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Birds of Prey
Blake Crouch

A Watch of Nightingales

Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1969

“Get in here, boys!” Jeanette shouted. “It’s happening, and you’re missing it! Andrew! Orson! Come on!”

The eight-year-old twins raced each other down the hall and into the living room, where they skidded to a stop on the green shag carpet.

“You have to see this,” their mother said, pointing at the television screen.

“What’s wrong with Dad?” Orson asked.

Andy looked over at their father who sat on the edge of an ottoman, leaning toward the television with his forearms on his knees and tears running down his face.

“Nothing, son,” he said, dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief. “Just never thought I’d be alive to see something like this.”

“Can we go outside?” Andy said.

“It’s too late,” Jeannette said. “Ya’ll need to get ready for bed.”

“Aw, come on, Mom. Just for ten minutes,” Orson begged.

“Five minutes,” their mother said. “And don’t make me come out there looking for you.”

The boys rushed out the front door into the night, the screen door banging shut after them.

It was July and warm, lightning bugs floating everywhere like airborne embers, sparking and fading, sparking and fading.

“Look at me!” Andy screamed, running out into the long, cool grass in the front yard. “I’m floating!”

When the boy stopped, he glanced back toward the driveway, saw his brother lying on his back, staring up at the sky.

Andy moved back toward him in exaggerated hops, pretending to bounce along through reduced gravity.

He lay down on the warm concrete beside his brother, their shoulders barely touching, and stared up into the sky.

The gibbous moon shone with a subdued brilliance through the humid southern night.

“I can see them up there,” Andy said.

Orson glanced at him, brow furrowed. “Really?”

Andy smiled. “Of course not, I’m just kidding.”

“I knew that.”

They were quiet for a bit, and then Orson said, “I think there’s something wrong with me.”

“I know, my stomach always hurts after Mom’s meatloaf, too.”

“No, it’s not that.”

“What?”

“You ever feel different?” Orson said.

“Different? Like how?”

“Like from other people, stupid.”

“I don’t know. I don’t guess so.”

“Yeah, that’s because you’re normal.”

“So are you.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are, you’re my brother.”

“That doesn’t make me normal, Andy.”

“I know you and there’s nothing wrong—”

“But you only know my outside. You don’t know what’s inside. The thoughts I have.”

“What thoughts?”

“Just thoughts.”

“Normal ones?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Like what?” Andy asked.

“I don’t want to tell. They’re mine.”

“Tell me.”

Orson looked over at Andy. Now there were tears in his eyes. Glassy in the moonlight.

“You’ll tell Mom and Dad.”

“No, I won’t.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

Orson looked back into the sky.

“Everyone’s real excited about what’s happening.”

“I know.”

“But you know what I’m thinking?”

“How could I?”

Orson hesitated. Then: “No, I don’t want to say.”

“Orson.” Andy reached over and took hold of his brother’s hand. “You can trust me. Always.”

Orson blinked twice, and then said, “I wish Neil Armstrong would die up there.”

“Why?”

Orson shrugged. “I don’t know. But I wish his friend would leave him on the moon or the Eagle would blow up or a space monster that no one had ever heard of before would crawl out of a hole and eat him. Everyone would be sad, and I’d be….so happy.”

Andy stared at his brother, an airy fluttering in his stomach now, and it wasn’t his mother’s meatloaf.

“You can let go of my hand if you want,” Orson said, and that look on his face would never leave Andy—fear and defiance and rage and a deep, deep sadness.

The screen door banged open.

Their mother’s voice echoing through the woods across the street, calling for them to come inside and get ready for bed.

Andy squeezed his brother’s hand tighter.

A Day at the Beach

North Carolina Outer Banks, 1977

They were a happy, black-eyed family, and the day was perfect.

Late August.

The heat broken by the breeze coming off the ocean.

A few stray clouds way out over the Atlantic, but otherwise, the sky pitch-blue and already beginning to deepen toward evening.

Rufus Kite and his five-year-old son had started after lunch, and now, six hours into the project, it loomed over the beach like the ruins of a Scottish castle. They’d constructed a moat all the way around—two feet wide and a foot down to the water table. Luther had even put a crab inside as a standin for a real monster. The tide would be upon them anytime now, and already the noise of the surf was getting louder as it inched closer. Luther sat in the middle of the castle, surrounded by two-foot walls, digging trenches and passageways while his father dripped wet sand along the top wall. It looked like disintegrating masonry.

Ten yards behind the castle, Luther’s mother and sister reclined in beach chairs under the shade of an umbrella, Maxine tearing through the last fifty pages of a Ludlum novel, Katie curled up sleeping in her chair, the eight-year-old a deep bronze—the only member of the Kite clan who could catch a tan.

They’d driven onto the beach eight hours ago, the kids riding in the back of the old Dodge pick-up truck as Rufus drove all the way out to the southern tip of the island—a spit of sand jutting out into the sea.

At this time of day, they had it all to themselves.

A man had been fishing a few hundred yards up the beach for the last several hours, but he was gone now.

A fishing trawler loomed like a ghost on the horizon several miles out, nearly invisible through the haze.

“If we build it big enough,” Luther said as he packed the damp sand, fortifying the wall, “maybe the tide won’t knock our castle down?”

Rufus grinned at his son.

“If we built this thing taller than me, the ocean would still bring it down. There’s no stopping it.”

Luther scowled. “But we worked so hard. I like it. I don’t want it to fall.”

“Just enjoy it while you have it, son. By the way, that philosophy works for more than sand castles.”

Luther came to his feet just as a breaker crashed twenty feet away.

Sea water raced up the sand, stopping just shy of the moat.

He turned around, glanced back toward the dunes.

The sun was just sliding down behind the live oaks on Ocracoke Island.

Only a few hours of daylight left.

It had been such a perfect day, and Luther felt a glimmer of sadness at the thought of it coming to an end.

He could see the ocean beginning to swell again.

Another wave coming.

He looked up at his father, saw Rufus smiling down at him, sweat beading out across the man’s forehead under the jet-black bangs that stopped just above his eyes. The boy would always see his father like this, even in his old age.

Young. Fit. Strong and happy.

The breaker crashed ashore.

The sea foaming and fizzing like a bottle of spilt soda.

Rufus put his hand on Luther’s shoulder.

“Here comes the first attack, my boy. Man your battle station!”

Luther stepped up to the front wall and watched the water race toward them with a lump in his throat.

When the sun was gone, they got a bonfire going and roasted wieners over a bed of coals that Maxine had spread out in the sand.

Luther and Katie sat together eating hot dogs as the tide went out, the sound of the breakers now growing steadily softer.

When he was finished with supper, Luther leaned against his sister and stared into the flames, his belly full, watching the fire consume the wood of some ancient shipwreck. He could feel the accumulation of sunlight in his shoulders—a warm, subtle glow. His eyes were heavy.

“You tired?” Katie asked.

“No.”

“Yeah, you are.”

“No, I’m not.”

“It’s okay to be tired, Luther.”

“I know.”

She kissed the top of his head. “Sorry about your castle. You still sad it’s gone?”

Luther said nothing.

“It was really cool, buddy,” Katie said. She craned her neck and looked him in the eyes, must have seen the tears welling, shining in the light of the fire. “Luther,” she said, “you’ll get to make another one. I bet it’ll even be bigger next time.”

Luther glanced up through the flames at his father and mother, Maxine wrapped in a shawl and cuddled up between Rufus’s legs nursing a cold beer.

The heat of the fire felt good lapping at his face. He could’ve fallen asleep to it.

Gazing up into the sky, he watched the sparks rising toward the stars.

Smelled the residue of suntan lotion on Katie that the sand hadn’t worn away.

Coconut.

He filled with a sudden and profound warmth for his sister.

Only three years older than he was and yet she understood him better than anyone else. Better even than their mother.

He’d just started to reach for her hand when he noticed the light.

For a moment, he mistook it for a lightning bug—it had that floating, bouncy quality—but then he realized it was the bulb of a flashlight moving toward their fire.

Still thirty or forty yards away, and he couldn’t have known how often he would dream of that image. How thoroughly the fear of it would come to define him. So innocuous—just a speck of brilliance coming toward him in the dark.

His mother must have noticed the diversion of his focus, because she said, “What’s wrong, boy?”

Luther jutted his chin toward the light. “Somebody’s coming.”

“Probably just someone out for a late-night stroll,” she said.

“Can we spend the night here?” Katie asked.

“I don’t think so,” Rufus said. “I need a shower.”

Maxine chuckled. “And a soft bed, sweet-sweet.”

“Absolutely.”

“But it’d be fun!” Katie whined.

“Another time, princess,” Rufus said. “We didn’t even bring our sleeping bags.”

The light had nearly reached them now, Luther watching it approach and listening to the oncoming footsteps in the sand.

“They’re coming over here,” he said.

Now Maxine sat up and looked back over her shoulder.

Luther held up his hand to shield his eyes from the firelight.

Saw a man’s legs standing ten feet away—hairy and thick—that ended in a pair of muddy work boots.

Rufus was struggling to his feet now.

Luther heard his father say, “Hi, there.”

Luther glanced up into Katie’s face, didn’t like what he saw—an intensity, a concentration he didn’t fully comprehend. He was missing something. Events unfolding on some frequency beyond his experience.

His father spoke again, “Evening.”

“What are you folks doing here?”

The man’s voice sounded strange to Luther—southern but not local. Not friendly either. It contained a hard-edged, metallic rasp.

“Just having a campfire,” Rufus said.

“You live around here?”

“We live on Ocracoke. How about you? You visiting?”

The man laughed as if Luther’s father had made a joke. “Yeah. That’s it. We’re visiting.” The man came forward three steps and turned off his flashlight. In the firelight, Luther studied him. He wore a heavily-stained white tee-shirt covered in a thousand tiny rips. The man’s substantial body odor was evident even from ten feet away. He hadn’t shaved in weeks, his jaw covered in a salt-and-pepper stubble. His eyes shone wild and glassy and they didn’t stay on one object for more than several seconds at a time.

“Well,” Rufus said, “we were actually just getting ready to shove off, so—”

“I didn’t say anything about you leaving.”

The man’s statement festered in the air for what seemed ages.

No sound but the surf and the crackle of driftwood in the flames.

Maxine came to her feet, stood behind Rufus.

“Ya’ll best sit down now,” the man said.

Maxine wrapped her hands around Rufus’s left arm. “Let’s go.”

Rufus shot a quick look over at Katie. “Get you and Luther in the back of the truck. Right now.” He turned back to the man.

Katie jerked Luther onto his feet.

“We’re gonna take off,” Rufus said. “I got my kids here. I don’t want any trouble with you. You understand that, right? We were just out here having a day at the beach, and now we’re going home.”

Katie pulled Luther toward the Dodge.

The man said, “You ain’t going nowhere.”

“What’s happening, Katie?” Luther whispered.

“I’ll tell you later. Hop into the—”

“Young lady!”

Katie froze.

“Did you not just fu**ing hear what I told your daddy? Get your ass back where you was sitting, or by God—”

“Don’t you dare speak to my—”

Luther saw the man swing his flashlight into the side of his father’s head.

Rufus’s knees buckled, hit the sand, blood streaming out of a gash above his left eye.

The man drove his knee into Rufus’s face, and when Maxine rushed forward he caught her with a right hook that snapped her head around.

His mother fell facedown in the sand, out cold.

Rufus climbed back onto his feet.

Luther realizing the warm sensation he felt was piss running down the inside of his legs.

“He hit mom,” Katie said, crying. “Why’d he hit mom?”

Rufus flung a handful of sand into the man’s face and rushed him as he clawed at his eyes, scooping the man under his massive thighs and slamming him down on his back in the sand.

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