The full moon hovered like a dirty halo in the smoky night sky. Running footfalls and the distant whoops and catcalls of the last of the Trick-or-Treaters carried into the darkness like cacophonous notes borne on the breeze. Our pillow cases were loaded enough to be nearly heavy, and we'd each filled two a piece. I had mine slung over my shoulder; a nice accompaniment to my meticulously (and ironically) organized Hobo costume. My friend, Eric, was a racist ghost: eye-holes cut into a big, black sheet (a costume he now carried under his arm, claiming the damn thing was too hot). And Darren was a 70's Disco clubber complete with a giant, tacky (yet somehow horrifying) medallion-like amulet dangling from his neck. We looked ridiculous -all of us. But this was to be our last Halloween together... for various reasons. Eric was moving after the holidays out of state to live with his dad. Wyoming. Who lives in Wyoming? So, we sort of decided that since the three of us were being unceremoniously whittled down to a duo, we'd make this our last foray out into the Trick-or-Treating world. Besides, we were each pushing 15. It was time to pack it in, anyway. The wind had begun to pick up a bit. Unraked leaves took flight and spun in lazy circles as they chased each other in lopsided cyclones. The din of the last remaining kids faded into the night, and the three of us silently plodded up the side street to my house to conclude our evening. I was hungry, and not just for Snack Sized candy. My mom had actual food waiting for us...
"Hey, Stew... wait a sec." Eric said from a few paces behind me.
I stopped. Darren, too. He was even further in the lead than I was. His infamous perpetual hunger must have been dragging him by the stomach.
"Yeah. What's going on?" I asked as I turned toward Eric who had fallen back fifteen or twenty feet.
"Did you guys here that?"
Eric and I exchanged a quick glance and in eerie unison told Darren, "No."
"Guys I'm serious... it sounded... deep."
I chuckled, "Deep like introspective?"
Eric scowled. "No, shit head. Deep like growly... guttural."
Darren froze and cocked his ear. He cupped his had to his temple as though he were really trying to listen.
"I hear... wind. Dumbass."
Darren and I burst into fits of mocking laughter. Eric blatantly ignored us and looked around.
"Shut the hell up! I heard it again!"
This time, so did I. And Eric was right: it was deep. Low, raspy... like a thrumming purr.
"Dude, chill. I heard it."
Darren's eyes opened wide. "Bullshit!"
"No. Eric's right. I think it's coming from over there. The Stillwell Lot... ya know, where that store was going to go a few years ago?"
I pointed off to the right of the sidewalk. The Stillwell Lot was a piece of property bought by local party store owner, Xavier Stillwell back in 2005. He owned six local liquor stores in the area, each with more escalated prices than the last. But as it turned out, the city didn't really want (or need) another Stillwell's, and the lot remained empty to this day. It was from there where the sound originated, as far as we could tell.
And then it came again. And it might have been closer.
We stood absolutely still, and just listened. The crunchy chatter of dried leaves tumbling aimlessly in the wind seemed loud enough to be the hammered drumbeats of a marching band. And there, amid the crispy clatter of the long dead flora came that noise: hollow, gurgling, and churning. It sounded to us now not unlike the echoing whines of an empty stomach. This thought momentarily reminded me of my current state, but I snapped out of it as what could only be described as a lowing growl caught the wind and tore at our ears.
"Shhh... there it is again!" Eric said as looked at me, eyes round with fear.
"I definitely heard that. What the hell was that? It sounded like Darren's stomach through a megaphone!"
"Comedian." Darren scoffed as he, too, reluctantly nodded that he'd heard the noise. "But seriously, what could that have been? Is there a house with a giant-ass dog over there, or something?"
I shook my head, "I don't think so. As far as I know that whole lot all the way over to Park Street is just one, long, empty piece of overgrown land."
And I was pretty sure I was right. As we stood on Broad Street, Park ran parallel but about a full block-and-a-half away. It was a decent sized open area perfect for... well, another store that never happened. As it sat, the weeds had grown waist high, small saplings and shoots jutted out in small copses, and grasses as thick as reeds sprouted like land-locked islands of bristling foliage. It was obviously late fall, so everything was dry and dead and the stiffened bits of plant life whistled like an out-of-tune flute section. But the sounds we were hearing were nothing like the reedy shrills made by the blowing grasses.
"At the risk of sounding like a pansy, I vote we hike up our skirts and get the hell out of here." That was Eric, and those words will forever be etched into my memory because those would be the last words I'd hear him say.
The thing that burst past me knocked me off my feet. I could smell its rank decay in its wake as it leaped at Eric and beat him to the ground. I heard him yelp as the breath was knocked from his lungs, and then the unmistakable deep, thrumming growl erupted from the thing that stood mere feet from me. I could hear Darren panic; strings of expletives flowing from his mouth in blaring screams as he tripped over his own feet attempting to get away. I scooted back, regained my own footing and stared dumbfounded at the inky black mass that huffed its soured breath and bounced, spastically, on Eric's frame. Without a second thought, I gripped my weighty candy bag, and with a swing like a rail-spike driver, I brought it down on the beasts back like an unruly hammer.
What barked from its mouth was both the sound of agonizing surprise, and and almost human reaction: "OW!" The amalgam of beast and man suggested that this thing was directly from nightmares I'd log since grown unafraid of. Yet here it was. It turned its head as it purposefully lifted its frame from Eric. What I could see of its once-white teeth were stained pink and glistening rivulets ran down its damp chin. At some point over the last minute, it had bitten Eric. I didn't have time to figure out where. My body burned with fear; arcs of terror lanced up my spine and exploded into my skull. My eyes quivered and took in as much light as they could manage, giving everything a ghastly corona. My guts dropped a floor and piled up in a hot mass. I wanted -more than anything I'd ever wanted before- to run. But I was locked up. It took the gurgling cough of Eric to snap me out of it. The beast heard it too, and turned its gaze back to its interrupted meal. Eric's eyes were huge as he silently pleaded with me. A large chunk of his cheek had been sheered from his face and I could see his back molars poking out of the muscle.
I shouted. It wasn't a word; it was just to release the pressure that had built to bursting in my head. It was loud enough to redirect the monster's attention. And then I felt heat. Not coming from me, but from behind me. I could see from my frozen peripheral vision a glowing light. To my left ran Darren, his candy sack emptied and now burning from the flames from his lighter. He swung it like an juggler's torch and screamed as he lunged it at the beast. At that, I could finally make out just what it was I was looking at: pitch black fur covered a stocky, muscular frame, and fingered paws ended in scabrous claws. Its face was a mismatched and gnarled mess of fur and pustules; some of which had burst and ran green into his nose and mouth. It's eyes glistened at the swirling flames and showed true signs of abject fear. It reared back in revulsion; it's fangs sat deep in a mouth that was neither dog nor man, but was the absolute worst of both.
It clamored from Eric's body and I could see amid the dancing flames that it moved with human precision, but looked uncomfortable doing so. It had a beast's musculature and obviously relied on that to move quickly when it wanted to. As it backed away from the fire, it lowered itself into a predatory pose, which was our cue to scramble. I reached for Eric (fortunately the smallest and lightest of the three of us) and heaved him over my shoulder Fireman's style.
And then we ran.
We had an instant to make a choice, and it was a choice that none of us was going to be too fond of. If we continued to run down the street, we'd have to get to Main Street at the end and hang a right to get to my house. As it turned out, it was going to knock off about a third of our run if we just cut through the lot. Like I said: not the best option, but Darren knew it was true, too... we'd done it before on past Halloweens when we'd cause some form of mischief or another and wanted a quick escape before angry folks discovered us. It had been a year since any one of us had cut through the lot, but now seemed like the best time and our only speedy option. The decision took less than ten seconds: Darren kept the monster outside of our space by waving the last of his rapidly burning pillow case at it. It snarled and gurgled just beyond the light, ready to spring as soon as the fire burned out. We had no time. We nodded, we turned, Darren dropped the last of the smoldering cloth, and we took off at a sprint I'm sure I'd not performed in far too long.
Eric was much heavier than his bony frame would have ever led me to believe in any normal circumstance, but this wasn't that. He moaned and wept as he used his elbows to keep his head from banging into my back, which must have been incredibly uncomfortable since it was killing me. But I pushed it away; the distance to my house was only about a hundred yards and the whipping limbs and stinging grass were already making the run as difficult as I could handle. Darren kept pace and frequently stole glances over his shoulder. It wasn't necessary. We could hear the monster breaking through the overgrown foliage like a loosed bull. We could hear its labored, wet rasps not too far beyond our own heels. It was gaining slowly, but it was gaining. Guttural yelps bellowed from its throat and their sickening similarity to human cries were so unnerving that the sense of fear pushed me on a little faster.
Then Eric began to shift. His center of weight was now sliding down my back and I was losing my grip. I tried to adjust without giving too much of my current speed, but in an instant it was too late. Eric slid and fell, and I pitched forward, completely losing my balance. I skidded into the underbrush, tearing up my hands and face as I landed awkwardly. Darren stopped, too, reached down a hand and yanked me off the ground. We looked back, but we couldn't see Eric. But we could certainly hear the beast's footfalls and snarls pounding down on us, mere moments away.
"ERIC!" I shouted into the night.
A limp arm shot up out of the grass. He'd fallen a lot further back than I'd first realized. Darren and I made to run back to him, but our luck had completely run out. The moonlight caught the black form of the monster as it burst into circle in which we stood. It's wet, foaming breaths came rapidly and they caught in its throat as it struggled to breathe regularly. We backed up and ducked into some taller overgrowth. The beast lumbered closer to Eric's body and it looked around, arrogantly triumphant. And that was it for my friend. The monster shot its muzzle into Eric's weakened body and Darren and I heard the sloppy, chewing sounds as it fed.
As sick as it seems, we knew we had time now. It was over for Eric, and though I was horrified and scared beyond rational thought, we had to go. I tugged Darren's shirt, and we slowly moved out of the grass and took off at a run to cover the last thirty yards.
It only took a few seconds to fight the rest of the way through the weeds and saplings, and then we crashed the final few feet and out onto manicured lawn. We didn't stop running until we hit my yard which was two houses down from the backyard we'd broken through the field into. We dropped to the damp grass and breathed heavily in unison as we stared at the suddenly cloudless sky. I shivered uncontrollably thinking back a few moments ago as I watched one of my best friends being torn to fleshy threads before my eyes. It was almost too much... and then it was. I sprang to my knees and retched up the few pieces of candy I'd eaten along with most of that evening's dinner. Beside me, Darren began to weep. The weighty reality of what had just happened over the course of the last half hour hit us like a train wreck. How were we going to explain this? How were we going to tell our parents what had just happened? How were we going to tell Eric's parents? I had no idea. My mom and dad were literally four walls away, making snacks and waiting on our return. I sat in the grass next to Darren dumbfounded and overwhelmed with blanketing dread.
The night was uncomfortably quiet. It was one of those nights when the sounds from anything were amplified tenfold. And that was when we heard the howl. It wasn't quite animal, and it wasn't quite the distressing shout of a human... but we knew exactly what it was. And it sounded placated.
We had no choice. We had to go inside. Night was full-on, and ignoring our responsibility wasn't going to go away the later it got. We got up from the lawn and headed to my front door. We opened it; the warmth from the furnace swept us up and drew us in, as did the smells from the myriad snacks my mom had made. My dad sat in his recliner; 'An American Werewolf in London' was playing on AMC. Mom was fussing over a Sudoku at the kitchen table amid the plates of hot snacks. She looked up and smiled.
And there sat Eric, munching on a Pizza Roll. He turned to us and winked.