A short story originally published in Entropy magazine
I did not find them. They found me.
I was on the roof in the late afternoon, trying to fix one of the rotors on Municipal Drone-40. I’ve never been the mechanical type, but I’d spent my whole first week in The Municipality screwing around with generators, electrical panels, computer networks and now a drone repair kit after mashing the damn thing into the side of a building on one of my first test flights.
The Facetime chats with my supervisor were already filled with sighs and questions about when I’d finally start doing the job I’d been hired for. In frustration with the broken drone, I kicked white gravel over the edge of the building.
Up rose a terrible, throaty cry that I interpreted as a mixture of outrage and pain.
I crept to the edge.
Just as I did, up rose this explosion of black havoc that so startled me I fell backward on my ass onto the rocky rooftop.
“Jaysus,” I said as the bird flew over me and settled down on one of the capped venting pipes.
As I stood up and brushed the pebbles off my rump, it cawed at me. I flipped it the bird, which made me chortle to myself. Flipping the bird, get it? These are the kinds of things that amuse one when one spends his days utterly alone.
The bird hung out there while watching me work on the drone. I’d removed one of the evil looking 3-blade propellers so that I wouldn’t lose a finger as I worked on the malfunctioning rotor. I felt self-conscious under its beady eyes.
“Why don’t you go away and come back nevermore?” I asked.
It didn’t respond but did cock its head a bit, which I suppose is the universal language for, “Hmm, that’s puzzling.”
At some point it flew toward me and I instinctively threw up my arms to protect my face. But instead of attacking, it made a beeline for the drone propeller, deftly picked it up out of the white rocks and took off again for its perch.
“Dude,” I said, “I need that!”
With what I sensed was amusement in its dark brown eyes, it then flew over the edge of the roof, looked back at me and dropped a couple of stories down to the tiered roof of the next building.
If I couldn’t get the prop back, then I couldn’t fix the drone without cannibalizing one of the others. Which wouldn’t make sense, of course. I should just haul out one of the others, which would mean this one was totally out of commission. Which was not something I wanted to explain to my supervisor.
“Bring it back, asshole!”
It put the prop down, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Nevermore.” Then it whisked the prop back up and lit out for parts unknown as dusk descended on my amazed and flummoxed self.
People ask me how I can possibly be the only caretaker of The Municipality. My response is that there’s just not that much to do.
“But it’s so big!” they say.
Indeed it is, already the population of Tampa, FL and growing by the day. Downtown has been densely populated for over a year and now the suburbs are starting to fill out as well.
Of course, I’m the only Liver, as we jokingly call ourselves, residing permanently in The Municipality. Everyone else commutes. Both my apartment and my workplace are located in an old office building in the central part of the city. It used to belong to a major defense contractor, whose name I’m not supposed to disclose, though you can still see the ghostly silhouette of its dismantled corporate logo on the front of the building.
The government chose it as my headquarters because it has industrial generators that can keep the power on in the building indefinitely as long as the diesel keeps flowing. Since I only power up my quadrant of the top floor when I need to, the massive receptacles of fuel in the basement seldom need renewing. In fact, most of my actual energy comes from a Tesla Powerwall fed by the solar panels on the roof.
When I first arrived, they expected this building to be a hub of activity. There were plans, mock-ups, models, etc. The top floor was going to be manned by a team of drone operators and first responders who would have the entire municipality under observation 24/7.
Indeed, I still have a fleet of 39 camera-bearing drones that sit collecting dust in a large storage room near the stairwell to the roof. The fortieth I keep on the roof in a small hangar for when I need it, which is not all that often. Oh, sure, I fly it around a little daily to gather footage and tracking signals for the Powers That Be. That seems to keep them happy enough. But my primary genuine use for the drone is to follow the corvids, who are always the first to detect trouble in their domain.
My official title is Municipal Manager of Security, though when people ask me what I do, I generally tell them I’m The Municipality’s chief caretaker. Even that’s an exaggeration because I’m not really the chief of anyone. I could probably have a staff if I requested it, but the Powers That Be like that I’m able to keep my operating costs so low. It makes it that much easier to justify the continued existence of The Municipality, which requires billions to maintain when you add up all the other costs.
Anyway, I try to stay under the radar of both the Powers and the media, but there is a Twitter account called @SheriffOfDeadTown that somehow takes my intentionally dry reports, which are a matter of public record, and turns them into snappy little tweets that are rife with inaccuracies and exaggerations. There’s another called @MayorOfDeadTown that just makes up gothic tales of ghosts and zombies.
The former is annoying because it drives the steady trickle of unwanted media inquiries. The latter is a bigger pain in the ass because it often inspires the wacko incursions we get. “We” as in me, the daytime Livers and, of course, the fish crows.
Let me just say that most people have been respectful of our boundaries. As a species, we human beings tend to be stupid, gullible, mean and hostile. But we also tend to respect the dead. Most graveyards, after all, go unmolested. The Municipality is simply the world’s largest, most unusual graveyard, one inhabited by legions of citizens who, it is widely assumed, are determined to enlist us into their ranks.
A couple of days after my first visit by the black bird, I was on my electric bike going to check on a fallen tree called in by one of the undertaking crews. I found it exactly at the GPS coordinates they provided: a large live oak had tipped over onto the porch roof of one of the still empty ranch houses on 45th Avenue. It could have been worse but was beyond the scope of the city landscaping crews. I’d need to call in both a tree service and a carpenter.
As I was taking pictures with my phone for the benefit of the insurance company, I saw another black bird roosting on one of the larger limbs of the fallen tree, peering down with apparent interest. I zoomed in and snapped a picture, then took a closer look.
After my first encounter, I’d gone online to figure out if what I’d seen had been a crow or a raven. On one hand, ravens don’t really live in cities. They’re more country birds. On the other hand, The Municipality was no longer your average city. Still, based on the size, sound and beak of the creature, I’d concluded it was just a large fish crow.
It turns out fish crows have always been common in the city, which abuts the Gulf Coast and is replete with small lakes and retention ponds.
“Are you the talking prop-thief bird?” I asked, but it just took off.
Not much later, I was headed back downtown on my trusty Tern cargo bike when another black bird appeared in the road in front of me. Don’t be paranoid, I thought. It was probably just eating of roadkill. Except, of course, there wasn’t much roadkill in The Municipality, where traffic was scarce.
I slowed and swerved to avoid the bird but, as I passed by, saw it had a propeller in its beak. So the prop thief was following me around just to taunt me, apparently, which I found both amusing and slightly menacing.
I stopped the bike and slowly approached my avian nemesis.
“Nevermore,” I repeated, hoping it would say the word and so drop the propeller, at which time I would scare it away.
It stared at me until I was within a few feet and then flew down the street, never getting much above eye level. It landed back in the middle of 17th Street probably 50 yards or so away. It put down the prop and cawed at me.
The shadows were already starting to get long in the city and I wanted to reach home before dusk. After all, the Powers didn’t waste money on lighting for its one lone living resident. There’s regular dark and then there’s city-at-night-with-no-street-lights dark. I’d found the latter was spooky as all get out.
So, I weighed my options, trying to remember what I was carrying in the emergency pack I kept strapped to the back of the cargo bike.
“Screw it,” I said, got back on my bike and followed the bird.
I won’t bore you with the whole tale of how every time I rode down the road and got off the bike, the crow would again fly down the 17th the other way, apparently toying with me for its own amusement. At some point, I got pissed off enough to consider unholstering my taser and trying to fricassee the little bastard from 10 feet away.
I probably would have given up if the bird hadn’t taken a right turn on 23rd Avenue and waited for me. This time I rode up in front of it, not bothering to get off the bike and said, “Listen, if you’re leading me somewhere in particular, then let’s do it. I’ll just follow on the bike. Otherwise I’m going home to my crappy microwave meal and newest Zelda game. Maybe I’ll also put in an Amazon order for a shiny new BB gun. Getting my drift?”
It flew right up to the bike and landed on the milk crate strapped to the front. Cocking its head once, the prop still in its mouth, it then flew down 23rd Street a ways. Now it was just a matter of following, as if my bike were tethered to its tail.
As I rode on, I started hearing other crows cawing around me, making me shudder. After my first encounter on the rooftop, I’d googled crows and ravens. As I understood it, they were corvids, in the genus Corvus and the family Corvidae. Some of what I found out unnerved me, such as the fact that a group of crows is technically called a “murder.” So, there I was envisioning an enormous dark “murder of crows” engulfing me Alfred-Hitchcock-style, picking out on my eyes first and burrowing into my brain before popping out my chest like in that old children’s rhyme about four and twenty black birds baked in a pie.
That was nonsense, of course. Crows will kill other birds and small animals, but they don’t mob and murder people. I couldn’t start fleeing 10-ounce birds and still do my job. So, when when it started getting truly dark, I just flipped on my headlamp and soldiered on.
A couple of miles down the road, the crow disappeared. Did I pass it somehow? It was alarmingly dark in that leafy, bushy neighborhood. Even starlight was scarce. It brought out all those instinctual fears of ambush. I guess that’s why, in a city of the dead, I nonetheless whispered, “Where you’d go bird?”
There was an “uh-uh” call to my left. I pulled out my phone and shook it twice to turn on the flashlight. There was the bird sitting on the roof of a beat up compact car parked under a tree. That set off my internal alarms. There are no cars in The Municipality unless some living person drives them there, and the Livers should be gone at night. The landscapers, mortician crews, maintenance people: everyone goes home in the evenings except for me.
Of course, there were possible innocent explanations. Maybe the car broke down and the owner got a ride home with someone else. But, if that were true, why was it parked under a tree rather than in a driveway? Was the owner trying to hide it from the drones that, at least according to our public relations, were supposed to be the sentinels of The Municipality?
Once it knew that I’d spotted it, the fish crow did a sort of feathery Superman leap onto a wooden privacy fence.
What to do. One part of me wanted the whole thing to be a stupid farce that would one day make for a good anecdote among yet-to-be-made friends: the time a brazen black bird sent me on a wild good chase. The other part of me was sure something was wrong. Did I really want to know what? Should I put my life on the line in order to safeguard the citizens of the world’s largest crypt? Nobody would ever know if I just turned around and went home to my well-lit downtown enclave.
What the hell. Whatever I was–chief caretaker or Sheriff of Deadtown or designated witness to unspeakable global calamity–this was the job.
But I didn’t call it in, not wanting to explain the whole chasing-a-fish-crow-across-the-city thing. My supervisor was already losing his confidence in me. If I told him this crazy story, he’d think I was nuts rather than just inept.
So, I parked the bike in the driveway and, though feeling absurd, knocked on the door. I should mention that I had access to a database of virtually every property in the city. By typing the address of the place into my phone, I knew it was a two-bedroom ranch where a Deborah Whitehaven, age 66, was interred.
The crow sat on the fence gate, which was latched but not locked. I pushed it open while announcing my presence so I didn’t get shot by somebody—this still being America, after all.
“Hello, anyone there? This is Davante Jordon, Head of Security for The Municipality. I saw the vehicle out front and am coming into the backyard to make sure no one needs my help.”
My first impression was of a baffling tumult of twisting shadows as I panned my phone to take in the yard. On my right there was what looked like a wide ladder leaning diagonally onto a tall privacy fence. On it perched two crows, one of which flew off into the darkness when I caught it in the beam of my phone light. The second turned out to be a painted wooden statue of a crow.
Moving leftward, there were a number of long, black poles of various lengths with horizontal bars on the tops. On one of these bars roosted another crow decoy. There was also an artificial pond with a perimeter of natural stones and with an impressionistic corvid statue in the middle that had to be four feet tall.
Further to the right was a huge, appalling object that made me take a step backward before I recognized it as the roots of some great tree that had been plucked from the darkness of earth and placed here like an enormous, frozen tentacled sea creature with writhing arms.
The only object in the yard that didn’t seem like part of the set of some gothic horror film was a small gazebo under which was planted a cement picnic bench.
“Hello,” I said again. “Anybody there?”
“How about you, Nevermore? You brought me all this way to see the backlot of your Dr. Caligari remake?”
There was a beat, followed by a black blur angling down toward the monstrosity of roots, or rather just behind it.
Then a woman’s scream, which sent me scrambling for my taser.
“Let go, you asshole,” she shouted as she stumbled from behind the roots, her long hair being pulled upward by a crow pulsing with wing flaps and a series of loud, high-pitched caws.
As the woman batted at the bird, it let go and flew out beyond the perimeter of light.
“You okay?” I said.
“Most uncool Huggin, you little bitch!” she shouted into the darkness.
I approached her cautiously, my taser drawn even though it was useless at a distance.
“This is my mother’s house,” she said, sounding like she might start crying, like she was nearing the end of her rope. “My childhood home.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s going to be okay.”
“No, it really isn’t,” she sniffed.
Juanita Whitehaven was a bit of a mess, which is to say she was like most everybody else these days. I sat her down on one of the concrete benches next to the concrete picnic table, which was crusted with bird shit over a mosaic inlay of triangular pieces of tile.
“Nasty,” she said, apparently referring to the guano.
“Yeah, I guess beggars can’t be choosers.” I said, walking over to the French doors and giving them a tug. “You haven’t been inside, have you?”
She shook her head.
After checking her driver’s license, I grabbed my pack off the Tern and set up an emergency candle. Next I broke out the first-aid kit and checked her wounds with an LED flashlight. The scratches were pretty deep yet barely bleeding. I dabbed them with hydrogen peroxide anyway. She bore it like a nervous dog, clearly tense at my touch.
“You sure you just got these?”
Her wavy black hair was mussed up from the crow. When I mentioned it, she dragged her fingers through it in a half-hearted way.
“Here,” I said, handing her a granola bar, which she ignored.
Sitting across the table from her, I ripped open my own bar, took a bite, and waited her out.
“Am I under arrest?” she finally asked.
“I’m not a cop,” I said, “just a glorified security guard. I could detain you, I guess, but that seems like overkill for trespassing on your own Mom’s place.”
“So, I can go?”
“Sure,” I said, wondering how much trouble I’d get into if I didn’t call in the incident soon. “But we could also just chat for a bit if you want to tell me why you’re here.”
Juanita just sat there, her shadowy face staring down and her ample forehead glowing in candlelight, as if she were a tragic saint in chiaroscuro painting. She had a prominent nose sticking out from sunken cheeks. I had the impression she hadn’t been eating well.
“How about if you just tell me about your mother and these crazy birds? Did you know one can talk?”
She raised her face toward me, her dark brown eyes shining out of deep cavities.
“They talked to you?”
So I told her my story of the propeller thief, which seemed to animate her.
“That had to be Muggin,” she said. “He’s a scamp. Mother adored taught him a dozen or so words. ‘Nevermore’ was more a joke, of course. They’re no parrots or myna birds, but corvids are pretty fair human mimics.”
She went on to tell me the tale of how her mother, Dr. Deborah Whitehaven–who was apparently an ornithologist of some repute–had raised the crow couple that came to be known as Muggin and Huggin. After reaching adulthood, the mated pair made the professor’s back yard their home base and nesting area, and they raised several generations of offspring who often visited.
They were an especially convivial pair who spent a great deal of time interacting with the professor, as did their offspring. In fact, their whole extended family often used her mother’s back yard as a roost.
“She was obsessed with them for the last five years of her life,” Juanita said.
The professor had lived in the city was before it evacuated and renamed The Municipality. In fact, she was among the first thousand Praeser-24 victims. When she realized she was dying, she requested that her family position her remains seated in her favorite vintage armchair gazing through the French door windows into her backyard.
“It’d be lovely to watch my darlings and their offspring throughout eternity, almost exactly my idea of Heaven,” she had written in her will.
“Typical,” Juanita said. All her life, she and her brother had taken a backseat, often literally, to all the birds in their mother’s life.
It had been a kind of family joke. In the morning, their mother would be whistling, chattering, clucking and knocking away at whatever birds were in the enormous cage in the front passenger seat of their ancient Taurus wagon. Meanwhile, the kids would be in the backseat bickering with one another, their mother so oblivious to them that she often forgot to drop them off at school on her way into the university.
“Those cages were always, and I mean always, secured with a seat-belt. But our own seat-belts were buried so deep between the seat cushions that it took us years to realize they existed at all,” Juanita said with a little laugh. “God, how we hated those damned birds.”
It never really got any better. In the last several years of her mother’s life, as Juanita’s marriage was falling apart and she struggled with an opioid addiction, her mother barely noticed.
“I’d go to her house and try to get her to dredge up a little motherly sympathy, but she’d just sit there with her binoculars talking about the latest antics of the Huggin and Muggin clan. In a way, there were her legacy. She wrote hundreds of articles on corvids, especially fish crows, demonstrating just how smart they are. Did you know their their total brain-to-body mass ratio is as high as those of the great apes and cetaceans? That they are tool users and excellent problem solvers? No, no, I couldn’t compete with that.”
Even as Juanita told her story, her laughter metamorphosed into a kind of manic hysteria. I couldn’t smell any liquor on her breath, but wondered about drugs.
“But you know what? Sometimes she’d take my hand in hers and we’d sit there in silence, watching those damned birds. When something happened, she’d squeeze my hand and smile. ‘Aren’t they delightful?’ she’d say. ‘I’m so glad you’re here.’” I think that was the only time she said those words to me:‘so glad you’re here.’”
Just then, a crow flew down and stood at the end of the table, as if calling a meeting to order.
“Hello Huggin,” she said. “I suppose you want me to take off so you can have her all to yourself again.”
Huggin, who looked the same as Muggin to me, flew up onto her shoulder and nuzzled Juanita’s hair with what looked like affection.
“Too late,” Juanita said. “Too late for that.”
At some point that I can’t remember, as the candle slowly burned down, the conversation turned to me.
“So how did a nice boy like you….”
“Wind up as the caretaker for the largest cemetery in history?”
She nodded. I almost answered with the requisite, “Just lucky I guess.” But she had just spilled her guts to me and it didn’t feel right to just blow her off.
“I volunteered,” I said.
“You must have immunity.”
“All the Livers who work here do.”
“Do you mind if I ask? How it felt, I mean?”
A natural question, of course. Praeser-24 doesn’t spread as fast as a lot of viruses, but it’s especially lethal, so people are always curious about survivers. And there are those inevitable questions behind the question. What did you do differently? What vitamins were you taking? What treatment did you get? What makes you so special? The answer, of course, really comes down to dumb luck.
“Same as with most people, I guess. Luckily, I didn’t get the sudden onset variety so had time to get to the ER. At first you feel like shit, normal flu stuff. You shiver, then the shiver gets worse. Your whole body kind of vibrates. Faster and faster until you’re stuck. You can’t move and it’s hard to breathe and you’re scared but also not normal scared because your brain kind of freezes up, too. Hard to explain. Did you ever have a dream that seems to go on all night, one you just can’t shake even if you wake up multiple times? Like you can’t find the exit? It was kind similar to that, except the dream was a dark thought that moves slow as a glacier. The way a sick tree thinks, I suppose.”
An extended, crystallized feeling of horror, unnatural as a frozen flame.
But I didn’t say that. Juanita swallowed and looked away. People think they want to know these things, but they don’t really. Can’t blame them.
“Do you think, you know, could some of them still be alive?”
I shake my head. All the doctors who aren’t just kooks say there’s no way. No brain activity. No heartbeat. No blood flow. But also no decay. As if they’ve been turned to wax or plastic. They’re still not sure how. So, families don’t want to bury them. Or cremate them. It’s not logical, of course. They’re dead, but there’s that tiny spark of doubt and minuscule hope of resurrection. The tiny spark that inflamed the public imagination into a bonfire of massive protests and political demagoguery that ultimately became The Municipality.
So even the people who didn’t die here at ground zero of the pandemic are boxed up and moved here, each abandoned home becoming a crypt for the thousands of new victims.
“You should go home now,” I said. “Why don’t I call you one of the special Ubers allowed into the city. Sometime tomorrow we’ll get your car back to you.”
She shook her head.
“I’ll go sleep in the car and leave in the morning. I just want to see her and the ole homestead again in the daylight, you know. One last time.”
“Okay,” I said, feeling too tired to argue. The morning was soon enough, yet seemed so far away. Interminable.
When she left for her car, I snuffed out the candle, folded up my arms on the cold, stony table and put my head down.
Even corvids sleep, I suppose.
They’d gone to so much trouble to bring me there. Perhaps once they’d brought Juanita to my attention, they figured that she was my problem, that a fellow human would be able to save her from herself.
In this, they were mistaken.
I was jolted awake by this deep, terrible rattling sound, as if someone were quickly dragging hollow bones across an endless series of fleshless rib cages. I was muddle-headed and bathed in clammy, dewy dampness, unable to piece together the weird scene presented in the dim dawn light. There was a crow, its beak parting like the black blades of hedge clippers, its call abrading the stillness of the bizarre yard. It hopped and sidled along a piece of baroque scenery I’d somehow missed in the darkness. A lumpen figure sitting in front of the French doors. Another statue? I blinked, raised a knuckle to my right eye, squeegeeing away moisture as I stood slowly, at first just to shift my point of view, to grasp this blurry, poorly lit tableau.
When the scene finally clicked, I jerked up, bashing my knee on the underside of the concrete table.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit,” I cursed as the bird flew away over my head so closely I felt the wind of its wings.
There sat Juanita in a folding, aluminum yard chair, staring straight ahead through the French doors at her mother’s posed and un-decomposed corpse.
I shook her shoulder.
“Juanita,” I said, quietly. Then more loudly, “Juanita!”
But she was still. Unflinching and unblinking. I felt for a pulse and got none.
“You idiot!” I yelled, not knowing which of us I meant. “You absolute moron!”
I understood all of it all at once. How had I missed it?
Those wounds on her shoulder hadn’t been fresh wounds. The bird had only been tugging her hair. No, the scratches had happened earlier in the day, which is why they’d mostly stopped bleeding.
I stood and tried the doors again. They were still locked. Walking around the perimeter of the house, I found what I now knew had to be there: the window that she’d broken carefully in order to get at the latch. The window she’d crept through in order to see her mother. The window that had cut her shoulder?
No, maybe not. The wounds really did look like claw marks. So one of the crows, then, did attack her. Maybe trying to pull her away?
If so, unsuccessfully. Because Juanita had gotten in, had touched her mother, perhaps hugged and kissed her, the professor who’d paid her little heed, who continued to stare through the glass at her beloved, dark companions.
And she’d become infected, of course. Because somehow Praeser-24 lives on within the corpses, keeping them from decay indefinitely once the immune system is defeated, cleverly biding its time until it has the opportunity to infect again long after other viruses would have died away.
Juanita had just gotten unlucky or, maybe from her viewpoint, lucky to be struck with the sudden onset variety of the virus. The “quick freeze” as it’s known on social media and the tabloids, not to mention that still controversial Saturday Night Live comedy skit.
So there she sat, enthroned on a beach chair, victorious over my clumsy, tepid ineptitudes.
Which left me in a bad position, of course. Me, the bumbling caretaker whose main concern now was taking care of my own worthless ass.
I couldn’t just leave her, but also couldn’t report things the way they’d happened. The Powers would want to know why I hadn’t called it in as soon as I discovered her, how I’d found her in the first place, and why I’d shown such terrible judgment.
So I did nothing. Just sat cross-legged next to her, reached up to the arm of the chair and covered her cold and rigid hand with my own, awaiting the full break of day. There would be time to ride back to my tower, fly a tracking drone over the city, and pretend to find Juanita’s car on my own. Then I’d investigate, find her corpse, and call it in.
All the correct procedures would be followed, all electronic breadcrumbs would be in place, and the Powers That Be would be satisfied, perhaps even pleased, with my performance. They’d especially love that one of their pricey fleet of drones had been put to good use.
Time enough for that. In that moment, though, I just sat there with her, peering through the darkened glass at the professor whose dead gaze was now fixed only on her daughter.
For more fiction by Mark R. Vickers, see the Fiction/Poetry page