Trigger warning sexual assault & death/grief
The crow tapped on the window four times.
Pulling the wrinkled shirt over my head, I turned to the bird framed in the condensation and frost. It tilted it’s head at me and waited. Judging. In the living room, the landline rang in a tone which only half asked to be picked up. It had come to expect being ignored since she was no longer around to answer it.
I walked over to the window and bent down to look the crow in it’s beady eyes. It tucked it’s wings close to it’s body, the blue-black feathers almost blending into the darkness outside. Mum used to feed the birds in the garden. It was probably looking for her and her scraps from breakfast. Skinny rat legs descended into talons and it’s shrew-like face ended in the crooked beak that could do damage. If I gave it my hand, how long would it take to strip me down to the bone?
I banged on the window in a sudden burst and the crow stumbled off the window ledge, only just remembering to spread it’s wings in time and fly off before it hit the deck.
“Not so smart now,” I muttered. I stayed by the window, letting the seconds tick past until I could summon the energy to continue to get ready for work again.
“Oi, love,” A man with a neck the side of my waist said. He pushed past the waiting customers at the pizza counter and waved one of the plastic wrapped pizzas I’d given him five minutes ago at me with enough gusto to blow my hairnet off. “This ain’t mine.”
“Aye, it is. Got your name on it and everything,” I said. “Just like the rest of them.” I pointed at the dozen other pizzas under his arm.
He smiled and it dripped with something that men called charming and women called patronising. “I know it’s hard for you lot but let me spell it out. I know my wife didn’t order anything with sweetcorn on it ‘cause it’s the devil’s food. I’m gonna need a new one. Quickly this time if that’s not too difficult for you.”
The customers waiting shuffled their trolleys and tried to inch away from the man without looking like they were concerned.
“That’s what you ordered, sir. I’m not making another one while we’ve got people waiting,” I said.
“Nah, you look hen. I wouldnae of put sweetcorn on your pizza if your wife didnae ask for it. I’ll get your order if you want but can you no just take the pizza? A wee vegetable ain’t gonna kill you, you know.”
“My son doesnae like it.”
“Then tell him to get a grip ‘n aw.”
Before the veins burst out of the big guy’s neck, Ciaran burst in with his smart shirt and manager-perfect ironed-on smile to push me back. “I’m sure we can make arrangements for you to get another pizza and a little something extra. Free of charge.”
As he turned to me and out of view of the customers, his smile fell off. “Jean. My office. Now.”
Ciaran edged his way around me as I stood in the centre of his puny office. One chair and only for him behind the desk. Something to do with budget cuts if you were inclined to believe him. “Come on, Jean. Not cool,” He said. “You can’t lose your head at a customer just-” He cut himself before he got to the bit that everyone tried to avoid saying but ended up saying with silence anyway. He signed and leaned against his desk like the teacher trying to be down with the kids. Just because he got the gaffer’s job and drives a new shiny car doesn’t mean he’s not our pal anymore, even when he’s the one that decides who gets the bonus and who doesn’t get their holiday this year.
“I know you’ve been through a lot this year. You’re hurting, I get it.” He pushed himself off and came closer. “You know I’m always here, right? If you ever need…if you ever wanted a shoulder to cry on or just someone to listen. I’m here for you.”
I said nothing. He rested his hands on my arms and his thumbs rubbed against my bare skin tentatively. Everyone was here for me as long as I didn’t intrude on their life and become a burden. As long as I was on their terms, they were there for me. Up this close, I lost count of his grey hairs. That belly hadn’t been there before he’d taken the new gig either.
He pulled his hands back fast and stuffed them in his pocket while a small trace of the smile remained at the corner of his lips. “Are you heading out for drinks on Friday?” He asked. “I was thinking about coming along if you-”
“Can I go get my piece now?” I said.
For a second, he studied me and I recognised the look people gave me when I messed up my line from the script in their heads. Then he nodded and I headed out back, grabbing my jacket on the way. Relegated behind the bins if I wanted to dare remind our customers that even the people who made their rank, cheap pizzas still smoked. Yes, even if I knew lung cancer was a serious possibility now.
I clicked my lighter a few times before the tiny flame popped up and I pressed the cigarette hanging out my mouth inside until the smoke puffed up all at once. I took a long drag and waited to feel something as I held the toxins in my body long enough to hurt. Nothing. I exhaled.
I looked over to the edge of the back entrance. Two crows this time, peering around the bin.
“What?” I said. They didn’t seem to care. Better watch: people would think I’d gone proper loopy if they caught me talking to birds.
One of them hopped a foot closer. Then another. One small step at a time so it’d have a chance to fly off if I took one of my temperamental turns again. I crouched down and watched it approach, trying to tell if it was the same one from this morning. All crows looked like any other stupid crow. Any movement for any other kind of bird and it would have been off as they recognised danger. This one just kept coming.
The crows paused in front of me and stared. I took a pull off my cigarette and blew the smoke over the crow, enveloping it in the toxic fog. As the cloud cleared, the crow blinked at me.
More letters arrived addressed to her while I’d been out, even after I spent days calling anyone who could possibly care to say, ‘She’s dead; don’t bother!’ They still wanted money off her. The charities were the worst. I chucked them as soon as I got home.
I pulled out the bottle of Cointreau I’d been making a go of since last week, took a swig and failed to suppress the shudder when it hit my throat. I’d made it to the back of the cupboard now. The ones that nobody drank but somehow, we still owned an open bottle of. She’d probably put it in a Christmas cake a few years ago. Damn thing no doubt ended up being fed to the birds but the drink was still good enough. I’d had everything else at this stage and vodka was more expensive than I wanted to think about. Never again would I resort to that paint stripper basics shit because a pal told me it tasted the same. It did not.
I ate the sandwich I grabbed reduced at work over the sink. Through the dark, I peered into the garden and not for the first time knew that I needed to do something about it. Grass stuck up higher than was acceptable like it was trying to fight off the weeds that kept coming. Flowers gone for the winter. Maybe forever. She used to love being out in the garden. By the end, it was an effort to get her out there but when she smiled, glowing in the warmth of the sun, it was worth it. The garden could wait until summer.
Birds hoped through the grass, pecking at the ground for non-existent scraps of food and fighting each other over them. At some stage, I realised they were crows again but I didn’t care. Just kept watching. She used to watch them at the window while she did the dishes. When I was young, we’d give them names and wish them goodbye when they flew off back to their families. Something in my gut shoved it’s hand up my throat and I waited for it to pull out my insides, steadying myself on the sink until it passed.
I reached up and opened the top of the window. A few of the birds flew off but more turned to watch me. I broke up the rest of my sandwich – I was never hungry no more anyway – and chucked the crumbs out the window in a cheese and tomato eruption.
At first, they waited. Maybe thought it was a trap. Then one came over and pecked. When they saw him go for the second piece, the others dared to venture over. Once there was a few, they all came back and let me watch them in the dark.
Over the next couple of days, the crows sought me out whether I was. Home. Work. Well, that was it really. I don’t go anywhere else anymore. As I walked home on the third day, they trailed after me, picking up the scraps of reduced bread I chucked for them. A black feathered shadow following me.
A fancy white car pulled up beside me. Ciaran rolled his window down and grinned at me from the driver’s seat. “Come on, Jeanie, I’ll give you a lift.”
A crow landed on the lowered wall beside me and quirked it’s head.
“I’m good,” I said as I tore off a piece for the bird and kept walking. The car crawled along beside me. Some of the crows left their crumbs behind and closed the distance between me and them.
“It’s cold and you’ve got ages to go,” He said. I shrugged, not asking how he knew where I lived. “Let me help you out. That’s what good bosses are for, right?” I said nothing. The edges of his smile started to dip. “Jeanie-”
“I thought that was our Jean!” An older woman said as she crossed the road in front of Ciaran and came towards me. If I’d have realised that Aggie had been on the other side of the road, I would have gotten into any car. As soon as her gaze moved to the car, Ciaran pulled away and speed off.
“I almost didn’t recognise you. You lost a fair bit of weight now,” She said. I gripped the edges of my coat and without meaning to, pulled at them to widen myself out. Used to be that when someone said I’d lost weight, they meant I looked great but sometime ago I passed the line where those words went from a compliment to a judgement. Not that Aggie had ever said anything that was meant as a genuine compliment in her life. Somehow, Aggie had become one of those nosy neighbours without ever living next door to us and a family friend without anyone actually liking her.
“How have you been?” She asked.
“Fine.” She waited on my reciprocal question. I didn’t ask. I knew it was a trap.
“I’ve called a few times at home but never seem to get you,” She said eventually.
I heard the phone ringing. “I’m out a lot.”
“What are you doing with yourself now?” I opened my coat up and pulled up my nametag to show her, the bright colours of my uniform glowing at the chance to escape. “Right, but I meant, weren’t you away doing teaching, hen? Your old Mum used to brag all the time you were away at uni. She was chuffed to bits when you got in.”
“I came back to look after Mum.” Everyone knew that. They all told me how brave I was being.
“I know. That was a while ago now and given that your Mum’s…” Everyone trailed off at that point. People seemed to think if they didn’t say it out loud, it wasn’t so bad. Or that it wasn’t really true. They weren’t the ones who had to go back to that empty flat and stare at her closed bedroom door, every moment it didn’t open a reminder that nothing in the universe was truer.
“Just thought you would be back by now,” She said. I turned to the crows lined up on the wall, staring with as much question in their eyes. “Life keeps moving on. Got to move on with it.”
Except what if it didn’t? Maybe that was just a cliché that people who had no idea what they were talking about told people whose existence made them uncomfortable. No one else realised that when Mum was ripped out of this mortal coil, it had knocked me out of earth’s orbit and there was no moving with life anymore. That plan I’d had for life was redistributed to someone else and I had nothing but endless space in front of me and there was no way to take a step out into that. Not without her.
The silence pressed between Aggie and I and although it had only been seconds, Aggie crumbled under it’s pressure. “You remember my daughter Maria, don’t you?” I did remember her. I did not care about whatever came next. “Well, you’ll never guess what happened to her last weekend. I’ll have to start at the beginning so back on Tuesday…”
The dark street blurred around me. The world refused to stand still and everything stank of piss and whiskey. Someone had handed me a drink as soon as I got to the pub on Friday night and I tossed it down my throat before anyone else was half way through theirs. Once the glass was empty, someone made sure I had another. They knew I needed it.
Focusing too much on putting one foot in front of the other, I forgot about my knees until one buckled and the pavement came rushing up to meet my face. An arm caught around my middle and squashed everything from my stomach into my throat.
“I’ve got you,” Ciaran said. Why was he here? I had left the pub. Bile crawled up my throat in a familiar warning. I swallowed it and held it as best as I could, a voice in the back of my head.
At least have the sense to get somewhere you can close the door behind you before you boke all over your dress.
No matter what she thought, sometimes I listened.
“Don’t want you cracking your pretty face against the concrete,” Ciaran said. He hauled me back up and held me steady until I got my feet under me again. He offered to walk me home when they kicked me out of the pub. I wasn’t sure if I said yes at the time but at least he was proving useful.
I tried to mutter something about ripping my own face off and fresh air being harsher than gravel but it came out as a belch. I pushed forward, following muscle memory more than sight to get home. So close. Ciaran kept his hand on my back. A finger slips under my top and cold flesh touched mine.
Ciaran’s whistle cut through the empty street. “This is nice, isn’t it?” He said. “We never really get to spend getting to know each other. Never get to just be together without anyone else shoving in.”
He muttered a disclaimer about liking the rest of them really. How lucky he was to have such a great team around him. Said it all through gritted teeth until he trailed off. I focused on counting down the numbers on the door. The street didn’t look right. Everything a shade off what it should be.
“I think we could get on, you know. We used to, didn’t we? Always had a right laugh, me and you. Always knew we would even if the rest of them weren’t there. I know it’s different now I’m the boss but that doesn’t mean things have changed for me. I still think about you the same. Do you think about me?”
He waited and I made a noise that didn’t mean anything. I couldn’t follow his words and see straight at the same time. I wasn’t a wizard. All I could think was how many more steps till I was on the front door and I could collapse against the worn carpet. His hand ran up my back and his pinkie hooked under my bra.
His hand pulled me hard enough to make me move and I slammed into his chest hard enough to knock the little sense I still had a hold of out of me. He smashed his lips against mine and his tongue crawled over my teeth when it pushed in my mouth like a maggot into an eye socket. I yanked my head back but he caught my hair with his other hand and held me still, forcing his tongue deeper in my mouth.
The vodka haze dropped and my inbuilt alarms blasted in my ears. Get him off. Fight back. But my hands were trapped between us, caught against his chest as he pressed against me. Then claw your way through him. I scratched at his neck to carve out his throat with my barely-there nails. We spun, my feet barely on the ground until my back crashed into something hard. He was still on me, pressing me up against the wall.
I couldn’t breathe.
“Come on, Jeanie,” He said, pulling back slightly with his head pressed against mine. His hands grabbed at my body. “Think I don’t know what girls like you like? How about we don’t do the usual shit where you pretend you haven’t wanted it all night, you stop being a cow and we can enjoy it.”
Then Ciaran was off me. Back arched like he was going to break in half and a shriek tore out his mouth. Something squawked. He tried to keep his hands on me, hold me there so I couldn’t get away.
I shoved him off with as much force as my vodka-ridden muscles would allow, enough to make him fall back. Before either of us could think of what next, the world turned black. Like full on, the lights are out and so are you, black. Then the black moved and caught the light of the streetlamps until feathers formed and I saw the crow crashing into Ciaran’s face.
The crow spun quickly, following Ciaran as he failed to shake it off, pulled its talons out and latched them onto his cheek. Ciaran squealed and from nowhere and everywhere, another landed on his head and dug through his hair. It pecked at the top of his head. A third fluttered in front of his face. More flew at him, talons tearing at flesh and small bodies slamming into him until I lost count and Ciaran and his shrieks were swallowed in the mess of black feathers and rage.
He stumbled away, the crows refusing to let up. The conglomerate of birds swam over him, and blood trailed in their wake as some flew off and new ones took their place.
Somehow, I tore my eyes away and looked to my right. A crow waited on top of a neighbour’s bush. Watching me.
I bolted in the other direction. Little legs pumping until I stumbled up my path and through my front door. Despite trembling fingers, I locked the door behind me and closed the latch that I usually didn’t bother with.
Then I waited.
Waited for what? For Ciaran to come back. For sirens. For tiny scratching against the door like they scratched on his skin and the flutter of wings behind the door.
Eventually, I pealed myself off the floor at the front door. Sun leaked in through the open curtains, screaming that morning had come since I’d somehow managed to find enough calm to sleep.
I didn’t check the time. Not like I had anywhere to go since I couldn’t go back to work. No one would come looking. Ciaran would probably say he sacked me for inappropriate behaviour. I could have marched in there and set the record straight but I couldn’t find it in me to give enough of a shit.
Shoving down the thoughts of what did and what might have happened last night drumming to the hammering in my head, I stepped into the kitchen. Bread in the toaster. It’s about as much as I could manage with my head as it was. I needed time. At some point I might be able to think about it but right now, it was enough to make sure I was standing. Things like this took time, I’d learned.
I turned on the sink for water. I looked out of the window on instinct and my insides almost dissolved. Two crows hopped around the garden, pecking at the ground. As if it sensing something different, one looked up and spotted me. It squawked and the other looked up through the window to me. Mum always said crows were clever. They stared. I stared back. They tilted their heads. I tilted mine.
The toast popped up and I grabbed it. Slathered it with butter and jam. I’d never focused so hard breakfast before. When I looked up, the crows were still watching.
I grabbed the plate and unlocked the back door. The crows didn’t budge when I stepped out and sat down on the steps. I took a bite of the toast and melted butter trailed down my chin before I wiped it away with the back of my hand. As I chewed, I tore off another piece of the toast and broke that into smaller pieces that I tossed to the crows. They hoped on them like alcoholics at an open bar. I took another bite. Tore another for the birds. One for me. One for them. I finished long before them. If someone was watching, they might not think they even remember I was there. But they knew.
I pulled out my phone and drew up my old university’s website. Smiling stock images of students walking beside the manmade loch on the campus blared at me. Trailing ground where I had once been.
Something caught the corner of my eye. A crow hoped towards me, less than a foot from me. I could reach out. Feel the feathers. I didn’t chance my luck, but I could have.
I looked back at my phone and thought of the water. The worn dirt paths around that loch like the worn seats with threadbare materials in the lecture theatres. The winding corridors and the old smell of dust, paper and knowledge. I wondered what I would need to do if I wanted to go back.