When the sun sank beneath the hills, the trucker turned on his headlights to illuminate the road. Night fell quickly in the middle of nowhere. There weren’t any streetlights for miles, much less city, so he knew it would be black in minutes.
His passenger bounced her knee and drummed her knuckles against the window. She was fixated by the passing landscape even though there was nothing to look at but long grass and the occasional tree. Her blond hair was pulled into a messy bun and her fingernails were chewed so short that her thumb bled.
The trucker watched her from the corner of his eye. She was starting to tremble.
“You okay?” he asked.
She nodded a little too quickly. “Yeah. Sure. I’m fine. Is this as fast as we can go?”
He chuckled. “I’m in a hurry too, sweetheart, but I’ve gotta go the speed limit. Another speeding ticket could make me lose my job.”
“Going slow could make you lose more than that,” she muttered.
“What did you say?”
A rabbit bounced past the headlights, and her head whipped around so she could stare at the place it vanished. There was something unnatural about the way she moved. It was like everything startled her. The trucker wondered if she was on cocaine or meth or something else. Nobody acted like that unless they had taken drugs—or if they were nuts.
He suspected there was something wrong with his mysterious passenger when he picked her up at a truck stop two states back. How many cute teenage girls hitchhiked on semis? Just prostitutes. But this kid was no hooker, and the trucker wouldn’t have done anything if she was. He had a son her age back home. His picture was taped to the dashboard.
The girl seemed pretty normal for the first few hours—quiet, but normal—but she got more nervous as time went on. Now her skin was flushed and her pupils were too wide.
“You ever going to tell me your name?” he asked. It was the first time he’d tried to talk with her since Colorado.
“Rylie. My name’s Rylie.” She raked her fingernails up and down her shoulder, leaving red tracks on tan skin.
“Pretty name. I’ve got a niece named Kiley. She’s in the chess club at school, and…” He trailed off as she shuddered, hugging her backpack against her body. “You okay?”
“Moon’s coming soon.”
“Yeah?” He leaned forward to look at the sky. All the trucker could see were clouds. “How can you tell? Won’t there be a new moon tonight?”
“I’m in a hurry. There aren’t going to be any cops out here. Can’t you…?”
“Relax,” he said. “We’ll get there when we get there.” He watched her from the corner of his eye. “How old are you? Sixteen? Seventeen?” She didn’t respond. “Drugs seemed like the cool thing to do when I was your age, but they ruined my life. I lost my family and spent years in rehab. Addiction is brutal.”
Rylie looked startled. “I’m not addicted to drugs.”
“I didn’t think I was addicted either, but—”
“No, I mean, I’m not taking anything. Okay?”
“Okay, okay. You’re not addicted. Then what are you running from?” he asked.
“Nothing. I’m going to live with my aunt. She moved out here from Colorado a couple of months ago, so I’m going to work on her new ranch.”
“And your aunt lets you hitchhike?”
She lifted her chin stubbornly. “Nobody lets me do anything anymore.”
She wasn’t going to talk to him about her problems. No big deal. The trucker remembered being in her place years ago. He hadn’t wanted to talk about it all that much, either. Getting past his denial was the first step to recovery.
They drove on in silence, and she kept scratching herself. Probably meth. It looked like meth.
Even though he knew he couldn’t help her until she was ready to help herself, he had to try. “I could drop you off at a hospital if you want,” he suggested.
“I’m not going to a hospital!” she snarled. Her eyes flashed a reflective gold, like an animal.
“Holy mother of—”
Rylie looked out the window again, cutting him off with a slam of her knuckles against the glass. “My friend Tyler says speed limits are suggestions.” She had calmed down and sounded normal. Not growling. Not like…
He was imagining things.
He patted his pocket in search of caffeine pills. The trucker hadn’t slept in over a day, and now he was hallucinating. But his pockets were empty. “Maybe I’ll go a little faster,” he muttered. He’d get the kid to her aunt and pull over to catch some sleep.
The trucker rolled down his window, letting the cold air slap him in the face. When the clouds parted, there was no moon. It was a dark night.
Rylie groaned and doubled over.
“Hey there,” he said. “You okay?”
Her fingernails dug into her sides. “I’m—ugh—I’m fine.” Rylie shoved her backpack to the floor of the truck and pressed her forehead to her knees.
She arched her spine. It ridged under her t-shirt like it could tear the fabric.
“You don’t look fine.”
“I need out. Stop the truck!”
“What? But—” A sign whizzed by, indicating that the next town wasn’t for fifteen miles. “There’s nothing out here. I can’t drop you off; you’d get eaten by—”
She lifted her head and slammed it down again. Something made a popping sound, and it reminded the trucker of the time he caught his arm on a passing trailer and wrenched his shoulder from the socket.
Rylie snapped her head to the side. Her bleeding gums stained her teeth and the skin around her nose was stretching—her nose was breaking—
“Stop the truck,” she growled. “Now.”
He swerved and tried to press himself against his door to get away from this thing—it wasn’t a teenage girl, not anymore, her blond hair was falling out in huge clumps on the seat—but the huge cab of the truck was suddenly too small.
She threw her head back as she screamed and dug her nails into his dashboard. They weren’t fingernails anymore.
He threw the brake even though they weren’t on the shoulder of the road. They weren’t even on the correct side, for that matter. He didn’t care.
Something snapped and cracked. Rylie’s jaw unhinged and slid forward. She spit blood onto her jeans.
The trucker’s hand fumbled for the door. Locked.
“Oh no—oh God—”
She flung herself against the dashboard, and then arched in the other direction, straining her feet and head back like a bow. Something was wrong with her knees.
Yeah, but what isn’t wrong with this thing?
“Get out!” she shrieked, and flecks of bloody spit slapped against his face.
Rylie lunged for him, claws flashing.
His finger caught the lock. The door fell open.
He fell onto the pavement and slammed the door behind him. The trucker couldn’t think straight, because every time he tried to broach the idea that some poor hitchhiking kid had turned into something—something not human—he felt a level of panic very close to insanity.
The cab rocked back and forth. He couldn’t see what was inside from this angle, but he could hear shrieking and howling. Those noises couldn’t come from a human mouth.
Because she’s not human.
“Oh Jesus Christ,” he said.
Fear wheeled through his skull. Management would have everything from the neck up if they found out he abandoned his truck. And the goods, the electronics he was supposed to be getting to that warehouse—
Something slammed into the windshield. The safety glass spiderwebbed.
The trucker ran as fast as he could, rolling his tubby body along at a speed he hadn’t managed since he was two hundred pounds lighter and twenty years younger.
Howls followed him into the night.
Rylie awoke to a cool breeze playing across her skin and a feeling of dread.
Oh no. Not again.
She opened her eyes. A tiny black bug crawled along the grass by her head, and a thin layer of mist hovered over the ground. Her skin felt soggy.
Shutting her eyes, Rylie tried to force memories of the previous evening to emerge. As usual, she couldn’t remember what happened after she… changed. But she remembered a trucker. Nice guy. Smelled like gas station bathrooms and tobacco, but nice.
Her mouth was sticky, and there was a warm, sated feeling in her stomach that she recognized. It was the same way she had felt after killing a deer over the summer.
She wiped a hand over her mouth, and her fingers came away bloody.
Was the trucker… alive?
Rylie sat up, scrubbing a hand over her chin to clean it. The damp grass made her shiver. Ants marched along her knee.
She lifted her head and sniffed. The smells of the pasture splashed through her mind: meat and blood, soil and grass, honey in the comb, and a musky, chemical scent meant to mimic flowers. It was her own smell. She had picked the weirdest perfume she could find at the drug store so it would be easy to track.
Trailing the perfume down the hill, she found shreds of cloth tangled in the barbed wire fence. She suddenly recalled agonizing pain scraping down her back as her fur stuck on something—but it was gone as soon as it came. She never remembered her time as a wolf once she turned back.
Rylie picked the remains of her clothes out of the wire. There were more holes than cloth in her t-shirt, and the seams had burst when she changed, too. But it covered the important parts. It was better than nothing.
Her jeans were a little further down the hill, and in even worse condition. Rylie had to hold them over her hips as she plodded toward the road. She had no idea how to explain this to her aunt. She needed to buy new clothes before showing up at her door.
She stopped at the bottom of the hill. There were lumps all over the pasture in front of her, but it was too dark to make out any detail. Rylie approached the closest one with fear twisting in her stomach.
It was—or at least, it used to be—a cow. But the only way Rylie could tell was because of its distinctive odor, like manure and hay. The thing on the ground didn’t look much like a cow. Neither did the other three carcasses, either. She had a feeling she knew what had happened.
“Oh no,” she whispered.
Something clicked twice, chick-chuck. Rylie had seen enough action movies to know the sound of a shotgun being pumped.
“Hands up. Turn around. Slowly now—nothing sudden.”
Rylie obeyed. Her heart skipped a beat.
It wasn’t the first time she’d been at gunpoint, but it was just as scary this time as it had been the last time, so it took her a moment to realize who was aiming at her. A gray-haired woman with hard lines framing her mouth braced the butt of the shotgun against her shoulder, and a cowboy hat hung down her back by a bolero tie.
“Aunt Gwyneth?” she gasped.
The shotgun dropped. “Rylie?”