Those Wise Eyes

📅 Published on March 20, 2022

“Those Wise Eyes”

Written by Nick Carlson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

ESTIMATED READING TIME — 21 minutes

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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“Look out for their eyes, Mom. That’s the first thing you’ll see.”

Standing in the middle of a forest in the dead of a winter’s night was usually not my preferred method to wind the day down. With the canopy of branches overhead, the only light came from our headlamps, illuminating the twisted woody layer above in little white discs. Our vaporous breath rose up and phased through the beams like ascending spirits.

With it being too cold for insects and most other animals, the forest was quiet and still. It had not even been perturbed by the signature cry of what we had hiked out to try and find.

“What color are their eyes?” Mom asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t know…they’ll glow in our lights, you’ll see them then.”

Mom spun in a slow circle, her headlamp scouring the branches. I resumed my search. All I saw were shadows and dull, fibrous hues of gray.

I had no idea where Mom’s fascination with owls came from. We always heard them back at home (barred owls, we eventually learned), but as for seeing one? It didn’t happen in my childhood years, and it certainly isn’t happening now, now that I have my own place in the city. As for Mom? Her early bedtime habits didn’t help her chances, and now, pushing eighty-five years old, her odds are literally slipping away.

“This is a wild place,” Mom said for the third time that night. “They’re here. They’re just too smart for us.”

I grunted in response. Perhaps she had a point: back at home, maybe the streetlights and occasional passing car kept the owls out of sight, confined to the woods on the fringes of our subdivision. But we weren’t at home now: these woods were a part of Mt. Kinnear in West Virginia, barely a hundred feet from the rental cabin we were vacationing at. It was only Night Two, but Mom had wanted to embark into the woods each time the sun went down to try and see an owl. I had only joined her out of necessity. She never wanted to admit it, but a slip and fall at her age would be disastrous. Or, god forbid, she got turned around and wandered aimlessly into the darkness…

I shuddered against the cold. Spring hadn’t quite sprung yet. We had initially planned to head out to the cabin in April, but…circumstances had compelled us to reschedule for a little earlier. As a distraction, I presume.

I made to readjust my headlamp. My fingers were solid and numb, the bridge of my nose stinging. We had to go in. If I was freezing, Mom was two steps away from an ice cube.

“Come on, we’re heading in,” I goaded.

Mom shook her head. “Where are you, owls?”

“We can try again tomorrow night,” I urged, gently grabbing her shoulder. “Come on in. Please. It’s getting cold fast.”

Mom resisted me for a brief moment. But finally she turned and walked with me, forearm in my grasp, out of the forest and onto the cabin’s back porch.

The temperature change was like stepping into a basin of bathwater. I sighed with relief, rubbing my hands, while Mom wandered upstairs to her room. “You going to bed?” I asked.

“I’m tired,” was her reply. The door snapped shut behind her without another word.

I retreated to the downstairs guest room, sinking onto my bed. This distant attitude was nothing new, especially in the wake of our recent loss. I had hoped that time away from the old house would be spiritually refreshing, an excuse to forget about our home life for a week and experience something new.

How terribly my hopes would come to pass.

* * * * * *

My dreams were full of scratching mice and nails on chalkboards. When I woke up, it was still pitch black outside. Yet the scratching continued. The timbre was unmistakable…something was outside my window.

In a half-asleep daze I shambled over to the window and drew the blinds up.

I nearly screamed. The face pressed into the glass was pale, round, and yellow-eyed. Its expression was of penetrating severity…animalistic, but with conviction of an eerily human degree…

It was only after taking a horrified step back that I realized what it was, and my fear melded into awestruck fascination. Even I knew what this was, having seen enough of the Harry Potter films. And even I knew that snowy owls weren’t normally found this far south. Yet here one was…muscular and glossy white, gilded with mottled charcoal. Hunched and serene, it cocked its head, scratching the window with its wicked black talons. “Holy shit,” I whispered. I considered rushing to the other room and waking up Mom…I knew she wouldn’t appreciate it, and rousing from early sleep was a trial at her age…but this was no ordinary barred owl; this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see something truly special…

I took my chance and threw the door open, rushing for the stairs.

But there was no need.

Every downstairs light was on. Mom was awake and pacing the kitchen, dressed in her Sunday finest. I looked at the oven clock…two-thirty in the morning. The air was thick with perfume and shampoo…she really had made an effort to look her best for church.

“Fran,” she scolded upon seeing me. “Why aren’t you dressed? Mass starts in an hour.”

“Mom,” I replied, “it’s a Wednesday morning. You attend the Sunday service.”

“And wake your father too,” she fussed, resuming her pacing. “I swear, if I told him to not drink the night before church once, I’ve told him a thousand times.”

I grimaced. My nightgown felt hot and itchy against my skin. “Mom…Dad passed away last month. Remember?”

She stopped. There was a confused scowl on her face. The various aromas were becoming nauseating. “No,” she muttered. “He picked you up from school the other day…you had a basketball game, you won…you scored the winning goal…”

I buried my face in my palm. It was accelerating. Dad’s death had only served to worsen it, and it coming around in full swing while on vacation was further proof of its grip on her. “Mom, listen to me,” I said slowly. “I’m fifty-three. I haven’t lived at home for over thirty years. Right now we’re at Mt. Kinnear on vacation. We were looking for owls earlier tonight, remember? We went in the woods. It was cold. I told you to look out for their eyes.”

Mom placed her hand on her cheek. It drifted to her sun hat, which she listlessly pulled off. She fumbled with the brim. “Yes…that’s right…everybody’s gone. Gone away, here and there…”

I stepped up to her, cradling her hands in mine. “There’s an owl outside my window…a snowy owl. Do you want to see it?” Her skin felt dry and lukewarm to the touch, her bones like flimsy bits of straw.

“Okay,” she muttered.

I led her into my room. I shouldn’t have been surprised to only find the void of the night beyond the glass. Mom stared at the window in silence. “There’s nothing there,” she said, rather obviously.

“There was,” I insisted. “It’s gone now. Maybe it’ll come back later, if we keep a lookout…”

“I’m tired,” said Mom. She pulled her hand from my grasp and meandered back upstairs. I listened to her muffled footsteps, the subdued creak of bedsprings. I could tell she hadn’t even bothered to take her church clothes off.

I slipped back into bed myself. It shocked me how quickly the vagrant owl had fled my mind…how it had been ousted by reality. I closed my eyes, heart heavy with regret. A whole army of snowy owls meant nothing next to Mom’s dementia. I’d seen and heard enough in my years to recognize that the end wasn’t just approaching…it was in its final sprint.

I tossed and turned that night, the rickety bedframe like talons tapping on glass.

* * * * * *

Mom was an early bird, so it was no surprise to wake up to the smell of burnt toast and the sounds of her labored chewing. It had snowed briefly sometime earlier that morning; all of the outside had been given a light powdered sugar dusting.

I emerged from the guest bedroom, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. “Good morning, Mom.” I blinked, realizing she was still in her church clothes, marred with wrinkles and creases. “You uh…you want to think about changing out of those clothes?”

Mom swallowed her mouthful of crust, then looked down. “Oh…oh, goodness me. Did I really go to sleep in my Sunday finest?”

I shrugged and offered a sad smile. “Yeah, I think you did.”

“Was there a dinner party last night that got a bit too crazy?” she joked.

“…Something like that,” I sighed.

“I whipped up some toast for you. I know you like it on the darker side.” She motioned towards a paper towel on the other side of the table. Something that looked like a flattened charcoal briquette sat on top of it.

“Appreciate it, Mom,” I said, deciding to just settle with coffee.

“With all the fresh snow it’ll be easier to see owls,” Mom suggested. “They’ll stand out against all this white.”

“That’s true,” I said. “Unless it were a snowy owl I guess…I saw one last night, remember?”

Mom set her toast down, thinking. “…When we were out in the woods? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Never mind,” I said, making to put on the coffee pot.

“No toast for you then?” Mom asked. “Is it overdone? I’m sorry…I don’t…I don’t quite have my touch like I used to…”

“Don’t worry about it, Mom,” I said, gripping the countertop. I waited there in silence, expecting an answer. But only the brittle crunch of toast followed.

I took my steaming mug outside, distracting myself with the newly-christened woods. The snow continued to fall, no signs of abating. Despite the coffee I found myself nodding off, thanks to the rhythmic pattering of snowflakes on the metal roof. Any other day, I’d have deemed myself content, cozy even. The night before, however, kept me rooted in wakeful wariness.

Mom joined me a few minutes later, sitting down with her own cup of coffee. Thankfully, she had gotten into more comfortable clothes. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she said. “Back in Wisconsin your father and I loved when the first snow of the season came. Weren’t any trees where we were…just flat rolling hills for miles. I couldn’t believe all that white. He used to say it was like a blank canvas. ‘The slate’s been wiped clean,’ he’d tell me. ‘What kind of painting will you make?’”

Mom chuckled and glanced at me. “Then you came along. You were the painting. The painting that changed everything. We moved down south. Things weren’t as wide open, and the snow never seemed to stick as well.”

She sighed, taking a doleful sip of coffee. I didn’t know what to say. Mom’s lucid moments, rare as they were these days, weren’t always welcome. “But all the snow in the world couldn’t make up for you,” she continued. “Seeing you, with all this snow…just tells me how much things have changed. And that there’s a lot more to come.”

I smiled, and made some casual remark in response. Mom knew she was old, and did not fear death as far as I could tell. How much of it was awareness versus senility, however, was unclear.

That day wouldn’t be pretty. That much was clear.

* * * * * *

To my complete lack of surprise, Mom wanted to head out and look for owls again.

The snow had stopped by mid-afternoon, and the overcast skies had brought upon darkness even earlier than typical for the season. Yet the snow seemed to glow, nearly negating the need for headlamps.

Donning our boots, we crunched out into the frosted woods, eyes peeled for rounded shadows or fluttering wings. The rich contrast of dark wood on light snow was dazzling and disorienting, like a most beautiful hall of mirrors. It was even colder than the night before, but it was a pillowy, crystalline coldness, like the snow it harbored.

We arrived roughly around the same spot as last time, peering up and looking out for eyes. The silence was broken by random clumps of snow falling to the ground. It was strangely reassuring, like some benevolent force was reminding us it wasn’t all lonely and dead out there in the woods.

I turned, aiming my light just above Mom’s head. And I saw it. Two glowing yellow eyes set against a white, rounded face, nestled in a high branch.

“Mom! Look! There it is!” I whispered. In my excitement my light dipped – and the snowy owl took off, its luminous wings stretching out to nearly my height. It soared over us, landing on the tree behind me.

“Turn around!” I goaded. “Quick!” Mom had barely processed what had happened; she was still staring at the spot my headlamp had been shining upon first. She pivoted awkwardly on the spot, looking at where I was pointing.

It had taken flight again. Now it was to my immediate right. “Where?” Mom croaked. “I don’t see…”

“This way!” I said. I readjusted my beam to fix on the owl, now barely ten feet up the next tree.

It only took a split second for my heart to sink into liquid panic.

The owl’s fiery eyes were wide, yet pointed into a fearsome glare. Its feathers flared like the hairs on a cat. Its wings torqued. Its head dipped.

With a metallic screech, it flung itself from the branch and pounced.

It was the uncanny glint of its brandishing talons that finally forced me to act. I grabbed Mom’s coat and yanked her towards me; she stumbled with a cry into my arms and the force carried me to the snowy ground. The owl brushed past, its wings like a feather duster made of fiberglass slashing at my face.

“Oh my God! What’s going on!” Mom cried, struggling in my grasp.

“Hold on, I gotta get you out of here!” I urged, throwing my arm over her scalp. “Follow me and keep your head down!”

We staggered through the trees, but just ahead the owl circled among the trunks like a ghostly jet, then launched its talons forward again with a scream, its wings forming a veritable wall in our path. Those black claws sank through my coat sleeve like butter and pierced my skin.

The pain was blinding, like fishhooks scrubbing inside my flesh. Crying out, I swiped at it with my free arm, striking its flank. It hissed before taking off again, those startlingly huge wings stupefying me. It coasted upwards and vanished among the branches, leaving behind a flurry of feathers.

“Come on, let’s go!” I blurted.

A breathless moment later we had left the treeline, the safety of the house barely thirty feet off. As I herded Mom towards the back porch, I stole a look back.

The night sky was a deep starless gray, but the snowy owl was a blizzardy demon rising above the treetops, wings fully spread like a crusading angel. Even in the low light I saw those amber eyes staring into me.

Then it flapped its wings and dissipated into the clouds with an echoing screech.

“Go, go, go,” I muttered, my throat seizing up, helping her up the threshold and through the back door. A cold breeze smacked at the outside walls, rattling the entire cabin before I finally slammed the door shut.

“Holy shit,” I gasped, locking the door. “Mom…are you okay?”

She had collapsed into a chair, a hand over her heart, murmuring something under her breath.

“Talk to me,” I pleaded, grabbing her hands. “Please talk to me!”

Get off!” she snapped, wringing her wrists from my grip. I jumped backwards as if I’d been slapped.

We gaped at each other in silence, heaving with sharp, labored breath.

A tear finally broke through with me.

Mom blinked. “Oh…oh, my dear…what’s the matter?” She rose to her feet and hobbled towards me, wrapping me in a hug. “It’s okay, Fran, it’s okay…”

“I’m fine, Mom,” I said, my voice muffled against her neck. When she finally released me, I pulled off my jacket and examined my forearm. It was smeared red with blood, and before my eyes five puncture wounds oozed pea-sized crimson blobs.

“Oh my goodness,” Mom said, her hand on her heart again. “Let me help you, sweetheart.” She rummaged through her purse sitting on the counter and removed a scattered handful of band-aids. I let her go about her fussing. Her lashing out was still fresh in my mind…anything to make her act motherly again, like I was still her daughter…

“There,” she finally said, applying what must have been the twentieth band-aid over my wounds. They were already darkening with blood. “How does that feel?”

The owl’s talons still stung like mad, but I didn’t show it in my face. “Better. Thanks, Mom.” I hugged her again. “That goddamn owl was crazy.

“Don’t you use the Lord’s name in vain,” Mom scolded.

“Sorry…that owl was crazy. I don’t know what had gotten into it.”

“An owl did this?” Mom gasped.

“Yes, out in the woods, that’s why we ran,” I prompted.

“I didn’t even see it happen,” she whispered, shaking her head. “Dear me…what a night…”

“It’s been a rough night for both of us,” I sighed. “Do you want me to build a fire?”

“I’m tired,” said Mom.

She then turned and headed upstairs without another word.

I listened for her door to close, then ripped off the band-aids and ran my forearm under the faucet, rinsing my wounds with soap and water. I gritted my teeth against the searing needles. Of all the insanity that transpired tonight, there was only one useful takeaway: we weren’t going to go out looking for owls anymore.

* * * * * *

I awoke to the sound of my mother dying.

At least, that’s what I thought, as I woke up as suddenly as if I’d been drenched in ice water.

“HELP! OH MY GOD, HELP ME!”

I flew upstairs and into her bedroom. Mom was coiled in her bedsheets, writhing like a beached fish, thrashing her head against the pillow. “PLEASE HELP ME, IT’S BACK, IT’S BACK, OH GOD NO!”

I ran over to her side and shook her. “Mom, it’s a nightmare, wake up!” Her bouts of night terrors were nothing new either, but forcing her out of them was always a heart-wrenching ordeal. “It’s Fran, Mom! There’s nothing here!”

“DON’T LET IT TAKE ME!” she cried.

I had to stop myself from slapping her. “Wake up now!” I commanded, trying to wrench the sheets off of her.

She suddenly shot up, fully alert. “Where am I! Who are you! I don’t know you!”

“I’m your daughter, Fran, remember?!” I shouted, unable to restrain my fears, my frustrations. “Remember me!”

“I have no daughter! My family’s dead!” she spat, curling away from me. “They’re all dead and I’m next! It’s coming for me! It’s outside right now!”

“Mom, I’m here!” I cried – but my voice died as my eyes broke from her and darted over to the window.

Its face was pressed into the glass, yellow eyes gleaming with hunger. I could see down its throat, florid and ravenous. I swear I could hear the snowy owl laugh.

“Get away!” I roared, crossing over to the window and banging on the glass. It flapped those huge wings but remained rooted in place. I laid flat-handed blows on the panes right over it. The owl was unfazed.

“Stop it! I want to die!” Mom wailed.

“Enough of this!” I snapped. I left my floundering mother in the bedroom and stomped downstairs to the fireplace, grabbing the only weapon my frenzied mind could comprehend.

Wasting no time, I barged outside, my adrenaline a force field of heat against the bitter, soggy cold.

The snowy owl was still plastered over my mother’s bedroom window. Her screams had taken on a muffled, haunting quality. “Get out of here!” I shouted, wielding the poker like a sword.

The owl ignored me. Some snide voice cut through the panic, chiding me for assuming it would listen. Shut up, I told it back. It found us, didn’t it? There’s something weird about this bird!

            I took a breath, tensed my arm, drew back, and launched the poker with all my strength. “Leave her alone!

The clang was like a church bell. Snow dislodged from the roof and nearby trees. The owl went still. For an incredulous instant, I thought I had actually made contact. I expected it to drop pitifully to the ground, its white coat broken and deepening with the red of death.

It turned its head. All the way around.

Once more, I was met with those eyes.

The air between us just…folded. And suddenly it was on top of me.

Spread out flat in the snow like a crime scene, the weapon gone from my hand, I could only stare in horror at the owl striding over me. It had grown. It was the size of a tiger now, its massive wings enveloping me in a feathery shroud. It stared right back with eyes the size and color of lemons, those cavernous pupils swallowing me whole.

The hiss billowing from its beak was an abyssal rattle, like the mother of serpents. It squeezed my arms with its scaly feet, pinning me down. It lowered its neck.

“No!” I managed to cry. But that scythe-like beak stabbed downward.

I’d never been shot before, but I’ve read about what it’s like. It’s not just the pain of entry, it’s your innards absorbing the force of the round and jostling loose, liquefying; you literally shatter from the inside. That’s what it was like, feeling that demonic owl dig through my breast and scrape against bone. The agony was excruciating, I knew I’d die, I just knew I’d die right there on that snowy night. There was the sickening crack of my ribs splintering and breaking under its strength. Burning blood poured down my sides as a million raining knives massacred my chest and my skull. Everything else was twisted and strained from screaming.

It finally lifted its face from the hole in my body.

Something was struggling in its beak. I thought it was alive, something malformed and premature. But each movement was disturbingly rhythmic: two squirms, stillness. Two squirms, stillness.

A pulse.

A heartbeat.

The realization brought only darkness. The owl took flight, my heart trailing blood and shredded sinews underneath it. I weakly reached out for it, my arm trembling as I tried to touch it, to reclaim what was stolen.

Death came quickly. It was the best sleep I ever knew.

* * * * * *

Waking up in my bed the next morning shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. It had all felt so real. I had truly experienced the pain of death, of animalistic mutilation. I felt cursed with forbidden knowledge, unworthy to be walking around and breathing, burdened with what I knew…

Instinctively I ran my hand down my forearm, grazing over the band-aids I had applied myself. That had definitely been real…the first attack. Maybe it was broody, or territorial. I don’t know. I didn’t really care, to be honest.

Mom’s episode from the night before hit me next, and I sprung out of bed. But I heard the characteristic noises of her shuffling through the kitchen. She didn’t sound injured or impeded in any way. I knew her well enough to tell. If that had been real, it had clearly deescalated.

I headed to the bathroom and gazed into the mirror. As if hypnotized, I pulled back my nightgown to reveal…nothing. Unmarked, unblemished skin…well, maybe that wasn’t entirely accurate, as age and time spared no one. But no indication that some beastly owl had ripped through my chest and bitten out my heart.

Satisfied, I took to removing the band-aids. They unstuck rather painlessly, and I turned on the faucet to dab away any fresh blood.

No blood. Not even any scabbing. I could see straight down the wounds inside my arm.

I brushed my fingertips across the wounds. No pain. Scowling, I pressed a nail into the soft flesh. It elicited no sensation, no fresh stream of blood.

I jabbed the skin on my other forearm. I felt nothing.

I laid my palms on my face. I was cold. Ice cold.

Finally, struck with a horrible thought, I pressed my finger to my neck. I waited, counting.

“Oh my God,” I whispered. “No…”

Readjusting my gown I rushed into the kitchen where Mom was picking at her burnt toast. “Mom…quick, can you feel my heartbeat?”

It took her a while to set her breakfast down and look up. “What?”

“I don’t feel my pulse,” I said. “I feel nothing.”

Mom cocked her head as she stared at me. “…and you are?”

I sighed. “Fran. I’m Fran. Your daughter.”

Mom looked away. “…I don’t have a daughter.”

I took a deep breath. “My name is Fran Wilcox. I was born to you, Marie Bernard-Wilcox, on January 3rd, 1969. My father, your husband, was Dave Wilcox, who passed away January 14th of this year.”

Mom pushed away her toast. She then looked back at me.

“No. You’re just another ghost.”

She ignored me as I rushed to the kitchen counter and drew a steak knife from the rack, slicing it across my palm. It cut through my flesh as easily as a slab of raw pork. I could see the flayed skin, the reddish layers underneath. No blood. No pain.

I checked my pulse again.

No. No please God no.

I stormed outside. The snow was still on the ground. I could see perfectly where I had struggled. The discarded black poker sticking out of the ground. And bizarre markings to the sides of my impressions. Like giant wings taking off.

I trembled at the knees. But not from the cold.

In a traumatized haze, I wandered back inside, hand over my heart…or where it used to be…

Mom was lolling in her chair, cringing away from me. “You’re letting in the cold,” she growled. “Try as you might but I’m still here. You’re not taking me like this.”

“I’m not dead,” I insisted. It shocked me how little of an emotional upheaval I’d mustered. Trying to convince my ailing mother that her daughter wasn’t some unknowable ghost should have been heartbreaking. But there was nothing there to break. “Mom, listen to me, I’m your daughter…I’m still here…my heart’s been stolen…”

“I’m alone,” she replied, shaking her head and looking around. “I’m alone in this strange place. I have nothing to say to you. Now go away.”

Mom,” I said, laying a hand on her shoulder.

She turned in her chair and backhanded me in the face.

Only the force alone sent me reeling. There was no stinging pain, no upwelling of sorrow. Only coldness, a strained, middling thread of anger.

Mom got up and hobbled into the living room. “Nobody loves me,” she muttered. “Everybody’s gone. They left me because I’m old and useless and about to die.”

The anger consumed me. “Then die, you miserable bitch!

I fled into the snowy dawn, forcing tears that never came, screaming primal roars that failed to rip apart my throat.

I cursed my mother. I cursed the snow that squelched and crunched unfeelingly below my bare feet. And most of all, I cursed the mysterious, hellish raptor that had doomed me to this absurd fate.

Deep in the forest, laid before me in its wintery slumber, I waited for the owl. I dared it to come for me again, to steal something else that belonged to me, that would have made me whole.

Time passed. The bird didn’t show.

* * * * * *

I must have spent hours in those woods, waiting for the owl. I could have spent weeks, months even, haunting the forest and desiring retribution. I seemed to lack the hardware for impatience.  Yet when I finally drifted back to the cabin, not even two minutes had gone by.

Time was cruel to something like me.

I found my mother sitting in the living room, her rosary draped around one hand. She rocked in her chair, eyes closed, her lips moist from nervous licking.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…ah…look what the cold blew in.” Mom glanced up from her rosary at my presence, her expression scrunched as if there were a bad smell in the air. “Hmph. You must think this is amusing. Here I am, trying to recall my sins for the last time, and you’re hanging over my shoulder like a buzzard.” She frowned. “Hail Mary…full of…oh, blast it.” She fumbled with the rosary, her fingers slipping down the decades. “Hail Mary, full of grace…Hail Mary…Hail…”

Mom set her hands down in frustration. “And now I can’t finish my prayers. God has left me too.”

“No one’s left you,” I whispered. “I love you…I’m here…”

Mom cocked her head and grunted. “Must have been the wind. How could the wind love anything?…”

She stood and shambled away from me. “It’s cold in here. So cold…”

I watched her stumble about. I elicited no pity for her. Her own bitterness was infectious, filling the heartless hole in my body. Was this the owl’s plan? Cursing me into watching my mother break down before me, unable to muster even the tiniest emotional response?

“I don’t know why this is happening,” I tried saying. Mom gave no inclination that she was listening. “I didn’t ask for this though. I loved you. And you loved me back. Back when I had my heart. If you can take one thing away from all this…it’s that you matter. You matter a whole lot to a whole lot of people, people who are here and who aren’t here. You can’t live so long without mattering to people, Mom. Listen to me…I’m calling you ‘Mom.’ That matters. Please…please understand.”

Mom lowered herself into another chair. The rosary dangled from her finger, quivering like a leaf. “So cold,” she muttered. “You sound so cold. Miserable. I don’t believe you. Whatever you are, you’ve died twice. And I refuse to be like you.”

My palms itched, thinking about grabbing and shaking her until her dusty fillings spilled out her hateful pores. I turned away, eyes closed, racking my mind for a response. “So,” I finally said. “What can I do to make you believe me?”

Mom shook her head. “Leave me alone.”

“No,” I said. “I won’t leave you like this.”

Mom pursed her lips. She went very still. The rosary dangled by a single bead from her fingertip.

Hunting down the owl was out of the question. Getting through to my mother was impossible, especially with my current predicament. It was true…I had no love to offer. I was an empty vessel spewing empty words. But I had time. All the time and patience in the world to play out this newly assigned role…a shade, a haunting presence opposite of her, to whom time had become meaningless as well.

I sat across from Mom, gazing deeply. I watched the shadows creep across the room as the hours ticked by, as the light became golden, and finally faded away as night infected the cabin. Her lightly-colored clothes rendered her an opaque ghost in the gloom.

And through all that time, I stewed in deathly thought.

* * * * * *

Looking at my mother, all I sensed was static. Rapidly moving parts, the vague suggestion of images. She had been forgetting things for a few years now…but now it seemed she couldn’t remember how to live…how to be. She was just drifting through the motions, a tumbleweed through a barren plane.

Looking at my mother, staring her in the face for hours, I saw the ravages of her condition. She had completely forgotten about her family, her home, her place in the world…all the bonds she once held…splintered and dissipated into sawdust.

At some point in the night, even the rosary slipped from her fingers and coiled in a knotted heap on the floor.

I regarded it. Barely a few seconds earlier, it had been a source of comfort for her. It had once belonged to her mother. A medium between woman and God…now discarded plastic and metal splayed across the carpet.

It’s worse than death, I realized. Living some fuzzy, vegetative half-life, reduced to mere smidgens of your reptilian brain, held together by your failing carnal husk…all the memories forged, all the love made and lost…collapsing columns of ash long behind you.

Is this what I’d been overlooking? I wondered. She was suffering…or on the cusp of it…

In my cursed state, forced to look at her, it was easy for me to see just how readily dementia could muddy one’s spirit. Given a few more years, I realized, I wouldn’t even need to have had my heart stolen for her to see me in this way.

Maybe this isn’t a curse, I thought.

“Whatever you are, you’ve died twice,” her voice in my mind hissed. Where had I heard those words before?

She couldn’t remember her own daughter…much less her name…

It hit me. An old maxim. They say you die twice. Once when you stop breathing, and once when your name is uttered for the last time.

That’s what it was. Her family, the world…it wasn’t just dead to my mother at this point. It was twice-dead.

I turned to look out the window. Snow was falling again. The owl was out there somewhere, even if it refused to show itself. It was biding its time. Waiting, watchful and knowing with those wise eyes…

I stood up. “I understand now. Do what you need to do…I won’t interfere.”

Mom raised her head. Her bony hands gripped the armrests. Then she rose. She began to walk towards the back porch.

“I’m tired,” she said.

She was still slow and unwieldy, but there was determination this time. Focus. Drive. She pulled the door open and stepped out into the blistering night.

I trailed her, not making a sound. I had to see it through myself.

I couldn’t feel the cold, but somehow I doubted she could either.

Mom stopped at the edge of the black forest, obscured by the buffeting snowflakes. The only sign of life was the brief mist of her breath catching and fading in the wind.

She waited. I waited.

“I’m ready…I’m ready now,” I declared. “…We both are.”

There were two things about owls that would come to strike me as fascinating. First, the fact that their wings and body shapes are specially designed to fly in nearly complete silence…a most wonderful adaptation for a stealthy night hunter. Second, despite their status as cultural icons all around the world, they always stand for something different depending on where you are. Misfortune. Mischief. Death. Good luck. Wisdom.

They’re captivating in that sense. They catch the eye, they make you stop and quiet down, and ponder. You walk away a different person after seeing an owl. Regardless, I think they stand for one thing no matter who you ask.

Change.

I saw the snowy owl emerge from the trees, its broad ivory wings like iridescent paddles of light, as it soared down and landed on my mother’s shoulders. Soundless. Graceful.

It hurt to watch…I realized that with a shock. It was beginning to hurt. In my chest. My neck ticked with a pulse. My palm stung; I could feel droplets of fresh blood blooming on the wound.

When it took off, I had to blink. It could have been the snowstorm forming patterns. It truly looked like there was a woman in the owl’s talons. She was old, peaceful, and lucid…fully aware and willing of what was coming.

The owl melted back into the trees. The figure it was carrying disappeared with it.

Back on the ground, my mother collapsed.

I rushed towards her, frigid tears on my face, my heart newly heavy and freshly crushed. The snow was cold on my feet. She was warm in my arms.

I carried her back inside. Her expression was calm. She might have been asleep, dreaming of the memories she’d lost in life.

I laid her on my bed. I cried, long past the sunrise.

Dealing with death is difficult as it is. It’s messy. It’s painful. It stabs you when you least expect it, sending fresh agony through your body. Few things are worse. But those few things are all too real. I saw it for myself.

And I could see, looking into her face, that she had passed on knowing that she mattered, and she was loved, especially by her daughter, Fran.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by Nick Carlson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Nick Carlson


Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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