Ben walked faster. The earthy scent of chamomile combined with heat and blinding sunshine gave him sensory overload. He upended his water bottle, drained it and shook his head.
Round the bend in the dusty road, weatherboard houses came into sight. Faded signs on either side of Candywallop’s main street spelled out Post Office, Butcher and General Goods. An old man peered out from the windows of a boarded-up Police Station. Good, Ben would interview him later. First, get the evidence.
On the other side of the town, he found the ancient road marker. In spite of faded paint and rotting wood he made out two words: Muchly Moondog.
Ben punched the air, whipped out his phone and took photos.
Muchly Moondog not only existed, he had proof! The place had changed its name to Candywallop for reasons which he, as a first-year journalism student, would investigate. He’d work up a real human interest story. Who didn’t love a story based on rural eccentrics? Muchly Moondog had first caught his attention in the library’s archival microfiche. The name itself, a mention of something odd, and an X marking the location of the road marker had led him here.
Ben felt empowered. Now to find the ‘something odd’. He retraced his steps. Time to talk to the locals.
The man at the Police Station turned out to be oldster Henry, who had various theories about the town’s name. None made sense. A pale-faced crone who lived in General Goods had other, even more confusing theories. Ben discovered that an entire family lived behind the former butcher’s shop: father, mother, four kids, all keen to talk. (Where do they go to school, he wondered?) Turned out, a bus took them to Lower Pareham down the road. When asked about the change-of-name, the father scratched his head.
That seemed the end of it. The family offered Ben a bed in a granny flat attached to the house at the back. It had been a long day, and Ben gratefully accepted. Ernestine the crone gave him some food. Seated on the verandah outside the Police Station, Ben was enjoying the solitude when old Henry joined him.
“Are you sure you don’t know about the name change? Why it was called Muchly Moondog?” Ben asked.
Henry pulled a face. “Candywallop, now.”
And that was all Ben got out of him.
They chatted. Henry had a supply of beer which he was keen to share — almost overkeen, Ben felt. Round 11pm, he excused himself and said he needed sleep. Henry nodded.
Ben was just drifting off when he heard a sound and opened his eyes.
Moonlight filled the granny flat. A faint scuffling sound drifted into the room. Ben sat up. Surely there were no stray animals in this godforsaken place. Come to think of it, there’d been no pets, either.
Ben sat up. The sound seemed to be coming from the main street. Ben got out of bed, pulled on his trousers, opened the door and picked his way along the side of the building. At the front, he stopped and peered round. The main street was bathed in moonlight. He glanced up. Full moon. Some instinct made him hang back.
In the houses facing the street, doors opened. Out came Henry, Ernestine, the family from behind the butcher’s shop, and one or two others he hadn’t seen. Walking blindly, they converged directly outside the Police Station, linked arms and huddled together.
A single head formed and reared above the bodies.
Their legs changed, buckled and grew hairy.
A monstrous dog took shape.
Ben stared. He didn’t have his phone on him. Awestruck, he stood quite still and counted the seconds until the full moon passed. Only then did the dog disengage and its constituent parts amble off, presumably back to their beds. Ben was curling up in his when someone knocked on the door.
“Yes?” Ben’s heart raced.
“You saw, didn’t you?” He recognised Henry’s voice.
“Pity. You’re looking for a story, right? Check the cemetery. Headstone by the name of Mulligan. He saw us, too. Went home. Weeks later, we heard that dogs mauled him to death.”
Ben’s stomach twisted. This was worse than he could have imagined.
“Trust me, nothing to do with us,” Henry went on. “Dogs sensed he was going to expose us in his article, and they got in first. That’s just the way it is. Of course, his family buried him, but we put up a headstone for him here, too. In memory. You want us to remember you, too?”
Ben shivered. Mulligan? He remembered now. The guy who wrote the note mentioning something mysterious. No wonder Mulligan hadn’t filed the story. “Remember me? No, not that way.” On impulse he added, “You could call the dogs off, couldn’t you?”
Henry chuckled. “It doesn’t work that way.”
There was a pause. “Because it’s impossible. When we’re huddled under the moon, see, we’re welded together, turned inward, focused, unbreakable. Good thing, too. If we tried sending out a message, we’d fry brains. Dogs, specially.”
Ben winced. “It’ll come out, sooner or later.”
“Shouldn’t. We changed the name to Candywallop. Protection, we thought.”
“But, this story.” Ben got excited. “I’ve got to write it, or I’m no journalist.”
“Yeah, but you are.” Henry sounded cheerful. “You’ll come up with something. Night, young fella.”
His footsteps receded. Henry could be lying, but Ben felt sure he’d find that memorial for Mulligan. He hadn’t got a photo of the Moondog. Worse, the dog-maul bit rang true, as did the possibility of brain-fry. Would he risk that to reveal Muchly Moondog’s secret? No. But he could make something of Mulligan’s apparent burial in two places. Of course. Good material, there. Everyone loves a mystery.
He made up his mind.
Let sleeping dogs lie.
Brenda Anderson’s fiction has appeared in various places, including Daily Science Fiction and Every Day Fiction. She lives in Adelaide, South Australia and tweets irregularly @CinnamonShops. This story is a tribute to the old, rusting towns of country New South Wales, back in her childhood.