"Do Owls Ever Feel Lonely?"
I wasn’t supposed to be on that motorcycle, the one my brother died riding, yet there I was, driving down the California highway, not knowing when I’d stop. It’d been sitting in the driveway two months untouched when I turned the keys in its ignition and left. I just couldn’t stand the sight of mom drinking her tea that morning and maybe I thought I would finally cry if the wind hit my face fast enough but all I wanted to do as I started driving was scream into that salty summer sky.
The motorcycle was old, but I ran it hard, climbing up the familiar curves of the mountainside too fast, testing my abilities to keep my mind from envisioning the moment he slid off this bike a couple miles south. The bike only had a few scuffs to show. But then, my brother hadn’t died because of the bike. He would have died anyway, bike or no. Unless I had been there. But I wasn’t.
Stop – slow down. It'd kill mom if you died too. I was panting when I made it to the top of the cliff. I pulled off and parked at the scenic overlook, down a few spots from the white car at the end, hazy with smoke filling up inside. The kickstand gave out when I climbed off the bike, and it toppled onto the dirt ground. I kicked it and screamed. “Fuck you! Piece of shit.” I screamed, doubled over on my knees in the dirt. The window of the white car rolled down halfway. A teenage boy looked out tentatively, then turned back laughing as the window rolled back up. Grief makes you look crazy. Grief makes you look all sorts of things except for actually grieving.
Calm down. I stood up and walked over to the edge of the cliff. My hands stroked the metal guardrail separating me from a fall of a few hundred feet. The town where I grew up stretched before me. Near the base of the mountain across the valley, I saw it. Our old barn. Riley and I had grown up there. Or rather, in the house next to it. But most of my childhood memories happened beneath that old wooden roof.
My hands gripped the guardrail, and closing my eyes, I was almost back in that barn gripping its old wooden rafter, ready to balance-act my way across a beam twenty feet off the ground.
“Come on, Sarah, just trust in yourself!” Riley called to me from across the rafter.
“What if I fall though?” I shouted, crouched down, gripping tight.
“You won’t,” he shouted back. “And if you do, I’ll swoop down with this rope and catch ya before you even hit the ground.”
“Okay…” At eight-years-old I wanted more than anything to impress my brother, but I was never as brave as him. I stood up and tried to look straight ahead, just like Riley had done a moment before when he had walked across, not even hesitating once.
My bare foot inched in front of the other, then again. I held my arms out wide, like a tight-rope walker’s pole for balance, and I could feel my breath catching in my chest with each step forward. The beam was about a foot wide, but nothing was going to break my fall if I slipped. Then suddenly, as I slid my foot another few inches, a shard of wood pierced my skin.
“Ahh!!” I screamed as I lost my balance and knew I was going to die—yet somehow both my knees hit the beam and I panted, gripping tight, realizing I was still alive. As tears came to my eyes, I looked up and Riley was right in front of me.
“Hey! It’s all right! Look at this, you held on and everything. Anyone can walk across a beam, but not everyone can fall and live to tell the tale.” He smiled at me and held out one of his hands. The other one was holding the rope secured to the other side of the rafter. I sniffed back my tears, got up, and held his hand all the way to the other side of the beam.
When we got there, we laid down on the hay-covered floor of the loft and starred at the ceiling while I caught my breath. Two barn owls were sleeping above us.
My heart was still beating fast with adrenaline and my foot throbbed like hell and then I just started laughing. Riley did too.
“You shoulda seen your face!” he said as he imitated me.
“Yeah, well you woulda been in big trouble if you had got me killed up there. I almost wish I woulda fallen, just to see Mom give you the lashing of your life.”
“Nah, Sarah,” he said while chewing on a long strand of hay. It always made him feel cool to do that. “That’s the thing about older brothers. It’s my duty to never let anything bad happen to you as long as you live.”
“What’s my duty as a little sister then?” I asked.
He thought for a moment. “You see those barn owls?” He pointed up at them.
“Yeah,” I said, “they’re always there together.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a brother and a sister, and they’re always together. That’s like us. The brother’s job is to protect, and the little sister’s job is just to be there with him. Keep him company and stuff. So he doesn’t ever get too lonely.”
I turned to look at him, but he was just looking up at the owls. I remember thinking his eyes looked sad and so much older than ten. I poked him with my pinky. “I pinky promise, I won’t ever let you get too lonely.” He looked at me and smiled, then put his pinky in mine.
“Then from this day on, we’re the barn owls,” he shouted. Still clasping my pinky, his hand formed the shape of a wing. I did the same with mine.
“Hoot hoot!” he called.
“Hoot hoot!” I echoed.
The giddiness of the moment echoes in my mind as I open my eyes and realize where I am. 12 years later. By a cliff and a guardrail. Two months without him.
Although, longer without the real him. I lean my head back and close my eyes against the sun. I scream again. “Fuck!” I direct it toward the white car, toward the teenagers inside it, toward all the druggie teenagers like them, toward the high school dealers who got my brother hooked, just six years after he took my hand and helped me across that beam. Six years after that, he would shoot up and overdose on his motorcycle, trying to leave home.
Not all of his addiction years were bad. We had a good year before his second relapse, the one that killed him. Once that summer, we drove by our old barn. My parents had sold it after their divorce, and we hadn’t been back in years. We parked down the street a bit, just looking at it, reminiscing. Reliving all the stories from our childhood adventures in that barn. It was almost like if we could just remember enough from our childhoods, we wouldn’t ever have to return to our present lives. Story after story, we talked and laughed and cried until the sun set and the stars filled the sky.
“Remember that time you almost fell off the rafter?” he asked.
“Yeah! I was so terrified. I can’t believe I lived.”
He smiled sadly. “Now I’m the one gripping on for dear life.”
“Hey…” I started to say. Just then, from out of the barn flew the two owls. It couldn’t have been the same ones, yet there they were. Still two, still together. “I’ll never let you get lonely up there, whatever rafter you’re on. That’s my job, as your younger sister.” My pinky reached down and locked with his.
He smiled at me and shaped his hand into a wing.
But I did leave him. “I lied to him!” I shouted into the valley. I fell to my knees once more, resting my forehead against the hot metal of the guardrail, clinging on with my hands.
I had gone to college after that summer. Not far, but far enough to move out of the house. He had seemed so good. He was working and everything, he had friends, and he even had a girlfriend. I thought it would be okay to leave. That first Thanksgiving when I got home, I was giddy with excitement to see him. I ran up the front step, flung open the front door, and hugged Mom, the only one waiting for me there. I knew something was wrong by the look in her eyes.
“Sarah…” she started to say.
“No!” I yelled. I ran down the hallway and knocked on his door.
“Riley,” I shouted, “open up!”
He opened the door with gaunt lips pushed with effort into a smile. “Hey kid.” He tried to make it light-hearted but it hung in the air, heavy with shame.
I shook my head, my eyes full of tears. Without his saying a word, I knew. A relapse.
“Hey,” he said, wanting to talk about anything else. “I want to show you something.” He pulled up his sleeve, and on the inside of his pale, thin forearm was a new tattoo. “Do you like it?” He asked.
I looked down at the ink across his arm: a pair of barn owls sitting side by side. “I love it.”
Do owls stay with each other as they die? Or does the dying one hide away somewhere? Riley insisted I return to school, even though I wanted to drop out to be there for him, to be there with him as began the battle again. But he insisted. And I listened. I listened to Riley tell me everything was going to be okay. I listened to him on the phone every week when I checked in on him. And I listened to my mom tell me to come home, now, Riley was dead.
I pressed my forehead harder against the hot guardrail as I began to cry, finally, for the first time since he died. He protected me like he promised he would, yet when he had been gripping onto that beam of his life so hard, I stranded him right in the middle. Do owls ever feel lonely?
“I’ve never felt alone.” One of the final things he said to me. “Not with my kid sister keeping me company.” He locked his pinky in mine.
I don’t know how long I cried, gripping that guardrail by the side of the cliff. Grief plays with time like that, molding it differently each day until you forget you ever understood it. As the afternoon sun sank lower in the sky, my eyes fell to my forearm. Blank. I wiped the back of my hand against my cheeks and walked over to my bike, still laying there on the dirt. I righted it and got on, then drove down the hill. There was a tattoo parlor in the next town over. I wanted one to match his.
Wherever Riley is, I hope he will see it. And I hope he knows how our positions have changed. He can’t protect me anymore, but with every breath I take, I will never be lonely with his memories keeping me company. With every moment of bravery I need, or every promise I keep. With every belly laugh or wave of grief. My brother will be there, just like he was that day on the rafter. Beside me as I make it through, even if only in the sweetest memories of my mind.
I turn my head into the setting sun and drive. “Hoot hoot,” I whisper into the wind.