The human body,
Soft tissue fed by miles upon miles of
Capable of healing…
To a point.
But points of shrapnel
And falling rubble
Pierce and damage
Body and mind,
Creating orphans where civilizations once stood.
As the darkness receded, each small gremlin sheathed his knife, folded himself up, and pulled the small pumpkin he carried over his head.
The children looked outside. Pumpkins galore! They filled the house with the globular gourds.
As they fell asleep that night, they thought they heard tiny footsteps on the stairs.
©Suman at Desibuckets Photo provided by Grammar Ghoul Press
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.
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.
“Honey, where’d you get that doll?”
They were on their way to preschool when Miranda glanced in the rear-view mirror of the minivan to see her daughter playing with an odd, old doll, a doll that looked like it had been rejected by a child long ago.
“Mrs. Devo gave it to me. She said it was her special friend. She wanted me to have it.” The little girl turned to her doll and said, “Isn’t that right, Marie?”
“Who is Mrs. Devo?” Miranda asked.
“You know, Mrs. Devo,” replied the girl. “The one in the house next to us.”
Miranda racked her brain. A young man had recently moved in to the old, ivy-covered house next door. She had met him briefly, a young professional, aloof but friendly enough. He had just moved from Louisiana. What was his name? Jean… something French… Devereaux?
“Mr. Devereaux?” she asked her daughter as they pulled up to the school.
“No, not Mister Devo. Missus Devo,” Abigail responded.
Mr. Devereaux had not mentioned a wife.
“Honey, let’s leave her in the car, okay?”
The girl pouted and held the doll out of Miranda’s reach.
Miranda tried again. “I don’t think they allow toys at school,” she said.
“It’s my sharing day. I’m gonna share her.”
Miranda frowned, but relented. She watched Abigail skip into the cheery children’s center, hugging her new possession.
Miranda was cleaning her daughter’s room when her cell phone started buzzing. The voice on the other line was panicked.
“Mrs. Leewald? You need to come pick up your daughter. There’s been an accident. Don’t worry. Your child is fine. Her teacher tripped and fell. She is being transported to the hospital as we speak.”
“I’ll be right there,” she said, ending the conversation as she hurried out the door.
The principal was waiting outside the school with the small group of children. Abigail looked somber.
“What happened to Miss Marshall?” Miranda asked her.
“She took Marie away,” Abigail said. “Marie didn’t like it. She said she would get her, and she did,” She hugged her doll tightly.
“Honey, dolls can’t make things happen. They’re just plastic. They’re not real,” Miranda said.
“Marie says she’s real,” Abigail said, twirling her fingers through the dolls mangy curls. “She says the other dolls aren’t, but she is,”
Miranda gave her daughter a worried glance. The girl gazed lovingly at the doll. That doll belongs in the trash heap, thought Miranda, though the burn pile might be better.
Miranda made lunch while Abigail swung outside with the doll. Miranda stopped to watch from the window. The doll’s eyes seemed to be looking at her. I must be going crazy, she thought. Just then, the knife she was holding slipped out of her hand and plunged into the floorboards millimeters from her foot. She looked down, shock registering through her body. Coincidence? She thought of Miss Marshall.
Abigail had left the swing and was squatting by the fence. A strange humming came from that direction. It stopped when Miranda approached.
“Honey, it’s lunchtime,” Miranda said.
Abigail looked up with a dreamy, otherworldly look. She smiled wryly, sending shivers up Miranda’s spine.
“Honey, what were you doing out here?” she asked.
Abigail just averted her eyes, the smile glued to her face.
The doll was still clutched in the girl’s arms. This had to end.
She led Abigail into the house and sat her in front of her sandwich.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, as she gathered newspapers and headed outside. Soon she had a roaring fire going in the fire pit. As she made her way back to the house, she saw Abigail standing in the doorway. Miranda reached for the doll, but Abigail flinched and bolted. Miranda lunged for one of the doll’s legs, grabbed it and yanked the doll free.
A shriek filled the air. It came from all around her, reverberating off the house next door. She quickly threw the doll on the fire. Abigail’s mouth was wide open, the sound coming out unlike anything Miranda had ever heard before. As the fire engulfed the doll, the screaming subsided into sobs.
Miranda went to her daughter.
“Come now,” she said, stroking Abigail’s hair. “I’ll buy you a new doll.”
Sobs eventually gave way to sniffles. Finally, Abigail nodded.
As they walked out the front door, Abigail suddenly brightened.
“Look, Mommy!” she said, pointing.
Miranda’s heart lurched. There, leaning against a potted plant, sat Marie.
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.
“Sorry to interrupt the party,” Gloria slurred, wobbling in, already holding a wine glass. “Carry on.”
The guests looked up, irritated. The drunks were starting early. They returned to grazing on antipasti.
“Is Johanna here?” she shouted, waving her left arm in the air, balancing precariously on her stilettos. “Johanna?”
A man in a tuxedo walked toward her, but she tossed her head and walked toward the bar. She plunked her wine glass down.
“Whisky,” she demanded, slumping over the bar. “You can put it in here.” She pointed to the wine glass.
“Miss, I think you’ve had enough.”
“Damn strait I’ve had enough,” she yelled, rising to her feet again, wobbly. She turned to face the crowd. The tuxedo man was approaching her again, but she didn’t care.
“Where the hell is Johanna?” she yelled to nobody in particular. Everyone stared. When she didn’t get the result she wanted, she started mumbling under her breath.
“Ma’m, come with me please,” the tuxedo man said, gently placing his hand on her arm. She threw him off.
“Where is Johanna? I want to see Johanna,” she cried, starting to run toward the front doors, her crepe dress flailing helplessly behind her. She stopped outside, taking off the damn shoes. Why did she choose these things, anyway? Where was that girl?
She sat on the brick wall just outside, shoes in one hand, empty wine glass in the other. A limo pulled up in front of the hotel. Gloria stood up hopefully.
“Johanna?” She pushed wisps of hair out of her face. This updo was quickly becoming a downdo. She released the pins, letting her hair fall, shaking it out. She saw the shocked faces in the car and tried to compose herself, patting stray hair down, smoothing her dress. She struggled to put her shoes back on as they exited the car, first the new husband, then his new bride enveloped in her frothy white strapless dress.
“Johanna,” she whispered, moving toward her. “You look beautiful.” Tears welled up in her bloodshot eyes.
“What are you doing here, mother?” Johanna asked, with strained patience. “I thought we agreed you would stay away.”
The rest of the wedding party waited by the door, feigning disinterest.
“I just wanted to see my baby girl get married,” she slurred, slumping against Johanna, who stood up taller, pushing her mother away.
“I haven’t been your baby girl in a long time, Mother,” she said. “You gave that job to your own mom, who did a great job, by the way.”
“Aww… honey, you’re not gonna hold a grudge on your wedding day, are you?”
“Mother, please leave,” Johanna said. “Now.”
Her new husband tried to lead her into the hotel, but Johanna turned and faced her mom, steeling herself.
“You know what? I have lived a lifetime of waiting for you to come around and be the mom I needed. Instead you come around and mess things up. You and your party friends almost ruined my life. I’m so grateful to Grandma for coming to my rescue.”
Her mother shook her head in disgust. “Meddling bitch,” she said.
“No, Mom,” Johanna continued. “Grandma saved my life. I almost fell in with the same crackhead crowd you were running with. People go where they are comfortable, and that was the life I knew. I’m happy now.” She motioned toward her new husband and her friends. “These people are my life. They love me. They don’t embarrass me. Grandma loves me, and God only knows why, but she loves you, too. She wants you to get some help.”
She started walking, but turned and said softly, “I love you, too, Mom. Get some help. I really wish you could have been here today.”
“But I am here,” Gloria protested.
“Not like this. Get some help.” Johanna said, turning back to her new husband.
Gloria stood there watching her only daughter walk away. She had not been there to see the wedding. She wasn’t welcome at the reception. Some of what Johanna had said started sinking through the drunken haze. Johanna was married now. Soon there would be grandchildren. Would she miss out on their lives the way she had missed out on Johanna’s? She pulled out her phone and looked at the number she had stored – Clean Treatment. She pushed dial, then cancelled the call.
Shoes and wine glass in hand, she started walking down the road toward the bar. She would call, just not today.
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