Walt would give the old woman this much credit; she didn’t say a word to him while he had grease up to his elbows. She sat in her old padded chair covered with knit Afghans and stared at him, silently, as he went upstairs to the bathroom to scrub up. Only when he came back down did she ask, “Did you clean up the garage?”
“Yes, grandma,” Walt muttered, not looking at her.
“Am I going to go out there and find tools and parts scattered all over the place?”
Walt ignored the urge to give a simple No. He’d learned from too many shouting matches that his definition of clean and hers didn’t line up. “I left the fuel filter off the bike,” he said, delivering the words as carefully as building a house of cards. “It’s clogged up and needs replacing. It’s sitting on the workbench with the tools I need to put in the new one laid out neatly beside it.”
Marjorie Stubbe snorted. “How much of my money have you sunk into that hundred-dollar Harley?” she grunted.
Walt stayed silent. He’d heard that question before, in one form or another, and learned the hard way there was no right answer.
“Well, you’re not getting any more of it,” she continued, obviously not disturbed by the lack of answer. “Here it is springtime, and what do you do? Wasting your time in that high school, running the roads, or slouching around that hamburger joint with your human friends.”
“Teammates,” Walt said defensively. “Not friends. We play football and that’s it.”
“And that’s another thing,” his grandmother said, leaning forward and jabbing a finger at him. “I’ve had enough of you wasting your time and money on that stupid game, calling attention to yourself in all the wrong ways. You ought to be learning a trade, or training to kill that bastard Con Nero, or doing something useful with your life. Not putting on a silly costume and knocking down humans.”
“It’s NOT a silly costume!” Walt felt himself begin to shift, and he took a deep breath and forced himself to stay human. He’d earned the letterman jacket he wore, and he wasn’t going to let the old woman goad him into destroying it. “It represents the pride and honor of the school- and of the city! When I’m wearing that jersey I’m representing the best this town has to offer!”
“God save this town, then,” Walt’s grandmother said dryly. “That’s human talk. We’re not part of their world, Walter. We’re better than them. Stronger. Your father knew that.”
If Walter hadn’t been angry, he would have groaned. Here came the same argument, again, about how wonderful his father, who died before he was born, had been. His father who could do no wrong, who had gotten himself killed when a slightly older wolf named Con Nero had defended his mate against the alpha’s... demands.
In Marjorie’s eyes Con Nero was an usurper who could do no right, and that was all. Walt, however, had eavesdropped on conversations at the Howl as a kid, pretending to be stupid, inattentive, or partially deaf, and he had heard the other side of the story. His dad had come straight out of the Army to take the leadership role his grandfather had held for over twenty years, and in two years his bullying, his high-handed, self-gratifying demands, and his arrogance had made enemies of most of the pack. Con Nero had twice given him the chance to surrender, to end the fight, to simply walk away... and in the opinion of a majority of those of the pack still around, that had been two times too many.
And to be honest, it hadn’t taken Walter Stubbe much listening to decide that the father he’d never known was in the wrong. Ever since he was a pup he’d been compared to the impossible example, first by his mother (who’d gotten herself killed when Walt was four- he barely remembered her, and not kindly) and then his grandmother. He always represented all the things his guardian demanded he become, his own wishes notwithstanding. For all purposes his grandmother and his father were one and the same, making it easy to hold both in utter contempt.
But before Walt could begin his part of the ritual, his grandmother changed the script. “Even your grandfather knew that, soft touch that my husband was. Why, Thomas left school after eighth grade, did you know that?”
Walter Stubbe decided that his not reminding her that she’d mentioned the fact twice a week or more without fail for the past ten years qualified him for sainthood, and he clenched his jaw shut.
“And he still ran a successful insurance agency and ruled the pack for over twenty years!” Marjorie continued. “That shows you don’t need an education to get on in the human world, much less our world!”
Walt didn’t disagree. Dropping out of high school had tempted Walt a couple of times. History bored him to tears. Algebra confused him. His interest in biology was limited to things he could eat or screw, and his chemistry didn’t even go that far. It took constant help from friends, teammates, and (under the table) school faculty to keep his grades just barely good enough to retain athletic eligibility.
But if he dropped out of high school, he’d have to give up on his dream. He had it all planned out. He had been a starter on the varsity squad in his sophomore year, and last year he’d been named to the all-region team. He was certain to be recruited by a big football school, and if he played well enough the grades would be arranged. One free college degree later he’d go pro, spend six or seven years in the NFL, and then, with a full bank account, a big name among the humans, and a track record of achievement, only then would he retire, come home, and ease out whoever the pack alpha was by then.
Who knows? He might even find a better pack somewhere down the line. Stubbes had been pack leader in town five times. It ran in the blood. He could do it. Hell, it would probably be easier someplace where nobody remembered his father.
Or his mother.
Or his uncle Louis. Poor Louis.
Or, for that matter, his grandmother.
Come to think of it, leaving town looked like a better plan every day. It certainly wasn’t like family ties would keep him there. His grandmother, the old battle-axe, was all he had left.
And he could do it. He would do it. It was only a matter of time. After all, he was the leading tackler in the district two years running, with twenty-four quarterback sacks in that time. He could catch and run with the ball (not his fault the defenders were always there to hit him). He could throw the ball fifty yards with pinpoint accuracy (not his fault the receiver could never shake the defender). All he needed was a little more work, a little more experience, and he could write his own ticket in the pros, he knew it.
And he had to do it. Nothing interested Walt except football and turning wrenches. He couldn’t find an area under a curve, but he could find the fullback behind the line and he could find the misfiring cylinder on any Ford engine. Unfortunately, with everybody and their uncle having spent at least a few years in the factories, nobody made any money fixing cars in this state, so it was football or nothing.
“And do you know why?” she continued. “Because we’re better than those weak, stupid humans! We take what we want! The strong get what we want and crush anyone who stands in our way! That’s how proper werewolves live!”
“That’s how proper werewolves die!” Walter growled, breaking his silence. “If you want proof, ask my dad! Oh wait, you can’t! Because-“
The lamp that sat on the end table next to his grandmother’s chair was big, ugly, and old. It was also extremely heavy, as Walt found out when it slammed into his face.
“That’s enough of that, whelp!” his grandmother growled, having shifted to wolf form to throw the lamp at him. “I won’t tolerate any more of your backtalk! I won’t be around much longer, and I’m not going to be disrespected while I’m still here!” She settled back in her chair, slowly shifting back into human form. “And since you feel so free to disrespect your elders, you can do without your allowance until you learn obedience.”
Walt picked himself up from the floor. His nose was moving, slowly unbreaking itself. The lamp, lying on the floor next to him, wasn’t damaged except for a dent in the old cardboard lampshade.
“If you want spending money in your pocket,” Grandma continued, “you can go apply for a trade school, tell your principal you’re dropping out, and start taking some- Walter, where do you think you’re going?”
“Out!” he snapped, striding to the front door and yanking it open. “Walking is still free, right?” He had to get outside, right now, or else he would lose control. He’d had all he could take of the old woman for a while.
“Young man, don’t you dare slam that-“
The thunder of the front door closing momentarily drowned out the squealing, creaking sound of the screen door slowly shutting behind him. By the time it finished, Walter Stubbe was through the front gate and on the sidewalk.
It was happening all over again. Walt figured his grandmother had trained his father to be the grade-A asshole he’d been, and that had gotten him killed. He was pretty sure she’d then goaded his mother into trying to get revenge on her behalf. He’d seen firsthand how she’d worked on Uncle Louis, who’d wanted no part of the pack leadership. He wasn’t sure about the first time, but the second fight, Walt knew, hadn’t really been a fight at all. It had been Louis committing suicide to get away from the old battleaxe.
Walt still had a few dollars in his pocket. It wasn’t enough to replace the fuel filter and fill the gas tank of the motorcycle, but enough to do a few things. Enough to place a phone call.
He walked to the nearest gas station, put a quarter in the pay phone, and dialed the number of the one member of the pack he really trusted, the one who always had had time for him no matter how stupid he appeared, the one who listened to him.
“Hello, Mr. Nero? Could I talk with you for a bit?”