Deputy McAdam looked around Charlie Baxter's front yard. Nobody had touched anything since Charlie had been taken to the hospital. His condition had not improved overnight. The crows had removed his eyes, but they lacked surgical precision. There was collateral damage to his brain.
A plastic deck chair lay on its side on the lawn. A nearby drinks cooler held a couple of empties and two unopened cans of beer. Pete felt them. It was a well-insulated cooler; the cans were still cold. There were dark splotches of blood on the chair and the lawn, but no eyes. Pete wondered if the crows had eaten the eyes. Perhaps the medics had picked them up in case it was possible to re-attach them.
A couple of feet away from the chair lay a double barrel twelve-gauge shotgun, cracked for loading, one shell half in the chamber. Another unused shell lay in the grass nearby. The neighbor had reported that he'd heard two shots. Pete found two empty shell casings in the grass.
It seemed clear what had happened. Charlie had been sitting there drinking beer. After two cans, he had decided to shoot something. Pete looked at the way the chair had fallen. He deduced that Charlie would have been looking towards the old cottonwoods on one side of his house. Pete walked over to the cottonwoods. Before he reached the trees, he spied the corpses of a half-dozen crows. Under the tree nearest where Charlie had been sitting, Pete counted ten dead crows.
After the two shots, the neighbor had heard a lot of yelling and screaming, but there were no further clues, except that Charlie had two big holes in his head where his eyes used to be. It appeared that after he'd fired both barrels, he had begun to load another round. While he was doing that, he was attacked by the crows who had survived his first two shots.
Pete righted the chair and picked up the cooler and the shotgun. He carried them into the house. The TV was on. Charlie must have been planning to watch something after he shot the crows. Pete turned it off, and closed and locked all the doors and windows. Charlie would not be home for a while.
The neighbor who had called 911, Jim Marsden, was at work. His wife said he'd be home late in the afternoon. Pete said he would phone.
On his way back to town, Pete began to think that the animals around Jana Mountain seemed to be acting strangely. He considered Aaron Jameson's story about the starlings dive-bombing him. Then Dick Wilkins' horses trampled him before they ran off. Mrs. Wilkins' chickens had mysteriously disappeared later on the same day. Finally, yesterday evening, crows had attacked Charlie Baxter. None of the incidents were normal. There were animals in every instance, birds in three of the events, and attacks on a human in three of the cases. Pete wasn't able come up with a conclusion, but the idea grew that there was a pattern.
Pete next debated whether to inform the local Wildlife Department about the incident. It was illegal to shoot crows, even on your own property. Pete decided to let it go. According to Baxter's doctor, even if Charlie got back on his feet, he'd never see again. He wouldn't be shooting any more crows. To Pete, that seemed to be enough punishment.
"My dad says I can have a sleepover with you on Friday night," said River. He and Jude were eating their lunches in the school cafeteria.
"Great!" said Jude.
"I'll bring my stuff to school on Friday. Then I can ride the bus with you to your place after school."
"Perfect-o!" said Jude. He began planning things they could do Friday night. He often had the house to himself on weekends. His sisters went out on dates, and his parents went pub-crawling with friends.
"My dad said I can stay over on Saturday night too, if I want, and it's okay with your parents," said River. "All I have to do is phone him. Then he'll pick me up on Sunday."
"That's fantastic, man. I can hardly wait," said Jude. "And listen, I've got a good idea for something we can do on Saturday." The boys hunched over the cafeteria table while Jude laid out a scheme that River found exciting. They complained to each other about their erections struggling in their jeans. Each enjoyed having a buddy who understood about such things.
David looked five or six tables over to where River and Jude sat. They kept glancing at him with sly grins, but lunch hour finished without any stupid bullying tricks. Later, he rode the school-bus home in peace. When he walked into his bedroom to change out of his school clothes, his eyes widened in surprise.
Lilili, the starling, was perching on his desk-lamp. He wasn't alone. Kek, the crow, was there too, roosting on the back of David's desk chair. Though he was stunned to see them, David didn't hesitate, but walked to where they waited and petted each of them. Lilili warbled a short phrase, and the crow croaked a quiet caw. Kek hopped-flew over to David's night table. There, he tapped with his beak at a folded piece of paper to draw David's attention to it.
David sat down on his bed, unfolded the paper and read:
I miss you so much but maybe if we write every day until you can come up here it won't be so bad.
I am sending Lilili because he can see you for me. Kek is very good at sending what he sees too. So it will almost be like I am there with you.
I miss you. I am thinking about hugging you all the time. And I want to kiss your face and everywhere. I need to see you so bad, all the time.
They will wait. Please write a note for me. Kek will bring it.
When he finished reading, David felt a familiar presence on the edge of his mind. It was faint, but it was unmistakably Zhiv. He moved over to his desk. The crow flew to his shoulder and perched there. David closed his eyes and emptied his mind, except for his remembered image of Zhiv.
A thread of sound was drawn from Kek's throat. "Aaaaaah,"
Lilili gave a low whistle.
Again, David preened both birds. Then he cut a square of paper from a larger piece. He was so focused on what he was doing, he didn't notice the sound of the front door opening downstairs. He picked up his pen and wrote small on the square of paper he had prepared:
You make me happy. I miss you too. Every part of me misses you. My arms and my legs and my neck and my feet and all of me misses hugging you. My back misses your hand against it. I want to hold you and never let you go. And I want your arms around me.
My avocado sandwich misses you!
Thank you for asking Lilili and Kek to come to me. Please write every day. Thank you for everything.
Doreen had come home from work. David usually came bounding down the stairs to greet her. It was one of her favorite parts of the day. When he didn't appear, she started to worry that he wasn't yet home from school. Perhaps he had had another encounter with those bullies and was in the hospital. She calmed herself while hanging up her jacket. He was probably just busy with something in his room, but she knew her mind wouldn't stop nagging her until she knew that he was safe, so she went upstairs to see if he was there.
As she topped the stairs, she could see into his room through his open bedroom door. She froze.
David was sitting at his desk doing something. That was not unusual. What stopped her was that there was a crow sitting on his shoulder, and on the desk-lamp gooseneck, watching David while he folded a piece of paper, was another bird, a starling.
Doreen stood on the stairway without moving or speaking.
When David finished folding the paper small, he held it out towards the crow and said, "Here, Kek. Please take this to him." Then he and the crow looked at each other in silence for few moments.
The crow cawed once and took the folded paper in his beak. Then he flew out the bedroom window, with the starling close behind.
Doreen backed down the stairs and sat on one of the lower steps. Her mind was whirling. She heard David come down the stairs behind her. He sat beside her. She put an arm around him. She felt tremendous relief — whatever else was happening, her beloved David was not hallucinating.
"You saw," said David.
"Oh, yes, Honey. I saw."
Doreen pulled him close and hugged him. "I don't know what that was, Honey, but it sure beats bird-watching."
"Yeah, it does, doesn't it? I didn't believe it myself, at first." He kissed her cheek. "Do you want a cup of coffee? Have we got anything to eat? I'll start to make supper if you tell me what to do. Okay?" He pulled her up and led her toward the kitchen.
On Wednesday morning, Deputy Pete parked in front of the Wilkins house. As he got out of his car, another visitor came through the front door. He recognized her as Celia Duffy, from Social Services. Their paths had crossed a few times in the past, usually over domestic disturbances.
"Morning, Ms. Duffy. It's nice to see you again. I hope there's no problem?"
"Good morning, Deputy McAdam. No, I'm just helping Mrs. Wilkins with some of the paperwork resulting from the death of her husband."
"I dropped by to see if she's seen her runaway horses or missing chickens."
"I don't think so," said Celia. "She's got some baby chicks. I'm glad to have met you here. I've been wondering about that missing boy, Sol Mundy. It's been over a year now, and nothing. How can an eleven-year-old boy just disappear like that?"
"So far as I know, he hasn't turned up yet," said Pete. "You know that runaways usually turn up in a week or so, if not the next day. When they don't, it's hard to say what might have happened."
"He was kind of a special kid to me," she said. "A real good kid. I hate to think something bad might have happened to him."
"When I get back to the office this afternoon, I'll pull the file and see if there's been any action. If not, I'll run some queries and put out another bulletin asking people to keep an eye out for him. If we get anything, I'll let you know."
Mrs. Wilkins proudly showed Pete the brooder she had set up in her kitchen. It was a large cardboard box with a light bulb hanging over it to warm a dozen fuzzy, yellow chicks.
"No," she said, when he asked if she'd seen the missing horses or chickens. "I don't expect I'll see any of 'em again. If the chickens were close, they'd be back by now, and that rooster would be in the stew-pot. As for the horses, I doubt if any of 'em has a good memory of this place. I expect they're glad to get away from it, but they're worth a bit of money, so I hope you'll keep looking and let me know if any of 'em turns up."
During the week, Kek carried messages between Zhiv and David. There was a lot of repetition — 'I miss you,' being part of every note on both sides. David could hardly bear to wait until the weekend. His eagerness grew when Zhiv wrote that the animals had called for a meeting, a special mara, on Saturday. They had already begun to assemble.
Every time David saw Kek, he noticed the images of Zhiv and other animals were clearer. His concentration on them, the ability to hold them in his mind, was becoming stronger. Every night after he closed his eyes, the last image he saw was Zhiv.
On Thursday night, David dreamed he was swimming in the lake atop Jana Mountain. As he moved through the water, a vast school of trout swam with him. They flashed around him in perfect coordination, like a corps de ballet. He discovered he could breathe underwater, that he didn't need to rise to the surface for oxygen. He swam effortlessly, deeper, and faster. Suddenly Zhiv was swimming alongside him. Zhiv pointed to the surface.
Together they rocketed upwards and out of the water. An enormous murmuration of starlings soared and swooped around them. They ascended higher and higher until the lake and the mountain were far below. The boys hung in space and clasped each other, tightly pressed together. Each gazing into the other's eyes, the borders between them melted. As Zhiv merged with him, David felt an unbearable sweetness bubble up and fill him. It was so powerful a sensation that he jerked awake and sat up, rubbing his eyes as the sensation faded. He called up Zhiv's image and held it in his mind. A chorus of voices joined his own, whispering, "Zhiv, oh Zhiv." Faint voices sang in counterpoint, "Vizh, oh Vizh." David lay down again and slept.
On Friday night, Jude sprawled on his back on his usual side of the double bed in his room. River lay on the other side. The lights were out. Both boys were naked under the sheet. When they had showered before bed, River had noticed that Jude's toenails were trim and clean. It warmed River when he thought Jude had maybe done that for him.
"Well," said Jude, "here we are."
"Yeah," said River. "It's great, ain't it?"
"So, are we gonna talk all night like a couple of dink-wads, or what?" Jude turned on his side to face River.
"I'd prefer, 'or what?'" laughed River, also rolling onto his side, so he faced Jude.
"You hard?" asked Jude.
"Like I'm gonna burst."
"Yeah, me too."
The boys moved towards each other until they were touching. They embraced.
"Fuck, man, I'm glad you're here," said Jude. "I'm so horny I could fuck a dog."
"We should do that double-suck thing," said River.
It took barely a minute.
"Oh, shit, man!" gasped Jude. "I didn't touch it yesterday or today. I been saving it for this."
"Yeah, me too," said River, his head still buried in Jude's crotch.
"You saved up for tonight?" said Jude.
"Yeah. But it was worth it."
"Yeah, I'm glad you did that. It's nice that we both saved up for it." He idly licked the head of River's penis to get the last drop of semen.
"You got a nice body, man." River ran his hands over Jude's back. "Girls are gonna love it, and your big dick too."
"Yeah. You too."
"Let's go again."
"Long and slow this time. Okay?"
River tested his ability to get all of Jude's long, slender penis into his mouth and even down his throat. He found he could suppress his gag reflex and push Jude's penis beyond the back of his tongue. Then he could swallow against the head, which drew groans of pleasure from his friend. Again, they convulsed in unison. Jude reversed his position, so they lay face to face. They clasped each other.
"You ever taste your own cum?" whispered Jude.
"How?" laughed River. "You drank it all."
"I've still got some in my mouth. I'll share it with you."
"Okay," said River. "If you want."
Jude pressed his mouth against River's, and both boys opened up. River felt Jude's tongue enter his mouth and pushed his tongue forward to meet it. They played like that, and River could taste his semen in Jude's mouth.
"Did you taste yours, too?" River asked.
"I don't know — I was so busy pushing yours into your mouth. Let me see."
They kissed again and, without talking, again and again, until both were erect. River flipped around and took Jude into his mouth. They sucked each other into bliss another time. Then they fell asleep with their arms and legs entangled.
A quarter mile distant from where Jude and River slept, the chickens in the Bedford Poultry barn were restless. A stealthy intruder moved among them in the darkness.
Melissa Blackstone was more afraid than she'd ever been in her fifteen years of life. She knew what she was doing was illegal. By her presence in that barn with a camera and a headlamp, she had become a terrorist, an enemy of the state.
At the same time, the misery she was witnessing filled her with despair and sorrow. Tens of thousands of chickens were crammed together, scratching or laying in their own feces. They grew at an accelerated rate and lived only until they were large enough to have their throats cut. They never knew sunshine or fresh air. There was no joy of any kind in their lives. Their anguish and hopelessness were clearly visible in their eyes. Melissa wept as she moved among them and filmed the horror of their existence.
When she'd shot an hour of video, she left the barn with a chicken held against her chest. The hen was the single rescue Melissa had decided to make, though she would have preferred to free all the birds. In the morning, she would take the hen to a sanctuary where she would receive the care she needed and deserved. Melissa planned to send the video to animal rights advocates. It would expose the merciless reality of cage-free chicken production at the Bedford Poultry facility.
Melissa was still young enough to believe that people didn't know how cruel these farms were. They didn't understand how the food on their plates was produced. She thought they would stop buying chicken if they saw the systemic brutality that was part of the process. She'd been vegan for two years. She thought if she could do it, everybody could. It wasn't hard.
Melissa made the rescued hen comfortable in a cardboard box beside her bed, then lay down to rest. It had been a long bike ride out to the chicken farm and back. Taking the hen to the sanctuary in the morning meant another long ride, but she felt good that she had done something that might help to stop the cruelty. Finally, she had stood up in protest, even if no one had seen her. She corrected herself. She had been seen. The chickens had seen her.
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