Chapter 1 - Bad Moon Rising
The full moon hung like a guillotine over the boy’s head. His face tense with pain, he trembled, his forehead almost in the dirt. Unable to stand due to the deep spasms rippling along every muscle in his body, he squirmed… moaned… gasped.
With a jerk he turned from the moonlight which hurt his eyes. The move brought him little relief however as, like the heat of hell’s furnace, the beams now burned against his back. Moaning, his skin pulled tight, feeling as through it was blistering. In agony, crouched on the hard, bare ground, he barely denied the urge to throw back his head and scream.
As the moon climbed higher into the sky, it marked the minutes until the nightmare he’d been dreading for the past month would bloom into full, horrifying reality. He found no consolation in the likelihood that it would probably be a short lived blossom.
Thirty Days Earlier
The initial excitement of summer had passed for three 17-year-old friends from Fort Hurst, in northwestern Arkansas. The keen joy of sleeping late and watching hours of TV into the wee hours of the morning had dulled. Alan Driggers, Eric Robinson, and Phillip Kent had devised a plan to counteract that dulling: a weekend camping trip to nearby Devil’s Den State Park. With their arguments in favor strategically decided upon ahead of time, they each approached their parents for permission. After the parents combined consultation, it was agreed that if the Driggers’ oldest son, Mark, went along, the trip would be allowed. It was unfortunate that Alan and Mark got on as well as they did, because neither objected to the condition. Eric and Phil quickly agreed, and preparations for the trip continued without delay.
At 8 a.m. on that fateful Saturday, Mark and Alan piled onto the driveway, and next to Mark’s Rover, all the camping gear Mark thought they’d need from the equipment he kept in his parents’ garage. Before 8:30, Mark’s work buddy, Carl, covered with smiles, and leaking laughter, squeezed his pickup onto the driveway as well. In short order, their gear was divided between the two vehicles. By 9 both Eric and Phil had arrived with sleeping bags, pillows and other gear, including on Eric’s part, a giant bag of doughnuts. The additional gear was stowed, and by 9:20 all were ready to go.
Mark and Carl met while training as park rangers. They now worked together at William Franks State Park near the northern center of the state. Both were 27 and fit, but Carl was the more muscular of the two. Despite his easy smile, and boisterous laughter, he had a rough appearance. Mrs. Driggers blanched and forced her own smile upon her first glimpse of him as he shoved bundled gear around in the back of his truck.
Despite driving his pickup, Carl had worn his biker garb including chaps, boots and a leather jacket. His clothing and shaved head only began to form the impression he was making on her, however. As the day was warm, he pulled off his jacket, revealing the ragged tank top beneath. The sleeveless shirt allowed a view of much of his tattoo collection. Both of his upper arms were wrapped in images of thorny vines filled with black roses. The artwork displayed easily against his light brown skin.
Within the thorny vines, a bleeding heart with the name Thelma sat high on his left arm. Another bearing the name Louise was on his right. The design on his chest was mostly hidden, but colors bloomed at the cutoff edges of his collar. A small green, yellow and red dragon’s head peered above the low collar on his back. Above it, and just above his freshly shaved and therefore barely visible hairline, was a pentagram.
Mrs. Driggers’ smile slowly turned genuine as Carl stepped over and introduced himself. “Good morning ma’am, I’m Carl Sheppard,” he announced. Calling her ma’am had been a good start. When he complimented her outfit her opinion of him eased further, but then he complimented her garden. She loved her garden.
“It sure is looking good. I’m in an apartment now, so I don’t have a yard, or a garden, but I used to help my aunt and sister with theirs.” His eyes shifted along the row of flowering plants bordering the front of the two story home. “I’ve always liked Cone Flowers and your Coreopsis look great! The yellow Daylilies too. It’s great that they bloom more than once.” His lips pulled tight as he studied her roses. His expression was barely reflected in his tone as he continued. “You get great sun here and you’re taking full advantage of it. My aunt and sister grew all kinds of things, but my aunt loved flowers so we grew a lot of them too.” As he spoke, his eyes held on her rose bushes’ small, unhealthy blooms.
Noticing his gaze, and expression, Mrs. Driggers was about to comment when he continued, “To bad your roses aren’t doing better.” Before she could respond in defense, he suggested an organic fertilizer. After listening closely to his assurances of the improvements it would make to her blooms, he had her wrapped around his little finger.
Before they pulled out, the Driggers’ neighbor, Mrs. Bright, and her dachshund, Bedbug, came up the sidewalk. The small dog pulled against her leash barking and whining as she tried to get to Alan, who stepped over, squatted, and petted the excited animal.
“Good morning, Mrs. Bright…” Alan said and then added, “…You too, Bug!” The small dog’s butt swung back and forth with her tail as she jumped, licking at his hands and reaching for his face.
“Hello, Alan,” Mrs. Bright answered while waving to his mother, and failing to peer discreetly at Carl. She almost managed to look at Alan as she asked, “Off to your camping trip, eh? Well, the weather should be good for it.”
“We’re hoping,” Mark responded after kissing his mother goodbye, and then added, “Mornin’, Mrs. Bright.” He walked over to Carl’s truck and nodded questioningly at his friend. Carl nodded back in affirmation and Mark called to Alan, “C’mon, bro, time to go!”
“He’s a poet and doesn’t know it,” Alan informed his excited canine friend before standing and directing his human friends toward Mark’s Rover. With Bedbug trying to drag Mrs. Bright after him, he took shotgun as his friends climbed in the back seat.
Looking at Carl alone in his truck, Mark commented, “Sorry, dude.”
Shrugging, Carl replied, “Nobody wants to leave their buds to ride alone with the guy they don’t know. Even if he is cooler than the guy drivin’ the only other vehicle.” He smirked. “No problem my man, I got my music. I’m cool as ice.”
“Yeah, you wish.” They both chuckled as Mark joined the boys. As they drove down the street, Bedbug barked, and Mrs. Bright waved. Mrs. Driggers also waved but, unaware that she’d only ever see one of her sons alive again, she focused on her roses.
The two-hour drive to the park was uneventful. Alan and his friends bantered back and forth with Mark regularly joining in as they trailed Carl. Upon arrival, Mark bought a backcountry permit and selected a location toward the rear of the park, well away from the commonly occupied campsites. He and Carl directed and helped Alan and his friends. In short order the campsite was ready. Two tents, a cook stove, folding table and chairs, an axe, even a hand washing station. Mark and Carl loved being outside so together they had all the gear the group could possibly need.
Their options for activities were numerous. The eight-acre, Lake Devil, was nearby for canoeing and swimming, but they decided that would wait until tomorrow. For the afternoon, Eric had brought a bow and arrows, and they all took turns with target practice on an old stump. Mark, an avid hunter, had brought two rifles. One, a 270 caliber, because he wouldn’t go into the woods overnight without it. The other shot BBs which they used for target practice with paper targets he’d brought along for that purpose. Eventually, Carl pulled a large hunting knife and began to teach the boys how to throw it.
That evening, after Mark and the boys returned from an hour-long hike, they all sat around the camp fire eating the large burgers and spicy-sweet beans Carl had prepared while they were gone. All at ease with one another, the group kept themselves entertained with jokes and playful teasing during the meal. While cleaning up, Carl dropped the empty bean cans into the recycling bag and commented on how warm they’d all be keeping the tents that night.
Near sunset, Mark, Eric and Phil threw the knife again while Alan and Carl finished cleaning up from dinner.
On one knee, Carl was adding more wood to the fire when Alan noticed a small knife strapped to his ankle. Its hilt was a heavily designed, white metal. “What’s that?” he asked.
Carl followed Alan’s gaze, to the knife. With a grin he unbuckled the strap holding it within its sheath and displayed the small blade. “A gift from my sister,” he answered.
“It’s pretty. What’s all that on the handle?” he asked, leaning forward and straining to make out the designs.
“Yeah it is pretty. Hieroglyphs of some kind,” he answered with a shrug. Alan frowned as Carl added. “It’s supposed to be some kind of charm.”
“No jokes now because she’s very serious about it.” When Alan looked back in confusion, Carl shrugged and explained, “My sister’s a witch.”
“Yeah. Supposed to be pretty powerful too, at least that’s what her friends tell me.” Slipping the blade back into its sheath, he explained, “It’s supposed to keep me safe from evil stuff. I never asked what kind of evil stuff, but I haven’t gotten into any trouble I haven’t been able to get out of yet so I guess it works.”
Looking at Carl’s muscular arms, Alan thought, there could be another explanation.
“She has a house in your town actually,” Carl explained. “Part of the reason Mark and I became friends, aside from my charm and quick wit, is that we ride share the three-hour drive from William Franks to Fort Hurst for most of our visits.”
Frowning, Alan asked, “How come I’ve never met you before?”
Shrugging, Carl answered “Weekends are short. Mark’s never met my sister either. His loss. She’s a looker. I stayed at her place last night. I swear, she looks like she hasn’t aged since…”
“I’m feelin’ like some S’mores,” Mark announced as he led the others back to the fire. “Anybody else interested?”
“Interested?” Carl replied, abandoning his conversation with Alan. “I like you guys, but the S’mores are why I came!”
“…the motor stalled as the car tires slid on loose gravel,” Mark announced, his face lit only by the campfire. “Once stopped, the teens inside gasped air. Silence settled around them as their wide eyes searched the darkness. Their single remaining headlight shone across the road and into the dark woods beyond, revealing--nothing. As their breathing rushed in and out of them, they listened to the silence. Not even a cricket chirped. ‘Start the car! Get us out of here,’ the girl whimpered. The boy stomped on the clutch and twisted the key. The motor almost caught before choking, and sputtering back into silence. On the third try, the car’s headlight dimmed.
“‘Start the car,’ the girl shrieked this time.”
“Flinching, the boy replied, ‘I can’t. It won’t.’ Turning toward the girl, he looked past her, and out her window, where he saw a cabin set back in the woods. The porch light shone like a beacon of safety. He shouted, ‘There’s a cabin. Let’s run for it.’
“’No,’ the girl screeched back. Pulling her legs up, she wrapped her arms around them. After looking around once more, the boy jumped out of the car. Immediately the girl screamed for him not to leave her. The boy didn’t answer as he ran around to her side, intent on opening her door, and pulling her out if he had to. Instead, he stopped. His eyes bulging as he looked at the passenger side door handle from which hung -- a bloody hook.”
As Mark finished the Boy Scout campfire tale, Carl looked up toward the full moon and falsetto screamed. Everyone laughed. Holding up a lone marshmallow, Carl said, “This is the last mallow, and it’s 10:30. If you guys are going to hike over to the boats tomorrow, you’d better get some sleep. On the weekend, if you don’t get there early, there probably won’t be any left.”
“You aren’t coming?” Eric asked, sincerely disappointed.
“I don’t do boats, or cold water if I can help it. Besides, some quiet time with Mom Nature sounds too good to pass up. I’ll be here to beat you at target practice again when you get back.”
They all smiled as Mark stood up. “That sleep thing sounds like a good idea to me.”
Alan and his friends moaned, but only a little as they were tired too. Mark banked the fire as the others cleaned the site of trash and the larger bits of food while Carl joked about raccoons coming for the food and leaving with Mark’s Rover.
Mark and Carl went to one tent while Alan and his friends crawled into the other. By 11, everyone was asleep.
Shortly after midnight they were all awakened by the howls of wolves. Alan sat bolt upright and stared through the mosquito netting covering the tent’s entrance. A moment later his friends also sat up, and together they stared wide eyed into the night as the howls seemed to draw closer.
“What the hell,” Alan heard his brother curse from the other tent. Along with the continuing baying he heard the zing of the zipper on his brother’s tent, and then the crush of dry leaves under leather boots as Mark and Carl stepped out.
Up on his elbows, Phil looked at his friends for reassurance and then sat up when Eric hissed, “Let’s go!”
Still in their clothes, Phil and Eric quickly pulled on their shoes. Grabbing a flashlight, Phil reached for the tent’s zipper as he looked at Alan who still hadn’t done more than sit up. “C’mon,” he grunted as Eric pulled his bow and several arrows from their case. As they exited, Alan reluctantly pulled on his tennis shoes and followed them into the darkness.
Gathered around the smoldering campfire the boys, disheveled and uneasy, huddled beside Mark and Carl and listened. “Sounds like there are at least two of them,” Mark growled as he hefted his larger rifle and scanned the woods.
“They’re close,” Carl hissed.
His bravado already extinguished, Eric suggested, “We should get in the cars.” Alan looked toward his friend. With the full moon at Eric’s back and his dark skin blending into the darkness, Alan could see little more than his friend’s wide opened eyes. Alan turned toward Mark, who frowned into the dark woods.
“Wolves don’t usually attack people. I think we should…” Mark stopped as something large circled the camp quickly, and then ran off again.
“That was big,” Carl exclaimed.
“Yeah, the cars,” Phil stated as he turned on his flashlight, and ran to catch up with the already moving Eric.
Alan looked toward his brother for a decision. Mark looked at Carl. They each nodded before Mark said, “The cars sound right. Let’s go.”
Together they started moving. As they did, they saw Eric, in the beam of Phil’s light approaching the Rover. Opening the hatch, Eric tossed in his bow. As he shut the hatch, something large and dark took him to the ground screaming. Phil dropped his light and cried out. The flashlight bounced once and went dark. After a moment Eric was quiet too.
“Phil! This way,” Carl shouted as Mark searched for a target with his rifle. They heard Phil begin to run but he was taken down after only a few steps. Again the night filled with shrieks.
Alan, Mark and Carl drew together at the edge of the campsite. Mark raised his rifle to his shoulder, but held his fire for fear of hitting one of their friends. Instead he pointed the rifle up and fired into the sky. The retort had no effect on the attacking animal, however. When the screaming stopped he shouted, “Eric… Phil!” Quickly reloading his rifle from the bullet storage strapped to his stock, he fired again, taking his best guess as to where one of the animals might be. From the darkness one of the beasts yelped and ran off. Mark quickly loaded and fired again, trying for a second hit, but rather than another howl, all he heard was the rustling of its departure dwindle to nothing. “Damn,” he muttered as he reloaded.
“Where’s the other one?” Carl asked, his voice strong, but worried.
“Let’s get to the cars,” Mark hissed. As they moved, he dug into his pocket for his keys. Grabbing Alan, he put them in his hand. “You drive,” he stated as he again held his rifle ready. Too frightened to be pleased at being allowed to drive, Alan nodded and kept moving. They’d gotten halfway when something ran between them and the vehicles.
They all skidded to a stop as Carl pulled his hunting knife from his belt. Looking toward Alan, he said, “Wait.”
“Why?” Mark demanded.
Squatting, Carl pulled the small knife Alan had seen earlier from its sheath. After looking at each of them, he handed the smaller to Alan and said, “Use it if you have to. Let’s go!”
“Actually, let’s run!” Mark said, pushing Alan forward.
Suddenly something large jumped Carl and he went down slashing his knife and kicking. Clouds parted allowing the light of the full moon to illuminate the scene. Carl, on his back and beneath the wolf, had one forearm against the beast’s neck. His other arm pumped as he tried to do damage with the knife. His attempts were hindered by the beast’s closeness and the wolf’s leg partially binding Carl’s movement. He shouted for help as the snapping jaws reached for his throat. Mark swung his rifle, but was stymied again for fear of hitting his friend. Shouting, he jabbed his rifle into the wolf’s back. Ignoring Mark’s efforts, the wolf yelped instead as Carl’s knife finally did some damage. A second later Carl grunted and the bloody weapon landed at Alan’s feet.
Frozen with fear, Alan stared as the moonlight glinted in red off the large, blood-slicked blade.
Carl’s cries suddenly went silent as the beast’s teeth reached their target.
Mark shouted, “Alan, get to the car!” When Alan didn’t immediately move, his brother shoved him.
Fear-stoked paralysis broken, Alan ran. Reaching the Rover, he hesitated at the door as he looked toward the back where his friends had been attacked moments before. Unable to see either of them, he considered going around to look but then heard another shot from Mark’s rifle. As Mark began to scream in pain, Alan opened the door and jumped in.
Slamming the door closed, he reached toward the ignition and realized he had Carl’s knife in his hand. Dropping it onto the passenger seat, he switched the keys from his left hand and started the motor. After putting the vehicle in gear he looked through the driver’s side window into the now silent darkness.
Searching for Mark, instead he found himself looking directly into the face of a huge wolf. Lit by moonlight, the beast stood just outside the door, its large head centered in the window, muzzle almost touching the glass. The window fogged and cleared with the beast’s hard breaths. Snarling, it bared a mouth full of large, sharp teeth. The moonlight reflected off the beast’s eyes and the red-stained saliva dripping from its mouth. Frozen with fear, Alan stared back as the wolf lifted itself onto its hind legs and raised an oddly shaped paw. Growling, it slapped the paw against the glass and held it there.
The slap rocked the SUV freeing Alan from his trance. Able to think again, he realized he needed to leave, but now he was transfixed by confusion more than fear. It wasn’t a hand against the glass, but neither was it a paw. His voice wheezed from his throat, “What in the hell…” His words were cut off as the hand/paw dropped from the window and the door was suddenly yanked open.
With the Rover already in gear, Alan stomped on the accelerator. The vehicle lurched forward and then rocked as the back door window shattered inwards from the beast leaping into it. The forward movement slammed the door against the wolf’s hand/paw as it grasped the open doorway. A howl filled the vehicle’s interior as Alan grabbed the door handle and pulled the door closed again. This time it shut.
Panicked, Alan drove the front quarter panel into a picnic table. A moment later most of the passenger side drug against a tree before he thought to turn on the headlights. Reaching the road, he barely stayed on it as he raced away from his brother and friends who, he was now certain, were dead. Unsure where he was going, his hands shaking, his heart pounding, he reached the road and turned toward the front of the park.
Gasping air, he gripped the wheel and steered down the straight section of road. Not till the last minute did he lift his foot from the accelerator having seen a sharp curve ahead. Brakes barely applied, the Rover slid onto the soft dirt shoulder and jerked as the passenger door collided against another tree. The motor died and for several moments, Alan could hear nothing but his own labored breathing. Unable to think, he sat gasping until another howl startled him into action. Twice he tried to restart the engine and failed before remembering that the Rover was still in Drive. Shoving the gear stick into Park, he tried again and sobbed with relief as the motor roared to life.
Shifting again to Drive, he pulled back onto the road. His breath was still hitching in his chest as the last tire climbed off the shoulder. Just as he began to accelerate, the driver’s side window shattered, and Alan’s shoulder ignited in pain. Turning, he found himself eye to eye with the wolf. Its hot breath beat against his face as the beast’s teeth dug deeply into his flesh. With the car still moving and tiny cubes of safety glass in his hair and lap, Alan held onto the steering wheel and tried to pull his shoulder from the monster’s mouth, with no effect.
Front legs hooked through the broken window, its back scraping for support against the smooth, metal surface of the door, the wolf neither pulled Alan from, nor managed to climb any farther into the cab.
Reaching for anything with which to defend himself, Alan’s hand landed on Carl’s knife which still lay on the passenger seat. Desperately grasping the handle, he stabbed at the wolf’s head. His first attempt hit bone and left a bloody gash as it tracked along the skull for several inches. The beast writhed in pain, tearing at Alan’s shoulder.
Screaming in agony, Alan brought the knife back and thrust again. This time the blade pierced the wolf’s eye before again hitting bone. With an ear-shattering howl, the beast released its hold and fell from the window.
Accelerating again, Alan turned to look out the windshield, which was sprayed with his own blood. His hands tightened on the wheel as pain from his ripped shoulder made it difficult for him to think. He barely made the next turn as, still panicking, he accelerated once more.
Struggling to see through his tears and the blood-splattered window, he fought to control the swiftly moving vehicle on the narrow curving road. When the front tire slipped onto the soft shoulder, the blood-slicked steering wheel jerked in his hand. Instantly the Rover left the road again.
His foot pressing desperately against the brake, Alan held on as the Rover skidded, and then rolled onto its side. Alan tumbled inside the cab as it rolled onto its roof and again broadsided a tree.
The motor died as he lay on the interior roof of the cab, barely conscious. Just before he blacked out, he saw approaching headlights. As his eyes closed, he heard the mournful and angry howls of wolves.
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