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.



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?”


“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.”


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.

Visions of the Reaper

The sky was so blue it hurt. Not a cloud, not a plane, not even a bird in sight. The air was warm, the humidity low and it smelled of jasmine and coffee. Corbin Adams walked with a skip in his step and a satisfied smile on his face. He considered it a perfect day. In his opinion, one of three in his entire thirty seven years. Maybe even his best day.

He’d been on a date the previous evening, and Ellie had kissed him full on the lips. Three hours ago, she’d called and thanked him for a wonderful evening and accepted his request for a lunch date. Corbin Adams was over the moon.

He’d longed for her ever since she’d come to his office, a new client, and sat in the marginally comfortable chair on the other side of his desk. A pudgy man, he’d had a tough time with woman. As a loan officer, he had a tough time with people in general, especially in the current economic climate. Ellie’s credit was sterling, her job secure, her income impressive, her hair soft, her lips full, her eyes dreamy and she’d agreed to a second date. It didn’t matter to Corbin that she was roundish as well. Nothing mattered because they were going to have lunch.  And if he didn’t screw that up, maybe dinner a second time.

It is a smashing day, the smashingest! he thought.

If only that dark figure wasn’t standing on the corner, all would’ve been perfect.  It made him feel uneasy and slowly deflating, like a balloon just untied and farting around the room in giant figure eights. He shuddered.

“You’re being silly,” he said to himself.

Three blocks away, it just stood there. Thoughts crossed his mind. Could it be a walk light with a trash bag wrapped around it, or a fallen awning? He squinted, trying to pull details from the distance, and walked another fifty paces. It didn’t flinch.

Corbin stopped, steadying his view, and smoothed back his thinning hair. Farsighted, he pulled his reading glasses down to the bulge of his nose and looked over them. It caused his double chin to stand out. A mannequin perhaps? Maybe a prop for a local theater version of “A Christmas Carol.”

Not in April, he thought.

It stood on the corner where he needed to turn to get to his second date with Ellie. He wouldn’t let anything interrupt that. Nothing could interfere with one of the three best days of his life.

There was no plastic bag wrapped around a traffic signal, walk-don’t walk or otherwise. It was a humanoid form, with black cloth draped over a thin frame. The few other pedestrians paid it no mind. Had it been there and he not noticed—an odd cigar shop Indian for some strange new store?

Then it moved. It shifted its stance and held up a gloved hand. The sleeve of its cloak slid down, revealing a pair of forearm bones, no skin attached. Corbin gasped.

It’s waving at me, he thought.

Sweat beaded on his forehead. He looked around to see if there was an alien, or some other creature waving back…hoping a costume party was gathering and he was in the middle. The street was empty, save for a single car going in the opposite direction. When he turned, the figure was gone.

“Shit,” he said.

He didn’t often swear, but felt it was appropriate under the strange circumstances.

There were three blocks between him and Amato’s Deli—Ellie’s  choice. Three blocks to go. He checked his watch. There was still plenty of time, fourteen minutes to be exact. He liked exact. He liked order. He liked black and white. He kept walking.

Corbin turned the corner and saw the black figure again. It was in front of the deli, two blocks away. He glanced across the street and saw the usual bustling shoppers and dwellers of town, but the sidewalk between Corbin and the thing was empty. When he looked back, the figure hadn’t moved. Its black hood fluttered in the breeze, giving a glimpse of the bony grin beneath. Corbin stopped. He could move no further.

His heart pounded, exiled from his chest, it lived in his throat.

“You don’t want me. You can’t want me,” he said, clutching at his swollen and throbbing neck.

Not on my perfect day. Not now, he thought.

Gathering himself, Corbin turned and stepped into a corner bookstore. A bell jingled announcing him and a kindly old woman stepped forward.

“Thanks for coming in,” she said.

He saw her but didn’t speak. Instead, he moved to the book stacks in the rear. There, he paced, trying to slow his pulse. The old woman stepped from behind the counter and smiled at him.

“If you need anything, just ask,” she said.

“I need a shrink,” he muttered below her radar.

There were four rows of shelves in the back of the store and Corbin fumbled from one to the next. Absently, he fingered the various book covers. The longer he paced, the sillier her felt. His face flushed.

“I’m an idiot. This is just nerves,” he said.

The bell above the front door jingled again and he froze. Fearing, for a moment, it was the black-cloaked thing, coming for him. He held his breath, and then turned to see. The old woman was inches from his face.

“You’ll not escape death in here,” she said with moist, rotten breath.

But it wasn’t her face. What he saw was hollowed-out with holes its eyes should’ve been. Corbin screamed. He stumbled out the door and down the two small steps to the sidewalk. He rushed to his right, then looked back and saw nothing. There was no one on the sidewalk and no monstrous hag with missing eyes. There was no skulking reaper.

He released the breath he’d been holding and checked himself. His shirt was untucked and there was a patch of sweat bleeding through the chest of his short-sleeve button-down.

“Calm down, Corbin,” he said and allowed himself a nervous chuckle.

Again, he noticed the blue sky, a brilliant color that reminded him of Ellie’s eyes, of his lunch date and of his perfect day. Still rattled, he looked back toward the bookstore. Nothing looked back. He checked his watch again.

“Shit,” Corbin said for the second time in one day.

Only the direst of circumstances called for two swears in the same afternoon. Had an hour really passed? Was he late for their meeting? He yanked the handle, pulling the deli door open as if he meant to take it off the hinges. Inside, he found the dining area empty and a young man behind the counter gave him a nod. Corbin sat in the last booth and watched the front door while he fumbled in his pocket for his cell phone.

He could simply explain. He could apologize for screwing things up and she would understand. Before he could dial, a shadow crawled over him and when he looked into it, he saw the boy from behind the counter.

“Can I get you somethin’?” the young man said.

Corbin looked out the window, hoping Ellie was also late and that he might see her rushing to the deli as he had.

“I was supposed to meet someone. Have you seen…”

He stopped because the boys eyes were hollow, and the skin on his face had shriveled to reveal a grinning skull. A plume of black smoke wrapped the monster in a grave hug as the boy-reaper-thing slid into the other side of the booth.

“You’re quite evasive,” it said.

Corbin couldn’t speak, he only stared. A sick feeling ate his perfect day and swallowed it whole.

“I rather enjoy a good chase,” it continued.

Corbin closed his eyes and found his voice. A single tear leaked out.

“I’m…not ready to die.”

The reaper laughed a most horrible sound. At the same time, Ellie emerged from the bathroom. Her face was wrinkled with anger as she looked around the room. She slammed the door, but it made no sound. She walked to the counter and spoke to the boy, now back at his post, but her high heels didn’t click on the tile floor, and her words were muted. Corbin looked back to the reaper. It was still chuckling.

“But you are already dead,” it said.

It was then Corbin noticed the blood smeared on his hand, the gash where his broken radius and ulna protruded. A greenish artery leaked onto the table. Then, he remembered the accident. He remembered being so giddy after Ellie’s phone call that he’d run a red light on his way to work. The mess the truck made of his tiny hybrid, of his pudgy body, was astonishing.

The reaper giggled again, like a maniac from a black and white horror film.

“I only wish to take you home,” it said.

~ Dan Dillard

© Copyright 2013 Dan Dillard. All Rights Reserved.