The woods aren’t haunted.
Haunted means ghosts, and ghosts mean dead people, and there’s nothing dead about what’s prowling in the shadows, slinking between the trees, preying on whoever happens to be passing by. Wandering through.
Little Red Riding Hood got a fucking warning, at least, right?
The sign is medicine-bottle brown, dented around the edges and riddled with bullet holes from a dozen different hunting seasons—it’s crookedly nailed onto a squat wooden post, and the grimy reflective lettering stamped across the middle is pitted and rusty and weather-beaten and almost impossible to read in the late-night gloom, even under the swinging, white-bright arc of Landon’s headlights.
“Why are we going this way?” Claire asks, crossing and uncrossing her legs, using one hand to fiddle with the shark shaped bottle-opener on her keychain and the other to gesture impatiently to their surroundings—to the eerie fog, and the bruising darkness, and the gravel-spattered access road. “I told you, I have to—”
“Be home by midnight, yeah, I know,” Landon interrupts, and Claire isn’t looking at him—doesn’t want to look at him, not anymore—but she can practically hear his eyes rolling. His lip curling. Boys like Landon hate being reminded of boring, mundane things like curfews. Rules. Limitations. The word “no” is anathema to them. “It’s a shortcut.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Since we had to leave early after your pointless little tantrum at the—”
“Pointless little tantrum?” Claire repeats, incredulous. “You and your gross delinquent bros paid off some fisherman you found on Craigslist to—”
“It was Kool-Aid,” Landon says, slouching forward as he navigates a lazily sloping corner, wheels flattening stray autumn leaves and matchstick-brittle bundles of pine needles. “It’s Halloween tomorrow, our football teams are playing, and their mascot’s lame and their school colors are—what, puke green and baby blue? Dyeing their shit red is basically doing them a fucking favor.”
Claire grits her teeth and scoots closer to the door. There’s already about as much space between her and Landon as she could conceivably hope to get, considering the circumstances and the relative size of the truck, but it still doesn’t feel like enough. She wants miles. Continents. She wants every single second of her wasted fucking time back.
“But you weren’t doing them a favor, you were trying to reenact that stupid elevator scene from The Shining with a swimming pool and a dead dolphin.”
Landon slams the brakes and spins the steering wheel to one side, pulling over, causing her to jerk forward, trapped against the rapidly tightening strap of her seatbelt. The line of his jaw is tense, when she glances over at him, and the hickey on his neck—ten days old, faded yellow-purple-green now, not from her—looks chalky in the hazy glow of the GPS screen.
“It’s Halloween tomorrow,” he says again, audibly exasperated—but with an undercurrent of something else, too, something meaner, that makes it clear to her he doesn’t actually care about why she’s upset. That she’s upset at all, probably. “We’re seniors. We got picked to do the Fright Night prank. Our fucking—our crosstown rivals are called the Dolphins. What do you expect us to do?”
Claire’s grip goes slack around the Barbie-pink one-use can of pepper spray hanging between her house key and her gym ID card. “What do I expect—are you joking?”
Landon shakes his head and huffs out a laugh, more angry than frustrated, before yanking his own keys out of the ignition, clipping them to his belt loop, and flinging his door open.
“Be right back,” he snaps, jumping down. “Gotta piss.”
In the sideview mirror, Claire watches him stomp around the truck bed and rake his fingers through his douchebag-long hair; there are blurry red handprint stains on his khakis, either Kool-Aid or dolphin blood, dragged and stretched like the most obvious “holy shit, you’re gonna die” foreshadowing in a gory 80’s slasher film, and the tail of his flannel is half tucked-in, showing off the rectangular bump in his back pocket—his phone or his wallet or his condoms or the ancient scummy Altoid tin he keeps his weed in.
Landon disappears into the woods and it only takes a few moments for the silence to shift.
There’s the furnace-hot aftershock skittering of twigs and pebbles bouncing against the underbelly of the truck, and the breathy swish of the breeze ratcheting up, skipping between the overgrown bushes and the too-tall, seesawing grass—eventually, the headlights flicker off, the barely noticeable background thrum of the car battery vanishing so abruptly that Claire tenses with unease.
It isn’t the quiet, exactly, that bothers her.
It’s everything else.
It’s knowing where she’s going, but not where she is.
A sound pierces the air, muffled and shrill. A yowling coyote, or a frightened fox, or an owl, maybe, hunting down a mouse. Announcing its presence. Establishing itself as the predator in that equation. That relationship. Claire idly wishes that humans possessed that kind of basic drive for honesty—that they were more efficient about telling each other who they really were in precise, objective terms.
Landon, for example, is a lying, cheating, megalomaniac piece of shit.
Claire, for example, is a—
Landon stumbles out of the woods, then, awkwardly scrubbing at the nape of his neck, one of those calculated aw-shucks nice-guy maneuvers that he practices in the mirror like a fucking beauty queen spit-shining her victory wave—but his skin is paler than usual, his mouth redder and his posture straighter, and the uncharacteristic hitch in his gait, the way he seems to be drifting, swaying, like a stuffed animal dangling from the pincher hook of a carnival claw machine, sets her scalp prickling and her spine tingling.
Unnatural, she thinks, unbidden, before blinking herself back to reality.
“Landon,” she says, arching even farther away from the driver’s seat as he climbs back into the truck. He doesn’t acknowledge her. There’s nowhere else for her to go. She’s pressed up against the window, the door handle digging into her ribs. “Landon.”
He starts the car.
Guns the engine.
There’s blood crusted under his fingernails.
Claire frantically tries to remember if it was there earlier—if he’d washed his hands after touching the dolphin—but she can’t. She’d been too furious, too horrified, too disappointed; and what did it matter, anyway? What is she even scared of right now? What does she suspect is going on?
“Are you . . . okay?” she asks, inhaling sharply when all he does in response is floor the gas pedal, gears whining, speed creeping up and up and up as they approach a dangerous-looking curve in the road. She brings her arm around, unlatching her seatbelt, lifting her shoulder, wrist knocking against the door handle, her numb, frozen fingers fumbling with the lock. She can roll out onto the road if she has to. If it’s absolutely necessary. “Landon, what are you—oh, my god, what is wrong with you?”
They pass under a swamp-thick beam of moonlight filtering in through the trees.
It’s silvery; pristine; bright.
Landon squints at it for a moment, a weird furrow in his brow, and cocks his head, inadvertently exposing the column of his neck, the part towards the back that had been hidden to her by his hair and the collar of his shirt. There’s blood there, too. Sticky, sluggish, congealing blood. From what? A scratch?
He releases the steering wheel, letting the truck crawl to a halt, his upper body spasming, a pained, desperate gasp clawing its way out of his lungs.
His face ripples.
His jaw gapes.
His bones crunch.
Claire jams her door open, falling backwards, falling down, her palms scraping gravel and her throat closing around a scream. She’s seen this movie. She’s seen how this movie ends. Her vision tunnels as she scrambles upright, trembling hands searching for her phone, for her keys—her phone is in the center console cup holder, next to a crumpled-up gas station receipt and a Gatorade bottle full of cheap vodka, but her keys—
Grocery store rewards card.
She dimly registers the sound of Landon leaping down—leaping, swift and sure and impossibly, improbably graceful—from his side of the truck, emitting a low-pitched, menacing growl; adrenaline is hurtling through her veins, spiky and itchy and coarse like a bed of roses, like poison ivy, and she clutches the tiny can of pepper spray, bracing herself for an attack, for Landon’s attack, except it never comes.
The air goes still.
Landon goes still, too, eerily so, ten feet away from her, and she wastes five or six panic-fast, snare-drum loud heartbeats waiting for him to do something else. For something else to happen.
Something else does happen.
Another guy—a stranger, short and stocky and college-aged and pale, pale like Landon was when he came out of the woods, wearing ripped-up acid-wash skinny jeans and a plain red sweatshirt—appears at the tree line, on the very edge of the road. He has his arm raised, his fingers curled in a fist, his gaze trained not on Claire but on Landon.
“There we go,” the stranger murmurs, almost gently, with a warped kind of affection—like he’s talking to a pet, or calming a skittish animal. “Good boy.”
Claire stares, aghast, petrified, as the stranger uncurls his fingers, one at a time—achingly, deliberately slow—and Landon begins to move again. Breathe again.
“He didn’t fight me at all,” the stranger says suddenly, to Claire, his voice deep and smooth and smug, his vivid, golden-brown eyes glittering oddly—wrongly—ominously in a narrow strip of fog-dense moonlight. “You, though—you’re gonna run, aren’t you?”
Claire’s chest heaves, her pulse racing as her gaze darts from Landon’s unnaturally expressionless face to the still-open door on the driver’s side of the truck to the scant few inches of space separating her from this guy—this monster—
“Why do you say that?” she manages to croak.
The stranger shrugs, pointing to his nose. “I can smell it.”
“You can smell—”
“You’re afraid,” he goes on, as if she hadn’t spoken. “Just like he was.”
Claire swallows, thumb tapping out an almost-rhythm against her keys. “Oh—oh, yeah?”
“Oh, yeah.” The stranger’s lips twist in a smile. “But you’re real mad about it.”
“That isn’t what I’m mad about,” she says, thinking of the poorly covered hickey on Landon’s neck, and the rust-dark dolphin blood streaking Landon’s pants, and the tick-tock-tick-tock-ticking of the invisible clock counting down to midnight, to the curfew Landon never fucking cared about. Her curfew. Her. “Actually.”
The guy isn’t expecting her to come closer.
She spots twin, fleeting flashes of gold in the rearview mirror as she escapes in Landon’s truck, the spicy scent of pepper spray burning her nostrils, the jagged teeth of her shark-shaped bottle-opener pressed up against the steering wheel, biting into the meat of her palm.
It doesn’t occur to her until later—much, much later, after she’s spun a carefully constructed web of lies to the police about an imaginary mountain lion, and to Landon’s brother about an imaginary act of last-minute heroism, and to her own parents about how she’s coping, how she’s feeling—
She isn’t Little Red Riding Hood.
She isn’t a cautionary tale.
werewolf, Claire types into the search bar on her browser, her door locked, her curtains drawn, a brand-new gunmetal-gray military-grade can of mace resting innocently on her ruffled lavender throw pillow; almost immediately, she taps the BACKSPACE key with her pinky. Corrects herself:
how to kill a werewolf
She isn’t Little Red Riding Hood.
She isn’t the wolf, or the grandmother, or the judgmental, uneducated, superstitious band of pitchfork-wielding villagers.
She isn’t the prey; she isn’t the hunted.
She’s the hunter.
originally published october, 2019