By Konstantine Paradias
“Pa! Billy-Bob is eatin’ roadkill again!” said little Jemima, as she watched her older brother tear at the rabbit carcass that had been transfixed to the pavement by virtue of a passing eighteen-wheeler.
Jebediah Vilkacis, hard at work scolding his youngest son, stopped mid-rant and broke into a four-legged sprint at his eldest.
“What the hell you think yer doin’, son?”
“I was just getting me a bite to eat Pa, is all,” Billy-Bob said, the rabbit-leg sticking out of the corner of his mouth. Jebediah willed his paw to shift into a facsimile of a hand, just so he could smack it upside his eldest son’s head.
“Well we ain’t eatin’ things off the road! How many times do I gotta tell you boy, we ain’t like that!”
“Grampa tol’ me he done eaten things off the road. He tol’ me you done eaten things off the road too!” Billy-Bob said, rubbing at the back of his head in mock pain, his muzzle buried against the asphalt. To Jebediah, the sight of his eldest son trying to pull off a puppy-eyed look was all the more infuriating.
“Well we ain’t doin’ that no more! We ain’t like Grampa no more!” Jebediah snarled at the cringing Billy-Bob. Something inside him, something feral, urged him to lunge at his son, to sink his teeth in his ear and make him go belly-up in defeat. Jebediah summoned his near-endless reserves of strength and choked it down. “We are civilized. We are proper werewolves, ya hear?”
“Yes, pa.” Billy-Bob said, unaware of the thrashing he’d just been spared. With a sigh, Jebediah went back to his youngest son, his rant half-forgotten. Somewhere behind him, little Jemima let out a little cry as Billy-Bob snarled at her for telling on him. He wouldn’t dare raise a finger against her, of course. Like his Grandfather, Billy-Bob was a scaramoush, all bark and no bite.
Elijah, his youngest son, had remained seated on the jagged rock at the edge of the highway where his father had left him, impassively looking out into the desert. The events that had transpired had barely registered to the boy. To Jebediah it seemed, at times, that even his own life seemed to Elijah as a series of unconnected events, a crude precursor to adulthood.
He understood his son’s way of thinking: his indifference was a defense mechanism rather than a personality trait, something to keep out his family life, his social circle, his own awkward and shifting destiny. Like him, Jebediah had also considered his childhood and teens a dream, a series of events tailored to someone else’s specification, the waiting room to a better life just out of his reach. A life outside the pack. Jebediah had dreamed of life away from the desert. He’d dreamed of the big city, its spires agleam under the midday sun, set ablaze by neon at night. He’d dreamed of his very own pack, head of a motley crew of mangy creatures that would make that concrete jungle their own by tooth and claw. He’d dreamed of a secret life, a great life, one filled with adventure and peril.
But then reality slammed into Jebediah, shattering his fantasies into a million pieces by virtue of responsibility. His father had grown old and arrogant, a danger to the pack as well as to himself. Suddenly, the cub had found himself forced to confront the father, to best him in combat and then, having done that, to lead the pack. Then, to care for a brood of children. Afterward, to mourn those who were lost to the highway or to hunters and their snares. Once that was done, to care for those that had been left. To keep his job. To tread the twilight world between night and day.
Elijah, Jebediah knew, was too much like him for his own good. Which is what made this that much harder.
“So, where were we?” Jebediah asked.
“You were just about to start screaming at me, dad.”
“‘Cause I’d told you I didn’t want to be a werewolf.”
Jebediah’s growl bubbled up from his throat before he even knew it, his fur bristling. He was on his hind legs the very next instant, his forelegs shifted into hands, a great clawed index finger pointing at the boy.
“You insolent cub! Where do you come off?”
The boy only shrugged, looking apathetically up at his father. Jebediah deflated once again, returning to his four-legged pose, his wrath quenched.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to snap atcha like that.”
“It’s okay, dad. I probably had it coming,” Elijah said, stroking his dad’s fur right at the base of his head just like his mother did, when she was soothing him from one of his tantrums. “I’m sorry.”
“But why, son? What’s wrong with bein’ a werewolf?” Jebediah asked, his eyes half closed, his thoughts sloshing around inside his head in a pool of calm.
“There’s nothing wrong with it, dad. Jemima loves it, Billy-Bob loves it, mom loves it, you love it; I just don’t. That’s all,” Elijah said.
Jebediah looked at his boy: a child of fifteen, barely a man, not yet transformed. His first shift was coming soon, with the new moon. He would turn then, his body transmuting from man to near-beast, changing him into the thing that he and his father and his father before him had been. Unlike his sister, Elijah was going to be a late bloomer but Jebediah could tell that he would be a fine specimen, a proper alpha male.
“You know you don’t have a choice,” Jebediah said.
“Yes I do. I can just not go out into the moonlight. I can avoid it and then it won’t happen, and I won’t change, that’s all.” Elijah retorted.
“And what makes you think you could do that?” Jebediah said, the anger in him rising once again. “What makes you think you won’t see the moonlight?”
“Well, because you’ll agree it’s what I want to do. Because you’re my dad, and you’re going to be okay with it, is all.”
“And what if I drag you out, kickin’ and screamin’?” said Jebediah, his voice a near-snarl.
“Then you won’t be better than Grampa, I guess.”
“Pa! Pa! Look what I found, Pa!” screamed little Jemima at the top of her lungs, a raven caught between her teeth, madly flapping.
“That’s great, sweetie! Keep at it!” Jebediah shouted back at her.
“Pa! Pa! Look at me! Look at me!” Jemima said, as she let go of the raven once, then snapped it back in her teeth just as it beat its wings and tried to fly away.
“Way to go, sweetheart!” Jebediah said, dismissing her with praise, turning back to Elijah. “You know yer going to be a better werewolf than yer sister or Billy-Bob, don’tcha? And a better alpha than I could be?”
“I don’t think so, dad. Jemima was born to this. And Billy-Bob … well, Billy-Bob wants it more than I do, that’s for sure.”
“And what if I don’t want you to be a normie, huh? What will you do then?” Jebediah said, ham-handedly attempting to threaten the boy.
“Then I guess you’ll just have to get over it, dad.” Elijah said. “But I’m still going to love you for it.”
The perfectly rehearsed speech that Jebediah had been preparing over the last two weeks for just this occasion now died in his throat. His arguments, all perfectly chosen and painstakingly crafted, simply fell to a million pieces. Suddenly he knew that little boy with the auburn hair and the tarnished-silver eyes had won this battle, perhaps even the war.
“Jemima! You let go of that damn thing, we gotta get home!” Jebediah shouted at his daughter, who was hard at work chewing at the dead raven.
“No buts! Get Billy-Bob!”
His head hung low, Jebediah led his cubs back home to the desert, feeling (for the first time in a very long time) mightily uncomfortable in his own fur.
“So the boy doesn’t want to be a werewolf. So what?” said Edna as she lay by her husband at the foot of the hill, spent after their lovemaking.
“Are you serious? Am I even hearin’ this?” Jebediah squealed, his voice bordering hysteria.
“Don’t shout, honey. You’ll wake the kids,” Edna said, laying her paw on her husband’s muzzle. Jebediah couldn’t help but notice the silvery sheen of her fur under the moonlight.
“Elijah can’t not be the next alpha,” Jebediah whispered. “I can’t let him be a normie.”
“And why not? Why can’t someone else be the alpha? Billy-Bob is raring for it and so does Jemima.”
“Billy-Bob ain’t fit for it. Too much like my father, that one. And Jemima’s a girl,” Jebediah pouted. The look that Edna gave him made his tail tuck itself between his legs.
“And what’s wrong with a female being an alpha? I’ll have you know, my mother was an alpha in her own pack!”
“Yes, sweetheart, but your pack was from Utah. This is New Mexico. You can’t have a female alpha in New Mexico.”
“Says a hundred years’ worth of history, honeysuckle.”
“Well, history is written by the victors. And if Jemima kicks every other male’s butt, then she can be alpha fair and square,” Edna said.
“Yer changin’ the subject, bottlebrush,” Jebediah said. “The point is that Elijah doesn’t want to be one of us.”
“I can’t blame him.”
“I said, I can’t blame him. The boy wants to be his own man. You don’t expect he’ll want to spend his days in a trailer home, trawling round in the desert, scared of fringe journalists and truckers now, do you? Boy’s got his own plans, Jebediah. He don’t have to be an alpha if he don’t want to. Let him be a normie, let him live in the big city, what’s wrong with that?”
“What’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with that! It’s wrong ’cause I tell him it’s wrong and I tell you it’s wrong! Because he’ll go out there and be a boring little bastard, living in the big city while the pack gets torn apart! Because he’ll go there and get lost in their world, while we stay out here, forgotten!”
“You’re shouting again.”
“I’ll shout all I want, woman! I gave up on my dreams, when the pack wanted me to! I stayed here and I fought my father like I oughta, and I took a wife like I oughta, and I raised a brood, and I got stuck here in a damn trailer home in the middle of the damn desert like I oughta, and no one ever done asked me what the hell it was I wanted to do, now did they?”
“Well, if that’s how you feel about it…” Edna said and got up, walking back home.
“Where are you going?”
“Back to our damn trailer to mind our damn kids. The ones you raised like you oughta. I’m gonna leave you with your dreams, if you don’t mind,” Edna said, a hint of venom in her voice.
“Cactus flower, I’m sorry, I just…”
“Ma? Was Pa shouting again? He woke me up and now I can’t sleep,” Jemima said in the darkness.
“Well then sweetie, why don’t you go to Pa and ask him to take care of it.” Edna’s voice came from the darkness, her great form leaning over Jemima. “Like he oughta,” she said. Jebediah’s knees turned to jelly.
“Yay!” Jemima said, running at her daddy and laying on top of him. “Tell me a story, Pa! Tell me a story about hunting!”
Jebediah groaned. It was going to be a long night.
“The boy lacks discipline, same as you did.” Grandfather grumbled, after hearing Jebediah’s tale.
“Elijah don’t lack discipline.”
“Back in my day, we used to give those uppity little deviants a sound thrashing. Once, your uncle gave me lip. Know what I did?”
“You tore off his ear,” Jebediah said.
“I tore off both his ears! Then I done take his wife, too!” Grandfather growled, clawing at the dry earth.
“I’m not going to mutilate my boy, dad.”
“Only way to raise a boy proper, Jebediah. I gave you hell and you grew up just fine,” Grandfather said and Jebediah felt his hatred for the old man (a thing he had thought long since forgotten) rise back up to the surface.
“Maybe if you hadn’t, I wouldn’t have taken your eye.” Jebediah spat at him.
“Maybe if you hadn’t, I woulda wrung your neck!” the old wolf laughed back at him. “Boy needs to be taught his place. You need to be a proper alpha, not a whipped little cub no more, Jebediah.”
“This conversation is over.”
“Boy needs to be put back in his place!” the old wolf shouted at Jebediah, as he walked away. “For once in your life, he needs himself a proper man for a father!”
Jebediah had promised himself that he wouldn’t let the old bastard poison him with his bile. He’d also promised himself not to ever take his frustrations out on his kids. One time, he even caught himself thinking he’d rather swallow a silver bullet than let himself be the kind of man his father was.
Now, as he was snarling at Elijah, tugging at his bedsheets so he could drag Elijah out into the moonlight, he found himself being exactly the kind of man his father had been.
“Dad, no! Stop!” Elijah screamed, holding fast at the edge of his bed. Above him, the moon’s great idiot face peered from the cloud cover, shedding bone-white light upon the desert.
“Jebediah! You get off Elijah this instant!” Edna snarled at him.
“Pa? Pa, what’s going on?” Billy-Bob asked, peering around the door with little Jemima peeking her muzzle underneath. The trailer rocked on its axles, as the older wolves clawed and bit at each other, baring their fangs and snapping at the air between them. The cramped little space in the trailer smelled of bile and anger and Elijah’s sweat.
“Get outta here, Edna!”
“Let go of Elijah, Jebediah! This isn’t what he wants! This isn’t what you want, either!” she snarled at him.
“Don’t tell me what to do, woman! Don’t you dare give me lip!” Jebediah said, and he knew how much like his father he sounded. It made him sick to his stomach, this terrible new inflection, this venomous tone. “Back off!”
Edna was on him the next instant. Her teeth, strong as her mother’s, went for his throat. Her claws, sharp as ever, aimed for his eyes. Jebediah howled and rolled with the blow, crashing through the trailer’s walls out into the dusty ground. They were a mass of fur and dust, spiked with blood, that snarled and rolled around in the ground, a black-brown thing that raised a cloud of dust around them.
“Pa! Pa, stop it!” Jemima screamed.
“Ma!” Billy-Bob shouted, charging into the melee, his claws and fangs out to protect his mother, his own howls of pain joining those of his mother’s, his own blood spattered on the parched earth.
Inside the trailer, hidden beneath his blanket, Elijah listened to the sounds of his little world crashing down around him. There was thunder in the desert. There was gnashing of teeth and snarls. His senses, honed to a fine edge by the prospect of transformation, translated the blood and the fear and the snarling into a coherent image.
Without seeing, Elijah could read his father’s face, twisted by anger, pushed on by pride. His mother’s muzzle, pulled back to reveal a row of teeth, ripping at her lover’s fur and skin. His brother’s claws, pawing at his father’s back uselessly, struck down by a flailing backhand.
In his little refuge, Elijah felt his body tense up, as the wolf inside him called out for blood and violence, fueled by the light of the moon. Something primordial stirred in him, something that was pushing outward from deep within himself, something mad and hungry that was waiting for him to become it.
“Elijah?” Jemima’s voice came from the other side of the blanket. He didn’t have to peek out to tell that she’d shifted to her human form, so she could hide inside the trailer. He could smell her fear, which fed the thing in him, making it thrash madly. “Ma’s hurt. So’s Billy-Bob. I think Pa is going to hurt them real bad soon.”
“I know,” Elijah said, and there was the faintest hint of something old and hungry in his voice. Jemima couldn’t see, but she knew what was taking place beneath that blanket.
Outside, Billy-Bob was struggling against Jebediah’s paw, pressed against his throat. Jebediah’s lover, howling her son’s name, was sinking her fangs into his shoulder, tearing at the flesh beneath.
“You got to save them, Elijah.”
“I know,” he said.
Jebediah’s world was a great red blot now, stained with black. His paw pressed down on something soft that fought feebly. He could not fathom it being his son. There was a growing pain in his shoulder and a pair of eyes that were punching holes in the back of his head, but he could not have known they were Edna’s.
There was only a voice in his head, a growling, howling thing that frothed at the mouth and whispered words of murder in his ear. There was someone hidden in the trailer whom he should rip open and expose to the world or tear his throat rather than suffer his existence. His spittle was hot and tasted like blood that he knew did not belong to him. His fur bristled and his muscles tensed. He burned with an unknowable fire.
With a flex of his mind, he changed his paws into functioning arms and stuck at Edna’s muzzle, breaking her grip. He increased the pressure on Billy-Bob’ throat until he felt his son’s pulse beating at his fingers and then…
There was a scent that seemed familiar but he had never witnessed before. There was a howl with a familiar inflection. There was a shape in the air, shifting and growing until it seemed to outgrow the moon itself.
Jebediah raised his arms to protect himself from the coming attack, braced his hind legs against impact, but he knew he was outmatched. The great thing slammed into him, a mass of claw and teeth and black fur, knocking the breath from out of him. Teeth tore at his muscles, claws dug themselves in open wounds. He felt something trickle down his tongue; a taste of blood that seemed all too familiar.
It lasted only for a moment, the tearing and the howling and the screams. Jebediah was tossed around like a rag doll, dragged into the dirt. He struggled, but the black thing struck him once and one of his eyes darkened. He tried to get away and fire erupted in his sides.
The red subsided. The black pulled back. The starry sky loomed above him, the moon’s great face illuminating his features. At the edge of his vision, something huge and mad followed his every move.
“Elijah?” he muttered.
Billy-Bob never challenged his brothers’ place in the pack and neither did any of the others. There was, of course, a challenger as custom decreed, but the battle was a formality, a friendly spar in honor to Elijah.
Edna watched as her son stood at the head of the pack, a great black silent thing with eyes the color of silver. Little Jemima was there too, her head bowed, her muzzle resting against the ground for fear of meeting Elijah’s eyes.
Jebediah was not there, on that day nor any other day since. He was, of course, provided with a share as custom dictated, and he accepted it with the proper show of gratitude. Unlike his family, he was not there when Elijah was proclaimed alpha. He had been with the old wolf who had welcomed him silently, having recognized his wounds, picking up the hatred that had soaked Jebediah’s fur and very skin, same as he had been soaked in the spit of his son.
The old wolf died, alone and bitter. The only words he said to Jebediah were:
“You done good, boy. For once in your life, you done good.”
And the old wolf perished, leaving Jebediah in his stead.
Konstantine Paradias is a jeweler by profession and a writer by choice. His short stories have been published in Third FlatIron’s Lost Worlds anthology, Unidentified Funny Objects! 2 and Nightmare Stalkers and Dream Walkers by Horrified Press. People tell him he has a writing problem, but he says he can quit, like, whenever he wants, man! You can find him on FaceBook (https://www.facebook.com/konstantine.paradias) or follow him on Twitter (@KostantineP) or you can cut the middle man and go straight for his blog, Shapescapes (http://shapescapes.blogspot.com).