This was a cult, he thought. Some weird, freaky religious thing. They had some kind of faith healing going on. Did Price really think faith healing had saved him?
T.J. stayed because something had saved Price.
The woman took off her clothes, handing them to the woman in the skirt. One of the others opened the cage. Naked, she crawled in and sat on all fours, and seemed happy to do so, as the cage door was locked behind her.
“Ready, Jane?” Price said, reaching a hand into the cage. The woman licked it, quick and dog-like.
As if this couldn’t get any stranger. T.J. inched toward the doorway.
“Don’t go,” Price said. “Wait just another minute.”
The woman in the cage bowed her back and grunted. Then, she blurred. T.J. blinked and squinted, to better see what was happening. He moved closer.
Her skin had turned to fur. Her bones were melting, her face stretching. She opened her mouth and had thick, sharp teeth; that hadn’t been there before. This wasn’t real, this wasn’t possible, it was some kind of hoax.
T.J. stumbled back, launching himself toward the door. But Price was at his side, grabbing his arms, holding him. T.J. could have sworn he’d been on the other side of the room.
“Just wait,” Price said, calmly, soothing, as T.J. thrashed in his grip. “Calm down and watch.”
In another minute, a wolf stood in the cage, long-legged and rangy, with a gray back and pale belly. It shook out its fur, rubbed its face on its legs, and looked out at Price. T.J. couldn’t catch his breath, not even to speak.
“That’s right,” Price said, as if he knew the word T.J. was trying to spit out.
And that was the secret. That was how Price had survived. Because he was one of those, too. Every one of them was like her.
He tried to convince himself he wasn’t afraid of them. “It’s crazy. You’re all crazy.” He hated that his voice shook. He still pulled against Price’s grip—but Price had a monster’s strength.
“You’re not the only one who’s stood there and said so,” Price said.
“So what are you saying? That’s the cure? Become like that?”
“We’re all invulnerable. We don’t get sick. We don’t get hurt. Oh, we still age, we’ll all still die someday. And the silver bullet part is real. But when nobody else believes in this, what are the odds anyone’s going to shoot you with a silver bullet?”
“And the full moon thing is real, too?” T.J. said, chuckling, because what else could he do?
“Yes,” Price said.
“No, no,” T.J. said, giving himself over to the hysteria.
Price spoke softly, steadily, like he’d given this speech before. “All you have to do is stick your hand in the cage. But you have to ask yourself: if you’re not brave enough to deal with your life now, then why would you be brave enough to stick your hand in the cage? You have to be brave enough to be a monster. You think you’re that brave? I’m not sure you are.”
Of course he’d say it like a dare.
T.J. had spent the last few weeks in a constant state of subdued panic. Trying to adjust his identity from healthy to sick, when he didn’t feel sick and didn’t know what being sick even meant. And here he was being asked to do it again, change his identity, his whole being. He’d spent his whole life changing his identity, announcing it, feeling good about it, then feeling it slip out from under him again. He thought he’d done the right thing when he told his parents he was gay. They’d kicked him out, just like he’d known they would. He’d been ready for it—happy to leave, even. But from one day to the next he’d gone from closeted son to outed and independent—free, he’d thought of it then.
He went to the clinic and got tested because he’d had a raw, nagging feeling that he’d done it all wrong and was paying a price for all that freedom. From one day to the next he’d gone from healthy to not. And now, Price was offering him a chance to do it again, to change himself in the space of a minute. To an animal, a creature that shouldn’t exist, with sharp teeth behind curling lips.
The wolf’s eyes, golden-brown, stared at him, gleaming, eager. The woman—still flirting with him.
He could face one horror, or the other. Those were his choices. That was what he had brought on himself.
But wouldn’t it be nice to be invincible, for once?
“It can’t be that easy,” T.J. whispered.
“No, it’s not. But that’s why we’re here,” Price said. “We’ll help you.”
If he asked for time to think about it, he would never come back. He stepped toward the cage.
It was going to hurt. He repeated to himself, invincible, and he glanced at the people gathered around him—werewolves, all of them. But none of them looked on him with anger or hate. Caution, maybe. Doubt, maybe. But he would be all right. It would be a like a shot, a needle in the arm, a vaccination against worse terrors.
Price stood behind him—to keep him from fleeing? The others gathered around, like they wanted to watch. All he had to do was reach. The wolf inside the cage whined and turned a fidgeting circle.
“You can still back out. No shame in walking out of here,” Price said, whispering behind him.
It didn’t look so monstrous. More like a big dog. All he had to do was reach in and scratch its ear. T.J. rested his hand on the top of the cage. The bars were smooth, cool, as if the steel had absorbed the chill from the concrete underneath.
Kneeling, T.J. slipped his hand down to the side, then pushed his arm inside. The wolf carefully put her jaws around his forearm. He clenched his hand into a fist, and by instinct he lunged away. The wolf closed her mouth on him, and her fangs broke skin.
He thrashed, pulling back, fighting against her. Bracing his feet against the bars, he pushed away. That only made his skin tear through her teeth, and she bit harder, digging in, putting her paws on him to hold him still so that her claws cut him as well as his teeth. Behind him Price grabbed hold, securing him in a bear hug, whispering.
The pain was total. He couldn’t feel his hand, his arm, the wolf’s gnawing, but he could feel his flesh ripping and the blood pouring off him, matting in the fur of her snout. All that infected, tainted blood.
He looked away and clamped his jaws shut, trapping air and screams behind tightly closed lips.
By the time Price pulled T.J. away from the cage, he’d passed out.
When he woke up, he was in a twin bed in what looked like a sunny guest room. The decorations—paisley bedspread, out-of-date furniture set—lacked personality. The woman who had been a wolf sat on a chair next to the bed, smiling.
He felt calm, and that seemed strange. He felt like he ought to be panicking. But he remembered days of being sick, sweating, swearing, fighting against blankets he’d been wrapped in, and cool hands holding him back, telling him he was going to be fine, everything was going to be fine. All the panic had burned out of him.
He pulled his hands out from under the sheets and looked at them. His right arm was whole, uninjured. Not even a scar. But he remembered the claws tearing, the skin parting.
He took a deep breath, pressing his head to the pillow, assaulted by smells. The sheets smelled of cotton, stabbed through with the acerbic tang of detergent—it made his eyes water. A hint of vegetation played in the air, as if a window was open and he could smell trees—not just trees, but the leaves, fruit ripening on boughs, the smell of summer. Something was cooking in another part of the house. He’d never smelled so much.
The woman, Jane, moved toward him and her scent covered him, smothered him. Her skin, the warmth of her hair, the ripeness of her clothes, a hint of sweat, a hint of breath—and more than that, something wild that he couldn’t identify. This—fur, was it fur?—both made him want to run and calmed him. Inside him, a feeling he couldn’t describe—an instinct, maybe—called to him. It’s her, she did this.
He breathed through his mouth to cut out the smells, to try to relax.
“Good morning,” she said, wearing a thin and sympathetic smile.
He tried to speak, but his dry tongue stuck. She reached to a bedside table to a glass of water, which she gave him. It helped.
“I’m sorry I hurt you,” she said. “But that’s why we do it like this, so the choice has to be yours. Do you understand?”
He nodded because he did. He’d had the chance to walk away. He almost had. He wondered if he was going to regret not walking away.
“How do you feel?” she said.
“This is strange.”
She laughed. “If that’s all you have to say about it, you’re doing very well.”
Her laughter was comforting. With each breath he took, he felt himself grow stronger. It was like that moment just past being sick, when you still remembered the illness but had moved past it.
“I’m starving,” he said—the hunger felt amazing. He wanted to eat, to keep eating, rip into his food, tear with his claws—
And that was odd.
“Oh, Alex was right bringing you in,” Jane said. “You’re going to do just fine.”