For a week, I cased the same simple cottage house. There was nothing special about the home, but that was my favorite part of this family. They were simple. They kept to a schedule. Their mother was as short and round as she was fierce. If a single child stepped out of line, she brought down a fire that would make the Devil wet himself. So, they all left in the morning to go to school and every Friday morning, Mom hung the laundry outside.
Their minivan crawled over the dirt road with a crunch. I stayed hidden until their sounds were a distant memory, waited until the world was still again. Closing my eyes, I held my wolf form and approached with caution. I didn’t sense anyone near apart from a few birds greeting the day. It was time.
My muscles groaned, stretching for the first time in months. Rolling my shoulders back, I must have cracked every bone in my neck and back. I stumbled into a walk, quickly righting myself on the laundry pole. Every muscle cried out, burning with a sweet relief as if I pressed down on a scratch. I savored the reminder of being alive.
“So,” I muttered, hearing my own voice, a sound I no longer recognized. “I’m still human. A little bit...” The breeze tickled my bare skin. Grime and sweat caked my entire body and my greasy hair grew long past my shoulders. Now, I had more than a little stubble. Give me another month and I would become this mountain’s resident Sasquatch.
First step in my brilliant plan was turning the hose on myself. I shouted a slew of curses, which didn’t stop the hose from freezing my ass off, but at least some of my pent up aggression fizzled out. Quickly, I dried myself off with the family towels and grabbed what I believed to be the Dad’s pair of light blue jeans, an undershirt, his gray cotton long sleeve shirt, and a plaid thermal.
“Man,” I whispered, rubbing my hands together. We weren’t going to show up as the height of fashion, but we’d at least blend in and we’d be covered up. Dragging my hands down the denim, I savored the weight of the clothes against my skin. I missed being human.
I snatched the cotton laundry basket, filling it with one of the son’s clothes and a quilt. I found a few pairs of shoes that weren’t going to fit perfectly, but for what I had in mind, no shoes equaled no service.
Throwing my loot over my shoulder, I took a deep breath and stared at the line of trees in front of me. Half of me wanted to stay out of the woods. Half of me wanted to find civilization now, but I was getting ahead of myself. I followed a path through the trees and found a campsite. I scavenged for food and ended up with a fifty from someone’s wallet and some girl’s hair band. I wrapped the rat’s nest around my face up and into an unruly bun. I’ve been reduced to a man bun. My old roommates would have roasted me until I was ready to be served up for dinner. God, they would’ve peed themselves if they could see me...
In some ways, I guess I was embracing this roguish life. That thought curdled my stomach acids. Rogues in our world were known only as murderers and rapists. To be put in the same category just because we share the common loss of a pack felt unfair. It felt shackling.
Hiking back to our temporary spot, I followed Drew’s smell.
What was left of it.
At first sniff, Jacob’s odor drowned the purity of Drew’s scent and my heart pounded. My instincts caused my hair to stand at attention while reason begged me to relax. The wolf in me never stopped fighting, never stopped feeling defensive over my mate. In the back of my mind, I knew we had successfully run away, but what if Jacob was right here? What if he found us? I tried not to think about the worse scenario and the consequences of abandoning our home. It soured my mood and effected Drew.
It had been too long since I last saw Drew’s face, let alone a smile. I missed that face.
Hiding underneath a rock formation, Drew’s small form slept soundly. I watched my step to avoid all twigs and branches, keeping away from large piles of crumbling autumn leaves. The world was in a haze of fog and thick dew. It was a grayish washed out world, crowded by puddles and soggy fallen trees.
Crouching at a safe distance, I whispered, “Hey, sleepy head? Drew?” The wolf in front of me didn’t so much as stir. I swallowed, held down by my hesitation. This was the worst part. Carefully, I reached for the top of Drew’s head. I slipped my fingers through just the top of his fur and Drew’s eyes snapped open. His jaw snapped at my fingers, but I was prepared and already held my hand up and away from his fangs.
The realization struck Drew harder than I ever wished. I tried to always smile. I tried to show him that this was nothing and I knew he’d never try to hurt me on purpose, but Drew took it like he did manage to bite my fingers right off. He whimpered, bowing his head and closing his eyes tight. No one beat themselves up as viciously as Drew could.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” I grinned and raised the laundry bag like it was full of the world’s most prized riches.
Drew peaked. He raised to his legs and poked his nose through the laundry bag. He picked his head up, glaring at me. His voice echoed, bouncing off the walls of my skull. “Where did you get this?”
“What? You’re so easily suspicious of me! What do you take me for? A Rogue?” I teased, sticking my tongue out, but Drew wasn’t amused.
Drew’s silence spoke volumes and I just had to laugh more. I scratched his ears and he melted like putty into my hands. I kissed the top of his head. Underneath it all, the earth and dirt clung to his fur. We’d been living like animals for way too long. I whispered into his fur, “Come on Drew. Go on a date with me.”
Drew looked up, blinking.
“Let’s go on a date like normal people do. Don’t ask questions,” I said and dropped the clothes at his paws. Backing away, I put my hands up in surrender. I tried to swagger and be cool, but my heart pounded. Drew must know how I feel about him and yet, this is the first time I’ve actually asked him out. With the way things were, maybe he would reject me.
I just desperately wanted to grasp onto whatever normalcy was left in our lives. I wanted to cut him off a piece of the world we’ve been missing for these months. We both needed to be reminded that we could be human again. “I’ll turn around,” I told him, glancing behind my shoulder for just a moment. “And I promise not to peek.” Just to prove it to him, I raised the Boy Scout’s salute.
“You’re an idiot.” This earned me a little huff and I snickered.
Any reaction from Drew at this point, even annoyance was better than his thousand-yard stare.
I would bring Drew back.
The air shifted. A quick flash of light passed the corner of my eyes. Drew grunted. Just the tease of his real voice tickled my neck hair and I found myself holding my breath. I never anticipated anything more in my life. It felt like a rebirth, waiting for his voice to baptize me.
Because I’m an animal, the urge to look back was actually greater than expected. I was excited to see Drew for more than just one reason. Reasons I should be shot with a tranquilizer. I curled in my lips and my leg jostle on its own. My heavy head twisted my neck to the side as my eyeball tried to pop out from its socket.
“Don’t hurt yourself Jess,” Drew chuckled, and I clenched my fist up in victory. My plan was already working. I turned back around, taking a deep breath. It was like seeing Drew for the first time all over again. My chest swelled, making room for my thrumming heartbeat. It was love at first sight for me, love at second and third and forth and every time after that.
After all these months, Drew’s bangs grew out, thick and messy and far from the clean trim before. He looked younger with the bangs. Like me, he was covered in little scratches and patches of dirt and mud. The clothes I picked out were a little too big, but he rolled up the dark jeans. He was halfway buttoning the flannel when I spotted Jacob’s bite.
The wound had swelled and bruised badly. I couldn’t look away. I could see every row of sharp teeth that pierced his skin and the wolf inside me bellowed. My anger and remembering that night lit a fire underneath me again and I stood on hot coals. The veins in my neck pounded.
I only snapped out of it, when Drew turned away. He looked down, quickly buttoning up his shirt and over the bite. He pulled the collar up higher than it could go. His eyes hung heavy, clutching his collar for dear life to shield me from the bite. He struggled to put the jean jacket on while holding up the collar. The guilt trickled into my veins like sharp prickling needles, stitching the blame into my skin.
“Oh,” I realized. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” he whispered, but I knew I already fucked up. This bite built a wall between us, but I would get back to Drew, even if I had to rip the wall down brick by brick, even after I blistered and bled. Starting with me not acting like an inept asshole.
We didn’t say much and that was my fault. As a quick pit stop, I took him to a rest stop, where he washed most of the grime and dirt off our arms and faces. I waited outside, catching the eye of families here to hike and set up camp. They wore crisp hiking gear, fresh out of the box. These people smelt like baby detergent and plastic.
To them, I must have looked like a mountain man. I’ve become a marvel sideshow attraction up there with world’s biggest ball of yarn and the refrigerator graveyard. No that wasn’t right either. As a mountain man I should be grabbing a beer with the lochness monster or the creature from the black lagoon. God, I missed beer.
Cars were parked along the sidewalk towards the rest area and I rested against one of the lamp posts. I wasn’t the only guy waiting outside the bathrooms, which rivaled the worst smelling porta-potties. Families hung around their cars, enjoying the crisp air. Kids played around the grass. Couples had their romantic walk from the vending machines, to the picnic tables and back to their cars. There was so much life going around me, like swarming bees.
One guy stared a second too long and my instincts kicked in like a struck match.
“What?” I asked, my voice lower. It grated against my ears. “You wanna picture or somethin’? It’ll cost ten bucks a selfie.”
The man scowled. “Whatever man.” He stormed off to meet his group by an RV that probably costed more than six months’ rent from my old place.
“Jess,” Drew spoke up, slipping out of the bathroom. His arms were firmly crossed as he pulled the jean jacket closer around him. It was as close to a suit of armor as we were going to get. He shook his head. “Can’t you get along with anyone?”
“I don’t like anyone. I just like you.”
“You might want friends again one day.” Drew made a face like he was going to cry. Friends. I thought of my roommates of Shawn and Alex. I thought about Ezra, who for all intents and purposes was a friend of mine. Was a friend. Maybe one of the only people who believed in me and now...
I leaned down, circling Drew to face the same way. I lowered close to his ear and whispered, “Come on, Drew. Take another look at that guy. What kind of asshole wears designer shorts to climb a mountain? If I make friends again, it’s not gonna be with someone like that, who can’t take a joke....”
“But for now,” I whispered and carefully, I slide my hand down the length of Drew’s arm. He turned his hand out to mine to take. He squeezed, resting his head on my shoulder. “For now, you’re all I need. You’re all I want. If I had to do it again, I would go back for you...”
Drew looked up. I swear his eyes shined and my knees went weak. To everyone else, I wanted to be the thorn that pricked your skin and made you bleed, but to Drew, I wanted to be the soft petals.
Sliding my hands across his jaw, I held his neck in place. This time, I wouldn’t let him shy away. I promised to ease the worried lines right off his face. “I will always go back for you.”
Gingerly, he grabbed a full fist of my flannel and pulled me closer, so he’d have my chest to rest his head. I was careful not to spook him, keeping my hands at my sides. It took everything to keep my hands there and not around him. My limbs tingled with the need just to comb my fingers through his bangs.
Sniffing up a wad of snot, Drew used his sleeves to wipe the tears from his face. He let out a sigh like he was annoyed with himself and huffed. He crossed his arms and asked, constructing a smile with weak integrity. “So, where are we going?”
“I’m glad you asked,” I grinned.