“The mother crow then alights in the nest, and regurgitates the carrion into the beaks of her hungry chicks.”
“What are you watchin’?”
I clicked my phone screen black and started, looking up at the amused face of my coworker, Marty. I scratched an eyebrow and laughed.
“We got a call?”
I’d worked for the local exterminator for barely a year. By “local,” I mean Chamberlain Exterminators, LLC of Boone, North Carolina. Our office building was really just on the outskirts of Boone, if I’m being technical, but we claimed ownership of the town anyhow. Claiming corporate residence in a scenic mountain town helped business more than all the marketing in the world.
But although the flow of business was decent, there weren’t always calls enough in a week for each worker to get out of the office for a bit. Property inspections were much more my element than pencil-pushing. I tended to get distracted and restless doing paperwork. It made my eyes cross and sent me on rabbit trails, like watching videos of mother crows hacking up half-digested meat for their babies.
“A farmer called for advice on crow control,” I tried to explain my rabbit trail to Marty, whose scraggly brows were still raised at me.
He grunted assent. “Well… Ye-up, we got a fresh one,” he answered at last, “out on Old 601. Way out, ’bout forty-five minutes.” He passed one of our clipboards to me, nodding his head across the narrow hall at our boss’s office. “Eddie gave it to me a minute ago, but he said I could hand it over to you if ye’d like to stretch your legs.”
By “stretch your legs,” I rightly assumed my colleague meant get more practice on inspection calls, the opportunity of which thrilled me near to tears. Hours of paperwork had filled me with stir-crazy spunk. No pest would go unexterminated. No house would go uninspected.
Marty seemed unexpectedly relieved at my willingness, and I jokingly asked him if he’d grown a lazy streak. He brushed me off, saying lamely that he didn’t like to drive that far out on a simple inspection call. I shrugged, ducked into our boss’s office to confirm I’d taken Marty’s place and would be out on call, then whistled down the brick-walled stairwell of our building and out into the fresh mountain air.
My coworker might not have preferred it, but nothing in me minded the drive. Old 601 was definitely backwoods-rural, with more trailer homes and dilapidated barns than houses. The company truck (there’d been no need to take a van, since this was merely an inspection and no large, pest-killing equipment was needed) groaned and grumbled its way up as the highway grew steeper, winding me farther up into the Appalachians. Gradually the open fields gave way to thick abysses of trees. Occasionally the highway was lined with moss-spattered formations of rock. Here and there, the crooked porch swings or woppy-jawed mailboxes of small, paint-chipped mountain homes could be seen peeking from the woods.
I checked to see that my phone’s GPS was leading me correctly to the address on the clipboard. It told me to “veer slightly” off to the right onto a different road, at last leaving Old 601 after a good half-hour of cruising and climbing. The rest of the way was more obscure, with the phone leading me onto this back road and that, U-turning once or twice to “recalculate.” No doubt the mountain’s poor reception was causing the confusion. I cussed at the thing and circled until finally, I was spat onto a steep dirt lane down which the truck’s wide wheelbase barely fit. This lane lured me up through a sparser stretch of woods, ending in a patch of gravel by which only one house was accessible.
A thin-browed woman met me on the browning lawn. Her hair stuck up in frizzed wisps from the humidity of the afternoon. Rarely did the mountains get this humid, and I lifted my cap to wipe my forehead as I hopped from the truck.
“Hello there, ma’am,” I chimed my usual house-call greeting.
She looked older than she probably was. The only smear of makeup on her weathered face was lipstick, a peachy color that stained the stub of cigarette in her mouth. She wasn’t unpleasant, but I found myself thinking that she represented well the “backwoods” folk to be found in some old areas of the mountain. The half-house, half-trailer-addition sitting behind her only validated this, and I took in its crooked brick foundations with a sort of rude, inflated prejudice. It was a key fault of mine.
I shoved my prejudices aside and got to work. The name on the clipboard was Currier, and the woman introduced herself as Sue Ellen. I consulted the clipboard again as I asked Miss Currier to confirm the cause of her complaint: a nest of raccoons which had infested her back porch and yard.
“Them varmints’s everywhere,” she shook her head gravely, her voice the grating croak of a lifelong smoker. “I’ll show you, honey – just ’round here.”
She marched me to the rear side of her peeling house-trailer. Several yards from us, a slope of thick woods caused the lawn to end in a gradual decent that led to some obstructed place, possibly a curve of Old Highway 601. I took notes as she described again the infestation, its locations, and the date the problem began. It was barely ten minutes into the inspection that he appeared.
I didn’t hear him come into the yard. I flinched back from Sue Ellen’s side when I glanced up and saw him, a lean figure watching us from near the trees. He had one hand tucked in a jeans pocket, making his sharp shoulders hang crooked in his farmer’s flannel. It might not have been unsettling on anyone else, but this man didn’t seem to carry himself right, and it set something stirring in my gut. He didn’t walk right, either. He advanced slowly, and came down heavily on one side – like a bad limp – enough that his body swayed and hitched its way toward us as he came.
Sue Ellen shrank beside me. I looked to her for signs of recognition, finding none. The southern gentleman in me felt a sudden inclination towards guarding her, should this swaying stranger prove to be bothersome.
“Neighbor?” I asked her.
“I think, but I ain’t seen ’im much,” she mumbled back, reluctant. “Don’t know where he lives.”
The neighbor limped up to us, straightening his long back to his full height. He rose suddenly to two or three inches above me. The prominence of his brow, nose, and chin didn’t seem to match the sunken look of his eyes, cheeks, and neck. Mottled things that could’ve been old acne scars distracted from most else on his face. It was hard to tell whether the wet look of the crow-black hair that flopped over his forehead and ears was from sweat, oil, or both.
Then he smiled at us, pulling back thin lips to bare a set of unsightly yellow teeth.
“You a pest fella?”
His Southern Appalachia drawl was low, and tied with Sue Ellen’s in severity.
“I got a problem for you to look at, if you’re the pest fella,” the yellow-toothed man continued, stepping closer to me.
I forced myself to speak to him, explaining I had a job to do, that his neighbor had been the one to call our company for an inspection, that I was obligated to finish my work for her this afternoon, and that if he wanted an inspection himself, he could call our company at this number during the hours of 9am and 5pm, Monday through Friday.
All the time I was speaking, I had the sense that he was taking too many glances at Sue Ellen, effectively ignoring every word I said. After the sixth glance at his neighbor, his eyes stayed on her. She refused to look back at him, puffing nervously at her stub of cigarette until I was sure she’d singe her fingers.
“That’s a shame,” he answered me at last, in a wistful tone that made me suspect he still hadn’t listened. “That’s a damn shame.” He grinned another yellow grin, and his teeth seemed more repugnant than before.
“Ain’t you Sue Ellen?” he asked his neighbor, forgetting me.
Sue Ellen dropped her cigarette stub, grinding it into the grass with sharp motions. The peachy lipstick stains peeked out of the dirt.
“I got all these bats. In the attic, I got bats,” said yellow-teeth man.
Sue Ellen didn’t look at him. I looked down at the lipstick-stained cigarette, my face growing hot.
“If your exterminator fella won’t look at ’em, maybe you can. Or come listen to ’em. That’d be real neighborly,” said the yellow teeth.
Sue Ellen inched away, and the neighbor’s crooked shoulders moved to inch with her. My annoyance sizzled, suddenly hotter than the thick air. I stepped forward before he could close the gap.
“I’ll look at your bats,” I told him quickly, straightening my cap and trying to be taller.
Another yellow smile.
A more experienced employee might’ve had the presence of mind to ignore the pestering of some forward neighbor, but I didn’t realize then how unprepared I was. I peered over my shoulder at Sue Ellen as I followed him. She didn’t look at me. I thought suddenly of Marty, brushing me off when I questioned his passing of this job to me. He hadn’t looked at me, either.
I had never before been a superstitious man, but things have been known to change with time. Superstitious or not, my skin crawled when I saw where the neighbor’s swaying body was leading me: down onto the slope of woods at the yard’s edge.
Mr. Yellowteeth seemed incredibly used to navigating up and down his slope of woods, weaving his way down with a surprising ease for a man with a limp. His arms seemed to jerk out on their own, grabbing onto branches they knew would be there, catching him just as his boots slipped on clumps of pine needles or ivy. I had a worse time of it, half-stumbling and half-falling along after him while swatting branches with the clipboard. Once, I slipped badly on something wet (probably deer droppings, since the mountain hadn’t seen rain in days) and was on my way down, but a strong arm shot out instantly to catch me.
That was the first moment I’d been close enough to Yellowteeth to smell him. My mind halted. He smelled like citrus. Fresh as a damn orange slice. I wasn’t sure what I’d expected, but it hadn’t been oranges.
“You watch your step, fella,” he laughed at me, and I couldn’t bring myself to laugh with him.
The wooded slope finally vomited us into another yard, this time approaching the side of a house. It was a farmhouse, long and old, the kind inherited from grandmothers who remembered the days of “colored help.” It was painted white, though large portions of the paint had been stripped completely, both by weather and by hand, revealing dark wood that stunk of moss and decades. A few items of lawn equipment lay strewn about – just enough of them to look like busyness, rather than abandonment.
Its yellow-toothed owner guided me up a creaking porch that circled half the house. From his dusty jeans he took a thick ring of keys; at least seven of them, and I wondered where he worked that he needed them all. He wiggled one in the side door until it submitted, letting us into a kitchen. Since the side door was actually two doors (a screen door and a solid one), I expected him to leave it alone once the screen slammed shut. But he motioned me out of the way, nodding his dark head, and shut the wooden door behind us. He locked it back. I tried to convince myself it was to keep in the air conditioning, though I’d never known air conditioning to acknowledge locked doors.
I looked around his kitchen while attempting to ask about his bats. I couldn’t focus on bats. It was even harder when he opened a creaking cabinet, took out an orange, and began to peel it with his pocket knife. He used his teeth to peel it, too, ripping off chunks at a time. They seemed worse even than before, accented by the bright orange peel. Those damned, foul teeth.
He offered me an orange wedge. I declined.
Then he did something which explained his smell: he drew a handkerchief from his jeans pocket, dumped its contents – shriveled orange wedges – into the sink, and replaced them with the remainder of the new orange. He stuffed the wedge-filled hanky back into his pocket.
I wanted to leave.
The noises in the house started to seem louder. Intolerably loud. I followed as quietly as I could as Mr. Yellowteeth swayed and hitched down the hall, muttering that he’d show me the attic. I spied a few of the farmhouse rooms, none of which seemed menacing. I started to talk myself out of my anxiety. After all, I’d met strange people on inspections before. He led me up narrow stairs, onto a landing, and up the rest of the stairs to the second floor of the farmhouse. We wound through a hall of a few more rooms, and I was struck again by how long the house seemed – not wide or deep, but long.
The last door on the left side of the hall was painted white. At the end of the hall itself was a round window, and I glanced out of it when I saw a movement. A fat crow had landed on a piece of roof, and turned its black head to blink at me. I thought of the video of a mother crow and her babies. It seemed lifetimes ago that I’d been back at the office. I checked my phone – had it only been an hour and a half ago? As I looked at the screen, I noticed for the first time that I had no service. The mountain had enveloped me.
It was then that I saw the ashtray, sitting on a table beneath the window. In the tray was one cigarette butt, and on its end was a smear of peachy lipstick.
Dread flooded my body. When I looked up, a set of yellow teeth were smiling at me.
He turned to the painted white door, and I saw that two deadbolt locks had been inserted into crudely-cut holes in the wood. It took two keys from my host’s thick keychain to unlock them. He opened the door, and an odd smell started to waft out between us, carried on the warm air of an attic. I couldn’t place it, but it was almost like-
A scuttling noise from above our heads made me flinch. Yellowteeth didn’t budge.
“The bats,” he said.
The door he’d opened didn’t lead directly into the attic, but up a short set of unfinished wood stairs. At the top of the stairwell, another, identical door stood closed, with two more deadbolts inserted crudely into it. A rusted chain lock sat above them.
My host beckoned me inside the narrow space. Against my own will, I stepped in, feeling my body disgustingly close to his. The sharp smell from above mingled with the scent of oranges. Like in the kitchen, he motioned me aside, and I struggled to press myself into the wall so he could pass. He returned to the first door, pulled it closed, and locked it from the inside. Immediately the hot air stifled me. I knew it would be worse when the second door opened. Yellowteeth inched past me again, up the stairs, and his sickening smile was inches from my face as he went. Before I knew what I was doing, I grasped him by the shirt.
“Sue Ellen,” I choked.
His lip curled, and his fulsome smile was wider.
“She knows you,” I accused.
Yellowteeth’s eyes flickered to the locked door at the base of the steps. He knew I could go nowhere. “She’s a good girl,” he said at last. “Calls me up lots a’ visitors.”
I was numb. He pulled free of my grip with ease.
“What the fuck do you want?!” I demanded.
He didn’t turn to me again. He had unlocked the second door, and he pushed it open. The overwhelming stench of feces rushed at me, along with a hot cloud of musty, sun-roasted attic air. I stumbled away in repulsion, losing my footing on the stairs and slamming into the first door. Then I slammed it again, this time on purpose, throwing all my weight against those locks.
His strong arm was across my throat in a flash, jerking forward the way it had to keep me from slipping in the woods. He crushed my throat until I saw black in the corners of my vision, then released me before I’d gone completely. I dropped to the stairs. I had the vague sense of him pulling me, gripping me by the armpits, up, up, up into the black entrance of the attic.
It took me a moment to realize that the fading in and out of my vision had stopped. Everything in front of me was blackness. I recalled how long and narrow the house seemed, and how long it had taken us to travel the length of the second floor hall. The blackness made the space in which I now lay seem tight and tangible. But if the attic stretched the entire length of the house, it was anything but.
I lay stretched on a dusty, pest-eaten floor. I tried to move, feeling an incredible heaviness in my limbs. My head was throbbing, and I noticed the metallic glint of a needle near my head. I’d been given a shot. I tried to lift even my torso and couldn’t, my gut twisting as my brain swirled in my skull. It all seemed so calculated. How many “visitors” had been through this before me?
My captor squatted next to me. I could see him crouching only by the light pouring dimly from the stairwell up which we’d come. After the second door had been more stairs, so the doorway’s light didn’t shine fully into the attic. Only a space of two or three feet was illuminated, the rest a horrible darkness. Strangely, despite its claustrophobic thickness, the darkness wouldn’t have been horrible at all, had I not known that something was inside of it.
Then Yellowteeth began clicking.
I couldn’t sit up, but I twisted my face to watch him. He opened his mouth, set his tongue to the roof of it, and clicked rapidly. Ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-tik. Ti-ti-ti-ti-tik.
It wasn’t half so horrible as the answer, which came faintly from the other end of the attic.
Sharper. More animal.
Around that time I started to stammer at him, beg him, ask for his name, anything to get him to speak to me. I stopped short when I heard it scuttling toward us, answering the call of its host. It scuttled quickly, like a thing with short, scurrying legs. Its scuttles scratched the woodwork, as if it stood on thin claws. The sounds came from all angles, as though it were circling around from floor to rafters, rafters to floor. It clicked as it came.
Yellowteeth bent low to my face, covering my mouth with one of his hands. “Don’t scream,” he hissed, sounding like a fascinated child. “You’ll spook her.”
The clicking stopped for a moment. When it resumed, it was at the top of my head.
Something with thin hairs nosed the top of my cap and then progressed to my ear, tickling it with stiff, sticky whiskers. The stickiness stunk of iron and meat, and my stomach turned as the nosings of this thing smeared the putrid whatever-it-was onto my ear and cheek. Beyond Yellowteeth’s crouching boots I saw a pile of something, realizing a moment later that it was a clump of watery feces. It wasn’t large, which meant the thing was not large.
A moment later, I knew this beyond all doubt. The thing’s thin claws poked into my shirt as it mounted me, crawling over the length of my body. I shook and whimpered in horror into my captor’s hand. He grinned his disgusting grin, reaching his other hand fondly towards whatever he’d summoned.
The thing scuttled off of me. It circled us, staying in the safety of its blackness, but I knew from the clicks that it was just beyond our patch of light. Yellowteeth clicked again, and the thing clicked its answer. He reached his hand in the direction of the sound. Then, slowly, the thing extended its flat snout out of the darkness, its gnarled mouth dripping waste and spit as it reached to nose the extended hand.
And it looked, for that instant, like an enormous, warped, hideous, hell-born bat.
In the attic, I got bats.
I writhed and jerked my face away from Yellowteeth’s hand, my panic sending my heart to my ears. “Oh God, are there more?” I cried, and his eyes turned to me sharply. I shook harder. The creature’s large, paper-thin ears had turned in the direction of my voice.
I dropped to a whisper, and my dry lips cracked around the words. “Are there more?”
Yellowteeth shook his head.
“There was one more, once,” he added, his drawl sounding suddenly melancholy. “Maybe there’s more in the mountain, in the caves. But me, I only ever seen two.
“I killed the first. Heard it up here in this attic, years ago. Didn’t understand what it was. Got my shotgun and killed it. It were as big as me.”
He turned a sickly grimace on me.
“When I was draggin’ out the body, I found something on it. Clingin’ to its dead back, all covered in that thing’s blood.”
I forced my tight throat to swallow. He sounded like something more than a child now. Softer. My blood felt like shards of ice in my skin, but the thick attic air and nauseating stench were pressing into me like a hot iron. Sweat dripped off my neck, pooled on my back, oozed from my armpits.
A yellow grimace. “It was her baby."
The drooling, gnarled, paper-skinned hell-thing crept further into the light. Yellowteeth picked it up by its bony sides to stroke it, and I saw every rib in its chest jutting sharply, its belly sunken in to its spine. It twitched madly in his arms, and I tried not to look, not wanting to see the hideous thing in full. In the light I caught the outlines of ghostly hairs covering its head and back. It opened its wide, bony jaw and screeched. I curled into myself and screamed, too.
The thing writhed from its caretaker’s grip and scuttled back to the shadow, but I could see the light of the door reflecting off a pair white, beady eyes.
“She don’t understand how to feed herself. She don’t understand a thing,” said Yellowteeth, his voice dropping low. “I took her mama away, so she don’t understand.”
“Let me go, you crazy shit!” I breathed, gasping for air. Hot air. Overpowering smell. Beady eyes.
“I couldn’t shoot ’er,” he snapped, growing wild. “Not all alone like that. I ain’t a monster,” he whispered, drawing his twisted yellow snarl close to me. So close I could taste oranges.
“She wants people blood – that’s why that mama nested in this attic. They like houses. They smell the people blood.”
He hiked up a leg of his jeans, and I saw the cause of his inhuman limping: a horrible matrix of scars covered his calf, sunken in places where chunks of flesh would never return. As if he’d ripped himself straight from a demon’s jaws.
“She’s still a baby,” he continued. “She don’t know right from wrong. I learned, one time, that she don’t like the smell of these-” He drew the fraying tip of the handkerchief of orange wedges from his pocket. “So if I have these, she ain’t gonna bite me.” He crooned suddenly to the hell-bat, whose dribbling snout had emerged again from the dark. “No, she ain’t gonna bite Daddy.”
The next instant, he seized one of my arms, taking out his pocket knife and sawing off the top of my sleeve. He ripped it away, exposing my shoulder to the dim light of the doorway. Then he began to unbutton his own shirt, stripping it off and tossing it into the stairwell. He babbled repetitively as he worked.
“Had to bleed ’em all for her ’cause she couldn’t bite. She’s got teeth now, but she still don’t understand. How to use her teeth. Never learned, never saw her mama use her teeth. She’ll starve if she don’t learn to use her teeth.”
He gripped me tightly by the shoulder, opposite the bare one. He sat me up as I spluttered at him to get away from me. I writhed, but the shot of whatever I’d been given fought against my body, dragging my limbs to the floor. He clicked at the creature, and its beady eyes flickered to him.
I turned in time to see a set of stained yellow teeth, a yellow jaw, opening wide. Stained yellow. Beady eyes watched hungrily from the dark, and I understood.
He is the mother crow.
My shriek of pain sent the hell-thing screeching, too. The stained teeth sunk into the meat of my shoulder, blood soaking my shirt and spattering mother crow’s face and hair and chest. Then the hell-thing scuttled forward, scratching along the wood, along my body, along my face, and a sticky tongue lapped at my open flesh.
I squeezed my eyes shut and continued to scream, unsure if the sound was in the attic or my mind. But then, somewhere in the frenzy of petrified fear, I felt my limbs lightening. My muscles tensed as I felt the sedative in my blood losing its grip. The pain sent adrenaline shooting through me, and I thrashed. The thing screeched as I slammed my knuckles into its bony jaw, catapulting it away from me. I heard it latch to the rafters and scuttle there.
There, swimming in hot air and stench and my own blood, I became aware that I could escape. The creature clicked and screeched from the rafters. It wasn’t a demon. It was just another pest, at the mercy of nature, ruled by one force: instinct.
I reeled around on the mother crow, whose bloodstained jaw had fallen open in wild shock and anger. I rammed into him with my bloodied shoulder, sending us both tumbling away from the stairwell and into the blackness. In the dark I groped his body and found his pocket, wrenching the handkerchief from it and hurling it toward the light of the stairs. I wiped my hands over my own gash, slicking them with blood and finding his bare chest, smearing every inch of it I could reach. More blood. More smell. Not oranges. People blood.
Arms fought with me. I wrestled them in the wet dark, sliding along a wood floor slick with all manner of foulness. Legs kicked at me. Teeth fought me. One cut my fist as I knocked it from the yellow jaw and heard it on the floor. When nothing else moved, I found and took the ring of keys.
Yellowteeth whimpered from the floor, and I set my tongue and clicked.
I bolted for the stairwell and stumbled down, but I heard it all. Baby crow scuttling along the rafters. The ropes of saliva dripping from her gnarled jaw and onto her prey’s blood-covered face in steady drip, drip, drips. The pleading shrieks of realization. The hot air whooshing aside as she fell on him, clawing at him, learning to use her teeth.
Mother crow had taught her well.