Updated: Oct 26, 2021
The howling Warren Zevon ringtone shattered my sleep. Forgetting to turn it off was a rare lapse. Ever since the bite during a drunken backpacking trip in Eastern Europe, my full moon routine ran smoothly.
If it’s spam, I’m going to kill something… again.
I tapped the icon and grimaced at the bloody thumbprint. There was only one person who would call this early.
“Were you asleep? I figured biologists would be up when the birds are busy. Squirrels too, according to your father.”
I needed coffee. The taste in my mouth could sink an aircraft carrier.
I ignored the bait. “How’s Dad?”
“Banging away in his workshop. Luke, it’s almost Christmas, and he’s not getting any younger. Would you rather come home for a holiday or a funeral?”
She was good. She was also right. I may be immortal, but my family isn’t. Feeling suddenly maudlin, I spoke before I could change my mind. “I’ll be there. You can make spaghetti and everything else I liked when I was ten.”
After a gap long enough for me to find my thermos, she said, “Really?”
I drank deep, relishing the hot bitterness. “Yes, Mom, really. Love you.”
* * *
My hometown is a Norman Rockwell postcard tucked into a pine-covered valley. The timing was dicey according to my full moon chart. Christmas Eve. I fingered the amulet and hoped it would be enough. The Romani witch couldn’t cure me but her magic maintained my sanity.
Blinking lights illuminated the life-size sled. Plywood elves waved with hinged appendages. This must be Dad’s project. Suddenly, I was glad I’d never have to retire.
Mom nearly took me off my feet. She’s like an undersized linebacker who knows just where to hit. All I could do was hug her back and savor the vanilla and cinnamon scent I always associate with home.
* * *
I begged off the whirlwind of cookie-bearing neighbors cooing over the return of the prodigal son. I had an hour before the third level of week-before-Christmas dinners. Tonight would be close-but-not-that-close neighbors, including the pastor.
I thumbed through my senior yearbook. In my football uniform and cardboard crown, I paled next to the visage that glittered even in black and white: Alison Kincaid. Being her Homecoming King had rated me one date that I’d turned into a lot of fantasies.
With a laugh, I tucked my memories back on the shelf and showered. I get musty when the moon is close and dinner looked like a marathon.
* * *
The buffet was a carnivore’s dream, right down to the lard-baked pie crusts. A vegan would have starved to death. I wandered out to the patio, only to discover I wasn’t alone.
“Luke, I’ve wanted to say hello, but your mouth was always full.”
The LED lanterns glinted off of her golden hair. Instead of a crystal-encrusted mermaid gown, she was dressed in khakis and a wool blazer.
“It’s Ali these days. How are you?”
“I had no idea you were in town.”
“I could say the same.”
My mind went back to that morning in the cave. “My mom is a force of nature and caught me at a vulnerable moment when I was susceptible to the lure of pumpkin pie.”
“Since our moms are competitive acquaintances, I doubt the double-team was accidental. We are both thirty and single after all. But, relax. I have a plus-one back home.”
A weird disappointment flooded me. “Who’s the lucky guy?”
I must have gone deer in the headlights because her laugh was deep and sincere.
I had to recover. “That’s why I got nowhere with you in high school?”
“No, that’s because you were an asshole.”
“Hey, I resemble that remark, but I’ve slept since then. I’m just a mild-mannered-perpetual-PhD-candidate. It doesn’t pay much, but the hours are good. How about you? Didn’t you go into archaeology or something?”
“Or something. Our niche is antiquarian documents. My folks are hosting the Christmas Eve rotation. Will I see you there?”
I pushed my doubts aside. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
She stepped into my arms so naturally that I almost flinched. It’d been a long time, so I relished the embrace. What I didn’t expect was the look on her face when she pulled back.
“Are you okay?”
She left without a word. I’d also learned something new about her. Under that deceptively bland jacket was a pair of pistols. I don’t know much about the book business, but that didn’t seem quite right.
* * *
Christmas Eve was bright and cloudless. Just my luck.
I popped a cold one and settled into a fashionable faux Adirondack chair at the far end of the Kincaid’s pool deck. I’d laid some hurt on the Charcuterie board and wanted to relax before my magic was tested.
“So, we meet again.” Ali took the other seat.
“This place is even more off the chain than I remember. My mom is suitably envious. I heard her being catty about your mom’s love of Pinterest.”
“It definitely gets fluffier every year.”
Conversation waned until the breeze brought the foul ripeness of a week-old carcass.
“What the hell is that?” I chugged my beer. Something that nasty has a taste, not just a smell.
“Evidently, Joe Gifford does taxidermy in his barn.” Her drink met the same fate as mine as she stared at me.
I decided to poke at an unpleasant theory. “Tell me about your document business. I’m researching owls and would love to find some Victorian prints and talismans.”
The way she tipped the empty glass to her lips told me I was on track. She didn’t deal in presidential biographies. When her eyes finally met mine, I saw the challenge.
“I’ll admit a certain expertise with amulets. To a trained eye, even the chain tells a story.”
I doubt the fairy lights that’d popped on like trained fireflies at dusk hid my expression. The witch-woman had knotted the silver chain once for each day between full moons.
Ali knew. This bothered me less than I expected. Secrets can get heavy. “Let’s take a walk.”
The rickety boathouse was the local place for privacy. Once settled, she broke the silence.
“Can I see it?”
“If you’d asked me that in high school, my life might’ve taken a dramatically different turn.”
Her giggle reminded me of simpler times. I pulled the charm from inside my shirt. “How’d you know?”
“When I hugged you, well, I’ve smelled that funk before. We found a den in a Scottish castle. You don’t forget it.”
“I prefer to think of it as musk. Sorry.”
She shifted on the bench. It was my turn.
“Were you attending a used book sale in a werewolf den in Scotland?”
“Jules and I really are book dealers. We also have expertise in specialty documents. We, and our associates, seek the truth.”
I needed to address the obvious. “So you can shoot it? I can tell you the silver bullets part of the story is bullshit. We eat them like candy. Silver belongs to Hecate and she loves us.”
There was respect in her eyes. “Just highly illegal 9mm armor-piercing rounds. Not everyone I meet is so amiable. What happened?”
“You understand the weight of this, right?”
Her eyes widened, and she nodded.
The movie that had played in my head countless times suddenly choked me.
She prompted, “The design is Romani. It’s ancient. I’ve only seen sketches.”
That broke the impasse. “Suffice it to say that wine, camping, and a full moon in the Carpathian Mountains are a dangerous combo. I remember my sleeping bag shaking like a dog with a blanket and a searing pain. I ran like I had a clear lane to the end zone and stumbled into a caravan encampment. They healed me and told a story I would have laughed at any other day. They’re ancestral keepers and I became one of their charges. They gave me the amulet.”
“What does it do? I’ve read accounts, but legends get so twisted.”
“It absorbs the moon’s power. I keep my wits and don’t go fully feral.”
With a quaver, she said, “Can I ask you something?”
“It’s not like I have anything left to hide.”
“Can I watch?”
Stunned by the question, I barely had time to register the splintering of old wood as near-skeletal arms snatched at Ali. She twisted away as I grabbed a boat hook and hit it in the neck. It went down still gnashing its teeth.
Ali grabbed the hook and pinned the thing to the floor, right through its forehead.
“More ancient manuscripts?” I gasped.
“The Walking Dead. Seriously, who doesn’t know how to kill a zombie?”
“I’ve been preoccupied.”
She smiled, and clicked on a small flashlight. The creature was beyond gruesome. The smell gagged me.
“How can you tell?”
I followed the path of the beam to a name tag: Gifford’s Ford - I’m Joe and I own the place.
“Ah, a clue.”
“This explains things.” Her expression said she was chewing on a hypothesis.
“Can we leave? I’m not in a good place for stress right now.”
Away from the boathouse, she said, “Mary Beth keeps him in the barn. There are theories the virus can live in animal populations.”
“I don’t care if it’s a peanut allergy. I need to grab a drink and take a walk.”
“Is it bad?”
“I’m maintaining. Half an hour from now, all bets are off.”
Ali said nothing, but I noticed that she’d unsnapped the straps on her holsters.
Usually, I bathe in the moonlight but tonight I welcomed the solace of the dark woods.
A scream sundered that calm. Shambling creatures dragged a woman in a sequined reindeer sweater from under the hedges.
Ali chambered her pistols. “I’m going to need help.”
She gestured at the sky.
Realization dawned as screams and blood-scent pulled an instinctual growl from me. “If you want to watch, don’t blink. Then take care of our folks. I’ll handle this.”
I stepped into the clearing to welcome my mistress.
It’s the bite of a lover, exquisite in its agony as claws and fangs erupted. Bone and muscle contorted me into lupine form. My vision morphed to the glowing bas relief of a nocturnal predator. Blood frenzy edged out humanity as I saluted the night with a snarling howl.
Her voice cut through the mist and my rational brain regained control. As I took off the first rotted head with a swat of my paw, I knew I’d been born and reborn for this.
* * *
I woke with my head was in Ali’s lap, wanting to stay there forever. She stroked my hair “No hurry. Everybody’s busy.”
“What does that mean?”
“They’re doing what small towns do best.”
I sat up “No riddles until I’ve had coffee, okay? Now, again, what do you mean?”
“They’re dragging bodies to a pyre at the Gifford place. The official report will be that fire broke out during a party. It’s a small town superpower. They’re hiding their secrets under a tragedy.”
“Joe was a whopper.”
“He was the tip of the iceberg. Apparently, Mary Beth let him roam when she couldn’t keep him fed. A good dozen families admitted to keeping someone '‘tetched in the head' in a shed or basement. It finally got out of control.”
A horrible doubt blossomed. “Are our people okay?”
“Yes. You were, um, impressive.”
“Nobody will look too deep or ask too hard. They don’t want the real answer. C’mon, your mom is making waffles.”
I laughed. “It’s a tradition. Merry Christmas, Alison Kincaid.”
“Right back at you.” She slipped me a business card and a kiss on the cheek. “You’re not alone anymore.”
“So, you’re saying I still have a chance?”
artwork copyright Mikey Hope
story copyright Terri Lynn Coop