I hated the smell of this place: concrete and institutional. Antiseptic. But all the cleaning in the world couldn’t cover up the unhappiness, the sourness, the faint smell of urine. The anger.
The guard at the door of the visiting room pointed me and Ben to empty chairs at a table on one side of a glass partition. The room held half a dozen cubicles like this. Only a phone line would connect us to the other side.
I was shaking. I didn’t like coming here. Well, I did, and I didn’t. I wanted to see him, but even being here as a visitor made me feel trapped. The Wolf side didn’t handle it very well. Ben squeezed my hand under the table.
“You okay?” he said. Ben had been coming here once a week to see Cormac. I didn’t come quite as often–once a month, for five months now. I’d never get used to this. In fact, it seemed to get harder every time, not easier. I was so tense, just being here exhausted me.
“I think so,” I said. “But this place makes me nervous.”
“Don’t let him see you upset,” he whispered. “We’re supposed to be supportive.”
“I know. Sorry.” I held his hand with both of mine and tried to stop the trembling. I was supposed to be the strong one. I was supposed to be the one who helped Ben keep it together, not the other way around.
On the other side of the glass, a guard led out a man wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. His light brown hair was cut shorter than it used to be, which made his face seem more gaunt. I tried to convince myself that he wasn’t thinner. His mustache was the same as always. So was his stoic frown.
My smile felt stiff and fake. Cormac would know it was fake. Had to be cheerful, couldn’t let him see me upset.
He was handcuffed. When he picked up the phone to talk to us, he had to hold both hands up to his face. Ben held our phone between us. Leaning close, we could both hear.
“Hey,” Ben said.
“Hey.” Cormac smiled. Broke my heart, him smiling like that behind the glass. “Thanks for coming.”
“How you doing?”
Cormac shrugged. “Hanging in there. No worries.”
He was here on felony manslaughter charges. He’d killed to save my life, and now he was serving time for it. I owed him a huge debt, which hung on me like lead weights.
It could have been worse. The only way we could all sit here smiling at each other was thinking of how much worse it had almost been. One or all of us dead, Cormac in here for life–
He didn’t seem to begrudge me the debt. Right from the start, he’d approached the prison sentence as doing penance, just like he was supposed to. Just another obstacle to overcome, another river to cross.
Ben handled this better than I did. “You need anything? Besides a cake with a file baked in?”
“No. Just more of the same.”
I’d been ordering books for him. It had started out as a joke after I’d accused him of being illiterate. Then it turned earnest. Reading kept his mind off being trapped. Kept him from going crazy.
“Any requests?” I said, and Ben tipped the mouthpiece so he could hear me.
Cormac shook his head. “I’m not picky. Whatever you think is good.” I had a list of classics I was feeding him. But no Dostoyevsky.
We had an hour for small talk. Very small talk. I couldn’t say I’m sorry, because then I’d get upset. Leave on a happy note. Ben and I wanted to make sure Cormac got out of here in one piece, or at least not any more damaged than he was when he went in.
“Would you believe some of the guys listen to your show?” Cormac said.
“Really? That’s kind of weird.”
“I tell them you’re not that mean in person. I’m ruining your reputation.”
“Great,” I said, smirking. “Thanks.” Ben chuckled.
“You two look good,” Cormac said, leaning back in his chair. “You look good together.” His smile turned satisfied, almost. Comforted.
He’d told us both to look after each other. Like he couldn’t trust either of us to take care of ourselves, but together we’d be okay. He was probably right. Ben and I had cobbled together our little pack of two, and we were doing okay. But it still felt like we were missing something. He was sitting across from us, on the other side of the glass. And we were all pretending like everything was okay.
A guard loomed behind Cormac. Time’s up.
“I’ll see you next week,” Ben said.
Cormac said, to me specifically, “Thanks for coming. Everyone in here’s ugly as shit. It’s nice to see a pretty face once in a while.”
Which broke my heart again. There had to be more I could do than sit here and be a pretty face, however pretty I could possibly be with my pale skin, blond hair tied in a short, scruffy ponytail, and eyes on the verge of crying. I wanted to touch the glass, but that would have been such a cliché and hopeless gesture.
He put the phone back, stood, and was gone. He always walked away without turning to look, and we always stayed to watch him go until he was out of sight.
Ben put his hand on my shoulder, urging me away. Hand in hand, in silence, we left the prison gates and emerged into too-bright summer sun and a baking parking lot. Quietly we slipped into the car, Ben in the driver’s seat. Then the blowup happened.
He closed the door, settled for a moment, then hit the steering wheel with a closed fist. Then again, and again, throwing his whole body into it. The car rocked. I just watched.
After a moment, he slouched back. He gripped the steering wheel, bracing himself. “I hate this. I hate that he’s in there, and there’s nothing I can do.”
He blamed himself as much as I blamed myself. If I hadn’t needed saving, if Ben had found the right legal out–and there was Cormac, accepting it all without complaint. He and Cormac were cousins. They’d grown up together, looked out for each other, and now they were helpless.
I touched his forearm and squeezed, like I could push out the tension. He sighed.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
Friday night, time to party.
“Good evening, and welcome to The Midnight Hour. I’m Kitty Norville, your ever-cheerful hostess. Tonight it’s all vampires, and all calls. I want to hear from you about those mysterious bloodsuckers of the night. Questions, problems, nothing’s off limits. Tell me a story I’ve never heard before. It’s getting pretty tough to scare me these days, but I’d like you to try. Or even better–let’s see if someone out there can give me a little hope. I’ve had one of those days.”
I was such a lucky girl. After doing this show for two years, my monitor still lit up with calls. My listeners had been waiting with their fingers on the speed-dial button. One of these days, I’d ask for calls and the phones would come up silent. Then I’d have to retire for sure. But this wasn’t that night.
“Our first call this evening comes from. . .Maledar. . .Maledar? Is that right?”
“Yes, it is.” The light male voice managed to drip with pretension.
“Your parents actually named you Maledar.”
“No.” He sounded pouty. “That’s the name I chose for myself. I’m preparing for my new identity. My new life.”
Inwardly, I groaned. A wannabe. Even more pretentious than the real thing. “Am I to understand it, then, that you want to become a vampire?”
“Of course. Someday. When I’m older.”
It clicked then–the voice, the name, the utter cheese of it all. “Wait a minute–how old are you? You’re supposed to be eighteen to call in.” The kid had lied to my screener. Fifteen, I bet. And to his credit smart enough to know how much it would suck to get frozen at age fifteen for all eternity.
“I’m ageless,” he said breathily. “Ageless as the grave.”
“Okay, this is not the kinderbat poetry hour. You’ll want–oh, I don’t know–public access television for that.”
The pause was ominous. Then, “Whoa, what a wicked cool idea.”
Dear God, what have I done? Hurry, move on quick before I get into more trouble. “I don’t know what your question was, but you’re leaving now. Bye. Please, somebody with sense call me so we can discuss Byron or something. Next caller, hello.”
“I knew him, you know.” This was a suave male voice, coolly assured. The real thing. An older vampire showing off his hard-earned ennui.
“Lord Byron, of course.”
“Really,” I drawled. “You know, there are about as many vampires who say they knew Byron as there are reincarnation freaks who say they were Cleopatra in a past life. Which would mean Byron had, like, hundreds of obnoxious simpering twits trailing after him. When he really only had Keats and Shelley.”
The guy huffed. “How very droll.”
“I’m sorry, you just hit one of my buttons, you know?”
“You’ve never considered that perhaps one of those vampires who say they knew Byron might be right?”
“Okay, fine. You chilled with Byron. You want to tell me what he was like? Him and the others? Hey, maybe you can answer a question for me–that other guy who was there the night they told the ghost stories and Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein, the one whose name I can never remember–”
“Uh, yeah. Him.” Oh crap, what if this guy really had known Byron? Was I going to sound like a royal idiot? “I always wondered why he never amounted to anything.”
“He was what we call a hanger-on. Mary was the really clever one.”
I grinned. “I always thought so. Now, I don’t think you called just to talk about the Romantic poets. What’s on your mind?”
“Right, the big question. Like, why are we here, what’s the point to life, that sort of thing?”
“I’m curious to hear what you think about it.”
I pouted. “That’s my line.”
“Are you going to tell me?”
I sighed loudly to make sure the sound carried into the mike. “All right. I’ll bite. Here’s what I think, with the caveat that I may be wrong. I think we’re here to make the world a better place than we found it. I think we don’t always deserve the cards that we’re dealt, good or bad. But we are judged by how we play the cards we’re dealt. Those of us with a bum deal that makes it harder to do good–we just have to work a little more is all. There’s no destiny. There’s just muddling through without doing too much damage.”
Most of the time I even believed that.
“Hmm, that’s very nice,” the vampire said, coy and condescending.
“All right. I know you’re just trying to bait me. Why don’t you come out and say what you want to say.”
“You talk about us, vampires and lycanthropes, like we’re afflicted. Like we have a handicap. And if your goal is to pass as human, to blend in with society, then I suppose it is a handicap. But have you ever thought that we are the chosen ones? Fate marked us, and we became what we are. We are superior, chosen by destiny, and one day we will rule the world. The Families know this. They are grooming us, the masters of the night, to be the masters of everything. We’re the top of the food chain. One day humanity will see the truth of it.”
By this time, I’d heard a dozen versions of this shtick. Fortunately, vampires only ever talked about taking over the world.
When they stopped talking about it, I’d start to worry.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I want you to know the truth.”
“Well, thank you for the public service announcement. I’m cutting you off now, you’ve had a little too much ego tonight. Next call–ooh, I think I might have a debate for us here. Hello, Jake? You’re on the air. What do you have for me?”
“Um, Kitty? Oh, wow. I mean–hi.”
“Hi. So you have a response to our esteemed vampire caller.”
“Oh, do I ever. That guy is so full of”–he paused amusingly to censor himself–”crap. I mean, I really want to know where I can get in on some of this vampire world domination action. ‘Cause I’m a vampire and I’m stuck working the night shift at a Speedy Mart. I’m not the top of any food chain.”
“You’re not part of a Family?”
Jake chuckled. “If it weren’t for your show I wouldn’t even know about Families.”
This was the part of my show that freaked me out a little. There were people out there for whom I was their only source of information, who used me as a lifeline. It felt like a burden. I had to sound encouraging to someone who’d been dealt a truly shitty hand: working the night shift at Speedy Mart for all eternity.
I said, “I know this is personal, but I take it that you were made a vampire under violent circumstances, against your will.”
“Got that right. And if destiny had anything to do with it, I’d sure like to know why.”
“I wish I had an answer for you, Jake. You got one of the bad cards. But since you and I both know there’s no destiny involved, you have a choice on what to do about it.”
“I really just wanted to tell the other side of the story. My side. That guy wasn’t speaking for all vampires. Thanks for listening.”
“That’s what I’m here for. I’m going to move on to the next call now, okay? Good luck to you, Jake.”
And so it goes.
I heard from men, women, vampires, humans, human servants of vampires, people who were funny, sad, lost, and angry. The problems ranged from silly to terrifying. I heard stories of people trapped in lives they hadn’t expected, couldn’t escape from. A lot of the time I didn’t know what to tell them. I was totally inadequate to dispense advice–I could barely take care of myself. Early on, though, I’d learned that a lot of times people just needed to vent, and they needed someone to listen. People were desperate for conversation, and many of them didn’t have anyone to talk to.
Talking about it made a thing–a problem, a weakness, a fear, a hope–more solid, and easier to confront. Easier to control.
I would do well to remember that in my own life.
“I’ve got time for one more call. Becky, you’re on the air.”
“Hi, Kitty,” said a woman who sounded like she was on edge. “This isn’t about vampires. I hope that’s all right. It’s important, I think.”
At the end of the show, it didn’t much matter. “What’s the problem?” I didn’t doubt that she had a problem. I recognized that tone. The screener had put in “domestic abuse” as the topic.
“I’m a werewolf, I’m part of a pack, and I’m worried. There’s a new wolf. She’s really young, really vulnerable, and the alpha male–he’s taking advantage of her. But it’s worse than that because he’s beating up on her. This goes way beyond the dominance and submissive crap. The thing is, she won’t leave. I’ve tried to talk her into going away, but she refuses. She won’t leave him. I don’t know what to do. How can I make her see that she doesn’t have to put up with this? That she shouldn’t? She won’t stand up for herself.”
The story sounded way too familiar. My first three years of being a werewolf, I’d been on the bottom rung, completely submissive to an alpha who was borderline abusive. But the pack meant protection, and I didn’t want to leave. A time came when I had to choose between the pack and my own life–my show, my goals, my future. And I picked me. I’d never looked back.
Despite my experience, I didn’t know what to tell her.
I said, “You should be given some credit for wanting to help. But sometimes that isn’t enough. As hard as this sounds, there isn’t much you can do if this person isn’t willing to take that step for herself. I’m sorry.”
“But–” she said, and sighed. “I know. I know you’re right. I just thought there might be a trick to it.”
“You can be a friend to her, Becky. Keep talking to her. And maybe you could lead by example. Maybe you should both leave town.” I wasn’t all that hot on the pack structure. My bias showed.
“That’s hard to do,” she said. “I’m safe here. But I can stand up for myself. She can’t.”
“Then all you can do is look out for her the best you can. Good luck to you, Becky.”
You can’t save everyone. I’d learned that.
I lightened my tone to wrap up. “All right, my friends, we’re about out of time. How quickly it goes when we’re having fun. I’ll be counting the hours ’til next week. In the meantime, a bit of shameless self-promotion: don’t forget that my book, Underneath the Skin–that’s right my book, written by me, all about stuff I want to talk about–will be on sale in a few weeks. Like you weren’t getting enough of me already. Stay safe out there. This is Kitty Norville, voice of the night.”
Cue credits, with wolf howl–my own wolf howl, recorded especially for the show.
I was exhausted. Sometimes doing a show left me so buzzed that I couldn’t sleep until morning. Not tonight. I couldn’t wait to get home and crash. I felt like I’d been awake for days.
After chatting with the producer and finishing some paperwork, I headed outside. In his car, idling by the curb, Ben was waiting to pick me up. I hopped in on the passenger side, leaned over for a quick kiss, and smiled. Now this was a lovely way to end the night.
“How did it go?” Ben asked on the drive home. We were renting a place in Pueblo, a hundred miles or so south of Denver.
I pulled the elastic off my ponytail, shaking out my hair and scratching my head. I wanted a shower. “Great. It was a good night. But it really wore me out.”
I was always worn out, lately. A condition of success was what I told myself. “Yeah,” I said with a sigh and closed my eyes. I could feel Ben in the seat next to me, a comforting presence.
Ben and I never decided to be involved in a relationship. We’d fallen into the role of committed lovers by accident. Which was to say, both of us being werewolves, our wolf sides had bonded immediately and formed a pack. Our pack of two, I called it. A mated pair. This made it sound like our wolf sides and our human sides were two different beings, separate, distinct. But our human sides hadn’t resisted the impulse. It had been easy, falling into each other’s lives like this. Ben and I had been friends before he’d become a werewolf. Given time and opportunity, maybe we’d have become something more. I’d never know, now. Most of the time, I could ignore that niggling worm of doubt that hinted that this wasn’t right. That this had somehow happened against my will. Ben was a good man, and I was lucky to have him in my life. We looked out for each other. But sometimes our relationship seemed a little bit like being in limbo. We were just along for the ride.
I slept like a rock and woke up nauseous. I’d been working too hard, I told myself. I hadn’t had enough to eat the day before, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat anything for breakfast. This morning, this day, was the day of the full moon. We had to drive, get out of town to someplace where we could Change in safety. Our safety, and everyone else’s.
“You okay? You’re looking a little green around the gills,” Ben said as we packed the car. Usually on full moon days, I was the one asking him if he was okay. He was still a new wolf, still learning to control himself. I studied him; he seemed a little pale, a little tense. He had this habit of distracting himself from his troubles by worrying over me.
“Just a little off,” I said. “Not ready for tonight for some reason.”
He gave a grim smile. He was starting to understand.
Our territory was in the foothills of southern Colorado. Three hours of driving brought us to a remote national forest area. No camping allowed out here, no stray hikers to worry about. We’d be isolated.
We arrived and sat in the car.
“You’re still looking off,” Ben said again.
“Are you sure? You don’t–” He paused, pursing his lips, clearly uncomfortable. “You don’t smell right.”
I stared at him. “I don’t smell right?”
“I don’t know, I can’t explain it. You just smell off. Never mind.”
Great. Now I smelled off. I grumbled, “I’m just tired.”
Now, full moon night, was when the other halves of our beings had their time. The wolves got to run, and they tore to the surface with all the power of the wild creatures they were. It felt like getting drunk, like being high, and however much we said we hated it, we couldn’t wait to run out there and Change. The Change drew us.
I felt sluggish.
“I’m okay,” I said. “Let’s get this over with.”
We left the car and hiked into wilderness.
Ben was getting good at controlling his wolf. This was his fifth full moon. He could make it from the car to the woods without losing it and sprouting claws. Almost, he could hide any sign that he was about to shift. But I could tell: his heart rate was too fast, and he was sweating.
We had a den, a sheltered place to keep us out of sight, warm and safe. We stripped and stashed our clothes: shirts, jeans, and shoes. The moon was rising, bright enough to cast shadows through the woods.
Ben looked out into those trees, his breath fogging a little in the cool air. I moved around him, touched his arm, slid my hand across his shoulders. He was pale in the moonlight. His skin was hot; he shivered under my touch. He turned and bent his head to me, kissed my ear, my neck, nuzzling. I pressed myself against him. Naked in the woods, bathed in moonlight, every nerve charged with feeling–this was Wolf’s time. I began to see him through Wolf’s eyes, fierce and full of life.
He breathed by my ear, “You first this time. I want to watch you.”
I smelled him: skin and sweat, pheromones, desire, need. “You’ll be okay?”
“I think so.”
I’d always waited, making sure Ben was okay while he shifted. Comforted him. He probably didn’t need supervising–it was for my own peace of mind. Our wolves called to each other–they wanted to shift together. Could he keep it together while watching me?
Maybe he just wanted to see if he could keep it together.
“Okay,” I said softly. I kissed him; he kissed back hungrily, but I pulled away–teasing. I couldn’t help it. It was her, the Wolf, daring him to chase her. She felt his need and stoked the fire.
I backed away, step by slow step. I was so hot, had so much energy tied up in a knot in my gut I could have screamed. It scratched at my skin, fighting to get out. All I had to do was breathe out, let go, and it would tear out of me. I held Ben’s gaze. He crouched, his hands clenched into fists, his breathing coming too fast. But his gaze was steady.
All at once I released it, bent my head, doubled over, and as the veil slipped my vision blackened.
Shakes out her fur, and every hair is charged, sparking. Coils her muscles, ready to run–she trots in place, a spring and a jump, raises her head, and meets the gaze of the one she travels with, the pale figure watching her with wide eyes.
Here is her mate–still on two legs. She gives a little whine, a short bark, calling to him.
“God, look at you. You’re amazing.”
She trots forward, nudges him. He reaches for her, rubbing the not-paws along her coat. The stroking is both odd and pleasurable. She squirms away, whines again–now, it’s time, come now–
And so he does, doubling over, groaning, and the sound changes, becomes less wrong and more right, until it is a howl, and she joins in, filling the woods with their song. He gasps a little, still not used to his legs and fur and voice. Still a pup, but stronger every time. All her hopes and desire and power go out to him–they rule these woods together. She greets him, licks him, nips him, lets him do the same to her, they writhe around each other, a tangle of fur and muscled bodies.
Then he launches into the forest. It’s a surprise–he leads the chase this time. She has to scramble to keep up. They hunt, nose to the ground, following the zigzag patterns of their prey.
He’s the one who finds the deer, a small one but large enough to feast on, upwind so it hasn’t sensed them. Together they pause. Can they do it? They’ve never hunted anything so large together. He is eager, he’s tasted blood, has hunted it, and the lust of it fills him because before anything else they are hunters. He makes a frustrated whine, because she hesitates. He wants to leap at it, tear into its haunches, bring it down. Together they can, one at its haunches, one at its throat. She knows this, can see the image in her mind. His limbs are trembling, he wants so badly to chase it down.
But she holds back.
Then it’s gone. Raising its head, twitching its ears, it senses something that makes it run, leaping around trees and bushes. Too much work to chase it down now.
He shakes himself, scratches the dirt in frustration, pins his ears at her. She snaps at him and trots away, in search of some easier creature that she can catch with little effort.
In a moment he follows, because they’re pack, and they hunt together. Rabbit instead of deer, but blood is blood in the end.