her. I also must see.

The murder widens its circle around the fallen body of the boy, allowing entrance for but a single crow to hover above. The boy looks up, the crow looks down, a thick fog obscures the rest. We bang futilely against the window. The boy’s anguish, our anguish. The entire neighborhood rings with a collective and pained, “No!”

It doesn’t matter that we’ve seen this before. Too many times. We wait for what seems like an eternity for the fog to dissipate. The murder ascends into the sky, a dark cloud against a brilliant blue. A moment later, the day is perfect—unmarred by the horror of just a few moments ago. Clear skies and bright sun return. Bees buzz, squirrels dance through the trees, and sparrows return to the air.

The boy’s lifeless body lies in the middle of the cul-de-sac. It doesn’t take long for the body to awkwardly rise on unsteady legs, still unfamiliar with the mechanics of human anatomy. It lifts its arm to the sky in triumph and mocks us with an earth-trembling caw that no human mouth should cry.

I do not know from which direction it comes, but the rapid fire of gun shots echoes from everywhere at once. We jump back from the window as the boy falls once again amidst a pile of canned goods, water bottles and medical supplies, bullets rattling his body. In the distance is the furious cry of the crows.

“This is unreal,” is all I can utter.

The child once again cowers in a corner.

Karen paces.

Reebok just stares out the window, unable to look away from the body—a boy, probably his age.

“It wasn’t a human anymore,” Karen tells herself.

“He fought well,” I add.

“This is so fucked up!” Reebok cries. He crumbles to the floor and buries his head between his knees. I want to comfort him, but I can barely move.

“No matter how many times I see that—” I begin.

“It’s still terrifying,” Karen finishes.

We lock eyes and share a moment.

Then the body falls out of the closet.

• • • •

We run into the kitchen, with its dry faucet, refrigerator full of rotting food, and empty cupboards. Roaches scurry across the counters in search of crumbs that human desperation licked cleaned days ago. I have a fleeting thought about roasting them with a few wild onions from the yard, until the smell hits me—human excrement. Then I notice the body in the middle of the linoleum.

Our first instinct is to protect the children. Karen pushes the little girl behind her. I place my hand on Reebok’s chest, stopping him from getting any closer.

There lies our fifth survivor—the old man, surrounded by brooms and mops, his Levi’s 501s soiled with his blood, urine and shit. Someone stuffed him in the utility closet, its door swinging back & forth. A thin red line, still moist, is cut across his neck—enough to create a pool of congealed blood across his chest, but not deep enough to drain him quick. Roaches dart across his body, eager to get a taste. Empty eye sockets stare up at us as we gawk at the body.

“Is he dead?” I ask no one in particular.

Then Levi moans.

And we scream.

Reebok rushes to his side and places the old man’s head in his lap.

“Press it against the wound,” I hand him a kitchen towel.

“Tie this around his eyes,” Karen tosses another.

“What happened?” Reebok asks the old man as he tends to the wounds, but Levi is unable to answer. We watch his labored movements as he struggles to lift an arm and point a shaking finger in Karen’s direction.

Reebok and I just stare at her, unsure of a next move.

“You did this?” my voice quivers.

Karen calmly rolls her eyes. “He doesn’t have any eyes. What makes you think he’s pointing at me?”

Levi begins to gargle, a pained sound as he struggles to form words. Reebok and I lean in as the old man croaks, “She.”

We turn back to Karen.

“Listen, he came after the child,” she confesses, “I swear, I was defending the little one.”

“He’s an old man!” Reebok shouts.

“So, you thought you’d be judge, jury and executioner?” I ask.

“I didn’t think. It happened so quickly. I heard him in the kitchen trying to hurt the girl. I’m a—I was a mother. I went into mama bear mode . . .” her voice trails off.

“When did this happen?” I ask with as much calm as I can muster.

Karen backs away towards the door. I swear if this woman tries to run, I will drag her back by her pixie cut. “Last night,” she answers.

“Why didn’t we hear anything?”

“Well, you were out cold,” Karen shrugs.

“Where were you?” I ask Reebok.

He hesitates, and then responds sheepishly, “I was in the bathroom.”

“All night!”

Reebok looks away.

Ugh, teenage boys!

“He was trying to hurt the girl,” Karen repeats. “I swear.”

`I look to the child, who nods meekly.

“And you weren’t going to tell us?” My last nerve is gone. “You were just going to let his body rot in a broom closet?”

“I —,” Karen stutters, “I didn’t know how to explain, so I took care of it myself. I didn’t want you to throw us out—we can’t go back out there, not so soon. I didn’t think you’d believe me because we just got here. I mean, I don’t know you people!”

“Well, we don’t know you either!” Reebok shouts, his eyes filling with tears. “This man took care of me!”

I snatch a knife from the kitchen counter, likely the murder weapon. I grab the little girl from behind Karen.

“Did you do it with this?” I wave the knife in Karen’s face. “But why take his eyes? What type of sick, ritualistic, minivan carpool, PTA, Super Cuts, psychotic shit is that, Karen?”

“My name is not Karen!” she shouts back. “What type of ghetto homegirl shit is that!”

Last straw.

I approach, knife blade held high, and Karen backs against the wall. “Homegirl, huh? I got your homegirl.”

“I didn’t take his eyes,” Karen throws up her hands in surrender, “I swear, he had eyes when I left him.”

“For the record, I no longer feel safe in this house with this lady,” Reebok chimes in.

You and me both, kid.

“You don’t feel safe with me,” Karen scoffs, “Ain’t that a twist.”

“I’m not the one slaying old men and hiding bodies,” Reebok shouts back.

“He’s a predator!” Karen screams, “Ever wonder why he was taking such good care of a strange, BLACK teenage boy. You should be thanking me!”

“Are you kidding me, lady. I’m not twelve—” Reebok starts.

“But wait—” I’m thinking, “if she didn’t take his eyes—”

“Don’t believe her!” Reebok cautions.

“—what would pluck out eyes?”

Reebok answers the question before I can. “Shit, there’s a crow in the house.”

But before any of us can process that realization, we’re assaulted by the smell of smoke and the crackle of flames.

“The soup!”

• • • •

Karen and I race into the living room to find flames dancing across the blankets and pillows surrounding the hearth. We fight through the smoke to tear curtains from windows, and stomp frantically to stop the spread of the fire. By the time we’re able to subdue the flames, our eyes are red and our throats raw. I flip open a couple of windows, just enough to let a little smoke out, but not enough to let in a crow, and we survey the damage.

The carpet surrounding the hearth has been scorched down to the unfinished wood. Our blankets and pillows are burnt or covered in ash. A heavy layer of smoke still hangs in the air, making it difficult to breathe. We’ll need to relocate to another room in the house, one where we can build a fire for heat and cooking. Much worse, the pot of soup has been scorched black, its contents a dried sticky goo caked to the bottom. We have no more food.

“This day just keeps getting better and better,” Karen sighs.

Reebok drags Levi to the sofa and lies him down with a gentle touch uncommon for a boy his age. The old man is barely conscious.

“I need to clean him up and bandage his wounds,” Reebok says.

“Are you serious,” Karen exclaims, “We’re not nursing him back to health!”

Reebok ignores her. Instead, he walks over to the window and taps a finger against the glass. He points towards the pile of supplies around the dead, soulless body in the middle of the street. “There’s water out there. Food too. And I think I see a few bottles of peroxide.”

I nod, “If the old man can tell us what took his eyes, we’ll all be safer. I want him well enough to talk.”

“You’re making a mistake,” Karen protests. “He’s dangerous.”

“Then you can leave,” Reebok challenges. “But the little girl stays here with us not-attempted-murderers.”

The little girl is back in her corner, quiet but listening.

Karen looks to her, “I need to keep her safe. My own kids . . .” The words are choked off.

“And I’m not letting him die,” Reebok says. “Not until he can tell his side of the story.”

Karen scoffs.

“Either way, we need that food,” I reason. “This was the last of our soup. There’s nothing left to eat—for any of us. You want her to starve too?” I ask Karen, pointing to the girl who just blinks back from the safety of her corner.

“I’ll go,” Reebok says, already slipping on his sneakers. “We need to get those supplies before someone else does.”

“Nah—we all go.” I turn to Reebok and lower my voice to a whisper. “If we’re going to make it through this thing, we’ve got to stop sacrificing ourselves for other people. It’s everybody or nobody,” I tell him, fighting against a lifetime of socialization to serve, to be useful, to prove myself worthy. If I teach this kid nothing else, it’s this.

Reebok nods.

I turn back to Karen. “The crows won’t hurt our bodies, not really. They want them intact. The kid grabs the supplies while you and I fend off the crows. The girl stays here.”

“Not with him,” Karen points to Levi.

“He can’t even walk,” Reebok responds.” He’s no harm to anyone now. You saw to that.”

“What about the crow in the house?” Karen asks. “I didn’t take his eyes.”

“As far as we know,” I respond, “that crow could be you. That’s why you’re coming with. Let’s see how you do against a murder, instead of a helpless old man.”

Karen doesn’t answer.

“If we do this right,” Reebok says, “it’ll take five minutes—ten, tops. We dash out, grab the loot and dash back in. Easy peasy.”

I admire the bravery of adolescence. “And we can sort out the rest on full bellies.”

“Okay then, what about them?” Karen points to the telephone wires where half a dozen crows sit in wait. “Those supplies are bait.”

“I’m not letting him die,” Levi says.

“And we’re not starving to death,” I add.

“Someone out there has a gun,” Karen reminds us, “They could shoot us for just trying to get that food. You may be used to dodging bullets—”

I snap, “Can you come up with any solutions, or just more problems?”

Karen shakes her head. “This is suicide.”

“Well, we could eat the roaches,” I propose, “or the old man over there.”

Levi moans.

“There’s still the problem of water, though . . .” I pretend to ponder. “I suppose we could drink our own urine.”

“Okay, okay,” Karen relents. “Alright, your way.”

• • • •

We arm up with kitchen cutlery and workshop tools. I outfit myself with the kitchen knife and a barbecue fork, while Karen grabs a couple of sharp hatchets from the garage. Reebok is going to need his hands to grab the loot, but he finds a pair of goggles to protect his eyes, Levi’s condition making him a little skittish.

The girl watches us from her corner as Levi moans through perhaps the last moments of his life.

I sit next to the old man and lower my voice, “Listen, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if you tried to hurt that little girl or if Karen over there is a Real Housewife gone crazy. But I will get to the bottom of this.”

Levi gently squeezes my hand.

“There’s food, water and medical supplies out there,” I continue, “And we’re going to get it. That little girl is hanging back. I don’t think you can really move, and I know you can’t see, but I swear to God if you try to hurt that baby girl, I’ll finish what was started. Understood?”

Levi’s face distorts into a pained expression. He tries to rise but he’s too weak. His head slumps back down to the sofa and he moans in resignation.

I head to the front door with Karen, Reebok and Baby Girl trailing behind. We crack the door and peer cautiously outside. The crows on the telephone wire immediately turn toward us in an eerie synchronization.

“Shit,” is all I can say.

The little girl tugs at my shirt.

“It’s okay,” I lie. “We’ll be right back. Stay away from the mean man in the living room. Close the door behind us and watch from the window. When you see us come running back to the house, open the door. Okay?”

The little girl nods.

“Don’t forget somebody in one of these houses is shooting,” says Karen-with-the-unnecessary-reminders.

“They’re shooting crows, not people,” I respond with a confidence I do not feel.

“If we hear shots, we turn back,” says Reebok—ever the young voice of reason.

Karen and I nod in uncertain agreement. But no one moves.

“This is crazy,” Reebok laughs.

“The world is crazy,” I respond.

“True dat,” Karen agrees.

Reebok and I turn to her and groan.

“Well, let’s go fuck up some crows!” I shout.

Reebok takes off running, and Karen and I follow closely behind. The fog comes out of nowhere. It hugs our ankles, creating the illusion of walking on cold, misty clouds. With it comes a damp chill that settles into the bones, and the pungent smell of sulfur. With my right hand I clutch the barbecue fork and knife, and with my left I reach through the mirk to fill my pockets with stones.

The cawing begins almost immediately—just one or two birds, but enough to test our resolve.

They’re calling to the murder.

The street before us is suddenly obscured, concealing the bounty of goods at the center of the cul-de-sac. The outline of the fallen body is faint, but clear enough to serve as a guidepost. Reebok races toward it and we follow—too far to turn back. We reach the body in seconds and Reebok immediately drops down to gather the food.

Karen and I circle him.

The cawing amplifies—hell sirens welcoming us to perdition. The murder comes. I clench my fingers around the stones in my pockets and start throwing. Flocks of oily black feathers descend in circles, swooping down from the fog. Karen swings her hatchets, and when the crows draw too near, I drop the stones and start poking and slashing with my kitchen utensils. The sensation of tearing through avian flesh is invigorating and, before I know it, I’m in battle frenzy, jabbing with my fork and swinging with the knife. The ground is littered with fallen crows.

Still more come.

“Run!” comes unseen encouragement from the houses. “You can make it!”

Blood drips from Reebok’s brow as he turns to me. “I got it all. Let’s go!”

We swing around and face a wall of black flapping wings, sharp beaks and clenching claws, blocking our path to the house. We have no choice but to push forward, swinging and poking. I cannot see the others, but I hear them. Together we press forward. My adrenaline is burning low, and I start to feel every peck, every rip. Blood mixes with the salt water of tears and trickles into my mouth. I spit it out at the birds, hoping to blind the fuckers.

By some miracle I reach the house to find Reebok already there, leaning against the front door. He’s bleeding, hands on knees, struggling to catch his breath.

“Open the door!” I cry.

“It’s locked,” Reebok huffs.

“Let us in!” Karen begins banging on the living room window. Inside, Levi staggers up from the sofa and stumbles forward against the glass.

“I told you,” he manages to croak before collapsing to the floor.

It is then that we realize that the murder no longer surrounds us. We press our backs against the house and face another wall of fluttering crows, the only sound their wings as they flap in place. In front of them stands our Baby Girl. She raises her arms to the skies, opens her mouth and releases a piercing caw that brings blood to our ears. Directly above us flap three crows. We look up into their dark eyes, they look down into ours, and there is recognition.

How long have they known us?

Choosing us, tracking us, wearing us down.

Waiting for this very moment?

It was only a matter of time.

The fog conceals the rest.

• • • •

The fear is the only thing that hurts. It squeezes my chest until every breath becomes a screech filling my lungs, bursting forth through a mouth gaping with terror. It scours my throat raw yet produces not a single sound. I feel myself lifted from myself, and I scramble for purchase, but my limbs no longer have form. I fight the transference, a depleted will fighting in futility against a more powerful conviction. And then it tickles—a titillating sensation of soft, fine feathers shaping ethereal me into substance. With gentle strokes, it slowly erases a burden I did not know I carried—my humanity. Suddenly, I am lifting through the air, a beautiful black streak against a crystal blue sky. The air is fresher, the world fuller, living is wild and for the first time in my life—I feel light.

My dreams did not prepare me.

The murder retreats and I sit on a branch, watching my body from afar. It takes stock of its new form, hearing with my ears, seeing with my eyes, touching with my hands. I watch with a surreal clarity as my fingers explore the curls of my head, the subtle curve of my breasts and buttocks, the shape of my belly and thighs. It tries to speak but—for now—there are only inhuman croaks.

Next to my body sit Reebok and Karen—I wish I knew their names, and now I never will. The new inhabitants of their bodies are equally as enthralled with their newly acquired human shells. Together, we—but not we—rise on shaky limbs and follow the silent direction of a little girl that is not a girl.

She fooled us all.

But as I flap my wings in the cool dusk air with a graceful power that I could have never imagined, it is difficult for me to see her as a villain. Now that it is over, I am not sure if I am victim or victor. This just feels so free.

Still, I watch my body with a persisting possessiveness. There were times that it felt like a prison, an inescapable cloak distorting my true nature, preventing others from seeing what I saw so clearly in myself. But mostly, it felt like a gift, a vessel of pleasure and expression that forced itself unapologetically into a world that was left better by it. I loved that body, and all of its beautiful flaws and contradictions. I love it still and wish it well. I will visit it often.

There is a click, imperceptible to human ears. Someone has loaded a gun. I turn and see him, across the street, second floor window and I open my mouth to warn me, but there is only an indecipherable caw. The bullets find their targets, and I watch my body crumble to the ground and bleed out on a paved stone walkway.

My cries of rage and mourning are echoed by the murder. I watch as the life drains from my human flesh.

Was it only flesh?

And I mourn with cawed cries until the sun hangs low in the horizon, and instinct tells me it is time to find a place to roost. There is nothing left now but to fly. I test new wings with another flap, lift gracefully into the cool night air, and turn towards the direction of the murder. Tonight, I rest with my fellow crows, free from the fear and anxiety that plagued the last 183 days.

Tomorrow I may find a new body, just like the one I had.

WC Dunlap

WC Dunlap draws her inspiration from the rigidity of a Black Baptist upbringing, and all that entails for a brown skin girl growing up in America. Equally enthralled by the divine and the demonic with a professional background in data & tech, she seeks to bend genres with a unique lens on fantasy, fear, and the future. Her writing career spans across film, journalism and cultural critique. You can find her most recent work under “Wendi Dunlap” on PodCastle, in the Lovecraft-inspired anthology Ride the Star Wind: Cthulhu, Space Opera, and the Cosmic Weird, and the inaugural edition of the award winning FIYAH literary magazine. Her website wcdunlap.com is coming soon. She holds a BA in Film and Africana Studies from Cornell University. She is the proud mother of a young adult son, and two British Shorthair familiars. Follow WC Dunlap on twitter @wcdunlap_tales.