2 – Riley Crow
Riley Crow was navigating through the morning sky on a routine mission over Evolsdog. Scrutinizing the rivers and surrounding land mass, he was constantly on a search for signs of insurrection and ready to take action. He was flanked by a squadron of crows, three on each side, all following his lead. Without warning, a bright red object shot through the sky to strike the earth. Riley thought it was a meteorite at first. But no trail of smoke was detected. He dove down to investigate the meadow with his squadron in tight formation, swooping over land which appeared unscorched. Animals scurried into hiding, alarmed by his presence. Riley’s objective on these missions was to stir things up and let the lowlanders know they were under surveillance. He took pride in his airborne unit, a disciplined mob, uniformed in black shiny wings as tough as leather but as elegant as flowing capes. Their tapered beaks and booted claws were polished, weapon sharp. They wore helmets to keep themselves hooded and protected against the harsh elements. And to guard against flying debris, their deep-set eyes were goggled. They generated fear like a squadron of spitfires or a motorcycle gang with their raucous squawking as they circled about. Seeing nothing below to entertain them, they flew off, disgruntled.
Riley took rest by landing in the tallest pine tree on the topmost branch. His crew fought and jostled for position on the lower limbs. Their commotion agitated his mind and he let out a nasty squawk. He was trying to ignore the turbulent visions that haunted him 24/7. He found it impossible to sit still long. As hard as he tried, he could not shake the strange notion that he was something other than what he was – a crow. He pecked at his feathers, as if to fix and disguise visible flaws, obsessively inspecting for chinks in his armor. Any sign of weakness could destroy his leadership. He had a phobia of losing power, which he sensed was mentally eroding him like some poison, eating away at his churning gut too. He flinched at the phantom flickers of gunfire and screams coming from nameless faces smeared like blood across the dark interior of his mind – causing him to lurch off the branch.
Taking flight helped dispel these spectors that pestered his mind and blindsided him each time he stopped to rest. He had a nagging suspicion that something wasn’t right in the world, which made him soar off toward the island. His squad, caught off guard dozing and preening, were now struggling with frantic wing-beats to catch up and reassemble behind him.
Riley’s instincts had proven correct. A breach in security was in progress. He spotted Wyatt T. Frog aiding and abetting the enemy – attempting to smuggle a foreign entity dressed in red through the gates of Evolsdog.
Kat was running to keep up with Wyatt who was nearly midway across the bridge when Riley swooped down in front of them. He made his grand entrance theatrically costumed in his flowing cape, as if alighting onto a stage, landing with aplomb to intervene. His cronies clattered behind him onto the bridge’s railing and walkway. With a critical glance at his supporting cast, his chorus of buffoons, Riley tucked his wings behind his back and looked darkly upon the intruders through the mask of his hooded eyes.
“Well—well—well…” Riley squawked.
Wyatt was annoyed by the intrusion. “Get out of my way.”
“And what have we here?”
“A girl. I found her in the meadow.”
“You found her? Like a stray pet you decided to keep?”
“She’s lost,” said Wyatt. “I am trying to help her.”
“Oh I see that.” Riley’s said pointedly, “You know the rules.”
“Your rules, you mean,” said Wyatt.
“Precisely.” With no further explanation needed, Riley poked his beak at Kat for a closer inspection – startling her.
“Leave her alone,” said Wyatt.
“And why would I do that?” Riley circled Kat. “This creature does not belong here.”
“Back off,” said Wyatt.
“Look how tiny she is.” Riley, taller than both Wyatt and Kat, lowered his head and poked his nose into her face. “The operative word here is small. Or little. Petite.”
Wyatt stepped between them, “Point taken, Riley. Her size and appearance here is unusual, I agree. But—”
“Caw-ha!” Riley crowed, “You agree! She is not one of us.”
Wyatt appeared nonchalant but his fingers balled into fists inside his pockets. “Stop trying to win all the time.”
“Homeland security is about winning — all the time.” Riley’s beady eyes darkened, challenging Wyatt with a militant squint.
In his pockets Wyatt found acorns he had brought for lunch. The nubs of his fingers scooped them up to serve as a peace offering. Riley eyed the nuts suspiciously. Wyatt tossed them onto the bridge and Riley jumped back in alarm as if they were miniature grenades. The acorns scattered and rolled about and the other crows squawked and shielded themselves with their wings.
When nothing exploded, the crows dove to confiscate the nuts. Except for Riley, who squawked: “Stop, lads! Those nuts may be poisoned!”
“Oh–my–God.” Kat was unable to contain her amusement and blurted a little laugh, quickly covering her mouth.
Riley thrust his face at her as if threatening to bite her head, snapping, then opening his beak. “What is so funny?”
She was tickled by the realization. “You. You’re a crow!”
Riley took umbrage. “I… am the Gatekeeper!”
“And resident pest,” added Wyatt.
“Protector of Evolsdog,” clarified Riley.
“Town bully,” grumbled Wyatt.
“Head of security.”
“Chief of Police!”
Wyatt sighed, “Why is she a threat?”
“Look what she’s wearing.” Riley scowled. “It’s a red flag!”
Kat pinched the sides of her dress. “It’s a pinafore.”
“Pin–a–fore!? She’s speaking in code!”
“A pinafore—you fool,” said Wyatt, “is a dress.”
Riley hopped over to squawk at his comrades. “Why was I not informed of this? Why—Why—Why?”
Wyatt took advantage of their squabbling by grasping Kat by the arm to sneak past them. Riley spun around.
“Halt! You are not to walk. Only talk. ”
“Get out of my way,” said Wyatt.
“You call that a threat?” Riley mocked. “About as threatening as your art. What is it? Surrealism? Abstraction? Impressionistic? Like you, Wyatt. You exist in concept only. Caw-ha!”
Wyatt managed a smile. “Let’s see what Wick has to say.”
“Wick!?” Riley began to hop from side to side to prevent Wyatt and Kat from advancing. “Wick is an ignoramus.”
“Who’s Wick?” asked Kat.
“No concern of yours,” said Riley. “Who are you?”
“I’m Kat,” said Kat.
“Liar,” said Riley. “You are not a cat.”
“Wick is our Prime Minister,” said Wyatt.
“And an imbecile.” Riley stopped to rest.
“That’s a rude thing to say of someone,” said Kat.”
“Is it? Then let me rephrase,” said Riley, “our Prime Minister is mentally deficient.”
“That’s saying the same thing,” Kat said.
Riley cackled, “Right you are! Our Prime Minister is a complete moron! I am beginning to warm to this little girl, Wyatt.”
“May we proceed?” said Wyatt.
“Wait–wait–wait.” Riley expanded his wings to duck his head and scratch his nose against the collar of his cape to signal he was contemplating the matter. “There have been rumors. Stories of these sorts of occurrences. A little girl now. But once inside—oh yes!—she could blow up—become huge—gigantic! She could be a virus created to destroy us all!”
“Or…” said Wyatt, “this could be your paranoia talking.”
Riley snapped back, “My—what!?”
“Irrational fear and distrust of others,” said Kat.
Riley snarled at her, “I know that! Do you know what the word rhetorical means? My reaction was to insinuate that if your colorful new pal here ever calls me that again… he… well, he had better not. You lack the foresight to comprehend the things I have seen.”
“What are you implying?” said Wyatt.
“Seeing you, sneaking into the outer woods and meadows where it’s forbidden to go! Where you can be seen by you-know-who.”
“Who?” said Kat.
Riley ignored her. “You have become a liability.”
“Meaning?” said Wyatt.
“You’re a subversive. What’s your real game, Wyatt?”
Wyatt indicated Kat. “As I told you, I’m simply trying to—”
Riley spun around, acting like an interrogator at an inquisition. “Admit it, Wyatt! You are an undercover agent engaged in a covert operation to expose and destroy Evolsdog!”
“Don’t be an idiot,” said Wyatt.
“Or what? Have me tortured?”
Riley reeled on his booted heels to laugh. “There is no need for that kind of accusation. Torture is a sad misconception. Like death. And each poor soul who is brought back to the illusion of having had a life? Few are very pleased about their revival, I can assure you. I receive top security reports from informants. Reliable sources to confirm my findings. To justify torture!”
“Are you finished?” said Wyatt.
“Once you have admitted to being a spy,” said Riley.
“I’m an artist,” said Wyatt.
“I’ve tortured others for less,” said Riley.
The crows burst into raucous laughter and hopped about.
“Tear them to shreds, lads! Caw-ha!”
As the crows crept forward Wyatt removed his beret and flung it off the bridge. The crows compulsively dove after it. Wyatt shook his head and told Kat, “Riley can be incredibly irritating.”
“Are we in danger?” she asked.
“Riley is a danger only to himself.”
The crows reemerged on the bridge squabbling as Riley chastised them for abandoning their posts. “You’re on report! Tricked by an evasive tactic. A classic textbook technique used by all self-admitted artists. Whose vocation, by definition, is to manipulate, to deceive!”
This unruly behavior reminded Kat of an incident at home, when a murder of crows had flown down to toy with her pet labrador who was sleeping in their backyard. The crows kept flying down to peck at its head. As if in play. Bullying, really The memory incited Kat to step forward and poke Riley’s feathered coat from behind.
“Why are you so nasty?”
Riley squawked and swung around. “Who says I am?”
“I do. You’re a crow, aren’t you?”
Riley sensed her question to be a ruse. “What if I was?”
“Crows are supposed to be smart,” said Kat.
Riley beamed. “Then I must be a crow.”
“Then why are you acting just the opposite.”
Wyatt croaked a laugh.
Riley bristled, pausing to smooth his ruffled feathers, pretending to be unfazed. “Have you heard the adage about those who reach the pinnacle of intelligence? It goes like this: The sharper one becomes, the quicker they can snap!”
Kat jumped back as Riley snapped his beak at her.
“So back off, little girl!”
Kat blanched, fearing for her life.
“Caw-ha!” Riley squawked, “Cat got your tongue?”
“Leave her alone,” said Wyatt.
Riley flung his goggles back to glare at Kat. “Scared?”
“A little, yes,” she admitted.
“Good. Consider fear your friend.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” challenged Kat.
Riley brought his head close to hers. “Fear keeps you safe.” Kat held her ground. Riley raised his head, arching an eyebrow. “A friend you hate, and wish to lose – but need to have around.”
“I suppose like you?” said Kat. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Riley was bemused. “Wee girl, do you bite too?”
Clattering onto the railing flew a crow with Wyatt’s beret held in its beak. Riley snatched it. “What are you – a dog? You fetch like one.” Riley tossed Wyatt his hat. He swung back at Kat. “And you. What are you? A cat? Hah! Pretending to be this—this—little girl. What’s up with that?”
“But I am a—”
“Silence! Look at where you stand.”
Riley pointed with an outstretched wing toward the meadow. “Upon the cusp of time. The ghost of yesterday not far behind.” He swung his other wing toward the swirling mist at the opposite end of the bridge. “With your tomorrow cascading ahead, yet misaligned.”
“Stop being dramatic,” said Wyatt.
“I wasn’t talking to you.”
“Misaligned?” said Kat.
“You are positioned wrongly in time,” said Riley.
Kat looked forward then backward. “Are you saying this bridge and waterfall represents present time, where I am now, as opposed to my past and future?”
“Precisely,” nodded Riley. “It was a metaphor.”
“Make your point,” said Wyatt.
“I am making my point,” said Riley.
“Are you telling me to choose which way to go?” said Kat.
“No–no–no,” Riley hopped for emphasis. “You have reached the point of no return. You are not meant to be here nor there!”
“Then where I am supposed to be?”
“You are missing the point.”
Kat cupped a hand to whisper to Wyatt, “Is he mad?”
“Yes–I–am–mad!” cried Riley. “You keep missing my point.”
“But Mr. Crow—”
“Riley,” said Kat. “I can’t see your point.”
“The point is…” Riley sighed. “You do not want to enter.”
“Then where am I supposed to go!?”
“Again—not the point.” Riley threw up his wings.
“I feel more lost than ever,” sighed Kat.
“Good,” said Riley. “In order to be found you need to be lost. Finally, you are getting somewhere.”
Kat shot back, “I am getting nowhere—thanks to you!”
“Poppycock, you are making tremendous progress.”
Kat clutched her head and shook it, “This is all very confusing. When I woke up I didn’t know where I was, or how I got here. Now I’m beginning to wonder if I even know who I am.”
“Caw-ha, stupendous!” crowed Riley. “Now you are—”
“Oh, be quiet!” Kat pushed past Riley, squawking with the other crows who fluttered noisily but parted as she walked to the center of the bridge. She stopped to observe both the swirling mist rising and water falling. The sensation made her feel as if she was riding on a platform ascending into heaven.
Wyatt approached from behind with a hop-skip-and-a-jump.
She asked him, “What did you say this place was called?”
Wyatt pointed towards an arched sign spanning the far end of the bridge. It was partially obscured by the swirling mist. Sunlight shone on the letters that said:
Riley reappeared, materializing through the mist to swoop down and land on the railing beside them.
“Not you again,” said Kat.
“Me again,” said Riley.
“Please don’t tell me you’re coming along.”
Riley narrowed his eyes. “I will not be coming along.”
“You’re lying,” said Kat.
“I am telling you what you wanted to hear.”
Wyatt whispered to her, “You see what I wanted to avoid?”
Riley began preening his feathers, but stopping to say, “Enter at your own risk. You have been forewarned. It is my sworn duty to protect and serve. The reason I am here is for your own good.”
Kat scoffed, “As in someone to fear?”
Riley chuckled. “I like her, Wyatt. She is feisty!”