Fog cloaked the city. Grackles cawed in the gathering dark as the Birdwalker stalked the banks of the river. He was looking for someone to punish. It didn’t matter if the crime was big or small — real or imagined. What mattered was the retribution he would bring to the wrongdoer.
Finally, he heard a plea. The water carried a voice to him, clear and sharp through the misty fog.
“Those damn kids have been at it again. Every fucking year, they come out here and destroy my property. I’ve had it with those little bastards!”
The Birdwalker cackled softly and disappeared into the night. The grackles followed.
George, Layla and Robbie lounged on their back porch. Empty beer bottles were scattered around them. Crusty bits of orange pumpkin guts were caked on their trousers, and mud was drying on their boots. Dirty white sheets with crude eyeholes — costumes they’d discarded early in the night — flapped in the breeze.
“The look on the old bastard’s face. Gets me every time,” George chuckled.
“You’d think he’d know by now to lock his gate on Halloween,” Layla said.
Robbie frowned. “Then how would the kids get candy?”
The others laughed at this — no one trick-or-treated at the old man’s house. He kept a bucket on the porch, but no one went that far out into the country on Halloween. Except George, Layla and Robbie.
For years now, they’d snuck out there at night. The first time, they’d stood and stared in awe at dozens of glowing pumpkins and spooky decorations.
When they were 12, they’d finally managed to work up the nerve to journey beyond the gate — armed with a dozen rolls of toilet paper. It’d been a messy job, but well worth it. They’d howled for hours at the look of outrage on the old man’s face when he saw his trees covered with miles of messy tissue.
They’d been 15 before they started smashing the pumpkins and slashing the decorations. They’d been 18 before they started stealing the candy and knickknacks on the porch.
At 20, they knew where the old man kept his stock of beer for fishing trips — and they’d cheerfully taken that along with the bucket of candy after their spree of destruction was over.
George unwrapped another Snickers and tossed an empty can toward the trash — he missed by a foot.
“Nice shot,” Layla mocked.
“Shut up,” he grumbled.
She laughed and he glowered, and Robbie wondered how long it would be before the two of them wandered into the house and started grappling with each other.
A grackle cawed. Robbie looked up. Their yard backed up against a tangle of oak and mesquite. Deer and coyotes and grackles were common. But he could swear this grackle was looking right at him. He blinked. The grackle cocked its head and cawed again. Shrugging, Robbie threw his beer can away and reached for another. When he looked back, the trees were covered with birds, hundreds of them, sitting on every branch and staring at him.
“Guys,” Robbie said, slowly. “Do the birds seem weird to you?”
George glanced at the trees. “They’re birds.”
“Yeah, but … I think they’re watching us.”
Layla laughed. “You’ve had one too many, Robbie.”
“They’re nothing but grackles, Rob,” George said. “We’ll throw out some poison feed in the morning, see if that’ll scare the stupid things off.”
Robbie didn’t think that was a good idea, but he kept it to himself. He sipped his beer and watched the birds. They were chattering softly, hopping from branch to branch — and, he swore, they all watched him, their bright little eyes fixed on the group on the porch.
They were coming closer.
He opened his mouth to say something when a half-dozen birds landed on the porch railing. One big grackle regarded Robbie, then stared at George.
“Get!” George said. The bird didn’t move. George tossed his beer can at it. The birds scattered. “Fucking nuisance.”
There was a flurry of movement in the trees. Robbie went still, holding his breath. George and Layla seemed blissfully unaware of the birds — until the creatures descended in a sudden swarm, flapping and spinning around them.
“What the fuck!”
Robbie scrambled for the back door, bumping hard into George as they tried to run inside. But there were dozens — hundreds — of the black birds between them and safety. Robbie fell to the ground. Layla’s boots crunched over his hands, and he cursed as he crawled across the blistered wood porch. He tumbled down the stairs and landed face-first in the dirt. Grunts told him George and Layla had fallen beside him.
Robbie backed away and sat up. Hundreds of grackles settled on the railing and the porch, staring at them.
“What the hell,” George whispered.
The birds took to the air — and swooped down upon Robbie, George and Layla. Claws and beaks ripped into flesh and tore at hair. Robbie jumped to his feet, clapped his hands around his head and ran. The grackles flocked around him, pecking and scratching and cawing in delight.
He dashed into the woods. The others followed, cursing and crying. Robbie tripped and stumbled and tried desperately to escape the birds. But the grackles stayed close, their black wings beating against him as he ran. Tree branches lashed him. Roots tripped him. And grackles tortured him. He kept moving, hoping the creatures would leave him alone if he could just get far away fast enough.
He fell. His breath whooshed out of his lungs, and he gasped. Dust stung his eyes. Blood poured from a hundred gashes across his chest and back. Layla tripped over him, and George tumbled into the heap. Robbie curled into a ball and braced himself for the stabbing and scratching of beak and claw.
Slowly, he peeked out. The grackles were settled once more in the trees, watching them. Trembling, he got to his knees.
That’s when he saw the Birdwalker. Bile filled Robbie’s throat and piss trickled down his thighs as he beheld the thing before him. It was as tall as a man, covered head to foot in glossy black feathers. A wicked, glistening beak curved out from its face, and black, oddly human eyes regarded Robbie.
“I answer a plea tonight, humans. It is time for you to pay for your sins.”
Robbie swallowed. He couldn’t look away from the creature before him. He heard George sputter and stammer, and Layla was whimpering and rocking next to him.
“What — what sins?” Robbie said.
“You’ve been torturing an old man for years. He’s had enough. It’s your turn to suffer now.”
The Birdwalker clicked his beak at the grackles. The birds launched into the air and descended on the trio. They screamed as the Birdwalker exacted his retribution.
The police found the bodies three days later. There wasn’t much left. They saw no sign of the Birdwalker. He was on the riverbank, waiting for the water to bring him another voice.