I was going to be late for work. For the first time in over six months. Oh, I had gotten home in plenty of time to shower, change and get there, and yet here I was, still in my soaking wet clothes, sitting on my couch, staring off into space.
Thinking about the price of potatoes.
The euphoria I had felt in Levi’s presence had started fading sometime during the short ride back from town. Like the further I got away from him the less of a hold he had over me. Like he was some sort of magician and I had been under his spell. Which was a completely ridiculous comparison to make. Only…that’s how it felt.
What had happened to my convictions? What had happened to all the promises I had made to myself? I was moving in three months. I did not need this kind of distraction or complication. And what if we ended up liking each other? What if he became my boyfriend? I didn’t want to argue over the price of potatoes. Hadn’t I planned to remind myself of that whenever my loneliness threatened to overwhelm me? Why was it so easy for me to remember these things now? Why hadn’t I been able to when I was with Levi?
This wasn’t me backtracking. This wasn’t me having regrets about agreeing to have a relationsomething with a goddamn stranger. I had made enough stupid, rash decisions in the past that I knew what buyer’s remorse felt like. This wasn’t that. This was more like waking up the morning after getting black out drunk only to find that someone had recorded my entire night of debauchery and was now forcing me to watch the replay.
I saw the whole morning unfold again in slow motion. There was Levi, standing by himself in a circle of empty space in the back of the café. I remembered thinking that was strange at the time. Because that was strange. People in this town were so damn nosey, so starved for something, anything, to break the monotony of their lives, that he should have had no less than three people politely pestering him about who he was, where he had come from, what he was doing here, was he single, etc, etc.
Then he had smiled at me and poof! there went all rational thought. I saw myself wade through those people toward him, at one point stopping to ask Danny DuBois – Danny fucking DuBois, who had called me a cunt mouthed wetback all through high school – about how his mother was doing. His mother, who was as big of an asshole as he was. Who had probably taught him to say those words.
My cheeks started to burn when I remembered the way I had pressed myself against Levi in front of the beauty parlor. I had no shame about my sexuality, but I was an intensely private person. I had never been one for public displays like that.
By the time I got around to my verbal diarrhea concerning my inability to just be friends with him, I was up off the couch and pacing, my arms crossed in front of my chest to keep the shivers that threatened at bay.
What the actual fuck had happened? It had been like I was well and truly drunk, like all my inhibitions had been stripped away. All my years of hard earned and well deserved paranoia and distrust, gone, because a pretty man had smiled at me.
I would have been pissed at myself if I thought that was all that had happened.
“You listen to them instincts, Ruby,” Momma had always told me. “Even if they don’t seem to make a damn bit of sense. You listen, girl.”
Well, right now my instincts were telling me that something wasn’t right. I knew myself. And yet I barely recognized the person I had been around Levi. She was me, only free. Free from her past. Free from her distrust. Free from her anger. I found her grossly offensive. An aberration. Because who are we without our experiences? They form our personalities, drive our decision making. Without them, we’re nothing but a blank slate, just waiting to be filled up by someone else.
Maybe he had slipped some sort of inhibition inhibitor into my coffee. Like ecstasy. Or paid one of the baristas to do it.
The thought nagged at me, and I stopped my pacing. If he had drugged me, wouldn’t I have showed other signs of inebriation besides word vomit? Lack of coordination? Loss of fine motor skills? Actual vomit? Wouldn’t I still feel some lingering effects of the drug? I had driven home without a problem. And I felt perfectly lucid right now, with no symptoms indicative of a comedown.
A horrifying thought occurred to me then: was I simply one of those people? The ones who completely lost their shit when someone beautiful and charming paid them attention? Was that where all this anger and frustration and disbelief was coming from? Was I so blinded by my pride that I was trying to find some nefarious reason for my behavior? Even if it was completely illogical? For fuck’s sake, I had just compared him to a magician; that’s how desperate I was to shift the blame away from myself.
“Ruby Lee, you gotta get over your pride. Humble yourself, girl, before Jesus does it for you,” Momma used to say.
My frustration became a choking, cloying thing.
“Which is it, Momma?” I demanded, my voice too loud in the enclosed space of the trailer. “Trust my instincts, or swallow my pride and admit that I’m a different person around him?”
I don’t know what I expected in response. Some sort of divine intervention. A sign, maybe. Or Momma’s ghost appearing out of thin air to yank on my ear and send me outside to beat a rug until my head cleared.
I felt like I was losing my fucking mind. None of this was like me. My behavior. Second guessing myself. Searching for help from Jesus.
I went to drag my hand through my hair and froze, staring at the numbers Levi had scrawled over the back of it before we had parted ways, remembering that I had taken the pen from him and written my own number on his.
Fuming, I paced to the kitchen sink, turned the water to scalding, and scrubbed at my hand until all traces of his phone number were gone and my skin had turned a dark, angry red. Whatever it was that had happened, it wasn’t going to again.
“You’re late,” Lucy snapped at me when I finally got to the diner.
“I know. Sorry,” I said, hastily tying on my apron.
“You were supposed to be here twenty minutes ago.”
“I know, Lucy,” I said, my lingering frustration making my voice harsh.
“Where the hell were you?” she demanded.
Lucy could be a real bitch sometimes. Most of the time we got along fine enough, though. Because I hated confrontation, and so I always found some way to diffuse the situation. Especially at times like this, when we stood behind the counter in full view of the patrons.
“None of your business,” I said, staring down at her. It wasn’t difficult; she was over half a foot shorter than I was.
She glared up at me. Opened her mouth to respond.
“Ooh, girl fight,” said Beau Spencer in an obnoxious sing-song voice from where he sat a few stools away from us.
We both wheeled on him, and in chorus said, “Shut up, Beau.”
The night only went downhill from there. Everyone was in a pissy mood. Me, Lucy, the cook, Chris, the entire rest of the kitchen staff. All of the patrons. It was easily the worst shift I had ever worked. The meat was overdone. The salad dressing was too thick. The coffee was too bitter. The service was too slow. Lucy sniped at me throughout all of this, and for once, I gave it right back to her. In between our bitching, Chris bellowed from the kitchen that we weren’t picking up the orders fast enough. And if the patrons weren’t complaining to us about the food, they were arguing with people at the next table over about some grievance they had with them from years before.
I half-expected a brawl to break out. I’d never seen so many people so angry. It was bizarre. The storms had cleared off sometime during mid-afternoon, and the air outside was cooler and a little less humid. Usually when the weather broke like this, people were happy. They wanted to kick back their heels and celebrate, not kick back their heels and hoof stomp someone.
At one point I paused to glance out the window and up at the night sky, expecting to see a full moon. It sat low over the treetops, a perfect sickle shape, surrounded by a velvet expanse of darkness shot through with starlight.
That left no excuse for what was happening beside crowd mentality. I had read about mobs before. All it took was a few instigators, just a couple of people to rile up the rest, and the mood could turn. That must have been what happened. Lucy and I had been the catalyst.
With this in mind, I did my damndest to try and turn the tide. I stopped snapping at Lucy and Chris. I tried being my nicest self to the customers. I even apologized to Beau. It didn’t work. If anything, it was like the other people in the diner smelled blood in the water and swam in for the kill. By the time midnight rolled around and the last of our patrons left, I was so wrung out that I was close to tears.
I barely spoke a word to the others as we closed up, and hightailed it out the back door the second I had finished my checklist.
The rivers that carve through this part of Georgia are fickle, untrustworthy things. Despite the swamps that surround us, the ground the town is built upon is mostly made up of red clay. It becomes damn near impenetrable during droughts. Whenever we have sudden downpours like the one that blew through earlier, all that rainwater sluices right over the hard-packed dirt, gathering in any shallow divide, turning parched streambeds into raging torrents that continue to rise long after the rain has ceased.
On my drive in I’d had to pass over Rooster Crick, an insignificant rivulet so miniscule that instead of building a bridge over it, our town had instead placed one of those tubular metal chutes beneath the road. The runoff had been pouring through it when I had first passed by.
“Goddamn it,” I said, slowing the Jeep.
The water was completely over the road now, moving in a churning, frothy deluge.
I stopped right next to a road sign that said “Turn around! Don’t drown!” and decided to heed its advice. Every time it rained like this, some moron ended up on the news having to be rescued because they had tried to drive on a submerged road, not realizing that all it took was a few inches of rushing water to lift a vehicle. No way would I end up being one of them.
I backtracked to the county highway, which was barely deserving of the name, and tried another route. I was five minutes from home when I caught flashes of red and blue through the trees up ahead. Cops. Great. A tree was probably down and I’d have to turn around again.
I slowed the Jeep as I rounded the bend in the road and the full scene came into view. Two cop cars and a firetruck were parked on either side of the street, their spinning lights turning the surrounding forest into the perfect setting for a rave. Three other vehicles were parked alongside them, and darkened outlines of people were spread out over the blacktop, bending at the waist every now and then to pick things up and shove them into the bags they carried. Must have been a wreck and they were cleaning up the debris.
A tall, black cop stood in the middle of the road, signaling me to stop. I did so, dimming my lights so I wouldn’t blind him, then hanging my head out the window as he ambled up to the Jeep.
“Hey Mark,” I called. He had graduated a few years before me.
“Just get off shift, Ruby?” he asked.
I nodded. “What’s going on?”
He turned away then, frowning at the road ahead. “Looks like an entire flock of starlings. Dead.”
An icy jolt of fear stabbed into my stomach. “What?” I asked, my voice shaky.
“Weird, right?” he said, turning back to me. “I’ve never seen anything like it. You can go on and pass through, just try not to run too many over, and watch out for the people. We have a couple ecologists collecting the bodies to take back to their lab.”
I don’t know what came over me then. Mark was forced to jump back as I pushed open the door. And then I was rushing past him, my shadow thrown long over the pavement, surrounded by the nimbus of orange that spilled from my parking lights.
“No,” I kept saying, over and over beneath my breath.
There was no way this was happening. A third run-in with Levi. All the weirdness I felt about it. And now, an entire goddamn flock of birds dead?
“Ruby,” Mark said, loping alongside me. “Are you okay?”
I wasn’t okay. Because I could see them now, spread out over the road, their little, lifeless bodies broken on the pavement, blue-black feathers strewn between them to cover the street in a kaleidoscopic carpet of iridescence.
“Ruby,” Mark said again, his voice loud in my ear.
I ignored him, zeroing in on a short, full-figured blonde woman who was just standing up a few yards from me, a carcass dangling from her gloved fingers.
“What happened?” I demanded when I reached her.
She jumped, no doubt taken aback by the level of emotion in my voice.
“Not sure,” she said, glancing back and forth between me and Mark.
His hand found my shoulder then, as if he was getting ready to restrain me.
“Please,” I said. “Just tell me something.”
“You a reporter?” she asked, frowning.
I shook my head.
She looked past me to Mark.
“It’s okay, Daisy,” he said.
She shrugged. “Best guess is the weather. They probably formed a murmuration. They do that before storms. Lightning may have struck too close and the resulting clap of thunder knocked them clean out of the sky. They died when they fell. Happens more than people realize.”
Relief poured through me. It had a logical explanation. It happened more than people knew. It was just another coincidence.
“Thank you,” I said, trying desperately to smother the small, illogical voice in my head that was shrieking incoherently.
“Sure,” Daisy said. She was still frowning at me, probably thinking I was some animal advocacy weirdo in search of a conspiracy theory to pin on the government.
I couldn’t blame her after the way I had just acted.
“Come on now, Ruby,” Mark said in a gentle voice, using his grip on my shoulder to turn me back toward my Jeep.
“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I’ve just had a really bad night, and a rough couple of days. I haven’t been sleeping well, either.”
His hand fell away from my shoulder.
“Nightmares?” he asked, his voice quiet.
I glanced at him. His expression was troubled.
He nodded and didn’t say anything else. I almost pressed him about it, but I thought I’d probably pushed my luck enough with him tonight.
I got back in the Jeep and buckled up, staring at the road in front of me. “I’ll just turn around,” I said softly. No way could I drive through that.
Mark put a restraining hand on my windowsill. “You okay to be behind the wheel?”
“I’m not on anything,” I said, my tone sharper than I intended. Great, Ruby. Way to start shit with a cop after the night you’ve had.
Thankfully Mark was hard to rile. “Not saying you are. Sleeplessness can be just as dangerous while driving as intoxication,” he said in a placating tone.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Sorry for snapping.”
He didn’t look like he was fully convinced, and opened his mouth to likely argue the point, but just then someone called out to him. “Be right there!” he called back. “Drive safe now, Ruby. There’s a lot of water over the roadways.”
“I will,” I promised him, then got the hell out of there.