It was happening more and more frequently these days. Daisy kept waking up in the woods. And even though she loved seeing the sun spill it’s first pale light over the fields just as she stepped out of the trees, she would’ve preferred to see it from her bed, or even better, in photographs taken while she was still asleep.
It hadn’t been so bad during the summer, when it first started, but now the mornings were cold, and she knew that soon there would be frost on the ground around her when she woke. Already this morning, she could see a faint hint of her breath against the sky as she made her way back to the house.
Crows crowded the dead branches of the elm tree that got struck by lightning last spring. They watched her silently as one, their heads tilting in unison to follow her path.
After the third time she’d found herself curled up on the floor of the forest with no memory of how she got there, she’d invested in a set of workout clothes. It was hard to fall asleep in sneakers, but she’d gotten used to it.
Daisy had never been a liar, but something about what was happening made her feel like she should keep it to herself. Even if that meant pretending to be enthusiastic about running. She told herself she was just sleepwalking, a perfectly normal habit, but deep down inside she knew that was a lie, too.
In the beginning, Daisy had anxiously searched the news every time she woke up in the woods, but so far there’d been no reports of any crimes on those nights. So far. The longer it went on, the more she started to think that the absence of blood on her hands didn't mean she wasn't hurting anyone. This was the third time this week and it was only Wednesday. A small, but growing, part of her was beginning to feel that even if she was doing something really bad, it had to be better to know than not.
Just as Daisy reached her back door, a crow let out a loud caw. Startled, she turned toward the sound. It came, not from behind her, but to her right. The bird dipped its head at her before flapping its wings and flying off. As she watched it go, she caught sight of Caleb Brown, standing still as the dead elm tree, next to his own back door. They locked eyes, and Daisy held her breath. Caleb had a way of staring through people, like he could see past whatever front they put up into who they really were. It was why she, like most kids at school, avoided him. He hardly ever spoke. He didn’t need to. He said it all with the tilt of his head or a cutting glance.
Daisy tried to come up with something to break the silence. But everything she thought of, even good morning, felt fake and too thin. It wasn’t a good morning and he would know that the minute she said it. Caleb’s grey eyes watched her, but for once they seemed expectant instead of judgmental. He was waiting for her to speak and suddenly she felt the urge to confess everything. It pulsed inside her mind like a heartbeat. Tell him. Tell him. Tell him. Maybe he would have an answer.
She sucked in a breath, whether it was to tell him where she’d been or because she needed oxygen she would never know, because just then a crow called out in the distance, and then another, and another, until she had to turn and look. The dead elm shook with the weight of all the crows preparing for flight. They burst from the branches like black leaves in a windstorm, falling up instead of down.
Daisy knew it was just birds being birds but her heart pounded in her chest, nonetheless. When she looked back to see what Caleb thought of it all, he was gone. She was surprised to find that instead of relief, all she felt was alone. Daisy looked at the empty dead tree and shivered. If she didn’t go inside now, she’d be late for school.
At lunch, Daisy headed to the library for a nap. Whatever she was doing the nights she went out to the woods, it wasn’t sleeping. Exhaustion was becoming an old friend.
She knew he’d be there even before she rounded the stacks that kept her favorite carrel hidden. She could sense him in that skin prickling way you could tell you were being watched, even when you couldn’t see the watcher. As she honed in on that sensation, she realized that she’d always sensed him that way, in the back of her mind. It was just that before, that feeling told her to stay away. And this time, it lead her to him.
Caleb leaned against the desk, his arms crossed. He was relaxed in a way she’d never seen him before and that, more than anything stopped Daisy in her tracks. His grey eyes met hers and held her in place. Despite the faint stirrings of panic in her belly, she noticed the way his dark hair fell over one eye but not the other. She wondered if it was intentional.
Caleb cocked his head to the side and frowned. Just when she thought she might die from the silence, he spoke. “I saw you,” he said, in a surprisingly low voice.
Then he did the most unexpected thing of all. He smiled.
That smile let Daisy know he wasn’t talking about this morning in her back yard. She clutched her bag in her arms. If he saw her last night, maybe he knew what was happening to her. Maybe he could tell her why the woods pulled her from her bed, or why the crows seemed to speak to her.
Caleb’s smile shifted as he leaned forward in his elbows. His thumbs stuck out through holes cut into the sleeves of his thermal. He always wore one beneath his t-shirts, even in the summer. And his thumbs always stuck out from those holes, like if they didn’t, his arms might turn to wings and carry him away.
“Daisy?” he whispered. His voice cut through her and made her shiver. That skin prickling feeling returned. She didn’t like the way he looked at her as if he knew all of her secrets. It angered her that that might be true. She should know more about herself than Caleb Brown.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. She felt his eyes on her as she walked away, knowing that he knew, just as well as she did, that that was a lie.
The sun kissed her cheeks and Daisy opened her eyes to a clear blue sky, branches cutting through it like bony fingers ready to descend on her. She sat up with a start, the same way she always did upon waking in the forest. She should expect it by now, but it was one of those things that you just can’t become accustomed to. She brushed the red and yellow leaves from her clothes, pulled her hair into a fresh pony tail, and began the walk home.
She was prepared to tell her mother about her morning jog, and how she’d seen a deer dart across the path. She was prepared to answer any questions to fill in the gaps. But she wasn’t prepared for Caleb Brown, perched among the heavy branches of the dead elm, watching her with those steely gray eyes. She stopped and stared back at him, the silence thick but this time not uncomfortable. He knew, and today, so would she.
“We need to talk,” she said.
“We need to talk,” she said.
Caleb closed his eyes and jumped from the tree, landing gracefully just in front of her. “You already know. You just need to let go.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets and turned away from her. Daisy had already walked away from him and his answers once before. She wasn’t about to let him get away this time.
“Wait.” She grabbed his elbow and Caleb froze, as if her touch caused him the same tremors she felt in her own body. His arm was solid and it surprised her. Some part of her thought he might be intangible like the early morning mist over the field. “If you won’t tell me, can you show me?”
Caleb assessed her briefly and then he turned toward the forest. He drew a breath and let it out in a cloud of gray. “I can try.”
Caleb led Daisy through the woods on a path she knew by heart. Over a small stream that would soon turn to ice, and through the thickets part of the trees on a trail worn down by her own two feet. Her practical side told her it was unwise to follow him so far from anyone. Though Caleb had lived next door to her for years, she hardly knew him, and that had always been the way she preferred it, until today. Today Daisy wanted to know his secrets. Her secrets.
She wanted to ask where he was taking her, but she already knew, just like he’d said. She knew, she just had to let go. “Let go of what?”
“Yourself,” was all he said, and then he stopped and looked up. Daisy followed his gaze to the tops of the trees where an entire flock of crows covered the branches. They sat still, watching her watching them. Not one would caw, not one would move. “Look at them,” Caleb whispered, as if he were afraid to speak too loud, lest the birds come crashing down like a heavy snow. “Let go and let them show you.”
Daisy stared at the birds, wondering how they could possibly show her anything. They were just birds, she told herself. And she was just a girl with a sleep disorder.
“Let go,” Caleb whispered in her ear, startling her with his closeness and the way his voice tickled her skin.
She closed her eyes, controlled her breathing, and steadied her heartbeat. She could feel the eyes of every bird, but instead of weighing her down, she felt lifted. She felt like she could perch beside them and be accepted as one of them. When she opened her eyes, she was met with Caleb’s smile.
She remembered everything.
It began in the spring, when the elm was newly stripped and the crows were dark lumps on its charred branches. Instead of going through the yards on her way to school, Daisy gave the old tree a wide berth. The early morning air was cutting and it would have been faster to pass through Caleb’s yard, but it wasn’t worth it to walk beneath the old bones of the tree.
So when she paused and held out her hand to feel for rain, she should have noticed how odd it was that an elm seed landed in the center of her palm. At the time, it had only been a strange irritation. And as she closed her fingers around the seed’s delicate skirt, a crow said caw.
That was the first night she’d woken in the forest with nothing on but her old Muppet Show t-shirt and sweats that weren’t meant for outdoor use. But now she also knew that it was the first night she’d stood outside a circle of crows.
They flew one after another, beak to tail to beak, all of them diving forward and falling back. Each night it was the same; crows flying in a constant circle. At first, there were only twenty, but over the summer more had come. And more and more until there had been so many Daisy couldn’t see to tell them apart. They flew in a ring. The only noise about them was the beating of their feathers and the rush of wind.
Sometimes she would close her eyes and the sound of their flight, the feel of their passing, gave her the sense of flying with them. And sometimes she would stare until they were nothing but a smear black in the moonlight. She always stayed: to watch, to listen, and to protect them as they focused on the task at hand.
But even now she didn’t know what that task was. Caleb’s smile was pleased by also devious when she turned her face back to him.
“Good,” he said and he squinted up at the rising sun. The light fell in streaks across his face, revealing and hiding in equal parts. “Tonight will be the last.”
* * *
That night, Daisy woke to the caw, caw, caw of a crow just outside her window. She was already prepared for a night out in the elements, but she grabbed a hoodie from the back of her desk chair before moving silently through the house and out the back door. It was more than a little amazing to think that she’d done this so well in her sleep that neither of her parents had caught on. That either said something about her future as a spy or her parents’ anti-anxiety meds.
Her breath came in short, white puffs as she jogged around to the front of her house. She’d expected to find Caleb waiting for her by the lurching elm, but there were only crows and the cold quiet of night.
A single crow jumped into the air, its wings spread wide, and glided into the forest. The others followed, one by one like bows on a kite string.
Daisy followed and even though they soon disappeared in the shadows, she knew where to go. She could find it in her sleep, she thought wryly.
The clearing wasn’t far from the place she and Caleb had visited earlier in the day. Just behind the small creek and through a copse of old, gnarled elms, she emerged from the shadowed woods to find the clearing full of moonlight and more crows than she’d ever seen in one place. They stood at irregular intervals, each one a dark star against the grass, and each one looking at her.
Daisy didn’t move. Mostly because there was no clear pathway ahead of her and she wasn’t prepared for kicking crows, but partly because she knew it wasn’t time.
In the center of the clearing, a pale figure crouched. His head hung down and, Daisy realized, he was stark naked. Without seeing his face, she knew it was Caleb. She started to call out, to make sure he was okay, but he lifted his head and stood.
The crows all leapt into the air. They darted toward him, beating their wings furiously to gain speed, diving over and over each other to be the first to reach him. Daisy ran after them, trying to keep him in her sight, suddenly aware of what was about to happen. The crows flew and she ran, but the crows were faster. They swept around him in a continuous ring. Their wings thundering through the air and blotting him from her view.
She reached out, pulling back in pain. Blood in her palm where a beak cut it open. She cried out, “Caleb! Caleb!” But there was no response except for the beating of wings and the shushing of air.
When it was over, the birds slowed in their circle and landed all around her. Caleb was nowhere to be found. In his place, standing on a pile of his old clothes, was a crow.
* * *
The first streaks of dawn were climbing from the horizon when Daisy left the forest. She felt the crows settle into the sagging branches of the elm. There was one more now, than there had been before. Not that anyone but her would notice.
She jogged the short distance to her doorstep and paused to glance back at the dark shapes in the tree. They were waiting for her. She knew. It thrummed in her like wingbeat. Come play. Come play. Come play.
She turned the knob and pushed the door open just a hair. “Soon,” she said, and closed the door behind her.