A Murder of Crows
By L.E. Swainsleigh
1st of 4 Parts
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“Ethan, do you know why you’re here?” The man asked, adjusting his
square glasses on his bulbous nose.
The boy across from him was silent. His aqueous black eyes stared coldly into the glass of the man’s spectacles, a look the man was used to.
“Ethan? I asked you a question.” He said, daring to wade deeper into the black waters. The boy’s voice answered him then, but barely rose above a harsh whisper.
“That’s not my name.” He said. The name rang in his head like an iron bell over a grave. His eyes were dark and calculating, inspecting the plaster pallor of the man’s face. It was the look of a predator, a snake eyeing easy prey. The rodent looked down at the clipboard, clutching it as if it were the last sane thing in the world.
“Yes, it is.” He said innocently, reviewing the penned words of the form. “Yes. Ethan Marquez. That’s you.”
“No. It isn’t.” He said. He feigned patience, but his voice was low and dangerous. Still the bell rang, louder now, but he ignored the pleas to be exhumed. The man leaned back, to accommodate his generous gut.
“What is it, then?” The man asked.
His patient was quiet, eyes still cold and sharp, sizing up this man, this Mr. Worth, as the flimsy sign on his desk had read.
“Crow.” He said simply. Mr. Worth made a moderately offensive guttural sound, clearing his throat. He flipped a page into the small stack on the clipboard, clicked his pen and scribbled some half legible note.
“Well. Crow.” He said, putting on a very professional face. “Do you know why you’re here?” He looked up from the papers, keeping his foppishly expensive pen poised.
Crow only unfolded his arms in response and rested them on the arms of his chair. Violent blue-black bruises were apparent there, lending caustic coloration to his sleeves of black tattoos. They were marks that could have been avoided, but Crow was far beyond hiding his vice. Especially from himself. He bore them with painful honor, recognizing them as an undeniable flaw to his character. Crow watched the man’s eyebrows tweak upwards, and awaited his next question with fixed attention.
Mr. Worth cleared his throat again in that marginally disgusting way, jotting something else down.
“So, Crow.” He said, seeming uncomfortable with the curious moniker. “Are you willing to accept the help offered here?” He looked to Crow, shuffling his loafered feet under his chair. Far from a seamless segue, Crow thought, and took the man’s awkwardness as a sign of weakness.
A soft scratchy sound emanated from Crow’s throat, and as any form of facial expression did not accompany it, it took a moment for Mr. Worth to realize that it was a laugh.
“Why is that funny to you?” Mr. Worth asked simply, forming responses back into questions in that trite therapist way.
“You’ve got the forms, Mr. Worth.” Crow said calmly, veiled again in his perfect composure. “Why don’t you take a closer look at them?”
“Crow, thinking that way is very counterproductive.” The man said in reply, shuffling his papers. Another sign of discomfort, thought Crow, as the puffy eyes of his opponent looked up to meet his. Mr. Worth’s hands ceased their fidgeting. Crow saw his glance as a timid one, a meek return to the reckoning stare Crow had been employing so far. Crow never liked confrontations, or strangers, and especially disliked both at once. He had become, as a result, the master of polite patronization. He was a venomous gentleman, capable of rattling even the calmest of nerves. He would wear his stoic, stony mask, as usual. The only information Crow was willing to offer up was apparent in the myriad monstrous colors of drug abuse he wore with a masochistic sense of duty.
Mr. Worth was quiet, scratching a note down on his paper, if for no other reason, than to break the gaze of Crow's liquid eyes.
"I'm afraid we've started off poorly, Crow." He finally said, looking up from the clipboard, his voice wavering like a violin at the hands of a novice.
"Not so much." Said Crow softly. "I'm still here, aren't I? I know they don’t lock the door.” Crow let his eyes shift to the door directly beside his conversational adversary. He found it for a moment amusing that Mr. Worth had positioned himself for a quick escape.
“I suppose you have a point.” He murmured.
“And you have a question. Several, actually. If you'd start asking them, so I could get out of here." Crow reminded him, in that cordial growl, what he was actually here to do. Mr. Worth shoved his glasses closer to his face, flipping the page back to the top form.
"Now, Crow..." The fat man seemed mild and uninterested. "You grew up here in Arizona, is that right?" Crow nodded slowly.
"Right enough." He said, continuing his act as a disimpassioned statue.
"Crow, I'm not sure what you mean." Mr. Worth clicked his pen a couple of times, fingers fidgeting in a most irksome way. "Did you, or did you not grow up in Arizona?"
"You haven't done much research, Mr. Worth." He said without a shade of a smirk, although one would have been appropriate. The therapist did not seem as offended as Crow would have liked, just looking back at his papers to double-check.
“Perhaps you would just explain your situation to me?” He said, clicking his pen twice more.
"It's more fun when you guess.” Crow began, a shade of sarcasm touching his voice, and then evaporating. “I was born in Mexico. I lived there until I was nine. Then we moved to Arizona.” He plainly narrated.
“We?” Mr. Worth questioned, tapping his pen. “You lived with your parents?”
“With my mother, and her husband.” Crow answered simply, and then sensing the next question, offered clarification. “Leila, and Ethan Marquez the first.”
“Mhmm.” Came the sedate response as Mr. Worth turned his attention again to the papers, jotting away.
Crow settled back into his chair a little, thinking reluctantly about his previous family. He could see their tiny house in Mexico, on their uneven street. His mother would be in the kitchen, as she never really seemed to leave it, and her leather-faced husband perpetually muttering something offensive at her, or at the son he thought was his.
“So, you’re from Mexico.” Mr. Worth reiterated.
“Can’t you tell?” Crow said, opening his hands to the ceiling. It was a facetious remark, for Crow looked less Mexican than the pudding-faced man before him. He had worked hard at fulfilling the Native American stereotype, and pulled it off easily. He was an Indian now, right down to the origin of every single tattoo. He looked like his real father, he supposed, although he’d never seen his face.
Mr. Worth blinked and pushed at his glasses with a meaty index finger.
“So tell me about Mexico.” Another jagged transition, Crow thought. It was becoming increasingly easy to catch him off guard, but Crow resisted taking advantage.
“What about it? It was Mexico.” Crow answered. He couldn’t keep from flustering the little pig, just once more.
“How about your family, then? Tell me about them.”
“I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you.” This was not an act of defiance without reason. It was true. He tried not to think about them, most of the time, but now with just the slightest mention there they were again. He saw his mother in one of her faded sundresses; the fabric spotted with water and flour, oil and cleaning fluid, stains adding asymmetry to the floral pattern. She was an aesthetically unremarkable woman. Her hair hung down in a dreary dark tangle, and her face was creased and aged before its time, worn out too soon by the tension of her expressions. She never looked calm, not even when she slept did her worrisome features unwind.
His mother was dull, but her husband’s countenance was made more memorable by the stronger sentiments he invoked. Crow reserved a special brand of hatred for him, and now it darkened his eyes all the more.
“It’s important information, Crow.” The man prodded quietly. He received a prolonged silence in reply, and he uncrossed and recrossed his stout ankles. He tried another route, though he could probably sense another roadblock.
“Then tell me, Crow, why did your family leave Mexico?”
Family was an absurdly inappropriate word. Crow remembered it as more of a hostile dictatorship, all bonds based in fear. Ethan ruled his household with a terrible hand, and so the house had always been eerily quiet, devoid of laughter or genial conversation. In his immediate radius, feet tiptoed and voices hushed to whispers.
It had been Leila’s idea to move across the border. It was one of the few ideas Crow’s cowardly mother had voiced, and the only one that had been considered. It had been a heroic event in Crow’s young eyes, but that light of victory had been shaded now with the ugly veil of deceit. In retrospect, he wondered if she had been so bold as to feed a self-serving motive. There was an Apache reservation only minutes from the border, tucked inconspicuously into the corner of Arizona. Crow now knew that somewhere in that small community lived his biological father. Could she have been inching toward the reservation in an attempt to escape the clutches of her insufferable husband? Crow entertained this thought often, perhaps only to instill courage that hadn’t really existed into the memory of his mother.
“Why does anyone cross the border?” Crow answered, managing perfect upkeep of his emotionless stare. “There are a lot of Mexicans in this part of the country, Mr. Worth. Ask one of them. I was nine, they didn’t tell me.”
“So your family came here illegally?” Mr. Worth asked carefully, or as carefully as such words can be said.
“My family did very few things otherwise.” Came his response, unbothered by the accusation. It was true.
“And what happened once you got to Arizona?” Mr. Worth clicked his pen, preparing himself for a lengthy answer that wouldn’t come.
Crow drew a blank. He couldn’t quite remember their first weeks spent in Arizona, nor had he ever specifically tried to. He drew the conclusion that it must have been more of the same, since nothing spectacular surfaced. It just seemed a floating interim between the flight from Mexico and the fight that ended it all.
Mr. Worth’s attentions were suddenly redirected. He was staring at his papers as if examining the Rosetta Stone. Crow waited patiently. The fluorescent lights above him flickered like a bug zapper catching its quarry.
“So how was it, Crow, that you became…” Mr. Worth began, looking up from the forms that had so far proven useless. He paused. Crow assumed that he was searching his vocabulary for a suitably innocuous word. “…disassociated from your family?”
“There was a fight. Ethan cast my mother and I out of the house.” He narrated, as if it weren’t his story at all. He had long since removed himself from the trials of his first life.
“Why did he do that?” Mr. Worth inquired, hand happily scribbling along the page.
“He wasn’t my father. He found out.” Crow answered.
This he remembered with startling clarity. His low to the ground perspective swept across the kitchen. He felt a pinch as his mother gripped his arm and pulled him out the door. He heard his father’s thunderous words, sputtered in Spanish, words he still couldn’t quite translate. English, so far as he’d heard, could not produce such frightening phrases. Then he was out in the desert again, walking in silence with his mother, who clutched his hand until he felt it would fall off.
“Where did you go?” Mr. Worth sounded more curious than perhaps he meant to. It was unprofessional to have a personality, wasn’t it?
“To an Apache reservation nearby. My biological father lived there,” as his mother had explained on the way. She had also warned that she hadn’t seen him in as long as Crow had been alive. God knows if he was still there, Crow never would.
“So you went to live with him, then?” The pudgy man assumed aloud, scrawling still and seeming pleased in finally having something to write.
“Not exactly.” Crow said immediately, aiming to thwart the man’s progress and silence the dancing pen. Mission accomplished.
Crow recalled the dirty little hostel they had stayed in, and the squat room he had been left alone in for many unexplained hours. Looking back, Crow figured his mother had been out looking for his elusive father. If she did ever find him, she never said so. Perhaps she had been turned away at his door, maybe he had gone, or had died. This remained a mystery to Crow.
Leila didn’t speak much more after she’d left her husband than she had in his company. It was like Ethan had followed them all that way, and was waiting in a dark corner for Leila to defy him once more. That was a familiar thought, a nightmare from long ago. The mark he had impressed upon Leila was tragically indelible, and her face was wrought with fear even miles away from him.
Mr. Worth was watching Crow for an explanation, and Crow was well aware of it. He didn’t volunteer any elaboration.
“How do you mean that, Crow?” Came the prompt after a lengthy silence.
“Leila never found him, and had no choice but to return to her husband. She hadn’t any resources, and she’d never been very independent.” Crow continued his dictation, speaking in a slow and deliberate way.
“So you went back.” Another assumption. This man was too quick to assume. Crow deduced that Mr. Worth’s life must be remarkably predictable, and wondered how many suits of that sandy brown color hung in his closet.
“I didn’t.” Crow responded, words intentionally cryptic. Another static pause ensued. For the sake of saving time, Crow only let the words hang in the air for a moment before answering the next question, instead of waiting for it to be asked.
“She left me there. Damned if Ethan was going to raise someone else’s son.” He said, as collected as always.
She had left what little money she had in an envelope and a change of clothes at his bedside. Crow watched himself wander, almost ten and now completely alone, around the hostel and then later around the reservation. In his own memory he was a stranger. He didn’t recognize this boy, dark skin devoid of ink, hair cut short.
“How did that make you feel?” Mr. Worth’s pen scribbled and clicked; but slowed as the pursuant silence drew out long. Crow ignored the question entirely. “Who did you stay with?” Mr. Worth tried.
“Anyone who’d have me.” Crow replied, trying for the first time to recall all the various places he’d slept. He couldn’t remember them all. He had been a small child, able to tuck himself expertly into unnoticed corners of the reservation when he failed to invite himself into other people’s houses. He had felt like a shadow, always behind something, and near to the ground. This was the manner in which he managed such a successful career of stealing from the main market of the reservation.
“Mhmm. How did you find the North family?” Mr. Worth questioned, removing his glasses from his beady eyes for inspection and subsequent cleaning.
“They found me.”
One of them had. Helena Watches-Crows, an Apache woman with a face that was as calm as Leila’s had been distressed. She had seen Crow at the market, and had snatched up his hand from the shelf it was about to quietly pillage.
Crow saw her round, brown face again, from above, as she was so much taller than him then. She shook her head gravely, features pinching into an expressive scowl. Helena spirited him away, into an old blue pickup, and drove in silence with him through the dusty terrain. They continued into places he had not yet seen, and he knew, as the signs of habitation grew scarcer, that they were outside the boundaries of the reservation. He was certain that he was being kidnapped, and in a way, he was. He found it difficult now to see it as anything short of a rescue.
“So you were taken from the reservation?” Mr. Worth sounded especially confused.
“Yes. Helena took me away to a commune.” Crow said, clenching one hand into a fist just to hear his knuckles crack. The monotony of the interrogation was starting to wear on him.
The friendly façade of Sage House loomed before his mind’s eye. It was little more than a cluster of three one-story houses, sprawling and weather beaten, situated around a large barn that served as the common area. Four families lived there permanently, the Norths included. There were visitors and temporary residents besides that would come and go, sifting through the small rooms like windborne sand. Crow was one of these now, a vagrant child who did his best to deserve the habitat he had been granted. He slept on a couch in the living room of the East house, the house inhabited by his kidnapper and her family. Helena called him Little-Crow, as he was reluctant to give his name. Later on, somewhere between five-ten and six-foot-four, ‘Little’ had been dropped.
The North family was at that time, four strong. Helena’s husband Noah was an Englishman at least twenty years her senior. He was a concert pianist by trade, and spent some time away in the city, playing weddings and art gallery openings and the like. Crow’s memory of him was fresh; he could smell the pungent aroma of his pipe smoke even now. He still smoked that pipe. His appearance leant to the habit, gray hair and white beard kept carefully and suggesting sophistication. His career was an ironic one, considering his family. They were, all three, completely deaf due to some weak point in their genes.
Helena was a dutiful and sweet woman. She hardly spoke, but constantly invoked reactions and emotions from people with her gently eccentric actions. She did colorful, pleasant things like chinking the stone walls with store-bought topsoil and throwing fistfuls of wildflower seeds into the cracks, and hanging prisms in all the southward-facing windows. She strove always to brighten the world around her, and Crow believed she did it to make up for her missing sense.
Fletcher was the older child, seven at the time of Crow’s arrival. Ophelia, the North’s young daughter, was three. Fletcher was quiet, and spent as much time with Noah as possible when he was around. There was an old upright piano in the barn that Noah would play. It was shabby, but pleasing to the ear. Fletcher would sit beside him for hours, leaning an ear to the dusty wood of the piano, trying desperately to hear the music. Fletcher struck Crow, even at such a young age, as a melancholy sort.
Ophelia, in contrast, was bright eyed and boisterous, but tired easily and fell quickly and often to illness. Fletcher kept her company most of the time, and managed to teach her an impressive bit of sign language in her short years.
“And when they relocated, you went with them?” Mr. Worth inquired.
“Yes. They knew I hadn’t anywhere else to stay, so they brought me with them to a house a little closer to the nearest city.”
The year they left Sage House Ophelia had been getting sicker by the day. The Board of Health had closed down Sage House. It was deemed unfit for use, apparently because of some dangerous structural issues in the roof, although Helena and many of the other residents never really believed there was anything wrong. The North family moved to a little desert house. It was closer to the hospital, but still blissfully devoid of neighbors in its immediate radius. Noah spent more time in the city, playing more often to pay for the increasing hospital bills.
During one of her hospital stays, tests revealed two startling facts that were quickly relayed to the family. First there was the numbing shock of Ophelia’s diagnosis. She had leukemia. Secondly, as an unenthusiastic afterthought, the doctors said that the genetic flaw that had struck the family deaf was possible to repair, and that were Ophelia in a stronger state, her hearing could very possibly be partially restored. This news, of course, did nothing to cheer the Norths.
Crow had felt so out of place then, a stranger again, although he shared his family’s grief. Ophelia had time yet, though, and was soon strong enough to come home. The house was even quieter than before, though they tried to hide their sorrow for Ophelia’s sake. The girl’s image tarnished. Her red ringlets and usually rosy face faded. She looked drained and weak, eventually refusing to leave the confines of her bed. Her face still lit with her smile, though, showing all her crooked baby teeth and brightening her gray eyes to blue, if just for a moment. She passed away later that year, at the age of five.
It was not until six months after her death that Fletcher mentioned to Helena the other news they had heard so long ago from Ophelia’s doctors. Until then, all but Fletcher had completely forgotten about it. It had been inconsequential to Noah, and to Helena it aroused no interest. She had very Native sensibilities, and any kind of elective surgery to her seemed unnecessary and frightening. She was content to remain in the soundless world that she had known for her whole long life. Fletcher, on the other hand, wanted out of the silence more than anything.
“Were you happier there?” Mr. Worth tapped his pen on the edge of his clipboard in a most aggravating way.
“I don’t know. It was similar to Sage House, just not as crowded.” Crow answered, voice ever low and toneless.
It had been very lonely, in fact, when Fletcher was admitted to the hospital for surgery. Noah and Helena had agreed to it, after some hesitation on Helena’s part. Fletcher wasn’t to be home for a week or so, and Noah would stay at the hospital, not only for moral support, but also as a translator for the silent child. Crow and his mother had little to talk about, as Helena seldom spoke, and her hands were often too busy to entertain conversation.
Crow spent most of this time drawing, as he did very often in the quiet of the desert house. Helena kept two appaloosas fenced in the yard, and Crow spent two entire days on figure studies of the horses while Fletcher and Noah were away. He gave the drawings to Helena, who accepted them with extensive silent praise of her adopted son’s talent. She kept such sacred documents in the bottom drawer of her dresser, in a large stack devoted to Crow’s prolific hobby. In the drawer as well was an equally impressive tower of Fletcher’s work, mostly stories. Fletcher was always scribbling about something. There were also several relics from Ophelia’s childhood, a collection about as brief as her life.
For the six days that passed before Fletcher’s return, Crow wondered how much things would change. More than anything, he wondered what Fletcher’s voice sounded like. Crow had lived with the North family for over three years then, and Fletcher had never uttered a word.
Crow was marginally disappointed when a very dazed and drugged Fletcher had come back, as the kid still wouldn’t talk. Crow spent even more time than usual holding up one-sided conversations, hoping that Fletcher would finally say something back. The family kept a close eye on Fletcher, and those who could kept an ear tuned in, just in case.
A full month post-surgery, just as their watching eyes had started to wax skeptical, Fletcher spoke. It wasn’t the earth-shattering event they had all imagined, but a mundane break in the silence over breakfast one morning. Crow resisted the urge to smile, remembering the look of shock that had struck the family’s faces as Fletcher, quietly and with a subtle hint of Noah’s English accent, accepted a glass of orange juice with a vocalized thank you. Never had those words caused so much alarm.
Then Fletcher spoke. Not a staggering amount, but regularly, as if it had
always been that way. Crow figured it had just taken Fletcher a little time
spent listening before speaking was comfortable. Fletcher later confessed to
Crow that it had taken a little secret practice first.
No one knew just how much of Fletcher’s hearing had been restored. It seemed almost relative to the situation. The surgery had been successful enough for Noah to take on a long awaited protégé, much to the delight of both parties. The warning sound of a rattlesnake, however, was either inaudible or unrecognizable. One had struck Fletcher’s ankle some time after.
“Why did you decide to leave?” Mr. Worth grappled for threads of emotion.
“I didn’t. I didn’t really have a choice.” Crow said, eyes wandering around the room in a vain quest for visual interest.
“Can you explain?” Mr. Worth said, chucking a stumpy foot up to rest on the opposite knee.
“When I was eighteen Fletcher and I had a falling-out. I left for the city.” Crow said, keeping his words minimal. The man opposing him was beginning to fray around the edges, and his discomfort only fueled Crow’s brevity.
It wasn’t that he was lying. It was the truth. It simply wasn’t the whole truth.
The end of his second life had begun with another tragedy. Word found Crow that Leila’s body had been found buried in the desert, somewhere in between her home and the reservation. Evidence suggested that she had been walking in the direction of the reservation when she came across her assailant. Authorities were in the dark as to the identity of her killer, but chalked it up as a case of a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. They didn’t care to waste their efforts on illegal immigrants.
Crow knew right away what had happened. She had tried to escape Ethan at last, and he had caught up with her. Why else would she have been traveling alone, and on foot? Crow was deeply disturbed by her death, and more so by the apathy of the law. He even tried to call in and tell them what he knew, but they couldn’t be bothered. Frustrated and wrought with feelings of loss for his mother and rage towards her husband, Crow left the desert house. He hadn’t intended to go where he went, his feet practically dragged him there, against his will, reasoning, and better judgment. If the law would allow Ethan to get away with this, Crow wouldn’t.
Crow arrived at the house by the border, where he had spent his early childhood. The pursuant scenes were not permitted to pass through recollection. The next pictures Crow could uproot were of the following morning, as he staggered in a state of half-conscious shock in the general direction of the desert house. It was early, the sun barely pushing past the flat horizon to pour a livid red stain across the sky. Crow wandered all that day, and half of the one following. He watched crows and other such miserable, bloodthirsty scavengers drift lazily about. They were black marks against a sky that would have been beautiful, the only witnesses to Crow’s self-inflicted exile. In a daze, he crept back into the desert house and fell asleep for as long as he’d been gone.
When he woke, Crow was not the same. He never spoke of what he’d done, not even admitting it to himself. It was hard to imagine it, even though he was certain it had happened. He became reserved, withdrawn from his family. His absence was hardly noticed, as the rest of the family was preoccupied in one way or another. Helena had her horses and her household to take care of, and the others were constantly transfixed by music. Fletcher had a guitar now, a thirteenth-birthday gift from Noah.
Crow began to wander. At first it was just into the forgotten corners of the house, sitting by windows for excruciating durations to draw. Then he took to long aimless walks around the desert. This was not an unusual pastime, although in the past Crow had always taken Fletcher with him.
Fletcher was the only one that seemed to notice Crow’s growing distance. Not that it mattered. All questions, regardless of curiosity or persistence, were shrugged off and dismissed. Fletcher was disheartened, and eventually gave up the inquiries. Looking back, Crow felt guilty for being so passively cruel. Fletcher had never meant anything but good.
Crow did leave for the city then, but only for a few days at a time. He met two dangerous women there. Ursula and heroin. The first had introduced him to the second.
“You went to the city.” Mr. Worth restated. “Was this when you started using?”
“Yes.” He said shortly.
“Why do you think you started using heroin, Crow?” That was simply too outright for Crow’s tastes. He remained still and quiet. You lose, Mr. Worth. You should know by now that Crow isn’t apt to philosophize in the company of others. Not since silence had fallen between himself and Fletcher.
One morning in his nineteenth year Crow returned from the city to find the desert house empty. Never before had he seen it this way, entirely deserted, lights left on. He checked carefully over all the places a note would likely be left, but he found none.
Soon enough his hangover got the better of his curiosity, and he went to sleep, damping down a feeling that something was amiss.
Even had he listened to his intuitions, it wouldn’t have done much good. Noah and Fletcher returned hours later, a somber cloud drifting in with them to hang over their heads. Noah’s face was drawn and pained, and Fletcher was paler than any Indian kid should naturally be.
Fletcher retreated to the back bedroom without a word. Noah was left to break the news to Crow, and did so, his voice teetering on the precipice of breakdown.
Helena Watches-Crows had died that morning, on her way out to feed the horses with Fletcher. She had simply dropped, dead before she hit the sandy ground.
This was more than Crow could take. He had lost two mothers in fewer years, and he felt his grip on control once again loosen by a dangerous margin.
It was shortly after Helena’s funeral, during his next stint in civilization, that Crow received his first tattoo. It was a tattered black feather on his left forearm, drawn there by his own hand, with his second favorite needle. The following day the maudlin piece of art was replicated on Fletcher’s skin. The next morning Crow wasn’t to be found. He had flown the house by night, without explanation or farewell.
“Crow,” Mr. Worth sighed, eyes cast up plaintively. “How do you expect me to help you if you don’t talk to me?” A completely unprofessional plea, and Crow decided it was the last whiny straw he would endure.
“I don’t expect anything of you.” He answered, rising from his chair. “Except that you grant me the same courtesy.” He moved to the door.
“But our time’s not…” Mr. Worth sputtered in half-hearted protest.
“Yes, it is.” With that, Crow was gone, becoming a black shadow against another bloody sky.
“Could you… sign for this?” The deliveryman ventured meekly, pushing the little electronic clipboard toward Crow. Crow shut his eyes against the portly man’s familiar visage, shaking his head to clear the recollections. He wondered how long he’d been staring. He nodded, eyes opening lethargically, and took the clipboard from the man’s white, dimpled hands.
Crow’s signature was especially illegible this evening. He wasn’t feeling awfully well, as had become his usual state. The pig-nosed deliveryman was dressed from hat to socks in UPS issue ugly brown, and obviously felt very professional in the drab uniform. He waddled ceremoniously down the hall. Crow scooted the cardboard package in the door with his foot.
He knew what it was before reading the label. It was his new gun for work, since Della had refused to fund what she saw as a frivolous purchase. They had had disagreements of this nature before, and Crow believed that their difficulties all stemmed from a single difference. Della, the boss at the studio in which Crow had been working, was a piercer primarily, who threw some flash ink on paying customers from time to time. Crow, on the other hand, was a finicky artist, or so Della had snorted during a heated discourse that afternoon. So it was that Crow found himself buying new equipment for the studio out of his own pocket.
The box found itself shoved under the glass coffee table in front of the couch. It would be left there, no doubt, until Monday. Just because Crow enjoyed his job, didn’t mean he wanted to think about it on the weekend. In turn, the wooden box beside it was drawn from beneath the table. Its contents were far more suitable for a Friday evening.
The pipes in the wall squeaked a continuing grievance as Crow fought back the last wisps of memory the familiar face had spurred. A memory smattered with an uncanny amount of death and tragedy. Apparently it was due to a phenomenon Fletcher had dubbed “the plague of mortality” that surrounded the North family. Even were this superstition true, Crow wasn’t related by blood. Crow didn’t buy into it anyway, but stuffed it into the bullshit files with a plethora of other oddities Fletcher had thrown his way. They were even, he supposed, for he caught just as much slack from Fletcher for being Catholic.
Crow set the box on the table, lifting the lid drearily, as he did almost every night. He would return home after a full day of sticking other people with needles, only to turn one on himself. The implements of his affliction lurked within the musty depths, a familiar array of paraphernalia.
The pipes squealed once more before clunking, clinking, and falling silent. Minutes later Ursula emerged in a cloud of steam from the bathroom, swathed in a faded yellow towel. Her skin was washed out, grayish and dull with toxicity beneath its natural pallor. Her eyes were too deep in her face, darkly framed, giving her the semblance of a sleepy raccoon. Her smudged mascara did nothing to remedy the likeness.
Crow had lived with Ursula, in a state of addled symbiosis, since leaving the desert house for good. Their relationship was static and necessary. Crow made decent amounts of money, and Ursula knew the landlord a little too well, making for plenty of money to spend on more frivolous and self-deprecating things. Crow’s boss being a heroin dealer on the side was an added benefit. All these conveniences made their lives comfortable enough, not to mention the moderate amount of attraction between them. Ursula had a thing for tall dark strangers, Crow was known for an affinity for dangerous white women.
“Who was at the door?” Ursula slurred. She was already sleepwalking, Crow knew. On what cocktail of chemicals, he wasn’t sure. She’d been enjoying her day off, and his paycheck.
“UPS guy.” He answered flatly, hazy concentration trained on the task at hand.
“Oh.” Ursula sighed, crumpling to kneel on the floor on the opposite side of the table. She looked down at the smudged glass surface, eyes mulling slowly over to an open book to her left. She reached a hand to it, and offered it to Crow with a question in her watery eyes. Her mouth eventually engaged.
“What’s this?” She murmured.
It had been sitting open, to a drawing Crow was working on, a commission for a particularly picky customer. Crow frowned at the image. It was a classic crucifix, but more graphic and painfully detailed than usually illustrated. Something he’d hated to draw. Ursula’s swampy eyes floated over the image of Christ, arms outstretched, wrapped haphazardly in cloth, face ever placid.
“Something for work.” Crow answered as he cast a quick glance over the horror he had portrayed.
“Oh. It’s pretty.” She said.
Crow brought the cover down on the gruesome depiction, and the book was set aside.
Crow continued the preparations numbly, looking up only once to find Ursula staring at him with eerie curiosity, as if looking on a mad scientist. She was swaying very slightly back and forth, hair unmoving and pasted to her face and shoulders. Crow was looking forward to joining her in waking somnambulation, and was for some reason bothered by the scrutiny of her muddy doll-eyes. He was also slightly irked by the characteristics of the drug itself. It seemed different, somehow. Maybe the color, maybe the consistency, he didn’t know. It was from Della, though, and its negligible peculiarity wasn’t enough to evoke concern.
Crow at length met Ursula’s clammy gaze. He pushed a syringe across the table, at which the fog over her eyes briefly lifted. She hefted a heavy arm, laying it limply on the table, and shifted her murky eyes from the syringe to Crow, and back again. She was already half asleep and spinning, she couldn’t do it. Without a question or doubt, Crow pulled and pinched the tourniquet around her boneless arm, and with a doctor’s care and precision, pierced her skin with the needle. She received it as unflinchingly as only a junkie does.
She lay back slowly onto the dingy carpet, evaporating into a lulled misty stupor. Crow watched her out of the corner of his eye as he exacerbated the perforation of his own arm.
It coursed like sand pumped into his veins, slowly climbing through their tributaries, crawling harshly toward his heart. It corroded him like rust, and he pulled the needle from his arm in a start, dropping it on the table. Even this proved a harrowing movement. It was turning him to stone. He could hear his heart struggling from its pressure, thrashing like a drowning man.
His breath was ragged, and he looked to Ursula on the floor. She was still, arms outstretched, wrapped haphazardly in her towel, her face ever placid.
Then the gritty magma seeped into his heart, into his lungs, stilling them. It drew him down, made him sink to the floor and past it, and he saw no more.