Red sets the fire and sits back on her heels, waiting to make sure it catches. By the time it’s throwing off enough heat to fight back the chill of the long empty room, she’s mesmerized by the movement of the flames. She has a basket of supplies – matches and hot cocoa in a thermos and marshmallows and a sharp knife and high quality cheddar and beef summer sausage and a little cutting board and a matte black gun filled with shiny silver bullets – but she ignores them for now.
Grandma’s house does not feel the same. She’s been dead for nine months. Red touches her stomach. New life could have come in that time, but she’s chosen a different path. Let her sisters continue the family. She has a quest of her own making, and until it is complete, there is no other life for her. They help, when they can, but she has taken the bulk of the burden.
It is fitting, because it is her fault.
“Little pig, little pig.” The alto singing voice is quiet, gentle, but cold fear slices down her spine. She scrambles for the basket, wrapping her fingers around the gun. At first, she starts to aim it at the door, then stops herself. Shooting him through the wood would be too easy.
She wants to see him before he dies. Wants to watch life slip out of his eyes.
Red tucks the gun into her pants and pulls her shirt over it. She palms the knife, too, slipping it up her left sleeve. Then she turns to the front door and waits.
There’s no other singing, no other tormenting her with pieces of the stories her Grandma used to tell her and her sisters while they laid together in bed, thick blankets pulled up to their chins. She’d turn off the lights and light candles so that when she moved her hands as she told her stories, fingers twisting and twining together, the shadows she cast danced and illustrated her tales.
All that’s gone now. She and her sisters are grown, and Grandma shot through with silver and burned to ashes.
The wind blows strong, creeping down the chimney and making the fire dance, and in it she can hear the howling of the wolves. She’s tracked them down, hunted the pack across their territory, and picked them off one by one, silver bullets and knife and fire.
Now there is one left, their leader, the strongest and fastest, and she will kill him.
Maybe she will die too, maybe not, but oh, he will be dead.
She glances quickly at the fire, its light and heat steady and true. All is still ready.
He will be dead and burned and no matter what else is true, she will be at peace.
There’s only the slightest scratch of claws against glass, but she’s trained herself to listen for just such noise. She backs up toward the fire and puts her hands on her hips, waiting. He will come for her slow. He’s obsessed with her death, almost as much as she is with his, and he wants her to suffer, but he is angry and cocky and it will distract him. He will make mistakes.
Her heart hurts.
She’s already made her mistakes.
Wolf in sheep’s clothing, they say, but she found one in leather and blue jeans, smoking imported cigarettes, a guitar held low at his hips. He smiled at her from the stage, a slow smirk full of teeth, and she licked salt from the top of her glass, taunting him with her tongue.
It’s not her first time, she likes guitarists best, and she expected his hands to be callused when he touched her, stroking his fingers along her breasts, sliding them between her legs, but his skin was smooth, unmarked. She shoves him up against a wall, her hands already working open his belt and jeans. He smells like leather and sweat when she wraps her mouth around him, and something else too, something that reminds her of the family home in the woods in the fall, when fires burn inside and leaves fall and she races down hidden paths beneath trees with leaves like flames.
He cries out when he comes, not a word but a howl. Red pulls her mouth off him with an audible pop and glances up at him; he’s breathing hard, but he tosses his unruly dark hair out of his face and smirks down at her.
“Your turn.” His voice is a low growl, and it makes her stomach clench. Even better is when he goes down on her, one of her legs hooked over his shoulder, his teeth and tongue working her clit while she tugs hard on his hair.
She comes hard after he pushes his fingers inside, and wants to come again when he licks his fingers clean of her.
It’s all good at first, he’s funny, his band is entertaining, and she likes hanging out with all of them. She keeps things casual usually, because she’s not staying in the city forever, but he’s smart and sharp and makes her laugh, and it’s hard to stop herself from falling for all that. Hard, too, not to love the way his friends are such a tight-knit group. They remind her of her siblings, sort of, the way they fight and tease and love each other so hard it’s almost stifling, but in the end all good.
But then he wants to make her like him, and oh, she’s having none of that. She’s no monster, and when she can’t escape the pack anywhere in the city, she goes home for awhile, out of the way. Except she’s not really thought that through, small town surrounded by woods, Grandma’s house literally over the river and through the woods, and werewolves, well. Werewolves love the woods.
Grandma promises she’ll take care of things, and brings over the big old book she’s been filling with writing for years, decades, before Red was born. She pulls wolfsbane from her garden and weaves bramble, rowan and ivy through silver to create a bracelet to protect Red and crushes caraway seeds with mint.
“I will always keep you safe,” Grandma says, smooths Red’s hair off her face, and presses a kiss to her cheek. She smells of smoke and gunpowder and pepper, and she’s steady and strong when she hugs Red and leaves her in the house she blessed.
Grandma leaves the book with Ma and takes off to collect more ingredients. She never makes it home. She never makes it back. She never makes it anywhere but a fast attack that leaves her bloody and bitten and furious.
She tries to press the gun with its silver bullets into Ma’s hands, but Ma won’t take it. She clutches her hands together instead and shakes her head. “Mother, no. We’ll lock you up, we’ll keep you away from people, we’ll cover you in spells, but I won’t do this.”
“Locks break. Cages fail. Spells go awry.” Grandma runs her fingers along the gun. “This is the only way.”
“No, no,” Ma says and takes a big step back. She’s coated her hands with herbs and oil and pushed herself into protection spells, but she is not made for this. She is no hunter, not like Grandma was. Red takes a deep breath. This is not for her, that’s what Ma always said. The family was out of that sort of business.
Red looks at Grandma and thinks about the howling of the wolves in the woods, coming for her and finding her family instead. She thinks about monsters in human skin and the glint of animal in the eyes of her friends and how she does not want to be like them, and she does not want to hurt them, but her family – oh, her family comes first.
She stands and walks up to Grandma, standing right in front of her, staring straight into her eyes.
“Don’t let me hurt anyone,” Grandma says. “I won’t be what I’ve hunted.”
Red takes the gun when she hands it over. Ma turns away with a cry and flees the room, but Red’s sisters watch. Red is the oldest, and she will protect her family no matter what. She raises the gun, and Grandma nods.
“I will stop them all,” Red says.
“My sweet girl. I love you.”
Red squeezes her eyes shut for a moment, bracing herself, then looks at her, right at her, and pulls the trigger.
Silver bullet, fire for the body, and then Red takes up the gun again, and the book, and starts to read. She knows a lot from Grandma’s stories, and learns even more from the book. The wolves circle, howling, howling, howling, until she kills the first.
Red’s danced with him, laughed with him, and then she puts a bullet in the back of his head and watches his body fall.
She’s been hunting them ever since, and here she is, in Grandma’s house, the last of the wolves come to call.
He pauses in the doorway from the kitchen, having slipped in through the back door, but she expects that. He’s a shadow against shadows, but she expects that too. Spells let her see better in the dark, spells and training give her strength and speed, and anger runs through her still.
“You are more trouble than I expected.”
“What big eyes you have,” she says, and slides her hand under her shirt.
“What a big gun you have.” And he leaps.
He’s fast, but she’s prepared for that and he runs himself into the knife that slips from her sleeve even as he carries her down. His teeth snap at her shoulder, but he only gets shirt. She thinks. Hopes. There’s no time for that. The knife hasn’t stopped him, just slowed him down.
His teeth snap again and she jerks the gun free. Even as he turns, she presses it against his head.
“What a big death you have.”
The sound of the shot was loud and left echoes throbbing in her head. His blood splattered over her – blood and bits of brain – but she’s smart enough to close her eyes and shut her mouth. He’s heavy in death, pinning her down, and for a minute, she stays put, mourning.
Grandma. Her new friends. The things she thought she might have with him.
The fire pops once, then again. The bundles she tucked into the wood will go off soon, if she doesn’t do something. She shoves him off her, wipes blood from her face, and grabs the bucket of water from the hearth. She douses the fire and smoke rolls around her.
She grabs his feet and drags him outside, letting his head thump hard on the threshold. She piles up wood for a bonfire and places his body on top of it. Once the fire is going, she sprinkles in the right herbs and steps well back.
No matter how long it takes, she will stand there, and she will watch him burn.
It’s near dawn when he finally burns out. Her eyes ache from the smoke and she’s been breathing through a handkerchief for awhile. It’s hand stitched by Ma, marked with Grandma’s initials. Red tucks it into her pocket at last and grabs the shovel. She’ll bury the ashes in separate graves, and lace the ground with silver. She doesn’t think he will rise or that anyone will come look for him – he is, after all, the last of his pack – but that is what Grandma would have done and so she does it too.
He looked human when he died, the man she’d kissed and fucked and was starting to love.
Monsters, she thinks, but feels broken and – she doesn’t know what. Monsters, all, with human faces and death in their hands.
In the distance, a quiet cry like a howl, and Red will hunt again.