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#99

Wolfishman




 

 

 

                Kendall was inspecting his 9-year-old daughter Gwendolyn’s hands for cleanliness before dinner when the doorbell rang. The hands looked clean, but Kendall was still suspicious. “Wash them again,” he said. He went to answer the door.

                His neighbor Benjamin stood on the front porch, bundled up in a coat, hat, and scarf as if the temperature was twenty degrees colder than it was.

                “Hi, Kendall,” said Benjamin. “Just making the rounds again this year. Reminding people.”

                “Reminding people of what?” asked Kendall.

                Benjamin closed his eyes and hit himself on the forehead with the heel of his hand. “Oh, that’s right, I forgot you moved to the neighborhood last December. So you weren’t here until well after Halloween.” Benjamin was a head shorter than Kendall and his bad posture made his plump gut protrude even more than necessary.

                “Yes,” said Kendall. “It was almost Christmas when we moved in.”

                “Of course,” said Benjamin. “Yes, there’s no need to issue any warnings around Christmas.”

                “Warnings?”

                “Well, yes,” said Benjamin. “As I’m sure know, Halloween is in two days. And pretty much everyone in the neighborhood is aware that I’m a bit lycanthropic on Halloween night. That is, I tend to turn into a wolf, more or less. The degree of the transformation depends on a variety of factors. The phase of the moon, the temperature, what I’ve eaten that day, my overall level of repressed rage and/or desires. That kind of thing.”

                Kendall didn’t laugh, although he felt Benjamin must be joking. “OK, then, Benjamin.”

                 “What I’m saying,” said Benjamin, “is that you shouldn’t come by when you’re trick-or-treating with Gwendolyn. I’m not the kind of werewolf who needs to go hunt for blood or anything, but I do tend to be rather territorial. Apparently I’ve even bitten my own wife once or twice, though of course I remember none of it.”

                “We won’t be coming by,” said Kendall. “We don’t celebrate Halloween.”

                Benjamin blinked. “You don’t even trick-or-treat?”

                “No,” said Kendall. “We’ll probably just stay home and watch a movie as a family.”

                “Gwendolyn doesn’t even dress up?” asked Benjamin. “As something nice? Like a princess or something?”

                “It’s just a family choice,” said Kendall. “Anyway, we were just sitting down to dinner. So, um, thanks for the warning.”

                Benjamin nodded. “Like I said, shouldn’t be an issue. My wife keeps me on a short leash.” He chuckled at his own joke.

                Kendall did not. He didn’t find it unsettling. He just didn’t find it funny.

 

                The next day, a Sunday, Kendall napped on the couch in front of a muted infomercial for a device that rapidly dried wet car upholstery when Tabitha, a neighbor from further down the street, rang the doorbell and woke him.

                Kendall’s wife Annabelle answered the door. Kendall could hear the women’s voices coming down the hall.

                “We were just wondering,” said Tabitha, “if Gwendolyn would like to go trick-or-treating with our kids tomorrow night. She gets along with them so well and I just thought that since we were going anyway, she could come along and maybe you and Kendall could have a night to yourselves.”

                “Ah,” said Annabelle. “Thank you so much for offering, but we don’t celebrate Halloween.”

                “Oh,” said Tabitha, her voice suddenly wary. “We don’t really celebrate it either. I mean, we don’t like all the gross and evil stuff. We just think it’s fun to dress up and go trick-or-treating, that’s all. Anyway, I just thought I’d offer.”

                “Thanks again,” said Annabelle. “But I think we’ll skip it this year. But I hope you all have fun.”

                “OK,” said Tabitha. “We’ll see you at Library Hour.”

                “One quick thing,” said Annabelle. “You know Benjamin Wharf, right? Did he come by your house the other night? Kendall talked to him and I guess it was pretty strange.”

                Kendall heard Tabitha laugh. “Yes, he did. We’ve been neighbors for six years and he’s come by every year to warn us that he’s going to turn into a wolf on Halloween.”

                “OK,” said Annabelle. “So it’s just a joke?”

                “I don’t know what it is,” said Tabitha. “He never seems like he’s kidding around.”

                “That’s what Kendall said.”

                “Anyway,” said Tabitha. “Whatever his reasons, we respect his wishes and avoid their house when we trick-or-treat.” With a trace of bitterness she added, “You, of course, won’t need to worry about that.”

                Tabitha’s apparent lack of concern made Kendall feel better. His inability to figure Benjamin’s reason for claiming to turn into a wolf had been nagging at him, but if it was really nothing more than the weird behavior of a local eccentric, then it was certainly nothing to lose valuable nap time over. Kendall drifted back into sleep to the sound of Gwendolyn whining to Annabelle about going trick-or-treating for what had to be the hundredth time.

 

                On Halloween night, Kendall was in the midst of denying to his wife and daughter that he’d fallen asleep in front of an animated family film entitled Drooper and Old Bossy when the doorbell rang. Eager for a way out of the argument, which was shaping up to be unwinnable, Kendall almost ran to the front door.

                Standing on the front porch in baggy sweatpants, sandals, and a coat and stocking cap was Georgette Wharf, Benjamin’s wife. She was crying. “Thank God you’re home,” said Georgette. “Everyone else is either out with their kids or at a party, but Benjamin told me you don’t trick-or-treat because you think Halloween is the Devil’s Birthday so I hoped you might be home and you are.”

                “We don’t think it’s the Devil’s Birthday,” said Kendall. “We just prefer not to celebrate it. What’s wrong?”

                “It’s Benjamin,” said Georgette. “It didn’t look like he was going to turn into a wolf very much this year so I left him alone for just a few seconds and when I came back into the room, the front door was open and I saw him running away across the lawn.”

                “What are you telling me?” asked Kendall.

                “I’m asking you for help,” said Georgette. “I need to find Benjamin before he does something terrible.”

                “Terrible like what?” asked Kendall. He didn’t feel like pretending to understand all this werewolf business. Insanity irritated him more than it frightened him.

                Georgette started to cry harder. “Or someone might hurt Benjamin,” she said. “They’ll get scared and shoot him with a gun.”

                “Wouldn’t the police be a better option?” asked Kendall.

                “No!” said Georgette. “Oh, no, Benjamin would get arrested or worse, maybe. They wouldn’t understand the problem.”

                “All right,” said Kendall. “How can I help?”

                “I don’t know how to drive,” said Georgette. “Can you drive me around the neighborhood and help me look for Benjamin?”

                Kendall barely managed to keep from sighing. “Of course I’ll help,” he said, trying to inflect his voice in a way that compensated for the unenthused expression he was sure he had on his face. He wanted to ask Georgette if Benjamin was wearing clothes but he was afraid it might sound like he was making light of the situation. Still, he really hoped Benjamin was wearing clothes.

 

                The neighborhood was more active than Kendall had ever seen it at night. His neighbors had made their houses look as inviting as possible with their curtains open, all of their lights on, and jack-o-lanterns, plastic skeletons, and inflatable witches arranged on the porches and in the yards. Clumps of costumed children accompanied by parents - who were sometimes costumed as well - hurried up and down the sidewalks, their voices loud with excitement and greed, their speech slurred by different types of candy combined without rhyme or reason in their mouths.

                Kendall drove slowly and followed Georgette’s direction suggestions as she rode in the passenger’s seat and looked out the window, scanning the streets and sidewalks and yards for Benjamin.

                “He didn’t tell me before we got married,” said Georgette. “No, he waited until the day of our first Halloween as a married couple to tell me he changes into a wolf on Halloween night. I probably would have married him anyway if he’d told me while we were dating, but still.”

                Kendall said nothing. He coughed a tiny cough.

                “It wouldn’t be so bad if I knew what to expect from year to year. Last year all that happened was his voice got gravelly and his sense of smell got better. And then this year I thought maybe it wouldn’t even go that far, but I guess it just came on late, which I should have been ready for, but I don’t know, sometimes it just seems so ridiculous that I have to worry about the extent to which my husband is going to turn into a wolf and terrorize people. I’m not an expert in this stuff. I just got stuck with it. I never got a chance to prepare. We were never together on Halloween when we were dating and then that first Halloween we were married, he just said, ‘Oh, by the way, tonight I’m going to turn into a wolf and you have to keep me from doing anything bad,’ and then I had to learn on the fly. And that was a bad one too. He got the fur, the teeth. He bit me and tore up a couch cushion and he howled for hours. It was awful.”

                Kendall hated being confided in. He didn’t even like it when Annabelle and Gwendolyn confided in him. He stopped the car at an intersection as a woman dressed like either Mother Goose or a Good Witch herded a swarm of miniature superheroes and cute insects across the street. “Maybe Benjamin went home,” said Kendall in search of any decision that would lessen his chances of driving around all night looking for a man who believed he’d turned into a wolf.

                “I don’t know,” said Georgette. “It just depends how wolfish he is.”

                “I’m happy to help,” said Kendall. “But I don’t feel like we’re making any progress. He could be anywhere.”

                Georgette rolled her window down, stuck her head out, and shouted, “Benjamin!” Her shouting startled a lone Grim Reaper walking past on the sidewalk. “All right,” said Georgette, getting teary-eyed again.

                “‘All right’ let’s go home?” asked Kendall.

                Georgette couldn’t bring herself to clarify, apparently, so Kendall drove home, pulling into Benjamin and Georgette’s driveway first.

                Kendall walked Georgette to her front door and said, “Let us know if there’s anything else we can do to help.” He hoped Georgette could sense his lack of sincerity.

                “Thank you,” said Georgette and Kendall certainly sensed her lack of sincerity.

                Georgette put her key in the lock. As Kendall strode back down the front walk to his car, Georgette opened the front door and a dark shape burst out of the house, knocking Georgette backwards off of the porch where she landed in a barren flower bed.

                Kendall, still ten steps from his car, whirled to face the commotion.

After leaping off of the front porch, the dark shape had stopped and Kendall realized that it was the figure of a man. Then he realized that the man was Benjamin. He wore pants cut into knee-length shorts, a sweater, and white tennis shoes without socks. He didn’t look like a wolf in any respect, although his body language was certainly threatening, or seemed intended to threaten, anyway.

                Benjamin and Kendall sized each other up as Georgette scrambled to her feet, her stocking cap askew on her head, her hair hanging in her face. “No, Benjamin!” shouted Georgette. “Don’t attack him!”

                “I’m not going to attack him,” said Benjamin and his face split into an ugly grin. “But I did tell him not to come here tonight. I did warn him that I get territorial.”

                “I didn’t think you were here,” said Kendall, edging backwards towards his car, keys in hand. “Georgette said you ran away. I was trying to help her find you. She was worried about you.”

“Sometimes I like to expand my territory,” said Benjamin, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “I get tired of staying inside. She’s supposed to stop me but I tricked her.”

Kendall had never before seen the slightest hint that Benjamin had this side to him. “Understood,” said Kendall. “Anyway, I’m glad to see you made it home all right.”

“All right?” Benjamin laughed. “I’m not all right! I’m part wolf until dawn, neighbor! I just had to come home to change shoes. Now I’m going back on the prowl!”

“Benjamin, come inside,” said Georgette. She stood well behind Benjamin, pleading with his back. He didn’t even glance at her. His shoulders were hunched forward, rising and falling with each heavy breath. His fingers never stopped moving, curling and stretching and flexing.

“I don’t want to interfere,” said Kendall. “This is none of my business.”

“That’s right,” said Benjamin. “You don’t celebrate Halloween. You get to check out. You get to skip Halloween entirely. Isn’t he wise, Georgette?”

“Please, Benjamin,” said Georgette. “I don’t want anything bad to happen.”

“Me neither,” said Benjamin. “But who are we to stand in the way if something bad does happen?” He pointed at Kendall and chuckled. “He doesn’t celebrate Halloween, but is that enough?”

“It’s just a family preference,” said Kendall. “We’re not judging anyone.”

                “Then you’re wasting the moral high ground!” said Benjamin. Georgette crept up behind him and put her hand on his elbow. Benjamin shook it off. He bulged his eyes at Kendall and inhaled dramatically.

                Kendall was tired of waiting for something to happen. “You look like you want to howl, Benjamin. I don’t understand why you don’t just let it fly.”

                Benjamin flinched, started to say something, then didn’t.

Georgette gasped. “Don’t taunt him!”

“I’m sorry,” said Kendall, turning and walking the rest of the way to his car. “It’s all just too juvenile. I’m going to quit pretending there’s anything serious happening here now. You folks have fun.”

As he backed down the driveway, Kendall saw Benjamin fall to his hands and knees and arch his back, whipping his head back and forth, his body convulsing. It may have been the beginning of an authentic physical transformation, but Kendall didn’t stick around to find out. Instead he drove to a nearby gas station and purchased a two-pound package of blow-pops.

When Kendall got home, Annabelle and Gwendolyn were on edge, huddled together on the couch and trying to immerse themselves in a repeat viewing of Drooper and Old Bossy.

“Where have you been?” asked Annabelle.

“Wasting my evening,” said Kendall.

“We heard howling,” said Annabelle. “It was eerie, Kendall. It sounded close.”

Kendall settled himself on the couch next to his family. “It’s probably just some idiot trying to cut loose,” he said, tearing open the bag of blow-pops. “Who wants candy?”

“I do!” said Gwendolyn.

“Kendall,” said Annabelle. “We don’t…what…what brought this on?”

Kendall shrugged. “Candy’s just candy. Now let’s watch this movie.”

He was asleep in minutes.




Discussion Questions

  • Should a man be required to meet a certain set of criteria in order to be considered a full-blown wolfman? If so, what are those criteria? Does Benjamin meet all/any of those criteria?



  • Why does Kendall relax his stance on the celebration of Halloween? Do you foresee more compromises along these lines in the future?



  • Do people who refrain from celebrating Halloween irritate, frustrate, offend, or baffle you? If so, do you think you’re playing right into their hands? They’re probably talking about you in disparaging terms right now, right?



  • Why do you think Kendall is most unimpressed by Benjamin’s “transformation?” Is it because he doesn’t display any physical characteristics of a wolf? Or do you have a better, deeper, more insightful answer? Prove it.



  • I’m not saying this story subverts your expectations, but go ahead and list some potential expectations that this story might be able to subvert.



  • How much trouble do you think Benjamin is capable of causing on nights other than Halloween? How much trouble do you think he’s capable of causing on Halloween night? Do you think that if you represented this information as a line graph, the resulting graph would raise any reasonable eyebrows? If not, would you just chalk that up to the inherent dullness of line graphs? Explain, I guess.



  • What kind of people, animals, or creatures do you believe the eponymous characters of Drooper and Old Bossy to be?