CHAPTER ONE - THE WHITE WOLF
“I’ll let you fill up your motorcycle for free if you give me a taste of that sweet mouth of yours,” the gas station attendant offered.
He was a pudgy man in his mid-fifties, married according to the ring on his finger, but evidently had a taste for desperate young men. The patch on his shirt said his name was “Merv”, which Jude Connor was having a hard time not translating to “Perv”.
Merv had a double-chin that he clearly was trying to hide with a scraggly beard that only accentuated the rolls of fat. His gut was just barely covered by a too-tight t-shirt stained by grease and oil and hung over the waistband of his pants like it was trying to escape the rest of him. If Merv weren’t male, one would have thought he was expecting. The leer and licking of rubbery lips by a tobacco-stained tongue just made the whole offer that much more revolting to Jude.
But I only have five dollars left and that’s not going to fill the bike let alone get me something to eat.
Jude hadn’t eaten in two days and his lean, muscular frame was looking more lean than muscular. He normally was able to find odd jobs as he rode around the Midwest, but for the past two weeks he hadn’t found any work for more than a couple bucks here or there. Not enough to get by. He’d taken to sleeping in fields with a plastic tarp to keep off the rain to save money, but he was down to the bitter end of his finances. The bike had coasted into this gas station on fumes and there the gas station was the only business around for miles. So it was take Merv’s offer or ...
There’s always the credit card that Tessa gave me. It’s in my wallet. God, I hardly need one. My license, her credit card and an old condom are the only things in there. Might as well put the damned thing out of its misery.
Tessa Cambridge was his foster sister and now a big time lawyer in New York City. The last time he had visited her and her partner Libbie Meyers she had handed him the cell phone that occupied the other back pocket of his worn jeans and the credit card.
He’d tried to wave her off, but she’d pressed both the phone and credit card into his hands. “Take them, Jude. If you can’t take them for yourself, take them for me. I can’t stand to think of you alone out there with just your motorcycle. It’s not safe.”
“I can take care of myself.” He lifted his chin mulishly as he said it. “So you can give it to me, but I’ll never use it. I don’t need charity.”
“It’s not charity, Jude. You’re my brother.” She sighed and passed a hand over her forehead and suddenly he saw tears in her eyes. “You need … people in your life, Jude. A family. You know that Libbie and I would be thrilled if you stayed with us --”
“Tessa.” He grasped her shoulders, shocked at the sudden tears in her dark brown eyes. Tessa was tough as nails and never cried, not even when she’d found out that her mother had finally died from her drug addiction. Now she was weeping over him and the fact that he was alone on the road? “I’m okay. Really. I’m happy being by myself. You and Libbie are the only people I need. But I also need to be … on the road. Just moving, you know?”
“But why, Jude?” Her beautiful ebony face lifted up to his and she studied him with an intensity that he’d seen her only use in the courtroom. He struggled not to squirm under that insightful look.
“I -- I just like not being tied down,” he answered her lamely.
One elegant eyebrow lifted. “Or maybe, just maybe, you’re running from everyone and everything because you’re afraid of being hurt again. Could that be the real reason, Jude?”
“So … what do you say? A kiss for a tank full of gas?” The gas station attendant asked, drawing Jude out of his memories.
“I said I’d do work for the fuel,” Jude’s voice took on a slight edge. “I could pick up around here.” There was trash all around the station from chip wrappers to beer bottles. “Or clean your windows.” The station’s windows were so filthy that they looked like they were tinted even though they weren’t. “There’s plenty of work to be done for the price of a tank of gas and some food.”
But even as he said these things he knew this man wouldn’t let him work for the fuel and food. He knew Merv’s type. This man saw a kid -- not that Jude was exactly a kid any more, he was twenty-four, but Jude was aware that he had a certain appeal, a prettiness that made him look vulnerable -- who was alone and desperate and instead of giving a helping hand, Merv asked for sex. Just a taste. Just a touch. Just don’t scream while I -- Jude blinked, thrusting back memories he didn’t want to ever remember again.
“There’s no work here. Unless it’s work on your knees.” Merv’s leer went a little stiff, showing some yellowed teeth even as his suggestions got ruder. He didn’t like Jude’s tone evidently. Probably thought it was disrespectful.
Anger flooded Jude’s mind for a moment. A red haze covered his vision as he remembered being held down, his pants cut off of him and -- no! He would not think of that! He would not! Fine tremors coursed through his body then. His hands fisted as he imagined busting Merv’s lip open with a punch to the face. Merv would fall down, gasping and bleeding and bleating that he would call the cops. Jude knew he could intimidate Merv into staying in place while he gassed up the bike and stuffed bags of chips and donuts into his bags before hightailing it outta there.
If he had been fifteen that’s what he would have done. Definitely would have done before he had lived with Grandmother Sophia and met Tessa. He would have reacted to the memories and the sickness that lived in this man. But though there was nothing wrong about taking down a creature such as this, he would pay the price for it. Merv would call the cops and claim that he’d been all innocently minding his business when a punk on a bike came in, punched him and robbed him. Merv would get to go on pursuing desperate young men for sex and Jude would be the one locked up.
Merv’s leer had loosened up again at Jude’s long silence. He undoubtedly thought he had a live one here. He’d get his kiss and maybe he’d get Jude to blow him. Maybe if he convinced Jude there would be more money in it Jude would stay for awhile and he’d get to fuck Jude’s tight ass. Merv’s little cock gave a jerk. Or that’s what Jude thought the gas station attendant was thinking and feeling. He normally was pretty spot on about this stuff.
And that was when he realized that he should never say never.
Jude pulled out his worn wallet, flipped it open and took out the credit card. He handed it to Merv. “Actually, I don’t need any work from you. I’ll take a tank of gas and a few other things. You can charge it to my card.”
He almost laughed at the gas station attendant’s crestfallen expression. That eased the sting of having to use Tessa’s credit card. He vowed to find work as soon as possible and pay her back.
Jude had left the gas station far behind and had pulled off the two-lane highway. He was sitting in a field on the side of the road. He had devoured two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The gas station had surprisingly had relatively fresh bread and the peanut butter and jelly didn’t need refrigeration. That and some sodas and a few bags of chips were all he could fit in his saddlebags with his clothes. But it was more than enough for him for a few days.
He tilted his head back and let the sun bathe his face. The sweet scent of flowers and fresh grass filled his nose. There was a whispery sound as the wind rustled through the trees that were just ten feet away. Out in nature like this he felt a sense of peace he never felt in cities or even small towns. He was free. He might be a little lonely, but that was a small price to pay to not have to fend off the Mervs of this world.
The Pervs of this world, he mentally corrected and grinned.
His eyelids fluttered shut and he laid down fully on the ground. The sun-warmed grass cushioned his back and head. He felt drowsy after the food and stress of the last few days. Maybe he would just catch a nap for twenty minutes or so. He found himself slipping into sleep faster than was usual for him.
And he dreamed.
He dreamed that he was padding through a forest. The trunks of countless trees streamed up over fifty feet above his head. The earth was cool underneath his feet -- not feet, paws -- as the sun could not reach through the canopy of thick trees to warm the ground where he tread. With a sense of wonder, he found himself loping through the trees. He saw a fallen branch and he leaped over it, neatly landing on four paws. He was then running again. His tongue lolled out in pleasure.
I’m dreaming I’m a dog! No, that’s not right. I’m a wolf! Jude thought and laughed.
Never had he had such a vivid dream like this where he could feel everything from the rush of air over his coat to the stick of wet mud between the pads of his paws. A wild joy flowed through him as he leaped over another log. He saw a deer leaning down and nibbling on some leaves. Its head raised in alarm as it sensed him. Their gazes met and the deer took off. He dashed after it, giving chase.
He realized with a start that he could catch it as the distance between them shrank from twenty to ten feet. He could fasten his jaws around its throat and take it down. He could almost taste its hot blood flowing down his throat and the chew of its flesh. His stomach growled. He wanted meat not peanut butter and jelly! The deer’s scent was tinged with fear though and his hunger suddenly eased. He didn’t really want to take this deer down. It was a dream. It wouldn’t satisfy his hunger. So he stopped following the fleet footed animal, watching it disappear between the tree trunks.
He turned his head to the right and saw a raised open circular clearing. Sunlight poured down onto the grass and flowers that grew there. He effortlessly ran to the center of the clearing before standing still in the light. Wind ruffled his fur. He lifted his nose into the air and breathed in the scent of green, growing things.
That was when the howling began.
Jude froze for a moment, heart hammering in his chest. Though he might be a wolf in his dream, he was a human in his mind and the howls had the hairs on the back of neck rising. The urge to bolt into the trees nearly overwhelmed him, but he wasn’t sure where the howls came from. His ears flickered, trying to catch any noise, as he peered into the circle of trees around him. But the sunlight blinded him. He backed up a few feet, deciding to go back the way he came, but then he heard a howl from behind him. His four paws nearly left the ground at the sudden shock of that mournful yet frightening sound. Just as he was about to shoot forward another howl came from there, too. Then the howls came from every single direction. He was surrounded!
His heart beat so hard that it felt like it was going to burst from his chest. He lowered his body to the ground so that his belly was brushing the grass and let out a wolfish whine. There was no where to go! What did these other wolves want from him? Now the fact that this didn’t seem like a dream took on nightmarish aspect.
Suddenly, the howls stopped. Jude let out a thin whine. The silence was more frightening than the howls had been. Then something caught his eyes to his right. Another wolf had stepped into the clearing. It took but a few steps in before standing still, almost as if it was letting him see that it was there. Its coat was pure white and it had glowing topaz-colored eyes. Those eyes regarded him steadily, without blinking. Jude lowered himself even farther onto the ground as if he could disappear into the earth.
This magnificent animal with strangely intelligent eyes padded over to him, never seeming to blink. Jude whined for a third time, this time it sounded even more piteous to his own ears than before. Why couldn’t he go back to the part of the dream where he’d been running joyously through the woods? Why didn’t he wake up? But the sense of reality, that this was as real as the field he had fallen asleep in, kept him securely rooted in place.
The white wolf was almost on top of him now and to Jude’s horror, he found himself lying fully down, rolling over onto his back and exposing his throat. The white wolf placed one paw on Jude’s chest and then leaned over. It’s topaz eyes seemed to burn with command. Jude was helpless to resist. The white wolf -- carefully, almost gently -- put its jaws around his throat. Jude stayed absolutely still.
The press of fangs did not hurt. It was just a pressure to let him know that the white wolf was in charge. A thrill of unexpected excitement and arousal rolled through him. The pressure of those teeth suddenly left his throat and the white wolf’s head was lifted so that they were eye to eye. Those topaz eyes blazed and seemed to grow larger and larger and larger until they were all he could see. He was lost in gold.
I’ll know these eyes. I’ll know them. When I see them again.
Jude awakened to a vibration in his back pocket. He blinked and all he could see was gold again. But it was the gold of the sun instead of the wolf’s eyes.
There was no wolf. That was a dream. A strange, messed up dream.
But he still felt the pressure of the white wolf’s jaws on his throat. He was about to reach up to touch where the memory of those teeth had held onto him, but the vibration in his back pocket distracted him. He realized he was getting a call. The only ones that knew the number was Tessa and Grandmother Sophia.
How ironic would it be that Tessa would call me on the one day I used the credit card. Unless …
He frowned as he dug out the cell phone and saw that it was indeed Tessa. He put the phone to his ear. “Tessa?”
“Jude!” Her voice was falsely bright. “How -- how are you?”
He smiled in spite of himself. Hearing from Tessa always made him smile even if he had a sinking suspicion that she had an alert on the credit card she’d given him and was calling because he’d used it.
“I’m great, Tessa. How about you?”
She was quiet for a long moment. The great lawyer indeed! When it came to him she was transparent. “I’m … fine.”
“So you got an alert that I used the credit card?” he prompted her.
She let out an audible sigh. “I wasn’t doing it to spy on you --”
“All right, not just to spy on you, which is really caring about you by the way. I knew you would only use the card if things were really bad,” she confessed. “So … they’re really bad?”
It was his turn to sigh. He sat up and scowled into the air. The warm feelings from the dream were fading already as he thought back to Marv and all his ilk. How strange that though he had been afraid of the white wolf in his dream -- a cold hard fear, almost pure somehow -- and yet he preferred the dream over reality.
“I just haven’t been able to find work in a while,” he said, which was part of the truth, but not all of it. Tessa had escaped the world he still lived in. He wouldn’t bring her back into it even through his own stories. “But now that I know you’re monitoring the card I won’t do it again and I promise I’ll pay you back with interest.”
“Oh, Jude, no! I want you to use it!” The words tumbled out and he knew she meant them. “In fact, I’d love it if you used it for more than just some convenience store food and gas. It’s one of those cards with no limit. You could --”
“Tessa,” he said firmly.
“All right, all right, I know that tone.” She paused and then said, “I noticed the purchase was in Michigan --”
“No, no, don’t say it like that! This is a legit thing,” she said and he imagined her waving one hand in the air in her large office with the floor to ceiling windows. “When was the last time that you spoke to Grandmother Sophia?”
Guilt suddenly pierced him. Grandmother Sophia had taken him in at fifteen and Tessa at thirteen. She was the last stop on his way to juvie or worse. He’d been too old when his parents died to be considered for adoption so into the foster system he’d gone. He’d run away from all his other foster homes for good reasons. So many good reasons. Grandmother Sophia had saved him from a life on the streets where the Mervs of the world lived to hurt boys like he had been. But he hadn’t called her in months. She’d left Chicago and moved to a small town in Michigan called Forest Glenn. It had been her dream to leave the city for small town living. She’d gotten her wish just last year.
I should have called her before now. What if something’s happened to her?
“It’s been awhile, why? Is something wrong?” he finally got out.
“She’s all right. Well, mostly all right. I got a call from Sheriff Fairweather,” she began.
“The sheriff called you?” Alarm tinted his voice.
“I asked Georgia to give me a call if Grandmother Sophia had any troubles,” she quickly explained.
“You have the sheriff reporting to you, too? And on a first name basis! You have the credit card companies and now a sheriff in your back pocket, it’s the beginning an empire!” he teased her even as he felt anxiety about what the sheriff had thought troubling enough to call Tessa about. He pulled at a piece of grass and stuck the end of it in his mouth, relishing the almost sweet taste of the grass’ green juice.
“You jest, but …” Her voice took on a serious notes. “I’ve been concerned about Grandmother Sophia. She’s been forgetting things.”
“She’s seventy-four. I’m pretty sure that she’s forgotten more things than the two of us know together,” he said lightly, but his memory prodded him about how Grandmother Sophia had been the last time he’d called her. She’d repeated a story a few times about going to the store and finding this certain marmalade she’d had in her youth. He had put it down to simple excitement at finding something she’d missed, but maybe that wasn’t the case. Maybe she didn’t remember she had told the story at all.
“I know, but she left a pot on the stove. The fire department had to be called,” Tessa explained. “That’s what Georgia was worried about. She said that Grandmother Sophia was upset and confused --”
“Who wouldn’t be? That’s frightening!”
“More upset and confused than would be normal,” Tessa corrected gently.
Jude felt a deep desire to raise up more objections. Grandmother Sophia couldn’t be getting Alzheimer's. That’s what Tessa was suggesting. He wanted to shout that Grandmother Sophia was fine. She was always fine. She had to be always fine. But he swallowed back the grief of a child. If something was happening to his foster mother, he had to know, not hide in the dark from it like a child.
“You’re thinking that it’s more than just normal memory loss,” he said, unable to say the name of the disease.
“Yes, though she won’t go to the doctor to confirm anything …” Tessa let that sentence hang.
“I’m not that far away from her,” Jude suddenly said. “Just three hours away. I can stop in. Stay for awhile. Check things out.”
Tessa let out a relieved breath. “I was hoping you would say that!”
“Of course. I would do anything for her,” he said, slightly hurt that she evidently had worried he wouldn’t go and check on the woman that had saved both their lives.
“I know you would. It’s just not going to be an easy thing. You know how she is,” Tessa reminded him unnecessarily. “She’s a firecracker at the best of times and so fierce about her independence … but I think she knows that something’s wrong. She’s sure to be defensive, Jude.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he agreed, running a hand threw his dark brown hair. “I’ll find out if there’s anything to really worry about, Tess. I promise.”
His foster sister let out a laugh. “I knew I could count on you, Jude.”
They hung up and Jude stood. He quickly packed up everything in his saddlebags. Unlike Merv, he made sure to clean up his trash as well. He’d dump it at the next town. He would leave this place as pristine as he found it.
As he mounted the motorcycle, his gaze strayed to the woods. For one moment he remembered the experience of running through the trees on four paws and a pair of golden eyes. The motorcycle roared to life beneath him and he pulled onto the highway somehow feeling less lonely and more hopeful than he had in a long time.