“We’re going to live up here for two months,” he said. “No telephones, no Internet, no friends from school.” He took off his uniform jacket and tie and put them in a plastic bag in the back of his car. Chey was confused and kind of frightened—she’d had no idea this was coming. “Your mother tells me she found pot in your school bag,” he said. “That won’t happen again. Correct?”
“I guess,” she said. She hadn’t liked pot anyway. It made her feel weird and fuzzy and that made her paranoid—she kept looking at all the shadows in the room and they kept changing like they were moving. Circling her. “Yeah, whatever.”
“When you speak to me you will call me sir,” he told her. He wasn’t joking around. “She tells me you’re running with a bad crowd. Older girls who already have bad habits.”
She squirmed and kicked at the dirt before answering. “Maybe. But they know how to ﬁght,” she said, ﬁguring that if anybody would understand it would be him. “I thought they could teach me how, too. I mean, sir.”
“Fighting is a bad habit,” he told her, which didn’t make a lot of sense since he was in the army. His eyes softened a little, though. “Cheyenne,” he said to her, “there is a difference between getting in ﬁghts and learning how to defend yourself.”
She could only look at him. He got it—he understood what she’d wanted to learn. What she’d been trying to ﬁgure out by spending so much time with the tough girls. She was amazed. She hadn’t really thought it through that carefully herself.
“Enough of that. Let’s focus on what’s ahead of us, not what’s behind. This summer you’re going to live rough. You’re going to stay up here with me and we’re not going to leave until I say we can. It’s up to you how you spend your time here. You can help me out. You can gather all of our ﬁrewood and do the washing up every night. Alternatively, you can do no work at all. You can sit around camp and stare into space. Your choice.”
If it had been anyone else she would have told them to fuck off. She would have run away at night and hitchhiked into town. But this was Uncle Bannerman. He had never lied to her, even when he probably should have. And he had never treated her like a baby. It meant more to her than she could say. So she scrubbed his dishes and she washed out his clothes in the stream and she called him sir.
She made a lot of mistakes the ﬁrst couple of days. She gathered green wood that took forever to start burning and gave off huge clouds of black smoke. She wore a hole right through one of her uncle’s shirts by scraping at a bad stain with a rock. He never had a harsh word for her, but he didn’t hug her and tell her it was alright, either—he just showed her what she’d done wrong, and how to do it better the next time. At night she would lie on the hard ground with just a blanket underneath her, and her whole body would hurt. She missed her friends, missed television and pizza and dressing in decent clothes. She cried sometimes and wished she had her mom there. Sometimes she thought about running away after all, about hiking down to the highway under cover of darkness and hitchhiking her way back to Canada. The idea made her even more scared. Scared because she thought there was something she was supposed to do here, to learn, and that if she ran away from it she would never get another chance to ﬁnd out what it was. Sometimes she would cry herself to sleep, like a baby.
But the next day she would wake up, perhaps stiff and groaning, but stronger. Every day she worked at the camp made her stronger.
One morning on her daily ﬁrewood expedition she found a deadfall, the rotting hulk of a ﬁr tree that had crashed through half an acre of forest, rolling downhill and smashing up saplings as it slid. It was all red and wet with sap and teeming with insects. With her hatchet she broke it down into nearly half a cord of ﬁrewood. Her arms lifted again and again to let the hatchet fall, to let the wood split where it wanted. Her arms just never seemed to grow tired. When she dragged the accumulated ﬁrewood back to camp in a travois, Uncle Bannerman looked up at her with real surprise. He was sitting drinking coffee out of a tin cup. She tried not to meet his gaze as she stacked the cut wood carefully under a blue tarp.
“Why’d you do all that?” he asked her. “That’s more than we need for tonight. That’s enough wood for a week, at least.”
“Yes, sir,” she said. “But I ﬁgured it might rain tomorrow, and this way I won’t have to go looking for twigs in the mud.”
“Hmph,” he said, his eyebrows rising. “Good thinking.”
It was—it made her feel—she didn’t know how it made her feel. But it was good; she felt good that she’d gotten that much praise out of him. It was good.
After all that hard work she was sweaty and covered in sap, so they drove down to a little park where the water was warm enough to go swimming. There was a little changing cabin and he went ﬁrst. He looked ridiculous in swim trunks, but she managed not to laugh. She went next and put on her black one- piece suit. She came out of the changing cabin and saw him and waved. He came walking over, but then his face hardened and he stopped in place.
She looked down at herself, thinking maybe her suit was too revealing or something. Then she realized what he was looking at. Her new tattoo. She’d lied about her age and had it done at a place way downtown. Her mom had never seen it—nobody but her friends ever had. It was done in brown ink and it was pretty simple, just the silhouette of a wolf ’s paw print on the top of her left breast.
“It’s nothing, sir,” she said, looking at her feet.
“It’s an obscenity,” he told her. His arms stuck out from his sides and his hands were balled in ﬁsts. If he hadn’t been so angry he would have looked ridiculous. “Why on earth would you do such a thing?”
She tried to put it in words but she couldn’t. Years later she would think of the right answer. Because the wolf was stronger than me, she would have told him. Because I wanted its strength. At the time all she could do was break down in tears. Most people would have given up then, and maybe even reached for her, tried to comfort her. Uncle Bannerman just stood there and waited for her to ﬁnish.
The next day he took her to the airport and sent her home.
Check out the previous chapters of Frostbite right here.
Excerpted from Frostbite: A Werewolf Tale by David Wellington. Copyright © 2009 by David Wellington. Published in the Unites States by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Published in the UK as Cursed by Piatkus Books, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group.
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