Contest #180 shortlist ⭐️

The Visitor

Submitted into Contest #180 in response to: Write about someone losing their lucky charm.... view prompt


Speculative Drama Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

The owl was dead on the balcony.

A thick cloud of fog had settled over the estate, and between the drops of rain, Lionel could see the cluster of white and brown feathers being flattened, wet and lifeless, to the marble. His heart beat dully in his chest, what felt like an eternity between thumps. 

There was no wind, no gusts or breezes to ruffle the creature’s wings or feathers and create the illusion of life. No, the beautiful barn owl with countless shades of red and brown and white with large, deep black eyes Lionel had come to love and admire was painfully still. 

The few breaths of autumn air that Lionel did take seemed to burn in his throat despite the cool temperature. He stared and stared at his lost friend until the already dark clouds grew black and the dead owl was engulfed by a cloak of wet, morbid darkness.

But he could not seem to turn from the scene. He knew what waited behind him. The manor, as dark and cold as the woods beyond. Cracked steps and moldy walls. Expensive, dilapidated portraits of generations past that stared at him with varnished dead eyes. He faced a decision he had had to make repeatedly over the course of his life; the lesser of two evils.

But he couldn’t leave his friend alone in the rainy autumn night. He broke his pose, as if a statue taking motion, and approached the dead owl slowly and awkwardly. He grit his teeth as he got closer and realized it had begun to smell. Not strongly, not yet, but a subtle stench of death was rising through the aroma of cold New England rain. It brought tears to his eyes, and the salt mixed with the rain that was streaming down his face. His lips trembled as he gently lifted the great barn owl from the floor and turned towards the looming house.

He sat with it all night. He considered looking up how to tell the genders of owls, so as to give the creature that had served as a quiet friend and lucky charm for years proper respect, but decided against it. He had determined years ago that he would not even name this owl. Names, as he had learned, only brought weight to life. 

He didn’t light a single lamp or candle in the house that night. It seemed too painful. He did not wish to look upon death so bluntly. Most of the night he spent thinking about all the owl had meant to him.

The first time it had appeared, Lionel had just turned 10. It had been a warm summer morning, and as Lionel hurried down the carpeted steps for breakfast, he glimpsed it sitting on the balcony railing that overlooked the lawn and woods. It wasn’t rare to see such woodland animals around the manor, deer often grazed at the forest’s edge, woodpeckers were in a constant song on the surrounding trees, and there had even been the occasional bear. But owls were rare creatures. He knew as much when he met its dark, large eyes. Quietly, so as to not startle it, he tip-toed to his mother in the kitchen.

“Mom, mom, there’s an owl outside,” He said urgently in a hushed voice. 

“Let me see,” She said, smiling down at him. His mother always had a way of making him feel right and warm. They approached the glass doors together, hand in hand. “I’m surprised it’s here, they normally hide away during the daytime.”

The moment grew all the more magical for Lionel. “What’s it doing?” He asked.

“I think it’s looking at you,” His mother said.

From that day on, the owl continued to visit the balcony. Sometimes, months would stretch without a sighting, but it always returned, always staring, always calm. 

Constant as it was, Lionel’s life grew around the owl. The manor, old and deteriorating, still was home to many members of his family, as it always had been. His mother told him tales of the Lord who built it, and how its size and importance to their family maintained it as home for almost everyone. In fact, leaving the manor was considered offensive, and Lionel had learned of certain members who had lost contact with their relatives for doing so. 

From the outside, the manor appeared almost as it had hundreds of years before. The fanciful paintings and grand staircase gave the illusion of a wealthy, prosperous family united under one, large roof. Things began to deteriorate, however, both inside his family and in the house itself, once his grandfather died. 

Grandfather had been the one to maintain the estate. He had also added to the family’s wealth with his own successful businesses. Without him, the family lost its head. Among his sons, there was a fight to take up the helm and inherit what was considered most valuable. 

His grandmother followed her husband less than a year later. He hadn’t been close to his grandfather, but he watched the sadness take his grandmother before her time, and there had been a certain darkness to him ever since.

His family had once been highly revered in their community, but the infighting had spread to the town, and the bitter rivalries and hatreds that had festered in the wake of his grandparent’s deaths broke his family apart permanently. People moved away, stole inheritances, and the once great family tree was set aflame.

It had been Lionel’s uncle, his mother’s brother, who stood at the helm when the dust settled. Richard was an angry man with a quick temper and a harsh tongue, and, as Lionel would discover, there was no warmth between himself and his sister. It had been a war to gain the estate and all its assets from the many exiled family members, and the aftermath had left only the three of them in the great empty manor.

Richard was unmarried and without children, and though he had no wish for Lionel or his mother to gain anything from his death, there were no other options. And so, Lionel’s uncle settled for petty victories and insults towards them, constantly reminding them of their position.

Lionel’s mother, Amanda, was not a hateful person. She would not speak badly of Richard in front of Lionel, and though he heard them fighting late into the night, she refused to turn against him publicly.

Through all of the family turmoil and the collapse of the manor, the owl continued to visit. The darkness that had been planted in Lionel continued to grow, and sometimes he was sure he saw that same darkness reflected in the eyes of the visitor. The similarity, for Lionel at least, made them friends.

The owl visited the day his mother died. It had been a quick sickness that took her, swift and cruel. It was the dead of winter, and the owl landed on the blanketed railing with a great flap of its wings. It stared into Lionel’s tearful eyes with dark knowing, and Lionel found a comfort in it that reminded him of his mother. 

The few times Richard glimpsed it, he cursed its presence. He claimed it was a bad omen, a sign of the curse that had befallen the family. But Lionel knew that the owl was made of both light and dark parts, appearing to witness both happiness and sorrow. It may not have always brought luck with it, but Lionel felt lucky to have the creature as some sort of ally, and he did not blame it for all that had happened. 

And now, it was dead. Lionel realized just how long he had been lost in the memories of his mother and the owl and the manor when the dull light began to flood the sitting room. It was still raining, the world was still filled with mist, but the sun was somewhere beyond the clouds and had risen over the horizon.

His head fell into his hands suddenly. Without warning, a violent sob shuddered out of his body with force that collapsed him in on himself. His body fell into a series of guttural whimpers and tears. He clawed at his own throat, at his face, and when his eyes peeled open, he was faced with the dead owl, its lifeless body stiff on the wood floors of the once grand manor.

His whole body was aflame, and all the air grew thinner. He pulled his legs into himself and rocked back and forth, attempting to hug himself the way his mother once had. No matter how far he tried to reach around himself or sunk his nails into his back, he could not feel the warmth.

All at once, he stopped. He could not say why or how, but like air out of a balloon, the demons that ripped and clawed at him disappeared. They were replaced by a single idea and decision.

The drive was mindless. He did not even feel the urgency to speed. No music drifted through the speakers. Although there was an emptiness to him, he basked in it. It was better than anger, better than sadness. He preferred feeling nothing, thinking of nothing, especially with what he planned to do.

The small general store was as empty as he was. A single, sleepy cashier waited behind the register. He preferred it this way. He disliked seeing familiar faces; the twisting and changing features looked at him and saw the disputes of his family. 

Lighter first. No, matches. He wanted to do this right, give his friend what it deserved.

He had no doubt the place would go up quickly, even soggy from the rain. He had once asked his mother about anger, the type he saw, the type he felt in himself. She told him, “Anger lights quickly and burns faster and longer than anyone expects. But anger cannot light itself. Only hate can do that. Hate is what brings all of those burdens you feel, Lionel. Dismiss hate.”

The manor was a place of hate, it always had been. He had known since he was a boy and saw those painted eyes. The oils poured into him with resentment and bled into the very walls of the house. 

Gasoline to help it along. Anger loved enabling and assistance. His mother had taught him that as well. He grabbed three of the largest can.

He approached the register. The cashier, an elderly man in a flannel and vest, raised an eyebrow. Lionel only stared back, and with a shrug of the shoulders the man rang him up.

He set the supplies in the gravel outside the front steps and entered, planning to say one last goodbye to the owl. The morning hours had ticked on, however, and though the house was still and grim, his uncle had risen. Lionel knew when he heard the first shout. 

“Boy!” It rang through the halls, followed by thumping footsteps approaching him. “What the hell is a fucking owl doing in the sitting room?! Are you insane?”

His uncle was red in the face by the time he reached him. “You didn’t touch it, did you?” Lionel asked calmly.

His uncle looked bewildered. His shaggy mustache looked equally as untamed as his morning hair, which was sticking up in various directions in a mess of gray and brown. The longer Lionel looked, the more it reminded him of the owl. The strands of human hair turned to feathers in his mind, and he began to feel the hate creeping into the corners of his heart and head.

Touch it? The thing was dead, you idiot. I threw it outside for the vultures and foxes. Why the hell would you bring something dead inside?” His uncle was close to his face now, screaming so violently and passionately that spit was flying from the corners of his mouth.

“It was my friend. Not a thing, it was living and breathing…” The words were tumbling out of Lionel’s mouth, but they were more thoughts than sentences. The thought of the owl being left to predators set him into motion. He pushed past his uncle and headed for the back lawn.

His uncle came rambling after him, clad in his blue robe and slippers. “Where are you going?” Lionel didn’t respond, which only seemed to anger Richard more. “If you bring that thing back inside, I’ll knock you out, kid. Try it, see what happens. I don’t care if we’re blood.”

Lionel only ignored him and opened the glass doors to the balcony. A small stain of blood was mixed with a muddy puddle where the owl once laid.

He saw it almost immediately. His uncle had obviously thrown it from the top of the stairs, as one of its legs was now bent in a disturbing direction, and its feathers were falling from its body.

The last cord broke inside Lionel in that moment, seeing the owl that way. Somewhere behind the feelings that were flooding his chest, the wisdom about anger his mother had told him was whispering, but the pure, raw fury that had always loomed inside him had slipped the leash.

Despite the sudden strength in his limbs, he gently lifted the owl. He walked around the house and set it next to his car.

Without a second thought or a moment of hesitation, he picked up the first gasoline can. What followed was a series of loops he made around the house until all three cans were empty. 

During his final pass, he caught a glimpse of one of the oldest paintings in the house through a window. It was of a set of three siblings who had lived hundreds of years ago; the son atop a horse, the two daughters on his right and left. From what his mother had told him, they descended from the son, but it was the sister on the left that had always made him stop. She had a passion to her that shone beyond the paint, one that made Lionel feel as if she was standing in front of him. When he thought of the eyes of the town and the family and his mother, all the disapproval and love and conflict, it was hers that shone the brightest.

She was the house for him. Maybe he was imagining it, but he read permission in her eyes. And so he approached the matches.

With a single struck match, a ring of fire was ignited around the house. The manor that held so much pain and suffering beneath layers of cluttered books, memories, and family ties was engulfed quickly in brilliant flames. Lionel watched the fire rise for a moment before walking around the house in a wide arc to reach the groundskeeper shed. Inside, he grasped a shovel.

His uncle came stumbling from the house, which genuinely reminded Lionel of his existence. For once, he didn’t yell or stammer or curse. No, Richard collapsed on the lawn and looked straight through his nephew to stare at what was befalling the manor so many had cursed.

Lionel left him there to contemplate what he already knew. He reached his car and carefully laid the owl in the backseat. The heat from the fire was beginning to warm the fabric of the driver’s seat by the time he drove away from the melting pomp and romanticism.

He felt, as if for the first time in his life, that he could finally breathe. Air felt clearer, and the blood that pumped through his veins reminded him with every beat that he was alive.

He knew now what was real. The steering wheel was real, the slickness on his hands from the gasoline was real, the owl in the backseat, dead or alive, was real. 

The strange, awkward grandson that stood to inherit the grandest manor in the state had burned it down before the deed had even reached him, and something about that made Lionel smile. 

Beside a small stream, Lionel removed the owl, a blanket, and the shovel from the car. After a hole was dug, he wrapped his lucky charm carefully in cotton and set it gently at the bottom. He filled the hole and patted the topsoil until it was soft and flat.

He sat beside the stream until the rains had passed and the morning gave way to the afternoon haze. There was a split second where far away sirens kissed his ears. It was a welcome sound, a triumphant sound.

It hurt him to leave the owl underground, but he knew no predators would reach it this way. After the manor was nothing but ashes and frames, they would come hunting for him, sniffing for his carcass to devour like the animals would have the owl. He would have to bury himself somewhere deep.

His mother had spoken a handful of times of his father. He was a faraway man, a man that had hurt her and brought disgrace to the family by abandoning her with a baby. That stain remained on both of them. He had hated New England and lurked on the west coast. Lionel had no wish or ability to seek his father out, but perhaps he could take inspiration from him. His father was half of him after all, and perhaps his decision to stay out west was meant as a sign for his son that a world beyond the manor and the family did exist somewhere. 

It didn’t matter. Lionel had little choice. He would see for himself. He thanked the owl for visiting him and promised to drop in when he could, just as his friend had done for him time after time. It was his turn to fly, and for the first time in Lionel’s life, he felt he had the wings to do it.

January 09, 2023 18:25

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Philip Ebuluofor
09:04 Jan 23, 2023

Congrats. Strong ending.


Show 0 replies
Amanda Lieser
18:06 Jan 22, 2023

Hi Mandy! Congratulations on the shortlist! I loved the incredibly beautiful imagery in this piece. It felt like a haunted film! I loved the way you wove the family’s backstory into the present. My favorite line was: People moved away, stole inheritances, and the once great family tree was set aflame. Although, the line about hate lighting the flame was a strong contender! Nice job on this one!


Show 0 replies
05:17 Jan 21, 2023

An amazingly well thought out world Lionel lives in. Good work. The twist that the owl was dead the whole time was good, feels like a stephen king story. For a short story if you slowed down and stayed in a scene longer and had more dialogue I might have liked that, but thats also something i struggle to do myself.


Show 0 replies
Wendy Kaminski
16:27 Jan 20, 2023

Mandy!! Congratulations on shortlisting this week, awesome work! :)


Show 0 replies

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.