This story is by KG and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Thomas stares ahead, his fingers wrapped tight around the steering wheel. The mangled remains of a bike sit beneath his truck, illuminated by the metronomic blinking red light on the stop sign. The crow perched atop the sign caws, then lands on the hood of his truck with a thump. Thomas is surprised to see the bird only has one eye, the other a puckered hole. The remaining eye is bright, alert and curious. It tilts its head, examining Thomas.
“I’d really like a bird,” Emily had sighed at Thomas over breakfast last week. Thomas had reached over and squeezed his daughter’s arm in lieu of a response. They were in the kitchen eating breakfast, Emily finishing off her oatmeal as Thomas sat down to his. The only birds Thomas ever saw were the crows that lived high in the treetops, and they didn’t seem interested in being friends. Later Emily had asked if she could line up pieces of bread on the windowsill; maybe the birds would come down and eat that. She had done so with military precision, then stood back and surveyed her handiwork.
“Will they come?” Emily had looked up at Thomas.
“Yes. Probably.” Thomas said. But no bird ever approached the house. Emily, ever the optimist, had just set out more bread that morning. Thomas had seen the telltale crumbs when he retrieved the mail.
The crow caws again, insistent that something be done. Thomas opens the door and fumbles with his seatbelt, stumbling before retrieving the flashlight under the driver’s seat. There’s no sound, aside from his own footsteps crunching over the asphalt. Maybe the cyclist jumped clear at the last second, though he’s pretty sure that’s wishful thinking. Thomas felt that horrible, thick thump of a body hitting the windshield in his bones.
Earlier that day he’d called the power company to beg for another extension; the kid on the other end – at least 20 years Thomas’s junior – had snidely informed Thomas that this was the last time they could extend his billing cycle. Thomas had mumbled ‘yes sir’, hung up, then punched the wall before storming out for a few drinks to take the edge off his rage. By the time he decided to head home he knew driving was a bad idea, but money was tight and it was a straight shot home. He’d driven it thousands of times before. How could he have known that some idiot would be out riding their bike so late at night?
He walks around the front of the truck.
“Oh my God. Oh my God.” He can’t seem to stop repeating himself.
“Are you okay?” Thomas knows it is a stupid question, but doesn’t know what else to do. He kneels and looks for signs of life, though he can see from here that the cyclist isn’t breathing, his eyes wide and unblinking. Thomas’s stomach churns and he lurches to the side, throwing up beer and pretzels on the side of the road. The crow dips and bobs its head, urging Thomas to get it all out of his system.
When his stomach is empty, he wipes his mouth and forces himself to look again. In the wreckage is a wallet and Thomas reaches for it with two fingers, opening the flap. Andrew Jordan. There are photos. One of Andrew holding a beer, his arm slung around a woman. Another photo of Andrew wearing a crooked party hat, smirking as he blows out candles on a cake. He is grinning at something beyond the camera.
Thomas stares at the birthday photo. His eyes burn and blood is rushing in his ears, a low thrum. His chest constricts and for a moment, he genuinely thinks he’s having a heart attack. He replaces the photo and wallet and rocks back on his heels, pulling out his phone to call the police. His finger is hovering over the “9” as he gazes at Emily, grinning at him from the screen. He knows he needs to turn himself in – it’s the right thing to do.
Still, Thomas can’t quite press the call button.
Should he turn himself in now? Or tomorrow during the day, while Emily is at school? Thomas can feel the hysteria rising in his chest and he coughs to dislodge it, thumping himself with his fist. What will happen to Emily? Will they send her to a foster home?
The crow lands near Thomas and gives him a look. Thomas waves his hand at the bird but it only flies a few feet, then hops back after a moment or two.
Thomas sits with Andrew, his shoulders slumped. He fingers his phone, turning it over and over in his palm. The crow struts around as if it were a prosecutor driving home a particularly damning point.
Emily needs her father.
I can’t go to jail.
This is the desperate train of thought that leads Thomas to stand and pull Andrew off the road, maneuvering the body into the nearby ditch as gently as he can. He moves carefully, as if putting Emily to bed. He pulls the bike out from underneath the truck and lays it on the side of the road. The bird makes a disapproving noise and Thomas chases it off, where it melts into the inky darkness.
Thomas looks at Andrew for a long time.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Thomas gets back in his truck and turns the ignition. He pulls back onto the road, driving well below the speed limit. He is shaking as the darkness seems to shift, undulate and swallow everything around the truck.
“Everything will be okay.”
He whispers this to himself over and over, until he finally starts to believe it a little. As he turns onto their street, he wipes at his face and is genuinely surprised to feel tears trailing down his cheeks.
Thomas slumps at the kitchen table. He fleetingly wishes for a drink – something to clear his memory of Andrew with his dead eyes. Emily appears in the hall and makes a beeline for Thomas. He pulls her onto his lap and wants to weep over the warm, soft, wiggling body in his arms.
”Where did you go?” Emily gives Thomas a hard look, suspicious that Thomas is trying to pull a fast one.
“I had to run some errands. Did you brush your teeth?” Thomas’s eyes travel over the room. Bills are piled on a corner of the table and the dishes are still in the sink from breakfast. It’s as if he’s seeing everything for the first time in sharp, nauseatingly clear detail. How fragile it all is, and how he’s barely keeping it together.
“Yes,” Emily says, already bored by her father’s nagging. She wriggles out of his grip.
“Then it’s time for bed.” Thomas says through a yawn. If they act normal, maybe things will be normal. It is the desperate wish of a desperate man. Emily dashes down the hall to her room and Thomas stands to follow when there’s a soft noise outside the window, as if something is tapping at the glass.
Thomas walks over, pulls back the curtain and finds himself looking at the crow with the missing eye. It is nibbling on Emily’s bread, carelessly knocking pieces over as it eats. It stares at Thomas, openly defiant.
“Get out of here!” Thomas barks. He can’t keep the panic out of his voice and bangs his fist on the window. The crow hops a few steps and takes flight, flapping lazily as if it knows Thomas holds no actual power. It flies off as Emily runs back down the hall, looking at her father.
“What are you yelling at?”
“That damned bird,” Thomas says. He stares out into the darkness but can’t see anything, only trees outlined in shadows. He knows it will be back – he could see in the careless way it took flight it left because it wanted to, not because Thomas shouted at it. Emily peers outside, craning her neck. Finally she looks back at Thomas, her nose wrinkling in confusion.
“There aren’t any birds out there,” Emily says.
“I know. He left.” Thomas is shaking. Did it follow him home? Thomas has the paranoid thought that Andrew has sent the crow to punish him for his cowardice. “He was eating your bread and I chased him away.”
Thomas pulls his daughter away from the window but Emily shakes her head as if her father has just suggested something completely insane.
“That’s impossible,” Emily says. Thomas feels his blood run cold as Emily points at the sill, where all the bread is still perfectly lined up on the ledge. “See? My bread is still all there.”