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Your name is Dave Strider and the crows always come when you call.

You’ve always considered them the best of all birds, dark and sleek, feathers tailored for strong flight and voices warbling like a wobbling love song. They have a powerful grip, when they come to rest on your shoulders and arms and legs; their beaks, sharp yet blunt, can cut and caress in the same breath.

The crows always know what you’re thinking, and they come with or without you speaking a word. They come in a flurry of fluttering wings, flying feathers and floating voices, and they come with a peaceful wrath that boils quietly, almost unnoticeably in your veins. They are all you have ever known, and all you will probably ever know.

They call you the Guy of Shades and Crows in your neighborhood. You’ve heard younger kids shorten it like they do with all words, and some even think your name is actually GOSAC. You’re a myth, a story, and only the bravest dare approach you to ask to pet the crows or to ask you who you are. You never respond, enigma that you are, though if the child is genuine (and the crows will tell you otherwise) you reach an arm out where a crow rests, and they stroke the feathers with an awe that fills you with slight longing.

You know everything that goes on in your small Texan town, whispered secrets and murmured gossip. The name of every child can flow past your lips, as well as the address of any townsperson you could think of. When a person passes to death, you know before anyone else; when a life is born ten miles away, their gender or lack thereof is not hidden to you. The crows spread news like wildfire burns forests, and what they know, you do as well.

When the new family moves in, you’re the first who is aware, as a crow lands on your shoulder where you sit and lean on a bench. She speaks in your ear, a harsh language nonsensical to all but you and her kindred, and his name and his brother’s name instantly comes to mind. Tavros and Rufioh Nitram, quiet people who mean no trouble and will cause no harm. You will meet them eventually, as you do with everyone.

The afternoon drifts by in a cloud of warmth and light, while adults give you a wide berth, young children strain to cast you a glance, teenagers avoid their weird peer per usual. You react to nothing, say nothing, remain still on the worn bench where the crows come and go, and watch for the hour when the strangers or one will pass.

You do not wait long, as a dark-skinned teenager cautiously makes his way across the park to sit some distance from you on the ground. The crows whisper to you about his mechanical legs, his stuttering speech, his careful words and his brilliant smile; they murmur his age, the same as yours, they speak of his tragedy and of his parents’ untimely demise, much like your brother’s.

They fall silent when he begins to speak, and you feel yourself raise your head slightly with interest as creatures of all kinds make their way towards him, until he is surrounded by squirrels and chipmunks and birds of all feathers and creatures you’d known live here but had never seen.

He speaks to them like you speak to crows, and you raise a hand to finger your sunglasses off of your face and fold them neatly to slip them into your breast pocket. It’s evening and it’s late, and only a few are around to see your scarlet, scarlet eyes; only a few are around to see when the newcomer feels your intense stare and swivels at the waist to meet your gaze. He blushes, looks away, only to look back when he realizes all of the birds sitting still upon your person, around your person, and then away again as he looks at the creatures doing the same around him.

He says something, and the crows burst into song, as crude a song a crow can sing, raucous laughter so it would seem; he was trying to call them, and the crows say he can’t speak what you can. You send one to obey his command but to return with his words, to see what he does and what he is like. “Invite him to chat,” you whisper with a voice smooth as silk, and the bird hops off and hastens to join the boy’s crowd.

The bird caws once, twice, and then the boy heaves himself up and shuffles over to you, his expression unsure and his eyes glimmering with life. The animals follow to an extent, hanging back when within three feet of you; you eye them with an expression even you cannot name, and when the boy is within earshot you begin to speak.

“Tavros Nitram,” you say, and he flinches at the mention of his name. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

An animal somewhere behind you begins to growl, which you ignore as Tavros hushes them with a glance. “Why?” His voice shakes, and around you the circle of animals tense; should one wrong word escape your lips, they will pounce and tear you apart, no matter what Tavros should do. “Did I do, uh, something wrong?”

“The opposite.” You slip to your feet, almost six feet in height, and the crows flap and flutter with you. “You speak the language of animals, so it would seem. But the crows say you can’t speak theirs.”

“I, uh, think I should go,” he fumbles, and he twists his hands anxiously at your cold little smile, “others have said that, um, you’re not exactly the best person to, you know, talk to, among other things, of which I don’t mean offense, but I think that I’ll, uh, be going now.”

“Do whatever, but before that, an offer.” You reach a pale hand out in a gesture of peace, however ill-timed it may be. “I can teach you their words and what the crows say, if you want.”

You are met with a silence that is both tense and waning before he speaks, cautiously, “What’s the, um, catch?” You feel your lip twitch, wishing to stretch into an amused grin; you had said offer, not trade, though you suppose he is in the right to be at least slightly worried.

“Nothing huge, not to worry.” Your smile, first cold, now thins yet warms to the slightest extent. “Your first-born child, maybe.”

“That is the most clichéd thing to have said. With all due respect, uh, mister…?”

“I’m joking, I don’t want your first-born child. There is no catch, though; I’m not about to force you into anything, either.” Your hand remains outstretched. “You can call me Dave, or the Guy of Shades and Crows. Gosac, as it were.”

After an eternity in which only the breeze stirred the silence, his hand closes against yours, his flesh smooth and plump against the boniness of your slim fingers. “I would like that,” he said, and you nod and sit back down, the crows settling against your body once more; he watches you for a few moment longer, and then he turns and walks away, the animals behind him following and disappearing little by little until he is alone and gone when he turns a corner.

The new strangers in town are far more interesting than meets the eye. You hoist yourself to your feet when the sun sets and the crows fly to roosting spots; you return to an empty apartment with a turn of the key, and you only take the time to remove your shoes before falling dreamlessly into bed.

You are at the usual post by dawn, eating one half piece of toast and giving the other half and whole to the crows as the early birds greet you in the morning. They slept and dreamt of flying and places you’ve never been to or heard of, and you listen to their stories, fabricated yet real, with a fascination of a child.

But then, you are a child, and fascination and curiosity has yet to be torn from your young, thin hands.

The clock ticks past six and the walkers of dogs are about, and some greet you with a nod and others without any acknowledgement of all. More crows come, other crows leave, and a squirrel darts over your shoes and into the forest beyond your left. You wonder vaguely why he came so close to you, as a dog begins to bark and an owner begins to groan.

It’s eight o’clock now and the town buzzes to life, slowly but certainly and without a hesitation. The park fills and empties, swelling and receding like the tide, and you sit and listen to the crows as they fly and come back and fly away again. Tavros is awake, so a crow says, another says his brother Rufioh wants to meet you. You let a mask cover your anxiety and watch impassively as children your age play football some distance away; you hear of the mayor’s daughter finally being asked out by a boy you don’t know, and with a great kerfuffle a raven is spotted nearby.

Then the boy from yesterday finally shows after noon at one, and his brother is tall and intimidating with fiery hair and clothes with a statement. You do not acknowledge them until Tavros coughs politely into his fist a few feet away; then you look over, as if you had been snapped out of a trance, and carefully get to your feet, disturbing a few crows despite your caution.

You say nothing, and Tavros says, “Rufioh, this is Dave. He’s, uh, the one I was talking about.”

You are eyed with suspicion; your shades hide where you are looking, which is at his brother and not Rufioh. After a moment he says, “You speak to crows?”

“What gave it away,” you say. The crows shift as one but stay silent when you rasp a quiet trill, and then you repeat, “What gave it away.”

Rufioh says something else and you miss it when a crow flutters to your shoulder and warbles in your ear. Something has happened, she says, and someone has died. There was a fire, she says, and they have put it out.  The news shows on your face as your frown deepens, and you rub the heel of your palm against your forehead as Tavros asks, “Are you, uh, okay?”

Deep breath in, and then you raise your head and say, “Whatever you wanna say, say it now. Otherwise I’ll be gone until it’s time to return.”

Tavros says nothing at your cryptic message, and it is Rufioh who speaks. “Hurt my brother and I will hurt you, Dave.”

“I am aware.” And then you walk and the crows follow, wordless except for the cooing one in your ear, directions as the crow flies translating to town blocks in your mind. Everyone knows of the fire already, that much is certain, but whether someone is dead has yet to be known.

When you show up, a father begins to bawl, and his children, baffled, cry with him; the mother has burned in the house and shall not return. Your presence confirms their fears, and you look at the husk of house while the crows crowd at your feet and on you and fly above your head; the messenger shan’t be killed but he can be hurt, and the father blindly reaches out to attack while you step back and flee. Bringer of Death, they may say, Bringer of Disaster, but you are just a cruel truth who comes and goes like a passing shadow.

You’ve not taken upon yourself to deliver the news no one wishes to hear – it has been forced upon you, but you do it so without reluctance. It is the only trace of your brother that remains, and so you will do what you do in stride.

And then a rock is thrown at you, and it hits a crow flying low in the air rather than you. You catch the bird as it falls with a shriek, and look at the rock’s trajectory; a hit and run, as it were, as the teenager responsible is long gone down an alley.

Go,” you whisper in a thousand voices, and all of your crows take off as one writhing mass and follow in pursuit. You are left thin and small and tall and alone with a bleeding bird in your hands without a way to care for it. You are not rich, and this crow is not young, and so you walk to the park cradling it and murmuring lullabies from times long gone in its ears. It dies when you reach your bench, and your bench is not empty but full of Tavros and animals you don’t know.

He sees the bird in your arms and gentle sadness fills his eyes and expression; when he eases the body from you, you do not fight him. “Where are his friends?” he asks quietly, and you realize how strange you must look, in a ratty T-shirt and jeans with battered red Converse and nary a crow in sight.

“Her,” you correct with a hollow voice, and then you say void of expression, “The rest are apprehending the one who did the deed.”

“We should bury her,” Tavros says, and you nod while he murmurs to his animals while showing them the body. They are unwilling at first, but his insistence and the return of a single crow to your shoulder (justice is served, we are still angry, we are all sad) the creatures help dig a small grave and help rebury the crow, and when the rest of your birds return they sit vigil around the mound of dirt for hours at a time. You sit with them with a bowed head and a heavy heart; only when Tavros’ dirk-caked hand falls onto your shoulder do you realize how late it is and clamber to your feet.

“Do you, uh, want to stay at my house?” he asks, and the look you give him is no doubt incredulous, as he says, “When I first saw, um, a squirrel die, I couldn’t sleep for days. It helped, when my brother was there, and you, uh, live alone, right?”

“How the fuck did you figure that out.” Your voice is flat, but you are surprised.

“Animals tell me things,” Tavros says, and just like that the deal is sealed.

You bid a quiet farewell to the crows and he leads you to a small house filled with light; when you enter Rufioh hardly bats an eye, grabbing a sleeping bag out of the closet and insisting you take Tavros’s bed. You argue for a solid fifteen minutes that you’d take the sleeping bag before relenting, though you hardly dare touch the food they offer you, and nothing they say makes you eat more than a single forkful.

Tavros talks about his brother and how they’ve been living for a while, and you draw so many parallels of his life to yours that you want him to shut up just so your brother’s face will disappear from your vision. As you both nod off, you sleep a dream of winds and hopes and pages of a book you do not know.

You awaken before he before the sun rises, watch his peaceful sleeping face for a few moments, and then you are out of their house when the sky splits into the colors of pink and red and orange. The crows are still at the grave when you sit on the bench, and only a few flutter over to you and take advantage of your warmth. Death is all they speak of, and by the time Tavros and Rufioh arrive in a hurry at seven, your thoughts are black and your heart is six feet below the ground.

They fret over you, tell you that you can’t just leave without saying anything (at first you had been worried they were mad that you’d taken the liberty to remove the sheets you’d slept in, put them in their washing machine and then set the bed with fresh linen you’d found in a closet), and then force you to eat a decent breakfast, an egg and a slice of ham between two slices of bread. They will not take ‘no’ for an answer and watch as you eat the whole thing, with absolutely none offered to your crows.

You do not speak throughout the whole exchange, and do not react when Tavros sits next to you, close enough to feel his warmth, and talks to you about nothing at all.

It is in fact three days afterwards when you finally speak, as Tavros huddles silently at your side and the crows twitch and murmur and warble nearby, and it’s a rasp that causes Tavros to jump in alarm and tug your face over so he can look at you. When you tell him you are fine, he blushes and lets go, and you suddenly feel guilty for being so out of it for so long.

“It’s fine,” he says, and it makes you feel guilty all over again, and over your stammered apologies he pats your hand and says, “It’s fine, Dave, it’s fine.”

You trail off and fall silent again and hate yourself for missing the burst of warmth from his hand touching yours (you are so lonely, you are so, so lonely). Then you repeat the raspy word, and the crows perk up while Tavros looks over at you again, finally recognizing what it is.

“What does it, uh, mean?” he asks.

“Death,” you reply, and then you say it again.

He catches on quickly, not as quickly as you, perhaps, but quickly enough to make you wonder just how intelligent he is. The crows soon begin to understand him, and while they jabber at him you translate what they are saying while he begins to grasp at their words.

You are happy when he smiles as he tells them the he likes crows, and they burst into the crow equivalent of laughter.

The crows begin to leave you and go to him, and you are not sure whether you are happy or whether you are sad.

No longer are you the Guy of Shades and Crows, now you are simply no one, a keeper of a few dark messengers while all the animals favor Tavros. Children love him for his friendliness and for the fact he fulfills their desire to pet wild animals; they scorn you for no longer being mysterious and enigmatic, but you can hardly bring yourself to care. All you know is that your favorite crow, a female who tells of the darkest news always, remains steadfast at your side while the others have all left, visiting you occasionally but never in full force.

No longer is their knowledge your own; it is a burden Tavros bears, and while he remains cheerful and nervous and shy and clever, you can see he is beginning to wonder whether it was a good idea to learn how to understand the crows. It takes a certain mind to take in all of the information they could provide and not go completely insane, though he appears to be one of them and that pleases you. He is your only friend and you would have felt terrible if someone had happened to him.

He stills invites you over and Rufioh has welcomed you with open arms, after learning you are really quite harmless and also that you are really quite poor. When he learns the only reason you have your own apartment is because the landlord is too afraid to kick you out when you don’t pay rent, he is outraged and then realizes you live alone. He tells you it is illegal for someone your age to live without a guardian, and you reply blandly you’d been doing it for years, and this shocks both Nitrams but you don’t really care.

Tavros gives you a hesitant hug while Rufioh makes a furious call to your landlord asking if anyone is taking proper care of you (the answer is no), and the boy’s warmth against your tall, cold body is a blessing as you return it. You do not separate as his older brother bustles about, ranting into the phone, until Tavros finally lets go with obviously reluctance to help prepare lunch. You haven’t eaten in days, and the weakness of your body hits you all at once.

You wonder if you should feel bad when no one is even surprised when you sort of stumble to the couch and collapse, the crow on your shoulder squawking once before fluttering down and making herself comfortable in your lap. You’ve named her Rose, for she is beautiful yet dangerous as a thorn, and she warbles softly in her throat as you watch the brothers do everything but nothing at all.

They force you to eat more than you want, watching like hawks as you slowly chew and swallow the omelet Tavros has made specifically for you. You do not wish to offend so you give little fuss, but your stomach feels bloated for a while afterwards and only your crow senses your discomfort. Tavros sits next to you on the couch and introduces you to an online friend of his who raps like the world is on fire, and when you burn him to the ground Tavros takes you on and you proceed to have the most stupid rap-off in history.

When night falls, Rufioh returns from work to discover the pair of you asleep together on the chair, your head on top of his brother’s as you crowd around a laptop screen long gone to sleep. He doesn’t disturb you and you awaken warmer than you’ve ever been before and more at ease than you’ve ever been in years.

You eat the breakfast they give you without complaint and more ravenously than you did before; Rose still gets a large chunk of the meal, and if the Nitrams find the way you talk to the bird like a person odd, they do not comment. Tavros accompanies you as you return to the park to sit and watch, and you are introduced to the squirrel that had run across your feet all those days ago.

School begins and you arrive with a bird near your ear and more meat on your bones than ever before. Tavros walks with you to homeroom and then goes to his own, and you’re left sitting next to a guy who asks about the crow on your shoulder. He’s new and you haven’t heard of him coming in because the crows don’t come when you call, and Rose whispers that his name is John.

You make kind-of-sort-of friends with him, but when classes go by and lunch is on, you go directly to Tavros sitting alone at a table eating quietly and sadly. John follows you and you introduce him before asking Tavros what is wrong.

“Nothing,” he says.

“Bullshit,” you say, and to your surprise John says it at the exact same time. You look at him and he looks at you before you both look at Tavros again. “Who was it?”

After much coaxing from both you and John, Tavros finally admits who it was, two football players and three girls who used to punch you into lockers and shove your head down toilets; they’ve found a new target, and you’re not about to let them go without a scratch this time. “Don’t, Dave, it’s fine,” Tavros says, and you eye him for a moment before shaking your head and telling him fine, you wouldn’t do anything, but only because he had asked.

Then John talks about the new Pokemon games coming out, and Tavros gets super excited and you feel warm at the sight of his smile.

You stick close to him during passing times, walking him to and from classes before rushing to your own, and at your fierce glare the bullies back off from where they lounge in the hallways. When the final bell rings you go to find him and locate him outside, cornered and alone, and something in you boils.

Your voice is loud and grating, and they look over as the voices of a thousand crows rises up from everywhere in the town. They scream when a dark shadow zeroes in on them, as Rose rises to join them, and when the birds fall upon their prey you grab Tavros and the two of you run, hand-in-hand, back to his house, speeding by so quickly only a child has the time to comment on the two boys holding hands.

You collapse on his front porch, rasping something else out in the language you no longer use, and the crows soon rise up and disperse to where they were before and Rose comes to land onto your shoulder again. You turn to Tavros and carefully wipe the tear spilling from his eye before reflexively kissing his nose; your brother used to do it and it somehow feels right to do it now. He is still blushing when you get up and carry yourself back home, and when you see him the next day at school, his shy smile is the first thing you see, followed by a cheerful John in first period.

Rose squalls in your ear at the sight of the bullies, and both you and John huddle against Tavros and glare at them. They make no move to approach, and their eyes alight with fear upon seeing the crow perched on your shoulder, and passing times are uneventful and Tavros’s small smile lights up your narrow world.

Lunch comes by and you and he and John claim the same table as before, this time joined by his cousin Jade, and no one notices when Tavros takes your hand under the table.