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Monstrous Femme

She laughed, like a memory. I could tell the hair dye stung as badly as it smelled, but she would accept no help from me. She crumpled the plastic bag, its job done, dropping it out the window. It stank of chemicals, but also of her—her warm scent, somewhere between lavender and pungent raspberries. I whined, as only a dog can whine, and she chuckled anew, shaking her freshly-dyed, creamsicle-orange head.

“Pudge, you’ll have to let me dry my hair,” she said, and I howled, jumping on the couch, knowing that she would never say no to me.

She vanished and came back into the sitting room, the thick dust breaking across her soft skin as she moved, her hair wrapped in a towel.

“You know where we’re going now, don’cha, Pudge?” she asked, showing her fangs as she smiled at me.

Her smile filled me with more joy than I could hold in my heart. I howled, shaking the feeble rafters with my voice, standing on my rear paws as my voice traveled through the roof, soaring across the night sky, where I knew the luminous silver of the full moon flowed, like sweet milk spilled across the darkness.

And then we were out, the scents of the park drawing my eager nose like zillions of carnival barkers, entreating me to see what wonders they had for me. But I obeyed the pull of the chain, affixed to my spiked collar. Bounding on all fours, I followed happily, pleased just to be alive on this night, like so many other nights, but unique in that I lived in that moment, charging through the brush and moist grass, following the small shade I shared my life with as we went on the adventure we loved the most.

I stopped only to relieve myself, marking the territory that I dared to claim for my very own; no other dog, wolf, or other beast could or would challenge me. I was complacent and happy, compelled and driven only by the jangling chain and the kind words of my friend that spurred me onwards.

And there it was, the ruins of the shopping center. The only one I recognized or cared to run toward was the Box Office, its lights forever off like every other tape-rental store in the world, its doors closed just like the rest of the failed businesses in that cul-de-sac. I ran through the parking lot, my tongue lolling, drool falling from my great, white teeth.

“Slow down, Pudge, follow Vega like good boys,” she said, pulling a flashlight out of her flannel jacket.

We went through the broken glass doors, careful to step around the shards. Her flashlight’s beam roved across the video tapes like a searchlight from a flying saucer, and she led me to her favorite section, the one with the lurid pictures of monsters and terrified people.

“Oh, The Dragon’s Son, that sounds fun,” she said, turning a tape over in her hands. I watched her expectantly, desperate for the next part as she studied the tape as though it were an important text. The face of an ugly fish-man glared out, its webbed hands reaching for me. I whined, my tail wagging as I imagined what that tape would be like.

“No, not this one,” she said, carefully putting it back where she had gotten it from.

A few more tapes were inspected and put back in the same manner, until she found one with a picture of a girl holding a cake cutter on it.

Night of the Hungry Dead, now this one is a classic,” she said happily, turning it over in her peeling, red-painted nails.

I howled, jumping up happily, my chain jangling as I danced around and around.

“Hey, slow down, Pudge, you’ll knock the shelves down!” she said, just as one of my claws struck a shelf, sending the cheap, fragile plastic fixture flying. Tapes fell in an avalanche, and she yanked my chain, drawing me to the floor.

“No! Settle down, Pudge. Now look what Mommy has to do,” she chastised as I cried, covering my head with my claws. It seemed to take eternity as she pushed the shelf back to where it had been and dutifully gathered up the fallen tapes, breathing heavily as she shook her head at me. I peeked at her from behind my paws, whining as I worried that I had upset her forever.

“Come on, ruffian,” she said, scratching me between my ears. I popped up, barking joyfully as she grabbed my chain and we left the dilapidated Box Office.

 

“Come on, shitter,” she said, fiddling with the wires. I wagged my tail, watching nervously from the couch as the TV screen remained dead and blank. Our house wasn’t on the grid, and we were essentially siphoning power from the big city. She left, slamming the door behind her as she went to investigate what had happened to her power line.

I knew that she would be back soon, but the wait was interminable. When I heard the tell-tale click of the power returning, I barked, sitting up and pointing my nose at the doorway, desperately hoping that she would hear me.

“What’s that, Pudge? Did Mommy do it?” her voice called, and I leaped in the air, punching the couch’s arm, blinded by my jubilation. She was back! The power was back! And we were going to watch the movie! My tail wagged so hard and fast that it was like a drum line, pounding against the wall and the back of the ragged couch relentlessly.

She pushed the tape into the VCR, chuckling as the TV came on. I fell on her, wrapping my powerful arms around her as I ecstatically licked her face and rubbed my nose against her cold face.

“Oh no! Satan’s beard, Pudge, you’ll kill me!” she cried, pushing me away, laughing. The dulcet tones of the old movie soon filled the room, the heavy blacks and gentle whites of the picture like a soothing spell, and we settled into the smelly, squashy cushions of the couch. I laid my head in her lap, watching the movie out of one eye as she gently scratched me. I watched as a girl, taunted cruelly by the man she was with, was suddenly approached by a naked zombie, who moaned and seized the man, biting into his neck viciously. She screamed as four more zombies stumbled toward her, their arms outstretched. Utterly at peace, I drifted away to sleep, knowing of a peace that was as pure as it was ephemeral.

I woke up as I always did on those mornings after those nights, naked as the day I was born, and alone. My neck had a sharp pain on the right side, and I rubbed it gently. Vega had gone to hide from the sunlight in her little box, awakened by the first rays of dawn, and I was alone for a few hours, free to do whatever it was I wanted to do. Or could do, which limited things substantially.

I got up, stretching, wincing at the agony in my neck. I wished that Vega would think, just once, to push me onto my back before I changed back. I shambled to the bathroom, flicking on the light. My beard was ridiculous, the thick hair running up my neck and across my whole face.

“Two more days of this,” I grumbled, reaching for my razor.

Most days were normal, as normal as my days could be, anyway. I walked down to Hard Prophecy or Shingletown, doing farm work with the other laborers, and then taking the day’s pay to buy food or clothing. I couldn’t go into Howl’s City or Duskrim. They knew my face in those big cities, and I didn’t dare go anywhere where the Scourge might see me. Demon Land might be the continent where demons ruled and walked alongside all manner of monsters, but werewolves were considered contagious vermin, to be put down at all costs. Vampires like Vega were oddly privileged, perhaps due to their sinister tendencies, but Vega had long ago left civilization behind.

I didn’t dare leave the house when the full moon lurked, for fear of staying out too late. Death was a predator I didn’t dare tempt anymore. I picked up the box of the movie we had watched last night, smiling despite myself.

Night of the Hungry Dead,” I said aloud. The previous night was a blur. I remembered the dark Box Office, remembered knocking something over, and then laying on the couch, but that was it. Two other tapes lay on the floor, still in their boxes. The Battlefield Horror, a movie I’d never heard of, with what looked like a giant, goat-headed demon looming over a lone warrior who looked like an ant before the looming monster on the box, and The Screeching Skull, featuring the least imaginative illustration of a skull I had ever seen. I set it back where I had found it and popped Night of the Hungry Dead out of the VCR, sliding it carefully back into its cardboard box. Vega was very particular about the tapes we borrowed from the abandoned store, as if she thought someone was still lurking there, judging her for the condition she returned the tapes in. There was a lot Vega didn’t share with me, and I sometimes imagined that somewhere, in the depths of her unknowable past, Vega had hilariously worked at that video rental store, and still felt guilty for not showing up for work one day.

She was young, for a vampire, anyway. At 72 years old, she was old enough to remember the Banker’s War, but too young to have lived through the human rebellions that had defined the past two centuries. Why she had left the big demon cities was beyond me. Most vampires did well for themselves, living out in the open, with many of them employed or at least invested in the vampire founded, run, and owned Moonrise Guild, which performed experiments in space. Their ultimate goal was unknown to outsiders, and if Vega knew, she wasn’t telling me.

For my part, I wasn’t that old, nor had I really seen much of the world or what life had to offer. I had barely been an adult when the other werewolf got me. Movies always show it happening at a campsite or whatever, some spontaneous event. No, I thought I was going to finally lose my virginity one night. Little did I know, the funny-smelling redhead guy grinding against me on New Years who seductively bit my ear a little too hard was just passing his “gift” along. I searched for him the whole night, stupidly thinking I had lost him accidentally. Living as a human in Demon Land came with enough danger, but I had never once considered that getting bit by a werewolf would ever happen to me. It’s only life, I often thought to myself. You can’t leave it alive.

Generally speaking, werewolves are considered pestilence in Demon Land. Get drug tested for a job? You’re going straight to the gas chamber. Get caught transforming? Hope you enjoyed the full moon that night, Fido. Can’t work a job, can’t buy a house, can’t do anything. I was one of the lucky ones, living quietly in the wilderness, getting paid in cash, and protected by a vampire that treated me like a pet. I had no idea the Scourge was looking for her, but out there, in Firefly Woods, far enough from society and watcher-eyes that survey the city blocks, we lived a slow-paced and relatively safe life, free from the expectations of others or the need for validation.

The Screeching Skull turned out to be a dud. I would have watched Night of the Hungry Dead, but I had already watched it with Vega months ago, and wasn’t dying to rewatch it. The Screeching Skull was a cheap piece of garbage about a demon woman being pursued around her lavish mansion by an ordinary human skull. She finds it in her garden, and buries it, thinking nothing of it, only to find it later in a closet as she walks past and notices it. Predictably frightened, she staggers towards a gaping window, chucking the skull out it, her chest heaving as she thinks she is free from the dead menace. Knocking at the front door draws her to the first floor, and imagine her shock and horror when its none other than the skull, sitting on the porch, grinning up at her!

Old black and white movies, even the cheap, shoddily produced ones we tended to watch, have a quality of artificiality to them that newer pictures are often missing. It’s like watching a stage play, but one in which the players are unaware of the audience, enhancing the feeling that you’re watching a strange, magical world through a mystical mirror. And in a world where so many technological and supernatural wonders are so horrific and deflating, something as pure and benign as watching an old movie soothes the soul like unfiltered starlight.

Vega awoke just as the sun was setting, the hinges of her coffin creaking loudly as she pushed it open. She hadn’t drank human or demonic blood in over three years, by her count, almost two of which she had spent with me; she claimed that at the height of her power she could shape-shift into a hulking black panther, a fearsome, gigantic, black buzzard, even a venomous fog if she so chose. She could fly faster and higher than any demon or airship, rend metal with her bare hands, and read the minds of everyone around her within a five-mile span. I didn’t believe her, obviously. If even part of her bold claims were true, vampires would be hunted down more vigorously than my kind. And besides, there was no way Vega, for all her eccentricity and unpredictability, was the reincarnation of the Mosquito Queen. Not that I ever called her on it. Subsisting on deer, rats, birds, and wild dogs, her supernatural qualities had dulled, leaving her with the bare minimum of her immortal life.

“Howard, you left the movie in the VCR,” Vega yelled to me as I worked in the kitchen, busily fletching arrows for my crossbow.

“Sorry, you sleep okay?” I called back to her, setting the bolt I was holding down.

Vega was sitting pretzel-style in front of the TV, watching the static snow on the screen. From within the VCR, the spools of The Shrieking Skull were humming as they were rewound. Vega was looking introspectively at a lock of her hair, her thick lips pursed pensively.

“Yeah, it was great. I dreamt that there was this spider in the woods, the Spider of Nature. Its web was so big, it blocked our path completely. It just wanted us to come chill in its threads, take in the enormity of everything with it. Hang in the breeze, just let him spin us around with his big, hairy ol’ legs, wrapping us in these sleeping bags of peace,” Vega said, turning her hair over between her fine fingers.

“You realize that’s what spiders do to their prey before they pierce them with their fangs and turn their insides into jelly?” I asked, moving to the couch.

“That a personal attack?” Vega demanded, whirling around. Her eyes fixed me with a weak hypnotic pull, which tapered off as swiftly as I felt it emanating from her violet irises.

“What are you, nuts? You thinking about dying your hair again?” I asked.

“I am, actually. I think I want it to be black again, with blue tips,” she said wistfully, and then snapped her eyes back on me. “You need to rewind the tapes when you’re done with them. Night of the Hungry Dead was back in its box; what if I didn’t think to check before we brought it back tonight?” she asked.

“Then the next time we borrowed it from the forsaken, broken-down store, we’d be the ones rewinding it, I guess, considering no one else is renting anything from that fucking–,” I said, but Vega’s savage hiss cut me off.

“You don’t know that! You don’t know that no one wants to watch this movie just because it’s old! Basic movie rental etiquette, Howard. ‘Be Kind, Rewind!’” Vega said shrilly, banging her hands on the mildewed carpet with each word of the ancient, stupid slogan of the long-dead movie-rental business.

“I’m sorry,” I said, unable to meet her ire. “How was the walk last night?”

“You were good, except for when you knocked a shelf over, but it was a lovely, beautiful night. You shouldn’t have watched this movie without me, though. I wanted to watch it with you. Why did you do that?” Vega asked.

“Vega, I don’t really remember much when I’m a wolf-man, my brain runs away. I was just passing time,” I replied.

“You need to rewind the tapes, Howard. Why don’t you ever do that?” she asked angrily.

“I…don’t know,” I said, sighing. My neck hurt. My mouth had suddenly gone dry.

“It’s probably going to start getting chilly soon, maybe we can make a campfire or something. Leaves are changing colors already,” Vega said. The Shrieking Skull clicked in the VCR, finished rewinding.

“I’ve gotta get out of my clothes, it’s about that—arghh­— time,” I said, jumping up as pain rippled down my back, arms, and legs.

Vega stood up to follow me, but I gestured aggressively for her to stay back. I never wanted her to see me during my change. She had found me, near death, a frail werewolf, my paw in a trap, and freed me, nursing me back to health, even when I shifted back into human form, revealing what I was. I didn’t know why, but I never wanted her to see my body contort, lose its humanity like that. What we had wasn’t sexual in nature. Vega treated me like her son, and that doting, scolding, loving feeling was something I had never really had, outside of a brief window of my lost childhood. For some reason, I thought that if she saw me change into a wolf, her feelings for me would change. If I could stop her from seeing me outside of my human-shape at all, that would have been ideal, but that train had left long ago.

What is there to say about the transformation? The pain was worse than the worst hangover headache; maybe it’s appropriate to say that it’s a hangover for a werewolf’s body, exhausted from the rush of being human for most of the month. That doesn’t make any sense, but then again, neither does changing into a giant wolf-man just because the moon is a little bigger and brighter in the sky.

The colors of the world lose their vibrancy. I trade my ability to see red for a nose that can smell through the thin drywall of the cabin, across the loam and moss and trees of the forest, into every rabbit hole and hollow. My gums ache as my teeth lengthen and my skull crunches apart, growing as the cells affect their change. The pain is so intense that my cries are a single scream, a howl of pain and sadness, blind rage against my own crackling bones, my burning flesh. I can always hear Vega at the door, patient as a Baphomic Templar, waiting for the painful metamorphosis to end.

And end it does, as always. I pawed at the door, knowing that she was on the other side of it. I could tear through the thin wood like paper, but the last time she hollered at me and refused to walk me, kicking me out of the house until her anger subsided. And I didn’t want to see her brow furrow, hear her voice lower in disappointment.

“You doing alright in there, Pudge? You ready for Vega to come in?” she said sweetly, and I jumped up and down, baying as if it were a new ability I had just discovered, my tail wagging like a white flag in the wind.

She opened the door and I bowled her over, barking as I licked her soft, small face, backing off as she pushed me back, laughing happily. The happiness was a haze that filled our den, infecting everything with the echoes of the excited and joyful sounds we emitted from our chests, transmitted from our hearts and souls. I wish that I could feel the mindless, short-sighted bliss I felt on those nights, in those precious moments. We ran through the woods, me tracking the scent of millions of tiny heartbeats and drops of rodent urine, and Vega keeping up as best she could, stopping every now and then to look up at the twinkling stars or to scratch me between the ears, to run a hand down my hunched back. Until I smelled her. Charging through the bramble field, having been upwind of my scent and therefore aware of me first, the other werewolf came. I stepped before Vega, the hair on the nape of my neck standing up, my shoulders squaring as I flexed my claws and growled.

“Pudge, what is it?” she whispered, my chain jangling in her small hands.

And then she saw her. Smaller than me by a foot, but no less fearsome. Her shimmering blonde hair shone in the moonlight, silver and erect as a spike-sheet. She came on all fours, her body lithe and strong, her sex calling to me as she came. I showed my teeth, snarling as she stopped, whining, her eyes confused and hurt by my warning. Beside me, Vega’s heart was like a fearful drum.

“Stay back, I’ll turn into a panther and shred you,” she warned, tugging at my chain.

I lowered myself to all fours, but the other wolf rolled onto her back, showing her belly, her claws and back paws kicking at the air helplessly. I softened, dragging my chain as I drew closer, sniffing curiously.

“Pudge, heel,” Vega called, yanking at the chain so that it tightened the collar around my neck.

I whined, looking back at her, but she was resolute, a whip of tension, her eyes fixated on me as she ordered me back to her side.

“Let’s go back and watch movies with mommy, come on, Pudge,” she said adamantly.

I cried, giving another look at the other wolf, my tail between my legs. I shifted away from her, and her eyes, trained on me, switched to Vega. She arose, six feet of coiled muscle, fur, and longing, and pounced, growling savagely as she went for Vega. And Vega disappeared, shrinking, her flesh breaking out in black fur, her clothes falling off her, her eyes shrinking as their irises convexed, glowing in the darkness. A small black cat, the other werewolf fell on her, and she yowled and hissed, slashing at the female’s muzzle with her black claws. I fell on them, roaring and biting at the other wolf. She rolled away, crying as she tore at the black cat that spang from her face to her head, slashing at her ears and hissing like an angry serpent.

The other wolf retreated, charging away on all fours, her baying calls filled with sorrow and despair. She looked to me as Vega leaped at her, clawing at her eyes, before latching onto the claw that tried to pull her off. I pointed my nose into the air and howled, long and hard, and closed my eyes.

“Pudge, it’s okay, pal,” Vega said near me, and I opened my eyes. She was pulling her jeans back on, all traces of her cat-form gone altogether. I looked out, across the moon-drenched woods, and the spurned eyes of the other wolf looked back.

Back at the shack, the blandness of The Screeching Skull filled the cabin. We hadn’t gone to the Box Office. Vega sat on the couch, munching on corn chips and pretzels, lazily tossing the occasional crumb to me, while I sat, gnawing at bones and other odds and ends on the floor. I was listening to the creaking and cracking of the woods, listening for one voice over the din of silence. I knew she was out there, sniffing at the edges of our territory, running along the footsteps of our walks. Going too close to the door got me yelled at, and I looked back at Vega, whining as she came to grab me by the scruff of my neck and drag me back to the couch with her. You might wonder why I didn’t shrug her off, even though I was so much bigger than her. The fact of the matter is that that particular reality didn’t occur to me, and so wasn’t my reality at all. On full moon nights, Vega was my caretaker, my boss, and my protector all at once, and while I don’t think those base feelings entirely carried over to my human state, I couldn’t get away from them. So, when she pulled me away from the door, I complied, though I couldn’t help crying.

She rubbed my head and neck, and still I whined, until she got up and went into the kitchen. I followed, hoping for another adventure into the moonlit woods, but she busied herself in climbing up on the counter, getting a bag of corn chips from the cabinet.

“Pudge want snacky with mommy?” she asked, jumping down. She grabbed a wheel of cheese from another cabinet and sliced it while I wagged my tail, distracted from my curiosity and needs momentarily. She slid the pan with the chips into the oven, and we sat on the peeling, filthy linoleum, watching the cheese melt as I listened to the mice in the walls chitter and patter throughout the shack, surviving incognito just as we were.

The next morning broke abruptly, and I came to just as Vega was closing her coffin lid.

“Vega?” I said, sitting up.

She didn’t respond, and I ran into the room. I could hear her breathing through the thin coffin lid, and I drummed my fingers on its face, feeling the course, weak wood under my nails.

“Pudge, let me sleep,” she yelled, a panicked note in her voice.

“Was that the fearsome black panther form I saw last night?” I demanded.

She snorted, and pushed the lid up slightly so I could see her green eyes peeking out at me.

“I’ve been dry for years, Pudge. I’m lucky I even could change at all.”

“You turned into a housecat, why even bother at that point?” I asked, feeling ready to explode.

“I had to keep you safe,” she said, and she lowered the lid a bit.

“Did you? How many other werewolves have you driven away?” I said.

“This was the first one, we’re in danger now,” she whispered as the lid closed.

I held it open, staring down at Vega angrily. She was so thin, her cheekbones sticking out like those of a starved child, the bones in her neck like a skeletal bridge into the underworld. I sighed, shaking my head in frustration.

“Vega, you need to be careful. I’m going to go grab more tapes while its daylight out there, we can’t take any more risks,” I said.

“No, don’t leave, the other werewolf is out there, can’t let her know where we are,” she said, her voice growing raspy and faint.

“Yeah, okay,” I said, and closed the coffin. The sunlight was bright outside, and I could hear birds chirping outside.

I found the other werewolf in a clearing not far from the shack. I didn’t have my wolf-nose, but I didn’t need it. There was a trail of crushed leaves and grass from the back of the house that led me to where she slept, a nude human fetus, curled in a bloody nest of underbrush. I left her, returning to wake her with a button-up shirt and pair of jeans. She looked tall, with wider hips than Vega, and I figured she would do better with my clothes. I lay near her, staring through the forest canopy to the wild blue expanse above. I reflected on the past few months of my life, living off the grid like an animal. No, not an animal. I was corralled, kept from the world I knew, the company of other human beings, and also of the richness of nature. Vega was weak, dry of blood for so long, and she looked out for me too, but I wasn’t the only of my kind. As the woman near me stirred and talked in her waning sleep, I felt like the world had filled with color again. There was more to life, even for a fugitive monster in a world ruled by inhuman creatures.

When she finally awoke, she sat up, rubbing nettles and twigs off her skin. I heard her yawn, and then freeze. She had seen the clothes I had laid out for her.

“It’s alright, I’m not here to hurt you or catch you,” I said, and she screamed. I heard her try to cover her nakedness with her hands, and I kept my attention on the sky above. “I ain’t peeking, left you some clothes. If you need a belt, just tell me.”

She sat still for a while, considering her situation, and I made no motion to disturb her. I remained on my back, breathing evenly. I had been a fugitive for so long that I understood the pestilential mentality well. Bright lights mean watcher-eyes, which means Scourge officers. A friendly voice, an offer of alms is often a baited hook, hungrier and more desperate for a bounty than you are for a strip of steak. I lay, as inoffensively as I could. I wanted to leap up, to laugh and sing, for joy at finally, finally having found another of my kind. I wanted to hug her and hold her close, to cry against her shoulder, to stroke her hair and beg her to stay with me, to ask her if everything would be okay, if we could be safe; but I lay, knowing that in her nakedness, after a full moon night, a strange man bearing clothes was perhaps the scariest thing to wake up to.

“I’m dangerous,” she said, her voice clear, even as it quaked.

“I’m like you. My name’s Howard. I reckon I got a bit of you last night, but I don’t know everything I know when I’m taller and shaggier,” I replied. She was silent, but I could hear her crouching lower in the brush.

“Gretchen,” she said at last.

“I’ve been here for like two years. Come back to the shack? If you’re hungry, we can munch on something. If you want to go, you can go, I won’t follow you. We know how it is,” I said.

“How many more?” she asked brusquely.

“Just me, me and Vega,” I said, dreading her response.

“Why are you with a bloodsucker?” she demanded.

“We’ve been taking care of each other. She doesn’t drink blood anymore, and she’s been watching out for me when the moon is full. It isn’t so bad here,” I said, trying to sound as honest as possible.

She reached for the clothes, and I sat up gently, being careful to keep my gaze off her.

“My things aren’t far from here, I’ll come see where you stay, but you can’t expect me to stay or anything,” Gretchen said.

“Okay, great,” I said, my heart fluttering.

She had twigs and leaves in her hair, and she wore my red plaid shirt well. My pants were slightly too small for her, and she left the button undone, holding them up with a finger through a belt loop.

“I didn’t know bloodsuckers could stop drinking blood,” she said at length.

“It’s not great for them, I’m a little worried about Vega, but says it makes her a better person,” I replied.

“You know they have blood farms, right? Humans and even some demons, all hanging around on compounds, eating prescribed meals, undergoing constant drug testing, having their blood drained three times a week for their blood banks?” Gretchen asked.

Her hair was a wild tangle of sunlight, blonde like a honeybee, matted and knotted as an old net. She walked carefully, eyeing the surrounding wilderness like a frightened rodent.

“If she hasn’t been drinking blood, she shouldn’t have been able to do what she did to me,” Gretchen said.

“She turned into a housecat and ran away. I doubt she was too proud,” I said, and bit my tongue.

I never realized how sad the shack really was until I brought Gretchen to see it. Her fear of me had abated, and I knew intrinsically that my behavior towards her matched the information she had gotten from my scent last night.

The wires coming from the walls exposed how feeble our façade was, the vulnerable way they snaked out between the bricks; if they tore, we would have no stove, no TV, no electricity at all. Not that we really needed it. I knew also that if anyone really wanted to know what was at the other end of the odd wire, they would find our little hobble-home in the woods, and then our jig would be done.

“It’s not much, I guess,” I said as we went in.

“Do you have any real food?” Gretchen asked.

“There’s some oatmeal and probably some sausage in the kitchen, I’ll make you some,” I replied.

“What’s all this stuff?” Gretchen asked, as I snatched the rope of sausages down from its hook above the stove. I listened carefully, and knew that she was nudging our tapes with her foot.

“Movies, we can watch one if you want,” I said.

“Oh fuck, wow, actual tapes,” she said.

Night of the Hungry Dead was on when I walked back in, its dated, melodramatic music crackling through the TV’s weak speaker.

“Breakfast,” I announced, sitting down on the other side of the couch, leaving enough space for Baphomet between us. Gretchen took her bowl, sniffing it as she threw a furtive glance at me. Her eyes strayed to my neck, and then she looked down at her food.

“Hard to mess up oatmeal,” I said, licking slurry out of my beard.

“Where’s the vamp sleep?” Gretchen asked abruptly.

“You wanna stake her, chop off her head, fill her mouth with roses, hang her above the hearth?” I asked sarcastically.

“I didn’t mean that, I mean, do you two share a bed or like,” she asked, trailing off.

“What? No, nothing like that!” I cried.

Gretchen was quiet, eating her bowl of oatmeal and meat carefully. I watched her nervously, at a loss for words. We watched the movie in near silence, our spoons scraping the sides of our bowls as we ate our warm meal. Gretchen looked at me during a grisly scene where a little girl, having been turned into a zombie, bludgeoned her hysterical mother with a meat tenderizer, and I thought she would say something, but instead she just turned back to the movie.

“Lurid stuff, hard to believe they made a movie like this back then, huh?” I asked, feeling pathetic when Gretchen ignored me.

I didn’t know what would happen. My mind raced with possibilities. Vega would awaken eventually, and what would she do? She would want Gretchen to leave, but she cared about me. She would see how happy I was to have her here, another werewolf, another of my kind, and maybe Gretchen could stay, and we could all watch out for one another; I looked to Gretchen nervously, wondering how she felt about me.

“I should go before it gets dark. I don’t know how this works for you, but I don’t need another cat-fight with your vampire mommy,” she said.

“She’s not my mommy,” I protested, but she waved my objection off.

“I’m trying to get to Phystrellis. They have a welfare program for werewolves there, and it isn’t a demon-ruled fuckscape there. There’s a boat I’m trying to get on, it’s a fishing barge, they get within swimming distance of Volusiapia. If you feel like coming and leaving this continent with me for a place where you could be happier, come find me in Goatport. It’s a short hike east,” she said.

I was speechless. I tried to talk, but I felt like I’d had my heart torn from my chest. Gretchen spoke a little more, but her voice was distant, and I only heard static.

She stood up, and I saw her kick the chain and collar that Vega led me around on during the full moon nights as she went towards the door.

“You’re right, she’s not your mommy. You’re her pet,” I heard Gretchen say from somewhere distant, disconnected from my reality.

The credits for the movie wrapped up, and the screen turned from black to static snow. When I tired of sitting in a stupor, I left the shack and went to Vega’s old truck. A 1972 Flame Caravan, it was badly in need of a paintjob, possibly a tune-up. It sat off the beaten path, hidden by a towering oak that brushed against my forehead surreptitiously as I patted the hood of the truck thoughtfully.

I knew where Goatport was. It was far from a short hike, but I could take the truck and get there in a blink. I imagined it, my palms sweating, my legs feeling weak. Run back to the shack, grab Vega’s keys, leave a letter thanking her for keeping me safe, apologizing for leaving, and telling her where she could find her truck. Gretchen’s blue eyes would sparkle as she looked back at the bright headlights of the truck, and I’d smile and honk the horn as I coasted to a stop to pick her up.

What was it like in Phystrellis? I didn’t know anything about the human-dominated countries of Volusiapia. I knew Demon Land was fighting in Merryland, but had no idea what that meant for the other countries. Were they really accepting of people like me there? Could I have a nice home, a real job, things of my own? A safe place to transform, without worrying about being covered in blood every morning?

“Come with us, Vega,” I said to myself as I went back into the shack. I didn’t know how vampires fared overseas, but Demon Land hadn’t worked out for her. We could be different people. We could be our true selves. Everything could be amazing and beautiful. And I knew that Vega hungered for blood. She starved herself of it; I saw her shaking, sensed her weakness. I understood her desperation, and it pained me that I couldn’t do anything to alleviate her suffering.

I don’t remember what I did to pass the time that day. I just remember how stupid I am. She woke up, and there I was, and she knew. She knew I had brought Gretchen back to our hideout. It didn’t matter that the other werewolf had known where it was anyway.

She screamed at me. She threw things at me. When I put my hands up to defend myself, she seized the chain off the floor and swung it at me, her eyes turning red as her fangs lengthened.

“I’ve kept you safe, taught you how to hide and survive, and you’ll raise a hand to me?” she screamed, towering over me. I cringed from her, crying as she grabbed my hair, yanking my face up to hers.

“And you didn’t even rewind the tapes! You watched them with that whore, and didn’t stop to think that maybe someone else would want to watch them!”

“But there’s no one else here, just you and…” I tried to say, and Vega’s fist hit the bone above my eye so hard I fell back. Stars flew towards my eyes, veering away as they neared, and I covered my face as she let me fall back down.

“I’m going to transform,” I said softly, and Vega shook with anger.

“And what? You’ll attack me, tough guy? Think I can’t handle a mangy dog?”

“Vega, this isn’t what life is meant to be, we can do more, be more, it can be better for everyone…”

“You don’t know anything about life! You’re a werewolf, what have you done? You’re not even half my age! You don’t know half of what’s out there, and you really think things will be better over there?” she shouted.

I wiped tears from my eyes, seeing Vega as she truly was again. She trembled, baring her teeth at me, a scared, lonely monster. I stood up and went to her, and she hissed, exploding and shrinking down into her black housecat form.

I grabbed her truck keys from the hook they hung from and stormed out, heedless of the hour, of the depth of the sun in the sky. The wind stung my face, and I breathed deeply, trying not to think about the unwound tapes in the shack. Vega followed me, padding on her cat-feet, and I pressed onwards, telling myself I was doing the right thing.

The truck’s engine obliterated the peace of the woods, its headlights exposing everything they touched. I saw a rabbit run across my path, its eyes wide with fear, and I instinctively swerved to avoid hitting it. A dark shape fell across the windshield, and I shouted involuntarily, slamming the brakes. It was a bat, no bigger than a large rat, and it smacked into the windshield with a thick pop!, squeaking at its wings beat against the glass.

“You can’t leave me!” the bat shrieked, and I gasped, recognizing Vega’s purple eyes in the bat’s tiny, rodent-like face. “Please, I need you,” she begged.

I jumped out of the vehicle, leaving the key in the ignition, the engine running. The moon broke overhead, and I cursed my passion. The colors were draining from the world. My spine was starting to ripple.

“Damn it, Vega, you can’t treat me like this. It isn’t fair. When my needs outgrow what we can actually give one another, you can’t hurt me,” I hollered. She shifted into her true form, keeping her distance from me.

“Howard, you’re changing, let me get you back to the shack, I can have your chain on you so fast,” she said, her eyes wide as she tried to show me her earnestness.

“No, stay away from me,” I said, staggering away from her.

“I can’t let you go, Pudge. Truth is, I’ve kept myself alive by feeding on you while you slept all this time. I could have lived on rodents and birds all this time, but that’s not a life worth living,” Vega said, and threw her arms around my neck. Her eyes glowed like otherworldly coals. Her fangs lengthened, and I felt my will flow away as the night whirled. There was pain, convulsions, but Vega’s hypnotic grip on my brain rendered me a prisoner in my own mind, until my human psyche turned to the curious, stupefied, animal mind of the wolf.

And she held me by my scruff, pulling me back to the shack.

“We don’t run out without our chain,” she admonished, and I whined, pulling back as she dragged me along. I didn’t want to go back in, the night had just begun, and I could smell a rabbit, not far off, watching us from its hole. We made it a few yards from the house when the other wolf appeared, snarling like a ravenous jackal. Drool dripped from her teeth, and her claws flexed dangerously as she sized Vega up. I don’t know if Vega tried to hypnotize her. It doesn’t matter now, not really.

She let me go, cursing as she changed into her small black housecat form. She dashed past Gretchen and jumped through one of the windows. Gretchen watched her go, growling. I cowered, alone and confused, surrounded by the dense foliage of the forest, in violation of Vega’s desires, confronted by something I had no right to. Gretchen dropped to all fours and pointed her nose to the forest canopy. I rose to my hindlegs, hoping to run past her, to hide in the shack, but her howl split the night. It touched me like the purest scent of joy, the rustling touch of happiness, of communion with my own kind. Almost in a trance, I too dropped to all fours and howled, joining Gretchen in the symphony of the night. I was aware of so much more; crickets mourning their fellow riflemen, lost to the encroaching cold of winter, frogs singing to their mates, even a rabbit squealing as an owl squeezed the life from its helpless throat. And the two of us howled, all else in the world rendered unreal, caution and laws more abstract and distasteful than the pitiful human condition we were forced to live in.

I ran towards Gretchen, her fur like golden wheat, so bright in the milky moonlight, and she lunged for me, growling playfully. It was a perfect moment. And the crash that shocked me and echoed, louder and shorter than either of our beastial cries had been, destroyed it. Gretchen fell forward, her head striking the dirt as she tumbled helplessly, her tail wagging erratically. I slid to a stop, yelping as my footpads scraped against stones and things.

And there was Vega, holding a gun in her steady hands. She lowered it as I looked to her, recoiling. I knew well what that was. I had been shot with the energy weapons the demons used, but I recognized the bullet-shooter that would end my life. Already I could smell the silver, poisoning Gretchen’s blood, corrupting her from the inside out. I knelt beside her, crying as I nudged her with my snout, licking at the bullet wound in her back. Her fur was receding, and her body was shrinking, the moon’s influence falling away as the silver killed her.

“Get away from there, Pudge,” Vega said, and tossed her gun aside.

Gretchen said something, her eyes drifting left and right, and I jumped and ran, tearing into a tree as I struggled to deal with the feelings my brain couldn’t handle. Vega was kneeling over Gretchen, and as I saw her silhouetted form shrink back to its human size, the vampire went down, and the two shapes became one dark one. I howled mournfully, running off into the night, faster and harder than I had ever run in my life.

Jagged shapes reached for me and tore at my skin, which felt thin beneath my heavy fur and strong muscles, which burned hot from the exertion of my flight. I ran until the black woods were behind me and the distant lights of the cities blinked ahead sweetly, like jingle bells tinkling for me to run to them. I had come to the dilapidated shopping center, a place where we had come to borrow tapes so many times, thinking nothing of the future or the past. My mind was a mess of confused thoughts and memories, feelings I couldn’t process in my changed state. I rolled in the dirt, the dust of uncounted decades. There were rats, and I chased them, and when I gave up on catching them, I howled, long and hard, before retreating into the Box Office. The negative space of the building was comforting, and I curled up and hid my face, happy to make myself as small as possible. I tried not to think of Gretchen, Vega, or myself.

 

When I awoke, my first impulse was to panic. I had come to naked in worse places than abandoned video rental stores, but it had been a long time since I’d had to worry about getting to safety. Had anyone seen me? Where were my clothes? I needed to get out of the area as soon as possible. I crawled towards the front of the store, creeping over a fallen shelf, cringing as I put my elbow on a tape, which burst as the box gave way. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but was peeking over the horizon, its fiery tendrils passing through the storefront’s glass.

“Just couldn’t help yourself, Pudge, had to come destroy mommy’s favorite store,” Vega said to my left, and I yelled in surprise.

“I’m not going to hurt you, but you should get back to the shack, no telling what might happen today. I bet someone heard a gunshot last night, wolf howls too.”

“We’re out here every full moon, no one ever investigates anything,” I replied guardedly, crawling behind a shelf.

“Gunshots though? You really think the yokel farmers around here use regular human guns? It’s all HellsBreath or Soul-Scorchers around here. No self-respecting demon wants to pay for ammo. No, howls can just be stray dogs, but everyone knows how to get rid of a werewolf. And if one is dead, well, you know how high your bounty can get,” Vega said, making a firing-gun motion with her hand.

“Vega, did you really shoot Gretchen last night?” I asked softly, knowing the answer.

“Your little girlfriend? I have to keep you safe, Pudge,” she said.

“Why would you do that?” I asked, at a loss.

“You really have no idea what the world is really like. You need me, you have to stay here, where I can watch you. And what will I do during the daytime without you?” she asked breathlessly.

“I thought that you were dry all this time. Clean. You’ve been lying this whole time.”

“I hardly took anything from you. Just enough to stay alive. You know how weak I am now. After feeding on your little friend though, even with her silver poisoning, well, I could probably challenge the chairperson of the Guild,” Vega said, practically purring.

My eyes wandered. I felt exhausted. I absently picked up the tape I had crushed. The box came apart easily, the aged, damaged cardboard breaking along its seams. The black plastic of the cassette was broken, the reels spilling out like intestines freed of their fleshy confines. I could see the images of the movie, individual frames of a story, a perspective, preserved on tape. Were movies immortal? How long did a video tape last? Could the tape in my hands have lasted longer, still playable for centuries, if I hadn’t crushed it?

“Pudge, what are you thinking? Just come back home. I have some clothes here,” Vega said.

“Don’t call me that,” I snapped. I got up and walked to the back of the store, knowing the uniform Box Office employees used to wear. I found the breakroom without any trouble, as well as the lockers. The blue shirt with the Box Office logo on its right side; a blue movie theater ticket stub with the company’s name in yellow written on it, and a pair of black slacks. I found one that fit without too much trouble.

“What are you doing? You going to work here from now on?” Vega demanded, watching me dress impassively.

“I don’t need your clothes. Just get lost,” I said coldly.

“I can’t let you go get yourself killed out there. You think you remember what life was like, but you’ve forgotten,” Vega replied.

I turned to face her. She was shorter than me, but still she loomed, more powerful and indomitable than the most aggressive Scourge officer. I could do as she asked, go back with her so she could continue to leech off me. I could cower in her shack forever, safe, my blood sugar soothing Vega until we were found. I could be her helpless pet again, or I could try to find the boat at Goatport, try to find a life worth living.

“I have to leave,” I said, and the vampire’s tough façade crumbled. Her shoulders sagged. Her lip quivered. Her knees buckled.

“Don’t leave me alone,” she whispered.

I pushed past her, but she grabbed my arm.

“The sun is out, I can’t follow you,” she begged, trembling.

I turned to her. She bit her bottom lip so hard that it turned white, and blood welled around her teeth.

“Did you really think that you could stop?” I asked.

“I wanted to. Drinking blood is a rush. Your head swoons. The salt makes your brain light up like a Dis Mass tree. The smell drives you wild, the high is incredible. When you’re low, you’ll do anything to go back up. Anything. Sacrifice anyone. Lose anything. I thought that I could just…stop. Maybe go back to how I used to be. Make art. Walk in the rain with no umbrella. I met you, and the temptation was too high. I wasn’t as strong as I used to be. Now, I don’t even know my name anymore,” she said, her voice monotone.

“I’m going into the sunlight. You can follow me, but I’m not coming back,” I replied, and closed my eyes.

I stepped past her. It was the hardest thing I had ever done. She freely cried. She grabbed at my leg. She crawled after me, her teeth brushing against my pant leg. I kept my eyes closed, chewing my cheek anxiously as I pushed the breakroom door open and she screamed, touched by sunlight, falling back into the shadows. She shouted, crying indistinctly, a carol of despair that follows me to this day.