The STL Scribblers Ghost Story Contest received a lot of strong entries this October, but W.F. Gunn’s mischievous “Owl Get You” proved among the most popular, receiving the second-highest number of votes. It comes from a collection-in-progress entitled Ghostly Tales of Tower Grove East. We are very pleased to present the story here.
Owl Get You
Three times Max faced death, the third time death got lucky . . . and paid the price.
Max grew up working alongside his parents on the family vineyard where he developed a kinship with spirits of all kinds. His slight limp came from a tractor rollover, his first encounter with mortality at age eleven. The second time his uncle Thomas fell over drunk into the pond and nearly drowned Max who dove in to save him then needed saving himself. That was his second run in with the reaper.
City folk came to the rolling foothills of the Ozarks in the fall of every year for harvest. Max enjoyed the city folk, even those that couldn’t hold their wine. With them he could engage in his favorite activity: listening to and talking with just about everybody about everything. When there were no humans he would commence to chatting-up critters in the surrounding hills.
Max could mimic birdcalls to a point of conversation. His favorite and longest relationship was with a Barred Owl that lived in the trees around his home, they grew up together, and Max felt, looked out for each other. Many a nights his Pa would threaten the switch if he didn’t stop their sleep disturbing back and forth of “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for yall? Who?”
When Max reached twenty-one he told his parents he wanted to move to the city. His uncle Thomas had said there would be a place for him if ever he wanted it. His Ma gave him a steel owl lantern to mark the occasion, “To keep you company and remind you to be civil,” she said. His father bequeathed Max his bowler should the occasion arise for one.
His parents were certain Max would thrive anywhere, even in the wilds of the city. His uncle Thomas, faced with a booming post prohibition business, believed his nephew’s decision providential. Before long Max was slinging drinks at the Tick Tock Tavern in the Tower Grove East neighborhood of south St. Louis. He kept that owl his Ma gave him on a shelf across from the bar where he could see it. On afternoons before the regulars arrived and nights after closing he would taunt the mute bird urging it to answer, “WHO?”
First day on the job and every day there after Max wore his father’s bowler and grew a thick, black handlebar mustache over his ever-present, pudgy smile, just like his father. His time at the Tick Tock, among hundreds of friends that flowed in and out like the tide, was, Max thought, as close to heaven as he’d likely get. Max became guardian of the Tick Tock and of the neighbourhood, he was by all accounts a civil man.
It was Tuesday, the slowest night of the week as evidenced by the last customer saying goodnight. Uncle Thomas had gone home and Max figured a quick dispatching of his duties would get him to his room for a radio show and a ham on rye. Max hooted at his steel owl, “Who cooks for you!” Then, just as the clock on the bar struck midnight the door burst open.
In came a breathless woman Max recognized from the neighborhood scared out of her wits running away from the door screaming, “He’s coming! Please! Help, me!” Then the door slammed open again. A stranger came into the Tick Tock. Max looked away from the woman at an enormous dark visage nearly blotting out the room.
Evil came from it in waves. Max still behind the bar turned to the woman now struck silent with terror, pointed and said, “The toilet is that way Miss. Go in and lock it.”
Max was not a tall man by any measure, but he carried his powerful frame like a wrestler as he moved to come around from behind the bar. The monster looked down at him and snarled. Dark embers flared in its eyes. Max kept moving and in a steely voice said, “We are closed Mr.” A deep, menacing growl came from the behemoth. “Rudeness is an act of fear my friend,” Max said in a steady voice, “you are safe here, as long as you’re civil.”
The beast mimicked Max’s movements toward the woman frozen where she stood. Max considered the creature far from civil and on his way to meet his tough customer up close. He reached beneath the bar for the nightstick his uncle Thomas kept there. In a swift maneuver Max moved to the woman, gently pushed her toward the toilet, then turned to do what he must in the name of civility.
The beast focused on him him and was about to pounce when it was startled by the shrill question coming from behind it. “Who cooks for you!” The distraction was enough, without hesitation, much to the monster’s dismay, Max attacked.
The woman, feet braced against the toilet, back against the door, felt the pressure of the battle between good and evil vibrate on her spine, the horror of the struggle punctuated by howling and screeching and the furious flapping of metal wings. Palms pressed hard against her ears her screams became the maelstrom’s chorus.
Max’s uncle Thomas arrived the next morning. Concern swept over him when he went to put the key in the door and found it open. He peered in. Nothing was disturbed except for a few lights left on that should not have been. The faint sound of sobbing drew him to the ladies room where he found the woman.
Max was never found or heard from again. His uncle Thomas, devastated by Max’s disappearance and the incomprehensible story gotten from the woman, keeps Max’s owl on the mantle across from the bar where it sits in silent vigil. Outside, above the door hangs a portrait of Max, a reminder to all who enter dear Tower Grove East to — be civil.