A Submission for the Campfire Ghost Story Challenge
“The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window.” Michael smiled in the wolf light. Entre Chien et Loup: Between the dog and the wolf. The hour in which what is familiar gives way to what is feral.
“You’ve told me this one before,” Allison said.
“I have?” Michael said. “Oh.”
“It’s OK, I want to stretch anyway.”
The back porch creaked beneath her feet as she stood, another on the renovation to-do list before the baby came. The house had its charm, Allison had to admit that much, but they had looked at so many others that were turn key. Michael was adamant. It was the woods. He wanted to be close to the woods. It will be good for the baby to be away from the city or be stuck in some cul-de-sac. It needs wilderness. She looked out at the woods across from the back yard, trying not to imagine what could be lurking there in the dark. Michael watched with awe, this goddess, whose belly would soon be swollen with life, illuminated by fireflies like embers rising into the dusk.
Charlie rose from his dog bed and wove between her legs.
“How about Oliver?” Michael said.
Allison rubbed her flat belly, as she did with each name suggestion, as if testing the response. She scrunched her nose.
“Olivia,” he said.
“Put that on the list,” she said.
“Herbert,” Michael said, rising.
She laughed—-why he had said it—and the sound thrilled him. He took her in his arms, the warmth of her cutting through the coolness of the night. Allison was hungry. When she was a baby, her mother called it Wilding. She would growl as she ate, tearing at the food like an animal. Her Wilding returned later in life, this time as a yearning to go from Here to There. She escaped to hunt for herself, and for a time that’s what she did. And then she found Michael. Two weeks ago he brought her the little white plastic stick, and the plus sign on it didn’t change no matter how many times she looked at it. He had hugged her so tight he lifted her off the ground.
“How do you feel about lying?” Michael said. “To little Herbert.”
“Not really lying, just…withholding certain truths. To protect him.”
“I don’t get it,” Allison said, lying herself, but hoping she was wrong.
“OK, here’s a hypothetical,” Michael said. “The three of us are out for a walk in the woods, and Charlie sees a rabbit. He chases after it, leaving us behind. This rabbit is slow. Scared. Charlie catches it, and kills it.”
“That’s awful,” Allison said, a hand on her stomach to shield her womb from the violence.
“Hypothetical, I said. Charlie, you’re a good boy.”
Charlie wagged his tail, very aware of how good a boy he was.
“But this time,” Michael said, “he’s not a good boy. Something inside of him takes over, something ancient, and he shakes this rabbit in his jaws. Now, this all happens ahead of us, but we hear it. So you take the child away. I see what Charlie has done, but when I come back, I tell the child the rabbit ran away. A lie, to protect him. What would you do?”
Allison sat, and brooded for a moment. Michael looked up at the New Moon, in a dusk of its own. Shy. Waiting.
“I don’t want to lie to him,” Allison said.
“So you’d tell him Charlie tore that cute little bunny apart?”
“Exactly, because you want to protect him,” Michael said, sitting next to her.
“We can’t protect him forever,” Allison said, rubbing her shoulders in the chill the night had grown. He placed his sweater around her.
“I agree,” Michael said, “but that time, when you are protected from the truth, isn’t that precious?”
“I would want the truth. Everything out in the open. Secrets, lies, whatever you want to call them, are no things for a child.”
“So, no Santa Claus, then,” Michael said, and Allison pushed him playfully. “I’m surprised,” he said. “You want the truth.”
“Absolutely,” she said. The knot of hunger returned. “Are you hungry?”
“Not yet,” he said. “Tell me, have you ever wondered about the truth? Maybe even found it, and put it back under its rock because you refused to believe it?”
“No,” she said.
“Hmm,” Michael said, petting Charlie slowly from the top of his head to the base of his tail. “You don’t wonder about the truth about me?”
Allison laughed. “Sweetie, I know all there is to know.”
“Let’s not play games, Alli,” Michael said. “You said no lies. You’ve never asked questions, but you must wonder. You’re smart. Observant. Curious. All the qualities one could want in a mother of their child.”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Allison said, starting to get up, but Michael stood over her.
“Stay,” he said. “Please.”
The night had swallowed up the woods, but Allison knew it was still there, the trees nothing but tall shadows to hide terrible things away.
“You’ve never questioned my absences? Not when I’m gone all night?”
“You tell me you hunt.” Allison said, her voice a husk of what it was a moment ago.
“At night, and that doesn’t seem strange? But yes, I hunt. See, I tell you the truth. Just a bit of it. But now, you should know all of it.”
Allison pushed the chair back and stood, stumbling to find her way around it off the porch. “You’re scaring me,” she said.
“I don’t want to scare you, Alli. It doesn’t have to be scary. It can be beautiful.”
She tripped off the porch, and the truth, all of it, landed hard. The cold grass, its blades pressing into her skin. The night air against her goosebumps. Charlie’s warm tongue on her cheek. Michael’s hand taking her, picking her up. She shook him off and ran into the dark. The woods. Her feet turned leaden. She turned.
“It’s OK,” Michael said. “I’m just giving you what you wanted. The truth.”
Charlie danced around him, curious of the new game they were playing. Michael held up his hands like he was surrendering, but Allison knew it was no surrender. It was a magician’s preface to a trick. A transformation.
“Stay back!” Allison said.
Charlie saw the game change, the dim light from the house making it look like something it wasn’t, and his hackles rose. He stepped between Michael and Allison.
“It’s all right, Charlie,” Michael said. “Good boy.”
Charlie growled, standing his ground. Michael’s lips curled away from his teeth and he growled back. Allison felt it rumble in her ribs, down into her womb. Charlie whined.
“I can change people,” Michael said, “give them this gift, but it’s hollow. I’ve been here, undead, for hundreds of years, and I have no true legacy to show for it. Until now. You have given me that, my love.”
The truth formed as tears, streaming down Allison’s face. She shook her head. The woods loomed behind her. “I can’t have this! I won’t.”
“Oh, Allie. You don’t have a choice.”
She fell to her knees, Charlie wrapping himself around her.
“I know this is a lot.” Michael said. “We can talk more, but I am actually hungry. And I see a rabbit.”
He broke into a sprint, blowing passed them, and the woods swallowed him up. From the darkness, the rabbit screamed. It was loud and sharp and desperate. Allison covered her ears, but the screaming was inside of her. The rabbit was fine, Allison thought, kneading Charlie’s fur. It was scared, but ran away somewhere safe. Charlie nestled against her face.
“Good boy,” she said.