October’s full moon sat plump and golden above the Ozarks. It snuffed out the last flame of daylight as Ambrose bolted the door behind him. He breathed in the rich smell of dying leaves, then tugged his cap down over his cold ears with one hand. In his other hand, he held tight to his Winchester. It had been his Pa’s once, and he carried it with a certain sense of pride and purpose now that he was the man of the house.
As he made his way across the lawn, he glanced back over his shoulder at the dark windows. The old yellow house held itself up with a quiet, haunting presence. It was a house with a personality. That’s what his Ma always said. It had hidden, narrow staircases, odd doors to the roof, small unnecessary rooms, and floor boards that moaned beneath his boots. At night, it creaked and popped, whispering its history into their ears—as if they needed a reminder. It had been in their family for three generations, four once Ambrose inherited it.
The gate swung open noiselessly. He kept the hinges oiled just like his Pa had. The wood sign hanging on the gate had a polite but faded warning:
Please no visitors.
Especially no evangelists.
We mean it.
Thank you kindly,
Not that anyone visited. Their house sat deep within the woods. The rocky drive wound for several miles, its clay red earth like a cracked open vein in the hills.
He set off along the road at first, then descended into the woods. Despite the dark, he walked with a surefooted gait. He navigated the game trails that cut through the brush and bramble by memory. He chose a path that curled up along chalky, white bluffs and dipped down to a cold spring-fed stream.
No matter how many times he ventured into the woods on a full moon, it still sent a cold, hard fear radiating down to the marrow of his bones. If not for the comfortable weight of the rifle in his hands, he might not be able to carry that fear with him. Besides, it made sense to be afraid. Ma said the full moon brought magic, and he never doubted her. He just didn’t know what all the moon could do, what sort of tricks it might be up to.
The moonlight made the familiar world ghostly, like he could dip his hand through the essence of things. Thinking of this, he pressed his palm against the pale trunk of a sycamore. It felt solid beneath his hand, and somehow, it made him feel reassured. He hadn’t wandered the wrong direction or been fooled by the light.
Letting his hand drop from the tree, he switched the Winchester to the crook of his left arm. Time seemed to dissolve in the night. Though he left over an hour ago, it felt like only five minutes had passed. He thought of his Ma alone in that big house and waiting for him to return as she grew hungrier and hungrier. The thought made him hurry for a few yards. He thanked his lucky stars that it had rained the night before. It made the slick earth swallow the sound of his footsteps.
Knowing he’d have to bring home whatever he killed, he turned north, which would eventually lead back toward the house. Pa used to curse at the moon, his voice grumbling up from beneath his moustache. Without Pa, the heavy quiet of the world pressed itself into Ambrose’s ears. Maybe he’d get home sooner without Pa making so much noise.
The scent reached him first—musky and sickly sour-sweet. The sound of grunting and rustling came next. He froze, lifting his nose into the air and thinking. He was in no mood for an angry hog. With all his senses flaring, he moved downwind.
Step after careful step, he made his way down into a holler. The trees thinned, and he found himself on the Holts’ property. A stretch of old barbed wire separated him from the long stretches of pasture. Now, he cursed. The moon had tricked him after all. He forgot himself and wandered too far.
Worse, he could hear the rumbling of a motor. It ripped through the night. Headlights spread across the crest of the hill. What the devil were the Holts up to at that time of night? Ambrose spat phlegm on their soil and wheeled around to sink back into the woods, his woods.
Before he got too far, he looked over his shoulder to see if the oncoming truck had appeared. He saw it silhouetted on the top of the hill against the moon-bright sky. Shaking his head in irritation, he turned away and trudged back up the hill. Hogs be damned. The last thing he wanted to do was piss off a Holt by trespassing. Neighbors were best left unbothered.
The movement caught him off guard, and he swiftly lifted his rifle. It was nothing more than a shadow darting between trees, a two-legged shadow. He aimed at the oak the intruder ducked behind.
“Best make yourself known,” he said.
“You ain’t gonna shoot if I come out?”
Christ, it was a woman. He lowered the rifle. “I won’t.”
She stepped out from behind the tree with her hands raised anyway. “You one of them Bohannons?” she asked.
“I am. You one of them Holts?”
“There’s hogs nearby.”
Her head turned from side to side in a panic, and he could see the whites of her eyes in the night. She looked strong and tall like Ma. Her hair hung loose over her shoulders. He couldn’t make out much else.
“I heard your daddy was killed by a hog.” Her voice came out thin and taught as a thread about to break.
Ambrose stayed quiet.
Finally, she said, “Is that true?”
“No. It ain’t.”
“What killed him?”
“You can put your hands down,” he said, ignoring her question. He titled the barrel of the Winchester toward the pastures. “Home’s that way.”
Shaking a little, she lowered her hands and gazed past him. “I ain’t goin’ back.”
“You ain’t stayin’ here.”
At his words, she bolted. Quick as a deer, she crashed through the brush and disappeared. Ambrose let out a long, heavy sigh and cursed the moon. Ma always said it made normal folks act up too. Why else would a Holt woman be tromping through their woods at night?
Ambrose worked his way up the steep hillside at an angle, happy to put distance between them. He wanted nothing to do with Holts or hogs. He didn’t have time for either. Ma was waiting and hungry.
But the Holt woman’s presence bothered him. Even if she didn’t follow him, he could feel her on their land like a bur stuck down in his shoe. Nothing he told himself could dislodge her from his thoughts.
“To hell with it,” he muttered. “She don’t belong here anyhow.”
The sound of crashing brush reached his ears before he could go looking for the damned Holt woman. The frantic sound set his heart racing. He lifted the rifle just as he caught sight of the hog bounding blind through moonlight and shadows. He pulled the trigger fast, and it fell.
As he lowered the Winchester, Ambrose stared at the hog’s motionless form. Just like that, his hunt was over. Ma would be happy for it. They rarely brought back hogs. They were usually more trouble than they were worth, after all.
One hog meant there might be others, though. He listened hard. Wind combed the tops of the trees. A twig snapped somewhere too far away to worry over. But nothing else came charging out of the dark. He at last let his shoulders relax, and in a few brisk steps, he went to the dead beast’s side.
He wrapped his hand around its back legs and swung it over his shoulder like a sack. It was inhuman strength that let him do it, but he never thought much of it. His Pa could carry a full grown deer back home without help. He began his slow, heavy walk back home.
Returning seemed to take less time. His feet found the red road even as he let his mind wander. Soon, the big, yellow house loomed over him. His breath caught when he looked up at the door. Coming home on a full moon always made his nerves prickle with anticipation, but this time was different.
This time, the door was open, dark, and gaping. The russet mums on the porch had been knocked over and the dark potting soil scattered on the sidewalk. Ambrose took a step closer, then another. He had bolted the door, hadn’t he?
He tipped the mums back up with his boot, thinking of how Ma had planted them just two days before. Then, with his rifle lifted, he crept up the steps, pausing on each one to listen. No sound came from the dark house, no sound drifted up from the woods. The silence brought little comfort, though.
The door had been bolted, he was sure of it. He felt for the lightswitch to the right of the door. The warm glow filled the foyer, and he called out, “Ma?”
“Shit, shit, shit.”
He paced through the living room once, unsure of whether to bolt himself inside or go after her. As he came to the front door, he froze. The Holt woman stood at the foot of the stairs. At first, he wanted to shout at her, but then, he became aware of the blood. It smudged her cheek, stained her clothes, splattered her brown hair.
“Can I come in?”
Ambrose stepped to the side. “Come on.”
With a start, she hurried up the steps and into the foyer. “Thank you,” she said as he closed the door.
He took a better look at her. In the warm light, her strong, square features softened. “Strange to think you’re old Holt’s daughter.”
“You don’t look half as ugly as—”
Her incredulous scowl made him snap his mouth shut. “You got a bathroom I could use?”
“Yeah. Down that hall.” He pointed down the dark passage. “The last one on the left.”
“Hold on a second,” he said before she could go. “Where’s that blood from?”
The Holt woman’s blue eyes became hard stones. “Pa.”
He nodded but waited until he heard the soft click of the bathroom door to breathe a sigh of relief. She hadn’t seen Ma. But of course she hadn’t. She would have been more shaken if she had. Wouldn’t she?
Ambrose kept the rifle in hand. He went to one of the front windows and pushed aside the lace curtain just enough to peer outside. The woods stood dark against the moonlit sky. The wind had died down, and the world looked still.
He let the curtain fall back into place and checked the grandfather clock in the corner of the living room. The soft ticking swelled in his ears as he considered the time. It was just past eleven. The whole night still stretched ahead of him.
Lowering himself into his Pa’s old armchair, Ambrose let another sigh slip through his lips and held the Winchester across his lap. There wouldn’t be any sense in going after Ma. She could be halfway across the county for all he knew. He would just have to wait and make sure he was there to open the door in the morning.
“Your Ma gonna mind me bein’ here?” The Holt woman spoke from the hall, and he lifted his head just enough to peer over the back of the chair. She had wiped the blood from her face and hands, but her clothes still had dark stains. Her dark, wet hair clung to her face.
“Don’t think so,” he said. “She ain’t home.”
Her voice became soft, almost a whisper. “Listen, I didn’t hurt my Pa.”
Ambrose felt his blood run cold. He turned and threw his arm over the back of the chair to face her better. “What do ya mean you didn’t?”
“Found him next to his truck, half bled out.”
“Why didn’t ya help him?”
“Didn’t get the chance.” She walked around the chair and sat on the edge of the sofa across from him. His eyes followed her. “Promise you won’t call me crazy.”
Ambrose shook his head. “You saw somethin’ out there. Didn’t ya?”
“How’d you know?”
“Don’t matter. You best forget whatever it was.”
“Don’t think I can.”
For the first time, he noticed the dark circles beneath her eyes and how her lips sat thin and hard as if she didn’t know how to smile. He knew what she saw, but she seemed unshaken. Or, she was just good at hiding her fear.
He got to his feet. “Where’s your Pa’s truck?”
“Up the road from here.”
“I’ll go,” he said, already stepping toward the door.
She followed him. “I should tell ya what I saw.”
“I know what it was.”
She slid in front of him before he could reach the door and jabbed his chest. “Looked like somethin’ that crawled outta hell is what it looked like. You mind tellin’ me what the fuck that was?”
“Ain’t you worried about your Pa?”
“I’ll be more worried if he lives.”
“What the hell is that matter with you?”
“Ain’t nothin’ the matter with me. Pa is nothin’ but a mean drunk. What do ya think I was runnin’ from to begin with?” She was shouting by then. Her tremorous voice filled the foyer. “Now, tell me what the hell I saw out there!”
It dawned on him that he had already said too much. He looked down at her as if searching for an answer. His mouth opened and closed a few times. To think, he had never said it aloud. Even Pa carried a heavy quiet with him, though he had pulled Ambrose aside once. It was the summer he turned four.
He could remember it clearly. Even after the sun went down, the thick summer air made sweat bead up on his Pa’s forehead. He had pulled Ambrose down to the back porch and bent down to look him in the eyes. “Listen here, son,” he had said. “Your Ma ain’t what she seems, you hear me? When that moon gets full, she turns into somethin’ else. Somethin’ she don’t have a handle over.”
But he hadn’t understood. He wouldn’t until he saw her for himself.
The Holt woman crossed her arms. “You gonna answer me?”
“I don’t reckon—”
Something heavy hit the door. The wood cracked beneath the force of the blow. The Holt woman scrambled behind Ambrose. He aimed the rifle at the door.
“What is it?” she whispered against his ear.
The feel of her breath made him shiver. He didn’t answer. He pushed her back into the living room, but as he did, a shadow passed by the window. It made the Holt woman jump, and she backed down the hall, the whites of her eyes glistening in the dark.
Ambrose held a finger to his lips, then lifted the Winchester once again and went to the window. He pushed aside the curtain with the butt of the rifle. In the moonlight, he saw the beast crouched over the dead hog. It would devour the hog bone and all. Its heaving, dark body froze, and it looked up, its glassy eyes flashing like a cat’s in the night. For a moment, he feared it would barrel toward the house again, but it went back to ripping apart the hog instead.
“I’m gonna ask you one more time, Bohannon,” said the Holt woman. She had crept to his side and was peering out at the beast over his shoulder. “What is that?”
There was no use dancing around the subject anymore. Without turning, he said, “That would be my Ma.”
A sharp laugh burst from her lips. “This ain’t the time for jokes, Bohannon.”
“I ain’t jokin’.”
At first, she didn’t say anything. Then, barely above a whisper, she asked, “We safe inside?”
He let the curtain fall back into place and lowered the rifle. “Listen, Holt,” he said, turning to her. “She’ll eat just about anything warmblooded. Best thing we can do is get out of here while she’s distracted.”
She backed away and nearly stumbled over the coffee table. “This is insane. That is not your Ma.”
“Alright, Holt. It’s not. But we have to leave. Now.”
Before she could protest, he took hold of her arm and dragged her through the kitchen. He snatched up the truck keys from the hook next to the back door and held them out to her as he said, “Truck is in the carport. Get it started. I’ll cover you.”
“You sure we can’t stay here?” she asked.
“I’m sure. She knows we’re here. Won’t be long before she tries to tear down the door.”
“Okay.” The Holt woman took the keys. “Okay, but—”
Ambrose unlocked the door and flung it open. “But nothin’. We’re goin’.”
The carport sat on the west side of the house, just around the corner from the back door. He edged along the house with the rifle raised, hoping he wouldn’t have to use it. Without turning, he felt the Holt woman behind him. At least she wasn’t frozen in fear on the back porch.
The howl set his blood on fire. It rose up in a high-pitched whine, inhuman but not animal-like either. He felt a hand cling to his arm, and he shook it off.
“Holt, I’m gonna count to three, and we’re gonna take this corner.”
“I don’t think—”
Ambrose stepped into the carport at the same time his Ma did. He had never gotten a good look at her up close, not while she was in that state. Her black fur was matted and reeked like a carrion. Her face was obscured by the same dark, greasy fur, and he could not make out a single trace of his Ma in those silver eyes. She had one clawed hand on the back of the truck, and as she pulled it away, it left long, white scratches on the red paint.
He thought she might recognize him, recognize her son. But, her lips curled back in a snarl, and she crouched down on all fours.
“Sorry, Ma,” he whispered and pulled the trigger.
The gunshot made his ears ring. The beast screamed and stumbled backward. He shouted at Holt to start the truck, and he saw her dart toward the driver side door out of the corner of his eye.
He stumbled toward the passenger door as the beast regained its senses. He raised the Winchester again and swallowed his fear. “Ma!” he roared. “Stay back!”
The truck rumbled to life beside him. The beast growled and leapt at him. The second shot grazed her shoulder. His hand fumbled for the car door, but she was too close. Her jaws opened wide. With a cry, he shoved the Winchester between her teeth before she could bite him. Her claws sank into his shoulders, flinging him against the side of the truck.
As he struggled with the beast, he felt the window slide down behind him and a hand grab hold of the back of his coat. Before he could make sense of what was happening, he was yanked into the front seat. He gave the beast a good kick in the face as the Holt woman pressed the gas pedal.
The truck backed out of the carport so violently, Ambrose ended up on the floorboard. He squirmed his way into the seat as the truck lurched across the front yard. In her panic, the Holt woman hadn’t paid much attention to what direction she was going.
“There, there!” he shouted, pointing toward the driveway.
The tires kicked up dirt as she turned toward it. In the rearview mirror, he saw a dark blur of movement. The beast was chasing after them. It was then that he felt the absence of the Winchester. He had lost his grip when the Holt woman dragged him through the window.
“I lost my gun!” he shouted.
“My Pa’s rifle!”
“Fuck! What do we do?”
He ran his hands through his hair, frustrated and panicked. “Just go!”
She swung the truck onto the clay road. Rocks popped beneath the tires. Ambrose gripped the grab handle above the window, cursing under his breath the whole way. He kept peering through the back window, but the beast couldn’t keep up with the truck. It stopped a few yards from the gate and howled. Then, the yellow house disappeared, swallowed by dark trees and night.
The Holt woman didn’t stop until they reached the gas station at the edge of town. The windows were dark, and leaves slid across the asphalt in a cold gust of wind. They didn’t speak at first, just sat there in shocked silence.
Finally, Ambrose said, “I just don’t know how she got out.”
She gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white. “I—I tried to get in earlier.”
“Ya did what?”
She didn’t repeat herself, though. She just stared at the dark windows of the gas station; all the color drained from her face.
He slammed his fists on the dash. “Didn’t ya read the damn sign?” He felt ridiculous saying it, but they hung it up for a reason. He softened his voice, but the anger still brimmed up with his words. “Fuck, Holt. She coulda killed you.”
She nodded in a numb, dumbstruck way. “She killed my Pa.”
Ambrose turned to her then and said, “Killed mine too.”
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