Penny was in the hospital for a week. He had a concussion and needed 150 stitches. He had rabies shots and was pumped full of antibiotics. The official story was that he was attacked by a pack of wild dogs.
No one was allowed to see him in the hospital except immediate family. I kept my distance regardless; the waiting room would be packed with baseball players, shiny girls, and pretty much everyone who lived in Pine Grove. I didn’t want to deal with their side-long glances and behind-hand whispers.
The day he came home, I called him twenty times. Each call went unanswered, switching over to voicemail after five rings. He was busy, I anticipated that—everyone wanting to see him, congratulate him for being alive.
I didn’t wait around to hear from him. If I spent the afternoon watching Scandal instead of protecting my town from evil creatures, it was only because I needed vacations just as much as the next person.
Hours flew by with not a peep out of my phone. I decided he was waiting until night to sneak through my window, but after midnight I resigned myself to the fact that it wasn’t happening.
I didn’t hear anything from him the next day, either. Surely he’d had enough time to deal with well-wishers? It’s not like he’d be unsure whether or not to get in touch. I’d called him twenty damn times.
I couldn’t pretend like I wasn’t waiting for him. I paced around the house with my phone clenched in my fist until my dad ordered me to go for a run and work off my nervous energy. I left the phone behind, but when I returned, Penny hadn’t called.
That settled it. I recognized the lameness of going to his house, but seeing him would make me feel better. I’d even risk having to explain my presence to his parents.
The sun was low on the horizon as I made the short walk. Lights blazed in all the first floor windows of his house. His parents stood in the kitchen, puttering around with dinner preparations, deep in conversation. I didn’t see Penny. I slunk around the side of the house, reaching a maximum level of creepiness for the day.
I saw him before I reached the backyard, angled away from me, face tilted toward the dusky sky. I hesitated, not wanting to ruin the peace of the moment for him, but he knew I was there.
“I wondered when you’d show up,” he said, shoulders raised a bit higher.
“Have you been waiting for me all this time?” I stepped forward, but not too close.
He shrugged. “Something like that.”
“Penny, I—“ I stopped, words like marbles in my mouth.
He half-turned toward me, “The police told me they didn’t know who found me. Someone called it in, but when the rescue team got there, the caller was gone.”
It was my turn to lift my shoulders. “They would ask questions I couldn’t answer,” I said.
“You weren’t at the hospital.”
“They weren’t letting anyone but your family in, Penny,” I touched his arm, right above his elbow. He stepped out of my reach. “I called you all day yesterday.”
“I didn’t want to talk to you yesterday,” he spat the last word as though it were a vomit flavored novelty jellybean he couldn’t wait to get out of his mouth.
My head dropped, warmth flooding my eyes. “What did you want me to do?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Nothing, Caro. I don’t want you to do anything.”
He started to the back door in long strides. I ran to catch him, grabbing onto his shirt and not letting go.
“Wait,” I said. “Please, just talk to me for a minute.”
For the first time, he looked at me head on. The visible bruises were a violent shade of yellow and suture marks pocked his face around the sewn up cuts. “Fine,” he said. “Talk.”
“I want to know what happened. Were you headed to that spot off the trail, or—“
He chewed on the inside of his mouth before answering. “I was on the trail. I thought I could get away if I reached that outcropping above the lake.”
“Get away from what?” I asked.
The lines of his body went rigid; something went across his face, closing it off, like a storefront barrier.
We glared at one another.
“It was dogs, Caro. That’s all it was.”
“And if it wasn’t? What are you going to do then?”
“Nothing,” he said, striding to the backdoor. “Because it was a pack of dogs.”
He twisted the doorknob. “Don’t come here again,” he said.
“Penny, don’t—“ the door slammed in my face.
My mouth moved in soundless confusion. He knew what attacked him. He had to. There’s no way to confuse werewolves with regular dogs. All of the really large breeds of dog, St. Bernard, Rottweiler, Great Dane, have nothing on werewolves. Standing on their hind legs, werewolves are around 7 feet tall, maybe more. Teeth and claws were the size of steak knives. I’d read of some weighing in at 400 pounds. I’d seen the scratches and bites on Penny’s body. They weren’t made from dogs.
I was used to the willful ignorance of everyone in town, but I didn’t expect it from Penny. Sure, it’s a lot to deal with, learning you’re going to transform into a giant wolf every month, but I thought he’d accept the truth, just as he’d accepted that Clarissa and Lindsay died in a vampire attack. He was, apparently, only open-minded when it didn’t involve him in any direct way.
The wait for the next full moon passed in agonizing slowness. Penny told me not to come by his house again, but I called and texted every day, hoping he’d agree to see me. He never responded, not even to tell me to leave him alone.
Bidding my time, I researched werewolf transformations, wanting to be there for Penny when he could no longer cling to his delusions. The thing about researching creatures that are considered fictional is that the information is incomplete or differs from tale to tale. Even so-called first-person accounts changed depending on geographical region and religious affiliation; Protestant Germany had an entirely different set of superstitions than Catholic France. Some stories said that bone structure was the first to shift, while others claimed that those afflicted began sprouting sporadic patches of fur.
The accounts of common symptoms of werwolfism were just as conflicted as transformation tales, and about as helpful as the Monty Python method of identifying witches. Some accounts said that known werewolves suffered from mood swings, fevers, and lack of appetite prior to the full moon, but those were also symptoms of depression and thousands of other physical ailments—all of it attributable to medieval superstitions.
Modern fiction loves the idea that werewolves, when transformed, can be benevolent creatures, aware of the difference between right and wrong. The truth is werewolves are monsters. No matter the person inside the beast, if you cross paths with a hungry or angry werewolf, nothing can save you. So, when I wasn’t researching, I made sure I had the weapons and strength needed to take on a werewolf. I made silver bullets, bought a silver plated knife, and perfected a solution of wolfsbane and water. I practiced endurance sprinting, and increased how often I lifted weights. I sparred with the best fighters at my martial arts academy. I was as prepared as I could be.
I called Penny on the hour every hour on the days leading up to the full moon, leaving voicemails begging him to talk to me. When he failed to respond by the morning of, I was out of patience and understanding. I couldn’t allow him to transform for the first time around people. If I had to go over there and beat sense into him to prevent it, so be it.
His parents were already gone to work when I pulled up to his house. I cut around to the back door, picking the hide-a-key-rock out of a pot of geraniums, and creeping into the dark laundry/mud room. The house was the kind of quiet where your ears start to ache from the lack of noise.
I hadn’t been here for three years, but not much had changed. Still the same pale blue carpet lining the floors, same white painted wood paneling, same cherubic porcelain figures reenacting Biblical passages.
I crept into the hall, tiptoeing up the stairs, wincing every time my foot hit a weak, creaking board. I didn’t hear anything until I hit the middle of the staircase. It was a low kind of rumbling, which grew louder the higher I climbed. There was no question it was coming from Penny’s bedroom.
It stopped for a few seconds when I knocked on his door. “Penny?” I asked.
It came back, louder and ragged. I opened the door into complete darkness. It wasn’t just that the lights and TV were off, or the window blinds pulled, but thick fabric—maybe an unzipped sleeping bag—was duct-taped to the wall, blocking any sunlight from filtering through. His bedroom was warmer than the rest of the house; the air that billowed out the open door rancid with unwashed body, the sweet acidic scent of vomit, and urine.
I crossed the stinking room, tripping over tennis shoes, a baseball glove, and an assortment of piled up clothes, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the oppressive blackness. As forms took shape in front of me, I could make out the twisted lump of bed sheets that was Penny. I clicked on his small desk lamp and even that weak light made him moan, thrashing around on the bed as though he were undergoing torture.
His face was just visible over the edge of his blankets. One look and my stomach felt like I’d swallowed a lead weight. The skin was stretched tight over the bones; cheeks hallowed, black pits swallowing his eyes. Scarlet streaks painted his cheeks and he was drenched with sweat.
“Penny?” I whispered.
His eyes blinked, opening into fever bright slits, but not really seeing me. I went into his attached bathroom, finding extra-strength ibuprofen in his medicine cabinet, filling his chipped, plastic Superman cup with icy water, and drenching a wash cloth.
Back in the bedroom, I sank to my knees at the head of the bed, pulling his soaked face onto my thighs, so his head was back enough to swallow pills without choking. He cried out, twisting in my arms, but I held him tight. I had to pry his mouth open, but he swallowed the three pills without resistance, and gulped down the entire cup of water. I held him, brushing my fingers through his hair with one hand and dabbing at his burning forehead with the other.
Fifteen minutes later the red spots on his cheeks dimmed to a faint pink and his eyes opened with wary alertness. One of his hands, previously twisted into his comforter, lifted up to twine with the one I had in his hair. I relaxed back into the headboard with a sigh—at least the fever was broken.
“What the hell is happening to me?” he asked, his voice rough.
I knew the look on my face was sad, my mouth turned down at the edges, eyes softer than they would ever normally be.
“I was hoping that was a hallucination,” he said, pressing his face into my leg, so I couldn’t see his expression. “I really wanted it to be one.” His last words were high pitched and tear filled. I didn’t say anything, stroking his back as his shoulders shook.
“What do I do?” He asked.
I cleared my throat. “Get cleaned up. Tell your parents you’re going to a friend’s for the next couple of days. Then come with me.”
He nodded, sitting up in bed for maybe the first time in days. He wrinkled his nose at the offensive odors coming from his blankets, but neither of us commented on it. We got up together, but he stopped to gather the bedding, disappearing for a few minutes to put it in the wash.
He spent a long time in the shower, but when he came out of the bathroom he looked a little more like the Penny I’d known all my life.
“Where are we going?” he asked, as he followed me outside to my car.
“The woods. As far from people as we can.”
“What’s going to happen?”
I didn’t answer until we were on the road. “I can’t tell you exactly. I don’t know what will change first, or how much it’ll hurt.”
“So, pretty much assume that everything I’ve ever learned about werewolves is what’s going to happen to me?”
“Pretty much. Except imprinting. I don’t think that will happen.”
He didn’t laugh. “How long are you staying?” he asked.
“Until it happens.”
“What if I kill you?
“I’m not afraid,” I said.
“I’m not kidding,” he said.
“I have weapons,” I rolled my eyes. “You aren’t the first one I’ve dealt with.”
The rest of the ride was spent in silence. I drove an hour north, turning onto a gravel road that led deep into the forest. I pulled the car into a small clearing in the trees, and we hiked a half-mile, to ensure we were well away from most people.
The sun was setting when we reached the spot I had in mind. I’d found the circular clearing while hunting for a rumored vampire clan; it was the safest spot I knew of.
When we reached the clearing Penny was pale, lips going a little bit white. I made him sit down as I gathered wood and built a fire. When I sat down, he was fast asleep. I wasn’t sure the timing of this—would he start changing as soon as the sun was completely down? Would it only happen at midnight? So I watched and waited, checking that my gun was loaded every half hour.
A sharp crack erupted through the quiet night. It was enough like a gunshot that I stared at the weapon in my hand, wondering whether I had accidentally pulled the trigger, before realizing that the sound had come from Penny.
His back arched, only heels and the tops of his shoulders touching the ground. His mouth was pulled into a grotesque “O”, but no sound was coming out. I jumped to my feet, gun pointed. My hands shook.
The arch of his back sagged to the ground, but he continued to convulse, eyes rolled back into his head so that only the whites were visible, foam dribbling from his lips and down his chin.
The seizure was ended by a succession of loud pops as Penny’s knees and elbows snapped and reshaped themselves. His rib cage exploded through the skin of his torso as it grew, bursting his t-shirt into fragments. He screamed; an unending, agonized wail.
His body was breaking and elongating in so many places that I couldn’t keep track of it all. In a flurry of movement he was on all fours; the knobs of his spine pulsating under his skin. He was still screaming.
I am not afraid of anything. I decapitate, shoot, disembowel, and stab all manner of creatures. But I couldn’t stand watching this. I closed my eyes for a second—no more than that, but by the time I opened them, there was no more screaming. Instead, the clearing resonated with a growl that seemed to make the ground tremble.
I brought the gun up to my chest, ready to fire, starring the werewolf directly in the eye—blue like Penny’s, but such a pure, unadulterated blue. The flesh around his lips pulled back as he snarled. His canine fangs were about the same length as my pinky finger.
There was five feet between us, at least, but I knew he could be on top of me in an instant. I held the gun steady, aiming at his head, but having no real intention of shooting him there. I would incapacitate, not kill.
His mouth quivered as his warning growl continued to echo through the woods. I took a step back, raising my foot with deliberate carefulness.
I guess I wasn’t fast enough.
He lunged at me, teeth snapping inches in front of my face.
I flinched, but managed to stay in one place. He didn’t come any closer, his hot breath streaming over my face.
I don’t know how much of Penny was left in that werewolf, but I knew if I was going to get away without either of us getting hurt, this was my chance.
I started walking backwards. His eyes tracked every movement, but he didn’t come after me.
When I reached the tree line, I ran. Hard chills tracked down my spine as a piercing howl resonated through the trees.