A sleepy town has always had dark secrets but when young people turn up dead, mutilated and partially eaten a brother and sister decide they have no choice but to find out who's killing the townspeople.
The Wolf of Fagan County by David O'Hanlon
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Maybe Whistler was a nice town once. It seemed that way until the summer of ’86. The old folks always whispered about certain places—about the places you don’t go and the boogeymen that dwelled within. Everyone in Fagan County knew a local ghost story. Back then, I loved to hear those stories. Nowadays, not so much. My dad trucked crops from the farms into the neighboring states of Louisiana and Mississippi. I didn’t see much of him. He left before dawn and got home after sunset. The day before my thirteenth birthday, he took a load to Shreveport. I awoke to a stack of used horror comics the next morning with a note that read “You’re old enough for the good ones now, soldier.” I loved the way those pages smelled. After all these years, I still have a couple of them in the suitcases I live out of. I’d read through the entire bundle in a week. I flipped through them and found the one I’d enjoyed the most for a second visit when my mother called from downstairs. “Connie! Come quick,” she shouted. I hated when she called me that. It was bad enough being named Conrad. The effeminate nickname caught on with my friends in second grade… and then with the rest of the student body by the end of recess. Something sounded off in her voice as I trudged down the narrow staircase that descended into the kitchen. Mom was sitting at the table with her elbows pressing into the vinyl top and her hands hiding her face. My sister, Lisa, had her head down, shrouded in her arms. Her body convulsed as she bawled noisily inside. I held my breath all the way to the table. No one spoke to me as I slid the chair away from the edge and eased into it. Mom reached over and put her hand on mine. “Something terrible’s happened,” she whispered. Something terrible had happened a few weeks ago, too. And a few weeks before that. We’d discussed both of those events as a family. No one was crying then. Sure, Mom had been shaken up by the discovery of the first body, but it seemed like nothing to worry about. We all knew Old Man McGarrah from around town. He would pop out like a magician’s rabbit to grump about what a bunch of slack-jawed hippy-spawn all the kids were whenever you least expected it. The police said it was a heart attack that took him and that coyotes took to eating his remains. Grotesque and unseemly as it were, my folks delivered the news to my sister and me with just the facts and reminded us to stay away from the woods. Coyotes rarely attacked people, but Dad said there’s something different about any animal—including man—once they got a taste for blood. The second time we were called to the table, it was clearly more bothersome. Mom wasn’t handling it well, but she remained calm as she told us about the bodies found out along County Road 63. A couple of teens gone to make out got cut up real bad. Chief Hardesty said it was just a freak occurrence—a crime of opportunity—and that the killer was likely long gone. Our parents told us to be home thirty minutes before sundown after that and to never go anywhere alone, just in case. This time was different. “Connie,” she started, tugging at the silver locket dangling from her thin neck. Her voice trembled. “It’s Brenda.” My stomach knotted. Brenda Knowles had been Lisa’s best friend since kindergarten. She’d babysat for me on a few occasions and came to eat dinner with us every Wednesday. She was my first crush too. I sniffled, but held back any other reaction until Mom could finish. Maybe it wasn’t what I thought. Maybe those old Tales from the Crypt comics were poisoning my imagination the way Father Dean said they would at youth service. Maybe she was moving away. That would explain why they were so upset. “Chief Hardesty found her this morning,” Mom continued. Nope. It was exactly what I thought it was. I don’t remember the exact moment that I realized the killings were a month apart, but I do remember Lisa raising her face to stare at Mom and then me in turn. Her lips quivered and then she stood up fast enough to knock the chair to the floor. She slammed her fists onto the table and screamed. That I’ll never forget. That look… and those words. “She was eaten!”
Lisa cried until she passed out that night. I watched the news with Mom to see if the police had anything to say. The station’s newest reporter, Rex Willits, looked like he’d been sick as he raised the microphone close to his chin. His hand shook slightly and his trademark smile was nothing but a thin line of white teeth below his bushy mustache. Rex nodded slowly and started his report when the phone rang in the kitchen and Mom went to answer. “I’m here at the Ridley Funeral Home in Fagan County to report on a grisly, unimaginable crime,” Rex started. He swallowed hard. “The body of fifteen-year-old Brenda Knowles was found just before dawn this morning. Brenda had been babysitting for family friends the prior evening. She started the short walk to her home just before eleven pm.” I turned my attention to Mom’s shouting in the kitchen. “What do you mean ‘two days,’ Paul?” she growled. “It doesn’t take two damn days to get a mechanic.” Dad’s truck broke down. That happened a lot when he was hauling rice to Shreveport. Only then, though. Mom noticed too. She had a pretty good idea of what was going on. “What about the kids?” she wailed. “You know what’s going on here! You’re leaving us alone so you—” Her voice became muffled and I scooted closer to the television to hear what Rex had to say. I heard the phone slam against the receiver several times and Mom stomping up the steps. “I’ve seen the body… my God in Heaven, I’ll never unsee it now,” Rex said when movement caught his attention. He snapped his fingers and pointed his cameraman in the direction of the police chief. Other reporters rushed in around him. Rex elbowed one of them out of his way and reached out with his mic. “Don’t you buzzards have anything better to do?” Chief Hardesty barked. “A child is dead for Christ’s sake.” “How?” Rex asked. “How did she die?” “Violently,” Hardesty answered in his low, gruff drawl. “Is this related to last month’s double homicide?” a woman’s voice asked. “We don’t have conclusive evidence linking the two, this early in the investigation,” Hardesty said. His shoulders sagged. “There are… similarities.” “Were the other victims missing flesh and muscle?” Rex quizzed him. “Were there bite marks on them as well?” Hardesty glared at Rex and then spoke with forced restraint. “At this time, I’m asking all residents of Whistler and the outlying areas to stay indoors at night. The curfew is merely a request, however.” The wail of sirens cut the report short. We wouldn’t find out until the morning that they’d found another body. Crazy Delores lived in a shack on the edge of town. She sold herbal remedies and told fortunes for a dollar. No one knew how long she’d been dead. I climbed into bed, but didn’t dare go to sleep. I opened a comic and thought about Dad. Maybe the rig really broke down, but I didn’t buy it. He was spending time with some woman. In a strange way, that made me feel better. He was more worried about getting laid than he was about the killer on the loose, so maybe it wasn’t a big deal. My door creaked open and Lisa slipped through the gap. I laid the comic down. I didn’t know what to say. ‘Sorry your best friend was brutally murdered and partially eaten’ really didn’t seem like it’d help the situation. Then again, ‘we’re going to find Brenda’s killers’ wasn’t a winner either, but that’s exactly what Lisa said as she leaned on my dresser. I gawked at her and waited what felt like an eternity for her to say something else. “Look, Connie,” she started, then paused and chewed her bottom lip. “Chief Hardesty is a scumbag. He’s going to pin all this on the first person that ain’t Baptist enough for him. Then the murderer is just going to drift away.” I was still too young to know how common that sort of thing was around there. Or what kind of a man Baxter Hardesty really was. I did want to make sure that Brenda’s killer got caught, however. “The killings are about a month a part,” I said, hesitantly, unsure of exactly what I’d discovered. I shrugged. “What if the killer travels and just stops through here every few weeks?” “Or lives here and returns home once a month?” Lisa offered. “Dad’s friend, Ted, is a long-haul driver.” I remembered. Ted tried to convince Dad to work with him all the time. I also remembered Ted coming to my birthday party. I shook my head. “I’m pretty sure he’s out of town now.” I scratched the two recently sprouted hairs on my chin. “What about a delivery driver? Brown’s only gets a few deliveries a month.” Lisa thought it over and nodded. “Okay, we’ll go by and see when they got a delivery.” Thinking the conversation was done, I lifted my comic. “What is that, Connie?” Lisa asked, shakily. “What are you reading?” I closed the issue and looked down at the cover. Bright yellow eyes stared up at me above fangs dripping blood over a broken skull. I looked up to my sister. I knew what she was thinking and I wanted to tell her she was stupid. I wanted to, but I didn’t. The same thought hit me when I looked at those fierce yellow orbs on the black cover. My stomach pitched as I thought about the recent events. My eyes left the stare of the beast and met my sister’s. “It’s a werewolf,” I finally said.
We tried to put the notion back into our imaginations—where werewolves were supposed to stay. Lisa and I rode our bikes to Brown’s General Store just past noon. The curfew officially started at sundown and was no longer a request. Not that it mattered. The streets were already deserted. The baseball card sputtering in the bike spokes signaled the arrival of Brad Breaker. Brad was between Lisa and myself in age, so he hung out with both of us. He was the definition of cool with his acid-washed jeans and his torn, mid-riff, Bruce Springsteen t-shirt. Brad could play guitar… and football. He was also muscular, with aquiline features and sandy blonde hair that made him look like Patrick Swayze in Red Dawn and made Lisa’s brain stop working. “My mom spazzed when I said I was leaving.” Brad looked at the grocery store and turned back to us. “But you said it was an emergency.” “You won’t get in trouble, will you?” Lisa asked. “Nah.” Brad shrugged. “My old man said experience builds character… and that I need to bring back more Folgers.” “Lucky this is our first stop,” I said. “So, why are we here?” Lisa looked to me. Telling him our theory would have been the right thing to do, but she thought he was cute and hoped I, being closer to the childish age to believe such things, would do it for her. I did not. “We want to find Brenda’s killer,” I said and waved at the street. “Everyone’s scared to death. We want to help.” “Why?” Brad asked. “I mean, why do you think you can do it faster than the police?” I removed the wrinkled, somewhat-neatly folded newspaper clippings and handed them to him. “Mister McGarrah died and his corpse was eaten by coyotes. That’s what they say, anyhow. There’s been a killing, at the same time, every month since. Each of those victims was partially eaten as well,” I said, rattling off the facts as quickly as I could. “I think the killer comes to town once a month.” “We think the murderer might be a delivery person or truck driver. So, we want to ask the Browns if they’ve gotten any shipments this week,” Lisa added. “Gnarly.” Brad nodded slowly. “Let’s get to work.” The Browns deliveries turned up bupkis. We checked with every business in town for the same results. That theory was as dead as Brenda, which left us with only one other possibility. A quarter till seven, we stopped by the ice cream shoppe and got sundaes for a quick sugar rush before dinner. I debated sharing the werewolf idea. I’d been trying to dismantle it as we asked around. If it was a werewolf, why’d the killings start only recently? Was anyone acting differently around town? Was anyone new? What made someone a werewolf? So many questions, but none of them ruled out the possibility. “What if… it’s stupid.” Brad said, staring up at the now full moon. “What if it’s a werewolf?” Lisa choked and stared at me wide-eyed over puffed cheeks full of banana split. “I mean, my pops tells me to stay away from Snyder Creek because some kids died back in the ’20s. Everyone says that was a monster. Why couldn’t this be one?” “Darn it!” I snapped my fingers and scooted my chair back with a screech of steel feet against the sidewalk. “Why didn’t I think of that?” “Think of what?” Lisa asked. “I’ve heard that story too,” I answered. “The Snyder Creek Ghoul. They never found out what really happened. Lisa, we need to go to the library and see if we can find any old papers about that.” “Not a chance, Connie.” She pointed at the sherbet skyline. “We need to get home before dark. It’s a long ride.” “The library’s probably already closed, anyway,” Brad offered. “The cops are never going to believe us,” Lisa said. “After tonight, he’ll just be a man,” I reassured her. “We’ll have a month to find out who the werewolf is and prove it.” “Crap!” Brad let his head hang. “Most non-triumphant.” “What?” Lisa and I asked in unison. “I forgot the coffee.” He put a foot on a pedal. “I’m going to hustle to Brown’s. See you later.” He wouldn’t.
Brad’s body wasn’t found for six days. Worst of all, strange as it sounds to say it like a bad thing, he didn’t get eaten. It would be a while before Lisa drew a startling conclusion from the fact. The curfew started an hour earlier afterwards. A citizen’s patrol was organized as well. It wasn’t much more than a dozen yokels with spotlights and guns driving the paved roads, however. They wouldn’t go down the miles of gravel paths where there weren’t any streetlights to keep them safe. They didn’t find the werewolf, either. All they accomplished was shooting a drifter who was busking at the Crispy Chi’ken Truck Stop. Chief Hardesty tried to pin the murders on that poor soul, like Lisa had suspected he would. No one was buying it. By that point, Dad had decided that between the new woman and a monster running roughshod back home, he had all the reason he needed to move to Louisiana. He came while we were asleep to collect his things. We spent every day tracking down information and investigating whatever absurd idea came to us. It was two nights before the next full moon when Lisa told me her troublesome theory. “He didn’t eat Brad because he was warning us,” she said, somberly across the table. The local library had few books on lycanthropy. We’d been reading them every night and comparing them to the two clippings we had from 1926 when the Snyder Creek Ghoul had struck. I put the piece of paper I was using as a bookmark between the pages of the tome and closed it. “What do you mean?” I whispered. “We were asking around about delivery schedules, about people from out of town.” She shook her head. “The wolf isn’t a stranger. We know him and he heard us asking. He wants us to leave him alone.” I checked my watch and reached under the table, wrestling with the zipper of my fanny pack. “Then he shouldn’t have killed our friends,” I growled. I pulled my prize and set it where Lisa could see with a heavy thump. Her eyes widened at the sight of cold, blue steel. “Dad forgot it when he packed,” I told her and lifted the Saint Christopher medallion our aunt had given me for my birthday. “I’ve got this and six silver dollars. We can make two or three bullets with that.” “We don’t know how to make bullets.” “Otto Dickens does,” I pointed out. “We have time to get to his store and back home if we go right now.” “We’re not hunting the damn thing, Connie!” Lisa stood quickly and looked around at the mostly empty library. She lowered her voice. “We should stop this.” “If he killed Brad to scare us off, then he knows who we are. We need the bullets regardless.” Her face twisted with contempt. She knew I was right and scooped her backpack before heading to the exit. We rode our bikes to the fork in the road—left to our house or right to Otto Dickens’ gun shop. Lisa didn’t speak as she leaned and pulled her Schwinn down the righthand street. I smiled softly and followed. Most families in Whistler had lived no further away than the county line for generations. Otto just seemed to appear one day. Despite what you might’ve heard about southern hospitality, it doesn’t apply to strangers. Otto had an uncanny ability with firearms, however. Small towns of rural Arkansas might’ve hated strangers, but they certainly loved their guns. Otto was soon a welcomed member of the community and set up a shop on the far side of town, a couple miles past the old cemetery. The tarnished bell over the door announced our arrival with whatever-the-hell a bell’s version of smoker’s cough is. Otto looked up from the reloading station, his face twisted with curiosity as two teens entered his tiny store. A long scar parted his wild, white beard on the left side of his face. He held up the cartridge he was working on between his thumb and index finger. “Best goddamn rifle round in history,” he said in a voice that sent a shiver racing up my spine. “Forty-five-seventy. I kept a chopped down Winchester in this caliber for clearing tunnels. Can’t hear much of shit anymore as a result, but it could turn old Victor Charlie inside-out in those confined spaces. You ever shot a man?” Lisa and I exchanged bewildered glances. How many kids could say ‘yes’? “Didn’t think so.” Otto deposited the finished cartridge into the cardboard box beside him. “Well, what can I help you with then? Too early for hunting.” “Not what we’re hunting,” I said. Lisa elbowed me in the ribs and cleared her throat. “You can make bullets, right?” “Reckon I can.” Lisa held out her hand and I gave her the items from my fanny pack. Otto left his stool and prowled to her. He bounced the coins and pendant in his palm. His amber eyes darted from one of us to the other before he snorted. “You want silver bullets.” He set the materials on his counter and shook his head. “That’s a shit idea. Silver’s too dense. It won’t take the rifling. Unless you plan on shooting a barn, you won’t be hitting nothing from more than a few feet. Muzzle velocity will nosedive too because the round is heavier than your powder load. They won’t mushroom either. They’ll go clean in and out. Shotshells. That’s what you need if you’re looking to use silver.” Lisa looked at me, completely lost in the gunsmith’s lesson in ballistic science. I didn’t understand it either. “We don’t have a shotgun,” I finally said. “We have a Chief’s Special .38.” “A snub-nose shooting silver bullets?” Otto burst with boisterous laughter. “Hell, you kids might as well slather yourselves in barbeque sauce and yell ‘here, puppy’ if you plan on fighting a werewolf with that set up.” My jaw fell open and I quickly glanced to my sister to find her in the same state. Otto put a hand on each of our shoulders. I hadn’t noticed before, but three of his fingers were missing from the one resting on me. He hunkered slightly to look us in the eyes. “Don’t look so surprised. Ain’t much else you could be doing with silver bullets.” He went behind the counter and pulled a sawed-off shotgun from beneath the register. My eyes drifted to the black tape wrapped around the walnut stock and the rough scratches where a serial number had been. “Reckon you can borrow this one. Going to take about an hour on the shells.” “You believe us?” I asked. “Lots of things in this world we pretend not to believe in no more. Pretend weren’t real in the first place.” He absently rubbed the scar on his cheek with the nubs of his fingers. “We pretend… until they start eating us.”
The sun was just an orange razor’s slash by the time we got home. We dropped our bikes in the yard and ran inside. The shotgun mostly fit inside Lisa’s backpack, so we could sneak it past Mom. Not that it mattered. All the lights were off and she wasn’t waiting for us like normal. I headed for the living room while she stashed the gun and changed clothes. “How are you, soldier?” a gruff, ragged voice asked from a darkened corner. The hairs prickled on the back of my neck at my dad’s pet name for me. He stepped out of the shadows. He looked different, and naked, as he gracefully scaled the back of the couch and perched on the cushion. The weak glow of the mail-order touch lamps shimmered on the sweat-slick hairs growing longer from his tight flesh. His elongated nails scratched at the thick, orange fabric of the sofa. “You can catch a lot from whores,” he said. He spoke slowly, like each word was new to him. Long strands of drool slung from his mouth as he flexed his jaw with a series of loud, painful pops. “Your ma knew. Tried to fix it with Crazy Delores.” His obsidian eyes focused on the coffee table. I saw Mom’s locket sitting there next to the half-full ashtray, still wet with blood. “It’s not just the bite,” he grumbled, his words becoming deeper and more inhuman. “It’s like the clap. I brought it home. Made her. McGarrah was… accident.” He shifted on the cushions. Things moved inside his body—bones and muscles realigning—and he whined like a dog in a sticker bush. He sprang over the table and landed inches from me. His nose twitched as he took in my scent. His lips didn’t touch anymore as the fangs locked together. Stiff fur covered his once chubby cheeks. “She couldn’t… control.” He growled. His teeth snapped in front of me. “I can. Join… pack… become. Come with me… soldier.” I quivered with fear. With hurt. With anger. I never suspected my parents. I needed answers. Lisa screamed and broke me out of his hypnotic gaze. His hand clamped over my mouth. He watched the stairs, waiting for Lisa to come down. I eased my hand to the fanny pack, wiggling my fingers to stretch the zipper without the noise. “Connie?” Lisa called. Dad sniffed the air. I watched his pointed ear twitch. He whipped his head back around to me and his eyes widened as the barrel pressed against his chest. The .38 was louder than I remembered. The bullets weren’t silver, but they did the trick. He fell backwards and crashed through the table. I fired the rest of them into his face while he was down. He screamed in pain behind me while I darted for the stairs. I slammed into Lisa who was clutching the shotgun. “I think there’s two of them!” she shouted. I wasn’t listening. I jerked the weapon from her hands and went to finish Dad off. Only, he wasn’t there. Two bloody bullets rolled in the debris of the coffee table. A shadow fell over me from the kitchen. I threw myself to the floor, narrowly dodging the swipe of my father’s claws. I rolled onto my back and he looked more monstrous than before. His face had contorted into a snout. The front window shattered, startling me. My finger tensed on the trigger and the silver buckshot tore through Dad’s thigh, obliterating the wood paneling beyond. I clamored up the stairs and Lisa pulled me to my feet by my collar. We ran into our parent’s room and slammed the door behind us. I screamed when I saw the body on the bed. It was Mom… but just barely. Her features were still deformed. Her body, still covered in the bristly fur of her new form. And her head hung from the gnawed throat by a few remaining strands of muscle. Everything Dad tried to tell me suddenly made sense. His new girlfriend turned him and he turned Mom. That’s how the werewolf knew we were snooping. Mom was doing the killing while Dad joined his new pack in Louisiana. I vomited at the foot of the bed. “What’s happening?” Lisa asked. Downstairs sounded like a dogfight. Snarls, yips of pain, furious barks, things breaking. I threw the door open and whipped around the corner with the shotgun raised and ready. Dad pounced onto the stairs. Blood gushed from wounds and he bared his fangs as he crawled up the steps toward me. I pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. I remembered duck hunting with him and then my own folly. I hadn’t chambered another round. He drew closer as I racked the slide, but it was too late. His claws opened deep furrows in my thigh and I toppled backwards. Then the other wolf came into view. It grabbed my father’s legs and pulled him down the steps before mounting his back. The beast howled victoriously and glared at me with amber eyes set in white fur. The monster clamped its fully formed jaws down on the back of Dad’s neck. I heard the wet snap of the spine as it shook its head from side to side. I stared at the long scar parting its fur, at the claws digging into its prey… and the missing fingers beside them. I pressed the barrel of the shotgun to the back of my father’s skull and fired. The white wolf slunk away. Brain matter and pieces of skull clung to its fur. I pumped the shotgun again. And then the beast was gone.
By morning, the bodies had fully reverted to their human forms. Chief Hardesty didn’t question anything. Dad was the killer and Mom was just a victim. We let him run with that story. Before our aunt could come and pick us up, we needed to take care of one more thing. We rode our bikes to Otto Dickens’ shop and found him assembling a pistol at his counter. “Reckon the police seized that gun,” he said, simply. “Yeah,” I answered. “Sorry, I guess.” I set my mother’s locket on the counter and looked at the gunsmith questioningly. “Wolfsbane.” He licked his lips. “It helps when you’re young, when the moon is still your master.” He finished the pistol he was working on and slipped it into a messenger bag. He pushed the kit over to me. “I haven’t killed anyone in a long time, in case you’re wondering,” he told us. “What do we do now?” Lisa asked. “Different breeds of wolf, the world over. My kind don’t have a pack here.” He pointed at the gauze around my leg. “Your old man’s kind does. You took from them. They’ll take from you. A wolf never forgets. You’re just rabbits now and there’s nothing left to do for a scared bunny, but to run.” We took the bag Otto prepared for us and left his shop. We didn’t go back to the house and wait for our aunt, though. We rode our bikes to the outskirts of Fagan County and hitched a ride at the Crispy Chi’ken. They caught up with us in St Louis three years later. I buried Lisa behind a city park. I rest in one place until I hear the bays of the pack on those bright, moonlit nights and then I disappear onto another stretch of asphalt. Always moving. Always staying ahead of the wolves. Always ready to remind them, that rabbits have teeth too. The End
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