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As the Owl Flies

by Bradley Ramsey (He/Him) 8 months ago in Short Story
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A night to remember, and a story you won't soon forget

As the Owl Flies
Photo by Keith Lazarus on Unsplash

It was the middle of the night. I had class the next morning, and somehow, I didn't think my professor would believe my excuse this time.

Detective Montañez loomed over the scratched silver table, dressed in a tan trench coat, grimacing through weathered and wrinkled skin. Regarding me with a cold stare, desperately trying to break me through sheer will.

"This isn't looking good for you, kid. Your best friend is dead, the body is gone, and all I've got to go on is this page we found under the doormat outside your apartment," the detective said, slamming a sheet of paper down on the table.

"Listen, I'll tell you again, I don't know who the hell this person is, or what happened to them," I said.

The detective cracked a sarcastic smile, but it faded like smoke into a grimace. He clenched his fists at his side and slammed the table again.

"I'm out of patience, your name was on the fucking envelope! If I had the body still, I'd bet good money your prints are all over it. Just confess asshole, so we can all get on with our lives."

I was equal parts terrified and infuriated. It was like talking to a brick wall.

"I understand what this looks like, but I don't even know this guy's name!"

The detective took a deep breath and let it out as he sat down in the foldout chair across from me.

"Alright, let's assume I believe you. That means that whoever did set up this elaborate scheme to frame you, and somehow managed to wipe this guy clean from existence in the process. His body is gone, his wallet, ID, gone. We've swept his apartment for prints and it's clean. His landlord claims no one has lived in that apartment for months. It's like someone just hit the fucking delete button on his entire existence."

"What about the person who reported the body?" I asked.

The detective shot me a deadpan look. "Nice try, I looked into that. It was an anonymous call, untraceable."

I lifted my hands until the cuffs restricted my movement and pointed to the page.

"Can I at least read what it says?"

The detective's expression remained unamused.

"I assumed you'd know what it says."

"Your asshole friends broke into my apartment while I was asleep and hauled me off in cuffs. The envelope was still sealed, wasn't it? I'm telling you the truth," I said.

The detective slid the page into my reach and stood up. He walked over to the officer standing by the door and spoke to him loud enough for me to hear.

"I'll be back. If he tries anything funny, you have my permission to shoot him."

I picked up the page and held it awkwardly in my cuffed hands. The words were slightly askew, as if they had been written on an ill-maintained typewriter.

Carter held the page in his hands, wondering when Detective Montañez would come storming back into the room. Carter wondered what had made him so bitter, so hostile.

What he didn't know was that Detective Montañez lost his entire family just a year prior. A home break-in, a gruesome massacre, and no evidence to go on. He vowed from that day to never let another murderer go free, and to one day find the one who ruined his life.

Of course, none of that mattered to Carter, who had been hauled out of his apartment in the middle of the night. At this point, Carter is confused, scared, and if everything is going to plan, he doesn't even remember the Writer's name. It's for his own safety.

The Writer was found dead earlier that morning, but before they could cart away his body, he disappeared, along with his wallet, his I.D, and anything that provided proof of his existence.

The only thing left were the Mementos, the pages, the Barn Owl, and his best friend, Carter.

The Writer didn’t want to leave, but a creator must know when a story is worth pursuing, and when it needs to end. This was the end for the Writer, but Carter’s story was just beginning.

The detective has his own role to play, and to him, the page says exactly what he wants it to say. To Carter, the page tells a different story, one that he must follow if he wishes to escape this nightmare.

The next step was close by, in a place where the heart lives.

I set the page down. My first thought is that I should have called a lawyer. My second thought was how I could somehow convince the detective to believe me.

Detective Montañez came back into the room with a paper cup. Steam wafted from the top and the smell of burnt coffee assaulted my senses.

"Interesting read, isn't it?" he asked.

"What does it say when you read it?"

He took a sip from his coffee and shook his head.

"We're not playing that game, Carter. You know exactly what it says. This guy was supposedly your best friend, and the paper says you would know what happened to him. So, start talking."

"You want to know what it says when I read it? It says your bitter, closed off, and hostile, because you lost your family to a murderer that was never caught," I said, staring directly at him.

The color from the detective's face drained. Any sense of confidence fled from him in an instant.

"How do you know that?" he asked.

"That's what it says on this page, right here. Something fucked up is going on, and I need you to help me."

The detective turned to the officer standing guard.

"Put him back in the holding cell. I need a minute."

Despite me yelling at him to see reason, they dragged me off to an empty cell with nothing but a tiny, barred window near the ceiling. Moonlight cascaded through as I sat on the cold metal bench.

I dug through my thoughts, but I couldn't remember anything about a writer, let alone one who was my best friend.

A skittering sound came from the window behind me. I spun around and looked up to see a barn owl perched between the bars. The mixture of white and brown on its feathers seemed to glow in the moonlight.

It sat perfectly still, staring at me through eyes like deep black pools. I stood up and turned to face it.

"Are you the one from the page?" I asked.

The owl was still and silent. I immediately questioned why I thought talking to an owl was a good idea.

"Hey, what are you staring at?"

I spun around and saw the officer from the interrogation room standing outside the door.

"There's a barn owl in the window," I said.

"I don't see anything. You sure you're not on something?"

I looked behind me and saw nothing but moonlight coming through the window above us.

"Detective Montañez wants to question you again. We've found some new evidence in the last hour," the officer said.

The last hour? It's been like five minutes.

"I just got here, how could there be new evidence?" I asked.

"Go to the wall, hands behind your back."

The officer pointed to the back of the cell. I turned around and walked to the wall and placed my hands behind my back. The cold metal of the handcuffs slid around my wrist, and I was on my way back to the interrogation room.

The fluorescent lights above us flickered as the ground shook beneath our feet.

"Stay here," the officer said, drawing his gun.

I stood paralyzed as the cop ran down the hall and through the door into the main office of the precinct. A moment later, gunshots echoed from the room beyond, followed by screams and shouting.

I turned and ran to the opposite side of the hall, spinning around to grasp the knob with my cuffed hands. I tried turning and pushing, but it wouldn't budge.

The gunshots suddenly ceased, and the lights above cut out. Soft red lights kicked on a moment later, bathing the hall in crimson light. In the murky darkness, I saw a silhouette.

"Detective Montañez? Is that you?" I asked.

The figure stepped forward and into the light. It was tall, wearing a cloak and a hood that seemed to blend into the darkness around it. It lifted its head, and from within the hood I could see an outline of brown and a visage of white, as if the barn owl I just saw somehow took human form.

What haunted me most were the eyes. They kept their shape but grew in size to match this new form. I felt like I would fall into an endless abyss if I didn't somehow break eye contact with the figure.

"What do you want?" I asked.

The figure let out a horrific screech that sounded like it would shatter the air around me. I watched as the walls behind and around it crumbled into dust and swirled towards it, as if it were somehow devouring the building itself.

It took a step forward, maintaining a volume that felt like shards of metal burrowing into my skull. The very floor beneath my feet was coming up in chunks of concrete and dirt, crumbling into dust as it swirled into the black maw of the approaching creature.

The door behind me swung open and I stumbled backward. The coarse hands of Detective Montañez caught my fall and pushed me back to my feet. I felt a key slide into the handcuffs and breathed a sigh of relief as they fell to the ground

"Head to the parking lot kid, my car is already running," The detective said.

"Do you believe me now?" I asked, realizing how petty such a question was in the current circumstances.

"You were spot-on about one thing: something fucked up is going on around here. Now go!"

The echoing fire of gunshots rang out behind me as I sprinted towards the police car in the parking lot. The lights were on with no siren, sending waves of blue and red through the night.

I reached the car, struggling to catch my breath as I fumbled with the door on the driver's side.

"Other side, I'm driving!" the detective shouted from behind me.

I ran around the car and fell into the passenger seat, slamming the door behind me. Detective Montañez threw the car into reverse, and I took one last look at the precinct.

The building was shrouded by a vortex of dust. A myriad of colors swirled through the air, peppered by strikes of lightning from within the swirling funnel. Through it all, I could somehow feel the eyes of that barn owl staring back at me through the crumbling dust of the building.

The detective peeled out of the parking lot and onto the main road. We sat in silence for a long while as he sped away from the horrific scene that we narrowly escaped.

"Start talking, you've got to know something," he said, breaking the silence.

I knew repeatedly denying everything wasn't helpful, so I held my tongue to collect my thoughts. Clearly this person knew me somehow, otherwise my name wouldn't have shown up in the page, nor would it have found its way to my apartment.

"I'm almost entirely in the dark here, but when I read the page, it said something about how the next clue is where the heart lives."

The detective nodded. "Home is where the heart is. We swept his whole apartment and found nothing, but it's as good a lead as any."

***

The apartment complex where he lived was called "Hunter's Hollow." The name held no meaning, but I felt a sense of familiarity as we took the concrete steps up to the second floor of his building.

Detective Montañez had his gun drawn as we approached the door. Two strips of yellow crime scene tape were drawn across the door. The detective held up a hand for me to wait as he turned the knob and swung the door open.

The darkened space within was completely silent. The detective climbed through the caution tape and motioned for me to follow. Once we were inside, he shut the door behind us and drew a latex glove over his hand. He passed one to me as well.

"Can't leave any fingerprints, even if there were none when we visited earlier."

He flipped on the light switch in the living room with a gloved hand. The moment the light illuminated the space, I felt a jolt in my mind, like all my synapses firing at once.

My eyes swept the room and looked to the doorway leading to the bedroom.

"What is it?" the detective asked.

"I feel like I've been here before."

"Well, if you two were really best friends, it stands to reason that you've seen his place."

"You're not helping," I said.

The detective threw his hands up in surrender as I walked towards the bedroom. A smell wafted from within, a dry, smoky, fragrant smell. It had to be cologne, but the second it hit my nostrils, my brain fired off images in my mind's eye like a shotgun blast.

I saw a face, possibly his face. He was smiling at me. A warm, comforting look. He was holding a wooden box in his hands, and within was an ornate pen. Blue, with gold trim.

I flipped on the bedroom light with my gloved hand and turned to the desk against the right wall. Without hesitation, I pulled open the drawer on the desk and saw that same pen sitting atop a folded sheet of paper.

"What the fuck? That wasn't here earlier," the detective said.

"I picked up the pen and unfolded the paper. A new set of typewritten text greeted me:

Carter had come face to face with the thing chasing him. At one moment, it was nothing more than a barn owl, but the next it was a shadowy demon, capable of immense suffering and destruction.

It would not stop chasing Carter until it captured and devoured him and everything else.

To escape the nightmare, Carter needed three Mementos.

The first Memento, to anyone else, is but a simple tool with little to no sentimental value. To the Writer, though, it was mightier than any blade.

The next Memento exists in a place lost to time. A place that once defined the Friday night. A place where people gathered to eat, drink, and revel in worlds both familiar and foreign.

I lowered the paper and looked over to the detective.

"I think I know where to go next."

"Good, where are we headed?" He asked.

"Detective, you don't need to come with me. If I understand this, and I barely do, then that thing wants me and me alone."

"Nice try, kid, but I want answers as badly as you do. I'm following this rabbit hole all the way down. Now, where are we going?"

I slid the pen into my pocket, alongside the second page.

"Remember the old arcade? The one inside the mall that closed a few years ago?"

The detective nodded.

"We need to get in," I said.

The detective shook his head. "Fine, but if it turns out you had a hand in this, I'm adding breaking and entering to your charges!"

"Fair enough."

***

"Hey, you with me?"

My entire body tensed up. I surveyed my surroundings, feeling a sense of vertigo as I scanned the area. Just moments prior, I was in the Writer's apartment, and now I was somehow in the old arcade, surrounded by dusty cabinets portraying gaming's history.

"How did I get here?" I asked.

The detective narrowed his eyes. "We drove here, don't you remember? You told me this is where he wanted you to go next."

Why do I keep losing time like this?

"Right, sorry."

My heart skipped a beat once again as one of the dormant arcade cabinets came to life in a flurry of chiptune beats and flashing lights. The game's name was "Into The Dragon's Lair." It was a classic, almost like an interactive movie well before its time.

The controls were simple. The player could move left, right, or swing the knight's sword. Carter had heard. It wasn't terribly long, but it required almost perfect precision to finish without a game over.

I walked over to the machine and placed my hands on the controls. The moment the cool plastic hit my fingertips, a memory flashed in my mind.

I was standing in the arcade while it was still open. I saw him again, looking back at me from beside the cabinet. He handed me a token and gestured to the machine.

"One more try. I have a good feeling about this one," he said.

The memory faded and I was left on the game's starting screen.

"I think I need to finish it," I said.

"Great, this shouldn't take long," the detective said, rubbing his temples.

I hit the start button and watched the animation of the knight entering the castle. A skeleton jumped out from the left. Without hesitation, I pressed the sword button. The knight attacked and swiftly dispatched the foe.

I was shocked.

How did I know to do that?

I continued through the various scenes, my hands moving of their own accord. It was almost like muscle memory, even in scenes that required multiple inputs back-to-back. It felt like second nature.

A loud crash echoed through the arcade. Detective Montañez drew his gun.

"How much longer?" he whispered.

The answer came to me before I had a chance to think about it.

"Three more scenes, just need a few minutes," I replied.

"Good."

I focused in on the final scenes of the game. The knight had conquered the castle, evaded the traps, and was closing in on the lair of the dragon. In true gaming fashion, the princess was being held captive, though why a dragon would take a prisoner is anybody's guess.

In the distance, the arcade cabinets started turning on. One-by-one, the arcade filled with a cacophony of melodies, no doubt aimed to distract me.

"Hurry up kid!" Detective Montañez shouted.

The dragon sat upon a horde of gold, clutching the princess in a glass orb. It shot a blast of fire straight at the knight. I hit the button to jump right, hiding behind a statue that brandished a long tower shield.

The haunting screech of the barn owl creature shot through the arcade, cutting a swathe through the other soundscapes. I heard the crunch of metal and the breaking of glass as it approached.

"We've gotta go, kid!"

"Almost there!"

The knight charged toward the dragon, sword held high. The dragon reared up for another blast. I had a simple choice: either dodge or go in for the kill. For the first time since I started, my mind was unsure.

"Don't be afraid. You can do this."

The Writer's voice echoed in my head. His encouraging words cut through the chaos around me and gave me a confidence I didn't know I had. I pressed the sword button and watched as the knight slayed the dragon and saved the princess. A little trite, but satisfying nonetheless.

The screen on the arcade cabinet started flickering and flashing. An address appeared on the screen for a brief moment before the ticket dispenser turned on beneath the controls.

I looked down as a set of photos printed out in vertical blocks, as if I had just finished getting my picture taken in a photo booth. I picked up the string of photos and looked at them. It looked like two people in the photo, but the faces were blurred beyond recognition.

"Is that it?" Detective Montañez asked, sweat beading on his forehead.

"I think so. There was an address on the screen for a second too. I think that's where we need to go next."

"Madre mía! This had better be leading somewhere."

I looked back into the arcade and saw the hooded figure approaching. Those deep black eyes regarded me from behind a feathery visage. It moved slowly, purposefully towards me.

Arcade cabinets crumpled like soda cans and rocketed towards the space where its mouth should be. I heard the detective shouting at me, felt him grab my arm, but I couldn't avert my gaze from those eyes.

I blinked, and once again time had passed without my knowledge.

***

"This is the address. You going to read that paper on the door or what? We barely escaped from that damn arcade, and I want to be out of here before that thing finds us!" Detective Montañez said.

I shook my head, trying to ignore the lost time, and opened the page folded and taped to the wooden door. We were standing outside a cabin on the shore of a lake, in the middle of the forest.

I started reading:

It is here that Carter would find the final Memento.

The Writer had one last message for his dear friend:

“Carter, I don’t know how to say this, so I’ll just come right out with it. You believe your world to be your own, but this is nothing more than the musing of a broken creator.

This world, this reality, everything you know? None of it is real. It's all a story I wrote. I realize how insane that sounds, but you have to escape before the barn owl finds you.

It's the familiar spirit of an ancient writer who used this same magic, and was destroyed by it, leaving the barn owl alone and broken themselves.

If tragedy breeds anger, rage, and destruction, then the owl is tragedy incarnate.

You must escape before it frees itself from this world of my own creation. If it broke free, it would devour everything in the pursuit of cosmic vengeance.

When you escape, I’ll explain everything. In the meantime, just remember the ritual’s primary rule:

Creation is equal parts memory and sacrifice.

I lowered the page. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, I knew the barn owl was close behind, but I was still paralyzed by it all. With a simple phrase, my entire existence was called into question.

He's delusional, right?

I turned the knob on the door and pushed it open. The musty smell of wood greeted me as I walked into the cabin.

Detective Montañez followed behind and the door slammed shut. All around the dark cabin, candles erupted in flame on various tables and countertops.

Detective Montañez tried to force the door open, but to no avail.

"This feels like a trap!" he shouted.

I stepped into the cabin, feeling a sense of nostalgia wash over me. It was a place foreign to me, and yet infinitely familiar at the same time. I looked over to the wall and saw framed photos arranged in a circle. In all of them, the faces were blurred.

I approached the table and my senses were hit with a strange combination of seawater and fresh fish. I heard the growl of a boat engine churning in the water.

Beneath the photos, laying on the table against the wall, was a pair of fishing rods. I reached down and picked one of them up. The moment I touched it, the walls around us groaned.

This had to be it. I set the fishing rod back down on the table, followed by the photo strip from the arcade, and the pen from the apartment.

Okay, now what?

The walls groaned again. I looked to my left and watched as the wood retreated away from the wall, revealing an ornate door with three locks in a vertical line.

Brilliant golden light shined through ornate colored stain glass on top of the door, arranged in a semi-circle.

While I stared at the door, a howling shriek broke the silence. Above us, the roof of the cabin shattered and crumbled as it flew into the night sky. I looked up and saw a gigantic barn owl, with a wingspan that blocked out of the moon, descending towards us.

Detective Montañez ran to my side and pointed his gun up at the sky.

"That door looks promising, but this last one's on you. Something tells me I'm not getting out of this one."

"Don't worry, I'll figure this out and we'll get out together."

Detective Montañez cracked a smile.

"You're a shitty liar, kid."

I shut my eyes as the impossibly large barn owl descended upon us. I had the three Mementos, but I needed three keys.

"Creation is equal parts memory and sacrifice."

My eyes shot open. I ran over to the table and picked up the photo strip from the arcade. The faces weren't blurry anymore.

It was me. I looked genuinely happy. Beside me, the Writer grinned from ear-to-ear. I looked up at the photos above the table and saw us. A photo of us fishing, one of us hiking. Why didn't I remember any of this?

I heard Detective Montañez fire off several rounds at the sky. The screech was becoming so loud that it felt like my insides were vibrating. I placed the photo strip over one of the open flames.

The moment it caught fire, a bronze key took its place and landed on the table. I picked up the key and held it over the pen. With several impacts, the shell of the pen cracked and ink bled out from within.

A flash of light, and it too had become a key. Lastly, I grabbed the fishing rod and snapped it in half over my knee. Sure enough, the third key clattered to the ground at my feet.

I started towards the door, feeling the air around me crumbling as the wall of the cabin started to come down. I slid the keys into the locks and turned them. The golden light shot through as it swung open. I turned back to Detective Montañez just as a pair of hands grabbed me and pulled me through.

***

I fell onto the ground, finding myself in the same cabin I had just left, though this one was intact. My head was throbbing, and my ears were still ringing from the screech of the barn owl.

"Holy shit, it worked!" a voice said.

I looked up and saw the Writer looking down at me. His eyes were glistening with tears and he helped me to my feet.

"What's going on, why are we back here? Where's Detective Montañez?" I asked.

The Writer laid his hands on my shoulders and smiled through the tears.

"He's not real, he was just a character in the story. He served his purpose."

I threw off the Writer's hands and stepped back.

"Served his purpose? He died because of me!"

"Carter, please, I know you're confused, but none of that was real!"

"This cabin looks and even smells just like the one before. If that one wasn't real, how is this one any different? If Detective Montañez wasn't real, then how am I?"

The Writer wiped tears from his eyes and picked up a thick, leather-bound book from the coffee table.

"I brought you back, Carter. I couldn't bear to live in a world without you in it. They told me it wasn't possible, that even magic has its limits, but you're here, and we can be together again."

"Together? I don't even know your name," I said.

The Writer extended his hand.

"Ash Reinheart. Nice to meet you, again."

I took his hand in mine. He was a stranger to me, and yet this felt right.

"Listen, I'm sorry for your loss, but I'm not him. Maybe I could be, but, until tonight, I didn't even know who you were."

Ash nodded. "I understand, this must all be overwhelming, but you can't deny that there's something there between us, can you?"

I didn't know. Growing up, even if my memories were fake, I never really knew what love felt like. I never felt that spark. I wasn't even sure I felt it now, but I couldn't deny that I felt something.

"I'm grateful that you saved me from that thing, but I'm still not sure I completely understand what happened tonight."

Ash walked over to the kitchen and produced a pair of glasses. He poured from a glass bottle of scotch into both and handed me one.

"Just, give me a chance, will you? Your memories may still come back. I don't know, I've never done this before."

I shrugged and sipped from the glass.

"Neither have I," I said, stifling a laugh.

Ash chuckled. I had to admit, his smile was infectious. Maybe there could be something here, once I came to terms with everything that had happened.

"I'll give you a chance, on one condition," I said.

"Anything, name your price."

I looked over to the leather-bound book. The source of everything that had transpired.

"Destroy it. Whatever you used to bring me back, I want it gone."

"Of course, I will. After all, I already got the ending I wanted."

Ash smiled and raised his glass. "To happy endings?"

I lifted my glass and clinked it against his.

"To happy endings."

Short Story

About the author

Bradley Ramsey (He/Him)

Lover of dogs, gaming, and long walks on the beach. Content Marketing Manager by day, aspiring writer by night. Long time ghostwriter, finally stepping into the light. Alone, we cannot change this world, but we can create better ones.

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