The mayor sat uncomfortably close, enjoying his cigar without saying a word. The situation was so awkward that I wanted to get up and run; it didn’t matter where, as long as it wasn’t here. This was obviously one of his intimidation tactics, and it was working. As I drummed out a nervous rhythm on my lap, the cigar appeared in front of my face.
“Put it in your mouth.”
“Usually I get to know a guy a little better first,” I said with a short-lived burst of laughter, which was met with a glare. I stopped smiling and cleared my throat. “I don’t smoke.”
“These aren’t cigarettes.” He leaned in closer, his mouth inches from my ear. “Put it in your mouth, draw in the smoke, but don’t inhale.”
His presence both nauseated and aroused me. It was as though my body and mind couldn’t agree on how to deal with the fight-or-flight response he invoked in me.
As his hand made its way to the back of my neck, I reluctantly took the cigar and placed the moistened end of it in my mouth before taking in a draw. Following instructions, I didn’t inhale, but I also hated the taste… at first. What followed was a clean, peppery—almost chocolaty flavor.
“Whoa,” I said, taking in another draw before blowing the smoke away. The mayor’s near grip on my neck softened to a gentle pat as I handed back the cigar.
“We didn’t have these in the old country. We used ḡalyān, or as you call them, hookah. Our kind was regarded as the offspring of Iblīs, and our condition was Allah’s punishment for the sins of our ancestors. Whether there was merit to the myth or not, werewolves had to learn to live together away from humanity or die in the desert.” He took another draw of the sweet-smelling smoke. “The mere taste reawakens long-forgotten fragments of memories. We would sit in circles and tell stories. We would sing—and even satisfy our uncontrollable carnal desires. As what we were, we couldn’t help it, but all it did was further stigmatize us. Despite the harsh reality of living the way we did, the pack was how we survived.”
He carefully snuffed out the end of the cigar against the metal frame of the bench, exposing a smooth, silver band on his ring finger.
“A long life is a blessing, but it’s not perfect. We are still mortal, so too are our brains. There’s only so much we can remember before memories fade and important lessons are forgotten. When we were in the desert, it was a challenge to hold on to ourselves and not become the beasts the humans believed we were. Our pack lacked discipline, order, and humanity. Eventually we split into two sects: the Whasha and the Midna. This marked the end of civility and unity among our kind. Does this make sense?”
I hesitated before nodding.
“You should be honest.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Maybe I see something in you. Werewolves living in society are Midna.” He pointed away from the buildings, toward the forest in the distance. “In the wilds, we become wild. If we go there, we lose who we are. We forget things we shouldn’t.”
“And what does this have to do with me?”
“Your pack is unruly, undisciplined, and susceptible to their way of thinking.” He pulled something out of his pocket before placing it into my palm. It was a heavy antique flip lighter made of solid gold. “Your kuuvan, this… Simon, may have been Whasha at one point in his life. I smell it on him.”
“What’s this?” I asked, flipping the lid of the lighter, which had no fuel in it.
I looked up at him, swallowing the lump in my throat. “What?”
“Yesterday, your pack mates made quite the commotion in town. The half-turn does not control his anger, and the other is unhinged. Your pack may attract unwanted nuisances from the woods to our quiet little town. Austin especially.”
My eyes went wide. “You know his real name?”
“I am way too old to be a fool, Arthur.”
This was bad, but it was something I should have expected. However, I was still so confused as to why he targeted me and not the others.
“How are you human right now?”
He pointed to the lighter in my hand. “Myth, religion, superstition—they all have one thing in common: ignorance. Reality is much stranger, and so are the magics we possess. The same enchantments that bind you to your werewolf also allow some of us to take on a human visage, with quite a few limitations.”
I held up the lighter. “Why give me this?”
The mayor’s half-smile made me more nervous as his eyes narrowed. “You’ll carry it with you at all times.”
“That didn’t answer—” I stiffened as he let out an impatient growl. It was much deeper than it should have been for human vocal cords.
“With that said,” he continued, his teeth more pointed than before as he shifted uncomfortably on the bench. “I am giving you two months to get your pack under control.”
“They’re not my pack. We just live together. This is ridiculous!”
The mayor’s eyes darkened as his irises burned orange. “Anything they do from now on will be a reflection of your leadership—or lack thereof.” He stood and stretched. “Now, if you’ll excuse me. I am reaching those limitations I mentioned earlier. I don’t want to ruin my new suit.”
“I’m a half-turn. How am I supposed to get them to listen, especially Simon?”
“You will need to figure that out yourself,” he said, his voice deepening. “Did you know that hiding Austin and lying to the bureau is a federal offense?”
My pulse quickened, and my palms began to sweat.
“It would pain me to alert the proper authorities, but the alternative to prison is much worse.”
I chucked the lighter a few yards away into the grass. “You can’t threaten to spill a secret after revealing one of your own. You really think these proper authorities would approve of a werewolf running a town?”
The mayor studied me carefully before turning away, pacing himself toward the city hall entrance. “A good first step. Use your enemy’s secrets against them.”
“What sick game are you playing with me?”
Using the keys he pulled from his pocket, he unlocked the door and pushed it open. “It is better to make your enemies believe they have the upper hand.” He stepped inside and turned around to face me, thick fur covering his human face. “You have until the solstice to do what I told you.” Without another word, he disappeared into the building.
Muffled mechanical noises whirred from the closed-off garage as I approached the house. Austin had been spending most of his time there, and while it was nice that he found something to keep him occupied, it was an excuse to further isolate.
As I walked into the house, I was greeted by an unexpected scene. Adam and Simon were sitting together at the dining room table, laughing.
“Welcome home,” Adam said, his expression infuriatingly smug—or was it content? Either way, it was annoying.
“What is this?”
Simon held up a bottle of water. “Had to rehydrate.”
I gave Adam a look of pure disgust. “You actually enjoyed it? God, you’re nasty.”
“I’m not going to deny the nasty part, but I don’t get why you’re making a big deal about it. It was nice to just get fucked the right way for a change.”
“Wait a minute. Simon, you didn’t give the fans a proper show?”
His ears fell as he rubbed the back of his head. “Well, you see… it kinda works better with you.”
“I hate you,” I muttered before walking into the kitchen to put the bag of coffee beans in the cabinet.
Simon jumped up from his chair and shuffled behind me. “Ooo,” he said, sniffing the air. “Those smell good.”
“Don’t touch my beans.” I pushed him away. “And don’t touch me either.”
“He was too into it, so I didn’t go all the way with the original script,” Simon whispered in my ear. “They didn’t like him as much as they liked you.”
“If that’s supposed to make me feel better, it doesn’t.” I shut the cabinet door, and a sheet of paper slowly slid in front of me on the counter. It had a lopsided drawing of a werewolf with big, teary eyes holding a heart out with the word ‘Sowwy’ written on it.
“I’m quite arteest.”
“You’re quite the idiot.” I picked up the paper, folding it neatly before shoving it into my pocket. “You gave yourself abs. Nice.”
Simon sniffed me and backed away. “Kinda expected you to smell like sex.”
“Really? Do you not know me?”
“Hell, I’d have done it if I was alone with that guy.”
I turned around and folded my arms. “When I first heard about the elders, I thought they would be these gross, ratty-looking wolf men that could barely walk. That guy has to be at least two hundred years old, and he could probably take Austin down.”
“Oh, he definitely could,” Simon replied. “They ain’t considered alphas for nothing. When we get older, we get stronger and smarter.”
“I guess you’re the exception.”
Simon smiled. “See? This is why we work. I do shit that pisses you off, and you throw the insults.”
“What are you guys doing in there?” Adam called out from the living room in a teasing tone. “Is Simon talking about how amazing I was?”
“He’s just bein’ a kid. Don’t tell him what I said about people liking you more,” Simon whispered.
I pulled his chin fur, lowering his head so I could kiss him.
“Yeah. You were amazing. Congrats,” I said loud enough so Adam could hear before lowering my voice again. “I’ve got some bad news.”
“What did he say?”
“He knows about Austin, and he threatened to turn us all in. I think we should leave.”
Simon leaned back against the counter. “Still have the moving truck. I can put everything back into storage, but I don’t know where we’re gonna live.”
“No,” Simon interrupted sharply. “We need to find a way without runnin’ back to him.”
“I know what you did was awful, but we’re in a bind. This place hasn’t sat right with me since we got here, and having an elder watching our every move makes it worse.”
“So, what does he want, exactly?”
“He wants me to get you guys under control.”
“That’s it?” Simon asked, looking a little puzzled.
“That’s it? He blackmailed me! What’s stopping him from making further demands?”
“He ain’t gonna make good on that threat.”
“And how the hell do you know that? He sounded pretty serious to me.”
Simon’s tail swayed. “Because it would go against everything they stand for. What I don’t know is why he’s tryin’ to get you all riled up.”
“Can we please just go? I won’t be able to sleep at night if we stay here.”
He grabbed the keys from a hook screwed into the wall above the light switch. “How about we take a nice little drive? We didn’t get to see all that much when we got here.”
“Really? A drive? After what I just said?”
“C’mon. It’ll calm you down, and there ain’t no real police around here to pull me over.” Simon’s tail wagged faster. “Have you ever driven?”
He tossed me the keys.
“Are you crazy? That truck doesn’t belong to us.”
“I’ll teach you,” he said, grabbing my hand as he led me out of the kitchen. “We’ll be back later, Adam. Gonna go fer a drive.”
Adam scrambled to his feet. “I wanna come.”
“We want some alone time,” I snapped, pointing at the door leading to the garage. “You need to make sure he’s okay.”
“He’s fine.” The half-turn’s expression went from excited to angry. “I want to go with Simon.”
I now understood what was happening; he wasn’t trying to make me jealous. He wanted another werewolf to cling to since Derrek was hundreds of miles away. Simon was his new distraction from the shitty way Austin treated him. Once again, I had to weigh feeling sorry for him while also putting my foot down when it came to him trying to monopolize Simon’s time.
“I said no.” I held up the keys. “I’m learning to drive, and I don’t want you distracting me.”
Simon said nothing.
“Who the hell died and made you head of the house? If Simon doesn’t want me to go, he can tell me himself.” Adam brushed up against the old werewolf, gently running his fingers along Simon’s crotch fur. “It’ll be more fun.”
“Never had two half-turns fightin’ over me before.”
I bared my teeth, staring directly into Simon’s eyes.
“Uh… listen, Adam. I gotta side with Art here.” He leaned in and whispered something in Adam’s ear.
The disappointed half-turn nodded. “Promise?”
“Sure,” Simon responded.
The edges of Adam’s mouth lifted slightly, giving him the obnoxious, imp-like look from earlier. “Have fun,” he said before lifting his gaze to Simon. “I’ll see you later.”
I was fuming on the inside, but I tried to hide it as best I could. Over the last few days, Adam and I had stoked up the most unusual rivalry—over Simon. Simon! My plan to make Adam jealous backfired horribly, and while this was mostly my fault, all I could fantasize about lately was chucking him into the crater of an active volcano.
“Sure,” I responded through gritted teeth, stomping through the door Simon held open. After unlocking the driver’s side of the truck, I climbed in and opened the passenger door. As soon as we were both inside, I put on my seatbelt and shoved the key into the ignition. “What did you promise him?”
I gripped the steering wheel tighter.
“I swear it’s no big deal. Start her up.”
“I don’t think I should be doing this.”
“Art, let me ask you something,” he said, rolling his window down so he could lay his arm against the door. “When’s the last time you took a risk—just did somethin’ you normally don’t do?”
“I don’t. Life’s shitty enough as it is. I don’t need to be taking unnecessary risks to make it worse.”
“Think about it. You wouldn’t be here with me right now if you hadn’t taken some risks. Hell, you’d probably still be in Kansas.”
“Montana,” I corrected. “And everything I’ve done, I had to because my back was against the wall.”
“So you only do anything when you have to?”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Alright, I think I know what I need to do,” Simon said, his tail rubbing against the vinyl seat. “Start the truck, put her in reverse—” He put one hand over my seat belt release. “I forgot to take a piss before I came out here.”
“Don’t you fucking dare!”
“Maybe you can drive us a little ways out of town so I can find a nice tree.”
“Go use the bathroom!”
The wicked grin he gave exposed every sharp tooth in his mouth. “It’s gettin’ hard to hold it.”
“God damn it!” I shouted, starting the vehicle. I tried to pull the shifter down to reverse, but it wouldn’t budge. “It’s broken or something.”
“You gotta push the brake in first.”
I hit the gas pedal by mistake, revving the engine.
“That ain’t the brake.”
“I know that now, thanks,” I said, pushing the brake before putting the truck in reverse.
“You might wanna put it back in park,” Simon said. “You forgot to adjust yer mirrors first.”
“How could I forget when I don’t know what the hell I’m doing!”
Simon shuffled uncomfortably in his seat.
“Please, go to the bathroom. I can’t deal with this and drive at the same time.”
“I told ya. You gotta find me a suitable tree outside of town.”
“Hopefully, I find one to hang you from.”
“May wanna hurry.”
My hands trembled as I adjusted the rearview mirror so I could see behind me. I then moved the little knob for the side mirrors.
“Make sure you move them so that you can see behind, but you can’t see none of the truck. It’ll help with the blind spots.”
I did as he said and quickly shifted the truck in reverse, this time able to see behind me.
“Slowly take yer foot off the brake and back out of the yard. Don’t need to hit the gas, just keep yer foot close to the brake.”
The truck slowly moved out of the yard, and I turned the wheel enough that I was able to get it all the way onto the tarmac. I wasn’t paying attention and my foot hit the gas.
“Whoa!” Simon shouted as I slammed on the brake, the force pushing us back against the seats.
The scent of pee caught my nose, and I looked over. “Simon…”
“That scared me a little.”
“This is only going to get worse. Please, I’m begging you.”
“I guess you better drive more carefully then.” He gave another sharp grin. “Think of me as a box of unprotected wine glasses. If you slam on the brakes, turn too hard, hit the gas unexpectedly—well… there’s gonna be a mess to clean up.”
“Simon, you’ve made your point. Come on, man. Don’t do this to me.”
He shuffled in his seat some more. “I shouldn’t have had all that coffee.”
“Fuck,” I said, putting the car in drive.
“Just tap the gas a bit, no need to floor it. Try to stay in the middle of the road.”
“I hate you so much.”
We made it five miles outside of town, and luckily there were hardly any cars on the road, which made an already harrowing situation a little less so. The longer I drove, the easier the truck was to handle, but Simon was looking like he was ready to pop.
“Alright. This is good,” he said, holding his crotch while swaying from side-to-side. “That’s a nice tree over there. Go ahead and pull over.”
I did as he said, and before the car could come to a complete stop, he leaped out and ran to the woods. With a steady exhale, I shifted the vehicle into park and turned it off, my legs still shaking from the adrenaline. This was the first time I’d ever driven anything, and I had to admit, it was actually fun.
After what seemed like five minutes, Simon strode up to the truck and playfully hopped back into the passenger’s seat.
“Muuuch better,” he said, patting me on the back. “Not bad, kiddo.”
“Don’t call me that.” I smiled at him. “And I still hate you.”
“These are the best years of yer life. We don’t stay young forever—well, I mean, I guess we kinda do, but still. Bein’ young means you get to try new shit and fuck up, and then try more shit and fuck that up, too.” He rested his padded hand on my leg. “I kinda envy that.”
“I try to learn from other peoples’ mistakes, so I don’t have to fuck up as much.”
“You know what’s funny? Derrek was a little like you when he was a teenager. The difference between you and him is, he knew when to take risks, and he also knew when to have fun. Yer too afraid to do either, and that’s why yer so crabby all the time.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. I’m comfortable not taking risks, and I’ll have fun when we’re not running from someone or trying not to be homeless.”
“Did you have fun driving?” he asked.
“It was okay.”
Simon raised an eyebrow.
“Fine. It was fun. I actually can’t believe I did it.”
“You said you only take risks when yer back’s against a wall. Think about how much better this experience would have been if you made the choice on yer own terms instead of me forcing you? Think about all the times life forced you to take action, and now imagine doing those things because you wanted to experience something new. Yeah, your life would have turned out the same, but the journey would have been fun instead of awful.”
“It’s never fun, Simon. I’m always worried. Even when I make big choices, there are tens of scenarios that play out in my head—worst-case scenarios.”
“You got me for now,” Simon said, leaning in, but stopping shy of my lips. “No one goes it alone forever. Sometimes, the biggest risk we take is trusting someone else to do the worrying for us.”
“You’d do that?” I asked. “Why?”
“You’re like, four times my age. Why did you even take an interest in me?”
“Because yer like, four times my age… mentally.”
Our lips met, and then his tongue slipped into my mouth in just the right way. I was always comfortable with him. I even started sleeping better at night, wrapped up in his arms. Yeah, the sentiment usually came with his dick crammed inside me at the same time, but it was still comforting.
I pulled away. “You know that’s bullshit. You pretend to be all stupid and immature, but then you say stuff like this.”
“That’s why we work.”
“I thought that was just because you piss me off and I insult you.”
His eyes shifted to the right. “Wanna do something risky?”
I opened my mouth to protest, but all that came out was a defeated laugh. “Like what?”
“Let’s take a walk on the wild side,” he said, hopping out of the truck. He took a few steps toward the woods before waving me toward him. “C’mon.”
I climbed out of the driver’s seat and followed. “We’re not supposed to go in there.”
“Who’s gonna know?” He looked around. “There’s trees on both sides of the road and there hasn’t been a single car since we pulled over. Let’s be real werewolves and fuck in the woods.”
“There are pine needles everywhere. Sand was one thing, but pine needles in my ass might actually kill me.”
“I’ll let you be on top.”
“Are you suggesting—”
“We ain’t tried that yet.” He grabbed my hand, pulling me toward the trees. “Think yer man enough?”
“That’s the problem. I’m still basically human. This is going to be awkward.”
“You’ve got a big dick fer a human, though. Kinda scary thinkin’ about what that monster might look like when you turn.”
“You’re sure laying that flattery on thick, aren’t you?”
“I’m serious. You’ve got a bigger hog than I did when I was half-turn.”
“Christ, seriously? How big am I gonna get?”
Simon shrugged. “Well, that part all depends. Sometimes we get huge, sometimes we don’t. It’s all luck. I’m kinda curious about what Adam’s gonna look like. If he ends up being bigger than Austin, I just may lose it, cause that’s gonna be the funniest shit.”
“How much longer do you think he’s got?”
“Hard to say.” Simon pushed a few low-hanging branches out of the way so I could pass. “It’ll be soon, though. The poor guy’s really going through it. The weeks leading up to the big event are some of the worst. He’s gonna get really moody, and I may have to step in to keep him in line. Austin don’t know what the fuck he’s doin’.”
“That just killed my mood.”
Simon looked over at me, but I kept my focus ahead.
“You must really hate Adam or something.”
“I don’t hate him. I just… hate the thought of you with him.” I rubbed my forehead. “God, it sounded even more ridiculous saying it out loud.”
Simon’s arm wrapped around my waist, and he pulled me closer to him. “I didn’t know it bothered you.” I could feel the smugness radiating from him. “You really like me, don’t ya?”
“Let’s change the subject.”
“I did promise I’d make him feel good tonight.”
“Good, you didn’t specify. Tuck him in and tell him a bedtime story,” I muttered.
“I was thinkin’ of the old proverb ‘teach a man to fish.’” Simon stroked his chin. “Austin needs to learn how to be a werewolf because obviously the guy’s so fucked up he’s ignoring instinct.”
“What are you thinking, exactly?”
“Well, I have a classroom all set up,” he said, his tail wagging enough that it was slapping my lower back. “This is a job for Professor Simon.”
“Oh, you’ve gotten promoted to professor, now?”
“Spent over eight decades on my degree.” He paused and turned to me. “Yer okay with that?”
“You and Austin screwing around isn’t the same as you and Adam. I don’t—” I let out a frustrated groan. “I don’t know why it feels different, but it does. It doesn’t bother me when you’re with other werewolves.”
Simon gave my earlobe a slight flick. “It’s probably this thing. The magic kinda fucks with you, but at least it goes away when you hit yer full turn.”
“I don’t like all this weird magic shit,” I said. “Did you know the mayor can turn all the way human?”
“For real? I can’t even do that. Explains how the guy got to be mayor, though.”
I reached into my pocket for what I thought was my phone. “You should take a picture of when I’m fucking you so I can send it to Adam.” My fingers brushed against something familiar, but it wasn’t my phone. I stopped cold and pulled it out of my pocket. It was the gold flip lighter that I threw on the ground earlier. With a shudder, I let it slip from my hand and backed away. “Simon…”
“We need to get out of the woods.”