The center point of the town, the place referred to as it’s heart, the heart of the town proper, was generally agreed to be the hardtack patch, withered green at the fringes, one block by one block square, that might be called a park if one were feeling generous, but stood bare and sun bleached, empty at every hour of the day save for between seven and nine a.m. when old Mr. Povel made his rounds.
He waved at those who passed, strolling with hands clasped behind his back in a measured circle, familiar as the pothole on Birch St., two blocks down, familiar as the faded plastic lilacs lining the eaves of the beauty salon across the street. If one were to stop, and few did, there would inevitably come a moment when pleasantries were exhausted. If this temporary companion declined the silent offer to sift through that morning’s haul of small town gossip, then those that stopped, the few that stopped, as Stiles had done today, were given a parting token.
“Full moon tonight. Best stay indoors.”
“What?” Stiles tilted his weight from foot to foot on the beat up ten speed. Mr. Povel was an upside down egg of indeterminate age perched on two thin legs and he was staring blithely at Stiles as if this was a perfectly understandable thing to say. Everybody assumed the man wasn’t all there, the burbling voice and sweet round cheeks that smiled and smiled and smiled. But something about him always unsettled Stiles, the man was a watcher. The man observed.
“Your daddy does like to get himself about on a full moon, don’t he?”
“Um, ok sure Mr. Povel. See ya.”
Stiles pedaled away faster than he meant to, muttering about crazy old men getting their crazy all over the public park. He stuffed it down during his shift and all the way back home, but once he got dinner made and on the table, once he’d wheeled his father in and set about carefully feeding him, bite by bite, Stiles couldn’t shake the words from his head.
It didn’t make him feel any better when he turned to his father not long after that, “Early bedtime?”
And the man nodded as eagerly as he could and smiled.
His mind jolted alert before his body could catch up. The room was near total dark, a bright blade of moonlight emblazoned up his wall illuminated one corner of his room, but the rest was blackness.
Something felt wrong.
Stiles strained his eyes and tried to move his arms as slowly as he could. The bat under his bed knocked once, lightly against the nightstand as he pulled it out, and the sound stopped his heart. Was someone here? In the house? Stiles slid out of bed, adrenaline screaming through him for reasons he still couldn’t define. Bat raised, grip tight, he padded out into the hall. The ranch home was small, the halls only just wide enough to get a wheelchair through, gouges in the plaster, black streaks every few feet along the walls attesting to that, and it made Stiles heart ratchet up to realize he wouldn't be able to swing his bat properly without the clearance. He lifted it above his head, ready to bash someone caveman style if he had to.
Rounding into the living room, Stiles took in the slumped-in couch, the dull sheen from the television screen, the silence. He couldn’t shake the alarm in his head, insisting something wasn’t right, something was off and he scrutinized every shadow but none of them produced the body of an intruder. He was about to check out the kitchen when a small movement to his left caught his eye. A shot of fear stabbed his heart and he whirled around. But there was nothing there. Stiles remained frozen, waiting, strung out and ready.
There it was again.
The curtain, it billowed gently, then fluffed up on a current of air and after he was sure it wasn’t from a body hiding behind it he realized there was a draft.
The front door was open. Just a crack, hardly noticeable in the dark. Stiles reached for the knob with a badly shaking hand, wrenching the door open in one swift move and jabbing his bat forward into nothing.
There was nothing there.
He peeked a head out the door, unwilling to set foot over the threshold. But there was no one, the street cold and deserted and very very silent. Stiles shut the door, locked it, hugged the bat to his chest and tried to breath. He was being silly, wasn’t he? He was exhausted yesterday and must have forgot to close the door all the way. He checked the kitchen anyway then made his way back to his room. His father’s door was open, like always, and Stiles tiptoed over to check in on him.
There wasn’t much light in here either, except for the moonlight, illuminating little but his father’s eyes, where they stared back at him in the dark.
“Damn it! Where the--fuck is it?!”
He was so not in the mood today. Last night he hadn’t been able to get back to sleep, convinced every little creak and groan in this shitty old house was someone ghosting through the halls.
Or his father slipping outside when the moon reached it’s peak.
Which was a really messed up thing to think, he was aware of that, but sometimes his mind ran away with him and last night he hadn’t been able to stop himself from letting Mr. Povel’s words kick around his head. It left him cranky and over sensitive and all he wanted to do was pull on his sweatpants and his threadbare Iron Man t shirt with the hole in the armpit and spend his one day off gorging on sugar and caffeine but he couldn’t do that if he couldn’t find his fucking shirt! He knew it had to be here somewhere, he remembered trying to slip out of the house with it on last week before his father had eyeball shamed him into putting on something less tattered.
Whatever, fine, he’d just have to wear a second class comfy shirt, but that meant pancakes and he was going to put goddamned chocolate chips in his.
“Morning pops!” Stiles breezed into the bedroom and tried not to let his sour mood show. His dad was usually pretty astute at picking up on it, but this morning he was staring out the window, not even turning to glance at Stiles as he pulled the wheelchair into place. “You play your cards right, this morning could include bacon.”
That got his attention. Stiles smirked at him as he pulled back the covers, helped his father into his chair and wheeled him into the bathroom.
After breakfast, Stiles considered kicking his father’s ass in a few rounds of Mario Kart, but he had too much negative energy zipping through his limbs so he wheeled his father out into the back yard for some air and set to work planting the tray of herbs he’d brought home from the garden center yesterday. It felt good to dig around, shove his fingers in the cool earth and feel it resist and then give. The pops of new bright green looked gorgeous against the tilled dirt, it calmed him. He wanted to lay down on the grass, face tucked close to his little garden so that he could take in all the fragile details of each leaf and each stem. But he could already feel his father’s stern gaze on the back of his neck and it was time he got him inside anyway.
“They’re just herbs Dad, for cooking. You want your food to taste good, don’t you? I didn’t even put any mint in this time.”
He couldn’t even touch mint, leggy under normal conditions, it detonated into runners and choked their whole yard then advanced on the neighbors in less than a day the last time he’d tried to plant it. Not like it was his fault, some things just responded and how the fuck was he supposed to know before it happened?
Dusting off his hands and knees, Stiles rose and headed back to the porch, leaving his gardening tools scattered, he could get them later. He wheeled his father back inside, setting him up in front of the tv with the remote while he put together some sandwiches then joined him in the living room.
Perched on the edge of the couch, Stiles traded bites with feeding his father while the two of them watched another episode of Crossfit Games. He couldn’t understand why his father loved this sort of show, it seemed a little masochistic considering. Crossfit, Ninja Warrior, Ultimate Fighter, the man watched anything where people were running around doing things he’d never be able to do again, but Stiles was past trying to subtly steer him to something less depressing. Only way out was through, he supposed, so nowadays he just considered it depositing material in the bank for ‘Stiles Time’. All the different sized men flexing and grunting, finding that their shirts were just too uncomfortable to wear for long. He’d become a connoisseur of overhead squats and triangle chokes, gotta love thigh strength.
Besides, he deserved to have something nice to look at once in awhile. God this town was a wasteland, anyone with a quarter ounce of sense ran screaming from it the moment the high school diploma hit their sweaty palm. If he had any choice left, he would do the same.
Lott, NV lay in a featureless basin of land just east of the California border. There was no movie theatre, there was no library, there was no discernible reason why anyone would look around and decide to plunk a town here in the first place. The only things they had were the diner - astutely christened Lott Diner - Walmart and Gordon’s Lumber, all of them tucked up against the freeway and staring out dumbly at the people hurrying past to Reno and the featureless hills that had nothing clever to add to the conversation.
There was a downtown, in a technical sense, the park Mr. Povel patrolled, the shops along its border, but those had all apparently been opened simultaneously some point in the 1940s and didn’t seem to notice, or mind, when their customers and merchandise aged in time with their faded exteriors. Sometimes Stiles wondered, cutting past the park on his way to work, what would happen if all the shopkeepers keeled over dead at the same time. Would anyone in town even notice?
Lott Diner was where it was at, because people from outside came there, folks passing through. Sometimes Stiles would splurge after a particularly shitty day at work and order himself a coke and some curly fries, because at least this town had one last beautiful thing in it. Ginny never even took his order anymore, just slapped his basket and coke down with a ‘ Heya hon’ and left him in peace to listen in on the conversations from the other booths and pretend.
Dinner, same as always, with Stiles feeding his father while he chattered on about something interesting he’d found online about Goldilocks planets. His father took it all in, grunting and nodding along, even smiling once or twice, rare as that was. It wasn’t perfect, nothing had been perfect since his mom’s death, but it was ok, and that was probably the best either of them were going to get anymore. He’d mostly forgotten about his restlessness last night. The door was disconcerting, but he’d just have to be more careful. There wasn’t anyone around to pick up after him anymore, the responsibilities were all his. With a jolt he remembered the gardening tools, left in the grass and probably soaking wet from the sprinklers. Damn it, he couldn’t afford more. He’d just have to clean up the yard after the dishes were done.
Stiles took the plates to the sink and just began to wash when he heard it. A strange, snuffling noise coming from outside. He stopped, turned off the water and squinted into the dark. But it was impossible to see anything with the kitchen lights on. He was just about to reach over and turn on the porch light when a dark figure slunk from the treeline into the backyard. It was large, but low to the ground and moving with deliberate, elastic steps, like it was hunting, stalking. If it was a man-- Stiles squeezed a prayer behind his ribs that it wasn’t a man because a human body should never be able to move like that. He stood frozen, the faucet dripping water one drop at a time, hands shaking and eyes wide. The thing made a circle, careful and halting like it was testing, sniffing, checking, then sat back on its haunches and whined.
Stiles let out a hard breath and leaned his hands against the counter, head bowed. Shit he’d just about had a heart attack over the neighbor's dog. That monster Rottie of theirs was nice enough but it was also dumb as a post and more than once had gotten lost in their yard, unable to figure out his way back home.
Stiles sighed and went to the door, opening it wide and trotting down the porch steps.
“Topher! Hey! Come ‘ere ya big dummy. You better not have shit all over the place or I’m g--”
Stiles stopped dead. He hadn’t turned on the back light, but now that he was close enough he could see that this was not Topher. The bones of his right arm began to ache, the skin there tingling as if lit up all over with delicate static shocks. He grasped it and held it to his chest as the beast looked him over. Even sitting as it was, it’s head still came up to his chest, the muzzle long and heavy. It’s fur was inky black, making it hard to see it’s proportions clearly in the dark. Just the two eyes, strange and bright, crystalline green, looking right at him, it’s wet nose a flicker as it sniffed the air.
There couldn’t be wolves here. There couldn’t be wolves like this one anywhere.
“Please don’t eat me.”
At least no one else would be able to testify that those had been his last words. He couldn’t move, couldn’t run, just stand and feel the adrenal fear razor up his spine and down along the soles of his feet, screaming to run while whatever tiny, malnourished prey gland was left to his body locked him down in place with the directive not to move until it was time to protect his belly and throat from rending teeth and claws.
But the wolf tilted his head one small degree and cocked an eyebrow, or looked very much to Stiles as if it was cocking an eyebrow. But that was a sign right there he was losing his mind because giant hell beasts that escaped their Russian folk tales did not get judgy when surveying their next potential meal.
Just as Stiles was coming up with his next pithy remark, the animal looked up, quick, past his shoulder at some sound Stiles’ hadn’t heard and in an act of blind stupidity he turned to see what had caught the wolf’s attention.
The door was still open.
His father just inside, unable to move more than a few fingers without assistance, unable to scream if the thing wanted to take him. Stiles didn’t even think about what he was doing, grabbed fistfuls of dense fur and shoved the wolf back by the neck as hard as he could.
“No! You stay the hell away from him! You wanna eat something you got me right here!” He shouted, and the wolf froze for a moment, shock, something a human might describe as a look of shock, drawing up the corners of it’s face. Stiles knew he would never make it if he ran to the house, but if he stayed here, or managed to get around the animal and make a break for the trees, it might keep enough space between this thing and his father that someone, somewhere, would have time to call for help once they heard him screaming.
He expected the thing to lunge at him next, bare teeth, snap, but it stared at him. Stared, leaned in, just slightly and stared harder, one ridiculous eyebrow lifting again as if it too thought Stiles was a complete and utter moron for what he’d just done. Stiles didn’t know if he could take this anymore, if this thing didn’t get on with ripping him to shreds he was going to have a nervous breakdown. But the wolf leaned down, eyes still held on Stiles and licked the scar tissue on his right arm.
It felt like the strange static hum from before cranked higher, his skin jumping, the buzz reaching up under his jaw and threading into his ear canals. It was at that moment that the beast headbutted him squarely in the chest and sent him sprawling hard on his back.
“Ow.” Stiles remained flat out, wheezing for air because that thing was strong . The giant head was at his side, snuffling his ribs and whining almost plaintively. Then it shoveled its snout under his side and pushed, looked up at Stiles, whined once more then pushed again. And again.
“Um...ok sure. I’ll just get up now.” He stood slowly, completely confused about what to do with all this residual fear in light of this strange behavior. The wolf seemed pleased Stiles had listened. Pleased? Jeez he was assigning this fucking thing a personality. The broad head lowered again and this time when it butted him in the chest it was with much less force, careful, as if it hadn’t realized the first time. It pushed Stiles back a few feet, but he stayed standing. The wolf did it again, again, carefully, almost gently butting him back toward the house until the porch steps hit his ankles. With a delicacy Stiles didn’t know animals could posses, the big black wolf opened his jaw and nipped down on the hem of his shirt, tugging it to spin Stiles around, then letting it go so he could nudge him up the stairs.
“Can someone please explain what is happening right now?”
But the wolf only gave him one final shove, through the door then waited while Stiles turned around in a daze to look at it. Those glass green eyes shifted, deliberately to the door, then back at Stiles. And seriously?
“Alright, well…” He shut the door.
The wolf sat there still. Looked pointedly at the door once more then back to Stiles. So, mouth agape, Stiles turned the bolt lock and heard the creature huff once before it turned and slipped back into the night.