FRIDAY: Finding Michael

BY SHARON FRAYNE

Copyright is held by the author.

IT WAS almost 18 years ago, close to midnight when the doorbell buzzed that Halloween night. Things had been quiet for hours, yet there it was again — persistent and urgent, and definitely unwanted.

Damn them to hell. I navigated through the pile of boxes I had been unpacking. Why didn’t I blow out the pumpkin candle and turn off the porch light hours ago?

I’d moved to Butlersberg a few days before and was still trying to make order out of the chaos of moving. I stumbled through the dark hallway towards the flickering light at the porch. It had been pounding rain for about an hour, and the wind howled when I flung open the door. I expected to see a gang of teenagers, dressed in ragged hockey gear out for some last childhood candy grab.

I peered through the mist and drizzling rain, but there was no one in sight. There was a strong smell, like the stink of a skunk and I noticed the pumpkin’s candle had burnt down inside the shell. Then, the screaming started. High pitched, unearthly yowling that seemed to come from the earth beneath my feet.

Blood pounded in my ears and I grabbed the doorframe for support as I gazed at the porch floor. There was a baby!

“Come back . . . come back!” I yelled into the rising fog and swirling darkness. “Come back for your baby! Please . . . don’t leave!”

There was no answer, and the baby screamed louder, it’s little red face darkened with terror and anger. There was no option, I grabbed the baby and yanked the basket inside.

God help me, I kept it. What else could I do? I had no one in town to advise me, and it was so helpless and pitiful. And yes, I was desperately lonely. My husband and son had been killed in a car accident a year earlier, and my world had been destroyed. Moving to Butlersberg, with all its charm and historic tradition, was going to be a fresh beginning for me, a place where I could reinvent myself.

The baby was starving, that much was obvious. Whoever abandoned him had left a dirty blanket embedded with leaves and pine needles in the basket. Somehow, we managed that night. As I unwrapped his tiny body to check his condition, I saw red slashes down his right arm. Fresh wounds that were still oozing. Soon, little Michael — that’s what I called him — was clean, warm and fed and rocked to sleep.

During the next few days, I took Michael with me everywhere, and people accepted him as mine. I scanned the papers, and listened to the radio to see if a child had been reported missing, but there was nothing. I know it was wrong, but no one knew me and I wanted to keep him.

Time passed and Michael began to fill the hole that had exploded in my heart after the accident. Michael grew like a wild thing — like a bad weed, I used to tell people. He had beautiful dark eyes and hair, a curious mind and a need to move and explore. He went from wiggling on my lap to crawling on all fours in no time. He loved our times together at bedtime where we’d curl up and snuggle and I’d read animal tales to him.

“Beatrix Potter stories are too gooey,” he said, “I want The Jungle Book.” Rudyard Kipling’s tales of adventure were his favourite and we’d giggle as we pretended to be Akela and Mowgli. He practiced pouncing on his stuffed animals and collected tiny skeletons and feathers we discovered on our hikes.

He made friends with the neighbourhood kids as they ran in a pack, or played in the ravine along the back of our yard. They often played Hide and Seek in the nearby War of 1812 battlefields and I had to ban him from staying there after dark. He loved the freedom of summertime in the woods, and he’d bring home worms and bugs he’d captured to show me. I used to joke that he’d eat anything that landed in front of him. At school, he was a great athlete and a good student. Only once was he in trouble. The principal called to tell me that he had been caught peeing on a tree in the yard at recess.

Michael changed in high school, faster than I expected. He grew facial hair early and his voice deepened. I wanted him to try out for the choir, but no matter how he tried, he couldn’t read music. Just chimed in with the chorus when his favourite music played on the radio. There were lots of girlfriends, but sometimes he seemed depressed, and would go off by himself for hours.

Michael and I usually spent warm nights in our yard, cooling down and relaxing. In the ravine, we could hear the night creatures calling in the creek nearby, and Michael would close his eyes and listen. Even when he was very young, he could identify all the animals; owl, frog, coyote, and the occasional wolf in the distance.

One night when he was about 15, we sat and watched fireflies flit in the darkness beneath the trees. My skin prickled when we heard the eerie call of a distant wolf and Michael jumped to his feet, sniffed and paced the yard, peering into the darkness. He was agitated and clenched his hands in his hair. From somewhere that sounded close, the wolf howled again and a second one joined in.

“Mom,” Michael yelled, as he rocked back and forth, “what’s happening? Help me . . . what’s wrong with me?” He fell on the ground and flailed as if he was having a seizure.

The blood in my veins turned to ice. We’d never talked about how I’d found him as a baby on the doorstep. I’d never shared the facts of the John and David’s accident. Something told me it was time Michael knew the truth about our family.

Gently, I held him, and told him about the terrible time many years before when the police had rung my door late at night. John had taken David out for his first Hallowe’en adventure. They’d visited a few neighbours, and then took the car to pick up some groceries. They never returned. Something had jumped out on the road in front of them. John swerved to avoid it — probably an animal, the police said, and the car flipped into the ditch and caught on fire. The police who examined the burned carcass of the car found hunks of animal hair nearby on the ground. Everything else was consumed by the fire. There were no signs of John or little David anywhere.

I told Michael how I wished I had died then too, and had moved away to start my life over as a stranger in Butlersberg. Then I told him how I’d found him on my doorstep and secretly raised him. He bent over double and groaned.

“Michael, please speak to me,” I begged him. “Please, Michael, I love you. This changes nothing. You are my son.”

Michael scrambled to his feet. His face was wild and his eyes glowed in the dark. The faded scratches on his arm bulged and blazed red.

“I hate you . . . you’re not my mother!” Slobber ran down his face and he spat on the damp grass and bolted for the ravine.

“Michael . . . come back! Michael . . . don’t go!” I screamed and chased him as he raced down the hillside and disappeared into the thick underbrush hiding the river at the bottom.

I got in the car and drove along the edge of the bush, stopping and calling his name. But there was no reply. At one point, I thought I heard animals crashing in the bush, but Michael was there, he didn’t respond to me.

Finally, I called the police. They told me to check with his friends, and if he was still gone in the morning, they would start a search. I walked the neighbourhood calling his name, then drove the roads in our community searching through the night. At daylight, exhausted, I returned home.

The front door was open, and I staggered through to his bedroom. I pushed the door. Thank God! He was curled up on the floor beside his bed. He was pale and dirty, his clothes were torn, but he was alive, and he’d come back to me.

Later that day I tried to talk to him about the situation. He was distraught and couldn’t remember what had happened after he ran away.

“I don’t know, Mom . . . I guess I was just so upset, I started running . . . I just wanted to get away . . . I didn’t mean to scare you . . . I don’t know what came over me. I love you, Mom. I promise . . . I won’t do it again.”

But it did happen again and another desperate search followed. I stayed out all night, and returned in the morning. Michael was back and the scene in his bedroom was horrifying. He was nude, curled up on the floor in fetal position and covered with scratches and blood. A rabbit carcass was clutched in his hand. He’d vomited on the floor.

He was disgusted and terrified when he woke. “What’s happened to me? What’s wrong with me?”

He still didn’t remember anything and we sought professional help. The doctor suggested he was having a reaction from some early childhood trauma and that counseling would help. I changed Michael’s diet — following all the latest fads, trying to eliminate anything that might trigger his emotions. We tried to keep busy, and hoped that lots of exercise would keep his mood positive.

But a month later, he had another attack. That time, he’d played soccer in the afternoon, had gluten free veggie pizza for supper with a lactose free beverage and local organic fruit for dessert.

I stayed home, and waited for his return. The moon was full and bright in the clear overhead sky and the air was thick with night sounds. I could hear the hooting owl and croaking frogs in the creek, and distantly I heard a pack of wolves howling and yelping as they hunted. I heard a piercing scream like a baby and knew that a rabbit had been caught and killed. Michael came back to the house just before daylight. I dimly saw a shaggy figure emerge on all fours from the bushes, then saw my son straighten up and stagger towards the house. He pushed open his bedroom window and crawled inside.

After that, we lived a double life. Michael begged me not to let him run away again. We created a padded room for him in the basement and there he went, once a month, locked away until morning light.

Was Michael a werewolf? It was a crazy idea, but we had no rational answers. The old scars from his babyhood were angry and swollen. His bizarre moods came over him at the full moon. He had no memory of the incidents but was terrified that he’d lost control of his mind and body. We lived with his condition for three years and kept it hidden and controlled with our research and routines.

The battlegrounds where he used to play Hide and Seek were off limits. I’d discovered a legend in the Museum that told how during the War of 1812, the soldiers’ wives and mothers would run out onto the grounds desperately searching for their injured and dead loved ones. Because later, wolves roamed at night, foraging for prey, and dragging away anyone who was left behind. The legend said that the dead and their women still roamed the site after dark.

One morning when Michael emerged from another basement night, he said, “Mom, I saw them last night.”

“What do you mean, sweetheart . . . saw who?”

“You know, Dad and my brother David. They’re here, and David’s grown up now.”

“What are you talking about, Michael? You must have been dreaming,” I stammered and crossed my arms across my chest. I felt my stomach lurch and heart pounding. “They’re gone.”

“No, Mom . . . you’re wrong. I saw them in the window last night.”

I’d heard the howling of nearby wolves during the night, and was glad then that Michael was safely locked inside.

We walked out to the yard, and checked. In the flower gardens there were large animal tracks that circled under our windows.

“The neighbour’s dog must have been here last night.” I said. “You know they don’t keep a good eye on him and he likes to roam.”

“Mom, I’m telling you, it was Dad and David. They want to be with us. They’ve been looking for you and me for a long time, and now they’ve found us.”

“This is crazy talk . . . they’ve been dead for 21 years. Don’t talk to me like this…that part of my life is over. It nearly killed me when John and David died. Now, I only have you . . . please don’t start this.” I sobbed and grabbed his hand.

“Mom, think about this. It makes sense. The car accident, the animal hair, the missing baby. Then finding me, and my scratches . . . my episodes. The battlefield nearby and the dying soldiers. Butlersberg is full of things we don’t understand. It all fits!”

“No, no, no,” I cried. “This isn’t true, you’re hysterical. Please . . . please stop this crazy talk. This is killing me!”

Michael hugged me close. “Mom, I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know what exactly is happening or why. But I do know, they are out there, and they are calling me. They want both of us to join them.”

After that, Michael wouldn’t allow me to lock him into his safe room in the basement, and in a few weeks, he was gone. He took nothing with him, and I knew he wasn’t coming back.

I was very lonely after that long ago Halloween night when the police told me that my husband and son had died. My life had no meaning until I found Michael and raised him, and loved him.

And now, the world has stopped for me again. I don’t want to be alone any more. The next full moon will be October 31, and I will dress in black. I will turn off the lights and blow out the candles, close the front door and go out to find my lost man and boys. I will walk to the old battlefield where so many women searched many years ago and wait. I will stand in the moonlight and listen for their howl. I know they will find me there.

4 comments

  1. Mary

    I absolutely loved this!
    It hooked me from the first sentence and I loved the ending.
    Excellent.
    I found some of the mom’s dialogue clumsy when Michael tells her about her husband and baby but other than that, well written.

  2. Pingback: RERUN FRIDAY: Finding Michael |
  3. Myrtle Burton

    Sharon:
    Your “ease” at pouring out this little thriller was wonderful. I was busy with chores when I clicked on Finding Michael just to get a start on it. My chores had to wait. Great stuff!

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