Myth of the Hunters
“If I ever come to kill you, call my name three times.”
Karina dived blindly into the brush, Simon’s warning howling through her mind as she raced through the deep Minnesota woods with the thing at her back. She slid down a muddy slope and grabbed a low pine branch to break her fall.
The black beast snapped viciously.
A horrific crunch shuddered through Karina’s exhausted body. She clung to the freshly severed branch, its jagged end only inches from her whitened knuckles.
“Simon!” Karina’s voice sounded strange and high. Did that count as one of three? She shot one last panicked look at the enraged creature’s blue-ringed eyes as she tumbled further, the wolf nearly on top of her before she skidded away. She shouted his name for the third and final time, just as he’d taught her.
At the top of the slope, the werewolf’s eyes narrowed, and its shaggy head rose to sniff the air. Karina didn’t dare breathe. Had it worked? The glowing eyes returned to her direction. As she slid further, the thing’s ears perked up and it began to move toward her.
In a moment, a low snuffling sound came closer … closer … She could hear the awful creature slipping down the hill after her, crushing branches along the way. She buried her head in the damp moss and linked her fingers at the back of her neck in a rigid grip. And there it was, the hot, horrible breath on her collar. Something dripped onto her fingers, and Karina braced for a swift oncoming metamorphosis at the instant the wetness reached her bloodstream. Her stomach flipped and dropped; her heart pounded. Were there any cuts on her hands from the chase? Had a comb scratched her scalp this morning? But there was only stillness, with the sounds of ragged breathing, the hot exhalations on her neck and hands, and cool pine-scented mist.
The enormous man-beast collapsed next to her, nuzzling her shoulder, taking in her scent, almost comforting her. Karina shuddered at the touch.
The night’s events crowded her mind: racing to her car, revving it down the dirt road that led to the woods as she tried to chase wolf-Simon away from the danger he was facing; the massive black creature turning on her and raging against her car’s windshield; her desperate flight through the backseat passenger window, with the spiderwebbing of the front glass reflecting shards of the full moon, shielding her for a moment.
For that single, guilt-wracked moment, she had wished there really were such a thing as the Hunters, with their rumored silver bullets.
They now lay quietly side by side, the wolf-thing calm but Karina still paralyzed with fear, until just before daybreak when it heaved itself away instinctively and crawled into the undergrowth.
Presently, Simon’s human form found Karina again. She had managed to sit up against a tree, but her head was bent to her knees, and her hands were once again clasped tightly behind her neck. ”Karina,” he whispered. Her muscles were so stiff that she could hardly move in response. Though she cherished Simon’s exhausted voice, she could not force her eyes to open to the cold, watery light of dawn.
“It’s all right, Karina, you can look at me. I’m decent,” he offered with a half-laugh, stroking her hair for a moment before she pulled away.
“Three times; it worked,” she responded hoarsely. Simon nodded.
In a few minutes he tugged Karina to her feet. “Come on, you’re soaked. You’ll freeze to death.”
“I’m fine,” she responded, her teeth chattering.
“Sure. Come on. I left my moon bag up in that big tree a little way back. There’s some dry clothing in it.” Simon, in his shredded sweatpants, put an arm around Karina’s shoulders and led her through the woods. By the time they reached the big pine where Simon had tossed his belongings, she was numb.
They half-limped the rest of the long and mucky way to Karina's sprawling stone cottage, moving quickly past the murdered car with its slashed tires, its bleeding fluid, and the shattered windshield. Karina knew that as the light grew, Simon’s impatience with her was deepening, and that he would demand a detailed explanation about her being out in the woods under the full moon. She shakily offered that the damage to the car was from hitting a rock and a tree, and then running off the road, but Simon’s patchy nocturnal memory already knew the truth very well.
Within two hours, Simon and Karina were attempting to make everything in the growing morning feel almost normal. Simon jogged over to his quarters, the small log cabin that served as a guest house, and Karina, emotionally spent, headed to her own brightly lit bathroom for half an hour under a steady stream of hot, soapy water, washing the night away.
The sunlight was still weak when they reunited in Karina’s kitchen. A second pot of coffee was slowly disappearing into their oversized mugs, and a plate of lavishly buttered toast lay untouched on the kitchen table. Their usual banter was gone, along with their appetites.
Now, as she filled Simon’s mug again, Karina took his hand in silent apology.
It was killing Simon that she was the one comforting him, insisting that everything was all right and that she was just fine. His throat constricted with each attempt to address the horrors she had faced last night, and her understanding and acceptance of his condition only deepened his pain.
For a change this morning, Karina had permitted Simon’s company in the kitchen to let him grind the coffee beans and set out the mugs on the wooden table. It was now two months since his arrival back in Karina’s life; he was finally allowed just a little more access to this dominion, since she’d “Simon-proofed” it by selling off the silverware. Karina had ignored his protests that silver was a problem only after he’d turned shape around the full moon. For her sake, he’d managed to rescue some heirlooms such as sugar tongs and a pastry serving set that had belonged to her great-grandmother. He’d gone with her to the bank to be sure they were locked away in a safe-deposit box.
Eventually, when the coffeepot was once more brewing happily, Simon took a deep breath to broach the subject he had been avoiding. “So, it did work.”
“Yes. Third time. You were right.” Karina paused the brewer and filled his mug for perhaps his fifth dose of caffeine.
Simon leaned forward, arms on his knees, knotting his fingers until his shoulders strained. “I can’t even remember where I heard that. Maybe I read it, I don’t know.”
“It was the looking into the eyes that was the hard part. You wouldn’t stop dashing around.” Her smile was watercolored. “Calling you by name three times was easy.”
They were startled by the roar of two or three SUVs pulling up on the tree-lined dirt road that led from the two-lane highway to Karina’s stone cottage. Heavy footsteps sounded outside in the front yard, and several men’s voices called out briskly to one another. A familiar tone squeak-barked above the rest, its owner tromping up the front porch steps as if he owned the place.
Simon knew exactly who this was, and in the meager sunlight, there was still enough wolf in him that he could have snarled and struck his latent claws through the door.
“Oh, no! Let me,” Karina caught him by the shirt as they headed through the living room toward the front door. “I want to look him in those beady eyes, and hear him explain to me exactly why the Hunters are coming.”
Deputy sheriff Bill Moore was standing on the broad porch, jimmying the screen door and calling out authoritatively to someone behind him. Quietly Karina unlatched the inner lock, waiting an instant, timing it beautifully. Bill shouldered the main door, fell across the threshold and skidded into the living room on his sizable belly. Karina’s stockinged foot appeared under his nose. “Get up,” she intoned.
Winded, the deputy made no move.
Taken by spritish impulse, she knelt on one knee and hissed into his ear, “Get up, or I’ll bite you.”
Deputy Moore had never moved so fast in his adult life. “We thought,” he panted, tongue reaching out for the words, “We thought you were … that the …”
Simon’s temper remained at its edge. “That the maniac had got her? What the … ” he finished with a string of epithets and snatched out at Bill's collar.
“She’s here, she’s … fine!” squealed the little deputy as he shot to his feet, fled out the door and headed down the steps with the bowlegged stagger of a toddler needing his diaper changed.
“You’ll do what to him?” Simon turned to Karina, who returned his amused gaze with a startling coldness.
He squinted out the window, shading his eyes in the still-gloomy midmorning. “Sounds as if he has brought along a couple of spooky-werewolf-tale believers. I’ll go and talk to them.”
“Sounds like it, doesn’t it? Wonder where he dug these ones up,” Karina grinned at him for the first time that day. “Look, don’t dignify them. They’re just self-important touro-thugs who have seen too many horror movies. I mean, most people are convinced it’s just a crazy homeless guy rooting through the trash and hunting rabbits,” Karina jutted her chin toward the intruders. “They’ll probably leave with Big Bill anyway. Hey, maybe I should get a pet werewolf to ward off trespassers,” she mused. “Now, where could I find a really good one?”
Simon grinned, beginning to feel relieved, until out in the yard a new shape caught his eye. Long and lean, it carried a modified rifle that glinted with silver inlay in the morning sun. The figure spoke softly to two companions, each dressed the same way, all of them wearing what looked like pairs of large wolf ears attached to their belts.
Simon edged closer to the window. The three men circled the fenced yard by the woods, picking up signs and conferring in a close knot. One pointed towards the broad dirt path leading into the woods, and his silver patch caught the light, stinging Simon’s eyes.
These weren’t the usual local yokels that Bill usually rounded up. He could hear them arguing with Bill about wanting to talk to “the girl in the house,” but the deputy was saying something about her not being dressed, and that she hadn’t seen anything, and babbling a string of other nonsensical excuses.
Simon heard Karina’s quiet footsteps behind him. She had put up her long black hair in a ponytail, ready to begin work. "Are those who I … For real? With actual badges and uniforms?" she whispered sharply. Her eyes shadowed as she joined Simon at the window to watch the gray-clad men. “Simon, are you all right?”
He hugged her shoulder, ignoring the question. “You’ll bite all of them, I suppose?”
“I’ll get every single self-important arrogant one of them, starting with Big Bill. And then I’ll scratch your furry little head after that,” Karina smiled tightly.
“Not behind the ears, remember.”
"Simon, seriously, is that really them?"
They watched the strangers climb into one of the heavy vehicles and drive off, Bill gingerly climbing up into another one with the sheriff’s shield on the door. Karina shook her head angrily. “Why can’t he just stick with the roving-lunatic story and let it go? It’s not as if anybody is getting hurt!”
One last look at the now-empty yard confirmed a brief period of safety before Simon's new, daytime nightmare would begin.
The Hunters were very real, and they had arrived.
Meet Me in the Mirror
“I don’t know what I look like,” began Simon, who had wandered towards Karina's well-lit art studio early in the afternoon, and was now leaning against the door, watching her step back from her enormous easel to critique her own work. “Hey, didn’t I put that shirt in the Goodwill bag for you?”
“Well, yes, but it’s a bit ratty for them. Perfect for me,” Karina responded, wiping an oversized flannel sleeve across her paint-splattered brow. “As to your first question, you’re gorgeous, you look exhausted, and you need a shave,” she added. “But you mean … I guess I didn’t think about not ever seeing yourself in that shape. And I wish you’d talk to me about it more,” she shot him a disapproving but affectionate look.
“Well … I do know — a little bit, anyway — how I look at First Night, but not what I was like last night, at Apex.” Simon stepped into the large studio, which was lined with canvasses, rags, and pots containing new and old brushes of all sizes. It smelled of water and paint and Karina. “First Night … there’s still some of your own nature that’s left, but … well, you’re different, that’s for sure, and you feel … you feel as if you could do anything, as if you were invincible. They call it the Rush.” He played with one of the large brushes stacked in a pot by the door. “It brings out the worst in you. I mean, if you scare a raccoon, you think it’s hilarious and you start howling. Literally, I mean.”
“But you aren’t really dangerous then, right?”
“I wish. The guy who got me was on the second-last night of the cycle. And I nearly killed him right there. Dropped my tire iron when he bit me and – wham – instant claws.” He shook his head. “Turned on him right away, no Rush, nothing. Just a rage.”
A half-smile crossed his face as Karina waved him into her studio. “That was Carl … We’ve actually been friends ever since then. Poor guy was really upset about it next morning. He was a newbie himself, so he couldn’t control his impulses very well. A lot of people don’t make it past the first few moons, you know? They’re crazy with it. Most times they run afoul of another wolf, and it’s over. Depending on their bloodline, some even attack their own reflections in water, and they drown. And you know what silver does. That kind of end is rare, though.”
Karina had paused her critiquing and was wearing a remarkably similar expression as she listened.
“If you make it through,” he continued, “then after a while, you sense the differences in the cycle. All four nights except Apex you feel it, and it does take you over, but it’s still you. The animal you, on mega-doses of steroids. And then Apex,” he paused, “at Apex you lose yourself completely. You’ll attack anything that moves.”
“And if I’d cut my hands when you drooled on me? If I’d scratched myself on those branches …”
“Any nicks at all and you would have turned on me in a flash. You could easily have killed me right there.”
Noting Karina’s widened eyes, Simon went on, “But still, even at Apex, you know enough to avoid people, and houses — that whole thing about these outfits claiming to Silverize your property, it’s baloney. Nobody goes near a house — there’s nothing there for a werewolf to want. It’s the hunt, the chase, the struggle … That's why I went after your car. It wasn't you I was chasing at first.” He found himself reddening as Karina’s eyes fixed on his, and then she turned away.
“You need to hear this, Rina.”
Karina nodded but remained silent.
“Nothing will bring me to this house to break in on a regular wolf night, unless I think you are in trouble. I’m not crashing through windows to ‘get’ you. I have your scent, and it’s embedded deep, as a friend’s scent.” Karina stiffened at that, but Simon’s gaze was distracted by a movement outside the studio. Just a rabbit. Nothing to worry about.
“The problem is,” he continued, “at Apex, the one full-moon night, if you are outside I will come after you - maybe just to be near you, that is possible; but at that time, I lose so much control that it’s actually possible that you’d be a target. Then, if you run, you definitely become prey. And why the hell — ” Simon finally lost his composure “ — were you outside at full moon last night when you knew I was around! What were you thinking, Rina?”
“Because Bill told me last night that the Hunters were coming!” Karina rounded on him. “I didn’t believe him at first. I thought he was just being hot-air Bill with his big important talk, trying to impress some bored local kids. But then I thought, this time seems different. What if they are real? I had to scare you off and into the woods. I figured I’d be safe in the car! Who knew you would come tearing after it as if it were some giant fire-truck for you to chase like an overgrown manic puppy!”
“When did you leave the car?”
“When you were busy chewing off the tires and trying to eat the windshield. It was my only shot.”
“And you thought that was a good idea!” snarled Simon.
Karina was now standing inches from him, furious. “This is not my fault!” She shook her paintbrush at Simon, splashing puddles of red color everywhere. “Don’t even think about blaming me.”
“Calm down,” Simon instantly regretted the worst two words he could have said. It was another few minutes before Karina would speak, and she spent them picking up her brushes and scrubbing them until they squealed with the pain of it.
“I’m sorry.” Simon offered gently.
“Oh,” Karina glanced at the calendar, where the full moon cycle was marked; this month, by pure chance, it preceded her own personal one. “Sorry, too,” she mumbled. “Well, Simon, really!” Her indignation was followed by a giggle, and she pointed a clean, wet brush at the calendar. “Why am I arguing with the only man who ‘gets’ it? The whole PMS thing. Pre-monster syndrome.”
Simon chuckled, warmly and deeply, and Karina melted, aching for him. He stepped back a pace, his eyes reminding her, “Don’t fall for me, Rina,” echoing a long-ago conversation from the year she was just growing into womanhood.
She couldn’t sustain his gaze. She gestured toward a mirror that hung on the far wall of the studio, reflecting the full afternoon light. “Come over here and sit down,” she said gently, “and I’ll show you what you looked like last night.”
Simon pulled over a tall stool. Once she’d positioned him, she stood beside him and, glancing back and forth between the glass and his face, began to paint over his reflection. A pale gray outline of his face and features took shape on the mirror. “All right … here’s you at the moment.”
Darker paints were produced as she peered over his shoulder at eye-level. “And now …”
Something primeval began to emerge in the reflection. It had a flattened crown and a protruding face, with deep furrows where the human creases already were; then, an elongated, broad snout replaced Simon’s nose and mouth, and its leathery lips curled back from lengthened, sharpened teeth. He was soon covered in shaggy, spiky hair, his ears grown large and pointy, and standing out like demonic horns. But the eyes … they were his eyes, and Karina had positioned him so that he was looking into his own face. These eyes, pale-blue ringed, were hooded by the upper lids with vicious folds of brow skin that covered the top halves of his irises. He looked psychopathic, dull-witted, brutish.
White-faced and looking heartbreakingly like a hurt and bewildered child, Simon turned to Karina. She softly brushed the sandy hair from his eyes with her left hand and pulled him to her shoulder, as he raised an arm to hold her in a half embrace. Picking up a wet rag with her other hand, she blurred and washed away all the evidence in the mirror, wishing she hadn’t picked up her cherished brushes at all, and feeling herself something like a monster.
Man Feast, Hold the Cheese
“You’re late,” stated the sheriff, “and I don’t want to hear it. You have a job to do here.”
Bill slinked through the peeling green door of the small sheriff’s station and slid awkwardly into his place at the dilapidated desk, muttering about having had to change clothes and earning himself an icy stare.
“I was on business,” he protested, glancing at the irrefutable 2:30 P.M. displayed on the wall clock. “I was assisting Adam Hunter’s guys.”
“I said you have a job to do here. Quit mooning around after the pretty painter lady and that pack of Sasquatch-chasing vigilantes and get yourself some dignity,” Sheriff Langston handed Deputy Moore a report form. “Go find out what happened to that smashed up car in the woods out near the creek.”
“I’m telling you, Sir, it was a were-”
“No such thing. Those Hunter idiots are a publicity stunt for the big silver outfits. Hey – why don’t you hang some garlic ’round your neck as well, keep the vampires away too?” Langston laughed to himself, “Damn’ idiots. ‘Werewolves,’” he mocked. “‘Silverize your property!’ Get a freaking grip, Deputy.”
Crimson and tight-lipped, Bill snatched the form and stormed through the tiny office, past a toothless old derelict the sheriff was holding for vagrancy, out into the muddy street and straight up against Karina, who recoiled.
“Deputy,” she acknowledged.
“Miss Redfeather. I was just coming to find you. About your car … ” Bill spun on his heel and followed her back into the sheriff’s office. “Tell him. Tell him,” he jabbed a finger in Langston’s direction, “what happened to your car.”
“Deputy,” Karina smiled coolly, “I was actually looking forward to your report on the matter.”
“As was I!” Langston chased Bill back toward the door as Karina asked about standing bail for the inmate she identified simply as “Old Jake,” who was curled up in a corner softly singing nursery rhymes to himself.
“You can’t save ’em all, honey, er, Miss Redfeather. But, since you know him, if you can put him up and keep him off my street, well then – Deputy!”
Bill shot off toward the diner, a classic 1950s-era place down the slushy highway that ran through what there was of Pigeon Creek; the tiny village was little more than an upscale truck stop on the northernmost edge of Minnesota. The luxurious, ostentatious cabins and beautifully appointed little cottages ensconced in the wilderness sheltered a fair number of reclusive creative types and the odd philandering politician. Perfect for Howlers, Adam Hunter declared upon holding a press conference that morning, and he proceeded to distribute fliers to smirking residents regarding the innovative Silverizing process that could save their homes and families from being ripped to pieces by inhuman intruders. It gave local people something to laugh about for a while, and eventually inspired some bored and curious tourists, who usually just passed through, to stay for an extra night.
Bill caught sight of the Hunters in the diner window, shouldered his way through the door and inserted himself at their red vinyl booth, snapping his fingers and stabbing at the table in front of him. The Hunters remained silent, and when Bill’s coffee did eventually arrive, he found it somewhat on the cool side.
“Look,” Bill burst out, “that artist’s cousin, that Simon guy? He’s a Howler, I know it.” He leaned forward, in sotto voce, “And I think he’s got her now, too.”
“Thanks for the update, Bill.” Adam Hunter’s pale blue eyes had a chilling, unblinking quality.
“Yeah. Well, whatever I can do to help you guys.” Bill raised the mug and a streak of fuchsia on its rim caught his attention. Adam’s merriment flashed across his face, and a Hunter whose silver-stitched patch read Travis Figueroa observed, “Not your shade, Deputy?”
Bill rose sharply and headed for the door, announcing loudly, and to nobody in particular, “Gotta check out this werewolf attack on a car last night. Hey. You! No tip!”
Janine, the apparently guilty party of the two somewhat jaded waitresses who co-owned the diner, ignored him, and both women maintained their gazes upon the lean, dark-haired man at the booth.
The Hunters exchanged glances. “Well,” observed Adam, “guess that’s why we came here.” The three men stood up, stretched, and were rewarded with a barely audible sigh from Shari, the younger waitress. “No charge,” called Janine, brushing a lock of fading copper highlights from her cheek and waving the Hunters away, blushing like a middle-schooler at their winks and the “Thank you, honey.”
“Oh, it’s good to be a hero,” grinned Figueroa as they paused outside on the diner steps, while their new recruit, a young red-headed man named Reese McConnell, looked slightly embarrassed and made a show of searching for his car keys.
Adam stared after Bill, and quietly whistled a snippet of the deputy’s theme from a long-lost TV show. “All the same,” he hauled on his jacket, its patch gleaming in the weak sunlight, “if there really were two separate Howler descriptions, we better check out this artist chick and her cousin. Oh, hey,” he indicated a young woman exiting the Sheriff’s doorway across the road, “that looks like her, from what I hear. Who the — is that mangy old guy her cousin?” The men watched Karina bid goodbye to Sheriff Langston and take Old Jake by the arm.
“Li’l Deputy Bill is worried about that?” laughed Figueroa, fondling the wolf’s ears at his belt. “Doesn’t even have teeth, does it? Aroooooo.”
The Hunters watched Karina escort the old man toward one of the side roads, and then the three men ambled in the other direction toward their motel.
Partway up the wooded road, a tall, sandy-haired figure appeared from the brush to greet Karina and her companion. The trio smiled and chatted for a moment. “Rina,” whispered Simon, as Old Jake pointed and laughed like a child at a large woodpecker hammering away in a nearby tree. “I saw the Hunter’s SUVs behind the motel. They’re here for the duration, all right.” He turned toward Jake, who was in danger of making himself ill by mimicking the actions of the bird high above him.
“See you tomorrow, Rina,” Simon announced so that Old Jake could hear him. “I need to get something into Jake’s stomach before sunset. Hey, careful tonight,” he half-smiled, “there are were-men around.” The three parted ways; Simon and Jake turned back up the road to the diner, where Simon leaped up the steps and entered first.
“It’s a man-feast this afternoon,” observed dark-eyed Shari appreciatively, “and I saw this one first!” she grinned at Janine, who simply rolled her eyes.
“Jake, over here!” Simon dragged Jake’s wide-eyed attention from the colorful gumball dispensers by the cash register.
Ignoring Jake’s entrance behind Simon, the waitresses agreed that this new customer, Karina’s cousin or something, was not one of those regular pretty boys. A square-jawed, broad-shouldered manly-man type, he had probably come to Pigeon Creek to join the Hunters. He looked the part, that was for sure.
“A real man-feast, yes, it is,” Shari repeated, seating her customers and languidly producing a menu.
“Miss,” Simon grinned ruefully, “You have no idea.”
“How did you say you met Karina?” Simon turned from watching rainbows drip from icicles spiking the eaves, and addressed his gummily grinning companion across the diner’s splattered table.
“She gib me a sammich.” Old Jake was a longtime acquaintance – many decades now – in the oddest club of misfits that Simon had ever known.
About twenty-five percent of the food on the worn wooden spoon Jake carried with him never made it to his mouth, and he had no compunctions against talking with whatever was in there at the time. Though Simon felt a great deal of affection for this weakest member of the pack, he still preferred to concentrate on something else while his friend attempted to make a meal. He turned back to try and find shapes in frost patches along the puddled roadway. “When was this?”
“Oh, well,” slobbered Old Jake, “she was just about ’lebben or twelb at the time, she tol’ me, so … about semty-fibe year ago, now?”
Simon smiled, raided the paper napkin holder without looking and gently tossed a pile across the table. He examined a “Lost Yorkshire Puppies” sign which was freshly taped to the wall above the table. “More like fourteen years, Jake.”
“Huh. You sure? Feels like semty-fibe.” Jake belched and Simon held his breath for as long as he could. “I saw her today!” Jake continued, and frowned. “She looked young.”
“She told me about that. She thought you might need a hand.”
“Me?” Jake pushed the bowl away, finally. “Don’t need nuttin’. Found me a chipmunk or two for a snack last night.” He grinned gummily. Simon sighed. Chipmunks, Yorkie puppies, they all tasted the same after a while.
“Jake, why don’t you let me take you to the dentist?”
“Ain’t goin’ near no sibber filling, Simon, you tryin’ to kill me?” The hurt in Jake’s eyes hit Simon in the stomach. He made another attempt to explain that techniques had changed, but Jake wasn’t going to hear it. “They put sibber in ’em,” insisted Jake, “an’ you know what happen’ then. Whoosh.” Chili splattered everywhere, across the table, onto the ceiling and all over the picture of the missing Yorkies. The thought flitted into Simon’s mind that the photo probably looked more accurate now, but he brushed it away.
Shari brought over some damp bar rags and threw them on the table with an “I’m-not-doing-it” look.
“It’s not like that now,” Simon mopped up what he could as Jake interrupted, “Don’t you tell me that. One lick o’ sibber and – you know.” He sat back, arms crossed and nodded several times at Simon. “You seen it.” Simon didn’t answer. “Right. That’s cuz you know. ’Member Jimmy? ’Member?”
It was decades ago. Jimmy had forgotten to empty his pockets. He was young, and in characteristic exuberance, ripping his way through the woods and thrilling to his own temporary strength, he’d managed to spill his coins and one of them — just one — had been old enough to contain a trace of silver. It slipped across Jimmy’s left foot and immolated him. Just like that. Nothing else, not even the dry summer brush, was as much as smoking. Flash. That was it.
From then on, the pack didn’t carry anything in their pockets, and some even sewed theirs shut for a while. That practice continued until the underground rumors surfaced that you could tell a werewolf by his empty pockets. For a while, you couldn’t hear yourself think for all the fashionable jingling coins, keys, and who-knew-what, even during non-cycle weeks. After that, the members just made sure to gather and check one another before sunset, before heading into the deep northern woods and succumbing to their relentless wildness. It was a ritual they still observed.
The waitress Shari returned with a slightly raised eyebrow and a trash bag into which Simon tossed the filthy rags. He couldn’t fault her distaste but it irked him to leave a tip when he’d essentially bussed a couple of years’ ketchup and coffee stains off the booth.
“I thought I saw Jimmy last week. You think … ” Jake licked his wooden spoon and put it carefully back into his deep overcoat pocket. “What do you think happened to him, anyway?” And he was off, rambling his own deranged pathways, aching without knowing why, chased by the demons of having lived too long and lost too many people.
“I need to wash my hands. Wait for me.”
“Simon says? You forgot to say Simon says!” Old Jake shrieked with laughter, regressing two-hundred-odd years to the small child he had been when his bitewolf had got him. Simon touched his arm gently. “Finish your water. Uh, Simon says finish your water.”
Jake settled but kept giggling as he slurped. Simon wished he had kept one of the wet rags for his hands, but Shari saw him and brought a couple over. Her look was softer this time. “I got a granddaddy like that,” she tossed her head in Old Jake’s direction. “Sweet of you to look after him. He your daddy?”
The diner’s bell shook above the door as three rifle-slung men seemed to fill the place; the tallest radiated an aura that enveloped the others and their own self-importance.
“Um, uncle,” lied Simon. “I need to get him back to the home before they come looking, too. Hey uh, here’s a ten. Sorry about the mess,” he called behind him, grabbing Old Jake and hauling him through the trio of armed men. He wondered if they really could tell, and something primal in him wanted to growl just to let them know for sure.
“Where we going, where we going?” danced Old Jake, and Simon suddenly regretted the ten dollars’ worth of drawing attention to himself. He pushed Jake firmly into the slick parking lot and steadily guided him into the woods. Dark still came early at this time of year.
“Come on, Jake,” he soothed once they were in a good two miles, deep and unreachable. “Simon says let me check your pockets.”