Fiction by Dave Gregory
Lucas relaxes on his front porch, reading, and is jarred by a sudden pulse and buzz from his phone. An Amber Alert glows on his screen. Every working cellphone, across the province, simultaneously receives the same urgent text message.
Twelve million people read together: an eight-year-old boy is missing. The suspect drives a beige Toyota.
Lucas abandons the novel, forgets to place a bookmark, and wonders how to help. He pictures his grandchildren’s innocent faces. They are five and seven – and safe – yet his stomach clenches and he holds his forehead as he re-reads every word.
Most often these alerts come at night, when a divorced dad, in a distant city, abducts his own child. Few who get the message can actually help, most resent the intrusion, many curse, and a handful of idiots dial 9-1-1 to complain. But this is different. It’s mid-afternoon. The suspect is a thirty-six-year-old, single, male schoolteacher, a family friend of the victim. The boy was last seen two blocks from Lucas’ porch – literally on the other side of the tracks. Lucas knows those townhouses. Ten years ago, his son considered leasing one and moving back to Cedar Hill after university.
A police siren blares in the distance, another wails from the opposite direction. One by one, front doors open and people emerge. They check unlikely places – backyards, garages, garbage bins – then gather on sidewalks, to talk and speculate.
Though only two lanes wide, Courtland Avenue is a busy street. Highway onramps are just around the bend. Regardless of the model, whenever a light-shaded vehicle passes – whether white, powder blue, silver, or pale yellow – people stare at the driver, then consult their phones to check whether the license plate matches the one in the alert.
A stocky man with a slight paunch, wearing a green European football jersey, exits the house on Lucas’ left. He moved in four years ago but Lucas has never met him. The green-shirted man coughs twice, then looks at the school, directly across the street. His stance is that of a boxer, staring down his opponent prior to a fight.
The man approaches Ha-Joon, a young, dark-haired fellow who rents the basement apartment and grows vegetables, indoors, beneath purple lights that blaze in his window, night and day, every winter. Lucas met Ha-Joon once, eighteen months earlier.
Greenshirt says, “We should check the dumpster behind the school. Search the whole yard, maybe.”
Ha-Joon nods emphatically. The pair cross the street before Lucas can offer to join them. They disappear around the side of the school.
Five minutes pass before Lucas finds the page he was reading but he can’t focus. He thinks of the missing boy, a stranger, imagines him terrified, trapped in a car trunk, tasting his own tears.
After fifteen minutes, Ha-Joon and Greenshirt emerge from behind the school and join a dozen concerned residents who’ve gathered near the building. “He teaches here. The predator.” Greenshirt’s voice carries across the road during a traffic-free moment. “My daughter says that’s his classroom there.” He points to a darkened room on the upper floor. It’s summer. Behind those tall windows, all the rooms are dark, yet one is somehow bleaker than the others.
From the lawn of a low-rise apartment beside the school, a young couple points skyward. An old woman walking her dog, stops and looks up. So does a blonde jogger.
Greenshirt also raises his arm. “Vultures.”
The porch roof blocks Lucas’ view. He stands, moves to the rail, and sees three large black birds, wings extended, tilted in a tight, menacing circle, high above the school. He feels their hunger. Optimism dims. Worried concern shifts to morbid panic.
Lucas doubts there are vultures in southern Ontario. He looks it up on his phone and discovers Greenshirt may be right. Although hawks or crows are more likely, turkey vultures are steadily expanding their habitat northward.
“The schoolyard is clear,” Greenshirt confirms. “Maybe something’s dying on the roof.”
A woman clasps a hand over her mouth. Murmurs rise from the crowd. Heavy with horror, several heads bow while others offer a resolute shake and reject this possibility.
The rest watch birds.
The school dates from 1928 and has expanded over the years. There are four flat rooflines and the birds swirl above the tallest, oldest, and largest section.
“I’m going up.” Greenshirt strides toward the building, without looking back.
Crude metal ladders are built into the brick. Greenshirt crosses the lowest roof and climbs to the next level, then the next. Twenty people watch from both sides of the street, occasionally shifting their eyes to the birds, expecting them to swoop and defend their quarry.
There’s no ladder to the highest level but Greenshirt hoists himself and stands above the perpetrator’s classroom, hands on hips, as though enjoying the view of Cedar Hill. He turns and disappears. Every voice goes silent. Two women hold their cheeks with both hands.
“It’s going to be all right,” someone says, but no one can tear their eyes from the roof’s vacant expanse.
A breathless minute later, Greenshirt reappears, holding a clean, bright white sack. It bulges at the bottom. He shouts, “It’s a dead rabbit.” Gasps follow. Sighs of relief.
“Rabbit?” several voices exclaim. “How can that be?”
Greenshirt points at the birds. “Vultures might’ve dropped it. Doesn’t look fresh, though.”
Lucas cringes at the word “fresh” and pictures its opposite: maggots and decay. He prays the missing boy is still breathing, wherever he is.
Throughout his slow descent, Greenshirt clutches the white fabric. It must be his undershirt.
Lucas continues reading from his phone and learns it’s a myth that birds of prey can predict when something will die. Circling birds might hunt but are probably conserving energy by riding thermal air currents that, like imaginations or evil thoughts, naturally spiral upward.
The flying predators remain in formation, seldom flapping their wings. They’ve drifted westward, toward Victoria Park, but are no less foreboding. Thirty people linger, gripping tiny handheld devices, alternately watching road and sky. Waiting.
“I’m gonna bury this.” Greenshirt disappears behind his house. Ha-Joon ducks inside, then re-emerges with a trowel and a small silver spade.
Lucas returns to his yellow Adirondack chair but can’t concentrate on the novel. He sips from his water bottle, watches dark school windows, and thinks about the technology linking every cellphone across fourteen area codes. The ability to channel so many skills, resources, political will, and money toward a vast and complicated network says something positive about society but it says a lot more that such a system is even necessary.
“And we still can’t keep our children safe,” Lucas concludes.
He scrolls through his contacts and selects a phone number.
A voice answers, “Hey Dad, what’s up?”
“Just wanted to see how you and the kids are doing,” Lucas says.
After the call, Lucas puts his phone away. It buzzes the moment he slides it into his pocket.
Lucas knows who’s texting because he and thirty-five neighbors raise their phones in unison. The fastest reader is first to place a hand over her heart. She exhales and her shoulders slump. Thirty-five others copy her reaction.
The boy has been found, safe and unharmed, wandering alone a short distance from the American border, where officers apprehended the suspect.
Over the coming weeks, details will surface about the predator – a secret life, gambling debts, incorrect medication dosages – but for now tension fades. People hug and return to their homes.
The birds drift farther west until Lucas sees them from his chair. He wants to restore the peace he felt before the Amber Alert but something irreversible has happened. He can’t stop watching black, circling vultures.