The sun slunk low behind the canopy as we made our way deeper into the woods. It wasn’t low enough yet that the pockets of light were weaker or smaller, but it was low enough that sunbeams hit at crazy angles. You could still feel the difference in the air between the sun and the shade. And you could still see the way the light changed the color of his skin and made the sweat shine, or revealed the true dark brown of his eyes.
I really fucking loved this time of the day.
We were walking to the river — my spot, the one I went to when I needed to be alone and think about stuff. I still brought my fishing pole, even though there weren’t any fish any more; it was nice to go through the motions, to keep the stuff my dad taught me when he was still around. I don’t have a lot of stuff to remember him by, and it’s important to me that I do.
As far as I knew, no one else came here. So showing him this place was a big deal. But I wanted to make tonight special for both of us — we weren’t used to being open with people, letting them into our secret places. Like almost everybody our age, we armored ourselves against a world we expected to be hostile. The closer people were to you, the more likely they were to hurt you.
Which is why I couldn’t believe we had gotten so close. I met him just five months ago after his family moved here from out west; he didn’t like to talk about his life before, and I couldn’t blame him. It sounded like he didn’t have the best relationship with his dad, and though his stepdad was around that was…complicated. His mother was checked out, as far as I could tell, watching soaps and talk shows all day, making canned or boxed shit for dinner. They didn’t care where he went or what he did. So he hung out with me.
We went to school, of course. I’m trying to get into college so I can get the fuck out of here, and I know he’s smart enough to come with me. But when we talk about it he gets real nervous, like it’s some new thing to be frightened of that he had never thought about before. I don’t push him, but I want to. Life doesn’t have to be this way for him. For either of us. We can get out of here and actually give a shit about people. We don’t have to be scared of the world.
We were close enough to the water that I can hear it. It’s a quiet tinkle under the sound of the wind and leaves. It calmed me down, but he just seemed to get more and more nervous. I watched him, a little ways ahead of me, looking around at every sound, lifting his nose up like some kind of squirrel, like he could actually smell something. Even though it wasn’t that hot, he was sweating enough that his shirt clung to his back. I could see the shape of his shoulder blades and the thin muscle moving around them. I loved to pat him there or put my arm around him, letting it linger just a little longer than it should. He never pulled away. Did he know? He had to know, right?
The river came up suddenly. One minute, you’re in the middle of the woods and then there’s this drop of about three feet. Right below you was a short little bank with exposed root and stones, and then a thin little river, just big enough to be fast. In the summer, you could wade in it up to your thighs in the middle; now, it was just a little bigger. I guess the snow in the mountains was starting to melt or something. I don’t know where the water comes from.
I hopped down to the bank first, and he came in after me. It was completely shaded here, and with the cold water right next to us the air was almost chilly. I stepped close to look at him, to feel his heat on me. He was almost feverishly hot now. He kept looking away from me and up towards the trees. What was he looking at?
“So this is it,” I said. I tried to sound relaxed, but with what I wanted to say and the way he was so wound up I couldn’t really make it work.
“Yeah.” His voice was smooth, like he and the river went together. “It’s nice.” He watched the sun set, then sat down when he couldn’t see it any more. I sat with him and we let the evening settle in silence. When it got dark enough, I brought out the flashlight. He flinched when I turned it on.
“Listen, I have something to tell you.” I rose up on my knees and turned to face him. I could feel my palms getting sweaty now, nerves and anticipation all getting my body ready for that rush of relief. I was at the top of the roller coaster, getting ready to take the plunge. It was scary, but I knew that once I dropped momentum would carry me the rest of the way. It would be fun, and fast, and frightening.
“I figured,” he said. He turned to face me too, and he grunted as he did, doubled over for a second. “I have something…to tell you too.”
“You OK?” It looked like his stomach hurt, bad.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” He rose up, breathing hard. Almost panting. He smiled though, to reassure me. “I’m fine.”
“OK then.” I don’t know why I set that worry aside, but I did. “On three, we both say it. Ready? One…two…three!”
“I love you,” I said.
“I’m a werewolf,” he said.
I looked at him, stunned. He stared at me close, waiting for my reaction. It was like what I had said didn’t even register to him yet.
I laughed in his face. “What? Quit playing.” I reached for his hand, but he pulled it away.
“I’m not playing.” He was definitely panting now, and still sweating even though I was at the point where I wish I had a jacket. He let out this weird noise and doubled over again, then pulled up. “I…you know how I like to go out camping with my stepdad?”
I nodded, but then realized he wasn’t looking at me. “Yeah?” That was all I could say. What the fuck was this?
“It’s…we go out into the woods so people don’t see us. When we can. Otherwise….ughh!…we hang out in our basement.”
Suddenly the night seemed a lot darker. The flashlight wasn’t nearly bright enough. This was it. This was why people didn’t do this kind of shit. “What…what are you talking about?”
“Here…I’ve…I’ve just got to…show you. You can use the flashlight if you want.”
I picked it up and shone it on him. I could feel myself go numb. Was this dude crazy, or what? Did I just take myself out into the woods with some guy who was about to kill me? Should I run?
He clutched his stomach and growled. It was a real, honest-to-God growl, like an animal would make. I heard this muffled pop, like when someone cracks your back, and then he made this whimper of relief. Another pop, and a there was this gasp of surprise. Then another, and another.
His clothes ripped around his spine, just like in the movies. Black fur pushed out of the hole, and then he heaved up while still on his knees, making the tear bigger. His voice changed, got rougher, like a bunch of rocks tumbling together.
He put his hands on the ground, almost like he wanted me to see what was happening to them. The fingers got long and weird, and his nails got dark and shiny, grew out to points. I could hear his skin stretching, and all of his clothes breaking, buttons popping off, the whole thing. Hair was sprouting out everywhere, that walnut-brown skin curling up between the strands like it was an illusion melting away.
He…it…whatever was in front of me growled again, and this time it’s completely not him but some weird cross between a wolf and a bear. I brought up the flashlight and two eyes flashed back from the beam. There was a glimpse of teeth, fangs as big as my little finger and pushing out bigger.
Its breathing was this noise that was half-wheeze, half-growl. It kept staring at me as it changed, all hunched over, getting closer even though it wasn’t moving. It just kept getting bigger, growling louder, starting to loom.
I have no idea how long it took before its shape finally settled, but I do know it was this huge, terrible thing growling right in front of my face. It looked at me and pinned its ears back, then rocked back onto its haunches. When its back straightened, the remains of its shirt slid off of its fur and its head rose high above me. It looked…relieved. Its breathing steadied, a rhythmic bellow.
“I haven’t told anyone,” it said. “But you…I knew you would understand. I had to tell you because…because I love you too.”
It reached out for me. All I saw was the flash of claws longer than my fingers. Something…something I had no idea was lurking inside my head leapt up and took hold. I couldn’t control myself. I jumped up, I screamed, and God help me…I ran.
“Wait!” The beast roared behind me and I ran faster. I don’t remember much about anything until I was out of the woods and booking across the empty lot that separated the projects where I lived from the little patch of park that was my private spot. But I do remember looking up to see the full moon peeking over the building.
And I remember how lonely the howl sounded as it bounced off the high rises.