The two men tore through the pouring rain unseen in the darkness. Dodging tree after tree with the precision of lightning-fast predators, they navigated the shadows of the forest as though it was broad daylight. In unison, they leapt high into the air landing surely on an overhanging branch, leaving the heavily saturated ground a dozen feet below.
Jimmerson had combed these woods with this heightened state of perception for years, but Toby was still new to the experience. He was not unlike a toddler attempting his first steps. Even though the jump took place without so much as a wobble, the previous five attempts ended with him landing face first on the wet forest floor. His new fur coat was covered in leaves and tangled vines. It was almost enough to make Kurt laugh every time he looked over at him. This was not the moment for laughter, though. Kurt’s time was running out, and Toby Liberman was a wanted man.
They sat in patient silence on their arboreal perch and listened, ears twitching and turning. Sure enough, they heard the slow creeping of a police car as it drove directly underneath them. None of the patrols they’d encountered in the previous half hour ever raised the beam of their searchlights higher than five feet from the ground. If they always stayed near the safety of the tall trees, the two would never be far from a haven. When the car was completely out of sight, Kurt motioned for Toby to follow, and they made their way forward through the brush.
Toby wasn’t quite sure what visiting the fresh grave of his best friend was going to accomplish for either of them, other than to stir up painful memories, but he’d learned through several trial-and-error attempts not to question his newfound mentor. It wasn’t as though he was difficult to get along with, and he was highly sure of himself when it came to the comings and goings of the modern-day werewolf. From what Toby could tell, he needed to throw out every bit of Hollywood-based preconception and years of monster movie-watching to survive this living nightmare. This was going to be difficult because much of his young life was spent at Saturday morning matinees worshipping just about every creature of the night Hollywood produced. After numerous attempts at voicing an opinion, Toby learned to just shut up and follow Kurt.
One of the hardest things to remember was trying not to speak while in animal form. Attempts at normal human speech produced howls and barks from his canine-like vocal cords. These sounds did him a disservice when attempting to remain shrouded in the shadows from the trigger-happy law enforcement agents searching every inch of Myrtle County. Well, they searched everywhere but the treetops. Toby hoped they’d stop long enough for a transformation so he could get a few more answers in a language he understood. Fluency in the language of the animal he’d become was not included with the curse.
With the Twin Oaks Cemetery now in sight, they sprang high into the air once again. This time, the two of them sunk their claws deep into the trunk of a wide tree with no high branches to offer a hiding spot. They waited for what seemed like an eternity. They heard no cars and no sounds in the distance. Finally, Kurt and Toby descended the tree and entered the shadows of the well-manicured cemetery which was the final resting place of Johnny Haynes. Ducking behind two rather large granite headstones near a fresh mound of rain-soaked dirt, the two of them began to shed their disguises and slowed their accelerated breathing for a well-earned moment of rest. Toby was the first to speak.
“Now, can you please tell me, and don’t give me none of this ‘wait and see’ crap, why we just ran all the way across town to see my dead best friend?”
“I believe he may have information that could prove useful to you in your quest for revenge, Mr. Liberman,” Kurt replied sarcastically. “Is that answer precise enough for your liking?”
Toby, even though he was very much involved in everything going on around him, was nearing his breaking point. “Okay,” he began. “The werewolf thing is damn near too much to stomach without bringing ghosts and goblins into the picture.”
“What’s so freaking hard to believe about it?” Kurt asked pointedly. “If you know what I am and what you are now, then why is the concept of spirits so hard to swallow?”
“You’ll just have to excuse me if I’m not easily convinced of the existence of the paranormal, that’s all!” Toby explained.
Kurt Jimmerson had been living this way for so long he sometimes forgot that not all others shared his familiarity with the supernatural. If it hadn’t been for the support of the Native American family that ‘adopted’ him, he would probably still be just as confused as Toby. Leave it up to the Native Americans to lay it all on the line.
“Toby,” he continued after a long, reflective pause. “You ARE paranormal.”
He wanted so much to interrupt the conversation with something witty, but the gravity of the realization Kurt was right would not allow it. Suddenly, a myriad of horrible epiphanies entered his head and he investigated Kurt Jimmerson’s eyes with questions at the ready. Kurt could see the confusion settle in.
“Perhaps if you knew a little bit more about who we are and where we come from, it wouldn’t seem so far-fetched.”
Kurt began his story again…
“As far as we know from our recorded history, the first ones to be ‘infected’ with the curse were a clan of Vikings that were born with our disease.”
“Disease?” Toby interrupted again. “You gave me a disease?”
“Rabies!” Kurt continued, slightly annoyed by the interruption. “It’s a strain of rabies that runs through our veins!” he continued. “Granted, it kills animals and most humans if it goes untreated, but the strong ones, like us, survive and change.”
This revelation sent a million more questions reeling in Toby’s brain, but he bit his lip hard and allowed Kurt to continue.
“Anyway, these Vikings were unstoppable. They would get all hopped up on Wolf’s Bane and rip out the throats of their enemies with their teeth, kind of cool actually. Eventually, they began to travel and explore the unknown corners of the world until they came to France. From what I can remember without checking my notes, the first recorded victim of one of their attacks was murdered in 1764 in the southern part of the country. It was a young girl they found in a field with her throat ripped out. Within a year, there were 102 more victims found, all women and children. Eventually, some pickpocket was arrested, charged with the murders and executed, but we know better. We later discovered that it was the Catholic Church’s attempt at population control and used as a fear tactic to keep the locals in line. This worked well for a time. When a few brave souls began to ask questions, and a remorseful priest threatened to talk, they came dangerously close to being revealed and accused of witchcraft or Satan worship by the local populous. They sent their tool of destruction away to the New World so they could redeem themselves. His name, and the earliest name we have on record as one of ‘us,’ was Jean Chastel.”
“Shit!” Toby exclaimed a little too loudly. “Witchcraft?! Is all of that real, too?”
“Toby,” Jimmerson interrupted calmly. “We have to focus on ghosts right now. We’ll leave all those other nightmarish realizations for another conversation. Besides, I don’t think you can handle too much more.”
Toby fell backward in near shock, striking his head painfully hard against the back of his headstone hiding place. The easy way out of this would be to take his own life, but if what Jimmerson said was true, there was a possibility he’d be forced to roam the Earth in a state of limbo. Even worse, he’d probably be confined to his house and forced to watch the good Sheriff violate his spouse on a nightly basis. With that realization, suicide was officially out of the question. For the moment, he was going to give Kurt the benefit of the doubt and attempt to communicate with his recently deceased friend.
Slowly, with the help of shadows cast by the ancient trees growing throughout the cemetery, the two of them made their way over to the pile of mud covering Johnny’s casket. Anxious to finish this newly discovered horror, Toby leaned forward into the driving rain and began to throw giant chunks of mud into the darkness. Kurt immediately intervened.
“Son, you don’t have to dig him up!” He smiled widely, to the point of near laughter.
Toby stopped instantly, embarrassed, and offered the snickering man next to him an empty look.
“Well then, feel free at any given time to instruct me on how I’m supposed to raise the dead!” he returned, at his wit’s end. “And when in the hell is this damn rain ever going to stop?”
“Toby,” Kurt interrupted once more. “Calm down. Relax.”
Relax? Relaxing was the furthest thing from Toby Liberman’s mind now. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to relax again. How could he possibly relax knowing every time he got into a disagreement with another individual between now and the end of his meaningless little life, there existed the possibility he would transform into something hairy? How could he ever obtain a moment’s peace knowing every badge and hired gun within dozens of miles had a pocketful of bullets with his name engraved upon them? Finally, how would he ever be able to sleep soundly, in either his own bed or a frigid mausoleum, knowing he could be shaken awake by the disembodied spirit of someone he knew and loved long ago? There were just too many questions to grasp, and with the end of his rope growing ever closer, he took Kurt’s advice. He shut his eyes gently against the pouring rain from above and slowed his breathing.
“That’s more like it, Toby,” Kurt calmed him. “From this point on, the rest is up to you.”
“What do you mean?” Toby inquired again, attempting to remain calm.
“You knew Johnny in life. I didn’t. I can’t contact him. It has to be you,” Kurt informed.
Toby cut one of his eyes open crossly at the man with all the answers.
“Dude, I couldn’t make this shit up! It’s what the old tribal shaman taught me!”
Closing his eyes tight again in concentration, Toby began to speak aloud.
“Johnny Haynes, are you here with us? We need your help, man.”
Kurt was proud Toby finally decided to swallow what was left of his normalcy and play along. Honestly, it wasn’t at all an easy thing to do. When asked to let go of everything ever learned and leap every boundary placed there by parents, preachers, and teachers, it was extremely difficult for the mind to process in the beginning. Now that Toby had taken that first bold step, however, he knew his abilities would be limitless. He quietly instructed him again.
“Toby, talk to him the same way that you would speak to him if he were standing next to you. I’m almost sure this isn’t the way you spoke to your best friend.”
Concentrating as hard as he could, Toby spoke again.
“Johnny Haynes, you piece of worm food, come out and speak to us, or I’m going to begin recounting all the times that I banged your sister in your bed when you weren’t home!”
“Ouch, man!” Kurt stopped him. “I think you might be overdoing it just a tad!”
He slumped onto the ground in defeat and looked upward through the falling rain at the man who owned all the answers. He was beginning to lose the faith he’d concentrated so hard to create.
“Tell me what I need to do then!” Toby spoke in anger through clenched teeth.
“You knew him, man,” he shushed Toby to regain peace with the matter at hand. “Tell him something that only the two of you would know. Say something personal.”
Clearing his throat and concentrating to the point of dizziness, Toby barked a single word into the darkness.
Snickering from the unusual word now echoing off the surrounding trees, Kurt Jimmerson had no choice but to inquire.
“Franken-titty?” he asked, smiling.
“Yeah, Franken-titty!” Toby explained. “There was a girl that we all used to pass around in high school who had a breast reduction. One of her nipples wouldn’t react to stimulation and it just kind of hung there like it was dead. We nicknamed her Franken-titty! She was a fox.”
Laughing uncontrollably, Kurt put his arm around Toby for balance and continued the lesson.
“I’m almost certain you guys told more people about that than just each other, because I wouldn’t be able to keep that one to myself. Try something else.”
Slightly embarrassed, Toby raised his head to the sky once more and began to sing toward the cloud-covered moon.
“Hold me closer, Tony Danza!” he harmonized, slightly off key.
The silence was painstaking. Not only was he aware of the cross look coming from the man kneeling next to him in an abandoned cemetery while rain poured down on the two of them, but he’d just attempted an Elton John impression with slightly altered lyrics which could’ve made anyone, known or unknown, pause to question the deeper thoughts lying dormant within his sinister subconscious. It didn’t take long for his captive audience to make a comment.
“Not a bad Elton John impression,” Kurt whispered, trying his best to disguise his forming smile. “But I think you might need to work on the lyrics a bit before you make your stage debut.”
Toby fought back his embarrassment and said, “Thanks.”
The moments ticked by as though time was passing in slow motion. The sound of every falling raindrop was amplified to a near deafening volume, and each one that fell on Toby’s head stung like the thump of an angry father who’d caught his son drawing dirty pictures in the hymnal at church. Toby closed his eyes for a moment. He opened them slowly to find the specter of Johnny Haynes sitting atop his own grave marker. In death, as he had in life, Johnny seized the opportunity to speak first.
“Man, if I would’ve known that being dead was as cool as this, I would’ve taken my own life years ago!” he announced enthusiastically. “I spent a good two hours today just hanging out in the women’s locker room at the YMCA! Let me tell you, spandex is definitely a privilege, not a right!”
Even though the falling rain camouflaged the tears forming in Toby Liberman’s eyes, it wasn’t hard to tell he was shaken by the image of his dear friend. It didn’t take long for Johnny to put him in his place, just like nothing had changed.
“Quit crying, you pussy! You get to be a freaking werewolf and run around all Lon Chaney-style. I’m the dead guy. If anyone deserves to cry, it’s me!”
Toby was about to joyfully engage in the playful banter he and Johnny shared for as long as he could remember, but when he glanced over at Jimmerson, he decided against it. After all, this was his first actual conversation with a dead person, and he didn’t want to end up the loser. Even in death, Johnny Haynes was at the top of his game.
“Mr. Haynes,” Kurt interrupted. “We wouldn’t be disturbing you if it weren’t of the utmost importance.”
Even though he couldn’t see or hear him in the same way Toby could, Jimmerson could tell the conversation was not headed in a productive direction.
“Oh my God,” was Johnny’s response as he cut his eyes wildly at Toby. “You dumped me for Shakespeare? What’s up with the ‘if it weren’t of the utmost importance’ crap?”
“Kurt’s a good guy, Johnny,” Toby replied. “A little hard to understand, but he’s a good guy. If it wasn’t for him, I’d probably be no better off than you right now. I can still set some things right.”
“No, you can’t, Toby,” Johnny fired back. “Sheriff McGee got the better of me before I even knew what hit me. That guy has people all over the place, and not just the ones with badges, either.”
Kurt Jimmerson could tell he wasn’t going to be much use in the conversation. From his experience, the spirits only fully came into view for those who had personal dealings with them during life. To him, it was the graveyard equivalent of a lover’s quarrel, and he refused to be a part of it. He paused, then interrupted once again.
“Toby, this is your time with Johnny. Find out as much as you can. I won’t be far away.”
“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea you overgrown St. Bernard,” Johnny yelled after him. “Why don’t you go make yourself useful and hump somebody’s leg!”
Snickering at the final smiting of the articulate stranger, Johnny turned toward Toby with a very familiar and satisfied smile.
“Why in the hell are you giving him such a hard time?” Toby scolded him.
“Come on, man!” he began. “Can’t you read between the lines? None of this crap started until he came to town. For all we know, he was the one that killed all those people and allowed you to get blamed for it. No one’s looking for him, they’re all gunning for Mr. Toby Liberman. Convenient. Besides, he can’t even see or hear me. I’ve got a good grip on this ghost crap already.”
“If that’s the case then,” Toby inquired. “Why doesn’t he just kill me and head on back to New York? He’s been teaching me everything he knows about this stuff. He’s actually giving me the means to do something about all of this!”
Johnny began laughing hysterically into the chilly and humid night air.
“So, you’re playing superhero now? Big, hairy Toby is going to swing in through the window, kill all the bad guys, and make everything better again?”
“Johnny, I don’t know what I’m going to do!” he yelled back at the spectral image of his friend. “I haven’t quite gotten that far yet.”
Johnny began again in classic fashion demonstrating there was much more on his mind soon to be verbalized. It was going to be a long night for all parties involved.
“Well, let me tell you what I’m going to do, Toby Liberman! I’m going to lay here and rot in the ground because my sister couldn’t keep her legs closed, and you chose to sit in the shadows and watch rather than kick Jessie’s ass when you had the chance! Then, stupid me, I had to go and get involved, because I love your dumb ass, and wander off into the woods with a guy that had a gun and a vendetta from years of bullying and let the guy pop me from behind, only to tie me up in a chair and shoot me in the damn head! Basically, we’re all to blame here, but you and my sister started it! Needless to say, it wasn’t real smart on anyone’s part, but I’m the dead one here!”
Toby’s shocked reaction to the long list of offenses laid against him by his ghastly friend was to stand in the darkness with his mouth wide open. The shock of turning into a wolf and speaking with a dead person had worn off moments before. Unfortunately, talking with Johnny as a spirit was no different than attempting to carry on a meaningful conversation with him while he was alive. Toby was getting nowhere.
“Is there anything else you’ve got stored up that you’d like to share with me before I walk out of this cemetery?” Toby asked, perturbed.
Johnny looked toward the ground in what appeared to be sadness.
“Becky left. She moved back in with her parents in Florida.”
“Dude, I’m sorry,” Toby said with sincerity. “It’s not like you were coming home or anything. I mean, what if she moved on and then you would have to watch her screw some other guy eventually? I can tell you from experience that it’s not a pleasant sight.”
“On top of that,” Johnny interrupted. “Jessica has really tried to clean herself up over the past few days and she’s been hiding out from the Sheriff. She knows that she screwed up, but she isn’t sure where it’s all going. It’s not like a man wanted for a few deaths can just show up at the door and take up residency again.”
Toby was aware of his wife’s actions from camping out in the nearby trees while waiting for Kurt Jimmerson to arrive, but it felt good to hear it from someone else. He hoped deep down she had only behaved in such a horrible way because of the drugs, but he wasn’t sure if the images in his head could ever be deleted permanently. For Katie’s sake, he knew he had to try.
“With any luck,” Toby said seriously. “I don’t think we’ll have to worry about the good Sheriff much longer. Even if I die in the process, I’m at least going to put a big dent in everything he’s doing around here. Somebody’s life is going to change because of all this, I promise you.”
Johnny looked back at Toby with a sense of seriousness he’d only displayed a handful of times in their relationship.
“I hope you’re right,” he said. “I hope you’re right. If you’re wrong, then I’m sure you can find a comfortable spot somewhere next to me, and we can go hang out in women’s dressing rooms or something, but I hope you’re right.”
“Me too,” Toby replied solemnly.
Kurt Jimmerson returned, having recognized a turning point in the conversation. He walked directly through Johnny, causing his image to dissipate and then come together once again. He then offered the wisdom he’d acquired from living with the Native American pack.
“Mr. Haynes,” he got Johnny and Toby’s attention. “You’re not going to be with us long. You have unfinished business on this planet, and who knows what it could be with all the shit that’s been stirred up here over the past few days, but whatever it is, you’ll no longer be able to hang around and help us out once that business is finished.”
“I kind of guessed that,” he relayed to Toby. “I couldn’t imagine any type of God, forgiving or vengeful, to force someone to just walk around here for eternity. Hell, it was bad enough when I was living.”
“In the meantime, and if you’re not too busy,” Jimmerson continued. “We could use your help.”
“Yeah,” Toby began. “We just need a starting place. Where did McGee take you?”
At first, Johnny was hesitant to tell Toby everything he knew, fearing what could happen if he, too, was caught with his guard down. For a small town, the drug cartel had grown by leaps and bounds from what he’d witnessed, and there was little chance of Toby doing anything about it without a small army by his side. Then again, a couple of werewolves weren’t bad allies, either. Ultimately, he knew Toby was never going to leave him alone unless he got his chance for redemption and vindication. He just didn’t like the odds.
“Remember the old, abandoned farm that sits off in the woods north of town? The one that no one has lived in for what looks like a hundred years or so?” he quizzed Toby.
“Yeah!” he responded. “It’s the rundown old place all the kids say is haunted, right?”
“Guess what?” he teased. “It’s not. There’s a trap door inside of the fireplace that leads to what’s really going on there. They’ve got a whole damn operation underneath that place that’s probably supplying more than its fair share of the county with every kind of dope imaginable. Jessie McGee has been a busy little monkey. That’s your tax dollars hard at work. It’s an entire subterranean network!”
Toby remembered the place well and, in fact, as he was running for his life after escaping the Myrtle County Jail, had considered it as a potentially good place to hide and wait. Thank the powers-that-be he’d changed his mind at the last minute and chosen the old crypt at the cemetery. He would’ve been no match for anyone or anything at the old farmhouse, and he probably would’ve ended up tied to a chair next to Johnny awaiting the bullet which was meant for him.
“I always knew there was way too much traffic coming and going from that direction, but I figured it was just the high school kids looking for a place to drink beer and make out,” Toby realized aloud.
“Yeah, if you need directions, we can go ask Jessica really quick.”
Toby cut him off as quickly as he’d started. “That crap still isn’t funny, Johnny, and you’re a ghost now. Whoever your God is, he’s listening.”
“Well, it’s not your Jewish God, that’s for sure,” he taunted for old time’s sake.
Toby was definitely in the mood for joking now. “Dammit, I’m not a Jew!” he growled. “My grandfather was!”
Johnny paused momentarily and pondered the possibility of Toby being accurate in his assertions. First he smiled, then he began to laugh again. “Whatever, man,” he chuckled. “You know just as well as I do that there is a demon somewhere that’s in for an eternity of a worse hell than what he’s accustomed to. I refuse to go quietly into the night. I’m taking over!”
Now, with Toby and Kurt’s starting point identified, they knew what they had to do. This night would be the moment of reckoning for one particular law enforcement official and his drug-running minions.
A spanking was coming, and it was coming in the form of something terrible. With any luck, there would be loads of blood flying everywhere and screaming loud enough to burst the eardrums of anyone within two miles of the abandoned homestead. Up until that point, Toby Liberman was still unsure of whether he had killed someone, but he felt it was high time he got his first one out of the way.
“Did you happen to see anyone you knew personally while you were there?” Toby asked, hoping for a positive answer.
“Other than McGee? No,” Johnny replied. “I was still half unconscious when they carried me in to where he did the deed. As an ultra-cool and freaky spirit, I’ve only been back there in the daytime. They’re only there at night from what I can tell.”
“Then it’s perfect!” Toby chimed in. “We’ve still got a few good hours of darkness ahead of us. There’s no time like now. With any luck, we can take them all out at once. We can gut that idiot Sheriff and be home by breakfast!”
“Now wait just a damn second!” Kurt halted him, his hands beginning to shake almost imperceptibly. “What if you’re not yet ready to start tearing people’s heads off?”
Jimmerson gave the sly smile now familiar to Toby and listened as his question was answered.
“Trust me man, with everything I’ve been through and everything that’s yet to come, I doubt I’ll have much of a problem with killing people after I get the first one out of the way.”
Kurt stopped him.
“And what if you have difficulty getting the first one out of the way?” he asked.
“You’re not going to have much of a choice man,” Johnny answered for him. “The minute you step into that place, they’re going to be trying to kill you.”
Toby Liberman swallowed hard in both fear and anxiety as he pondered the events about to transpire. He was going to make his presence known to a group of people who more than likely believed he’d fled the area. Hiding was the easy part. He hoped the mere sight of his formidable, new alter-ego would be enough to send most of them screaming into the darkness, but he knew there would be some of them who would attempt to stand their ground. These would be the ones that would try to fight. These would be the ones he’d have to kill.
“Well,” Johnny attempted to brighten the mood, noticing Toby’s tremors. “You two have fun raiding the dope house. Bite one of their heads off for me if you think about it.”
“Yeah, I’ll keep that in mind,” Toby promised half-heartedly. “If Katie knew what I was about to do, she’d never forgive me.”
“What are you talking about? If the Katie I know knew you were about to wolf out and rip people’s heads off, she’d probably ask if she could come along and film it!” Johnny informed him. “You should pay more attention to your kid, man!”
Kurt Jimmerson dropped to his knees and began his transformation into the beast which would be partially responsible for the carnage in the following day’s headlines. Before Toby followed suit, he looked anxiously back at the ghostly image of Johnny Haynes.
“Do you want to come with us? We could use a lookout.”
“No thanks,” Johnny answered, watching in awe as his best friend became something unrecognizable and horrible. “I’m not saying that they don’t deserve it, but I’ve had enough of death now to last me a lifetime, or whatever this is that I’m doing now. I think I’ll go find some of those dork amateur ghost hunters and scare the shit out of them. Idiots.”
As the two animals disappeared into the dark woods on their mission of revenge, the image of Johnny Haynes disappeared into the nothingness of the cemetery around him. The small and fragile town of Twin Oaks was about to be shaken awake with terror the likes of which it had never known. With the rolling of every head, Kurt Jimmerson would be one step closer to easing his mind about the loss of his family. With every piece of shredded flesh, Toby Liberman would begin to piece together his estranged marriage. Neither of them had asked for any of this. Tonight would bring fear and horror not soon forgotten.
Winner – 2011 Reader’s Favorite Award
Toby Liberman is nearing the end of his rope. After a fateful confrontation with his wife’s lover, he is chased into the woods only to be discovered by an unidentifiable creature. He is attacked and rendered unconscious. Upon waking at the scene of a gruesome triple homicide, Toby is arrested as the sole suspect and thrown into a jail cell with a strange man that knows way too much about his predicament. The stranger reveals to Toby that he now possesses the curse of the werewolf. Using his new-found strength to flee his captors, Toby begins to discover that things are not what they seem in the sleepy town of Twin Oaks, TX. Now hunted by law enforcement, as well as the town’s gun toting civilians, Toby seeks vengeance against his false accusers and embarks upon a quest to clear his name once and for all.