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The Owls

The Owls


Estimated reading time — 15 minutes

“You know, it wasn’t always like this, Clarice.”

“Who’s Clarice?” she asked delicately. “And how is it different now, Seth?”

“Well, it used to be— used to be a lot quieter.” Seth turned his head and stared through her face. “Remember? Before the owls, Clarice.”

She smiled. “Seth, I’ve told you. My name’s not Clarice, it’s Susan Chandler and I’m a certified counselor with suicide prevention. You called our hotline and said you wanted help. Do you remember making that phone call?”

His grey eyes stayed fixed, staring into the empty fireplace. His hands rested firm and stiff on the arms of the blue paisley armchair that didn’t match the rest of the room. He chuckled without a smile or smirk then turned his head again toward her.

“Why do you always say that?” His voice was thick and grumbly and flat. “That your name isn’t Clarice? You’ve said that before. But I’m not going to fall for it. No, not this time.”

Susan sat to his right, catty cornered and uncomfortable in a rusted, metal chair the uniformed policeman brought in from the front porch. There wasn’t another stick of furniture in the room. She was still in her plain purple scrubs that she wore for her her graveyard rotation at the hotline. She never dressed up for the overnights. She had her long, black hair pulled back into a simple pony tail and not a shred of makeup on. She looked tired.

She glanced back at the uniformed officer who stood stately behind them with his back against the wall. Then she scanned Seth’s living room. It was too hot, too stuffy and too small. The deep red curtains that covered the windows on the other side of Seth were closed tight with just a finger width of morning sunlight trickling in. There were no decorations, no pictures on the walls and the horrible smell that stomped her nostrils when she first arrived was still sour as ever.

“You called the ambulance?” she asked the officer.

“Yes ma’am. They said they were twenty minutes out. We just have to sit tight.”

She nodded then slid her attention back to Seth, who hadn’t released the empty fireplace from his gaze. The room was too dark to make out much detail about his face. She guessed him to be about forty, maybe forty five. He was barefoot in jeans and a long sleeved, blue flannel shirt which he had buttoned all the way up to his Adam’s apple. It was mid-July.

She cocked her head to the side to appear more sincere.

“We have an ambulance coming, Seth,” she said. “They’ll take you to a place where you can talk to some people and help you figure things out.”

“The owls will still be there,” he confirmed. “They’ll follow. They can fly, you know.”

“Well, yes I know, but these are good people. They can help you figure out why you’re hearing the owls.” She pulled out the small notebook she carried with her everywhere. “Do you remember the last time you had a good night’s sleep?” She clicked open the pen which made Seth give a little start.

“You know I don’t sleep, Clarice. Not since the owls came. I just walk the floor all night, listening to them.”

She wrote that down.

“I see. And what do they say? Do they tell you to hurt yourself?”

A long pause. An uncomfortable silence. Then he spoke: “You already know, Clarice, I’ve told you so many times what they tell me to do. And until I do it they just screech and screech and screech.” His head pivoted. His grey eyes grew dark and hollowed out. “Like this—”

His jaw fell. He took a deep breath and from the lining of his throat he conjured a screeching noise so loud, so incredibly terrifying, Susan’s vertebrae retracted and acid spilled into her stomach. He didn’t stop.

She got woozy. Started feeling sick. The stench coming from all around her and under her feet was tightening her veins.

“Ok—ok, that’s enough, Seth.” She put a hand over her mouth and one in the air. “Please stop that.” She breathed a heavy breath into her palm.

Seth closed his jaw and looked back into the fireplace.

“The fire is dying, Clarice. I’m feeling chilly.”

Susan closed her eyes and regained herself.

“Seth,” she said. “There’s no fire.”

He chuckled through a sandy smile: “Please stop this charade. You’re trying to drive me mad.”

He stood up unannounced which snapped the attention of the officer. Susan threw her hand up to broadcast a halt, a sign that she had it handled, although her own apprehension came to attention.

“Seth? What are you going to do?” she asked.

“I need to put another log on the fire before it dies. I’m feeling chilly.” He moved his eyes in her direction, but they never met hers. “I’m chilly,” he whispered.

The pen dangled in her fingers. She watched as he bent over and pretended to pick up a log, a very light log apparently, and gingerly put it in the fireplace. She had the instinct, or perhaps a touch of madness herself to warn him not to burn himself. To be ever so careful.

Without looking away she wrote two words in her notebook, slightly sideways and outside of the lines: Obviously delusional.

Seth sat back down with stiff, robotic movements. His flannel shirt merged with the pattern of the chair. There was a new darkness. No more sunlight seeped in. Outside, on the horizon beyond the foothills and the railroad tracks, Susan knew a storm was coming.

“That’s better now, isn’t it, Clarice?”

“Again, Seth, I have told you. I’m not Clarice. I’m Susan Chan—” she stopped short. She heard her words getting harsh, irritable. Calm down. Seth’s call came in at 7:03 a.m., just as she was ending her shift at the hotline. She was exhausted.

Observing that he wasn’t listening she trashed that thought for the next: “Seth, I’m going to go and talk to this officer for a moment. Is that alright with you?”

There was no reply. Seth just raised his palms to the fireplace and let half a grin grow on his lips.

She stood up and went over to the officer, taking a giant step over a pile of ancient magazines. The top copy showing a nice up close picture of an owl. She got close to the officer and smiled.

“Can you check on that ambulance?” she asked with a squinted eye.

“They said they were on their way, ma’am. Just sit tight.”

She started to wring her hands. “I’m feeling a lot of tension coming from him,” she said. “I think the longer we wait the more agitated he may become. Without proper sedation things might get a little hairy. Can you at least check so we know how to proceed?”

The officer shrugged his lips and eyebrows then turned his back to her and squeezed the button on his shoulder radio.

“Four-nine,” he said.

“Copy four-nine go ahead.” The dispatchers crackled.

“Can I get an ETA on my bus?”

“Copy four-nine hold on.”

Susan kept her eyes on Seth who kept his eyes on the fireplace. She tiptoed back and leaned over on one foot to see his face. She wasn’t certain why or what she thought she might see, but all she saw was the same forged in steel expression she left him with.

The officer got her attention: “The transport got caught up in traffic, ma’am. They said it’s gonna be another forty-five minutes or more. Construction on I-90 got everything backed up.”

Forty-five minutes! Entire empires have been lost in forty-five minutes!

Susan had been dealing with disturbed people for most of her adult life. She knew the signs, and she knew when certain cases were becoming time sensitive. And her instincts and Seth’s body language told her this one was heading that way. She admitted to herself that the eeriness of it all, even with the officer there, had her feeling uneasy. She was scared.

“Officer, could you possibly transport him?”

He shook his head before she finished her request. “That’s outside of the city limits. No-can-do. The best I could do is place him under arrest and book him then—”

“No. No, I don’t want to do that.”

She didn’t want to do that because it would take all day.

The officer shrugged. “Well, I swept the room. No weapons, drugs or anything dangerous. We just have to sit tight.”

She smiled a plastic smile and went back over to her folding chair and sat down, the whole time keeping her awareness between the officer and Seth.

“We haven’t much time,” Seth said. “They’ll be coming back soon.”

“Who’s coming back, Seth?”

“The owls, Clarice, haven’t you been paying attention? The owls that take your soul and put you in another body. They will be back soon, waiting, Waiting for your soul to be released, Clarice.”

“Seth for the last time, my name is not Clarice. It’s Susan Chandler from the—”

Seth sprung forward and stood. “The officer came to the defensive and unsnapped his gun strap. He cradled the handle.

“No no no no no no no no!” Seth screamed. His face contorted and went radish red. “Just stop saying that!” He turned sharp and put a finger three inches from her nose. “Just stop lying! You say your name is Susan, but I can see it in your eyes, you ARE Clarice!”

The officer stepped forward. Susan didn’t want him to. Any aggression now would set Seth off to a point of no return. She had to weaken the tension.

“Alright, Seth. If it makes you feel more comfortable to call me Clarice, then I will allow it, on the condition you sit back down in the chair and wait with me while the ambulance arrives.” She used her kindergarten teacher voice. “We don’t have to talk anymore if you don’t want to.”

“You can’t outrun them,” Seth said looking back into the fireplace. “They fly too fast. Like demons.” He sat back down in his chair and let the silence trickle. Then he asked: “Have you ever fought with a demon, Clarice? I mean a real demon from hell.”

“We all have demons to face, Seth. Some of us just need—”

The officer broke in: “The bus will be here in about fifteen minutes with backup, ma’am. They found an alternate route.”

Waterfall of relief.

“Thank you,” she said then turned to Seth. “Alright, your ambulance will be here soon.”

Seth crossed his arms, rubbed his biceps then shivered. “I’m really chilly now. I’m going to put another log on the fire, so we can keep warm before they arrive.”

His voice had changed, softened; his demeanor shifted. He seemed more relaxed and at ease. The rigidity of his face vanished and a more boyish expression took over.

Rubber bands snapped in Susan’s back and shoulders. A held breath escaped. She clicked open her pen again and started taking notes of what had transpired.

Seth stood up then bent over and pretended to place another make believe log on the invisible fire. Susan scribbled away and didn’t notice as Seth removed the front, center tile of the hearth and pulled out a handgun.

He snapped upright. He turned toward the officer. Before the officer could even think about saying ‘hold it’, Seth aimed and fired. The gun made a blast and a bullet pinged a nice pin hole in the officer’s head. A trickle of blood escaped and flowed down his confused face. His eyes closed and he fell forward.

Susan dropped her pen and tossed her notebook. She sat with her wide open mouth and eyes looking into the hollow gunbarrel.

“Seth! What the—”

“The owls are coming, Clarice. I hear their wings flapping. We haven’t much time.”

She gathered up every bit of calm she had left in her. Her nerves were firing. Her breath was short. She swallowed.

“Seth,” she said just above a whisper and put two palms up in front of her. “Seth, now we are going to calm down.”

He shrugged. “I’m already calm, Clarice. There’s no cause for any alarm here. This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve killed before.”

“Who, Seth, who have you killed?”

“Well, you of course. Seven times so far.”

“Seth, you need help. I can help you.”

“Oh yes, of course,” he said. “That’s why I called you. I need your help. You see, the owls don’t tell me to hurt myself—they tell me to kill you. Over and over again I kill you and stack your body in the basement. But they just take your soul to another body. Then they screech to be released again. It’s becoming tedious.”

“Seth, this time you’re wrong. I’m not Clarice, you only think that I am.”

He ignored her and continued: “I’m tired of killing you. I can’t do it anymore Clarice, I love you. But I have to get your voice out of my head—and the owls.. I want silence.”

“Alright, then just put the gun down and when the ambulance gets here—”

“I need you to kill me, Clarice.”

His words hit like an arctic blast.

“Kill you?! I—I can’t kill you!”

“And I can’t commit suicide,” he said. “Lord knows I’ve tried. Do you know how many times I’ve turned this gun on myself, Clarice? Tasted the sleek, sweet metallic barrel, smelled the acidic powder. I hold my finger on the trigger, feeling the callous building in my gut—then the owls start screeching—I can’t think—I can only kill. The owls are in you, Clarice, behind your eyes. They scream to be released. I—have to release them. I’m sorry. If you don’t shoot me I’ll have to open your skull—just like the others—Clarice, the wisest of the mother owls.”

“I’m not going to kill you,” she said, flat as a desert road.

He raised the gun and tightened his grip. “Go over to him, to that cop, and get his gun.”

“No, Seth please, listen to me, we have —-”

“No no no no no no no!” He hammered the heel of his hand against his temple. “They are coming, now! Get the gun!”

“No, I—”

“NOW!!” He screamed so loud, so piercing, Susan felt the echo behind her ribs. She jumped and started. Then she leapt over to the dead policeman’s body and gently pulled the gun from his belt.

“Good,” Seth said as a smile grew on his face. “Now, back over where you were.”

She complied with tears uncontrollably forming, obscuring the ground as she watched her footsteps.

“Seth—I can’t—I don’t know how to fire a gun.”

He lowered his pistol. His tone changed, almost sounding—normal. “Oh sure you can, it’s easy. Here is the safety off? Let me take a look at it.”

Her hand convulsed, her wrist barely able to control the weight of the .45. She held out the gun for him to examine.

“See there?” Seth pointed a thick index finger to the side of her gun. “That’s the safety. It’s off. You may point and click at will, Clarice.”

She looked over the body of the officer, her eyes glazed over, it went blurry.

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“Clarice, pay attention, look over here,” He snapped his fingers. “It’s going to get intense now. We have a very busy next few seconds. I need you to focus.”

“You called me to help you.”

“I called you and told you I wanted to kill myself and I needed help. Weren’t those my words?”

“Yes, but—”

“And you said on the phone you could help me, didn’t you?” He raised his eyebrows which made him look a little less evil, a little more like a clown.

“I can help you, Seth. You don’t have to die.”

“No no no no no no!” He slammed his hand against his temple again. “One of us is going to die today! It’s either you or me Clarice!”

“No! I can’t!”

He raised his gun.

“Clarice! Pay attention!”

“I can’t!”

“Then you will join the others in the basement! I’m giving you until the count of three!” He smiled. “One!”

“Please,” Susan said as tears now fell freely.

“Two!”

“No, please, Seth. I can help you”

He lowered the gun. “Now why do you want to keep ruining the moment?”

“Just calm down Seth—we can get you help to get rid of the owls.”

He tightened his arm again, flexed his bicep, and narrowed his eyes.

“It’s you or me, Clarice! Raise your gun and fire!”

“I can’t, i’m telling you I can’t—”

“Here we go, Clarice!”

“No!” her hand shook. She watched it rise. They were only inches apart.

“Three!”

A sharp blast ripped through the room. A body slumped onto the floor.

Seth never fired his gun.

The smell of powder and burnt flesh made her want to vomit. She sat down on the floor. She wanted to cry, she felt like crying. She couldn’t cry. The stack of old magazines sat next to her. On the top was the owl. She stared at it . Yellow eyes stared back at her. Then she heard them. Off in the distance. A screeching. The screeching of the owls. She sat silent. Listening to the screeches.

A noise startled her. Awoke her from her daze. The front door swung open. Two uniformed police officers entered carefully, guns drawn and pointed. When they saw her they split up. One went to her right. The other came directly toward her, another gun in her face. She saw the words, but heard nothing. Then faded back into reality.

“On the ground now! Face down now!” The officer screamed. She heard the other one on his radio. Calling for backup.

Her hands flew high. “Officers! Listen, he’s dead.”

“Drop the weapon and go face down now!” the officer yelled again.

She didn’t realize she was still clutching the gun in her talon. She released in and let it fall to the floor. He sprinted over and kicked it out of the way and in one motion holstered his weapon and pulled out his handcuffs.

“Face down now!”

She hesitated then obeyed. The officer overpowered her slow motions and clutched her wrist. He clicked the handcuffs on one then the other wrist followed. He pulled her up into a seating position next to the stack of old magazines.

“Now just sit here while we sort this out.” the officer said. “You’re not under arrest yet, this is for my own safety,” he glanced around. “We received a 911 call about a disturbance and shots fired from this residence. Did you make that call?”

Together they looked at the phone laying off the hook and on the floor.

“I—I don’t remember. I must have. I was in shock I—”

“Jesus, look at this,” the other officer said. “We got one here and one over by the fireplace.” He took out his flashlight and shined it all around, up and down.

Susan was sick. She took a deep, calming breath. She could still taste the flash from the gunpowder.

“Officer, listen,” she said. “My name’s Susan Chandler from the suicide prevention center. I came here to help this man. Over there, by that chair you’ll find my purse and notebook. My ID is in there.”

The first officer looked around the chair, even moved it out of the way.

“There’s nothing here except a magazine. You say you had a purse and notebook?”

“Yes, there, right where you are standing. I think I may have thrown it. I—I don’t remember.”

He shook his head and glanced at his partner. “There’s nothing here, ma’am.”

Magma bubbled in her stomach.

“It has to be there!” she screamed.

“There’s nothing. Did you shoot these men?”

“Yes, well no. Not both of them. Only him, Seth, the one by the fireplace. Look he had a gun—he—shot that officer in the head. I saw it. He was going to shoot me too!”

He went over and looked around Seth’s body. Then using his foot, he lifted the front of the chair. “There’s no other gun here,” he said.

“There has to be.”

“You admit you shot this man?”

“Yes, I shot him in self defense. He had a gun and was pointing it at me. Please check in the fireplace.”

“I’m telling you, ma’am ,there’s no gun here. Nothing that even resembles a gun. You sure you saw a gun?”

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“Yes! He had a gun I swear! He shot that officer in the forehead with it! Then he was going to shoot me. He told me to get the officer’s gun and shoot him. He told me to or he was going to kill me.”

“He told you to shoot him or he was going to kill you?”

“Yes. He shot that officer first.” They had to believe. They would believe.

The officer went over to the other body.

“This isn’t a police officer, ma’am. Looks to me like he was a security guard. Did he tell you he was a policeman?”

“Yes, I mean, he was here before I got here, don’t you know him? He called the ambulance. He stood guard.”

“He doesn’t have on his utility belt, ma’am.” The officer looked past her, past the chair she was sitting in and there beside the fireplace. He shined his flashlight and saw what he was looking for. “Is that it over there? Near where you say you were sitting?”

Susan wrenched her neck in the direction where the officer was pointing. She squinted.

The officer went over, putting on blue latex gloves as he went. He picked up the utility belt with his armpit clutching the flashlight. The brightness blinded her.

“The bullets here match the caliber gun we found in your hand. But you’re saying you took the gun from his body?”

“Yes, Seth was pointing a gun at me,” she said through tears. “He told me to go over and pick up the policeman’s gun and kill him or he was going to kill me.”

“There’s no other gun here, ma’am.” The other officer said having completed his search.

“That can’t be—he was going to kill me. The owls—”

“The what?” the first officer asked.

“The owls—they told him to kill me and release them and put me with the others.”

“What others?”

“The other Clarice’s. They told him to kill them all and then me too.”

“You say the owls told him to kill you?”

“Yes—I mean—”

The officer bent down and picked up the magazine that laid by Susan’s chair.

“Do you mean these owls?” He showed her the cover.

“No, the owls in his head, I mean the one’s living inside me. See they take my soul to a new body and—I—I don’t know, it sounds crazy, but the owls told him to kill me.”

“And you heard the owls tell him this?”

A screech.

“No.” She shook her head. “They talk to him. He told me they were telling him that.” She knew she wasn’t making any sense, but nothing would come out right. “Please look again. The gun has to be here.”

Another screech.

“There’s no gun here except yours, ma’am. How do you know these men?”

“Seth—that man by the fireplace— called the hotline—the suicide prevention center hotline— and said he needed help. He wanted to die. He said he wanted me to kill him.”

“And you happily obliged?”

“No, I mean yes, after I got here—” Tears again. Confusion. The stench coming through the floorboards. Nausea. Screeching.

***

An ambulance pulled up outside of the house and parked at the rear of the police cruiser. Behind it, a green Chevy Cavalier pulled up, parked and a well dressed man, early fifties with a salt and pepper beard got out and hurried past the paramedics to the door. The officer tried to hold him back.

“Officer, I’m Dr. Greenfield.” He reached into his inside coat pocket. “Here, I have my credentials.”

The officer scanned the card without taking it into his own hand. He shook his head. “I’m afraid you’re too late, doc. Both vics are dead.”

“Oh, I’m not here for them. I’m not that type of doctor. I’m a psychiatrist.” He pointed with his nose to the barely visible Susan, sitting cross legged on the floor with her hands cuffed behind her. “I’m here for her.”

“You know this woman?”

“Yes, I’m afraid I do.”

The officer thought for a moment. “Alright. But don’t touch anything,” he said then stood aside and let Dr. Greenfield pass.

“Yes, of course. I know my way around crime scenes.” He said and went directly to Susan and put his hand on her shoulder.

She looked up, still confused, but never so happy to see any one person in her entire life.

“Dr. Greenfield! Oh thank God. Thank God you’re here,” she said and attempted to throw her arms around him, but her wrists just strained against the handcuffs. “They’re both dead, it was horrible the whole thing it was—”

He put up both hands. “Calm down now, it’s alright.”

Her face changed. A realization came to her. “But, how— how did you know I was here?”

He gave her a confused look. “You called me and gave me this address. You said you needed my help immediately. Don’t you remember?”

“No, I think I was in shock. I guess I called 911 too.”

“Alright— alright. We’ll sort this all out, the important thing now is to just stay calm.”

“Just please, tell them who I am so I can go home. I need to get out of here.”

“Shhh—relax now,” Greenfield said. He stood up and glanced around at the horror of it all. He saw the two bodies being examined by the paramedics and the policemen putting up yellow crime scene tape. More policemen showed up. Two plain clothes detectives were ready to ask questions.

He looked back at her with a compassionate yet worried expression.

“Oh, Clarice,” he said and swallowed the bile in his throat. “Clarice, what have you done?”

Credit: Jeff Thompson

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