My hometown was just the way I remembered it, a quaint little holiday postcard dressed in evergreen and red ribbons. Filtered now through senses that belonged to nothing human, it was familiar, yet frighteningly alien. A part of me recognized every sound and smell I was never aware of before, and I wasn’t sure if it was the instinct of the animal, or the memory of the man.
Maybe there wasn’t a difference anymore.
Standing still in the shadows beneath a tree, I watched the snow fall, and remembered. It wasn’t by choice, really. I could never look at snowdrifts anymore without my mind painting them in splashes of red, the way they were on that day. The day one year before, on a German killing field, when the monster inside me had awakened.
I’d sworn I would never come home, never let anyone who knew me look into my eyes and see what wasn’t there. For months I’d wandered, sometimes fighting the Germans, always fighting myself… but then the War ended, and another Christmas rolled around, and I just had to know if Ma was alright. She hadn’t been well, the last I knew. If I could just see her from a distance, know that someone was taking care of her, then I could whisper a goodbye and walk away. That was all I wanted. All I needed.
My breath steamed in the air as I slowly moved forward. The sun had been down for three hours, and it was bitterly cold, but I didn’t care. All that mattered was that no one saw me. Not because I’d be recognized—which I wouldn’t—but because that quiet, close-knit neighborhood would be spooked by a strange drifter taking a leisurely stroll along the sidewalk.
It might have been a kick to get caught. That was a conversation I had played in my head for laughs now and then. Hey, don’t you remember me, the kid from down the street? I went berzerk and spent the last few months of the War living like an animal, slaughtering any German soldiers I came across. I’m fine now, thanks… except that I’m not quite human.
I sighed and shook my head. The things I’d done, to say nothing of my changes, should have been enough to make me crack—yet in certain ways, tied to the sharp new awareness of my senses, my mind was clearer than it had ever been. It was a tradeoff for the madness of my killing times.
I couldn’t count the lives I’d taken, because I wasn’t even sure I remembered them all.
The only one I regretted was a Wehrmacht corpsman named Becker. After I took out his two comrades, I let him live for nearly a day while I questioned him. He had no medical explanation for what had happened to me. One of Hitler’s occult fanatics, he was a firm believer in werewolves… which might have amused me, if it weren’t the closest thing I had to a logical theory. Yet his curiosity was greater than his fear. That made him dangerous—and likeable—and it made what I had to do a lot harder. I was tempted to let him go, but by then he knew too much. Whatever I was, and however it happened, I was too deadly a secret to let fall into Nazi hands.
He was typically German to the end, with bitter pride in his last words: "One day, you will turn to men like me for answers."
Like hell I will.
As for the rest, they were soldiers, as I had been. I was never quite sure whether I was serving raw instinct or some remaining traces of duty, but the bloody results were the same. Those men would never go home… but then, neither could I.
Except as a ghost, looking for closure on a cold winter night.
The moonlight was stifled by snow-heavy clouds, but for me, it might as well have been daylight. I saw the familiar white picket fence ahead, and unconsciously picked up my pace. A part of me still resisted, but now that I was so close, there was no turning back from my home.
The small, humble house stood dark; maybe Ma had already gone to bed. That was for the best. Above all else, the last thing in the world I wanted was for her to see me. The thought of her grieving had tortured me for all those months, but even the belief that I was dead would be better than the truth.
If my new instincts had given me one useful skill, it was stealth. Ma would never know that I was there. Just to stand for a moment outside her door, and listen to her breathing, would be enough.
My smile faded a little as I saw the depth of the snow piled on the walkway—but it returned when I picked out the shape of the doghouse in a corner of the yard. My dog Logan was gone now, the news of his death a strange foreshadowing of my own fate, but nothing could darken my memories of my pet and best friend. Thoughts of his sweet nature helped to still the restless passions that were now part of me. I even took his name for a while, as I worked my way back across the Atlantic on an old freighter.
I pushed open the gate, frowning at its rusted latch, and slowly moved up the walkway to the porch. It was hard to keep myself from bounding. The animal in me was skittish, but its caution was swept away by the eagerness of my higher mind.
With my heartbeat loud in my ears, I crept up the porch steps, and peered into the front window.
The living room was empty. The furniture was gone, and on the bare wood floor, my sharp eyes detected a layer of dust.
I turned away with a flinch, breathing in deeply to still the sudden surge of anxiety. The animal didn’t react well to confusion, and I forced it down, briefly shutting out my senses. It was something I had learned was surprisingly easy to do, even with the intensity of my perceptions. Just close my eyes and focus, and there was nothing—nothing except for impulses and emotions that were not human. These never went away, but they were a little easier to deal with when I cut out the sensory riot in which I now lived.
The worst possibilities, of course, were the first to arise, but I couldn’t accept them. Ma was not in the best of health, but she was still fairly young. It was difficult to believe she would have moved away, leaving the home where I was born and my father had died—but that was far easier than the thought that something had happened to her.
Think. I cursed my raging instincts and tried to concentrate on where Ma could have gone, but I came up short. Fears that weren’t just primal but truly human made me feel caged, trapped by a kind of threat my animal nature had no defense against. It was a dangerous state to be in.
Only one name rose above the turmoil.
A sense of despair welled up inside me, because I knew then what I was about to do. It was unforgivable… but I had to have an answer for this empty house, no matter how much it cost.
Clearing the porch steps with a single bound, I set off in search of her.
A few blocks and a few layers of society away, I found the house I was looking for. It was perfectly neat and impersonal, nice to look at but without any character—which also described the lawyer who owned it. He lived there with his wife… and a daughter.
The lights were out, but the house still showed every sign of being lived in. Even in those days, a rich man with a few enemies knew enough to lock his door, but that was no problem; a long time ago, I’d learned of the spare key hidden in a crevice under a windowsill. It was still there, and I used it to let myself in. The air in the blandly decorated living room was choked with the smell of furniture polish—something I had even noticed before, but now, it was enough to make me nauseous. I almost held my breath as I made my way down the hall.
Her bedroom was at the opposite end of the house from her parents’. The door was half-open, and I stood hesitating for a long time before I silently slipped in and shut it.
No smell of polish in that room. Instead it was the scent of lilacs—her favorite, the one she always wore. It tickled my nose. It did other things too, and the animal stirred, reacting to something it never had before. I fought it down quickly.
I could hear the soft, steady breathing of a sleeping woman. The curtains were thick, and even for me it was dark in that room, but I could see the outlines of the furniture well enough. When I stepped over to the bed, I could even make out her beautiful face. I’d thought I would never see it again—and now I knew it would have been better for us both if I hadn’t.
Very slowly, I reached down, and placed my hand over her mouth.
She started awake with a soft gasp. I leaned close to her ear to whisper a sharp "Sh-shh"… and that was when it hit me. Through the lilac haze, I caught the true scent of her, of her skin and her hair. Some part of me remembered it, but not like this. It was more powerful than any drug I could have imagined.
Before I knew what I was doing, my lips had taken the place of my hand.
For a single moment her body tensed, her scent harsh with fear. The she made a small, sharp sound—a cry of recognition.
Her arms slid around my neck, and for the first time, I knew the smell of desire.
I threw back the bedcovers and took her in my arms, eagerly caressing her. The animal pushed me further than I’d ever dared to go before—and she responded to it with an unexpected heat, kissing me, touching me in ways she never would have in our innocent past. Whether she was reacting to my own primitive passion, or simply the discovery that I was alive, I didn’t know or care. Everything she did sharpened the animal’s desire… yet something in my still too-human heart didn’t want this to be happening, for reasons I was in no condition to understand.
Finally, with a physical effort, I tore myself away from her.
If I didn’t, I was afraid I would hurt her.
We both needed to catch our breath. I sat on the edge of the bed with my back turned and my head bowed, trying to quiet the urges running through my veins. The part of me that could still think was frightened and confused. Beneath the animal’s newfound lust, I couldn’t find the genuine emotions I once felt for her. The changes in me had heightened my rage, my fear, my pain—but of love as I once understood it, there was nothing.
Behind me, she stirred. I felt her reach for the bedside lamp, and seized her wrist. "No."
Her hand caught mine and held it tightly. I could feel her fingers trembling.
"They told me you were dead."
"They weren’t wrong." I turned to face her halfway, afraid the animal might overwhelm me again if I looked at her directly. With the hand she wasn’t holding, I reached out to stroke her hair, and absently wished I could see its golden color in the dark. Was that some shred of the emotion I was trying to find in myself? I wasn’t sure, and maybe at this point, it was better not to feel it at all. I closed my eyes and looked for words instead.
"I’m not who you knew… I’m not like anything you’ve ever known."
She sat up further, saying my name, and my heart turned over. It was the first time in more than a year that another living soul had spoken it, and for a moment, I held it in my heart. It was the one thing left that was truly mine. As long as I had my name, I felt sure I would be sane and at least partly human.
"They all came home different," she said anxiously. "It’ll get better—you’ve got to believe that. Whatever it is you had to do—"
"No. It’s not about that… not the way you think." I let go of her hand. "Something’s happened to me. I’ve changed."
Those words, and my refusal to be seen, must have given her the idea that I’d been disfigured. She reached up with both hands to touch me. I wanted to pull away, but instead I kept still, silently cherishing the sweet torture of it.
Her fingers ran through my hair, finding the bristling ridges I’d given up trying to tame, then moved down my face to brush against a beard that was unfamiliar to her. From there her hands slid down my neck and shoulders to my chest, exploring the firm muscles neither one of us would have once imagined I could have. She made a small noise of approval, and I felt bitter amusement. It had come as a shock to see myself when I finally stumbled out of the wilderness. The thin, frail boy she knew had become a man, lean and rugged and powerful beyond reason… but that was only the beginning.
Cupping my hand over hers, I felt something hard against my palm. She still wore the ring. It was a simple thing I’d given her when we were just kids, but I always thought I was going to give her a real one in its place someday.
Now that could never be.
Taking a deep breath, I put my finger to her lips. "Listen to me. You’ve got to forget everything I used to be, because it’s all gone. I don’t know what I am, but I know I can’t stay. The only reason I came tonight is to find out… what happened to my mother."
In the instant before she turned away, I felt her lips tremble, and I knew the truth before she spoke.
"She died, last April. Losing you was too much for her."
The swell of grief was sudden and savage, and I pushed myself away from the bed, crossing the room to lean against the wall. I needed distance to keep her safe from me. All the animal understood was that I was in pain, and pain meant the need to fight back.
I heard the rustle of her nightgown as she rose and stepped toward me; I felt her hands on my shoulders. Her touch was now meant to be comforting, but I was numb to it. I’d never realized how much of me was really left, until that moment… the moment when it died, even to her.
After a long time, she pulled gently on my shirtsleeve, turning me to face her. She reached up and touched my face. If she was looking for tears, she found none.
"I want to see you," she whispered.
A cruel recklessness filled me. Maybe this was the only thing that could make her understand, because I didn’t have the words.
I took her hand and lowered it from my face, rubbing my thumb against her palm. Then I turned and went to her nightstand. I found the lamp and switched it on; the room filled with light, and for a moment I stood still, giving her eyes time to adjust.
When I finally turned to face her, she didn’t move… but her scent sharpened with fear.
She whispered my name again, this time in a confused and uncertain tone. Her gaze took in every line of my face, the sharp features hardened and haunted by animal shadows. At last, reluctantly, she looked into my eyes—a predator’s eyes, no longer the brown she remembered, but a much lighter and more wolfish shade.
She looked, and she saw all that lay behind them… and she knew that I was gone.
There was nothing left for me here.
She flinched away as I stepped past her—but she called my name as I opened the door. I turned for one last look at her beautiful, frightened face, and with a sad shake of my head, I said the only thing I could.
It was Christmas morning, and the sky was just starting to lighten.
Since I last saw it, the cemetery had sprouted a wicked-looking fence of black wrought-iron spikes, and the gate was locked. That didn’t particularly bother me. I found the closest sturdy tree, shimmied up it like a cat, and dropped down on the other side.
I knew where to go. Five rows back from the front gate, three rows to the left of the maple tree. My father’s grave was a familiar place—but the headstone beside his was new. Crouching in the snow, I ran my hand gently over the cold slate.
So this was how it ended; the closure I came back to find. There were two women I loved, and in one night, I discovered I had lost them both.
There was relief somewhere beneath the pain. I’d come full circle since that day the year before, putting the last of me to rest in the snows of another graveyard. It was a strange kind of funeral, with nothing to mourn. A life was over, and whatever I was now could begin its own with a blank slate. I was ready.
And I was done fighting my changed nature. I would never again be ashamed of it, or treat it like something apart from me. There was no one left to hide the truth from—not even myself.
Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath of the winter air, and finally accepted that the animal was me.
It wasn’t much, but I felt just a little more peace than I had in a long time.
© 2004 Jordanna Morgan -send feedback