On the morning of his funeral, you wake screaming from nightmares of Jonathan Chin, your mouth crammed full of feathers. A craving for sky sKY SKY electrifies you from pounding heart to fingertips. Your hands are empty and twisted like claws, the body of a ghost boy slipping from your grasp.
You see him as clearly as if he’d been cut from your mind and pasted on the walls in front of you. Jonathan Chin is a fixture in your room, etched into every shadow. Jonathan Chin is in your mouth, your belly.
You choke, stomach heaving, and vomit all over yourself. Blobs of sticky, tarry feathers, the drier bits slicked with a green sheen, spatter your lap and sheets.
Eli, Eli. Your name is a tender caress, mapping your spine with phantom fingers.
You have to get out.
You tear away your blankets and stumble from bed, feathers spilling out onto the floor. Under your pajama top, a budding itch crawls beneath your skin. As you shove the window open, the sweltering night air sweeps in, clinging like a second skin and reeking of magnolias. You haul yourself out the window and onto the roof.
The climb is steep, made harder by the rictus your fingers have locked themselves into over the past three days. You dig your hardening fingertips into the cracks between tiles. The shingles’ edges scrape against your bare feet.
Eli, the dead boy breathes in your ear, but when your head snaps back, he’s nowhere to be found. A laugh hacks its way out of your throat as a sob.
By the time you scrabble to the flat top of the roof, your hands are lanced with needles. You lie down on the flattest part of the roof, tiles digging into your back, arms spread. It’s not comfortable, but you will not sleep again tonight. The dreams of falling, trapped in someone else’s skin and terror, won’t let you.
“Goddammit,” you croak. If your mom heard you, she’d wash your mouth out with soap for blaspheming, never mind your seventeen years of age and your foot and a half of height on her. But she’s sound asleep and won’t be up until five in the morning. She’d been talking last night about leaving early to get lilies for the funeral. “Goddammit! Leave me alone!”
Eli, repeats Jon.
“Go away.” You’re afraid of what you’ll see if you close your eyes. “Please, go away.”
He doesn’t, of course. For the rest of the night, you wait for the sky to brighten, punching your arm to keep from falling asleep and rolling over the edge, and try to ignore the ghost of the pastor’s son muttering in your head.
Long, plastic tables line the lawn outside the church, covered in jugs of sweet tea and an army of home-cooked dishes. A handful of women, fanning themselves with paper bulletins in the July heat, hover around the food to keep the flies away. Each is dressed for the funeral in head-to-toe black, including large, netted Sunday hats.
You trudge past them in your own ill-fitting suit, your father’s old shoes pinching your feet with every step. They would have felt fine on you three days ago. It’s the recent transformations your body has undergone—the sloping curve of your spine, bringing your shoulders forward and making it harder to stand up straight; the gnarling of your hands and feet; the tiny, sharp quills budding all over your skin—that have the suit’s material stretching in some places and sagging in others.
The scent of pulled pork and heating barbecues nauseates you. You haven’t been able to keep food down for the past three days.
A greeter—someone’s kid, too young for you to remember her name—presses a folded leaflet into your hand at the door. “Thanks,” you mutter. There’s a printed lily on the front cover, along with the words MEMORIAL SERVICE FOR JONATHAN CHIN, SUNDAY, JULY 20, 2014.
Inside, the pews are packed with farmers in old suits and their sullen wives. New Hope Baptist Church isn’t big, but the whole town has turned up for the pastor’s son’s funeral. Especially since it was a suicide, how deliciously terrible. A life-sized bronze Jesus, pinned to a cross at the prow of the church, presides over the congregation like a suffering, glowering figurehead. Wreaths of white blossoms festoon the walls, washed in multicolored light from the stained glass windows. A large, hideous arrangement of roses, lilies, and chrysanthemums bound together to form a cross stands at the front of the church, right before the altar and casket.
Jon would have hated it. At the very least, he’d have laughed. That’s my dad, always putting God ahead of me.
Your parents are already there, packed in near the front. It’s the first time in recent memory they’ve stood so close to each other, almost like a unit entire. As you shuffle into their pew, you catch a glimpse of Jon’s parents. Pastor Chin stands a few pews from the first row, next to his sobbing wife. When he turns to comfort her, pressing a tender kiss to her forehead, his eyes are dry and swollen.
“Posture, Eli,” your mother murmurs as you settle in next to her, keeping your head down. She stares straight ahead as the choir filters in. They’re throwing nervous glances at the casket in front. “We should have gotten you a haircut, you’re getting shaggy.”
You catch a glimpse of Randy’s red hair through the crowd. Your friends are up front, crammed in tight among a flock of grandmas; Brett rises above the cloud of white hair and elaborate hats like an awkward skyscraper, and Michael is lost somewhere below. You duck your head as if praying, your stomach churning. If you’re lucky, they haven’t spotted you.
As the choir begins a quavering rendition of Be Thou My Vision, you jam your hands into your pockets, too ashamed to sing along. It’s probably your imagination, but you feel like the bronze Jesus won’t stop staring at you.
That’s when you see him standing in the pews behind his parents, swaying in time to the music with his eyes closed. He’s dressed in the same dark jeans and old black hoodie he used to wear every day to school, his clothes hanging off of his skinny, lanky body. His glasses are shattered. Purple bruises mark his skin, from the ring of finger-shaped stains around his neck to the swollen cheek and eye on the left side of his face. His lips are split down the middle, caked with a thin line of dried blood. His hair is incongruously perfect.
As if he can feel you staring, Jonathan Chin glances back at you, dark eyes flickering with amusement, and mouths words that you hear in your head even across the church.
Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?
Your budding feathers bristle, standing on end. You shrink back.
Why have you abandoned me?
“Pay attention,” your mom snaps quietly, elbowing you. The choir moves on to Abide With Me, stumbling over the key change. The organist plows on gamely.
“But Jon’s right there,” you stammer.
For a moment she softens. “Maybe an open-casket funeral wasn’t a good choice.” She squeezes your shoulder. “You don’t have to look if you don’t want to.”
She thinks you’re talking about the corpse lying in his coffin, not the one grinning at you across the church, his eyes agleam with cruel amusement. Jon crooks his fingers in a sardonic wave, and the music is swallowed by overwhelming shrieking coming from outside the church.
The choir halts, the organ stuttering. Pastor Chin whips around, staring straight through his son as his eyes dart to the sanctuary doors. The windows go dark as large, feathered bodies pelt past, beating their wings against the colored glass. You gasp, your own blood singing with that nighttime craving for open air. Your feathers prickle, pushing further out of your skin. Is the twist in your stomach revulsion or ecstasy? You want to fly. You need to fly, to soar, to peck and tear and shred—
You’re pushing through the crowd, heading for the back of the building. There’s a stairwell there; you need to be up in the air, feeling the wind under you, wiping you clean from all of the disgusting humanity tying you to earth. As if taking your cue, the rest of the congregation stampedes toward the exits in a flurry of hats and panicked people.
Someone opens the door, and a horde of huge, filthy crows explodes into the church. They bang, screaming, into the walls and windows, knocking down the flower arrangements and shitting wildly over everything. Your Sunday School teacher faints and disappears beneath the trampling mass of escaping parishioners.
Someone grabs your arm and you snarl at them without thinking, yanking your limb back. “You’re not getting away that easy,” growls Randy. He’s clawed his way to you, a poisonous look on his face. “We’ve been calling you nonstop since Friday. Why the hell have you been blowing us off these past few days?”
The call of the sky crackles in your veins and you almost bite him. “Why do you think, asshole?”
Dark, violent rage flashes across his face, but Brett and Michael are suddenly there, filtering out of the crowd. “Not now, you guys,” Brett snaps. He focuses on you. He’s gotten paler, lost weight. “We need to talk. All of us.”
“I don’t have anything to say to you,” your traitor mouth says.
“Someone’s brave today,” sneers Randy. “I liked you better as a fucking coward.”
He’s standing between you and the door, you and the outside—you lunge at him, but Brett grabs you and holds you back. “Calm the fuck down, Eli!”
“Get out of my way!” you shout.
Michael steps in front of you and silently lifts up the edge of his own shirt. The words dry up in your mouth. His stomach is covered in ugly red lines and a darkened rash of budding feathers.
“It’s happening to all of us,” Brett yells, barely audible over the howling crowd. “So you can come and help us sort this shit out, see if we can stop it, or you can keep turning into a fucking bird alone.” He lets go of you. “Your choice. If you’re in, we’re going to Elmo’s Diner in my pickup. If not, you’re on your own.”
You glare at Randy and shove past him to the door. Behind you, Jesus’ face and body are streaked with a patina of crow shit. “I’m in.” You have been from the very start; there’s no turning back now.
Outside, the sky boils with screaming crows, blotting out the clouds, the magnolias. People stream down the front steps, past the picnic tables set up on the lawn. The food is ruined; crows are in the casseroles, gorging themselves on pork belly, tearing through the food and soiling the linens. Discarded programs are strewn like flower petals all over the grass, trampled into the dirt.
Elmo’s Diner is all warm yellow tiles and children’s colored-in menus, but the cheery atmosphere doesn’t make you feel safe.
“I've been having nightmares since Friday,” Brett says hoarsely. The four of you are sitting in a booth by the window, keeping an eye on the sullen sky. So far, no birds in sight. “I keep dreaming I'm being buried alive in crows. Just—just suffocating under all the feathers and scratching feet, tearing my lips to pieces. This stinking mass of crows.”
“Do you dream about him?” You fiddle with your straw wrapper. “About Jon visiting you at night?”
“God, no, why would I dream about that?” But his face grays.
“Guilt,” Michael mutters. It’s the first thing he’s said today. He’s always been a quiet, intense kid, even in kindergarten, but never this silent. “Residual guilt.”
You glance around at your three closest friends. Each has told a similar story to yours, displaying the same pinfeathers and body distortion as you. Each has been plagued with nightmares involving crows and falling.
“So what the hell do we do?” Randy slams his hand down on the table, rattling the napkin-holder, but he can’t hide his trembling. “Is this one of those freak diseases, like the one where people turn into trees or rocks or shit?”
“Maybe it’s God,” whispers Michael. “Maybe he’s punishing us for what happened to Jon.”
“Bullshit. Jon didn’t even believe in God.”
“What, you think Jon cursed us or something?” Brett demands.
“No,” Michael retorts. “I think God cursed us.” He’s pale, the dark, sleepless circles around his eyes pressed into his skin. “It’s been known to happen. And Jon was the pastor’s son.”
“Randy’s the one who beat the shit out of him,” you say.
“Yeah, but you pushed him off the roof,” Brett says. “What do you think's gonna happen to you?”
The straw wrapper crumples in your hands. “That was an accident,” you mutter weakly. “I didn’t mean to do it.” You were just gonna scare him. That was all.
“We all know you were sweet on him,” Randy sneers. “Was it nice to finally get your hands on his candy ass?”
Fury flares hot and white across your vision and you swing at him across the table, clipping his jaw. He snarls and lunges for you, but there’s a loud thunk against the window and you both turn.
A single crow has landed on the sill, beady eyes gleaming. It’s small, barely a fledgling. It doesn't seem afraid of you, despite how close you all are through the eighth-inch of glass.
Suddenly, it slams its head into the window. Michael shrieks. You recoil, the ghost of your face transposed over the network of blood where the bird keeps hammering against the glass. Its beak splinters, but it doesn’t stop, pounding its skull into the window until it’s a bloody pulp.
“Fuck,” Randy moans, the last of his tough façade melting away. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
“It can’t get us in here,” Brett says, trying to reassure you, but his voice is shaking. “It’s going to be okay. It can’t get us.” He glances at you, but you’re watching the crow ram its ruined head into the glass over, and over, and over, until the pulp of its eyes are smears on the window. You think you can hear Jon laughing.
That night you can’t breathe. You dream that you are drowning in your own flesh, becoming smaller and smaller until you are a tiny bird, struggling under the weight of thick, melting folds of a human body.
When you wake, it is raining outside. Jon is sitting on your chest, bruises feathering across his face in the mottled light. “Hello, Eli my love,” he says. “Miss me?”
You wrap your arms around him and pull him toward you. Your world is hazy and disorienting; you need something, someone familiar to anchor you.
He leans down and kisses you, sweet and gentle, slipping his hands up your shirt. Your tongue slides over his split lip, and the sudden tang of iron—of blood—jolts you back into reality. His lips are soft, but his mouth isn’t warm any more. His chest doesn’t rise and fall against yours; it doesn’t move at all. You are kissing a dead boy.
You shove him off of you. “Don’t touch me,” you slur. Your tongue is thick with sleep, growing to a crow’s hard point. “Get away from me, you freak.”
He tips back, laughing, in a fall of black feathers. There’s an alien coldness in his voice, the dark tinge of contempt. “Gee, Eli. A guy dies and his boyfriend—” your stomach twists “—just up and forgets about him—”
“I’m not your boyfriend,” you say, words falling from your lips as heavy as stones. “I never wanted you.”
“You made that very clear to your friends on Friday afternoon.” His smile is a razor’s edge. “You’re a shit liar, Eli. Kissing me two weeks ago was the second biggest mistake of your life, right after pushing me off the roof.”
You were the one who kissed him that first day, up against the chain link fence on the roof of the school. He was talking about something—biology? theology? you can’t remember—and you pressed him back, and he dropped his books, and you covered his mouth with yours to shut him up.
“You were asking for it,” you say weakly, and he barks out a laugh.
“Bullshit. You kissed me because you wanted me.” He grinds down on you, and to your shame, your erection presses painfully against his jeans. “And you still want me, don’t you?”
“Stop,” you moan. This has to be a dream. His fingers brush you through your pajama pants, teasing you with touches too light. You arch under him.
“Do you want me to?” he whispers, biting down on your earlobe. You can hear feathers rustling.
If you could stay locked in this dream forever, with this ghost boy in your arms, you would. “Don’t you fucking dare,” you say, and he rewards you with a squeeze down low. He begins to pump his hand up and down, running his thumb over your tip. A spike of pleasure chased by immediate shame threatens to turn your limbs to jelly, and you moan again. Every feather on your body prickles.
His hand works you over and the kisses he peppers down your neck and chest feel like tiny fireballs, feeding your guilt. But they can’t sear your conscience clean.
“I came here to give you something,” he breathes in your ear, sliding his hands up your body, and you don’t think to resist until he presses his thumbs into your eyes.
You jolt awake, screaming into the darkness. There is only darkness now, no stars outside your window, not even the glowing blue window of your cellphone screen. Your eyes are open, but there’s nowhere left to hide from the nightmares.
You’ve gone blind.
Your cellphone’s harsh buzz cuts through the crows howling in your head. They have started speaking in tongues, in fiery words you don’t understand. You fumble across your dresser, claws scratching the wood. Your hands are hardening, growing thin and scaled. You’ve lost so much weight, you feel like you could float away at any moment. Somehow, you find and press the call button.
“Randy fell down the stairs last night,” Michael says tonelessly. “He broke every bone in his body. Every finger. He even broke his fucking toes.”
You don’t say anything. All of your words are gone, evaporated dream by dream. Your father has barricaded your bedroom door shut and hidden himself away in his study, combing the internet for a cure, a clue, anything; your mom’s constant sobbing is the only human noise your household has heard over the past week.
Your harsh breathing echoes through the cellphone’s mouthpiece, whistling from your elongating beak.
“His mom called me from the hospital,” Michael says. “Brett’s there, too. All of his teeth are falling out.” A sob crackles through the phone. “Oh God, I think we’re gonna die. Everything hurts. My face is bulging, all my bones are stretching—”
He screams then, and a sharp crack! snaps across the receiver. The crows are no longer in your ears; they are on the other end of the line, with Michael, whose cellphone has hit the ground.
You listen until the screams die away. Then you end the call.
You’re pretty sure you know what you need to do.
You open the window and wait, arms extended. When the wings come rushing in, air battering your face, you don’t move. You don’t scream. You don’t fight. “Take me to him,” you croak, using the last of the words left in you.
The crows cackle, whirling about you. They buoy you up, and the loss of the ground beneath your feet is at once terrifying and exhilarating. You are almost flying. Almost, as the wind threatens to tear you to pieces.
Too soon, your feet touch earth again. You stumble and almost fall; your feet are too gnarled to stand on. Your hand-claws catch on an iron bar and feel their way up its slope.
You’re at the base of a fire escape. You recognize the scent of roses, lilies, chrysanthemums, now heavy with decay. The church. You wonder if Jon’s casket is still around, if it’s empty, if it’s ever been full at all.
The grating scratches underfoot as you haul yourself upward, arms flapping ineffectually. It’s hard to balance on the metal stairs, but you soldier on, even when you slip and crack your beak against the railing. Bright explosions of pain blossom in your head, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters now is the climb to sky sKY SKY. You have to get to the roof.
You scrabble onto the shingles, scraping lines into the tiles. Crows wheel above you, their cacophony almost drowning out your friends’ sobs and curses. Though you can’t see them, you can feel them. Brett is screaming. Michael is praying aloud, words mangled by the shape of his own changing face. Randy’s ragged breathing and the squeak of a wheelchair are the only way you know he’s there. But of course he’s here; you all have to be present for the finale.
“Jon,” you try to say, but your beak clacks dumbly. No words. You think it instead, like a prayer. Jon. Jon. Jon.
If you had your words back, you would tell him how sorry you are—for hurting him, for pushing him from the roof. For being too weak to stand up for yourself, and for him. Maybe you would tell him that you loved him. Maybe you would stop lying.
You don’t need convincing, not like your friends do. When the crows rush downward in a tornado of beaks and wings, you are ready. Bunching up your legs, you leap from the edge of the roof. Jon is waiting for you, waiting in the open air.
There is a breath, an intake of pure, cathartic bliss, and you wonder what sound you will make when you hit the ground because you cannot fly.
That’s when you feel a pair of arms wrap around you from behind, wiry and strong. A mouth brushes your ear, whisper reverberating through the flock.
The crows shriek around you, the sheer mass of them crushing you. The noise of them almost swallows up your friends’ screams, the desperate scrabble of claws on tile as they fall, the splintering of Randy’s wheelchair on the pavement below.
You hover in the air, held tight to the chest of a dead boy. You grip back, claws digging into his dead skin-not-skin. After an eternity, you drift back to the roof, and when your feet touch the tiles, they are human feet. Your spine has straightened, bones no longer hollow. You feel a pair of lips touch your eyelids, one at a time, and when you open them again, there is the ghost with black hair standing in front of you, wearing the same black hoodie and dark jeans as he was when he died.
I loved you, you know, says Jonathan Chin. He’s radiant in the light of early dawn, his bruised face streaked with tears, an angel, a corpse. You fucker. I loved you so much. You sob and reach out for him, but he dissolves into a shower of black feathers that burn where they touch your skin.
You scream and scream and scream, clutching fistfuls of them in your ruined human hands. On the ground, the crows begin to feed in a mass flurry of rippling wings, ignoring the creaking of a lone, spinning wheel. “I loved you, too,” you cry. Finally, everything out in the open. But your friends make no sound at all.