A blackbird stood on the light pole at the traffic signal when Lori turned off I-75. She sat at the red light, staring at it, idly wondering what the difference between a crow and a raven was as it was silhouetted by the setting sun.
The light turned green and the car behind her honked. “Asshole.” She spoke almost automatically and without any true heat. Keeping up appearances even though there wasn’t anyone in the car with her. She’d found out a long time ago that when you put on an act, you could never, ever drop out of character.
Her cell phone rang. As it always did, the sound made her jump anxiously. She pressed the answer button on her hands-free set. “Hello?”
“Hey, Lori.” It was Jerry, of course. “Where are you?”
“Just getting off the freeway. I’ll be home in about ten minutes.”
There was a pause. “You’re late.” The flat unpleasant note in his voice raised the hair on the back of Lori’s neck.
“Sorry, sweetie.” She hastened to placate him, sure that this time he’d understand. “My shift ran over…Corvidea…” She choked on the woman’s name. She cleared her throat, tried again, “That old lady…the one I told you about that likes me? She…died today.”
“Yeah, they told me that when I called.” He spoke off-handedly. “That sucks.”
Lori gritted her teeth, then asked in as even a tone as she could manage, “I asked you not to call work, unless it was an emergency.” She took a breath, then added, “It’s not, is it?”
Jerry sighed. Lori could picture the exasperated look on his face and the contemptuous curl to his lip. “Well, you’re late and we’ve got plans.” They were supposed to go out to celebrate his new job.
“You should head out without me. I’ve had a shitty day.” Lori didn’t think she could stand to be around his friends tonight.
“Oh, come on,” Jerry said, sharply, “If you stayed in every time one of those old bats died, you’d never go anywhere.”
Lori cringed at the whine in her voice. “Jerry, please. You just go.” Fleetingly, she wished she could ask Jerry to stay home and give her a hug. But, she just couldn’t take the sulking and the tantrum right now.
“Fine.” He hissed into the phone. She knew that he’d be telling his friends what a pain she was, as soon as he got to the bar.
The thing was, it felt like Corvidea was the only actual friend she’d ever had. And she died today.
Corvidea had been striking, even as old as she was, with thick, straight white hair that was shot through with black, big almond shaped eyes that were an amber that was so light, they looked yellow, and high cheekbones. She held a doctorate in English and one in history. Her room was wall-to-wall books that she often let Lori borrow.
She was gnarled up with some sort of arthritis and she had a medical marijuana prescription that she occasionally shared with Lori on the back porch of the nursing home. The first couple of times had been strange and awkward because Lori had never done anything like that when she was in high school. She wouldn’t have even known where to buy pot.
Corvidea would ask Lori to walk her and then near the end, to wheel her outside to watch the sunset, right at the end of Lori’s shift. She’d light up her joint and take one or two puffs (Corvidea called it a “toke”) and then peer at Lori. “You driving home?” She’d ask. On the days that Lori said, “No, Jerry’s coming to get me.” Corvidea would close her eyes, shake her head and offer the joint to Lori. Most of those days, Lori would take a puff.
“If they drug test you,” grinned Corvidea one day, when Lori got nervous about it,“You just send them to me and I’ll tell them I been smoking it up in my room and you just sit there making sure I don’t fall and break a hip. Everyone knows how much of a pain in the ass I am.” After that, every time Lori walked into Corvidea’ room, she smelled the pot smoke.
Lori found that pot made her downright loquacious (she winced when she thought that word, because if she used it in conversation, Jerry would get pissed at her for trying to make him feel stupid). Over the course of about a year she told Corvidea about her parents, her disappointing marriage, her dashed hopes for college or a child or a better life.
Corvidea would smile sadly, “Life sucks sometimes,” she’d say. She never tried to make Lori look on the bright side or tried to problem solve, she just sat there with her.
Anytime someone tried to complain that Lori was spending too much time with her, the old lady would say, “Oh, but Lori always helps me!” in the querulous voice of a sundowning Alzheimer’s patient (although the woman was sharp as a tack). Her voice would rise in artificial agitation and she would grab Lori’s hand and say, “Don’t you tell me I can’t visit with my goddaughter!” If Corvidea didn’t get her way, she had methods of making life miserable for her caretakers, so Lori and one of the other nursing assistants pretty much helped her all the time.
For the last week, Corvidea had been deteriorating–sleeping more, not eating, her circulation slowing down.
Three days ago she’d been too tired to get out of bed and her family had been summoned to the bedside. Only one came–a tall, dark haired woman with the same amber eyes and beaky nose. She wore a very expensive looking grey suit with dangly golden earrings and necklace to match. She’d talked quietly with the old woman for an hour, and then as she was leaving, stopped to speak to Lori, “Thank you.” She spoke gravely, “I appreciate that you take such good care of my mother.” She turned away, back towards her mother’s room, “We’ve always had a tough relationship…I travel you see, and it’s good that…” She stopped, took a breath, “Good that mom has someone.” Then the woman just walked out the door.
After that, Corvidea just faded from the reality around her. She sang and hummed quietly through the day; old rock music, folk music and occasional snatches of things that sounded Middle Eastern or Asian. Sometimes she looked out the window and muttered, talking to whoever dying people talked to.
Around the middle of today’s shift, Corvidea started actively dying, complete with death rattle. Though Lori had said the old woman “coded”, there had actually been no code called. The woman had had a DNR, so she just quietly slipped away between one moment and the next.
Lori had helped clean up the room and bag the body. Her supervisor had given her an envelope the Corvidea had written her name on. Inside it were two feathers, a black one and a white one. A note enclosed said, “Blackbird fly.” The ends of the feathers had been cut to a point. The feathers were quills, Lori realized.
She’d miss the old woman with her Beatles records, her brightly colored scarves and her hippy-trippy beliefs. The stories she had about traveling everywhere and doing everything. Lori liked to say she was Indiana Jones in a skirt. Corvidea would respond by telling Lori to bite her tongue, “He was a horrible researcher and a worse archaeologist.” She’d laugh.
As she turned onto her street, Lori was relieved that Jerry’s pickup truck was gone from the driveway of the duplex.
She unlocked the door, went inside, locked the door back up. Threw herself onto the couch without even taking off her jacket. Her purse with the envelope beside her on the couch.
Oddly empty, she wondered if she should get up and get herself some food. She couldn’t think of a thing that would be appetizing. She didn’t turn on a light as it got dark, she just gazed into space and wondered how happily-ever-after could turn to this.
A sharp caw got her attention. A bird’s cry, right there in the living room. She turned on the lamp right beside her.
A yellow eyed, black beaked bird stood looking at her calmly, its head was tilted inquisitively to one side.
Birds in the house were the worst kind of bad luck, Lori knew. Well, wild birds anyway. The ones people kept as pets didn’t count. Maybe this one was the neighbor’s tame bird? Maybe it had gotten out through an open door and came in because it was warm? Although Lori had no idea how it could have gotten in. For one thing, it was enormous…at least a foot tall. Maybe it was some sort of myna bird, like she’d seen in the pet store.
Years ago, Lori had read a version of Cinderella where, instead of a fairy godmother, the Cinderella girl had helpful birds that lived in the tree that grew over her parents’ graves. When she was a kid, Lori had liked to pretend that her parents were some variety of evil stepparent and her real parents were watching over her as ghosts, or angels, or maybe birds.
The trouble was, her parents really were her parents and nothing she did was ever enough for them. A bitter smile spread over Lori’s face. Marrying Jerry had been the only thing she ever did that made them happy.
She thought she’d be escaping the evil stepmother and stepfather–although her parents were both biologically hers–when she met her prince. No such luck apparently. The prince wasn’t exactly the prize she had thought he was.
“This is where you’re supposed to say, ‘Nevermore’.” Lori told the bird. “Sorry, I don’t have a statue you can perch on.”
The big black bird tilted her (Lori was sure it was a girl bird) head this way and that. It cawed once, convincing Lori that it was indeed tame, since a wild bird would be darting all over the room.
Lori held out her hand and the bird hopped closer until it had hopped right up to her hand.
A knock at the door startled both Lori and the bird–the latter took wing and perched on the back of the rocking chair in the corner.
She opened the door, just a crack, with the chain on it. A good looking black man stood there in a black T-shirt with blue jeans.
“S’cuse me ma’am. Did you see a black bird around here anywhere?” He asked.
“Oh yeah. Its here, actually.” Lori said, although she didn’t open the door.
“D’you think I could come and get it?” He asked
There was no way in hell she was going to let a strange man into her house. Even if he wasn’t a serial killer or anything, Jerry would throw a fit if he heard. Then she’d actually be better off if he was a serial killer
“Hang on, I’ll get her.” Lori shut and locked the door in the man’s face. She turned back to the room and was surprised to see that the bird was now sitting on the hall table, preening itself. She had no idea they could fly so quietly.
“Umm, it’s right here.” She called out through the closed door.
“Yes, ma’am. She probably heard my voice.”
That seemed to be the case, as the bird’s head went up and it started scanning the hallway. Then it looked at Lori and issued an imperious “Caw!”
Lori had to laugh, as the bird seemed to be very clearly saying, “Open the door. What are you waiting for?” She unlocked it and opened it enough for the bird to get out.
At the sight of the man, standing under the porch light, the bird took flight to land on his shoulder. He smiled at Lori, gratefully. “Thank you ma’am, I was really worried about her.”
Without another word he turned and hurried down the steps, the black bird clinging to the man’s shoulder like a parrot in mourning attire. She watched them until they passed the second street light.
It didn’t occur to her until much later to wonder how the bird had gotten in in the first place.
Late that night, Lori heard Jerry’s car pull up onto the lawn. She heard him get out of the car, fumble around for keys, trying to be quiet and not wake the neighbors. She listened to him stomp up onto the porch and mutter to himself. It was very clear because her bedroom window opened out over the porch.“I bet she’s had some boyfriend up in here. That’s why the stupid bitch didn’t want to come out.”
Lori’s blood ran cold. It was going to be one of those nights. She was going to be up all night, trying to convince him that everything was fine
Jerry’s resentful litany went on. “She’s been out with some bastard who…” He was cut off. “What the fuck?! That’s my keys! What the fuck was that? Goddamn bird! Now what?”
Lori sat bolt upright in bed. She considered going downstairs to let Jerry in, but if she didn’t, just maybe he’d go sleep it off in the car and she wouldn’t have to deal with him drunk.
This was not what Jerry had in mind, apparently. She heard him rattle the front windows, then the side windows. She was surprised that he wasn’t pounding on the door.
“Fuck it.” He passed under the open window again. “I bet he’s still here. I’ll catch her with him.”
For some reason she thought of the loaded pistol Jerry wanted her to keep in the night table. She didn’t like guns, hadn’t wanted it, hated to even shoot at targets, but Jerry insisted.
She took it out of the drawer. It was cold and heavy in her hand. She’d pictured Jerry’s funeral before. Herself in mourning. She really didn’t want Jerry dead, did she?
She heard Jerry start climbing the trellis to the roof over the porch, to the bedroom window that he knew she kept open.
As he climbed, his voice was a fierce mutter about how ungrateful she was and how this was all her fault. She saw his shadow on the porch roof, clearly silhouetted by the street light.
He flipped open his pocket knife to slit open the screen. “That’s another fucking thing I’ll have to fix in the morning.” He growled, apparently to himself
He didn’t see Lori, as she sat up in the dark, holding the gun in front of her the way he taught her.
The bed was opposite the window, in deep shadow. Jerry didn’t call out to her. Perhaps he thought that she was a heavy sleeper because of all the nights she’d pretended to sleep when he’d come home like this.
He put one foot into the window. Lori held the gun in both hands and steadied it, hoping that her inexperience with the thing wouldn’t make a difference at this range.
She remembered what Corvidea had told her about guns, Don’t ever challenge or hesitate. You won’t have a second chance. If you draw it, it’s because you intend to kill
She squeezed the trigger.
The noise in the small room deafened her. She opened the eyes she’d squeezed shut, and there was Jerry, on the floor. In the dark room, she saw a black puddle spreading from his head. He wasn’t moving.
She could hear Corvidea’s voice in her head. And make sure you cover your ass.
“That was a warning shot!” Lori screamed shrilly, “I swear to God, I will fucking shoot you if you take another step!” Her hands were still shaking when she held up the pistol to shoot at the bookcase. “No! Stop!” She shot one into the bookcase, not wanting the bullet to fly out the window and maybe hurt someone.
She heard voices shouting from the other side of the wall–her neighbor’s bedroom was backed up against hers. They obviously heard the gunshots.
She picked up her phone and dialed 911. “A man broke into my bedroom! I shot him!” The tears she was shedding were not feigned, but they were more of shock than grief.
The operator directed her to head downstairs, so she could open the door for the police. She leaped out of bed, not looking at the mess on the floor and the walls. She stood on the porch in the chilly night, not wanting to be alone in the house with Jerry’s body.
It was hours later when the police arrived, or maybe it was only a few minutes. Time had gone funny right after Lori had fired the first shot. The sun was coming up and there was a million people in her house, getting their muddy boots on the rugs, asking her questions she couldn’t keep track of.
A woman police officer seemed to be taking the lead in asking the questions and a paramedic stood by. Lori wasn’t sure why there was an ambulance here. Jerry wouldn’t need one.
She told them that Jerry went out and hadn’t come home yet. She told them she woke up when she heard someone climbing the trellis. She told them about taking out the gun. She told them that the man had used a knife to slit open the screen and she shot once, hoping to scare him off. She told them that the second time she shot, she aimed for the man’s face, which she only saw dimly.
“He wouldn’t stop.” She kept repeating over and over. She couldn’t help thinking of the nights when Jerry just wouldn’t stop harassing her. The nights he wouldn’t let her sleep. “I was so scared. I thought he was going to…” She pressed her hand to her mouth to keep the words in. There had been very little Jerry hadn’t done, although he was always careful not to bruise her where it would show.
The one time Lori had spoken to her mother about it, her helpful advice had been to remind Lori that a wife’s place was to submit to her husband and she should maybe talk to the Pastor. She’d talked to someone at Woman Safe and they weren’t very helpful either–they told her she needed to get away from Jerry, but they didn’t seem to understand that she had no money of her own and nowhere to go. She just needed to figure out how to make him stop.
Well, he’s sure stopped now. A voice that sounded like Corvidea’s cackled inside in Lori’s head
Someone asked her why there was a pickup parked on the lawn.
“What..?” Lori asked stupidly, rousing herself, “Oh god, that’s Jerry’s!” she started shaking, knowing that it was all going to fall apart.
The next door neighbor woman was sitting beside her, ostensibly offering emotional support although Lori suspected she just liked the excitement, said, “Oh my god! What if that bastard killed Jerry first?”
Vaguely, Lori wondered why the woman knew Jerry’s name. They’d certainly never spoken. The woman insisted on sitting right up next to her, so close that Lori could smell her scent. A sweet floral comprised of shampoo and detergent and maybe perfume. Lori had smelled it on the pillows on her bed sometimes.
A flurry of activity confirmed that Jerry was nowhere to be found outside or in the pickup.
After a few minutes, there was a conversation between the police who were tramping up and downstairs. They were going to ruin that carpet. Why Jerry thought white carpet on the stairs and in the hallway was a good idea, she’d never know.
A male uniformed police officer hesitantly came over and asked Lori, “Ma’am? Is this your husband’s wallet?”
“Where…” Lori swallowed, “Where did you get this?”
The officer looked at the woman as if for guidance, shifted uncomfortably, “It was on the man upstairs.”
“So, Jerry was carjacked?” Demanded Lori. “He stole Jerry’s car and came here?”
“Ah…we don’t think so. I’m sorry, I’m going to have to ask you to come upstairs.
Lori stood, feeling like she was not entirely inside her body. They would know. They would guess she’d done it on purpose. She couldn’t deny it.
She followed the police officer upstairs and realized abruptly she was still in her nightgown. It wasn’t really decent, to be honest. It was a grey silky one Jerry had bought for her, then had gotten all weird because he said she looked too good. Jerry would lose his shit if he knew all these people were seeing her in it.
Again, Corvidea spoke in Lori’s head, Jerry’s not going to be worrying about that now, is he?
She choked down a hysterical giggle. It came out as a sob.
The bedroom was lit by the rose gold of the sunrise. Two people were there, standing by the body which was covered by a blanket. One of them reached down with a gloved hand and pulled the blanket back
Laughter boiled out of her. “I shot Jerry! Oh, my god! I shot Jerry!” She was equal parts horrified and jubilant. That was it, she’d confessed. Next would be jail. A horrible trial. Prison.
At least Jerry won’t be a problem anymore. Lori truly didn’t know if that was her own voice or Corvidea’s
The woman police officer and the paramedic were suddenly beside her, “Ma’am, please, you need to calm down.” The police officer said, but not unkindly, “I can tell this is an awful shock. I’m so sorry.”
Lori couldn’t stop. She was laughing and crying at the same time. The paramedic led her away, talking softly, although the words didn’t matter. She led her down the stairs and had her sit on the stretcher some of the other EMS people brought in.
The laughter turned to true tears. She was so screwed. Although everyone was being much kinder to her than she imagined they would generally be to murderers.
They took her to the hospital, not jail. The doctor ascertained that she wasn’t actually hurt. Gave her something for anxiety that wrapped a blessed blanket of fog around her mind. They asked if there was anyone they could call to come get her. She gave them her cousin’s name, because Kristen was a lawyer and she’d know what to do.
Kristen arrived with her oldest boy in tow. A tall 13 year old who could pass for twenty, he was so big.
It was a Tuesday morning and Kristen never let her kids skip school. He muttered that he was suspended when Lori looked at him quizzically, earning a nasty look from his mom.
She took Lori to her home and made her lie down on the couch and covered her with a blanket. She snapped at her son to go dust and vacuum the guest room and put fresh sheets on the bed.
“Kristen.” Lori said, speaking for the first time since they left the hospital. She grabbed her cousin’s hand, “Don’t they understand? I. Shot. Jerry.”
“Sh-sh. It’s okay. Everyone knows it was an accident.
In the next day or two, it became clear that it was indeed so. She was interviewed a few times by different people, but the sliced open window seemed to convince everyone that she had reason to be in fear for her life. One of Kristen’s friends, a nice Jewish man she’d gone to law school with, showed up to help her with these interviews. When Lori got worried about the price, Kristen firmly told her it was pro bono. Anyway, the interviews were pretty perfunctory. Just a case of dotting i’s and crossing t’s Kristen said.
The only real mystery that anyone was concerned with was: what happened to Jerry’s keys? Fortunately, Lori had the extra keys to the pickup and was able to park the thing where it belonged.
Work called and told her to take as long as she wanted off–but she should know that they could only guarantee her job for the next week. Kristen had laughed bitterly with Lori over that.
It didn’t matter. Jerry had a little insurance policy and she could put the pickup up for sale. From Kristen’s living room, she hired some people to clean up the blood in the bedroom and move her bed into the spare room. Her mom called and told her it was a waste of money. “We should be able to get the place clean in a jiffy.” Her bright, can-do tone scraped over Lori’s nerves like sandpaper.
“Mom. Jerry’s brains are on the wall and there’s blood all over the floor!” Lori started to cry hysterically. Kristen took the phone away and talked to Lori’s mom.
Three days later, she was able to go back home. When she dropped her off, Kristen gave her the card of the therapist she saw in Ann Arbor, telling Lori, “Look, seeing a therapist doesn’t mean you’re crazy or anything. Just think about it, okay? She’s really nice and she’s got a sliding scale. ”
Lori shook her head, but took the card, feeling unusually fond of Kristen. Everyone in the family though Kristen was too big for her britches–she had gone to college and then to law school. She did wills and estates in town, raising her three boys alone. No one knew why she came back, since it was obvious she thought she was better than the rest of them, but everyone tolerated her at the family barbecues because she knew people who could get you out of your DUI’s. Funny that someone who seemed so together would need a therapist.