From the author: At a secret clinic for werewolves, a "frequent flier" is wheeled in yet again.
Sage doesn’t ask me to go with her when the call comes in. She doesn’t say anything at all except, “It’s Thunderhead again.” She ducks into coveralls, tosses some shovels into the bucket truck, and speeds away. We call it the “bucket” because of how we use it. It’s not one of those trucks with a boom on it that they use to fix the power lines.
I sit trembling by the phone, sometimes getting up to pace the desolate office, until Sage reappears. Her sleeves are greasy-looking and streaked with pinkish stains. She beckons me to suit up and join her. “There were some folks around to help me get her off the road,” she explains. “But I need you to help unload the truck.”
“Hit by a semi.”
My whole body tenses up. I must be looking at Sage as if she’s a pair of oncoming high beams, because she adds, “You can do this, right?”
I nod but all around me the night is receding into a dark blur. I’m just a body poised in space, a machine, marching across the yard, perching over the truck bed, nudging at something heavy and slick. Sliding it piece by piece into Sage’s big, orange wheelbarrow. One, two, three, four trips between the bucket truck and the outer door of Thunderhead’s usual room.
I’m lucky, really, to have landed this job. Officially, Red Oak Animal Hospital is a respectable veterinary practice at the southwestern edge of Sudbury. Sage, the owner, is Cornell-educated in equine medicine. The area is semi-rural, but it’s also full of rich people, so we do pretty well. Sage has steady work at a couple of hobbyist stables, and there’s no shortage of pampered labradoodles and wannabe backyard farmers.
I do work the regular day shift sometimes, during the weeks when the moon is slender or dark. It feels like a reprieve to vaccinate a puppy while it squirms and tries to lick my hands, or even to grapple with a spitting cat. But anybody could do that sort of work. Sage hired me to help her run the secret night clinic. The wolves just call it “Sage’s place.” Like a regular emergency room, we have what you’d call “frequent fliers.”
I haven’t been here long, so I’ve only seen Thunderhead once before. It was just about a month ago. She was in one piece then, for the most part. Sage had called me in to help her suture some bite wounds around an anesthetized patient’s neck and wrists: common injuries for wolves who are prone to fighting. “Oh,” I must have said, surprised, as I eyed the creature on the table.
“You’ll be seeing her around,” Sage said in her forthright way. “She’s mean, and solitary, and reckless.” Those are qualities that make a werewolf dangerous, to herself as well as to others. But there wasn’t any disapproval or disdain in Sage’s voice as she listed them off.
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never met her in person. I call her Thunderhead.”
True to the nickname, the wolf was huge and forbidding. Even just lying there, unconscious, she somehow seemed to loom. Her fur was solid black and strangely matte, as if it absorbed the glaring light of the examination lamp. Her jaws were parted just enough for me to see her long, cruel-looking teeth. She was like a storybook illustration of how a fearsome werewolf must look, except--
“A quarter ton and change,” Sage said, as if reading my thoughts.
“I never saw a fat werewolf before,” I babbled.
“They come as fat and thin as anyone else.” There was a tinge of annoyance in Sage’s voice, and I felt stupid and ashamed.
As I fidget aimlessly around the front desk, Sage taps my shoulder and beckons me. I follow her down to Thunderhead’s room, where the wolf’s shattered body has lain quietly since the night before last. She lifts the shade on the small window set into the door.
“You can really see it now. It won’t be long before she rejoins the living.”
All I can see, at first, is a massive pile of greasy fur and slick, red flesh. My stomach turns but I hold myself together. I realize that Sage has arranged all the pieces into roughly the configuration that they ought to be in. The whole thing is splayed out like a horrible parody of a bearskin rug.
Apart from the body, the room is almost totally bare. A rubber-wrapped mattress sits directly on the concrete floor, well away from where Thunderhead’s guts are spilled out beside her ruined limbs and torso. Her intestines are heaped up neatly, like a coil of rope. Her head has been torn clear of the rest of her. It rests in a pool of thick, yellowish goo that I realize is fat. Her eyes are rolled back and her face is slack. A purplish tongue lolls out between her jaws.
The tongue twitches.
And I realize that the entire body is twitching, very slightly, here and there, with constant, tiny movements. Pale, membranous tendrils are beginning to draw the intestines back toward the abdominal cavity.
“Oh my God,” I breathe.
Thunderhead’s torso starts to swell back out to its proper volume. Her crushed ribcage is pulling itself back together. I imagine shards of bone wrenching themselves out of her heart. Before my eyes, a web of reddish fibers forms between her body and her severed head.
“Go get some sleep,” Sage murmurs close to my ear. “It gets faster and faster. She’ll be back on her feet in a few hours.”
It’s just after 6:00 a.m. when Sage gently shakes me awake. The sky is starting to lighten at the edges. At Sage’s behest, I fill a big stainless-steel bowl — literally an enormous dog bowl — with cool water.
We pause at the door of Thunderhead’s room and peer in. She has pushed the mattress into one of the back corners and settled onto it. Her fur is still greasy and matted. She is licking methodically at her front paws.
Sage tugs open the huge deadbolt. “You’re going to give her the water.”
“You said she’s mean.”
“Yeah. But she’s also slow. I’ll look out for you”
I take care to move slowly and confidently as I make my approach. Thunderhead stares up at me intently. Her eyes are pumpkin orange. Sage trails a few steps behind, ready to snatch me back in case things do turn sour.
“Good morning,” I croon. “I’m Jess. We haven’t really met.”
Werewolves can’t think like humans when they’re in their wolf shape. It’s not quite a blackout, or amnesia. Like the rest of their body, their brain changes shape, so it works differently. Right now, Thunderhead is a disoriented animal. But when she turns back into a woman, she might remember my face and name.
At first, I don’t get close enough for her to reach me without getting up. Werewolf bites leave nasty scars, even on werewolves themselves. As big as she is, there is nothing sluggish-looking about Thunderhead. Her gaze itself is sharp. It prickles me, catching at my seams. I crouch down onto one knee and slide the bowl over to where she can reach it.
“Good,” Sage murmurs behind me.
A knock from just outside the room startles all three of us. Someone is lurking there in the hallway.
“Stay put.” Sage springs into the doorway to block the stranger’s view. “Can I help you?” I hear her ask, and her voice has a hard edge to it that really says, Go away.
There is another voice. It’s sharp and chirpy. I can make out “Natick” and “bulletin,” and then something about an accident and a bear.
Thunderhead whimpers. “You’re all right,” I whisper automatically. Still crouched down, I turn to look at her. She is staring at me, not at the door.
Sage said that Thunderhead is “mean.” But she looks afraid, as if she still isn’t sure whether or not I’m a threat. Her ears are pressed flat against her head and her mouth is drawn tight. She licks her lips, revealing her dark tongue again, along with the gleaming tips of her canines.
“You’re okay,” I reassure her again. Her ears prick up just a bit. I start to edge closer to her and I watch her reaction carefully. Her eyes stay on me but she doesn’t seem to grow any more agitated. As I get right up against the mattress, I can feel the warmth radiating off her body. It’s still working to heal itself.
She leans her head toward me and I hold as still as possible. She sniffs close to my face, and for a second I think that I might have just made the worst possible mistake. But she turns away from me, to lap at the water. I relax. She licks her paws again and tucks them in beneath her chest, like a monstrous housecat.
Where do you come from? I find myself wondering. Sage doesn’t even know her name. She always comes in alone and leaves alone. Can she really live by herself somewhere?
There is a small commotion by the door. Reflexively, I grip the edge of Thunderhead’s mattress.
“Bears don’t have red eyes. What do you have in there?” The stranger is trying to push her way into the room.
Sage isn’t having it. “I’ve got a dog that’s been torn up by coyotes and I need to keep the area sterile. Bears’ eyes do reflect orange, and black bears are not uncommon around Massachusetts. You can tell your readers that. Let them know what they should do if they see a bear.”
In a battle with some local newspaper columnist, Sage will come out on top. It’s not even a contest. The reporter hasn’t seen anything, and we have a contract with the state to pick up roadkill. Sure enough, she relents, and I can hear her footsteps tapping away down the hall. I let out a long breath and feel my shoulders unclench.
Without warning, Thunderhead’s jaws clamp down on my hand.
My first impulse is to jerk back and scream, but that would be the very worst thing to do. I try to ease my hand away, hoping that she’ll release me, but her teeth sink deeper. I feel them break the skin. She growls. The sound reverberates through my entire body, as if my skeleton is made of harp strings.
“Please.” I lean close to her head and plead with her very softly, as calmly as I can manage. “Please let me go.”
She doesn’t budge. Awful possibilities crowd into my mind: she could double down and start jerking her head back and forth. Worrying is the word, funnily enough; she might take out her anxiety by mangling me like a chew-toy. She could release my hand and go right for my face. She could destroy my hand — tear my arm off — or worse.
“You’re okay. It’s gonna be okay. Please let me go.”
She growls again.
“Please.” My voice breaks and my eyes are starting to sting. I can’t do this again — How did I let this happen again? — but I have to breathe, I have to think. I’m terrified, but so is she. I try to keep my voice steady. “You don’t have to be like this.”
I’m too afraid to try and pry her mouth open with my other hand. Ridiculously, I begin to stroke the top of her head. Her ears, in particular, are very soft. They seem so tiny, in contrast with the bulk of her body. There are some silvery-white hairs on her muzzle, around her nose. “You don’t have to do it.”
She lets me go. I stand and back away, almost right into Sage, who has been hovering close by.
The bite isn’t bad. Sage has wiped the blood away, leaving a handful of oozing puncture wounds where the sharpest teeth went in. Sage assures me that there’s no permanent damage. I knew that already, but she can see that I need reassurance about something.
“You really handled that,” she tries again. “I’m not angry. I think you learned.”
“Thanks,” I respond weakly.
Sage tosses the gauze wrapper and her gloves. She leans back a bit against her chair and crosses her arms. We sit in silence for a minute. She’s waiting, but I don’t know what to say, or how. “You alright?” she finally prompts me.
My throat tightens but I keep the tears in check. Sage wouldn’t judge me, but there’s no point in crying, no reason for it. “Every time is as bad as the first time, even when it’s not,” I grasp for the words to explain. “I mean, I’m fine. This wasn’t nearly as bad as the first time.”
That’s enough to satisfy Sage, and she releases me. Not just to the bunk room, but from my shift. I sit in my car for a while. I consider heading back in and asking Sage if I can crash at her house — just for the day, just to shower and sleep. I don’t want to be so clingy, though. So dependent.
I was born in the middle of nowhere. My family lived at the edge of a tiny hamlet called Knapp Creek, in western New York, less than a mile north of the Pennsylvania border. It was both painfully similar to and wildly unlike the area around central Massachusetts.
Our house was up in the hills, and our backyard opened up to the forest. My mother never wanted me to go out into the woods by myself. There were bears and timber rattlers, but my mom always tried to convince me that the real danger was other people. As I got older, and grew more obstinate, the threats that she tried to conjure up became more desperate and more outlandish. The boogeymen lurking in the hills morphed from reckless boys on four-wheelers or drunks hunting out of season into axe-wielding serial killers. They never seemed real, and I was never afraid. By the time I was fifteen I went into the woods almost every day.
One evening I stayed out late. It was early October, and the light had changed. It came down in that special slanted way that makes the sunsets in autumn so spectacular. I stood at an overlook and watched the setting sun turn the landscape into gold. A gilded forest under a pink and purple sky. If you had painted that scene, true to life, people would call it garish and impossible.
By the time I was almost home, just minutes away from our backyard, it was pretty dark. I could see that the porch light was on. I resigned myself to getting an earful from my mom over dinner.
I’ll never know who he was. As a human person, I mean, as a man who has to get up every morning and go about his life. I spotted some movement just a little ways off the trail. A hulking shape was lurking there among the trees. I saw eyes reflected in the dark and I thought it must have been a bear. I should have just yelled, and brought my dad running out right then and there. Instead, I kept backing down the trail saying, “Hey bear, hey bear.”
Across open terrain like that, you never run, not from a bear or any other predator.
When the eyes and the shape moved closer, I froze. “Hey!” I shouted, trying to scare it away. It burst out of the trees, barreling toward me. That’s when I screamed. I tried to run but its jaws clamped onto my shin. It worried me like a rag, ripping and tearing up my leg.
The thing bolted when my dad came running out to my rescue, cursing and hollering.
At the time, I couldn’t bring myself to say that I’d been attacked by a werewolf. It wasn’t like that. Maybe panic had distorted my memory — a creature that was the wrong shape, a man’s eyes set into a wolf’s head. It had all happened so fast.
Most people don’t want to believe that werewolves exist, and most of them don’t have to, so they don’t. It doesn’t matter how many grainy videos get uploaded, or how many breathless blog posts get written. Someone could go on the news, and turn into a monster right on live TV, and I doubt it would change much. Those who know would still be split: supporters and loved ones versus would-be monster slayers. Plenty of people would stay in denial.
I wonder if that woman who showed up today, that reporter or whatever she was, realizes all of this. Whether she really thinks she’s on the trail of some big conspiracy, or if she’s on a personal crusade. She probably thinks of herself as some kind of hero. I think about her as the soapy water washes over my bandaged hand and onto the dishes that have been festering in my kitchen sink. I’ll have to get another tattoo to commemorate the bite. Something to cover the scar this time. Maybe a storm cloud, complete with lightning bolts like jagged fangs.
Thunderhead will be better within a day or two, and then Sage will turn her loose. I wonder if she’ll also go home to a filthy apartment. Whether she had the foresight to tidy up before the waxing moon, or if her sink is stacked high with rank dishes. Will she tie up the trash just to block out the smell, and then nod off in the shower? Will she remember my name and how I cried, or just the taste of my blood?
My sheets are starting to get musty, but I wrap them tight around myself and burrow down as deeply as I can. I pull the comforter over my head and curl up beneath its pattern of blackberry and ferns — the same pattern I chose for the tattoo intertwined with the bite scars on my shin. With pillows tucked close along my sides, it’s like I’m wedged into a little hidey-hole, a nest. It’s almost like being safe.
There was a time, after I realized what had happened to me that night in the woods but before I came to understand how it all worked, when I waited earnestly for the change to come. It didn’t matter how many years had passed since the attack — for weeks, months, I thought that every night might be the night. It wasn’t because of movies or anything that I had read. It was more primal than that, something instinctive. The bone-deep terror of infection. Maybe I had been chosen because he sensed some latent monstrousness in me.
But it doesn’t work that way. I’ll always just be Jess, the same Jess who can stroke a monster’s ears but who still refuses to walk anywhere alone after dark. It already feels like I have to constantly reassemble the trailing, fallen down pieces of myself. Inside my head is a jumble of tattered fragments, all slapdash and spit-pasted together. What if, on top of that, I had to split my time between two physical selves? What if my body literally heaved and clawed itself back together, no matter how thoroughly I was torn apart?
If I ever get splattered by a semi, that’s the end. Thank God.
My conversation with the tattoo artist is just a blur of small talk: No I’m not from Mass originally, I’m a vet tech, yeah it pays okay. He nods approvingly when I explain my little ritual: Every time I get bitten badly enough to draw blood, I get myself a new tattoo. On or around the spot where the bite was, like a badge of honor or a protective sigil. That’s why I asked him if he could do my hand.
But he refuses to do any work on hands, so I decided on my forearm instead, the underside of my right wrist. I don’t explain to him why the design is an umbrella. I decided that a storm cloud wouldn’t make much of a tattoo.
Blood beads up on my skin as he works, and I look away, studying the colorful flash that covers the walls. There’s the usual stuff: daggers and roses, anchors and pin-up girls. I find myself staring at a black wolf’s head with fiery eyes and a long, lolling tongue. Its skull is pierced all the way through with a dagger. The handle protrudes from its forehead. Drops of blood fall from the tip of the blade.
Looking at the design makes me feel strange. Exposed. Guilty, somehow. I don’t mean it like that, I want to explain. I don’t blame you. I promise.
It’s always draining, the effort of steeling yourself, of keeping still and quiet when you’re in pain. Even if it’s just to sit for a tattoo. I’m hungry and a little bit dizzy as I leave the shop, and maybe that’s why I don’t notice him until he pounces. I’ve turned the corner, heading up a side-street to start my long walk home, when I feel a heavy footfall beside me. A voice, much too close, says, “Hey.”
He’s big and doughy, I think. Pale, unkempt. Bearded? My eyes can’t settle on his face. My whole body is vibrating.
“New ink? Your boyfriend like that?”
He can’t see the bandage: I’m wearing a coat. He must have been trailing me. Why didn’t I just drive? “Leave me alone,” I mumble, and I try to maneuver around him. I want to cross the street but there’s a gray sedan heading toward us.
He ignores my protest and presses up close to me. “You know what I’d like to see? Something right around here.” He jabs a finger at my collarbone.
What if I just run? Pound on somebody’s door? Now his hands are hovering around my neck.
“Like a snake. Or — ”
I don’t recognize the voice.
“Hey, look who it is!” it calls again, clear and sharp. It’s the driver of the gray car, an enormous woman I’ve never seen before. Her lips are drawn back into an expression that most humans would misrecognize as a friendly smile. There is something just a little bit wrong about her teeth—they seem to crowd her mouth a bit, a little too long, too keen. The hair that frames her face is so dark it seems to consume the late afternoon light.
“I was just driving by,” the woman says as she pulls up beside us, “and I said to myself, you can’t just leave your friend out here in the cold without offering a ride.” The guy backs away from me and stares at her. Without getting out of the car, she flashes her menacing grin at him. He lingers another moment, then mutters something under his breath and shuffles away. The woman and I both watch his retreat until he’s disappeared around a bend in the road.
“Do you really want that ride?” The woman’s predatory smile has vanished.
It’s still a long walk home. I make up my mind. “Sure, yeah.” I scramble around to the passenger door, and I get into Thunderhead’s car.
“It’s . . . Jessie, right?” Her voice is softer now. It’s deep and just a little bit hoarse, as if she’s strained it.
“Where do you want me to drop you off? I’ll take you anywhere you like.”
I can’t even think clearly enough to answer. I’m still shot through with adrenaline. “I just . . . I need to just breathe for a second.”
“Sure.” She speaks with a tone that reminds me of Sage. Calm, authoritative, blunt. This is something that Sage would have done, swooping in to save me from some creep.
“Where are you headed?” As soon as I’ve asked, I wonder if that’s a rude question. By now I’m pretty sure that she’s not going to eat me, and I’m not ready to be alone.
“Me too. I thought it would be good to walk, I didn’t think . . .” The sound catches in my throat.
“I can pull over and we can sit for a minute.”
“Yeah, let’s just . . . I need to sit for a while.”
After cutting the engine, she sighs and sort of settles into herself. She fidgets a little, tapping the steering wheel, wanting to say something. “I guess . . .” she starts, but then she thinks better of it, whatever it was. Instead, she asks, “How long have you been working up at Sage’s place?”
“A few months. You know, I’ve seen you there twice already.”
“Yeah. The first time was when you got your neck bitten up.”
She tilts her head to show me a scar that had been partly hidden between her chins. “Yeah. That was a nasty fight.”
“Can I . . . Is it alright if I tell Sage that I met you?”
She seems surprised at the question. “I wouldn’t ask you to lie.”
“I think you should talk to her sometime, like in person. You two would really get along.”
“We already get along.”
“She says you’re mean.”
“She means that I bite. And I do.”
“Yeah. I noticed.”
The sharpness of my reply surprises both of us. I feel a twinge of guilt, just for a second, but she’s the one who looks ashamed. “I’m really sorry about that,” she says carefully, as if she’s not sure those are the right words.
“It’s alright, I guess.” Beneath my coat sleeve, my arm aches from the fresh tattoo. “You were scared.”
She doesn’t reply but shifts her weight as if I’ve said something awkward, or caught her off balance. This woman isn’t afraid of anything. She’s not a wounded animal cowering in some filthy den. There’s not even a speck of trash in her car, not so much as a coffee cup or a greasy napkin. No clothes or boxes piled up in the back seat — just a maroon umbrella and a newspaper.
I look at her. I really try to take her in. How can Thunderhead be lurking inside someone like this?
Her eyes are brown, not orange, and I wonder whether they change or if she’s wearing colored lenses. Her nails are trimmed short and painted burgundy, the color of blood sealed up in a vial. Her face has settled into an expression that’s just this side of a scowl. She seems like the sort of person who only smiles as a threat. Not an unkind person, but unhappy.
I can’t tell how old she is. She could be thirty-six, she could be fifty. I want to ask her. Suddenly there’s so much that I want to ask: Do you live alone? What’s your name? Will we ever talk again after this?
She catches me staring. “What?” And there’s just the faintest glimmer of an edge in her voice. A flash of sharp, wicked teeth.
Four trips in the big orange wheelbarrow. I remember it, passing down the great heavy head in my hands. Broken ends of bone pressing in through my gloves as I guided the spine and limbs. Scooping down delicate spools of guts. What can I possibly say now except: “Does it hurt?”
Her brow furrows and she leans over to stare into my face, searching there for something. I think she’s wearing contacts. Beneath them, her eyes must be orange as embers because I can feel the heat on my skin. “You mean when I change?”
“No. When you . . . come back.”
“All of it hurts.” Her tone forbids any more questions, or any gesture of sympathy.
“Well, thanks for scaring that guy away.”
She draws a deep breath and sighs. “He wasn’t scared of me.” Her voice is quiet, tired. “Most people aren’t scared of me the same way you are. When I’m not literally a monster, I’m just a monster, you know?”
I’m not sure that I do know what she means, but it feels like it would be wrong to ask. She taps idly at the steering wheel again and gazes out through the windshield. For a long moment, we both watch the fiery evening light as it tumbles down through wind-bounced leaves. I slump back against the seat, unclench my jaw, stretch out my hands and ankles. Safe now at Thunderhead’s side, I remember the man’s breath in my ear. His hands at my neck. I say the thing that comes to mind: “Being human doesn’t always mean you get to be a person.”
“Yeah. I like that.”
“Thank you for rescuing me, anyway.”
“Are you feeling any better now?”
I am. I am, and I would really like her to drive me home. I don’t mind her knowing where it is, and on the way there she might tell me her name.
This story originally appeared in Podcastle.