Becca Thornton’s first hot flash came on suddenly and unexpectedly, superheating her body from head to toe until she was drenched with sweat. It propelled her off the couch and into the bathroom to splash cold water on her face. As the water dripped down her cheeks, she glanced at her tomato-like complexion and bit off a shriek.
There had been something new in her reflection, a flickering of golden eyes and fur, visible for the blink of an eye. Something feral and wild strained its way toward the surface behind her otherwise utterly normal features. What the hell? She closed her eyes, shutting out the hallucination or whatever it was.
Everything slowed down for a minute, as if this new wildness that lurked inside her was being locked back in its cage. When she looked again, there was nothing new and terrifying to be seen. Her own face, round and furless, stared back at her, brown eyes startled but perfectly ordinary. It was a face like that of any other woman of a certain age in a one-horse town like Wolf’s Point. For a moment, she wondered if this gradual softening and rounding of features, this planing away of the sharp edges, was what they all had in common.
But the thought was overwhelmed by a second, milder flash. Becca lurched outside and dropped onto her porch swing, the fan in her hand trying to supplement the tiny morning breeze. She rocked slowly back and forth and cursed turning fifty, but silently so that the neighbors wouldn’t notice. Here in Wolf’s Point, they noticed quite a bit from what she’d gathered.
Across the street, her neighbor Erin walked out on her porch and Becca gave her a half-hearted wave. Just her luck, Erin waved back then started over. This wasn’t going to help cool her down much, that was for sure.
Erin wasn’t like the rest of the townsfolk, at least as far as Becca was concerned. She’d only been Becca’s neighbor for about two years, which made her a little exotic by itself. Most of the other neighbors had been there forever. While Becca hadn’t asked, she assumed that like her, Erin had married into Wolf’s Point, then lost her husband somewhere along the way and bought a house on a quiet street outside the downtown hub. Wasn’t that what single women of a certain age did with themselves once their husbands were gone, one way or another?
But regardless of how she came to be there, just talking to Erin made Becca feel different, kind of shy and squirmy inside. It was weird; she hadn’t had trouble talking to anyone or even speaking in front of an audience for ages now. Everyone said she was the one of the best speakers at the Wolf’s Point Women’s Club. After all, she’d been doing that kind of stuff since Ed dumped her two years ago.
That, of course, sent her overheated brain spiraling off into thoughts about her ex. She and Ed had met at a bank in the city where she worked as a teller and he was trying to get a loan. After they got married, they’d moved around the country while he worked at too many sales jobs for her to remember and she worked at whatever was available. It had been a mostly good fifteen years, though she had missed settling down and really building a home, maybe raising a family.
Then they moved to Wolf’s Point and everything changed. Ed decided his life was incomplete unless he got himself a twenty something blonde and a sports car and that, as they said, was that. She wondered if it made him feel any younger. Good luck to him and his trophy bimbo she thought contemptuously and smiled at how little the thought bothered her anymore. It had been a long time coming, but it felt good to be leaving him like so much baggage on the side of the road, just like he’d done to her.
Erin arrived on the heels of her smile. “Hey there. Pretty hot out this morning, huh?” She grinned the slow lazy smile that always made Becca think about cowboys. Cowgirls. Whatever. Maybe it was her neighbor’s long lean body or her short-cropped graying hair. Or the slow way she talked, like she’d just ridden in off the range. It wasn’t too much of a leap to picture her on horseback.
Becca dragged her mind back to the present and gave herself a stern mental admonition to stop daydreaming. “Yep. And I’m even hotter on top of that.” She rolled her eyes and fanned faster, like that was going to help. It wasn’t quite what she meant to say but she figured it would pass without comment.
It didn’t. Erin raised an eyebrow and cocked her head to one side like a big dog. “No question about that. Or am I missing something?”
Becca felt a flush paint her cheeks and nearly hid her face in her fan just like an old-time court lady. But, of course, Erin hadn’t meant anything by it. Not like there was anything to mean for that matter. Who’d say something like that about her middle-aged dumpy self anymore?
“I’m...extra warm today. I seem to be coming up on the ‘Change’,” she mumbled finally when she realized Erin was still waiting for an answer. She could almost hear the word spelled with a nearly invisible capital letter “C.”
Erin’s grin turned a little strange, as if her face was somehow longer than it should be. Becca blinked and tried to convince herself it was just a trick of the morning light. Her neighbor’s face looked normal enough when she looked back up: broad cheeks, silvery gray eyes with a hint of blue, cheerful grin exposing slightly crooked teeth.
“Well,” Erin said at last, “this calls for a celebration. We usually hold a little party down at the Women’s Club when that time of life comes around for one of our members.”
“News to me. No one ever said anything about it before. This one of those Red Hat things?” Becca scowled. Why would Erin know something like this when she didn’t? After all, she’d been a member for two whole years, for God’s sake, a whole year longer than Erin, as far as she knew. She was even in the running to be Club Secretary in the next election if all went well. But she’d be damned if she was putting on a red hat and a feather boa, no matter how much fun everyone else said it was.
Erin grinned a little wider as if she was imagining Becca in the hat and the boa. Becca wondered what else she was wearing in the other woman’s imagination and flushed even more. Now, where had that notion come from? This day got any weirder and she was going to need to go over to the clinic for a checkup.
Erin’s voice cut into her thoughts, “Nope. Can you really see me in a red hat, much less a boa?” Becca glanced at her scruffy plaid shirt and jeans and shook her head. Erin went on talking, “We just get together, have some cake and a margarita or two and talk about some of the things that made life easier when we first started going through that time of life. Don’t spread the word too far though; we’re trying to keep the youngsters out until they’re old enough to relate.” She winked, a slow sensuous gesture that made Becca smile despite herself. Erin continued, “Your schedule pretty open Friday night? We like to run a little late on these things.”
Becca raised an eyebrow but nodded anyway. She was trying to picture the older members of their little club staying awake past nine and so far it wasn’t working. But maybe she didn’t know them as well as she thought she did. Erin made another comment or two about stopping by to pick her up on Friday, then took off.
Becca made herself not watch her walk away, the fact that she wanted to do just that surprising her more than anything else that had happened so far this morning. Instead, she got ready for work and headed into downtown on foot.
Her walk down to 5th Street to Main St. always gave her a terrific view of the mountains that surrounded the town of Wolf’s Point on three sides, their peaks looming over the tiny houses below. Becca paused a moment to let a breeze cool her cheeks and take a deep breath. Any time she wondered why she’d stayed on here after she and Ed split up, all she had to do was look at the mountains. This was her place now, the home she’d always wanted.
She made a quick stop beforehand at the grocery store for lunch and to check out the magazine rack. There had to be something out there about dealing with menopause. Besides, the less thinking she did about Erin Adams and her mysterious groups, the better.
But the store didn’t yield much in the way of information unless Becca wanted sensual feasts to keep her man’s interest. Well, that ship sailed awhile back, she thought as she looked over the glossy covers.
And then, it was like she was someone else. Her lip curled over one incisor and she almost growled.
The sensation made her gasp and rub her face to get it back to normal. She took a quick look around, hoping no one else had noticed anything unusual. She needn’t have worried. Becca Thornton at fifty might as well have been invisible. Carts went around her, younger women picked up the romance novels, men old and young picked up the sports and car magazines, and not one of them noticed anything different about her.
For a moment, that bothered her almost as much as the strange feelings, then she shrugged. It was just as well, given how weird she was feeling today. She glanced at the wall clock. It was almost time for her shift at the hardware store, that time of life or not. She paid for her sandwich and apple and headed out into the sunny street.
Peterson’s Hardware was just two blocks away so she ate her lunch on the way. Not for the first time, she found herself being grateful that Wolf’s Point still had a hardware store. And a downtown with a grocery store. Odd how the big chain stores were never able to get a foothold around here. Why, the nearest big box was over two hundred miles away. The end result was that Pete didn’t have much competition and she got paid more than she would have at another kind of store. Just one of Wolf’s Point’s many good features, she reminded herself.
The blocks between the grocery and the hardware stores were filled with pedestrians. There was a good flow of tourists in town today and the crowds filled Main Street with energy and a sense of possibility. Sometimes, Becca thought that it felt like there was a kind of magic at work here, something that protected Wolf’s Point from the worst of the outside world and only let in the good.
The notion made her smile as she walked up past the lawnmowers and grills that decorated the sidewalk in front of Peterson’s. Then she swung the door open and her mood shifted. Erin and her buddy Molly Kirk and Shelly Peterson were all leaning on the counter, their heads close together like they were sharing secrets.
She wondered what they had to whisper about. Maybe about what she said to Erin about what she was going through? Erin wouldn’t tell anyone about that, would she? And Shelly wasn’t one for gossip. She watched her boss’ brown-skinned, hawk-nosed profile tilt back in a quiet laugh that shook the long black braid that ran down her narrow back.
In contrast, Molly was a big, round pale-skinned woman with a gap-toothed grin that lit up her face like Christmas. Watching her turn that grin on Erin sent a spike through Becca’s innards before she could make herself think logically. What the hell was wrong with her? She had nothing against Molly Kirk and no reason to think any of them meant her ill.
But despite her intentions, she swung back and forth between jealousy and paranoia for a long couple of seconds, refusing to acknowledge that she felt either emotion. Finally, she made herself smile instead of giving her fears free rein. “Hi!”
The three turned and grinned at her, breaking her thoughts up into little jagged shards. She had a disturbing impression of glowing eyes and lolling tongues and she shook her head to clear it. Evidently her change of life was going to be more bizarre than anyone else’s. Somehow, that figured, but at least it gave her thoughts some context. Now all she had to do was get a handle on her imagination.
That was the moment when Pete Peterson himself ambled down the nail aisle looking like a Viking god misplaced from some legend. He nodded a greeting when he saw her. “There’s a guy over in the paint section who wants your help, Becca,” he rumbled. “Ladies,” he added a second nod to the women at the counter before walking away into the plumbing and electrical supplies section.
Becca made herself not watch him walk away either. Peter was a fine big figure of a man, just the kind she would’ve gone for when she was younger. But he was married, and besides, he just didn’t make her feel all squirmy inside like…
“Hey Becca, I’ll stop by when you’re done with your shift,” Erin’s voice purred in the vicinity of her ear, sending a flush through Becca’s cheeks that she couldn’t control. She nodded and bolted for the paint section, resolving not to think about anything except hardware for the rest of the day.
After Erin and Molly left, there was a succession of customers picking up paint or supplies or agonizing about color choices. Just enough to put Erin out of her mind. Almost, anyway. She settled into the rhythm of her work and restocked supplies once the first wave of customers came and went.
Then, when that got too slow, Shelly came by wanting some help with the window display. While they worked on that, they made small talk about the town and the store, about what would look good in the windows and about the forthcoming Wolf’s Point Days sidewalk sale. Becca thought for the hundredth time in two years about how amazingly lucky she’d been to get this job. There was something about talking to Shelly that made every word seem significant, even if it wasn’t about very much.
Before she knew it, it was the end of her day and there was Erin waiting outside, her long form leaning up against a lamppost outside like something out of a noir film. All she needed was a fedora and a smoke. Becca squirmed, fantasizing about ducking out the back door for a minute, but there were Pete and Shelly herding her out the front door.
“You gals have a nice evening,” Pete winked at Erin.
Just like we were on a date or something! Becca bit the words back before they could cross her lips. No point in planting that particular seed where it didn’t need to start growing. Those kinds of rumors could wreak some serious havoc on her nonexistent dating prospects. She bit back a snort and made herself smile up at Erin. “You didn’t have to stop by to meet me, you know. I’m used to walking home alone in the evening.”
Erin grinned back at her. “But tonight the moon’s almost full and the mountains look even more gorgeous than usual. I thought you might want to take the long way home and check out the scenic route. I even brought tea.” She held out a shiny little coffee mug and a small white paper bag. “And chocolate.”
“You do think of everything.” Becca helped herself to a small piece of the chocolate and gulped down the tea before handing the bag and the cup back. Erin turned away to tuck them back in her pack just as the moon caught Becca’s eye.
She found herself staring up at it like she’d never seen it before. Had it always been so white, so compelling? It pulled at the tides in her blood, rustling under her skin until she was so jumpy she wanted to run and howl. She forced her tone to sound casual. “Let’s walk then.”
They moved briskly, Becca surprising herself by keeping up with Erin’s long strides. There was a breeze blowing tonight, coming in from out of town somewhere. It was full of tantalizing scents, ones that Becca had never noticed before. The wind’s fingers twisted their way through her shoulder-length gray and brown hair, lifting it out of the scrunchy that tried to restrain it until she gave up and yanked it off. She felt like anything might happen tonight. The thought thrummed through her like a drumbeat.
“Do you run?” Erin’s voice growled from somewhere above her and she shivered as if she was shaking off an old skin. For an answer, she swung her bag back out of the way. Then she lunged forward into a lope that came easily to her. It wasn’t too fast but it was certainly more of a run than she’d attempted in years. She tried not to think about how much her calves would hurt later.
Erin effortlessly kept pace with her as they charged from downtown onto the more deserted side streets, heading for the river. The bag banging against Becca’s back was a minor irritation, one she could ignore in her newly discovered speed and stamina. She sucked in the wind like a drink and imagined for a moment that the two of them were chasing something, something they had to catch. Her white tennis shoes twinkled below her against the dark pavement as they surged out onto the bridge.
The river rapids thundered beneath its rusting metal trusses and Erin caught Becca’s arm to slow her down and draw her to the rail. Together, they panted out into the moonlit dark in companionable silence. Becca grinned down at the water, its rushing length matching her mood. “Maybe this will be the year that I finally go on that whitewater trip Ed was always going on about.”
“Sounds like a great idea.” Erin said enthusiastically. And just like that, Becca knew who she wanted to go with. She’d been alone too long; it was time that she started making some new friends. She glanced sidelong at Erin, watching her nostrils flare in the breeze. The slight elongation of her face that Becca had seen earlier was back, as was the silver tint in her eyes.
But now it felt right, like it was the way she should look. She grinned back at Becca, and even the length and sharpness of her teeth seemed to suit her face better than they had back in town. “Thanks for running with me. I needed that.”
“Rough day crunching the numbers?” Becca remembered that Erin was an accountant, but she always had problems reconciling it with what she’d seen of her neighbor. She looked like she should be herding cattle or something, lariat in hand.
“Always.” Erin threw back her head, tilting her nose up at the moon. For a second, Becca wondered if she was going to howl at it. They both looked up, silent again for a moment.
Then Becca glanced down at the water and her hands on the railing. Had her fingers always been so long, the backs of her hands so dark, almost as if they were covered with...black fur?
“Have some more tea,” Erin nudged her hard, as if determined to interrupt her thoughts, and thrust the thermos into Becca’s hands.
When Becca looked at her fingers again a couple of seconds later, they looked normal. “So when you were going through menopause, did you think you were seeing a lot of crazy things, stuff you knew couldn’t be happening?” She asked at last. She tried to make her tone casual, as if she was just making conversation.
“You kidding?” Erin laughed heartily. “I thought I was seeing Elvis down at the diner every time I had a hot flash!” She appeared to catch a bit of Becca’s mood then and reached out to pat her shoulder reassuringly. “You’ll be fine. It just takes a little adjustment.”
Seeing Elvis wouldn’t be so bad, Becca thought. It was the rest of it that was kind of disturbing. That was when she noticed the van traveling slowly down the highway that ran past the end of the bridge. Not that there was much to notice about it—it was white with a logo on the side that she couldn’t read from where they stood and that was about it. But there was something about the tinted windows and the way it paused as it passed the bridge, almost like the driver was watching them, sizing them up, that made it sinister.
It made the back of her neck tingle and her knees quiver a little like she wanted to chase the van or run away or something. She could feel Erin stiffen at her side and when she looked up, she could see the other woman’s lips curled back in a snarl. Her incisors looked impossibly long in the moonlight. “The bastards are back!” Erin spat, glaring ferociously at the van as it disappeared around a curve.
“Huh? What bastards? You know who it was driving that thing?” Becca was alert now, sensing some kind of danger though she didn’t know what it could be.
Erin took a deep breath and it looked as if she was to forcing herself to relax a little. “Just some guys out to cause trouble. They’ve been around here before and a few of us had to let them know they weren’t welcome. Looks like we’ll be doing that again.” Erin sent another glare in the direction the van had gone. “Well, come on. I think we better get you home.”
Becca’s lips parted as a horde of questions tried to force their way out. Why did Erin know all these things about Wolf’s Point that she didn’t? Secret rituals, vigilante justice—what was next? Monsters in the woods? But she glanced at her companion and closed her mouth, swallowing the questions back down. Erin’s mind was elsewhere and whatever she was thinking about was serious. Her own curiosity could wait a day or two. She just hoped it wouldn’t be longer than that.