Everyone knows something about these Crow kids. They ain’t sharing whatever memory’s hidden in their stupid collective small-town unconsciousness with me. We’re outsiders. We were accepted until now. I guess. When I needed help and to know what happened to Jenny these past few days, nobody was sharing anything to go on.
“That’s my little girl out there! She needs her Daddy! You people ain’t telling me nothing I can do anything with! 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 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.
What am I doing? I’m starting this off all wrong…
What I need to do is 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 and I’ve got it priced under market. Upkept really well though it may not look a modern place from 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 are polite. They 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 really fell in love with it. The people here are your salt-of-the-earth types. Hardworking, and God fearing, enjoying the simpler side of Kentucky living. It’s quaint, like something out of movies. 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. If you like the kind of neighborhoods they’ve got elsewhere, this might not be the house for you–but I know you’re not that type. 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. Webber Street is Webber Street and Main Street is Main Street and Clark Road is Clark Road. The streets have normal names; not the breeds of birds or anything stupid. Every house is unique and…well shit, in many cases, the houses were built 130 or 80 years ago by a relative or the granddaddy of the person living there now. These are places made with spirit and–and character–built to raise your whole family in. My house is almost 100 years old now. A house like one this might even outlive you.
If it’s not big enough, it would be easy to add onto. When Rhiannon nextdoor got pregnant with her baby 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 and bathroom. That house 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 living now is faded. 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 if you don’t like the light blue I’ve got it painted, that’s fine. 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 and I’m sure you’ll afford it. The cost of living ain’t much.
There’s freedom out here in the country. So much of it you can feel it the moment you step outside and into the breeze. The colors seem brighter in these parts and you can hear the spirit of the place like a breeze through bluegrass, calling warm music to mind and fading 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 your brain don’t work like mine. Maybe your brain’ll think of “All The Trouble” by Lee Ann Womaok, or Mumford and Sons or something that’s more current. Whatever the epitome of country music is to you, that’s what you’ll think of. I’ll tell you, when you see the forest behind the place and the mountains rolling up like a distant backdrop looking down on the lazy suburban sprawl that grew in their shadow, you’re bound to get some such melody. It’ll start screaming like an earworm, digging its way into your bruised little apple of a skull.
Alright. I don’t think I can do this. No. I can’t. 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 just do that? Can anyone out there reading this help me? Please? Anyone? I’ll give you whatever you want.
I bought the house with money from the insurance company after my husband passed. Before he died, Daniel and I adopted Jenny and started our family. She was a little thing with strawberry-blonde ringlets and bright green eyes, squirming and rolling around in her crib. Wrapped in her little blanket, a wriggling bundle, I called her ‘Slug.’ We were always doing little annoying things to get under the other’s skin so when I saw how much Daniel hated it, ‘Jenny-Slug’ became my thing.
“Quit it!” He said each time I said it, “that’s no nickname for a baby!”
“Of course it is! Anything is!” I said, “Wooket widdle slug! Squirmy wormy Jenny-Slug!”
Being an incompetent baby, she laughed. She didn’t know there was a fuss. It was attention, that’s all.
“That’s gross!” Daniel said. “She looks more like a little bird in an egg. You can call our daughter Bird if you like.”
“Naw. I’ll call her Slug and she can call me Daddy and you’ll be Dad.”
“I have to be ‘Dad?’ Why not something else?”
“What other name is there? Do you know any other names Slug?”
His ears turned red every time I called her that and I would laugh with her while he seethed. It was the best feeling.
I didn’t poke fun at him all the time, just most of it. One of the things I loved best was how he kept on and 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…I remember…”
We always said we’d find a place out here.
One awful morning, I woke up and Daniel was gone. He didn’t leave. His body was right there beside me, but he was cold.
Jenny was turning 5 and 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 even leave the bed. Forget about getting back on my feet. I wasn’t even trying to stand. Instead of that ‘forever home’ in the country, I moved into a dark, dilapidated place inside myself. I didn’t even need to pack nothing. People talked to me, but I walled myself in and nothing they said made sense through the bricks.
Sleep apnea? My father snored his entire life. People can’t die from snoring.
It didn’t make sense and 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 the depression as well as I could from Jenny. I saw the shrink. I took my pills. I didn’t want her to see me this way. I wanted to teach her something about being strong and I couldn’t do that if I kept falling apart in the dark. I needed to come out of this place. I could do it for her.
As for Jenny, it was bad for her at first, but being so young, I knew she didn’t understand much of it; not the funeral nor what she saw me going through. I doubt she thinks about it now. 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. Was it even possible for her to remember?
Could she remember the way they played teddy bears’ tea party and the stupid voices he gave to every one of them? Or how he pushed her on the swings while she begged to go higher at the park?
“Higher and higher please!”
“I can’t push you any higher, Little Bird!” He told her, “You’ll get better hugs from all the clouds and fly away from us forever.” It was so silly, all three of us laughed.
She doesn’t have our genes, but I always joked she got her imagination from his side of our family.
Would any of the memories she kept be good? What if the only memories she managed to keep were tarnished by me? How I forgot about everything else but how I felt–what if the memory she kept for him was how I fell apart after?
I wasn’t going to allow that. I was going to give her that life he always wanted. I bought this house trying to do just that and now we’re stuck here.
In Bradenville, people are friendly and you get to know them pretty quick. They’ll talk your ear off if in the checkout line at the grocery if you let them. By the time Jenny was 6 we were pretty well known throughout town. A single father in a small town gets a lot of questions. A gay single father in a small town in Kentucky has become adept at eluding the subject, not giving too 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 trying to keep anything secret. I just wasn’t walking around passing out staple-bound copies of my biography. It wasn’t really their business.
I found out that 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 in a different way to what I expected. You forget the world you grew up in 30 years ago is changed. Few people cared about my business and most wanted to talk to me more than before. If the people of Bradenville were vaguely sweet prior, they were becoming a new brand of saccharine overnight.
They were well meaning, but for a few weeks anything anyone said to me came with heavy undertones. Signs of how progressive they were. Turns out, everyone in this town knows someone who’s gay. They’re single too. I should let them know when I’m ready to date and they’ll be happy to send my information to the handful of randoms they knew.
Thanks. I’m still coping with loss. If I’m ever ready to start again, I’m sure I won’t need any help.
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 lined with a layer of fuzzy black feathers. The rest of her figure was draped in a billowing white dress, covered in a pattern of what looked to be gray seagulls..
“I thought that was you!” The voice called out.
Jenny looked up to give me a knowing glance before returning her attention to the knots in her doll’s hair and I felt my body tense. I kept shopping nonchalantly and hoped the woman would leave.
“Yep, that’s me.” I kept my tone as casual and dismissive as possible when the woman came closer. I knew what was coming. I reached for a can of green beans and finding a dent in it, put it back on the shelf and took another.
“Hi! I’m Patty Filmore.”
“Oh, Ms. Filmore, hi!” I replied pretending to read the label, “You’ve introduced yourself. It’s nice to see you again.”
I could see her smile creep its way up her cheeks, not quite reaching her eyes. They were wide and gazing up 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 at me once more. A blush spread across her face.
“I do.” I said.
“I don’t think my daddy likes you very much.” 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.”
“I’m sorry, lady.” Jenny whispered. Still she didn’t look up. Not because she was in trouble. She knew she wasn’t. 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’re just the cutest thing. I bet you’re a real handful.”
“That she is,” I said. “Ain’t you Slug?” Patty frowned at the nickname.
“I bet this is hard doing this all by yourself,” she said.
“It’s not hard.” I replied. “We got each other.”
“Well,” Patty said, “when you’re ready to start dating again, I think my cousin Cricket would sure like to meet someone like you. He wouldn’t mind the youngin. 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 replied, “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.” I said, “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.
“Why do people do that?”
“Come up and tell you about their brother or cousin and stuff like that?”
“They’re just trying to let us know they’re polite, pumpkin.”
“Was that rude of her, huh?”
“I think so, a little, but she don’t know that. Meant well.”
“She looked like a big fat bird.”
I laughed, “Now we’re not gonna call people names, okay?”
I bought Jenny some Skittles on the way out the store. 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 here with us. How he should be posing for the photos on her first big day too.
Time marches on.
Jenny was a quick study of the primer lessons and made friends at school just as quickly. She got close with Rhiannon and Paul’s kids next door. This was when they weren’t expecting the new baby. Dixon and Lincoln were funny boys and Rhiannon and Paul quickly became the only real friends I made here. I took turns with them babysitting all three of the kids, their two and mine, while they enjoyed date night. They would 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, their hands tucked up under their armpits like chickens, running single-file in circle around and around. Paul owned the local auto shop and needed to get some part in Lexington. I offered to watch the kids so Rhiannon could join him for the long ride.
The first time I heard the rhyme was that day. Bringing a plate of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the picnic table in the yard, the boys were teaching it to Jenny. It sounded something like Ring-Around-The-Rosy, but the rhyme was different. She picked up on it quickly because she already knew the normal one.
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. “What’s it about, wetting the bed?”
“Crow kids song?” Dixon, the younger boy replied with a scoff. “Everybody knows that one.” He eyed me like I was playing jokes.
“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 and loud and I pretended not to hear. It gave me the oddest feeling of curiosity mixed with a hint of panic. Lincoln’s face was dark and serious, “They’re not from here.” He said. “They don’t know.”
An odd thing to say and I chalked it up to the older boy’s wild imagination. Still, 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 breaky.
They’re flying on the bottom,
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, over a year and a half later.
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. Before I knew, she was 8, then 18 and then out in the world.
By last weekend, Rhiannon was very pregnant. 9 months and 5 days to be exact. The addition was built and the nursery was furnished and painted blue, eagerly awaiting baby boy number 3.
Paul was with them when I left Jenny at the house. I wouldn’t leave her to bother someone about to go into labor any moment. Rhiannon needed to rest, not 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 and it wasn’t usually possible but when I could I preferred to do the pitches in person.
“I won’t be long.” I told them.
Paul told me to take my time and make sure to seal the deal.
I got the job but it doesn’t matter. Not now.
Returning home, I walked across the yard to their place. The boys were out on the porch, turning the well worn pages of a weathered comic. Their backs turned to me, 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 was getting here.
I should have worried sooner.
“Hey boys,” I began, and they both jumped. Neither heard me come up behind them. I mounted the flagstone steps up to the wooden front porch. “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 this with a sound effect, like a car peeling out and driving off. 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 come out anxious and raw. My throat grew dry and I felt like I was floating somewhere else 1,000 miles away. I grabbed the porch railing to keep my balance.
“No, Mr. Eric,” Dixon said again. The younger boys voice grew quiet, “she’s gone.”
“What–what do you mean she’s gone?” I said, but it came out a mumbled stammer.
Dixon looked at the ground. I realized Lincoln hadn’t looked up the whole time 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,” Lincoln said.
I wanted to slap the shit out of him. I kept reminding myself he was just a kid and not my kid.
“What does that mean?” Panic settled in. 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 to date, stretching on and on forever. I felt my stomach churn. I was going to be sick.
“She left with the Crow Kids.” Dixon said.
He shuffled his feet nervously. “They’re gonna teach her to fly.”
I dialed 911.
“Hi.” I said. “I’m at 467 Webber Street. I need you to send someone here please. Now.”
“What is the nature of the emergency sir?” The person on the other end of the phone 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 house. I’m at the neighbor’s house. She’s not here. I left her. Babysit. Missing. My daughter. Gone.” The lightheadedness intensified and the world around me 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, I’ll send an ambulance too. Sir? Are you still there? Sir?”
When I woke up I was surrounded by paramedics and police. Lincoln was talking to an officer, a fit woman in mirrored sunglasses. I could hear him, but just barely through the delirium and the rush of my blood as the panic continued to rage.
“Mama said the baby couldn’t come yet. There’d be too many.” Lincoln’s voice was shrill but calm. “So Daddy told me and Dixon to take her down to the creek and introduce her to–”
“That’s enough.” The woman said softly. “I’m gonna see if Mr. Varney can take you and your brother over to the hospital to meet up with your mama and daddy.” She led the kids over to another officer. “Do you know Officer Varney?” She asked the boys.
She and the other officer exchanged some words I couldn’t make out, but I did hear her say something else to the man before stepping away: “Tell Paul and Rhiannon Parish I wanna speak to them. Legacy or not, doesn’t excuse you from the rules and bindings.”
She started up the flagstones to where the paramedics attended me, stooping down she picked 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 me back my comic!”
“Little boy,” Varney began, “that’s my boss. I don’t tell her nothing. Besides this town’s spooky enough without you filling your heads with more spooky bullshit. Now 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 caused by a panic attack”
“I’m fine,” I said sitting up. Slowly, I got up with the help of the paramedics on my shaky 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. We’ve lived in town for a couple years,” I said, trying to conceal my anger. “Where did he say she went?”
“He didn’t give me much to go on, but I already called Pastor Thomas from the church up the road a piece. He’s got everybody round here’s telephones and we’re gonna get a party out here to start looking for her.” She sucked her teeth and put her hands on her hips. “She ever run off like this 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.” I whispered, “she’s 8 years old.”
“What we’re gonna do is get some people out here looking.” She said.
“What do you need from me? Like a doll or some clothes or something?”
“Come again?” she asked.
“For the dogs.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Parker, this is a small town. We don’t have resources for them kinda dogs.” I felt my heart sink and settle in my feet. “Might could be someone in the search party’s got a hunting dog they’ll bring. Sometimes they do, I guess. I’ll keep that in mind. What we’re gonna do is start with 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 you wanna start there?”
“That’s where she’s like to be, Mr. Parker.”
“But why would you think that?”
“This happens sometimes. Kids go into those woods and get lost. We find em in there. Easy to get spun around. Ain’t none of them’s ever hurt really.”
“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 of gone off over that way.”
“Didn’t you listen to what that boy was sayin?”
“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 just don’t understand what he’s doing.”
I felt something moving in the pit of my stomach, a feeling of unease, squirming like an eel.
“What if he’s not lying?”
“Enough people from town will probably show up that we can split in two groups.” Her voice was sympathetic but her face betrayed something else entirely. What was it? Pitty? No. That wasn’t it. Irritation was close. Annoyance. That was it. My suggestions were annoying her. She probably didn’t even want to search at all.
“I can come with you over to the creek if you think that’s a good place to start,” 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 for something in her face. Any hint of compassion, it was there, but all I saw of it was a tired and weathered mask beginning to slip. If she wasn’t being honest with me, she wasn’t very good at acting the part. She didn’t care if we ever found Jenny. I could see it in her eyes.
“I think he said something to me about some 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 kids making up stories. I don’t remember how it goes. Kids have been talking about them since before I was born. Get blamed for everything bad. They ain’t real.”
Cars began arriving. Before long, over 100 people pulled up filling the surrounding curbs and road.
Most people who came in response 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 any hunting dog. A woman lumbered up to me where I stood, dumbfounded in my driveway. Her arms were laden with paper sacks from the grocery store.
Her name was Sheryl Montag, and I knew her from trips to the library. She was the local librarian and wanted to use my kitchen, if that was alright.
“All these people are gonna need to eat,” she said matter-of-fact and I led her into my house and showed her around the kitchen before returning to the rest of the search party gathering outside.
I found it reassuring that so many people in town came already prepared to comb the woods behind my house and the creek behind the Jackson property like they’d done it before. A few even brough maps of both locations, dogeared and well used, some marked from previous searches with gridlines. It wasn’t until later that I realized how troubling the implication of that was.
How many times did they do this before? What exactly was going on?
We searched for 6 hours, stopping just before sundown. Someone set up a large folding table in my yard and Pastor Thomas was unloading metal chairs from the back of the church van. The mood was cheery, painfully so, as the town crowded around Sheryl’s spread of impromptu home cooking. Somehow she found enough time to bake five or six chickens, four hams, a few gallons of mashed potatoes, sweet potato pie and enough corn to go around. In just six hours in my tiny kitchen. From two paper sacks from Rife’s Grocery. It didn’t add up, but I didn’t question it. I didn’t need to know where the spread of food to feed this army came from. There were more important questions. I held them until everyone left, heading back to their homes, except for Sheryl and Pastor Thomas’s wife who both stayed to help 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, Mr. Parker.” She unloaded the dishes in the sink and led me over to the breakfast table in my kitchen.
“You’ve had a long day,” Sheryl said bringing over a steaming mug of black coffee on a tray. “You leave the washing up to us.” as an afterthought, she added: “do you take sugar and cream?”
I shook my head no. “I need to ask you two ladies something.” I said again. I paused, weighing the implications of the question in my mind. Did I want to hear the answer? Would it be too much?
No. I needed to know.
“Everybody seems to have done this before,” I began.
“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 into her teeth.
“I think it’s more than that.” I reasoned, “some of those maps looked pretty creased. Most of them already had grids drawn. Didn’t look like the sort of thing that’d been used just once or twice before.”
The women fell into 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 probably 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 going on too?”
Sheryl sighed and I could see tears welling up in her eyes. “We ain’t supposed to talk about it, Mr. Parker. 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, “won’t you? 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. You gotta 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 outside, crying the entire time.
We looked for three more days and each day was met with fewer searchers, fewer answers, and more questions than I could count.
On the fourth day, I looked alone.
On the fifth day, I found her.
I wasn’t sleeping more than an hour or two at a time since the day she disappeared. 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.
The cinder blocks began to fall again and wall me off.
Paul and Rhiannon’s house remained dark as each sleepless night pressed forward. Good riddance. I wanted to hurt them. All of them. Punish them for whatever they did and I knew they did something. 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 lost time and deep dark dreams. Everything dulled; 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 pinged notifications endlessly. They wondered why their projects sat stalled and 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, like the rest of them. I must have left over a dozen disjointed and 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. I gave up.
My mind was locked in a downward spinning drain of bathtubs filled with empty bottles of gin 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 all of my clients back for me because the phone stopped making noise. I should have thanked her for that, but I couldn’t because I was gone.
The voicemail is full and cannot accept messages at this time.
Her kindness did not negate that she was still a part of the problem. Not a single person in town would give me a straight answer about what they knew and they definitely knew something. I stopped asking them 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.
By the fifth day, I’m not sure I even looked for an hour. In my haze, I arrived at Hansen’s Liquors in the historic downtown shopping district drenched in by the wet of a sudden summer shower I couldn’t recall. There was no memory of leaving the tiny stream’s babbling waters and I went inside, tracking damp footprints to the shelves lined with gin.
My seeking grew evermore listless. The people here were monsters hiding in plain sight spinning malicious webs in the shadows. Southern charm and hospitality were ghosts that haunted me and people began to look away from the silent wraith with the thousand yard stare that floated along the edges of the stream and their awareness.
Thank you for calling. Goodbye.
The night that I found her, I rose from bed, unsure of the hour and stumbled drunkenly to the bathroom. 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 sober nearly instantly.
She was there. Out in the yard. Jenny. My Jenny. A little boy with shoulder length hair stood with her. They both 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 limply in the breeze. A second flew above them, the moonlight casting its shadows 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 was dumbfounded.
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 the confusion, I ran from the bathroom and down the stairs. I grabbed my keys from the kitchen counter and tucked them into the waistband of my underwear, darting out the door without getting dressed. The night was chilly on my bare chest despite the heat of summer that still lingered in damp of the grass outside. The air felt 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 this hallucination or real?
Perched on the powerlines above, a crow cawed into the darkness before taking flight. I didn’t think about it. I just ran. I followed its shadow as it crossed the asphalt and cast it darkness over the Jackson house and beyond toward the creek.
I heard the chorus of frogs before I heard the creek 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 to be to my chest at least, but now under the stars it was mostly gone. It flowed less than ankle deep in a tiny trickle and the uneven creekbed rose up like a muddy patchwork from it.
Overhead, dozens of crows circled the dark shapes that sood in the canal. Dozens of damp and muddy children stood, gazing up at the sky. Occasionally one of the murder above dove to land on a child below. They pecked at their faces, violently piercing mouths, ears and eyes. Cheeks. Necks. Even at a distance, I could see many of the children were full of holes. The ragged skin of their faces pecked so often they were torn and bloodless. As it happened, the ones pecked at didn’t flinch or react. They just stood motionless as though they weren’t the feast spread for the hungry birds at all.
I moved forward slowly, my feet cutting a cautious path toward the muddy edges as the din of the frogs growing ever louder around me until their song became one uninterrupted note. That was when I heard them. The voices of the children. The Crow Kids were squawkingsquacking and cawing 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 until the words of the children’s rhyme blotted 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 breaky.
They’re flying on the bottom,
Offering their teachings.
Feathers, feathers, you’ll fly upsidedown.
All of the voices spoke at once, but somehow, I could still pick the words out here and there.
“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 the endless cries of the crows and the frogs, and the screaming of the kids at once, I began to hear whispers of other things…
“You don’t have to do it here. You can do it in the tub, or at the public pool. Fly down and stay there ‘till you drown.”
More frightening than anything else I’d seen, as soon as I heard the whispers, 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 inside, and they began to dive and swoop at me, longing to peck it. Eager to pull it free. I swatted and swung my arms.
Where was Jenny? Was she out here? There! I saw her near the tangled roots of a tree on the opposite bank and ran to her, shoving the children and the birds out of my way in pursuit. As I neared her she reached out to me, and I lifted her up from the mud with some effort, her feet squelching as they broke free from the suck of the silt. I trudged back the way I’d come, fighting the pull of the creekbed with Jenny’s added weight. The filth was sucking at my heels and wrapping around my ankles.
“Where are we going Daddy?” Jenny asked. Her voice was quiet and dazed.
“We’re leaving, Slug.” I told her. I meant it. As soon as we reached our driveway, 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 nightmare. 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 said quietly as we approached the edge of town. I glanced over her in the passenger seat. Her eyes shone with a distant starry quality. “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 road.
One moment it was there and the next it was passing the sign and the next it was gone, swallowed up by the dark. It should have still been running away from the bright of my headlights. They shone half a mile further down and into the trees that banked the curve ahead, but it was just gone.
I could feel my body quaking as another bout of panic shuddered through me. No! I thought Fight it. Push it down. You’re almost out. Don’t fail her now. We began moving again and passed the sign, officially leaving town.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. Something was very wrong, and 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. Frozen in the lights, it revealed the prominence of its antlers. The eyes stared back at us like two pools of light before it spooked and bounded into the trees.
The sign it stood next to read “Welcome To Bradenville, population: 2127”
This was the east end of town. We’d been driving west out of town and we were now on the east side, reentering. Why? It didn’t make sense. 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?
“Thanks For Visiting Bradenville, Y’all Come Back Now!”
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 stuck too. All of us ‘er. I seen you driving by over and over. We come to tell you some things you ought to know bout.”
Sheryl looked terrified, “But we gotta go inside and you can’t tell nobody where you heard none of this from, ya hear me?”
I felt my breathing slow. Eventually, I collected Jenny and headed inside with them. Jenny stood at the windows of the living room gazing out at the rising sun. They made me turn the stereo on and loud while the two of them explained in hushed whispers. I asked about recording devices and was cryptically told that whatever might be listening don’t need them to hear us. They never did explain what that meant.
They told me the Crow Kids like to play games. They didn’t know what they were but it sounded like some kinda ghost or demon. Nobody’s sure. You can’t touch em or see ‘em most times–they just creep into your mind. They find you when you’re at your lowest and whisper sweet lies and try to entice you. Them dark whispers I heard that night, well they fly into your head on black wings. The legend is they’re spirits of the drowned and their numbers been growing slowly as far back as their song goes. It’s true 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. She ain’t dead like them other things I saw. They eyed her warily and told me it ain’t really her, but I don’t believe it. She ain’t talking much, but she’s still breathing.
Sheryl and Jackson explained everything in whispers. They told me what 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 never change. They say it’s not allowed to. It’s been 2127 people here as far back as any of the town records go. You can’t leave unless someone else comes.
This is why I’m begging y’all, won’t someone please come buy this fuckin’ house? I need two of y’all out there to come take our places. You don’t have to stay forever. You can pass this shit 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 they’ll buy off you it again. This 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 you. 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 again. 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 keep her safe.
My neighbors still ain’t come back and if they ever do I’ll fuckin’ kill ‘em. Even that goddamn baby. I been hearing talk around town, quiet gossip whispered by people who don’t know I’m listening. I know that baby’s alive and healthy and safe. They’re hiding and the town’s helping. I can’t get a straight answer where to find them out of anybody, not even Jackson or Sheryl. They know what’ll happen if they come back. I don’t want to kill nobody, especially not a baby, but I’ll fuckin make every last one of them pay for what they done. We gotta go. This town is poison. I don’t wanna murder nobody but it ain’t right for my baby to suffer and their whole family gets off living scott-free. Sheriff’s still fuckin useless. I don’t even know if Bradenville itself will even let me kill em but I know I’ll try. If I can’t change the population here by snuffing them out, I’ll find a way to make them suffer for the rest of their lives for what they put me through. For what they put both us through.
I need someone to buy this fuckin house because of what happened yesterday most of all. I was lying in bed trying to rest. Suddenly 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 she moves quiet like a mouse now. I got up and began searching for where she went.
I found her at the bottom of the bathtub, her eyes were open wide and blue and staring up to someplace far away — up past the ceiling. She must not have been under the water for long because when I pulled her out, she drew in a long, slow breath. She blinked a few times, clearing the wet from her eyes and asked me where Dad went.
I’ve never been more horrified. Not ever.
She asked me what I did with him. She told me Daniel was hugging her in the clouds and we could join him. It was simple.
We just have to find the way down.