Tim Harding is a man from Oxford. His fiction has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Moth, Johnny America, City of Stories and the UEA Anthology. He is working on a novel, The Sad Mans Club.
The Fall of the Owl
Anna’s cat, a grey British shorthair named Fancy Daniel, was lying in the linen closet on a column of towels.
‘Colleen!’ shouted Anna.
There was no answer.
‘Col!’ she shouted again.
‘What?’ An exaggerated hard vowel from the other end of the house.
‘You gotta see this! Get in here!’
‘Fine!’ Twenty seconds of stomping and the door swung open too hard, the knob filling the dent in the adjacent wall. The cat twitched awake at the noise and jerked his head to stare through the window at the sky; no interest in the sound’s source. ‘What?’
‘Have you ever seen a cat this ridiculous?’ Anna asked. ‘Lookit him sitting up there. He thinks he’s the king of towels!’
‘Anna, I just walked across the damn house for this. I’m dripping on the carpet.’
‘He thinks he is a towel.’ Anna laughed. She tried to scoop up his limp length but he extricated himself and jumped from the closet.
‘Can I please dry myself now?’
‘If you can catch the towel!’ said Anna, pointing at Fancy Daniel as he sidled out of the room. Anna shouted after Colleen as she left: ‘Are you almost done in there? I need to take my shower!’
‘I’m done, I’m done. Take your damn shower.’
The wood drew back and the car descended into town. Once on her ride to work she had seen a huge owl descend on the car like an avalanche of grey snow before swooping back into the trees. It had come close; so close that it filled the glass almost completely and its terrible eyes locked with hers. Then somehow, though it seemed impossible, it had swept back up without touching the car and disappeared above. She had almost run off the road, craning her neck to see it go, and now watched for it every day in the same spot. But there was no reason for it to come back – not when it had endless dark acres of forest to stalk instead.
The bank was quiet, which was in the usual course of things. Most of the day was spent taking cheques, printing statements and other busywork. Either Mohsin or Judith was farting regularly in the airless space behind the counter, but the smell went unmentioned. Anna kept her lips slightly parted so that she could breathe through her mouth, and worried that the methane smell was seeping out through the speech holes in the bulletproof glass.
Close to the end of Anna’s shift, Mohsin came back behind the counter from his fifth break that day, stinking of smoke and followed by a small woman who was hurrying him along and treading on his heels. Mohsin looked grey, like he was going to be sick. Judith understood the situation first – it had happened to her before. She yelped and knocked her chair over as she stood up. Anna turned around to see what was going on, and when she turned back she had a little black eclipse in front of her eye. Because she was long-sighted and happened not to be wearing her glasses, it took her a moment to focus and recognise the gun as a gun.
‘Give me everything.’
Nobody spoke. Mohsin and Judith were both behind her now, noisily backing to the end of the room. Anna, not quite realising that she was being addressed, turned and looked out through the glass, but Mike the manager and the new greeter guy had disappeared. The woman tapped her on the cheek with the barrel. It was warm like flesh and smelled of sweating iron.
Anna jumped in her chair.
‘Give me everything you got.’
She began to explain. ‘We don’t keep much–‘
‘You keep plenty,’ said the woman. ‘You give it to me now as fast as you can and then I’ll be gone.’
Anna felt the onus was falling on her unfairly. She wasn’t the manager; Mike was the manager. She didn’t feel well. She felt she was the last one here who should be making decisions. Except it wasn’t really a decision, she thought, looking at the gun.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Take it easy. Don’t worry. We’ll help you.’ She turned slowly to look at Mohsin and Judith, silently imploring them. They whirred into life, patting themselves for keys and stumbling towards their desks while the visitor backed against the wall, allowing them to pass. The woman was small and young – younger than most of Anna’s customers – but somehow wizened. Gathering her coat around her ribs she held it tightly closed with bony knuckles, as if protecting herself from being tickled or poked.
The three of them pulled the money together quickly without counting it; it was probably a little under seven grand at that time of day, but they weren’t asked. The visitor pulled a dirty plastic bag from her pocket and dangled it open from her papery wrist, waiting blankly while the tellers queued up to deposit. Anna was last in line. With the bag in one hand and the gun in the other, the visitor had allowed her coat to fall open at the front, and Anna could see grey threads dangling like nerve endings where the buttons had fallen off. More than that, she could smell the woman: something about her body drifting out between the open teeth of the zipper. She looked up, forgetting for a second not to make eye contact. The woman steadily raised her gun to the bridge of Anna’s nose. ‘When the cops gon’ come?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Anna. It was like the woman was a piece of metal out in the sun; she was hard to look at directly. ‘There’s cameras in here. If the manager saw you he might have hit the silent alarm.’ She felt her eyelids ticcing arrhythmically, so hard she could almost hear them.
‘What manager? I thought you was the manager.’
‘No I’m just – I just work here.’ Caught in snapshots she could see the woman’s face. It seemed not to move, but there was a rising threat of violence: there, cut off, there again, vanished, there again.
Then she was gone, and Anna found herself collapsed in a chair, skirt riding up under her legs, shaking like the tip of a jackhammer.
‘There you are! I’m starving! I been waiting for you for two hours!’
‘Oh my god, Colleen, you are not going to believe this. I mean you’re just not going to believe the day I’ve had.’
‘Oh my god, look at you! What happened, honey? Where you been?’
Colleen was right, she had said it time and again, the bank should have more security. An old lady and a no good lazy pothead were no sort of protection. Anna was not safe in there. It only took one look at the place to know you could rob it easier than making a withdrawal, it’s really a wonder it hadn’t happened before now. What was that manager guy thinking? Anna should sue him, he really should get fired for this.
The rest of the night repeated itself in this pattern: Colleen asked questions and Anna answered them as best she could. Colleen took the answers and ran with them through speculation and hindsight, usually to a finish line where Anna sued the bank, sometimes beyond it to a place where the settlement was so huge that she and Anna gave up their jobs, travelled around Europe, maybe set up a little business of their own if they were sensible. Colleen’s excitement clamoured around the kitchen and Anna contrived to look excited but wound up looking frightened. Colleen picked up on it and berated herself, juddering her chair back across the lino so she could come round the table and dole out hugs. Anna felt crushed and blind in Colleen’s arms and wished frantically for something smaller to touch, like Fancy Daniel. Fancy Daniel showed no interest, was usually not even in the room.
On such an unusual night, Disney was the only choice. ‘Let’s do Disney all week,’ said Colleen.
‘Okay,’ said Anna. Things felt more normal in the morning. Colleen was amazed to realise that she intended to go back into work right away; she even said something about it damaging “the case”. Anna herself wasn’t quite sure why she was doing it, but it wasn’t like she had a ton of stuff that needed doing at home, and maybe it was better to just get straight back on the wagon when something like that happens, and honestly, the possibility that she might not go in had just never really crossed her mind.
When she arrived, Judith was in too, but not Mohsin, which Colleen said later made perfect sense because he was so goddamn lazy. Nothing happened at the bank that day, or the following day, and it didn’t take Anna long to get back into the slow swing of her routine. One movie marathon finally ended and another began, and Anna mentioned the visitor to Mike, asking if there had been any news, whether she had been arrested or whatnot, and Mike looked puzzled for a second and said no, sorry, he hadn’t heard anything about it, but he would make sure to ask his buddy Wayne, who was a police sergeant, the next time he saw him. Anna told him not to trouble himself, not sure whether she really wanted to know the details of the woman’s fate.
The Pixar marathon came to its glorious conclusion on a Sunday. All three Toy Stories were chained back to back and Anna and Colleen must have sunk a bottle of red each and some peach schnapps to boot. Classic musicals were up next; Fred and Ginger; a little bit of culture. Halfway through, during a slow stretch in Top Hat, Anna began to feel like all the marathons were getting to be a little much, and maybe they should go back to the old procedure of selecting a movie each night – more of an instinctual thing. Colleen agreed. She leaned forward to put her wineglass back on its coaster on the coffee table and Fancy Daniel jumped off her lap.
‘Anna, can you hear me?’ she asked.
‘Huh? Yeah, I can hear you. What’re you–?’
‘Anna, if you can hear me, I want you to try and blink.’
Anna wasn’t in the lounge. Her throat felt very dry.
‘Anna, it’s alright, Anna. This must be very confusing.’
Colleen was an Asian man. She had moved positions very suddenly and was standing over her, staring into her eyes.
‘Anna, welcome back. My name is Doctor Wen. I’ve been helping take care of you.’
With a great effort, she asked for water. It came in a white cup with a paper straw. She choked on it at first.
‘Don’t try to talk, Anna, it’s okay. You don’t have to worry about anything any more. There was a robbery at your bank – a hold-up. Now, something went wrong during the event. The woman who was robbing you had a gun, that gun went off and you were hurt.’ Doctor Wen paused, studying Anna’s face for a reaction. ‘Actually, you were hurt very badly; you died during that robbery, and you ah – you remained that way for quite some time. Longer than would have been safe, back in the old days anyway. The bullet inflicted a good deal of trauma to your brain tissue and it took a while to patch you up, but we did our best and here you are now, recovering nicely. You’re a lucky woman, Anna.’
Anna watched him steadily through blurry and sleep crusted eyes. Her brain, he had said. Her head didn’t hurt. Or did it? Yes, maybe it did a little, dry and tight like a movie night hangover. The man seemed to be waiting to be thanked, but he had been someone else a second ago; his credentials were unproven.
‘No one else got hurt, in case you were wondering. It was just you.’
‘Oh,’ said Anna. Her voice was like a leaf skidding over dry tarmac.
‘If you’re feeling disoriented, don’t worry about that, it’s to be expected for someone with your kind of trauma.’
‘I mean to say it’s no cause for concern. You’ve been unconscious for a few weeks.’
Anna went over the last few weeks in her mind. It had seemed like longer. A few months, maybe. But then a few weeks could also be a few months, depending on your perspective. They had certainly got through a lot of movies, and it had seemed like the season was about to start changing.
Doctor Wen slapped his knees and rose from his chair. He was showing her the button to press if she needed a nurse, telling her that she would be kept in hospital a little while longer to make sure she continued her recovery, but that she was doing well so far, the bank’s health insurance was covering the damage adequately and she’d probably be getting some visitors in the afternoon. Anna said ‘water’ one more time before he left. He didn’t pause but she could hear him through the gap as the door swung closed, calling a nurse for a refill.
Anna’s mother breathed the deepest sigh of relief that she had ever heard, crossed herself and left almost immediately afterwards. Colleen shrugged apologetically. ‘She’s been real worried about you. We all have.’
‘Oh don’t even get me started. His Royal Highness Fancy Daniel thinks he owns that house! Strutting around at all hours, knocking stuff over; he wakes me up every night!’
‘Aw, he misses me. He’s so sweet.’
‘I woulda brought him down here, only the hospital doesn’t allow pets. You should get better and come home soon, okay? I get creeped out, up there on my own.’
‘I’ll try,’ said Anna. Her smile was weak.
It was another two weeks before Doctor Wen was prepared to discharge her. The techniques used in bringing her back, he had said, were a little on the new and experimental side, so he wanted to be absolutely sure everything was fine before he let her out of his sight. Anna hadn’t spent more than about fifteen minutes total with him since that first day, but if nothing else she and Colleen had a good laugh about the incredible speed with which he performed his check-ups and vanishing acts.
‘Looks like Doctor Wen’s having another busy day,’ Colleen joked. ‘Maybe this hospital should hire more than one doctor, you think?’
When Colleen wasn’t around, and there were no nurses with time to chat, Anna flicked through TV stations without commitment until the tinny noise became aggravating and tiring. When that happened she would lie back on her thin pillows and think about movies. In the narrowing crack between heavy lids, shadows of people, places and events would flicker in procession, marching along the line where the wall met the ceiling. She swung in and out of consciousness like a pendulum, the familiar characters rhythmically swelling, coming close enough to touch, turning away, withering to nothing.
On the day it came time to finally leave, Anna felt a surge of tremulous power as she got out of her wheelchair in the carpark and walked to her car on her own two feet. With the extra weeks spent in the hospital, real life had just about caught up to the life she had been living in her head. It wasn’t spring yet, but the bite had left the air and the trees seemed poised to bud. Colleen drove slowly, like she had a newborn baby in the back seat, until Anna pointed it out and she acted embarrassed, speeding up more than was necessary and jumping a red light at an intersection. After that she calmed down again, laughing to herself.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘I’m just excited to finally get you out of there! I feel like a brave knight rescuing a princess!’
‘Sure,’ laughed Anna. ‘You just don’t know how to drive any car smaller than two tanks strapped together.’ All the way up through the woods, she dipped her head to look for owls.
At the house in the forest, Colleen held the door open and allowed Anna to step across the threshold. The lounge was empty apart from Fancy Daniel, who ran to the bedroom as if she were a stranger.
‘I thought for a second you had organised a surprise homecoming party for me,’ Anna said.
‘Oh no, I didn’t – I mean, the doctor said you needed more rest, right? I mean we can have a party if you want?’
‘No,’ said Anna, ‘I didn’t mean it like that. I don’t want a party.’ She shivered. It was as cold as ever. She tried to remember where she had left her blanket, however many weeks ago it had been since she held it last. ‘It’d be nice if Daniel could at least pretend to be pleased to see me.’
‘Oh, you know him. I thought maybe we could just watch a movie tonight? I got a bunch of new ones I’ve been saving up, waiting for you to come home.’
‘Sounds good,’ said Anna, ‘let me just go see Daniel for a second; get him used to me again.’
‘I’ll get started on dinner,’ said Colleen.
Anna felt better, being at home. The next evening, watching the box set of a hospital show that Colleen had gotten into, she realised why old people in the movies always wanted to leave the hospital and be looked after in their own homes. There was truth in that, she thought. Away from the wards and all those reminders that she was a patient – a sick person – it was easy to forget the situation and just start acting normal again. She stopped feeling weak and vulnerable, and instead just felt lazy. She called Mike, who said that it was the end of the week now anyway and that she should at least take the weekend off, but that he would be pleased to see her bright and early on Monday morning, if she really thought she was ready. Anna thanked him for being so understanding, while at the same time she stood in front of the mirror, tracing the scar on her head with her free hand. That night she and Colleen ordered a pizza and pulled the cork on a bottle of wine that they had been saving for a special occasion. Anna’s appetite, which in hospital had shrunk to almost nothing, responded well to the pizza, and they even ordered seconds. Colleen said the pizza place probably had them on file as confirmed pigs after this.
They both went to bed dizzy and groaning from food, but Anna found it hard to sleep at first. Her stomach gurgled under the sheets, struggling with the dough. She didn’t mind though. It was raining outside, and the drops scattered soothingly on the roof like grains of rice across a counter. What a strange thing it was, she thought, to live another life in your sleep. She found herself thinking about the other Colleen, the one who had been so understanding and given her all those unwanted hugs when she had returned shocked but unharmed from that day at the bank. She thought about all the movies they had watched together, the classic musicals that she realised now she had never actually seen.
She heard Colleen’s voice from her bedroom on the other side of the lounge.
‘Hey Anna… Anna, you awake?’
Anna laughed and rolled over onto her back, pulling the blankets around her like a cocoon.
‘Yeah, I’m awake, lucky for you. What’s the matter? You had a nightmare?’
‘Anna… Hey! Hey! I think she’s waking up!’
‘What?’ Anna winced. Someone had turned the lights on in her room.
‘Get the doctor! She’s waking up!’
‘It’s okay, miss – miss can you just step to one side for a second?’
Colleen, puffy and tired, was eased out of the way, to the foot of the bed. A nurse leaned in.
‘Hello Anna, are you back with us now?’
Anna groaned. She felt like turning over and going back to sleep, but her body responded like wet paper, limp and liable to tear. The thin mattress was swallowing her slowly. The nurse stepped aside. ‘The doctor’s just going to take a quick look at you if you’re up to it.’
Anna was aware of Colleen’s hand on her leg or foot, somewhere out of sight. The doctor was moving a pencil back and forth in front of her eyes.
‘Doctor… Wen?’ she croaked.
‘Yes, Anna, very good,’ said Doctor Wen, ‘It’s Doctor Wen again. It looks like we let you go home a little too early, huh?’
Tears welled up. ‘Whas happenin…’
‘You had an embolism, Anna. Part of your brain hadn’t healed properly from the bullet, and there was a little bleeding, which can be very dangerous. We actually lost you there for a little while. You were really very lucky. You passed out during dinner, and your friend called the ambulance right away. We just got you here in time to pull you back from over the precipice.’
Anna didn’t ask how long she’d been out, she just closed her eyes until everyone stopped talking. She tried to picture the face of the woman who had shot her. She could remember the papery skin and the cheekbones and the pale lips, but she couldn’t pull it together in her head.
As Doctor Wen had made clear, she had been very lucky. There was no real damage to her brain and the advanced techniques of the surgeons had done all that was needed for a speedy recovery. She was told that she shouldn’t drink for a while, and was given pills to take, but repeated examinations over the days that followed found nothing wrong with her and, after too many long nights listening to the laboured breathing of the other patients on the ward and hearing the squeak of the nurses’ shoes, she was allowed to sign herself out and head home, again or for the first time it was difficult to recall, and seemed not to matter.
Colleen grunted, pushing the wheelchair over the deep cracks in the carpark’s tarmac. Anna held on to the armrests and lifted her chin to the air that seemed to hold armfuls of wet leaves overhead, unsure whether to weaken and drop them for fall, or pin them in buds to the ends of branches in time for spring.
‘Will you be okay while I take the chair back to the desk?’ Colleen asked. ‘Let me open the car for you.’
‘It’s okay,’ said Anna. ‘I can just wait outside.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘The fresh air is nice.’
‘Well it seems kind of cold to me,’ said Colleen, ‘but you’re the boss. I guess this is what my mum used to feel like doing the groceries.’
Anna stood and watched while Colleen rattled back towards the hospital. She rested a hand on the chilled chassis of Colleen’s enormous truck. She remembered the last trip home from the hospital, and how Colleen had picked her up in Anna’s fiesta rather than the truck. Why did she do that, Anna wondered, squinting at the grey sky. It hadn’t occurred to her to ask, on that short drive, even when Colleen had fumbled for the radio controls that were in a different place to where she’d usually reach. Was that the clue, right there, that she had been dreaming? What was it that she should have been looking for? There was always a clue, wasn’t there? Some glitch that exposed the falsehood? Behind her back, Anna rapped her knuckles on the metal, producing what sounded like an authentic clang. From a distance she examined the registration plates of the other vehicles, but there was nothing that looked like a hidden message in the unpronounceable number and letter strings. Colleen approached the car, fishing in her pocket for the keys. Did Colleen usually keep her keys in her right pocket, or her left? Anna couldn’t bring the answer to mind; couldn’t visualise a single instance of Colleen putting her keys in her pocket; couldn’t say for sure whether she was even right-handed or not. Before any conclusion could be reached, she had arrived and had opened the door for Anna to climb in.
On the drive up the hill into the woods, Anna leaned forwards to look for owls in the branches. She thought about asking Colleen why she had chosen the truck instead of the fiesta to make the pick-up, but it was a stupid question. Even if Anna’s car had somehow been moved to the house from the bank where she had left it, what reason would there have been to take it instead of the truck? Anna tried to stop herself thinking about reasonable and unreasonable behaviour. Sometimes people just did things for no reason. If living in reality meant that people always made the reasonable decision, Anna thought to herself, then reality was a place she had only ever visited in passing.
‘Hey Col,’ she said, ‘what do you mean it was like your mum doing the groceries?’
‘My mum? Oh, right, yeah my mum used to unload the groceries, and me and Dean would wait in the car while she took the cart back to the store. It just reminded me of that – taking the chair back.’
‘Doesn’t mean anything. Just something silly I remembered.’
Anna felt strange. Why bring it up, if it didn’t mean anything? But in a way, the suspicion eased her. The one thing she never felt while she was dreaming, she thought, was suspicion that she was in a dream. At least not until the very end.
Approaching the front door, Anna saw Fancy Daniel drop from the windowsill of her bedroom, out of sight. She tried to remember, what had he done last time? Had he come to meet her or run and hid? Colleen opened up the house and let her in. Anna stepped inside and looked around, but Daniel wasn’t in the room. Her chest felt tight, and she dropped onto the sofa.
‘You want anything to drink?’
‘You’re being so nice to me, Colleen. We got any coke in the fridge?’ Anna stretched out on the cushions. Colleen hadn’t opened the fridge yet. Anna twisted around. ‘Or orange soda,’ she said. The last syllable, a, echoed in an empty room. The lights were low. Somewhere in the room, air was exhaling steadily from a vent. Before she could understand where she was, Anna felt the sensation of having woken up from the saddest dream in the world, and she started to cry. In the gloom behind her, there was a stirring, and, still crying, she turned over to see Colleen uncurling in a low hospital armchair.
‘Anna? Are you awake? Oh honey…’ Colleen held her and they sobbed together. Colleen thought Anna was in pain, and called for a doctor, but Anna wouldn’t release her grip on Colleen’s arm. Sorrow gave way to panic – the first time she had really panicked in all of this – as Doctor Wen pushed the door open, already pulling the little light from his pocket to test her pupil response.
‘Colleen started noticing you were breathing very heavily on the way home,’ he said. ‘She pulled over and tried to talk to you, but you were unresponsive, so she turned the car around and took you straight back to us.’
‘We were halfway up the hill,’ said Colleen, ‘so I didn’t know if I should call the ambulance or just drive you straight back myself. I think I must have been going too fast for the police to catch me.’ She laughed at her own joke, as usual, but looked more tired than Anna had ever seen her before, almost like she had turned into an old woman. She smelled sour and fleshy in the antiseptic atmosphere of the room.
‘Yes, well speeding aside, you did the right thing,’ said Doctor Wen, turning to talk to Anna again. ‘We were able to stabilise you, but you were out for a long time, and… well… you see… the thing is… speaking frankly… to be honest…’
Anna tuned him out. She was picturing the owl, bearing down on her like a thunderhead, spreading its huge wings as if to pick her up like a mouse from the bracken and drag her into the woods. She remembered her awe, and her fear as the car had lurched into the leaves and gravel at the roadside. Doctor Wen was shining his light in her eye again.
‘Hello, Anna,’ he said. ‘Glad to have you back with us. It wasn’t looking good there for a while.’ Colleen had vanished. The door had been replaced with a window through which the grey sky glared. ‘Anna, can you tell me what year it is?’
‘Wh – Colleen – where’s Colleen?’
‘Colleen…’ murmured Doctor Wen. He mused on this for some time, seeming to be about to answer. Someone was pulling on her shoulder, trying to get her to roll over.
‘Anna,’ began a man’s voice – Doctor Wen’s. ‘Glad to see you’re back in the land of the living.’
‘Anna,’ said Doctor Wen interrupting himself, ‘you got away from us there for a few minutes.’
‘Anna,’ the Doctor began, ‘can you understand me?’
‘Anna, can you blink for me?’
‘Anna, you’re in hospital–‘
‘Anna, are you–‘
*All work is the rightful property of the author and is distributed with their permission.