Taïga is really grateful for her bike. The distance to the treehouse would make it impossible to visit every day if she were on foot.
Mrs. Brown usually prepare something healthy, but tasty, for the little girl to bring with her as she most of the time spend the whole day in the woods. The old housekeeper hates junk food and prefers knowing they all get something consistent in their stomachs to keep them going. So she spoil them rotten with homemade goodies, packing a cooler with English cucumber sandwiches, pies, mixed salads and cold chicken. And she never forgets to throw in her famous cookies and her specialty – strawberry lemonade.
Derek and Teddy awaits Taïga and her cooler with impatience. They sometimes spend the night and are ravenous. Taïga would love to spend the night too, but Granny is adamant, refusing to even talk about it. So she goes to their treehouse early, even though it’s a little scary to be on her own when she’s the first one to get there, and she stays longer and longer, pushing her curfew a tiny bit every time the Vargas boys do a sleep over.
Granny grumbles, but is kept in check by Mrs. Brown, who arguments in Taïga’s favor, trying to convince Granny to trust the little girl.
‘Trust goes both ways. If you want her to trust you, you have to trust her. She doesn’t do anything wrong, and after what I’ve heard, both boys are serious students and good athletes. At least Derek is, and sport is important…’
Yada yada, Granny thinks, drawing the line at 9 p.m. and keeping an anxious eye on the clock. But Taïga is always home on time, making Granny sigh with relief about not having to punish her…
But the kids don’t just play, paint and decorate their treehouse, they have many other projects. One of them is digging a fire pit so they can roast marshmallows and hot dogs. It’s finally finished and is being inaugurated tonight. Taïga looks longingly at the boys unpacking their sleeping bags and other gear, happy when Teddy proposes a game of hide and go.
Taïga starts, leaning in towards a huge boulder that is also base, she covers her eyes and starts counting. She can hear the rustle of footsteps, and she tries to locate the direction of the sound without breaking her stride counting.
‘Ready or not, here I come!’ She pushes away from the rock, setting out towards where she had heard the noise.
She finds Teddy first. He’s hiding behind a tree that’s not large enough to cover his bulk. She chases after him, trying to tag him before he touches base…
Teddy is confident, Taïga will never catch him before-
Derek jumps down from his position crouching on the boulder, right in front of Teddy who scared shies away before he has the time to reach base.
Taïga runs screaming the other way, buts stops as she realizes who it was. Frustrated she turns back yelling at a laughing Derek, ‘I hate you!’
She runs back, aiming Derek who sidesteps and she falls on his brother instead.
‘Gotcha! You’re IT!’ She gets to her feet, pulling Teddy up with her.
‘It doesn’t count.’
‘Oh, yes it does!’
‘Derek helped you!’
‘He didn’t! He scared the Hell out of me! Oups!’ She slaps a hand over her mouth, knowing what Granny thinks about using bad language.
Derek laughs, ‘You scared me – screaming your head off like a banshee!’
Derek and Taïga scurries off in opposite directions while Teddy grudgingly takes up position counting to twenty very fast.
‘Ready or not… Here I come!’ he yells, confidently stepping back and trying to get a sight of what’s up on the boulder. Nothing. He systematically goes through all the known hiding places, but there’s no sign of the other kids.
‘OK. Where are you guys?’
Taïga and Derek don’t answer, they have both found the perfect place to hide in the underbrush. Thing is, they’ve aimed for the same spot.
‘I got here first.’ Taïga whispers angrily, but Derek hushes her, hearing his brother count.
‘It’s too late now, he’s coming.’
‘He isn’t. He’s-’ She’s interrupted by Teddy screaming that he’s coming.
Derek looks at her with his Told ya’ expression. Taïga just glares angrily at him, trying to see what’s happening through the dense branches. The leaves surround them, forming a cave big enough for them to stand up.
‘I see you!’
Taïga sighs, but Derek holds her back with a hand on her arm, motioning her to be silent.
‘It’s a trick?’
He nods. ‘Don’t move,’ he mouths, as they can hear Teddy getting closer, roaming about just inches from them. Taïga closes her eyes, hoping that the old saying “If you can’t see them they can’t see you” is true.
Teddy moves away, and opening her eyes, Taïga realizes she had also held her breath. She exhales slowly, trying to get her heartbeat down, but she realizes it has nothing to do with the excitement of being found. She catches Derek looking at her with a strange expression on his face, and she blushes, stifling a nervous giggle. She avoids looking at him again, stubbornly staring at the leaves in front of her, trying to glimpse Teddy who’s getting more desperate by the minute.
‘It’s not funny, guys! Where are you?’
They finally let Teddy off the hook, coming out of hiding. But there’s no sign of him.
‘Don’t worry, he’s probably just cross. You know, not finding us.’
‘But what if he’s left?’
‘I don’t think so. We’re grilling tonight, remember?’
He’s right. Teddy is ruled by his stomach, and there’s no way he would leave with the perspective of a nice meal.
They finally find him in the tree house, reading old comics on the couch.
‘I’m hungry.’ He states, not looking up from his Flash Gordon adventure on planet Mongo.
‘You’re always hungry, Ted. And tonight we’re having hotdogs.’
‘Yeah but I’m hungry now.’
‘Have some cookies.’ Taïga proposes, but Teddy looks at her shaking his head and rolling his eyes.
‘Don’t say you’ve eaten them all?’ she asks, the crumbles surrounding him giving him away. ‘What about us?’
‘I guess we’ll just have to get that fire going. Are you up for a hot dog or two? Or five?’ Derek looks expectantly at her, lips twitching.
‘It’s not a contest, right?’ Taïga shudders, goosebumps on her arms. The temperature falls as soon as the sun starts its way down.
‘Here. Take this.’ Derek says curtly, handing her his black Adidas tracksuit jacket.
‘Cool! I’ll take care of the food – you just sit down and enjoy the warmth of the fire.’ Teddy says, his spirits rising again.
Derek starts the fire and goes to fetch some more firewood. Laden with heavy branches, he comes back just to find Teddy who has succeeded in putting all the hot dogs on his stick, holding them precariously over the fire.
‘Can’t I leave you guys for five minutes? If they fall off they’re wasted!’
Teddy draws his breath to say something, but when he sees Taïga also watching him with that look on her face, he gives up and hands over some sausages to them both.
The hot dogs taste so much better when you grill them yourself. Scraping away the black, burnt skin, Taïga almost forgets she had sworn never to touch a hot dog again in her life.
Teddy wolfs down the better part of their stock, and lies down to digest. It doesn’t take long before he’s promptly asleep on the ground.
‘Don’t you think we’ve got enough wood now?’ Taïga is a little worried at the sight of Derek adding more wood and poking the fire.
‘Are you sure? It has to keep going the whole night, you know.’
‘To keep the beasts away, of course.’
Taïga laughs, ‘The only beasts here are the mosquitos! But yeah, you’re right, the fire sure seems to keep them at bay.’
They sit on the ground and starts roasting the marshmallows.
‘Tell me a story, Derek.’
‘I dunno. Something scary!’
‘Are you sure?’
‘OK. But I gotta check if Teddy’s asleep first.’
Derek glances up at her from his position over his sleeping brother, his eyes mirroring the flames making them seem to glow from within. ‘Err… Because he’s so easily scared. Don’t want him to spoil the fun.’
Satisfied Teddy’s sound asleep, he sits down next to Taïga. He pokes the fire again, making the flames dance and she follows the tiny yellow specks with her eyes until they disappear.
‘Once upon a time -actually it was not that long ago– this family went for a vacation to Egypt!’
‘I’ve always wanted to go there…’ Taïga adds wistfully.
‘Yeah. It was a kinda late honeymoon, you see.’
‘Did they visit the pyramids?’
‘Wow, I love stories about mummies!’
‘Well, this is not a story about mummies.’
‘But I wanted scary!’
‘Be quiet and listen, and I’ll give you scary!’
Taïga frowns but is quiet.
‘Err… They had saved up for this trip a long time, but they didn’t have too much money to spend… So, they checked in to small, cheap hotels in the villages they visited. Once they decided to splurge out on something, and went for an outing in the desert, with grilled meat over a fire –just like ours- and they rode on camels and watched the nomads hunt with hawks… Anyway, at their campsite, they started talking to one of the guides.’
‘He had lived in Bridgeport for several years and he quickly became friends with… err… the parents. He told them about a nice place to stay, owned by his wife’s cousin’s uncle or something. It sounded more than good, the way he described it was a kind of palace at an oasis in the desert… And best of all, he’d get them a good price as they were practically compatriots!’
Taïga giggles. ‘Compatriots, duh!’
‘He was curious about their son, and asked a lot of questions about him.’
‘Does it have to be a boy? Couldn’t it be a girl?
‘OK. How old was he?’
‘Who? The guide? I don’t know. Adult.’
‘No, the boy.’
‘Oh, he was just a kid, about seven.’
‘They decided to trust the guide, and he took them to the desert palace, which was even nicer than he had told them. Mom -the mother- was excited to live in such a luxurious place, and worried about the clothes she had brought with her. The boy was most interested in knowing if there were a swimming pool!’
‘Sure! A huge one, with a slide and waterfalls!’
‘The guide had an early dinner with the family that night, and the parents were so excited about the palace that they didn’t notice how silent the guide was, how he didn’t touch his Hrira or how he observed their son…’
‘Vegetable soup, they had arrived during the Ramadan. Now do you want me to continue or what?’
Taïga doesn’t know what the Ramadan is, but she doesn’t dare ask Derek again, or he’d stop telling his story.
‘After dinner, the parent’s disappeared outside to “discover the site” as they said… But they just wanted to get romantic in the hot tub…’
‘… so the boy decided to explore the palace on his own. He quickly ran into the guide, who asked him if he’d like to go on a quest…’
‘The son was a tough little boy, thirsty for adventure, so he followed the guide without saying goodbye to his parents. It was already dark, -the sun sets at around 6 pm the whole year- but the full moon lit their way to an isolated place behind the palace…’
‘What was his name?’
‘Der- Dirk. His name was Dirk. Now could you please be quiet?’
‘OK. The guide unlocked the padlock and preceded Dirk through the door. The two of them went through a lot of corridors and stairs, until finally the guide stopped. The boy looked around him in the light of the torch, and almost stopped breathing…’
‘There were bones on the floor…’
Taïga moves closer to Derek.
‘OMG! A predator!’
Derek glances at Taïga’s devastated expression. How could she know?
‘Nonono. I don’t want to hear about it! You promised me scary, not… not pedophiliwhatever!’
‘Oh, no! Not that kind of predator. Wait, you’ll be surprised.’
Relieved, Taïga fiddles a little with the zipper on her jacket. ‘Sorry… Please continue, Derek.’
‘The little boy looked bravely at the guide.
“I’m not scared of you!”
I– err, the boy – said, sounding more self-assessed than he really was. The guide didn’t say anything, just let the torch fall on the floor. His face scrunched as if in pain…’
‘The guide shivered, and suddenly started contorting himself, horrible gargling noises escaping his twisting mouth. The boy watched in horror the guide falling to his knees, his moans transforming into animal growls. Hair began to grow from his skin, claws pushed forward from his fingers and when he raised his head, opening his mouth in a terrifying roar, the young boy could see how his teeth were now sharp fangs…’
‘Did he run?’ Taïga whispers.
‘Err… No, he couldn’t move. He was paralyzed with fear…’
‘When the werewolf -because that’s what the guide truly was- rose to his feet, focusing his yellow eyes on the terrified boy, he backed away from him begging for his life.’ Derek stares into the fire.
‘What happened? Did he get away?’
‘Not at first. The werewolf grabbed him by the arm and bared his fangs to tear into him…’
‘… and then, unexpectedly, adrenalin kicked in! I – err, the boy – tore away, surprising the werewolf who let go. He ducked and dodged and ran for his life – straight into the darkness!’
‘The crypt was a real labyrinth. The boy ran blindly in the dark, stumbling on the remnants of the werewolf’s victims.’
‘Every time he stopped to catch his breath, he could hear the low growl of the beast in pursuit…’
Taïga fumbles for Derek’s hand. He catches his breath but continues.
‘The boy understood he couldn’t outrun the beast, especially not in the dark. He had to find a hiding place! But where? The creature was coming closer, he could hear the claws on the cold stone. Quickly he stepped behind one of the many statues and held his breath.’
‘Snarling and growling with rage, the powerful beast started to push the statues in fury! Soon it would turn over the one that sheltered the boy! I had to think fast… Quickly I- err, the boy – scooped up a small stone from the ground and threw it through an open door…’
‘The werewolf’s head snapped round towards the sound, and cautiously it moved away, towards the door. But it stopped before entering the other room, snarling and sniffing the air… If it had turned around at that moment, the young boy would surely have died…’
Taïga holds on to Derek’s hand, hard.
‘It was now or never – the boy pushed away from his shelter and ran! Suddenly the floor gave way beneath him and he fell down a sort of slide, emerging in the fresh night air.’
‘He scrambled coughing to his feet and resumed running. He was lucky, he got out from the tomb not far from some kind of military camp.’
‘The werewolf had been tricked, but it didn’t give up. He followed the trail of blood…’
‘Yeah, he’d scratched the boy on the arm. Remember? A nasty gash, it was very painful.’
‘Ahem… The werewolf couldn’t follow the trail into the camp. He gave up a bloodcurdling howl in frustration, echoing around the sand dunes. Really terrifying. Somebody started shouting orders in Arabic and the whole camp went mad – there were military everywhere, running around with their loaded guns, just like in a movie.’
‘What happened to Dirk?’
‘Dirk? Err… He stood in the middle of the camp, watching the frenzy the howling had caused, and he knew he was in safety there. No way were those guys letting the beast close without taking it down!
The military only spoke Arabic. They took him to a paramedic who tended to his arm and asked a lot of questions about the gash, but he couldn’t explain to them. Remember, he was only seven. They finally left him alone, and he fell asleep right where they had stitched his wound.’
‘At dawn, he woke up dizzy and disoriented. The camp was quiet, and he could hear snoring from the other tents and the guards calling to each other. He carefully sneaked out of the tent. He didn’t know where he was, except that he saw a village minaret behind the dunes and he could hear the morning call to prayer. He was hungry, the smell of shawarma’s made his stomach growl so he started towards where he could see smoke rising behind one of the many identical tents. Suddenly he froze. A familiar silhouette was approaching the campsite.’
‘OMG. The werewolf?’ Taïga whispers reverently.
‘Yeah… he had come looking for him!’
‘Wouldn’t the military shoot it down?’
‘He was human again… And the military would certainly deliver him to the Arabic speaking guide, so he didn’t have much of a choice. He sneaked behind the tents again, making his way around the guide…’
‘What happened then?’
‘While the guide spoke to the military, he ran! Like hell! He had a good advance but the guide chased after him!’
‘He had never run as fast in his life, but the guide slowly caught up on him.’
‘When they sprinted into the little village, the guide was close enough to lounge.’ He looks at Taïga’s rapt face and continues, ‘But the boy turned into a backyard, so the guide went sprawling in the sand. Without looking behind him, Damon weaved through the cramped streets towards the marketplace, dodging under clothes lines, around people, breathing so hard he thought his chest would explode.’
‘Didn’t you say his name was Dirk?’
Derek looks irritably at her, ‘Dirk, Damon, whatever. It’s just a story, right?’
‘He raced into the little market place, where he immediately saw his mother. She was pacing outside the police station, waiting while his dad got through the tedious administrative routine of reporting their son missing…’
‘The police and his father came rushing out, alerted by his mother’s screams of joy. His father took him in his arms too, unusual of him… Finally he was saved.’
Taïga lets out her breath… ‘What about the werewolf?’
‘I don’t know. I guess he couldn’t do anything, there were too many people around. They never saw him again…’
‘That’s a happy ending… I prefer that!’
Reluctantly she lets go of Derek’s hand.
‘But it’s not over yet… They had to see a doctor about the wound on the boy’s arm. It healed nicely, but it had triggered a lethal virus infection called Lycanthropy.’
‘Wow… That sounds bad?’
‘It is very bad… every full moon since, the boy transforms into… a WEREWOLF!’
‘ROAARRRRR…’ Derek bares his teeth and lashes out at her, making Taïga squeal with fright.
‘Stop it, Derek! It’s not funny!’
Derek laughs at her fear, ‘So that’s it. End of story. The boy became a werewolf too!’
Taïga watches him wide eyed. ‘You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?’ A slow smile spreads on her face. ‘Werewolves don’t exist! Let’s roast some more marshmallows!’
‘There’s no left. And you have curfew to respect.’
Curfew. Always when you’re having most fun… But she knows she has to hurry, it’s getting darker by the minute. ‘What about Teddy?’
‘I better get him up in the tree house, I can’t leave him out here the whole night.’
‘Yeah, the beasts will get him.’
‘Sure, effing mosquitos will be all over him as soon as the fire goes out…’
‘Can I keep your jacket? I’ll give it back tomorrow.’
‘No worries. Are you sure you’ll be OK riding all the way home on your own? It’s almost dark.’ Derek frowns at her, scrutinizing her face.
Taïga is scared, but she doesn’t want Derek to know. ‘Yeah. See you tomorrow!’ She unfolds the kickstand, straddling her bike.
Derek walks over to where his brother is soundly asleep, calling over his shoulder, ‘See you tomorrow then.’
She can see him shove Teddy with his foot as she pushes off, ‘Hey, bro. Wake up. It’s the tree house or under the stars – your choice. Just know I won’t carry you up that ladder…’
His voice tones out as she distances the treehouse, picking up speed, pedaling fast.
Taïga shudders from the sudden bite of the chill night air, or could it be from fright? She has about a half hour ride through the dark forest before getting home, and the moon is almost full tonight. What if the story Derek told her was true? Maybe there’s a horrible creature lurking behind a tree or a boulder, just waiting for his dinner. For her…
Taïga makes it safely through the woods, but is greeted at the door by a furious Granny. She was so relieved to see the flickering lights of Taïga’s bike that everything just burst inside her. Rushing down the stairs, she throws the door open, fighting between the urge to hold the little girl tight and tell her how worried she had been, or chew her out.
‘Taïga! I was- You are grounded!’
‘Taïga burst into tears, hiccupping, ‘I-I-I-I’m so so-sorry Granny. I-I just wanted so-so much to-to eat with Derek and Ted-Teddy in the t-t-treehouse, and then, then I-I was so scared of-of werewolves on the-the way home I-I thought I’d never make it!
Mrs. Brown pushes past a crestfallen Granny. ‘Come in little one, I’ll make you a nice cup of hot chocolate while you tell your grandmother all about it.’ She throws a meaningful glance at Granny who snorts, but nevertheless takes Taïga’s hand and leads her towards the dining room.
‘I thought I would serve the hot chocolate in the den. In front of the fireplace.’ Mrs. Brown adds pointedly, barring Granny’s route.
Granny doesn’t argue, just lifts her head and takes Taïga into the den where they settle in the comfortable armchairs in front of the fireplace.
‘Now… Ahem… Tell me what happened tonight…’
After making sure the fire is out, Derek follows his brother up in the treehouse. Teddy is already asleep, cozily snuggled up to his teddy bear in his sleeping bag. It’s warm and cozy up here – and no mosquitoes.
Derek slumps down on the makeshift sofa, sighing. He hopes Taïga will make it home alright, he’s got a case of bad consciousness about having scared her about werewolves. But then again she asked for it. And he so wants to tell her, but at the same time he’s terribly afraid of what her reaction would be. He lies awake, watching his brother sleep, thoughts running through his head…
He still can’t fathom why his father laughed at him when he told him about the werewolf. He, who had been abducted by aliens, didn’t believe his own son. It was kind of curious, though, how stubborn he was about not acknowledging the whole thing.
His mother believed him though. She took him in her arms and whispered that he mustn’t talk about what happened in the Egyptian tomb, because nobody would believe him, thinking he was crazy. She said his father would come around too, once he had time to think it all over. It was quite an incredible story, after all.
He used to hear them talking about the Lycan curse late at night, when they thought he was asleep. He lied in his bed, trying to make sense out of their hushed voices, but the tone of despair in his mother’s voice is what marked him the most.
The first full moon after their return from Egypt, it happened to him. He almost fainted from the intense pain that seared through his body. He could hear the bones crack as they shifted, his head almost exploded from the feeling when the sharp canines pushed through his tender gums, making him bleed. He crashed the whole house and bit his own father before fainting. The only good thing is that his old man now believe in his story. But it’s strange that he never turned. Maybe he’s too young to turn people…
They moved from Bridgeport to Bigwood Falls shortly after. To their little house by the river, far away from other people. And they still lock him up once a month in the basement, but it gets better, even if it’s still very painful. The transformation is faster and he doesn’t thrash around as much. At least as long as they throw raw food at him. Like a beast… Who’s he kidding here? He is a beast. No, he hates to think about this. And he can’t tell Taïga, or she’ll freak out totally. It’s already difficult to hide the whole thing from Teddy…
Part I – End of Chapter 11