Sample Sunday – Wolfsbane Brew

Wolfsbane Brew

 

WOLFSBANE BREW
by Roxanne Smolen

 

ONE

May 20, 2008 Loxahatchee, Florida

The scent of blood lay thick in my nose. I shouldn’t be here. It was too dangerous. I should run.

No. I had to find Brittany. Had to be with my mate during this time of death. But she hadn’t passed this way. I couldn’t smell her.

There was only blood.

My control slipped. My vision flashed red. A ball of panic exploded in my chest. I staggered into a wall.

I was not a wolf. Not only a wolf. I couldn’t shift in this place. But the moon called to me, tantalizing.

“Sir?” came a voice. “Sir, are you all right?”

I made a show of wiping my eyes, putting on my best distraught expression. “I’m trying to get to ICU.”

“You’re headed in the right direction,” the nurse said. “Just follow the gold line. The waiting room is on the left.”

“Thank you.” I nodded, looking down at the floor.

There were several lines painted on the white vinyl floor tiles, a different color for different destinations—Admitting, Out Patient, Cafeteria. The same as in many hospitals, I supposed. I remembered following colored lines when I was back in Massachusetts. Looking for my mother. The exalted brain surgeon. She was never home. Never had time for me.

When I turned out to be a werewolf, Mom banished me to South Florida to live with Uncle Bob. I’d hoped never to see the inside of a hospital again. Now, here I was. I shrugged, trying to focus. This wasn’t about me. I had to find Brittany. My mate. Only she mattered.

I forced my thoughts back to the lines on the floor. My wolf sight picked them out like in a 3D video game, hovering in mid-air. But they were all tinged with red. I couldn’t tell gold from green.

I continued forward. Straight ahead. Waiting room on the left. The smell of blood was strong, tainted by the stench of antiseptics and dying flowers. My stomach churned. I shouldn’t be here.

My thoughts drifted to Uncle Bob. He would be a wolf this night, running through the woods. His mate, Rita, was in town, and I was sure they’d be together. A glorious reunion. Running.

Running.

A whiff of coffee stirred the conditioned air. My heart quickened, and I stepped faster. The room I entered was dim compared to the hallway. I stood in the entry, breathing deeply, allowing her scent to fill me.

“Cody,” Brittany said. Her hair was purple, her eyes pink with crying. Mascara smeared her pale, perfect cheeks.

I pulled her close, and suddenly it no longer mattered that there was a full moon or that my inner wolf scrabbled at my gut. I was the amazing wolf boy, but for the moment, I was like any other kid holding the girl he loved.

“Hey.” Butt Crack, Brittany’s younger brother, stepped beside us. He was short and scrawny with a mop of black hair dangling over his eyes.

I shifted my hold on Brittany and held out my hand. “Hey, man. How’s your grandpa?”

He shook with me, his grip firm. “Everything’s failing at once, you know? First his lungs, now his heart.”

“He’s going to make it,” Brittany said, her voice muffled by my shirt.

I tugged her gently. “Let’s sit down.”

I led them to a beige couch in the middle of the beige room. Their parents, Dean and Dalia Meyer, stood at the window, talking quietly. I was surprised to see them together. He was an abusive man, and it had been an unforgiving divorce.

Grandpa Earle was Dean’s father. I gathered the two of them had had a falling out, and until recently, Dean lived in Georgia. Now, he seemed forever underfoot, like he could worm his way back into the family. Knowing the kind of man he was, it was hard to believe Dean cared about his father. Yet he looked haggard. He kept glancing toward the door as if he expected to see the grim reaper standing there.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Brittany murmured.

I kissed the top of her head. “It will be all right.”

Butt Crack lowered his voice. “Mom says there’s a will. The house goes to his daughter.”

“Aunt Lynette.” Brittany sighed. “That’s better than leaving it to Dad. We’d never get rid of him then.”

“It doesn’t matter who gets it. If Grandpa dies, we’re on the street.”

My heart gave an uncomfortable lurch. I hadn’t thought about that. Would Brittany lose her home? Would she move away?

“He’ll make it,” Brittany said. “He’s not that old.”

“He’ll be seventy in July,” Butt Crack said as if he didn’t think a person could get much older.

Brittany shot him an angry glare.

Just then a doctor appeared. We jumped to our feet.

“Doctor Jordan,” said Brittany’s mother, “were you able to stabilize him?”

“I’m sorry. Mrs. Meyer.” Dr. Jordon shook his head. “We did everything we could.”

Brittany wept into my shoulder.

TWO

“You didn’t shift the entire night?” Uncle Bob asked as he drove me to school in his pickup truck.

Uncle Bob had steel gray hair that curled over his collar. When he was a wolf, he was the same color gray. He worked as the local handyman. He knew everyone, and everyone loved him. If he ran for mayor, he’d win, no question.

I shrugged. “Brittany needed me. What else could I do?”

He blew out his breath. “You aren’t like any werewolf I know.”

I chuckled. “You mean that in a good way, right?”

“I just never heard of one of us being able to choose not to shift during a full moon. Either you’re the strongest wolf I ever met or…”

“Or, what?”

“Or you’re not full blooded.”

“You mean I’m not a real wolf?”

“Maybe.” He took a left onto Southern Blvd. “Some werewolves hit puberty but only shift sporadically. The rest of the time, they just feel like crap during the moon.”

I nodded, remembering my mysterious fevers and unexpected flus. “So they’re sick for the rest of their lives?”

Uncle Bob glanced at me. “As they get older, the impulses fade.”

“It wears off?” I thought about not being a werewolf. There were many times I wished I could be a regular sixteen-year-old boy. But in the end, my wolf was part of me. I wouldn’t be complete without it. To have it fade away… A shudder shot through me. “Let’s talk about something more cheerful. Did Rita show up?” Rita was a werewolf and my uncle’s girlfriend. They’d been together for almost fifteen years, yet oddly, they didn’t live together.

A slow smile creased his face. “Yeah. She was sorry she missed you.”

“Me, too. But it was probably just as well. You two deserve time alone.”

“On that note, Rita plans to spend a few weeks here in South Florida. She asked if she could stay at the house. I didn’t want to say yes without checking with you first.”

“Oh.” My cheeks became warm, and I turned to gaze out the window so he wouldn’t see me blush. It was nice of him to ask for my permission—it made me feel important. And I liked Rita. On the other hand, the thought of him and Rita in the next room…

“Of course, she can stay,” I said. “She’s your mate. I don’t know why she doesn’t live with you fulltime.”

“You sure?”

“Just keep the noise down.”

Uncle Bob laughed as if I were joking.

We pulled into the drop-off in front of school.

I hopped down from the truck. “Thanks for the ride.”

“Do you need a pick up?”

“No. I’ll walk to Brittany’s house after school.”

“Give her my sympathies. Earle Meyer was a good man. He’ll be missed.”

“Definitely.”

“Let’s go out tonight. Just you, Rita, and me. Get us a nice rabbit dinner.”

“Sounds good.” I thumped the side of the truck in farewell and walked away.

Seminole Bluffs High School looked completely different from my school up north. The building was peach-colored and had a red tiled roof. Instead of a rolling green lawn, it had a cement courtyard with holes cut out to let trees grow here and there.

Inside, it was the same as any school, though—noise and a crush of people. I pushed through the teeming halls, thinking about Brittany, missing her already. Was there a chance that she might lose her home? What would happen then?

The morning dragged. By lunchtime, I had a headache and felt a little feverish. It made me worry that I wasn’t a full-blooded werewolf after all. I wondered if my super powers were fading as well, but nope—the cafeteria still stank like the bottom of a trashcan, and I could still hear conversations from across the room.

I grabbed a bottle of water and a cheese sandwich and headed for my regular table. Efrem Higgins sat there. Eff was an ex-football star, and he still ate like he had to maintain his bulk. His tray was piled with sandwiches, fruit, and milk. Since being kicked off the team, he started working on the school newspaper. It turned out he had a dry sense of humor. I enjoyed his articles.

He looked up as I approached. “Where’s Brit?”

“Bereavement.” I sat across from him. “Her grandfather died last night.”

Eff’s face fell. “You’re joking. Grandpa Earle? Poor old guy.”

“You knew him?”

“Probably every kid in town knew Grandpa Earle. He organized the Kids Parade. Every year for as long as I can remember, he got all the children to march down Southern on the Fourth of July. Even babies in strollers. I guess he was some sort of war hero. He had a chest full of medals. But he always wore a skunk fur hat.” Eff chuckled. “What a character. I should do a memorial for the paper.”

“Brittany would like that.”

“When’s the funeral?”

“Not sure. I’m going to her house after school to see if there’s anything I can do.”

“I’ll drive you over.”

“What?” I cried. “Your dad got you another truck after you totaled the last one?”

“Hot off the lot.” He took a big bite of a turkey sandwich. “Insurance company really came through.”

So that’s how I found myself in Eff’s brand new silver Ford Ranger compact truck. Except for the color, it was identical to the old one. I liked to rib him about being a rich kid, but actually, his parents were paupers compared to mine. If I hadn’t turned into a wolf that night in France, I’d probably have my own BMW by now.

Loxahatchee, Florida, was a small town. Grandpa Earle had lived there since the beginning. Eff was right—everyone knew the old guy, and everyone wanted to pay their respects.

As we drove up the dirt road that led to Brittany’s house, my mouth dropped open. The front yard was a parking lot. Children and dogs chased among the cars. A line of people waited to get through the front door. They carried casserole dishes and pies.

Eff parked beside an overgrown orange tree. “Maybe I can get some interviews for my memorial.” He hopped out of his truck and hurried toward the house without seeing if I followed.

I lagged behind, taking it all in. Along with the kids in the yard, there was a group of men standing outside the kitchen door, smoking. Another group sat in the wicker furniture on the porch. There were so many people either going inside or leaving that someone had propped open the front door.

Brittany’s dog, Haff, disappeared along with the other canines in the yard. Animals tended to hide when I showed up.

I climbed the steps and entered bedlam. The living room was filled to capacity. Somehow, Brittany’s mother spotted me.

“Cody, I’m so glad you’re here.” She thrust a tuna casserole into my hands. “I need you on food duty. If it’s hot, it goes on the table. Try to fit everything else in the fridge. And make sure we don’t run out of cold sweet tea.”

I carried the dish into the kitchen. The bright yellow curtains I once found so cheerful now looked out of place. The counters were stacked with two-liter bottles of Coke and jugs of sweet tea from Publix. Bags of ice filled the sink. Around the corner, the dining room table was set up as a buffet.

Eff interviewed people as they circled the food, using his cell phone as a recorder. “What one word would you use to describe Earle Meyer?”

“Loving.”

“Funny.”

“Cantankerous.”

“Hey,” Butt Crack said behind me. “Crazy, eh?”

“Hey, man. How are you holding up?”

“Don’t know, yet. I’m kind of numb, you know?”

I didn’t know. I never had anyone close to me die. Maybe it was like losing my mother in the custody fight—but no, that was by choice.

I motioned with the casserole dish. “What should I do with this?”

“Ugh. Tuna. We have three more just like it.”

“In that case, I’ll take it to the garage. Anything else that should go?”

Butt Crack loaded me up with dishes of lasagna, chicken and dumplings, and fried tomatoes. I juggled them out the door to the garage.

Grandpa Earle’s garage was an oversized storage unit. No cars allowed. It was deeply shadowed and had a wet dog smell that always made me crinkle my nose. Among the crates and boxes was a freezer big enough to hold two deer. It was nearly empty, now; he used to joke that he needed the room in case he shot a yeti. A pang cramped my heart as I realized I would never again hear his stories. I put the extra food inside.

I turned to find Brittany standing behind me. She looked haunted—dark circles beneath her eyes, lips pale. I wasn’t used to seeing her without makeup, didn’t like to see her without a smile.

I wrapped her in my arms. “Hiding?” I felt her nod. “Come on. I’ll take care of you.”

With one hand on her back, I guided her into the house. The kitchen table had bench seating on two sides, chairs on the other two. I helped her sit on a bench then slid in next her, holding her close. She felt fragile in my arms.

Her brother spun a chair backward, sitting at the head of the table. “Aunt Lynette’s coming.”

“Aunt Lynette?” I said. “Have I met her?”

“No one’s met her,” Brittany blurted. “I never even heard of her before now. Apparently, she lives in a commune somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

Butt Crack nodded. “The black sheep of the family.”

“I thought your father was the black sheep.”

Brittany sighed. “They both are.”

I held back a chuckle. I’d never heard of a family where both children were considered misfits. In my mother’s family, Uncle Bob was the black sheep, while my mother, being a brain surgeon, was the good child. I wondered what people said of me. Could you be a black sheep when you were an only child?

“She’ll probably sell the house,” Brittany whispered.

“Maybe she’ll sell it to Mom,” her brother said.

“Get real,” she snapped. “We don’t have money.”

I said, “Maybe whoever buys it will rent it to you and your mom. Don’t give up hope yet.”

Butt Crack nodded, but Brittany’s eyes filled with tears.

“I don’t know where we’ll go,” she said. “And the really worst part is this whole thing has brought Mom and Dad closer together. What if she goes back to him?”

I got it then. She was afraid Aunt Lynette would sell the house to her father just to get rid of it, and her mother would agree to anything just to have a place for her children to live.

I wrapped my arms around her and kissed the top of her head. My wolf sense told me that her father was a broken man, no threat to anyone. But Brittany remembered him from before. She remembered his drinking, his beatings, lying to her teachers about the bruises all over her body. I couldn’t let her go back to such a life.

“Cody, please,” her mother called from the kitchen doorway. She looked drawn and frazzled. She held a casserole dish in one hand and a pie plate in the other.

I took them from her. Suddenly a parade of new visitors filled my arms with dishes. The onslaught of mixed aromas made me want to sneeze. I added the hot food to the buffet on the dining room table and cleared away a few empty dishes. Then I took the cold casseroles to the freezer in the garage. When I got back, Eff was talking to Brittany and Butt Crack.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said. “Grandpa Earle was a great guy. He’ll be missed.”

“Thank you.” Brittany nodded.

Eff turned to me. “I’m heading out. You want a ride home?”

“I think I’ll hang around a while longer,” I said. “Did you get what you need for your memorial?”

He brightened. “Got some funny stories. People have good memories of him.”

“Okay, then. See you tomorrow.”

“See you.” He nodded his goodbyes then left the room.

Brittany looked like she wanted to cry again. “He’s writing a memorial?”

“Yeah.”

I got her a tall glass of ice tea. Then I fielded a few more casseroles and put a load of dishes into the dishwasher.

As the afternoon waned, so did the number of well-wishers. The background roar of voices diminished. I peered around the ruffled, yellow curtains to see a bright orange sunset. My stomach squirmed as if something alive were fighting to get out.

“I have to go,” I said. “You understand, right?”

Brittany paused. “It’s okay. I’ll just go to my room.” She got to her feet, moving as if she were balancing the world on top of her head.

I wiped my hands on a bit of paper towel, glancing about the kitchen to be sure I hadn’t forgotten to do anything. “Get some rest, man,” I told Butt Crack.

He nodded. “Seeya.”

I guided Brittany out of the kitchen. Muffled conversation came from the living room.

Two women stood in the hallway. They wore what I considered church dresses—buttoned to the neck and hemmed below the knee. They both smiled at us, and one opened her mouth as if to speak. But she looked at Brittany’s face and got out of our way instead.

We reached the bottom of the stairs. We were in view of the living room, so I didn’t want to make a big, groping scene.

I hugged Brittany and kissed her forehead. “I’ll call you in the morning.”

She didn’t meet my eyes. “Have a nice night.”

I watched her climb the stairs, wishing I could stay with her, wishing I could wrap her in my arms and protect her from the hurts of the world. She plodded to her room without looking back. Her door clicked shut.

I’d failed her. I knew I had, although I didn’t know what I could have done differently. With my hands in my pockets, I entered the living room.

It was crowded, but not overflowing like before. Several deputies stood behind the couch where Sheriff Brad sat. The sheriff was Grandpa Earle’s best friend.

Brittany’s father sat in Grandpa Earle’s chair, the one where he used to take his afternoon naps. Dean looked haggard, and I wondered again if he truly regretted his father’s death or if it was all an act.

Whether it was or not, Brittany’s mother was obviously taken in by it. She flitted about like an exhausted butterfly, refilling drinks from a jug of sweet tea on the coffee table. Yet she never moved more than three paces from Dean. Her gaze kept going back to him. Perhaps Brittany was right in worrying that her parents might get back together.

I stepped forward. “Missus Meyer, I have to go. There’s more tea in the refrigerator, and I put some of the extra casseroles in the yeti freezer.”

She patted my cheek, her eyes sunken, her gaze distracted. “Such a good boy. Do you need a ride home?”

“He doesn’t drive?” Dean snapped.

“Stop,” Mrs. Meyer said in a placating voice. “He’s only sixteen.”

Within my pockets, my fists clenched. His tone irked me, but no more than hers did. I didn’t need Brittany’s mother to defend me.

I smiled, showing my teeth. “That’s all right, ma’am. The walk will do me good.”

“I’ll take him.” Sheriff Brad stood, pockets jingling.

I blinked, my mouth dropping open to argue. But, no. You don’t argue with Sheriff Brad.

We crossed the parking lot that was once Brittany’s lawn. I got into the front seat of his green-and-white cruiser. We drove slowly down the dirt road that ran alongside the house, then pulled into traffic on the long stretch of asphalt that led to my house.

The sheriff said, “It’s good that Earle had a chance to reconcile with his son before he went.”

“Now I wish the man would go back to where he came from,” I blurted, then winced. I expected to get an earful about speaking ill of a man who had just lost his father.

Instead, Sheriff Brad said, “Yep.”

I glanced at him. Did Sheriff Brad have suspicions about Dean Meyer, too? “Do you know anything about Grandpa Earle’s daughter?”

“Met her once or twice. She’s an upstanding citizen. Owns a little shop in McCaysville, Georgia, up by Blue Ridge. Sells candles, of all things. Makes them herself.”

Candles? Brittany liked candles. “Grandpa Earle never talked about her.”

“She used to call on Sundays, but after the mother died, she stopped. Didn’t even come to the funeral. Nothing against Earle. It just hit her hard. He understood that she needed a little space.”

He switched on his turn signal and took a left into my neighborhood. The houses were small but well maintained. The setting sun tinted their windows pink.

Before long, we turned onto my driveway. Gravel crackled and popped beneath the cruiser’s tires. The house I shared with my uncle was set back from the road, hidden by trees and bushes—the perfect place for a couple of werewolves to hide in plain sight.

As we pulled to the house, I recognized Rita’s old white van. It might have been shiny once, but now it was dull and spotted, as if the sun had faded even its white paint.

“Thanks for the ride, sir,” I said as I opened the car door.

The sheriff grunted. To my dismay, he put on his hat and got out of the car.

Rita burst through the front door, red hair flying like curls of flame. She stood on the porch, wiping her hands on a dishtowel.

The sheriff said, “Back again?”

“For a bit,” Rita told him.

“Where’s Robert?”

“He’s working late. Is there a problem with Cody?”

“Just giving the boy a ride home.”

She nodded. “I’m sorry to hear about Earle Meyer. I understand he was a friend of yours.”

“That he was.” He tipped his hat. “I’ll be seeing you.”

I skipped up the wooden steps and then stood next to Rita, watching the sheriff drive away. “He doesn’t seem to like you.”

“He doesn’t like any newcomers. We upset the status quo.” She turned to me, smiling. Rita wasn’t a pretty woman, but she had a wide, white smile that showed even her back teeth, making her dazzling. “Let me have a look at you. Getting enough to eat?”

“Of course.” My stomach growled, and I grinned.

She scoffed. “If I know Bob, it’s Chinese takeout. Come on. I’ll dish you up some stew.”

She draped an arm about my shoulders, and we stepped into the house. It smelled like dinner. My mouth watered, and I realized I hadn’t eaten since lunch.

In the kitchen, I noticed a few subtle differences. To one side of the sink, clean plates drip-dried in a dish rack that hadn’t been there before. On the other side, a new slow-cooker emitted an enticing aroma. The table sported three wicker placemats and a napkin holder in the shape of a cow. Ah, a woman’s touch.

“Have a seat.” She lifted the lid off the cooker. Steam puffed toward the ceiling. With a ladle, she filled a soup bowl with her chunky concoction.

Rita’s stew was mostly meat—beef, chicken, and pieces of rabbit that I assumed came from their romp in the woods the previous night. I found only a few slices of potatoes and carrots. I groaned in appreciation as I ate, sopping up the gravy with a slice of brown bread.

She watched me, cocking her brow. Then her cell rang, and she smiled brightly. “Hi. Yes, he’s here. Really? Okay, then. No, it’s fine.” She glanced at the cooker. “The longer it simmers, the better it gets. See you in a few.” She put the phone in her pocket. “Bob’s running late. He says to meet him at Tony’s Mound. Do you know where that is?”

I nodded. “I can get us there.”

She poured a cup of apple juice into the stew, gave it a stir, and replaced the lid. “Finish up, then, and we’ll go.”

I wolfed down the remains of my bowl.

Rita’s van was so old it had a cassette player built into the dashboard. The last time I rode with her, she played Carole King’s Greatest Hits. It reminded me disturbingly of my mother as she cruised around in her convertible, singing away—good times long past. This time, Rita played someone called Donovan. I knew she couldn’t get recent tunes on a cassette, but his music sounded really old.

Tony’s Mound was an Indian burial ground out on County Road 835. It was about sixteen feet high. The land around it was flat, and I could see it even from a mile away. A trail ran up its side like a scar. I found that disrespectful. Jogging on top of graves.

But the area was so popular with hikers, it warranted its own small parking lot. We pulled next to Uncle Bob’s pickup and got out of the van. The air was heavy with humidity and the fetid smell of muck. It hummed with old magic from the mound, setting my teeth on edge. I doubted the average human would notice it, but my wolf hearing picked it up clearly.

Uncle Bob walked over, ignoring me. “Hi,” he said huskily, taking Rita into his arms and kissing her.

I rolled my eyes and moved to the front of the van. Heat rose from the engine.

Rita said, “It’s almost time. Should we leave our clothes in back?”

“Good thinking.” He gave me a lopsided grin. “See you in a moment.”

They climbed into the back of the van. They weren’t like me—they couldn’t shift whenever they wanted to. They had to wait until the moon actually rose.

I moved to the passenger side, stripped, and pitched my shoes and clothing through the window. Then I reached with my senses toward Mother Moon.

The change hit immediately. My ears slid upward with a liquid sensation. My teeth ached so bad I couldn’t close my mouth. My muzzle grew, feeling like it was pulling off my face. Millions of electric pinpricks swept my body as fur erupted all over my skin.

I fell to my knees, stifling a howl. I heard the familiar pop-click of my joints repositioning. My muscles burned, making me want to run, to work off the pain. I looked down at silver paws.

I was a wolf. Power on four legs. Not a mere human who relied on their wits to live. It made me wonder why I ever changed back. I should remain a wolf. I could do it.

Then an image of Brittany came to me, her green eyes sparkling, a mischievous smile on her lips. I could never leave her.

Still…

I shook myself from head to tail, sloughing off the last of my humanity. Behind me, the van’s back door opened and closed. I smelled two humans. Two naked humans. No way did I want to see that. I stepped forward into the scrub. There was no game here. Nothing lived near the Mound. Its pulsing heartbeat sent ripples down my spine. That was why Uncle Bob chose this spot—so we could find our way back. But did I really want to find my way back?

The moon rose, and its light bathed my soul in a soft caress. I closed my eyes and lifted my nose. A breeze ruffled my fur. It smelled of sawgrass and the rich, dark earth. Faraway, I heard a peacock call.

Gagging sounds came from the direction of Rita’s van. Then two wolves came around the side—one gray, one ruddy. Uncle Bob and Rita. They greeted me with nips and yips. I nuzzled them affectionately—but the reunion needed to wait. I had to get away from the Mound. I led them deeper into the Everglades.

Uncle Bob, the environmentalist, complains a lot about the changes in the Everglades. He hates that housing developments and golf courses encroach upon it on all sides. In addition, he blames the runoff from surrounding farms for introducing fertilizer to the swampland. He says it kills off indigenous plants and allows others to thrive.

Since I am new in town, I don’t remember way-back-when. But I do know that, along with deer, gators, panthers, and black bear, the Everglades has acquired a nasty population of python. I thank pet owners for that; some people think you can leave any old thing in the Glades. You never want to tangle with a python. The only way to kill it is to take off its head—and that’s where it keeps its fangs.

One animal you don’t find in South Florida is a wolf. So imagine my surprise when I entered a thicket and found myself muzzle-to-muzzle with a she-wolf. She was sleek and brown and had golden eyes.

With an alarmed yip, she ran. I barked for the others to follow and tore off after her. She was smaller than I was, but she was faster than the wind. I had trouble matching her pace. I kept her scent in my nose as we crossed a sea of sawgrass. Its blades swished at my head like serrated swords.

Who was this intruder? I knew she was a werewolf—I glimpsed her short, yellow tail as she sped before me. Why was she here? Poaching? Scouting the competition? How dare she enter my territory without permission?

My human-side chuckled at that. Who did I think I was? The King of South Florida? I was chasing her because I was interested in meeting another werewolf, right? Not because I wanted to scare her away.

I dismissed the thought. With my ears flat, I ran faster. My back paws dug into the soft muck, sending clumps flying behind me.

That was when I realized that neither Uncle Bob nor Rita were following. Couldn’t they keep up? I sighed. Old people.

The she-wolf veered into the forest. Was that where her pack hid? Would they jump me as soon as I entered the trees? Anger tinged my eyesight red. How dare they threaten me?

A low growl frothed my jaws as I raced into the tree line. No one jumped me. I startled a family of rabbits, and they bounded in all directions.

I let them go, focusing on the she-wolf. She was slowing, zigzagging through the trees. After a few minutes, I realized she was running in a pattern: three tree trunks, turn, five more, and turn again. Like she was playing a game.

My ruff tingled at the back of my neck, standing up in annoyance. I calculated where the pattern would take her then leaped, bowling her over. With a heavy paw, I held her down. My jaws tightened around her throat.

Again, my human flared into being. What was I going to do, kill her for playing hide-and-seek?

A moment of indecision plagued me. I released her and bounded away.

Immediately, the she-wolf scrambled up and gave chase. It was a game. I darted through the foliage, keeping her close but not too close. She was faster in the stretches, but even though I was larger, I cornered better. I dodged out of her way, then doubled back as she sped past.

Once I lost her completely. I stopped running and boosted my ears. Where could she have gone?

Coming from nowhere, she sailed through the air and hit me with all fours. “Grrruff,” she said happily. Tag! You’re it!

Grinning, I raced after her. It was fun. I forgot all about her being a mysterious intruder. I played as if she were a toy—a chew toy that bit back.

A while later, the howl of a wolf brought me up short. I froze, listening. Another wolf? Did the she-wolf belong to a pack after all?

She looked at me, gave an apologetic whimper, and headed in the direction of the howl. I trotted beside her. Each step took me further to the dark side. These wolves were uninvited. I’d marked this land as mine. By the time I was close enough to scent them, I was stoked for a fight.

The she-wolf and I stepped into a clearing. Uncle Bob and Rita stood on one side. Two other wolves stood opposite. The male was black with red eyes. The female was small and brown. All four of them had their fur on end, trying to appear larger. But bristled as they were, none were as large as me.

I stepped into the center of the clearing, staring down the newcomers. The male met my gaze without flinching. I would take him first, show him how I feel about poachers.

As if oblivious to the tension, the she-wolf walked over, nipped my ear, and nuzzled my neck. Then she crossed the clearing to stand with her… parents. Yes, now I could smell it. They were a family, not a dangerous pack.

I dismissed them with a woof and turned my back. My ears perked, alert for movement behind me. None came. I nudged my uncle, demanding his attention. The moon was setting. I needed to get him back to his truck.

Relief washed through me when Rita and Uncle Bob allowed themselves to be herded from the clearing. Better yet, the three strangers didn’t follow. I didn’t want to be known as the bully who beat up a family for passing through.

I kept my group moving until I could no longer hear or smell the newcomers. Only then did I slow to a relaxed trot. Soon I sensed the magical drone of Tony’s Mound like the hum of power lines in the back of my skull.

We reached the vehicles as the moon set. Rita hopped into her van to turn back into a human in private. My uncle stayed with me. I watched him shift—his face flattening, his spine straightening. It looked painful.

When it was over, he sat naked in the dirt, looking at me. “Your turn.”

I gave him my best doggy grin, my tongue lolling.

“I’m not kidding, now,” he said. “You have school in the morning. Shift back.”

I sneezed loudly, hoping to convey that I had other things to do.

Rita rounded the back of the van. She wore jeans and a frilly blouse. My uncle’s clothes were folded over one arm. “What’s going on? Why is he still a wolf?”

Uncle Bob winced. “I told you he was—”

“You said he was unusual, but I didn’t think…” Her voice went up an octave. “The moon is gone.”

I snorted at that. The moon was never gone. Even when it was on the other side of the planet, I could sense its presence.

“He shifts at will,” my uncle said. “But now is not the time.”

Now was the perfect time. I spun about and hightailed it out of there. I had to hurry or I would miss them. I picked up the scents of the three wolves at the clearing and followed them to a narrow dirt road that wound through the forest. They stood near a charcoal-gray Lexus, all of them human once more.

The father’s skin was as black as his wolf’s fur had been. He wore brightly colored pajama bottoms, and he was pulling a matching tunic over his head.

The mother wore a long, shapeless dress that split to her knees. Her dark, shoulder-length hair stood out like a frizzy halo, making her head appear two sizes too big.

The girl was not yet clothed. Her smooth body reminded me of a chocolate Easter bunny. She pulled on a pair of tattered cut-offs and a faded blue shirt that had The Doctor Is In on the front. She looked younger than my human, perhaps fourteen years old.

“You bloody well do know what I’m talking about,” the father said in a deep voice. “Those wolves might have been dangerous.”

“Yes, it’s all my fault, isn’t it.” The girl put her hands on her hips. “I’m in charge. I was the one who should have surveyed the ruddy area instead of assuming we were alone.”

“Not to worry,” said the mother. “I’m sure they were just passing through.”

The father sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He looked at the girl. “Ayanna, you are not to leave my side again, do you hear me?”

“Yes, Daddy.” Ayanna sighed, rolling her eyes.

Turning, she looked directly at me. I was downwind and hidden in the brush. She couldn’t know I was there—and yet… She stood unnaturally still, her eyes glinting gold in the half-light. She looked wild and completely alien.

Then her father called her name, breaking the spell. They got into the car and drove away.

 

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