Black Bird of the Gallows(3)

An amused light sparks Backpack Boy’s dark eyes, as if he had heard those last few thoughts. One hand is wrapped around the strap of his backpack, the other is tucked in the pocket of his black wool coat. He wears cargos with a lot of pockets and black Chucks. His hair is a floppy chestnut mess. “Hi. I’m Reece Fernandez.” The cold morning has put a chilled flush to his cheeks. He nods in the general direction of our houses. “My family is moving in to number forty-one.”

I scramble for something interesting to say. Maybe even something witty. “Yeah, I saw—” No! Do not admit you were peeping at him from your window. “The truck.” I clear my throat and shove my fidgeting hands in my pockets. “Moving day. Exciting.”

Reece squints in the direction of his new home, then turns to me. Our gazes stick and hold, and for a moment I wonder if I’ve seen these eyes before. And those are some nice eyes, even though…wow, they aren’t just dark, they’re black from iris to pupil.

He blinks to the ground then laughs, but it sounds forced, like he’s digging for an appropriate response. “Exciting is one word for it.”

I nod and smile like we didn’t just stare at each other for several strange whole seconds. “So, I’m Angie Dovage. My dad and I live next door to you. Number forty-three. I hope I didn’t…” Stare at you like a brain-hungry zombie. “Interrupt your conversation.”

“You didn’t.” His lips quirk up at the edges. “Thanks for running him off.”

“Do you know that guy?”

He shakes his head, shoulders hunching. “Some freak asking for money.” Dark eyes shift to squint down the street. Not the body language of someone telling the truth. After having lived with a drug addict until the age of twelve, I know fiction when I hear it.

I glance down the street with a shiver. The guy in the puffy coat is gone. Just…gone. He must have ducked off the street and into the woods, as there aren’t any houses or side streets on that stretch. If that guy tries to break into any of the fancy homes here, he’ll be greeted by a shrieking, top-of-the-line security system, but I don’t like the thought of some “freak asking for money” lurking in the woods of my neighborhood.

If that’s really what he is. I doubt it, but I won’t press. The guy could be Reece’s relative—a cousin with a drug problem—and I know all about that type of pain and humiliation.

As for the face-changing thing, it must have been my imagination. A trick of the light or something. People’s faces are what they are. They don’t change like that.

“My car won’t be delivered for a few days. Once it arrives, I can give you a ride to school, if you like.” His voice betrays traces of a New England accent when he says the word “car.” It comes out sounding like cah. Kind of cute.

“I have a car,” I say, surprised by the offer. “I just…prefer the bus.”

Reece’s gaze moves over me. It’s a general perusal of the curious, non-leering variety, but my cheeks warm. “You a junior?” he asks.

“Senior.” Here we go. He’s the one with the creepy friend or relation, but I’ll be the weird one because I take the bus.

“Oh, right. I should have kn—” He cuts off, eyebrows lifting in the middle, like he can’t find the right word. “I didn’t mean—”

I have no idea why, but his momentary fluster charms me, and I smile at him. “It’s no big deal.”

It earns me a grin. “I think it’s cool that you take the bus. Sort of like getting chauffeured around, you know?”

Aw hell, now I’m smiling at him too much. “That’s kind of my thought, too.” I clear my throat when the silence stretches past a few seconds. “So, where did you move from?”

“It’s more like, where haven’t I moved from,” he replies with a flashing grin. “We’ve lived all over.”

“I thought you were from up north,” I say. “Your accent. It sounds like Massachusetts or something.”

“Really?” He starts to say something else, but wherever our conversation was headed cuts off with a sudden incoming flap of black wings and rasping caws. I look up as a throng of crows swoops in low and fast.

“Get down!” I drop into a crouch and cage my arms over my head. A mass of feathers and beaks heads right for us. It’s called self-preservation, a trait I assumed everyone possessed.

Not so. Reece Fernandez remains standing. I peek up and watch in horror as he closes his eyes and lifts his face to the mess of curved talons and flapping wings.

“Reece!” I cry out, but he doesn’t move. He continues to stand there as they surround him like a writhing cloud. These are not little, dainty birds, but big and solid and organized. However, as inky wings beat all around him, Reece remains unscathed. I swear one of them tweaks his sun-streaked hair with a shiny beak. It looks almost…playful. Then, as fast as they arrived, they soar away. Reece watches them depart with a quiet smile. Miraculously, he is unharmed.

“What the hell?” I gasp. “They could have taken your face off.”

“Nah. They wouldn’t have.”

He’s unnaturally calm about this. Emphasis on unnatural.

“Really? You know that much about wild birds?” I sputter. “They were all over you. You’re lucky you weren’t ripped to shreds.”

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