Read Four and Twenty Blackbirds Online

Authors: Cherie Priest

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

Four and Twenty Blackbirds (6 page)

BOOK: Four and Twenty Blackbirds
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I rolled over on my mattress and faced her bunk, straining to listen. There was a beat to her breathy muttering, but no melody that I could discern. Must be a rhyme, I thought. Maybe it was a child's prayer, or a verse repeated so the familiar sound is a comfort.

I went ahead and asked her about it over breakfast, but in case it had something to do with any real ghost stories, I asked it on the sly—in private as much as I could. I waited until the other girls had taken their trays to the drop-off line, and then I leaned over to Cora.

"Last night I thought I heard something. I thought I heard you talking in your sleep." It was a lie, but it was a polite one. It gave her an out, and let her pretend she didn't know what I meant if she didn't intend to fill me in.

"I don't talk in my sleep," she argued. "You might've heard me, but I was awake."

"Were you saying your prayers?"

"No." She said it matter-of-factly, not like it was the most outlandish suggestion in the world, but like it wasn't the correct one.

Cora didn't volunteer any more information, but she hadn't acted like it was something that embarrassed her, either, so I picked at the question a little more. "Were you talking to yourself? 'Cause I do that sometimes, too."

She thought about it for a second, then nodded. "Something like that. It's this thing I do when I can't sleep."

"Oh." That made sense, but it wasn't very interesting. I hoped that wasn't the end of it, and I might have asked more questions but our roommates returned without their trays. It was time for camp games. I hoped they'd let red rover drop and move onto something else. My arms were sore, and if they tried to make me play that stupid game again, I was going to look Mr. Joe straight in the eye and tell him I had my period.

Thankfully, it didn't come to that. We played something else, or maybe we went swimming. I don't remember. The middle of that day was the least interesting part; and it wasn't until well after lights-out that things got interesting again.

I made a deal with myself that I'd stay awake long enough to see if Cora did it again, but I was worn out and I broke that deal.

I didn't stay asleep long, though. I woke up to a gentle shake, and it was Cora. She looked like she'd seen a ghost, and believe me, that's a look I know all too well. "What's going on?" I meant to ask, but she shushed me and widened her eyes into two wet, worried orbs.

"It doesn't always work," she said in that loud whisper that meant someone would wake up if she kept talking for long. "It isn't like a proper prayer, maybe that's why. I don't know any real prayers, do you?"

I nodded my answer and sat up, wiggling out from under the blanket and fishing around with my feet. "Let's go outside or something," I proposed, finding my sneakers and pulling them on despite my lack of socks.

"That's why I woke you up. I've got to go
use it,
and I don't want to go by myself. Will you come to the bathroom with me? Please?"

"Yeah," I said. "I'll come with you. Hang on." The room was chillier than you might expect for a southern summer, but we were on top of the mountain so it wasn't such a surprise. Everyone packed a sweater to be on the safe side, and I pulled mine out to wrap it around my chest. When I stood, my feet felt small and damp inside my shoes.

Cora was talking to herself again, and I was almost sure it was a rhyme—something straightforward and Mother Goosey. She was repeating it to herself a little louder now, as if volume had something to do with the chant's potency. By the time we got outside, I could catch about every third word.

"What is it, that thing you keep saying?" I broke down and asked. "And why do you keep doing it?"

My companion had brought a red plastic flashlight. She aimed a big yellow circle at the ground and we did our best to keep our feet inside it as we walked across the grassy, gravelly ground between our cabin and the bathroom building. When we were about halfway there, she answered.

"It's a thing I say when I'm scared. If I say it over and over again, and I think about it as hard as I can, they don't bother me."

"They who?"

"I'm not sure, exactly. But they hang around and I see them sometimes when it's dark. They especially like to hang around mirrors—at least I think they do. Maybe that's just when I see them best. I don't know."

I stopped, and she aimed the light at the spot between our shoes. The puddle of illumination seemed awfully small against the wooded night. I shifted back and forth between my sweaty feet and rubbed one heel up against an itch on my leg. "Does this have something to do with your real ghost story?"

"Yeah, but don't stop here. Let's keep moving. Let's get it over with. I've really got to go, you know?"

I could stand to take a pee myself, but I held my ground. "And you didn't just ask me to come along because you're scared. If you were scared, you would've gotten Maggie up and made her come with you, since that's her job and all."

"Yeah," Cora said again. She grabbed a handful of unruly black hair and tried unsuccessfully to stuff it behind her ear. "I kind of figured you might—I mean, I wanted to know if, um . . . Well, last night when everyone was laughing at me you weren't, and I wondered if maybe you would understand better than the rest of them."

"And?"

"And . . . I wanted to know if you could see them too."

That was the root of it, and it was what I'd suspected. On the one hand, I couldn't hold it against her—and I'd wanted her to confide in me, hadn't I? But on the other hand, the bathroom building was only a few yards away, and it was filled with mirrors. I glanced back at the cabin and considered my bladder capacity.

"Please? Don't make me go by myself. For real, I don't think I can do it. I'd rather stay in the cabin and wet the bed or else go pee in the bushes than go in there by myself. Please?"

I didn't mean to make her beg, but that dimly glowing bathroom building was looking less and less like a direct necessity. "If you're serious, about the bushes I mean, I could run in there and get you some toilet paper. And I could keep a lookout."

She fidgeted, doing the universal hopping jig of a needy kid. My offer made sense, but it wasn't exactly what she wanted. "We could do that, yeah. But I really want to know if it's just me. If you can see them too, and it's not just me, then . . ." Her voice sputtered out. She wasn't sure how to finish.

I understood better than she knew. If you're the only one who sees them, then maybe they aren't there. Maybe it's you and you're crazy, which isn't ideal; but maybe it's
not
you, and there really is someone or something closing in around you. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. I didn't know what the better option was any more than she did.

"All right," I caved. "We'll go. Come on."

We cleared the last stretch in a few seconds. Cora stopped before crossing the threshold, flipping the switch to turn off her light. Everything inside was already brightly lit with an ugly fluorescent glare, and she needed an excuse to hesitate another moment.

"Do you hear anything?" she asked.

I did the auditory equivalent of squinting, even closing my eyes so nothing would distract me. I heard things, yes; I heard crickets, and, nearby, an owl was interrogating the mountain. I heard a restless sleeper turn over on a squeaky mattress, and a row of creaking boards beneath an insomniac counselor's feet. But I knew what she really meant. She wanted to know if I felt anything, but she didn't know how to ask that question.

I wouldn't have known exactly how to answer it, anyway. Maybe there was something, but I couldn't have told her what. It might have been nothing more than trees and wind on the edge of the sounds I could sift from the near-silence.

"No," I answered, because that was the easiest thing to say. "I don't hear anything. Let's go, if we're going. Don't look at the mirrors, if you're scared to. You can run right into a stall. You don't have to look over to the right at all. I promise I won't tell if you don't wash your hands."

"Yeah." She dipped her chin and dropped her eyes, crooking her head over to the left. "But you stay here. You look, and you tell me if you see something."

"All right."

She took off, slipping slightly on the dingy tile, and she flung herself into the nearest available stall. Her bottom connected hard with the seat and I wondered how she'd had time to bypass her underwear.

I took up a position in the next stall over, doing my business and listening to the sound of my friend's rushing torrent. I finished up faster than she did, and I went to wait for her by the sinks. By the mirrors.

I held still, trying to feel out the room. Whenever I'd seen the three women, there had always been a change in the way the air felt—everything went empty and dry. The bathroom building was anything but dry, and it couldn't possibly feel empty with every stray, slight sound echoing from tile to tile and from door to bent metal door.

From within the stall, Cora was talking to herself again, or maybe to me. It was hard to tell. "It's like talking to babies. It doesn't matter what you say, it's how you say it. You can change the words around however you want, as long as they sound nice, and as long as they make you feel better."

Although I deliberately hadn't done so yet, now I turned to face the crusty old mirrors. To call them mirrors at all was to give them more credit than they deserved; they more closely resembled polished strips of sheet metal. You could see yourself in a vague sort of way, but your reflection was an impressionist representation composed of fuzzy colors. I stood facing the nearest square full on. I couldn't for the life of me figure out what Cora was so afraid of. I barely recognized my own familiar shape, and I couldn't imagine she'd see anything distinct enough to be threatening.

"Sing a song of breath mints," she continued, now singsong, through the door. "Banana cream pie. Four and twenty blackbirds take to the sky."

"I know that one. That's not how it goes," I mumbled. I was watching her stall over my reflection's shoulder. I didn't see anything, I didn't think. The whole thing was so blurred as to be hopeless, anyway. The longer I looked, the less worried I became.

"I told you, it doesn't matter. I like banana cream pie. So that's how I say it goes."

"Fine." But even as I said it, there was motion in the clouded glass. At first I figured she'd kicked the door from within, but I didn't hear any kick and she was still steadily peeing, so I had a good idea of where her body was. I wondered how long her legs were.

"Sing a song of breath mints, banana cream pie. Four and twenty blackbirds take to the sky. When the sky is filled up . . ."

More motion. Definitely, this time. It was white, and fast, at the mirror's upper left corner. It could have been anything. An owl, even, drawn by the light. Anything.

"With all the feathered wings . . ."

"Cora?"

"The birds will come protect me . . ."

"Cora," I said again, but I could hear everything I needed to know in the tremor of her voice. She knew she wasn't alone, and she knew it more surely than I did.

"From all those other things."

"That's a good rhyme," I whispered. "Maybe you should say it again." As soon as she'd quit talking the white thing had come in closer.

"I'm almost done," she whispered back. I heard her stand and shuffle her pajama bottoms up around her waist. "Okay."

"Okay."

"I'm going to come out now, and I'm going to run for the door. Will you be behind me?"

"Oh yeah. Maybe in front of you."

"Don't leave me—"

"Okay, okay, okay. I won't. You first." The white thing was taking form, growing solid in the battered, filmy surface I couldn't take my eyes away from. I didn't dare turn around; I didn't want to know what it looked like any better than my foggy view already allowed. It wasn't one of the sisters three, I knew that much, and that meant it could be friend or foe; I didn't feel like sticking around to find out which.

This was not like anything I'd felt before. This was not dry and quiet and distant. This was something damp and invasive. I tried to pick out a shape more specific than "personlike" but I wasn't having much luck.

"Hey, Cora, do you see anything?"

"No, my eyes are closed."

"If you opened them, would you see anything?"

"I'm not going to open them."

"Okay, but if you
did
open them—what would you see?"

"Forget it," she said. She knocked the door open with her knee and came out blind, one hand over her face. In the moment I turned to see her, flailing toward the door and past me, I saw the white thing better. I saw it well enough to know that it was there, and it was different. It was not like the women who had hovered so gently near my side. This thing reached, and it moved like it could grab. When it followed Cora past the stall's door, it pushed against the metal slab and the rusty hinges creaked.

It saw me, then, and for a moment it forgot about its pursuit of my friend.

The empty place where eyes ought to be gazed me up and down. It lifted one arm like a tentacle of smoke and it nudged the door again, deliberately opening it farther. Back and forth it rocked the door, and the sound the metal made was a beat like the one Cora spoke to comfort herself.

BOOK: Four and Twenty Blackbirds
6.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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