The old woman would still be alive if she had just stayed inside.
Stefan clawed at his sweat-soaked blanket. She haunted him every night. Damned locals. It was their own fault. If they didn’t sabotage the supply lines, the soldiers wouldn’t need to requisition food from the villagers. Requisition. Steal. Stefan didn’t care. He was hungry. Her farm looked abandoned. The doors on the dilapidated barn came off the hinges with little more than a pull. Inside there were an emaciated cow, two goats and a few chickens. Pathetic. Stefan balked when Ivan ordered him to search the attic—he was sure to break his neck if the stairs collapsed. But orders were orders. One bag of wormy grain. Wasted effort.
When they came back outside, there she was. Feet spread, hands balled into fists, wrinkled mouth twisted with determination. Faded sunflowers on her stained brown dress. They would have laughed and been on their way. Except for the wolf at her side. No tail, mangy fur, ribs sticking out. Yellow eyes. Stefan’s bullet went straight through its head, splattering blood and bone on the sunflowers. The old woman bared her teeth and charged him. Ivan finished her with his bayonet, but not before she tore a chunk out of Stefan’s hand. She lay bleeding out while they set fire to the buildings; the desiccated wood lit up like tinder. A warning to any other old fool who decided not to cooperate. Her eyes were fixed on Stefan as they left, muttering her death curse. Crazy witch. Let the wolves feed on her corpse.
The dream always ended there. Not tonight. He was alone in the forest, naked on all fours, twigs and stones rough against his limbs. Fever burned through his veins. Yellow eyes glowed between the trees; he was surrounded. Malevolent howling erupted, biting his eardrums, reverberating through his brain. A hoary female approached: the pack leader. She sniffed his face, her muzzle wet, her breath heavy with coppery blood. She licked the wound on his hand and bared her teeth in a snarling grin. Clamping Stefan’s nape in her jaws, she dragged him along the forest floor. Then she lay beside him and began to chew the skin off his scalp. Stefan squirmed but the other wolves held him firm, gnawing on his arms and legs. Torment spread through every nerve, taking Stefan to the very edge of consciousness. But he did not black out. There was something—ecstatic—to the feeling. Enveloped by the pack, their primal scent overwhelming his senses, their warmth becoming his warmth, he was enraptured. They weren’t killing him; they were reshaping him.
Stefan’s eyes snapped open, and he bolted upright, his chest heaving. Ivan stood at the end of the cot, staring at him. They didn’t ask about each other’s dreams anymore. Ivan pulled on his shirt. “Time for patrol.” Stefan’s stomach was growling. It was always growling. He bit off a piece of dry jerky. The last of the old woman’s cow. More gristle than meat. He unwrapped the dirty bandage to check on his hand. Ivan’s nose wrinkled and he turned away in disgust. It refused to heal. Filthy hag. Stefan took a swig of vodka, then poured some on the wound to clean away the yellow discharge. He stopped. There was something new inside the wound. A dark patch. It looked like—fur. It must be the hunger. He was sure he’d been hallucinating for days now. He wrapped it in a fresh bandage before Ivan could look.
“Ivan, why bother with patrols? Everyone fled before we came, there’s no one left but a few farmers. Most of them are too long in the tooth to be any threat.” Stefan’s stomach moaned. “If we don’t get food soon, we won’t be much threat to them either,” he grumbled under his breath.
Ivan gave him a harsh look. “Watch your tongue.”
“But Ivan, honestly. This whole war—it’s madness. We’re murdering grandmothers. The army hasn’t made any progress in months. The enemy militias outflank us at every turn. Sergei’s cousin is on the front, he said they are retreating!”
Ivan struck Stefan hard across the mouth. “God damn you! Talk like that will get the whole unit court-martialed. You care about grandmothers?” Ivan pulled a photo from his shirt pocket and shoved it an inch from Stefan’s face. An old woman wearing a flowered headscarf, standing next to Ivan in his dress uniform, both of them brimming with pride. Stefan recoiled at the shit-smell of Ivan’s hand. Dysentery. They all had it.
“This is my grandmother. Listen to me: I will go home to her. Do as you’re told, or I’ll gut you myself.”
It had been raining outside and the night air smothered the warm ground, turning the dampness into a wandering fog. Wet leaves stuck to Stefan’s boots as he made his way through the mud to his station along the perimeter. His shirt clung to his skin, and his hand itched under the bandage. He took a swig of vodka and rubbed his jaw to dull the ache where Ivan hit him. The itch spread up his arm; he scratched it absentmindedly. At the next station he saw a flash of yellow flame, then a steady orange glow. Ivan’s cigarette. Stefan knew Ivan would not stay angry. He was just trying to survive. They all were. Stefan itched all over. This damned place, why would anyone fight over it? Let them have it, and its lunatic villagers.
The clouds opened to reveal the sky with sudden, shocking clarity. The moonlight cast a glamour on the forest, sharply outlining the trees, animating the shadows. A howl in the distance. Another. A whole pack. The itch was excruciating. Stefan looked down and froze. His nails had transformed into claws, and the skin where he had been scratching across his arms and chest was shredded. Underneath the gashes, instead of raw flesh there was black fur, wet and matted like a newborn pup.
“Ivan! IVAN! HELP!”
Stefan’s stomach heaved, spraying the ground with vodka and bile. He convulsed and fell into the mud, his limbs twitching, his bones cracking. He smelled Ivan running toward him. He tried to scream, but something was wrong with his mouth—his tongue was too thick, his teeth too sharp, his jaw opened too wide. Ivan emerged from the trees and stood dead in the moonlight. He raised his rifle. IVAN! STOP! The wolf leapt at Ivan, catching him by the throat. With the last of the life remaining in his body, Ivan thrust his bayonet into its guts, over and over. The wolf bit down and twisted, its yellow eyes locked on Ivan’s, the two of them writhing on the forest floor in a death embrace.
“Sergei! Over here, quick!”
“It’s moving—is it still alive?”
Sergei put his rifle to the wolf’s head; the bullet went straight into the skull, splattering the ground with blood and bone.
“No tail, like the one before. There must be a pack—they’re following us.” Sergei kicked the wolf away to reveal the corpse underneath. He knelt to examine it in the moonlight.
“Fucking hell. Ivan.” He picked up a photograph lying by Ivan’s head and tucked it into his shirt pocket.
“Sergei, Stefan isn’t here. This is his station.” The soldiers glanced at each other.
“Everyone, pair off. No one alone from now on. You two—do a search to see if you can find any trace of Stefan. You two—take Ivan’s body back to camp. We’ll see that he gets sent home. You two—bring that wolf. I know the meat is tough, but we can’t afford to waste food.”