“There are two worlds competing equally for possession of our souls—the civilized and the natural. Among the cities and concrete and tar, the voice of the latter is muted, barely heard. But here, among the moors and the bright moon and the heather and the wonderful and terrible loneliness, the voice is deafening. And as much as I longed to follow its call, to escape the last vestiges of my civilized nature, I feared it would change me irrevocably into something wild, sinister even, beyond the boundaries of what society calls good, into something evil. And yet still, I went. Little did I know that I knew nothing of what true evil really meant.”
--Peter Sangree, from the introduction to ‘The Beast Within’
The great wolf paced back and forth, never once taking its eyes off of Katrina’s throat.
“Isn’t it spectacular?” she asked.
“It’s weird is what it is.”
“You need to look beyond. Witness the majesty and the ferocity in its eyes. In no other animal is it so well captured. No wonder Peter wrote about them. Just imagine what a creature like that is capable of!”
Yeah, like pooping while still maintaining a slow trot. Todd was sulking. He’d been sulking for the last hour and he’d be damned if he was going to stop now. He’d competed over women before—with frat boys and jocks and even a mathlete, but he’d never gone toe-toe with a glorified dog with mange. And worst yet, he felt like he was losing.
The wolf suddenly turned his attention to Todd and let out a low growl.
“Oh, knock it off.” He banged the glass cage with the palm of his hand.
“Don’t do that!” Katrina touched the glass, stroking it like the wolf could somehow feel her gentle petting.
“What? It’s not a fish.” He banged the glass again for emphasis. The wolf didn’t budge. “See?”
The wolf, according to the small blue placard next to its cage, was a maned wolf of the species chrysocyon brachyurus and was the largest canid of South America. Its name was El Diablo, “The Devil”. With its enormous ears and pinched face, Todd thought it looked more like a fox or demented rabbit. But to Katrina it represented so much more.
Of course things always represented so much more to Katrina. Or rather nothing was ever just what it was. A waterfall was a ‘glistening descent into watery madness’ and the sunset was ‘the last great gasp of regret, sinking irretrievably into nothingness.’ For all Todd knew, an English muffin was ‘buttery goodness on granulated passion.’ He was deeply out of his realm when it came to words and he was content to leave the poetry to Katrina, felt lucky in fact just to be allowed to associate with someone like her.
Poets, you see, were good in bed.
At least that’s what he’d been led to believe. Or rather it’d been suggested by his roommate Claude that crazy women were good in bed after his then-girlfriend sewed the zipper shut on all of his jeans. Todd made the logical and understandable leap that since all poets were also crazy they were ergo excellent lovers, though his only experience with poets so far had been with Katrina. And he hadn’t even been with her at all.
At least not in the sense that would land a high-five from Claude. He hadn’t in fact been with any woman, but that was all going to change, he hoped, after this trip.
They met last year in Earth Science, the first and last time Todd saw Katrina outside of the English department. At one point, he even suspected that she was some kind of ghost haunting Cardiff Hall, tormenting lesser poets and anyone who dared to leave a preposition dangling at the end of a sentence. She was too beautiful, too ethereal to belong to anything on this plane of existence anyway.
When she sat down next to him in Science, he was doodling stick figures doing wildly inappropriate things to each other; a confusion of arms and legs and long bent lines meant to represent genitalia. He didn’t even look up when someone occupied the chair next to him. But then he caught a whiff of lavender or honeysuckle, he always got the two scents confused, and he knew a female of the species was nearby, always a good reason to abandon whatever it was that had occupied him, even enthusiastic stick figure orgies.
He snuck a sideways glance at first and caught a glimpse of blonde hair. Though not just blonde hair. A crown, no, a mane of yellow that fell in uneven strands around a perfectly white cheek. Sex hair. The kind of bedraggled, just dragged myself out of bed right after a marathon fucking session that probably took hours to perfect. Promising. Todd leaned back in his chair under the guise of stretching and turned his attention directly at his new desk mate.
She was staring directly at him.
He turned away embarrassed, but not before he’d gotten a lasting impression. In the space of two seconds, he fell madly, irretrievably, helplessly, adverbially in love. She had the greenest eyes he’d ever seen and he was so far gone; the kind of green that might make a pine tree envious. Her mouth was red and full and smiling and utterly cruel in that Todd couldn’t kiss them immediately.
“Dick sucking lips,” was how Claude described them one night before Todd punched him and the subject was never brought up again.
Her ears stuck out through her hair giving her face an elfen look—mystical, elusive, a force of nature. She was wearing a complicated assemblage of velvet, silver, and leather. She would have looked as easily at home on a barge sailing down the Nile as she would in the role of tormented princess in any number of Shakespearean plays.
“I like your drawing,” she whispered to him a moment later and Todd found himself wishing class was over so he could find the nearest hole to crawl into. He glanced at the clock. Awesome, only 50 minutes left. It wasn’t the quality of the drawings that embarrassed him; truth be told he was rather proud of the detail he had, ahem, endowed his stick figures with, rather it was the visual demonstration of his complete lack of knowledge of all things sexual. If his drawing was a report on the human reproductive process, it would have been heavily marked in red pen. With a note at the top that read ‘Didn’t your parents teach you anything?’
“What’s that one doing?” Katrina asked and leaned across Todd’s desk to point out a particularly crude sketch of one figure putting a body part where, he suspected, no one else had hitherto thought of doing before. He wasn’t even sure if it was anatomically possible.
“Uh,” was all he managed. Her perfume or shampoo or whatever it was that was the source of that sweet cloying smell that clung to Katrina like an aura enveloped him and he was dizzy and stupid with it.
Mercifully, the professor took that moment to swing by Todd’s desk, glare at him, then ball up his obscenities and toss it in the trash. He let out a small sigh of relief.
“Pity,” Katrina said which was how she talked. Like an 18th century governess or rejected Jane Austen heroine. Her voice, spoken above a whisper for the first time, was rich and dripping with cinnamon. Another puzzle piece for Todd in the perfect rendering of the female form.
After class, he bid a hasty retreat, afraid he’d say something colossally stupid and ruin any future chances with this goddess. One did not just proffer oneself to a deity—you had to spend months in supplication and silent worship and even martyrdom. It wasn’t enough to be able to read the words to open the doors of the temple, one had to commit them to heart. So Todd spent a lot of time getting drunk, making promises to himself to visit the gym at least once in his miserable collegiate career, and then telling himself how worthless he was as a man, a human being, and then a microorganism.
It was two months, right before the semester end, before he said another word to her. When she started bringing that damn book to class.
“Do you think it’s the same kind of wolf he saw?” Katrina had propped herself up on the small ledge so her back was against the cage. Her short skirt got pushed up in the process and Todd had to fight the urge to stare at her perfect thighs. It just isn’t fair, he thought. The wolf pawed desperately at the glass trying to get at Katrina’s shoulder blade.
“No,” he said absently and turned away from her as much to stop himself from staring as to hide the growing lump in his pants. Though even knowing that Katrina’s thigh was exposed anywhere near him was enough to make him break into a sweat.
“No?” she asked sourly.
It occurred to Todd he’d never used that word with her before. He didn’t like it any better than she did, so he softened his tone. “This wolf is from South America,” he said. “If he saw any, it probably would have been a grey wolf.” And even that would be a total freak of nature. England had done the sensible thing and wiped out its wolf population nearly 1000 years ago. In fact, the largest predator left in the whole country was no bigger than a poodle.
“What do you mean ‘if’?”
Busted. Todd was not a believer. At least not in Katrina’s mythology. His salvation would be spending the afternoon licking every part of Katrina’s body, not traipsing after wolves in Europe like a mythological dog catcher. And he’d do just about anything to get there. Even if it meant pretending the book (to Katrina it was THE BOOK) had affected him just as deeply. That he would abandon all else to following THE BOOK to the letter of the law—even blowing off a cherry job at his uncle’s country club over the summer to go hunting in dreary, water-soaked England.
“You know what I mean,” Todd said.
But Katrina’s attention was already back on the wolf.
Lucky bastard, Todd thought.
“I got my passport,” Katrina said after a long pause.
“Oh good. Did I give you money for that already?”
“Yes. Thank you.” She gnawed at her bottom lip, apparently trying to work up the courage to say something. “I’m going to pay you back, you know.”
“I know.” And what Todd knew was that she wouldn’t. But poets and poverty apparently went hand in hand and Katrina was no exception. Though he often wondered how she could afford so much jewelry and make-up and such an expansive wardrobe. The truth was, he didn’t really care. He had a trust fund. And a lot of it. And a couple of thousand dollars seemed a small price to pay for Katrina’s undivided attention for two weeks. Two weeks! If he couldn’t seal the deal in two weeks, then Claude was right, he might as well donate his nuts to science where they might serve some useful purpose.
He would be there to encourage Katrina when they couldn’t find the town. He’d hold her hand when they went on some half-assed trek across the first random moor they found. Maybe they’d get lost and have to spend the night out there, clinging to each other for warmth and security. And maybe, just maybe, she’d come to him one night out of frustration and loneliness and, yes, maybe even gratitude.
But he wasn’t interested in just one regretful night (regretful, that is, for her), he wanted Katrina forever. He’d come home with a girlfriend and he could tell Claude exactly where to stick it and how far. From there his mind would wander to a hasty engagement, a quick elopement, and a long honeymoon.
A couple thousand dollars for a chance at that? Any day, Todd thought.
“I just don’t want you to think,” Katrina added then went back to gnawing at her lip, hoping apparently that he’d get the hint.
A small sigh escaped Katrina’s lips. “I don’t want you to think just because I’m taking the money that…” and she raised her eyebrows.
Todd shrugged again.
Her sigh became an outright moan of frustration. “That you should expect anything. You and I can never be...”
“Right.” Todd said absently even as Katrina mumbled something about ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’. But he wasn’t listening. He was debating whether they should honeymoon in Maui or Paris. In the end, he decided it didn’t matter. They’d never leave the hotel room anyway.
To call the book garbage would be unfair to garbage, would do even the moldiest banana peel or tiniest fragment of egg shell a gigantic disservice. Garbage, at least, was at one time useful. The book was thinly disguised fiction, so thin that the author didn’t even bother to rename his protagonist and just left it at Peter.
The Beast Within tells the story of a man so discontent with the calamities of city life that he hightails it from New York City to the English moors.
At least Thoreau had the decency to find a place with trees.
He spends half of the book figuring out which berries are edible, drinking his own urine and weighing the morality of strangling a sheep with his bare hands (“The fur acted as a cushion and my hands could not find purpose. A lesser man would have relented. But the land is hard and I was hungry and large rocks were unfortunately keenly in abundance here...).
The other half of the book is where it gets mildly interesting (interesting, at least, in the sense that it did not involve shitting out poisonous berries, recipes for urine-flavored drinks, or bludgeoning unsuspecting sheep with small boulders). Peter begins to feel he’s on the verge of completely shedding his ‘civilized skin and discovering my beast within’ when he experiences a predictable freak-out and runs to the nearest house he can find. Except it’s not a house, it’s a castle, and the man who lives there is not a man. You know the story, boy meets werewolf, werewolf wants to eat his heart during the blue moon, that sort of thing.
As if you hadn’t felt like you’d just wasted a week of your life reading this 900-page cods-wallop, the author, excuse me, the main character Peter, does an about-face when he escapes, sees what it means to truly discover the ‘beast within’ and recants everything he’d spouted on about for the previous 800 pages.
The rest of the book is dedicated to convincing people not to do what he did and that drinking tea is one of life’s highest joys (next to properly prepared mutton, presumably one where you didn’t have to throttle the sheep yourself, and peanut butter-filled Cadbury eggs). He uses the phrase the ‘beast within’ about a kagillion times.
Needless to say it was a best-seller. And that was before all the disappearances.
“I have everything planned,” Katrina said. “After we land in Heathrow, we’ll take the tube to Victoria Station. From there, we’ll catch a train to Stanbury. There’s a nightly bus that’ll run us to Hapworth and then—“
“We’re on our own,” Todd recited. “It’s six miles to Chatterton, but there’s no direct road there. We’ll be hiking the rest of the way. Through woods and moors. I’ll bring S’mores.” He held up an imaginary bag of marshmallows. “I’ve got that part.” That much, at least, had been discussed.
Katrina smiled, pleased and Todd puffed out his chest, despite himself. Getting her to smile was no easy feat. She seemed to foster the tortured Victorian poet look and anguish and despair came much more easily to her. Once, he almost strangled a guy in the cafeteria who made Katrina laugh so hard milk came out of her nose.
But he wasn’t convinced Chatterton was where the events in the book took place, if they even took place at all. Yes, the place was surrounded on all sides by moors. Yes, the place was, as the book described, an old Medieval village that’d been abandoned, re-inhabited, and then abandoned more times than Peter Sangree used the phrase ‘beast within’, yes, it was the home of murky legends involving gypsies and curses and black ceremonies, and yes, the place couldn’t be found on any maps (at least not any modern maps; modern meaning after 1700), but that could be said for just about any small town in that accursed country.
And the question remained, what then? What happened when they got there? Katrina seemed to have a specific plan in mind, but so far she’d been uncharacteristically silent on the manner.
For his part, Todd had found a lovely bed and breakfast just outside Chatterton that offered ‘romance at every turn. From splendid walking trails to sunlit garden rooms.” And best of all, there wasn’t a double bed in the place. It was his fallback plan when everything went wrong and Katrina’s carefully created fantasy fell apart. But he had no idea, really, what Katrina was expecting from this trip and he hadn’t bothered to ask. At least until now.
“But what happens when we get there, Kat?”
She looked at him with her impossibly green eyes. Eyes that seemed to sparkle and come alive and flush a deeper shade surrounded by the wail of wild animals and the strange climbing plants of the zoo. Katrina always terrified Todd. With her beauty. With her smile. With her ability to destroy someone with a single word (that word usually being ‘no’). But for just a split second, she terrified Todd for another reason entirely and he couldn’t have explained why if he tried. But then she smiled with just the corner of her lips and his fear was gone.
“We find him, of course.”
“Him?” Todd scratched his head, then became keenly aware of the passing resemblance of his current posture to the monkey in the cage opposite him, and quickly stroked the faint beginnings of a goatee.
“Peter.” Katrina’s cheeks flushed red, bringing uncharacteristic color to her face. And for some reason, Todd thought of Frankenstein’s monster rising from its slab after a sudden and well-timed bolt of lightning.
“But he’s gone. He disappeared right after… you know. Nobody knows where he is. He may not even still be alive.” That is, if he did the honorable thing, Todd added silently.
Katrina shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I think he went home.”
“Home?” And Todd had to consciously stop himself from scratching his head again. He snuck a glance at the monkey. Its teeth were peeled back from his mouth giving it the appearance of laughter.
“Why would he do that? Who walks away from millions of dollars to go live in some—“ He stopped himself short from adding ‘mud hut in a water-soaked, English flea trap in the middle of Fuckifiknow, UK’.
Katrina sighed. It was the same, impatient sigh his uncle gave him when he tried explaining stock equities and junk bonds. “To stop the others from coming. To stand guard.” And then she quoted from the book. Todd didn’t recognize the quote, but he recognized the awful stilted, self-serving language and Katrina’s change in tone whenever she referenced the great book of Berry Crapping, as he called it. “I shall hold the demon at bay. It is my duty, my honor, and my curse.”
“Probably should have taken up guard sooner then,” Todd said and his hand flew to his mouth.
Katrina glared at him and rightfully so. It was a horrible thing to say. Putting aside his opinion that the book wasn’t even suitable for lining the bottom of a parakeet cage (being so full of crap already), two people, two real people had died. About Todd and Katrina’s age, too. And though it was nearly three years ago, their deaths had cast an unspoken, until now, shadow over their entire trip.
“They went to him with shaky beliefs. They were not ready to accept the book or its author at face value.” Katrina’s voice dropped a few levels and she spoke through nearly clenched teeth.
And though Todd knew he should’ve dropped it, that the only reason Katrina let him hang around her was because he knew how to shut up, listen, and most importantly, agree, he couldn’t. He was all for chasing a dream, not that he had any of his own besides, but death was not something insignificant to be explained away in order to maintain a convenient fantasy. Death was loud and huge and all too real and it demanded that you stop everything in order to take it all in. Or the next time, it would come louder. At least that’s that what had happened with his parents. And he wouldn’t let the same happen to Katrina.
“They died of starvation and frostbite,” he said and he found himself staring down Katrina for the rest time.
“They were chased by the beast into the forever night,” she countered.
“Their bodies, when the police finally found them had been mutilated by animals.”
“Virgin sacrifices on the blue moon, so the beast could prolong his—“
“No!” Todd shouted, louder and harsher than he expected. The monkey shook his head with something that resembled condemnation. Even the wolf stopped its restless pacing and cocked its head at Todd. And when he saw Katrina’s hurt look, he softened and changed his tactic. “They were unprepared.” Went stupidly tripping after a fake story without considering very real danger. “Didn’t plan enough.” Had no plan at all. Like, say packing a winter coat. “And no fallback.” Reservations at a romantic B&B which boasted ’43 engagements and 12 reconciliations.’
“But we do,” Katrina said in a voice that sounded small and child-like.
“Yeah, we do,” Todd agreed, even if he didn’t. Though now that the other two were brought up—their names were Keith and Denise—he couldn’t stop thinking about them. No one really did find out what happened. Experts pointed to how easy it was to get lost on the moors at night. How much the temperatures dropped. And while there were no wolves left in the United Kingdom outside a few zoos and animal preserves, there were a few other carnivorous animals—fox, weasels, feral dogs.
American papers splashed old yearbook photos of the couple, hints that Keith had planned to ask Denise to marry him when they returned, long testimonies on their gentle natures and the overwhelming loss to the community. But British papers were less than kind. Todd had spent hours reading everything he could in the school library on the book, the mysterious author and the equally mysterious city of Chatterton.
On darker nights, when the moon became obscured behind storm clouds, or when Katrina smiled at some other guy, Todd would read about the deaths and Peter Sangree’s subsequent disappearance. It cheered him up to know that people elsewhere were more miserable than he was. His impression from reading the papers in England, and there was no shortage of accounts, was that England held a shared sympathy with their American allies, but also something else, though he could never point to a single passage and say ‘There!’; he detected something sinister underlying the ordinarily dry news reports. Hints of a warning. That some things were better left alone. That their deaths were simply a morality tale—this is what happens when you mess with forces you can’t understand.
Todd arrived five minutes late to class, crashed into his seat making the most noise possible, and then made a big show of dropping the enormous tome on his desk (any book longer than 500 pages deserved to be called a ‘tome’—in his eyes, it lessened the pain of having to read it).
When Katrina didn’t look up, he added, “That’s not my science book, silly me.”
And when she still didn’t look up (she was adding a fresh coat of black lipstick to her already flawless lips), he dropped his enormous copy of ‘The Beast Within’ (a signed first edition that he’d bought on the internet solely for the purpose of talking to Katrina and which came with more paperwork than his aunt’s prize Corgie) on the floor.
He finally got her attention. As well as the rest of the lecture hall, his professor, and a janitor who’d snuck into a nearby hall closet for a cat nap.
“Sorry,” he added sheepishly and sunk down in his desk. And just when he was about to curse himself for spending fifteen hundred bucks on a garishly decorated paperweight, Katrina spoke up.
“Is that a first edition?”
At first, he couldn’t believe she’d actually spoken to him, suspecting that the question had come from the girl who sat behind him, the one with the back brace and the lazy eye who he suspected had an eye for him. The good one at least. But there was no mistaking that voice. It dripped with honey—thick, and sweet, too sweet even, but utterly irresistible.
“This?” Todd asked as nonchalantly as possible which was hard to do since the book took up most of his small desk. “Let me see.” He made a grand show of opening the book, pausing at the autographed page. It was inscribed, ‘To Felix, Thanks for the berry recipes.’ If pressed, Todd was prepared to tell Katrina that Felix was a distant cousin or a friend of his uncle’s in the publishing business, but she never asked.
Her eyes went wide and her mouth hung open. She looked at Todd with what he thought was a newfound respect.
“Peter is spelled with one ‘t’,” she finally said.
“What? Let me see that.” He grabbed the book and brought the page close to his face then cursed and questioned the wisdom of any internet purchase made after 2am.
“Still,” Katrina said as Todd raised the book higher, wondering if he could hold out there until class ended, “Pretty cool.”
It was the only time he heard Katrina use the phrase cool. ‘Resplendent’, ‘marvelous’, even ‘beautiful’ came as naturally to her as swear words to a construction worker. But, as Todd would soon learn, everything about that book seemed to bring out the adolescent schoolgirl in her.
“Thanks,” he said and couldn’t believe his luck. He’d found a way to strike up a conversation with this goddess, only now what? He was not a forward planner and, truth be told, he didn’t think he’d get this far.
Fortunately, she saved him the trouble. She reached out and took his hand then jotted her phone number on his palm.
“Call me,” she said and flashed him one of her rare toothy smiles.
“Yeah,” Todd squeaked, cleared his voice, then lowered his register. “I mean, yeah. Whatever.”
And as soon as Katrina wasn’t looking, he scribbled the number on a piece of paper because his hand was sweating so much, he was afraid it would’ve rubbed off completely. As it was, he’d have to play a guessing a game on the two last digits.
Nobody blamed Peter Sangree. Though the public also was pretty lenient with JD Salinger when Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon with a copy of Catcher in the Rye in his pocket. In Todd’s opinion, the only thing that prevented a complete repeat was the fact that no one could fit the ‘Beast Within’ in their pocket. Hell, it barely fit in a wheelbarrow. Also, no one got shot, though Todd thought the difference was negligible.
The book was a 900 page instruction manual of what not to do. Don’t eat poisonous berries. Mud is not an acceptable substitute for a good winter coat. Don’t go knocking on strange houses in the middle of the night. Don’t think you’re more resilient than nature. You’re not. And especially, don’t go to Chatterton, England. Werewolves live there.
Of course people were going to visit, sample the local flora, and go just as batshit crazy as Peter did. He did everything but draw them a map. And though Todd knew most of the book was fiction (including, most likely the town itself which was probably just a jumping off point for a wild tale involving a piss drinker), he also knew that there were impressionable people out there who’d dive headfirst into a pile of cow manure if they’d seen someone else do it on TV.
Peter, it seemed, shared Todd’s opinion that the two American hikers’ disappearance was completely and utterly his fault. Not that he was much of a social butterfly to begin with—no one in fact knew what Peter looked like. And if the book was to be taken at face value, he was also a virgin. This was presumably before the millions started rolling in. But following the hikers’ deaths, he cancelled his radio interviews and stopped responding to fan mail. Discussion of a possible film was shelved. And just days after a short op ed piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal from Peter in which he prattled on in characteristic fashion about moon cycles and reclaiming his manhood and the dangers of berries, Peter up and disappeared himself.
According to his agent, he had given no notice and left no forwarding address. His only living relative was a great-uncle who had never heard of Peter and quite frankly had more important things to do than discuss missing ‘book writers’ and werewolves, and ‘if you’re planning on standing around, muddying up my carpet, at least have the decency to grab a broom’. Though his interest did peak when the subject of substantial royalty checks were mentioned.
Of course the requisite searches occurred. First in Peter’s hometown of Savage, Maryland and then in the UK. But that was nearly three years ago and no trace of him was ever found. There’d been plenty of trips to Chatterton—first by the media and then by American backpackers and then, when the book was translated into Japanese, by hordes of innocent, camera-wielding tourists.
Nobody got very far.
Scores of lost thrill-seekers had to be rescued from the moors by the local British authority who didn’t take too kindly to disruptions from their Benny Hill re-reruns and cups of Earl Grey and began prosecuting. Those that did make it across the moors, had to contend with unfriendly, gun-wielding locals, who apparently were completely uninterested in fostering the tourist trade. And the few that made it past town, into the area where Peter stumbled across the crumbling ruins of a medieval castle, like Denise and Keith, reported large animals menacing the area (though the newspaper refused to say just what those animals were, the suggestion was that a pack of wolves steadfastly guarded the castle. The paper also suggested that if you were to sample the purple flowers that grew in that area, you might also think you were being pursued by a dragon, feel compelled to take off your pants, and possibly be filled with the sudden urge to eat small pebbles).
People stopped going. And when the next great publishing fad came along (unicorn porn—uniporn), the book, the town, and the wolves were all but forgotten.
At least until now.
Todd had once heard the word used to describe the delicate wings of a butterfly struck by the first rays of morning light. It was either in a nature special or a tampon commercial, Todd wasn’t sure which. But the word came back to him now as Katrina lit the last candle and took a seat in the clearing.
She was wearing a sheer white dress so that if she turned a certain way and caught the flickering candlelight, Todd could just make out the silhouette of her lithe figure. Had he known that with a little more light, he might be treated to a better view, he would’ve dragged a generator and a 1000-watt bulb through the woods and lit up the old outdoor amphitheater like Christmas morning. He didn’t care what a fire hazard all those candles presented.
“There’s something about candlelight isn’t there?” Katrina said off Todd’s captivated look. “It’s positively…” she searched for the word.
“Diaphanous?” he fumbled.
Katrina laughed, a high-pitched melodic tinkle, that made Todd feel incredibly insignificant. “Diaphanous,” she repeated. “I like that.”
It was midnight, the witching hour, which is precisely when Katrina told Todd to meet her here. He had to look up when the witching hour was and, when he couldn’t find anything, phoned his theology professor with the promise that he’d let her get back to sleep if she just answered the damn question.
And now here he was. In the woods. At night. Surrounded by trees and dark and leaves leftover from fall and the heat, still burning from the afternoon, and, most importantly, Katrina. She seemed oddly at home here, a piece of nature herself.
She gestured to a spot in front of her on the concrete stage and Todd obediently sat down. He would’ve rolled over and played dead if she had asked, too.
What followed that night, Todd would be hard-pressed to recount owing as much to the eight shots of Jagermeister that Claude poured down his throat before he left and outright enthusiasm to be with a girl after his normal bedtime.
The memories he did manage to salvage out of the fog were clear, but then he was also uncertain of the order.
There was Katrina swaying back and forth, dancing in the woods looking precisely like you’d expect an ancient druid to look during the performance of an elaborate ceremony to some forgotten god.
A cheap tape deck that warbled out Garbage and Throwing Muses and Tori Amos. A bottle of even cheaper wine that tasted like strawberries. A constant thick cloud of smoke from clove cigarettes perfuming the air like incense. Where any of these came from, Todd had no idea.
He remembered listening intently as Katrina talked about THE BOOK and its importance to her. Her thoughts about the author and the savagery of the human soul. A savagery that she felt anyone was capable of at any given time, but that only a few really understood how to use and control. And then something about destruction and pain. He had the feeling that Katrina was someone who needed rescuing. Todd loved both a good project and a challenge so, he was, if anything, even more attracted to her now.
She showed him scars on her arms and told him about the night she was almost gang raped at an off-campus party on the local marine base with a lurid kind of interest that made Todd feel sick. Of her, he had the impression of someone sleep-walking along a tightrope. Above a shark infested tank. He wanted desperately to cry out to her, but couldn’t for fear of waking her and sending her spiraling into the abyss.
He remembered holding her hand, or at least trying to, before she pushed him away.
And he remembered, though he wished he hadn’t, Katrina telling him to hit her. Pointing at her perfect red lips and screaming, “Make me bleed!” Todd cried then, though he didn’t know why. And when he tried to hug her, she shoved him away and told him he wasn’t a real man.
He remembered her whispering that she was hungry and he didn’t think she was talking about food so he clumsily moved in to kiss her, but she shoved him away and told him, “Not that kind of hunger.”
And finally, he remembered sitting alone in the dark because the candles had burned out and Katrina was gone and he was too drunk to get up without help and too mad at himself for blowing what he was sure was his, to quote Claude, ‘window of opportunity’.
The next day, he slept through his morning classes and through the worst of what would have been a world class hangover. He felt…good. With a sense of renewed of purpose. Or rather, just purpose, since he’d felt so aimless all of his life. And that purpose was Katrina. To protect her from monsters both real and imaginary and, more importantly, from herself.
“I should be off,” Katrina said, tearing herself away from the wolf. “I can’t believe this is really happening.”
“Me either,” Todd said though he was sure they were talking about two different things.
“Just think, in less than 24 hours we’ll be setting foot in the old country. The seat of civilization. Home of our ancestors.”
Todd’s ancestors were from Akron and before that Nantucket. Aside from a distant aunt from Puerto Rico, he was certain he had no ties to anywhere exotic or old or storied.
He was feeling sour about the wolf, or rather Katrina’s fascination with it, then worried for a moment about what would happen if they actually did find Peter Sangree. If he couldn’t compete with a mutt, he wouldn’t stand a chance against a guy who’d fought off a whole pack of them (or so he claimed). And here he was practically delivering the object of his affection straight into the hands of another suitor.
He was also filled with a lingering sense of dread, that maybe the best thing would be to keep Katrina here where there were streetlights and stop signs and paved roads. Where whatever was dark and wild that lived insider her could be safely contained. Just like the animals in this zoo.
He was worried he might be leading Katrina straight to her doom.
All of those worries, however, were quickly forgotten when she leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Thanks for making this happen,” she whispered and let her hand linger on his shoulder.
“Yeah,” he managed to say even though his tongue felt like it was inflated to twice his size and his cheeks felt like they were burning. “Anytime.”
He watched her walk away. When she was completely gone from sight, he turned to the wolf and smiled, “I’m going to England with her.”
The wolf cocked his head to the side, then settled down to chew on a rubber toy.
“We’re going to get married,” Todd added, then gave the glass a gentle tap, before leaving.
He was humming to himself when he strolled past the alpaca enclosure. By the time he had reached the bird sanctuary, he was tunelessly singing at the top of his lungs which set off a terrible caterwauling throughout the parrot, peacock and flamingo cages. The noise was deafening.
And somewhere, just above the terrible din, Todd thought he heard a wolf moaning an almost human call.