excerpt from THE EARTH BREAKS IN COLORS
The call of an owl woke her. A call that always sounded like loneliness — wide and hollow, carried on dark winds. She pulled back the white eyelet curtains, tried to get a glimpse of the owl in the towering oak trees that circled the backyard, but with the moon only a thin sliver — like the scraped edge of a coin — she couldn’t see anything except a shadowy maze of branches.
It wasn’t unusual to hear owls in the canyon. Sometimes, if her father took her out to dinner, like he did last night for her eleventh birthday, she would hear them in the car when she opened the windows, her hair blowing back behind her and her eyelids closed against the rush of air.
The hypnotic cooing was suddenly interrupted by something hard and persistent — a shovel digging into dirt. It was way past midnight, her father had turned off the outside lights at ten when he went to bed, so who could be out there in the satiny night digging and scraping at the drought-baked ground? It was hard to believe one of their neighbors would be gardening in the wrong yard at this hour, particularly since none of their neighbors were that close. The properties in the canyon were spacious and rambling. You had to make an effort to meet people who lived in nearby houses.
Whoever was digging was off to the side where her windows wouldn’t allow her to see. There was simply no choice but to put on her slippers and go out the back door.
The screen door slapped shut behind her — her father kept meaning to fix the spring. As she walked down the three steps onto the dirt she recognized the long curve of his back. He was wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, and something was beside him on the ground. She couldn’t tell what it was. He straightened up, aimed the shovel again and plunged it into the ground, stepping down hard on it with one foot and then leaning back as he brought up some dirt and tossed it to his left. She was pretty close to him now but he still hadn’t noticed her.
He dropped the shovel and turned around. His hair, usually tied back in a ponytail, was loose and sticking to his cheeks. He pushed it back with both hands.
“Hey Whisper,” he said, his own voice low and soft.
Her name was really Janice, but her father had started calling her Whisper when she was still a toddler because that’s how she always sounded. As if she were whispering. Kids in school called her that too, as did most of the teachers. Only the principal insisted on addressing her as Janice.
“What are you doing?” she asked him, moving closer in small steps.
She saw now what was on the ground — the gold clock that had always sat on their mantel. Beside it was an old red and white ice chest with some folded plastic inside it.
Her father placed the shovel down, came over and squatted down in front of her. He smelled like toothpaste and sleep. “This is our secret, okay? You gotta promise me,” he said.