Some family curses are worth passing on…
Tommy Roling does everything humanly possible to raise his infant daughter Corinne the right way.
But when you’re half a year out of high school, you’re flat broke, and you have to deal with losing control of yourself every full moon — well, being a perfect dad becomes quite a struggle.
And after a stranger shows up slashed to death the day after Tommy’s most recent full-moon run, his fragile world starts to break apart. Caught in the middle of a battle for power over his small Iowa hometown, cut off from his family, Tommy feels like he’s about to lose control of everything. Including his innocent baby girl, who may or may not have inherited his werewolf gene.
Tommy secretly hopes that his little girl does have it in her. In the weeks that will come, his wish comes true, but in ways he never would have dreamed…
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His new apartment measured no more than seven hundred and twenty-five square feet, and tonight Tommy Roling felt every inch of the place closing in on him.
I can’t wait much longer, he thought. Not tonight. Not here.
The yellow-and-green linoleum of the kitchen crashed head-on with the faded pink shag carpet of their dining room slash living room. The scratched-up card table he’d gotten from Mom held what was left of tonight’s dinner. Mostly greasy wrappers, torn boxes, and a few loose french fries. The stale smell of the fries and the mystery-meat burgers – he’d eaten one too many of them – made Tommy’s nose twitch as he paced heavily from linoleum to shag, waiting for Suzanne to get the baby to sleep.
Corinne had picked up a cold again, and her barking cough made Tommy wince every time she let loose with it. So he paced and tried to ignore the ache and tension that had crept into his bones in the past few minutes.
At nearly six foot three, Tommy had to duck every time he walked past the crooked light fixture hanging above the dining area. The weird angles of the apartment made their second-hand black and white couch spill over into the dining area, so the card table couldn’t be centered under the light without blocking the path to the living room. The result? Tommy smacked his head on the dangling light at least twice a day, even though they’d been living here for almost a month now.
Us, he thought. Me, Suzanne, and the baby. Corinne. My girls.
He froze as Corinne’s wailing and coughing from the tiny second bedroom quieted. He swiped at his forehead, standing in the middle of the tiny kitchen like a convict, or a caged animal – he could almost touch both walls if he extended his arms and stretched. This place was all they could afford.
He glanced at the calendar thumb-tacked to the wall next to their ancient wall phone. Over half of the days in January had been crossed out with an X up through today, the nineteenth. Tomorrow, the lunar phase was listed as a perfect O. It was like the start of some crazy, uneven game of tic tac toe that he was already losing.
Tommy gathered up the remains of their supper, grimacing at the loud crinkling sound of the papers and mostly empty containers, and shoved it all into the garbage can. He straightened the piles of bills left on the table and snagged the flier from Northeast Iowa Community College before Suzanne saw it. He shoved the flier with its smiling white faces and bright blue text into his jeans pocket and stood in the middle of the kitchen, his big hands shaking with impatience.
If I don’t get out of this stifling apartment soon, all hell’s going to break loose. I can feel it in my blood.
“Please be asleep,” he whispered. He touched his throat and felt his pulse doing double-time. “I gotta go.”
But I can’t leave without making sure Corinne was down for the night.
He let out a cautious breath and checked his pocket for his keys. He had his heavy coat in his hands to protect him from the harsh Iowa wind of late January, though in a few minutes he wouldn’t need it at all. The light in the apartment had grown too bright, making his eyes ache.
Gotta go. But first…
Tiptoeing his two hundred and seventy pounds across the squeaking floor, Tommy at last risked opening the door to Corinne’s nursery.
Should’ve turned off the light behind me, he realized too late, as a sliver of yellow living-room light cut into the pink wallpaper and curtains of the baby’s room. The light caught Suzanne’s eyes where she sat rocking the baby on her shoulder. All he could see of Corinne under the thick pink blanket was the round top of her head, and a wild tuft of strawberry-blonde hair sticking up.
The cold reflection of the light in Suzanne’s angry gaze was enough to make Tommy step back. The baby had cried and coughed for almost twenty minutes, and that always made her panicky.
“Marvin’s waiting on me,” he whispered as an apology, his voice like a croak.
Suzanne’s eyes widened as she looked at him, as if to say “Be quiet!” Then they narrowed, and he caught her nod.
Ever since they started dating, she’d known about how he had to unload trucks for Dad’s friend Marv over in Earlville for a couple nights every month. She understood, but that didn’t mean she liked it. She hated being left alone with the baby, especially when she had an early shift at the restaurant the next day.
“Love you,” Tommy whispered. Then he closed the door as quietly as he could with hands that now quivered with bottled-up energy.
He nearly ran the three steps across the pink carpet and one step over the yellow linoleum. The only thing that stopped him on his way out the door was the barking cough of his six-month-old. The sound tore at his hammering heart. He paused, hand on the cold knob to the door leading outside.
I can’t keep doing this. I’m going to fall apart.
Tommy stood there, waiting for another cough, waiting for his heart to slow down. After half a minute, neither happened, but he’d take that.
Finally, he pushed open the door with shaking hands, closed it silently behind him, and ran down the steps into the cold night toward his car. It was going to have to be side roads and pedal to the metal all the way to Westhoff’s land.
Nobody better try to stop me before I get there.
Of course, when you go for a drive in the town where you’ve lived for all but one of the twenty years of your life, you can’t help but get noticed by everyone in that town.
As soon as he pulled out onto Main Street, Tommy saw Mickey’s rusted-out blue Camaro ahead of him. Despite his best efforts to stay back and avoid their rearviews, both Mickey in the driver’s seat and Krunch in the passenger seat stuck their hands out to wave at him, and then give him the finger. Tommy did the same back to them and kept driving.
When they pulled over to talk, he didn’t look over at them. Instead, he hunched low, blinking sweat out of his eyes, and gripped the steering wheel tight.
I haven’t hung out with them in forever, he thought. Wonder if they still have those weekend-long PlayStation marathons at Krunch’s house.
Tommy kept his driver-side window rolled down, sucking in the cold air, and then he stuck his entire head out the window for a painful, blinding, sobering second.
Slow it down. You’re almost there. There’s still time.
Two more turns and he hit a gravel road. The back wheels of his Grand Am spun, pulling the little car into a swerve that he drove out of without even having to think about it. He goosed the gas pedal and kept pressing it until the little six-cylinder engine hit seventy. The car’s revving drowned out Tommy’s tortured breathing.
Above him, the night sky opened up with a blanket of stars almost bright enough to drive by without headlights. The turn for Westhoff’s back acres was lit up like a movie theater entrance to Tommy, though all the colors now bled into white, black, and gray.
His vision was going wide on him, the world opening up to him, coming clearer and fuller, as his eyes – always the first thing to change – drank in the moon fat and white overhead.
He slammed the car into the turn without slowing, and rocked down the half-mile dirt lane leading to the fifty unused, overgrown acres of old man Westhoff’s land. His nose was full of metallic sweat, burning oil, and toxic exhaust.
As soon as the car was parked and the engine killed, Tommy rolled out of the door, pulling at his clothes and wheezing like a dying man. His shirt ripped and his socks came off in tatters, but he was beyond caring. He exhaled, and then inhaled the terrified scent of three, maybe four deer running away from him, half a mile away.
His fingers were clawed and his breath plumed in front of him like a semi’s exhaust, the air chuffing in and out of him as he nearly hyperventilated from his efforts.
I tried to hold off the change for too long, he thought. Can’t keep doing that.
And then his clothes were off and his blood was on fire. All thinking, all worries, all fears disappeared, and under the wide-open sky and glowing moon, Tommy let out a full-throated laugh and ran.
When he opened his eyes, the world was gray, and unknown hours had passed. The dark blonde fur that had sprouted like weeds from his skin – keeping him utterly warm despite the twenty-five-degree temperatures outside tonight – was gone. He lay naked in a clearing, his belly round and full, legs and back aching, with the sharp taste of copper in his mouth and his own salty-sweat scent filling his nose.
And he was freezing.
Corinne, he thought as he watched the stars glowing down on him. A hint of color crept into the night sky down toward the eastern rim of the horizon.
My little girl will be waking soon. According to Mom, Corinne was a dream baby, already sleeping through the night at her age, but Tommy felt like the little girl still got up way too early in the morning. If she wasn’t up by six a.m., Suzanne would wake in a panic and tiptoe into her room to check on her. Which of course would do the trick and wake Corinne up, so there you go.
The freezing air and the memory of Corinne’s barking coughs ripped from her tiny body got Tommy moving despite the aching of his exhausted body. His arms felt like useless tree limbs attached to his armpits, and his thick legs still twitched and spasmed from all his running.
I’m so out of shape it’s pathetic. What would my coaches think if they saw me now?
He’d banged up a couple toenails tonight, too. He felt his gorge rise as he sat up, but he swallowed hard and closed his eyes for a few seconds. Mom always said that only wimps tossed their cookies after a wild night of running.
After a few more deep breaths of icy air, he felt better. Despite the repeated attempts of his buddies Mickey and Krunch, he’d never gotten completely drunk, despite many opportunities at parties and nights at his friends’ houses to do so. But this must be what it felt like afterward: no memory what had happened in the past few hours, a nasty taste in your mouth, and shit in your gut that you’d been too out of control to stop from putting in there.
Not to mention the sick certainty you had that you did something really bad while you were drunk.
“Just hope I didn’t kill an’ eat Bambi this time,” Tommy mumbled as he got to his feet at last. A giddy laugh escaped his lips, followed by a resounding belch that made him laugh even more. All that running had felt good.
Tommy liked having it in him. Even if it was just two, maybe three nights a month, when the moon was fat overhead. Despite all the lying and sneaking around and stress it caused, Tommy wouldn’t change his condition for the world. Having it in him was a blessing, not a curse like Mom made it out to be.
The only drawback was coming back to reality. He was going to have to snag some Red Bulls on his way to work today to stay awake at the call center. Nobody was going to buy a subscription from a guy who was mumbling and yawning in their ear for the ten or so seconds he had their attention.
Getting back to his frosted-over car took him a good fifteen minutes. Usually he tried to stop running close to where he’d parked his car, but last night had been an out-of-control one. He’d woken in a clearing not a hundred feet from the muddy creek that ran down the eastern border of Westhoff’s land.
Too close to the border, really. A couple deer hunters had set up tree stands and a round shack made of tin on the other side of the creek. Tommy didn’t want them getting a look at him when he was hunting as well. Just his luck they’d think he was a big old buck and take a shot at him, right in his own marked-off territory.
As he walked over the frozen ground speckled with patches of old snow and headed up the gentle slope that led back to his car, Tommy was grateful for the dark. He was less embarrassed of the blood on him than the jiggle of his gut and his fat white ass exposed here out in the middle of nowhere.
He knew he’d let himself go in the past year, ever since he’d quit the football team and given up his scholarship at the University of Northern Iowa. The coaches and scouts had been all over him when he was just a sophomore in high school, after the summer of his growth spurt. He’d hit his current height then, and putting on weight had been easy. Soon he was going both ways, playing defense and offense, a varsity starter as a sophomore and then as a junior and senior as well. And the college coaches started calling and emailing him.
But two things stopped his football career. The first was timing – his fourth game of his freshman year was a night game, and it took place under a full moon. He’d just won his starting position at defensive tackle, and he couldn’t control himself. The change came over him, just partially, just for a few seconds, really. He’d broken through the line of blockers and sacked the quarterback hard enough to put the kid in traction. Someone said the guy was now in a wheelchair.
And the other thing, of course, was Suzanne.
Few girls had ever paid much attention to him before, but now there was this cute redhead driving up from Dyersburg to Cedar Falls with her friends and spending the occasional night with him in his dorm room.
After the full-moon game, he didn’t want to play anymore. He quit the football team and gave up his scholarship. He was back home for good after dropping out six weeks from the end of his freshman year.
But now he was done with all that college bullshit, and he was a father. A dad. Who needed a fancy football scholarship? Who had time? He figured he’d be lucky to get a degree from the local community college. Forget about playing ball, ever again.
When he finally cranked the engine and jammed the heat and defrost on high, Tommy could barely feel the tips of his fingers or his ears. His toes were already numb from the frost-tipped grass.
At least he’d kept to the territory he’d marked out years ago, as a kid, while he was running wild in the night. Otherwise he might end up in someone’s barn miles from here, chewing on one of their pigs or something. The fifty acres of rough land here owned by their old family friend Joe Westhoff was perfect for Tommy’s needs. After over fifteen years of coming here, he knew every acre like an old friend.
Tommy tried not to think about anything but his little girl as he toweled off the blood from his face, hands, and chest. He did his best to get the mud from his battered feet before putting on a new pair of socks and his size fifteen shoes.
I hope she didn’t cough all night, he thought with a sharp surge of panic. What if she was really sick? What if she was dying? How would you know? Nobody taught you these kinds of things – how to know you were doing the right thing with your kid.
Mom always said not to worry, that instinct would take over. But lately he’d started doubting most of the advice she’d given him over the years.
Back in his clothes once more, he dropped heavily into his car. The shocks complained noisily in response. The heat from the vents blasted him in the face until he notched it down. Utter exhaustion fell over him as he put his car in gear and began driving home in the weak light of dawn. He could still taste blood on his tongue.
It wasn’t until he turned off the car outside the apartment he shared with his girls that he even noticed the bloody gash in his side.