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Robin filled her lungs with fall air — crisp and smelling like apples and old leaves.
Fall was her favorite time of year, and the Vance Fall Festival was her favorite part of fall. The streets of Old Town were lined with booths selling everything from macrame to macadamia nuts, and there were enough hay rides, bounce houses, and crafts to go around. Even Robin, who hated crowds and preferred animals to people, couldn’t help but enjoy the festival.
“Look, Robin!” her ten-year-old sister, Lark, squealed. “A murder!”
“A what?!” Robin gasped. A murder? Vance, Oregon, was such a quiet town.
“A group of crows is called a murder,” her younger sister explained. Robin followed the line of Lark’s chocolate-smeared finger to a group of crows pecking around a popcorn stand.
She was seized by a violent shiver. “I knew that,” she mumbled, turning away.
Robin was terrified of birds. Ever since she was three — when her Aunt Wren’s parakeet had gouged her finger with its beak — she’d been scared of anything feathered. Which was really ironic, because Robin adored nature shows and was named after a bird, just like everyone in her family.
She and Lark started heading back down the street, drinking in the scents of donuts and the sounds of happy families. Red leaves, like tiny embers, crunched under her boots. “Lark, hurry up!” she called.
Her sister jogged up, short brown hair bouncing. “Can we go in there, Rob?”
“Don’t call me that, and where. . .?” Robin turned to where Lark was pointing. It was at a small antique shop: “Raven’s Wing Antiques.” Dolls lined the windows, their lifeless eyes staring out at the street.
Robin was about to say that maybe they shouldn’t, but her sister was already rushing in. She sighed and followed her into the dusty store.
The air inside of the store was heavy. It smelled like the distant past: ancient, dark, mysterious. But despite its age, it felt awake. Aware. Like it was watching.
“How may I help you?” A nasal, British voice cut through the murky gloom. A tall, angular man stood at the registar. He had amber eyes like those of a raptor.
He sounded kinda like the guy that narrated Planet Earth.
“We’re just browsing,” Robin told him.
The man nodded. “Ah.” His eyes trained on the girls with a hawklike intensity. “There’s one thing you should know: none of my antiques are ordinary. And none of them should be handled lightly.”
With that, he ducked behind a shelf and out of sight.
Mouse feet raced down Robin’s spine. “Lark. . .”
But her little sister was already heading into the dusty maze of shelves.
Robin had no choice but to follow.
* * *
The sisters wandered through the gloom of the store. British Dude had talked about it like it was one of the Seven Wonders of the world, but all Robin saw was a lot of junk.
But then again, maybe it just looked like junk.
Because with every passing aisle, the pulsing sense of watchfulness grew. The store seemed to tug at her, pulling her in like a spider yanking a fly closer.
“Robin, look!” Lark’s voice snapped her out of her thoughts.
Her sister held out a hand, which was clutching a small, black raven figurine.
Robin made a face. “Why do you want that?”
“I don’t want it. I need it.” Lark’s blue eyes met Robin’s green ones, and she was forcefully reminded of the lifeless, unseeing eyes of the dolls. Lark had that same vacant quality lingering in her gaze. And her voice. . .it seemed dazed. Distant.
“Stop being creepy,” Robin hissed. “You don’t need this.” She took it to put it back on the shelf. The second her skin touched the raven, she felt the surge of power pulse through her mind. It was overwhelming, the energy coming from this raven — the energy and the sense of. . .evil. Something was wrong. Like the store owner had said, this wasn’t an ordinary thing. And it certainly shouldn’t be handled lightly.
Robin gritted her teeth against the headache that was flaring inside her skull. She stared at the raven. It was cold, very cold, like something that had been long buried in snow. It was chiseled out of what looked like onyx. And its eyes — they were made of opal, white, but flashing with color when it was turned.
Robin flipped it over to see the price.
There was no price.
Instead, on the bottom, chiseled in shaky letters, was a single word:
“Quoth the raven: Nevermore,” Lark intoned.
“Since when did you know Poe?” Robin snapped, setting the raven on the shelf.
Lark snatched it back. “I want it! I found it!”
“It’s your precious?” Robin said dryly. “Look. This thing is probably expensive. And it's also really creepy!”
“It’s not creepy! I want to get it so I can show Mom! She’ll like it.”
Robin sighed. “Fine. But you have to pay for it.”
Lark grinned wide as a Halloween Jack-o-lantern. “Thanks.”
What did I do?
And as Lark paid for the raven, Robin knew — just knew — she’d gotten herself into something very, very bad.
British Dude grinned as he took Lark’s ten-dollar-bill. “Be warned,” he said, lips twisting into a joyless smirk. Then he began to chant.
“Beak and wing and eye, all stone
But soon there will be ravens of
Flesh and blood and bone
No one spared
From the eye that glared
Robin was seized by a violent shudder. Terror, as palpable as her pounding heart, corkscrewed through her body.
She snatched up the raven, grabbed Lark, and dashed for the door.
The word, “Nevermore” echoed in her head long after she’d closed the door on the cackling man. The raven that Robin held in her hand seemed to vibrate, sending chills down her spine.
By the time Robin and Lark made it back to their house, dinner was on the table.
“How was the festival?” asked their mom, Raven Taylor, as she typed away on the couch. Robin’s mom was a journalist.
“Good,” Lark said. “I saw Jenny, and Sarah, and James.”
“It was fine,” Robin said, sliding into her seat at the table. Her dad, Falcon Taylor, handed her a bowl of chicken soup. “That’s good,” he said.
“We got this!” Lark said excitedly, holding up the raven. Its eyes glowed red in the light of the lamps.
Robin’s dad grinned. “That’s cool. Did you use your allowance on it?”
“Yeah!” Lark said. “It’s an antique.”
“That’s nice, Larky,” said Robin’s mom, sitting down at the table.
And so dinner began. On the surface, it seemed normal — the talk of Halloween costumes and days at work — but underneath, there seemed something stilted and artificial about it. Something wrong.
And as the lights flickered on and off and rain began to stream down the windows like cold tears, the raven glared at them from the table.
Robin thought she saw its eyes flash red.
* * *
The next morning, Saturday, Robin slept late. Yawning, she climbed out of her bed.
As she headed towards the door, Robin glanced over at the costume that she'd set on her dresser in preparation for Halloween tomorrow. This year, she was a squirrel.
She patted the bushy tail affectionately, then gasped. There, on her dresser, was the raven. It seemed to be smirking at her.
Cold fear filled her.
Shakily, she picked it up and stumbled into Lark’s room. “Lark, did you put this on my dresser?” she asked.
Her sister looked up from her LEGO set. “No!” she said. “Maybe Mom put it there.” She snatched it back and set it on her own dresser.
Robin bit her lip. Something about this was odd. Wrong.
* * *
And as the day progressed, that feeling of wrongness strengthened.
For one thing, ravens were everywhere. The unorganized murders of crows were gone, replaced by huge birds the color of the dark places between stars. They didn’t peck at the ground or caw noisily; instead, they simply sat in the trees, watching. Waiting.
And that was another thing: the trees. Their leaves had all fallen in the night, and now bare branches reached up at the sky like drowning fingers begging for rescue.
And the last thing — the scary thing — was the people. The entire population of Vance seemed vacant. Dazed.
Robin watched all this from the shotgun seat of her mom’s car as they ran errands. Rain, an unseasonably cold rain that oozed down the windows like blood, was falling as they parked next to Safeway. Robin stepped out of the car, the rain slamming down on her red hair.
She and her mom splashed through the puddles and into the fluorescent glow of the store.
While Mom shopped for flour in the dry goods section, Robin squinted at the people in the aisle. They were going through the familiar motions of shopping, but their movements seemed robotic. One of the shoppers, a middle-aged man, met Robin’s eyes for a moment.
His eyes were red, the red of blood and warning signs.
Robin stifled a scream and backed up against the shelf of sugar.
The man smirked and looked back down at his cart, then began to shuffle down the aisle.
Panting with fear, Robin stared at the man as he stumbled down the aisle. So she was the only one to see him raise his jeans to scratch his leg. Cold waves of terror broke over Robin as she realized that the leg poking out of the man’s jeans was dark and scaly. Like the leg of a bird.
Like the leg of a raven.
Robin rushed over to her mom, who’d just hefted a bag of flour into her cart. “Mom, did you see that man’s leg?” she asked.
Mom shot her a glare. “Robin Taylor, it’s rude to comment on people’s appearance!”
“But—” Robin stammered.
Her mom’s green eyes locked on Robin’s. But they were no longer the clear color of spring leaves; they seemed dull, almost muddy. Robin thought she saw them flash red for a moment.
It could have been a trick of the light, perhaps.
But then again, it might not have been.
Robin shuddered and swallowed her retort. Whatever was going on, she was beginning to realize she would probably have to face it alone. She took a shaky breath and began following her mom back down the aisle.
* * *
On the drive home, Mom switched on the news. Robin watched dark clouds scudding across the sky, and listened to the froggy voice on the radio.
“Twenty missing persons have been reported in the last few hours. . .”
Robin sat up straight, goosebumps erupting across her arms. She reached over and turned up the radio.
“Each person has disappeared without a trace. . . no signs of a struggle. One such case was Jonathan Brill, a 20-year-old college student living in a Vance apartment. He went into his apartment — his roommate was on vacation so he was the only one home — and locked the windows, his room door, and the main door. Then he went to bed. The next morning, his roommate got back from his vacation and went inside the apartment. The main door was locked, which was normal. The house also seemed normal. His roommate, Ethan Worth, then went to his friends’ bedroom. The door was locked from the inside.”
A shudder sliced through Robin’s blood.
”Ethan, feeling worried, broke down the door and went into the room. ‘It was empty,’ Ethan said, ‘except for a few black feathers on the floor’. Forensic scientists have studied the feathers, and proclaimed them to be from the common raven. Detectives have analyzed the room, and found that while Jonathin’s footprints led into the room, there were no footprints leading out — nor were there fingerprints on the windowsill, which was open.
This has happened all over Vance; and the similarities between each disappearance are the black feathers that are left in the places each missing person was last seen in. It is believed this disappearance is potentially the work of a kidnapper. Dr. Rachel Warren, a criminal psychologist, suggests the feathers may be a calling card from the kidnappers.
Or is this something more sinister and supernatural? Paranormal expert Jess Presscot says these disappearances are too close together to be the work of humans — she insists there are supernatural forces at play. Stay tuned to find out; we’ll be recording an interview with Dr. Warren around 4. Now, moving on to government plans. Mayor Williams says —“
Robin nearly screamed. The voice coming from the radio had been replaced by loud cawing. They continued for a few seconds, only to be replaced by static.
Robin’s mom clucked her tongue. “Computer issues.”
Robin nodded absently, thinking. It could be a crime spree — but she had a feeling that wasn’t it. The most realistic explanation was that of something supernatural. . .
Her thoughts flashed back to the raven, the way its eyes had flashed red. . .
Something told her these disappearances were connected to the raven. All the strange things. . . something told her they were all connected to the raven.
* * *
Back home, Robin grabbed the raven from Lark’s dresser and opened her laptop to VanceNews, then plopped on her desk. Sure enough, there was a newspage charting the number of disappearances in the “Great Vanishing”.
Every so often, the count went up.
Robin glanced over at the raven, staring into its opaque eyes. The clock on her wall ticked out the time. Nothing happened for a moment, then. . .
The eyes of the raven flashed red.
The color of blood and warning signs.
Robin glanced back at the page.
The count was at twenty-three.
Twenty-three missing people. Twenty-three parents, twenty-three siblings, twenty-three spouses.
Robin shivered and stared at the raven.
Its eyes flashed red again.
The count of the missing was now at twenty-four.
The eyes went red again.
Robin’s mind whirled. The raven was obviously connected to the disappearances. . .but was it controlling them, or just charting them? Then, floating out of the depths of her panic-clogged mind, came the words of the antique store owner’s chant:
No one spared
From the eye that glared
So was the raven controlling it? Robin gingerly put one finger to its cold wing. “Are you causing this?” she asked quietly.
The eyes of the raven flashed red in answer.
Outside, twenty-five more ravens circled the skies of Vance like vultures waiting for prey.
Robin looked back outside, at the new birds — the birds that caused her stomach to churn with fear — grabbed the raven, and ran outside. A new thought had formed in her mind: she needed to destroy the raven.
If she didn’t, perhaps her family would be next, another four hash marks and feathers. . .
Robin raced into the forest behind her house, heading straight for the pond.
Soon she was at the edge of a muddy patch of water as opaque as the eyes of the raven she clutched in her palm.
Robin stared at the raven for a moment.
Its eyes flashed red. A raven appeared on the branch behind her in a spray of feathers. Soon there will be ravens of flesh and blood and bone. . .
Of course. This was what the raven was doing — was turning the citizens of Vance into one huge unkindness of ravens.
“No more,” Robin hissed. Then she pitched it into the water.
There was a splash, and it was gone.
Gone, Robin thought, relieved.
She turned back around. . .and this time she did scream, loud and cutting as the caws of the birds overhead.
Because the figurine was sitting on the dead leaves in front of her.
Robin took a shaky breath and chucked the raven back in.
It was in front of her again a heartbeat later.
Robin grabbed it and stuck it back into her pocket. She needed answers, now.
She would return to the antique store that started it all.
* * *
The dolls stared accusingly at Robin as she crossed the threshold of the store.
“How may I help you?” the man asked.
“You can explain this,” Robin said, her voice shaky. She held up the raven.
The man smirked. “I warned you. I told you that my antiques shouldn’t be used lightly! Yes, I warned you. Once any of these ” — he gestured at the shelves of items — “pass over the threshold of my store and into the waking world, their power is unleashed. . ..”
“I want you to stop this!” Robin whispered. “People are disappearing, everyone’s scared. . .”
The man shook his head. “I cannot stop it. Only the person that first brought the raven out of the store can.”
“What?” Robin asked. “Lark?” Then she remembered when they’d rushed out of the store. . . Robin had grabbed the raven. She’d been the first to bring it into the outside world.
So she was the only one who could end this.
She, who feared anything feathered.
Robin looked the man in the eyes and asked, “What do I do?” Her voice shook.
“A sacrifice,” the store owner said. “As the person who brought the raven out of this store, you are safe from its power. You won’t disappear. But everyone else will, slowly. First Vance, then this state, then all will be ravens. Except you. So if you tell the raven that you will let it transform you, if you sacrifice yourself, then. . .the raven will dissolve and everyone will be restored. But you will spend the rest of your life as a raven.”
Robin clutched the raven tighter.
She could watch the word transform into one huge flock of ravens, and be the last human alive, the one representative of an extinct breed.
Or she could let the raven take her, let the rest of the world be spared. . .but she would have to spend the rest of her life as the thing she lived in fear of.
It was like some sort of twisted “Would You Rather.”
Robin took a deep breath, then stared out at the street that now had more ravens than people. She thought of the missing, the scared families and friends.
She stared down at the raven, at the word, “Nevermore”.
And she made her choice.
* * *
Sunset was painting the sky in bright streaks when Robin made it back to her house. She stepped over the threshold, her plan solid in her mind. She’d say a secret goodbye to her family, then head out to the woods.
She’d let herself become a raven, everyone would be saved, and maybe someone would write an epic about her.
Perfect. Sort of.
Except for the fact that she’d become a bird.
Robin pushed these thoughts aside and opened her door. “Mom? Dad? Lark?” she called. No answer. Only silence, and the caws of ravens.
Robin glanced around the house, then at the ground. Four feathers — dark as the places between stars — lined the ground like shards of night.
So there would be no good-bye.
Tears swam in Robin’s eyes as she ran out into the forest.
The power was going out, the world plunging into darkness. Overhead, hundreds of ravens — the whole flock — swirled in an aerial dance. Perhaps her family was among them.
Robin leaned against a tree and looked into the raven’s eyes.
Her heart was pounding in her chest, with fear but also with anger.
Anger at this piece of stone that had taken her family, was taking her world, would take her life.
She breathed in the fall air, the smell of apples and old leaves.
She let her fear release its hold on her chest.
She would go, but she would not be afraid.
“All right, raven,” she hissed, proud of her voice for (mostly) not shaking. “Do your worst.” She looked deep, deep into its opalescent eyes. “Nevermore,” she whispered.
Nevermore. I’m ready.
There was a flash of red, the red of warning signs but also the red of roses and garnets and blood spilled in sacrifice.
And then Robin was no longer a girl leaning against a tree, but a bird free to take to the skies — now empty of ravens except her.
And, she realized with surprising glee, she was no longer afraid of birds. She was afraid of nothing. She had faced what scared her most and given up what she loved and now she was free.
Untethered by gravity, she watched life in Vance go back to normal. Neighbors chatted at the coffee shop. Kids carved pumpkins. Couples strolled hand in hand down the streets.
It was worth it, Robin thought, flying down for a closer look. Even if I won’t ever be able to be human again. . .Sadness flooded through her, for the life she’d given up.
She landed on the leaf-covered sidewalk in front of the antique store. The man was just flipping the sign to “closed.”
He gazed down at her. “You did it, did you?” he asked quietly.
Robin bobbed her head in answer.
The man smirked. “Things like these do improve your opinion of humanity,” he said slowly. “Well, you have done what you set out to do. I see no reason why I can’t fix things a bit. . .”
His eyes flashed red, and this red was the warm kind, the color of robins and sunsets and blood flowing through veins.
Robin blinked. Something felt different. She looked down and saw arms instead of wings, skin instead of feathers. She glanced at her reflection in the antique store window.
The man was gone, and she was herself again.
Overhead, a lone raven flew away into the sunset.
Robin waved up at it, breathing in the fall air.
The raven cawed, and Robin laughed.
Never again would she be afraid of birds, she thought.