OLDFANGLED

The backyard dogs were staying quieter these days, the late hour barking becoming a thing of the past. The smart ones huddled where they could, beneath porch or bushes, or, if lucky enough to have one, holed up in their hound houses. They caught on quickly. They knew that something hunted them. Them, not their owners. Their stupid, oblivious owners.

First to go was Pickles. A well-mannered basset hound who, nonetheless, brought it upon herself, what with the sniffing and digging and the yelping. The yelping. And then the quiet. Next was Coffee, and then Happy, and, in the shadows of the same night, Wilford.

Max, Lady, Speckles, Hammy, and Rocket. Oh, Rocket, tiny Rocket. Rocket who put up a good fight despite his diminutive size. He almost snapped out one of his predator’s eyes before he went down. But he didn’t get that eye and down he went. They all did. Good boys and girls, they all went the way of the gullet.

As the dogs were growing wise and harder to procure, the next meal was a cat. A beloved calico, some fifteen years in age, grey whiskers, short a few teeth, but still pretty as a picture as cats go, even after having seen so many moons. Her name was Juniper. She was swallowed whole. A mere morsel.

And that’s how it came to pass—in those last lingering days of fall in Minnowauk—where the village that had for many years been so quiet, became even more so. No more canine yapping and barking after dark. No more felines caterwauling on the make and prowl in the wee hours. The few of the four legged who were still with this world had learned to keep their breath by staying quiet, hunkered down, low, and hidden.

Meanwhile, inside their homes, their masters of domestication remained for the most part snug and dumb. A scarce few, mostly the solitary and night owls and busy bodies, they noted the newfound night quiet. But of that small lot, they only made their way with a mutter or shrug, or drunken curse cast off into the darkness.

And so, forever famished and with no easy meals left to be had, the thing that came at night, it came calling upon them next.

~~~

Rabbits, Carl Petnoy’s mother had explained to him when he was a towhead boy of oft-time skint knee, have, since the first of their kin, been driven mad by the moon. This lunacy was brought on in part by the moon’s abundant light. Light which made sneaking out from their warrens to nibble midnight snacks of dew sweet clover—or more importantly, mate—quite dangerous. This is why, at night, in a garden, you might see a rabbit on its hinds, reaching out as if to grasp the moon. They think it an egg to be plucked from the night sky and snuck back under the farmer’s hen, allowing their mischievous business to resume.

No animal is a fool, and certainly not rabbits, but this was a curse—to think the moon an egg—put upon them by the very first witch. Aracha was her name. And hers was a curse bestowed upon all rabbits after their king had been caught teasing the old hag’s familiar, the wolf.

The bedeviled, earth-snared hares could never steal the moon—no matter how desperately they tried, of course—and so many a moon bright night would find the normally wary and wily creatures witless and caught unawares, dancing circles on their hinds, fore-paws scrambling in vain to snatch the egg moon down from her high station in the firmament. This, Carl’s mother had explained most matter-of-factly, was also why wolves, foxes, coyotes, stoats and all other manner of vulpine and canine and slinking things of pointed tooth, did especially love the full moon and so sang their howls, yips, and bays in praise and thanks to it.

~~~

In all his eighty-seven years under Heaven and upon Earth, Carl Petnoy had been an honest man. Honest and true even with himself, all the while and when too many were not. And that is saying something. Nonetheless, even if put under Saint Peter’s stern interrogation as to the how, the why, or the “were” of his affliction, Carl couldn’t have confessed. Try as he might, the old boy recalled no transgressions against witches, gypsies, or soothsayers. And he’d traversed neither bogs nor touched moss of any fog-covered highlands, other than, that is, having dozed off beneath the pages of his National Geographic from the safety of his recliner.

Just the same, little could be denied. Facts in hand, the mystery hardly required the detective work of some great sleuth such as Columbo—Carl’s favorite—or Hercule Poirot. Circumstantial as it was, gathered in such abundance all about him, the evidence was damning.

“Damning, damning, damned evidence.”

The torn clothes. The shattered dentures that looked like so much shrapnel strewn about the bath. Ubiquitous tufts of dark, lustrous shed hair. At first, all was most curious and only provided something to mull over. A vexing Sunday crossword clue. Carl made excuses and explanations. Some mysteries, he deduced in frustration, need no solving. In a way, he was right. In the end, there was no mystery. There was simply the chewed bundle of dog and cat collars under his bed, where Carl found himself one cold morning naked as the day he’d been born, fetal curled about half a bloody raccoon carcass nestled to his breast.

At the ripe old age of eighty-seven, toothless, half-blind, balding and kind-hearted, Carl Petnoy knew he was a werewolf.

~~~

MORE TO COME

THE PAUSE BUTTON PRESSED

When the sun rose in the west on the fourth day with still nary a passerby, Mannequin knew without question that something was truly amiss. The avenue beyond Mannequin’s window display had remained pedestrian-free both night and day, with the exception, that is, of the occasional scampering rat or seven becoming more and more commonplace.

There simply was no way to put things right. Where to start? First and foremost, the sun rose in the east, of course, just as it always had, as ages of sailors and squinting astronomers knew all too well. But from Mannequin’s staid perspective, the sun, being a mere reflection of itself on the facades across the vacant avenue—Stayfit and Dunkin’ Donuts—that burning furnace of life-giving light seemingly originated from the opposite direction. Not a concern. Mannequin had never brooked travel plans and so the distinction of east versus west mattered not one iota. What was a great deal of concern to Mannequin, however, was that while its torso was clothed in a delicate sea blue Italian wool knit V-neck coupled with a black cotton tee, there was no escaping the rather embarrassing fact that its nether regions and legs remained as bare as the day the machines lathed them. The madras plaid shorts which should have completed Mannequin’s ensemble, had, for the past four days, stayed half-folded but mostly crumpled on the window display floor mere inches from the toes of Mannequin’s cold, enameled feet.

There was one saving grace. While there could be no denying the reality that the store’s staff and shoppers and window gawkers had all become but a memory, still the Muzak played on. Day in and day out, every hour upon the hour had been marked by the dulcet passage of Moon River. Instrumental. At first disturbing—and especially so from the run beginning around the two hundred and first to the three hundred and thirty-ninth play-through, for reasons best left not reflected upon here—it became something akin to a murdered heart tucked beneath the floorboards. But then, near the diminishing notes of either the six hundred and twenty-first or third time, a switch flipped in Mannequin—figuratively, of course, as Mannequin was a mannequin and possessed no circuitry—and an enlightenment came to pass. An epiphany of sorts. Yes, somewhere around about week four or so, that inescapable repetition of Mancini bestowed upon Mannequin a comforting affirmation of anchorage and certainty in a world otherwise untethered and dully chaotic.

The sun was a reflection. Even if Mannequin was never placed in a position to see it,  it was real just the same.

Seventeen days later, a young man came and took Mannequin’s misplaced shorts away. Two days following, a woman and man stood behind Mannequin and shared a lengthy conversation that covered so many things so far above and beyond Mannequin’s grasp. Talk of ‘diminishing’ this and that and ‘staff allocations’ and ‘return on revenue’. So much jargon. It all made no sense. None of it. With one exception. The man said his loneliness had been like a cold blanket.

The sun rose in the west once more one clear morning as a small girl rushed to the window and almost smeared it with her ice cream cone in her frantic approach.

“Naked!”, she screamed, sticky finger stabbing and smearing the thick glass in the exciting discovery of Mannequin’s still nude repose.

If only Mannequin had possessed the ability, it would have thrown its head back and laughed.

TREADING THE BEAST OF WATER

Named in the memory of a man he’d never known, Oscar had no clear-cut hours. Shift work. Mostly nights, sometimes day. Always partnered with Trask. The two worked side-by-side, never a question between them. Trask kept a worried face. It was his nature. So much so, in fact, that it gave colleagues cause to smirk and crinkle behind his back. Oscar didn’t see it that way. He could read his partner better than those fools and for that matter even better than the man himself.

Yes, Trask was always worried. Perhaps wound too tight. Perhaps. Perhaps he was just focused. Even when he told Oscar that the day was done and done well, it clearly wasn’t. Such was the stressful nature of their business, as though theirs was the job of affixing duct tape to a leaking dam. That’s how the two of them carried their work home. They kept it with them always. There were never enough hours of sleep or drink or supposedly mind-numbing hours of idleness that could wash away the stress of what had been or what might come. Oddly enough, it was the latter, the prospect of tomorrow’s challenge, that kept them both going. Bigger cracks. Less tape. Diminishing time. The always growing beast of water. The trusting village below.

Oscar was Trask’s pride. Like a son. Even as a rookie, the new boy shined and took to every assignment with a gusto and perfection that made it look all too easy. He never questioned the tutelage Trask handed down.

Oscar was Belgian. At least by birth. He had left his homeland when he was young. Weeks young, in fact. Taken from his mother, his land and that language all before he’d ever a chance to form a memory of them. His name, if he’d had one in that place, was lost as well. His new name, Oscar, was given to him by Trask, his partner. It was bestowed on him in honor of another man; a brother-in-arms who had fallen before.

Together, Trask and Oscar patrolled the streets, treading the dark waters, searching for cracks in the dam. Oscar was a K-9.

Trask preferred the night-shift. Night was water. A cloak of comfort for creatures that abhorred the light. Secure in their element, they would slip from the crevices below, unfurl themselves and rise from the deep to prey upon the unwitting.

It was neither Trask nor Oscar’s fault when the dam gave. Blood, not water. The village wasn’t flooded but the lake of Trask ran dry.

Empty late hours. The squeal of tires and gun shots went ignored. An old man at his window—a man who normally looked for any excuse to call in his complaints—he waved the disturbance off. ‘Punk kids with their fire crackers. Nothing more.’

Trask—officer down—lay splayed in the middle of an avenue that now seemed wider than he’d ever recalled. It grew wider still as each breath narrowed. He couldn’t feel it, thank God, but his left leg was so mangled and contorted that the heel kissed his shoulder blade. Oscar, his partner and best friend, was down as well, broken beside him.

Trask moved on. Whimpering, Oscar lifted an ear.

They were found, some eighteen long minutes later, seven minutes after four on the morning of what had been an unusually cool August night.

The book is opened, the pages are turned. Five months and six days later, the newest four-legged, fresh-faced members to join the K-9 division were introduced to their new partners. They were a pair of bright-eyed Belgian Malinois Shepherds eager to get to work, ready to tread the beast of water. They were named in honor of the fallen. They were officers Trask and Oscar II.

THE VISITORS

Of late, she preferred Wednesdays more than any other day. Like most people, the week’s end was, as her husband liked to say, ‘Our sweet treat.  Sat and Sundae,’ the dessert concluding another work week consumed. But now, widowed and in the quiet and still pace of life, she found Wednesdays to be the time she looked forward to the most. It was because that was the day when he came calling.

Her name was Edith, although most of her life those who knew and loved her called her Edie. She didn’t know his name. She called him Mister. He didn’t mind and readily answered to the moniker. He was a cat, after all.

Why Mister came and went only on Wednesdays was a mystery. But that mystique only made the tawny little orange tabby all the more appealing. If it was a Wednesday morning—any time after ten-ish—he could be counted on to be lounging in the dapple of the potted ficus and immature banana trees of Edith’s back patio. She would greet him with her coffee and his white china saucer of tuna. It didn’t concern Edith one iota that it might be the free meal that induced her only companion to come around.

We’ve all motives. Some are at least honest and laid plain.’

Most visits lasted an hour or two. She read the paper and the flitting birds were scrutinized. The news of the day was all too often a source of irritation while those feathered friends were the colorful and pleasant distraction.

In time, after Mister became her regular Wednesday morning caller, Edith had the foresight to relocate her two bird feeders to the farthest corners of her backyard.

Lest the temptation to lunch on more than tuna proves too much for that feline appetite.’

He noticed.

“Now then, Mister,” she reprimanded, “put away your hungry gaze. You’ll have your fish.”

He did, and all went well as time wormed on its way. And then….

The first Wednesday that Mister failed to make an appearance gave Edith pause. Still, she kept her routine. Coffee and the daily paper. The pair of nesting blue jays who had become her newest regulars almost managed to keep her concerns for Mister’s whereabouts at bay. Edith steeled herself.  ‘Nothing to write home.’ Hollow assurance. Shortly after three in the afternoon she carried the untouched saucer of tuna back inside. She told herself the lie that she wasn’t the least bit put off.

Later that evening, fussing as she postponed going to bed, Edie rebuked the nagging voice in her head. ‘Oh, enough already. He’s a cat; that’s what they do.’ The do in this case being the fact that felines—much like her late husband—all too often did as they pleased, and just as often did so with little to no concern for others.

The week-long wait for the next Wednesday proved a loneliness. By the end of Mister’s consecutive failed appearance, neither the blue jay love birds’ flirtatious cavorting nor the scandals to be found in the daily paper could keep Edith’s mind from anything other than her worry.

That night the doorbell rang.

She was in her kitchen, staring out the window while drying off a china saucer that had long been in no need of a towel. The doorbell chime was so unexpected, and Edith so lost in thought, that she nearly let the saucer slip. She came to the door dish towel still in hand. She turned the lock and opened the door without a moment’s consideration through the peep hole; an act that was nothing like her. She realized as much too late and after the fact just as the deed was done.

Her name was Justine and despite the many attempts by friends and family to call her by something other, she answered to only Justine. She was eleven years old and would have nothing to do with ‘cutie’ nicknames.

Justine was accompanied by her father, a man who could be passed on any street or in any room without notice. He stood beside his daughter and was comfortable letting his little girl take the lead.

“Hello. My name is Justine. This is my cat,” the girl said, presenting a sheet from her stack of flyers. There was no mistaking the photo of Mister. “His name is Harold and he’s missing and so we’re canvassing the neighborhood to find him. Search and rescue. This is my dad.”

“Hi, we’re sorry to bother you,” the man added. “We’re just a few houses down. One fifty-three…the green house,” he said with a nod towards the end of the street. “I’m Mitch Abernathy and this is—”

“Justine,” Edith said to finish the introduction. “My name is Edie and, well, I have to say, it feels as though we’re family.” Edith’s gaze went just past them. “Oh, and who is this? Hello, Mister.” She couldn’t hide the relief in her voice.

The cat had sauntered up and was sprawled now just behind them as though reclining pool-side. He considered the porch light with a squint of disdain and gave a small turn of his neck when Justine discovered him with a squeal of jubilation.

Cat firmly in Justine’s lap, the four were soon sitting in Edith’s living room where she explained the shared connection alluded to on the doorstep.

“Harold? I call him Mister. He always comes on Wednesdays. Or, that is to say, usually. Cats.”

“Wednesdays?” Justine looked to her father. “That’s when you work from home.”

The Abernathys stayed for longer than Mitch would have preferred but not nearly as long as Justine or Edith would have liked. Following that night’s long visit, Justine and Mister Harold—as they called their elusive friend now—were Edie’s regular visitors on Saturdays…and quite often on Sunday as well. Mister Harold kept to his Wednesday visits.

The blue jays’ chicks hatched a few weeks later in the waning days of May.

SONGS to WHISTLE WHILE CLEANING UP BLOOD

Released! Set free! It’s been loosed upon the unsuspecting public!

Blood Songs

Cryptids and creeps. Deranged charlatans. Troubled souls seeking redemption or revenge. Strange things and weak, piddling people.  Stories thick with lies. These are weird tales indeed, caught up someplace between myth and fact, without existing in either or maybe, once upon a time and place, true in both….