Chapter One

 

AT DUSK I left the swamp to hunt. Cold, windy rain sheeted down on me, making it hard to see and hear. It weighed me down so much that my body matched my hollow, haunted mood. I needed warm blood and hot, pulsing flesh to fill the emptiness inside me.

Silent, I took up my position. I was near a house on the shore of the lake. Unsuspecting people moved in the warm light behind the rain-streaked glass. I could tell they were talking and laughing inside their little bubble of paradise, unaffected by the miserable wet night outside. Unaware they were being watched.

Unaware of me.

I vomited up the remains of my last meal and crouched, muscles ready, as my prey moved into view.

When the last of the day’s light faded, I attacked, dropping fast and silent. Direct hit. My talons curled inward and crushed the life out of the struggling body. When it was completely still, I rose and carried it up a tree. There, I tore it in half and gulped part of it down, feeling its warmth and life transforming itself inside me.

Below me a door slammed. A young man in a white jacket came down the front steps into the storm. He headed toward the lake and the wind-tossed waves where a blue kayak lay on the beach.

Was he crazy?

Usually I tried not to notice people. Too painful. I knew I’d seen this young man around before, but something about him tonight made me look closer. His shoulders were tense as he paused below me. Maybe everything wasn’t as peaceful in the house as it seemed from outside. I inched along my perch so I could see him better. Windblown dark hair. Blue eyes, I thought, though it was hard to tell at this angle. Once, I would have found him very attractive. I moved a little farther out on the limb.

And dropped half a dead squirrel on his head.

He yelled as it slid to the ground.

Mortified, I shrank against the tree trunk. He looked up. His hair was bloody, his forehead was bloody, and his white jacket was bloody. His gaze found me in the twilight. Yes, his eyes were a deep, gorgeous blue. He looked utterly revolted.

I leaped into the air and flew back to my swamp.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

JUST AFTER dawn the next morning, I found myself back at the house by the lake. Something in me just wanted to make sure the guy was all right. It would be horrible if I’d accidently traumatized him into thinking dead things were going to fall out of the sky all the time now.

I flew into a pine tree beside the house. Through the rain I could dimly see people moving around inside. I could smell toast and eggs. I was hungry. The wind had picked up last night, and the temperature had dropped, making every living thing except me go for cover. That half a squirrel was all I’d eaten. But worse than that was the memory of the way the kid had looked at me, the revulsion in his face. It had been a final reminder that there was no way of going back to the things that had once been important to me, like guys with beautiful blue eyes.

A few minutes later, the garage door rumbled up, and an expensive black car backed out. A man was driving—dark and intense-looking, dressed in a business suit. He handled the car expertly, turning around crisply in the allotted spot. A tall woman sat next to him—lighter-haired and also dressed for work in a dark jacket. Though their windows were closed against the rain that dotted the windshield, my keen hearing let me hear the man say, “I still want him checked for rabies.”

The woman said, “Come on, Jack, don’t get hung up on this. The game warden said that it was just a freak thing, and it was highly unlikely that the owl was sick. Just clumsy.”

“Well, if we move back to the city, we wouldn’t have to worry about clumsy owls, would we?”

She laughed. “But we wouldn’t have this view, either.”

He snorted, and whatever he answered was lost in the sound of tires on pavement as the car picked up speed and disappeared down the road.

I rolled my eyes. Rabies, my foot. As if birds could even get rabies. And I’d been distracted, not clumsy. Big difference.

Soon the front door opened, and the blue-eyed kid came out, dressed for school in jeans and a gray hoodie, a backpack slung over one shoulder. To my relief he didn’t warily scan the sky. Instead, he crossed the porch and sat down on the top step. From my angle I just got a glimpse of his features before he sat and bowed his head, but my impression was that they were fine and elegant, sensitive as an artist, yet strong with—I broke off as he put his face in his hands and began to cry. I could hear his sobs easily from my perch.

Shit. Had I really scarred him for life? Was he distressed because he thought he was coming down with rabies? I shook my head to clear it, raindrops swirling around me. Get a grip. A million things could make a teenager stressed. Having half a dead squirrel dropped on his head had certainly not been pleasant, but I really doubted it would cause this level of grief. Unfortunately, there was no way I could reassure him that I was healthy without doing something totally out of character for a wild owl, which would only reinforce the idea that I did, in fact, have rabies. The best thing I could do would be fly silently away and never let him see me again.

A diesel grumbling of an engine coming down the hill broke the sound of rain on leaves and waves against the shore. I saw a glint of yellow through the trees. School bus. Instantly, the guy jumped to his feet, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. He ran down the driveway, waving to kids as the bus approached, moving lightly, confidently. I heard him laugh as the bus lumbered to a halt and the door opened. He sprang up the steps and disappeared inside. Gone was the kid who’d been sobbing minutes before. The doors snapped shut, and the behemoth pulled away.

Huh, I thought, watching it go. That was weird.

As quiet fell again, I shook my feathers, sending more rain spiraling away from me. The smell of diesel exhaust lingered. With it came the memory of once climbing stairs into a school bus and sitting down with my friends.

I banished the memory, locking it away with habit born of three years in exile. Too painful. My old life was over. I was locked in my shifted form for good, held there by the elan in my back. The only memory I’d never been able to lock completely was the feeling of terror and confusion as my grandfather had put it there and then sent me away from my family forever, no longer his grandson but a disgraced criminal who had broken the one unforgivable rule of our clan.

I had revealed myself to humans.

Heavily, I launched into the air and turned my back on the house.

 

 

I COULDN’T sleep. The sun had finally come out and warmed my hollow tree, dispelling the dampness from my bed of leaves, but daytime noises filtered in. A robin sang his love for his mate nearby, a flock of crows winged overhead, and in the distance, a car horn blared. Memories of spring afternoons stirred. I forced them down and tried again for sleep.

Defeated a few minutes later, I hop-flapped up to the entrance hole of my little nest, perched in the opening, and surveyed my swamp. A pair of wood ducks swimming through the duckweed floating in the open water below swam off quickly. I watched them go, then gazed down as the ripples they’d made stirred the moss that coated the bottom of my dead tree and covered fallen logs half submerged in the water. One day my tree would join them in some winter storm and probably take me with it. Pushing aside my morbid thoughts, I shook my feathers into place. Since I was awake, I might as well go compete with hawks and cats in the daylight for prey.

I nailed a bullfrog at the edge of my swamp, and then I flew over the hill, keeping low and under the cover of dense pines. I landed in an oak at the edge of a sports field by the local high school. At night there would be lots of rodents after food scraps under the bleachers. There was a PE class in the field now, playing softball. A couple kids were eating popcorn and watching. The more they dropped, the better. Slowly, I worked the edge of the field, keeping an eye out for squirrels that might be going to head for some popcorn but didn’t see any. Eventually, I ended up in front of the building in a pine that hung over the paved loop where the buses picked up kids. I figured it was just about the time that school would let out.

Not that I’d timed it that way on purpose or anything.

As soon as the bell rang, the front doors opened and kids began ambling out, trying to look cool, phones appearing in their hands. Some headed for their own cars, some waited for buses. The seniors were only a little younger than me.

There he was, coming out and looking cool without trying. I saw him give a high five to a small, plump girl who was walking with a teacher. She beamed at him. He grinned at her, then nodded pleasantly to the teacher and moved closer to the edge of the drive. In a moment friends surrounded him. He talked and laughed and gestured with his hands, and it was obvious that everyone was listening to him. Even I had felt his charisma. Those eyes helped too. I cocked my head and tried to pull his voice out of the crowd. No luck. So I flew into a closer pine, trying to make as little fuss as possible.

Ah. His voice was deep and rich and musical. “So yeah,” he was saying, “this stupid muscle boat blasts past me out of nowhere. He came so close I could have touched him, but he never slowed down. Never saw me. The wake almost knocked me out of my kayak.”

I thought of the blue kayak I’d seen on the beach in front of his house.

“Damn, Vin,” a guy next to him said. “Did you report him?”

Vin. Yeah, he looked like a Vin, I thought.

“No. Didn’t have my phone on me, and by the time I got back to shore, he was long gone.”

“Dude, anybody out in a kayak on a weekend has got to be suicidal,” someone else said. “It’s like an interstate of motorboats out there.”

Vin laughed and waved off the concern. “It’s my happy place.”

“Well, be careful. We don’t want to have to scrape you out of someone’s propeller.”

Before he could answer, one of his friends called out, “Dude, look at that owl!”

Shit. I’d done it again—eased myself along a branch to get a better look. Now I was out in the open, and half the school whipped up their heads to look at me. I tensed, ready to fly off, but I just had to look back at Vin once more. Oh, those eyes. Was he remembering? I knew there was no way he could tell I was the same owl that had drenched his head in blood, but he would certainly associate me with a scene in a horror film. I was ready to see revulsion cross his face again.

But no. Because my senses were so tuned to him, I heard him say softly, “So beautiful.”

Me?

Then the rumble of some approaching buses echoed off the brick building. I spread my wings, dropped off my perch, and flew into the woods. Beautiful. The day suddenly felt a whole lot better.

 

 

I NAILED a mole that popped its head out of somebody’s lawn at the wrong time on the way back to my swamp. Reasonably full, I found myself too wound up to doze until full dark, so, without letting myself think about it too hard, I sort of made my way to Vin’s house again. It was wild and windy there; the strong north wind pounded waves against the shore as though redefining its contours were their only reason for existing. I found a sheltered perch beside Vin’s driveway and surveyed the scene. I still couldn’t get the way he’d been sitting on the porch steps crying that morning out of my head. Added to that was his friend’s comment about someone paddling a kayak in the middle of a busy weekend on the lake being suicidal.

I just… needed to make sure.

By my estimate Vin had been home almost an hour. The house was quiet inside. Which room was his? I assumed the second-floor windows were bedrooms, and one had a nice maple tree growing right outside as though its purpose was to provide me with a perch, but that would be too lucky. Still, I was about to fly over there to check when a flash of color out on the lake froze me.

It was the blue kayak. Holy shit, I thought. He’s out in those waves.

I flew down to a willow on the shore near a short wooden dock, the wind buffeting me enough that I had to land carefully on a moving target. Taking a firm hold with my talons, I focused out on the choppy surface of the water. And there he was, bouncing around. His boat wasn’t even a real kayak in my opinion—it was the kind that a person just sat on top of. It looked like an overgrown pool toy and was probably just as safe.

The wind had come up quickly as it often did in the lake valley. Had he gone out when it was calmer and been taken by surprise? No, damn it all, he was actually paddling away from shore. Granted, he seemed to know what he was doing. I could see from here that his strokes with the double-bladed paddle were sure and deep, rhythmic, and that his body moved to balance itself with the waves, but….

I began to jump up and down on my limb in agitation. Didn’t he know that life could change for the worst in an instant? A single decision could wreck all plans, forever. I’d only lived nineteen years, but I felt ancient compared to him.

And there was nothing I could do except hunker down in the wind and watch.

Vin stayed out until long after the sun set behind dark storm clouds. Then he made his way back to the beach, riding the waves in as though he and the kayak were one with them. I felt a surge of relief as he finally had both feet on dry ground and pulled the kayak up away from the waves. At least he’d been wearing a life jacket. He stowed it under the kayak after he rolled it over, along with the paddle. Then he stretched out his back, ran his hands through his wind-tossed hair, looked out at the water and the dark sky, and then turned and walked toward the house. His steps were heavy, and his head was bowed. I connected with that heaviness of soul immediately.

Something was wrong, and this kid was hiding it from his friends.

He went into the house, and I followed him through it by watching the lights come on and off. His parents weren’t home. Somehow, I got the impression that this was the norm. I expected him to linger in the kitchen to get something to eat, but that room’s light went out quickly. He passed through the living room, and a light came on in the bedroom nearest the maple tree. Yes, I was in luck.

I landed on the perfect maple limb and checked out Vin’s room.

He must have just turned on the light and gone back out, maybe to a bathroom, because he wasn’t in there. The room was painfully neat and clean. His desk was right in front of the window. It held a closed laptop, a few pens, and nothing else. The bed was to my right, a dresser to my left, a closet straight ahead, the door cracked open. Right opposite me was the door to a hallway, which was wide open. There was a bookcase beside his dresser, filled with a mix of textbooks, music books, and some well-worn fantasy novels. At the foot of the bed was a guitar case. His backpack rested on the seat of his desk chair. Nothing was out of place except a blue sweatshirt that was half under the bed against the wall, which he probably hadn’t noticed.

And that was all. He had none of the stuff that my room had collected—interesting stones and pieces of driftwood, piles of books overflowing from the shelves, CDs and DVDs everywhere, a plush bear left over from my childhood. The only artwork on his walls were two abstract prints that would have fit in on the walls of a doctor’s waiting room and matched the color scheme perfectly—earth tones. My walls had been covered with posters of—I banished the memory.

The bite of pain was sharp despite my efforts. Looking at all that had been denied me wasn’t helping my mental state.

Vin came in a few moments later, now wearing dark sweatpants and a hoodie, his wet hair combed. He closed his bedroom door behind him and put his phone down on the desk. Only a thin screen and a layer of darkness separated us. He still had the sense of dejection about him. I watched him straighten a pen, which was out of alignment with the others on the polished wooden surface. His laptop was in the dead center. I thought about the desk I’d once had, where I could find anything I wanted even though it had looked like chaos to the rest of my family.

I tried to harden my heart as he set his pack on the floor and sat down at the desk. I hadn’t gotten much of a sense of his family other than the fact his father thought I had rabies, but they hadn’t seemed like bad people. Certainly there was money, judging from the house’s proximity to the lakeshore. They’d seemed to care about him. Though my grandfather had seemed to care about me, and look how that had turned out.

I had plenty of sorrow of my own without taking on whatever was bugging him. Maybe his family might be less than perfect, but he seemed like a nice guy and had a face and eyes to die for. He had friends. He also had a nice warm house and food in a refrigerator. I had a hole in a hollow tree with a dark, windy night of hunting in front of me.

I reminded myself that I could do what all humans dreamed of—I could fly. Looking in at Vin, that didn’t help much.

I opened my wings. There was nothing I could do here. Moping about in his maple wasn’t doing either of us any good. It was just too painful to see all I had lost sitting before me. Last night and today had taught me that after three years, I needed to finally let it go. Forget. Embrace my inner owl. This was it. No more—

Holy shit!

It wasn’t a pen I’d seen Vin straightening on his desk. It was a long, thin knife. It was in his hand now. His right hand. The blade rested against the soft white skin of his left forearm.

I didn’t think. I launched. I hit the screen in the bottom half of the double-hung window. I thought it would offer a great deal of resistance, but it didn’t. I ripped through it the way I would pass through pine needles, quickly and unharmed.

Vin screamed.

I tried to slow, but I had too much speed. I smashed hard into the wall over his bed and dropped, stunned, onto Vin’s pillow.