“Listen to me, Lauren. I’m your friend.”
Grace bartended at The Loose Cannon most nights, but on this particular Sunday evening she figured that her last call to action would be falling on deaf ears.
I assured her, “We’re going to figure this out. Together.”
My boyfriend had just texted me, asking me to meet him at The Edge of Eden, the preservation park where I volunteered during the week. Visitor hours ended a life cycle ago, but the last three northern spotted owls in the world had gone missing and everybody and their mother-in-law with a parakeet in their den thought we knew where they were.
The cops were involved now, as well as both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS).
I started out of the bar with a sense of caution, catching sight of Grace’s raised brow.
As her pleading eyes rested upon my fleeting frame, I told her, “I’ll call you. Not that you haven’t heard that before.”
I was relieved when her thin lips spread so far across her face that her smile nearly came to a point on the back of her head. Too bad she was certain that I’d be kissing the sky long before she ever would if I kept walking out that door.
I was seeing more action than her these days, but then again maybe I was just flirting with disaster. Grace knew becoming a fugitive from the law would serve Max well when the time came for me to make my decision to join him on his return to Mousse Ridge. He owned land there outside of Vancouver where we were going to start our own critical habitat together. All of the world’s wondrous creatures living in “God’s Country” were counting on us to protect them where Canadian and American law had both failed to, but Grace knew how much I would be leaving behind.
My head throbbed, as I drove down the path of extinction on Oregon’s new trail of tears, and I didn’t know why.
As a matter of fact, I didn’t remember anything that happened before Thursday.
* * *
“Thank God you’re here.”
Max wrapped his arms around me so tight that he could probably scratch his own back before I got the chance to from this position.
“Do you remember anything?”
He was suffering from amnesia just as I was, although remaining careful of his step in the blanketing darkness. We were disappearing inside of our own minds, a phenomenon that remained lost to the rest of the world. To them we hadn’t gone anywhere, but to us the world had stopped turning since the only future we could ever see through together would come about if our past had never existed at all.
I assured him, “I know my way around,” even though I couldn’t tell him where I was going just yet. I wasn’t even sure how I had gotten there.
I hated to kill Max’s buzz, but when he asked me about the hoot he had just heard I told him without hesitation, “That’s a Great Horned Owl. The least of our concerns.”
They were found in abundance in British Columbia, but Max had never developedthe ability to understand nature’s spoken sign language quite like me growing up. He could listen to the merry melodies of our natural world out here on nights like this all he wanted to, but if he never caught sight of the main characters in this eternal play on sound and not words he was better off catching old Looney Tunes reruns with me.
I had been easily mistaken for a real life cartoon character from time to time. Question marks would always animate my brows, as Pixar picked up on my dirty little habit of speaking for the animals in a way that nature had never
intended outside the movie theater.
What could I say? When I talked, people expected a few uncultivated forest-dwellers to break out in song and dance with me at any second.
Once we reached the crime tape outside the aviary habitat, I felt a human hand in my own. I traced the lines of its owner floating wondrously in the thickening soup of witching hour, yet I still carefully tasted the flavor of the budding twilight in both ears. I drank to fill but continued to crave clarity, as the mystery behind this strange disappearance deepened so quickly.
Even as Max stood still in the wind, the frayed ends of his bristled, butterscotch hairline stroked his shoulder blades like fur from a lioness over a nursing cub right before it curled up until midday. There was a newness in his eyes, but that slowly dulled with the thought of spending the next thousand nights like this behind bars. There was also this coming realization that he might be responsible for silencing a subspecies forever with one cruel act of environmental terrorism.
I released his hand after a good squeeze, before venturing behind the door by myself. The arresting aroma of treetops and lake belly flops thickened inside my chest. I caught sight of a few passive onlookers on my way.
A baby albatross. A mild-mannered mallard. A few snooping shorebirds. I placed all their names, just like I had throughout my secluded childhood here in the North Pacific. I couldn’t fully reconstruct Max’s face after only mere seconds had elapsed since we were last together, but I could remember this old friend’s name as I approached her nursing station.
The northern fulmar, bull-necked and polymorphic. She would fly again. I would make sure of it, but first I found myself moving towards the far wall in a fleet-footed fashion this particular seabird could never replicate.
I pushed back the leaves there to reveal a hidden door. Quickly, I escaped behind it, like a bar-tailed Godwit taking up its wings from the waist-high wading waters waiting for lost shorebirds out back. During migrating season, they wouldn’t set them down again until an age-old flight pattern carried them past the welcoming coasts of New Zealand.
“Max! Come quick! I’ve found them!”
I took the little nest in my arms, as if to protect the eggs that laid buried there from moving past the gestational period into the infinite reaches of the universe prematurely.
Max’s imagination was already flying away, as he wondered how this was possible.
I told him about my project, how I had managed to find this nest in a fallen Oregon pine not too far away. I had constructed a compost heap where the eggs could nest in the mother’s brooding absence. The magic ingredient was a bacterium called Pseudomonas aeruginosa. This allowed them to stay warm on cold nights like this through a very unusual but effective incubation process.
As the memories came floating back like an ice flow from Anchorage that took a wrong turn past the Yukon, a man entered behind us.
I was hysterical, and he was assuring somebody, “ It’s me. It’s me. Crown.”
Apparently, he was talking to Max, saying that he was not only his lawyer but also his friend. He even had a business card and tagged photo on his smart phone to prove it.
While Max read the caption on the screen, the cover shot from the April edition of GQ magazine tipped his gentleman’s hat to the man I was holding company with that night. He explained his nickname “Crown” came from his adeptness at his game of choice, chess, but I wouldn’t be played for a pawn on this night.
I got nothing from the business card except his name, Kendall Marble, and Kendall was urging us to split town until I showed him my latest pet project.
I started explaining everything to him, moving closer to the light. That’s when he took it upon himself to reveal death’s “going out” look to Max.
He ran him into the nearest concrete wall face-first, much like he had in order to erase his retinal replays earlier that week, before he shoved me to the floor where he must have expected me to dig my own grave.
I saw him bolt in a moving blur, nest in hand, until I caught the sight of flames from the other side of the room. Then I made out Grace’s voice and silhouette, before proceeding to chase down both until that silhouette took my own shape.
When I tackled her, I heard her head thump on the rock beneath it like a busted battle drum that had lost its cadence before somebody’s final death march was through.
Max was approaching, so I pleaded with him to open Pastelle’s cage, describing it to him, as Kendall placed the nest in the back of his Hummer H2 parked nearby.
The roof blew into the sky like fiery seawater from a sperm whale’s open snout as it burned through the glare of a final sunset. Max took it upon himself to throw himself at the defense attorney like one of Pete Carroll’s Seahawks from Seattle looking for first down at third and inches. Grace had placed an open propane tank inside, which I now recalled passing twice tonight, the first time being back in the kitchen at Loose Cannon. What really caught my eye were the little wings furiously flapping their way towards me and up past the nearest Ponderosa Pine.
Pastelle! She was alive!
I was overjoyed, but Max continued to struggle with Kendall by his gargantuan gas-guzzler. He demanded to know where the adult owls were. His outstretched hand held steady to the top of the chrome Hummer hood, which hung ominously over Kendall’s head and under the stars like some galactic guillotine even Pisces wouldn’t be caught mispronounced in.
Headless men didn’t talk at all, so Kendall quickly revealed his plan to obtain single ownership of Max’s land in British Columbia once we were both in jail. Then came the payoff when the missing owls turned up in the highest bidder’s backyard, but instead we were directed to the back of his ride where he had just lain the eggs.
After this discovery, I couldn’t manage to stir Grace. She was obviously dating this creep and was more than envious of the new life I was creating for myself, but why had she warned me back at the bar? Did she want Max to take the fall alone? Is that why she tried to erase him from my memory before signing my death warrant in the same ink lawyer man here tried to legally bind the biggest business deal of his life?
As I wondered this, Max conceded to me when he asked me what we should do with Kendall. I told him, “Leave him for the birds.”
That’s exactly what we did, once that darn hood came down all by itself. The authorities were on their way though.
I walked over to Grace once I saw her coming around, and when she asked me who I was I made sure she remembered, “I’m the best friend you never had.”