“The Lepers in Your Head” / Chapter Five: The Crow

This is the fifth chapter of a novella I’ve written. It will be published here one chapter at a time, roughly twice a week. Trigger warning: this story is very dark, and may be triggering for those with suicidal ideation. It’s also not the kind of thing you’d expect your pastor to write. So, fair warning.

Caw! Caw caw caw!

I heard the insistent cawing of a crow. I was lying on my back, on some kind of hard surface. Where was I?

Caw! Caw caw!

I opened my eyes, and everything was dim. I was in a dark room, but light came in from a large opening to my right. I sat up, and leaned toward the opening. It’s daylight – I’m in a cave.

Oh, of course. I’m in the Cave of Time. But this opening is much bigger than either of the cracks I forced my way through. I slowly stood up, and only after I was standing did I remembering that my ankle was broken. But it didn’t hurt. I looked down. My feet felt fine. I only had one boot on; the ankle I’d broken looked normal – no swelling or incorrect bending. I put my hand on the right side of my head, where I had pummeled myself with the flashlight – no lump, no tenderness. I touched the back of my head, where I’d hit the ice out on the path – again, nothing out of order. I was somehow healed. I looked around the room. My backpack was on the floor next to me, and so were my other boot and my flashlight. I picked up the flashlight, and it didn’t work. I looked at the light, and saw that the bulb was shattered. I could see a dent in the metal that looked suspiciously like the shape of my own skull. I shoved it in the backpack. I put on my boot, and walked around the room. It looked different, and it wasn’t just because of the natural light. The ceiling was lower; I could feel my hair brushing against it at spots. It wasn’t as circular as the room I’d first come into, but there were still many cracks in the walls that opened into other chambers. I stopped and listened. There was the dripping again, but more distant than it was before. And another sound –

Caw! Caw!

I turned around to look to the opening, and saw a crow standing on the ground just outside. It was flapping its wings vigorously. I walked toward it, picking up my backpack and slinging it over one shoulder. As I reached the entrance, the crow flew away. This entrance was large, open, ready for walking through. Had it been blasted open to get in the cave? I walked outside, and the world looked different. There was no snow. The trees still had some leaves – it looked like autumn. It was also much warmer. Did it work? Was I really in 1996? It certainly looked like November. I inhaled deeply, enjoying the rich scent of decaying leaves. It certainly smelled like autumn. I walked out from the cave, and found a trail a few yards away. Was I in the same place, though? The cave had seemed so different inside. I walked out to the trail, turned right, and started walking. If I was in the same place, then I knew I was walking west. The sun was behind me, about halfway up in the sky. So, whatever day it was, it was mid-morning. I looked at my watch. It said 7:58 PM. That’s obviously useless. I took my backpack off and tried to find my iPhone in it. It was there. It said 3:34 AM, and it also had no service. After all, if the Cave of Time did its job, it would still be years until most of the cellular towers were built.

Imagine. A world without cell phones. A world without any of the crap on this phone. No texting. No Facebook. Email’s still a novelty. And no GPS. Which meant I really hoped I remembered how the roads around here worked, if I wanted to make it to Scarlet by sunset. I looked over my shoulder toward the sun as I walked. My best guess was that it was about 10:00 or so in the morning. The sun should be setting tonight by about 5:30 or so. So, that meant I had to get from here to the Pennybrook section of Scarlet in less than eight hours. My car was obviously not an option. It was upside down, and also about twenty-five years in the future.

I tried to picture the county map in my head – it was probably about a ten mile walk from here to Sisco Park, my destination. I could walk that without much trouble in four hours, especially on my newly healed ankle. I couldn’t understand how it was healed in the cave, but I was grateful. If it weren’t for that, I really didn’t know how I’d do this.

“I wondered if you’d noticed that.”

Oh no. He followed me. The damned Dead Voice. I said to him, “Look, I have a job to do today. Would you just leave me alone?”

Silence. I looked ahead, and saw that the path was about to become a dirt road. This looked hopeful. Maybe I was on the right path after all. I started walking a little faster, a spring in my step.

But the voice wasn’t done yet. “It’s just that it’s mighty convenient that you don’t have to do this part of the journey with a concussion or a broken ankle. You might almost call it providence.”

“Or,” I rejoined, “you might call it a side effect of a cave that sends you through time.” After a few seconds, I added, “And there it is. The grey barn. It’s looking newer, but mostly the same. You see, I can do this. I know exactly what I’m doing, and I don’t need your opinions.”

I reached the barn, and followed the driveway back out to the road. For an instant, I thought I saw my car, sea green and dirty and splattered with deer blood, upside down like a defeated tortoise, wheels still spinning. And then it was gone.

“Did you see that?” the voice asked me.

I crossed the road to where the mirage of my car had been. “Yes, I saw it,” as I looked around. “It was just a memory. It was pretty traumatic what happened here, so it left an image in my brain.”

“Lots of traumas to go around today, aren’t there?”

I started walking west along the road. If memory served, this would take me over the highway, and after about three miles, I’d be heading into Scarlet Hills the back way. The Hills, as we called it, was a rather sketchy part of town, but I’d lived there for a while once. Or rather, since I was in 1996, I suppose I will live there for a while once. I decided not to think about verb tenses, and went back to my mental map. From the Hills it would be a long hike through various neighborhoods to get clear to the other side of the city, to Pennybrook.

I looked up at the sky. The clouds were breaking up over the rust-colored hills. Must have been raining around sunrise, I guess. “Beautiful day, huh?” I said to the Dead Voice. “Warm day for early November. I hadn’t remembered that.”

“Well, it has been twenty-five years.”

 “Yes, but this is a red-letter day! There was no day before or since like this one. This was THE day! A great day to live! A great day to die!” I noticed that I had a strut in my step. I was positively excited about this journey ahead of me. Excited enough to actually enjoy talking to the voice! “I thought this day would have left more of a mark, like my car did.”

“Trauma gets stored in funny places sometimes.”

“Trauma,” I laughed. “Just wait – I’ll show you trauma. That kid won’t know what hit him.”

The Dead Voice was silent. I guessed that I had won that round. This might just go okay today, I thought. I lit a cigarette, and kept on walking, smoking and whistling. I saw a crow circling overhead, cawing its endless song.

Next chapter: The Hills.

(c) 2021 Michael J. Scholtes

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