1. The unlawful killing of one human by another, especially with premeditated malice.
2. A flock of crows.
Wintry air reached into the little apartment through the slender gap between the sliding glass patio door and the door jamb. Michael, seated on the plastic folding chair that they kept next to the kitchen table, squeezed his left eye shut and sited down the blue steel barrel of the air rifle. The muzzle extended out the open door.
On the street below, four or five crows hopped around a torn sack of cornmeal. They made an awful racket, cackling and screeching, hopping nimbly, scooping at the cornmeal with their sharp, black beaks. Although it was cold, the temperature had risen sufficient that the new-fallen snow was melting, and it was, perhaps the loud dripping of snow melt that concealed the harsh and portentous clacking Michael had made as he had pumped air into the rifle's cylinder.
Michael aimed, deftly and calmly moving his left hand as it cradled the fore-stock so the bead stayed at the very bottom of the rear-site vee and in line with his target. His choice for death was the most recent arrival: a big bird, with a harsh, booming voice and sleek, blue-black plumes. This, Michael judged, was the alpha crow, the biggest, strongest bird of the bunch. The other crows made way when the big bird hopped to the cornmeal and dipped his beak.
Michael drew in a shallow breath and held it, steadying his aim. It's time, Mr. Big Britches! Time to die! As he completed the thought, Michael squeezed the trigger. There was a sharp, brief whisper as the air in the cylinder escaped and propelled the lead pellet out the barrel. Then came a chorus of panicked cawing and a rush of flapping wings.
Michael raised his head and squinted out to see the result. All the crows were gone --disappeared in a panicked flurry. All except the one --the alpha crow, Mr. Big Britches. It sat on top of the sack of cornmeal, wings splayed out around it like black robes of interment. The head worked around from one side to the other, seeking the invisible assailant. Then, as Michael watched, life left the body and the crow's head sagged to one side. A thin trickle of blood soaked into the yellow cornmeal. Michael savored the moment.
"What the hell are you doing? Close that god damn door!" The voice was shrill and impatient.
Michael turned his head. Charlotte, Michael's mother, stood perfectly framed in the opening that led to the apartment's one bedroom. Yellow light from a burning bulb surrounded her, like a glowing miasma of shabby destitution. She had only just risen and her hair, golden and shiny, but with a lusterless, dull brown at the roots, stuck out from her head like stiff bristles. She wore a man-sized tee-shirt that hung down, nearly to her knobby knees. Her eyes were haggard and hard.
Michael slid the patio door shut and leaned the air rifle, butt down, in the corner.
"What were you doing?" Charlotte demanded. Then, "God! Where's my smokes?"
Michael kept silent as Charlotte strode into the small living area and picked around the cluttered coffee table that sat in front of the worn sofa. She located a crumpled pack of Marlboros amid the overflowing ashtray and empty pizza boxes. With her lips she drew out a smoke, then walked to the range in the kitchen area. She turned a dial, then bent down and lit the cigarette from the blue gas flame.
The electric baseboard heaters ticked and clicked.
She straightened and took a deep drag. "What time is it?" she asked, expelling gray smoke. She didn't look at Michael.
There was a sharp rap on the door, and they heard a voice. "Open up, baby, it's me!"
Charlotte rolled her eyes. "Let him in," she said to Michael. A trail of dirty gray smoke followed her as she walked, stiff and haggard, out of the kitchen and down the hall. Michael heard her enter the bathroom and shut the door.
The chain stretched taut across the opening when he opened it. Buck was standing outside. He wore a khaki jacket and trousers with the legs tucked in tanned leather high-topped boots with leather laces. A bright orange hunting cap sat atop his long, narrow head. Crooked teeth completed the image of an ornery, ill-bred horse. "Let me in, kid," he said.
Without a word, Michael shut the door, undid the chain, and opened it again. Buck stepped in quickly. "Where is she?" he asked.
Michael nodded toward the hallway. They could hear water running in the bathroom.
Michael watched as Buck covered the distance in a few long strides, then rapped his knuckles on the bathroom door. "Charlotte, honey? It's me," he said.
"I'm getting ready," Charlotte called through the door.
"Sweetie, I've got good news," Buck said. "My wife thinks I'm going hunting. We've got the whole weekend together."
"She's not that dumb, is she?" came Charlotte's reply.
"I got her fooled good this time," Buck replied. "She thinks I'm going hunting. I packed up all my gear, just like I was heading for the mountains. I even got the rifle out in the truck. And, sweetie, I brought you a little somethin'."
The bathroom door opened just a crack. "What is it?" Charlotte asked, eagerly. Already she looked better, Michael thought. She'd run a comb through her hair and splashed water on her face. Years of hard living hadn't yet erased her beauty.
Buck grinned. "Just hurry up and get out of there so I can kiss you," he said.
Charlotte winked and shut the door. Buck came back into the living area and dropped down on the couch. He fished in his trouser pocket for a minute, produced a jangling mess of keys attached to a chrome-plated ring. He held it out toward Michael, one key pinched between thumb and forefinger. "Boy, go out to my truck and bring that paper bag that's sittin' on the bench."
Michael accepted the proffered key ring without a word. Buck switched on the television as Michael went out
He descended the exterior stairs to the parking lot, located Buck's high-set 4-wheel-drive pickup and unlocked the passenger side door. A brown paper bag sat on the seat, a black-capped bottle neck protruding from the top. Michael released the catch on the side of the bench and pulled the seat forward. A sleek Browning rifle rested there, amid a litter of hamburger wrappers and pornographic magazines. The rifle had an elegant wooden stock and a high-powered scope mounted on the barrel. Michael saw a box of cartridges lying next to it.
He pushed the seat back into place, took the paper bag with the bottle and nudged the pickup door closed. He did not lock it.
Once inside the apartment, he wordlessly handed the key ring and the brown paper bag containing the bottle to Buck. "Thanks, kid," Buck said. He sprang up from the couch and hurried to the bathroom door. Michael could still hear water running.
"Lookee here, honey" Buck called.
Charlotte opened the door again and peeked out. She had applied some make-up to her cheeks and eyes, evening out the blotchy skin. Buck pulled the bottle partway from the bag and held it toward her. "Your favorite, honey," he said.
She smiled, coyly. "Oh, and look at you in your manly hunting clothes," she said, as if seeing him for the first time. "I'll be out in a minute, hon."
Buck came back to the living room. He fished in his pocket again and produced a 20 dollar bill. He held it out toward Michael. "Make yourself scarce, will ya, boy?" he said. Then, "Shouldn't you be in school?"
Michael took the money and shrugged. He took a thin jacket from the rack by the door and stepped outside, pulling the door closed behind him.
Michael was small for his age; too small for sports. He was not popular with the kids at South High. In fact, not many of them even knew his name. He was surly and quiet and kept to himself. At least, when they let him. Lately, some of the bigger boys, the football players, had taken to bullying him, pushing him around in the halls, humiliating him, demeaning him. Other kids began to avoid Michael, fearing that they might become targets themselves.
Some day, they'll learn, Michael thought. And maybe I'll be the one to teach 'em. Michael felt fortunate that Charlotte did not seem to care whether or not he attended school.
Rather than descend to the street, Michael went to the fire escape mounted on the side of the building. He swung out onto the ladder and climbed up to the roof. Over the months, the roof of the apartment building had become his sanctuary, his escape from the sordid world of high school bullies and his mother's idiot boyfriends. It was a wide, flat Mansard roof with good drainage for the heavy winter rains. Michael could sit behind the parapet and see over the roofs of the nearby houses clear out to the football field. The lettering across the top of the electronic scoreboard read "Home of the South High Ravens."
It was Friday, Michael remembered. There would be a football game that night. They would flood the field with electric light from the lamp towers. The tiered stands would be full of people. The noise from the marching band would fill the air. He thought about it for a moment.
He glanced down at the street immediately below him. The crow, Mr. Big Britches, lay sprawled on the yellow cornmeal. Its beak was agape, the thin tongue lolling in death. Michael felt satisfied: a nice clean take-down. That's the way you do it, he thought. He turned away and started back toward the fire escape.
Then he paused.
Across the street stood an old oak tree. It was barren with the onset of winter; its limbs stretched up like bony fingers toward the low gray sky. Crows perched on every branch. They huddled silently, like solemn, black-robed judges. They seemed to stare at Michael as if in appalled horror.
Michael gestured back in the direction of the dead crow behind and below him. You see? Michael thought. Got no answer for that, do ya?
For a long moment he watched the crows watching him. They sat so still he could almost imagine that they were part of the tree. Still don't believe me, do ya? he thought.
He went back to Buck's pickup. He opened the door and took the rifle and box of cartridges from behind the seat. Then, he climbed back up the fire escape to the roof.
Maybe four hours 'til dark, he thought. He sited through the rifle scope, saw the neatly-chalked yardage markers, white against the lush grass. They will stand in the center for the coin toss. Yes. I'll see the faces. Even the eyes.
It was cold. Michael's breath rose in vaporous plumes. He hunkered down and drew his knees up to keep warm. He blew into his cupped hands. Behind him, the murder of crows perched. They watched and waited.