Stephanie Linder led her boys through the woods that bordered Cottonwood Lane. A fat full moon hung low in the sky, barely visible through the dense foliage. The woods were dark and unfamiliar in the moonlight, nothing like the friendly greenery that Stephanie and her four sons passed on the way to school each morning. Normally Owen, Jake, Josh and Gavin would scamper around their mother, full of little boy enthusiasm for another day of learning and play. That was the daytime. This was the night and on this night Stephanie was not a human mother. She and her boys had just finished their transformations from human to wolf and Stephanie was eager to begin their lessons.
Jake and Josh trotted up to Stephanie, tails raised, ears up and alert. “What is it this time, mama?” Jake asked. “Rabbits or…?”
“Or mice?” Josh finished his brother’s question. “Mice are fun!”
“Neither.” Stephanie explained, “It’s something new tonight. You need to be quiet now.” Jake and Josh dropped their tails a bit and slipped back behind their mother. The pups had been hunting with Stephanie since they were old enough to leave the house. Their mother started them on crickets and beetles, prey lively enough to keep a pup’s attention and small enough for young jaws to crunch. She had paced them carefully, making sure her boys were strong and smart enough each time they progressed to new prey.
The pack trotted in silence, moonlight dappling their grey and tan fur. Stephanie sniffed the breeze, checking the scent landmarks to make sure they were headed in the right direction. The smell of a decomposing carcass drifted in from the East. Stephanie recognized it as the remains of the deer she and her pups had killed last month. A moment later the pups caught the scent and grew agitated. Owen barked from the back of the line. “I want a deer!”
Stephanie whirled around and raised her lip in a snarl. “I said quiet!” She made eye contact with her son and held it until he turned his gaze away.
Owen was always hungry, always willful, always pushing the boundaries of his mother’s authority. It was Owen’s insatiable hunger that first drove Stephanie to the woods, but while in the woods she discovered something more valuable than a free meal for her pups. In the town, in her human form, Stephanie was a broke, tired, single mother of four boys. In the woods, in her wolf form, Stephanie was the arbiter of life and death. When she hunted she was strong, focused and confident in a way that was utterly inhuman. That power was a gift, and Stephanie had precious few gifts to give to her sons.
The moon was almost overhead when Stephanie stopped the pack. Her pups would need time to rest before the hunt. “Be still.” She told them, but they boys didn’t need coaxing. They flopped down in the cool dirt, panting and stretching their stubby legs. Stephanie padded to the edge of the woods, peering out at the buildings on the other side of the street. The gas station and convenience store were closed, but the motor court motel was still open. It’s small neon sign read “vacancy” and there were only a handful of cars in the parking lot. The tip of Stephanie’s tail wagged when she saw the man standing in the glow of the vacancy sign. He was talking on a cell phone, staring daggers at a woman walking a small dog. Stephanie was certain this was her man. She could smell the stink of his cologne even at this distance.
Stephanie huffed, a low noise that wasn’t quite a bark. Moments later the pups were at her side, alert and excited.“Do you see that man? The one by the motel?” Stephanie nudged her pups heads until they were looking in the right direction. “He is our prey for tonight.”
The pups were silent for a moment, digesting the idea of hunting and killing a man. This was a crucial moment in the lesson. Stephanie watched her students with interest and apprehension.
“Is he a bad man?” Owen asked, his lupine brow furrowed with concentration as he awaited the answer.
Stephanie considered her answer carefully. Telling lies was very difficult as a wolf. Somehow her pups could always smell false words. “Maybe,” she answered, “I followed him.” Stephanie had followed the man on and off for a week, but only to confirm her suspicion that he wasn’t from Gloaming Gap. She stopped her investigation once she determined that the man was from Philadelphia, was in town alone and wasn’t related to anyone she knew.
Owen weighed his mothers answer, shifting his paws as he thought. Finally, he turned to his brothers and announced “It’s okay. He’s a bad man.” Jake and Josh immediately yipped in agreement, untroubled by any ethical questions.
Gavin, the youngest and smallest of Stephanie’s pups, whimpered, holding one forepaw off the ground. “But…he’s human… and we’re human too. Right?”
“No,” Stephanie said gently, “We’re werewolves. Now put your paw on the ground where it belongs.” She turned to eye the rest of her pups. “What are you?”
“Wolves!” They chanted in unison. “Always wolves!”
Stephanie wagged her approval. “That’s right. Even when you’re in human form, you’re just wolves wearing boy suits. I want you to remember that. Always.” She turned to Gavin “Especially you, little one. You’re a small wolf, but you’re always a wolf.”
Gavin put his paw back on the ground and was standing with a little more confidence. He eyed his brothers, trying to copy their postures, to seem bigger and stronger. Gavin obviously wanted to say something, but struggled to find words. Finally he barked, “Wolves have teeth!”
The other pups snickered at Gavin, but Stephanie have him a gentle nudge with her snout, “And what are teeth for?”
Gavin pricked up his ears and cocked his head, “For biting?”
“And tearing! And shaking!” Chimed Jake and Josh, miming the actions with snapping jaws.
“And killing.” Owen growled, licking his chops.
Stephanie surveyed her young pack, pacing to keep their attention. “Yes, my bright boys. You’re all right. Now who wants to use his teeth?”
The pups whimpered with excitement, squirming and crying for the thrill of the hunt. “Sing out little ones,” their mother coaxed, “I’m not really sure you want it.” Shrill puppy howls split the night air, catching the man’s attention. He put his cell phone in his pocket and took a few steps towards the woods.
Stephanie crouched low and hunched her shoulders before whispering, “Positions, everyone. Like we practiced. Remember to wait and taste the fear.” The pups mimicked her behavior, their little muscles tensing and hackles rising as they formed a loose circle in the underbrush. “Do as I tell you and tonight we’ll feast.”
The man took his first step in to the woods. Moonlight glinted off the silver blade of his knife. Leaves crackled beneath his feet as he inched closer and closer to the trap. Four pairs of wolf eyes glittered in the darkness, waiting for their mother’s command. It was a magic, this quiet before kill. Stephanie savored it for a moment before giving a single bark. Her pups were hungry and school was in session.