Part Three

Insomnia is extremely common among werewolves.

The reason is incredibly obvious to any lycanthrope, and surprisingly unintuitive to most other people: being a werewolf is extremely stressful. Lupine instincts aren’t well adapted to human society, and participating in civilization is a constant struggle to keep the wolf in check, to present a pleasant face, and to not give in to the urge to snarl at jostlers on the bus. Every moment of every day is a battle to be human.

For most of us, it’s a losing battle, or at best a stalemate. The wolf wants, more than almost anything, to be free, and it will push and prod until it gets its way.

That’s why most werewolves shapeshift regularly. Strictly speaking, shapeshifting is voluntary for lycanthropes, but going too long without shifting makes it harder to keep the wolf under control. Better to let it out under controlled circumstances than to keep it bottled in, waiting until the pressure grows too great and causes an unplanned shift.

It had been almost two weeks since I had last shifted, and while I could generally make it to three without much difficulty, this last week had been more stressful than normal. My plan to get away from the stresses of the city for a few days had backfired; instead, my excursion into rural Arizona had only left me with more anxieties. It made my wolf restless. And when she was restless, I was restless.

I lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling and wishing once again for sleeping pills that would be effective against my lycanthropic metabolism. The mental pressure from my wolf had reached the point where it was causing me physical discomfort. I could feel her, just beneath the surface, making my skin itch and my stomach churn. It was maddening.

I scratched my arm idly. I desperately wanted to get up and pace, but I knew that was the wolf talking, pushing me, trying to get me to do what she wanted. Pacing was a wolfish habit, and a bad habit at that. It ceded too much control to her. Doing so now, when she was already so close to the surface, would be a really bad idea.

I closed my eyes and started counting silently. Not counting anything in particular, just counting. Pure, raw numbers. The wolf couldn’t touch those, and, in the absence of any other thoughts or actions to latch onto and manipulate, she fell silent. It wasn’t a perfect defense – if I started to think or do anything else, it would give her an opening – but it would suffice for now.

At some point I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I remembered was waking up to the sound of belligerent meowing.

Groaning, I rolled over to stare at Erwin.

He stared straight back at me. Then, very deliberately, he meowed again. Loudly.

Erwin always seems to throw people for a loop when they learn about him. Everybody seems to expect me to have a dog, for some reason. But I’ve never met a dog that didn’t hate me. They can smell what I am, and they don’t like it. My personal theory is werewolves fall into a sort of uncanny valley for canines, but who knows. Maybe dogs are just assholes.

Erwin was definitely an asshole – he was a cat, after all – but one entirely unconcerned with particulars of species. That was enough to qualify as a good pet in my book. We had a nice deal worked out: he kept the apartment from being entirely empty – which would have driven my wolf utterly nuts – and I looked after him.

Some might say that’s a lopsided deal. Some apparently haven’t dealt with cats before.

“Do you have any idea what time it is?” I said.

Erwin, of course, did not answer, instead choosing to leap to the floor and dart into the kitchen.

I rolled into a sitting position on the edge of the bed and stretched. The wolf was already awake and tugging at the edges of my mind, but in the absence of any immediate threat or anxiety her urgings were vague and indistinct. It was easy to ignore her. I enjoyed it while it lasted.

Pulling on a t-shirt, I stalked after him into the kitchen. Entirely unsurprisingly, I found him sitting right next to his food dish, his tail wrapped around his feet and the tip twitching impatiently. He looked up at me and tilted his head, letting out another meow.

“How are you not fat, cat?” I muttered. It sometimes seemed like he ate more than I did.

I filled Erwin’s bowl with a tin of damp cat food that smelled disturbingly appetizing – wolf’s influence, presumably – and quickly set to work on making breakfast for myself.

Breakfast is, blissfully, rarely a point of contention between myself and my wolf. I know some lycanthropes who completely changed their diets when they started shifting – Katrina was apparently even a vegan for a bit – but I’d grown up in a werewolf household, so I’d been raised on the cuisine. That is, lots of meats (cooked rare, of course), some fruits but not a lot of vegetables, and few strong spices or seasonings.

Today, however, I wanted none of that. The knot in my stomach was making me nauseous, and I didn’t want to end up vomiting during the shift. Still, I needed calories, and lots. You would not believe how much energy shapeshifting takes. So, much to my wolf’s displeasure, I went with a protein shake for breakfast. Despite the labeling claiming a chocolate flavor, it mostly just tasted like cardboard.

I plopped down on the edge of the bed and pulled up the digital edition of the Reporter on my laptop. If I wanted, I could have gotten a copy delivered to my apartment, but I didn’t see much of a point to that. What would I do with it, frame it on the wall? I’d run out of wall pretty quickly.

Today’s front page headline proudly declared “Yugoslavia Signs Onto EU Accession Treaty,” subtitled by “Latest Round of EU Enlargement Adds Balkans to the Bloc.” There was a photo below this of various European leaders shaking hands and smiling mechanically. It was the same archetypal picture that always accompanied these kinds of stories. Without the caption that helpfully gave their names and nationalities, it could easily be mistaken for a stock photo.

Below the fold – or where the fold would be on a physical paper – was a story entitled “Bering Tunnel Hits 50 Mile Marker; 15 More To Go.” I did some quick mental math. They’d started drilling almost a decade ago, back when I was still in high school (in fact, I had written a term paper about it my senior year), so it would take them another three years to finish at this rate. A quick skim of the article confirmed this with a quote from the project engineer, saying that they expected to complete the tunnel in 2020. Overbudget, of course.

I skimmed through the rest of the paper until I found my own piece, nesting cozily between an editorial on teleconferenced press briefings and the latest weekly tirade from one of the regular columnists. The title the copy editors had chosen was based on one I had suggested, but edited to be more provocative: “Stone: Ranchers want to kill me, Flake wants to help them do it.”

Remember, it’s not libel if you frame it as an opinion.

I opened the article in a new tab for further examination. Someone in the web editing department had gotten a hold of my staff photo and had inserted it near the top of the page, along with the caption: “Heather Stone is a journalist covering a wide range of topics for the Sonoran Reporter. A werewolf and lifelong resident of Arizona, she offers unique insights into the problems faced by the state’s parahuman population.”

Well, I’d been called worse. At the very least, it was a relatively accurate description.

I skimmed through the rest of the article, noting the occasional change here and there. The copy editors had largely restricted themselves to spelling and grammar, although I did notice a few phrasing edits. But nothing that changed the meaning or overall tone.

I had been mentally bracing myself for the worst, so I was only a little bit upset when I reached the comments.

In accordance with the rules of the Internet and human nature, the very first comment was, “I hope you do get shot, bitch.”

I’d gotten death threats before. Hell, I’d even received them face-to-face. It wasn’t necessarily a common occurrence, but it wasn’t an unusual experience. In comparison, this one barely even rated. Even my wolf – whose reactions tend to be more visceral – couldn’t bring herself to be alarmed over something without any force or immediate presence behind it. This low-effort troll couldn’t do anything to me.

I, on the other hand, could do quite a lot to him. It took only a moment’s work to ban his account – he’d need to pay for another subscription to register a new one, and that was a real damage, even if it was very minor. Then I forwarded his information to the Reporter’s retained counsel, who would pass it on to relevant law enforcement. Probably nothing would happen as a result, but there was an off-chance that he’d get fined.

Satisfied with my petty revenge, I continued reading through the rest of the comments. As always, it was a pretty heavily mixed bag, but most of them seemed to tend towards a supportive or sympathetic stance. While internet comments are an unreliable barometer of public opinion, I took that as a good sign. The entire point of the piece had been to generate public awareness and support.

Feeling inordinately pleased with myself, I closed my laptop and called Katrina.

She picked up on the fifth ring. “Hey, Heather, what’s up?” Her tone was cheerful, but she sounded tired.

I glanced over at the clock on my dresser. Almost noon. If it were anyone else in the pack I would have assumed it was due to insomnia, but for as long as I had known her, Kat had never suffered from the psychological dysfunctions that were so common among werewolves. She had an amazing, almost zen-like relationship with her wolf, and her lupine half rarely troubled her like my did to me.

“Nothing much,” I said, copying her cordial tone. “Just checking in to make sure the plan hasn’t changed.”

“You know I’d tell you if I decided to get a ride with someone else.”

“I know, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.”

“Being cautiously pessimistic again?”

I laughed. “Yeah, something like that. Anyways, I’ll pick you up around four?”

“Sounds good.”

“Alright, see you then.”

I spent the rest of the afternoon moping about my apartment, struggling to ignore the growing pressure from my wolf. She knew what was coming, and didn’t want to wait. She wanted to run right now.

I read a book instead. My copy of Snow Crash was hopelessly dogeared by years of rereading, a marker of its status as my go-to coping novel. There’s nothing more unfamiliar to the wolf than some cerebral cyberpunk action, and, just like with counting, if I focused on Stephenson’s prose I could block her out.

At about three thirty, I left to go pickup Kat.

As always, Phoenix traffic bore a greater resemblance to a parking lot than a road, even on a Saturday afternoon. But other than that, the drive was uneventful. I know some werewolves worry about driving when they’re close to a shift, but I’d never had a problem with my wolf in that regard. She knew, at least vaguely, that it would be dangerous to distract me now. It was one of the few cases where my lupine half never challenged my human judgment.

I arrived at Katrina’s apartment complex a few minutes before four. It was a low-end place in south Phoenix – not too far from the Bullet – and the landlord had neglected to install any kind of buzzer system. I walked straight on up to the second floor, where Kat’s apartment was.

There was an unpleasant smell to the whole building, a kind of background odor that filled the hallways and made me feel uneasy. I had never quite been able to pin down what it was from, but I suspected that there were more than a few drugs involved. I had no idea how Kat put up with it. Air fresheners, maybe.

I hurried down the hall to Kat’s door. The sooner we could leave, the better.

Knocking on the door, I called out, “Hey, it’s me.”

“Just a second,” Kat called back.

The door swung open, releasing a draft of warm air from inside the apartment that carried with it a chaotic mixture of scents. A normal human wouldn’t have been able to smell it; even if they could, the human brain isn’t wired for complex scent processing. But my brain – or rather, my wolf’s – was, and so I was able to decompose the mixture into its component parts. Taken together, they provided a snapshot of the apartment, its occupants, and the events that had taken place over the last few hours. To use a visual analogy, it was similar to looking at a long exposure photograph.

Strongest and clearest was the thick, musky smell of fur-beneath-skin that was distinctive of lycanthropy, which was overlaid with the unique aroma that identified Katrina, which was itself composed of dozens of intermingled odors. Underneath this, almost imperceptible, were the smells of the apartment itself – wood walls, linoleum tiles, polyester carpeting. On top of all of these, strong and sharp but rapidly fading, were more recent smells left by transient events: bacon, eggs, toast, and oranges, the last traces of a balanced breakfast; water (which does have a smell, although it depends on the hardness) and soap, leftover from a morning shower; and of course, sweat, which can convey reams of information based on its minute variations. And, made faint by time and breakfast, but still recognizable, the smell of another therianthrope – werepanther, I guessed.

That last one caught me by surprise, and I could feel my wolf tensing up in response. Surprises were dangerous, after all, and we were both already uneasy from the background smell of the building.

Katrina stood in the doorway, staring at me in alarm.

“What?” I snapped, a growl rising in my throat before I could stop it.

Kat stepped back, casting her gaze downwards to avoid eye contact. “Jesus, Heather, you smell like you’re in the middle of a shift.” She said this softly, almost whispering.

Her calm reaction gave my wolf pause, allowing me to reassert dominance over my lupine half. Closing my eyes briefly, I counted to ten before responding.

“I’m fine.” The words came out in a rasp. I cleared my throat, then said, more clearly, “I’m fine. I’ve got it under control.”

“If you say so.” Kat looked at me skeptically, still avoiding eye contact.

“I do, really.” It wasn’t even a lie. “I just slipped for a moment, that’s all. Wasn’t expecting to smell panther here.” I put just the slightest hint of an accusation into my tone.

She blushed at the mention of the werepanther, and I could hear her heartbeat speed up. Knowing that I could sense her embarrassment, she straightened her pose and crossed her arms defiantly. Posturing, covering for her momentary weakness with exaggerated bravado. It was an entirely lupine and involuntary reaction.

My wolf bristled at the implicit challenge in Kat’s stance, but I had been expecting this and was ready for wolf’s response. I pushed her down before she could try anything.

Kat recognized my attempted deflection and ignored it. Arms still crossed, she pressed on with her own questions. “Seriously, what the hell happened? You seemed like you were doing fine when I saw you on Thursday, and you sounded alright on the phone.”

“Nothing happened.”

“You can’t solve your problems by ignoring them.”

But running away from them is fine? The retort leapt unbidden into my thoughts, conjured up by my wolf. Fortunately, I had enough presence of mind to not blurt it out. That would have been beyond bad.

I closed my eyes and sighed. Instead, I said, “It’s just been a really stressful week. I spent most of yesterday writing about people who want to kill me, and it’s got wolf riled up.”

“Maybe you should write about something else then,” Kat said.

I shook my head. “It’s something I wanted to do.”

Kat stared at me in bemusement. “You have an amazing capacity for self-sabotage, you know that?”

“Funny, my dad used to tell me the same thing.”

She frowned. “I’m serious, Heather.”

“So am I.”

She sighed. “Fine, you do you. I won’t tell you how to live your life.” She uncrossed her arms, but didn’t relax. “Let me grab my bag and I’ll meet you at the car.”

“Alright.”

I retreated to the safety of my car. The car was familiar territory – more than that, it was my territory – and I could feel my wolf calming down once we were inside.

Only another hour or so. Then I could stop holding back.

Katrina joined me a few minutes later, sliding into the passenger seat without a word.

“So,” I finally said, after several minutes of driving in silence. “Would it be safe for me to assume that you had a good night?”

Kat snorted with laughter. “Yeah, you could say that.”

“Do I know her?”

She shook her head. “Probably not. She just moved here from Brazil a couple months ago.” She paused. “I, uh, didn’t meet her at the Bullet.”

“I see.” I mulled that over for a bit. “Brazil, huh? So does she –”

“No,” Kat said, cutting me off.

“You didn’t even hear my question,” I protested.

“I know what you were going to say.”

I pouted. “Was it really that obvious?”

“It was my first question too,” she said. “Well, the first one I thought of, anyways. Never actually asked, because I have tact.”

“I’m a journalist. It’s my job to not have tact.”

“Tragedy strikes, news at eleven?”

“Pretty much, yeah.” As much as I might like to imagine myself and my profession as truth-seekers and watchdogs, the reality tended to be far more cynical.

Kat shook her head. “I hate it when that kind of thing happens. It’s so… exploitative.”

“I don’t like it any more than you do.” I sighed. “Why do you think I’m always so pessimistic?”

She opened her mouth to respond, paused, started to say something, then stopped again. Finally, she just said, “That sucks.”

It really did.

Tonto National Forest is the largest of the six national forests in Arizona. Its borders stretch from the edge of the Phoenix metro area all the way upstate to the Mogollon Rim, extending eastwards from those points for hundreds of miles. Despite the extreme ease of access from nearby population centers, most of the region is devoid of human development or habitation.

In other words, perfect territory for a werewolf pack.

It took us a little over an hour to drive up to the site where the pack was meeting, and it was past five by the time we arrived. The sun was low in the sky, only an hour or so left until sunset, and the trees cast shadows that seemed to stretch to infinity. Most of the pack was already there.

The Phoenix pack was large, as metropolitan packs generally are, including almost every werewolf living in the city and its surrounding suburbs. Of the three metro packs in the state (four, if you counted the cross-border Nogales pack), ours was the largest, with 34 members, but only about two-thirds of that number would show up on a given weekend.

I parked the car off the side of the Forest Service road, making sure to put a reasonable distance between my car and the others. We had all the necessary permits to be here, but it still wouldn’t do to draw too much attention by having us all park together. You never know who might see.

We got out of the car and hiked over to where the rest of the pack was waiting.

It was a rather eclectic group, reflecting the nature of the city we called home. The only thing any of us had in common with everyone else there was our lycanthropy, and that’s not a homogeneous demographic by any means. But the bond of shared experience is a pretty powerful unifying force, and here in this forest were the only other people who understand exactly what it was like to be a werewolf.

That’s the real point of packs, you see. In the wild, wolves hunt in packs because it’s the only way to take down large game. But for werewolves, the pack is a coping mechanism. It is, essentially, a support group. Albeit one with strange and complex internal dynamics, but that’s an artifact of our lupine halves trying to form an actual wolf pack out of our peer group.

One of those artifacts is the alpha. If there’s an internal hierarchy of dominance, then someone has to be at the top. That person isn’t necessarily the biggest, or the strongest, or even the best fighter, but they are always the undisputed top dog. In Phoenix, that man was Tony Reyes.

As alphas go, Reyes is one of the better ones. He doesn’t try to order us around, and tends to be very hands-off in general. His job, as he once explained to me, is to keep the pack safe. That means preventing and mediating conflicts, coordinating our weekend excursions, and in general doing what needs to be done to keep the pack from splintering apart.

The fact that nobody has or wants to challenge him speaks volumes about his ability in that regard.

He was the one the pack was waiting for. Nobody wanted to leave until he arrived.

It was another half hour before his truck pulled in down the service road, causing an almost audible release of tension among the assembled lycanthropes. Every minute spent waiting was an agonizing battle, not just between human and wolf, but also between the lupine need to shift and the instinct to follow the alpha.

Reyes hiked over towards us, projecting an air of confidence and power that was at odds with his five-and-a-half foot frame. It was the attitude of an alpha, and it was why twenty or so lycanthropes were willing to wait for him.

“Evening everyone!” He called out, prompting a chorus of replies. “Sorry for making you all wait so long, there was a snafu with Miller and Byrd’s flights home, had to help sort it out.” He did a quick count of our numbers. “Is this everyone?”

“Larson’s group got delayed,” someone said. Probably Klein, based on the voice.

“Well they’ll just have to catch up then,” Reyes said. “Wouldn’t be fair to make everyone wait any longer.” Without another word, he struck off into the forest, leaving us to follow.

It wasn’t a long walk, just far enough to be out of sight of the road, plus another hundred yards or so. There was a kind of hollow in the hillside here, just deep enough for a pack of wolves to shelter in. The whole place smelled strongly of werewolves, of the pack. This was where we usually went on weekends.

Once inside the den, people began stripping off their clothes, entirely unconcerned about modesty. Shapeshifting doesn’t take clothing into account, so werewolves learn pretty quickly to stop caring about nudity around packmates. Clothes start to get expensive if you’re replacing them every other week.

Anyways, modesty was a purely human value, and right now the wolf held sway.

I pulled off my shirt and tossed it towards the back of the den. All around me, the pack was already starting to shift – bones breaking and moving, skin stretching, fur sprouting from every pore. I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t have to watch. There’s no graceful way to go from plantigrade biped to digitigrade quadruped, and definitely not in the space of a few seconds.

I felt tears welling up in my eyes as they started to change – the eyes were always the first thing to go. My wolf was pushing even harder now, desperate to join the rest of the pack, and she was gaining the upper hand. With a last effort of will, I held back the rising pressure just long enough to get my sweatpants off.

And then I released the pressure, letting the wolf explode out of me in a flood.

I didn’t even have time to scream as my bones shattered.


Continued in Part Four

One comment

  1. Here we go with Part Three. This one is just over 4000 words, which is part of why it took so long to get here. Spent most of the day doing last minute edits.
    Anyways, this one will be the last of the intro chapters that I’ve been doing, with the main plot picking up in part four.

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