The noise came to her gradually. Loud, but consistent, the steady scrape of rock on rock. Her eyes registered at once that the light of the space around her was not only diminishing, but doing so at an angle, as though someone were pulling a curtain over the world. Anne peered around her, at the bones in which she sat, and said, “Oh Jesus, he’s closing me in with his corpses.”
Dead leaves crunched around her prone form, and her fingers felt along a smooth but ridged length that could only be a bone she had pulled from the debris. Her tremoring fingers flung the bone to clatter and shamble down the pile she lay on, and in one sharp instant, she realized this was the moment she’d always feared. In between that silence and creeping terror, Anne remembered a reason she used to enjoy the woods. It had to do with being a certain kind of safe. Safe from people. Safe from swinging fists. She put her hand on the floor of bones that were there because someone put them there and her joints and abdomen flushed with weakness.
Shadows obscured the craggy walls of the cavern. The rock that had broken her leg when he’d dropped her here jutted through a pile of leaves and what appeared to be three moss-green skulls amidst a collapse of disintegrating skeleton.
She couldn’t tamp down the shriek working its way up her throat.
* * *
Through the clean glass of her back-patio door, Anne considered the morning light scouring her property. Her three and a half acres of scrub and grass steamed with recent elk droppings in the chilly morning. The rest of her twenty acres of dark, sleeping forest separated her from rushing water and climbing beast. Her weathered wooden patio needed a power sprayer to relieve it of all the bird droppings, but she was accustomed to nature’s splatter paint and hardly noticed it.
She held a clay mug adorned with a misshapen elephant, filled with sweetened coffee. She rubbed her thumbs over the imperfections in the clay—her students had made her the mug before the face of education had changed, when art classrooms still had kilns, long before she retired and took disability. She sipped the brew, letting it fortify her. “Forty-eight is still a young woman,” she said and smiled out into the clear face of the morning. In a moment, she would go out. But this moment—right now—was the best moment of the day. She could pretend yet that the day belonged to her, and not to agoraphobia.
Anne considered her layered world in careful, stuttered moments—never too many layers at once. Moments passed in her cabin, the closest layer, were the most predictable, calmest, safest moments. She infrequently traveled beyond this layer, but each day strove for the next layer, the porch—a more threatening but more rewarding layer. Every time she ventured out a layer, she accomplished something—and lost something. That was the piece she could never make the therapists understand. All the tiny chunks of Anne she lost got piled up out in world—she could feel them out there, lost. In here, too, missing.
Anne collected her bag of nuts for the crows from the kitchen counter and refreshed her cup of coffee. She grabbed the laser pointer from the bookshelf and slipped it in her robe pocket; maybe Bud would want to play. She stood at the door with her hand on the knob. She looked out, gazed out. She waited, and then, he came. She threw open the door and scurried through, coughed around the bubble of acid in her throat, closed the door quickly behind her.
Sometimes, before crossing the layers, before opening the patio doors, she would gulp a breath of air. She would puff up her cheeks and rush through, and then forget to complete the breath process after closing the door behind her. She would wake up from a faint on the patio floor, her face jammed against the wood slats, folds of flesh squeezed into the cracks.
This time, though, no fainting. “Bud! I’m out!” She grinned and breathed deep and slow, clearing the blue birds from her vision. Today was a good day. She moved to sit in the faded green Adirondack chair with the fluffy flowered cushions tied onto the back. She placed her elephant mug on the chair’s wide armrest and reached into the bag of peanuts. She turned toward Bud to throw him a nut, and that’s when she spied his new gift. He often brought her sparkly bobs—balls of wire or screws stuck in metal bits or tiny toys—and she always rewarded him with nuts. Today, he’d dropped his treasure at her slippered feet.
It was a diamond earring still threaded through the lobe of a human ear.
Anne’s hand stalled at her side. She couldn’t feel the rough surface of the peanut shell against the tingling numbness of her skin. She accused her eyes of failing, even as they stared at the wrinkled thing lying on the gray wood.
Bud’s attention was on her, she knew, on her hand. He waited for her to keep her part and throw the nut, but her joints wouldn’t work. Her mind kept trying to make sense of the ear.
Anne swallowed hard and looked at Bud. Bud gazed back at her and squawked. His cry was rusty, and it cracked at the end—it was how she always knew it was him—his cry and the flush of red at the tips of his wing feathers. She didn’t toss him the nut this time but leaned forward and held it out to him. He waddled forward and took it.
He held the shell with his foot and punched into it with his beak. Anne’s mouth turned up. “Bud, my friend, what trouble have you brought me today?”
* * *
Once Anne gathered the courage to approach the ear—in that time she had fed Bud and his friends an entire bag of peanuts and shooed more than one curious crow away from the glittering jewel—she knew for sure it was what it always was from the start: a small pierced ear. Anne stared at the ear. Poked it with a stick. She jumped and screeched when it twitched on the wood. All the crows except Bud took flight around her and then settled. She laughed at herself and her case of the willies. It wasn’t gory or bloody. It didn’t have a lot of loose, dangling skin hanging from it. In fact, it appeared as though it had been removed surgically, or at least cleanly, with smooth edges and little trauma to the flesh. What little blood there was in the wound edge was old and black. The flesh was desiccated and no longer pink or tan or brown but gray, which had allowed Anne her prolonged denial in the first place but, besides that, still ear-shaped, thanks to all the cartilage. The lobe was small, now, and the diamond stud in it hung precariously from the flesh.
Anne sighed as she concluded she would need to call the sheriff and his no-account son, the deputy. She lived out here among the trees and the crows for a reason. But something this strange required other people, official ones.
The ear lay in the sun, gray and silent, glistening. Bud’s troublesome gift. “Crows remember,” she said. She bent down and reached her trembling hands toward the ear.
* * *
Sheriff Terrance John looked out of place everywhere he went, including on Anne’s property among the birds and the hardy Russian sage. A huge man on the top and a toothpick on the bottom, he had never found a set of clothes that fit him, and that included his uniform. His light green shirt stretched around his chest, the buttons straining at his every breath, while his dark green pants bloused around his twiggy legs and nonexistent buttocks. Veins pulsed in his thick red neck, and his muddy brown eyes stared down between his feet. He glared at the ear as though the tiny bit of flesh was a personal moral affront. His huge thumbs hooked into his Sam Brown belt, and his huge hands dangled at his hips, his fingers drumming lightly at his service pistol on the right and mag light on the left. His son and deputy, Brian, stood a few feet off, pale and peevish, inspecting something he had just dug out of his nose. Anne wasn’t even sure he knew what he was supposed to be doing there.
Sheriff John grunted. Anne had known him long enough to know this was a meaningful noise that expected a response.
“I know, it’s weird,” Anne said, thinking apology the best way to go, initially.
Sheriff John continued to stare at the ear and to complain. “It’s a little more than weird. It’s going to require me to open an investigation.”
Anne put her hand on her hip. “Would you prefer I didn’t call you next time a body part turns up on my property?”
Sheriff John raised his eyes to Anne. He didn’t change his expression. He didn’t have to. His normal glower was heavy enough to brain her. She dropped her hand from her hip.
“How’d it get here?” he asked.
“I told you. The crow brought it.”
She counted every vein in his bloodshot eyes before he looked away from her face and back down to the ear again. “Well that doesn’t help me, does it?”
Anne stood quietly. What she wanted to say wouldn’t help him. Even if he’d had the imagination, it wouldn’t have helped him. But it might help her.
Sheriff John reached toward his son and snapped his fingers twice. His son glanced up as though from a long way off, saw his father’s waiting hand, took in the ear at his feet, and realized it might be time for him to do something. He patted his chest and hips with flattened palms until he seemed to remember, then reached into a pocket and produced a folded plastic bag. The sheriff snatched it and shook it open with a crackle. His face and neck grew redder as he bent at the waist. He stuck his hand in the bag like a glove and scooped up the ear, then pulled it through.
“Let’s go, Brian.”
“Wait,” Anne said. She tried to keep the edge from her voice, but there it was. It snagged the sheriff and spun him round. His eyebrows raised. Out here, women didn’t talk edgy to men. And not to Sheriff John. But… “What are you going to do?”
“Well, ma’am, I’m going to go back to my station and open an investigation. Write this up. I don’t suppose you want to know exactly what I’m going to write?”
Anne knew if she pressed, she might have consequences to face. With the town. Next time she was due for a gas delivery or her well tasted funny. Next time she needed the law. But she went ahead. “And then? I mean, this is part of a body, right? What’s next in the investigation?”
Sheriff John’s eyes bulged, and his neck grew purple. The veins there beat visibly, and Anne worried he might stroke. “What’s next in an investigation of an ear got dropped on your porch by some damn bird? A damn circus. A long one. And one I don’t much want to explain to a witness, if you don’t mind. ’Less you want to tell me how I’m supposed to better go about investigating a thing like this without calling those stiff necks up to the university?”
But Sheriff John wasn’t asking her, and Anne knew it. She suspected, judging by the bloom in his cheeks and the set of his jowls, that he wouldn’t do anything or call anyone. That ear would end up in a drawer, under an inch of dust.
Anne decided she wasn’t done with the ear. She couldn’t be. Not yet.
* * *
The next morning, Bud brought her a shell. A snail shell. It was broken, and the inside layer shone out a rainbow into the morning sun. That was what had attracted him to it. She took the shell in her hand and gave him a peanut. Then two more. After he ate, he preened and drank water from the bath she had put out for him and the others.
She played their game with him—flashed the laser pointer first on a nut on the floor of the patio. He fell on it at once and punched through the shell, then gobbled the meat down his gullet. He trained his sharp black eye on her face, watching. She shone the laser out into the yard, caught a small chunk of mica she saw glimmering in the cold soil. He followed the beam, sought it out. Flew. Located the dot, then screamed and dropped from the air. Found his target and landed on it—scrabbled it from the dirt and returned to the patio, clutching the small, white rock in his claw. He dropped it in on her knee and landed on the arm of the Adirondack chair where she perched. His eyes were shrewd as she pulled the peanut from the bag. He took it delicately from her hand and fluttered to the patio floor to enjoy it.
When he was done, he raised his head and pinned her with those searching orbs. She held out his newest gift—the shell. She pointed the laser pointer at it. Bud looked at the dot. Stared at it. Looked at her. Cocked his head. Then launched into the air with creaking wings.
He flew away. East, over the sycamore.
* * *
The next morning, the treasure he brought was a nail with copper wire wrapped around it. While he ate peanuts, Anne unwound the wire. It was a good three feet long, once straightened. They played the new version of the game, fetch in reverse. Today, after the game, when he flew away, he went southwest, over the creek and the willow tree.
* * *
She watched Bud closely for two weeks. He didn’t bring her anymore pieces of bodies. Every morning, he brought a new gift. With the pointer, she asked where he got it, and he flew away in a different direction.
After that, she brought out the diamond stud. The one she had stolen from the ear. She pointed the red laser into the brilliant cut of the stone and it lit up light a red rose. Glittering between the pads of her thumb and index finger, it drew Bud’s fancy. He cocked his head, darted his eyes. She held it in front of him, but he didn’t try to take it. It had been a gift for her. He remembered it. Because crows remember.
That day, Bud flew north, over the pines, toward the State Park and the gulch.
* * *
Anne could hear Sheriff John now. “You want me to go out to the gulch because your bird keeps flying in that direction when you show it evidence you withheld from the county sheriff’s office?”
She shuddered despite the log burning in the pot-bellied stove two feet in front of her. She couldn’t tell him about the diamond. She figured if she went out to the gulch on her own and found something, she could explain it another way. People went rock climbing in the gulch—if they were the daring sort. And she might not even have to go that far.
She couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that somebody might have given the diamond to the person who had been attached to that ear. Someone who loved the person who had been attached to that ear. Besides, now that she’d taken the diamond, run her experiment, and yielded her results, she couldn’t keep the diamond. But neither could she just discard it. And discarding it also meant giving it to Sheriff John, who would likely just throw it in an evidence box and forget about it. She needed to give it to someone who could mourn the ear, and a piece of jewelry as significant as a diamond, appropriately. So, her only choice was to force the sheriff’s hand and go out to the gulch herself.
Anne paced the kitchen’s warped linoleum and considered the many monumental moments standing between her and the gulch—the thick and sticky layers she needed to penetrate and overcome. She dug the whiskey and a tumbler out of the back of the raw pine cabinet hiding in the back corner of the room and poured two stiff fingers, standing right there. When, after drinking it, she still couldn’t climb out from under the rhinoceros tap-dancing on her ribcage, she poured two more fingers. Then a third, and she left the bottle on the floor and took her glass into her bedroom closet and curled into a loose ball, her whiskey glass on the floor before her nose where she could watch the whiskey bellow.
* * *
The next morning, Anne stood at her back-patio door. A lead sinker dropped from her throat straight through the lake of stomach acid and leftover whiskey and into her toes. Hot blood lifted from her belly and filled her arms and hands, her neck and face. White dots speckled her vision, and then the world dimmed. She waited the few moments to see if she would wake up on the floor or if she would regain her sight—a pixel at a time. The tree line beyond the patio and the blue sky above it came into focus. She remembered to breathe, and a gasp of air rushed into her lungs. On the wood planks of the patio floor, just before the glass door, stood Bud. He squawked and ruffled. She guffawed and the tears gathered in her eyes splashed onto her cheeks.
She stepped outside to meet him, lugging behind her a full camel pack, a full backpack, and a full bag of peanuts. She had stood before her kitchen drawer for a half hour, eying her Beretta, but in the end left it locked in the drawer. It had been too long since she’d been shooting. The last thing she grabbed and put in her pocket was Bud’s laser.
Bud seemed to know something was different. She gave him a peanut and, when he was done, showed him the diamond again, all lit up red. He took off for the pines to the north. Without a hint of breathlessness, Anne set out at a brisk trot after him.
Pale sun shone through thin drops of moisture onto Anne’s hair, warming her scalp. Light sweat trickled down her back beneath her isothermal jacket. Her booted feet crunched on the frosted grass and brush. A day in early spring in these parts offered many sorts of weather and she would be peeling her scarf and earmuffs before long.
When she reached the tree line, Bud was waiting for her on a low branch. At her crunching approach, he cawed at her as if laughing. “Shush, you,” she said and tossed him another peanut. After he ate it, he flew off again. She followed him with her eyes. Her property line lay just another twenty or thirty minutes into the trees. Her heart squeezed and she put her fingers to her chest and rubbed. Her core radiated warmth, but she stayed dressed, knowing better than to trust this heat to do anything better than chill her sick or dead. “Get going, Anne,” she said. Her voice sounded balloonish, but Bud wouldn’t wait forever. She followed the ruckus of her footsteps into the trees.
* * *
By the time Anne made it to where her twenty acres abutted the state forest, she was following Bud through a barrens of towering trunks and dead pine needles. Starving deer had gnawed the trunks naked over the cold months, and the wood beneath peeked out like pallid skin in need of sun. No branches sat low enough for Bud to perch at eye level so, for the first time in their two-year acquaintance, Bud perched on her arm.
He startled her—his wild wings beating close enough to fill her mouth and nose with his hoary scent. She lifted her hand to protect her face, but he landed on her raised bicep before she could complete the motion, and she understood at once and froze. Anne tightened down on the squeal that fought to escape her chest, but she couldn’t keep the grin from her face. “All I need is a witch’s hat and a broom, now!” she said.
Anne hadn’t forgotten that her property line was only feet in front of her. She worried that with Bud on her arm, her typical panicky coping behaviors might scare him away or condition him to never touch her again. She stared at him and pressed her lips together and began to take large, deliberate steps in the direction they needed. The usual steel vise inside her squeezed and she breathed through her pressed-together lips, blowing her exhalations over her lower lip through a fine mist of spit. Bud squawked at her and ruffled. She chuckled in her chest. The laughter hurt through the vise squeezing her but also felt good, so she kept spraying Bud with her lips, and he kept prancing and chirping. Soon they were well past her property line, and the vise that choked her had dropped away.
* * *
Anne wasn’t worried about getting lost. She knew this territory after living out here twenty-seven years and hiking this forest every summer and fall until she became disabled. Once they were in the State Forest, trails started crisscrossing their apparent path every quarter mile, and she had a trail map, GPS, and sat phone in her bag. She used to like to disappear into nature, but she was still terrified of disappearing.
She had a decent idea where Bud was taking her—he was just taking the bird’s way of getting there. Ten more miles further north they would run into the gulch. All up and down it, climbers tested their skills trying to get to the bottom. In one spot, water accumulated; old-timers said it was bottomless; the State Forest said it was forty-seven feet deep at the center. Either way, it was a good place to dump a body.
Bud led Anne faithfully onward until she would have started the climb to reach the rim. A trail head marked the beginning of the ascent, and she planned to use it to lessen the impact of the climb on herself. Bud would find her at the top, she had no doubt. Here, she stopped and gave Bud a nut and ate a trail bar for her own rolling stomach. She drank from her CamelBak and squeezed some into her hand for Bud, but he only blinked at the puddle warming in the folds of her skin. She pointed the laser into the diamond again. He tilted his head. Then he flew off, low to the ground, his wings creaking. He flew northwest, bypassing the gorge.
Anne’s stomach flopped. She’d assumed all this time that if she was going to find anything, she would find it at the gorge, that if Bud was leading her somewhere, this is where he was leading her. That was what made sense. Had she been imagining this communication with the bird all along? She refused herself to feel foolish and instead got up and followed Bud into the trees, away from the gorge and any sense this chase could have made. She tried not to listen to the hollow sound of her feet stamping on the cold spring earth. As she walked, her knees threatened to buckle. Her chest started to squeeze. Leaving the safety of home for sense was one thing—finding a body dumped in the gorge made sense. Now, the sense was gone. What remained? Only trust—and she did trust Bud. But to head into such an unsafe layer for such an unsafe thing—Anne’s stomach kicked her chest and enflamed her throat and lungs as she headed off the path.
* * *
She kept seeing Bud in front of her, but she could never quite catch up. She would make it to within feet of his perch and he’d be off again with a rusty cry. It was like playing a game with a child, and she wondered if, to him, this was a game. And now the game was drawing to a close, and Bud could barely contain his excitement.
He had brought her far from any trails—to the west side of the gorge, where the drop-off was steep and the poison ivy abounded. Anne picked her way through brambles and thorns, approaching the face of the gorge from the east. She pushed through a dense cluster of bushes and stumbled on the even terrain of a small clearing against the rock face of the gorge’s cliff. Bud sat in the grass at the very center. He squawked long and loud, the crack at the end sounded like a trumpet blast. He hop-flied toward the rock face and disappeared into a crack near the ground. And didn’t come out.
Anne dropped her gear and ran toward the rock wall, pressing her body against it when she reached it. “Bud?” she said. She dropped to her knees and pressed her ear to the crack near the ground. She could hear him rustling around inside. She got up and moved back. She squinted at the rock face. She could see now that it was a rock put in place over an opening, but not knowing how big or heavy the rock was, she didn’t intend to try to move it. “Bud?” she said again, her voice a painful stab in her throat.
Soon, Bud reappeared. And in his beak, a new treasure. He flew to her and she held her hand out to him. He dropped his gift in her palm. It took her a moment to figure out what it was, but when she did, the world went gray—a fingernail. A silver-painted, sparkling fingernail.
Anne placed the fingernail carefully down on a rock and dug a bag out of her back pack. Then she scooped up the fingernail with the bag, much as she had seen Sheriff John do with the ear. Then, she put a whole pile of peanuts down on the ground for Bud. She pulled her sat phone and GPS from her bag and dialed the sheriff.
* * *
When the sheriff came tramping into the clearing, he was alone.
“Where are the Rangers?” Anne asked him.
“This is already my investigation,” Sheriff John said.
Anne didn’t know a great deal about police procedures, but she was certain that wasn’t how jurisdiction worked. Then, she noticed something else and her fingers started to tingle. “Where’s Deputy John?”
The sheriff never went anywhere without his son. Brian wasn’t much of a deputy, but having him around gave the sheriff someone to abuse.
The sheriff’s eyes were pinned to the spot on the rock face where Anne had discovered the rock-covered opening, and her tingling fingers became tingling arms and legs. Sheriff John’s eyes slid to her face, and he did something else he’d never done before in all the time she’d known him. He smiled. It was sharky, full of sharp little teeth.
“Brian’s covering the radio. In case there’s any other calls.”
Anne nodded. Her head felt too large. Loose on her neck.
“Did you call anyone else?”
Anne swallowed. “You said you would.”
The sheriff nodded. He was still smiling. Anne thought that, if she wanted to, she could count the beads of sweat on his forehead and upper lip. Tiny pearls in the pale sunlight.
Sheriff John had his thumbs hooked into his Sam Brown and his fingers beat an unsteady rhythm on his pistol and mag light. “Let’s check this out, shall we?” He walked to the rock without Anne having to point it out.
She began to take steps toward the tree line while his back was turned. She tried to be as quiet as possible. She was too terrified to turn her back, so she moved backwards. Step. Step. Step.
Sheriff John placed his huge hands on each side of the rock barrier and pushed—a heavy pop of pressure—with his left hand while counter levering with his right. The rock pivoted, creating a narrow gap. Twenty feet stood between Anne and the mouth of the cave and still she could smell its rotten breath. The sun was behind the gorge now, and not shining into the cave, but she could see the suggestion of a shapeless mound inside the opening. Anne stopped moving as Sheriff John let go of the rock and stood up straight. He stepped back and waved his hand in front of his face.
“Christ but they stink.” He turned and walked toward Anne. “Everything seems to be in order here.”
Anne’s body surged. She turned to run toward the tree line. She felt like she hardly twitched before the barrel of the sheriff’s service pistol kissed her nose.
A sparkle of emotion rushed through her chest and escaped in a sob.
“I don’t want to shoot you. And stop blubbering, dammit.”
Anne dragged in her breath and stopped crying. At first, she didn’t think she would be able to. Then she looked deep into that narrow, black, steel eye and released a last tremulous breath, and her throat was still. Her fingers and hands quivered like fish.
He took a step back and waved the gun. “Let’s go.”
Anne glanced around. The clearing recorded into her mind in the moment, like a full body photograph. The gray and purple face of the gorge. The meaty punch of the cave’s stench. The crisp slap of the cool spring air. The rake of the sun on her scalp. The insectile crunch of the dead and frozen vegetation beneath her rubber soles. An aspen tree with a muddy splash of red-hazed black. “Where are we going?”
“Not we. You.” He motioned at the cave. “In there.”
Anne’s gorge rose and her body rioted again. A long line of memories of crawling into the closet race through her mind. “No! I will not!” Her tight throat ripped in pain. Her joints threatened to shake into pieces.
“Oh, you will, missy! Little women who don’t keep to their own business get thrown in with the corpses so far as I’m concerned!”
Let him shoot me, she thought as she turned and bolted for the trees. She made it two steps before something solid and heavy collided with her knees. A shock of pain punched into her bone and knocked her off her feet. She lay on the ground, holding her knee, rocking in the dirt as he walked up.
He scooped up his mag light and put it back on his belt. Then he wound his beefy hand in her collar and began to drag her backward through the leaves. She thrashed. Kicking made her cry. Finally, she gained her feet and fought him with what remained of her strength. He pulled the pistol again.
This time, he didn’t aim it at her. This time, he raised it high above his head. Veins in his neck throbbed fiercely. His face purpled and blotched and scowled, but still he grinned. In the pale sun—high above her exposed scalp, beneath which lay the thin bone of her skull, and beneath that her brain and all she was and can be—the service revolver glimmered.
A sound like a gong filled her head and the world disappeared in a white flash. Her feet danced in the leaves and her hands splayed out, searching for something to grip. Then gray began to creep at her edges and into her muscles.
* * *
Anne sat among the three skulls and pile of bones and watched the light turn to darkness around her. Her insides tightened. Her head dripped blood. It stuck gluey to her face and smelled meaty in her throat, but her stomach and lungs seemed locked tight in their cages. Her body felt as it did when she forced herself to ride in a car. She wanted to harden—sit there and ossify—to avoid it all and join the rock walls hugging her close.
She collected her will into her left index finger and jammed it into twisted denim of the left leg of her jeans. The leg inside lay tilted upward from the knee on the pile of debris and bones—he had discarded her like an old doll. A swarm of pain flared up her thigh from the broken bone just below her knee cap and she bit off the shriek rolling between her teeth.
The thrill of the pain needled through her daze and focused her pupils. She bared her teeth and growled a little. She could still hear the sound of scraping stone—the boulder Sheriff John had positioned before the cave opening was large, heavy. It had obviously moved easier going the one way than the other, and that’s when she realized she was resting on a slight slope toward the gorge. He was wrestling that enormous rock uphill toward the cliff. He would not be able to work quickly. She had a chance, she knew. A chance—if she could get a little luck.
Anne craned her neck around the rock wall, trying to spy the opening. It hid behind a curve of stone. She had to crawl across to the other side of the cavern to have a clear view of the cave opening. Her head still bled, dripping into her eyes, making them burn and blurring her vision. She used her nails to scrape a chunk of moss from the rock next to her and then felt around her scalp wound. She stuffed the moss under the loose flap of scalp she found there while fighting the waves of gray that threatened to lay her back out among the bones. Moments later, she noticed her vision clear, though her head sang with pain.
Next, she needed to roll from a seated position on her butt to an army crawl position. She was in a hurry, but she hesitated, afraid how painful it would be on her broken leg to roll her weight over. She planned to roll the injured leg over the top, holding the denim of that leg with her hand to control the flop. She got ready and took several deep breaths. She took a breath, and with a grunt, rolled her body over. The pain in her leg made her want to sing soprano, but she managed it without screaming again. She propped herself on her elbows, gritting her teeth against the pressure and excruciation in her leg from the weight of her leg and hip pressing on the fracture. She started to crawl toward the opposite wall. In moments, she was there.
She dragged herself up and pulled herself into a seated position. Propped against the wall, dripping with sweat, almost fainting with pain, she looked at the cave opening. It was still open. About halfway open. She could see Sheriff John out there, wrestling with the boulder. He would assure no one would ever find these bodies.
He’d made a mistake, though. He put someone living in here, and not just anyone, but someone who spent a lot of time overcoming extreme emotional circumstances.
Anne pulled the pointer out of her pocket. “Okay, Bud,” she said. “Please be out there.”
She pointed the laser at the top of the boulder first, just trying to attract her companion. In less than a minute, she heard his raucous cry and huffed a noisy sigh. “I think you’re my only friend, bird.” She pointed the laser at the sheriff’s hat. Right at the shiny metal emblem attached there, so the light would reflect and bounce and drive Bud wild.
Bud went for it. He landed on the hat and his considerable weight pressed the hat down hard over the sheriff’s head. Bud’s wings and the sheriff’s arms flapped and they twirled together like drunken waltzers. Sheriff John yelled and cursed; Bud squawked. Anne crawled hard, pushing herself through dirt and rubble and debris, ignoring tiny rocks and sticks embedding themselves in her palms, ignoring even the lancing pain in her leg. Halfway there, Bud abandoned his quest for the sheriff’s hat and Sheriff John recovered himself. He caught his breath and returned to the boulder.
Anne almost started sobbing when, as an afterthought, Sheriff John took off his hat and dropped it on the ground, in the leaves.
Then, slowly, she smiled.
She pushed herself back against the wall and pulled her pointer back out. “Just a little more luck, please,” she said. “Bud, you be lucky too.”
She pointed the laser at the huge brass buckle on his Sam Brown belt. Bud wasn’t as quick to fetch that item as he had been the sheriff’s hat emblem—it took him several minutes to make a move. Finally, he flew in low over the sheriff’s head, making him duck. The moment he did, Anne started crawling again. The bird clasped onto the edge of the sheriff’s belt and started pecking at the brass buckle. At first, Sheriff John just looked at the bird attached to his waist, hands held out to the sides, eyes like donuts and mouth agape. Then, he brushed at Bud with the back of one hand, but it took a few tries to dislodge him. Discouraged, Bud flew away with a grumbly squawk and Anne had to pause in her approach.
With a distasteful sneer and a wrinkled nose, Sheriff John unhooked his Sam Brown belt and dropped it into the leaves next to his hat. Anne smiled. Now, he was unarmed. She was close now, close enough she worried about him seeing her at any moment. Close enough, she could throw her body forward and attack him if she was determined. But that would not turn out well and she knew it. She needed Bud just one more time. She only hoped he wouldn’t get hurt…
She inspected the sheriff, looking for any remaining shiny objects that could attract Bud. She felt a little bubble of nausea when she pointed the laser and turned it on. It took Bud three seconds to attack the badge on Sheriff John’s chest like it was a huge nut. His claws hooked around the shiny metal star and his beak pecked deep into the flesh all around that irresistible treasure.
Sheriff John started to scream and dance. Anne crawled out of the cave and slithered like a gorgon to the Sam Brown belt lying forgotten in the leaves. She took what she needed and, using the cave wall, somehow climbed to her one good leg. The sheriff gave up beating at his chest with his open hands and, with a lucky grab, snagged Bud’s body and threw him away from him, toward the trees.
Seeing her friend’s tiny body flying through the air was the final stress, just one too many things, and Anne felt tears rip from her eyes. “Hey!” she said as all the pain drained from her body and everything inside her turned grey and hard.
The sheriff spun with legs and feet trying to tangle. His cheeks glowed red and his lips were slick. His eyes popped and he couldn’t take them off of the gun Anne pointed at his chest.
“I’m trained with these,” she said. Her voice shook but her hands—and the gun—stayed almost stable. “Now you’re unarmed. And I don’t want to shoot you.” Anne watched the sheriff shrink and his face shrivel into a little purple apple.
“This isn’t right. It doesn’t go like this,” he said through a film of tears. “You’re supposed to be in there, see.” He pointed to the cave. “Now you got my gun? This isn’t right!” His feet shuffled in the leaves and his skinny knees knocked. His shoulders hunched together toward his chin and for the first time, Anne saw a family resemblance between him and the much smaller Brian.
“Here.” She threw him his handcuffs. He juggled them, then stared at them as though he didn’t recognize them. After a moment, he started to put them on. “No,” she said. “Sit down and cuff one hand to the opposite ankle.” He plopped to the ground and looked around as if lost.
Up to that moment, she had suspected him of acting; now, she knew he was bested. And not by her. She thought it might have been Bud who broke the sheriff. He lifted his pant leg and clinked himself into a pretzel. “Show me they’re secure.” He tugged on the bracelets with a finger.
Her voice tremored hard when she next spoke, but she knew the words needed out. They needed spoken, and she needed to speak them. She had sat in the darkness, wondered if she would join the three skulls she found there; she needed to know. “Why?”
The sheriff didn’t look at her. He looked at his braceleted ankle and sniffed.
“Why?” She screamed it, wailed it, tromping toward him, bent at the waist. She had forgotten altogether she even held the gun, which she pointed at the ground. But he flinched, hard, rolled away from her and mewled as though she were a charging, toothy animal. His attempt to flee her was instinctive, built in—like he’d been running from her his whole life. She felt the look of scorn twist her face, couldn’t keep it away.
“You goddamn women,” he said, spitting between his words. His eyes flickered between his bound wrist and her breasts. “Always looking for trouble. Always doling it out. Just like my good-for-nothing ma.” He screwed his face up into an ugly, purple parody “‘Disappoint buys hurt, Terry boy, so don’t disappoint.’ All these free-spirit granola-crunching bitches come through this town and no one knows where they’re going to stop and hike and camp from one FaceTweet post to the next—”
“You… you’re taking your mommy issues out on the town’s tourists? But you’re the fucking sheriff!”
That hit some button in him. He looked up at her from the dirt and sneered. His eyes twinkled. “And what a grand old time I had of it too. Look how long it took anyone to figure anything out. And look how many times I got to kill that horrible bitch.” His canines flashed. “You were a perfect addition. You’re just like her. Snoopy. Bossy. Always beating a guy down. Too bad I didn’t realize how much like her you were and put you in that cave closer to dead.”
“Why didn’t you just shoot me?”
“Same reason I didn’t shoot any of the other ones I left in that cave. They all go in alive.” The sheriff picked a twig from the ground and threw it toward Anne. It pegged her boot and rebounded into the muddy grass. She took two steps back and glared at him. Then he added, “I like to close the cave up and listen to their woman sounds fade.”
With that, she had to turn her back. His words were noxious, and she still had a long way to go to return to the first layer.
She clicked the safety on the gun and tucked it in her waistline and turned to get her bag from the tree line. She used the sat phone within to call the Forest Service. With their promise to come echoing in her ear, and a gun on her hip, she went to find her bird.
With one eye, she watched for Sheriff John to come for her.
Her other eye scanned the forest floor until she spied movement. A dark swimming puddle amidst the brown leaves, ten feet away. She walked closer. “Bud?” He waddled uncertainly on his feet, flitting his wings and darting his head around. “Bud!” she said as she approached him. She didn’t try to touch him; he wasn’t tame. He looked at her, turned his head a few times. She broke open a nut and offered him the meat in her palm. He took it. Ate it. Looked at her for more. She gave it to him. Then he squawked and lifted off with a great creaking of wings. He took to the air and wheeled off to the south, disappearing from view. Anne stared at the cottony blue between the pine boughs in the sky. She couldn’t see it, but she knew above those trees stretched an immense field for flight and, through it, Bud lofted. Even when just a moment ago he seemed trapped against the earth’s warm throat. Anne laughed and cried until her chest hurt and the handcuffs jingled like bells.
Dona McCormack is a disabled writer living in Northeast Ohio with her devoted partner of nineteen years, four fuzzbutts, and one over-sized, goldfish-chomping, aquatic turtle named Bob. Dona pores over writing craft manuals and clips ironic and diabolical story plots from small town newspapers. She is completing her thesis collection, American Animals, for her masters in writing and English from SNHU, and she writes Realism and Weird/New Weird. You can find her on Twitter @DonaWrites.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Crows Remember”:
Opening paragraph has us hooked immediately and floods us with story questions we want answers to. The rest of the opening scene provides the setting and the character. Then we’re taken away from that scene and back to where it began, how Anne came to be in that situation. Yet we still have one big mystery: who put her in that situation?
As the tale slowly unravels, we see only two characters in it (not counting the crow). A smart reader should be able to figure out who the perpetrator of the obvious crime has to be, but author Dona McCormack’s skillful misdirection leads us away from that conclusion. He’s nothing more than a lazy sheriff. Good mystery writing is all about misdirection. And we applaud the author for using it so well here.