A branch breaking, a puff of breath. The owl pivoted toward the sounds, eyes widening, pupils dilating. The air had cooled quickly, the temperature dropping faster each day now once the sun had gone. There was a smell of impending snow, the mass of cold air pressing down. A grunt, something like a deer in panic. The owl’s eyes black now, all pupil.
Tim Houck plunged deeper, knowing he was making a mistake. He’d been a Boy Scout before he was a minister, before he was a linebacker, before almost anything. He knew the thing to do was to wait. To talk yourself out of doing exactly what he was doing. He wasn’t even sure now which way the car was. Make widening circles left until you cross your trail—that was the rule. Back then, of course, he hadn’t been much interested in being found.
He could taste the gin when he breathed in, the dry burn of it like paint fumes. He hadn’t been drunk in some time. The crowd was all ex-jocks, so he knew going in what the reunion would be like. There was a certain stagnation common among them. They lived in the best of their gone moments, and pushed aside the worst. No one mentioned Evan Coulter, for instance. And why would they? The only ghosts they believed in were their own better selves.
The air purred across the owl’s soft flight feathers. Its ears, one higher on its head than the other, kept a pinpoint on the rustlings and surges. A shape materialized out of the dark, a large figure bent low and struggling. The owl veered off and lighted on the knob of a beech limb.
“For his years of service to excellence,” Tim had said without laughing. As he’d preached salvation and dribbled half-hearted benedictions over lifeless parishioners without doing so. Hiding from his true duty in the same absent solemnity.
Coach Melton patted him on the ass as he stepped to the lectern—the standard football greeting. Tim watched him tear up, memorializing himself and the teams that had come and gone without a single championship. He was smaller than Tim remembered, less imposing. What he’d taken for authority must have been something else.
The owl preened and watched the man. The first flakes began to fall, as it had known they would, fat and heavy. The man stopped and looked up, made a series of noises.
“I repent for Evan Coulter,” he said, though he knew it wasn’t worth much. When he could have done something, he didn’t. The ribbing turning to punches. A hard tackle called by coach, a concussion. Each step following the one before it in a way he couldn’t get his feet to do now. It was strange, looking back, how it all fell into a narrative, the pattern plain as something sewn deliberately. At the time, it had been anything but that. A void of possibility.
He closed his eyes and concentrated, but it was impossible to call back the future that had been like an ocean washing against them. How had it shrunk to this?
Off to the owl’s left, a rabbit stepped gingerly through a carpet of fallen needles. The owl swiveled its head to follow, then lost interest. The snow spun through the trees, driven this way and that by internal currents. Wet flakes settled on its bark-patterned back and melted on contact.
No. Someone had mentioned Evan. Drew Brownfield; quietly, almost to himself. Coach’s drink had frozen halfway to his cracked lips. Tim thought he might say something, but he only shook his head in mock mournfulness. There was a scholarship in his name now. Tim turned away and threw up on the gym floor.
“I was lost but…” he didn’t finish the verse.
Deep in the owl’s chest its breath gathered, its throat pouch puffed out. Hoo-ooo. The sound moved through the woods deflecting the flakes ever so slightly from their path, before becoming lost some distance off in the general stir of hidden things going about their business.