When Nina first met Owl-with-a-capital-O, harbinger of death, destruction, and despair, He resembled Athene cunicularia, a wee burrower. Owl perched on a twig outside her bedroom window as Nina toiled over seventh grade geometry homework. Between questions eleven and twelve, she glanced outside; yellow eyes met brown.
Owl tilted His head, as if puzzled.
That night, Nina fell asleep on a pile of pencil shavings and graphing paper. She dreamed that somebody replaced her nerves with puppet strings. The unseen puppeteer resisted every move she made, and Nina was still ensnared when sunlight tickled her eyes open. For weeks, her actions lagged, leaden, as if cement thickened in her marrow, her skull, and her heart-bearing chest.
Later, Nina learned the puppeteer’s name: Depression.
Owl returned before the next depressive episode as Bubo virginianus, great horned owl. His yellow eyes were crowned by cowlick tufts. “Mom warned me about you,” Nina said. “She says you appeared before Dad almost died. Don’t visit anymore. Leave me alone!” She whisked the curtains shut.
Flower-printed cotton was an ineffectual shield against misery.
A year later, Owl came as Strix nebulosa, great grey. Dagger-sharp talons encircled the thickest branch outside her window, and His bulbous head blocked the moonlight. In His shadow, Nina whispered, “God. My God.”
“Am I really?” Owl wondered. His melodious voice could belong to bird or man.
“Am I? Really?” He repeated. “Am I God?”
Nina’s doctor prescribed mood stabilizers and warned her to get immediate help if birds spoke to her again.
“It’s not a delusion,” she said. “Owl comes with trouble. He’s the flash of light before thunder. Stop treating Apache beliefs like they’re superstitions. Would you tell a Christian that angels don’t exist?”
“Have angels spoken to you recently, Nina?” Dr. Grigory asked.
She never discussed Owl around doctors again.
During college—four-year, private, double major in biochemistry and philosophy—she rented an apartment in downtown Austin. The nearest tree branch grew a block away from her bedroom window. Maybe that’s why it took a year for Owl to find her there. He arrived on two feet, His human-shaped disguise betrayed by round, yellow, too-large eyes. Owl-as-a-Man loitered outside her apartment, barefoot. From toes to brow, a white feather pattern rippled up His brown skin. The ghostly hospital gown He wore—why a hospital gown? Nina wondered—seemed at once too baggy for His body and too skimpy for the winter chill that night.
She opened her second-floor window and leaned outside. “Not now,” Nina said. “Classes are going so …”
A waste of breath, pleading with Owls. Better spent sighing and crying. She exhaled a dissipating cloud above His upturned face.
“So what?” Owl asked. “Going so what? Poorly? Well?” When she did not answer, He laughed, a tittering sound, and strolled away. Owl rarely lingered.
As a new professor, Nina bought a house in forested Middle-of-Nowhere, Filly Lane. The neighborhood had owls, mostly Tyto alba, barn owls without barns. For a few years, Owl kept His distance.
One portentous night, restlessness swarmed through Nina’s anthill-busy brain, down her spine, and through her veins. She paced. It wasn’t enough. Nina slipped into a reflective jacket, grabbed a mini flashlight, and went jogging. Outside, a waning moon helped light her steps across the uneven dirt.
They who lived on Filly Lane, a winding, unpaved Appalachian road, shared little but a street name. Nina knew her neighbors by their mailbox labels and outdoor habits.
First, she passed the Kilpatrick home. The married couple, empty nesters, had a splendid lawn. Daily, Mrs. Nancy Kilpatrick worried over their roses and bluegrass, allaying the drought with a tin watering can. She rarely missed a chance to comment on the weather when Nina passed her in the garden.
Next lived Gorey: single man, forties. Nina rarely saw him.
Vaude: family of five. Matriarch Vaude, Patriarch Vaude, and their young daughters shared a two-story Victorian-style house that was built in 1980. The girls often played in the gigantic oak in their front lawn. A hammock and tire swing dangled from its boughs.
Wordsmith, two fathers and their son, occupied the last house on the lane. The teen walked his German Shepherd before and after school. Both boy and dog were exceptionally polite.
Nina saw few signs of life during her midnight jog. Moths battered against the Kilpatrick porch light. A raccoon scampered under the Gorey jeep. One window in the Vaude household—second story, half-concealed by the oak—was bright, its light filtered by a pink curtain.
Filly Lane spilled down a tilted valley between two mountains. The incline accelerated Nina toward a dead end; where the road terminated, a narrow footpath plunged through the forest. When she first joined the neighborhood, Nina had investigated this trail. It went on for a quarter-mile and ended at a natural clearing peppered with empty beer cans and paintball shells. The desolation made her uncomfortable, so she had never returned.
Owl-as-a-Man stood at the threshold between forest and road, His eyes reflecting the flashlight beam. Recoiling, Nina mentally listed all the tragedies that might befall a jogger at night. “What have you come for?” she asked.
“I live in the beech tree.”
“The beech tree?”
She’d seen several beeches near the clearing: old, branchy trees that probably supported dozens of bird species. “Since when?” she asked.
“Tonight. What are you doing here, Nina-I-Rarely-See-Anymore?”
“Filly Lane has been my home for years.”
“Pity.” Owl smiled, but the expression did not reach His eyes. None did. “I’m inclined to stay.”
“Why? Are we in danger?” Nearby, the German Shepherd barked, as if disturbed. She’d barely whispered the question; maybe the dog had keen ears. Or maybe Nina and Owl weren’t the only ones outside. She swept her flashlight up the road: empty.
“Probably,” Owl said.
“You can’t be more specific?”
He tilted His head. “Supper time. Good luck, Nina.” As Owl returned to the forest, His unfastened gown fluttered in a breeze that ran up the valley. The rippling pattern on His back resembled feathers.
“Don’t need your kind of luck,” Nina said, “Schadenfreude Featherface.”
At home, she brewed coffee and listed catastrophes in her spare laboratory notebook.
One: contamination. Heavy metals, carcinogens, or toxic chemicals might poison the dirt and water. Unlikely, but easy to rule out.
Two: natural disaster. A tornado, flood, or wildfire could devour five houses in one violent sweep.
Three: human malice. Serial killers had to live somewhere.
Four: plague. Lyme disease was named after Lyme, Connecticut. What maladies bred in Filly Lane?
Five: something strange. Alien abductions, ghosts, goatmen.
“Might as well include meteors and evil clowns,” she said, noticing a familiar silhouette beyond her bedroom window. “Right, Owl?”
“I do not understand the question.”
Nina peeked through the half-cracked venetian blinds. Owl lounged on her ornamental balcony, snug between potted chrysanthemum plants. His hospital gown and face were sullied with blood, black speckles trailing from lips to chest.
She asked, “Why me?”
“I’ve seen you a dozen times since seventh grade!” She snapped the blinds shut. “It’s excessive! This is harassment!”
“At least I warn you,” He cooed. “I warned you. I did. I warned you …” The voice became distant, a whisper that flew with the wind up Filly Lane.
“You didn’t warn me. You teased me.” How could one woman stop a plague, a serial killer, a forest fire? Mania, depression? Why did she always try?
Her zero-win record did not bode well for Filly Lane.
Maybe she should take a vacation until doom blew over. It was Memorial Day weekend, a perfect time for travelling. Unfortunately, Nina was haunted by four names: Kilpatrick, Vaude, Wordsmith, and Gorey.
How could she prepare them for a yet-unknown disaster? They weren’t her undergraduate students; Dr. Nina Soto could not lecture the neighborhood about safety protocol.
She had to get creative.
Nina parked in front of her computer, opened a word processor and search engine, and typed:
Forest fire safety
Emergency phone numbers
FBI most wanted
Roadside accident procedure
Common household risks
Snake bite treatment tornado flood first aid constitutional rights self-defense carbon monoxide ammonia+bleach CPR lightning strike real zombies CDC
By sunrise, toting homemade educational booklets, Nina took to the street; a horn bleated furiously, and gravel sprayed her legs. She’d been one step away from death by Goodyear tire under the Kilpatrick minivan. “The limit is twenty-five miles per hour!” she shouted. “Twenty! Five! Not fifty!”
Why the hurry?
Murderer, burglar, car theft, trunk full of silverware and corpses? Either that, or one of the lovely Kilpatricks drove like a street racer.
Nancy was working in her garden, which ruled out the car theft theory. She clipped wilting roses from a hedgerow bush, dressed in overalls, white gloves, and a pink bandana.
“Good morning!” Nina called.
Nancy closed her shears and walked to the edge of her driveway. “You’re awake early.”
“It’s strictly business.” Nina held out a booklet. “I’m spreading safety protocol for the neighborhood watch preparedness initiative.”
“We have a neighborhood watch?”
“Sure do! Any questions?”
Nancy flipped through the papers, her eyebrow cocked. “Fire safety. Emergency numbers. The proper way to sneeze?” She laughed. “You cover all the bases.”
“If only that were true! Can I bother you for a soil sample?”
“We’re screening for toxins.”
“Go ahead.” She gestured to her lawn with the shears. “Just don’t make a mess.”
One sample later, Nina approached the next household. As she slipped a booklet in the red-paint-on-tin mailbox, the front door swung open. Gorey leaned outside, wearing nothing but a checkered bathrobe. He hollered, “That’s a federal crime!”
“Not goddamn interested!”
“I’m your neigh—”
“Don’t touch my mailbox!” He charged across the porch, and Nina fled before Gorey could pull a gun—or something worse—from his robe. She dropped his booklet on the curb; littering might be a crime, but was it a federal crime?
Thankfully, the rest of her neighbors were quiet, with one exception; the Wordsmith German Shepherd barked when Nina approached his family’s mailbox. She much preferred his outburst to Gorey’s.
A lab tech from the university took the soil samples later that morning. “What am I looking for?” he asked.
“Everything,” Nina said. “Lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, DDT, DDE, DDD, PCBs, TCE—”
“You live in a rural neighborhood, no known contact with commercial, industrial, or agricultural sources of contaminants. Don’t expect much.”
“What’s the ETA?”
“Thursday,” he said, “at the soonest. Dr. Soto, are you … is everything all right?”
She rubbed her eyes. “Just tired. Thanks for meeting me here.”
“Any time.” He chuckled dryly. “Wouldn’t want to disappoint your neighborhood watch.”
In the empty-handed, idle lull after the drop-off, Nina wondered how safety booklets and a soil test could accomplish any good whatsoever. She ordered hash browns and coffee from a McDonald’s near campus and brooded over her breakfast.
How could she defy Owl’s intuition? How could anyone? If, like the flash of light before thunder, Owl was inextricable from disaster, she was attempting the Sisyphean. Nina felt the piles of her hope collapsing. Desperate, she called the only number on speed-dial. After two rings, a groggy voice asked, “Honey? Are you okay?”
“Hi Mom. I need a favor.”
“Oh no …”
“Nothing big! Remember when you saved Dad’s life? Can you tell me about it again?”
A pause. “Are you hearing birds talk? Should we call somebody?”
“Right.” She did not sound convinced. “I wish you’d visit more often. I’m cooking pancakes for brunch.”
“Work has been hectic. Next weekend. Promise. Pancakes sound fantastic.” Nina dabbed grease from her hash brown with a napkin. “Now, about Dad …”
“What do you want me to say? He got carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage. I left work early and saved his life.”
“Why did you leave work early?”
“I never should have told you about—”
“A bird landed on the fence outside my office window. Coincidences happen.”
“That’s not what you said fifteen years ago.”
“Owl’s pupils were like holes in the fabric of your life, a reflection of the dismal future He foresaw. Dad did not answer the phone when you called. Something was wrong. You sped home, opened the garage door, and dragged his limp body outside. Another minute, he would’ve died.”
“If you know the story so well, why call?”
“Maybe I just wanted to hear your voice.”
Another pause. “It’s good to hear yours, too.”
“We’ll be expecting you.”
“I love you.”
As Nina returned to Filly Lane, she drove past the Wordsmith teen and his dog. Slowing to a crawl she called, “Afternoon!” through her cracked window.
“Afternoon, Ma’am!” He pointed at a single gray cloud over the forest. “Looks like rain! Bad news for Memorial cookouts, right?”
Nina thought: worst drought of the century, the earth is kindling, barbeque overturns, neighborhood burns. “It’s smart to move everything indoors. There’s nothing worse than soggy burgers.”
She parked in her driveway and staggered inside. The all-nighter grogginess had transformed into a headache; left untended, it might reach migraine territory. She curled on her queen-sized bed. A nap usually helped.
Would the terrible thing happen as she dreamed?
Would a migraine render her helpless?
Would the terrible thing come during daytime?
Or, like Owl, would it emerge at night?
She should set an alarm. But she was already sleeping.
Six hours later, Nina woke to inquisitive knocks against her windowpane. Red streaks marked the glass and hovered in front of Owl’s faux human face. Nina opened the window wide. “Come in,” she said.
Owl hopped over the window ledge, His head swiveling side-to-side. His hands were bloody from fingertips to wrists. No blood on His mouth tonight; maybe the prey escaped.
“Why do you insult me and your mother?” He asked. “She all but begged you to visit. Pancakes are delicious, Nina.”
“How do you know that?”
“Pancakes? I once—”
“No. Our conversation was private.”
He pointed at His ears. “Every scream, every whisper.”
“So you are God.”
“There are no gods. I’m certain. Or I’d hear their voices, too.” He parodied a smile. Eyes too round, mouth too wide. “While we’re sharing secrets: your father should have died thirty-four years ago.”
“You’d love that, huh?”
“It’s what he wanted.”
“Dad’s very happy now.”
“Ha!” Owl wiped His hands on His formless cotton smock.
“Why do you wear a hospital gown?” Nina asked. “It looks ridiculous.”
“It’s a uniform of infirmity. Nina, your ancestors never asked such obvious questions. They barely spoke to me at all! When did you forget to be afraid?”
“I am afraid,” she said, “of the badness you precede.”
“What if,” He said, “badness and I are one and the same?”
“Are you?” she asked. “That’s the only secret I need to know.”
Thunder cracked. The doorbell rang.
“It begins,” Owl said, and He fell into the night.
“Thanks.” Nina slipped into tennis shoes, grabbed her mini flashlight, and ran downstairs. Half the neighborhood stood on her porch. Nancy, Teen Wordsmith, the Wordsmith fathers, the German Shepherd, both Vaude parents, and the two youngest Vaude girls. At least none carried pitchforks. “Can I help you?” Nina asked.
“Have you … has the neighborhood watch seen Abigail?” Nancy asked.
Father Vaude held out his phone to show Nina a photograph of a ten-year-old girl with blonde curls. “My daughter,” he explained.
“She’s missing? How long?”
“Abby went to her room after supper, around seven. We just noticed she’s gone.”
“Three hours,” Nina said. “Maybe less.”
“Her phone is missing, too!” Mother Vaude added.
“Well, have you seen her?” Nancy asked.
Nina rubbed her forehead. It felt bruised, and the ruckus threatened to revive sharper aches. “I … the neighborhood watch hasn’t noticed any unusual behavior tonight.”
“What use are you, then?” cried Mother Vaude. Her daughters clutched her knitted cardigan sleeves, their eyes wet. Nina felt moisture on her face, too; it was drizzling. A wall of strobe-light-flashing, rumbling clouds drenched the forest as a thunderstorm spilled up the valley.
“Call the police,” Nina said.
“Is Abby lost?” One of the children asked, her voice hitching from meek distress to wailing dismay between “Abby” and “lost.”
“What’s their number?” Nancy rummaged in her pink fanny pack.
“It’s in here.” Teen Wordsmith flipped through the safety booklet Nina had distributed earlier.
“Nine-one-one!” Mother Vaude shouted. “This is an emergency!” As both children wept, thunder hummed through Nina’s skull. Frankly, she was surprised that the German Shepherd wasn’t howling.
He barked earlier that day, when Nina approached the Wordsmith mailbox.
He also barked the night she met Owl.
“Quiet!” Nina said. “I need to think! Please, shh!”
Whether influenced by her tone or respect for the neighborhood watch, everyone, even the children, hushed.
“What makes your dog bark?” Nina asked Teen Wordsmith.
“Doorbells, vacuum cleaners, the mailman—”
“Intruders. He never barks when I jog past your house, but the moment somebody crosses property lines … Does Abby have a treehouse in the forest? Maybe in a beech tree?”
“No,” Father Vaude said. “We don’t allow her to play there.”
Teen Wordsmith raised his hand. “I’ve seen one near the fire pit. It was just old planks wedged between branches. Something a kid might build. Maybe she sneaks out?”
“She’d have to cut across your backyard to reach the forest. Hm. The neighborhood watch has good reason to believe that Abigail does that often.” No time to waste: Nina sprinted toward the maelstrom. Wind-muffled voices called her name, demanding an explanation; half the mob followed her down the street. Was she leading them to the death Owl foresaw? Abigail’s death? Their own deaths?
Nina lengthened her strides to outpace them all. It was easy; she’d been training since seventh grade, driven by screaming thoughts, less escaping than coping. Running helped. Her pills did, too. She had to believe that she could help Abigail.
The forest met her like a wall. Its canopied bodies muffled the wind, the rain, the distant voices, and the pulsing thunder. “Abby!” she shouted. “Abigail! Can you hear me?” The storm responded with a mocking shriek. She leaped over a branch that had fallen across the path; its twigs brushed her legs, grasping. Thunder cracked. A flash quickly followed.
The lightning was near.
Across the clearing, near a beech tree, lay a pink-clothed body. Abigail: face-down, soaked, her blonde hair tangled with loam and cloying blood. “She’s hurt!” Nina shouted, running to the child. “Can anybody hear me? Help!” Aside from quick, wheezing breaths, Abigail did not move, and Nina was afraid to jostle her, lest she worsen a neck injury. It looked like Abigail slipped and fell from the ramshackle treehouse.
“Can you hear me, kiddo?” Nina asked. “Your family’s coming. Everything will be fine.”
That’s when she saw them: three punctures on the back of Abigail’s neck. As if she’d been attacked by a beast with claws. Or talons.
“Owl, why?” Nina asked, turning, finding Him waiting there, behind her, dressed in His human skin and hospital gown. The rain had washed the blood from His hands.
“Will you save a life tonight?” He asked. Bristling feathers unfurled from His skin. Black talons filleted His wide feet as they emerged. “Yes? Then why am I here?”
His eyes moons, His feathers knives, Owl enveloped Nina and Abigail with circus tent wings. The forest trembled, bent. Nina saw her reflection in His pupils; the blackness swallowed her.
Rain still pattered against her upturned face.
“You’re just a bird,” she said. “All this time.”
Nina hefted Abigail over her shoulder and sprinted through Owl’s swollen, bladed chest. It parted like mist. She crossed the clearing. Paused to look over her shoulder.
Athene cunicularia, a wee burrower, huddled on the ground, nearly buried by slick leaves. He winked.
Light engulfed Him. The lightning that struck the beech tree was so close, its voice and flash reached Nina nearly simultaneously.
In the silence that followed, Abby whispered, “I fell.”
“It happens,” Nina said. “You survived.”