/ A TALE OF GHOSTS AND GUARDIANS /
A Wolf in Man’s Clothing
A rusted out pickup truck zoomed by Will as he hiked into the small town of Karmouth with a roll of pelts slung over his shoulder. With autumnal sunshine providing a light cloak he strode past tiny brick homes heading for the center of town. Residents spied him in between raking leaves and hanging Halloween decorations as if they had not seen him walk the same path once a month for the previous six months.
Edwin Raab, who reeked from smoking three cigars a day, followed Will hawk-eyed until the young man disappeared around the street bend. Andrea Delmore tried to be more subtle, but her four-year-old daughter yelled clear enough to inform the whole town, "Momma, it’s him! He’s back again Momma!"
Will wished that he could shrug off the role of pariah, but the citizens of Karmouth were better off thinking he was a time displaced mountain man.
Having become such a mysterious figure in the town, the rare person who had not seen him by then would have been disappointed once they caught a glimpse. Stories led them to expect a tall man in his late fifties with wide shoulders, bulging arms, and a long graying beard that swung down to his thick legs. What they experienced instead was a stout teenage boy with coarse, jet black hair and stubble that never seemed to get any longer. He was an odd looking young man, they all agreed, but he couldn’t be quite as dangerous as he tried to appear.
Preparing himself, Will tightened his lips, adjusted the pelts on his shoulder, and plowed into the thick of the town.
The first stop on his list was the shop of Trader Gary. An blind veteran who would never identify which war he had fought in, Gary Pehlam bought and sold junk in Karmouth since before anyone could remember. Will liked that Gary had a past just as shrouded as his own. When Will first started coming into town one day of each month Gary was the second person to greet him with a friendly smile. The first was Gary’s German Shepherd, Crockett.
The bell dinged as Will swung the shop door open. Crockett let out a low growl that he replaced with a giant grin upon seeing Will.
"Hey there, Crockett! How are you doing boy?" Will crouched low to scratch the pup behind his ears. Crockett licked Will’s scruffy chin in response.
"Is it the middle of the month already?"
"What do you have for me this time?"
With Crockett at his hip, Will set the pelts on the counter and rolled them out before Gary. The blind man surfed his palm along the furs. "Nice. Very nice. You’ve outdone yourself, Will."
Will rolled the pelts back up as Gary unlocked the cash drawer. He fingered through stacks of folded bills before laying down three hundred worth in front of Will.
"You counted out three hundred," Will pointed out.
"I know. I may be blind, but I can still do math."
"I only need two hundred."
"Ever heard of a bonus?" Gary asked, yellow dulling the teeth beneath his glassy eyes. "Spend it, save it, I don’t care. Just enjoy it."
Will stared at the cash for far too long before snatching it up. He’d have to find something to spend it on later.
Gary locked the drawer and pulled a bag out from under the counter. The bag was filled with two pairs of jeans, five t-shirts, an extra large red hoodie, and a worn pair of sneakers.
"The latest in fall fashion," Gary chimed, "Or so I hear."
Will accepted the winter wear, but did not expect it to last through November.
Muffled church bells sounded through the shop door. Will scanned the walls for a clock. "What time is it?"
"Daytime," Gary quipped. "I’m guessing."
The shopkeeper reached under the counter and suddenly a digital voice intoned, "Nine fifty-nine, ay em."
"I’m going to be late."
Will shoved the surplus cash into the hoodie for safekeeping, and picked up the bag.
"Thanks for everything, Gary."
"See you next month!"
"Bye, Gary. Bye, Crockett!"
Will chugged three blocks down to St. Anthony’s, arriving just as the last bell’s ring faded into the cloudless sky. He crept through the large oak door and sat quietly in the last pew. Led by Father John, twelve others motioned the sign of the cross along with Will. He softly spoke, "Amen."
St. Anthony’s, along with the twelve parishioners, existed long before Will ever came to Karmouth. A cavernous brick building with marble floors, gorgeous stained glass windows, and mahogany woodwork, Father John’s words always rang as loud as the tower bells. Will’s favorite part of this church, and of all the churches he’d been in before settling in Karmouth, was the pews. He ran his fingers over the slick grooves in the wood and sucked in the scent of the finish every time he knelt, reminding himself that he was forgiven. That, despite his great sins, he had been saved.
Will spent the first twelve years of his life bouncing around foster homes in Missoula, Montana. He never knew his parents. No one did. A Jane Doe gave birth to him at St. Patrick Hospital, disappeared in the night, and was never seen again. His foster siblings would tease him because of this, and they quickly learned of Will’s incredibly short temper. The tantrums were a feral event, consisting of gnashing teeth, scratching fingernails, and jabbing feet, more than enough to have his bags packed and send him out the door.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son," Father John spoke, "That whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
The Conleys were the only Catholic family he’d stayed with, lasting not seven months, but the masses they attended and the lessons he took enthralled him completely. He requested baptism during the fifth month, and even though the following families--the Harbacks, the Kleins, and the Vollmers--were all Protestant, he would go to Catholic church every Sunday by himself.
"For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than light, because there deeds were evil."
Mr. Vollmer was fortunate enough to step in between Will and Alex. He died quickly with no understanding of what was happening as blood poured from his torn throat. Alex died next, only knowing that the boy he’d been pestering for having an unusual amount of facial hair had transformed into a seven-foot tall wolf with eight inch claws still dripping with his father’s gore. Mrs. Vollmer’s scream at the sight of her husband and son lying at the feet of the monster that used to be Will would be etched in his memory forever. She barely had enough time to collect her bearings and remember where her husband kept the rifle before Will was ripping through her chest. Little Catherine drew the worst fate. It’s not easy to hide in a closet as you hear your family die, trying to remain absolutely quiet, and praying that the monster does not find you. It is easy, however, for a wolf to sniff out his prey. Will showed no mercy.
He was thirteen.
"For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God."
After he’d finally calmed, when he was sure he was himself again, panic set in. A monster had been unleashed and he felt it would return soon. The knowledge frightened and thrilled him all at once, and the undeniable excitement filled him with even more dread. With no one to turn to for help and nothing but dark visions of his future in Missoula, Will chose a direction and walked away. Nearly five years later, he settled in an abandoned cabin in the woods just outside Karmouth.
Will swiftly slid out of the church after the closing sign of the cross. He grew more anxious the longer he stayed in the town, and he still had to visit the market for the last of his monthly supplies. The trip took him past the small high school where the eighty-three teenage students of Karmouth were enjoying the beginning of their lunches on the grassy courtyard out front. Their penetrating stares stood his hair on end, and he did his best to ignore their calls until he was safely out of sight. Unfortunately, this was when he’d reached the market, and he had to keep his frustration bottled tightly within. His skin crackled with itches he could not scratch.
He filled a small plastic basket with fresh fruit, vegetables, and cheeses, and while he perused the bread, the baker stepped up to him. "Looking for anything in particular? We do personal orders."
The baker was a young man, not much older than Will, with dark shaggy hair and a crooked smile. The tag on his bright blue apron read: KEVIN.
"Sourdough." As Will spoke the word, he found a loaf and plucked it from the shelf. "Thanks."
"Do you go to Karmouth High?" Kevin clearly wanted to start a conversation. Will wanted to walk away. "I graduated last May. Don’t remember seeing you there. You’re new in town, aren’t you?"
Will couldn’t tell if this baker was lying, or if he genuinely didn’t think what everyone else in Karmouth thought of Will. "I don’t go to the high school."
"You’re done with school," Kevin continued. "You look so young."
Will didn’t know what to say. Kevin took it to mean he had insulted Will.
"Sorry, you probably hear that a lot. Why did you come to Karmouth? Don’t mean to stick my nose where it don’t belong, it’s only that Karmouth is a place for people to leave, not come to. The Quinlans’ only child left twenty years ago to become a doctor, and only just came back a few years ago after Mister and Misses Quinlan died. You have family here, too?"
Will brought a swift end to the talking, "Sure." Then he spun around, only to smash his face into the broad chest of another young man.
"Whoa. Slow down, friend."
"Benny," Kevin said, trying to hide his disappointment. "Don’t you have a class to be in?"
Will stepped back from the tall Benny and discovered a beautiful teenage girl at his side, her fingers interlocked with Benny’s. "Lunchtime. Sharon and I broke out to get some food that hasn’t been sitting in a heat tray for a week. And we wanted to invite you to the Halloween party we’re having."
"Sure, I’ll be there."
Sharon handed Kevin a flyer then shifted her sight to Will, shocking him into realizing he’d been staring at her for over a minute. He quickly looked away until a flyer was thrust in his face. "You’ll come too, right?"
Will didn’t accept the flyer. "I can’t."
"Come on, bro, you look like a wild party animal. It’ll be fun. We’ll have a ton of food and drinks. My brother is going to get us a keg."
Will slowly rolled his eyes back to Sharon. "Plus," Benny added, "There will be lots of girls dressed as sexy vampires and witches."
"I’ll be a werewolf," Sharon offered with a flirtatious smile. Will considered the possibility for a moment.
Will started to push past them, but Benny held him back with a strong arm.
"I get it. Don’t worry. I’ve got a cousin that’ll be there. He just came out this summer and would love to meet you."
"I’m not--That’s not the problem."
"Then what is?" Benny thumped Will’s chest with his fist. "I’m being friendly here."
He sure didn’t sound like he was being friendly.
"I don’t know about you, but I was raised to accept party invitations with gratitude. Anything else is a spit in the face. Are you spitting in my face?"
Sharon tugged unsuccessfully on her boyfriend’s arm. "Benny, let him go."
"You don’t know me," Will growled, bristling at the presumption.
"You think you can strut into this town once a month and not get noticed? You stand out more that the Quinlan mansion and are twice as creepy."
"Benny!" Sharon protested. "The joke’s over."
"That’s enough, man," Kevin announced, still standing by Will.
"I want to know what he’s going to do." Benny brought his face in close. "I don’t think you’re as big and bad as you pretend. I think you want everyone to be afraid of you. Well, I’m not."
It was boiling to the surface again. This time Will welcomed it.
"If you don’t come to my party, I don’t ever want to see you in--"
Will didn’t allow Benny to finish his threat. His eyes flashed a pale yellow, he grabbed the bully’s arm with a snarl, and pushed him against the shelves of fresh baked bread. His breath, muggy and promising death, sprayed the bully’s face. Benny would later deny seeing Will’s canine teeth double in size and his entire face sprout coarse black fur.
"What’s going on here?"
Spoken with authority, the sound of another, older, woman’s voice snapped Will out of his fury. He released the frightened student. The interruption came from a forty-year-old woman in a tan uniform with a revolver strapped to her hip and a golden star pinned to her breast.
"Just playing around, Aunt Michelle," Benny covered, "Nothing serious."
Sheriff Michelle breathed in the situation. "The bell for your next class will be ringing soon."
Benny straightened his shirt and grabbed Sharon. "Right. Sorry. We’re going now."
The two disappeared in an instant. Sheriff Michelle stared at Kevin until he remembered there was dough that needed mixing. Will picked up his basket of groceries, avoiding eye contact with the authority figure.
"Can I call your parents to come pick you up?"
"How about a ride home, then?"
"I prefer to walk."
The Sheriff allowed Will to pass, but he could feel her eyes on him as he paid for his food, placed it in his satchel, and exited the market. She followed him in her cruiser as he walked his path out of Karmouth. If he did not slip away, she would follow him all the way back to his cabin. Picking the moment carefully, he darted off the road into a dense thicket of trees. By the time Sheriff Michelle parked her cruiser and reached the edge of the tree line, Will was a mile into the woods, moving too fast for any human to catch.
That evening as Will prepared a vegetable soup, he worried about the close calls of the day. He had figured going into town once a month would be healthy, but I fear it will only bring more carnage. The wolf wanted out. Will wanted to let it out. It was inside him, clawing at the surface, and it hurt to bury it deeper. He felt totally in control and completely lost at the same time. He considered postponing his next trip into town.
Will lifted a spoonful of vegetables to his lips, blew cool air over them, and dumped them into his mouth.
He had read somewhere a quote from an old philosopher that struck him: "Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god." He interpreted it as, for man, solitude being unnatural.
The vegetables tasted rotten in his mouth and fell quickly into his hollow stomach. He pushed the bowl across the wooden table.
Most werewolves dread the one night a month that they transform into a beast. Will was uncomfortable trying to appear as a man one day a month. No matter how much he wished it to be different, he’d never be a man.
Will stripped off his clothes and threw them in a pile on his lumpy mattress. Stepping outside the cabin with the cool night wind brushing over his naked body, he sniffed the air. Will pinpointed a scent and began a swift trot in the perceived direction. His bare toes dug deep into the dirt and fallen leaves as his speed quickened and his body began to transform. Hair sprouted over every inch of skin, bones shifted, and muscles expanded. His hands and feet became sharp claws and his ears changed to a shape better suited to pick up distant sounds. A long, pointed muzzle ended at the tip of a large black snout. Soon he was half man, half wolf with a two-hundred pound doe for dinner.
The wolf enjoyed his meal, filling his stomach almost to bursting, and spent even more time ambling back to the cabin. The half moon smiled upon him as he sniffed tree bases and rubbed against their trunks. It wasn’t until he reached the front door of the cabin that Will released the wolf and transformed back to his human appearance, the wolf’s coat shedding onto the forest floor and letting the breeze take it far and wide. He grabbed the clothing provided by Gary and climbed to the roof of the cabin to stare into the star-filled sky while peacefully digesting his dinner.
It was unfortunate for Will that his home cooked meal did not satisfy him. Unlucky that he was far from anyone who could hear if he happened to cry for help. Ill-fated that he did not hear the hunters approach, cock a rifle, and fire a shot. Will’s sole source of fortune was that the needle pierced his neck and the tranquilizer spread quickly through his body. Had it not, then he would have very soon had another man’s death on his conscience.