by Manfred Gabriel
Reese parked his old VW on the empty street of a subdivision still under construction, out of sight from police patrolling for kids breaking curfew. He and Brad got out and headed past a newly poured foundation, Reese carrying a case of beer, bottles rattling. His fake ID was tucked deep into the hip pocket of his jeans. His folding knife bulged in his back pocket. When Maura had called him at the last minute and asked him to bring it, he didn’t have to ask why. He had done his research.
While Reese stopped to take a leak against a newly sided house, Brad stayed back a respectful distance. A fifth of Jameson’s dangled from his hand – Che’s favorite. “He didn’t ask for it,” Reese had told Brad as they stood in line at a liquor store they knew didn’t look closely at driver’s licenses, “Why waste the money?”
But Brad insisted. As Reese zipped his fly, he wondered how much Brad suspected, and decided that Brad was too enamored with Che to even think it possible.
A lump formed in Reese’s throat. What if Che was no longer Che? What if he had already become something other?
They started walking again, Reese trailing behind. They stepped through knee-high grass past a concrete reservoir to one of the last patches of woods in town not cleared for new housing or strip malls. A narrow dirt path ran between the tangled trees.
Brad whistled. Reese glanced back at Brad, his heavy-set body shadowy against the night sky. Brad made a twirling motion with his finger. Reese shrugged. They both turned, walked the path backwards, reciting the words Maura had taught them in order to keep their lea safe from the cops, and from other teenagers who might want to use it for their own.
The sound of a guitar guided Reese and Brad along the path. At the lea, they turned. Che sat on a fallen log, guitar on his knee, his bony fingers strumming random chords. Maura lazed, her long legs stretched toward a fire burning at the lea’s center, one hand on the ground to brace her slender frame. Maura had first brought them to the lea about a year before and had instructed them on how to keep it hidden. “You can party all you want, and no one will know,” she had said. A plastic grocery bag hung from a nearby tree for empty bottles and cigarette butts. Maura insisted they leave no trace that they had ever been there.
The storms that had raged earlier that day had passed. The sky was clear and alive with stars, the earth moist and cool. The moon was new, but the lack of a full moon didn’t matter – full moons, silver bullets – Hollywood creations, nothing more.
Reese set down the case of beer and settled close to Maura, not so close as to be obvious, but close enough to feel the warmth of her skin. Her heart-shaped face glowed in the firelight. Her tiny diamond nose ring sparkled. She wore a peasant skirt and a letterman jacket an ex-boyfriend had given her that she never returned, although, no doubt, he had asked for it back several times. By all accounts, she should have still been with him, hanging out with the cheerleaders and the jocks, running track like she did her freshman and sophomore years.
But some time during junior year she had turned her back on them, had chosen Reese, Brad and Che to be her new friends. Boys too smart for their own good, who preferred D&D over football, who passed around tattered copies of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land instead of reading To Kill a Mockingbird and Ordinary People for English class.
She had explained this sudden change to Reese one day while they were in the library, pretending to work on their assigned speeches for communications class. Rita McKenzie and Phoebe Dorn were at the next table, faces tan, hip-hugging jeans torn in all the right places. The girls would stare at them from time to time, whispering to each other out of crooked mouths.
“We used to be friends,” Maura had said. “Their world is so small.”
Brad tossed Che the fifth of scotch. He caught it, setting it down without taking a swig. His guitar rested on his lap. Reese recognized the guitar as the same one Che had owned when they had met freshman year, solidifying their friendship by cutting PE together to catch a smoke behind the school’s maintenance shed.
The guitar strap was different, though. The old one had been cloth. This one was made of soft leather and had small bones and sharp animal canines stitched onto it.
Reese wondered if wearing the strap over his shoulder was enough to start Che’s change. He eyed his friend for one of the first signs that the alteration had begun, thick fur sprouting in all the wrong places. He saw none. Just the opposite: Che had recently shaved his head. “To match the rest of me,” he told them all after he had done it. His sleeveless shirt revealed scrawny arms without a touch of body hair, a trait which extended to his legs, his chest. He’d admitted to having to shave his face only twice a year.
Brad popped open three beers in turn, passed two of them to Maura and Reese, and kept the third for himself. The three friends clinked their bottles together, toasting to the end and the beginning. Today was the last day of school. Sunday, they would graduate.
Che asked no one in particular for a cigarette. Brad produced one from the breast pocket of his flannel shirt, putting it in his mouth and lighting it. His full, red lips contrasted his pasty, round face and dark hair veiling his eyes. He handed Che the cigarette, his hand lingering as their fingers touched. Che took a long drag and played the first few bars of a song no one recognized. He stopped strumming mid-chord, adjusted the keys even though he sounded perfectly in tune. The strap fell partway off his shoulder, and he pulled it up again.
Che had first shown Reese the strap after school the other day, as they sat in Che’s basement shot-gunning beer. “I picked it up at the shop in the alley.” That’s what he always called the store where he found his curiosities, without ever mentioning where this alley was. The shop wasn’t listed in phone books or on the internet. “If you have to ask, you don’t belong there,” Che would say. He never took Reese or Brad to it, but would show them the things he bought – a curved knife with a skull carved into the pommel, dulled and tarnished; a talisman made of a vulture talon; powder ground fine that he would mix with his scotch and drink in a single gulp “to keep me virile,” he would say with a grin.
The only person he had ever brought to the shop was Maura, no doubt to impress her. She never spoke to Reese or Brad about the trip or what she saw there, but for a week after, she wore a small rune stone around her neck. Reese asked her what it was, noting how it settled on her bare skin just above the slope of her breasts. “For quick recovery,” was all she said.
Che broke into a rendition of “Blackbird.” He had never learned how to play anything written before 1980, and most of his repertoire was older than that. Maura swallowed hard, rose to her feet. “Play something we can dance to,” she pleaded. Reese nodded. He knew what she was trying to do. She wanted to keep the mood upbeat, keep Che distracted, put off the inevitable for another night.
Che glared at her. He slammed the strings, went into a frenzied rendition of “Rock and Roll High School.” Brad got up and he and Maura bounced around like pogo sticks. They gestured for Reese to join in. They slammed together, Che playing faster and faster, crescendoing with a windmill. When the song was over, they all fell to the ground, sweating and out of breath. Reese lay on his back, the stars spinning overhead.
Grabbing the fifth of Jameson’s, Che opened it, drank from the bottle, then hoisted it in a toast. “To freedom.” They all knew he was talking about high school. The drudgery of droning lectures, the busywork of algebra problems and five-paragraph essays. Teachers wandering the halls and searching lockers, looking for drugs or weapons, or just someone not falling into line as they marched from class to class. Their high school was even designed to look like a penitentiary, with doorways within doorways that were often locked for security reasons, small windows that barely let in any light, and a high, chain-link fence around the perimeter.
While Reese had survived by keeping his head low, doing his homework and trying to stay out of trouble, Che had challenged the system at every turn – cutting class, mouthing off to the teachers, turning in papers with the words “School is hell” written over and over, single spaced, margin to margin. Getting into fights with guys twice his size because they brushed him in the hall or looked at him sideways.
The only reason he didn’t get expelled was that he had a talent for writing – poetry, essays, plotless stories no longer than a page, with vibrant imagery that enthralled the teachers. Writing that was free of the teen angst which littered Reese’s own feeble attempts at self expression, yet was filled with truth, with anger. It graced the pages of the literary annual, and no one doubted that he could become a great talent, if only he could make it to graduation.
His rebelliousness had the side effect of drawing girls to him, or rather, a certain type of girl, the type that longed for a guy whom she couldn’t predict, who would drive her parents crazy. Throughout high school, Reese had clung to Che in the hopes that some of this charisma might rub off on him. Reese was clinging still.
Che stretched, arched his back, howled at the moon. This was it, Reese thought, the change was coming – fangs, blackened gums, fingernails elongating into claws. Nothing. Same wiry, hairless Che.
“Maybe we should call it a night,” Reese said. “We have to get up for graduation rehearsal tomorrow.”
Che shook his head. “We’re done. It’s over. I feel like celebrating, trashing something.”
Maura’s attention had been on Che, but now, she made eye contact with Reese, nodded towards the trees and got up off the ground. She wanted Reese to follow. Che and Brad didn’t seem to care that they were leaving the lea together. Che picked up his guitar again, played “She’s Lost Control” while Brad bopped his head and sang along. Maura led Reese a ways down the path, and, when they could no longer see the fire, she stopped to face him.
“Do you have it?” she asked.
Reese nodded. “Think it will work?”
“It has to,” she said. She had come to Reese that afternoon while they were cleaning out their lockers, dumping vast amounts of loose-leaf paper and ratty notebooks into large gray recycling bins. “That guitar strap Che bought, I’ve got a bad feeling about it,” she had told him. Her world was divided between good and evil, and she insisted she could tell the difference.
Reese had first met Maura at a party being held by a guy well known for being the marijuana source for half the school district. They had sat in a bedroom heavy with pot smoke and incense, Maura reading Reese his Tarot cards by the light of a candle while Brad made out with his latest girlfriend on a nearby bed. He had been constantly going from girl to girl in those days, trying to prove something. None of them had ever lasted more than a couple of weeks.
“You have a good soul,” Maura told Reese after he cut the deck with his right hand and she dealt the cards face up on the carpet. She could have told him he was an Egyptian Pharaoh reborn. He hadn’t cared. Instead, he had watched her delicate hands as she turned over the cards, becoming enrapt by the lilt in her voice.
“What’s wrong with the strap?” Reese asked her, tearing his calculus notebook in half. It was more doodles than formulas anyway.
“The leather, I felt it. My fingers went numb. I thought of that poem Che wrote that Mr. Polis liked so much, remember how it started?”
Reese started to say the line. Maura silenced me with a finger to her lips. The next row of lockers down, Che called to her with the same tone used to give a command to a dog. She turned to go.
“’Skin like Nazi lampshades,’” Reese had whispered to himself as she hurried away.
Back in the lea, Che changed the song he was playing, strumming the frenetic chords of “Psycho-Killer.”
“If the knife doesn’t work, there’s another way,” Maura whispered in the darkness. She folded her arms.
Reese nodded again. After their conversation that afternoon, he had logged into one of the school library’s computers. One of the librarians, a pointed-nosed woman in her first year, not much older than himself, had snooped over his shoulder. Thought he had hacked the filters and was downloading porn, no doubt; why else would he be in the library on the last day of class? He had ignored her and with a little browsing, found out what Maura already knew.
The guitar strap wasn’t a guitar strap at all. It was a belt, made for someone much larger than Che, to turn the wearer into a boexenwolf, as the old legends called them. Once the change took place, there were only two ways to bring one down. One was to toss a piece of metal, like a knife, over the wearer’s shoulder. The other was to speak the wearer’s true name.
The metal bit didn’t make much sense – as medieval as bloodletting and witch burning. Using his true name as a weapon, though, that Reese understood. There was power in a name.
“Do you know it?” Reese asked Maura.
Maura shook her head. “How could I?” Che was adopted. His adoptive parents had changed his name from the one his birth parents had given him. They surely knew it, but Che had never bothered to ask them what it was. He was angry with them for not telling him until his fifteenth birthday that he hadn’t been born to them . “Their name for me isn’t mine, either,” he had told Reese long ago. “I’m Che. I inspire. I incite.”
“Maybe he won’t change,” Reese said hopefully. “I mean, he hasn’t changed yet.”
The music ended. Che howled again. This time, his cry was more sad than celebratory.
“He’s been changing,” Maura replied. “Inside. The outside doesn’t matter. More folklore than anything else.”
“So maybe it’s all folklore. He’s always had a mean streak. Been unstable. The boexenwolf’s just a way to describe people who have gone mad.”
Maura stared beyond Reese. “I slept with him,” she said. When Reese didn’t say anything in response, she added, “Surprised?”
“No,” Reese said, then paused. “A little.”
“It happened about two weeks ago. He gave me a ride home from school. My parents were still at work. He asked. Nice. I said yes. He’s so lost, confused, angry. I’ve seen it in his cards. I thought maybe I could help.”
Reese nodded, struggling to understand. Once, Maura had found a baby mouse shivering beside a rock in the lea. Che had wanted to crush it, hear it squeal. Maura had held it safe beneath her coat, sitting near the fire and feeding it some chips she had brought with her, then let it go in the woods after it was warm and fed. Che was like that mouse, one more thing she could save.
Maura swallowed hard. “Ever since then, he’s either been biting and sarcastic with me, or he’s ignored me completely.”
Another howl – angry, maddening, echoing through the trees. Maura gripped Reese’s hand tight and they hurried back to the lea. Brad lay face down on the ground near the fire. Che loomed over him. Brad lifted up his head. His face covered in mud. “I didn’t mean …”
Che kicked him in the stomach. “You keep your hands off me,” he growled.
Che had always been blind to the fact that Brad had a crush on him, even though everyone else could see it. Why Brad had chosen this moment to make a pass, why he thought Che would act any differently, was anyone’s guess. Maybe it was the beer, maybe it was the fact that after graduation, they would go their separate ways and he had thought what could be the worst that would happen?
Che turned to Maura and Reese, standing at the edge of the firelight. “What are you staring at?” He drooled as he spoke. Maura gripped Reese’s hand more tightly.
“What, she yours now?” Even though Che was shorter than Reese, he loomed large. Reese had never had anyone in his face that way before – snarling, scotch on his breath. He let go of Maura’s hand, backed away.
Brad had gotten to his knees, head in his hand, rocking back and forth. Maura stepped between Reese and Che. Che slapped her across the face. Her head snapped back and she fell. Che reached for his guitar. He raised it above his head, smashed it against thick tree trunk, breaking it to pieces. He tossed the neck into the flames. All that was left of the guitar was the strap. He held it tight in his fist, the teeth digging into his palm. Blood dripped from his hand.
Reese whipped out his knife, unfolded it. He had bought it at an army surplus store without knowing why, sure he would never actually use it. “You don’t have it in you,” Che snarled, but backed away all the same. He couldn’t know Reese had no intention of stabbing him. Reese aimed for a spot over Che’s head and threw it as hard as he could. It disappeared beyond the firelight. They heard it strike the branch of a tree, listened as it fell to the ground, lost in the dark.
Che charged, swinging wildly with open hands. Maura screamed. Che hesitated, looked down at her, salivating. Turning, he raced off into the woods.
Maura gazed up at Reese and mouthed the word “go.” He obeyed and started after Che, afraid that he might actually catch up with him, but not wanting to let Maura down. He could hear Che crashing through the trees, splashing through a brook. He was moving quickly; Reese followed as best he could. Along the way, he found Che’s shirt hanging from a branch, his shoes a step apart as if taken off in mid-stride. His socks, underwear and pants littered the ground a few paces away.
Just when Reese thought he couldn’t go on, Che stopped. He stood at the edge of the reservoir, naked except for the guitar strap, which he had run around his narrow waist twice and tied in a knot to keep it from falling off. It was the first time Reese had seen him naked. He didn’t even have hair between his legs.
Bent over, hands on his knees, Reese struggled to catch his breath. Che closed in, legs bowed, torso stretched so that his ribs were clearly visible, his white skin aglow, his face the same as that of the wild boy that had befriended Reese their freshman year.
Che pounced, leaping high into the air. He came down on Reese, holding his arms tight with a strength Reese did not know Che possessed. Reese could not move. He could speak though. If only he knew Che’s true name. Che’s dull fingernails dug into Reese’s flesh. He drew Reese toward his gaping, fangless mouth. His eyes were deep and fathomless.
Reese’s legs were still free. He kicked at Che and managed to put a foot into Che’s gut. Che loosened his grip momentarily, and Reese wiggled from his grasp onto the ground.
Che’s nostrils flared. Foam formed around his lips. He reached for Reese. Reese threw his hands in front of his face, bracing himself.
“Che,” Reese pleaded.
Che fell to the ground, curled into a ball. He cowered, babbling between tears, the strap still tight around his waist but useless. He could harm no one now.
Reese rose, wondering what had happened. The name, it must have been the name. But he had only used Che’s nickname. It was then he realized a true name was not what was given to you at birth; it was what you called yourself, the name to which you answered.
Reese’s first instinct was to rush and get Maura, show her what had become of this boy she had chosen to love. But he realized that would make her want to save him even more. While Che existed to be saved, what hope was there for him?
As Che sobbed into his hands, Reese saw him suddenly as with new eyes: immature, frightened, pathetic. Reese ripped the strap off Che and rubbed it between his fingers. The leather was supple. He imagined it to be Maura’s skin. If he wore the strap, he would have the power.
Reese picked up a softball-sized rock, hefted it in his hand. It was so heavy he didn’t need to hurl it down, only to let it drop.
Manfred Gabriel‘s short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Tales of the Unanticipated, Dred, Forbidden Speculations and Nanobison. He currently lives in Western Wisconsin with his wife, three young daughters, and two very big, very old, and very gentle dogs.