The storm drain’s white concrete surroundings slanted upwards, eerie blue in the moonlight. Far away I could hear the sound of the river, churning through the steel pipes that jutted from one wall, dull grey-brown pipes with metal grilles across to keep out inquisitive kids and people who should know better, but didn’t. The place stank of old water, lain still for too long, even as the snow troughed in the center, no doubt to melt, and run down later. Layers to the scent – the nearly sewerlike tang of the water in the pipes, the places homeless people had slept, the scent of blood from where someone had fallen. Grease from skateboards and bikes. Gun smoke.
Sasha’s phonecall had been quite clear. Come to this place. Stay here. Wait. If she didn’t show up in the time frame in question, she wasn’t going to. If she did show up, I’d get more instructions, then. I slouched around the storm drain, looking down at my feet, as I kicked through the snow.
Rrrrring. Beep beep. Rrring. Beep beep.
“Is that your ring tone?”
I heard her voice behind me, and I turned in surprise – you know, it’s really natural to jump when you’re startled? But when I turned around quickly, there was a long black metal barrel pointed right into my face, and she had a very relaxed look on her face by comparison.
I feel I have done a disservice to Sasha, really. When she first took off her mask, I didn’t describe her – which I’ve been told is bad writing. Trying to do better, this time.
Sasha had short, black hair that reached down to between her ears and her shoulders, cut with a really sharp arc, so you could imagine this single, smooth curve from one side to another. At this point it just seemed ‘really black’ to me, but I know now that it was dyed – she didn’t want it to reflect the light in the darkness. Her eyes were brown, with a deep slash of green to them – I’m told it’s ‘hazel’ or something like that. Skin-wise – is it polite to comment on a lady’s skin? I’m not sure. Either way, she wasn’t nearly as white as me – you know, dark enough that she doesn’t trust the cops. Under her eyes were darker rings – she always looked tired, always looked like she hadn’t had enough sleep. There was something about the way her jaw sat, that, at the time, I didn’t realise, was putting me on edge. Bothering me, just a touch.
Took me a long time to work it out. So long I didn’t realise it until I started to write it down: She was always clenching her jaw, because she was always angry.
Unlike the van night, she wasn’t dressed in football pads and disposable military-surplus gear. Her outfit now looked a bit more like clothes – a jacket, a tank top, I, uh, I understand it’s called ‘scoop’? and jeans, frayed down at the feet. Big boots. Flat boots. Good for running in.
Out of the jacket, she had a shotgun.
It was kinda weird, because I thought when I first saw people using guns, that there’d be this moment where they made it go ch-chnk and that meant it was ready to go. I mean, I almost thought that she was using the gun wrong – but then she brought it up at me, stepping forwards, into my personal space, and the way she did it signalled she surely was confident that it’d work.
“I mean that’s the most basic of choices I’ve ever heard.”
“I, uh, I what?” I managed to ask, stepping back as the gun pointed up at my chin.
“Alright, so let’s talk trigger discipline,” she said, unsetting, then resetting her jaw, that little click as she snapped her teeth back together, like she was biting the air. “You don’t point a gun at anything you’re not willing to shoot. You don’t put your finger on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. These are standard rules. Right now I’m willing to make some exceptions for you ‘cos I saw you get shot in the face and just fall over.”
“Seems… um reasonable.”
“But you’re moving like you’re scared of the f— gun.”
“I… I mean, isn’t that reasonable?”
She narrowed her eyes, and leant forwards, glaring at me. I had that prickling feeling, that fear that I was somehow doing something wrong just by existing. The shivering, shuddering sensation that the pastor was going to have something to say about this, when the silence finally broke.
“… Holy s— you really are just that f— gormless, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know what that means.”
She lowered the gun and gave a sigh. “I don’t f— like feeling out of my f— depth.”
“Sorry.” I shrugged. She was almost the same height as me, but somehow I felt like she was taller than me. Maybe the way I kept feeling like I should bob my head.
“So you’re Wyl, huh.”
“Y- well, that’s not my name.”
“An’ Sasha’s not mine. But it’ll do for now, kay?”
Then we stood there, in the storm drain for another one of those moments. I think she was expecting me to do something, or say something.
“So y’want to f— explain your f— self?”
“I – what do you want to know?”
“… Let’s start with the f— simple one. Did you seriously turn into a huge f— wolf an’ chase down our f— van?”
“I am pretty sure I did.”
“… how is that a f— answer?”
“Well, I mean – I was shot in the chest! Maybe I hallucinated it?”
“Pretty convincing hallucination if I was there too.”
“… I’m really sorry I don’t have a better answer.”
She put her hand over her face and gave a sigh. It was kinda melodramatic – a really heavy emphasis. Like she wanted me to be absolutely aware that she was annoyed at how bad my answers were.
“I pointed the gun at you and you didn’t wolf out.”
“Is that what it’s called?”
“… Isn’t it? I don’t know. I’m not the shape-shifter. Why didn’t you?”
There’s this question I got asked, once: Are you awake right now? It stuck in my head. It stuck in my head not because I couldn’t answer it – I could – but because I knew, when I was asked it, that my brain had just done something. It’d asked my brain to check on something I didn’t have words for. In that moment, when Sasha asked me that, I had that same sensation.
“I… don’t think I can.”
“… Right. Okay. Okay. That’s actually an answer, so that’s more than I was expecting of you, you know?”
“… Thanks?” I asked, looking up at the sky. The moon wasn’t very bright – I could feel the itchiness in my skin.
“Okay, so what do you know about werewolves, kid?”
“I don’t really know much at all.”
Sasha stormed back and forth in the drain, putting one of her hands up in her hair. It was like I’d done something wrong or stupid, and in that moment I felt very small. “Sorry.” I repeated.
“F— sorry, what the s— are you so sorry about? Are you f—ing with me?”
“I’m really, I’m really not.” I promised, holding up my hands.
Finally, after a long, long moment, she shook her head and sighed, disgusted. “Legit superpower lands in this city and it lands on a f— boy who can’t f— tell what a werewolf is. No f— justice.”
That’s when I asked a question that I learned shouldn’t be coming out of a grown adult. “What’s a werewolf?”
Sasha sighed, and shook her head again. “You busy, Wyl?” she growled. “You got any money on you?”
“C’mon. We’re going to get you f— educated.” She shook her head and swore a little more.
You can walk some of the streets in this town looking at your feet, and the reflected light on the ground will tell you where you are. Down by the highway, there’s all the neon lights of cafes, each one of them trying to catch the attention of the people driving through, open so late, trying to catch the drunks coming out of the bars who want to sober up over a coffee and a plate of beans. There’s the way the upper-class department stores keep their lights on all the time, in the display windows, showing faceless white forms wearing four digits in clothing arranged around a barbecue or a Christmas tree or something, which casts a really sterile, very white light against the ground. There’s the bar district, where at night, all the stores are closed, so single, flashing LED lights showing just the word BAR reflect up and down the snowy street, tinging the white pink or green. Dull nothingness speaks of the industrial areas, the large facilities that are slowly shutting down, with far-off gouts of flame flaring up and showing that they’re not dead, they’re just dying. And speaking of dying, there’s the Old Boulevard, where the main thing you see is the one, single line of light – bright yellow, jutting in the middle of the street, casting out its lines that reflect off the broken glass of empty businesses.
That yellow line of light that the Woodsmans Theatre cast was the only business in Old Boulevard that was open after dark. I didn’t know why, myself – it was just an old movieplex style place, with small theatres and older, slower showings of other movies, and some classic films.
I’d never been to the Woodsmans. It was just a thing I saw on the way home from work.
We went in, paid for a ticket – no popcorn – and sat down, and what followed was four and a half hours of movies that didn’t make a lot of sense. One of them had a werewolf, and that was something of the point of it – there was a fear that the werewolf was going to take out everyone in the military unit sent to deal with it, I think? I got a bit confused. My notes on the movies are a little scattered. One of the other ones had a gangster zombie in it, I think.
I don’t really know what to do in the movies. I sit around and watch the screen, and I feel like I need to write things down to make sure I can answer questions later, and Sasha…
Sasha doesn’t do things like that.
When the last movie ended, and we walked out into the foyer, she was laughing and shouting. “F— a plus, there. Good job paying for the tickets and s—, too.”
“I did?” I asked, surprised.
“Well I ain’t f— paying you back,” she laughed, punching me in the upper arm. “So yeah, that was a werewolf.”
“And the police officer zombie?”
“That’s – that’s unrelated research. Good s— though.”
We sat outside, on the gutter, out under the Woodsman’s lights, and I tried to make sense of what I’d seen.
“They sort of are like monsters.”
“Well, yeah.” Sasha said, gesturing up at the sign. “It’s not called Werewolf Has Teatime In Paris or s— like that.”
“Yeah, I guess. I – is this like. Is that normal?”
Sasha looked at me like I was growing something out of my head. “No. No, Werewolves are not normal, an’ no, we don’t exactly have werewolf scholars. I don’t think. I’ve never seen a documentary about the real werewolves of London or any s— like that.” Then she blinked at me. “Besides, nothing so bad about being a monster.”
“Is that because you do the crimes?”
“The cr- it’s because – we all do crimes, kid.” Sasha looked at me weirdly again.
“Yeah. Jaywalking or spitting in the street or downloading songs onto your phone, everyone does something that’s a crime. All this s— is a prison meant to hold us in. We pick the sins we care about and let the others f— go. So I skip eating meat and feel okay about murdering gangsters.”
“You can put songs on your phone?”
“… where are you even from?!”
“… Well, I got out of the hospital last month-”
She shook her head. “Christ. C’mon.” She laughed as she helped me up to my feet. “F— hanging out with killers in a crook cinema and you’re still so f— green. And white. J—.”
“I- wait, that’s a crook cinema?”
“What, Woodsmans?” she turned and looked over her shoulder, and gestured up and down the street. “Well, lookit.”
“I see a street.”
Grey, blank faced buildings, the back of some, broken glass, panes of wood in windows to keep the breaks under control. Businesses that hadn’t been open for so many years…
“… And there’s the Woodsman. Here. Open in the middle of the f— pit of nothing. In the middle of the f— night. You think there’s a huge midnight movie community in a place where people can’t keep a f— hardware store open?”
“A hardware store?”
“Can you answer anything without a f— question?!” She raised her voice. Then she waved her hand over at the cinema. “Okay, so, no, there are not a f— pile of people going in there, but the business is open and well lit and nobody gets up to s— there because everyone knows it’s useful to have it open, and the owner’s bent. That’s why you can buy weed there an’ why there was the f— red hood in the front row of our cinema getting a deal going.”
“…Fine.” Sasha grunted.
“Um, what’s a Red Hood?”
As I said that, a figure walked out of the cinema. She was wearing a black hoodie, dark and slightly reflective, like, not leather, but maybe? And she was wearing on her face, a mask, or a – well, it completely covered her face, like a superhero, but it was all, solid red. Then she walked across the street, up to a car that’d been parked in place. Very smoothly, she put her hand on the door handle, then with her other hand, shot the driver in the head, opened the door, and dumped the body on the floor, before getting into the car and driving off.
“… That.” Sasha said, slightly paler.
I sometimes felt, when I read stories as a child, that the people were mostly writing about things they’d never done. Sometimes there were exceptions but it seemed that whenever anyone wrote about how to drive a car, they’d talk about the clutch and the gears and the gas and the brakes and they’d do it with this very real sense of it, like they’d dealt with it, and when they described a fight, they’d not once talk about that terror in your gut that came from knowing you had to hurt the other person really, really badly, so badly they’d hesitate at hurting you back.
When I read old detective novels to prepare for this, they had a lot of similes for what I saw. “The body hit the ground like a sack of old potatoes,” Old potatoes didn’t make that sound, and they didn’t have the smell of something dying. “The snitch’s last word hung in the air like a stolen song,” no, it was short and abrupt and it sounded like he’d been halfway through a thought. “The dame’s blood spread out under her on the carpet like black molasses.” Except it didn’t, because black molasses was slow and thick.
I didn’t know why it all felt that way, in that moment. I just knew that a man was dead, and I didn’t know what to do about it.
I started towards the body, a little dazed, but Sasha grabbed my arm, “What are you f— stupid?! If that was someone Grandma wanted f— dead, you don’t wanna be the one to find his f— body!”
“I —“ I stopped. “But he’s hurt—”
“F— that, he’s f— dead, look, trust me on this one, I’ve seen a few corpses in my f— time. We’re leaving.”
She was right.
I was just stupid.
Getting away sounds more interesting than it is. Nobody chases you but you’re left with an ache in your chest that you can’t tell from the fear. Were we being followed? No, almost certainly not, but what if we were?
Sasha slowed before I did – and then she grabbed my arm, yanking me into a diner. What followed was coffee, some food, I’d just written down everything, everything she tried to tell me. Sasha is not a girl who knows how to tell a coherent, meaningful pedagogical outline, but the basics as I could get it was, basically:
- There are multiple criminal gangs in the city, and most of the people who are poor interface with them, even without realising it, like when I was helping with a deal for ecstasy
- The Woodsmans cinema was owned and in the territory of a criminal syndicate known as Grandmas, and the assassins they use is called the Red Hood.
- I was a clueless moron and I shouldn’t run to help people who have been shot in the head.
There’s other stuff, but it was very, very hard to keep track of it all and I’ll try to add some of her notes when they become relevant.
She had a coffee between her hands, nursing it back and forth between her fingerless gloves. Sasha spoke in this sort of explosive way, where she burst out all this talk, this sort of high-energy, high-impact expression, and then when she was done, she spent some time folding in on herself again. She was like a flower, if they exploded and reassembled themselves, so I guess she wasn’t much like a flower at all, unless there’s some really interesting flower in, like, Brazil, I’ve never seen. Right now, she was reassembling herself, looking at her hands.
I looked at my own. We had similar hands, in a way; she had nail polish, scraped and flaked in small ways about the edges, but very similar in the signs of work, the signs of scars and nicks all over them. I nudged my plate back and forth, feeling momentarily strange about the lack of a cup of coffee. It sort of made me feel a bit like a little kid, you know?
Finally, I found the strength to ask it: “What do you do?”
“Me? I hurt people.” She grinned. The answer came back so easily. Suddenly, she was reconstructed, tilting her head, hair falling in a sideways curtain by her cheek. She put her elbow on the counter and rested her chin on her hand.
“I mean it. I hurt f— people. There are a lot of f— up things going on in this city, and there’s enough crime going around between the people in the syndicates and organisations – we’re a little bit of chaos trying to get rid of them.”
“Killing every f—one in the room.”
I looked down at my plate again. “I’m not sure I can kill anyone.” It wasn’t a big lie.
“You almost f— killed me, dips—. ”
“You mean, uhm,”
“When we fell out of the van.”
“I’m not sure falling out of your van really is the same thing? And I caught you.”
“Yeah, you did, you big f— lummox.” She laughed a little. “You’re a f— weirdo, y’know. You got shot in the face and your first thought was that y’wanted to make sure the cute girl falling with you wasn’t f— up. Even though I’d shot you in the face.”
“I thought your friend shot me in the face.”
“Nah, I did.”
“You know I’m not sure I trust you on this one.” I murmured. I have checked back on my notes, and I am quite sure that she wasn’t the one who shot me in the face directly, like, herself. I’m just saying.” She shrugged. “And if this is leadin’ into some f— speech about my lifestyle, trust me, f— save it. I have heard way better speeches from better f— writers than you.”
“I…” Have you ever felt you slid into a minefield?
“It’s always the same f— emotional appeal too.” She said, swinging off the stool. “Always some sort of f— b— about ‘people’s fathers, people’s sons,’” she laughed. “Sometimes, you gotta take someone’s f— son away.”
She turned to the door. “Heel,” she called over her shoulder as she pushed it open, with a growl in her throat.
We were a block away, in the trudging, freezing cold of a slowly expanding winter, before I spoke again. “I wasn’t trying to judge you.”
“Yeah, it’s fine,” she snarled and it wasn’t. “You ain’t been a werewolf before, have you.”
“I … no. I think we covered that earlier.”
She shrugged, and turned around, spreading her arms. “Welcome to —, a city of f— monsters, then.” Arms raised high, she held them a moment – then they flopped down by her side, defeated. “We got gangs and we got syndicates and now we got a f— werewolf, because people didn’t f— have enough to be afraid of. Somethin’ in the night eats someone, now it might not just be some rich f—.”
“Hey!” I said, lunging into the space between us, hoping she’d lower her tone. “I- I don’t eat people.”
“How do you f— know?” She laughed in my face, and drew herself back. “What do you even know about who you are? Trust me, Wyl, I know what it means to know yourself.”
It was like she’d kicked me in the head.
“What was that?” she leant in.
“I don’t know… I don’t know much about who I am at all.”
“Hang on, hey, hey, hold on,” she said, leaning closer, tugging on my chin. “Are you crying? Aw, – aw, f— j— s—, I wasn’t trying to make you feel bad, f—, c’mon. C’mon, cheer up. It’s okay. G— d—. Look.”
Hand on my shoulder, a shove. “Tell you what. I know a few things about finding yourself. I done it a few times.”
“Where did you lose yourself?”
“Oh boy you are not ready for that f— response, dogboy. Okay. So.” She put her hand on my hand, and held it, gripped in a tight fist. “We’re gunna work out some f— rules, and then you’re gunna tell me if it sounds okay. Okay?”
I wiped my cheek. “Okay.”
That’s when the rules were first spoken. The things we could tell. The things that seemed true. The things that we hoped were true, and would remain true, until we found something that proved them wrong.
The first rule was that I couldn’t change outside the Full Moon. This was pretty easy to test – I tried, and I couldn’t. The full moon had been a few days ago, and the wolf had just happened. I’d tried to do the same thing, to trip that invisible flex inside me, and it was like trying to flip my own breastbone without my fingers. It was just impossible. I could even feel the thing I was trying to do. So, as a werewolf, we knew I couldn’t change easily.
Second rule was the wolf is tougher than I am. Our first experiments – where Sasha stabbed my ear with a needle without telling me ahead of time, which was very rude – showed that I didn’t instantly heal, or even after, like, twenty minutes of watching. Our best guess at that is that the wolf is only around near the full moon – and that’s when it heals me. So, play it safe when the moon’s not full.
The third thing was the wolf hadn’t made me much stronger. We hit the dock area and found an old order I remembered hauling when I freshly moved, before the wolf. It was about as hard to handle as I knew before, so we concluded it wasn’t giving me amazing powers, if I could find any.
The fourth rule was don’t kill anyone you don’t have to.
Sasha thought it was a stupid rule.
I didn’t see anything on my phone’s newspaper app in the morning about the murder near the theatre. There was a story about immigrants lowering housing prices in the area, and an opinion piece about how the upcoming elections were really good news and really exciting because like, everyone was really unpleasant and nasty?
It wasn’t a good morning, really. I don’t like reading the newspaper often.
I sat on a crate on my break, and thought about it. I had a superpower. But unlike all the other superheroes I’d read about, who could put on a mask and just start, I had this huge inhibitor. Three days out of each month when I could do things… well, the things I thought of as important.
I penned a text message: We need to plan for the next full moon.