A Walter Ulric Story
By Ian Wilson (Rated PG)
From the diary of Katherine Craig
Today began about 6:30 AM, when my ears were assaulted by the unmistakable racket of my Pa playing bagpipes on the front lawn. I stumbled out of bed, and threw open the window and shouted “PA!” as loud as I could. He lowered the blowpipe from his lips and grinned like some crazy person.
“Morning, sweetheart! How’s my little girl?”
I scowled at him.
“What the heck are you doing, Pa?!”
“Waking up the holler!” he replied.
“It’s the first day of summer vacation!”
“Summer vacation? Never heard of it!”
I closed the window with a slam, and started getting dressed for my day. After spending several agonizing minutes trying to decide what to wear, I went downstairs for breakfast. Walter sat at the table, gnawing on sausage and drinking black coffee. Conrad, Walt’s business partner, sat nearby, drinking tea and scanning his phone.
“Another cattle mutilation,” he said.
“What else is new?” grumbled Walter.
I put some toast in the toaster and grabbed some sausage.
“Morning, Kath,” said Walter, barely looking at me.
That’s basically the extent of our conversation on a day-to-day basis. We live in different worlds; me in the world of normal people, Walter in the twilight zone. I hate bringing boyfriends by the house. Pa scares them off with his third degree, and Walter with his weirdness. I seriously wish he’d just stayed on the road, sometimes. Ever since he left that biker gang it’s been nonstop insanity.
I felt my phone buzzing in my pocket; the ringtone indicated it wasn’t anyone in my contact list. It was the call I’d been waiting for. I applied for the job at Greg’s All Night Diner a few days ago, and he got back to me! I start the job tomorrow night!
Pa, however, was less than enthused. I told the fam over dinner earlier. Pa sat across the oak table, his thick eyebrows furrowed, his blue, hooded eyes squinted, his jaw working as he chewed his dinner. Ma sat next to him, looking less like a gargoyle.
“That’s wonderful news, sweet pea!” she said enthusiastically. I could tell she was faking.
“Why the Sam Hill would you wanna work there? There’s plenty of work here on the farm.”
“Pa, I don’t want to work here on the farm for the rest of my life,” I said. “I want to travel, and do things, and meet people. I don’t wanna be stuck in this crappy little town.”
Pa silently chewed his dinner, looking for all the world like a goat chewing his cud.
“We all go through this stage,” said Conrad, who sat to my left. Conrad seems to make the most sense of anyone in my life. Plus he’s kinda cute.
Pa turned his gaze to his sister, my Aunt Betty at the end of the table
“Well, Betty, what do you think?”
“I think she should take the job. If nothing else, it’ll be a learning experience.”
I gestured emphatically to Aunt Betty with both hands.
“Well, if you really wanna travel and see new places, you could do what I did,” offered Pa.
“She ain’t joining the army, Jim,” said Ma.
“Let the girl speak for herself! She’ll be 18 in less than a month!”
“I ain’t joining the army, Pa,” I replied.
“Just a suggestion.”
“Either way, I got the job now and I start tomorrow night.”
“You’re working the night shift?!” said Walter. This is the first time he’d spoken since I’d brought up the subject. I figured he wasn’t paying any attention. I was wrong.
“Greg pays big buckage for the night shift,” I replied.
“Not a good idea around here,” grumbled Walter.
“I didn’t ask for your input.”
“Just promise us you’ll be careful,” said Ma.
I went over to Greg’s about 8:30 to show me the ropes. Greg’s a tall, lanky man in his 50’s, with greying red hair and deeply cleft chin. He had a ready smile, and it was clear he liked his job. My job is pretty standard waitressing stuff. Greg introduced me to the night cook, Vanessa. She’s a stout, dark-haired lady in her 40’s who’s been working at the diner since before it was Greg’s. She seemed nice, and told me I’d like working for Greg; he’s a great employer. She’s probably right.
Last night was the first night on the job at Greg’s. I got to sleep in this morning, for once. Pa and Ma knew I’d be working late and left me alone. That is until Walter’s heavy metal music woke me up. I’ll never understand why he listens to that. Anyway, I awoke to the dulcet tones of Megadeth blasting through the front yard. I looked out the window to see Walter fixing Pa’s tractor. I was gonna yell at him, but decided it’d be better to just let it go.
Anyway, the day was pretty much the same as any other day on the farm. I sat down for a meal with the fam before work. After saying grace, Pa sat down and glowered sullenly. He’s good at that. Walter talked about the events of the day; He killed a balrog or something. Ma and Aunt Lucy discussed knitting patterns and the upcoming alpaca festival. Conrad and I said nothing, other than nodding and the occasional “mmh”.
“How late are you working tonight, Katherine?” asked Pa. First thing he’d said to me all evening.
“‘Til 3 AM,” I replied.
“Not good,” said Conrad.
“Don’t tell me, lemme guess; there’s a huge hairy monster that comes to unsuspecting diners at 3 AM.”
“Possibly,” grunted Walter.
I rolled my eyes. They’re always going on about some monster or other.
“Well, I can’t just cower in a corner until it goes away!”
“I ain’t suggesting that,” replied Walt.
“What Walter is trying to say, Kat,” said Aunt Betty, Walter’s mother, “is that you just need to be cautious.”
“We can give you lift,” said Walter. “I gotta go into town tonight, anyways. It’s the full moon.”
Every full moon, Walter has to go to the church to undergo some ritual to keep him from turning into a wolf. A monster who hunts monsters. Go figure that out.
“That would be great,” I said.
I put my hair up, did my makeup, and went out to Walter and Conrad’s old jeep. Conrad started the engine, and we drove down the gravel drive to the dark, country road to North Fork, WV.
“Katherine,” said Walter as I got out of the vehicle. “Be really careful.”
Walter nodded. We may not like each other much, but I know he cares about me deep down. The diner smelled like french fries and cooking meat. Greg greeted me on his way out the door. I put on my apron and got to work waiting tables.
It was about 1:30 in the morning, and the diner was empty and silent, but for the oldies station playing classic rock. Deputy Julia entered and sat down at the bar; our first customer in the last hour or so.
“What can I get you, Deputy?” I asked.
“I’ll take a slice of that pie and a cup of coffee.”
“I’ll have it in a jiff!”
“How are you liking the job?” asked Julia.
“I like it okay,” I answered, pouring the coffee. “Kinda dull when no one’s around.”
“You ought to be here at breakfast rush,” said Vanessa. “I’m busier than a one-armed paper hanger!”
“Anything… weird happen?” asked Julia.
“…No,” I replied. “Walter sent you to check on me, didn’t he?”
“Guilty as charged.”
I rolled my eyes.
“He’s just looking out for you, Katherine. Being a good cousin.”
“I know. I just wish his weird work didn’t involve me.”
“Believe me, I wish the weirdness in this town would just go away, but it is what it is and we have to make the best of it.”
I nodded, pursing my lips. Deputy Julia ate her pie and left me a generous tip. I clocked out at 3 AM and collapsed into bed.
I woke up at about noon on the most terrifying day of my life. It was an uncharacteristically beautiful morning in May. Aunt Betty was making some sandwiches for Pa and Ma. Walter was seated at the table drinking coffee and reading a book on vampires or something.
“You look like crap,” I said, taking a seat at the table.
“Good afternoon to you, too,” replied Walt. “Nice jammies.”
“I don’t have to be at work for hours, I can dress how I like. Where’s Conrad?”
“Out in the field with your Pa,” said Aunt Lucy.
“A real trooper,” said Walt. “Up most of the night keeping me from going full wolf, and out in the field the next day.”
Walter slurped his coffee loudly. I hate it when he does that. He knows I hate it when he does that.
“Anything weird happen last night?” he asked.
“Not a thing,” I said smugly.
Walter nodded. “It’ll happen.”
Walter’s a “glass half-empty” guy.
“Aren’t you a cheerful one.”
Aunt Betty chuckled.
“All I’m saying is in a place like this it’s inevitable,” said Walter. “It’s bound to happen, eventually. The odds are you’ll see some pretty darn odd things.”
I didn’t know how right he was until I arrived for work that evening. A few patrons sat at the tables, drinking coffee and munching on desserts. Greg was just putting on his jacket and getting ready to leave when I showed up. He greeted me cordially, and wished me good luck.
“Y’all have a good night, now!” he said, tipping his hat to the patrons. A chorus of “goodnight” rang out from the restaurant.
It was a relatively uneventful night until about 10:30 when this creepy old dude came in and sat down. His clothes were sort old fashioned and shabby-looking; like he’d bought them at a thrift store. His face looked like an old leather boot. He ordered the special, and kept eyeing me with a look that I can only describe as predatory. He was there all the until midnight, when all the other patrons had left, still staring at me. I wondered if I should call Julia.
“Um, Vanessa?” I said, quietly, trying not to arouse suspicion.
“What is it, honey?” she asked in reply.
“That man has been eyeing me all night.”
Vanessa squinted at him, her mouth dropped into a frown.
“There is something peculiar about him.”
The creepy man stood up, and ambled over to us. He had a weird limp, that just made him more unsettling.
“Pardon me, ladies, I hope I’m not intruding.” He had a strange, jerky way of talking and spoke with a slight Irish accent.
“What can we do for you, sir?” asked Vanessa, still frowning.
“I’d like to see the owner of this establishment,” answered the weirdo.
“The owner’s gone to bed. Can I take a message?”
“That is indeed unfortunate,” said the weirdo. “You see, I need to speak with him tonight. He and I have business to discuss.”
“What sort of business?”
“My name is Mr. Bodach. I represent the Corn Man.”
Vanessa’s eyes widened. I’d heard stories about the Corn Man; the incident at Crooked Horn was still a popular subject of conversation among the old-timers. No one knew exactly what happened there, but there was speculation about witchcraft and blood sacrifice. Walter said it was the source of all the weirdness in the area.
“I-I can try to phone him.”
“He’s late on his payment.” The man’s face soured. “I’ll have to exact a tribute somehow.”
“Well, we can work something out,” replied Vanessa, placing her hands on her hips. “Come back in the morning, I’m sure Greg can talk to you then.”
“Oh, it’s too late for that.” Mr. Bodach turned his wrinkled head to look at me.
“I think she’ll do nicely.” He grinned like a bobcat. His teeth were long and pointed, like a snakehead fish, his pupils narrowed to cat-like slits. I grabbed a salt-shaker, and threw the contents at him. He hissed like a snake. I grabbed Vanassa’s arm and dragged her into the pantry. Mr Bodach chased after us. Vanessa threw a cast iron pan at him, momentarily stunning him. Once we’d made it to the pantry, I took a big box of salt, and poured it out on the floor behind us. I slammed the door shut. We sat in the dark, panting and sweating.
“You can’t stay in there forever!” said Mr. Bodach in a sing-song voice.
I took my cell phone out of my pocket and dialed Walter.
“Who’re you callin’?” asked Vanessa.
“My cousin; Walter.”
“Howdy, this is Walter Ulric,” said a voice on the other end.
“Walter, I need help!”
“I’m not able to come to the phone right now, but you can leave a message after the-”
“WALTER ULRIC, PICK UP THE DAMN PHONE!!!”
Hoarse laughter erupted from outside the pantry. I dialed Julia.
“Crowfeather,” she said, almost immediately.
“Julia, I need you at the restaurant! Grab Walter! Tell him to bring the big guns!”
“I’ll be there right away. Are you safe?”
“For the time being. We’re in the pantry. Some… thing is in the diner!”
“Okay, just stay in there! We’ll be there to help you in a few minutes.”
There was a long silence. All we could hear was our own breathing. It felt like hours, but it was probably minutes. Then out of the silence came the unmistakable opening riff from Black Betty by Ram Jam; Walter’s favorite song. Then gunshots; some from a shotgun, others from Walter’s six-shooter, affectionately referred to as Miranda. The pantry door swung open and there was Walter, Deputy Julia, and my Pa.
I leaped up from the floor and threw my arms around Pa, sobbing like a baby. Conrad crouched over the dying Mr. Bodach at a corner of the kitchen. The creature whispered a few words and melted into a puddle of black ooze.
“Now, how am I gonna clean that up!?” asked Vanessa in disgust.
“Holy water and salt. Stain should come right out,” replied Conrad as he stood up.
“What did he say?” asked Walter.
“He said the Corn Man is coming.”
We all went silent.
“What in Sam Hill did he want?” asked Pa.
“He wanted me,” I replied.
“Why’d he want you?!”
“A sacrifice,” replied Conrad.
Greg entered at that point. He looked drowsy and disheveled.
“I’d like to ask YOU that question, Greg!” said Walter indignantly.
“I’m so sorry about this,” said Greg, running his hand through his greying hair. “My mama owned the diner before I did, you know, and it was built over an old mound; a fairy mound. The cunning folk told her if she didn’t bring tribute to the Corn Man every year on Midsummer’s Eve, he’d hex the place. Usually it was just a rabbit or a goat. I didn’t believe in it. I guess I should’ve known better.”
“Your mama should’ve known better than to placate the Corn Man,” said Conrad.
“You’ll forgive me if I take this opportunity to tender my resignation,” I said.
“I don’t blame you,” replied Greg. “I accept your resignation and please accept my deepest apologies.”
“Come on, sweet pea,” said Pa. “Let’s get you home.”
We went home and I threw myself on the bed. I feel like I could sleep for a year.