Lara, taking the dark path behind. Lara, cold night air. Jacob in the kitchen, frying his ambition in kid-chatter. Jacob cupping plans like colored marbles, yearning for more than can fit in his two hands. He unpacks the lunchbox, Noah playing dinosaur on the back of the sofa with his jacket pulled over his head to look fierce. Lara gone leaving the door unlatched, Jacob bitterly mouthing the words she spit out, deep dark forest and all. Reality’s always been enough for him, maybe not easy, but he never signed up to play in this movie. Lays out a track for Noah’s cars under the coffee table, yeah, Mom’s at a meeting, she won’t be back till after you’re asleep. He smokes weed, that’s his business, to hell with Lara, he’s a man. And now a man alone, and what makes her think he’ll just stay put?
Another day he’s under the sink on his back, tearing duct tape with his teeth, no point even trying the wrench. Hears her boots click across the linoleum to the door, oh yes, gone before he can even worm his way out to ask what she’s doing. Lara’s body used to be warm as a bun, he’d curl his tongue down into the sugar layers, lick flakes of sweetness, but not anymore. Now stiff as bone shards, balsam and feral reek, she’s climbing into bed at dawn while he pretends to sleep. Blood on the sheets, sure, but smeared under the pillow? His mother told him; warned him till he threw the can-opener so hard it broke the kitchen window. God. Well, now he gets to lie in the bed Mom always said he was making for himself, only not the way she thought.
He just needs to advertise a little more, get a couple high-end clients, then he can tell Lara NO, no more disappearing act, you stay home and spread the peanut butter on Noah’s bread, you put away the juice boxes and clean up the cat barf. What’s he supposed to do, he doesn’t have a fucking clue, like the morning she didn’t come back till Noah was already up, eating sticky handfuls of cereal out of the box and watching horrible cartoons, the kid’ll grow up without ever seeing what decent animation looks like, Christ, and Lara flounces in all damp and wrong-smelling, right through the kitchen like a normal mother. What right, he stands in front of her, what right does she have? To play at being a mother who cares? She turns off the TV and he turns it back on, just to prove she’s lost her standing, and he hates the way Noah looks scared and scrambles off the couch to get away from both of them.
It’s later, he knows better than to phone his mother, he’s just looking for help to hate Lara for five minutes, and as soon as he hits Send he realizes how pointless. Same old same old, No mom, she’s not having an affair, gotta go. Out, just out, cross paths with her on the front walkway, this time he’ll be the one who gets to disappear, it’s his turn. Her coffee all familiar smelling in the cupholder, driver’s seat still warm from her butt, damn, he never feels this close when she’s actually there.
Drink till closing time, then make it back to the icy car, fuck, not even enough in his wallet for a motel. Sitting there all puddled up in the parking lot, when he could be driving off a bridge or something. He’d do it, but Noah. That’s the thing, having a kid. You turn in your exit pass.
Maybe he slept, he doesn’t know how to tell. A scrabbling sound at the windshield, Christ, his head, and something’s outside staring in. Round yellow eyes, dark body lump. He tries to swallow, sour spit. Roll up the window, it was cracked open an inch, keep the thing outside while he figures out if he’s hallucinating. Did someone mess with his drink? He rubs at the fog in his brain or on the inside of the windshield. Jesus, what kind of owl is that big? He already knows, of course, but doesn’t want to know. Refuses to know. He bangs on the windshield with both fists to scare it away, but it jumps back, then starts scrabbling again with its claws, like it wants to dig right through the glass.
Just drive away, if he can find the keys he dropped, but he refuses to do that, too. You start running, where does it end? She can’t make him. And what about Noah? The name shoots so much rage down his arms it’s hard to work the door handle, and then he’s on his feet outside yelling, flailing, get the fuck away, go be a monster somewhere else.
But the owl is too quick, darting behind his head and he feels the sweep of a warm wing across the back of his neck. Talons grip his shoulder, almost pinching through the jacket, a hurricane of feathers against his hair. Guttural sound in his ear, goosebumps. He pummels the soft body, grabs and clenches down hard—and that’s when something razors across his forehead. The pain makes his hands go limp, then his whole body, curled down into himself, beaten, with his own blood wetting his eyes. The feral thing lifts up and away, soundless, and vanishes between dark trees beyond the parking lot.
Jacob alone, pain in his forehead sharp and dull like an alternating red and blue emergency. In his fist, a few silky strands still wind between his fingers, and he doesn’t need the light of the open car door to see they’re not feathers. He brings his hand to his nose and inhales her tangerine shampoo smell, the most familiar thing in the world, while the cars over on the highway sound like a dark river rushing into the next world.
Betsy Sharp is a writer and ceramic artist living on a small, thorny island in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Sun, Crab Creek Review, Quiddity, and other places. Find her on Twitter: @BetsyASharp.