If you've been around a while, you know the deal. Once a year, I participate in National Novel Writing Month, taking a novel from idea to finished first draft within the month. Doing it my way, there's a twist: I post my first draft publicly here, a chapter at a time. It's a rough draft, full of flaws, but it's a fun way of inviting the world to ride shotgun with me.
This year, I almost didn't do it. But after having finished a NaNo novel for several years, it just felt like tradition. I would have been sad to skip it.
So let me introduce you to the Last Girls, publishing November second until, well, whenever it finishes. A chapter a day, remember.
When a camping trip with friends turns to a bloodbath, Kelly must face her worst fears- as well as those of the other Last Girls.
Thanks for coming on this trip with me! I hope you have as much fun with the Last Girls as I'm gonna!
“Did you hear that?” Denny asked, cocking his head to the side.
“No,” Kelly said, shivering. The campfire was shrinking as their available wood dwindled. They didn't dare venture out for more, until daylight. “But that's the reason I'm not even trying to sleep.”
“If we're leaving in the morning, it might be good for some of us, at least, to sleep.”
“Like I could,” Betsy said bitterly, glancing at Angel, tied and propped up against that same tree.
“And I've got just too much nervous energy,” Lark said.
“That might be the energy drinks,” Denny said.
“If I'm up anyway, I want to be alert.”
“Plus, you enjoy having to go off into the darkness to pee more than once an hour,” Kelly added.
“Okay, admittedly, there are trade-offs to shotgunning caffeine,” Lark said. “But they're tasty.”
“But none of you hear a heartbeat?” Denny asked. “I've been hearing it, at varied volumes since the giant with the hatchet attacked Alan.” He stopped, and his face contorted as he fought off another bought of sobbing. “It seems so quaint, now, a maniac putting an ax in his guts.”
“I have heard it,” Kelly said. “But I thought I was crazy, or hearing the blood in my own ears rushing.”
“I don't know that I have,” Lark said, “but I think I'm hearing it now.”
“We're missing someone,” Betsy said.
“We all miss Alan,” Denny said.
“No- I mean, we do- but that's not what I meant. If each one of those... monsters was designed for us, we've only seen five of them, for six of us. The cowboy was clearly here to unman Angel. The wolf was here for Lark; she said it herself, he's basically designed to disable her. The detective is Denny's; the polaroids and revelation meant to destroy him. And the big lizard came to make Alan insignificant, to the point of not even registering when it killed him. Then there was the hatchetman. He could be here for either of us,” she pointed from herself to Kelly.
“I think he's mine,” Kelly said. “He attacked Alan, first. And I've... I always dreaded being alone, but, the worst nightmares I've ever had, it wasn't just being alone, but being alone forever, and dying without anyone there to even care when I have that last breath.”
“Which means mine is missing,” Betsy said.
“Provided that hypothesis holds,” Denny said. “I'm not sure these... creatures line up one to one with us. And in particular I'm not sure I can commit to assuming the world- or whatever this is- revolves around me. I'm comfortable being narcissistic or paranoid, but the mix seems-” he heard leaves rustling behind them, where they left the detective nailed to the ground. He rolled off his rock, facing the noise, preparing to scold their prisoner. “Fuck,” he whispered, as he brought up the Colt.
The hatchetman was standing over the detective, with his hatchet raised overhead. Denny wondered if maybe they weren't friends after all, and wondered if shooting the hatchetman would make him more cooperative. He pulled the trigger, and the only recognition the giant had of the shot was taking one step backward, before bringing the hatchet down.
It severed the detective's bonds, and in an instant he was rolling away, and running on his feet.
“Guns, now!” Denny yelped. Then he thought better. “But take your time. Kneel. Line up shots.”
The hatchetman drew back his weapon, and several shots peppered his body, but none could stop him from loosing it. The hatchet flew threw the air, over Denny, slicing its way through the meat of Lark's shoulder. She screamed, falling to her knees, as the hatchet buried itself in a tree.
“Are you all right?” Denny asked, taking his eyes off the giant lumbering towards them.
“My throwing arm,” she whimpered.
“I've got her,” Kelly yelled, helping her sit back down on one of the rocks.
Denny turned to fire again at the hatchetman, but he was gone.
Kelly sat beside Denny on the fallen log. He couldn't explain it, but it was comforting for him, reminding him of earlier, his terror, being in chains. Maybe he felt like he deserved that, and sitting there helped him remember that.
“That was shitty of me,” Kelly said.
“No,” he said, and shrugged. “It was heartily deserved, and really was a while coming. What I did... it was so much worse because I did it to you. You're one of my best friends, definitely one of my oldest.”
“Age before quality, I always say.”
“I'm sure it's no secret that I'm a font of self-loathing, but... I didn't want to hurt you. I'm still mortified about everyone else finding out. But now, how can't they? I'm the reason we're on this stupid trip- the reason Alan's dead, and Angel...”
“This isn't your fault.”
“Maybe not all my fault? I didn't create the monsters, or sic them on us. But we're here because of me. And... if that was torturing me right now, I'd feel a hell of a lot better, like I had my priorities straight and wasn't...” He sighed, and as the air went out of him his spine bent until his elbows rested on his knees. “-What I am.”
“A person without straight priorities?”
“Kind of. But I can't even think straight, the thought's been rattling around in my head so long. What did you two talk about, on the beach?” Denny asked.
“He loved you. Very much. Wanted me to know it wasn't personal, but that... he wanted to be with you.”
“Fuck,” he said. “That's worse.”
“I thought... I thought he was going to end things, try and patch things up with you. And I know what I did... it was fucked up. I betrayed you- and him, really, by making him a party to my betrayal. But that would have been okay, if he'd gone back to you, where I think I always knew he belonged. Sometimes love means fucked up people making mistakes because they need to, knowing how much damage it could do. But I never thought... I didn't think I could do any lasting damage. I never even, I didn't think he could want me, not the way I wanted him. When I touched him, I expected to get slapped down. And when I didn't... I knew I was trespassing, like I was stealing the apple in the garden. And I knew it ended in tears, but it just made me so happy in that moment...
“Christ, I'm such an unmitigated dick. You lost Alan, too, and before that I hurt you, and made him hurt you, too. And I'm blubbering to you like-” He stopped, and took a deep breath. “You deserved better. You were a good friend and a good girlfriend to him, and we both suck for hurting you. And I'm sorry. If I could have done anything else... but it felt like I couldn't. Like I was trapped, between him and...” He unconsciously touched the scars at his wrists.
Kelly had never asked him about them, not directly. But they had classes together in high school, when he disappeared for a few weeks. He came back with bandages on his wrists, and when those came off, scars. She didn't ask because she could tell he didn't want to talk about them then, though she tried to leave herself open to it if he did.
“Love can make you a real dick,” Kelly said. “I started out this trip full of wrath and self-pity. But after what we've been through these last few hours... it's hard to really hold a grudge against someone helped you fight off a man-eating monster.”
“So it's a temporary stay of execution, then?”
“I'm not sure how temporary, exactly, but yeah, probably better to think of it that way. I'm not saying I won't hold shit against you if we make it back into the world-”
“When,” he insisted.
“But I don't think I want to, for whatever that's worth.”
Kelly heard the others running up behind her, heard their exclamations of disbelief, the beginning of murmured condolences. They crashed against her like waves on the rocks, all paling in comparison to the conviction that had been growing in her for some time.
“We need to get out of here,” she said.
“Right,” Betsy said. “It isn't safe on the shore.”
“No,” Kelly said. “Out of this place.”
“How?” Lark asked. “The truck is totaled, and without the sun we don't even know which way out is.”
“And I'm pretty sure out is away from this lake and that goddamned monster,” Kelly said.
“Okay,” Betsy said, stepping between them. “Step one is we head back to the campfire.” She put an arm around each of their shoulders and started to push. Reluctantly, they started moving together.
“And step two?” Denny asked.
“We figure that out together,” Betsy said. “Because whatever we do, we have the best possible chance of making it out if we do it while watching each others' backs. Comprende?”
“Sure,” Lark said.
They took up their seats around the campfire, taking up the same spots they had at the beginning of the night. Seeing that their circle was missing two hammered home the urgency of the situation.
“What should we do about Angel?” Lark asked.
“I don't think we should try to guess at what he'd want,” Kelly offered.
“He doesn't get a vote,” Betsy agreed. “Unless he wakes up and starts talking sense.”
“That wasn't what she was asking,” Denny said.
“He's hurt,” Betsy said. “But he's tied up. I think I can march him out of here.”
“And if you can't?”
“We tie him to a tree, and come back for him with help.”
“With those other things still rambling around?” Lark asked.
“Maybe I'd stay with him.”
“You just said we needed to stay together.”
“And we do,” Betsy said. “But if we decide to go and he can't... let him be my responsibility, okay? If we're making a break for it, it doesn't make sense to all stay behind because one of us can't make the trip.”
“I'll stay,” Denny said.
“Or we can draw straws,” Lark said.
“Or we can stop prancing around the actual decision,” Kelly said. “We have a choice to make, first. Stay and try to strengthen our defenses to wait for the sunrise. Or trek out of here. The road gives us structure, but it also leaves us defenseless; we're easier to track and have the same exposure to threats using the trees for cover, but without the added bonus of having them work as a partial wall.”
“So it's a vote, then?” Denny asked. “Because it seems simple, to me. I'm not leaving Betsy. I'm not leaving Angel. It seems like we probably don't think they can make it out. And the sun's coming up, likely soon. And like Kelly just said, the road leaves us vulnerable. If we can figure out where we're going, we've got a better chance of making our way there through the forest.”
“Really?” Kelly asked. “You pick now to trot out your do-or-die loyalty to your friends?” she yelled across the fire, her voice cracking. He sighed, threw up his hands and left the circle. “Fuck, I'm...”
“Talk to him after you cast your vote,” Lark said.
“There's a goddamned lake-monster that could decide it wants to eat all of us- or worse.”
“And I'm assuming you'd rather err on the side of caution,” Lark said, “since we may have a hard time even waking Angel to march him out right now.”
“Yeah,” she said, “I guess so.”
“And I never made it a secret how I felt. So ladies, pitch your tents for tonight. We move out at dawn.”
Kelly wanted to hate Alan, and maybe some small part of her did. It had been easier, when she was able to tell herself he was just following his libido, taking her for granted and maybe even putting her health at risk.
But now she saw the truth. He was lost, a stranger as much to himself as he'd ever been to her. She wasn't sure she could swallow the idea that he cheated to preserve a friendship; that was shitty, even if she'd had the grace not to hit him on it- at least not yet.
She glanced back at him, standing on the edge of the water, lost in contemplation. She still loved some part of him, and found herself wondering whether, if that part won out over the rest, some day in the future, she would consider taking him back. Then she noticed the ripples in the water, not gentle swirls from the river depositing water in the lake, or the eddying as it left. This was something big, like the wake of a great ship, cutting a growing slice out of the water, heading right for Alan at the shore. But there wasn't a ship, and she realized as a fin protruded from the water that the disturbance was beneath it.
“Alan!” she screamed, as the creature's head rose from the water. It was a lizard, or a dinosaur, or amphibious or at least something wet and scaly. The fin atop its head was bigger than Alan, its head two of him.
Alan was standing still. She'd seen him freeze before, and started running.
The monster continued to rise from the lake, the water still waist-high on it. It was a multi-story office building, now, with more of its girth still lurking below. It was faster than her, faster than something that big should have been.
It was all but out of the water, now, and raised its hind leg. She was still too far away, and she knew what was about to happen, but was just as unable to stop herself from running towards it as she was to stop the inevitable. The clawed foot came down on Alan like the force of a falling tree, and he disappeared beneath it, his body disappearing into a fine pink mist and gore that mercifully splashed down in the water.
Kelly finally stopped, her urgent mission a failure. She could feel the warm spray, and for an instant she was at the beach that summer with Alan and their friends, all intact, before he cheated on her. But the warm mist was Alan. Her skin and close were painted red with what was left of him.
But she wasn't concerned over that. She was frozen, like Alan, staring up at the ridiculous lizard, standing on two legs like a squat tyrannosaur, but with long, powerful arms that ended in claws nearly as big as its teeth. Those were easily as big as her legs, maybe as big as Betsy.
The lizard turned, dragging its tail across the shoreline. Kelly ducked beneath it, trying not to move more than necessary lest she get its attention next. She stood there, as it walked back into the water, watching it disappear.
Alan had been insignificant. In the face of this kind of monstrosity, everyone was. But there was almost a kind of security in insignificance. It didn't need their destruction like the other monsters had. It just did what it needed to, and was gone.
Alan felt good for the first time in weeks. There were unanswered questions, sure, but just having asked them, having pondered them, he felt like finally he had a chance to disentangle himself from the weight he'd been struggling beneath.
Some of that feeling was Kelly. She was a great girl- great enough that he knew he didn't deserve her. And that had always been the problem. She was smart, pretty, sweet, destined to finish school and go do something with herself. And he tapped out with just enough school to be an EMT. Not a doctor, not even a nurse.
He closed his eyes, and forced that train of thought from his mind. He was making progress, and he would be damned if he was going to start undermining it the second he was alone with his own thoughts.
He glanced back towards Kelly. She was looking his direction. That felt hopeful, and he tried to bury that hope inside, where he might need it later.
Then he heard the rush of water. The lake had a gentle current, from the tributary pouring into it, and the outlet where it emptied. But the water was mostly still, and he could sometimes go minutes without hearing the waves lap against the shore.
This was different, bigger, and building, and he could see the slipstream getting nearer to him. A blade sliced out of the water, and he told himself it couldn't be what it looked like. This was fresh water, so it couldn't be any kind of shark or similar animal. And besides, he was standing ankle deep in the shallows, before a steep drop-off. There was no way anything could get to him there.
But the fin kept rising, until he wondered if it was a sail atop some strange kind of ghost ship. A thin smile crossed his lips as he thought about swashbuckling with skeletal pirates.
Then a boulder attached to what he thought was a fin broke through the waters. What was happening? Was someone draining the lake, revealing things that had been buried? No, a quick glance told him the waterline was right where it had been, so the thing was rising.
The rock had a strange shape, craggy but almost roundly aerodynamic; that sort of thing happened in rivers, where the blunted edges were rounded off by erosion and collision with other rocks. And in the rock he almost felt like he could make out the features of a face.
The 'rock' opened its eyes, and he saw finally that it was no boulder at all. It blew a stream of water from a blowhole in its neck, as more of its enormous body rose above the water. He could barely see its shoulders, but forty feet of it towered over him already.
He heard Kelly yell for him, but the thing was too huge- not just the lizard rising from the water, but the totality of the situation. What could he do against something like that? How would he even resist?
He saw its chest rush above him. His face was soaked, but he couldn't be sure if it was splash from the monster or if he was blubbering. He had never been so terrified, and in the same instant, he had never felt so completely divorced from his own dread, because it was so insignificant, a single grain in a sandstorm.
The lizard raised one of its stocky hind legs, the precipitation falling off the creature's body a waterfall. Alan had been crushed by fear for most of his adolescence, but now, faced with having a building-sized foot dropped on him, he couldn't muster a single thought for himself, other than, “Wow.”
“I get the feeling that could have gone better,” Kelly said.
“Yeah,” Alan admitted. “I think most of us always had an inkling, or at least a suspicion. But he's never really understood it, and even these last couple of weeks, when he couldn't hide it from himself anymore, he's not to a place he can accept it, let alone accept the idea that anyone else could.”
“Not really what I meant. I never thought I'd see your cock in anyone else's mouth, let alone one of our male friends.”
“I'm sorry for that, too,” he said.
“Don't. Be sorry for the cheating, and that it was with someone I've known most of my life. But those photos? We're a hundred miles from home. Do you think he really stalked us all this way? Do you think that anything that's happened since we woke up was normal and natural? I”m not giving you any kind of a pass- but there's something fucked up happening here, and I'm not going to feed into it by blaming you for it.
“And it sucks. Because I'd like to be able to be there for Denny right now. But I'd also like to kick his ass. Because I know you. You didn't even initiate with me, because you were afraid of the way I'd look at you if I rejected you. He made the move. I'd know better how to react to the whole thing if he had a weave I could tear out.
“But I'd like to be there for you, too. I don't know how well I could be, right now. I think if we hadn't spent most of our night fighting off monsters I'd probably slap the living shit out of you. But this drama feels like something I can handle, something normal enough that I don't have to worry about figuring out firing a gun on the fly or trying to figure out how to treat a gunshot wound. But you just got pretty forcefully outed in front of your closest friends.”
“I'm not sure I did,” Alan said. “God,” he said, his voice breaking, “I'm so fucking weak. I froze. He kissed me, and touched me, and I froze. Like, I knew what was happening, and what to say to stop it if I wanted. And I told myself I would, that the moment I needed to actively participate, then I'd shut it down, but that moment never came, and before I even realized it was happening he was going down on me.
“And I thought of every moment of our friendship; I met him in Kindergarten, and we've been best friends ever since. And I could count the times I've disappointed him on one hand; and rejecting him, then... it would have devastated him. And I told myself... it felt okay. And guys give each other bro-jobs nowadays. It only had to be a thing if we made it one.
“Then you found out. And I went to his place to commiserate... and he comforted me.”
“It's okay,” Kelly said. “You know your friends, and me, we love the both of you whatever you or whoever you love, asterisk, I may not be able to be personally okay with it after this momentary calm inside what feels like right now is the shitstorm of a lifetime.”
“That's... I think the other thing that's made me feel trapped. Denny is needy, but he was also terrified about anyone finding out. Even the little judgment that would come from a rejection seemed like more than he would be able to bear. But I'm not sure I'm like that- even a little. It felt good, but I don't think I'm actually attracted to Denny.”
Kelly glanced behind her, and Alan gave her a strange look. “Oh, it's just usually when someone says something like that, you turn around and the person they said it about is there, and you can watch their heart break, almost in slow motion.”
“Please don't tell him.”
“I wouldn't for all the tea in China. But you are going to have to make a decision. If you're not into Denny, you can't just fake it. He's your best friend, and eventually he's going to demand more from your relationship than you can give. And if you drag that out long enough, not only will you kill any budding romance, but you'll lose your best friend, too.”
“I don't know what I want to do.”
“Are you sure? Because Denny loves you. And he'd love you even if you didn't want to keep mashing squishy parts together.”
“Not fishing for details.”
“But if you have any reservations, you have to be honest with him, now. Because otherwise it'll be worse than if you told him in the cruelest way possible.” Kelly turned to go.
“Wait,” he said, and when she turned around he wrapped his arms around her and squeezed. “I wanted to thank you. For being this cool about everything. I deserved... actually, I deserved this night. I don't think the rest of you have done anything anywhere near so monumentally crappy to each other, but... thank you for being kind to me, even though I know I haven't deserved it.”
She smiled. “I do reserve the right to treat you like the jackass you've been once we're not being hunted, though.”
“That's only fair.”
“You coming back?” she asked.
“I think... I think I want to stand by the shore a little longer. Usually, I'm so wrapped up in feeling insignificant, that I lose parts of myself- trade them away, just to feel relevant. I think more than anything, that's what happened with Denny. Maybe you're right. I don't feel like I know who I am, when I'm not bending myself to fit what I think will make other people happy. But I think even that's answer, isn't it? If I can't know what I want or what I need, maybe for now I just need to be alone. But for right now... it's good to feel small. To feel like there's so much more out there than just me- even if it is just a man-made lake.”
“You want to what?” Betsy asked.
“Nothing to do with want,” Alan said. “But I don't think he's a detective. I think he's one of those things. And if he is, then I'm not sure we should be taking the chance he'll get loose again.”
“And is Angel one of those things now?”
“What? No,” he said. “He's maybe been infected or something, but he's still our friend. This prick?” He nudged the detective with his foot, “for all we know he bought the trenchcoat to better flash children, and is a monster both in his day job and as part of his night life.”
“You idiot children are ranging closer and closer to conspiracy to commit murder,” the detective snarled.
“We're not killers,” Kelly said. “Why are we even having this conversation?”
“Because that big bastard with the hatchet is still out there, and we're running low on medical supplies. I'm saying what sounds cold-blooded now, may be life or death before the sun rises. We don't have to kill him. He's going to bleed to death unless we help him- and I'm asking if we're sure it's the right thing to do.”
“That is fucking spectacular,” the detective said from the ground. “No, seriously, I would applaud if my hands weren't nailed to the fucking ground. Little insignificant Alan, holding life and death in the palm of his hands. Not unlike God herself, or like effeminate little Denny cradling your sack.”
“What's he talking about?” Kelly asked.
“I've got all kinds of answers for you, if lover boy is willing to patch me up.”
“Angel,” Betsy said, kneeling by his head. “Can we fix him?”
“With a pair of pliers and a basic understanding of anatomy.” She rabbit-punched him in the chin. “Not a sense of humor in the bunch,” he grumbled.
“Can we save him?” she asked, her voice breaking. “And to be clear, you make a crack about religion and I will send you to whatever shit-puddle you cower before.”
“I like you, Betsy. And seeing as you're currently single, unless you're into interspecies action, maybe you want me to hump one into you.”
“Pliers,” Betsy said, putting out her hand. Alan handed them over without hesitation. She opened them, and pressed the pliers against his slacks. “Straight answer, or I unman you.”
“I wouldn't,” he said, “because without my help, Angel's name's going to be a hell of a lot more literal.”
“Goddamnit!” Betsy yelled, jamming the pliers into the dirt between his legs. “Fix him up,” she said, glaring at Alan.
“But just so you see I can give tit for tat- and notice what a class act I am, not demanding anyone show me a tit to cooperate- I'll answer Kelly's question, too. Breast pocket. I don't think you ever knew- that you could even fathom who Alan was cheating on you with. But since we're all friends now, I think it's right that we clear the air, so we can move forward. It just guts me, us keeping secrets from each other.”
She bent at the waist to open his pocket. “Kelly,” Alan said. “Don't.”
“You don't need to see that,” Denny said. She hesitated.
“Sort of lets the cat out of the bag,” the detective said. “But a picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. And we both know, Kel, that you need to know.”
She removed several polaroids, and dropped them almost immediately.
“Is that,” Lark frowned, “Denny?”
“No,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “Of course not. They're fakes. Lies. I...”
“Stop it,” Alan said.
“It's not me,” Denny whimpered.
“It is,” Alan said. “I'm sorry, Den. But lying about it... it doesn't change things. It just makes everything worse.”
“Strange night,” Kelly said, staring out at the ripples in the lake's water.
Alan dipped the edge of his shirt into the water and ran it over Angel's pistol. “I didn't wake up this morning thinking I'd cut my friend's gun out of a werewolf,” he said.
“Thought it would be a toothbrush and a unicorn?”
“Croquet mallet out of a leprechaun.”
“How would you...”
“It wouldn't be pretty,” he said with a smile.
“I've missed you,” she admitted.
“Missed you, too,” he said. “And I'm... I'm sorry. The absolute last thing I ever would have wanted was to hurt you.”
“I don't want to lose you.”
“I'm not sure you've got a choice anymore.”
“Guys!” Lark said, running at them like she was being chased by a tsunami. “The detective came back.”
“He what?” Alan asked.
“Says he was bleeding too much, couldn't even walk straight. He was either going to bleed out or come back.”
“I'll be right there,” he said. “Get my kit.” He waited until Lark was out of earshot. “We'll talk later, I guess.” He spun on his heels, and jogged back towards the campfire.
Denny had the detective on his knees, with one of the Colts pointed at him. Lark was kneeling in front of him, spreading out supplies for him in their little zippered case.
“He still in the cuffs?” Alan asked.
“He broke one of his thumbs, to get loose,” Betsy said.
“Get rope, bind his hands. Use one of the tent spikes to pin the rope to the ground above his head. I'm going to need him laying flat.”
Betsy ran for supplies. Denny knelt beside the detective, and he and Alan lowered him onto his back. “He moves,” Alan said.
“Yeah,” Denny nodded, keeping the big old Colt aimed at the man on the ground. Betsy returned with the rest of the rope, and a mallet. She knelt down beside the detective's hands, and wrapped them tightly. Then she threaded a tent spike through the rope, and pounded it into the ground.
“Now, I'm going to need space,” Alan said. “If I'm probing around in a bullet wound the last thing I need is to introduce more germs. The rest of you can wait by the fire. But Denny stays; I can't keep an eye on him myself while I work.”
Alan squirted disinfectant on his hands, then into the wound. “I'm not going to touch the bullet. I'd probably do more harm digging around in you. Long-term, you might want it taken out, because bullets can lead to lead poisoning or problems with nearby joints.” He picked out some gauze and a pressure bandage.
“But before I do a goddamned thing, I want to know what the fuck you are. You aren't a cop. I think you're the same kind of thing as that wolf, or the freak with the hatchet. But I want to hear it from you. Or I won't just let you bleed out, I'll make sure it hurts while you do.”
“I feel sorry for Denny. Least he was born a homo. You had a choice. And you chose to cheat on that sweet little thing by the lake. With him. Even if he lost fifteen pounds, combed his hair so it looked less like it was receding, he's still a step-down. Maybe a six, on his best days. The girl's a seven hung-over and sick with pneumonia.”
Alan's grip tightened around his pliers. Kelly was sick, on New Years Day, and hung over. How long had he been following them?
“The two of you make a hell of a pair. Him afraid of anyone knowing what he really is, and you afraid of how unimportant you are, petrified of the prospect of disappointing anyone- that's what folks in my biz refer to as a two-fer.”
“And what business is that?”
“I'm a detective. I always get my man. Sometimes, when I'm real good, I get my man and his man.”
“You aren't a cop,” Alan said, “and I'm really not seeing a reason we shouldn't shoot you and make it look like you did it to yourself.”
“The gutshot, for one,” he said. “If I were pristine, maybe that story would hold. But you can't really argue that I gutshot myself; no one kills themselves on purpose like that.”
“Then I cut your tendons and open your veins and we toss you in the lake.”
“I'll pretend these are hypotheticals, and float one of my own. You could just hang the queer out to dry. Tell your friends the truth- that you pitied him, so you let him suck you off, that it was as far as you ever meant to let it go. Hell, he looks pitiful enough just standing there I'd take a pity hummer right now.”
“I'm going to examine you,” Alan said, and hunched over his body. He used pliers and a pair of tweezers to pry apart the wound enough to look inside. “You're fortunate. Missed the vital organs, so unless you stupidly got mud inside it, you won't die of sepsis- one of the nastier ways to go. But that's academic, because without help, you're going to bleed out. Excuse us.” He nodded for Denny to follow a few feet away.
Denny walked cautiously, watching both where he was stepping and the detective for movement, keeping the gun trained on him. “Well?” Denny asked.
“He looks human- inside as well as out.”
“But you don't believe it?”
“Do you? I've never seen anyone unhinge so quickly. Usually it's a process, tell-tales that maybe weren't obvious at first but in retrospect should have been flags. But he was sane until he stopped, and now he's pathological.”
“What do you think we should do?”
“I don't know. Maybe it's not the kind of decision we should make alone.”
“And what if he tells?” Denny asked, shunting his gaze away from Alan.
“And what if we're wrong? He's definitely not innocent, but I can't rule out that he's human. And it's not like our friends are in another zip code. They're right there,” he pointed to the fire not a hundred yards away. “We're going to have to have this conversation sooner or later- I just think we should do it before we've got blood on our hands.”
Betsy was wheezing. The wolf seemed preoccupied with Lark, which gave her an advantage, but it was faster, stronger, with claws and fangs and little that would qualify as self-preservation. It lunged again, trying to run around her, get to the opposite side of the tree where Lark was. All it needed to do was get her to loosen her grips on the rope and suddenly it would be two on two, and they would be screwed.
She punched it, hitting it in the jaw. It skid in the mud, striking the tree and nearly landing on Angel. He was close enough to her that he snapped at her, nearly catching her in his teeth. “Lark!” she screamed, and the other women pulled the ropes tight, smacking Angel's head against the tree with a wet thud.
The other wolf kicked off the tree. She managed to roll, causing its teeth to miss her by inches. But its claws raked down her shoulder, making her wonder if the bite had been a feint all along. It hurt raising her hand to defend; he must have cut deeper than she realized. It was definitely a he, though, that much was certain, this close to the campfire.
Betsy heard footsteps, and strained her ears. Just on the edge of sound, past the breeze and the light crackle from the wood in the fire, she could hear ticking. The hatchetman. She tried to remember her instructor talking about fighting multiple assailants. But none of her lessons involved a werewolf or a giant ax-wielding monstrosity. She remembered the day she lost her first match- the last time she fought competitively. She was going to lose again, and this time it was going to be permanent.
A hand smaller than the one she anticipated lit on her shoulder and pulled her out of the wolf's way. Familiar light brown hair flew past her, and she recognized the Colt raised at the approaching wolf. It fired. The bullet smashed through the wolf's eye, through the socket, sending a jet of liquid brain spurting through the hole before an even larger ejection of skull fragments, jelly and viscous fluids splattered through the exit wound. The wolf dropped, first to its knees, then flat.
“I can't,” Lark yelled, as the ropes fell loose around Angel. Kelly turned to fire, but her shot hit the empty spot where he'd been a moment before. He ran to the rear of the tree, and pounced on Lark. “Help!” she yelled.
Kelly and Betsy ran for them. She had managed to lift a felled branch, and had that stuck in Angel's jaws. He snapped at it, probing for a weak spot to be able to break it in half and get to the girl just beyond it.
“Angel,” Kelly said, pulling the hammer back on the Colt. “Stop, or I stop you.” He didn't seem to even register the noise. “Goddamnit, Angel,” she whimpered.
“Don't!” Betsy said, pushing the gun to the side. She had a rock raised over her head, and brought it down on Angel's skull. After the first blow he rolled over on the ground, and tried to bite at her while kicking. A second smashed in his eye, and after a third, he went limp.
Denny and Alan came running. Denny had the Colt, now. “Keep that aimed at his head,” Kelly said.
Betsy was already shaking Lark, who was staring straight ahead, nearly catatonic. “Did he bite you?” she asked firmly.
“I-” She was jittering uncontrollably. “I, I don't think...” She frowned, having difficulty finding the words.
Kelly got a hand underneath her arm and helped her to her feet. They walked back to the circle lit by the campfire, then turned her hands over. “No bite marks. The blood on her hands comes from rope burn.”
“Jeez,” Betsy said.
“Sure it's tight enough?” she heard Alan ask. With the ropes cut, there wasn't enough to wrap him back around the tree, so they had looped it around Angel's torso, instead.
“Nearly broke my wrist in those cuffs, but it's as tight as I can get.”
“The cuffs,” Kelly said, and snapped her finger. “Where's the detective?”
“That was actually why we ran over here,” Alan said, wincing. “We got the cuffs on him, right? Then you started shooting, and- I jumped, and he got away from us.”
“There is a silver lining, though,” Denny said. “Aside from the fact that he's unarmed and gut-shot. We still have the handcuff keys.”
“We're in an insane world,” Kelly said. “But by the fucked up way things seem to be working out for us, I think we can chalk that up as a win, anyway.”
“And,” Alan said, “I think I've got one more win for us.” He was looking at the dead wolf on the ground. “But I'm going to need a knife.”
Denny shot to his feet, and the detective whirled, planting a fist in his stomach. The fight went out of him immediately, and the other man helped him back onto the log. “That was pathetic, even for you,” the detective said. “But look on the bright side. With them dead, your secret's safe.”
Denny's legs coiled, preparing him to make another move. Only he heard a familiar sound that filled him with dread. Breathing, heavy, building to a howl. He looked over each shoulder, trying to see if the wolf was back. But the sound wasn't coming from behind him, it was coming their campsite.
Angel was awake, struggling against his bonds. “They don't hear him,” the detective said, hiding his glee. “Makes it all feel like a nature special, where we see the jaguar stalking through the grass, but the gazelle is blissfully unaware, just waiting for its death to give the channel a momentary ratings boost.”
Denny leapt at the detective, driving his shoulder into his back. “Angel!” he yelled. He managed to get both of his knees onto the detective's back, pinning him to the ground.
“Off me you fat gay fuck,” the detective grumbled into the dirt, spitting to try to get leaves out of his mouth his invective had invited in.
Denny watched Betsy turned towards the tree they tied her boyfriend to in time to see the rope snap in his jaws. He remembered they were careful to keep his mouth and his remaining hand isolated, so it would be harder for him to break free. But his other hand had grown back, and Denny could already see spiny hairs pushing through Angel's skin, and his face contorting to make room for all of his newly sharpened fangs.
Betsy delivered a knee to Angel's face, smashing his teeth into the tree he was braced against. Lark ran to the other side of the tree, and grabbed the ropes and pulled, pinning Angel in place against it. He managed to bark pitifully. And the noise was returned from beside her. The other wolf was back, howling just at the edge of their clearing.
Betsy spun, silencing it with a kick to the throat.
“Makes you wish you had a steak, right?” the detective laughed from beneath Denny. “Dinner and a show?”
“Shut up,” Denny said, rearing up to give him room to bring his knee back down on the detective's cheek. It made a satisfying pop, but it also put him off balance, and the next second the detective arched his back, knocking Denny back painfully onto his cuffed hands.
“Fucking sloppy,” the detective said, brushing mud off his tie as he stood. He walked slowly towards Denny, with each step flicking another polaroid of him and Alan into the dirt between them. “For a man as cripplingly afraid of everyone in his life finding the truth about him is... you don't fight very well to keep your secret under wraps.”
Denny rolled onto his knees. “I prefer belly-up, for submissive poses. For one, I got no designs on penetrating you. But for two, if I did, I'd want to see the hate and fear in your eyes while I did.”
Alan hit him from behind, knocking his foot into Denny's side and sending him sprawling forward. An instant later both men were on him, wrestling his limbs to the ground. “A handcuffed homo and a gut-gashed fuckboy? Wonder how long you two can keep this up before,” Kelly stomped him in the stomache, and he stopped talking. “You kids are making a mistake.”
Kelly retrieved the gun from the detective's holster, and slid it in her waistband. Then she slid out the Colt Walkers. She aimed one at the detective, and the other in the direction of the wolf Betsy was fighting “Where are the keys?” she asked.
“You're spread too thin,” the detective said, wrapping his legs around one of hers, and using his leverage to pull her into the mud. “Distracted.” She pulled the trigger, and the ancient Colt bucked against him, loosing a bullet into his belly. The detective went limp, and Denny's grip slackened. Then the detective jerked again, slipping loose. Alan managed to wrestle him back onto the ground, a bloody smile appearing through his shirt as the action tore loose his fragile scabbing. Kelly pushed the Colt hard into the detective's stomach.
“This one goes through the spine,” she said, “unless you stop moving right the fuck now, and stay limp.”
“Okay,” he said, his body slapping against the dirt. “Okay.”
Kelly handed Alan one of the Colts. “Get the cuffs off Denny, and onto this prick.”
Alan nodded. “He breathes heavy and I shoot him.” He put the pistol to the detective's temple.
Kelly nodded, and ran back towards the sounds of dogs.
“It looks worse than it is,” Alan said, probing at the still fresh ax-wound in his stomach.
“Really?” Kelly asked. “Because it kind of looks like that guy tore you a new ax-hole.”
“He did,” he said, “and while you never want an ax-hole in your torso,” he jabbed a sewing needle through the loose flap of skin at the top, “this particular wound is shallow. It's the best possible kind of ax-hole.”
“What the hell are you kids doing?” a loud voice barked from behind them. A man with thin hair poorly hidden by a comb-over, short, squat, and pudgy, exited from the trees. He was wearing a rumpled dress shirt, slacks, a tie and a trenchcoat. “Firing off guns, raising a-”
He stopped flat when he saw that Denny was holding a gun- a big gun. “Whoa, there, kid,” he said, reaching for his belt “I'm leaving my rosco where it lies; just drawing my badge.” He pushed his coat back, exposing a hip holster, as well as a badge hanging off his pants. “I'm going to need you to lower the piece, son- for my safety as well as yours.”
Denny took his finger off the trigger, and put it slowly on the ground.
“Thanks,” the officer said. “Now, again, for my safety, and yours, I want to put you in cuffs.” He reached for his belt on the other side, and unbuttoned them from a hanging holder.
“Whoa,” Denny said, putting up his hands.
“He didn't do anything,” Kelly protested.
“Maybe not,” the officer said. “But I'll tell you what I can see at the moment. One guy's bleeding from the stomach. One's tied to a tree with a stump that I'd wager had a hand attached to it earlier in the evening. And this gentleman was brandishing a firearm, one recently discharged. Something happened here, and until I've got backup, I'm going to treat all of you as suspect.”
“It's-” Denny sighed heavily, and turned his back to the officer. “Just be careful, okay?” he put his hands behind his back.
“I'm just looking to get to the bottom of things.”
“Yeah, well, you might want to call in that back-up,” Betsy said, and he squared towards her, his hand hovering instinctively over his holster. “Not- we aren't the problem. We were attacked. Animals, maybe some kind of-”
“Mountain men,” Kelly interjected. “Big, inbred Deliverance kind.”
“Or Chainsaw Massacre.” Lark added. “They hurt our friends. We were defending ourselves.” She glanced at the fire, and he followed her eyes to the corpse still sizzling on the embers.
“Jesus Christ,” he said, running to the pit, and rolling the body out with his feet. “Why were you people roasting a fucking torso?”
“He wouldn't stop,” Kelly said.
“He wanted to shoot us. And even after we got his guns away...”
“There's something not right about these killers,” Betsy said.
“They're right,” Denny said. “This wasn't crackheads looking for a fix, or hillbilly highwaymen or bikers or anything you might reasonably expect to have an encounter with.”
“Okay, everyone needs to be quiet,” the officer said. “I'm going to call this in. Right now, I think you're all going to a rubber room, and for even entertaining the idea you might not all be lunatics, I'm probably getting myself measured for a matching straight-jacket, too. But assuming I can cajole somebody else into helping me figure out just what the hell exactly happened here, I'm going to keep your buddy cuffed, your muscular buddy tried to a tree, and the other buddy lying where I can see him.”
“Works for me,” Alan said from the ground. “Since it kind of hurts when I do anything that isn't laying here- which includes breathing.”
“Wonderful. And everyone else, no sudden movements, if you've got any other weapons or anything that might double as a weapon, now's the time to tell me without it seeming like you were going to use it on me.”
Betsy and Kelly exchanged a glance, and Kelly nodded. “The cowboy, he had another pistol. The big prick with the ax knocked it out of my hands, on the ground over here.”
The officer trained a flashlight on the fallen leaves. A sliver of silver shined from underneath oranges and browns. “Wonderful,” he said. “And I appreciate you kids cooperating. It goes a way to making me believe you- unbelievable as this whole thing seems.”
He walked behind Denny, picked up the other revolver and slid it in his waistband. Then he took hold of Denny's elbow, tilted is so he could control his movement, and lead him to the far end of the clearing, and a fallen log. “Have a seat, kid,” he said. He helped Denny sit. The log was moist, and covered with a slick moss. “They know,” he said. “You have to know that, right?”
“Know what?” Denny asked. “And you never gave us a name.”
“Detective Keever, homicide.” He patted his shirt pocket, then shrugged. “I'd give you my card, but you're in cuffs so you couldn't put it away, and I ain't sliding one in your pants.” The detective smiled to himself. “But they've got to know the truth by now. I know, and I just got here.”
“Know what?” Denny asked.
The detective bobbed his head, and made gagging sounds, then raised an eyebrow. “That you're playing the kid on the ground's skin flute. They know. It's plain as they gay on your face. Or are you actually going to insult me by lying about it? Nuh-uh. That I can't smell that sweet stink of him on your breath? A mint would have taken care of that. Cadaverine, it's called; present in corpses and cumshots. And everybody here knows it. Seeing as how you comport yourself, I'm guessing they get a good laugh about it anytime you're... well, where you are right now, out of earshot.”
“They wouldn't do that,” Denny said, rocking to try o calm himself.
“Maybe not,” the detective said with a shrug. “And maybe they haven't even figured it out for themselves yet. They don't seem like the brightest bulbs in the box- and I don't mean that to say that they're enviro-conscious and responsible, either. But I have ways of enlightening them, if you step out of line.” He pulled a polaroid from his shirt pocket. It was Denny and Alan, from earlier in that day.
“Fuck you,” Denny said, but the fight was completely out of him. “I didn't do anything to you.”
“That's true,” he said, shoving the picture back in his shirt.
“Will you at least call for back-up. You're going to do what you'll do, but it isn't safe to stay out here like this.”
Denny heard a heavy heartbeat approaching from his right, and saw the same movement in the shadows he'd seen before, a man so wide and tall he could be mistaken in this mist for a tree. “Oh, sweetheart,” the detective said with a grin that made him shiver, “my back-ups already here.”
Kelly shivered. The rhythmic ticking reminded her of her therapist's clock, from when she was a child. Her father left when she was young, and she fought with her mother constantly. The only calm in a sea of chaos were her sessions, but every moment that stupid clock ticked away the seconds until she would be alone again.
She had nightmares about that clock now, as an adult. It reminded her that her youth, and her beauty, were fleeting. It made her cling harder to Alan than she would have otherwise, because he'd been safe, and he cared, and they wanted enough of the same things that she could see them being happy together.
As if to punctuate the thought, Alan stumbled back into the light and doubled over, whimpering. A shadow appeared beside him, large enough to be mistaken for a tree, but it wasn't. Alan crawled forward, something wooden clutched to his chest. He collapsed, but was close enough that the fire licked at the object he was holding- no, not holding, sticking into his abdomen. It was a hatchet, with a slightly curved handle, its blade embedded a few inches below his ribs.
The man who was nearly a tree stepped into the light. His fist was slicked with blood from the impact of his weapon, and his face covered by a firefighter's SCBA mask, that fogged with every rapid exhalation, hidden beneath a hood cinched closed.
He loomed over Alan, and Kelly gripped the shovel tightly.
“Not another step,” Betsy said, pulling back the hammer on the Colt Walker. That got the man in the firefighter mask's attention, and he crossed the distance to her in three long strides, so fast she barely had time to raise the revolver.
He slapped the weapon, knocking it from her grip. She squared to him, raising her hands defensively. Kelly had seen Betsy fight in tournaments. She was good, but this man was a mountain, and quicker than big men usually were. She feinted, once, twice, trying to goad him to attack, or to overcommit to a defense. Then she must have seen an opening, because she kicked at his knee, and at impact, leaned her weight against it.
He countered, landing a large fist into her stomach. She doubled over.
Kelly raised the shovel and tried to lunge, but he knocked her back, sending the shovel out of her grasp.
Kelly rolled to her feet, and saw that Betsy had used the distraction to dive for the gun. She leaned to her side to get off a shot, but the large man was already on her, and stomped a suede workboot into her side.
Kelly grabbed the shovel and ran back towards the man who knocked her down. He was wary of her advance, and paid more attention to her. She knew she needed to get around his big arms, to get in close, for the kill, as it were, but he seemed intent to keep her at arms' length. The same, however, wasn't true of Betsy.
She threw a pair of strikes into his mask. “Hmm,” he said, and responded with a haymaker of his own, one she thankfully ducked beneath.
“Bets!” Kelly hollered, and tossed the shovel to her. Betsy caught it, spinning, and used her momentum to smash the flat of the shovel beside the man's mask. Vibrations from the strike were almost enough to make her drop the shovel, but the man didn't even seem to register it.
“Enough!” Denny yelled from the treeline, cocking back the hammer on the cowboy's other gun. He circled around the large man, and Kelly remembered in the back of her mind something about crossfires and having a backstop for fired shots- one that preferably didn't include your friends.
Denny held his attention long enough for Betsy to retrieve the other gun from the ground. When he realized how truly outgunned he was, he mumbled, “Hmm,” and turned to leave. He paused, lingering over Alan. He reached for the handle to his hatchet, still visible beneath Alan, and Denny fired a shot over his shoulder. The man in the firefighter mask shrugged, and melted back into the shadows.
“I'm kind of wishing we brought more rope right now,” Kelly said, tightening the length of it tying Angel to a tree.
“And I'm wishing we stayed home,” Betsy said. “And that this-” She pulled the wolf's head up by his scruff, “wasn't my boyfriend.”
“Is anybody else freaking out?” Lark asked, shivering in the cold.
“We know,” Denny said, rubbing her shoulder, “you're still an amazing quarterback, even if you didn't get to play for a college team.”
“No, dick. That's not what I-”
“I am a little freaked that there's most of a cowboy sizzling in our firepit,” Kelly said, shaking, “and a little extra perturbed that it kind of smells good.”
“I'm going to get you some jerky from the bags before you start gnawing like a zombie,” Alan said, and ran towards where their food was still dangling from a tree branch.
“He was dead, right?” Kelly asked, her words clipped and an octave higher than normal. “That wasn't my eyes, or something somebody slipped in my beer or food or anything?”
“Nobody dosed your food,” Betsy said soothingly.
“And having seen more than my share of wounds and injuries, no,” Alan said, “that was not healthy tissue. I mean, I don't think I know exactly what a zombie would look like, but I saw someone with gangrene so bad they eventually cut off his leg. His flesh looked like that, all over his body. Yet another reason why I wouldn't take a bite.” He handed a strip of jerky to Kelly.
“How the fuck are the rest of you so fucking calm?” Lark yelled.
“Shock,” Alan said abruptly. “Everybody freaks out differently. Bets gets even more focused and determined. Denny becomes a dick.”
“See? Kelly babbles. You get quiet. I'm rambling and caretaking and-” He stopped and took a long, quavering breath, “trying to remember to breathe.”
“We were attacked,” Betsy said.
“It's worse than that, I think,” Lark said. “What happened. It wasn't random. These weren't just monsters. That wolf... it was like my greatest anxieties all tossed together in a big ball of furry limb-rending murder.”
“Your biggest concern is turning into a werewolf?” Denny asked.
“No,” she said, unconsciously touching her throwing arm- the same arm Angel was missing. “I'm terrified of losing who I am. My... okay, prowess sounds douchey...”
“I'm not sure it sounds any better to say that you're freaked out over becoming disabled.”
“But that cowboy... he struck Angel's nerve. I mean, if he hadn't lost his arm fighting my wolf, the gunslinger was designed to unman him. Taller, beefier, manlier. I'm not... no aspersions are being cast, Bets, but Angel's always overcompensated. I'm not even saying he has anything to compensate for, just that there's never been a question of manliness that he didn't step emphatically to. He hated football, but he played with us every year, even tried out in college with us- and was miserable when I got cut before him. But that cowboy... if you were to design a perfect mousetrap to shake Angel to his core, I can't imagine a better Rube-Goldberg device.”
“That's crazy,” Betsy said. “No offense,” she added, turning to Denny.
“What?” he asked.
“You know what I meant. It's not rational to suddenly believe that there are tailor-made monsters hunting us through a forest.”
“Is it rational at all, though?” Lark asked. “There are definitely monsters. Is it suddenly too large a leap that for whatever reason they aren't hunting us at random? That there's something in us, each of us, calling out to whatever the hell they are.”
“Can we go back a sec, to why I'm crazy,” Denny said.
“Alan told us you used to cut,” Kelly said.
“Sorry, man,” Alan said. “It kind of freaked me out. I didn't know what else to do; I had to talk to someone about it.”
“Fuck you,” Denny said, and started to stomp away, but he stopped. “No, actually, fuck all of you. If you were concerned, you could have- should have had the decency to say something, rather than just treat me-” He stopped, and screamed, punching the nearest tree. He started off again, disappearing beyond the campfire's ring of illumination.
“Wait!” Alan yelled. “We should stay...” he trailed off. He couldn't quite place the sound, or rather, he could place it, but didn't understand it, since he wasn't listening to someone's chest through a scope. It was a heartbeat, loud, like the pounding of dance music through a wall.
The sound seemed to ricochet off the trees. “We shouldn't split up,” Alan said.
“Need to find the gun,” Denny said. He was somewhere in the shade cast by the trees, his voice muffled by the rhythmic and growing thump that seemed to surround them.
Alan didn't want to be away from the relative safety of the light any longer than they had to be, and turned back towards camp. “Let me get a-” He stopped, when he ran into a tree.
No, not a tree. The thumping was coming from it, too tall to be a man, and too wide, but still it stepped forward.
Angel moaned. “You okay?” Alan asked him, holding up his friend's remaining hand to gauge his pulse. Angel pulled the limb violently away, then lunged at Alan, nearly catching his fingers between his teeth. “What the hell?” Alan asked, stumbling backward, landing in the dirt.
Angel's chest swelled and shifted beneath his tailored shirt, his bones warping and his muscles pulsing, reforming in new shapes. The changes overwhelmed the shirt, sending buttons flying violently off. He screamed, and sharp spines bloomed out of his waxed chest, traveling in a wave up his neck and covering his face, and moving down his torso. His scream became a howl as his nose and mouth together extruded from his face, and his teeth grew from tiny Chiclets into curved daggers.
Angel's jaws snapped at Alan, this time catching his shirt and trapping his arm. Denny put his flip-flop onto Angel's chest, and leveraged his foot enough to tear Alan loose, and away from the claws that grew out of Angel's fingertips. Both men fell backwards together, Alan rolling further away. Denny dropped the revolver he was holding, and it went sliding past the light of the fire.
When he looked up, he saw that Angel was now a wolf like the one that attacked him, but with lighter brown hair mixed in with the gray.
Betsy squared her feet, and tried to steady the cowboy's other gun in her hands. “Maybe since they aren't silver...” Betsy said, her arms trembling wildly.
“Silver,” Lark said, and snapped her fingers. “Don't shoot, I may have something.”
Denny crawled backwards at Angel's approach, but he was moving languidly, his fear slowly paralyzing his muscles.
Then the wolf stopped, and howled, but not a long call; it yelped in pain. Then again. This time the can that hit him had momentum to carry it to Denny's feet. He looked to Lark, who was standing with the cooler open at her feet. She retrieved another 'silver bullet,' and winged it at the wolf's head. This one knocked it off balance, and it stumbled groggily forward.
She picked up one more, reared back to throw, but the wolf swayed, nearly losing its balance, and she checked her arm. When he straightened his back she let loose. It struck him just above the eye, and the force of it sent him twisting in a spiral through the air, landing with his elongated face in Denny's lap.
The wolf's tongue lolled out of its mouth, coming to rest on Denny's thigh.
“Christ,” Denny yelped dropping onto one of the stones Angel had dragged around the fire pit.
Angel growled, and Alan tipped his beer into his mouth. “Another ten Ccs,” Alan said. He swallowed, groaning. “Wish we had something stronger- or that you didn't have the constitution of a freaking grizzly.”
“A werewolf and an undead gunslinger,” Betsy said. “Did we stumble into some psycho Disneyland? Some kind of a slasher nature preserve?”
“A nightmare,” Kelly said.
“Purgatory,” Denny said.
“God, don't get all Catholic on us,” Alan said.
“I'm not,” he pouted. “But like Lost. Like we died in that car wreck and we're being tried here.”
“Or like you hit your head and all of your sanity drained out of you,” Lark said.
“Quit it,” Angel said through a snarl. “Shouldn't turn on each other. Everything's too fucked up already. And we need to regroup. That wolf isn't gone.”
“Shit,” Alan said.
“Right,” Betsy said, knelt down, and peeled the cowboy's fingers off his gun. She hefted it, and nearly dropped it. “Heavier than it looks,” she said.
“Kicks like a bull moose, too,” Angel said. “Mi abuelo, we watched caballero peliculas- uh, cowboy movies. Grandfather. Sorry. Dolor has me screwed enough I'm lapsing into Espanol.”
“Who else knows how to shoot?” Betsy asked, taking the other revolver off Angel's lap.
“You do?” Lark asked.
“Angel taught me.” The other woman glared, and Betsy glared back. “First off, not remotely the time. Second, no, I didn't know he was bringing it, and third, really not the time.”
“You're right,” Lark said, rubbing sleep from her eyes. “This whole thing has just been too much.”
“I sort of know,” Denny said. “My dad tried to take me hunting, once.”
“Tried?” Alan asked.
“I couldn't do it. Couldn't even carry the gun. I thought I'd be able to handle it; he made me watch the part of Bambi where his mom dies to prepare me. And I was fine, until I got in the car, with his old /22 rimfire across my lap. It weighed too much. And I realized about halfway there that I was shaking like a chihuahua on the Fourth of July. I tried, though. When we got there, I shouldered the rifle, and started to march. But it fell right through my fingers. Dad told me to pick it up but the moment I bent over for it, everything we had for breakfast came up. He left me there, crying. For hours. Came back once he got his buck. He didn't talk to me the whole ride back. Or for a couple weeks after, actually. I think that was the day he stopped pretending I was ever going to be like him. But before that, like in anticipation, he walked me through the safety basics.”
“Anybody want to raise that ante?” Betsy asked.
“I can- can still shoot straight,” Angel said, reaching for the revolver.
“You can't even sit up straight,” she replied. “Going once- I'll take watched any Van Damme or Segal movie more than once- going twice.” She offered the revolver handled first to Denny.
“It's the confidence you've displayed in me that will carry me through,” he said.
“So I'm going to ask what is probably both an obvious and a stupid question at the same time, but do they need to be silver bullets?”
“I think the time for that question would have been when the dead cowboy was picking out his ammunition,” Betsy said.
“Or the action movie answer,” Lark said with a smile, “I guess we'll find out.”