About the Feature
Winner of the 2022 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction
Selected by Ramona Ausubel
Photo by Mathew Schwartz
Past dusk, Hom releases the squirrel. Huffing and delirious with pain from the BB shot embedded in a hind leg, it limps across the yard, seeking refuge in the shadowy expanse. Clouds disperse, unveiling a bright gibbous moon. Exposed, the squirrel jerks its head, then hops a few steps before collapsing again. It pauses in the low grass. Hom had mown it earlier that day almost to fairway depth so there’d be less cover.
“Won’t be long now,” Hom whispers, hunkering in his backyard blind. “Check your focus.”
“How about some more light, man?” says a guest.
“Motion activated,” Hom says. “Stay alert. There’ll be only one pass.”
“I feel fog,” says another, wiping her forearm.
It’s cool for early July, the night air tinged with moisture. Fog would spoil the outing, yes, and this side of the lake is frequently shrouded during spring and fall months. If it materializes here, in midsummer, it won’t happen for hours.
“No worries,” Hom says. “Now please, dead silence. An owl can hear your mind churning.”
He loves fielding questions because he has all the answers. He studied up on barred owls all winter and finds them much more interesting—and accessible—than the bald eagles he offered last year and certainly more mysterious than the guided waterfowl tour he tried the year before (ducks = dull . . . Hello!). Guests—no, his fans—can ask away once they return to his patio for a glass of Nebbiolo and image shares, but now, in the gloaming, it is magic time.
As the moments pass, Hom feels giddy on their behalf. The four of them are huddled along the viewing counter within the blind, eyes forward, fingers at the ready, breathing held. None of them has witnessed an owl in flight, they say, nor certainly collecting a meal. These are especially private, secretive avians whose numbers have been dwindling around Pymatuning Lake for several years. In fact, there is only one left on Hom’s own waterfront rental, an eastern screech he has nicknamed Omega.
It is possible Hom’s frequent photo sessions have contributed to the fleeing of these great creatures to less shutterbuggy parts, and though he is loath to admit this, the ones that have perished from collisions with area vehicles may have become, perhaps due to Hom’s baiting techniques—which, okay, are quite illegal in PA, but hey, effective—too inured to humans for their own good. Can Hom help it if folks love the damned things?
The squirrel struggles for a hedgerow thirty feet off. Omega swoops in—silent, efficient. His wings maintain a slow, steady beat as he scoops his prey. Sensors activate banks of light, illuminating the scene, Omega’s rufous and gray feathering, the generous tuft of white on his chest. Guests inhale. Buttons are pressed. Untroubled, Omega flies toward them, toward a perch near the nesting box Hom erected awhile back, the squirrel hang gliding from the owl’s talons in a compliant shrug as if it knows not to upstage the true star of this production. A second later, both are out of sight.
Inside the blind, guests review their memory cards, retrieve their shoes.
“Holy shit!” one says.
“Magnificent,” sighs another.
“You are most welcome,” Hom says, grinning proudly. “Please spread the word—and emphasize my exceptional character.”
“I didn’t say our government is causing every natural disaster on the planet. They’re just using them to their advantage. Big difference. But you know, you bring that up now, you put that in my head? I can believe it. Absolutely. One hundred percent. Politicians, NASA, the CIA. That’s no stretch. Oh yeah.”
When Dory goes on like this, Evelyn worries he’s a liability, that his head’s not screwed into their deal, and that’s the last thing she needs this summer. With the next drop, they’ll match their buy-in, including expenses. After that, they just forfeit twenty percent of what they earn for each drop, the price of doing business. The rest they pump into the lakeside property they bought with their combined savings and every scrap of credit they could wangle.
“Now you got me really thinking,” Dory says. He hands Evelyn a Bloody Mary, then moves back down their living room bar to concoct his own. “You got this major explosion of cataclysmic weather phenomena blitzing the country the last few years—inland hurricanes, earthquakes where there aren’t any faults, urban wildfires. Like, nonstop in pretty much every state of our union. Compound that with microbursts attacking like precision bombs—bang bang bang!—which is really suspicious, you know, and I think you do, such pinpoint accuracy, how focused they are. Somebody’s got to be behind that, right? Actual humans. It’s too intentional.”
“I wish you’d been more intentional with my drink,” Evelyn says. “There’s no Worcestershire.”
“Shit!” Dory says. He bends down to the mini fridge, stays there. “We’re out,” he yells up. “Unless it’s in the pantry.”
“It’s not a pantry if you can’t walk into it.”
“Whatever. How about more Tabasco instead?”
He slides the petite bottle down the thick, smooth polyurethane finish of the bar, toward the far end where Evelyn sits. She cups it when it reaches her, and though she won’t admit it to Dory—because to encourage him is to endorse his juvenile habits, at a time when he needs to be most adult—hearing the Tabasco whoosh along the glistening bar top, watching it glide sure and steady, as if friction were a lie, thrills her. It’s the first piece Dory restored, a Spanish cedar behemoth that looks as rich and welcoming now as it has in Evelyn’s memory. When they ultimately accept members, she will throw elegant parties and reaccumulate a stable of fascinating friends. It will be just like it was when she was growing up. Evelyn has been too long without social standing. Marrying down will do that to a girl.
She tries more Tabasco. It doesn’t satisfy her.
The lakeside property they’re in had been an intimate, urbane tavern in Evelyn’s family for nearly a century, until her father was sent to prison fifteen years ago. In her early twenties at the time, Evelyn tried to keep it up alone, but the area had long been transitioning away from such gentility. The remaining clientele were dying out, the seasonal population converting from well-to-do business and factory owners enjoying sailboats and Sunday socials to what Evelyn’s father would call “punks and nudniks.” These are the selfish, conscienceless class who lack refinement and any sense of community. They scissor the lake with full-throttled Jet Skis and prefer whooping to meaningful conversation. They arrive on Fridays, bearing their own food and liquor, erupt on Saturdays, and bolt on Sundays, leaving trash in their wake and little cash in the coffers of local establishments. Older restaurants and specialty shops, those long nestled among neighborhoods that used to support them, have closed and been left to rot. A few, such as this, the Straddle, have been converted into cottages and makeshift B&Bs whose owners live hundreds of miles away and pay gig workers to turn over for them. What was once a thriving social ecosystem has debauched into a fun ’n’ run.
But Evelyn can revive it! The money—oh, the money they can invest now that they’ll finally cover their stake—will enable her to recapture the spirit of taste and civility she remembers so vividly. All in time for her father’s September release. From street to street and house to house, there was monthslong continuity here. Families spent entire summers at the lake, knew each other’s children—and their sailboats!—by name and character, looked out for one another.
Financials aside, phase one of her plan has been a frustration, yes: seeking out the children or adult grandchildren of the parents she remembers who might still be coming here if only for partial summer stays. Internet searches and weeks of door-to-door have yielded no success, but someone is still out there. They must be! The Krausses. The Bukovinskys. The Knoxes and the Funks. What of the Perrines or the Millikens? Surely, there must be some Shalers, Connellys, or Porporas. There were so many Watkinses back then, too. One or two—a dozen, maybe—must be summering nearby.
Once they are located, Evelyn will assess their nature and encourage their participation. She will remember for them stories of their childhood, or if they have none of the memories she does herself, she’ll tell them what she knows about their parents or their cousins or their uncles and aunts. How could they not get excited about rebuilding such a special, exclusive world? It would make her father’s return a spectacular triumph. She must do this for him.
Only those who are all in can become involved, however. That’s got to be understood. Evelyn will be as diplomatic as she can. As before, when her parents operated the Straddle, not everyone will be welcome.
She may even need to replace Dory. She will have to see how he behaves around more learned types. If his speech is increasingly dominated by conspiracy theories and, good God, if he continues to fart in public—which he has been doing with more frequency and panache—well, she will bid him, as they say, adieu. Their divorce would need to be handled correctly, of course. All illicit doings must remain a secret that will outlive any venom generated by their dissolution.
Evelyn will obsess about this another day. For now, she must see about the Wi-Fi. So spotty! Perhaps it’s all the cedar in this place.
It has been two weeks and still no sign of Omega. Hom has canvassed the neighborhood streets on foot and Maples Road to just beyond State Route 6 by bicycle. Nothing. Dead or just gone. Without an owl, there are no guests. Without guests, he has no one to talk to who could then validate his integrity. Without anyone to talk to, Hom is out of his mind. Yes, yes, he could always hang out at the nearby Linesville Spillway. There are ever throngs of people hurling chunks of bread and buns at the gaping, frenzied carp. But carp are not photogenic in the least. They have no majesty. They’re disgusting, really, and so are the people who indulge them. And what is there to discuss about the fish but that they are spoiled and putrid colored? Even the owls spurn them.
“We have mourning doves,” says Eileen Montedoro when Hom commandeers the barstool between her and Shareen Fosket.
“Yes,” Shareen says. “They nest on the planter shelf on our back porch every spring and don’t mind our being there one bit.”
“We’re respectful companions,” says Eileen.
“They coo for us,” says Shareen.
“Nice,” Hom says, “but no owls, huh? You haven’t seen any at all—anywhere? Heard any calls?” His throat is dry. He waves toward Ellis, who is tending bar at the Sportsmen’s Club this afternoon.
He is ignored.
“Heavens no,” says Eileen. “They’d have our guests for supper.”
“Perks of being top of the food chain,” Hom says. “Ellis? A ginger ale? No ice.”
“Pardon?” says Shareen, tapping Hom’s forearm.
“Oh, nothing,” Hom says, scouting the room. The tables are empty—it’s Tuesday noon, after all. People are sporting about.
“It’s odd you asking us,” Eileen says. “You being the owl savior and all.”
“Owl savant,” Shareen corrects. “That’s what he called himself on that Youngstown news show.”
“Yes, that’s right. Savant! We remarked that it sounded a bit imperious at the time, didn’t we, Eileen?”
“That’s the word we used all right,” Eileen says.
Hom runs his tongue across his lips. “I’m just wondering if anyone’s seen them,” he says.
“Try the archery range,” Shareen says.
“Or the trap house,” says Eileen.
“Where the junkies hang out?” Hom says. He stares at the back of Ellis’s head.
“Oh, not that kind of trap house,” says Eileen, slapping Hom’s forearm playfully. “You know what I mean.”
“Just funnin’ with you, girls,” he says. “Say, you should stop by my place for drinks sometime. Bring a fourth for euchre.”
“Oh, we couldn’t do that,” Shareen says. “It’d get around.”
“No, that wouldn’t be proper,” says Eileen.
“Yes,” says Shareen. “We like you, Hom, but you’ve made it difficult. Socially.”
“You understand, of course,” says Eileen.
“Right,” Hom says.
He backs off the stool and heads for Ellis, who is standing with his arms folded, a white dish towel slung over his shoulder, watching the noonday sports on the wall-mounted TV opposite.
“What’s up, Ellis?” he says.
Ellis nods, turns back toward the TV.
“Get a ginger ale?”
“See your member card?” Ellis says.
“Ah, man, you know they took it from me. What’s a little soda? Ninety-five out there today.”
“That’s the rules.”
“It’s a temporary thing,” Hom says. “They’ll give it back in a few weeks, next time the board meets.”
“That’s when you’ll get your soda.”
“Really? How long’ve I been coming here, Ellis?”
“Since before me.”
“That’s right. Long time. This thing—it’s one guy’s vendetta. That Lance Creewell’s out to get me.”
“The vote was unanimous.”
“Bullshit. Who told you that?”
Ellis turns. His eyes are tired, knowing.
“Well, never mind then,” Hom says. “I need to head out anyway.”
“Uh huh,” Ellis says.
When he strikes out at the trap house, and again at the archery pit—where he is requested to vacate club property before the police are called—Hom takes a long walk on the bike trail that loops twenty-one miles around the northern half of the lake, encompassing both the Pennsylvania and Ohio sides. Smiles are not contagious. He can’t find a friendly face, even among pedestrians he’s never seen before. One arrest for voyeurism and the world labels you a perv for life.
Hours pass. The sun sinks low across the western sky as Hom stops on the causeway that bisects Pymatuning Lake and connects the two states. Fishermen lean over the rails. The air has cooled. The water is glass. Out in the middle, where the border between the states invisibly lies, a catamaran waits for any kind of breeze. Any other time, this could be a beautiful evening, Hom thinks, the tranquility that brings people to weekend at the lake. He longs for the time before his ridiculous arrest, before the police queered his reputation, when people—quality people—sought him out for intimate wildlife tours. Now, even the animals are avoiding him, as if they’re trying to drive his livelihood—his social haven!—into extinction.
Sometime after dark, still half a mile from his home, he perks up. At first, he thinks he hears teenagers roughhousing in a nearby pool. Soon, it becomes clear that they are birds. Hom has been through this neighborhood before, during one of his other scouting missions, but has never come across the telltale sound of mobbing here. He hustles through the yards—past bushes, skirting statuary, through vegetable gardens—until he finds the place. Hom cannot see them, but he knows what he hears: sparrows, wrens, crows, or other prey squawking and chirping. Taunting an owl. They will not peck at it, will not dare get that close, but the din is incessant. Through his elation, Hom feels sorry for the set-upon owl, the persecution. I feel your pain, man.
“This whole process is way convoluted,” Dory says. “Totally unnecessary.”
“Keep it down,” Evelyn says.
“We’re vulnerable out here. You know it goes felony if we’re caught crossing a state border, even when that border’s lake water.”
Evelyn grabs Dory’s paddle. The canoe, which, by intention, was barely advancing anyway, stops almost immediately.
“Shut . . . up,” Evelyn says. “I’m well aware of what constitutes a federal crime, in case you’d forgotten.”
“Sorry, babe,” Dory says.
The first drops were on land along remote country roads. Easy in, easy out. Here, yes, Dory is right; they don’t have many options for escape should the authorities appear. This isn’t Superior or Hudson Bay. If someone were looking for them, they could spot them on the narrow lake from either shore with binoculars or a night scope. So, at the first sign of trouble, they’ve been instructed to shift into deception mode: first, sink the bricks, minus the float; second, break out sandwiches and wine; third, start fucking. Just a married couple having a romantic midnight roll. It is their anniversary, after all. July sixteenth. That much is fact.
It’s been so long, though. Really—and Dory measured the miles since their last lovemaking—they haven’t had sex since Evelyn received the news back in April that her father would be paroled in September, two years early. “What does that say about us?” Dory asked. To which Evelyn could offer no rationale.
“This is good enough,” Evelyn says now. She lets slide the anchor, waits. “Nine feet.”
“Great,” says Dory. “They don’t snatch it in time, some kid’ll stub his toe treading water tomorrow.”
“You double-check the line?”
“You’ve seen my knots. How long are we supposed to wait?”
“Until twelve thirty. Then we vamoose before the pickup arrives so we don’t cross paths and can’t ID each other. Secured the weight?”
“You watched me do it,” says Dory. “We left way too early.”
“What, you can’t sit in the dark with me for half an hour? Have a pickle.”
“Anybody who eats after eight p.m. is asking for long-term intestinal distress unless you’re up working some night shift. In fact, you’re supposed to eat only during daylight hours. I just read that. Your body has these sensors that shut down your metabolism until they detect sunlight. Forcing something in during off hours causes stomach cancer.”
“Did you glean that morsel from Highlights for Children?”
Dory unhooks the bungees from the two coolers. “Har-har. Hee-hee.”
Paddling back, they aim farther north than where they put in. They’ll camo the canoe and walk back to the rental along the hiking trail and service roads. In the morning, they’ll come back with the car. Dory can navigate to the nearest ramp, where they’ll blend in with the other recreational boaters. It’d be easier to paddle to the dock along their own shoreline but riskier, too. Traceable.
When they finally make it back, it’s three a.m. Evelyn goes right for the shower. The long walk in the humid night air has left her sweaty and uncomfortable. The mosquito bites aren’t helping either. As usual, they lusted for her and left Dory unfettered.
“I can’t decide whether to eat or crash,” Dory yells toward the bathroom as he’s changing into a fresh T-shirt. “You hungry? Babe?”
Evelyn swings around the bathroom door. “Does the word discreet mean nothing to you?” she whispers hoarsely.
“What? I’m famished,” Dory says, lowering his voice but not enough to suit her. Evelyn maintains her glare. “No one can hear us, babe, not with you keeping all the windows closed. And the houses on either side of us are deserted, remember.”
“What about stomach cancer?”
Dory farts twice, sharply, in rapid succession. He grabs his chest each time like he’s been shot and twirls backward onto the bed. “Gotta reread the article,” he utters toward the slow-turning ceiling fan. “That maybe applies only to red meats. I was cogitating about some of that leftover mushroom pasta.”
“Do what you want,” Evelyn says, turning away. “I’m going to rinse off and go right to sleep.”
“You’re not keyed up?”
Evelyn steps into the spray, sets it as cold as she can stand. It’s far too late to deal with her hair, but she washes it anyway, wants every part of her scrubbed clean. The severe summer cut she went for a few weeks back was a smart move. Less work. With her ears and neck exposed, the side-combed bangs, it makes her feel chic, especially in heels—though there are few occasions to wear those here. None, really. Dory says she looks like a ten-year-old choir boy.
When Evelyn finishes, she finds that Dory hasn’t moved. He’s fast asleep crosswise on the bed, just how he fell. He was a perfect salve after those first dark years when her father and then the Straddle were taken away from her. His humor and energy carried Evelyn past the dark clouds until she thought she could breathe on her own again. Soon thereafter, she ended it, only to realize months later that she wasn’t ready to be alone after all. Dory required little coaxing to return, and they were married a week later in a civil ceremony as bland and lonely as she’s felt ever since. It is not Dory’s fault, she knows, but her own. He has made that loneliness tolerable. Too, he is handy with the restoration work.
Hungry now herself, and not wanting to maneuver Dory—who will kiss and grope and, oh, she does not want to encourage him at this point, especially if she does have to release him—Evelyn heads to the kitchen. With a touch of grated Romano, the mushroom tortellini is excellent cold and pairs well with a crisp, chilled Lugana. She nibbles at the bar, at her end, as she privately refers to it these days. She casually spins on the stool and looks out at the large, open living area, the former main room of the tavern. She imagines her father and mother seated at a far table twenty-some years ago, enjoying the company of friends and patrons. Her father wore a navy blue sport coat always, frequently with white shoes and a white shirt to go with his prematurely white hair. He was a quiet man with a loud smile, a robust laugh, and kind eyes.
Some thought he remarried too quickly after Evelyn’s mother died—to a woman who swiftly abandoned him following his guilty verdict. The tragic nature of her mother’s accidental drowning, however, bought him latitude as well as sympathy. Evelyn was away when it happened, when the canoe overturned. It wasn’t until she came back from a day of riding coasters at Cedar Point, over in Sandusky, Ohio, that she was told. It was her father’s decision not to interrupt Evelyn’s fun. What would that accomplish, he’d thought, other than to ruin amusement parks for her for good?
“We’re selling the Straddle,” he had said not long after. “We’ll summer elsewhere.”
Evelyn talked him out of it. Had she known about the embezzlement, she would have tried to talk him out of that, too. For as long as she can remember, there has been something about her father that ran contrary to his generous, welcoming nature. A private undercurrent of need she sensed in his pensive smoking late at night. On the screened porch, here at the lake, he would sit on the glider and stare into the darkness, flanked by Evelyn and her mother, the solitude punctuated only by the creaking of the glider springs and her father’s occasional loud exhale, as if he’d reached some difficult, inevitable decision despite it putting him in jeopardy and risking family unity. Evelyn could see it so well then—without anticipating the full context of his sins—and certainly can relate to it now. She has made such decisions herself.
Stepping out onto the back porch, she looks past the former tavern parking lot, now a modest field of patchy grass and wild shrubs, toward the bent, skeletal trees lining the shore. They are miles from where her mother drowned. That was near the southern tip of the lake, just off Jamestown Marina. Still, Evelyn feels her here—an imagined scent in the humid air, a soothing touch in the packed sand that cools the bottoms of her feet, her undying spirit in the silvery waters that lap against her skin. No matter that they spent only a few months of each year here. This was their sanctuary. It will be again.
When Evelyn turns back toward the house, she sees a man outside the bedroom window. He is shorter than Dory, leaner, judging by his silhouette. Wearing only a sheer caftan, and nothing underneath, Evelyn crosses through the overgrown lot. The man is not looking inside, she realizes now, but directly at her.
He waves with both hands, as if directing her not to move. He tiptoes nearer, his awkward, apologetic hunching lessening her concern.
“Close enough,” Evelyn says, holding her ground.
The man stops. “Yeah, sorry,” he whispers, his features materializing to a small degree from the house lights.
He has curly dark hair and angular eyes that sag at the extremes like a sad theatrical mask. Narrow shouldered, yes, and not much taller than Evelyn, he bears a vague familiarity she dismisses when a connection is not immediately clear. Her nose catches an aquatic, woody scent. Cologne, or is that from the brush he was standing in?
“Were you watching them, too?” he says.
“Watching what?” says Evelyn.
“The screech owls. You’ve got a fine parliament.”
“Not in our bedroom we don’t.” Parliament. Really?
“Huh? Oh, ha! No, out here. Up there, I mean. In that ash tree. I was getting the best angle. I saw your lights on and was hoping to catch your attention. Your husband’s out cold, huh? If that is your husband.”
“You’ll be leaving now,” Evelyn says, “and you won’t be coming back.” She takes one step forward, surprised at the menace she feels and empowered when he retreats.
“Oh, man,” he says. “I am so sorry. I’ve been searching high and low for the screeches ever since my last one disappeared. I photograph them.”
“Without a camera.”
“Right. Well, tonight I was walking. Just . . . walking. I do that all hours. I’m not a regular sleeper. I heard a ruckus and came back here. I’ll bring my Nikon next time. You’ll see.”
“I think not. Now go.”
“Sure. Of course. I live”—he looks around, getting his bearings—“up that way. Maybe you’ll stop by some time. Both of you. I’ll show you my pictures. I’ve got thousands. Oh, speaking of . . . I like that puffin litho on your bedroom wall there—over the bed. You do that yourself? Masterful.”
Homphrey Sturlis, Evelyn recalls without enthusiasm.
Hom has done everything right to attract more owls on his own property: evicting starlings and other birds who try to take over the nesting box, setting up brush piles to encourage rodents, and more. Every night since discovering the owls a few neighborhoods over, he’s hidden in the woods near there blowing his Big Hooter. Maybe they’ll think one of their own is taking over the territory and move out, head his way. Outside of bagging them, there’s no guarantee they’d even find his place, though—or want to settle there if they did. You can’t just introduce an owl to a box and hope it’ll stick around. Wildlife has its habitude. That’s a line he used on that TV profile, one he repeats to impress clients.
“Hey!” Hom says when a dusty man answers the front door holding a mini sledge. Hom recognizes him from the bedroom.
“Good morning,” says Dory, flipping up safety goggles to reveal cheerful blue eyes.
Hom looks around him, past the thick, sandy brown hair that hooks behind his ears and settles against the collar of a buttoned work shirt.
“Those for me?” Dory says, nodding toward the flowers.
“Oh! Kind of. I’m your neighbor, Hom. I met your wife the other night. She is your wife, right?”
“What’s this about? You stealing her away from me?” he says, grinning. “It’ll take more than dahlias and baby’s breath.”
“Ha! No. This is part peace offering, part bribe.”
“Well, I’m in the middle of demo, so . . .”
“I can help!” Hom says. “I’m as destructive as they come.”
“It’s kind of an inside job,” Dory says. “We’re not hiring.”
“Oh, come on. It’s just a neighborly deed. I’m so restless today you’d be doing me a favor.”
“Where’d you say you met my wife?”
“Here!” Hom says, pointing. “Lakeside. We were discussing owls. She didn’t mention me?”
That stings a little. Hom salves the wound by deciding the man is lying. He puts no energy toward the why. “Can we at least stick these in water?” he says.
Dory studies him a moment, then nods him in.
When Hom enters, he hands Dory the flowers and goes right for the bar, rubs his hand across the glistening finish. “This is incredible,” he says. “I’ve always wanted a big, honking bar in my living room.”
“Used to be the neighborhood watering hole before they doctored it up for rentals,” Dory says. “They kept some of the fun parts. This, the urinals . . .”
“I’m even more jealous now,” Hom says. “You’re Dory and Eve, eh?”
“You said you knew my wife.”
“We didn’t exchange business cards. There’s a honey-do list back of the bar here, though, on the wall. See your names on it. Hey! Wait a sec. Holy socks, her name’s Evelyn. Evelyn Evelyn Evelyn . . . Evie Myers, right! From Lackawannock? I knew I recognized her. I haven’t seen her since I was—wait another sec—nine! No, eight! Eight or nine. Third grade for sure. Or fourth. She moved away that summer. That’s her, right? Evie Myers! My goodness, she got tall. How tall are you?”
“Plenty,” Dory says. He swings around behind the bar, intercepting Hom’s snooping. “Glass pitcher should do,” he continues. He produces one and fills it in the sink. “Before I kick you out, what’s this bribe for?”
Hom waits to answer while he watches Dory slide the flowers into the pitcher. The stems are a bit long, so Dory takes care of that with a cutting board and a steak knife. Hom tries to match this guy up with the little girl he now remembers—with Evie, one of his first childhood crushes—and just doesn’t see it. Yes, he caught her, briefly, in near darkness, but that was enough to pick up a distinct air about her that he’s telling himself he remembers from even back then. Thoughtful, refined. This dude? A casual, everyday sort. Not particularly handsome, in Hom’s estimation, but okay, a friendly, playful demeanor that maybe offsets the frosty nature Evie slapped him with last night. Still . . .
“Is this a working bar or just for show?” Hom says.
“One drink,” Dory says, brushing cuttings into a bin. “I’m on the clock.”
He grabs a pint-size bottle of ginger ale from the mini fridge and slides it down. Hom snags it with a laugh.
“How’d you know that’s what I wanted?” Hom says.
“’Cause that’s all we’ve got,” Dory says with a quick smile. “Except for the good stuff—but if you’re here to break up my marriage, I’m not inclined to pop a cork.”
Hom laughs. “I’m interested in your owls,” he says, taking a sip. Then another.
“Fresh out,” Dory says. “You might try Riggles’s Taxidermy on State Route 6 over on the Ohio side. It’s a little obscene in there, but if you’re into birds . . .”
“Live ones,” Hom says. “They’re nesting in your backyard. I was hoping to shoot them. Photograph them.”
“Without a camera?” Dory says.
“You kids are observant! They’re nocturnal creatures. I’m just here for a social visit to plead my case, especially now that we’re old classmates.”
“Owls, huh? Who knew? I hardly see many birds at all anymore. Those big flocks blackening the sky back when we were kids? Gone. Not just here at the lake but, like, everywhere. You notice that?”
“Yes, yes,” Hom says, eager to establish a speedy rapport. “They’ve vanished!”
“It’s the satellites.”
“Yep,” Dory says, twisting open a chilled soda of his own. “As of this morning, there are eight thousand nine hundred and sixty-two of those things orbiting Earth. You believe that? Every one of them transmitting sinister, planet-altering rays back through our atmosphere. That explains your ozone hole, your dwindling bird populations, your spontaneous wildfires, all the hyper-divisiveness in the world.”
“Communication satellites,” Hom says.
“Spy satellites, navigation satellites, remote sensing satellites . . . I’d use the word conspiracy, but Evelyn—your girlfriend—doesn’t approve. Trust me, though. They’re in it together.”
“Evie and the government.”
Dory clacks his bottle on the bar top. “Good Lord, man.”
“Oh oh oh, sorry,” Hom says. “Now I see. Just the government, and they’re out to destroy our planet.”
“Nooooo . . . control. That’s always the impetus. Money’s fun and all, but power, that’s what people truly seek.”
“And killing birds gives them power,” Hom says. He immediately sees Dory’s exasperation.
“Birds dying off, that’s just a sad by-product of them getting in the way of the juice.”
“The juice that’s aimed at us.”
“You and me,” Dory says.
“Yep. You didn’t hear about Lyme disease thirty years ago. Fewer birds, more bugs. Malaria’s on the rise again now, too.”
“More mosquitoes, more disease.”
Dory clinks his bottle. Hom nods. They exaggerate their swigs.
“What the fuck, Dory!” Evelyn says.
“He’s harmless,” Dory says.
“He was peeking through our windows at three in the morning. You don’t think he’s a Fed?”
“Your old boyfriend? Oh, who’s the conspiracy theorist now, babe, huh? The guy is nuts about owls.”
“And you let him inside our house.”
“We’re here to build a circle of quality friends. Isn’t that what you’re always saying?”
“I will choose who we let in. Me. Mercy sakes, my father gets out in six weeks. He might as well give me a key to his cell and hand me the pillow.”
“Honey, neither one of us is going to prison, not because of Hom. Now come on, I thought you’d be happy to have someone you grew up with who seems genuinely serious about creating a community of discerning minds.”
“We did not grow up together,” Evelyn says. “He was some cloying little dunce who used to perch for hours in the neighbor’s apple tree and spy on me and my friends.”
“Boys can be creepy, yeah, but that was forever ago,” Dory says. “Sure, he’s all hoot-hoot-hoot, but so what? Give him a shot—as an adult. He isn’t quality people, fine, we’ll wipe him off the list.”
“I need to be able to trust you, trust that you fully grasp the precarious nature of our dealings and how careful we need to be in every aspect of our lives—especially when it comes to new people. If we seek them out, that’s on our terms. If they seek us out, for any reason whatsoever, we have to be triply suspicious. That’s where I am with him.”
“Aren’t we supposed to be in a blind?” the woman asks.
“Yes,” her husband says. “We heard you had more comfortable viewing accommodations. These folding chairs aren’t even padded.”
“Yes. Where are the lights?”
“Quiet, please,” Hom whispers to the guests, kneeling in the brush. “As it is with our noble headliner, stealth is our greatest asset. Consider your lips the downy fringe of the owl’s outermost wing feather, silencing your lethal approach toward the unsuspecting prey, yes?”
“Please promise me my photos will come out better than your poetry,” the woman says.
Hom sighs. Even the wounded squirrel in his plastic carrier is complaining, scratching at the sides. It is not a good first night. As experiments go, however, this is the nature of things. There is only so much he can transport to this remote location until he becomes best friends with Evie and Dory, when he will convince them to open up their wildlife world to him unrestrained and permit a more theatrical visitor experience.
Until then, without permission even for this intrusion, Hom’s outing must remain portable and low-key. Afterward, when they return to his house for wine and chatter and a first look at the predatory action images, there will be no restrictions at all. He may even open a second bottle.
When they meet for lunch at the Sportsmen’s Club, Hom is waiting outside in the oppressive heat in a white, short-sleeved, linen shirt soaked through. Dory shrugs when he and Evelyn exit their car and approach him.
“What are you doing, man?” Dory says. “They’ve got AC inside, don’t they?”
“Oh, I gave up my membership awhile back,” Hom says. “Figured I should wait for you. Protocol and all. You are new to the club, after all. Wouldn’t want to start you out with demerits. Good to see you again, Evie. Can’t believe we’ve run into each other after all these years!”
“Evelyn,” she corrects him. Already, two seconds in, this doesn’t feel right.
“It’ll be our first meal at this place,” Dory says.
“The crabs are so-so,” Hom says, “but they have wonderful salads. Local fresh produce. That’s the key.”
“Evelyn’s a big soup girl, no matter the season, no matter the temperature. Bisque if they’ve got it. Tomato if they don’t. Doesn’t mind a good sole now and then, either.”
“And Dory’s got six toes on his right foot,” Evelyn says, yanking open the glass entrance door for herself.
When they’re seated in a booth at the window overlooking the club’s private beach, Ellis asks for their drink order.
“Chablis,” Evelyn says.
“Make that two,” Dory says.
“I’ll take that ginger ale now, Ellis,” Hom says, smiling. “Lemon, no ice.”
Ellis gives him an extra-long look, then heads off.
“What was that?” Dory says.
“We’re always messing with each other. I was a longtime member,” Hom says. “So, this is great. Great! The three of us getting together. This area has transitioned so much over the years that it’s hard to find good people.”
Dory eyes Evelyn. “We were just talking about that the other day.”
“What is your fascination with owls?” Evelyn says. “Why not eagles or osprey? Why birds period?”
“Well, getting right to it, then,” Hom says. “Love it. Love it! So, okay. A, they’re nocturnal. I like the mystery in that. The most wicked, wonderful things happen at night, don’t you think? Under the cover of darkness? Yet owls are practically invisible in daylight, too. They can perch in a tree ten feet away, no canopy, and you wouldn’t even see them. Blend right in with the limbs and bark. You have to know exactly what you’re looking for.”
“So I recall,” says Evelyn. “And you know exactly what to look for?”
“Absolutely. Which is why people hire me as their guide. Dory says you’re looking for like-minded friends. Folks who respect traditions and hold community close to their hearts. I meet that sort all the time in my line. Nature lovers. Preservationists. We are, as they say, muy simpático.”
“I don’t think that means what you think it does,” Dory says.
Evelyn squeezes Dory’s forearm. “And what else did Dory tell you . . . about us?”
Ellis returns to distribute their drinks.
“Nothing sacred, I assure you,” Hom says. “Listen, despite my personality, I’m a private person, too. I want friends, but I want my secrets.”
“What sort of secrets?” Evelyn says.
She waits for an answer, but Hom is staring up at Ellis through what Evelyn considers a forced smile.
“Would you like more time with the menu?” Ellis asks.
“Yes,” Hom says. “Give us a few, huh?” He looks at Evelyn and Dory. “It’s changed since I was here last. Might be something new worth sampling.”
“Be right back,” Ellis says.
“Thanks,” Dory says and watches him go. “You two have a thing?” he whispers to Hom.
“Ah, I helped his family with some money years ago,” Hom says. “They couldn’t pay it all back, and I told them it was fine—I don’t want to put anybody out. I’ve been stretched myself at times. But you know how it is. They feel guilty. Eventually, guilt morphs into resentment. It can turn ugly. I get that. Totally get that. It’s human nature, right? I’ve told them to forget the whole thing, every dime, but hey.”
When Dory lifts a leg and leans to one side, Evelyn drops her head because she knows what’s coming. When he lets it go, Evelyn pounds the table, jostling the silverware and their water glasses.
“My God, can’t we go anywhere nice?” she says.
Dory gives her a moi? look. Hom reaches for his ginger ale.
“There’s no lemon wedge,” Dory says.
“Pardon?” Hom says.
“In your drink. He forgot the lemon.”
“Oh, he didn’t forget.”
Evelyn drops her menu to the tabletop, exhales. “Caprese salad,” she tells Dory. “So, Hom . . . why are you here?”
“Eve, please,” says Dory.
“No, I mean, our family summered in Pymatuning for years, and we certainly would have crossed paths. Did you move to this area recently or did something else bring you up this way?”
Hom wrings his hands, sits back. “Well, flat out, one, I like large bodies of water; two, I like new friendships. This lake turns over a ton of weekenders throughout the seasons, which satisfies my wallet and my appetite for companionship.”
“You’re a lonely fellow,” Dory says.
“Aren’t we all?” Hom says. “For me, though, it’s just fun connecting, conversing, and, of course, sharing my knowledge. My fascination with owls unites me with the curious, the sensitive. I remember them all, too. Every face, every name.”
“The eco-conscious,” Dory says.
“Have you met anyone named Milliken or Porpora, then?” Evelyn says, cutting in. “A Knox, perhaps?”
“No,” says Hom.
“Just like that? You’re sure?”
“My recall is instant. If I met them, I could tell you their eye color and the timbre of their voice. I could tell you what they were wearing at the time of our encounter and the names of the people they were with. I’ve never met a Milliken, Porpora, or a Knox. If it’s important to you that I have, I’m sorry.”
Dory laughs. “Well, that’s pretty definitive,” he says.
“Everything he said was patently rehearsed or an outright lie,” says Evelyn as they drive back to the Straddle. “Clearly, I was right to be suspicious.”
“All right, so he’s off the list,” Dory says. “I was only trying to help with recruiting.”
“And if we see him around our place again?” says Evelyn.
“Shoot to kill.”
“I’ll just tell him to leave. ‘Get your own damn owls.’”
“The timing of this stinks. And you’re not taking things seriously enough.”
“Sure I am. I’m locked in, babe.”
“Passing gas during our first meal at the club doesn’t help your case.”
“Suppressing it can destroy your intestinal walls,” Dory says. “You want me hosting dinner parties with a colostomy bag dangling from my hip?”
“Stop already, please, with these baseless pronouncements, medical and otherwise. No one believes you, and you just sound foolish.”
When they park in their driveway, Dory doesn’t get out when Evelyn does. He keeps the car running, the AC blowing. Evelyn knocks on his window. When she knocks again, he opens it a crack.
“So now you’re going to pout,” Evelyn says.
“Why don’t we just stop?” Dory says. “We make tonight the last water drop, we get our money, sell the place back to the bank, and we go. Just go.”
“Get in the house, Dory.”
“Think about it. All this plotting and peril. It’s not good.”
“It’s stifling out here. I’m going in.”
Evelyn gets as far as the porch and stops. Dory hasn’t moved, still stares into the dash. The fan blows his bangs about.
“Good Lord,” Evelyn says. She hustles back and climbs into the passenger seat, checks her face in the visor mirror. “We are nowhere near our goal. If we stop now, we barely break even, and that’d mean we’ve wasted all this time, put ourselves at risk for what? What kind of a plan is that?”
“Fuck the plan,” Dory says. “We’ve been here over a month. We wanted some money, we took on the danger, the stress. I may not show it, but I’m scared out of my mind, Evelyn. Every minute of the day. But okay, all right. I love you, I abide by the rules. But your master plan, this resurrection of some long-lost community from your childhood, well, how’s that part going, really? Let’s look at the roster so far. There’s you, there’s me, and that’s it. Five weeks in, we’re still a party of two. Why don’t we just have a big hoo-ha when your father gets out and invite the whole town? One big bash without the pompous vetting process.”
The cold blow is getting to Evelyn. When she turns the fan down, Dory turns it right back up. She slaps the vents on her side closed and crosses her arms.
“We still have seven weeks. By the time my father arrives, we’ll have made friends with enough of the right kind of people,” Evelyn says, “with faces and family names he’ll recognize from back when Mom was still alive and this place meant everything to him. To us. I want him to feel comfortable when he returns to society. Welcome.”
“This place corrupted him, Evelyn! He didn’t care about those people. He wanted their money. And he got it—plus seventeen years. This is the last place you should bring him.”
“The lake was more than all that. You weren’t here back then, before he changed. You didn’t see.”
“I don’t doubt there’s some truth to it, honey,” Dory says. “Maybe it started that way, but it turned bad real quick. You were young, so all right, how were you supposed to understand or even believe what was going on when his wheels were spinning out of control? You lose yourself in some fantasy in order to survive. But your mother? Evelyn, sweetheart, forgive me. I’ve been holding this in for, like, forever, but I don’t think her drowning was an accident. It was her way out.”
“You didn’t even know her!” Evelyn says. She thrashes Dory, pummeling him with her fists. “You don’t know anything! Not a fucking thing!”
At midnight, as they canoe toward the drop point, a light rain has started to fall, and the wind is picking up. The weather is predicted to worsen, so they quicken their pace. Until now, their maneuver to the middle of the lake has been silent except for the paddles breaking the surface of the water and their occasional muffled grunts. They have not spoken to each other in hours.
The rain makes it even more humid. Evelyn is sweating beneath a hooded windbreaker. The sprinkle feels good on her legs, though. She massages her skin down to her ankles and back to her thighs. She doubled up on the insect spray this time, and the mosquitoes aren’t as much of a nuisance.
Dory is in his swimming trunks only, as usual, nearly invisible behind her, only a few feet away, unsprayed, unbitten. When it’s this dark, Evelyn feels the true creepiness of the work they are doing, the absolute risk, as if a net were being cast over them as they sit here. She wonders if that’s how her father felt in those moments just before the federal agents came to their door that Sunday morning and whisked him away. She remembers covering his half-eaten plate of French toast with plastic wrap and sliding it into the refrigerator, where it sat for weeks turning a frothy forest green.
“Good enough,” Evelyn whispers now, checking her GPS.
Dutifully, Dory laps his paddle. The lake has become rough, rocking them and preventing a full stop. Evelyn lowers the anchor. It sinks much deeper than nine feet this time—nearly three times that. Not a concern, as Pymatuning’s depths vary, but she doesn’t report the number to Dory. They are close enough to the drop point. She is sure of it.
As Dory unhooks the bungees and double-checks the sack and the float that sit between them, Evelyn hears, through steadier rain, what she thinks are voices. On milder nights, sounds from either distant shore will carry surprisingly well over the lake water. Laughter, dogs, screen doors slapping shut. This is different.
“You getting that?” Dory says, hushed.
“Yeah,” Evelyn says, swiveling to face him.
“Radio or people?”
They wait another moment. The voices do not subside. There’s no sound of a motor, so Evelyn isn’t sure what to make of it. Silently, Dory leans forward. She can see him better now, realizes he’s ready to dump the goods without the float.
He’s looking right at her. “You make the call,” he says.
“Maybe it’s them,” Evelyn says. “The pickup.”
Dory glows his watch. “Uh-uh. Way too early.”
No silhouettes, no distinct words, no specific direction. Like an audible mirage. At any moment, Evelyn can picture a patrol boat unmasking itself, and that’d be that.
“Dump the bricks,” she says.
“You sure?” says Dory.“Dump them. Now.”
Evelyn locks the coordinates into her cell phone but realizes she’ll have to toss that, too, if they’re caught. She helps Dory slide the sack overboard, feels the embedded metal weights dragging it down, swiftly, away from them toward the lake bottom. It takes Dory only a minute to trade places with the coolers then rip open the sandwiches and beer.
“We’ll look like idiots picnicking in the rain,” he says.
“We are idiots,” Evelyn says.
She slides off her windbreaker and then her top. She is grabbing at Dory while he slides two cushions into the belly of the canoe. The rain is hitting harder now as he lowers himself, wedging himself between the yoke and the bow seat.
“There’s water under me,” Dory says.
“Shut up,” Evelyn says.
As she reaches for his shorts, Dory gropes her breasts. He buries his face in her chest, licking the drops from her nipples.
The rain has a numbing effect, striking Evelyn’s neck and back to mute her senses. She avoids kissing him, clinging to her anger from this afternoon. Still, she feels the full impact when Dory wriggles her shorts off and penetrates her. He can’t possibly be comfortable with his spine pinched against the yoke and his knees bent over the seat, the most stable position they can achieve for this performance. This adds to her pleasure. Bent crab style, Dory is unable to do more than sit there while Evelyn, her own knees biting into the fiberglass hull, bounces them to a tortured climax.
Knowing that heavy rains are moving rapidly across eastern Ohio, Hom rows his skiff toward the retrieval zone two hours earlier than he was instructed to. He is hoping the others will already have deposited the goods, anticipating the foul weather as well, and everyone will be happy. These late-night excursions out onto the lake are ridiculous, abusive even. Arguing, however, would not be wise, given the brutish reputation of his handler.
With the drops fattening and the wind gusting, Hom hastens his pace, breathing heavily and voicing unrestrained to the gods his displeasure with these dismal conditions. Visibility is practically nil. Even lights from homes and businesses along the surrounding shores are obscured. If the buoy is waiting out here, he’s prepared to locate it. Would it really compromise the operation, though, for them to embed a chip, he wonders? Retrieval would be so much more efficient.
Reaching the expected coordinates, Hom breaks out his infrared camera. What he spots, eventually, about seventy-five yards to the south, is much more fascinating than a buoy. So engrossed does he become watching a topless, writhing woman that he doesn’t notice, while repeatedly adjusting the zoom, as a determined wind propels his own craft toward theirs. By the time he identifies the woman as Evie and discerns Dory beneath her, legs sprouted skyward, he is fifteen yards away and closing fast. Hom paddles fiercely, but it is not nearly enough, between the wind and the feisty, uncooperative waves, to alter his course.
“Hi-ho!” he yells when he is all but upon them. “Wicked night, yes?”
When Hom activates his halogen spotlight, Evelyn clutches her shirt to her chest and stares back at him, the rain spattering her, the beam illuminating her pained, startled face and Dory’s compromised form.
“Watch out!” Evelyn yells, too late, as Hom’s skiff broadsides the already-teetering canoe.
How long she’s been underwater Evelyn doesn’t know. She does know she struck her forehead when she tumbled out, or did Hom poke her with an oar when he was trying to avoid impact? Regardless, the pain is real enough, as is her disorientation as she attempts to reach the surface. Is she even upright? There is nothing to guide her—just total darkness. Where’s that spotlight? She pauses to gauge which way her body floats, will push herself toward that direction, but feels as if she’s not moving at all. Meaning she’s swallowed too much water. Meaning she’s running out of air. Meaning her sudden panic is warranted.
She couldn’t have sunk too far. No more than a few feet—it’s not like I leapt from a high dive—which makes her plight all the more ridiculous. You’re an excellent swimmer! she thinks, which is certainly true. What good is that, however, if she unwittingly heads downward instead of up?
Based on nothing but a need to act, she chooses a direction and beelines with a strong dolphin kick. Then, exhausting the last spurt of energy she has, she floats motionless again, measuring her circumstance amid dwindling faculties, suspended somewhere between surface and lake bed, between being and not. The water squeezes Evelyn, rids her of breath. As it did her mother.
“Pull her up!” she hears.
And then someone is grabbing at her arms.
“By her belt.”
Not wearing one! Evelyn wants to scream.
“Grab what you can.”
No, Evelyn demands, yet someone catches a handful of her ass and yanks her onto the gunwale.
“Almost there, babe!” Dory spits from behind, pushing her knees.
Evelyn gathers herself enough to clasp a wrist behind Hom’s neck, willing him to heave backward until she is all the way into his boat. Still without breath, lying atop him in a prone embrace, she is fully aware that Hom yet has a firm hold on her cheeks.
A tinge of perverted pleasure ripens his eyes. “Please reconsider the owls,” he whispers.
Such liberty spares Evelyn the embarrassment she might otherwise feel when she vomits lake water into his face, coughing to clear her lungs like a mad goose.
Losing Evie and Dory just as he thought the three of them were warming up to one another was a heavy blow, for sure. Renting the suddenly vacated Straddle, however, renews Hom’s spirits greatly. It takes him only days to erect a proper group blind. A little landscaping to the lot and some lighting setups, and now he’s ready to accommodate guests—sleepover guests at that!—at his newly rechristened Omega House. The more people who photograph the owls under his guidance, and the more amazed and grateful they are, the more Hom is sure he will restore his reputation in the area as not just someone who knows owls but as a man of unimpeachable character. Sins of the past will remain just that.
Sometimes, when he maims another squirrel he can offer up to a screech as an easy prize, Hom wonders if nature will one day exact its revenge. Other times, he considers that it already has in ways he has yet to understand or fully appreciate. Last month, for instance—after Evie rolled herself back into the canoe, and Dory hastily paddled the two of them away without a word of thanks—he circled the vacated drop zone for two more hours, in heavy rains, exhausting himself and blistering his rowing hands in the process.
It wasn’t until the next day that he learned, from his handler, that the team making the drop—whose identity became apparent to Hom that night—was forced to abandon the goods without benefit of the float when they were set upon by a suspicious, unidentified craft. Hom had to return the next night with a diving suit and underwater lights—during an electrical storm!—to scour the black, silty depths of Pymatuning Lake. He has found only one place on earth as bleak and lonely as that—the empty nesting box in his former backyard.
About the Author
Mike Murray is a web developer and book designer living in Pittsburgh. His writing has appeared in Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, The Rag, A River & Sound Review, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His one-act plays have been produced for the stage, and he’s the drummer for the Impositions.