Naomi rested her forehead against the window, closed her eyes, and let a sigh hiss out between her teeth. This wasn’t over yet.
“What’s out there?” asked Emily, approaching the window.
Griff muttered, “We can’t get away from this… They’re everywhere…”
“What is it!?” demanded Emily. She pushed up beside Naomi and looked out. “It’s just a couple of birds.”
“They don’t even need to send anyone to watch us,” Griff fumed, beginning to pace the hallway. “There are birds everywhere, and any of them could be turned against us at any time.”
“It’s that man,” said Naomi, opening her eyes again and staring out at the two big, black crows perched atop the mailbox. “The man in the blue car who tried to run me over. We saw him talking to some birds before, remember, Emily? When you were driving us to meet up with Candace yesterday.”
Emily let the curtain fall back and looked at Griff. “So the birds are spying on us?”
“We don’t know that for sure,” said Naomi. One of the crows on the mailbox kicked up into the air and flapped its way over the houses across the street, then out of sight. “Maybe these aren’t his birds. I mean, this guy can’t be talking to every single bird everywhere, can he?”
“Maybe not,” said Griff, “but if you’d seen what I saw earlier today, you wouldn’t be too willing to take that chance.”
“What happened?” said Naomi.
“There were thousands of—” Then Griff stopped and looked upwards. “Does this house have a chimney?”
“…Yeah,” said Naomi. “Why?”
“They’re on the roof.” Griff pointed up an angle. “That way.”
Emily frowned. “Who’s on the roof? Some birds?”
“Yeah, a couple, and I think I can sense more coming.”
Naomi led the other two in the direction Griff was pointing, to the living room, where the fireplace sat empty, unused since winter, some charcoal and a thick layer of dark soot resting behind the light chain mesh cover.
A scrabbling sound was coming from inside the wall.
“What’s that?” said Emily.
Then a black, feathered head poked down into sight, startling them. It cawed hoarsely.
“What’s it doing?” said Emily.
“I don’t know.” Naomi took a step towards the bird, reaching out a hand for the fire poker. The crow dropped down and shoved through the chain mesh, raising its wings and screaming at her. She took an instinctive step back.
“It’s just a bird,” said Griff. He moved to help her, and was screamed at in turn.
They heard more scrabbling noises. All three of them looked up at the wall.
“Okay,” said Griff, “just some birds. But what can they do?”
“Peck our eyes out?” suggested Emily.
“Cover your face,” said Griff, shrugging. He kicked at the crow and it hopped back, acting miffed, but then it hissed through its open beak and spread its wings threateningly.
“This is crazy,” said Naomi. “They’re animals. They should be more scared of us than we are of them.”
“Not these ones,” said Griff, remembering the field of crow and seagull corpses he’d awoken to beside the highway. “I don’t think these ones are scared of anything.”
Another crow plopped down into the fireplace and peered out, ruffling its sooty feathers, and a third followed it.
Naomi looked back at Griff. “What’s their plan here, d’you think? Have they sent these birds to kill us?”
“I don’t know… I feel like they’d have much more effective ways of doing that at their disposal. This is just… weird.”
“Wait,” said Emily. “Is that one holding something?”
A fourth crow had just dropped down, pushing the other three out onto the hearth, where they perched lightly on their scaly feet, observing the humans with arrogant eyes. The fourth crow had indeed dragged something down the chimney with it: a massive, bunched-up wad of newspaper was gripped between its toes.
Griff wrinkled his forehead. “What the…”
The four crows were quickly joined by a fifth, and then a sixth and a seventh, each of the newcomers similarly encumbered. The birds were pouring out of the chimney now, hopping down onto the carpet and flapping up onto the furniture, muttering to one another and fluffing up the feathers on their necks and chests. The fireplace quickly filled up with crumpled newspaper, and still the birds came. There were ten now, a dozen, and Griff could sense the arrival of still more on the roof above them.
Footsteps pounded down the stairs, and Naomi’s mother bounded recklessly around the corner, nearly running Emily over. She was tightly clutching a robe around herself, her eyes and face were deeply lined with sleep, and her hair was mussed up. She’d clearly just awoken. “Naomi, what’s going on!?” she demanded. “Candace is upstairs, and she tells me—eek!” She took a quick leap back, spotting the crows. “What in the world…?
“Very long story, mom,” said Naomi.
“What are these crows doing here!?”
“We’re… actually not sure.”
Naomi’s mom sniffed. “And why does it smell like gasoline?”
In the fireplace, three more crows flopped awkwardly down among the newspaper. They rolled onto their feet, beaks hanging open, tongues flipping eerily up and down. One shook its head, spraying droplets of something onto the newspaper.
All of their feathers were dripping wet.
Mom frowned. “What have you been doing to these birds? Soaking them in gas? And who is this?” She pointed an accusing finger at Griff, who ignored it, because he’d just heard something else come rattling down the chimney, and seen a shower of wooden slivers bounce down among the newspaper.
His eyes opened wide as he watched one of the crows reach down and grasp two of the matches in its beak.