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The Call of the Crow This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.


The smoke rose in front of his bloodshot eyes in one long, spiraling strand of sickly gray. Somewhere off in the dead-tree forest a bird coughed loudly. Sunlight, muffled behind what seemed like miles of woolen clouds, was casting just enough of itself over the town to show that it was daytime. The road, thick, sludgy and solid, wound its way across the scene and past the porch like old lava. He almost thought he could hear a faint crackling noise as it tried to thrust itself around the bend, but then again it could have been the cigarette shriveling up as he sucked in another lungful.

Funny how his body could still appreciate a good old desecration. Temple, my ass, he thought, widening his cracked lips. He rocked slightly in the plastic chair, tilting his face away from the sad silver expanse of sky, and watched the burnt tobacco twist its way into the peeling rafters. In a fleeting ­moment of something like guilt he wondered whether the nest was still there. Guilt? he asked himself scornfully. Of all things, it made the least sense.

•••

It had been cold when he painted the ceiling of the porch, cold as it always used to be, and it was with much effort and nagging from Jean that he had consented to haul the ladder up the stairs to the house. It was a flimsy thing, that ladder, and even with Jean holding it, he was not comfortable climbing the tin rungs with eight pounds of paint. He had told her so, but she did not seem to listen, argued with him and pushed him around, quoting sayings from her oh-so-venerable father that she construed to hold deep philosophical meaning. In the middle of her reciting the likeness between getting drunk and having a meaningful lifestyle, he had thrown his hands up and started to scale the ladder, but he had not gone two rungs before a loud cheeping noise stopped them both from yelling at each other.

Well, I’ll be damned, he’d said. It’s a bird’s nest. A real bird’s nest.

The nest ain’t alive, idiot, she’d told him, It’s the birds. But she had seemed more intrigued than ­annoyed. Indeed he had barely hopped down before she had leapt onto the ladder and scrambled up like a child climbing into a treehouse. Careful, Jean, he’d warned her, but it was no use grabbing the ­ladder; she was so small that her weight barely shook the sides. What do you see?

A whole family of sparrows! she’d reported, craning her neck. They’re all huddled together ’cause it’s cold – four of ’em.

When she poked her head back down, he saw that her face was shining with a happiness he had not seen for weeks, brown hair tumbling over her shoulders, and when she had slid down the ladder herself, he was waiting with arms open and laughing, asking her to please forgive him for being such an ass earlier, and she’d pushed him away grinning. You were an ass, weren’t you, George?M/i>

•••

The old man shuffled his feet a little on the boards suddenly, angry for remembering that bit of dialogue. He had promised himself the day the bus left that it would have no further place in his memory, and from then on convinced himself to forget – forgive and forget.

He noticed the cigarette in his fingers was trembling and crumpled it into the bottlecap he used for an ashtray, twisting his hands together and feeling the parchment-paper dryness of his skin. He hadn’t smoked since then either, and this cigarette had been a guilty pleasure for the first time in years; there was not much to feel good about anymore; maybe that was where the sick feeling in his gut had come from ….

•••

The last time they had argued had been one week before the bus had left. He didn’t remember much aside from the fact that it had been about something trivial, and they had been sitting on the green couch. For some reason the only thing he recalled was the extraordinary ugliness of the couch. It was a relic from their college days, a surprise present for his birthday; supposedly she had had to risk her life throwing down some wagers at a bar to salvage the funds. When he had come home that night he had been greeted by a grinning Jean and the most ­aesthetically unappetizing couch he had ever seen. She had never had a good sense of design, but at that moment it hadn’t mattered, of course; nothing mattered back then but how much they loved each other.

In any case, the reason he remembered the image of the couch so clearly was because he had been slumped in it and staring at the armrest while she had been telling him off in increasing tones of frustration. He did not know now what had made him so determined not to look her in the eye – perhaps he had known that he was rightfully accused. He didn’t even ­acknowledge that she was talking to him, but rather continued tracing the ridiculously ugly swirls in the coarse fabric until she was first yelling at him, then stomping over to shout insults in his face, until he had had enough and stood up to yell back. Then she was drawing her hand back and somehow in the midst of it his fist had shot out and she had fallen to the ground, no longer screaming but looking up at him frightened like one of those helpless baby sparrows in the nest, wingless, and for a moment he was rooted motionless to the carpet with a dull pounding reverberating in his skull ­almost as if he wanted to hit her again and –

He wrenched himself out of the memory with a shake of his head and turned his face upward to the gray of the sky. Somehow his feet had carried him off the porch and to the road. In the distance a bird called, another one of those strange yelping noises. Birds had never sounded like that, he thought. It had once been a joy to walk down this path in the summer and breathe in the pine tree-and-asphalt breeze; the only sound around of cheerful sparrows, so that if he looked up at the stretching blue above, he might imagine that there was nothing else in the world except the forest and those birds and the one never-ending road.

Now, he reflected, it was hard to do this without the croaking of the strange new birds – crows, he ­remembered – ringing dissonant notes in your ears. Taking your eyes off the path for a moment might lead you to find yourself twisting an ankle or falling 150 feet into a sinkhole.

It had been 55 years since he had last walked this path down the road. After the boy had been discovered deep underground in his own backyard, the mayor had issued a warning to the town. Congress would vote to provide for their safety, and there was nowhere they could be safe if the fire continued to burn in the coal mines. One by one, the people of the little town trailed out, and every day George looked out his window and saw the bus taking more and more people toward the unknown, as the fire spread farther and farther and closed off more of the town, until finally even the bus stop was closed and he was one of 20 left.

In the space of a month, three had died and seven had come close and ran off in fear. Carbon monoxide, they’d said. The steam seemed to hiss from the cracks in the ground as silently and harmlessly as he would blow smoke from a cigarette. That day the bus had taken out 12 bodies, three of which were not near hysterics. Granted, you could only be so lively sitting in a black plastic bag.

His feet had stopped moving. With a strange sense of disinterest, he turned his head and saw that his shins had been stopped by a crude fence. The bus stop was only 50 feet away. He did not remember the fence being here the last time he had come. The signs frowned and shouted fearful words – “CAUTION! DANGER!”

Before he had consciously decided, he had stepped over the fence and onto the other side of the road. The bus stop was in sight; one old, empty bench, sitting crooked on the broken asphalt; one solitary pole with the bus number and times, dented and holding itself up feebly like a wilting flower. Next to the bench was the beginning of an enormous steaming split in the road.

He crossed and stood in front of the bench, staring with his head cocked at the wooden grains as if they contained the answer to the mysteries of life. He wondered what anyone walking by would think of an old man with head and back bowed, clutching a thin plaid shirt over skin and ribs gazing motionless at the emptiness of an old bench. But this thought itself was ridiculous; there was nobody to see anything. In a second, a fleeting fancy to do something ridiculous flared gloriously in his mind. Something crazy – something Jean would do.

Suddenly all other thoughts capered out of his head and he fell onto the bench, rubbing his temple. It was as if someone had flicked off his enthusiasm; the will to live was dying just as readily as the fire was continuing to burn beneath his feet.

She must have sat here that day, he thought, and something wild seemed to burst inside him. She must have sat here for hours waiting for the bus to come, the bus that only ever came once a day because, of course, nobody had ever wanted to leave before, sat here alone listening to the birds, because back then there were real birds, and the road too had been different, smooth instead of cracked and spilling gas like the diseased skin of something alien.

Again he allowed what was left of his consciousness to wander and wonder, and in the process he found himself spinning extraordinary tales of fancy from the gray sky of his own mind. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps there had been a dashing stranger from the big city waiting for her on the bus, and during the long ride they had sat next to each other, becaus he would have offered her a seat like a real gentleman. Perhaps she had poured out all her frustration and ­unhappiness; perhaps she had shared stories with him until she finally managed to forget about her poor despicable fiancé. Perhaps when the bus landed he would invite her to the big city, and they would spend the day together looking at the new-fangled skyscrapers and domes and by the end she would be so entranced by everything, by his dashing manner, that she would go home with him and perhaps, just perhaps, they would spend the night. And perhaps he would invite her to live with him, because she had not thought anything through and would be broke and wandering the city, and perhaps he would introduce her to his friends and to his life and perhaps she would fall in love with him because a girl’s fancy was so easily transferred, and she would cast off her engagement for another, except this time she would actually get married, and she would live with him for 55 years and be happy and have three children and watch them grow up and leave, and watch him grow old alongside her, except she would never grow old because it was impossible to imagine her without that youthful glow. She would watch him grow old, oh yes, and then watch him die, and then cry over his death because her children were gone too, in their own lives, and she was alone and had nobody.

But then, he thought, then she would remember her poor fiancé hundreds of miles away in the little town, still sitting in the same house that they had bought together, and she would grow wistful and eventually go mad with longing, so that she would finally decide to go back, but realizing, too late, that the town had been closed to visitors and she was not allowed in. She would have forgotten his address, of course, and his number, and maybe even his last name, and she would have no way of contacting him unless –

No. No way of contacting him at all.

He sat back in the bench, satisfied, and took the last cigarette from his pocket. No lighter, but perhaps that was just as well. He was doing this from force of habit. There was an entire flock of birds cawing now, awakened by the first calls and now rustling the tops of the trees in a frenzy.

They must be the kings of the forest, he thought lazily, his eyelids drooping. Lions would have been offended … or do lions only exist in jungles?

He rolled his head, lashes fluttering, and saw that the steam was still rising from the crack in the ground. Strange, he had imagined this as taking much less time. But it didn’t matter. Now all he had to do was sit, sit and wonder about the time, and his unburnt cigarette, and the coarse singing of the foreign crows, and keep waiting – for the bus that would never come.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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