Aphelion Issue 265, Volume 25
September 2021
 
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Buffalo Gals


by Brandon Greer




Buffalo, Texas was overrun with werewolves, and I was one of them. Most of the men in town were. It was hard to keep a thing like lycanthropy a secret in a town so small, but we managed to keep it hidden from the rest of the world somehow. Almost every month there was another woman—it was always women, none of us knew why—buried in a closed-casket funeral. The last woman to die in Buffalo was my wife, Lydia.

I didn't cry when I saw her in the morgue. Without all the blood, there was something clean about death. I didn't cry when I eulogized her in the church, surrounded by purple and red flowers. Didn't cry when I threw those arrangements in the garbage. I cried the week after her funeral, when I opened the mailbox and found a Christmas romance novel she'd ordered two weeks before. No one was around for miles to see me, but I hid my face with my hands. I went inside the house, threw the book on the nightstand, and opened the drawer next to my bed. I had a silver bullet there. I gazed at it, held it in my hands, let it burn my skin. I'd made Lydia promise to keep one in her gun. But she trusted me.

I didn't go into the station for three days. Ben said I couldn't come back until I needed to. Buffalo's Finest could keep the peace short one officer. I mowed the lawn, tended the garden, dusted the ceiling fans, cleaned out the fireplace, washed every dish in the house twice, scrubbed the grout, poisoned the wasp nests, and washed Lydia's clothes so they didn't smell like her anymore.

On the third day, I met Ben over at Fuentes' for breakfast. The diner was fifteen years older than I was, but Fuentes and his sons kept the checkered floor and stainless steel counters immaculate. Time was, women in pink dresses and aprons glided to tables to take orders. They were gone, replaced with paper menus with black words we circled. We'd hand them to one of the acne-ridden Fuentes boys who shifted from leg-to-leg behind the counter.

"Everything looks so good," Ben said, with his reading glasses balanced on the very tip of his nose. It was what everyone in Buffalo said when they looked at a menu. Everything looks so good. How could I possibly choose? Like every other time, he ordered the scrambled eggs and the pancakes with two links of sausage on the side.

"It's a good thing you're not my doctor," he said. He looked down at my untouched menu. "I can take yours up with mine."

I circled "coffee" and "toast." Ben picked up the papers and, with a grunt, picked himself out of the red booth. He ambled to the counter. As usual, one of the Fuentes boys stood there, black hair up in a hairnet, pointed hairs on the tip of his chin. Ben said something about high school football. Let a smile break out on his red, wrinkled face. His hair was grayer than an ashtray, but anyone who listened to his voice could forget his age. Smooth as butter, loud as a train whistle.

No one else was in the diner but Ben, me, and Mayor Ford Townsend in a little corner booth by himself. He only ventured into City Hall when the council convened. His free time he spent in McGrath park or any of the town's restaurants, a Bible balanced on the lap of his corduroy pants or spread out in the table in front of him. When he read, he muttered the words to himself, which wiggled his pencil-thin grey mustache. He looked up from the tome thick with graphite marks. He gave a slow nod. Almost a bow. Ford knew when not to intrude. I could always visit him in the park when I was ready.

Ben sat down on the booth and wobbled the table. He placed his hands on his stomach and said, "I think the boys have a chance against Wichita this year."

"What makes you say that?" I said. I had to say it. You couldn't resist a conversation with Ben. He'd just talk at you until you said something.

"They finally put Warren Gardner in charge of the team," he said.

"Well," I said.

"Warren used to play football for Tech in the '70s," Ben said. He leaned back and creased the red leather behind him. "Coached football at Lubbock High in the '90s. And all this time, we kept him in a classroom."

"Wichita is something else," I said.

"We'll get them this time."

"They'll pound us into the dirt again. Just like every other year."

"That's the problem with you," Ben said. "You're such a pessimist."

"Can you blame me?"

The Fuentes kid walked over with a pot of coffee and two mugs. We went silent. He wore a large white apron around his skinny frame. What was his name? It ended with an "s," but the beginning was cut off every time by the sound pots make in the kitchen. I could've asked his name, but in Buffalo, you were supposed to know everyone. Key difference was, he wasn't a werewolf like Ben, Ford, or me. His old man must have told him about who was afflicted. He didn't seem to mind. He poured the steaming drink with ease. No tremors in his hands.

"Your toast will be right out," he said to me, then walked behind the counter.

Ben sighed and said, "I don't think I said as much at the funeral, so I'll keep it simple."

"Hm?"

"I'm sorry."

"Wow." I said. "Who would have thought two little words could make me feel all right again."

"Don't do this," Ben said. "You're only going to make it harder on yourself. And make me mad at you."

"When do I get to the point I can pretend it never happened?" I said. "Tell me. Every other guy in town figured it out."

"You don't pretend it never happened, buddy," he said. Ben leaned forward, and his big belly pressed into the table. "You make a show in front of everyone who asks how you'll catch the bastard who did it and you move on. But you never forget."

"What if I'm the," I said, but I couldn't say the word. I couldn't even finish the sentence.

"No one will think less of you."

"Bull."

"It happened to me, it happened to Elias," he said. "You can't control what happens during moonlight. What's more, we don't even know it was one of us who did it."

"Sure," I said. I folded my arms. "Maybe it was all some coincidence."

"Ain't no coincidence," Ben said. "But we both know she shouldn't have left the door unlocked."

I looked out the window.

"I'm thinking of leaving," I said.

Ben said, "To where?"

"I don't know," I said. "It's just that house. It's too big for me."

"You want to spread this outside of Buffalo?"

"No," I said. "What I really want is a cure."

"Well, I want a night with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, but that's not going to happen," Ben said. He laughed, but it was to mask something. Probably the same longing I had.

Outside, birds chirped and fluttered across trees. My eyes followed them. I thought of Lydia's books, the ones on a bookshelf hidden away in the basement. Myths of Lycanthropy. Common Werewolf Folklore. Blessings against Hexes. She'd ordered them from some witch store in Dallas. Said if she could only find the right blessing, maybe she could save Buffalo. Save me. But it was ridiculous to think a Baptist woman would don a witch's hat and stir a cauldron. I never said anything when I saw her play with her crystals and her incense. I let her feed me whatever concoction she stirred up. Most of the time, they just gave me bad gas.

"I got a call from my sister-in-law," I said.

"Lydia had a sister?"

"Yeah," I said. "Saoirse. They weren't close, but I figured family's family."

"Think she'll stir up trouble?" Ben said. "Some outsiders can be a bit particular about their relatives."

"They weren't close," I said. "Didn't talk for years. But I told her to come over. See where she was buried. Pay her respects."

"When does she arrive?" he said.

"Three days," I said.

#

I expected Saoirse to come by my house. I'd given her the address, and while it was tricky to get to—like most of the rural addresses in Buffalo—I figured she would stay a few days, reminisce about Lydia, go to her grave, then be on her way. The day before she arrived, she called and told me I wouldn't need to set up a room for her. She'd rented Gerald Sawyer's deer-hunting cabin on the edge of town. Lydia had once told me Saoirse was a loner. She'd never been married, didn't have many friends. I figured Saoirse could have her eccentricities, so I left the matter alone.

I got a phone call from the library the day she arrived. Milton Hamilton said Saoirse had walked up to the counter and asked for newspapers on certain dates. February 4th. May 19th. June 23rd. Each of them had stories about the attacks, which the city council vetted carefully for any semblance of truth. Milton said Saoirse also asked about the newspaper for October 2nd. The day after Lydia died. I said maybe she missed the crosswords those days. Milton didn't laugh.

Around eleven, a faint propane smell drifted into the office. Katherine was the only one of us who didn't smell it. Elias sat upright at his desk, his head perked up. Ben narrowed his eyes. With a look, Ben chose me as the investigator. I pulled my brown jacket off the back of my chair. It could have been a mechanic, but they were normally drenched in the smell. The scent was faint, masked in the familiar odors of coffee, toner, and gunpowder. I walked out of my office and into the lobby, where Katherine sat dwarfed at the desk we'd borrowed from the high school. She had an ignored game of solitaire open on her computer. She nibbled at a corned beef sandwich and shed lettuce onto her keyboard.

Saoirse was at the door when I opened it. Her silver hair was cropped short, and she was taller than me and Ben, but not as tall as Elias. She had a leather jacket slung over one shoulder, and her sleeveless shirt showed off tense arms. She was the source of our mystery smell. Wolfsbane, probably stuffed into her pocket or sewn into her pants. The smell was noxious enough even when I wasn't in moonlight. I had an impulse to back away, keep Katherine's desk and my office door between me and the poisonous odor. But I was a decent actor.

"Saoirse," I said. "Thank you for coming all this way. It must have been a long drive from—" I paused to let her fill in the blank space.

"I want to know what killed my sister," she said.

"I thought I told you in the call," I said. "It was a bear attack."

"In your house?"

"No, we went camping."

"Lydia hated camping. But I guess you made her change her mind?" she said. I heard the door to Ben's office open. I looked his way. He stood in the doorway, the smile gone from his red face. I smiled for the both of us.

"Nobody's the same forever," I said.

"No," she said. "But Lydia was a pain in the ass. We may not have talked in a while, but a pain in the ass is sure familiar, ain't it?"

"I guess so," I said.

"You'd understand why I think it's awful suspicious," she said. "Especially since the newspaper says she was found in the middle of the highway. Where were you camping?"

Elias sauntered over to us and stood by my side, his hand inches away from his gun. She regarded him with an icy stare. I gave a small chuckle and put a hand on Elias' shoulder. I squeezed his shoulder hard. Stand down, you idiot. His nostrils flared, which Saoirse must have noticed.

"I own a bit of land," I said. "It runs by the highway."

"And there are bears on your property?" Saoirse said. "Why haven't the police done something about that?"

"Saoirse, we're a small-town department," I said. "The four of us are the only full-time staff. And we don't have animal control here—"

"I'm interested in a few of your cases, Captain Rutledge," she said. There was something about the way she said "Captain" that made my face hot. "Lana Richards. Tammara Huerta. Judith Cant ú Vanessa Pound."

All victims. All this year. Saoirse had to be a hunter. How, I didn't know. Lydia had never mentioned any kind of family dealings with the supernatural, other than her experiments during our marriage.

"Those cases are still under active investigation," Ben said from the doorway to his office. "We can't give you anything that's not already public knowledge."

"How can they still be under investigation," Saoirse said, "if you already know what killed them?"

A deadly silence filled the room. I could hear the crescendo of the cicada calls outside. Saoirse slipped on her jacket and summoned a pair of sunglasses from it. "Maybe I should get a FOIA request?"

"No," Elias said, his tone forceful. I stepped in between the two of them.

"I can see if we can find those files for you," I said.

Saoirse walked to the orange bench on the wall where we kept suspects until they were processed. She took off her jacket, folded it, and sat on it. She folded and unfolded her sunglasses. Clack. Clack. Clack. She crossed her legs and leaned back against the wall. Ben, Elias, and I traded looks.

"Full moon tomorrow night," she said with a glance at me. Offhand. Like it meant nothing.

#

"Well," I said at one o' clock, "I'm off to lunch."

I announced my departure for lunch every day from the door of my office, but it felt more important now. Elias was on call anyway, and Ben had locked himself in his office. Through the window on his door, I saw his ear buried in a white landline phone. Katherine and Saoirse crowded together over Katherine's desk. It was covered in files. I passed them and Saoirse glared up at me. She probably hadn't expected manila folders full of blacked-out ink.

I hopped into a squad car and drove down to McGrath Park on Sandusky Street. McGrath had oak trees taller than any building in town. Their leaves had reddened and some orange and yellow ones added a crunch underfoot. McGrath had used to be the site of our Acorn Festivals. We had the children race to pick up acorns in wicker baskets, back when there were still children in Buffalo.

A few feet from the parking lot, at the intersection of two dirt trails, sat Ford Townsend on a blue bench. Next to him was a sack of birdseed he scattered on the ground. Pigeons and crows surrounded him and pecked at the ground with their beaks. Ford looked up at me and a softness spread across his ancient face. He patted a spot on the bench next to him.

"Captain Rutledge," he said. Ford had known me since I was in diapers, but he called me Captain anyway. He'd been elder of Buffalo Church of Christ for forty years, and sometimes took over the pulpit if the gospel filled him. Preachers were never in town for long. It was a constant cycle, man after man with a Bible and a suitcase, trailed by a wife and two or three daughters. They never stayed long, and they always left a corpse behind.

"Ben tells me you've been thinking of leaving."

"Ben needs to learn how to keep secrets."

"Secrets come my way regardless," Ford said. "You were going to talk to me about it anyway, weren't you?"

I nodded. A crow squawked. It pecked at a pigeon with its beak. Ford watched the birds fight for a few seconds, then tossed birdseed toward them again. More birds flocked toward the kernels on the ground.

"Don't leave," he said. "We need good men like you to lead."

"I'm neither, Ford."

"Don't say that."

I kicked at the dirt path with my toe. A rock disturbed a crow, who fluttered away, then back to Ford's bench.

"You know something? These birds come to this bench every day for my birdseed," he said. He tied a knot in his half-empty bag. "Someday, I won't be here to feed them. They'll go back to looking for worms and seeds in the ground. But they will come back to this bench first. Because they are used to my birdseed."

He closed the Bible and set it beside his leg. I rubbed my hands over my face. The air seemed colder. I zipped up my jacket, but then my face became hot. There was a swamp in my throat and the vision of the park wavered.

"I'm sorry about Lydia," Ford said.

"Wasn't your fault," I said.

"There doesn't need to be any blame."

I bit down on the skin of my index finger. I rubbed my other hand over my knuckles. My breaths came ragged. I didn't want to cry in front of Ford Townsend, because I know he'd put his arms around me. I would leave teardrops on his grey coat.

"Besides," Ford said. "I need you help to get rid of our little stranger."

"Saoirse?" I said. "She's just passing through."

"I may be an old coot," he said. "But I can still smell wolfsbane from a mile away. And Milton said she was asking questions about some of the attacks."

"She's just curious," I said.

"I'll spare you the old saying about cats and all," Ford said. He let out a soft sigh. "Tell her she needs to go. Whatever way you have to."

"Can't we give her some time—?"

"She's already disrupted a great deal," Ford said. "Can you imagine what would happen to us if word got out about our little moonlight problem?"

"She's stubborn."

"Well, if she doesn't listen to you," Ford said. "I told Ben and Elias to pay her a visit tonight. They'll run her off. Or—"

He didn't need to say anything else. He opened his Bible and I left him alone with it. I wandered around a dusty trail. Placed my hand against rough bark. Felt the tree, sturdy and strong. I returned to my car on trembling legs. Saoirse was outside city hall when I came back. She coughed the smoke out of her mouth. I walked into the sweet smell around her and resisted the urge to ask for a puff.

"I'd still love to buy you dinner," I said. "There's a real nice Tex-Mex place over on Hancock—"

"Cut it out, Andy Griffith," she said. "Pretend you care Lydia is dead."

My leg tensed up. She leaned against the brick wall. I searched for something to say, but words eluded me. Maybe I looked haggard enough to warrant some pity, because she held up her box of Marlboros. I took one and the lighter she offered. I lit the cigarette and let the smoke fill me. It touched a thick lining of mucus, and my breath caught. I cleared my throat and let the cigarette hang out of my mouth.

"I've never been good at mourning things," I said.

"You and your whole town," Saoirse said. She stubbed the cigarette into the side of the wall and tossed it on the ground. "Almost every man here has a wife in the ground. Yet you still all tip your hats and grin at each other when you pass by."

I said nothing.

"I never got why Lydia went for the John Wayne type," she said. "She could never shut up, and you can never say more than a sentence."

"I'm a bit too fat for John Wayne," I said. I bent over and picked up the cigarette. I tossed it in the ashtray. She said "hmm," through her nose and tilted her head up a little.

"Look, Saoirse, if I were you—" I said.

"Is the part where I leave town and never come back?"

"Next guys to say it won't be so polite."

"This town's got a lot of healing to do," she said and faced the street. A lone car drove by, ten miles below the speed limit. She put a foot up on the wall. Stuffed between the leather and her leg was the shine of silver.

"Ever hear that song, 'Buffalo Gals?'" she said.

"Who hasn't?"

#

Before sunset, I headed out to Sawyer's place in my Charger. If Ben and Elias wanted to scare her out of town, they were going to do it in moonlight. The sun was low when Sawyer's cabin peeked out from behind the trees. I pulled off the path and parked behind a cluster of ashe junipers. If I stayed in the car, in the shade, I would stay myself. But I couldn't keep them all from killing each other from inside the car.

The crickets had started up their ruckus when a rusted truck dragged along an RV trailer. It was Wallace Cochran's. Wallace wasn't one of us, but he was wise enough to know to offer his help. The RV's windows were taped over with black garbage bags. They'd covered every entry point for moonlight. It was the same as any other time we wanted someone out of town. The door to the trailer popped open and two naked men stepped out. The wheels of Wallace's truck dug into the thick dirt and zoomed away before they even shut the door. The two figures stepped out of the canopy of the trees and into the weak moonlight. The pale light shown on their bare skin and transformed it white, like they were two spirits in the middle of the woods. I tore off my clothes, opened the car door, and let the light of the waxing moon hit me.

#

When you were a child, you cut your hand on a rusty nail, and found bristles of fur mixed in the blood. Now, that fur bulges and sharpens. You have a charley-horse all over your body, but the soreness falls away once you are free of your flesh. Low moans build in the back of your throat, building, building into a guttural howl. Your voice breaks through bark and leaf. You can smell Ben and Elias' surprise. Their fur is shorter. Their teeth are duller. Their claws are cracked and clear. They're smaller. Their muscles are leaner. But that's how it is when it's not a full moon. Elias is still a skinny thing, but Ben is bigger than both of you combined. He's the threat. Your animal brain remembers just enough to know the cabin is where you should be. You bound towards it on legs powerful enough to flip a car.

Saoirse's at the window. Shocked. She can coat herself in wolfsbane and arm herself with silver, but nothing can prepare her for three werewolves bearing down on her. You bite at Elias' ears, but Ben smashes a claw through the window. Glass slashes through his fur, into his tender, cow-spotted skin. Saoirse ducks behind a table and produces a revolver from her boot. She fires three bullets. They whiz out into the trees. The shock has taken its effect on her aim.

Elias slips away from you and scratches at the window frame. You claw at his legs. Enough to make the point. Ben pins you to the cabin wall. Even in moonlight, his years of high-school football serve him well. Elias pulls himself into the window and snaps at Saoirse. Saoirse picks up a shotgun at the side of the window. She aims it slow, telegraphs her move. But Elias is too stupid to get the warning. He puts his arms in the cabin, cuts his belly on the broken glass in the frame. He swipes at her, she dodges, he snaps his teeth—

Bang.

Elias whimpers and falls out of the window. The right side of his face is gone, replaced with bone and buckshot. Silver-coated. His arms and legs move independent of his head. The rest of him is alive, but his brain is gone. Ben lets go of you and scratches the varnish of the door with his claws. You grab at his legs and pull him away, but his teeth catch your shoulder. He won't play nice anymore. Not with Elias dead. Saoirse rushes the door and slams her full body against it. It catches you and Ben, and you both skid across the long grass. She's dressed in armored clothes like bikers wear. She wears a motorcycle helmet and watches you through a clear visor. She holds the sawed-off shotgun in one hand and a tranquilizer gun in another.

Ben crouches to all fours. She levels the guns at you and Ben. She says something, but you can't understand English anymore. Ben makes the first move. He goes for her legs. It's a primal urge, get her on the ground. Tear at the abdomen. That's where the softest meat is. But she kneels and shoots the tranq. It hits him in the eye. He claws at his eye. Get it out. Get the needle out. She takes the opportunity. She puts what's left of the barrel of the shotgun against his jaw. He explodes. Bone. Teeth. Pieces of his tongue.

The smell of bacon at Fuentes' drifts by. Wichita. Wedding day. Squad car. Drinks. Saturday nights. A TV. Gone now. Ripped away by thunder. You didn't feel this way when Lydia died. Why? Where was that fury then? You can't question yourself. You're a dumb animal. You growl at Saoirse. Crouch low. She says something else. She can talk all she likes. You bound towards her. A dart sails into the right side of your chest. You tackle her to the ground. She crashes under you. The breath leaves her lungs. You straddle her and slash at the armor with your claws. Leather and plastic can't hold for long. She screams. Why wouldn't she? A six-foot-tall, three-hundred-pound animal is on top of her. You scratch through the leather on her bicep and hit flesh. You gnash your teeth against her helmet until it cracks and bends inward. Once she's dead, you can finally leave Lydia behind.

She squeezes two more tranqs into your gut. These two hit the blood vessels down your stomach. A sluggish feeling comes. You want to scratch faster, bite harder, but the shotgun finds its way against your forehead. You grab it from her hands with your teeth. You shift to toss it away, but she uses that shift to her advantage. She slips out from under you and grabs you around the neck. She squeezes her arms tight. Your arms and legs flail. She doesn't let you breathe unless you become still. But you can still fight, though you grow smaller, and your muscles tense and freeze in place. A filmy white substance covers your entire body. The fur disappears, replaced with the hair you used to have on your head, your chest, your legs, your groin. She lets you go. You want to stand, but your legs and muscles won't listen to your commands. She points the shotgun at you, doesn't shoot, but waits. Your eyes roll into the back of your head, and night reaches into the center of your mind.

#

My eyes didn't open until blue light blared through the windows behind me. I was on my side, with my face against warm carpet. My hands and legs were tied behind me like I was a rodeo hog. She had dressed me in a pair of my flannel pajamas. I was in the center of my living room. There was the TV, the white couch, the green recliner. The dining room table I had moved in so it was closer to the TV. The fireplace held an earnest flame. In the corner was the box with every picture I had of Lydia. Some days I wanted to put it in the attic. Others, I wanted to burn it. But it stayed there, unopened. Gathering dust. The whole house was filled with the airy scent of wolfsbane and water vapor.

Saoirse placed a black pot on the table and unwrapped a white bandage on her arm. She opened a stainless-steel flask with a cross on it and poured water on the wound. Then, she tipped the pot over and spilled purplish liquid into it. She gritted her teeth and kicked her boot against the legs of the table. Steaming water splashed onto the carpet. I stretched my legs and tugged at the rope.

"Morning," she said. She wrapped her wound in fresh gauze. I pushed my shoulder against the floor and sat up on my knees. The left one felt tender against the hard wood. Old baseball injury. Never healed right. But I glared at her, my lips thin. Saoirse stood, dragged her chair over in front of me and sat in it backwards. Her arms hung over its back.

"I'd say I'm sorry about your friends," she said. "But considering my sister's dead, it's a fair trade."

The events of the last night had begun to slip from my memory. But there was a place inside of me Ben once inhabited that now felt empty. And Elias. He was the quiet type, but he was still as much a part of Buffalo's DNA as Ben. Fuentes' had lost its two best customers.

"I don't like killing people," Saoirse said. "Makes me feel sick, honest."

"It's not your fault," I said. I couldn't blame her for Ben's death. She'd done what any sane person would do when faced with a vicious animal. Fight or run. Who was I to judge?

"You didn't seem to think so last night," she said. She traced the gauze on her arm. "You're lucky you're somewhat family. I don't like it when a werewolf scratches me up."

"Aren't you a hunter?" I said. "You're gonna have to kill all of us eventually."

"Always hated hunting and killing," Saoirse said. "One way me and Lydia were alike. Though seems she loved animals more than I did."

"Then what are you doing here?" I said.

"I intend to cure you."

I thought of the books on Lydia's shelf in the basement. The garden she kept just off the porch. Hanging pots planted with seeds from China and India. All the research she'd done, anonymous letters she'd written to supposed witch doctors. Incense she'd burned throughout the house and told me to breathe, breathe deep. I shook my head and let out a small snort in the back of my throat.

"Don't be crazy," I said.

"Ironic, ain't it," she said. "A werewolf telling me what's crazy. Haven't you ever wished you were normal?"

I was silent again. "Normal" had never seemed like an option. What happened at moonlight was just the way things always were. Lydia was the only one who thought otherwise because she was an outsider. She was just a veterinarian from Dallas who wanted a taste of the small-town life. It was a month before she realized exactly what mutilated the sheep and cows and dogs she cared for. By that time, she was in love with the town enough to make excuses for us. She knew all along what I was before we were married. Her pet name for me was Guinea. Like a guinea pig.

"Lydia thought she could cure the town," I said. "But none of her little spells worked."

"Course they didn't," Saoirse said. "Spells and hexes are nothing. It's all about what's in here." She pointed to her head.

"It's that easy?"

"No. It's never easy."

"What do I do to be normal?" I said. I couldn't help the twinge of sarcasm in my voice.

"First, tell me," she said, "who is your alpha?"

We didn't call Ford our alpha, even though he was the strongest of us in moonlight. But we acted of our own accord. It was Ford who ruled us as men, and rule was not even the correct word. How could he rule from his bench in the park?

"We don't have one," I said.

"Please," she said and rolled her eyes.

Beside us, the wood in the fire collapsed on itself. She stood and prodded the flames with the edge of her leather boot. The fire collapsed. She tossed another log on, then leaned against the mantle.

"Can you tell me how it started?" she said.

"I don't know," I said.

"There's no town legends?" she said. I shook my head. She sat down on the hearth and scratched her knife against the granite.

"It's just the way things have always been."

"Every werewolf says that, but it's not true," Saoirse said. "My experience, an alpha corrupts a town. Takes a long time. The first step to curing a town is killing them."

"I thought you didn't like killing."

"I do it when I got to. And an Alpha's got to die."

"Why?"

"Alphas don't like to give up what they got, especially if it's a whole town."

"All you have to do is kill the Alpha, and I'll be cured?"

"No, the cure's available anytime. Killing the Alpha ensures you don't relapse."

A gas pain built in the center of my stomach. How was this possible? Saoirse interlaced her fingers and made her knuckles crack. She said, "Tonight, you're going to walk under the full moon and you won't transform."

"Bull."

"Your curse is just—psycho-so-matic, I think's the word."

"What are you going to do, put me on a couch and make me tell you about my feelings?"

"Not a bad way to think of it," she said. "I guess I kind of am your counselor. Except if I don't see an improvement," She held up the knife and gave a grim smile. She pocketed the knife and walked toward the bathroom. She shut the door and left me with my thoughts.

#

Ford Townsend came to you when you were young. The first time you went mad and killed a coop full of chickens. He sat next to you on the side of the bed and picked at a scab on his hand from some mosquito bite. Tore off the coagulated blood and showed you the fur underneath. Said not every man in Buffalo was cursed like this. Just a special few, if you could call them special. You had to promise to keep it a secret. This was a Buffalo problem, and it was up to us to handle it.

You grow up, get married, live your life. But every night, you are pulled from Lydia's side and into moonlight. Can't resist it, even if she grabs you by the arms and tries to hold you back. Over time, her hold gets looser. She can't hide the disappointment when another one of her cures doesn't work. When she isn't in public, at the clinic, at someone's farm, her face is blank. Dead already. The night before she dies, she looks like she wants to tell you something. You don't want to ask her what it is. Her eyes don't meet yours. She shifts in her seat at the table. She clenches her hands in her lap.

She says, "I'm glad we never had children."

#

Saoirse emerged from the bathroom thirty minutes later, a towel around her neck. Water dripped from the edges of her short hair. She walked over to the table, stuffed one of the purple plants into her shirt, and wiped the boiled juice onto her neck. She picked up her knife and gazed down its blade. Up close, it was a beautiful thing with a keen shine and a ragged edge. She picked up a grindstone and slid it across in even strokes. Slick. Slick. Slick.

"Have the women ever said anything?" she said, her eyes still on the knife.

"What do you mean?" I said.

"Well," she said. "If I lived here, I'd want to try and fix this town's problem."

"I told, you Lydia already tried—"

"No, no, no," she said. "Lydia wanted to fix you. But you don't need to be cured to fix this town's problem."

"And what would you do?"

"Run all the werewolves out of town, if it were me."

"We have a right to live here, like anyone else."

"A right to live?" Saoirse said. She leaned forward and put her hands on her knees. "Is that really what you just said?"

My arms and legs stiffened. A chill passed over my shoulders and curved down my back. She inspected the knife again. Its bright sheen caught every ray of light in the room.

"Right," I said. "No one's suggested anything like that."

"And why do you think that is?"

What women were left in town were like Katherine. Didn't speak unless spoken to. Had their heads in their own business. They walked quick from place to place, and never stepped outside after dark. For every ten men, there was one woman, and that ratio grew larger every year. To my knowledge, none of them gave any opinions to Ford. They just continued to lock their doors and never went anywhere at night. If it was too much, they left.

"I don't know," I said.

"You still can't think of why?" Saoirse said.

"Just tell me already," I said. "I can't think."

"Quite clear you can't," she said. "You still got a choice. And you don't realize not everyone does."

"I can't even leave this place," I said. "I'd just terrorize some other town."

"You still don't get it," she said. "You have a special freedom none of the women in Buffalo have."

"I'm cursed, Saoirse."

"If you had a town full of pirates, would you let them steal anything they wanted?"

"We don't let people do anything—"

"How many women have you killed, Rutledge?" Saoirse said.

"I don't know."

"How come you aren't in a jail cell?"

"Because it's not the same."

"Is it? Most men who killed their wives, they don't walk free."

"It's not like that."

"How so?"

"Because it's not my—"

She rose from the chair and let it fall against the floor. She pushed her grimacing face close to mine. She grabbed me by the head and forced me to stare into her eyes. Her wolfsbane perfume burned my nose. Acid tears sprung into the corners of my eyes. I squirmed, but she held me in place.

"Say it," she said. "Say it ain't your fault. Repeat it a thousand times. Then look around. Isn't Lydia still dead?"

Lydia stood in front of me in the moonlight. A swipe of the claws was all it took. She didn't fight back. How could she, against the man who said he loved her, the man she had tried for so long to cure? My anger fizzled into a small groan. The groan transformed into sobs. There was no pity on Saoirse's face. Those same burning tears streaked down my cheeks.

"Kill me," I said. "I deserve it."

"I don't like killing," Saoirse said. Her hands fell away from my face. "But you can't walk free forever."

She stood and left me to sob on the floor. I fell to my side, and pain screwed through my arm and leg. I wept all the same. Saoirse put on her leather jacket and zipped it up. She watched me.

"I'd reckon you're at your lowest now," she said. "That's a good thing. Get ready for tonight. You'll need every bit of strength you have."

"I won't be able to control it," I said. "I've never been able to."

"Course you have," she said. "Just no one's been able to hold you accountable for it."

#

It was dark when she untied my legs. She led me outside by a rope attached to my hands. Scraggly tree limbs blocked the moonlight, but I could feel the call of it, a loaf of bread dangled in front of a starving man. And tonight, the night of a full moon, the call was at its loudest. Howls echoed in the distance. Saoirse didn't look toward the sound, only sighed through her nose. We came to a clearing in the trees and she tied the end of the rope around her waist with a sailor's knot. Above us, the moon crested over the treetops. The fur underneath my skin prickled.

"Come on, Rutledge," Saoirse said and leveled the shotgun at me. "Prove Lydia wasn't an idiot."

The moonlight streams through the branches and reflects on your skin. You feel the tightness of your flesh. You clench your fists. Bones emerge from your fingertips and stab into your palms. Saoirse takes a step back. She puts a finger on the trigger. You step toward her. Your eyes narrow and blur. You gnash your teeth at her. Growl. One cry can bring your brothers here. You can feast on her then. You wonder what her flesh tastes like.

I fight back.

You remember when you were a child, you saw a possum at the stream by your friend Brody's house. A coyote had torn its hind legs clean off, but left it alive. It was still awake, but its chest labored with every breath. When its eyes closed, it shook its head, kicked its paws out. You tried to touch it and it snapped its pearly teeth at you. It's only goal was to stay alive. One precious second at a time.

I breathe. In. Out.

You are trapped between. Your bones are misshapen. Your face will explode. Saoirse says something you can't understand. A stabbing pain fills your stomach. Before, the changing came with pleasure. This was not meant to be. You think of the possum. It fought death to stay alive, even though it was inevitable. Even in its last ragged breaths, it pretended it felt no pain.

Your wife's name was Lydia. You must remind yourself of it. Wolves don't care about wives or guilt. They live to hunt. But you saw Lydia stained red in the front yard of your house. You saw her painted like a clown in her casket. Like the possum, she fought to breathe. Covered the wounds in her stomach with her hands. She said nothing. Just breathed. There was defiance in her will to stay alive. She wanted to tame you, make you into the man she thought you were. It led to her death. Unless you can give her one final gift: a victory after such a wasted life.

The tension in my muscles loosened. A numb ache replaced the bulging expansion. My head grew clearer. With each beat of my heart, my skin grew closer to muscle. I gazed at my hands in the moonlight. They were human hands again. Despite myself, I laughed and screamed into the air. It was as if the possum had gotten up and walked, missing legs be damned. I felt twenty years old again.

Saoirse watched me. I caught her eye and my brief spark of joy faded. The image of Ford appeared in my mind. He sat on my bed. He fed pigeons in the park. He stepped into moonlight and sharpened his teeth on the bones of the young women of Buffalo. And he brought us with him. There were soft footsteps in the woods. Close.

"Come on," she said. "Let's get somewhere safe."

#

Saoirse tied me to a chair, curled up on the floor, and slept, her shotgun next to her arms. I watched her through two half-closed eyes. How had Lydia's sister, raised in Dallas, Texas, learned the method to cure a werewolf? Lydia was the most normal person I'd ever met. Before she had come to Buffalo, a werewolf was something only in books and movies. How could their diverging paths have taken Saoirse away from her sister and back to me?

I dozed into the early hours of the morning, and the exhaustion of the previous nights sent me into a deeper sleep when the sun came up. When my eyes opened, Saoirse and her rope were gone. When I went outside, I faced my empty driveway. My car was still back on the other side of Buffalo, and Saoirse's truck was long gone. In my room, I took my uniform off my hanger. I strapped my gun to my belt, opened the drawer, and gripped the burning silver bullet in my hand. I walked two miles out to the highway until Jeb Marshall drove by in his van. He was not one of us, but he knew enough to be kind to a man who wandered by in the morning. We drove over to city hall. I thanked him and he went on his way.

I stood with my hand on the door to city hall for five minutes. There was no return from where I needed to go. I entered city hall, walked past the receptionist, a teenager named Josh Hall, and walked to the conference room, in the back of the building. I opened the door without a knock. Nine men were seated in front of the American flag. They looked up at me. I imagined what they looked like in moonlight. Like monsters. There was a word we didn't use nearly enough in Buffalo.

Ford was at the center of them. There was a stack of papers in front of him. No Bible. No birdseed. His eyes softened when they met mine. There was something fatherly in them. Concern. I hadn't tucked in my shirt. My face was unshaved. I had dark circles under my eyes. I must have looked like hell.

"Captain Rutledge," Ford said. "Are you all right? I haven't seen you in days."

I couldn't answer him, or he would have made me change my mind. The men scrambled when I pulled my gun out of my holster. Ford raised his hands up. He got up from his seat, tried to get under the table. I shot him. The silver bullet pierced his chest. I shot him five more times, just to be sure. The other eight members of the city council jumped over the table and grabbed for my gun. I dropped it and put my hands up. There would be no more meditations in the park for Ford Townsend. Or me. The men tackled me to the ground. All of them wolves just like me. They didn't understand the favor I'd done them.

They locked me up in the county jail. My trial is in a few months. Some judge is coming in from Dallas. No one has offered to bail me out, and even my lawyer thinks I should take a plea deal. Saoirse visited me in between her "sessions" with the other werewolves in Buffalo. She tells me it will never go away. I'll always feel the pull of moonlight. I'll always have fur under my skin. I'll always have the blood of Lydia and all those other women on my hands. Every night for the rest of my life, I'll have to fight the baser instincts that draw the beast out of me.

But when moonlight shines through the bars of my cell, I smile.

I am a man again.

THE END


Copyright 2021, Brandon Greer

Bio: Brandon Greer is an author from Texas. His first short story, "Something Happened to the Food", was published in the Fall/Winter 2020 edition of Allegory Magazine. He is completing an MFA in Creative Writing at Houston Baptist University. He also writes and directs Codename: Blank, an audio fiction comedy podcast.

E-mail: Brandon Greer

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