by L.M. Burklin
Don Kouris stopped dead in his tracks when he realized what he was seeing. Three thugs from his university football team: Aaron Frick, Ben Huber, and Josh Smith. They were beating up a young man he didn’t recognize. Don just wanted to get to his car and drive home to his sister, but his car was between him and the altercation, which meant he’d have to run toward it. Maybe they wouldn’t notice him.
He ran to his beat-up old Geo Prizm, thankful that he never bothered to lock it. Opening the door, he flung his books in, jumped into the driver’s seat, and was turning the key before he even had the door shut. In front of him, he saw the attack victim slump to the asphalt and lie motionless. He revved the engine as the three attackers looked in his direction—and recognized him as their English tutor. “Kouris!” Frick yelled.
Don floored his gutless junker and careened past the other men before exiting the parking lot and turning north. He wasn’t about to drive home now—not until he was sure they wouldn’t follow him there, wouldn’t disturb Athena or target his house. He tried to slow his breathing. Why should they care that he saw them beating some other guy up? No doubt they had done it before and would do it again.
The evening light was fading, and Don had just begun to breathe more easily, when he saw the huge blue pickup truck coming up behind him with brights glaring from the headlight and on top of the cab, putting his tiny red car in the spotlight. He knew that truck. Everyone did. It belonged to Aaron Frick, the ringleader of the three stooges he was coaching through Remedial English.
Aaron’s truck could easily demolish his little Prizm without even trying. He had no chance of outrunning it. His only hope was to go somewhere the big truck couldn’t follow. The town lay behind him now, and he looked for a little side road in the forest that might offer some refuge.
Up ahead, his headlights caught a barn owl in flight. It flew straight in front of him for a moment, then veered right and perched on a tree stump. Almost too late, he saw that the tree stump marked the entrance to a dirt road. More of a track, really.
Stomping on his brakes, he jerked his steering wheel to the right and slid onto the dirt track, his car bottoming out twice on the ruts as he did so. As he drove forward on the track, in his rear view mirror he saw the big truck overshoot the turn. “Ha!” he said. But he knew it would soon be on his tail again, and its clearance would make it much easier to drive down the overgrown track. Unless . . .
The owl flitted in front of him again. He slowed as he saw what lay in the road ahead: a depression filled with water, and across it a fallen tree. The tree had been caught in the thick undergrowth on the other side, so the trunk was a good five feet above the surface of the water. Maybe he could squeeze his little car under there. Maybe. The truck would certainly not fit. He could hear its big engine roaring as it turned onto the track behind him.
Breathing heavily, he inched forward down the slope and into the water. He had no idea how deep that water was. Why hadn’t he been sensible and driven to the police station? What an idiot he was. And he had left his cell phone sitting on the kitchen table that morning instead of taking it with him. His sister Athena must be wondering where in the world he was.
His front wheels splashed into the dark water. He rolled down his window and looked up at the fallen tree as he approached. It was going to be close. The water reached his axles and his tires began to sink into the mud. He instinctively ducked as the tree loomed right in front of him. “Please God,” he said aloud, “Please don’t let me get stuck under this tree.”
A horrific screeching noise interrupted his prayer as his car scraped under the tree trunk, which pushed him deeper into the mud. His tires spun, but he had stopped moving. Reversing was not an option. He had no hope of getting his car out of the mud before the truck arrived.
He turned off the engine and pulled himself out of the window, grabbing his little flashlight from the door pocket on his way out. The headlights of the truck bounced along the track several hundred yards behind him and would soon shine on his predicament.
He waded through the mud to the far side of the puddle, barely noticing how cold it was. Ahead of him, the owl screeched, a sound every bit as jarring as the tree on his car roof. He staggered toward the sound, mud dripping from his sneakers and jeans. He didn’t want to turn on his flashlight because it would give away his location. In the deepening twilight, he tried to follow the track. Every time he looked up, there was the owl, flitting ahead of him or sitting on a branch beside the track. Not having a better plan, he kept following it, picking up his pace until he was running.
Out of breath, he emerged into an overgrown clearing which contained a collapsed log cabin and a rickety abandoned barn. He looked for the owl, but it must have decided it had helped him enough.
Walking toward the barn, he had a vague idea that maybe there’d be something inside that he could use to defend himself, even if it was just an old board. Then his heart stopped for the second time that evening. Someone stood in the shadows of the open barn door. He froze.
“Don’t be afraid,” a woman’s voice said. She stepped forward in the dim light of the rising moon. “I won’t hurt you.”
She was tall—tall and beautiful, with dark hair and pale skin. It was impossible to see the color of her eyes in that light. She wore dark clothing—hiking pants, a turtleneck, and a padded vest.
“Who are you?” Don asked.
“You may call me Chouette,” she said, a hint of a smile on her lips. She had a slight accent that he couldn’t identify.
His breathing slowed. “Sounds French,” he said. “My people are Greek. My name is Adonis Kouris, but everyone calls me Don. Believe it or not, I have a sister named Athena.”
The almost-smile flitted across Chouette’s face again. “I do believe it. But more importantly, you look like a man who needs help.” She stared pointedly at his muddy feet and legs.
“I’ve got three goons behind me in a big blue pickup truck,” he said. “My car is stuck in the mud under a fallen tree.”
“Why are these men after you?” she asked, stepping closer and looking into his eyes.
“I saw them beat someone up in the parking lot at the university. For all I know, they might have killed him. He wasn’t moving. I just wanted to get in my car and drive home, but they followed me. I didn’t dare go home. My sister is very sick with leukemia and I don’t want anyone hassling her. An owl led me here.”
She nodded. “Yes, the owl sensed you were in trouble. Owls are very wise, you know.”
“Do you know this area?” Don asked. “Can you show me a place to hide? Or is there anything in that barn I could use to defend myself?”
“Let’s look,” she said. “Do you have a light?”
He followed her into the barn and turned on his flashlight, playing it over the dusty interior. It revealed a tractor with no wheels, some rotten hay bales, an old metal bucket, a circular saw blade with missing teeth, a rake with half its tines missing, a stool with a missing leg, and a rusty scythe with a wooden handle.
He grabbed the scythe. The handle was still solid.
In the distance a horn honked over and over.
Don looked at Chouette. “I guess they found my car,” he said. “Maybe they won’t even bother to try and follow me on foot.”
“I can be very stealthy,” she said. “I’ll just sneak through the forest and see if I can figure out what they’re doing. You stay here and come up with a plan to defend yourself if you have to.”
He watched as she melted into the forest, going in the direction he’d come from. For the first time, he wondered what she was doing here. Surely she didn’t live in this old ruin? He hadn’t seen any signs of habitation.
Looking around the decaying barn, he struggled to come up with a plan. As a graduate assistant in English, he didn’t have much experience with any kind of self defense. He had a scythe and a tractor with no wheels. And a broken rake. And a saw blade.
He shone his flashlight over the barn interior again, looking into every nook and corner. Hanging from a nail under the hayloft, he found a neatly-coiled length of dusty rope. “That’s what I’m talking about!” he said. He’d watched enough movies to know what to do with rope.
He grabbed the rope and sneezed as he shook off the dust. Slinging the rope over his shoulder, he ran for the track he’d come in on. As soon as he was in the shelter of the trees, he tied the rope to a tree trunk on one side of the track, then tied it to another tree on the other side, right at shin level.
He pulled his pocket knife out and sawed through the rope as he listened to shouting and cursing from his pursuers. “Please give up,” he muttered. “I’m not worth it.”
He jogged a few yards farther down the track and strung another shin-buster rope. He didn’t have enough rope to do it a third time, so he turned around and headed for the barn. He stopped to make sure the ropes were not visible in the deep shade of the forest, hoping that Aaron and his minions didn’t have flashlights. The owl flew across his path and disappeared into the forest.
It occurred to him that while a smart owl was great in its way, he’d rather have his cell phone so he could call for help.
He almost tripped over the second rope himself as he returned to the clearing. That was a good sign, he thought. He walked back to the barn to find Chouette there waiting.
“They are coming,” she said, as he grabbed the scythe again. “Apparently you can identify them, so they desire to silence you.”
“Huh,” he said. “That’s a nice way of referring to murder.”
“The biggest one,” she added, “has a gun.”
Of course he did. That was about Frick’s style. Don’s legs trembled with fear.
“There’s a saying,” he told Chouette. “Never bring a scythe to a gunfight.”
This time she smiled all the way. “I will help you,” she said. “I know a thing or two about fighting. Give me the scythe. You grab the rake, and stay behind me.”
She had such an air of authority that Don didn’t question her. He handed her the scythe and picked up the rake. A moment later he heard loud yelling coming from the track. He hoped that meant at least one of the three had tripped over the first rope. Shortly afterward, two figures ran toward the clearing. They appeared to be racing each other, and therefore since they ran right beside each other, they both tripped over the second rope and went sprawling into the dirt. Huber went down hard.
Don’s hope that the tumble would discourage them vanished when Frick rolled up onto his knees and then stood, drawing a pistol at the same time. Huber rolled around in the dirt, whining about an injury to his face.
Frick aimed the pistol at Don. “I’m sorry, Kouris,” he said. “You’ve been a big help to me in English. But I can’t have you ratting on us. We were just having a little fun and it got out of hand.”
“I’m sorry I helped you if you’re the kind of guy who thinks murder is fun,” Don said.
Frick shrugged. “Some things are unavoidable,” he said, “but they have to be done all the same. Pity your girlfriend has now seen us too.” Don watched his finger squeeze the trigger, too stunned to even dive for cover.
In that instant, several things happened simultaneously. Chouette grew taller and brighter. Her padded vest became bright silver armor. The rusty bucket in the barn flew through the air, and by the time it landed on her head, it was a shiny silver helmet. The scythe morphed into a fearsome sharp spear, and the circular saw blade leaped into Chouette’s hand and became an embossed silver shield. All of these things happened in the time it took the bullet to travel from Frick’s gun to the barn.
The bullet bounced harmlessly off the bright shield and fell to the ground. Frick shot again and again, but Chouette easily parried his shots with her shield—and each time she stepped closer to him. Huber staggered to his feet and stared wide-eyed at Chouette as she continued to advance. Don stayed put in the barn, watching in awe.
Frick shot his last bullet, and when he realized the gun was empty, he threw it aside and charged toward Chouette with a roar of rage. She leveled her spear at him and he had a change of heart. He turned and ran toward the track, with Huber close behind him. In their haste to get away, they both tripped over the rope again.
Chouette followed them with her spear, and then when they fell over the rope, she changed. Don wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes. Where Chouette had been a moment before, there was now his barn owl friend, screeching loudly and flying repeatedly at Frick and Huber with her razor-sharp talons.
Screaming in terror, they ran for the truck, no doubt picking up their friend Smith on the way. Don stood in the barn doorway, still holding his rake, and listened to the sound of an engine revving repeatedly, and then receding.
Moments later, the owl flew into the clearing and transformed back into Chouette. She walked toward him, smiling, wearing her dark hiking clothes.
“I’ve still got it,” she said, striking a heroic pose.
“That was incredible,” he agreed. “But who are you, really? Please tell me. I’m pretty sure your name isn’t Chouette.”
“Haven’t you guessed?” she said. “Surely you’re familiar with Greek mythology.”
A frisson of fear and wonder shot through his body. He reviewed what he’d seen: an owl, a helmet, a spear, a shield. “Athena?” he said. “The goddess?”
She laughed, a beautiful silvery laugh. “Your ancestors found it much easier to believe in gods than in visitors from another galaxy,” she said, “so we let them. There aren’t very many of us left, but now and then we still like to interfere a little in human affairs. It amuses us.”
His mind reeled. “Thank you so much,” he said. “I wish you could help my sister too.”
“The very sick one who’s named after me?” she asked. “Perhaps you should get home to her. No doubt she’s worried you haven’t come home yet.”
“My car is stuck under the tree in the mud,” he said. “It’ll take hours to get home on foot.”
“Your car is muddy and scratched, but no longer stuck,” she said. “I took the liberty of extracting it after the truck had left.”
“Thank you so much.” He tried to imagine how much strength it must have taken to pull the car out of deep mud.
She smiled again. “I’ll walk you to your car.” Tall and stately, she accompanied him along the track toward the main road.
“You know you won’t be able to tell anyone about this, don’t you?” she said. “They wouldn’t believe you, and you’ll need every ounce of your credibility to put those three guys behind bars. I’m counting on you to turn them in and see they are held responsible for both attacks tonight.”
“I’ll do my best,” he said.
“That’s all I’ve ever asked of anyone,” she responded.
They reached his car, and as he pulled on the door handle, she stopped him.
“Adonis,” she said, “when you see your sister, you must give her a kiss from me. Like this.” She leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead. “Promise me you’ll do that.”
He nodded. Heat bloomed from the spot she had kissed and spread over his face and then to his whole body. He climbed shakily into his car, started it, and turned to wave to Chouette. She had vanished, but as he drove back toward the main road, a beautiful barn owl flew in front of him. It perched on the stump by the turnoff and stared at him as he drove past, screeching in farewell.
When he walked in the door, he found his sister Athena lounging on the couch watching television. “I’m sorry I’m late,” he said. “I ran into some trouble.”
Her pale face took in his disheveled appearance and muddy clothes. “Don! Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “A friend helped me. She said to give you this.” He stepped forward and bent over his frail sister, kissing her on the forehead. A strange sensation spread through his body—as if something precious had been taken from it. For a moment, he felt bereft.
Athena sat up straight. “Do we have any food in the house?” she asked. She hadn’t been hungry in weeks.
He sat down beside her. “I think I can rustle something up. You stay here and rest.”
He stood to go to the kitchen, and she stood with him. “I’m not tired,” she said. “Let’s make something fun together. How about spanakopita?”
“Spanakopita it is,” he said. “You get the spinach and feta, and I’ll pull that phyllo out of the freezer.”
He reached into the freezer for the phyllo pastry, and as he did so he glimpsed something from the corner of his eye and turned to look. A barn owl perched on the windowsill and stared at him. He locked eyes with it for a moment. Screeching loudly, it flew off into the night.
Grinning at the sight, he said, “Thanks, Athena.”
His sister flashed him a smile. “Thanks for what?”
About the Creator
Linda Burklin grew up telling stories in Africa before earning her degree in English. She has taught writing for over 20 years, and has authored a memoir, many short stories, and 7 novels. Her passion is YA speculative fiction.
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