“Gumbucket!” the conductor called.
Caleb jolted awake. He’d been leaning against the window of the train car, dreaming of a milky-eyed old man beckoning to him with a toothless smile and a paintbrush. Grandpa had better not be anything like that.
“Great,” mumbled Aidan, Caleb’s older brother. “We’re here.”
Caleb stood on the seat and lifted his suitcase off the luggage rack. It was only half full, but terribly heavy, since it was packed mostly with books. Ammunition. He had stocked up like a soldier preparing for a long winter at a frontier outpost, only this was worse—it was the last two weeks of summer break. His parents had been fighting a lot and had decided a tropical vacation, just the two of them, was what they needed to fix everything. Caleb doubted it would work, but you could always hope. In the meantime, he and Aidan had been shipped off to Grandpa: two weeks in the middle of nowhere with this random stranger, some sort of artist, who was technically their mom’s father but whom they hadn’t seen in eleven years.
The train squealed to a stop. Caleb followed Aidan down the aisle. The conductor in his dark blue uniform squinted at them from near the door of their car.
“You getting off?” he said.
“What does it look like?” said Aidan.
He stared at them. “You know this is Gumbucket.”
“Do we look like idiots?” Aidan answered. Caleb knew Aidan was only getting defensive out of instinct, from years of dealing with people who made fun of Caleb’s stutter. But he still wished Aidan would shut up sometimes. It had gotten worse ever since their parents started fighting. The slightest thing set Aidan off, made him say or do stupid things. Now he took every potential insult more personally than Caleb did himself.
The conductor slid the door open, eyebrows raised. “Well, enjoy your stay, I guess.”
Gumbucket was an odd little town. If, like Caleb and Aidan, you were from one of the bigger cities a couple hundred miles away, you had probably passed it on the train once or twice. But the station would have been so misty you would never have seen the clock-tower topped with a seahorse statue or the salt-crusted beachcombers wheeling their barrows along the street, hawking seashells and starfish and anything else the ocean left behind. You would have shrugged and gone back to your book. For this reason, Gumbucket was a name you knew like a nursery rhyme—familiar when you heard it but impossible, somehow, to recall the next day.
The rocky shelf below Gumbucket stuck out into the ocean like the bill of a duck. On this shelf, below Gumbucket Hill (known as the Hill to the locals), the town sat curled like a cat, balanced between the forest and the water. On rare mistless summer mornings, when the sun snuck up behind the trees on the Hill, the shadows of houses, streetlamps, and the one rusty swinging traffic light would creep down the streets, past the shops, and over the sand, to be swallowed up and freed by each wave. It never seemed possible for the shadows to reach that far, yet here in Gumbucket, they did.
It was not one of those clear mornings when Caleb and Aidan stepped out onto the platform. The mist met them right away. Caleb felt the droplets prickling light and cool on his cheeks and for a thrilling moment imagined he was thousands of miles away in a tropical rainforest. Specifically, he thought, the cloud forest way up in the Andean mountains of Peru, the one with the spectacled bears. Mist floats through the forest like silent ghosts. That was how it was described in one of his books.
“How are we supposed to find him in this?” said Aidan, shaking his head.
Aidan could always pull off the Slow Disgusted Head-Shake or the Textbook Eye-Roll. He was fourteen, after all, two years older than Caleb, and had already had his growth spurt. He liked examining the hair in his armpits in front of the bathroom mirror, sniffing, saying, “Oh, man, whoa, man, jeez,” and then rubbing a stick of deodorant back and forth for five to ten minutes. Usually when Caleb tried the Head-Shake or the Eye-Roll, people just laughed.
Caleb ignored him now and took the lead, wheeling his suitcase behind him. It was amazing, the way you couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction. There could be bears lumbering toward him. There could be a woolly monkey on the roof of the ticket booth. A giant harpy eagle could have soared over him that very moment. He shivered excitedly. “Come on, Aidan,” he called over his shoulder. It felt good to be the one taking charge.
The train heaved and groaned and set off through the mist, shuddering at last into silence. Caleb stopped and for a moment he could only hear the sound of something dripping. Then, ahead of him, he heard voices.
“I’ll take it for twenty and not a cent more.”
“Twenty? This is a prime specimen, Doc, prime. A-plus catch. Look at that speckling, the size of the thing. Fine addition to your collection, I’m telling you. Thirty-five bucks and we’ll call it a bargain.”
“Thirty-five bucks! I’ve found bigger nautiluses in the storm drain. Save your A-plussing, Hal. I’ve got kids to find.”
The mist parted then, and Caleb found himself only a few yards from the speakers. Two men, just turning away from each other. One was wearing a knit hat, his back bent as he pushed a blue wheelbarrow full of seashells. The other, facing Caleb, was older. Everything about him was short and thin: his body, his white hair, his tan pants bunched under a fraying brown belt—even the leathery toes sticking out from his sandals.
“Are you … Aidan?” the man asked.
“Caleb.” He had gotten the C out, yet still felt like he’d already failed a test.
“Oh. Well. How do you do? I mean,” the man said, clearing his throat, “I’m your grandfather, I believe.” He thrust out a spidery hand and half-smiled. At least he has teeth, Caleb thought, though one of the front ones angled down into the other like a doorstop. “You can call me Felix.”
Caleb shook his hand. Felix?
“Grandson, eh?” said Hal. He had turned his barrow back around. “Buy him a shell, Doc. Come on, pick any one you like, kid. I comb the beaches day and night, so I only stock the finest. Not your average sand dollar, I can promise you that.”
Caleb glanced at the wheelbarrow. He had never collected shells, but then he’d never seen any shells like these before. He picked up a huge striped spiral-shaped one. Then he looked up at Felix and saw he had turned red. He was fishing in his wallet for bills—flipping through receipts, pulling out one dollar, flipping some more. Caleb tossed the shell back.
“I’m good, thanks,” he muttered. He was glad the words had slid out cleanly.
Aidan appeared then, brushing his brown bangs across his forehead. “So you’re Grandpa,” he said to Felix, raising an eyebrow.
“Guilty,” Felix answered, stuffing his wallet back in his pocket. Caleb wanted to reassure him, say, “It’s okay,” but this time his stomach seized, and the I tilted sideways and got stuck in his mouth like a sofa trying to fit through a doorway.
Hal started to push his wheelbarrow away, shaking his head. “Find me later,” he said, “or the best picks’ll be gone.”
Felix took a breath and glanced down at the suitcases. “Well. All right,” he said, trying to look cheerful again. “We’re all set, aren’t we, kids? Well, you probably don’t like being called kids. Aidan and Caleb. Okay.” He scratched his left ear vigorously, squinting one eye. “I’m sorry about all this.” He made a vague gesture at Hal’s back, then pointed the opposite way down the platform. “Come on. We’re going to have a great time. I promise.”
Though Caleb hadn’t noticed, someone else had gotten off the train at Gumbucket. A tall man in his forties, thick brown hair swept back over a broad, tanned face. His green eyes were bright and constantly moving—up to the nooks between beams in the overhang, down to a feather skimming the ground in the wind. As he strode along the platform with an oversized backpack on his back, thumbs under the straps, he would stop now and then, seemingly at random, and tilt his head, as though hearing music too high-pitched for ordinary human ears.
“Do you know the address of Dr. Felix Bellbridge?” he asked when Hal materialized out of the mist.
“Felix Bellbridge,” Hal mused. “Now let me see.” He cast a backward glance. You could just barely hear the wheels of Caleb’s suitcase rolling away in the opposite direction. “You wouldn’t be interested in a first-rate chambered nautilus shell, now would you, sir?”
“Not even the slightest bit,” said the man, smiling warmly. “But if it’s money you’re after …” He pulled out a wallet and handed Hal a $100 bill. “Just tell me how to find Dr. Bellbridge.”
Hal stared at the bill for a long moment before reaching out and taking it from the man’s fingers. “What sort of business you got with Felix?”
“Bird business.” He gestured to a pair of sleek binoculars dangling from a strap on his backpack. “Time-sensitive.”
“Ah,” said Hal, though he still looked suspicious. He slid the bill into his shirt pocket. The sound of Caleb’s suitcase had faded away. “Just take a left out of the station,” he said at last. “Then go up Flood-of-1930 Street, away from the docks, till you hit the bottom of the Hill. There’s a dirt road there, by Ernie’s Catch and Coffee, going steep right up through the woods. It doesn’t have a name, but that’s the one you want.”
“Appreciate it,” said the man. “Hideous weather, isn’t it?” He smiled again and walked off into the mist, his binoculars swinging behind him like the pendulum of a clock.
“So what do you do?” Aidan asked.
They were in the cab of Felix’s battered red pickup, climbing the dirt road through thickening trees.
“I do many things,” Felix replied. “I walk. I think. I pick wild blueberries. They’re so much tarter than the ones at the market.”
Caleb laughed. There was some spite in Felix; it was good for Aidan to get that every now and then.
“But what’s your job?” said Aidan.
“Oh!” said Felix, as if he really hadn’t gotten it before. “I’m a natural history artist.”
“What’s that?” Caleb asked.
They crunched to a stop on a gravel path that led up to a small, low wooden house set back against the forest. Hoses snaked across the path and vanished in the garden beside it, which was swollen with tomatoes and tentacled zucchini plants and a sea of swaying pink milkweed. Perched on the roof was what looked like an exceptionally tall, collapsible lifeguard chair.
“Drop your things in your room and I’ll show you,” Felix answered, hopping nimbly out of the truck.
A mat with a huge woven hummingbird welcomed them at the door. Inside, the small living room was crammed: stacks of books, empty tanks, a ratty brown rug and matching sofa, butterflies mounted in tilted frames on the walls, and turtle-shells and seashells perched on every available surface.
Caleb glanced at Felix. He seemed to be taking in the living room for the first time himself, his mouth slightly open, his eyes roving slowly in dismay. Then he seemed to wake up. “Oh, do you want something to drink? Coffee? Tea?”
“Yeah, I’ll have a chai mocha latte with five shots of espresso,” said Aidan. “I mean, come on.”
“Do you have l—” said Caleb, then stopped. L was a horrible sound. Tongue stuck between teeth like it was painted with peanut butter. “L—”
“Lemonade,” Aidan finished for him, and Caleb felt the familiar feeling, that surge of gratitude and that cold shock of envy.
“Oh, yes, certainly!” said Felix. Caleb was used to that kind of overreaction. People always sounded too excited when they finally understood what he was trying to say. “I have lemonade. Right in the fridge. Your room’s down there, just go get settled and I’ll bring you some nice, cold lemonade.”
They walked down a dark hallway, past a tiny bathroom leaking the thin, wet stench of old towels. Luckily, their room seemed all right. It had a bed big enough to share and a window out to the forest. The sun had come out and the mist clung faintly to the tops of the trees. A family of deer grazed along the edges. Every now and then the deer would look up, meet each other’s eyes, and look back down, content. Caleb felt a small throb, like homesickness, but not for any home he had.
Aidan threw himself onto the bed and said, “So how are we going to make these two weeks bearable? We don’t even get service up here.” He held up his smartphone.
“I want to check out the forest,” said Caleb, turning away from the window.
Aidan groaned. “You and your animals. You need to learn how to do things with people, you know that? Let’s go to the beach. Maybe there’ll be some girls there. Or at least let’s find some people playing soccer or something.”
“You’re just scared of going into the forest.”
“What?” Aidan swung his legs onto the floor so he was facing Caleb. “I’m the one who stands up for you day after day in school and now you’re trying to pretend like you’re braver than me or something?”
“I never asked you to stand up for me,” said Caleb, feeling his face heat up. “I’m twelve, did you notice? I can stand up for myself.” The s-t sound had caught for a second but come loose.
Aidan raised an eyebrow. Another skill Caleb had never been able to learn. “Fine,” Aidan said. “I’m actually glad to hear that. Maybe you’ll stand a chance when you’re on your own this year.” Aidan was moving up into high school in the fall. “But next time you want a glass of lemonade, don’t expect me to—”
“Here,” said Felix, entering the room right on cue, holding two glasses that clinked with ice. “Now follow me. I’ll show you my studio.”
He led them back down the hallway, his bare feet slapping against the wood. Caleb sipped the lemonade. It was way too sweet.
As they passed the front door, there was a knock.
Felix stopped. “Not expecting any packages,” he muttered. Then he slipped into his worn-out sandals again and opened the door.
A tall man with bright green eyes was standing on the mat, his feet on the throat of the hummingbird.
“Dr. Bellbridge?” He offered a hand and smiled. It was something about his smile—so relaxed, like he thought it was only natural everyone would like him—that made Caleb dislike him immediately. “I’m Neville Sharpe.”
His eyes roved to Caleb and Aidan, then back to Felix. “Just coming through the area,” he went on, “so I thought I’d try and find you. I’m a long-time fan of your field guides. Best there are.”
Felix shook his hand, looking pleased. “Birder, are you?”
“Life list of 4,687. May I come in?”
Felix’s eyes bulged. “4,687? You’ve seen half the bird species on the planet?”
No way, Caleb thought. He glanced back at Aidan, but he was playing a game on his phone. Not because it was fun, of course; just so everyone would know he couldn’t care less.
“Well,” said Sharpe, with a modest smile. “Not quite half.”
A flicker of something like fear crossed Felix’s face, and suddenly he put a hand on the door.
“Yes, well, very nice to meet you,” he said. “Enjoy your stay in Gumbucket!”
“Wait!” said Sharpe. “Won’t you at least show me your studio? It must be fascinating.”
Felix paused, his hand still on the door. “Well … I suppose that’s all right,” said Felix. “I was just going to show my grandchildren my studio anyway. This is Caleb. And Aidan, put away your phone.”
Aidan ignored him, tapping deliberately for four or five more seconds, then slid his phone into his pocket.
Sharpe stepped up through the doorway and towered over them all. As they passed the kitchen, Caleb slipped away and poured his lemonade down the sink. Wrinkling his nose at something, he noticed a small pot on the back burner of the cooktop. Inside, three hot dogs were floating in a thick grayish liquid; it looked like they’d been boiled in canned mushroom soup. Caleb gagged and hurried back into the hallway, hoping that wasn’t supposed to be lunch.
Felix opened the last door. A faint smell of chemicals and fur floated out. Felix flipped a switch.
It was like walking into a zoo. Dozens of creatures gazed curiously at Caleb from paintings that hung on the walls, leaned against cabinets, and stood on teetering piles of oversized books. Black crested birds with beady red eyes. Lizards sunbathing on mossy rocks. Raccoons on a stream bank, washing their hands, one mischievously splashing the other. The paintings were as lifelike as photographs—more lifelike, Caleb thought, because you could sense the animals’ personalities.
“What do you think?” said Felix.
“It’s magnificent,” said Sharpe.
Caleb looked at the rest of the room. Dark chests of wide wooden drawers lined three of the walls. Snakes and frogs floated in liquid-filled jars of various sizes arranged neatly on top. Near the fourth wall an ancient-looking desk with feet shaped like bird toes stood on a rug. Scattered across the desk were papers, inkpots, paints, pencils, erasers, protractors, rulers, and small, dainty bones.
“Working on my mammal field guide these days,” said Felix. He picked up a few of the bones, held them up to the light. “Ribs of the tawny grasshopper mouse. I have to study the skeletal structures if I want to draw the creatures right. It’s the cardinal rule of natural-history illustration, the Triple A: Absolute Anatomical Accuracy. Look.”
From behind his desk he dragged a stuffed bobcat, staggering as he lifted it and set it on its feet in the middle of the room. “Just finished stuffing this guy last week. I’d been tracking him for days before I found him by a stream. Sat down on a rock to sketch him as fast as I could when he stepped on a copperhead coiled in the leaves. Couldn’t believe my luck.”
Caleb stared at the spotted grey-brown fur, stroked the tufted ears of this beautiful dead thing. Sharpe just nodded, smiling, saying it was a job well done, but his eyes were scanning the bookshelves, searching for something. Aidan turned away from the bobcat, swallowing hard, lips clamped shut. He was clutching his stomach. Caleb caught his eye and couldn’t help a small, triumphant smile.
“Shut up,” Aidan hissed, going bright red.
“Well, Mr. Sharpe,” said Felix, “I’d like to spend some time with my grandchildren.”
“Of course. But would you mind very much if I asked you something?” Sharpe’s eyes were wide and innocent. “Birding advice, just a quick private consultation, while I’m here.”
There was the slightest emphasis on the word private. Aidan took his chance to leave. Caleb glanced at Felix, saw the fear on his face again.
“I really don’t have time now,” said Felix.
“It will only take a minute.” He was standing very close to Felix, looking right in his eyes, only the bobcat between them.
“All right, all right,” said Felix. “Caleb, you can start unpacking.”
But Caleb had no intention of unpacking. As soon as he shut the door of the studio behind him, he crouched down next to it. From down the hall came the sound of Aidan retching into the toilet. After the flush, there was quiet.
“I’ve done my research, Dr. Bellbridge,” Sharpe was saying. “I know the midnight owl is real. Sailors have seen it hundreds of miles from land, more often than you might think. Never saw a bird so big, they say. Some told me they thought it was a gigantic bat, or an unmanned espionage device. A shard of night sky. I’ve been tracking these sightings for years, Dr. Bellbridge. Gradually linking them to land records, observations that have puzzled careful birders and scientists, local legends, everything. I’ve been tracing the stories. And the greatest cluster have their roots right here in Gumbucket.”
Caleb realized he was holding his breath. The midnight owl. He could imagine it, this lonely bird, soaring silently over the dark ocean. He could see it plummeting downward, yellow eyes flashing, see its black wingtips pierce the water and rise again, beating the air, see it vanish into the night with a dolphin in its talons.
“The midnight owl is a myth,” Felix said.
“I thought you might say that.” Caleb could hear the smile in Sharpe’s voice. “And yet I have reliable information that the female returns from its wanderings once a year, after mating at sea—just after the heliacal rising of Sirius—to nest in some chosen spot in thick coastal forest. The same spot, year after year, for a month until the owlets fledge. I don’t think I need to tell you that the rising was yesterday, Dr. Bellbridge. You are the most brilliant naturalist in the state, if not the country. Why do you choose to live in Gumbucket, of all places? Don’t answer. Just tell me this. Will you help me find the nest of the midnight owl?”
“The midnight owl is a myth,” Felix repeated. “So you can forget it.”
Caleb didn’t understand. Why wouldn’t Felix budge? Caleb had always felt there was more weird stuff out there than anyone really knew. Santa Claus wasn’t real. Obviously. Or at least, if he was, the stories were totally wrong. There was no way he could make it around the globe to drop off everyone’s loot before dawn, even if his reindeer galloped through the sky at the speed of light. Caleb had calculated it once. But other stuff—fairies, witches, even dragons—why not? People laughed, but who really knew for sure? There were fish that flew and kangaroos that climbed trees. There were flies that could turn ants into zombies. There were vampire squid and giant salamanders and lizards that could run across water. Really, a great black owl that spent its life over the ocean wasn’t hard to believe at all.
Sharpe lowered his voice. Caleb pressed his ear to the wood. “Are you willing to bet ten thousand dollars on that?”
For several seconds Caleb heard nothing.
“What do you mean?” Felix said.
“I mean that’s what you’ll get if you find me a live midnight owl within the next forty-eight hours. Birder’s honor.”
Caleb imagined Sharpe holding out a hand. Imagined Felix’s fingers shaking. He thought of the hot dogs, those shredded sandals, those fingers searching and searching through the wallet.
“No,” said Felix at last. His voice was hoarse; he cleared his throat. “No. I’ve never seen a midnight owl and I’m quite certain it does not exist. I can’t help you, Mr. Sharpe.” A chair slid back.
Caleb’s heart was pounding. There was something in Felix’s voice. If he was lying, he was terrible at it.
Two hours later, long after Sharpe had left with an icy thank you and Caleb had forced down a few bites of his re-boiled mushroom-soup hot dog lunch, Felix took Caleb for a walk in the woods. Aidan wanted to go down to the beach; he said the forest was boring during the day. He’d go explore it himself at night.
Sure you will, Caleb thought.
The trees here were enormous and packed close together. Though the mist itself was gone, the wet remained. The rich smell of damp earth mingled with the scents of pine and something faint but unmistakably animal. Leaves and needles crunched softly as they walked, and droplets of water sprang onto their cheeks whenever they brushed the branches of a sapling.
Felix had given Caleb a pair of binoculars. Before Caleb had even grown comfortable adjusting the focus, Felix had pointed out eight birds and taught him their calls—despite Felix’s insistence that early afternoon was the quietest part of the day. He even identified a fallen feather on the trail. “Fourth tail feather of a song sparrow,” he said, holding up something that just looked brown to Caleb. It was like he was fluent in another language. A language Caleb wished he could speak. He kept hoping for a giant, midnight-black feather, but there was none.
“There’s no way Sharpe is a better birdwatcher than you,” he said.
“He’s not,” said Felix. “He’s an addict. With a limitless supply of money to fund his addiction. That’s just plain dangerous.”
“But,” said Caleb, frowning, “it’s just being outside all the time, looking for birds.”
Felix shook his head. “If you’re obsessive like Sharpe, there isn’t much difference between birding and trophy hunting,” he said. “You advance slowly. Carefully. Only one thought in your head.” As he spoke, he crept theatrically off the trail through the leaves, more quietly than Caleb would have thought possible, his binoculars up to his eyes, sliding left to right. Caleb laughed but tried to copy his movements. “You look, you listen, and,”—a high-pitched chip-shoooo rang out above them and Caleb caught a flash of red in his binoculars—“Bam,” Felix finished, making a gun-firing motion with his fingers. “Spot that scarlet tanager, put it down on your life list, feel that release. Possess its beauty and rarity forever.”
Caleb lowered his binoculars. Felix was sweating, breathing heavily, his eyes wild. “I had a life list of 1,296 before quitting,” said Felix. “I wanted to spend time with my grandchildren. But it was too late. Your mother never forgave me. All her childhood I was either out birding for work or out birding for fun. She was a teenager before I realized I didn’t know her at all, and then she left home, forever. When you and Aidan came along, she cut me out of your lives completely. I don’t blame her one bit. But I suppose now she decided to give me a chance. Probably figured you’re old enough not to be corrupted by me.”
Caleb felt that strange feeling again, a wish to comfort Felix, reassure him that he was doing all right. It’s okay, he wanted to say, but once again the I got stuck. He tried to force it out, but it was like trying to launch a car out of a deep puddle; the wheels were just spinning and kicking up mud. He heard two blue jays screaming and switched plans completely. “Are the birds really talking to each other?” he said.
Felix’s face relaxed. “I tend to believe so. People argue whether it’s language or not, what birds do, what dolphins and elephants do even better. But it’s highly sophisticated communication, there’s no doubt about that.”
“So, if birds and dolphins and elephants can talk, do any of them ever stutter?”
Felix stopped walking and glanced at Caleb. “What an amazing question. Never even occurred to me.” He put his hand on Caleb’s arm to steady himself and stepped over a fallen log. “That opens up a whole new line of inquiry. Assessing communication and language development in animals by looking for signs of speech impediments or irregularities. You’d make a first-rate scientist, you know that?”
Caleb felt a warmth in his chest. Felt like he was finally understanding where he got his weird obsessions from, the things he loved and the things he thought about that made him Caleb. It was like waking up a little more solid, finding your grandfather and discovering a friend.
Aidan met them back at the house in time for dinner. He’d found some high-school kids playing basketball. Caleb could picture it: big kids like Aidan who already smelled when they got sweaty, kids who jumped and darted and said things like, “Nice shot, man.” But the twinge of longing he often felt and always hated was gone. He’d spent the afternoon doing things he wanted to be doing.
Aidan had apparently decided to cut his losses after the grey hot dogs and had brought home a pizza from the one pizza shop in town. Felix seemed to enjoy it the most.
Before going to bed, Caleb and Aidan looked at the great black mass that was the forest outside their window.
“I’m a little too tired right now,” said Aidan, “but I’m going in there one night. You’ll see.”
“What’s the point?” said Caleb. “You won’t be able to see any birds, or any of the other cool stuff.”
“You don’t understand anything, man. Birds have nothing to do with it.” Aidan pressed his face against the glass. “The point is to not be afraid of anything.”
The next morning, Caleb and Felix headed back into the woods. Aidan went into town to find the basketball players.
Felix seemed more at ease than yesterday. He was light on his feet and there was something young and bright in his face. He pointed out the nesting holes of woodpeckers and flying squirrels, the human-like footprints of a juvenile raccoon, the alarm call of a robin that meant a hawk was overhead.
Caleb couldn’t contain himself any longer. “Felix,” he said, as they walked. “I have to tell you something.” He took a breath. “Yesterday, I was listening through the door when you were talking to that guy.”
“I just wanted to ask you,” Caleb went on recklessly. “If the midnight owl’s real, will you show it to me?”
For a long time Felix said nothing. They ducked through a narrow tunnel of bent aspen branches whose leaves trembled in the wind.
“You are my grandson,” said Felix.
Caleb looked at him.
“I think I—” Felix swallowed. “I can trust you.”
He sat down on a log. Caleb sat beside him, heart racing.
“The midnight owl is the rarest and most extraordinary bird on this planet,” said Felix at last. “Curse me forever for saying this, but I’ve never loved anyone as much as I love that bird. If the birding community finds out about it, tourism to Gumbucket will explode. The owl’s nesting site will be ruined. People will start scouring the Earth for other midnight-owl nests. The last great secret of the avian world will be shattered.”
“But—” Caleb said, “—you make field guides. You want people to know how to find animals.”
“Right, and sometimes I think I’ve done a terrible disservice to the world,” Felix said. “I’m afraid of capturing everything. I’m afraid of us knowing everything.”
He was fidgeting with an aspen leaf, a jagged heart shape, spinning the stem back and forth between his calloused thumb and forefinger.
“I won’t tell anyone,” Caleb promised. “Only Aidan.”
Felix nodded, slowly. “Well, tonight’s the night,” he whispered. “I’m as certain as you can be about these matters. It’ll be three nights since Sirius first appeared on the horizon, and the weather’s been clearing, and the moon is full for ease of navigation in the forest. The owl comes back tonight.”
Caleb shivered. “Will it be hard to find?”
“Oh, that won’t be the trouble,” said Felix. “The trouble will be making sure Sharpe doesn’t tail us. If I know addicts, and I do, Sharpe is camping in the forest not too far from my house. He thinks the owl is already here somewhere. He’ll be watching and hoping I lead him to it.”
“Can we lead him the wrong way on purpose?” said Caleb.
Felix stared at him, then said, “I knew I liked the way you think.”
That evening, over pizza again, they filled Aidan in about the midnight owl.
“You’ll be the forest lookout,” Felix told him. “So you’ll climb up the lifeguard chair on the roof and watch where the bird lands. Some years it uses the same nest as the year before. Other times it builds a new one nearby.”
Aidan nodded. He was actually paying attention, for once. “So this is like, a huge bird.”
“Huge, beautiful, and dangerous,” said Felix. “So you just watch where it lands and don’t move a muscle. If you follow it to its nesting site you’ll end up skewered and eaten like a shish kebab. That’s a promise.”
Aidan had an excited grin on his face, like life over here was finally starting to get interesting. Was there a hint of fear underneath? Caleb wasn’t sure.
“You heard me, Aidan?” said Felix after a moment.
“Loud and clear,” said Aidan.
At sunset, around nine p.m., Felix and Caleb climbed into the red pickup and rumbled down the gravel path onto the dirt road. Felix dropped Caleb off near the bottom when he was sure no one was watching. Caleb’s job was to walk to a spot on the beach a mile south of the docks where, year after year, the owl flew in. Meanwhile, Felix would park his truck in as visible a place as possible and wait in Ernie’s Catch and Coffee until Sharpe arrived. Then he would drive to the decoy spot north of the docks and pretend to wait there for the owl. Hopefully, Sharpe would follow.
Caleb set off. Soon he reached the beach and turned left. In the fading light, he could see the fishing boats bobbing in the tide. Behind him, narrow houses kept watch along the boardwalk. Twig nests topped several of the chimneys like wigs. A seagull stood in one of them, glancing around, looking pleased with itself. Caleb thought of Sharpe and walked faster.
He tested the walkie-talkie Felix had given him. “Aidan? Felix? You there?”
“Here,” came one voice, then the other.
After twenty minutes, just as Felix had described, the sand gave way to rocks, and a bit farther along, several boulders formed a heap maybe ten feet tall.
By the light of his flashlight, he climbed to the top of the rock pile. Then he pulled his knees under his chin, turned the light off, and waited. The air was uncommonly still. He couldn’t help but think there was something horribly selfish about what Felix was doing, keeping this wonder all to himself, even if he thought it was for the owl’s own good. And yet, Caleb had to admit he loved this feeling, being let in on a secret—a magnificent secret—known to so few.
Midnight arrived, then passed. The black water shimmered with moonlight and jellyfish. Looking out at the vastness of it, it was hard to believe there was really another continent on the other side. You could know it was true, and still not feel it, not really believe it. And to think the midnight owl crossed this ocean and others besides, all year long, with nothing but its wings.
Something caught his eye. A shape moving on the water. Or, no, not really on the water, but just under the water. A deepening of the black, maybe a hundred yards out and coming closer. It widened, wavered, then split in two, then split again, and then with a great crash four manta rays leapt out of the water. Their black fins spread like enormous wings and they seemed to fly for a second before diving back below. Caleb sat trembling. Just visible against the sky was another shape now. If that was the owl, was it chasing the manta rays? Hunting them?
They breached again—hurtling upwards, flapping once, and plummeting down. It didn’t seem like fear. It looked more like a game, or maybe a performance. And then Caleb understood. They were saying goodbye. A farewell escort for the empress of the ocean.
The owl soared into view.
Sharpe had been both wrong and right. The midnight owl was not all black, but it did look like a fallen shard of night. It was a shifting blur of deepest purple and blue and inky black, speckled on the underwings with silver-white dots like stars. Watching it fly was like seeing the shimmer above an exhaust pipe—suddenly the air itself gains texture. And yet, for all its size, and the power of its wings sending ripples of wind against Caleb’s face, the owl flew in absolute silence.
It passed low over Caleb’s head and he let out a yell. It had to be twenty-five, thirty feet across. Then it vanished in the direction of the forest.
Caleb fumbled with the walkie-talkie.
“Did you see it?” said Felix and Aidan at once, through the crackling.
“It’s here! It’s coming up the Hill!”
“Aidan, get ready,” said Felix. “And remember what I said. Keep your eye on the spot where it lands but don’t move. You understand?”
“What if I can’t see it?”
“Trust me, you’ll see it,” said Felix. “Now Caleb, get going.”
Caleb was already running. Down the rocks, across the sand, onto the boardwalk, past the quiet houses where the people of Gumbucket slept, unaware of what had just flown over them.
As he reached the docks at the corner of Flood-of-1930 Street, he had to stop, doubled over and gasping. From somewhere nearby he heard a clattering.
“Isn’t it a bit late, kid?”
It was Hal, pushing his wheelbarrow, his face gaunt in the light of a streetlamp.
“Hey, did the Doc dig up any cash yet? By a fluke, I still got that shell you were eyeing. It’s your lucky day.”
Caleb, still bent over, shook his head. He could hardly believe this guy was still up, let alone trying to sell him something. Just another five seconds to catch his breath. Then he’d keep running.
He straightened up to find Hal studying him. “You’re a good kid, you know that? Quiet. I admire that.” Then he added, “You know that fellow who dropped by the Doc’s place?”
Caleb started. How does he know that?
“Well he came back down here this evening. Gave me a little something, told me to let him know if I saw you or your brother here at night. I’ll take his money any day of the week but I don’t trust him as far as an oyster can jump. Do you know what he’s up to?”
Caleb tried to make sense of this. “You told him where I was?”
“Well sure, a couple hours ago, you were just on some rocks watching the ocean. Was it such a big secret?”
Panic rose inside him. He took off again, further north along the boardwalk, past the docks, toward Felix. If Sharpe knew Caleb had been there, he would have guessed the whole plan. He would have realized Felix was a decoy, would have sat there waiting, maybe just a few yards away from Caleb, would have seen the midnight owl appear over the water, would be racing up the Hill to find it this very minute.
“Guys!” Caleb shouted over the walkie-talkie again. “Sharpe knows! He’s on his way up!”
Static and choppy voices crackled back. But by then Caleb had found Felix, just starting the engine of the red pickup.
“Get in!” he yelled through the window.
A moment later they were hurtling up Flood-of-1930 Street and on up the dirt road. Caleb kept expecting to see Sharpe in the headlights, but he must have had too much of a lead.
“Aidan,” Caleb said into the walkie-talkie. “Did you see it land?”
“Aidan,” he said again. “Aidan!”
They came to a grinding stop on the gravel path and Caleb jumped out before the motor was off. Fear bubbled cold inside him. He didn’t know which was worse, that Aidan might be alone with the midnight owl or what he might be doing to stop Sharpe from finding it.
Caleb shined his flashlight at the roof. The lifeguard chair was gone.
For a moment he was paralyzed. Then Felix was next to him, saying, “We have to check in back.”
Caleb ran. Images of Aidan sprawled on the grass, his chest sliced open by talons, shot through his mind. But there was no one behind the house. Only two long grooves of flattened grass that vanished at the trees, as though someone had dragged the lifeguard chair into the woods.
Caleb broke through the knot of weeds at the edge of the forest and kept running—ducking branches, stumbling on roots. It seemed like an hour but it might have only been a minute before he saw a light.
“Aidan!” he shouted.
But then he found the light source. In a wide clearing, twenty feet in the air, beside the massively thick trunk of a warped, ancient pine, Aidan stood on the seat of the enormous lifeguard chair, a flashlight in one hand, his smartphone in the other.
And just a few yards away, at his eye level, in a bend in the trunk where it twisted horizontally, sat the midnight owl.
Aidan was leaning as far forward as he dared, the phone raised and shaking. The lifeguard chair wobbled on the uneven earth, and Caleb did the only thing he could—rush forward and hold it steady. The owl shifted its position, cleaned under one of its folded wings with a beak like a scythe, and swiveled its great head toward Aidan. Perching, it was still far taller and wider than Aidan standing up. Its huge, black, silver-rimmed eyes gazed unblinking at Aidan’s for what seemed an impossibly long time.
Over the crashing of his heart Caleb heard footsteps.
And just as the owl shifted again and Caleb saw it was sitting on a giant nest, just as Felix and Sharpe stumbled out of the trees from different directions—Sharpe holding binoculars, Felix holding a rifle—Aidan tapped his phone and a camera-flash went off.
With a rush like a small tornado the midnight owl spread it wings and lunged. But, half-blinded by the light, it rammed into the tree trunk and fell back onto its perch. The lifeguard chair teetered wildly. Caleb held on, but still Aidan slipped, dropped the phone and flashlight, and barely grabbed onto the back of the chair with his fingertips. Sharpe took one step and caught the phone before it hit the ground.
Aidan was screaming. The owl only blinked and spread its wings again. Felix shouted something but it was lost in the wind as the owl launched itself upward once more and descended toward Aidan with its talons outstretched.
“Aidan, jump!” Caleb cried.
A shot rang out.
The midnight owl fell to the forest floor with a crash that shook the trees.
Aidan pulled himself up onto the chair, sobbing. Felix rushed over to the owl, tears streaming silently down his face. Caleb knelt beside him and pulled him against his shoulder and finally whispered, “It’s okay,” though he knew it wasn’t.
“I’ll pay you for the body,” said Sharpe.
But the owl righted itself. Blood poured from the spot where its left wing joined its body. It staggered on its feet for three or four steps, then turned its face up and seemed to search for its nest. Later, in dreams, Caleb would realize what its eyes looked like at that moment, coal-black with their bright silver rims: they looked like two eclipsed suns.
And suddenly it flapped its wings—once, twice—and lifted off, streaming blood, half-tumbling midair yet climbing higher, one wing beating faster than the other. Everyone only watched as it struggled above the trees, black against the lightening sky, and let out a single low, bone-tingling hoooooooo.
Caleb found then that he had to run. Had to see where the midnight owl would go, though he already knew.
And so he raced back to the house and climbed the steps to the roof, and looked down over the town of Gumbucket as the midnight owl, careening and whirling, flew nearer and nearer to the surface of the ocean until it crumpled into the water and was gone.
It took Caleb two days to remember about the nest.
Felix almost cried again when he climbed up the lifeguard chair and found the egg. It was the size of a cantaloupe, purplish-black with white spots.
Sharpe would never know. He had left town the previous day, with enough close-up evidence on Aidan’s phone to make his trip a wild success. The secret of the midnight owl was out, that was for sure. But even with the photos, would anyone believe him? Caleb doubted it.
Besides, Caleb knew that for Felix the hardest thing was not letting go of the secret, but knowing he had killed the owl. He hadn’t meant to; he’d only wanted to stop it from killing Aidan.
Over the next several days, as the egg was kept warm in a tank lined with blankets, Caleb often wondered what it would feel like to raise the baby of someone you killed. Sometimes Felix talked about handing the egg over to ornithologists at a museum or university, telling them everything, letting them raise the owlet. But then Felix would say, “I know what it eats, though. I know the mother’s behavior. I could raise it better than anyone else. Then set it free when it fledges, let it out over the ocean at night, and maybe it’ll come back here to nest one day.”
Caleb didn’t know if Felix would ever forgive Aidan. Or if Aidan would ever forgive himself. Which was why Caleb spoke to him about it early one morning, as they both sat on the grimy rug in the living room watching the egg.
“It was my fault just as much as yours,” said Caleb.
“Don’t be stupid.”
They were quiet for a while.
“It’s going to be hard without you this year,” Aidan said quietly, out of nowhere.
Caleb felt his eyes sting. He wouldn’t admit it, but he wasn’t looking forward to Aidan moving on into high school either, especially now, with their parents’ situation and everything.
“You want to come back here one weekend?” Caleb said instead. “When it hatches?”
In some strange way, the egg they were watching felt like another grandchild of Felix’s. Their cousin.
“Felix hates me forever,” said Aidan.
“I don’t think so. You can change his mind, if you really try.”
“Come on, let’s talk to him. Maybe he’ll take us on a walk in the forest.”
Caleb stood up and crossed to the front door. Aidan followed after a moment. Outside, Felix was picking the last of the summer’s tomatoes.
The two of them stepped out. With a gentle shove, Aidan started walking over to Felix. Felix looked up.
The mist was creeping up the hillside now and already swirling over the garden and the roof. You couldn’t make out the town down below. You couldn’t even see the dirt road. Caleb smiled. It reminded him of nowhere but here.
Noah Weisz received his M.F.A. in Fiction from the New Writers Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a three-time shortlistee for the Bath Children’s Novel Award & a winner of the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for Fiction. His stories for readers young & old can be found in Highlights, AQUILA, Cosmonauts Avenue, F(r)iction, & elsewhere. Currently, Noah teaches language arts to middle-school students & creative writing to university students at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. You can find him at noahweisz.wordpress.com.
First-Place, Katherine Paterson Prize, Middle Grade Fiction