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The Wolf in the Attic

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Raven tossed and turned through fitful, restless sleep, but she never dreamed.

Perhaps it was better that way, to have a slumber as silent and dark as a shard of obsidian. If she could dream, there might not be an hour in the day when she wasn’t thinking of Strat; of his jack-o’-lantern grin, of the heat of his body, of the poetry he spun from between his perfect lips—or of the clashing of angry metal, the burning of bikes on black pavement, of the mighty crash that had taken him from her forever.

None of this ever would have happened if I hadn’t run.

But she could never think these thoughts at night—the sea was watching the sky, the sky was watching the sea, and nothing would ever happen. All that penetrated the deep waters of her sleep was a spark of pain from the crook of her arm. Slowly, Raven felt the energy leaking from her body, the strength in her arms and legs vanishing as she was forced to the surface of consciousness with the speed of a runaway Harley.

Above, a stern face, ringed with a halo of curly brown hair.

“Raven, wake up. Raven!”

Raven bolted upright, clutching her sheets to her chest, and felt a great wave of dizziness rock her world askew. She slumped sideways, but the strange woman caught her before she could fall.

“Who is that?” She felt the words leave her.

“It’s me, Zahara,” said the woman. “I just had to take a little blood, baby. I want you to come with me. We should go before your parents wake.”

Raven’s senses returned to her slowly; her head felt stuffed with cotton. She looked down just as Zahara slid the IV from her arm, taping a cotton ball over the bloody pinprick. In her other hand was a bag, red with the life that had once coursed through Raven’s veins. Perhaps it wasn’t the strangest thing that had happened her since her eighteenth birthday, but Raven felt her stomach turn nonetheless.

“Blood,” she said. “What for?”

Zahara handed her some clothing, choosing whatever lay the closest—boots, a silky slip, her mother’s leather jacket. Her pace was frantic; she pushed as hard as she dared to get Raven out the door unnoticed. A long moment passed before she remembered to answer.

“He needs it,” she said simply.

 

Zahara took her down from her prison, down, down, downtown to the corners of the city where her father had forbidden her ever to go. Soon, the skeleton of the Museum of Natural History loomed before them, gigantesque behind a wall of dark mist. Below, Raven knew that the Lost were parked in the Deep End—mourning, from the sound of it. The below had always been filled with happy sounds, song and laughter, roaring engines, the shouts of playful scraps—but today, it was quiet as a grave.

Raven made for the Deep End, but Zahara took hold of her arm, and pointed up.

“No. The attic,” she said. Raven paled; she had never been there before. The window, high above them, seemed to pulsate and glow with a mysterious energy. In spite of her fear and confusion, Raven found herself inexplicably drawn to it.

They climbed stair after stair—Raven was panting by the time they reached the top, still slightly woozy—her body needed that blood, too. Zahara made to have her sit down by the door, but she shook her head forcefully.

“No,” she gasped. “Let me come in. I want…to see.”

Zahara nodded; Raven couldn’t tell if she felt any kind of reluctance, and she didn’t care. The door swung open, and Raven followed her inside. What she saw made her exhausted legs grow weak beneath her.

A younger boy was there—fifteen, sixteen maybe—crouched beside a prostrate figure, a shadow of the boy Raven had loved and lost. Strat lay on the floor, his arms clutching weakly at the boiled wreckage of a black polished motorcycle. His skin was pale, his hair plastered to his sweaty forehead. On his chest, above his heart, was the ghost of a raw, red wound—clumsily stitched, but clean. His eyes were closed, and his breathing was so shallow she could scarcely tell if he lived at all.

Raven crumpled to the floor, holding the doorframe as Zahara rushed to attend him. She slipped the needle into his arm, and Raven’s blood rushed into his veins. After a few seconds, Strat’s eyes flew open—and they were wild.

“Come on, sweetie, you have to stand.” said Zahara, sternly, but encouragingly. “We need to get your circulation going. Stand.”

Strat rose like the living dead. It was a struggle for Zahara and the boy to get him to his feet. Disoriented and visibly in pain, Strat slowly reanimated himself, clumsy words spilling from his mouth as if he couldn’t help but speak.

“The entire city,” he gasped. “C-c-c-city isssss. Uh, the entire. The entire city is…burning.” He slumped between them. “I can’t…”

Zahara didn’t let him down. “You can do it, Strat. I believe in you.”

“I believe in you too, Strat,” said the younger boy, trying to get him to open his eyes again. “Strat!”

When he didn’t respond, the boy started to cry—whether from frustration or pain or both, Raven didn’t know. But the sound of his tears seemed to wake Strat again, and he struggled upright to try again.

“The entire city is b-b-burning,” he said, gritting his teeth. “Y-you can see the ffflames…like the inside of a mad jukebox. And Lost boys stalk the streets, with those jungle markings on their chests. Barbarians prowl in ssshadows.”

He stumbled again, his legs losing their strength. He shook his head.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” said the younger boy, encouraging him as he wiped his tears. “Take your time, Strat. You can do it!”

After a time, Strat’s eyes became a little clearer. His strength got a little surer. One last time, he lifted himself up and struggled to take a step, with his friends at his side.

“Their heads rocking with rodents, motorcycles reproduce in nocturnal alleys, groaning with greasy pleasu—” He cried out in pain suddenly, and the two of them finally let him drop to his knees again, clutching his chest.

Raven had been struck with silence, watching the boy she’d thought dead rise and speak and try to walk. The words coming from his mouth were scattered and confused, but she could tell, behind them, they were his, and he was slowly coming back. Back to life. Back to her.

“Strat?” she said finally, the word clearing the silence from her throat.

He looked up immediately, a million feelings flashing through those wide, wild eyes at once. She crawled toward him, and he did the same, seeming to garner what strength he needed from her presence.

When she got closer, she saw that his eyes were full of manic tears. “And they’ve blown up the YWCA like a giant balloon, and sent it out to sea, full of screaming, lovely, lonely girls.”

The intensity of his energy was nearly violent. It scared Raven a little, but excited her all the same.

“Why won’t he speak to me?” Raven felt the tears pricking at her eyes. She touched his face, not sure what she was seeing was real. But he felt real. She wiped his tears, her thumb tracing the curve of his cheek.

“He is,” said Zahara. “He’s speaking to you, in his way.”

“He’s delusional,” said the younger boy coldly. “He isn’t the same.”

Raven couldn’t look away from him. Strat raised two shaky arms to lock her in an embrace—weak at first, but it got stronger, stronger until he finally tore himself away to look her in the eyes.

“And if I fall asleep here tonight, you better get me some asbestos sheets,” he told her dreamily, a wisp of a smile in his eyes. “…cause I’ve been sweating gasoline.”

She nodded, desperately. She’d get him anything he wanted.

“My dreams are highly flammable,” he said earnestly, “And there are parts of my body that just won’t stop giving off sparks.”

After a pause, an anguished giggle escaped from Raven; she couldn’t help it. Strat threw his head back and made sparking sounds, and Raven laughed, the tension snapping, the lump in her throat dissolving.

“Stop me before I dream again,” he told her, touching her face.

“I really thought you were dead,” said Raven softly.

“Hiding him was the only way to keep him alive,” Zahara said, and the world was no longer just the two of them. “To let your father think he was gone.”

“He was gone,” said Raven. “In the crash. I saw the wreckage. He was dead.”

“He’s recovering,” said Zahara, not unkindly. “Tink’s been looking after him.”

“Finally, someone mentions me,” muttered the younger boy.

“Tink,” Raven reached out to him. “Thank you so—”

“Don’t touch me.” He dodged her hand, turning to Zahara. “I told you not to bring her here.”

“She can help him,” said Zahara.

“No, she can’t,” said Tink. “No one can help him.”

“Why do you hate me?” Raven shook her head.

Tink’s eyes burned. There was an answer there, she knew, but he never shared it. The door slammed loudly on his way out.

None of this ever would have happened if I hadn’t run. The familiar thought echoed through her brain again, but it was quickly absorbed.

“Don’t listen to him,” Zahara told her. “He’s young and has growing to do. I need you to bring Strat back to us, Raven. You have to get him to walk. Please, can you do it?”

Raven looked back at Strat—her Strat. He’d fallen back gently onto the floor, where he was singing softly to himself.

“I can do it,” she told Zahara. “Go. Find the others. They need to see him.”

Zahara nodded curtly, and shut the door quietly behind her. Alone in the dimly lit attic, Raven wondered if the energy she’d sensed in this room had really come from him. She listened to the listless, lilting sound of Strat’s voice, and remembered a time when it had been taut with passion.

I’m in the middle of nowhere, near the end of the line. But there’s a border to somewhere waiting, and there’s a tankful of time.

“Strat,” she said softly.

Oh, give me another moment to see the light of day, and take me to another land where I don’t have to stay.”

Strat,” she pressed, her voice catching in her throat.

Who are you kidding? she asked herself. You can’t fix what’s become of him. You ran away, and you can’t undo it.

Strat sat up suddenly, before swooning to the side.

“The-sea-is-watching-the-sky-the-sky-is-watching-the-sea,” he spat out quickly, urgently, desperately.

“What did you say?” she asked, breaking out of her thoughts. He stared into her eyes.

“The sea is watching the sky, the sky is watching the sea,” he said, repeating the words she’d blurted in a panic in her bedroom that night. “Nothing will ever happen.”

“Something will happen,” she assured him, just as he’d assured her on that night. Three simple words, but they’d given Raven his trust once, and now, they seemed to help Strat regain some clarity. His shoulders relaxed, as if he were relieved that he’d finally been understood.

“I never thought I would see you again,” he said, and Raven choked back a joyful sob.

“You’re alive.” Now, she knew it.

“Am I?” he said.

“Yes.” She hugged him tightly, and felt some of his strength return—they held onto each other for dear life. “I can feel my blood in your veins.”

After a long moment, she sat back on the floor and looked at him. His cheeks were flushed with new color, but still gaunt and hollow. But it was him. Strat, who stood on the backs of motorcycles as they sped down dead highways littered with abandoned vehicles; Strat, who had scaled her building that night to see her, deftly, effortlessly. She couldn’t find it in her heart to believe that the boy she knew could ever lack the strength to stand.

“Let’s get you on your feet,” she said, but he didn’t seem to listen.

“I asked you this once before, but I don’t think you heard it,” said Strat, pausing. “On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?”

Raven didn’t fret when he slipped back into poetry—this verse was special to him, and so it meant something to her as well. In fact, he had asked her the question before, and since he’d crashed, she’d had plenty of time to think of her answer.

“Will he offer me his mouth?” she asked him immediately, rising to her knees. Strat looked thoroughly surprised, for a moment—then a grin, success, relief, broke across his face.

“Yes,” he said, drawing out the syllable. He leaned in to kiss her, but she jolted back.

“Will he offer me his teeth?” asked Raven. Strat seemed shocked again, but not disappointed; the corner of his mouth twitched up slightly. This was a game that even a lame wolf could play.

He crawled closer. “Yes.”

“Will he offer me his…jaws?” said Raven, bringing herself back to her feet.

Now, Strat looked dismayed. But he girded himself, and pushed up from the wreckage of his bike, struggling to his feet, his hand dancing around the spot on his chest where his heart looked to have burst through.

Yes,” he breathed, reaching out for something to hold. He found the wall—even balancing on his own two feet took a great feat of energy now.

Vaguely, Raven became aware of the open door, and the cluster of Lost that had begun to collect behind it. She heard gasps of surprise, tears, and joy—they, like her, had not known Strat still breathed. Today, she would show them that he still lived, too.

“Will he offer me his hunger?” Raven taunted him, taking one step back.

Releasing his hold on the wall, Strat took one shaky step to meet her.

Yes,” he said, boldly reaching for that kiss.

Not yet. Raven jumped back, three steps, four. A wide expanse of floor gaped between them like the jaws of a great wild animal. He would have to close the distance.

“Again!” she said, loudly. “Will he offer me his hunger?”

Holding his chest, Strat took another step. “Yes!”

“And will he starve without me?” asked Raven.

Strat faltered as he moved forward, nearly falling—but he caught himself, and howled through his teeth. “Yes!”

“And does he love me?” Raven reached out to him, her hand nearly brushing his hair. Strat took a deep breath, and walked—really walked—one, two steps, into her arms.

“Yes,” he whispered, only leaning on her a little.

Yes.” Raven felt herself tearing up again. She leaned in close, aching for the familiar feeling of his lips on hers, only to have the quiet shattered by the cheers of the Lost. Raven and Strat broke apart, surprised. The Lost whooped and clapped and cried, but they did not come closer. Only Zahara seemed certain that he was real.

“Is that you, Strat?” asked one man—Jagwire.

Strat laughed, and the sound lifted Raven near off her feet. “It’s me.”

“But the crash,” said another, Blake. “It turned your bike into a scrap heap of melted metal. You’re not a ghost or anything, are you?”

“I’m not a ghost,” said Strat, certain of it this time.

Blake looked closer. “Are you sure it’s you?”

Steeling himself, Strat took Raven’s hand—but shook his head when she offered her shoulder for him to lean on. Slowly, he crossed the room with her again, and with a burst of energy she’d once thought impossible, he leaped on top of the wreckage of his motorcycle, and gave a mighty shout:

On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?"

The Lost cheered wildly—they knew the verse as well as Raven did, and raucously rejoiced that, against all odds, Strat had returned.

Yes,” Raven answered him, matching his volume, and pulling him closer to her until their noses nearly touched and she could feel his breath—warm and alive. Raven felt as if she’d been brought back to life herself, and Strat seemed to sense it.

A grin played across his face. “I bet you say that to all the boys.”