There's no shortage of people out there who complain how boring life in their little town can get. I'm one of those seemingly rare people who happens to like it that way. Yet the solace and tranquility I found in small town life was doomed to come crashing down around me one scorching west Texas summer night.
I was making good time back from Odessa after dropping off a load of gravel for a customer and crossed the El Portal County line with a few hours to go before sunset that particular summer afternoon. Almost immediately after crossing the county line, I noticed a plume of smoke off in the distant hills.
Oh shit....that better not be HER I reflexively say to myself after I see the distant conflagration and I try and keep a tsunami of fresh and unpleasant memories in check.
I quickly dismiss the notion that the distant fire on the horizon is the result of anyone I know. Instead, I turn off the Ranch to Market road and guided the Peterbilt dump truck and the trailing pup trailer down a twisting and gently undulating dirt and gravel road towards a trailer by the quarry that served as my home office.....but mostly 'home'. After my honorable discharge from the Army, I had gravitated back to my West Texas hometown to help out with the family business- a small quarry run by my father. Now- for better or worse- I was supposed to be running the show after a series of setbacks.
The irony of being one of the few bachelors in a town called Bachelorsville was lost on me until fairly recently. It's not a particularly large town- fewer than 700 souls according to the last census. If my high school graduating class was any indicator, most of the single men typically left town to join the military, go to college or work in the oilfields out in the Permian Basin.
Despite the fact that there were about a dozen other vehicles parked by the prefab structure that has been facetiously referred to as my 'swingin bachelor pad', odds were pretty good I had the place to myself. The aggregates business was pretty slow lately, but with the downturn in oil prices I managed to persuade some construction and oilfield service firms to park their idle equipment at the quarry for a modest fee.
After hastily scribbling in the logbook that I made it back without incident, I locked things up and stepped out of the cab, only to be greeted by a blue merle Australian cattle dog, waiting patiently as his tail thumped the ground.
"Hey Tazzy!" I said in a saccharine voice that I'm pretty sure I'd never use if I knew others were present. "You miss me, buddy?" His response was simply to get up- tail still wagging- and walk one full revolution around me before doing a pirouette....something I referred to as his "I'm hungry!" dance. Tazzy sometimes travelled with me, but this was one of my shorter runs and even if I got delayed for whatever reason, I was sure I'd be back in time to feed him at a reasonable hour.
He followed me inside but waited patiently for me at the office while I set aside the logbook and invoices from that day- almost as though he sensed the dread that the paperwork from the FMCSA, NTSB and TXDOT inspired in me. Once finished, I went to the kitchen and pulled the nearly-empty 40lb bag of kibble out of a cupboard- the few remaining kibbles rattling around like a half dozen marbles in a boxcar.
"Hmm...gonna need more dog food." I muttered.
After feeding Tazzy, I examined the cupboards in the kitchen and found them bare save for a few condiments.
"And human food...." I had planned to go out for a few drinks at the Whet Whistle in town to begin with, but the fact that I was running low on food for both myself and Tazzy meant that I'd have to stop at the little market in town as well.
As much as the dry, oppressive triple digit temperatures made me want to park myself in front of the office's oscillating fan until nightfall, I knew I'd be better served venturing out into town. The plan that night was to swing by the Whet Whistle in time for happy hour and stick around until closing time to catch most of the Rangers game, but since the only market in town closed up by 8:00 each night, I'd now have to leave early, get groceries and maybe catch the rest of the game on the radio.
Grabbing the keys to my new-ish Ram (technically a company vehicle) off the countertop, I let Tazzy back out so he could take care of business before following him outside, leaving him with a fresh bowl of water and admonishing him to stick close to the shade until it got dark out. As I started up the truck, I checked the glove box. Inside was a Smith & Wesson Model 60 .357 Magnum revolver snug in a holster- right where I left it before the run up to Odessa. It would've gone with me to Odessa, but even in Texas, not all places have a uniform policy on allowing firearms onto the property. Now granted Bachelorsville, TX was a fairly tranquil burg of only a few hundred souls, but if something were ever to go awry it's no exaggeration to say that help could be hours away- especially if the local constabulary was now busy assisting with the wildfires.
I grew into the habit of occasionally travelling armed thanks to an ex girlfriend of mine named Kayla. We met when my father was still running the quarry and she was a barista at a coffee shop that actually had parking for trucks in another small town that I was passing through. The lithe brunette seemed sweet- if a little quirky- at first. However, there were a number of red flags that I overlooked early on. Any bit of adversity in her life- such as getting fired, breaking up with a previous boyfriend or a fight with her family- was always explained away by Kayla as someone else's fault. To hear her tell it, she was miraculously never in the wrong and others were simply conspiring against her. After a few months she was unhappy that I hardly had any time for her with all the hours I was on the road.
Yet instead of breaking up, moving on and finding another guy who could make time for her, she started engaging in increasingly controlling, bizarre and stalker-ish behavior. Threatening to give herself a black eye and tell everyone she got it when I hit her in a fit of PTSD-fuelled rage was a favorite way for her to try and blackmail love and affection from me.
It got even worse when my father was hospitalized- she genuinely seemed upset that I was making time for my father who was recovering from some cardiac issues instead of her. Kayla eventually expressed her disapproval in a manner that any sane or rational person would- by chopping off her hair, leaving me a voicemail in which she threatened to poison my dog and kill herself before torching two of the quarry's dump trucks and a front-end loader while I was gone. I got a hold of her by text and she played dumb, denying she knew anything about the burnt trucks until I said something about the quarry having CCTV cameras. It was a bluff on my part, but her tone changed noticeably and she kept texting me "Baby I'm so sorry, I did it for you...I only wanted to be together with you...".
I did not hesitate to show the messages and play the threatening voicemail to the sheriff's department. It was a pretty slam dunk case for the prosecutor's office. Kayla agreed to some sort of plea deal where she served a few months in jail before being released to serve out the remaining five years in a halfway house somewhere outside of Texarkana- as far away as she could get from me while still being incarcerated in Texas. As incriminating as the texts might've been, they also would've been a solid foundation for an insanity plea by her public defender if the case had gone to trial.
My last contact with her was a text in which I told her I have to tell my father you tried destroying our family business when he gets out of surgery- hope you're happy. I told the El Portal County DA's office that I wanted her as far away from me as possible as far as part of her sentence.
The insurance paid for most of the damages- Pops decided to take the opportunity to convalesce in Arizona where he fell in love with a golf-themed community for the 55+ set . From there, he went into semi-retirement with mom after selling off the family home in town. The two of them have been staying there ever since, more or less leaving me in charge of the family business and deferring to me over whether or not it should resume full operation or be sold off outright. This was a decision I've somehow managed to put off for the better part of five years. The biggest obstacle to reopening the quarry was a labor shortage in West Texas, plus it would be difficult to compete with some of the higher wages being offered for similar work in and around Midland and Odessa. A high school dropout could start off making $70,000 a year with some oilfield service firms- there's no way a small business like our quarry could compete with that.
Not surprisingly, I hadn't had a girlfriend since the very ugly, fiery and destructive separation with Kayla. I should've been happy that I was free, but instead I was angry with myself for wasting so much precious time with her. A large part of my solitude was me deciding to take my chances being alone rather than devote my time and affections towards a woman who could turn against me in such an abrupt and vicious manner.
No matter where, it seems as though every tavern, brewhouse, inn or bar has their resident know-it-all. In the case of the Whet Whistle in town, the duties of the in house know-it-all were split between myself and three other regulars. Steve was employed as a Game Warden by the state of Texas- a seemingly natural candidate for answering most inquiries pertaining to both wildlife and law enforcement. However, Steve also was a savant when it came to classic rock. Teddy was a transplant from the east coast and a semi-retired commercial real estate man who specialized in finance, real estate and general economic matters in addition to keeping abreast of the latest tech trends with a considerable amount of gusto. Oswaldo was a talkative and gregarious latino mechanic who was the go-to guy if anyone had questions pertaining to both classic or modern vehicles as well as an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Native American folklore. My specialty seemed to be sports trivia with an emphasis on baseball and football- plus geography, logistics and military history seeing as how I was only a few years removed from serving in the Army as a combat engineer. Not too long ago, the Whet Whistle was contemplating doing a trivia night but thought better of it upon realizing the four of us could basically team up and decimate whatever competition there was.
Despite the gathering smoke in the late afternoon sky beginning to blot out the sun, my eyes still had to adjust to the low light inside the Trading Post as I headed indoors. Next to the front door was a glass display case that held a carefully crafted model of an Old West outpost town- presumably Bachelorsville back in the day. However, this particular scene was constructed entirely out of old matchsticks and popsicle sticks. On top of the display case was an easel with a small chalkboard that advertised 'The Big Steer Challenge'- eat a 72oz steak in one sitting and less than an hour and its free. The sign had been up for at least five years and to my knowledge, nobody has taken them up on it. I greeted the Trading Post hostess who was standing at the podium up front with a silent nod before pointing to the partitioned-off bar to the right- the Whet Whistle.
Not too surprisingly, I saw Teddy, Oswaldo, Dolores the bartender and the cocktail waitress Dottie gathered around a slender man in a khaki uniform and stetson- Steve. The game warden was showing them something on a tablet as they were talking.
"What do we got here?" I asked, assuming maybe Oswaldo is showing them pictures of one of his favorite telenovela actresses in a particularly sultry photo shoot.
"Take a look at this...."
Steve simply hands me the tablet. On it is a picture of a fox with a black coat out in the desert wilderness. Black fur notwithstanding, nothing seems out of the ordinary until I get a better look at the tail. Or rather....tails.
I count no fewer than five tails on the black fox. There could've been more visible if it weren't for the angle of the camera.
"What the hell is this?" I ask.
"That, my friend, was taken from the Diabla Reina Creek trail cam I set up last month. Get a load of the timestamp." He tapped his index finget towards the bottom right portion of the screen.
"Wait...This is less than 48 hours old?"
"Isn't it amazing?" Dottie spoke up. "It's as though we have our own magical creature here." Even though she was into all kinds of dopey shit like healing crystals, magic auras and telephone psychics, let it not be said that Dottie had a kind heart. Still, I couldn't help but roll my eyes at the mention of magical creatures. Dottie was in her early 20s and quite attractive- she could be mistaken for either dark skinned caucasian or light skinned latina and was a sort of kid sister figure for alot of regulars. Apparently she got the cocktail waitress job at the Whet Whistle by virtue of being Dolores' nice, although she had spent a few years prior as a fairly competent server at the Trading Post- the small family-run steakhouse that abutted the Whet Whistle.
"But what's the deal with the tails?" I ask. I figure if anyone in this room would have a rational explanation for what I was looking at, it would be the Game Warden.
Naturally, Steve shrugged as Dolores wordlessly handed me a Tejas Lager in a 16oz glass. "No idea. Could be a malfunction on the trail-cam."
"Maybe someone hacked it- But that raises the question of 'who the hell would hack into a random trail-cam in the middle of bum-fucking-nowhere Texas'?" Teddy asked. "There's too much definition and clarity on all the tails here, too....so it's not like your trail-cam caught one tail swishing back and forth and made it LOOK like it has a half dozen tails."
"People got too much time on their hands to begin with. Still, it could really be a fox with five or more tails." Steve continued. "Arctic foxes turn dark grey when there's no snow around. A fox with a black pelt isn't all that common to begin with"
"So...you mean it could be like a mutation on top of a mutation?" I ask.
He nodded before he took another pull from his bottle of ginger ale. "We're sending a few of the images to Austin for further analysis but I can tell you right now the odds of it actually being a fox with multiple tails is even more remote than you getting struck in the 'nads by a meteorite after you just brought a winning lottery ticket on your honeymoon with Kate Upton."
"Never mind Animal Planet- That's some real National Enquirer shit right there." Teddy observed, referring to the enigmatic fox and not my hypothetical honeymoon with the swimsuit model.
"So what you're saying is we've got a mystery on our hands..." I scoffed. Never mind Scooby Doo- most of us were incapable of even The Venture Bros. level sleuthing. This sort of thing, while intriguing, was probably better off left to the experts.
"I tell you what, Homes..." Oswaldo spoke up. "That's gotta be a damn Skinwalker. A shape-shifter from the Navajo legends. One night it's a fox, the next night it's a rattlesnake and then it will be an owl or a hawk or whatever the hell it feels like before it reverts back to human form."
"Why five tails, then...?" Teddy asked absently.
Ossie shrugged. "You know a Skinwalker is supposed to murder or rape a loved one to show they're truly no longer human. Maybe that's a sign of how many people they killed since being granted the powers to shapeshift"
"It's a sign, alright." I said grimly "Foxes with a black pelt were considered a bad omen in Gaelic folklore."
"Yeah, but we're not in Gay-Lick-Land." Teddy chided me, earning a chortle from the others before his tone shifted noticably. "Tell you what, tho'. Steve stopped by at our place earlier and he showed one of the pictures to me and Yu Bi." he said, referring to his Korean wife. "She looked like she'd seen a goddamn ghost and said something about a 'Kumiho'."
"Kumiho?" I asked. The name sounded almost enchanting.
"A fox spirit that can grow 10 tails and always disguises itself as a beautiful woman to charm and seduce gullible young men travelling on the roads...." Teddy said. I notice Oswaldo arch his eyebrows, clearly approving of where this bit of Korean folklore was heading. I'm pretty sure that my face had registered the same reaction.
"...before she kills them and eats their liver." Teddy continued before turning to me. "Five tails would mean it's only halfway there, and it needs to keep seducing and feasting on livers from unwary travellers. So....Jakey-boy, if one night you're out and you meet some smoldering hot to trot brunette at the truck stop with who's just dying to go home with you, I just wanna say Nice knowing you...". For emphasis, he roughly slapped my shoulder as he and the others guffawed.
"C'mon. Truck stop hookups never end well.....besides- I like my liver..." I pouted.
"And I'm sure she'll like it even more!" Teddy cackled, the others laughing too.
"Don't listen to 'em Jake..." Dottie said, sounding more like an overprotective big sister than a cocktail waitress. "Guess I got off easy- my ex took my iPod.." Oswaldo lamented.
"Don't sweat it, Ossie. What can these foxy kumiho thingeys do to your liver that cirrhosis hasn't already done?" I tweaked the middle-aged mechanic.
"Hey Homes- some people do nothing but drink beer in their spare time. Other people waste it on stupid shit like 'work' or 'family' or 'sobriety'....." he said as he knocked back his frosty mug of cerveza.
"You shall stand as a shining example to future generations, mi amigo baracho..."
"There's creatures out there that people swear up and down are a chupacabra." Steve resumed with more than a hint of skepticism in his voice. "One of those things got hit by a truck outside of New Braunfels ten years ago- guess what? Damn coyote with mange and a fractured jaw that never set properly...not a single hair on its body. Tabloids kept saying we were autopsying a Chupacabra. People hear about that shit and they let their imaginations get the better of them."
"Well shit....if we really do have black foxes averaging anywhere between five and ten tails running around here willy nilly, I reckon we can get some paranormal-based tourism revenue like they do with the Marfa lights." I half-seriously suggested. It was probably one of the less outlandish ideas I've offered up while drinking.
"Look at you, Mister One-Man Chamber of Commerce! Dolores- Get this man another beer and put it on my tab!" Steve chirped as he bumped fists with me.
"Yeah...but what are you gonna do when the decomposing bodies of those tourists show up in the desert minus a liver?" Teddy asked.
"Don't say that..." Dottie almost gasped in horror.
"Guess it will only add to the legend of the man-eating five-tailed black fox of El Portal County" I quip. "Clearly we gotta have them sign some sort of waiver before going out on their monster hunt..."
"Since we're swapping stories about chupacabras, skinwalkers and man-eating fox monsters, you guys ever hear of the Woman in White?" Dolores asked as she slid a glass under the Lone Star tap.
"The woman in white....? Sounds familiar...." I ask as she finishes her pour.
"One night a few years back, this guy is driving down the Ranch to Market road when he sees this young lady in a white dress by the side of the road. He offers her a ride into town and she says she's looking for an address off of Gate St. As soon as the man gets to Gate Street, the woman suddenly disappears.....like she was never there to begin with." Dolores pauses to make sure we're listening before continuing. "He thinks he might've imagined the whole thing, but the next day he sees a single white glove with 'MU' embroidered on it on the passenger seat. He goes to the house on Gate Street and knocks on the door, and this elderly woman answers. He tells her about the woman in white who asked him to take her to this house and shows her the glove. The little old lady turns pale as a sheet and sez to the guy That glove belonged to my twin sister Muriel- she was killed in an accident on that road fifty years ago tonight!"
The reason it sounded familiar was because there was a similar legend in upstate New York that I heard when I was stationed in Fort Drum. One of the guys in my platoon was from Hawaii and said that they had a similar tale on the Big island after he heard the New York state iteration of the Woman in White legend. Sometimes the woman in question was supposed to be the Hawaiian goddess of fire, Pele, travelling in disguise.
Before I could make this observation to Dolores, Teddy spoke up.
"Sounds like this guy was screwing around with some chick that had monogrammed gloves and his wife finds one of the gloves while cleaning out the car a few days later." Teddy says. "So to get out of trouble, he tells his wife this story about a phantom hitchhiker....." he looks around. "Only he's a little TOO convincing and the wife is all telling her friends Oh my God! Did I tell you about the time my husband picked up a hitchhiking ghost lady? and of course all the guys know he just pulled that story out of his ass."
"So what are you saying, Teddy? You cheating on Yu Bi with a ghost girl?" Oswaldo asks facetiously.
"Shit- you guys never see Yu Bi when she gets really pissed. After that, I ain't afraid of no ghost...." Teddy shrugs.
"So Steve..." Dolores asked as she polished yet another glass. "What's the latest on that wildfire?"
"I talked with some of the Forestry guys earlier. They say there's no immediate danger to any structures as long as the winds are quiet, so they're just going to set up containment lines and let it burn itself out."
"Which means we'll all be breathing in more smoke for about another week or so." Teddy groused. "Right after I give up smoking, too...un-friggin'-believable."
"Yeah....but we're gonna get a pretty nice lookin' sunset. It's already pretty red." I replied.
"That's right- smoke's gonna act as a filter...." Oswaldo said, remembering the same thing happening in another wildfire in the area several years ago.
"Any word on what caused it?" I ask Steve.
"Too soon to tell, but the Forestry guys say the initial burn patterns are consistent with a lightning strike."
"Lightning?" Teddy asked.
"It hasn't even been overcast for the last three weeks...." I point out.
"Hey...maybe Kayla got early parole!" Teddy joked, only to be sharply elbowed in the ribs by Ossie as if to say Dude! Not funny!.
"No..." I sighed "I checked. Can't be her. None of the trucks at the pit were torched." That earned some guffaws from everyone else, surprised that I could joke about what's been such a sore subject for me.
"Well, I gotta skedaddle..." Steve said as he adjusted his stetson and fished out his wallet. Knowing Steve, he most likely had a ginger-ale and some bar food while he was still in uniform.
"Oh..hey! I heard on the radio tonight that the Perseids meteor shower is supposed to be peaking tomorrow night" I remembered. "If anyone wants, they can come out to the quarry and stargaze.....I figure I should extend the offer while everyone's here. Just give me a heads up and...." I trailed off.
No takers. My invitation was met by disinterested murmurs from those around me on either side of the bar.
"But that's gonna be in the middle of the night, and I'll be busy sleeping it off" Ossie said.
"That sounds lovely, Jacob...but I can't stay up so late after working a double shift." Dottie said almost apologetically.
"Yeah...you don't have to go anywhere for a couple of days, right?" Teddy asked. "You're not keeping the same hours as the rest of us right now."
"Guess you're right...." I sighed.
"You need to get yourself a college girl there, Jake.....Somebody book smart. Pretty sure she'd be into stuff like that" Steve said as he clasped my shoulder on the way out.
"Easier said than done....." I reminded him.
"See y'all Friday...." he said on his way out.
As the pregame show began with the sound off in the background, I switched topics from stargazing to baseball, explaining that the Toronto Blue Jays had a better trade deadline than the Rangers since they got a power-hitting shortstop and a decent starting pitcher versus a potential starting ace who only would have an impact once every five games. I boldly predicted that the Rangers would secure a Wild Card berth and would most likely be going up against the Blue Jays in the postseason.
I also got Teddy and Oswaldo to fill out a 'time capsule'. This is where the three of us would basically jot down our picks for who would win their respective divisions and make the MLB playoffs that year on the back of a cocktail napkin, then keep the napkin somewhere safe and break it out again in October to see how well we had chosen.
The Rangers were playing the Twins in Minnesota that night. The fact that the Twins had jumped out to an early 4-0 lead made the decision to bail on the Whet Whistle a little early and finish up my grocery shopping somewhat easier. By the time I said goodbye to everyone else and squared up my tab with Dolores before tuning into the game on the truck's radio, the Rangers were trailing 7-0.
I made the mistake of shopping while hungry- in addition to the big bag of dog food for Tazzy, I get a couple of steaks, some beers, tomatoes, eggs, a big bag of charcoal, bread, milk, lettuce, lighter fluid, potatoes, sweet iced tea, bacon, black licorice, a few of those old-school glass bottles of Coke from Mexico with real sugar, some potato chips and a bottle of rum. It's almost like I was expecting company, despite everyone at the Whet Whistle declining my invitation to watch the upcoming meteor shower out by the quarry.
There had been unfounded rumors of me and Dottie being an 'official' couple not too long ago- supposedly scandalous because the waitress would've been hooking up with a man ten years her senior. Yes- seems like that's what passes for 'scandalous' in Bachelorsville.
As it turned out, there was nothing to it which was too bad, seeing as how I could have done (and in fact, did) much worse. Apparently Dottie's major flaw was spending money she didn't have on charms, talismans, trinkets and dreamcatchers- which I'll admit is a step up from arson, stalking, blackmail and death threats, at least. Still- whenever I daydreamed about Dottie and I as a couple, I also found myself imagining I had just got back from a long stressful, run up to New Mexico only to find my pay had been pissed away on magic crystals or the Psychic Friends telephone network. Yet out of everyone at the Whet Whistle, a quiet night stargazing in the desert seemed like it suited her the most.
Life goes on I sighed quietly as I loaded up the Ram.
The groceries and booze went in the front while the lighter fluid and bulk items like the charcoal and dog food went in the bed of the truck. I hastily threw a tarp over the groceries before opening up the passenger side door, taking out the holstered .357 and clipping it to the right side of my belt- holster and all- before walking around and getting into the driver's side of my truck. Although I'm not 100% up to speed on current Texas firearm laws, openly carrying any type of gun in a bar seems to be frowned upon which is why I had refrained from carrying it with me into the Whet Whistle earlier. My own vehicle and my own property were another story.
Viewed through the filter of the smoke from the distant wildfire, the sun was now a massive orange ball slowly sinking on the western horizon as I headed back to the quarry on the Ranch to Market road. It gave the sky a very ominous but alluring appearance to it.
I lost track of how many times I had driven past '85 Rock- a rocky outcropping by the side of the Ranch to Market road that got its name from the prominent 'Bachelorsville High Class of 1985' graffiti that was painted on it and did a pretty commendable job of withstanding the elements since then. As I slowed for the curve by '85 Rock like I had done hundreds of times before in either the pickup or one of the quarry's Peterbilts, I was overcome with a sense of foreboding.
There was no way of knowing it at the time, but my life would never be the same the moment I rounded the curve by '85 Rock on the way back to the quarry. As I began accelerating into the smoke-filtered sunset I noticed a lone figure in white walking along the opposite side of the road, facing away from me.
Who can this be, now? I asked myself out loud.
AUTHOR'S NOTE- This is more or less a blatant self-insert, although I think most MGE fanfiction has elements of that to begin with. We're pretty much used to mamono in a pseudo Medieval setting- either in Europe or Japan, but I would be curious to see their thoughts and reaction to todays technology driven world....even if it's a little podunk town out in the middle of nowhere.
I'd also like to thank GorgonBreaker for helping me by previewing this portion and showing me how to use Google Docs