Paul Negri

Bob suspected that Jillian was a bit odd, but because she was very attractive and seemed to find him very interesting, he was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. So when Jillian—after just two dates—invited him for what she promised would be a very special dinner, he quashed his misgivings, and was determined for once to carpe diem.

It was the first time he had been to her apartment, which was in a peculiar part of town, and he was surprised at how small it was. But, as he was anticipating more than dinner, he preferred to think of the place not as cramped but intimate. In the same spirit, he accepted the dim lighting, one small lamp’s feeble effort to overcome the dark, not as an indication of impecunity or gloominess, but romance. And when she placed on the sheet-draped bridge table two plates each with just one modest-sized meat pie and a third plate covered by a smallish, ornate copper dome, he convinced himself that she was not skimping on the meal but merely serving sensible portions to help maintain her lithe and lovely figure.

Bob lifted his small glass of wine and toasted Jillian. The wine was a bit bitter, but as he almost never drank wine, he assumed that was the way it was supposed to taste, and congratulated himself on having the good sense to always drink beer.

When he cut into the meat pie, it bled. Bob put down his knife and fork. “Well,” he said and covered up his surprise with a laugh.

Jillian smiled. “Black currant sauce,” she said, in her enticingly strange accent, which she had explained was East European. “There’s a drop of it in the wine also. This is very special. An old family recipe.” Her dark eyes shone.

“Well,” said Bob, again, and took a forkful of the crimson pastry and its dark filling. “I once ate alligator. In Florida. Near Disneyland.”

“That is very interesting,” said Jillian. “Disneyland.”

Bob popped the forkful in his mouth. He coughed. “Well,” he said. “Well, well, well.”

Jillian leaned forward and Bob could not keep his eyes from her small but deep décolleté. “What does it taste like?” she asked.

“Not alligator,” said Bob, laughing nervously. He stopped chewing and swallowed. “It tastes like, well—chicken? I mean, not ordinary chicken, of course. More like—European chicken? Special chicken.”

“Hmmm,” intoned Jillian.

“A cross between chicken and—” The word dog popped into Bob’s mind, but he swallowed it before it slipped out. “Fish. Like—catfish?” Bob had never eaten catfish, but it sounded suitably exotic to him.

“A scavenger,” said Jillian, and the way she said it sounded somehow sexy.

“Well,” said Bob. “Well, well, well.”

Jillian ate quick little forkfuls of her meat pie. How she ate was one of the odd things Bob had noticed about her. It reminded him of pecking.

“Tell me about Disneyland,” cooed Jillian. “Where you ate the alligator.” She seemed fascinated.

And so Bob amused her with descriptions and commentary on Cinderella’s Castle, Pirates of the Caribbean, and his favorite, The Hall of Presidents, where Abraham Lincoln seemed so real it was like some kind of black magic. All the while, almost without realizing it, Bob consumed his meat pie. He was surprised to look down at his plate and find the pie all gone. Despite its peculiar taste, he wondered if there was more. He was still hungry.

Jillian seemed pleased. “You finished it all. I hoped you would. So few do,” she said, wistfully.

“I’ve never had anything like it,” he said. “So, is it chicken? Or fish? Or something more special?” He hoped there was more on the small domed plate.

Jillian stood up. Though she was not tall, she seemed formidable, much more so than Bob had noticed before. Her hand hovered over the domed plate. Bob leaned forward. In a swift fluid motion, she lifted the dome.

The crow’s head was the size of a large, black apple with feathers and a big beak like a shark’s tooth. The beak-tooth had a drop of red at its tip. The crow’s glistening, pinprick eyes were fixed on Bob.

Bob stood up, knocking his chair over. “Good God!” he cried.

“Now Bob, dear,” said Jillian in a soothing, song-like voice. “Dear Bob. Dear little Bob. Don’t be alarmed. The worst part is over and you’ve done very well. Very well.”

Bob felt dizzy. The cramped room seemed to be closing in on him. “What have you done to me?”

“Why nothing, dear.”

“You’re—strange. Very strange,” said Bob, backing up toward the door.

“Where are you going, Bob? We haven’t had dessert yet.”

Bob fled the apartment and hurried down the hall to the stairs. He heard Jillian’s voice trilling his name through the hall and down the stairs after him. Outside he drank in big gulps of the humid night air and rushed to his car.

Bob stood in his pajamas looking at himself in the bathroom mirror. Aside from a slight rumbling in his stomach, nothing seemed amiss. “All right,” he said aloud, “so I ate crow. It’s just a bird, after all. Like a chicken.” He put his hand on his stomach and wondered if he should take an antacid. Not that he had heartburn or any other discomfit. He felt fine. He even felt a bit smug. For a man who never did anything out of the ordinary (his last girlfriend had even told him he was dull), Bob felt rather proud. “Yes, I ate crow—with a crazy lady.” He laughed. “Well, well, well.” He flossed, brushed his teeth, and raised his glass. “Here’s to adventure.” He rinsed and spat. “And a good night’s sleep—alone, thank God.”

Around midnight, Bob awoke with a tickle in his throat. He sat up and coughed. He cleared his throat until he got rid of it and lay back down. The tickle returned. He sat up and coughed again, coughed harder and felt something catch in his teeth, put his fingers in his mouth and pulled out a short black feather. “Good God,” he said. He coughed up another. A pressure blossomed in his stomach and spread suddenly into his chest.

Bob put his hand on his mouth and sat on the edge of the bed. A great rush of something seemed to fill his throat. He hurried to the bathroom, fell on his knees before the toilet, and gagged violently, but nothing came up; he gagged again and a vile taste filled his mouth. “I’m sick,” he gasped. “I’ve been poisoned.” He broke out in a cold sweat. “That awful woman, that freak, Jillian!”

His chest felt as if a balloon was inflating inside him, the pressure straining against his ribs, pushing down on his stomach, crowding his organs together. He stood before the bathroom mirror and opened his mouth wide. Tears filled his eyes and blurred his vision, but through the haze he could see it—something big, black, and burning, a searing pain filling his mouth. He opened wide, wider, and wider still, struggling to breathe. In the dark, wet cavern of his mouth he saw a beak and a pair of pinprick eyes.

Bob clutched his throat and fell back against the wall. He tore open his pajamas and clawed at his expanding chest. Choking and clutching, he pulled himself up and stood staring into the mirror. The head of the crow was half out of his straining mouth. He made a muffled scream and fell backwards into the bathtub, his head banging hard against the white tiled wall.

Bob opened his eyes, but at first he couldn’t see anything. He tried to move, but he couldn’t. He tried to scream, but he couldn’t. He was lying flat on his back, his legs bent at the knees, wedged in the tub with something unbearably heavy clawing his chest. As he stared, groaning, the light congealed over him. Standing on his chest, its sharp beak-tooth poised over his eyes, was the crow. Bob howled and tried to scream for help, but the stump of his lacerated tongue thrashed about helplessly in his mouth.

The crow cocked her head, as if listening. “Well,” she said. “Well, well, well.” And she began to eat.

Paul Negri has twice won the gold medal for fiction in the William Faulkner–William Wisdom Writing Competition. His stories have appeared in The Penn Review, Into the Void, Gemini Magazine, Jellyfish Review, Flash Fiction Magazine and more than 40 other publications. He lives and writes in Clifton, New Jersey.

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