David Henson lives in Peoria, Illinois with his wife and their dog who loves to take them for walks in the woods. He and his wife lived in Brussels,...read more Belgium for six years in the late Eighties / early Nineties. Besides writing David's other main hobby is playing classical and boogie woogie piano. His work appeared in two chapbooks of poetry as well as in various print and online journals.
After what they’d been through — what they were still going through —Oliver had decided to take a week off to spend with Ben before school started again. “What’ll it be for breakfast, Son — pancakes or ice cream?”
“Can't we have both?” the 10-year-old boy says.
“Pancakes a-la-mode it is, Buddy.”
After they finish eating, Oliver goes outside to check the bird feeders while Ben plays a video game. It's almost like things are back to normal. Except Audrey is still missing.
The feeders are nearly empty already. Oliver has hardly been able to keep up since the crows took over. It’s peculiar. He’s fed birds for years but never has had a problem with the large squawkers before. He bought a BB gun, but couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger. So he decided that instead of fighting them, he'd enjoy them. He quickly saw that they are intelligent, graceful birds. And beautiful, too, especially when deep reds and blues blossom from their shiny black feathers in the glint of sunlight.
Oliver heaps seed corn on the platforms, plunks several ears on the ground and picks up a brown shoelace. He can hear water surging at the bottom of the steep ravine behind their house. Normally the creek is barely a trickle, but after heavy rains like last night, it quickly swells and rushes to the Vernon river about a half mile away.
Oliver and his son made their way carefully down the ravine once. Summer had dried up the creek. Oliver was amazed that in places its banks were taller than he was. The periodic thrusts of water had undercut trees to the point a few had partially toppled, their root balls exposed. At some places the flow had been diverted by huge moss-covered boulders and carved deep catacombs — cave-ins waiting to happen — in the hillside. Oliver and Ben walked along the creek for about 15 minutes and saw pileated woodpeckers, a coyote, and even a skull, probably that of a deer.
“Dad, this is the coolest place ever,” Ben had said.
Oliver regretted their little excursion immediately. “Ben, don't ever come down here by yourself,” he’d warned his son. “A person could fall and break his neck or end up in the Vernon.”
Back in the house after replenishing the feeders, Oliver dangles the dirty shoelace. “Here's another gift from the crows. Hey, Son.”
The boy continues grimacing and contorting as he plays his game. “Cool, Dad,” he says without looking up.
Oliver smiles. It’s good to see his son starting to act more like himself. Oliver drops the shoelace into a bowl on the kitchen counter. The lace joins a shred of cloth, a screw, a pencil, and various other small trinkets the crows have left around the feeders, apparently in exchange for what they’ve taken. Behavior modification, as Dr. Thalman would call it. The crows are conditioning me so I’ll keep feeding them. “Well, they're doing a pretty good job of it, aren't they, Honey?” He starts laughing.
“Who are you talking to, Dad?” Oliver looks over and sees his son has stopped playing his game and is staring at him.
“No one, Ben.”
“What’ll it be for breakfast today, Son — pancakes or ice cream?”
Oliver dollops butter into the skillet and sits it on the burner. He and Audrey used to make breakfast together. She’d fry the bacon and eggs, and he'd toast the bread, slice a tomato, set the table, and pour the orange juice. “We never tried pancakes and ice cream though, did we?”
“Uh, I said I'm glad we tried pancakes and ice cream.”
“Dad, do you still think about Mom a lot? I do. I try not to but…”
“Well… sometimes. Sure. Then I make myself think about something else.”
“I wonder if she'll ever come back home. If she's ok.”
Ben’s words roil Oliver’s thoughts. He takes a deep breath, stares at the skillet, and imagines his anxiety melting like butter, just as Dr. Thalman taught him. “Ben, get the ice cream out of the fridge,” he says, feeling calmer after a few moments.
“Our favorite breakfast again today, Buddy? Ben? Son, where are you?” When there’s no answer, Oliver goes from room to room, but there no sign of his son.This can't be happening again, he thinks, a feeling of panic taking flight in his chest. “Ben, where are you?” He'd heard his son playing video games already this morning. Did he go back to bed? He rushes into his son’s room. Not there. He looks out the window.”Ben!” His son is sitting under the bird feeders, facing the ravine, a crow perched on each shoulder. Oliver hurries outside. When he tries to shoo the crows, they peck at his hands. Finally, he's able to scare the birds off. Ben remains seated, staring into the distance. Oliver gently shakes his son, who finally stands without saying anything. They walk silently into the house.
“The usual for breakfast,” Oliver says once they’re back in the kitchen.
“You bet, Dad,” Ben replies as if nothing has happened.
After they eat, Oliver goes to the bird feeders again. He'd noticed something unusual-looking in the latest pile of trinkets deposited by the crows. He gasps softly when he sees it: There with a broken ball point pen and a paper clip is something that looks for the world like it could be the bone of a human finger.
“Detective Swanson grips Oliver’s hand. “How have you been, Mr. Perkins?
“You sure? You don't look so good.”
“Don't worry about me. Here.” Oliver hands the detective the bone, which he's put in a baggie. “I found this in my back yard. A bird dropped it there. It looks like a finger, doesn't it? Could it be—“
“Let's not jump to any conclusions, Mr. Perkins.” Detective Swanson holds up the baggie by a corner and eyes the bone. “I'll have the folks down in the lab take a look.” He puts his hand on Oliver’s shoulder. “Like I've been saying all the while, Mr. Perkins. Leave it to us. Take care of yourself, ok?”
“Don't worry about me.”
Oliver walks out to his car and heads back home.
“What was that all about, Dad?” Oliver hears Ben’s voice from the back seat.
“Just wanted to check on something. Hey, let's go have some ice cream.”
“Ben, time for breakfast.” No answer. Before Oliver has time to panic, the door from the garage into the kitchen opens. His wife walks in.
“Audrey!” he shouts. He runs toward his wife and starts to hug her, then pulls back. “Where have you been? Thank God you're OK. Where have you been all this time?”
Audrey’ eyes are red and puffy. “Oliver. Honey. You know I've been with with my sister. Remember? To help after her surgery?”
Her words swirl confusingly around him.
She reaches out and touches his scruffy beard. “Have you not been going to work? Oh, Oliver, I thought you were better.”
“Ben! Ben! Come quick,” he shouts suddenly. “Your mother’s home. She's back!” Oliver sees his son run to Audrey.
“Oliver, Oliver.” Audrey sits on the floor and begins sobbing. “This is horrible. Unbearable.”
“Honey, it’s OK. I forgive you. We're together now. The three of us like always.” Oliver sits and puts one arm around his wife, the other around his son.
“Oliver, listen to me. Listen.” Audrey cradles her husband’s face in her hands and struggles to speak. “Detective Perkins called. He thought you should hear it from me. You apparently found a bone and took it to him. Remember? The bone? Oliver, they’re pretty sure it's … Ben’s. Not definite yet. But pretty …” Audrey begins moaning. “They’ll run more tests, search the ravine again. They’ll…”
“Audrey, what are you talking about?” Oliver chuckles at first, then begins to laugh loudly. “Ben’s right here.” Oliver looks down and sees his arm suspended in mid air. “Ben, where did you go?” Oliver jumps up and runs through the house calling for the boy. In Ben’s bedroom, he looks out at the bird feeder and sees his son sitting on the ground, crows all over him. As Oliver watches, they begin flapping their wings. Struggling at first, the birds lift the boy slowly, then, with increasing ease and swiftness, carry him away.
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