Dante Hosts a Baby Shower in the Seventh Circle
THE BEST THING ABOUT being a werewolf was that you never needed a sports bra.
It’s hard to explain to humans the absolute freedom of running on all fours. The feeling of my feet hitting the ground without anything between the pads of my skin and the earth, the undeniable pull of the moving forward, the spring of the leap, the scent of the cold north wind.
It’s all of the awesome Nike commercials combined, without having to fork over a hundred bucks for shoes. Because you don’t need any shoes. Or boob binders.
I dashed through the underbrush, following the fresh scent trail left by a panicked rabbit. I yipped in my excitement, barreling between trees and under low fingers of pine. The foliage grew thinner, golden-green light filtering through the pine needles as we approached a clearing. Silly rabbit, heading for open ground. My canine brain was rolling over the potential hilarity of a silly rabbit as a sitting duck, distracting me from a less familiar scent on the breeze.
A strange man was not supposed to be wandering this close to the Crescent Valley, a fingernail-moon-shaped dent in the Alaskan interior that was a lush, game-filled heaven on earth for werewolves. Alone, there was nothing I could do but hide and hope he wasn’t armed. Without breaking my stride, I turned, ducking under the branches of a pine tree the width of a minivan, and waited. I didn’t recognize any part of this human’s scent. It was smoky, mossy, but sort of fresh, like new leaves and my mom’s homemade bread. My mouth started to water a little.
That was weird.
My ears perked up at the sound of footsteps trudging through the soft, dry grass. I hunched close to the ground and waited for his boots to appear in my line of vision. I held my breath, knowing that I would growl and give myself away. The delicious greenery-and-home-cooking smell invaded my head as two feet stepped precariously close to my hiding spot. Old boots, worn and well cared for, stopped just outside the tree line, as if the wearer was waiting for something.
I heard him uncap a canteen, take several swallows of water, and then step away. I crept farther from the branches, getting a better look at the tall, broad-shouldered form. From the back, I could see wavy blond hair sticking out from under an old navy blue baseball cap on his head. All he had on him was an old backpack and the canteen. So, not a hunter. Probably just a hiker, wandering too far away from the nature preserve.
Still, the fewer humans who saw wolves near the valley, the better. He stopped again and turned. I ducked back under the brush. Branches obscured my view of his face, but his scent grew stronger, and my brain sort of, well . . . stilled. Everything seemed calm and clear, and the usual organic alarms that shouted “Stranger danger!” quieted.
I huffed, trying to shake away the strange, numbed feeling. I liked my alarms blaring, thank you very much.
The man tramped into the woods, away from my little village. Some magnetic pull drew my paws in the same direction, to follow. I managed to break the spell and sprang out from under the pine needles, running toward home. The pounding of paws on dirt had almost cleared my head when I picked up a more familiar scent.
I skidded to a stop, my paws dragging into the cool, packed dirt and sending clods spraying onto my mother’s candy-pink wool dress.
Mom had a full, round, happy face, with twinkling brown eyes and a mouth made for smiling. That didn’t mean she couldn’t be downright scary with maternal wrath when she wanted to be.
“Margaret Faith Graham, you get on two legs right now,” she commanded sternly, tapping her slippered foot against the ground. From my oddly fish-eyed, waist-height perspective, it should have been intimidating. But I’d been getting that same look since I was old enough to turn wolf. My sister-in-law, Mo, stood behind my mother, giving me her best “I tried to stop her” expression.
I sat on my haunches and huffed. Mom cocked her fists on her hips. “Don’t you sass me, young lady. Alpha or no, I’ll phase and bite a chunk out of your hide.”
Rolling my eyes, I concentrated on my human form. Arms, legs, fingers, and toes. I felt a warm, tugging sensation, a thread being pulled through my chest, as my body stretched and pulled. I rolled my neck, enjoying the release of tension as my vertebrae snapped into place. My vision blurred into a golden haze, then focused. Finally, I was standing on bare human feet.
I smirked at Mo, who still wasn’t completely comfortable hanging around with the frequently nude. She covered her eyes with one hand while making warning gestures with the other.
“How could you just not bother to show up?” Mom demanded.
I stared at her, my face blank, as I tried to figure out what exactly I’d missed. Honestly, there were a couple of options. Behind Mom, Mo held her hand over her head, making wiggling motions with her fingers. I arched my brow at her. She wiggled her fingers even harder, which really was so much clearer.
“I was . . . attacked by a squid?” I guessed.
Mo’s hand dropped to her side, and she glared at me as Mom turned to her. Mom rolled her eyes at both of us. “How is this,” Mo demanded, waving her hand over head, “attacked by a squid?”
“Shower,” Mo said, wiggling her fingers again. “Baby shower.”
“Well, don’t blame me because you suck at Charades.”
“You skipped out on Katie’s baby shower,” Mo told me. Suddenly, Mom wearing her good church dress in the middle of the woods made a lot more sense.
“Oh, well, I wasn’t going to that anyway,” I said, shrugging.
Mom spluttered. “You told me you’d meet us at the community center this afternoon!”
“To help you clean up!” I exclaimed. “There was no way I was going to spend my Sunday measuring Katie’s belly with toilet paper and eating little mints that taste like toothpaste.”
“Well, you’re about two hours late to help with cleanup.”
I looked up at the sky, gauging the height of the late-afternoon sun. “Oops. I must have lost track of time.”
“How could you skip your own cousin’s shower?” Mom demanded.
“Because I have eighteen cousins, not counting second cousins, and at any given time, at least one of them is pregnant?”
Mom gave me a sharp look and stalked toward the village. Mo gave me a sympathetic grimace.
“Oh, don’t you stand there all pious and pretend you had a good time at the shower,” I told her as we followed Mom’s trail through the trees.
She made a face and whispered fiercely, “You know I didn’t. Hell, I didn’t have a good time at my baby shower. Baby showers should be reserved as punishment for betrayers in the Seventh Circle of Hell. But I went. Why? Because that’s what being part of a family is all about, spending a Sunday afternoon doing stuff you really don’t want to do.”
“Says the woman who moved three thousand miles to be away from her parents,” I said, shrugging into the Carhartt jacket Mo shoved at me. My brother’s light autumn coat practically hung to my knees and could wrap around me twice.
“Yeah, because my parents would have the mother-to-be naked in a drum circle, drawing down the moon goddess. By comparison, your werewolf stuff is downright Rockwellian.”
I snorted. Mo’s parents were unapologetic hippies. Two years before, Mo had moved to Grundy all the way from Mississippi just to get away from them, only relenting and allowing them to visit for Eva’s birth. Now that I’d met them, I couldn’t blame Mo for picking werewolf pack drama over constant hovering and deep discussions of colonics.
I picked up my pace to catch up with Mom. “Wasn’t I sweet as freaking pie to Mo the whole time she was pregnant?” Mom and Mo both raised their eyebrows. I added, “For at least the last trimester. Didn’t I show up when Mo had her pup and present my new niece to the pack like Simba in the damned Lion King?”
“Please stop calling Eva a pup,” Mo muttered. “You know I hate that.”
“My point is that I’m plenty supportive of the women in the pack when they have babies. I just don’t want to be there for the frilly free-for-all,” I said.
Mom, who’d given up on correcting my colorful vocabulary years ago, simply stared at me.
“Mom, please don’t make me pull the alpha card on you.”
“Being the alpha doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want to do without regard for the feelings of others,” Mom intoned in her “important pronouncement” voice, turning away and walking out of the tree line.
“Kind of does,” I countered, but softly, under my breath.
“I can’t wait until you get pregnant,” Mo said. “And you’re forced to sit through your own shower. We’ll probably have to duct-tape you to your pink-bedecked mother-to-be throne.”
The very idea of being pregnant made me stop in my tracks and burst out laughing.
“Oh, haha, laugh as much as you want, Scrappy,” Mo told me as I braced myself against my knees for support. “You’re planning on marrying a male wolf—”
“I didn’t say ‘plan,’ “ I clarified. “I said, when I get around to mating, I’m going to marry another wolf.”
“Well, you’ll be pregnant before you leave the altar. You know you have superabsorbent eggs. It’s hereditary. Your brother’s ninja swimmers scoffed at modern prophylactics.”
“Damn it, Mo, I did not need that picture in my head.” I scowled at her. She preened a little and loped after my mother.
My brother and his mate were nearly sickening to watch. They were a combination of every nauseating chick flick ever made and the complete catalogue of Barry Manilow’s love songs. But in its own twisted way, their Disney-movie love affair helped me reconcile with said brother after years of not speaking and/or knock-down, drag-out fights. (The knocking and the dragging were mostly done by me.) So I was the tiniest bit fond of her, as fond as I could be of a human outsider.
Mo and I were a study of contrasts. I was small and what I prefer to think of compact and sporty—like one of those Porsche coupes. Mo was one of those “shouldn’t be hot but somehow through the combination of interesting features is” girls. She was willowy and tall, with a curly black halo of hair that had grown out to her shoulders while she was pregnant with Eva. I had stick-straight, aggressively brown hair that I never cut. She tried to be nice to everybody, where I never really bothered with that kind of crap. I charged into situations; she actually thought them through . . . which usually meant I got the first swing in.
Thanks to Mo, my mom was finally able to do all the froufrou girlie bonding shit she wanted to do when I was growing up. You’d think I’d be jealous, but honestly, I was happy for my mom. She’s a smart cookie. She knew that stuff made me miserable and that I would only be suffering through it for her. While Mo actually enjoyed getting her nails done and going shopping for something besides hiking boots.
Mo cleared her throat and pitched her voice into an intentionally cheerful tone. “Speaking of your brother—”
“If the next words out of your mouth have anything to do with sex, I can and will hurt you.”
“Fine,” she said, frowning. “Then the next words out of my mouth will be ‘fire extinguisher.’ “
I scowled at her, self-consciously rubbing at the crown of my head, where she’d actually once beaned me with a fire extinguisher to break up a tiny altercation between Cooper and me. Total overreaction on her part.
“Speaking of my brother,” I prompted her, while sending her a mildly threatening glare as Mom opened the front door of our snug house on the outskirts of the village.
Mo and I stepped through the door as Mom strode into the kitchen to make tea. That was what she did when she was angry . . . or upset . . . or happy. Really, she was an all-occasion tea drinker.