“The Night Zack Willoughby Died” by Tim O’Neal

For centuries, ghostly howls emanated from the old castle on Fir Street. Roughhewn brown stone formed its walls and a circular stained-glass mural dominated the front like the face of a cathedral. A mighty tower jutted above the sidewalk. From their perch on the ramparts, fiendish gargoyles leered out over the neighborhood, guarding the monstrosity that lurked in the tower beneath their clawed stone haunches.

A were-woman haunted the castle.

In the nineteenth century, a wealthy lumber baron had commissioned the mansion. He was an arrogant and dislikeable man. His only companion had been a fearsome shape-shifter named Ruth, whom he’d met in the Shadow Forest and brought to live with him in the town of Widow’s Park, Colorado during the silver boom.

But one day, the baron perished mysteriously, as reclusive men with money sometimes do. His neighbors averred that the were-woman had devoured him one night during their unholy coupling. However, when he died, despondency drove her mad and endless piercing howls of loneliness and grief at her cursed half-life shattered the peaceful silence of Fir Street.

As a were-woman, the local canon went, Ruth could become anything, even disappearing entirely if she wished, which she often did. But since she was a creature of the Shadow Forest, she existed in this strange half-life and, thus, she could never truly die. She simply assumed a new form and kept living, bellowing her rage and lament.

Because of its dark history, people mostly avoided the castle, although unruly adolescents still broke into the mansion to see if they were brave enough to face the were-woman and perhaps be the one to end her dreadful keening.


But to their secret relief, most never met the phantom. She usually just turned herself into a cockroach or a rat and vanished until the intruders left.

Yet, inexplicable accidents still occurred, like the incident with Zach Willoughby back in ’82. A terrible roar had ripped the night open and the next morning, passersby had discovered the boy’s disemboweled body on the sidewalk, torn to bloody ribbons after he’d entered the Fir St. Castle on a schoolyard dare.

Parents always cited that grisly tragedy when warning their children to avoid the gothic structure. But teenagers rarely heed the voice of authority. So, on an autumn afternoon forty years after Zach’s death, a rock crashed through one of the narrow cellar windows. A smooth hand groped for the latch and the pane creaked open.

“Um, should we really be doing this,” Kyla asked, chewing on her dark braid, eyes flicking up the eerily quiet street.

Her friend, Trish, grinned wickedly. “Stop being such a scaredy puss. No one ever sees her. ’Sides, why should the boys have all the fun?”

“Yeah, but isn’t this breaking and entering?”

Trish sighed and rolled her eyes. “Girl, look at this place. Does it seem like anyone’s been here in years? Besides, no one’s even glimpsed Ruth, since ’82. Naw, she’s moved on, like the rest of the world.”

With that, Trish swung her legs through the open window, ducking inside the gloomy basement. Her tattered denim jacket fluttered and her sneakers smacked the concrete floor.

After a hesitant glance back, Kyla followed her inside, falling four feet through empty space. A surprised whoopescaped her lips.

A hand clapped over her mouth as she landed.

“Quiet. You want her to know we’re here?” Trish hissed, green eyes glittering in the shadowy light.

“What exactly is your plan, Trish?” Kyla hissed back.

“Simple. We go up to her bedroom and carve our names in the wall. Then we’ll take a picture for proof. That’s what everyone does.”

Kyla stared at her. “That’s pretty stupid.”

Trish shrugged, her face souring. “Whatever. But we’re already here. Might as well. Come on.”

She started for the basement stairs. Kyla glanced back at the tiny window, before picking her way across the gloomy cellar.

Together, they emerged on the ground floor of the old castle.

“Jesus,” Trish whistled. “Look at that mess.”

The interior lay in shambles—everything smashed to chaos as if a monster had gone on a rampage. The two teen girls picked their way past a shattered chandelier and a splintered piano. Deep rents raked the glossy black wood. Sickly sunlight spilled through cracks in the boarded-up windows while rats skittered in the walls, conducting their secretive errands.

A decaying spiral stair ascended to the cobwebby tower.

“That must be where Ruth is,” Trish whispered, heading for the stairs.

“We should leave,” Kyla said.

“You can if you want to, scaredy puss.” Trish started up.

After a glance back to the darkened cellar, Kyla followed.

The stale air reeked of mildew. Glass crunched under the girls’ sneakers. The wooden stairs creaked with every step. When they arrived in the bedroom, names and initials gouged the blue wallpaper. A yellow patina of grime covered the narrow window. Gutted rodent carcasses and dark stains soiled the matted carpet.

Trish covered her nose. “Oh god, the smell!”

Kyla grabbed her arm. “Look there! What’s that?”

Trish’s eyes widened, her lips worked, but she didn’t reply, for upon the filthy bare mattress lolled an enormous naked woman. Coarse black hair covered her legs, pudenda, pendulous breasts, and face. Yellow eyes blinked at the girls like warning lights. She smiled slowly, lasciviously. Saliva glinted off her eyeteeth.

“Welcome to my chambers,” she purred in an accented voice.

The two teenagers stared at the were-woman as she shifted like a wispy nightmare, assuming various shapes—flickering from a giant egg-laden tarantula, a growling she-wolf, and a shrieking horned demon.

Then back to a monstrous woman lolling on the stained bare mattress.

A terrible leer crossed her features. She grinned again, unsheathing a set of sharp teeth. “Well? You made it. Here I am. How may I serve?”

Trish gave a little whispery scream, clutching at Kyla

“Y-you’re not real,” Kyla blurted. “You can’t be.”

The were-woman on the bed growled and stretched, sensuously spreading her furry limbs. She twirled her curved yellow claws. “Do I not look real?”

“But, but no one’s seen you in years,” Kyla said. “How can that be?”

Ruth licked one of her claws, slowly, deliberately. “You know theory of gambling?” she asked, apropos of nothing.

Confused, the two girls shook their heads. They edged back toward the door.

“Is simple. Mostly nothing happens,” Ruth began. “People are vain and greedy. They lose lots of money. Ah, but then, the house lets one lucky gambler win big. Just once. Enough to raise interest and remind everyone of possibility of, how do you say, jackpot.” Ruth’s yellow eyes glowed. “That’s what I do here. Since you’ve met me, you’re the winners, or perhaps losers in this case.”

She growled; a yellow smile slashed across her pointed face.

“You’re evil,” Kyla breathed. “You killed that boy, Zach Willoughby, back in ’82!”

Ruth sighed. “I’m not evil. I only wish to be left alone with my unceasing grief. Is it asking too much for privacy to mourn my deceased husband?”

“But why’d you have to kill that boy?” Kyla insisted.

“Gambling,” Ruth repeated softly. “I cannot have everyone walking through my house whenever they like. Imagine strange people sneaking into your bedroom and carving their names there. Inside your private space. You would feel violated, yes?”

The were-woman’s yellow eyes flicked to the blue paisley wallpaper, badly scarred with decades of initials gouged into the plaster. Ruth’s gaze flicked to the small pocketknife trembling in Trish’s hand. The girl swallowed and dropped it with a clattering thump.

Ruth waved her hand and continued, “Anyway. Here is my wager: I give to count of five before I kill you just like, what was boy’s name? Zach Willoughby, yes? I suggest you start running. Ready? Five…”

Trish and Kyla fled, bounding down the warped wooden stairs three at a time, shoving each other. Rotten planks buckled, threatening to splinter under their frantic steps.

Seconds later, something thudded against the floor as Ruth pursued them on all fours. Wooden stairs screamed under her massive weight. Like a terrible dream, the clicking of her claws grew louder, nearer.

The were-woman emitted a roar that rattled old windows in their rickety panes.

Kyla’s legs burned. No matter how she pushed, she couldn’t run any faster. Something sharp raked down her back. Hot stinking breath dampened her neck, but she didn’t dare look back, afraid of seeing Ruth’s fangs inches from her face.

“Ohmygod!” She whimpered. “Ohmygod!”

Trish and Kyla crossed the cluttered ground floor; debris clattered under their sneakers. Something wooden snapped. The girls barreled down the stairs to the basement and clambered out the broken window, emerging into sunlight. Panting, they tore off down the sidewalk.

Behind them, a heavy mass smashed through the castle’s enormous stained-glass mosaic. Rainbow shards rattled to the sidewalk, a cascade of colored crystals.

But neither teen turned. Their sneakers slapped a rapid tempo against the concrete.

“Aw shit, my side aches,” Trish gasped, loping awkwardly.

Kyla pulled her along the side walk. “Go, go, go, go!”

The were-woman roared again from deep in her chest—another blast of misery and anger, a terrible thunderclap heard for blocks around. Neighbors shuddered and double-locked their doors. Old women crossed themselves and whispered a Hail Mary.

They’d heard that same roar before. The night Zach Willoughby died.

No one ever repaired the shattered stained-glass window. No one dared. So it remained gaping, grinning like a jewel-colored skull. Jagged shards jutted in the outline of an enormous female form—a sharp warning to other would-be trespassers.

Word spread of the fury of this most recent sighting of the mysterious were-woman. People exchanged whispered rumors and superstitions. Parents’ fervent warnings gained substance and no teen ventured to enter the old castle on Fir Street for another decade.

Just as Ruth wanted.


Tim O’Neal is an Associate Member of the SFWA, having sold 15 previous short fiction stories to publishers including: D&T Publishing; the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA); Planet Bizarro Press. Find out more by visiting Tim O’Neal’s Amazon Author Page HERE 


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