By Mary Ann Peden-Coviello
Walter Calhoun was one of the smallest guys in my junior class at Turkey Creek High School, maybe the smallest. He was a geeky-looking kid to boot, skinny with round, pale brown glasses that matched his pale brown eyes. Almost yellow, his eyes. Other kids, mostly Todd Skinner and his gang, called Walter “Yaller Eye” and “Half-Breed,” and worse. They never did say what they thought he was half a breed of, though.
The Calhouns hadn’t lived in town long. They’d moved in the rent house next to me and my family over the summer. About a week after they came, Pa told me one night after supper, “You keep away from them folks next door, Jack. They’re a bunch of shiftless no-goods. I’m surprised they didn’t up stakes and run in the middle of the night as soon as they got a gander of my cruiser.”
I put all that down to Pa being chief of police. He thought everyone but Reverend Patterson over at the First Baptist Church was up to no good. And he wasn’t real sure about the Rev.
Anyway, nobody else wanted much to do with Walter or any of the other Calhouns as far as I could tell. Most of the Calhouns kept themselves to themselves. Mr. Calhoun and the two oldest sons wasn’t home much but on the weekends ’cause they drove trucks long-distance.
But me and Walter got to be good friends that summer. We was both fans of the Baltimore Orioles. We was bigtime fans of “The Iron Man,” Cal Ripken, Jr. We had trading cards for both of the Robinsons – Brooks and Frank – even if Frank was Black. Walter said he had to hide those cards from his pa or he’d tear ’em up. Mr. Calhoun didn’t hold with race mixing. Truth to tell, I once heard Mr. Calhoun yellin’ at Walter about hanging out with me so much ’cause of “mixin’ with them like you do, it’ll dilute the strength of the race.” I couldn’t figure out what he meant, but I didn’t want to ask Walter about it.
Walter and me both liked to fish. I’d set on the bank of Turkey Creek and try to catch supper while Walter stuck a pole in the ground and paid no more mind while he stuck his nose in a book. I’d generally share some of my catch with him to keep his pa from walloping him for wasting a day. It was a good summer, for sure it was.
The trouble started the first week of school. Every year Todd and them picked out a new target. That year, it was Walter. I kept telling him to just fight back one time. One good hard punch and chances were better’n’even Todd’d back off. But Walter’d just stare at me and shrug.
“Nah, man, I don’t like fightin’.”
“Me neither, but sometimes ya gotta stand up for yerself.”
Then he’d kick the toe of his sneakers in the dirt and act all weird and hurt. Sometimes, if we hadn’t been friends, I’d’ve beat the snot outta him myself just to straighten him out.
Anyways, Todd never let up on him. Lunchtime in the cafeteria was always real bad. Walter never ate the school lunch. He brung a lunch from home in a banged-up black lunchbox that looked like it was a hundred years old. Always the same lunch. A sandwich – usually baloney or peanut butter, sometimes with honey or some kinda jelly – a handful of potato chips and a couple of cookies or a piece of fruit. Never enough. Maybe that’s why he was so scrawny. Todd liked to cruise by and shove his dirty knuckles in the sandwich or crush the chips, maybe steal the cookies. Walter’d just grunt and eat the smashed sandwich or crunched chips and never say nothin’ back.
Gym was worse. Todd and his gang’d do their best to knock Walter down when we had units on basketball or softball. Todd was too big to get assigned to wrestle him, but one of Todd’s buddies, Harmon Dawkins, got that job, and he roughed up Walter something fierce. The gym teacher, Mr. Gilbert, didn’t pay much mind till Harmon durn near knocked Walter out. Even then all he did was tell Walter not to be a wimp.
But all Walter seemed to think about the whole danged time was Halloween. He was like a dog with a juicy ol’ bone. He started going in on Halloween about the danged middle of August. I ain’t never seen nobody half as excited about Halloween as Walter Calhoun that year. No matter how many times I told him we was too old for trick-or-treatin’, he insisted we was goin’.
All of October, Walter kept up a drumbeat about how he was gonna be a fierce “woofman.” Poor guy, he couldn’t even say “wolfman” right. He was gonna bite every sumbitch what ever give him grief about how he liked to read or how he had to wear glasses and his two older brothers’ hand-me-down shirts. Then he’d snap his teeth in the air four or five times like he was biting somebody.
“‘Ceptin’ you, Jack. I know you ain’t meanin’ nothing by it when you tease me about bein’ a bookworm and all.” Walter gave me a little shoulder punch.
I laughed, but something about the look in his eyes sent a little twitch down my spine. Y’know, like maybe a beetle had crawled under my shirt. “Come on, man, don’t you go biting nobody. You’ll get yerself beat to a bloody pulp.”
Walter was the one laughing then, cackling high the way my cousin Roy did that time he got hold of some bad ’shine. “You know I’m only kiddin’.”
One Friday afternoon, early in October, Walter caught an elbow to the mouth during gym. We were doing soccer, and everybody hated it, even Walter. It was a girly sport. Boring. Well, it was till Todd whacked Walter like that. He lay there, splayed out on the ground like a split trout. Blood everywhere. I kinda figured Walter’d cry or something and make the situation worse, but he didn’t. Cool as could be, he spat into his palm. A glint of white showed in the middle of a glob of blood. When he grinned up at me, his teeth red, the empty spot where his right dog tooth shoulda been looked like someone had sunk a post hole digger in his gum.
Mr. Gilbert looked down at Walter, with his hands on his hips. “All right, Calhoun. Take yourself to the nurse. Get that mess cleaned up.” He shot a look at me. “McNally, you go with him, see he don’t get lost.”
A little laugh rippled around the rest of the class that was standing around, looking down at Walter. The scraps of respect he might have gotten for being so cool about the crack in the mouth and lost tooth faded away in the laughter.
Later, while we were heading home, I got to thinking about how Walter was gonna explain his missing tooth to his pa. Mr. Calhoun wasn’t the understanding type. Neither was Mrs. Calhoun for that matter. But when I brought it up, Walter exploded.
“You’re acting like all the other snobs and high-and-mighty muckety mucks in this town! You think me and my folks’re dirt, but we’re not. Dad’ll be proud of me ’cause I took it like a man. I didn’t cry. I didn’t yap. And I ain’t gonna. So you back off.”
“Don’t take it out on me. I’m sorry, man. Come on. I’ll treat you to a Dixie Bar over at the Custard Shak.” And kerbam, Walter forgot – or seemed to – all about being mad.
But back at school on Monday, Todd started calling Walter “Toothless.” Every time Todd said it, Walter got madder. Probably nobody noticed but me. Walter just got all sulled up like a toad. Quiet, ya know. But ready to blow up. At lunch, I tried to calm him down some, but no luck. He sat there, hunched over, and ate his baloney sandwich without saying a word, he was that mad. He didn’t even cheer up when I gave him a cookie, one of Ma’s homemade chocolate chips, the ones Pa always said could bring a dead man back just for another bite.
By the time Halloween week came along, Walter was about to jump right out of his skin with excitement, and he was always just sorta simmering with anger all the time along with it. He’d cobbled together a sort of werewolf costume with a raggedy old fur coat he musta got out of some dead aunt’s closet. Or maybe his grandma’s. He added on some brown boots a couple sizes too big and some stinky old coonskin cap. Well, at least he was mostly furry.
I was still pretty embarrassed about the whole thing, so I borrowed one of Pa’s plaid shirts and a set of suspenders from this guy at church. I figured I’d wear ’em with a pair of jeans and my work boots and go as a lumberjack. If I could sneak out with it, I’d carry Pa’s axe with me, too. I wouldn’t look too dumb, I figured.
Walter worried about how he couldn’t find a mask. He dragged me to every five-and-dime, drugstore, and dry goods store in town looking for a “woofman” mask.
“Hey, here’s a gorilla mask. Why don’t’cha get it and make like it’s a werewolf? I mean, in the dark, who’ll know the difference?” I shoved the mask, labeled “KING KONG, King of the Beasts,” at my friend.
He pushed it away. “Nah. I’ll know. Gotta be a woofman.”
I wasn’t with Walter when he finally found his wolf mask. He showed it to me while we sat on my back porch Halloween afternoon. I couldn’t make myself tell him it looked more like a collie dog than a wolf, and I thought he’d’ve been better off with the gorilla mask. Walter was about popping out of his skin with nerves, poppin’ his fingers and jigglin’ his knees like he was listenin’ to music I couldn’t hear.
“It’s even gonna be a full moon tonight, Jack. It’s gonna be perfect. All the candy in the world, man. And tricks, too. Don’t forget about the tricks.” Then he cackled that high-pitched laugh he did sometimes.
That night, I dressed up like a lumberjack and used some of Ma’s eyebrow pencil to draw a beard on my face. It looked dumb. On the way out, I grabbed a paper shopping bag and snagged Pa’s axe. Ma and Pa didn’t hear a thing, I reckon, or they’d’ve come lookin’ to see what I was doin’.
I snuck next door to meet Walter. He was already outside, prowling around the backyard, growling like a wolf. I almost told him how stupid he sounded, but then I thought about how dumb I looked and shut my yap.
“Ready to go, Walter?”
I guess I startled him ’cause he spun around real fast and slashed his hands at me, fingers curled into claws, and in the darkness his growl sounded real. Then he kinda shook himself and huffed out a funny little laugh.
“Oh, yeah. I’m ready.” He bent down and picked up a paper sack, held it up. “Gonna fill this puppy to the brim.”
So off we went, two overgrown trick-or-treaters. Walter was his usual polite self at all the doors, asking for his candy. Most people just laughed and gave him a couple of pieces. They didn’t always laugh when they recognized me. Man, was I gonna catch it from Pa when word about this all got back to him. And it would.
Then, sure as little apples, Todd and his gang showed up. They started just tailin’ along behind us, hootin’ a little, callin’ us names. We ignored ’em, but I could tell Walter was gettin’ pissed off.
“Keep cool, man. Ya don’t wanna start any trouble out here with all these little kids runnin’ around.” I gave Walter a little push with my shoulder, a friendly little nudge like we’d done to each other a million times before.
He jerked away from me with a funny, deep growl. It hardly sounded like Walter. Then he looked at me out of his wolf mask. In the eyeholes, his eyes were real yellow. That was when I realized he wasn’t wearing his glasses under his mask. I wondered how he could even see. I mean, I knew he needed those glasses bad, but he didn’t seem to need them to see in the dark that Halloween night.
“Sorry, Jack. I didn’t mean to scare you.” Walter was really into his wolfman thing and was halfway growling his words.
I huffed half a laugh. “You ain’t scarin’ me. I’m bigger’n you anyways.”
“Yeah. Now let’s go hit up Mrs. Barker. I hear she always gives out some good stuff.” Walter ran off into the dark. I followed him. The full moon had climbed higher into the sky, and the trees and bushes were throwing dark shadows onto the ground.
Just before we got to the Barker place, Todd and his whole gang stepped out from the shadow of a big old oak tree. “All right, you two pussies. Give up the goodies.” Todd held out a hand. “Don’t make me wait for those bags. It’ll go easier on ya if ya just fork ‘em over.” His guys all chuckled, just a little, like he’d said something real clever.
I started to hand over my bag. I mean, I didn’t want any trouble, and Todd had Trouble with a Capital T written all over him that night. Walter bumped my arm.
“No,” he said.
“No?” Todd acted like he’d never heard the word before. Maybe he hadn’t, not from a victim, and for sure not from Walter.
“No,” Walter said again. His voice still had that growly sound. “You need to leave me and Jack alone. Now and always. Leave us be.”
Todd turned toward his backup crew. “Did ya hear that? We oughta leave Ol’ Yaller Eye and Jack the Punk alone from now on.” He turned back to us. “Ooooh, I’m skeered.” He made a scaredy face and shook all over. He lashed out a hand quick as a snake and snatched the bag outta my hand. It tore and scattered candy all over the ground. That set him right off. “Look what you did!” He followed that with a rant of words I ain’t even gonna write down here ’cause Ma’d wash out my mouth good and proper even if I’m not a little kid no more.
When he finished cussin’ us out, Todd lunged at me and clocked me a solid right upside my head. He’d never come after me for real before, partly ’cause I was near as big as him, but mostly ’cause Pa was chief of police. His job had given me a little cover. But not that night. Todd came for me good. I fought back, but it was useless. The kid was too mad to think straight. A couple of his guys tried to pull him off of me, and he slugged them, too. I hit the ground a lot harder than I ever got to hit Todd.
Walter threw his candy sack right in Todd’s face. “Here! You want it so much! Take it!” Then Walter grabbed my arm and yanked me to my feet. “Run!” And we did.
We ran as fast as we could. My belly and sides and head hurt where Todd had thumped me. I could barely keep up with Walter, who was running like Emmitt Smith bein’ chased by every defense in the NFL. His big boots flapped and clomped till he ran right out of ’em and went on barefoot. We raced behind and between houses with Todd and them thundering after us. I was hoping we’d get back to either Walter’s or my house where we’d be safe, but then Walter turned up a blind alley behind the drugstore. I knew we were screwed as soon as I made the turn. My fault ’cause I shoulda been in the lead. Walter didn’t know the town as well as I did, see, and I wouldn’t’ve made that mistake.
I backed up against the brick wall of the drugstore, panting, waiting. Walter hunched over by the trash bins. We were mostly in the shadow, with a big splash of bright moonlight right in the middle of the alley. Todd, followed by his gang, stalked into the alley.
“Run like scared rabbits, eh? Well, we caught ya now, didn’t we? Gonna make ya sorry ya was ever born, ain’t we?” Todd’s voice was low, quiet. Threatening.
“Come on, Todd. Leave us alone. You won. Go on, leave us be.” I could barely talk, I was so out of breath.
“Maybe you, you cop’s bastard. But not him. I’m up to the eyeballs with him.”
Walter didn’t say a word. Just backed farther into the shadows, breathing hard.
Todd rushed toward him, grabbed his mask and ripped it off.
The face that’d been behind the mask, half in the shadow and half in the moonlight, grinned at Todd. With so many sharp teeth. The face of a wolf.
And my friend Walter’s eyes.
The wolf — skinny, even scrawny, like Walter — still wearing most of Walter’s “woofman” costume, leaped at Todd and knocked him down. It bit real deep into Todd’s neck, tearing and ripping. Todd never made a sound, though he did beat his fists against the wolf’s shoulders. The wolf growled and snarled. It shook Todd’s body like a dog with a dead rat. Blood flew everywhere. The alley stank of blood and death.
The wolf dropped Todd’s body and took a few steps toward the shocked gang members. They turned and ran. The wolf shook off the last bits of Walter’s costume and went back to what was left of Todd. Snarling, it savaged the body some more, ripping open the belly, scattering bits of things I didn’t much want to think about all around. And eating. The wolf was eating Todd.
Then it turned to me.
My back against the brick wall, I had nowhere to go. No strength to fight.
The wolf that had been Walter padded up to me. My legs gave out. I slid to the ground. Walter’s yellow eyes looked into mine out of the wolf’s grey, blood-splattered face. The wolf put a paw on my shoulder. His jaws gaped and his tongue lolled out. His right dog tooth was missing. That missing dog tooth nearly broke my mind, even more than Walter’s yellow eyes looking at me outta this wolf’s face.
“Please.” My voice cracked.
The Walter-wolf licked my cheek, leaving the reek of blood and all those other things I still wasn’t thinking about on my face. He looked deeply into my eyes again.
He turned and trotted away. I never saw him or any of his family again.
But sometimes, especially on Halloween night, I hear a wolf howl.
And I shudder.
About Mary Ann