The man stumbled into the lobby of Willow Creek Pain Management, eyes wide, scratching at his skin as though a raging fire burned under its surface.
He staggered up to the desk, droplets of sweat beading his brow like a glass of lemonade left too long in the sun. Dark circles formed half-moon craters beneath eyes that glowed bright yellow in the sunken pools of his face.
Rachel knew he didn’t have much time left. His skin had gone sallow as old wax paper, jaw clenched so tight she was afraid he’d break his own teeth.
Why did he wait so long?
Surely he could see the sky. She made sure to hand out Farmer’s Almanacs to every one of her patients. Every patient. In actuality, she had two. Bobby Freedman had only come in for his first visit a month ago. That one hadn’t gone well, either.
She wished more would come to get treatment. Something kept them away, though. Pride, she assumed. There was strength in packs.
She wished they didn’t have to stay so far out like that, miles away from civilization. People like Bobby were stubborn. Too stubborn. They liked being secluded, out where the lights weren’t so bright, where the sound of car engines couldn’t reach. It made it harder for them to get help when they wanted it.
Most didn’t. In a way, she was glad for that. The ones who did come to the center certainly kept her busy, and she’d have a lot of explaining to do if twenty or thirty howling people showed up once a month after closing time. Her boyfriend was already up her ass about the hours she kept. She could only lie about late-night paperwork for so long.
But she’d never turn away the ones who wanted some comfort. She’d taken it upon herself to help those no one else would. Rachel had a soft spot for broken minds and tortured souls.
She led him to a small room down the hall, no bigger than a janitor’s closet. Aside from the heavy chain curled up in the corner, the space was barren. Bobby slumped down against the wall.
“I need it,” he gasped, nails digging into the raw flesh of his forearms. “Please, just…just stick it in me.” He rolled up his sleeve, presenting her with a veiny, bite-ridden bicep.
“It’s too late for that,” Rachel said.
“What? No, no. I can’t go through it again. Not straight. That last time…I…don’t make me beg...you can’t…”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You’re lucky you got here when you did.” She checked her watch.
He cocked his head. “Huh? I…I was sleeping. I thought it was tomorrow, anyway. You can’t blame me for getting the day screwed up…”
“Were you in the fields again?”
He shivered, hugging himself. “I can’t sleep under a roof. Not when it gets like this.”
“We have a lawn here, you know. And there’s the grove out back.”
“It’s not the same,” he spat. “Not like the farm. Not where they are.”
Rachel gave him a knowing nod.
“Take off your clothes,” she told him.
Bobby did so without question. He unbuttoned his shirt and undid his belt, letting his trousers drop to the floor. Rachel felt a sense of pity as she watched him fold his hands over his crotch, goose bumps dotting his pasty flesh.
“Make it stop,” he cried, voice growing frantic as he clawed at his chest, his neck, the sides of his face. “Make it stop, make it stop, MAKE IT STOP!”
Rachel had been working at the Pain Management Center ever since she left college with a degree in sports medicine. For a while, it was relatively quiet. Willow Creek was a small community. Hicksville. Fly over country. The most dastardly injuries she ever dealt with were the broken wrists and twisted ankles of the local little league team. There was the occasional slip and fall worker’s comp case, too, but nothing extraordinary.
Not until those first few came down from the woods, lurking about the front door well after nightfall.
“Bitch!” Bobby snarled, “You said you’d help! You said-“
White foam dripped from his mouth as his body convulsed. The jolt sent him to the floor, arms and legs wrenching like a pretzel. The giant vein on his temple pounded so hard that Rachel could almost hear it. Red lines formed in the yellows of his eyes like food dye swirling in egg yoke.
She knew there wasn’t much time left.
“It will be over soon,” she said, lunging for the chain. She grabbed a hold of Bobby’s wrist and locked the shackle in place before he had a chance to move.
“Think of the sun, Bobby. Bright blue skies. Can you do that for me?”
He let out a loud howl, sad and deep like a wounded dog.
Rachel ran for the door. Bobby chased after her until the chain uncoiled and ran its whole length. He tried to claw at her sleeve, but the chain tightened, propelling him back against the wall.
She shut the door and slammed the six deadbolts into place, watching him from behind the thick glass.
Bobby clutched at his scalp, writhing in agony.
The hands went first.
His fingers elongated, knuckles cracking as bone and sinew wretched itself apart. His once manicured nails contorted in sharp, jagged points like discarded beach glass. Dark, wiry hair sprouted from his palms, down over the back of his hands until the pink skin was buried under a mass of sleek, oily fur.
His stomach tightened, abdomen contracting as he panted in shallow, ragged breaths. She winced as the bones separated in a series of sickening snaps, jutting up against his skin like a trash bag stuffed with broken twigs. His shoulders slumped, muscles contracting, flesh ripping until dark blood oozed from the tears. His chest shriveled, ribcage sickeningly pronounced as the skin sucked in tight as a vacuum seal. Every inch of him was soon covered in thick, shaggy hair.
Bobby let out a bloodcurdling cry as his nose widened, cartilage popping as it pushed his eyes farther apart. The nose lengthened into a snout, whiskers protruding above lips turned black. The teeth sharpened to fangs, bone white and longer than Rachel’s fingers.
He writhed around on the floor, screaming so loud his voice went hoarse. His body wretched as he vomited green sludge against the wall. His ankles cracked, tendons splintering as his feet and legs molded to grotesque, misshapen haunches.
When it was over, the thing Rachel saw was neither man, nor beast, but something far worse. Some hellish monstrosity lying somewhere in between. Even from behind the door, she could smell its putrid, animal musk. It looked up though the glass, piercing her soul with those glowing, demonic eyes.
Almost on reflex, she hastily made the sign of the cross.
She checked her supplies. The cabinet was filled with syringes, vials, and prescription bottles by the hundred. She took three bottles of Vicodin and put them in a plastic bag. She then pierced a vial of morphine with a syringe, pulling the plunger until the chamber was full.
Once the medication was set, she opened the walk-in refrigerator, where slabs of meat and frozen road kill dangled on hooks like a demented butcher shop. She chose the fawn, still somewhat fresh after she’d scraped it off the road earlier that day. Suppressing a gag, she pried its frozen legs off the hook, watching as the coagulated blood pooled from the puncture wounds like crimson gel.
Bobby would be hungry. They were always hungry after the change. Rachel knew they’d prefer something warm. Something fresh, so they could feel the steam of the blood as it ran down their throats.
Sorry, Bobby, she thought, Looks like you’re stuck with a deer popsicle tonight.
She watched him from behind the glass, absently fingering the crucifix dangling around her neck. The creature in the next room clawed at the wall, dragging the heavy chain as it paced in manic fury. She had to remind herself that she was looking at a man. Bobby was still in there, somewhere. She couldn’t bear to think he wasn’t.
She waited until the beast wore itself out. Grunting, it collapsed onto the floor, resting its head on its front paws. She counted to one hundred after the glowing, yellow eyes closed. Syringe armed and ready, she carefully unbolted the locks. The creature snored loudly, deep in slumber.
The needle made a slight pop as she jabbed into the rough hide of beast’s neck, emptying the morphine with the plunger. Bobby shuddered, but did not wake. Rachel made sure the shackle around his arm was secure, giving it a slight tug. It held. Well-forged silver never failed.
He needed to rest. Rachel laid the half frozen deer on the floor and returned to the front desk, where she sat and stared at the clock. Seven hours till morning. Seven hours until the vile curse worked itself out of his system.
She eyed the bag of painkillers and sighed. For any normal injury, the dose she’d prepared was much too high. For Bobby…She wasn’t sure if it’d last more than a few days.
That’s what bothered her the most about people in his condition: The pain. It was unbearable. She couldn’t even imagine the horrors involved with the change. She had asked one of them about it, once.
“It doesn’t go away,” the old man said. “Even after the change is done. Your muscles are still torn. Your bones are still fractured. They heal faster than most, sure, but a month is hardly long enough. It never mends proper. Day after day, all you’re left with is the pain. The burning and the aching, the sting like knives in the gut. Can’t sleep, no matter how hard you try. And night after night, all you see is that damned moon hanging in the sky. It mocks you… and all you can do is wait...”
The man had been the town’s game warden, investigating a spate of animal mutilation around the local farms. It was only his second week on the job when he ran into them on the outskirts of the Wheeler’s place. It was his own fault, he’d said, for going out alone under a full moon. The initial wounds of the attack healed quickly enough, but it took another lunar cycle for him to truly understand what he’d become.
It only happened up near the farms, way out on the town limits, on the borders of the national forest. The farmers themselves were fine. Rumor had it that they’d fitted all their equipment with silver, from the blades of their thrashers right down to the nails in their toolboxes.
The first victims were the hunters that flooded into Willow Creek during open season. Most kept to the designated grounds, but the few unlucky ones who posted up near the farmland quickly found themselves in hostile territory, especially when night fell.
Some were campers, like Bobby. He’d come to Willow Creek during his spring break from college, looking for a little peace and quiet. He was supposed to meet up with some friends, but they never showed, so he ventured off alone.
The rest were loners. Fringe dwellers. Pagan spiritualists looking to commune with mother Gaia or hardline survivalists waiting out the inevitable apocalypse in their tree-stands. People with few friends or family. People whose disappearances wouldn’t cause a big stir. The creatures in the woods were careful about whom they chose.
Most of them learned to accept it, Rachel discovered. The ones who didn’t usually ended up killing themselves.
She couldn’t reverse it, though she’d spent countless nights researching how. Surgery was out of the question. There was no medical precedent. All she could do was ease the pain. It wasn’t much. In the end, all she wound up doing was turn them into junkies. She knew it was illegal to dump so many pills on somebody at once, but at least they weren’t robbing and killing for it on the street.
The first pale rays of dawn flooded through the glass door of the lobby. Rachel checked her watch just to be sure it was safe.
She found Bobby lying stark naked on his back, pale as a ghost, lips cracked and caked in dried spittle. He looked up at her with watery, grey eyes.
“It’s morning,” she said, kneeling down to hand over his clothes. “You made it.”
Bobby struggled to move. She released the shackle off his wrist and helped him up, carefully bending his battered limbs as she shimmied his pants over his legs, trying her best to not look at the purple bruises covering him head to toe.
“I’m sorry,” he said, staring down at the floor, “if I said anything…did anything…”
“It’s fine,” Rachel replied. “Just don’t wait ‘till the last minute next time, understand?”
He nodded, embarrassed, looking down at the mangled deer carcass.
“Some buffet you got.”
“That one was on the house. Your hunting days are over.”
“Do you need help cleaning up?”
She looked around the room, to the gnawed bones of the fawn, the guts and entrails covered in hair, splattered against the walls, dripping between the claw marks dug into the sheetrock.
“I can manage,” she said. “But you need to be on your way before this place opens.”
She led him to the lobby and gave him a pair of old crutches. Bobby’s face screwed up in pain as he lowered himself onto them.
“You’ll get the hang of it after a bit,” she assured him, then placed the bag of painkillers in his coat pocket. “If you need any more, you know where I am. Or even if you’re just hungry. I’m always finding something for the fridge.”
“I’ve only eaten animals, you know.”
Bobby noticed, shakily trying to steady himself. “In case you were worried about…you know. They…they wanted me to try out a human. A hiker.” He shuddered. “They said the young ones taste best. They…they said they’d show me what parts to start with...”
“Bobby, listen to me, you can’t-“
“I didn’t do it,” he said. “Even when I felt the change rip through me, I still couldn’t. The idea of it, the thought of it…”
“That’s a good thing. You shouldn’t feel ashamed.”
“I can’t keep fighting it, you know. One day I’ll have to.”
Rachel saw the pain in his eyes. Pain no drug could ever dampen. It was the pain of someone who felt like a stranger in his own skin. Someone who didn’t feel much like a someone anymore. The fact that he still retained a conscience gave her some relief.
A tear rolled down his cheek. “It makes me sick, Rachel. I can still smell her. I…I wanted to. I so badly wanted to…the thoughts…they keep piling up in my head. I can’t shake them out anymore.”
She took his hand, feeling the heat burn under his flesh like a stovetop.
“If I ever do it, I want you to kill me,” he said. “Put me down. Use silver. Real silver. Slit my wrists with it. Melt it down and pour it down my throat. String it up and hang me with it. It doesn’t matter. Okay? I need you to promise.”
Rachel looked down at his bruised hand, tracing the path of a burst vein with the tip of her finger.
She couldn’t bring herself to promise that.
Bobby reached for the bag she’d given him and shook a whole bottle into his mouth before he turned and limped out the door.
Rachel watched as he hobbled down the road, hoping that none of what he said would ever come to pass. She hoped the others would leave him be. After a time, he disappeared into the trees, back to the hunting grounds.
She glanced at the calendar. It would be twenty-seven days until the next full moon. Twenty-seven days to sit and wait and worry. Twenty-seven days until they poured down from the hills, and she was left to deal with cursed men and the monsters that raged inside them.
Rachel began to dream.
She dreamt of the smell of blood and fur, that primal funk of iron and grime, and the way it lingered in her nostrils no matter how vigorously she scrubbed the floor.
She dreamt of ribcages breaking, of white bone snapping and the marrow inside.
She dreamt of the prayers she recited, jumbled words that fell on the ears of a deaf God no matter how many times she said them.
She dreamt of polished silver, the way its surface gleamed in moonlight.