The Screech Owls – Chapter I Part VIII

Novel: Fantasy Horror

More trills sounded around them that night, but none found them, close as they came. The ruined house proved a good hiding spot. When the sun rose Edward could see his bruise clearly, black and purple. He had thought up a plan in the night.

“Cole, I’m going to go on ahead and find some food. You’ll wait here and I’ll return with – ”

No,” Cole shouted hysterically, leaping up. “You can’t leave me here.”

“You’ll be safe. You just need to hide here.”

Cole shook his head, his eyes wide and wild like a frightened deer’s. “No. I can’t. I can’t stay here alone. I won’t slow you down, I swear.”

“It’s not that. I just don’t want you expending energy.”

“I won’t. I can walk. Don’t leave me, please.” His tiny fingers grasped Edward’s arm and dug into his skin.

“Okay. Calm down. I won’t leave you. I just thought it would be easier on you if I scouted ahead.”

Cole looked down at Edward’s bruised leg. “I know I’m not much use. If I was stronger…”

“You don’t have to be anything. Hell, I didn’t really want to be alone either.”

“Really?” Cole’s eyes went back to his own, and he realized that Cole felt worthless here, with Edward fighting everything.

“Yeah. I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here.” That wasn’t entirely true. If he didn’t have Cole to look after, he could just let himself die again, with his own ax or against the screech owls, whatever. But Cole was here, and he had to get him somewhere safe.

They took a sip of water from the stream, spitting some out to wash their mouths. It was their fourth day without toothbrushes, and their mouths were foul. Edward looked around them at the gravel and rocks.

“I wonder if maybe this whole area was a riverbed. Like maybe it dried up to this puddle.”

“It’s a good hypothesis,” Cole said.

Edward smiled at his word choice, and they stood and walked.

At something like 1:00 Edward had to pick up Cole and carry him on his shoulders. It was done wordlessly, and Cole was unable to protest.

At 2:00 they found the house.

It was in ruins, much like the previous constructions they had hid in, but the second floor was partially intact, as well as the staircase and several columns. It was larger as well, must have once been a lovely place. The columns were marble, as was the flooring just inside the door, though it was all rough and eroded.

Cole climbed down off Edward’s shoulders and ventured into the entrance space.

“Let’s search it,” Edward said. Keeping hope alive. If he accepted there would be no food here, he would have to admit there was no food anywhere. He let Cole search the first floor while he climbed the stairs, little more than an incline, worn by the ages.

Worn by what? There’s no wind. There’s no weather. He passed a window and looked out on an expanse of black trees and red soil.

“Edward!” came Cole’s voice, shrill in the stillness.

Edward raced down the stairs to find him, expecting some screech owls to have been hiding in the shadows of the building. He looked frantically into each empty room before finding Cole sitting in the corner of one of them, among a pile of cans and bottles. He was shoveling honey into his mouth.

“It’s good,” he said.

There was syrup, salt, peanut butter, hard biscuits, beans, grains, bouillon cubes, some sort of meaty cakes, powdered milk, and strong bitter alcohol. They were in cans and glass jars, and there was paper on some of them, but the writing had long faded and the paper was turning to dust. Still, the food was edible. They ate until they were sick, and only after worried about expiration.

“It’s certainly not as old as the building,” Edward said, examining the paper on a can. “Someone put this stuff here recently. I mean, relatively recently.”

“So there are other people here,” Cole said. “With trees and crops.”

“Or a grocery store.”

“An Aldi.”

They both laughed, and clutched their stomachs and groaned. “Maybe we shouldn’t have eaten so much,” Edward said. “Or tested the food first.”

“Screw that.”

They laughed again.

They had a rough few hours as their bodies dealt with the idea of food after days of starvation, but when night fell Edward was content and hopeful again. Food. People. A place to hide for the night. He could get Cole through this.

They heard the screech owls that night, but none of them climbed the stairs to their hiding place. That gave Edward hope too; if the things were stupid enough he wouldn’t have to fight them at all anymore, even if they got stronger. He chanced a look out the corner of an empty window as the moon was starting its way down the sky and could see them rambling among the trees, crying shrilly. Too many of them to fight. Different from the first night, when he only had to strike down three of them. He quickly ducked back out of sight. If they were getting worse and kept getting more numerous, he and Cole would certainly have to find shelter each night.

Which proved not difficult. When they set out with an extra shirt tied off and stuffed with food, they found more houses, clustering closer and closer together. They were still in decay, missing roofs and doors and much of the walls, but they were shelter, even if a screech owl did climb the stairs one night. Edward had to use his full strength on it, no longer mocking them. He got his ax to its leg after several blocks and still it fought him on one knee. As Edward finished it off, another came up the stairs and Edward made sure to dispatch it quickly.

“They’re calling each other, aren’t they?” Edward asked Cole when he was finished.

“It seems like it,” Cole said.

“You don’t know?” It came out harsher than he had meant it to. He was out of breath and his arms hurt from blocking the ringing blows.

“I’m sorry.”

Edward looked at his wide eyes shining in the moonlight, staring at the prone bodies. “No, I’m sorry. You don’t have to know everything.”

 

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