The Wolf, Itself
It was a gloomy Tuesday afternoon, slightly overcast with intermittent rain. For some reason, it always rains during funerals, and this time was no exception. I think there’s something appropriate to rain; it lends quite a bit of atmosphere to the proceedings, considering how gloomy the people involved usually are.
The person being interred was my aunt. Aunt Mary, that is. Not that I have any other aunts; I don’t. Up until last Thursday, she was my only living relative, in fact. My parents were killed when their Cessna had engine failure. That was way back when I was six. I don’t remember them very well, but I keep a picture of them in my bedroom. I think about them a lot, I suppose, but not much more than would be expected.
My aunt took me in then. She’d never been married; in fact, she’d never had a boyfriend that anyone could remember. There was gossip, as there usually is in a small town, the sort of gossip that no-one really expects to be true. In this case, the gossip was that she was gay, or that she had a secret husband in another city, or that her husband had been horribly and brutally killed, and that was why she was never around men. None of it was true. She told me once that she just liked to be alone, and that relationships of that sort didn’t give her enough room to be alone.
Still, the rumors persisted. And while she’d never wanted a romantic long-lasting relationship (and couldn’t have anything else in a town as small as Summersport), she had wanted a child, someone to bring up and teach to be the right kind of human being. So she’d been happy to take me in.
It was for her, at any rate, the one bright spot to losing a brother and a sister-in-law in a meaningless, pointless accident.
My father’s only sibling was Aunt Mary, and my mother’s only sibling, an older brother, had disappeared years before the Cessna accident. And so, as far as I know, Aunt Mary was my only living relative. For the last eighteen years, or at least up until I met Sam, she’d been my entire family.
The rain picked up slightly as we walked away from the grave, Sam and I. There’d been only a few mourners there with us, Aunt Mary’s friends from church. She didn’t have many friends; most people thought she was just a dotty old fool. She fancied herself a psychic; that didn’t speak well for her in a town like Summersport. They didn’t “ken” too much to that sort, as Mr. Brewster always said. Mr. Brewster—he’s the owner of the five-and-dime in town. He bought up the store after the franchising corporation pulled out of the state. Mr. Brewster’s a nice enough fellow, one of my aunt’s few really close friends during her last months. By the end, he was having dinner with Sam and I and Aunt Mary over at our house nearly every night.
Through the drizzle, I caught Mr. Brewster’s eye and smiled insincerely. He did the same, trying to look consoling, but the fire I’d seen in his eyes a month ago was gone. If there was anyone in the town that would miss my aunt as much as I, it was he.
I stumbled in a rut; Sam caught my shoulder with his free hand and kept me from falling. A few drops of rain caught my hair as the umbrella he was holding over me shifted as a counterbalance. I realized I’d been neglecting my husband the last few days, and when I looked into his face I could see a patient, tired look that made him look more like a father than a spouse. He’d never gotten close to Aunt Mary, and while he’d been supportive of my grief, I’d been able to tell that he couldn’t get any closer than a certain distance, and beyond that his support was based on his love for me, not for my aunt.
He grimaced tolerantly at me; a light push on my elbow suggested we should move a bit faster as the rain continued to worsen.
When we reached the car, Sam waited, still holding the umbrella over me, until I had gotten into the passenger’s side of Aunt Mary’s Escort before he moved around to the driver’s side. The passenger’s side door was heavy; the car was getting old, and the hinges weren’t what they used to be. It creaked mournfully as I pulled it shut.
As Sam walked around the front of the car, I looked absently at what had been my aunt’s dashboard. I would get the car, probably. The will hadn’t been read yet; it wouldn’t be read until next week. But I was my aunt’s only living relative, and so most of what had been hers would become mine, with the exception of some baubles that would go to friends. That was just as well.
All the same, the car still felt like Aunt Mary’s. I had the feeling that it would feel like that for quite a while, if not forever. It wasn’t a somber feeling; Aunt Mary wasn’t like that. It was more of a contented feeling, like Aunt Mary was still sitting in the backseat, looking out the window and smiling at the birds. Ever since I got my license, Aunt Mary had refused to drive, saying she preferred to watch the world as it passed by, not the world as you rushed into it. Driving had always bothered Aunt Mary, and it was a chore that she was just as soon done with when I got old enough to do it for her. For my part, I enjoyed the control involved in driving, and I usually drove, but today I was letting Sam take over. My grief was permitting me to let him baby me, a thing which I usually resented.
The drive home passed without incident. I was unaccustomed to sitting quietly and inactively while somebody else controlled my destination, but I sat silently nonetheless, solemnly waiting for the realizations to sink in. Never again would I come home from work to see my aunt rocking and doing her needlework. Never again would I taste her apple pie, made just right with a perfect mix of honey and sugar.
One thing I would not miss, though, were the prophesies. As I’ve already mentioned, they gave her a bad reputation around town. As for me, I didn’t like them too much myself. They tended to be too much on the dark and foreboding side; worse, they tended to be accurate. There is nothing particularly frightening about prophecies and acts of mind-reading that are wrong or unpredictable. The newspaper astrology reports, after all, are usually downright boring. Then again, newspaper reports can’t be expected to be all that accurate, applying as they do to one-twelfth of the population.
My aunt’s comments, though, were invariably accurate, or at least close. She once called the police on an emergency call because Harold Pinter had gotten trapped underneath a ladder while painting his house three miles away. He wouldn’t have died or anything, to be sure, but he surely would’ve been trapped there for a while. Of course, she’d been sitting at home with her knitting at the time, and had suddenly gotten a crick in her back where Mr. Pinter twisted his spine, and so she picked up the phone and called.
Such things make it hard to lie. Once I tried to sneak in after curfew, having gone out with some friends to watch a movie down at the drive-in, without the sound or the price of tickets, from a nearby hill. I think I was sixteen at the time; the movie had been X-rated and was hardly in need of sound. At any rate, she was asleep when I got home, but she’d left a note on my bed gently chastising me for wasting time I could’ve spent sleeping watching such irrelevant tripe.
I laughed, and noticed that I’d been crying.
The windshield wipers slurped as they pushed the rainwater out of the way.
Sam turned the car into the driveway of my aunt’s house, put the transmission in park, turned the engine off, and sat for a moment in silence, listening to what had become a hard rain slapping against the roof of the car. He pulled the keys out of the ignition, sighed, and, still looking at a non-descript spot of the steering wheel, said, “Are you ready?”
I shrugged and looked up at the house which loomed up over us, dark underneath the gray sky. I knew that Aunt Mary was still inside, cooking her apple pies and doing her needlework. I could feel her inside, if not in body, then in spirit. She had never gone. The sight of her house made me realize that.
“Yeah. I can make it,” I said at last, leaning forward to open my car door. At the cemetery, I had wanted to stay dry, to avoid every drop. Now I wanted the dance in the rain, feeling it bear down upon me, soaking me through. I wanted the tear off my clothing and dance naked in the torrents, to be free. My desire did not come from irreverent glee, but from a feeling that that was what Aunt Mary would have really wanted. She was that kind of person.
She had been that kind of person.
Instead, I demurely but firmly walked through the rain up to the porch, vaguely aware of Sam in the background. He unlocked the door, and we went in.
For the first time, Aunt Mary’s death seemed truly permanent. When she was lying at the hospital, still and lifeless, there was still a little bit of hope that somehow, something would happen that would bring her back. At the viewing, there had been a strange kind of non-permanence to it, with Aunt Mary lying in the middle of the funeral parlor in her Sunday best, just as if she was napping. And the funeral had been the worst, a blur and a flurry of traditional, meaningless words and symbolism.
Now, standing in the foyer of what had been Aunt Mary’s house, now at last things were beginning to feel final.
I heard another car pull into the drive. That would be Mr. Brewster. He’d said he’d come over for the night, to make sure I was all right. That’s what he’d said. To be honest, he didn’t want to be alone. He knew that Sam was perfectly capable of taking care of me and my emotional needs; it was his own that were lacking. Mr. Brewster had invited himself, but if he hadn’t, we would have, considering the circumstances.
My husband turned around to greet him, living me standing alone and dripping.
“Nate,” I heard him saying. “Come on in. We just got here ourselves.”
Not even taking my coat off, I flopped down onto the sofa. I stared into the cold fireplace for a second; a pile of ash stared back at me. To my left, Aunt Mary’s easy chair sat, empty and alone. I could feel its aura emanating out at me; rather, I could feel the lack of Aunt Mary’s aura. It was a lonely feeling. Then again, the entire house had a lonely feeling about it.
I looked over at the chair; I could almost make out Aunt Mary’s contours imprinted on the cushions. If she’d been there right now, she’d be chastising me for getting the sofa wet. “Goodness gracious,” she would have said, “we don’t live in a barn, you know. Get out of that coat already.”
I laughed sullenly, wiping the rain out of my hair.
“Honey,” Sam said to me as the door clattered shut behind Mr. Brewster. “Nate and I are going to make something up to eat. Are you hungry?”
I sighed. “I suppose I could use something.”
“Good. It shouldn’t be too long.” His voice faded as he turned towards the kitchen. “And, for goodness’ sake, take off that coat. We’re not living in a barn, you know.”
The reference was completely unconscious, but I laughed out loud anyway. It felt so good to laugh.
The easy chair smiled contentedly at me.
I awoke with a start, confused and not really remembering where I was. It took a second for me to acclimate to the light. I didn’t remembering falling asleep, but the crick in my neck told me that I had fallen asleep on the couch again. It was odd that Sam hadn’t woken me up for dinner; my stomach ached for food.
It was late at night; it was pitch black outside. Nonetheless, my eyes acclimated fairly quickly, so that I could see the details of the room around me. A few embers still burned in the fireplace, and I could feel the slight heat emanating from them. My senses seemed heightened, though. Normally I wouldn’t have been able to feel anything coming from those few dark red ashes at the back of the fireplace, near the blackened brick.
I could smell meat in the air. The remnant odors of dinner, I presumed. That and the quiet and darkness throughout the house led me to the conclusion that I had missed dinner. This was strange, I mused again: why hadn’t Sam woken me up?
This confusion made me angry, and I could hear my heart beating within my ears. I could feel the blood rushing within my veins, my very hot blood rushing throughout my body.
This wasn’t like me at all. I am usually such a calm and reserved person; that’s how my Aunt had always raised me to be. Quiet and unassuming.
I supposed it was probably the stress of the funeral, as well as my deep sense of hunger. I craved nothing more than to sink my teeth into a nice bloody hunk of meat, ripping the sinews and the muscle tissue apart, rending flesh from flesh with my razor-sharp canine teeth…
I shook my head. I was feeling very odd indeed, so incredibly hostile.
I supposed further that Sam had probably tried to wake me for dinner, but had been unsuccessful. That was certainly it. I had slept through his wake-up calls before. Most of the time I’m a pretty light sleeper, but on the few occasions that I slept soundly, I slept so very soundly that nothing short of a nuclear bomb falling in the bedroom could wake me up. I’d been up quite a bit lately, keeping vigil with Aunt Mary all night.
I looked over at the easy chair. In the darkness, it was eerily still. It no longer had the sense of comfort and contentment that it had had before; now it sat, stiff and foreboding, leering at me and resisting against the remnant impression of my Aunt.
I sighed heavily and stood up. For goodness’ sake, I was even still wearing my coat. The cushions were damp were I had been sitting, and I could smell a slight stench of mildew that was building up. My lip curled in a snarl against that smell.
I took off my coat and tossed it indifferently on the coffee table. Aunt Mary was no longer there to tell me to hang it up like a civilized person. Part of me missed the nagging; another part cheered at the liberation.
I didn’t like the attitude of the latter part. An attitude like that seemed incredibly rude considering how recently my aunt had passed on.
I wandered off towards the kitchen, following the odor of meat. Sam had been making meatloaf; at least, that’s what it smelled like. I could taste the odor; I could taste the succulent beef, the savory eggs, and the dry sandy bread crumbs. I could feel it within my saliva.
I moved within the darkness, sensing from memory and skill where the obstacles where and moving around them. I could see enough in the darkness to make my way, even though the darkness was almost total. I could feel the heat of the electricity surging through the walls; I could feel the chill of the ventilator shafts.
My goodness, what was coming over me? My head swam from the overwhelming sensations of the room; my head ached from the wealth of information which for some reason I always overlooked. I felt like a new person.
Although I wasn’t sure I liked this new person.
There was noise coming from the kitchen; this was odd, since the lights were off. Maybe Sam had gotten up for a midnight snack. That was good; he could help me cook something up for myself. I was weak from the hunger, and feeling hungrier as each wave of that delicious meatloaf aroma wafted towards me.
I turned into the kitchen and was surprised to see a familiar figure leaning over the stove. It wasn’t Sam or Mr. Brewster at all—it was my dear old Aunt Mary, back from the dead, and cooking me a snack.
I felt dizzy, dizzy enough to have to sit down at the kitchen table. My head spun, not just from the overwhelming sensations of food and heat, but also from the emotions of seeing her again.
Aunt Mary looked over at me and smiled warmly. Tried to smile, rather. I could tell there was a large degree of hesitation in that grin. She was nervous about something—I could smell the fear in her aroma.
“I’m making you a treat,” she said. “Something you’ve never had before.”
I squinted back at her, confused. The smell was definitely meatloaf. I’d had meatloaf before. “What’s so new about meatloaf?”
Aunt Mary grimaced. “This isn’t meatloaf.” She turned back to the pot she was cooking in, and I noticed that she was using the large stew pot. She never made meatloaf in the stewpot. “And I wish you didn’t want it.”
I furrowed my brow deeper. “What is it, then?”
“Something I’ve been keeping from you,” she said. I could taste the salt in her sweat; I could see her blood rushing through her scant body; I could hear her heart beating faster. “Something I’ve been taking care of for you.”
She tapped the wooden spoon she’d been stirring with against the side of the pot and picked up a pair of oven mitts, lifting the stewpot and lugging it over to a trivot on the kitchen table. “There. It’s done, and I’m too weak to keep it from you anymore.”
The first waves of the odor from the pot crept up my nostrils, which flared with delight. This wasn’t meatloaf; this was something more raw and savage, and the fibers of my soul rejoiced at the sensation. I could smell the ferrous salt of blood, and the deep rich aroma of fresh meat. My teeth ached in anticipation of sinking into this flavorful dish.
I lifted the fork that was on the table next to me and peered over into the pot.
Sam’s head, floating in a sea of his blood, stared back at me.
I screamed a scream which echoed through my soul.
I woke up with a start, feeling a hand on my shoulder. I jumped up from my sitting position, a shower of dampness following after me. In one fluid motion, I turned and assumed an attack position.
A bewildered Sam looked back at me. “The meatloaf’s ready. Are you o.k.?”
I looked around the room. It was just as it had been before I had fallen asleep, except a little darker, since the evening had advanced outside. I shook my head to clear it. “Sorry. Just a strange dream.”
“It’s no wonder, what with you sleeping in those wet clothes.” I looked down at myself; I was still wearing my coat. Sam wiped his hand on the dishtowel he was carrying. “It’s no matter, though. You can tell us about your dream over dinner.”
After a dream like that, I would have thought that I’d had little appetite for food. But I found myself remarkably hungry at the mention of Sam’s meatloaf. I took off my coat and laid it down on the coffee table. Thinking again, I picked it up and carried it over to the closet.
The easy chair smiled hesitantly but contentedly back at me.
The meatloaf was, in fact, surprisingly good. With Mr. Brewster’s help, Sam had outdone himself, and had almost outdone Aunt Mary, bless her dear soul. The corn was just the canned stuff. The apple pie, a gift from Ms. Nealy, the wife of the owner of Pete’s Place and another of Aunt Mary’s few friends, was pretty good, although I didn’t particularly like the walnuts. The raisins were nice and plump, and the apples, a bit off season, were appropriately understated.
I preoccupied myself with little details about the food to avoid thinking about the dream, but nonetheless that final image—that of Sam’s severed head looking up at me from within the stewpot—remained burned onto my mental retina. I looked down at the husk of crust that was left of my piece of pie and tried to block out the image, but the harder I thought about, the more fixed it became.
“So,” Mr. Brewster began, pushing himself in situ in his chair away from the table. His commencement being thrown out, he proceeded to take his pipe out of his pocket, packing it with the tobacco that he kept in a zippered leather case and lighting it. He sucked thoughtfully several times on it, the mouthpiece clacking against his teeth. “Tell me about this dream.”
I related the dream as clearly and in as much detail as I could remember. Pieces of it were already gone, but the finest details of the gory finalé remained in full, rich color. Periodically during the retelling I would look up at Sam or at Mr. Brewster, but primarily I stared down at my plate, like a naughty little girl who’d been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Mr. Brewster would occasionally push me for more details, and his pose was more often that of a psychoanalyst’s than that of a friend’s.
At the end of it, he sucked thoughtfully on his pipe, clouds of rich velvety smoke filling the silent room. Sam stared absently down at his plate; the thought of his own head in a state such as in my dream clearly bothered him, and I couldn’t say as I blamed him: it bothered the Hell out of me, too.
Mr. Brewster nodded slowly and silently, looking disappointed but hardly surprised. “Your Aunt said this would happen, and I didn’t believe her.”
He left it at that, and the room fell uncomfortably silent again.
“Said what would happen?” Sam said at last. “C’mon Nate, don’t get wierd on us.”
Mr. Brewster looked at him. “Now, you know that Mary was a psychic woman. She could sense things that other people couldn’t, and sometimes they were dark things. She told me before she died, though, that there were some things so dark that she had to take much of her energy to control them, to keep them from coming to fruition.” He stopped and looked at me. He was considering every word carefully; he hadn’t believed Aunt Mary, and so it was clear that he didn’t think we’d believe him.
“Nate, don’t you give us this psychic crap, too,” Sam said harshly. “Sometimes things that Mary said turned out to be true. So what? What’s this got to do with a dream?”
Mr. Brewster knocked the ash in his pipe out onto his dessert plate and looked at me, long and hard, again. “We all have dark sides. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. But,” he turned to Sam, “some of our dark sides are darker than others. Mary thought it best to try to control those dark sides.”
“Nate, I’m going to say this once more, and clearer: Be straight with us, or shut up.”
Mr. Brewster turned away from the table and looked out the window, into the cloudless night sky. “The moon’s nearly full. Only a few days yet.”
Sam sat forward suddenly and put his hand on Mr. Brewster’s shoulder. “Nate—”
Mr. Brewster turned viciously and quickly. “No. Not with her here.” The pronoun was spoken with a noticeable quantity of icicles. He darted a quick glance over at me, and then looked back out the window, chewing idly on the end of his unlit pipe.
I felt scared then, scareder than I’d ever felt before. But it was clear that nothing more would be coming from Mr. Brewster tonight, and so I began gathering the plates together.
Sam put his hand on mine, still looking angrily over at Mr. Brewster. “You’re tired, honey. You should go off to bed. We’ll take care of the dishes.”
I began to protest, but grudgingly obliged.
Sensations came piecemeal:
Cold. Tired. Lurking in the rain like a starving savage. Hungry.
The moon was shining brightly, shining with all its might.
It was nearly full. I looked up at with my cold, hungry eys. It leered down at me, tauntingly. There was something within it, something evil.
(No, there is something within you, dear, Aunt Mary said, leaning back into her easy chair. She was knitting; she liked to knit.)
My stomach ached from emptiness. I couldn’t remember how I came to be here, crouching in the alleyway, the rain drilling down upon my head, my hair slicked down all around my frozen head.
There was a stench of rotting food; in the moonlit darkness, I could see a group of dumpsters on the other side of the alleyway. The stench was overpowering, but behind the stench, there was an odor even stronger, one that made my stomach ache more. I could feel the saliva building up in my mouth as my nostrils took in the savory odor.
I looked back up at the moon, but it was hiding behind a cloud. The rain beat against my face, prompting me to pull my coat closer around me.
There was the noise of movement within the alley. I didn’t recognize the alleyway, and even more so, I didn’t expect this noise. My eyes darted around, trying to find the source of the noise. There were other people here; I could see that now. Only these people looked like they belonged here. Homeless people? There weren’t homeless people in Summersport. People took care of each other in Summersport (more or less, more than in the typical town, I suppose).
Where was I?
I tried to make out any details of the buildings around me that might give me a hint as to my whereabouts. But the backs of the buildings in the alleyway were bland and non-descript. There were windows and doors, with the requisite wiring and fencing, but there were no signs or addresses that were readable in the night, even with the moon as bright as it was.
I was becoming terrified now—I didn’t know where I was, or how I’d gotten here, or even what day it was. My head hurt with confusion; something was terribly wrong. My head spun like that one time I’d had too much wine (was it really four glasses?) at Mr. Brewster’s. Aunt Mary and I had gone over for Thanksgiving dinner. That was before Sam and I had become enough of a couple to be formally recognized as such, and so once in a while Aunt Mary and I did things on our own. Sam had had dinner with his own family that Thanksgiving, and that darling Mr. Brewster had invited us over to share the day.
A flashlight beam brought me back to reality. It filled my line of vision completely and burned into my retinas. “You there!” a voice behind it said. “Move along! This isn’t a hotel!”
I covered my face, trying to hide from the light. I felt fear swelling up within me, and then the fear began to turn to rage as I fought an urge to attack the light.
“Did you hear me? Are you deaf? Move along now!” The voice was wavering. “Or I’ll call the police!”
My skin was cold, but underneath, my blood was hot, hotter than I’d ever felt it before. (Simply not natural, Aunt Mary said, adjusting the knitwork on her lap. You’ll have to control it on your own now.)
“I have a gun, and I’ll use it if I have to. We don’t want vagrants sleeping back here. We run a respectable business.”
I couldn’t hear him getting his gun out, although I could see it, in the black shadow behind the flashlight. I couldn’t hear anything; the blood was beating in my ears too loudly. The rain still poured down upon me.
The air ripped open as a noise loud enough to overcome the beating of my heart in my ears tore through the night; a flash ten times as bright as the flashlight disrupted the night calm. “That’s a warning shot,” the voice shouted, filled now with an insecure bravado. “The next one’s for real.”
I could no longer control my irrational rage. I lunged forward in a fluid movement that disguised my own disorientation. A second blast tore through the night, and I felt my shoulder explode, but I continued my attack, bringing my hand up and swinging it down, my fingernails becoming longer as my pendular arm flew through the air. The pain in my shoulder was unbearable, but still I attacked. My outstretched fingers met up with their target, and the flashlight went skittling into the dark recesses of the alleyway, its spiraling motion illuminating the rain in a shower of sparkles.
My other arm swept down in the opposite direction. There was a third blast, a panicked shot that tore through my hand. But I could no longer sense the pain. My rage had become total. I could sense the other people in the alley running away, running for cover, but I was too occupied to see where they were going.
There was a sickly sweet sound of flesh being torn apart as my right hand met its mark. The man who’d had the flashlight screamed in confusion as his chest was torn apart by my surprisingly mighty blow. He tried to fall backward, away from me, but the inertia of my swing cast him into the brick wall next to us.
I could see the redness of the fresh blood flowing from his new wounds, and I loved the deep red color that it glistened under the rain-soaked moon. I looked up at the moon, and this time it was smiling contentedly, its work having been done. (I’m making you a treat. Aunt Mary looked solemnly down at the red yarn that she was knitting with. And I wish you didn’t want it.)
Cold and hungry, standing in the rain, in the cold, cold rain, my coat plastered against my body. I felt a powerful sensuality, an erotic feeling that I’d never had before, standing there over my kill, his red blood mixing with the dirty water which had washed through the dumpster.
My stomach ached with the craving for meat, and once again I smelled that odor I had smelled over the stench of the dumpsters, that succulent smell of a delicious hot meal waiting for me, waiting for my sharp teeth to rip into it. That odor was lying here before me, in a delicious salty pool of his own blood.
I moved towards the kill, my gut aching for the hot, fresh morsels of meat it was about to encounter. I slowly licked my lips as I approached the slumped figure and bent over it.
I don’t know where it came from, but there was a fourth gun blast which broke through the air. I felt my consciousness collapse as the bullet ripped into my skull, tearing my brain asunder.
And everything went black.
I woke up with a start. I was sitting on the couch, my wet raincoat still on.
The last few embers were still glowing red in the fireplace. I could hear Sam and Mr. Brewster talking in the next room, although they seemed a million miles away. I could tell that they were talking, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. This was strange; usually I could hear them perfectly from this distance.
I looked over at Aunt Mary’s easy chair; I could sense her presence.
I was only slightly surprised to see her sitting there, working on a red knitted sweater.
“Am I losing my mind?” I asked tentatively.
“Whatever makes you say that, dear?” Aunt Mary said patiently and clamly.
Suddenly a thought overcame me: what if I’d dreamt Aunt Mary’s death? What if, in all of these strange dreams, that had been just another nightmare?
“That was no nightmare, dear. I am dead. I just wanted to know why you thought you were losing your mind.”
The urge to laugh overcame me, and so I did. The laugh was filled with stress, and with confusion about the obvious irony. Sane people don’t normally talk to ghosts.
Aunt Mary sighed. “That’s not true at all. Sane people just don’t acknowledge that they talk to those of us who have passed into the Summerland. Life is just one of many states of mind, one of many planes of existence.”
I looked at her soberly. “What’s going on, Aunt Mary?”
“I should have told you long ago. I was foolish to think that I could control it for you. I mean, nobody lives forever, and you needed to be told. Maybe, with more warning, you could have learned to control it.”
Control what? I always prided myself of being in full control of myself. I can take care of myself. I was insulted at the concept that all this time, Aunt Mary had been controlling me. I was no longer a child.
“I’m aware of that, and I’m sorry. It’s just that sometimes, it’s hard to let go.”
“What’s going on?” I asked again.
“Your mother had learned to control it, and hers before her, and back before that. She told me about it after she died, but I didn’t know how to teach you. Your mother should have, but she never had the chance. So rather than teach you, I just used my psychic gifts to keep it from ever coming to surface.”
“We all have a dark side,” a new voice said. I turned to the doorway and saw my mother standing there, standing in the white dress she’d been buried in. “We all have a dark side,” she said again. “It’s just that some are darker than others.”
I stood up and moved towards her, but the sudden unexpected movement made my head fill with numbness, and I passed out on the rug at my mother’s feet.
I woke up with a start.
I was lying in the bed, alone. Sam and Mr. Brewster were downstairs talking, although I couldn’t hear what they were talking about. I had a strong feeling, at any rate, that it was me that they were discussing.
I was wearing a nightgown; somehow, in my exhaustion, I had managed to dress for sleep. It was late; nearly one o’clock. I wondered how long they’d been talking downstairs. The conversation sounded fairly calm, which was a nice change from the cold hostility that had been going on when I’d been sent upstairs after dinner.
I looked around the dark bedroom. I was lonely; I didn’t like waking up from nightmares all alone like this. I needed a hug something fiercesome, but I knew better than to interrupt the conversation going on before. I’d seen the look in Mr. Brewster’s eyes when Sam had pushed him to talk. I wasn’t welcome in this conversation.
It frustrated me, since I seemed to be the only one not to know what was going on. My anxiety leapt up in my chest again: maybe I had a brain tumor. That would explain these bizarre dreams.
But how would Aunt Mary know about something like that? I hadn’t been in for a physical since Sam and I got married.
What else could it be, though?
I drifted off to sleep again, holding the blankets up against my neck. I slept through the night, miraculously. When I woke up the next morning, Sam was by my side, and everything seemed right in the world again.
For the most part, during the course of the day, everything was all right in the world again. The mundanities of life began to creep in again as the unhealthily short American period of mourning began to fade. I had a few brief fits of depression, remembering that it was over, that I would never see Aunt Mary (alive) again. One time, puttering around in the kitchen, I felt faint and had to steady myself. But, for the most part, everything was all right in the world again.
Perhaps, I began to think, maybe the dreams had just been the result of too much stress. Certainly that was it—I’d never lost anyone as close as Aunt Mary before, at least not since my parents died. And I was too young to have a real good memory of that.
I satisfied myself with that explanation for most of the day. At any rate, none of the problems recurred, and as long as they didn’t come back, I didn’t really care what the cause of them was.
But then the sun set, and dusk came, and with it, the problems began anew.
It started when we were watching the evening news. Normally, we didn’t, but I had felt strangely compelled to do so. My dream about the alleyway had seemed so real, and had it really happened, the incident was grisly enough to attract the vultures at the news, especially considering what a sleepy county we lived in. It was silly, I knew, but if I watched the news, and there was no mention of a dead guard (as I knew there wouldn’t be), then I would be satisfied that my insanity, at any rate, was entirely within my own head.
The lead story was about a security guard out in Juniper, five miles south of Summersport, who’d died horribly, having had his chest pulled apart and his skull crushed against the brick. Police suspected a sizable animal, perhaps a large dog, like a Pinscher or a Shepherd.
My heart sank into the space which had been vacated by my gut in its own southward migration. My brain searched for logical explanations. First, of course: coincidence. Sure, it was a strong coincidence. But such things could happen. Second: just because I saw it happen doesn’t mean it had anything to do with me. Maybe I’d had a psychic vision: Time-Life books had a whole series of books on that sort of thing, didn’t they? “A woman in Baton Rouge feels pain in her wrist as her sister in Cheboygan has her right hand severed in a work injury… A boy in Topeka refuses to board an airplane because of the unbearable heat, and the plane goes down in flames an hour later… Fourteen people call the FBI with identical, accurate details of the President’s assassination, two days before it happens…” Just because I saw it doesn’t mean I caused it.
But the sweat on my forehead wasn’t drying. And the glare on Sam’s face, looking at me as if he was looking at some savage, savage creature he’d never seen before, the disgusted look reserved for the homeless, the handicapped, and the diseased, that glare didn’t ease my fear.
The easy chair settled itself, looking at me like a helpless child trying to see someone see the painful truth.
“Thought becomes form,” Aunt Mary had often said. “Be careful what you think, it could come true.” Aunt Mary was not known for her philosophy, but those convictions that she did hold she held with a religious fervor that was not to be argued with.
I looked back at the television, which had indifferently gone on to a cat food commercial.
I shook my head, which was beginning to buzz again, but it wouldn’t clear.
I looked back at Sam, whose glare had softened only slightly. What had Mr. Brewster told him about me?
I looked out the window. The moon would be full tomorrow night. Why was that important?
The dream was longer than this, much longer, but this is all I can remember:
Running. Hungry. Wet.
The smell of musty fur filled my nostrils. My face felt different; my body felt different.
I was running from something. I was scared, and very alone. Hot blood coursed through my veins and arteries, looking for a heart that was beating much too quickly.
The gun fired again. I skittled around a corner. This was not the same alley as before; the gun was louder and more powerful. This was a policeman, I felt, not just a security guard. This was a real gun, with real bullets, perhaps even hollow-tipped jobs. This bastard meant business.
(Pardon my language. I’m not used to being this hostile. None of us are used to what we have had to experience of late, Aunt Mary said, putting her knitting down for a second and looking up at me. Not at all.)
I ducked down behind a trash can, hoping he would pass me by. I could smell his sweat as he approached. He was as afraid of me as I was of him, maybe more so.
I knew that the only way out of this situation was to attack. I didn’t want to attack, but I had too. He’d cornered me, and he would shoot me, regardless of his fear, or perhaps because of it. He didn’t understand me; I could sense this in his aura. And because of this, he wanted to destroy me.
He came around the corner I had skittled around, running full tilt and then slamming to a stop. Like me, he was on foot. (“Foot” dear? Take a look at yourself. Aunt Mary wrapped the yarn around the needle as she continued her knitting.) He was looking for me; he was confused that I’d disappeared. I could sense all of this in my fiber—my smell, my hearing, even my taste told me these things.
He saw the trash can. In my mind I could see myself at a distance, cowering behind the can with him stalking it. His gun was outstretched before him at a distance which made it unstable—if he needed to fire, he wouldn’t be able to get off a clean shot.
When I sensed that he would come no closer without beginning to aim, I made my move, lunging upwards and toward him with all my strength, pushing up with my back legs, which bent and twisted in ways I didn’t know they could bend. I caught him on the shoulder as he tried in vain to block my attack with his unarmed arm. We twisted together in a gory tango, his arm wrapped around my waist, my teeth sinking into his shoulder, my mouth filling with his salty heat. We feel as one to the ground, and my hip hit his gun, knocking it out of his hand as it fired a pointless bullet across the concrete. The sound pierced my ears, which flattened back in agony. I whimpered, swinging my paw upward and pulling his cheek apart as his head hit the concrete.
I enjoyed the sense of his blood dripping from my fangs, my hair stuck to my cheeks with his hot terror. His flesh tasted good, and I satisfied my hunger, filling up on his body before I scampered off into the night.
I woke up with a start.
It was one in the morning. The red LED on the clock told me that.
Sam was sitting in a chair at the end of the bed. He’d been watching me; I could tell that. But he’d fallen asleep standing guard. He was concerned, but he was scared, too—he didn’t know what to make of my behavior, and probably what to make of what Mr. Brewster had told him. Had Mr. Brewster been as obscure with him as Aunt Mary (or my visions of her) had been with me, or had he been straightforward?
The thing that I hated the most was the secrecy, the code. Not that I needed anything straightforward now: it was becoming obvious to me. The word werewolf seemed so corny (and, as point of fact, etymologically incorrect for a female), but I didn’t know what else could be going on. That left unanswered questions, of course, but there was no logical solution that was even vaguely applicable.
I got up and went to the bathroom. I took a long, serious look at myself in the mirror. Nothing about me had changed. I still had my simple face, my long hair, my brown eyes, my typical American smalltown-girl body. I was so completely average, and my reflection showed it. What had changed so horribly that I could not control it?
Everybody has their dark side, after all, it’s just that some are darker than others.
I looked in the mirror again. A wolf stared back.
I screamed. And screamed. And screamed.
This will never do, my mother said. No fear. Accept and change.
I woke up with a start. I was losing track of when I was awake and when I was asleep.
Sam jumped up. He’d been sitting on a chair at the foot of the bed, watching me sleep; he’d fallen asleep, too.
I looked over at the clock. 1:10. The worst part had passed; I could feel that. The worst part was over for tonight.
But tomorrow night was the first night of the full moon.
“What’s going on, Sam?” I asked over an uneasy lunch.
He looked down at his plate and shrugged. “Nothing. You’re just having stressful dreams, that’s all. They’ll fade with time.”
“What did Mr. Brewster tell you about me?”
Sam looked out the window absently. “Nothing. Just talk, stuff your Aunt said. You know her. She was crazy. No offense, but she was.”
“Come on, Sam, it’s important, you know that. Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m not lying.”
“Then look me in the eyes and tell me nothing’s wrong.”
He turned his head towards me slowly and looked deep into my eyes. “I can tell you honestly that I didn’t believe a word of it. And, besides, I think you know it all anyway.”
“I know. But I want to hear you say it. I feel like I’m going insane.”
He looked down at his plate. “Maybe you are. Maybe we all are.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He sighed and slouched down in his chair, thinking agitatedly for a few minutes. Finally, he got up and went out into the living room He came back a minute later, his hand clutched around something.
“There,” he said, slamming it down on the table. “Mr. Brewster gave me that.”
He moved his hand. It was a gun. Nothing fancy, but enough to do a reasonable job on something. Or someone. “What’s that for?”
“Don’t shit me, honey. You know what it’s for. I had it under the chair last night when I was watching you sleep.”
“Mr. Brewster gave it to you?”
“He said it has three bullets. Ten guesses what they’re made of. I’m supposed to use them on you, close range, the second you shift, that is, when you become… that… thing.” The last words were spoken was an increasing amount of hesitant disgust.
I stared at the gun silently. “But what if I don’t shift? What if that’s all wrong? I think I might have killed two people already, and I never even left the house.”
“Your Aunt said you’ll shift. She said your mother only shifted on the actual full moon.”
“But she controlled it.”
“But she knew how.”
I stared at the gun in silence again, then suddenly burst out laughing. “Oh, Sam, don’t you hear us? This is so incredibly corny. This isn’t some Saturday afternoon thriller. This is real life. There are no werewolves in real life.”
Sam looked silently at the gun. “I hope not. Because then I won’t have to use that.”
I looked at it again. It seemed so cold, so inhuman. Such a final, decisive solution. You don’t know how to control something, so just blow it off to Armageddon.
But I was the thing to be blown off to eternity.
“Am I supposed to know you have that?” I asked at last.
“No.” Sam looked at me, and for the first time since the evening news, love began to show through the fear and disgust. “Honey, I don’t want to have to use that.”
I looked back at him. “I know.” I looked back at the gun. “I know.”
There are two things that can happen when you’re waiting for something to happen, good or bad. Time can roll along like molasses in February, like rubber cement out of the jar, so that the second hand on the clock ticks each second away laboriously, making each swing of its needle seem more laborious. Or time can fly by like Jesse Owens in Berlin, laughing at your attempts to make it slow down. On this day in particular, time did the latter. The day was a blur, and no sooner had the sun come up in the east than it began to sink in the west.
We didn’t bother to watch the news that night. We knew what the lead story would be. At least, I did. Sam took my word for it. Instead, we sat, watching the clock as the second hand maniacally whirled around. We were mentally preparing ourselves for… what? Tonight was the first night of the full moon, and it was supposed to rise high and brightly this month. To make things worse, the day had been cloudless, and the night continued to show a lack of clouds. It was only eight, and the sun had not yet completely set, but already the moon was shining sulkily, Because she thought the sun Had got no business to be there After the day was done—‘It’s very rude of him,’ she said, ‘To come and spoil the fun!’
I shook my head: I was beginning to feel my consciousness slip, to become less cohesive.
I looked around the room slowly. We were in the living room. I was sitting on the couch, and Sam was sitting in his chair, opposite Aunt Mary’s. He was watching me with rapt attention, like one would watch a rattlesnake that could strike, or could do nothing at all.
Aunt Mary’s chair looked at me with a similar rapt attention, although one that was not quite so untrusting. Pitying, but not untrusting. Yes: that was it. Aunt Mary, beyond the veil, was looking down on me with the same pitying eyes that she used to look at me with in life, when I was a child and she thought I was asleep in my bed. I had always attributed the pity with that reserved for orphans, but now I wondered if she’d known all along. (If she’d been controlling it all along.)
Aunt Mary was sitting there, in her chair, knitting that same red thing that she’d been knitting ever since she’d (died).
I shook my head, and she was gone.
But it had begun. It was beginning. It would begin.
I could feel it within my blood. My sense were heightening. I could smell things that I hadn’t been able to before. I could smell the steel and silver of the gun and bullets that Sam had. I could smell the sweat that was trickling down his forehead. I could smell his (fear).
I shook my head, and it was gone.
But it had begun. It was beginning. It would begin.
I could taste it within my mouth. My saliva was rich with flavor, the flavor of the things around me in the room. The taste of the hot wood burning in the fireplace, the taste of the hot blood pumping within Sam’s veins, the taste of his warm flesh and …
I clenched my fists. Waves of pain and frustration were sweeping over me. There was something not quite myself swelling up within me, something that made me feel (weak) weakened.
I started to breath heavily as I tried to control myself, as I tried to force whatever it was within me back down into the recesses of my soul.
I looked out the window. The sun was still shining, Shining with all his might. He did his very best to make The billows smooth and bright—And this was odd, because it was The middle of the night.
I closed my eyes and shook my head.
The feeling remained.
Against the back of my closed lids, images danced. Images of wolves, bent over their prey, ripping flesh from bone, blood spurting high up into the sky, fur matted with the stench of death.
And I felt myself getting hungry. The gore that played itself in graphic detail against my eyelids made me feel overcome with nausea, but at the same time, I hungered.
I looked back at Sam, who was still watching me. The gun was beside him, just within reach, on the end table. He was not ready to use it; we both knew it. But he had to use it—why else would Aunt Mary have insisted so fervently that he have it? Mr. Brewster could just have well used it.
Accept and change.
Mother had said that. But what the Hell did it mean?
I looked back out the window, and the last rays of the sun were disappearing over the horizon. I watched them go, plaintively, the last rays holding on to the horizon like a suicide who has decided too late not to jump from the ledge after all, that life is too beautiful to just throw away like that over a broken heart or a broken bankbook.
And then the pain swept over me. I doubled over, holding my gut, trying to force it back, but it was no use. No… damn… use…
(‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!’)
I sat up straight in my chair.
The prey moved before me. I could smell its fear, filling my nostrils with sweat aromas. I flared my nostril to take in the whole of the sensation.
It moved, but it was too terrified to move much. There was a gun next to it, a gun that it wanted to use on me! On me!
Foolish prey. It did not know power when it saw it. True power.
I could have snapped its neck in an instant. But I was enjoying its fear too much. It was a delicious toy, squirming there before me on its chair, a child sitting, waiting for the Principal, the Principal with the fangs ten feet long, the Principal that lives under the bed and eats small children like bits of popcorn.
But I faded from within. Something pulled me back down.
(‘Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!’)
For a moment, I knew where I was. I was sitting in the living room, looking at Sam. And then it was gone again. I was gone again.
(And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,)
Bastard! My head exploded in pain. At once, I was everything and nothing.
Colors danced around me like Dervishes. My teeth ached.
A shadow shaped like Sam had moved toward me, holding a shadow shaped like a gun out in front of it.
The prey had challenged me.
How dare the prey challenge me?
The shadow shaped like Sam was thrown against the wall, an annoying little mosquito. An annoying little pest.
The shadow gun skittered into the bathroom.
(Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!)
Aunt Mary and my mother stood, arm in arm, looking sadly at me. They could do nothing now but watch, and hope that everything would turn out all right.
Must… control… cohesiveness…
The tangy savory taste of blood wafted up slowly from the prey. It wasn’t dead, and it was far from dying. That made the flavor of the blood that much more tantalizing.
I inhaled it deeply, satisfied that the struggle (from without) was over.
(One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!)
Concentrate. Concentrate on something. Must retain control.
Accept and change.
No fear. No fear. No fear.
My fists were clenched, and my claws bit into my fur.
I stumbled over to the bathroom and looked down at the shadow of the gun.
Aunt Mary and Mother watched in cautious anticipation.
The prey moved stubbornly in the corner where it had been thrown.
(He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.)
I picked up the gun. It was no shadow, it was real, very real, and the cold steel chilled my fingers to the bone.
Silver! I recoiled from the gun: I could feel the death within it.
Silver: I held the gun. I knew there was only one thing for me to do, only one thing left for me to do.
(‘And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!’)
I looked into the bathroom mirror. The face that looked back was not my own: it was a long face, a furry face, with cold, untrusting eyes that tried their best to look brave and fearless.
The prey moved in the corner of the Shadowlands. It was becoming stronger… I had to kill it before it killed me.
Part of me tried to turn back into the living room.
Part of me tried to run.
Part of me wanted to scream, but no voice would come in this realtime nightmare.
Part of me leveled the gun and held it steady, a sweaty finger (claw) cramping as it poised over the trigger.
I looked straight into the mirror, deep into the mirror, into the canine face that I did not know, but that was a deep, frightening part of me. I looked deep into the mirror and spoke three simple words:
(‘O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
He chortled in his joy.)
And then my mind exploded, and everything went black in a cacophony of silence.
I don’t remember pulling the trigger, but I must have.
I woke up in a pile of glass, lying on the bathroom floor. It was morning, and my head hurt like anything.
I pushed myself up, cutting the palms of my hands as I did so. The pain was sharp and sudden, but nothing in comparison to the pounding in my head.
I looked down at the floor, and a thousand little copies of myself stared back at me. I had expected the mirror to shatter, but this was beyond my expectation. Then again, if I’d slept on the broken glass, I probably broke it more.
I stood up, and a rainstorm of mirror shards tinkled to the floor. I looked at the door to the medicine chest, now mirrorless and perforated with three holes. I opened the door, and although it hurt my head, I had to laugh. Three amber plastic medicine bottles has exploded, leaving a multicolored dust of Aunt Mary’s medication throughout the cabinet.
I turned when I heard a sudden noise. It was Sam, leaning against the doorway, holding his shoulder.
“Are you o.k.?” I asked, looking with concern at the blood-stained streaks under his fingers.
“It’s nothing. Barely broke the skin. My shoulder might be dislocated, but that’s nothing.” He looked at me half-concerned, half-suspicious. “Are you o.k.?”
I looked back at the medicine cabinet. “Now I am. Now, I do believe I am.”
That was four months ago, and that was the worst incident. It’s becoming easier to control each month. Sometimes I still have bad dreams. It’s nice to think that there would only be that one incident, and then it would be over, but life doesn’t work that way. I have a problem. I deal with it. To my knowledge, my dreams haven’t killed anyone since those first two. And my dreams get less and less serious each month.
I wish I could say it was all over, and perhaps, for the most part, it is. I’ve won: I know that much. I don’t even understand what it is inside of me: I’m not sure my mother understood, or her mother before her.
Or that my daughter will understand, when I have one.
We all have our dark sides, I suppose. It’s just that some are darker than others.