It was the crows he noticed first.
He’d been on the road for a few hours and was getting tired. He only had another hour to drive before he reached the hotel but he had to stop and stretch his legs. When he saw the sign for the rest stop, he pulled over to the exit and headed towards it.
On the roadway, leading up to the rest stop, he saw the dead carcasses of crows leading the way to the rest stop like a trail of bread crumbs. He was slightly put off by them, their feathers still glistening in the half light of the coming dusk.
As he approached the rest stop, he noticed something else: surrounding the building was a circle of crows, just as stationary as the ones that reminded him of bread crumbs. He drove on and seeing a break in the circle of crows drove into the rest stop parking lot.
At that moment, the sky was filled with blackness as the crows he’d assumed were dead took flight into the air. All of them were cawing and he covered his ears to block out the sound. They seemed to be almost shrieking; with joy or with fear he didn’t know.
When the black cloud of birds had flown away into the sky, he opened the car door and got out. Looking back at the road he had driven here on, he saw that the road, too, was empty of the carrion birds. Steven shivered.
He wasn’t an overly superstitious person, but crows that were dead returning to life just as he crossed the barrier of the circle seemed too much of a coincidence. “Fucked up.” He said. He considered driving away right then and there, but the need to take a piss was too strong to ignore.
Getting out of his car, Steven closed the door and took one last look at where the crows had been. He wondered what it all meant. He knew that crows were the only birds that could go to the world of the afterlife, at least in mythology. He shook his head and walked to front door of the rest stop.
It looked pretty run down. There was a broken pane of glass in the door and the windows on either side of it were covered with wood. There were vines covering part of the door and it didn’t look like anyone had been here in ages. There were sounds coming from inside, however, so he wasn’t worried. Opening the door, he stepped inside.
Walking down a short hallway towards the sound of people, Steven entered a wide area that was filled with people and, for some strange reason, a player piano. It stood in the centre of the rest stop playing what sounded like Elton John music.
There was a small coffee shop that looked as if it was doing brisk business. A crowd of people were shuffling around in line, waiting for their drinks and the chairs and tables were filled with people, none of them looking particularly enthused to be there.
The call of nature forgotten, Steven went up to the counter and waited to be served. A few of the people in front of him turned to regard Steven with curious glances. One woman actually smiled at him. She stepped out of line and motioned him forward.
“Oh, you go first dear.” She said.
“But it’s not my turn in line. I can wait.”
“No dear, I insist! We’ve all been in line for what seems like forever and we can’t make up our minds. You go first, please do.”
Steven went in front of the woman and two other patrons. They all looked pale and tired, as if their skin were made from aged paper, with no colour in their cheeks. He turned to the clerk and she gave him what could only be a shocked stare.
“You’re not dead.” She whispered.
“I don’t think so. One large black to go please.”
She stared at him the entire time she was pouring the coffee as if she had never seen a man before. There were several around, including an older man who looked to be about a hundred and covered in dust.
The server brought his coffee to him. “Please take me with you.” She said.
Steven was taken aback. “Look, I don’t even know you.”
“Please, I’ve been here for so very long. I just want to be free of this place.”
“Can’t help you, sorry.”
He took his coffee and went to sit down but turned to look back at her when he heard her crying. He took another step back and found himself bumping into the piano bench. The piano stopped playing for only an instant and a voice said “Careful there, sir.”
Steven turned around to look for the man who had spoken but didn’t see anyone. “Sorry?” Steven said.
“It’s all right, happens.” The voice said.
This place was getting weirder and more bizarre by the moment. The server girls wails were getting louder and Steven wanted nothing more than to be gone from the place. He was about to leave, to run out of the rest stop, when he felt a hand at his elbow. The woman who’d given him her place in line was standing there.
“You look like you’re a little confused. You have no idea where you are, do you?”
Steven shook his head. “Just a rest stop, that’s all this place is, right?”
The woman smiled and Steven saw her face wrinkle as if it was unused to such a movement. “My dear boy, you don’t even know what you’ve walked into, do you? What’s your last name?”
“Names have power dear boy and yours must be powerful if you were able to enter here and still remain alive. Gerry, do you mind playing something other than Elton John? He gets on my nerves.”
“Sorry Betty.” Said the man’s voice. There was a pause and the music changed to something classical that was haunting and lilting. “This better?”
“Much, thanks Gerry.”
Steven moved away from the piano and sat down at one of the tables with a soft thump. Dust clouds rose up around him and he watched as the woman named Betty came towards him. “What is this place?”
“Tell me what your last name is first.”
“Crowe. My last name is Crowe.”
Betty gave him a shrewd look. “I thought it might be. Only the crows come here. They are the only ones who can leave but they can’t take any of us with them.”
“Where’s here? This isn’t like any rest stop I’ve ever been to.”
“That’s because it’s not. This is…” She was lost in thought for a moment. “A purgatory of sorts.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s simple really. Anyone that dies on the road ends up here, their bodies decaying where their spirits left them. When their body decays completely, the spirit ceases to be. We can still last a long time here though as it takes forever for ones bones to disappear completely. It takes forever for the body to return to the earth.”
Shaking his head again, Steven tried to find words for what he was feeling. Finally he spoke: “Isn’t purgatory where you go when whoever runs the afterlife decides where to put you?”
“Yes. But we’re the forgotten ones here, dear boy. We can’t leave without an escort and the crows, having no hand to hold on to us, can’t take us. ”
“You need my help then. ”
“It would seem so. You can come and go as you please. We would be in your debt, it would seem.”
“What do I have to do?”
“You would have to take us past the ring of crows that surround this place. Only then can our spirits move on to their final resting place. There is one proviso though. You can only take one of us at a time and only one spirit every thirty days.”
“Why? Can’t I just keep coming back and retrieving more of you?”
Betty shook her head. “No, that would upset the order of things. It’s just the way of things.”
“It seems unfair, letting you all remain here when I can only free one at a time.”
“Who said that anything in life, or death for that matter, was fair? There are rules to everything dear boy. There was one, I believe her name was Abigail Crowe. She tried to take two spirits at once, one in each hand. They all disappeared.”
“What happened to them?”
Betty shook her head. “No one knows. We just know that there was an explosion of light and none of them ever came back.” She gave him another shrewd look. “I must say, you’re taking this rather well, Steven Crowe.”
“My grandmother was a seer. Told me about spirits all the time, how we had to respect them, honour them.”
“You’re still doing very well. Most men would be whimpering like girls before now.”
“I’m made of strong stuff. I’ve seen some weird shit in my time.”
Betty let out a laugh that was like a frogs croak. “Oh, dear boy, I don’t doubt that. Why would you be here otherwise?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, only the lost find us. Only those that are lost see this place.”
“I’m not lost, I know exactly where I’m going.”
“But was there a time when you were lost? When you didn’t know your direction?”
Steven nodded, not saying anything.
Betty nodded in return. “I thought so. It’s what makes you so sensitive, able to see like your grandmother. Are you ready to help one of us move on?”
“Yeah.” He stood. “Let’s go.”
“Oh, not me, dear boy.” She stood and smoothed down her dress. “Take Abigail. She misses her son. He died in the car with her you know, but he never came here. This place can’t claim children. She misses him terribly.”
“What about you?”
“Oh, I’ll be around yet for a while. You can come back for me next month, Mr. Crowe. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a lot of you. It’s not often we find a Crow, or one finds us.”
“I was just driving through.” Steven said.
“Oh, no one finds this place by accident, dear boy. You were meant to come here.” She turned and called out. “Abigail! Say your goodbyes, dear!” She turned back to Steven with a smile on her face. “Thank you for doing this. She’ll be so happy.”
“No thanks needed.”
“Oh, but there is. You always thank that which comes, no matter what it is, whether good or bad. You must always be thankful.”
Abigail had come out from behind the coffee counter looking happier than Steven had seen her previously. She looked positively radiant. “You’re taking me with you? Really?”
“Yes.” Steven said. “I guess so.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much. I miss my son, you see.”
“Now, Abigail, no tears.” Betty said. “This is a happy moment. So be happy.”
“Oh I am, I am! I get to see my son. It’s been so long!”
“How long has it been?” Steven asked. “How long have you been here?”
Abigail thought for a moment. “You know, I’ve forgotten.”
“Time moves differently here.” Betty said. “It always has an always will. But enough chatter! You have to get home and you have a spirit to free to her afterlife. We can chat more next month, Mr. Crowe.”
Steven looked at Abigail. “What do I have to do?”
“Just hold her hand as you exit this place. That ‘s all. Then return next month for the next soul waiting for release.”
Abigail almost danced on the spot, so anxious was she to leave. Steven followed her a bit, but turned around to look at Betty. “I’ll be seeing you soon.” He said.
“I know you will dear boy. I know you will.”
Abigail grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the exit. Steven had no choice but to follow. When they got there, Abigail stood looking at the door. “Go on, open it.” She said.
“No, I’m too afraid.”
Steven nodded and, still holding her hand, opened the door. They stepped outside and walked towards the circle of crows. He felt a connection with them somehow and wondered when they had returned to form the circle around the rest stop.
“It worked!” Abigail said, almost screaming with joy. “I can’t believe it worked!”
“Did you not think it would?”
“No. After dreaming of this moment for so long, I never thought it would be possible. I’d always dreamed of this moment though. Always.”
Steven watched as she began to fade, as if her skin and hair were disappearing, cell by cell. Soon, there was only the outline of her, a wispy form where Abigail had been.
The mist turned to Steven then and her grasp, though made of mist, grew stronger. “Thank you.” She said.
A light that grew from within her began to shine, growing brighter by the moment until Steven had no choice but to block his eyes with his free hand. He could see the brightness of her spirit even with his eyes closed. When the brightness gave off heat that he could feel, the hand clasping his let go and he heard her sigh with contentment as she finally found her freedom.
When the light cleared, he opened his eyes. The rest stop and all the crows were gone, only his car remained. He knew that next month, when he returned, it would be back.
Getting into his car, he drove away, wondering where he could find another rest stop. He had to piss like a race horse…