When it happens, Allison’s first thought is that she should’ve stopped for a rest before tackling the climb. Within seconds, though, it's obvious that this is no dizzy spell. The slope itself is on the move, scree shifting and clattering under her feet, larger rocks beginning to shake loose and roll. Even if there were something to be done, she’s too rattled to think of it before a leg is knocked out from beneath her and she goes down in the chaos, choking on dust.
It turns out that her reaction to oncoming death is a pang of disappointment.
The sunlight turns the capillaries of her eyelids into a vibrant red estuary. When she blinks them open, the sky looks muted and sickly by comparison, fading slowly back to summer-blue as her color perception adjusts. Even at a squint, the bright light makes her eyes water, and she lets them close, cocooning herself in the red world.
Her mouth tastes like pennies, and something is tickling her ear.
She opens her eyes a second time and thinks, I lived.
Her right arm doesn’t seem to be working, so she reaches across with the left and scratches her ear. Her fingertips come away wet and red. She wipes them on her shirt and tries her legs. Aside from a jolt of pain along one shin, everything feels present and in order.
Carefully, she turns her head. It takes her a moment to make sense of the distortion of her right shoulder beneath the shirt, the way everything from mid-forearm down disappears beneath a chunk of granite the size of an Ottoman.
The surrounding world is receding, leaving her unmoored.
Panic is not a productive response, Allison.
I know, she says silently, and presses her tongue against the roof of her mouth, breathes through her nose until her vision returns and the muffled pulse of panic fades from her eardrums.
She spits, moisture sinking rapidly into the loose scree to leave a red stain, and calls unsteadily, “Hello?” Hearing no answer, she returns her attention to the rock trapping her arm. An experimental push with her free hand doesn’t even begin to shift it. “Help,” she calls, then screams it as loud as she can, voice giving out in the middle. Frightened by the hysteria in her own voice, she heaves a dry, near-silent sob, then takes a deep, slow breath. Assess your situation and your resources. Two, three, four, hold. “Fucked and none” is not a productive response, Allison.
A short, agitated laugh bursts out of her.
Two more breaths, and then, gingerly, groaning at the pressure it puts on her damaged shoulder, she rolls onto her side. There’s just enough room to get her legs up and place the soles of her boots against the rock. Bracing her body as well as she can manage with her free hand, she inhales. Two, three, four, five. Exhale, two, three, push.
The rock moves.
Allison tenses in anticipation of pain, but whether from adrenaline or lack of blood flow, she doesn’t feel a thing. Heart pounding, she tries again. With a tooth-aching sound, it scrapes along for a bare inch, then catches on some obstacle and begins to lift. Trembling with effort, she increases the force, hoping to overturn it altogether, but her agonized muscles fail, and it drops back down with a dull thud.
On her next breath, teeth gritted, she brings every ounce of strength in her body to bear. The near edge lifts again. An inch, then two. She can’t force it any higher. Bright spots blooming in her vision, she tries sliding her torso backward...
...and comes free.
For a dumbfounded moment, she doesn’t believe it. Then, a wave of nauseating pain slams up from her hand, and she curls around the arm, keening. The rock falls back into place, unheeded. Squeezing her eyes closed, Allison forces herself quiet and gives herself a slow count, regulating her breaths on every five. When she reaches one hundred, she makes herself look.
It’s not as awful as it feels. Her thumb and first two fingers are nearly untouched; the third is missing its nail and obviously dislocated, but mostly structurally intact. It’s the smallest that --
Allison looks at the sky and waits until her throat stops trying to rise.
When she feels steadier, she swallows against the sour taste and looks again, cataloguing the white knob of bone exposed at the first joint, the smashed-open mess above that. Not as bad as it could be. Still, barring divine intervention or miraculous random helicopters, she’ll be lucky if she only loses the finger.
Standing up is achieved by a series of careful stages, each of which feels like absolute shit. The blood in her ear turns out to have run there from her nose, which also explains the taste in her mouth. She wipes her face as best she can with the hem of her t-shirt and takes a look around.
Hard to be sure given the landscape, but she thinks a pretty substantial load of talus came down. No sign of her missing backpack. Buried in rubble, probably. That’s what she gets for never buckling the belly strap. After a fruitless search, she sits on a flat stone and spends fifteen minutes trying to get her dislocated shoulder back in before giving it up as hopeless. When she gets up afterward, her vision goes gray, and she has to sit back down with her head between her knees for awhile before trying again.
It’s no Buprenex, but cold water takes the edge off a little. Crouched barefoot in the stream with her smashed hand submerged, she rinses the blood out of her mouth, then scoops water over her grime-streaked face and the overheated nape of her neck, thinking about what to do.
Her inventory consists of the clothes on her back and the contents of her head, plus the pair of miraculously unharmed sunglasses in her pocket. She’s three and a half days -- good days -- from the last checkpoint. The other end of the section is slightly nearer, but she’s too dazed to remember where or even whether the trail crosses the water, which way she needs to go to get back to it, and even if she manages, with highs in the eighties, dehydration becomes a major concern considering her lack of equipment. In short, she’s found herself in the position of being urgently, extravagantly, hilariously --
Catching something in her peripheral vision, she looks up. There’s a man watching her from the opposite bank, absolutely mother-naked.
“Oh, God,” she says blankly.
With a quick glance up and down the stream, the guy steps into the water and begins to wade toward her.
She scrambles up, trips over an underwater stone and goes down hard on her ass, sending up a terrific splash and jolting her bad shoulder. Breathlessly, she cries, “Stay away!”
Thigh-deep now, the man halts. She can’t tell his expression, or even for sure whether he’s looking at her; he’s bearded, and his hair falls into his eyes in loose, ink-black waves. Allison darts a glance at his dick, visible just above the water, and shudders a little, feels around on the riverbed with her working hand until she finds a good-sized rock. She’ll have to make the first hit count, if necessary.
After a moment, he continues deeper into the water. Heart hammering, Allison watches him disappear up to the shoulders, then reappear, body hair clinging to his chest and belly in wet little chevrons. As he comes through the shallows, she visualizes driving the heel of her foot into his balls; when he crouches beside her, her entire body tenses in anticipation of slamming the rock into his skull. He reaches toward her, and she thinks, here we go.
He cautiously shapes the air just around her deformed shoulder joint, expression troubled, then returns his arm to his side.
“It’s dislocated,” Allison says, voice scratching. “Tried to reduce it myself, but I couldn’t get the leverage.”
Shifting his weight, he reaches out again, and she tightens her grip on the rock, heart racing. His hands stop just short of contact, and he meets her gaze for the first time.
“Oh,” she breathes. At the wildlife rehabilitation center where she volunteered in junior year, there was a juvenile hawk named Juno. His eyes are like hers, pale and wild. There’s something more there, though, something solicitous of her, and Allison swallows against the scrape of her throat and asks, “Can you? Do you know how? If you do--”
Rather than a verbal confirmation, he returns his focus to her shoulder. It’s not that he’s gentle, exactly -- there’s no real way to be, with something like this -- but there’s a steady strength to the way he takes hold. It doesn’t hurt as much as she expected it to. Though she can’t help a jagged little yawp at the first tug, she digs her fingertips against the rock in her grip until they ache and focuses on the clear grey-green of his downcast eyes, staying as quiet as she can while he pulls her arm up and out, turns her humerus and maneuvers the bone ends together. After a few horrible grinding moments, the joint marries, and they exhale in mirror. When he lets go, the hideous pain has settled into a dull ache of ill-used tissues.
Trying out the arm still leaves her breathing through her teeth as she rides it out. Shit. After thinking for a moment, she lets go of her defense rock altogether and grabs the hem of her t-shirt. The wet cloth is uncooperative, and she gets stuck somewhere around the armpits.
After a short struggle, the man intervenes, helping her work the shirt up until she can pull her left arm free, then reaching for the other side.
“No, not -- leave that part.” Allison pushes his hand away when he keeps trying to help. Keeping the right sleeve on her bad arm, she tugs the neck opening over her head, then gives the whole thing a twist and slips the loop back around her neck. A couple of adjustments leave her wearing a makeshift sling. She’s also in a wet tank top with no bra underneath, but it seems a little absurd to be concerned about modesty, given the circumstances.
“Thanks,” she says to the naked guy. It’s surprisingly hard not to look at a penis when it’s right out there, but she manages to keep her eyes on his face. “Thank you. I’m Allison.”
When the moment of silence between them stretches out to the point of weirdness, she pulls up a nervous smile. “Okay, let me guess. Skinny dipping? Got lost from Burning Man. Part-time nude EMT, full-time vow of silence.” No response; not even a flicker of amusement crosses his face. “¿Habla español?” she tries, followed by, “Parlez-vous français? Sprechen sie Deutsch? No?” Having by now mostly exhausted her linguistic capabilities, she spends a minute studying his thick black lashes and the line of his nose before digging deep into her recall for an as-salâm 'alaykum.
Frowning now, she reaches out with her good hand. His head swivels around to follow it. She waits until his gaze returns to her face, then snaps her fingers just behind his ear. He ducks away, then looks at her indignantly.
“Okay, so you’re not deaf,” Allison says, dropping her arm. For a long moment, they regard each other. She’s beginning to shiver, whether from the chill of the river or the medical ordeal, and her vision is going weird from the outside in, surrounding his concerned face with a psychedelic soft-focus smear. She murmurs, “In the wildness, born of silence, valiant Enkidu.”
The man raises his eyebrows.
“I think I might be having some kind of fucked-up dream,” Allison confesses, and then leans forward and vomits into the water.
With an expression of alarm, the man scrambles up and splashes a couple of feet upstream. Allison hiccups a little laugh, then tries to stand, which turns out to be a poor idea. The last thing she hears as she sways forward is a sharp exclamation, too low to have come from her. There are no words in it.
The waves are far too large for the boat. The waves are too large, but Kate is blocking Allison on the stairs, keeping her from coming up on deck even though they clearly both need to be helping. She tries to bull her way through, but Kate’s got the advantage, and Allison finds herself shoved back down into the cabin, screaming as they’re slammed by a wall of dark water that tips the tiny boat right over, tumbling her onto the ceiling--
Allison’s panicked moan wakes her up enough to realize that her father is carrying her up to bed, and she relaxes against his shoulder, dropping back down below the surface of sleep, a seal under sea ice.
When she comes up again, it’s because her father is easing her down. Her shoulder blooms with fresh ache the moment he lets go.
Her bed is the ground. Her father isn’t her father.
She slits her eyes open. Her shoes are tucked into the curve of her curled-up body, and the man who fixed her arm is a short distance away, standing in a knee-deep stream and scooping water into his mouth, over his chest. His dick bounces between his spread thighs, and she looks up and away, face heating. The little crease they’re tucked into is shadowed, but further up, the mountains are lit brilliant gold, which makes it nearly sun-down. Her clothes feel dry, and she has a headache.
The panic that drifted away with her consciousness slips back in around her. No warm clothes, no sleeping bag, no food, no way of knowing how long she was King Kong carried by this freaky caveman stranger and in which direction, how far she might be from rescue, whether he --
A cool, wet hand cups her forehead, and she takes a breath. When she feels steady enough to open her eyes, she looks up at him. “I don’t know if you understand anything I’m saying, or what you’re doing with me, or why you’re -- like this, but I need to find the trail. Or a road. Somewhere there are people who can help me.”
Frowning, he pushes her hair back from her forehead with his wet hand. The gesture should be frightening, too intimate, but it doesn’t feel that way. It’s more like she’s something he’s trying to understand.
“I need to get back to my family,” Allison says, and then, voice cracking, “Please.”
The tension of their gaze is broken when he lifts his head and sniffs at the air, eyes narrowing. After a moment, he moves his palm to her breastbone, pressing her against the earth: stay. Standing, he circles around her and disappears silently into the underbrush.
Glad we had this talk, Allison thinks, and covers her eyes.
She finds a good stone to set her back against and spends a little while watching the shadows creep up from the ground, drifting back and forth between frantic, scattered survival plans and a sort of Zen nothing. The light shifts from orange to red before it slides off of the mountains entirely, leaving them silhouetted darkly against the sky.
Realizing she’s looking at the first star shakes her out of her trance. She squats by the water’s edge to drink and dip her wounded hand, rinse the salt from her face. There’s a wind rustling in the growth further away, but she’s mostly shielded from it here. Still, a crop of goosebumps springs up on her legs as she pulls her shoes and socks on, and she glances around the area for dry leaves and grass, a good place to dig a hole. This time of year, the temperature drop shouldn’t be life-threatening, but if there’s anything she got from Dad’s survival lessons, it’s not to fuck around with exposure.
She’s wondering if the wild man will come back at all by the time he melts out of the brush.
“Hi,” Allison says, setting down the flat rock she’s been using to dig. Her hollow is shallow and small so far; the dirt is hard here, packed down by summer drought, but the sandy soil closer to the water harbors a dampness she knows she’d regret.
He comes closer and looks down at the hole, then pads a few yards into the dusk before turning to look at her. After a moment, he doubles back and crouches to meet her eyes, then rises and moves away again. Stops, like before.
“You want me to keep walking with you,” Allison realizes. She looks down at her half-finished sleeping hole, thinking about her situation, then drops the rock and brushes her hand off on her shorts. “You know what, I really might as well.”
They go at Allison’s pace, which slows even further as dusk gives way to full dark. To keep her head free of useless panic, she counts out her own footsteps in threes for awhile, switches to base twelve, then starts measuring them against her breaths in quintuple meter. There’s no real way to tell time, but it feels like an hour, maybe closer to two, when the crescent moon clears the mountaintops. The silvery light helps, but she still misjudges a stone here, a dip there.
After her second stumble, a warm hand closes around her good arm, just below the elbow. She offers no protest.
She only realizes she’s been walking in a half-dream when they stop. The wild man guides her up and over a rough, dark thing, which she belatedly identifies as a fallen tree. On the other side, she expects to keep on; instead, though, he coaxes her down into a hollow beneath, soft with loose dust and crumbling wood. The smell of their sweat fills the little space, but she’s gotten used to that out here, and between the exhaustion and the overwhelm, it barely seems strange to fall asleep with her head pillowed on his arm, the warmth of him at her back and his knees tucked into the crook of hers.
She wakes alone and shivering in the grey pre-dawn, aching from the bones on out. Her hand is mittened in a hot, rough-edged throb, like having sand rubbed into road rash. In the time it takes her to figure out where she is and why, a dry mouth and a gnaw in her stomach make themselves known as well. She closes her eyes again, hoping to escape reality just a few minutes longer, but it’s clear that mercy won’t be lending itself. Also, she has an unbelievably full bladder.
She’s struggling out of the hollow when the wild man reaappears. He helps her the rest of the way up, steadies her at the elbow as she totters a few feet away from the fallen tree.
“Heads up, I’m about to pee,” Allison mumbles. At this point, she expects no reply, and receives none, but the compulsion to be polite overrides the awareness of its probable uselessness. He releases her arm when she tugs, backs up a couple of steps and shifts his weight uneasily while she fumbles one-handedly at her zipper and button. Her shorts slip down over her legs and puddle around her boots, leaving her standing in her underwear, ass prickling with goosebumps as the chilly air kisses it.
“Could you --” Allison sees his baffled expression and loses the sentence briefly in a wheeze of laughter, then manages, “Maybe help me squat?”
Reaching out to him gets her the steadying arm back, and she grips it tightly while she sinks down to the ground with a grunt of physical distress. When she lets go, he retreats and turns away, like he’s finally clued in to what’s going on. It’s kind of a hassle getting her underwear out of the way, but she doesn’t fancy squatting twice, so she just yanks at them until she feels the situation is acceptable and then goes for broke.
It’s both the absolute worst and the absolute best piss of her life. Midway through, for no reason she can precisely name, she starts giggling. When she glances up at the wild man, he’s looking at her over his shoulder, eyes wide and kind of freaked out, which only makes her laugh harder, stream breaking up into Morse code.
She nearly goes down in her own piss trying to stand up, but he’s fast enough to catch her around the waist. She has to lean against him for a minute, still giggling, before she can bend over and drag her shorts up her legs. The zipper is a slight struggle, and the button is downright satanic, putting an end to her inexplicable moment of amusement. Having prevailed, she takes a moment to check out the bruising on her legs. It’s like she got into a brawl at a grape stomp.
With a deep sigh, she gives the wild man a gentle body-bump. “All right, let’s get a move on before we miss the breakfast menu.”
The morning sun burns the dew from the spiderwebs and half a dozen rabbits startle out of their path in the time it takes to reach a creek. It seems about the size of the one from the day before, but there’s no real way to tell whether it’s the same one. She drinks until her stomach is tight, then asks for a rest stop by virtue of sitting right down on the ground and staying there until he gives up and sits too.
“You know, I used to hate nature,” Allison says. “My dad got even weirder after my aunt died, so the last couple of years have been all, like, pop quiz ammo identification, improvise a bear-defense spear in sixty seconds or less, set up your personal tent in the dark without a flashlight or else sleep in the open, that kinda thing. I started saying the minute I was 18 I’d move to the exact middle of a big city and stay there, so it’s pretty funny I’m doing this. But there was this old Pacific Crest Trail guidebook in my boyfriend’s mom’s house -- well, he’s not my boyfriend anymore because I moved, but we still -- anyway, I kept looking at it whenever I was over there, so his mom told me a bunch of stories about hiking with her best college friend. She let me take the book when we left town.”
She glances at him. He’s idly scanning the brush around them, brows lowered, paying no apparent attention to her.
“It’s a whole thing in my family, on my dad’s side. I mean, not hiking exactly, just girls having some kind of rite of passage when we reach adulthood. Like, my aunt, when she was my age she sailed up the coast and lived by herself on a boat for basically the whole summer. Pretty crazy. Meanwhile, my parents barely wanted to let me do this.”
She shifts to take some pressure off of a bruise, and picks up a smooth pebble, rubbing it with her thumb.
After a minute, she chucks it into the water. “Maybe I should’ve asked my aunt about that boat.”
They follow the creek upstream all morning. “I guess you probably can’t tell me where we’re going,” Allison says, stepping carefully over a rock. “But I sure hope you actually know.”
A little while later, she says, “I think I’d actually eat at Arby’s right now. This is a new low.”
As early morning slides closer toward noon, she stops feeling much up to talking. The headache comes and goes, and the ache in her shoulder provides about the same amount of fun, but far worse than either is the deepening throb in her hand. Each misplaced step or jostle, each tiny brush against her shirt, even the wind across it, everything feels like hell. The water still provides a little relief, but it also softens up the forming scabs, and she’s worried about infection in the exposed bone. Looking closely at it makes her want to pass out the first few times, but visceral horror soon gives way to clinical concern.
The wild man takes on an odd habit of nudging her on ahead and disappearing into the brush, only to circle around out of sight and reappear shortly after from another direction. She thinks maybe he’s getting his bearings, but there’s at least one other purpose: on his fourth or fifth jaunt, he comes back with a double handful of small, dark pebbles. Some kind of pungent berry, it turns out, each of which squirts a riot of tiny seeds between her teeth when she bites down. He holds them for her while she eats, licks his sticky palms clean when she’s done.
It occurs to her, watching him do it, that she accepted what he offered without hesitation.
The last of the morning’s cool dissolves into a heat that presses heavily against all the surfaces of her body. Following a particularly merciless stretch of direct sun and bare rock, she stops in a grove of manzanita and settles with her back against one of their shiny red trunks, eyes stinging with sweat. The wild man climbs nimbly down the ten-foot cut to the creek and comes back up with water in his cupped hands. Grateful, and slightly embarrassed by the gesture, she sips, then uses the last to rinse the salt from her eyes. He shakes his fingers dry, drops pattering over her bare legs, then disappears up the slope.
She scoots down until her head rests on a crunchy drift of leaves and lets her eyes close, drifting. Her doze is just deepening into actual sleep when she feels him nudging at her foot.
“Couple more minutes,” she mutters. He backs off long enough to let her drowse again, then does it a second time. “Stop,” she says clearly, and is shocked awake by a bizarre swipe of something hot and wet across her ankle. Opening her eyes, she thinks for a moment that she’s still half-asleep, but the bear snuffles hotly along her shin, then licks at her kneecap with a massive tongue.
Allison lets out a shocked, breathy shriek, and it startles back a step, head jerking up. She snatches the closest rock to hand and sits up, yanking her legs toward her body as she flings it. It bounces off of the bear’s skull with an audible thunk.
“Back off,” she bellows, and picks up another rock. Her aim is shitty with her off-hand, so instead of the muzzle, she catches it somewhere around the ear. It lets out an annoyed-sounding huff and shakes its head like a dog. Crab-scuttling backward through the leaves, Allison looks around wildly for something else, anything --
Something crashes down the hill behind her, and then a blurred shape streaks past and thumps heavily against the bear’s side. It grunts and staggers, swipes the wild man aside. He hits the ground and rolls, comes up to body-slam it again, snarling; there’s something -- something strange, wrong with his face, Allison thinks, something bizarre about his low dogfight crouch, but there’s too much going on for a clear look, and then he’s blocked from view altogether by the bear’s massive shoulder. She throws another rock at its flank, to no apparent effect, and then the wild man moves in again and the bear grunts, lumbers after him as he scrambles up into a sprint, launching himself full-speed into a thick stand of coyote brush.
Allison stands panting for a long minute, listening to the scuffle moving away up the hillside, and then shudders out of her daze at the sound of a deep, throbbing roar, followed by an ominous silence. There’s nothing much on the ground, but a freshly broken branch dangles from a nearby manzanita by a strip of bark. She yanks it the rest of the way down, then sets the broken end in the dirt and props the other in a low fork before kicking it sharply, twice, breaking off the heavy greenery on the end. Picking it back up, she weighs it in her hand, checks both splintered ends to see which looks more suited to damage-dealing. Better than nothing, but she’s never missed a working right hand and a crossbow so badly in her life.
When she hears something approaching slowly through the brush, Allison hefts the branch and plants her feet, waiting.
The wild man steps out.
“Oh, God, you’re okay,” Allison gasps, and then, as he comes toward her, eyes locked on her face, “Right? Are you -- hey,” she cries sharply, as he seizes her head in both hands. He tilts it forward, leaning in close while he moves it side to side, then lets go and circles quickly behind her. When he gets back to the front again, he drops into a crouch.
Ignoring her exclamation of alarm, he pulls her good arm out from her body, takes the stick out of her loose grip and lets it fall. There’s a low, quiet sound coming from his chest as he flexes her elbow joint, inspects both sides of her hand, sniffs at the palm, and then, apparently satisfied, moves on, running a light touch up the backs of her calves. He thumbs at the place where the bear licked salt from her leg, nostrils flaring, brows lowered in a ferocious scowl.
“Oh,” Allison realizes. “No, it didn’t hurt me.” Uncertain of what else to do, she extracts a leaf from the sun-warmed tangle of his dark hair, cups the crown of his head. He goes still and silent beneath the touch, then looks up cautiously from beneath his brows. “I’m fine,” she says.
His eyes slide away, and he shakes her hand off, rises to his feet.
“You’re -- there’s, um,” Allison says, and reaches cautiously for his face. When he doesn’t duck away, she wipes at a smear of red across his cheekbone, shows him her fingers. He gives them a brief, unconcerned glance, then turns toward the creek, affording her a view of his back. He’s smeared with dirt, and there are several more leaves in his hair, but he doesn’t seem to be injured, or even much ruffled, loping easily down to the creek and wading into the water.
On the opposite bank, he halts and stares impatiently over his shoulder.
“Are you serious?” Allison demands. “Not even a five-minute victory rest?”
In the ensuing silence, a bird swoops through the airspace between them. Neither of them breaks the stare-off.
“Fine,” she sighs, and stoops to untie her boots.
Taut with vigilance, ears and nose lifted to the wind, he hustles her along the thin edge of strain. She snaps at him a couple of times, finds herself on the edge of tears trying to work out the least painful descent from a rock ledge until he doubles back and lifts her down. After that, he eases up, but as the afternoon passes, she still has to rest more and more often.
Eventually, she drops crosslegged in the dirt and says faintly, “Sorry, I’m tapped out for a little while. Like maybe the rest of the week.”
He stalks restlessly around her position for a bit, then sits back-to-back with her, letting her slump against his shoulder blades. Head tipped onto his trapezius, she blinks hazily up at the high, white clouds. His hair tickles the side of her face, and the smell of him is stronger than ever, but it doesn’t bother her. There’s something nice about it, rich and warm, like he belongs in this place, with its smoky creosote and crooked pines. Or somewhere like this, at least. It’s surprisingly easy to picture him in workboots and flannels, chopping wood, fixing shingles on the roof of some small cabin. Crouched in a deer blind, with his serene eyes and his breath puffing whitely out into the winter air.
She doesn’t realize she’s fallen asleep until he’s lifting her up to carry her.
Allison wakes from a dream of wind chimes and blinks up into a jumble of back-lit color.
The sky is a smear of sunset pinks, and the branches of the manzanita above her are looped and knotted with Kernmantle rope, twine, parachute cord, ribbon. There’s even an iPhone cable. Hanging from the end of each one is an object of some sort. She picks out a handful of glass bottles, some dried flowers, a belt buckle in the shape of a horseshoe, an actual horseshoe, some kind of skull -- coyote, maybe.
The breeze picks up for a moment, and everything sways, clinking together.
Her head is on something soft, and she’s beneath a camping blanket that carries the smells of damp and unwashed body. A familiar unwashed body. This must be his -- home? Nest?
Sitting up launches her directly from warm comfort into painful reality. Gritting her teeth, she counts out a slow fifty, waiting for the wave of nausea to pass, then looks around. The man is nowhere to be seen, and calling out fails to bring him from the trees, so she turns her attention back to the nest, which it really is -- a round little dugout lined with a sleeping bag. The thing that was under her head unfolds into a giant sweater with a fraying sleeve, which she wraps around herself before standing up.
Nervous about straying too far, she pisses within sight of the nest and covers it with dirt. She’s dehydrated, and ravenous beneath that, but there’s no way to tell which direction might be the right one for the creek, and she guesses there probably isn’t a beer fridge hidden anywhere, so she settles crosslegged in the nest and watches the sky turn purple through the branches of the windchime tree until she hears footsteps. He’s cradling a jumble of objects to his chest, one of which he offers to her as soon as he's close enough. A beat-up plastic bottle, filled with water.
“Oh my God, thank you.” Allison drains most of it in one go, then turns it around to squint at the ripped, faded label. Sprite. She sets it aside, digging the bottom a little way into the dirt to prevent spills. “Thanks.”
He hands over the rest of what he’s carrying, which turns out to be some kind of plant material; roots, maybe, or stems. It looks like he skinned them somehow, and they turn out to be crisp, starchy. Not actually very much like jicama, but it’s the only thing she can think of. She washes the last one down with the rest of the water, then lies back down.
He leans down over her and sniffs at her injured hand.
Sharply, she says, “Watch it, Mowgli.”
He sits back up, looking troubled, and she sighs. It’s hard to get angry at an aphasic mountain-dwelling lunatic who fought off a bear for you, but she does wonder what she’d be doing right now if she’d just tried to find her way back to the trail using her own sense of direction and waited there. She might be on a morphine drip, waiting for hospital lasagna.
Then again, she might already be dead.
When he curls up against her side, she stops thinking about it and closes her eyes.
Wound up in her dreams, she becomes gradually aware of Scott’s hard-on rubbing slowly against the small of her back, his low, yearning sounds. She moans back, body flooding with heat, struggling desperately toward consciousness to be with him; they get so little of this, sneaking around her parents, and she’ll be moving soon, they might not ever --
“Please, I promise,” murmurs the man who isn’t Scott, and Allison hurtles up through all the layers of sleep, breaking clear of the surface with a gasp. Heart pounding, she flings the blankets off of both of them and lunges up out of the nest, hand a flare of agony, turning to deliver the best punch she’s capable of under the circumstances.
At the sight of his startled, disoriented eyes, her adrenaline plateaus and begins to subside. He was asleep too.
He blinks slowly, eyebrows drawing together.
She swallows, sticky-mouthed. “You talked.”
He blinks again and glances down at himself. Before she thinks better of it, Allison’s gaze follows his to the jut of his dick. Mild shock jolts through her body. Quickly, she looks away.
He rolls gracefully to his feet and starts off into the trees.
“Wait,” Allison says, and he pauses, not quite looking back over his shoulder. “You’re not -- you’re coming back, right?”
Offering no reply, he continues on, moonlight slanting down his pale back in jagged stripes as he passes beneath the trees. Twenty yards away, he stands for a long minute, then -- she thinks for a moment that he’s jerking off, but the patter of liquid is obviously urine. When he’s done, he crouches and braces his forearms on his knees, head lowered between his shoulders. He stays that way for so long that she starts to shiver, fixes the blanket and climbs in.
When he finally joins her, he puts his back to hers.
She’s woken by a nearby whoop and sits up, heart pounding. Some minutes later, at the second exclamation, she crawls out of the nest and picks her way unsteadily downhill, in the direction of the noise. The sun is just clearing the mountaintops, and she feels feverish, skin too tight on her body.
Coming out of the trees, she’s stunned motionless by a pristine glacier lake, barely big enough to be worthy of the title. There’s a slab of rock extending several feet out into the water, like some kind of fake natural feature, and the wild man is paddling around out near the middle. Drifting down to the water’s edge and onto the slab, she narrows her eyes at him, realizing he’s got something in his --
He’s swimming toward the shore with a freaking fish in his mouth, like an Alaskan bear. Allison laughs loudly, echoing across the surface of the water, and he actually pauses and treads long enough to give her a little wave. She’s so shocked at the semi-normal acknowledgement that she almost steps on the glistening remains of a second fish.
“Nice catch,” she says as he climbs up out of the water, and he opens his mouth to let the fish drop into his hands, grinning. She loves it, the way it changes his whole face. Seeing him like this, she thinks he might be younger than she assumed.
Then he turns the fish over, digs his fingers in and casually tears off its head.
“Oh, sick,” Allison blurts.
Scooping out a pale chunk of flesh, he uses his teeth to pluck out a couple of tiny bones. Following a quick inspection, he extends it toward her on his palm.
“For me?” Smiling, she picks it up between finger and thumb. “Thank you. God, I hope I can’t get parasites this way.” It’s tangy, cold, more than a little slimy, and frankly amazing.
They sit down to finish the rest, knees bumping. Afterward, Allison feels better than she expected to. She lies back on the rock and looks up at the sky while he takes the offal somewhere upslope. When he leans over her to sniff her hand again, she says sleepily, “Yeah, not to be a downer after breakfast, but it's not looking too good -- Jesus Christ what the fuck,” she gasps, because his teeth are --she’s hallucinating, or something, and his canines are too long by half, hazel irises replaced by a blue so electric she’s pretty sure it’s actually glowing, and his hand where he’s resting it on her wrist is marred with a squirming map of black lines, pulsing up his forearm like worms, like he’s got something wrong with his blood --
“Oh, God,” Allison whimpers, as he raises her hand to his mouth.
It doesn’t hurt, but she feels him sever her destroyed finger between his sharp, sharp teeth. She waits, wondering what he’ll do now, whether she’s dying, whether she’s going to throw up, whether this entire ordeal has been a dream after all.
All that happens is that he lowers her hand back to her belly and picks her up, sets her back down where the stone meets the water. His eyes fade back to ice-green and amber as he washes her hand clean, as he tears a strip of her makeshift sling and washes that too, binds up the place where he --
She’s crying, she realizes, shaking against him like a frightened animal, but from shock, not pain. There isn’t any. It doesn’t hurt at all until he lets go. Huddled and trembling, she watches him retreat upslope and disappear into the trees, one fist clenched tight.
Presently, she looks down at her hand and thinks blankly, Pretty good amputation for a lunatic.
When he returns, he hangs back by the tree line, doesn’t come any nearer until she waves. Then, moving slowly, like he’s trying not to spook her, he comes the rest of the way down and settles just beyond her reach.
“Hi,” Allison rasps. She’s still struggling to make sense of what she saw, but he’s been gone probably half an hour, long enough to drink water, walk around, and realize that if she’s very lucky, he might have just saved her hand in the most bizarre way imaginable. “So,” she says finally, “I’m a competitive archer.”
He shifts his weight.
“Like, really competitive. Professional. I graduated from high school in June -- which, believe me, I had to bust my ass to do that on time after getting held back a year -- and got offered a really decent partial package to Brown, but Michigan State and UCLA have good archery programs, so I wasn’t--” Abruptly, Allison stops and laughs. She tries to say, anyway, I guess if I get through this I’m going to Brown, but only gets through the first couple of words before, to her dismay, the sentence dissolves into a series of loud sobs.
He stares at her with an expression of acute alarm, and Allison laughs hysterically, still crying. He’s got the same expression as Scott did the first time she said she was having a bad period, like he’s not sure whether to try to help or get out of her way. She must look like a crazy person, she thinks, and laugh-sobs again, covering her snotty face with her hand and trying to at least cry silently.
After a couple of minutes, she manages to turn the breakdown into a series of long, uneven breaths. She brings the hem of her shirt up and blows her nose, then wipes her eyes with her sleeves and says thickly, “Sorry.”
Stretching across the distance between them, he touches hesitant fingertips to her knee, then withdraws, curling them into his palm.
“Thanks.” Allison swallows and clears her throat, looks down at her hands, one upturned on her thigh, one bound up in a dirty makeshift sling and strips of blood-stained cloth. “For everything. I don’t know whether all this is real or what you are if it is, but you’re helping me, and I’m -- I didn’t want to die. So. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he says, vowels sandpaper-rough, and Allison looks up, astonished.
His name is Derek, and he’s a werewolf. He explains this to her, pausing often to construct the next sentence.
“Together, we have stability and strength,” he rasps. “Being without a pack can be -- ” he takes a breath. “When I lost mine, I wasn’t sure what it would do to me. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. And it wasn’t safe for me to stay where I was. So I left.”
“How long ago was that?”
He frowns. “What year is it?” At her answer, he nods slowly, looking down at the water. Finally, just when Allison thinks he won’t answer, he says, “Awhile, then. A few years.”
Her throat feels tight. “You’ve been out here by yourself for years?”
“What would I go back for? Anyway, after awhile I didn’t --” he gives his head a little shake. “It’s been a long time since I thought in a way you’d consider human.”
“You helped me,” Allison says. “That’s pretty human.”
“You’d be surprised.” The flat bitterness in his tone silences her. After a moment, he continues, “That was where I was in my head when I found you. I brought you up here to keep you away from people. Good instinct for me, bad for you. You need a doctor. There’s a road not too far away at my pace, but it’ll be at least a day by yours.”
“No time like the present,” Allison says.
It turns out Derek has clothes stashed in his nest -- his den? He shrugs a dark undershirt over his head, then yanks a pair of jeans up his thighs, frowning. “These are smaller than I remember.”
“You’re kind of built,” Allison agrees, eyes narrowed. “What do you eat out here?”
Hand crammed down the front of the pants in some sort of rearrangement effort, he glances up at her. “You really want to ask that?”
“I just ate about a pound of pre-sushi,” she points out. “I’m not about to judge.”
He zips up. “It’s probably pretty close to what you’re thinking.”
They won’t be following the creek any more, but there are are two empty liter-bottles with lids, which Derek carries down to the glacier lake to wash and fill, then wraps up in the camping blanket. He also squats on the edge of the rock and scrubs a flannel shirt in the water while Allison wades out waist-deep in her underwear. She rubs her armpits and the space between her breasts as clean as she can get them, leans forward to wet down the tangle of her hair. They both drink until their bellies are taut.
While she's putting her shoes on, he drapes the damp shirt around her shoulders like a cape and ties the sleeves loosely in front. At her raised eyebrows, he says, “You’re sunburned.”
Allison glances down at herself. Between one thing and another, it didn’t even register, but around the purpling bruises on her thighs, the skin is flushed pink. “Oh. Thanks.”
An hour or so later, picking her way carefully down a shallow slopes, she sucks her chapped lower lip into her mouth and then starts, “So I want to ask you something, but it’s -- if you don’t want to tell me --”
Shifting the bundle in his arms to offer her an elbow, he says, “Then I won’t.”
“You said you lost your pack. What happened?”
Derek grunts in acknowledgment, but takes a long moment before answering. “When I was young, younger than you, I met this girl. An older girl -- a woman.” His mouth twists up at the corner, not quite a smile. “The police pulled me out of class to tell me my house burned down with my family inside. I was an idiot. Never saw it coming.”
The moment Allison processes this, she stops short, hand jerking up reflexively to cover her mouth. “Your family. She killed your pack? Why?”
“She was a hunter.”
“Werewolf hunter.” Derek’s eyes are steady on the trees ahead.
“What -- like, people who--”
“Hunt us, yes. My sister Laura always said at least it kept them out of real trouble.”
“Laura,” Allison echoes, blinking. “Laura Hale? You’re from Beacon Hills, aren’t you? I lived there. My friend told me about that fire. He said the son disappeared.”
Derek gives her a wary look, but nods.
“I met your sister, sorta.”
“You met her,” he says slowly.
“Yeah, I -- it’s a long story, but yeah.” Allison starts walking again, and after a moment, Derek follows. “Two years ago, just about.”
“Two--” Derek chokes on the word, then says sharply, “How certain are you that it was her?”
A little unnerved, Allison says, “I’m completely sure. My friend Stiles, the one who told me about everything, he knew who she was when we saw her in town. Even if he didn’t, though, my grandfather pointed her out to my dad a few weeks later, at my aunt’s funeral. They found her body near the haunted, um, the Hale property. So maybe that’s why your sister came. Or maybe they knew each other from when Kate lived in Beacon Hills before, but she never mentioned it.”
“Yeah, my aunt Kate.”
“Kate Argent?” Derek’s voice sounds weirdly distant.
Allison stops and glances over her shoulder with a frown. “Yeah. You knew her too?”
“Hah,” Derek exhales, a seemingly involuntary jag of sound. Eyes focused somewhere beyond the trees, he repeats, “Did I know her. Well, I mentioned a fire.”
Allison takes a moment to understand. Then, blankly, she says, “No, that’s -- you've got the wrong person.”
He snorts. “Yeah? Gorgeous, blonde, into firearms and young guys? Can’t be too many of her around.”
Shaking her head, Allison says, “That’s not what -- I mean that it can’t have been her. Why would she do something like that?”
“Do you listen? She’s a hunter.”
“You mean a werewolf hunter.”
Derek doesn’t bother to respond.
“God,” Allison says, staring at his profile. Her head feels oddly light on her body as a thousand remembered oddities assemble themselves into a new shape. Then, suddenly, she bursts out, “Animal attack. She died in an animal attack. The police said it was a mountain lion, but the -- did a werewolf kill her?” Her voice spikes upward, shrill and accusatory. “Did your sister kill her?”
Derek looks at her, finally. His eyes are like black holes, and the corners of his mouth peel abruptly into a frightening sneer. “I hope so.”
Allison exhales hard, shocked. “If you’re right about her doing this, then she must have had a reason, there must have been a --”
“My little sister was ten,” Derek cuts her off. “She was working on a sugar cube model of Mission Dolores for school, and I still don’t know if she finished it because when they let me see the house her room was fucking gone, but she was a werewolf, so sure, she must have done something to deserve it, she must have been a real evil piece of shit little kid --”
Sick and furious, Allison yells, “How do I know? How do I know you’re telling the truth at all? I’m supposed to believe some naked lunatic who lives in the mountains --”
Derek’s expression goes raw and awful for a split second before it darkens. “If you decide not to, there’s nothing I can do about that. Go ahead and think it all over, and when you come up with a theory, I’ll be fascinated to hear it. Maybe I’m an alien from Krypton and your creepy, psychotic family has absolutely nothing going on apart from black market arms dealing and a long history of random murders --”
“You don’t know anything about my family,” Allison rages.
“Funny, from here it looks like I know a hell of a lot more than you do. Which is pretty unusual, because you should’ve been tagged in for baby-skinning duty when your aunt got taken out of the game.”
“I was sixteen!”
“Well, you’re all grown up now,” Derek spits, eyes hard. “Have fun rounding us up for slaughter.”
“Fuck you.” Allison’s voice cracks. “If you think I’m gonna do that, why not just kill me while you have the chance.”
Exhaling heavily, Derek stands motionless for a handful of seconds, staring at her with a terrible expression on his face. Then he drops the blanket, wheels around and plunges into the thick riparian vegetation.
“Wait -- Derek, wait,” Allison calls, but is answered only with the sound of his headlong retreat as he tears through the bushes, then splashes across the water and up the opposite bank.
Allison scoops up a rock with her off-hand and wings it as hard as she can against a tree trunk. It shatters, little pieces pinging off into the brush, leaving an ugly, raw gouge in the bark.
After a minute, she sits down on a stone to wait. Either he’ll come back or he won’t.
He does, pausing at a distance, the same way he did at the lake.
“Can I ask you something?” Allison looks up. “Are you dangerous? Do you go wild on the full moon?”
“Not any more than usual.” Derek looks tired. There’s a leaf in his hair. After a moment, he comes closer and crouches, hands on his thighs, looking oddly self-contained. “It isn’t like the movies. For those of us born with the gift, there’s no divide. You might as well ask which one of your hands came from your father and which one is from your mother. I’m not saying we never have problems -- puberty can get pretty rough, and the newly gifted need a lot of help learning to manage it -- but most of the time, it’s just natural.”
“So why does my family hunt werewolves?”
“That depends on who you ask.”
“I’m asking you.”
He exhales, shoulders rounding forward. “Tradition. Xenophobia. A long history of overlapping vendettas. Sometimes an actual threat. Most packs live more or less peacefully, like mine did, but there are a few supremacists and radicals around, plus our mentally ill tend toward violence a lot more often than yours. Most of the time, though, it’s a case of looking for excuses. Vigilante killing might be shocking to you, but it was pretty normal right up until recently, and in plenty of cultures it still is. I’d imagine it’s even easier to rationalize when you don’t consider the target human.”
Mouth open by the end of it, Allison says, “You have this pretty thought out.”
He shrugs. “I used to be into anthropology before I was a naked lunatic.”
“God. I’m sorry about saying that.” A bird lands in the leaf litter at Allison’s feet and picks something up in its beak. When Derek shifts his weight, it startles up in a tiny explosion of wings. “I was really lonely as a kid,” Allison says, watching it whir into the underbrush. “My family moved so much, and I was always trying to catch up in school. I hated never knowing the kids or the material or how to find the bathroom, so I stayed quiet. I had a friend for a little while in fourth grade, and then nothing until I started going to -- well, anyway. Kate was like always having a secret friend, or a sister. I’m not trying to excuse myself, but it’s awful to find out how far she was from being the person I thought I knew.” She looks down at her lap. “I don’t know how to feel now. How am I supposed to go home to my parents? How am I supposed to love--” her voice breaks, and she leans forward, rests her forehead against her knees.
“You’re Chris Argent’s daughter, right?”
Eyes stinging, Allison nods against her legs.
Derek sighs. “Word is he had a falling out with the rest of the family awhile back. You would’ve been just a kid.”
Allison thinks about this, then straightens up, wiping her eyes on the back of her hand. “I think you’re right. He and Aunt Kate were always weird around each other, and I only ever met my grandfather at her funeral. Dad didn’t even invite him to the house. Do you know what it was about?”
The leaf falls from Derek’s hair, and he catches it, reflexes so fast she barely witnesses the motion of his hand. “The Argents come from one of the oldest lines of European werewolf hunters. Records of their kills date back to the collapse of the Roman empire. After they kicked off a village massacre in the late seventeenth century, they sat down with a bunch of other old-bloods and drew up a code of honor. Everyone more or less abided by it for something like six generations.”
“Nous chassons ceux qui nous chassent,” Allison murmurs.
Derek looks at her, surprised.
“My dad has a plaque.”
“Yeah. Well. He wanted to follow that code.”
“So my parents wouldn’t have had anything to do with --”
Twirling the leaf stem between his fingers, Derek says, “Maybe. Maybe not.”
Allison watches the green-gold flicker of it. “I’m guessing Kate didn’t side with my dad.”
“Doesn’t look like it.” Derek drops the leaf. He doesn’t meet her eyes.
“So when she -- when you met her--” Allison can’t make herself continue.
After a moment, Derek says, “You ever see where we lived?”
“There’s a dogtrot running underground from the cellar that lets out beyond the property line, in the nature preserve. No one was supposed to know about it, but I used it to sneak her into the house a couple of times.” Derek takes a slow breath. “That’s how she knew to block it off.”
They sit for awhile in silence.
Finally, Derek says, “We should get going.”
“Yeah.” She doesn’t feel like it, but it would be stupid to argue.
“Okay,” Allison says, and when he extends a hand, she lets him help her up.
Watching her adjust her sling, Derek says, “Does my sister still live in Beacon Hills?”
“I don’t think so. She left town before we did. I don’t know where she went. Are you going to look for her?”
Derek shrugs, and they walk.
After a few minutes, he says, “Maybe.”
He’s sneaky about it, so it takes her awhile to notice, but when she does, she looks down at his hand circling her wrist, the pulsing black lines. “That happened before. When you were touching me, and it stopped hurting. You did that.”
He lets go, and the pain throbs back into being. "Yeah."
“That's incredible. What else can you do? Is there other stuff?”
“Our senses are better. Sight, hearing, smell. We’re stronger and faster, and we heal up from things that would kill you.”
“Huh.” Allison considers this. “If I’d been dying, would you have turned me into a werewolf and saved me?”
He shakes his head. “I can’t do that. Only an alpha can share the gift.”
“What’s an alpha?”
“There are three kinds of werewolves. An omega, that’s someone like me, without a pack. Within the pack structure, you have the betas and the alpha, the leader.”
“How do you decide who that is?”
“Either they’re born that way, or they inherit it through the death of the previous alpha. Mine was my mother. I’m guessing it passed to my sister.”
“But you didn’t know she was alive. Didn’t you wonder why you didn’t get it?”
He shakes his head. At the look on his face, she doesn’t press further.
She feels better in the late afternoon than when they set out, and better still by the evening. Derek spreads the blanket out on the dry grass of a ridge and lopes off. She finger-combs her snarls as best as she can, lets the little tumbleweed of detached hair blow away in the warm wind coming up through the valleys. It smells like sagebrush and a day’s worth of hot sun on stone.
Under the first stars of the evening, he reappears nude from the waist up, undershirt full of the same berries he brought to her before. They finish off the first bottle of water, and Derek buries the empty, marking the spot with two stacked stones, then sets the full one on top before shrugging the flannel shirt on. Watching him button it from the bottom up, Allison can’t help but think back to when she imagined him chopping wood.
Lying back on the blanket, she considers that, if anything, he seems even stranger than before. When he didn’t speak, she could at least take his oddness at face value, thinking him simple. Now that it’s obvious he’s anything but, she wants to pull everything about him out, turn it over, try to understand it. Achingly aware of the careful inches he’s been maintaining between their bodies, she watches the Milky Way brighten overhead.
“Hey Aries,” she murmurs, then realized she spoke aloud. Embarrassed, she adds, “I know it’s kind of stupid, but that’s my sun sign, so I always look for it. I took an evening astronomy class at the community college this year, and I got to see it through the observatory telescope on our field trip.”
It’s not much of a reaction, but, feeling encouraged, she turns her head, looking at the outline of his profile against the indigo horizon. “The stars are amazing out here.”
Just when she thinks Derek won’t respond, he says, “Yeah. I like Aselu and his family.”
“What? Where’s that?”
Stretching out next to her, he tips their heads together, takes her hand and brings it up with his own. “Seven stars, right there.”
His forearm is strong alongside hers, his hand warm as he uses their combined index fingers to point. It’s an animal comfort, like the way he carried her before, their wordless slumbering parentheses beneath the fallen tree. Allison exhales softly. “You mean the Pleiades.”
“That’s what it is to you. We have different stories about it.”
“What’s the story?”
“Well.” Derek lets go of Allison’s hand. She folds it against her chest, waiting. Finally, Derek says, “It’s different from place to place, but the variation I know best is about Aselu, who lived a long time ago, when all the werewolves could wear skin or fur as they pleased.” Derek pauses before continuing. When he does, it’s in a slightly different tone, as if he’s reading from a book. “There’s a hard winter, much harder than usual. The pack does its best for each other, and it seems like they’ll be able to pull through, until a bad snowstorm hits. Lasts something like two weeks, and they all die, one by one, except for the alpha’s middle son -- that’s Aselu. He’s alone, near death himself, and he--” Derek’s voice cracks, and he falls silent. Allison exhales and reaches over without looking, puts her fingers on Derek’s breastbone. She can feel his pulse pounding beneath the hot skin.
He covers her hand with his own. After a moment, he takes a breath and continues. “He goes crazy with grief and runs away into the snow, expecting to die. Instead, he accidentally stumbles into a human village. They’re struggling too; they’ve lost most of their children and old people, and everyone is very thin. They’ve been eating the dogs when they had to, but that’s bad, because they need the dogs to hunt. Aselu hears the leader’s daughter in the shelter where the dogs bed down, crying because she just had to kill her favorite to feed the people. So he goes back into the woods with the last of his strength and finds a rabbit. It’s starving too, but even so, he’s so weak he almost doesn’t catch it. He eats the guts and the head, but he brings the rest back to the village and leaves it in front of the girl’s tent.”
“Is he --” Allison recalls Derek’s wording. “In his fur?”
“They aren't afraid of him? They don’t try to eat him?”
“It’s still snowing, and he does it in the night, so no one sees.”
Derek squeezes her hand. “The next night, the storm ends, and he brings her another rabbit. After that, a bigger animal. A deer or an elk, something like that. This time she stays up to see who’s bringing her all this food. He’s bigger than a wolf, looks a little like one of their dogs, so she thinks he’s a hybrid or something. She makes a warm bed for him in the dog shelter, and he hangs out there for the rest of the winter. Nobody eats him, because he’s hauling in so much game. She spends all her free time petting him and talking to him, and he falls in love. One night he, uh.” Derek swallows.
“He goes to her,” Allison guesses.
“Yeah. In his human skin.”
“And? She freaks because a stranger showed up out of nowhere?”
“No, they make love.” His voice is low and quiet, thick with longing; a shiver goes across Allison’s skin, goosebumps prickling in its wake. “He slips away while she’s sleeping and goes back to the dogs. The next day, she looks all over for him and asks everyone if they’ve seen a man who looks like him, but everyone thinks she was just dreaming, and she eventually decides they’re right. But a couple of weeks later, he can’t take it any more, he’s crazy for her, so he comes to her tent again. Same thing; he’s gone by morning. She looks for him, but she doesn’t want people to start thinking she’s loony, so this time she doesn’t tell anybody what happened. Except she talks to her dog about it.”
“Hold on, what’s her name?”
“She doesn’t always have one. Some versions she’s called Uinigumissuitung, the girl who wouldn’t marry anyone.”
“Whoa.” Allison tries to copy his pronunciation, laughs in embarrassment both times he corrects her. “Oh God. Okay. So what then?”
“Well, after awhile, she asks him to come in the day, eat with them and meet the rest of her people so maybe they can be together. He says he can’t, but he won’t tell her why. She’s upset, but she wants him anyway, and they lie together. When they’re finished, Aselu asks her if she’ll come away instead, go with him and be his wife, but she says no, she can’t leave her people. Every time he comes, he asks again, and she says no. In the early spring, she puts a bowl of red dye by her bedside. Next time he comes to her, when he’s, you know, busy, she dips her hand in it and marks his back. Then in the morning, she tells her father what she did, and asks him to put the word out for any men in the neighboring villages who came home with red on them, ‘cause that’s the guy she’s looking for. Dad thinks she’s crazy, but he loves her, so he does it anyway. Right when he’s talking it over with a couple of men of the village, Aselu comes trotting by with a big old grouse, and he’s got a red handprint smeared between his shoulders.” Derek pauses for a long moment. “So they kill him.”
Allison lets out a tiny sound.
Again, Derek squeezes her hand. “When Uinigumissuitung sees what happened, she cries over his body and won’t let anyone else touch it. She gets a travois and carries him away herself. When she comes back, her hair is cut short, and she won’t eat or talk, and everyone thinks she’ll die. Then one of the women notices her belly is way too big for how skinny she is. So she starts eating again, but still doesn’t speak. Whenever she sleeps, she dreams that she hears Aselu calling to her, only she can’t see him. When it gets warm and she starts to feel her belly move, she packs up her sleeping roll and goes down to the river, next to where she buried his body. During the day she’s doing handwork and talking out loud to him, and at night she’s sleeping beside him and running through the woods in her dreams, trying to find him, saying she’s sorry she didn’t go with him like he wanted her to, she’ll follow him anywhere if he’ll just come back to her. At the end of summer, she has pups, four boys and a girl. That night, in her dream, he tells her to stop crying because he’s right there, and she looks up and sees him in the sky. So she ties the five babies around her back and climbs up to him. That’s why there are seven stars.”
Allison inhales wetly and realizes that tears are dripping down either side of her face.
Derek turns his head to look at her, brows drawn together, then reaches out and wipes his thumb under one of her eyes. “You’re upset.”
Allison tries to say that she’s fine, but instead her body heaves in a half-suppressed sob. Her heart feels as if it’s bleeding out into her chest.
“I apologize if -- I didn’t mean --” Derek looks anxious and unhappy, and Allison forces herself to pull it together.
“No, I do, I apologize. I know what it looks like, but I swear I'm not a crier. I’ve been doing it more in front of you in a couple of days than I usually do in a year.” She passes a finger under the eye Derek didn’t get. “Just, that's a really sad story.”
“I guess,” Derek says, sounding uncertain.
“You don’t think so?”
His eyes slide away, to the constellation. “I don’t know. I always thought it was romantic.”
Allison sniffles and wipes her nose with the back of her hand, blinks up at the sky to clear her eyes. A swell of wind rustles the grasses and trees, then subsides. Nearby, an owl hoots.
“Sorry you didn’t like the story,” Derek says, startling her out of her reverie.
“No, it was interesting.” Allison clears her throat. “Got any more? Little Red Riding Hood?”
“Ha,” he says flatly, but then adds, “We do have that, actually. The wolf and the girl are young lovers, and her family finds out.”
“Not a happy ending,” Allison guesses.
“Not very, no.” Derek scratches at the hair below his belly, rucking up the tails of the flannel shirt. “Okay, here's one from my mother’s side. In Irkalla, the realm of the deceased, a man named Samum --”
Allison sighs. “More dead people.”
“He wasn’t,” Derek says sharply.
Startled, Allison turns her head.
“He wasn’t dead.” Derek’s eyes are lit up electric blue, staring directly into hers like he’s willing her to understand. “He was lost in the land of the dead, but he was alive.”
Allison’s heart trips, begins pounding. She licks her rough lips. “Why was he there?”
“His wife Ku-aya, the alpha, was pregnant with their first child, and he’d been going around bragging about it. One of his boasts pissed off a god, so he fled in a blind panic and accidentally ended up in Irkalla. He bummed around for awhile down there, looking for a way to get back to his pack, but it's kind of a no-exit place. Just when he was starting to get really worried, he bumped into Ku-aya. At first he was really happy, thinking she was there to take him home, but then she told him she’d actually died in childbirth and passed through the seven gates with the other dead.”
“Jesus Christ. They’d better both be okay at the end of this one.”
He opens his mouth and takes a breath, then hesitates and closes it instead. The blue glow fades slowly, leaving his irises full of reflected stars.
Allison groans, covering her eyes with one hand. “Fine. What happens?”
Derek admits, “Samum gives his living spirit to Ku-aya so she can return to their pack and their baby. He stays in Irkalla.”
Allison exhales through her nostrils. “Wrong.”
Rolling onto her side and pushing up on her good forearm, Allison tells him, “Ku-aya goes and finds Hades or Anubis or whoever --”
“Ereshkigal,” Derek supplies, brushing a dangling lock of Allison’s hair out of his eyes. His breath is berry-sweet between their faces.
“She waits in line to see Ereshkigal and challenges him --”
“Challenges her to a contest of skill. If Ereshkigal wins, she gets to keep both of them there, but if Ku-aya wins, they’re free to pass back through the seven gates and go home.”
“That’s not really how the Babylonian afterlife works,” Derek says, but the corner of his mouth is turned up crookedly. “What’s the contest?”
“Archery,” Allison says fiercely, and kisses him.
He lets out a shocked sound, then slides his hands around her back.
She’s never kissed anyone with a beard. It feels bizarre, but his lips are hot and soft, and a flash of heat arrows through her when he lets his mouth open beneath hers, touches her lower lip with his tongue.
Allison lifts away slightly, feeling the rapid rise and fall of his chest. “Is that, is it okay, that I...”
“Yes,” he says.
“Yes,” he says quickly.
During the second kiss, she accidentally bumps her hand against his chest and turns her head aside, hissing. He kisses her jaw, slides his fingertips beneath the hem of her tank top, and the pain goes out like a snuffed candle. Gently, he rolls them over onto their sides and kisses her again.
She fingers the buttons of his shirt, then tugs at them. After a moment, Derek catches on, and their fingers bump and tangle between their bodies. When they pass the halfway mark, Allison abandons the effort, letting him take care of the rest as she pushes her hand underneath the flannel, spreads her fingers out. He’s as hard here as everywhere else, but what’s surprising is how alive he feels under her touch, hot and moving, the places where the smooth slide of skin becomes the soft crinkle of hair. He makes a soft sound as her finger brushes over a nipple, and she feels around until she finds it again, presses into it. Derek arches into the touch, moaning.
The vulnerability of his reaction floods her with a mixture of hunger and alarm. Overwhelmed, she nearly pulls away, but he’s kissing her again, making soft sounds into her mouth, and instead she pinches the nipple, pushes a thigh between his. He’s hard in the tight denim.
He kisses her chin, rubs his nose across the soft skin beneath her jaw and murmurs, “Let me go down on you.”
“Oh, my God,” Allison breathes, squeezing her eyes closed. “I don’t -- maybe that’s not a good idea.”
“You don’t want me to.”
“Just, I’m probably not very, um, clean.”
“You smell good,” Derek says, kissing her throat.
Face going hot, she says, “You can --”
“Can you smell me all the time?”
“Does that bother you?”
She shakes her head. “Not if it doesn’t bother you.”
“No, I -- it’s been making me kind of --”
“Good,” Allison says, and turns onto her back. He pulls off her boots and socks, unzips her shorts, and she lifts up to let him pull them off, spreads her legs when he slides his palms up the tender insides of her thighs. She can smell herself from here, musk and sweat, but maybe werewolves just feel differently about that, because he pushes his tongue unhesitatingly between her folds. When he flicks the tip across her clit, she grunts, the muscles of her belly contracting hard.
He works her up slowly, responding to her sounds with quiet murmurs of his own, reaching up under her tank top to roll one of her nipples between two fingers, and she spends long minutes balanced on the tipping point before going over. His chest vibrates with a low, urgent moan as he surges up to kiss her, mouth full of her own salt. She clutches at his waist, his back, and he settles between her thighs, jeans shushing against her skin, the knot of his hard-on behind them pressed up against her oversensitive clit. She doesn’t think she can come again, but she’s shuddering from it, lifting up into it, drunk on it.
Panting, he kneels up to undo his flies. As soon as his dick comes free, she reaches for it, trailing her fingers up the length and then touching the taut round head where it peeks from the soft lip of his foreskin. Wrapping her fingers around him, she squeezes, gives a stroke to feel the way the skin glides along the shaft. His hips push into the touch, and when she lets go, he falls forward again, crushing their mouths together. Even now, he holds his own weight carefully, spine curved to put careful centimeters between his body and her hurt hand. Furious with tenderness, she wraps her legs around his hips, biting at his lips and tongue.
Between one kiss and the next, his dick slips between her swollen labia, and a keen bursts from his throat. Allison arches up, all the muscles of her body clenched tight, and they quake together for a breathless instant. Then he sucks in a ragged breath and moves just enough for the head to catch at the rim of her vagina.
Allison’s mind explodes with eighteen years’ worth of sex ed panic, and she gasps, “Stop."
He freezes, trembling, then pulls out from between her thighs and rears back, looking horrified.
“No, wait --” Allison grabs at him, and he stops trying to put distance between them. “It's just, we can’t do that, I’m not -- we don’t have anything.”
Derek exhales and nods, then takes the opportunity to kick his jeans the rest of the way off.
“I could, um,” Allison says, and reaches for his hard-on again. It’s slick from her body, and flexes at her touch, pushing out into her hand. She gives it a couple of strokes, awkward and overhand, before Derek nudges her back and lowers his body over hers again.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to,” he says, and angles his dick down with one hand, eases it between her thighs. Allison squeezes tight around him, and he groans open-mouthed against her throat as he fucks between the clenched muscles. “Yeah, that’s -- just like this. Am I hurting you?”
“I don’t want to hurt you, I --”
“You’re not,” she says, and kisses him, keeps kissing him until he comes, and then for a little while more.
When he collapses, it’s to the side of her, careful still. They trade a few more dreamy kisses, fragments of non-sentences. Finally, Derek sighs and sits up. He wipes down the insides of her thighs with his berry-stained undershirt, then balls it up and launches it out into the dark.
“That’s littering,” Allison exclaims, and at his incredulous look, bursts into laughter, covering her mouth with her palm. Shaking his head, he lies down at her side, putting a hand over her jouncing belly. “Oh, God,” Allison whispers through her fingers when her giggles subside. “This is so fucked up. I can’t believe how fucked up this all is. What am I supposed to tell my parents if they want me to be a werewolf hunter?”
“Join a rock and roll band instead,” Derek murmurs against her shoulder, and pulls the edge of the camping blanket over her legs.
In the wee hours of the night, she wakes curled on her side, ears full of the dissonant yodeling of a nearby pack of coyotes.
Derek stirs behind her, presses his lips to the back of her neck.
She murmurs, “Do you do that too?”
“You mean howl? It doesn’t sound like that, but yes.”
“Can I hear?”
He hesitates. “I don’t want to disrupt them.”
“If you really want, I’ll do it later.”
“What about your, um, werewolf transformation? Can I see that?”
“I don’t have the full shift, but yes.”
“Cool.” Allison yawns. “What’s the full shift? Is that an alpha thing too?”
“It makes it easier, yes. My mother used to take Laura out in their fur on the full moon. I sulked about it every time.”
“Mm. Did you guys get along otherwise?”
His breath huffs against the knob of her spine. “The second she found out she was getting a brother, it was all she talked about. My parents figured she’d get over it after I was born and she found out babies mostly scream and shit, but instead she wanted to help with everything. My uncle Pete was still a kid then too, and he’d catch her climbing into my crib to stare at me while I slept. He said it used to creep him out.”
Allison shifts, stretches a leg out to get blood flow back.
Derek waits for her to tuck it back in, then continues, “One time my mom yelled at her to quit waking me up while I was napping, and when she came in a little while later to check on me, I was gone. So was my sister. Just about when they were getting ready to call the sheriff’s department, my uncle heard her talking in the gardening shed and found us in there with a box of crackers and a blanket. Turns out Laura stole me away to raise me herself. She said our mom just had to get a new baby.”
“That’s unbelievably cute.”
Derek presses his forehead to the back of her neck. Voice breaking, he says, “How can I tell her it was my fault?”
Swallowing hard, Allison says, “How about you tell her exactly what happened and let her decide whose fucking fault it is.”
She wakes some time later with Derek’s hand tucked into hers. When he sees her eyes on his face, he whispers, “Want to see?”
“Yeah,” Allison whispers back.
His irises kindle the blue of a welder’s flame, and his bones begin to distort beneath the skin. He opens his mouth to show her his teeth, then brings up a hand between them so she can gingerly trace his claws. Finally, sitting up, he lets her hear his howl.
“Holy shit,” Allison says. All of the nearby crickets have gone silent. “I remember hearing that before, but I thought it was the bear.”
Derek ducks his head. “I was trying to scare her off.”
“She probably wouldn’t have hurt you. She was young; I don’t think she knew any better about getting that close.”
“Guess she does now.”
“I hope so.” Derek settles beside her, and his face slips back into the shape she knows. She pushes her fingertips into the soft bristle of his beard to touch the warm skin beneath as he adds, “Safer for her if she stays away from people.”
As the light of day sneaks in around them, the intimacy of the night before gives way to mutual bashfulness. Allison finds herself darting hesitant glances at Derek while he puts on the flannel shirt and folds their blanket. He uses a stone to weigh it down, presumably with the intention to return, and they leave in silence.
Later, taking a rest from the midday sun in the shade of a low shrub, he offers her the last of the water. When she lowers the bottle, he presses a quick kiss to her lips.
They smile at each other, and like that, the quiet between them goes from awkward to easy. She kisses his cheek, tucks his shaggy hair behind his ear, and he makes a face, shakes his head until it comes loose again. When she feels ready, she nudges him, and they walk onward.
Lost in long spirals of thought, she’s startled when he curls his hand in the back of her shirt, forcing her to a gentle halt. “Yeah? What?”
He jerks his chin toward the high point of the slope they’ve been climbing. “Highway’s a few hundred yards straight north. You’ll see it when you get up there.”
“Oh,” she exhales.
“There’s a car parked in the scenic turn-out. Two women and a kid. I can hear them.” He lets go of her shirt and shifts his weight from foot to foot, then takes her hand. “I’m going to move back a little way, but I’ll keep listening to you.”
“Okay,” Allison says, feeling at a loss.
It’s not that she’s in any way hesitant to get to toilets and and cooked food and advanced medical science, but --
“If I came back,” she blurts, then has to stop and waits until the tightness in her throat subsides before continuing, “would you be here?”
Thumb skimming along the ridge of her knuckles, Derek shakes his head.
“That’s--” Allison swallows. “That’s good. Right?”
Bringing their joined hands up, Derek tilts his head to press his soft-prickly face into her palm, nods with his eyes closed.
Allison sweeps the pad of her thumb across his bare cheek, then takes a shaky breath. “I guess I should, um.”
Derek nods again and lets her hand go as he steps back. Eyes serious, he says, “Don’t tell anyone about me.”
“Cross my heart,” Allison promises, and watches him turn away. He doesn’t look back. At the last moment, she thinks she sees the shape of him pause for a moment before it disappears behind a slope of jumbled stone.
She stands a little while longer, breathing, before she turns to the north and begins to climb.