I am not a social man, and I have had few friends in my life. Sal, the bartender at my favorite pub, was one the select few in my inner-circle. I know what you’re thinking: he’s a bartender, he HAS to be friendly to get a good tip. You’re wrong, it goes beyond that. I’d known Sal for over 25 years, and sat across from him at the bar almost every day since we met. When I got married, Sal was my best man. When my wife threw me out, it’s at Sal’s home that I stayed. When she took full custody of my daughter, it was Sal who consoled me. He was a good friend, always willing to listen to me and give me advice, like any bartender would. Unlike the other ‘tenders; however, Sal actually cared.
Now, Sal was a very private man with a rather quiet demeanor. That said, on the few occasions where he chose to let loose, he talked a LOT. Sal had a way of capturing the attention of everyone in the room. This might sound a bit clichéd, but he’d regale us with stories of his youth. He told us about his cross-country trips, his overseas adventures, his mishaps, and his entertaining anecdotes. When he spoke, his audience sat on the edges of their seats, hanging on his every word as he gave them the juicy details of his endless tales. He was old now, and couldn't travel quite as often. He didn't seem to mind: he always had a smile on his face and a cheerful attitude that brightened the mood of everyone he came across.
One evening, as I was enjoying a drink, I noticed a man in a booth staring at Sal from across the room. At my angle, I could barely make out his short and spiky raven hair. I pointed him out to Sal, and he told me he’d been coming in every night that week, never ordering anything. Sal, being the big softie that he was, couldn't bring himself to kick the guy out. Considering I went to the pub every night, I was surprised I hadn't seen the stranger until that evening. I was probably too drunk to notice.
Later that night, after drinking one too many drinks---as I tended to do all too often, according to my ex-wife--- I passed out across a row of chairs. Sal trusted me enough to leave me there, even after closing time. I woke up long before dawn, and made my way through the dimly-lit bar to the backdoor, which could only be opened from the inside. This wasn't my first time taking a snooze alone in the bar, so I knew my way around well enough not to run into any of the tables on my way out.
As I opened the door to the back alley, I heard what sounded like applause, but it turned out to be the sound of three dozen crows taking flight. They hovered above the cold alleyway for a few moments, and then landed on and around the leaky dumpster in the front. I jumped when I saw the damned birds. I'm not afraid of crows, mind you. I even feed the ones at work during lunch. They startled me, is all. A hunter’s moon peeked through the clouds and illuminated the scene: there was someone standing on the other side of the dumpster, in the forest of crows. It was the man I had seen earlier that night. He had his back turned to me, wearing a black trench coat and boots laced with multiple buckles. There was a large crow perched on his shoulder. Something was odd about his back: a bulky mass moved under his coat, causing it to shift around like curtains in the breeze.
The dumpster smelled particularly putrid tonight, I thought. I glanced at the stranger, who stood between me and the street. I moved towards him and saw that his crow was chewing on something. At first, I thought it was a gummi worm, but as I approached, I realized it was much darker and oozed crimson blood onto the cold, wet pavement. Then, I saw Sal. He lay on the ground, his body ripped open, serving as a buffet for the hungry crows to feast on. They pecked at his innards, taking turns chewing on his softer organs. I could hear the crunching sounds as they broke apart his bones with their abnormally strong beaks. Bringing a hand to my mouth, I emitted an audible gasp. The sound caught the stranger’s attention, and he slowly turned to face me. His golden, serpentine eyes reminded me of headlights. Something in his left hand gleamed in the moonlight: it was a short silver dagger, the edge covered in liquid that belonged in my friend's veins.
I should have been terrified…angry…sad…but…I felt strangely calm. My eyes were transfixed on the surreal scene and the man at the center of it all. Though he held a weapon, and though he had used that weapon to murder my friend, I did not feel as though I was in any danger. The man gave me the quiet smile of a Grecian statue, projecting calmness despite the feeding frenzy at his feet. His footsteps echoed down the narrow alley as he made his way towards me. My heart thumped hard in my chest. Paralysed with fear or disbelief, I watched him outstretch a hand to my face, with a gentle elegance seldom attributed to the male gender. The crow on his shoulder tilted its head as its master scraped his long black nails against my cheek. I felt a faint stinging sensation, no worse than that of a paper cut. The man gave me an amused hum as he brought his fingers to his mouth and tasted a few drops of my blood.
I'm not sure how long it took me to snap out of the shock, but when I finally did, I looked towards Sal’s final resting place, and saw that there was nothing left of my old friend, not even a drop of blood. The stranger turned his back to me, and a sudden flood of adrenaline compelled me to grab a wooden plank from the floor. I threw myself towards the man, but stopped all of a sudden, when his trench coat slid off. Two massive black wings clutched to his back like climbing vines. Black veins lead to and from the appendages, which flared out with a sound similar to that of an unfurling sail. The man gave me one final look, and spoke to me in a deep, booming voice. "You’ll thank me one day.", he said. With that, the crows took flight, and the man disappeared. I was left alone in the alleyway as the sun rose: no evidence of the man, his crows, or my dead friend.
I tried going to the cops, but what could I tell them? I sat in front of the police station, going over the facts in my mind. They’d never believe that some sort of…crow-demon and his army of minions ate Sal. I ultimately chose inaction, hoping I’d merely suffered a booze-induced nightmare. It was no nightmare: Sal was reported missing by the pub’s owner a few days later. An investigation began, and what the police uncovered shocked even me, who had seen a guy get eaten by a flock of crows. They found evidence linking Sal to no less than 15 cases of missing children. He had kept trophies of their remains hidden in a safe under his bed. Then it hit me: the reason for Sal’s frequent trips in his youth. He’d been doing the wretched deed far from home so he wouldn't get caught.
This may sound weird, but I am still grateful for Sal’s friendship. As I explained earlier, I'm not a very social man. When you get to be over 20, it becomes a lot harder to meet people outside of work, and the friends you do have tend to drift away. Sal helped me through tough times, and I’ll always be thankful for his friendship. I still mourn him…not…the bad parts. I mourn the loss of the man I thought he was. It may seem strange to you…but that’s how I feel. These days, I've stopped drinking. I haven’t set foot in that pub since the day Sal died. My ex and I even got back together. I get to see my kid every day, and that is the greatest gift of all. I guess in a way, losing Sal was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
On my way home from work yesterday, I saw a crow with familiar snake eyes gleaming like headlights. He gave me a knowing nod, and I knew we understood one another. Among the horrific things found in Sal’s home, they had retrieved a fully-packed duffel bag, a single one-way ticket to Mexico for the day after he was killed, and hundreds of photos of my wife and daughter. The crow man saved them. And that, my friends, is why I smiled to that crow and uttered two simple words: "Thank you."