I google: white owls. I get: ads for a cigar company and pictures of Hedwig.
I google: white owl princeton. I get: an auction site for an antique snowy owl painting.
I google: Princeton Vines eating club. I get: “The Vines Club is the oldest eating club at Princeton University,” and a history of its founding.
May’s voice cuts through my searching. “What did you get for number three? I keep getting a negative and there is no way that’s possible.”
“Hm?” I look up. May lounges on my bed as I sit on the floor against the opposite wall.
“Calc. Number 3.”
“Oh, um,” I look at my definitely-not-math-homework document. “Not quite there yet.”
May gives me a look. “Ohmygod, you’re still on the Charlie thing.”
“Okay, but listen-”
“Babe, you’ve got to let it go.” She falls back into the bed, eyes on the ceiling.
A week after Charlie’s drunken ramble in Imperial, I still can’t find anything. Maybe Jenny has an illegal bird on campus. I’ve never heard of someone having an illegal bird on campus, says May. Maybe Jenny lives close to campus and has a pet. Have you heard her talk? She’s from Cali. But Charlie’s hand. It was a freak accident.
“But it’s weird. You have to admit that,” I say.
“Charlie is a weird guy,” May says.
“Who just happens to carry around white feathers?”
“It’s not even that eccentric. Victoria Justice went through a whole one feather phase.”
“Why would Charlie have a feather? What bird is he trying to pluck and why?”
“Maybe he just has a creepy thing for Jenny. Maybe it’s from one of her earrings.”
“Charlie is terrified of Vines and Max really didn’t want me asking questions. He kept brushing everything off like it was the funniest thing in the world. You’d think that if Charlie’s so terrified of Vines, a girl in the club would be a huge turn off.”
“You know what’s a huge turn off? This conversation.”
“We’re doing math homework!”
“I’m doing math homework; you’re working on conspiracy theories. You don’t even have a full thought fledged out.”
“He kept saying it wasn’t his fault. That they couldn’t kick him out. Something is wrong.”
“Lana, why do you care so much? Last week, you literally wanted to throw Charlie in McCosh and never think of him again.”
“You didn’t see the cut. Falling randomly on glass doesn’t create three identical marks that deep into flesh.”
“So then Charlie hung out with Jenny one day and they encountered some bird that sliced him open.”
“Then why call it a scooter accident?”
“Trauma, Lana, I don’t know.” May throws her hands in the air and lets them land with a smack. “It’s not our business.”
“I just have a feeling. A pull.”
“There’s no story here,” May says gently. “This isn’t an article you can pop into the Nass. You need to stop chasing it down like you’ll uncover the next Watergate. It’s personal and weird and probably just really mundane.”
“This isn’t for the Nass,” I mutter. It was already shut down. One conversation with a managing editor on something weird in Vines led to a brush off. Eating clubs are difficult. Stories hardly came through. Definitely not from Vines. It wasn’t worth the hassle.
May sighs. “I think we’re just tired. I’ll run to the Wa for coffee. The usual?”
“Sure,” I try to sound grateful as she pats my head on the way out.
It’s Monday, and I’m early for the Nass meeting in Frist. As people trickle in, I hammer away on my keyboard, trying to put together what little I could find on Vines.
Someone slides their desk-on-wheels beside me. I feel them peer over my shoulder.
“Watcha working on?” a chipper voice asks.
I look up. Henry leans in. “That definitely doesn’t look like an election piece.”
I shut my laptop a bit too roughly. “I already turned in that piece. This is just a side project.”
“Bickering,” I lie.
“Mhm, so why so much on Vines?”
“Curiosity. I go where the story takes me.”
“Didn’t they tell you eating clubs were a waste of time?”
“It’s my time to waste,” I shrug. “You know the feeling of a good lead.”
“But what’s the lead?”
My fingers drum the laptop lid. I wonder briefly if Henry is close enough to Charlie to have anything useful. “Classified, but if you’re going to tell the editors anything, it’s strong and I’m doing it anyway.”
“They’re not gonna like that.”
“It’s not like they can stop me. We’re not the Prince.”
Henry shrugs. “I just agree with them. Don’t get too disappointed.”
He rolls away with one great push, leaving me with half assembled thoughts.
A week later I’m still staring at pointless Google searches. Firestone Library didn’t have much, and I still wasn’t in a mood to read The First Hundred Years of the Vines Club: a Centennial History, a clunky book sitting beside me. My cursor blinked at me from the screen, waiting for something to manifest.
Henry walks into the room and makes his way toward me. I close the lid of the computer, not in the mood for a fourth “It’s a waste of time” spiel from him. I’m tucking the Centennial History under my laptop, but Henry’s already seen it. He frowns as he stops in front of me.
“Maybe you’re right,” he says.
My eyes shutter. “I’m sorry?”
“I was doing some thinking,” he continues. “It wasn’t a scooter accident.”
I freeze then say nothing as I watch him coil into the seat next to me. Finally, “What?”
Nonchalant, he says, “Charlie’s scooter has been in the shop for a few weeks now. He ran it a bit too often through puddles and it stopped turning on. The bandage came a few days after he sent it in.”
“Why would you tell me that?”
“Charlie’s been off ever since he got that wound. Guess I’m worried too.” He stretches out a bit. “And you know, what got me was what you said about Charlie being scared of Vines. Charlie used to love Vines. Jenny would get him and Max in all the time.”
“What about you?” I ask.
“I’m friends with Charlie. Know Max through him and Jenny even less. I’ve gone maybe once or twice out of courtesy.”
I nod for a moment. “I can’t figure it out. Does Charlie have a thing for Jenny?”
Henry laughs. “Definitely not. Jenny’s too prim for him. If anything, he’s a bit intimidated by her. We don’t fuck with Jenny.”
Another snapshot: Henry with one ankle lying on his knee, arms crossed over a snake-skin print shirt. Caption: We don’t fuck with Jenny.
“Why not?” I ask.
“Bad vibes,” he shrugs. “Like karma will slap you double time if you mess with her. Raised by an oil tycoon and knows where to punch where it hurts.”
I open my laptop, then Google. “I’ve tried everything. I’ve read over countless pages of Vines and I still haven’t found anything. I can’t connect the dots.”
The search results for “Vines eating club” appear once more, but now a news article sits at the top. I reread the search bar, then the headline: Princeton alum buys owl portrait for 4 thousand. I click on it. Victor Krass, class of ‘84 and alumnus of Vines Club, purchased the portrait. The auction lasted for a week, hosted by Vines Club, until Krass’s bid doubled the 2 thousand dollar bid offered prior.
I glance away from the laptop at Henry. “You wouldn’t happen to know a way to get me into Vines, would you?”
I’m answered by a wicked grin.
Henry meets me in front of Frist. “Ready?”
“Of course,” I reply.
He begins the rundown. “Right, so I got passes for Rectangle, but no go on Vines. We’ll get in, have a drink, and then go out to the back. At quarter past, a buddy will make a scene out front. We take the moment, climb the fence, and get into Vines.”
“Isn’t this how Charlie got thrown out of Vines the first time?”
“I think it’s about time you realized that anything said over brunch was bullshit.”
He leads the way to Rectangle. It’s peak hour, so there’s a line waiting to get checked by the lists. Fifteen minutes pass and we get through security with no issues. My thumb runs over my phone’s power button every minute. We’re not five steps into Rectangle before I start checking the exits, scanning for security.
“Chill,” Henry says. “We’ve got time.”
“I just don’t want to miss it.”
“Here, just a sec.” He slips into the crowds.
My stomach is a knotted mess by the time he comes back, two drinks in hand. He holds one out to me.
I shake my head.
“You are terrible at incognito,” Henry says. “You need to relax and fit in. One watered down beer isn’t going to stop you from uncovering a white bird.”
Bad idea, lightweight.
“And, if you’re so worried about someone watching, drinking and then going out for a breath will seem much less suspicious than you dancing anxiously in the parlor.”
I take the cup. I let him lead me outside. One sip turns to many, and the cup is empty by the time Henry checks his watch again. We creep to the fence and chuck our cups aside. Finally, there’s noise at the front, and he kneels and forms a boost. “Come on.”
I step into his hands, and he hoists me up. I grapple with the top of the fence, clumsily swing my legs over, and fall into the grass on the other side. My arms are scraped and my legs sting, but I force myself to get up. Henry follows soon after, landing gracefully. He’s barely hit the ground when he scoops my arm in his and sweeps me into the dark, squat building, brick covered in vines.
Inside, he asks, “Now what?”
“Check the rooms,” I answer. “Anything that has owl iconography.”
We start sweeping through the rooms. I take another cup, but don’t drink. I hold it as we go through room by room. By the time we reach the second floor, my head is pounding and the scene feels too familiar. But there is still no owl.
In the nooks of a hallway, Henry says, “That was everything. Now what?”
We walk to the stairs to go down. I shake my head. “I don’t know. I-” I pause at the top step and stare down. A scene flashes, Charlie almost stumbling over the edge. “The basement. Are there locked rooms in the basement?”
“I mean, there are bound to be locked doors everywhere.”
“Can you get past them?”
“We’ll have to see.”
The steps swirl beneath me, and I cling to the railing as I go down. Just one drink, Lana? Really? I try to clear my thoughts. One last push, and then it’ll be over. I promise myself that if there’s nothing in the basement, I’ll let it go.
The basement is dark and full of littered cups and tipsy folk. The ground is sticky with beer. We crawl the perimeter of the room. I run my hand on the wall as we walk around. My fingers search for a door. I keep my eyes watching the main room like the single game of pong is incredibly interesting. One ball, tap, tap, miss. The next, tap, tap, miss. Another. Another. Finally, tap, tap, plunk. One team cheers, and my fingers slip under a curtain and onto the smooth wood of a door. Plunk.
“Here,” I nudge Henry. I don’t wait for a response before I step in front of him and take a fake drag from my cup. My thoughts begin to blur. I hear Henry shuffling behind me and a clink of metal on metal as he fiddles with the lock.
Henry says nothing as he loops his arm through mine and pulls me back through the curtain and the now open door. I shut it behind us. “Where’d you learn to pick locks?”
“Trade secret.” He flicks on a light.
We walk down the narrow hall and reach another set of stairs, these of black metal. The walls shift from brick to rock as you go down.
“Just keep moving,” I say.
The metal stairs clunk with each of our steps. I need to work a lot harder to stay steady. I feel like I’ve had ten drinks, not one. We go down, down, down, until finally the metal gives way to concrete and an entryway out of the stairwell. We trade the stairs for darkness.
“Well this is inviting,” Henry says.
“There’s gotta be a light.” I begin to run my hands along the wall, searching for a switch.
“Here,” Henry says. With a click, the room is showered in yellow LED, revealing a cavernous space lined in doric columns. White drapes hang between each column. Hung on every wall is a massive black tapestry bearing a white owl, talons out, eyes red and narrowed.
For a moment, my heart beats as loud as my head. Then, “Holy shit.”
Henry gives a nervous laugh. “Will you look at that.”
I pull out my phone and start snapping photos. I’m still not certain it’s real. I zoom in on the tapestries and try to capture as much as I can. I step into the main opening, then realize we’re not alone.
At the head of the room, a tall, golden perch sits. Standing proudly on the golden rod is a giant snowy owl, its eyes narrow in a forbidding way. Gold wraps fists around the bird’s talons, but on each one is a sharp metal accent, a fowl gauntlet. It opens its beak, and I swear it hisses.
I no longer wonder where Charlie got those wounds.
I snap a picture.
“Haven’t you been to a museum before?” a voice drawls. My heart stops. It’s not Henry. “No pictures.”
I turn slowly, part from fear and part from the room spinning. Standing three feet away is Max, dressed in white robes. I can’t find Henry. My eyes feel heavy. Shit.
“She’s a journalist,” another voice croons, like talking about a child with too big dreams. Jenny steps into my frame. “I don’t think she can help it.”
For once, I listen to myself and bolt for the stairs. The owl screams behind me. I stumble up the metal, and a new thought arrives. I fumble with my phone as my feet pound on stairs. Send. Send. Send. Send.
Metal slams into my face as I go crashing. My phone flies from my fingers, and I rasp, “No.”
I forget it. I get back and start scrambling up the stairs. The world spirals. I can’t tell if they’re following me. They must be. There’s no way they aren’t.
I don’t know how much time has passed, but I must be close to the exit. Up, up, up — smack.
I stumble back a few steps and grab onto the railing to keep from going all the way down. I try to catch my breath. I can barely hold the railing. I look up. I wish I’d fallen instead.
Standing at the top of the stairs is Henry, arms crossed over a white robe. Draped around his neck is a thick, white cord. White feathers cap either end of it. He stares down at me with a pitiful smile. “You’re always in a rush, aren’t ya, Lana?”
No. No. Nononono. It’s the only thing that echoes in my head. My eyes disobey and start to slumber. It was one drink.
Henry starts coming down as I let go of the railing and sink into the metal. My eyes are near shut when he kneels down beside me. He sighs as darkness wraps thick arms around me, lulling me into its embrace. “You really should have stayed home.”
September 21, 2020
Lana, 1:26 a.m.: Vbes bssnent
Lana, 1:26 a.m.: [Attached image]
Lana, 1:26 a.m.: [Attached image]
Lana, 1:26 a.m.: [Attached image]
Lana, 1:26 a.m.: [Attached image]
May, 1:30 a.m.: ???
May, 1:31 a.m.: Wait where are you???
May, 1:32 a.m.: Wtf are these
May, 1:32 a.m.: Shit, shit, shit, is that the owl Charlie was talking about?!?!?
(3) Missed Calls from May <3
May, 1:40 a.m.: LANA PICK UP
May, 1:48 a.m.: Is that Jenny behind the owl? Oh god Lana you better be alright
(4) Missed calls from May <3
May, 12:08 p.m.: This isn’t funny. If you’re passed out somewhere, you better call me ASAP.
May, 3:03 p.m.: I went to PSAFE and reported everything. Please please please just text me
Charlie, 5:08 p.m.: WTF DID YOU DO
(3) Missed calls from Mom
September 23, 2020
May, 6:42 p.m.: Ok, I don’t know if you’re going to get this or if I’m just screaming to the void, but listen, everyone is worried. Vines is crawling with police and Jenny, Max, and Charlie are all in deep shit. But Henry Glazer says he was with you that night, and it’s not making anything easier. He says you kept picking up drinks and at some point he lost you as you stumbled into a crowd.
May, 6:45 p.m.: I’ve done some stupid things to get your things together and your notes are so scattered I can’t really understand. There are so many questions. I keep asking why you didn’t tell me you were going to Vines. Why you’d trust Henry before me. I’m sorry I didn’t listen. This is all just so insane. I think we’re in over our heads, at least I am.
May, 6:49 pm.: I’m really trying to scrap together the facts. This isn’t going to be swept under the rug, not this time. But if you’re out there, hiding, please just give me something to work with. You’re the only one who knows what happened, who knows how to interpret those photos.
May, 6:49 p.m.: No matter what, I’ll keep working, keep trying to find answers, even if I have to get the Nass to do a better investigation. Just please, be safe, come home.