He tilted his head at me, the curious glint in his eye just a twinkle. That one silly feather ruffled in the breeze as he adjusted his position on the branch swinging in the light breeze.
“Sam, I can’t play with you right now,” she said as she scuffed at the dirt. “I have to go look for something, I’ll see you later.”
Her chores and homework finally done, she dashed down the road, her pigtails flying. Her worn tennis shoes slapped on the faded pavement. The evening sun coming through the trees tickled her bare arms. The smell of growth and spring rushed through her nostrils as she pounded down the road to the train tracks.
Normally she would be rejoicing in the lovely spring day, spending her time with her clever Sam. She spent almost all of her free time with her Sam. Except for today. Today she was on a mission.
As she neared the rusty train tracks she slowed. She began to scan the ground, searching for something shiny. She was looking for a specific item, not just any old shiny thing.
He would turn seven tomorrow. Seven. They all died at seven. Somehow, her friends were cursed. No matter how old they were when they came to her, they all left at seven. Sam had come to her only a year ago. Now his time was due.
She fought back frustrated tears as she scanned the ground. She had left the penny here, on the track, for the train to bless. She had a horseshoe, she had found a sparkly pendant of a four leaf clover, and made an elephant with tin foil. Surely a flat penny was especially lucky. Back home Sam guarded the nest in her scrawny tree, caring for his collection of shiny prizes, while she searched for the seventh lucky item for him.
Glinting in the sun, she saw her coin in the dirt. The train had flattened it into a funny shaped blob. “My precious!” she yelled as she snatched it from the dust and clutched it to her chest. She dashed back the way she had come, pigtails again flying.
She passed several modest houses, until she came to her own. A little rough around the edges, paint peeling and weeds in the cracks of the walkway. The house had seen better days, and so had her family. Ruth spent all the time should could outside with her Sam, where it was quiet and peaceful. She needed him. She needed him to stay with her.
She rounded the corner of the house and there he was, in all his clever glory. Perched on a low branch with his nest above, his black feathers ruffled as he saw her. She stopped for a moment to savor the warm breeze, the comfort of the moment. Her Sam was there for her, and maybe with his lucky charms he could stay with her.
“Ruth, it’s my birthday tomorrow.”
She sat abruptly, crossing her legs and picking at the ragged seams of her threadbare jeans. She pulled up some blades of grass below his tree and began to braid them, knowing they were too short to braid but making the attempt regardless.
“I know it’s your birthday, Sam. I don’t want it to be. Let’s just stay in today forever.” Ruth pleaded as she stroked a finger down his head.
“You know I can’t do that. It will be fine. Trust me. You’ll be fine.”
“No, I won’t. I won’t be fine. I won’t. You can’t make me. I insist you stay here. It won’t be right if you leave. It isn’t right in the house, you know it isn’t. Who will keep me company out here?” Ruth banged her grubby fist in the dirt. She refused to let this happen.
“Look, I got a penny. For your nest.” She dug in her pocket and held up her find for him. He cawed and took the penny with his beak, hopping up to his nest to place it carefully. The shiny bits were precisely arranged in his twiggy home. She knew he only tolerated the metal in his nest because it made her feel better. He was good at humoring her. He knew it was important to her, so he lined his nest with her affection instead of softer things.
She stared at him for a moment, tears clinging to her eyes. “I have a surprise for you.”
“Tomorrow is my birthday. You should wait for my birthday.”
“I know,” she said softly. Her lip trembled, then she turned and ran to the sagging porch where a sloppily painted box sat, tied with twine. She had slaved over that box, saving the empty cereal box, cutting it with her little scissors, and painting it in a pattern appealing to your everyday crow.
“Here.” She placed it on the ground and stepped back. She clutched her hands behind her back and waited. His wings fluttered, he settled down on the ground to inspect his gift.
“My, what a lovely gift. Should I open it?”
She nodded, biting her lip in nervous anticipation, and he tugged on the twine. A couple of tugs and it came loose, the box falling apart to reveal a vaguely star-shaped bird seed cake. “I made the suet myself, I didn’t even burn the house down.” She grinned as she clasped her hands and swung them back and forth.
He tilted his head and studied the gift, then pecked at it and sampled the seed. “My. What a lovely gift. Thank you very much. I’ll enjoy that later.” He sidled away from the lump.
“It’s your birthday soon. What are you going to ask for?”
Ruth crossed her arms and looked at her dusty shoes. She had a decidedly grumpy face on. “I want you to stay with me. That’s what I wish for.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of a pony or a bike. Or maybe something more attainable, like some crayons or chocolate.” He slanted his head and fluffed his feathers as he waited for her reply.
“I don’t really want anything.” She shrugged as she continued to look at her feet, the frown lines on her brow still in place.
“I know something you want.” He sidled up to her with little bird hops. “You want a real friend. Better than me. A real live person who can play with you and be your minion.”
“You make a good minion,” she protested.
“I don’t have thumbs,” he said. “There are advantages to being a walking, talking, person who has thumbs.”
“I like you better. I don’t need a real person with thumbs. Thumbs are stupid.”
“Nevertheless, I think you could use a friend. You are past the age of reason, you’ll be turning nine soon. I’ll leave you and you’ll be alone. It’s time to put your childhood aside. You need to grow and I’m holding you back.”
“I can grow. I can make friends, I just don’t want to,” she said as she rolled her eyes. “I want this to stay just the way it is.”
“I understand, my dear, but we all must grow up sometime. Your time is here. It’s past, really, you just dug your stubborn little feet in.”
“I won’t. I refuse. Growing up sucks,” the tears did start to fall as she shook her head. There was no way she was giving in.
The street lights flicked on with a small hum and she fidgeted. She knew she had to go in. “I’ll see you tomorrow. I will. In the morning I’ll sing you Happy Birthday. Ok?”
He said nothing, just tilted his head at her with that intelligent glimmer in his eyes.
*Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds posted a flash fiction challenge. I chose the title The Crow of Nine-World as a prompt.*
~ M. D. Flyn