Thursday, April 18, 2013

An Old Horror Story

This is an old piece I wrote called The Pelt. It's not my best work (it's strange to read old work and not recognize the writing style as your own), but it's something different, if not entirely successful in its aims. I wrote this after reading a werewolf anthology--available here--that had some excellent stories in it, particularly David Schow's Not From Around Here, which is probably the most terrifying and riveting horror story I've ever read. My story is not as good. But I'll share it anyway.

The Pelt
            It was terribly cold out when he shot the big black wolf. Jack was with his hunting buddy Robert, searching a pristine patch of Alaskan wilderness for a ten-point buck or a bull moose. They’d taken a pair of snowmobiles out to a friend’s property, and they’d left them at the cabin and set out on foot across a two mile stretch of tundra, aiming for a thick patch of spruce. They’d woven through another mile of dense underbrush when they came upon the lake grove. The waters were frozen solid and covered with a thin layer of snow. They quietly set up behind a tree and waited. Marsh grass was plentiful around the shore line, a mainstay of the moose diet. Light snow fell gently, but they were prepared. Jack took out a flask of whiskey, and they shared it in silence while they waited.
The hours ticked by and the men finished the whiskey. Light was starting to dwindle, so they gave up and began trudging through the spruce forest. Jack was feeling warm and drowsy, a consequence of the liquor and the cold, and he felt a sort of sadness creeping in, a melancholy derived from the wastefulness of the day and the general environment of Alaska.
“Terry is going to be pissed when I come back,” he said. He’d been unemployed for a while now, and their funds were getting low.
“That’s a shame. You don’t want to piss off a woman in this State. There are two men for every woman. She could come running to me,” replied Robert, his voice gruff despite the intended humor.
“I wouldn’t hold it against you. There ain’t enough bears around here for you.”
“I ain’t seen a bear in a while,” said Robert, looking around them. “Start talking louder and making more noise.”
Jack was carrying a .338 caliber rifle, but he’d heard stories of bullets bouncing off the thick skulls of bears. He’d seen grizzlies before, and he’d killed a four-hundred pound black bear last summer, but he didn’t want to surprise one out here in the dense forest and darkening light.
They’d just made it out of the woods and were starting to cross the plain when they heard the howl. It was deep and throaty and it ended in a strange way, jumping up in pitch and then ceasing like a strangled scream. Then they saw it moving rapidly out of the forest to the right of them, a huge black blur. Both men crouched down immediately and aimed their rifles, but it was moving too fast. Robert fired but must’ve missed, because it kept coming and Jack could hear it making a horrible rabid growl, and he concluded that the wolf must be diseased; there was no way a healthy animal would make a noise like that. It closed the distance between them and just when it was about to leap for Robert’s throat Jack fired his rifle and it landed, bleeding darkly in the snow.
Both men stood there in shock for a moment, then reloaded their rifles and approached the corpse. It was a huge wolf, with a body stretching at least six feet in length, and it smelled like the rotten entrails of an old kill. The bullet had passed right through its muscular chest, and blood was leaking slowly out of the hole and freezing before their feet. Robert pulled back the black lips and marveled at the long ivory fangs.
“Those teeth are in perfect condition,” he said, shaking his head. “This animal wasn’t old or sick. Wolves are supposed to be afraid of men.”
“There was a runner who was killed by a pack of wolves near Chignik Lake,” replied Jack.
“It was a woman though, wasn’t it?” He stared at the wolf and then picked up its hind limbs. “A wolf is better than nothing.”
“What are we going to do with it? I need meat.”
“You should mount the head and keep the skin. You shot it after all. Come on, help me drag it.”
By the time they reached the snowmobiles they were exhausted. Jack estimated that the beast weighed an excess of two-hundred and fifty pounds. Robert found some rope in the cabin, and they tied the wolf to the back of Jack’s snowmobile and dragged it across the tundra and into town.
When he got home it was well into the evening. Jack brought Terry out of the trailer with a flashlight to examine the wolf lying dead in the back of his truck.
“That’s no moose,” she said tersely. “What we gonna do with a wolf?”
“I know it’s not a moose, honey, but look at it. That’s the biggest damn wolf I’ve ever seen. Robert told me that the biggest one ever shot weighed one-hundred and ninety pounds, and this thing is surely bigger than that,” he told her excitedly.
“You’d better sell it or something, because we’re about out of money.” She turned and went back to the trailer, leaving Jack alone with his kill.
The next day he took it to a skinner in town and had the head preserved and mounted and the pelt cleaned. He thought about making the pelt into a fur coat for Terry, but he decided she wouldn’t want that.
The next month passed slowly, and he was unable to find work. The winter months weighed heavily in his soul, and the short days and ever-long nights made him drink more and more. The wolf head looked magnificent above his television though, and one night as he drained beer after beer from the comfort of his recliner an odd fancy struck his mind. He looked down at the pelt which was now a rug. He was feeling warm but the pelt would feel even warmer. The electric space heaters did a poor job of heating his trailer.
Jack got up groggily and pick up the heavy pelt and draped it across his shoulders. He stared at the wolf head for a while, and the marble eyes seemed to approve of his actions.
“I need more beer,” he said to the head, and then he walked outside dressed as a wolf.
The moon was full, and Jack thought he could feel its pull on his heart as though a gentle but strong force was rocking the organ back and forth against his chest. The world of ice and snow before him lost its color in the darkness, and suddenly he felt like he might vomit. Jack collapsed on all fours and felt an immediate itchiness on his skin from his clothes as though they were made of animal bristles, so he frantically tore them off, thrashing around in the snow until he was naked but for the pelt. When he stopped moving the skin seemed to envelop him further, wrapping around him warm and tight like his own natural covering.
In the drunken darkness he ran around on all fours because that seemed to be a better form of locomotion in his strange state, and he abandoned plans for beer and headed out of the trailer park and into the nearby woods. He ran for miles, moving with a preternatural swiftness, moving like his belly was empty and not full of processed foods and cheap, watery beer. The night was augmented, its sounds coming from new directions, and he could rotate his ears like a satellite dish and his nostrils quivered with fresh smells, every breeze carrying synesthesia, a wondrous mess of color and shape.
After a while he saw a bright light glowing through the forest, and the hackles on his pelt rose with a life of their own, so Jack crept up to the source of the illumination slowly and quietly, crawling on his belly. It was a campsite, and there was a great bonfire and men sat before it, men with beer and jerky at their mouths and guns at their feet. They were laughing, and he couldn’t understand what they were saying despite being very close to them, for their speech came out guttural and distorted like it was being filtered through an amplifier with bad tubes, but he could sense malice in those voices, and he knew that there was something very wrong with these men. His eyes couldn’t see any color in them; they had dim outlines around their figures and shadows seemed to quiver before their bodies, obscuring their faces. They weren’t of this world, he decided, since they paid no mind to the smells and sounds echoing around them. They had contempt for it; they burned the living wood of the forest and tossed their empty cans and chortled their mechanical laughter as though they existed above and apart from the world. The pelt responded to these thoughts and Jack felt his teeth growing and his face lengthening into a muzzle, and he subsequently tested the sharpness of his inch-long canines with his new lapping tongue. As he did this the shadows before the men disappeared, and he could see that he’d been correct, for they weren’t men at all. They had the faces of pigs; they had the stunted pink snouts, and he could hear their snorts as they chewed their jerky and drank their beer. A growl rose up in his throat, and the man closest to him turned toward the woods, feebly blinking its tiny porcine eyes. Jack’s growl turned into a snarl and one of the pig-men tried to grab a rifle but his hooves wouldn’t let him grasp it, so Jack leaped out of the woods and lunged at the closest monstrosity and had its larynx in his jaws before he landed. They were all squealing then, a pathetic, irritating noise, and they were fleeing further into the woods, so Jack threw back his head and howled and then went after them.
It took a while but by the end of the night he had hunted down all the pig-men. He was exhausted and his bones ached deeply while his muscles felt like they had been stretched to the breaking point. Completely spent, he made it back to the campsite and collapsed before the remnants of the fire after drinking the rest of their beer.     
That night Jack had a dream about swimming in a lake of meat. He was in a great cavern with red wrinkled walls like the lining of a stomach, walls that pulsed and seethed with ragged intestinal life, and he was paddling about in a vast pool of boiling acids while chunks of flesh bobbed all around him. His head kept struggling to keep above the stinking brine, and the fetid waters seeped into his mouth, causing him to gag. There were pigs in the water with him, and they were being cooked alive, their skin sloughing off in long soupy folds to reveal their raw, bleeding musculature. Jack could hear their human-like screams, but their snouts remained immobile, frozen in a taxidermal grimace. No matter how hard he swam, he couldn’t escape the lake or their noise.
He made it home late the next day, the pelt still clinging to his naked, sore shoulders. The walk back from the campsite had emptied what little energy he had after his exertions, and he thought that some of his toes might be frostbitten, so it was in a pained state that he entered his trailer and found it empty with a note magnetized to the fridge.
Dear Jack,
I’ve had enough of you not working and not coming home. I see you’ve taken that stinking pelt. I took the truck. Congratulations, the trailer is yours.
“Great,” he moaned, the words coming out rough. “Just what I always wanted.”
He thought he heard a squeal somewhere in the cabin, but by then he was used to the random sounds of his mind. Jack hadn’t quite emerged from the nightmare; his eyes were open but his vision was blurred and everything had a red tinge to it, just like the intestinal lake. In the bathroom he found splinters of bone lodged in his gums. It took some time to carefully pull them out.
“Hey there,” said a voice behind him, and this time he jumped, because he could tell it wasn’t in his head. “Come over here and listen to me, Jack.”
It was the wolf head mounted in his living room. The marbles had fallen out of its eye sockets, revealing a blackness like the void of space. There was a pink tongue lolling lazily out of its locked jaws. A large droplet of saliva oozed from its tip to the floor.
“Hey Jack,” it said like the pigs in his dream. Nothing moved but the spit on its tongue. “How do you like my pelt?”
“How are you talking to me?” he asked, standing naked before the head. The pelt had slipped off his shoulders and fallen to the floor.
“I asked you first,” said the head. Its voice sounded like it had gargled with razorblades.
“I don’t know what the hell I’ve done,” he said, clutching his head. Without the pelt on, things were starting to clear, and Jack didn’t like the implications.
“You know, Jack my boy, my name used to be Eli. Or maybe it was Samuel. Or perhaps it was Joshua. I can’t say,” the wolf replied. Its grin had somehow widened without moving. “But you’ve received a wonderful opportunity in the form of my old skin. You don’t have to be called ‘Jack’ anymore. You don’t have to be called anything.”
“Why would I want to be nameless?” he asked. He was starting to feel very cold without the pelt on his shoulders.
“You’re already nameless. How many Jacks are there? How many unemployed men who’ve lost their wives?”
“I could use a drink,” he said, trying to steer his mind out of remembering last night’s events. He could’ve used more than just one.
“Didn’t you lap up enough blood? Didn’t you dine on fresh raw pork?” Drips of blood had formed on the head’s great teeth. Its hollowed orbs seethed darkness.
Jack picked up the pelt and threw it outside. He went into his bedroom and put on all the clothes he could, layer upon layer to keep out the bitter cold. But still he shivered beneath his many sweatshirts and underwear.
“Say Jack,” said the head, which was now nearly pouring blood out of its mouth. “Could you go and fetch me some cigarettes? I haven’t had one since I became a wolf, but the craving has never stopped.”
“Why am I freezing to death?” he asked with chattering teeth.
“Because you’re naked,” replied the wolf. A fingertip slid down the waterfall of blood and landed in the pool forming underneath the head. ‘Where are my fucking cigarettes?”
The clothes had started to itch again, and Jack was so cold that he thought he was about to die, so he crawled to his feet and retrieved the pelt. The itchiness and shivering didn’t stop until he had removed every article of clothing and wrapped the pelt completely around him.
“Tell me how to lose this skin and I’ll get you some cigarettes,” he said to the wolf.
“No, you first. I’m the one who dictates the terms. You shot me after all.”
“What’s preventing me from chucking you in the dumpster?” He had already decided that he hated the head.
“If you touch me you shall wear my head just like my pelt,” said the wolf. “Actually that’s a great idea. Come over here and slide your hands alongside my cleaved neck...”
“All right, I’ll get you some cigarettes, but you better not hold out on me,” Jack said.
It was dark outside, but he could see just fine. He decided to hit up one of his neighbors instead of trudging into town naked but for a wolf pelt, so he knocked politely on the closest door.
“Sedaris, it’s Jack. Could I bum a pack of cigarettes off you?”
He heard stirrings inside, and after a moment the door opened and a craggy head looked out.
“You got five dollars?”
Five dollars? What the hell, I’m unemployed, Dan.”
“Is that why you’re asking me for cigarettes? ‘cause you don’t have any money?” Dan opened the door wide. “What the hell you walking around barefoot in an animal skin for?” He looked at Jack queerly.
“Terry left me and took all my clothes,” he said lamely. It sounded plausible.
“She take your underwear and shoes too?”
“She took everything, Dan. Could you please just let me have some smokes?” Jack thought he should have worn clothes and tried to bear the itching. Dan probably thought he was on drugs.
“I’ll give you a couple, but not a whole pack,” he said, reaching in his back pocket. “You need some clothes? Some shoes for chrissakes?”
“Just the smokes, Dan, that’s all. Robert's bringing me some clothes.”
Dan gave him the cigarettes, and he promptly hurried back to his trailer. Somebody’s kids were outside, leering at him, giggling. An involuntary roar rose up out of him, and the children’s eyes widened as they hurried away.
“Did you have to scare the children?” chuckled the head as he entered. The thing laughed like a hyena. “Now they’ll be afraid to go outdoors. Any gourmand wolf knows that children are the most delectable, although I always preferred a pretty, voluptuous woman to a little squealing whelp any day.”
“Christ,” he said, although the word came out more like a growl than speech. “Here’s your cigarettes.”
“Put two of them in there, on each side of my mouth. Get me a light.”
As he reached to place a cigarette, the jaws suddenly came to life, clamping down on his fingers with an audible snap.
“Goddamnit!” he howled, clutching his wounded hand. His fingers were skinned and bleeding.
“Heh heh,” chortled the wolf. He glared at it furiously.
“Why the hell’d you do that?”
“I’m a goddamn wolf, what did you expect? I bite the hand that feeds.”
            Jack ground down the cigarette in his hands and let the tobacco fall to the floor.
“Aww, why did you do that?  I’m sorry, Jack. You must remember, I’m a wild animal. You did kill me, remember? I’m liable to be a little sore at you.”
“If you bite me again I’m going to bury you in the ice somewhere,” he said, tentatively reaching toward the wolf. He placed the cigarette between its jaws and jumped back when they quivered, but the wolf only brayed its hyena sound. As he lighted the cigarette the head suddenly shuddered to life. The mouth closed, the cigarette burned, and twin fumes of smoke seethed out of the beast’s nostrils.
“I hate to break it to you, kid,” said the wolf, cigarette jutting from its now mobile lips, “but ending your torment is no simple task. You did right when you had me beheaded and skinned. That’s the only way to cure lycanthropy. But even after your death, you still come back to haunt your killer. You’re only truly released when he or she’s bitten the bullet, and that’s not something you necessarily want to happen. Sadly enough, when you die, I think I’m going to hell,” it concluded, black empty eyes burning. “To burn for all eternity. With the devil and all of his sons.” Now the lips peeled back to show the white teeth. “So yeah, you’re kind of screwed, Jack my buddy.”
“I don’t believe you,” he said, though the hackles rose on his pelt.
“What do you not believe in? That’s there’s no nice cure? Or that there’s a hell waiting for you?” The wolf smoked the cigarette down to the filter and then swallowed it. “So you transform into a murderous, hallucinating wolf and you don’t think there’s an evil entity behind it all? You don’t think there’s a place for evil things to go when they die?”
“I don’t know,” said Jack truthfully.
“We’re all going to hell, buddy. You might as well have some fun before you take the plunge. Now give me another cigarette.”
            “What should I do?” he asked. He gave the head another cigarette with shaking hands.
            “Well you shouldn’t cry about it, for one. Do you think I cried about it? I can’t tell you, but I’m fairly certain I didn’t. If I were you,” and the wolf raised its non-existent eyebrows before speaking, “I’d go find out where that little tart Terry has gone. I’d check your friend Robert’s house. Didn’t he say he’d shack up with her?”
            “How’d you know that?” he asked it.
            “You’re wearing my skin, Jack. I can read your mind,” and then the wolf howled and he covered his ears, because it wasn’t a normal howl, it was an unholy sound that reverberated deep within his skull, and he could see in his mind’s eye the pit opening up, the bubbling sea of stomach acid and flesh. He rushed out of the trailer and collapsed in the snow clutching his head, but the howling didn’t cease, so he took off down the road and left the trailer park, heading toward Robert’s abode.
            It was a long trek, so he took it on all fours, his hands and feet turning into paws that glided on top of the snow instead of sinking into it. A pickup truck coming down the road slammed on its brakes when it saw him running alongside, and a man jumped out with a rifle, but he managed to get to him before he could get a bead on Jack in the darkness. All the way to Robert’s he chewed the man’s heart in his jaws, feeling melancholy and hopeless inside. The wolf had steered him this way, and although he didn’t trust the cursed thing he had no other course of action. Bad advice was better than no advice, at least at the moment.
            Little gnomes kept up with him as he ran, grotesque monstrosities, chimeras formed with the bodies of apes and the heads of dwarves. They gnashed their teeth and nipped at his heels, but when he snapped at them they vanished into the moonlight. When they failed to appear after a while he could still hear them snickering behind him, and he thought about what the wolf had said.
            Robert’s house was in a village, and although it was nighttime, he stayed in the shadows, moving quietly in the alleyways. He happened upon a coyote rummaging through a garbage can and slew it out of anger for the difficulty of his trip and his general plight. The carcass tasted rotten and foul, and he began to salivate when he thought of what the wolf had said about children and women.
            He arrived at Robert’s house right when his truck pulled up, so he dashed behind a shrub and waited. Robert got out of the truck with a woman, but it wasn’t Terry. The wolf had been wrong, evidently, but he lingered and watched as they entered Robert’s humble dwelling. It wasn’t fair, he thought, that Robert wasn’t experiencing the curse of the pelt. He’d shot at the wolf too, only his aim had been worse. Maybe he could convince him to take the skin and that grotesque mounted head. Give it to him as a gift or something.
            Jack got out from behind the shrub and went to the door standing on two legs. His knocking was loud and not the least bit polite.
            “Jack!” exclaimed Robert when he answered. His hair was disheveled and Jack could smell the musky odor of sex about him. “What hell you doing out here? Are you naked? Why is there blood all over your face?”
            “Can I come in?” Jack huffed. He was surprised at the scratchiness of his own voice.
            “Yeah, um, sure if it’s an emergency.” He nodded behind him. “I kind of have company.”
            “I wouldn’t want to get between my best buddy and a lay,” he said as he pushed his way in. The woman was on the couch and had already shed a layer of flannel, revealing a tank top beneath.
            “Evening,” he said to her. The pelt covered only his back and shoulders, leaving his genitals plain to see.
            “My lord,” she whispered. “Ijiraq...”
            “What’s that mean?” ask Robert, but the woman had already jumped up and rushed out the door.
            “It’s a native legend,” explained Jack. “An Ijiraq is a shapeshifter that steals children and carries them away.” This knowledge had inexplicably popped into his head.
            “Have you been taking drugs? PCP?”
            “Yes,” he said, deciding it would be easier to lie. “I’ve taken PCP and now I think I’m a werewolf. I ate a coyote on the way over here. It’s all over my face. It tasted awful.
            “We need to get you to a hospital or a clinic. You’re paranoid and hallucinating.”
            “Take this animal skin off of me, Rob. Take it off and put it on.”
            Robert said nothing but Jack could smell his fear, the chemical pheromone released in his sweat.
            “I’m not going to do that. Why don’t you sit down on the floor and wait while I get some help?” He was moving toward a closet where Jack knew he kept his pistol.
            “You got the short end of the stick, Rob, I know that now. I’ve come over here to give you what you desire. This pelt,” he grabbed a handful of fur around his arm, “this skin isn’t mine. I don’t want it. I’m giving it to you. The head as well.”
            “Is that the wolf pelt you have on?” Robert looked at him incredulously. “You shot it. It’s yours.”
            “I’m pleading with you here, my friend, and I’m only going to do it one more time. Take off your clothes and put on this pelt.”
            Robert lunged for his closet and Jack pounced. He crashed into the man and pinned him easily with one hand while he squirmed beneath him like a domesticated creature. He could even see the big pig ears on him now, soft and velvet and full of veins and tiny hairs.
            “Why Rob,” he whispered, his face only inches away from his friend’s. “What great ears you have on you.”
            “Jesus, what are you doing?” Rob was scraping at his face, trying to get at his eyes. Jack let him get his punches in. He felt an odd sort of glee in the violence, and it occurred to him that this must be how a cat feels when it knows it has a mouse. Suddenly he felt his jaws telescoping outward, stretching and twisting like a sick cartoonist’s impression of a wolf, and he saw terror in Rob’s face as his horrible alien mouth grew and enveloped him.  
            When he came outside the woman was waiting for him. He smiled at her and let her see his jagged bloodstained teeth. She promptly pulled out a handgun and shot him in the chest. The impact staggered him and sent him reeling into the shrubbery, and she fired several more times but only one other bullet hit, clipping his calf. In the bushes he let loose a terrible howl of pain similar to the wolf’s, and he must have frightened her off, because he heard her start her truck and peel out.
            He barely made it back to his trailer. He had been afraid to stick too close to the road in case the woman decided to finish the job, and on the way back some dogs started chasing him. He killed the first two, both of them Malamutes, but a huge pack had swarmed him, dogs of all types, all of them nipping at his flanks. They broke off when he reached the park, but by then he was mauled and nearly crawling. When he arrived at his trailer he realized he couldn’t stand on two feet. His muzzle hadn’t shrunk either. He used it to push open the door.
            “Hey Jack,” said the wolf head in greeting as he flopped down on his belly with his limbs extended outward and his tongue hanging out his mouth. Blood leaked out of his beaten body in great streams.
            “Well you didn’t take care of her, did you? Instead you took out Rob, which is great, he kind of killed me too. But I’m telling you, man-flesh is nothing compared to a woman’s.”
            “Why would I kill Terry?” panted Jack.
            “Maybe because you’re a wolf. Why the hell else? Why’d you kill Robert? Because he was a pig. You blew down his house and devoured his chinny-chin-chin. That’s the thing about lycanthropy. It’s not just the body that changes. Your whole role does. Like I said before, you are no longer a nameless little societal reject sitting in your underwear drinking yourself under. You’re a goddamn predator. You’re a beast. You have to end any lingering connections to the human world.”
“You act like I have no choice in the matter,” he said, wheezing.
“I’m a hard determinist. You are now too.”
Just then the light flipped on and as he turned around he saw a doe standing frozen before him. It was beautiful. The light glimmered off of its sable hide, and he followed the gracile slope of its neck up to its head, where its huge eyes locked with his own. Neither of them moved for several minutes, and as he stared at the gorgeous creature, he felt another transformation taking place. The voice of the wolf faded and the wounds that marred his pelt stopped their bleeding and vanished. His mad hunger for violence disappeared and there was a tremor in his snout, as though his canine visage was about to recede. I’ve been saved, he thought, and he could see himself shucking off the pelt and emerging naked and free...
The gunshot was deafening inside the tiny trailer and Terry couldn’t hear anything but the static roar of tinnitus for a while afterwards. Before her was an enormous black wolf, lying dead just outside her kitchen. She’d come in to make amends with Jack, but after seeing the blood in the snow, she’d rushed back to the truck and removed her pistol from the glove compartment. How the beast had gotten in she didn’t know, but she suspected that Jack must have abandoned the trailer and left the door wide open.
The next day she took the carcass to a skinner and had the pelt cleaned. She then took it to a specialist in town and had a wonderful coat made. Jack failed to show up after a week, so she removed the old wolf head and replaced it with the new one. She was a minor celebrity for a while after her story was featured in the local paper.
One night Terry had a boyfriend over. She was coming out of the bedroom, naked as can be, when a strange desire to put on the fur coat seized her. The coat felt incredibly warm and comfortable, and she was about to return to bed wearing it when a harsh voice stopped her.
“Hey there Terry,” it said. “How do you like my pelt?”
There were marbles on the floor and above them the wolf head was grinning.

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