We’d been taking afternoon walks for a couple weeks when we found it. Dr. Summers said the fresh air might clear our heads, and I guess sometimes it did. But I think he couldn’t let my wife and I leave without a solution after countless consultations left us with nothing but a trash can cluttered with sticks of pissed-on plastic.
The sidewalk on Mulhane Ave. was stitched with cracks, and every few yards a wrinkled worm lay curled up under the summer heat.
“So?” I said, twisting the stem of a leaf I’d plucked from a tree.
“So what?” Jen said.
“Wanna tell me about your day?”
She tossed a lock of auburn hair over her ear and looked up where the light sifted through the leaves, casting her face with a green pallor.
“Same as yesterday, and the day before that, and probably tomorrow.”
“Ah, come on,” I pried. “You’re telling me you spend eight hours a day with your hand in strangers’ mouths, and every day is the same?”
“Well, Mr. Dillard was in. You know, Amy’s dad. I guess his a capella group is performing this weekend, and any time I wasn’t cleaning him he was singing.”
“Maybe he thought the brush was a microphone?” I laughed.
Her lips twisted with a half-hearted smile.
A squirrel darted past us and under the wrought iron fence that ran along the sidewalk. Chuck lunged at it, a blur of chocolate fur tugging Jen along with him. She fell to the ground with one hand pulled taut by the force of the Lab on the other end of the leash.
“Are you okay?” I said, putting a hand on Jen’s back. “Bad boy, Chuck! Here, I’ll take him.” I reached out for the leash, but Jen was staring at the ground, rubbing her knee where a grass-stain skidded up the fabric of her lavender scrubs.
“J, what is it?”
Chuck trundled up beside her, but she spun her back to him. I looked over her shoulder, and there it was, heaving under its cumbersome breaths like a mound of rain-drenched rats huddled in the corner of an alley.
“Isn’t it cute? The little guy must have lost his mama.”
Jen caressed its neck where folds of pink fat rippled from the meat of its head to its bloated torso, splotched by tufts of oily fur.
“Is it a soulbuzzard?” I asked.
“I think so. Not really sure.”
“Well, I’m sure Mama soulbuzzard is around here somewhere, so he’ll be fine.”
She glared at the branches overhead, scanned through the lines of fencing, and then turned back to the creature and began to scratch the fleshy area under its beak. The soul buzzard’s eyelids flicked open. They were oddly human, rimmed with a flecked iris the color of creek water after a storm. A leg—or perhaps a hand—worked its way from under the tangles of fur and clutched her finger with the tender affection of a chubby infant grasping its mother.
“What d’you think of Owen?” she nestled the thing in the nook of her elbow and stood up.
“Who’s Owen?” I asked. “Wait. You’ve got to be kidding me. That thing is filthy, and what if Chuck gets it? We wouldn’t even know what to do with it.”
“We’ll Google it,” she grinned.
When was the last time she smiled like that? How long had her mouth been one flat line like the lonely pink dash at the end of all of those sticks?
“Okay,” I said. “But, we’re not calling it Owen.”
When we got home I bunched a dishrag into a shoebox, and Jen settled Owen into his surrogate nest. One corner of the box was damp from sitting on the cement floor in our basement, and another was laced in spider web, but he seemed to cozy up to his new home all the same.
Jen carried the box into the room that faced the back of our house. I followed her in, each footstep pressing a dimple into the vacuum streaks that lined the unused carpet.
“Here you go, little guy,” she said, wiping dust from the surface of the craft table.
I peered into the box where Owen, with his rat-like tail coiled around one of his plump legs, crooked his neck and looked up at me with such vacant eyes it was hard to tell if he was taking in everything I did or nothing at all.
“Go ahead,” Jen said. “Touch him. He’s so warm. And his feathers—I want to pluck out each one and fill a pillow or something with them.”
I laughed at that, reached my hand into the box and caressed Owen’s wing with the back of my fingers. Jen was right. It felt like I was running my hand through warm fog. I wanted to wrap myself in the sensation and forget about everything else. No more staying late at the office working on projects that didn’t exist. No more Jen coming home from work only to plop on the couch and wordlessly sift through the chain of Netflix thumbnails on the screen, refusing to eat. No more nights clenching my eyelids shut, waiting for the sleep aid of the week to swim its way through my arteries and into my brain. No more pretending she wasn’t doing the same on the pillow beside me, both of us knowing in eight hours we’d get up and do it all over again. Just the feathery softness that tickled my fingers and wound me in rings of elation.
Chuck barked, and the sound rattled me from my thoughts. He brushed against me and thrust his muzzle into the space between my hand and waist.
I drew my hand away from Owen.
Jen was still gazing at him, “So soft, isn’t he?”
“Yeah. A little too soft. I felt like I was on fucking acid or something.”
Jen smirked and turned her freckled cheek to me as she looked out the window.
“What’s wrong with that?” She asked, stroking the black plumes on Owen’s shoulder.
The stiffness in her gaze melted away, while her expression slipped into a loose, dopey grin. Was that how I looked?
“Jen,” I pulled her hand off the soulbuzzard.
The looseness in her face snapped back. She turned to me, tears puddled in the corners of her eyes.
“I really don’t know about this,” I said.
“But we can’t just leave Owen out there to die. Who knows what’ll happen to him?”
“Who knows? Who knows what the hell this thing can do!”
“I need this, Dean.”
She was still turned to the window, avoiding my stare, when a chitter rattled from the box, and Owen’s neck craned upwards like a withered finger.
“I think he’s hungry,” I said.
“What do we feed it?”
“Well, it’s called a soulbuzzard for a reason.”
I leaned over the kitchen counter, scanning the laptop screen.
“Yup, everywhere’s saying human souls. Some people said they tried garter snakes and mice, but didn’t even get it past the beak. This guy had a little luck with a monkey—which first off, where do you find a monkey, and second off screw that guy—but then it just vomited up monkey the next three days before dying.”
“So then how much of me do I give it,” Jen stood over the sink, an eyedropper in one hand, a steak knife in the other.
Did it matter if it was one ounce or a thousand?
“Maybe I should try first.”
“Don’t patronize me, Dean.”
Owen chirped from the box beside the sink.
“It depends. Based off his size, he probably just needs one dropper of tears or blood.”
I closed the laptop, tucked it under my arm and left the kitchen without looking at Jen. Over my shoulder I heard her make a mock coo and say, “Here ya go, Owsy,” before the hallway walls echoed with a rapacious slurp.
Over the next few days, the feeding, as Jen called it, was so frequent that the sound of chirping and slurping blended in with the white noise of the house. Over the thrum of the AC—chirp. Flush a toilet and turn off the faucet—slurp. Come home and open the door—chirp. Watching Jeopardy, “what is—”slurp. The alarm jolts me out of sleep—chirp.
That Saturday afternoon Jen was sprawled out on the couch. Warm lines of sunlight dashed across the hardwood and reflected in the plastic of the turkey baster she held in her hand, while perched on her belly, Owen gargled at the stream of tears that trickled from the baster tip.
With indomitable canine hope, Chuck loped into the family room with the leash in his mouth, plopped it on Jen’s lap and sat before her panting patiently. Without looking at him, she patted his head and placed the leash on the back of the couch.
“Are you serious?” I asked.
She didn’t respond, but rolled her head toward me, revealing a halo of sweat where her matted hair had been.
“Come on. Let’s go for a walk, get some fresh air and sunlight.”
Jen held her fingers out into the sunbeam as if she were cupping the light in her hand, “I have all the sun I need in here. I’ll catch you guys next time.”
“That’s what you said last time. Jesus, Jen. Look at you. You’ve used up all your PTO. You’re practically fused to the couch. And,“ I pointed to the row of fresh scars that lined her arms and fingertips. “How many more of those can you take?”
“I’m happy, Dean. This is what I want. I’m a big girl, and I think I know what I’m doing.”
“This is what you want?”
“Yes,” She dug her fingers deep into Owen’s feathers and let her eyelids drift together.
“Fine,” I said, snatching the leash from the couch. “I guess that thing’s enough family for you.”
I opened the door, let Chuck onto the porch and stepped into the doorway. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the flecked, gravestone eyes of the soulbuzzard gazing back at me. He was drinking up more than one soul, and it had to stop.
The air felt heavy with humidity the next morning as I sat on the top porch step with Chuck, spreading my fingers through the fur on his head.
Behind me I heard the jangle of car keys. “I need to go in for a while. It shouldn’t take long.”
“But it’s a Sunday,” I looked down into my coffee cup and watched the cluster of ice crack in the dark brew.
“Yeah, you think I want to go? Some kid busted out his front teeth playing soccer this morning. I just need to do some paperwork. Dr. T will handle the rest.”
Jen brushed past me as she stepped from the porch and glided across the grass.
With one hand on the car door, she turned to me. And despite the way her body trembled and her frame had hollowed with the cost of Owen’s hunger, a quiet, hopeful defiance glimmered in her eyes as she looked back toward Chuck and me. What did she want me to say? Was there a lifeline I could cast across the stretch of grass and pull her back with? And then I heard it. That familiar chirp. That insatiable chitter. And I realized this would be the first time since we found him that Jen had left Owen alone with me.
“Nothing,” I said.
She looked down before stepping into the car, and as she pulled out of the driveway I forced a grin and held up Chuck’s paw in a wave goodbye. Once the car was out of sight, I put my cup down and headed for the garage.
The door curled open with a metal groan. Inside, a bulbless light fixture dangled from the beams overhead, and the air wrapped me with the stink of grass and gasoline. Tools of all kinds lined the walls. Shears, hammers, clippers, rakes, shovels. And then my eye caught the Louisville Slugger poking out from the bin of sports gear. I picked it up and hoisted the bulk of smoothed maple into the air, testing the speed and force.
“Come’on,” I called to Chuck, who was sniffing at a box of Christmas lights.
With the bat propped on my shoulder, I hit the button to close the door and left the garage.
I returned to the house and walked upstairs. Morning light slashed into the hallway from the crack of the nursery room door. With the tip of the bat I pushed the whining hinges open and stepped in. On the other side of the room, beside the craft table, Owen’s box lay tipped over on its side.
I ran over to the box, prodding it with the bat and looked under the desk. No Owen. But I felt a smooth impression in the carpet with the ball of my foot. I raised it up and looked down. The fibers were pressed with what looked like an adult handprint, not the track of the infant hands that I had last seen sprouting from the bottom of the soulbuzzard. Inches away, the opposite hand had left its mark. Then another, right before the open closet.
There was a scraping sound from behind the door, and the empty hangers clattered against each other in the shadows.
“Come out,” I muttered.
Another scratch on cardboard and drywall.
“Come out, damn it!” Chuck edged up to my side, a growl welling in his throat.
The hangers shuffled again, and I noticed the moldering stench drifting from behind the wooden panels.
“You’re not welcome here. This is my family.”
A gleam of light caught the curve of his beak, then flashed in his eye. Owen hobbled out of the closet, his hand-like feet clutching the carpet. He had grown. A mottle of inky fur and feathers now covered the entirety of his knee high body, save for his feet, beak, and the wormy tail that flicked curiously in the air.
Chuck’s growl deepened. I patted his ribs to sooth him and took a step forward, choking up on the bat, hoisting it over my shoulder.
Owen cocked his head and I looked into his eyes, gray and stolid as the cement slab where we found him. Did he know what I meant to do?
I raised the bat higher, the weight quivering over my shoulder, and looked down at Owen.
The threads of muscle swelled at his legs, running down to where his fingers gripped the carpet. Jen had poured so much of herself into making him grow from the feeble sac of organs we found by the fence. But could I just let it consume her?
I let the bat fall to my side and then thud onto the floor.
Owen warily ambled over to me, then sprung into the air, staggering in flight before clasping onto my arm.
From the corner of the room I heard the garbling of Chuck’s growl.
“It’s okay, Chuck,” I struggled to lift the bird up to my face where his beak could reach my tears.
Jen ran into the room and grabbed for Owen’s beak, but I turned before she could take it. Owen dove from my arm and floated midair, his wings flapping drunkenly.
“What the hell are you doing, Dean?”
“You can’t keep doing this alone. I was going to…I have to do something, or you’ll just waste away. Maybe if we both—.”
Jen walked to the craft table and slid the window open. With greedy attachment, Owen flittered his way beside her. He landed on the table and prodded his head into her palm.
She closed her eyes, that torpid expression webbing its way throughout her face, and then opened them again. Her hand was still grasping Owen’s head when she looked back at me.
“Out,” she said, removing her hand from the soulbuzzard, drawing an invisible line from Owen to the window with her finger.
He cocked his head from one side to the other.
“Leave. You don’t need us.”
Owen lifted a hand onto the edge of the window and spun around, giving us one last inscrutable look. He spread his ragged wings and hunched under the lower sash of the window. And then he was off, a jolting tangle of slicked plumage flashing in the sky.
I stepped beside Jen, and together, we watched the until eventually he faded from sight.
She turned to me, and a smile spread across her face, not the cold half-hearted smile she had drawn under he freckles for far too long, but a genuine relaxation into happiness.
“Come on,” She laced her fingers through mine.
“Where are we going?”
“On a walk,” she said.
Chuck’s ears perked at the sound of his favorite word, and the three of us made our way downstairs. I grabbed the leash from the coat hanger beside the door before opening it. Chuck shot across the grass, tugging my wife and I into the bright summer day. We wound our way down Shepard St., up Jefferson, and along Mulhane Ave. We walked, and we talked. Not about Owen. Not about the past. Not about the future. We talked about us, and we talked about now. Sometimes walks helped.