Wolf in the Manger

These are the first two chapters of my novel-in-progress, Wolf in the Manger. Feel free to leave a comment with feedback, or send me an email at robert@plamondon.com.

Chapter 1. Ford Fairlane

The first rule of werewolves is “stay away from werewolves.” Werewolves are terrible people—take it from me.

I won’t tell you what a wonderful little girl I was before a werewolf mauled me half to death. I was okay, I guess. It’s not like anyone ever singled me out for special praise or special blame or special anything. I was just one of the Maréchal kids. My name is Louisa Delphine Marianne Maréchal. It doesn’t suit me, but they can’t take it away.

So there I was, in a hospital ward with five other kids, all torn up on the same night by the same werewolf. Why attack kids, you ask? Ask the guy who mauled me. You’ll have to raise your voice, though, because he’s dead. Killed the same night. They say it takes silver to kill a werewolf, but if you’re going fast enough when you hit him with your car, you get a second run while he pulls himself together. Repeat until the big hairy pancake stops twitching. It’ll take a while.

A little old lady did that. Mrs. Edith Smith, in her new 1957 Ford Fairlane. She sang alto in the Baptist choir when she wasn’t flattening werewolves. Her car was all dented up, so she took it to the shop the next day. They refused to touch it until someone scrubbed away all the werewolf bits. It took her husband and son ages.

She liked telling that story. She had a lot of other stories, too, and I heard them all. She’d take me out for ice cream after church on the Sunday closest to the new moon. But that was later.

I was really sick for a few days. One arm and one leg were torn up and broken, and I’d lost a lot of blood. To complete the set, I developed a high fever. My family was constantly at my bedside, which would have been comforting if they hadn’t kept telling each other I was going to die. I was seven years old.

Of the six of us in the ward, one was my best friend, Sally. We’d been playing in her back yard after dinner. The sun was still up, but it was two days past the full moon, so the moon was up, too. This huge wolf leaped the fence. I’ll spare you the details, but he mauled us both, then ran off when Sally’s mom rushed out with the shotgun.

Sally never regained consciousness. She just slipped away after a few days of fever.

I want to say more. Somebody has to, and everyone else seems to have forgotten her. But I get confused when I try to piece together her last days, all mixed up with my pain and delirium and fear of death, and I never got the hang of saying sentimental things. You deserve better, Sally, and I’m sorry.

Sally was gone. That left five.

My fever broke. Within hours, I felt perfectly fine. Famished, but fine. My wounds had healed, with just a little redness where the worst had been. Even that soon faded.

I didn’t think anything of it. Wasn’t I in the hospital to get better?

And just like that, my family vanished. I’d healed too fast, so they knew I’d been infected—that I was a werewolf. The Maréchal family might have tolerated a black sheep—though I doubt it—but not a werewolf. I didn’t understand any of this at the time, any more than I understood the blackout curtains on the windows. I just knew they weren’t around.

I was the first to recover, if that’s the right word. Ollie was next. In the innocent hours between feeling better and realizing what it meant, we got to know each other. He was ten and was a great kid to be in the hospital with. His family showered him with candy and comic books, and he shared it freely. But the visits and gifts ended without a word once he recovered.

Chico didn’t become a werewolf. He recovered slower than we did, of course, but without incident. He never even ran much of a fever. He’d been more lightly mauled than the rest of us, with only a hundred and twelve stitches. I had two hundred and fifty-seven. Chico was a quiet boy of about twelve. His family spoke to him quietly in Spanish. From them, sounded like poetry, though I didn’t understand a word. I envied him.

Larry recovered after Ollie. He was fourteen and had been terribly mauled. He lost an eye and should have lost a leg, but the doctor delayed sawing it off. His leg was fine the day after he turned the corner, but it took him a month to regrow the eye from nothing. That’s incredibly slow by werewolf standards, but we were new. I didn’t get to know him because his parents whisked him home as soon as they could. No disappearing act for them! It was too bad, really. Larry tore them to pieces a year later, then killed himself.

Last but not least, there was Davy. He was the oldest, at seventeen, but I could make him blush just by staring at him. He was that shy. He recovered at about the same time as Larry. He only had one parent, his mom, who tearfully told him he was on his own before running out on him.

Chico was moved to a room that was less infested by werewolves. That left just me, Ollie, and Davy. We understood by then that they thought we were werewolves because we’d healed too fast. Ollie and I tried to convince each other that it wasn’t true. Davy didn’t say much of anything.

A couple of days went by. Though sad and anxious, we were perfectly well, bursting with energy, all cooped up with nothing to do. I should explain that this was on Earth IIc, just a stone’s throw away from California if you knew about the gateway. I discovered later that Californian hospitals have TV sets in the rooms, but we just had a radio. The Kingdom of Beaumont had an okay AM station but no TV station.

Finally, we had a visitor, an old man who strode in an hour after lunch like he owned the place. He was a couple of inches below average height, but he seemed taller. His head was mostly bald. His remaining hair had been brown but was now mostly white. Clean-shaven. He carried a cane but didn’t use it. Davy recognized him and brightened.

“Hello, Davy,” said the old man, holding out his hand. Davy had been sitting on his bed. He stood and shook the old man’s hand. The old man continued, “You’re looking splendid. Introduce me to your friends.”

Davy cleared his throat. He had an on-again, off-again stutter, but he did okay this time. “Your Grace, this is my friend, Oliver Langstrom. Ollie, this is Count Franklin Woodville.”

Ollie stood and looked uncertain. Davy whispered, “Shake his hand.” Ollie complied, blushing.

“How do you do, Oliver,” said the old man.

“And this is my friend, Louisa Maréchal,” said Davy, indicating me.

I stood and curtsied. “I’m honored to meet you, Your Grace.”

“Likewise,” said the Old Man. (He gets capital letters now. “Old Man” became my private nickname for him.) He had an abrupt manner but kind eyes, a combination I’d never seen before. He looked us over, taking his time. He began to lean on his cane. We stared back.

“How much have they told you?” he asked.

“They say we’re werewolves,” said Ollie. “That can’t be right, can it, sir?”

“It can,” said the Old Man. “We’ll put it to the test soon enough. No choice, really. Then you’ll know for sure.” He surveyed us again, then said, “What have your families told you?”

“Nothing,” said Ollie.

“Nothing,” I repeated.

“Stay away,” murmured Davy.

The Old Man said, “You’ll be living with me at Woodville Manor. Plenty of room. Pack your things.”

“For how long?” said Ollie. He was braver than me when confronting the Old Man.

I knew what I wanted him to say. Only for a day or two, until our parents reappeared and everything was all right.

“Until you grow up.”

“All three of us?” said Davy.

“Yes.”

“Isn’t that a terrible risk, sir?”

“Yes.”

Davy turned bright read, hung his head, scuffed the floor with his slipper, and said, “Why?”

“Duty. Pack your things, all three of you. We leave in five minutes.”

I didn’t want to go outside in the middle of the day in my hospital-supplied nightgown, so I found the courage to speak up. “I don’t have any clothes.”

“Clothes will be provided soon enough. And you look charming.”

This surprised me so much that I ran to look in the mirror on one wall. No one had ever called me charming before. My reflection showed nothing new. I was clean, having showered that morning, and they’d made me brush my hair. The nightgown was nothing special. Charming? I couldn’t see it.

I suppose I should describe my appearance, now that I’ve mentioned it. Long black hair, olive skin, brown eyes. There you go. I looked like any other seven-year-old girl of Mediterranean ancestry except that my illness had left me skinny. Even half of Ollie’s candy couldn’t bring me back to my fighting weight, such as it was.

“Is it safe to go outside, sir?” asked Davy.

“Is the moon up or down?”

It was down, I knew.

“It’s down,” said Davy, then looked puzzled.

“Good. Perfectly safe. And it’s daytime. That helps, too.” He looked around. “All packed?”

I didn’t have anything but a new doll that my aunt had given me. There were some fading flowers, but I didn’t want those. The gifts of food had all been eaten, and I hadn’t received any cards. I walked into my new life almost empty-handed.

Chapter 2. Chocolate Cake

Woodville Manor was a three-story mansion, not counting the basement and attics. It was a few miles out of town. It had to be, because the estate was a couple of miles on a side: 2,900 acres. That was just the start. The Old Man had plenty more where that came from, scattered all over the kingdom.

The acreage right around the Manor had lawns, gardens, and pasture for the household’s horses and milk cows, plus a big pond with a boat dock and an island in the middle. The rest of the nearby acreage was mostly orchards, especially olives, plums, and walnuts. Outlying sections were leased to farmers who grew whatever crops struck their fancy.

We were met at the front steps by a slim, sixty-ish woman with gray hair who introduced herself as Miss Carlson. In spite of her lack of a title, she was clearly from an aristocratic family. She invited us in, settled us in the morning room, and asked if we were hungry. We politely said no, but she ignored this and said she’d return with some light refreshments. In no time, she and a couple of servants appeared with cold fried chicken, a bowl of fruit, a plate of sandwiches, pitchers of milk and iced tea, a cherry pie, and a three-layer chocolate cake. Apparently things were different here from what I was used to at home. The Maréchals were just as rich as the Woodvilles, but they didn’t believe in spoiling children with between-meal snacks, let alone cake.

You should have seen us eat! We bolted our food and drained glass after glass of milk. We went through three pitchers in a heartbeat.

After a while, Davy suddenly remembered his manners, wiped his mouth and hands carefully on his napkin, and whispered urgently for me and Ollie to do the same. Ollie managed it. I had a piece of cake in each hand and was taking bites from them alternately. I tried to put one on my plate, but I couldn’t. When I finished one piece, I seized a drumstick without meaning to. I darted a guilty look at Miss Carlson, but she hadn’t seemed to notice.

I was so focused on my food that I almost missed it when she took the Old Man aside to find out why we were there. She said, “Honestly, Franklin!” loud enough for me to hear, then lowered her voice again. She frowned and shook her head through the first half of the conversation. I was afraid she’d make him throw us out. But her frown soon straightened out. She even smiled once or twice.

She returned to our table with the Old Man and said, “Franklin says you’ll be living here as long as you like. Welcome. Davy, dear, I wonder if you’d be happiest in the apartment over the stables? It’s quite clean and you’re welcome to it. Or we can put you up here.”

Davy hesitated, then stammered, “Will … will the horses still like me?” He looked as distressed as he had when his mother dumped him, maybe more.

“I expect so,” said the Old Man. “We’ll try it and see. I’ll take you down there after I make a few phone calls.”

Where would they put me? I was afraid to ask. Given my table manners, maybe with the pigs.

“I think we’ll put you two close to my room,” said Miss Carlson, “until you find your feet. Then perhaps you’ll find one of the garrets more to your liking. You won’t mind the stairs.”

“What’s a garret?” I asked.

“An attic apartment. Most of them are just bedrooms, really. Most of the children who’ve lived here over the years preferred them. Except for Maria and Charlotte, of course. You’ll meet them this evening.”

We lingered over our food, always finding room for more, somehow, which made the Old Man impatient. He didn’t say anything, but he got fidgety. With most people, I wouldn’t have noticed, but he fidgeted the way he did everything else: intensely.

Miss Carlson frowned at him. “Run along, Franklin. I know you have things to do. I’ll entertain the children.”

The instant he was gone, a group of servants came in. I could tell by their uniforms that they were the chef, the assistant chef, the housekeeper, four maids, two footmen, and a partridge in a pear tree. Some looked angry and the rest looked scared. The housekeeper, a woman I wouldn’t like to meet in a dark alley, was the angriest of all. She said, “Are they really werewolves, Miss Carlson?”

Miss Carlson looked up at her calmly. “Yes, they are.”

“You can’t expect us to work around monsters like that! We quit.”

Miss Carlson bridled. “That’s no way to speak in front of children! You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“They’re not children, and I’m not spending another minute in this house.” The other servants nodded, though two of the maids were crying. They departed.

Davy and Ollie looked ready to burst into tears. I was distracted by a growling sound. Where was it coming from?

“Stop growling, dear,” Miss Carlson told me.

The growling stopped. Had it really been me? I doubted it. I was angry, though. “It’s not right! They can’t talk to you like that! Someone should—”

She put a hand on my shoulder. “Yes, dear. Someone should, but not you. Never you. No fighting, and especially no revenge. No fighting at all, except under supervision. That’s one of our rules here.”

“But—”

“We’ll do a good job protecting you, dear. You don’t need to protect us. That’s how it’s supposed to be. You’re a child.”

It was true, obviously, but somehow it felt … unnatural. I shook my head.

“Promise me,” she said.

I tried to refuse, but I couldn’t. I struggled inwardly but eventually compromised by being surly. “Oh, all right.”

“Do it properly, dear.”

I glared at her. “I, Louisa Delphine Marianne Marechal, swear upon my soul that …”

“That I will not harm anyone without permission from Franklin or myself, or in supervised practice.”

“I will not harm anyone, except what you said.”

She made the boys swear, too.

“Oh,” said Miss Carlson, “speaking of swearing, please don’t use bad words around Maria and Charlotte. They don’t like it.”

Well, of course they didn’t! Swearing was bad, especially in front of children. Everyone knew that.

That’s how I came to be adopted by the Old Man. I’d say “the old man and his family,” but that’s not how it worked. He just sprung it on them. His wife, who was the only woman physician in the kingdom, was away at a conference on the other side of the gateway. But he’d have sprung it on her out of the blue even if she’d been there. He was the master of the fait accompli. If he blindsided everyone, they couldn’t interfere until it was too late. This forced him to take all the blame, of course, but he didn’t care.

Since all the inside staff had quit, we ended up in the kitchen at dinnertime, with Miss Carlson and the Old Man cooking and the rest of us helping as best we could. It was a simple meal of rare steak, baked potatoes, vegetables, and milk so fresh it was still warm from the cows. Our appetites were enormous. We had great big bowls of vanilla ice cream for dessert.

“Is this normal, Franklin?” asked Miss Carlson.

“Right now, it is,” said the Old Man. “The energy and material for healing came from all over their bodies. Baseline is about normal. I talked to Jess about it.”

“I haven’t seen Jess in ages. How is she?”

“Thinking about forming a new pack.”

“That’s too bad. Is she going to help out with the children?”

“Doesn’t want to play Pied Piper. I don’t want her to, either.”

“No, I don’t suppose you do. Has anyone agreed to help?”

“Wendell. He’ll be here tomorrow.”

“Wonderful! Did the King object?”

“He wished us luck.”

I asked, “Who is Wendell?”

“Wendell Wright,” said the Old Man.

Doctor Wendell Wright,” said Miss Carlson, “the Royal Wizard.”

“Not his real title,” said the Old Man.

“No, but now Louisa understands who he is.”

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