by Jolene Mottern
Katie woke up with her head on the car window and a kink in her neck. They were far from the city now. She stared into the dreary landscape. Fields of green grass and broken corn stalks stared back at her. It had begun to rain. They were going to some house called Stony Hill. Surely it had to be some pretentious place when people actually named their home. The party was supposed to have apple bobbing, pumpkin carving, arts and crafts, a costume contest, face painting and a bonfire. She suspected the bonfire would be canceled because of the rain. A crow on the fence nodded in agreement with her.
Her parents were happily singing folk music in the front seat.
“Where are we?” she asked. They didn’t hear her. They thought the countryside was quaint. They even liked the rain. Great Halloween weather, they said. They thought the gray haze added to its mystique. She traced the outline of the crow in her window’s fog and went back to sleep.
She woke up to a dusky sky, the sound of the car crunching through gravel, rocks jumping up to hit it. She hoped they were close, because she had to pee and with every bump, it grew more painful to wait. “Are we almost there?” she asked.
Up ahead, Katie saw a lawn with kids running around in the damp air, their breath a constant. Most of them had costumes on. One kid was dressed as a cowboy, waving his shiny pistol around, another one a superhero, the girls all seemed to be dolls, their jaunty runs trailing long hair and ribbon. Katie saw no one close to her age, causing disappointment.
The farm house was falling apart. It looked dirty, with its peeling white paint. Some of the shutters hung crooked and loose. At the widow’s peak, the entire window was out, not even a frame remained.
The house was cold, despite all the busy people. The hostess was a pudgy blonde woman, shorter than Katie. She smiled warmly even though the Cowboy Kid ran through the house scraping the walls with his pistol, and all the cute little dolls seemed to scream constantly. She was led through the hallway, to a room off to the left, as a place she could put their coats. A bare mattress, striped and stained, was propped up on an old iron bed. The wallpaper was tattered. In some places it had been ripped down and in others, it fell down like heavy eyelids. Her teeth chattered some, although she was cold, she had to admit she’d grown nervous.
The hostess started rambling about how they’d only just acquired this property, but it would be a renovation project, so why not enjoy it for Halloween, while it still had all of its creepy charm. She laughed. Katie didn’t find it funny. Who throws a party in a nasty, old house?
She made no hesitation in asking for the bathroom. Ascending the stairs, the whole house seemed to shift and sway in her path. With each step, the din below grew quieter. She gripped the handrail. The bathroom was the first door she came to, just at the top of the stairs. The hall beyond it appeared endless. The bathroom had one of those old-fashioned toilets where the tank perched high above the bowl. The seat was like ice. The cold startled her and she decided to hover. While she went, the floor creaked under her. She had images of herself falling through the floor, probably into that nasty mattress, with her pants still down to her knees. She heard the Cowboy Kid scrape his pistol on the wall up the stairs. Ever so slowly and softly he slid it, along the wall and then across the bathroom door. “Hey!” Katie yelled, “Stop it!” He stopped, but he was still out there, she knew it. She hadn’t heard his feet going back down the stairs.
Something hit the window. She jumped up and clutched her chest, pee ran down her leg. Once she got her pants up and caught her breath, she tried looking out to see what it was, but the window was so dirty, she couldn’t see much beyond the vague tint of green turning to blue where the grass met the sky. She pressed her forehead to the glass and cupped her hands over her eyebrows to get a better look. Just then came another crash.
“Jesus!” She jumped back. A bird. Just a big, black bird.
Behind her, the Cowboy Kid started with the pistol again, this time from the opposite end of the hall. He crept slowly, toward the bathroom door again. Annoyed, Katie decided she would scare him by jumping out of the bathroom when she heard him hit the stairs. She stood in wait, smiling. He was so careful with his footsteps, she couldn’t even hear him walk, just the sound of his pistol etching the wall. When the pistol got to the door, she saw that he was trying to scare her. Katie watched the doorknob turn back and forth. She’d show him, she thought, and wedged herself carefully against the wall behind the door.
Her chest pounded. She could actually hear her own heart beating. Katie’s anticipation was causing her breath to deepen. Outside her, there was only the sound of the doorknob turning again and again. She grew impatient. Finally, the door opened with a squeak. Katie pounced out from behind the door, “Boo!” she hollered at nothing. No one was there.
Terrified, she stepped into the hall. A cold wind passed by her. Goosebumps and their tiny spears pushed through her skin, making all the hairs on her neck stand up. She shuddered. Her teeth chattered. The sun was going down. The house only grew colder. Katie tucked her hands into her jacket and wondered how much colder it had to be before she could see her own breath.
Another bird hit the window. As carefully as she had gone up, she held tight to the rail and pressed herself to walk down the stairs. At the bottom, she turned to look at the bathroom door. It slowly fell closed as if was signaling to her. A squeaky wink it gave her, for their shared experience.
Behind her, Cowboy Kid ran through the front door, waving his pistol and shouting, “Pow pow pow!” Suddenly comforted by his presence, she asked him, “What are you shooting?”
“Crows!” he yelled.
From the back of the house, a woman’s voice came. “Dalton, surrender your weapon and come make me a masterpiece!”
“I won’t never surrender it, Granny, but I’ll holster it and draw you somethin pretty!”
“Fine enough,” she said, “Come draw me a picture and I’ll make you a cup of hot cocoa.”
Katie followed Dalton the Cowboy Kid toward the kitchen. “Can I draw a picture for hot cocoa, too?” she asked. “Or am I too old?” She peeked around the corner to find an old woman at the stove.
“Ain’t never too old to draw Granny a pretty picture,” she replied with a sweet smile. “Sit down here at the table and draw me something all Halloween like. “ She patted the tabletop. Cowboy Kid sat at a miniature table, happily coloring a bright blue sky.
Katie smiled, and sat down. She couldn’t remember when she’d last been given a blank sheet of paper and been granted the freedom to draw anything she wanted. The smell of brand new crayons and chocolate eased her mind. She’d laughed when her parents told her there’d be arts and crafts, but there was a strange comfort in coloring. The kitchen felt warm and safe. Her fingers started to thaw as she shaded.
Granny brought her cocoa and told her what a lovely picture it was. Katie was feeling so much better now. She sipped her cocoa, but it didn’t taste right. It didn’t taste sweet. It tasted more like when she held bobby pins in her mouth.
“Thank you. Never gonna be enough of these for Granny.” Granny fastened her picture under clothespins on a line above her head. Picture after picture of crows waved from the clothesline. Not one of the children had drawn anything other than a crow.
Katie woke up then. She must have been dreaming. Pink tinged her vision. Her head was throbbing. She wasn’t in the house. She wasn’t in the car. She could feel dirt under her hands. As Katie opened her eyes, she saw a pale gray sky and then a crow diving down over her, just a few feet away. It squawked at her as it neared. Its yellow eyes clearly sought Katie’s face. She reached to put her hands over her face and saw her hands were spattered with blood. She screamed out, but her voice failed her. Katie swatted at the crow, it was so close to her, she could feel a deft feather graze her fingertips. She tried to sit up, but it was too hard.
Katie slid her hand over her aching forehead. It was slick with blood. Her head bled from somewhere. She flipped over on her stomach, discovering she was in a ditch. Dead in a ditch, she thought. She saw only broken corn stalks ahead of her. She knew the car must be the other way. Turning around and crawling forward, her legs felt like lead and her right shoulder burned. Katie could hear the flutter of feathers over her. The crows thought she was soon to be carrion, too weak to fight back. They chattered and squealed over her. She stopped, over and over, to bury her bloody head in her hands. Her voice was missing, but she kept trying to cry out. Her voice was the sound of a hushed amimal, wimpering. She could actually feel the air moving from her mouth into her lungs, and it felt like sand. As she dug her feet into the earth, she grabbed the grass with her fingers and wriggled back to the road.
Her hands above her, she finally felt the roadside ahead. She felt her hopes rise. If she could get to the road, she could be rescued. The crows’ calls pierced her ears. They were relentless. Katie buried her head in her hands again and wept silently. Tears and blood streamed down her face. Chunks of gravel scathed her palms. There was nothing to pull anymore. She pressed her toes into the ground below her, trying to gain momentum. Katie wanted so badly to stand. When her eyes finally met the horizon, she took in the scene, squinted her eyes as tightly as she could. When she realized closing her eyes wouldn’t make it go away, she expelled an almost silent scream.
The big blue station wagon lay on its side, as crows swarmed the car. Her father’s legs were pinned under the car at his knees and his head was held upright only because his neck was shoved between the car and the side mirror. He almost looked as though he was praying, if his body hadn’t been so twisted. His gray tweed scarf flew as a flag to the left of his neck. His lifeless eyes bulged forward, but the rest of his face was just a featureless mess of blood and bone. A crow perched on his skull and tore at his hair. Other crows dove in, pecking greedily at his face.
Her mother’s head rested in the rocks directly in front of Katie, staring sideways at her. A look of surprise seemed frozen on her perfectly still made-up face. Crows flew in and out, swooping down to feast from her open throat. Over and over, Katie screamed silent screams of horror. She could do nothing to save her father from the crows, but Katie pulled her mother’s head toward her and tucked it into her chest.
Unnoticed, Katie watched as the sheriff arrived. She tried to scream and she threw rocks, but he couldn’t hear her. He radioed for help, and in the meantime, loading his gun over and over, he shot so many crows, when they finally subsided, the gravel seemed to wear a black feathered rug.
It was a pudgy old blonde woman who finally discovered her. “Sheriff Dalton!” she yelled, “There’s a child! There’s a child!”
Katie couldn’t seem to let go. For over an hour, she lay belly down on the shoulder of the road, clutching her mother, burrowing her face into the disheveled bun of a decapitated head, wailing in a whisper. When she finally relinquished her grasp, the old lady pulled her up close to her, put her arm around her, poured her a cup of cocoa from a thermos and told her, “A flock of crows is called a murder, you know.”
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