Frostbite- Chapter 26

At nineteen she found herself in Edmonton, Alberta, nearly a thousand kilometers from where her mother lived. She told herself she wanted to get as far away from the crazy old bat as possible. There had been some pretty epic fights between them just before she left—screaming fights. Worse, even. She had punched her mother in the nose, not all that hard. There hadn’t been any blood. But it was going to be a long time before she could go back there.

Edmonton was okay. It was huge, but it always felt half empty. There were big parks to roam around in and plenty of cheap places to live. She tried at first to live with a couple of girls her age in a nice place near Old Strathcona, which was safe and clean. After six months, though, she found she couldn’t live with other people. They wanted to sleep at night, while she got by with only a few hours during the day. After the forty or fifty thousandth time they knocked on her door at three a.m. and told her to turn her stereo off, she moved out.

She got a room of her own, then, above a car body repair shop. She had to listen to metal screaming and tearing all day long, but that wasn’t too bad. It only sounded a little like the way the car sounded when the wolf clawed it. Anyway, the rent was next to nothing.

She got a job as a bartender, which fit her sleep schedule better than being a secretary or working in a retail shop. She had worried at first that being around so much alcohol would be a problem, even though she didn’t drink much at all anymore. She’d stopped drinking herself to sleep back in high school, after she started waking up places she didn’t recognize, but toward the end of that part of her life she’d really started worrying she was an alcoholic. It turned out the alcohol wasn’t as big a temptation as she’d thought it was going to be, and the work was pretty easy and it paid well. She didn’t mind pouring shots for the Ukrainians in cowboy hats and the real cowboys in baseball caps who surged in and out of the place every night, as reliable and reassuring as the tide. She didn’t mind their filthy jokes, or the rude comments. She’d never really worried about things people said. It was what they did you had to watch out for.

The bar had a reputation as being a real tough joint, but for the three female bartenders there was no safer place in the world. They kept bouncers at the table next to the door all night, big guys who drank for free but never very much. If anything went wrong the bartenders would slip out back and share a smoke while the on- duty bouncer took care of it. When she started Chey hadn’t believed that one guy—no matter how big he might be—could keep a lid on so many rowdies. She quickly learned there was an art to it. Good bouncers didn’t wait for a fight to break out. They watched the crowd and they could see right away who was going to be trouble: the ones who laughed too loud or who didn’t laugh at all, the real nasty shit- kickers who started fights for entertainment, the skinny little ones who looked like they wanted to prove something. Just as trouble was about to begin the bouncer would jump in, grab the idiot’s arm, and haul him outside before he even knew what was happening. It was truly rare that a punch ever got thrown—things usually ended well before that point.

That was how you kept yourself from being victimized, Chey realized. It was how you kept from being prey. You found out where the would- be predators were and you dragged them out of their dens when they didn’t expect it. She made a mental note.

Not all of the men who came to the bar were after violence, of course. Occasionally somebody would grab her ass or make a stupid pass at her. Occasionally, if she was bored, or horny, or she wasn’t ready to go to sleep at closing time, she would go home with one of them. The bouncers wouldn’t let her leave with anybody who might hurt her, so she knew she would be safe. She had a couple of rules to make sure none of the men ever got a second date. Nobody ever came back to her place, and she always drove her own car—no matter what they said. Some of them told her they wanted to be her boyfriend. Some said they wanted to marry her. She never stuck around long enough for them to sober up and decide if they’d meant it or not.

A lot of the guys asked her about her tattoo, but she just shook her head and smiled in reply. Very rarely somebody would recognize her. Werewolf enthusiasts, she thought of them. Men attracted to the idea that she’d been to the far side of the predator- prey relationship and come back in one piece. These guys were in it for more than just curiosity— they had to be, to know who she was. She didn’t look the same as she had when she was twelve, when she was in the papers. She had no idea how they figured out who she was, but she didn’t bother finding out, either. She had rules for dealing with that kind of guy, as well. They got a drink on the house, and then they got politely told to shut up. If they didn’t shut up they got told to go home. If they didn’t go home, she called in the bouncer.

Work didn’t end until four or five in the morning, when the cleaners would come in and the bar back would put all the chairs up on the tables. The regulars who stayed that late got to drink for free in exchange for washing glasses. The bartenders left as soon as the doors were locked.

Most nights Chey drove straight home, but sometimes she knew she wasn’t going to be able to sleep, so she did something else. There’s not a lot to do in western Canada at five in the morning if you’re not a farmer, though. Sometimes she drove around town, looking at the lights with the radio on low and soft. Sometimes she drove out to the edge of town, or beyond. One night she caught herself driving half- asleep as the sun came up, and she pulled over onto the side of a highway. She had no idea how far she was from home. Up ahead she saw a sign saying she was on Highway 16.There was another sign below that showing a man’s head in silhouette, painted a bright yellow. It couldn’t be more literal.

She was on the Yellowhead Highway. The road that ran from British Columbia all the way to Manitoba. She knew it best for the stretch between Edmonton and Jasper National Park. The stretch where her father had died.

She breathed a curse and pulled a road map out of the side pocket of her car door. She studied the landscape, looking for clues as to where she was, but she couldn’t figure it out. It looked like there might be a little town ahead of her, so she drove slowly toward the slumbering cottages and convenience stores where the Coke signs were the only lights still on. When she saw the name of the local bar—the Chesterton Arms— she stamped on the brakes and closed her eyes and waited until she could think straight again. Chesterton. That was the town she’d driven into when she was twelve years old, the town where she’d told the local police about what had happened. It was the safe place she’d gone to when she was running away from the wolf.

She thought about getting out of the car and going into the bakery down the street. That was the first place she’d come to when she arrived, back then. People work at bakeries all night, making bread for the next day, so there had been a light on inside and she had seen people moving around in there. She had walked in, thinking she would ask to use their phone. She hadn’t been able to talk, but they were smart enough in the bakery to sit her down and feed her fresh doughnuts while they called the police. They had been nice people in there.

She could go in, now, years later, and ask who was working. They might remember her—or they might not; maybe the people there weren’t the same. With a shudder she realized she didn’t know what she would say, if she saw the same bakers, the same night manager. She couldn’t remember their names, anyway.

She turned around and drove back to Edmonton with the radio turned up. She didn’t want to think about how she’d gotten out there, 150 kilometers from home. She didn’t want to think that her subconscious could control her like that. She drove home, she pulled the heavy drapes closed across her windows, and she swallowed three Ambiens with a can of flat ginger ale.

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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