PART 2: Black Bird
Mom picked me up later that afternoon. She worked at one of the local high schools and had a different schedule than most teachers. Some days, she had to go to work early and got to come home early. Other days she started late and picked me up later. My school, like me, wasn't normal. At least not really. I didn't have to be in class at the same time every day. Mom could drop me off on her way to work and pick me up when she got off, whenever that happened to be. Today, she picked me up just before two o'clock.
Miss Rodriguez talked with Mom for a few minutes before turning toward me. "Ready to go home, Aiden?"
She smiled and held out a hand as I rubbed at my eyes, trying to wipe away the sleepiness. On most days, I didn't have any trouble sleeping during nap time. Today I could only lie there and stare at the window, my stomach tying itself into knots as I waited for the ghoulies to come back.
I nodded my head as I got closer to Mom, reaching up to take her hand. Her fingers were warm and strong, and she held onto mine as if she'd never let go.
Downstairs, her car waited in one of the slots in the parking lot. As we passed under the window to my classroom, I held my breath, expecting to see the ghoulies hiding in the bushes. Either they were gone for good, or they were staying out of sight because I didn't see them as I climbed into the backseat of Mom's car. Maybe I had imagined the whole thing, after all. Maybe I really had slept during nap time and I had only dreamed the whole thing.
"How was school today?" Mom asked, her eyes watching me in the rear-view mirror.
Feeling somewhat ashamed about the ghoulies, I lowered my eyes and studied my hands. I couldn't tell her about it even if I wanted to. Even now, as I tried to put the thoughts together in my mind, they buckled against some invisible barrier, the way a soda can crunches and folds up when one of my older brothers steps on it.
When I didn't answer her, Mom took a deep breath and released it on a sigh. "I talked to Dr. Sellers on the phone this morning. She says she has some medicine she wants to try out with you. To see if it will make you feel better when you get upset."
Mom's voice trailed off at the end and I felt my fingers curl into fists. When she said she wanted to make me feel better, she meant the times I had my fits. Even though I couldn't talk like my brothers and sister, I had no trouble letting them know I was angry, frustrated or scared about something. Usually, I only got mad or upset when the ghoulies came around because I was afraid they'd hurt Jack, Joey, Logan and Bradley, or even Meghan. And because I could do nothing, I would throw what Bradley called 'temper tantrums'. My doctor said it was common for children with autism to 'express aggression'. I didn't really know what those words meant, but I could tell Dr. Sellers had been talking about my fits.
My parents didn't talk too much about my autism with me, but they always let me know what they planned to do to help me with it. In this world, kids were expected to be able to do certain things at certain ages. Since I was seven, I should be able to read and write sentences and add and subtract numbers, as well as many other things, including getting along with other kids. I could read, and I could add and subtract just fine. But I couldn't prove it to my parents or my teachers. My fingers wouldn't hold a pencil like they should, so I couldn't write my name down or show them that eight plus two was ten. When I snuck into my older brothers' room and took their chapter books from the bookshelves, it wasn't just because I liked the sound of the paper fluttering as I flipped the pages.
Despite what my family thought, I liked the books because they were about awesome adventures with dragons and magicians and superheroes. But if I were to open my mouth to say the words out loud, nothing ever came out. Once in a while, one or maybe two words would break free, but then my throat would clog up or my tongue would get stuck to the roof of my mouth. I couldn't explain it. It was like the real me was living inside a glass ball made of a mirror that only I could see out of, but no one else could see in. I wondered if that's what it was like for my other classmates too, but I had no way of asking them.
Before I ever started school, Mom used to take me to therapy with other moms who had kids like me. We would learn what the teacher called 'social skills'. I didn't learn much there because most of the stuff they taught us I already knew from listening to Mom and Dad talk to Bradley, Logan and Meghan. Sighing, I thought about what Mom had said about taking medicine. Part of me felt nervous about it, and another part of me felt guilty that, no matter how hard they tried, Mom and Dad and the doctors couldn't seem to help me get better.
Eventually, I looked up, only to find Mom glancing at me in the rearview mirror. She looked worried and I wondered why. Mom always got this way after talking to the doctor. I turned my eyes quickly away once again and stared out the window. The trees lining the road were just starting to change color and some of them had already lost most of their leaves, their bare white branches like the hands of skeletons.
Mom flicked on her turn signal and our car rolled to a stop as she approached a traffic light. On the left, a large shopping center sat partially hidden behind a row of neatly trimmed hedges. I peeked up between the two front seats and glanced out the windshield. Traffic rushed by in a hurry, each car that flew by making ours rock a little. Mom was taking the back road home today and I smiled. I liked the fast roads, but the freeway always scared me a little. It felt like we were driving on a racetrack with all those other cars, some of them really big, but on the highways we could still go fast and there were only two lanes most of the time. No big scary trucks taking forever to pass you if you were stuck behind a slow driver.
The light turned green and Mom pulled forward, turning right after the car in front of her crossed the intersection. We quickly picked up speed and I glanced out the window once again, smiling when we passed the airport. A small plane was landing as we drove by, its wing lights blinking like little stars.
The open, rolling landscape of rural San Luis Obispo was blanketed with acres of vineyards, the golden leaves of the grapevines a cheerful, sunny yellow splashed against the blue sky. An occasional farm house, complete with a paddock for horses or goats, helped add variety to the scenery. Just as I was starting to put the bad memories of the day behind me, I noticed a pumpkin patch coming up on the left. The orange gourds, glowing like burnished beads in the afternoon sunlight, reminded me once again that Halloween was only a few days away. Normally, the sight of pumpkins wouldn't bother me, but the small, rustic shed set up nearby had one of those giant blow up jack-o-lanterns next to it, the black slash of its eyes and mouth reminding me of the ghoulies.
I jerked my head to the side and glanced out the other window, quickly trying to banish the memories. We had come to another traffic stop and as Mom waited for the light to change, a crow came to rest on a fence post on the side of the road. It turned its head, one black, glossy eye staring at me. A red sheen flashed over the bird's eye and a sharp pain pierced my head. Drawing in a quick breath, I squeezed my eyes shut. A memory, harsh as corrosive acid spilling against the backs of my eyes, flooded my mind, and a kaleidoscope of scenes played out in my head. A huge black bird with burning red eyes ... Weird, dark red smoke curling in unnatural tendrils around a tree ... A terrifying voice speaking in my head ... Where had these memories come from? Tangled up with all the images was another memory, one of my sister cutting her hand in the kitchen. Yesterday. Meghan had hurt herself yesterday. Were these memories from the same time? I felt my face pale and my heart begin to race. What was going on?
The light changed and our car quickly picked up speed, leaving the crow behind. Clenching my teeth, I squeezed my eyes shut and tried very hard to remember everything that had happened yesterday. I had a bad feeling it wouldn't be pleasant, but for some reason it was important for me to remember. I never forgot any of my weird encounters with the ghoulies, or other strange stuff in my neighborhood. Why had I let this one slip? Had something, or someone, made me forget?
As we rolled down the highway, the pumpkin field now a faint blur in the distance, I thought long and hard about the day before. Mom had picked me up, just as she had today, and then we'd gone to get Bradley and Logan at their school in Arroyo Grande. Once we got home, my older brothers had raced to the front door, pushing and shoving each other despite the many warnings from Mom. I had lingered behind. I always lingered behind because my brothers liked to torment me. Usually I didn't mind, but it got tiring after a while.
My sister Meggy had already come home and was downstairs in her room doing her homework. We weren't supposed to go into her room without her permission, but Logan and Bradley always did. I only went into her room without permission if it was a dire emergency, like on Saturday mornings when no one else was up and I needed her to turn on the TV for me.
Bradley and Logan were so preoccupied with their argument over who had scored more points in basketball during lunch recess, and Mom was too busy keeping them from getting into a physical fight, that they didn't notice my sluggishness. I was okay with that. I didn't want to get stuck in the middle of it anyway, so I had dragged my feet and stared at the path leading up to our front door.
A low, grumbling complaint from a eucalyptus tree growing beside our house grabbed my attention before I could reach the front door. I forgot the uneven path and the patches of moss growing between the cracks and cast my eyes toward the sliver, sickle-shaped leaves above.
It didn't take long to spot the bird that had made the noise. It was a crow, at least I thought it was a crow. A large, black smudge grasping one of the dead tree branches with its clawed feet, its red eyes trained on me. Suddenly, I felt very aware of my surroundings. I could smell the sweet, spongy scent of the swamp in the canyon behind our house. I could feel the chill of the fog rolling in off the ocean, its damp breath coating my skin. A car pulled into one of the driveways three houses down, and the distinctive crunch of tires crushing the gravelly asphalt grated against my ears. I shivered, but I was pretty sure it wasn't from the encroaching cold.
Shaking my head, I glanced back up at the black bird and found it still studying me. I narrowed my eyes. Was it really a crow? I mean, it looked just like the crows I saw flying around the neighborhood, but this one was so big, much bigger than the others. And it had red eyes. Crows didn't have red eyes. They had black eyes. Then something even more bizarre happened. A dense coat of smoke, deep red in color, seemed to seep through crow's feathers, like steam rising off of frost-coated roofs on cold mornings.
The giant black bird fluffed its feathers, then craned its neck forward and let out one long, low caw. If I didn't know any better, I would have sworn it said Aiden.
With my heart pounding in my throat, I ran to the front door. Well, I tried to run. My clumsy legs and feet refused to move as quickly as I wanted them to. It was like wading through thick mud. I pawed at the doorknob once I reached the door, frantic to get it open so I could hide in the safety of the house. This black bird was like those ghoulies. I knew it. It had the same dark red, murky, black light glow to it that the other monsters had.
The siren of a fire engine wailing like a banshee snapped me out of my reflection. I blinked and looked up, surprised to find that I was still in the back seat of my Mom's car and not standing on the threshold of our living room. She had pulled over onto the shoulder of the road to let the fire engine pass, its bright color painting a red streak against the grey and brown faces of the distant hills to the east. As she pulled back out onto the highway, I took a few steadying breaths. The recollection of yesterday's ordeal was now fresh and bright in my mind. Wanting to recall the rest, I let my thoughts descend back into my mind, hoping to dredge up the remainder of the memory.
I must have gotten the front door open at some point because the next thing I remembered was me standing in our living room, staring into the kitchen as Mom asked Meghan to peel the potatoes while she went to get Jack and Joey from day care. Still feeling rattled from the strange bird, I had headed toward my big sister, ignoring Bradley and Logan, who had transferred their argument about who was the better basketball player to who was better at playing video games. Sometimes, I liked to watch them beat each other up while in the guise of the colorful characters on the TV screen, but not that afternoon. I wanted the comfort only my big sister could give me.
Meghan was tall, and kind, and pretty. She was also a lot more quiet than my brothers and she knew a lot of stuff. But my favorite thing about my sister was that she had the same glowing skin as me. Crinkling my nose, I held out my arm, the loose flannel sleeve slipping from my wrist and bunching up at my elbow. Usually, the pale blue glow wasn't so bright, but today it was almost the color of the TV screen when Bradley or Logan shut off their video game console. I wondered if it had anything to do with the big crow.
Shivering a little, I padded across the cold kitchen floor toward Meggy. She must not have heard me, because I had to say something to get her attention. What I wanted to say was, Meggy, there is a weird bird outside and it's scaring me. Can you help? What came out was only, "Help?"
Meghan paused and glanced down at me. She smiled, her hazel eyes flashing to green, blue and then grey. That was another cool thing about Meggy. She had neat eyes. I wondered if my eyes changed too. Sometimes, it felt like they did, but I never looked at them in the mirror. Maybe they were like the rest of me, hidden behind that one-way mirror that surrounded me.
"Sure buddy," she answered. "Do you know where the colander is? Big yellow bowl with holes like lemons?"
Although I hadn't been asking if she needed help, I nodded anyway. I knew what she was talking about, and helping my sister might take my mind off the bird. We used the colander to drain the water from boiled noodles, or to wash off berries or salad, and it was stored below the microwave with all the other big pots and pans. The drawer was stuck a little, and it took me a while to pull it open and fish out the colander. It wasn't heavy, but my arms refused to lift it. Instead, I ended up dragging it behind me, making all kinds of noise. It was so embarrassing, never being able to do anything the way normal kids could. Meghan never seemed to notice, though. Sometimes, I imagined she could see me, the real me, but she never said so.
After taking the colander from me, Meghan got back to work washing and peeling the potatoes. My brothers continued to shoot imaginary fireballs at one another and that icy chill still clung to my skin.
I jumped and felt my eyes grow wide and the blood drain from my face. A voice, like the crackle of dry bones snapping under heavy feet, had called my name. I spun around, wondering if Logan and Bradley had heard it.
"Die! Die you orange mutant!" Logan was hissing at the TV as he pressed the button on his controller with the enthusiasm of a woodpecker.
Bradley only laughed, a maniacal cackle. "I don't think so! You can't get past my shield!"
No. As crazy as their conversation was, it hadn't been them who'd said my name, and clearly they hadn't heard it.
I glanced up at Meghan. She was still peeling the potatoes. She hadn't heard it, either. The voice was in my head.
As if it read my thoughts, the voice spoke again.
Little Fae-child ... it crooned in that eerie whisper.
This time I didn't check to see if anyone else heard. All I wanted to do was not be scared anymore. Taking three steps forward, I flung my arms around Meghan's leg and held on tight, burying my face against her jeans right above her knee. I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed. Please, please go away, whoever you are!
My plea was answered with a raspy chuckle, followed by, Hello, little Fae-child. Do you know what you are?
It was such a cold voice, with the kind of tone that witches used in movies when they were trying to make kids think they were nice, when really they just wanted to stick you in a great big cauldron and turn you into stew.
I used to think witches and goblins and monsters were all make-believe, especially since Logan and Bradley had always try to scare me and Jack and Joey with stories about them. At first, I thought they could see the monsters too, but when they started describing what they looked like I knew they were only teasing. If they really knew about them, they would be even more scared than me, I bet. The ghoulies didn't scare me so much anymore, since I had grown used to them, but this strange voice terrified me.
I clung to my big sister for a long time. When the voice didn't return, I stole a glance upward only to find Meggy standing unnaturally still, the potato peeler gripped tightly in one hand, her other palm pressed against the rim of the sink. Her eyes were fixed on something outside the window. Curious, I followed her gaze. What I saw then frightened me so much I gaped, letting my sister's leg go. It was the black bird, only it looked as if it had grown in size. The strange, dark red glow had grown, too, seeping from the bird like some demon fog. Long, wispy tendrils of it crawled down the trunk of the tree and over the branches, the pointed ends looking like earth worms seeking damp soil to burrow into. One of the tendrils had pulled away from the tree and was stretching toward the window.
My instincts told me to run, even as my conscience insisted I stay and guard my big sister. I took several steps back and opened my mouth, wanting to scream. I must have made some sound because Meghan snapped out of her daze, her hands jerking up as if returning to the chore she had forgotten about. Her hands must have moved too fast because instead of peeling the potato skin, the peeler slipped and cut her knuckle.
"Crud!" Meghan hissed, dropping the peeler and clutching her hand.
"Meghan? Are you okay?"
I jumped. When did Mom get home?
"Bradley! Logan! Turn those video games off and finish the potatoes. I need to see to your sister's hand."
All around me, chaos erupted. Groaning, Logan and Bradley obeyed, shuffling into the kitchen with glum looks on their faces. Mom was pulling Meghan down the hallway toward the bathroom and Jack and Joey, recently released from the captivity of the day care center, started chasing each other around the house, screeching in delight.
As my two older brothers commenced with the potato peeling, resuming their fight, this time using soggy potato peels instead of fireballs and magical shields, I quietly snuck out of the kitchen and headed for the room I shared with the twins. Jack and Joey hardly noticed as I disappeared down the hallway, having abandoned their chase game for the toy basket kept next to the couch.
I passed the bathroom on the way, peeking in to make sure Meghan was okay. Mom was clucking like a hen while my sister tried to assure her it was only a nick. Meggy didn't see me as I passed, but she looked shaken, no matter how she tried to reassure Mom. Her skin was pale and her eyes were shifting color faster than usual. Had she heard the voice as well? Had she seen what I'd seen?
Hoping that the horrible bird was gone now and the strange voice with it, I slipped into my room and climbed onto my bed. Although the window on the far wall looked out over the opposite side of our yard, I closed the blinds anyway. It took me a long time to get the plastic rod to twirl in the right direction, but once I could no longer see any daylight, I breathed a sigh of relief. Selecting one of my favorite comic books, one sporting a hero wearing green, I had curled up on my pillow and read until Mom called us all into the kitchen for dinner.
"Aiden honey, did you hear me?"
I blinked and glanced up to find my mom turned in the driver's seat and giving me a worried look. We were home and parked in our driveway. When had that happened? I shook my head. No. I hadn't heard her. I had been so preoccupied with recalling the incident in the kitchen with Meggy and the weird voice that I hadn't even noticed most of the drive home, let alone what Mom had been saying.
She smiled kindly and said, "We are going to see Doctor Sellers tomorrow morning. We are going to try this medication, and if it doesn't help, you won't have to keep taking it, okay?"
Will it make me sick? Will it make me different? Will it make the creepy voice go away for good and make it so I don't see the ghoulies anymore?
Knowing none of those words would ever come out of my mouth, I simply said, "Kay."
Mom smiled and ruffled my hair, then released her seat belt and stepped out of the car. Although it had scared me, I was glad I remembered everything. If the black bird and the ghoulies were really trying to hurt me or Meghan, knowing as much about them as I could might help someday.
Not wanting to linger in the car, especially if the crow was back, I quickly unsnapped my seatbelt and climbed out onto the concrete after my mom. The car door slammed shut a little harder than I had meant it to, but I didn't let the guilt get to me. Instead, I hurried toward Mom, grabbing her hand as we walked the short distance to the house. I didn't even look into the trees. The last thing I wanted to see was that black bird staring at me with glowing red eyes again.
Thank you for reading this second installment from Aiden's point of view! Hopefully I'll have the next installment up soon. In the meantime, discover the Otherworld with the first book in the series, Faelorehn. The ebook is free on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Kobo and Smashwords! The audio book edition is also available from Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.