by JC Walkup

My uncle’s new calf was so pretty. Daddy helped deliver it just an hour ago in Uncle Ross’s barn.

Hardy, my first cousin, rode their sway-backed old plow horse to our place right before dark to fetch Daddy. I set up a racket, jumped up and down with my demand to go too. Usually, Mother said no. Barns were no places for twelve-year-old girls but a day working the hay meadow with Daddy, then cooking dinner in the hot kitchen left her too tired to argue. She swiped a strand of hair off her sweaty face; she waved her dishtowel at us and nodded. Her faded blue shirtwaist dress was plastered to her back.

If only she had been stronger!

“Hardy, just put ole Mandy in the barnyard with the calf. It’s getting’ too dark for you to ride her home. We’ll take you home in the car and we’ll get Mandy back in the morning.”

Hardy was fourteen and though he didn’t let on, I think he was glad not to have to ride that Mandy five miles back in the dark. Hardy didn’t have much to say on the way over but then I don’t remember letting the air get empty much.

Aunt Loraine came to the front door of their small, unpainted house and yelled, “You’uns go on back to the barn. Ross is out there with the cow.”

Uncle Ross handed Daddy, his brother, a quart jar of clear liquid when we walked in.

“This is good stuff, Dan. Old Jim ran it off yesterday—needs drinkin’ though.”

“You can say that again.”

How they could drink that stuff was beyond me. My mother’s older cousins had held me when I was four years old and forced some in my mouth. The memory of that taste was horrid. Daddy’s weakness for it was no secret to anyone but Mother. He would be doing well to get us home in one piece

Hardy ran on ahead and disappeared inside. We walked into the barn lit by three lanterns hung on posts. Hardy called down from the hayloft, “Liz, come on up here. Miss Priss has her kittens up here in the hay.” He knew I wouldn’t even try to resist that temptation. Like my Daddy, I loved animals.

I don’t know how long it was before Daddy called me to come down. Hardy claimed what he did to me was a game but when he grabbed the waistband of my jeans and pulled me down, I said I didn’t want to play. I discovered that he was stronger and I didn’t have a choice.

It couldn’t have been long but it seemed like forever before Daddy called up, “C’mon down, Liz. We’re all done and it’s time to go.”

As he let me scramble away, Hardy snickered and said, “And I’m all done too.”

“Coming Daddy,” I tried to yell but it came out an unsteady squeak. As I climbed down the ladder, I held on with one hand and tried to tuck my shirt back into my pants with the other. What would I say to him? I didn’t understand what had happened so how could I explain it to him? How could I tell him how helpless I felt? How angry? I wanted to kill Hardy—I really, really did. With every breath, helpless anger grew in me. I felt like a pressure cooker about to blow but weak and quivery at the same time. I kept silent on the way home. If I tried to talk, I was sure to cry.

Our old ’39 Ford rattled the five miles over the corduroyed red clay North Carolina road through the darkness at a good clip until the dip close to our house. A small stream had carved out a deep wash in the red clay. The only way to get home was to drive down in it and go up the other side. It was so steep that when the car started up the other side, you couldn’t see anything over the hood but sky. Daddy slowed down to go over the bridge made of logs with two planks laid over them. He was good at hitting those planks just right so the car wouldn’t go off the planks and spin on the logs.

“Daddy, look, look,” I yelled.

He threw on the brakes; I threw my hands against the dashboard when I slid forward.

A huge cougar caught in the car lights crouched facing us. She seemed frozen in place. A halo outlined her and the body glowed huge. In spite of the darkness, I could see every muscle under her sleek tawny coat. Her eyes glowed as if flames were behind them. Those eyes caught mine and locked me into her. It was as if she was connected to me by an electrical current. I couldn’t blink; couldn’t break away—not that I wanted to. I craved her strength, her power, and she channeled it to me through that invisible current. My weakness melted away, crowded out and replaced by a calm power.

The car’s engine noise must have sounded like another big animal’s challenge because all of a sudden, her ears flattened and she opened her mouth and roared a challenge.

I watched her vanish into the dark without a trace. She was the most beautiful powerful thing I’d ever seen. Daddy took a deep breath and eased the car forward. His face was grim and I could tell he was trying not to swear.

“What is wrong, Daddy? Wasn’t she beautiful? I’ve never seen one of those before – have you?”

“No I haven’t. Liz, from now on you don’t go outside after dark and keep a sharp eye out when you play outdoors during the day. Those animals can take down a child like you.”

Blood smell hit us as soon as we stepped out of the car. Shep, Daddy’s cow dog, was dead on the front steps. There was little left of his head; one ear hung on; his belly was ripped open. My dog, Joey, a Labrador-collie mix, lay in the dirt, his throat and belly opened. A chilling scream came from the barnyard. It didn’t sound like a horse but that’s what it was. Mandy was still alive but not for long. In a vain effort to run away from her pain, she staggered around the small enclosure dragging her entrails on the ground. Each time she stepped a hind hoof trod on her guts and she screamed.

The calf Daddy had penned up to treat for scours was just a bloody mess near the barn door.

Daddy bent over and vomited. Then he gasped, “In the house–let’s get inside. I need my gun.”

None of it bothered me. Not the dogs, not the four cats that lay scattered in the backyard or the old mare. They were weak so they all died. I felt good inside; like this was how everything should be. As I walked, I felt strength grow inside me.

We burst into the oil lamp-lit living room to find Mama huddled on the couch, Daddy’s 30.’06 rifle cradled in her arms. My strong stern mother was white-faced and shaking. She jumped up and ran into Daddy’s arms gun and all.

“Thank God you’re back. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

“Doris, give me the gun.”

I glided into the shadows of a corner. Changes were coming over me they didn’t need to see.

“Dan McDowell, you can’t go out there. That thing will get you too. It killed the dogs, cats, and everything else, then circled the house until you got here. If you hadn’t come when you did, it might have figured out how to get in the house. Please, Dan, stay inside.”

Daddy tugged the gun out of Mother’s hands.

“Mandy is still alive. I have to put her down. The panther is long gone—it ran across the road in front of the car as we came up out of the wash.”

“Dan, no, no. That’s no ordinary animal. That’s what it wants you to think—it’s not gone. It’s just waiting for you to come out. Please, please…”

“Now Doris—just settle down.”

Her hands were around the straps of his overalls. Gently, he pried her fingers off and eased her back down on the couch before he went out the door. Neither of them noticed me.

My hips seemed to ripple with power as my four feet hit the floor; I found I could move my nails in and out at will; my clothing split and fell away. When I tried to say, “Mother,” my voice came out a growl. The inside of my mouth tasted funny and my teeth were now fangs—fangs for ripping away life, for devouring fresh meat.

Fresh meat. I needed it. No, I craved it and there it was in front of me.

The creature on the couch screamed as I leaped.

Just as I finished the kill, the gun roared from the porch. The bullet whizzed past my ear. I flattened myself on the floor. Before I could spring again the man came through the door with the hateful smell of gunpowder around him. When I sprang, he fired but fear spoiled his aim.

When all was quiet, I remembered the hate that flamed in me before The Change. Now I would go find the source of my pain. That kill would be so very satisfying.

JC Walkup has written two novels, a stage play and numerous short stories. Her short stories took first place for three years in the Silver Arts Competition in Haywood County. She is a regular contributor to The Mountaineer and is the book reviewer for The Guide. Country Living and Stockman’s Journal published her articles on retirement. She also writes articles for The Smoky Mountain News. Her short stories are in Echoes of the Mountains and have been selected for inclusion in Echoes Across the Blue Ridge, a publication of the North Carolina Writers' Network West. She is Publisher and Senior Editor of FRESH, a new magazine.

About Alone—As a child I saw a cougar stalk a flock of a neighbor's chickens and burst up among them on hind legs to swat one down with her powerful paws. She was so beautiful and strong! Capture of her dinner was over in a blink and she streaked away with it; I didn't have time to be frightened for myself. Powerlessness is a common feeling of rape victims.