They all said she was a dreamer as if it was some kind of insult, but Sarah Williams had the determination to chase those dreams all the way to Los Angeles. Straight out of high school, she took all the money in her savings account and ran after that dream, full of hope and just a bit of amazement at her own audacity. Sure, her senior year she’d been voted ‘most likely to win an Oscar’, but that was just the opinion of her theater class.
Chasing dreams was one thing. Catching them turned out to be a bit more difficult. She’d decided to get at least her associate’s degree, knowing that college would give her something to fall back on if Hollywood didn’t recognize her genius. That was her father’s practicality showing through, and he had suggested it to her, but Sarah was the one who agreed. Her mother, when she’d been told of the plan, had airily dismissed college as something Sarah didn’t need. “If you only knew how many people flipping burgers have their bachelor’s, dear,” she’d chuckled. Sarah wouldn’t be dissuaded, though; once her father had talked her into it, her stubbornness prevailed. Besides, she was too aware that Linda had dropped out of college in the first semester to have Sarah herself.
Trying to take classes, bus tables, and get to cattle calls, all at the same time, wore her thin. Sarah was once so frazzled that she almost recited her chemistry homework instead of the monologue she was supposed to read. The summer came as a relief, and since she was only taking one class—and that online, an easy art history elective—Sarah took her mother up on the invitation to spend the summer with her in Boston, where her theater company was putting on Antigone.
Looking back, that summer was a defining part of her life. Linda, whom she’d idolized since she was old enough to talk and wanted to grow up to be just like, turned out to not be very grown-up herself. Oh, she was a whirlwind of sophistication, knew all the best restaurants and had a taste for fine wines, she could talk international politics or modern art with aplomb, but Linda couldn’t load a dishwasher and had never created a household budget. Sarah found herself by turns astounded and dismayed by her mother, and wondered briefly, uncharitably, what her life would’ve been like if she’d grown up living with Linda. At times she felt as if she were the mother and this lovely, youthful-eyed woman was her fey and frustrating daughter.
The summer visit got cut short, and Sarah found herself at home with Dad and Karen and Toby again, where everything was boringly practical. She even overheard the same kinds of arguments about why she wasn’t dating, although by then she’d begun to understand that Karen’s vehemence against her going to Los Angeles had more to do with the crime rate there than anything else. She let Karen’s nattering float by her unregarded, something she hadn’t been able to do four or five years ago.
There was no way Sarah could explain why she didn’t have a steady boyfriend, anyway. Oh, there’d been boys, in high school and since, but none of them had quite measured up to the standards of her hazy, half-remembered dreams. Not one of them made her feel like a princess, the way love was supposed to feel, and her forays into sex fell similarly short of the ideal. Besides, there just hadn’t been time, that first year in L.A.
(Never mind those dreams. They weren’t real. They weren’t, dammit. And she was too old for such silliness, even at nineteen-going-on-twenty she was too grown-up for that. When she talked to the mirror in the depths of the night, it was only her own subconscious answering her, Psych 101 told her that. And when she laid down alone, it was only a figment of her loneliness that warmed the bed beside her. That was the truth, that was reality, fantasy was for children—and she’d stopped being a child at the age of fifteen.)
She went back, to Los Angeles and to work and to college, determined to win. But Sarah was as defiant of the concept of the casting couch as she’d once been of a labyrinth (and its master), and her independent spirit meant she couldn’t take the easy path of letting someone exploit her. Sarah won roles with her striking looks and her talent, and even got a speaking part in a film that was later nominated for an Academy Award. But it too quickly became clear to her that success as an actress would either take too many years of scraping by, or require her to sacrifice too many of her principles.
Giving up on her dream job was painful, as growth often was. She could’ve brazened it out, yes, but along the way she’d found something else to love. Sarah had taken the psychology elective because its time slot was convenient to her schedule, but she found it fascinating. Puzzling out the twists and turns a mind could take was as heady a rush as stepping onto a stage, and the wide-eyed look in someone’s eyes when her insight rang true was as much a triumph as thundering applause. As a counselor, she could do something really meaningful, and her career would be determined more by her skill than by fickle fame.
Sarah threw herself into it, feeling as though she’d found her place in the world at last. Even her acting training came in handy; she had to pretend serenity while her heart bled, and she could guide others in various techniques for unlocking emotions they couldn’t express otherwise. She was good at this, and soon told herself it was the career she’d meant to pursue all along.
Looking for an internship, she stumbled into social work, and children’s welfare. That was like a sweet well, from which she drank long and deep. Some echo of her fantasy life whispered that she’d always been a savior of children, but she’d learned to shut that little voice up. During her waking hours, at least. She had a gift for working with kids, even the damaged ones, and sooner or later they all turned to her with open arms.
Even the horrors she saw in this line of work didn’t dissuade her. The dramatic stuff—a little boy who’d seen his mother shot to death right in front of him, with her blood still tacky on his shirt when Sarah first met him—only made her angry and determined. She fought for the kids, armored in her expertise and sheer stubbornness. The more banal side of it threatened to burn her out, but she fought past that as well, engaging blank-eyed kids with stories half-drawn from her own childhood dreams.
She ended up in New York City, an easy drive from where she’d grown up, and working for an agency that contracted with Child Protective Services. It was fulfilling work that carried her through her twenties, and she was happy with her life, with the little world she’d built for herself. Her coworkers respected her, although they liked to tease her about her one idiosyncrasy.
Sarah saw barn owls everywhere . Even in the heart of the city, far from the kind of habitat they needed, she saw them perched on rooftops or soaring over parks. One late evening at work, one of them flew up to the break room window sill and sat there staring in, bobbing its head. The rest of the office was enchanted, cooing back at the pretty bird, but Sarah had sneered. “For most of history, owls have been considered evil omens. The ancient Greeks and Romans thought owls foretold death,” she informed the rest, steadfastly ignoring the window. “In Middle Eastern folklore, they represent the souls of the unquiet dead, and seeing one means destruction and ruin. In Europe, they were considered the familiars of witches, like black cats and toads. In England, poets called barn owls the birds of doom, and if you saw one at a sick person’s window it meant they were going to die. People used to kill them and nail them to barn doors to ward off the evil they brought.”
“Wow, Sarah,” Amy laughed—the oldest person in the office, and the closest thing Sarah had to a friend. Amy hated ‘all that New Age airy-fairy crap’ that some women believed in, but even she seemed to have found some wonder in her soul at the sight of the bird at their window. “I had no idea you were an owl hater. Come look, it’s pretty.”
“It’s a raptor. They eat mice, whole and headfirst, and cough up the bones and fur later like hairballs from hell,” Sarah spat back, not mentioning why she’d researched the biology and history and folklore of the species. “Barn owls don’t hoot, they screech, and it’s possible their calls gave rise to the myth of the banshee. They don’t even make their own nests. Sure, they’re pretty, but they’re also a pain in the ass.”
Laughter had greeted her bitterness, and from that day on Sarah was the unwilling recipient of dozens of owl-themed gifts. Little resin owls propped on her desk, owl stickers plastered on her files, even an owl-shaped coffee mug. She didn’t dare explain her eccentricity, just shoved the figurines onto a shelf and drank from the mug while cursing the birds in her mind.
And cursing a name, though she refused to admit that even to herself. She practiced psychology , she couldn’t be that crazy.
Except for the damned owls, her life was going well … until everything got turned upside down once again, by one foolish choice.