It was a hot summer night when I first heard the scream. I sat up fast, the blankets tangled around my feet in a sweaty mass of itchy acrylic. My heart was pounding so hard that for a moment I wondered if it had only been a nightmare. But the sound lingered in my ears, steadily ringing, and I decided that it had been a real scream.
I turned to my window and leaned towards it, so close that the screen was brushing my nose. The moon was bright, glowing yellow in the sky, leaving traces of thin light on the trees. I squinted into the darkness, one hand fumbling for my glasses.
Something white uttered through the trees, dancing along just far enough away that I couldn’t tell what it was. My hand closed over my glasses and I slipped them on. The white thing disappeared; I caught a glimpse of it one last time before the green and black trees hid it away.
I lay down again but didn’t take my glasses off or try at all to go back to sleep. Instead, I closed my eyes and tried to recreate the image in my mind. I kept picturing that whiteness, fluttering like a flag in the wind. But it didn’t make any sense. No animals that I could think of were white and none fluttered. I shook my head, puzzled, and tried to turn my thoughts to another subject.
Dallas. I winced We had fought—big time—and though he’d been my best friend since we were six, I had no idea how to make it up to him. In fact, I could barely remember what we had fought about—only that I had been angry about something he said and he had some amazing comebacks. Did it really matter now?
As soon as daylight crept shyly through my window, I jumped up and popped the screen out of my window. Then, as silently as I could, I leaped out I landed with a thud. There was dandelion in my teeth and in the dim light I could see grass stains smeared down my pajamas. Roll, Dallas would’ve said. I ran down the lawn in fear of being seen and ducked into the woods. The morning air was cool and misty. Dew clung to my feet. In the treetops dozens of birds fluttered and chattered angrily at each other
My feet found the old familiar path that wound and spiraled through the woods and I followed it without thinking. I hadn’t bothered to put shoes on, but, except for the occasional sharp twig, I had nothing but smooth cool earth and slippery soft pine needles to walk on. Dallas and I had used the path so many times I could’ve done it blindfolded. I couldn’t really see where I was going anyway, looking for the white thing.
I bumped into the rope ladder that hung from the treehouse. Dallas and I had built the summer before, when we were twelve. It was swinging lazily, which I would’ve considered normal—except there was no breeze. I narrowed my eyes and started to climb. At the top of the ladder I stopped and swung the door open. Dallas was inside
“Oh crud,” I muttered. My voice sounded raspy.
“Hi,” Dallas said He wouldn’t look at me.
“Hi,” I said and slammed the door as hard as I could, then jumped down and started walking away.
“Maggie, you don’t hafta leave!” Dallas stuck his head out the window .“It’s your treehouse too!”
I kept walking. Stupid. I should’ve known Dallas would be there. He usually slept in the treehouse on warm summer nights. I couldn’t even remember why we’d fought, anyway. So why was I still avoiding him?
I hurried back home and managed to pull myself into my window. I pushed the screen in and scrubbed the yellow and green dandelion stain from my chin. Then I threw on a pair of clean shorts and a tank top and hurried into the kitchen. Mom was sitting at the kitchen table with her head in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. I poured a bowl of cereal and sat down across from her.
“Good morning ”
She grunted and drained her cup. I couldn’t figure out why she drank so much coffee. It didn’t seem to help her that much. I considered mentioning this but decided against it.
“Have you seen anything white lately? Like in the woods?” I tried to sound nonchalant.
“No,” Mom said slowly. The look on her face suggested that she was about to ask why I wanted to know, so I put a dis- interested look on my face and jumped up.
“Later,” I said in my best bored-teen voice
She was still shaking her head as I hurried outside
Dad was working in the garden. Sunlight ashed on his shovel and clumps of earth scattered around his feet.
“Dad, can you think of any animals that live around here that are… white?” I asked.
My father frowned, squinting up at the sky as if the answer would be written in the clouds.
“Weasels and snowshoe hares, but only in the winter,” he finally said “Why? You see something?”
“No,” I lied, “just wondering.”
I walked away, scrunching up my face in thought until I realized that I looked just like my dad. The thought was depressing, and I made sure I kept my face normal, complicated as this mystery was. I wondered how I could figure out what the white thing was. It seemed like I would’ve seen it when I’d gone looking earlier. How was I supposed to find it when it could just disappear? I decided that the best way—the only way—would be to camp out in the woods that night and somehow find the white thing.
By dusk, I had my camping supplies ready: matches, Doritos, a flashlight, and about twenty pounds of candy. I loaded it all into a bag (except the matches—those went in my back pocket) and lay down in bed. I ran through my plan again slowly, making sure I had every detail down.
Then I switched on my flashlight and tried to immerse myself in a thick book of Mark Twain’s short stories. All I was waiting for now was my parents to fall asleep. I could hear their voices faintly. It was irritating, since I was getting interested in my book.
Finally, their voices slowed and then I couldn’t hear them anymore. I got up and tiptoed to my door. Nothing. I decided that, just to be safe, I would wait and finish the story I was reading before I snuck out…
The scream woke me. I fell off my bed, my book still open and my flashlight nearly dead. For a moment I was confused, so confused that I tripped twice on my way to the window, practically fell through the screen, and forgot my bag of camping supplies. I did remember to roll, though, and when I stopped, I put a hand to my pocket to check my matches. They were safe. Good.
I hurried through the woods, the moon turning the trees silver. Before Dallas and I built the treehouse, we’d had a replace for camping. I figured that would be the best place to go.
I knelt when I felt the crunchy ashes under my feet. In the dim light I could just see the ring of rocks that always held our campfires. I scrabbled around on the ground until I had a handful of dry leaves and twigs. I dumped them in front of me and lit them on fire. The fire hissed to life and made insane shadows on the silent trees.
Everywhere, everything was black shadow and glowing scarlet firelight. Black and red, black and red.
Nowhere anything white.
I shook my head. It was impossible. I’d never figure it out—ever. Maybe I had even imagined it all. Something floating around in white, screaming its stupid head off like some ghost woman in a cheap movie. Maybe it was my wild imagination. Maybe I was going crazy.
Then it screamed again.
I jumped up, my heart pounding so hard. I nearly fell down again I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t imagining anything.
It was real.
I was trying to pinpoint the direction the sound had come from when it screamed again.
I started running. Tree branches whipped my face and arms. I stepped on a sharp rock and stumbled. My mind was racing. Was Dallas the screamer? If not, then who—or what—was?
I climbed the ladder and stopped at the door to listen. I couldn’t hear anything so I slowly opened the door.
He was sitting on the floor. I couldn’t see any blood or wounds of any kind. He looked fine. After a quick glance at me he looked quickly back up at the treehouse window. I followed his gaze and almost fell out of the treehouse in shock.
There was a snowy owl in the window. When she saw me she lowered her head and screamed. I started to back away but Dallas reached out a hand and stopped me.
“It’s OK,” he said “She won’t come in.”
I nodded and climbed in.
“This is why I didn’t want you coming,” Dallas continued “I wanted her to get used to me first. Sorry.”
“Is that what we fought about?” I asked and grinned. I’ve never been too good at apologizing. Dallas chuckled and pointed at the owl.
“She screams ’cause we’re scary. A threat, you know?” He looked at me “Especially you.”
I nodded and stared up at the owl, my mystery solved. She was so beautiful, white ecked with brown, with huge golden eyes. I leaned my head against the rough boards of the treehouse, laughing and talking with Dallas as we watched the owl.
And the owl, calm and silent, stared back.