Wolf's Wife (Monstrous Hearts #1)

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Chapter Two

The next morning, Magdalene slouched over the unsteady kitchen table while Alice made the usual hangover breakfast: four slices of toast and a mug of hot water with two wedges of lemon bobbing in it.

When Alice set the plate before her, Magdalene stopped rubbing her eyes long enough to look. “Where’s the honey?”

Alice returned to toasting her bagel. She would have liked a fried egg on it but knew the smell would chase Magdalene out of the room. “I forgot to bring some and there isn’t any in the cabinets. We’ll have to go shopping. Unless you won’t do this again while we’re here...”

“We’ll leave after I finish.” Then Magdalene bit into a slice, the resulting crunch an effective period to their conversation.

The nearest town was Perry, a glimmer of civilization among the swathes of forest, its 1,800 head population spread out in modest homes and local businesses. From the cabin, it was a ten mile trip taken on the highway since the back roads were flooded from rain or churned up into useless mud.

Magdalene drove, having insisted the threat of vehicular manslaughter would better clear her head over feeling carsick in the passenger’s seat. Alice had handed over the keys and now kept her mouth tightly shut while looking out the window.

The morning sky looked grey and grim, but the rain had stopped long enough for the puddles on the side of the road to turn back into gravel and grass. Aside from the occasional car, Alice found no signs of other people. Just fir and cedars bristling in groups and jagged slopes of earth that fell and rose in the distance.

Then, sudden movement out of the corner of Alice’s eye. A dark shape lunged onto the road in front of them. “Look out!”

Magdalene swore, cigarette falling out of her mouth while she wrenched the wheel. The car’s tires skidded on the wet asphalt, but they stopped in time for Alice to see what they had nearly hit. A bear escaped to the other side of the road, its lurching run almost comical.

Alice sat there, panting while Magdalene fumbled to find the cigarette. The sound of baying dogs grew clear. So did the flash of oncoming headlights.

“Oh my God,” she said, voice cracking while the first of several coonhounds burst from the bristling trees and leapt onto the road, furious and focused.

Brakes squealed. Alice squeezed her eyes shut, but nothing could keep her from hearing the dog scream. By the time she unbuckled the seatbelt and jumped out, the other car had swerved to a halt, blood and hair in its front grille while it sat askew, one back wheel lodged in the shallow, muddy ditch that ran along the side of the road. There was a family inside, the mother and father both twisted in their seats to check the children, but Alice’s focus remained on the coonhound. It had collapsed on the road, rust-colored fur already stained with dark red. But she saw the frightened whites of the dog’s eyes and heard its whining. It had survived.

Heart pounding, she crouched beside the hound, taking care to keep away from those teeth. Hurt animals were frightened animals, and frightened animals bit. The dog’s sides rose in quick, shallow breaths and Alice could see the bright red of its gums. Early stages of shock. “Magdalene! Get a blanket from the backseat.”

When Magdalene didn’t reply, Alice risked glancing away from the dog and found her still in the driver’s seat, face pale while she stared at the other car. Alice got the blanket herself and ran back.

Other cars appeared on the road from either direction, slowing when the drivers grew unsure. A few simply maneuvered around and continued on, but one, a battered camper van, pulled to the side and waited, the rough idle of its engine adding to the chaos.

Alice, aware of the increasing danger of being run over herself, yelled at Magdalene again. “Help me move him off the road!”

When Magdalene’s gaze found her, eyes flat and hard, Alice knew she was still lost, reliving memories in her head. A motorcycle roared by, its tires feet from Alice and the dog. Alice tried once more, fear adding a ragged note to her voice. “Please!”

The rumble of an engine sent her flinching, but it was only the same camper van she’d seen earlier, now pulling up to block the road. The driver’s door opened and a man stepped out. Tall, bearded, shaggy. Calm as he walked over and crouched beside Alice. “Where?”

Relief cracked through her voice. “Over to my car. It’s the blue one.”

The dog yelped as they lifted him, and Alice gritted her teeth to keep tears at bay. Blood dripped with each step it took to reach the stretch of gravel by her car.

Magdalene came back into herself enough to open the driver’s door and watch them settle the dog on the ground near the trunk. A fresh cigarette hung from her mouth. “It doesn’t have a chance.”

Alice ignored her and knelt beside the coonhound again. Now in some safety, adrenaline cleared her mind and training took over. The man crouched nearby while she felt along the dog’s spine and ribs with careful fingers. Alice glanced over at him and saw in his furrowed brow the same worry she felt. When clear green eyes looked into her face with a silent question, she answered with a shake of her head. Even with prompt medical attention, it would be touch and go.

“Well?” That came from Magdalene again.

Before Alice could respond, whistles and shouts rang out. Three men holding rifles and wearing safety vests emerged from the trees on the other side of the road. Hunters.

Alice called to them. “Here! One of your dogs was hit by a car.”

The burliest of them swore and ran over; the other two continued after the remaining dogs, voices quickly muffled when they disappeared between the trees.

After the hunter reached Alice and the dog, she said, “He’s in shock. The spine feels okay but he might have broken ribs.”

“You a vet?” The man had a grim, hard face beneath his bristling beard, but his eyes were wet while the dog whined and tried to wag its tail at him.

“She never made it that far.” Magdalene sounded conversational, her shades back in place as she leaned against the opened door of the car.

Embarrassment was a dim pulse in the back of Alice’s mind. There was an injured animal in front of her and it needed help. She looked up at the hunter. “She’s right; I’ve only had some training. Your dog needs to see a vet as soon as possible. We’ll take you if you don’t have a car nearby.”

“We’re busy,” said Magdalene, lifting her shades. “We’re — ”

“We’ll take you.” Alice’s voice remained firm, and after Magdalene fell silent, she added, “We’ll have to put the back seats down and sit with him. Can we get by without a muzzle, or is he the type to bite?”

“He’s all right that way.”

“Then let’s move him.”

It was only when the coonhound was gingerly settled in the back of the car, both Alice and the hunter squeezed in as well as they could manage, that she realized the man who had first helped her had disappeared. While the hunter gave directions to a silent, white-knuckled Magdalene, Alice glanced out the window, wondering whether the man had moved onto the family stuck in the ditch. But no, they remained huddled in their seats, the mother on her phone and the father soothing the children. A closer look around revealed the road clear and the camper van gone.

While the hunter spoke to his dog in low, soothing tones, the smell of blood and wet fur filling the car, Alice saved a bit of thought for that helpful stranger, regretting that she hadn’t paused to thank him. Then there was nothing to do but keep the dog still while the black road stretched out before them.

Beasts are pure at heart. Not innocent or filled with unconditional love, or even free of malice. But there is an immediacy to their motives that humans have lost. This is why they are good enough to simply bite when angry.

Alice found that preferable over Magdalene’s simmering silence while they drove out of the vet’s parking lot, heavy rain pelting against the windshield.Spots of blood dappled Alice’s shirt where she’d helped carry the dog in, but Magdalene didn’t offer to go home, instead taking the highway on-ramp to the grocery store. Alice supposed she was to wear the stains like a mark of shame, but like many of Magdalene’s points, spoken and otherwise, their symbolism was destroyed by quiet practicality. Alice zipped up her coat to cover the bloodstains before she went inside — alone, since Magdalene refused.

Two Miles was a squat, unassuming store that served every basic need, from groceries and a deli to hardware and clothing. The selection was small but enough to get by in a pinch, and Alice noticed the produce and meat looked fresher than what many of the big grocers back in the city offered.

Despite it being an afternoon bogged down by rain, she wasn’t the only one in the store. A group of boys roamed the aisles, gangle-limbed and fuzz-faced enough to suggest they were in high school or just out of it. Their restlessness and greedy eyes made her nervous, and she hurried with the shopping, her focus on them narrowing until she ran into someone.

Alice gasped an apology against the slide of a wet jacket and the heat of a body beneath it. Face red with embarrassment, she looked up and saw green eyes gazing back, the dark eyebrows above them slightly raised.

“It’s you,” she said. The man who had helped her.

He nodded. “Did the dog make it?”

“I don’t know. Things didn’t look good when we left.” It hurt, the probability that the dog was already dead from injury or euthanization. Alice had to turn away from it, focusing instead on the jars of honey waiting on the top shelf. She wasn’t tall, and strained to reach them.

The man was tall, and plucked a jar for her. When their fingers brushed, she felt his calluses.

“Thank you.” After she put the honey into her basket, Alice added, “Not just for this, but for keeping me from being run over on the road.”

He was certainly enigmatic, offering nothing more than a nod.

A burst of laughter at the other end of the aisle interrupted whatever response the man might have made. It came from the group of boys, who eyed them both.

A change rippled through the man for all that he didn’t do more than look over. A sharpening of his gaze, rising tension in his stance. It reminded Alice of an animal on alert, taking a split second to decide whether to fight or run. Then he jerked his head at her, the signal silent but perfectly clear. Get out of here.

She did, glancing back once to find the boys now focused on the man alone. She wasn’t sure how well they’d picked their target if they planned to do more than make fun; the man was shaggy and shabby like a vagrant, but there were no signs of grey in his dark beard and hair, and the shoulders beneath the battered jacket looked broad and powerful. But sticky patches on her shirt reminded her that she’d already poked her nose into a bad situation. Magdalene might swallow her tongue if Alice showed as much concern toward a man.

Her hands shook from spent adrenaline while she handed over the money and picked up the bags, but the tired-looking cashier didn’t spare another glance in her direction. The boys could still be heard, laughing.

When Alice stepped outside, arms already straining with the weight of a week’s worth of groceries, she found two people standing at the driver’s window of her car, laughing with Magdalene. Alice’s heart sank. She recognized them: Rob and Darby.

Rob knew Magdalene from when they were children growing up in the same small town. Now he was a photographer who had reluctantly entrenched himself in a commercial career. It seemed to Alice that he always looked at other people with a tinge of irritation, as if unable to understand why the world at large wasn’t as neatly arranged as his photographs. His wife, Darby, was a genre writer who no longer bragged about her three-book deal now that the dismal first week sales of the second novel had come out. Both tolerated Alice, and Alice actively hated them.

But she pasted a smile on her face and continued to approach when Darby looked over. The other woman brushed magenta hair from her eyes, her round doll’s face slack with unfeigned surprise. “Oh. Alice. Magdalene didn’t say you were here.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Alice saw Magdalene smirk, and resigned herself to forthcoming ugliness. “Here on a break like us?”

“No way. I’m not as lucky as Magdalene; can’t wait for inspiration to strike or my publisher will drop me.”

Alice felt herself bristle for Magdalene’s sake, but Magdalene only smiled and said, “They must be patient up to a point. Your last book sold thirteen copies in its first week. That’s not exactly an instant return on their investment.”

Rob cleared his throat, eyes nervous behind his glasses, but Magdalene wasn’t finished.

“But stop worrying about bureaucratic bullshit like that. There’s too much artist in you and you’ll crush yourself. The Strange Life of a Clockwork Girl is the only fantasy I’ve read to rise above the tepid waters of the genre.”

Alice watched Rob, who relaxed again with a small smirk. He knew Magdalene’s use of compliments as well as she did, that her tongue was never sweet even when it seemed so. But Darby wasn’t so experienced, and offense, uncertainty, and pride fought with each other in her eyes over Magdalene’s words. Even though Alice didn’t know the other woman well, she picked out the exact moment Darby fell for Magdalene’s strange mix of insult and praise. It was when Darby’s expression took on a light that Alice had used to see reflected in the mirror.

“Bullshit,” said Rob, voice lowering to a velvet purr that Alice had only ever heard him use with Magdalene. “Unless you think the great Olonico was an untalented hack.”

“He was a dreamer. He’s also dead. It’s the living writers who are important now.” Then Magdalene glanced at Darby, giving her a slight smile while Rob shook his head.

Alice had long grown used to falling invisible among a handful of artists primping themselves like peacocks, and only shifted her grip against the handles of the grocery bags, which had begun cutting into her fingers.

Darby shrugged, trying to act nonchalant, but her plump lips curled in pleasure. “Anyway… our house is being rewired, leaving us in the shit for two weeks. Rob’s cousin is letting us crash at his vacation lodge over in Sugar Pine. I was just offering Magdalene the extra bedroom when you came over. She told us the cabin isn’t working out.”

Alice shrugged. “It’s old but comfortable enough.”

When Magdalene didn’t say anything, Rob glanced at Alice. “You two want to join us for a few days or what?”

“Yes,” said Magdalene.

Alice’s grip tightened against the handles. “No.”

The husband and wife team were both psychonauts. Alice knew from past experience that nights with them meant a round of hallucinogens and a foursome with pompous reasons for both — exploring altered states of mind to gain spiritual insight, perhaps. Or transcending the mundane world to find the beauty beyond. The usual high-concept bullshit.

“Then it’s just me.” Magdalene opened the driver’s door and got out in a cloud of smoke. “We’ll leave Alice to her groceries.”

Alice’s mouth went dry, and the first tremors slid through her body even while she fought to keep her expression pleasant. Magdalene knew how she’d react, damn her, but Alice wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of seeing it.

Darby had already refocused her attention on Magdalene, but Rob at least gave Alice a final glance. “You sure?”

She nodded, hoping her voice wouldn’t sound strangled. “I’ll be busy, anyway. I’m making apple pie.”

The surprise in Magdalene’s eyes was worth hearing the horsey laugh from Darby, who never liked appearing out of the loop with inside references.

Magdalene recovered quickly. “Here.”

The car keys flashed through the air toward Alice, but with her hands twined in handles, she could only note where they dropped in the slurry of water and mud.

“Thanks.” This time, she couldn’t keep the frost out of her voice, and a significant look passed between Rob and Darby. Alice had no doubt she’d be a topic of conversation later.

Magdalene’s final words to her were tossed over her shoulder. “By the way, there’s a leak in the attic.”

Tears burned and threatened to spill, but Alice only nodded. She knew what this was about; revenge for putting the dog over Magdalene, yes, but something subtler, too. A warning that Magdalene knew what would really hurt her.

Back into the store, then. The boys were still there, and still goading the green-eyed man with overloud comments and jokes while waiting behind him as he paid. His expression was enough to send Alice shrinking back, and she caught gleams of nervousness in the boys’ eyes, too. They reminded her of crows trying to puff up their courage enough to attack an owl. The cashier kept quiet, the closed look on her face suggesting she didn’t care what happened as long as it wasn’t inside the store.

With a searing glance in their direction, the man left with his things. Alice bit her lip when the boys trailed after him, but again reminded herself not to get into further trouble.

She grabbed anything that looked vaguely useful in the tiny hardware section. Plastic tarp, tape, rope. She left the store just as the camper van trundled out of the driveway with the man behind the wheel. A shout drew her focus to the opposite side of the parking lot. The three boys huddled together, two holding the third upright as he bled from the mouth and nose. So they had picked the wrong target.

She walked to her car quickly, furtively, shoulders hunching in an instinctive attempt not to be noticed. The windshield wipers beat a steady rhythm while she got on the highway and started the long drive back to the cabin.

For the rest of the day, Alice worked through domestic chores. Despite Magdalene’s absence, an atmosphere of contempt lingered in the cabin like a layer of grime, and the only way Alice knew to fight it was to play the part to the hilt. She did laundry, starting with her muddied, bloodied clothes.. She wiped cobwebs from the walls and dust from the shelves and furniture. Cleaned water deposits and rust from the bathroom tile. Scraped dried soap scum from the porcelain tub.

When she felt exhausted enough that her muscles trembled and weariness dulled the anger in her mind, Alice at last turned her focus toward the attic. Magdalene hadn’t lied. A puddle claimed space between a drawerless dresser and a coat rack, added to every few seconds by a drop of water. Alice aimed her flashlight at the ceiling. The wooden boards looked whole and sound. She’d have to go on the roof to find the problem.

Still, Alice lingered, curious to see what space Magdalene had carved out for herself. A table waited beneath a small round window that faced the north. Dust covered the varnished wood, leaving the handprints on the legs all the more obvious. Magdalene must have muscled it out of the jumble of furniture that filled all corners of the attic.

On the table, several fat candles sat in pools of their melted wax. Beside them, the empty wine bottle from the night before, and one of the moleskine journals that Magdalene had long stopped writing in. Alice also saw dog-eared, handwritten notes held together with paperclips. She brushed them with light fingertips, easily imagining Magdalene slouched there, the little tongues of flame flickering while she fought for words that had once come so easily to her.

Then Alice’s gaze fell upon letters scratched into the desk, fresh enough that wood dust surrounded their sharp shapes.

I N D I

“Indigo,” she said, softly, and a pang went through her heart. She dealt with it by turning away to see what Magdalene had left untouched. Cardboard boxes with corners chewed open by rats were stacked around furniture jumbled together and worn grey by time and dust. Alice pushed aside tepid watercolor paintings of flowers, old coats left on arms of chairs, and a few hat boxes, searching for anything more interesting than tired, unwanted belongings. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she wondered at the fruitlessness of going through old junk instead of repairing a bad leak, but she supposed she wanted to find a bit of color or a piece of interesting history to take back downstairs with her.

The first thing that didn’t look decrepit was a trunk with a lid sealed tightly enough to keep out rats. A mixture of men’s and women’s clothing filled it full, surprising in their well-cared for state. Modern, unlike some of the clothing left to molder in the open. Alice guessed a trunk was safer than a closet in a drafty cabin like this. Alice guessed plenty of things when it came to her maternal grandmother, who she’d never known.

A second trunk even further back caught her eye, the dyed leather exterior a rich burgundy even through the layer of dust. Alice squeezed past a coat rack and elk-sized antlers balanced on a chair to reach it. A lock hung from the hasp that kept the lid closed, a hunk of iron pitted with rust. Alice returned to Magdalene’s desk for the paperclips.

Five minutes later, hinges creaked while she lifted the trunk’s lid to reveal a plush red interior. Her gaze ran over the quilted velvet sides before settling on what waited inside.

It was a pelt. Alice took in the coarse fur, the black nose at the end of a massive muzzle, and the short ears. A wolf pelt.

She pulled it out of the trunk in a tangle of white fur tipped with gray and copper. It smelled like animal and tanned leather. Holes had been cut where the eyes had been, and Alice realized the pelt was both cape and mask, ready to be worn.

Gunshots cracked and echoed in the distance. Alice found herself lurching upright, clutching the pelt to her pounding heart while silence slid through the trees again. The view through the round window remained still as a painting.

She thought of the hunters from that morning, of the coonhounds baying after the bear. It was probably how this poor beast had met its end. Her fingers loosened against the fur and then she settled the pelt back into the trunk, disgust and fascination filling her full even once the lid had been shut and the hasp flipped back into place. Her fingerprints were the only ones to mar the dust on the trunk; Magdalene hadn’t discovered the pelt. Alice couldn’t say why that made her happy.

Ignorant of how to fix roof shingles, she tried plastic sheeting and half a roll of tape, hoping the shabby job would last until she hired someone more knowledgeable. By then it was evening and the cabin breathed emptiness. Determined to push herself to exhaustion to avoid another bout of sleepless, dark hours, Alice cooked for the next day. Beef stew flavored with wine and rosemary, strong flavors needing a night to meld into a harmony. Dough for an herb and cheese bread that would rise overnight in the fridge. And lastly, that damn apple pie. She even wove a lattice top for added effect.

She lit a fire and had leftovers for dinner, sitting close to the hearth while the kindling struggled to burn. With the curtains closed and the lamps on, the pitiful flames flickering against the surrounding shadow only heightened the effect of isolation. She imagined living the rest of her days in such a way and then felt that the food she’d swallowed might come back up.

The final brilliant streaks of sunset glowed through the trees while Alice trudged outside for more firewood. Halfway to the woodpile, her feet froze in the mud. There, between the cabin and the first line of trees, the shape of an animal slumped in a bloodied puddle. The gunshots Alice had heard earlier echoed in her head as she moved closer.

Some kind of canid, with that sharp muzzle and those triangular ears. The muck hid the color of its fur, but the beast looked big enough to be a malamute. Its sides heaved while Alice approached, her movements careful and slow. She took in its yellow eyes, the narrow chest and large paws.

Not a dog. A wolf. Maybe the same one she’d seen the night before. Alice stopped again. Handling a wild animal was much different than handling a pet. But the sound of the wolf’s panting whines drew her forward. There was too much fur to tell how many bullets had gone in or where they were, but she knew it was likely the wolf was badly injured to have collapsed so close to a human.

She knelt on the muddy gravel, taking care to keep away from those jaws. When the wolf didn’t so much as twitch, Alice pulled off her gloves to feel along its spine, trying to ignore the unnerving sense of having already done this earlier in the day. Back and right ribs felt fine, but in the final rays of light she found bloody streaming from bullet hole in the chest. The wolf wasn’t just injured; it was dying.

The trees shuddered with cold winds and clouds gathered on the horizon, dark and swollen with yet more rain. With a sigh, Alice put on her gloves again and went to get the child’s sled leaning against the side of the cabin. Hopefully the ancient wood would support the wolf’s weight.

The wolf was too far gone to do more than whine and twitch while she eased it onto the sled, her muscles straining with the effort. Still, she kept well out of the way of its muzzle, and walked backward while pulling the sled to keep the wolf in her line of sight. It was ridiculous, what she was doing. Bringing a wild animal into the cabin would make any sane person shake their head. But to just close the curtains and let it die out in the wilderness alone...

Once inside and eased onto a pile of blankets near the fireplace, the wolf fell still again. Alice found an old belt but decided not to use it as a muzzle; the wolf’s breath already sounded tortured. A bullet must have nicked the lungs. Washing the area around the wound with warm water and clean rags was the best she could do, and Alice settled next to the wolf in the belief that the night would be a vigil, and that in the morning she’d use the sled to drag a body out of the cabin.

Time passed in the ticking of the clock and the shallow panting from the wolf. When she offered a bowl of water, a piercing yellow gaze glanced over it, but the wolf didn’t move. Funny, she reflected, how expressive a canid could be. A wolf of this size could crush her arm with one bite, but when she looked at the shadows etched in the ridges above its eyes, she found pain and misery, not threat.

Twice, she left to collect more firewood. Each time she returned, the wolf still breathed. The room smelled like blood, wet fur, and fear, and rain had begun to drum against the cabin’s roof in a dull, oppressive rhythm.

Alice found herself speaking out loud in an attempt to bring something good to this long wait. “I don’t know much about wolves. Not real ones like you. But there was a book about Norse mythology that I loved as a child and I still remember most of those legends by heart. Wolves appeared in a few of them. Everyone knows about Fenrir, but have you heard about the twin wolves that live in the sky? One chases the sun and the other the moon. Should I tell you about them?”

A wolf isn’t a dog. Pats offer no comfort and neither do calm voices. But every creature dreams, and in dreams are stories.

While Alice talked about the myth, the wolf’s ears slowly relaxed from their fearful angle and its breathing fell quiet. As for Alice, her mental imaginings of Magdalene’s reactions to every cliche phrase and clumsy description that rolled off her tongue soon faded into a strange sort of calm. She spoke long into the night, the firelight gleaming off her hair and the wolf’s fur while the shadows fell around them.

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