There were two crows in the tree when he went to unpack the kitchen. He only had three boxes of Rice-a-roni, a bag of pasta, two cans of olives, a saucepan and a frying pan so this only took a short while. He put his hand on his hips and nodded. Then he fetched a broom and swept the floor of the closet-cum-pantry. Then he put his hands on his hips and nodded.
There were only three boxes left, and two of them were clothes. He decided to take his time to make it seem like there was more to do. His new bedroom did not have an actual closet, only a rack on wheels that was made of bendy plastic. He hung half his work shirts on the frame before it threatened to give out. A new rack was penciled onto an ever-growing list. His bureau went in the corner opposite from where his mattress lay on the floor. The television sat by its lonesome, cord trailing for want of an outlet. He had been unable to take the VCR anyway.
He decided to make some coffee.
While the brew percolated, he lounged casually against the counter and gazed at the lone tree in his yard. The bark was white, some kind of birch? The leaves were small and sparse on the branches. There were five crows. He counted them a few times, went to reach for his pellet gun and grabbed empty air. Right. He hadn’t taken the pellet gun.
He chewed the coffee, swirling it past his teeth, in an effort to get rid of the tension in his jaw. He had made a commitment to focus on furnishing his new house, not on what he’d lost.
He unpacked his clothes, each neatly folded into a triangle and fitted into a drawer like silverware. That killed an hour.
He decided to break for lunch. There were about ten birds in the tree when he poured a box of Rice-a-roni into the saucepan, cooking distracted him so he didn’t bother counting. He had no flatware yet so he ate out of the pan using a serving spoon. He added salt-and-pepper shakers to the list.
There had already been a cracked hose on the spigot when he moved in, so he watered the patchy grass. As he stood idly sweeping water from one corner to another, something that had been bothering him finally floated to the forefront of his mind. He had not been able to make out any features on the birds. They were black, and of a certain size, so he had assumed they were crows, or even ravens. But now he looked up, and now he realized the birds weren’t black.
The hose dropped from his hand and hissed, twisting fitfully across the yard. The birds looked like cutout shapes, flat dark that nevertheless moved and behaved like a regular bird. He stood frozen, hand still posed as if it held the hose.
There was, there had to be an explanation for this. He bent to pick up the hose. The birds, as one, turned to look at him. He slammed the back door behind him, leaving the hose on.
Once inside he braced both hands on the wall and breathed heavy, as if recovering from a run. The unfair suddenness of the move, always in the back of his mind, now came forward to mingle with this newfound injustice. He decided to call home.
His cellphone had been smashed, but the house had come with an ancient rotary telephone already connected to a line. Nine rings.
“Hello?” the voice on the other end was reedy and thin. Uncle Geoff.
“Geoff,” he said.
“Hello?” the voice said again, “is this Bobby?”
“No, Geoff. It’s me.”
“No, Geoff,” he said, emphasizing each word, “it’s me.”
He wasn’t sure if it had gotten through, but then there was a sharp intake of breath on the other end.
“You.” The voice was accusatory. “You got a lot of nerve calling up here.”
“Uncle Geoff, I need—”
“I don’t care who you think you are, nothing excuses that kind of behavior.”
“Geoff, could you get—”
“If you were my kid I would’ve done more than send you packing, just be glad you got outta here before I got a hold of you.”
The dial tone screamed in his ear.
“Fuck you too,” he said to the empty air.
The sky was getting dark. He had planned to run to the store after unpacking, but that was no longer doable. The birds had run out of room on the tree and began perching on his car. There was one on the mailbox. He never saw them fly up, there just seemed to be more every time he looked up. The hose was still on. His yard was now flooded, sending a dark wash of moisture down his driveway onto the sidewalk.
There was an elderly gent in a straw hat coming down the sidewalk, walking a small white dog. He laughed and pounded the glass of the front window.
The man stopped in front of his driveway, following the trail of water up to the yard with his gaze.
“Yes! Here!” he called through the window glass.
The man looped his dog’s leash around a fence post and walked up the driveway. He did not acknowledge the birds. The man bent down to the spigot, then stood and faced the front window.
“You should be ashamed!” the man called through the glass, “wasting water like that.”
Panic set in. “Wait!” he called at the man’s retreating back, “wait, wait, wait!”
Street lights fizzed on. There were birds on the roof, now. He could hear them. The fence had disappeared under their mass, as had the car. He needed to eat. He needed a piss.
A lone bird perched on the streetlight, cloaking it with its wings. It cast no shadow.
He dragged himself from the window to try the phone again. Three rings.
“Hello?” it was a woman’s voice, low and sleepy. At first he mistook it for his mother’s. But then he realized it wasn’t.
“…Brad.” There was no animosity in her voice, but it was tense.
“I need to speak to mom.”
“Nobody’s here. S’why I answered the phone.”
He swore. “I need to talk to her.”
There was a click as Beth shifted on the other end of the phone. “What did you do now?”
He tightened his grip on the phone. “I didn’t do anything!”
“No.” she sounded tired. “You never do, do you?”
He had to count until the red went away. “It’s not my fault. Why didn’t you tell them it wasn’t my fault?”
She huffed a little. He realized she was laughing.
“It’s never your fault,” she whispered, “never your fault. Why do I need to tell them anything for you, they should already know.”
A muscle spasmed in his cheek. His jaw was clenched so hard the chords in his neck stood in high relief. “You did this…didn’t you?”
“Did what?” she sounded exasperated. “What did I do from all the way over here?”
“Stop it. Stop it unless you want me to come over there.”
She laughed harder, and there was a choking sound as she coughed in pain.
“Why, you gonna break the rest of my ribs?”
“You’re all alone.”
“So’re you.” She sighed. “Anyway, it was fun catching up. I’m tired.”
There was a bird on his stoop. He fought down panic. “Wait!”
“For what?” she sounded amused now. “What can you do that would surprise me?”
“I need help, you bitch.” He hissed into the mouthpiece.
There was a pause.
“You know,” she said, “I don’t have to tell anyone you called. I don’t think I’m going to. I’m tired now, Brad. Nice talking. See you.”
He screamed wait into the receiver but the line went dead. There was a bird on the pole. There was a bird on the doorknob. The birds crowded against the window, crowded out the scenery until there was nothing but dark.