Isaac reviewed the numbers again, and then he hunched forward, closed his eyes, and fought the urge to drown his laptop in coffee. He sat that way for several minutes, wishing he could crawl into the blackness behind his eyelids and never come out.
When he finally opened his eyes, the numbers were still there; they hadn’t vanished, gone up in flames, or pissed off to a dark corner of the ocean as he had hoped. “This can’t be legal,” he whispered. “It just can’t be.”
There were seven remaining loans, each sporting a six to eight percent variable interest rate. They currently totaled about $52,000, the undying price placed on Isaac’s dream of being a professional writer – of being too right-brained to be an engineer, too medically inept to be a doctor, and too chickenshit to enlist in the military. Isaac had missed last month’s payment, and therefore the number had gone up again.
Isaac’s father was listed as the primary borrower on the account. He had graciously helped with monthly payments until Isaac secured his first post-college job: a copywriting position with a kitchenware company. Isaac was laid off shortly after the pandemic began, and his father, reeling from his own financial instability, apologetically declined to resume helping with payments. “Just until things calm down,” he had told Isaac nearly a year ago. “It won’t be long. We’ll get it done – we always have to finish things like this.”
Unemployment checks and periodic freelancing gigs kept Isaac alive, but the debt wasn’t going anywhere; it was an omnipresent cancer trying diligently to grow, multiply, metastasize until it had occupied every inch of Isaac’s being. And Isaac could only quell it one hydra head at a time.
Isaac started to scroll through the loans again, but he made himself stop and close the site. He took a deep breath, opened a new tab, and entered a search query he had already explored several times: “How to qualify for student loan forgiveness.”
He arrived at a one-sheet from Federal Student Aid, which listed the scenarios in which forgiveness was a viable option. They were the same as they were the last time he visited this page:
Public Service Loan Forgiveness
Teacher Loan Forgiveness
Discharge Due to Death of Borrower–
Isaac slammed his laptop shut and put his head on top of it. The tears came almost immediately, and so did a vile, miserable thought that Isaac had to forcibly swallow like excess stomach acid. This thought had first emerged several weeks prior, during a similarly hapless visit to the Federal Aid site, but now it was bubbling up more frequently — and with a much more persuasive flavor.
Do it. Just do it. Just do it and everything will be better.
When he sat back up, there was movement in the watery corner of his eye. He turned to the kitchen window, then gasped, wiping his eyes to make sure he wasn’t seeing a trick of the light against his tears.
There was a large bird perched inches from the glass. Isaac squinted to see that it was a barn owl, a creature that shouldn’t have been awake for at least ten more hours. The owl pecked at the window twice, then tilted its head and stared at Isaac like it had sent Morse code and was awaiting a response.
Isaac was familiar with these birds from countless childhood zoo trips with his father, so he was unfazed by the owl’s heart-shaped alien face and its smoke-and-cream feathers. But upon further inspection, he noticed that the bird had strange eyes – even by owl standards. They were unusually large and seemed to be accentuated by thin red rings.
“What’s the matter with you, bird? Hungover or something?”
The owl only continued its inquisitive stare.
After a moment of staring back, Isaac frowned. “I don’t have time for this, okay? Get lost.”
He picked up a pen and threw it at the window. The owl bobbed its head uneasily, then took flight with a single flap of its wings.
The next morning, Isaac called his father after spending an hour mulling over the decision. His father immediately asked if he could call Isaac back in five minutes, and 30 minutes later, he finally did.
“Hey son, hey. Sorry about that. Had to keep the line open for a call-back from the cable company. Dealing with a few things with them. They’re telling me I can’t get Turner Classic Movies anymore without paying more. Trying to wheel and deal.”
He sighed. “Anyway, what’s going on, bud? How are things?”
Isaac didn’t respond at first, swallowing the ball of inevitable guilt in his throat. “Things are okay, dad. Doing okay. Just, you know. I’m hanging in there.”
“Good, good. Hey, that’s all you can do right now, right? Just keep pressing on.”
Neither of them spoke for a moment. “Dad, I … I did want to ask about something, though.”
Isaac swallowed again. “Dad, my … these student loans. They’re bad, and I’m not bringing in enough right now to make all my payments on time.”
He paused in anticipation of a response, but there was only silence. “Dad, when do you think you’ll be able to help with them again?”
Still no response.
“Dad? Are you still there–”
“Can you, uh.” His father cleared his throat. “Is there a way we can put them on hold? Didn’t they make that a thing this year?”
Isaac took a deep breath. “No, dad. No. These are private loans; they don’t qualify for that here.”
“Well, what about doing it yourself? Asking for a pause, I mean.”
“I can’t, dad. They already told me I’m not eligible for deferment, and forbearance will only add to what I owe.”
“I’m here, son. I’m just thinking.”
Isaac gave him 10 seconds. “Dad, I don’t know what to do, okay? I’m looking for jobs, but so far it’s just a lot of restaurant stuff, and I don’t even know if that’s safe right now – at least not until I can get vaccinated. I’m considering selling my guitar or something.”
His father cleared his throat again. “Yeah, you … you might want to do that for now. I can buy you a new one for Christmas next year.”
Isaac closed his eyes. “Dad, that really isn’t what I wanted to hear.”
After another silence, his father said, “I’m not sure what to tell you, son.”
“What about forgiveness, dad? Have you ever looked into that?”
“Forgiveness. Getting the debt forgiven. I’ve looked at options, and none looked like they applied to us, but I’m not sure if—”
“Isaac, no.” His father’s voice became stern. “We can’t ask for hand-outs. That’s not fair to everyone else with debt. That’s not how I raised you. I know this is hard, but we—”
“Dad, I’m not talking about them, okay? I’m talking about me. And it’s bullshit that you’re dancing around my original question.”
His father scoffed. “Son, look, I’m doing the best I can, okay?”
“Well you’re not doing enough! What am I supposed to do, dad? It’s not my fault that I don’t feel comfortable putting myself at risk to make the same as unemployment, and it’s not my fault that you wrote checks you couldn’t cash and threw the whole fucking thing on me just as soon as I couldn’t do anything about it myself!”
“Isaac, Isaac, will you just—”
“I can barely afford groceries, dad! And rent and … and soap! Fucking soap! And there you are, watching it happen from far away like you enjoyit! Like this was the result you were hoping for when you drove mom away and ruined any chance we ever had at a joint income!”
Isaac sucked in a sharp breath, and his voice became calm and cold. “So if you’re too useless to answer my first question, at least tell me that, dad: what am I supposed to do? All of those things considered, if you won’t even entertain the idea of getting bailed out, then what am I, your son, supposed to do now?”
The ensuing silence seemed to stretch for hours. “We’re all dealing with a lot right now, Isaac,” his father finally said. “All of us. Don’t lose sight of that.”
He paused. “Listen, I have to go.”
“Yeah, me too!” Isaac hung up and threw his phone at the wall. As his anger waned, his regret rose, but he also held fast to the parts of his indictment that were objectively true; his father had written a monetary promise in blood; he had transferred its wrath to Isaac when he couldn’t make good on it; he had cheated on his wife when Isaac was an infant, spurring her to leave and cut all ties to marriage, motherhood, and any other obligation related to her worthless traitor of a husband.
Amidst this mental shuffle, the vile, miserable thought returned, like it could sense Isaac’s potentially malleable state of mind.
Do it. Just do it. What better time than now? You’ll feel so much better.
Isaac pushed the thought away, stilled his mind, and collected his phone and made sure he hadn’t broken it. “But does any of that even matter?” he muttered. “It’s my fault for picking a career that pays shit anyway, right? All my fault.”
There was a knocking sound. Immediate, prompt. Like it was trying to answer his question.
Isaac looked at the kitchen’s sliding door. The barn owl was back. This time it was pecking the glass urgently, each series of knocks bookended with a long, curious stare. The same stare the owls at the zoo had given him as a child, his father leaning toward the pen so he could get a closer look from his shoulders. “You see him looking at you, bud? You see his eyes? They’re like binoculars he uses to hunt at night. He can spot mice and rats, even in the darkest–”
“For the love of god.” Isaac ran his fingers over his face and through his hair. Then he paced irritatedly to the sliding door and swung it open with the hopes of scaring the bird away.
“Get out! Get out of here! Go on. Just get out of–”
“Isaac,” the owl said, “let me in. We need to talk.”
Isaac’s veins seemed to instantly thicken, like a series of interconnected hoses channeling a sudden blast of water. His vision blackened at the sides, and for a moment, he thought he might lose consciousness entirely.
“Isaac, please. Can I come in?”
“What the fuck!” Isaac’s voice bounced off surrounding houses. “What—what is this?”
The owl hopped closer, its head swiveling and twisting. The red rings around its eyes were pulsating. “Hush, Isaac. Hush. Please, just–”
“Stay away from me,” Isaac yelled, backing into the kitchen. “What the hell is this? Hello! Who’s doing this? Who’s out there doing this? Joke’s over, you–”
“Stop yelling,” the owl hissed. “If you keep yelling, I’ll be forced to leave, and you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering what happened here — wondering if I was even here at all. And that would be quite a psychological hardship, doubting yourself like that when it felt so real as to make you yell and cower. Don’t you want to know what’s going on here, Isaac?”
It hopped over the door’s threshold, and something made the door close behind it. “I’m prepared to explain everything if you’ll just calm down and listen. Won’t you listen?”
Isaac was quiet for a while. He backed into the corner of the kitchen and slowly sank into a seated position on the floor. “I’m … I’m losing my mind. I’m going crazy.”
The owl jumped onto the kitchen table with two flaps of its wings. Now it stood at Isaac’s head level, its abysmal eyes locked on his. “Isaac, you’re lucid, I assure you. Take some deep breaths. Take all the time you need. I don’t have anywhere I have to be but here.”
Isaac tried to follow its advice, taking several long, spasming breaths, but soon he was hyperventilating. Choking on the inhale, gasping and moaning on the exhale. And why was he listening to an owl anyway? “What … what is … happening … to me?”
“Isaac, Isaac.” Now the owl spoke with a softer, calmer voice. “Listen to me. The sooner you just accept reality – the sooner you accept that we are talking and it is okay – you’ll feel better. I promise.”
“I … I …” Isaac regained control of his breath, then once again followed the owl’s instructions. It felt strange to obey the voice, but it was the only source of reason he had – the only mechanism keeping him tethered as the winds of apparent mania blew from all directions. Or maybe it was merely part of the delusion.
Nonetheless, he willed himself to accept the situation, acknowledge that it was happening, and soon he did feel a little better. His muscles relaxed, his heart slowed, and his seemingly endless sweat dammed itself at the pores. “What … is this?”
The owl stepped closer, draping its talons over the table’s edge. “This is simply a conversation. Nothing more. Nothing less.”
“What do you—” Isaac swallowed another hyperventilation fit, and then his voice stabilized. “What do you want from me? What are you?”
“My name is Andras,” the owl replied. “As for what I am, I’ve been many things. A nobleman, a knight, an architect. But I consider myself a teacher above all else.”
The owl cocked its head. “Surely you know the craft of education. The closest mortal skill to magic – the ability to pass whole concepts and ideological frameworks to others, to expand their vision on the world around them. To help them navigate complex problems, make difficult decisions. To change someone’s life.”
“I know it,” Isaac said weakly.
“Good. Because education is the reason for my being here today.”
The owl’s ocular rings began to dance again. “See, I’ve fallen on dark times, Isaac. In the current state of the world, there has perhaps never been a better time for my style of teaching. There is a wealth of worthy new students. The hungry. The downtrodden. The angry. Those passionate about making change … in one way or another.”
Its talons clicked against the table. “But it’s becoming a saturated market. Too many hungry, angry students means too many teachers, which means quite a lot of bad teachers. Those who educate by yelling and yelling until everyone is yelling with them. And this is undermining my craft at large; I’m losing work. My very purpose is becoming two-a-penny, obsolete. It almost killed me, forced me to permanently assume this modest form you see before you today.”
It spread its wings as if to show off its body, then said, “All of that said, I’m in need of a fresh prospect to re-establish my credibility — and I see that opportunity in you, Isaac. I understand you’re going through your own dark times; you’re being oppressed by an insurmountable debt, an unfair debt. Well, I’m here to help you, educate you to embrace a solution. I hope you’ll allow it because, with respect to my contemporaries, no one can teach what I know quite like me.”
Isaac frowned. “And … what do you teach?”
The owl hooted into a laugh. “More questions! Good! Questions are a sign of enduring interest, which is a sign of acceptance. You’re doing well already.”
It flapped its wings, lifting itself off the table and onto Isaac’s shoulder. “I teach people to take action, Isaac. To allow the mind to override the physical world.”
“The mind?” Isaac took a deep breath, trying not to shudder at the bird’s closeness to his neck. “What do you mean? Like meditation?”
The owl hoot-cackled again. “Ah, you’re exactly what I wanted, you know that?”
It leaned closer to his ear. “Isaac, there is a voice inside every person. An unbiased, unfiltered force reflecting our truest selves. Our most essential impulses and desires – even the ones that seem outlandish or wrong. Sometimes it’s the voice telling the legs to keep moving in the last miles of a marathon; other times it’s the fleeting fantasy of taking someone’s wailing child in the grocery store and crushing their tiny, insolent head with your foot. Whatever the purpose, whatever the stimuli, it’s always there. Untapped. On call.”
Now it whispered. “Well, I teach people to harness it, to become comfortable letting it out. It’s a necessary emission often mistaken for a taboo. And that’s a shame because it can lead to real, positive change.”
The owl leaned even closer, its beak pressing against Isaac’s ear lobe. “As is the case with you, Isaac.”
Do it. Just do it and everything will be better.
“See? Did you hear that?”
Isaac flinched. “How-how did you–”
“That may seem like an intrusive thought, Isaac. An ugly, shameful thought. One that you would never dream of taking seriously. But I’m here to tell you that it isn’t, and you should.”
Just do it and—
“Everything will be better, Isaac. I don’t know the details of your debt’s genesis; I only know the will of your inner voice, the basic reactionary command it’s giving you. Follow it, and I promise you’ll find peace.”
“Now hold on, hold on!” Isaac suddenly stood, causing the owl to stumble for a moment before flapping back to the table. “You can hear that? You can … you know that I—”
“Have considered doing something horrible, Isaac? Something unspeakable? Oh yes, I’m well aware of that. But Isaac, you need to think of it as necessary. You’ve been fighting it, suppressing it, but the thought persists because it’s the only way out. The only path that this cruel, unjust world has left you. Now you must—”
“Shut up,” Isaac said. He draped a hand over his face and fought with his breath. “Just … just shut up for a minute. Shut up.”
The owl obliged, and for a while, no one spoke.
Finally, the owl clicked its talons and said, “Isaac, it’s okay, you know. It’s okay to feel ashamed right now. Guilty. Learning something foreign is always a little uncomfortable at first.”
“But I … I won’t … I can’t do that,” Isaac said. “Not for real. I’d never actually do that.”
He lowered his hand, revealing eyes shimmering with angry tears. “I’d never actually do that. You understand me? I could never—”
“But you could.” The owl spoke with a firmer, deeper voice now – like the previous one had been a facade. “You could, because it seems your situation warrants it. Your helplessness, your victimization at the hands of this senseless, uncaring society. You have to find peace, make a statement, and this is the only way now. Suspend your inhibitions. Your shame. Your guilt. And focus on the task at hand.”
“I can’t!” Isaac said desperately. “I can’t! You don’t understand; you … you can talk about doing stuff like this, think about doing stuff like this, but in most cases, you don’t actually intend to follow through with it. I’m just … just being cynical. I’m talking out of my ass. Don’t you understand sarcasm?”
“That’s one interpretation of it, I suppose.”
The owl walked to the middle of the table and stretched its wings. “Clearly, you’re on the threshold between acceptance of your inner voice and total rejection of it – just like you were with me mere moments ago. But look at you now; and you did that with some simple … meditation on reality. Possibility. Open-mindedness for new experiences. You willed your views and biases to change because you had to – the other option was a slow descent into madness, perhaps the most torturous means of becoming ignorant. Complacent.”
It suddenly flew from the table and landed on Isaac’s other shoulder. This time, Isaac felt something turn his head so that he and the owl were face-to-face. “But Isaac, if you let yourself spiral in this manner with this hardship, this debt, you’ll only be living a shell of a life anyway. Let me help you avoid that pitfall, give you the skills to end this suffering once and for all. Won’t you let me help you?”
The owl’s red rings reappeared. Soon they were joined by a second set of rings; these ones were green. Then a yellow set appeared, and a purple set, a blue set. They clung tightly around each of the owl’s black eyes, like serpent rainbows trapping an eclipsed sun. The inner rings began to vibrate, and slowly the motion passed into the next ring, and the ring after that. Soon all of them were trembling, and swelling orbs of light appeared in each of the owl’s eyes.
“You see him looking at you, bud?”
“For your consideration, Isaac,” the owl said, “the answer … the power to learn these skills … it lies in the light. Choose to follow it, or you can reject it; I leave that in your hands.”
“They’re like binoculars he uses to–”
Do it. Just do it and everything will be better.
Isaac tried to look away from the light, but then, in an instant, he was fixated on it. He immediately felt partially asleep, like he was floating between conscious thought and abstract, idiosyncratic dream thought. He felt his limbs change into that of a large, hairy animal. His fingers bent into spindly, jagged claws. His joints popped and extended so that he was double his height. His jawbone broke, elongated, and instantly healed. None of it was painful or uncomfortable; it was relaxing.
When the transformation had seemingly ended, there was a presence in front of him in the darkness– something he could not see, but could feel.
“There, Isaac,” the owl said from somewhere far away. “There it is. Your inhibition. Can you feel it? Reach out now. Grab it. Pull it apart. Kill it. Kill it, Isaac. Do it.”
Do it. Just do it and everything will be better. Do it.
Isaac felt his new arms obey the order, and soon he was following the sensation of shameless, empty physical impulse, like that of a perverse sexual dream. He stabbed and ripped the presence until it was shredded to ribbons. He felt its ozonic entrails leaking into his palms; it seeped into his skin, into his blood. It pumped through his heart and raced into his brain.
Then he felt himself moving, running, at times sprinting. Never fully stopping. He felt himself pass through barriers. He felt the ground’s texture change against his feet. Hard, then soft, then jagged and painful, then soft again. The pair of swelling lights reappeared in the distance; he was running toward them, gaining ground. They grew larger and larger – like they were moving toward him concurrently. Soon they were enveloping him, passing under and over him. And when Isaac was finally blinded, the entire image vanished.
Isaac gasped and lifted his head from the table, where it had been resting asleep. It was dark outside now.
“How … how long have I—”
He looked around the room; he was alone.
Isaac stood and circled the room. He looked out the window, under the table, at each of the room’s corners. But the owl was gone.
“Where are you? Wh–what did you do to me?”
“Will you knock it off already? What about the answers, huh? The skills? What about helping me? Will you just—”
He jumped; the owl’s voice was now ringing in his head. “Isaac, that’s the beautiful thing: the lesson is already over.”
Then, as if on cue, the vile, miserable thought returned once again.
Do it, Isaac.
This time, the accompanying urge was unstoppable. It rushed into his arms, his legs, his heart. It numbed his instinctual resistance like a quick-acting anesthetic. His guilt, disgust, and shame were instantly neutralized, and now there was only the will to act.
Do it, Isaac.
Do it and everything will be better. It’s the only way.
He walked to the kitchen, sweat slithering down his back, and leaned against the counter, knocking a dirty steak knife onto a pile of dishes in the sink. He closed his eyes, hoping the urge would dissipate like it always did, but nothing changed.
Isaac recognized the implications of what the thought was asking – no, compelling him to do. He knew what it entailed, what risks it brought. He understood the permanent devastation it would bring to his family.
But now, for the first time, he didn’t care about any of that. He only cared about the sweet relief that would accompany the act. The notion of being debt-free, cured of his unrelenting terminal cancer. Forgiven, for all intents and purposes.
Do it, Isaac.
He saw the words, the ones that had inspired the thought. The ones that started as a sick, offensive joke from his subconscious and had evolved into what they were now: a way out. The only way out.
Do it, Isaac; it’s the only way.
The words flashed behind his eyelids in neon colors:
“Discharge Due to Death of Borrower – The loan will be discharged if a family member or other representative provides the loan servicer with acceptable documentation of the primary borrower’s death. Acceptable documentation includes–”
DO IT, ISAAC.
PUT HIM OUT OF HIS MISERY – AND END YOURS, TOO.
Isaac opened his eyes. His arm was in the sink, and his hand was wrapped tightly around the dirty steak knife.
KILL HIM, ISAAC.
His father hadn’t put his Christmas tree away, and it was surrounded by unopened gifts with paper wrinkled by the late-June humidity.
Isaac had entered through the basement door — the lock was still broken, unsurprisingly — and crept up the stairs with quiet, carefully executed steps. Now on the main level, he was forced to take these steps with even more caution; the floors were covered in garbage and various pieces of clothing. What’s more, the coffee table was littered with empty bottles and unread mail, and the kitchen table held up stacks of dishes encrusted with old food.
Any of these hazards could alert his father, who seemingly lay sleeping in his bedroom at the end of the hallway, and Isaac acknowledged each one as he high-stepped across the floor, knife outstretched like a dead flashlight. There were candy bar wrappers. Loose playing cards. Balls of used foil. Grocery bags and receipts from four different stores.
The labyrinth ceased at the hallway’s entrance, but Isaac remained alert, vigilant, in tune with the voice. Kill him, Isaac. Do it. Only a few more steps now.
When he was finally outside his father’s door, he paused (DO IT ISAAC; WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR) and his fingers squeezed the knife, just like they had done to the presence from earlier. The shapeless inhibitions that the owl — that Andras had encouraged him to smite like a small, useless animal. He had stabbed it, ripped it, slashed it into wet, squelching pieces.
Stab HIM, Isaac.
Rip him. Slash him. END him.
He closed his eyes and began a countdown from 10. He would not creep in, he would not tiptoe to his father’s bedside like the specter of death with a modest scythe; he would do it all at once. Fast, committed, headlong. With no room for second thoughts.
Yes, all at once. Sprint to him. Grab him. Plunge it down, Isaac. Down and down and down.
Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Isaac mouthed the numbers as they passed through his mind, sweat surging against the knife, stomach aflame with primal adrenaline.
Five. Four. Three. Two–
Isaac yanked the door open with a self-assuring grunt and turned on the light.
He saw the shape of a suspended figure all at once, but he focused first on the feet, sockless and stiff. Then he saw the legs, the torso, the arms. Equally wooden, but juxtaposed by loose-fitting cotton pajamas. Then the neck, bluish-red and broken, constricted by a still-squeezing rope.
Isaac turned away just as he saw the eyes, the empty, almost nonchalant eyes of his father staring beyond him, beyond the house, beyond the confines of life. The eyes of reluctant acceptance.
The knife hit the hallway floor, followed by a quick burst of vomit. Then Isaac himself fell down, paralytic tingles and shocks dancing through his skin and into his fingertips, his toes, each follicle in his scalp. He lay there hyperventilating and heaving, saying something he couldn’t hear again and again and again. His guilt and shame remained numb, but every other feeling surged freely, as it would have otherwise — and soon the former seemed to augment the latter.
He crawled now, pulling himself down the hallway until he found the impossible strength to stand. Then he stumbled, bouncing off walls and displacing the trash on the floor. He collided with the kitchen table and the towers of dishes fell and shattered against one another.
“Phone,” he panted. “Ph-phone. Where is–”
Then he saw it, as if he had willed it into existence: his father’s cell phone sat in a cleared spot on the counter. There was a folded piece of paper taped to its screen.
Isaac removed the paper with shaky, erratic fingers and unfolded it. Then he lowered himself to the floor, flattened the paper against his leg, and read what was written on it:
If you’re reading this, that means you have likely found me and I am no longer here. I’m sure you are shocked, upset, and disturbed by my decision, but please know that I wanted this and it was entirely my choice. This is in no way, shape, or form your fault.
Let me start by deeply apologizing, not only for taking this path, but for the paths I took in life as a father. I loved you and your mother with all my heart, and yet, for some reason, I let a passing impulse make me destroy the beautiful thing we had as a family. I don’t blame your mother for taking the path she did, and I hope that someday you two can reestablish communication.
My deepest regret is that I couldn’t provide enough for you on my own – you were right about that. I couldn’t support you when you really needed it, and I wish I could’ve personally funded your path to becoming the talented, impressive young writer you are today.
With that said, I want you to know that I am leaving everything to you and you alone. The house, all of my possessions, and every cent of my personal savings. It’s not much, it might not even be enough, but I hope it can at least help you get back on your feet. I should have done this sooner, and for that I am deeply sorry. I failed you as a father in life, but I hope I can redeem myself in death.
I was brought up on the belief that we always have to pay off our debts, like it says in Romans 13:8 – “Let no debt remain outstanding.” But I guess I’m starting to understand that that’s not always easy or fair in today’s world. Thank you for being patient, and I know you’ll make me proud in whatever you do in life beyond this point.
I love you, son.
Something shifted inside Isaac, like 20 heart palpitations and pins-and-needles sensations condensed into a single noiseless pop. And then all of his feelings returned. The guilt, the shame, the remorse for what he had been ready to do just moments ago — and the fleeting relief that he had not done it.
Suddenly there was a small presence approaching him through the broken dishes and piles of garbage. “This is … unexpected.”
He looked to his side, where the owl was now perched on an orange juice carton, its eye rings palpitating like a diseased heart as it read the letter. “Very, very unexpected,” it said. “In fact, this is a first in my teaching career!”
Isaac looked away and let the letter slide from his leg to the floor. In his peripheral vision, he saw the owl look up at him, the blurred, pulsating red color distorting its face. It hoot-laughed. “Well then, this makes everything much easier, doesn’t it? In essence, you didn’t even need my guidance; he did the heavy lifting for you–”
Isaac made a fist and swung it down at the bird, barely missing it as it took flight. “What the hell is wrong with you, you sick little fuck?” He snarled. “What did you do to me? Do you enjoy this?”
The owl retreated to the counter, its head twisting erratically. It landed and seemed to calm itself, and then it gave a gratified sigh, like it would have smiled if able. “And what if I do?”
It tilted its head and awaited a response, but Isaac only fought with his breath, his face alternating between agony and fury, his eyes shiny with tears.
“I’ll ask again, Isaac: what if I do enjoy it? What if I see this whole situation as a victory for Lucifer’s ongoing rebellion against the Heavenly Host? Against this god-fearing, naive human empire of fallacy and antiquation — the same one that put you in this position and didn’t think you’d ever retaliate?”
“You’re a monster, then,” Isaac whispered through sobs. “You’re … you’re evil.”
“You made me come here tonight, didn’t you? You made me … you made me almost—”
“No, Isaac,” the owl said contemptuously. “Don’t be a fool. I made you do nothing. I simply offered a push.”
“Then what did you do to me? You … you hypnotized me … or brainwashed me, or … I couldn’t feel. Couldn’t feel … how I normally should have.”
“Isaac, that was you. You alone. I merely helped you see and feel your own potential. Think of it as … hysteric strength brought about by high adrenaline; I helped you flip such a switch. That’s all. It was all you.”
“No!” Isaac yelled. “That’s not … that isn’t possible! You hear me? I told you, I’d … I’d never even think about … about …”
He succumbed to his breathlessness, his fists white-knuckling his kneecaps, his entire torso shaking and spasming.
The owl hopped onto a chair closer to him, still keeping a safe distance. “Isaac, please, don’t get lost in that dull human tendency — to think you’re so right while I’m so wrong. Your kind created the systemic failures, the social injustices, the predatory debts. I know nothing of any of it; I have no moral compass. I simply teach people like you to act on forbidden, unspeakable desires when such matters force them to appear. And had we not encountered this … sudden turn of events tonight, you would have succeeded in that. That notion alone is the validation I needed as a teacher; you have my gratitude.”
“Stop!” Isaac swung at the chair, and the owl flapped back to the counter. “Stop it! Just shut up! Just shut the fuck up! Please just–”
“Calm yourself, Isaac! You’re not my first student to scapegoat me like this. This kind of thing can be difficult to face in hindsight. I get it. But don’t blame me; blame the circumstances of your world, the superficial justifications that courted your hardship — and thus courted me. I’m a teacher, not a monster. An adviser, not a puppeteer. I’m not evil, Isaac; I’m auxiliary. Necessary.”
It flew to the open kitchen window through which it had presumably entered. “As I’ve said, I try to stay morally objective in these situations. But if I may, and I don’t mean to be insensitive to your late father’s upbringing: do you know what else the Bible says of debt? It says, ‘The wicked borrows and does not repay, but the righteous shows mercy and gives.’”
Isaac’s head snapped up at this, and he opened his mouth to respond, but nothing came out. He remained quiet for a long time. He looked down the hallway, at the dirty knife still lying on the floor, its purpose permanently unfulfilled. He looked at the walls around him, at the trash. At the note lying on the floor. He looked at his hands.
“Then what am I?” He said quietly, his eyes returning to the owl. “What does that … what does this make me, then?”
The owl squinted as if to grin with great pleasure. “Well Isaac, all things considered, it makes you neither wicked nor righteous; it simply makes you forgiven.” Then, with a bob of its head and a flap of its wings, it vanished into the night.
Jacob Austin is a writer and digital content strategist from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Stray Branch, Bewildering Stories, and Black Petals.