"Thirteen hundred dollars? I.. don't think I can do that right now," says Martha. For God's sake, she's just met this guy—what's his name? Yes, Conor. And he's already dishing up financial ultimatums.
"Hey, sorry, okay, I should probably back up a little."
Okay, maybe he's not so bad.
"I just moved in and I've got to prioritize some things, and this hedge right here is priority number two, right after number one, which was the dry rot in the bathroom."
Martha can't remember seeing anyone with eyes the color of Conor's. Like a storm on the horizon as you're standing on a beach, they were saucers of cobalt grey with an undertow of green. She awkwardly forces her stare away from his face. "Yeah, I understand how it is when you move into a place. You see a million projects that need to be done, and... "
"Yeah, well, listen Marla... "
"It's Martha... "
"Right, anyway, I'm not trying to be new asshole on the block here, but this hedge is encroaching on the cable between the telephone pole and my house." Martha watches Conor's eyes, which are apparently having a side conversation with her breasts. "Technically, this pig of a plant is one hundred percent on your property. And nothing makes little Conor crabbier than waking up to no ESPN in the morning because of some goddamn dinosaur plant."
Too late, Conor, thinks Martha, you just won new asshole on the block in a landslide. She takes a step backwards toward her house and shrugs at the ground."You know, right now, I just can't afford $650. I'm really sorry, I can pay you back in instal.. "
"Not to worry, Marla.. er Martha." Conor bounds swiftly toward her, landing inches from her face. "I'll spring for this one. It's no harder than finding the right two Mexicans to do it." The eye/breast conversation re-ignites, like a couple of junior diplomats making ground at a Starbucks while their bosses drink the good stuff back at the hotel and solve nothing. "I'm sure we can think of something."
Before Martha can quite process the innuendo, the sky erupts in the cries of a thousand crows. As if pulled along, Martha follows their darting swirl up the street where a teeming cluster of blackness is assembled, hopping and yakking into a pitched frenzy.
They hop sideways, clearing a path for her. It isn't until she's kneeling next to the injured crow that Martha realizes—the street has grown silent. A baby, or at least an adolescent. squirms on the ground spinning awkwardly on a bent leg.
"It's okay, honey." She carefully slides her palms under its body and scoops it up. Wow, heavier than she'd have thought. "Come here. That's right."
"Are you kidding me?" she hears Conor yell, apparently still back by the controversial hedge. "That's disgusting! It's a crow, for God's sake!"
Martha passes Conor, concentrating so hard that at first she pays no attention. "I said, what are you doing with that bird?"
Gently brushing the crow's flossy crown with her finger, Martha says, "I'm taking him inside."
"You can't be serious."
"I'm serious as all hell, Conor. It's either that or look out my front window and wait for him to get smashed by a car." She looks down and whispers, "We're gonna get you all fixed up, Sweetie. Yes we are." The baby's parents skittishly hop alongside Martha.
"You're like a crazy cat lady," yells Conor, "Holy shit, but you're a crow lady, which is even weirder."
Martha slams the door behind her.
Within a week, both the bird and the hedge are doing much better. After an hour's worth of Internet scouring, Martha has fashioned a splint for his leg out of doubled-up masking tape. His nest is a plastic kiddie pool filled with newspapers, sticks and towels. He's so much more cuddly than she'd imagined, burrowing his fuzzy head into her whenever nestles him close. "You are a little sweetheart, aren't you my Cameron."
She carries him to the window and examines the hedge. Apparently Conor has managed to find "the right Mexicans" and it not only looks a lot better but is safely trimmed back from his stupid cable. Jackass. Shit, speaking of jackass, there he is.
From around the hedge comes Conor, right up into Martha's yard.
Shit, he's coming over. Just be nice, Martha tells herself. Maybe you misjudged the guy. Placing Cameron back in his nest, she girds herself for an uninvited visit from her new neighbor. Before she registers the six-pack dangling from Conor's arm, a shiny object glints from the mat next to his foot.
"Hey, uh, I just wanted to say sorry about the other day," says Conor. "I was a little rude and thought I'd stop by with a little piece offering." He hoists the beer up. "Hope you like Belgian."
Martha bends down to examine the jewel. It's a burgundy stone, translucent and cool in her palm. "Oh, thanks." She straightens up. "That's very nice of you. Sorry, I'm a little distracted lately. My baby crow's parents—I call them Agatha and Brutus—they're always leaving me stuff... buttons, paper clips. Sometimes I give them scraps of food or bring Cameron outside for them to see. Oh, um," she twisted the doorknob, "do you want to come in?"
"Absolutely." Conor walks into the kitchen and slams the six pack on the counter. He bangs around in the drawers.
"Looking for a bottle opener?" Side of the fridge."
Conor hurriedly pries open two beers chased by the clack of caps on her floor. Still holding Martha's beer, he pulls a gurgling gulp of Belgian followed by a robust belch. "'Scuse me." Conor yanks out one of Martha's mismatched kitchen chairs and tilts backward, splaying his legs as he drains the beer. "Oh, yeah, here you go. Cheers."
He hops up, grabs another brown bottle and re-splays himself while Martha stands in the living room. Should I sit at the table? That would imply a lengthier visit. Think I'll stay here for now.
"You single?" asks Conor.
"You seem like the single type."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You know, you're a crazy crow lady—one of those women that are so lonely they adopt wild animals and treat them like children. Shouldn't you take that thing to a wild animal vet or something?"
Martha sets her beer on the counter and folds her arms. "Right, like I could afford that." She walks to the corner to pick up Cameron, startled by another bottle cap clacking on the linoleum.
At the kitchen table, a tinny version of Golden Years seeps from Conor's phone, his palm slapping rhythmically against his inner thigh. "You like Bowie?"
"Who doesn't? Martha cradles Cameron, focusing on the other guy in the room, who in five minutes drank three beers and camped in her kitchen like it was his. Jackass meter definitely trending upward. "Hey, Conor, listen, I'm really sorry, but I need to get up super early for work tomorrow. Thanks for the beer and really thanks for the hedge. I can pay you $100 a month. It would take a year but... "
"Yeah, about that." Conor slowly rises from his chair. "Like I said, there are other ways to pay me back." His stormy eyes burn into hers as slowly lifts his finger up under her chin. "More satisfying ways."
Martha slides around him, back into the living room, She's still clutching Cameron. "I'm not interested, Conor."
"Come on, I've seen how you look at me."
"You need to go."
Conor's eyes dart back and forth, at her, at the crow—at the beer, of which he grabs the last two off the counter. "Fine," he unpredictably chuckles. "We'll work on some other type of arrangement. Have a nice evening, crow lady."
He leaves the door open and Martha hears Agatha's distant caw.
She brings Cameron into her bedroom that night. The stench of Conor's Belgian beer breath and whatever shitty cologne he was wearing still permeates her nostrils. Hugging Cameron like a teddy bear, she stares at the ceiling. "I swear to God, Cameron, if that asshole sets foot on my property again, I'm calling the cops.
She so wants to call her mom, wants to spill her guts about the psycho next door. But naturally she can't, unless of course she's prepared for a sixty-something roommate with arthritis in her left knee and more than a good word of advice.
A gun, maybe? Yes, definitely maybe. Something worth considering further in the morning. Martha finally drifts off around two, still cradling Cameron.
Awakening thirstily after a fitful sleep, Martha rises and places Cameron back in his kiddie pool. As she shuffles over to close the front blinds, her vision seems deceitful. For some reason, her driveway looks to be piled with foliage, with mounds upon mounds of leaves.
She flicks on the porch light. "Oh, my God." It's not a spectral mirage, though. Her driveway is filled two feet high with trimmings. All down Martha's property line stands the skeletal remains of the hedge. No heavy foliage, just a brown tangle extending the entire length of her driveway. "That son of a bitch!"
Lizard brain fully inflamed, Martha bolts down her steps and up to Conor's front porch. Her finger jabs the doorbell, but that's not hard enough so she gives it a nice rabbit kick. The door swings open to Conor, squinting and spiky haired. "What? What do you want?" His light blue boxers hitch up between his thighs.
"You know what I want, you prick! You mangled my hedge and left your shit in my driveway!"
"Not sure what you're talking about. Let's talk in the morn... "
"You asshole, you did this! Just admit it!"
The fog in Conor's grey eyes slowly abates while he stares unblinking. "Okay, Martha, I'll admit it, I enjoy a bit of late night gardening every so often." He tilts his head and stepped toward her. "But tell me—what are you going to do about it?" He laughs as the door slowly closes.
Punching her heel into the fake wood, Conor is thrown back into a semi-crab walk. He lurches at her, hugging her, pulling her face toward his. "Let go!" Martha knees him in the thigh and breaks free, but her grabs her again, jamming his face into hers, cramming his tongue down her throat. She bites down.
Wedging herself away again, Martha sprints back to her house, the breath of her pursuer scorching her back. She leaps two, three steps at a time to the door, throwing it open and jamming his meaty fingers between metal and wood. She lets up just enough to let him yank it out, slamming and bolting the door in half a heartbeat.
She bangs her shin on the stupid IKEA end table as she lunges for her phone. Somewhere between the 9-1 and 1, Martha hears him scream. It's not the scream of a kicked shin, nor of jammed fingers, nor even of a clench to the groin.
Flicking on the porch light, Martha opens the door to see Conor lying next to her rhododendron, the one that always blooms in February, howling and gripping his bloodied face. Staring up at her from the welcome mat are Agatha and Brutus. Such a strange time for a gift. Agatha's beak glistens with clear goop as Brutus rolls up their latest offering before her like a dog with a tennis ball.
Conor's stormy grey eye never looked so beautiful.