Sitting in the meeting room staring out the window as someone droned on about deadlines, goals, and new branding Jake watched vultures circling above the office building halfway down the block. As he watched their lazy circles, dark against the blue sky, a buzzing began in his left ear. The meeting came to an end and walking back to his cubicle, the buzz became an annoying hum in both ears. He asked a co-worker, “Do you hear that?”
“I don’t know, like strange buzz or hum?”
For days Jake’s ears kept buzzing. He thought he’d go crazy if it didn’t stop. The doctor said there was nothing wrong, his hearing was fine, no sign of infection or other problems. Riding his bike, commuting to and from work, he’d see the buzzards, too. Circling over various buildings throughout the city and he started wondering if they were related to the buzzing in his ear. He thought, maybe they’re the first signs of my psychotic break. Wearing headphones covered the buzz a bit but he couldn’t avoid seeing all the buzzards. No one else seemed to care, or notice, but Jake noticed there were more every day. How did no one else notice? They looked ready to consume the city.
On the corner near his home, he noticed a flyer taped to the light pole. It said: If you notice them, too, hear the sound, send self-addressed postage page padded envelope. The pull tag had the address listed. Out of curiosity, Jake ripped a tag and stuck it in his pocket. He stopped at the post office on the way home and sent an envelope, as requested, to the address.
A few days later, Jake opened the envelope carefully. Inside was a thin blue vial, no longer than two inches, with a glass stopper. The note read:
Do not drink until exactly nine minutes after midnight on September 9th, then turn over and read further instructions. If you drink earlier or later or on a different date you must request another vial explaining why you did not drink at the exact time as instructed. Upon review of request a new vial may be sent.
When he turned over the note it was blank. He peered inside the envelope looking for another piece of paper but there was nothing else. He was tempted to taste the contents of the vial but wasn’t sure that would constitute “drinking before 12:09 a.m.” or in some way invalidate the instructions so he waited.
At exactly nine minutes after midnight he pried the stopper, which gave a little pop, and drank the viscous, bitter fluid inside. He didn’t feel anything and waited a moment expecting something to happen but nothing did. He was pissed and turned the page over expecting it to be blank, feeling foolish. To his surprise, in glowing bright green handwriting were further instructions. It detailed exactly how he should walk from his apartment to the final destination ending with when destination reached you will know what to do next.
Reading over the directions before heading out he wondered why it gave such a circuitous route. There was a much more direct route but he didn’t want to take a chance and did as instructed. When he stepped out to the street he noticed a strange faint magenta light close to the ground leading the way. The light was so faint he wasn’t sure he actually saw what he did. It reminded him of the traces left on the back of his eyelids when he closed them after staring at the computer screen in the dark.
Finally, after twenty minutes weaving through the city streets, he reached the underpass of the pedestrian bridge with an old stone troll underneath. He’d seen this same stone troll many times but now he looked larger, as if crushed under the bridge, and its arms were pushing up, it’s eyes blinking. He stepped back nervously wondering what exactly was in that vial. As he studied the troll he noticed a shimmering ray of light near a large stone pressed against his armpit and when he stepped closer to inspect it he had a strange taste of purple. He didn’t know purple had a taste but that was all he thought, I taste purple.
He reached out to touch the shimmering ray and the stone boulder shifted. There was just enough space for him to squeeze in. He had to duck his head and he felt the walls pressed against his shoulders but there was a set of stairs leading upwards and as he climbed the space widened. It was dark and he carefully felt for the next step with his foot. He finally reached the top which opened to a room that looked carved into a giant stone boulder, with rounded ceiling and walls.
Various strange looking dried herbs and plants hung from wooden poles drilled into the stone. He saw familiar dead animals hanging as well. There were a couple of rabbits, a duck and squirrel, but there were other strange creatures he’d never seen before. Creatures with oddly colored fur and strange hoofs or horns curling from their heads down along the length of their bodies. Along the back wall was a shelf filled with jars and vials of all sizes. He saw similar vials to the one he drank earlier and jars filled with unidentifiable things floating in strange liquids. There was a jar filled with tiny slender bones that looked like finger bones and a jar with a large spider attempting to escape.
In the center was a round wooden table with a tiny woman sitting hunched over tracing blue powder with a black stick creating intricate patterns. On the outer edges of the blue powder design were black candles, all the exact same length and width, burning blue flames. The woman looked up, “Jake, little sick boy, about time you stopped believing all the lies they’ve made you swallow every morning.” He didn’t know what she meant, “who are you?”
“You sought me out.”
“I wrote to an address on a flyer. I thought it led to some party or something, it was vague.”
“You found what you needed.”
He was ready to leave this strange place and this strange woman but she had mesmerizing gray eyes. They were silver-gray with a black ring around the iris and when she spoke the black ring bled down into the silver-gray and swirled like ink. She was petite with delicate bones and looked fragile. She bent over the table again, struck a long match, and gently blew across the flame. It flared bright blue and struck the powder on the table causing the room to fill with the scent of fresh rain. Above her head smoke circled, rising until it touched the stone, then popped into brilliant sparkling light like a firework.
When he looked down again, the blue powder appeared untouched and in the center was a clear crystal that glowed the same silver gray as her eyes. The silver gray light inside the crystal pulsed like a heartbeat and he stepped closer. “It is yours Jake,” she said so softly he wasn’t sure she actually spoke. “It will rain for nine days then you will be clean. Do not trust the vultures who want to pick your mind apart until you no longer think for yourself. Nine days, at 9:09 a.m. and you will be free.”
He picked up the crystal expecting it to be cool but it was warm. It pulsed brighter at his touch and he felt a pleasant vibration. As he walked home holding the crystal, the vibration felt stronger, caressing up his arm and over his back. When he slept he dreamed of water flowing and boulders walking the streets, of strange little witch women with gray eyes hanging in gibbets as vultures plucked their eyes. In the morning he felt restless and calm. The crystal sat on the coffee table pulsing softly.
Nine days later and 9:09 a.m. he was heading to the pharmacy when the rains stopped. He felt his mind open and saw not only the sky but the universe beyond. All the people rushing the through the streets, morning traffic crawling along the roads, the people in the gym windows running to nowhere on treadmills all seemed like the strange creatures in the jars at the little witch’s hollow. The sky suddenly darkened as thousands of vultures descended, people scattering, screaming and he thought about her warning, do not trust the vultures but they paid him no mind.
At 9:18 a.m. he stood horrified on the street surrounded by bodies, torn apart by the vultures, blood running into the gutters, staining his shoes. The vultures plucked their eyes out making strange crww sounds as if delighted by their meals. He ran heading back to the underpass where the stone troll sat and the vultures all took flight. He heard their wings beating overhead, felt a wingtip graze his arm, and his heart beating in his throat. When he reached the troll there was no shimmering light, no boulder by its arm, and Jake didn’t know how to find the little witch, didn’t know what she did to him.
9:37 a.m. he sat panting on his sofa holding the pulsing crystal as if it would give him answers. The vultures preened in the trees outside his window, sitting along the roof of the buildings all along his street, and he felt as if they were watching, waiting for him. He stood up, angry, and threw the crystal across the room, smashing it against the wall and shattering it into tiny pieces. The vultures took flight again and Jake collapsed.
Another nine days later at 9:09 a.m. Jake sat in the hospital as a nurse with gray eyes readied to give him a shot. She held up a small vial filling the syringe with a strange viscous solution and telling him, “don’t worry, this will make you right as rain again.”