Everyone knew something about these Crow Kids they weren’t sharing. It’s some sort of town secret but we’re outsiders. When I needed help to know what happened to Jenny these past few days, nobody was answering my questions.
“That’s my little girl out there! She needs her Daddy! You people ain’t telling me nothing I can use! Where’s my daughter?”
They knew. Of course they knew. I could see it, despite their feigned looks of confusion. I could tell by the way they’d avert their eyes. They don’t talk about the weird stuff that happens here. I don’t neither. I’m not quite sure why. None of us do.
I’m starting this off all wrong
I need to tell you about the house I got for sale. It’s listed by MountainSun Kentucky Realty.
Think about taking the drive out to have a look. Maybe it’s for you? It’s real affordable.
It’s a 3 bedroom but one of them is more of an office. That one’s downstairs. We have a big open plan. The first floor’s got living spaces and that office. The other bedrooms and bathrooms are upstairs. About 2,382 square feet total. I’ve got it priced under market. Upkept really well though it may not look modern outside, all of the fixtures and some of the plumbing are new from right after Jenny and I moved in.
Bradenville is a small, quiet town. A little slice of Americana where the mailman still walks door to door. People say hello to strangers. If you do something uneducated, somebody’s mamma is liable to place her hand on her chest and mutter ‘bless your heart’ with a smile. It’s a beautiful place to live, too. My daughter Jenny and I moved here almost three years ago and fell in love with it. The people here are your salt-of-the-earth types. Hardworking, God fearing, enjoying the simpler side of Kentucky living. It’s true what they say about Bradenville. If you come to live here, you’ll stay till you die.
The house I got for sale ain’t one of those cookie-cutter ones you can buy anywhere in the country. You know the kind I mean. It was built by someone’s own two hands. You don’t want to live in some new development called Begonia Heights or Lavender Ridge or whatever other pretentious bullshit the places where you live are called. You want to live here.
Webber Street is Webber Street and Main Street is Main. These streets have normal names; not the breeds of birds or anything stupid. Every house is unique. These are places made with spirit and character built to raise your family in. My house is almost 100 years old now. A house like this one might even outlive you.
If it’s not big enough, it would be easy to add onto. When Rhiannon nextdoor got pregnant did she and Paul and their other two kids pack up and move? Heck no, goddamn them. They called a man, measured some walls, and added on another room. That was Rihannon’s great grandma’s place. That family’s gonna love that house for another 100 years to come. Beyond that even, till they’re all dead and gone and the memory of them fades. That’s how you’re supposed to treat a home; take care of it and it takes care of you.
We don’t have an HOA so you can paint it any color under the rainbow you like once it’s yours. I think my place would be the perfect spot for you. I’m sure you can afford it. The cost of living ain’t much.
There’s freedom in the country. You can feel it the moment you step outside and into the breeze. The colors seem brighter and you can hear the spirit of the place like a breeze through bluegrass. Warm music that fades into hazy memories. It’s in the air here even if music ain’t playing. You’ll see. The moment you take in the views, your brain will conjure up the sound of Ricky Skaggs singing “Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow” or something akin to that. Or maybe you’ll think “All The Trouble” by Lee Ann Womaok, or Mumford and Sons or something that’s more current. Whatever country music is to you, that’s what you’ll think of. When you see the forest behind the place with mountains rolling up like a distant backdrop looking down on the sprawl of town that grew in the shadow, you’re bound to get some melody. It’ll start screaming like an earworm, burrowing its way into your bruised apple of a skull.
I don’t think I can do this. I won’t trick you like this. What I need is for you to buy my fucking house so me and my little girl can get the fuck out of here. Can’t you do that? Can anyone out there reading this help me? Please? I’ll give you whatever you want.
I bought the house with insurance money after my husband passed. Before he died, Daniel and I adopted Jenny to start family. She was a little thing with strawberry-blonde ringlets and bright blue eyes, squirming and rolling around her crib. Wrapped in a blanket, like a wriggling bundle. I called her ‘Slug.’ And when I saw how much Daniel hated it, ‘Slug’ became my thing.
“Quit it!” He said, “that’s no nickname for a baby!”
“Of course it is!” I said, “Wooket squirmy wormy Jenny-Slug!”
She’d laugh, not knowing about the fuss. It was attention, that’s all.
“That’s gross!” Daniel said. “She looks more like a bird in an egg. You can call her Bird.”
“Naw. I’ll call her Slug. She can call me Daddy and you’ll be Dad.”
His ears turned red every time I called her that and I would laugh with her while he seethed. We always made fun of each other. That was the best time.
One of the things I loved best was how he kept on about moving to a place like this.
“When I was a kid in Kentucky,” he said as his eyes went glossy and bright with longing. “I remember the air…so fresh…the temperature…”
One awful morning, I woke up and Daniel was gone. He didn’t leave. His body was right there beside me, cold.
Jenny was turning 5; suddenly our family changed and it was just the 2 of us. I took the loss like dodging a rain of cinderblocks that didn’t stop for weeks. Some days I did okay. Other days I’d be covered until I was buried. I’d lay tangled in sheets, crying and too weak to move. Forget about getting back on my feet. I wasn’t even trying to stand. Instead of our forever-home in the country, I moved into a dark, dilapidated place inside myself. People talked to me, but I was walled in. Nothing they said made sense through the bricks.
Sleep apnea? My father snored all his life. People can’t die from snoring.
It didn’t make sense; I didn’t want it to. It wasn’t fair. He was 31 years old. He’d be 34 and a half now. It’s too young. We were just getting started.
Only Grandfathers are allowed to die in their sleep.
I hid depression as well as I could from Jenny. I saw the shrink. I took my pills. I wanted to teach her about being strong. I couldn’t do that if I kept falling apart in the dark. I needed to come out of this place, for her.
As for Jenny, it was bad for her at first. Being so young, I knew she didn’t understand much of it; not the funeral nor what she saw me going through. I wonder how much of this stays with her when she’s grown. I made 11 years worth of memories with him. Would she get to keep any of hers at all? I don’t remember anything from when I was 5.
Could she remember the way they played teddy bears’ tea party and the stupid voices he gave to every one of them? How he pushed her on the swings while she begged to go higher at the park?
“Higher! Higher please!”
“I can’t push you higher, Little Bird!” He told her, “You’ll get better hugs from the clouds and fly away from us forever.” All three of us laughed.
She doesn’t have our genes, but I joke she got her imagination from his side of our family.
What if she don’t remember him? What if the memories she keeps for him are how I fell apart when he’d gone?
I was going to give her that life he always wanted. I bought this house trying to do just that. Now we’re stuck here.
In Bradenville, people are friendly, you get to know them pretty quick. They’ll talk your ear off if in the checkout line if you let them. By the time Jenny was 6 we were well known throughout town. Yet a gay single father in a small town in Kentucky becomes adept at eluding the subject of partners. I didn’t give much away. That’s how it was at first. I kept people from getting too close. That’s how I was raised. I wasn’t hiding secrets. I just wasn’t walking around passing out copies of a biography. It wasn’t their business.
I found out Kariann Nathan, the local busybody, pieced all of the bits of information together and told everyone. Everyone. If you’ve lived in a small town you know there ain’t much room for secrets. It was a hassle, but different to what I expected. You forget the world of 30 years ago is gone now. Few people cared about my business. Most wanted to talk to me more. If the people of Bradenville were vaguely sweet prior, they became overly saccharine overnight.
I stared at the wall of canned vegetables, deep in thought when I heard, “Hey, ain’t it Eric Parker?”
An enormous creature was moving toward me clutching a purse that was lined with a layer of fuzzy black feathers.
“I thought that was you!” She called out.
Jenny looked up to give a knowing glance before returning her attention to the knots in her doll’s hair. I felt my body tense. I kept shopping nonchalantly, hoping she would leave.
“Yep, that’s me.” I kept my tone as casual and dismissive as possible. I knew what was coming. I reached for a can of green beans.
“Hi! I’m Patty Filmore.”
“Oh, Ms. Filmore, hi!” I replied pretending to read the label, “ It’s nice to see you again.”
I could see her smile creep its way up her cheeks, not quite reaching her eyes. She looked at me as though in initiating this brief exchange, she found some exotic treasure. “I just wanted to say, I think it’s great…what you’re doing.”
I looked up. “Oh?” I said, “Thank you. They say that this one needs a full pyramid of options for a well balanced dinner, and vegetables have to be on the menu. Gotta make sure she gets her greens.”
“I don’t like green beans!” Jenny squealed.
“That’s too bad Slug! The police said if I buy them, you gotta eat them or it’s jailtime.”
“No! Daddy don’t buy them then!”
“Sorry, honey.” I said, “them’s the rules.”
“You know that’s not what I meant, silly.” Patty began again. She was still here. Why didn’t she leave? Given no reason to end the conversation, she resumed talking. A blush spread across her face.
“I do.” I said.
“My daddy doesn’t like you, I don’t think.” Jenny said without looking up.
“Jenny!” She gave me a look and a shrug and went back to fixing Barbie’s hair. “You don’t talk to people like that. It’s not polite.”
“Sorry, lady.” Jenny whispered. Still she didn’t look up. She knew she wasn’t in trouble. Daddy’s little spitfire was sometimes a brat on purpose. It was part of our deal.
“Ain’t she something,” Patty said. She chuckled and placed her hand over her massive breast adding, “bless your heart. You must be a handful.”
“That she is,” I said. “Ain’t you Slug?” Patty frowned at the nickname.
“I bet it’s hard doing this all by yourself.” She said.
“It’s not hard. We got each other.”
“Well,” Patty said, “when you’re ready to start dating again, My cousin Cricket would sure like to meet someone like you. He’s good with kids. They like him.”
Cricket. Who in the name of God is called Cricket? Yes, I understand irony. Don’t care.
“Thank you, I’ve got my hands full now. Like you said.”
“If you change your mind, I can pass the word along.”
“That’s very kind. Lunchtime’s coming so we’d better go. This one gets a little bit ruder than this if she don’t get her juicebox.”
Patty laughed and wished us a good day before walking off.
“She looked like a big fat bird.”
I laughed, “don’t call people names, okay?”
I bought Jenny some Skittles on the way out. A reward for her part in the interaction but I didn’t tell her. She probably knew. She’s a smart kid. I didn’t want to teach her to be rude, but the conversation ended more quickly than it would have without.
The week Jenny started Kindergarten was hard for me. I just kept thinking about Daniel and how he should be posing for the photos on her first big day with us.
Time marches on.
Jenny learned school lessons fast and made friends just as quickly. She got close with Rhiannon and Paul’s kids nextdoor long before the new baby. Dixon and Lincoln were funny boys and the Parishes quickly became the only real friends I made here. We took turns babysitting the 3 kids, their 2 and Slug, while they enjoyed date night. They’d look after Jenny on the few nights I went out myself. Usually, I went to the movies or someplace I could be alone with my thoughts.
One afternoon, they were in the backyard, hands tucked up under their armpits like chickens, running single-file in circle. Paul had to run to Lexington for work. I offered to watch the kids so Rhiannon could join him for the long ride.
The first time I heard it was that day. I set a plate of PB&J sandwiches on the picnic table in the yard and heard the boys teaching it to Jenny. It sounded like Ring-Round-The-Rosy, but the rhyme was different. She picked up on it quickly because she already knew the tune.
“Crow kids are liars.
Eyes are black and beady.
Ignore the things they say because
They’re all wet from their sleeping.
Feathers, feathers, you’ll fly upsidedown.”
I laughed. “What the heck is that song?” I asked the boys.
“Crow Kids song?” Dixon, the younger boy replied with a scoff. “Everybody knows that one.”
“I never heard it,” I said.
“Sure you have. Everyone has.” Dixon said.
Lincoln’s eyes grew as wide and white as eggs. “Shhhh,” He scolded his younger brother. The whisper was harsh. I pretended not to hear. I felt a strange pang of curiosity and fear at once when Lincoln’s face became dark and serious, “They’re not from here.” He said. “They don’t know.”
Something about that stuck with me. It didn’t help that Jenny learned the whole thing, reciting it frequently after.
Crow Kids are liars.
Mouths are hard and beaky.
They’re flying on the bottom,
And they’re offering their teaching.
Feathers, feathers, you’ll fly upsidedown.
“Honey can you quit singing that? Gives me the creeps.”
“All the kids sing it, Daddy.”
I didn’t realize it meant anything until last weekend.
A lot of time passed and Jenny was getting taller every day. Growing up quicker than I liked. You want them to stay kids forever but they don’t care what you want.
By last weekend, Rhiannon was very pregnant. 9 months and 5 days. The addition was built and the nursery was furnished and painted blue, eagerly awaiting baby boy number 3.
Paul was there when I left Jenny at the house. I wouldn’t leave her to bother someone about to go into labor. Rhiannon needed rest, not to watch my kid chase her boys in the yard.
“Are you sure it’s okay?” I asked.
“Oh, yea,” Rhiannon said. “I’ve been holding on longer than I’m supposed to already. Another hour won’t change anything.”
Normally I work from home. I take meetings on video chat and design e-commerce sites for companies all over. Last weekend, a local t-shirt company contacted me for a quote. It was only going to take an hour.
“I won’t be long.” I told them.
Paul told me to take my time.
I got the job but it doesn’t matter. Not now.
Returning home, I walked over there. The boys were on the porch, turning the worn pages of a weathered comic. Their backs against the railing.
“What’s this one say?” Dixon asked, pointing to the page.
“Says he doesn’t feel pain. He is pain.” Lincoln read, “says ‘I know it at a molecular level.’ Pulls at his atoms and sings to him in an alphabet of fear.”
Dixon is 8. Lincoln is older but he’s still only 10. Where did they find this thing? I began to worry about the level of supervision Jenny had here.
“Hey boys,” I began. They didn’t hear me approach and they both jumped. “Your mom and dad inside with Jenny?”
“They’re at the hospital.” Dixon said. “Mom said the baby’s coming and they both ran out of here real fast.” He followed making a noise like a car peeling out. I glanced at the driveway noticing the fresh black from the tires.
“Oh.” Shit. “Uh. Okay. Is Jenny inside?”
“No, Mr. Eric,” Dixon said, “it’s just us.”
“She went with them to the hospital?” I heard my own voice anxious and raw. My throat grew dry. I felt like I was floating somewhere else. I grabbed the porch railing to steady myself.
“No, Mr. Eric,” Dixon said again. The younger boy grew quiet, “she’s gone.”
“What–what do you mean she’s gone?” It came out a mumbled stammer.
Dixon looked at the ground. Lincoln didn’t look up at all the whole time that I stood there.
“What do you mean she’s gone?!” I said again. My voice was louder than I’d meant for it to be. “Lincoln look at me. Tell me what your brother means.”
“You’re too late.”
I wanted to slap the shit out of him. I kept reminding myself he was just a kid and not my kid.
I glanced frantically around the yard. I looked inside through the windows. “Boys, where is she?”
They were quiet. It was the longest moment of my life, stretching on and on forever. I felt my stomach churn. I was going to be sick.
“She left with the Crow Kids.” Dixon said shuffling his feet. “They’re gonna teach her to fly.”
I dialed 911.
“Hi.” I said. “I’m at 467 Webber Street. I need help please. Now.”
“What is the nature of the emergency sir?” The operator asked.
“I just.” I couldn’t find the words. If I did. If I said them, that would make it real. “467 Webber. I need… I need help please.”
“What is the nature of the emergency?”
“Neighbor’s. Um. She’s not here. I left her. Babysitter. Missing. Daughter. Gone.” The lightheadedness intensified and the world went black.
“Sir? Sir? Can you hear me? Are you there? You said your daughter’s missing? Is that correct? Sir? If you can hear me, I’m sending a car there now, an ambulance too. Sir? Are you still there? Sir?”
I woke surrounded by people. Lincoln was talking to an officer, a woman in mirrored sunglasses. I could hear it but just barely.
“Mama said the baby couldn’t come. There’d be too many.” Lincoln’s voice was shrill but calm. “So Daddy told me and Dixon to take her to the creek and introduce–”
“That’s enough.” The woman said softly. “I’m gonna see if Mr. Varney can take you boys to the hospital to meet up with your mama and daddy.” She led the kids over to another officer.
They exchanged some words I couldn’t make out, but I did hear her say something else to him turning away: “Tell the Parishes I wanna speak to them. Legacy or not, doesn’t excuse you from our laws.”
She started up to where the paramedics attended me, stooping down to pick up the comic book. Rolling it, she stuck it into her back pocket.
“Wait!” Lincoln’s voice came from somewhere in the yard, “tell her to give back my comic!”
“Little boy, that’s my boss. I don’t tell her nothing. Besides this town’s spooky enough without you filling your heads with more bullshit. Come along, ya hear me?”
“Is he good?” The woman asked one of the paramedics.
“I need to ask him a few questions.”
“He might not stay good then. This was a panic attack”
“I’m fine,” I said sitting up. Slowly, I got up with the help of the paramedics on shaking knees. “What did he tell you? Where is she? Something about the creek?”
“Mr. Parker,” the woman began, “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Sheriff Downs, but you can call me Tawnie.”
I huffed out a sigh, “I know who you are, Tawnie,” I said trying to conceal my anger. “Where did he say she went?”
“He didn’t give me much info, but I already called the pastor from the church up the road. He’s got everybody’s telephones and we’ll get a party out here to search.” She sucked her teeth and put her hands on her hips. “She ever run off before?”
I sat in one of the rocking chairs near the door and put my hands over my face. I could feel the wet of tears on my palms. I wasn’t aware I was crying.
“No. She’s 8 years old.”
“We’ll find her.” She said.
“What do you need from me? Like a doll or some clothes or something?”
She looked confused, “come again?” She asked.
“For the dogs.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Parker, we don’t have resources for them kinda dogs.” I felt my heart sink and settle in my feet. “Might be someone in the search party’s got a hunting dog they’ll bring. I guess. Keep that in mind. We’ll start at the treeline and the woods behind your property.”
The wrong direction. Lincoln said something about the creek. The creek was across the road, and through the field beyond Hayes Jackson’s property. Why would she want to look on the wrong side of the street?
I looked up at her, “Why?”
“That’s where she’s likely to be, Mr. Parker.” She explained.
I didn’t understand. “But why think that? Why not start at the creek?”
She looked at me a bit confused, “the creek’s about a mile off that direction. She probably wouldn’t go off that far.”
“But that boy was–”
“That boy’s full of fish tales. Takes after his daddy.” She said, “he don’t mean to be a liar, he’s what, 9 or 10? He don’t understand what he’s doing.”
I felt moving in the pit of my stomach, an unease, squirming like an eel. “What if it’s the truth?”
“Enough people from town will come and we can split in 2.” Her voice was sympathetic but her face betrayed something else entirely. What was it? Pity? No. That wasn’t it. Annoyance. My suggestions were annoying her. She probably didn’t want to search at all.
“I can come over to the creek if you want to start there,” she said. “We’ll send another team out yonder in the woods. We can cover more ground that way.”
“He was trying to tell you something else,” I said.
“I don’t think he was.” She said. I searched her face for any hint of compassion. All I saw of it was a tired, weathered mask beginning to slip. She was lying to me and not very good at it. She didn’t care if we ever found Jenny. It was in her eyes.
“I think it was something about the Crow kids. Is that a family name? Crow?”
She sighed, “No Mr. Parker. Like I said: ‘fish tales.’ No family named Crow, just a small-town urban legend. Ain’t no Crow Kids. Just made up stories. I don’t remember how it goes. Kids been talking about them since before I was born. Get blamed for everything bad. They ain’t real.”
Many responding to Pastor Thomas’s call arrived in hiking boots and thick pants. Some came wielding machetes and heavy duty loppers to clear paths through the brush. Nobody came with a hunting dog. A woman named Sheryl lumbered up to me where I stood in my driveway. Her arms were laden with paper sacks from the grocery store.
“All these people are gonna need to eat,” she said matter-of-fact as I led her inside and showed her around the kitchen.
I found it reassuring that so many people in town came already prepared to comb the woods and the creek beyond the Jackson property like they’d done it before. A few even brought maps of both spots, dogeared and well used, some marked the grids of previous searches. It wasn’t until later that I realized how troubling that should have been.
How many times did they do this before? What exactly was going on?
We searched for 6 hours, stopping before sundown. A large folding table was set up in my yard. Jim Thomas was unloading metal chairs from the back of the church van. The mood was painfully cheery as the town crowded around Sheryl’s spread of impromptu home cooking. Somehow she found enough time to bake 5 or 6 chickens, 4 hams, a few gallons of mashed potatoes, sweet potato pie and corn to go around. In just 6 hours in my tiny kitchen. From two paper sacks from Rife’s Grocery. It didn’t add up. I didn’t question it. There were more important questions. I held them in until everyone left except for Sheryl and Pastor Thomas’s wife who both stayed to clean up.
“I have to ask you ladies something,” I said coming through the kitchen door, my arms piled with serving utensils and trays.
“Oh my,” Gwen Thomas came rushing over, relieving the load I carried, “you stop right there and don’t do a thing.” She unloaded the dishes in the sink and led me over to my breakfast table.
“You’ve had a long day,” Sheryl said bringing over a steaming mug of black coffee “You leave the washing up to us.”
“I need to ask you two ladies something.” I said again. I weighed the implications of the question in my mind. Did I want to hear the answer?
I needed to know.
“Everybody seems to have done this before.”
“Mmm.” Gwen murmured as she scrubbed at the pans in the sink, “once or twice.”
I could see Sheryl in my periphery. She bit her lower lip, looking nervous and smearing some of her cheap lipstick on her teeth.
“I think it’s more than that.” I reasoned, “some of those maps looked pretty creased. Most of them had lines drawn too.”
We shared an uncomfortable silence. Eventually, silence was stalled by a chime from Mrs. Thomas’s phone. She looked relieved as she read the text.
“It’s Jim,” she said, “I should go. He’s wondering where I’m at.” On her way toward the front door, she stopped to place her hand on my shoulder, “I’m really sorry this is happening.”
I took a deep breath as she left and continued my questions. “Are you gonna pretend nothing’s up too?”
Sheryl sighed and I could see tears welling up in her eyes. “We ain’t supposed to talk about it. They might hear.”
“My daughter’s missing.” I said, “I need to find her. The boys nextdoor said–”
“I know what they said,” She wiped a tear away, “ain’t the first time.”
“Nobody will tell me,” I said pleading now, “I need to find my daughter.”
“It’s this town,” she said, “you need to find a way to leave as soon as you can. It ain’t easy but soon enough you can’t. You’ll be just like the rest of us. Get out.”
She wouldn’t explain further about the Crow Kids.
“I gotta go,” she said excusing herself. “I already said too much.” She showed herself out into the night, crying as she went.
We looked for 3 more days. Each day was met with fewer searchers, fewer answers, and more questions than I could count.
On day 4, I looked alone.
On day 5, I found her.
I wasn’t sleeping more than an hour or 2 at a time. Even drinking myself to oblivion was no relief. I was slowly losing hope, tossing and turning in bed as the hours continued to spin away with agonizing ticks from the clocks that continued measuring time despite me.
Paul and Rhiannon’s house remained dark as each sleepless night pressed forward. Good riddance. I wanted to hurt them. All of them. If not for their negligence, she would still be here, but I felt instinctively something more sinister was happening in Bradenville. It was the one piece of golden clarity I clung to as my life became a hazy tunnel of broken consciousness and deep dark dreams. Everything was diluted, and I sank into the inky black of the still and dark seas of depression.
I cried, and I drank, and searched, and did little else. I couldn’t recall the last time I ate and I didn’t care because I never felt anything. I was Nothing now, and Nothing don’t feel hungry. My phone rang with calls from angry clients and their emails beeped notifications endlessly. They wondered why their projects sat unfinished? Why was I ignoring them?
Didn’t they know? I was building walls to die behind and diving further and further down.
When Jenny–my little bright eyed Jennifer–disappeared, the neighbors who’d known where she went disappeared and I disappeared too.
We’re sorry, the person you are trying to reach is unavailable at this time. Please try your call later.
As I walked, I could feel my insides bursting and dropping out with each step along the edge of the creek. This was the bottom and the pressure of the hopeless depths was crushing what was left. I continued to look, despite the lack of clues or answers. Sheriff Downs was no help. She began screening my calls because she was a worthless lying bitch. I must have left over a dozen disjointed, confusing messages as I drunkenly slurred into the phone. Slowly, I accepted there wouldn’t be answers. It didn’t take long to realize I was wasting my time.
My mind was locked in a downward spinning drain. A bathtub filled the glass of broken gin bottles and disjointed memories as I felt what was left of me circle away.
My daddy doesn’t like you.
Eyes are black and beady.
Higher and higher please!
All wet from their sleeping…
I think I vaguely recall Sheryl visiting me. Perhaps she brought food that she forced on me, or maybe I imagined her visits entirely? Maybe she came every day. I think she called my clients back. Explained to them. The phone stopped making noise. I should have thanked her, but I couldn’t because I was gone.
The voicemail is full and cannot accept messages at this time.
Her kindness did not erase her as part of the problem. Not a single person in town would give me a straight answer about what they knew. They definitely knew something. I stopped asking or speaking to any of them at all. I resigned myself to the unanswered questions and the prospect of wasting away. I walked the edge of the creek for shorter and shorter hours every day.
We’re sorry. You have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel this is an error, please check the number dialed and try again.
My seeking grew evermore listless. The people here were monsters in plain sight spinning webs in the shadows. Southern charm and hospitality were ghosts haunting me and people began to look away from the silent wraith with the thousand yard stare that floated at the edge of their awareness and along the edge of the stream.
Thank you for calling. Goodbye.
The night that I found her, I woke up to take a leak. Lifting the seat, I began to empty my bladder staring out the second story window and into the night.
I rubbed my eyes and felt the harsh hand of sobriety shake me.
She was there. In the yard. Jenny. My Jenny. A little boy with shoulder length hair stood with her. They gazed up, motionless, staring through the window and through me. A large black bird sat on the boy’s shoulder and pecked at his hair as it flitted in the breeze. A second flew above them, the moonlight casting a shadow as it traced figure-8s. A third hopped in the dewy grass, pecking at nightcrawlers. Finding them with adept, psychic knowledge of where they hid, it pulled them free from the earth and swallowed them whole.
I stood there for seconds stretching on into forever and didn’t move, and they didn’t move either. Nobody moved except those crows. Breaking free from confusion, I ran down the stairs. Grabbing my keys from the kitchen counter, I tucked them into the waistband of my underwear, darting out the door. The night was chilly on my bare chest despite the heat that still lingered in the damp of the grass. The air was thick and oppressive with the humid memory of that forgotten summer rain.
She was gone. Both children were gone. I felt my heart sink. Was I hallucinating?
Perched on the powerlines above, a crow cawed in the darkness and took flight. I didn’t think about it and ran. I followed its shadow as it crossed the asphalt and cast darkness over the Jackson house and toward the creek.
I heard the chorus of frogs before I heard the water and I felt my breath hitch, stopping dead in my tracks when it came into view. Earlier in the day, I would have guessed the water at my chest at least, but now under the stars it was mostly gone. It flowed like clotted mucus, less than ankle deep and the uneven creekbed rose up like a muddy patchwork.
Overhead, dozens of crows circled the dark shapes that sood in the canal. I didn’t count the muddy children, gazing up at the sky. Occasionally one of the murder dove to land on one. They pecked at their faces, violently piercing mouths, ears and eyes. Cheeks. Necks. At a distance, I could see many were full of holes. The ragged skin of their faces pecked so often. Torn and bloodless. The kids didn’t flinch or react. They stood motionless as though they weren’t the feast spread for hungry birds at all.
I moved forward slowly, my feet cutting a cautious path toward the muddy edges as the din of the frogs grew ever louder around me. Their song became one uninterrupted note and amid that, I heard the voices of the children. The Crow Kids were squacking like birds.
“Take a dip.”
“Take a dive.”
“The water here’s just fine.”
“Sink with us forever”
“We’ll teach you how to fly.”
“Don’t you want to be a crow?”
“You’ll never know if you don’t try.”
“Come soar with us through clouds of muck beneath our murky sky.”
My head swam with their voices. The children’s rhyme came to me, blotting them out completely.
Crow Kids are liars.
Eyes are black and beady.
Ignore the things they say because
They’re all wet from their sleeping.
Feathers, feathers, you’ll fly upsidedown.
Crow Kids are liars.
Mouths are hard and beaky.
They’re flying on the bottom,
And they’re offering their teaching.
Feathers, feathers, you’ll fly upsidedown.
All of the voices spoke at once, but somehow, I could still pick the words out.
“Do you want to fly?”
“Sink with us.”
“We’ll teach you how to fly, Mr. Eric.”
As I drew closer it was like I could feel them inside me. Over endless cries of the crows and frogs, and screaming of the kids at once. I began to hear whispers of other things…
“You don’t have to do it here. Maybe in the tub, or at the public pool? Fly down and stay there ‘till you drown.”
I don’t know why, but I found I actually wanted to do those things. My head was a rotten apple and the whispers, the worm. The crows knew it was hiding there, and they began to dive at me, longing to peck it out. Eager to pull it free. I swatted at them and cowered.
Where was Jenny? Was she here? There! Near the tangled roots of a tree on the opposite bank. I ran to her, shoving the children and the birds away as I went. As I neared, she reached out to me. I lifted her from the mud with some effort, feet squelching as they broke free from the suck of it. I trudged back the way I’d come, fighting the pull of the creekbed with Jenny’s added weight. The filth was pulling my heels and wrapping around my ankles.
“Where are we going Daddy?” Jenny asked. Her voice was quiet and dazed as we reached our driveway..
“We’re leaving, Slug.” I told her. I put her into the passenger seat of my car and drove.
Bradenville is not a large town. There are two roads leading in and out. Main Street goes north and south. Webber heads east and west. We lived on Webber and either direction would lead us out of this hellhole forever. All I needed to do was drive and we could be safe.
Fog was rising up from the asphalt as I cut our path west.
“I don’t want to leave Daddy.” Jenny murmured as we approached the edge of town. I glanced over her in the passenger seat. Her eyes were far away like distant stars. “I want to stay here so I can learn to fly.”
Her voice gave me chills. Something was wrong, but the hand painted sign ahead gave me hope.
“Thanks For Visiting Bradenville, Y’all Come Back Now!”
The deer came out of nowhere and I slammed my brakes, narrowly missing. It leapt just past my hood at a hairpin angle and the massive buck changed its path to run out ahead of us in the road, where it disappeared.
It physically disappeared. An entire 8-point buck vanished in the center of the road.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. Something was very wrong, and driving again, I learned why very soon.
The deer reappeared at the side of the road next to another sign. I was sure it was that same deer but not the same sign. Frozen in the lights, its eyes stared back at us like two pools of light before it spooked and bounded into the trees.
The sign next to where it stood read “Welcome To Bradenville, population: 2127”
This was the east end of town. We drove west out of town and we were on the east side, reentering now. Why? I drove up a little ways and stopped just past the sign. The painting on the back of it was the same as the one we’d just passed but we never turned around. How was this possible?
I tried to leave a few more times only to end up back at the beginning, on the opposite compass point of the road we traveled. I even tried Main Street to the same result. Finally, I headed home.
Sheryl stood in my driveway with Hayes Jackson at her side.
“Oh Jesus Christ.” She muttered as we pulled up, “he found her. He fuckin’ found her.”
“Nobody finds them.” Jackson whispered as I got out.
Slamming the door of the car, I moved around the front of it with fury at my back intent on letting the two of them have it. “WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON!” I demanded.
“Now calm down, Eric.” Jackson said holding up his hands, “we ain’t got nothing to do with any of this. We’re all stuck. We come to tell you some things you ought to know.”
Sheryl looked terrified, “We gotta go inside. You can’t tell how you heard none of this, ya hear me?”
They told me the Crow Kids like playing games. Nobody knew what they were, but they seemed like they might be a ghost or demon. You can’t touch em or see ‘em most times, they just creep into your mind. They find you when you’re low and whisper sweet lies about drowning. Them dark whispers I heard that night, they fly into your head on black wings. They’re spirits of the drowned and their numbers been growing slowly as far back as their song goes. Everyone who grew up here knows those awful lines.
Ghosts. They said you can’t touch em or see em. That’s how come I know my Jenny ain’t one. She’s here. They eyed her warily and told me it ain’t her, but I know Slug. She ain’t talking much, but it’s her and she’s breathing. She ain’t dead like the others.
Sheryl and Jackson explained everything in whispers. Everything I wanted to know over the slow chords of “Delia’s Gone” as it played in repeat in the background. The population of this place don’t change. It ain’t allowed to. It’s been 2127 people here as far back as any town records go. You can’t go unless someone else swaps you out.
This is why I’m begging y’all, someone please come buy this fucker? I need two of y’all out there to come take our places. You don’t have to stay forever. You can pass this place onto someone else like someone else did to me. I bought it and I’m selling it cheap. You can buy and someone else will come along sooner than you think and buy it off you again. It doesn’t have to be a permanent arrangement for you. I know it might seem like you’re perpetuating a cycle but I’m begging. We just need two people to come live here so I can get Slug some help. Ain’t there any kindness in you? She ain’t the same now. I don’t know if she ever will be. I won’t look for help here. We need to leave. She’s just a little girl and I’m dying here because I can’t get her out and we ain’t safe while we stay.
Especially after what happened yesterday, please just come buy it. I was lying in bed to rest and I could hear Jenny whispering something but I couldn’t quite make it out. When I opened my eyes she wasn’t there. I figured she must have run off. I wouldn’t hear it because now she moves quiet like a mouse. I got up and began searching for her.
I found her at the bottom of the bathtub, her eyes were open wide and blue and staring up to someplace far away. She wasn’t under the water for long because when I pulled her out, she drew in a long, slow breath. Blinked a few times. Cleared the wet from her eyes and asked me where Dad went.
She asked me what I did with him. She told me Daniel was hugging her in the clouds. She remembered him and we could join him. It was simple. We just have to find the way down.