Gabriel first saw the owl when he was seven years old. It hooked its talons into the branches outside his bedroom window and watched him through the glass. Its dead, black eyes made his skin crawl, but he could not look away. He was rapt, captivated by that stare, until his sister knocked on his bedroom door.
“Gabe,” she said. “Get up! You’ll be late for school.”
He heard Natalie’s heavy footsteps move away from the door and thunder down the hall. Nat had always been one to dig her heels in. That’s how Gabriel ended up with her after their mom died, back his deadbeat dad had shown up out of nowhere to whisk him off to the badlands of South Dakota.
But Nat was a practicing attorney by then, and it hadn’t even taken a court case to make him go away. Nat told him not to worry at the time, and Gabriel didn’t. She’d taken good care of him ever since.
Footsteps in the hall again. This time, the door opened.
“Gabe, what’s wrong? Are you sick? What are you looking at?”
A firm hand closed around his shoulder, and Gabriel felt Nat lean forward. The tips of her hair brushed against his neck, and he raised a hand to brush them away. Nat brought her head low to see from Gabriel’s point of view. Finally, she knelt and rested her chin on his shoulder.
He pointed. “There’s an owl.”
“Hey, yeah. Good eye, buddy. You know what kind of owl that is?”
Gabriel shook his head.
“It’s called a barred owl. It’s a pretty one, too.” They stared a minute longer before Nat shook Gabriel from his trance. “Now, come on. We’ve got to get you to school. Big day ahead, for both of us.”
“Yeah? What’s today?”
Nat stopped at the door way and looked back at him. “Mom died a year ago today. I wanted us to visit her grave after work so that we can pay our respects.”
“Oh,” Gabriel said.
The owl watched Gabriel from just outside his classroom window, those two dark eyes bearing down on him like a weight. He first noticed it when he got up from his desk to sharpen his pencil. Then he caught a flash of white and brown as the owl ruffled its feathers and settled down again.
“Gabriel, return to your seat please,” Miss Wiley told him.
It took everything in his power to turn away from the owl, to walk back toward his seat. Those eyes, endlessly black despite the sunlight dancing through the trees, watched him go.
Twice more, Gabriel made excuses to glance out the window. The owl was there each time, patiently perched, patiently waiting. Gabriel kept it to himself. If he shouted about an owl, the entire classroom would huddle over to the window, screaming and pointing. Even Miss Wiley wouldn’t be able to keep them under control.
That’s how it had happened when one kid saw that fox slinking through the playground a few months back, anyway. The entire class got a stern lecture from Miss Wiley about the importance of staying seated, but she was the only one who seemed to care. After all, it was the first time most of them — Gabriel included — had ever seen a fox.
During lunchtime, the owl perched outside the cafeteria. Gabriel saw it land as Miss Wiley led the class between buildings. It was there when they came out again.
At recess, some kids spotted the owl sitting in a tree and decided to throw rocks at it. The owl flew off and took a higher perch on ledge at the opposite side of the playground, where it loomed like a ghost in the afternoon light.
In the late evening, when Nat came to pick him up, the owl was perched on the fence beside the parking lot. It was closer than Gabriel had ever seen it. Even Nat looked put off when she spotted it on the way back to the car.
“Looks like you’ve made a friend,” she said. “Has it been following you all day?”
“Weird,” she said.
The owl was waiting atop their mother’s grave. Nat saw it first, as Gabriel was getting out of the car. She was staring when he climbed out of the car, the bouquet of flowers in her hand draped to one side.
“Nat,” Gabriel said. “What’s going on? Nat?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Just say close to me, okay?”
Nat raised the flowers and took Gabriel’s palm with her spare hand. At first, it seemed like she planned to use the bouquet as a weapon, but Nat never threatened the bird. Instead, they walked forward slowly, past the row of headstones, toward the owl waiting for them at the end of the row.
“We don’t want any trouble,” Nat spoke softly as they came up beside the owl. She eased the flowers down beside the headstone propped them against the ground. “I hope you don’t mind.”
The owl rustled its feathers, opened its wings, and settled down again. Then, slowly, it shuffled to the far end of the headstone to give them their space.
“Gabs,” Nat said. “Come here.”
Gabriel stepped close to Nat. He poked his head out from around her leg and caught sight of the owl staring back at him. Then he felt Nat’s hand on his shoulder, protecting him. Nat bowed her head, and Gabriel did the same.
They stood there for what seemed like an eternity, eyes closed. Gabe did his best to think about his mother, about how much he missed her, about how good things were with Nat. It wasn’t easy for either of them, but they were making due.
When Gabe opened his eyes again, the owl was gone. Nat, standing above him, was weeping.
“What’s wrong?” Gabe asked. “Are you sad?”
Nat nodded, but she didn’t explain why.