The children all knew the rule: don’t cross the barrier between the playground and the old cemetery. If you did, Sova would get you. Well, the second part wasn’t the part that the adults enforced, but it was true. It seemed every year one kid thought they would be brave and do it, and every year they would disappear.
We could see him standing there when it rained, surrounded by the small aged headstones. No one ever got close enough to read the name or dates, at least not that we knew. Sova watches us play at recess and as we walk home. It used to be really unsettling, knowing he was there. Some of the younger kids think he’s just an owl at first, a too-big owl with long outdated clothes and a boy’s body. But us older kids know. Do not cross the line where the grass no longer grows, or you will wind up in the field of snapdragons-lifeless and cold.
It was the end of the week when I noticed Sova at the edge of the grass. The entire recess time he just stood there, watching with his too-big black eyes. His brown leather shoes toed the line where the red dirt met the trimmed grass. It had me wondering who cut the grass, because not even the cemetery groundskeeper stepped foot into Sova’s territory. He stared unblinkingly as he surveyed the twenty some kids playing on the playground. Long skinny talons tapped against woven trousers. Tap taptap tap. Tap taptap tap. I found myself tapping along with the talons as I sat on the swings and watched. I was so entranced by the creature in the cemetery that I didn’t see the man on the other side of the playground, watching us too.
They all know the place. Hell, even you’ve been there before. Parents bring their little ones in the morning to play, kicking through the butts of half smoked cloves tinged with the lingering cynicism of those damned goth kids that hang out after dark. The morose, the macabre, those pretenders who linger by the swings and watch the cemetery while pretending cautious bravery. They’re no different than anyone else. They have no ties to some else world knowledge, or arcane secret that keeps them save.
They all know the place, the same place their parents knew, and those grandparents before them… of course it was not always wood chips and a well-groomed – if not under watered – lawn scape. Somewhere between summer and autumn of a place most of us can only call “once upon a time”, that playground was no playground. The old timers remember, and they remember with open eyes. The uproar. The outrage. A cemetery was no place for children, though there were too many children already committed there, into the ground. You know how it goes.
Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
The cynics made it easy to conclude the macabre, the dangers of a playground and the convenience of the cemetery side by side at last.
The markers were gone, but the dead remained.
…but the dead are only flesh and bone, those corpsed shells rotting in cold, wormy earth… decidedly, the dead were nothing to fear, are nothing to fear, and can never be worth the fear for those whose vested interests are too aligned to science fiction, and horror.
No, the spectral glow of those recent – or long departed – did not rise by the light of the moon to cast their eerie radiance, and play in the eternity of their afterlife. So then, the children had nothing to fear, and their parents tried not to be afraid, all the while the smell of stale clove cigarettes permeated the brisk morning air, each morning, and every morning.
The truth – that is the reality – is often stranger than fiction, for truth and reality are deadly, but at least in fiction the good guys win.
Lance Pickett parked his hatchback in the same place. Every morning he laid flowers on the same grave – someone long dead he never knew but was right on the edge of the cemetery – and returned to his car to watch the children play. The parents or teachers in their secret fear, the goth kids who pretended their bravery, and the children who felt no fear; they had no reason to worry.
None of them were buried in the graveyard. None of them were anywhere near the town. For the stranger with the familiar face, Lance Pickett was the last person old Sheriff Valker suspected in a laundry list of suspects in the most recent string of those he called “the disappeared”.
Ghosts. Ghosts would be much less frightening in the quiet, foggy town.
Pickett smiled as the first laughter of the morning echoed from the park. At seven-thirty the school bells would ring. At ten the ice cream truck would drive by, and maybe… just maybe… mom would turn her back long enough to buy a cone.
When I noticed Sova staring, I got chills. Those two big, too-big eyes focused not on the playground, but looked past. My smile faded, as the swing I sat on slowed. I don’t recall ever seeing emotion in the creature. Its owlish features unable to mimic any semblance of feeling. Yet the longer I stared, the more worry I felt. A sentinel, aware of the horror that lay in wait.
A cool wind arose, blowing skull-shaped snapdragon husks from the graveyard onto the playground. I watched, as they danced along the ground, swirling in the draft to a secret tune which only they knew. A dance of death. An updraft sent a few airborne, and brought my attention back to Sova. Something in the distance held the Owlman’s gaze. I had to know what it was.
I never felt fear when regarding the creature. Not like everyone else. Most would rather pretend it wasn’t there, because acknowledging such a presence would essentially mean succumbing to a small measure of madness. But on nights when some unlucky child did not return home, it was all too convenient for parents to blame the disappearance on the otherworldly presence that dwelled in the graveyard. A bit prejudiced, if you ask me.
Mrs. Sweetnam’s voice registered on the outskirts of my mind. She was calling to me. Recess was over, it was time to go back inside. She grabbed my hand, leading me from the swings and I considered fighting against it, but did not. As we walked back into the building, I glanced back at Sova. He now held a lanky hand outstretched across the boundary between the graveyard, and the playground, pointing. No one had ever seen it cross “the line.” It’s the reason why so many felt comfortable ignoring the figure. “The Owlman is confined to the graveyard,” is what we were all taught. I wondered if anyone else was watching this now. I followed the direction he was pointing, in just enough time to see a man, across the street from the school yard, get in his car, and drive off.
That evening, I carried out my daily routine, as usual; get home, finish my homework, grab a snack, and head outside to play. Only, I was not going to be involved in today’s impromptu game of freeze tag, with all the other neighborhood kids. I hopped on my bike and raced back to the school.
When I arrived, the park was deserted. I dropped my bike and walked over to the edge of the grass. Sova was sitting cross-legged, with its back to me. It appeared to be resting, something no one was aware that it did.
“Excuse me,” I called out. “Hello?”
The Owlman did not stir. My desire for answers outweighed my better judgement, and I cautiously stepped across the boundary. Sova rose to his feet at once, approaching me. He towered over my small frame and I could smell rot and fetid decay on the air that surrounded us.
The creature only regarded me for a moment, before its attention was snatched away by the man frantically calling me away from the graveyard.
“Hey kid, get out of there!”
I turned and saw him rushing across the playground. The man reached the boundary and crossed it without hesitation. He scooped me up into his arms and whisked me back onto the playground.
“What the hell is the matter with you? Don’t you know kids go missing from here?”
“Sorry. I was just-”
“No!” he interrupted. “Where are your parents?” The man looked around and saw that I was there by myself.
I began to grow uneasy. I’d been face to face with the Owlman, only moments ago, yet here, with this stranger, I felt more fear than ever. He took my hand and began forcefully leading me away.
“My name is Lance. Lance Pickett. You’re coming with me. I’m going to get you home, and have a talk with your folks.” His tone was different, all of the initial worry was gone. Replaced with something that seemed more like joy.
We got to his car, and I realized, too late, that this was the vehicle I’d seen drive away earlier in the day. The one that Sova had been pointing to… panic flooded my body as he shoved me in.
In the backseat of the car, I grappled with the child-locks. Lance up front ignored my scurrying around, kicking the back of his seat, even clawing at the sides of his head. When I tried driving my fingers into his eye, he spun around and smacked me aside. Fire sprinted through my cheek. Water touched my eyes. Muffling a sob, I slumped on the seat.
“Let me out!” I begged.
Lance glanced over his shoulder, narrowing the coal eyes he had. The corner of his lips perked up, making me shiver. I crawled to the far corner of the backseat and curled into a ball, chest heaving. I smothered my face with my palms, trying to hide tears.
I heard Lance grunt. The man smelled like burned rubber. He looked a little like a scarecrow somehow crossed with a ragdoll.
Peeping between my fingers, I saw him driving one-handed. He pulled something silver from the dashboard. Twirled it in his fingers. His stony eyes flicked to the rearview mirror where they touched mine.
Screaming, I pulled helplessly at the locked door and mashed my finger against disabled the window controls.
Lance started to breath harder and heavier. The car turned from the main road and burrowed through a tunnel of trees, cutting out the sunlight. Plunged into shadow, I wailed and sobbed as Lance pulled the car onto a mud verge.
He pulled up the brake, then spun in his chair. His ragdoll face seemed somewhat dead. His mouth cracked and a bead of drool escaped. The knife in his hand looked evil in the twilight.
The man began to clamber between the seats and I shrieked, spinning from him, pawing at the window. His hand curled around my shoulder and started to pull. I slammed my fists against the glass, then saw him in the trees: feathery, shrouded, perched high in the branches, staring with a tilted head.
I only caught a glimpse as Lance hauled me towards him, forcing me onto my back. I bawled when the tip of the knife poked my neck. Lance’s face screwed into a knot and his lips pulled away from his teeth—teeth that grew impossibly long, curling towards his chin while those life-devoid eyes turned blacker and blacker still.
The knife raised and a shadow swept the car. The roof thumped. Something screeched along the top. A haunting cry—the bloodcurdling scream of a barn owl—rang out above.
Lance shoved me into the footwell and snarling lifted his face. Claws came punching through the roof, ripping and shredding, revealing Sova tearing the metal away.
…those. black. eyes.
Like shark’s eyes.
Those teeth, the serrated needles in Pickett’s mouth, unfolding in tight rows.
Pickett held the blade to the child’s throat only a moment longer, his lack of surprise – his expectation of the Sova – more terrifying to the child than the sinister blade in Pickett’s hand. He glanced up, just over his shoulder without fear in his distorted features, the teeth in his mouth folding back, retracting as his distended jaw locked back into place with the sound of a few wet pops.
“Krrkht nph tykt!”
“You’ve no power here. From hallowed ground you came,” Pickett’s hollow voice was too calm in the sudden silence that followed the chaos. “To hallowed ground you return.”
The Sova dropped through the improvised canopy of the car, its voice a high screech, its long talons wide open. Lance made a high, fast arc with his blade and the Sova burst into a swirling mass of translucent black tendrils Sova’s screech faded with the creature as it turned into a fine mist, and was gone.
He chuckled, the sound of his amusement insincere in even his ears. He turned in time to see the child’s feet just past the back window of his hatchback, the child’s clumsy slide, and slow recovery after landing.
Pickett smiled, and considered his knife a moment, the silver plated tip of the weapon tarnished black. It smelled of sulfur.
The child was only ten feet away from the car. Fifteen feet by the time Pickett was back in the front seat. He watched his smaller quarry stumble and fall from the rear view mirror.
“Very well.” Pickett placed his knife on the dashboard, and turned the keys in the ignition. The engine made a weak noise that de-evolved into a series of sharp clicks, and stopped.
Thirty feet. He could close thirty feet on foot, but time was running out.
Pickett pulled the handle to his door, and stepped out of the ruined hatchback. He took slow, deliberate steps and continued around to the back of his car. He pulled the handle at the truck and lifted the door, snatching a shovel from the clutter in the trunk space. Pickett glanced over his shoulder, and turned with his shovel in hand.
The rusting blade of the shovel was chipped, and cracked from it’s history of digging, hitting rock – and digging rocks out. He paused. The knife was on the dashboard.
Seventy-five feet. Eighty.
He stared at the blade of the shovel, looked back to the driver side door, and back to the child. The little boy – or girl (the sex of prey never mattered) – was a hundred feet from him.
The shovel blade would work fine. First to dig a deep enough hole, eat, and then to finish the job.
Lance Pickett lunged forward, dragging the shovel by its handle, the splinters from its handle a footnote in the recesses of his perception. The shovel’s dull metal sound clattered over the open space as he ran for the child, and the child ran toward the trees.
I ran. I wanted to hold my breath so I could focus on my legs as the grass flew past, but my big brother’s voice echoed in my head. “Your muscles need oxygen. Breath in through your nose and out your mouth as you run.” I inhaled and tried to go faster.
The clanking of the man’s shovel against the ground behind me was almost muffled by the pounding in my ears but I couldn’t look back or I would fall. The trees were so close. I was a good climber and maybe…maybe Sova was waiting. The Owlman attacked Lance once, maybe he would do it again?
I heard a humorless chuckle from behind me as I jumped over the fallen log in my path, but my shoe caught and I tumbled to the dirt. I scrambled up and pushed myself on, trying to ignore the sharp pain in my knee. As I dodged a big tree I heard the man call out.
“This is all part of the fun, kid.”
I ran. Soon though, my legs shook with each step and I struggled to inhale like Rob had instructed. If I could just stop running for a minute, that would help. I put my hand on a thin trunk and looked over my shoulder, but found only trees. I tried to rewet my mouth as I stood, gasping and scanning the trees, but I didn’t see him.
A blinding pain burst from the back of my head in time with a dull thud against my skull. I dropped to the ground with a scream and reached back as blood start gushing. Movement above, blurred by my tearful eyes, made my chest tighten and it was even harder to breath.
“Told you it’s fun,” Lance said through a grin. His words were promptly followed by the wet pops of his jaw dislocating and teeth extending. I tried to scoot back but my head hurt so bad I almost threw up. So I screamed.
“HELP ME! SOMEONE HELP ME!”
Lance chuckled and I cleared the tears enough to see him lift the shovel and lock his gaze to mine. A shadow briefly flittered across us as a cool breeze blew and Lance jerked his gaze to the tree tops. Even though his focus was off of me, I couldn’t move on my trembling limbs.
“Sova!” Lance yelled, his voice distorted by his elongated jaw. “We both know you can’t always stop me! I’ve honed my tricks; I know what works against you!” He grew silent as he scanned the trees. Something drew my gaze and I focused on a tall white tree just behind Lance’s head. Sova stood at the base, watching. A thought popped into my head as I stared at the Owlman.
Lunar eclipses were never as aggrandized as the solar variety. If not mentioned by some news outlet barely keeping tabs on the scientific community, many would not even know of the occurrence. But this was not about science. This was something else.
Pickett remembered the time when Sova came for him in his boyhood years, ages ago. Where the Owlman came from, he did not know. Perhaps if the moon had not entered the earth’s penumbral shadow, things would have been different. Maybe the moon would have protected him, where Sova had failed. It was their fault; the Owlman, preoccupied, and La Luna, in hiding. They were the reason he was taken on that dark, cold, and miserable night. All Lance wanted to do was get home, and be with his family. The cemetery was surrounded by woods back then. And everyone cautioned the children away from there, especially after nightfall. He should have listened. In the absence of the moon, young Lance Pickett was overcome by the evil stalking the woods. It did not kill him, no. What it did was far worse. It consumed him, infected him…became him.
The beast within him only surfaced when it was hungry, and throughout the years, Lance kept it well fed. Feasting on the flesh of the innocent, quenching his thirst with their blood. Arrogant little shits, whose curiosity got the best of them. They deserved it, all of them. How dare they cross into the graveyard where the ascended were entombed. True, he was taking a risk by snatching them away from Sova’s watchful eye, but just as the Owlman had not been able to save him, so had it been with the children he’d whisked away.
Tonight, the cowardly moon was in hiding, yet again. Lance would eat on this night. More than that though, when the watchful moon above finally peeked out from behind the shadows, Sova the Owlman, last of the old ones, and guardian of the ascended would be no more.
My head ached from the blow, along with my body from all of the energy I had exerted. Unsteady at first, once I began to run I found myself unable to stop. Every breath was a concentrated effort, and each footfall a miracle. My conscious mind did not know whether sprinting to where Sova stood was the safest course of action. I knew nothing about it after all. But a feeling deep inside drove me forward, and my conscience reasoned with the decision, settling on the fact that of the two present here, besides myself, it was the Owlman who was not trying to kill me. A hand attempted to grab my shirt. I staggered, but continued on.
“Your fear, little one, your sweat will make your flesh all the more tasty.” Lance laughed from somewhere close behind me. Visions of those horrid teeth inside of his broken jaw plagued my thoughts.
I arrived at Sova’s side and collapsed, entirely spent. Lance, just a few paces behind me. He growled; a vicious sound in the ever darkening night, but it was choked off suddenly. I turned to look, and found Sova holding Lance back. The elongated talons of his left hand wrapped around the monster’s neck. Lance clawed furiously, trying to break free, but Sova held fast.
“Pic…kett,” the word issued from the Owlman sounded strange, foreign and labored. It was clear that this took a lot of effort. “This…ends…here…”
I scampered away from Sova and Pickett. The Owlman’s eyes flashed red. Pickett’s rolled back in his head, he rasped and choked, clawing at the talons.
I struggled to my feet, blood throbbing in my temples. Sweat stuck my clothes to my body. I panted. Shaking. Freezing, but boiling at the same time.
Run, my mind insisted, but I stood transfixed as the moon slid from between the clouds, casting her ghostly glow. Sova screeched, throwing his head back. Pickett writhed and screamed as wings burst from Sova’s back and huge feathers rattled in the breeze.
“And so … it … ends,” Sova said, his voice like thunder.
Those wings beat and the Owlman rose, dragging Pickett with him. I stumbled away, then froze; the moon—bigger than I’d ever seen it—blazed red, cloaking us with bloody incandescence.
Sova burst into flames. His haunting cries shook the earth and Pickett screeched in the Owlman’s grip as fire raced over his skin, melting flesh like wax, throwing the smell of barbeque mixed with burnt hair around us.
The light hurt my eyes. I threw a hand over my face, then all at once it was dark. The blood moon slipped back inside the blanket clouds. I peered into the darkness, finding it surprisingly easy to see. Before me ashes—no, snapdragon husks—whisked in the light wind. They swirled and skittered; Sova and Pickett gone.
I found myself dazed, but calm, very calm. I swiveled my head to absorb the clarity of the darkness. Sedate and silent, I walked through the night, creeping like a shadow. It made sense now. Perfect sense. And as I trudged into the graveyard, the hallowed ground welcomed me with sounds that felt like pattering fingers.
I found my place and stood there. A sentinel, engulfed by a gust of air that ruffled my feathers. I glanced at my taloned hands, then looked to the sky where the moon peeked ever so slightly.
“You know what to do,” she whispered.
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