Family Dogs

Family Dogs

by Andrew James Rush


By the time Parker got to the end of the narrow, overgrown driveway, the smell of bleach had pretty much faded from his nostrils. The mossy fog felt wet and green in his sinuses as he breathed through them. His little plastic thermos was thunking inside of its matching tin He-Man lunchbox, probably smashing the hastily made peanut butter and jelly sandwich his mother had stuffed into it only minutes ago. It didn’t matter. Nobody would trade with him anyway. Well, Clayton might, but he wouldn’t have anything better.

At the end of the dirt driveway that wound through the dense evergreens, Parker turned left and walked between the thin layer of gravel and the sloping bank that stood between the tiny road and the forest beyond. Thunk! Thunk! His thermos kept a steady rhythm as he walked down the steep hill toward the main road. His nightmare from the night before was still skulking around in his head, even though he could no longer remember any of the details of it. There was just a sense of being trapped, helpless, while something terrifying lurked just beyond his reach.

High up in these woods, the air was always dense with fog on these early October mornings, and today it was thicker than ever. Parker didn’t see Clayton at the end of his driveway until he was only about a dozen yards away.

“Hey, Parker!” the bony blonde boy called out. He was wearing dark gray corduroy slacks and a cornflower blue sweater under a brown vest with orange stripes across the chest.

“Hi, Clayton,” Parker answered, noticing that their clothing was, once again, very similar. Only the colors of their sweaters--Parker’s was red--differentiated them. The bullies would have a heyday with them at school.

They walked together to the bottom of the hill. Thunk! Thunk! went Parker’s lunchbox. Clayton’s red, plastic lunchbox was silent. It didn’t have any superheroes or cartoons on it, and instead had a patch of fuzzy white paper with scratch marks in it where he’d tried to remove the Strawberry Shortcake label that had been on it when it had belonged to his older sister.

“Did you see MacGuyver last night?” Clayton asked.

“No, my parents made me go to bed early.” Parker’s voice was solemn and frustrated.

“How early?” Clayton asked with a mocking laugh. “MacGuyver is on at seven.”

“I know,” Parker said.

“Jeez, your folks are weird. D’you want me to tell you what happened?”

Parker shook his head and kicked a stick into the road.

“Shit, alright,” Clayton said, and started skipping ahead. “I bet Chase saw it!”

Chase lived in the last house before the main road, and the three boys had always waited together for the school bus. Of the three of them, Chase’s parents were the best off, financially, which wasn’t saying much. The Montgomery’s lived in a two story house, and both of their children had their own rooms, whereas Clayton lived in a trailer and had shared a room with his sister until she had disappeared the previous autumn. Parker and his parents lived in a rundown shack that had only one main room and an outhouse.

When they finally got close enough to the driveway to see it, there was a little girl waiting in purple overalls and a plain gray sweatshirt. “Where’s your bubby, Kate?” Clayton asked.

The little girl threw up her arms in an exaggerated shrug.

“Are your folks home?” Parker asked, arriving behind Clayton. He could see the Datsun station wagon parked in front of the house now.

“No,” Kate said, shaking her head so that her body shook with it. Her arms flailed comically out at her sides.

“That’s weird,” said Clayton, and he walked up to where Kate stood, squinting his eyes as if trying to clear the fog ahead of him. As soon as Clayton was within reach, Kate threw herself at him and wrapped her arms around his narrow waist.

“The doggies came again,” she whimpered. “I don’t like them.”

“What doggies, Kate?” Parker asked.

“They’re mean,” Kate answered simply.

“When did they come?” Clayton gently pushed her head back as he asked, and Kate stepped back and lifted her arms. Complying, Clayton lifted her up and held her. She wrapped her legs around his waist and put her head on his shoulder.

“In the night,” she said. “I hided under my bed.”

“Come on Clayton,” said Parker. “I’m gonna look around.”

“Okay, get down, Kate.” Clayton was much bigger than Kate, and older by five years, but he wasn’t strong enough to carry her while walking any distance, and he knew it.

“They’re gone now,” she said.

“Well, Chase must be around here somewhere,” said Parker. “He’s probably playing a prank.”

“What about the dogs?” asked Clayton in a harsh whisper.

Parker glanced behind Clayton and saw Kate sit down on the driveway, playing with a couple of rocks. “Come on,” he shushed, “there aren’t any dogs.”

Clayton looked back behind him as well before answering, even more quietly than before. “I heard howling last night.”

“There are coyotes in these woods, that’s all. Probably they just got into some trash.” Parker checked his watch, a plastic Casio. It was nearly seven thirty. “Come on, let’s look around.”

Parker didn’t feel very confident. The car was still here, and they were so far up in the mountains that there was no way the family would have gone anywhere without it.

“Stay there Kate!” Clayton called back.

Parker motioned for Clayton to go around in front of the station wagon and check the other side of the house, while he went forward around the right side. There was an old oak tree in the yard, with a tire swing hanging from it, and beyond that, a small tool shed. After that, the woods hid behind a wall of undergrowth, too dense to see through.

As Parker made his way past the muddy patch beneath the tire swing, he saw a small path in the undergrowth that opened up next to the tool shed. He crept cautiously toward it, looking back periodically to check on Kate, but the fog had closed in over the short distance and he couldn’t see her. Looking ahead again, he saw that the door to the shed was open, and tools were scattered all over the floor. A hammer had spilled out and lay a few feet in front of the tiny building. Parker picked it up.

“Nothing over there,” Clayton said, panting, as he ran to Parker’s side. “What’s that?”

Clayton pointed to the small opening in the undergrowth. It was only about a foot wide and three or four feet tall--the boys would have to duck if they were to enter--and now they could see that the tangle of branches all around it were covered in angry looking thorns. But that wasn’t what Clayton had pointed at.

At the mouth of the path, on the ground to the right of the opening, there was a softball sized lump that was rusty and brown, and looked waxy to the touch. Clayton crept forward in a haunch, and Parker kept right beside him. When they got close enough, Parker reached out with the hammer and poked it with the blunt head.

It was soft, and it rolled over about an inch, revealing a much redder underside, with bits of dirt and tiny twigs stuck to it. Both boys jumped back.

“Holy shit!” cried Clayton. “Is that…”

Parker had eaten beef heart with his parents and recognized that it was, in fact, a heart.

“Ohmygod!” Clayton blurted and put his hands on his head. He began turning in small circles, repeating over and over, “ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod…”

“Stop it, Clay,” Parker said. His voice was even and low, but his own heart was pounding in his chest. “It’s probably just beef.”

“The fuck it is!” Clayton cried out.

“Listen, go stay with Kate. I wanna go see what’s in there,” Parker said, gesturing at the dark tunnel in the undergrowth with his hammer.

“Yeah, right!” Clayton said. “Wait, you’re serious?”

“Yeah, just a few minutes. The bus’ll be here soon.”

Clayton backed away a few steps and then turned and jogged back to where Kate was standing.

Parker ducked his head and took a few short steps into the tunnel. The light was so low it felt like night, but he could see swirling gray clouds of mist like smoke between the trees ahead. About ten steps in, the undergrowth cleared, and he stood up straight. It was silent, and cold, and smelled like dirt.

In all the years coming over to play with Chase, they’d never wandered into these woods. None of the kids did. There were rumors of werewolves that lived in them, and everyone, even the kids who lived in the small town at the bottom of the mountain, believed them. Parker, Clayton, and Chase had decided long ago that if there were werewolves, they were probably the old McClatchy couple that lived up past Parker’s place. They were a strange old couple who didn’t have any kids and seemed to hate children. Whether they were werewolves or not, they were frightening enough to make them want to stay out of the woods, which had been easy enough to do since Chase had gotten a Nintendo the previous Christmas. They had spent most of their time together playing Super Mario Bros and Commando.

Now that he was standing out here, it seemed both less dangerous and more terrifying at once. He felt stupid. Kids were supposed to play in the woods, weren’t they? His parents had warned him that if he wandered into them he would get lost. There were no such things as werewolves, they’d said, but there were plenty of real things that would kill him if he got stranded alone out there after dark.

“Come on, Parker!” he heard Clayton yell.

“Yeah! Come on!” Kate’s tiny voice carried well in the thick, dark fog, but their voices were both dampened and scattered, as if they had come from deeper in the forest instead of back, where he had come from.

Parker looked around at the forest floor. It was mostly barren of life; the ground was covered with a thick, spongy layer of mulchy soil. Looking up, the firs towered above the fog, and he couldn’t see the tops of them. He paced in a small circle, glancing behind him repeatedly to make sure he didn’t lose sight of the tunnel. There didn’t seem to be anything abnormal.

After two or three minutes, he decided he had better get back to the other two kids and make sure they didn’t miss the bus. But when he walked back, the tunnel seemed to have closed up.

“Rats,” he muttered. Parker didn’t like the way Clayton was always using swear words, and he never allowed himself to do so. It had always seemed much too bad. But right now, he didn’t want to say “rats.” He wanted to say something much worse. In that clearing he suddenly felt trapped, like he had been in his dream, and the fear inside him was gaining strength, wrapping around his chest.

He ran across to the other side of the clearing. There was a wall of undergrowth, but no hole. “Double rats.” His heart was racing now. He tried to think back on anything he had heard about finding your way out of the woods. Considering how worried his parents had always seemed to be about it, they hadn’t said much about what to do if he did get lost. Or he hadn’t listened. That was probably it. They were always telling him that he didn’t listen.

He decided to walk along the wall of undergrowth. Surely if he did that, he would find the way out. He thought he could see bits of light filtering through the dense shrubbery. He must be close. As he walked slowly along, he scanned the foliage ahead of him, until his foot struck something soft and heavy. He looked down at it and nearly fell over as he scrambled to get away from it.

There, on the forest floor, half-concealed by the undergrowth, was an adult human body. It was naked and mangled beyond identification, and it was covered in sticky, black and red blood. Its chest had been ripped open and lay splayed on the ground with its back to the sky, and its hips were rotated completely around. The legs were twisted together like two ropes. It looked like the whole pile had been shoved under the heavy growth and only its arm had been sticking out far enough for Parker to hit it with his foot.

He scrambled to his feet and ran across the clearing in the other direction, into a dense bramble of thorns. His panic was so intense that he kept pushing forward, even as the woody barbs tore at his flesh, until he broke through on the other side, into the Montgomerys’s yard. He was about ten yards from the shed.

He fell to his knees and vomited the toast and eggs his mother had burnt as she’d tried to cook breakfast while also scrubbing the kitchen floor. The vomit tasted acidic, but also of bleach. Clayton and Kate were running toward him.

“What’s in there?!” Clayton demanded.

“You got a boo-boo,” Kate said, pointing at the tears on his sleeves, now splotched darker red with blood.

Parker was panting as he struggled to decide what he would tell them. What he had seen couldn’t have been real.

“It was dark,” he finally said. “I think I imagined it.” His parents were always telling him what an overactive imagination he had.

“Imagined what?” asked Kate.

“Yeah, imagined what?” Clayton repeated.

“I don’t know. It was dark.” Parker rubbed his arm. The blood was sticky already, and the wounds throbbed and itched.

“You already said it was…” Clayton began, but before he could finish, they heard the engine of the school bus roaring up the road.

“Come on!” Clayton said, grabbing Parker by the forearm, careful not to touch his wounds. Parker and Clayton each grabbed one of Kate’s arms and lifted her off the ground. Together they ran down the hill to the main road, which seemed much further than it had ever been before, just in time to see the bus turn off its flashing lights and pull away from the gravel intersection.

At the bottom of the hill they let Kate’s feet touch the ground and let go of her hands. “Damn it, Parker,” Clayton barked.

“I’m sorry guys.” Parker dropped his lunchbox on the gravel with a chunk and grabbed his knees, breathing heavily. “If we walk, we’ll probably get there before math class.”

“Fuck that!” Clayton said, picking up Parker’s dropped lunch and shoving it back into his chest. “Let’s go inside and call the school. You’re the best at sounding like a grown-up.”

It was true. The three friends had done a fair bit of prank calling and had found that Parker was consistently able to pass himself off as an adult more convincingly than Chase or Clayton could.

“Well, what am I supposed to say?” Parker looked up at the sky. The fog was beginning to burn off, but it was still overcast and gray. “I mean, maybe we should call the police.”

Kate threw her arms around Clayton’s waist, and buried her face in his puffy vest. “Dude, what did you see in those woods?” he demanded.

“Nothing!” Parker could feel his face reddening. It seemed now like it had to have been his imagination. He felt like he was underwater. “I’ll call the school!” He marched back toward the house, and Clayton followed, holding Kate’s hand.

“Well, what are you gonna tell them?” Clayton called out.

“I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.” Parker jumped the three stairs up to the porch and pulled the screen door open, then pushed the wooden door in. It creaked loudly. He stepped inside and looked around.

All the lights were off, and it smelled like milk. In the living room, he saw a box of Cookie Crisp cereal next to a bowl and a cardboard carton on its side in a puddle on the hardwood floor. In the hallway back to the kitchen, there were children’s clothes strewn across the floor.

“Kate, did you get ready all by yourself today?” Parker asked as the other two crept in behind him.

“Yeah,” she answered timidly.

“Pretty sure the phone is in the kitchen,” said Clayton softly, his eyes darting around at the moderate chaos of the usually pristine home. The two boys threw their lunch boxes onto the couch.

“Right.” Parker went ahead, stepping over the clothing in the hallway. When he turned to the kitchen, he saw that the back door of the house was open, and there were rust brown smears on the floor leading out of it.

“What the…”

“Clayton! Please, stop cussing!” Parker interrupted.

“I didn’t!” he protested.

Parker tried to ignore the blood, but the kitchen table had been pushed back against the sink and the chairs had been thrown around the room and lay on their sides. There was a large, splintery gash torn across the middle of the top of the table. He walked past it to the cream colored telephone mounted on the wall next to the back door.

“It’s dead,” he said, after he had picked up the receiver.

“What do you mean?” Clayton looked even more pale than usual.

“I mean, there’s no dial tone.” Parker hung the phone back on the wall. “Kate, what happened here?”

She answered by sticking her thumb in her mouth and burying her head in Clayton’s side again.

“Look, I never heard of coyotes cutting the phone lines before,” Clayton said. “What did you see in the woods, damn it?!”

“I’ll show you.” Parker was shaking. He knew it had to have been real, but it all felt like his nightmares. They had been coming to him in bursts, two or three nights in a row, it seemed like every month now. He couldn’t remember having them before Clayton’s sister had disappeared, almost exactly a year ago. They were strange dreams--stranger than most--that he could never remember in any detail. He only remembered the way they felt. The feeling of being trapped and afraid, and of something he thought had been safe suddenly being threatening.

Maybe he was still dreaming now, here in this kitchen.

They went out the back door, and they saw more blood on the grass, black and tacky looking, matting the dead blades to the ground, leading out to the shed. They hadn’t noticed it in the relatively dim light of the morning, and even now, if they hadn’t been looking for it, they might have missed it. Parker led the two other kids toward the small entrance and ducked to go into the clearing.

“Hey,” Clayton called out before Parker went in. “Where’s that hammer you had?”

“I don’t know. I must’ve dropped it.”

“Well, I don’t want to go in there without a weapon.” The way Clayton said it seemed surreal. It felt like he thought they were playing detective, except this was real. Or was it? Parker’s head was swimming again.

Clayton pulled the door to the shed open and went inside, kicking tools aside with his feet as he made his way into the tiny building. “Jesus!” Parker heard him shout, and Clayton came flying back out backwards.

“What is it?” Parker asked.

“I don’t wanna play anymore,” Kate’s voice said from behind them. Parker looked, and there were tears on her face. “Where’s my mommy?”

“I don’t know Kate, but it’s gonna be okay.” Parker’s voice seemed reassuring to himself, but it obviously didn’t do anything for Kate, because she began to whimper and then sob.

“What’s in there, Clay?” he asked.

Clayton didn’t answer, but walked back into the shed cautiously. When he emerged, he was holding a very large six-shooter pistol and a small tin box that rattled in his hand.

“Holy…” Parker trailed off.

Kate stopped crying and walked toward Clayton, trying to get a good look at the gun. “That’s my daddy’s,” she said and wiped her cheek. “You’ll get in trouble.”

“It’s okay Kate,” Clayton said. The gun was so large that he had to rest the barrel on the box in his other hand to keep it from dropping.

“Here,” said Parker, grabbing the box out of his hand. With his other hand free, Clayton turned the gun over, looking at the detail. The barrel and chamber were made of a polished silvery metal that partly reflected his face, and it had a wooden handle that was stained a deep brown. Looking closer, he saw an inscription, which he read out loud.

“Even a man who is pure of heart…” He turned the gun over and continued, “and says his prayers at night…” He turned it over again, then looked at the handle and shrugged his shoulders. “That’s it.”

“What do you mean?” Parker asked, now taking his turn to be Kate’s hugging post.

“That’s all it says.”

Parker took a look at the tin box in his hands. It was featureless and painted a dull black, and had a lid that was a separate piece. He pulled it off and revealed six bullets, neatly arranged inside so that they barely rattled. They had brass casings, and the tips were nonuniformly shaped and rough, as if they’d been home made.

“These are silver bullets,” he said, his voice low and solemn. He sounded like a grown-up.

“You sure?” Clayton asked.

Parker handed him the lid to the box. On the inside, roughly engraved as if with a nail or some other sharp tool, there was another quote. ...may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright--Siodmak.

There was a sudden rustle in the bushes beside them, and all three kids jumped backwards. Kate ran all the way to the side of the house and stood with her back to it. It rustled again, further back, and Parker fell on his backside, dropping the box of bullets. Clayton ran to him and started picking them out of the dead grass. “Shit, Parker, be careful.”

“Sorry, I, uh…” He was staring at the small path in the bramble. There was nothing on the other side, but his imagination was running wild, envisioning terrible things. Things that seemed both alien and familiar. Amorphous shapes that were trying to become clear and bold, with hair, and teeth, and claws dripping with blood.

“Hey, get with it.” Clayton shook his shoulder until Parker looked at him, and then he continued picking at the ground, loading bullets into the chamber of the gun. “I think you lost two of ‘em.”

“Where’d you learn to do that?” Parker asked.

“I’m just figuring it out, I guess,” Clayton answered.

“You guys! Stop!” Kate whimpered from the house. “I wanna go to school.”

“Go in the house, Kate,” Clayton commanded.

“It’s going to be okay,” Parker said. He got up and walked to her. “We’re just gonna check out the woods for a minute, okay?” He knelt down in front of her and grabbed her hands. They felt small and chubby in his own, and he felt more like a grown-up than ever. “I need you to be a big girl, Kate. Can you do that?”

She nodded her head, still looking at the ground next to Parker’s knees.

“I need you to wait inside. Clayton and I are gonna be real careful and quiet, okay. Nothing bad is gonna happen.”

Kate nodded her head again and squeezed Parker’s hand back. “Promise?” she said.

“I promise.” Parker let her hand go and she obediently turned and went back to the front door.

“Just stay in the living room,” Parker called after her, remembering the blood in the kitchen. He walked back to where Clayton was, just in time to see him push the chamber back into its socket and give it a spin. It whirred mechanically and Clayton smiled in satisfaction.

“There’s still two missing, but four is better than nothing,” he said, still grinning.

“This isn’t a game, Clay,” Parker said.

“I know.” Clayton pulled back the hammer on the gun and pointed it into the woods, using both hands. “But don’t you kinda feel like the Hardy Boys or something?”

“The Hardy Boys never used guns,” Parker sighed.

“Well, they never fought a werewolf either.” Parker couldn't find an argument for that, so he just gestured at the woods for Clayton to lead the way.

“You first,” he said.

Clayton ducked his head and walked with a haunch through the small opening, and Parker followed close behind. When they came through into the clearing, it was much brighter than it had been, but still smelled like earth and moss. Parker could see now that the clearing was surrounded on all sides by a natural fence of undergrowth, except for another opening far ahead of them, only slightly larger than the one they had just come through.

“It must be over there,” Parker said, pointing at the other opening. “What I saw.”

Clayton lifted the gun again and closed one eye, following the barrel with the other. “Be careful with that,” Parker whispered.

Without answering, Clayton walked ahead, gun up against his chest, until he was right in front of the opening. “I don’t see nothin',” he said.

“It was on the ground.” Parker was scanning the edge of the clearing all around the opening with his eyes and kicking at the bushy growth.

“I don’t even know what I’m looking for,” Clayton said, lowering his gun. “Why don’t you just…”

“It was here.” Parker pushed a low hanging branch of green bramble aside, revealing a patch of blackened mud and blood-soaked debris. “It was right here.” His voice was exasperated.

“What was?!” Clayton’s frustration was palpable, and his shoulders bounced with his words making Parker afraid the gun would go off. “What was here, damn it?!”

“A body.” Parker turned away ashamed, and he felt tears coming to his hot eyes.

“A body?! Jesus, Parker!”

“I thought it was… I mean, I thought I…” his voice trailed off as dizziness enveloped his head with a fuzzy ache.

“Who was it?” Clayton’s voice was calmer now. Lower.

“I couldn’t tell.” Parker began to sob and fell to his knees. “It was horrible.”

He felt an arm around his shoulder. Clayton had fallen on his knees beside him. The gun fell in front of them, and Clayton’s arms went around his body as it shook with his sobs.

“I’m sorry.” Clayton squeezed his friend’s body and said it again, softly, into his ear. “I’m sorry.” Parker felt as if he were in one of those grown-up movies Clayton’s parents were always watching when he came over, where everybody had all these deep, complicated emotions about everything. He was only ten. He wasn’t supposed to have feelings like this.

“Hey, look,” Parker said suddenly. Ahead of them, there was a patch of mulchy soil with twigs that all seemed to point in the same direction, back toward them. Clayton seemed to see it too, and both boys stood, turning behind them to see where it led. The rough path at first seemed to end where the body had been, but then continued on through the small opening in the undergrowth. They both followed it, and went further into the woods.

“What about Kate,” whispered Parker.

“Let’s just see what’s up here and then go back.” Clayton had his gun up again and was walking faster than Parker wanted him to. He followed, wishing he had the courage to ask him to slow down.

The path went up the side of the mountain and was occasionally marked by smears of dried blood on the trees and leafy undergrowth along it. Eventually, it broke out into the open daylight, still gray, but brighter than it had been all morning so far, and onto the gravel road Parker had walked down to meet Clayton. That seemed so long ago now. Parker crept through the opening and stood beside Clayton on the curb. They were looking directly at Parker’s house.

“We must have passed right by my place,” Clayton said.

“Yeah,” Parker agreed, but hardly heard himself. He was looking at the fine gray dust spilling from the road into the curb. There were streaks of black and rusty brown in it that continued across the road, right into Parker’s driveway.

A motor roared to life, and the two boys scrambled back into the woods and watched as a VW bus pulled into view from behind the rickety shack. It turned out of the drive and down the hill, bouncing on the uneven terrain.

“Your dad didn’t already go to work?” Clayton asked.

Parker thought he had. His mother had been alone in the kitchen, scrubbing the floor, the whole morning. His dad was a logger, and usually started his mornings before the sun had come up. But when the van had come into view just now, Parker was sure he had seen two human shapes in the front seats.

“No, yeah,” Parker said. “The van wasn’t there this morning.”

“Okay, let’s go get Kate, and then come back here and use your phone to call the school,” Clayton said, turning back into the woods.

Parker followed silently. Their phone had been shut off two weeks ago and his parents had gotten into a big fight about it. The argument had gone on for two days, and he had spent much of that time in his bedroom, reading and doing homework, trying to ignore it.

They got back to the Montgomery’s house where Kate had been watching cartoons on the VCR, but she followed them back to Parker’s house without fuss. They took the road this time, and although none of them said so, Parker thought it was because it felt safer. It was the middle of the morning, and there was no moon out, but everybody knew that werewolves weren’t really real. Whatever had made that mess of that body could still be out here somewhere.

“Jesus,” Clayton said when they pushed open the creaky door of Parker's small home. Clayton was holding the gun up at his chest again like a cop on TV. “What a dump.” Parker had never invited Clayton or Chase to his house, and they’d never asked to come over. He was the poorest kid in the school, and while his friends never outwardly judged him for it, he had been no more keen for them to see how he lived than they had seemed to be to find out.

The smell of bleach still hung faintly in the air, and it was plain to see that the patch of linoleum floor, in the rectangle of the main room which served as a kitchen, had recently been cleaned. The rest of the house was in its customary state of disarray. There was a bed opposite the refrigerator, which was unmade, and clothes were strewn over it and the couch, which faced a small, black-and-white television set with large rabbit ears covered in aluminum foil. A small, round kitchen table straddled the border between the rectangle of linoleum in the kitchen and the unfinished hardwood of the rest of the floor.

“Where’s your room?” Clayton asked as Kate ran to the TV and started turning the knobs on the front.

“Back here.” Parker led him past the kitchen area where there was a small door, only about four feet high, in the corner. On the adjoining wall was a window with a view of the outhouse and an outdoor shower area. He opened the door and slid a metal grate, revealing a tiny room with piles of blankets and pillows.

“What the fuck?” Clayton murmured. “That’s not a room.”

“It’s where I sleep,” Parker’s face was hot. He tried to pull Clayton away from it again.

“It looks like a dog house.” Clayton’s eyes were wide with wonder as he scanned the cubby-sized room. His eyes fell on the door, which held multiple locking mechanisms on the inside. There were perhaps ten of them. “What’s with all these locks?”

Parker tugged at his shirt. “My parents are weird, remember?”

Clayton stood up again and looked at Kate on the couch a few feet away. “Dude. They’re weird, but locking you in a closet at night is fucked up.”

Parker slammed the small door, and the locks rattled on the other side. “They don’t lock me in there. I lock myself in there.”

“Why?” Clayton reached for the handle of the door again, but Parker moved his body in front of it and stuck out his chest. He was breathing heavy and felt the stinging heat behind his eyes.

Don’t start crying, he thought.

“Come on Kate, let’s go to my house,” Clayton said, and he walked to the TV and flipped the power off, leaving a bright white dot in the middle of the black screen.

“Hey!” Parker exclaimed, and he felt a tear roll down his cheek. “I don’t know why, okay! It’s just the rule here, like how we have to wash our hands at Chase’s house.”

Clayton turned and Parker saw fear in his eyes. “You’re the wolf.”

“I am not!” Parker felt the tears dripping from his chin, and he wiped his face with his sleeve. The salt stung his thorn wounds. “My folks say I’m safe in there.”

“Or they’re safe.” Clayton’s face showed a troubled confusion.

“Come on, don’t go,” Parker pleaded. He took a step toward Clayton, who pushed Kate behind him and held his gun up to his chest again. “Clay?” He stumbled backward again, confused by the sudden sense of betrayal. Clayton’s eyes were red and puffy. He almost looked like he was going to start crying too.

“You didn’t want us to find the bodies, but I’m going to find them.” His voice trembled, and Parker noticed that his body was shivering.

The small shack seemed to spin. Was it true? He tried to remember his nightmares. Had he broken free? Was this why his mother had been so strange this morning? He looked at the door. There was a metal latch on the outside, which could be secured over a hook designed to be locked with a single padlock. In case my claws manage to unlock the ones on the inside?

Clayton turned his back and opened the front door, and without thinking, Parker lunged at him and tackled him to the floor. Kate screamed and ran outside. The two boys wrestled on the floor; Parker managed to get Clayton on his back and threw his own body over the other boy’s chest, with both hands on his wrists. He pulled the hand with the gun off the floor and then smacked it down on the hard wood.

Blam!

The gunshot was so loud that Parker’s hearing went out, leaving only a quiet, steady squeal.

Clayton’s eyes went animal with panic, and he threw Parker to his side with newly summoned strength, but Parker hept his hand firmly wrapped around his wrist. They squirmed around on their sides, and Clayton threw a wild punch with his other fist, which landed square in Parker’s temple. He felt dizzy and tasted pennies. But he didn’t let go.

Blam!

The smell of gunpowder filled his nostrils, and the squeal in his ears grew louder until he realized that Kate was screaming from the yard. Finally, with a forced concentration, Parker made a fist with his free hand and punched Clayton hard in the nose. His knuckles cracked on impact, and his hand exploded with dull, blue pain. But Clayton dropped the gun.

Parker scrambled to his feet and picked it up, and before he could turn around, Clayton had made a quick, crawling dash out the front door. He darted across the room and looked through the screen as it slammed shut with its long, rusty spring that boinged like a loose guitar string, and he saw Clayton carrying Kate on his side, loping in a slow run.

Parker went back to his room and pulled both doors shut, securing all the locks. He pulled the string attached to the bare bulb hanging from the low ceiling and stared at the gun, which was still warm from the two shots. The whole day twisted and squirmed in his memory. It had to be a dream.

After what felt like hours, he heard the door to his house open, and his parents’ footsteps rustled on the floor. He made up his mind. He would wait, and if he saw any sign that he was changing, he would kill himself before it was too late. He still thought it was much more likely that the real werewolves were the McClatchy’s, and if he didn’t change, he would know that for sure. He’d figure out what to do about that, but for tonight he’d be safe in here.

He wondered about his parents. Would they be safe?

“Parker?” his mother’s voice called out.

“I’m in here,” Parker answered.

“Get him the applesauce,” his dad said in his gruff, northwestern accent.

They always gave him applesauce before bed. He hated it. It was bitter, and made him feel sick. Until today, he had been sure it was what had been causing the nightmares.

“Open that door, honey,” his mother said after a few minutes. But Parker didn’t answer. He held the gun close to his chest as he lay, staring at the unfinished ceiling of his little room. “He’s not opening it,” she said in a low voice.

“Parker, listen to your mother now.” His father’s voice was strong and commanding, and it took all of Parker’s strength not to obey.

“No. It’s not safe,” he said.

“I’ll tell you what’s safe.” His father pounded on the door. “Open up, son.”

Parker wriggled his body as far from the door as he could in the cramped space.

“What if he don’t open it?” his mother’s voice whispered. “We’ve only got an hour, maybe less.”

“Alright,” his father whispered back. “Get the combination.”

Parker heard something metal scratching against his door, followed by a mechanical click.

“Let’s just go outside and wait,” his father said. Seconds later, the front door opened, and then the screen door slammed shut making the spring boing in the quiet of the evening.

Parker watched his hands in the incandescent light, imagining them turning dark and sprouting thick, black hair and long, sharp claws. He fingered the trigger on the gun and wondered how he would do it. Would it hurt? What if it didn’t kill him? The silence pulsed around him, pushed in on him, and his tiny room felt smaller than it ever had. The patterns in the plywood walls swirled in his vision, taking on strange, frightening shapes. He sat up. He was falling asleep. Or was this what happened before the change?

He turned the chamber of his pistol and made sure the two remaining bullets were lined up correctly. He didn’t want to misfire and risk changing before he could finish the job. Fear and dread tumbled around inside of him with his fatigue, and the weird imagery of his nightmares began to echo in his mind’s eye. He felt as if he were going crazy. This must be it. He lifted the heavy gun and placed the barrel against his temple, holding his other hand in front of his face, watching. Blood pumped visibly in the large vein on his wrist. Snarls and growls echoed through his mind. His finger pressed down on the trigger, and it moved ever so slightly. He could hear the smooth mechanics of the weapon as metal shifted against metal.

Suddenly, there was a loud ripping sound outside his door, like a tree falling, and a boioioing... that warbled and faded in the distance. Crashes and bangs in a cacophonic symphony clattered through the walls, punched through by a loud BANG that must have been the TV falling from its stand. The snarling and growling were louder now, and obviously not from his own mind, and they were interspersed with strange squishing and slurping sounds.

Parker slid the gate away from the door and began undoing the locks. This is crazy, he thought, but he hugged the gun close to him with his other hand. The squishing and slurping were now in a rhythm with the snarls and growls and seemed to come from the kitchen. When he undid the final lock, he pushed on the door, but it didn’t open. The outside lock!

He threw his shoulder against the door, and it cracked in the middle. He smelled metal and earth. The loud, rhythmic sounds continued, uninterrupted. He tried again. And again. Finally, on the fourth attempt, the door broke open in the middle with a crunching snap, and he fell out into the main room of the house. It was completely dark except for the bright swath of moonlight from the window behind him.

The sounds stopped, and Parker saw what was happening in his kitchen. There were two black shapes, like giant, elongated dogs, with huge white teeth and red eyes that reflected the moonlight. Their fur was matted and slick, and they were writhing together in a large pool of shiny black blood that looked like tar in the monochrome light of the moon. They were wrapped around each other, and there were large, pale chunks of something scattered around their intermingled bodies.

The two dark shapes were frozen in time, staring at him, and Parker took the image in as if the moment were an eternity, realizing at once that those pale shapes were human body parts. There was a small head on its side by their feet, looking at him with dead eyes.

It was Clayton.

Parker lifted the gun and fired.

Blam!

The room lit up with a flash of orange light that left him blind in the echoing squeal of his ringing ears. He fell back against the wall and turned, running behind the couch, which flew away from him and crashed against the far wall. He fired wildly, and the room lit up again, giving him a single frame of the action.

He had missed, and the werewolf towered above him on its hind legs, but the other dark shape was motionless on the floor of the kitchen, where it had been before, and was now smaller.

In the darkness, he felt a warm, wet weight crush against his chest, with coarse fur that smelled like moss and rotting meat, and his shoulder lit up with hot pain as he heard a squishing crunch break through the squeal in his head. He felt teeth, like ceramic knives, digging into his flesh and grinding against the bones of his shoulder. The werewolf let go and snarled, and he saw its mouth in the light of the window as his eyes readjusted to the dark. It was a huge, open maw lined with violent, porcelain teeth. It pulled its head back and began to lunge forward again.

The room lit up with another flash of orange, and it fell against him with a whimper. Parker felt the warm shape changing as it pressed against his body, and the room went bright, lit up by the bulb above where the kitchen table had been. He looked down and saw that there was a naked woman pressed against him, covered in blood. He screamed and pushed the body off of him, and as it fell, face up on the floor, he saw that it was his mother.

“Ah, shit Barb, we’re too late.” Parker looked up and saw Mr. McClatchy standing in his kitchen with a large rifle, and Mrs. McClatchy emerged from behind him, armed with a pistol.

“Oh, Edgar,” she mourned. “That poor thing.”

The two older people stood looking down at him as the chaos of the moment faded into calm. Parker was aware of his breathing; his chest rose and fell in giant peaks. Blood ran down his arm from the giant wound on his shoulder. The pain was both dull and sharp, and seemed to spread out across his whole upper body. It seemed to be growing by the second. The bones in his right arm felt like they were changing shape.

“Look away, dear,” said Mr. McClatchy with a worried frown, and he raised his rifle.


 

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