How Like Wolves
Andrea Gibbons is just trying to get by in her small town of Rome, Texas, where there are more cows than people, because half the people are werewolves. Her family is recovering from the death of her brother last year, and things start changing as a stranger comes into town. Between family rivalries, ancient bloodlines, past relationships, and new terrors, Andrea isn’t sure she’s going to survive.
The sun beat down on Andrea’s Camry as she drove down FM-109. She was used to the old road, which was more dirt than concrete, and she could let her mind wander as the familiar bumps hit her seat. It was Sunday anyway, and most everyone would be up at the Hickory Baptist Church. To her right fields and fields of yellow-green crops rolled by, and to the left was the wide open plain of the Riser ranch. Cows sat together in the shade of an old oak tree far off, where they’d put in a pond for them to sit by. When she was eight years old Sammy Riser had pushed her into that pond, which at the time had been infested with mosquitos and horseflies, and she’d cried so hard he’d had to come over the next day to apologize. She’d run the whole length of the ranch with him and their friends when they were young, trying to scare cows and chasing after cats and pretending they were big dogs in such a small world.
The memories made her feel hollow in her chest, and she pushed down on the accelerator. She was already going thirty miles over the 50 mile an hour speed limit, but there weren’t really any cops in Rome, at least not out here. They let Lester Kinney be sheriff and he handled all the problems, unless something got so bad they needed anyone else. Rome was one of the smallest places in the world, it felt like anyway, certainly in Texas. Andrea had to imagine there other places like this one, but it didn’t feel that way. She remembered when she was five years old, and her whole family drove to San Antonio, and she’d cried and cried when they’d gone back, because she didn’t want to leave, because she couldn’t stand living in a world that was so small, even then.
She swallowed down that memory too, and now she was pushing ninety. She let her foot off the accelerator and slid her hand over the dashboard. They got three radio stations this far out, but she found a Beyonce song playing and turned the volume all the way up.
It was that sort of morning. Most days Andrea worked part time up at the Food Town in the part of Rome that could be called a town. It was her first day off after working a six day week, and she’d been prepared to sleep in, maybe feel a little guilty for not being at church, but she hadn’t been since she was thirteen, so maybe not that guilty, cook breakfast or brunch for her and her sister, and spend the whole day in her pajamas. It’d be a fine day, but her dad had gone out last night with the boys, as he always said, and when he went out with the boys, he didn’t come home until the day broke, and even that was only sometimes. Leon Tyre had called her, because he’d stayed out when all the other boys had gone in, and she was usually the only one who had any hope of reeling him back.
She sighed as she hit the stoplight that told her she was in town now. Rome wasn’t very large. FM-109 led right into town central, where thin buildings made up shops, bars, and the few amenities they had. Everything had a flat top and was taller than it was long, bleached by the sun into an off-brown, making it feel like a child had constructed it out of cardboard. To the east and west were little rows of houses, primarily shacks but the occasional construction project from this century. There was no highway nearby. It was a good forty minutes before you even hit I-10. The sky was clear and blue above her, the morning sun already too bright, and the trees and fields went on forever. Sometimes it was like the rest of the world didn’t even exist. Andrea was still stuck in 1789 when blood first shed and the only difference was now she could text someone when it was driving her insane.
The empty gas tank light blinked on as she pulled through the stop, and she grimaced. Turning left into the Exxon station, she tried to glimpse through the dusty window to see who was working this shift. As she placed the gas nozzle in her car, she considered what the appropriate thing was to do in this situation. It’d been more than a year, after all. They were both grown adults now, who didn’t get chased out of J’s Liquor Friday nights, who could be civil to each other if they so desired. Letting the tank fill, she pushed open the door to the gas station. The familiar bell jingled behind her, and Rosemary looked up from the magazine she was reading behind the counter.
“It’s early,” she said, flipping a page. She was propped up on her elbows, dirty blond hair tied loosely into a ponytail over her left shoulder. She always said she’d cut it, but every year it grew another inch. Her pink lips were quirked up, a good sign, because when Rosemary was mad or annoyed you knew it. Her nails had been painted a highlighter orange maybe a week ago, now chipped at the tips, the nailbeds pushed out. Her eyes were a shade of brown that made Andrea bite her lip, only because she’d spent their entire senior year of high school staring into them.
“I’m picking up my dad,” Andrea said. “How’s the gas station business treating you?”
Rosemary shrugged and stood straight, tossing the magazine back onto the rack. She wore the red t-shirt and black slacks as well as any human could be asked to, no nametag, no one needed it in this town. She put her hands on her hips and looked over Andrea.
“It’s always the same around here, you know that.” She frowned, and in someone with such pretty features, it gave her such a hard stone look. “What’s your dad up to now?”
“The usual.” Andrea grabbed an iced coffee from the fridge and a to-go cup of Fruit Loops. “He and the boys went out drinking last night.”
Rosemary rolled her eyes. “‘The boys.’ It’s morning now, he can’t drive himself home?”
She placed them in front of her, fingers twitching slightly. Rosemary was going to make fun of her for not getting milk to go with that cereal. ‘That’s what they give babies,’ she used to say. But Rosemary didn’t notice, she was already getting worked up over how John Gibbons spent his evenings.
“You know how he gets,” Andrea said with a shrug. “Leon told me he needed some help.”
“One of these days you need to leave him,” Rosemary said as she pounded the numbers into the register. “Let him figure out his own life.”
“It’s not just his life, is it?”
Rosemary’s mouth became a line. She was holding it all in, and Andrea felt bad for even bringing it up. Rosemary had been the most important person in her life for at least half the time they’d gone out together. In high school Andrea had figured out she’d liked kissing girls as much as boys, and she and Rosemary would sit in the bleachers around the football field and do just that. They’d dated for three whole years, the longest on record, but Andrea was a Gibbons, and with that came more baggage than Rosemary was willing to handle. Near the end there’d been fights, and shouting, and they’d broken it off. It’d been impossible to avoid each other, so they’d tried being friends, which went fairly well until moments like these. It felt a little too much like they were dating still, like Andrea was trying to bridge gaps that Rosemary couldn’t even see.
“He’ll be fine by tonight,” Andrea said, hoping that finished the conversation. “How long do you work today?”
“Until three.” Rosemary didn’t bother with the bag, sliding the items back towards her as the receipt printed out. “You don’t have to go in today, do you?”
Andrea shook the Fruit Loops cup as she grabbed it and smiled at her. “It’s my day off.”
Rosemary waved as she walked out and climbed back into the car. Andrea held the iced coffee in her hands for a minute. The condensation cooled her hands. Five minutes with the AC off, and the steering wheel was already too warm to hold onto. She let the air blast as she ripped off the top of the cup and grabbed a fistful of Fruit Loops that she shoved into her mouth. She had to drive through town to get to the Tyre land, and she followed the road straight. It was another twenty minutes through the blur of farmland before she found the entrance to their driveup. They had about five square acres, and large trees lined the land to the north. She wondered if they’d bought more and just let it run wild, but no developers were ever interested in building up Rome. The unkempt land could stretch on for another mile, plenty of room to run.
Lynne was waiting on the front porch. She was pushing towards fifty, but her hair had already gone completely white, and her skin was nutmeg brown, the hint of a tattoo on her hip as she stood up to greet her. She smiled as Andrea walked up.
“You weren’t waiting on me, were you?” Andrea asked as she hopped up the porch steps. The Tyre house had been rebuilt sixty years ago, and the white wood had started to fade again, though she could see the spots Leon had tried to repaint, and ancient red and yellow crayon marks still decorated beneath the front windowsill. Their youngest Rex was thirteen now.
“A moment of peace,” Lynne said. “Those kids were hollering.”
Andrea pulled back the screen door to the front hall, and she could hear Marianne’s loud voice over her brothers. Marianne was five years older than Andrea, and she usually spent her weekends sleeping over at her boyfriend’s place in San Antonio, the rest of her time helping out at the vet’s office in town. She shared her mother’s strong nose, all the children did, but like her brothers she had her father’s eyes, a hazel so bright they were practically gold. Robin was the one Andrea had spent the most amount of time with, since he was her age, and as he grew older it was clear how much more he took after his father with his straight dark hair and broad shoulders. He stood when she came in, throwing his arms around her. Rex looked on with a bored expression, sweeping up syrup with the last piece of a pancake.
“Leon’ll be down in a minute,” Lynne said as she made her way into the kitchen. “Do you want a pancake?”
Andrea shook her head. “I’m all good on breakfast, Mrs. Tyre.”
She made a face. “You know I like it when you call me Lynne.”
“Calm down, mom,” Marianne said with an eyeroll that used every muscle in her face.
“When people call you ‘missus’ is when you start feeling old,” she said simply. “Something you’ll understand one day, I hope.”
“Mom!” Marianne flipped her long dark hair over her shoulders. She had a lot more curl to it, and it bounced. “I’ll have you know Jose and I are taking our time.”
“Judging by how many weekends you spend over there, not long enough.”
Robin grabbed Andrea’s arm and pushed her into the living room before the argument could start up. He had the same smile he always did, and even before he’d grown into his own self, he’d had the warm features and necessary muscle to ensure he dated just about every girl in their graduating class, Andrea included. They’d shared a kiss in the sixth grade and had joked about it ever since. Right now he bubbled, which is all he ever did, and every time he talked to her he treated it like they hadn’t spoken in months, even though she bagged his items at the Food Town last Friday afternoon.
“Marianne’s just mad because Jose and her had an argument,” he said. “I’m sorry you got dragged out here on a weekend where we’re all here.”
“I don’t care about that.” She plopped down on the blue couch. Lynne had finally quit smoking about six years ago, and she could still smell it in the fabric. “It reminds me of when we were kids.”
He sat across from her. “How’ve you been?”
She shrugged. “It’s always the same, Robin. What about you? It’s gotta be a nightmare when everyone’s home like this.”
“Nah, it’s fine. Rex is old enough that we can take him hunting now. Dad’s been doing it every Saturday night far as I could tell.”
Her mouth twisted up. “You think that’s alright?”
“There’s no harm in it. I don’t go all the time, but it’s been fun.”
“Does Marianne go too?”
“She says she’s done with it.” He glanced back at the kitchen. “Her and mom argue about marriage, her and dad argue about what happens when she stops coming home. I think she’d give us all up if she could.”
“Giving up what you do isn’t giving up all of y’all.”
“That’s what dad says anyway.” He nodded to the stairs. “He was out of sorts this morning too.”
Andrea shifted in the seat. She could feel the grooves the family had made, the comfortable positions they’d laid in for nearly thirty years. “Rex didn’t go last night, did he?”
“Nah. It was one of those kind of nights, you know.”
“When a bunch of old men get roaring drunk and howl at the moon?”
Heavy footsteps pounded on the old wood stairs, and Leon Tyre came down, still shrugging on a plaid shirt over a white undershirt. He was a big man, and twenty or thirty years ago that might’ve all been muscle. These days he’d settled into patriarch well, playing the part in a big beard peppered with greys, barrel gut from one too many beer, and the sharpness in the eyes of an old man who wasn’t quite ready to admit he was old. He looked at the two of them sitting on the couches and gave a gruff hello towards Andrea.
“He isn’t bad, is he?” Andrea asked.
A worried look passed over his face, but he only gave a shrug. “He’ll be alright once you pull him out of it.”
“I can come with,” Robin said, but Andrea shook her head.
She forced a smile. “It’ll be fine.”
Leon didn’t say anything as they climbed into his truck. He’d never said very much before, but she suspected this was a different kind of silence.
“Is it far?” she asked.
He turned the ignition and started towards the back of the property, where the trees grew thick together. “Too far to run. ‘Sides, I’d rather face him like this.”
She looked at him, thinking about what Robin said. He’d been out of sorts this morning too, probably confused, maybe still drunk. She wondered if Lynne sat up those nights, hoping her husband comes back before dawn, hoping her husband comes back still able to come back. Andrea had stopped waiting up for her dad in high school, when she started worrying after her sister more and more. Back then they’d had Jason, and he’d waited up for dad, and now she didn’t even have him.
She must’ve been making a face, because Leon was looking at her sideways.
“It’s not that bad,” he said.
She brushed her hair over her face. “It’s not–I mean he’s been getting worse, hasn’t he? Since–you know.”
She wanted Leon to say no, of course not. She wanted him to say yes, God yes, and he needs more help than you can give. She wanted him to stop calling her on Sunday mornings because everyone got a little too rowdy. She wanted him to stop saying it like that, like her dad was just a drunk, like a cold shower could fix it. She wanted her dad to stop doing this all together, to come home one day and be well, to hug her and her sister and say it’s going to be alright.
Leon didn’t say anything at all. The truck jumped onto a dirt road that went through the trees, and they drove in silence until they reached the small clearing the boys used for their campouts. In the center, away from the trees and the brush, was a fire pit surrounded by emptied beer cans and charred fat in the ash from the barbeques. They hopped out of the truck, and Leon pointed to the east. Andrea couldn’t tell from here. The wind didn’t carry enough, or maybe it’d just been too long. Or maybe Leon just knew where he’d gone, but she knew what it was like the next day, when smells were sharper and colors were different and everything hurt but in a good way, like you’d worked out all night, and now you were stronger.
There was a small footpath through the trees that wound around. Andrea brushed her hands against the branches that swung low, catching fistfuls of leaves that she dropped to the ground. The ground was almost muddy from the rain a few days ago. The humidity would get worse in the next few weeks, and they’d be broiling. As they walked around the bend, she could sense where her dad was. Leon saw him first, but he was there, huddled in the folds of two trees, shaking slightly. Leon stayed back a few feet, but Andrea wasn’t afraid. Her dad had never hurt her before. Even like this, he knew who she was.
The wolf was large, but he’d tried to curl up as much as possible. His fur was the same auburn color as his hair, starting to grey, and his eyes were the same brown as hers. She held out a hand, and when he smelled her he lifted his wide face. With a stretch he came to his feet, slowly, especially on the left front leg. He’d hurt it in an accident two years ago and it’d never healed quite right since. He looked cold for some reason, despite the heat, shaking like that, and he pushed his head into her hand. She wrapped her arms around his neck and breathed in deep. Dirt and soil and earth, the smoke of the fire, the warmth of whatever meat it was–and it must’ve been a long time since she last changed, since she couldn’t even tell which–underneath a heavy layer of booze. It wasn’t just beers last night, it was hard liquors, whiskey and rum most likely.
“It’s alright, dad,” she said. She stood slowly, pressing her palm to the top of his head. “You just drunk too much. It’s no good sleeping out here like this.”
“He gets too far, I think,” Leon said, “when he’s like this. The wolf part takes over.”
“He just forgets.” She held out her hands, and he placed a paw in it. “Looks like he’s still sobering up. How gone are you, dad?”
The shaking was getting more violent, and he reared back. His hair stood up, making him seem twice the size. The change was always so fast. Most of the time it felt like slipping off a pair of shoes, but to watch it seemed like agony. The hair shrank back into him, the mouth snarling and twisting until those were human teeth in a human jaw, and he was caught momentarily, limbs stretched too long, fingernails still claws, ears pulled back, and then it snapped into her father: the slightly crooked jaw, the faded scar on his cheek, the winter chub piled onto his frame, the five-o-clock shadow that he never quite shaved away. His eyes looked dark and hollowed out, and he stretched his jaw like he was testing it to make sure it’d come back on right. He was still wearing yesterday’s clothes, and they stank worse than he did.
“I ain’t so far gone,” he said. “Just needed a nap. No use calling my daughter, Leon.”
Leon shrugged. “I tried talking to you. She just knows you better.”
Andrea let her dad put his weight on her shoulders. He was a heavy man with a lot of what had once been muscle. They got him back to the truck, and he climbed in the back, laying his head against the back window.
“Dad,” she said, leaning over the back of the truck. “Get in the car.”
“Leave him, Andrea.” Leon waved a hand as he climbed into the front.
She grit her teeth, wanting to argue, but it’d be faster if she just rolled with it. She was satisfied a little while later, as the truck hit a particularly nasty bump, and in the side mirror she watched her dad lean over the side and vomit out whatever they’d been cooking last night.
They didn’t bother to say goodbye to the the Tyre family. Her dad got in her car, window down, which defeated the purpose of the air conditioner. She drove fast down the roads. They passed the little white chapel that was the Christian Fellowship–a sort of non-denominational since most Christians didn’t have to think about werewolves–with all the people pouring out of it. The little coffee shop on the corner of downtown would fill up, and all the families would go to the southern comfort place next to the Texaco. Familiar faces floated past. Andrea sighed as she came to the stoplight again and was forced to put her foot on the brake.
“Christine up yet?” her dad asked, head half out the window. Possible he was going to hurl again, and of course he’d do it off the side of her car.
“No, dad. She was out late last night too.”
He frowned, drawing back in. “She’s seventeen. Where’s she going?”
The answer was most probably in one of the many empty fields anywhere in town with her friends, drinking beers stolen from their parents’ fridges or bought through Mr. Dryer, either chasing bugs as drunk wolves or just laying out as drunk humans getting dirt in their hair. It was what everyone did in high school. It was the only thing you could do.
Andrea rolled her eyes as the light turned green. “At least Christine comes home.”
His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t say anything. That made her angrier. At least rise to my level! But he hadn’t had any proper sleep, and he stank of alcohol and sweat and dirt, and he probably didn’t want to get into an argument with his oldest daughter this early in the morning.
“I like to know who her friends are, is all,” he said, sitting back.
“You could start by asking.”
“You brought your friends around the house all the damn time.”
“Which you complained about.”
He shook his head. “Seems a shame. She at least hanging around any of the families?”
“I think all her friends are in town,” was all Andrea said.
It always came back to the families. The Gibbons were the disappointment. Their line was near dried up. Her mom had died when they were young, no relatives left. Andrea wanted a child like she wanted a silver bullet, and Christine didn’t want anything at all right now except to run around at night with her friends. This was it, the end of a legacy. And like Marianne, who didn’t want to be a werewolf now that she’d seen the world, lots of the older kids were starting to give up on family ties and obligations. Being a werewolf in Rome was fine. No one said a thing about it, not even the in-towners, who accepted it without really talking about it. But outside of Rome it made you strange. The last generation was going out into the world and finding a lot better things to fight over than a few acres of land and the right to chase squirrels under moonlight.
They pulled up to the house. The Gibbons once owned ten acres, but the land had taken back what it was owed, and all around the edges were tall trees and tall grass. Their house wasn’t very large, rebuilt last in the 1970s, with a room for each Gibbons and a large porch for laying out on. The gravel road rocked beneath her car, and she pulled under what counted as a garage. They walked in through the kitchen. Her dad eyed the dirty dishes piling up in the sink, and no doubt he could smell the old takeout containers that had long gone bad in the fridge. The pipes rattled whenever they wanted water, and they’d taken to filling up jugs with the old pump in the back, which somehow managed to pull up fresh water after all these years. In the winters the shower never got warm, and while AC had been installed so they wouldn’t die each summer, there was no heat, meaning right now there was a closet with three heaters stacked on top of each other. It was home sweet home.
Her dad only grunted at the mess and went to his room, shutting the door. Andrea walked around a bit, tossing trash into a plastic bag and kicking over empty water bottles, until she was sure she heard him hit the ancient mattress. She was rewarded not two minutes later with is wall-shaking snores. Sweeping off the couch, she plopped down, pulling a musty pillow over her face.
She must’ve slept a while, because when she opened her eyes next the clock said noon, and Christine was in front of her, digging through the pile of discarded shoes. Christine and Andrea didn’t look too much alike most of the time. Andrea took after her father, sharing his strong jaw, auburn shaggy hair, and large shoulders. Christine was blond and wore makeup most of the time, making her look older, and she also dressed up a lot more than Andrea. Her face was smaller, her eyes a shade of green, and she smiled most of the time. Right now she wore a jean skirt over leggings and was lacing up some boots. She’d applied lipstick a shade of red that made Andrea suspicious.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
Christine looked up, putting on her best baby eyes, which were pretty good. “Marcus and Miranda want to drive to the movies.”
The nearest movie theater was an hour away and usually not worth it to go. “What’re you going to see?”
She shrugged. “Can’t I go out with my friends?”
“Who’re Marcus and Miranda?” asked Andrea, who also didn’t really know her sister’s social circle. She’d hung around in-towners mostly, whose history was not written in blood, and therefore she didn’t bring them to their small, werewolf-laden home.
“They’re my friends,” she said, as if that explained everything. “I promise I’ll be back by five.”
“Dad thinks you shouldn’t stay out all night.”
Her smile turned to a pout. “Did you tell him what you think of his staying out all night?”
“I’m just telling you what he said.”
She grabbed her purse off the chair and tossed it over her shoulder. “Well I’m not staying out all night, and if I did he isn’t likely to notice anyway.”
Andrea sat up, pulling her knees to her chest. “You’ll be back by five?”
“I said, didn’t I?”
With that she flounced out the door. Andrea grabbed a hair tie off the table and pulled her hair back. She’d sweated through her clothes in her slumber, but she was too lazy to change. The air was still in the house and suffocating. She pushed open the back door and stepped out into the afternoon heat.
It’d been easier at some point, she thought as she walked towards the property line. There’d been a fence years and years ago, but it’d worn away, and the trees had grown through it. Dad was still boozing, but she didn’t worry about him half as much. Christine was still running around, but when she came home they felt like a family. Most Sundays they could get everyone around the table, or the Dixon’s would invite them all over. A year ago they’d had Jason, the best big brother a girl could ask for, and he’d done the worrying. He’d gone out with dad and kept him from drinking too much, or he’d stayed up with Andrea while they waited on Christine, or he’d cooked Sunday dinner after she’d had a long shift at the Food Town. He smiled easily, and his eyes were bright, and even when things were bad, he’d managed to make them smile. Jason had made it easy to live in that small house with those people. He’d made them a family.
And then he’d died. Throat slit in the night. Body dumped by the highway. Lester Kinney came to their house and talked in a quiet voice to their father, who’d turned white. Christine and Andrea hadn’t gone to the police station with him. They were told to sit still, and he’d come and get them if he needed. They didn’t see their brother again until the funeral. Christine had cried the whole time. Andrea had stood stock still, face blank, sorrow so deep a well inside her that all she could see was the rising darkness.
Her father had gone to Marty Heddin, and Andrea would never know the words spoken between them, but she did know Sheriff Kinney had to be called to break them apart. The Heddins and the Gibbons had hated each other since before the families’ blood was tainted, and there used to be a lot more fighting, the sort of fighting that ended with people dead. Sheriff Kinney had told them all that none of the families could be blamed for this. Andrea suspected as much. An angry werewolf did not neatly slit a throat. If two of them fought, it was teeth bared, fur flying, and not much of a carcass left to examine. But it’d made the families wary again, and the bad blood had risen. Oh they’d always gotten along with the Dixons, but Lewis Dixon, who was only sixteen, had scraped up Reggie Luppen, and then Ernest Heddin and his brothers had started hanging around town, causing trouble if any of the boys came around. Lester Kinney had dragged them by their ears back to their mother.
And the Gibbons had just fallen apart. Christine stopped talking about her life at all and disappeared at all hours with her friends. John drank himself into a stupor every night, and would disappear for days as a wolf. It was about that time things went bad between Andrea and Rosemary, who didn’t understand all the fighting. She’d never understood about the families, not really, and she stopped giving quarter to her father, which Andrea was still in the mood to forgive. The breakup hadn’t been nasty, but Andrea had been trying to dig herself out of her hole, and it just served to throw more dirt on top of her. And she was stuck in this town with all its history with all these people who knew everybody’s business, and in the past year she’d started to crumble. If it weren’t for Christine, she might’ve taken off, gone to the city, any city, and never talked to these people or howled at the moon again.
Andrea, lost in her own thoughts, had come close to the wild edge of the property. It had been a while since she ran like a wolf, and so her senses were not as sharp, but she became aware of movement at the edge down from her. A shadow moved among the trees. It looked like a man, but from the distance she couldn’t see his face. She closed her eyes, breathed in, and tried to find the scent. The wet earthiness of the soil was strongest, the strong sharp scent of the trees, the air smelling like the town central with the wind coming down, so she caught whiffs of gasoline and food, and there was of course Christine’s lavender body wash and her dad’s toxic blend. He’d been drinking out here too, because she could smell whiskey. Beneath the familiar smells was something new. Sweat. A woody cologne maybe. Shampoo. When she opened her eyes the shape was gone.
It’d been too long, she told herself as she turned back to the house, or there was no one there at all. This was Rome, Texas. Everyone she knew, and if she didn’t recognize the scent, then they were either a stranger or a ghost, and a ghost seemed more likely.
On a good day, there wasn’t much to do in Rome. It boasted on bar and pool hall, three restaurants that weren’t a McDonalds, Whataburger, or Taco Bell, and if you wanted to shop for clothes you had to drive an hour on the highway to get to the outlet mall. It meant if you wanted something to do with friends in the afternoon, choices were limited, which was why Andrea met a handful of people on the benches beneath the stone obelisk that represented what had once been a courthouse. It’d burned own two hundred years ago, but history was the only thing they had around Rome, and so a small wood plaque commemorated the spot.
Making friends with people outside the families had not been an easy task. Anyone with the last name Gibbons, Riser, Kinney, Luppen, Tyre, Heddin, or Dixon walked around with everyone knowing their whole family history. Andrea could imagine why someone may not want to hang around with someone who might, at any moment, turn into a wild animal full of teeth and fur, even if a werewolf hadn’t slaughtered anyone in these parts since 1783. It did mean her social circle was only so wide. Her only real friends within the families were Sammy Riser and Robin Tyre, and outside of them, she had Ricky Stevens, August Rodriguez, and Della Saez. She understood why her sister spent so much time with her in town friends. None of them knew the business of being a werewolf, and none of them asked. For a few sweet hours, she was relieved of her obligations as a Gibbons.
Della and Ricky were back from their junior years at college. Della spoke in mournful tones about her upcoming job hunt, and Ricky told them tales of fraternity shenanigans that inevitably had him sleeping in the wrong bed with an unintended partner. Gus and Andrea gave looks to each other over their friends’ heads. Like her, Gus had family obligations that kept him in Rome. His parents ran the small Mexican restaurant a few miles off the highway exit, and it was his full time job at the moment. Leaving even to San Marcos for university would’ve dented their budget considerably. Many drunken nights had been spent with the two of them resting their heads on the other’s shoulder and lamenting their lot in life.
“I’m looking for jobs in Austin,” Ricky was saying. “But I’ll probably have to apply outside of Texas too.”
“I’d move anywhere.” Della shook her empty soda so the ice crunched together. “Anywhere’s better than Rome.”
Andrea had started to lose interest in the conversation. She watched over Gus’ shoulder as he flipped through his notifications.
“You’re gonna miss when they build the Target,” he said without looking up. “We’ll finally join the civilized world.”
“Is that all it takes?” Andrea asked.
“These days?” Della gave a shrug. “What about you, Gus? You can’t stay here forever.”
“Dad’s training me to take over,” he said. “The restaurant’s alright. We might move locations.”
Andrea curled a strand of hair in her fingers and gave it a yank. “Gus is a good cook.”
“We should have a party,” Ricky said. “While everyone’s here. You can make the snacks.”
He rolled his eyes. “That’s a little unfair.”
“I would pay for your mom’s tamales and have,” Della said, and then grabbed Ricky’s arm. “There he is. I told you.”
They all looked. The small center square of town had shops on each side, mostly the small mom and pop joints that remained. A CVS pharmacy had taken up the space a dry cleaner’s had once been, and the coffee shop on the corner was still making headway even though a Starbucks had finally opened up. In the center was a large antique mall that was usually filled with serious old women and small children, who got chased out by Mr. and Mrs. Bowman if they did more than look quietly at the collectibles. Many an afternoon had been killed inside, holding the ancient clothing against their chests and marveling at the collection of tin lunchboxes of various cartoon characters. Outside of it, talking with Mr. Bowman, was a man.
“Mary-anne said she saw him checking into the Motel 6,” Della said. “I didn’t believe her until we saw him last night.”
A stranger in Rome. He looked about their age, maybe a year or two older, dark hair brushed messily over a pale face that could’ve been carved from stone. He talked animatedly, his hands waving, his mouth wide with laughter, and he didn’t seem to notice the looks people were giving him. His black jacket was warm for the summer, and the dark jeans came to black boots. There was something about the way he smiled, Andrea thought. It was all teeth, two rows of white tombstones. Every few minutes he’d brush his hand through his hair, making it even messier.
She remembered the strange cologne she’d smelled by her property. But she’d never seen this boy before. What would be doing in werewolf territory?
“Is he related to someone?” Gus asked the obvious question. No one new came to Rome.
“I don’t think so.” Ricky was texting someone, probably to ask the same question to anyone he knew. “What else did Mary-anne say?”
Della shrugged. “He was leaving the Starbucks. I thought he might be Paula’s new boyfriend she’s always bragging about, but Mary-anne said she’s on study abroad.”
“What do you think they’re talking about?” Ricky asked.
Then all eyes were on her. Andrea stared back at them. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they didn’t even talk about werewolves, or her uncanny ability to smell what everyone had for lunch, or how if someone blew a dog whistle, she’d be the one to react. It wasn’t off-limits, but it was a part of herself she didn’t mind ignoring in town. But it was still there. Deep beneath her skin was all fur.
“It doesn’t really work like that,” she said uneasily and pretended she hadn’t been trying to concentrate on exactly that. There was too much street noise, though, and they were too far away, and she hadn’t changed in weeks.
“Oh, look!” Della slapped Ricky’s arm, and he gave her a look. “They’re shaking hands!”
“Do you think he sold him something?” Gus asked.
“Why would someone come all the way out here just to sell something?” Ricky shook his head. “I bet he was buying something super rare.”
“Well,” Della said, “there’s one thing we’ve got that no one else does.”
Andrea didn’t stick around much longer. She slid into her car, turning the key, and the radio blasted out at her. She stared at her dashboard for a minute, that well of emptiness drawing up more water, and then she careened out of the parking spot and drove towards home. On her right was the Exxon station, and she pulled in, slamming her door shut, and going inside. The bell over the door gave a jingle. Rosemary looked up from restocking cigarettes.
Andrea made a show of picking out a soda and then brought it up to the counter. Like most days, they were alone. Rosemary’s manager didn’t even bother coming in on a slow afternoon. To the side of the counter was a bottle of forest green nail polish Andrea had bought for her once, waiting for the stocking to be done so it could be applied.
“This is your bad day drink,” Rosemary said as she rang up the Cherry Coke.
“Maybe I just want the sugar.” Andrea leaned forward on the counter. “When do you get off?”
“I work until eight.” She gave her a look beneath her eyelashes. “My mom’s on that no sugar diet. She says everyone should do it.”
“I’ll pass today. What are you doing after that?”
Andrea knew she was being shut down, but she couldn’t stop herself. “Come out with me.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to.”
“Because I don’t want to. You’re just going to get drunk.”
“Yeah,” she admitted. “I’m antsy, though. I need to do something.”
“Call Sam, then. What’s Della doing?”
She rolled her eyes, dramatically, and was rewarded with a slight smile from Rosemary. “Obsessing over this stranger. We saw him in town.”
“Oh, yeah.” She passed the soda back to her. “I saw him the other day. He’s kind of weird, I thought.”
Andrea laid down the three dollars. “Weird how?”
“I don’t know. I worked until midnight, and he came super late. And he wears a leather jacket in the summer. I asked him if he was from here, and he said no.”
“I didn’t think so.”
Rosemary pushed the drawer back in and dropped her change in the leave a penny bin. “Anyway, I’ve got things to do tomorrow morning. I can’t stay out.”
“Can we do something then?” Andrea tilted her head so she could tug more easily on the curl she was making. “I only ever see you when I need gas.”
“That’s what happens when two people break up,” she said.
“Yeah, but it’s been a while. We’re practically friends again.”
“Practically.” She gave a sigh. “I don’t know when I can hang out next. I’m trying to work all these extra hours.”
“Why?” Andrea asked. “Are you saving up for something?”
“Kind of.” She made a face. “Make your sister go out with you. She and a bunch of her friends also came in around midnight last night.”
“Really?” Andrea wished she could keep better track of her sister. Since school let out, it’d been nothing but parties all night long. “Who was she with?”
“You don’t know?”
“She says all these names.” She waved a hand. “I haven’t seen half of them. Were they drunk?”
“I think a little. They didn’t make too much noise. Christine’s a dummy, but she’s never done worse than we have. Take her out to dinner or something. Get some bonding in.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” She stepped back, cracking the top of her soda. “Text me when you do have free time, okay? We can go to the movies or something. Something normal.”
Rosemary gave her a wave as she left. The farm road bumped beneath her, and she wished she had an excuse not to go back home. Her wish was granted when she saw an old black car pulled onto the side of the road, and a figure standing next to it. Slamming on her brakes, she pulled onto the shoulder in front of him and kicked open the door.
“What are you doing?” she shouted.
The stranger looked at her. He was even more handsome up close. He grinned at her, and it softened what should be severe looks. Something was in his hands, and he tucked it into his pocket before she could see what.
“You local?” he called back.
“Everyone’s local.” Her shoes crunched on the gravel as she approached him. “I’m Andrea Gibbons.”
His eyes narrowed, just a little, as though he recognized the name. He stuck a hand out. “Luke Milton. I was just looking, to be honest. Is this your land?”
She shook her head. “I live up the road a ways. You know you’ve been causing a stir.”
“There aren’t strangers in Rome,” she said. “‘Specially not ones dressed in all black, driving a black car.”
He gave a warm laugh. “Is that too superstitious?”
“It’s the middle of summer.” She gestured over him. “How are you not sweating through that?”
“Self control, I guess.” He shifted the jacket off his shoulders, leaving the plain black v-neck underneath. “I hadn’t noticed.”
She kicked around the gravel and glanced at the fence that went around the property. Spots of trees burst up in the distance. The sun had started to dip down, but it wouldn’t set until after nine.
“If you’re not from here,” she said, “then why come to Rome?”
“I didn’t realize it was so weird. I’m working on a history project. It led me here. Did you know this town is super old?”
She laughed. “Yeah, I did. Are you from a university then?”
“I came down from Massachusetts,” he said.
She stared at him. “And you came all the way to Texas?”
“I had to. I was tracking this legend, and it came from here.”
An ice cold feeling went down her back. “What’s the legend?”
“The legend of Crooked Aggie?” He looked to her. “I was hoping if anyone would know it, the locals would. The name stretches across a lot of legends, but you guys have an actual historical record.”
“Right,” she said. “Crooked Aggie.”
It was a name that could keep her up at night. They all told horror stories about Crooked Aggie, who lived in what had been wild woods, who cast the evil eye on cows and laughed when they dropped dead from sickness. As a kid, she’d run out to the trees with Tyres and the Risers, and they’d tell stories of the old witch that had cursed their families. She used to wake up in the middle of the night certain Crooked Aggie was tapping at her window. Jason had made up a ritual to keep Crooked Aggie away. It’d been the only thing that helped her sleep until she grew old enough and taught it to Christine. Kids still got drunk in Barker’s Forest and told ghost stories, screaming as they ran away from the imagined terrors.
Crooked Aggie was the one who spit on Charlie Heddin and cursed the families to be animals.
“You know about her?” he asked.
“Everyone does,” she said. “Ask someone to take you out to Barker’s Forest. Most of us won’t go there.”
He leaned forward. “Why don’t you take me?”
She blinked quickly and laughed. “I, unfortunately, have a sister to get back to and a dinner to cook. How long are you in town for?”
“Could be a while. I’ve got a lot of research to go through.”
“Then we’ll probably run into each other again.” She gave a wave. “Good luck with whatever you’re working on.”
He waved as well. She shut her door, smiled to herself, and drove back home.
Christine was eating a microwave mac-n-cheese bowl at the kitchen counter when Andrea came in. She looked at her sister, who shrugged. The clock was ticking towards 6:30, and they could both hear their father stamping around in the other room.
“We’ve got a visitor in town.” Andrea kicked off her shoes and tossed her wallet onto the table. “Some guy named Luke Milton.”
“What’d he come to Rome for?” Christine asked.
“Looking for Crooked Aggie.”
She gave a shiver. “What’s he want to look for a creepy thing like that?”
“I do not know.” Andrea looked up as she heard the bedroom door push open. “What are you doing tonight?”
“We’re driving to the Red Hen,” she said.
“That’s a bar, Christine.”
“They don’t I.D.”
“You’re nineteen.” She kicked her sister’s leg. “Why can’t you get drunk in a field like the rest of us?”
“It’s so boring here.” Christine stabbed at the noodles. “We want to go somewhere.”
“The Red Hen isn’t somewhere. It’s twenty miles up the road and filled with truckers.”
“But it’s not filled with the same boring people,” she said. “I’d rather go twenty miles up the road than stay here.”
The bathroom door kicked open, and John Gibbons trudged into the living room, kicking things over and rooting around for his keys. Andrea frowned as she watched him.
“Where are you going?” she shouted.
“Out!” he called back.
“I was thinking we could do a family dinner tonight,” she said, looking back at Christine. “Spend some time together.”
They both looked at her.
“Why?” Christine asked.
She reached over and pinched her. “Because that’s what families do.”
“I’m going out,” their dad said.
Andrea whirled on him. “You were the one complaining you never see us!”
He found his keys, shook them at her, and pushed open the front door. Andrea gave a frustrated sigh as the door slammed shut. Behind her, Christine chomped down on her cheese cup.
“That didn’t work out, huh?” she said and dropped the fork into the sink. “Nice try though.”
“He is so frustrating!” She shook a fist at nothing. “You know he was arguing about you being out all night.”
“Really?” She shook her head. “Irony isn’t really a thing our family ever learned.”
Andrea turned back to her sister. “How late are you going to be out?”
Christine rolled her eyes. “I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t know. I’ll try to be back by two.”
“Fine.” She sighed. “Whatever. Don’t drink too much, don’t talk to strangers, and be careful.”
Her sister gave a mock salute and grabbed her shoes. “I won’t disappoint you.”
Andrea collapsed back onto the couch. Maybe she should’ve taken the stranger up on his offer. It’d been a while since anyone flirted with her, and she’d run out of people worth dating in town. But going to Barkers Forest made her skin crawl, and she didn’t want to explain to him the history of everything. Nothing was just stories in this town. He’d start picking into Crooked Aggie, and then he’d start picking into the werewolves, and then he’d find a document with her name on it, and then he’d know what she was. She didn’t know why she asked Rosemary out. It’d been a dumb thing and she knew she’d get shot down. If she’d stuck around with her in town friends they would’ve inevitably ended up at the same bar everyone else went to. Christine and her friends drove twenty miles just so that wouldn’t happen.
Andrea was considering just throwing in the towel and going to sleep early, and she was rescued when her phone went off. Sam’s name blinked across her screen.
“Hey!” he said on the other side. He must’ve been outside. She could hear the wind and shouting in the background. “What are you doing tonight?”
“Absolutely nothing,” she said. “Why?”
“My cousins are here and it’s driving me wild. Robin’s in the same boat. Want to run tonight?”
She hesitated, only slightly. It’d been so long. But all she wanted to do was get out.
“Yeah,” she said. “Please.”
“Cool. Can I come pick you up around nine?”
“You are saving my life,” she said and hung up.
Laying back on the couch, she let her phone rest on her chest. She’d spent all day trying to get away from what she was, and now it was the only thing that brought relief. Trying not to think too hard on it, she climbed up and got ready for the night.
Sammy drove a red pickup truck that had seen better decades. Robin had his feet up on the dashboard inside, and she climbed into the backseat. Sammy Riser had been her best friend as a kid, and their birthdays were two weeks apart, which meant many birthdays spent together. He’d broken his nose in eleventh grade getting in a fight with Mitch Kinney, and it was offset slightly. He swore it made him look roguish, and Andrea always laughed when he said that. A twenty four pack of Coors Light greeted her in the backseat.
“Deer Park is always empty,” Robin said.
Sam pulled the gear into drive. “It’s harder not to run into people in the summer. Hopefully no one’s parked out there.”
“Is your dad and them going out tonight to?” Andrea asked.
Robin leaned over the seat to look at her. “No. They only do that on the weekends.”
“Oh. My dad went somewhere, I thought…”
That should be a relief, she told herself. He’s not going out as a wolf. He’ll probably be at the bar all night getting drunk. Fine. At least he’ll come home human.
“Did you see that new guy walking around?” Sammy said as he pulled onto the road.
She leaned back in the seat. “I talked to him.”
“Yeah? What’s his deal?”
“His name is Luke Milton and he came from the north to do a research project,” she repeated. “That’s about all I know.”
“What kind of research project?” Robin asked.
She waved her fingers and gave a spooky rendition of, “Crooked Aggie.”
Sammy spat out the window. “Why he want to do that?”
“I don’t know.”
Robin’s normally sparkling demeanor clouded over. “Seems weird. I didn’t know anyone else knew about her.”
Deer Park appeared on their left. The thick bunches of trees had been cleared away some years ago in an attempt to build an actual park and offer entertainment for the droves of high school kids looking for something to vandalize in their evenings. It’d gotten about as far as clearing the trees and installing a few benches, and then the whole thing had been abandoned. A sign stating it was the future Deer Park had existed a few years until it’d keeled over in a rainstorm. Actual deer had never been spotted at it, possibly because they did understand irony.
The truck jumped up into the tall grass, and they drove through towards the trees that did remain. The sun had finally started to set, and the sky was a fiery orange turning to a burst of red. Stars had already started coming out. They lugged the beer onto the bed of the truck and sat, each taking one. The stereo of Sam’s truck sang out alternative rock from ten years ago, and they sang along the words in increasingly silly voices. Twilight gave away to a midnight sky, stars speckled like galaxies, and a moon growing fat behind dark clouds. There had been many summers with them laid out in the back of Sam’s truck, beers snuck out of parents’ fridges and sometimes electric lanterns tossed into the field, swallowed by the tall grass. Sam and Robin were the ones closest to her age who did hold a centuries old grudge against her family, and so they were the closest. For a while, in their childhood, they played at a sort of three musketeers, choosing adventures they could go on together and claiming abandoned sheds as their forts, tossing dirt at anyone who came near. Like her, they were bound to their families. The Risers had managed to spread out, with cousins and aunts and great-grandparents that were still kicking, and in the summer they usually all gathered. The Tyres had lost many of the branches on their family tree, and the newest generation wasn’t making it easier. No wonder his dad was taking Rex with him on their runs. At times there was a desperation to continue the family name, as though that was all they had.
Soon most of the beers were drank, and the moon was high overhead. Robin said something stupid, and Sammy shoved him off the end of the truck. They both landed on the ground, laughing, and when they came up again they were wolves. Sam was chestnut colored hair, shaggier and larger than the other. Like the rest of his family, Robin was dark haired, and he bounded up, nipping at Andrea’s ankle. She climbed slowly to her feet, wobbling with the booze. It’d been so long since she’d changed, but it was an instinct. Deep inside, a wolf waited, and the second she let go of her edges it was there.
They ran. It was the best thing to do as a wolf, especially intoxicated. The air rushed against their faces, the tall grass bending beneath their paws, and the dirt kicking up as their powerful legs propelled them forward. When blood had spilled and the curse had been lain, this had been torture to their ancestors. People had been killed, and the town had dragged out the wolves and burned them. The families had survived, though, and peace had been made, however tenuous. Now it was a freedom. Everything smelled sharper and the wind carried on it the whole world. Sight was vivid at night compared to a human eye, and they chased squirrels up trees and rolled in the dirt, revelling in the release.
Andrea never felt less than herself like this, but it felt easier. Her worries about her sister and her dad were supplanted by the warmth of the dirt, and the loneliness that made her chest hollow was chased away as one of her friends brushed against her. It was no wonder that her dad spent more time as wolf than man. She bled away, no longer bound by society or convention. Tomorrow she’d go back to it, and feel the worst for it.
They chased through the trees, keeping away from the land occupied by people, but finding plenty in between. The boys ran ahead of her, and she stopped suddenly. There was a familiar scent in the air.
Her lupine eyes watched the skinny trees. Their dark wood was spaced out, with more tall grass than branches, and crickets and cicadas made the night scream. She padded out a circle, trying to place the source of it. A woodsy cologne, the sharp scent of motor oil, and the warm tang of leather. She hadn’t noticed on meeting him, too distracted by her woes and covered with the exhaust of the cars, but it was the exact cocktail of Luke Milton. There was something else, clean and sparkling, like breathing in carbonation. She crouched forward, looking for him. No black car, no shadow on the side of the road. They weren’t even in anyone’s land anymore. The scent was fresh, not drifted away, but she couldn’t find him.
Ahead of her, Robin gave out a howl, and instinctively she answered back. Still seeing nothing, she ran after them. By the time she caught up, she’d already forgotten.
And this was why Andrea hadn’t changed in so long. Dropped off on her doorstep around three in the morning, she waved goodbye to the boys, and trudged back in. Her muscles ached for how long they hadn’t been used, and her head was muddled with beer and wolf thoughts. Her hair was a wild mess, and her clothes were sweated through and matted. Movies made her thankful they kept their clothes through transformation, but they always felt like they’d been through a thirty mile hike afterwards. With how much running they did, they may as well have been.
She flicked on the kitchen light and flinched beneath the glare. Night vision was also pronounced after the change, and she immediately flicked it off. The stench of the full sink and discarded shoes were all the worse, and she was aware she was the only one in the house. Dad hadn’t come home, and neither had Christine. She kicked off her shoes, pulled a water bottle from the fridge, and slumped into a chair. Pressing the cold bottle against her face, she felt the energy drag off of her, and her stomach growled. With a sigh she stood and opened up the pantry, trying to find something quick to eat.
One microwave burrito later, lights flashed in the windows of the house, and the front door clicked open quietly. Andrea waved to her sister as she came through the front door.
“You said you’d be back by two,” she said.
Christine stared at her and then dropped her keys loudly in the tray by the door. “It’s only been an hour.”
“Red Hen closes at two.”
“Is this an investigation?” She pulled open the fridge door and grabbed her own water. “We drove around a bit. I don’t know why you’re getting so high and mighty about it. You clearly went out too.”
Andrea looked at her sister. She was nineteen, no ambition out of high school, and had been working at the dollar store part time, taking fewer and fewer hours. After Jason died, she’d seemed less and less motivated. Andrea desperately wanted her to end up happy, but they seemed on the same path. Christine didn’t seem to notice. She went out with her friends and drove to the city and probably hadn’t changed the whole year. She preferred her in-town friends and never bothered with the families. It’s probably why she never stuck around the house for very long.
Andrea stabbed at her burrito. “I went out with Sammy and Robin. We ran for a while.”
Her face twisted up. “Did you drink while doing it?”
The cap of her water cracked as it opened and she drank from it.
“You don’t think I should?” Andrea asked of her silence.
“I don’t know.” She gave a noncommittal shrug. “That’s what dad does.”
“All of the time. I haven’t changed in a month.”
She shrugged again. “How does it feel?”
“Like the worst hangover.” She slumped down in her chair. “But good too. When’s the last time you ran around?”
“My friends wouldn’t get it.”
“You don’t talk to anyone in the families?”
“No,” she snapped. “And I hate hearing about that stuff. Dad always goes off about the Heddins, but they haven’t done anything in two hundred years.”
“It’s always blood with y’all.” She stood, kicking her chair aside. “Charlie Heddin and Virgil Gibbons haven’t even been alive for centuries. Why do we have to keep acting like blood spilled?”
“It’s just how things are.”
“It’s dumb and I’m tired of talking about it.”
She stormed into her room and slammed the door. Andrea kicked around the last of her food, dumped the rest in the trash, and tossed it into the sink. For a while she stood there, listening to the house creak, her sister toss and turn under her covers, the bugs fluttering in the porch light, and then she went into her own room, squeezed her eyes shut, and tried to sleep.