Albino - Flash Fiction by Chelsea Stephen

          “Rare Albino Crow Spotted in East Vancouver.” I read the headline with disbelief. I rarely read the paper. I found it depressing, and I had enough depressing stories to work through with my patients. Instead I read my old mystery novels, the ones where the menace was always caught, and society was soon put back to order.  But there it was on the bottom of the front page outside my office, and I picked it up. Rare Albino Crow.  It had been 25 years since I had seen an albino crow and the memory sprung forward like jack rabbit on a clover. I buzzed my receptionist.

            “June, please hold my calls.”

            “You got it doc.”

            I released the intercom and took a deep breath. Then I picked up the phone and called her....

            I remembered everything as if the 25 years had just passed over night.  She was a strange girl, Abby. I liked her from the start, I think, because she was interesting to watch, like a zoo animal is interesting to watch as it paces around in its cage and you wait and wait and wait for something exciting to happen.

            She moved in down the street from me, into the old corner house, the summer before 7th grade. A hermit had lived there before Abby's family moved in. Back then, I would walk my dog to the corner of the street where the man's house sulked, forlorn, because my dog could defecate in his unkempt lawn and it would be lost in the knee high grass, no need to scoop it up. I liked that hermit, too, despite never having seen him. I would just find little reminders of his existence – like the piles of newspapers on his front step or the boxes of microwave dinners that spilled from his garbage can – and that was enough for me to piece together his jigsaw puzzle, although I admit I often forced pieces together so that the image never really added up to anything coherent. He always had cats around his house – strays I imagine. They were exceedingly shy, often staying hidden in the shrubs that wildly reached up, grabbing blindly at the house to drag it right down to the ground. I new to look for them, I could see their eyes glowing in the shadows. I'd hear them too, at night, outside my window. The cat fights. My brother and I shared a room but he claimed to never hear them. Even when I woke him up, afraid, he'd grunt and roll over and tell me to go back to sleep. He was always saying that I was seeing things, hearing things, that I was crazy.  I'd lay their listening to the cats tearing themselves apart. Sometimes, I would sneak mom's leftovers to try to lure the cats to my house, certain that I could take care of them, love them. They never came out from hiding but the food pan would be empty when I went back to check. Then one day, the cats were gone. Shortly after, so was the hermit.

            They said his body was actually decomposing in his house before they found him. It was early summer and the smell must have been putrid. My mom thought I was upset about his death but it wasn't death that bothered me. All I could think about for weeks after was if I had been more careful in noticing the pieces I might have been able to get to him before the bugs did.

            It was a remarkable transformation as the house got flipped and bedazzled and the for-sale sign stood proudly waving at passersby to stop and look and ooh and ah. It was disgusting, the decrepit house with its facelift and its makeup. The whole thing looked painfully sad and unconvincing.  The lawn was mowed back and I smiled at the thought of all the shit piles I'd let sit for those cheap house fluffers to discover.  It was a month before Abby's family moved in, and only a week before school started again. In spite of myself, I was delighted. In Abby I had found a new subject, as if the old man had been reincarnated and his story continued through her. She was less of a puzzle and more of a mist, her dewdrops aggregating slowly. I always knew of her presence before I saw her, felt the shift in the air. And when she'd appear it would never be sudden; she would just slowly come into focus. She rarely spoke. I knew her name because my parents had gone to the house the night they moved in to introduce themselves. They were always doing that, butting in on other peoples business, trying to out-socialize the rest of the neighbors.

            “So, what are they like?,” I asked, skipping steps as I bounced down the stairs and swung myself into the kitchen.

            “They're nice. Quiet,” my mom said.  “They're from Alaska. They have a daughter, um, Abigail, or Abby I think it was. You should really stop day-dreaming so much and just go introduce yourself. Make a new friend. She'll be going to your school, you know?”

            Of course I didn't know, how would I have known that? I poked the soft butter with the butter knife. “Well what's she like? Is she pretty?” I asked.

            “We didn't meet her actually. She didn't come to the door. Eva, stop poking at the butter!”

             If she was pretty, she didn't try to show it. She was pale, even thought the summer had been the hottest and sunniest I'd ever remembered. I was sitting on my front lawn the first time I saw her, sweating profusely in my tank top and cut off shorts, drinking cup after cup of lemonade and reading Sherlock Holmes, when she drifted by in a baggy long sleeve black shirt with her hair hanging half over her face. Whatever skin was showing seemed to glow white against the black fabric.  A while later she walked back with a large grocery bag clutched to her chest. I read the receipt of her purchases in my mind: eye of newt, wart of a toad, lizard loins, and fish eyes.

            I noticed the crows the day before school had started. They were perched on the power lines, just in front of Abby's house, gently bobbing with the tension of wire in the late summer breeze. The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention and sent a cold sharp message from my head to my toes. I noticed that one crow was a dark deep black, and the other crow was blue. So subtle the blue that it would be hard to notice were it not for the other crow's midnight black coat. Their eyes were liquid drops of shiny dark oil. On the morning of the first day of school, the smaller blue crow was following Abby as she approached the bus stop, its feathers shining hints of opal blue. It was high up in the trees above her and as she walked it would lag behind on a branch and then effortlessly glide ahead to the next tree, like a game of leapfrog. She paid no notice to it and I wondered if she knew she was being followed. I whispered to my brother what I saw. He looked up from his gameboy briefly, and then looked back down.

            “What bird?”

            “The one following Abby,” I whispered.

            “That girl's a freak,” he groaned, keeping his eyes on his device.

            I noticed the blue crow again, and again, outside her house, perched on the spaghetti string of power lines. It was there when she walked to the bus every morning, and it was there outside the school window of the history class we shared. Never once did I see her interact with the blue crow, her secret feathered companion. And I was jealous of her. Jealous that she had a secret crow; jealous that she lived in the hermit’s house; jealous that she never had to speak a word. I would stalk the streets looking for its blue-black feathers but I never found any.

            This carried on for weeks.  Nighttime snuck up on us earlier and earlier like a bandit, and the leaves began to fall from the trees in their sweet mourning for the long summer days. It was easier to watch the birds in the trees with the leaves thinning, and one Thursday evening, from my bedroom window, I saw both of them again, high up in the cottonwood. Black and blue. Whenever the blue crow would try to fly, the black crow would aggressively dive at her, and they'd spiral in a flurry of feathers before returning to the branch. This happened again and again, and I could do nothing but watch. My thoughts wandered down the street to the house on the corner, curious if Abby knew the fate of her blue crow. I promised myself I'd talk to her about it. I had the whole conversation worked out in my mind. Abby did not show up to the bus stop the next morning.

            The next day, Saturday, I saw the two crows together on the power line. The blue crow was now weirdly misshaped and frayed, her feathers looked wet and nappy.  The black crow jutted his head forward and threw open his sharp black beak, as if to laugh at my concern. CAW CAW CAW. The shrill cried hurt my head. 

            I found my brother in his usual position in front of the TV.

            “I need you to get your bb gun.”

He didn't stop playing his video game, his thumbs working feverishly over the control panel, blasting away zombies or whatever they were. No response.

            “There is a menacing crow outside. You need to kill it,” I whined.

            “You kill it,” he barked.

            “I can't. I don't know how and anyways I thought you liked that sort of thing, killing small animals.”

            “I'm not wasting my pellets on your weird little game of imaginary birds.”

            “Its not a game, its real,” I protested. “I'll tell mom about the gun and all those squirrels you shoot at.” He shot me a disbelieving look. He knew I would never tell, just like I knew he would never turn down and opportunity at target practice.

            He put down his game controller and got his small bb gun from its confinement in the ceiling panels of our basement. “If you're lying about this I’m going to shoot you instead.” Mom and dad were not home, and I knew he was probably telling the truth.

            The street was silent. No one was around, not a car drove by, and he followed me to the corner house.

            “You are so deranged,” he sighed.

            “Please just come, they're still there. Look, I can see them”.

            I pointed to the power line where the two birds bobbed in the breeze gently, the blue one looked terrified, its head hunching low into its body.

            “You want me to shoot that big crow?”

            “Yeah the black one, but not the blue one”

He looked back at me and narrowed his eyes.

            “ Are you crazy? You are, aren't you? You're crazy.”

            “Just shoot the black one,” I said quietly, looking over my shoulder at the house to make sure no one was watching. The house was shut tight. I could see the makeup had already started to fade.

            He looked around quickly, raised his arm and pointed it straight towards the birds, his finger curled with concentration around the trigger of the small handgun. They stared at me, those crows, a cold dead stare, unmoving. My head throbbed, and I raised my hands to my ears. The sound of birds was suddenly deafening.

            He released a single shot and feathers exploded like black and blue fireworks. Everything stopped. I peeled my hands from my ears. Silence.

            “Happy?,” he asked, tucking the bb gun under his shirt and turning back for the house, leaving me there, alone. He was an excellent shot. 

            A single blue feather slowly rocked in the thick air and I watched its decent as it landed gently, concave, next to the black & crimson mess in the middle of the road. The black crow lay lifeless, eyes staring coldly, beak agape, its neck craned awkwardly and unnaturally towards its back end. Around its body was a halo of bright blue feathers. The blue crow was gone. 

            I grabbed a brown paper bag from my house and placed the dead bird inside, curling the top of the bag shut tight. I carried it, with shaking hands to the door step of Abby's home. I knocked on the door. No answer. I rang the door bell once, and then again. I heard slow heavy footsteps down the hall and I waited. The door peeled open slowly, and the hinges yawned.

            “Can I help you?,” it was an old woman.

            “I... yes, I'm looking for Abby, is she home?”

            “Are you a friend of Abby's?”, she asked, nonplussed, and she stood up a little taller.

            “Well, I go to school with her and I live...,” I looked over my shoulder, and turned back to meet her eyes. They were sad, and tired, but more hopeful than when she first opened the door. “Yes. Yes I'm a friend of hers.”

            She opened her mouth to speak and then paused.

            “She's in the hospital dear. She...she had an accident. You know, she's such a troubled girl, our Abby. So many concerns for such a young girl, I never understood it. None of us could understand, perhaps thats the problem.” She was staring blankly out the door and I fought the urge to look around and see what she was looking at. I felt numb. I was holding a dead crow in a brown paper bag, and this woman – was she her mother? Her grandmother? - was standing there in some sort of trance. I didn't know what to say.

            “I'm so sorry to hear...”

            She shook her hand in front of her face as if to clear a fog that had come over her and stepped outside to join me on the porch.

            “Oh you know, I was going to go see her at the hospital this afternoon but, well, would you like to come with me now? I'm sure she could use seeing a friend. I never knew our Abby had any friends here. Anyways it doesn't do any good to sit in this old house. It feels cold and lonely.” She grabbed her sweater and wrapped it tightly around her. She looked at the bag hanging in my hand behind my left leg. “Whats in the bag, is that something of Abby's?”

            “No, its... well yeah, but...,” shit shit shit, I thought.  “Sure, yeah, I'll go to the hospital with you,” I said hastily, taking her mind off the bag and its contents.

            We got in the car. I had no idea what I was doing, but my parents wouldn't be home for a while and I felt compelled to join this woman, if only to understand what was going on. And I sensed that my presence was soothing for her, which was a foreign feeling for me. During the drive, I learned that this woman was her grandmother. She talked non-stop the whole way to the hospital. She smelled of roses masking a strong mustier stench beneath, old age. I decided I liked her.  I kept the bag with the dead crow between my feet and didn't look at it. I just kept looking forward, listening. She told me how Abby had tried to kill herself Friday morning. She had taken her mother's razor and dug the blade into her pale thin wrists. She was unconscious but breathing when they found her, she said.

            We arrived at the hospital, and as soon as I stepped out of the car I felt my stomach twist. I felt dizzy and weak-kneed. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was certain I had no choice in the matter. I trailed behind the old woman like liquid iron following the movements of a magnet. The old woman went to sign us in, and then realized she never asked for my name.

            “Eva Blackburn,” I said, softly. I Looked around at the patients, sitting, waiting, not talking. Maybe that's why they call them patients, because you need to wait so patiently. One child hadn't gotten the memo, and he was screaming outrageously while his mom pulled magazines off the rack to distract him from whatever issue had grabbed hold of him. He noticed me staring and his wales ceased for a second before Abby's grandmother gently grabbed my bicep and pulled me down the hall, readjusting her arm loosely around my shoulder.  I heard the kid's screams pick up and echo all the way down the hall to the large white double doors. Urgent Care.

            Room 109 came far too quickly. I clutched the lip of the bag in both my hands, and the sound of the folds crunched in my head. It felt heavy, heavier than I imagined a single crow would have weighed. The bottom must be damp by now, but I didn't want to look. As we approached the room I saw through the crack in the door that her parents were awkwardly sitting in identical chairs, next to a bed. Abby's bed. I heard the beeps, and swooshes of pumps and electronics keeping tempo with the hundreds of weak hearts that lined this corridor. I could feel my heart pounding in my own chest, off beat and fast like an enraged child on a kick drum. I knew instantly that I couldn't go in; I couldn't face whatever it was that was in that room. I dropped the brown bag and it hit the linoleum with a sickening wet thud. I slipped out from under the old woman's arm and took a stepped back.

            “I'm sorry. I'm so sorry,” I said. And I stepped backwards again. The old woman looked at me with heavy eyelids, her caterpillar eyebrows making moves towards each other. I couldn't take it. I wanted to scream like that child in the waiting room, I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut and scream until I woke up from the nightmare I had just slipped into. “I'm sorry,” I murmured, shaking my head, and I felt my vision blur from the tears that welled up behind them. Her sad eyes stabbed me hard in the heart, and she slowly bent to grab the bag.  “I – I did it for her. I did it cause I – it needed to be stopped,” my mouth was dry. And then I just turned and ran down the hall way until I burst through the doors into daylight's ignorance. I stopped and crumpled forward over my knees, my lungs heaving my back up and down as I tried to fill them.  The air was piercingly cold in my hot blooded lungs.  I heard a low deep cawing above me and I looked up. The bird was perched on the cottonwood outside the hospital, pruning its feathers. A white crow with ruby eyes. It shook out its wings and a white feather floated down, rocking slowly toward the hot black pavement. I took a deep breath, pushed myself up, and began my long walk home.