The White Wolf

They say that on a certain moonlit night in the fall of the year, the fog creeps over the hill, and a white wolf appears, its coat resplendent in the light of the full moon. Its intelligent eyes scan the horizon for that one lone soul who has had the misfortune to be outside on this night. Stealthily creeping ahead of the advancing fog, it lopes just out of sight of the unsuspecting victim until, seizing the opportunity, it pounces and grapples with its prey, finally dragging it back into the forest.
They say it requires a sacrifice.

Jed had heard the stories. He scoffed. He smirked. He may be a cattle man, but he subscribed to Scientific American and prided himself on not falling prey to the superstition of the rest of the country folk.

His wife had met with the ladies at the local library and had heard the rumors of a white wolf. She had come to him, worried, begging him to not go out at night. He had laughed at her. She had begged him to take a gun. Well, if it would make her feel better, he had said.

Jed was picking up a load of feed when he ran into Hiram Lowell. He related the story told to his wife and asked about the rumored wolf.

“Well, yeh might not want to throw caution to the wind,” stated old Hiram, matter-of-factly. “There are things that go on in these parts that can’t be explained away.”

Jed just smiled and shook his head. These old-timers were all foam and no beer.

That night Jed’s wife was working on a quilt for her granddaughter as she watched Wheel of Fortune. The tidy house smelled of pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie. More pumpkins were piled by the front door. The moon rising over the hill cast shadows in the cornfield, its light a cold, shadowy reflection of the warm sun’s rays. Jed stepped into the crisp, autumn night and walked down the country road, his dog Baxter by his side. His gun remained on the rack above the door.

Jed thought he would show these country bumpkins that their rumored wolf was just a story, nothing more. He and his trusty dog would walk this country road, looking for any signs, tracks, or fresh kills. He gave a momentary thought to the gun on the rack at home. Oh, well. You can’t fight a mythical creature with a gun, anyway. You fight this kind of thing with reason – proof. As he crested the hill, he saw the fog rising on the other side. He stood there for a moment, admiring the countryside in the pale moonlight.

Then Baxter stiffened. A low growl gurgled in his throat. His hackles stood on end.

Jed peered into the fog. His eyesight wasn’t what it used to be. In the distance, cows bellowed. He turned on his flashlight and aimed it toward the fog. Two eyes reflected back at him, then disappeared.

Jed had a sudden burst of unexpected fear. Turning toward home, he imagined he heard rusting on either side of him in the tall grass. Soon, the fog caught up with him, caressing and teasing him as it passed. Baxter barked once, ferociously, then bolted toward the house, leaving Jed standing in the middle of the road, only a hundred yards from the house.

He started to run He heard a rustling in the grass and turned just in time to see a flash of white fur and a gaping mouth full of sharp, polished teeth headed straight for him.

Craaaaack!

Just as he was raising his arm to fend off the creature, it yelped and swung around in mid-air, landing in a heap just feet from him. Glaring up at him, it snarled and picked itself up, then loped into the fog, dragging a bloody forefoot.

He burst into the doorway of his house and grabbed his gun off the rack. The damn thing was hot! He looked back at his wife, peacefully sewing by the fire.

The next day at the feed store, Hiram Lowell sat in his pickup. Jed walked over to relay the news of the previous night, but stopped, confused, when Hiram met his gaze with sharp, glinting eyes. Then the old man smiled, showing polished canines.

That’s when Jed noticed the thick, gauze bandage on Hiram’s forearm.

© shocky Photo provided by Grammar Ghoul Press

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Stranded

Adrian ran his fingers along the side of a 1936 Buick. The deep burgundy paint gleamed in the pale light of the full moon. He counted five classic cars gloriously lining the frosty gravel drive. Notes of music crackled from the house, mixed with titters of laughter and clinking dishes. He looked at Amber, shivering in her parka, hands shoved deep in her pockets. At least someone was awake at this late hour.

Adrian knocked on the door.The music stopped, and the door was thrown open wide, emitting a burst of warm air that enveloped Amber. She drew closer to the radiant heat.

“Good evening,” boomed the voice of a stout gentleman. “How can we help you folks this fine evening?”

Amber peered around him. Two women talked and laughed in the background. Their white satin gowns shimmered with the slightest movement, and their short hair bobbed as they laughed. Amber thought of an old Clark Gable movie she had seen as a child. They must be having a themed party. How quaint to find such a thing here, in the middle of nowhere. She shivered.

“Oh, James,” called a melodic voice from within. “Invite our guests in out of the cold.”

“Of course,” boomed James. “Won’t you come in?”

“Maybe just for a moment, just to warm up,” Adrian said. Amber nodded, grateful for the warmth.

“Not many people travel our road since the freeway went in. We don’t see many strangers these days,” James explained.

The two stepped over the threshold and into another world. Elegant couples peppered the room. Candlelight shimmered and flickered, reflected in polished silver.

“What brings you folks out at this hour,” James asked.

“Our car slid off the road up above,” Adrian explained. “We just wondered if you had a phone. We don’t get cell service out here.”

“Of course. I’ll get ’em on the horn,” James replied, entering an opulent study. “Please join us while you wait.”

Amber noticed two women watching her mysteriously, slipping each other glances. She pulled her jacket closer around her despite the heat. A man started playing a ragtime song on the piano. More people arrived, also dressed in strange, old clothing. Amber glanced at Adrian, who just shrugged.

A young maid looked around nervously as she came from the kitchen balancing trays piled with food, then quickly scampered back, avoiding all eye contact. Everyone gathered around the table, feasting on roast duck, vegetables and pumpkin soup. James walked to the cupboard and returned with a bottle and some small glasses. Eyebrows raised.

“Anyone ready for some moonshine?” he asked, smiling beguilingly.

There was a flurry of activity as guests claimed small glasses.

Adrian and Amber looked at each other. The moon must have descended over the frosty hill. Through the darkness the wispy tendrils of morning were probing the sky.

“We should go up and see about that tow truck,” Adrian said.

“Of course, of course,” said James, patting him on the back. “Must get to where you’re going, mustn’t you. Life doesn’t wait while we party.”

They shook hands and said their goodbyes, then trudged up the hill. They found the Prius hooked up to a tow truck and being pulled out of the ditch.

“Thank God for answering services, eh?” Adrian said to the mechanic.

The mechanic looked at him oddly.

“We called early this morning,” Adrian added.

“We didn’t get no call,” said the mechanic. “Trucker said there was an abandoned car out here, so I came to get it. Been sitting here for days.”

“That’s impossible,” Adrian said, baffled. “We just went off the road last night. No cell service, so we called from the house down there.”

As he pointed to the house, a chill went up his spine. Amber clenched his arm in a vice grip. The fingers of sunlight that were teasing over the hills revealed a dilapidated shack, the shiny Buick now a rusted heap.

The mechanic stared. “The old Shepard place? Ain’t no one lived there for over seventy-five years. Big party got outta hand one night. Old man Shepard killed his guests, then offed himself. Locals won’t go anywhere near.” He unhooked the Prius.

Adrian paid the man. As they took to the road, they passed by the old house. Looking at it, Amber let out a cry. Through a darkened kitchen window she could clearly see the face of the anxious maid, hand on the pane, wide eyes meeting hers.

Photo courtesy of Grammar Ghoul Press

Fifteen

Photo courtesy of Grammar Ghoul Press

The cake sat on the table, candles burning to the nubs. The festive, edible confetti covering the top of the cake suggested hope, but the yelling from the other room was not promising.

A door slammed in the distance, rattling the old house, wavy glass windows shuddering at the disturbance.

Grace returned, tears streaming down her face. The house seemed to fold around her as darkness fell outside. The streamers and balloons lining the small dining room danced slowly overhead in the drafts from the windows. Some of the candles had burned out. She blew out the others, leaving the cake in the middle of the cheap, plastic tablecloth.

She sat in the semi-darkness. If someone had told her things would be like this, she might have made a different choice. She shuddered and retracted the last thought superstitiously. They were just going through tough times, she told herself. Things would get better.

She surveyed the room. Behind the cheery balloons and crepe paper streamers, the walls were covered with school pictures and awards. In the secondhand china cabinet, a baby picture stood proudly between tiny, white, patent leather shoes and a threadbare stuffed animal.

Grace thought back to the night, a lifetime ago, when she had told her then boyfriend of two years that she was pregnant. He had scoffed, then had gotten angry, then had insisted on an abortion. He was a lesser star on the football team, the son of a prominent town doctor. She was the daughter of a pastor. What would people say? There had been yelling and harsh words, and she had stormed off.

Abortion. The quick fix. Her parents would disown her. Frightened and alone, she sat on the park bench, knowing this decision was up to her. After Luke’s reaction, she couldn’t count on him for anything. How could she have been so trusting? How could she have been so stupid? She was barely seventeen.

A small spark awaited her decision, its life hanging in the balance. The realization gradually overtook her. She would have this baby, and she would work as hard as she could to give it the best life possible.

Three months before her eighteenth birthday, Grace gave birth to a baby girl. She named her Athena, after the goddess of wisdom – and warfare, she had found out later. Teenage Athena was now demonstrating her warlike aptitude. Perhaps wisdom was coming.

Athena had never been a calm child. As a fetus, she had pummeled her young mother from the womb. Grace sometimes blamed herself, thinking that wavering over Athena’s life had influenced her temperament. Once she was born, Athena had greeted Grace’s hopeful face with a wail that lasted for the next three months. She fussed at nighttime, never wanting to sleep. To calm her, Grace walked her up and down the road – a new road, in a new city, where no one judged a pastor’s daughter.

Yet Grace remembered the good times. Athena’s birth, though complicated and unexpected, had ushered her into the club of parenthood. She had looked down on her little, wailing daughter with her red, squeezed-up face and her balled up fists and fallen totally and completely in love. Those tiny toes, that shock of hair, the gasping breath between wails were all proof of a miracle. In an instant, the spark had flared into a flame. Where before no Athena had existed, a tiny, blustery, little presence now proclaimed itself to the world.

Standing, Grace smiled and wiped her tears. How could she ever second guess her choice? Today she would celebrate, even if she had to celebrate alone. Through the difficult past fifteen years, the depth and warmth that came from loving her child had filled every crack and crevice in her heart.

As she cut into the small, cheerful cake, the door down the hall creaked open. The streamers danced in the gust of air.

“Mom?” a hoarse voice called, hesitantly.

“I’m in here,” Grace called back, slicing through the frosting and into the rich chocolate center.

Athena stopped in the doorway, arms crossed. They looked at one another with red, puffy eyes, then both burst into laughter.

“Is that my piece?” Athena asked, enfolding her mom in an awkward, distant-yet-desperate, teenage hug.

“You bet it is,” said Grace, lighting a candle nub and placing it on top. “Now make a wish!”

But really, what more was there to wish for?

The Panic Of Not Knowing

Twenty-four hours can change your life, Dana thought as she sat, slumped, her face in her hands. Just yesterday Olivia was whirling around the patio in her rainbow tutu to an audience of one, Dana, who sat sipping her coffee among the dahlias. Energetically, Olivia became one with her dance. In true five-year-old fashion, she embraced life with the bear-hug of love.

Dana now looked at her daughter in the hospital bed, hooked up to machines. Olivia’s eyes were closed, her heartbeat thrumming like a hummingbird’s.

“Mama, can we have ice cream today?” she had said, after curtsying and climbing up onto Dana’s lap, stealing a sip of her latte.

Dana had appointments and meetings all day, so ice cream would have to wait. A momentarily disappointed Olivia climbed down, then, forgetting the ice cream, leaped and twirled, arms extended, into the house to get ready for school. Dana watched her go, finishing her coffee. She loved these mornings. Bill was away on another business trip, and she had her daughter all to herself. Tomorrow they would get ice cream.

Beep…beep…beep…

The sound of monitors brought thoughts back to the present and her daughter now lying here, motionless.

She grasped one of Olivia’s little hands. A tear trickled down her face as she made silent bargains with the universe. She tried a direct connection to God, though she hadn’t had a conversation with Him in years. Oh, baby, she thought, just get well. Please come back to me.

Bill was flying back early.

When the school had called her to tell her Olivia had been feeling dizzy, Dana canceled her afternoon meeting to pick her up. When she got there, Olivia was reeling, unable to stand upright. Something was not right. She scooped her up in her arms and raced her to urgent care, her soothing banter belying her gut-wrenching anxiety. The wait had been short. Olivia’s condition spurring the medical staff into action. Once admitted, things had quickly spiraled out of Dana’s control. The next thing she knew, she was sitting beside her unconscious daughter’s bed, miles from home at the children’s hospital.

Tears flowed freely now. Worry vice-gripped her heart, unrelenting. The doctors couldn’t give her a diagnosis. It could be a virus causing an immune response; though rare, they had seen it before. Or it could be something much worse. They would need more tests. The nurses had poked and prodded, taking blood samples, checking vitals. She needed Bill. She longed for his strong presence, for his arms to enfold her, for him to make everything okay.

Day turned to night. A nurse entered silently and jotted notes on a chart. Olivia had missed her bedtime story. Dana herself would have been reading in bed until the familiar lead weight of sleep forced her eyes closed. Bill’s flight would be here soon. Dana rested her head on Olivia’s bed, spent.

The sun was high in the window when Dana was roused by a hand on her back. Bill. She saw the fear in his eyes. She embraced him and lost herself in his arms, sobbing. For the next few days, they tag-teamed at the hospital. Though Dana didn’t want to leave Olivia’s side, sleep deprivation overtook her and forced her to seek the quiet darkness of a hotel bed, where she slept fitfully, cell phone by her side. The doctors still couldn’t tell them anything. Olivia was breathing on her own, but barely. When they discussed life support, Dana broke out in a cold sweat.  Nobody had warned her about the sheer terror that could overtake her as a parent.

Once again, she took up her post at Olivia’s bedside. She held one small hand and started quietly singing a song that she used to sing to Olivia as a baby, comforting verses about walking through a storm and not being alone. She sang softly. Time slowed down. As he left, Bill urged her to eat. She nodded, knowing she wouldn’t. She sang, and a peace came over her. Hospital sounds faded into the background.

They were alone in the room when she thought she felt Olivia’s hand move slightly. Her voice caught, then found itself again as she pushed the call button. Soon, little eyelids fluttered slowly, then opened. She paused.

“Mommy?”

Dana’s heart caught in her throat. There was no sweeter sound on earth.

“Hey, baby,” she replied softly, stroking Olivia’s face. Gratitude washed over her. “Ready for that ice cream?”