Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Free Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest

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Authors: Cherie Priest
Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Contemporary, Horror, dark fantasy
accidentally sleep on your arm—you wake up, and you can't feel it for a second, but then the blood flows back and it hurts all over like someone's jabbing at it with pushpins. The awful sensation spread down my neck, and shoulder, and clipped one of my knees before it faded.
    "Sing a song of breath mints," I heard, and it was an insistent line, said with all the force of the Latinate chants of an exorcism. Cora's hand wrapped around my wrist and pried it loose from the sink.
    "Banana cream pie. Four and twenty blackbirds take to the sky."
    I opened my eyes and she was looking back at me, teeth locked together. "When the sky is filled up, with all the feathered wings . . ." She drew me forward, dragging me out of my horrified haze.
    "The birds will come protect us, from all those other things. Come on, Eden."
    I wrenched my other hand from the sink and let her lead me stumbling away, back into the darkness, away from the fluorescent buzz and the white thing in the bathroom. I looked over my shoulder and saw nothing but the big pale rectangle of light where we'd left the main door ajar.
    "You can't stop for it," Cora breathed as we tripped and hopped back to our cabin. "You can't ever stop for it. You can chase it away with words, if you mean them when you say them, but you can't ever stop for it."
    We reached the cabin breathless and awake, with twigs caught in our shoes and scuffs on our knees from all the falling. But we were alone, except for the snores and unconscious shufflings of our roommates.
    Cora and I climbed into the same bunk and yanked the covers over our heads, turning the flashlight on to illuminate our private little space beneath the blanket. For a few seconds, we panted back and forth, catching our breath and listening for the worst.
    "What was that?" I asked, suspecting she didn't have a much better idea than I did.
    She shook her head to confirm it. "Dunno. But at least I can make it go away. And at least I know it's really there, now. At least you saw it too."
    "Yeah, I saw it too. And you did—you did make it go away."
    "I told you. You've just got to say the rhyme."
    It was my turn to shake my head. "That's the dumbest spell I've ever heard," I said. "I can't imagine why it worked, but I'm glad it did."
    Cora smiled wide and all the way, for the first time in the few days I'd known her.
    "If we knew why it worked, it wouldn't be magic, would it?"
    The next day, when we returned from an hour's worth of swimming, there was a message waiting for Cora from her mother. Her grandfather had died of a stroke sometime while we were doing cannonball leaps from the diving board.
    Her parents came to pick her up that afternoon, and she did not return.
    The next year when I came to Camp Lookout, I looked everywhere for her. I wanted to know what had happened with the mean white thing and if she'd ever learned how to make it go away completely.
    But I never got to ask her. She wasn't there.
    That summer at Camp Lookout set the pattern for most of the rest of my youth: even the good parts were often overshadowed by omnipresent specters and knowledge of the insanity in my family woodpile. In time, curiosity and adolescent confidence outweighed my fear of Lulu's wrath, and I came to watch her constantly for a moment of weakness, a time when I could pounce on her with my unwelcome questions. But I had to wait for that moment, long and patiently, and with faith. I waited until high school, miles and years removed from lonely train stations and tangible interactions with other girls' ghosts.
    My time came one night when I came home from school and found Lulu in her room, lying face up on her bed. A bottle of coconut rum lay on the floor beneath her hand, and her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen. The phone on the nightstand was off the hook and shrieking a dull, whining busy signal.
    She opened her eyes when I came in, then closed them again.
    "Damn," she said. "I thought you were Dave."
    "Sorry," I

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