SHE KILLED HIMin the darkest part of the night, before the dew had settled on the grass.
It was easy. He came to the window when she’d tapped her claws against it. It was exactly what she’d hoped he would do. Sliding up the square of glass. Sticking his head out to investigate. Like an idiot. Like prey.
One less moron in the world. She licked the blood off her mouth, the coarse whiskers sliding against her tongue.
He didn’t even have time to scream. He was no different from any of the others. His eyes had gone round as coins, his cheeks turned fish-flesh white.
It was when their mouths made that terrified O that she sprang.
It was the perfect moment. They saw her coming for them. They knew what was about to happen. But none of them ever had a chance to make a sound.
Except when their necks snap. That makes a sound, she mused.
She’d expected to feel more fear, breaking the rules like this. Instead, she’d discovered that she liked it. The power of deciding who and when. Letting her instincts take over without worrying about the consequences.
After all, she wasn’t the one who would take the blame for killing these sad little rag-doll humans. She wouldn’t get caught—she was too good. Too careful.
It was the other one who would pay.
Dizzy with success, tantalized by the so-close gleam of revenge, she disappeared back into the woods.
© 2010 Christine Johnson
THESMOOTH MIRROR of the pool’s surface shattered as three boys cannonballed into it at the same time. Shrieks erupted from the cluster of girls who got splashed.
“Claire, this is the best party!” Emily gushed, nibbling on a potato chip.
Claire scanned the crowd in her backyard. Bikini-clad girls and soaked boys in swim trunks perched on the patio furniture, drinking soda and laughing. Anyone’ll come to your party if you have a pool, she thought. She scratched the backs of her hands against the sharp edge of the table and wished they’d quit itching. It was like the worst poison ivy ever, only there weren’t any bumps and it wasn’t red.
“Yeah, I guess,” she said. Claire had known most of these people since elementary school, but aside from Emily, she had never been close with any of them. It was the hottest June since 1910, and the huge pool in her backyard had made Claire instantly popular. Which still wasn’t saying very much—more than a few people at the party had been surprised to find out it was Claire’s birthday. Oh, well, I guess having people come just to use the pool is better than not at all. Yep. That’s me—glass always half-full. She sighed.
“What do you mean, ‘I guess’? Aren’t you having fun?” Emily’s mouth curved into a worried little frown.
“No—I mean, yeah, it’s fun. I just don’t know a lot of these people so well.”
“But they’re here, right? And I heard Yolanda saying that she’d missed you since school let out. People do like you, Claire. You just don’t want to believe it.”
Emily grabbed another chip. “So, you really didn’t get a car, huh?”
“Nope. I was hoping Mom was just trying to make me think that she was leaving me stranded, but I got a pair of sapphire earrings from her this morning, so I think she’s serious.” Claire rolled her eyes. It wasn’t like they couldn’t afford for her to have her own car. Her mom just didn’t think she needed one.
Claire’s ears itched like they were on fire, just like her hands, and she pushed back her shiny brown hair so she could rub them.
“What are you doing?” asked Emily. “Matthew is totally watching you! Act normal!”
Claire dropped her hands, feeling the tingle of a flush in her cheeks. Matthew Engle gave her a little wave, and rolled his eyes in the direction of the giggling group sitting behind him. She smiled at him, and he grinned back. A shock of electricity shot through her as he motioned for her to come over. Besides being one of only two guys in the entire school who wasn’t an immature jerk, he was cute. Really cute. Turn-your-brain-to-mush cute.
“It’s not like I have a chance with him, anyway,” Claire said, turning back to Emily.
“Of course you do! You’re smart, you’re funny, and you look totally amazing in that bikini. You definitely need to go talk to him.”
“Only if you come with me.”
“Oh, fine. But you don’t need me. You’d be okay on your own. ” Emily grabbed her soda and pulled Claire to her feet.
Claire took a deep breath and strolled over to Matthew.
“Hey.” Wow, Claire, way to impress him with your conversational skills.
“Good party,” he said.
A shriek erupted from the other side of the circle of deck chairs, buying Claire time to think of something half-intelligent to say.
“Oh, ewwww! I am so serious—I don’t want to hear any more.” Yolanda Adams slapped her hands over her ears and turned away from the group.
“What?” Claire asked.
Dan Maxwell glanced at her. “The last guy who got killed by the werewolf ? Turns out it crushed his skull. One of the other ER nurses told my mom about it. His brains were oozing out all over.”
“Dude, shut up.” Matthew shook his head. “Didn’t you just hear Yollie say she didn’t want to hear about it anymore?”
“Right,” said Emily. “Like there’s anything else to talk about in this town.”
The werewolf was all over the news—in the last month alone, it had killed three people. No one went out after dark anymore. Werewolf attacks were the sort of thing that happened once in a while in Eastern Europe, maybe, or rural Japan, but in the United States they had become as rare as an outbreak of cowpox.
Emily turned to Dan. “Even if Yolanda won’t listen to your gory details, I’m always up for insider information.” She grabbed a handful of pretzels and arranged herself next to Dan. Emily made it look so easy. Claire watched her best friend flirt effortlessly with a guy who wasn’t even her type. Emily only got serious about guys who wore a lot of black, looked sort of unwashed, and were totally into art.
Claire turned back to Matthew, wishing that she had Emily’s confidence around guys. She glanced at the empty plate beside him.
“So, um, have you tried the salsa yet? Lisbeth makes it from scratch.”
“No, but that sounds great. Come on, I need another drink, anyway.”
Matthew grabbed Claire’s hand and pulled her over to the food table. The press of his warm skin against her palm made Claire dizzy, even after he’d let go.
“You probably hear enough about werewolves at home, huh?” she asked him, scratching her earlobe. Again.
He shrugged. “Dad’s spending so much time at the lab and on TV, he really hasn’t been around much. He’s dying to get into Lycanthropy Researchers International—he’s been getting a lot of crap from the media about how he’s not as qualified as the other members of the Federal Human Protection Agency. He’s convinced that this new case is going to be his ‘big break.’” Matthew sounded irritated.
Claire raised an eyebrow. Dr. Engle was leading the hunt in Hanover Falls for the werewolf. It was part of his job for the FHPA—the whole agency was all about researching werewolves and stopping attacks on humans. Claire had seen him on TV a ton, especially lately. He always said the same thing during interviews: “I am honored to be able to help my own hometown in its hour of need. Hanover Falls is currently the FHPA’s top priority, and I will make sure it stays that way until this situation has been resolved.” Then he would adjust his tie. Every time. He creeped Claire out.
“My mom isn’t home much, either,” she offered.
Matthew looked at her, his warm brown eyes locking onto hers.
“Yeah, she just had that big shoot in Greece, right?” he asked.
Claire nodded, amazed that he’d remembered. Her mother spent at least one week every month, usually more, traveling for her photography. Travel magazines, art-book publishers, galleries—they all wanted Marie Benoit behind the camera. Claire didn’t mind all the trips. Things were actually easier, more relaxed, when her mom wasn’t home.
“Okay, everyone, time for cake!” Claire’s mom called, sticking her head out one of the back doors.
She stepped out, holding the door for Lisbeth, the latest in the long line of au pairs who stayed with Claire while her mom traveled. No one else had lasted more than a year, but Lisbeth had been with them since Claire was thirteen. Claire loved Lisbeth, even though she wished her mom would realize that she was too old to need someone around all the time. It was one thing for Lisbeth to be there when her mom took long trips, but surely Claire was old enough to come home to an empty house in the afternoons. But if her mom didn’t think that sixteen was old enough to get a car, then she probably wouldn’t listen to Claire’s ideas about how much supervision she needed from Lisbeth, either. At least having Lisbeth meant not having to ask her mom’s permission all the time, and Lisbeth wasn’t nearly as strict.
Lisbeth walked onto the patio carrying a giant chocolate cake with Happy 16th Birthday, Claire in white icing. A ring of candles burned around the top.
Everyone turned to look at Claire, breaking into a halfhearted rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.” Claire forced herself to smile, even though she was completely mortified.
Claire leaned over and blew out the candles.
“Did you make a wish?” Matthew asked.
“Yeah.” Claire nodded, unable to look him in the eyes, since her wish totally revolved around him.
The patio door burst open and Claire looked up, relieved for the interruption. Dan’s mother tore into the yard wearing bloodstained hospital scrubs.
“Mom?” Dan sounded confused and annoyed. Mostly annoyed.
“Get your stuff,” she panted. “We’re going.”
Claire’s mother stepped forward. “I’m sorry, is something wrong?”
“Yes. The news just came over the police dispatch at the hospital—someone thinks they spotted the werewolf at the edge of the woods. These woods.” She gestured over the brick wall that surrounded the Benoits’ backyard. Her hand shook as she pointed. “In broad daylight. The police are patrolling until the FHPA squad comes. I’m sorry, Ms. Benoit, but I can’t let Dan stay here. It’s too dangerous.” She looked at the rest of the group. “It’s too dangerous for all of you. You all need to go, now.”
Right on cue, several cell phones around the pool started ringing.
Emily looked up at Claire, her phone glued to her ear. It’s on the news, she mouthed. My mom’s freaking.
Cars screeched into the sweeping drive of the Benoits’ house and the guests grabbed their stuff. Claire scratched at her hands and shivered as she watched everyone stream into the house. A strong hand gripped her upper arm and she jumped.
Matthew stood behind her. A grin played across his face as he pulled her behind the pool house. He was so close, Claire could feel the heat from his skin.
“Aren’t you scared?”
“Nah. Why should I be? The chance of a werewolf attacking in broad daylight—it’s practically zero.”
“But that’s why everyone’s freaking out, right? Because if someone actually saw a werewolf during the day, it might mean it would actually strike before dark?”
“Claire! Come inside, please,” Claire’s mom called from the back door.
The thread of electric energy running between Claire and Matthew faded.
He stepped back, tucking a lock of Claire’s hair back behind her ear.
“I’d better go,” he said. “I had a great time. A really, really great time.”
She nodded. “O-okay. Thanks.” Her voice shook. “Be careful getting home.”
“Don’t worry about me—I’ll be fine. Call you later!” He smiled and darted around the pool house.
Claire leaned against the wall, dizzy with happiness. Oh my God! He said he’d call! Oh my God! She wrapped her arms around her damp bathing suit and twirled around.
“Claire,” her mother called from the door. “Everyone’s leaving. Claire?”
After the party, Lisbeth was too freaked about the werewolf to deal with the mess outside, but, of course, Claire’s mom was too bothered by the mess to let it be. She cleaned it up herself, her lips pursed, while Lisbeth hid in the kitchen doing dishes. By dinnertime, the tension in the house was thicker than the frosting on the birthday cake.
Claire sat at the kitchen island between Lisbeth and her mom. Half-eaten sandwiches lay in front of them—rare roast beef for Claire and her mother, and a vegetarian-friendly grilled cheese for Lisbeth. The news was running another special expanded edition about the werewolf sighting, which was pretty much just them saying, “We don’t know anything else, but we’ll tell you as soon as we do. In the meantime, here’s everything we do know, again,” over and over and over. Claire ignored it, but her mom’s eyes were glued to the screen, watching as a police sketch artist held up a rendition of what they thought the wolf might look like.
Lisbeth picked at the remains of her sandwich and patted the back of her sunburned neck. “I’m worn out. I’m gonna slather on some aloe and go to bed,” she announced. She leaned over and pecked Claire on the head. “Happy Birthday, sweetie. Sixteen. Wow.” She sighed. “I better hurry up and find a guy to sweep me off my feet, or you’ll head off to college and I won’t have anyone to take care of but your mother.”
It sounded like she was joking, but Claire could see the concern that crinkled up the corners of Lisbeth’s eyes.
Guess the thing with that guy from her yoga class must have flopped.
“Nah, you can come with me and fold my laundry in the dorm.” Claire stuck her tongue out at Lisbeth. Next to Claire, her mother snorted.
Lisbeth rolled her eyes. “I’ll let that go because it’s your birthday.” She leaned into Claire. “See you in the morning.”
“’Night.” Claire stopped scratching the backs of her hands against the rough underside of the granite countertop. She snaked one arm around Lisbeth for a quick hug.
Marie tore another bite out of her sandwich and nodded at Lisbeth without taking her eyes off the news. Claire felt Lisbeth stiffen beside her—just a little—before she turned and left the room.
Claire fished an ice cube out of her glass and held it against the prickling itch in her ear.
“Are you still mad at Lisbeth about the cleaning thing?”
Her mother’s jaw stopped midchew and she looked away from the replay of another interview with Dr. Engle. Claire’s chest tightened under the full force of her mother’s dark eyes.
“No, of course not. I’m angry at that ignorant, pompous quack. He’s the reason Lisbeth was too scared to be out earlier.” She ripped off another corner of her sandwich and chewed fiercely. “He’s appointed himself judge, jury, and executioner—testing that stupid ‘cure’ of his without even confirming that his subjects really are werewolves. Ruining lives so that he can hurry to impress a group of scientists and hiding behind the government to do it—he makes me sick!” She threw the remnants of her sandwich onto her plate and strode over to the kitchen door.
Matthew’s dad was working on a drug that supposedly cured lycanthropy. It somehow ate the disease out of the werewolf’s brain so that it couldn’t transform anymore. During a TV interview Claire had heard Dr. Engle explain how it worked, but it had been way technical and confusing—even the interviewer looked kind of lost. All she really got was that it had to be administered at the full moon, but when they were in human form.
No one really cared how it worked, just that it did. Once a werewolf had been treated, it stayed in human form, forever. The Austrian werewolves he had tested it on were left in a permanent coma. They were still in some locked wing at the Vienna University Research Center, but pretty much everyone agreed it was a well-deserved punishment for attacking humans.
“But the Austrian attacks stopped after he injected the werewolves,” Claire pointed out. She glanced over at the television. Dr. Engle had the same golden-blond hair that Matthew did, but his face was sharper—all planes and angles.
Marie gripped the doorframe. Tension rippled across her back. “And you assume that there is no other explanation for that?” She spoke without turning.
Claire swallowed the wad of sandwich she’d stuffed into her cheek. “I, uh, hadn’t thought about it. I guess there could be.”
“That, my love, is his trap. Many fall into it. I hope that you won’t make the same mistake. I am going to have a bath now. Please put your dishes in the sink when you’re finished.”
Claire’s mother slipped up the steps while Claire toyed with the crust of her sandwich and listened to the mindless drone of the newscaster. Dark spots the size of pinpricks sprang up on the backs of her hands. She scratched at them with the tines of a plastic fork.
Claire sighed and trudged upstairs to find the cortisone cream.
* * *
A hand shook her shoulder.
She cracked open one eye.
“Mrrrhmph,” she mumbled, as Lisbeth shook her again.
“I brought you up a tray. It’s nearly noon.”
Claire pulled the covers over her head and nestled farther down into the bed. She heard Lisbeth walk a few steps and waited for the door to close, already sinking back into sleep. That is, until the covers were jerked off her. Lisbeth stood at the end of the bed, her arms full of fabric and a grin spread across her face.
“Your mom will be home in an hour—you need to be up and dressed by then. She wants to take you shopping.” Lisbeth sat down on the end of the bed and snatched a triangle of toast off Claire’s plate. Claire watched Lisbeth examine it for any sign of contamination from the strips of bacon before she crunched into it.
“Hey, I thought that was for me!” Claire sat up and made a halfhearted grab for the toast.
“Hey, yourself.” Lisbeth took another bite. “Cook’s treat. You’re lucky I brought it up here at all, missy.” Her face turned serious. “I figured you’d be tired after the commotion yesterday. I’m sorry your party ended that way.”
Matthew’s promise to call her echoed in Claire’s memory. Actually, I think it ended pretty well. “Yeah, well, at least everyone came in the first place, right?”
Lisbeth ruffled her hair. “That’s very positive of you, Claire-bear. Ya gotta go with the flow, right?”
Claire rolled her eyes. “Oh my God, Lisbeth, no one says ‘go with the flow’ anymore. You sound like some long-lost hippy. And don’t call me Claire-bear.”
Lisbeth stuck out her lower lip and pretended to be hurt. “I bring you brunch in bed, and all I get is abuse. Fine, I’m going back downstairs.” She leapt off the bed.
Claire threw a pillow at Lisbeth, who ducked it expertly and laughed as she slipped out of the room. Mom will be here in an hour. Claire sighed. Nothing like being at the beck and call of someone who barely remembered you were alive.
Her mom was gone so much, and even when she was home, Marie spent most of her time locked in her darkroom, or pacing her office while she negotiated an even more astronomical salary for her next shoot. Still, it would be worth getting out of bed if it meant going shopping. Claire picked up a piece of bacon and nibbled at it, then tossed it back on the plate and walked over to her closet. She threw on a pair of shorts and a tank top, then hurried into the bathroom to get ready.
She was running the flat iron through her hair one last time when muffled music started floating out of her laundry basket.
“Crap!” Claire yelped. She dug through the pile of dirty clothes until she found the jeans she’d been wearing yesterday morning. Plunging her hand into the pocket, she yanked out her cell phone, glancing at the caller ID. Her heart pounded as she flipped open the phone.
“Hello?” She blushed at how breathless she sounded.
“Claire? Sorry, were you still asleep?” Matthew asked.
“No, I’m up. I just couldn’t find my phone.” Oh, way to go, Claire. Now he thinks you’re a ditz.
“Cool.” He paused. “So, I was wondering—do you maybe want to come over later? We could hang out here and watch a movie or something.”
Claire bit her lip to keep from squealing.
“Yeah,” she said, “that sounds good. What, uh—what time?”
She did a celebration dance around the room while they made plans. As soon as they’d hung up, she tore down the stairs and slapped, barefoot, across the marble floor into the kitchen.
“Lisbeth!” She called.
A blond head peeked around the corner. “What? You’d better be ready, your mom’ll be here any minute.”
“You have to drop me off at Matthew’s house later, okay? I mean, I can go, right? To watch a movie?”
Lisbeth grinned, but a little worried line appeared between her eyebrows. “Matthew? Isn’t he older than you are?”
“Only by a year.”
Lisbeth put her hands on her hips and cocked her head at Claire. “Isn’t he a Pisces? They’re not very compatible with Geminis, you know.”
Claire rolled her eyes. “Oh my God. Enough with the astrology crap. Just—can I go, or what?”
“Okay, you can go, but when he gets all emotional, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Lisbeth shook her head. “Now go upstairs and”—she stopped midsentence—“hey, why are your hands so red?”
Claire shoved them deep into her pockets. Overnight, the pinprick rash had gotten worse—it was on her ears, too. The scratchy denim hem rubbed against her wrists and it felt like heaven. “I think it’s poison ivy. I already put some stuff on them.”
The back door swung open. Claire’s mother stepped into the house, her satiny-dark hair damp with sweat. “It’s scorching out there, again.” She looked at Claire. “Are you ready to go shopping?”
Claire nodded, kissed Lisbeth on the cheek, and hurried into the cool interior of her mother’s waiting Mercedes. “Thanks for taking me.”
“Of course,” her mother said. “Your sixteenth birthday—it’s important. A mark of change. We should celebrate.”
© 2010 Christine Johnson