It had been a hot, long, and boring summer, all lonely days followed by lonely nights. His friends had gone away to summer camps, to vacations, to other countries, but here he was with nothing to do, no one to hang out with. Even his older brother wouldn’t play with him, he would just tell him to fuck off and go back to reading comics or talking to his friends.
Andrew had already spent much of the afternoon shooting at cans and bottles, to the point where he had riddled the few cans and bottles they had with so many holes they looked like a pieces of a modern art sculpture. He was bored. He looked around hoping to see someone, anyone to relieve the tedium of late August.
But perhaps he shouldn’t have wished so hard. Billy Parker and his side kick Alan appeared over the rise and were walking down to where Andrew was standing. Billy was a bully, but also very popular. There was really no other way to describe him. He was already almost four inches taller than the other kids at Saint Francis Middle School and he would never let any of the other kids forget it. But he also played on the football team and everyone wanted to be his friend. Andrew was no different, though he secretly also hated him.
They were close enough now to see Andrew and Andrew picked up his rifle and aimed at the already mushed can, pulling off a round and missing.
“Not much of a shot, are ya, Andi?”
Billy said this snidely. Andrew hated being called “Andi.”. It was a girl’s name.
“Ya, haha Billy. See those holes in the can? Yea, those are from me.”
Billy walked over to the pile of old bent metal with words no longer readable stamped across their destroyed surfaces.
“Huh, pretty nice. But these just sit there, they aren’t moving. I don’t think you could ever hit a moving target, you’re too crappy at it.”
Andrew felt his face growing hot. He knew he was probably a shade a bright pink now, matching his almost garish red hair.
“Yes I can. I can hit anything”
Billy laughed and elbowed Alan in the side. Alan began to laugh too, although a bit haltingly.
“Alright, big shot. Show us.”
Andrew looked around scanning the dusty hot yard for anything to shoot. There was nothing. His stomach unclenched. He felt relief, he didn’t really like shooting living things but he sure as heck didn’t want to look like a pussy, especially in front of Billy and that idiot Alan.
“There’s nothing to shoot at Billy. Or did you not notice?”
Billy squinted his eyes at him for a moment, as if he was a king weighing some inappropriate response from a dirty commoner. He started to open his mouth when
suddenly a cool breeze came up and with the unexpected wind a sole raven flew into their yard.
Billy motioned to the sleek black bird sitting in the tree. It was still and seemed to be watching. Andrew had never liked ravens, they always seemed too aware, too foreign somehow, as if the world they belonged in was one of shadows, a world that ate the light and always wanted more. Andrew could feel it looking at him, almost boring into him, though he thought maybe he was just being paranoid. He didn’t want to shoot it. Something told him it was a terrible idea. But the other two boys stared at him, waiting for his response. The day had slowed to crawl, time no longer seemed inconsequential. Each moment was hanging, as if the whole countryside was waiting to breathe and it had taken on a tremendous weight. After a minute and no action from Andrew, Billy turned to Alan
“Come on, this loser can’t hit shit. I told you he’s a pussy. Let’s go get some candy at the corner store.”
At this Andrew realized he had to act. If he didn’t at least try to hit the bird, he would never hear the end of it when school started again in September.
He brought the rifle up on his shoulder and aimed at the bird. It still stared. Weird. Birds, especially ravens and crows, usually flew away if they saw you aiming a gun at them. But this one sat, its eyes unblinking, almost taunting him. It seemed almost corpulent, a big black mass clinging to the to thin branch. Andrew felt sweat break out on his brow. He wouldn’t hit it, he would just pretend he had missed and then the creepy bird would fly away. Billy would think he was still a dork, but at least he wouldn’t end up being called a pussy the rest of 8th grade.
The gun went off. And at first he thought he had missed, had believed he had missed as he had intended, but after a painfully long second the bird dropped from the branch, spiraling down like a dead leaf caught in a cold winter wind, its one wing splayed out in what looked like an attempt at surrender.
“Ha! Good shot, Andi!”
Billy slapped him on his back. Andrew felt like he was in a dream. He began to walk towards where the bird lay on the ground, wheezing, its black red blood soaking into the dry summer soil. Its black feathers shining blue in the summer sun.
He couldn’t believe he had hit it. He had swung the gun way to the left, enough that the raven should have only been startled by the guns’ noise and had a chance to fly away. But there was nothing that could be done. He stood watching it die. Billy and Alan were now standing next to him though he hadn’t heard them run up. For once Billy said nothing. They all just stood there, open mouthed, a look of sleep walkers having been awoken in a strange and terrible place.
As Andrew watched the bird in its last moments it one deeply obsidian eye turned to him. He felt it looking at him; it saw into his damaged soul and finding it wanting, it turned its eye away in disgust.
10 Years Later
The windows were fogged from the heat of his breath and from the other passengers. Damp jackets and stale BO permeated the air and Andrew wished for the thousandth time that week that he hadn’t screwed up his car trying to fix it. He had conceded defeat and it was at Otis’, a local mechanics. Andrew always seemed to end up in the worst seat. Always towards the back, he was repeatedly stuck next to sweaty large women, drunken students who were never cute females, or old vets with war torn faces who desperately wanted to talk, loneliness clinging to their damaged and smoke yellowed parchment skin like a terrible disease that Andrew feared he would catch, but knew in his heart he was already infected with.
He lived close to the end of the line in a tiny farming town that was little more than a pit stop before the bus made its long way down the winding dark canyon road which led into the great city. He had lived outside of the city his whole life, as the other people on the bus also did, but because the town was less than 500 people, there were only two buses which ran the twisted route that had originally been for wagon trains and still hadn’t been improved despite the constant car crashes on the old road.
He tried to re-situate himself in the steel battered seat, trying to get more room. It was beyond uncomfortable, but despite his attempts, he realized it was impossible to gain more room because of his seat companion who was pushed into him, uncomfortably close.
Nothing. No response. He coughed loudly hoping to get her attention.
But still he heard no response. The woman was easily 280 pounds and only five foot two at most. She sat comfortably relaxed in an old greyish housedress and worn out corduroy jacket straight out of 1972 and three sizes too small. She remained completely silent. Andrew looked more closely at her; the dim mornings early autumn light obscured her mottled features making it hard to tell if she had in fact heard him. He realized after a moment that she was actually asleep, and as responsive as a one-ton rock, and probably as movable.
He sighed in frustration and surrender. He let himself slide down, bending his long thin legs awkwardly to get into a less odious position, hoping he too could gain some extra rest before his long day washing dishes at the diner. The bus ride was always a hassle, always taking longer than it should, always cramped and miserable. He thanked God that he hadn’t had to take the bus before. At least he did have a car normally and soon this whole surreal daily trip would be but a memory.
He looked out the blurry from the steam windows. The canyon walls stretched about them, distorted by the moisture on the glass, looking like great dark giants that had been turned to stone by magic, statue forms that at any moment would awaken. They seemed to be watching, they seemed to be waiting, but for what Andrew did not know. He couldn’t yet see the morning sun as the craggy peaks were too high, and with the foggy wet mist that lay across the rocky walls from the black and grey storm clouds of November, he doubted the sun would make much of an appearance today.
He closed his eyes and tried to relax doubting that he could ever sleep next to the large and now quietly snoring woman who was squashed into him. But the measured rocking back and forth movement of the bus crept up on him, and despite the cramped damp heat, the blackness finally came, the motion lulling him like a wooden ship on an endlessly deep and smooth as glass indigo ocean.
The buses’ squeaking breaks snapped him awake. He looked out the window but couldn’t see who the bus had stopped for. The pneumatic doors swished open. Over the shoulders of an old man in front of him he saw a dark shape moving through the bus, the lack of light making it seem that the figure was floating rather than walking down the thin aisle to the back. Andrew couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, the shadows making the black and dark brown layered clothes swathing the form seem like the vestments of some blackened with age Egyptian mummy, hiding the true form of the person completely. Even the large black hat shadowed the face.
The shape slowly passed by where Andrew was seated and a smell of fresh dirt wafted up into his nose. A sudden flash of dark birds flitted into his mind and then it was gone again as the smell passed with the stranger, clinging to the form like a ghost. He heard the person stop and sit at a spot somewhere behind him.
Creak. With that noise, the old bus began to move forward again, slowly entering the road though not another car had been seen all morning.
He sat thinking. His curiosity was peaked, he wanted to turn and look, but a small ripple of something, maybe anxiety, flashed through his chest. But he wasn’t sure why. He had seen people get on the bus a million times. But there was something about this person, something different though if asked he could not have put his finger on it. Even the odd clothes weren’t that strange anymore with the Lady Gagas’ of the world. Despite their overall somber appearance, lots of people wore all black now, especially in the city.
His seat companion snorted and he jumped a bit in his seat, but despite the surprise it had wrought in him, the sound seemed muffled, as if heard from a great distance. A film of silence settled on the bus, the light murmuring that had been the sound of a normal day was gone. The veil lay unopposed, seeming to forcibly quiet the buses ancient motor and the whispered conversations of early morning commutes.
Andrew leaned back again, attempting to put the odd thoughts out of his mind. But he couldn’t relax at all now. His eyes wandered and finally fell towards the steamed window again. He rubbed the wet mist off the cold surface with his already slightly moist sweatshirt. The reflection was clearer than he thought it would be. There was his face, a bit haggard for someone his age, her dark red hair brushed back from his face, his lightly pale skin seeming to look a strange shade of bilious green in the weird dawn lighting.
As he looked at himself his eyes caught movement in the right hand corner of the reflection. He realized it was the new passenger and that ‘it’ had sat directly behind him. Whoever it was, they didn’t seem to know Andrew was looking at them. He cleaned the rest of the window off and could see now that it was in fact a woman.
The woman’s skin was briefly visible as she turned her head, her black hair parting like a dark sea to show flashes of white sand beneath. Andrew couldn’t help but stare at her, trying to catch a glimpse of the woman’s face, feeling somehow he had to. The woman’s movements were overly fluid, slower than they should be and she appeared to be wearing a feathered coat of some kind. The large black pieces jutted out here and there but despite this jaggedness, the coat morphed into a falsely smooth surface when viewed from a distance.
The bus driver slammed on the brakes. The cracked concrete was slippery from the thin sheen of ice and it had become like a skating rink. The vehicle began to slide sideways. It happened so fast and seemingly without meaning as Andrew could not see why the driver had stopped, nor did he have time to understand the events. He was violently thrown into the big woman next to him, thankful now for her great bulk which padded the violent motion. They slid sideways in the bus for what seemed like minutes but in reality was but for a few seconds. The guard rail carved into the side of the bus, screeching sharp noise of metal on metal ripping the silence apart, pulling noise out of the soundlessness like a magic trick, peeling the strong metal of the guard rail back to open a terrible downward descent.
The guard rail breaking, the bus now tumbling, he was powerless to stop it or himself from whatever end was in store. He was thrown into the air, dislocated from the metal seat and the large housewife next to him, and in that brief instant he saw the strange woman. She was still sitting, impossibly motionless, a mannequin in a dark gown.
This was his minds last thought as he flew like a discarded toy thrown through the air. But before he hit the ground and was knocked out he thought he saw the woman grin. Her teeth were like fangs.
Ravens. Andrew heard ravens. He slowly opened his eyes. He was laying sideways, head down and body up on the side of the rocky hill. The bus was below him, a slaughtered beast spilling its oily black blood onto the cold autumn ground. How he had been thrown out, he did not know. The cawing became louder. He tried to turn and look but pain shoot up his back. A swimming feeling then overcame him and his eyes grew heavy. They desperately wanted to close, to sleep, but he forced them open. The ravens were in a few of the scraggly boney looking trees that lined the road and hill, like smears of moving black shadow they gathered in the leafless whitened bleak branches. In unison they moved up, a wave of the dark sea, and then they fell back down again settling once more on their perch.
Surprised by the crash Andrew thought somewhat distantly, he himself surprised by his oddly mundane thought after the chaos.
A sound of movement came; someone was coming down the rock strewn hill. A few small pebbles tumbled past Andrews head. He turned to see who it was and there was the woman. As soon as Andrew saw her, the memory of the weird sight before the crash that he had seen came back. A still life portrait of the woman’s dark form, her whitened features pulled back into a rictus grin.
What the hell had that been?
The woman now stood at the same level on the hillside as Andrew was but she was still a few yards away. How she had made it down the treacherous hill so quickly confused and frightened Andrew. A sense of panic gripped him, though he was not sure why. He tried to stand but he only then realized he had not just whacked his head, he had broken his leg; the hot pain was now beginning to bleed into his blurry from the wreck mind. He could not move, could not even stand.
He looked over at the woman, his mind insisting that she must be trying to help; perhaps he should call to her? But Andrew stayed silent. A moment passed and Andrew realized with horror that the woman was now sniffing the air, looking like his father’s hunting dogs when they caught a scent of a deer. Her hair had fallen from her face completely now and Andrew could see that her skin was not just white, for at the tips, towards the hairline, were odd rough spots which seemed to sprout black chunks of strange hair, but at the distance Andrew could not see what it was.
The woman’s black head was tilted back, and then began to move back and forth, scanning the air it seemed, trying to pinpoint something. And then she turned, slowly, very slowly, her head now cocked at an odd angle, inexorable movement that Andrew saw now was honing in on him. Now facing Andrew, the woman began to move towards him, gliding.
She was gliding?
His adrenaline surged, he pulled himself up, and some deep survival instinct told him he had been right to be afraid, something was very wrong here. He pushed up harder, struggling against gravities’ vortex; he wanted to run, to move away from her. Do anything to get away, no matter what,
Just get away.
Whatever this woman was, whatever was happening here, it was worse than the pain that was now screaming through his leg. All of his nerves, and all his cells demanded he run. But it was hopeless, his leg, his body, they simply would not work. The bones were broken and shattered and refused to hold his weight.
The woman’s dark form had now reached Andrew. She stopped and for a moment just floated, looming above him, an unholy priestess demanding a sacrifice. Behind her floating form the greenish fog rolled, clinging onto the branches of the trees, their bones having been picked clean by the coming winter’s sharpened merciless teeth.
The woman leaned down and her eyes were those of the raven from his childhood, dark stars in the orbit of a monstrous black hole, one that he had created. Andrew saw now that the strange growths on the woman’s hairline were in fact jet black feathers which sprouted out of her head in a mismatched pattern. She reached down to Andrew as if from a great height, the hands distorted in appearance by abnormal length. The tips of those white hands now stretched to a foot long, maybe even more, black talons curved and brutal grew out of the smoothed alabaster fingers. They wrapped around his head easily, the pressure increasing until Andrew thought his skull would crack. But the woman didn’t break him then though he could feel she could have, she simply pulled.
Andrew felt his body part from the hill, and dangle in the air as the woman held him suspended. The ravens were now screaming, and Andrew knew they screamed for his blood. The woman’s coat parted and she unfurled her wings. But they were distorted and crooked, as if drawn by a child. The face which had been human fell away, the terrible creature unveiled, now stood before him.
He saw it stare at him, knew it knew him, and he was terrified into total silence. Its mouth, a sharpened and yellowish beak with red lines of fire coursing through it, slowly opened and a dark fire spilled out, billowing in great swathes of black flame, burning what had been Andrew into dust. He was consumed completely.
Total silence fell. The wheel of the bus still spun uselessly. The ravens watched, and then responding to some unseen signal, seemingly satisfied, they rose as one. They flew into the sky, joining the dark shadow that moved effortlessly into the retreating night, following their darkness home.
Somewhere, a small bird sang.