Which came first, the wolf or the girl?
That's the question I've started to ask myself these past few months, especially in the moments right before I transform. Right before my blood turns to fire inside my veins and starts to burn my arms. Just as my legs break and my knees point in the wrong direction, just as I see my skin disappear underneath a cloak of red fur. It should be an easy question to answer. The girl came first, and sixteen years later the wolf showed up. But that's not really the truth. The wolf was conceived long before the girl was born, long before the girl's father even thought of having a child. So doesn't that make the girl an afterthought? Doesn't that put her in second place behind the wolf? A subset instead of the whole package, or even some kind of weird descendant of the wolf spirit? I thought it was an easy question, but the more I think about it, I realize it isn't. And now, quite frankly, I don't care. Because right now I'm hungry.
Saliva drips from my mouth like thick water oozing out of a leaky faucet. A low, constant growl drones out of me like metal scraping against stone. There's a dull ache in my empty stomach that needs to be filled, and it needs to be filled now.
I'm trying to control the hunger, keep it from consuming me so I can still be in control, so I can remain languid, but ready to strike. My razor-sharp teeth are exposed and my blue-gray eyes alert, but my soft, red fur ripples in the warm breeze, and my body sways gently with every step I take. Could be out for a stroll, could be out for a hunt, no one can tell. But one thing is clear: Underneath the silver glow of the full moon my body looks nothing like that of the girl I was and everything like the thing I've become. A wolf. A wolf that desperately needs to feed.
The problem is, at this very moment, I'm the one who's being hunted.
Behind me are sounds, sounds that shouldn't be heard at this time of night and definitely not in the middle of the woods. These aren't sounds from nature; they're human. Well, part human, because the sounds I hear are coming from one very sick and demented and vengeful woman.
When I whip my head around, keeping my snout low to the ground, I can see her right in front of me. I can see her wrinkled face, the skin so pale and thin it looks like it could be peeled away, and her jet-black hair, long and straight, as lifeless as her eyes.
I can hear her laughing, her voice rough and childish and foul, echoing all around me. Instead of dying out the farther it gets from its source, her laughter grows louder until it shatters the peaceful quiet of the night. It's a sound that makes me ill.
There she is. She's standing before me, her body emaciated, her white hospital gown lifting in the wind to expose bony, scarred knees, her spindly fingers pressed against her chapped lips that form a gruesome smile. I can feel my heart beat faster; I can feel my empty stomach churn, because when I look at Luba, it's like looking in the mirror. We're completely different, and yet we're the same. We both violate the laws of nature. We're both creatures that do not belong in the world. We're wrong, we shouldn't exist, and yet here we are.
Or are we?
I blink my eyes and Luba's gone. Twisting my head to the left and the right, I scour the darkness, but can't find her. Is she hiding? Was she ever here in the first place? Have I started to hallucinate?! Maybe. Who knows? She's not in front of me; she never was. I must have imagined her presence. But she is close by. I know that because I can smell her.
Her anger fills my nostrils like the smell of dead flesh baking in the sun. I follow my instinct and start to move away from the smell, because her anger is stronger than ever before, and now it's mixed with another emotion that I never expected I'd sense from herâfear.
Why is Luba afraid of
She's never been afraid before; she's always been confident and vicious and proud. What's changed to make her become fearful? I wish I could waste time trying to figure that out, but I can't, because anger mixed with fear is a dangerous combination that makes people do crazy things. And when that mixture of emotions lies within the heart of someone as evil as Luba, dangerous can quickly become deadly.
My slow gait turns into a run, and I make sure to avoid breaking twigs with my paws or overturning rocks. I need to be quiet; I need to remain undetected. I jump over a small puddle filled with rainwater and have to swerve quickly to the right to avoid disrupting a small pyramid of crushed beer cans. The litter is evidence that humans have been here, which means I can never assume the woods are safe. Crouching, I crawl under a spray of low-hanging branches, their mass of leaves tickling my fur as I pass through, and come out to stand on the edge of a clearing. A wide, flat expanse of lush, green grass decorated with wildflowers in colors that brighten the nightâyellow and pink and orangeâcolors that turn the earth into a galaxy of vibrant stars. It's a beautiful sight. But one that offers no protection.
How wonderful would it be to lie in this field for a moment, let the coolness pierce through my fur and put out the fire I can feel raging inside of me? But even just a moment is too long to hesitate, to let down my guard. Even just a moment will surely get me killed, especially when Luba's right behind me.
But why is she hunting me? And why does her hatred for me now contain fear? I look up, and it's almost as if the full moon is pulsating, trying to communicate with me in some sort of intergalactic Morse code, telling me to use my natural instinct to make sense of a situation that doesn't seem to contain logic. I force myself to hold still, to not breathe, to do nothing but accept the full moon's message. It's a complete waste of time! All I can feel is the painful ache that's returned to my stomach. And then all I smell is blood.
The stench is so glorious I open my mouth to howl, to announce to whomever or whatever is bleeding that I'm coming to feed, but my howl turns into silence. The wolf wants to cry; the girl is cautious. Even though the wolf wants to make a sound, the girl knows that it will only help Luba discover the location of her prey. It's the perfect illustration of how the wolf and the girl have learned to coexist.
The other thing I've learned is that if I ignore the hunger, there are consequences. The violence and aggression and primal urges I feel as a wolf spill over into my human form after the transformation reverses itself if I don't indulge in wolfen hunger when the feeling overcomes me like it's doing right now. So while I can hear and smell and sense Luba is approaching, and I know I should keep running, I can't. The hunger pains have become more intense, as if a sharp-edged claw is burrowing through my skin from the inside out. I have no choice; I must feed.
And only a few feet away is my meal.
A mound of fur and blood. A family of rabbits all huddled together, clinging to one another as if they're sleeping and trying to keep warm. Except this family is dead and lifeless and bloody. Such a beautiful sight.
A string of saliva drips from one fang and is lifted into the air by my hot, anxious breath. The unmoving bodies are pulling me closer to them as if they're magnets and I'm a piece of steel. I am unable to resist, powerless to do anything else but take one step toward the bloody mound and then another and another. When I'm a foot away, I regain some self-control and begin to circle the carcasses, just so I can look at the heavenly display from all sides, my long tongue dripping wet and gliding over my teeth. Halfway around I can wait no longer. The hell with Luba! Right now quenching my hunger is more important than guaranteeing my survival.
I lunge forward, but instead of burying my teeth into flesh and bone and blood, I crash into something hard and fall back. I look up, and separating me from my meal is a yellow wall. No, not a real wall, but a huge block made up of what looks like golden marble. Furious, I ram my body into it again, my front paws colliding into the barrier with all my might, only to careen back again, my left side slamming into the ground.
Dazed, I shake my head, strings of spit whipping into my snout and my eyes. What the hell is going on?! I turn toward the glowing wall, and my lips form a sneer as a growl escapes from my body. The wall starts to glow with a yellow light, growing brighter by the second, and I try to keep my eyes open, try to see what's creating this display, but the light is blinding. For a few moments darkness replaces the light, as if they're joined together, and I can't see a thing. I'm consumed by blackness, utterly alone and utterly afraid.
Until Jess appears.
The yellow wall melts into a thin vertical line that hangs in the air, slicing into the dark night, and then bursts open like a fireworks display, shooting sparks into the sky that twinkle and fall and combine to create something unimaginableâan Amaterasu Omikami, a legendary Japanese sun goddess. Or simply the new person that Jess has become. The supernatural being that she became after I killed her. And now I want to kill her again.
What the hell are you doing?!
“Saving your life,” Jess replies to my silent cry.
By interrupting my meal?! By making me go crazy with hunger?!
Ignoring my unspoken comments, Jess flicks her wrist, and a piece of sunshine flies into the air. I watch it twist and turn and hover for a second over the dead rabbit family until it falls on top of them, dousing them in golden light so they look as if they're bathing in honey. The light is immediately extinguished when I hear a loud crash that makes me jump back. The rabbits were huddled together not because they had been sleeping when they were killed; they were arranged that way so they could conceal a bear trap.
Oh my God, you really did save my life!
Floating several inches above the ground, Jess smiles at me. “I'd say you'll have to do the same for me one day, but it's a little late for that.”
Involuntarily I bow my head and scrape the dirt with my front paw. I know Jess doesn't blame me for her death, but still, I am the reason she's dead. I tug at the earth one more time, sending clumps of dirt into the air. My stomach hurts, my head hurts, and now my heart hurts. Enough! I don't have time for this; I don't have time for reflection; I have to focus on the matter at handâsomeone has gone to a lot of trouble to try and lure me to my death, and that someone has got to be Luba.
But why? She has amazing powers of her own; she doesn't need to resort to something so basic. Unless, of course, she wants to make it look like it was an accident and not the result of some sick, demonic intervention. Get rid of me and keep her secret safe. Yes, that's got to be it!
I'm not sure what's more annoyingâbeing contradicted or seeing Jess's smirk.
I'm not wrong. This is a trap!
Sitting cross-legged, but still several inches above the ground, Jess smiles at me. She extends her arm to touch my fur, which I know she loves to play with, but I'm not in the mood to be caressed so I flinch, which only makes Jess roll her eyes at me. Now we're even; we're both annoyed with each other.
“Yes, it is a trap,” Jess relents. “But no, Luba wasn't the one who set it.”
It takes a second for the reality of Jess's statement to sink in.
If Luba didn't set the trap, that means she has help; she isn't working alone.
“Well . . . kind of,” Jess replies cryptically.
Once again I'm reminded that in Jess's current superior state she is still limited, and she can't tell me everything that she knows. She's bound to a different set of rules that even she doesn't completely understand. But I've learned that you don't have to uncover the answer to something to know the truth. I may not know who's working with Luba, but I do know that if Jess hadn't intervened, I'd be dead right now, split into two separate pieces by that bear trap.
“Don't thank me yet,” Jess says, gazing behind me. “Luba isn't your only enemy.”
I turn around, and I don't see anything, but the noises I heard earlier are back, and they're getting louder. I have no idea what's going on, but now I'm the one who's afraid.
“People are scared, Dom,” Jess explains. “And when people are scared, they act all jerktastic.”
I want Jess to tell me more. I want her to explain what she means, but there's no time left; the sounds are getting louder with every second. I'm about to find out just who my enemy is.
“The trap is right up here!”
The voice is unmistakable; it belongs to my brother. I am frozen in my spot; the only thing I can do is take a deep breath. The smell I thought belonged to Luba is my brother's, and it's the ripe mixture of anger and hatred and fear. He's the one who's hunting me; he's the one who set this trap; he's the one who wants me dead. The air around my throat seems to want to strangle me. Luba doesn't want to kill me; my brother does.
“Get behind me!”
Lost in my own thoughts, I can't respond to Jess's command.
“Seriously, Dominy, do I have to do everything myself?!”
Jess disappears into the night, and I'm left alone. Suddenly the air is cold, but it's not actually the air; it's me. It's like the opposite of when I transform; my blood has turned to ice and has stopped flowing through my veins. In the distance I can see shadows approaching and then a light. My brother is at the front of a group, holding a torch like the leader of some modern-day witch hunt. Except the witch is a wolf and the wolf is me. I want to run; I want to get as far away as I possibly can, find somewhere safe to hide, but I can't. And anyway, where can I go when so many people are hunting for me?