Run Away by Gerry Kaye
Carol Tooley chose that particular night to run away from home, because it was warm, there was a bright moon in the sky, and her father passed out in his bedroom instead of the living room.
She had tried to build up the courage to escape before, always finding reasons–real or imagined–to give up on the idea, but she was really going to do it this time. There had been too many bruises, too many threats, too many tears. She was done.
She left Freedom, Oklahoma, long overtired of the irony of its name, with just the clothes on her back, and a satchel filled with the only possessions she could bear to live without. Oh, and an extra pair of underwear and socks.
At first, she tried hitchhiking. She’d been at it for only six or seven minutes when a tall man in a station wagon pulled over and offered her a ride. His name was Ric, his passenger seat was empty, he was heading east, and he spent the whole of the conversation talking to her breasts.
She told him she was actually waiting for her cousin to pick her up, apologized, and crossed to the other side of the road. She’d never hitchhiked before, and it was just too scary to start now. Besides, it would be dark in an hour or so.
She started to walk down the road, but changed her mind when she saw a bus stop at the curb a block away. Maybe it was fate, because a bus pulled up at the stop right before Carol got to it. She hurried and got on right after a skinny woman with a very fat baby. She paid the bus driver and sat down toward the back.
The bus picked up passengers twice more, then got onto Interstate-64, where its stops became less frequent. She didn’t mind the busride all that much, since she took one to school every morning. And this one had nicer seats.
For many miles, Carol was alone with her thoughts. Afternoon became dusk, which became night, and then, she started to wonder just where exactly she was headed. She had no family, nobody expecting her, and no specific destination in mind. Maybe she’d just see where the bus took her, and get out when a particular stop sounded good to her.
Wayne . . . Ross . . . Chester . . . Thomas . . . every town had a man’s name. It reminded her of the look in the eyes of the tall man who’d stopped to pick her up before she’d changed her mind and taken the bus. The next stop was in Slapout, which had to be a bad omen. After that was Boyd, another man’s name. The next stop was actually a town called Hooker. Hooker, Oklahoma, that’s definitely where she wanted to end up.
She stayed in her seat.
That gave her more time to ponder her future, ponder the wisdom of running away at sixteen, ponder her options. She had some money with her, but she’d have to find work somewhere. There weren’t a lot of jobs she was qualified for: waitressing, service, fast food, janitorial, maybe sales. At the very least, she could ask at whatever motel she spent the night in if they were looking for help. Just leave it to fate.
“Goodwell, Siodmak, Hough,” the bus driver announced.
Goodwell had a nice sound to it. Of course, so did Freedom, and Rosedale, where her mother had been born. Nevertheless, Carol stood and asked the driver to wait. She was the only passenger for this particular stop.
She got off the bus and looked around. Goodwell was actually three miles north. Siodmak Corners, however, was only a mile south.
Siodmak Corners, Oklahoma it was.
She walked, shifting her pack from shoulder to shoulder, glad she hadn’t brought more along with her. It was not very dark, as a large moon was just rising, keeping the sky around it blue rather than black.
This was a rural place–not that most of her state wasn’t rural–with plenty of trees and pastures and valleys and rock-covered hills. She could smell pine trees, and it reminded her of Christmas. Forest led off on her left, and before long, it sprung up on her right as well.
But up ahead, beyond the forest, she could see the lights of civilization. One or two, at least. She walked on. One of her feet was sore, and she expected to find an attractive blister there when she got where she was going. Wherever that was.
Soon she noticed a tall fence going along one side of the road. It must have been a deer fence, since it was too high for cars (or even horses), and Carol followed it until she reached the “Now entering Siodmak Corners, Population 81. Mayor Bosley Gravel welcomes you.” She wondered if a town that small would even have a motel.
Passing the sign, Carol followed the single two-lane road that passed through town. She could see the tall fence on the other side of the road now too, apparently protecting any cars that might be driving through from scampering wildlife.
There were a pair of houses up ahead, big old houses made of mostly wood , with huge backyards the size of city blocks. Down the road a ways was another pair of houses, but the neighborhood was so spread out it was hard to see them. There were no streetlamps, no people could be seen, and there were no signs of life from the homes, not even the familiar glow of a television set. If it hadn’t been for the large moon in the sky, she might not have been able to see where she was going.
This definitely didn’t look like a town that would have a motel in it.
“So much for going with my gut,” she said to herself.
In response, she heard a sound to her left–a rustling in the trees. Just a bird, maybe, but then it was followed by movement, snapping branches, and a low, wet growl.
A dog? A bear? Whatever it was, she was glad there was a fence between her and it. She began walking faster.
There came the unmistakable sound of a wolf or dog baying somewhere in the woods; far away, yes, but terrifying to Carol nonetheless.
Nobody had their porchlights on and all the houses looked abandoned. Except for one. As far as she could tell, that was the light she had seen from half a mile back. Carol crossed the road, glancing behind her as she did, and headed for that house.
As she neared its boundaries, she heard another sound. It wasn’t as far away as the howl had been, and it wasn’t as easy to identify. But it sounded like a man screaming.
Carol broke into a run. She reached the front lawn, the stone sidewalk, the porch. She imagined looking behind her and seeing something or someone barreling out of the woods at her–fence or no fence–so she didn’t look behind her.
The house didn’t have a doorbell, but a big brass knocker, which she rapped at with trembling hands.
Another light came on, and a female voice called, “A minute!” from inside.
That’s when Carol was most afraid. She forced herself to look around, and appeared to still be alone out there, but her imagination filled every shadowy spot with the prospect of menace.
The heavy door clicked, and Carol turned to see a plump old woman unlocking it on the other side. She pulled the door open, looking at Carol with concern. She wore a threadbare green bathrobe and held a damp tissue.
“Yes? Are you Doug McIntire’s niece?”
“No. I was . . .” She glanced behind herself nervously. “I need–”
“Oh, you poor thing. Do you need help?”
“There was . . .” Carol started to say. “I mean, I think I heard something in the woods.”
“Maybe it was nothing,” she heard herself saying. But of course it hadn’t been nothing. There was something like screaming out there just a minute before. She didn’t know what in nature might make a sound like that. She told the truth. “I got scared . . .”
“And this was the only house with someone at home,” the woman said, not really a question. “Well, come in, come in. You should be safe in here.”
Carol did as she was told, and the old woman closed the door behind her. She peered out the little window at the top of her door, into the night. If anything, it reassured the girl that there might indeed be dangerous animals out there.
“The woods aren’t always safe,” the old woman said quietly. She seemed to be thinking about something, something Carol had reminded her about. Carol made it a point to ask her about the high fences, and just what might be living in the woods outside.
But first, she had to ask about lodging for the night. “Is there a motel or inn or . . . bed and breakfast around here?”
“In Siodmak Corners? Oh, heavens no,” the old woman said. “There’s not much here but twenty houses and a bar. Are you lost?”
“No. Not exactly, anyway,” Carol said. “I came here right off the bus. Guess I thought the town would be bigger.”
“Well, that’s understandable, I suppose,” the old woman said and coughed. “Well, sit down here at the table. I’ve just cooked myself some chicken soup. Would you have some if I gave you a bowl?”
Carol made a neutral sound, but did sit at the table. It had a lace, embroidered tablecloth on it, with leaf patterns every so often, all stitched by hand.
The woman went to the stove and turned the burner off. She wire-wisked the pan, then brought it over. “I’m just getting over the flu, to tell the truth,” she said. She poured a third into a china bowl and passed it to Carol, then poured a third for herself. She sat down opposite her, sighing as she did so. “I’ve been so tired and so weak, I wasn’t able to even get out of bed before tonight.”
That reminded Carol of her father, who sometimes drank so much he had to be helped to the bathroom. The thought of her home filled Carol with the oddest combination of anger and nostalgia, though she hadn’t even been gone a day.
The old woman took a spoonful of soup, then winced, batting at the air. “Careful, it’s hot.”
Carol thanked her and blew on hers before tasting it. It was good, the kind not made from a can, but homemade, with real chicken in it.
“I’m Margaret, by the way,” the old woman said.
Margaret smiled with her eyes. “You look like a Carol. What brings you to town? You can’t have any relatives here.”
That seemed like a strange thing to say, but Carol had heard of those idyllic little American towns where everybody knew everybody’s name, and everybody’s business. She supposed those were now few and far between, even in Midwest. “No, I guess I don’t.”
She explained just a little, not giving a lot of details, but enough to get her point across.
“Oh, you poor thing,” the old woman said again. “I had a husband once who was prone to drink. It left him prone, no joke intended, but every once in a while, he could get surly.” She leaned in, as if they might be overheard. “So I appreciate your situation, believe me.”
“What happened to him?”
“My husband? Oh, he passed.” She smiled, seeming very grandmother-like. “Under all this beauty, I’m really an old lady.”
Carol smiled noncommitally. Margaret looked anywhere from sixty to eighty, but that sort of thing was often hard to judge.
They ate in silence for a moment, then Carol heard, far away and outside of the house, another of those howling sounds. “Did you hear that?”
Margaret was spoonfeeding herself slowly. Her hand shook as she lifted the soup to her mouth. A bit of it spilled out, splashing onto the nice white tablecloth.
“I heard something in the woods before,” Carol said, fear playing at the back of her neck like a spider or feather. Or a feather with a spider crawling on it. “Some kind of . . .”
“We sometimes have mountain lions,” the old woman whispered, not looking up.
For some reason, Carol knew Margaret was lying. This too gave her an unpleasant tickle. Maybe it was a spider covered with feathers.
“I saw the fence. Is it to keep cars from hitting something, or to keep something from gett–”
A growling sound came from behind the house. The rough, throaty kind of a dog about to leap. A big dog.
“You heard that, right?”
Margaret didn’t answer. She laid down her spoon and began to massage her hand. Arthritis, probably. But the gesture could also be interpreted as worry.
Carol remembered the old woman locking the door behind her. “You know what’s out there,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“The moon,” Margaret whispered, then bowed her head as if praying.
All of a sudden, Carol knew what it was. The moon was bright and full that night. Normally, she didn’t believe in monsters or aliens or miracles. But it was certainly easier to believe in werewolves, when you’d heard one in the woods.
Carol too lowered her head to pray.
Across from her, the old woman gasped, and jerked a little in her chair.
Carol looked up again. Margaret’s hands were tight fists in front of her. “Ma’am? Margaret?”
The old woman shuddered, then shook her head a little. “Well, I guess I’m feeling better after all.”
That was another strange thing to say, since she looked to be in a great deal of pain.
Carol stood. The chair made an awful screeching noise on the wood floor. “What can I do?”
“Oh, there’s not much you can do now,” the woman said through gritted teeth. Gritted, lengthening teeth.
Carol shrank away from her.
“You’re welcome to run . . .” Margaret grunted and stretched out her fingers, which now had dark claws protruding from their ends. “But someone else might catch you if you go outside.”
“What’s . . .” Carol backed away from the table, causing the chair to tip and start to fall over. Out of habit, she caught it and set it upright.
“We’re all special here in Siodmak Corners,” the old woman said, though her voice no longer sounded like hers. Her eyes were squinting and yellow. Her tattered bathrobe ripped at the shoulders and along the spine. Tufts of white hair were sprouting on her arms, on her neck, on her face. “Special on full moon nights.”
Carol ran for the door, panic overtaking her. She gripped the lock and turned it, just as a bestial black wolf-face looked through it at her. A long thread of saliva ran from the corners of its grin.
“Like tonight,” the Margaret-wolf growled. “You poor thing.”