I explained to Nick that there were packs all over the world. Our pack happened to be descended from people who lived in the valley. An outsider crossed the frozen oceans, made his way over the mountains, and married a valley woman. He must have come from Russia or northeastern Asia, where there were a lot of packs. Either way, something about the mixing of their bloodlines produced the first wolf-sons, two huge, burly, probably pretty hairy fellas. There was a terrible winter, and the hunters couldn’t get enough food for their families. People were starving. The Northern Man’s elder son wished for the strength of the wolf, so that he could provide for his family and neighbors, and he wished so strongly that he was able to phase. And then his brother, seeing what the elder could do, joined in. They were able to hunt up enough food for the whole village and store some away, which was almost being a millionaire in the those days. The other villages kept asking how they did it, but my ancestors were smart enough not to tell. Instead, they shared what they had and prevented jealousy, which was pretty damned ingenious. I like to think my family invented public relations.
“Phasing just became a way of life,” I told Nick. “They had a lot of kids, all of whom could transform. So could their kids, and their kids, et cetera, et cetera. And here we are.”
He was silent, his eyes all shiny and bright like a kid’s on Christmas morning.
“I’m starved,” I said, motioning at his cabinets. “Do you mind?”
He shook his head. I took a carton of eggs out of his fridge and heated a pan. I opened his spice drawer and was shocked to find garlic salt that was at least five years old and what might, at one point, have been nutmeg.
“Mo would be appalled by this,” I told him, clucking my tongue.
“I’ll subscribe to the Spice of the Month Club if you keep talking,” he promised solemnly.
“Well, don’t do that online; you’ll be shocked by your search results.” I cracked eggs, beating them lightly. I poured them into the pan and took a hunk of cheddar cheese from the fridge. I sniffed to make sure it was mold-free. I wasn’t a cook. I didn’t have the knack or the time for it. Plus, my mom never let me near her stove. You melt one microwave, and the woman completely loses her sense of humor. But at the moment, it felt nice to move around the kitchen, to keep my hands busy and give myself some time to work through what I wanted to say.
“Can you make toast?” I asked.
He nodded, coming out of whatever contemplative fog he’d been in. “So, is the pack set up like a real wolf pack? Is there an alpha male?” he asked, sliding wheat bread into the toaster.
“Actually, there’s an alpha female,” I said. His jaw dropped. I grinned and pointed to myself.
“That is so hot,” he groaned. “Not to be a chauvinist, but how do you get dozens of big, burly guys and older, stubborn ladies to listen to your every command? Don’t they resent being bossed around by a woman?”
“Well, Dr. Dolittle, as you well know, there are lots of matriarchal setups in the animal kingdom, including killer whales, bees, and elephants. Mother Nature isn’t completely chauvinist,” I said, chuckling. “It’s not typical for werewolves to be led by a female, but in the absence of the rightful alpha, Cooper, it was the pack’s choice. The alpha serves as a sort of leader for the village. While the lesser pack members have property rights and general free will, all major decisions must be filtered through the alpha couple. Or would be, if I had a mate.”
When he frowned, I could almost see the “sounds like a cult” wheels turning in his head.
I added, “I know it sounds weird. Wolves work together to make sure that everybody in the pack is fed, safe. They’re conditioned to work in harmony under a clear social rule. They need a single voice to lead them, the alpha. So when the alpha tells you to do something, even if you know what he’s asking is stupid or dangerous, you’ll do it. And you’re happy to do it, because it’s for the good of the pack. You need that community, the family, to feel complete. It’s a little harder for me, because I’m not the rightful alpha. Sometimes I have to appeal to my pack’s collective common sense and, well, their fear that I’ll kick their asses, to get my way.”
“So, if the pack is so important, why did Cooper leave?”
I lifted an eyebrow and flipped an only slightly singed cheese omelet onto a plate. I poured more eggs into the pan and grated more cheese. I forked a huge mouthful of omelet into my mouth. “You really don’t know how to ask softball questions, do you?” I asked around my food.
“Well, it’s not like I don’t share!” he exclaimed, handing me a piece of buttered toast, which I promptly devoured. “Now that I know that the truck interlude was real, I know I told you about my crazy childhood. I can break out the stories about being left in the family station wagon while my mom gambled for twelve-hour stints. We can play the ‘whose childhood was more screwed up? game. Because I’ve never lost.”
I countered, “My dad was shot in the head by research scientists because they thought he was going to eat them.”
He pursed his lips. “So, you are a contender.”
Oh, hell. If I was going to do this, I was going all in. He was probably going to find out anyway. My mom would probably tell him over tea and cake. I took a deep breath and told him my story, that when I was sixteen or so, another pack came to the valley and tried to take it. Cooper had only been alpha for about a year. I guess at the time, I didn’t realize how young Cooper was. He was my big brother and always seemed so grown-up to me. But he was practically a kid, and not only was he taking care of me and my mom, but he was running the pack, too. Looking back, I’m sort of ashamed that I didn’t see how much stress he was under. But I was young and, well, stupid.
Late one night, this other pack showed up and dragged me out of my bed into the street. I explained, “The alpha, this huge guy named Jonas, held me by the back of the neck and told Cooper that he’d wring it like a chicken’s if we didn’t just hand the valley over and disappear.”
I squinted at him.
“Colonial Virginia . . . whole community disappeared into thin air. It’s like the first unsolved mystery of the New World.” He held up his hands as I flipped the omelet onto his plate. “I’ll tell you later.”
I rolled my eyes. “Anyway, these numb-nuts had apparently hunted their own packlands into nothing, and the valley is known to be a particularly sweet setup in the were community.”
He frowned while he chewed. “I assume that’s a werewolf faux pas?”
“Territory is all we have sometimes. You just don’t do that. Werewolves are genetically programmed to protect their packlands, to stay close. Ripping a pack away from that is just evil. A wolf’s brain is hardwired to protect a certain area of land, to hunt there, to live there. And that’s the way it’s been for our pack for almost a thousand years. So, if they’d managed to snake it out from under us, imagine fighting against that kind of draw, every waking moment of every day. It would be torture. The sick thing is, if they’d come to us and asked if they could stay, I know Cooper would have let them. Hell, he did offer them a place, even when they threatened us. He’s just that kind of guy. He’s better than me, kinder.”
“Eh, you’re not so bad.”
I pressed my hand over my heart. “Thank you, really, the praise, it’s heartwarming.”
“You know that you’re fantastic,” he said.
“Thanks. Back to my story. So, Jonas is shaking my head so hard I can actually feel my brain bouncing around in my skull. And I’m just laughing my ass off, because I know any minute, my brother’s going to open a case of whoop-ass on this guy. I could almost taste the fight, and it was going to be beautiful. I was so caught up in the anticipation that it took me a minute to realize Cooper was just standing there. He was frozen. It hadn’t even occurred to me that he wouldn’t know exactly what to do. I mean, how stupid is that?”
“Everyone idolizes their big brothers,” he said, shrugging, pushing my hair over my shoulder. “What happened?”
“I kicked Jonas in the balls and called him a jerkoff.”
He snorted. “Well, of course, you did.”
I shrugged. “I figured it would wake Cooper up, draw him into the fight. And man, Jonas was pissed. He phased faster than you could blink and went right for my throat.” I dragged my fingers over the faint white lines left behind by his claws. “I thought, Bring it. If Cooper isn’t going do his job, I’ll do it. But damned if Cooper didn’t phase and shove me out of the way. I tried to circle around, get at Jonas myself, but Cooper wouldn’t let me. When I finally got a shot in at Jonas, I jumped at him too early, and the fucker pinned me. I would have felt like an asshole, except he had his teeth at my throat. I was too busy panicking.” I twisted my fingers around the blankets and looked down. This was the part of the story I hated. The one I’d never talked about with anyone but Mom and Cooper.
“Go on, Maggie, please.”
“Cooper knocked him off me. And he, um, he killed him. You know what they say about cutting the head off the snake? Well, it just pisses the rest of the snake off. The enemy pack circled on Cooper. They were going to tear him apart, and he took them all on. He killed all of them. He wouldn’t let any of us near the fight. Except for a straggler male who tried to jump on his back. I killed him, without even thinking about it.”
Nick was quiet, picking at the remains of egg on his plate. “Does it bother you?”
“Oh, hell, no,” I exclaimed with false, exaggerated cheer. “It’s awesome to know I’ve taken someone’s life, that I’m responsible for taking a wolf out of this world, when there are so few of us left. My mom brings it up every Thanksgiving, so the whole family can relive the memory.”
“I’m glad you’re taking this seriously,” he dead-panned.
“Cooper had a hard time with it. He had nightmares. He lost weight, stopped running with the pack. He didn’t want to be near any of us. He couldn’t bring himself to touch our mother, wouldn’t even hug her, for the longest time. He said he was afraid of what he was, of what was inside him that let him kill people, even if it was in defense of the pack. If I’d known anything back then, I’d have known he probably had PTSD or something. But I thought he was being dramatic and stupid. Everybody tried to talk to him, to tell him how proud we were, how proud my father would have been. But nothing stuck. He just sort of retreated into himself. The pack suffered. It was like mass depression or something. Nobody wanted to run or hunt. Without a leader, we were more vulnerable than ever. I got scared, and I was hurt . . . and that’s not something I work through very well. There was a lot of, um, lashing out.”
“Imagine,” he said dryly.
“When Cooper talked about that night, he made it sound like he’d done something unforgivable. And that meant what I’d done was unforgivable, too. I’d depended on him to be everything, a brother, a father, and to have him snatch that away . . . well, needless to say, I got pissed. I mean, who did he think he was, being all tortured and selfish when we needed him? He was the alpha. He had a responsibility to us, and he was just pissing it away. I wouldn’t have wasted it. I knew that much. And that little seed of resentment started to grow and take root.
“Cooper decided we were better off without him and moved to Grundy. I went a little crazy. And for years, I kept expecting the hurt to go away, even just a little bit, but it just seemed to get worse.
“My cousin Eli air-quote ‘reluctantly’ stepped in to take over the pack. He’d been a sort of kindred spirit. He always said he was just holding Cooper’s place until Cooper came back. And I started to resent that, too. Without Cooper, I was the strongest in the pack. I was the fastest. Except for Eli, I was probably the smartest . . . which wasn’t saying much. Once we were back on our feet, I didn’t see why Eli should be holding the place at all. I thought I was ready to take Cooper’s place right then. And why shouldn’t I? He didn’t want it, so why shouldn’t I have it?”