How Like Wolves
Dolores had gotten Rex into bed, still a wolf, with his parents called, and Lester as well. Mitch helped her bring him in, even with his arm bandaged from a work accident. Andrea didn’t bother to stick around. Once she was sure the boy was safe, she ran out, climbed into her car, and drove away.
She didn’t bother going home, though she was still covered in Rex’s blood, her hair sticking to sweating face, and her whole body wanting to collapse. If Christine were there, she didn’t want to explain everything. If her dad was there, she knew she’d go off on him, and she couldn’t handle another emotional argument like that. Instead she drove out to Deer Park, blessedly empty, parked the car, turned off the engine, and hung her head against the steering wheel as it all poured out of her. Every inch of pain she was feeling boiled up in her throat, and she let out a heavy, wracking sob. It seemed impossible this much could happen all at once. Her dad, her sister, Rosemary, the families, Ernest, Lester, Rex, the Tyres, the responsibility, the trauma, the overwhelming unbearable destruction of her life. It was any wonder her dad spent his whole time as a wolf. Nothing felt this strong as a wolf, nothing bore down so heavy. That thought scared her too. How much more would she take before deciding not to turn back at all? How long until Christine was completely alone?
She got out after a while and sat on her trunk, flipping through messages. Robin had tried to call her, but she ignored him. Rosemary had sent her no message. Probably for the best. There was a call from Luke. She played with her phone for a minute before hitting his name. There were a few rings, and then it clicked through. Silence played on the other end.
“Luke?” she said. “Are you there?”
There was a crackling sound on the other end, and then his voice filled the space. “Yeah, sorry. I was distracted.”
She didn’t know what to say to him. She didn’t know if she could explain. “Can we meet somewhere? Private? I’m just… dealing with so much shit right now.”
“No, yeah.” His voice was distant, and it hurt her more. “Do you need to talk or whatever?”
“You’re at the Motel 6, right? I can meet you there.”
“No, no. I’d rather come to you. Where are you right now?”
She buried her head. Why did he sound so distant? “Deer Park? I’ll send you the directions.”
“Sure. Give me a bit.”
He didn’t say goodbye as he hung up. She stared at her phone before sending him the maps marker.
It took half an hour for Luke to show up. She’d worn herself out at that point and was tossing rocks into the weeds. He was frazzled as he walked up, running his hands through his hair repeatedly and pulling on his jacket. He reached out a hand as he walked up.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“A lot.” She took his hand, and he came up on trunk with her. “Were you working on something important?”
“Kind of.” He squeezed. “I’ve been working really hard on this project.”
“I can take a break. What happened?”
She rested her head on his shoulder. “I don’t even know where to start. Everything is falling apart. My dad was so far gone the other night, and me and my sister had this huge fight, and then there’s something happening between the families, and I don’t know how to handle any of it.”
“It’s that bad, huh,” he said.
She nodded. “I don’t want to dump everything on you. This isn’t even–I mean we aren’t–we haven’t talked about anything.”
His head was down. “I guess I disappeared this morning.”
“I wasn’t mad or anything. Like I said, we haven’t talked about any of this.”
It felt like years since this morning, and even that night had been the end note of a very long day. She did stupid things when life was crushing down on her, and she was starting to suspect that everything with Luke was one long bad decision. He’d leave in a few weeks. He’d take her story with him, and she’d still be in Rome, with her dad and her sister and all of the drama. Clinging to him was only going to hurt.
“We haven’t talked about any of this,” he said. “I came here to do this research, and I didn’t intend any of this. But you’re a cool person. I haven’t talked about half as much stuff with anyone else as I have with you. You know what’s important.”
“Doesn’t feel like that most days.” She wiped her face. “I don’t know if letting my dad stay or cutting him off is the better option. I don’t know what to do with my sister, I don’t know what to do with myself. It’s all bad. And dumping all of this on you, it sort of comes with the implication that this is real. And it’s okay if it’s not. It doesn’t have to be.”
He wrapped his arm around her. The leather of the jacket was soft, and she leaned into it.
“I haven’t been completely truthful,” he said as he pressed his head against her. “The reasons I’m here are a little more personal than I let on, and I knew a lot more coming in than I said.”
“Why wouldn’t you just say that?” she asked.
“My family history is… complicated.” He sighed. “Maybe more than yours, though I doubt that.”
“And you tracked it back here.”
“Yeah. I think–I think I do want to tell you the whole story. I trust you. Is that weird?”
“No.” She squeezed her eyes shut. They’d known each other a few weeks, but relationships had been started on less. And he was tied to this place, just like she was. Maybe he understood. “I want to hear it. Everything.”
He pulled away, turning her so they were looking at each other. His eyes hard a spark to them she hadn’t expected. He looked almost manic, and tired at the same time. Luke put his hands on her shoulders, and the warmth from them was almost feverish.
“I really need to finish this,” he said. “But tonight I have to do something really important in Barker’s Forest. I want you to be there.”
“Inside the forest?” Her voice shook as she thought about it.
She stared at him. He was such a strange boy. Her hand reached up without her thinking, and pressed against his chest. The heartbeat was solid.
“You’re not–” She swallowed. “This is so stupid. You’re not, like, a vampire or anything, are you?”
The question made his eyes widen, and then he let out a sharp laugh. “What? No! What made you think that?”
Her face flared red. “You’re so, I don’t know, broody or whatever. And you wear your jacket all the time. Also you’re super pale. Also you were so unphased that I was a werewolf.”
“I was trying to be cool!” He was still laughing. “Would it be a deal breaker if I was?”
“I don’t know!”
He smiled at her and pulled her chin forward. Her hand wrapped around his neck, and she relished the warmth of him, the physicality. So many things were ephemeral these days, and she just wanted to hold on.
“Will you meet me?” he asked when they pulled away. “I promise, it’ll explain everything.”
“Yeah,” she said and nodded. “Of course.”
He kissed her again, and Andrea was almost scared to let him go. Too much was happening too fast. She had to cling on as much as possible.
It was a bad day in the Tyre household. Andrea had gone home, showered, changed, and driven to the house. Leon and Lynne were gone, but Robin was there, normally bright personality dimmed, and Marianne was in the kitchen on the phone.
“How is he?” she asked as she came in.
He shrugged. “Dolores is looking him over. Mom kind of freaked out.”
“A car crash,” Marianne said as she leaned out of the kitchen door. On the phone they could hear a man talking in a deep voice, and she rolled her eyes. “Jose wants to drive down, and I’m like, no. Dolores said it looked like a car hit him.”
Andrea remembered the amount of blood, the limp frame of the young boy’s body. He was only thirteen.
Robin pointedly avoided looking at his sister. “Marianne thinks she’s wrong.”
“I think,” she said sharply, pulling the phone away and placing her hand over it, “that no one would hit and run a wolf in Rome.”
He pulled her arm and carried her to the other room. Marianne returned to her phone call, talking quietly on the other end. Robin dropped down onto the couch and pushed back his dark hair.
“I’m sorry I didn’t stick around,” Andrea said.
“I’m glad you found him.” His head was in his hand as he leaned on the arm of the couch. “I mean, Marianne is right. No one would hit and run a wolf. But that has to be it, right? He was so bad.”
“Did he say anything?” she asked.
“Dolores won’t let him change. She said it can make it worse. Marianne wanted to stick around too, ‘cause she’s been going to vet school, but Lester said Dolores had to do it. I think he’s worried still.”
“That one of the families did this.”
“They wouldn’t, right?” He looked at her. “The Heddins wouldn’t. Not to Rex.”
“I don’t think it was.” She thought about the heads of families sitting at Cocina Mexicana. She thought about Ernest in the sheriff’s office. “It’s not retaliation. It’s probably not anything. It’s just bad luck.”
“He shouldn’t even be running on his own. We were at home, you know, and dad’s been out all day. Did you find him?”
“Yeah.” She didn’t know if it was worth sharing what she saw. It’d been a secret, obviously, and big enough that they’d dragged her father out of his stupor for it. “He was with my dad. I think he knew that…”
He watched her for a second and slumped further down. “That bad, huh?”
Robin had been her friend for years. He and Sam were probably the only people who would ever really understand her completely, who knew what it was like growing up in the families, who understand when she vented her frustrations, who she could tell what was going on and do it without explaining every minute detail. She felt her troubles bubble up in her throat like bile. It made her want to vomit them all out.
“My dad gets so drunk he can’t change back,” she said, “and Christine hates him for it so she’s sneaking out with–with some boy, and I have no idea how to deal with either of them or keep this family together, and all this blood stuff is reminding me of Jason to the point I’m dreaming about him every night. And Rosemary’s leaving.”
He parsed it all out in his head. “Where’s she going?”
“College, apparently. She wants out of Rome.”
“Oh.” His mouth scrunched up as Marianne came into the room. “Sucks, sorry.”
His sister sat in the chair across from them, fiddling with her phone. “I called Valerie Dixon too. Apparently Lewis and Reggie Luppen got into it.”
“Fighting?” Andrea asked.
She shrugged. “Lewis came back with a bloody nose, but they decided not to mention it to Lester. It’s not the first time.”
“Sam’s been texting me,” Robin said. “He says his sister’s going over to the Kinneys. She was going anyway, complaining about some pain in her arm or something.”
“He was just lying there?” Marianne pressed. “You didn’t see anything?”
Andrea shook her head. “I was lucky I smelled him.”
“He doesn’t run on his own. Dad always takes him out.”
“We did stupid stuff at thirteen,” Robin muttered. “It had to be a car, right? It just didn’t see him.”
“They didn’t notice hitting a werewolf?” Marianne made a face.
“He’ll be fine,” Andrea said, touching Robin’s arm. “Dolores will patch him up, and he’ll be running around again in no time.”
Marianne rocked back and forth and stood. “I’m calling dad again.”
“You should go home,” Robin said, giving her a soft smile. “We’re only going to worry.”
“I can hang around,” Andrea said.
“No. We’ll probably head back once mom tells us to.”
“Alright.” She stood slowly. “Call me, okay? I need to know he’s okay.”
He nodded. She hesitated slightly, but no, they wanted to be alone. Christine had to be home by now. She really wanted to be with her sister. What she needed was sleep, and clarity, and time. It was what all of them needed in this moment.
Christine was stirring pasta as Andrea walked in. She looked up, her face filled with worry.
“You heard?” Andrea asked.
She nodded. “Is Robin okay?”
“Dolores is looking at him.” Andrea set her keys down and kicked off her shoes. “Rumor is he got hit by a car.”
Her face twisted up, but she grabbed the pasta bowl and upended it into the sink, letting it drain. “You hungry?”
“I don’t think I’ve eaten all day.”
Andrea sat at the table as Christine dropped some pasta and sauce onto a plate. She proceeded to tell her sister everything she could about the day, starting with seeing the families in the restaurant, to getting picked up by Sheriff Kinney, to what Rosemary had told her, and finding Robin. She spilled it all out, and Christine listened, face empty, scraping her fork against the plate. After she was done, she sat there, clearly out of things to say.
“What do you think they were talking about?” Christine asked after she’d pulled apart the pieces. “That they’re all talking?”
“Rex and Calvin were badly hurt, and Veronica had her leg sliced open. And you…” Andrea reached over to her sister’s hand, moving the palm up. The bandage was still wrapped around, but the skin seemed to have healed for the most part. The cut had been nasty, and she wondered if they should go to Dolores as well. “Mitch was hurt today too.”
“It seems like everyone’s getting it.” She pulled her hand away. “Do you think someone’s causing this?”
“They must, right? Or else they wouldn’t meet about it.”
“Do you think–” She fiddled with her fork some more. “Do you think they’ll reach some kind of truce?”
“Do you think that’ll affect you and Vincent, you mean?”
Christine looked sheepish. “I wasn’t going to say that specifically.”
Andrea tapped her hands against the table. “I’m going to talk to dad, okay? Whenever he decides to show up. Tell him he can’t drink anymore. Tell him he can’t change either, if that’s what it takes. We’ll both have to watch him, but I’m going to make sure he’s still with us.”
She nodded. “Do you think he can?”
“I think he’ll try. For us, at least. He’d put in the effort.”
That didn’t seem to satisfy her, but she looked a little warmer for it. Her hands reached for her phone, and Andrea could see the chat opened with only a V to indicate who it was.
“I’m going to nap,” Andrea said. “Wake me if you learn anything new.”
“Yeah,” Christine said, “alright.”
Andrea closed the door to her room and laid down. Her bones were heavy, her head hurt, and her chest felt hollow. Every time she closed her eyes, all she could see was blood. Rex lying on the side of the road, hazel eyes turned up in pain. Christine with her hand sliced open, the skin puckered slightly with the slice. Calvin holding the open wound in his chest with it pouring over his hands. Her mind inevitably returned to Jason, lying there, neck open, grass red, eyes blank and without light.
She sat up slowly and walked to her window. A feeling of dread poured over her like ice water, making her arms numb and her legs lock. The curtain pulled back, letting in the late afternoon light. The summer sun was low, throwing this side of the house into shadows that grew long against the grass and dirt outside. The rows of trees at their property line were tall and straight like soldiers. Her vision swam as she stared out, and it almost looked as if the shadows were moving.
She didn’t say anything as she went out the kitchen door, already leaping into a wolf. It took her no time to get to the trees, and she paced around them. Something here smelled rank, not like roadkill, but something earthy and rotted, but she could still pick up the sharp scent of blood. Tracking it was difficult. It criss-crossed through the tall grass, and as a human she might’ve dismissed it as something caught onto a car or tracked by animals, but as a wolf, it raised her hair. It didn’t smell natural.
She wandered as she tried to place it. The blood around Rex had been so distracting, but this had been there, she was sure now. It might be easy to dismiss it as the smell of nature or something else, but there was something about it that felt wrong. It disappeared in places only to pick back up again a few meters off. It stuck to the trees and off of properties. She found herself chasing it for a mile, weaving between trees and stopping to turn back only to turn around again.
It worried her that she was only doing this to distract herself. She couldn’t do anything more about Rex, she couldn’t talk to the Heddins, she couldn’t face her dad, so she was doing this. Chasing phantoms. Playing make believe. Convincing herself that ghosts were real. It made more sense that Rex was hit by a car, that Christine just sliced her hand open on barbed wire, that Calvin had been stabbed by one of the families looking to even a score.
The scent got stronger as she got closer to Barker’s Forest. She stopped a distance away and stared at it. In the daytime it was innocuous, no sign of life in the trees, just a part of the world that managed to remain untouched by human hands. Just looking at it made her heart beat faster. Luke wanted her to meet inside of it. He was obsessed with this place, and for some reason he had to tell her here. She wondered what else he hadn’t told her. But he’d held her hand and said he’d trusted her. It made her want to trust him. Her fear was cut with a spike of sadness as she remembered what Rosemary had told her. Who would be left in her life soon? Who else was she going to trust?
Fear pushed away, and she returned to the house, more exhausted and knowing she’d still be unable to sleep. She pulled out a water bottle from the fridge and heard someone shouting from the front porch. Christine stood outside, and Vincent as well, who had his hands on her arms, brow furrowed. Every instinct in Andrea’s body wanted to jump on him, but she let the door slam behind her, and he pulled away. Christine turned.
“Vincent said his brothers want to fight,” she said. “They’re going over to the Dixons.”
“I bet they are.” She cracked the cap of the bottle. “The Risers are having their whole family reunion, the Tyres have a boy bloodied, and we’re probably not that fun to kick around.”
“They’re real mad,” Vincent said. “They’re convinced someone is doing this and they want to fight about it.”
“And you told them not to?”
“I tried!” He gave a desperate look to Christine. “I told them there’s no way, especially when we heard about Rex Tyre. Calvin’s convinced he was blindsided by some wolf, though, and Ernest is hopping mad.”
“I noticed,” she muttered.
Christine reached out to him. “If they fight anyone, it all pops off. The Risers will want to fight back, and then the Luppens will get in on it, and then we’ll all have to.”
“Shit.” Andrea pulled out her phone. “Do you know where your dad is?”
He shook his head. “He’s been out all day. And you know how my mom is, she probably cares about rivalries more than anyone.”
“We can’t let them,” Christine said.
“No, we can’t.” She sighed. “Look, you two should absolutely not be involved. It’s only going to escalate if someone gets hurt. Vincent, can you take my sister into town?”
“What for?” she asked.
“You two need to go in town, sit somewhere where a lot of people are.” She gave them a look. “Because if things get real bad, I want everyone to be able to say you were sitting there quiet all night, and even then, they won’t do anything there. And I sure as hell don’t want you going alone.”
“But–” Vincent started.
She pointed a finger in his direction. “I’m trusting you here, Heddin. With my sister. I’m sorting out this mess, and you two need to be as far away from it as possible.”
Christine looked at her. “I don’t want you getting hurt either.”
“As much pleasure as it would give me to knock Ernest Heddin’s lights out, I’m going to sort this out a different way.” She smiled at her. “I’ll keep my phone on me.”
She looked uncertain, but nodded. “Okay. But promise me you’ll be careful.”
Andrea nodded, and the two of them got in Vincent’s car and drove off. She went back in, looked over the empty house, and breathed in. It was time to eat some humble pie.
Andrea wasn’t expecting as many cars at the Kinney house as she saw. Lynne was sitting out front with Dolores, the two of them talking quietly with concerned faces. They looked up at her as she came in.
“Who’s all here?” she asked.
“I think just about everyone,” Lynne said.
She went inside. Upstairs of the large house, she could hear feet and people moving, probably gathered around the injured Rex. Kimberly Riser sat in the living room as Andrea walked through there, scratching at something on her arm. She barely noticed Andrea as she walked through into the kitchen, where seven men stood. Her dad was sitting at the kitchen table, hand held around a cold glass of water as though he were trying to absorb its coolness, Leon Tyre beside him with his head down, and Victor Riser beside him. Cliff Dixon stood, holding onto his cane, giving sharp looks to Frank Luppen, who had his arms crossed. It was Marty Heddin talking to Lester Kinney that took up the most space. They didn’t seem to notice her come in, and she watched for a minute. This was probably the first time all the family heads had gathered in a century.
Her dad stood when he finally noticed her. She hadn’t been expecting the hug. They’d never been a touchy-feely family, especially John Gibbons, but he embraced her as though they hadn’t seen each other in a year, and maybe they hadn’t, not really. He still stank, though he’d made an attempt to wash his face, and his eyes were still red, but she suspected these men hadn’t allowed him a drink all day. She was relieved of that.
“What’s going on?” he asked, voice cracking slightly.
The others were looking at her now. She moved away slightly so Marty could see her.
“Vincent came by,” she said. “He said that his brothers are retaliating, probably on the Dixons. They want a fight.”
“‘Course they do.” Marty stepped up to her. “They doing this now?”
“I imagine so,” she said.
Cliff Dixon’s face darkened. “I ain’t having that. I ain’t having any of that.”
“Hold on.” Marty put a hand up. “If it’s just you rushing in there, it’ll make things worse. They’re my boys.”
“Both of you go,” Lester said. “No need for more bloodshed today.”
They gave each other a look but turned together to leave. Andrea stared at the room as her dad padded back to the table.
“That’s just it, then?” she asked. “We’re all working together now?”
“Ain’t that easy,” Frank Luppen muttered.
“It’ll never be, huh.” Lester leaned against his counter. He looked more tired than ever, and she could tell his fingers twitched for a cigarette. Dolores would never let him smoke one in the house. “You said Vincent came and told you?”
“He–yeah. Yeah.” She sat at the counter. “I told him and my sister to go someplace public. I don’t want them involved.”
He nodded. “Looks like times are already changing.”
“Truth is,” Victor Riser said, “none of the families have got off scot free. Every one of us have been hurt or injured in the past few weeks.”
“Can’t be the families,” Frank said, begrudgingly.
Leon didn’t look up as he said, “We can’t let nobody else get hurt.”
Her dad placed a hand on his shoulder. Andrea swallowed down the lump in her throat.
“And what is it you’re going to do about it?” she asked.
Frank looked to the men at the table. “That’s what I was asking.”
Lester turned to them as well. “What is it you men think you can do about this?”
“Protect our own,” Victor said. “I got a small army’s worth of family right now, and the Luppens have been running all over the place. The Heddins and the Tyre’s got the people for it too.”
“Systematic-like,” John Gibbons said. “No one alone. No families keeping separate.”
Leon kept his eyes on his hands. “Someone’s attacking our children.”
“Be honest, Lester,” Victor said. “You’ve got nothing.”
He sighed. “I don’t. Looked for cars today that might’ve been in an accident, and no one’s reported anything. There’s no way anyone who wasn’t in the families would be able to stab Calvin. If all the injuries are related, which I don’t think they are, but if they are, someone’s managing to pull something over on us. Could be some in-towners, maybe, if they were angry enough, but I got no evidence of that.”
“No one’s smelled anything?” Frank looked at each of them. “No one’s got a clue.”
Andrea thought of the strange rotted shadow. “Is it possible it isn’t–it isn’t anything alive?”
They all turned to her. Embarrassment flared up on her face.
“You mean a ghost?” Frank said, hiding an obvious laugh. “Some kind of boogeymen?”
“We’re werewolves.” She glared at him. “Cursed by a witch. Do you think that’s outside the realm of possibility?”
“It’s not something I’d considered.” Lester gave a skeptical look.
“Because it’s a fairy tale.”
“I’m sorry.” She stood. “Which part of that theory are you objecting to?”
Her dad reached an arm up. “My girl doesn’t tell stories.”
“There’s something stirred up,” she said. “And it ain’t just us. I–I’ve been out at Barker’s Forest–”
“What for?” Victor nearly shouted.
“And there’s something there!” she shouted back. “It’s like Crooked Aggie still lives in the trees. Blood’s been spilled here. Blood’s what it always comes down to.”
She sucked in a breath. It’d be easy enough to tell them about Luke, about meeting him there that night, easy enough to invite them along so they could see for themselves, but she stopped herself. They didn’t need to know some stranger had been messing around in Barker’s Forest. It’d just devolve into five old men yelling at her.
“Ghosts, huh.” Lester gave a frustrated noise. “Right now we’ve got nothing else to go on. Riser, you think you can get some people together willing to go?”
Victor’s brow furrowed, but he nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Frank stepped forward. “I’ll ask some people as well. That’s what we’re doing, right? Working together?”
John Gibbons stood, placing a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. He nodded to the others and led her out into the other room. Kimberly was gone, probably gone to see her brother.
“What’re you doing out in Barker’s Forest?” he asked.
“It’s complicated,” she said. “How are you feeling?”
He shifted uncomfortably. “Guess I embarrassed myself.”
She put her hand on his arm. “We’ve got a lot to talk about when all this has settled down.”
“Christine’s alright then? With the Heddin boy?”
“She’s–yeah. Dad, can you just–can you promise me you won’t change? Help out Lester as you can, head home if you need it, but I need to know you’re coming home.”
His face softened. He was aged so much from the past year and the years before that. The unruly beard he’d grown was in desperate need of a trim, and his eyes had sunken in. Greys went through his hair. His hands were calloused when they wrapped around hers, and it was a comfort.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “You and your sister are the only ones I’m thinking about anymore.”
She hugged him again. It wasn’t a promise, and she’d have to hold him to it if it were, but for a moment, the weight was released from her chest.
There wasn’t much else to do from there. She went and sat with Lynne for a minute, but the crushing sadness of the horror upstairs was a lot to bear. Rex was improving, but until his wounds were healed, they wouldn’t let him change. Andrea couldn’t look at him without seeing her brother.
She made it home as the sun went down. Her sister was still gone, but she’d sent a text that the Heddins were gathering, and she was going with Vincent. Andrea considered it, but if they were honest about setting aside past rivalries, this was the time to talk about these things. New starts all around.
The day bore down on her as she laid in her bed, and it was inevitable that her eyes grew heavy, and her sheets wrapped around her, and her dreams bubbled up like boiling water. Her brother lay on the side of the road, blood covering the grass and her shirt and her hands, the moon bright and full overhead, and a shadow watched her from the grass. Its face was inscrutable, its body shapeless, but she felt its eyes on her.
She woke as her phone went off. The time read close to midnight. Luke’s name lit up the screen. He was calling her. Like the darkness outside, he was waiting.
Andrea stood at the edge of Barker’s Forest, suddenly unsure. She trusted Luke. He trusted her. But all around her were shadows.
She looked at her phone. Of course she’d forgotten to charge it, and the battery was red in the top corner. She trusted Luke, but she wasn’t stupid. Her fingers tapped out a quick message to her sister, telling her where she was. Christine was less likely to come out here than she was, but she could at least do something with that knowledge.
Luke’s car was there, but he wasn’t. The trees stretched out like skinny sticks, their leaves thick. Overhead, the full moon called to her. Wolves and moons had less of a relation that anyone would like to think, but it still rang out like a siren. Easier to hunt, easier to see, and it made the night look magical. It gave an eerie look to the dark shadows that filled the wood. She stood at the edge, her toe not breaching the line of trees. Tomorrow the families would sweep through here to try to chase away the darkness. If Crooked Aggie did hide in the shadows, they would know.
She moved forward, pushing branches out of the way as she did. Why did he have to tell her his secrets here? What couldn’t he say to her that needed to be said in such a terrible place? The wolf inside of her was howling, desperately clawing to get out. It was difficult remembering the way they’d gone, since last time she’d been so scared. She was scared this time, but determined. Her heart pounded in her chest, but it was no longer a hollow sound.
The forest had no sound in it. Her feet crunching against the brush bounced against the trees that grew so close together. She put her hands out, as though it would protect her from them, and her palm scratched against the rough bark. Her breath hitched as she found that strange scent. The rotted, earthy scent was mixed with the woodsy cologne Luke always wore. It filled her nostrils, and she whirled around. Shadows moved all around her as the trees waved in the wind. The full moon overhead filled the forest with odd lights. She picked up her pace, running through the gaps in the trees, trying to find her way, and she tripped, palms out, knees in the dirt. The skin of her palms scraped against stone, and she let out a cry.
The cabin was in front of her. It was decrepit, mossy, vines growing across the rotted wood. She lifted her hands to her face and cringed as she breathed in the coppery smell of her own blood. For a moment, she saw the shadow in the doorway, watching her, but then she blinked and saw it was Luke. He was playing with something in his hands. Slowly, she came to her feet and pressed her palms against her shirt.
“Hey,” he said. In his palm was a long stick, bisected and twisting out. “You made it.”
“I did.” She cringed at the sting in her hands.
He brought them up so he could look at them. In the low light, she could see his face. He looked even more tired than earlier, but there was something else in his eyes. They were bright, filled with light, and manic. His hair flopped down, and his hands were covered in dirt. They were cold against her palm.
“Come on,” he said. “I have to show you something.”
She walked behind him, hugging her arms. “Listen, I–I kind of told the families about this. They’re going to come through Barker’s Forest. If they find this, I don’t know what they’ll do to it.”
He paused as he stood in the doorway. Shadows covered his face.
“That won’t matter,” he said.
“I know this place is important,” she continued to babble. “But I’ve been having these–this feeling. Something bad lives here. I don’t think Crooked Aggie ever left.”
“No.” He stepped into the small cabin and snapped his fingers. Suddenly a circle of candles lit up, filling the small space with light. “She didn’t.”
She stared. The floor had barely survived, boards broken away, shoots growing up through the cracks, but in the center was a large chalk circle surrounded by candles. Something had been painted in the center of the circle, smeared a reddish brown. A cold chill went through her.
“What–” She turned to him. “What is this?”
“It looks bad, doesn’t it.” He looked over it like an artist examining his work. “I did a bad job of it initially, but I think I’ve figured it out since then. I learned a lot in a year.”
Her voice quivered as she repeated, “What is this?”
“You’re gonna flip out a little, I know,” he said as he took her hand. “It’s a lot to take in.”
“Did you do this?”
His hand pulled her chin so she was looking into his eyes. “Just listen, okay. I want you to hear everything.”
Her breath hitched, and she nodded.
“Okay.” He stepped back. “You told me the story of how the families got cursed, yeah? I knew it, coming here. It’s why I’m here. You said the Heddins and the Gibbons went on a hunt for a wolf, but I got told they went on a hunt for a witch. Crooked Aggie was Agatha Sutton, married to Emory Sutton, deceased, with three sons. One son went west chasing gold, and another went north to attend school. One stayed to look after his mother. They lived away from town. In her youth, Agatha had been the village witch, brewing medicines and being a midwife, and in her old age, she focused her work on the rivalry between the families.”
She watched him as he talked, his eyes lighting up, his hands frantic as they waved in the air.
“How do you know this?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Historical documents, marriage licenses, journals and primary documents. Mostly, my mom told me. So, there’s a wolf terrorizing Rome. It’s stealing livestock and snatching up children and being sighted everywhere. Both the Heddins and the Gibbons come to the realization that there is a witch in the wood, and she has a son. So Charlie Heddin and Virgil Gibbons made a deal. They set aside their rivalry for one day, for one wolf hunt. They came across Agatha’s son, and they shot him dead. And then they went to deal with Agatha. She was enraged, to say the least, and she cursed the both of them, as well as anyone else who had helped in the hunt. Hence, you. Agatha’s eldest son came down after all the bloodshed had died away and helped his mother put her final affairs in order. She passed on her traditions to her sons, and he returned to the north, where he passed it on to his children, on and on, until now. Hence, me.”
She held up her hands. “So you came here to track your roots. You’re here to learn about Crooked Aggie.”
“I know about her. I’m here because we’re removed from her. You live in Rome, you see your family every day, you know the history in your father’s face, but no one in my family had been back in a century. The things she taught her son, that he taught his children, that they taught their children, that got taught to me, it’s watered down, removed from its source, and lost in a modern world. I came here to learn.”
Her eyes drew to the chalk circle and the blood in the center of it.
“Learn from who?” she asked.
“The best thing to do,” he said, “when you’re doing research, is to track down the source.”
In the flickering of the candlelight, the shadows seemed to move. Wind pushed through the cracks in the walls, giving a low moan. Andrea’s fingers curled, teeth grit, as her body tried to shift. She held it together. Slowly, she turned, expecting to see the witch behind her. The vines shuffled in the nighttime breeze.
“There’s someone–” Her voice cracked. “There’s something hurting people in town. Hurting werewolves.”
“I think my mistake in the past,” Luke carried on, as though he hadn’t heard her, “was being overly enthusiastic. The ritual just asked for blood, and I assumed it meant a lot of it. But just a drop will do. One family wasn’t enough, you know? The curse spread out so far. I needed all seven.”
“A cut on the hand.” He held his up to illustrate. “She’s good. It looked like a regular cut, didn’t it? I bet she’s fine now. It probably didn’t even hurt.”
“And Rex.” No, there was something here. Watching from the darkness. She could feel its eyes on her. “He’s thirteen. They said he got hit by a car.”
Luke’s face looked mournful. “He was a little quicker, I think. He must’ve realized what was happening and fought back.”
“There was so much of it.” Her hands shook. Her voice quaked. Her eyes watered. “His dad looked… destroyed.”
He wrapped his arms around her, and she stiffened against him. Tears escaped down her cheeks. The scent of him was so good, so warm, and she wanted to scream at him, but part of her still wanted to accept his embrace. The monster in the dark had been in front of her the whole time. She’d invited him into her home, he’d met Christine, she’d shared her secrets with him, and all along he’d been working on this. This horror show of a school project. She should push him away, shout, run, tell everyone what she’d seen, but she remained, locked in his arms, strength draining out of her.
“It looks really bad, I know,” he said, his lips against her ear, the rumble of his voice still a welcome feeling. “But after I’m done with this, I’ll have it. All of her knowledge. All of her power. I want to share it with you.”
“What does that mean?” Her voice was so small, she felt like she was disappearing. The shadows continued to move.
“You want more,” he said. “I understand. It’s always been this town and your family and what you are. I can make it easier for you. Your sister would be taken care of, and we could change your dad, and you wouldn’t have to stay here. You could go to school or you could find something else. Something that makes you happy. You can come with me. You won’t have to watch all the people in your life leave you.”
She squeezed her eyes shut. There were things she’d told herself she didn’t want, jealousies she’d bit down on. Her home was disappearing, and after she and Christine left it, it would only be left with ghosts. The friends she had would leave, inevitably, except for Sam and Robin, who would probably stand stoic on their land until the dirt claimed them as well.
“Why?” she asked. “If you’re doing all this, why share it? Why me?”
“I was being honest.” He pressed his palms to the side of her face. “I didn’t expect to meet you. I didn’t expect to like you as much as I do. You’re an honest person, and you’re loyal, and you’re caring. It’s a rare trait in a human being. You were right. Dumping all this stuff on each other without thinking of this as a real relationship is a bad idea. So this is me telling you that it’s real.”
“I was talking about my alcoholic dad and the fact that my sister is dating a Heddin!” She gave a panicked laugh. “You doing black magic using werewolf blood is supposed to come up after the relationship’s had some time to develop!”
His eyes narrowed. “What is it that’s keeping you here?”
She opened her mouth, and then snapped it shut. What was it that kept her here? Christine, obviously, but Christine would probably follow her if she asked. Her dad was… He tried his darndest, but the words ‘lost cause’ popped into her mind too easily. He could promise now, but in a week where would they be? Sammy and Robin had their own lives and their own families. Rosemary was going to school. Gus and them were friends, but she couldn’t tell them her secrets. She couldn’t explain her world to them. Rome held nothing in it but history. Her history. The part of her she hated most.
Andrea looked into his eyes and saw, well, a future. Maybe not a great one, but it was there. There was an earnestness there that promised he would care for her, that said he believed everything he was saying. She and her sister could leave this town, and they could convince their dad to stop drinking, but there was no promise there that it would remain. That Christine wouldn’t leave her. That her dad wouldn’t fall off the wagon again. That the world wouldn’t take it all away from them again. There was a part of herself that would always be bound here, a string that would tie her down and strangle her, and he was promising to cut the cord. He was promising to take care of her. It was more than anyone else had ever done.
She leaned forward and kissed him. His hands were around her neck, and he pulled her forward, dragging her into him. Calling it love was foolish, calling it lust was too simple. She just wanted. Wanted out, wanted free, wanted her family to stay together, wanted to leave them behind, wanted heat, wanted warmth, wanted someone else to carry her burdens for a while. The whole world had cracked beneath her feet a year ago and now she was falling. All she wanted to do was grab on.
A thought struck her so hard she jerked away, her eyes wide as she stared up at him. Her mouth formed a question she was too afraid to ask.
“A year,” she said, her voice a whisper. “You’ve been doing this for a year.”
A curious expression wrinkled his face, and his mouth twisted up. “I learned, yeah.”
“And you have to summon Croo–her by blood.” She stepped away. At her feet, the divining rod was shaking slightly. The shadows continued to move. “The first time you saw her, when was it?”
The surprise had gone out of his face. Now he was thinking. “It was my first time in Rome. I knew I needed blood, I thought one of the families would do. I didn’t know I needed all seven, or that it had to be here.”
“You were ‘enthusiastic’.” She spit her word back at him. “How much did you think you needed?”
“At least you said hello this time.” The wolf inside her itched, no longer afraid. A white hot anger was boiling up. It blinded her as she backed away from the candlelight. “You didn’t just roll into town, slit a man’s throat, and then leave.”
“She’s summoned at the spilling of blood,” he said as though that explained everything. “I needed to.”
“He was my brother!” she screamed, and her teeth came down in sharp points. “You have no idea what you did! To my dad! To my sister! To me! You slit his throat and left! And then you came back like, like, like nothing had happened!”
“I was wrong at the time.” His voice remained calm. He held his hands up. “But I can make amends. I can fix it.”
“My brother is dead!” The words came out as a deep snarl. Her nails were growing long. She was trying to hold it all in, but the wolf was bursting out. “Because of you!”
“All I need is a little blood.”
“I’ll give you blood!”
She sprang forward and collided on top of his chest. There was no difference between her and the wolf, but the wolf was angrier, and it solved problems one way. Her claws dug into his shirt, and she bared her teeth with a rumble of a growl. Genuine fear spread across his face, and he put his hand up to push her away. She snapped at it, drawing blood from the hand. She opened her mouth to tear out his neck, and the candles went out. The momentary distraction allowed him to shove her, pushing her onto the floor, and he scrambled back, grinning. She focused in, and stumbled to her feet as a woman again.
Only the light of the moon allowed them to see now, and her eyes were sharper than his. The shadows did move, swimming like light underwater, and on the ground the divining rod shook violently. The boards creaked and groaned, and the wind brought in a familiar scent, the rotted tree, the ancient earth, the bones of long dead animals. The darkness stretched, and there was a shape in it. At first it was the shadow she’d seen, formless, faceless, but is kept stretching forward, until she could see the crone within. Black, oily hair twisted down over a long face, the shoulders slumped, and skinny arms lifted up. From the form little vines of shadow twisted up, as though pulled from the ground. The shade inched towards Luke, dragging darkness behind it like a train. Luke turned to it, arms open, as though greeting an old friend.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” he said. “The last of them. A drop of blood from each of the families.”
The shade held out its claw like hands, touching the palm of his hand. It moved slowly, shaking slightly, like an old stop motion doll. Andrea saw its chin pull back and its mouth open, full of crooked teeth like shredded paper. It examined the wound she’d given him and lifted its face to Luke’s.
Andrea was frozen. Her childhood nightmare was standing right in front of her, stroking her boyfriend’s face in a maternal way. The shade looked at Andrea, and she might as well have been five years old, pulling her covers over her face while a tree tapped outside her window, drawing her toes from the edge of her bed so nothing could pull her down. There were no eyes on Crooked Aggie’s face, but her stare was endless, penetrating, and Andrea could not look away.
“You’ve summoned me one last time,” she said in a voice like wind shaking between trees. “My son, you have asked to know everything that I do.”
“I’ve done everything you’ve asked,” he said.
Her eyeless face still focused on Andrea. “Three hundred years ago I protected these people from death and destruction. Three hundred years ago my son was killed for my trouble. Three hundred years ago I cursed the blood that spilled here. Now I am that death and destruction. Once my child has broken my chains, there will be no place your kind can hide.”
She tore her gaze away from the shade and gave one last desperate look to Luke. “You can’t let her. Please, Luke, if you thought there was anything between us at all, you have to stop this. Please.”
There was a moment of remorse that flickered across his face, but the shade placed its long fingers on the open wound in his palm.
“It is blood that binds us,” the shade said in its rasping voice, “and through blood I will share my power. Accept the terms of the contract, so that I may give you everything.”
He looked at the shade, and he said, “I accept.”
The whole cabin darkened as a grin stretched across the shade’s face. Its form shuttered, and then two of its claw-like appendages pierced the palm of his hand. He shouted, pulling away instinctively, and the shade raised its palm up, piercing the side of his face as well. It opened its jaw wider and wider, teeth rattling, wind blowing, darkness creeping, and its claws dug into his skin again and again. Blood poured from his wounds, and the skin flayed from muscle that shone bright red in the moonlight. He fell back, and the shadows descended on him. Andrea remained frozen, fear rooting her to the spot, the smell of blood filling every single one of her senses. She could not even avert her eyes as he screamed and thrashed, and then suddenly he stopped. The darkness filled the room like water in a well. Slowly, she felt her muscles release, and she crept forward. Blood was the only thing she could smell, and blood was the only thing she saw, trickling across the floor towards the chalk circle. The smell of rotted wood grew stronger, and the cabin creaked as the vines began to move.
“I regret using him so,” the voice rose from the darkness, hollow, rasping, and punctuated with the click-clack of teeth. “It is so rare children respect their elders.”
She gasped and fell back as the figure rose from the shadows. Luke’s skin was stretched across like a poorly made mask, the hair matted and thick with blood, the eyes black and black and black. The black jacket was tattered, bits of bone and muscle visible through the leather fabric, and the shirt now red. His form lumbered forward awkwardly, like a marionette, and bits of shadow wisped through the holes left behind. The vines and trees and plants that had grown over the cabin reached out to the shape. HIs fingers were black claws, and when his mouth opened, she could see the second face behind it, the row of teeth, and the emptiness the witch had left behind. It was no longer Luke. Crooked Aggie shambled forward.
“This is my land,” her voice rasped through his empty mouth. “And I have always protected it. I am going to wipe your scourge from this earth.”
Andrea was officially at her limit. She ran. She burst from the threshold of the cabin and threw herself into the trees. One glance behind her told her Crooked Aggie was following, laughing madly under the full moon, and the skinned body of Luke was chasing her. She reached desperately for her phone and then smacked into a tree, sending it flying. She landed in the dirt and scrambled for it, reaching for the first name she saw. Behind her the shadows darkened.
Rosemary’s voice filtered through the speakers as she shouted, “Where are you?”
“Barker’s Forest.” Andrea dragged herself to her feet and ran forward. “Get Sheriff Kinney, or my dad, or anyone, Rose, I’m–”
Her phone beeped at her, and then the screen shut off. She screamed and tossed it, bringing her arms up as low branches reached down to grab her.
“Child,” the wind whispered. “Why do you run?”
She was on all fours the next second, racing blindly forward. Her shoulders slammed against the trees and her paws broke the brush underneath. The forest was alive, moving. Vines hooked around her legs but she tore free, and tree branches bent low to touch her. This was Crooked Aggie’s place. These were her trees and her forest. The scent of her was everywhere, surrounding everything, making her blind. The shadows moved in, narrowing her path, and flitting through the trees was Luke’s face watching her, keeping pace with her. The witch was playing a game. She couldn’t leave this place without her permission. She couldn’t leave at all.
Andrea stumbled, fell, colliding with the rich soil and slamming into a tree. She sat up, dazed, her human mind taking control. The moonlight was gone completely, and only the darkness remained, moving in on her like a wall. Crooked Aggie floated towards her, hands out, scratching her way through the trees. Vines lifted to touch her, trees bowed before her. Andrea would’ve given anything for this to be a nightmare, to wake up in her bed and have her brother holding her, her sister sleeping soundly in the next room, their dad gone for another long night. Instead she was going to die here, and then her sister and her dad, and then all the werewolves of Rome. She squeezed her eyes shut as the witch moved forward, one long claw extended out to her, the night like liquid, the stars gone out, the trees the only ones with her in her final hour.
A howl cut through the night, and her head whipped around. Another one went up, and another, and then from the brush burst out a large wolf that collided into the witch, knocking her back. Crooked Aggie screamed like a howling storm and lifted up the wolf, tossing him. Vincent Heddin landed at her feet and then slowly stood again, teeth bared, growling, hackles raised. The witch righted herself, looking at the scraps of skin that peeled away, and she grimaced at the pair of them. Her hands drew back, and branches shot out, wrapping around both of them. Andrea pulled against them, her feet digging into the dirt. Vincent was rolled over, and he snapped at the trees. Two more wolves ran past, howling as they came in, and they surrounded the witch. They were Risers and Luppens, and right behind her she could hear the howl of more. Dawn Dixon was at Andrea’s side, tearing at the vines, and it was Robin who helped up Vincent. They scrambled up, and Andrea ran, skirting the other wolves that were coming, and slammed headfirst into Lester Kinney. Behind him, Rosemary was running through the underbrush, a pair of wolves at her side she recognized as Christine and Sammy.
Lester grabbed her shoulder. “Stay here.”
“It’s–” She gulped down air. Both the wolves were now running up to her as humans. “It’s the witch–”
He gave her a look. “Stay. Here.”
He vaulted forward as a wolf, and Andrea staggered back as her sister wrapped her arms around her. Sammy patted her shoulder before chasing after Lester. Rosemary stopped a foot away.
“You’re okay!” Christine hugged her sister closer.
Andrea couldn’t breathe. There were snarls in the distance, the sounds of trees creaking, screams, shouts. Part of her wanted to follow, and part of her was too scared to turn back around.
“Are you okay?” Rosemary asked, her voice a whisper in the storm of sounds.
“I’m–no.” She stepped away and raised her hands to her eyes. “I don’t know.”
Rosemary’s eyes were on the shadows. More howls in the distance. Was everyone here?
“I flipped out,” Christine said, “when you sent me that text. I was absolutely sure you were doing something crazy, so I called Rosemary, who told me to call Sheriff Kinney, and then Rex finally could tell everyone what happened, and then everyone was flipping out. Vincent got his brothers, and Rosemary called Robin, and then–”
The trees splintered and burst, branches reaching for them. Andrea shoved her sister down and reached for Rosemary as the shadows drew in. The witch was laughing madly, clawed hands bloodied, skin tearing away like paper. She no longer moved slowly but rushed them, arms out. Rosemary screamed and fell back as Andrea placed herself in front of her. Crooked Aggie’s fingers pierced her skin and dragged up. She was blinded with pain, unable to fight back, unable to shout, dropped to her knees because of it. Her eyes watered as she looked up, saw the poor facsimile of the boy she’d almost sold her soul to, and then the witch was bodily knocked away by a large wolf. Ernest Heddin tore into Crooked Aggie’s neck, ripping away the skin. The other Heddin boys were right behind him, and Andrea could see as they tore away what was left of Luke, they left red blood vessels and shining tendons. They ripped open her chest, and a red heart beat in the open air. Andrea jumped as a tree thudded down, attempting to scatter the wolves. Ernest managed to wrap his maw around the blood red muscle as a vine wrapped around him and dragged him away. It burst from the witch’s chest and landed on the ground.
Crooked Aggie staggered up, hands clawing, throat rasping. The boys struggled up, and she raised her hand so the trees began to move. Andrea held onto her sister, and then she felt someone touch the top of her head. She looked up as John Gibbons walked past, a rifle in his hand. The witch hissed at him, but he barely seemed to register. He walked up to the heart, still beating in the dirt, oozing out viscous blood, he raised his rifle up, and he shot it dead in the center. The reverb of the gunshot bounced against every tree. Crooked Aggie still crawled forward, arms reaching out, and he gave her a look before raising his boot and stepping down on it. The witch gave a cry that Andrea would hear the rest of her life in her nightmares, a scream so ugly and ragged her hands drew to the sides of her head, and then Crooked Aggie laid down, the edges of her melting away, until all that was left was a lump of dirt.
Andrea sat on the back of Sammy’s truck, a flask in her hand that Cliff Dixon had given her. She hadn’t sipped from it yet, but Rosemary took it out of her hands and tossed it back, wiping her mouth when she was done. All around them wolves and humans were walking, talking, trying to figure out exactly what had gone on. Lester had a quiet word with Andrea, and she’d promised him the whole story when her hands stopped shaking. Christine stood in front, leaning off the back of the truck, nervously tapping her hands as the forest was cleared out.
Everyone was here, including some in-towners who had heard the fuss. Rumors were spreading wildly. Everyone had stopped to look at Andrea. She’d talked to no one.
“Fuck,” Rosemary said as she handed the flask back to her. “Old Man Dixon drinks some strong whiskey.”
“How are you feeling?” Christine asked as she looked at her sister.
Andrea closed her hands around the flask. “Bad.”
“That was, um–” Rosemary sucked in a breath. “That was Crooked Aggie.”
“Yeah.” Christine picked the flask out of her sister’s hands. “Can’t wait to dream about that for the rest of my life.”
They were not saying the obvious to Andrea. It made her skin itch. She couldn’t decide how to respond to anything, or what to say to anyone, or explain exactly how fucked up her life had become.
“Oh!” Christine jumped up. “Finally!”
The three Heddin brothers walked free of the treeline, laughing with each other in a way that suggested they were not thinking about the horrors they just faced. Christine ran forward before anyone could tell her no, crossing the lines of families watching, and threw her arms around Vincent. She kissed him soundly, right there, in front of everybody. Calvin and Ernest stared, and it was probably the only thing happening in Barker’s Forest tonight worse than an undead witch wearing the skin of Andrea’s now ex-boyfriend. Vincent gave her a startled look, and then sheepishly held his hands out to his brothers. John Gibbons, who had been chatting with Lester, turned around, brow furrowing, and he marched forward. He held onto his daughter’s shoulders as Marty Heddin also approached. Both their faces turned away from where Andrea and Rosemary sat, but Marty walked away, shaking his head. John said something to his daughter before returning to his chat with Lester. Christine bound forward, dragging Vincent behind her. Calvin and Ernest followed, the eldest brother garnering a glower.
They approached, and Andrea hopped off the truck. Calvin whispered something to her brother, and she sucked in a breath.
“Hey, Heddin!” she called.
Ernest looked up at her. Christine jumped in front of her sister, and Vincent made a move to calm his brothers. Ernest shoved him aside.
“Thanks,” Andrea said and stuck out her hand. “You saved my life back there. You and your brothers.”
He looked her up and down, and then held out his hand as well. “I told you I didn’t want to see anyone get hurt.”
It was a small thing, a Heddin and a Gibbons shaking hands. It clearly meant the world to the happy couple. Andrea saw her dad looking at her, and he gave a little smile.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Rosemary asked as she returned to the truck. “That was surprisingly cool.”
“I’ve been about two seconds from falling apart this whole year,” Andrea said. “And if Ernest Heddin says a single thing to my sister I don’t like I’m ripping his throat out. Might as well lay the foundation.”
Rosemary looked at her and then wrapped her arm around her shoulder, letting Andrea rest her head on her. Barker’s Forest was completely lit up, and there was smoke in the distance, the smell of burning wood.
“I can’t believe you came all the way out here for me,” Andrea said, her voice cracking.
Rosemary let her head fall against hers. “It’s not that I want to cut you out of my life. I care about you a lot.”
“I did keep dropping everything in your lap.”
“We’re friends,” she said, a little quiver in the last word, but it was still said. “Even when I’m in Austin, I want to know what’s going on in your life.”
“That means a lot to me,” Andrea said.
“I absolutely have to know what the fuck happened back there.” She squeezed her tighter. “When you’re ready.”
The night wore on, until the sun started to peek over the horizon, taking away the shadows. Andrea knew, as her sister drove them all back to the house, that the shadows would always be there, waiting for her.
Summer didn’t end really, not in central Texas, not when it’d be 80 degrees until December. But summer was over for the most part. Andrea had said goodbye to her in-town friends who were going back to school. The Riser clan had gone out again. School was starting for the little ones soon. A calm had fallen over the town. People were busying themselves with their lives again. In town, no one talked about what had happened over the summer. Most of them didn’t know. Andrea couldn’t forget about it.
She stood in front of Rosemary’s house, rocking back and forth on her heels as she hugged her parents one last time. The sun had made it over the houses but was still climbing to take its place. People were out jogging, or walking their dogs, if they hadn’t gone to work already. Andrea felt she stuck out on the sidewalk, but Rosemary smiled when she saw her and reached out to take her hand.
“Thanks for seeing me off,” she said.
Andrea reached up to pull on her hair and dug her fingers into her shirt collar instead. “I have to visit, you know.”
“Just don’t surprise me or anything.”
They stood there, the two of them holding hands, the warmth of the summer day flooding over them, Rosemary’s car packed with suitcases, and her parents watching from the front porch. Her blond hair was pulled back, her nails painted fresh from last night a nostalgic shade of blue. There was a world of words between them that none of them were going to say.
Andrea reached up and hugged her. It was the only way she could express everything she felt. Rosemary squeezed her tight, her chest giving a soft hiccup as she sucked in a breath, and then they pulled apart. Andrea waved goodbye as she got in her car to head far away from Rome.
Andrea was back home before her sister had even gotten up. She was disturbed to see Vincent Heddin cooking bacon on her stove, and she swallowed it down as Christine came out of the shower, wearing an oversized t-shirt, shorts, and a towel wrapped around her hair.
“Don’t let dad see this,” Andrea said.
Christine stuck her tongue out at her. “He said Vincent is always welcome in the house. You’re just a prude.”
“Where is he anyway?”
She shrugged. “He left early to go talk to Sheriff Kinney. I think he’s going to get him a job.”
Andrea blinked. “At the sheriff’s office?”
She reached over to kiss her boyfriend on the cheek. “I think Lester talked him into it.”
“Dad’ll be mad about it,” Vincent muttered.
“Well if it makes Marty Heddin mad.” Andrea sat at the kitchen table and propped her chin in her hands. “Are you two going to be here all day or can I safely breathe in my own house?”
“Do you want bacon or no?” Christine said with a smirk.
Andrea sighed dramatically. “I guess if it’s a sacrifice I have to make.”
She ate breakfast with them before texting Sammy and meeting him in town. It felt, for the first time, that she was breathing. Bad things had still happened. Horrible things had happened. She still woke up in the middle of the night and did not sleep until the sun rose. But things had gotten better, somehow. Her sister, her dad, her friends, her town, it had all gotten a little easier. And now she had an excuse to get out if she needed it. Visit Austin instead of seeing the same old same old, or drive to San Antonio with Robin to visit his sister. History no longer felt so defined.
The darkness did. In the summer it was rare, but in the winter it would be all around them constantly, Crooked Aggie tapping at their window. After she’d sat down with Lester Kinney, she hadn’t said Luke’s name again, as though, like Crooked Aggie, it would summon him. She didn’t know what he’d said to the authorities about it. She hoped she never had to find out.
But for the first time in a long time, she felt like her feet were on solid ground. There were still cracks beneath her, but she was no longer falling. She could walk forward, finally, and leave the shadows behind her. The fear was gone, as was the desperation. Tied to this town, bound to her family, a distance between her and her friends, but there were no more gaps she couldn’t bridge. Andrea Gibbons was herself. It was all she would ever ask to be.