Wolfsbane and Mistletoe

Chapter Thirteen

Milk and Cookies

Rob Thurman

Rob Thurman is the author of several books making up the Cal Leandros series: Nightlife, Moonshine, Madhouse, and Deathwish (to be released in the spring of 2009); and of a second series (as yet untitled) to debut in the fall of 2009. Rob lives in Indiana, land of many cows, demanding deer, and wild turkey as savage as any wolf, Were or otherwise. Protecting the author's house and home is a hundred-pound rescue husky with ice blue eyes, teeth straight out of a Godzilla movie, and the ferocious habit of crawling under the kitchen table and peeing on himself when visitors arrive. Reach the author at www.robthurman.net.

Christmas sucked.

The display windows covered in velvet ribbons and tinsel. The tinkle of ringing bells around every corner. The snow, the presents, the frigging good cheer.

Yeah, it sucked all right. Sure, it was only once a year, but that was one time too many. Carolers, months of Christmas music, candy canes, and all but Cindy Lou Who skipping down the sidewalk.

It was too much. Too damn much.

I was seven when I knew there wasn't a Santa anymore. I was thirteen when my sister started the whole "Is there really a Santa?" thing and "The kids at school say . . ." The usual stuff. And that she was seven, the same age I'd been, only made it worse.

So I lied. Sure there was a Santa. And when Mom told me to take her to see store Santa, I hadn't bitched too much. She and Dad both had to work. They worked hard. We weren't poor, but we sure weren't rich either. Dad was a good hunter and that put food on the table, but it didn't pay the electric or the mortgage.

Plus I remembered what it was like, how knowing had taken the magic out of Christmas. I didn't want to admit it. I was tougher than that. I didn't want to admit that even six years later I missed waiting to hear hoofbeats on the roof, the jingle of bells, the thump of boots hitting the bottom of our big, old fireplace.

Yeah, I didn't want to fess up to it, but it was true. Now Christmas was just another day. I wasn't into Jesus or church, mangers or angels. You got presents and, sure, that was cool, but the excited knot in your stomach, the blankets clenched in your fists, the listening for all you were worth that Christmas Eve night.


It was stupid to miss it. I was way too old for that shit. You could ask anybody. If the kids at school found out, they'd laugh me out of class. If the teachers found out, they wouldn't know what to think. Probably send me to the counselor for soft words, ink blots, and a note for my parents. But they didn't know, and every teacher would tell you: I wasn't a dreamer. No way. I was a smart-ass kid. My dad told me so, my teachers, the principal . . . who spent more time lecturing me than my teachers ever did. He told me at thirteen I was too young to get into trouble, too young to be cynical. And definitely too young to have such a foul mouth.

He didn't get out of the office much.

Smart-assed and foul-mouthed, you'd think there was no way I'd get glum every Christmas, but I did. Every single one. And no matter what had happened that one particular Christmas when I was seven - throughout the Christmas I'd first lost the spirit, I'd never get it back. I'd never get a do-over. No matter how much I wanted to.

Jackass, I said to my reflection in the display glass of the store. Suck it up. Get over it. You're not seven anymore. You're not a little kid. There are no do-overs in life.

I pushed the door open to the department store, the only one we had in Connor's Way, a town so small we had two stores, three restaurants, and one stoplight. It had been home since August now. It was one of those towns where everyone knew everyone and everything you did got around if you weren't careful. I was thirteen . . . there were plenty of things I did I didn't want getting around.

Tessa slid her hand into mine and I grimaced. Little sisters, what a pain in the ass. Big eyes the same brown as mine looked up at me and she smiled at me with that big-brother-worshipping smile. I sighed, squeezed her hand, and tugged her along. "Come on. Before the line gets too long." She was a pain, but she was my pain and family's what counts. Dad said that over and over again. People are people, but it's family that counts.

Along with the brown eyes she looked like me. Slightly dark skin, curly black hair. We were related all right. You could see that a mile away. Dead-on our dad.

"What kind of cookies should I make Santa?" Tessa chattered. "Chocolate chip? Peanut butter? Oooh, Snickerdoodles. Everybody loves Snickerdoodles. Right? You like Snickerdoodles, don't you?"

I rolled my eyes and was thankful the line wasn't that long. Santa was pretty much what I expected: fat enough to strain his big black belt and with a beard so fake and bushy that rats could've nested in it. He had glasses perched on the end of his red-veined nose and his lap was full of a sobbing, kicking-and-screaming two-year-old with a load in his training pants that had to weigh more than he did.

"Eww," Tessa said, tugging at my hand. "I don't want to sit there."

"Then just stand beside him and tell him what you want for Christmas," I said impatiently. "His balls could probably use the break." Hundreds of kids slamming down on them day after day, no way I'd want his job.

"Balls?" She wrinkled her nose. "I don't see any balls. Snowballs?"

Jesus. I was in for it now. "Hey, it's your turn," I said with relief, letting go of her hand and giving her a light shove. "Remember to hold still for the picture or Mom'll kill me."

She moved up beside and tiptoed up to whisper in his ear. The camera flashed, and even though it was a little early, it did make a cute picture. Then Tessa leaned back and bounced happily in shiny patent leather shoes that went with her best red velvet dress.

The fake Santa blinked at her, twitched a forced smile, and hurried her off with a candy cane. As we waited for the picture to pop out, I asked, "What'd you ask for?"

I let her take my hand again as she said solemnly, "You know."

We all wanted something we weren't going to get. This was Tessa's year for disappointment. The one thing she wanted and the one thing she'd never get. Feeling more guilty than I wanted to, I said, "You want to get a milk shake before we go home?"

Of course she did, and we went to the drugstore. They had an old-fashioned malt shop there. I didn't much know or care what an old-fashioned malt shop, like the sign said, was, but they served milk shakes and that was enough for me. I had chocolate, she had strawberry, and things were fine until Jed walked in. His parents had named him Jedidiah and he had a punch for anyone who called him that. It was supposed to be biblical. I guessed it didn't take.

I slid him a careful sideways look. Cold blue eyes stared back, then he gave a half snarl, half hateful grin. Jed was fourteen, big, and a bully. Christmas might suck, but so did bullies.

And Jed was of the worst kind. The worst in the school, that's for sure. He picked on kids who were smaller and younger. He thought that made him a badass. It didn't. It just made him a coward. He hadn't messed with me yet, but it was only a matter of time. I was close to his size, but not close enough for him to pass over me. Not by a good three inches. I was husky for my age, but a little short. Yeah, he was working his way up to me. He was a coward, but he was stupid, too. It wouldn't be long before he'd get over being careful of someone almost as heavy as him if not as tall. Between mean and stupid, stupid wins every time.

Tessa and I slurped up the last of our shakes and we left. She used both hands to try and peel the plastic off her candy cane. "You're smart," she announced.

"Oh yeah? What makes you think that?" The sidewalk was clear of snow, shoveled clean.

"That mean guy doesn't bother you." She popped the top loop of the cane in her mouth. "Wi-ly." She'd just learned the word when I'd been practicing for my spelling test and loved using it although half the time she didn't know what it meant.

Wily? Nah. I was about as wily as a Pop-Tart. This was just luck. And luck?

It only lasts so long.

"Nicky, are you paying attention or are you shooting for extra home-work?"

I looked up from the history book I was only pretending to read. I was hungry. I didn't concentrate so well when I was hungry. My stomach growled as I lied, "Yes, Mrs. Gibbs, I'm paying attention."

She didn't believe me, but the bell rang, saving me and my stomach. I bolted for the cafeteria. It was burger day. Most of the kids were all about pizza day, but not me. I liked burgers and I paid for three meals to get three of them. When Mom had handed me my lunch money for the week, she'd ruffled my hair and said I was a growing boy. I might be three inches short of Jed, but I had shot up two inches in the past month. The boys in my family might hit their growth spurts late, but when we hit them, we hit them.

I was thinking that when he slammed his tray across from mine on the cafeteria table, his shaggy silver blond hair hanging in his eyes. "I hear you're in the Russian Club, geek."

I was, not that I cared much about it, but Dad insisted. Our grandparents had come from Russia. Roots and all that crap. Nicky was short for Nikolai, and I made damn sure no one in school knew that.

"Yeah, so?" I started on my first burger.

"That makes you a geek. A loser." Those eyes, pale as a snow-filled sky, stared at me. They were like the eyes of a husky, a wild one used to living on its own. Catching its own food. Killing because it could. Jed was twisted inside, wrong. The teachers didn't see it. They just saw parents who didn't care, maybe some sort of learning disorder, they didn't see what he really was, because they didn't want to. But I saw.

He was a monster. He was just a kid now maybe, but you could bet he was some kind of serial killer waiting to grow up. But wouldn't that be a lot of paperwork for the guidance counselor? Why not pass him on? Let him be someone else's problem.

"I don't like geeks." He leaned forward and bared teeth too big for his mouth. "And I definitely don't like losers." He reached over and took one of my burgers, daring me to do something about it.

But I didn't. Not there. Dad had taught me to fight, because everyone needed to be able to take care of himself. But he'd also taught me never to do it in public where you can get in trouble and never to hit first, at least not anyone smaller. It wouldn't be fair and it wouldn't be honorable. My dad believed in honor, pounded it into me from the time I could crawl. You can protect yourself, you can fight - that's the way the world was - but only the ones bigger than you.

Honor was a pain in the ass sometimes, but Jed was bigger than I was. I wasn't forgetting that. Still, there was the whole not getting into trouble thing . . .

Taking my burger back and smacking the son of a bitch over the head with his tray would definitely get me in trouble. So I ate my second burger and ignored him. He couldn't start anything either. Not at school. And I knew ways home to avoid him. I'd gotten to know the woods that stretched behind the school pretty good. Gotten detention for skipping class to explore them more than once. I deserved a lot more punishment than that, but Principal Johnson took it easy on me, no matter what he thought about my smart-ass ways and foul mouth.

Jed kept glaring at me while ripping into my burger with those snaggled teeth. Man, was that an orthodontist's dream. That was a car payment and a lap dance, right there.

How'd I know about lap dances? I had a cousin back East who had a friend and, boy, could she tell some stories. I was thinking of one of them and wishing twenty-one wasn't so far away when Sammy made the really bad choice of sitting next to me. He couldn't have been paying attention. Nobody sat at the same table as Jed on purpose. Sammy wasn't a bad guy. Not too smart and called Dog Boy by most of the kids at school, but he was okay. He had four dogs, big, shaggy mutts, who followed him to and from school. I liked dogs. Jed hated them and the feeling was mutual. One look of his freaky pale blue eyes and the dogs would bark until foam flew from their muzzles before eventually turning and fleeing with tails between their legs.

You know you're a shit when even dogs didn't like you. I kept hoping one would hump his leg or better yet piss on it, but it never happened. Probably for the best. I didn't want to think what Jed would do if he ever caught one of those dogs.

"Hey, Dog Boy," Jed sneered. "You think I want to eat my lunch smelling you? You stink like those damn mutts of yours. Get the hell out of here."

Sammy's eyes widened as he realized who was sitting with me and scrambled away, his tray shaking hard enough to spill his juice. He did smell a little like dog, but hey, we all have something. Jed was psycho and Sammy was a little doggy. I'd take a fur-covered pair of jeans over crazy any day. But today was a day crazy didn't seem to want to leave me alone. I'd started on my second burger, so Jed couldn't take that, but he did take my Jell-O. Cherry. It looked like fresh blood on his teeth as he wolfed it down. He narrowed his eyes at me as he licked a streak of red from his bottom lip. "You're not afraid of me, are you, asshole?"

I took another bite and chewed it. Bullies only heard what they wanted to hear. I wasn't going to waste my time.

He leaned in, his breath hot and smelling of meat and cherry. "I'll make you afraid. You got that? I'll make you so goddamn afraid you'll piss your pants." He snatched up his tray and stalked away.

Trouble, he was big trouble. Maybe the first trouble I couldn't get around. Crazy is crazy, and crazy never learns. He'd keep coming and coming until he caught me or backed me in a corner. I didn't want to be looking over my shoulder every minute. I didn't want him watching me. I stabbed my fork in my french fries. I was going to have to do something. That something being not letting Jed beat the shit out of me and stay out of trouble.

There was a trick.

"Hey, Nicky, you hanging out with Jaws?" Isaac sat across from me, chin propped in his hand.

Jed definitely had the teeth for the nickname, but no one had ever called him that to his face. "Nah, just my turn on his list." Isaac frowned. His parents had come over from Mexico and he'd already had his turn over that with Jed.

"Oh shit," he said, wincing. "Whatcha going to do?"

"Don't know yet." I dropped my fork. "Guess I'll have to think about it. Sneak through the woods home until he figures that out."

After the last class, I bolted into the woods. They were thick and deep, full of poison ivy and tangles of blackberry bushes that would tear you to pieces if you tried to push through. I managed. Scratches were scratches. They'd fade quick enough. And I'd avoided Jed.

This time.

The next afternoon I was at the store looking for a present for Tessa. I scowled at the Santa ringing the bell by the door. One more reminder . . . everywhere you looked. Skinny or with sagging beards and worn black boots or faded red pants. Fakes. It made the whole season fake.

But there were only two more days until Christmas Eve and I couldn't put off shopping anymore. I couldn't get Tessa what she really wanted, so I wandered up and down the doll aisle. It was amazing. They had dolls that walked and talked, crawled and cried, ate and pooped. Why would anyone want a toy that threw up on you while you changed its diaper? That was crazy. But Mom sent me out with a list and one of these nasty things was on it. I picked up the nearest one. It only talked and waved its arms, no puking involved. That was the one.

"Playing with dollies now," Jed purred from behind me. "Why not? You run like a goddamn girl. You might as well play like one, too." His hand circled my arm above my elbow so hard it cut the blood off. I felt the tingle in my fingers.

Jed had been behind me in the woods yesterday afternoon, but he didn't know them like I did. He'd come closer than I'd have thought, though. He just didn't care. Pain was nothing to him. ping through blackberry bushes, sliding down ravines. He was one scratched, bruised mess now, and wasn't that too bad? I might try and stay out of trouble but there was no way I was sorry about that.

I ignored him, yanked my arm away, and took the doll to the checkout counter. He followed me every step of the way. "You can't run forever, Nicky," he whispered. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck ruffle in the god-awful stench of his breath. "No one's ever gotten away. And when I'm done with you and you hide like a little bitch every time you see me, I'll make your little sister sorry, too. Her and her dolly."

And that was that.

I'd put it off. I'd tried to stay out of trouble. I'd tried not to piss off Mom and Dad. But you couldn't let the assholes win, even crazy ones like Jed. I sat in a plastic chair by the door, eyes on the floor, until Jed gave up and left. And I never said a word to him.

There were kids that hated Jed. Lots of kids. If I could get all of them to join together and stand up to him, Jed might not be as tough as he thought he was. I could give it a try, but the thing about being beaten down . . . it's hard to get back up. I'd been to four schools now, Dad's job kept us traveling, and each school had a bully. Sometimes the bully would get caught and punished, but half the time it didn't matter. In weeks he would go back to doing what he did. The kids wouldn't stand up for themselves and hardly any of them would tell. They just took the bullying, sure the teachers couldn't help them. They were right. If the principal kicked the bully out of school, then he'd simply wait outside it.

My dad said in life there were sheep and wolves, and most of the time they couldn't cross over.

I sighed. Jed damn sure seemed like he thought he was a wolf. He was nuts as they came. He'd keep coming after me, going after the others, start messing with Tess. I folded the top of the bag the doll was in and got up. Nope, it probably wouldn't work, no matter how many kids Jed had given reason to hate him, but I'd give it a shot. There had to be some that'd band together against Jed. Hell, it always worked in the movies.



Isaac peered through black bangs at me in disbelief. "The guy's not human, okay? When he stomps you, it's like he's never gonna stop. He could take on Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Werewolf all at once and go out for pizza after." Isaac was a huge fan of horror movies. He'd seen ones made before I was born, before my parents were born. The inside of his locker door was covered with pictures of monsters. Snarling, crouching, flying, sucking blood. They papered every square inch. I liked Isaac but he was a little weird.

"Come on." I stood at his locker and snorted, "He's not all that."

"Yeah, Nicky, he is all that. He caught me in the woods and he broke my arm, okay? And he said if I told anyone how it happened, he'd break the other one. I believed him because he meant it." He slammed the locker shut. "No way. Leave me out of it. He's crazy, and if you had any sense, you'd be watching behind you every minute." With that he hurried down the hall.

I gave up on Isaac and went on to Dog Boy . . . Sammy, I meant. Sammy. Five words out of my mouth and he was gone, fast as any of his dogs. It went that way all day. I'd expected it, but I'd hoped it'd be different.

Isaac had said Jed had caught him in the woods, the same ones Jed had chased me in. Jed didn't do his fighting on campus. That'd get him expelled and he knew it. Yeah, it would get him expelled - him, not me.

He didn't have the little in that I had with Principal Johnson. Good old Principal Johnson, not the brightest man to choke on chalk dust.

So I went to Plan B. That day when Jed, who was dependable as Cs in math, sat down opposite me in the cafeteria and took my slice of pizza, I picked up my tray, dumped the food off of it, and whacked him hard on the side of the head with it.

It knocked him sideways, almost off the seat, but he caught himself with one hand on the table. His eyes were ice, his teeth bared, and violence shivered under his skin. "Who's the bitch now?" I asked quietly. "You gonna roll over and take it? Or you gonna stand up and do something about it?" He'd been barely smart enough not to fight in school before, but this was a whole lot of different.

As plans went, it wasn't as idiotic as it seemed. There were teachers already moving toward us. They'd pull him off me before he got me too bad. And then out he'd go. Maybe it'd only be outside the school itself but that was something.

He shook with black anger, but as crazy as he was, he wasn't as stupid as I thought. I might not get expelled if there was a fight, but he knew he would. And I had a feeling his daddy would be a whole lot more disappointed than mine. I had a feeling Jed was a chip off the old block.

He stood and hissed, "Dead. You're dead."

He left the cafeteria and I sighed. Another plan shot to hell. Glumly I sat back down and waited for a teacher to come drag me off to Principal Johnson for a few weeks of detention.

It was actually two months.

After a lot of clutching at his comb-over of black hair and warnings on how he couldn't cover up things like this - he simply couldn't - he did. Like I knew he would. I was going to have to call Mom to go fetch Tessa from the bus stop and she wasn't going to be happy at the reason why. Understanding maybe, but not happy.

The same day, after two hours of detention, as I slid through the woods, I heard Jed behind me. This time was the first time I actually heard him howling with fury as he chased me. I might've been chunky and short, but I was quick. I had hit that gym door running. Jed hadn't been as fast.

"You son of a bitch! You son of a bitch! Where are you?" All that was followed by screams of rage. Incoherent animal sounds. Isaac was right. Jed did sound like a monster . . . a movie monster anyway. I slid under a thick overhang of dead blackberry vines and thought how I definitely hadn't made things any better. Not to say whacking him with a tray hadn't felt good, but it hadn't gotten me out of the trouble I thought it would.

Although, it really, really had felt good.

Finally I climbed a tree, my brown jacket blending in with the bark, and held still as he passed like a rabid Doberman beneath me. Swear to God, there was foam flying from his mouth as he screamed for me.

You skip a few Ritalin and things just go to hell.

Right. Like you could blame that kind of nuts on a little ADHD. I hugged the tree, rested my head against it, and stayed there for an hour. It was cold, but I didn't mind the cold. And it got dark, but I didn't mind that either. As far as monsters went, Jed's night vision must not have been too hot. He didn't hang around. I heard his last howl nearly a half mile away and then nothing again.

I finally climbed down and went home to face two things a lot worse than Jed: Mom and Dad. Dad ripped me a new one over detention. It didn't matter why I got it. Skorazys didn't make waves, didn't get noticed. Our grandparents and their grandparents had learned that over in Russia. Keep your head down or lose it altogether.

After the yelling was over, the worst came. Mom wanted me to help her and Tessa make Christmas cookies for Santa. When I wandered into the kitchen, Tess turned out to be making her "Merry Christmas, Santa" note in her room, all tongue and crooked crayon writing, as Mom roped me in. "You'll have a good time, Nicky," she said, smiling. She was a great mom, a pretty one, too, even with flour streaked across one cheek. Dark blond hair worn in a braid just past her shoulders, violet eyes, and a scar that bisected one eyebrow that only made her look curious all the time. I loved my mom. I know I was thirteen and not supposed to think things like that, but I did.

But she wanted me to make cookies for Santa? "You know there's no Santa, Mom," I grumped. "This whole Christmas thing" - I opened a bag of chocolate chips - "it's a waste of time."

A spoon smacked my hand. "The holiday spirit is in your heart. It's not about presents and shiny paper. Christmas is in you." She poked a finger in my chest. "And Santa is everywhere you look. If only you would look." She shook her head, smiled again, and dabbed my nose with cookie batter. I rolled my eyes and wiped it off with a finger, which I licked clean. "Now," she said firmly, "make your sister happy and help with the cookies. She'll be out here any minute."

And it wasn't so bad. I didn't believe in any of it anymore, but Mom and Tess laughed. Dad came in and we ended up having a cookie batter fight. It might've not been the real thing, but it was as close as you could get.

Right then, that was good enough.

The next day was the day before Christmas Eve, our last day of school before break. And my last day, I had a feeling, to figure things out with Jed. But first Mary Francesca tried to figure out things with me.

I'd seen her around, Mary Francesca . . . never just Mary or Fran . . . Mary Francesca. She was in some of my classes. She seemed nice, funny. She had red hair that fell in a mass of curls past her shoulders, bright red freckles, even brighter blue eyes, and she was smart. Definitely smarter than I was. No Cs in math for her.

She cornered me outside English, smiling. Her teeth were so bright I swore I could see my reflection. "Hey, Nick."

Nick. Not Nicky. I liked that.

"Hey," I said back. That was about it for me, conversation-wise. I mean, a pretty girl. What do you say?

She didn't have any problem. "I was wondering . . ." She leaned a little closer and I could smell strawberries and cream shampoo. "I was wondering if maybe you'd want to go to the Christmas dance with me?" I felt crushing disappointment and utter relief all at the same time. On the one hand, I wouldn't have to worry about clothes and flowers and talking and dancing. I'd seen what they did on MTV. No way I could do that and not get a boner right on the floor.

On the other hand, I liked Mary Francesca.

Not that it mattered how funny or smart she was or that she smelled like strawberries. There was no way my parents would go for it. It went back to the bad old days when persecution was everywhere. You couldn't trust strangers, secret police were around every corner, and you never knew who might turn you in. It was a lesson no one in the family had forgotten. We were Orthodox all the way and we didn't date outsiders. Which was going to make finding a prom date pretty damn hard. There were lots of us in Russia, not too many here. But those were the rules.

I added that to Christmas and bullies in the whole sucking category.

"Sorry." I shifted my backpack from one side to another, and I really was sorry. "I have detention for two months. My parents won't let me go anywhere. I'm grounded, damn, forever."

She frowned in disappointment - real disappointment, which made me again think how rules sucked. "Well, okay, I get that." Sighing, she unhooked a pin from her sweater and pinned it on mine. "Maybe by Spring Fling then." She looked around quickly, then leaned in to give me the quickest of kisses.

I was wrong. It wasn't her hair that smelled like strawberries; it was her lip gloss. I was still tasting it as she disappeared down the hall and around the corner. Then I looked down at the pin. Santa grinned up at me, mittened hand waving automatically.

Ho frigging ho.

Every class dragged minute by minute. No one stared at me like I was going to die, so no one knew this was the day Jed was coming after me. It didn't matter. I knew. I passed him once in the hall and his eyes had never been paler. He didn't grin, he didn't smirk. He just stared, flecks of spit at the corner of his mouth. That was it. Jed had gone off the edge and there was no coming back for him. Did a teacher notice? No. Did big men in white coats come drag him off to a big looming building with the baby eaters and mailman killers? No. No one wanted to know.

No one ever wanted to know.

A Plan C would be good now. Really good.

Jed was a year older, but he'd been left behind. He tripped me in math class on my way up to the board, his almost white eyes daring me to say something about it. I went on, did the calculation, and circled back another way to sit down.

When I ate lunch, he ate at a table next to mine and watched me. Watched my every move, my every bite. Half-chewed food fell from his mouth as he kept his eyes on me, but he didn't notice. Or care. I'd thought he'd grow up to be a serial killer, but I was wrong. He was already there and he had me marked as victim numero uno.

What do you do then? Go out kicking and screaming? Not me. I so did not plan on that.

Next time I passed him in the hall, I murmured, "Tomorrow. Northeast edge of the woods. By the bridge." I didn't wait on an answer. For all I knew, he'd chewed his tongue off already and wasn't going to give me one anyway. Then I went straight to the nurse's office, faked a stomach cramp and a little dry heaving, and had my mom picking me up in twenty minutes. Today was taken care of. Jed wasn't going to jump me early. And tomorrow . . .

A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

A guy on an old Western had said that once. He was right. I wasn't a man, but it still counted for me, too. I spent the night in my room thinking. I took off that silly Santa pin Mary Francesca had given me and almost tossed it, but at the last minute I laid it on my desk. The mitten continued to wave at me and I wondered how long until the battery ran out.

I went out once to the garage after the folks were asleep then came back and watched the stars and sliver of moon through my window. The cold air made them brighter, closer, until you could see the teeth in the moon's sly grin and the cold patience behind the stars' eyes.

After an hour of that, I went back in and stared at my closet. My last real Christmas was in there. It made me sad, proud, and had me pining all at the same time. Finally I put on my boxers and T-shirt and went to bed. I dreamed of cookies, presents, and a thousand lighted trees, and behind each tree was a Santa. He was laughing, cheeks red, stomach bouncing. A thousand Santas wherever you looked.

When I woke up in the morning, I had one of those things . . . oh shit, what is it? . . . an epiphany. A big word for a big idea. I knew what to do, how to do it, and if I did things just right, just so, it would turn out even better than I thought yesterday. It would be better than okay. It would.

It had to.

I ate lunch with Mom, Dad, and Tess. Let Jed freeze his ass off in the woods waiting for me. I was in no hurry. Afterward I grabbed my coat and backpack and said I'd be back. Grounding was grounding, but my dad thought that roaming in the woods was good for kids. Taught them things. Toughened them up.

I set off down our gravel road. The sky was white and gray and blue. Might be snow, might clear up. That was the fun thing about winter: it was always a surprise. I wore faded jeans and my rattiest sneakers. You never knew what was going to happen to them, not with someone like Jed. I liked the sneakers. We'd got them in San Antonio . . . they were orange with the black outline of a coyote howling at the moon. It was the same kind of moon we'd had last night. Narrow and hungry.

I hefted the backpack and tried not to think about that. I had to do what I had to do. Thinking about things like that - it wasn't good. It wasn't good for the plan or for Tess or for me. I kept on walking, new snow crunching under my rubber soles. We'd had lots of snow lately, at least a few feet of it. Blue Water Creek was the size of a small river now. You could toss a stick in that and it would be gone before your eyes could follow it.

Thirty minutes later I reached where I'd told Jed to meet me. He was there. Like he wouldn't be. If I was stupid enough to walk right up to him, he wasn't going to turn me down. He looked up from the struggling bundle of fur he had at his feet. The grin he gave me was colder than the snow under my feet. "Brought you a present, shithead."

Tied to a tree he had a dog. From the smell of the wet fur, it was soaked in paint thinner and Jed was trying to get a lighter to spark. He was trying to catch a dog on fire . . . on fire, just to piss me off before he finished me. That was the kind of sick asshole he was.

"I like dogs a lot," I said flatly. "I don't like you at all."

Jed had parked his bike on the edge of the swollen Blue Water Creek. I turned and kicked it into the flood. The bike was carried away instantly. That was why the adults told us to stay away from the creek: it was over the banks, it was icy cold, and it could drown you in an instant.

"Whoops," I said cheerfully. "You should've listened when they said stay away from the water."

He growled, "You goddamn son of a bitch. You don't know who you're dealing with, asshole. I'm going to make you wish you were dead. Hell, I'm going to make you dead." The pale eyes glowed with hatred as he shoved the lighter in his pocket. He picked up a baseball bat that had been hidden in the brush and rushed me, Louisville Slugger swinging. I caught it before it landed, ripped it out of his hands, whirled, and swung for the bleachers. He went down like Ms. Finkelstein on Principal Johnson.

Hard and fast.

Like I said, I got sent to the principal a lot, and he didn't always lock the door. Grown-ups could be stupid, too. Which was why skipping class and zero tolerance for violence were a little less zero for me. Principal Johnson was good with the excuses for the school board, and Ms. Finkelstein, the secretary, handed candy out to me like she was trying to make me diabetic.

I was hungry and getting hungrier - one lunch was never enough for me. My family . . . we liked to eat. I pulled one of Ms. Finkelstein's Tootsie Rolls out of my pocket and chewed on it while I nudged Jed with my sneaker. He was still breathing. That was good. He mumbled and started to twitch, his arms moving and hands digging at the dirt. I smacked him again with the bat at the base of the skull. A tap this time . . . just enough to do the job. Then I untied the dog. It had tags that said it lived and was loved only about five blocks from the woods. It knew its way home. First it dropped and bared a submissive stomach. I rubbed it lightly, washed off the paint thinner with snow, then let it jump up. I smiled as it bounded off homeward. I did like dogs . . . yapping, jumping, leg humping. It didn't matter. All dogs were good dogs.

I duct taped Jed's ankles, wrists, and mouth before waiting until long after dark to carry him through the woods. I didn't want to leave drag marks, and I scuffed my feet and doubled back enough times that no one could've made heads or tails of our trail. Jed was easy enough to haul even though he weighed more than me. Really easy. Shit floats. I guess assholes did, too. He woke up again. I was almost home, so I let him stay awake. He moaned, snarled, and tried to yell under the tape. That was Jed for you. A complainer. Bitch, bitch, bitch.

And dumb as a box of rocks. I'd given him every chance and he'd never taken one of them.

Our house was only a mile or two from the woods at the end of our long gravel lane. The nearest neighbor was half a mile away. It was nice. Quiet. Private.

Really private.

"They'll find your bike in the creek," I said to the struggling Jed. "They'll think you drowned. Think your body got wedged under somewhere. Who knows? Maybe it took you all the way to the river. Everyone will pretend to be sad." I looked back at him and smiled. "But no one will be."

Christmas Eve. I pulled Jed through the door into the blinking lights of the Christmas tree, the stockings on the mantel, the milk and cookies sat oh so carefully on the table. Tessa had left out milk and cookies for three years now. Third time's the charm.

Mom and Dad sat waiting on the couch for me. It was almost eleven - close to Christmas. Close enough. Tess would've long gone to bed. "That's where you've been." Mom shook her head affectionately. Boys will be boys.

"Anyone see you?" Dad demanded bluntly. "Any trouble?"

"Come on, Dad, you taught me better than that." I dumped Jed at the bottom of the fireplace before going to my room. I opened my closet door and rummaged through softball mitts, balls, games I'd outgrown but never thrown away until I found it buried in a corner: the polished skull. It had been pretty stinky for quite a while, but it wasn't the kind of stink my kind minded. I pulled the dusty red cap with the pom-pom off of it and shook it out, trying not to sneeze. These were the only things left. The reindeer venison was long gone. Around the base of the skull were handfuls of white hair, once curly and soft, now wiry and sparse. It didn't matter. It'd work. I also picked up a tattered white trimmed red jacket. At the last I grabbed the glue from my desk and went back to the living room.

"You're a good brother." Mom smiled, pleased.

"Yeah, yeah." I ducked my head in embarrassment as I jammed the Santa hat on Jed's head, draped the red jacket over the top of him, and glued the hair to his chin and jaws. He wasn't too helpful there, whipping his head back and forth. But I got the job done. I even pinned Mary Francesca's Santa pin to the jacket. It was the perfect touch.

Hungry, hungry, hungry, but he wasn't for me.

I picked up three cookies, ripped the tape off his mouth, and jammed them in there before he could get a word or a scream out. He turned slightly blue as he choked and coughed. I thought it'd keep his mouth shut long enough.

"Tess," I yelled. "Come on. Hurry up. He's here!"

After a second there was the sound of feet in footie pajamas hitting the floor and she came flying out, eyes as wide as they possibly could be when she spotted Jed. "Santa! Santa! I asked you to come and you're here! You're here!"

Six years ago I saw Santa. Seven years ago I'd made my first kill. It soured me on Christmas when I realized there wouldn't be any more Santas. No more surprises from the chimney. I'd finished that job. Kids, you don't realize how permanent things are. I was sorry afterward. Sorry I hadn't waited for my little sister to be old enough to join in on the fun. Sorry she could never have the thrill I'd had.

I watched as my little sister grinned big as her pajamas tore away and her skin twitched until fur rippled over her twisting, changing body from muzzle to tail. Her pumpkin orange eyes bright with Christmas spirit as her teeth were suddenly bright with something else as she tore into her present.

Mary Francesca's pin went flying. Wolves were Orthodox. We did only date our own kind. It was too bad. She was cute.

On the couch a buff-colored wolf tucked her head under the jaw of a larger black one. Their eyes were brilliant with pride and affection and the spirit of the holiday. Their baby's first kill. It was always special. I rested my muzzle on my paws and watched as Christmas came back to me.

Mom said Christmas wasn't in presents and trees, glitter and bows. She said it was in your heart and so was Santa if you want him to be. If I really wanted him, I could find him again.

Mom was right. Christmas was in your heart. And Santa was everywhere. If you only knew where to look.

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