Read Four and Twenty Blackbirds Online
Authors: Cherie Priest
Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Contemporary, #Dark Fantasy, #Fiction
It had made its point without a word: it knew I could see it too, and I knew it could touch me if it wanted.
Cora was long gone, outside now, calling to me in her too-loud quiet voice. We were pretty close to Miss Candy's cabin; it was only a matter of time before someone woke up and knew we were out of bed. "Shut up," I called out of the side of my mouth, but I don't think she heard me. I took a step back and my tailbone met the hard porcelain of the sink. I reached back, gripped the edge, and squeezed.
The very white thing stopped playing with the door and began to come towards me. It might have been only following the sound of Cora's voice, but it was going to have to go past me or through me to get to her. Either way, it was getting closer.
I was glued to the spot by sweat and fear. I wasn't sure how to move out of its way if I tried, and I didn't think for a moment that a mangled nursery rhyme was going to help me any.
"Eden," she called, sharpening the letters on her fright. "Eden, run!"
That was as good a plan as any, but my feet wouldn't hear it. I couldn't lift them, not with all my strength, and my arms weren't moving either. Maybe it did something to me or maybe I was only petrified by my own terror, but I froze up when it pressed against me. I turned my head and closed my eyes, and the side of my face the thing pushed against went numb. It went prickly and painful, like when you accidentally sleep on your armâ€”you wake up, and you can't feel it for a second, but then the blood flows back and it hurts all over like someone's jabbing at it with pushpins. The awful sensation spread down my neck, and shoulder, and clipped one of my knees before it faded.
"Sing a song of breath mints," I heard, and it was an insistent line, said with all the force of the Latinate chants of an exorcism. Cora's hand wrapped around my wrist and pried it loose from the sink.
"Banana cream pie. Four and twenty blackbirds take to the sky."
I opened my eyes and she was looking back at me, teeth locked together. "When the sky is filled up, with all the feathered wings . . ." She drew me forward, dragging me out of my horrified haze.
"The birds will come protect us, from all those other things. Come on, Eden."
I wrenched my other hand from the sink and let her lead me stumbling away, back into the darkness, away from the fluorescent buzz and the white thing in the bathroom. I looked over my shoulder and saw nothing but the big pale rectangle of light where we'd left the main door ajar.
"You can't stop for it," Cora breathed as we tripped and hopped back to our cabin. "You can't ever stop for it. You can chase it away with words, if you mean them when you say them, but you can't ever stop for it."
We reached the cabin breathless and awake, with twigs caught in our shoes and scuffs on our knees from all the falling. But we were alone, except for the snores and unconscious shufflings of our roommates.
Cora and I climbed into the same bunk and yanked the covers over our heads, turning the flashlight on to illuminate our private little space beneath the blanket. For a few seconds, we panted back and forth, catching our breath and listening for the worst.
"What was that?" I asked, suspecting she didn't have a much better idea than I did.
She shook her head to confirm it. "Dunno. But at least I can make it go away. And at least I know it's really there, now. At least you saw it too."
"Yeah, I saw it too. And you didâ€”you did make it go away."
"I told you. You've just got to say the rhyme."
It was my turn to shake my head. "That's the dumbest spell I've ever heard," I said. "I can't imagine why it worked, but I'm glad it did."
Cora smiled wide and all the way, for the first time in the few days I'd known her.
"If we knew why it worked, it wouldn't be magic, would it?"
The next day, when we returned from an hour's worth of swimming, there was a message waiting for Cora from her mother. Her grandfather had died of a stroke sometime while we were doing cannonball leaps from the diving board.
Her parents came to pick her up that afternoon, and she did not return.
The next year when I came to Camp Lookout, I looked everywhere for her. I wanted to know what had happened with the mean white thing and if she'd ever learned how to make it go away completely.
But I never got to ask her. She wasn't there.
That summer at Camp Lookout set the pattern for most of the rest of my youth: even the good parts were often overshadowed by omnipresent specters and knowledge of the insanity in my family woodpile. In time, curiosity and adolescent confidence outweighed my fear of Lulu's wrath, and I came to watch her constantly for a moment of weakness, a time when I could pounce on her with my unwelcome questions. But I had to wait for that moment, long and patiently, and with faith. I waited until high school, miles and years removed from lonely train stations and tangible interactions with other girls' ghosts.
My time came one night when I came home from school and found Lulu in her room, lying face up on her bed. A bottle of coconut rum lay on the floor beneath her hand, and her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen. The phone on the nightstand was off the hook and shrieking a dull, whining busy signal.
She opened her eyes when I came in, then closed them again.
"Damn," she said. "I thought you were Dave."
"Sorry," I responded, pinned to the spot where I stood. "You okay?" I asked.
Her eyes stayed shut so she could lie to me without looking at me. "I'm fine."
I'd have been a fool to let it go at that. "What's the matter?" I asked.
"Your grandmother's dead. Last night. A stroke, they're thinking."
Lulu and her mother hadn't spoken since Lulu had moved out of the house almost twelve years before. I couldn't recall having ever met the woman, though I guessed she must still live in town. That's why it was so confounding to be presented with the sight of my beloved aunt in shambles, sprawled across her bed, pushed to this point by the death of a woman we'd not seen in so long.
"You know what the kicker is?" Lulu slurred. "You know what really makes me . . ."
She stalled. I sensed she was hunting for a word, but when she realized what the right word was, she decided not to use it. She began the thought again. "You know what really makes me mad?"
"She's dead now, and that means me and Shelly's all that's left," she said, meaning her younger sister who now lived in Nashville. It had probably been Michelle who had called with the news.
I had an idea. I had a
It leaped out of my mouth with a little more glee than it should have.
"Just you two and old Tatie, eh?"
Lulu sat up fast, eyes blazing as though she were looking for something to hurl my way. I stepped back and braced myself against the doorframe with both hands, ready to run if I had to. Lulu settled on a bottle of cough syrup on the nightstand and chucked it drunkenly towards my head. It stumbled against the wall by my elbow, then clattered harmlessly to the floor at my feet. I held my ground.
"I didn't mean anything by itâ€”just to say that I guess there's another whole branch of the family there someplace. It's not just us, not really." Of course I meant something by it. I meant I wanted to know more, but I wasn't dumb enough to anger her over it if I could help myself.
She laughed without a trace of mirth and let her body fall back onto the bed. "That's true, I guess. Lord, but wouldn't we be better off if it wasn't so."
"It doesn't matter now anyway," I broached, still clinging to the doorframe. " 'Cause they sent Malachi away to Pine Breeze."
Lulu snorted, and something told me I'd screwed up. "Who told you that?" she asked.
"But they did, didn't they? They sent him off to Pine Breeze for the next twenty years and he's gotta stay fifty yards away from me for the rest of forever."
"Yeah, well. You're part right. But he's at the state facilities. You heard the judge say that part about the Bend, or did you forget? He's not over there at Pine Breeze."
Pine Breeze. It was all I could do to contain my excitement. For all of her promises to fill me in one day, she'd never done so. And if she wasn't willing to volunteer any information, now might be the best time to quiz her. I sighed my next question, desperate to make it come out casually. "How come?"
"It's been shut down for fifteen, sixteen years. Since you were born, anyway. You do the math." One long arm reached over the side of the bed, feeling for the rum and fumbling around.
On the other side of the house, the front door opened and Dave dropped his keys onto the end table by the couch, like he always did. I ran the tip of my tongue over my upper lip and took another deep, measured breath. Lulu found the rum and took another swallow.
This was as close to vulnerable as I might ever expect to see Lulu. Now or never. I was too curious to pay any attention to the twinge of guilt that warned I was taking advantage of her. I asked my next question anyway.
"Where is Pine Breeze, anyway?"
Lulu's eyes squinted low and close together. Uh-oh. "What do you want to know for?"
"I just do." I slid one foot back and forth and shifted my weight. She didn't answer me for a few long seconds, so I spoke again to fill the pause. "Just wondering."
"I told you, it's been shut down."
Dave appeared beside me. "She all right?" he asked quietly, but Lulu heard him.
"Would she have called you back from Atlanta if she was all right?" she spat, not budging from her prone position except to stuff a pillow up under her head. "And now this little thing thinks she can, she thinks, she wants to know about Pine Breeze, if you can believe that. . . ."
My uncle pulled me outside the doorway and leaned close. He peeked around the corner back at Lulu, and he lowered his voice. "You got plans with friends or anything? I mean, are you going off someplace tonight?"
"Not sure. Maybe I will, and maybe I won't."
He ignored my attitude and moved to his next query. "How bad do you want to know about Pine Breeze?"
No sense in lying. I dropped the nonchalance. "Pretty bad."
"Okay. Stick around. But give me a minute here. Let me get her to sleep." He nudged me farther down the hall and stepped into their bedroom, closing the door behind himself.
I stood there, baffled. It had occurred to me before that I might pump Dave for clues, but he always allied himself with Lulu, pleading ignorance or parental alliance. I wandered into the living room and flipped the television on, wondering if he was actually going to make good or if he'd only been trying to get rid of me.
Dave was a great guy, but it was a rare, rare day that he'd go against Lulu's wishes.
After an hour or two I heard the bedroom door open and close softly. Then boxes were shifting across the hall in the studio. Papers were shuffled. Boxes were replaced and the studio door swung shut.
Dave tiptoed past the bedroom door and joined me on the couch. He was holding an album I'd never seen before. He opened it across his left knee and my right one. Despite the expanse of the living room, the length of the hallway, and a shut door separating us from Lulu, my uncle's voice barely crested a conspiring whisper.
"Pine Breeze," he began, "has been closed since you were about six weeks old. That's why you've never heard anything about it. Your mother was sent there before anyone knew she was pregnant with you. The facilities weren't any goodâ€”it was a home for messed-up teenagers, it wasn't a hospitalâ€”and she bled to death before they had time to spank you into breathing on your own. That's why they're closed. They were supported by private donations and government funding, but when your mother's story got out it all got pulled. No one wanted to be talked about.
"Lulu and I got thinking about it once and I decided to go poking around. It's out towards Red Bank, on the north side of the river, and I swear they just abandoned it. I don't think they packed up a single thing except maybe some of the furniture. They just left it."
Dave flipped the first page of the album, to a photograph of an enormous brick building covered with ivy. The windows were cracked and dirty, and random bricks had fallen out of the masonry down to the untrimmed shrubbery. At the bottom left corner of the photo Lulu was staring into a window with her nose pressed flat against it, her hands against the pane to shield away the glare.
I ran my fingers lightly across the picture's edges. "Is this it, then? Is this Pine Breeze?"
"Part of it. The complex was scattered all over that whole hill. There's about eight or nine buildings altogether, I guess. We thought this one was the main administrative office."
"They needed eight or nine buildings to house crazy teenagers?"
"It wasn't always an adolescent ward. The first parts were built around the turn of the century, for a health spa or something. I'm not sure what. But after that closed, it was bought out by someone else, who turned it into something else and added a new section or two . . . and so forth. By the time your mother was there they only used a couple of the buildings anymore. The rest of them were shut up, I guess, but I've always been under the impression that there weren't more than fifteen or twenty kids left there when it closed."
He turned the page to reveal another Georgian brick buildingâ€”two or three stories with wood-slat shutters and a tiny square porch, all overgrown with weeds and vines. A skinny tree sprouted around a rain gutter and worked its roots through the mortar between the dirty red walls. "It's a beautiful place, even now. I mean, even the last time I saw it, a while back. It's completely desolate; unless you go inside the buildings it looks like no one's touched it since 1978."
"Why? What's inside the buildings?"
"Graffiti. Homeless people and teenagers have trashed it, but I never saw another soul while I was out there. At least not until the cops showed up and kicked me out. My jeep was parked down at the foot of the hill, that's what gave me away. There's nowhere to park if you want to get out and walk around. The cop was pretty cool, though. He just told me that there was no trespassing allowed and that I needed to get on my way instead of being an asshole about it."
"Is it still there? Could I go running around up there?"
Dave flipped through the remaining few pages before he answered, and then he talked slowly. "I'm not sure. I heard the city was going to tear it down, but whether they have or not, I couldn't tell you." Ah. Being careful about what he said. I couldn't blame him.
His voice picked up to its usual pace once more as he finished, "And I am officially forbidding you to go there, even if it is still standing. Didn't you hear the part about homeless people and vandals? Besides, it's falling apart. The place isn't safe."
He may as well have quit when he implied it hadn't fallen down yet. I hadn't heard anything past the part about the city only
tearing it down. "Where is it? Red Bank, you said?"
"No dice, kid. I just said, it isn't safe. If you want, I'll run you out to the library tomorrow afternoon. They've probably got some stuff on it under local history if you feel like looking. You can explore the place via your friendly neighborhood librarian, but you are
going to check the place out in person. Not with my permission, and not on my watch, missy."
"Okay, the library, then. We could do that."
Dave clapped the book together and stood. "Of course, this is all under the strictest condition that you don't say a word to the goddess."
"Fear not, dear uncle." I smiled.
"Don't call me that. It makes me sound old."
old," I said.
He smacked me gently on the head and went to go hide the album back in the studio closet before our goddess arose.