(I wrote this for an Associated Content short story contest. Entries were limited to 800 words, and had to begin with one of three sentences that AC provided. You can see which one I chose.)

Someone was knocking at the door.

At the sound, the birds in the trees outside started cawing again. All that poison hadn’t done a damn thing. Gary sighed, leaned back in his chair and hoped the noise would stop. The knocking and cawing continued. Biting back a curse, he heaved himself up and stalked to the door. He cracked the door open enough to see a stranger in a messenger service uniform.

“Mr. Rhodes? Package. I need a signature.”

Gary opened the door and signed on the line, then took the package inside, set it down and dropped back into his chair. He hadn’t been expecting a package. He hadn’t been expecting anything but paper, after losing his job, his wife and his kids, and missing mortgage payments.

Curiosity won; he opened the box. Inside, amid a shroud of packing peanuts, was a bronze vase. No, he corrected himself as he pulled it out, an urn, with a plug in the top and a blank plate at the base.

He tried pulling at the plug; it stuck. He pulled harder and it gave. Instead of the ash he’d expected, nothing flew out. He examined the box. No return address. What kind of sick joke was this? Who the hell…

Gary looked around, and decided to set the thing on the television. If he’d had a mantel, he’d have put it there, but in this ticky-tacky tract house the builders hadn’t bothered with such niceties. He stood up again, put the urn in its place, carried the box to the kitchen and threw it in the trash. He took a beer from the fridge since he was there, then went back to the living room.

Chuckling wryly as he sat, Gary thought the urn could be a metaphor for his life: empty and blank. He mentally ran through the people he thought might have sent this to him, and came up with nothing. Nobody he knew had this kind of black humor. If it was humor. And nobody hated him enough to try to freak him out. Not that he felt freaked out; just curious.

He popped the bottle cap and took a drink. Urns are definitely funereal, he thought. Either they hold ashes, or they hold flowers at funerals. He drank again. Or people write poems about them, if they’re old. This didn’t look old. The bronze had been polished to a bright shine, although that was getting harder to see as the sun set.

Outside the birds set up a ruckus, and there was a sudden splat against the front window. He got up again and looked out. There was a reddish smear on the glass. He tried peering down, but saw nothing. Grumbling, he went out.

Just below the window was a black bird, its talons curved toward its body. Crow, Gary thought, or raven. No difference, right? He pushed at it but it didn’t move.

He went inside and got a trash bag, then went back out. He poked the bird again with his foot, harder. It didn’t move. In the dying light, he couldn’t tell if it was breathing or not. He put the bag over his hand so he wouldn’t have to touch the nasty thing and picked it up. It was limp, lifeless, so he pulled the bag up and tied the top. Walking into the garage, he put it into the big trash can there. This trash he didn’t want in his kitchen.

He walked into the kitchen from the garage and grabbed another cold one. He went into the living room to think about there might be for supper in the house, then stopped abruptly. The urn was on the coffee table, next to the empty beer.

Gary slowly sat down, setting the fresh beer beside the first bottle. He picked up the urn, and saw writing on the nameplate. His first name, in an old-fashioned flowing script. He hefted it to toss it across the room, but felt something move inside. He pulled out the stopper and shook it gently, then poured a bit into his hand. Ashes. Slowly he returned them to the urn and set it down.

Not funny at all. But who, and how? He hadn’t seen or heard anyone.

From outside the window Gary heard a screeching of brakes and a loud crash. He stood up, then heard a click on the table. He looked down, and saw a curved black talon next to the urn.

Dear God, his last name was on the plate, too. Gary walked to the window, saw two cars intertwined in the wreck. One was his. He knew whose blood was pooled on the street, and as another black bird dived for the window, he thought he knew why.