It looked even longer, and darker, than before. Crows swarmed the desolate corridor, cawing and hopping excitedly among the rusting dumpsters and scattered garbage. I didn’t need to speak their language to know their cause for celebration.
A distant thunder shook the blacktop at my feet. It seemed I was to be graced with one last rainstorm. A final shower to douse whatever fire I had left.
The crows seemed unperturbed by the chance for rain. They only loomed over me, calming in unison, as I took my first steps. I could feel them, their eyes on me. They bore holes in my weakening body with famished stares and poisoned it with a venomous silence. A haunting quietude that could push a man to scream if only to break it for a moment’s peace.
In fact, that’s exactly what I did. As I walked, I looked back at them on their perches, screaming with what little breath I had left. I turned to the birds on their fire escapes and window ledges, shouting at them to leave me. I’d swing an arm and lurch at them, when I could. Not one of them flinched, like they’d anticipated it.
Their ferocious intent frightened me. With each second that ticked away, an invisible pressure mounted; a fear that I recalled from childhood. A truly paralyzing fear of the unknown that consumes anyone unfortunate enough to experience it.
I stopped to lean on a trashcan, letting tears form and leave my eyes, with the weight of the world, and all of existence, bearing down on my being.
Inside a moment that could have contained all of eternity, the truth was revealed to me: It was not the birds I feared.
The snap of a zippo being shut broke the crippling silence.
I looked to find the source, a man stepping into the alley from an unknown business’s back door. Aamon, cigarette in hand.
He walked a few feet in my direction and stopped to shake his head.
“You’ve really gotten into it this time, buddy.”
“Don’t I always?” I answered, forcing a laugh through the tears and involuntary tremors. I’d begun to feel an unnatural chill invade my skin.
Aamon took a drag from his smoke and asked me something unexpected.
“Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?” I shifted my weight and adjusted the grip on my stomach.
He gestured toward the wound I’d received with his smoking hand.
“Not much longer now.”
The blunt truth of his words brought me to lose whatever cool I had mustered. I gasped a fearful breath.
“Just leave me, Aamon. Leave me to die.”
“Is that what you really want?”
I wiped at my eyes and sniffed back a runny nose.
Aamon took a look around at the legion of crows bearing down on us, and calmly continued smoking before making his intentions known.
“I’m here to help you, Mike. I always have been, in a way.”
I spoke with a shaky, broken, voice.
“How can you help me now?” I removed the hand from my midsection to reveal the expansive red stain across my clothes. The sight didn’t faze him.
He looked up the alley, toward home, then back at me.
“There’s no help for that, you know.”
I nodded and stood, struggling briefly to keep balance.
“Yes, I know,” I answered, glancing at the ground.
Aamon swirled a glass of liquor I hadn’t noticed before.
“How do you feel about that?” He asked.
I hobbled toward him, my hand sticking to a shirt heavy with soaked blood. I wanted to sob, breakdown there in the street, but the pain I’d experience in doing so was deterrent enough. Instead, I quietly mewled and failed to speak with any assuredness.
“I still need answers.”
He smoked and replied, “you will not get them.”
I heaved a dying man’s breath.
“Please,” I placed a hand on his shoulder, “I… I’m running out of time.”
Aamon stood, statuesque, not uttering another word. I shook him, lightly, but he offered nothing more.
There, in that lonely fear, some pressure abruptly lifted. An understanding fell over my tired mind and body.
“You don’t have them,” I professed.
And with that, Aamon fell to ash at my feet. The man I’d once called a friend, crumbled to dust and blew away under the slightest slight breeze.
In my solemnity, I felt the first raindrops fall and resumed the journey.
Behind, I heard the patter of tiny clawed feet stalking my shambling bones. For awhile, I pushed on, dodging trash bags and piles of rusted metal, ignoring them. But the further I traveled, the larger the flock of birds became. Before long, I turned to shout them off.
I had drawn a reaction from them, finally. None flew away, but they did back up with an urgency to their avian strut. A small victory.
“Yeah,” I groaned painfully in their direction, “that’s right, you fuckers. Back up.”
I watched as they retreated to a distance they’d all deemed safe, seemingly telepathically. My anger with them quickly grew to awe, in that moment. I saw something less menacing in them, then. Despite their intent, they looked serene in a supremely joyful way. The flock danced as schools of fish do, acting as one, fluid, body. They were no different than the motion of a pocket-watch keeping time; their perfect steps and casual head bobs mirrored the way the ocean waves break. It was a sight truly sublime.
“Well, well, well,” a familiar gravelly voice sounded through the street, “look what the cat dragged in.”
I turned away from the birds to find Duscias, alone, blocking the way home. I unconsciously reached for my sidearm, to remember I was without it.
“No, no,” he took a drag from his cigarette, “no more shooting people for you. Those days are over.” He gestured to my stomach. “You’re lookin’ a little pale, Detective. Are you feeling alright?”
“Shut up, Duscias, and get out of my way,” I commanded weakly.
“Whoa, pull back the reins, big guy. What makes you think you deserve to go any farther?” He shrugged and smoked. “Maybe this is the end of the road.”
I moved at him with a strength that I no longer possessed. Jolts of numbing agony shot through my torso and into my skull, stopping me in my tracks.
I paused to catch my breath, with little success. I was experiencing a weakness in my legs I’d never known before.
“You told me to go home,” I prompted.
“Yes, yes, I know what I said,” Duscias crossed the remaining distance between us, “but what makes you think you should get there?”
I felt a familiar wave of shame surge through my face.
“What do you mean?”
He smiled, knowingly, and began circling me.
“Well, for one thing, you killed a little girl with your car.”
My legs wobbled. I’d taken a shot to the stomach I’d given myself a thousand times before. A wound of guilt with greater impact than any bullet I’d received thus far.
Duscias continued circling me.
“I trust you’ll remember that. So, I’ll ask again, what makes you think you should get any further?”
I didn’t answer. I just looked at the hour glass that was my body, sand running out and down the holes to the crooked asphalt below. Maybe this was to be my resting place.
“I asked you a question, Detective. I expect an answer. Do you think you ought to die right here, or are you deserving of more?”
I fell to my knees. No more sadness could leave me. I’d cried all I could for her, and me, and the disrepair my world fell into. If this was to be it, then so be it, but there was no more to be done for her. Perhaps the lack of oxygen to my brain had brought with it a unique clarity. A simple weighing of the heart was all I could handle, and all my doubts, fears, and what ifs, melted away with the futile intricacies that occupied my mind for as long as I could remember.
The cold had settled in behind my eyes. I found it difficult to swallow.
“I don’t know if I deserve more, Duscias.” He came to a stop in front of me to listen to my next words carefully. “And we both know that she deserved more, but…”
He squatted to look me in the eyes.
“But what, Mike?”
“But, my dying here… It won’t bring her back. It wont right the wrong I’ve done. The only thing I can do for her now,” I paused to read the expression in his aging face. It came across as curious, with a cautious hope bubbling below the surface.
I continued, “is keep walking.”
Duscias smiled and stood, looking down on me.
“You better get to it then, Detective,” he said, checking a wristwatch and adjusting his shirt cuffs, “time is a dangerous thing to waste.”
With that, the man dissolved, like Aamon before him, leaving a pile of white ash in his stead. Beyond him, the road was still long. The end seemed far out of reach and the avian creatures surrounding me were growing impatient.
Nonetheless, I forced myself up, stumbling almost immediately and catching myself on a discarded patio chair. From there, I pushed on, crows following me in time. Their numbers had grown immeasurably, becoming a prodigious shadow, creeping along the brick walls and alley floor.
The shadow seemed to overtake the alley’s very existence, leaving only rain. The splash of raindrops kept me moving, a constant reminder of where I was and where I was headed. They tied me to an increasingly intangible world. The gentle smatter of water on the pavement resounded rhythmically, harmoniously, with the wind and flapping of wet crows shaking off their dripping wings. An orchestra of life and it played only for me, in that place.
The cold occupied my chest faster than I would’ve liked it to. I could feel my heart slow despite the exertion I put it through. At times, it would beat strangely, fluttering, or half-beating.
My head swam, but my feet kept moving. I didn’t look to be much closer to the end, but I felt closer.
At times I would blink, only to discover I’d had my eyes closed for several steps. I was tired. The cold started to feel good. The welcoming coolness of a summer breeze. When I closed my eyes, I could almost feel the sun on my face. The grass at my feet. The stillness that defined the true world I’d been born into. An eternal calm. A return to what was, is, and always will be. The end, and the beginning.
I opened my eyes to find I’d stopped walking. I was on my knees once again, looking at Mara.
“I’m not going to make it, am I?” I asked her.
“No.” She shook her head, smiling at me with a love I’d not seen in quite some time.
“Hm,” I responded, sleepily tilting my head, “what’s going to happen to you?”
Mara looked to the shade closing in around me.
“I suspect that’s up to the crows.”
“Alright,” I sat on my feet and leaned to an arm.
My heart fluttered. My breath escaped me. The fear I’d gripped for so long faded away. I let go of Mara without a fight.
As the shadow crept in, my sight went with it. I only watched as Mara fell to ash like the others, twisting in a wind wholly supernatural. A breeze of the extraordinary, sweeping through the street, and I imagined all the world, carrying change as each tick of the clock always has. A simple progression in the grand symphony, stricken with a complexity of a heart and mind watching it play.