Night Owl

night owl

*

Micah tugged the strap closed on his backpack. Everything he needed was stowed there, all the survival gear his dad had taught him to carry. A flashlight, matches, a fire-starter cube, a small tarp, water, a compass, paracord, and some granola bars with a small jar of peanut butter. He unzipped the side pouch and checked again for the coils of camo-printed paracord. If he could only get the chance to use it, then maybe he could fix his life.

A great horned owl hooted nearby, and Micah smiled as the night breeze ruffled his brown hair. His dad had taught him to recognize their who-whoo call during a camping trip, and ever since, he’d always liked owls. Perhaps it would bring him luck.

He strode softly across the patio and down their cement driveway. Earlier that night, Mom had fried them quesadillas and slathered them with guacamole. They’d talked about their day and watched a couple of episodes of an old TV western she liked, which had been fun, even when she made him fold laundry with her. But she tired out early during the week, and she’d already curled up in bed with a book. By nine she’d be asleep, with their faithful German shepherd Nora snoring on the rug beside her.

He hoped what he was doing didn’t make him a bad son, especially now that he was down to only one parent. But he needed to figure out a way to change his life. Ninth grade had become a living hell.

Slapping a label on it—bullying—didn’t begin to cover it. The snide catcalls, the constant insults over his many freckles, people who always looked away as if being tormented were something they might catch—not to mention the frequent texts telling him he should do the world a favor and kill himself.

He’d tried going out for wrestling in the hopes that he’d learn to be less of a target, but some of the worst kids wrestled for the team, so that didn’t last.

Then he’d asked for a punching bag, and he and his mom had hung it from a big beam off their back patio. He’d been practicing with it every day like clockwork for over a month, and it was paying off. He could hit a lot harder than he used to.

All he had to do was catch the ringleader and tie him up. With his reputation for drinking and smoking pot, Jordan was almost guaranteed to let his guard down eventually. His was the loudest mouth, the quickest insult, the sly punch when Micah’s back was turned.

Micah didn’t know what he’d do once he’d settled with Jordan. He was planning on pounding the older boy until he promised to leave Micah be. So far, that had been an unattainable goal. But if he could get even one guy to leave him alone, he’d have done something. Besides just sitting there and taking whatever misery they felt like dishing out to him.

So far, eight nights of watching Jordan’s house had netted Micah nothing but missed sleep. His feet steered him there on autopilot by now, although he still struggled with his thoughts. His mom would want to know what was going on at school, and she’d be hurt that he hadn’t told her already. But it hadn’t happened all at once—it had crept up on him. For a while he’d even hoped ignoring it might make them grow bored with him, but not a chance. Silence was just less painful. They hit more when Micah answered back.

But his mom barely seemed to be coping right now. Even the way she walked had become fragile compared to eight months ago, before the spin-out that ended his dad’s life. He wasn’t sure how much more she could take.

And if tonight went as planned, he wouldn’t have to find out.

Jordan’s neighbor across the street had a weak porch light and a large rhododendron. Micah slipped his folded tarp out of the backpack and sat beneath the sprawling bush, moving one branch back to screen him from casual view. Jordan’s window faced the street, and a light shone through the blinds. He was probably home.

Micah never knew what to do with himself while he waited like this. It was too dark to read, and he didn’t feel like he had any right to pray. The most he could manage was “Please don’t let me screw up too much.” But he had to do something, anything, to change his life. He couldn’t stand it anymore.

He opened a granola bar and dipped it in peanut butter. The salty-sweet crunch promised comfort but bestowed only a passing gleam. He hummed a few songs as he waited and was considering calling it a night when he spotted Jordan’s friend, Alan, walking up to the front door.

After a few minutes spent talking on the front porch, Jordan threw on a hoodie and emerged, leading the way down the street while Alan chattered. Micah took his time following them. They were likely going to the building site a couple of streets down where someone was putting in a short block of new apartment complexes. Guys sometimes went there to drink and do whatever else it was they did between throwing beer bottles down to shatter on the concrete foundations.

A partial skeleton of a building loomed up ahead of him, dimly lit by a few streetlights that cast as much shadow as illumination. Jordan and Alan were already climbing the surrounding chain link fence, and a few minutes later, Micah followed. It was easy to find them again—they weren’t trying to be quiet.

“So, did I tell you about that date I had with Emma?” Alan asked Jordan. Micah positioned himself in the shadow of their second-story perch. Their legs dangled from the doorway above. As they traded random insults along with bragging about the girls they’d slept with, Micah wanted to leave just to stop listening to them. There had to be another way to do this.

But then Alan got to his feet. “Hey, can you do this?” he asked. He walked along a connecting wood beam, only one floor up, but he could still break an arm if he fell wrong. He made it to the other side okay, though, and started balancing along another beam, this one at ground level.

Great. If they both started wandering around, he’d better leave. He might have trouble keeping track of two in the dark. And he didn’t stand a chance if they found him out, and he had to face them both.

A loud crash of breaking wood came from Alan’s direction, followed by a short yelp and then a scream. “O my God, Jordan, you’ve got to help me,” Alan called through tears. “I fell into some kind of hole. A piece of rebar’s stuck into my leg.”

Jordan swore and started to climb down. And just when he reached the bottom, Micah pounced.

He slammed Jordan’s head into a two-by-four and punched him in the gut before he recovered. Micah got in another five punches—each one a glorious blow—before Jordan connected with his ribs, and Micah reeled back.

That had really hurt. He wanted to wade back in, and he tried, but his body was still in shock from the blow. He caught his breath and ducked under a second punch. He came up and buried one fist after the other in Jordan’s gut. Then he kicked Jordan in the hip while he was still wobbling, and Jordan went down on the fist-sized rocks that made up the construction road.

All this time, Alan had been screaming. Jordan looked up at Micah and said, “Please. Call for help, or let me do it. What if he bleeds to death?”

“This, from the guy who tells me to kill myself at least once a week? Excuse me if I don’t pity poor Alan.”

“Look, you proved your point,” Jordan said. “Help me with Alan, and we’ll both leave you alone.”

“Yeah, like that’s going to happen.” Micah took a step forward, and a huge owl appeared overhead, gliding straight for him. Micah ducked as the bird whooshed by–right where his head had been. By the time he stood up, Jordan was trying to get to his feet, and Alan’s screams had changed to thin sobs.

God, how he wanted to hurt them. He wanted them to suffer until they begged for mercy. They should be screaming in pain until they were afraid to do this to anyone else, not just because of him, but for all the other kids they’d tormented. They definitely had it coming.

Alan’s cries changed, softer but somehow scarier, too. Micah stepped forward again, but then stopped. It might be the perfect opportunity to get even, but it would cross a line, and he’d already crossed enough of those. He wouldn’t be trying to get them to leave him alone anymore. He’d be inflicting pain because he could.

Just like they’d done to him.

He looked down at Jordan and held out his hand. When Jordan grabbed it, Micah pulled him to his feet. “Let’s go help Alan,” he said.

The rope might come in useful after all. And he had a bandanna tucked away that Alan could use as a pressure bandage until the ambulance arrived.

***

Six months later

Micah grabbed a soda from the ice chest and turned around to enjoy the view. Liz had thrown an end-of-school-year pool party at her house, and the dozen kids that made up their informal home-schooling circle were all dressed in swimsuits, including the incredible Stephanie, who sported a navy one-piece that showed off every curve.

He’d been able to walk away from school instead of running away, but even running would’ve been better than staying. Jordan had kept his word, and the pressure had eased up, but school had still been like a prison. Micah was always alone, always trying to find ways to hide that he had no friends, even though it couldn’t be hidden. He’d finally broken down and told his mom.

They’d enrolled him in homeschooling just after Christmas, and at first it had seemed to work out—he did his lessons on his own, and his mom checked his progress in the evenings. But after a month of seeing no one but her, their house had started to feel like a prison, too, with him in solitary confinement. One night he’d started yelling at his mom over nothing at all, just drying the dishes. Then he’d had to tell her again that he was having trouble, only this time he’d had no idea what to do about it.

But his mom had been adamant that there was no reason he couldn’t make friends somewhere else, and they’d gone online together and found a group of other homeschooled kids and parents in their area. He now had friends he could study and hang out with, and the only texts he’d gotten lately were for the next time they’d meet up.

Maybe over the summer they could all find a dance class, and he’d finally figure out a way to sweep Stephanie off her feet.

Why not? Everything else had changed. Anything seemed possible.

***

https://bbprompt.com/2021/04/02/owl/

Avid writer and reader of Faerie tales and noblebright fantasy.

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Posted in My Stories
35 comments on “Night Owl
  1. What a story, Cathleen. You grabbed me with a teen who is conversant with survival skills.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. balroop2013 says:

    Micah’s pain and retaliation gave me goosebumps Cathleen! Bullying has been an age-old malaise. I wish there could be some enlightening about it in schools to make the teenagers more sensitive toward each other. Well-written!

    Liked by 1 person

    • They do programs in schools–it’s just that the results are so short-lived. I remember a very powerful presentation that I took a class to see. I know it was powerful because a lot of kids who were normally very loud got very quiet.

      But by the end of the day, you could tell exactly which kids enjoyed ridiculing others–they were the ones making jokes and sarcastic remarks about the earlier talk. And within a week, everything was back to normal.

      As long as adults model bullying behavior, youth will follow.

      I wrote this story for a couple of reasons. First, that bullying today is more comprehensive and methodical than the bullying adults grew up with. Social media has been huge in this area, but also cell phones, particularly texts, have played a substantial role. Kids are being driven to suicide.

      If you have a child at risk for self-harm, the kid needs to be removed from the triggering situation. Now. I don’t know if everyone has wrapped their head around that yet.

      And if you push a kid to the point that they have nothing to lose, you get things like school shootings.

      I don’t know, though–maybe the whole thing was too didactic, and I should have just written a nonfiction article. I always second-guess myself on stuff like this. : )

      Like

  3. D.L. Finn, Author says:

    I could feel Micahs pain. Bullying is a difficult issue and hard to stop. I’m glad he found a safe place at the end and didn’t cross that line. Great story, Cathleen!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ann Coleman says:

    Bullying is such a huge problem, and not just with kids. Personally, I hate all the “reality shows” that are often nothing more than an excuse for people to “enjoy” someone else’s emotional, or even physical, pain.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great story, Cathleen! Sharing and wishing you a great weekend. ❤ xo

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Cathleen, a lovely story. Bullying is such a terrible thing and it seems to be worse now and not better.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jennie says:

    I loved this story, Cathleen! It was realistic, suspenseful, and with an ending that kept the reader wondering.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. […] “Night Owl” by Cathleen Townsend […]

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great stuff, Cathleen! I really thought Micah might do something really terrible. I had ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ vibes. I’m glad he decided on doing the right(ish) thing — how bad would it have gone if he tied Jordan up? I liked (that might be the wrong word) how he still went in for the kill even after Alan got injured. He wouldn’t have forgiven straight away — that felt true to life. The 6 months later bit felt a little bit cheesy — I think the ending would be stronger if we stopped at the point he decides to help Alan — but it still works. I agree with your sentiment that it’s weaker than the other two stories, but it’s still got something special about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm…the six months later was tying off plot threads. Micah decided to be age-appropriate and discuss this with his mom, his mom rose to the occasion, and Micah went on to make friends–he healed from the bad school experience.

      I wanted to show that you could. And that if you can’t win in your current situation, find another.

      That’s the problem with “message” stories. There’s no point without the punch line. OTOH, stories without some kind of moral, preferably wrapped in a character, strike me as pointless.
      There’s a Goldilocks “just right” spot that can be a tricky target to hit.

      Or maybe a lack of bittersweet made the ending seem too Disney?

      Six months is a long time in the life of a teen. In between, Micah went back to school and still had no friends. He had to try to hide that, even though it can’t be hidden. Without a target for his anger, it would have likely turned inward and become depression. I pictured him telling his mom over the Thanksgiving holiday, probably on Sunday. She’d be hurt but come roaring back like a mother lion.

      His mom couldn’t quit work, but Micah took responsibility for educating himself, at least on a daily basis. His mom checked his work when she came home. But after a month of this, Micah was going a bit nuts, so after he actually snapped at his mom, they went online together and found the homeschool group. And Micah finally made some friends because there was nothing wrong with him, just a lack of potential friends at school because constant fear makes cowards of people.

      None of that seemed worthy of the narrative, except maybe the first bit. I could expand on the “merely unpleasant” that I used in the story to include some of the despair of still having no friends at a time in a person’s life when they need at least one. If you think that makes the ending stronger. : )

      Like

      • I think adding these points into the story would be great! Your explanations of Micah’s complex journey to this destination make total sense. Those parts enrich an already good story. Of course, I am aware we have a tight word limit, so we often have to leave bits on the cutting room floor!

        But take what I say with a grain of salt. Horror is my home, so any opinion I share comes stained from that tenebrous corner of the mind! I think you could certainly leave it as it is — it’s a great piece of writing. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks so much, Joshua.

          I changed the ending to reflect some of the changes we discussed here. I like it better now, so I’m calling it a good example of getting feedback on stories. : )

          Like

  10. I was so glad to see the story here and all these great comments. Well done, Cathleen. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. aebranson says:

    Quite a gripping tale from beginning to end. You did a nice job of unfolding Micah’s story, such as the point I suspected his father must have passed away only to have you confirm it a few sentences later. His reaction to being bullied rings very true, and there was something poignant in his planning to use some of the skills his father taught him to try to stand up for himself. The ‘partial skeleton of a building’ struck me as foreshadowing, making me anticipate something would go terribly wrong. The altercation between Micah and Jordan was vivid, although I did have a bit of disconnect when Jordan actually said ‘Please’ when he started arguing about helping Alan. Even though bullies are cowards at heart, I would still expect him to be a bit more virulent than suddenly remember his manners. Micah’s decision to help (finally) was a great moment. Nicely done!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks, AE.

    I think I put please in because I’ve noticed that when people have the moral high ground, that’s exactly when they remember their manners. It’s like adding the please on it, usually when it’s someone hurt on their side, means standing in their way is unthinkable. It’s a tailor-made media moment, and no one wants to go viral like that.

    Or maybe that’s just how my mind works. Should I add any of that reasoning to the story? Would that make it more believable for you? I still have about a hundred words left. : )

    Liked by 1 person

    • aebranson says:

      That’s an interesting point to mull over. I think adding the reasoning would only impede the flow, but it did get me wondering about the male-female dichotomy in conflict resolution. Guys, of course, are more likely to duke it out. We verbally-centered gals are usually more vicious in our speech. A guy might resort to saying ‘please’, whereas a gal would probably get more scathing. So I’d just chalk it up as difference of opinion and leave it as is! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  13. What a great story. Bullying sets my teeth/heart/soul on edge. Thank goodness “everything seems possible” at the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thanks so much. This story actually came about because I had to read a book in a goodreads reading round, and it asked me to empathize with a woman who, when she was a teen, helped to cyberbully a classmate until he committed suicide. The book was vivid and well-written, but I found it distasteful. Everyone deserves to be seen as a human being, and I get that it blighted her life, but the other side seems more worthy of sympathy to me.

    Like

  15. I’m not sure how I missed this one. Glad I was able to catch this.

    First of all, your story gripped me from the beginning. I had no idea where it was going, which kept me reading. First, it was about literal survival, then his relationship with his mother, then something about the father’s death, the mother’s potential health issues, and then the bullies.

    You have this way of writing a continuous story. We “see” things one scene right after another. It’s so seamless and makes the reader feel as if they were there.

    The six months later was a bit off for me, though. Somewhat disjointed from the previous part. While I did like the “prison” mention, I didn’t really get the home-schooling and new friends. You could have done without it or wrote another chapter (longer) about what happened next.

    Liked by 1 person

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