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The Hike

by Devon Erthshade
First Place Winner

(Note from Phaedrus:  This story was originally posted in three parts.)

I originally joined this list to read stories like I'd seen in the archive, talk with a few authors of those stories, and maybe post something of my own. I've done plenty of the first, a little of the second (sorry, I just can't stand IRC for more than a few minutes), and absolutely nothing about the third. Time to rectify that situation. I present for your reading pleasure (whatever you can get out of it) my entry for Phaedrus' contest, The Hike.


"Hey, welcome back to life! I'm your host Roy Jacobson, sitting next to me is the beautiful Linda Keller..."

"Cut it out Roy."

"...and you're listening to ROCK99, 98.9FM. It's going to be..."

The announcers get no further as I slam my hand down on the snooze button. Annoying pair of twits, I would listen to something more pleasing, but then I wouldn't be jarred into wakefulness. As it stands, that's still only a minor possibility.

Precisely nine minutes later the walls reverbrate with another impact of flesh on plastic quickly followed by the sound of plastic upon metal as I shove the alarm clock into the trash. I run what I saw of the clock through some sluggish mental processes, groping for a meaning to what I've seen. Eight-oh-nine, eight, twenty-three, ninety-seven, hut, hut... hike... something clicks.

Shit, I'm going to be late.

Once this connection is made I'm leaping out of bed, hopping around to free my toes from the sheets. While engaging in these bedroom acrobatics, I catch a look at myself in the mirror. Pasty cheeks with barely a hint of color under deep-set brown eyes serve to accentuate my long thin nose, the color not doing wonders for my thin frame either. This is a wonderful study in contrasts with my nearly-black hair which is doing a creditable impression of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz -- pointing in every direction possible.

Deciding a shower is unnecessary given what activity I will be engaging in, I set about cleaning up my room from the previous night's research. If my parents ever find out what kind of 'research' I'm doing... I shudder and stop that train of thought. I will not let them. Dusty tomes of the occult with bookmarks at sections on lycanthropy, papers from supposed witches' homes with cryptic runes, documentation of Amerind rituals linked to Coyote -- all get crammed into a fireproof lock box in the closet to which only I had the key. Getting those items stored away, I sit down heavily, feeling a part of me get locked away with them. I can't rest long, however; the Deadbrain Duo get switched on again, and the day starts in earnest.

An hour later, I'm pedalling smoothly into the driveway of one Andrew Taylor. Biking with a large pack -- even a light one -- is not a fun experience, and the knowledge that I am putting the trip behind schedule makes it even less of one. So it is with some surprise that I find a smile on her face when I arrive.

No, I'm not talking about Andrew, I mean his daughter Allison. We've known each other since my family moved into the suburbs six years ago. Quite well, in fact; we have been going out with each other for a year now, with no indications of that trend slowing anytime soon. I wish I could say it was love at first sight, but we found each other to be an acquired taste. I was a bit too otherworldly -- not too far from the truth, actually! -- and she was... well, she was blunt.

"My god, Dusty, you look like hell."

"Thank you, Miss Obvious. I was up doing some reading late last night, and..."

She cuts me off with a wave of her hand and a toss of her hair. Scratch that; she tosses her hair, her long auburn tresses moving in a flowing tsunami of rich brown, and I am dumbstruck. I think she waved her hand in a dismissal gesture, I'm not quite sure. "You and your books again. I mean, I like to read occasionally too, but I don't understand what you see in those so-called books of 'magick'."

"My salvation." Of course I don't actually say this. It was difficult enough letting her see my 'research' without arousing her suspicion, I'm not going to add fuel to that fire yet. My actual reply is to throw my pack in the trunk of her father's Camaro and mutter, "It's a hobby. Come on, we're behind schedule as it is, let's get going."

She flashes me one of her embarrassed grins. "Daddy's not ready yet." The look of dumb amazement must be evident on my face, because she continues, "You know how it is, him being a doctor and all..." Her voice trails off, and I understand completely. The 'and all' consists mostly of Doc Andrew being at the hospital in the evenings, overseeing the change between day shift and night shift. I reach out to give her my sympathy, to ease the pain I can sense in her. She turns to look at me, gives me a soft smile, and...

The door from the garage to the house creaks warningly, and we both jump back a little. "Morning, Doctor Taylor," is out of my mouth before I think. Around a man like Andrew Taylor, some things become automatic. Pavlov's dogs keep coming to mind. Although perhaps that analogy would be better suited to my reactions to Allison.

"Quite correct, Dustin," he drawls. The sarcasm is so thick you can cut it with a diamond-edged knife. "Now that that's established, perhaps you'd like to do something with it? Or should we wait until we can prove that it is afternoon?" With that biting comment he becomes visible climbing the steps into the garage, impeccably dressed as always. I sometimes wonder if he even sleeps with a tie. As he gets closer, I spot the telltale black stubble and dim eyes; he must have been up as late as I was last night.

Without another word -- it's pointless to argue, as neither he nor I want to waste the energy doing so -- I place my bike next to Allison's and slide into the back seat next to her. Doc Taylor shoots me a mildly frustrated look as he adjusts his rearview mirror. I know he hardly tolerates my presence, but at least he has yet to chase me off his property with an aluminum bat, like he did with Allison's last boyfriend. That's what she told me anyway.

We spend the car trip in silence, the possibility of conversation forestalled by tension. After a mercifully short time we arrive at the southern entrance to Caldrich National Preserve. Andrew even helps us unload our gear, although it's obvious he doesn't want to touch mine any longer than necessary, merely tossing it out onto the ground rather than carrying it to the side with care. Such an endearing personality, and he hides his disgust so well. I manage to snatch my pack and most of the spilled equipment from under the car before the good doctor gives a hasty promise to pick us up at the northern lot in three days and throws the gearshift in reverse, running over the place where my pack once lay. The man is insane and has it in for me, I'm sure.

After the dust settles I survey what remains, salvage what I can, and stand in a silent ceremony for one of the casualties -- it was a brand-new compass, too. Shoving the survivors into my pack haphazardly, I hurry over to where Allison is already speaking with one of the rangers about last-minute trail changes. Our map is still current and the trail we have marked out is unobstructed, but the ranger does point out various small side trails we should consider. Thanking him profusely I pull a nonplussed Allison to the drink stand for one last cold soda before we go. In truth, I skimped on breakfast, and wolf down a pair of hot dogs while I'm there. Allison's only comment is to smile, shake her head slowly, and utter the word 'men'. Whatever that's supposed to mean.

We're on the trail not ten minutes after the last mustard-laden bite has passed over my tongue. Ally's taken the lead and is humming a tune softly to herself, strains of which seem vaguely familiar as they float back to me. I'm just about to ask her where she heard that song when she stops and places a finger on my mouth. Convinced I'm not going to say anything, she slides her finger down my chin then points at a small rise to our left, barely visible through the trees. I turn my head slowly to see a fox gazing back at us. A yearling to my eyes, sunlight spots glinting on its bright orange fur and black paws melding into the dark earth upon which it is standing. A brief moment more we all hold our positions, then with a flash of its ivory-tipped tail it runs away.

It's not until the kit leaves that I realize I've been holding my breath, and rather noisily exhale. Not until then did I also realize we hadn't seen any animals for the first five miles of this trip. Too close to humans is my guess. I know I feel distant from civilization, and relatively speaking we're barely within the park borders. I tap Ally on the shoulder inquiringly. She snaps out of her own trance, taking a few quick breaths and looking back at me with a small smile on her face; her enchantment with the creature must have equalled my own.

We continue on in silence for a time before lunch announces it's done wreaking havoc with my system. Dropping my pack, I sheepishly excuse myself and move off the trail a dozen yards before ducking behind a tree. I've barely finished pulling my shorts back on when a chitter above me attracts my attention. I manage to place the source of the sound as a previously dozing raccoon who seems none too pleased with my choice of bathroom site. I can't blame it; I wouldn't want that smell around my bed while I was trying to sleep, either. Allison is examining a spider web just to the northwestern side of the trail when I return.

General awe of the beauty around us imposes silence again, save for our shuffling footfalls. Allison's momentary stops and finger arrows say it all; we're in a freeform zoo, viewing the exhibits and becoming one ourselves. Such is our rapture with the sights, sounds, and even the smells of our surroundings that when we notice the time we barely have enough of it to find a place to make camp. To speed things along I don't bother to set up the tent. Rain isn't a worry; the sky blends from magenta in the west to a shade of deep royal purple on the eastern horizon, only a few small clouds marring the transition.

Allison already has a small fire crackling when the last traces of crimson leave the sky blanketed with diamond sparks. We just sit and snuggle by the fire, chatting about nonsense as we lighten our food and water supply. God, how I love to be with her; the way her hair reflects the firelight, the sparkle in her eyes not caused by any external flame, the way her lips move when she talks, forming the words...

"So, what's your secret?"

I snap out of my reverie. Could she have figured it out? "What?"

"Everybody has something they can't tell anyone else, something that would ruin them, like a person murdered somebody else."

An eyebrow raises. "You..."

She giggles. "No, silly, I was just using that as an example of the extreme. Most 'deep' secrets are something that's just plain embarrassing. Take me..." I wish she'd let me. No! I give myself a mental smack. Bad mind! "...it's kinda silly, but..." Her voice trails off, like her supposedly 'embarrassing' secret could be much more terrifying.

"But...?" I prompt quietly.

"I want to be a were."

"Aware of what?"

Another of her musical giggles. "No, I mean a Were."

Oh. "Okay, a Were. Why?"

She shrugs. "I dunno, really." A slender finger traces invisible runes on my thigh. "The fur looks good..."

"And it would be a pain in the ass to grow each time. Speaking of which, a tail's not much better."

"They're so swift, strong and graceful..."

"Which all means nothing in the face of a shotgun."

"The sounds and scents the wind must bring!"

"That will overload your human mind in moments."

"Dusty, I've often imagined how it would feel, and I know it would just be so right!"

I can see that she has her heart set on this. Time to try confusing her. "Okay, so you're a were. What kind?"

Her ready answer startles me. "Well, not a wolf, I'm sure. They're cool and all that, but not quite my type. Or a bear. Fuzzy and cute, but too big. I considered a fox once, but when really thinking about it I figured they're too... vulnerable, I guess." Her tone gently but noticably turns quieter. "Then I heard it a few years ago, shortly after you had moved into the area. A howl... it was incredible. A long, wavering tone, chaotic and beautiful. I asked my dad what it was, and he said it was a coyote. Have you ever heard one?"

How should I answer this? "Yes. Quite loudly, and often."

"Oh, he must live near your house!" She grinns in delight and I grin uncomfortably; yeah, it's something like that. She doesn't notice my discomfort, and goes on. "Have you seen him?"

"Only glances of his tail, mostly." At least it's the truth! Something was nagging me about her last question. "Hey, how do you know it's a he?"

"Silly. Only a man would go attracting attention where he's likely to be shot." I roll my eyes at her reasoning. Allison continues talking without seeing my reaction, but by her widening grin she must know she has me by the short hairs. She cuddles up to me a little tighter as she speaks. "Anyway, I've listened to his howl every chance I could since then. He sounds so sad and lonely, I just... want... to give him... a companion." These last few words come out mumbled, but I don't care. My heart's fluttering; she wants to be with me! I turn to tell her my secret, panting lightly in the night air, and find her to have fallen asleep already. A garbled whine rises from my throat -- I need to tell her, but I shouldn't wake her up. Not that I could, she sleeps like a rock. Resignedly, I pick her up and place her gently in one of the sleeping bags we've brought, curling up myself in the other. My secret can wait for tomorrow.

"Come on, sleepyhead, time you were up!"

My arm reflexively swings to the left to hammer on the alarm. A split second later I'm bolt upright in my sleeping bag with a yelp of pain and nursing my wrist where it hit a rock. Now I remember why I don't go camping often; nature's alarm clock doesn't have a snooze function. Another reminder comes to my attention when I find a brown pile on the bag where some animal declared it wasn't afraid of humans. Revenge of the raccoon? I may have to be more careful where I take a break in the future.

Allison is simply standing to the side, staring at me and laughing fit to burst. I toss her a fleeting glare and duck back into my bag. Why did I have to fall in love with a morning person? While searching for an answer to this question, I loudly mutter "Five minutes."

I get no such respite. Allison unzips my bag and drags me bodily onto the ground. Again I question my sanity in choosing to love a morning person. I arrive at a conclusion this time: sanity and love have nothing to do with each other. That resolved, I grudgingly get up and clean camp in preparation for breaking it. Allison is already way ahead of me; her gear is ready to go, and some bacon strips she's laid out for breakfast are nearly done. My expression of confusion at the small portions ("Is that all?") is quickly met with an answer; she slips the cooked meat between layers of some of our cold ham sandwiches and we eat. Allie thinks of everything.

After eating we hit the trail again; today it begins to hit us back. The beauty of the surroundings takes much less of our breath away than the exertion of the trek. One of us will have to have a little 'talk' with the ranger who suggested this path when we get back. My difficulty in climbing a 'small' outcropping leads me to think it will have to be Allie, since I'd probably kill him if the trail doesn't kill me first.

As my exhaustion grows, so does my doubt in the events of last night. Reality begins to sink in slowly. "It wasn't real, it couldn't have been real!" my mind screams. "Who in their right mind would want to be a werecreature?" I certainly don't want this affliction. I will admit it had been fun for the first year or so, but having to hide my secret from others who would not understand has become a pain in the tail over the years. It hadn't helped when my family had to relocate to the suburbs because of my father's new job; I needed to cope with a new house, a new neighborhood, a new school, new feelings courtesy of puberty, and a new ability thanks to lycanthropy all at once. Without any of my old friends around and the possibility of new friends cut short by my little secret, life had been hellish.

Being the new kid had been mostly a matter of keeping out of everyone else's way until they deemed to speak to me. Sticking to darkened corners I had witnessed acts of domination more animalistic than anything seen during my forays into the woods behind my old house. The first time I had been caught for my 'lesson' in the way the school really was, I had lucked out; my captor attempted to face me alone. Weeks after the incident he had still claimed he had been attacked by a demon.

Am I a demon? If someone were to ask me now, I would say no. But often after that incident I would sit in some hidden alcove during the evening in midform, stare at my half-inch claws and tap my canines, and wonder what kind of monster I had become. Introspective sessions like that had caused those misery-filled howls Allison heard. Or the ones I dreamed she said she heard.

As if hearing her name in my thoughts Allie turns her head and gives me a warm smile, then moves her attention back to her footing. It's a great smile, but there's something reserved -- even a hint of nervousness -- about it. Suppose it wasn't a dream last night, that she actually did say she wants to be a werecoyote; what now? I bite her, give her lycanthropy, and we live happily ever after the end?

No, I rationalize. The world doesn't work that way. I don't know how or even if I can transmit the condition, but to be on the safe side I have never donated blood. It's rather ironic since I've been told I'm the universal donor type. So I bite her and instead of becoming a werecoyote, she gets a nasty wound and we both need to think of a good reason why, or my secret's out. Or I do give her my condition, and she discovers she doesn't like it. This all assumes she doesn't freak out at the sight of me in midform in the first place, an unlikely possibility.

Or this, or that... my thoughts stay on this carousel ride for the morning, bobbing between telling her and not telling her and whirling in circles the whole time. Lunch is barely a distraction; it reminds me how close my instincts came to the surface when Allie had pointed out a family of deer across a tall-grass clearing. I had wanted to hunt, to kill. Thankfully both human and animal common sense had prevailed; I hadn't wanted to do it, and I would have needed a pack to be successful at any rate.

Allison is up a trail we're not going to take to do her business when I hear her call out in wonder. Dropping my pack next to hers I walk closer to her voice; eventually I can pick out her words. "Hey, Dusty, check out this view!" I pick up my pace and shortly find her leaning over a ravine holding onto a branch of a nearby tree. She sees me and waves me closer, the flimsy bough shaking unsteadily with her motion. "Come on, this is awesome! You can see forever from here!"

I get close enough to see Allie's physical meaning as her words take on a more spiritual edge. The branch breaks off, her body twisting as she tumbles over the edge.

My first reaction is to pray to whatever gods are listening as I dive for her falling form. Surprise isn't part of the equation; the branch looked far too fragile to support her in the first place. Be it by luck, talent, or divine intervention, my hands come into contact with bare flesh and cotton cloth. Clenching these tightly I slide what feels like entirely too far through the dry soil, my eyes shutting automatically.

Minutes pass. I finally realize I'm not moving any further, and I do feel something in my hands. One eyelid rises, allowing me to see the tread on the heel of a hiking boot. The other opens with this encouragement, and soon my ears hear the welcome sound of Allison's voice. "Dusty?" It's weak and accented with a low moan, but she is speaking. "I think that was a stupid move..."

She always did have a knack for understatement. I call back down, "Just hold on!"

She laughs in reply; at least she has her humor. "Which one of us should worry about letting go?"

Well, she has a point. Slowly and carefully, I adjust my position. My grasp of her ankle becomes locked in a viselike grip; I doubt I could let go if I tried. Once fairly sure of my footing I take a deep breath and haul upward on her legs.

To no avail, it seems. I may have the strength to keep her from falling, but not enough to draw her back to safety. Exasperated with this situation and my own failings, I pull again and again, trying to put more and more power into my tugs and having less and less with which to do it. Allison continues to call to me how she is, suggestions on what to do, encouragement when I pause for breath. I hear none of it; so wrapped up in my own self-berating am I that I also fail to notice the pain in my arm until the fur sprouts.

This vision is quickly blocked out, but not forgotten. I feel the growing fur spread up my arm to my chest, and from there to the rest of my body. My toes become cramped, so I kick off my own boots one at a time to reveal lengthening feet covered with the same brown-grey fur that shows on my arm. Shorts tighten and finally split to leave my new tail free in its movements. My normally oversized t-shirt becomes a perfect fit for my altered frame, the sweat matting down my chest fur.

Allison must be feeling the change from hands to padded hand-paws, because she calls up quietly, "Dusty? What's going on?" I can't answer her; my larynx is altering itself, and I feel as if someone is choking me. The change progresses upward from there. My nose and mouth push out into a muzzle, black tip flaring as I draw in more air for my burning lungs. Cracking sounds accompany the movement of my ears as they swivel to the top of my head and enlarge into triangular shapes.

I close my eyes against the wave of nausea and disorientation that accompanies every change I make. It passes quickly this time, my senses sent swimming for only the briefest of moments. Taking a sharp breath, I steady myself and give another long pull, straining my reworked muscles against gravity. Allison's body comes up much more easily this try, and soon she's crawling to sit between the roots of the tree which betrayed her. She hasn't even looked at me yet, her hair forming a makeshift veil over her face. "Ohgodohgodohgod... Dusty, thank you for not letting go. I got a better view than I needed..."

I listen to her rambling quietly, not even bothering to try shifting out of midform. Arranging myself on my haunches, I wait patiently for Allie to actually see me. A sharp cutoff of speech and intake of breath notify me that her vision has cleared, even if the sight of her swiping strands of hair out of her face doesn't. We sit staring at each other for a lesser eternity, neither daring to do so much as twitching a muscle.

Allison's soft voice breaks the spell. "Dustin?" I don't respond. She stumbles to her feet and steps toward me. "Dustin, is that you?" At my nod, she shuffles a bit closer. I stand up with my ears flicking in apprehension. She seems undaunted by my appearance; walking right up to me she reaches her arms out to touch my arm fur, then presses close against my chest and murmurs, "Dustin, you... you... you BASTARD!" She punctuates this by pounding a fist on my chest. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I wasn't sure how you'd react," I reply. Not even the growl of my voice hides the lameness I hear in that one little statement. I make an attempt to change the subject. "Could we discuss this after I get some clothes on?"

"First things first." She's smirking; that's never a good sign. "Bite me."

"Excuse me?"

"You heard what I said. Bite me. Give me your form of lycanthropy."

I mull this over. "Okay. On one condition. I do it with a first-aid kit nearby. I'm not about to do this without some safety precaution." Allie quickly agrees and we walk back to where we dropped our packs. She seems to have an unending supply of questions to ask me: where did I get my lycanthropy from (my great-grandfather, I think), how long have I had it (since I was 12), are there any other werecreatures (I believe so, but I haven't seen any)... the list goes on.

To my relief, our packs come into view. She gets out her kit while I fish for a new pair of shorts. Once we're both done gathering our materials, I cautiously approach her. "You're sure you still want to do this?"

"Yes, yes, just get on with it!" Allie holds her arm out, shirt sleeve rolled up to her shoulder to expose trembling tanned skin. Gently I muzzle her upper arm and glance up at her face for final confirmation. She has her eyes squeezed shut and lips pressed into a hard line, bracing for the pain. Closing my own eyes, I hesitate a second longer before driving my fangs into her skin. Her blood begins to flow and I withdraw, licking the wound absently before I step back.

We wait. Allison binds the puncture marks with my clumsy help, finally just telling me to go change while she does it herself. Doing so behind a rock screen, I return to find no difference; despite her greatest efforts of will, Allison cannot shift forms. One of my hopes and fears has been confirmed: I cannot transmit lycanthropy to anyone else. Reluctantly, I nudge her and point out we still have miles of trail to cross. With equal resignation, she gives one last look at her bandaged arm before rolling the sleeve down and reshouldering her backpack.

We do what we must. We continue.


I just sit and glare at a page in my algebra textbook. Right now I doubt I could add two and two together correctly, much less factor a polynomial expression. The homework is due tomorrow, and I can't concentrate. There is just something /different/ about the world tonight, and the suspense in solving this silent mystery is driving me crazy.

It's been two weeks since the hiking trip with Allison. Her father raised a huge fuss over the bandaged bite and blamed me for dragging her on the trip in the first place. Allison and I both simply ignored his tirade; we knew the truth of the matter, and we had both heard the same speech before. I suppose I should feel lucky he hasn't forbidden her to see me at all, but with the cool treatment Allison has been giving me lately I suppose it's not necessary.

A quick glance across the room places the time at 10:13PM. Darkness fell without so much as a thump while I have been struggling with my lack of concentration. Disgusted with myself and the universe for pulling a false alarm, I get up and open a window. Maybe some night air will help clear the cobwebs ensnaring my mind. Silence greets me after I slide the pane aside. Numbly I think of the immortal phrase, "It's quiet. Too quiet."

That's when I hear it. A single howl crashing through the silence like fingernails on a chalkboard. It's low. It's hesitant. It's wavering. It's uncertain. And it's the most beautiful thing I've heard in my life. A heartbeat after the last note dies on the breeze I'm stripping and letting the change take me. For the first time in years I welcome the sight of my pelt forming, the sting of my face pushing out into a muzzle, the agonizing pain of vertebrae rearringing themselves to form a tail. For the first time in years I relish the flood of scents assailing me. For the first time in years I enjoy being what I am, and announce it to the neighborhood in a long aria, only letting my voice fall when my lungs can no longer sustain the song.

Tonight, I will not be alone.

Copyright 1997: "Devon Erthshade" <coyote@uss.net> . If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask the author for permission first.       Thank you

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