The woods are protected land, but humans are an invasive species, and generations of Rose Lake residents have cut numerous paths across the sections of park that butt against the town. Eli finds a wide, well-worn one and sticks to it, yanking his hood up against the evening chill.
Civilization is swallowed quickly by trees, and the streetlamps’ light along with it. Eli considers pulling out his phone, but the path is even, and the moon is just full enough to lend a glow to see by, and he’s hesitant to shatter the atmosphere with technology.
Eli has liked the woods in an abstract, city-kid way ever since they first moved to Rose Lake. After years of one densely-populated area after another, the wildness feels humbling. He remembers the day he and his mother arrived in town, the way he’d wanted to just . . . keep going. Adirondack Park was the biggest forestry preserve in the country. If they could make it past that first border of trees, they’d never be found.
He’s jostled from his thoughts by a rustling off to the right of the path—the sound of something moving through the trees. Something big enough to leave his brain scrambling to pull up everything he read during those first few weeks on local predatory species and what to do when encountering a bear. Isn’t he supposed to make loud noises from a safe distance? His eyes dart back and forth in the meager light. What the hell constitutes a safe distance in the middle of the woods?
Suddenly, the thought of getting lost in the park isn’t as comforting as it was five minutes ago.
Eli steels himself and keeps walking. If it’s some sort of animal—and it is, it has to be— it’s probably more scared of him than he is of it. At least, that’s what his mom says when she hears him making dying whale noises because he’s spotted a spider in their bathroom.
And oh, perfect, now he’s thinking about giant spiders. No more Lord of the Rings marathons for him. New rule.
The rustling stops as he starts walking again, then picks back up. Louder. Closer. Whatever it is, it’s moving faster now, more purposefully. Toward the path.
Eli stops. Freezes, really, as his brain helpfully reminds him that there have been credible mountain lion sightings in the Adirondacks. And didn’t Heather Mills say her brother spotted a moose near the old bridge last summer? He’s full of so much wonderful information about all the local animals that can turn a human being into jam. Sure would have been helpful to recall it before he’d cut through the woods in the dark.
Don’t run, Eli thinks, heart hammering in his chest. He remembers reading something that said you shouldn’t run, shouldn’t turn your back. Then the creature steps onto the path, and Eli’s brain stops trying to be helpful. It has nothing for him, no helpful tips or trivia from his reading, because the only books about something like this are in the horror section. Two legs, hunched shoulders, dark fur. Restless, flexing fingers tipped with ragged claws. Moonlight glinting off of teeth, teeth, teeth, and instinct takes over.
Eli runs, but he doesn’t get far.
It’s like being hit by a train. An impossibly heavy body slams into him from behind and what feels like a steel trap clamps shut over his arm. He sees the creature’s mouth—jaws, his mind babbles, snout—latched onto him, sharp fangs digging in, warm blood soaking his sleeve as it bears down.
His scream is from shock as much as pain. He hits the ground almost as an afterthought, breath punching out of his lungs at the impact. Reeling, gasping for breath, it takes him a moment to realise that whatever has a hold on his arm is dragging him backwards, off the path.
It’s got a nest, he thinks wildly. This hulking mass of fur and teeth—monster, monster, monster—has a nest and he’s gonna be eaten by its cute, furry young. The hand that’s not dangling uselessly from his shredded arm scrabbles helplessly at the forest floor. He digs into dead leaves, into dirt, before his fingers finally snag on a tree root. He fumbles for a desperate grip, and—
And regrets all his life choices as the monster growls low and yanks, tearing him harshly backward. The pain that rips up his arm takes his breath away again, and all that comes out when he tries to yell is a bubbly wheeze.
He’s going to die. Here, like this, cold and alone and dressed as a goddamn skeleton, because apparently the universe loves irony. He could almost laugh, and has the faint, detached thought that that’s probably shock.
There’s a popping sound, and for a staggering moment, Eli thinks its his arm. Then the beast flinches, and its jaw slackens, and he hears—
It’s a woman’s voice, followed by another pop, and Eli realises what the sound is: gunshots. Someone’s shooting at them. What a weird way to become a gun violence statistic, he finds himself thinking, and then suddenly—his arm’s free. It’s like being bitten in reverse, and if anything, it hurts more.
He rolls, scrabbling over gnarled roots and a wide slab of rock, away from the monster. He needn’t have bothered. Glancing frantically over his shoulder, he sees the black, furry mass booking it in the opposite direction. Eli’s heart almost gives out from the relief.
He can just barely make out a dark—thankfully human-shaped—figure chasing it, and Eli bites back a yelp when another one skids to a halt beside him.
“Can you run?”
It’s a girl. His age, maybe younger. He should tell her to be careful, there’s a monster in these woods.
“—you listening? Can you run?” she asks again, her voice lilting with a distinctly non-American accent, and Eli struggles to parse the words. Shock, he thinks again. Amazing how familiar the feeling is after more than a decade.
“I—yes,” he says. His arm is throbbing but his legs are whole, if shaky. The girl yanks him to his feet by his good arm and propels him back the way they’d come, towards the path. Towards town.
“Run!” she tells him, and turns away, following the monster and her companion.
Eli doesn’t hesitate this time. He turns and he runs.
The diner is dark when he lets himself in through the back door. His arm has gone blessedly numb, which probably isn’t a good sign, but whenever his brain tries to tell him so his thoughts swim away from it.
It’s like trying to think through soda water. He can’t hold onto anything and random thoughts keep bubbling to the surface, shifting his focus.
His mother’s pinned a note to the bulletin board at the bottom of the stairs.
Closed up early. Hope you had fun. Get some sleep xo.
He should wake her up. He needs a doctor. Or the police. Or both. Instead, his feet carry him upstairs and down the hall to his bedroom. He doesn’t bother with the lights. Doesn’t bother undressing. His arm is numb and his thoughts are too, and he just wants to sleep.
There’s something in the woods. It’s loud and feral and feels like hitting a wall. A huge bang, bang—
Eli’s body jolts awake before his brain does, and it takes him a moment to realise his mother’s knocking at his door.
“Opening in twenty! Up up!” she calls through the door before her footsteps recede.
It’s a familiar routine. His mother wakes him on her way down to open the diner. This is where he gets up and brushes his teeth and gets ready for school and—
Instead, Eli blinks at the ceiling and tries very hard not to look at his arm. He feels normal, which obviously means his arm’s fallen off and his body is trying not to process that fact. It’s a good approach, really. Smart. Eli’s taking notes because maybe if he never looks at his arm again, he can make it all the way to graduation before reality catches up with him.
Which is when Eli realises he’s rubbing his eyes with both hands and he flails upright.
His arm’s . . . fine.
Eli stares at it. And stares some more. It was a dream, he thinks hysterically. A bad, terrible, shitty dream. Only if it was, he’s still having it. Because while the skin of his arm is smooth and unmarked, the only reason he can see that is because the sleeve of his hoodie is in tatters.
The material scratches when he shifts, and it takes him a second to realise it’s because it’s stiff with dried blood.
His blood. Blood that came from his bloody but entirely undamaged arm.
“Last warning!” his mother calls, and Eli almost startles off the bed.
“Coming!” he yells, hoping the hysteria is only obvious to him.
He strips hastily, throwing the trashed costume into the dark recesses of his closet. Future Eli’s problem. Present Eli has to go to school. And probably flunk a chemistry test.
That, of all things, makes Eli swear as he heads for the bathroom.
Eli makes it to class with a whole thirty seconds to spare, which should earn him a medal after the night he had. Ms. Dhar shuffles some papers on her desk and ignores the last-minute scramble for chairs as the bell rings.
“Good morning, class.” Ms. Dhar squints at them through thick glasses, blinking like a kindly owl. “I trust your sugar crashes aren’t too dire.”
There’s a smattering of laughter, which ought to earn her a medal of her own. There aren’t many teachers considered well-liked by the Rose Lake High student body; Eli’s heard that Ms. Dhar, with her kind eyes and unshakable hatred of pop quizzes, is one of the only teachers in Rose Lake’s history given amnesty from all senior year pranks.
“Today we’ll be analysing the data you collected on last week’s excursion,” she says, and nods at Eli when he raises his hand. “I’ll have some of my own notes available for those who couldn’t attend.”
Which is Eli. And only Eli. Nobody else stayed behind; nobody else formed a third of the team responsible for the town’s only diner.
Eli starts to stand to collect the notes from Ms. Dhar, only to freeze at a knock on the door.
“Ah,” Ms. Dhar says, smiling as she turns towards the sound. “You must be Charlotte.”
The girl in the doorway doesn’t match her smile as she adjusts the backpack on her shoulder. “It’s Charlie, actually.”
Charlie, Eli thinks, barely hearing the rest of the class break out into excited whispers around him.
“Woah, did you hear her accent?”
“Right? She’s British!”
“Oh my God, Emma, Australian. What is wrong with you?”
All Eli can focus on is: Her name is Charlie. What a normal, unremarkable name. She looks normal, too: her long, dark hair is hanging loose and unstyled, and her round, scowling face has the healthy, freshly-scrubbed glow of someone who plays team sports for fun. He wonders if chasing wild animals through the preserve at night counts as a team sport, as long as you’re doing it with others. Eli’s hands are shaking, and he grips the edge of his desk until his knuckles whiten.
Charlie’s surly gaze passes over the class before snagging on him. Her eyes narrow like she’s trying to place his face, then widen in sudden recognition. And finally, she smiles.
“It’s probably best you pair up with Eli. Eli, would you raise your hand?” Ms. Dhar says blithely, and Eli slowly lifts his hand despite never having felt more betrayed in his entire life. “We’re working on data collected on an excursion to Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine last week,” she adds, handing her a messy sheaf of papers. “You can both work with my notes.”
Charlie nods like this is a perfectly rational suggestion. Eli, meanwhile, is busy having a heart attack.
Ms. Dhar moves to her desk, and Charlie heads for Eli, unperturbed by the gauntlet of stares and whispers that accompany every new kid. Having suffered through more than his fair share himself over the years, Eli keeps his eyes fixed on his notebook in a gracious effort to keep from contributing to the attention. It’s not in any way because he’s shitting himself.
The chair next to him scrapes like the creaky-door sound effect in a horror movie, and Eli does his best to focus on Ms. Dhar as she starts the class proper. It’s going great right up until Charlie leans over and whispers, barely loud enough for him to hear.
“How’s the arm, hotshot?”
Eli whips his head around before he can stop himself, heart thundering like he expects to find last night’s monster leering back at him. Instead, there’s only Charlie, a teenager just like him, and as unthreatening a visual as he could conjure. She’s short, soft, and pear-shaped, and the shit-eating grin she levels at him just makes her cuter. It’s an impression severely at odds with the way just looking at her makes Eli’s spine want to crawl out the nearest window.
“I . . . have no idea what you’re talking about,” Eli mutters, choosing denial as the better part of valor.
“Oh, sorry,” Charlie says, rolling her eyes, obviously unimpressed with his tactical decision. “I must have you confused with the other dude who almost became werewolf chow last night.”
Eli very eloquently chokes on his own spit. Ms. Dhar looks like she’s not sure whether to scold him or ask if he’s okay; Charlie’s obviously trying hard not to laugh.
He waits until Ms. Dhar’s attention moves back to the lesson he’s hopelessly failing to follow, then hisses from the corner of his mouth, “You did not just say werewolf.”
“Pretty sure I did,” Charlie sniggers.
“No,” Eli says. It’s an emphatic no. Very clear.
“No?” Charlie pokes his arm—the same arm he heard crunch last night. “How do you explain that then?” she asks.
Eli pretends to take notes. “I . . . ate some bad candy and had a nightmare. That’s all.”
Charlie snorts, loudly enough that a few people glance over. “Yeah, okay, Scrooge.” She pretends to be writing, glances at him again. “Seriously? You’d rather believe that you got food poisoning from some bad nougat and hallucinated a seven-foot tall monster instead of even entertaining the possibility of werewolves?”
“Of course I would!” Eli hisses. “I—”
There’s the sound of a throat being cleared, and . . . shit, okay, that’s definitely a scolding look from Ms. Dhar. He refuses to acknowledge Charlie for the rest of class, scribbling profanities in the margin of his notebook when Ms. Dhar assigns homework for the workshop pairs to complete together. Perfect. Amazing.
When he risks another glance at Charlie, hoping she’ll be as annoyed as he is, she’s putting the final touches on a detailed comic depicting a small figure being mauled by a wolf. Apparently satisfied with the line work, she grabs a red pen to color in the blood.
Ten years later, the bell finally rings. Eli doesn’t pack up, just scoops his books into his arms and bolts for the door.
Eli is a mess of nerves and denial, which is gonna make for one interesting werewolf. Charlie would be amused if there weren’t so much at stake.
Stuff it, she’s still amused. And relieved. She thought enrolling in high school was going to be a giant waste of time—she has bigger werewolves to fry—but here she is lab partners with their best chance of tracking the rogue. Alyssa’s gonna flip. Charlie can’t wait to rub it in her face.
Education is important, Charlie. Damn friggin’ straight it is.
She catches up with Eli despite her short-ass legs and his new fuzzball speed. “Come on!” she says. “This isn’t an ‘ignore it and it’ll go away’ situation.”
“Challenge accepted,” Eli snaps, swinging a hard turn like he’s been yanked stage left by an oversized hook. He’s practically huddled against the lockers, making a show of opening one that Charlie’s honestly surprised to find is his, given his actions are so random.
“What are you doing?” Charlie says, grimacing at the state of Eli’s locker. There’s an apple that’s seen better days almost falling off a crowded shelf, like a sentry to a kingdom of chaos.
Eli just rolls his eyes, flicks his gaze behind Charlie, and braces. The shove, when it comes, is hard enough that Eli bounces off the lockers, but Charlie can tell he exaggerates his wince. So. He’s smart, at least.
The boy who did the shoving is all teeth, from his mean smirk down to his trademark bully swagger. Charlie wants to punch him on principle. Instead she checks on Eli as the bully continues down the hall.
“Are you okay?”
Eli checks Captain Teeth is far enough away and then straightens. “I’m fine,” he says curtly.
“Please leave me alone.”
Charlie shrugs. “I can’t.”
“Right. Because I’m a werewolf,” Eli says, sarcastically.
Charlie’s never been the most patient person—she can hear her sister laughing at that understatement—and Eli’s pressing every button she has with this studied ostrich impression.
So she does what she does best: she snaps. “Fine,” she says, reaching past Eli into his locker. “You don’t believe me?”
“What—” Eli only realises she’s grabbed the apple when she hauls back and throws it.
Right at Captain Teeth’s retreating back.
We love that color on you…
Hey so Hug Your Local Werewolf is a tiny independent undertaking only possible because of the support of our pack over on Patreon.
If you have just $1 to spare a month, you can ensure we keep bringing you werewolf shenanigans AND score some cool-ass rewards to boot.
So how about it? Ready to hug your local werewolf?