Oct 28 2011 10:00am
Presenting “Trading Hearts at the Half Kaffe Café,” a story by Charles de Lint, reprinted from horror romance anthology Single White Vampire Seeks Same edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Brittiany A. Koren for Tor.com’s Monster Mash.
CHERISH EACH DAY
Single male, professional, 30ish, wants more
out of life. Likes the outdoors, animals. Seek
ing single female with similar attributes and
aspirations. Ad# 6592
The problem is expectations.
We all buy so heavily into how we hope things will turn out, how society and our friends say it should be, that by the time we actually have a date, we’re locked into those particular hopes and expectations and miss everything that could be. We end up stumbling our way through the forest, never seeing all the unexpected and wonderful possibilities and potentials because we’re looking for the idea of a tree, instead of appreciating the actual trees in front of us.
At least that’s the way it seems to me.
“You already tried that dress on,” Sue told me.
“With these shoes?”
Sue nodded. “As well as the red boots.”
“It’s not a first date dress,” Sue said. “Unless you wear it with the green boots and that black jacket with the braided cuffs. And you don’t take the jacket off.”
“Too much cleavage?”
“It’s not a matter of cleavage, so much as the cleavage combined with those little spaghetti straps. You’re just so there. And it’s pretty short.”
I checked my reflection. She was right, of course. I looked a bit like a tart, and not in a good way. At least Sue had managed to tame my usually unruly hair so that it looked as though it had an actual style instead of the head topped with blonde spikes I normally saw looking back at me from the mirror.
“But the boots would definitely punk it up a little,” Sue said. “You know, so it’s not quite so ‘come hither.’ “
“This is hopeless,” I said. “How late is it?”
Sue smiled. “Twenty minutes to showtime.”
“Oh god. And I haven’t even started on my makeup.”
“With that dress and those heels, he won’t be looking at your makeup.”
I don’t know how I’d gotten talked into this in the first place. Two years without a steady boyfriend, I guess, though by that criteria it should still have been Sue agonizing over what to wear and me lending the moral support. She’s been much longer without a steady. Mind you, after Pete moved out, the longest relationship I’d been in was with this grotty little troll of a dwarf, and you had to lose points for that. Not that Nacky Wilde had been boyfriend material, but he had moved in on me for a few weeks.
“I think you should wear your lucky dress,” Sue said.
“I met Pete in that dress.”
“True. But only the ending was bad. You had a lot of good times together, too.”
“I suppose …”
Sue grinned at me. “Eighteen minutes and counting.”
“Will you stop with the Cape Canaveral bit already?”
“Just don’t do the teeth thing and you’ll be all right,” Tyrone said.
“Teeth thing? What teeth thing?”
“You know, how when you get nervous, your teeth start to protrude like your muzzle’s pushing out and you’re about to shift your skin. It’s not so pretty.”
“Thanks for adding to the tension,” I told him. “Now I’ve got that to worry about as well.”
I stepped closer to the mirror and ran a finger across my teeth. Were they already pushing out?
“I don’t even know why you’re going through all of this,” Tyrone said.
“I want to meet someone normal.”
“You mean not like us.”
“I mean someone who isn’t as jaded as we are. Someone with a conventional life span for whom each day is important. And I know I’m not going to meet her when the clans gather, or in some bar.”
Tyrone shook his head. “I still think it’s like dating barnyard animals. Or getting a pet.”
“Whatever made you so bitter?”
But Tyrone only grinned. “Just remember what Mama said. Don’t eat a girl on the first date.”
“Now don’t forget,” Sue said. “Build yourself up a little.”
“You mean lie.”
“Of course not. Well, not a lot. And it might help if you don’t seem quite so bohemian right off the bat.”
“Pete liked it.”
Sue nodded. “And see where that got you. The bohemian artist type has this mysterious allure, especially to straight guys, but it wears off. So you have to show you have the corporate chops as well.”
I had to laugh.
“I’m being serious here,” Sue said.
“So who am I supposed to be?” I asked.
Sue started to tick the items off on her fingers. “Okay. To start with, you can’t go wrong just getting him to talk about himself. You know, act sort of shy and listen a lot.”
“I am shy.”
“When it does come to what you do, don’t bring up the fact that you write and draw a comic book for a living. Make it more like art’s a hobby. Focus on the fact that you’re involved in the publishing field—editing, proofing, book design. Everybody says they like bold and mysterious women, but the truth is, most of them like them from a distance. They like to dream about them. Actually having them sitting at a table with them is way too scary.”
Sue had been reading a book on dating called The Rules recently, and she was full of all sorts of advice on how to make a relationship work. Maybe that was how they did it in the fifties, but it all seemed so demeaning to me entering the twenty-first century. I thought we’d come further than that.
“In other words, lie,” I repeated and turned back to the mirror to finish applying my mascara.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d worn any. On some other date gone awry, I supposed, then I mentally corrected myself. I should be more positive.
“Think of it as bending the truth,” Sue said. “It’s not like you’re going to be pretending forever. It’s just a little bit of manipulation for that all-important first impression. Once he realizes he likes you, he won’t mind when it turns out you’re this little boho comic book gal.”
“Your uptown roots are showing,” I told her.
“You know what I mean.”
Unfortunately, I did. Everybody wanted to seem normal and to meet somebody normal, so first dates became these rather strained, staged affairs with both of you hoping that none of your little hangups and oddities were hanging out like an errant shirttail or a drooping slip.
“Ready?” Sue asked.
“Well, it’s time to go anyway.”
“So what are you going to tell her you do for a living?” Tyrone asked as we walked to the Café. “The old hunter/gatherer line?”
“Which worked real well in Cro-Magnon times.”
“Hey, some things never change.”
Tyrone shrugged. “What can I say? If it works, don’t fix it.”
We stopped in front of the Half Kaffe. It was five minutes to.
“I’m of half a mind to sit in a corner,” Tyrone said. “Just to see how things work out.”
“You got the half a mind part right.”
Tyrone shook his head with mock sadness. “Sometimes I find it hard to believe we came from the same litter,” he said, then grinned.
When he reached over to straighten my tie, I gave him a little push to move him on his way.
“Give ‘em hell,” he told me. “Girl doesn’t like you, she’s not worth knowing.”
“So now you’ve got a high opinion of me.”
“Hey, you may be feeble-minded, but you’re still my brother. That makes you prime.”
I had to return that smile of his. Tyrone was just so … Tyrone. Always the wolf.
He headed off down the block before I could give him another shove. I checked my teeth in the reflection of the window—still normal—then opened the door and went inside.
We were ten minutes late pulling up in front of the Half Kaffe.
“This is good,” Sue said as I opened my door. “It doesn’t make you look too eager.”
“Another one of the ‘Rules’?”
“Well, it’s not like I’ve memorized them or done that well with them myself. You’re the one with the date tonight.”
I cut her some slack. If push came to shove, I knew she wouldn’t take any grief from anyone, no matter what the rule book said.
I got out of the car. “Thanks for the ride, Sue.”
“Remember,” she said, holding up her phone. Folded up, it wasn’t much bigger than a compact. “If things get uncomfortable or just plain weird, I’m only a cell phone call away.”
I closed the door before she could give me more advice. I’d already decided I was just going to be myself—a dolled-up version of myself, mind you, but it actually felt kind of fun being all dressed up. I just wasn’t going to pretend to be someone I wasn’t.
Easy to promise to myself on the ride over, listening to Sue, but then my date had to be gorgeous, didn’t he? I spotted him as soon as I opened the door, pausing in the threshold.
(“I’ll be holding a single rose,” he’d told me.
(“That is so romantic,” Sue had said.)
Even with him sitting down, I knew he was tall. He had this shock of blue-black hair, brushed back from his forehead, and skin the color of espresso. He was wearing a suit that reminded me of the sky just as the dusk is fading and the single red rose lay on the table in front of him. He looked up when I came in—if it had been me, I’d have looked up every time the door opened, too—and I could have gone swimming in those dark, dark eyes of his.
I took a steadying breath. Walking over to his table, I held out my hand.
“You must be Lyle,” I said. “I’m Mona.”
She was cute as a button.
(“Here’s my prediction,” Tyrone had said. “She’ll be three hundred pounds on a five-foot frame. Or ugly as sin. Hell, maybe both.”
(“I don’t care how much she weighs or what she looks like,” I told him. “Just so long as she’s got a good heart.”
(Tyrone smiled. “You’re so pathetic,” he said.)
And naturally I made a mess of trying to stand up, shake her hand and give her the rose, all at the same time. My chair fell down behind me. The sound of it startled me and I almost pulled her off her feet, but we managed to get it all straightened without anybody getting hurt.
I wanted to check my teeth, and forced myself not to run my tongue over them.
We were here for the obligatory before-dinner drink, having mutually decided earlier on a Café rather than a bar, with the unspoken assumption that if things didn’t go well here, we could call the dinner off, no hard feelings. After asking what she wanted, I went and got us each a latté.
“Look,” she said when I got back. “I know this isn’t the way it’s supposed to go, first date and everything, but I decided that I’m not going to pretend to be more or different than I am. So here goes.
“I write and draw a comic book for a living. I usually have ink stains on my fingers and you’re more likely to see me in overalls, or jeans and a T-shirt. I know I told you I like the outdoors like you said you did in your ad, but I’ve never spent a night outside of a city. I’ve never had a regular job either, I don’t like being anybody’s pet boho girlfriend, and I’m way more shy than this is making me sound.”
She was blushing as she spoke and looked a little breathless.
“Oh boy,” she said. “That was really endearing, wasn’t it?”
It actually was, but I didn’t think she wanted to hear that. Searching for something to match her candor, I surprised myself as much as her.
“I’m sort of a werewolf myself,” I told her.
“A werewolf,” she repeated.
I nodded. “But only sort of. Not like in the movies with the full moon and hair sprouting all over my body. I’m just… they used to call us skinwalkers.”
I shrugged. “The first people to live here. Like the Kickaha, up on the rez. We’re descended from what they call the animal people—the ones that were here when the world was made.”
“Immortal wolves,” she said.
I was surprised that she was taking this all so calmly. Surprised to be even talking about it in the first place, because it’s never a good idea. Maybe Tyrone was right. We weren’t supposed to mingle. But it was too late now and I felt I at least owed her a little more explanation.
“Not just wolves, but all kinds of animals,” I said. “And we’re not immortal. Only the first ones were and there aren’t so many of them left anymore.”
“And you can all take the shapes of animals.”
I shook my head. “Usually it’s only the ones who were born in their animal shape. The human genes are so strong that the change is easier. Those born human have some animal tributes, but most of them aren’t skinwalkers.”
“So if you bite me, I won’t become a wolf.”
“I don’t know where those stories come from,” I started, then sighed. “No, that’s not true. I do know. These days most of us just like to fit in, live a bit in your world, a bit in the animal world. But it wasn’t always like that. There have always been those among us who considered everyone else in the world their private prey. Humans and animals.”
“Most of you?”
I sighed again. “There are still some that like to hunt.”
You’re probably wondering why I was listening to all of this without much surprise. But you see, that grotty little dwarf I told you about earlier—the one that moved in on me—did I mention he also had the habit of just disappearing, poof, like magic? One moment you’re talking to him, the next you’re standing in a seemingly empty room. The disembodied voice was the hardest to get used to. He’d sit around and tell me all kinds of stories like this. You experience something like that on a regular basis and you end up with more tolerance for weirdness.
Not that I actually believed Lyle here was a werewolf. But the fact that he was talking about it actually made him kind of interesting, though I could see it getting old after a while.
“So,” I said. “What do you do when you’re not dating human girls and running around as a wolf?”
“You know, to make a living. Or were you born wealthy as well as immortal.”
“I’m not immortal.”
“So what do you do?”
“I’m … an investment counselor.”
“Hence the nice suit.”
He started to nod, then sighed. When he looked down at his latté, I studied his jaw. It seemed to protrude a little more than I remembered, though I knew that was just my own imagination feeding on all his talk about clans of animals that walk around looking like people.
He lifted his head. “How come you’re so calm about all of this?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I like the way it all fits together, I suppose. You’ve obviously really thought it all through.”
“Or I’m good at remembering the history of the clans.”
“That, too. But the question that comes to my mind is, why tell me all of this?”
“I’m still asking myself that,” he said. “I guess it came from your saying we should be honest with each other. It feels good to be able to talk about it to someone outside the clans.”
He paused, those dark eyes studying me more closely. Oh, why couldn’t he have just been a normal guy? Why did he have to be either a loony, or some weird faerie creature?
“You don’t believe me,” he said.
“I didn’t ask for proof when you were telling me about your comic books.”
I couldn’t believe this.
“It’s hardly the same thing. Besides—”
I got up and fetched one of the freebie copies of In the City from their display bin by the door. Flipping almost to the back of the tabloid-sized newspaper, I laid open the page with my weekly strip, “Spunky Grrl,” on the table in front of him. This was the one where my heroine, the great and brave Spunky Grrl, was answering a personal ad. Write from your life, they always say. I guess that meant that next week’s strip would have Spunky sitting in a Café with a wolf dressed up as a man.
“It’s not so hard to prove,” I said, pointing at the byline.
“Just because you have the same name—”
“Oh, please.” I called over to the bar where the owner was reading one of those glossy British music magazines he likes so much. “Who am I, Jonathan?”
He looked up and gave the pair of us a once-over with that perpetually cool and slightly amused look he’d perfected once the Café had become a success and he was no longer run ragged trying to keep up with everything.
“Mona Morgan,” he said. “Who still owes me that page of original art from ‘My Life as a Bird’ that featured the Half Kaffe.”
“It’s coming,” I said and turned back to my date. “There. You see? Now it’s your turn. Make your hand change into a paw or something.”
She was irrepressible and refreshing, but she was also driving me a little crazy and I could feel my teeth pressing up against my lips.
“Maybe some other time,” I said.
She smiled. “Right. Never turn into a wolf on the first date.”
“Something like that,” I replied, remembering Tyrone’s advice earlier in the evening. I wondered what she’d make of that, but decided not to find out. Instead I looked down at her comic strip.
It was one of those underground ones, not clean like a regular newspaper strip but with lots of scratchy lines and odd perspectives.There wasn’t a joke either, just this wild-looking girl answering a personal ad. I looked up at my date.
“So I’m research?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Everything that happens to me ends up in one strip or another.”
I pointed at the character in the strip. “And is this you?”
“Kind of an alter ego.”
I could see myself appearing in an upcoming installment, turning into a wolf in the middle of the date. The idea bothered me. I mean, think about it. If you were a skinwalker, would you want the whole world to know it?
I lifted my gaze from the strip. This smart-looking woman bore no resemblance to her scruffy pen-and-ink alter ego.
“So who cleaned you up?” I asked.
I know the idea of showing up in her strip was troubling me, but that was still no excuse for what I’d just said. I regretted the words as soon as they spilled out of my mouth.
The hurt in her eyes was quickly replaced with anger. “A human being,” she said and stood up.
I started to stand as well. “Look, I’m sorry—” I began but I was already talking to her back.
“You owe me for the lattés!” the barman called as I went to follow her.
I paid him and hurried outside, but she was already gone. Slowly I went back inside and stood at our table. I looked at the rose and the open paper. After a moment, I folded up the paper and went back outside. I left the rose there on the table.
I could’ve tracked her—the scent was still strong—but I went home instead to the apartment Tyrone and I were sharing. He wasn’t back yet from wherever he’d gone tonight, which was just as well. I wasn’t looking forward to telling him about how the evening had gone. Changing from my suit to jeans and a jersey, I sat down on the sofa and opened my copy of In the City to Mona’s strip. I was still staring at the scruffy little blonde cartoon girl when the phone rang.
As soon as I got outside, I made a quick beeline down the alley that runs alongside the Café, my boots clomping on the pavement. I didn’t slow down until I got to the next street and had turned onto it. I didn’t bother looking for a phone booth. I knew Sue would pick me up, but I needed some downtime first and it wasn’t that long a walk back home. Misery’s supposed to love company, but the way I was feeling it was still too immediate to share. For now, I needed to be alone.
I suppose I kind of deserved what he’d said—I had been acting all punky and pushing at him. But after a while the animal people business had started to wear thin, feeling more like an excuse not to have a real conversation with me rather than fun. And then he’d been just plain mean.
Sue was going to love my report on tonight’s fiasco. Not.
I’m normally pretty good about walking about on my own at night—not fearless like my friend Jilly, but I’m usually only going from my local subway stop or walking down well-frequented streets. Tonight, though …
The streets in this neighborhood were quiet, and it was still relatively early, barely nine, but I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that someone was following me. You know that prickle you can get at the nape of your neck—some leftover survival instinct from when we’d just climbed down the from the trees, I guess. A monkey buzz.
I kept looking back the way I’d come—expecting to see Mr.Wolf Man skulking about a block or so behind me—but there was never anybody there. It wasn’t until I was on my own block and almost home that I saw the dog. Some kind of big husky, it seemed, from the glance I got before it slipped behind a parked car. Except its tail didn’t go up in that trademark curl.
I kept walking toward my door, backward, so that I could look down the street. The dog stuck its head out twice, ducking back when it saw me watching. The second time I bolted for my apartment, charged up the steps and onto the porch. I had my keys out, but I was so rattled, it took me a few moments to get the proper one in the lock. It didn’t help that I spent more time staring down the street than at what I was doing. But I finally got the key in, unlocked the door, and was inside, closing and locking the door quickly behind me.
I leaned against the wall to catch my breath, positioned so that my gaze could go down the street. I didn’t see the dog. But I did see a man, standing there in the general area of where the dog had been. He was looking down the street in my direction and I ducked back from the window. It was too far away to make out his features, but I could guess who he was.
This was what I’d been afraid of when I’d first seen the dog: that it wasn’t a dog. That it was a wolf. That Mr. Wolf Man really could become a wolf and now he’d turned into Stalker Freak Man.
I was thinking in capitals like my superhero character Rocket Grrl always did when she was confronting evildoers like Can’t Commit Man. Except I wasn’t likely to go out and fight the good fight like she always was. I was more the hide-under-the-bed kind of person.
But I was kind of mad now.
I watched until the man turned away, then hurried up the stairs to my apartment. Once I was inside, I made sure the deadbolt was engaged. Ditto the lock on the window that led out onto the fire escape. I peered down at the street from behind the safety of the curtains in my living room, but saw no one out there.
I changed and paced around the apartment for a while before I finally went into the kitchen and punched in Mr. Wolf Man’s phone number. I lit into him the minute he answered.
“Maybe you think it’s a big joke, following me home like that, but I didn’t appreciate it.”
“But I—” he started.
“And maybe you can turn into a wolf or a dog or whatever, or maybe you just have one trained to follow people, but I think it’s horrible either way, and I just want you to know that we have an anti-stalking law in this city, and if I ever see you hanging around again, I’m going to phone the police.”
Then I hung up.
I was hoping I’d feel better, but I just felt horrible instead. The thing is, I’d found myself sort of liking him before he got all rude and then did the stalking bit.
I guess I should have called Sue at this point, but it was still too freshly depressing to talk about. Instead I made myself some toast and tea, then went and sat in the living room, peeking through the curtains every couple of minutes to make sure there was no one out there. It was a miserable way to spend an evening that had held the potential of being so much more.
I hung up the phone feeling totally confused. What had she been talking about? But by the time Tyrone got home, I thought I had a clue.
“Did you follow her home?” I asked.
He just looked confused. “Follow who home?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because we got into a fight and you’re always stepping in to protect me or set people straight when you think they’ve treated me badly.”
I could see that look come into his eyes—confirming my feelings, I thought, until he spoke.
“Your date went bad?” he asked.
“It went horribly—but you already know that.”
Tyrone sighed. “I was nowhere near the Café, or wherever you guys went after.”
“We didn’t have time to go anywhere after,” I said, and then I told him about how the evening had gone.
“Let’s see if I’ve got this straight,” Tyrone said. “She tells you she likes to dress casually and draws comics for a living, so you tell her you’re a skinwalker.”
“We were sharing intimacies.”
“Sounds more like lunacies on your part. What were you think-ing?”
I sighed. “I don’t know. I liked her. I liked the fact that she didn’t want to start off with any B.S.”
Tyrone shook his head. “Well, it’s done now, I guess. With any luck she’ll just think you’re a little weird and leave it at that.” He paused and fixed with me with a considering look. “Tell me you didn’t shift in front of her.”
“No. But from this phone call …”
“Right. The phone call. I forgot. You don’t think you put that idea into her head?”
“She sounded a little scared as well as pissed off. But if it wasn’t you and it wasn’t me, I guess her imagination must have been working overtime.”
Tyrone shrugged. “Maybe. Except… did you touch her at all?”
“Not really. We just shook hands and I grabbed her shoulders when I stumbled and lost my balance.”
“So your scent was on her.”
I nodded. “I suppose.”
I saw where he was going. We don’t actually go out marking territory anymore—at least most of us don’t. But if another wolf had caught my scent on her it might intrigue him enough to follow her. And if he was one of the old school, he might think it fun to do a little more than that.
“I’ve got to go to her place and check it out,” I said.
“And you’ll find it how?” Tyrone asked.
He was right. I didn’t even know her phone number.
“That we can deal with,” Tyrone said.
I’d forgotten what we can do with phones these days. Tyrone had gotten all the bells and whistles for ours and in moments he’d called up the digits of the last incoming call on the liquid crystal display.
“It still doesn’t tell us where she lives,” I said. “And I doubt she’d appreciate a call from me right now. If ever.”
“I can handle that as well,” Tyrone told me and he went over to the computer.
I hadn’t lied to Mona. I did deal with investments—on-line. I was on the computer for a few hours every day, but I wasn’t the hacker Tyrone was. I watched as he hacked into the telephone company’s billing database. Within minutes, he had an address match for the phone number. He wrote it down on a scrap of paper and stood up.
“This is my mess,” I told him. “So I’ll clean it up.”
When I nodded, he handed me the address.
“Don’t kill anybody unless you have to,” he said. “But if you do, do it clean.”
I wasn’t sure if he meant Mona or her stalker and I didn’t want to ask.
After I finished my toast and tea, I decided to go to bed. I wasn’t really tired, but maybe I’d get lucky and fall asleep and when I woke up, it would be a whole new day. And it would sure beat sitting around feeling miserable tonight.
I washed up my dishes, then took one last look out the window. And froze. There wasn’t one dog out there, but a half-dozen, lounging on the sidewalk across the street like they hadn’t a care in the world. And they weren’t dogs. I’ve seen enough nature specials on PBS to know a wolf when I see one.
As I started to let the curtain drop, all their heads lifted and turned in my direction. One got to its feet and began to trot across the street, pausing halfway to look down the block. Its companions turned their gazes in that direction as well and I followed suit.
He was dressed more casually now—jeans and a windbreaker— but I had no trouble recognizing him. My date. Mr. Stalker Man. Oh, where was Rocket Grrl when you needed her?
I knew what I should be doing. Finding something to use as a weapon in case they got in. Dialing 911 for sure. Instead, all I could do was slide down to my knees by the window and stare down at the street.
It was worse than I’d thought. A pack of cousins had gathered outside the address I had for Mona. From the smell in the air, I knew they were out for fun. The trouble is, skinwalker fun invariably results in somebody getting hurt. We’re the reason true wolves get such a bad rap. Whenever we’re around, trouble follows.
The alpha male rose up into a man shape at my approach. His pack formed a half-circle at his back, a couple more of them taking human shape. I could tell from the dark humor in their eyes that I’d just raised the ante on their night of fun. I realized I shouldn’t have turned down Tyrone’s offer to help, but it was too late now. I had to brave it out on my own.
“Thanks for the show of force,” I said with way more confidence than I was feeling, “but I don’t really need any help to see my girlfriend.”
“She’s not your girlfriend,” the alpha male said.
“Sure, she is.”
“Bullshit. That little chickadee’s so scared you can smell her fear a block away.”
“Well, you’re not exactly helping matters,” I told him.
He gave me a toothy grin, dark humor flicking in his eyes.
“I was walking by the Café when she dumped you,” he said.
I shrugged. “We had a little tiff, no big deal. That’s why I’m here now—to make it up with her.”
He shook his head. “She’s as scared of you as she is of us. But tell you what, back off and you can have whatever’s left over.”
Some of us fit in as we can, some of us live a footloose life. Then there are the ones like these that went feral in the long ago and just stayed that way. Some are lone wolves, the others run in packs.Mostly they haunt the big cities now because in places this large, who’s going to notice the odd missing person? People disappear every day.
“Time was,” I said, “when we respected each other’s territories. When we put someone under our protection, they stayed that way.”
It was a long shot, but I had this going for me: We’re a prideful people. And honor’s a big thing between us. It has to be, or we’d have wiped each other out a long time ago.
He didn’t like it. I don’t know if I spoke to his honor, or whether it was because he couldn’t place my clan affiliation and didn’t know how big a pack he’d be calling down upon himself if he cut me down and went ahead and had his fun.
“You’re saying she’s your girlfriend?” he asked.
“Okay. Let’s go up and ask her. If she lets you in, we’ll back off. But if she doesn’t …”
He let me fill in the blank for myself.
“No problem,” I said.
Not like I had a choice in the matter. This was a win-win situation for him. If she let me in, he could back off without losing face. And if she didn’t, no one in the clans would take my side because it would just look like I was homing in on their claim.
He stepped back and I walked toward Mona’s building. The pack fell in behind me, all of them in human shape now. I glanced up and caught a glimpse of Mona’s terrified face in the window. I tried to look as harmless as possible.
Trust me, I told her, willing the thought up to her. It’s your life that’s hanging in the balance here.
But she only looked more scared.
Then we were on the stairs and I couldn’t see her anymore.
“Don’t even think about trying to warn her,” the alpha male said from behind me. “She’s got to accept you without a word from you or all bets are off.”
The door to the front hall was locked when I tried it. The alpha male reached past me and grabbed the knob, giving it a sharp twist. I heard the lock break, then the door swung open and we were moving inside.
Did I mention that we’re stronger than we look?
I was still trying to adjust to the fact that the wolves really had turned into people, when my stalker led them into the apartment building. He looked up at me just before they reached the stairs, his face all pretend sweethess and light, but it didn’t fool me. I knew they were going to tear me to pieces.
Get up, get up, I told myself. Call the police. Sneak out onto the fire escape and run for it.
But all I could do was sit on the floor with my back to the window and stare at my front door, listening to their footsteps as they came up the stairs. When they stopped outside my door, I held my breath. Somebody knocked and I just about jumped out of my skin. This uncontrollable urge to laugh rose up in me. Here they were, planning to kill me, yet they were just knocking politely on the door. I was hysterical.
“We can smell you in there.”
That wasn’t Lyle, but one of his friends.
I shivered and pressed up against the wall behind me.
“Come see us through the peephole,” the voice went on. “Your boyfriend wants to know if you’ll let him in. Or are you still too mad at him?”
I didn’t want to move, but I slowly got to my feet.
“If you don’t come soon, we’ll huff and we’ll puff, just see if we won’t.”
I stood swaying in the middle of my living room, hugging myself. Wishing so desperately that I’d never left the apartment this evening.
“Or maybe,” the mocking voice went on, “we’ll go chew off the faces of the nice couple living below you. They do smell good.”
I was moving again, shuffling forward, away from the phone, toward the door. It was too late to call for help anyway. Nobody was going to get here in time. If they didn’t just smash through my door, maybe they really would go kill the Andersons who had the downstairs apartment. And this wasn’t their fault. I was the one stupid enough to go out on a blind date with a werewolf.
“That’s it,” the voice told me. “I can hear you coming. Show us what a good hostess you are. What a forgiving girlfriend.”
I was close enough now to hear the chorus of sniggers and giggles that echoed on after the voice had finished. When I reached the door, I rose slowly up on my tiptoes and looked through the peephole.
They were all out there in the hall, my stalker and his pack of werewolf friends.
God, I thought, looking at Lyle, trying to read his face, to understand why he was doing this. How could I ever have thought that I liked him?
I knew it was over now. There was no way Mona was going to open the door—not if she had an ounce of sense in her—but at least I’d gotten the pack into a confined space. I couldn’t take them all down, but maybe I could manage a few.
I could smell Mona the same as the pack did—smell her fear. She was numbed by it. But maybe once I set on the pack, it’d snap her out of her paralysis long enough to flee out onto the fire escape I’d noticed running up the side of the building. Or perhaps the noise would be enough for the neighbors to call the police. If they could get here before the pack battered down the door, there was still a chance she could survive.
She was on the other side of the door now. Looking out of the peephole. I tried to compose myself, to give her a look that she might read as hope. To convey that I meant her no harm.
But then the alpha male gave me a shove. Without thinking, I snarled at him, face partially shifting, jaws snapping. He darted back, laughter triumphant in his eyes, and I knew what he’d done. He’d shown Mona that I was no different from them. Just another skinwalker. Another inhuman creature, hungry for her blood.
“All you have to do is answer a couple of questions,” the alpha male said, facing the door. “Do you forgive your boyfriend? Will you invite him in?”
There was a long silence.
“Why … why are you doing this?” Mona finally said, her voice muffled by the door. But we all had a wolf’s hearing.
“Tut, tut,” the alpha male said. “You’re not playing by the rules. You’re not supposed to ask a question, only answer ours.”
I knew she was still looking from the peephole.
“I’m sorry, Mona,” I said. “For everything.”
The alpha male turned on me with a snarl. I drew him aside before he could speak, my back to the door.
“Come on,” I told him, my voice pitched low. “You know we had a quarrel. How’s this supposed to be fair with you scaring the crap out of her and here I haven’t even apologized to her? I mean, take a vote on it or something.”
He turned to his companions. I could see they didn’t like it, but my argument made sense.
“Fine,” he said. “You’ve made your apology.”
He turned to the door and let his face go animal.
“Well?” he snarled. “What’s your answer, little chickadee? Your boyfriend says he’s sorry so can he come in and play now?”
I almost died when Lyle’s face did its half-transformation. The wolfish features disappeared as fast as they had appeared. He turned to me with those beautiful dark eyes of his, and I couldn’t see the same meanness and hunger in them that were in the eyes of the others. And I was looking for it, believe me. Then, while I was still caught in his gaze, he went and apologized to me, like none of this was his doing. Like he was sorry for everything, the same as I was. Not just for what he’d said to me in the Café, but because we’d liked each other and then we’d let it all fell apart before we ever gave it a chance to be more.
Call me naive, or maybe even stupider still, but I believed that apology of his was genuine. It was something he needed to say, or that I needed to hear. Maybe both.
I was so caught up in the thought of that, that I didn’t even start when the other guy did his half-wolf face thing and began snarling at me. Instead, I flashed on something Lyle had said to me earlier in the evening, back at the Café.
These days most of us just like to fit in, he’d told me. Live a bit in your world, a bit in the animal world. But it wasn’t always like that. There have always been those among us who considered everyone else in the world their private prey.
Most of you? I’d asked.
I remember him sighing, almost like he was ashamed, when he’d shaken his head and added, But there are still some that like to hunt.
Like this guy with his animal face and snarl, with his pack of wolfish friends.
But I was done being afraid. I was Rocket Grrl, or at least I was trying to be. I concentrated on this question the wolf-faced leader of the pack kept asking, focusing exactly on what it was he was asking, and why. It felt like a fairy tale moment and I flashed on “Beauty and the Beast,” the prince turned into a frog, the nasty little dwarf who’d moved in on me until an act of kindness set him free. All those stories pivoted around the right thing being said.
That doesn’t happen in real life, the rational part of my mind told me.
I knew that. Not usually. But sometimes it did, didn’t it?
“Time’s up, chickadee,” the alpha male said.
I got myself ready. First I’d try to knock as many of them down the stairs as I could, then I’d shift to wolf shape and give them a taste of what it felt like being hurt. I knew I didn’t have a chance against all of them, but I’d still be able to kill a few before they took me down. I’d start with the alpha male.
Except before I could leap, I heard the deadbolt disengage. The door swung open, and then she was standing there, small and blonde and human-frail, but with more backbone than all of this sorry pack of skinwalkers put together, me included. We all took a step back. Mona cleared her throat.
“So … so what you’re asking,” she said, “is do I forgive Lyle?”
The alpha male straightened his shoulders. “That’s it,” he said. “Part one of a two-parter.”
She didn’t even look at him, her gaze going over his shoulder to me.
“I think we were both to blame,” she said. “So of course I do. Do you forgive me?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wasn’t even worrying about the pack at that moment. I was just so mesmerized with how brave she was. I think the pack was, too.
“Well?” she asked.
All I could do was nod my head.
“Then you can come in,” she said. “But not your friends.”
“They’re not my friends,” I told her.
The alpha male growled with frustration until one of the pack touched his arm.
“That’s it,” the pack member said. “It’s over.”
The alpha male shook off the hand, but he turned away and the pack trooped down the stairs. When I heard the front door close, I let out a breath I hadn’t been aware I was holding.
“You were amazing,” I told Mona.
She gave me a small smile. “I guess I have my moments.”
“I’ll say. I don’t know how you knew to do it, but you gave them exactly the right answer.”
“I wasn’t doing it for them,” she told me. “I was doing it for us.”
I shook my head again. “It’s been a weird night, but I’m glad I got to meet you all the same.”
I started for the stairs.
“Where are you going?” she asked. “They could be waiting out there for you.”
I turned back to look at her. “They won’t. It’s an honor thing.Maybe if I run into them some other time there’ll be trouble, but there won’t be any more tonight.”
“We never finished our date,” she said.
“You still want to go out somewhere with me?”
She shook her head. “But we could have a drink in here and talk awhile.”
I waited a heartbeat, but when she stepped aside and ushered me inside, I didn’t hesitate any longer.
“I was so scared,” she said as she closed the door behind us.
“There were six of them,” I said. “They could have torn me apart at any time.”
“Why didn’t they?”
“I told them you were my girlfriend—that we’d just had a fight in the Café. That way, in their eyes, I had a claim on you. The honor thing again. If you were under my protection, they couldn’t hurt you.”
“So that’s what you meant about my giving them the exact right answer.”
“And if I hadn’t?” she asked.
“Let’s not go there,” I said. But I knew she could see the answer in my eyes.
“You’d do that even after what I said to you on the phone?”
“You had every right to feel the way you did.”
“Are you for real?”
“I hope so.” I thought about all she’d experienced tonight. “So are you going to put this in one of your strips?”
She laughed. “Maybe. But who’d believe it?”
It’s funny how things work. When I was leaving the Café earlier, I could have happily given him a good bang on the ear. Later, when I thought he was stalking me, I was ready to have him put in jail. When the pack was outside my window and he joined them, I was so terrified I couldn’t move or think straight.
And now I’m thinking of asking him to stay the night.
First appeared in Single White Vampire Seeks Same edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Brittiany A. Koren (New York: DAW Books, 2001). Copyright © 2001 by Charles de Lint.