How Like Wolves
Andrea Gibbons is a werewolf in a town where that isn’t so uncommon. Her little sister is sneaking out, her dad is a drunk, and her brother died a year ago, leaving the family in shambles. With the arrival of a stranger in town, she’s been thinking of putting her life back together, but something is waiting for her in the darkness.
Both sisters woke past noon, and silently brushed their teeth in the mirror together. After a shower to wash off the grunge, Andrea changed into some shorts and a tank top and looked into her dad’s room. It was empty. The room stank of unwashed clothes and ancient leather boots. Dirt was buried in the bedsheets, and curtains had been tacked to the window with nails, barely doing their job to keep the sun at bay. She turned around and grabbed her keys off the table.
“Where are you going?” Christine asked as she chewed on a bowl of cereal.
“Dad’s still out.” She searched for her wallet. “I’m gonna find him.”
“Because for once I want this family to be in the same room together for more than a minute.” Triumphantly she picked up her wallet and tucked it into her pocket.
Christine sighed. “Alright. But can I bring my bowl?”
Andrea looked at her. “You don’t have to come.”
“Like I’ve never seen dad piss drunk before. You said you wanted us all together.”
“Yeah, fine. Come on.”
Christine took up the front seat, pajama pants still on, flip-flopped feet on the dashboard. She slurped the milk from her bowl.
“Why do you care so much all of a sudden?” she asked.
Andrea concentrated on the road in front of her. Her head was killing her, and she ached down to her bones. She hadn’t run in so long, and now she wondered what had stopped her.
“I’m tired of him staying out so late,” she murmured.
“He always does it. I stopped caring.”
Andrea’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “Jason used to do this all the time.”
Christine quieted in her seat. She pulled her legs off the dash and set her bowl on the floor.
“Did he take you too?” she asked finally.
“Not usually. He didn’t want us to know, but sometimes I’d ask to go along with him.”
The sound of her spoon clinking against the bowl was the only thing in the car for a long time. Town pulled up in front of them. They parked near their small historical site and headed to the pool hall. Andrea banged on the door, hoping Donna Hasely was inside to unlock it.
Andrea cursed under her breath before turning. Christine half-hid behind her, keeping her face down. Three boys walked up to them, all too familiar. Ernest Heddin was the eldest of the brothers, only a year older than Andrea, carrying the strong jaw of his family and bright blue eyes. Behind him trailed Calvin, hands in pockets, looking mildly embarrassed at the outburst his brother was about to have, and Vincent, the youngest, who had a nervous look about him today. They all had the same shade of chocolate brown hair and the strong Heddin nose.
Two centuries ago, it was the Heddins and the Gibbons that had fought. Other families in the area had been dragged into it, but their rivalry had ended in blood. No one knew who shot the poor boy in the woods. It could’ve been Charlie Heddin, whose clan had stretched through most of what would become Rome and had been trying to stake claim to all the land he could, or it could’ve been Virgil Gibbons, whose small estate was bolstered by their own small army of a family and was on his way to being a civic leader before all the horror started. Neither laid claim to the murder of the dark haired young man, but Crooked Aggie had descended from the woods and spat on both of them. She’d cursed them and their kin and anyone who’d participated in the rivalry to become like wolves. It was seven families in total changed, and at first it’d been chaos. Wolves attacked men, families still fought like beasts, and the townspeople had dragged wolves out of the forest to be burned in front of the courthouse. Charlie Heddin had been hanged as a man.
Andrea didn’t care much for history, but Ernest Heddin had been nothing but a jerk to her and her family since they were young. When Jason was alive, he’d drag him into scraps in school and then as wolves. He’d cursed at her, kicked Christine when they were children, and had been an all around brat every time they’d interacted. He was the absolute last person she wanted to talk to on any given day.
“Step off, Heddin,” she said. “I’m not in the mood.”
“Couldn’t wait to hole up in here, huh?” He nodded towards the bar. “Shouldn’t expect less from you.”
“I said I’m not in the mood.”
He gestured to his brothers. “We were having a lovely day out until we smelled you on the street. By the way, was that your howl last night? I thought you were too good to change.”
Her lips pulled back in a snarl. “I don’t have to act like an animal every waking second, unlike you, Ernest Heddin. Some of us attempt to be civilized.”
He shook his head. “I can see why the blood is thinning. Can’t say I’m sad about it. A world with fewer Gibbons in it is better all around.”
Her hands moved faster than her brain did. She gripped his collar and dragged him towards her. Christine grabbed her arm as the two brothers moved forward, and then a large, friendly hand clapped onto Andrea’s shoulder.
“This is a sight, ain’t it?” Valerie Dixon said, eying the both of them. Nearing forty, her eyes were as sharp as ever, and her grin showed all her teeth. “Just like the old days. Your fathers’ would be so proud. I think you boys oughtta go back to whatever you were doing.”
“We were–” Calvin started, but she waved a hand at them.
“Go along now,” she said. “The Gibbons girls and I have some catching up to do.”
Grudgingly, the three Heddin boys turned around. Andrea bit down every instinct she had to lunge for Ernest and looked up at Valerie Dixon. She’d been a staple in her life since they were young, with more memories of her than her actual mother. Her hair was tied into a messy braid, dyed her usual shade of black. She dressed like someone’s New Mexico grandmother, but there was no one you wanted to mess with less than the matriarch of the Dixon family.
“Come on, then,” she said. “You girls looked starved.”
“Our dad–” Andrea started, but she shook her head.
“John Gibbons can get himself out of a stupor. I’m making lunch.”
They drove to the Dixon house, who still grew crops, and a small army of cousins and paid labor farmed them. At the house today was only the central family. Valerie’s husband had left five years ago, leaving her and her two two boys. Lewis and Jesse were both upstairs, the sounds of some video game filling up the house. There was brisket and gravy and lemonade, and so the girls ate while Valerie took care of her home.
“You’d think this is 1738,” she said as she chucked her mail. “One incident and we’re right back where we started.”
“The Heddins have always been jerks,” Andrea said. “It’s nothing new.”
“It’s mostly just Ernest,” Christine said in a small voice. She mopped up her gravy with a biscuit. “Calvin’s going to school now.”
“I guess that forgives it then,” she muttered.
Valerie refilled their glasses. “Roberta Luppen keeps fighting me at every PTA meeting, and it isn’t over backpacks. I haven’t seen you girls since the summer started.”
“It’s all the same,” Andrea said. “Work, family, running around at night.”
“Your father still giving you trouble?”
“He hasn’t come home yet.” Christine gave a shrug.
“You know I was sitting down with Dolores Kinney the other day,” Valerie said, “and she was telling me her husband had to break up some kind of roughhouse the other week. They always send Lester for when crimes are being committed by wolves.”
“What kind of crime?” Christine asked.
“Nothing big. The boys had gotten a little too rowdy. Lester hauled them all back to each of their houses, and apparently John Gibbons was the last. He stayed a wolf until they got to his house.”
Andrea shivered, remembering her father lying there in the dirt, shaking as he tried to remember how to change back.
“Anyway,” Valerie continued, “I’m sure your father’s got himself figured out, but if there’s ever a problem, I’m here.”
“He’s just a drunk,” Christine said.
Valerie looked at Andrea. “We all have those in our family. But you girls are so young. Even if it’s bringing dinner by on Sunday, you call me if you need anything.”
“Of course, Mrs. Dixon,” Andrea said.
A door slammed somewhere, and Valerie gave a sigh as she looked up. The girls glanced up as Cliff Dixon entered the room. He was pushing eighty, though he looked the same as ever. White hair patted down over his head and a plaid shirt pulled over his broad frame. He stooped some, but he didn’t bother with his cane, and like his daughter, his brown eyes watched with a vibrancy reserved for the young. His pants were tucked into work boots, trailing mud on the wood floor.
“What’s going on in here?” he called.
“Guests, dad,” Valerie responded. She took the girls’ empty plates and dropped them in the sink. “It’s the Gibbon girls.”
“Alright, alright.” He stood in front of them, looking them over. “How old are you now, Andrea?”
“Twenty-one,” she said.
He nodded as though that was an acceptable answer. Valerie walked over to him, taking his hand and sitting him down on the couch.
“Where’s your useless sister?” he asked.
“Dawn’s gone to Austin for the week, remember? She’ll be back Sunday.”
He waved her off. “You girls looking for your father?”
“‘Cause there’s not a night he’s not at the pool hall. Donna’s got a chair set aside for him.”
“Better than drinking out in the woods. You hear stories–”
“Dad!” Valerie barked and tossed a blanket over his shoulders. “You were out in those very same woods the other night and I didn’t lecture you.”
He shook his head. “Sometimes you gotta let a man be a wolf.”
She rolled her eyes and gave the girls an apologetic look. “Don’t mind him. He’s been worked into a state recently.”
“Thanks for lunch,” Andrea said, “but if it’s all the same, we should be going.”
She nodded. “You call me, you hear? Even if it’s to tell me the weather. I got two young boys to look after, and I don’t need to add worrying about you to the list.”
They climbed back into Andrea’s car. Christine kicked her bowl of cereal. The clock said it was nearing two, and they both felt tired, but the thought of going back to the empty house was almost as bad as not going home at all.
“Listen,” Andrea said as she turned up the AC, “let’s get dessert.”
Christine perked up at that. “Ice cream?”
A bandaid, Andrea thought. She couldn’t solve her problems right this second, but at least it was something.
The best ice cream place in Rome was a small ice cream stand next to an ice machine where the only seating were the outdoor benches. They sat, not talking, eating ice cream cones. The sun had grown unbearable. Andrea’s chocolate chunk dripped down her hands, and she lapped at it. Christine kicked her under the table.
“Your boy is here,” she said.
“What?” Andrea turned and nearly dropped her cone as she saw Luke Milton. He’d dodged the black jacket that day, and wore a black shirt over skinny jeans. He saw her as soon as she looked and waved a hand. Slowly, she lifted her hand in response.
“I see why everyone’s getting excited,” Christine said in a low voice. “He’s cute.”
“Shut up.” Andrea stood up from the picnic table.
“Andrea, yeah?” Luke waved at Christine. “Is this the sister?”
Christine gave a big smile. “You talked about me?”
“Luke, this is my little sister Christine.” Andrea gave her a look.
“You mind if I sit?” he asked.
He took a place beside her. Christine was grinning wide, and Andrea focused on her ice cream cone.
“Andrea said you’re looking for Crooked Aggie,” Christine said.
Andrea sat straight up. “Christine!”
“Well you did.”
Luke laughed. “You were talking about me.”
“I told you we don’t get strangers.” She hid her face as it started to turn red.
“Why’d you want to research that?” Christine continued. “Seems like a weird subject.”
“So you guys do know about her?” He leaned forward. “I can’t get anyone in this town to actually say anything about her.”
“It’s kind of a touchy subject,” Andrea muttered.
Christine narrowed her eyes at her. “You should go out to Barker’s Forest.”
“People keep saying that but no one wants to.” He nudged Andrea. “I was talking to Mr. Bowman, the man who runs the antique shop? He says there’s still a house out there.”
“I think they would’ve burned it.” She tossed the last of her ice cream and surreptitiously tried to wipe her hands clean. “But anything’s possible. I didn’t know Mr. Bowman was an expert.”
“He buys a lot of creepy garbage,” Christine said.
“He let me look at some of it.” Luke was looking directly at Andrea. His blue eyes were intense. “You guys have a real historical treasure trove here, you know? It seems like you preserved everything.”
Christine rolled her eyes. “There’s a real obsession with history here.”
Andrea ran a hand through her hair, pulling it behind her shoulders. “Everyone knows about Crooked Aggie out here. People probably just don’t want to talk about it.”
“Because of the curse, right?”
They both looked at him.
“It’s the main record I found,” he said, noticing their expressions. “Supposedly she cursed two men who’d killed her son or something. They were turned into monsters and then killed by the townspeople.”
“Yes,” Andrea said slowly. “That sounds right. Was it her son?”
Christine shrugged. “I don’t remember that. Do you know the names of the men?”
“I know one,” he said. “Charlie Heddin was hanged for association with witchcraft.”
Andrea cringed. “Have you talked to the Heddins yet?”
“No.” He picked at a napkin. “I called before coming down, but they were less than helpful.”
“That sounds about right.”
Christine stood. “I’m gonna get a water. You two chat.”
Andrea glared at her sister’s back before turning to Luke. He’d chosen to sit close to her, and his elbow brushed against her arm. She could smell him even stronger now that she’d changed. The woodsy cologne was slowly being replaced motel shampoo, but his hands smelled of dirt. She remembered briefly catching his scent last night.
“Have you been exploring on your own?” she asked.
“I haven’t found a good tour guide yet.” He tilted his head, exposing his long neck. “No one around here seems that friendly.”
“Well you’re new. You haven’t talked to anyone yet.”
“I’m talking to you.”
He was smiling at her. She twisted a strand of hair in her fingers and tugged.
“I could take you out,” she said. “Not to Barker’s Forest, but if you want to go to a bar with me and some friends. Become part of the community.”
He grinned. It was like the sun coming out. “That’d be fun. I’d appreciate a little hospitality.”
She held out a hand, and he handed her his phone. She tapped out her number, smiling up at him as she did.
“Call me tonight,” she said. “Let me get the gang together. It’ll be fun.”
“I’m holding you to that.”
She waved at him as she stood. Christine was waiting by the car, without a water.
“Well?” she said.
Andrea gestured her to get in the car. Luke was still sitting at the table, typing on his phone. A minute later, a text message beeped on her phone. Christine watched her check it.
“I can’t believe,” she said.
Andrea set her phone down. “Shut up.”
“No, it’s good.” She kicked her cereal bowl again as they started on the road. “I thought you’d be obsessed with Rosemary forever.”
“I’m not obsessed.”
“This is you officially moving on. Official. Put a stamp on that.”
“I’m not obsessed,” she repeated, squeezing the wheel.
Christine smiled. “Are you gonna make out with him?”
“I’m not talking about this with my sister.”
“I would. You think he wears all black to be cool?”
She bit her lip. “It looks good on him.”
“Yeah it does. This could be a good thing for you, my sister.”
“Yeah.” Andrea sighed and accelerated down the farm road. “That’d be a change of pace.”
A giddiness bubbled up in her anyway, and as soon as they were home, she saved his number in her phone.
John Gibbons came home in his own time, meaning close to dinner. Andrea made a pot of beans and slapped some chicken onto a pan. Their groceries were running low, but she’d go into work tomorrow and get some real food. Christine closed the door to her room and chatted on her phone for an hour. It would’ve annoyed Andrea any other day, but she was in a good mood.
It did feel weird, dating after Rosemary. It must be what dating after a divorce felt like. They’d been together every day, hands held, laughing together, and even after everything that happened last year, she was her only relief. The breakup had been devastating, but she’d had to push through it, because they still saw each other every day. That was small town life. Maybe in another town, they could’ve avoided her, but Andrea checked out her groceries every week, and there were only the two gas stations, and only one convenient on her way home. She’d been part of her in-town friends and part of the families.
The raw meat cooked in the too small pan, and she wished she hadn’t changed the other night. She flipped over the bright pink side. Supposedly Clyde Kinney, Lester’s oldest boy, had downed a deer one night as a wolf and spent the next day throwing up every last bite he’d taken. There wasn’t less of you in that state, but there was more, a second part you never knew about until it came out. Kim was Sam’s older sister, and she always talked about her Post-Moon Syndrome. She’d get angry at everything and spend half a day scrubbing the house so she couldn’t smell anything but Lysol brand lemon and alcohol.
She set the plate down on the table and pushed it towards her dad. He hadn’t moved the whole time, slumped over in his chair, a cup of coffee turning cold in his hand. His eyes moved up at her. She picked up her fork.
“We saw Valerie Dixon today,” she said, using the knife to bite into the meat. Her stomach churned, and she stabbed at a few beans instead.
“Are her boys running yet?” he asked in a gruff voice. It sounded like he hadn’t talked in days.
“I don’t know. Jesse’s twelve now, and he’s the youngest. Robin told me Leon’s been taking Rex out.”
“Good to get a taste for it.” He pawed at his fork and stabbed it into the chicken.
Christine’s door opened and she stepped out in a short jean skirt and a pair of torn leggings. They both looked up at her.
“What?” she said.
“You’re going out again?” Andrea asked.
“So are you.” She pointed at her phone. “Don’t you have a hot date you’re waiting on?”
She blushed as her dad’s gaze turned back to her. “I’m inviting our new friend out to meet some people. Where are you going?”
“You went to the movies the other day!”
“Well there’s more than one.” She picked up her purse. “I’ll be back.”
She walked out the door, letting it slam behind her. Andrea turned to her dad.
“You could’ve said something,” she muttered.
“She’s grown now.” His huge shoulders shrugged. “What’s this about a date?”
“It’s nothing.” She crammed her dinner into her mouth. “The new boy, Luke. I’m showing him around.”
His eyes leveled with her. John Gibbons had been a surprisingly kind man about his daughters’ love lives. When she’d told him so many years ago in a quiet voice that she was going on a date with a girl from school, he’d only told her to be careful. For a while it’d been a thing they did not talk about, but once Rosemary was hanging around, he’d attempted friendly. She imagined this was a part of the parenting handbook he hadn’t expected to get to. She hadn’t told him who else in the families shared her dating preferences. There was a small percentage, and they all looked out for the other, but to the families blood was blood. Excising someone took an offense hard to imagine.
“Where’s this stranger from?” he asked.
“Somewhere up north.”
“What’s he doing down here?”
“Research.” She didn’t mention Crooked Aggie. “He’s doing historical research of the town or something.”
“I don’t know. This whole place is history, I guess.”
He nodded. “Who you going out with?”
She breathed out. An easier subject. “Sam and Robin.”
That seemed to meet his approval. She stood quickly, tossing her plate into the sink, and went into her room. She dug around in her piles of clean laundry and pulled out a few items. Sitting on her bed, she looked around the room. The walls were still covered in posters from her teenage years. Bands that were no longer relevant stared down at her, their bodies plastered over with flyers from school and pictures of friends. A row of string lights was nailed over her window, long since burned out and only laziness keeping her from throwing it out. The purple bedspread had been bought in ninth grade, the pillows a mismatch of ancient ones with their shape beaten out of them and new ones bought from Walmart. The back of her nightstand was drawn all over in sharpie, little notes she used to write to herself so her family couldn’t see. On a string draped over her desk were small polaroids: Rosemary and her on the beach at Galveston; Gus dipping Della in front of the town center lit up for Christmas; Christine as an eight year old with her arms over Jason’s shoulders; Robin and her, cheek to cheek.
An urge overtook her, and she stood, tearing the posters off the walls. Pictures fluttered down to the ground, and she gathered them up, throwing them in her desk drawer. Notebooks leftover from high school were discarded in the trashcan, and she kicked her clothes aside, throwing them into her small closet. The dead lights were pulled off, some of the bulbs having turned yellow. She used an old t-shirt to wipe the dust off her bookshelf and examined the books inside. Some were yearbooks, others were copies of The Great Gatsby and The Crucible, books she’d only read for school. A poetry book from Rosemary she never expected her to read. She turned away and sat at her desk, examining the photos above it. Her hand reached out for the one with Jason and Christine.
They’d never been a very good family, she knew. Christine had always been overeager and flighty, and Andrea never knew what she wanted to do with her life. Even back then, dad had drank and spent as many of his evenings as a wolf as a man, but Jason was solid and dependable, reaching out to all of his family, and making peace where he could. If he were here…
If he were here things would be the same, but better. She didn’t know why that was significant, but it was.
Her phone beeped. A text from Luke. She’d never talked to anyone that she didn’t have history with. She’d known Rosemary since they were in preschool and Sam and Robin were practically born at her side. Luke wouldn’t remember the time in third grade where she accidentally glued herself to her seat or in seventh grade when she’d gotten into a fight with Dallas Saxon. He didn’t even know about werewolves. It was something thrilling to start off with a blank slate.
In an attempt to look cool, she threw on a black overshirt, tied her hair back, and headed out the door.
Andrea had convinced them to drive out to the Red Hen. It was embarrassing, taking suggestions from her little sister, but it was better than running into someone who could embarrass her. Sam picked up her and Robin. Luke’s motel wasn’t far, and he met them there. He’d arrived early, and when Andrea had seen him at the bar, hair brushed back, sipping on a whiskey, she’d grabbed Sam’s arm.
“This is mildly embarrassing for you,” Sam had said to her.
“I swear to God,” she said, looking him in the eye, “if you ruin this for me in any way I’m telling everyone I know about the time you got fleas.”
He held up his hands and walked to the bar. Andrea introduced them to him and took a seat on the stool beside him, ordering an amaretto sour.
“Is this what you guys do for fun?” Luke shouted over the heavy country music.
Andrea hadn’t been wrong. A lot of truckers took up residence at their own tables, drinking a case worth of beer and then stumbling out to sleep at their rigs. There were a few people from the other small towns, also trying to escape anyone who knew them, and the general revelers that came with a seedy, small town bar. Neon signs flashed advertisements for Shiner and sexy cowgirls, and three ancient pinball machines made noises at anyone who walked by. Half the furniture had been broken and then glued back together again. Everyone was drinking a beer, whiskey, or tequila.
“It’s sort of the only thing we have to do for fun.” She leaned closer to him, ignoring the look Robin gave her over Luke’s shoulder. “These two are mad we aren’t going to the Blue Moon.”
“That’s the pool hall right?” He smiled at the other boys. “You regulars there?”
“No.” Sam grinned at Andrea. “Usually we get drunk and run naked through the trees.”
She slapped his arm. “They’re messing with you. What do you do for fun back home?”
Luke laughed at that. “The last thing my friends would call me is ‘fun’. I spend most of my time in the library.”
“What school do you go to?” Robin asked.
“UMass in Amherst.”
They all stared at him. He gave another laugh.
“I forget, sorry. University of Massachusetts. It’s pretty good. Lots of research opportunities. I’m in my post-grad right now.”
“That’s fancy.” Robin grabbed a Shiner and handed the second to Sam. “Most of us don’t make it to grad.”
“It’s a little harder for us,” Andrea said. “We’ve got family.”
“Tough to leave them behind, huh?”
“Something like that.”
“Andrea said you’re researching Crooked Aggie,” Robin said.
“Sure.” Luke swiveled in his seat so he was facing all of them. “You’ve got a rich history, you know? Most Texans probably don’t know they had their own little Salem going on here.”
“Witches aren’t much of a worry anymore,” Sam said. “We still don’t like to bring it up.”
“I’ve noticed. I can’t get anyone to point me in the direction of Barker’s Forest, but every single person’s mentioned it.”
“We don’t go out there.” Robin’s tone turned serious. “It’s still sort of…”
“Cursed,” Sam finished.
“In a way,” Andrea said. “Most people don’t even like saying her name, you know? It’s like mentioning the devil.”
“Sure, an invitation.” Luke didn’t seem bothered how they were talking. “You guys have historical documents too. I found the case proceedings that mention her by name.”
Sam seemed surprised. “You read about the Gibbons and the Heddins?”
“What was left of it. You guys had a fire or something that destroyed half the archives, but it’s still there.” He smiled at Andrea. “You didn’t mention it when we met. I figured you were reserved.”
She tugged on her hair. “It’s ancient history.”
Sam snorted on his beer. She shot him a glare.
“I meant the old days. There’s still the Heddins and the Gibbons and everyone else, but past is past.”
“You say that like Ernie Heddin don’t pick a fight every time he sees you,” Sam said.
Luke tipped his glass to her. “No love lost, huh?”
“Norma Heddin nearly held her back in the fifth grade,” Robin said with a laugh.
Sam was laughing too. “You know she and Valerie Dixon nearly got into a brawl last week at the Food Town. I’ve never seen two women hate each other more.”
Luke had leaned in, smiling at her all the while. “You wouldn’t mind if I interview you, would you?”
She stared at him. Tingles flushed up from her knees to her face. He was handsome, and warm, and his lips pulled back in a sort of lopsided way. There was something different about him. It wasn’t just the city slick looks or the warm scent of his probably brand name cologne or how excited she was to meet someone new. His eyes were old, and his smile promised many things, and she’d never met anyone who thought about the world beyond their own little island. She’d been desperate to keep some mystery, but he looked at her, and she wanted to let it all spill out.
“We can discuss it,” she said, putting her hand on his arm. “After you buy me a few more drinks.”
It was pushing it a little too hard, she knew, running while drunk the night before and then drinking while keeping it straight here. Her insides churned a little, or it could’ve been the feeling she had around Luke, who had his arm draped over her by the time things got really wild. Sam and Robin told stories as they played bar games, and Luke talked about life in college, and the culture shock of staying here for however long it took. He admitted never being to South Padre or San Antonio, and by one-thirty they were planning road trips. By two they left the bar, and Sam parked the truck in a field nearby. Like in many places around Rome, someone had cleared out the trees and then done nothing else with it, letting the tall grass grow and the mosquitos fester. They laid in the back of Sam’s truck, all still blazing drunk. Sam and Robin were still talking excitedly about nothing as Andrea laid back and realized she was using Luke as a pillow.
“This is a better welcome than I was expecting,” he said from somewhere to the left of her. His lips were incredibly close to her ear. Her hair had come down, and she felt his fingers playing with it.
“It’s that good old fashioned southern hospitality.” She let her words drawl, enjoying the laugh he gave at her exaggerated southern accent.
The other two boys had disappeared, and there was rustling in the grass. She tried to lean forward, but her body wouldn’t move.
“Did you know about me the whole time?” she asked.
His shoulders moved in a shrug. “I figured but I didn’t want to presume. You don’t like being a Gibbons?”
“I don’t like the baggage. It is all blood feuds and black magic. It’s just me, my dad, and my sister, and I think sometimes it might be better to let the line die out.”
“Hey,” he said, shifting beside her. She felt her back against the cool metal of the truck, and when she looked up, her eyes saw stars, the bright moon overhead, and Luke. He leaned close to her, pulling her hand so it touched his face. He was cold, almost. Like he’d been standing in AC and come outside. “Do you wanna talk about something else?”
She wasn’t sure if she kissed him or if he kissed her, but they were kissing. His hand moved down her torso, finding the edge of her shirt, and she brought her legs up. His hand rested on her neck, and she just enjoyed the sensation. Hands, lips, flesh, heat. It’d been so long. Her heart pounded in her ribcage, and for a moment she thought of Rosemary. She pulled back.
“Um,” she said. “Sorry. Can we just–”
“Yeah,” he said, and his warmth drew away from her. She squeezed a hand in the empty air. “I didn’t mean to–”
“I liked it.” She smiled at him. “I’m not against it, I just–it’s hard to explain.”
“It’s cool.” He laid down beside her. “I feel you. We can just sit, if you want.”
“Is it alright?” she asked as she put her arm over his chest.
He nodded, and she rested her head on top of him. The stars swam in her vision, and she closed her eyes. It felt weirdly perfect. Here, the warm summer night, the moon growing larger, fireflies in the grass, cicadas screaming at the skies, and someone holding her. In the distance she heard two wolves howl. Her brow creased together, but she was already off to sleep, to a land of troubled dreams.
Andrea lay on her back, the sun shining down on her. The dirt was warm, and the tall grass surrounded her. The summer sun felt good, and she stretched, reaching out her fingers as though she could capture the light. A figure stood over her. A hand reached out. She took and was pulled from her spot in the grass. Jason smiled at her. He looked the same as he did. Dusty hair cut short and thick enough that it stood on its own, warm brown eyes whose corners turned up as he smiled. His hand brushed her face. She started to cry.
Andrea woke up, tears still streaming down her face. She’d taken a nap after getting home from work, the Food Town shirt still stuck to her. She pulled it off and tossed it on the floor, kicking off blankets. Her phone blinked with messages, but she ignored them. Stumbling into the bathroom, she flicked on the light and shut the door, locking it, and then ran the water.
It’d been months since she had a dream like that. After Jason died, she dreamed about him every night, sometimes as a corpse on the side of the road, other times as he was, smiling and laughing. She’d thought they passed. The mourning period was over. Why had he come back?
She wondered if it had anything to do with her sudden desire to clean out her room. Three trash bags of clothes were waiting to go to Goodwill and she’d left pairs of shoes her sister would like by her door. She’d torn down decorations and thrown some away, keeping others. Books were piled up to be sold back. Anything to make her life feel like less of a mess.
They didn’t really have pictures around the house. There were a few, some of when they were babies and mom was still alive, some at family reunions where all the cousins and aunts and uncles crammed into one frame. Dad wouldn’t sit for one, and Christine probably had too many on her phone. Andrea was the only one who liked the sentimentality of photographs. Even after old cameras had died, she’d gone to Walgreens to print her photos and would slip them into birthday cards or Christmas letters. She wished she had more. Times from when Jason was alive, times from when they were a full family. Her memories seemed so tenuous. A picture was a solid thing, a real thing. There were so few of them these days.
Face washed, dreams chased away, clean clothes dressed, she looked around her house. It was nearly five, and her family was gone. Christine no doubt doing whatever it was she did with her many friends. John probably drunk or on his way to get drunk. She stared at her empty kitchen table and grabbed her keys instead.
She stopped at the gas station on her way to find food. Rosemary was working. She finished ringing up a customer and then busied herself with arranging the energy shots on display. Andrea didn’t even bother with pretense. She came up to the counter, watching her fingers turn the tiny bottles so the logo faced out.
“I was worried,” Rosemary said.
“Why?” Andrea asked.
“I hadn’t seen you in a few days.”
Her brow creased. “That’s a read.”
She shrugged. “You always stop in here.”
Andrea sighed, putting her elbow on the counter. “It’s been a weird couple of days.”
“I heard.” She seemed unsatisfied with the display but left it, hands searching for something else to fiddle with. “Sammy Riser told me you went out the other night.”
“I’ll bet he did.”
“And then Christine stumbles in here clearly drunk and begs me not to tell you–”
“She did?” Andrea stood straight at that. “When was that?”
Rosemary gave her an indiscernible look. “Last night. Wallace begged me to work his midnight shift and I’m here like a dummy until two in the morning and your sister nearly knocks over an entire display of Doritos.”
“Did you recognize who she was with?”
“I barely recognize anyone younger than us anymore, but yeah, a few. There were three boys in the car waiting for her.”
“She’s been so shady lately, you know?” Her fingers tapped against the counter. “She keeps naming all these in town kids like I’m supposed to know who they are and she’s been going out crazy late.”
“She’s your sister,” Rosemary said.
Andrea stared at her. “You always have an opinion about my family.”
“Is that a read?”
“You wouldn’t shut up about how my dad spends his evenings and you always look out for Christine. What’s this ‘she’s your sister’ stuff?”
She shrugged. “She is your sister. We aren’t, you know, dating anymore.”
“That’s never stopped you before.”
Rosemary wasn’t looking at her anymore. She counted the pennies in the leave one take one bin. “We’re both allowed to move on with our lives.”
Andrea swallowed down the hard rock of emotion forming in her throat. Her brain said, of course we’re both allowed to move on, but this doesn’t feel fair. Why now? Why not immediately after we broke up? Why so harsh?
Something clicked in her head. She said, “Is this because Sammy told you I went out the other night?”
“No,” she said unconvincingly. “I just realized that we weren’t moving on. I see you every day it feels like. I still care a lot about your family.”
“I can’t believe you’re freaking out because I went out with some boy.”
“I’m not freaking out.” She rolled her eyes. “And it’s not over some boy.”
Andrea stepped away. “Okay, well, if you do see my sister again, I would love a head’s up, but otherwise you don’t have to care about me or my family anymore. Sorry for inconveniencing you.”
“Andrea–” she started, but she was already walking away. She slammed the door to her car, trying not to look up at Rosemary’s expression in the window. She tore out of the parking lot and drove into town.
Dinner was now the furthest thing from her mind, but she pulled in front of the small coffee shop anyway and fumbled through her phone messages. A few from Gus and Sam, one from Luke, and one from last night from Rosemary, asking if her sister got home safe. She deleted that chain.
Someone knocked on her window, and she jumped. Luke waved at her. He wore his jacket again. It surprised her that he could handle the heat. People from Texas complained about it.
“Sorry,” he said as she got out of the car. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I was distracted.” She wished she’d dressed better. The old tank top had holes in it, and she’d pulled a shirt over it, but she could already feel herself sweating through. “What are you doing?”
“I was going to work on my research paper.” He gestured to the coffee shop. “The motel wifi is really terrible.”
“Can I sit with you?” she asked. “I promise to let you concentrate.”
He smiled. “Only if you let me buy you something.”
She did, and one iced coffee later she was playing with her phone as Luke typed away on his laptop. She twirled her straw in the drink, listening to the ice clink. He was deep in concentration, lips pursed together, fingers tapping against the keyboard, and he chewed on the straw of his drink. His hand brushed hers.
“Your hands are freezing,” she said.
“I’m cold blooded.” He let his hand rest on the table, and she kneaded her fingers into his palm. “You should see me in the winter.”
His arm was white enough she could see the blue veins going through it.
“You might get a tan down here,” she said.
“Doubtful. All I ever do is burn.”
She let his hand go. “Sorry about the other night. I didn’t mean to get that drunk.”
He smiled. “I’m glad you stopped me before I made a fool of myself.”
“I’m sorry about the boys ditching us too.” She cringed slightly, remembering Robin and Sammy disappearing as wolves. It wasn’t a secret to anyone, but they’d never had a stranger visit before.
“I barely remember any of it. Your friends are cool. You know I found their names in some documents too?”
“Yeah.” She tugged on a strand of hair. “There’s seven you’ll probably find. We’re all still around.”
“You said I could interview you.”
“I said I’d think about it.” She pulled her hair back. “It’s a lot to talk about.”
His finger tapped against a key. “You could tell me about Crooked Aggie.”
“No one likes talking about her.”
“But she was real, wasn’t she? And something did happen. You hanged a man for it.”
She looked at him. His eyes sparked with interest. She had been real, but now she was dead. What danger was there in saying her name?
“I guess,” she said slowly, “okay. I don’t know a lot but I know… enough. All the families do. Like you said, Virgil Gibbons was an ancestor. It’s not like we aren’t told the story.”
His hands stretched out over the keyboard. She looked at them. It felt wrong for some reason, writing it all down. These things weren’t secret but they were sacred, in their own way. Stories passed from father to son, brother to sister, uncle to nephew, mother to daughter. Histories that no one knew about outside of Rome, and possibly for good reason. But he looked so happy to hear it. He was pleased.
“I know before everything happened, no one bothered her much,” she started. “Sometimes a cow died and they’d blame Crooked Aggie, or there’d be a drought, or someone would get sick, but I don’t think anyone actually thought that. She was an old woman that lived in Barker’s Forest. What would be Barker’s Forest, I guess. Back then it was all forest. There were a few families in Rome that had grown big, but the Gibbons and Heddins were the biggest.”
“What started the feud?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I always got told it was over land. Good fences, I guess. Someone claimed a spot of land another person thought they’d also claimed, and from then on it was chaos. My aunt told me once it was over a goat. Herman Kinney said someone stole someone’s bride. I think it doesn’t matter. They started fighting, and it didn’t stop. It went on three generations, I’m told, until there was Charlie Heddin and Virgil Gibbons. They hated each other more than any of the other in the families. At this point, Charlie had married a Luppen and half the Gibbons’ cousins were Dixons, and all the major families were choosing sides. On the night of a full moon in August, the Gibbons, Dixons, Tyres, and Risers formed up a hunting party of some kind. Apparently wolves had become a problem in the area, and they were going to do something about it. On the other side of camp, the Heddins, Kinneys, and Luppens were doing the same.”
He was typing as fast as she was talking. “I assume that’s when the accident happened.”
“I’ve heard a couple different versions of this too. Common knowledge is, the Charlie Heddin and Virgil Gibbons both saw a wolf at the same time, but it was actually a man in dark clothing. They both shot, and the man died. It’s also possible Charlie and Virgil saw each other and shot, not realizing there was someone standing between them. I got told by some people that a wolf did attack them, and they shot at it, and then after it was dead it turned into a man.”
“Do you think they were led to that spot?”
“I don’t know why.” She leaned over, trying to see his screen. “All I know is, as soon as the boy was dead, Crooked Aggie appeared. Virgil Gibbons supposedly begged her forgiveness while Charlie Heddin told her they’d done nothing wrong. It didn’t matter. She spat on the ground and cursed them all to finish their lives as the monsters they were. The heads of families turned into monsters that night, and then everyone who shared blood or broke bread with them was cursed too. They tore each other apart, and then the townspeople learning what happened started hunting them down.”
“Charlie Heddin was hanged.” His eyes flicked to her. “What happened to Virgil Gibbons?”
“Um, they burned him, I think. I don’t know what they wrote in your historical documents, but they killed him along with some other people they’d caught and dragged them up in front of the courthouse where they burned the bodies. It might say they killed a lot of wolves.”
His fingers clacked to the end of her sentence, and then silence hung between them. He didn’t seem to notice how uncomfortable she suddenly was. He reached into his messenger bag, pulling out a manila folder, and opened it so she could see. They were photocopies, probably from what was left in the courthouse. Judgements, rulings, all dated 1783 to 1785. The large looping script of their forefathers was hard to make out, but someone had also typed up transcriptions on some of them. History was being preserved.
“Can I ask,” she said as she looked over the papers with him, “why you’re researching this? People the next town over don’t even know Rome is here. Why come all the way down here just because someone put Crooked Aggie in a court document?”
“It’s really cheesy,” he said.
“I bet it’s not.”
He reorganized the documents until he found the one he was looking for. “Folklore and myth carries a lot of mention of witches. They’re very often powerful women who do evil things, or old crones who don’t fit into a community, or independently minded people who don’t fit in very well. Look at the actual Salem, where fear and panic murdered people. I always thought of folklore as our way of dealing with things. Unrest with social convention leads people to seek out witches. Foreigners and plague lead people to seek out vampires. We create fake monsters instead of fighting our real ones. But here we are, with a tiny town in the middle of Texas, who had a witch. A real one, by all accounts. Where two families laid down bloodshed, and were cursed for it, and in a real court case in which they hanged a man, they described a woman named Crooked Aggie. I want to know the actual story. You said her house is still standing.”
“Maybe.” She had focused in on the words on the page until they blurred in front of her eyes. “We don’t go out to Barker’s Forest.”
“I’d love to see it.”
“I believe that.” She smiled up at him. “But you’ll probably have to go on your own. Crooked Aggie was left alone during all this. She died in her house, supposedly, and no one was brave enough to go tear it down. She’s still real to everyone here.”
He closed the folder. “You hate this history stuff, huh.”
“I live it every day,” Andrea said. “No one stops talking about this stuff. You’ll see if you stay here long enough. I’m tired of thinking about it.”
Luke nodded. “I’ve been trying to pull as many historical documents as possible, and I found a Texas history archive about two hours out from here that’s supposed to have a bunch of things related to Rome. I was actually going to ask you along.”
She stared at him. “Why?”
“Well you know it better than I do. Like you said, you lived it.” He reached a hand over hers. “Also, I find long car trips extremely boring and I’d love some company on the road. It’d be a same day trip. No skeezy motel rooms, promise.”
“You’re staying at a skeezy motel.” She considered the hand in front of her. “You’d be doing research the whole time?”
“You could help me.”
“It’s certainly a weird first date.” She pulled her hand away. “When were you thinking of going?”
“In a few days. I still have some stuff to look through.”
“I’ll think about it.” She turned over her empty cup. “Are you settling in here for a while?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m gonna sort through these.”
“Then, uh…” She reached forward, digging her fingers into his collar and pulling him forward. She kissed him, short, sweet, nervous. It wasn’t the deep, filling kiss they’d shared drunkenly on the back of Sammy’s truck. It was tentative, an uncertain connection, the start of something new. She pulled away, smiling.
“I’ll leave you to it,” she said.
“Yeah.” He held up a hand, and she was a little pleased to see him surprised. “I’ll see you.”
She tossed her cup and walked out onto the street. An easy food option did not present herself, and she was almost willing to sit at that table as long as Luke was there, but she needed to stretch. Despite her recent outings, she felt cooped up. Home was so suffocating these days, especially when her family was gone. What she wanted was to cook them a meal, have them sit, and talk like a family for at least an hour. Even if it was innocuous banter, even if Christine spent the whole time chatting about her friends, even if their dad only listened, it would still be better than the complete lack of communication they had now.
Andrea ended up getting a pizza for dinner and drove it home. As she pulled into the house, she saw Christine fumbling with her keys at the door. They walked in together. The house was quiet, and in the sun had dipped low enough that the shadows were starting to spread.
“Want some?” Andrea asked as she tossed the pizza on the table and grabbed a paper plate.
Christine considered it and nodded. They each took a slice and sat on the couch, flipping through channels.
“Dad’s still out,” she said.
Andrea glanced back at the bedroom. “Did he come home last night?”
She shook her head.
“Fantastic.” She thought of Rosemary and knew exactly what she would say. “It’s his problem. What were you doing out all day?”
She shrugged. “Stuff. You don’t hate being in the house all day?”
“I do, sometimes.”
The TV played an old episode of some sitcom neither of them watched. The laugh track played over their silence. Christine slumped off the couch and tossed her plate, washing her hands in the sink.
“Hey,” Andrea said as she followed her to the kitchen. “I want to ask you something.”
Christine turned with a defensiveness she hadn’t expected. Her baby sister had been running around since the summer started, out with friends, out with boys, getting drunk, probably lying about where they were going. But it was her sister. They’d always trusted each other. Even if they didn’t tell each other everything, they had to be able to turn to each other. There wasn’t anyone else.
Andrea took a breath and said, “Is it weird that Luke wants me to go do research with him?”
Christine looked surprised at the question. She shut off the water and then smiled. “Are you asking me for dating advice?”
“Too late.” She dried her hands, shoulders shaking. “Is that euphemism or something? ‘Hey, baby, want to go research something with me?’”
“Oh my God.” Andrea shoved her. “That’s so gross. And no. He’s going to this archive or something and he asked me to go.”
“Because he likes me, I think.” She considered the sink full of dishes. “Or maybe he just wants to know more about the town. But I like him.”
“You’re such a dork,” Christine said. “Yeah, it’s kind of weird, but he’s kind of a weird dude. He probably just wants to spend time with you.”
“I don’t know if I want to go.”
“I mean, it sounds boring. I’d go anyway.”
“Really?” Andrea’s head tilted back. “He’s only in town for a while, right? I should probably make the most of it.”
“Go,” she said. “You’ve been date free for a year or whatever. Entertain yourself for a day.”
She sighed and reached for her phone. “Yeah, alright. Are you going out tonight?”
“No.” Christine grabbed a water bottle out of the fridge. “I actually have work tomorrow.”
“Oh for once.”
Andrea dodged the towel thrown at her and went into her room, shutting the door. She typed a few words into the message box, erased it, typed it again, and then erased it. Let him wait until morning. She felt overeager. Maybe it had been too long. Would she have kissed him today if she hadn’t seen Rosemary? Was it worth examining the answer to that question?
It was much later she heard her dad tramp back into the house and slam his own door. Christine watched TV for a while and probably finished off the pizza. Her senses were still going wild. Tomorrow she’d clean the house and try to get the smell out of it. The night noises were a dull roar outside her door, but she played some music and curled up, going to bed. It was about one in the morning when she rolled over and opened her eyes. Outside, close by, she could hear wolves howling. It might’ve been the Riser clan in their entirety, or any of the number of werewolves out there. At the tail end she recognized the howl of the Heddins. For some reason, anger coursed through her, making her hot and her fingers twitch. She stood up, pulling at the curtain over her window, and looked outside. The trees were dark. The moon was growing full. Fireflies flickered in the distance.
There was a shadow. It moved between trees and then disappeared.
Nothing, she told herself. Boogeymen. When she was five years old she was certain she’d seen the shadow of Crooked Aggie outside her window, and Jason had crawled into bed with her until she went back to sleep. But hearing the howl had woken her up entirely, and her whole body was vibrating. Without thinking, she went to the kitchen door and stepped out. Her barefeet crunched against the grass, and her pajama pants picked up dirt. Flies and mosquitos bounced against her bare shoulders. She walked and then she was running, and then she was a wolf.
Her paws pounded against the dirt, and her senses were picking up everything. Scents to the east, light to the south, people behind her, and smells. More wolves had been here not too long ago. The Risers had run through, but she could pick up other families. Luppens and Heddins were running somewhere a few miles north of her. Another howl rose up, rushing like a wave across Rome, and instinct couldn’t keep her from responding. No one called like this. Something was happening. Adrenaline pushed her forward, until she came to the edge of Barker’s Forest.
She stopped so quickly her back legs skidded into her front. The trees were tall, skinny, branches sticking out and covered in leaves. No one had cleared away the brush or grass for years and years, and it knit together. No trails went through it, no paths. You couldn’t get a car between the trees. No one went out here, save some in-town people who made dares on Halloween or got too drunk. None of the families would think of it. It was whatever the opposite of sacred land was. Unholy.
She paced the outside of it, wondering what had driven her here. She was too full of energy. All around her was noise and smells and wolves. Andrea forced herself to sit, and she panted in the tall grass, trying to get her bearings.
In the trees, a shadow. She was sure of it. Something stood there, watching her. Its scent was indiscernible from the woods and the mud and the grass. She tried to focus, but her eyes couldn’t see the shape. After a minute, nothing moved, nothing changed, and she convinced herself it was only a shadow. There was nothing here to see. Picking herself up, she let out one last howl and ran towards home.