The crows spoke with the voices of dead children. They swooped through the air, black smudges against a tapestry of blue, cawing words torn from fevered throats. One landed on a branch outside Mei's bedroom.
"Don't want medicine," it croaked.
Mei opened the window and shooed the bird away. In the dim light of morning, she caught sight of a patroller on the street, a man with a rifle slung over his shoulder, a flak jacket protecting his chest. His back was to her. As soon as the crow flew into the man's view, he loosed a bullet that hit its mark.
Bang. The sound startled Mei; she should be used to the sound of gunshots, the ever-presence of violence, but at such close proximity, the noise was still surprising. The crow tumbled to the ground and the patroller donned his gloves, bagging the corpse into a biohazard container.
Mei shuddered and closed the window, closed the blinds. The image of the bullet tearing through flesh, feathers, and sinew—scattering in its trail like confetti—she squeezed her eyes shut. No, better to get on with the day's work than dwell on what she just saw.
Mei went down the hall to her daughter's room. Habit had her knocking on the door, cracking it open when she heard no response; the golden, dusty light illuminated the neat bookshelves, the stuffed animals sitting up straight on the perfectly made bedspread.
Off to one side, a cage glinted. Talons clicked against metal; feathers whispered through the quiet.
Mei took the crow out of the cage and stroked those shining oilslick feathers, marveled at the tender heartbeat beneath her fingertips. The crow looked up at Mei, eyes shiny as polished onyx; it opened its beak and said, "Wanna play?"
"I’d love to, baby girl," Mei said, setting the crow on the desk as she cleaned its cage. "But it's not safe for you out there."
She placed the crow back into its cage, shutting the wire door behind her. She fluffed up the pillows and smoothed out the lace-lined covers.
Next item on her list: grocery shopping. She'd have to stop by the specialty pet store to buy food for Sasha—the regular grocery store had stopped stocking bird supplies when the super-flu broke out.
Mei noticed the hearse across the street as soon as she stepped outside. The coroners carried a tiny, child-sized body bag out of the Cabrals' house. Her stomach sank as they loaded the body bag into the back of the hearse, the sight of it so small against all that space. It must have been Tony, the Cabrals' youngest, not old enough to develop the immunity that his parents and older siblings had.
She knew the heartache, the anger, the self-blame that must have been running through Belinda Cabral's mind as she stood on the doorstep, her eyes red-rimmed. Mei resolved to make something to take over the Cabrals'—dumplings, perhaps, the fillings warm and hearty to take the edge off of the pain.
Before she could get into her car, a loud crack echoed through the air. Not a gunshot—something else. The patroller and Mei both glanced up, Mei's gaze resting on Sasha's window.
The curtains were rustling.
Then, black wings beat against the glass. Mei could hear the scrabbling of talons even from the driveway. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the patroller crossing the street, footsteps sure and swift as he made his way toward her. A pair of binoculars swung around his neck.
Mei unlocked the front door and darted inside, took the stairs two at a time to get to Sasha's room, careful not to let the crow get out. She squeezed through the door and shut it behind her, locking it and barricading it with the desk.
"Shhhhhh, shhhhhh, it's okay," Mei said, approaching the struggling crow. Mei swore that she'd locked the cage behind her, but it was a simple latch, and perhaps the crow had figured out how to undo it—Sasha had always been clever. "It's okay."
"Wanna play?" the crow said. "Wanna play?"
"We can play," Mei said. "Just calm down, all right?"
Footsteps, coming up the stairs. A heavy fist pounded against the door.
Anger and fear bubbled up in Mei. She screamed, "Go away!"
In response, the door splintered open and the desk skidded across the wooden floor as the man burst in shoulder-first. He trained his rifle on the crow.
"I have orders to shoot on sight," the man said. "Ma'am, if you'd move aside—"
"Please," Mei begged. "This is the last I have of my daughter."
The man's gaze softened, but only for a moment. He shrugged the rifle higher and shut one eye, centering the crosshairs over the crow. "Please move aside, ma'am."
"Mommy, I'm scared," the crow said, voice creaking.
"I know, baby girl, I know," Mei said, her gaze tender and tear-stained as she looked back to the crow fighting against the window. "It's gonna be okay."
Hands trembling, Mei unlatched the window. Before the man could protest, she threw the panes wide open, letting the crow go free. The man cursed, shot bang-bang one bullet after another, but they whizzed past the bird, catching only a feather.
"Goddammit!" the man yelled. "Selfish bitch, you want more kids to get sick?"
The man swung his rifle around to Mei, his breath heavy and angry. A cool calmness settled over Mei as she stared down the barrel. A few tense moments passed between them. Finally, the man lowered the rifle and pulled out his cell phone, dialing a number.
"I'm calling in for a person harboring a disease vector on Sycamore Street," the man said.
Beside Mei—the perfect bed, stuffed animals unmoved. Before her—the empty cage, wires still gleaming.
Somewhere out there, Sasha lived on, captured on a crow's tongue.
Mei refused to weep.
This story originally appeared in Gamut, April 2017.