Eh, Real Monsters from NEPA by Michelle Adler (from Campfire Stories to Tell in the Dark)
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"I don't know about the new kid, don't you think he's a little weird?" Tom McKullah whispered, leaning slightly over his desk to get closer to his friend.
"A little weird? C'mon, he's a freak" Jacob nodded. They both snickered. In front of them sat Patrick Marshall-Sherwood III, the aforementioned new kid. His incredibly formal sounding name wasn't really befitting his posture: hunched over, staring at his desk and wincing at their laughter. His dyed black shoulder length hair, eye liner, and all black wardrobe should have succeeded in making him look dangerous, but in reality it just made him look tired and pale.
I have to admit, I felt bad for the kid. The rumor around school was that his dad had been killed by a pack of feral dogs while he and Patrick were cramping somewhere in the mountains of Georgia. Patrick had somehow escaped meeting his end there, but he hadn’t gotten away easily. His face and arms were covered in a multitude of deep, gnarly scars from the event. A permanent reminder that he, and only he, had survived something truly horrible, and not by much. To be fair, he'd have been an ugly kid even without the scars. He was just a little too lanky and awkward for me to believe he’d ever been cool. Life ain't really fair, I guess.
I didn’t know how much, if any, of the story was just dumb rumors. I wasn’t even sure if Georgia had mountains. But if it was true, he'd picked just the worst town to move to if he and his mom were trying to escape their tragic past. Our town, located in a quiet corner of Northeastern Pennsylvania was mostly rural, encompassing part of the valley and a lot of the surrounding woods. That might sound fine, though maybe boring on paper, but incidents involving feral dogs had always been common here. Usually it was just pets and small animals that went missing, but lately some cows had been found halfway eaten dotting the nearby farms, so more people were on edge than usual. Not really a vacation from their grief, is what I mean.
So back to the story, those chuckle-heads kept up with their insults for a while. Calling him every name they could think of, poking him, sticking gum on his back, you name it. You'd probably have thought that our English teacher, Mrs. Alder, just kept blathering on about Shakespeare during all of this. I wished she’d take notice, but she was so hard of hearing that I wasn't sure she could even hear what she was saying half of the time. She was so old and fragile looking that I often wondered if she escaped a nursing home every morning just to come teach us.
It wasn’t fair though. I sat directly behind Tom, in the last row of desks, against the window, like a true delinquent I was, bouncing my leg, waiting for, I don’t know, a sign that I should jump in. I'm not proud of the fact that it took Patrick brushing teardrops off his desk for me to do something. I reached forward and punched the back of Tom's chair hard enough to get everyone, including our teacher’s attention. "Stop making fun of him or the next thing I punch will be your face!" I shouted. I saw Tom and Jacob flinch from behind.
"Marisa!" Mrs. Alder spat sternly, miraculously cured of her partial deafness for a moment, "How many outbursts do we really need to have this week??"
"But they were--" I tried.
"No one will be picking on poor Patrick in my classroom. It's not his fault he's covered with horrible scars!" She continued. I watched Patrick cringe and the whole class began to giggle. There I go again, making matters worse.
I left school late that day long after the buses and carpools had gone. Basically my normal routine. Gotta make sure I don't run into any trouble. You see, like our scarred up sad boy, I too was the subject of the other kids' hatred. But unlike him, I actually knew how to stand up for myself and could hold my own in a fight. Still, I didn't like to start trouble, I just relished in it when it came calling. But even if I won, bites and scratches do hurt after all, so it was better to avoid the rest of the student body when we were unsupervised. Especially in the middle of the afternoon, in broad daylight. Who needs that kind of attention?
However on this particular day, waiting until my usual time, 4pm, to leave wasn’t enough. I pushed open the side entrance and there was Patrick. He sat on the curb, his posture the same as earlier, the cool autumn breeze blowing his hair over his face. I held my breath, trying to be comically quiet and sneak away before he noticed. I just wanted to get home and not do my homework. Until again, I realized he was crying.
I sighed and plopped myself down next to him, "Waiting for your folks to pick you up?" Oh right, I forgot, dead dad.. "Your mom, running late?" I corrected myself.
"I don't think she's coming," he said softly, continuing to focus on the puddle of tears collecting on the asphalt. I realized this was the first time I’d heard him speak. "She's been different since... I can tell she doesn’t like to look at me. Sometimes I think she forgets me on purpose. I would just try to walk back, but I don't know how to get home from here. I can’t even look it up because a couple of the kids from class pushed me and my phone broke my fall."
"You just gonna sit here all night then?"
"I was hoping to. I like the dark." I honestly couldn't tell if that line was supposed to be sarcastic.
"C'mon tell me where you live, I'll walk you home." I offered as I stood up and brushed myself off.
"You're not going to trick me, leave me halfway and steal my wallet, right?" He asked expectantly.
"Well geez, not anymore I'm not."
Patrick let out a little chuckle. Okay, maybe we could make this work.
"I'm Marisa," I said helping him up, "and I promise I won't hurt you. Us freaks gotta stick together."
As it turned out, Patrick only lived one block over from me in the cute little cape cod that old Mr. Patel owned before he got sick and had to move in with his kids. It was great because I didn’t really have to go out of my way, but also a little sad because I only live six blocks from the school. He was crying over a ten minute walk. I agreed to help him find his way back to school the next morning and walk home with him again the following afternoon. Like I said, freaks need to stick together.
"So is it true about what happened to your dad?" I asked on our walk home the following afternoon. Patrick stopped dead in the center of the sidewalk.
"Isn't it obvious it is?" He touched one of the scars on his arm tenderly. "My dad is dead, my mom probably blames me, and I look like some villain from a slasher film. My life is totally ruined."
"Oh..that's a little dark, dude.. I'm sorry"
"No, it's better if I just lean into it. I'm a monster now and I have to get used to it, “ he sighed.
"Us monsters gotta stick together" I said like it was my tag-line or something.
"Marisa,” he said bluntly, “you are not a monster." I furrowed my brow.
He was silent the rest of the walk home. I felt bad for bringing up his dad and wouldn’t have blamed him if I didn’t even get a goodbye, but when he was halfway up his driveway he stopped. "Marisa, I need to tell you something," he began without turning around, "can you keep a secret?"
"What did I say five minutes ago about us sticking together?"
Patrick paused for a long time like he was having trouble finding the right words. "Listen, you're going to think I'm crazy and that's okay, even I think I'm crazy sometimes..” he clenched his fists tightly at his sides, “…but when we were camping, w-when those dogs showed up, they attacked me first. My dad fought so hard to stop them and lure them away from me, that's why he's dead and I'm just this... thing now.."
"It's not your fault--"
"No that's not what I mean. When I was lying there, when they were tearing my dad to shreds, I could have sworn I heard them talking to each other. I could have sworn they were laughing... what does that even mean? I guess it’s possible that I was delirious from blood loss, but if that’s true then how come even now, when it’s really quiet, I can almost still hear them laughing?" His voice was shaking. At this point he was staring directly at me again, his eyes full of fear.
"Are you saying--"
"I don't think they were dogs, I think they were... something else"
“Wolves maybe?” I offered.
Patrick let out a little pitiful laugh. "No, not wolves. So, now you know the truth, I'm crazy. Nice knowing you."
"I don't think you're crazy, Patrick" I said, not sure if I was lying or not. “Either way I don’t think that’s a good enough reason for us to stop hanging out.”
He smiled in a mix of confusion and relief, “Thanks Marisa.”
It seemed that letting someone else share his secret took a lot of weight off of the poor guy’s shoulders because after that, he was a lot more outgoing around me. The edges of his sadness had been sanded down a little and he actually let me get to know him.
And as it turned out, Patrick was a pretty good kid. We were into the same comics and video games and even got each others humor. We walked to and from school together every day for the next couple weeks and my mom let him stay for dinner most nights and sleep over on the weekends.
As much as I considered myself something of a lone wolf, I had to admit it felt good to have someone around that really got me. So that's what it's like to have friends, huh?
Things stayed good for a while. When the other kids realized that I’d taken him under my wing, a lot of the bullying stopped. And when he was picked on, he had gotten pretty good at standing up for himself. This however, leads us to the incident that threatened to shatter the small bit of peace we’d begun to carve out for ourselves.
So we were about three weeks in. Tom and Jacob, the only two kids still brazen enough to constantly mess with Patrick, had come up with a new way to get under his skin. You see, whenever Patrick tried to speak in class, or passed them in the hallway, or even entered a room, they’d howl like wolves. Because it was a relatively easy and safe way to upset him, they were usually able to get whoever else was around to howl along with them. I know it doesn’t sound that bad, but after three days of it Patrick wasn’t looking too good.
It happened in Mrs. Alder’s class, as most bad things did. Man, she was a terrible teacher and was discussing another terrible book that they tell you is a classic and has all this symbolism, but was just written by some dumb guy who probably didn’t even know what symbolism was.
“So who can tell me why they think the author decided to make the badge red?” She asked. Everyone stayed perfectly still, dead eyed, hoping to avoid being called on and having to discuss colors. Well, everyone except Patrick. He actually raised his hand. “Ah yes, Mr. Marshall-Sherwood, please enlighten us.”
“You see, there’s not actu--” Was all I could hear before a cacophony of howling delinquents overtook his quiet voice.
“Now students, settle down and let him finish. You can howl all you want on the bus home.” She said sternly in her traditional tone deaf sort of way. Silence returned to the room.
Patrick tried again “There’s not actually a--” The howling returned, then quickly abated.
“Not actually a reas--” Howling then silence again. “A reason tha--” Howling then silence. This pattern continued for a tragically long time. I thought maybe he’d be struggling to say that one sentence for the rest of the class, until during that last interruption, I saw something change in his eyes. Patrick had finally snapped.
He waited patiently for the noise to calm and took a deep breath, “Let me start over. There’s not actually a reason,” this time he didn’t stop when they began again, he just slowly turned to Tom, who was directly behind him, grabbed by the collar, and punched him in the face repeatedly all the while continuing to relay his point about the book. When he was done Tom's face was a mess and there was no more howling ever again.
The rest isn’t really important. Patrick went to the principal’s office and got detention for the rest of the week, and Tom went to the nurse and got everyone’s sympathy. Even though he’d gotten in trouble, Patrick’s attitude drastically improved. Detention was a small price to pay for being able to speak again.
This did mean that we couldn’t walk home together for a while, though. On Fridays he would usually pack an overnight bag and come straight home with me for the weekend, but with detention and his mom grounding him for beating Tom to a bloody pulp, Patrick told me we’d have to skip our normal weekend hangout. I was actually relieved to hear it. It was a weird time of the month for me and our hangout would have been super awkward. I felt I’d dodged a major bullet and was also thrilled that his mom was paying enough attention to know he’d gotten in trouble... and that she actually seemed to care.
I expected an easy Friday night so I was surprised that as I finished washing the dishes from dinner and turned off the water, I was alerted to a frantic knocking at our front door.
“Maybe Patrick’s mom had changed her mind?” I figured, disregarding the overwhelming panic that seemed to loom in the constant banging. I was totally shocked when the opening door revealed none other than the devil himself, Tom Mckullah, still bruised from his run in earlier in the week, panting hard.
“Why are you here?” I asked, I really couldn’t think of a single reason he’d want anything to do with me.
He tried to catch his breath, “I-- Where’s Patrick?” He pleaded.
“What, you want a rematch?”
“No, no, listen. I think I messed up--” He was still trying to catch his breath. Had he ran all the way here?
“You want to apologize? Well, he isn’t here. He’s at home, grounded.” I was ready to close the door and get back to my evening.
“No he isn’t, I went there first. His mom said he never came home after detention. I was hoping I was wrong and that he’s here, but-- oh no, I really messed up..” His voice trembled.
“What are you trying to say, Tom?” Maybe I already knew.
“My dad was pretty upset that I got beat up and I was really angry so I said some things about Patrick that maybe I shouldn’t have. You know we own the farm on Schuylkill Rd, right? And you know some of our animals have been killed lately, right? Well, he-- he thinks… ” Tom struggled with how to say the next part. I could feel adrenaline creeping into my limbs. “I heard him talking to his friends this afternoon and I saw him load silver bullets into his shotgun. Marisa, he knows.”
Everything felt fuzzy, “Where would they take him?” I had to think clearly.
“There’s woods on our property,15 acres of it. We can basically do anything we want out there.” “Ok.” I pushed him out of the way and proceeded down my steps. The sky was already turning pink and purple with the coming of evening. There was no more time. There was going to be a full moon tonight.
“Wait, I’ll come with!”
“No! It’s dangerous and you’ve messed up enough!” I thundered, not bothering to look back. “This is why we don’t tell adults things, they always get all murder-y!”
“Marisa, you have to understand, I didn’t mean for this to happen! Sure, I’ve been messing with Patrick, but I would never want him to get…” He paused “...hurt. I tried to stop my dad, tried to pretend I was lying about the whole thing, but he’s so set on, well, you know, that he wouldn’t listen to me.” I turned toward the direction of the farm and took off running. “Marisa!” Tom called out, but he was far behind me now. There was no way I could be there before the sun went down, but maybe I could still get there in time to stop them.
By the time I reached Tom’s family's farm the last threads of daylight were fading from the sky. I was exhausted, but confident that I was about to get my second wind. The woods were dark and cool and I could feel myself returning to my senses. I picked up speed, heading in the direction I was now confident I would find them.
“Please let me make it in time.”
Eventually distant chatter alerted me to Patrick's location. I approached quietly, hiding myself in the underbrush while I gauged the situation. Crickets and frogs had begun to sing in the blackness of the evening. Seven adults with flashlights were gathered in a circle. I couldn't see him, but I knew Patrick was in the center. Each man was carrying a firearm on his shoulder or holding one in his hand. I was not relieved to confirm that Tom had been telling me the truth.
"Please! I don't understand what you're talking about. What would I want with cows? I’m a vegetarian!" A voice that had to be Patrick’s pleaded. In the back of my mind, I got a weird feeling that something wasn't right, but brushed it off.
"Listen, we know it was you. I mean, a kid who’s been attacked by “feral dogs” shows up and we just coincidentally start losing livestock? You don’t need to be a statistician to see the connection,” A man that was probably Tom’s dad was saying, “Confess now and maybe we'll be kind enough to let you live out the rest of your life in a cage!”
"I swear I didn’t do anything bad. I don’t know what you’ve heard, but please, I’m telling you the truth!" Patrick begged.
"We'll see about that in a minute. Any minute now--" Mr. McKullah said looking up at the sky.
One of the other men cocked his rifle "I'm tired of waiting, let's get this over with, I'm missing my shows!" A few of them then began to argue about the merits of killing my friend now as opposed to later and that was really enough for me. I moved forward slightly, twigs snapping under my weight, and let out a loud, guttural cry that just about shook the earth. The entire forest went completely silent and stayed that way. I saw fear overtake the murderous group as they tried to find the source of the noise.
I emerged confidently from my hiding place. "Let him go!" I howled. The blood collectively drained from their faces as they got a look at me. I positioned myself to look as large as possible, my dense wiry hair standing on end, teeth exposed in a snarl, saliva dripping from my jagged mouth.
They pointed their guns in my direction, but I charged forward and latched onto the closest one, pulling it away from its owner and smacking him in the head with it. He hit the ground with the resounding thud. I bit into the rifle and broke it into pieces with my massive jaws as easily as if it had been a cracker.
"You really think your tiny bullets can stop me?!" I wailed. They inched back, still surrounding Patrick, but I was winning. Just one more push. "Get out of here before I do the same thing to you that I did to those cows."
"Guys, shoot him already!" Oh thanks, Mr. McKullah.
"I’ve had enough!" I lunged at them ready to do whatever I had to, but that was enough to send them running for their lives, scurrying away like the cockroaches they were.
“Cowards,” I huffed.
Patrick was still on the ground. His hands were tied and he looked a little beaten up. He stared up at me, his whole body shaking in fear. I poked my nose in closer and sniffed at his face trying to wrap my mind around the situation. Then went for his hands. He flinched at my hot breath, not seeming to realize that I was chewing through the ropes and not his fingers.
"It’s okay, you're okay" I assured him, but he was just hopelessly confused.
Suddenly his posture shifted, "Marisa? You’re-- Why are you a werewolf?"
"Patrick. Why are you not a werewolf?"
"I don't know how to answer that.. you aren't going to eat me, are you?"
"Well, not anymore I'm not,” I groaned, “Us monsters gotta stick together after all.”
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