Now he was ten and began to desire the respect of his small group of peers. They liked to provoke him, to mock him, but he’d proven to be up to whatever challenge they put before him. Until recently.
And because of his mother, his group had become even smaller of late. He was both relieved and resentful. Relieved that his mother had cut off all ties with Ona LaGrange and her terrible son Philip, Gage’s thirteen-year-old cousin, but also resentful that he had not been allowed to prove himself to be anything but a coward.
He tore off a piece of ham, the remnants of his earlier lunch, and tossed it to Tremble as they strolled through the tall grasses. It was getting late. It would be dark soon, but Gage didn’t want to return to Idlewood just yet. He hated the place, even though he knew he was doomed to live out his days there. Or so he believed.
No, he didn’t want to go back. There were too many shades there, shadows of the dead, as Moseley liked to call them. Those horrible shadows reached for Gage from dark closets and damp corners of the house. That’s why he never closed doors behind him and did his best to burn candles night and day. Even in his closet. He’d nearly set his coats ablaze just a few nights ago. His friend Moseley had saved his jackets and complained to his mother, but Mother had only laughed at the episode.
“It wasn’t serious,” she said. “We know where to buy more jackets. Let the boy do battle as he sees fit.”
Moseley didn’t buck his mistress in this, but he had privately warned Gage about setting things alight. Although Gage didn’t say so, he had taken this warning to heart. He would not burn candles in closets anymore. Instead, he took the closet door off the hinges. That seemed a suitable solution. He no longer hung his coats or anything else in there now. It was a bare space. The shades could not hide there, he told himself. They could no longer slide out of the door crack and grow on the wall beside his bed. They would not reach for him with their long, black fingers. He had seen to that. Surely his clever solution would defeat them for good. Now if he could talk Moseley into removing the rest of the closet doors in the house all would be well. Perhaps he would talk to Mother. She would understand if he explained it properly. She would reason it to be a smart and intelligent solution to his problem. Yes, that’s what he would do. And he would do it tonight at dinner.
Tremble nuzzled his empty hand and licked the ham juice from his fingers. “Now there’s a good dog. Good dog, Tremble. Let’s run!” And they did. Around the house they ran until the sun began to drop perilously low in the sky. He could see the shadows creeping up from the surrounding forest—they would be both on and inside the house soon.
He had to go in now. But he had one more thing to do.
He had promised himself he would do it, despite his mother’s warning. She’d forbidden Philip from returning to Idlewood because of it, but Gage needed to prove to himself that he was no coward. Yes, he had to show himself because that was the deeper question. The one that plagued him night and day.
Am I a coward?
Now he faced the line of hickory and oak trees that waved at him from the edge of the forest. “This is how you do it,” Philip had told him. “You have to face the woods when you say the words. The creature has to hear you summon him. And when he comes out, you must immediately send him away. All the other LaGrange men have done it, Gage. I have. Our cousin Arthur has as well. Oh, how angry the creature was, but you cannot be afraid!”
“I am not afraid of anything, and I don’t believe you! There are no creatures in these woods except some deer, cats and rabbits. I am as much a LaGrange as you, Philip.”
Philip had pursed his fat lips at Gage. Gage knew what he was thinking, that Gage wasn’t a true LaGrange because he had “mad Ferguson blood running through his veins.” He knew what his cousins and other LaGrange relatives said about him. He wasn’t deaf, although at times he chose to pretend he couldn’t hear them.
“Stop being so childish, Gage, and listen. It’s time to become a man now. Summon the wolf and then send him back. Don’t fail to send him back, cousin, or he’ll gobble you up!” Philip had raised his hands, curling them like claws, and pawed at Gage. Gage had punched him in the gut, but it hadn’t hurt Philip.
“Is that all the strength you have? On second thought, don’t summon him up. You won’t be strong enough to send him back. My mother is right—you come from inferior stock, Gage LaGrange. Like all the crazy Fergusons.” At that, Gage found a strength he didn’t know he had. His dark eyes welled up with angry tears, and with a scream, he punched Philip in his puffy blue eye. It immediately began to blacken and swell. Gage had grinned at the sight. He laughed too, which infuriated his cousin. He didn’t laugh because he had hurt Philip; he laughed because he had no idea he had so much strength. It was a freeing moment, in a strange sort of way.
Of course, Philip had wasted no time running back to Idlewood to tell on him; when Gage returned to the house, Aunt Ona had boxed his ears repeatedly. Unlike Philip, he didn’t scream or flail about but yelled at her as sternly as possible. He tried to make her see reason, but she wasn’t having a word of it. When Gage’s mother saw her sister-in-law’s acts of violence toward her son, she boxed Aunt Ona’s oversized ears for her trouble before tossing her out of Idlewood. In her punishment she was relentless. Gage didn’t intervene. He never liked it when Aunt Ona came to visit. She spent much of her time plundering through drawers and boxes and poking about in places where she should not be. She never spent time with Mother or Gage, except to cluck her tongue, roll her eyes and scold Mother for her “unladylike” behavior. Gage wondered why she ever came if she disliked them so much. And then he remembered the fortune. The one Aunt Ona whispered about, the one Philip often asked him about. And they weren’t the only ones.
But Gage didn’t know about such things. He had no idea where the money came from or if they even had money. Not at all.
Can’t keep procrastinating, Old Boy.
Gage liked to call himself Old Boy. It made him feel important. When he wrote his secret letters to his dead father, he often referred to himself as Old Boy. If he ever had a friend, a true friend and not a horrible cousin or a servant’s son, he would insist that his friend call him Old Boy. It seemed a very proper thing to do.
He faced the forest with his hands on his hips and held his breath while he tried to recall the words. Then they came to him. They poured out of his memory easily, once he grabbed a hold of the first few words. Still uncertain about it all, he whispered, “Black Wolf, Black Wolf, come and find me. Black Wolf, Black Wolf, I summon thee.”
Nothing happened. Had it all been a joke? Philip’s grand joke? It angered Gage that it might be.
Louder now he said the words, “Black Wolf, Black Wolf, come and find me! Black Wolf, Black Wolf, I summon thee!” A horrible sound came from the woods, a shrill howl that surprised even Tremble. The dog who was usually his constant companion abandoned him, immediately running for the shelter of the home behind them.
“Wait, Tremble! Don’t leave me!” The dog barked in response and paused but didn’t return to his young master. The spaniel bolted toward Idlewood, but Gage’s legs wouldn’t move.
There was a crashing sound in the brush ahead of him. The sound of something big moving toward him. Closer and closer. He couldn’t see it, but it was clearly there. And it had its eyes set on Gage. He searched the forest, sure he’d see a pair of red eyes glaring back at him. But so far, nothing. Yet the creature was there, perhaps hoping he would say the words again. Gage imagined it running on black furred legs.
Now he heard purposeful strides. Not a wolf—but a man, a large man. Perhaps the biggest man he’d ever seen. He could hear the footsteps, the sounds of leaves crunching beneath the feet of the Black Wolf. There were too many trees for Gage to see anything clearly. The underbrush had not been cleared since before his father died, Moseley said. A snorting blast and then an angry howl sounded, and the air became still. No birds sang. No squirrels scrambled. He heard nothing. Not even the buzzing of a fly.
Transfixed, Gage couldn’t move. He’d done it. He’d summoned the thing. It had not been a lie, not a fantasy. He had called it forth from wherever it lived.
Hell, no doubt.
He was a true LaGrange. He could do it! The thought filled him with no joy. He had indeed summoned the family monster, and now he had to put it back.
Philip never told him that. Gage had punched him before he could tell him the words to send it back. He never learned them.
And then he heard another sound, a scream. A loud scream.
It came from his own lips.