A Girl’s First Time

by Elizabeth Stephens

 

“Would you stop that? Please, you look fine. Now stop fussing with it.” Lauren stepped over to Jenna and snatched the ribbon from between her fingers. Lauren rolled her eyes and tried to look condemning but with the music of the costume shop rattling the glowing orange walls as if the whole thing were one giant boom box the expression quickly became much more gentle and much less sinister.

Ashley was somewhere laughing, wreaking havoc on the store’s customers. She appeared from around a neon yellow stand wearing a bright white wig pulled down over her long, dark hair. Her bangs shot out over her forehead in every direction, but beneath the harsh fluorescents her bronze cheeks glowed. She’d spotted the grim face of a gargoyle hanging on the wiry black rack to Jenna’s left and as she swept past the girls, she tossed the wig to the floor and pulled the bloody, ghoulish mask on instead.

“I’m a monster!” she roared, charging at Lauren and Jenna with her slim shoulders squared. Lauren screamed and Jenna’s pulse quickened. She watched the ribbon slip from Lauren’s fingertips and pirouette to the ground in soft, crimson curlicues.

“Would you guys cut it out?” Jenna stammered as she reached down to get it.

Lauren laughed, but Ashley was already off, chasing a group of middle schoolers down the next aisle. Jenna couldn’t tell by the sound of their screams who was having more fun—Ashley, or the kids—and then she was distracted by the pressure of Lauren’s fingers tracing soft lines down the length of her arm. Swiftly, Lauren pulled the long piece of satin from her grasp. Lauren’s eyes seemed speculative in the mirror’s gaze, never condemning, but somehow Jenna felt something feral and snakelike stir inside of her at the contact, that lulling touch.

Lauren’s lips curled up into a smile as she ran the ribbon slowly around Jenna’s narrow waist. “Well, it’s not anyone’s fault but your own that we’re here right now, little miss I’m-too-cool-to-buy-a-costume. How could you forget a costume, Jenna? It’s Halloween.”

Jenna scowled so hard it hurt.

Lauren tilted her head to the side and stood back to admire her work, but Jenna hardly felt it mattered. Jenna knew that Lauren didn’t need the little halo on her head or the small feathered wings to make her look like an angel. With long yellow hair and blue-green eyes, she already looked perfect. Too perfect.

Lauren tapped her full mouth with a manicured finger and said, half to herself, “I think you need something, I just can’t figure out what.”

At the same time, color flashed in the doorway behind them, and in the mirror’s gaze Jenna caught sight of two men walking into the costume shop. They came to a dead stop at the sight of Ashley, bent over the front counter, flirting with the boy at the register. Jenna watched their eyes travel up the long line of Ashley’s legs, jutting out from beneath a skin-tight naughty nurse’s outfit until one guy shoved the other and they staggered forward into the shop. Jenna sighed while Lauren picked up three different kinds of face paint and held them up at eye level. She frowned and put them all back.

“What?” Lauren said, lips pursed.

“What.”

“That swoon.” She mimicked the action and came upright laughing. “Don’t get all romantic on me now.”

Jenna pouted. “Why can’t I do that?”

“Do what?” Lauren picked up the wig Ashley had been wearing earlier and placed it on the gargoyle’s now vacant rack. It stood out, a light among monsters.

“Do what you and Ashley do. I mean, for Christ’s sake, Ashley just got a date wearing a disgusting ghoul face.”

Lauren perked up, smiling. “She did? Already?” She laughed and then said fondly, “That girl is crazy. It looks like we’ve got some catching up to do.” Her pupils dilated and Jenna’s heart sank. She turned back to her reflection and though it had only been a few seconds, she thought she looked paler now, and sick.

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?” Lauren said with a blonde brow cocked.

“What?” Jenna tried to sound contrite, but her pale cheeks were already warming.

Lauren held onto her shoulders and laughed, the sound coming from deep within her belly in a place that was full of confidence and verve. Jenna wondered if she could ever laugh like that. If maybe, after tonight, she would.

“You’re worried about not being able to get a date to Trish’s party. That’s what all this costume nonsense is about.”

“No, it’s not,” Jenna said too quickly. “And I’m not. I just…”

“You’re going to be fine. Just be yourself.” Lauren perched her pretty face on Jenna’s shoulder and Jenna felt all her insides tighten to tiny metal knots. Her focus was torn between Lauren’s gaze and her ribbon, as if either one or the other was responsible for keeping her together. At this point she wasn’t entirely sure which. “I promise,” Lauren whispered. “Have I ever broken a promise to you?”

Jenna shook her head.

Lauren ruffled Jenna’s hair and then smoothed it all down again, with a mother’s touch. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Now?” Jenna’s voice was strained.

“Yes, now. Before Trish and her pack descend on the streets and all the good ones are taken.” Lauren drifted towards Ashley at the register while Jenna lingered a few moments behind. She stared at herself in the mirror and attempted to mimic the way Lauren or Ashley smiled, but she only looked uncomfortable at best, and at worst, constipated. Lauren called her name from the register and Jenna turned away from her reflection. As she approached Lauren mouthed a single word. The word was “perfect.” Jenna gulped. Though she didn’t feel worthy of the adjective she still followed Ashley and Lauren out of the costume shop, and together they stepped out onto the street; no longer three girls, but a nurse, an angel, and a kitten.

*****

The carnival on Warwick Boulevard was at its peak when they arrived, just after ten thirty. Jenna looked around at the people swarming the asphalt and realized that they’d come at the precise moment when Halloween day was nearing it’s crest and descending into Halloween night. It was early enough still that the youngest kids, dressed as superheroes and princesses, ghosts and goblins, were just beginning to head in to tally their newly earned treasure; but late enough that the older kids felt safe enough to crawl from their caves and head to the bars for their own personal brand of trick or treating. Carved pumpkins stared out at the street from nearly every storefront. With gaping mouths full of large, square teeth Jenna sometimes imagined she could hear them talking. Their eyes watched her as she walked. She wondered what they were thinking as a rush of warm air swirled past her, lifting her hair away from the arc of her shirt’s neck, which was as deep as a satisfied smile.

In front of her, Ashley was twirling through the crowd, dancing in a way that suggested she’d never been embarrassed of anything before in her life. When Ashley did another spin Lauren said loudly, “Ashley, you’re going to run into someone.” And then she did.

Ashley crashed into an Elvis making out with a white rabbit underneath the harsh glow of a streetlight. It was bestiality at its finest, Jenna thought to herself, though the snake in her belly stirred reflexively and she was filled with heat, and longing.

“Whoops.” Ashley laughed, coming back to Jenna’s side. Ashley tilted her head up towards the stars, though there weren’t many tonight, and fanned the top of her dress open. When she lifted her wrist Jenna caught a glimpse of the tattoo she had there. In a slanted, looping scrawl four neat words embroidered her tawny skin, Sweetheart, are you listening? Jenna had never asked her about it, and as she attempted to decipher a meaning she remembered that Ashley had another tattoo hidden just beneath the deep V of her dress’s collar. She wanted to say something about it, but her curiosities dissolved as Ashley’s eyes found her face.

“What?” Jenna said bluntly.

Ashley began bouncing, an impulse she couldn’t control. “Did you know that Halloween predates Christianity?”

Lauren groaned, “Oh god, not this again.” She looked down at Jenna, whose height she eclipsed by nearly five inches, and pretended to whisper. “She does this every year.”

“Hey, don’t be mean. You know Halloween is my favorite holiday of all time.”

Jenna smiled. “What’s so great about it?”

Ashley hardly needed the encouragement. She said, “It’s a Celtic holiday and was celebrated on the one night between Autumn and Winter when the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest.” She waggled her fingers in Jenna’s face, brown eyes wild.

“So, then what?” Jenna said with the ghost of a smile. “The dead walk the earth?”

Ashley looped her arm through Jenna’s, voice saturated with conspiracy. “The dead and then some. You know the tradition of carving pumpkins was started to keep us protected from the monsters that haunt Halloween night. It was said that their menacing faces would ward off the hungry spirits.”

“Does it work?”

“I carved my pumpkin yesterday, have you carved yours yet?” Ashley lifted a thin black brow.

Jenna rolled her eyes. “No.”

“Then I guess we’ll see.”

Jenna’s adrenaline spiked at the stark notes of menace she heard in Ashley’s voice, and Lauren shoved the naughty nurse into the ever-thickening crowd. “Cut it out, weirdo.” Ashley just smiled.

Lauren took hold of Jenna’s hand as the density of the mob smashed into them, nearly preventing them from moving forward. Warwick emptied into Fisherman’s Field and right now they were being funneled into the carnival’s main entrance. As Jenna’s eyes canvassed the crowd and the flashing lights just beyond it, she remembered coming here with her mother, father, and little brother not too long ago. She and her little brother would run through the hay maze terrorizing one another, her father would win her a teddy bear at the ring toss, she and her mother would gorge on sapphire blue cotton candy, and at the end of the night they’d all ride the Ferris wheel and race each other to the stars. She felt her lips tighten and her eyebrows come together. She didn’t talk to her parents much anymore.

“Ashley,” Lauren said, “go scout for us. I’ll need a detailed report on the hottest guys here and keep in mind who Trish brought to the last party. If you can, snag us a couple boys who are even more beautiful and bring them to the Ferris wheel. We’ll catch up.”

Ashley swooned, collapsing into Jenna’s arms. Jenna gasped and struggled under her weight while Ashley sighed, “Oh my god, that boy was positively delicious.”

Lauren rolled her eyes and helped Jenna lift Ashley back to her feet. “Get out of here,” Lauren said, laughing. After a second Ashley saluted both girls, and then disappeared into the mob as swiftly as a shadow. Lauren turned to Jenna then, giving her an apprehensive look. Her smile had almost fully fallen. “What’s wrong? You seem off. You’re not still thinking about Trish’s party, are you?”

Jenna scoffed, saving face, or at least trying to. “Well, now I am.”

Lauren’s smile returned as they stepped onto the field and gravitated towards the bright lights of the merry-go-round and the eerily seductive music that accompanied it. “Don’t even say it.” She spoke in that lilting way she often did, touched with just a hint of her previous life in Louisiana. Jenna felt her nerves flutter. She had to remind herself that even though Lauren looked so young she could seem so much older. Jenna closed her eyes and leaned into the weight of Lauren’s cool touch while the lights of the approaching Ferris wheel rained over them both, like fireflies. Jenna thought again of Trish’s party, and meeting all of Lauren’s friends. Nausea overwhelmed her.

“I wasn’t going to say anything.”

Lauren ignored her. “They are going to love you. You’re going to fit in perfectly, I know these girls.”

“Yeah, I know,” but it had to be perfect, “but still…”

“But nothing,” Lauren said, “You’ll be fine. And besides, I think I see Ashley.”

Seconds later Ashley bounded up to greet them, a large white teddy bear stuffed under one arm. “Hello lovelies.” She motioned over her shoulder and said, “I have a couple people I want you to meet. Connor and Jon. I met them at that balloon game over by the bouncy castle—they were losing horribly until I showed up—but anyway, we got to talking and they want to come with us to Trish’s party.” She feigned embarrassment. “Sorry L, I may have let the details slip.”

Jenna felt the hard curve of Lauren’s elbow clip her ribs as two boys Jenna hadn’t even noticed began to approach. Ashley continued talking but Jenna was lost in the boy on the right’s piercing blue gaze. He was beautiful, with shaggy russet hair and a light shade of stubble covering his hollow cheeks. He looked like the football players Jenna remembered from high school, though they’d never been interested in her then. But this boy stepped right up to her. He tugged down on the hem of his shirt, rubbed his square jaw, and touched the back of his neck. There was restraint in the way his hands twitched towards her, and in the way his eyes fought not to look up into her gaze. Like he was humbled by her. Like he couldn’t look away.

Jenna held out her small hand and it was quickly swallowed by his large one. He introduced himself again as if he’d forgotten that Ashley had already done it for him. “Hi, I’m Jon. Jon Weldon.”

“Jenna,” she said, feeling her stomach flip when he said his name. “It looks like you boys forgot your costumes.” She swept her eyes from Connor to Jon then back again.

Both boys laughed and she was surprised. She hadn’t entirely meant to be funny. Connor shrugged and said coyly, “Eh. Halloween’s never really been my thing. This dork over here wanted to dress up as Luigi and Mario but I was the rational one who talked him out of it.”

“That’s too bad.”

Lauren smirked and nudged Jenna with her hip. “Coming from the girl who I nearly had to hog-tie to get into cat ears and a black dress,” she said sarcastically.

Everyone laughed. Jenna bit her lip. Her eyes danced up to Jon’s and he seemed surprised again that she was looking at him. He gulped, dropped his voice and said very sweetly, “Well, I think you look nice. Really pretty.”

Heat rushed to her cheeks but Ashley thankfully interjected. “Alright ya’ll, I’ll be back in a few. Just going to pick up my date. Have fun on that death contraption.” Her eyes flashed up to the Ferris wheel in impish delight.

Lauren nodded. “Stay close. I’ll call you. Remember, we don’t have much time.” She ascended the first steel staircase and her heel clanged out of time to the carnival music. Jenna could see the ravenous notes floating above her beautiful friend’s head and she had the irrational desire to block Lauren from harm.

Ashley disappeared into the thinning crowd and Lauren nudged Jenna into the first carriage, next to Jon. Jenna wrinkled her nose apprehensively when the rickety car door closed and the metal bar came down across her lap. The red seats of the Ferris wheel were cool against the backs of her thighs as the rusting contraption resisted gravity and took them up into the sky. Jon was talking beside her, and in the car behind them she could hear Lauren and Connor laughing, as if they’d known one another for years rather than minutes. She felt something irrational swell inside of her chest, like the pinprick of a jealous love, but Jenna knew that was stupid. Lauren had that affect on everyone.

Jon cleared his throat. “So, have you lived here all your life?”

“What?” Jenna said, slightly shaken.

Jon smiled and the light hit the brights of his baby blues. They were powerful those eyes, pretty beautiful too. “Yep.” Her lungs jerked when the car came to a stop. They swung back and forth for a few seconds before the engine revved and they continued their climb.

“Wow, that’s pretty crazy. I mean, not that it’s bad,” he said awkwardly as Jenna lifted a brow. Crimson swirls, like roses, blossomed in his cheeks. She felt the sinewy snake she’d been working to suppress slither down her intestines, filling her gut with desire, and heat. Jon gibbered on, voice breaking like a twelve-year-old boy’s as he said, “It’s great, I mean the town is cool, and Connor has lived here forever. We played football together in school, it’s just,” he stuttered, “just.”

“Small?” Jenna offered and he sighed, relieved.

“Exactly.”

“You’re not from a small town then, I guess.”

“No,” he confessed while a confident grin wiped away the remains of his insecure expression. His eyes unfocused and Jenna watched him fondly as he returned to another lifetime. “I’m from Chicago but me and my dad and my little sister, Becca, moved to the south when his granddad died. I’ve only been here for a couple years, long enough to finish up high school and take some classes at the community college but,” he let his statement go unfinished.

“I know, it is small but,” she paused, and breathed, “it’s amazing how many new things happen all the time. I mean I’ve lived here for all seventeen years of my life and I’m always surprised by the crazy stuff that happens, and the new people I meet. I mean, I just met Lauren last year.”

“No kidding, you guys seem like you’ve been friends forever. Sisters, even.”

Jenna nodded and felt pride spread across her cheeks so wide she could hardly contain it. Her eyes flashed to Lauren in the car behind them. Lauren was watching her and when their eyes met, even from so far away, Jenna could still see them gleam. “Sometimes it feels that way. Sometimes it feels like I’ve known her all my life, but then I realize I’ve only known her for a year. One year to the day. I met her last Halloween. In the Haunted Forest. She scared me, and it turned out to be one of the craziest nights of my life, but,” Jenna shrugged, “I don’t know. We’ve been friends ever since.”

“Ha. So it’s kind of like your one-year anniversary.”

A corner of Jenna’s mouth pushed up into a lopsided smile that she felt travel all the way up to her eyes. “Something like that.”

“Though it’s hard to picture her ever being scary,” Jon said, glancing back to confirm his suspicions.

Jenna laughed. “Yeah, it is. I guess you’ll just have to trust me then. Either that, or maybe I’m just a wimp.” She chewed on her lower lip as she confessed, “I am terrified of heights.”

“So, you do have a flaw,” Jon teased in a way that made Jenna bite her lower lip. He looped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her in to his side so that the clean line of their bodies came together. Jenna felt heat rise to her cheeks. “But you’ve got nothing to be afraid of. I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to you, I promise.” Jon winked.

Jenna smiled up into his smile and felt that he wanted to kiss her and that she was going to let him and the snake was titillating her senses but her phone began buzzing. She glanced down at her phone and saw a text from Ashley flash across the screen, followed closely by another from Lauren.

Time to go, sluts.

You ready, love?

Jenna turned back to face Lauren and nodded.

Foreign energy tunneled through Jenna’s limbs as the four of them made their way to the parking lot. A gust of wind hit her and it smelled like popcorn and candy and something so much darker. Jon’s hand was wrapped around hers and Lauren was at her side looking at her in a way that made her feel beautiful and Jenna couldn’t help but wonder whether or not Ashley’s talk about Halloween meant anything. What if there really was something different about tonight? Something blossoming and golden and perfect.

Ashley drove like a maniac. Jenna drove with Jon, Lauren, and Connor in the car behind her. Left, right, grind the clutch, change gears, blast the music, another left. Jon, in the driver’s seat, could barely keep up. Jenna laughed when Jon commented crassly on Ashley’s driving under his breath. The caravan barreled down Route 3 like they were racing for the dawn and when Ashley veered off at mile 6, they took the turn going forty. Jenna swung into the door, hitting her head on the window. Lauren laughed, but still reached forward and asked if she was okay.

Jenna stuck out her tongue while her cheeks simmered. She whispered, “I’m not that fragile.”

“I’m not so sure,” Jon said.

Jenna laughed and hit his arm while the car squeezed down a narrow dirt road. Trees closed in around them, illuminated only by their slate grey silhouettes against the onyx sky. Soon the only lights left were the cars’ headlights, the slim face of the moon, and the glow from the jack-o’-lanterns guarding Trish’s house.

“Holy shit,” Jon muttered and Jenna felt her stomach clench as she saw all the cars piled in Trish’s unpaved driveway. The last spaces left were just beyond the tree line, and the hard tires of both vehicles desecrated the forest floor, dry leaves and pine needles crunching as they came.

Lauren was first out of the car, and opened up Jenna’s door for her. She gave Jenna a small, brief hug and in her ear, she whispered, “Don’t be nervous. You’ll have a great time if you just be yourself. Just be yourself.”

The boys gathered beneath the glow of the pumpkins, which lined Trish’s wrap-around, plantation-style porch, while the girls hung back. Ashley stepped up to Lauren and Jenna and threw her arms around both girls’ necks. “Happy Halloween,” she said.

“Ashley, you are a total freak.” Lauren rolled her eyes, though there was a small carnivorous smile corrupting her angelic expression.

“Oh my gosh, I love you guys,” Ashley said, looking between both girls and completely ignoring Lauren, “You guys are my family.”

“Yes. We are a family,” Lauren agreed, her gentle gaze pressing down onto Jenna. Jenna sucked in a breath and followed Lauren towards the house, as she would have followed her anywhere: blindly.

The mansion loomed up before her in Southern-gothic decadence. Baroque minarets spiraled up into the sky, every elegant detail carefully embellished. The house was three stories, and the third had a gnarled, wrought-iron balcony framing it. The light was on behind the landscape window and Jenna felt it watching her like an eye, searching endlessly for perfection. Spanish moss hung down from the third story to touch the soft eggshell awning. Jenna thought of the little ruby chiggers hiding in it. Perhaps if they crawled beneath her skin they’d find in her flesh the perfection she was seeking. Lush emerald ivy crawled up the sides of the house, overtaking the porch, so that it seemed almost as if the earth and the sky had fully claimed it. And amidst it all stood a handful of girls, so blindingly beautiful Jenna felt herself come to a dead stop at the foot of the staircase while the boys moved out in front of her. Jon turned back when he saw she wasn’t following and held out his arm. She opened her mouth, but Lauren spoke for her.

“Give us a minute, Jon. Girl stuff.” She wrinkled her nose, but Jon looked to Jenna for confirmation.

She nodded and let Lauren take her arm and pull her up, step after step, while the boys slipped inside the house. When the boys disappeared, a girl with glittering onyx hair stepped forward.

“Lauren,” she said, smile spreading. Two girls stood just behind her and they moved forward when she did.

“Trish, this is Jenna,” Lauren said, “Jenna this is Trish, Mary Beth, and Claire.” The girls behind Trish smiled, though Jenna could see the unmistakable hesitation lingering in the whites of their eyes. They looked to Trish for confirmation. Trish’s gaze hung on her face unwaveringly, and Jenna’s left knee threatened to buckle beneath its weight. Trish’s dark eyes were intense, and seemed to be searching for something. Jenna wondered if she’d found it.

“So, this is the one I’ve heard so much about?” Trish asked finally.

Jenna glanced to Lauren. Lauren’s voice was filled with pride. “The one.”

Trish said to Jenna with a wink, “She’s been hiding you for a while.”

Jenna’s mouth fell open but didn’t know what to say. So she didn’t.

The girl with the vibrant red hair, Mary Beth, interrupted. “Tonight is your first time?”

“Oh, hush now,” Trish said, moving forward towards Jenna. “No need to make her more nervous than she already is.” Trish’s eyes scanned Jenna up and down openly. When she finished, she beamed and touched her lips. “Oh my stars,” she said. Without prelude, she snatched Jenna up into her arms. “Lauren, you didn’t tell me she would be such a doll.”

Lauren smiled coolly, and somehow Jenna got the sense that Lauren and Trish had known one another for quite a while. “Of course. I told you there was a reason that I picked her.”

Trish wrinkled her nose and stared at Lauren affectionately. “You always did pick well.” Her eyes flashed to Ashley when she said this and Ashley blushed, looking humble for the first time Jenna could ever remember. “Well now, this is going to be fun. But we better get moving, it’s almost midnight and we don’t want to keep the rest of the girls waiting. They’re getting anxious.” Everyone smiled and glanced conspiratorially amongst one another. Jenna didn’t, but this was because Trish had her by the shoulders and was pushing her into the house, which swallowed her up.

It took Jenna’s eyes a few minutes to adjust to the darkness. The only lights inside were soft orange orbs shaped like pumpkins with open mouths and wandering eyes, nailed to the kings-crown molding. Trish steered her into the kitchen and handed her a beer. Jenna sipped on it reflexively while Trish turned to the girls gathered around the coffee table and interrupted all of their conversations.

“Hello ladies,” she said, “may I introduce you to Miss Jenna. It is her first time tonight and I believe it’s about time for everyone to grab their dates and get on the dance floor!” Their reaction was instantaneous and Jenna was stunned as the mob of pretty, perfect girls cheered, and then swarmed her. They hugged her, and kissed each of her cheeks before darting off in every direction. Their heels click-clicked over the parquet and their voices reverberated through the big house as they went to spread the news.

Jenna was overwhelmed. While Trish, Mary Beth, and Claire emptied their beers and laughed at one of Ashley’s stupid jokes, Jenna’s eyes genuflected and found Lauren. Lauren looked up, as if she could feel Jenna’s eyes on her face and drifted over to her.

As Lauren walked, she said, “It’s alright Trish, I’ve got it from here. Go change the music to something a little more apropos and we’ll meet you in the living room.”

“Absolutely.” Trish gave Jenna one final hug before drifting out of the room. Mary Beth and Claire stared at Trish with reverence and followed her when she left.

Ashley gravitated to their small trio and held her hands to her lips. She smelled like candy and vanilla and cinnamon and said, “Tonight is going to be perfect.”

Perfect. It would be. It had to be. Jenna felt something small and beautiful burst in her chest.

Lauren adjusted the ribbon around her waist with affection. “Just,” she started.

“Be myself,” Jenna finished for her with a small smirk. “I know.”

“Good.” Lauren stared down at Jenna for a long time, then dropped her voice to a whisper. “And now we dance.”

Music blasted through the walls from a nearby room. It reverberated through the floorboards with deep sensual notes and Jenna felt sweat glisten on her forehead. The grandfather clock in the hallway read 11:52. Ashley clapped and pushed Jenna toward the hall, whispering sweet things into her ear as they went. Jenna felt deaf to the encouragement. Still, she followed Lauren from the foyer to the living room to the den, which was all bass and sweat and heat and dancing bodies moving to the rhythm of the darkness.

Jenna weaved through the crowd with Lauren and Ashley behind her, and when they reached a comfortable spot near the center of the dance floor, they stopped. People made room for them, and Jenna became distinctly aware of the pressure of many different sets of eyes wandering over her skin.

“Don’t worry about them,” Ashley shouted as she dipped her hips into the strangers behind her. She twisted and closed her eyes, and Jenna watched with envy as Ashley danced without inhibition. Jenna was frozen until Lauren grabbed her hand and wrenched her forward so that the warmth of their bodies collided. She gulped, but the snake in her belly was rabid. She could feel it thrashing and closed her eyes, letting herself melt into the dance floor beside Lauren and Ashley. Her family. Minutes later she started to sweat. She opened her eyes to see Lauren smiling, though her eyes seemed panicked. To her left, Ashley’s brown hands were roaming all over her body, combing through her hair, touching the curve of her neck. Ashley flipped her hair and Lauren closed her eyes and Jenna felt something blisteringly hot swirl beneath her skin.

Trish appeared just then with three familiar faces. “They were looking for you,” she said. She winked and pushed the boys forward. Jon stepped over to Jenna and she felt her smile widen while Ashley’s date slipped behind her and Connor took Lauren’s hand. Trish smiled and pulled her own date behind her and over her shoulder Jenna saw Mary Beth and Claire. They were watching.

“Sorry,” Jon shouted over the blare of the music. She could feel the mechanical jerks of the cymbals and low drone of the drums pushing up through the soles of her shoes, jarring her senses. Her bones rattled and she knew that the music was demanding something from her and she could barely hold on to it.

Jenna didn’t respond. Instead, she turned around to face him, stood up on her tiptoes, and brushed her mouth across his lips. He froze for a moment, as if surprised, but did not resist as her arms circled his neck and she pressed herself against him. His hands coiled around her waist hesitantly at first, but then as the seconds wore on, increased their pressure. He was touching her breasts, his hands moving down beneath the hem of her skirt to squeeze her inner thigh and Jenna could feel that they were still watching her, all of them, and she loved it. It was as if a match tore down her spine, igniting her body and she felt something strange twist the contours of her small face. Feelings she’d never before experienced consumed her, and then she opened her eyes.

Everything was in black and white. Panicked, she looked over Jon’s shoulder to find Lauren. Lauren was staring at her, back to Connor, and when their eyes met Jenna was spellbound. Jon continued to kiss her neck, but Jenna’s thoughts all came to a grinding halt, dwindling to just one: Lauren had never looked more beautiful than this. Her eyes were lidless, round orbs resting precariously in the top of her skull and her mouth was a messy, gaping hole. It was as if her whole face had been stitched from the corners of her mouth back to her hairline, and then ripped at the seams. All that remained now were teeth. They lined the black mass of her mouth like razor blades, or broken bits of glass, and they reflected Jenna’s world back to her in miniature. She glanced over at Ashley and saw tremors rip through the girl’s caramel skin in violent pulses. The boy who was breathing heavily into her hair and squeezing her breasts did not notice the snout protruding from between her cheeks or the ten-inch talons that had from her fingertips. Light gleamed off of her claws when Ashley reached up and pointed at Jenna’s chest. Jenna blinked, and the snake inside of her exploded. That last, lingering hesitation released. She was enraptured, and she knew that they were all watching her, waiting, because she was queen of the moment, and tonight was her night.

She pulled away from Jon and fear flashed through his eyes when he looked at her. He opened his mouth to say something but his lips fumbled, and at the sight of his terror the snake dissolved into her spine and she felt a smile form on her face. Her back arched forward, her hands distended into claws, and her jaw unhinged. Jon cantered back, but her thumbnail hooked through his shoulder, plunging through layers of tissue and muscle and skin. He unleashed a sad sort of sound, but was quickly silenced by the pressure of Jenna’s teeth sinking into the soft flesh of his neck. She took him down. Cheers rose up, followed closely by boys’ screams, but Jenna didn’t pay attention to any of that. Blood burst into her mouth and rushed down her throat and tasted both salty and sweet. Her body coiled around his like a constrictor and she ripped tags of flesh free of his chest, tearing straight through to the bone. Small fountains of crimson sprayed up and hit her face. She could feel him punching her side, resisting her in any way he could, but she knew she was stronger than he was. She knew he wouldn’t be able to get away. Jenna moved up to his cheek and nibbled on his right ear, then tore it away from his face. He screamed as the cartilage shifted to her stomach and settled with a feather-light weight. She moaned. He tasted like pure gold, a gratifying sin. She’d never known such glorious revulsion.

She tossed the mane of her hair back and glanced over to see a boy bursting for the door and two girls tearing after him, mouths wide and teeth gleaming. Beside her, Ashley was hunched over the dead carcass of her date and she was licking blood off of the soft tubes of his intestines. They looked like sausages in the soft, orange light and Ashley looked like she was in a euphoric state. She looked perfect. The top of her dress was ripped down the middle and Jenna could see her black bra and her full, blood-stained breasts. Jenna’s eyes focused on the tattoo decorating Ashley’s flesh. She read, Semper Esurio. Beneath her, Jon made a sound and she looked down at his blubbering lips; she tilted her head to the side, then leaned down, and ate them. She felt the pressure of Jon’s big, swollen heart stop beating shortly after that.

Jenna was distracted from carving her name into the crimson and cream of his breast when Lauren tilted her head back and howled to the unseen starlight. One of her now tattered wings was missing, and blood covered her white dress. Lauren straddled Connor’s muscular abdomen as she peeled back his skin, revealing the pulp of his bursting organs while he continued to choke on his own entrails, spitting up lungfuls of red. Her eyes found Jenna’s and she beamed at her with unrestrained pride before plunging her fist into Connor’s chest and ripping his heart out through his sternum. Lauren held the fist-sized organ between her talons, lovingly playing with it like putty as the life finally drained from Connor’s eyes. And then she stood, full of grace, and stepped across the floor, bare white feet plodding through puddles of deep burgundy. Jenna watched her as she walked. She watched her balance the slippery organ between her hands and then extend it towards her face. The smooth aorta touched Jenna’s bottom lip and Jenna opened her mouth wide as it’s heat branded her. Lauren squeezed, and the liquid splashed down Jenna’s throat while the music took her thoughts from the sweet, lovely boy lying dead beneath her, to the fresh flesh now feeding her own hungry, gluttonous veins. She’d never known such crippling lust, or glowing hunger, and she’d never felt more secure looking up into the eyes of her mother, sister, friend, and creator, bits and pieces of skin and muscle dangling from her narrow chin. Jenna rubbed the blood across her chest, bathing in its effervescence and it was then that Jenna felt it, for the first time that Halloween, flowing into her in crimson ribbons: that sweet, raw perfection. She drank the red nectar, and she was warm.

*****

Hours after the excitement had died down and they’d nearly absolved Trish’s house of blood and sin and excrement, Jenna found herself laughing with Trish and Mary Beth as they threw all of the beer bottles and red Solo cups into large black bags to be recycled. Trish carried the garbage bags while Jenna and Mary Beth dragged one half-eaten carcass out of the back door. Mary Beth was commenting on his weight and Trish shoved her into the bleeding guts of his stomach. All three girls laughed when Mary Beth resurfaced, covered in crimson. They were clearing the feast from the dance floor and Lauren told Jenna that she was glad that Jon had been her first, he was a sweet boy. Jenna smiled dreamily and said that she was glad too. She plucked the remains of her satin ribbon from between Jon’s hardened fingers and Lauren affixed it around her waist, then the girls dragged him out to the woods in two pieces; body separated from his head.

When Jenna and Lauren returned to the living room Ashley started singing a Spice Girl’s song, using her mop as a microphone. Pretty soon Jenna and the rest of the girls joined in, off-key notes rising up and reverberating through their ivory mausoleum. The house was as clean as it would ever be and tired, all the girls hugged and kissed good bye. They stepped out beneath the silver moonlight and dispersed to their cars. Jenna took the front seat of Ashley’s silver SUV while Lauren sprawled out over the back, picking foreign objects from between her teeth and examining what was left of her dress. One of Ashley’s nails had not returned to normal size and Lauren was still teasing her about it while in the front, Jenna fiddled with the dials on the radio until she came to a song they all agreed on. Talk again returned to singing, and as Jenna danced wildly with Lauren and Ashley in the car and the hollow yellow eyes of the jack-o’-lanterns watched them go, she felt perfectly calm. She felt at home.

 

The Change

Moon

Illustration courtesy of the NASA Image Gallery

by Hailey Holcomb

 

Bones shift
stretch
pop
quick
made to feel like
eternity
by the agony.

Screams rise and
fall on deaf ears
as skin stretches to
breaking.

Losing
control
‘What’s happening?
Make it
stop,
someone,
anyone?’

Finished,
over.
Every sense comes to life.

Ears twitch at
rustling leaves
and soft fur waves to the
breeze.
The smell of the earth,
the dirt, the trees,
makes blood boil.

Muscles spring
running
fleeting free
untouchable
Peace.

 

Looking for Work?

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

Phil looked at the classified ad for the thousandth time.

“Looking for a new job filled with excitement and eye-opening experiences?” it asked. “Come to 1329 Home Ave. at 3:00 pm on Monday for open interviews.”

Ordinarily, Phil wouldn’t have answered something so vague, but he was reaching the point of desperation. There were bills that needed to be paid and food that needed to be bought. If there had been anything else in the paper that seemed even remotely promising, he wouldn’t have gone.

But there hadn’t been, so he found himself parked in front of 1329 Home Ave. at a few minutes past 3:00 wearing a shirt and tie he’d bought over the weekend. He’d even polished his shoes that afternoon in order to make a good impression. As he looked out his windshield at the front of the building, though, he wondered why he’d bothered.

When Phil thought about what a business was supposed to look like, many things came to mind. Shop fronts, offices filled with cubicles, and even restaurants. In his mind they all had exteriors that, if not new, were at least professional looking. This place did not qualify.

He was parked in the gravel driveway of the building. The gravel driveway that was also an alley. The cracked, brick sides of the two neighboring structures loomed over him, blanketing everything in shadow. At the far end of the alley was an old, monkey-shit brown Buick. It was parked at the foot of a metal staircase that, like the Buick, was spotted with the reddish tint of rust. The stairs were connected to a deck that overlooked the alley, but he couldn’t see anything past that. All in all, though, he didn’t have a good feeling about this interview.

“What am I doing?” he asked the air. “Do I really need a job this bad?”

Yes, he thought. I do.

He climbed the staircase, taking each step with hesitant caution. The metal groaned, bowing with his weight. When he finally reached the top, he breathed a sigh of relief. As he looked around, he wondered again why he’d bothered. There were piles of junk strewn across the weathered deck, and Phil couldn’t help thinking he’d walked into a particularly frightening episode of Sanford and Son. There were chairs with no seats, a tired-looking old oven, and several hunks of metal he couldn’t identify. The more he looked around, the more he suspected the ad had been a misprint.

I’m here, he thought. I might as well talk to someone. If it ‘s the wrong place, it’s the wrong place, right? What’s the worst that can happen?

He’d heard a story once about a serial killer that used classified ads to trick people into coming to his home. Images of being bound and gagged by a greasy-shirted maniac flashed through his mind, but he squashed them. He really needed money.

There was a door a few feet away from the top of the stairs, and Phil made his way to it through the piles of junk. The screen door opened with a startling screech, and he knocked on the door. He waited. A minute went by. He knocked again.

“Oh, fuck this,” he said.

As he turned to leave, the door swung in, causing Phil to jump. Looking out from the darkened doorway was a very angry man.

“What the fuck do you want?”

The man looked as though he’d just woken up. His eyes were red and there was a red mark along the left side of his face. He wore a white t-shirt and a pair of faded camouflage pants, both of which were beyond wrinkled. His head was shaved, but there was a good deal of stubble covering his face and scalp, suggesting it had been a few days since either had seen a razor. It was difficult to tell, but Phil thought the man was in his mid-forties.

“I… uh… I mean…” Phil stammered, trying to find the words to explain himself.

“I said what the fuck do you want? You better have a good excuse for waking a man up so early.”

Phil looked at his watch again. It was now 3:15.

“Sorry, I think I have the wrong place. I was answering an ad I found in the paper.”

The man looked him up and down, letting his eyes linger on Phil’s tie before saying: “You’re here about the ad?”

“Yeah, about the job. Like I said, I think I have the wrong place. Sorry to have bothered you.” Phil turned to leave, but the man stopped him.

“No. You’ve got the right place,” he said.

Confused, but strangely interested, Phil decided to stick around for a minute. He looked around at the piles of junk again. There was what looked like the remains of a blender on the mound next to him.

“So, uh, what exactly is it you do?”

“Follow me,” the man said. “I’ll explain inside.”

The man turned and walked into the dark apartment. Phil moved to follow him, but slowly. The situation had started to feel a little more than weird. As he stepped across the threshold, he saw the man sit on a stained couch and light a cigarette.

“Close the door behind you,” he said, exhaling.

Phil checked the room for anyone that might be waiting to jump out and attack him. When he was sure there was no one else there, he shut the door and moved toward the cluttered living room.

Empty pizza boxes were stacked around the cramped apartment. Phil wasn’t sure, but he thought they might be the cause of the strange odor. Then he saw the trashcan. It was overflowing with beer cans, pizza crusts, and what looked like chicken bones. He tried not to disturb the precarious pile, wondering how a person could live in such filth.

“So,” the man said when Phil sat down. “I guess I should ask you a few questions.”

“That’s usually how these things work.” Phil knew sarcasm wasn’t the best tool with which to procure employment, but it was all he had to keep from running out of the room.

“First, what’s your name?”

“Phillip Martin. You can call me Phil.”

“All right, Phil. You religious?”

“What? I didn’t think you could ask that sort of thing in an interview.”

“Yeah, well, this isn’t a normal job. Besides, it won’t affect whether you get the job or not. I’m just trying to find out what kind of person you are.”

“All right then, no. I’m not particularly religious.”

“Good. What about education?”

“I finished high school in the top ten percent of my class, and I have some college experience. I didn’t finish, though.”

“That’s all right, you don’t need a degree. Out of curiosity, though, what did you study?”

“Philosophy, mainly. I did take a few classes on mythology and religious studies, though.”

“I thought you weren’t religious?”

“I’m not, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t interest me.”

“That’s good. Curiosity is good in this line of work. The mythology might help out, too. When would you be able to start?”

“Immediately, I guess. Do you mind if I smoke?”

“Go ahead.”

“Thanks.” Phil took a cigarette from the pack in his pocket and lit it. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“Not at all.”

“I guess it’s just one question, really. I mean, I still don’t know anything about this job. The ad was pretty vague. What exactly would I be doing?”

“It’s a difficult job to explain,” the man said, taking another drag from his cigarette. “It’s easier to show than to tell. Know what I mean?”

“I think so. It would be nice if you could give me some sort of idea, though.”

“Well, if you get the job, you’ll be working with me as a sort of Park Ranger, but for everywhere.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe Animal Control would be a better comparison. We’ll patrol the area and make sure there’s nothing running loose that shouldn’t be.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“Like I said, man, it’s easier to just show you. I’ll tell you what,” the man looked at his watch. “It’s almost four now. I was going to leave for patrol tonight at sundown, which should be around seven or so. If you want, why don’t you come back this evening and ride out with me? That’ll give you a hands-on feel for it, and you can decide if you like it or not.”

“I don’t know, man.” Phil stood to leave.

“Wait, I know I’m being pretty vague, but like I said it’s hard to explain. If you ride out with me tonight, though, you’ll know exactly what the job will be like. I’ll pay you ten dollars an hour, too. If you get out there and decide you don’t like it, I’ll bring you back to your car and still pay you for the night.”

“I don’t know. I have to think about it.”

“That’s all I can ask. Like I said, I’m leaving at around seven. If you’re not here by fifteen after, I’ll know you’re not coming.”

The man stood and offered his hand. Phil took it tentatively and then headed for the door. When he was halfway out, he stopped.

“Wait, I never got your name, man.”

“Oh, sorry. Name’s Hal. Hal Jorgenson.”

* * * * *

Phil pulled back into the alley that served as Hal’s driveway at five minutes till seven. He parked beside the Buick and wondered what the hell he was thinking.

I have to be crazy, he thought. Either that or dead fucking broke. As he killed the engine of his truck, he decided it had to be a bit of both. It can’t be that bad. I’ll ride around with him for a few hours tonight, and at the end I’ll at least have enough money to buy a few groceries.

Still, as Hal appeared at the bottom of the stairs dressed in almost the same thing he’d been wearing earlier with two over-stuffed backpacks, Phil wondered again what he was doing. He waved to Hal as he got out of his truck.

“I’m surprised you came back,” Hal said as he threw the backpacks into the Buick’s back seat.

“I am, too,” Phil said, trying to smile.

“I’m glad to see you changed,” Hal said. “That tie wouldn’t’ve worked very well where we’re going.”

“Where, exactly, is that?”

“Millennium Park. I’ve been tracking one for the past few nights. That’s where the trail ends.”

“Tracking one what?”

“I’ll explain on the way. You ready?”

In answer, Phil opened the passenger door and climbed into the old Buick. When they were on the road a few minutes later, Hal lit a cigarette and turned the radio down.

“You believe in ghosts?”

Phil looked away from the window, a little surprised at the question.

“I guess, yeah.”

“Ever seen one?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so. I’ve seen some weird shit in my life, but never a ghost.”

“What have you seen?”

“You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Try me.”

“All right. When I was, I don’t know, twelve, maybe, I was riding in the backseat of my mom’s car on the way to school. It was about three in the morning, but I was in the band, and we were taking a ‘band-trip’ to King’s Island. What a theme park had to do with the band I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter anyway. On the way there, I was looking out the window and I happened to see a… well, I don’t know what it was. It was sort of man-like, but it was big. And white. I remember that like it was yesterday. It seemed like it was glowing as it went through the street lights. Anyway, it was moving in the opposite direction as us, and it was using its arms to run, sort of like a gorilla or something. I tried to get my mom to look, but by the time she did it had already run over the hill and out of sight. I still don’t know what it was. Could’ve been a dog or something, I guess. It still sort of freaks me out to think about.”

“Do you remember if there was a full moon?”

Phil laughed. “What? You think it was a werewolf or something?”

“Maybe. Never heard of them being white before, but I’ve seen stranger things. Could’ve been an albino.”

I’m in the car with a crazy person.

“You believe in werewolves?” Phil asked, lighting a cigarette. He cracked his window to let the smoke escape.

“Don’t you?”

“Not since I was a kid, man. Ghosts are one thing. I can see how someone could leave an imprint of themselves in a place or something when they die, but werewolves? That’s like believing in vampires.”

Hal took a drag off his cigarette, but said nothing. After a few minutes of riding in silence, Phil turned the radio back up. “Gallows Pole” by Led Zeppelin was playing. Phil tried not to think about the strange man next to him, hoping that the night would hurry and be over so he could get his money and go home, but Hal turned the radio back down.

“Look,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of other people ride out with me before. They didn’t work out. I think I told some of them too much at the outset, others just couldn’t hack it. I have a good feeling about you, though, so I want to be up front. There’re things in this world that people have convinced themselves aren’t real. Like ghosts and werewolves for example. But just because we don’t believe in them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

“Wait a minute…”

“Let me finish. If it turns out that you aren’t into this job, fine. But I don’t want you making up your mind before you know the truth. These creatures, entities, whatever, that our society has decided aren’t real; they’re all around us, all the time. Humans are damn good at tricking themselves, though. Even if met head on by one of these things, most people will swear they didn’t see it or that they saw something else entirely. For the sake of most people’s sanity, this is probably a good thing. But in this line of work, you have to have an open mind. All I’m asking of you right now is that you keep an open mind. Can you do that?”

“How much are you paying me again?”

Hal smiled sardonically. “Ten an hour.”

“Well then, if all you’re paying me for is to keep an open mind, I guess the least I can do is give it my best shot.”

“I guess that’s good enough.”

Hal turned the radio back up. “Swinging on the gallows pole; swinging on the gallows po-oh-ole.” Robert Plant’s wail carried them through the next few minutes until Hal pulled to the side of the road.

“Here we are,” he said, turning off the car.

“I thought the park entrance was up further?”

“It is. We’re not going through the entrance, though. This is where I found the trail, and I’m going to follow it. Here,” Hal handed a sheathed knife to Phil. It was the length of his forearm. “Hang on to this. You might need it.”

Phil was about to say something, but Hal was out of the car and lugging the bags out of the backseat before he could. Shaking his head, Phil undid his belt and ran it through the sheath’s belt loop. He didn’t know why he would need a knife, especially such a large one, but at least he was armed. If Hal was really crazy and wanted to hurt him, at least he’d have something to defend himself with. He couldn’t think why a man that wanted to hurt him would give him a weapon, though.

Phil pulled one of the backpacks on and watched while Hal pulled a large, black case out of the trunk.

“What is all this stuff?”

“Tools,” Hal said. “We probably won’t need all of it, but it’s better to be prepared.”

“A regular boy scout, huh?”

“Something like that.”

They jumped the ditch and made their way into the trees. The ground was thick with leaves, and Phil had a hard time keeping up with Hal’s pace. He moved through the trees like someone that had spent more of his life out in nature than inside, barely making any noise. Phil, on the other hand, was making enough noise to more than make up for Hal’s silence.

After close to half an hour of trudging through the forest, a howl in the not far distance caused Hal to stop. He looked around for a moment, as though trying to determine the direction from which it came, and then set off again. Phil, trying not to lose him in the darkness, caught his foot on a hidden root and fell face first onto the ground. He pulled himself back up, cussing, but Hal was gone.

As he turned around, looking for his companion, Phil became aware of how quiet it was. There were no birds chirping; not even the wind made a sound.

“Hal?” he called, his voice jarring in the silence. “Where are you?”

A hand gripped his shoulder from behind, and he whirled around. Hal held his finger before his mouth, signaling for Phil to be quiet.

“It’s not far,” he whispered. “Try to stay quiet.”

Hal turned, leading them deeper into the trees. Phil followed, making as little sound as possible. After several minutes, Hal stopped and pulled his backpack from his shoulders. He set it on the ground and opened it, rummaging until he found what he was looking for. “Here,” he whispered, holding something out.

The object was heavier than its size would suggest. Phil realized after a moment that it was a set of binoculars.

“Those are night vision and very expensive,” Hal said. “Be careful.”

“What am I supposed to do with them?”

“Look through them. Over there,” he pointed toward what looked to be a clearing a few hundred yards down the hill. “Tell me what you see.”

Phil looked through the binoculars, not sure what he was supposed to be looking for. He scanned back and forth a few times, but there was nothing.

“I don’t see anything,” he said. “Wait. Is that… I think I see a dog.”

“What kind of dog?”

“I don’t know. A rottweiler; maybe a mastiff. Shit, I don’t know. It’s big.”

“I bet it is. Look at its legs. See anything weird?”

“Not really. It’s just scratching its back against a tree.”

The dog reared back its head and howled. A shiver ran up Phil’s spine.

“What about its legs?” Hal asked. “The legs always give them away.”

“What are you talking about?”

Phil lowered the binoculars. A new wave of fright coursed through him. Hal was holding a rifle. Before Phil could say anything, Hal turned and pointed it toward the dog.

“What are you doing, man?”

“Are you sure you don’t see what I’m talking about?”

Phil raised the binoculars to his eyes again, but all he saw was a large dog. It was rolling around on the ground now. Its legs did seem a bit longer than normal, but he couldn’t see anything particularly odd about them.

“Watch,” Hal said.

“You can’t fire that thing in the park,” Phil said. “And I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to kill an animal, too. You can’t just…”

Hal pulled the trigger; the shot echoed through the trees. A second later, Phil heard a growl followed by a high-pitched wail. Hal fired again; the dog fell silent.

“There,” Hal said. “I got it.”

“You’re fucking crazy man. What the hell are you thinking? I can’t believe you just…”

“Shut up and come with me. I’ll show you.”

“I don’t want to see a dead dog, man. I can’t believe…”

Hal grabbed Phil by the shoulders. “Calm down. Just walk over here with me. I told you it’s easier to see for yourself than to have someone tell you, didn’t I?”

Still in shock, but somewhat afraid Hal would shoot him if he didn’t, Phil followed him down to the clearing. As they got closer, Phil could hear a whimpering, but it didn’t sound like a dog anymore. The closer they got, the more Phil thought the whining sounded human.

“What’s going on,” he asked, but Hal ignored him.

They entered the clearing, but the dog was gone. In the exact same place where Phil had seen it rolling around before, though, was a man. He was naked and bleeding.

“See what I was telling you now?”

“What the fuck have we done?”

Phil followed Hal over to the body, overcome with panic. The dying man looked up at them, blood covering his face. Phil couldn’t believe his eyes. The man was smiling.

“Thank you,” the man said, coughing up blood. “Thank you so much. I… I…” he coughed again. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he died.

“So,” Hal said, turning away from the dead man. “You want the job or not?”

 

No Free Lunch

by Alex Bledsoe

 

Newell smiled as something smacked the wall of the old tool shed and a woman’s angry voice yelled, “What the hell!

He gave a satisfied sigh through the surgical mask he always wore outside the house, and heaved himself out of the rocking chair on his back porch. He paused for a quick whiff from his asthma inhaler, then tucked his daddy’s old .12-gauge shotgun under his arm. His shadow, cast by the rising sun, stood out in sharp relief on the front of the shed. He fished a key from his pocket, undid the lock and opened the door.

In one corner crouched a muddy, naked woman, her dark hair tangled and laced with grass and leaves. A tight leather collar encircled her neck, and a thick chain linked it to a swivel stake pounded deep into the ground. Genuine police handcuffs bound her wrists and ankles.

She glared up at him. “Get these damn things off me,” she snarled, her voice wet and gurgly, still half-animal.

“Not likely,” he chuckled.

She curled long legs under her body and arched her spine; the move was slow, languorous, provocative, but he recognized it as the preparation to spring. Even with her ankles cuffed, he knew she could easily leap the distance to him.

He aimed the shotgun at her. “Y’all be careful now, bitch.”

“Don’t call me a bitch,” she said through her teeth. The muscles along her back and thighs rippled with contained energy. “And god-dammit, I’m thirsty.”

“There’s the water,” he said, and nodded toward a large dog bowl.

Her green eyes flashed with venom, but her body relaxed as she crawled to the bowl, bent her face to it and began to lap at the water.

“I’m curious,” Newell said as she drank. “Which is the real you? Are you a human that turns into a wolf at night, or a wolf who becomes human at dawn?”

“I’m both,” she gasped between gulps. “You wouldn’t understand. And what the hell did you do to me?”

“That goat you just happened to find was tanked up on Benadryl.”

Benadryl? The allergy stuff?”

He nodded. “I got tons of it, prescription strength. Been using it for my allergies since before they made it over-the-counter. Makes you awful damn groggy the first time you take it, and tends to dehydrate you a little. So once you ate the goat, I just waited awhile and then followed you to where you fell asleep.”

She sat back on her heels and wiped her mouth with her hands. Despite her nakedness and bondage, there was nothing helpless or frightened about her. “So now you’ve captured a werewolf, fat boy. What do you plan to do? Screw me while I’m human?” She smiled viciously. “Or are you one of those weird rednecks that’s so far out in the country he has to get off on animals?”

“No, I don’t plan to s-screw you,” he said, unable to keep the red flush from his face at the mention of sex. He awkwardly pushed his inhaler under his mask with his free hand and tried to hold the shotgun steady with the other.

“Then you better know I’m going to kill you when I change again. Once the moon rises, these little toys of yours—” she jingled the cuffs for emphasis, “—won’t hold me for a second.”

“They’ll hold you long enough.”

Her expression darkened. “Long enough for what?”

“To turn me. When it gets dark and the moon comes up again, you’ll become a wolf, and then you’ll bite me.”

She smiled, and her tongue licked a stray droplet from her chin. “Bite you, hell. I’ll rip you into bite-size pieces.

“No. You’ll bite me, and then I’ll shoot you, and wait for my own change.”

She laughed, low like a growl. “Oh, please. You don’t know what you’re getting into here, asthma boy. I was born this way, I’ve had my whole life to master it. You’d go insane the first time you change, the first time you see the world as a wolf.”

“I’m willing to take that chance.” And he was, after forty years of extreme nearsightedness, of asthma that kept him almost sedentary, of the pot belly and baldness that made him realize he would never have the power of the young, handsome men he watched on the five-hundred satellite channels beamed into his home. Through the capricious curse of his genes, Newell the pathetic loser, who lived all alone in his dead parents’ house miles from nowhere and existed on his government checks, would never be able to summon big-breasted blondes at the snap of a finger. But Newell the wolfman would find those same women, all the beautiful ones who looked at him with pity and contempt, and rip their fickle and arrogant hearts from their perfectly-formed chests.

* * * * *

As darkness fell, Newell returned to the shed, his lungs tight with anticipation. He sucked a long draught from his inhaler and shone the flashlight on the woman.

She curled in the corner, knees drawn to her chest. Her dirt-coated body glistened with sweat, and her breath ran rapid and shallow. Newell cracked the shotgun and made sure the breach held a shell.

Her eyes, now glassy and dazed, opened slightly. “Are you really… going to kill me…?” she rasped.

He nodded. “Gonna shoot you dead. Nobody’ll ever know, neither. Got a big ol’ tub of lye in the cellar just waiting to burn you down to nothing.”

Her expression softened a little. “If I said… please… would it matter? If I promised to do… anything you wanted…?”

He shook his head. In her human life, this woman—sensually at ease with her own beauty—was exactly the kind of bitch who both ignored him and, he was convinced, laughed at him behind his back. She would be the first one to die by his hand, but not the last.

Now she smiled, and he noticed her teeth were noticeably larger, longer, sharper. “Then like the Chinese say, fat boy… be careful… you’re about to get… what you wished for…”

Hair sprung from every pore, in moments becoming sleek fur. Her face elongated, forming a muzzle that darkened as long whiskers wriggled out. Foam spewed from her lips as they drew back over fangs that gnashed and snapped at the air. The cuffs holding her feet and hands—now paws—yanked tight, and he knew they would break before long under the werewolf’s supernatural power.

Ignoring his tight, aching chest, he crawled to her and stuck his hand in her mouth.

With a deep snarl the fangs crushed bone and tendon. He screamed and tried to pull away, but she had him, and in his panic he couldn’t get the shotgun turned on her. The chain between the cuffs squealed as the links began to part, and he fumbled wildly with the gun.

He’d taken no chances, loading the shotgun shell with silver shot made from heirloom dinnerware. The blast practically tore her in half, pulverizing everything from sternum to pelvis. She made a sound like a dog hit by a car.

The echo faded. Newell carefully pulled his mangled hand from the dead werewolf’s mouth. He had four huge puncture holes from the fangs, and blood pulsed out with each rapid heartbeat. He watched the wolf, waiting for it to turn back into a woman like they always did in the movies. But nothing happened.

He smiled. Except for the blinding pain, it had gone exactly as he’d planned.

* * * * *

When he awoke the next morning, the bite wound had completely healed. So when the change came over Newell the next night, he was ready for it.

He stood, naked except for his glasses, before his full-length bathroom mirror, watching for any sign. Since he’d noticed it first in the girl’s teeth, he kept pulling back his lips and checking. In the harsh fluorescent light his pale, flabby body looked slug-like, an invertebrate coincidentally shaped like a man. But not for long.

He didn’t anticipate the nausea, the disorientation as his senses shifted into heightened canine awareness. He fell to the floor as his limbs changed shape, felt the tingles as fur sprouted from his skin. He opened his eyes, and saw the world through the eyes of a wolf, in dim color but sharp focus. He placed his four feet on the tile and lifted his weight, enjoying the way the muscles coiled and flexed. In the mirror, an enormous, elegant monster stared back at him.

Then his nose itched. He sneezed. He paused, shook his head, and sneezed again. His eyes began to water.

As he collapsed in an absolute fit of sneezing, he realized that no matter what else had changed, he still had his allergies.

One of which was to dogs.