Read Four and Twenty Blackbirds Online

Authors: Cherie Priest

Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Contemporary, #Dark Fantasy, #Fiction

Four and Twenty Blackbirds (3 page)

BOOK: Four and Twenty Blackbirds
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3
Branches

I

I took Lulu's words to heart. I envisioned the ghosts as visitors, not malicious boogies, and I began to look for them, though I'd not seen them outside my dreams since that time in the woods. I even started to wander the mountainside seeking them.

Occasionally I'd feel the eyes on me and I'd stop my play to look around. I might have invited them to come out to me if I'd known how. But no, the women kept their distance. I could have forgotten them altogether except for their passing smell of old clothes, drifting sometimes by. Mothballs and cedar. I felt nothing of them except ephemeral words of curiosity, and once of caution. Only one other time in my childhood did they raise their voices, and then they saved my life.

I was alone under the trees that day. It was the year I turned ten, or maybe eleven. The bottom and fringes of my jeans were wet. It had been raining for several days on the mountain, as it often does in early summer.

Bored to death with cabin fever, I'd watched eagerly as the clouds began to crack and steamy beams of light fell through. Then I grabbed my rubber shoes and dashed out of the house before Lulu or Dave could stop me. I took my bicycle and rode over to the neighborhood playground, which was old but in a good state of repair. If any of my friends had managed to escape their own houses, they'd surely join me soon.

I was disappointed but not surprised to find it deserted. The merry-go-round creaked forlornly when I shoved it, spraying water in a big, lazy circle that soaked my pant legs even more. The puddle at the bottom of the slide would have only done worse if I'd splashed through it, and the monkey bars were slick with dangling drops of dew. Sighing, I wiped the water off a swing and sat down to wait.

The scent of musty fabric wafted by. I raised my head. The odor returned, stronger in my nostrils. Scarves and sweaters too long in a drawer. Lingerie washed and neatly folded, put up in a chest.

"Hello? Are you there?"

Get away from here. You get yourself gone.

She was standing beside the spring-mounted animals that had handles on either sides of their cartoonish heads. She wrung her hands together as she spoke.

"Mmm . . . Mae?" I asked. I tightened my grip on the rusty chains that held the swing, but I did not jump or run.

Get away from here. He's coming for you.

"What are you talking about?"

He's coming for you!

"Who?"

She vanished. And behind the spot where she'd stood I saw a man. He wasn't much older than a boy—he might have been a teenager still. He was tall but hunkered over, and terrifically thin. He held his arms close to his torso, as if they were plastered there by his soaking wet shirt. He must have been outside a long time to be so wet. He must have been waiting for me.

His hands were tucked under his armpits and his feet were bound in soggy black boots with laces that trailed off into the grass. At first he held so immobile I thought he might have been another apparition, but when he spoke his voice was mortal enough.

"There you are."

I didn't move. We faced each other across the playground like it was the O.K. Corral. His eyes were partially obscured by his sloppy wet hair, but even at that twenty-yard distance I could see blue and madness in them. I did not know how or if I should reply.

I let him speak again.

"This will be hard. You're not what I expected." His hands began a slow release, creeping down the sides of his rib cage. "You're just a pretty little girl now. That old devil, though. He'll package anything up all pretty."

I tried to match his stare, moment for moment. All around me I could hear the women whispering their warnings, but this man kept me in something like a thrall. I didn't want to flee yet. I wanted to hear him talk some more, in his slow, strong drawl—southern twanged, but not so clipped as the way people in the valley spoke.

He took a small step forward.

"Oh yes, anything at all. Even that ugly ol' soul you've got behind those tiny little-girl ribs. That old devil, he's something else. He thinks if he hides Avery someplace sweet and pretty, that I might think I've made a mistake. He wants me to think you're just a precious innocent. But I know better. I know who you are. I know they brought you back, Avery. I know you'll keep coming back until I find that book, but I'm sworn to do what I can."

He took another muddy step and I found my voice when he said that bit about the book. "What are you talking about?"

He laughed. "Your baby-doll voice won't fool me. You've heard the three sisters too—I know you have. I've heard about it. You can't escape them, Avery. They're God's own furies, chasing you down. They've led me to you."

"Nuh-uh," I argued. "They warned me about you. They said you were coming to get me."

"Then . . . then it's because they're a portent of your death. They wish to witness your destruction."

"You're crazy." I said it deadpan, with a creeping hint of ice. "You're some crazy stranger, and I'm not supposed to talk to strangers. You go away before my friends get here."

No, my baby.
I heard her, but I couldn't see her.

No, my baby. Don't you bother talking. He's as mad as the moon, and you'll only make him angry. You've got to run. You've got to start now. You have to outrun him.

One of his hands slid free of his side and in it I saw the black glint of metal. He'd been hiding a handgun, shiny and damp and heavy enough to make his wrist droop. Before he could lift it enough to aim, I finally followed the ghost's advice. I turned and dashed, parting the slender trees with my flailing arms.

Bang.

The first bullet blasted out of the barrel and split a tree trunk to my right.

Water dumped down from the shaken leaves to drench me, but it did not slow me. He was on my heels, but he was not so quick as I was. I knew my way through the ravines that crisscrossed the woods and scarred the hills. This was my world, and I was the wisest scout of all. Even my own friends—kids who knew the wooded gullies as well as I did—couldn't keep up when I started running.

Bang.

Another shot, even farther off base than the first.

Even in my breathless, choking fear I found myself calculating, aiming my flight through the densest clots of trees and down the sharpest, rockiest cuts of earth. I leaped across rain-flushed streams in one fast skip.

He tumbled behind me, gradually losing seconds from his clumsy pursuit. He didn't know which rocks were steady enough to jump from and which would tumble into the water at the slightest touch. He didn't know which piles of leaves masked solid ground and which concealed slime and sharp sticks. Not like I did.

Bang.

I was moving roughly in the direction of home. Going about it the long way, of course—no sense in bolting for the main road where he'd have an open shot at a straight-moving target. Home. It wasn't far. I could make it. I could make it with room to spare.

But what if I wasn't enough ahead of him? My lead was growing, but behind me he was still staggering doggedly through the forest. What if he caught up before Lulu had time to get a gun? What if he came inside? What if he hurt my Lulu? The thought nearly paralyzed me. I stumbled, but recovered. A new plan, then. One that wouldn't bring him so close to my aunt. I shifted my course.

My legs were tiring, but my resolve was fresh. I would draw him away from my beloved goddess. I would shake him on my own. I believed in Lulu, she was unstoppable and unbreakable, but if he caught her by surprise—and if he got off a bullet or two before she had time to know what was happening . . . I couldn't stand the thought of it. So I kept running farther from her, away and up the mountain, farther from help.

I did this even though I didn't know the area farther up the mountain behind the house.

The rule of thumb in my neighborhood was always, "go down, not up." The playground was down; the safest woods were down. The convenience stores and gas stations were down. The roads that went up headed to either the government parks or to undeveloped real estate.

Naturally, childhood apocrypha had turned the hinterlands into a realm pocked with monsters and malevolent Civil War ghosts; but regardless of what the uncharted lands held in store, I was less afraid of those possibilities than of the skinny man with the gun who would certainly kill me if he caught me. And he might even kill Lulu if he caught her, too, so I had to keep my two-pronged goal in sight: I had to keep him away from home, and keep him away from
me
.

Bang.

Up and over. Into new territory. I was comforted to see that it didn't look much different from what I usually played in. Nothing but dripping wet trees too thick to let me see far ahead. I dived and weaved, wondering how much longer I could keep it up. Adults marvel at the energy of children, but though it is vast, it is not infinite. I didn't dare glance over my shoulder, lest I run into one of the innumerable trunks. I heard him thrashing and charging, but he was falling behind. I kept my eyes open for a good hiding place, but saw nothing except trees and big rocks in every direction. Maybe on the other side of that precipice . . .

Not that way!

Mae's warning was too late.

I reached for a handhold to throw myself across a rock about as big as I was. I grabbed it, and launched myself half over, half around it. I landed on a pile of leaves and sticks that gave way beneath my weight.

I fell, sliding heels over head down a sloping hole.

At the bottom I lay still, my wind knocked thoroughly out, and I stared up at the vaguely circular patch of sky maybe fifteen feet above. Damp dirt rained down after me. My shoulder hurt. When I lifted it up and looked crooked-necked at the back of my shirt, it was only to notice with encroaching panic that I was bleeding. I'd landed on something hard, sticking up out of the ground. I poked my fingers into the dirt around it and unearthed the head of a shovel. I had brief hopes that I might be able to dig it out and use it for a weapon, but the handle rotted away when I pulled it loose from the ground.

Somewhere above, the crashing feet of my pursuer slowed near the spot where I'd disappeared. I tried not to move, not even to breathe.

An inch at a time his wet head peered over the edge of the hole. "You cannot," he puffed the words laboriously, "outrun justice. You can't. God has promised it." His hand reached over and pointed the gun down at my head. I desperately rolled myself towards what I thought was the edge of the hole.

Bang.

I didn't stop against a wall of dirt. I kept on rolling, down a little farther. My turn took me beyond the friendly skylight and all was dark. I felt wildly around for anything substantial, grasping at dangling tree roots and squeezing handfuls of mud. I dragged my knees up off the spongy ground and forced them to ratchet me into an upright position.

I was more than a little surprised to learn that I could stand without impediment, and finally I wandered a couple of steps farther to lean on a thick square timber. I pressed my wounded back against it and tried not to wonder how much blood I might be leaking.

Overhead I heard the scrambling scuffle that signaled I was still being pursued. The boy yelped when his legs surrendered their balance and he tumbled down after me, landing exactly where I had.

He was wheezing. "There's nowhere for you to go now. You can't stay in this . . . well, or cistern, or whatever, forever . . . it won't hide you long."

It's a mine shaft. Hold your ground. He's blind. Let him pass you.

I dug my back hard into the tunnel wall. Small, squirming things wriggled wetly against me. I jammed my eyes shut, which made almost no difference in the underground dark. Something with many slight legs worked its way up my neck. I pressed my lips together and willed my ears shut too. The bug worked its way up my cheek and across my scrunched eyelid before heading on past my forehead and over my hair.

The boy tread into the blackness with halting legs. "Give yourself up. I'll do it quick."

He stopped no more than a foot in front of me. I could smell his breath, stinky with corn chips, ranch dip, and cola. I felt the swish of air parting for his waving arms, groping ahead. I unsealed my lips and exhaled as quietly as I could, then slowly sucked in more moldy air through my wide open mouth.

Breathe in. Mustn't make a sound. Breathe out.

He kept moving, another step. Than another. Deeper back, farther from me.

Push the beam, child.

I didn't understand. She said it again.

Push on that beam. Shove your good shoulder against it.

Still afraid to move too much, I leaned a little weight on it and heard a creak.

He heard it too. His footsteps stopped.

No, do it hard. All at once. Then get out of the way. Go back the way you came.

No time to argue. He was turning, his shoes squishing an about-face in the muck.

I lunged, heaving with all my might. The timber groaned and cracked, then collapsed. I darted past it and back towards the patch of sunlight just in time to hear the walls falling in. My pursuer called out but his cries were stifled by the falling wood and mud. Hand over aching hand, knee over scraped knee, I crawled up out of the hole and left him there.

Back topside the rain was falling again, or maybe it was only the wind bothering the trees. It was lovely.

I tumbled back down the side of the mountain until I reached the road to my house, gripping my stinging shoulder as hard as I could, almost crying with relief.

BOOK: Four and Twenty Blackbirds
10.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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