“Dale! Over here!” Sally waved to get his attention, even though he was just across the street.
He waved back as he slammed the door of his old, red Ford. Sally had eyes for him, he knew, but sometimes the woman could sure make a spectacle of herself. Not that he imagined that at their age there was any point in holding back.
Dale looked both ways, then jogged across the street to join her. There wasn’t any traffic, at least, not to speak of. There never was, not in Winston. The sleepy Oregon town was far enough off the beaten track to avoid tourists, and the residents usually preferred to walk if they had someplace to go.
Not that there was any place to go. The whole city was a mile wide if you counted the drive in, but since it was closed, nobody did. Dale kind of missed the drive in, when he thought of it.
“Sally,” he greeted, mounting the curb in front of the small, red brick building.
It wasn’t much to look at. Squat and square, with an American flag flying from the post by the door, and two big windows that looked out onto the street. Over the door hung the only decoration besides the flag, a yellow diamond with a wolf’s head painted on it.
“Richie’s doing it again,” Sally told him in a huff. “Trying to take charge of the pack.”
Dale sighed and nodded. “Well, I imagine that’s natural. He’s new and testing his limits.”
“You’re the leader, Dale, everyone knows that.” She crossed her arms, indignant at the whole affair. “He hasn’t proven himself.”
Dale shrugged. “What are you gonna do? Kids will be kids.”
“If I was you, I’d march straight in there and line him out,” she retorted.
“But you aren’t me,” he chuckled. “I am, and I don’t think I’d look to good in them skirts of yours, so let’s keep it that way.”
“Dale Freeman!” she snapped as he slipped through the door.
He shook his head and chuckled again. Sally was a fine woman, but a bit to hung up on the rules and regulations the pack operated under. She never took into account that, sometimes, you just had to let people find their own place in the world.
He heard her open the door behind him and hurried on through the foyer to the back room, where the rest were gathered. He was sure she had some sharp words for him, and wasn’t overly interested in hearing them.
The back room was where things really happened. Chairs sat gathered, facing a small podium, with a chalkboard behind that. Once a week, the pack gathered, discussed matters, and made decisions as a whole. Of them all, only Dale had the right to veto a group choice, and only if he felt it was in the best interest of the pack to do so.
He spotted Charlie right away, looking more than a little displeased with Richie. He held out a hand before the heavy set truck driver could say anything, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at Sally. Charlie frowned, but didn’t say anything.
Buck and Ginger were there as well, but lacked Charlie and Sally’s clear disdain for the newest member of their group. Ernie and Roger were spiking their coffee in the corner with whiskey, but tried to hide it, so Dale let them.
Standing at the podium was Richie, the youngest person in the room, and as much a redneck as the sun was shiny. A cowboy hat adorned his head, and camouflage pants had been hiked up around his beer belly, both of which Dale thought looked silly. It was the shotgun in his hands that worried the pack leader, though.
“Richie, you know the rules,” Dale chided him. “No guns in the den.”
“That’s a bullshit rule, Dale,” Richie snapped, angry as Dale had ever seen him. “We’re wolves! We do as we please.”
Dale sighed. “Even wolves have rules to live by, son.”
“I ain’t your son, and you ain’t my daddy,” Richie barked. “But we do got words to have out.”
Seeing the younger man wasn’t going to hear reason, Dale nodded and sat down, motioning for Richie to go ahead. It took him a moment to realize Dale had conceded the floor, but when it did dawn on him, it was like he’d found Jesus.
“Well, God damn! I’m calling this meetin’ to fuckin’ order,” he yelled.
Sally sat next to Dale, giving him a withering glare. He smiled and shrugged. Slowly, everyone sat down, Charlie last. He’d been with the pack since it had just been he, Dale and Sally, and seeing some pup act like a big dog made his blood boil.
“Good, now that I got your undivided attention, I think it’s time we address a few things,” Richie announced, strutting around the room with the shotgun over his shoulder. “Like the division of labor.”
“What’s wrong with the division of labor, Richie?” Dale asked calmly.
“We ain’t gettin’ our share, that’s what,” the younger man told him. “All we do is find them fucking assholes and radio it in. Then the big boys come and have the fun, while we sit on our hands. Ain’t right! We deserve a share of the glory.”
“Glory?” Sally scoffed. “That’s what you want? Glory? Then go find it. We’ll be sure to save a matchbox to bury you in.”
“No, no, no, Sally,” Richie said, waving the shotgun around. “We go as a pack. That’s the way things work. We all go, or nobody goes.”
“Will you stop waving that thing around afore you kill somebody, you asshat!” Charlie snapped.
Richie stared at him for a minute, not sure how to react. “This here is the gavel of justice, my friend. When it comes down, everyone knows it.”
“What the hell is that suppose to mean?” Roger asked.
“It means you don’t wanna be between it, and whatever its judging!” Richie roared.
“I think we’re drifting off topic,” Dale sighed.
Richie nodded. “Right you are, sir. The topic was, and is, that we are tired of being thrown scraps by the big boys. We want a piece of the action. We want to kick some of that faggot ass!”
“Can you not use that word,” Ginger scolded him. “It’s base.”
“What is? Ass?” Richie stared at her in confusion.
“No, dumbshit. Faggot,” Ernie replied, rolling his eyes. “I mean, come on, it’s the freaking twenty first century. Do you have to sound like the retard from every Vietnam movie ever made?”
Richie seemed lost for a minute, trying to keep up. Ernie was a lawyer, and knew big words. Finally, Richie nodded his head slowly.
“I apologize for saying faggot, then. I wasn’t meanin’ to be rude to any in the room.”
“I’m leaving,” Charlie sighed. “I got a colonoscopy tomorrow. I don’t wanna spend my last day before letting the doc film the inside of my ass listening to this idiot.”
“Sit your fat ass down,” Richie snapped, pointing the shotgun at him.
“Boy, you wanna put that down afore I make you eat it,” Charlie warned.
“Richie, put the damn shotgun down, already. Ain’t nobody gonna take you seriously like this,” Dale snapped.
Richie thought about that for a minute, then nodded and set it aside. Charlie nodded to Dale, gave Richie a look of disgust, and turned to go.
“Charlie, hold up,” Dale called. “Richie wants to have his say, and he can’t do it if you ain’t here.”
“For Christ’s sake,” Charlie sighed, but returned to his seat anyway. “I’m missing Maury for this crap.”
“Please, continue,” Dale told Richie.
He nodded. “Thank you, Dale. I appreciate it.”
“Don’t. I just want you to shut up,” Dale told him, drawing laughter from the rest.
Richie flushed a bit, but tried to laugh along. “My point was that the big boys don’t ever let us get in and do anything. I mean, we can help. We got weapons. I just don’t think it’s that much to ask that we get a turn bein’ the heroes, you know?”
“Richie, I don’t disagree exactly, but don’t you think that if we could handle it, they would include us?” Dale asked.
That set the younger man back a bit. “Well, Dale, maybe they just need us to show them that we can handle it.”
“How do you propose we do that, exactly?” Buck inquired, clearly not moved by the young man.
Richie started smiling. “I come up on a nest of them bastards just yesterday,” he said with a glitter in his eye.
“You done what?” Dale snapped, standing. “What the hell is wrong with you, boy? A nest, and you didn’t tell nobody?”
Richie held out a hand. “Settle down, now, Dale. I know what you’re gonna say, but just hear me out. If we go in there, armed and ready, we could clear them fa… assholes out. Then the big boys would see that we can hold our own.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Charlie shot at him.
“No, it ain’t, Charlie,” Richie barked. “We can do this. We got plenty of guns and ammo. We just need the element of surprise, and bang, we get trophies of our own!”
“Richie, I’m only gonna ask you once,” Dale seethed. “Where is that nest? I got to radio it in.”
“Dale, please,” Richie begged him, his false bravado fading instantly. “Just lemme tell you my plan, okay?”
“You got a plan?” Ernie asked, clearly surprised.
“Yeah, I got a fuckin’ plan, okay,” Richie snapped. “I ain’t as dumb as you look.”
“No, but I’d wager you’re as dumb as you look,” Charlie snorted.
“I’d like to hear the plan, at least,” Roger said slowly.
Everyone stared at him in surprise. “What? If it’s a stupid plan, then we can ignore him whenever he tries to make another one.”
“I’ll second that motion,” Charlie chuckled.
Richie gave him a dark glare. “Thanks for the support, fat ass.”
“Motion was made and seconded,” Dale sighed. “Tell us your plan.”
Fifteen minutes later, even Dale had to admit, it wasn’t a bad plan. He wasn’t ready to say it would work, much less that it was fool proof, but it clearly showed the Richie had thought things out, a feat he hadn’t expected the boy capable of.
They voted, and it was undecided, meaning that it fell to Dale to make the call. He pondered it a bit, sipping some coffee, and looked at the expectant stare Richie was giving him.
“We’ll go,” he said at last. “But, I reserve the right to call it off at a moments notice if things go south, and I won’t hear any argument.”
Richie beamed. “No sir, you will not. Thank you, Dale!”
“Thank me when we ain’t all dead,” he muttered.
Charlie and Sally joined him a moment later, as the rest looked to the chalkboard, going over Richie’s plan one more time. The risks were high. If this didn’t work, none of them were coming home.
“You sure about this?” Sally asked.
“Nope,” Dale admitted.
“You better get sure, Dale,” Charlie told him. “I’m too damn old for cowboys and indians with this little snot.”
Dale smiled at him. “You two stick with me. Beyond that, do as the plan says, and don’t worry about it so much. I got a plan of my own.”
“What’s that suppose to mean?” Sally asked in surprise.
Dale grinned. “Wait and see, Sally. Wait and see.”
By nightfall, the pack had gathered. Following the plan Richie had laid out, they assembled at his house, or rather, his trailer. Dale tried not to say anything, but the truck it was hooked to had four flats.
They had all brought their rifles, as Richie had asked, as well as spare ammo. Where they were going, they were going to need it all. If they were lucky, Richie claimed, they might even get to use it all.
He lined them up on his lawn, where Charlie stepped in runoff from the septic tank. He threatened to kick Richie’s ass, and Dale couldn’t help but feel as if this was all starting off so terribly well.
Once he had inspected them, like a General, Richie declared the hunt started, and sent everyone into the woods behind his house, following his well laid plan. Dale shook his head, and hoped not too many of them came back dead.
Charlie and Sally stuck with him, as he had asked, and headed towards their gather point, a moss covered oak tree Richie had tied a red ribbon to. That made them Red Team, and as soon as he thought it, Dale wished he hadn’t.
Richie was treating this like a game, ignoring the very reasons they always called in the big boys whenever one of them found something. The threat to everyone’s life was real, and Dale was beginning to think that letting the young man play out his desire to lead the pack may have been a mistake.
No matter, he chided himself. Done is done, and there’s no undoing it. All he could do now was move forward and hope for the best.
“This is stupid,” Charlie whispered at him.
“Damn stupid,” Sally added.
“Stop reading my mind,” Dale hissed at them both. “I ain’t got enough to share.”
“He’s gonna get us all killed,” Charlie pressed anyway.
“At best,” Sally intoned.
Dale sighed, turning to face them. “Better than him tryin’ to go at this alone, which is where he was headed. With all of us, we stand a chance. Otherwise, it’s sit back and let the fool go get himself killed.”
Charlie fidgeted a bit. “Better than all of us with him, I say.”
“You tell his brother that, then, when he comes asking why Richie’s dead,” Dale said.
Charlie went pale. “Fine then. Let’s get this done. I wanna be in bed in time for Conan.”
“I think it’s already on,” Sally told him.
“Well, fuck,” Charlie fumed.
Dale shook his head and motioned them on. Let Charlie be mad. Maybe he’d take it out on what lay ahead. Or Richie, if this ended up being a wild goose chase.
They reached the second tree soon after and took up their position, easily spotting the old water treatment plant ahead. It had been abandoned a long time ago, in favor of newer technology. Sitting, forgotten and rusted, the forest slowly reclaiming it, Dale had to admit it was a good place for a nest.
He heard the bird call that was the signal to move in and headed out, Sally and Charlie at his back. They were to enter through the west door, and clear their way to the central chamber, where they would meet up with the rest of the pack. Richie seemed to think that was where their prey was hiding.
Inside, it was dark, and smelled of rot. Dale fumbled with his flashlight for a minute, then aimed it down the hall. Nothing moved, and he breathed a sigh of relief.
“Leave the door open in case we gotta high tail it,” he whispered to Sally, who nodded.
They moved slowly, trying to be as quiet as they could. They knew full well what waited for them, and as they checked office rooms and storage rooms along the way, each felt the sense of dread mounting.
Reaching the door to the central chamber, Dale took a deep breath. They’d neither seen, nor heard, anything. He had almost begun to hope that Richie was wrong, that there was nothing here. Then at least, they could have a laugh at his expense and no one would be worse off.
Opening the door, he rushed the room, rifle up, and felt as if he couldn’t breath anymore. The central chamber, where water had once been made safe for drinking, was crawling with them.
The size of a man, the creatures that sometimes found their way up from the darkest places below the earth were horrible blasphemies of life. Twisted and wrong, with savage claws and teeth for shredding, they hissed at Dale as they swung towards the sound of his boots.
In the midst of them all, though, was their Queen, a hulking creature the resembled an inside out beetle. The thing hissed, spewing fumes into the air that made breathing hard. This wasn’t a nest, Dale realized. It was a colony.
Across the room, he spotted Buck and Ginger as they recoiled in horror at the sight. Ernie and Roger arrived a moment later, Roger cursing in fury at the number of creatures in the room.
“Shit,” Charlie whimpered. “This is not something we can fight.”
“You’re right,” Richie called out from the catwalk above the Queen. “You can’t fight them.”
“You son of a bitch!” Sally screamed, leveling her rifle on him.
“Whoa, easy now,” he laughed. “I’m the only thing standing between you and being eaten. Don’t wanna go taking that door down, now do you?”
Dale pushed Sally’s rifle down, staring at Richie. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“The meaning, Dale, is just what fat ass there pointed out. We can’t beat them. That only leaves us one choice.” Dale smiled at him and inside his mouth, something squirmed and flailed.
“You stupid ass,” Dale snarled. “You went and let her plant something in you!”
“Let?” Richie laughed. “No, no, Dale. Asked. You see, after my brother joined the big boys gang, I realized that folks like us, we’re too small to do anything. I went lookin’, and found, the ability to stand up and fight, on their terms.”
Dale shook his head. “You’d turn on your own kin, and all he stands for?”
“Fuck what he stands for,” Richie snarled. “I want what’s mine.”
“You’re nuts,” Ginger yelled at him. “They’ll kill you as soon as they’re done with you!”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Richie answered. “I’m the new breed. They’re chance to move in the world above without being noticed. They’ll always need me, to bring them food. See, all I’ve done, is fix the problem. We don’t need the big boys anymore. I can keep them from crawling up.”
“Human sacrifice,” Ernie said. “That’s not going to happen.”
Richie stared at him in contempt. “I had hoped that you would all see the light, as I have. That you would join me, join us, but you can’t look past your stupid little vows and forgettable duties. To hell with all of you. I planned for that as well.”
“And I planned for this,” Dale snarled.
From behind him, his younger brother rose up, ten feet of fur and claws, snarling. More dropped from the shadows, entering from everywhere they could find or make a hole. Savage machines built to kill.
“You called them,” Richie gasped.
“The big boys?” Dale asked, looking up at his kid brother. “Yeah, that’s what we do. We find the things, they kill the things. It’s too bad you couldn’t be content with that, Richie. It’s an important part of what they do.”
“Enough talking,” his brother growled, raising razor sharp claws. “Time for killin’.”
“We’ll wait outside,” Dale told him.
They advanced as the pack retreated. It took a while for Richie to stop screaming. Dale couldn’t say he cared.
“That was a dangerous game you played, Dale,” his brother said.
“I know, Dave,” he answered, watching the sun rise. “But we couldn’t be sure about Richie otherwise.”
The massive mound of fur at his side chuckled. “I guess not. His brother’s gonna be pissed.”
Dale shrugged. “Tell him the truth.”
“I plan to,” the other rumbled. “We should get moving, though. You guys gonna be okay?”
“We’re always okay, Dave,” he laughed. “It’s your bunch I worry about.”
Dave shrugged. “Just the way the world is. Nothin’ worth worryin’ over.”
“Yeah, I’ll be sure to tell mom that,” Dale grinned.
Dave flinched. “Geeze, why you gotta go bring her up? She bitchin’ about her birthday again?”
“You missed the last three, and she ain’t got too many left. Hell, she’s ninety!”
“I’m busy saving the world here,” Dave whined.
Dale shook his head. “Get outta here, ya over grown poodle. I got things to do.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Dave snarled. “See ya later, Dale.”
“See ya later, Dave,” he replied with a smile as his brother loped off into the trees.
Dale sighed and headed back for Richie’s trailer. Charlie had missed Conan and had a colonoscopy later in the day, Sally wanted him to split breakfast with her, and his brother was a werewolf.
Somewhere, someone had to have a stranger life than he did, he was sure. He honestly felt for that bastard, too.