It was sometime in the late afternoon when Bernard hurried up the steps to my front door. I could see him from my spot by the window; the collar of his long coat turned up, his hat managing to shield most of his face from view. Only Bernard would think the stereotypical private detective look made him inconspicuous. I turned my attention back to my book.
The doorknob rattled loud enough to be heard in the livingroom. A moment later, the pounding began.
"Claire!" he said, banging on the door. "For Godsake, let me in!"
I weighed the pros and cons of leaving him out there. On the one hand, I could ignore him and get another few minutes of Bernard-free reading. On the other, that meant he'd be sitting out there knowing I was ignoring him.
I set the book down.
"You know," I said, unlocking the door. "There's a key under the mat."
He stepped into the little entrance hall and headed straight for the living room. In one fluid motion his coat was off and tossed onto the back of an armchair. He kept the hat. "Have you seen the news?"
"Look outside. Tell me what you see."
He threw himself onto the sofa and grabbed the remote. I rolled my eyes and obliged.
"I see my porch."
"Very funny. Really, Claire. The weather."
"It's a bit overcast. Bright, but cloudy. Everything's tinged gray, and it looks like it's going to rain. How's that?"
He flicked on the TV and began to channel surf. "It's going to rain, all right. Possibly cats and dogs. And I bet'll it'll be dark and stormy tonight, too. I bet the wind will howl."
It took me a moment to see what he was getting at.
"Oh no! A cliche storm? This time of year? It's still springtime, for Godsake!"
He shrugged and leaned back into the cushions.
"Chalk it up to global warming, or cooling or whatever they're going on about these days."
"Have the narrative researchers done anything about it?”
“They’ve issued a warning and are telling people to stay indoors. It’ll probably peter out before anything big happens, but citizens have been asked to contact the NRD if they feel the urge to cackle villainously or find themselves with the sudden desire to fight evil.”
I sat down on the opposite side of the couch and scowled.
“I had a bowling league tonight.”
He nodded and raised his hand. “Pottery class.”
The TV was on now, and on the screen a reporter was going on about the storm.
“. . . And the NRD would like to assure everyone that they are doing their best to prevent any narrative casualties, and would like to remind everyone that the narrative dampeners have been placed in strategic locations around the city, including hospitals, orphanages, police stations, cemeteries and other possible contamination areas.”
Bernard grinned. “Can’t have any chosen ones or antichrists being born willy nilly, eh?”
I snickered. "The little bastards would be running all over the place. Remember back in ’06 when the dampeners failed and-“
Lightning flashed outside. Thunder rolled in behind it. We sat together quietly for a few minutes, only the drone of the TV breaking the silence.
“Hey Bernard?” I said eventually.
“Why was I talking about 06?’
He kept his eyes on the TV. “Uh. Because it was a conversational topic?”
“But it was something we already knew. Something everybody knows. Why was I talking about it?”
He groaned and rested his head back against the cushion, pulling the brim of his hat over his eyes as he did.
“An expositional tangent. Crap, it’s starting. We don’t have any unresolved sexual tension, do we?”
“Under normal circumstances, no, but you’re my dead brother’s best friend. That seems to count for a lot in these situations.”
Bernard raised his head, lifted his hat, and stared at me.
I returned it, feeling my eyes go wide. We do not talk about Jonas. It’s a sort of unspoken rule, the emphasis on unspoken. He’d died in a storm like this one. Caught the hero bug and went to go rescue a burning building full of retirees. Bernard and I had both been there. We’d seen it happen. That’s why he always came over during storms, to check up on me, I guess. For Jonas’ sake. The only rule is we do not talk about it. It gets easier not to talk every year.
“Sorry,” I said, getting to my feet. I headed for the kitchen. I needed a drink. “Blame it on the exposition.”
I opened up the fridge and pulled out a two liter of root beer. For some reason, I found myself fighting the urge to put on a pot of coffee. I didn’t even like coffee all that much, I just kept some around because, well, that was what you did.
I poured a glass and waited for the foam to die down. Bernard appeared in the doorway.
"They say on TV this one's going to be a bad one. Real bad."
My heart sank. "Cats and dogs bad?"
"Fish and frogs bad."
I swore, loudly.
A wolf howled somewhere in the distance. Bernard smiled a bit at that. He always found it amusing that even in the middle of the city the narrative storms always managed to drag in at least one wolf to howl for ambiance. Sometimes we wondered if all the extra narrative influence just turned regular dogs into wolves for the night.
Thunder rolled again, and lightning flashed. The wolf howled again, this time joined by its brothers and sisters. I frowned.
"Sound closer?" He pulled a stool up to the counter and sat, arms crossed and resting on the countertop. I absently poured him a cup of soda.
"Yeah," I said.
"Probably a pack of strays wondering why the hell they sound like wolves."
I smiled at that though I didn't feel it.
"Imagine," he went on. "A bunch of dogs- maybe a few terriers and dachshunds, a dalmatian or two, a german shepherd- all running around with confused looks on their faces as they all start to howl for no reason."
“Heh." Not quite a chuckle, but more than a mildly amused 'Hmm'. It was enough. We drank in silence for a moment. Both of us were trying very hard not to look out the kitchen window.
“So,” I said after a while. “How’s Molly?”
“Pretty good. Vet says she’s gotta lose some weight, though. Said it might be a thyroid thing-“
Again, the howl of wolves went up, this time followed by a woman’s scream.
“It’s probably nothing,” said Bernard.
“Yeah,” I said. “Nobody would be stupid enough to be out right now, right?”
Thunder. Lightning. The pitter patter of rain and the occasional squelch of a frog landing on the roof.
Then, it went quiet. Everything. No wolves, no thunder. I realized I was holding my breath, but at the same time didn’t want to let it go. I glanced at Bernard, to see if he’d noticed. He was looking out the window, out at the storm.
I was trying to think of something to say, only for another scream to pierce the night, shattering the silence. It was followed by the cry of a baby.
Bernard rolled his eyes and folded onto the counter, resting his forehead on the tile.
“No,” he said. “Nobody can be that stupid.”
“There’s a baby out there. . . “
He lightly thumped his head against the countertop. “No. I don’t believe it. I refuse to believe it. Nobody can be that stupid. It’s just the storm. It’s trying to make something story-shaped happen.”
“But if there’s somebody out there-“
He sat up. “Think! Is this you talking, or the storm? If you go out there, you’ll be sucked in. Let the NRDs handle this.”
There was another scream. I looked down and saw my hands were shaking. I quickly put my cup down before I could drop it. Bernard’s fists were clenched so tightly, his knuckles were turning white.
Thunder roared. Lighting flashed. Wolves howled. Another scream. It was a pattern, now. Maybe there wasn’t enough creativity stored up in the storm to have it any other way. The baby cried again.
For all his talk, Bernard broke first.
“Fine!” he shouted. He bolted for the living room.
“Wait!” said. “Don’t be stupid about it!”
I snagged my scarf off the table and my jacket from the rack. He was already out the door, having run off in such a hurry that he left it swinging open. His own jacket was still on the couch. I grabbed it and a flashlight from the hall closet and then went after him in the rain.
* * * *
It stopped raining the second we both were together on the street. The clouds still rolled and twisted above us, great hulking black things ready to make us miserable at any moment. The streets were empty. Nothing but parked cars, streetlights, and the occasional unlucky frog. It wasn’t, to my surprise, particularly cold. I undid my scarf from my neck and tucked it into my coat pocket.
Bernard stood beside me, now wrapped up in his own jacket and looking slightly flustered.
“So,” I said. “Which way?”
“I’m not actually sure- no, wait. I’ve got it.” A little louder, he said, “It’s quiet out here. Too quiet.”
On cue, thunder, lightning, howl and scream, all followed by the cry of an infant.
“Crap,” he said, heading briskly for the noise. “We’re in it now, aren’t we?”
I walked beside him. “I think we were in it back in the kitchen,” I said.
“Yeah, but now it’s official. Can’t you feel it?”
I said nothing. Yeah, I could feel it, all right. The edge in the air, the fizzing sensation that permeated my clothes and caused all the hair on my arms to stick up. That there was a silent pressure in my head urging me to act a little more like this and a little less like me.
That the road we were taking was just barely sharper a bit in definition ahead of us while the road behind us went a little blurrier. You’d never notice if you weren’t looking for it- which we both were.
It was official: we were caught in the storm.
We carried on, mostly following some gut feeling that didn’t belong to us but we knew would be correct anyways. Bernard hated it, I could tell. He never did anything on a ‘gut feeling’. Every decision in his life was based on evidence or reasonable estimates, and now here we were following nothing but some vague something telling us where to go because the storm wanted it.
Every so often he’d do the quiet line again, just to double check that we were, indeed, going the right direction. We always were.
“So,” I said eventually. “What kind of story do you think this is?”
He grunted. “I dunno. Mystery, maybe.”
A few frogs lucky enough to have landed safely hopped along the sidewalk. A streetlamp nearby flickered and died. As did the ones behind us. All of the ones behind us.
We stopped walking.
“You know, Claire,” said Bernard casually. “Something has just occurred to me.”
A low growl rose up in the bushes nearby. Bushes that had, just that morning, been a neatly trimmed hedge but was now a wild mass of untamed shrubbery.
“That this has all the hallmarks of a horror story?”
There was a rather loud snarling sound behind us and, without another word, we ran.
* * * * *
Fifteen minutes later and we hadn't stopped running. Impressive, since I'm certainly no good at running, and I'm pretty certain the last time Bernard ran anywhere for longer than a minute was back in highschool.
I'd only dared glancing back once, but from what I could tell, whatever it was that was chasing us was big. Monstrously, hugely, truck-sizedly big.
Buildings blurred by, growing taller and darker as we went. We turned down the street, the monsters hot on our heels.
There was a narrative dampener up ahead. It, like most street dampeners, was shaped like an old fashioned iron streetlamp. It radiated pure, white light and the air around it was white with illuminated fog.
We tumbled into the dampening field together, and the world grew a little clearer. The fog hovered just outside of the field, held back by the invisible barrier. We both scrambled back as fast as we could until we hit the base of the lamp, halfway piled on top of eachother. The creatures kept on running, straight for the barrier.
I didn't scream. I'm not a screamer. But I grabbed on to Bernard and he grabbed on to me and he did make a strangled half-scream noise for the both of us.
The creatures hit the barrier and dissipated into smoke, which quickly dispersed into the night.
We stopped huddling in terror and stared.
"They weren't even real?" I said.
I noticed we were still holing on to one another the same time he did. We quickly let go of one another and straightened ourselves out.
"Bernard, how strong does a storm have to be before it starts creating things out of thin air instead of altering stuff that's already there?"
He looked out into the fog. "I really don't like to think of it."
"Well we done fucked up, didn't we, Bernard?"
He glowered. "This isn't funny."
I tried very hard not to laugh. "Oh yes it is. We walked right into this. We asked for it." I patted down my jacket. "Quick, check your pockets."
"Why? What are you looking for?"
"My phone. I think I left it at home." I had to stifle back laughter. "Do you have yours?"
"Yeah." He pulled his phone from his pocket and started cursing.
"Let me guess, battery's dead? Or no signal?"
"Signal," he said. He glared at the dampener.
"It's not its fault," I said. Storms like this had been known to sabotage phones- usually via battery or signal to prevent people from calling for help. But if there was no signal inside the field, outside of the storm's influence, then that really meant there was no signal.
“We should’ve called them before we left,” I said.
“What do we do now? Stay here and wait out the storm?”
“I don’t know. Do you really want to wait here? And what about that woman-“
“If she was even real.”
“-and the baby?”
Bernard sighed and looked up at the sky. “At least it’s not raining anymore. Maybe the storm’s close to ending.”
Of course, it started to rain. This time we both looked at the dampener.
“Maybe it was a coincidence?” I said.
“Maybe the damn thing’s broken.”
“At least things can't get any worse.”
He stared at me in open mouthed shock. I had enough time to really appreciate how silly he looked when the dampener flickered out and died.
“Oh Claire, how could you?”
“I didn't mean to, it just slipped out." Lightning flashed again for the first time since the chase had started. "Think of it as payback for making it rain.”
She pulled her jacket around her more tightly and stepped out into the quickly dissipating fog.
* * * * *
Something changed when they left the now-defunct dampening field, but neither of them could put a finger on what exactly it was.
"A genre shift?" Bernard suggested.
Claire frowned. "Maybe? I can't tell." She rubbed her eyes, trying to stave off the headache. "Come on."
They walked on.
"Hey," said Claire eventually, breaking the heavy silence. "Is that the old McConally place?"
Bernard blinked a few times, as though waking from a stupor. Then he swore. "Yes," he said between curses. "Yes that is."
"How the hell did we get here?" She looked around and found herself on a short hill overlooking the rest of the neighborhood.
They were on the outskirts of town, where houses were shorter, slightly unkempt, and farther apart from one another with decent sized yards between them. The McConally place was in the unofficial point where suburbia melted into forest. The McConallys, once town figure heads, had fallen on hard times and harder drugs and had dispersed years ago into God only knew where. Every year someone tried their hand at selling the old place, but nobody would buy it due to rumors of it being haunted by the spirit of Madeline McConally.
It was also a forty-five minute drive from Claire's house on the best of days.
"How long have we been out here, do you think?"
"Not long enough to get here on our own."
The way behind them was still a monochrome blur, as was (to a lesser extent) the way on either side of them. The old house was clearly the place to go. It loomed over them as they entered: a brickwork monstrosity that- like everything else that night- seemed to have the color drained out of it, leaving it an oppressive shade of gray. The front doors were wide open. Neither were surprised.
Bernard entered first, holding his phone out and using its weak light as a poor flashlight. Claire paused in the doorway and risked one look back before following him inside. Several wolves that hadn't been there a second before watched her. None made a move towards the house.
"Coming," she said, entering the house.
* * * * *
Inside was dark, but the convenient flashes of lightning lit things up for a few seconds at a time every ten seconds or so. Coupled with Bernard's phone, they were able to navigate well enough not to hurt themselves tripping on the furniture.
Partway down the entrance hall, she heard the sound of a woman desperately trying to calm an infant. She glanced at Bernard to see if he’d heard it. He nodded. Together, they made their way upstairs, towards the source of the noise.
They found the woman in what was probably once a spare bedroom, huddled in the corner, cradling an infant and nuzzling his head with her nose.
She was naked, but her coarse fur covered up anything that might've been considered indecent. Both she and the baby were wet with blood and other bodily fluids: the baby all over, her just from the waist down. The baby was furry as well, but not nearly as much as his mother. From this close they could see that not only did he still have his umbilical cord, but he had a wispy, rat-like tail that whipped about as he cried.
The woman snarled at them, showing off distinctly inhuman teeth.
"Oh, shit," said Bernard.
So speculative fiction, then, thought a small voice in the back of Claire's head smugly.
The woman bolted, pushing past them both with the baby still held in one arm. She tore down the hall and down the stairs. Clair and Bernard followed after.
Instead of going out the front way, the woman had gotten turned around and had gone towards the back of the house, into the kitchen. There was an exit there, against the wall on the left, but she’d instead run behind the counters, effectively trapping herself.
She clutched the wailing baby to her chest and bared her teeth at them.
Almost without thinking, Bernard went towards the far door, obviously hoping to open it and let the woman outside. In a sudden onslaught of clarity, Claire knew exactly what would happen.
The wolf woman would take her child and run, joining the pack outside. They'd run off into the hills or wherever the storm had drawn them in from. They'd live out the rest of their days as happy little secrets, away from the city and from the people, together with their pack as one loving if unusual family. If it was a nicer sort of story, maybe they'd always remember Claire and Bernard as the ones who helped them get away, just as Claire and Bernard would always remember them.
It was all very pretty.
But it's not real! shrieked the tiny voice of reason.
She was either a human spelled to be wolfy or a wolf spelled to be human, and God only knows what the baby wound up as. Either she wakes up tomorrow as a human out in the middle of the woods with a baby and surrounded by wolves who are no longer friendly, or she really is a wolf and wakes up with a human-y child she can't care for properly. Either way, they needed to see a doctor. A vet. Something.
“The NRD has to know about this.” said Claire.
Bernard was fumbling wit the lock on the door. “What?”
Claire went over and tried pulling his hands away from the knob. “We can’t let her go. They need medical attention.” He wouldn’t budge. “Bernard? Bernard, look at me!”
He did. His eyes were glazed over. Unfocused. "We’ve got to help them,” he mumbled.
“It’s got you,” she said. “All the way. Come on, Bernard. Think- think! We need to call the NRD. They need to know-”
“No!” He shoved her aside and yanked the door off the hinges, just as the NRD arrived.
They came in with their lanterns blazing, filling the whole room with the clean, clear light of unadulterated reality. An entire horde of nearly identical agents, all wearing black suits and sunglasses, despite being indoors at night.
Bernard blinked a few times and hastily backed away from the door. The wolf woman sank to the ground, placing the baby on the floor before she curled into ball. She growled, whined, grunted and slowly morphed into a proper wolf. The baby stayed the same and began to wail in a very human voice as he found himself suddenly resting on the floor beside a creature that was too furry to be his mother.
A flock of agents immediately swarmed over us all.
"Are you alright?" said the one shining a little flashlight into her eyes. "Do you remember where you are? Who you are? Have either of you sustained any injuries that you can recall?"
"What?" I said. Her head felt swimmy again. The couple agents waving Geiger counters around and taking her pulse weren’t really helping things.
"Your name, do you remember your name?"
"Yeah, her name is Claire- my. My name is Claire." I rubbed my head. "I feel kind of weird.”
"Perspective shift. That'll do it."
“How did you know we were here?”
“Follow the light. Good. We didn’t. We just knew there were particularly high narrative contaminant levels here. Probably due to your lady friend over there.”
“Is she going to be alright?”
He didn’t answer me because just then, Bernard woke up enough to deem himself healthy.
“Claire?” said Bernard, trying to shake off several agents of his own. “No, really gentlemen, he’s fine now- I! I am fine now, really. He- I appreciate the good work. Claire?”
My agent nodded and the others left us alone. I smiled weakly. “Hey.”
“Are you alright?” Bernard said. He went ruddy around the cheeks, just under his eyes. “I’m so sorry I shoved you like that. I wasn‘t thinking- Well, I mean, I didn‘t mean to-”
I waved him off. “It’s fine. Forget about it.”
“Sir,” said another agent coming up to my agent. In his arms was the baby, now snuggly wrapped up in a blanket. “We’ve got another hybrid. The mother’s been sedated.”
“Another hybrid?” I said. “There’s more?”
Again, the agent didn’t answer me. “Take them both down to headquarters. Make sure they get checked in by the medical staff, and for the love of God, don’t let Maura feed the kid formula until both pediatrics and the vet confirm it. I don’t want to have to deal with another fussy kid all night.“ The agent nodded and left.
Another one of them handed him a clipboard. He scanned the paper there and nodded. To us, he said, “We’re going to need your contact information. We’ll have questions for you in the morning. We’ll need full statements from both of you-”
“Oh!” I said. “Wait. Before I forget, we’d like to report a broken street dampener.”
The agent looked up from his clipboard sharply. “Say again?”
"Yes” said Bernard, stepping forward. “We found a narrative dampener off Umbarger and Teak. It worked well enough to keep some specters off our backs, but it couldn’t keep the clichés out, and it broke almost immediately after we found it.”
"We don't have a narrative dampener set up on Teak and Umbargar."
I think my heart stopped for a second. "What?"
He peered over the top of his sunglasses, revealing eyes only a scant few shades away from being white. I hear that‘s what happens when you spend too much time around the reality lanterns. "There are no narrative dampeners on Umbargar, or Teak.”
"But we were there! The monster things chasing us hit the field and dispersed!”
The agent looked at us thoughtfully. “You're the fifth couple we've caught out tonight," he said. “And the fifth to find a ’dampener’.”
"We're not a-"
"Yeah, the others all said that too."
I felt my face go hot. I didn’t dare to look and see how Bernard was taking it.
The agent jotted something down on the clipboard and then said, “We’ll have someone drop you off at home and gather your contact information. Have no doubts, we will be contacting you.”
“Right,” said Bernard. “Thank you, officer.”
“Agent Thompson? Kindly drop these two off to wherever they need to be.”
A young agent seemed to materialize out of thin air beside us. “Yes, sir,” he said. “This way, please. If you’ll just follow me. . . “
We passed the agents with a dog carrier on the way in. I wondered what would happen to the mother, but didn’t have the guts to ask. Bernard and I left them to their work.
The escort vehicle was parked outside. It was the only vehicle out that wasn’t a black van, though like the vans, it, too, was black. It also had not one, but two dampeners attached: one on the front plate, and one on the back.
“Where to?” said Agent Thompson. Bernard gave him the directions to my place and got into the backseat.
Before I joined him, I took one last look around. The house was crawling with agents now. Someone had turned on the lights- something that hadn‘t occurred to either of us when we were in the house. I was surprised that they worked. I half expected to see the pack of wolves around, waiting, but that was stupid. They’d probably run off the second the vans had shown up.
“Claire?” said Bernard. “You coming?”
“Yeah.” I took one quick glance up before getting into the car.
It was a dark and stormy night, but it looked like it would clear up soon.