(a Magical Midlife Mom flash fiction story)
The world had turned completely white.
Gabriel soared over a vast frozen landscape, his bat-like wings spread out on either side of his massive body. If he hadn’t known better, he might have been flying over Alaska, where the pine trees huddled under snowdrifts for a decent part of the year.
But this was western Oregon, known more for its constant rain. Below stretched the Willamette Valley, which rarely saw much snow during any given year. But this cold week in January, a convergence of weather events had created the perfect storm of freezing rain. Everything had become encased in a layer of ice: coating the streets, bending trees toward the ground, and causing power lines to snap.
If Gabriel hadn’t been a stony gargoyle, he wouldn’t have been able to traverse such treacherous conditions without freezing to death. And honestly, he would have rather been back at his remote mountain residence. He could have been snuggled up with his girlfriend Melissa in front of a fire, ignoring the cold outside to enjoy the warmth of her beautiful company.
But she’d been reading on social media about the effects of the ice storm and discovered that someone needed Gabriel’s help. Lorax had gone missing in the forest, and if no one found her soon, she would probably die.
Gabriel was used to be called away at a moment’s notice. As the CEO of Stronghold, Incorporated, he served as a liaison between the humans and the fae. He’d been on plenty of rescue missions before.
He’d just never gone looking for a great horned owl.
Lorax was a resident of the Cascades Raptor Center, a non-profit wildlife hospital for birds of prey. They rehabilitated injured birds and released them back in the wild. Some birds who couldn’t survive on their own stayed on site. Lorax was one of the permanent residents. Her aviary enclosure had been completely destroyed by a downed tree. The trainers couldn’t find her in the rubble, so they were frantically searching the surrounding heavily wooded areas to locate her.
Gabriel soared over the foreset hillside and spotted the Cascade Raptor Center. He winced at the damage. Several thick trunks had fallen, completely destroying two enclosures and partially damaging several others. Pine needles were scattered everywhere. People in thick coats and hats shifted through the rubble, some cooing to panicked birds still tucked away safely.
Beyond the grounds, farther in the trees, voices shouted, “Lorax! Lorax!”
Being careful to stay out of sight since most humans didn’t know gargoyles existed, Gabriel swooped toward the voices, watching them trek their way up a slippery incline. Wearing crampons, they crunched through the ice, steady and slow, calling out to the owl.
Gabriel glided past them, eyes scanning the ground. He reached into a pouch he’d slung over his shoulder. Melissa had read online that Lorax enjoyed playing with toy balls. Gabriel pulled a tennis ball from the pouch and threw it below as a kind of bait to draw the owl out of hiding.
His wings beat the air as he scoured the branches below. Nothing happened.
Gabriel continued forward, tossing tennis balls here and there. Each time he tossed one, he waited, but Lorax never appeared. When he reached for his last tennis ball, hope faded. Perhaps he was already too late. Lorax may have already succumbed to the elements or been attacked by other wildlife. No one might ever find the lost bird.
He tossed the last ball. It bounced down a cedar trunk until it rolled into a small clearing. Gabriel waited one beat, then two.
He was about to leave when the top boughs of the cedar shook. At first it seemed like ice melting or an errant breeze. But then a mottled brown, black, and white fluffball shot out into the sky, gliding down to peck at the tennis ball.
Gabriel smiled. He’d found Lorax.
He quietly landed several yards away. The owl sensed him and froze. She tucked her neck deep into her body, eyeing him warily with her bright yellow eyes, outlined by the feathered brow that identified her species.
“Your friends are looking for you,” Gabriel said in a deep baritone.
The owl blinked.
“Do you know how to get home?”
The owl blinked again.
Gabriel sighed. He doubted he could catch the owl if she decided to bolt. And talking to her made him feel silly.
But he needed her soothe her. “I'm not going to hurt you.”
This time, instead of just staring at him, the bird shivered. Maybe he was getting through to her.
Gabriel slowly stretched out his arm, careful not to make any sudden movements. “I can take you to your friends, if you want.”
The bird slowly unfurled herself. She twisted her neck around 180 degrees to view the entire landscape, as if scanning for other threats.
Gabriel stood still in that pose for several minutes as the owl continued to bob her head around. He tried walking toward her once, but she screeched in alarm, so he stilled himself. He could turn to stone for hours on end. He could wait.
Finally, without warning, the owl bolted into the sky. He thought she might dart away, but she twisted midair and ending up landing on his arm.
Smiling, he walked over to the tennis ball and offered it to her. “Why don’t you hold onto this during the trip back?”
The owl snatched the ball eagerly into her mouth.
As gently as possibly, Gabriel rose back into the air. It didn't take him long to hear the faint cries of frantic voices.
The bird squeaked behind the tennis ball. Before Gabriel could stop her, she leaped off his arm. Her wings snapped tight at her sides as she zeroed in on the trainers.
Gabriel hung back, descending into the canopy so he could watch the reunion behind foliage cover. He made it behind the treetops just in time to watch the great horned owl land on an eager trainer’s outstretched arm.
“I found Lorax!” the trainer yelled down the hill to the others. “She’s safe!”
Cheers rang out behind him.
The trainer frowned as he examined the tennis ball. “Where’d you get that, girl?”
The owl dropped it into his palm, then turned to look straight at Gabriel’s hiding spot. She ruffled her feathers and screeched in his direction.
Uh oh. That was Gabriel’s cue to leave. Dipping even farther into the pines, he used the thick frozen trunks to dive deeper into the forest, creating some distance before he rose again back into the clouds.
As he sailed away north toward the villa, Gabriel couldn’t help but smile. Not all rescue missions had a happy ending, but he was glad this one did.