The trees that surrounded the area loomed over the site like ancient guardians protecting their tiny treasures Nat and his friends hunkered down into the snow-covered grass, bracing themselves against the chill wind that blew in from the north of them. It smelled of wood smoke and burning gas. They were far enough up on the side of the hill that the entirety of Jenton spread out below them. The wind gusting through the forest pushed the flames in the orchards on the south side of town away from the group. Grey-white flakes descended as they observed the devistation; ash fell with the snow.
“There might be more fires to our backs.” Deck studied the piecemeal sky between the evergreen boughs.
“We should get moving then. Don’t want to get stuck in a wildfire.” Nat helped Zola get her backpack on.
“Benj, got a plan?” Deck’s voice muffled under the patter of snow. He pulled a hunting mask on over his face to cut the chill.
Benj prodded at leaves buried under white mounds. “Neo York.”
Sun Hee leaned against his arm, her hoodie pulled over her beanie. “That’s gonna be a walk.”
“Neo York?” Nat squatted down to hide behind a thick tree trunk to escape the wind. He observed his friend, or rather the pain running under his skin studied the memories Nat had of the man. Benj had been the butt of bullying for his antiquated clothing style and straight A’s and the way he spoke sometimes. The teasing had stopped when Deck and Yeller took him under their wing. That was after Benj let into the side of Deck for making a pass at Sun Hee. The man practised Muay Thai in an underground ring weekly. That was how he was able to afford most of his expensive science equipment and pay his way through college.
Nat’s stomach pinched at the realisation that his home would soon burn with the rest of the town. The wind sprinkled gritty snow in his hair and tugged at his coat before dying down once again. A tree limb snap. Side-eyeing the woods, he found no elusive shadows or monsterous forms hiding beneath the frozen foliage. He shrugged it off as the cold breaking a corroded joint.
The young man returned to the scene in front of him. He bit at the peeling edge of his chapped lips and brushed at his ears as snow flew into them. The pressure in his head had not ceased. He shut his eyes against the pain.
Itching deep in his chest, subtle, almost a tickle, prickled his skin. He coughed once to see if he could discourage it. The sensation gnawed beneath his sking until it burned. It slithered from his lungs to the top of the breastbone. Fingertips buzzed like white static, muscles in his forearms cramped. A deep chuckle bounced between his eardrums. Beads of sweat formed on his brow. Nausea built in his stomach. A roar in the base of his skull crumpled him to the ground. His vision blurred a crimson red.
“I think I remember where that facility was supposed to be, the one I mentioned earlier, Deck. It’s a research plant in Neo York that was specialising in RWE effect antidotes. They were a start-up, so I don’t know how far they got; even if they weren’t hit by a bomb, anything could have happened to them. There aren’t too many supplies along the Eastern Front right now. Too many bombs have hit that place to know…,” Benj collapsed as his throat closed off around guttural resonance. He put a hand to his throat. Eyes round, he gasped, struggling to breathe.
The world grew taller. Pain slashed unmercifully through Nat’s body, gripping and tearing at his organs and bones and flesh. The roaring increased, letting itself rip from his body. Fur pushed through his pores in a thick mat, wet and blood-soaked. Nerve endings pulsed and throbbed. His teeth sharpened into long canines. His jaws, in what felt like an eternity, extended in a crunch of bones. His tongue changed into a thin strip. In the last of it, his spine, humerus, and femurs cracked and shifted into a new, more compact wolf form.
Nat twisted, eyeing the wolves surrounding him. The creatures whimpered. A distinct sensation, a sliding unease sifted along his spine. He was not so much the driver of this wolf form, but more the passanger with no access to the controls.
Zola’s wolf shook, drawing the pack’s attention. Slowly, bones cracked and shifted into a human form. Nerves and blood vessels shifted, followed by her fur retracting into her skin, along with her black-tipped nails. She continued the long process until she was fully human once again. The woman doubled over, winded from the transformation.
Something lay inside them now. A mind not their own. Their DNA stank of difference. The tension wrapped around Nat, whispering to get out and run free. It bristled against his mind and snapped along his skin as another tree limb broke.
Zola stayed composed through it, a hunter in her realm, never to show emotion in front of confrontation. The hair on her neck stood on end, and a slight growl escaped her.
The wolves looked at her as if to ask her how she did it. “Think about being human,” she told them between pained breaths, pointing at her forehead. “All good anime tropes have that. You should have watched them with me when you had the chance. You have to command that animal down, to give up its possession of your mind.”
Soon Deck and Sun Hee joined her in human form, grabbing up clothing from the ground where they had fallen during transformation. Benj’s wolf took up his clothes and padded into the dense thicket to return as his human self, dressed and presentable. Yeller struggled with his wolf, snapping at the golden tale and biting at his paws. Transformation took it’s sweet time of torture.
Nat pulled for control, tried to do what Zola said, what his friends did. The weight of it settled about his shoulders in his mind. A brushing sensation left him unable to breath. Black inky fur against his neck. The form, though, that he stood in glistened white against the forest path. He reached, willed, bartered, plead with the creature. It was no use, a man against a mountain.
I need to be human right now. Not wolf. I need this more than breathing. Give me back my body and I will get you out.
A soft voice, a feminine lilt wrapped in black fur brushed at his subconscious. You’ve promised to give me form.
Nat sat naked in the snow, stunned at the swift transformation, at the fire burning in his bones. “Do we want to talk about what just happened or…?”
Yeller threw clothes at the frozen man. “We’d better get that antidote fast.” Sensitive ears picked up on leaves scattering and crunching under heavy boots. A low growl, like Zola’s, escaped him.
“What do we do? Walk all the way to Neo York?” Deck sneered. Benj might be able to read an analog map, if they could find one, but that was a long shot for getting across the country. Bombs had wiped out many of the cities and infrastructural decay left deep fissures into the asphalt and cement, making them impossible to drive. Many of the bridges from pre-fall had collapsed long before anyone in the group was born.
“Well, what do we do?” Yeller nudged his nose back to the forest in front of him, trying to clue Deck in that someone else was there. The man followed his gaze.
“For one thing, you can get off my land!” a tall, grey haired man pointed a shotgun in their direction. Everyone froze. “I’ve watched you guys here for the last two month. Didn’t you know this was my land? Git off.” The man spat, brown tobacco landing with a splat in the snow.
“Oh, crap, sorry, sorry, didn’t know. Thought it was one of those government fields.” Deck raised both hands and backed away. “Grab your stuff.” The group pulled on their packs. Sprinting, they skittered around trees and headed deeper into the woods, heading west.
“That settles it. We’re heading to Neo York,” Zola wheezed against a tree trunk. Snow gathered in thick drifts, threatening their progress through the forest. Her friends collapsed around her.
Nat slid to a wet frozen log, indifferent to the damp cold. He fought the beast wanting to rise under his skin. His vision continued to shift as the creature battled his will.
Benj leaned against a tree and studied the rest of the group. He watched them in earnest, waiting to see what anyone else had to say before pointing a question at Nat. “A wolf can run faster than a human, rightt?” He pushed his old-school glasses up his nose and bunched his fingers in front of his mouth, blowing hot air onto the frozen tips.
“Yeah, for a little while at least, as far as I can remember from high school zoology. Why are you asking the Post-French, Mr. Micro-Bio?” Nat retorted between deep breaths. Shaggy hair tumbled around his shoulders, hiding his face. Acid green eyes pinned Benj beneath the locks. The wolf watched them.
“Why a dead language? I have to ask that every time. Well, we’ve found our mode of transportation.” Benj glanced away to distract himself from looking in his friend’s direction.
Nat breathed hard, eyes dilating and undilating. His hands tremble with control. The beast beneath his skin edged to let loose. The raw prickle of sharing his body with another power, more deadly than him, was exhilarating, euphoric, addicting. Adrenaline pumped through his blood. There was something else to it.
The creature’s energy demanded he submit. It was a fight to keep his body his solely. The wolf, the animal, the monster, the bloodthirsty demon seethed and ripped through his body in retaliation. His voice rasped under the storm’s onslaught. “So, Post France was razed off the map with the Grey Monster. At this point, Gaelic and Korean are also dead. Been dead two centuries longer, so deal with my choices. It can be brought back as long as enough people know it. Whatever we do.” Nat pulled his arms in around his stomach to still the building anxiety. “We better do it fast.” He held Deck’s gaze, willing him to understand him. Deck swallowed hard and nodded his head.
“How do we get to Neo York, even if we do run. We live on the outskirts of Oregonia, for crying out loud.” Yeller pressed at his throbbing temples.
“Do you guys want to stay in the freezing climate up here and have a shorter distance to run, or head down towards Mexas and have a warmer run and more of a chance of being caught?” Benj pointed south.
“What do you mean by caught?” Nat pricked at the tone in his voice.
“Warmer climates, it’s rare to see wolves; coyotes and coywolves, on the other hand, are detested, chicken raiding vermin. We’d probably be mistaken for coyotes down there by the remaining preppers who survived.” Benj dug his toe in the mud. “We would become a skin for someone darn quick.”
“Oh…well… that’s very reassuring. What if we travelled on foot by day so that people wouldn’t know the difference, and by night we could run?” Sun Hee offered. Deck nodded his agreement.
Tears glittered at the edge of Zola’s eyes.“Good idea, other then, when are we supposed to sleep?”
Yeller tried to hush her. She glared him down then turned her venomous glare to Benj. The man recoiled under her burning stare, noting the flush of her cheeks.
“Another thing.” Sun Hee laid a calming hand on Zola’s arm and pulled her focus away from death glaring the men. “Wolves don’t have slitted eyes. Cats do, right Benj?” She chewed on her lower lip, worry wrinkling her brow.
“These people were messing around with DNA; they could have added anything to the mix, including some cat DNA,” Benj took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes in frustration..
“Let’s ask the scientists when we get there. I’m rather inclined to taking that information the painful way if I can. Come on, that weird guy is coming back,” Deck growled, the hair on the back of his neck rising.
They covered ground, looking back at intervals. The apparition appeared again and again, following them across the acreage. The old guy couldn’t have been that fast. Where was the end of his property line? They hadn’t run across any more barbed wire. How many miles did the man own? Even Nat, who was on the track team in college and had been a member of the basketball team in high school, couldn’t shake the creep following them. They dashed through the ice-encrusted woods, limbs snapping, icicles crashing. The sun slipped through the murky cloud-covered sky.
Zola and Sun Hee motioned for a break at the bottom of a gully. “Stop, guys, just – stop!” Nat gulped, balancing himself against a large juniper tree, gasping for air in the dry chill. Benj, Yeller, and Deck looked down at the three from halfway up the muddy embankment.
The roaring bled through the base of his skull again. The skyline spun. For a split second, he swore his brain had been cut in half and turned on its side, his vision going black in his left eye. The wolf paced under his skin and gnawed on his gut. Fire burned in his lungs, near his backbone, as it popped and groaned. The beast wanted out, and it was pushing. Blood lust coated his tongue. Nausea hung at the base of his ears, the creature’s craving so strange, so wrong. He felt like Dr Jekyll at the edge of wanting and hating Hyde. The euphoria of release held on by a thread, only stalled by a desperate desire to retain a thought of humanity.
“Cad?” Yeller puffed.
Nat crouched low, pointing back the way they had come. “Shh. Éistimid agus feicimid.” Yeller crouched next to him, trying to see what Nat was seeing. “The man is still following us. Give me a second.” Nat inched forward, finger tips sinking in the snow. The demon beneath his skin gnawed at his bones, making demands for freedom. He stood from his crouch and eased his way into the woods, the scraping of leaves and snow giving away his position.
The group watched, waited. Then they saw what Nat was seeing. Just the hint of extra people in the trees. The hint of extra…Nats?
What he saw, though, was the old man that chased them off the first time. The waif crept closer to the man, getting used to walking silently in the snow. The farther he advanced, the harder he worked to muffle the sound of his feet on twigs, the sound of his breathing, the sound of his coat rubbing. He slowly erased his presence.
Close enough to the man, Nat boldly strode in front of him. The grey haired scarecrow disappeared, leaving behind a second Nat. His blazing green eyes burned through him, seeing the wolf transposed on the mirror, looking back at him, saliva dripping from dagger length fangs. It shifted, the fangs falling away, the muzzle pushing back to a dark humanoid form. Heart beating hard, Nat backed away from the image. The stringy man resurfaced in the mirror. Nat glanced around, spotting the tiny projector, wind turbine, and battery pack high up in a tree powering the thing. “Damn it.”
The wolf bit out at him, pushing hard to take over, stealing an inch of his brain, of his decision making. With a growl of irritation, the creature smashed his hand into the mirror, destroying the image that had been following them for the last two hours. Nat cringed under the physical blow as the wolf let go.
Blood dripped from a long, jagged gash across his hand. Shards clung to his jackets, small holes pocking the waterproof material. He chided himself for having fallen to the creature. Searching around, he found a low to the ground sensor that triggered the projector to turn on. It was connected to a rats nest of other wires buried throughout the leaves and undergrowth he suspected ran to the other mirrors in the forest.
“Nat!” Sun Hee rushed to him, tugging the scarf from around her neck and wrapped it around his hand.
“What the hell, dude?” Deck slammed his pack to the ground and ripped through the contents for the first aid kit.
“You know, if you stop taking such drastic measures, you could keep from getting hurt like that.” Zola averted her eyes from the flow of blood.
“Thanks for the pointer. At least we can walk from now on. We don’t have to pay attention to that old dude.” Nat ducked to avoid Sun Hee’s ministrations. He clamped down on his wrist, silently cursing the wolf.
“Yeah, but you didn’t have to break the glass. Yeller, best word for idiot if you would.” Benj walked over to help Deck with the first aid kit.
Yeller gave Nat one dismissive, displeased sidelong glare. “Gammy eejit.”
Benj snorted. “I actually understood that.”
“That’s ‘cause the English figured out that the Irish cuss the best.” Yeller took a roll of bandages held out to him.
Deck sourced a coagulant and an antiseptic. Nat, not having lost out on the topic at hand, and realising what his best friend had produced from his pack, was making for a quick getaway. “Yeller?” Deck beckoned toward the man with the scarf wrapped around his hand.
Yeller sighed, exasperated. “C’mere ye’ bleeden’ sap.” He grabbed Nat by the collar. “Suigh, fan.” The emo turned blond plunked the waife down on his knee, forcing Nat to extend his hand out for Deck’s dosage of foul liquid.
“I am not a dog,” Nat protested heavily, knowing that iodine was on the docket of painful medications about to be applied to him. He tried to pull away from Yeller, who wasn’t having it. Yeller caught him about the back of the neck and his side, pinning him with heavy arms used to wielding logging materials for his father’s firewood business. “Sure are acting like one. Hold still if you don’t want it to hurt as bad,” he muttered in Nat’s ear.
“Woof.” Heat crept up Nat’s face.
Deck carefully peeled back Sun Hee’s handywork. Contemplating the mess of a gash, he sighed, exasperated, and cleaned it out the best he could. For good measure, he liberally dosed Nat with iodine, his irritation abating at his friend’s cringing face.
“Hey, today has had me riled from the start. Can’t I vent a bit of this anger?” Nat grumbled. Though, truthfully, he wasn’t sure if it was the wolf or him that was riled more. They hadn’t been the ones to see the black and white wolves trying to eat his throat. Or the dark figure. They hadn’t seen the sheer terror in his eyes as he realised he was becoming a monster. They hadn’t seen his look back at them, to see their wolves, the immense size dwarfing his friends – death burning in their eyes. Two, a golden yellow and a red one, clinging to Yeller.
“Just drop it; we still have to find food and get out of this forest before sundown. We can’t deplete Deck’s MREs. It’ll get colder in the darker areas,” Yeller grouched, looking from one friend to another, trying to persuade them away from where they were headed. His heart had stopped at the blood dripping from Nat’s hand. He fought the memory when Nat’s blood had covered a tile floor. Yeller didn’t want to ever see that vision again.
Now that Nat took the moment to study at his friends, he saw a marked transformation from that morning. Zola’s deep brown kinky hair was highlighted with gold. A patch of beige skin against her natural light umber masked her eyes, now a yellow gold, the brown entirely erased.
Benj’s black hair shimmered with a stripe of salt and pepper at the temples. His deep brown eyes were almost entirely black. His birthmark, a white latticework on his left shoulder, grew to encompass the entire left side of the back of his torso. He had also gained an additional two inches, leaving his shirt and pants too short around his waist and ankles.
Deck’s hair lightened to an ash blond. Sectoral heterochromia gave him gold highlights to his blue. He had darkened from pale whitewash to a soft bronze. His musculature had thickened, filling out his quarterback physic to that of a bodybuilder.
Sun Hee’s black hair had gone auburn brown and curled into tight ringlets. Her nose had taken on a slight hook to the bridge, and she had also grown a couple of inches taller like her brother. It was disconcerting to see her dark eyes a brilliant shade of hazel.
Yeller’s skin had deepened to a ruddy tan, and freckles scattered across his arm in constellations. Nat cleared his throat, realizing where those arms were, grabbing Yeller’s attention. The blond looked down to Nat’s prodding fingers that brushed against the wrist pinning his neck. Yeller released him quickly, heat washing across his face momentarily.
Nat, hand cleaned and dressed, got up and held a hand out to Yeller. “This bleeden’ sap can at least be polite.”
Yeller took the offered hand and pulled himself out of the snow. “Sapling needs to learn to not drip so much or else the frost is gonna kill it before spring.” He dusted off his pants and coat.
They continued for several more hours in the snow-covered coniferous forest before reaching a highway. It was a long black tongue whipping out of a merciless white maw of fog. More rubble than road, it might promise a destination. The group hoped it led into a town of some sort, and hopefully not Jenton.
Dusk settled the road into shades of grey and black. They had eaten sparingly from Deck’s rations, all too aware of how hard it was going to be to find food. They were sore and tired of running and walking. Scratched from the underbrush and bruised from falling and slipping on the snow-wet rocks, they wanted safety.
The road looked deserted, and they hadn’t passed any stores or shelters along the way for the last hour. An overlook on the highway yielded picnic benches and a concrete block bathroom, now missing its roof. They set up in one side of the building. The structure had been used before by other travellers who had dragged in a pair of cement tables. The stalls, torn down haphazardly, and the toilets ripped out and cemented over created enough space to contemplate setting up Deck’s tent. The group hoped that whoever the prior occupants would not be coming back.
The table bore an inch of snow upon its lichen crusted surface. The guys brushed it off and sat for a while, discussing what to do next. The women disappeared to the back of the building for their own purposes. The cold set in quickly, and the men shivered in silence as an icy wind blew through the broken windows.
When the women returned, Benj and Yeller went out to bring back firewood and sticks while Deck and Nat created a burn barrel from an old old drum that had been used as a trash can at the rest area in a prior life.
There was only the one tent. Designed for a maximum of four people, the all-weather created an anxious sense of modesty. Eyes held glances around the circle of the burn barrel. Cheeks flushed pink as each individual in turn found themselves staring at the tiny structure.
The fog cleared to leave them watching the stars, their breath smoking in the cold. They looked at the moon and the base, Polaris, that marred its shattered surface. The crack straight down the middle of the orbiting satellite of rock cast shadows through empty tree limbs. Several chunks had fallen out of the surface. A skirt of rubble off of its twisted around its surface. The sky behind it twinkled with millions of diamonds.
They crowded into the tent. Comfort was a foreign word with nonexistent personal space being the predominant theme of the evening. Deck curled around Sun Hee protectively while Benj and Zola tried to get over their bashfulness. Yeller slipped his way to the wall of the tent and tried to give Nat who had his back to Zola some distance, though his frame proved warm against the chill.
 Look and listen.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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