Appetizers – a story

This was a story I wrote for a friend of mine and Amanda’s. It was her birthday and this was my gift. It changed a LOT along the way, but I am pretty happy with how it came together.

Appetizers

She shouldn’t be out this far, out this late, and certainly not alone. She knew better. Only, sometimes she didn’t. Not really. She had been coming out here, into the heart of the forest, for the past six months; coming out for a late night picnic once a month to toast the things that were, could be, and would never come to pass. Her family traveled a lot and this was one place she could feel at home and at peace. She had been coming here since she had quit college, figuring this was as good a place as any to drown her sorrows with some booze and black thoughts. She had since moved on with her life, working jobs she didn’t love but could live with and working on the comic she’d been drawing since she was thirteen and hoping for a break. Thirteen seemed like a long time ago now, too long to still be doing it how she was doing it that was for sure, but here, under the stars, and beneath a full moon, everything seemed possible. Everything seemed real.

Even the incredible.

She took a last drink of her fifth beer then dropped it back into the pack to grab the last bottle and open it. Once opened, she placed the beer beside her and picked her newest issue up again, the familiar warmth that came when she got another one together filling her. This was the one, this was it – if this one didn’t get her some notice then it really was time to do like so many of her peers said and to just let it go. It was never as easy as that though. Never that easy to let go of the things you loved once you had them in hand. But maybe it was time to let go and move on. Whatever that meant.

She lay the book down onto her blanket and grabbed some crackers and cheese from the basket with her food and started putting the two together. There was a chill in the air and she shivered against it and wished she had more beer or something harder. Just as she was considering this though there was a distant sound of branches breaking. The young woman lay the food down and turned her attention to the trees.

The night was still, the sound of night creatures having died down and even the bugs suddenly silent. She breathed shallowly and strained to hear what sounds she could as her heart raced. The sound came again, as if someone was roaming the woods nearby, but trying to be quiet. The young woman pulled her shoes back on and cursed herself for having worn a skirt. If it came to running she wasn’t going to get very far in it that much was certain and it was good sense then that she had held to her grandmother’s credo and had worn panties. If it came to it she could ditch the skirt and make a run for it in her underwear. She was years removed from track, a lot of years removed, but she hadn’t stopped running, so she had a chance. She got herself into a crouching position and strained to listen more closely. It was quiet again but she could hear, if she really concentrated, and heard the faint sound of something moving not far from her. How had she let this happen? She was usually so conscious of her surroundings, heck, overly conscious if truth be told, yet she had zoned out and something had gotten close. She hoped it was just the beer. She reached into the basket and grabbed a napkin that held something heavy and pulled it free and laid it in front of her as she checked her surroundings. Her picnic area was in a clearing deep in the woods, far enough away from the campers, drunks, and horny teens that filled these woods for her to have a meal in peace. The trees here were taller, and wider, and the grass was thicker and softer. Beyond the clearing, her clearing as she thought of it, the trees were smaller and closer together and there were deadfalls and marshy areas. The woods, as she had found the first time she had come out here, were dangerous, and had she not gotten lucky that time, she might not be here to be in danger again. Back then she had found a marshy area while wandering around at night and had fallen in and had been very lucky to get free.

More movement.

Whatever it was out there, it was getting either impatient or bold. She was patient though, and patience would win out tonight. She glanced in the direction of where the sound had come from and thought she saw darkness against the shadows, something moving from place to place, and each moment inching closer. She took her attention away from what was before her and looked to the back of the clearing and saw the path that lead deeper into the woods and toward the marshes and beyond those to the road. It was about a mile to the road if she went that way but the marsh would slow her down. She looked beside her and saw the path she had happened on not that long ago – a small path that some kids must have used years earlier and which was overgrown but still visible. This path would take her near to whatever was out there but would also take her toward the camp grounds, which were two miles away from the road but which were only a half mile away themselves. It was the more dangerous but the smarter path. She grabbed up the napkin with one hand and then reached over and grabbed some food from the basket and threw it towards the far path, where it landed noisily. As soon as it landed she moved, crouch-walking as she went, onto the nearer path and made her way deep enough to be hidden. Whatever was in the brush grew impatient and rushed through the trees and into the clearing, where it knocked over her camping lantern and the small stove she had brought with her. She had caught sight of a dark shape and fur but lost those when the lantern was knocked over. The air became suddenly warmer with the stranger here and there was a scent of wet fur. She waited a moment and heard the stranger head down the far path and as soon as she heard its footsteps retreating she began moving quickly away. She blessed the stars that she hadn’t had to remove her skirt as the path opened and cleared the further along it she got until it was wide enough for her to run unabated. As she ran the sounds of the forest returned and she was thankful for that as well.

A drunk.

Or a kid.

Someone had been out there far enough to see her fire, had gotten nosy, and she had gotten scared for good reason. You couldn’t be too careful out this far, not when there were animals that walked on four or two legs roaming the night.

She saw light ahead and sprinted as fast as she could. She slowed as she neared, not wanting to look like an idiot kid, scared of shadows but as soon when she entered the camp. Everywhere she looked there were beer cans, and sitting beside the fire was a can of kerosene, and beside the kerosene sat an old woman who was deep asleep. The young woman smiled at the scene and cursed her luck at the same time. She was safe, just so long as that kerosene didn’t blow. She walked into the circle of light from the campfire and changed hands that the napkin and its contents were in and made her way to the old lady. From the darkness of the camper came a voice.

“Shhh, now, don’t go wakin’ her, girl, no maam. She had a long day, long day and longer night. You let her sleep. Now what are you doin’ creepin’ around out here in the dark, little girl?”

“Oh, sorry to startle you mister. I just, I uh, I got lost out here and was hopin’, well I was hopin’ you could point me to the road. Pretty dumb, huh?” She hefted the napkin to the other hand again.

“Well, no maam, it ain’t that dumb at all, really. Dangerous place for a young girl, and worse than that, it’s a dangerous night with a moon like that and all.” The man smiled and his smile was all teeth. The girl took the napkin in both hands and began slipping the covering free as she took a step backward toward the shadow and away from the light.

As soon as she was out of the circle of light that came from the fire she became aware of the woods again, and that they were silent and full of the scent of wet fur again.

They weren’t alone.

The girl spun around and saw only trees and darkness, though the scent of fur was strong. She squinted her eyes but couldn’t make out anything. She was just wondering what to do next when a sound from behind her caught her attention again. She turned and the fire was out in the camp and only the dim red light of the embers remained. The man was on his knees, bent over and cowering as something held him down, its jaws wide. The thing was at least eight feet tall and stood on its hind legs, its entire body covered in thick, matted fur that was just a shade lighter than the night. The thing’s head looked like it was made up of only a mouth, which was wide, its head thrown back in a silent howl. The thing leaned forward and pulled the man up easily, lifting him to his feet then off them as the man writhed against his captor. The thing seemed to smile at the young woman, its green eyes glowing as it stepped toward her. It was mocking her. The man was a pawn. It was she that it wanted. The thing grabbed the man with both hands, one on his head, the other on his throat, and brought him up to its mouth. The thing opened its jaws and lowered its head so that its mouth hung over the man’s prone throat and as it watched her, its smile broadened.

And hers began.

The young woman’s smile seemed to light the dark camp as she stepped forward and her boldness and lack of fear pushed the wolf back a step. It lowered its prey and tilted its head to the side. She kept coming, dropping the napkin and holding her prize to her side as she came. As she neared it the wolf whimpered. It wasn’t used to this. She should be screaming, or running, or begging, but not approaching. Never that. Still she came. And as she neared it the wolf’s scent filled her nostrils and turned her stomach. It wasn’t just wet furs she smelled but its recent diet, and that whatever it had been eating lately wasn’t agreeing with it. She finally came to a stop in the center of the camp, beside the fading embers and let her smile burn bright.

The wolf was enraged.

How dare this meat mock it? How dare it not lie down and play dead.

The wolf dropped the man and snarled as it stepped forward, its claws clicking as its paws opened and closed, opened and closed. It leaned towards her and growled, long runners of drool dripping from its teeth as it did. It crouched down and lowered its shoulders, preparing to leap the final ten feet. It was done playing with this meat. It was time to eat.

The young woman, seeing this, only laughed and wagged her finger at it, which sent a chill down the wolf’s spine and stopped it cold.

“You, my friend, are in desperate need of a bath. You stink.”

The wolf tipped its head to the side, stunned at what she had said but in another instant its chest was on fire and that inner flame spread quickly to its arms, legs, and head. It let out a howling scream and fell to its knees as black blood began to pour from its mouth and nostrils. The wolf clutched at its chest and saw that the fur was receding and felt its body shrinking. It tried to howl but out came an all too human whimper. It fell forward and shivered against the cold night that the fire burning in its chest could not fight. The wolf, now a teenage boy, whimpered and reached out for the woman who had shot him as she approached. All he wanted was something, some sign that his passing would be mourned but all she had for him was disgust as she walked past him and toward the old man. The boy died then, naked and alone, and mourned by none.

“GAH! This is getting old. I mean really? Is that all that is out there, these stupid boys and their stupid power trips?” The young woman, feeling like a teenager herself, sat heavily into the camping chair as her father dusted himself off.

“Now, now, now honey. This is just another lost boy, like a hundred others we’ve met on the way. You know how it is – these kid are turned and it’s scary at first but in time it becomes better than any video game or sport they ever played. They get so caught up in being the wolf that they forget to be the person beneath. Hell, you were like that at first too.”

“I was not. Well, not for long at least.” She laughed and her father joined her as her mother sang a song of snores from her own chair.

“You were born into this my dear and taught not to worship the wolf and forget the woman, but to honor and serve both. These dumb kids are brought up on movies and games and if they don’t get themselves killed in the first week then they become these ridiculous movie monsters. But I promise you honey, out there somewhere is a man that is gonna sweep you off your feet and who will fit into our pack. I promise.”

The girl turned to her father and he ruffled her long hair as she smiled weakly.

“You really promise?”

“I sure do. I am guessing though that you can’t keep looking in the woods for Mr. Right though. Just a thought. Anyway, let’s clean this mess up and get packed up and get out of here. You go get your stuff and I’ll take care of this big galoot.”

The young woman watched as her father easily lifted the teen boy and hefted him over his shoulder and dropped him into the fire. He knew she didn’t like this part of it, the burning of the body, but knew too that it had to be done. A silver bullet would kill the wolf, but the human could live through it, though live through it as a sort of ghost, the body alive but the soul dead, the body simply moving about without guidance and always getting into trouble. No, the body had to be burned, killed, but it wasn’t something she enjoyed. She trudged back into the forest and hefted the gun, a present from her uncle the year earlier. Hunters, he had told her, need their gun and this is yours. She was tired of being a hunter though, hunting down rogue wolves who didn’t belong to a pack and who lived only to kill. She wanted more. She wanted a mate. She went back to her picnic and packed everything up and made her way back to her parents.

As she neared she was happy to see that the body was gone, consumed by an inferno that raged ten feet into the air. Mother was still deep asleep but dad had packed everything else up and was sitting with a beer beside the fire, watching to make sure it didn’t get out of hand. Seeing his daughter he smiled and stood, and she headed for him.

“I nearly forgot – a little bird tells me that your new comic is done, is that true”

She blushed and shrugged. She was always nervous when it came to the comic, the one thing that felt so personal that she couldn’t help but be shy about it.

“Well, what if I told you I booked you a table at the comic convention in the city?”

“WHHHHAT? Are you kidding me?”

She looked at her father with sheer amazement.

“Well, now, I mean, we gotta get some more of your comics printed up first, but yeah, I booked it last week. Now, I expect you to pay me back for it but, I figure after you get a contract at the convention that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Whatever dad. It doesn’t work that way. Dork.”

“Well, maybe and maybe not but if nothing else, it’ll be a good place to meet people.” Her dad winked at her in the shifting firelight.

“I don’t think there are a lot of wolf-boys at these things dad, just smelly, smelly nerds.”

“Baby, I think you have had enough wolf-boys, it’s time for a wolf-man!”

“Oh my god, you are ridiculous, let’s wake mom and get out of here.”

Father and daughter were laughing as they finished packing the camper and put out the fire, the body in it all but ash now. It took a few minutes but they managed to wake mother and filled her in on the night’s fun she had missed as they moved the camper away from their camp and into the darkness, and back on the road, where their pack belonged.

Like it? Check out my book This  Beautiful Darkness, it’s only ten bucks!

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