Cheeseburgers tasted better than I ever imagined they would.
I wolfed down my first one and immediately asked for another. My uncle went up to the lady at the register, bought it, and then brought it back to me, wrapped in yellow paper with a big curvy ‘M’ printed on it. The melted cheese, tangy pickles, and warm, soft meat melded together into one delicious mass in my mouth. Uncle Martin had also gotten us each a large fry and drink. He had let me pick any of the carbonated sodas that I wanted, and I got to push the button under the Cherry Coke, and watch the sweet bubbling liquid fill to the brim.
It had been my first time at McDonald’s, and I was enjoying the experience. I liked the cushy seats of the booths, and the flat, laminate tables. The whole place was bright and colorful, and the golden fries were crisp and warm, perfectly salted.
“Now,” Uncle Martin said, in between mouthfuls of his Big Mac, “I think we both know that it would be best if your mom didn’t find out I took you here. She’d only get mad at both of us. How about we just tell her we went to Subway instead?”
“But wouldn’t that be lying?”
“Yeah, I suppose. But sometimes, a little white lie is necessary to make things simpler.”
“You mean like when you told me you’d build me my treehouse?” I had him, and he knew it.
My uncle set down his burger. “Hold on now sport, didn’t I say I wasn’t able to?”
“You said you’d try. And you didn’t.” I was looking down at the table, and my half-finished cheeseburger, and would not meet his gaze. I could see him out of the corner of my eye though, head bent down, trying to catch my eye.
“Hey,” he said. “you aren’t mad at me, are you?”
I didn’t answer. It should have been very clear to him, whether or not I was mad.
My uncle sat back against the cushioned booth, and let out a loud breath of air through his nostrils. I picked up my burger, took another bite and then some fries.
“Well then,” he said. “I guess we’ll just have to try then. I won’t promise it’ll be as good as the one your dad built for you, but I’ll do the best I can. Deal?” He stuck out his hand, and this time I made eye contact with him.
I shook my uncle’s hand. His fingers wrapped all the way around mine, and my hand disappeared for a moment under soft, pudgy flesh. I didn’t think that he was lying this time, at least, I hoped that he wasn’t. He seemed genuinely sorry, and I wanted to believe and forgive him then.
Later, when we were in the truck again on our way back, my uncle glanced over at me. “Say,” he said. “I meant to ask, what happened to your hand? Your mom mentioned something about it, but she wasn’t very specific.”
I told him the whole story. How I had wandered off alone in the woods by the graveyard where my father was buried, to follow the raven when I shouldn’t have, and how it had led me to the stone circle in the grass, and bitten my hand. I could feel my voice shaking as I spoke. My hand was throbbing again. And memories of the black-as-night raven triggered memories of my dream last night, which had truly frightened me.
“You’re scared,” my uncle said. “I would be too, if it had happened to me. But you know what’s the best thing to do when you’re scared?”
I shook my head. I did not know.
“You go back, to whatever it was that made you afraid, and you look it straight in the eye, and you don’t back down. That’s what a man does, he faces his fears. And that’s what you’re going to do.”
I didn’t know what my uncle had in mind, but we didn’t turn down Sunny Lane, and kept driving past the big brown steeple. At a stop sign we took a left. On my right was a large apartment complex that I recognized, and then I knew exactly where we were going, and my heart shot up to my throat. There wasn’t anything to do about it. I knew that my Uncle Martin had already made his decision, was determined to go through with what I’m sure he thought would become a bonding moment between the two of us.
We took a right down the narrow winding strip of road that led to the small chapel where we had had my father’s memorial service. The truck came to a stop in the small lot. My uncle opened his door and stepped out, but I kept my seatbelt on.
He came around to my side of the truck and opened the passenger door.
“Let’s go,” he said. “Come on, it’ll be okay. I’m right here with ya.”
I reluctantly undid my seatbelt, stepped down from out of the truck, and followed my uncle onto the dirt path that ran through the graveyard.
“You lead the way,”my uncle said.
I did. I walked right down the middle of that dirt path, and tried my hardest not to be scared. Headstones stood to the right and the left, and, a couple rows away, I could see my father’s grave, but I did not stop to go over to it. I knew that if I stopped at all it would be all the more difficult to continue.
We left the path and the graveyard behind, and walked into the tall grassy meadow toward the wood. As we neared the line of trees, we passed flowers and bushes and weeds. I spotted a plant with long green shoots, and small white buds in clusters at the ends, and veered over to it.
It was upright bedstraw, I was nearly sure of it. We hadn’t brought any back to Ms. Cleary last time, had been too distracted by what had happened. I grabbed a handful of buds and stuffed them in my pocket, and kept walking.
“What was that?” my uncle asked. I just shrugged my shoulders, and didn’t say anything.
We moved in through the line of trees, and into the woods. I followed the way there as best as I could remember, but I wasn’t sure that I was going the right way. I wasn’t following anything but my own memory this time. The underbrush was becoming thick again, which was something I did remember. Burrs stuck to my pants as I pushed through the bushes, and I heard my uncle snapping twigs and pushing aside branches behind me.
We came out on the other side of the tangle of bushes, and we were there, in the clearing. The ring of stones was there too, but the raven was nowhere to be seen.
“So this is it, huh?” said my uncle. He stepped into the circle. “Well, I don’t see any black birds, but this is pretty neat. I wonder how these stones got here like this.”
I stayed just outside the ring, on the edges of the old, jagged stones. My uncle turned around to face me.
“You see?” he said. “ Sometimes things are just scarier when we’re alone. It doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?Aren’t you glad you came back?”
It was then that I heard a loud screech from above, and the raven came streaking out from the trees.
It was headed right towards me, and I could not move, was frozen in terror, and sure that the bird would stab me right in the heart with its great beak. As it got closer I thought and hoped, in the last second, that my uncle would be able to do something to save me.
The bird was no more than a foot away from me when it suddenly veered up and away, flapping madly. I thought it had changed its mind, or was just trying to scare me, but then it came back, again zooming straight at me, and again stopped abruptly, and changing direction. I knew it was trying to get at me, but couldn’t for some reason. I reached down under my shirt, and felt the silver coin at my chest. It was warm again, not its usual icy metal chill, and I knew that it was what was keeping me safe from the raven.
The raven disappeared through the trees again, back where it had come from, and I let out a sigh of relief. I had faced my fear, like my uncle had wanted me to, and I was ready to be done with that place again.
I looked over to my uncle, who had been watching as the raven tried to attack me, and was still standing there in the stone circle, next to the smooth, small boulder in the center.
“You see?” he said. “That thing doesn’t want to hurt you. You probably scared it, got too close to its nest. Birds are very protective of their eggs, you know.”
As he was talking I was looking over his shoulder, where the raven was launching yet another attack, but this time heading straight for my Uncle Martin. I tried to get his attention, and started yelling and pointing behind him. He turned around, but it was too late.
The raven hit my uncle right in the chest. Except, it did less than hit him. there was no impact. Instead, the dark bird went through him, and disappeared into my uncle. There must have been a great amount of force behind the raven, however, for my uncle flew back and struck the ground hard, hitting his head on one of the outer stones. I saw blood, and I ran.
I ran as fast as I could, pushing through the brambles and branches, the second time I had run for my life from that place. And now my uncle was dead. I was sure of it. I would not go back again, ever. I ran until my legs were sore and my lungs burned, and I gulped for breath with every step I took.
And as I ran all the way towards the tall fence and back to my home, I could hear the sounds of the wicked raven in my head, crowing and clucking and laughing in triumph.