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It had all gone so horribly, horribly wrong.
Christine’s knuckles clenched the steering wheel. The SUV had been Nate’s and it still smelled like him. It rattled like an old man on a cold morning, but it had enough seats to fit all of them; the living, the dead, and the dying. The passenger seat had been laid back as far as it would go, and Nate lay draped across it, still in wolf form, bleeding from the jaw and forehead. She thought she would go mad with the road noise, the wind, the crying, and the incessant bicker bicker bicker of Luke and Michael, but she kept it together. Make it to the rendezvous point.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Luke said. “Motherfucking mama grizzly. I can’t believe she just fucking took that shotgun blast like it was nothing.”
“Indians thought bears were supernatural,” Michael said. “Can’t kill them.”
“I know, but—Jesus Christ. Shut up!” Luke yelled at the kids in the back, who were still crying. “Shut the fuck up!”
The landscape around them spread out for thousands of acres as far as the eye could see, enticingly green in the distance but brown with a few seedlings up close. The wind blew incessantly, a tedious howl worse than anything except the silence that crept into your joints when it ceased. The road rattled, and the wind whistled through the window cracks, and the children either couldn’t or wouldn’t stop their crying. Michael and Luke kept up their incessant bickering, talking about Indian legends and whether or not the mom had died.
She concentrated on the road. Just make it to the rendezvous point. The noise drifted away until all Christine heard was Nate’s ragged breathing.
“Jesus Christ,” Luke said. “Go in, kill the mom, take the kids. Easy. In and out. One housewife, alone, without even a dog, in a house whose neighbors were miles away. She wasn’t supposed to go mama grizzly on us. She was supposed to die. It don’t fucking make sense, man.”
Christine glanced at Nate, trying to look for signs of breathing and keep an eye on the road at the same time. His beautiful silver fur was matted by blood. She’d taken the knife out, of course, and it had lain on the seat next to him until she couldn’t stand the sight of it anymore and threw it out the window. Michael had said something about not leaving a trail of evidence, but she gave him an alpha bitch stare and shut him down.
She heard Nate die. She wasn’t watching, she was watching the road, but she knew when it happened. One moment there was the gurgled rattle of breath and the next minute there wasn’t and she just knew without looking that he had gone. She felt her eyes prick with tears, but wiped them away before anyone could see. Pure, sweet, perfect Nate died. His death erased every fight they’d ever had, every disagreement, every inheritable genetic disease.
Luke and Michael bickered about Michael’s brother, and whether or not he’d lead them to the safe house. The children whimpered as much as the duct tape over their mouths allowed. The transmission groaned, and the shocks squeaked, and the whine whistled like a mosquito through the crack where the door didn’t seal, but Christine heard nothing but the silence where Nate’s breath had been.
Nate grew cold on the passenger seat. There was a time when she wanted to have a child more than anything, but she would gladly have traded the two kids duct taped in the back for the sound of Nate’s breathing again.
They had planned everything. They’d watched the family, watched the house, made sure the mom never changed outside her time. They killed the dogs when the dogs caught their scent. When the dad took the last dog off to town, it seemed a stroke of luck, because he’d always been a potential snag in their plan. Only one woman, stuck in human form, and two small children. How hard could it be? Motherfucking mama grizzly.
Christine wanted to go back and kill her again, maim the body, enact vengeance on the were-bear who had dared to fight back. She thought about killing the kids, slowly, painfully, as payback for what their mother had done, but they were worth too much alive. Christine took solace from the memory of the were-bear finally collapsing, finally going down. She was dead. She had to be. No one could survive that much.
The GPS told her she was at the rendezvous. She pulled the car off onto a scratch that was barely a road, and followed it for a half a mile to an ancient wooden shed. Its roof had fallen in, and one wall was missing. Shards of glass littered the ground around the window-hole. She turned off the engine, and took off her clothes so she could change.
Christine never knew why some could change outside of their time and some couldn’t. She’d always been able to, and it had only gotten easier as she got older. Her mother had said it was a mark of good breeding. They said Imogene could change mid-sentence, speaking with you cordially in one breath and tearing your throat out in the next, but Christine thought that was probably bullshit. It took her at least five minutes to change, and even though she was good at it, it had never stopped being painful.
She got out of the car into a desolate expanse of nothingness. The wind howled all around them, wailing even louder than the fucking kids. It picked up dust and grit that stung her naked skin. The incessant wind and the metallic scratch scratch scratch of the windmill grated on her ears. The land extended flat and brown as far as the eye could see, the sky overhead a huge, dusky purple. Clouds dotted the horizon, small, like normal-sized furniture in a too-large house. The expanse of it felt wrong to her, the oppressive weight of nothingness. She crouched on the dirt to change. It smelled of soil and chemicals and the distant tang of cow manure.
The wind started to die down as she was exhaling her skin into fur and her spine into a tail, and by the time she rested her front paws on the ground, it had grown still. Not silent, because the kids were still wailing, but still. A dreadful stillness. Even after she became a wolf, she could barely hear anything except the sounds they’d brought with them.
Christine loped a few yards away. The fields were fallow, dormant for lack of funding or lack of rain or just not the right time, she didn’t know. She scratched a hole in the furrow at the edge of the field. It had the tang of fertilizer and insecticide, a sterile substrate chock full of chemicals. She began to dig harder.
Luke had gotten out of the car to smoke a cigarette. “What are you doing?”
Christine just glared at him.
“Oh,” he said. “Yeah.”
The first few inches were easy to clear. Her claws dug into the sun-thawed mud. She used her back legs to push it behind her, forming a deepening scrape in the earth. It felt good to have something to channel her anger into, though the ground was nearly frozen. It hadn’t been an especially warm April; they’d had snow just a week before, and though it had reached nearly eighty degrees that week, she still felt shards of ice prick the pads of her front paws.
She felt sorry that Nate’s bones had to stay here. He would have rather been laid to rest in Minnesota, near the compound, in the same grove as his grandparents and his stillborn sisters and his little brother who died of the rash after three days.
Eventually her fury wore down, and she lay on the earth next to the half-completed hole, panting. She smelled decaying flesh, and turned to see Michael opening the back of the SUV. He came out carrying Sasha. Sasha was stiff and awkward, arms and head tilted at odd angles. She looked like a dancer doing some avant garde pose, except for her crushed skull. Damn were-bear bitch. He laid her near the hole, then went back for Nate.
Michael needed Luke’s help to haul Nate to the hole. Michael glanced at her progress and shook his head at how shallow it was.
“Ground’s frozen,” he said, making it sound somewhere between a question and a statement.
She whined in agreement.
“Let’s make a fire. That will thaw the dirt.”
She looked at the sun, then back at him.
“He’s running behind. We have to wait here another day anyway.”
She growled in anger, but Michael turned away, knowing it wasn’t him she was angry at. He walked to the shed and tore down some wood, bringing it back to lay in the hole, She whined a question.
She glanced around, but Michael seemed to understand her concern.
“No one’s coming. And we need a fire anyway. It’s gonna get cold tonight. We need some hot food.”
She glanced at him, realizing he was right. They needed food. They needed sleep. They needed shelter. Food probably came first. Luke had packed some snacks and water for their trip, but it wasn’t enough for three adults and two children. And the children probably needed diapers or some shit. She thought they were older than that, but they smelled like they’d shit themselves, so what did she know? When she and Nate had talked about having children, they were an abstract concept, adorable little chubby bundles you could dress up that went from baby to teenager without a blip.
Christine thought about changing back into a woman so she could help him build the fire, but as the night got colder she was glad of her wolf pelt. The children didn’t stop crying. Luke gave them water and some potato chips, and took them behind the shed so they could pee, but as soon as he took the duct tape off their legs both boys took off running. It was comical, almost, that they thought they could get away. You could see a person four miles away in this flat desolation. Their whine ululated in the darkness, punctuated by footfalls.
“Go after them,” Michael told Luke.
Luke glanced at him, and then at Christine, and then trudged off into the darkness to get the kids.
“Kids are driving me crazy,” Michael said.
Christine flicked her ears in agreement.
“We need a baby sitter.”
Christine laid her ears back. Who could they possibly trust? Another wolf?
“It could be weeks. You know how Imogene is.”
Christine turned her muzzle towards the sound of cursing. It sounded like Luke had caught one of the kids, and that the boy had bitten him. If she had been in human form, she would have laughed. Her mirth ended when she heard the sound of flesh slapping flesh, and then a child crying. She growled. He better not have damaged the goods.
“See what I mean?” Michael said.
She shook her head, then looked away to signal the end of the conversation. Two small children. How hard could it be? Throw them in the basement, give them some food. They could live like animals as far as she was concerned, as long as they were alive when Imogene coughed up the dough.
Luke came into the firelight, dragging two sobbing, shit-stained boys.
“How far’d they get?” Michael asked.
“Less than a mile. Ended up going in circles.” Luke duct-taped the younger boy’s arms and legs together, and then put another strip across his mouth.
Christine flicked her ears back. Underneath the shit and fear of the kids, she could smell infection. That was all they needed, for one of the little ankle-biters to get sick. Michael was right. These kids needed someone to keep them healthy and docile until the hand off. She lay down on the frozen earth. The wind had picked up again, even more irritating than the constant sobbing of the children. She managed to sleep anyway.
It was just before dawn when Michael’s brother finally showed up. He was a scruffy-looking wolf with a too-pale belly. His ears were floppy, which made him look more like a dog than a wolf, but what could you expect from a pig? She didn’t like or trust him, but he had enough sense to lick her muzzle when he approached, so she wouldn’t tear his throat out just yet.
She loped back to the grave, and began to dig again, signaling that the other wolf should help. The fire had burned down to ash, which clouded up around them as their paws dug through it to the slurry beneath. They spelled each other, and with both wolves working together, they got it deep enough for Nate and Sasha just an hour or so after sunup. Michael was antsy, and wanted to leave earlier, but he wasn’t brave enough to say anything.
Michael seemed to have taken to the kids, maybe because he knew what it was like to be an orphan. He took the kids off to pee, and they didn’t try to escape this time. Peering out over the furrows, she could see the path they had taken in the darkness. It really wasn’t that far, and the muddy footprints spiraled like a bumblebee’s path. It might have been funny if she’d had the heart for humor, but she was burying her heart in frozen soil, along with Nate and Sasha.
They pushed the bodies into the hole. Sasha’s frozen limbs cradled Nate’s silvery fur as if they’d been lovers, and it made Christine irrationally jealous. She pushed it down. Wolves should not be burdened with such emotions. She scrabbled and scratched and pushed the mound of dirt onto the remains of her packmates.
When the last pile of dirt had been moved into the grave, Christine changed back into a woman. The cold hit her hard, and she winced as she stepped into her frozen clothes.
The new wolf also changed back into a man. He looked a little like Michael. Low hairline, black hair, hints of Pueblo Indian features. Gaunt cheeks scarred by old acne. He wasn’t circumcised, and when he caught her looking, he grinned, cocky. She held her glance long enough to make his cockiness turn to self-consciousness, then she turned away as if unimpressed by what she’d seen.
“Your grandma’s house,” Christine asked. She took her car keys out of her jean pocket. “Does it have hot water?”
“Yeah.” He held out his hands for the car keys.
She nodded, as if she would have called the whole thing off if it hadn’t. Ignoring his outstretched hand, she climbed into the driver’s seat, and waited for the rest of them to load up. Fucking pigs. Luke piled the bound children into the way-back.
She pictured sacks of money being loaded into the SUV. Duct-taped and squirming sacks of money that smelled like shit and didn’t stop crying. For those sacks of money, she’d trust a pig-wolf to lead them to a safe house.
Like the book, but short on cash? New chapter next week!