Beneath the Neon Moon
by Theda Black
artwork by Sonja Triebel
published July 2010 (25,400 words)
BENEATH THE NEON MOON
Zach’s alone, he’s lost his job and the rent’s coming due. He thinks he knows all about bad luck, but he’s about to find out what it really means.
In high school, Mal was the golden boy. Then he lost his way. Now he’s back on track, working his way through college and looking toward the future.
They’ve never met, but one summer night changes everything for both of them. Suddenly they’re in desperate trouble, trapped and bound together in darkness. And in less than two days, one of them is going wolf.
“Talk to me.” Mal’s fingers were dead white, digging into the dirt.
Zach rubbed his forehead. “I’m fine.”
“I hate people who say they’re fine whenever you ask how they’re doing.”
“You don’t hate me,” Zach said softly. “And I am—” he huffed, exasperated, then slumped a little. “I’ll be all right.”
“It’s just a way to shut people out,” Mal said, jaw stubborn as if he hadn’t heard the partial concession.
“Why so friendly with this guy, Mal?” Aaron asked, standing up as he did.
Mal jerked his head up to look at Aaron. “Unless you intend to tell us what we’re doing here and what you’re planning, fuck off.”
Aaron smiled. “Wouldn’t want you to get too attached, that’s all.”
Mal looked Aaron over, contempt clear in his face, then rose and took a swift step toward him, heedless of the chain.
Zach pushed himself up with his hands and scrambled after Mal. “Shit. Will you stop?”
“You better hope I don’t figure my way out of this, because if I do, I’ll tear you apart.” Mal’s voice was low and uninflected.
The smile vanished off Aaron’s face. “I know. There’s a reason why your chain’s so thick. You’ll feel differently later.”
“You think so?” Mal snarled, face etched in hard lines and taut fury. He ducked his head and took another step forward, then another. The chain yanked tight between him and Zach.
“Jesus. Stop it!” Zach tried to close the gap between them again.
Kane stopped him, clamping a hand over Zach’s shoulder. “Let’s see how far he takes it.” Aaron stepped back hastily as Mal advanced. Kane grinned, then glanced down at Mal’s ankle. He winced. “Man, I know that’s got to hurt.”
Mal’s head lifted and his nostrils flared. He breathed in deep, his eyes going dark as he stared at Aaron. “I smell him on you. What you did to him.” He stepped back as if to turn away, then suddenly lunged forward. The wall chain extended to its limit, but Aaron didn’t realize it. He stumbled back, fear flitting over his face.
Kane whistled, looking down at Mal’s feet. “Damn, brother.” Blood rolled over the dirty white of Mal’s sneaker into the dirt.
“Shut up,” Aaron snapped, and Kane laughed outright.
“This is nothing compared to what you’re going to feel for hurting him.” Mal’s gaze flicked over Aaron. He turned to look at Kane. “Both of you.”
Kane took his hand from Zach’s shoulder and pushed him forward. He stumbled to Mal’s side. Kane nodded at Mal, eyes narrowing. “You’re already feeling it. Like you want to climb the walls. Hit something. Run. Tear something up.” He flashed a glance over Mal’s body, then back up to his face, giving him a lopsided grin. “Or someone. Like me and Aaron, currently.”
“You’ll understand after tomorrow night,” Aaron said.
Mal’s upper lip cocked, showing his teeth. “By tomorrow night you’ll understand me.”
Aaron studied him a moment. “We’ll see. Fun’s over—for now.” He glanced at Kane, who nodded, and they headed for the stairs. At the top they looked back, two featureless shadows backlit by the light from the doorway. The light narrowed and disappeared as the door closed.
Mal grabbed Zach’s arm and backed up a few steps, then sank to his knees, panting, head falling forward. Zach went to his knees beside him. He grabbed him by the shoulder. “What the hell are you doing, Mal?”
“How bad did they hurt you up there?” Mal’s voice was low. Zach felt him trembling beneath his hands.
“I’m not the one bleeding, dammit.”
“Did they hurt you?”
Mal looked up into Zach’s eyes. “You’re lying.” His voice was deep, ragged. His dark hair was damp with sweat.
“Answer me, Mal. What do you think you’re accomplishing besides tearing yourself up? There’s nothing you can do.”
“I told you to go with them. Just go with them, Zach, they’re taking you to the bathroom. Fuck.” Mal looked sick.
Astonished, Zach said, “This isn’t your fault, idiot.”
Mal made a sound that was supposed to be a laugh, short, unhappy explosion of sound. “I told you it’d be okay. I told you that.”
Zach shook Mal’s shoulder, a quick, hard shake. He leaned closer, making sure Mal made eye contact with him again. “I am okay. Back with you now.”
Mal’s mouth twisted. “Yeah, just where you want to be.” He rubbed his face and leaned back, his upper body curving into itself.
Zach took a deep breath. The brutality of what he’d just seen Mal inflict on himself on top of everything else had sucker-punched him. He breathed out and leaned in, touching his forehead to Mal’s. “Hey. You don’t know what I want.” His heart raced, fear and something more.
Mal’s hand came up hesitantly, touched Zach’s forearm, then wrapped around it finger at a time, taking it slow. He closed his eyes. “I wish you weren’t here,” he breathed. “You’re in trouble because of me, aren’t you?”
Horror wrapped in some sort of macabre humor squeezed its way up into Zach’s throat. He swallowed it back, trying his best not to open his mouth and blow everything.
“Why do you do that? Take the blame for what’s happening? They kidnapped us. You didn’t do anything. You don’t even know them. I’m the one who went with them last night.”
Mal pulled back, eyes narrowing, studying him. “Did they tell you anything?”
“I’d have told you. Now stop staring at me and let me look at your ankle. You know I’m not thrilled with this nursemaid duty shit, so stop doing this crap to yourself.”
“No, I don’t know that. That’s all you’ve been doing, clucking over me.”
“Fuck you, I don’t fucking cluck,” Zach grumbled, hiding a smile when Mal snorted. “Grab the water jug. Ordinarily I wouldn’t think this needs saying, but after what I just saw—stay close, okay? No more pulling. I don’t ever want to see shit like that again.”
“I didn’t think you talked a lot. Guess I was wrong.”
“You aren’t wrong. I just talk to you more.”
“Why? You just talk more when you’re nervous?”
“Is there something to be nervous about?” Zach said wryly. “Stop with the twenty questions. I know you’re hurting like hell. Shut up and let me see the damned leg.”
Mal threw him an irritated look and muttered something under his breath. Zach ignored him. They both settled on the packed dirt, side by side. Zach pushed Mal’s jean leg up and examined his ankle.
It was hard to make anything out because the white light from the window made the shadows black. Even after his vision adjusted, he couldn’t tell anything because of all the blood. He poured water over Mal’s ankle and saw multiple gouges shredding the flesh, skin swelling grotesquely tight around the chain. Blood welled in the cuts again as Zach watched. But for some reason it was the blood, dark and thick against Mal’s dingy white sneaker, that affected him the most.
This wasn’t supposed to be happening to Mal. Zach understood the shit that happened to guys like him, but Mal had family. He was going to college. He was smart and funny, sarcastic and goofy and generous. He was supposed to lead the good life.
Zach finally gathered the courage to look at Mal’s arm. Stared at it. Didn’t touch it. The wound there had shrunk, the area in the center rough and reddened but no longer raw.
Mal had been bitten less than twenty-four hours ago on campus. Not by a dog. By a wolf.
Zach’s fingers shook. His fingers rubbed compulsively at the blood on the sneaker, smearing it. Thinking. They’d told him the truth upstairs. Even some details.
The first change always came with the waning moon. Chaining the whelps was a ritual that the pack followed whenever possible. The chains provoked their anger and accelerated the change, with the first prey there for the taking.
It all sounded crazy, easy to deny, but a part of him had believed from the minute they’d told him. And here was proof, or something near enough. Mal’s arm would be completely healed in another twenty-four hours.
He didn’t know what to do. People wore their humanity like a coat of armor as if it guaranteed rationality, civility, but he’d seen plenty of monsters beneath the facade. Even his father. Especially his father. Zach barely knew Mal, but he trusted himself, his instincts. He believed with everything in him that Mal wasn’t a monster, that it would kill him to become one.
“Damn.” Mal frowned, held up his uninjured arm. A small brown spider huddled just inside the crook of his elbow. He squashed it between the fingers of his left hand and held them up, absorbed by the blood spot. “It bit me. I barely felt it.” He looked at Zach, tried to smile. “Think it was radioactive?” He stared down at his hands, thinking. “I smell them on you,” he said softy. “God, I wish I didn’t. It makes me crazy. I’m—something’s happening to me.”
Zach poured more water over Mal’s ankle. Blood threaded and twisted in the water trickling to the earthen floor. He pulled the leg of Mal’s jeans back over his leg, then sat back on his haunches and look at him. “Tell me. What is it, Mal?”
Mal ran a restless hand through his hair. “I’m—I’m wired. Like I took a hit of speed or something. My skin’s crawling, too. Jumping, like there’s something in under it. Makes me want to scratch it out. And my senses have gone haywire. Even the air tastes, fuck, I don’t know how to describe it—fresher since they opened the cellar door. Lighter. More life to it when it moves over my tongue. And I’m thinking crazy things.” He swiped a forearm over his face. “Shit, this isn’t making any sense.”
“What crazy things?”
Mal faced him, eyes wide. He looked torn and guilty and very young. “Doesn’t matter.” He hesitated. “I heard you upstairs. You and them.”
“Well, yeah. I hear them moving around sometimes.”
“I heard more. I heard you with them. Mostly like ... a murmur, low and indistinct, so that I couldn’t make it out. And movement. Like I could hear the energy of it, or sense it. But there was this big hole, this silence from you. You weren’t making noises like they were. Like you were gone, or dead, but I knew you weren’t. That’s when I knew they hurt you. I wanted to kill them.” He clenched his fists. “Want.”
Zach looked away. “They didn’t hurt me. It doesn’t matter, okay.”
“It does. I would have stopped them if I could.”
“Listen to me. Don’t let whatever this is take you over, Mal. Don’t let it make you do things you don’t want. Look at me.” Zach put a hand on Mal’s arm. His skin was scorching. “So okay, something’s changing in you, but you need to remember what’s important. This crazy stuff in your head isn’t you.”
Mal climbed to his knees again and put some distance between himself and Zach. The chain lifted off the floor and hung in a curve between them.
“Cut it out.” Zach moved closer again.
“Don’t. Move back.” Mal’s voice was rough.
“I don’t want to—just move back.”
“You know I didn’t want to be with them,” Zach said softly. He raised himself on his knees at an angle in front of Mal.
“I know.” Mal looked down miserably, hair hiding his face.
Zach leaned forward, raised a hand to Mal’s shoulder and rubbed, firm muscle beneath his hand, then touched his face and felt the hard, high curve of cheekbone beneath skin. “C’mon, Mal. Look at me.”
Mal raised his head slowly. His skin was so hot. Zach rubbed it, felt stubble beneath his hand. This close, he could see a freckle by Mal’s nose, saw the dark pinpricks of stubble, the dryness of his lips. Zach leaned closer and brushed his mouth over Mal’s. It was electric.
Mal leaned back, breaking contact, chest heaving. “Stop.”
“I didn’t want them, Mal. I want—”
Mal stared at him. “If you say it, if you tell me that, I don’t know if I can stop.”
“I don’t want you to stop.”
“Aren’t you listening? Something’s wrong with me. It’s getting worse. I might—fuck, I might do something.”
“Do what? Can you fight it?”
Mal didn’t answer.
“Don’t you want—”
Mal’s gaze settled on Zach’s mouth, his eyes heated and dark. “You fucking know I do. It’s burning me up but I can’t. I can’t.”
“Didn’t want them. Want you.”
“Fuck—” Mal cursed, deep and jagged. “No.”
“I don’t want you to say no to me. I’m not afraid of you,” Zach breathed, leaning in, touching his mouth to Mal’s again. Mal made a sound, something wretched and wanting, and his body pushed closer, heat and want pulsing from him so strongly it felt like something physical.
Mal pulled away. “I might hurt you, okay? I might hurt you.”
“You wouldn’t, Mal. Not me.” Zach’s body curved into Mal’s as he leaned close and whispered in Mal’s ear. “I want you to get their smell off me.” He kissed him again, pressure light. Asking. Mal opened his mouth against him, slowly, as if he were still trying not to, and Zach pushed a little closer, the kiss deepening. His hand cupped Mal’s arm, moving down, feeling the swell of muscle beneath skin, soft hairs brushing over his palm.
Mal put a hand to the small of Zach’s back and pushed his thumb against his spine, rubbing back and forth, moving slowly upwards. Zach shivered. Mal gripped the back of his neck, forcing him to look Mal in the eye. “You don’t know. It’s bad, it’s fucking insane. I’m losing my mind.” His voice broke.
Zach couldn’t move away from the vise around his neck if he tried. “No you’re not,” he whispered. “Being with me, that’s what you want, that’s nothing but you.”
Mal’s grip loosened. Zach moved so that his body touched Mal’s from shoulder to knee, long line of heat. He breathed against Mal’s exposed neck, mouth lowering. Felt the tension there in bone and muscle. Flicked the skin with his tongue and tasted salt. He sucked a bruise there, then bit down.
Mal stopped breathing. Everything seemed to stand still when he turned and looked at Zach, eyes too slanted, pupils too wide, black, something savage in his face, the bones gone sharper, leaner. He gripped Zach’s head in his hands and slammed his mouth onto Zach’s, pushing inside with his tongue. Zach’s breath damned up somewhere in his windpipe, felt only the need and heat beating into him from Mal’s mouth. He pushed back and their teeth clicked together. His lip stung.