Beep. Beep. B—SMACK.
The 6 AM alarm reminded me that I worked in an hour. Shuffling out of bed, I vaguely noticed the sting in my hand from just how hard I hit the screaming box to shut it up. At this point, I’m so predictable I can get dressed in the dark: old jeans, the faded Eventide Diner t-shirt, black socks, old sneakers. I headed to locate my nametag. My kitchen had and its counter piled high with assorted papers: hospital bills from my latest rabies exposure, Aconite’s daily newspaper, three different fliers on recycled paper reminding me about upcoming protests, the Post-It note with the emails of government officials who I may be able to annoy into caring about our world. My nametag rested to the left of all the mess. I picked up the badge and undid the pinback. ARTEMIS HUNT, it declared, in bold capital letters. It seemed like the kind of name a teenager would name herself because it was. I poked myself in the chest twice before I finally had it on.
After a five-minute ride over cracked sidewalk and past old homes, I came to one of the only buildings in town that didn’t look like it was about to fall to pieces. The Eventide Diner was well-kept, at least as far as things went around here. I locked my bike to the rack and stepped inside, where I was greeted by the scents of sizzling bacon and cooking omelets, a local news report drabbling on about a stupid new logging project. Lyall, my morning wait staff coworker, stood next to the register counting his tips. We got along and often swapped stats about conservation with grim expressions.
“You know, deer season is in soon,” he said, giving me that specific look he always had when he thought something would get me riled up.
“…You know,” I mocked his tone, “I’m not against hunting itself.” I’d been hunting as a kid—it was one of those things Dad did with me, not because I particularly enjoyed it, but because he didn’t know how to bond with his kid. I went; not for the hunting, but for the excuse to sit in the woods quietly, where time was only measured by the arcs of the trees’ shadows. Any time we harvested something, it was never wasted. A hunter owes their prey swift death and use of its life. If that’s happening, it’s fine. But then there’s tattered trash bags full of deer carcass dumped on the back streets, reeking of death and disrespect, or the lead-filled bodies of groundhogs and porcupines are discarded into the brambles as a reminder that existence of such undesirable creatures was intolerable… I looked back to see Lyall giving me a scowl, which made me prickle with agitation. Everything felt hopeless. I didn’t bother to respond.
My work shift ended at one, and today my volunteer shift started at two. My back was turned from the gray civilization that I’m unfortunately shackled to, and the wind pushes me from behind, like it’s hastening my escape. The road sheltered by the trees is smoother, somehow. Rides to the wildlife sanctuary always felt so much faster than those to the Eventide Diner. Branches curled into the sky above, weaving a warm blanket over my head despite the snowy chill. Few leaves were left this late in the year, but the smiling yellow maple and aspen leaves rustled to applaud my arrival. After a small curve in the path, like a smile, it was a straight shot to the sanctuary. I thought about the raptors we were rehabilitating, and the ambassador foxes who would be happy to see me again. I felt alive out here, out of the town, helping the animals we’d wronged.
As much as I hated leaving the sanctuary, I enjoyed biking at sunset. Mostly, trips home were uneventful and left me to ride the high of my volunteer work. Tonight, as I came a little bit closer to the town, I found a pair of small moons glinting in the weak headlight of my bicycle. A doe stood at the edge of the road; her head turned towards me for a moment before swinging back to the road.
Suddenly I was aware of the sound of an engine behind me, and I filled with dread. Mere seconds passed and it felt like years. An old pickup, going far too fast—a thud. I hopped off my bike and tossed it aside, breath caught in my throat. The doe looked at me with pleading eyes as she lay on the asphalt; I knew better than to get too close, but I stepped away from my bike and kneeled near her as, down the road, the man stared at his metal monster and inspected it for any damage.
The rest of my ride home was done in solemn silence. When did it become criminal for animals to move?
With a heavy sigh, I settled into my bed for an uneasy sleep as the TV I left on for noise started a documentary about wolves.
I found myself in the woods again, though they felt different. Mist swirled around the tree trunks, turning the whole world silvery blue. I knew where I was; a dried creek bed lay at my feet, I could feel my soul compelling me to follow the path it set out for me. It pulled my boots along, encouraging every step forward. The silence was deafening, to the point I didn’t even hear my steps crinkle the leaves I trod on. Eventually the path ended, and I stood in a clearing facing a sheer rock wall. I first heard the whispers, something so new in this world of dullness. “Touch it,” they instructed me, echoing around and inside my head. I didn’t even think to disobey, and I let my hand graze the cool limestone. I felt liquid suddenly rush over my fingertips, as though I’d awakened an old waterfall…
Starlight exploded in the forest. The burst of light caught my attention, making me turn my back to the waterfall so I could better observe the new surroundings. Squirrels with twinkling outlines bustled through the trees, disturbing woodpeckers made of glitter. Around me, in a half-circle, sat seven wolves with constellations in their pelts, though they seemed old and faded, watching me expectantly.
Then there was the deer.
It stood in the center of the clearing, towering over me, its withers alone at least six inches above my head. Its fur was white, glistening with the same pinpricks of light as every other creature here, though it shone much more radiantly. A sprawling crown of golden antlers rode on its head, and some of the starry birds were using them as a perch. Though the most striking thing about the celestial beast were its eyes—or, rather, lack of them. Two voids took up the spaces where its eyes should have been, and they puddled with pitch black shadow that dripped down the creature’s face, leaving rivulets of black like mascara-ridden tears.
“Hello, Artemis.” It spoke with thousands of voices, yet its mouth never moved. I could only sit in awe and terror, gaping up at the giant creature. It chuckled, sounding like birdsong and chipmunks. “Oh, be not afraid. We wish to thank you.”
“Thank me?” I found my voice, but apparently not much of it.
“You fight to protect us. Your gentleness shines.”
Even though I figured this for a dream, I played into the fantasy. “Of course. Nature is important—we aren’t above it. We need it to survive.”
The deer nodded, and the seven wolves stood and wagged their celestial tails. “We wish to help you. Artemis, do you want to protect us? Do you want to protect the forest?”
Silence permeated the forest again as all the creatures awaited my answer. Hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of eyes focused on me. My heart ached for these creatures; part of me felt insulted that the deer had even asked. “Yes,” I replied in a small voice. “I do.”
The wolves danced, making yipping noises as all seven of them bounded toward me. Despite being knocked to the ground, I felt no fear. They licked my face, sharing their starlight with my soul.
I had been wrong to figure it a mere dream. I woke up in my bed, with moonlight shining on my face. As I reached up to rub my eyes, I realized that my hands were paws—brilliant white paws, white like the deer. I rushed for the mirror and found the rest of my body had taken on a similar canid form.
I realized what the creatures had asked of me.
I didn’t go back to work for about a week. With lycanthropy came body aches and occasional fever, but those subsided in a few days and left me with my ability. Upon returning to my job, Lyall gave me a concerned stare, which seemed fair considering I seemed dead for days. But then he slipped me his phone with a screenshot of a news article:
MYSTERIOUS BEAST LEAVES THREE INJURED
Over the past three days, multiple hunters and loggers reported sighting a bipedal white canine after sunset. So far three different people report having been attacked by the animal, one of which remains in critical condition after attempting to shoot it…
He knew. I don’t know how, but I gave him a subtle nod and small smile.
Because now we could finally do something.