Owls

It was 4:00 am when I woke from heartburn, or maybe it was back pain. There are so many things that wake a man of my age in the middle of the night. I shifted my position and then got up to relieve myself. While I was in the bathroom, I heard something odd, something I didn’t recognize—not at first, but then it came to me. Wh-h-h-who. An owl.

It called, and it was close, close enough that I heard it clearly in the bathroom. I walked back into the bedroom.

“You okay?” my wife asked sleepily.

“Yeah. Had to pee,” I said. “Did you hear that?”

“I did. I’ve been listening to it for a few minutes.”

“It’s an owl.”

“Uh huh,” she said.

I walked to the window and peered through the slats in the closed blinds. In the January darkness, I could make out the trees, void of leaves against the sky, but I saw no bird.

Wh-h-h-who.

Wh-h-who.

Was that another one? Wh-h-who-who. A third? Three distinct pitches and if I wasn’t mistaken, coming from three different directions.

“There’s more than one,” I said and turned to see my wife.

She was backed up, sitting against the headboard and holding her knees to her chest. Even in the dark room, I could see her eyes were round and full of fear.

“Honey? What is it?”

She laughed and shook her head. “Nothing.”

“Really? You don’t look like it’s nothing.”

“It’s silly, really…something my grandmother used to tell us when we were little. A poem, or a song. I don’t remember all of it.”

I peeked back out the window. A dark shape perched on one of the branches in the largest maple tree that stood between the sidewalk and the road. A car drove by. Who is out at 4:00 am?

“Well?” I said.

I heard her sigh and turned to her again.

“Something…something like this:

When the witching hour draws near its end,

hide, if you’re awake my friend.

Before the dead wake up to roam,

the owls will come to take them home.”

I waited a moment to see if she had any more to add and when she was silent, I said, “Wow.”

“Yeah, wow.”

“What does that mean exactly?”

She hugged her knees again and I sat down on the bed.

“Like I said, I don’t remember the rest, but I do recall her telling us a story about the owls. She told us they came when someone was about to die and sought that person out. The hooting brings the reaper.”

The reaper?”

“Yes.”

“Your grandmother told you that? That’s a little intense isn’t it?”

Wh-h-h-who one owl called. The other two answered. Each from a different direction and in their slightly different pitch. It occurred to me then that they were triangulating a position. A silly idea.

“It is intense. She wasn’t joking either. I can still see her face grow pale whenever we heard one of those birds hooting in the night at that old farmhouse. I thought we were far enough out of the country to avoid them.”

“You mean you believe that old tale? It’s just a poem.”

“Is it?”

I peeked out the window again, looking for the dark spot in the tree, but it was gone. When the birds hooted again, it was further away, but still close.

“Don’t,” she said.

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t look.”

I stared at her and it was as if we were children and she was trying to scare me…she was believing in a nightmare and I was a few years older telling her how silly she was.

“Honey, come on.”

“Please?”

I waved her off and looked back out the window. Something fluttered and I heard the beat of large wings. A shadow covered our window for just a moment, then it was gone to my right. Then the hooting again.

“Please?” she said, clearly upset, but I ignored her.

I ignored her because there was something out there in the glow of the street lamp across the way. It shimmered and warped like a mirage. I heard the owls again. My wife protested behind me, “You aren’t supposed to look.”

I heard her, but it didn’t sink in. I was watching, engrossed in the thing that moved along the sidewalk across the street. Engrossed by the talking birds, calling and responding to each other.

A shimmer slid along the sidewalk, forming a familiar shape, then becoming abstract, then forming again. It looked like a man, thin to the point of worry, and nude. His skin was pale and just barely stretched across his bones. Behind him he dragged something. I would swear it was a scythe. Too cliché, I thought. Too much beer the night before, or too little sleep. Still it was unsettling. I opened the window without knowing why, call it a compulsion. I wanted this stalker, this skeletal being to know that I knew he was there. Perhaps I thought I might prevent him from committing some terrible act. The owls voices were much heavier, much louder through the screen. The icy air surrounded me.

“Hey!” I shouted. It was the only word that I could manage.

My wife screamed behind me and at that moment, the thing dragging its weapon along the sidewalk—the metal blade sparking on the concrete as it went—turned and looked at me. Not toward me, but at me. Its burning yellow eyes dug into my brain for just a split second. The creature’s visage was all I could see and the rest of the world was black. I could hear my wife weeping, calling to me, but I couldn’t answer her and I couldn’t move. Not dead, but paralyzed and blind having seen death before my time.

It was the next day at the hospital when we got the call that one of our elderly neighbors had passed away in the night; the owls were for her, not me. I should’ve let that personal moment alone, not interrupted. It was none of my business and now I pay for my rudeness. I will pay until the owls come back.

~ Dan Dillard

© Copyright 2014 Dan Dillard. All Rights Reserved.

FILTHY

Randy was a portrait of self-control. He typed furiously to keep his mind off of his bursting bladder. His left leg quaked and sweat beaded on his brow. He brushed a damp clump of hair back into place and looked nervously out of his cubicle. He typed some more.

It wasn’t a deadline he feared. It wasn’t a tyrannical boss with plans to keep him late or work him over the weekend. It wasn’t even a woman he’d slept with from another department, one who might swing by to make his life miserable. He swabbed the counter with a wet wipe and tossed it in the trash.

“You okay, buddy?”

It was a co-worker. Randy looked into a joke rear-view mirror that was taped to the top of his monitor to see to who it was. People in the mirror may be more annoying than they seem, was printed along the bottom. He recognized the face as Sam. They’d worked together for several years.

“Fine, just busy.”

“You sure? You’re sweating, dude.”

Randy checked his face in the little mirror and wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. The pain in his full bladder twinged again.

“Fine. Lots to do is all.”

Sam shrugged and left him there. He said, “Lunch at twelve, don’t be late,” as he walked away. “Yeah,” Randy muttered under his breath.

He looked at the clock to see lunch was still two hours away. Then he looked at his coffee mug and regretted the second cup. He couldn’t stand it anymore. His chair rocked up on two wheels, almost falling over as he shot from his cube. Stray papers slid off the desk and floated, like autumn leaves, to the floor.

Randy cringed, focusing all of his energy on the ice pick in his crotch. He felt the moisture on his temples start to drip down the sides of his face. The noise of the office, droning on as usual with phone calls and clacking keys and Xerox machines, seemed to grow in volume.

“Morning, Randy,” a chipper voice said.

He didn’t compute who it belonged to, but nodded. He could feel the eyes on his back, the concerned looks on the faces as he passed by, sweating, walking in a stilted, gotta-go manner. Then he reached the break room, feeling like he might explode, wetting himself in a moment of embarrassment he would never live down. His feet drug the carpeted floor with a scrubbing sound, and then he stamped them as if they were asleep. It helped briefly with the pressure before making it worse.

“Shit, shit, shit,” he whispered with each subsequent step until he reached the bathroom door. His hand wouldn’t reach for the handle. He stood staring at it, biting his lower lip and without realizing grabbing his penis with his other hand. The flow had released from his bladder and was only damned up by a finger-and-thumb tourniquet.

His eyes lingered on that brass knob, sparkling in the fluorescent light. He gritted his teeth. The knob pulsed along with the capillaries in his eyes. He could see things swimming on the handle, tiny things with legs. Globular things with cilia or flagella that slid across the metal as if they were taunting him. Randy increased the grip on himself. His stomach turned at the thought of touching the handle, boiling bile at the top of his esophagus. He was going to vomit or he was going to piss himself.

Voices from around the corner distracted him from the handle. They were walking toward him; they would see him holding himself and perspiring like some schoolyard pervert. The footsteps tapped on the linoleum of the break room floor. In a moment, they would hit the carpet and it would be too late. Randy grabbed the handle with a grunt, bursting into the bathroom and rushing to one of the three stalls. The door swung mostly shut behind him.

“Thank God,” he whispered.

The bathroom was empty, but he didn’t notice. He was busy unzipping his fly around his gripping fingers, rolling his boxers down to reveal himself to the porcelain receptacle.

“Thank God,” he repeated.

Then he let loose, spraying urine on the wall and the toilet seat before gaining control and letting the painful relief consume him. His sweat-covered body shuddered in the air conditioning. When he was finished, finally empty, he leaned against the wall of the stall, from one cubicle to another, and closed his eyes.

Someone else came in. The creak of the self-closing arm on the door caught Randy’s ear. There were two voices, some he didn’t recognize.

“Catch the game?” one said.

Randy relaxed at the dull banter. They weren’t checking on him and that was all that mattered. He would be able to plan his exit. How not to touch anything before getting back. His mind cranked out ideas, but all of them stopped at the bathroom door. He could get out of the stall and wash his hands in the sink, even leave the water running, but then what? He had to touch the door handle. It was crawling with bugs… just like everything else.

He could wait until one of the others—the bacteria infested—came in and the door would be open long enough to escape.

He waited for the other two men to leave. They laughed and washed their hands without a care, but Randy knew better. When the door closer creaked again, he let the stall open, and pulled the door in with his shoe.

He scanned the room, even bent down to look under the other two stalls. They were empty, but his face was only a foot from the floor and he caught a whiff of stale urine. He straightened slowly, watching the floor crawl with life. Cold shot up his spine causing goose bumps on his arms. Randy rushed to the sink, seeing the same things swirling and rolling across the hot and cold handles. He scowled at the soapy fingerprints on the mirror, the mysterious, brownish drip marks in the sink, the wadded up paper towels on the counter and on the floor. He twisted the handle for the hot water and waited to put his hands underneath it.

The water wasn’t pure. Randy could sense it. The soap dispenser had a button to push, but it was caked with liquid soap, crawling with life—demonic, microscopic death that was just waiting to engulf him and eat him molecule by molecule. Waiting to get inside his body and rot him from the inside.

He detected a hint of color to the water and his paranoid eyes grew wider as he stooped for a closer look. They were there, little monsters, swimming in the stream amongst the aerated bubbles. Then Randy lost his balance.

His shoe slid, just a bit, on the wet ceramic tile and a purely involuntary action sent him into fits. His hand touched the floor to keep him from falling. He mouthed a scream, but nothing came out. His body jerked to stand, rigid as a piece of dehydrated spaghetti. Holding his hand up in dramatic fashion, he stared in horror. Millions of crushed organisms coated the skin of his palm; millions of others swarmed the tiny carcasses and began to devour them. It was only a matter of time before they would multiply and start eating him.

He looked at the water. Swimming. The soap, completely engulfed. The mirror, covered in spatters of miscellaneous liquid and fingerprints of the uneducated. Back to his hand. Had they doubled already?

Tripled?

He backed into the corner praying the door would open. He could rush to his desk and sanitize his hands, then go home to his pristine shower. No one came in.

The creatures ate, growing larger, then dividing. So many he could feel them dancing across his skin, moving up his wrist to the flesh of his forearm, headed for center mass.

“No,” Randy whispered.

He started to shake, rubbing one hand over the other in an attempt to slough them off like an old skin. They just grabbed his other hand, splitting and multiplying, covering both hands.

“No,” he said, his voice wavering like a goat.

He dug his fingernails into his palms, trying to scrape them off. Then into his forearms, digging curls of skin loose. The scratch marks filled slowly with blood, then dripped onto the floor. He watched the floor bubble with microbial excitement, closing in on the red drops. Then, like tiny vampiric ants, the mass crawled toward him, covering his shoes, then up under his pant legs to his socks and onto the skin of his shins and calves. Randy screamed.

“Get them off of me!”

He clawed at the flesh of his arms, then his legs, pulling his pant legs up and scraping meat loose from his lower legs. He shrieked with fear, oblivious to the damage he had caused to his own body, blind to the blood and chunks of himself that he held in his own hands. He pulled at his cheeks, clawing at his eyeballs and penetrating one. One fingernail came off in a vicious yank. Terror was his anesthetic.

Sam entered the room in a rush just as Randy’s shrieks were dying down. His skin was pale, bluish. He glared at Sam with the eye that still worked.

“Jesus, Randy, what happened? What’s going on?”

Randy continued to dig hunks from his body.

“Don’t touch me,” he said, croaking the words out like a bullfrog. “They’ll get on you. Don’t touch me.”

Sam shouted for help, bringing others to the office restroom. He dialed his phone, calling for help.

“Don’t touch me,” Randy said again. “Filthy.”

He kept repeating the word, filthy, as the blood drained.

~ Dan Dillard

© Copyright 2013 Dan Dillard. All Rights Reserved.