by Hannah O’Doom
The sun was still high in the sky, and Robert was thankful for that. He had lost track of the time long ago but didn’t want to be lost in the dark. He took stock: a dead cell phone, an unreliable car, and a mute long-lost sister sitting in the front seat. He pulled to the side of the road to try to figure out his next move. The two-lane road snaked ahead, and he could see a split. In one direction the road vanished into a thick gathering of trees. In the other, it crested and then disappeared over a hill.
Robert clenched his jaw and stared at his options, the old El Camino idling. He glanced into the rearview mirror at his sister. She had been silently staring out the window since the start of the trip. The clock on the dashboard was long-dead. Sometime in the night he had got off the interstate, following a shortcut on his GPS. But then his phone died, the road led further into the middle of nowhere, and now, with the sunup, he had to admit he was totally lost.
Robert had made the journey from his comfortable dorm room in Maine to a speck-on-the-map town outside of San Antonio, Texas to find his sister. She had called out to him like a beacon in the dead of the night. He had found her, in an abandoned hotel room, a charred body on the bed behind her, smoke still rising from its carcass. He had asked no questions, but simply loaded her into his car and headed back north.
Robert put the car in park and glanced at his sister again. She was still staring out the window. He was beginning to wonder if she was in shock. When they were small, she had been quiet, and in times of stress had only communicated through dreams or touch, but even then would occasionally use her voice.
“We’re lost,” he said, hoping it would force some sort of reaction out of her. She didn’t speak or move, so he got out of the car, stretching his legs.
A crow, nearly as big as a dog, landed at Robert’s feet. The bird was so black that it looked almost like it wasn’t a bird at all, but a crow-shaped hole of nothingness against the background of the flat green and brown landscape. It opened its wings, cawed, and then took off, flying in the direction of the hills.
Robert closed his eyes and thought of the first time he dreamed of his baby sister. He was only five years old and she was still a baby. He had dreamed that she had not been born, but delivered by a crow, in a nest of twigs and branches, all on fire. He had tried to tell his mother about the dream, and she had slapped him hard enough in the mouth that it had split his lower lip. The sight of the crow made him remember the sharp metallic taste of blood in his mouth and the shock of the first time his mother struck him.
“One for sorrow.”
Robert heard the voice from behind him. He turned and saw his sister standing next to the car. She pointed toward the crow.
“What did you say?” Robert asked. She didn’t respond but continued to point. Robert turned and watched. The crow was going roughly in the direction of the road that forked into the hills. He thought about his choices and looked back at his sister.
“To the hills, then,” Robert said. She nodded and slid back into the car as silently as she had gotten out.
Robert’s head felt like it was stuffed with cotton balls. He remembered having that feeling as a child when he would spend time with his sister, like all her extra mental energy was invading his headspace in thick waves.
When they were younger, he had felt the pull of his sister, and he orbited around her. After the fire and their parents’ deaths, they had been separated. He had been convinced that Waverly was getting special care, and he was placed into the foster system. He spent many years wondering about his sister, hoping she was safe.
Then he started dreaming about her again. This first new dream had been just a series of flashes, mostly flames, and glimpses of his long-lost sister. He had woken from the first dream in a cold sweat. He wrote it off as his subconscious just drudging up old memories, maybe some residual guilt. As he had grown older, he bought into what the therapists and social workers told him, that their separation had been for the best. But there had always been a nagging in the back of his mind.
The dreams had come fast after that first one. Each night brought a new detail of his sister’s sad life into focus. He saw the fire that killed their parents, he saw the facility she had been taken to afterward, the so-called treatments she received, the man that claimed her as a foster child, even though there was nothing legal about what was happening to her.
Robert shook his head clear of his thoughts to focus on his driving. Another three crows flew over the car as it winded its way around the curvy road of the hills. Robert looked over at Waverly, who was reciting a nursery rhyme under her breath.
“Two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy.”
He almost reached out to her but instead gripped the wheel until his knuckles turned white. He craned his head. The crows were flying just ahead of the car, leading it through the hills.
As Robert followed the crows, he thought about the last time he had seen his sister. He was twelve, and she was seven. He had known for days that something was building inside of her, something that had to be released. When he had found her, inside their burning home, he knew in an instant what she had done.
She had looked so tiny and frail, curled in a corner of their parents’ bedroom with flames climbing up the curtains and spreading along the walls behind her. Robert could hear his mother screaming for help but couldn’t see beyond the flames. He had picked up Waverly and run out of the house.
He slowed the car as they approached another fork in the road. Without looking at him, Waverly pointed to the right and he guided the car in that direction. He had only gone a little way down the road when they came to a tree that had fallen, blocking their way. Robert stopped to think about what to do, and Waverly slipped out of the car.
Robert grunted and put the car in park. He got out, following his sister, who was climbing over the tree. She slipped down around the other side of it.
“Five for silver, six for gold.”
Robert could hear her singing softly as she went. He almost called out to her but knew it would do him no good. He could feel her resolution rolling off of her, like waves of heat coming off a hot sidewalk.
As he hoisted himself over the fallen tree, he saw the crows. It wasn’t just the ones that he had followed; there were crows as far as he could see. The trees were heavy with them, limbs bowing down under the weight. Crows flitted and hopped on the ground. The sound of their wings filled the air.
Robert put his hand on Waverly trying to pull her back toward him. She shrugged it off and pointed. Just ahead, in the centre of the birds, lay a dead crow.
“A funeral,” Waverly said. She put her hand in his and looked straight ahead. Her fingers tightened around his, and just like when they were kids, he could feel the electric tingle of their connection.
He stood still and concentrated. Everything around them became eerily quiet. The crows crowded in, bringing what felt like an unnatural nightfall around them. Waverly’s fingers wiggled in Robert’s hand, and then she also went still.
Waverly whispered. “Seven for a secret never to be told.”
A crow, somewhere in the distance, cawed. That broke the silence and a cacophony of caws and cries filled the air. As the sound grew to a crescendo, Waverly’s grip tightened on Robert’s hand and her memories flooded his mind.
Another fire. Another death. There was a man, with startling blonde-white hair and pale-blue eyes. For a moment Robert felt like he was looking at this person under a microscope. He could see every pore in his face, his row of perfectly straight, white teeth. He could smell the aftershave, sharp with a tinge of alcohol, wafting off his skin. Robert could see the man’s hands, with perfectly manicured nails, and his arms, the downy white hair just barely visible. And for a moment, he could see the man as Waverly had seen him, standing over her, and he felt her pain and fear and shame.
And then there was smoke, slowly rising from the man’s hair. Flames engulfed his head and the eyeballs popped, sending gelatinous goo down his cheeks. The flesh on his face started melting and the smell of cooking skin and muscle filled Robert’s nose. He started to pull his hand away, but Waverly gripped even harder, still staring at the crows.
Screams filled Robert’s ears; the deafening cries of a man being cooked alive. Somewhere in the back of his mind, playing like a silent movie reel behind this horror in front of him were flashes of his sister’s life.
As Robert saw the scenes behind the fire, he could feel what his sister had felt. He could feel the man’s hands on his own body, the way they had been on Waverly’s. Anger and fear pulsed inside his head.
The urgency to make it stop washed over him. He felt a thin sheen of sweat break out across his forehead. A low moan escaped his lips as her torment filled him. Finally, Robert jerked his hand free. Waverly stood motionless, watching the crows.
Robert leaned over, putting his hands on his knees. His stomach roiled and nausea swept over him. His heart was pounding in his ears. The crows fell silent.
Robert straightened and slowed his breathing. For a minute, it seemed like nothing in the world was moving. The crows had completely settled and even the thin breeze from the day had stagnated. Then a single crow flew down from a nearby tree and placed a twig at the fallen bird’s feet. Another bird did the same, and then another. Each bird dropped a memento, a twig or blade of grass, or leaf, and then flew away. Within moments the dead bird was covered, and Robert and Waverly were left standing next to a pile covering the dead crow.
Robert stood still, stunned. Then he heard his sister whispering.
“One for sorrow.”
He looked down at his sister. Her head was tilted toward the mound in front of them. Her wide eyes were completely black. Tendrils of smoke rose from the twigs and leaves, and then a small flame appeared. The pile began to burn in earnest, the smell of cooking flesh, and ash filling the air.
As the silence settled over them, his heartbeat slowed to normal. He could feel his breath slowing, and he felt tired, with adrenaline rushing out of his bloodstream. Waverly bent over, picked up a shiny stone next to her shoe, and placed it on top of the burning pile.
Robert had planned to bring Waverly back to the dorm with him, call social services, and start the process of officially adopting his sister. For years, while she was in what he had been told was therapy, and heavily medicated, he couldn’t find her. She could not reach out to him. Once she finally figured out how to fake taking her medications, he had heard her call, just as he had years before.
He watched his sister as she picked up a crow feather from the ground and tucked it into her hair, behind her ear.
“We need a plan,” he said to his sister. Waverly tilted her head to the sky and smiled. It was the first smile he had seen from her.
“Follow the crows,” she said.
Robert was eventually able to move the tree, tugging it away from the road and into a ditch. Sweaty, with scratched hands, he got his sister back into the car and they followed the twisted road through the hills. Occasionally, when a fork in the road would be approaching, Robert would look to the sky and there would be a crow flying overhead. He always took the choice that let him follow it.
After a couple of hours of this sort of wandering, the car cleared the hills and Robert could see a town up ahead. As he pulled into a dusty-looking gas station to fill up, he noticed a little mom-and-pop diner next door and realized his stomach was growling. He went back to the car and asked Waverly if she would like something to eat. He took her silent shrug for consent, paid for the gas, and parked next to the diner.
The siblings slid into a booth, and Robert plugged his dead cell phone into a nearby outlet. The phone powered on and buzzed with notifications. Someone had been trying to reach him. He listened to the first voicemail, frowning. After it had finished, he clicked off the phone. He looked at his sister, who was staring out of the window, her hands folded in her lap.
“The police are looking for us,” he said.
Waverly didn’t move, but Robert could see the panic rising in her. Even without touching her, he could feel it rolling off of her in waves. He felt so stupid. His plan had been so naïve. He had to protect her. There were people who knew what she was, what she could do, and they would be looking for her.
She turned her eyes to him and reached her hand across the table, laying it against the smooth Formica. Robert took her small hand in his and she again wrapped her thin fingers around his, and he was immediately thrown back in time.
They were standing, hand in hand, in front of a pond behind their childhood home. Robert could smell the dewy grass and feel the heavy heat on his face and neck.
“I have a secret,” Waverly told him. She was tiny, small even for a five-year-old, and he had humoured her, following her out to this spot. She had told him to look, and he watched as a patch of grass began to smolder and smoke under her gaze. Finally, the grass burst into a small flame and Waverly had looked up at her brother, so proud of herself. Robert’s cheeks flushed, not with the heat from the tiny blaze, but with the knowledge of his sister’s secret.
He could feel her giddiness and her excitement at having shown him this trick. Robert smiled at his sister. He had known she was special from the time she was born and was impressed with her abilities.
Their dad found them there, standing next to the tiny fire, and he ripped Waverly away from him. His father’s yells and his sister’s cries rang in Robert’s ears as he stood helplessly, watching her being carried away.
Something in him snapped and he ran after his father. Robert rushed him, trying to knock him off his feet. His father kicked him, hard, in the stomach, and when he fell, his father stomped down, cracking bones in Robert’s ankle.
His mother noticed the commotion and ran to Robert. He reached out to her, assuming she would be an ally against his father, but his hopes were quickly dashed. She pinned him to the ground as his father carried away his sister.
He remembered laying on the ground, his mother spitting insults at him as he struggled to get free. A crow had flown overhead, throwing a shadow across her angry face. It had landed on Robert’s father, pulling hair and scratching at his eyes. Pinned to the ground, Robert watched with fascination as the bird attacked.
His mother bolted, leaving to aide her husband, who was sprinting toward the house for cover against the bird attack. Robert, unable to put weight on his ankle, crawled after them. He wasn’t even halfway across the yard when he saw the smoke coming from the windows.
The sound of the waitress’s voice telling Robert he could pay up front brought him back. He thanked the waitress and then nodded to his sister. A large black crow landed outside the window and was sitting on the sidewalk, looking at Robert.
A bus filled with older people travelling together had pulled in and they were unloading. A large group of people spilled into the lobby. As Robert tried to maneuver his sister and himself through the group, a skinny, taught-looking woman, with a tight white bun and eyes nearly as black as Waverly’s, reached out and grabbed her by the arm.
“Why, look at you. You are the spitting image of my granddaughter,” the woman said. Waverly stood stock-still, staring into the woman’s eyes.
Robert reached out, pulling his sister free from the woman’s grip. He was ready to admonish her for grabbing a child but froze when he looked into her completely black eyes.
“Our group, we are heading west, as the crow flies,” the woman smiled and said. “I suggest you do the same.”
Waverly nodded gravely at the woman but said nothing. Robert didn’t move and the lady placed a hand on his shoulder. He saw a flash of a home, safe and clean, and he and his sister sitting on the porch, looking out over the ocean. The woman removed her hand and smiled.
“May I?” the woman asked, pointing to Robert’s phone, hanging limply in his hand. He handed it to her. She fiddled with it for a moment and then gave it back. The GPS was running with directions she had programmed in. Robert looked up from the phone to ask who she was, but the lady had already turned and was leaving with the crowd. He noticed in her white hair was a sole black feather, tucked behind her ear.
They made their way through the crowd, and back to the El Camino. As they approached the car, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood. The crow squawked and then took off into the blue sky, heading west. Robert and Waverly watched the crow fly away, and then looked at each other.
“Head west?” Robert asked.
“As the crow flies,” Waverly answered.
Hannah O’Doom is currently working toward her Masters of Library Science at the University of Kentucky at night while working as a project manager by day. When not writing stories about robots, cats, or magical coffees, she can be found playing roller derby with her team Roller Derby of Central Kentucky, drinking gin and tonics, and reading odd books. Her work can be found at her website, hannahodoom.com