Alien Nation
By: Walter Giersbach

I was outside of town when I heard a primeval, urgent sound. It was nothing I'd ever heard in the woods around Dorset. A full–throated noise, between a moan and a roar, from something at least as large as I was. If the seven deadly sins made sounds, this would have passed for six — wrath, lust, greed, envy, gluttony, pride — any one of them except sloth. Those weren't a slothful animal's screams.

We don't see more than an occasional bear, and the last cougar had been killed off in the 19th century.

I ran that quarter mile back to my farm and got on the phone. Trey Biddle, Dorset's police sergeant, answered. "We got a problem," I said.

* * *

Dorset was dying, a diabetic whose toes and fingers are amputated as gangrene sets in. The Welcome sign outside town needed updating with a new population figure. Maybe half a dozen inhabitants had been subtracted in the last month.

Lori was the only addition. She was "the new girl" or "the lady vet," depending on whether you were a townie or a farmer.

Her late–model pickup was a spaceship setting down in my driveway.

"You called about a rabid dog?" the lady asked.

"I didn't say rabid. The thing shrieked, like he wanted to rip my lungs out." Wind blew her blonde hair across her face like spring grass bowing in a strong breeze. "Who're you?"

"Dr. Rasmussen. Lori Rasmussen. I work at Dr. Honnecker's, the veterinarian. Sergeant Biddle asked me to come by."

"We don't have wild dogs, Doc. Not in 26 years of my living here."

"Let's take a look," she said, lifting my arm off her window.

This slim lady with hair like a golden retriever intrigued me. Just saying, we don't get much excitement in Dorset. "What brings you to these parts?"

"I was looking for a place to work where I could treat something besides neurotic poodles. Boston wanted pet psychiatrists."

"Well, I'd be pleased to offer you dinner — not fast–paced, but fun." That was my wild shot with a lot of windage.

"Why not?"

***

"You studied in Boston to be a vet?" I was driving up to a place that lets you pick your steak, season it yourself, and grill it.

"And Michigan and California."

She'd changed from bluejeans into black slacks and a wooly sweater, looking more girl–like. "The cops right behind you?"

She didn't laugh.

The curled lip came back when we stepped into Jonathan's steak joint. We also call it Dorset's Inferno. Lori chose a salad and sat back down at the table while my eight–ounce Porterhouse sizzled at the barbecue.

"Rare's best." I set my plate down at the table.

"That one's still moving," she muttered.

***

Veterinarians are like priests. When your cattle get hoof–and–mouth you'd better find someone who can cure them or you're out of business. Lori Rasmussen invited a kind of awe among her clients.

Marty Enyeart and I were having a beer at the Rex when he told me one of his Holsteins had come down with FMD. "Doc Lori had that cow up on her feet in no time. Called it Aphtae epizooticae. Wish she'd been there when my wife had our kids. Would've been faster and easier."

"Cheaper, too, you chintzy bastard."

"Well, Gage, you could do worse'n marry someone like her. Profession like hers means you don't have to worry about blizzard or drought wiping you out."

"I have a profession. I'm a bookstore owner and absentee farmer." I was mouthing off. I didn't have a profession. Just a job, some bottom land I'd inherited, and a college education.

Marty's daughter, Amelia, came in and gave me a salute. "Mom's done shopping and we're ready to go soon's she drops off some clothes at the church." She signaled the waitress.

Amelia had been a year behind me in high school. We'd dated, bounced back into each other's arms after I finished college, and then floated apart. I saw early on that marrying Amelia would mean having three kids in five years, she'd add a hundred pounds, and I'd be on a leash for life.

Instead, my life became as twisted as a New England road that follows the streams and hills until it ends. A crooked life on crooked roads, which explains why I'm a bachelor in the bookstore business without worldly success.

***

It was a slow Monday and I closed the store to get an early dinner with Lori before driving into Manchester for a movie. The Railhead's the best place for a generous martini. I was taking my first sip when Lori and Amelia shouldered each other coming though the door at the same time.

I waved them over and put down the Boston Globe book reviews. "Ladies, c'mon and join me."

Lori was wearing a dress, having gone home early and changed. Amelia, in jeans, said, "Just long enough for a beer, then I got to get back home. How'ya, Doc?"

Lori extended her hand. "Your dad's cow still healthy? The old Holstein?"

"Tried to run me down today. Still got her piss and vinegar," Amelia said. "When she stops producing milk, we'll turn her into dog meat." Amelia had backbone. I wouldn't be shocked if one day she gave birth to a mixed breed Rottweiler.

Lori frowned. "Animals can't speak for themselves. I'd better take a look. It's about basic human decency. Mahatma Gandhi said, 'The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.'

Amelia snorted. "An Indian vegetarian preaching to a dairy farmer? Person who thinks animals got the same rights as humans ain't seen 1,500 pounds of stark raving cow blowing snot in their face."

The air was getting close. I took a sip of gin and said, "I've been thinking of becoming a vegetarian like Lori." The women glared at each other. "Anybody know if vegetarians are allowed to eat animal crackers?" I was the only one who thought this was funny.

Trey Biddle came in at that moment. "Molly Sadler disappeared," he huffed. "Left her shop last night and never came back."

"Where'd she go?" I asked,.

"Did she take her car? Pocketbook?" Amelia asked.

"Is that Molly from the beauty shop?" Lori wanted clarification.

Trey seemed oblivious. "She and her husband were going deer hunting tomorrow."

"Sheesh," Amelia snorted. "Season opens and she wouldn't of missed it for anything."

"Hunter's moon this weekend," Trey said. "Leaves falling, deer fattened, fields reaped. Best now since you can see the deer come out to glean." Trey seemed more poetically saddened that Molly wouldn't get her kill than having a mystery descend on Dorset.

***

Lori was the customer I could count on. She'd come in every other day or so to buy a book or chat.

"Did you ever find that animal howling in the woods?"

"Never did. I went back a few days later. Didn't see anything."

"Maybe it was an omen. A poltergeist. One that brought you to me, else how would we have met?"

"Poltergeist?" Her eyebrows rose.

"The spirit of troubled young people. They manifest in dogs and such."

"You believe that stuff?"

"I have an open mind, my dear doctor." I could speak affectionately because we'd begun sleeping together. "Werewolves, ghosts, angels — I'm skeptically open to all possibilities."

"You liberals believe fevered dreams are more real than facts," she said. "Sometimes, reality is powerfully influenced by beliefs."

"Are you part wolf, my darling creature?" I asked. "The hair on your pudendum grows thicker than the hair on my head."

"Pudendum. Where'd you learn that word? Now, excuse me, but I have to go back to work."

* * *

Molly Sadler never turned up. Only her hand, found by a tourist hiking along Bear Creek Road. Trey Biddle said the tourist brought it in. Fingerprints confirmed Dorset had lost another digit in the population count.

"Odd that people start disappearing soon's the lady vet comes to town," Trey said.

"What people?" I asked. "Just Molly. That's plain murder, I'd guess."

"Myron Waldron's gone."

"Attacked by a bear. Newspaper said so."

Trey shook his head. "Bears rip you apart, bury what's left, and come back to feed later. Myron was in pieces."

"The librarian? She drowned."

"Never found the body," Trey volleyed.

"The teenager, that tourist couple's kid. Suicide."

"Apparent suicide. Parents said there'd been a previous attempt when the kid threatened to go jump off a cliff. We haven't found a body yet."

Then Amelia Enyeart went missing a week before Halloween. The town was shocked. Worse yet, her head was found on my farm and I became the chief suspect.

Trey stood by the door of the police station while Chief Vance questioned me.

"You have to believe me. Amelia and I had a relationship," I explained. "But, it's over."

"That's what I assumed," Vance said. "It's the reason people get murdered."

* * *

Chief Vance kept me in a cell for the rest of the night, then my lawyer from Manchester requested I be released on my own recognizance without bail. The judge agreed once I promised as a fellow church parishioner that I wouldn't skip town.

"There may be wild dogs," Lori said on her noontime visit to the bookstore. "I've been reading. Wolves in Maine have been cross–breeding with domestic dogs. They may've become a whole new breed."

"I prefer to think there are werewolves in town. You know, a little blood on the run when the moon is full." My joke was weak, but Lori's seriousness invited it.

She stared back, her gray–green eyes as cold as an ice pond. "Lycanthropy is a metaphor. It's been given many symbolic meanings. Puberty, schizophrenia, menstruation. What matters is whether you think they're out there."

"Eh?"

"Couple things, Gage. One, people transfer their affection and fears to pets and wild animals. That's because they're unsure of human relationships. They're alienated from people, institutions, friends."

"You, a vet, saying that?"

"Haven't you noticed when a person says they admire Fido drooling on them or they invite their cat to sleep on their pillow, they're really telling you they prefer animals to people?" She put her fingertips on my shirt collar and pulled me close. "People disappoint them. They can't be relied on. It's just another step to believing in things that lurk in the dark." She raised an eyebrow.

"Second, you said that sound you heard was like one of the deadly sins. There's an eighth. Fear. Your ancestors hacked away at the wilderness till there was no place left for the wild things to hide. Now you're trying to survive as the jobs disappear." She gripped my wrist and stared at me. "What horrors have you inflicted on yourselves? You want to believe the bears are coming back, but maybe you're afraid because of all the horrible things you've done to them they're really stronger and will make you pay for your sins."

I tried to think of something clever, but the words wouldn't come out.

"See," she said, "this is why I like you. You're well–adjusted. You don't turn animals into mysterious creatures. Do you?"

I agreed, realizing I was being disloyal to the pets I'd loved.

* * *

That's where we were in our relationship as we went to bed. Tentative, where animals were concerned.

It was the shriek that jarred me awake in the middle of the night, the same noise that began as a baby's cry and rose to a guttural bellow of hate and fear. Lori's side of the bed was empty. Her pillow cold.

I pulled on my pants, a hoodie, and boots. The night was autumn cold and still, with puffy clouds meandering across the Hunter's Moon. Glistening crystals of ice circling the moon showed there'd be a hard frost by morning. I crossed my field and came onto Bear Creek Road before I saw it fifty yards away.

The figure looked like a bear, until it straightened on its hind legs to take on a skinny form silhouetted against the sky. Then the creature shucked off its dark covering — a black coat — and I recognized her standing tall and pale in her night dress.

"Lori?" The chill at seeing her didn't come from the October night. There was a deeper aura of strangeness as she turned and opened her mouth in a soundless howl. Her hair waved like a writhing pile of snakes, haloing her pale face.

I stumbled back, believing every wicked story I'd been told about ghosties and goblins. And then I heard another sound. A breath loudly exhaling. I spun around and looked into the face of Trey Biddle. His eyes were huge and his mouth gaped to reveal a row of canine teeth. The scream that came from him, not human and not animal, was from another world of pain and anger — and retribution.

Trey's hands had become claws that gripped my neck. "Trey, it's Gage," I screamed. "Don't do this!"

There was no response from the half–animal as I struggled to breathe. His claw–like right hand released me long enough to rake across my face. Blood filled my eyes and I sank blindly to the road, losing consciousness and expecting Trey's next blow would rip my heart out.

* * *

I awoke with my head in Lori's lap. "You'll be alright. When you can stand, I'll get you back to your place."

"It was Trey, but not him," I said.

"He's gone." She nodded assurance. "Everything's okay now."

Lori got me back in bed and held me till I feel asleep. She was still there, sitting in a chair, when I awoke.

"What happened, Lori? Where's Trey?"

"Gone, like all the other people who disappeared. It'll be Dorset's mystery."

"What did you do?"

"You thought it was a werewolf," she said, speaking like my elementary school teacher. "You were afraid — of death, loss, whatever. That led to your belief in the supernatural. I'll concede you were sincere in believing in the power of werewolves and creatures of the night. You can debate whether any difference between belief and reality isn't just word play."

I must've looked confused. "It wasn't belief that almost killed me!"

She reached over to grip my hand. "In every discipline, events happen that we don't understand. We tell ourselves that someday science will explain these things. Maybe it will. But for now, the unexplained nature of these phenomena gives them extraordinary force. They cause individuals, even towns, cities and nations to behave passionately and irrationally. Our alienation literally makes us become believers in alien things."

"We invent these things?"

"Are we disengaged and isolated because we believe in superstition, or did irrational belief lead to our being alienated?" Her grip tightened. "This is their real power, Gage. And why they've come back."

"Are you saying Trey was a werewolf, but we don't know it for a fact? Dammit, I felt those claws around my neck! Did you kill him — and how?"

"Your questions are irrelevant. Maybe you just fell down in the dark. Real or not, we respond to what we believe. Are ghosts, nightmares — even the God of your church — real? Who knows, but they're powerful triggers for human relations."

"You saved me for a reason. Stay with me." I pulled back the covers to show there was room for two in my life.

Those gray–green eyes bored into mine. "In spite of the fact that you don't know who — or what — I am?"

"It doesn't matter, Lori."

"Then I'll stay for awhile." She had a faraway look. "For awhile anyway."

###

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