As a first quarter moon peered from behind wind swept clouds, the chill screech of a resident owl lifted from down back of the barn.
“Want me to walk you half way?” Keith stood on the porch to my left, his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans, his gaze on the front steps. From behind him, the rays of the kitchen lights laced through the screen door and cast a solitary rectangle across the gray, enamel-slicked, timbers beneath our feet.
“No,” I said. “I’ll call Nosey and get him to trail along.” Staring down the path towards the blacktop, I could just make out the glint of Uncle Robert’s Falcon parked beneath the power lines. Beyond that there was nothing but a hue like charcoal lines drawn against an open grave backdrop. My eyes are sensitive. I never have seen well at night. I was not looking forward to the walk home – even if Keith’s old dog did accompany me.
“Spooky,” Keith said. He was looking at the night too. “You shouldn’t have stayed so late.”
“Hump. Ain’t nothing out here.” I glanced around the yard, saw no sign of the dog, then cupped my hands before my mouth and called for him. “Ahhhya. Ahhhya.”
“Hey,” Keith said, “remember that wolf thing old man Canter saw down in the hollow last month. Wouldn’t you just freak out if you ran into that.”
Over the years, I have fought Keith more than once. He can put a whipping on me. But I’ll stand on hot coals – if Aunt Ellen had not shown up in the doorway at that very moment, I would have kicked that grin clean up to his puffy eyeballs. “Hump. Canter ain’t saw no wolf-man. He’s just jacking his jaws. Sides, any hair-thing comes messing around me, I’ll peel it like a rotten potato.”
“Yea,” Keith said. “You’d do potatoes in your britches that’s what you’d do.”
The screen door creaked open. Aunt Ellen stepped on out to join us. She came round behind me, pressed her hands to my shoulders and squeezed. “Don’t you pay any mind to Doug Canter’s talk, Mike. He likes to have fun.”
We stood then without speaking: Keith tapping his shoes against the brickwork, and me leaning into Aunt Ellen’s hands, enjoying the warmth of her fingers as she worked my shoulders while staring up at the sky. “We will get some rain tonight, boys,” she said. “Be good that way; it will blow through, and then be gone by Halloween.”
“Gonna take us to town again this year, Mom?”
“I reckon I might – providing a certain scooter rump gets in here and takes his bath.” She paused, drummed her hands up and down on my shoulders. “And you, young man,” she said, “had better tromp it on home. Your grandmother will be getting worried by now.”
“Another minute, Mom?” Keith said. He always wanted another minute.
“One,” Aunt Ellen said as she held out an index finger for emphasis. “No more.” The screen door creaked. Shadows splattered the porch planks. Aunt Ellen was back inside.
I stood still for a second, grinning dumb-like, then turned and broad jumped down to the ground. We had one minute to round up old Nosey.
Standing beside of a worn out tractor tire that had been slit and back-bent for use as a flower box, I cupped my hands around my mouth. “Ahhhya. Ahhhya.” That half-deaf mutt still would not come.
“That ain’t no way to call a dog,” Keith said. He jumped down to help. “Listen at this now. Ahhhhhhhhhhyaaaa. Ahhhhhhhhhhyaaaa.”
We moseyed back and forth across the front yard, both of us howling for Nosey and neither of us seeing hide nor hair of that lazy hound. I reckon most likely he was down the hollow sniffing for coons, but I don’t see where that matters much. Near or far, he was not here to walk me home.
It was about then that Aunt Ellen came back to the doorway. She was holding Uncle Robert’s flashlight in her right hand. “All right, Mike. You take this and get on home. No more fooling around – Hear!” Her tone let us know that this was a command and not a request.
Racing Keith across the yard to see who would first reach the porch, I beat him by a cat’s tail, lengthened considerably by a beautiful leap that carried me to the top step so quick and easy that I had to pull a parachute stop to keep from crashing into Aunt Ellen. I felt good. Keith usually won such races. He usually won at everything. (I gave no credit to the fact that the race began with me standing fifteen feet nearer to the porch).
The flashlight was in easy grasping range, but when I reached for it, Aunt Ellen held on tight. It was cheeky-lip time. Had this been any other woman, I would have been embarrassed, but Aunt Ellen’s cheeky-lips were gentle and undemanding; she never grabbed and squeezed; she never choked and smothered. And she always smelled good.
Still, when Keith came by with that stupid grin on his face, I felt heat rush through my neck. He knew how much I liked his mother – he knew she was special to me. He also knew that I was special to her, and I think he was jealous. Sometimes I could see fire in his eyes: a clouded glow of resentment, a bright flash of anger, a dark fear – perhaps that I was going to steal away his mother or something. But his eyes were clear right then. He simply stood staring, his thoughts buried behind a big, fat, stupid grin that cracked the flesh of his face and angled up sharp and ugly and condemning.
I hit him then.
I threw a hard right hook that felt perfect as it whunked into the tendons that stood out against the side of his neck. It hurt him too. I saw it just before I jumped off the porch. I saw his eyes screw down and his jaws tighten. I saw that stupid grin smothered beneath a wave of pain and anger.
If not for Aunt Ellen, it would have been on; Keith wanted to come after me. He was pistol hot. But Aunt Ellen stopped him. She snatched his shirtsleeve and yanked so hard he never had a chance to react. I stopped on the grass beside the steps and grinned. I had won.
“Monkey,” Keith shouted. “Blue faced monkey with stinky hands.” He knew better than to fight Aunt Ellen’s hand lock. “I hope the Wolf-man gets you.”
“Keith,” Aunt Ellen said. “Go inside. I will not hear any more of that.” She scooted him through the doorway, and then pointed a finger back at me. “You disappoint me,” she said, a side-to-side shaking her head following the words. “Go home now, straight home – no piddling down at the creek.” She closed the screen door – did not even wait for a response.
A second later, the kitchen light went out. I was alone in the dark; alone with thoughts, regrets, and a deep down rotten feeling. We never seem to recognize wrong until after we are in trouble. Well. Keith would not forget. Payback would come.
The cow pasture stretches between Grandfather and Uncle Robert’s farms. If you climb the fence, tramp down through the hollow, work through the pines, cross the creek, and then climb back out you come up in back of Grandfather’s barn. The entire journey is just over half a mile. If, instead, you stay on the blacktop, the same trip is nearly a mile and a quarter. I favored the blacktop.
A half-mile down the road, the night got blacker. A layer of clouds shifted before the moon and settled there like a rotted canvas. Then the flashlight started going dud. The thin gray beam flickered as I walked, fading in and out, casting pale splatters against the blacktop, and occasionally highlighting the white ribbons that center-lined the pavement. I began to hear noises from the roadside: trees scratching at the wind; thorns slapping a barb wire fence. I’ll stand on hot coals: I was being chastised for punching Keith.
Forty yards later, the flashlight went all the way out. I shook it, it flickered; but would not remain on. I stopped near the edge of the road, squatted down and unscrewed the cap. The batteries felt clean, so I set them to the side and heard a rumph-rumph as they rolled to the left. I ran a finger down inside the canister. None of the contacts felt broken, so I gave a little twist on the main lead so that it would make a better connection. I reached for the batteries, touched one, and then realized that the other was missing. The dumb, stupid thing had rolled into the darkness.
It was then that I heard the clicking. It came up close, and then stopped. I stood up, glanced both ways, and saw nothing but black. Finding the other battery lost importance. I could walk this stretch of road blind. I knew all the curves. I had traveled them for years. I had no need for a flashlight.
My legs are smarter than my head. By the time my thoughts had caught up, I had already taken several steps closer to Grandfather’s farm.
Then I heard the clicking again. It was close behind me.
I stopped, cocked my head, and listened as hard as I could. A wind shuffled through the treetops. A horse snorted from the pasture. The smell of fresh manure slipped through the air, grew briefly stifling, then faded. Behind me, the clicking stopped.
Again I walked. In less than ten steps, the clicking returned. I stopped, hesitated for an instant, and then twisted for a glance over my shoulder. It was a wasted effort; the night was so black that I could not even see my own shirtsleeves.
For a moment, the clicking kept coming. Then it too stopped. Fear closed around me, sealing me in, isolating me so that I stood amid a curious silence where the only sound was that of the blood that thumped within my own temples.
I leaned forward, staggered as my legs jerked into motion, righted myself, and then hurried down the road. To my left, I heard wind rushing through the creek bed. I heard water falling over the rocks. I heard leafs flapping at the overhead tree limbs. Behind me, the clicking resumed.
Then I smelled it – a rank odor like skunk on a wet dog. A thought flashed near the edge of my mind. I reached for it, almost touched it, and then it got blew out of the water as something cold and wet pressed firmly into my palm.
Keith was right. I’ll stand on hot coals: I nearly dropped potatoes in my britches.
I bolted, running long and hard, certain that death lunged closer with each step. I came off the main road and raised dust on the gravel that ran past Grandfather’s tobacco barn. Up ahead, I saw a light – less than forty yards to the front door and safety. I had it made.
Then I heard heavy panting to my left. The monster was close enough to touch. Light flashed in my eyes and an instant later, a wet, hairy hand fastened firmly to the back of my shirt collar. I went down screaming, pitching forward and over, my arms stroking wind like a hay tent in an autumn storm. I had for a moment thought of Nosey, but old dogs do not have hands. The Wolf-man had me, and I was going to die for hitting Keith.
Then it was on my chest, slapping at my ears and laughing in a tone that sounded just like Keith. The truth came like wind through an open bedroom window. But by then he had already rolled off and was lying beside of me. His arms were wrapped in wet towels. His penlight lay on the ground. Two spoons glinted beneath its beam.
I hope Aunt Ellen catches him.