The next morning, Magdalene returned, dark eyes burning with an inner light. Guilt bit at Alice as Magdalene kissed her enthusiastically, and she was surprised by the taste of clove cigarettes. A new thing.
“This place looks even more bumfuck.” Magdalene draped herself in the armchair by the lit fireplace, eyeing the bowl of rising dough placed near the hearth. “Looks like you tried to fix it up while you were stuck here.”
“I did. How’d things go with Rob and Darby?”
“If you wanted to know, you should’ve come with me.”
Alice felt the old strain settle into her, diminishing her smile into a weak twitch of her lips. “How’s writing, then?”
“Mind-blowing. I’ve filled up half of this since last night.” She waved the moleskine journal at Alice, flashing that wicked smile Alice remembered so well.
Weight lifted from Alice as she clapped her hands together, rushing over to the chair. “That’s amazing!”
Magdalene just smiled again, preening like a cat as Alice ran fingers through her hair.
“Are you going to read some to me tonight? Or should I read to you?” Alice remembered how in the early days of their relationship, while Magdalene was still writing The Chrysalis, Alice would read finished chapters out loud while Magdalene listened, making adjustments in her copy of the manuscript.
“No.” Magdalene tucked the journal by her side and lit up a cigarette. “I’m doing things differently. It’ll all be different. You’ll see. For one thing, we’re going to stay here while I work on Vivication — the sequel, I’m working on the actual fucking sequel.”
Alice nodded, the hope that something had changed mingling with the fear that it hadn’t. But she forced a smile on her face while watching the light from the fire flicker over Magdalene’s dreamy face.
She went to bed before Magdalene, the sheets cold around her. Guilt pulsed in her like a growing thing, a malignant tumor feeding on her regret and her rising surety that she had made the wrong decision. Life tried to settle around her as it once had, but the seams no longer fit together neatly. The shape of the outline was no longer her shape.
She tried to make it fit, anyway, when Magdalene came to bed, now smelling like cloves and wine. But Magdalene offered nothing more than another kiss, rolling away and settling into the mattress for nothing more than sleep. Alice blinked, fingers finding Magdalene’s shoulder. “Sweetheart?”
“No sex while I’m in the middle of a big scene, remember? It puts more tension in the words when I don’t let myself come.”
“Oh.” Alice did remember. While moving back to her side of the bed, she also remembered it had bothered her much less before than it did now. Or maybe she had been less willing to admit discontent.
As Magdalene’s breathing slowed into the rhythm of sleep, Alice stared at the ceiling, fingers tangling together as the darkness seemed to press in all around her.
On the third day of Magdalene’s return, Alice noticed cigarette butts beginning to overflow the coffee cans used as ashtrays. The gleam in Magdalene’s eyes turned feverish, but she kept writing in her moleskine journal, sitting by a window whenever the sun was allowed to show through the clouds.
That afternoon, Alice started to paint with her half-drunk cup of coffee.
“Not me,” said Magdalene, putting on her shades.
The tip of the brush wavered on the paper as Alice hesitated. “No. The wine bottle on the counter.”
When Magdalene didn’t say anything, Alice kept painting. Later, while serving the lemon chicken piccata she’d made for dinner, Alice found Magdalene looking at the painting.
“What do you think?” said Alice, setting the plates on the table.
Magdalene let the piece of paper fall before walking over. “I think you should’ve drunk the coffee instead.”
As they both sat down, Alice tried to take it in stride, searching for the brittle calm that had held her together like an exoskeleton through Magdalene’s nastiest behavior. But as she remembered all the paintings she’d burned to prevent Magdalene from seeing them, a streak of answering spite flared through her. “You hoped Indigo would come back, didn’t you?”
Magdalene stared at her, hand frozen around her glass of wine. “What?”
“That’s why you were so excited again. You saw a vision of her or something like that while drugged up at Rob and Darby’s.” The more words Alice spoke, the surer she grew of them. “So when you came back here, you thought you’d brought her with you.”
Magdalene pushed her plate off the table. The dish shattered, making Alice jump.
“You don’t know shit. You never did.” Magdalene’s voice was calm, almost ethereal, but her hands had clenched into fists. Then she turned and left, footsteps fading as she disappeared up into the attic.
Alice stared at the mess on the floor, waiting for guilt or regret to seep through her. They did, but so did something new: exasperation.
After that, Magdalene stopped sharing the bed with Alice. Three more days crawled past, filled with sullen silence and cold words. Alice chose to respond by walking in the woods for hours, her only company being rubber boots, a rain-resistant coat, and an umbrella long enough to serve as a walking stick over the rougher parts of the hiking trails. She could have told herself it was to get away from Magdalene’s brooding, but the truth burned in her. It was hope that pushed her to walk through rain, wind, and even sleet. The bare possibility of catching a glimpse of yellow eyes between the trees. Of seeing one shadow out of many stepping from the thick wilderness and firming into a rangy lupine body. Or a man’s.
But she never saw anything more than birds in the trees and squirrels on the ground.
Once, she returned to the cabin to overhear Magdalene arguing on the phone, voice grating and sharp in a way that meant she was furious. “Just two more months. Two fucking months. God knows their editors will take twice as long to read through and give me their shit suggestions.”
Alice’s breath hissed in between her teeth, her expression remaining carefully blank while she walked past where Magdalene stood in front of the fireplace. Trouble with the publisher again. Then things had collapsed to their usual state.
Magdalene hung up and stalked into the bedroom just as Alice pulled off her gloves and shrugged off her coat.
“Not a fucking word.” Magdalene’s voice shook as hard as her hands as she grabbed a pack of cigarettes.
Alice stared at the doorway long after Magdalene had disappeared through it. If the publisher dropped her, things would only grow worse.
The instinct to survive is not always the strongest. Even in a mind worn into paths of silence and appeasement, the urge to snap and claw and kick burns like an ember hidden in the ashes. Who can say what will fan it into roaring flames, or what the fire will devour. Humans may act like beasts, too.
Scattered paper fluttered among the ashes as Alice cleaned the fireplace, the sound of Magdalene’s footsteps in the attic as steady a rhythm as her own pulse. By now, she felt as hollow-eyed and pale as Magdalene looked, and the time spent with Colton seemed as golden and impossible as a child’s fantasy world. She was so worn down that it took her several moments to realize the shovel in her hand scraped against something tougher than pieces of charcoaled wood, and that it probably had something to do with those bits of paper.
The warped remains of Magdalene’s moleskine notebook poked out from grey ash. Alice plucked it free, recognizing Magdalene’s ornate handwriting on the scraps of pages that had survived the flames. Even though she hadn’t yet read a word, a chill seeped through Alice. Magdalene had never burned her work before.
Her fingers hesitated over the decrepit notebook and then opened it to a random page. Even though she knew Magdalene had gone up in the attic, could hear her footsteps moving back and forth, back and forth, Alice still cast a glance over her shoulder before focusing on the words held in her hand.
Her eyes have a chilling quality about them. I don’t think I’ve seen their color before, not in eyes. It’s the dark blue of deep water. Indigo. They glimmer as she tells me how long she waited in that car, holding onto her mother’s promise to return. Two days.
It was strange to Alice, feeling so angry that she couldn’t breathe. Like a hand crushed her chest. Magdalene had taken Alice’s memories of her mother and used them. Not just for a story to be sold as entertainment, but to feed the image of a dead girl she’d idolized and made myth of beyond recognition.
Alice fingers trembled as she tore out the page and put it in her pocket. Then she dumped the moleskine into the canister of collected ashes and continued to clean the fireplace.
For the rest of the day, she gave no indication of what she had learned. But that night, after Magdalene had grown quiet up in the attic and the fire had burned down to embers, she sat on the bed for fifteen minutes, listening with her head cocked toward the ceiling for the slightest hint that Magdalene was still awake. All was silence.
The pelt looked just as she’d left it, but the fur seemed warm in Alice’s grip as she pulled it free from its hiding place. Or maybe she generated the heat from all the anger pulsing through her, the rage and longing and despair of trapping herself when what she wanted was out there, somewhere, just beyond the reach of her senses.
This time, Alice walked all the way into the woods, shoulders straight and fingers digging into her palms. The cold air bit at her bare skin, but she didn’t flinch or pause. And this time, the pelt didn’t hang limp but bristled instead. The skin writhed against her, and her teeth ached as the head of the pelt tightened against her own skull. Then it was like driving through an underground tunnel, all smooth speed and darkness flickering with light, the world waiting on the other end bright enough to scorch her eyes.
What started as a scream ended in a yelp, and Wolf-Alice shook herself from muzzle to tail, paws silent against the leaf litter and damp earth. The smells and sounds around her were sharp and strange and wonderful, and without hesitation she ran further into the woods.
The wolf waited there, black fur hardly more than a shadow in the mist, as if he’d known all along what she’d choose. Wolf-Alice whined and rubbed against him in a frenzy, licking at his muzzle while his tail wagged a little. Then they ran together, disappearing into the night.
Sometime in the early hour of dawn, when the pelt fell lifeless from Alice’s head and shoulders, Colton changed as well. She didn’t have time to do more than shiver at the sudden chill of bare skin before his mouth caught hers, hot and rough. Alice’s fingers moved before she remembered what it felt like to have hands instead of paws, twining in his hair before sliding down to dig into those powerful shoulders. Dirt scraped beneath her nails. After a night of chasing each other over rolling earth and scattered streams, they were both filthy, but on him she could smell the stench of fur and piss along with the sweet pine sap and rich soil. While she’d only shrugged free of a stolen skin, he had slipped out from the life of a wolf to be with her. She shuddered at herself, shocked at her eagerness even in the face of such strangeness, but in the next moment she clawed him closer.
At her pushiness, he growled, a sound of pleasure instead of reproof. His hips moved against hers, cock rubbing against her lower belly until she reached down to grab it. But he caught her hand and broke off their kiss, a feral gleam in his eyes.
“Come back to me.” It was a demand, not a plea.
Alice panted for breath. “Haven’t I?”
When their noses brushed, she closed her eyes in anticipation of that demanding mouth, that rasp of hair. But he only teased her, deep voice a shiver against her lips. “No. You kept your heart back with her. That’s why the pelt fell off under morning light.”
She tilted her hips forward, rubbing against him again. “What does this have to do with hearts?”
This time his growl was short and sharp, most certainly a reproof. “Alice.”
She fell still, realizing the seriousness of his words. The glow of the rising sun burnished his normally dark hair, picked out the planes of his face. The sight was too painful with the words that waited on her tongue, and she looked away. “If I leave her, she’ll have no one else.”
He growled again and crouched, pulling her hips toward his face. The abrupt move cost Alice her balance and she grabbed onto his shoulders, breath catching as he nuzzled between her thighs. Then he said, “She hasn’t even touched you. I’d smell it.”
He sounded angrier, but when Alice ran a hand up through his thick hair, he pulled her closer, tongue sliding into her slick cunt. Her back arched. She’d seen him catch a rabbit and rip it open with teeth that snapped its vertebrae like matchsticks. But it wasn’t panic or revulsion that seared through her as that dangerous mouth explored what it could.
“You’re right,” she gasped. “She hasn’t.”
Then she squirmed, trying to get away from that sweet torment. They were too close to the cabin; she might be heard if she started crying out. But Colton only held on, tightening his grip until she was sure he’d leave bruises, and soon her struggling turned into her hips rocking to the rhythm of his tongue.
She did cry out in the end, voice a thin wail that echoed off the surrounding trees. Colton caught her as she collapsed, pushing her onto her back until she panted up at a sky just glimmering with blue. When he stretched out over her, the hair on his chest and stomach scratching her oversensitive skin, she kissed him with all the desperation she couldn’t put into words.
His first thrust inside jolted her entire body; he was angry, ready to ruin her. She couldn’t think of anything better, and grabbed onto the arms braced on either side of her, holding on as his savage movements continued. She answered each of his growls with a moan, digging her fingers into his arms to urge him on. Hips slapping together, sweat muddying the dirt on their bodies… she felt less human than when she’d been on all fours as a wolf.
They fucked so hard that she sucked froth off his cock afterward, damp hair clinging to her face and nipples sore from his teeth. “Tonight,” she said, resting her cheek against him while her pulse slowed. “I’ll come back tonight.”
She did, and the nights after that, too, even while days remained strained with silence and the occasional appearance of Magdalene, gaunt as a scarecrow and haunted in the face. Alice learned to catnap throughout the day to be ready for those dark hours beneath the stars, when she learned how to hunt, play, and race as a wolf. It was during twilight that she would find herself braced against a tree or the ground, panting as Colton’s teeth held onto her neck. Pushing away from the heat of his skin and mouth grew harder each time, and when she returned to the cabin from a direction unseen by the attic window and took a shower to scrub the mud, semen, and blood from her skin, the spike of guilt was always a little fainter.
She knew it couldn’t go on forever, but wasn’t about to give up her taste of freedom. She had changed that much even without the pelt’s help. And maybe one day the pelt wouldn’t come off at all.