The most ordinary sound could make Natalie fuss and fume. He didn’t understand it, to him the world of sound was an ocean of possibilities that tantalized. But, then, Evan had been deaf for three years as a little boy, the result of multiple and a few overlooked ear infections since birth. Surgical intervention put things back to normal, some said more than normal. So sound was a treasure he was happy to rediscover each day. Every sound was a gateway for some larger event he might observe, an experience to share with its source. Natalie thought this was idiocy; she preferred things quiet except for television and her specific pop music. In the country, luckily, it was more peaceful than the city; they both loved that.
Natalie was his sister who was really meant to be his cousin. Her mother, his aunt, had dropped her off six weeks after she was born and then gotten lost in the Hollywood jungle of false hopes. Evan’s mother said she became a “forever barmaid,” a kind of actress, they supposed, in the end. Natalie had been named for Natalie Wood, someone whose photo they had seen but whose movies didn’t interest them. The fact that she accidentally drowned did intrigue Evan, though Natalie said that was just fate, you couldn’t stop it, like look how her life had turned out after she was abandoned. Sometimes he wanted to sneer at her, “Someone who doesn’t like noises, a weirdo” but he only said it once and she socked him in the stomach, not hard, but it was a decent warning.
He sat in the branches of the red maple and watched her trudge up the driveway. She looked old for nearly ten, more like going on twenty with her rounded shoulders and big feet, brown hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. She glanced at him and half-heartedly waved, then disappeared, he knew, to the family room with a bag of chips and apple juice to watch TV.
Evan had a good perch, a place far enough away from everyone though they knew he was often there. It overlooked a wild acre, a haven for feathery ones as well as four-leggeds. It had all been countryside once; he recalled that dimly though he was just eleven. Then developers arrived with heavy machinery, “the interlopers” his parents called them, and the digging and plowing began in earnest, fake farm houses selling as fast as they were built. Still, lots were big, so no one was right there in your business. Plus, his parents had had three extra ones–for goats and chickens, a thriving kitchen garden, and masses of flowers. The meadow bordered a marshland, a favorite area for him.
It was nature that Evan took in and catalogued in his brain, the myriad sounds of creatures at work and play, the weather doing what it had to do and the creek along a nearby property boundary gurgling along after a good rain or tinkling away when it was lower. Plants with all their properties both good and bad for people. He could see a fox tail wave, then dart above grasses in the distance and heard piercing calls of Cooper’s hawks. His ears always tingled with fresh sounds, got warmer, felt bigger, as if great antennae tuning into a finer frequency than others found.
“His ears look normal but his hearing isn’t. From deaf to super hearing,” his mother had said a couple weeks ago though she said it so often it was like a worn refrain. “How else can he–mind you, from the living room–track a conversation upstairs when we’re practically whispering?”
“He’d make a good detective, he pays attention, has a knack for small details,” his father said. He worked as a county prosecutor, he knew potential when he saw it. “But we can’t forget to talk in the bedroom with the door closed tightly when there’s something private to say.”
Evan nodded from the top step of the stairs; it was as simple as knowing when to sequester sounds, that was the grown up word for it. But he, for one, found that much harder to do.
“You need to mind your own business, that’s all,” Natalie hissed. “No one has the right to hear all things.”
“I don’t try; sounds come right in, then I hear and have to listen.”
“Then try harder to ignore things!” Natalie’s eyes flashed. “I can’t imagine what it’ll be like when I have a boyfriend, you’ll be hanging about all the time, taking notes, I guess.” She stared at him. “What did they talk about that you overhead?”
“That does it, I can’t even want to think of you with some poor slob! I’m going outside.” He looked back as he got up. “They talk money and politics, the usual junk.”
“Well, then, go on to your little wild animals, have a fun chat with them…”
Her tone indicated she wanted to tag along but they both knew she’d get restless in ten minutes and want to chatter away, then the birds would say nothing to him. And if an eagle or osprey or hawk did call out, she’d shriek as if she was meant to be their next meal. Nothing scared her like birds of prey swooping and hovering. Nothing fascinated Evan more.
He’d had dinner at their massive round table, helped clean up, finished math homework and went back outdoors when Natalie crept up behind him as if meaning to startle him. Evan had heard her the minute she opened the back door, of course.
“Boo!” she shouted in his right ear.
“Boo right back,” he said calmly though he covered his ringing ear, then grabbed her wrist. “Come on, let’s take a walk around the meadows. The half moon is shiny bright, we can see stuff.”
She tugged at his grasp, then relaxed. “Just wondered what you were up to, bed time in less than an hour.” She scanned the sky for bats but luckily found none. “The moon looks better from the porch but, okay, lead the way.”
Evan was surprised she agreed and dropped her wrist. It wasn’t that she wasn’t tough enough, in general, she just didn’t like noises she couldn’t identify. Darkness covered up things pretty well out there. They walked slowly, listening to the crickets’ concert.
“We can see a lot better this time, but the full moon isn’t until November 3rd,” he said. “No rain tomorrow for Halloween, that’s good.” He stole a glance at her pale face. “I know Halloween isn’t your favorite but are you still going with us, Kelly and his sister? And what did you finally decide to be?”
“I’m going, yeah. Got my costume picked out. I’m a glamazon mermaid.”
“Glamazon–meaning glamorous? And how does that work for, well, fish? Mermaids can’t even walk, duh.”
“I will, though–it’s a green shiny dress, long, sort of flares out–got it at Goodwill. Never mind, how about you?”
“Oh, just a grandpa skater.”
Natalie laughed, more a snort. “You already are a skater but sure can act like an old man.”
He nudged her with his shoulder, but then stood stock still. “Shhh, Nat, shhh.”
They listened but he heard only what he’d heard at first. A soft swish through the weeds. Then nothing. Natalie grabbed his arm.
“I want to go back, we can’t see anything.”
“Might be coyote.” He whispered in a low voice and kneeled in unruly grass, so she followed suit. “They’ve hunted a bunch here. Or gray fox again…”
More quick rustling in the high grasses as if the coyotes or foxes were rushing through to get somewhere else. Evan thought it was coyotes, the movements and their sounds made by bigger bodies than fox, with three, four minutes of racing about, perhaps fifteen yards away. Such smart animals, he thought with a shiver–he always felt that way about them– while Natalie clung to his arm, breathing fast.
“It’s okay, only coyotes, but I’ll walk you back.”
“Come on then!” she hissed at him.
Then the howling began, short yips, yelps and barks, then longer howls. One call transformed into a sort of laughing shriek, and Natalie dug her nails into his skin right through his shirt. The coyotes ran about more when all howls quieted, then stopped and movement stopped.
Evan touched his lips with his index finger, then shook his head at her and pulled her with him to the ground. For what he now heard–what the coyotes heard so darted off– was not four paws but two feet. A larger body brushing through grasses, trampling about. He raised his head, saw something or someone illuminated by moon glow slinking through the silvery meadow. Toward them. Its flowing shape and undulating, rapid movements lent a strange hulking appearance. A ghostly one. Wait, Evan thought, what was this really? His breath caught at his chest and his heart hammered. Natalie pressed her face into his bony shoulder and tried not to lose it all and just shriek.
And then there was a lunge of bulk as they huddled on the ground and a raucous, nasty noise.
“Roarrrrr! Hahaha! Gotcha!!”
A hand swooped down, missed Evan, grabbed at Natalie. Evan reacted like lighting and snatched at the swaying sheet but it wouldn’t give. A rope belt was pulled tightly about the waist.
“Poor little kids, soon to be gone!” There was a growl and groan.
Natalie cried out but it came forth as a small whimper as she clamored behind Evan. But Evan was standing stock still as she ran on toward the house. She was getting their father, that was all she could think as she ran faster than ever.
That voice, Evan thought, I know the voice! Who is it with this weird voice that is trying to be threatening?
“Evan! Natalie, come in, it’s getting late and it’s cold!” His mother called into the night. He pictured her pausing a moment longer, unsure of what she thought she had heard, and then she re-entered their house, screen door banging behind her. And shortly after, Natalie streaked across the back yard, toward that door.
“You creep, I know you–Marty Barrett!”
Evan gave another yank. This time the sheet came loose from the rope belt so he yanked harder as Marty started to run off. Evan was dragged a couple feet and then they both fell over and tangled, Marty trying to get out of the sheet and away, Evan gripping the older boy’s shirt sleeves. After rolling about, a couple haphazard punches and more tugging, the sheet fell away from the big thirteen year old’s body.
They sat on damp matted grass and looked each other over, eyes blazing, then started to laugh, clutching at each other. When they sputtered and quieted, Evan spoke up.
“You almost fooled me, Marty, but I just knew that voice.”
“I did for a little while. You’ve got those magic ears, holy moly! I was having such a good ghost practice but you two were out and had to spoil it! Wait ’til I tell Jake and Willy about this!”
“That was a crazy good act and you also scared the heck out of Natalie–you better apologize.”
Marty scowled. “You going to tell her who did it? I was just playing around, come on.”
Evan considered his neighbor. They weren’t friends, exactly–Marty was a rougher boy, ran with even older guys. But they weren’t enemies and got along okay. They sometimes played ping pong at the youth center, swam in the summer and always greeted each other on the street. But Marty liked to hunt and Evan didn’t like to kill animals. Marty had a random impulse to bully his way through life while Evan preferred to think things out. They got along because they had lived long in these parts, were growing up together, if in parallel lives.
“Naw,” Evan said and stood up. “You better go, though, Dad will be out here soon.”
Marty high-fived him and took off, billowing white attire flying from waist and ankles.
When his dad got there, they talked it over and decided to just say some nutty kid was doing a walk- through for early Halloween. Natalie was another story as she had stumbled, crying, into the house and was now taking a hot bath, their mother calling out soothing support through the locked door. Natalie could be done with Halloween but for that fabulous costume. But Evan had had fun out there. Marty wasn’t really a bad guy, at least not yet.
Later, Evan sat at his second story bedroom window and scanned the acreage, eyes resting here and there on darker or flitting shapes. He saw good-sized wings flash in moonlight so he pressed his face against the screen to better see. He wanted it to be the beautiful barn owl hunting over meadow and marsh so when its raspy screech sliced the cool fall breeze, he was flooded with a resonant satisfaction.
“What was that terrible sound?” Natalie had sneaked up and sat beside him. “Oh wait, isn’t that a barn owl, Ev?”
“You’re learning, Natalie. A cool kind of wild sound, isn’t it?” He looked her face over. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” She shivered, wet hair chill on her neck. “I guess it’s a lot better than a fake mean ghost. You were pretty brave out there…not me, so much.” She sighed, shook her head. “Halloween is just not my favorite.”
He put an arm about her shoulders and squeezed tight. “But you’ll make a pretty wicked mermaid. And maybe you should explore the outdoors more. But now get out of my room. See you tomorrow, Nat.”
He turned out the bedside lamp, ears tingling when the barn owl screeched again, and fell happily asleep.