"Owlboy and Wolfgirl"

The boy yelped in surprise, startled out of his reverie by what felt like a tennis ball rebounding from his skull. His papers scattered as he scrabbled for his glasses, which were on the desk somewhere, and for the light switch. Before he could reach it, the overhead lamp flicked on, muting the glow of the computer screen. The boy shoved the glasses up his nose, rubbed the back of his head –

“Alright alright alright, I’ve distracted you, will you please come outside for once in your life? Come on, you promised to hit a baseball for me to catch. Even though you hit them sideways.”

He turned. Wolfgirl was standing in the doorway, wearing shorts and sneakers, her long hair tied up in a braid. The tall girl tapped a finger on the wall, raising an eyebrow and letting out an annoyed, huffing breath.

“How long have you been here?” he asked, curious, taking off his glasses again and polishing them on the hem of his shirt.

“I called your name for three minutes before I decided you weren’t going to listen.” She came to stand in front of him, hands on her hips, towering without even trying. Wolfgirl was good at that. “So I figured this would get your attention.” She leaned down and scooped up the tennis ball. “God, you look like you were up late. I named you right, Sir Owl. When did you last sleep?”

As she spoke, she wrapped a long-fingered hand around his upper arm, just above his elbow, and levered him gently but firmly up out of the chair. Wolfgirl was more or less the same size as he was, but much stronger. He didn’t bother to resist; experience had taught him that she would drag him if he didn’t give in.

“Come along, Owlboy. We’re going outside.”

For the most part, the two of them liked each other immensely, and always had. When Wolfgirl had just turned seven and Owlboy was still six, they tried hatred. It was her idea; she had so much fun despising the spoiled little girl up the road that she figured it could only be more entertaining to hate her best friend. So she taunted him, and after he got over his little-boy shock at her cruelty, he gave back as good as he got. Both of them were soon miserable, and their parents baffled.

A week and a half went past and Wolfgirl was heartbroken. Owlboy was too, but she felt guiltier, and so she was the one who got herself in trouble solving it. One afternoon, while her mother was busy preparing dinner, she walked out of her house carrying two apples, a juice box, and her favorite toy dinosaur. Her friend didn’t live far away – she and her parents had walked there plenty of times – and although she was little, she was stubborn.

So step by step, grape juice in one hand, dinosaur in the other, jacket pockets full of apple, she made her way to his front yard. At the same moment her mother noticed she was missing, Wolfgirl sat down next to Owlboy on his front steps. As her mother dialed the phone to call his mother, she handed him the dinosaur and an apple. As his mother looked out the window to check on her son, they both took a bite. Inside the house, the phone began ringing.

Neither of them said anything, but the silence was friendly again.

They named each other when they were eleven. As a general rule, Wolfgirl remembered very little about her childhood; she left that to Owlboy, with his precise, exacting memory, but she remembered giving him his name. Hers came later, when he’d had time to apply logic to the way she thought and acted. But she started it, as she started everything at that time in their lives.

At first it was just between them, something they called one another while walking home from school or during afternoons together. Not that it being a secret meant much, since it wasn’t until Wolfgirl and Owlboy got into high school that they started to make other friends.

Even then, though, even when the half-dozen friends they shared used the names, it remained a thing that only the two of them really understood. When other people called him Owlboy, it was because of his glasses, or his farsightedness; when she used it, it made him feel older, wiser, like he could see things not everyone could. And they called her Wolfgirl for the wrong reasons, focusing on the fierceness she showed on the surface and ignoring the deeper currents of loyalty and strength.

“What do you mean you’re not going to Hampshire with me?”

“Uh. It’s seven a.m., why are you – ”

“I got up early for work, I open today, I’m on my way there now. I thought you and me were going to go to college together?”

Owlboy rubbed his eyes, reached for his glasses. He could have just let the phone go to voicemail, but that only meant he’d have had to call her back later.

“My mum says that your mum told her that you’re going to UMass Amherst. Something about computers – why didn’t you tell me, I thought we were doing this together!”

“I was going to, but – ”

“Shut up.” Her voice sounded raw, hurt, and the phone clicked off before he could say anything to comfort her. He stared at it, blankly, then fell back on the bed with a thump. The last time he’d pushed Wolfgirl to fury, she hadn’t spoken to him for two days. It made then both miserable, but she was nothing if not stubborn; not a word passed her lips until he had apologized.

The phone rang again. “What’s wrong with Hampshire, huh? We spent all that time talking about which school we were going to, and now you decide to leave me high and dry after I’ve already sent in my acceptance, and you and me were going to make sure – you  know what, I don’t want to talk to you any more right now.”

“Wolf – ”

“No.” The phone clicked off. He stared down at the blinking “call ended” notification, lost for words, and ran a hand roughly through his short brown hair. It stood on end, making him look briefly crazed. Then Owlboy took off his glasses again and began to polish them on the hem of his shirt. For several moments he stared up at the ceiling, which was just close enough to be pleasantly out of focus. His thoughts gathered.

“Wolfgirl,” he said out loud, “those colleges aren’t even twenty minutes apart.”

It was lunchtime, and Owlboy – putting in extra time at work over spring break – was eating at his desk. The work phone rang, and he heard his boss answer, speak for a moment, and then pause.

“Hey, kid,” he called. “It’s for you.” The phone system had a few bugs to work out, and notifying people of calls still required shouting across the office. “Some girl, I think.”

“Oh, no, you did not call me here,” he said, under his breath, then “Got it!” more loudly. Owlboy picked up the receiver and held it – gingerly – to his ear.

“I’m still angry,” said Wolfgirl.

“You know you’re not supposed to call me at work.”

“You didn’t pick up your cell phone.”

“Because I’m at work!”

“You still should have picked up.”

“Look – ”

“What!”

“…look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, alright? But now is not a good time. I’ll be off in a couple hours, we can have it out then.”

Silence. He went on.

“I’ll take you out to Kimball’s this evening. I’ll buy us ice cream; we’ll go sit out on the golf course and talk. It’ll be okay.”

“No,” she said, unhappily. “No, it won’t. But I’ll see you tonight.”

The golf course was dark and quiet, not yet open for the season. The two sat in the hollow of a sand trap, where the ground was still warm from the sun. It had been a hot spring, but sitting on the grass for more than half an hour always made Wolfgirl get cold. So they sat on a blanket in the sand, her spooning up the last of a raspberry-chocolate chip ice cream, him nursing a root beer float.

After a little while listening to the geese on the water hazard, she lay back against the gentle curve of the hollow, staring up at the sky. It was fairly clear out in the country, and the constellations traceable, but low on the eastern horizon glowed Boston, blotting out the stars.

“I wonder if I’ll be able to see the city at night when I’m at Hampshire.” She dug her hands into the sand on either side of her, not looking at him. “Sky’ll be something else there, in the middle of all those woods. Doubt you’ll be able to see it as well. UMass is right in town.”

He didn’t know what to say to her. “I could take the shuttle up to where you are – it’s only fifteen minutes or so, I’ll come over whenever you like – ”

Wolfgirl snorted; in the dark her face was unreadable. “If you have time. If our schedules match up at all. If you don’t find something better to do, someone you’d rather hang out with.”

He hesitated. “You know that I wouldn’t – ”

She rolled over onto one elbow, fixing him with a stare that pinned him like a butterfly to a card. “Yeah. Yeah, I thought I knew what you would and wouldn’t do. I thought after – god, what? – eighteen years of afternoons and weekends together, I could predict you pretty well! Even today calling you up I knew exactly what you’d say. I knew you’d tell me what time it was before anything else because you always do that when you think I’m calling too late or too early.

“And then you spring this thing on me! UMass Amherst? I mean, it would have been one thing if you – ” she scrubbed hard at her face, crying and hating herself for it, “one thing if you’d told me, talked to me about it, but I had to find out after the fact, from my mother of all people.”

“I’m sorry – ”

“Fuck, I know you’re sorry, but that doesn’t change anything. Everything’s going to go all strange now.” She rolled back over, fixing her eyes once again on the stars. The silence lengthened, stretched, grew painful.

“Did you know,” Wolfgirl said quietly, “that the only people in the last two years who’ve consistently called me by my real name are teachers and strangers? You and the gang have used it so often around the house that even my mother slips when she’s not paying attention.”

“So? It’s the same with – ”

Without looking, she laid a hand on his arm. He quieted. “No. It’s not. Not really.”

And Owlboy knew she was right. His parents and hers still called him by the name he’d been born with; even the gang switched between that name and his nickname. Wolfgirl withdrew her hand, leaving grains of sand on his arm, and laced her fingers together behind her head.

“You named me,” she said quietly. “It was your fault then and it’s your fault now, for all that you were Owlboy first. I can’t stop being Wolfgirl, but I can’t be her without you. And now you’re leaving me. I know it’s just up the road; I know we’ll see each other all the time. But we had it all worked out, didn’t we? You’d help me move in, tell my roommate stories while I unpacked so that she had the name in her head, then I’d do the same for you. We could be ourselves for a little while longer. We could still be kids, we wouldn’t have to change.”

She finally looked at him, her anger fading. In the starlight, in the light of the rising moon, Wolfgirl looked young and worried, and – as always – a little stubborn.

“Yeah,” she said. “I know what you’re thinking. Everybody changes during college, right? That’s the point. Well, maybe. And everybody can go ahead and do that. But if I’m not Wolfgirl, then how can you be Owlboy? And if we’re neither of us who we were, then what are we going to be?”

“You’re going to be you,” said Sean, softly, “and I’m going to be me.”

She let that sink in, lying back against the gentle curve and chewing on her lip. While she thought, Owlboy dug in the sand between his outstretched legs. He had hollowed out a moat and was beginning to build a little castle, with his upturned cup as the base for the tower, before she spoke again.

“Why’d you do it?”

“Do what?”

“What do you think?” Wolfgirl stretched out one foot and knocked the cup over.

As he righted it, she went on. “You switched colleges, at the last minute, behind my back. Why?”

“I – ” he stopped, expecting to be interrupted, but for once she was silent. He swallowed hard; this time he wouldn’t have minded being stopped. “I just – I just wanted to find out what it was like, being me. I don’t know who I am. I know who you are – I know who we are – everyone does, but I barely know anything about myself.” It was the longest she had let him speak uninterrupted all day, and her silence made him rush to fill the empty air between them with words. “You named me, but I’m not sure if you really got it right or if Owlboy even still fits. I don’t think it does, if it ever did. And because you were always there, setting the stage, I never really got the chance to figure – ”

Wolfgirl surged to her feet, towering over him, making him feel small. She was good at that. For a moment he was frightened of her, and then he saw the stricken look on her face and the tears glinting in the moonlight. He ran a hand through his hair, standing it on end; when he spoke his voice was quiet. “I just wanted to know who I am.”

“You’re my friend!” she cried, anguish threaded through her voice. “Isn’t that enough?”

Wolfgirl remembered her first day of college with a sharp, ringing clarity, for if she didn’t then no one will. Details once belonged to Owlboy, but she went through the day alone, and so it was her memory that somehow held everything.

He left her in the morning, having helped her haul three suitcases, four cardboard boxes, and one unwieldy roll of blankets and pillows to her room. Wolfgirl hadn’t wanted him to come at all; the summer had been uneasy and far too short, the two of them edging around the subject of their impending separation. Neither of them had been able to forget the golf course or what had been said there. She in particular was still smarting from the blow her friend had dealt her; the fact that he wanted to go through college without her had hurt.

The two stood among the trappings of moving-in, he with his glasses in his hands, polishing them on the hem of his shirt, she smoothing and re-smoothing the sunburstcolored bedspread. Neither said anything. He put his glasses back on and blinked at her through them. Wolfgirl couldn’t stop herself – she laughed.

“Forgive me, boyo, because I know you probably don’t want to hear it right now, but those glasses really do make you look like an owl.”

He touched the frames, grinning back at her. “That’s alright. I have it on very good authority that it works for me.”

She nodded. He shifted uneasily and stuck his hands deep in his pockets. It had never been this awkward to talk to each other before.

“I’m going to – ”

“You can still – ”

“You first.”

“You can still be Wolfgirl, you know. If you want. Even if I’m not always Owlboy. You can manage without me alongside. Not that you listen to me, but if you stop fussing for more than thirty seconds at a time you should able to figure that out for yourself eventually.”

“I know. But I’m going to miss hearing it, even if I never listen.” She reached out and hugged him, which rather surprised them both. He returned it, and then he had to go – it was moving-in day for him too. Wolfgirl, loath to let go, called out to him.

“Wait.”

He turned around, walking backwards. “Yeah?”

“I’m still going to call you Owlboy, okay? Not here, I mean. At home. During breaks. When it’s just you and me again. Is… can I do that?”

By this time, he stood at the top of the stairs. Leaning on the wall, he examined her for a few seconds, and then took pity; it was unfair to ask her to change so much, so fast. “If you didn’t,” he said, smiling ruefully, “I wouldn’t know who you were. Call me when you’re settled in, Wolfgirl.”

His reward was in the way her shoulders eased as she lifted a hand in temporary farewell. He waved back, which was good enough for her, then stepped sideways to avoid a short girl with a large duffel bag coming down the hall. She stopped in front of the doorway Wolfgirl stood in and smiled, a little shyly.

“Hullo,” she said. “I’m Katie. Your roommate, I think?”

“Yeah.” And then, for the first time in years, Wolfgirl took a deep breath and named herself. “Hi. I’m Edith.”