‘And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter. ‘- Sylvia Plath
Some books came to a boy at the right time. John remembered how his father had taken it down from the shelf in his study and handed it to him.
‘I thought this might interest you.’ Magnus said.
John took it from his father and turned it over in his hands.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau. He went to open it but Magnus sighed and John straightened up, closed it and looked his father in the eye.
Their relationship was formal in a way which wounded them both. Intelligent people, John said, were discriminating with the application of their intelligence. Families fostered stupid decisions, but John never got the chance to share this wisdom with him but he held onto the maxim in the hope he might pass it on to someone.
John thanked his father, and they stood there before Magnus sighed and tilted his head.
‘You can go now, son.’ he said.
John left with a headful of feelings he was unable to articulate and went to his room. Mom had died just after his eighth birthday in a car accident with her tennis coach. Magnus had driven over to the private school and collected him with the same economy as he did everything. He had not come to success through being florid and he waited until they were safely in traffic.
‘Your mother was involved in a car accident. She didn’t survive, which means it’s just us now, John. Do you understand?’ he said.
John was a bright boy, before his genius got up and began to strut. It was the first time he ever felt wounded by his intelligence. He sat back against the seat, breathed in rapid heart wrenching bursts as he stared at his father, willing him to say it was wrong. Magnus kept staring at the car stereo, wondering whether music would help.
The book from his father was a feminine affectation. A covert communication to demonstrate an affection even tragedy could not free from the straitjacket of propriety.
I love you and want you to do well, it said without anything so embarrassing as speech muddying the intention.
John opened the book and started to read.
Magnus paid for the camping equipment. Neither of the men knew about the sleights of hand which undermined the robustness of Thoreau’s experience. The regular meals and trips to town jibed with the ascetic nobility of his words. In hindsight, it said more about the relationship between them than either men would have liked to acknowledge. John, in the years after, saw it as a sublime cosmic joke. Two men too smart to see how stupid they were.
John’s grades and his father’s money were enough to get him anywhere he wanted studying anything he wanted. Harvard, for the facilities and the reputation, but John went along with some of his father’s suggestions but not all of them. He had done his Bachelors in Medicine there, and had spent a great deal of time absorbing the knowledge and opportunities. It was, in truth, a chance to receive the blessings of older men, something he seldom got from Magnus but like so much of his inner life, clarity came to him in hindsight.
The summer between finishing his bachelors and starting his masters degree had been planned with an internship at Magnus’ main clinic in Washington, but John had insisted on a solo camping trip, three weeks away from civilisation, in the spirit of Thoreau, he had told his father. They had abandoned formality for a benign hostility, especially after John found out about the tennis coach’s unexplained appearance in his mother’s car, and gotten nothing more than a shake of the head and a wave of dismissal. He was an adult now, Magnus had offered as mitigation, but his eyes grew wet and John’s head hurt from holding it all in. He had fled his father’s presence propelled by a spite which had been held at bay for a long time.
It found John too, in its own way.
He decided on Mt Rainier, but told Magnus he would be at Capitol State to avoid any interference. Magnus nodded and wished him well. John no longer fled to his room, but would take one of the cars out and drink until the feelings went away. Magnus did the same thing, but it was one of the ways they mirrored one another without realising it.
John enjoyed the scale of the solitude and he knew his little act of rebellion would go unnoticed, but it gave him a callow burst of pleasure to get one over on the old man. He had a good map of the area and a copy of the rules and regulations from the ranger. John hinted at his friend coming along later, to avoid any possible infringement of the rules. He gave his license and registration over, watched as the ranger recorded them in the logbook.
At the time, he resented the small legislative hurdle but it led to the chain of events which saved his life.
He drove out, parked and set off on foot, disappearing into the trees. He had been thorough in his preparations and although he was alone, he was conscious of preparing to insulate himself from the experience. Magnus had made his life safe, all the sharp corners covered in his life and he needed to risk himself in some way.
The thoughts soured his walk, but he forced himself to smile as he walked into the forest. He did not see a single animal out here, but it did not concern him. His senses would not pick up the bitter tang of a scent marker, warding off predators with the threat of injury or death.
John was not alone in the forest.
He set up camp for the night, cooked himself bacon and eggs, made coffee and smoked a cigarette as he stared up at the night sky. He had his phone but no signal and it felt heretical to watch a film on it. He thought about reading the Thoreau on his ereader but he had the self awareness to be embarrassed by it. John looked up at the sky and his eyes misted over as he thought about his mother.
He sat and put his head in his hands and wept. The night absorbed his cries and he shivered with a beautiful emptiness when the crying passed. He wiped his face and went inside his tent, zipped himself into his sleeping bag and slept for the first time with the ease which had eluded him since his mother died.
It was to be the last good night’s sleep he would ever know.
It sniffed the tent and padded around it without waking him. A maddening panoply of scents wafted from within and saliva dripped from it’s maw as it moved towards the side of the tent.
John awoke to the sound of it chewing through the tent before he saw it. Thick, wet growling and the sound of tearing cloth
He said it was a bear, because of the size but its face was long and it looked at him with utter need in its eyes. Pure appetite coming for him as he woke up. He pushed himself out of the sleeping bag and wished he had brought a gun.
It clamped its teeth into the back of his calf, a single fang sinking into the muscle as he screamed and kicked back with his other leg. The tooth broke off, opening the wound another inch as he opened the tent and limped out. He had capsicum spray plus the tomahawk but the pain compelled him towards a goal of AWAY.
John had prepared for a bear attack. The spray was supposed to ward off bears for enough time to get to safety. Whatever had attacked him, it was not a bear but it was big like one, but he started to rationalise it in the moment.
Adult humans had nothing to fear from wolves, he had read up on it.
It tore through the tent as he picked up the spray and the tomahawk. He claimed no martial expertise, wanting to protect his hands and the last fight he had been in was grade school, so he came to the first real fight for his life with a lot of knowledge but no real wisdom.
It leapt towards him and he pressed the button on the spray, spraying a fine mist into its face. John staggered backwards as it backed away. Ropes of mucus swung from its nostrils as it dug its paws into the ground and shook with discomfort. He gripped the tomahawk and the spray as he ran, each movement making his calf hurt in a way which sent a bolt of nausea up his throat but what choice did he have?
He thought he was running towards the SUV. If he could make it, he could stay in there, wait it out and drive down. The hope made his eyes water but he heard the roaring furnace of the thing’s breath as it ran after him.
John knew he had gone in the wrong direction when he found he was running into empty air. He looked down as the river ran up to meet him and he fell into the water, all the air knocked from his lungs as he flopped to the bottom.
The water muffled the thing’s howl of despair as John floated away.
Although the impact knocked the tooth from John’s calf, some foreign matter had gotten into the wound. The thing’s blood, some saliva, even dirt could have contributed to the infection which gathered in John’s bloodstream. He was unconscious as his skin blistered, tiny wounds opening like stars over his skin. The water kept them from scabbing over and it was the next morning he awoke floating there, the skin floating off him in dead, white slabs like jellyfish made from lard and the pink skin underneath opening with new wounds. He looked at himself and screamed with horror before he saw the cabin and started to limp towards it. He was concerned about the lack of pain signals he was receiving and his sinuses burned with pain.
He smashed the window and opened the door. The cuts across the backs of his hands were lipless and deep but he saw the first aid kit and opened it, crying out as he saw the length of tubing.
John operated on a desperate instinct to find some form of nourishment. His face itched and burned as he opened a cupboard, saw a bag of sugar as he opened the bottle of water. He passed out for a second before he carried on, driving the needle into his arm as he heaved the bag up and began to seize with a sudden, desperate agony through his entire body.
He woke up to bright sunlight. He heard a brittle crunch when he tried to open his eyes, and when he looked at his hands, they were coated in a brownish-red shell of fibrin. John’s entire body was covered in scabs like the scales on a lizard and each movement broke them open to reveal white, fresh skin underneath.
He bellowed as he got to his feet and as he cycled through a series of autonomic responses to trauma, he felt a deep and terrible transformation begin inside him. Beneath the scabs, his skin began to open, a million tiny wounds blossoming as it fed upon itself to produce the transformation.
John remembered his bones lengthening, pushing through muscle and tendon as they strained and followed a perfect pattern of alteration. His muscle fibres thickened and scarred over, straining against the secondary sheathing which covered them now, ballooning to a precise pattern to accommodate a radically altered anatomy.
The burning needle pain eased as his jaw disconnected, and he felt the skin of his face tearing as the fur, wet with the oil of its becoming gleamed in the light of day. He fell onto all fours, shaking off the loose, useless skin as he opened his new mouth and roared with a divine madness. His tail thumped against the floorboards as he charged out of the door, honed into a singular purpose.
His first meal was a doe and he chewed into its stomach with a relish he never knew was possible. The blood quenched his thirst and the meat filled his belly. For three days and nights, he ate and killed and ate.
There was a hitchhiker, he thinks. He sent an anonymous donation, once he understood the scale of what had happened to him.
He walked back to the ranger station clad in a blanket with bloodied feet. He remembers to recite his license plate before he collapses and soon he’s in hospital with his father flying from a conference to be by his side.
Malnutrition. No infections or sign he grew a new set of skin or the savage, impossible transformation which he started to believe had been a prolonged psychotic episode until it happened again back at the house. He had ran through the grounds, killed an Alsatian in a single bite before he woke up, naked in the garage and covered with blood.
John became his own patient and in response to the problem of his condition, his nascent genius bloomed into something intense and inventive. His study of stereotactic surgery came about as a need to do as much of the work himself as possible. None of his findings would ever go for peer review, but he insisted on being as exacting as possible.
When he found binaural sound allowed him to arrest the emotional triggers of transformation, he wept with joy because it allowed him to investigate what happened when he transformed into the wolf and record it with a view to studying it.
He was videoing the transformation when Magnus, at lunch with the board of directors, felt a sharp twinge in the back of his neck and his head fill up with a fierce and ugly heat as he stood up and thought of his son before he fell to the ground.
John let the board run things. He isolated himself, threw himself into his studies.
There were failures and setbacks but he isolated himself to such a degree and once he moved out to the cabin and he established more control, he restricted himself to animals.
Until the plane crashed in the forest.
When he finished speaking, he lowered his head and sighed.
Kelly put her hand on his shoulder.
‘I keep saying I don’t know you, and I know it sounds like a defence mechanism, but John, I have always felt safe with you.’ she said.
He looked up and smiled at her.
‘I’m not a monster, Kelly. I’m beginning to understand what happened to me, and I work towards a mitigation of it, if not a cure.’ he said.
She did not think about it. She put her arms around his neck, stood on her toes and kissed him on the mouth. His mouth opened by degrees and she whimpered when his hands came around to the small of her back and pulled her close.
Their mouths danced for a second before she pulled away and looked at him.
‘Sorry.’ she said
He touched his lips and smiled as blood crept to his cheeks and throat.
‘No, don’t be. It’s been a while and I live in my head a lot, means I miss cues.’ he said.
She shook her head and pressed her forehead against his.
‘Then I’ll make sure you don’t miss this.’ she said.
She tilted her head to one side as his hand came up to cup her cheek and their lips moved over one another, like gloves being pulled inside out. They kissed like it was a collaborative invention, intelligence and blunt need working together to reduce their world down to the contact they had with one another.