Briar coaxed her beat-up Volvo to reluctant life and headed down Route 116 toward the gas station. Briar’s father had run the gas station before the witches killed him, turned his organs to wind chimes that clacked soft music through the woods. They rolled his hair into hay bales. In the dark pre-dawn, Briar drove past their silhouettes, wheels of grass and sinew moist with dew.
Briar’s mornings were always cold, dark, cast in greys and silence. She liked them most like this—before everyone else awoke and the sun rose to make shadows stand between it and everything it touched.
She clicked on her turn signal and pulled into the cracked station lot. As she was getting out of the car, a wolf howled. She closed her eyes and tied a mask over her face.
The buttons on the register were stained and cracking. Briar checked out three huntsmen and a hag before lunchtime, scanning their sodas and chips while cars pulled past the pumps outside. Self-service was booming, becoming more and more popular as the Virus spread.
In the afternoon, Briar served a young man in a mask. He poured himself a coffee in a mug he brought from his Subaru Forester, left idling in the accessible space outside. When he came up to the counter, Briar tried to see the face behind the mask.
Pleated folds of white fabric meant to filter the Virus from the air accordioned out from the bridge of his nose, jagged steps coming to a point below his chin. The white mask was shaped like a beak, with two white ribbons stitched to the sides looping over his ears. Above the wire edge pinched over his nose, his eyes were brown.
“Is that all?” Briar asked, punching in 2.89 for a medium coffee. The masked man slid exact change forward. The white latex gloves he wore were a size too big, wrinkling his hands into something older.
“You’re Hemlock’s daughter, aren’t you?” His voice was surprisingly undistorted; the mask must be thin.
Briar faltered, meeting his eyes. Brown, like her father’s. With half of his face hidden, he could have been Hemlock in another age. Briar nodded slowly, her thoughts straying to the witches. Scrapes on her calves from running through the woods, arriving too late to save him, her father’s body twitching in the brambles. The witches snatching him away even as the Virus spilled into the air, too fast for them to catch and bottle and bury.
She blinked back the memories, returning to the gas station with its scratched counter, and the man in front of her who didn’t realize that speaking her father’s name was as good as a curse. Hemlock deserved what the witches did to him. The only tragedy was that they came too late.
“Briar,” she said, her mask straining away from the bridge of her nose before settling back, sealing her breath against her lips.
The man in the mask nodded, taking his coffee as she dropped the money into the register drawer. “I’m Rose,” he said.
His name was vaguely familiar but Briar was sure she hadn’t met him before. She thought about pulling the useless mask from his face. Didn’t he know the Virus could fly right through fabric? Her mask was crafted of stretched skin—all the witches had left of her father. She wore it so that at least one piece of him was useful.
She closed the register and met Rose’s eyes. “Did you want something else?” She could tell he was smiling under his mask. Her father had been smiling, too, when he left her mother for the woods that morning. When Briar found him hours later, her legs torn and bleeding from brambles, he wasn’t smiling anymore.
Rose seemed to consider her question, his white beak contorting with each breath. “There are rumors we won’t be able to go out soon. I thought—well, it could get lonely.” He slid a card across the counter. Briar didn’t touch it, watching his gloved hand retreat back over the scratched Formica.
“Have a good one,” she said without feeling.
Rose stepped back from the counter, the little card immobile between them. “You too, Briar.”
The bell over the door jingled as he left. Briar exhaled against her father’s skin and looked down at the card. On it was a phone number, and a name. Rose.
The Quarantine was issued a week later. Briar closed the gas station and drove back to her trailer to wait out the Virus. She sat on her computer and played solitaire to pass the time. Her bills piled up. Wolves moved in from the forest.
Three weeks into the Quarantine, Briar opened the box of her father’s files. She’d burned what remained of his clothing already, but his research remained. She pulled out the first file and opened it. His handwriting covered the pages.
She shredded the first file, then the next. In the third, she found the note.
It was brief, recording the height and weight of one of the alpha wolves Hemlock had been studying. Briar started to feed it into the shredder when recognition stopped her. The curve of the R in Recorded on May 3rd, 8:26 a.m. She’d seen that R before.
She crossed her trailer and grabbed her jacket, tugging Rose’s card from the pocket. She’d forgotten it; otherwise, it would already be in the trash. Briar uncrumpled the card and compared its lettering to the note from her father’s things. It was the same handwriting. She flipped open the next file in the box, rifling through the papers. There, amid her father’s margin notes, she found Rose’s unsteady scrawl.
Briar stood, surrounded by Hemlock’s things. She stared at Rose’s card. Minutes passed.
She picked up her phone and dialed the number. She sat on her futon as the phone rang. He picked up on the third ring.
“You worked with him,” Briar said.
“Briar?” Rose asked. She caught the edge of surprise in his voice, a thread of pleasure knotted between the syllables.
“You knew what he was doing. You knew, and you didn’t stop him.” She was shaking, her knee bouncing violently, unable to keep still.
“We didn’t know what would happen. I just—I wanted you to understand…”
“Did you know him? Like, really know him?” Briar didn’t want sympathy. She didn’t need it, and Hemlock deserved none.
“I—I worked with him on other stuff. Before…”
Briar hung up. A few minutes later, she received a voicemail. She deleted it without listening, then switched her phone to Do Not Disturb.
Two days later, he texted.
Hemlock didn’t mean for this to happen. You need to know that. He wanted to make us stronger.
Briar deleted the message. She blocked Rose’s number and shredded his card with the rest of her father’s research.
After the witches killed Hemlock, the New Wolves appeared.
The huntsmen had been the first to make the mistake of killing a New Wolf. The witches contained most of the Virus when Hemlock died, but when a New Wolf’s blood spilled, the Virus spread. Hundreds were changed before the witches called for the Quarantine.
The witches tried to dissect the New Wolves, like they had Hemlock, but it was useless. They would have to wait until the New Wolves died naturally.
Thirty years. That was how long the Quarantine would last, if no more New Wolves were made.
Six weeks into the Quarantine, Briar tied her mask around her face and left her trailer. A storm rumbled through the clouds as she pulled CAUTION tape aside from the path and walked into the woods. There was a light scent of death in the air.
After almost forty minutes’ walking, Briar arrived at her destination: the witches’ cottage. It was a small thatched building with crumbling stucco sides. Grapevines twined around the chimney.
Briar followed the uneven stone path up to the door. The forest here was quietest; not even howling disturbed the silence. As she waited, she listened to a leaf’s muffled descent onto the forest floor.
The door opened slowly. Briar met the witches’ eyes. There were three across the forehead, two along the nose, one on either cheek. Two hands gripped the door’s edge while another clutched a teapot, still steaming. Briar glanced up at the smokeless chimney. The witches had other ways of heating water.
“He’s not here,” the witches said. Their voice was quiet, a mustering of echoes barely above a rasped whisper. Too many teeth jutted from their mouth, two tongues waving in turns.
Briar looked at the witches in confusion. “My father is dead. That’s not why I came.”
The witches shook their heads. “You did not come for Hemlock. It is Rose you seek.”
“Rose?” He had tried contacting her on every platform. With each notification, Briar blocked him. She didn’t need his attention, his apologies changing into something else.
She finally closed all of her accounts, changed her number, and told her mother to send postcards instead.
“I don’t even know him,” Briar said, her breath condensing against her mask. “I came to ask about a cure. In Hemlock’s notes, he mentioned…”
“The Virus will cease when it wishes,” the witches said. Their eyes blinked at different times. The teapot continued to steam, creating a cloud of warm humidity in the doorway. “We cannot stop it until it chooses to rest. You, Hemlock’s daughter, do not owe us. Leave his mistakes in his past.” They eyed Briar’s mask.
Briar stepped back from the doorway. The temperature dropped, and she shivered. “I thought it was right. It’s the least he could do.”
“No.” The witches held out one hand. “Leave Hemlock with us. He has done enough.”
Condensation cooled on Briar’s face. She reached behind her head, unlacing the strings that held her mask over her face. It came away, taking the last of her father with it. The smell of leather crumpled into the witches’ palms along with the mask.
The witches nodded. They took a step back into the cottage, knotted hands finding the door. As it was closing, they rasped over their shoulder.
“Rose waits for you at the chapel.”
The witches closed the door.
Briar wandered through the forest, heading in the vague direction of the trailer park. She swiped through her deleted messages. Rose had sent so many. I admired Hemlock and his vision. I admire you. She cringed at the wording, the poorly-chosen emojis that followed his confessions. No matter what he claimed, he was complicit in the Virus. He was part of the research. Briar pictured him slipping into her father’s notes, circling wolf studies and evolutionary theories. She thought about the witches’ words.
There was no cure. And yet…should she have saved something? Buried in all that she’d destroyed, was there a clue? Maybe the witches were wrong. Maybe Hemlock had discovered something more than the Virus he created.
Her face was cold without her mask. No one was around, but she felt naked, unprotected as she had when she found Hemlock, half-changed and dying before he was ever killed. Her path drifted away from the direction of the trailer park. Before she’d fully considered the danger, Briar was on her way to the chapel.
When the ruin revealed itself—masonry bones scattered between the trees—the scent of death filled Briar’s nostrils, strong this time. She slowed, pocketing her phone. The Virus was here.
She wished the witches hadn’t taken her mask. She skirted the edge of the chapel grounds, scanning the spaces between fallen columns, looking for fur. Her mother had said that the smell meant it was too late, she was already infected. But Briar had smelled it many times before and survived. She remembered her father, flailing as he changed. She had been so close then and lived. The witches had lived.
Shadows pockmarked the landscape. Shirt tugged up over her nose, Briar made her way to the sunken cemetery. Headstones jutted at drunken angles, the graves they guarded sucked down by the earth.
Between two stones, she saw him. He still wore the pleated mask with its paper snout. But the latex gloves were shredded, black nails peeking through the tears like sprouts through soil.
Rose’s body was broken into a new shape, grey hair spread over him like a film of mold. The Virus hung in the air around him—around the entire chapel.
His brown eyes, so like her father’s, quivered. He looked at her, terror clear in his gaze, like someone about to die. But it wasn’t death that awaited him.
She had never seen it up close. This is what Hemlock must have felt as the witches took him deep into the woods, leaving only fragments for Briar to stitch or shred.
Briar was infected long before she knelt on the moss beside Rose.
She may not have changed, but the Virus lived in her—in her memories, and his remnants. She thought his notes held answers, but there were none.
“I’m sorry,” she said, surprised at the tears in her eyes. She’d dropped the hem of her shirt, breathing the Virus fully, letting it twist her body as it twisted his. Was she grieving for Rose? Or was she grieving for all the New Wolves, and the future they faced?
Briar peeled what was left of the gloves from his paws. She untied his mask and drew it away from his face. His altered hands would fumble with the strings, and he needed to eat. His jaws free, he opened and closed them, yellow teeth glistening.
She remembered her father’s hands, before they changed.
Briar didn’t love him. She didn’t even love herself.
She tied his mask around her face and stood, breathing through fabric too thin to keep away the scent of decay. He shook as the Virus finished its work. Briar stood against the chapel wall, witness. There was no cure. Remembering was all she had to offer.
When the change was complete, he stood and howled.
She spent two days by the chapel, waiting for the Virus to take her. When her hands remained unchanged and her body ached with hunger, she walked back to her trailer. She wasn’t sure where else to go.
The CAUTION tape that separated the forest from the trailer park lay on the ground, ripped apart.
The inside of her trailer smelled of damp and disuse. Briar untied Rose’s mask from her face and laid it to the side of the sink. She looked up into the mirror.
Yellow eyes stared back.
The Quarantine continued. Briar’s eyes stayed yellow, her skin human. Gradually, she stopped wondering when she would change. She had become all she would become.
She wore the mask each day, tying it over her nose and mouth. At night, she sat by the window and watched the forest.
When the moon rose, the New Wolves gathered at the edge of the woods. Their eyes glowed in the faint light, rank upon rank of yellow. More came every night.
Briar watched until she found what she was looking for. A single pair of brown eyes, staring back.