Black Bird of the Gallows

Black Bird of the Gallows

Meg Kassel

For my mom and dad, who always knew

this would happen someday.

1-the boy and the bees

Somewhere in this house is a set of binoculars. I wish I could say I want them for nosebleed seats at a concert. Or for bird-watching. Either of those activities would be more respectable than what I’m doing this morning, which is peering out the window, trying to check out the new neighbors. Trying, because the crows perched in the cold, bare trees separating our houses are impeding my snooping efforts.

An adult female voice filters through the woods, directing the location of a leather sofa, asking to please be very careful with that painting. Through the screen of birds, I glimpse a woman directing a battalion of brawny movers. Even from a distance, she makes an impression, with long black hair and buff cashmere, but I completely forget about her the instant a boy with a backpack comes outside. He’s tall, about my age, and moves with a smooth, confident stride. From a distance, he’s seriously cute, and I suspect the view is even better up close. Nice shoulders. Something vaguely familiar about the tilt of his head.

I shift for a better view and watch the woman give the boy a quick hug. He kisses her cheek and then starts down the driveway, out of sight. Not for long, I hope. Maybe he’s walking to the bus stop where I am headed shortly. Curiosity sends a flutter through my belly. What’s he like? Is he nice, or will I be stuck living next door to a jerk? You couldn’t tell these things by watching a boy walk. They only come out when he opens his mouth and words come out. Cute or not, I’ll be reserving judgment on New Boy. I finish off my glass of orange juice and turn at the sound of footsteps.

“Morning, Angie.” My dad strides into the kitchen, followed closely by our dog, Roger. Dad is decked out for their morning run in designer sweatpants and one of his tight running shirts in a retina-piercing shade of highlighter yellow. Still, he manages to look dapper and sophisticated, even first thing in the morning and, well, in that shirt. Roger’s eyes are glued to my dad, as if the powers of his dog mind will make Dad pick up the leash faster.

“What are you doing?” Dad asks.

“Watching the new neighbors move in,” I reply. “Where are the binoculars?”

Dad joins me at the window. “In my bottom desk drawer.”

Eh. I’m not running upstairs for them. Especially now that the boy’s gone.

He shifts, tries to angle for a better view. “Binoculars won’t do you any good with all those crows in the way.”

“I know it,” I mutter. “So who are these people, anyway?”

“Fernandez, I think their name is,” Dad says. “I ran into the realtor a few days ago. She gave me the lowdown of the sale.” He scratches his freshly shaved cheek and squints harder. “The lady is from Spain. Bunch of kids. No Mr. Fernandez,” he adds. “Probably a good thing, considering what happened with Mr. Ortley. Sick bastard.”

What happened with Mr. Ortley is still a matter of distress to the neighborhood and our entire small, southwestern Pennsylvania town. It’s not every day a man returns home from a business trip and kills his family and then himself.

Although they kept to themselves, the Ortleys were our next-door neighbors, and we saw it all when the police arrived and the bodies were removed. The local news media didn’t linger on the incident—just a rich businessman who snapped. But the sprawling, Tudor-style home seems to hold on to the grisly events that happened there. At least a dozen hopeful realtors had planted signs in front of the house over the past year and a half as weeds grew up around the three-car garage. Even priced rock-bottom cheap, no one wanted to live in that house. Potential buyers looked but left quickly. Some wouldn’t even go inside.

I don’t believe in ghosts or hauntings or any of that, but even I have to agree that the house makes me twitchy. It’s as if some creepy melancholy had soaked into the bones of it, making it unnerving to be near. But maybe that would change with new owners.

Roger wags his thick yellow tail and lets out an impatient whine. It’s past morning run time, and he doesn’t care for a delay in his favorite part of the day.

My dad rubs a hand over the dog’s blocky head. Our big, happy yellow lab wasn’t always ours. He’d belonged to the Ortleys. After their passing, Dad had offered to take Roger, and the police were only too happy to turn the orphaned dog over to the neighbor and his kid rather than call animal control. It was one less hideous thing they had to do that day. And so, Roger became ours.

Dad takes out a pitcher of lumpy, green liquid from the fridge. It smells faintly of parsley and strongly of garlic, but he pours a healthy glass and downs half of it in one chug. To his credit, he winces only a little. I don’t understand why he does this to himself.

“Okay, okay. We’re going,” he says to Roger, whose whines are now accompanied by a tap dance on the hardwood floors.

“You could try eating normal food.” I grin and put my breakfast dishes in the sink. “Lots of people do it. You might like it.”

“Working with doctors, you learn what ‘normal food’ does to the body. No thanks.” This is the way all these conversations end. My dad sells medical equipment to hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices, so he knows all the ways people can die. His job is to sell equipment intended to keep them alive. The result is, he’s all in on the “prevention” end of things. I can say with authority, it’s not easy being the offspring of a health fanatic. Last year, everything he—make that, we—ate was gluten-free. The currently banned food item is dairy. Living without pizza is miserable, but the milk thing is near unbearable. I dream about eating ice cream.

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