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Trees Struck by Lightning Burning From the Inside Out, by Emily Lundgren

It is sweet and fitting to die with one’s pack under the full moon, but the sky is clouded by the city lights: orange and yellow and red like fire. Roque is running. Like a cracked whip, without sense. Under a sliver of jagged sound, under the leering fray of glossy towers, he smells a dog without a leash, the sharp of silvered bolts. He sees a woman with a cardboard sign reading something-something about the world, who catches his eye, whose own eyes widen, whose mouth opens and makes a howling noise: something-something about wolves! wolves! The road towards dawn outstretches before him, choking on cars and steam and fur and bone. Roque is running, running. His paws thump in tandem with the code of his heart, and he transforms.

I shit you not, the den was in this underground shithole out by the train tracks. Outside, on the gate leading to it, there was an honest-to-god sign that said NO DUMPING, but as soon as we crossed beyond the gate we had to navigate piles of actual junk. Old coils of bedspring, plastic toys, a sagging couch, at least five ancient television sets, a mountain of cassettes. On the gravel, spools of black videotape were tangled in neatly arranged piles, like someone decided to sit there and chew apart all the plastic. The den itself was past all that shit, in the rubble of an enclave painted with the words FAIR IS FOUL & FOUL IS FAIR FUCKERS. Some real nice digs.

There shouldn’t be a fire pit. I know we’re all thinking it—the wild ones, they’re not supposed to have thumbs, you know? After the carnage, some of us stand near the arrangement of cinderblocks that circle the fire pit like sad-ass lawn chairs. Our crossbows hang limp in our hands. Someone’s phone goes off but we don’t even pick it up. This fire pit is fucking weird, none of us says just yet. It looks like a stump, the midsection carved in a big X with raw pulsing pinks and reds at its heart, peeling the core back white. The stump sits in a charred indentation in the ground, and it reminds me of one summer when lightning struck a tree on the farm and ate it from the inside out. Once in a lifetime, tops.

Behind us, snaking from beneath the circular enclave that might’ve once had something to do with trains, there’s a root-path leading crooked into the den. If we listen, which we all do, we can hear shouting. Will and the rest of us are still down there, probably counting up the corpses. They didn’t really fight us when we found them, and I know we’re all sort of disappointed. They howled and cried and clawed at the dirt but their den was nothing but damp earth and dead ends. Wolves used to live in caves or in the woods, but shit, where can you find places like that anymore? From the earth’s belly, I hear Will start up about skinning their hides.

Someone’s phone goes off and this time it gets answered. This shakes us apart, gets us moving. So what if they carved a stump and made a fire and sat here at night watching it with their dumb eyes? We round the perimeter, keep watch. Another of us takes out his phone, too, and snaps a few pictures. “This fire pit is fucking weird,” he’s the first to say. “I’m putting this thing on Instagram.” I shrug. I got rid of all that shit after my parents died. Facebook before the funeral—then afterwards, Twitter, then Tumblr, even Snapchat, and definitely my Grindr profile. Online, time vaults would lurch open at the stupidest times. I’d be checking my phone in bed and then next thing I knew, my Ma’s face would peer up at me and I’d go to her profile, which I should’ve deleted a long time ago, but never did. I’d reread the RIPs, the thoughts and prayers, and I guess there was probably a way to disable all that shit, like unfollow her, but I never did. I just shut it all down. Now I only talk to fellow hunters, I guess.

Growing up, I didn’t give a single fuck about wolves and neither did my parents. But even in Big Sky Country they’d crop up, and sure, we had a coalition in town meant to protect us and all that shit, but for a long time, the worst you’d hear about was someone’s raided chicken coop or a missing cow or two. There’d be rumors, or whatever, about a family that went missing, but that was always on rez land and the coalition would say well, you know, that’s out of our state jurisdiction, and no one wants us out there anyway, and that was true, so that was that.

The most controversial law didn’t get passed until around the time I was born because it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the wolves started smartening up. There was the Wolf Man, sure, and maybe a few like him in the Middle Ages, so now people are figuring hey, that might explain a lot—but it didn’t happen in droves until much later, and pretty soon, for a few days out of every month, wolves could walk and make sounds and use thumbs. Then they got to thinking, which was when the real trouble started because it pried open a big can of fucking worms, so it was all “civil rights” this and that. Anyway, even the human-ones are born wolves, so this law passed in maybe 1996 and it prohibited hunting them unless they’re wild. The ones that can transform are tagged—assimilated into our Great Fucking Society.

I know this guy who used to hunt with our coalition who dated a tagged one once, but it was real hard seeing as they couldn’t be together most of the time, and then it got to the point where the few days out of the month they could be together, they mostly argued about his job. But all of what we do’s legal, you know, legit. Except I guess that wasn’t the problem.

She was very sophisticated and all that shit. She even had a YouTube channel, I think.

But then even he got her to admit wild wolves don’t give a rat’s ass about anyone but their own packs and they give into their hunger real easy, she even said she didn’t like running with them—but come on, she’d said, it’s still kind of fucked, what you guys do, isn’t it? So then this guy, he sat her down, told her all our stories. He saved mine for last, Little Arlo and His Daddy’s .22 against the Big Bad Wild Wolves. I watched them tear Ma and Pa to shreds. They smelled like piss and their fangs were long and yellowy and there wasn’t anything human about them. Whenever I talk about it, my chest starts feeling numb and the numbness stretches into my fingertips. I get dizzy and sometimes I throw up, and honestly, I was pretty angry about the whole fucking thing, having to listen to him tell the likes of her about that night.

Will comes up from the den and glares at us. “Tell me you fucking got it,” he grits, “and you already tossed it onto a goddamn junk pile!” Will’s a man with hobbies. I think years ago he might’ve been a teacher, but mostly I think that’s bullshit, even though he does know a lot about the Second Amendment, and arsenals, and what George Washington would think about all this shit. He owns a gun range on the outskirts of the city, and he started this little hunting business on the side because of all the government incentives. I mean, that’s what he said, but it’s pretty clear he enjoys himself out here real good. He smokes a cigar and looks like he’s playing a Vietnam vet. I’m not sure he’s ever been to war. Some of us did a tour or two in Iraq, but I didn’t. When I turned eighteen, I only wanted to kill one species, and it wasn’t other humans.

We tuck our phones away, but only one of us has the courage to ask Will what he means. “Huh?” says Horace. He’s a couple years older than I am, went to the same school as me and all that shit. Circled the same hangouts. My last year was kind of a blur on account of my parents getting killed, and the switch from Big Sky Country to Shit Can City. There were a lot of counselors and a lot of fights with the wolf-kids. The wolf-kids had a special program, and would only show up for a few days out of every month, and so it was hard not to hate them. I roughed them up on the regular, I guess. Horace, too. We’d lost something, and yeah, it was that simple.

They owed us a healing. Everyone knew it.

His crossbow hanging from its strap on his shoulder, Will takes a big puff on his cigar. I quit smoking yesterday and I can already tell that’s all gone to fuck in a dickbasket because I really want a smoke. His glare worsens, like it’s lowering us into our graves. “Arlo, how many were in this pack?” he cuts.

I flinch. I was on recon, so I should know. “Um, like, there were six,” I say. “Sir,” I add, already knowing what he’ll say.

He looks at all of us. “We’ve been watching this pack for months. We got all the goddamn fucking permits. You’re supposed to be guarding the perimeter, making sure they were all down there—and what the fuck do I emerge to find?” We don’t answer. “All of you—staring at your goddamn dicks—your phones in your hands! Our count is five. Now one of them’s out there—” He makes an accusatory motion with his cigar, “and so help me god, if it kills anyone, that death is on you. The way I see it—Jesus, I hope it’s only some fucking bum gets killed.”

We look to one another and I feel really hot, like I’m wedged in the heart of the burning stump. Will gives one look at the fire pit and the cinderblocks and he sneers.

I order coffee and eggs and bacon and three chocolate-chip pancakes, and I only have appetite for the coffee, so I just kind of sit there staring at the syrups. I’m always buying shit I can’t afford. Horace, who likes us all to call him Ace due to something that went down back when he was a kid—I’ve guessed probably involving a different nickname—orders waffles that look like they’ve been dressed in a whipped cream and strawberry tutu, and he avoids catching my eye. No one should blame me about what happened, but it’s pretty clear they all do because I’m the one Will barked at, and when he said that death is on you, his grave glare was right on me—even though all of us were distracted when we came up from the den.

Ace watches my coffee ritual. Two packets of Sugar In The Raw. One thimble of vanilla creamer. “R,” Ace says. “Dude. Are you going to eat that?” He stabs his fork at my bacon.

“No, dude,” I say, and I mean it to have a little edge, but it doesn’t. “It’s yours, man.”

Before we left for Denny’s we checked the junkyard’s perimeter a few more times and all that shit. A few of us pissed on the burning stump and the fire went out and then Will went home with some of the older guys and that was that. Lone wolves usually get picked off by the police if they’re spotted in the city and all of us figured it probably ran that way even though we don’t have a good reason. Abigail, who used to be called Abby until her little brother got his throat ripped out by a wolf or something, ordered hash browns with cheese and said, whatever, assholes, that wolf’s as good as dead anyway—so shut the fuck up about it, will you?

Now she goes by Gail, which Ace and I think is ugly but we’ve never said so.

“Hey,” she says now, nodding her chin somewhere behind me. She’s sitting opposite Ace and me, next to Logan—who has always just been Logan and a heaping pile of steaming bullshit. Logan ordered fries and a Diet Coke and he’s gay, so Ace always makes stupid jokes. Like I’m supposed to want to fuck every gay guy I come across, shit, man, and Logan’s not even my type. First of all, fuck Diet. Second of all, wolves have never fucked with his people, so, I mean, it’s kind of fucked he’s always hanging around with us. Now he double-takes at Gail’s nod, and raises his plucked-perfect eyebrows and that’s how I know even before I turn around that there’s going to be wolves in the far corner booth, scowling at us.

Both Ace and I sit up straight and turn around—what else are we supposed to do?

“Guys!” Gail hisses even though I know she can’t mind. “Jesus,” she grits, just like Will.

When we turn back, the wolves we saw—the wolf I saw—makes me feel like I’ve been stun-shot and now I’m sinking. Like I’m ghosting down through the booth and through the layers of the earth we learned about in school. Crust, mantle, outer core. I don’t make it to the inner core, though, because by that point, I’ve melted into liquid fire.

The wolf’s name was fucking Casper, so that’s on me, I guess. When he said his name I was grinning, I was like, “Ha ha ha, like the friendly ghost?” and when he gave me this “huh?” face, I should’ve figured and all that shit. Who never saw Casper? But I guess at the time I was more figuring, maybe I just remembered the movie real well because when I saw it growing up and Casper turned into a real human kid at the end it made me go fuck, well, I might be into guys.

We met at this gay bar that Logan likes that’s really chill on Tuesdays and sometimes I go with him, and then sometimes, but rarely, Gail will show up with Ace in tow.

Casper found me at the bar waiting for a drink, already drunk and kind of pissed because it was one of those nights. Ace was showing everyone this YouTube video back at our booth and they were crowded around him but I couldn’t hear shit. Three people around a phone is fine and all, but four is pushing it and just for the record, I’m not one of those anti-tech dickwads or anything, I’m just fucking poor and after my grandparents died, my iPhone cracked all to shit. They were footing the phone bill, so that’s that.

Anyway, now that I’m thinking about all this, I guess there were more signs than his stupid reaction to my teasing. His grin, for one. It was a very nice grin, but now that I’m looking back, it was maybe a little too wolfish. Like I could tell there was a little bit of hunger for human flesh lurking behind it, but at the time, that wasn’t the kind of human flesh I was thinking about. He had jet black hair shaved into one of those punk haircuts I used to wear but couldn’t maintain—right after my parents died I was really into the Dead Kennedys, and there was something weirdly sexy about Jello Biafra’s voice when he sang “Police Truck” that was loopy and aggressive but desperate all at the same time—and Casper reminded me of that sound. His eyes were narrow and brown, and they laughed really easy, but never at me. Also he had a tragus piercing and I mean, shit, man, I mean, really—how does that play out on a wolf’s ear?

So I got my drink, and then he was like, “You smoke,” but it wasn’t a question and like a total fuckup I was, like, yeah, how’d you know? And he tapped his nose and winked, and he was like, “I could smell it on you.” And now I’m thinking fuck, well, that was pretty obvious, Arlo, you fucking brainless dick, but at the time I was kind of relieved because he asked if he could bum one. I wanted everyone to see me leaving, having a good time, so we went out back together and we smoked the rest of my pack, and then we made out for a while and then we went back inside.

He was like Joe Strummer, if Strummer were East Asian and at a gay bar and not dead.

The fucked up part is that I saw Casper a couple of times after that, which led to him getting my number, which led to him knocking on my door one night pretty drunk, and I guess things had been so good the past year, you know, that I wasn’t really paying attention to the moon anymore. I paid a lot of attention to it after my parents died, and I guess I always carry a vague awareness of it because I’m a hunter, but I never thought about hunting when I was with Casper and we never talked about it.

After he spent a few nights with me, he found my crossbow in the closet with its silver-tipped bolts and I found him staring, and I told him it was cool. I was like, you want to give it a shot? I know a place we could go. I have the license and all that shit, and he was like, “Have you ever killed anything, R?” and I told him yeah, I’ve killed plenty, and then he actually grinned. He was like, “Me too.” But after that he didn’t come around as much, so that was that.

It’s not like we were in love or anything, but I guess, lately, I’d sort of missed him.

They’re two booths down in the corner, but the booth between us is empty. Gail starts throwing these tiny little balls made out of Logan’s straw wrapper. Her aim is shit, but you’d never know it because when we’re down in the dens, a lot of the time there’s really no aiming involved. She starts using his napkin and Logan just lets her, nodding and smiling like isn’t this funny? We’re regulars at this Denny’s, so I don’t see how we’ve never seen them here before.

I start imagining how white trash we must look in our gear and how we brought our bows and bolts inside and how fucked up that kind of is. Back in school, Ace and Logan, who lived on the edge of some trailer court hinterlands, had these four-wheelers and we used to go down and shoot paintball and I’m starting to think maybe we never grew out of it because we’re still wearing all our stupid-ass shit. We have these bandanas around our arms with this wood-axe emblem. Like ha ha, get it, like we’re the huntsmen from that story where that girl gets eaten by a wolf, which by now, I guess, everyone figures was probably true.

I sink a little lower, trying to remember if any of them ever saw Casper with me, and then I get my answer. Logan shoulders Gail. He’s looking at me. “What’s wrong, R?” he says, and I can hear it in his voice, this cruelness he gets when he’s about to start whaling on someone.

Under the table, my hands clench and unclench, and my palms are sweaty.

Gail is laughing now, and Ace starts in on my eggs, and Logan winks at me.

“Hey, will you fucking shut up?” I say. I want to tell Gail to stop throwing shit, but I don’t.

“What crawled up your ass and died, R? Chill the fuck out.” Gail rolls up another piece of Logan’s napkin and dips it in my coffee—what the fuck, I growl, but she sends the wad sailing. “It doesn’t fucking matter,” she says for the thousandth time. “Just because you’ve got your panties in a bunch over losing one doesn’t mean we’ve got to share your shit mood, you know?” She snorts with laughter, “Fuck—they’re catching on, I think—”

I can’t help sneering. “The thing we lost wasn’t one of them, it was wild, it can’t even transform—” like the pack that killed your brother, but I don’t say that part. Gail’s still laughing, but Logan gets this frown going and I know he hears me. “And seriously, what the fuck?” My voice is a little louder now, “I’m not the one who lost it, why am I getting blamed? Ace was the one on his phone, and you’re the one who was fucking with Snapchat filters the whole time—”

“Dude, um,” Ace looks up from his phone, “you were the one staring at that fire pit—”

“Yeah, um, actually,” Gail chimes in, “that was weird, wasn’t it? I mean how’d a bunch of wild wolves cut a stump like that and light it on fire?” They’re all looking at me. “You’re the one who did recon,” Gail says, like I don’t already fucking know.

Then I see the flicker of dangerous excitement in Logan’s eye. “Hey guys,” he says, interrupting Gail, and I know he’s going to tell them. “Did you know R here fucked one of—”

“Excuse me.”

We look up.

It’s one of the wolves, but it isn’t Casper. The wolf-girl doesn’t say anything more, just dumps a cup of her yellowy piss right on Gail’s head. Gail screeches, chokes on it—and I’m out of the booth like lightning, Jesus, shit! not because I’m afraid of getting piss on me, but because everything is fucked and my heart’s thrumming crazy like it did on my first hunt and I’ve got to move. I push the wolf-girl out of the way and she’s howling, like, howling with laughter, and I think I’m totally leaving, but I don’t have a car, and even if I did, Ace always drives.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” I say, once I’m out in the parking lot. I figure the cops will be here soon because this isn’t such a bad side of town, I guess, and it’ll be this whole thing. They’ll see we’ve got our bows and all that shit, not that it really matters, but we’ll have to stand around in this Denny’s parking lot all night showing them our licenses, getting looked up in databases—they might call Will, fuck, I mean, I doubt I’d lose my job, but maybe I could.

I pace, trying to remember. I don’t know. I didn’t see shit. I didn’t see that fire pit on recon, I just saw a fucking hovel, and wolves, and piles of junk. The moon’s been high the past few days, and just yesterday I was there, and I didn’t see any of them transform. Not the month before, not the month before that. I mean, it’s not like we just shoot up any old pack we find. They’ve got to be verified, you know? And they were, but even if they weren’t—who the fuck am I shitting? Will’s taken us to a few jobs way outside the city, in the suburbs that need a quick favor after a kid goes missing. It wasn’t my fault. It’s not my fault. No fucking way, man.

Casper doesn’t say anything, but I know he’s standing there. Watching me after he lights up his smoke, and I let him watch and take a few drags. Finally, he says, “They called the cops, I think, but Amadeus and Freya just ran—she’s the one who came up to you guys.” He shrugs and takes another drag and I want very badly to ask him for a smoke, and I know he wishes I’d ask.

“Why aren’t you running?” I say. I stop pacing, but now I’m shaking. I can’t get calm. They get to pick their human names, I heard. Whatever names they want and I don’t give a fuck why Casper picked his. Something is moving through me like a tremor now, the kind that splits mountains.

“I will,” he says. He still looks the same, only he’s got new boots. He fidgets with his phone in his free hand and it lights his face up, the sharp of his bones, his narrow nose. Deep down I know he’s anxious, but he looks indifferent. Like whatever, man, you’re on your own.

“Fuck you,” I say. I let the words cut my mouth and they hurt and I want him to know how bad they hurt even though I can tell they’ve cut him, too. It doesn’t fucking matter.

He tenses when I move towards him, like he’s watching the earth crack wide open, but he’s not going to move, he’s just going to let himself fall in like a stupid fucking idiot. Like those wolf-kids at school or the wild ones in the den. Like they just exist to take it and do nothing, just lie down and die, only, I’m wrong—and he doesn’t take it. He flicks his smoke and then right here in some Denny’s parking lot we tear each other into hundreds of raw, bloody pieces, and we don’t say a word the whole time we just keep hitting and hitting and hitting and hitting and I don’t know how but it starts ripping me up inside, too, how easy it all happens.

When I moved to the city, I moved in with my grandparents who owned this little townhouse in a retirement community, I guess. They’re gone now too, so when I moved out on my own, I got this place near the city park and whatever’s left of the gardens. The trees aren’t like they were back home, but it’s about as close as I can get to real colors, you know?

I live in a basement apartment with one window and one room. It’s No Smoking, but I smoke anyway and all that shit. Some nights, I can’t stand the smell, so I wander outside in the dark, on the trails near a ravine that cuts through the park like a wide gash. The ravine goes on for miles that way. By my place, on the trails, there’s usually a shitload of litter and something strange will come over me and I’ll get right up next to the bank smoking my smoke, and fish out all the trash. I never put it where it belongs though—I sort of just pile it up beside me in the rocks.

The first few times, I liked it—the hunting, I mean—and this pack, it’s not like they were innocent and all that shit. They’d killed a few people living near the tracks, so at first, no one was saying much about the deaths, but then the police got involved and Will stuck his nose in, got us hired. Will calls them hunts. Lately, they’ve felt more like exterminations. My first kill was pretty scrappy and all that shit. Thing put up a fight. I’ve got scars, sure. I used to be proud about them, but one night, when Casper found one (and I guess he must’ve known but he asked anyway), I said it was from falling out of a tree when I was a kid.

I didn’t even know he was one of them so it’s weird, you know, that I lied.

Will’s always going on and on about the world dying, and getting worse, and how the apocalypse is nigh and all that shit, but lately I sort of feel like the world’s been totally shit-canned since probably forever, I guess. Since man first fucked some woman in a cave. There’s never been anywhere safe, or perfect. Not when people are always around to ruin it all to hell.

But now I get to thinking about the fire pit again, that stump cut into sections. How it reminded me of the lightning-struck tree seeping at the seams with fire, back when my parents were alive. I fish the last of the trash out of the water and sit, taking a long drag on the last smoke from Casper’s pack. My fingers are numb. Back at the hunt, that wild wolf tricked me, I guess. When he heard us coming, he was probably outside, keeping watch like we should’ve done on recon. I’ll bet he knew I was in his yard, made sure I saw what he wanted me to see. I’ll bet he was a sentinel, like I am.

I mean—or, I don’t know.

The cold moonlight bites Roque as he staggers down a steep ravine. There are no birds here. He is human. He is clumsy, naked. There is only the sound of rust, and grinding halts, and Roque is shivering. He has to stop so he can weep. Roque is human. He gags on his tears. They taste like slivers of silver. Near him there is water, and he laps it up to wash the taste of grief out of his mouth. Later, he will throw it back up because it is rotten and contaminated and his insides are raw. The trees hiss at him, his feet cut from the rocks of the stream. He is weeping, weeping, weeping. He is alone. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a shadow in the dawn with smoke pouring from its mouth. Roque is human. When he sees the shadow, he knows it sees him.

Emily Lundgren is a student of fiction at the Northeast Ohio MFA where she is working on a fantasy novel narrated by a poet shapeshifter, a lost witch prince zombie-vampire, and a woman with an electric guitar. She is from South Dakota and is still getting used to Ohio’s narrow roads. This is her first publication. When not writing, she is probably lighting the bonfire at The Painted World in Dark Souls. You can follow her on twitter @emslun.

Run With Other Packs:

Painted Grassy Mire, by Nicasio Reed – Heat like a hand at her throat then a breeze kicked up from Lake Borgne to swat Winnie sweetly across the face. One of those breezes every hour. A muddy, warm thing that got her through the day. What would life be without a breeze off the lake? Nothing. Nothing, just everyone gone to moss and decay.

Another Beginning, by Michael McGlade – Ógán is twenty-one. He is studying history at Queen’s University, Belfast. Succumbed to a powerful drug fugue in his dorm room, he is paralyzed, unmoving for a whole day except that within himself he’s travelling through Indonesia; a trip he and his fiancée Niamh have meticulously planned for years, and which they intend to take after graduation. When he eventually comes to, Ógán realizes the places he wants to travel to will never live up to his dreams. He rushes over to Malachy’s.

Even in This Skin, by A.C. Wise – Mar has been binding her breasts for years by the time she starts visiting Jamie in prison. If the men stare, it’s at her ass; she can live with that. She isn’t packing today, so she doesn’t strut, just tugs her sweatshirt over her wrists before sliding into the seat opposite her brother. Today, she just wants to disappear.