Eileen had always known she was crazy. But a thousand miles from home, she meets a young boy who claims to be able to turn into a wolf. Is he as crazy as she is? Or could werewolves really exist? Is it possible that she’s not crazy at all?
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I never saw the car until it hit me.
The driver had been drunk, I was later told, not yet reaching the hangover part of his weekend drinking binge; he had swerved to miss a plastic bag, thinking it was a cat. He didn’t see me any more than I saw him. Sure, he stopped and brought me to the hospital like a good citizen, but I couldn’t forgive him. My knees refused to work properly after the accident. I would never run again.
Running had always been my salvation. As a kid, I always knew I was different than my classmates. Their actions mystified me, and worse, they didn’t understand anything I said or did. It was like we spoke totally different languages; I couldn’t understand how they could possibly think the way they did, and they regarded me with suspicion, keeping me at arms length. By the time I entered high school, I had pretty much figured out the truth: I was broken, different, wrong. My head just didn’t work the way it should. The feelings I had, the quirks I couldn’t get rid of, were not human, not sane. I found it hard to concentrate, mostly because I had to split my attention at all times: half of me was dedicated to making sure I was acting like a human being, to making sure I wasn’t being too strange. I had no friends, of course. How could I? I couldn’t connect with another human being, and when I was around someone too long… well, my thoughts weren’t pretty.
Often, when I ran, the Madness would bubble up in me, overwhelming me. I’d let it all come to the surface, pushing myself harder and faster until I could barely think about anything else. When I finally came to a stop, drenched in sweat, only then could I begin to feel normal in my own skin, human, comfortable, sane. The strange feelings and urges would fade back into my subconscious where they belonged, and I could go about my day as usual. So my last few years of high school, I would get up every morning before six AM to run a few miles so I could stand a chance of focusing on my schoolwork later in the day. I kept the pattern as I started college, a history major at UCSF, running up and down the hills of the City by the Bay every morning before my math class.
I guess that’s what really did me in; I should have just admitted the problem and seen if there were some kind of pills that could make the urges go away. The running seemed like a perfect solution – all natural, healthy, and kind of fun. But running like that, abandoning what pretense of humanity I had left even for a short time, was dangerous. The morning everything changed, I was absorbed in the simple joys of running: my feet on the pavement, the breath through my lungs, the gentle kiss of a breeze on my sweat-soaked skin, the feeling of bliss and inner quiet that was my only chance to lower my guard.
Now I’d never be able to run again. How could I hope to control the Madness?
I guess in some ways I never stopped running. Sure, I could barely hobble along with my cane, but I made up for it metaphorically. I stopped trying to fit in at all, withdrawing from the world I no longer felt part of. I felt like if I could just get far away enough from the accident, it wouldn’t have happened, my knees would work perfectly fine. My parents didn’t help either – they just kept telling me how lucky I was that I could walk at all, that I didn’t have to be stuck in a wheelchair my whole life. Tell that to the shooting pains up and down my leg every time I went up a hill.
I had to leave the city; between the hills and the memories, it was driving me insane. I was able to transfer to UCSB with minimal hassle thanks to the cookie-cutter nature of state schools. Being away from the hustle and bustle of the city helped a lot; the trees and nature soothed me in a way that cars and fog never did. But it was still too close. I still struggled against the darker urges in my soul, and they still rose up and threatened to overwhelm me – and nothing I did helped. Believe me, I tried everything: meditation, yoga, tai kwon do, self-hypnosis… nothing helped.
On top of that, I was still close enough to see my parents regularly. They meant well, I knew. They just didn’t understand the Madness. They didn’t have to live with the constant intrusion into my thoughts, the unceasing background murmur. I needed to go further away if I was going to make a clean break from my old life. Amidst fantasies of finding a deserted island and becoming some kind of feral hermit I made more practical plans.
I’d long been a fan of anime, so my first thought was Tokyo. Japan was definitely too far to permit visits, and I figured I could probably teach English. Knowing nobody, it’d be easier to remain unattached as well. But a few minutes on Wikipedia disabused me of that notion: San Francisco had been almost unbearable as far as crowds and noises went, and Tokyo would be a million times worse. Plus I didn’t speak the language. I had too much trouble putting my thoughts into words without having to translate them into another language altogether.
I needed English. The British Empire had done wonders to spread the tongue; I considered going to India, where at least I could get good curry. But on some primal level, the thought of having to learn a whole new culture terrified me. It was hard enough keeping up appearances when I knew what they ought to look like. I couldn’t imagine myself ever really understanding a culture that different from my own.
Well if I needed English and a similar culture, and I wanted to leave the continent, that basically left one place: the birthplace of my tongue, England. They’d hopefully assume any oddness in me was the result of my being foreign rather than crazy, and nobody was going to fly across the Atlantic to visit me without plenty of advance notice. I could be alone. A month before graduation, I was accepted into a graduate programme – because program was spelled with an ‘e’ overseas – in Cultural History.
The next few months were a blur. Somehow I managed to renew my passport, obtain student loans, pack what meager possessions I had taken with me to Santa Barbara, send half of it home to Mom and Dad for safekeeping, and book a flight.
The flight was a nightmare. I had always preferred wide open spaces to being locked inside, and yet here I was, hour after hour, confined to one uncomfortable seat in a tiny metal contraption in the middle of the vastness of the air, over an unchanging ocean, with nowhere to run if there was an emergency… I needed to sleep. I had over the counter sleeping pills, but they only took the edge off my nervousness. I dearly wished I’d shelled out for one of those overpriced travel pillows during my layover in New York – I couldn’t get comfortable enough to drift off properly.
The guy next to me had to be some kind of Eskimo or something – he had his air on full blast, and even sitting next to him, I was cold. I pulled my sweatshirt over my lap, trying to keep a little warmth in me. I’ve always hated cold air on my skin; it just feels so utterly unnatural to have a constant stream of air on top of me. I prefer to set the AC cold enough that I need a blanket, so I just have the feeling of being tucked into a safe bed rather than exposed to the elements.
In desperation, I pulled out my trusty black-and-silver headphones. I’d used to listen to my iPod when I ran; I’d tried music during meditation, but otherwise left it mostly unused. At least it would block out some of the rustling around and coughing that made me twitchy. As the familiar music started up, I felt myself relaxing subconsciously. This was good. I knew what this was; the patterns were simple and repetitive, and my mind knew every note that would be piped into my ears. Familiarity.
The subtle panic stemming from the Madness slowly eased, and I drifted off to sleep. Tomorrow I would be in a new country, ready to start a new life.
Feet pounded pavement to the rhythm of an upbeat pop song; I navigated the streets of Manchester without seeing, without feeling, and without much speed. I could find my way back to the train station on rote instinct, the music was the only thing guiding me, the stabbing in my knees the only thing linking the world inside my head to the one outside of it. Even music couldn’t take away the pain.
I listened to my headphones all the time now. The half-hour bus ride to Salford campus each morning – for despite having accommodations within “walking distance” I couldn’t walk far enough fast enough to get to class on time – had been almost unbearable at the beginning. Surrounded by people, trapped in a small area, I’d twitched and started at every little noise. Catchy Europop tunes let me forget where I was, let me escape for a few moments to a place where I knew what was going on and everything was under my control. The few times I had been caught with my battery dead, I’d gritted my teeth the entire ride, flinching at each harsh, unexpected noise, unable to block out the tumultuous cacophony around me. It’d be easier if I had a single thread of conversation to follow, but who would I talk to? I’d successfully managed to remain aloof from my classmates for an entire semester now. Music didn’t require social interaction. Most days I didn’t speak at all; I went to class, took notes, went home, and plugged into my computer right away.
I knew that wasn’t healthy. I should make more of an effort to get out and do things, even if I did so alone. So this particular Monday, instead of catching the bus from the train station, I took a train into the city to enjoy a late lunch out and maybe jazz up my wardrobe some. The meal had gone well: there was a great little burrito place halfway between the train station and the mall. The shopping was a nightmare. I hated shopping, especially when I had no idea what size I was thanks to the different system. Finally, after about half an hour, I managed to get up the courage to ask for help – and the saleslady looked at me like I was having one of my Mad Times and had growled at her rather than spoken. Was it that unusual to ask a simple question? I hobbled from store to store, hiding from salespeople, embarrassed as hell but determined not to cry. I’d gained some weight since the accident – okay, more than some. When you go from running every day to barely being able to walk, that happens. I wasn’t huge, per se, but… okay, maybe I was huge. I was one size too big for the stores I was in, which meant overpriced “Plus Size” stores. On principle, I refused to shop there.
As dusk fell, I’d grabbed some vitamins and chocolate from a drugstore and stumbled my way back to the train station. I’d way overdone it in my determination to find something, anything, I could wear. Now every step shot pain up from my knee to my hip. I guessed I wouldn’t be attending class the next day – I had a valid excuse to stay in bed, which was at least something.
By the time I reached the train station I was in bad shape. The music wasn’t helping nearly as much thanks to the pain; the Madness was rising again, trying to help me cope by destroying what humanity I had left. If I skipped dinner and went to bed early, maybe I’d have The Dream. It happened periodically since the accident, particularly after a day like this; I’d wake up exhausted but somehow relieved in the morning, much more able to control myself.
In this state, I didn’t usually bother about other people. After all, it was hard enough to drag myself home – other people would see the headphones, assume I was some punk kid, and get out of my way. I knew there were other people around me, but the less I concentrated on them, the less I would start to panic, so I basically ignored them. That is, I ignored them until I ran into a tall, wiry man with reddish-brown hair and dancing green eyes.
“Scuze me”, I mumbled, moving to go around him with a wince. I tried hard not to limp, hating broadcasting my weakness, but I couldn’t stop some of the flinching when I stepped oddly. Instead of letting me pass, however, the man stepped in front of me, his lips moving. I couldn’t read lips; I had no idea what he was saying or why he was talking to me. He wasn’t dressed like a ticket inspector, and besides, I’d already passed the checkpoint where they had waved me through without looking at my tickets. I glanced up, startled by his bright green eyes, and decided he wasn’t going to let me past without engaging him. Reluctantly, I slid my headphones down to my neck. “Huh?”
“I said, are you alright? You don’t look so good.” His voice was soft, but it had a way of standing out against the din of the station, capturing my attention and forcing the rest of the world to take a step back and give us some room. This close to him I was keenly aware of his physical presence; his dusky, masculine scent made my stomach do backflips in rebellion. It had been months since I was this close to anyone intentionally, let alone a boy. It threw me off guard, creating an opening for the Madness to spring in, destroying my concentration. I wanted to leap at him, tackle him right here on the platform, or perhaps yank him into a more secluded area and do… things to him, things I’d rather not consciously consider, some of which directly contradicted others. Feeling a growl rising in my throat, I had to close my eyes and take a step back, forcing some distance between us so I could try and pull myself together.
The stranger must have drawn some erroneous conclusion from my pulling back and lack of reply; rather than let me have my space, he moved quickly forward, wrapping his arm around my waist. I felt anxiety building as my body began to feel strange, unnatural, inhuman, and worst of all, not entirely under my control. My stomach flopped uselessly, my heart pounding. He did not, however, carry me off someplace to rape me; instead, he helped me to the steps nearby, lowering me into the corner, tucked out of the way of any last-minute passengers who would rush down in the hopes of making a train that hadn’t arrived yet. The first I noticed his messenger bag was when he pulled a water bottle from it and offered it to me. “I didn’t spike it,” he teased, his startling green eyes playful as I forced my gaze away from them again. This was no time to be having girlish attraction to the probably dangerous stranger, no matter how beautiful his eyes were.