Meet Me Halfway, Pray I Don’t Bite Holly scanned the restaurant as it glowed in the late summer sun, back pressed to the glass divider by the door. She’d grown up with this Taco Bell, but the décor was totally different now. Stark whites that had been accented with 90s-tastic pinks and greens had morphed into a homey, warm beige, tastefully accented in dark purples and reds. It had been years since she’d come in, long nights in adolescent hell peppered by bright spots of laughter and cheap food. It was nicer, in its own way, but it didn’t feel right. Like it was trying to be something it wasn’t. Honestly, she had not been inclined to accept when Jackson texted her. After all, fat girl on a Taco Bell date screamed, “He’s ashamed to be seen with you.” Four months of dates in nice restaurants were proof to the contrary, a fact she was trying to use to push the feeling aside. She knew why he’d chosen to meet here, and as anxious as it made her, she couldn’t find it in her to say no. Standing on line with him, she wondered if maybe she should have. “You know, you look really nice today,” he said, startling her out of her thoughts. And she had, admittedly, probably put in more effort than a Taco Bell date would have warranted, all curled hair and mascara, sun dress and cardigan. “You sure you’re not supposed to be here with someone else?” “Not unless I’ve been dating your twin brother by mistake,” she joked, but it fell flat. Not even their first date had been this awkward. “Why don’t you find us a seat? I’ll wait for the food,” Jackson said. When she didn’t respond right away, he wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close. “It’s okay if you want to go. We can hang out another time. I can drop you off before-” “It’s okay,” she cut him off. She tried to give him a small smile, some reassurance things were okay, before turning to go. Holly made her way to a hard plastic booth in the back, overlooking the half-empty parking lot. It was too late for families to be eating, the crowd now more likely to do drive-thru than dine in. She wondered if that had been part of the calculation, or just a lucky coincidence. How long had it taken him to figure out this kind of routine? She hadn’t realized she’d been spacing out until his voice broke her train of thought. “Got you two chipotle sauces, just in case,” he said. He handed her the large Diet Pepsi, low on the ice, just how she liked. She hadn’t even reminded him. It made the pressure in her chest loosen. “Sprung the extra 50 cents for little ole me?” she asked. “For you, I’d buy a year’s supply,” he said. Cheesy, over-the-top, but cute. Very Jackson. That unashamed sincerity, that warmth without reservation. She tilted her head slightly and raised her eyebrows at the teenage cashiers stretching their necks to see how the food was being divvied up. Jumping back as though they’d been hit by lightning, they suddenly found other things to do. She couldn’t blame them — there was a lot of it. But yes, the Crunchwrap was hers. The other 15 items were, in fact, for the man who looked like he didn’t have an ounce to spare. Watching Jackson eat was weirdly entertaining. Their first date, he scarfed down two whole steaks, mashed potatoes, and half the fries she’d been too embarrassed to touch. Then at the movie, he demolished the bucket of popcorn on his own, and a huge Coke. She would have been more put off if he hadn’t taken her hand with butter-stained fingers and kissed it, that soppy smile illuminated by the screen. Hence why she found herself smiling stupidly as he smashed a bean burrito into his mouth. His eyes met hers as he unwrapped a chalupa. “Baby, your food’s gonna get cold,” he said. Holly nodded, snapping out of her stupor. “No, yeah you’re right, sorry,” she said, opening up the Crunchwrap. She gave it a squeeze and flipped it meat-side up before taking a bite. There were several long seconds of silence. Her eyes never left Jackson’s hands, as he unwrapped several more items in a row to have them at the ready. The question buzzed in her teeth, begging to be spoken, insecurity gnawing at her like a hunger, demanding to be answered. But it was rude. She shouldn’t. He would tell her if she needed to know, right? Right. There was no need to say anything at all. “Can I ask…about the thing?” Jackson looked up at her, halfway through a crunchy taco. In the two seconds it took for him to register the question, she wished she could have stolen the sounds back. But his expression didn’t change. “Sure, anything.” She shifted in her seat, mustering up the courage. Too late to turn back now. He’d been honest, nonchalantly honest, The way people who’ve never had the truth wielded against them always were. “Does it hurt?” she asked. He put the crumbling mess down, looking at her with that softness she was still getting to know. God, those puppy dog eyes just killed her. “Yeah, but you get used to it,” he said. “And…this helps?” she asked, looking down at the pile of food. “If I go into it on a full stomach, I don’t tend to binge as much,” he said. “The hunger can be tough to manage. I mean think about all the random shit dogs eat.” “So what? You’re telling me you’ve eaten garbage before?” she asked. But the smirk fell off her face when his grin spread. “You’re joking. Please tell me you’re joking.” “And with the mouth you seem to enjoy kissing so much,” he said. When she didn’t laugh, Jackson lowered his head, mouth turned up in an unsure half smile. “I’m sorry, I know that was really gross. I swear, I don’t. I haven’t. I do have some self-control.” Briefly, she wondered for whose benefit that last part was for. “So it keeps you from digging through people’s trash?” He nodded, seeming relieved to be moving on. “Also helps, you know, move things along. It’s not easy to pass crushed rabbit bone or deer hide once you’re…well, once you’re you again.” She hadn’t considered what happened after. She just figured everything would be over and done with, see you next full moon. But of course he’d have to plan for that. Figure out how to keep from getting sick, from getting caught. All of this, he was letting her see. Letting her find out what she was getting into it. How many other girls had sat across from him, just like this? “Listen,” he started. “It’s not too late, we can go.” Holly wracked her brain for a response, knowing her silence would be read as an agreement. “No, no, it’s not that, it’s just…” She studied her half-eaten Crunchwrap on the table, stomach in knots. How was it that she was even having this conversation? “What about your truck? You need me to drive it back, right?” “Don’t worry about that,” he said. The rest of his food was going untouched. “I can get you an Uber too, if you want.” She shook her head. “I want to be here for you. I do, but I’m also a little…scared? Nervous? Worried, maybe, is the better word.” She ran a hand through her hair, searching for the right thing to say. Her thoughts were scattered, the seconds dragging out as she reached for something, anything. “I just want to make sure I’m actually, like, good enough to be here.” Oh, that hadn’t been the thought she wanted to share. She stiffened as suddenly Jackson stood up from his seat. For a moment, she could picture it: him laughing in her face, saying it was all a joke, walking away into the night. A scenario she’d played in her head so many times, it was starting to feel like déjà vu. It was almost a surprise when moved to sit next to her, wrapping an arm around her waist before nuzzling his face into her hair. Holly could see the teens at the counter tuning in to what was going on, but she couldn’t find it in her to be embarrassed. “I know this is a lot, but I really like you,” he said. “I’m glad you said yes.” And even if he wasn’t saying it, she could tell he was nervous too. And yet, he’d still asked her to be here, to see it for herself. Boys like Jackson, perfect, beautiful boys, trust because they’ve never been given a reason not to. But then again, she had rewarded that trust, hadn’t she? They ate the rest of the meal in silence, Jackson still pressed tight to her. She wondered if he could smell her worry, senses on high as nightfall approached, because every time her nerves spiked, he drew nearer. Little gestures to show he cared: holding her hand, resting his head against hers, wrapping an arm around her middle and kissing her cheek. Normally that kind of attention would only make things worse, but with Jackson, it seemed to soothe her. There were a lot of things with Jackson that seemed to soothe rather than irritate. Before long, they were standing in the parking lot, the last rays of light disappearing fast over the horizon. There was a second reason for choosing this location: tree cover. Illuminated by the warm light of the Taco Bell, she watched Jackson disrobe behind his pick-up, chucking the boots, jeans, t-shirt into the back. In the moments she’d allowed herself to believe she’d ever get to see him naked, she’d always imagined it in a bedroom, maybe the backseat of his truck. It was decidedly unromantic, and she did her best not to stare. “You know…” he started as he handed her his wallet and keys. “No one’s ever asked if it hurts.” “What?” She snapped her head up to meet his eyes. “Most people ask if, like, I’ll remember them or if I’ve ever attacked someone or whatever. Backwards ways of asking if I’ll bite them or something. No one’s ever asked how it feels for me.” She could see the light tint of a blush covering his cheeks and ears. “That’s how I know I was right to ask you to come here tonight.” And there it was. The wound made by all the people who’d broken his heart, one he kept hidden with big smiles and that easy joviality. What a fool she was to think there wasn’t one there, to think he’d been somehow spared. Before she could respond, Jackson let out a groan, doubling over. No touching, she remembered him telling her, but everything in her called to comfort him. And then, as though by dream logic, what was skin became fur, spine curving, paws instead of hands. She was scared, more terrified than she’d ever been. More than anything, she wished for those sterile white walls, tacky 90s designs, anything familiar as the reality of the situation hit her. The wolf in front of her was huge, growling low as it flexed newly transformed muscles. The distinct urge to cry crashed over her like a wave, but she managed to hold back. “Jackson?” Holly asked. She tried not to let the fear creep in, but she sounded shaky, weak. He turned at the sound of her voice, yellow eyes trained on her. She flinched, fighting against her instincts to recoil from him. As he stepped into the light, everything in her brain screamed to run, to never look back. Instead, she held out her hand, which felt like the stupidest idea she’d ever had. He wasn’t a dog, after all. But as if rewarding her faith, he butted his head into it before tilting it back, encouraging her to pet him. She did, running fingers through his fur. It was softer than she thought it would be, thick and plush. And, in a weird way, it felt normal. Right. Just another puzzle piece of their relationship slotting into place. His ears perked up, hearing something in the distance. Before she realized what was happening, he took off in a run, disappearing into the trees without looking back. Alone now, standing in the light of the unfamiliar, Holly felt as much a stranger to herself as the people waiting in the drive-thru. But maybe that was for the best. Because this Holly did not cry or panic or hide. This Holly got into his truck, pulling herself up into the driver’s seat as if she’d done this a thousand times. She smiled at the cheesy Valentine taped to the dashboard, the one she’d given him on their first date. The little dog on the front still smiling wide, tongue hanging out, bright pink font proclaiming, “I Think You’re Pawsome!” And instead of cringing at the sweet sentimentality of having it here, at the irony of it all, this Holly let the warmth of its presence linger as she put the truck in gear and drove off into the night.
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Sara Roncero-Menendez (she/her) is a writer based in New York. She has published several stories and essays, most recently in the WINC Magazine’s first issue, as well as poems and a one-shot comic in The Dark Lady Returns anthology. She is also a journalist and PR professional, writing about movies and television for The Outerhaven, and creating book content for Simon and Schuster’s blog Off The Shelf. Follow her @sararomenen on Twitter.