Monthly Archives: October 2015

Who Goes There?

Somebody knocked and rang the bell. Patricia dropped the knife with nervy fingers and swore. She’d split the fingertip on one of her latex gloves.

Maybe they would go away.

Someone pressed the doorbell several times in rapid succession.

She remembered the lights were on, the porch decorated, and she had no excuse.

Someone kicked the door.

Patricia scrambled in the front hall. The candy bowl was sitting next to a bowl for keys, it contained mini candybars and gum. An odd combination, she thought just before she opened the door.

There was a store-bought superhero who looked to be grammar school age, and a toddler in a tutu. Just a tutu.

“Trick or treat!” the superhero orated dutifully. The toddler gaped, plastic pumpkin held out at arm’s length.

Patricia nodded and dished out a candy bar and gumball each.

The superhero withdrew his Frankenstein-head candy bucket. “Thank you,” he said woodenly.

The toddler shook her pumpkin. “Mo’!”

Her mother appeared out of nowhere, scooping her up. “Cynthia, sweetie, no.” She laughed through her teeth in the awkward manner of young, hip parents. “Sorry. It’s her first Halloween.”

Patricia grunted. The door was only open six inches, enough to thrust the bowl through, and that was six inches too much.

The mother tilted her head sideways, peering through the gap at Patricia. “Have you had many this year?”

“Enough.” Patricia closed the door. She considered flipping the porch lights, but that might be too much.

“Well, that’s a fine how-do-you-do,” the mother’s voice echoed breezily through the door.

Through the reed blind that masked the front window, Patricia traced their steps down the driveway. She cursed again when another group started up the lawn before the others had even left. She watched their silhouettes pause to converse. Maybe her rudeness would be passed along and she wouldn’t be bothered again.

That hope sank when the groups diverged again. The first group walked out into the shadows. The second approached until the front wall hid them again.

Patricia braced her back against the door and prayed under her breath.

A knock.

Heart hammering, Patricia opened the door again.

This group was two children roughly the same age. One had smeary zombie makeup, the other wore a wolf mask. The mother hovered over both of them, eyes wide and staring out into a middle distance.

Whatdowesay?” she whispered.

Patricia leaned forward. “What?”

“Trick-or-treat-smell-my-feet-give-me-something-good-to-eat!” both children screamed.

Patricia drew back as if burned. She could feel the tympani in her head draw taut.

“Here,” she said uncomfortably, shoveling treats into their matching pillowcases. She had to resist the urge to throw them in.

Whatdowesay?” the woman whispered eerily again. Her glazed stare was alarming. Patricia couldn’t tell if the woman was trying to see back into the house or just in a Valium fog.

“Thank-you-happy-halloween!” the kids screamed almost threateningly.

Thankyouhaveablessednight,” the woman hissed.

They turned as one unit and walked down the driveway. Patricia couldn’t see their feet articulating. She went inside and locked the door.

Think. She needed time to think.

She could kill the lights, make it look like no one was home.

…but then she wouldn’t be able to see who walked up to the house. And seeing what night it was, no one would think it strange if someone walked all the way up to a house in the dark.

She peered through the slats of the blinds.

There was no movement. For now.

What she could do, what would be really smart would be to put the bowl out on the porch with a “help yourself” sign and leave the lights on.

There was a mug of pens beneath the old brass reading lamp by the couch. She grabbed one and scribbled on a piece of junk mail. Nothing. She snagged another. A brief sputter of ink and then nothing.

There was movement she could see through the shade.

Patricia panicked and grabbed the entire mugful, turning them upside-down and swirling them around. Fresh, black ink originated from somewhere near her thumb. Shaking, she tucked her thumb around five or so pens and let the rest clatter to the tabletop. No time. She shoved the pens in her pocket as the bell rang again.

Patricia made herself take a deep breath. The hand with the candy bowl shook. She transferred hands and it still shook. She gave up and opened the door.

It was a gaggle of kids, preteens to toddler. Patricia practically threw the candy at them.

There was a woman in a peasant skirt and an older, bearded gentleman, both smiling with vacant pleasure at the exchange. Patricia missed the last bag and rushed to close the door. Not fast enough.

The man stepped forward, passing a hand over the children’s heads as if climbing a rail.

“Howdy,”he said pleasantly, “so nice to see young blood in this neighborhood.”

Patricia grimaced.

He leaned forward. There was a skunky edge to his breath.

“Unless I miss my guess, the Harrows used to live here, didn’t they? Did you buy from them?”

“No.” Maybe if she looked preoccupied and kept her answers to one syllable, he would get the hint.

The man thumbed out to the driveway. “That Subaru for sale?”

“No.” Patricia said simply.

“If it ever does go up, I’d like you to give me a call.” He started rummaging in his breast pocket. “Let me give you a card.”

Patricia gave up. “Excuse me, I have a pie burning in the oven,” she said and slammed the door.

She very loudly and heavily walked away down the hall. The couple’s silhouettes hung in place for entirely too long before moving away. Patricia blew an angry breath.

“Hate this fucking day,” she whispered.

She narrowed down the pens to one uni-ball that faithfully laid down a thick, black trail of ink. The paper came from the printer tray. Patricia made the sign in all caps and each line was several scribbles wide.

“Take one,” it said, ensuring that all the candy would be gone in a single visit.

Patricia scooped up the candy bowl and the paper and strode victoriously to the front hall.

The door opened to reveal a teenage boy slouching against a porch post.

Patricia drew back with a little noise. He hadn’t knocked. If he’d knocked she’d have heard it. If he had been standing silently outside the door, it was probably for a reason.

Patricia stood there.

The teen was dressed in a black hoodie and black jeans. His hair had been dyed black, she could tell, because of how flat the color looked. He held a smoking stub of cigarette in one hand but made no move to smoke it.

“Hey,” he said, hardly traditional.

Patricia posed awkward, foot holding open the door, candy bowl hoisted aloft. His eyes drifted from the bowl to the house behind her. Patricia wet her lips so severely she could feel the fine hairs of her upper lip. She tried not to shake, which just made her shake even more as her muscles locked in place.

The teen seemed thin. He didn’t seem like he packed much of a punch, but anything could be hidden in that front sweatshirt pocket. A knife. A gun. His hands lay at rest at his sides, but he could reach for it at any time.

Patricia lowered the bowl. “You don’t have a bag.” It was the only response she could manage.

The boy shrugged. He hadn’t looked away from the house.

“Do you want a few to carry?”

The boy rolled the cigarette between his fingers. His eyes were calculating.

In a flash, Patricia pressed the bowl forward. “Here,” she hissed.

The boy finally looked away from the doorway behind her. He looked nonplussed.

She tugged one of the mouths of his sweatshirt pocket wide and poured candy in.

“Take it,” she said, “take it all. I’ll still put out the bowl.”

The boy looked down, then at her. Finally, with a cool nod, he straightened up,

Patricia stood in the doorway, breathing erratically. The boy made no move to go.

Patricia backed into the house and shut the door. Through the shades, she watched the boy’s silhouette steam smoke, then drop something and twist his heel. He loped away slowly, as if savoring each step.

Patricia pressed her forehead to the wood of the door. She counted one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi, all the way up to fifty. Then she jerked the door open, dashing to the front bench where a pumpkin happily smoldered. She set the bowl down with a teeth-clenching crack, slapped the paper down beside it, and ran back inside. The door was heavy and solid oak and it slammed so loud she could hear the chirp of an echo bounce off the yew in the yard. She slammed the bolt home and held herself.

No movement out the front window. No tinkle of glass from a thrown rock. Patricia finally let herself breathe easily as she went back to the kitchen.

Mrs. Harrow lay where she had fallen, red spreading over the linoleum beneath her. Frank Harrow was a much less orderly scene. He had fought back, and his body was smeared and ragged.

Patricia picked up the knife and scrubbed the handle with a dish towel. There was a plastic bag on the table. She fished a pair of costume gloves out and donned them. There was a wig cap and a wig and a warty witch-mask, she put them on. There was a cape she swept around her shoulders.

Three seconds to peek out the back door: the coast was clear.

She exited the house and pulled the door snug behind her.

There were still trick-or-treaters about. She lost herself in the crowd.

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Pile Island

aerial photos of atoll

Aerial photographs of the atoll

Pile Island is an uninhabited atoll approximately 380km from the nearest landmass. It is a US protectorate under the Guano islands act, though it has never been subject to mining. Its highest point is 10 feet above sea level and its lagoon is dry. Its guano deposits are almost nonexistent as no seabird colony has been sighted on the island since 1867.

Pile island was discovered by sheer accident when the freighter Soerabaja ran aground of a reef some 60 yards beyond its shore. The crewmen took to the atoll, looking for supplies to aid repair of the damaged hull and found little of note. Only one paragraph in the captain’s log is spared for the experience, merely noting that the island itself had not been visible until after they ran aground on the reef.

ships on the sea

The island, viewed from the reef

It is from the next visit that the island gains its notoriety. The Margarethe was on an expedition to find guano-rich islands of the pacific when they found Pile. Strangely, they noted the reef as being more than 100 yards from the visible shore. The crew of the Margarethe established a base camp on the north part of the island. Along with the guano deposits, the crew recorded the presence of a sinkhole approximately 8X5 yards. The crew attempted to dig a well and assess the size of the atoll’s freshwater lens. The hole wound up being over ten feet in depth before showing any amount of seepage. The liquid that filed the hole possessed an odd viscosity. The crewman who volunteered to drink it reported it had no flavor and was unpleasant to swallow. Later that day, the crewman fell over dead from no apparent cause.

The surviving crewmen spent the night on the island. They reported tremors constantly throughout the night, though the crew remaining on the ship sensed no such disturbances. In the morning, the landing team rejoined the ship and they weighed anchor.

The next ship did not arrive until 1906, the USS Teague, coming to claim the island as a protectorate. Armed with more modern scientific equipment, the crew was able to document the island in more detail. The reef was officially placed at 200 yards beyond the visible shore. The freshwater lens was deemed nonexistent.

The sinkhole enlarged by the Magarethe’s crew had reached a depth of 20 feet with no seepage, impossible in such a geographic location. An attempt to gauge the composition of the soil with a spar produced a hole. Further prodding exposed a hollow space of unknown depth beneath the sinkhole. Volcanic activity was suspected, but the hole gave off no heat that would indicate a chimney. There was no vegetation on the island, so the crew members who volunteered to enter the space had to descend on a rope anchored with a series of belaying pins.

In what little light filtered through the hole, the crewmen could discern a cave system at least as expansive as the atoll itself. The crewmen could also see faint markings on the rocks which they at first dismissed as ore leakage; when they were passed down a ship’s lantern they could discern that the markings were what appeared to be representational pictoglyphs. The glyphs themselves depicted a series of scenes that seemed apocalyptic in nature, containing fanciful creatures not known to man. No Polynesian presence on the island has been confirmed before or since, leaving the origin of these pictoglyphs a mystery to this day.

pictoglyhs

A photgraph of the glyphs, circa 1967

Once topside, the sailors complained about a vibration that had begun in the marine cave and persisted after they came up. They were given a cursory examination and no physical symptoms were found. As the landing party camped that night, they, too, felt the tremors that the Margarethe’s crew had described, this time accompanied by an atonal chiming sound. The ship’s seismograph recorded nothing during the night. In the morning, the sailors that had descended into the cave were found dead.

The Teague set sail for Palmyra, to deliver the dead and report their findings. They did not return to the island. Pile was not one of the atolls chosen for nuclear testing during WWII, nor was it deemed strategically important enough to be the site of a base. In 1935, the island was declared a wildlife preserve. The few expeditions undertaken since 1906 have been by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, who also restrict access to the island.

The reef’s last recorded distance was 500 yards from the island.

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Acrophobia

The platform had never had a tower.

Jones knew this for certain, because he’d seen it day in and day out for six years. The squat-square tower had never been there before. And if it was here now, that meant it had been built sometime last night.

Coy strode out of the side door, his heels made a neat rhythm on the metal walkway.

“Copacetic?” he said by way of greeting.

Jones pointed.

Coy walked to where Jones stood. He draped himself over the metal railing and studied the platform.

“Graveyard?”

“Blom.”

“Cambio?”

“No, just Blom.”

Both men looked at the platform. It remained solid and smooth, as if the traitor tower had always been there to begin with. The yellow adobe plastered over its timbers was beige in the bright sun.

“I’ll call Blom,” Coy said, peeling away from the rail.

 

Three men now stood on the parapet.

“I’m telling you: if this happened, it happened on your shift.”

Blom turned, indignant. “So this is my fault?”

“No one said that,” Coy said, “I didn’t say that. Jones didn’t say that. All we said was if this happened, it happened on your shift.”

“Implying this is somehow partially my responsibility.”

“Not implying. Inferring.”

“Regardless,” Jones cut in, “should we call someone? Go out and prod it with a stick? I mean, what’s the protocol for this?”

The other two men exchanged looks.

“Nothing in the book about this,” Coy said.

“Well, there goes that spot of hope.”

“But your second idea sounded reasonable. I mean, if we call someone and they ask us a question we can’t answer…” Coy trailed off.

All three men stood in silence.

“I suppose I’m up to climbing that thing?” Blom nodded in its direction.

“It would be the logical progression of events.”

“Bull. You’re making this out to be my responsibility. Why don’t you go instead, I might be biased—”

“It’s our shift. If something happens on our shift, someone needs to be able to raise the alarm, and Jones doesn’t know how to work the console—”

“Still? What the hell do you two do on your shift, play poker—”

“I’ll go,” Jones said.

The other two men stopped talking.

“It makes sense,” Jones said. “I’m not a senior officer. I don’t have any valuable skills that might be lost. I should go, don’t you think?

Coy said, “Alan,” and left it at that.

 

The platform crouched like a spider over the arid soil. Jones had never thought to ask about where it had come from, or even what it was for. He regretted it now. Maybe it was an Indian structure, and by climbing it he was committing some sort of archaeological crime.

The spruce log that leaned against the side of the platform had notches knocked in the side. He tested one with his boot and found it solid enough.

“We can wait,” Coy said quietly. Blom was already paced back to where he could see the tower clearly. “We can phone it in and give them the bare facts.”

Jones swallowed. “It’s okay. It’s just a platform, right?”

Coy smiled wanly. He waited for Jones to ascend a short ways before he stepped back, tracing the climb with his eyes.

Just like visiting the old treehouse. Like walking up one of those narrow Victorian stairwells. Nothing at all, really.

When Jones hit the top, it was a little exhilarating. He was where none of them had been before. Sure, you could see a little from the walkway, but there was a lot you couldn’t see. The platform was not flat, it had low channels that wound mazelike over the surface, peppered with sets of steps.

Jones tested the ground with his heels, envisioning mud crumbling and giving way after centuries in the sun. The soles of his feet tingled in an almost pleasant way. Arms out, ready to grab at the first cracking sound, Jones walked.

The tower looked like a model, like miniature version of a much larger planned project, or some kind of forced-perspective trick.

Jones’ stomach dropped. He wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t like that thought. Not at all.

The mud tower had little square windows and steps that led up through a little arch like a tongue into a mouth.

Jones reminded himself to curb that line of thought. It was hard enough to make his feet move at this point.

Five steps. That’s all it took, and suddenly Jones was on the top of the tower.

Or not. There was a turret that rose from the top of the tower with an identical set-up: square windows and a little set of steps. Six, this time.

He hadn’t seen that from the ground. He hadn’t seen it from the walkway. It should have been smaller and thinner than the tower where he stood, but the steps seemed no steeper, the turret no less deep.

Jones swallowed and backed up, and enjoyed a moment of romantic terror when his heel hit a stopping point.

It was just a retaining wall. He was being silly. He would shout down this factoid to Coy and Blom and they would reassure him.

Jones looked down.

It wasn’t this high. Jones white-knuckled the wall. The platform was ten feet off the ground, tops, but this was more like looking out a third-story window. Something, some desert effect had telescoped the distance. Something he was sure would have a reassuringly technical name when he looked it up later.

He edged his foot on a step.

Yes, when he got back down he would look it up and laugh with the others.

“Jones! What the hell are you doing?”

Jones swallowed. He wanted to call down that it was fine, he was coming right down, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t. Something about the distance that yawned between them made his voice retreat.

“Jones!”

This broke his stupor. Jones shifted his weight—and found he had put his foot on an upper step.

There was a discussion on the ground but it didn’t really register because it was too far away. He was too far, and he was going up and up and up…

“Jones!!” the repetition of his name made him shudder. He though of childhood, of jumping out of trees, how much the landing made your feet hurt. It was just so much easier to climb higher and higher…

Until the branch broke beneath you. No matter how small or nimble you were, a branch always broke.

Sick and clinging to the walls, Jones forces himself down the steps.

It was taking too long to get to the log ladder. Jones looked down and realized that his feet had been unconsciously following the channels. Lifting a foot to step over the wall made him seize up with terror so he surrendered to the path, let it sling him along before spitting him back out at the log.

He looked down. The log looked nearly vertical from here.

Coy and Blom had abandoned their posts to stand on either side of the log.

“Jones,” Coy said slowly and carefully, “come down here.”

A spell of vertigo hit. Jones cried out, closed his eyes, and jumped.

 

“That can’t be right,” Blom kept insisting.

Coy had Jones sitting on a discarded crate and was applying ice in a towel to his head.

“You say that like it means anything. Look at the watches!”

Their watches had been piled onto another crate. Jones’ had somehow slipped an hour and forty minutes behind theirs.

“Okay, so he has a malfunctioning watch. And he got heatstroke. So. What. That proves nothing.”

“Care to go up there, then?” Coy asked.

Blom closed his mouth with a snap and stalked away.

Jones took a shuddering breath. “You can’t see—”

“No, I can’t see the tower,” Coy said gently, “I should’ve had you bring a camera.”

“Would’ve dropped it.” Jones gulped. “So far—far to fall.”

Coy was looking at nothing in particular, ruminating. “I never asked why this was here. They never issued any special instructions, you know: ‘don’t go near the spirit-platform that thirty Sioux died defending‘.”

“Sioux were plains people. They wouldn’t have been here.”

Coy chuckled dryly. “You’re feeling better, then.”

He withdrew the ice towel. Jones snagged it and put it over his eyes. He couldn’t stop swaying, no matter how he tried.

“Seems to me the thing to do,” Coy said in measured beats, “is take a few pictures. Document the thing. Then take our hands off and keep them off. Top brass can do what they want, we just need it to look like we did everything humanly possible.”

Jones swallowed. His throat still pinched. “Do we have to?”

“Not you,” Coy said hurriedly, “you’re not going back up there again.”

“Oh yeah, and who is, then?” Blom had returned. He was looking testily from Jones to Coy. “You can’t do it because you’ve already done it and it gave you terror of the heights,” he jabbed a finger at Jones, “and you can’t do it because—”

“I’ll do it,” Coy said, “I’ll do it just to shut you up. But you have to stay with the kid here and you have to explain how and why you’re here after shift end and what—”

“Jesus, okay!” Blom snapped. He had gotten a coke from the vending machine. His hand was trembling, Jones noticed.

“Wait,” he said, “don’t.”

Blom set his jaw. “Nuh-uh. I want you bastards off my back. I’m doing this and then I’m applying for shift change.”

“Alright, Blom, if that’s what you want.” Coy said neutrally.

Coy equipped him with an old Kodak from the supply closet and a coil of rope and left him at the end of the log. Jones could notice every detail about it, how the end was buried solidly in the soil, how a bunch of hand prints had been worn into the underside of the log.

“Stop him,” Jones said suddenly.

Coy clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Relax. Blom won’t take any unnecessary risks, he hates us too much for that.”

“No. Don’t let him go up. It’s…wrong.” Jones struggled to find the words. “It’s too high. They made it too high.”

Coy looked at him, forehead scrunched with concern. Blom had mounted the first few notches and looked unsteady.

Jones rose. “Get him down.”

Coy looked back and forth between the two of them.

“Alright,” he said, “if that’s what you want.”

He walked over. Blom had paused halfway up. Coy rested a hand on the log and spoke in low tones. Blom’s voice rose indignant. Coy cut in soothingly. Blom piped a few notes of dissent and took a step up, daring Coy with his eyes.

Coy left shaking his head.

Jones caught his sleeve. “He has to come down.”

“He won’t. Look, it’ll be alright, alright? Worse come to worse, I’ll catch him too.”

The thin humor passed over Jones’ head. He watched, anxious, until Blom peered over the side wall. He smiled sickly and waved. The camera’s strap was wound tightly around his fist.

Coy squinted. “Where’d the rope go?”

“Oh, no,” Jones said under his breath.

Before they could shout, Blom stepped back from the edge. The rope coil had been missing from his person, they couldn’t even see a single length tied around his waist.

Both men waited, breathing the thick desert air.

“Where do you think he is?” Coy murmured.

Jones thought of the tower and jammed his knees together.

Something clattered from the side of the tower—the camera. Coy dove out too late to catch it. It shattered on the rocks.

Blom screamed.

Jones flinched and started crying.

Coy ran around the support timbers. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Blom. Blom? Ritchie?”

Blom screamed again. Now they could both hear the odd note. Blom screamed again and again, fainter each time, as if he was screaming from an increasing distance.

Coy paced backwards to where Jones sat.

“That’s it, then,” he whispered, “it’s not—”

There was a thud at the top of the tower. Jones and Coy stood and waved frantically at Blom. Blom ran for the edge and tripped.

They watched his black shape spiral end over end as he fell

up.

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The Monster

There was a wolf pack. There was a Mother, a Father, a litter of three half-grown pups, a pup that was fully grown and his mate.

They were migrating south through unfamiliar territory so they kept between marking spoors and signs of human habitation.

In the middle of their path, they found a dead elk.

Father scented the air. There was the smell of an unfamiliar animal, human mixed in with a sharp lupine spoor, and a sickness beneath that. Whatever it was, it had downed a fully grown male elk and tore it nearly in half from stem to stern. Blood flicked the trees far above their heads. Whatever had done it had done it for more than mere hunger.

A female pup whined and nosed her Mother’s foreleg. Father snuffled, and they unanimously went the opposite direction of the scent trail. This took them near farmland, so they slunk low and quiet, ear out for human sounds.

Then the scent trail crossed in front of their path again and they stopped.

Father sniffed back and forth, trying to determine direction. It was cutting through the woods to the farmland. They veered around and traveled closer to the local wolf spoors. This path took them through a thicket eerily empty of game.

The smell hit them long before they saw it. Another mound of fur–this time breathing–lay in their path. It smelled sick, definitely, but that was only one note in the rancid bouquet of scent.

The monster sat up.

It was far too large for a wolf. It was the size of a pony and its jaws split widely along its head with too many teeth. Father growled low in his chest. With a lurch, the thing got to its feet and faced them down.

It yowled at them, broken phrases that did not make sense to their ears. Hunger-anger-pain, it cried out, hunger-anger-pain. Then simply hunger.

The pack scattered. Even though it moved slowly for a beast its size, it managed to get the head of one of the pups in its jaws. It shook and shook until the pup was limp and then dropped it.

Mother growled and advanced on it as the other two pups dashed away. The two met in midair, the mass of the beast bearing her under. Mother yelped in surprise and pain but did not give up searching for the thing’s throat. It seized her skull between its jaws.

Father snarled, tearing at its hindlegs and tenders, but the thing shook until Mother was limp too. Then it kicked with mule-like force and Father tumbled into a rock.

The thing stood triumphant over Mother’s body and raised its head to the sky. It didn’t howl. It screamed.

The older son and his mate led the two pups away, running single-file and sometimes leaping to confuse their scent trails. Father soon joined them, and they ran until the woods ceased to be woods and they were in the open field of a farm.

The wolves frothed. Father sprawled limply on his side. His hindquarters and scruff were open in great gashes, but they were not fatal. The oldest pup deferentially licked the side of his mouth. Father licked his ear, smoothing fur that immediately sprang back glossy with saliva.

They rested in the lee of a haystack. None were asleep long, or very deeply. They were gone long before the men came to start the baler.

They crossed like shadows over a dirt road and were back in the woods. The remaining pups fell into step behind Father. The older male and female flanked. They came across the signs of other wolves, but never the animals themselves. Together they felled an old, sick doe. Father glutted first, then regurgitated meat for the pups. By nightfall they were at a river. They each lapped at its edge and then followed it downstream.

Tracks began appearing, gouged deep in the loamy mud. They didn’t even have to smell them to know what had made them.

There was a bridge. And on it was the first human they had seen here, missing an arm and bled out, a boat hook clutched uselessly in its remaining hand. Crouching above it and licking at its throat, the beast gave a snarl-whine on seeing the wolves. It danced, pounding the ground with its feet like a puppy.

Father’s hackles rose. So did his older son’s. They growled low in their chests.

The thing started barking. It was a mishmash of nonsense, phrases that by themselves made sense but together were just a mad babble. Father’s ear’s went back. He danced uncertain.

The older son dove. His mate dove with him. The beast took the blow without flinching. It snagged the female and flung her, yelping, into the water. The son snarled and tore at its throat. The beast opened its mouth wide–wide enough to fit an entire wolf head within–and bore down.

Father dove beneath it and snapped at its tenders. The thing yelped and writhed. The son locked jaw onto its front right knee and twisted his head back and forth. Father kept up at its abdomen, trying to force it on its back. Instead, the beast lunged forward, moving easily even with a fully grown wolf around its leg, going after the pups. They scattered, yelping. Brother slammed against a bridge post and fell off, taking a good amount of skin with him. The beast reached the other female pup and grabbed her, hindquarters fitted squarely in his mouth. It bit down. Her yelp was cut in half.

The sole male pup was still running. The older son was trying to rise; the post had knocked his spine crooked. The beast took off after the male pup. Father took off after the beast.

The beast ran oddly but its stride was long and it soon left Father behind. When Father caught up to it, it was already worrying his last offspring like a bone. Father launched himself at its side and overshot, tumbling down the beasts’ other side. The thing screamed–and ran into a tree.

Father drew back, watching. The thing’s eyes did not gleam in the little light still available. It lacked the night vision that even rabbits had.

Father made a calculated dash. The thing’s jaws snapped on air, and suddenly the chase was on.

Father could hear the thing blunder behind him. It was fast enough on open ground, but here in the forest it dashed headfirst into every obstacle. Father skipped light over logs and through branches. He dashed over a game path—

and with a crack, he was laid out.

“Fuckin’ hell, it’s a goddamn monster.”

Father snarled and started to rise. The man with the rifle plugged him again. Father went down, legs spasming.

“You think this one et all those cows?”

“Ayup. Looks big enough.”

“Look at those teeth!”

The men gathered around the dying wolf. Father lay panting, trying to raise his head. They had dogs with them, bloodhounds who looked skittishly not at the body on the ground, but out into the woods.

Father whined.

“Holy hell, this is too cruel. Plug ‘im in the head, would you?”

 

The female drew herself onto shore, heaving. She had swum against current that banged her into rocks and dragged her under. Steam rose from her fur as she panted out her exhaustion. She tried to rise and one leg crumpled beneath her. She dragged herself on her belly to dry brush and licked her fur dry. Then she tucked her nose to her tail and slept.

Day woke her. Her back twinged when she turned her head and her leg would not allow fast travel, but she was alive. And she could move. And so she did.

She tried to trace the territory of the beast. This was next to impossible, because the beast did not claim territory in a sensible manner. It meandered wherever it pleased, crossing freely into human and wolf domain alike. It didn’t even mark right, piss splashed every which way in a powerful, revolting spoor.

Once she traced its scent-trail to a silent farmhouse. Its tracks changed, no longer pawprints, as it came to the front door. The house was wretched with stench, so she withdrew.

There were no living animals anywhere on the farm. There was only the nose-ghosts of two dogs who, she found, lay dead and dried in the barn with other livestock. The cow and two goats had been picked clean, the dogs merely killed.

Once the scent-trail led up to an ornamented gate and suddenly started back, as if shocked. She licked it and found it ordinary metal. It was not even the thin wires that guarded horse pastures and bit the mouth and nose.

She followed the scent around through human territory. At dusk, rather than risk the woods, she skirted some of the more isolated farmsteads. In a small white house she found lines of sleeping, fat birds. She crunched the head off of one and dragged it away.

 

Two men were sitting at a fire.

“So we didn’t kill it?”

“Hell, if it was that wolf, musta been some kind of magician to kill Sadie Thompson’s sheep three hour after it’s been shot to death.”

“But it was all bloody!”

“Like I say before, s’more than one of the bastards. Prob’ly got edged out and started killin’ livestock to live.”

“Sadie’s sheep didn’t look et.”

“Never said they was smart.”

The tumble of a displaced rock made them both start.

“Jay-zus, Colin. You picked a fine time to visit.”

The other man was pale in the firelight, which made hollows dance beneath his eyes. He had a bandage around his elbow.

“Sorry ’bout tha’,” he said.

One of the men grinned nervously.

“How long’s it been, Colin? Two, three months? You got the consumption or summat?”

“Now, don’t you go layin’ into him,” his companion said, tossing another branch on the fire, “he’s just a little under the weather. He’ll get better, won’t you Col?”

Colin was looking down into the fire.

“Oh, I s’pect,” he said, “by and by.”

 

The screams made the female perk up. They were human, not animal. She crept to the hillocks that flanked this side of the farms.

One had a fire burning down. In the little light it still gave, she could see two men. Before she even drew close, the smell hit her in the nose. No gunshot greeted her.

It had torn them open and left their necks smiling red and wide. Just downhill she caught it struggling with something around its muzzle. A thin silver chain winked in the light. It was far too thin to restrain a monster that size, why didn’t it just break?

The monster rolled the chain down its muzzle, paw wincing as if coming into contact with something hot.

She yipped.

The beast looked up with its night-blind eyes and screamed.

She darted off.

The thing followed close behind her, barreling through fences that she ducked under. There was a fence of biting metal. She leapt over the low thing. The beast crashed through, yelping as the wires stung its face.

There was a whicker from the far end of the paddock.

The horses here were not in a closed barn, but a three-sided shed. She galloped towards them. The beast followed behind.

The first of the horses reared and shrieked–she dashed beneath it. The beast flung itself bodily into the horse.

No wolf would have attempted to take that much animal head-on, no matter their size. Even as the first horse wallowed, beast at its throat, the others lit into the sprawling form with their hooves. The mare on the ground writhed away and kicked with her hind legs. With a hollow thud, the beast was flung back into the pasture.

The female wolf went for its neck now. It was guarded by thick fur that did not give her jaws easy purchase, but the beast was already wheezing and weak from the assault. She fixed her jaws and closed them like a springloaded trap. There was a crunch of larynx and suddenly it stopped struggling. As the horses dashed through the gap in the fence, the beast writhed on the ground and died slowly, foaming, tongue out.

She watched as the fur retracted, as limbs unbent and paws turned back into pale flesh.

The thing looked like a man now, but it still smelled wrong. Ears back, she fled.

Howls sounded from the trees. She answered. A party met her at the edge of the woods. The local pack.

She made herself look humble and small and let herself be sniffed. She told them the story in barks and whines, they verified it through smell. The leader let out a long, low howl and suddenly every wolf moved as one back through the trees.

She followed. This was no place for wolves.

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The Scenic Route

Stop.

I want you to take a good, long look right now and then never again. I want you to get it out of your system.

Your pretending you weren’t? I saw you. I see everything, don’t think I won’t. Look, it ain’t a crime, just look now while you got me with you.

Don’t apologize. Just look around so you get a good idea of why we won’t be stopping here.

I know the route is long and sometimes you’ll be tempted to stop and rest your load. I don’t care if you wind up with a kinked spine and one shoulder higher than the other, you never stop here.

Why? Nevermind why, look around. Should be slappin’ you in the face. This place has bad juju.

Count the doors along the way. Sometimes you’ll wind up with an even number, sometimes odd. When you walk this route alone, sometimes you’ll get…funny thoughts. Might think it’s a good idea to do something that ain’t a good idea. S’why we rotate, see? A man on his own too long in a place like this, well, he might start asking unhealthy questions. And trust me, there’s nothing but unhealthy questions here.

See these bones? You don’t want to know what made these bones.

Also, sometimes you’ll see this really big bug. It’s not talking to you, it’s just making noise.

Whaddya mean I’m scaring you? Damn straight, I’m scaring sense into you. No, Don didn’t put me up to this, dammit, I’m responsible for your rookie ass.

Look, I’ll prove it to you. You see how the sun’s setting? Take a look at those trash-cans. Notice anything?

…No, not how clean they are. The shadows are going the wrong way.

I know, right? Barry was the first to notice that. And it gets weirder, too, you haven’t even seen the red shack.

What’s that? Well, let’s just say it’s not there every single time.

…no, I ain’t fuckin’ with you, do you think—look at those shadows! How the hell would I do that?

Hell, I don’t hate you. None of the guys do. If we hated you, we wouldn’t even—look, I’m just trying to bring you into this slowly so you don’t get hit all at once.

…what do you mean about the beast? Who told you about the beast?

Rick? Piece of shit. I take it back, Rick has it out for you. Don’t trust that redheaded bastid for a second.

C’mon, let’s get moving.

What? You want to hear about it? Some other—when we aren’t—okay, fine. Right quick.

You see that little yard right there? Yeah, looks like it should have a dog. But it don’t. Be surprised if anything lived in this neighborhood besides the mold. No rats here, did you notice?

Anyway, off point. This guy called Adam, he was before your time, Adam walks by once and sees a chain-peg and an opened collar on the ground. One of those big ones, with the spikes. He don’t pay it much mind, only, the next delivery he hears this growling, see? But there’s no animal around.

Happens every time he goes out that way. So he gets it in his head to go in the yard, and—

What? Nothing happened, he retired. Stop givin’ me that look.

Anyway, my point is, you shouldn’t go pokin’ around places like this. Now come on, we’ve been here long—

No, I’m not letting you turn back. Never go back the other way. Why? You’ll get lost.

I don’t care if it seems like a straight shot, you’ll get lost. Don’t try to save time, the other guys will always vouch for you on this route. You deliver the package and then come around the long side.

Why do you wanna hear about the beast? This isn’t a campfire!

Look, we’ll walk and talk, okay?

Good.

So, the beast is just a name. There’s a lot of things that can happen, maybe they’re related, maybe they’re not. Maybe Barry cutting his arm on nothing and Rick finding a hubcap with a chunk bit out of it are two different whatchacallits. Happenstance. Maybe not. But there’s a lot wrong in this place and call me crazy, but I like you, kid. I like your face. You got an honest face. You look like if I tell you something, it’ll stick.

So when I tell you not to linger here, you’ll listen, right? Right?

What’re you looking at?

What do you mean ‘where’s the door,‘ it should be right there.

Whatddya mean it’s all bricked up? Goddamn, that ain’t funny, kid. I told you we were here too long, if you—

Shit.

Did you hear that?

…okay. Look, that can’t be the real door. Feel around, I’ll—

No don’t turn around, goddammit there’s nothing, just keep trying for the door, keep trying, keep trying, keep trying—

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