PETER AND HIS WOLF
It was long after midnight and the party was finally winding down. At least for the night. Come sunrise, Peter had no doubt the festivities would continue. He'd be surprised if it didn't last the traditional three days usually reserved for major celebrations.
He sat on the small hillock overlooking the small Russian village. The moon had risen long ago and now hung in the sky like a glistening drop of milk. Fortunately the wind had died down. Still, the night was cold enough to require a thick jacket, if not a full coat.
His grandfather had been asleep when he'd left the cabin. Otherwise the old man would have forbidden him from traipsing out in the middle of the night, outside the protective fence surrounding the property. Even if he had, Peter knew he would have disobeyed his elder's orders. The same way he had disobeyed in all the years he'd been under the man's care. Peter loved his grandfather, but there were times he felt that he was being stifled to the point of strangulation. If the man had any firmer grip on him, he'd have Peter chained to the walls of his bedroom.
A howl in the distance made him sit up. The sound was like fire in his blood, and his heart sped up. The wolf's cry had always affected him like that, as far back as he could remember. There were many times when he remembered lying in his bed, hoping to hear the sad and often melancholy sound drift in through his barred window.
Wolves had been a fact of life for the town for many decades. Packs continually roamed the forests surrounding the village, and he had heard a thousand tales of wolves making off with infants, children and even lone adults. Which was why he understood his grandfather's angry insistence that Peter stay within the protective walls.
Even so, there had been something about this particular wolf that drew Peter to it. He'd first seen it two years ago, on a bright Sunday morning. Since that time the wolf never strayed far from the cabin. Every time it reappeared, he knew it was the same animal. This one had a strange white streak on its right shoulder. Twice his grandfather had hired men to go in search of the wolf and to either kill it or take it elsewhere. The hunters had returned with wolf pelts, but Peter had known that none of them belonged to his wolf because of that slash.
Which was why he was still in a state of disbelief over the events of today. Over the fact that he had managed to do what trained hunters and marksmen had been unable to accomplish. He had caught his wolf, and he had done it with nothing more than a length of rope.
Mary Elizabeth hustled back into the studio with a brown box in her hands. "Aaron, that was a courier. I signed for you."
"What is it?" he called, stepping back out into the open.
"I dunno. From a company called Oral Fixations?"
A big smile brightened his face almost immediately. "Oh, yeah! I’ve been waiting for that. Talk about luck!" He went over to the small table where he kept his prop materials, and opened the package. After removing a layer of bubble wrap, he lifted out something purple on a stick. Felicia squinted to see what it was.
"Hey, not bad," Aaron commented almost to himself. He inspected the item, then pulled a second and third item from the box. The second one was pinkish, but the third was a wild rainbow of colors. The third one Aaron handed over to Mary Elizabeth, who stared at it in fascination.
Curiosity got the better of her. "What is it?" Felicia called out.
"Yeah. What do they call this?" the makeup artist asked.
Aaron glanced at the paper included in the package. "It’s one of several new products this company wants to start advertising in select magazines. I spoke to them yesterday, and they said they’d send over a few samples. This one is called Dick on a Stick."
He threw part of his grin over at Felicia. "I had thought about having either you or Roxie for the shoot. But since you’re already here, guess you win out. I want to get some test shots done up for the client, and if they approve, we can go from there. Got the time?"
Did she have the time? Other than a trip to the market and a date with the latest Pitt movie just out on DVD, she’d made no other plans. Felicia flashed him her best photogenic smile. "Bring it on!"
HIS LAST REQUEST
Dropping the flowers on the couch's padded arm, she left the den, giving him a good look of her departing posterior in its short shorts. Her flipflops made slapping noises as she went into the kitchen next door. Corwin glanced down at his own heavy sandals with their thick soles. Wearing enclosed shoes, even plain sneakers, made his feet feel like they were on fire. Yet it was nearly impossible to go barefoot anywhere anymore. Even inside one's own home.
He looked around while he heard her fetch the glasses from the kitchen cabinet. The room was barren of any decorations, even with the holiday approaching. Like most everyone else, Sadie must have thought there was no sense in going to the trouble since Christmas wouldn't come this year. Or any year afterwards.
She brought back two glasses and handed him one before sitting on the opposite end of the sofa. They each took a sip of their water. Like she'd said, it was tepid, but it was wet. He poured a little of it in his hand and spread it over his face. The temporary coolness felt good.
"How do you still have water?" Corwin winced. It wasn't a spectacular opening line, but at least it was something.
"I filled up the bathtub in the front bath before they shut off the water."
He nodded. "Smart move."
They took another sip to cover up another momentary silence. Sadie spoke next. "Do you live nearby?"
"Over on Banning Way."
Her eyes widened. "That's got to be at least a thirty minute drive."
He tried to be nonchalant about it. "Traffic was pretty much nonexistent. I made good time."
Her eyes darted back to the door. "I didn't see a car outside."
"I ran out of gas down at the corner, so I hoofed it the rest of the way."
"Wow. No wonder you're so flushed."
They drank in synchronized movements again. His earlier glance around the place had confirmed his suspicions. She didn't live alone. Which meant there was the possibility that someone could be in one of the back rooms. Rather than ask her outright, he tried to figure out a way to get around to the topic.
"How are you getting along? Got enough food?"
"Oh, yeah." She bobbed her head up and down, making her ponytail swing from side to side. "Shelly works at the Blue Moon Cafe downtown. When all this shit started going down, she loaded up her car with a bunch of these huge cans of food and brought them over here." She scrunched up her nose, and Corwin was captivated by the expression. "You know, I like peaches and chocolate pudding, but after a while you kinda get sick of eating it. Know what I mean?"
He smiled and chuckled lightly. "Yeah. I found a case of pork and beans day before yesterday, and I wasn't particularly fond of pork and beans in the first place! But, hey, beggars can't be choosers."
They laughed and drank more water. If he didn't know any better, he swore her initial fear and uneasiness that had shadowed her when he'd first arrived was melting, allowing her to feel comfortable around him.
"Have you seen anyone else from the office since...you know?"
"No." He noticed she had picked up one of the flowers and was rubbing the petals between her fingers. "Have you?"
"No." She took another sip of water before setting the glass back on the floor. "I take it the electricity's off all over town."
"Yeah. It feels weird, not having any traffic lights or anything. I have to use candles for light at night. I was using flashlights, but batteries are getting scarce."
At the mention of candles, he finally noticed the numerous half-burnt stubs sitting about the room. "But the worst part has to be all this heat," he continued. "No air conditioning. No fans." He gave a half-hearted chuckle. "How did people in the olden days survive?"
Sadie sighed. "Well, for one thing, it's probably a safe bet to say the temperature didn't go over a hundred and twenty in those days."
"You're probably right." He drained his water, parking his glass next to hers on the floor next to the sofa. "I don't know about you, but I think I miss not having a phone more than anything."
"Even if there still was service, the lines would be jammed with people calling their loved ones, especially those they couldn't get to see personally before..." Her voice died away, but he knew what she meant. Before everything comes to an end.