Little Red Robin Hood: A Story for the Season
Little Red Robin Hood
Let’s get one thing straight — I am not a thief. At least not anymore, anyway. I gave up that particularly unrewarding line of work about three hours ago, after what was quite possibly the worst night of my life.
To my credit, I’ve tried other jobs, but my greatest talent — my only talent perhaps — is stealing. I have a knack for taking, for slipping in and out of places unnoticed, smoothly pocketing this and that along the way. I have acute senses and a steady hand. My looks are ho-hum, my pale complexion and dishwater hair equally average and forgettable, especially in a line-up. I’m not a criminal at heart. It’s just my nature. And my trade.
I guess it all comes down to desperation, what you do when you have no choice. I really understand it now, desperation. I finally get it, sprawled in this empty back alley, the smell of garbage and urine in my nose, blood matted in my hair, blood under my fingernails, blood caking my shirt.
And I gotta admit, it sucks.
This whole thing started when I became a statistic of the recession and got laid off from stupid Ralph’s stupid All-Nite Diner. Not the greatest place to work, but mindless. It was next to a party-school university, and most of the frat boys who came through the door post-midnight were too drunk to feel a hand slipping the wallets from their back pockets. I made it a point of honor to only take just a little, just enough to get by. It was mostly easy pickings. Until I got pink-slipped. Ralph said, “No hard feelings, buddy,” as he flipped yet another grease patty onto someone’s plate. “No hard feelings, “ I called back as I slipped his watch into my coat pocket.
And then there was the mugger. A thin shadow of a human, jittery, shaking, desperate too, even more so than me. He shoved his way out of an alley and put a knife to my back. I sighed. A black car with tinted windows cruised by in plain sight, but it didn’t stop to help, not in that neighborhood. So I did as I was told and gave up the watch. And my latest frat boy take. And — since the only other things in my pockets were lint and a pink slip — my snakeskin boots. I didn’t even try to fight back, just kept repeating my usual mantra to myself — not worth it, not worth it, not worth it. When it was over, I began the last trudge for home — barefoot, hungry and even more depressed.
It was cold for October. The streetlamps were too bright, like searchlights, and the moon, full and bloated, only made the shadows darker. My stomach growled. I was getting a headache. My feet hurt. I was just about to stop and sit and rub the kinks out of them when I saw the house.
I’d passed it many times on my way home, a little shotgun model like a hundred others in that part of town. It rubbed shoulders with the houses on either side of it, houses where televisions blared and bacon sizzled and children bleated.
But this little house was dark and silent. This little house had an empty garage. This little house had a clump of overgrown redtips that smothered the front porch, hiding it from the prying glare of streetlamps and moonlight, tucking it into shadows and darkness.
I had a pang of conscience, especially when I discovered the damn fool owner hadn’t even locked the windows. I hate what I do — I mean, did — all the time, especially when I had to take advantage of the innocent. I didn’t mind taking advantage of stupid and oblivious and arrogant, but innocent made me queasy. But then my stomach growled and a wind from somewhere cold nibbled at my ankles, so I popped open the window and slid in like a draft.
It didn’t take me long to scope out the inventory. From the looks of things, I’d broken into the house of somebody’s aged granny. The front room was close and stuffy, ripe with the scent of lemon furniture polish and mothballs. The curtains on the windowed were stiff and probably handmade several decades ago; if I hadn’t been so careful climbing in, they would have ripped like spiderwebbing.
I assessed the take and sighed. One tiny TV. No DVD. No computers. I’d be lucky if I got out with a brooch and some money she’d stuffed under the mattress. Not my best haul, I decided, but you gotta do what you gotta do, right? I tried not to look at the family photos lined up on the hall table out of fear I’d spot her, gazing at me with wide innocent eyes. I tried to ignore the general cheapness of the place, the fact that its owner obviously eked out an existence barely better than my own.
The whole little-old-lady thing disturbed me so much that I was about to ease back out the window when I stepped on a knitting needle. Pain fired through my bare sole, and I cursed and kicked the damn thing into the hall. Mad and disgusted, I swallowed the conscience that had been rising like a gorge in my throat. Hey, I told myself, at least she’s got family. At least she’s got a couch. At least she’s got some hypothetical savings stuffed in her hypothetical mattress. Dog eat dog, I reminded myself. And I squared my shoulders and prepared to get to work.
That’s when I heard it.
Or rather, felt it, smelled it, sensed it because it was impossible to hear, even with my senses on full alert. Yet it was there. Measured, deep breathing, slow and steady. And then I caught the scent from that back room and my stomach churned.
Blood, coppery and new. And something else, something I’d never smelled before, something animal and hot, something like rotten wool.
I made for the window, backpedaling so fast I didn’t even take time to turn around. I just lurched toward the shadowed opening, toward the street, toward safety, because whatever this fresh hell was, I wanted no part of it.
But I tripped. And I fell. And then I heard the voice.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
I scrambled on all fours for the window, too terrified to even stand. Suddenly a roar, a clutch, a nauseating clip, and I was jerked backwards into the darkness. I slammed into a wall, more conscious of the enormous grappling hook of a hand at my throat than the chunk of my cranium against plaster.
“You little punk,” growled the voice. “I oughta kill you now.”
I closed my eyes and would have prayed if I’d believed in anything good, anything merciful. But people like me don’t get prayers or even wishes. All we get is our own damn luck, and mine had finally run out.
“Please . . .” I croaked. I tried to pull the hands from my throat and was disgusted to feel coarse hair beneath my clawing fingers. I choked and kicked and then . . . it released me.
I folded to the floor, sucking in sweet breath after sweet breath, rubbing at the raw bruise that was my throat. Twin eyes gleamed down at me, yellow and small in the scant moonlight. Granny-eyes shouldn’t be yellow, I was thinking. They shouldn’t glow like that. I rubbed my eyes, sticky with salt and possibly my own blood.
And then my vision cleared. And then I screamed.
All I saw at first were teeth, bone white and dripping with saliva. Then eyes crackling with a rabid fire. Its body was grotesquely human, but twisted and warped beyond all humanity, with a matted pelt covering taut muscle and ropy sinew. I saw the sproutings of lupine ears, felt the heat from it, smelled the oily mixture of sweat and canine bloodlust and fear.
The beast smelled it too. It licked its chops. Its tongue was flat and pointed, black against the razor gleam of teeth, so many teeth. And then it threw back its head and howled, not like a wolf — no, much worse — and then the howl curdled into a cackle and then the thing was pointing at me and . . . and . . .
Laughing! It was laughing at me.
“Whatsa matter?” it said. “You act like you’ve never seen a werewolf before?”
I remembered the full moon. I remembered the scent of blood. And I remembered the fairy tales and I knew that granny wasn’t home anymore, that the Big Bad had gotten to her first, and that no friendly woodcutter waited outside the door with his trusty ax, ready to free her from that hideous gullet.
And I knew I was next.
I was right
It sprang. I screamed again and clawed at the fingers that closed off my throat, my eyes squeezed shut against the sight of those mad yellow eyes. Choking on its carrion breath, I grappled wildly, feeling the corded muscles writhe. Suddenly, I felt my bladder loosen, and the last rational thought in my head was that I was going to die with piss running down my leg.
“You givin’ up, punk,” it cackled. “So soon? Oh well, you were Alpo the minute you crawled in that window. Get it, asshole? Alpo, like in dogfood? Get it?”
And that’s when the desperation kicked in. Maybe it was adrenaline, maybe terror, maybe just that damned insulting nonsense that thing was spouting, but I suddenly got my senses back, surrendered to instinct, and surged to meet the snapping teeth and strong claws and worst of all, that unholy, howling laughter.
It was over quickly after that. I had never tasted werewolf blood before. It had a fermented, rancid taste to it, like old grease. Totally unlike human blood, but quite filling, nonetheless. So while I’m still cold and barefoot, at least I’m not hungry anymore. Not even a little bit. Because for the first time in my entire unholy existence, I took and took and took until there was no more to take.
Funny thing is, I never believed in werewolves. Until now, of course, sprawled here in the alley, waiting for my strength to return. Luckily, I’ve still got a few hours before dawn. But you know what’s really bothering me now? I have no idea what that foul musk-flavored blood is going to do to me. I may develop dog breath, get fleas, sprout a tail. Just what your friendly neighborhood unemployed vampire needs, a tail.
Like I said, the whole thing really sucks.