This Sunday we’re proud to present a short story from J.A. Sullivan! We want to thank authors for sharing their fiction with us to help take our minds off the current situation.
*Note: The Crow’s originally was published on The Bold Mom’s site. It was posted for the 2018 October Terror Short Story Contest
I need to leave before the world wakes. The mid-summer sun is nearly up. It’s a stronger draw than the warmth of my latest lover’s body sealed between bedsheets, her dark hair spilled on a white cotton pillowcase like a Rorschach test. For the briefest of time, the whole town is tucked away and unconscious. A time when the night owl partiers have succumbed to their indulgences and the early risers have not begun to stir. Without the constant drone of people’s thoughts, you can talk to the gods for they never sleep. I hope that today they will grant my request. It’s been far too long since they have.
My sneakered footsteps whisper down the steps inside the apartment building. Outside the birds are starting to greet the new day. The small bag of seeds and other offerings in the top pocket of my cargo pants starts to make a crinkly racket as I begin to walk faster. I take the bag out, fumble with the lower pocket’s flap as I continue moving forward, but finally the bag is resting quietly.
I turn left on Carnegie Avenue, and slip down the alley between Dante’s Tattoo Parlour and St. Nick’s Pawn Shop. A tabby cat mews at me from the top of the dumpster. She looks plump from rats and mice. I wiggle my fingers at her in a friendly hello. She looks at me, unamused, jumps down and stares at something near my feet. Partial remains of an eyeless dead rat, with most of the fur removed. “Thank you,” I say as I bend down, use a spare baggie to pick up her gift and place it gently in with the rest of my offerings.
Every day I am tempted to name the cat and take her home, but I am sure she has her own name, if only she would tell me. And as for taking her home, out here she is a queen and master of her own destiny. Taking her in would make her common. She would resent it, and no doubt scratch my eyes out one day. So, like yesterday, and all the yesterdays before, I will simply enjoy the company she allows me.
We walk our usual route through the labyrinth of brick and stone alleys, underneath the canopy of line dried clothes and sheets. A final turn and we can see the green of the graveyard beckoning from behind the wrought iron fence. Stone crosses and angels strewn through the grass in a bizarre connect-the-dots puzzle I have yet to solve.
The cat trots ahead of me, slinking under the fence. She spies something that I cannot in the bushes that hug the side of the stone church, beneath the faded ‘For Sale’ sign. In a way that only cats can, she gives me a courtesy bow of her head before she pounces through the small branches. I wonder if she will join me on my walk home, or if this is all the time she has for me today.
Still standing on the sidewalk outside the consecrated grounds I take a deep breath and let my mind open. I am feeling welcomed, so I open the gate, latching it tenderly behind me. The world outside the fence falls away. Before I even take a step, I am cloaked with the weight of a thousand eyes staring at me. The gods are watching, ready to listen, but I need to provide my offerings before I utter a single request.
I abandon the cement walkway and step into the unmanicured grass. Dew seeps in through my sneakers, licking at my toes. Most people see this as a place of death, overlooking all the life it holds. This modest churchyard is the only green space at this end of town. Blue jays, cardinals and sparrows cluster in the maple and ash trees. A cottontail rabbit near the far edge of the lot sees me and bounds into the thick rose bush. And although I cannot see them, I know that beneath my feet worms must be feasting in vast numbers.
As I continue my journey to the back of the graveyard, it’s like walking through time. The graves at the front of the yard are the most recent. Halfway down the side of the lot there’s almost a clear-cut line through the headstones. On one side fresh cut flowers for mothers, solar light ornaments for grandparents, and a lonesome pink teddy bear for an infant. The other side has only the graves themselves. The barren side, to me, is less sad. The earth around the monuments is vacant because there is no one left alive to mourn these people.
Walking through the side lot on my way to the rear of the church, back further in history, some of the markers are only legible if you use your fingers to feel what was etched into the stone nearly two hundred years ago. I think I’ve read most of them on my many visits. My attention shifts back to the matter at hand as the entirety of the towering black spruce catches my attention, boughs softly dancing in the new sun. I don’t hear the crows yet, but I’m sure they are up there.
Behind the church is a patch that used to be a community vegetable garden. Now it is overrun with wildflowers. Weeds, most people would say. They burst with whites, yellows, and blues. Honeybees and other insects are busy mining as much pollen as they can. To them, a flower is a flower. Between the garden and the black spruce is a grey granite bench. I sit with my back to the orchestra of buzzing.
The plastic bag in my pocket is warm and sticks to my sweaty palm as I retrieve it from my pocket. I open the bag and spit in it. With closed eyes, I hold the bag close to my heart, then to the centre of my forehead. My nose fills with the memory of sandalwood incense, melted wax, and iron rich blood.
“What say you, great gods of the sky?” I say, louder than I expected, as I punch the bottom of the open bag, exploding the mix of seeds, crumbs, strands of black hair and chunks of raw rat into the air. My offering rains down onto the grass. And I wait, head bowed.
There is a rustling of feathers in the black spruce, and then the crow speaks. He caws three times, followed by clicks that sound like instructions. I hear him fly down but dare not look at him yet. For a moment there is silence, and then he calls up to the tree with a sound like a fingernail scratching down the teeth of a comb. From the tree there are more clicks, and then the others swoosh down to the ground.
I close my eyes so that I’m not tempted to look upon them as they consider my offering. Beaks gently clack through feathers. A rat bone snaps. Leathery toes softly tread through the grass. A bill cracks a seed shell open. Words of clicks and rattles are exchanged.
“Please, let it be this one,” I whisper, my stomach clenching, as I relive in a flash milky white legs, black wavy locks, and sapphire blue eyes. I open my eyes, raise my head and look at the feathered gods. All five of them look back at me. The leader bobs his head up and down, side to side, in a dance. He caws at me so loudly I recoil, and I feel ashamed. Like one large organism, their wings are synchronized, and they lift off the ground together, disappearing into the black spruce boughs.
Looking at the remains of the offering isn’t required today, but I do it out of respect. The untouched seeds, crumbs, strands of black hair and chunks of raw rat, leave a clear message: No. Sighing deeply, I respect the answer of the gods, and put the empty bag back in my pocket. I bow before turning around and retreat through the graveyard like a dog with his tail between his legs.
Perched on the wings of the stone angel closest to the gate the cat sits licking a paw. She has a smug all-knowing look. As I pass, she hops down and figure-eights through my legs, as though wishing me better luck next time. We exit through the gate and rejoin the rest of the world that is now awake and whizzing.
She follows me to Ring Rolls Café and waits outside while I order bagels with lox and two French pressed coffees. When I exit the shop, she paws at my shoe, looking for her reward for being my companion. I toss her a bit of lox, which she catches with needle sharp teeth, and then saunters away to carry on with the rest of her day.
A block further, and I’m back home. Opening the door to the apartment building, I stare down at the basement door that leads to the storage units.
All night I had dreamed that today would be the day that I would be going down there to collect my bag of zip ties, pliers and saws. In my dream I lay naked in the bathtub. I lapped at the warm blood oozing out of the heart I held in my hands, the umami flavour sending shock waves of pleasure through my body. The only thing keeping me from slipping over the edge of ecstasy was the jagged fragments of broken bones protruding from the shattered and empty ribcage I cloaked around myself like a thunder jacket. Tendrils of blood wound their way down the side of the tub from the beautiful head perched on the edge, sapphire blue eyes watching my every move. Her ruby lips slightly parted, begging me to consume her.
But the gods said no.
Taking a deep breath and exhaling my disappointment, I walk up the cold concrete steps. I remind myself the gods won’t say no forever. There have been several yeses in the past, and the gods were right that those chosen few were glorious.
I open my apartment door and am greeted by ruby red lips smiling from the bathroom doorway. “Wondered where you’d gone off to,” she says, tossing her wet black hair over her shoulder, dripping onto the t-shirt I wore last night which now flows around her like a mini dress.
I shrug and lift my bag of breakfast and coffee. “Aren’t you sweet,” she says, moving down the hall. She snatches the bag and places it on the kitchen table, pulling out the items, dividing them equally between the two place settings. As she unwraps her bagel and takes a bite, I sit across from her trying to figure out why the gods rejected her. I hope she will leave shortly after eating. It’s Saturday, and tonight will be another opportunity to find a sacrifice worthy of the crows.
J. A. Sullivan is a horror writer and reviewer for Kendall Reviews, based in Brantford, ON, Canada. Attracted to everything non-horror folks consider strange, she’s spent years as a paranormal investigator, has an insatiable appetite for serial killer information, and would live inside a library if she could.
GracieKat was the first co-host of Sci-Fi & Scary, Lilyn’s partner-in-crime, and sub-head of the Kali Krew. She reviews horror books, movies, and games for the site. She also does a weekly Focus on the Frightful feature, and is the site list-maker. She is also in control of the Sci-Fi & Scary podcast which will relaunch soon.