It was hot, for October. Just a little over a week before Halloween, and it was still 90 humid degrees on the Texas Gulf coast.
I sat on the patio, fan on and ice tea in hand. My mom’s two foofoo dogs, Alice and Charlie, panted near the sliding glass door. No one knew their exact parentage, but they were small, white, and fluffy. Mom adored them, but I preferred dog-sized dogs to these snack-sized fur nuggets.
My aunt, who lives in Oregon, had heart surgery, and Mom volunteered to stay with her for a couple of weeks while she recovered. I was voluntold to petsit Alice and Charlie while she was away. I didn’t mind, actually. My SO, Chris and I were going through a rough patch and, frankly, we could use the time apart.
So here I sat, on a Friday evening, drinking ice tea, listening to an audio book, and trying to cook dinner in the outdoor kitchen. I had ditched my work skirt and heels for shorts and flipflops the instant I walked through the door, and weekend mode had taken hold soon after. I could play the book as loud as I wanted, because the closest neighbor was half a mile away, and no one would eavesdrop on the spicy romance I was currently consuming.
The gas grill had a trick to it, and I hadn’t mastered it. There had to be more temperature selections than “Off” and “Incinerate,” but for the life of me, I couldn’t find them. I was about to give up and go into town to see what I could find – this was terra incognita to GrubHub – when I heard it.
A baby crying.
Alice growled, her hackles rising. Charlie tucked his tail and whimpered.
“Shhhh.” I shook my head at the dogs, then peered into the gloom. “Hello?”
I turned on the back yard lights. The open grassy area was lit up like a Friday night football field, but the trees cast eerie shadows that moved and flickered in the night breeze. Not even the halogen penetrated the thicket at the edge of the property, and I felt uneasy, as if I was being watched.
I listened again for the baby, but only heard a few crickets.
“It was just some animal,” I assured the furballs. “A rodent, probably. C’mon pups. Let’s go inside.”
I made sure the gas grill was off, and the dogs scrambled inside the instant I pulled on the door. Giving one last glance over my shoulder before I followed them inside, I saw nothing unusual. I did, however leave the outside lights on.
I was looking for my car keys when my text chime went off. It was Chris. The part I could see read, “I really need to tell you something…” Was he going to tell me he missed me and couldn’t wait for me to get back? That he was glad I was gone and hoped I could stay longer? Not entirely sure I wanted to see the full message, I tapped on the text bubble icon.
“I really need to tell you something. I’m sorry. Moving out. I’ve met someone. Sorry.”
That explained a lot. Honestly, I felt more relieved than sad. I suppose I’d known for some time that we weren’t right for each other. I just hadn’t wanted to admit it. Inertia can be a terrible thing.
How should I reply? It wasn’t that I didn’t care, but nothing I said was going to change anything for either of us. “Fine. Whatever.”
It would be weird, going back to an empty apartment. But I would be fine. Better than fine. I might even stop by the shelter on the way back and adopt a kitten. Chris hated cats. Ha. Maybe I’d get two.
That didn’t solve my immediate problem, though.
“I’m going to get dinner. You two be good,” I told the dogs as I turned on most of the downstairs lights.
The truck stop hadn’t changed much since the last time I was there, years ago. Fried everything. Large portions. Quart-sized red plastic tea glasses. This week’s special was the gizzard platter – greasy, gristly globs surrounded by mounds of fried pickles and French fries. With thin, brown gravy. My years away at college and living in Houston had bent my taste buds in a different direction, and I now had a difficult time finding something on the menu that appealed to me.
“Sue? Good gosh almighty! Your mother didn’t tell me you were in town.”
I looked up to see that my waitress was Margarite Tremont, one of Mom’s oldest friends.
“Yeah. I’m looking after her dogs while she’s taking care of Aunt Cynthia.”
“That’s right. I knew she was going out of town. Didn’t think about the critters. Know what you want, darlin’?”
“Um, I think I’ll have…the grilled cheese on wheat bread with a dinner salad.” I knew the salad was a risk. Hopefully, the lone tomato wedge would be closer to red than green.
“Sure thing. Ice tea to drink, right?”
“How could I forget? You and Cody were so close for so long.”
“Right.” I smiled and nodded.
It had almost seemed like fate – our moms were best friends, and we’d known each other since we were babies. We thought we’d stay together, long distance, as we headed out to different colleges, and we did at first. But we inevitably drifted apart.
“I’ll go get your order turned in. Food’ll be right out.”
“Thanks, Miz Tremont.”
She winked at me as she tucked her order book into her apron pocket and made her way back toward the kitchen, pausing to fill a tea glass here and take another order there.
I sat and continued reading that steamy romance on my phone while I waited. I was just getting to the good part when I heard the loud clearing of a throat. Irritated, I looked up.
“’Scuse me, Miss. Is this seat taken?”
“Cody?” Wow. He’d filled out a lot since the last time I’d seen him. He wasn’t the lean, lanky young man I remembered. Still lean, just not lanky. Did his mother text him and tell him to come here? “Of course! Sit down. I didn’t know you were…”
“With the po-lice?”
“The uniform looks good on you.” Really good.
His mother came by with another ice tea. He raised it, as if in a toast. “How’ve you been?”
“Good. How about you? Mom said you got married.”
I hadn’t meant to blurt that out. I was in grad school when she told me, and I was too busy to think much about it then. Or maybe I just didn’t want to.
“I did. But Kelly and I had…irreconcilable differences. Didn’t quite make our first-year anniversary.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
We spent almost two hours catching up. I could have talked longer, but I was starting to yawn, and the puppers still had to go out to do their doggy business.
He walked me to my car. “Drive safe, now.”
I almost told him about the baby crying earlier, but decided it was silly. “I will.”
I didn’t see or hear anything unusual when I took the doglettes out. In fact, there was nothing unusual for the next three days. Other than Cody and I texting each other every evening.
On Tuesday night, I was almost asleep when I heard a thud, then it sounded like a herd of buffalo was running across the roof. Charlie and Alice hid under the bed. Apparently, discretion is the better part of valor when you’re a mini-pup.
“Come on, you two. It must be the wind blowing a tree limb across the roof. Don’t be so silly.”
I got up and pulled back the curtain. Nothing moved under the moonlight, although dark clouds smothered the starlight to the west. I closed the drapes and slipped under the covers, pulling them up to my chin. The roof stomping died down after a few minutes, but my light stayed on all night.
I invited Cody to the house for dinner Wednesday night. When I went to turn Charlie and Alice out in the back yard, he said, “They shouldn’t go out without supervision. There’s coyotes around. And owls. You’d be surprised what they can carry off. And you should be careful, too. One of your neighbors went missing Friday night. Personally, I think he just skipped town to get away from the repo man. But you can’t be too careful. I’ve been driving by, before my shift ends. Just to make sure everything’s okay.”
I wished he would stay over, but he had to work. At least there were no roof walkers that night.
Cody was going to pick me up on Friday to go out. I was almost ready when I heard a knock at the door. I glanced at my watch. He was fifteen minutes early. I started down the stairs to let him in when Alice ran in front of me and bit my ankle, hard enough to draw blood.
“What is wrong with you?” I shouted at her.
She only growled in response.
I went the other way, into the bathroom to get a bandage. By the time I came back, she was nowhere to be seen, but I did hear nails clicking on the hardwood floor below. Maybe I should call the vet in the morning to make sure she’s current on her rabies shots.
“Coming!” I shouted, hoping Cody could hear me as I hurried down the stairs.
Earrings in my hand, I opened the front door. Cody wasn’t there. No one was, and there was no car parked in front of the house. I slammed the door and locked it, then turned on all the downstairs lights, and the outside lights, for good measure.
When Cody arrived ten minutes later, Charlie and Alice greeted him like he was their long-lost best friend.
He looked around at all the lights. “Everything okay?”
“I thought you were at the door a few minutes ago. I heard a knock, but there was no one there.”
He stepped outside and looked around for a moment. When he came back in, he held a nut. “You got that big ole oak tree that overhangs the front porch. It is fall – there’s acorns everywhere on the ground. I’m sure that’s all it was.”
“You’re probably right.” It was then I noticed the dark circles under his eyes. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Long night. There was a traffic fatality just down the highway. Driver swerved off the road. Maybe trying to avoid a deer or something. She was more messed up than she should have been – I guess the smell of blood attracted scavengers before anybody found her.”
I shuddered. How awful.
All the lights stayed on. I didn’t want to come back to a dark house.
It helped that Cody came in with me after our evening at the dance hall. Poor guy. He was so tired he’d fallen asleep on the couch by the time I got back into the living room with two glasses of wine. I covered him with an afghan and went upstairs. I will say that I slept better with him in the house, and I would wake up to face the monsters refreshed.
Saturday was Halloween, and Cody was working a double shift. I was surprised at how many kids fit in the back of a pick-up truck to come around to the houses out in the sticks for trick-or-treat. The candy ran out around nine and I turned off the outside lights. I had skipped dinner, and for a while, I didn’t miss it. By 10:30, my stomach was growling and I was low on groceries. The only solution was to drive to the truck stop for another grilled cheese. Nothing else was open, and that can of mushroom soup in the Mom’s pantry just wasn’t going to cut it.
When I returned to the house, I parked in the garage and come through the back door. I was glad of the garage, because the wind had picked up blown in billowing clouds. The dogs were silent. That was unusual. I caught a glimpse of something moving in the living room. My heart skipped a beat.
Was that lightning, or someone shining a flashlight in through the window? Fight or flight kicked in, and I chose fight. I’m not sure why. I charged to the window and was horrified to see the pane sliding up, and long fingers creeping under the sash.
Mom didn’t have security cameras, but I did have my cell phone. I wanted to have a photo to show the cops, so I took several shots with the flash on. Then I called 911 and put the phone on speaker.
The long fingers were slipping away, and I wanted to try and catch this punk. Maybe I could even hold him until the cops rolled up.
“No!” I yelled, grabbing a couple of the fingers and pulling them backward against the wall as hard as I could. Anger flowed through me, and I was more than happy to hurt this jerk trying to break in to my mother’s house. Thunder grumbled in the distance.
The dispatcher stayed on the line with me, and I shouted answers to her questions through gritted teeth. I dropped the phone so I could push down on the window to keep the burglar’s arm trapped. As red and blue lights strobed down the lane towards the house, he gave a final desperate wrench and pulled his arm away, disappearing into the dark.
I opened the front door as Cody and another officer ran up onto the porch. I told them what happened. The other officer went to see if he could track the thief while I showed Cody the photos.
“I know it’s Halloween, but if this is a joke, it isn’t funny.” he said.
“What?” I looked at the screen and almost dropped the phone. Staring back at me was a pale, wrinkled face, eyes clouded as with cataracts, but a black, vertical pupil was clearly visible. Instead of a nose or mouth, it had a curved, sharp beak. A Halloween mask? Was this some sick prank?.
Something dark lay on the window sill.
“What’s this?” Cody picked it up.
It was a large feather, black horizontal bars on a grey background. What was it from? A hawk? An owl? If it was from an owl, it was a huge one.
Outside, a baby cried, then the sound was lost in a boom of thunder. The windows rattled.
“Brooks!” Cody called out. The other officer hadn’t returned from his search, and it had been twenty minutes.
I didn’t want to be alone in the house, so I walked around the property with him, looking for Officer Brooks. There were only four city police officers. Two were here, one was on the way, and the other was on vacation. Cody had called the county sheriff for reinforcements, but they were a half hour away.
We looked all night in the rain for Tony Brooks, and a search team combed the area for two weeks, but he was never found.
But that all happened a long time ago. Cody and I got married not long after that, and had four beautiful babies. Now, our kids have grown up and flown the nest. Cody died in a car crash…has it been two years, now? They never did figure out what made him swerve off the road. But I’m not alone. On short autumn nights, the owls sit outside my window and call to me. Someday soon, I’ll join them.