January 2008 Volume Two Issue One
Bad Blood - Debra Doyle and J. D. Macdonald
Nobody knows the real story.
Actually, that's not quite true -- I exaggerate for effect sometimes. (My father says it's a hereditary flaw in my character.) Freddie knows most of the truth, and so do Diana and Bill and Greg. But except for Jay, who isn't talking, nobody knows everything that happened except for me and Mr. Castillo, and we aren't talking either. Unless you count this notebook, and nobody's going to read that but me.
The day it all started, Freddie and I had been gathering firewood most of the afternoon. We were ten days into the big backpacking trip ("we" is the Sunset Hills Junior High Ecology Club, our faculty sponsor Mrs. Castillo, and her husband) and we were going to have a bonfire that evening, to celebrate reaching the halfway mark right on schedule.
But that afternoon we'd come to a stretch of ground that had been all burnt over about twenty years back, and so far the second growth hadn't gotten past the underbrush and sapling stage. Gathering enough sticks and kindling for a really big fire turned out to be quite a job -- especially since Mr. Castillo didn't seem to think that any stack of wood shorter than the person who gathered it was enough, even for the little fires we usually built.
"Talk about overkill," I said, as Freddie and I carried the last rucksack-loads of kindling back to camp. "If Mr. Castillo had been in charge of building the Ark, Noah would have wound up with a boat the size of the New Jersey."
"It still wouldn't have been big enough for all those animals," said Freddie. He's always coming up with lines like that; in science class, Mrs. Castillo used to say that Freddie was one of nature's skeptics.
"Honestly, Freddie," I said. "Don't you know a joke when you hear one?"
"Sure," he said. "Just the same, Val, with the few people the Ark had aboard, there wouldn't even be enough of them to shovel all the -- "
I threw a pine cone at him and chased him back to camp.
When we got there, we saw that the rest of the gang hadn't been loafing. All the tents were up, and the firepit dug -- Diana had even put up the two-midget backpacker's tent she and I were sharing, which surprised me some. The other kids don't call her "Princess Di" just because of her looks, let me tell you.
Mr. Castillo was in camp, shaving wood into tinder fuzzsticks with a survival knife. Freddie and I dumped the firewood and went over to where he sat leaning against a backpack next to his tent -- if you can call a pair of ponchos strung from trees a tent, which I personally wouldn't if I could help it. Mrs. Castillo didn't seem to mind much, which probably proves that love is blind, or at least doesn't freeze too easily.
Mr. Castillo teaches physics over at the high school, and if you ask me, he's the only reason the principal and our parents agreed to let us make the trip in the first place. Mrs. Castillo is so tiny she gets mistaken for a student herself sometimes, but Mr. Castillo is something else. He's not a big man, and not a loud one -- but nobody ever messes with him, not even the tough kids that have all the other teachers scared.
"Hey there, Mr. Castillo," said Freddie. "Where's everybody else?"
Mr. Castillo laid a finished fuzzstick on the pile beside him and started making another. "Diana's down at the stream with Rosa" -- that's Mrs. Castillo's real name -- "filling up the canteens and water bags. The others are gathering firewood."
"More firewood?" I looked at the baby lumberyard Freddie and I had carried back with us. "What are we going to do with it all -- burn down Chicago?"
Mr. Castillo smiled and shook his head. "There are some things that you can't have too much of, and firewood is one of them."
About that time, Diana and Mrs. Castillo came back, lugging the last of the big folding water jugs between them, and the boys showed up a few minutes later. Jay brought in the most wood, just like he always did -- sometime during the last year, he'd grown muscles the other guys hadn't yet, and he never lost a chance to rub it in.
Night falls earlier than you'd expect, up in the mountains. By the time we'd finished eating dinner and cleaned up afterward, the sun had gone down and a few stars had started to come out. We built our little cookfire into a big yellow blaze, and settled down around the firepit to tell scary stories.
Mr. Castillo started things off with the story about the golden arm. That one's so old I think I first heard it back in third grade, but he did a good job all the same. When he shouted "YOU HAVE IT!" everybody jumped about a foot into the air and then pretended they hadn't.
After that, Mrs. Castillo yawned and said it was about time the old folks went to bed. She and Mr. Castillo headed off to the Poncho Palace, but the rest of us kept right on telling stories -- the hitchhiker, the guy with a hook for a hand, all the other creepy ones.
When it came Diana's turn, she did the one about the babysitter and the upstairs phone; she said it happened to a cousin of hers, but Bill said they'd made a movie just like that a few years back. They probably did, too, if Bill says so. I think Bill has seen every movie that's come out since he got tall enough to reach the ticket window. And now that his family's got a VCR and cable, he's playing catch-up on the oldies.
"Your turn, Jay," Greg said, when Bill stopped talking.
Jay shook his head. "I don't know any stories," he said, and then gave us a sort of nasty grin. "At least, not the same kind you do."
"Come on," said Diana. "Everybody knows a story."
"Okay," he said. "But you probably won't like mine."
"Why not?" I asked him. I've got a big mouth sometimes. And as you may have figured out by now, Jay wasn't one of my favorite people. I caught him throwing rocks at a stray kitten once, back when we were both in fourth grade, and I've got a long memory.
"You'll see," he said.
The important thing about this [Jay said] is that it's true. It didn't happen to my grandfather, or the friend of a cousin, or anything like that. It's happening to me.
Remember when I had my appendix out, back in sixth grade? During the operation, I needed some blood -- nothing strange about that. But after I got out of the hospital, I healed fast. Even the scar went away.
Then I noticed I wasn't getting hurt anymore -- not even a scratch. And I started having dreams whenever the moon was full. Strange dreams, about changing into something fierce and powerful, getting free of everything and running through the night.
Afterward, in the mornings, I'd find dirt under my fingernails, and sometimes blood. But that's all I thought it was for a long time -- just dreams.
Last full moon, though, I figured it out. It was great -- I could do things I'd only dared to think about before, and nothing could touch me. Not even the bullets. You must have seen on TV about the jogger who got torn up by a wild animal, right in the middle of town. The police never did figure out what happened.
But I knew. The change must have come from that transfusion I got -- the donor must have been a werewolf like me. Someday I'm going to donate blood myself, just to pass the favor along.
But first I'm going to disappear, because high school is no place for a full-time manhunter. Tomorrow night's the full moon. By morning, we'll be just another bunch of backpackers who got careless and never came back Too bad about you guys, but I'll be long gone by the time the forest rangers find all the pieces.
Finally Diana said, "That isn't funny."
"Well, you asked for a story," Jay said. He gave us that grin again. "Go ahead, admit it -- I scare the pants off all of you there at the end.
"No way," I said, standing up. "Come on, Di. Let's get some sleep."
We headed for our tent, and the guys started arguing about whose turn it was to take the first firewatch. They still hadn't settled it by the time Diana and I had ourselves zipped up into our sleeping bags.
"Hey, Val," Diana's voice came about three inches from my left ear. With both of us inside the tent, any mosquitoes that made it in through the netting had to fight for air space.
"Yeah?" I asked.
"What do you think?"
"About that story?" I wiggled down a bit inside my sleeping bag. "He made it up."
"Maybe." DI still didn't sound too happy. "But what if he believes it?"
"Then he's crazy," I told her. "Go to sleep."
Maybe she did, too, but I didn't -- not for a long time, anyway.
Next morning, while Freddie and I were refilling canteens down at the stream, I asked him the same question Di had asked me.
He gave me a smile that showed the braces on his teeth. "What do I think? Well ... if making a werewolf is that easy, why aren't we up to our armpits in werewhelps?"
"I'm not joking, Freddie." I screwed the top back onto my canteen and looked him in the eye. "What do your really think?"
He stopped smiling. "I don't believe all that hokey Transylvanian stuff. But Di's got a point there, about Jay sounding like he did believe it."
"So what are we going to do?"
"What can we do? Tell Mr. Castillo Jay scared us with a ghost story?" He fastened his canteen onto his belt and headed back for camp. I followed.
"We've got to do something," I said. "What if -- " I didn't finish the sentence. You hear all the time about people going crazy and doing awful things, but that doesn't mean you want to talk about it much. And Jay was Freddie's tent-mate.
We hiked across the old burnt-over ground all that day, and made camp on a rocky slope near a stand of saplings. The campsite had more big stones and little boulders lying around than it did dry wood, but with all of us looking we finally managed to collect enough wood to last through the night. After dinner, Freddie volunteered to take the first watch as fire tender, so I said I'd take the second.
I wanted to get some sleep before staying awake for two straight hours with nobody to talk to but the owls. But I couldn't. After a while, the moon came up full and bright. I lay there looking out through the front of the tent, over to where Freddie sat whittling on a stick of kindling with his Swiss army knife.
Finally I gave up and squirmed out of my sleeping bag. Di was already asleep -- wouldn't you know, she doesn't snore, either -- so I didn't say anything, just pulled on the clothes I wasn't already wearing, jammed my shoes onto my feet, and crawled out of the tent.
I zipped the door closed and did up my shoes, and then went over to the firepit. Freddie looked around from his whittling as I came up.
"You're fifteen minutes early," he said.
"So who's counting?" I asked. I sat down on a handy rock. "Anything happened?"
Freddie kept on whittling. "Hasn't been a sound out of anybody since moonrise."
I watched the little pile of wood shavings grow for a while, and then said, "You about ready to turn in?"
"Sure," he said, but he didn't move.
"Well, go ahead, then."
Freddie closed the Swiss army knife and got to his feet. "I'm worried about Jay," he said.
You mean "scared," I thought, but that didn't sound like a good thing to say right then.
"You could look, first," I said instead. "In case something's wrong. You know -- unzip the flap and then lift it open with that stick."
"And maybe he's in there snoring," said Freddie, "and maybe he's awake and starts laughing his head off."
"Well, we can't both stay here all night," I told him, and stood up. "Come on. If Jay tries to give you a hard time, I'll tell everybody I made you check because I was afraid."
We tiptoed over to the quiet tent. it certainly didn't look any different on the outside. Freddie stood as far away as he could to work the zippers. I'll admit I was standing a foot or so behind him, and feeling pretty stupid by the time he slipped the stick under the bottom edge of the flap and lifted the netting up.
I cleared my throat. "Looks like he's aslee--"
Something came charging and howling out through the tent flaps. Freddie jumped backward so fast he knocked me down and then fell on top of me. From down where I'd landed I had a close-up worm's-eye view of a big gray wolf trying to tear itself loose from mosquito netting and ripstop nylon, while Freddie yelled and tried to keep it away from us both with that stupid little stick.
About then, screaming seemed like a good idea. So that's what I did.
The wolf pulled itself clear of the wrecked tent and went for the underbrush in a furry gray blur. I rolled out from under Freddie just as everybody else in camp started shouting at once.
That's what it sounded like, anyhow. I know that for a moment the only person who wasn't yelling something was Mr. Castillo, who'd come running at the first noise with Mrs. Castillo close behind. She carried a flashlight; he had that big survival knife in one one hand -- and somehow I don't think he'd been planning to use it for shaving tinder. Now he put the knife away and asked, "What happened?"
Everybody started talking again, real fast, except for Freddie, who just pointed with his whittling stick at the fresh claw marks in the dirt. Even if I hadn't been right on the spot for the big appearance, those marks would have convinced me. No way could anybody say they'd been left by a pair of size 10 L.L. Beans.
The marks convinced Mr. Castillo, that's for sure. At least he didn't try to tell us we'd been imagining things. After all of us together had told the werewolf story a second time, all he said was, "You should have told Mrs. Castillo and me about this last night."
"Would you have believed us?" I was still sitting on the ground. I felt real comfortable that way, and I didn't plan on getting up in a hurry.
Mr. Castillo gave me a funny look. "It doesn't pay to ignore warnings," he said. "Even when they don't make sense."
"What do we do now?" My question finished in an embarrassing squeak.
"How about crosses and garlic?" asked Greg.
"That's vampires, you twit," said Bill.
"None of you are being particularly helpful," said Mr. Castillo. "What we need is a perimeter that we can hold until morning or moonset, whichever comes first. Fires, people -- four, in a square, with everybody inside."
We built fires. Right then, we'd have built the Great Wall of China if Mr. Castillo told us to -- he had a look in his eye that said he meant business and wasn't going to take any dumb questions. Even Freddie kept his mouth shut, which is what my grandmother would have called a nine days' wonder all by itself.
Before anybody did anything, though, Mr. Castillo went back to the Poncho Palace for his pack. The rest of us stood huddled by the woodpile, inside the light of Mrs. Castillo's flash. I don't know what the others were thinking, but I was trying to figure out just how much, in billions of dollars, you'd have had to pay me before I'd go out alone in the dark like that.
Mr. Castillo brought the pack over to where the rest of us waited, opened it up, and surprised us all by pulling out a gun.
It was one of those mean-looking military jobs, with the pistol grip at the back. Mr. Castillo unfolded the wire stock from against the side, and then pulled out a long, curved piece -- the magazine, Freddie said later -- and shoved it into the bottom.
Bill stared. "Is that an M-16?"
Mr. Castillo shook his head. "No. It's the civilian version, a CAR-15 -- no full automatic, and a shorter barrel."
"Is it -- you know -- legal and everything?" Greg asked.
"Legal and everything," said Mr. Castillo. "Has anybody here done any shooting?"
Finally Diana said, "Freddie has." Which was true. He'd gone hunting with his father the autumn before, and there'd almost been a riot at the Ecology Club meeting when Diana found out.
Mr. Castillo looked at Freddie. "Is she right?" Freddie nodded without saying anything. Mr. Castillo pulled back on a part of the gun, then let it fly forward with a loud metallic ka-chink -- one of the nastiest sounds I'd ever heard. "I'm going to be busy with fire building for a while." He handed the gun to Freddie. "There's a round in the chamber, and the safety is off. Don't point it at anything you aren't going to shoot."
"Yes, sir," said Freddie. I stared at him. I call my father "sir" sometimes, but I didn't think Freddie knew the word.
Mr. Castillo bent down and gathered up an armful of the heavier wood. Greg and Bill did the same, only with smaller armfuls and lighter pieces, and Mrs. Castillo set down the flashlight to pick up a load of kindling.
I started to do the same thing, but Mr. Castillo said, "No, Val. You and Diana bring burning sticks from the fire that's going -- we'll want them to get the new fire going fast."
He looked back at Freddie. "Remember. If you see a wolf, shoot it."
"Yes, sir," said Freddie again.
"All right, people," said Mr. Castillo. "Let's go."
Diana and I held our pieces of flaming wood like torches to light the way, and all of us walked in a bunch from the firepit to a spot about twenty feet off. Mrs. Castillo dropped the light wood and kindling in a heap, and nodded at me. I stuck my torch into the pile, Diana did the same with hers, and after a couple of seconds the tinder caught fire and started to crackle. The others began adding their wood to the blaze, and in a few minutes we had our second fire.
It sounds easy, to tell about it, and maybe it was. But we had to do the whole thing twice more, at the other two corners of a square with the woodpile in the middle. And believe me, turning your back on a nice yellow blaze and walking out into the dark can be the hardest thing you've ever done. Especially when you happen to know that the guy with the rifle missed the only deer he ever actually aimed at.
When all the fires were going, we gathered around the woodpile. The stack of wood didn't look so big anymore -- we'd used a lot. I began to see what Mr. Castillo had meant about firewood being one of the things you can't have too much of
Mr. Castillo took his rifle back and wrapped the sling around his left arm. "Fire watches, everybody, just like before. Whose turn is it?"
"Mine," I said, and managed not to squeak this time.
"All right, Val. Take it for two hours and then trade off with Diana." He looked hard at all of us. "Remember -- the important thing is not to let any of the fires burn too far down. But don't try going over alone to build up a low fire. Tap me or Rosa to go with you."
I sat for a while looking out at the night -- not so dark as it had been, now, but the fires were making the underbrush look full of moving shadows. I almost decided I'd liked the dark better.
Not quite, though. "Hey, Mr. Castillo," I said after a while.
"What did you mean about not ignoring warnings, even when they don't make sense?"
He'd been walking around inside our square, looking away from the fires and out into the dark; he paused for a moment before he answered. "I was thinking about something that happened a long time ago, back when I was with the Army in 'Nam."
"You were in Vietnam, Mr. Castillo?" Freddie asked.
I heard Mr. Castillo laugh a little. "I wasn't born a physics teacher, Freddie. I had four years with the Rangers and then finished college on my GI benefits."
"So what happened?" I asked.
"It was on my second tour," he said. "I was an officer by then, and one evening out on patrol a man in the platoon came up to me and said, 'Captain, we're going to get hit tonight, and a whole bunch of us are going to buy it.' And he named names -- but when I asked him how he knew and he said that he'd had a dream, I didn't pay much attention. Later on, though, I wished I had."
"You got hit?" Freddie asked.
"That's right," said Mr. Castillo. "And he turned out to have been right about everything, even the names."
"I'll bet you listened to him after that," said Freddie.
"I never had the chance to," Mr. Castillo said. "One of the names he was right about was his."
That shut Freddie up, all right; and I didn't have much to say about it either. I sat watching the fires until my wristwatch told me my turn was up, and then I gave Diana a poke.
"I wasn't asleep," she said -- and she didn't sound like she had been. I didn't expect to have much better luck myself, but anything was better than sitting there biting my fingernails until morning. I curled up with my head against one of the half-empty water-cubes and closed my eyes.
I must have dozed a bit after all, because a while later I woke up. The full moon was still high up in the sky, but one of the four fires was getting really low. The sound that woke me had been Diana going over and whispering to Mrs. Castillo.
The two of them picked up armloads of wood and started together for the fire. When they got there, Diana squatted down to feed in sticks one by one, while Mrs. Castillo stood guard.
And that was when one of those shifting shadows outside the firelight tore itself loose from the darkness and came leaping over the dying flames.
The big gray forepaws hit Mrs. Castillo in the chest. She staggered backward and fell.
With a screech that made my back teeth hurt, Diana grabbed a burning stick out of the fire with both hands and swung it at the wolf. She looked angry and scared all at the same time -- but she brought that torch around in a blazing half-circle that made me remember the time in sixth-grade phys. ed. when she knocked the softball over the playground fence and into the window of the principal's car.
I guess you don't forget how to do something like that, because the red-hot end of the stick slammed into the wolf's throat, right under his jaw. The animal yelped and twisted itself in midair so that it hit the ground again running. From somewhere nearby came a loud fast cracking noise and a flash of light; the wolf yelped again and vanished, still running, into the shadows.
Next to me, Mr. Castillo lowered his rifle and said something in Spanish that I didn't understand. Diana let the stick drop from her hand into the fire and started crying.
But nobody paid any attention to her -- and I don't think she even knew she was crying herself -- because Mrs. Castillo was still lying there on the ground and hadn't tried to get up. Mr. Castillo shoved the rifle at Freddie without saying anything at all, and ran over to where Mrs. Castillo lay.
He checked her over real fast for skull and spine injuries -- at least that's what Greg, who's got his first aid card, told me later he was doing. And Greg was the one he singled out a few minutes later, after Mrs. Castillo had started to come around.
"Take care of Rosa," he said. "It looks like she may have landed the wrong way on a rock. Don't move her, though -- just keep her awake and warm. She may go into shock; if she does, don't panic. Go by the book, and hang in there until morning."
Greg nodded. He looked scared and kind of solemn. I don't think anybody had ever in his life handed him that much responsibility all at once.
Mr. Castillo turned to Freddie. "Give me the rifle."
Freddie handed it to him. Mr. Castillo took it, and then stood for a minute looking at the bunch of us all huddled together inside the firelight. I started getting a sinking feeling in my stomach as he came back to me and Freddie, and then zeroed in on me.
"Val," he said, "you're in charge of the camp while I'm away."
All of a sudden I knew how Greg had felt. I got my voice back after a moment, and said, "Away?"
Mr. Castillo nodded. "It's time I went hunting."
"If those aren't silver bullets," Bill said under his breath, "then I don't see how it's going to do much good."
"They aren't silver," said Mr. Castillo, without looking around. "But even if these bullets won't kill a werewolf, they'll still hurt a lot, and they'll slow him down. That's all I'll need."
He left the firelight and disappeared into the shadows. I watched him go, and then turned back to my little gang of heroes. They were all looking at me like they expected me to do something.
"Okay," I said, feeling stupid and hoping it didn't show. "Fire watches, just like before. Only this time, let's keep those flames up higher. Di, you're on until midnight, right?"
Diana sniffled a couple of times, swallowed, and nodded. She went over and sat down by the woodpile. Bill and Freddie drifted over and joined her, but I stayed where I was, looking out at the dark -- Valerie Sherwood, Fearless Leader, five feet three in my stocking feet and already scared out of any growth I had left.
Before I really noticed what I was doing, I'd started pacing -- just like Mr. Castillo had done, all over our little twenty-by-twenty patch of firelit ground.
On one of my swings past the woodpile, Freddie stood up and came over to walk alongside me. "We've got a problem," he said.
I'd been bracing myself for something typically Freddish; somehow, though, I didn't think this was it. "What kind of problem?"
"I don't think our firewood is going to last the whole night."
My father said once that a prophet is just a guy with a talent for noticing unpleasant truths before anybody else does. He must have been thinking about Freddie when he said that.
I looked at the boundary fires, then back over at the woodpile, and then I checked my watch. Freddie was right, we had a problem. At the rate those four fires were eating fuel, we were going to run out of wood sometime before sunrise.
Think fast, I ordered myself Don't just stand there and bite your fingernails.
I shoved my hands into my jeans pockets.
"Okay," I said. "We'll keep the fire that's closest to Mrs. Castillo, and let the others die down."
Nobody argued. Everybody just looked glad it wasn't them deciding things. I kept on pacing.
The fire, the woodpile, the spot where Mrs. Castillo lay under everybody's jackets with Greg watching over her . . . I'd been prowling back and forth for maybe fifteen minutes when I heard the CAR-15 go off somewhere out in the woods.
The rifle went off a second time, and then came a whole lot of shots close together. Maybe that thing wasn't a machine gun, but Mr. Castillo was making it do a good imitation.
Then the firing stopped. I heard a crashing sound in the underbrush, and after that, silence.
Nobody said anything. I clenched my fists inside my pockets and stared out into the dark.
Please, I thought. Please ...
Out beyond the firelight, a wolf howled.
Diana made a noise like she was getting ready to cry some more. I clenched my fists even tighter and said, "Di, be quiet. I'm thinking."
I'll say this for being convinced you're going to be Purina Wolf Chow before sunrise -- it clears your head of nonessentials in a big hurry. If waiting out the night wasn't going to do the trick, then we'd have to do something instead. And I knew just who to ask for advice.
"Hey, Bill," I said. "C'mere a minute, okay?"
He came over to join me. "What's up?"
"All we've got right now between us and -- and that animal," I said, "is a campfire that may not last until morning. But you've seen every crummy horror movie ever made. What works against werewolves?"
He looked down at his shoes and chewed his knuckle a moment, then looked up at me. "We don't have silver bullets, and we don't have fire ... so that just leaves the old reliable stake-through-the-heart routine. But we'd have to get him down first -- a trap, maybe."
"A trap," I repeated. "That sounds even better." If we could just keep the wolf in one place until sunrise, we should be able to handle it -- him -- after that. "Do you know how to build one?"
He gave me a nervous grin. "They did something in The Green Berets that might work. Got any rope?"
"I'll have to ask."
Right about then I heard Greg call my name, low and quiet. "Val -- Val, come here."
I hurried over, afraid that something had gone wrong with Mrs. Castillo that the Red Cross handbook didn't cover. But when I got there she looked about the same as the last time -- kind of drifty, but awake.
"Here I am," I said. "What's the trouble?"
"It's out there in the bushes," he said. "The wolf, I mean."
"How do you know?" I asked.
"I saw the eyes," he said. "Red ones, out there in the dark."
He pointed. I looked, but I couldn't see any eyes, red or otherwise. That didn't mean they weren't out there, though.
"Okay," I said. "That means it's time to work on getting him before he gets us. Did you bring any rope?"
It was Mrs. Castillo who answered. Her voice was weak but clear. "I have a coil of parachute cord in my pack."
I waited for her to say something else -- anything, as long as it meant she was back on top of things and I didn't have to be. But it seemed like she'd used most of her energy in coming up with that one contribution.
Greg looked unhappy. "I think she's in shock, Val."
I straightened my shoulders. All right, Girl Wonder, you're still the one.
I didn't feel too cheerful about the prospect, and when I went back over to Bill my face must have showed it.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
I told him. "And that backpack is way over there by the Poncho Palace right now."
"Oh," he said. Then he brightened up a bit. "Maybe if two or three of us went -- safety in numbers, and all that."
"Okay," I said. "Let's get Freddie. You guys grab a couple of big sticks from the woodpile for clubs."
I took the flashlight, and we headed over toward the tent in a tight little group. The dark was all around us before we were halfway there, and when we passed the watchfire on that corner I saw that it had gone down to nothing but red-gray coals.
The poncho-tent was a good ways out beyond the main encampment; the Castillos liked their privacy. Finally, though, the shape of the tent loomed up ahead of us in the dark, and I could see all the gear stacked outside.
"There's the pack," I said.
Freddie was closest; he grabbed the pack by its metal frame and we headed back almost before he had it off the ground.
I'd been glancing left and right into the underbrush the whole time, and just before we reached the dead fire something flickered in the comer of my eye. I looked over in that direction, and saw a red-eyed shadow moving parallel to us among the saplings.
I swallowed. "Uh, guys. Could we pick it up a little?"
Nobody argued with the suggestion, and we made it back to the remaining fire in a kind of panicky shuffle. Once we got there, I looked back out at the underbrush, but the shape was gone.
Bill and Freddie were already going through Mrs. Castillo's pack; I turned back toward the fire in time to see Bill pulling out a coil of thin, greenish nylon cord.
"This is better than I'd hoped for," he said. "We've got at least a hundred feet here."
"Great," I said. "Let's build us a trap."
I have to admit -- up until that night, I'd always thought Bill's thing about old movies was a real waste of good smarts. But he built that trap like he'd been catching werewolves all his life. The first thing he did was empty out the two backpacks and hand them to me and Freddie.
"Here," he said. "Fill these up with rocks. Heavy rocks."
I filled that pack right up to the top with stones, the same ones we'd all been griping about earlier. Not too far off, Freddie was doing the same thing, and the beam of the flash shone here and there in the saplings where Bill and Diana looked for a place to put the trap. I frowned. Those two were a lot farther away from the fire than I wanted to get, with those red eyes shining out of the dark.
Oh, yes -- the eyes were still there, showing up to look out of the underbrush at us for a minute or so and then disappearing again. I was surprised they didn't do anything else; all I could figure was that Jay -- that the wolf -- could see how low the woodpile was getting, and wanted to let the fire go out.
How smart, I wondered, dragging my packful of rocks over to where Bill was waving "come here" with the flashlight, is a wolf that used to be a human being? Smart enough to spot a trap?
I let go the backpack and straightened up. We were a lot farther from the camp than I'd planned to get. I couldn't see Greg and Mrs. Castillo at all anymore, just the glow from the fire.
By the light of the flash I could see that Bill had pounded a forked stick into the ground near the foot of one sapling, and had tossed the loose end of the cord over a branch up above. Now he walked that end over a few feet to a second tree, threw the cord across another branch, and brought the end back to the sacks of rock.
He tied the sacks onto the cord. "Now we haul them up."
It took all four of us pulling on the cord, but we managed to get those sacks up in the air. Then Freddie and Diana and I hung on with all our weight, while Bill worked at fitting together the forked stick, a bit of wood he'd tied into the loose end of the cord, and a third stick that went into the contraption between them.
It took him a couple of tries to get everything just right. I felt like my arms were about to come out of their sockets by the time he said, "Okay, let it down real slow."
We eased the cord down until the sticks were taking most of the strain. Bill tied a big noose into the end of the cord, and laid it open on the ground.
"There's your trap," he said.
"It's beautiful," I told him. "How does it work?"
"Simple," he said. "The werewolf comes along, walks over the noose without noticing it, and hits the trigger. The cord comes loose, the rocks come down, and up goes your werewolf"
"Fine," I said. "Back to camp."
We made it back to the camp double-quick. Just as well, too. The fire was burning down. Building it back up took most of the remaining wood.
"I don't know about you," said Diana, when we'd finished, "but I'm going to enjoy listening to that wolf howl when he walks into that trap."
"Right," said Freddie. "So tell me something, will you? Of all the places he could pick to walk, what makes him choose that one?"
" 'A talent for noticing unpleasant truths,' " I muttered.
"Huh?" said Freddie.
I looked at the moon -- still too high in the sky and at the one remaining fire -- already too low for comfort.
"Okay, Girl Wonder," I said to myself, "this was all your idea. if anybody's going to pull the rabbit out of the hat, it has to be you."
Freddie looked blank. "Val, what in heck are you mumbling about?"
"I said I know why the werewolf's going to step in that loop," I told him. "He's going to be trying to get at me."
So that's how I wound up standing by myself out there among the underbrush and saplings, with my back up against a tree skinnier than I was and my faithful jackknife -- two blades, a nail file, and a toothpick -- clutched in my hot and sweaty hand. The others hadn't argued with me much; they could see Freddie's point as well as I could. They'd told me three or four times that I was going to get myself killed, but in spite of all the talking I didn't hear anybody else volunteer for the role of appetizer. Finally I lost my patience and told them to stay at the fire.
They stayed. And I left before I had a chance to change my mind.
Then I waited. And waited. I don't know how long I stood there -- long enough for the sky in the east to go from black to a kind of washed-out charcoal, and the stars to begin to fade. The moon still hadn't made it down below the horizon, but I could feel my breathing getting easier every moment. . . . Maybe, just maybe, I wasn't going to have to do the Teen Hero bit after all.
I should have known I wouldn't be so lucky. Just about the time I'd relaxed enough to think about checking my wristwatch, something started moving in the underbrush, out where the trunks of the saplings made paler stripes against the murky dark.
It was a wolf, all right. I could see the outline of it, dog-shaped but bigger, with a curving brush of a tail and a heavy ruff of fur on its neck and shoulders. As I watched, the wolf lifted its head and looked at me.
Valerie Sherwood, I thought to myself, you're going to die.
The wolf stood still for a few seconds longer, watching me. In the growing half-light I could see that its eyes weren't really red at all, but a pale, almost yellow, green. A growl rumbled in its throat, its back fur bristled, and then it charged.
I braced for the impact, trusty jackknife in hand. The sapling at my back took care of any ideas I might have had about running. But just as Bill had predicted, the wolf hit the trigger right in front of me, the rope slipped free, and the wolf went sailing up into the air.
I sagged back against the tree trunk. What do you know, I thought. The darned thing actually worked.
That was when the smaller wolf came in from the right, and hit me in the chest.
I went over sideways, and landed on my back with a wolf on top of me snapping at my throat. I kicked at the wolf, batted at it with my fist, jabbed it with the knife, anything I could come up with to keep those teeth away from my neck. All the time, a voice in my head was insisting that something was wrong -- there shouldn't be a wolf after me at all.
Darn it, I thought, squirming backward like mad as I tried to get out from under the snarling weight on my chest, I saw this wolf get caught!
Oh, yeah? said the voice of reason inside my head. Just who taught you to count, Girl Wonder?
And then I understood. The wolf in our trap hadn't been coming after me at all. He'd been heading past me into the underbrush, right for the spot where the smaller wolf would have been hiding.
It's amazing what you'll try when you're desperate. I smashed my fist into the nose of the wolf on top of me, and gained another second or so of breathing space. A foot away the two backpacks full of rock sat where they'd slammed into the ground, the thin green cord stretched taut by their weight. I rolled sideways, fending off the wolf left-handed as I went, and cut the cord.
The slashed end flew upward. A second later, I saw the huge gray wolf that had run into Bill's trap come charging across the few feet between the two saplings.
That big wolf hit the smaller one like an express train hitting a pickup -- I could hear the thud. Then the two of them mixed it up there under the tree, all growls and yelps and gray fur coming loose to float on the dawn breeze, while I struggled to get up off my back.
That can't have taken me long, even floundering around scared like I was, but by the time I had a clear view of the fight it was almost over. The big wolf had the smaller one pinned belly-up like the loser in a dogfight; while I watched, the big wolf backed away growling into the underbrush -- and the shape of the smaller wolf started to change, shifting and melting and fading from one color to another, until it wasn't a wolf lying there anymore, but a naked and unconscious teenaged boy.
I moved fast, tying Jay's hands and feet together with a length of the cord. By the time Mr. Castillo stepped out from between a couple of saplings, I was back sitting on the ground and taking an inventory of my scrapes and bruises. I can't even say that I was surprised to see him; I'd been half expecting something like that ever since I'd counted wolves and come up with two.
Besides, I had other things on my mind right then Ñ like the line of red puncture wounds on my left forearm that could have come from falling on the rocks, but hadn't.
"How's Rosa?" Mr. Castillo asked. He was still fastening the cuffs of his plaid flannel shirt. Around one wrist I could see what looked like a rope burn, fading fast.
"She's holding on okay," I said, rolling my own sleeve back down. I wanted those marks out of sight when the rest of the gang came thundering over, any minute now, to see if the trap had worked. "She's a nice lady. Does she know about you?"
"She always has," he said. He smiled. "Telling her about myself scared me more than anything in 'Nam ever did. But it's been worth it."
That made me feel a bit better about some things. Not everything, though. "About Jay," I said. "Mr. Castillo -- why?"
"Why did he go bad?"
"For the same reasons people do," he said. "Whatever those are. If chance hadn't made him a werewolf, he'd have probably done something else instead."
About then, the rest of the crowd showed up (except for Greg, who was still sticking to his post like a Band-Aid) and Mr. Castillo and I didn't have time for any more talk.
We told the others the truth, more or less -- that Mr. Castillo had stalked the wolf through the underbrush all night, and had driven him into the snare just as the sun came up. Then all of us put our heads together and came up with a story that people would believe when we told it -- one that didn't mention werewolves at all.
And that's about everything there is to tell. Mrs. Castillo turned out to have gotten a mild concussion and bruised a kidney when she fell; she spent a few days in the hospital, but she's just fine now. As for Jay, nobody's seen him around town since his "nervous collapse" on the backpacking trip. Mr. Castillo had a long talk with his parents, and there was some talk after that about sending him off for specialized counseling. I hear from my sources that the hospital's a nice, homey place with silver bars on the windows.
And the wounds on my arm? They faded away in a couple of days, just like Mr. Castillo said they would. I had a long talk with him that same morning, while the two of us were hiking cross-country from our camp to the nearest ranger tower to get help for Rosa. He told me that most lycanthropes (that's the real word, and I think I like it a lot better than I do "werewolves") learn to live with their condition, and with time and practice they can even get some control over their shape-changing.
"You'll need that," he said. "Otherwise, life can get a bit awkward. I had one landlord who never would believe I wasn't keeping a dog in the apartment."
Most of the problems are like that, he says. Everyday ordinary stuff, just like most lycanthropes are everyday ordinary people. Jay was one of the unpleasant exceptions. I certainly hope he's right.
Because tomorrow night is the full moon.
- END -