It all started when I saw the dead cat on their porch.
My first thought was “shit they’re going to think it was my fault.” And why wouldn’t they? The Andersons asked me to watch Freddy while they were on their cruise. I agreed to do it, not just because I would get fifty bucks out of it but mainly because the Andersons are an old couple that lived at the end of our street since before I was born and I’d grown close to them. They always gave out the best candy at Halloween, brought our family fresh pumpkin and pecan pies at Thanksgiving and Mr. Anderson always dressed up as Santa Claus and visited us every Christmas. They were like family. I was happy to help them out with Freddy the cat for a week.
On that chilly morning, I was walking towards the Anderson’s property after my run, worrying about the difficult midterms I’d have to take next week—I’d been slacking off for quite a bit and knew I’d regret it, one way or another. Taking my earphones out, I saw the bright orange fluff looking way too stiff on the porch. Too stiff. The possibility that the inanimate creature was actually Freddy replaced my school worries with guilt and fear.
An orange and white blob that reminded me all too much of Garfield, the cat was sprawled on its back, with its swollen tongue lolling out of the open mouth. There wasn’t blood or anything. Just a dead cat, on the porch. Made creepier by the fact that it was still early morning and a dense autumn mist had settled around the neighborhood.
I unlocked the front door and once inside, made my way to the garage. I grabbed one of Mr. Anderson’s shovels and returned to the front porch. No, I wasn’t going to bury Freddy. I just didn’t want to touch the thing with my hands! I scooped the dead cat up. It didn’t move at all—rigor mortis had set in. I’d worked out what I was going to do: just leave Freddy in his litter box. The Andersons were returning home tomorrow and would be able to find him there. I could claim ignorance, say that he was totally fine when I checked on him last, which wouldn’t really be a lie. I had no idea how Freddy had died–there were no marks or indications on his body showing that he’d been attacked. I had fed him the pre-portioned amounts of food that Mrs. Anderson had organized for me. Maybe he was poisoned? Got into the cleaning supply closet while I wasn’t watching?
Curious (like Freddy), I left the cat in the litter box and went to explore the house for something–anything–that could have been harmful to him. The cleaning closet was shut tight. And I knew for a fact that Freddy was too fat to be able to jump high enough to reach the knob and, even if he could, too lazy to figure out how to open it. Couldn’t have been some sort of chemical poisoning.
Did I leave anything out that could have killed him? No, I couldn’t have. I typically checked on him in the mornings after my run and in the evenings on my way home from my part-time job after school. He was always in the same place, sprawled lazily on a spot on the couch where the setting sun shone most prominently, waiting to be fed. I always let myself into the house, set his food and water out, changed the litter box if needed, and then left. I was careful to leave no trace.
I searched the house but found nothing that I believe could have killed Freddy. Eventually, I shrugged and decided to leave. I’d call my best friend, Jake, and tell him what happened and see if he had any ideas. I felt strange as I locked the Anderson’s front door, knowing there was a dead cat inside.
When I turned around, the morning mist that had previously hovered above the ground had dissipated and the sun enveloped the twilight. As I walked down the Anderson’s entryway, breaking into a sprint, I noticed something all over the front lawn, the street in front of their house, and perched in the nearby trees.
Crows. Dozens and dozens of black crows.
Next morning, I woke up earlier than expected. I’d had a late night yesterday—got off work at 6:45, then rushed home to change so I could go back out to meet Jake and some of our other friends at the movie theater. I texted Jake earlier, told him about the dead cat, and asked if I could just give him a ride home from the theater so that we could stop at the Anderson’s and he could take a look at Freddy. Not that Jake’s an expert with cats or anything—just that his family always had pets growing up, and I never did. I didn’t know much about animals, let alone fat cats like Freddy.
Jake agreed to come with, but told me how weird he thought it was for the cat to just…die. And to be sprawled on the porch like that. After the movie, we talked while driving to the Anderson’s:
“It’s definitely not his usual spot,” I said.
“Yeah, I know, their cat doesn’t do anything but eat and sleep and piss and get its fur all over everything,” Jake replied.
“Right? So I don’t know why in the hell he was outside. Let alone what killed him.”
I parked my car in the street outside their house. We got out and made our way up the steps to the front door. It was just before midnight and I had an eerie feeling as we walked towards the house. The same crows I saw that morning were scattered across the lawn, in the street, around the house. Black and ominous. They made no noise, but a few shuffled their feathers or hopped along on the ground. Other than that, the crows gave no indication that we were there, invading their space, or otherwise interfering.
Inside the Anderson’s house, I showed Jake the cat. Freddy was laying in the litter box, just where I left him. Tongue still lolling out, paws still outstretched.
“Jesus,” Jake said, and stooped down to get a closer look, “It looks like one of those taxidermied animals you find at a hunting pro shop.” I nodded my agreement.
Jake continued, “You sure you didn’t leave anything around when you came here? Didn’t drop any weed or anything? That’d kill a cat, you know.”
“No, dude, I didn’t bring any weed here. Course not.” I shoved my hands in my pockets, “I only smoke with you. Don’t have any grass of my own.”
Jake stood up, “Well, I have no clue what happened here. Old age? Maybe he just got too fat, too lazy and his body just gave up? I don’t know.” He shrugged.
“Ugh, whatever,” I said, making my way back towards the front door, “The Andersons are coming home tomorrow afternoon. Maybe I’ll stop by when they do and see what’s going on. Let’s get outta here, I feel creepy.”
We left the house, locked the door and got back in my car. The crows remained where they were, unphased by the roar of the engine. I dropped Jake off at his house, then drove three doors down and parked my car. When I got inside my house, I kicked my shoes off, went to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, and fell right to sleep when I hit the pillow.
I don’t remember exactly what the nightmare that woke me early was, but I jolted out of bed panting with my back drenched in sweat. Images of those crows I saw in the Anderson’s yard filled my head, but slowly faded away.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep, so I put my running clothes on and went out the door. The misty morning air was damp and cold on my face, but I loved it. Turned my music up and began my daily route. I passed Jake’s house and as I rounded the corner, was startled to see a flock of black crows all over the street. They seemed to be gravitating toward the lawn of Jake’s next-door neighbors’. I didn’t know the family very well, but knew that the man who lived there had gone to grad school with my father, ran a lot like me and was named Marty. More crows appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and gathered on the wet grass in front of the house.
I’d seen crows before—had even shot at them with grandpa’s BB-gun when I was younger and would stay at their cabin upstate—but these…these were different. Their blackness was a deeper, uglier black, if that makes sense. It’s…hard to describe. They blended in so well with the night and this time, when I was so close to them that I had almost stumbled and tripped over a few, just looking at them filled me with a sense of dread. A feeling of helplessness…hopelessness. Something I hadn’t really experienced before. It felt like, from that point forward, nothing would go right in the world. I felt sad, and a crushing weight of despair pressed on my head, my throat, my chest. I felt trapped and lost and confused. I’ve never been one to suffer from depression, to have thoughts of killing myself, but the feeling I got when I was surrounded by these crows was so horrible, so morbid, that the only thought in my mind was that I needed to die.
I’m glad I snapped out of it.
It was only because a car had turned down that street, and it’s headlights were shining brightly at me, blasting through the mist. It came towards me, faster than it should have in a neighborhood. The crows in the street didn’t move, the rest swarmed around the front yard of Marty’s house. The car continued to drive forward, the birds still did nothing. I got out of the way, onto the sidewalk, and began backing up towards the corner by Jake’s house. The car stopped, though, inches before running over half a dozen crows. The driver blared the horn, a high-pitched noise that pierced through the silence of the dark morning. The crows didn’t move; didn’t acknowledge the car.
Now, I’ve driven down my share of streets that had a few birds on the road, picking at bugs or crumbs or whatever. I’ve never seen a single bird just…stay there when a car approached. Especially if the car’s horn was going off.
But these…things…they just stayed there, in the yard, in the street. Unmoving. The driver continued to honk his horn. Nothing.
Eventually, the driver grew impatient, gave up. Pedal to the metal, it sped forward, blasting through the group of crows that remained in the road in front of the car. It was the first time I heard a noise come out of the crows: a deep, painful squawking. I can’t explain this well, either, but for what it’s worth, the sound seemed…unnatural. A burst of black feathers and dark blood, more squawking, followed by the crunching of bones. The car squealed through the small pack of birds in the street and stopped at the sign on the corner, right in front of me. I peered through the blood spackled window and the driver shot me a thumbs up.
It was only after the car screeched past me, turned at the corner, and skid to a stop in Jake’s driveway that I realized his older brother was the one driving.
I paused to gather myself and decided to switch up my running route that day. I felt too uneasy to run down the street I usually did, especially since it was infested with crows.
As I turned around and ran in the other direction, I noticed a few of the crows had flown and landed in Jake’s yard. Others were gathering and making their way over there on foot. The majority, though, remained in Marty’s yard, a half a dozen poking and pecking at the smashed remains of the birds that had been run over by Jake’s brother.
It was a good run that morning, despite the moist, chilly air. On my way back, as I entered the neighborhood, an ambulance blasted past me in the direction of the hospital downtown. I could hear its sirens blaring, even through the loud music from my headphones. I stopped as I ran past the Anderson’s house. The crows were gone, without any trace that they had ever been there. I didn’t go inside; Freddy was dead and I had no reason to go check in on him.
When I got home, Dad’s car was still in the garage, which was weird since he was almost always at the office by the time I got back from my runs. He and Mom were in the kitchen. Dad sitting at the table, Mom pouring coffee. They looked frazzled.
“Hi, sweetie,” Mom said, placing the mug in front of dad. He didn’t acknowledge it.
I pulled my earphones out, “What’s wrong? What happened?”
Mom glanced at Dad. He was still wearing pajamas, hadn’t even shaved. “Your father’s friend, Marty. From down the street, near Jake’s house?”
I nodded. His friend from grad school. The house with all the crows in the yard this morning.
“His wife found him dead this morning. Just, lying there in bed. Cold and lifeless.”
Now I understood why Dad was shook up. One of his friends, his age, had just died. He was probably feeling vulnerable and shocked. Mom stepped behind him, rubbed his back.
“How did he die?” I asked.
Mom shook her head, “I don’t know. The ambulance just left their house. Marty’s wife called Dad from it and asked if he’d come down to the hospital later.”
“She said he looked…frozen,” it was the first time Dad spoke since I’d entered the kitchen. “I don’t understand, Marty was so healthy. He’d just ran his eighteenth marathon two weeks ago. Eighteenth! I haven’t even ran one.” He shook his head and finally sipped some coffee.
Hearing all this talk made me feel sick. I don’t know why, and I don’t think I can explain it. But when Mom told me that Marty had died, it wasn’t much of a shock to me. The crows. Something was off about those black birds. They had surrounded the Anderson’s home and Freddy was dead. Now, Marty died inside his home while the crows gathered outside. What was happening?
I suddenly remembered the crows making their way over to Jake’s yard earlier that morning, after his brother had ran over a few. I excused myself, told my parents I had to shower, and rushed to my room. I called Jake. He didn’t answer. Shit shit shit, I thought. I wanted to go check on him, so I went back out to the kitchen, muttered something to my parents about having dropped something out on my run and left the house. I don’t think they even registered what I’d said. Mom was still comforting Dad.
I ran down the road towards Jake’s. When I arrived out front, more crows had gathered, mainly in the trees around his yard. A few were perched on the roof, their talons gripping the rain gutters. Most of the birds though, I could see, were still down near the corner. Near Marty’s house.
I was making my way towards the front door when I heard the sound of a lawnmower starting out back. I went over there instead and found Jake with big bulky headphones over his ears, starting to mow his lawn. A wave of relief washed over me and he stopped the work, giving me a head nod.
“What’s up, man?” He asked.
“Oh nothing,” I said, checking the backyard for crows. I couldn’t see any. But I knew they’d be around, somewhere. “Did you hear Marty down the street died?”
“What?” Jake asked, sounding surprised, “Dude was a health magnet. I don’t think he had an ounce of body fat on him. How’d he go?”
“I dunno, my parents just told me when I got home.” I looked around more, suspicious, “Is…uh…is everything okay at your place? Is your brother alright?”
“Uh, yeah?” Jake said, weirded out. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I don’t know. It’s just…remember when we went to the Anderson’s house to see Freddy?” He nodded. “Remember all those crows out front?” He remembered.
“I saw a ton of crows outside of Marty’s house this morning. They’re still there.”
“Yeah, I noticed a few flying around when I got out to mow the lawn,” Jake said. “I feel weird when I look at them. A dark feeling.”
“What about my brother?”
“Well, he, uh,” I started. I don’t know what I was trying to insinuate by telling him this. Probably nothing. I was just worried about…Well, I don’t know what. “I saw him this morning, when I was running. He was in his car, coming home…and he ran over a couple of the crows. Some of them followed him back to your house. I guess I was just checking on him?”
“Yeah, he’s asleep in there still. Late night with the girlfriend, I think.”
“Okay,” I shrugged. “Don’t know what it means. I just wanted to check. Let’s hang out later?”
“Sure,” Jake said. Putting his headphones back on, he started up the mower and got back to work.
I returned home and Dad was already gone, to the hospital. I didn’t know he and Marty were so close, but then again, I didn’t really ever pay much attention. When I got out of the shower, I was scavenging for food in the kitchen and could hear Mom talking on the phone with Dad in their bedroom. She came out and offered to make me pancakes, which I wasn’t about to turn down.
“What did Dad say?”
“Well, they haven’t exactly determined what the cause of death was,” she responded, whisking flour into the eggs and milk. “One of the doctors said Marty’s heart just…stopped.”
“Like a heart attack?”
She stopped whisking, her back to me. “No. I guess not. They don’t really know. Dad just said it stopped.”
Just like Freddy, another unexplained death. The only commonality between the two was the crows.
Later that evening, I got a call from Mrs. Anderson. It was a call I was dreading, but I took it anyway. Her sweet, grandmotherly voice wavered as she asked me how Freddy had been for me. I told her that he was great, just the usual, lazy old cat he always was. She told me that they found him when they arrived home, dead in his litter box. Her voice broke after that, but she thanked me for watching him.
“That cat was getting too old anyway,” she said, “He had arthritis in all four legs and was going blind. It was time for him to go. Mr. Anderson just got home from the vet. The doc said there was no sign of trauma, or poison, or anything. I guess Freddy’s heart just gave out.” I heard a honk as she blew her nose, then said, “Thank you, again, for taking care of him while you were gone. I’m glad you didn’t have to see him dead like that. It was a terrible sight.”
I told her I was sorry for her loss and she hung up. I never mentioned that I’d been the one who found Freddy’s dead, stiff body on the porch.
That night, I had another nightmare. In it, I was running along a muddy path in a dark forest. I tripped over a broken log and landed hard on a big rock. The fear and anxiety that washed over me made it evident that I was running away from something.
I turned around and a murder of crows descended upon me, their beaks bloody and gaping. They pecked at the exposed skin on my legs, arms, neck. Their beaks burying into my flesh, tearing and ripping. Two landed on my face, digging their talons into my cheeks as they began to peck out my eyes.
I woke with a start. Daylight was streaming through the blinds of my window. I’d slept late. My bed was wet with sweat and my heart was beating fast. I used the back of my hand to wipe the sweat off my forehead. There was a knock and my door creaked open. Mom and Dad appeared in the doorway, making their way in. Mom was crying, her eyes red and puffy. Dad had that same stoic look on his face that he had yesterday, except this time, it was somehow worse.
Dread. Despair. Fear. All came over me and I tried to ask what was wrong but the words caught in my throat.
Mom sat next to me, grabbed my hand. She was shaking.
Dad put a hand on my shoulder, gently.
They told me that both of Jake’s parents had been found dead that morning. His dad, in the bathroom. His mom, in his little sister’s nursery. The baby girl had started crying, waking up Jake and his brother. They figured their mom would get her and ignored it. But their mom never comforted the girl, never would. The baby continued crying and It was Jake who discovered them, his scream alerting his brother who came running.
I didn’t have to go look; I didn’t have to ask. As my parents told me the horrible news, I already knew.
And when I checked my phone, to see Jake’s text, it was confirmed:
“The crows are outside.”
Two nights later, Jake asked if he could spend the night at my house. He and his brother and sister had gone to stay at their grandparents’ house across town. They couldn’t bear to spend more time in their family home, and I couldn’t blame them, after what had happened.
Except, like Marty, like Freddy, there was no explanation. They were just…dead.
For the two days after Jake’s parents had been found dead, I went running in the mornings, like usual. These times, I stayed in my neighborhood. I was out looking for crows. I wanted to know who would be next. Who’d be found dead. Most of all, I wanted to make sure they weren’t outside my house.
They were nowhere to be found. I even waited to go running until the sun was out, so it would be easier to see them. Nothing. No birds, not even bluebirds or robins. Nothing.
That night, Mom was elated to have Jake over. He was like another son to her. When he arrived, with his Nike duffel bag in hand, she rushed to the door and embraced him like she would have done to me if I’d just walked in from being away for a week at summer camp. Dad grilled burgers and we all sat around the kitchen table eating. It was awkward; hard to talk and chat amicably after what had happened. So we just ate, enjoyed brownies and ice cream for dessert. Then Jake and I went down to the basement to play video games. We fell asleep down there.
Jake was sound asleep next to me when the vibrating alarm on my smartwatch pulled me awake. I had heard him sniffling in the middle of the night, when he thought I was asleep. I wouldn’t say anything to him about that. If anyone deserved a good cry, it was him.
I was out of the house, in my running clothes, by 6:00am. I had to wear a beanie to cover my ears today. It was too cold, my breath escaped me in thick puffs of chilled air. My music blared loud in my earphones and I started my run. The sun wasn’t out yet, but it was peeking through the night sky, bit by bit. Again, I made my way through the neighborhood, looping up and down streets. No sign of the crows.
On my way back to the house, I tried to think of what Jake and I could do that day, something fun to try and take his mind off of everything. It was the weekend and I figured we’d go on a hike or something, he could talk if he wanted to. Maybe after we’d go downtown, see the new Marvel movie, grab a bite to eat. I just wanted to help him. He was like a brother to me.
When I arrived in the front yard, I stopped in my tracks.
It was littered with a sea of black, winged shapes. Crows, not just dozens, but well over a hundred. More than I had ever seen. They were all facing the house, unmoving. I was scared to get closer, to go near them, but I had to go back inside. I had to see. I had to know.
I walked up the driveway. All the while, none of the crows moved. They seemed to not even blink, but I could feel their presence. I could feel them staring at me. That same dreadful feeling filled me as I made my way through the throngs of birds. They didn’t get out of my way as I brushed past them, up the entryway and onto the front porch. I twisted the knob and walked through the front door into the quiet house.
I don’t know why, but I went downstairs first. I think it was because if my parents were dead, I didn’t want to have to find them by myself. Jake at least had his older brother and his baby sister in the house with him. I only had Jake.
He was on the couch, where he’d been when I left him. But when I got closer to him…
Jake was dead. He was pale and cold and dead.
I started to cry and they were hot, angry tears. They were terrified tears. I turned around to go upstairs to find my parents. At the top of the stairs were three crows, their beaks gaping, their eyes unblinking. More appeared behind them. I realized I had forgotten to shut the front door behind me when I came inside.
As the stairway filled with more and more crows, as they began to make their way towards me, I ran to the only place I could. The basement storage room.
I’ve been in here ever since then. There’s packaged food and gallons of water here, and I’m using an old paint bucket as a toilet. I’m typing this on my phone, even though I can’t get any service down here. I don’t know if anyone will read it, but at the very least it will serve as a warning to stay away from the crows. I haven’t heard from my parents, I assume they’re dead.
I don’t want to open the door. I can hear the crows pecking at it.
Credit: Dave Fawkes