The day everything started, Freddie and I had been gathering firewood most of the afternoon.
We were a week into the big backpacking trip—“we” being the Sunset Hills Junior High Ecology Club; our faculty sponsor, Mrs. Castillo; and her husband—and we were going to have a bonfire that evening, to celebrate reaching the halfway mark right on schedule. But that afternoon we’d ended up on a stretch of ground that fire had gone over about twenty years back, and so far the second growth hadn’t gotten past the underbrush-and-sapling stage. Gathering sticks and kindling for a really big fire turned out to be quite a job—especially since Mr. Castillo didn’t seem to think any stack of wood shorter than the person who gathered it was enough.
“Talk about overkill,” I said, as Freddie and I carried the last rucksack loads of kindling back to camp. “If Mr. Castillo had been in charge of building the Ark, Noah would have wound up with a boat the size of the New Jersey.”
“It still wouldn’t have been big enough for all those animals,” said Freddie. He’s always coming up with lines like that; in science class, Mrs. Castillo used to say that Freddie was one of nature’s skeptics.
“Honestly, Freddie,” I said. “Don’t you know a joke when you hear one?”
“Sure,” he said. “Just the same, Val, with the few people the Ark had aboard, there wouldn’t even be enough of them to shovel all the—”
I threw a pine cone at him and chased him back to camp. When we got there, we dumped the firewood and went over to where Mr. Castillo sat leaning against a backpack next to his tent—if you can call a pair of ponchos strung between two trees a tent, which I personally wouldn’t if I could help it. Mrs. Castillo didn’t seem to mind much, which probably proves that love is blind, or at least doesn’t freeze too easily.
Mr. Castillo taught physics over at the high school, and if you ask me, he was the only reason our parents agreed to let us make the trip in the first place. Mrs. Castillo was so tiny she got mistaken for a student sometimes, but Mr. Castillo was something else. He wasn’t a big man, or a loud one—but nobody ever messed with him, not even the tough kids that had all the other teachers scared.
“Hey there, Mr. Castillo,” said Freddie. “Where’s everybody else?”
Mr. Castillo was shaving wood into tinder fuzz sticks with a survival knife. He laid a finished fuzz stick on the pile beside him and started making another before he answered. “Diana’s down at the stream with Rosa”—that’s Mrs. Castillo’s real name—“filling canteens and water bags. The others are gathering firewood.”
“More firewood?” I looked at the baby lumberyard Freddie and I had carried back with us. “What are we going to do with it all—burn down Chicago?”
Mr. Castillo smiled and shook his head. “There are some things you can’t have too much of, and firewood is one of them.”
About that time Diana and Mrs. Castillo came back, lugging the last of the big folding water jugs between them, and the boys showed up a few minutes later. Jay brought in the most wood, just like he always did. Sometime during the last year, he’d grown muscles the other guys hadn’t yet, and he never lost a chance to rub it in.
Night falls earlier than you’d expect, up in the mountains. By the time we’d finished dinner, the sun had gone down and a few stars had started to come out. We built up our cookfire into a yellow blaze and settled down around the firepit to tell scary stories.
Mr. Castillo started things off with the story about the golden arm. That one’s so old I think I first heard it back in third grade, but he did a good job all the same. When he shouted “You Have It!” everybody jumped about a foot into the air and then pretended they hadn’t.
After that, Mrs. Castillo yawned and said it was time the old folks went to bed. She and Mr. Castillo headed off to the Poncho Palace, but the rest of us kept right on telling stories—the hitchhiker, the guy with the hook for a hand, all the other creepy ones.
When it came Diana’s turn, she did the one about the baby-sitter and the prowler on the upstairs phone; she said it happened to a friend of a cousin of hers, but Bill said they’d made a movie just like that a few years back. They probably had, too, if Bill said so. From the time he got tall enough to reach the ticket window, he’d seen every movie that came out—and as soon as his family got a VCR, he started playing catch-up on the oldies.
“Your turn, Jay,” Greg said, when Bill stopped talking.
Jay shook his head. “I don’t know any stories,” he said, and gave us a sort of nasty grin. “At least not the same kind you do.”
“Come on,” said Diana. “Everybody knows a story.”
“Okay,” he said. “But you probably won’t like mine.”
“Why not?” I asked. I’ve got a big mouth sometimes—and as you may have figured out by now, Jay wasn’t one of my favorite people. I caught him throwing rocks at a stray kitten once, back in fourth grade, and I’ve got a long memory.
“You’ll see,” he said.
The important thing about this [Jay said] is that it’s true. It didn’t happen to my grandfather, or the friend of a cousin, or anything like that. It’s happening to me.
Remember when I had my appendix out, back in sixth grade? During the operation, I needed some blood—nothing strange about that. But after I got out of the hospital, I healed fast. Even the scar went away.
Then I noticed I wasn’t getting hurt anymore. Not even a scratch. And I started having dreams whenever the moon was full—dreams of changing into something fierce and powerful, getting free of everything, and running through the night.
Afterward, in the mornings, I’d find dirt under my fingernails, and sometimes blood. But that’s all I thought it was for a long time—just dreams.
Last full moon, though, I finally figured everything out. It was great. I could do stuff I’d only dared to think about before, and nothing could touch me. Not even the bullets. It was like being immortal, it was like having the power of life and death…it was the best thing in the world, and I had it.
And I used it, too. Remember those stories on TV about the jogger who got torn up by a wild animal, right in the middle of town? The police never did figure out what happened.
But I knew.
The change must have come from that transfusion I got—the donor must have been a werewolf like me. Someday I’m going to donate blood myself, just to pass the favor along.
But first I’m going to disappear, because high school is no place for a full-time manhunter. Tomorrow night’s the full moon. By morning, you’ll be just another bunch of backpackers who got careless and never came back.
Too bad about you guys, but I’ll be gone before the forest rangers find the pieces.
Finally Diana said, “That isn’t funny.”
“Well, you asked for a story,” Jay said. He gave us that grin again. “Go ahead, admit it—I scared the pants off of you there at the end.”
“No way,” I said, standing up. “Come on, Di. Let’s get some sleep.”
We headed for our tent, and the guys started arguing about whose turn it was to take the fire watch. They still hadn’t settled it by the time Diana and I had ourselves zipped up into our sleeping bags.
“Hey, Val.” Diana’s voice came about three inches from my left ear. With both of us inside the tent, any mosquitoes that made it in through the netting had to fight for airspace.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“What do you think?”
“About that story?” I wriggled down a bit inside my sleeping bag. “He made it up.”
“Maybe.” Di still didn’t sound too happy. “But what if he believes it?”
“Then he’s crazy,” I told her. “Go to sleep.”
Maybe she did, too, but I didn’t. Not for a long time, anyway.
Next morning, while Freddie and I refilled canteens down at the stream, I asked him the same question Di had asked me.
He gave me a smile that showed the braces on his teeth. “What do I think? Well…if making a werewolf is that easy, why aren’t we up to our armpits in werewhelps?”
“I’m not joking, Freddie.” I screwed the top back onto the canteen and looked him in the eye. “What do you really think?”
He stopped smiling. “I don’t believe all that hokey werewolf stuff. But Di’s got a point there, about Jay sounding like he did believe it.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“What can we do? Tell Mr. Castillo that Jay scared us with a ghost story?”
He fastened his canteen onto his belt and headed back for camp. I followed.
“We’ve got to do something,” I said. “What if—“
I didn’t finish the sentence. You hear all the time about people going crazy and doing awful things—and my dad’s a psychiatrist, which means we’ve got a whole house full of books about people like that—but knowing that something is possible doesn’t always mean you want to talk about it much.
And Jay was Freddie’s tentmate.
We hiked across the old burned—over ground all that day and made camp on a rocky slope near a stand of saplings. The campsite had more big stones and little boulders lying around than it did dry wood, but with all of us looking we finally managed to collect enough wood to satisfy Mr. Castillo. After dinner, Freddie volunteered to stand the first watch as fire tender, so I said I’d take the second.
I wanted to get some sleep before staying awake for two straight hours with nobody to talk to but the owls. But I couldn’t. After a while the moon came up full and bright. I lay there looking out through the front of the tent, over to where Freddie sat whittling on a stick of kindling with his Swiss Army knife.
Finally I gave up and squirmed out of my sleeping bag. I pulled on the clothes I wasn’t already wearing, jammed my shoes onto my feet, and crawled out of the tent. Then I zipped the door closed and did up my shoes, and went over to the firepit.
Freddie looked around from his whittling as I came up. “You’re fifteen minutes early,” he said.
“So who’s counting?” I asked. I sat down on a handy rock. “Anything happen?”
Freddie kept on whittling. “Hasn’t been a sound out of anybody since moonrise.”
I watched the little pile of wood shavings grow for a while and fiddled with the bracelet on my left wrist—it was a plain band of silver, and the only really good jewelry I owned. Di said I was crazy to wear it everywhere like I did, but it had been my grandmother’s bracelet when she was my age, and I couldn’t see the point of owning something I wasn’t going to wear.
After a while Freddie finished peeling all the bark off of his stick and sharpening it to a point. He looked at it as if he didn’t know what to do next with it, and yawned.
“You about ready to turn in?” I said.
“Sure,” he said, but he didn’t move.
“Well, go ahead then.”
Freddie closed the Swiss Army knife and got to his feet. “I’m worried about Jay,” he said.
You mean “scared,” I thought, but that didn’t sound like a good thing to say right then. “You could look first,” I said instead. “In case something’s wrong. You know—unzip the flap and then lift it open with that stick.”
“And maybe he’s in there snoring,” said Freddie, “and maybe he’s awake and starts laughing his head off.”
“Well, we can’t both stay here all night,” I told him, and stood op. “Come on. If Jay tries to give you a hard time, I’ll tell everybody I made you check because I was afraid.”
We tiptoed over to the quiet tent. It certainly didn’t look any different on the outside. Freddie stood as far away as he could to work the zippers. I’ll admit I was standing a foot or so behind him, and feeling pretty stupid by the time he slipped the stick under the bottom edge of the flap and lifted up the netting.
I cleared my throat. “Looks like he’s aslee—“
Something came charging and growling out through the tent flaps. Freddie jumped backward so fast he knocked me over and then fell on top of me. From where I’d landed I had a close-up worm’s-eye view of a big grey wolf trying to tear itself loose from mosquito netting and ripstop nylon, while Freddie yelled and tried to keep it away from us with that stupid little stick.
About then, screaming seemed like a good idea. So that’s what I did.
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