“Larry dropped me, the fucker.” Magdalene’s voice was flat, unemotional.
Alice looked up from the honey she spread on the toast. “Your agent?”
“Do I know anyone else who’s named Larry?”
Alice shook her head and brought over the plate. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you? You don’t look it.” Magdalene gave her an odd little smile. The smell of wine hung thick around her. “In fact, you look fucking fantastic. Healthy glowing skin, glossy hair. Tits nice and perky.”
“I really am sorry.” And she was.
Magdalene shrugged. “And to top it off, the attic’s leaking again. Maybe it’s time to leave this dump.”
Alice’s heart froze. “Leave?”
“What’s wrong? Like it here?” Magdalene was staring at her again, and this time Alice felt her palms prickle with sweat.
“I just thought you were able to write here. You were doing so well.”
“Have I? Oh well. I still want to go back to the city. You can get some decent fucking pad thai there if nothing else. But really, the attic is leaking. Go and look for yourself if you don’t believe me. Go fucking look.”
Alice decided it was better not to argue while she was in such a state, and only grabbed a flashlight before heading for the stairway, Magdalene’s footsteps steady behind her. Just as Alice reached the spot of the first leak, puzzled to find dry floorboards, Magdalene spoke her name.
She stood in the doorway, that odd smile back on her face. “You’re a good liar, but you’re always shit at knowing when someone else lies.”
Then she stepped back. In a flash, Alice knew what would happen, and lunged for the door. “No!”
But it slammed between them, the lock sliding into place with a metallic clang. Alice’s fists beat against the wood, and when that did nothing, she started screaming. Her throat was raw and her fingers bled from where she’d bitten them in a frenzied panic when the front door downstairs slammed. After rushing over to the window, Alice saw Magdalene stalk into the woods, a gun in one hand.
She broke everything in an attempt to get free. But the window was too small to squeeze through, and the door too well-made. Finally, when the sun hung low in the sky, gunshots cracked in the distance. Alice sank to the floor and cried.
Later, the crackling of a lit fire roused her. She glanced out the window and saw it was night. She’d fallen asleep, somehow, despite the raw agony in her chest and the stinging of bloodied knuckles and an arm cut by shattered glass. The sound of the lock sliding back was a quiet scrape of metal, nothing more. Alice tried to jump up, but her limbs ached and trembled, and by the time she staggered to the door, the stairway was empty. She clung to the handrail like someone three times her age and feeble with arthritis, crippled by her fear of what she was about to see.
Magdalene crouched before the hearth, feeding a fire that burned so brightly her face glowed with reflected light. It was another funny little smile that Magdalene gave her, and Alice’s heart shrank into a knot the moment she saw it.
“I didn’t think you’d ever do it.” Then Magdalene held up the pelt.
Alice said nothing. She felt frozen.
Magdalene stroked the fur, watching her face. “I saw you with him. Sat on the roof with a good pair of binoculars. I thought it was just a case of fucking some redneck in the woods. Or maybe he was a pagan from your past. Whatever he was, you looked like a nymph. Flushed and in your element. I hadn’t seen that expression on your face for years.”
Alice’s stomach roiled as Magdalene’s expression changed, the stub of a cigarette trembling between her fingers. “You fucking bitch. You knew. You knew what it’d do to me to see you with a man. To think that he might fuck off with you.”
Alice found her voice at last, although it was a small, pitiful thing. “Because of what happened with Indigo.”
“Don’t you dare. Don’t you fucking dare say her name.”
“Why not? It’s always between us.” Now her voice shook, but not with fear. “I saw what you tried to burn in the fireplace. You’re still trying to bring her back. You have been since you finished The Chrysalis.”
Magdalene bit down on whatever she had been about to say, and some of the slyness faded from her eyes. After lighting a fresh cigarette, she abruptly said, “I saw you change.”
Alice sucked in a sharp breath, fingers itching to rip the pelt away. But Magdalene clutched it so tightly her knuckles had gone white, and Alice was afraid of hurting it.
Magdalene flicked ash onto fur, drawing a wince out of her. “Well?”
“What do you want me to say?” Alice couldn’t take her eyes off the pelt.
“Nothing in particular. Just curious of your reaction. You have a little bit of gold in your fur, but he’s black as coal, isn’t he?”
Somehow, hearing that was worse than having seen that page in the burned notebook. It took the time she had shared with Colton and turned it into one of Magdalene’s neat descriptions. How long before she wrote a story about it? Feeling sick, Alice had to turn away.
“Alice the wolf wife. Not ‘mate,’ you’re a little too dull for that. But I bet you clothed and fed him while he was here, didn’t you? All these new fixes to the cabin — did you think I didn’t notice? I’m a writer, details are the first thing I see. And if you ever tried to hammer something, you’d hit your thumb instead of the nail.”
“Stop it.” Alice squeezed her hands into fists to keep them from darting up to her ears in a childish attempt to block out Magdalene’s words.
“Just one more question, then.”
“Look at me while I ask it. I think I deserve that much after learning you cheated on me with a lice-infested animal.”
Alice’s lip trembled from repressed tears, and she bit down on it while turning to face the woman she had once adored.
Something like wonder filled Magdalene’s face. “What’s it like?”
“Try it and see.” Alice’s voice cracked.
Magdalene stroke the brindled fur again, her gaze on the pointed muzzle, the eye holes cut into the face. “No. I think some things are best left a mystery.”
Then she flung the pelt onto the fire.
Alice screamed as if it were her own skin being burned. Magdalene’s eyes shone bright as flames rushed over the pelt, and when Alice rushed for the fireplace, she held her back, arms flexing with a wiry strength that would leave bruises.
When the smell of burning hair and blood filled the room, Alice sank to the floor, still in Magdalene’s arms. Cries came out of her mouth harsh and ugly. Snot ran down her face as she thrashed, but Magdalene pulled her close until their cheeks rested together.
“You would’ve left me, otherwise. I need you, poor Alice.”
Alice only stared as the blackened mass that had been the pelt twitched and contracted from the force of the heat and flame eating it away. As soon as Magdalene’s grip eased, she broke free, stumbling away from the fire. Her words came out thick and flat. “You just lost me for good.”
She didn’t remember running, but there she was in the bedroom, locking the door behind her and pulling a chair in front of it. Magdalene knocked, then pounded, and finally yelled as Alice pulled out her suitcase and stuffed it with whatever she could grab. The cabin was hers, but Alice couldn’t stay in it another day or even another minute. Not with the smell of burned hair choking the air.
Silence fell only until Magdalene appeared outside the window. “Alice. I hate hysterics.”
Alice grabbed a bronze statue of a huntsman and threw it at the window. Magdalene ducked away in time and stared through the broken glass. Something new entered her expression. Fear.
Alice resumed packing the suitcase. “You finally took too much from me, you cold, callous cunt. Now you won’t be getting anything else. Not my love, not my time, and not my attention. I pity the next girl who falls for you without realizing you’re just too empty to live alone.”
“Are you finished?” The sneer to the words wasn’t as strong as usual, and Magdalene’s velvet voice sounding rubbed raw.
Alice snapped the suitcase shut and looked at her. “Completely.”
Outside, Alice dragged her luggage behind her through the mud. Something in her expression kept Magdalene from touching her, and she headed for the car even when Magdalene disappeared inside the cabin. Frantic footsteps and crashing objects drifted out to Alice while she threw the suitcase into the backseat and walked over to the driver’s door.
She opened it just as Magdalene reappeared in the doorway with a gun to her head. “I’ll have to, if you leave. I’m nothing. I’m shit. You’re the only thing that keeps me going. Everything else is gone. Even words.”
When Alice didn’t respond, her voice turned desperate. “Think I won’t do it?”
Alice slid into the driver’s seat. “I think it doesn’t matter. The Magdalene I knew has been a ghost for years.”
Magdalene started at that, and the nozzle of the gun swiveled from her head to Alice’s. “I shot him. Your wolf. There’s no one to run to.”
One final blow, that, and it hurt as much as seeing the pelt burn. Face still puffy and raw from tears, Alice glared into Magdalene’s eyes, the color of amber in the slanted winter sun. Then she slammed the car into reverse and roared out of the driveway, leaving Magdalene on the porch, gun lowering to her side.
He smelled the woman on the wind long before hearing her thrash through the trees and undergrowth. There was some human in him, even when he wore fur, and so the wolf fought his instincts to slip away and instead tracked her scent to where it had been left on the ground and rubbed against branches. Rage, panic. Burned hair and lingering smoke. And blood. Alice’s blood.
The wolf could cover ten miles in twenty minutes if on a desperate hunt, but the cabin wasn’t so far, and he arrived at the porch at a dead run without panting for breath. More blood in the empty driveway, and now he smelled Alice’s scent, thick with grief and fury.
Doorknobs needed hands to turn them, and so he changed form, walking naked through the rooms. His nose still worked better than a plain human’s, and he followed Alice’s trail backwards, taking in the broken window in the bedroom, the dresser drawers ripped open and empty of clothes.
At the fireplace, he crouched down and took in the stench of the smoldering pelt. There were scratches on the wood floor near the hearth. He recognized the shapes, having seen them often enough on his shoulders and back, and traced them with his own fingers. Alice must’ve been held there while the pelt burned.
Then he found where she’d cut herself in the attic, saw the upturned furniture and battered door. Smelled Alice’s scent on the inside and the woman’s on the outside. Locked inside…
All of this was taken in with the silent patience of tracking hoofprints through the woods, but already his teeth ached to rip and tear, and he left the cabin a wolf again. The woman’s blundering track led to the river’s edge, and there he found her dropping stones into her pockets with shaking hands. A gun waited on the ground, nearly invisible in its bed of leaf litter.
There was some human in him, even in this form, and so instead of ambushing her, the wolf stepped between the woman and the gun, trapping her at the riverbank. At his growl, she turned toward him, revealing a pinched face with red, swollen eyes.
“There you are. I was looking for you earlier. I had to shoot in the air a few times to make her believe you’d died.”
The wolf snarled, showing her all of his teeth.
The woman flinched, but her eyes remained venomous. “Piece of shit. You took her from me. Are you going to take this away, too?”
The wolf dodged the first rock thrown at him, and the second. Then he lunged forward and was on her, teeth biting down through the scarf until he tasted blood.