The wolf is too thin, his belly shrunken and concave, no fat between his thin skin and his brittle bones. He has forgotten how to hunt. He is hunted instead, by the spectre of death. He knows. He doesn’t care. Instead of sticking to the woods where instinct tells the wolf he would be safer—shelter, water, prey—the wolf winds closer and closer into the streets of the human town, and picks through dumpsters and gutters for food.
Here tires screech on asphalt. Cars backfire. The street is hard underneath the pads of the wolf’s paws. Everything is loud and harsh and too, too bright.
The wolf limps down the alleyways, death silently following.
Winter is here. The wolf knows he will not see another one.
The wolf follows his nose. He picks up heady scents above the stink of exhaust fumes and oil and rancid things. The wolf rattles around the trashcans at the back of a cheap diner, and fills his belly with the sick-slickness of greasy burgers. Warmth fills the wolf, and his old friend death steps back for just a moment.
Nose in the air, the wolf continues to explore the alleyway. His claws dig into a pile of damp cardboard as he sidesteps the icy-cold puddle of rain, oil-slicked, in the gutter.
“Hey!” someone says, and the cardboard shifts.
The wolf skitters back, and then remembers that he is a predator. He stops, and turns, and growls.
A boy’s face appears from underneath a layer of the cardboard. It is pale. His eyes are bloodshot and his lips are blue. He has a spray of moles across his face like an unfamiliar constellation. The boy freezes when he sees the wolf. “Holy shit.”
The wolf and death stare back at the boy.
The wolf has forgotten how to mark time.
He has no idea how long it is he stands there.
The boy’s bones are as brittle as the wolf’s, his skin as thin. When he curls his fingers through the wolf’s ruff, they are like icicles. His breath though, is hot. It tickles the wolf’s fur when he buries his face against it. His tears taste like salt.
Death circles them, in the little den the boy has made behind the cardboard in an alleyway in the cold, cold town.
The wolf tugs himself from the boy’s grip, and slinks back down the alley to the trashcans. His boy is too cold, too weak to crawl this far, so the wolf picks up a discarded burger in his jaws and carries it back to him.
The boy eats it, crying.
The wolf curls around him when they sleep.
Death steps closer, its black mouth open in hunger.
The wolf growls at it, the sound rumbling through his thin ribcage.
Maybe not this winter at all.
The wolf has a den now, and a heartbeat to share it with.
When the boy is strong again they will go into the woods and build a shelter there, and the wolf will remember his instincts, and the boy will learn his, and they will be packmates there, where the ground is soft underneath their feet and the stars are visible at night.
The boy is sick for days, and shivers and cries into the wolf’s fur. The wolf curls around him to keep him warm, and licks his tears away.
Death loosens its grip on them both.
Two nights pass before the boy clambers to his feet again, legs shaking like a baby deer’s. He leans against the wall of the alley for a long time, his breath puffing mist into the cold morning air.
Then, when he’s finally caught his breath, he turns his head and looks at the wolf and says, “Holy shit.”
The wolf tilts his head and stares back at the boy, ears pricking.
Perhaps that’s the only thing his boy can say?
The wolf’s boy is smart. His eyes are the color of tree sap that has hardened into resin. They flash almost beta gold if the lights from the passing cars hits them just right. The boy makes short trips from the alleyway to the diner. He sometimes pays a dollar for a scalding cup of cheap coffee, just to use their restroom and soak up a few minutes of warmth inside before the staff chases him out again. Then he will sit down with the wolf again, and they will both watch the trashcans to see when the kitchen hands dump the newest bag. Sometimes it is a race between the boy and the wolf and the rats. The boy grimaces when the wolf catches the rats and eats them, and he doesn’t take the rats the wolf leaves for him.
In the woods, he will have to learn to eat fresh prey. Squirrels, the wolf thinks, might be more palatable to him although they taste much the same.
The boy doesn’t like to leave the alleyway during the day. His heartbeat quickens and he tugs the strings of his threadbare red hoodie anxiously.
“Stay,” he tells the wolf. “Stay.”
The wolf watches from the cover of the alley.
The boy has a nervous smile when he asks people for money. He’s lost his wallet. He needs some bus fare to get home, or some quarters to make a call to his parents, and oh, wow, thanks, thank you, you’re a lifesaver, really.
He has an awkward, clumsy charm that vanishes the moment he turns away again.
The boy has nightmares at night. He twitches and jerks and digs his thin fingers into the wolf’s pelt. The wolf licks his tears away and whines when the boy cries out. Sometimes the boy’s heart beats so rabbit-fast the wolf thinks it might explode in his chest. Those are the nights the boy wakes gasping, eyes rolling in his skull, crying out a name.
And, sometimes, Daddy.
In his dreams, the wolf thinks, he is a much younger boy.
And the wolf whines and lays his heavy head on the boy’s shoulder, and tries to tell him without words that they are pack now. They are pack.
They are pack, and they are a step ahead of death now.
The wolf’s boy does not appear to see death, but death sees the boy. Death, the wolf thinks, has already marked him. He needs to get his boy out of the town, out of the alley, and into the woods. But something is binding the boy here. There’s a look in his amber eyes, a stubborn way he sets his jaw. The boy has a butterfly knife. He keeps it in the back pocket of his thin jeans. He takes it out and flips it open sometimes, his dexterous fingers manipulating it with practiced ease. The boy carries something dark in his heart, and the wolf can see it clearly when the boy’s gaze is fixed on the blade of the knife. His gaze is a predator’s gaze in these moments, and the wolf curls his lip to show his teeth, and scrapes his claws on the concrete.
The wolf is a predator too.
He can’t be sure what prey his boy is seeking, but the wolf will help him hunt it. Then they will go into the woods, and never come back here again.
The diner is open all day and all night. At night, there are drunks around. They come from the club a few blocks away, to eat greasy burgers and then be sick in the street. Sometimes the boy approaches some of the patrons as they enter or leave the diner, before the staff chases him away. At night he needs no cover story.
“Homeless,” he says, and holds out his hand. “Can you help me?”
The drunks either tell him to fuck off, or they are generous with their spare change.
At night, the cops come to the diner as well. The deputies eat at odd hours, their cars parked in the lot out the front.
The boy doesn’t approach them. He stays in the shadows, and stares narrow-eyed at the entrance of the diner. One night he takes his butterfly knife and slips into the parking lot. The wolf shadows him as he scours the blade of the knife through the paint job on the side of the cruiser, through the shield and the words: BEACON COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT. The scrape of the blade on metal makes the wolf flatten his ears back against his skull.
“Fuckers,” the boy says and spits on the ground. The wolf can taste his anger, his hatred. “Fuckers.”
The wolf and his boy watch from the shadows when the bewildered deputy finishes his meal and finds the damage. He is young, with a boyish face. He calls it in to dispatch, his radio crackling.
“Parrish to dispatch,” he says and then, when waiting for them to answer, shakes his head and sighs. “Goddamn.”
That night the wolf’s boy has more nightmares.
The wolf doesn’t like the town. He doesn’t like the way death watches them. He wants to take the boy away. He wants to make them a den in the woods. He wants to show his boy how to hunt for fresh prey, and how sweet the cold water tastes straight from the streams he knows. He wants to sleep without the wail of sirens or the screech of brakes. He wants to lift his nose and smell the spring when it comes.
But mostly he doesn’t like the town because he knows that whatever it is the boy wants from this place, it will hurt him. It will let death breathe him in.
Whatever it is, the boy is so fixated on it that he is insensible to other dangers.
“We need money,” the boy says, flipping his butterfly knife open and closed again. “I need to buy a gun.”
The wolf flickers his ears back in disapproval.
Death steps a little closer.
The wolf closes his jaws around the boy’s thin wrist, and the boy tugs it free again.
“We need money,” he says, and crawls out of their cardboard shelter and climbs to his feet.
The night is cold and dark.
There is no moon.
The man is narrow-eyed when the boy lures him into the alley.
“Fifty bucks, right?” he asks. “You’ll blow me for fifty bucks?”
“Yeah,” the boy says, and one hand slides around to the back pocket of his jeans where he keeps his knife.
The wolf watches from the cardboard shelter, a silent growl vibrating through him. His boy is not smart tonight. Not smart at all.
But he is desperate.
And he is weak and clumsy too. When the man tries to push the boy to his knees, the boy produces the knife. The man catches his wrists, and spins the boy face-first into the wall of the alley. The boy is winded, and the knife clatters to the street. The man holds him against the wall.
“You trying to rob me, you little prick?”
The boy shakes his head, and sobs.
The wolf steps forward then, his growl audible this time. He bares his fangs at the man.
“What the fuck is that?” the man exclaims. He releases the boy, and pushes him to the ground in front of the wolf as though he expects the wolf to tear the boy to shreds to buy himself some time.
Thrown to the wolves, death laughs.
The wolf steps over his boy.
The man runs.
The wolf chases.
He is a predator.
He will kill the man who tried to hurt his boy.
He is alive.
Tires screech on asphalt and the wolf is blinded by the headlights a moment before impact. He is flung into the air, and then he is in the gutter, and the boy is crouching over him, and he is crying, and the wolf licks at his cold, thin fingers and whines.
“No,” his boy whispers. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please don’t die.”
There is a corona of light behind his boy’s head. A dirty halo from a street light. It throws a soft golden glow onto the face of death when she steps forward too. The wolf growls because death is standing too close to his boy. His growl fades when he realizes death is reaching for him, and not his boy.
“Oh, Derek,” death says.
The wolf closes his eyes.
It always hurt the most that death has Laura’s face.