We hear the owl call around midnight. That’s how we know it’s here.
I remember well the first night it arrived. I was up late with a spinning mind that wouldn’t let me sleep. That particular summer day had been a rough one for my family. I lay in bed, looking at the shadows on my ceiling, trying to figure out if the pattern created by my nightstand lamp looked more like a crane or a snake.
Then I heard the call of the Barred Owl outside, in that familiar rhythm: HU HU hu HU! HU HU hu Huuuwrwrrr.
I recognized it from that one summer I heard it outside my grandparents’ cottage in the woods, and Grandma told me it was a “Barred Owl.” Hearing it now, from outside my house on our own street, was unexpected. I propped myself up on the bed with my elbows.
I heard it again.
This time it sounded closer.
HU HU hu Huuuuwwrrr…
I threw the covers up and rolled over to the window of my second-floor bedroom, hoping I might be able to catch a glimpse of the owl itself. I could see the open expanse of our neighborhood, the street lights spilling cones onto the empty pavement. Across the street from me was Jimmy’s house, and Nick’s house beside it. House lights were out across the entire block, except for Jimmy’s porch light, left on like a lonely lightning bug in the dark.
That’s when I first saw the ice cream truck.
I had no idea how long it had been sitting there. I never heard its engine and it didn’t chime and tinkle like the one that came during the day. It was parked close to the curb, white as a vanilla cone with a large window on the side and Oreo-like wheels. On the roof, just above the driver’s seat, sat the Barred Owl. It was so still, I thought it was some sort of hood ornament, until its neck feathers bulged out. It leaned forward and called again. This time it was louder, and it rang a little bit in my ear. After it called, the night was so quiet, not even the distant humming of cars could be heard. Not even crickets.
Across the street, Jimmy’s second-floor bedroom light turned on, and a Jimmy-shaped silhouette moved into the window. I waved, but I’m not sure if he saw me. It was obvious he was looking at the truck. The owl called again. Now the light clicked on in Nick’s room next door, on the side of his house. A slight shadow told me he was also at his window. In the triangle of our separate spaces, the three of us sat in our bedroom window frames, watching this strange truck sit in the dark like a soft charcoal drawing.
I saw Jimmy’s shape leave his window, and a few seconds later, his front door pushed open. Jimmy’s face peered out from behind, the porch light tracing the top of his head. He was dressed in the same faded t-shirt he had worn earlier that day as we played, and a large pair of pajama shorts. The owl turned his head to face Jimmy, and called again. Jimmy jumped a bit, paused, and started walking barefoot down his porch steps.
That’s when something outside of me, an alien impulse, snapped me into action like a marionette and I sprang out of my room. I came to an abrupt halt in the hall, so I wouldn’t wake my parents. I knew my mom was in bed already, and I knew my dad was sleeping on the living room couch. I slowed my pace and crept down the stairs with cat-like caution. Approaching the door through the heavy air in the dark, I was reminded of last Christmas Eve when I would sneak downstairs to peek at our tree in the middle of the night. I heard the owl again, muffled as cotton through the door, and the impulse once again propelled me forward with a soft skip. I turned the knob with care and stepped out into the night, the humid summer air hanging like an invisible woolen blanket. Holding my breath, I closed and latched the door behind me with a delicate hush, so I wouldn’t wake up Dad.
In the middle of the street, Jimmy stood in front of the truck, sealed in a spell and having a staring contest with the owl. Then I saw the shape of Nick approaching me to my right in the dark, his gaze also fixed on the sinister scene before us. Before long I found myself joined on my left by Lydia, and Jack and Margaret, who lived a few houses down, on my side of the street. We all stood there entranced, wondering why this ice cream truck was parked here, at midnight, with this bulbous bird beckoning us from our beds.
Then, in the large window on the side of the truck, we saw something else…
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