Paula didn’t realize she had zoned out. She had been working in the area she called her serenity garden—a self-made pond about five feet around, surrounded with various reeds and flowers, and filled with goldfish—pulling weeds and such, and suddenly, she found herself snapping out of a daze.
She shook her head, wondering what in the world that had been all about. Then she saw the reflection in the pond, and she realized what she had been thinking about. Because it was early morning, the moon was pale in the sky, but it was easily seen. It wasn’t quite full, but it would be. Tonight.
Paula shivered and stood up. Her knees popped in protest, and a sharp pain shot up through her back for a second, but then it settled to the dull ache in her joints that signaled changing weather. She’d almost forgotten, that was the bitch of the matter. She tried not to imagine the scenario that might have occurred if she hadn’t remembered, and failed. She shivered again and walked up the hill to her house.
It wasn’t a big house—a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a living room—but it was all she needed. Her husband had passed away years ago, and they’d never had any children. She didn’t spend much time inside, anyhow, although that’d probably change this winter. Her arthritis was worse than ever, and Doc Cook had told her that if she wanted to keep the pain manageable this winter, she was going to have to spend her time indoors and out of the cold.
Paula had been storing up books like a squirrel storing nuts, and she figured that if the cabin fever got too bad, she could always go into town and visit with some other old fogies in the coffee shop. It was only a twenty minute drive in good weather. Of course, in bad weather, there was a good chance she’d be stranded out here for days at a time. Four-wheel drive truck or no, sometimes there was just no driving on country roads in the snow.
Paula stood on her porch and looked around at her small bit of land. Her house sat on top of a hill, and when there was a northern wind, it sounded like Satan himself was beating at the door. Heating bills were a bastard in the winter, and in the summer, you had a hard time keeping your couple pieces of furniture and your gas grill from blowing off the wooden deck on the back porch, but the view made it all worthwhile.
From the front porch, Paula could look down into an expanse of unblemished valley. In the summer, it looked like a painting of an emerald ocean, the rolling hills like gentle waves. In the mornings, a layer of fog would form in the valleys, the sun would rise in a starburst of color, and for a few brief moments, the magic of the world filled the soul and aroused the mind.
The scene transformed daily once fall arrived, the leaves changing color and dropping, a little more each day, so although the transformation was subtle, it carried weight.
And then winter arrived, and each day was a new Christmas card painting. Even before the first flake of snow fell, the feel was there—the anticipation, the tingle of a chill, the crispness in the air. Once the snow covered the ground and the trees in the valley…the view was the stuff carols were written about.
Right now, as Paula looked out over the world, everything was gray. Even in the first light of the morning, the day had a gray feel to it. A fall feel. In the distance, a train whistle blew, and she walked to the end of the porch to appreciate the other view.
Although just as picturesque, this view was marked much more by humanity. The town of Clearspring was tucked down in the adjoining valley, the silver dome of the courthouse reflecting the morning sun. The train snaked down the valley and through the town, before rising to the crest and chugging along at the horizon. It would ride there for a bit, like a miniature toy set, and then vanish over the edge.
The hills rolled just as much and were just as beautiful on this side of the house, and the treescapes were just as lush. But nestled within the trees were country houses, most of them white, with either gray or red roofs. There was a highway winding through town, and even though there wasn’t much local traffic, the eighteen-wheelers were ever present. The town water tower stood tall above its surroundings, its red and white checkered shell always reminding her of the creatures from the H.G. Wells story, with its long legs and flashing beacon.
Further out, there was the spinning light of the airport tower, and just four miles down the dirt road, the trailer of her only neighbor. Dave.
He had been slipping a bit lately. Not much, but enough to make Paula a little uneasy. The terrible part about getting old was the constant fear that it might get worse at any second. Or that it might happen to you.
It wasn’t too bad, really—sometimes he referred to his daughters as if they were still in college, or to his wife as if she was still alive. Not often, but sometimes. He forgot things, sometimes, that was all.
She realized she was zoning out again. She shook her head to snap herself awake, and went in for some coffee.
She turned the knob on the stove and held it until the igniter clicked a spark into the propane gas from the burner. Fire ignited around the ring with a quick purr, and she used the knob to adjust the height of the flame. She dropped a couple pieces of bread in the toaster and walked over to the phone that hung on her kitchen wall. It was an old thing, and she knew that a cordless would probably be much more efficient, but she didn’t have enough phone conversations to warrant even the twenty bucks it would cost to replace the old thing hanging on the wall.
She dialed the number and walked across her kitchen to the cupboard that contained her instant coffee. It didn’t taste nearly as good as the real stuff, but Doc Cook had limited her to either one cup of this or three of the decaffeinated stuff. Decaffeinated coffee wasn’t worth the effort it took to spit it out, in Paula’s opinion.
“Hello?” The voice was gruff with cigarettes and age.
“Dave, it’s me,” Paula said into the phone as she scooped the instant coffee into her cup.
“Good for you.”
“Full moon tonight.”
There was a long pause. “I know that.” His tone of voice was too defensive—the biggest tip-off that he had forgotten, too.
“Yeah, well I didn’t. I was just out weeding the pond and saw the refection of the moon. Caught me off guard a little.”
“Seems like it just got finished bein’ full.”
“The time does fly,” she said, taking a sip of her coffee. It was bitter, but it was hot and caffeinated, which was all she really needed in a cup of coffee. “You need any help putting Sophie in?” Sophie was Dave’s donkey. Most people had dogs, Dave had a donkey. He said he never really got along too well with dogs. For the most part, Sophie stayed out in Dave’s front yard, braying at passing trucks and chasing the chickens that were brave or stupid enough to wander into her yard. Every full moon, Dave would goad her into the barn, along with the rest of his animals. The chickens and the pigs didn’t care too much one way or another where they were, as long as they got fed, but Sophie always pitched a fit when she had to get locked in the barn. Paula suspected it had something to do with the fact that when she was locked up, Sophie didn’t get to stick her head in the window and watch the late-night talk shows with Dave.
“I reckon I can get her in. If not, I might give you a call this afternoon.”
“Just come get me—I’ll be outside most of the day, so I won’t hear the phone ring. I still have to get Sparks and Randy into town, and I guess I’ll have to get Sugar and her new batch of babies moved up from the barn. Not to mention the fish.”
“I’ll never understand why you bring those damn fish in—it’d be easier just to get new.”
“That could probably be said for the lot of us.”
Dave chuckled a dry laugh, filled more with acknowledgement than humor. “Yeah, I s’pose so.”
“All right, then, I guess I’ll talk to you later. Let me know if you need help with anything.”
“I didn’t remember at all. What do you think of that?” She didn’t like the fear she heard in his voice, but it was just another thing that came with old age, like the bad eyes, the achy joints, and the memory loss.
“I think getting old’s a hairy-legged bitch, but I suppose it beats the alternative.”
“I guess so. Be careful.”
“You, too.” She hung up the phone and looked out the window, at the trailer house down the road. Sophie was chasing chickens around the yard, but aside from that, there was no movement. Paula poured herself another cup of strong coffee. Doc Cook could say what he wanted about health—sometimes you just had to make exceptions.
She pulled a bottle of bourbon out from under the sink and added a shot to her coffee. She knocked back the contents of her mug in three quick swallows and then went out to take care of her animals.
It was after four when she got back from town, and the sun hung lower in the sky than she would have liked. She had managed to get her cat Sugar, and the four brand-new kittens up into the house early in the morning, but getting the two horses—Sparks and Randy—to load into trailer had proven more difficult than she had expected. Randy, in an out-of-character moment of the jitters, had kicked out, catching Paula in the shoulder and knocking her head against the side of the trailer as she rolled out into the driveway. The icepack had stopped the swelling, but there was a hell of a bruise, and her arm hadn’t been good for much for the next couple of hours.
By the time she finally managed to get them loaded, it had been after noon, and by the time she got them moved down to her storage barn in town, most of the day was over. The storage barn was a leftover from when she used to live just outside of town. She had kept her horses in a little pasture just outside of city limits, and she had kept all of her tack and feed in the barn. She had long ago sold the surrounding land, but the steel-reinforced barn was still hers, and every full moon, she’d bring her horses down and lock them in.
She glanced down the road as she pulled into her driveway, wondering if Dave had had better luck with Sophie. She didn’t see the little donkey in the yard, so she assumed that he had. She brought out a ten gallon fish tank, and filled it with water out of the pond. Then, she began the time-consuming task of scooping out the goldfish.
Paula watched as the sun settled into the horizon. The hair on the back of her neck stood up on end, and a wave of vertigo passed through her—the same way she felt when she looked down from extremely high places. This was a familiar feeling, but she never got used to it. She poured herself another cup of coffee and finished loading the shotgun. From somewhere in the distance, she heard a howl—a coyote calling out a warning to the rest of its kind. The call was answered by two more, and then there was only the sound of her rocking chair on the porch, creaking back and forth in the breeze.
She checked to make sure that both the front and back doors were locked, and then systematically made sure that her “storm windows” were attached properly. She called them her storm windows because there wasn’t anything better to call them. They consisted of horizontal and vertical bars of half-inch rebar, welded together at two-inch intervals. Not much of a view if you were trying to look out, but it’d keep out anything trying to get in, and that’s all she was concerned about tonight. The storm windows were held in place by solid bars of steel, two inches by one inch. The latches for these bars were directly built into the house—part of the solid steel foundation.
Clearspring was a beautiful place, crime-free, and full of friendly people. But there was a price to pay. For Paula, toughing out a couple of shitty nights was a fair price to pay for the friends she had in town, and the life she lived.
Once the windows were checked, Paula sat down at the kitchen table. She opened a book and laid the bookmark down neatly beside her cup of coffee. To the casual observer, she looked like any other aging lady, just relaxing and reading a book. But anyone of the townspeople would know exactly what she was doing, because they were doing it themselves. Waiting.
Paula didn’t realize she had zoned out. She didn’t hear the heavy footsteps on the wooden porch slats as much as she felt them, and they snapped her to attention with a rush of adrenaline. She placed the bookmark back into her book, and slid the book to the other side of the table. She picked up her shotgun and cocked a shell into the chamber.
She walked to the double light switch near the sink and clicked one of the tiny levers down. The kitchen light died immediately, leaving her in complete darkness. She heard a growl from outside. She clicked the other lever up, and floodlights blazed on around her entire porch. She saw the creature for just a moment, as it jumped from her porch and sprang out into the darkness. As always, she was amazed by the speed of the beasts.
She sat back down at the table, and this time, she didn’t even pretend to read.
The night was filled with howls and answering howls and the screams of animals not fast enough. It wasn’t constant, but it was regular enough to wear the nerves thin and frazzle the mind.
She was just returning from the bathroom—too much coffee—when she heard a growl. It wasn’t coming from her back porch, exactly, but it was close. She strained to listen, and realized that it wasn’t just one growl. Several, from various places around her house.
She grabbed the shotgun off the table, and then holstered her .38. She had lived in Clearspring the majority of her life, and although she had gotten used to the cycle, she hadn’t ever had it dropped on her porch. Seen a few, sure, passing in the dark as they rushed after some doomed deer. But this, this was her home. She felt like she had to pee, even though she had just gone.
They weren’t quite in the light of her porch just yet, but they were close—she could see the darkness moving. And then one bounded up, hit her house, and fell. She screamed, and the creatures outside howled. The howls sounded almost like laughter.
She saw a mass of fur, only for a second. It vanished below the window, below her line of vision. Out of the darkness, another creature emerged, and for the first time in her life, Paula saw.
It walked on hind legs, although she could tell just by looking that in an instant, it would drop down on all fours for speed. The fur on its belly was a little thinner than the bristly-looking coat on the rest of its body. The eyes and the teeth—those were what drew the eye. These animals were killers, plain and simple, and some long-ago buried instinct flared to life just by looking at them.
Run run run run run run run run run
Like shrapnel in her mind, the thought was everywhere. The creature looked in at her, its eyes finding hers instantaneously, even though it was in the light and she should have been hidden in the dark.
Can’t have this, she thought. They think they can come on my porch, it only gets worse.
She’d heard whispered stories, of course. No one actually talked about the werewolves in Clearspring, but everyone knew about them. Children weren’t allowed to play outside during the full moon—not even during the day, because kids tend to ignore the setting sun when they’re having a good time. Businesses closed early, especially during the fall. Joe Hammond sold silver-laced ammunition. It was supposed to be a novelty, of course—he had quite a booming internet business selling his funny “werewolf bullets”—but he offered discounts if you were local. Lonnie Grey sold his special “storm windows,” and Doc Cook had once told her that the rate of blood tests always sky-rocketed after the full moon.
Nobody talked about it, but everyone knew. The stories were told as if they were nothing more than campfire tales, but everyone knew the truth.
And here it was: the truth, standing on her porch, looking in at her. They usually stay away, out in the dark, preying on deer or mountain cats, or—if they don’t want any sport—cows. But once they start invading your space, you have to defend it. You have to show them that you aren’t prey. That’s how the stories around town went, anyway.
Hearing it as a fairy tale is one thing; stepping forward to unlock your door and then walking out to meet death face-to-face is another thing, entirely. Paula looked at the canister of decaffeinated coffee she had ignored all day, and she looked at the packages of low-fat, tasteless food in her pantry.
“Nobody lives forever,” she said, and unlocked her front door.
The first one was on her before she even realized she was down. The jaws snapped in front of her face—so close that she felt its tooth scrape against the tip of her nose. She realized she was screaming, but she didn’t realize she was jamming the pistol into the creature’s stomach and firing. The gun was pointed upwards, so the bullet entered just above the its pelvis, and tore a ragged hole as it exited just below its shoulder blade. It yelped and bounded off of her, dropping dead before it even cleared the porch.
She felt the heavy thuds on the wooden porch as another one came, and she rolled onto her stomach, her arms above her head, the gore-covered gun jutting out in front of her. She fired, unsure if her eyes were even open, and was rewarded with another yelp.
She jumped to her feet and slammed back against the house. She looked both ways, but nothing came for her. She saw a werewolf limping out in the darkness—the one she had just injured—and she sighted in and shot it in the head. It dropped dead, and she heard a stretching, ripping sound as it transformed back into a human. She vomited a bit of instant coffee onto the porch and then scolded herself for being such a baby.
A movement to her left, and she spun, firing. It was too fast for her. She realized that one of the werewolves was on the ground, just off the porch. Judging from the color of the fur, this was the one that had initially hit her house. She cocked the hammer, about to fire, when she saw the movement to the left again.
She spun once more, firing sooner, and this time hit it in the chest as it ducked around the corner. The ancient instinct screaming inside her was a split-second too late. She realized it was a trap, but just as she did, she felt the animal hit her in the back. One had been leading her, and the other had crept up behind her—probably the one on the ground had been faking her out, playing dead dead.
She hit the wood hard, and the pistol bounced out of her hand, out to nowhere, firing off a shot as it vanished over the edge of the porch. She heard a clunky shattering and realized that the stray bullet had more than likely destroyed her new birdbath.
And then the thing was on her, breathing its hot, wet breath into her face. It smelled like raw meat and sewage, and her brain kicked into a panic, wondering if werewolves ate poop like regular dogs do, and how much would that suck waking the next day as a human with a mouth that tasted like dogshit.
There was a growl, a yelp, and then the weight was lifted from her. She didn’t waste any time. Werewolves or not, she wasn’t one of those stupid girls from the horror movies, running in fear, acting stupid, getting killed.
She was raised on a farm, she had worked on ranches, and she was tougher than most of the cowboys she knew. She had managed to live through hardship and heartbreak and bullshit, and she had done it because she was tough. Tough, practical, and full of piss and vinegar, that’s how Dave described her.
She grabbed the shotgun off the porch, and blasted two of the creatures leaping up from the shadows. She turned and saw the other two on the ground, tearing at each other. One was the beast that had initially hit her house and the other was the one that had been about to fry her bacon a moment before. The shotgun would waste them both, and she thought for a second about unloading on them, but something made her reconsider. Enemy of an enemy and all that. She snatched the pistol from the ground, fired a round into the head of the one that had been about to dine on her, and then she dashed back in to reload. She watched through the protected window of the front door as the surviving werewolf limped up onto her porch.
It was torn up pretty bad—it’d lost one of its ears, and there was a deep claw gash in its abdomen, as well as several others around its throat and face. It was on all fours, and looked almost done in. She wondered if werewolves were drawn to the light when it was their time to die. She heard the howling again, and quit pondering and began reloading.
She stood up and peered through the window. She saw them out there, four sets of eyes, peering not in at her, but at the dying thing on her porch. She reached to turn out the light—just let them have it—but stopped. There was something too cruel about the idea, and although she knew it was stupid, she realized what she had to do. “Dammit,” she muttered and walked back to the door.
Nothing attacked her as she opened it, but she saw their attention shift to her. She didn’t wait to see what they’d do—she whipped the shotgun around and managed to catch two of them with the first blast. The third one turned to dash away, but the forth lunged at her. Even though she was expecting it, the speed of the thing caught her off-guard. She was able to pump another round into the chamber, and she was even quick enough to blast the bastard, but by the time she blew it in half, momentum was on its side.
It hit her and knocked her to the ground, and there was that wet ripping sound again, of flesh transforming, muscles snapping from bones, bone cracking as it shrank. She realized with horror that the top half of the corpse was shape-shifting to look a lot like Reverend Grund—the Baptist preacher. She threw the torso out into the dark, and heard a wicked chomp as the last healthy werewolf snatched it out of the air and ran into the night. Because of the full moon, she was able to mark the progress of the creature by watching the paleness of the bobbing corpse.
She turned her attention back to the dying monster on her porch. It was huddled under the wooden porch swing, shuddering and whimpering. She considered killing it and putting it out of its misery, but instead, she went into the house and brought out a pan of left over fried chicken. She dumped the contents of the metal bowl on the ground in front of the werewolf, and it leaned forward and snatched up the entire pile in one chomp.
She watched in amazement as the thing chewed, the chicken bones crunching as easily as crisp lettuce. She went in and brought out a pot roast she had intended to take to church. She put the pot down, and nudged it towards the beast with the tip of her boot.
It stuck its muzzle into the dish and devoured the roast in seconds. It looked up at her, hunger still in its eyes. She didn’t like that look, and she wondered if she was making a mistake. Perhaps feeding the creature scraps would give it enough strength to attack her.
She went in and scoured her refrigerator. She returned with a dish of meat loaf, three pounds of frozen precooked hamburger patties, a pan of spaghetti that had been in the back of her refrigerator for ages, and two boxes of Hot Pockets.
The werewolf gobbled the food and looked at her.
“All I got is dog food left,” she told it. It cocked it’s ears, like a dog trying to figure out what was just said. “Dog food. I don’t think you’ll like it, but it’s all I got left.”
She went around to the shed, careful to monitor the way in front of her, and equally careful to keep an eye on the beast she was leaving at her back. She hauled the thirty-pound sack of dog food out of the shed, and hauled it around to the porch. The werewolf looked at her in anticipation, and she had a moment where she almost bolted.
Seeing the beasts ready to kill and devour her was one thing—that’s to be expected from werewolves. But to see one waiting patiently for her return—there’s something very unsettling about it. It didn’t inspire the terror of the others, but there was something fundamentally wrong about it, and her subconscious was screaming in fear.
She ripped the bag open and dumped the food out. The werewolf sniffed at it and looked up at her.
“That’s all I got left.”
It continued to stare at her.
She sighed. “Fine. Hang on.” She went inside and returned moments later with three opened cans—one of beef broth, one of chicken broth, and one of gravy. She dumped the cans over the dog food.
“That’s the best I can do,” she said.
The creature moved—almost a shrug—and set to eating the dog food. Once finished, it limped out into the yard and pissed on her broken birdbath. Then it returned and curled up under the swing, and went to sleep.
She watched it as it slept. It was bigger than a man, but not quite as big as the others had been. There was a strange sort of strength to the beast, noticeable even as it limped around. It was strong, but not as strong as it had been at one time. She suddenly realized that the thing was old. That’s why it was smaller than the ones who had been trying to kill it. That’s why it wasn’t as fast or as strong. That’s why they had been trying to kill it. Deep down, she had probably realized this almost immediately.
The compassion she had felt wasn’t for the animal, it was for the age of the animal. “Us old folks gotta stick together,” she said, and settled herself down into the rocking chair, the shotgun across her lap.
The werewolf shifted, and then let out a rumbling fart.
“Same thing happens to me when I have meatloaf,” Paula said. She took a sip of coffee from the mug she had brought and glanced at her watch. 3:25 in the morning. Late, but considering her aching joints usually woke her up by a little after four, anyway, she didn’t think standing guard until the sun came up would be a problem.
She went in around seven to get a blanket. The creature had awakened during the transformation, its howls turning to screams of pain as its muscles shriveled and its bones splintered, but as soon as the transformation was complete, the man that the thing had become fell fast asleep.
She dropped the blanket onto the man, and lifted him from the ground. Her back cried out in protest, but it she ignored it. She had a hard time believing that the monstrous creature from the night before could somehow transform into a frail human being that could be lifted by an old lady.
She tucked him gently onto her couch and then went to take a shower. He was still sleeping after she had bathed and dried and dressed, and she considered going to sleep herself. But staying up all night the night before was going to play hell with her, and she knew if she went to sleep now, she’d wake up around midnight and spend another night awake.
The residents of Clearspring only had to worry about the werewolves one night per full moon. Nobody ever talked about it, but it was generally known that they followed the moon, so even if some of the residents morphed into nightmares, they’d be running after the moon, mostly out in pastures or deserted roadways. The night of terror was over for most of the town, until the next full moon.
“You should’a let ‘em have me,” he said, nursing a cup of bourbon-spiked coffee.
“Thought about it.”
“Should’a thought harder.”
The cup rattled as Dave put it down on the table. “Yeah, I do. Hell, I ain’t got nothin’ worth livin’ for in either realm. Every time I’m one of them, they’re gonna try to kill me. When I’m a human, I’m an old, worn-out human who can’t remember if he’s wearin’ underpants most of the time.”
“You agreed with me yesterday when I told you that getting old beats the alternative.”
“Hell, woman, that’s when I thought the change would help. Usually, I start goin’ downhill, the full moon comes ‘round, and I’m able to keep my marbles for a while. This time, I had to be fed scraps and dog food.”
“It was all I had, dammit!”
He patted her on the hand. “I ain’t bitchin’ about the food, Paula. I’m bitchin’ that I had to be taken care of. I used to feel the power of the animal. But now, it’s…it’s just another thing that makes me feel old. It’s just another thing that makes me feel useless.”
“You aren’t useless, Dave—the world needs grouchy old men.”
He laughed, and patted her hand again. He stood up and walked to the door, the blanket draped around him.
“You sure you don’t want a ride?” Paula asked.
“Part of the change is the changeback,” He said, looking out the door. “Hell, I once had to hitchhike over fifty miles to get home. In one night, I led a pack over fifty miles, running all out. Can you believe that?”
“About you? Yeah, I can.”
He shook his head. “And now I’ll have a hard time limping the four miles home from my neighbor's.”
He turned and looked at her, and the hollow look in his face made her stop. “Thank you, Paula. Thank you for watching out for me.”
She sat on the porch, watching the sun sink below the horizon. She heard the coyotes howling in the distance, warning each other to hide, to get away. She looked down the road at Dave’s, and a tear slipped out of her eye.
He had come over this morning, as she was scooping fish out of the pond, getting ready for the full moon, and he had asked her for help with Sophie.
“You need help getting her into the barn?”
“I need you to take her to town with you, maybe shut her up in your barn for the night.”
Paula had stared at him, and he had met her gaze, but his hands had fumbled with his cowboy hat, and she realized that he had never taken his hat off to speak to her before.
“Please,” he said.
Paula had nodded, and he had nodded back at her, and then he had taken her hand and given it a brisk shake, one old cowhand to another, and told her to keep safe.
She had watched as he walked back to his truck, and she watched as he drove down the road, in the opposite direction of his house, and then she had gone in for another cup of coffee.
The sun finished its journey below the hills, and Paula went inside her house and locked the door. She inspected her windows and she made a pot of coffee, and while it brewed, she allowed herself to shed a few more foolish tears for her friend. When the crying was done, and the coffee was done, she poured herself a cup, finished loading her guns, and waited.