A Time for Crows
“Stay with me,” I said to the girl bleeding out in my car from a lung shot and romped the gas pedal harder. She could have been anywhere from seventeen to twenty-one, had red hair that hung to her shoulders and wore a blood-sodden dress that had been made of creamy lace and was way too cold for this time of the year.
Red streamers of taillights whipped by, diffused in the night’s rain and glow of the street lamps. Skyscrapers loomed off to the right. Factories, intermingled with an occasional church, listed off to the left. Come on, baby, come on! I took a bend at at least ninety. For 2:18 in the morning, Interstate 95 was packed. My car, a ’69 Cutlass 442, drifted slightly, and the inertia tried pushing me against the leather-lined door. Come on, baby, go faster.
Some moron swerved in front of me.
No time to brake.
I punched it a bit harder, passing the jerk on the left shoulder. Gravel crackled underneath the car. The jerk blared his horn at me–at me! I blew by him fast enough he probably wouldn’t have even seen my birdie if it were a foot long.
They still following us? I asked Eddy inside my head.
Check your mirrors again, Eddy said in a British accent, voice tight.
I did. Headlights blazed like overgrown stars–but I couldn’t really pick out much more than that.
See, some people say I’m schizophrenic; I just say they haven’t met Eddy.
It’s hard to tell, boss, Eddy said. Something’s out there though, for sure.
The girl coughed, arching up and splatting blood across her side of the windshield and dash. The makeshift seal of packaging tape over the bullet hole in her chest bubbled out, but the seal held. The blood on right of the windshield streaked a bit as if somehow the wipers could slur through the glass and spread the blood. She dropped back against the seat. She wheezed softer now, softer. Her eyes lolled . . . rolled.
I cut back into the fast lane.
“Stay with me,” I said and grabbed her blood-greased hand. “Don’t you dare drop off on me! Dammit, not now!” I shook her hand and squeezed harder.
“Is the shot still sealed?” I said aloud to Eddy.
The girl’s eyes focused on me for a second before another fit of coughing took her.
Hot liquid splattered my cheek.
Disgusting, Eddy said. You know–
Is it still sealed?
Far as I can tell.
How much time she got?
I checked the GPS on my phone. Could we make it in time? We were still fifteen minutes from the hospital. And if that douche weren’t following still then my name wasn’t Joe Joyce.
Minutes, Eddy said.
I-I don’t know–
How many, dammit?
Six, seven tops.
Shit. “Come on, baby, you can go faster,” I said to my car. The car shuddered from the speed. The speedometer’s needle had already flattened against the right pin. “Come on.”
The girl shivered. Her breathing heightened like a chain-smoker’s staccato.
I wiped my brow and turned the heat up full blast and angled the heaters at her. The blood-reek blew hard into my nostrils, and I clenched my teeth. I’m not Viking huge, but I am in good shape. Still, the smell of blood got me every time. I swallowed a lump in my throat. No puking now.
I dialed my friend Dave with my encrypted phone; then cut across to the middle lane, blowing by a semi and two compacts, then back into the fast lane.
“You get her?” Dave asked.
“I wasn’t fast enough. She’s shot–“
“I’m taking her in. Look, I need you to be seen and fast. Don’t get caught.”
“Yes, sir.” He said it with a lisp.
“Don’t be a dick. Put on the stuff and go.”
Dave huffed. “Why did I ever agree to this?”
I hung up and checked my mirror again.
A pair of headlights weaved through cars about a quarter mile back, keeping pace with me. My skin crawled as though maggots wormed their way between my shoulder blades. There was no way–
Good god, boss, it’s him.
How do you know?
I can feel it.
The girl choked. Stopped breathing.
“No! Wake up, girl, wake up.” I shook her hand, then leg. My hand trembled. I tried dialing 911 on my regular phone, but my fingers kept missing the damn buttons. I finally got it, and then, I smacked my hand over the plastic seal on the girl’s chest.
She jerked, eyes popping wide, and her hands grasped mine holding the seal.
The girl choked, and frothy blood spilled down her lips.
“A girl’s been shot,” I said. “She just stopped breathing–”
“Help is on the way. Tell me what happened.”
I kept my teeth together. “She stopped breathing. I’m bringing her in. I’m on I–95. I think the shooter’s still following us–”
I missed the bone-white pillar that supported the ER overhang by a centimeter, I swear. Three police cruisers screeched in behind me, two white, the other black and blue. Their sirens still screamed like the voice of the damned. The officers were quick, but I’d already hopped over my hood and scooped the girl in my arms. I kicked the door shut and sprinted toward the sliding glass doors.
“Come on, come on,” one of the officers said. Two ran along side me.
Another one yelled from inside, “She’s here.”
I looked up at the same time Eddy said: What the hell is that?
A tree, with its trunk as thick as a bombed bus standing on its end, stood not more than five feet from me and the glass door. Tentacle roots, black and oozing, stretched out and burrowed into the concrete. It looked like an ancient oak with low-hanging limbs nearly as thick as my car. But it was the body crucified to one of the limbs on the right that grabbed my eyes. Scabbed branches, as though the tree’s life had been one of pain, held the man from each of his limbs. A shadow held his face. The hell? If I hadn’t have been carrying the girl, I would have checked for glasses dimples on my nose–the telltale sign of my delusions. I had taken my meds, hadn’t I?
But I saw it this time too, boss, Eddy said. That’s new.
Tires screeched to a halt behind the officers’ cars.
“Check them; just to be sure,” another officer said.
I swallowed and blinked.
The tree was gone.
I blinked again, letting the officers and nurses pull me inside the lobby. A wheeled bed waited just inside.
Some part of me didn’t want to let the girl go. Would they really take care of her? I wanted to makes sure she was safe. Who was I kidding?
Doctors and nurses swarmed us, and before I had even taken four steps into the lobby proper, the docs had placed her on the wheeled bed.
The girl’s fingers brushed mine, and my heart leaped. She was alive; dammit, she was alive. Her left eye slit open. It was brown and glossy, but she focused on me. At least I think she did. I didn’t let go of her hand. I couldn’t.
The bed banged open a set of steel-blue doors with a yellow and orange sign on each.
“Sir,” a squat nurse with a flat nose said and barred my way. “You can’t go in here. Sir–”
I hadn’t realized I was running with them. I nodded a few times. Right. “Sorry.”
“She’s in good hands. We’ll take good care of her. You can wait in the lobby if you’d like.”
I nodded again. “Is she–”
“We’ll do the best we can.”
“Thank you.” I took a deep breath and turned; get a grip, man. Of course, they’d help her. I mean, come on.
The hallway I’d unknowingly entered had glossy floors and nerve colored walls. Protective rails ran across the walls about waist high. A few nurses eyed me. One stepped forward. She was probably a recent grad, wore blue scrubs and a bun tight enough to make any high-strung librarian proud. “Hey, you can’t be here–”
I just held up my hand. “Great Facebook story, huh?” And kept walking. Why the hell did I say that?
Because, you are an ass, Eddy said.
I’m sure I was quite the sight–big guy in a black hoodie with blood smeared over my hands, face, and clothes. I checked my nose for glasses marks. Part of me wished I’d find them because when I had a delusion, I was always seventeen again and still wore glasses. But I wasn’t so lucky–nothing but smooth skin and the girl’s crusting blood.
I opened the double doors back to the ER lobby and–
My guts squirmed.
“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here,” Eddy quoted.
I caught the reference–Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I’m an English nerd; got my BA in writing, but what was there?
A few people sat in the lobby. An older man, who could fill up three seats nodded off next to his wife. They both had oxygen tanks. Another man probably in his late thirties that I swore I recognized, sat with his legs crossed. He wore an expensive suit that somehow augmented his black beard, was extra thin, yet somehow looked extra dignified. He gave me a slight nod, then resumed his deep and dignified contemplations. A couple other people looked up at me, including the waiting officers. But it wasn’t any of them Eddy was referring to.
I’d registered tires screeching when I’d taken the girl inside, but I’d been too preoccupied with the tree and the body that I didn’t realize who it was that pulled up. A dark SUV had parked behind the third cop car. The glare of the city beyond framed the SUV like a gloomy halo over a fetid cockroach. The cops’ lights bruised and shined the driver’s face, and though I was too far to see for certain, there was no mistaking his eyes were on me. My instincts told me to run; run across the travertine floor, pass the salt aquarium and fake trees and don’t look back. The freak was just waiting out there. All he’d need is for me to come out to move my car. I’d finished plenty of fights–but this guy? I’d figured another redhead would be “offered” tonight, so far eleven had. And the cops hadn’t recognized the ritual spell-form pattern; they recognized serial killings of eighteen to twenty-five -year-old girls with red hair. But I recognized the spell form. When I found the girl, two guys were dragging her into a dumpster. One bailed. I parked my Cutlass’s front left tire on top of the other guy’s chest, even kicked him in the head with my steel-toed boot. And when I drove off with the girl, he jumped up and chased us.
Nobody does that. Nobody.
Yet there he sat in that SUV he probably stole, watching, waiting.
“Said you were followed, son?” an officer in his mid-forties said. He pushed up from leaning against the reception desk. He had a thin mustache, big gut, but kind eyes despite the fact they’d seen too much. Two others came and stood with him, each younger and more intense. Two more guarded the door.
“Yeah, dark SUV followed us,” I said. “Look, I’m probably just being paranoid, but that guy in the SUV out there–”
“We’ve checked him. He’s waiting for his wife and kid. They came in just after you. But we can check him again. Stetman.” He nodded to one of the junior officers standing near the glass doors.
The junior officer, Stetman, nodded and strode out just as the SUV began pulling out. The freak driving, his eyes, they didn’t leave mine; I swear.
“You get cleaned up,” the officer continued, “and we’ll talk if that’s alright.”
“Yeah, sure. Thanks.” I breathed a bit harder than I should have been.
You think they’ll follow him? Eddy said.
I doubt it. Least he’s gone though. What was he?
I could have sworn Eddy shook his head, which was weird in and of itself because Eddy was just some extra-sentient extension of myself that never died with the medication I took.
I prefer being called your mind mate, actually, Eddy said.
That sounds incredibly gay.
Shoot, he was right. I rolled my eyes and made my way into the gray-tiled bathroom and froze when I saw the blood’s pattern on my face. No wonder the nurse tried stopping me. I hadn’t realized just how much of the girl’s coughing had made it onto my face. I’d smeared it, and the blood began drying in the exact same pattern as back when I was seventeen, and Earl Wayne had tied me up and forced me to watch him commit suicide. I gripped my eyes tight, forcing the memories down.