This one sat in my “almost done” folder for a long time, but, upon rereading it just now, I really like it. I don’t know what I thought wasn’t quite done.
By Betsy Phillips
The kids handled the changes better than the adults. We were floundering. Not for answers. We had answers, terrible answers no one wanted to hear. We were floundering for a new set of superstitions that would keep us safe. We got rid of the dogs—not sure if they were carriers—but then we had nothing to alert us except our own eyes and ears. So, we brought dogs back from the verge of extinction.
There were a lot of sleepless nights back then. Every knock and creak woke you. Was it something in the house? Near the house? But if none of the dogs were troubled, you told yourself there’s nothing to worry about. Another superstition. What if the dogs were in league with them? And why wouldn’t they be? That’s what the women at the grocery store asked. What had we done for dogs so great that they wouldn’t have sold us out?
But we didn’t do another extermination. And most of us were glad for the folks who kept their dogs hidden. Glad for the strays that could be coaxed back into town. We put our trust in them once again.
And the kids played with puppies like we never made the grave mistake of trying to get rid of them all. Like we might not have been making a grave mistake keeping them with us now. I guess that, when you’re new to the world, you don’t have any expectations for how things should be. For all they knew, there was nothing strange about learning to handle a silver dagger almost as soon as you were old enough to close your hand.
Like people who got their ears pierced as infants and don’t remember the pain, they didn’t remember how they got the scars from learning how to handle the blade, just that such scars were common.
We adults had no words for what had happened. Not words we were willing to say to each other. We didn’t want to be reminded.
But the kids, well, like I said, they handled it better. When my nephew, Evan, was younger, I found him at the park, talking to one of his little friends about some other little kid who had fallen off his bike. Evan said, “Oh, yeah, and then he wolfed all over” and he demonstrated by shaking and lolling his tongue out to the side.
“He what?” I asked, trying to keep my voice light.
“Aunt Jen, he wolfed all over, bleurgh!” and then he stuck his finger down his throat and wretched.
“That’s how my mom died,” the other kid said, growing more serious. “She got wolfed all over and bam!” The kid mimicked stabbing someone in the chest. My heart leaped into my throat and I reached for Evan, almost without thinking.
“Oh, Karen,” I said, so quietly I almost wasn’t sure I’d said it aloud. If Evan heard, he didn’t seem to notice. He laughed and mimicked the same motion and then the two ran off, playing monster killer.
I remembered how my sister Karen had been with Evan and I tried to be some of that for him. Strong, brave, loving. Tried to at least fake it, for his sake.
After I lost Jimmy and the kids, I was done, you know? I respected the government’s request that no one in my situation kill herself. I understand it makes it too easy for everyone who’s lost so much to just check out, once they see how it is, how peaceful, and calm and over.
So, I kept on breathing. I just quit living. I stayed in my house and let life go on without me.
Until Karen called.
I could barely understand her. It was still mid-afternoon, but her voice was already gravelly and her words sounded like they were coming through the wrong mouth. “Please,” she begged, “Come get Evan. Say he’s been with you.”
When they found someone who changed, they killed everyone who was with that person that day. That’s how I lost my Jimmy and the kids. Little Meg picked it up from someplace and that was the end of them. I was in Ohio helping my mom with my dad. That’s the only thing that spared me. And my dad got found out anyway. And I lost my mom and dad, then, too. Our mom and dad. I guess what spared me then is that they didn’t find my dad until the next month and they didn’t realize it wasn’t his first time.
After that, I kept to myself, half-mad from grief. But when I got that call from Karen, I went to her house and sobbed into her misshapen arms, already prickly with coarse hairs, and I took that boy to my house and I pretended like I babysat him all the time. No one ever questioned me about it.
And then I had to go on living, because he needed me to, because his mom couldn’t be there for him. And so I did my best for him.
When he was fourteen, the Sheriff came to our door.
“You doing all right here by yourself, Jen?” He asked. He looked over the top of his sunglasses at me.
“We’re doing okay, Sheriff,” I said, trying to seem friendly, but making no move to invite him in, even though, judging by the sweat on his brow, he could have used some water or an ice tea.
“Notice anything peculiar?” He asked. He squinted at me, as if he could, if only he adjusted his eyes right, see if I was lying to him. I tilted my head toward the interior of the house, like I didn’t want to talk to him about it in front of Evan. I stepped out onto the porch with him.
“Cooper down the road says your herd is looking smaller,” the Sheriff said. “You know you’re supposed to report any loss of livestock.”
“Sheriff,” I said. “I lost three cows last month and if you call Arlene and ask her, she’ll tell you I called it in. I’ve got a carcass I found a few days ago, yes, and I didn’t call it in, but it’s not my cow.”
“Cooper says you’re way down.”
“Sheriff,” I sighed. “It’s just me and the boy. We can’t handle a herd as big as Jimmy had. I sold half this spring. I can show you the receipts.”
“Well, show me that carcass,” he said.
“I think it’s just coyotes,” I said.
“You can never be too sure,” the Sheriff nodded. “Seems like those things are gone, but you know it’s cows first, then humans. We need to be vigilant.”
That’s a superstition as well. Cattle kills and human attacks have nothing to do with each other. But we want to pretend there’s some way to tell if they’re back. Some forewarning before the bad times.
“DTR,” I said as I smiled. Duty to report.
“That’s right, ma’am,” he said. I showed him the carcass and he looked at the bites. Too small to be our husbands and wives. “Coyotes,” he agreed. After all, how could a child take down a cow?
“Have you seen anything suspicious?” I asked. “I haven’t heard of anyone… you know… no families…”
“Not in years,” the Sheriff said.
“Good,” I said and I meant it. I walked him back to his truck.
“I just always thought this stuff was made up in Hollywood,” he said. I nodded. “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
“What?” I asked.
“If that was true, what else is?”
It wasn’t much after that when we found out. I was asleep, three dogs in bed with me, when Evan shook me awake one black night. I could hear the nervous pacing of his dogs out in the hall.
“Aunt Jen,” he said. “I heard a noise.” I sat up, groggy. Like he did when he was little, he crawled up onto the bed with me.
“What did it sound like?” I whispered. But then I heard it, a loud thump, like something large had landed on the roof. I fumbled for my glasses and Evan worked to keep the dogs calm. When I found my way to the window, I peeked out into the darkness. The moon was not quite full, but it was large enough that, when the clouds parted, I could see by it. And there, in the trees, perched like buzzards, were gaunt, lanky bald men, their red eyes glowing, their sharp teeth long and glistening.
“You have your knife?” I asked Evan.
“Of course.” I could hear the hint of teenage disgust that I’d even thought the question was necessary. “What are they?” He asked.
“Something bad,” I said. “Something really bad.”
First thing in the morning, I called the Sheriff’s department. It took the Sheriff no time to get to my house, because he’d been with the county coroner up at Cooper’s place. Cooper was no more. He’d been torn limb from limb.
“No blood, though,” the Sheriff said. “Not like back then.”
“I saw them,” I said. “They weren’t. These were something else.”
Then the Sheriff got a call. It wasn’t just Cooper. Most the families in this part of the county were gone. Butchered and drained of their blood. Probably not in that order. I had to bring the Sheriff in the house, though I hated to. Poor man was heavy with grief.
“You are about the only ones who are left out this way,” the Sheriff said. “It makes no sense. Why would they leave you be?”
I shuddered. “I don’t know. They were on the house and in the trees. I don’t know.”
But after he left, it was all I could think about. Why were we spared? It’s not like we’d had advanced warning. My dogs hadn’t even woken up, before Evan came in.
Oh, I thought. Oh.
I went down to the basement and moved the far shelves away from the wall. I knocked on the door hidden back there and a soft voice said “Come in.” I undid the padlock and entered the small room.
“Karen?” I asked. “How’d you sleep last night?” She looked rough, so I guessed her answer before she gave it.
“Not well,” she said. “It’s not even the full moon yet, and I wanted to be out. I had a dream of killing. You have to be sure I’m locked in here tight come this weekend.”
But I tell you, I left her door unlocked, from that day on.