(It has come to my attention that my links are off, so I am reposting some book excerpts I can’t find on my site anymore.)
The world puts demands on us. Endure this, it says. Survive this, it dares. However, the higher powers, if there are any, have no understanding of who we are. They arbitrarily deal out trauma, pain, and despair. With each survival, the stakes grow. Survive this.
It wasn’t enough that a freak twist of genetics gave me the painful ability to shift into a wolf. Life had to deal hand after hand at me, giving me little time to adjust or realize where the game would end. There had to be a catch. After years of finding a solitary solace in the velvet of the night, my peace shattered with the appearance of one of my own kind.
He was gray, darker over his snout and across his eyes. The tip of his tail, too, was darker. A raccoon in a lupine shape. He caught me by surprise while I was stalking a rabbit into the brush of the woods.
Wolves are native to parts of Tennessee, but the mountain parts, the wooded parts. Not the muddy, scrubby piece of land next to my parents’ neighborhood that the home builders had cleared, but hadn’t built on yet. He smelled different than the dogs from the neighborhood and the wolves from the zoo. Deep and musky, like only a carnivore can smell, with an accent of the woods. But he smelled like cheeseburgers, too. And lemonade.
He was definitely trouble. The life-changing kind of trouble. My hackles rose, and I crept around him stiff-legged, fur puffed out. He stood between me and my home, on land I’d considered my territory since before I grew fur for the first time. And he wouldn’t leave.
The wolf stood regally, fur slick in the glimmer of the moonlight coming through the trees. Tail high. Dominant, I thought, though before that moment, I’d never put the stance and the idea together. He let me stalk around him and slip into the cover of the few remaining trees. The wolf didn’t move. He just stood, making sure I knew he was there. He wanted to be seen. I never wanted to see another of my own kind. I wanted to hold onto the freedom of being alone and wild a few nights each month.
Which, of course, meant I’d see him again.
I loped across the red mud and over the swollen creek that separated the developed and razed sections of the same neighborhood. I dodged the pools of light under the street lamps because the neighborhood association had rules about loose dogs. Or wolves.
My father had left the garage door open just enough for me to roll under it, into the cool dark of his oversized workshop. I changed back into a human, or as human as I’d ever get, gritting my teeth against the discomfort and ache of my body popping joint from joint, reshaping my frame then healing it back into place. I dug spare jeans and a shirt from a cabinet that once held rags and, ignoring the streaks of red mud that somehow made it all the way past the fur to my skin, I slipped the clothes on before I ventured inside.
There was a time before I started turning into a wolf on the nights of the full moon. As far as my mother and sister knew that’s all there was–an endless, routine-filled life of normalcy. My brother? Well, the first time I shape shifted, three years ago, when I was almost sixteen, it was to save him from drowning in the creek, when he’d fallen from a tree. I’d certainly remember if someone had turned into a big man-wolf, or in my case, woman-wolf, and pulled me from a current that was trying to drown me. But if he did remember, he never said anything. Those moments of sibling sympathy and understanding we used to have ended that spring afternoon. Since then, when he looked at me, his eyes filled with a coldness that I couldn’t melt.
My dad was washing dishes in the kitchen when I entered. Mom was probably putting my little sister, Erin, to bed. Daniel would be hidden in his room, watching television and pretending to do homework. Dad greeted me with a grin and a silly, soap-covered wave. My dad is like an excitable little boy when it’s just him and me, when he wasn’t an overruled shadow of my mother.
“How did it go? What did you do tonight?”
I got my looks from him: tall, a shapeless sort of skinny that my mother finds particularly annoying on a daughter, and dark hair and eyes. I got the wolf blood from him too. He was my only confidant, sometimes my only friend, in the half life I live. Because he was the only one who knew. Still, I didn’t want to tell him about the other wolf. Not yet.
“Nothing really. I just ran around in the field. I found a rabbit, but it got away.”
“You’re muddy. You should try to sneak into the bath before your mom realizes you’re home.”
He was a little jealous, I think. He couldn’t slip skins. His grandfather did. But I’m the first in the family since then. He seemed to hold onto the hope that he might become a wolf one night. Out of everything I’d done, being a wolf–the thing I was born with, not something I had achieved–garnered the most attention and the most pride from him.
He gave me a kiss on the head, because he was still tall enough to do that, before I slipped into the cavernous house. Avoiding my mother came naturally after nineteen years. Daniel and I used to band together to support each other under her implacable attitude, but these days he seems like a ghost in the family. My little sister on the other hand, was Mom’s mirror.
And me, I was just the family werewolf.
When I wasn’t shape shifting, life was pretty ordinary. I lived with my parents in a large home in the rolling hills of Tennessee. I was the oldest of three kids, but I felt like I was just filling space in the family until my mother could think of a better use for it. Until then, I was a free baby sitter.
I graduated and sort of kept going without changing much at all. I had barely given high school a thought since I left, except for the occasional flashback dream where I plead with my teachers that I had already graduated, and didn’t need to take that test. I didn’t remember seeing any of my classmates since senior year, and to be honest, I didn’t really miss them.
I did have a job. I wasn’t just an adult child living at home. I worked at the Belle, Liberty’s local paper. I’m not sure it would even count as work experience if I tried to get a job at a larger paper because most of those places require degrees.
I was staff photographer. Yes, the staff photographer. It was a very small paper, and I’d been the assistant photographer for four years when my boss retired. I had been working there as long as I’d been shifting shapes.
As I was leaving work one night, walking toward my car, I saw a man watching me. I’d noticed him before, at lunch, when I sat on a stone bench in the shade of a little garden nestled in the curve of the paper’s building. He was sitting in a car, in the driver’s seat, but with the door open, long legs hanging out. The paper shares a parking lot with a mini mall plaza. There’s no security, not even a fence between the two, so I barely gave him a look then. My lunch was also delicious and a light breeze had risen, swooping along the brick and into the little garden, rustling the summer leaves and my hair.
And here he was again, hours later, leaning against the same metallic green sedan. The glare of the sun had bleached his hair nearly white, and the distance made it hard to make out his features, even with my glasses. He was tall, with broad-shoulders and richly tanned skin peeking out of his loose-fitting clothes.
For a moment, I froze again. I looked human, but the thoughts running through my head were much the same in flesh or fur. Did he pose a danger? Was I overreacting? Was I under-reacting? Did I really want him to see which car I climbed into? Was there another way out of the parking lot?
I scoffed at myself and climbed into my dirty white compact, keeping an eye on the blond man. Paranoia rising, I drove over to the shopping center and stopped at the bookstore instead of going home. I didn’t see if he followed me, but I couldn’t settle down. Plus, I didn’t want to go home, where my agitated mother would be making dinner. That would be setting myself up for a bad night.
I was sitting on the floor, my back against a shelf, reading the first chapter of a mystery when I saw him again. The same shock of blond hair, the same long legs and arms, the same tanned skin. He wore stringy cut-off jean shorts and a green T-shirt. This close, I could see it had a stain on it. Stubble speckled his chin. Sweat beaded on his skin from standing out in the sun all day. I took in the lean, well-defined wrap of muscle over his frame. In the cool circulation of the store’s air conditioner, I could smell him, the same carnivore musk and cheeseburger smell I’d scented the night before.
A very inhuman snarl escaped my lips before I could stop it. He gazed at me. I pulled myself into a half-defensive, half-furious crouch.
“Shush, I’m not here to hurt you.”
I didn’t believe him. I knew what I could do, whether the moon was full or not. I knew how strong I was and how fast. And, to be honest, I’d read a lot of books about werewolves and someone was always fighting or kidnapping–or mating with–someone else.
He slipped between the shelves and fell into an easy crouch. We were only a few inches apart in height. I couldn’t help sizing him up as he stared at me, probably doing the same thing. The wolf prickled under my skin. Pressure built on my muscles. I was only used to feeling this way in the hour or so before a monthly shift. My fingertips and gums hurt. They felt like sharpened edges–not just parts of my body.
He moved right up against me and embraced me as if I were a friend. “Don’t change here. There are rules against it, and if you break them I won’t be able to help you. I’ll have to enforce the law.”
Rules, laws. Of course there were rules and laws. I’d known that as soon as I saw him in the woods. Days of running wild and free in the forgotten bits of the human world were over. Already I mourned them.
An employee walked by, then paused and backpedaled. “Can I help you find anything?”
“No,” the man said, giving a smile to the blue-frocked woman. “I just spotted my friend here. I haven’t seen her in a while.”
The employee kept her cheerful, soliciting smile. “We have a reading area…”
“It was full,” I said with a polite smile. The man hung his hands on his bent knees and tossed his hair out of his eyes.
“As long as you’re all right…”
The man nodded. I waved the book in my hand. The employee walked on. I gave her two seconds then turned on my stalker. “Who the hell are you? Why are you following me?”
“My name is Rick. I’m the pack leader here.”
“Yes, and I’m rather curious why you didn’t show proper courtesy and introduce yourself when you came into my territory.”
“Introduce myself? I didn’t come into the area. I was born in Chattanooga. We’ve lived in Liberty since I was three.”
“And it never occurred to you…”
“Nika,” I said.
“Nika, it never occurred to you to look for other people like you?”
“I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Hadn’t thought about it?” Rick looked like he didn’t believe me. But from the first time I changed, the only werewolf thoughts that came to me were hiding it from my mother, and surges of longing or excitement, depending on what time of the lunar month it was.
“No, I didn’t. Besides how do you go around asking people if they’re a werewolf or not?”
“You thought you were the only one?” He touched me then, as if he had permission, as if we’d touched often before. He ran a long-fingered hand down the side of my cheek and tucked my hair back behind my ear.
“Of course not. But…” But I wasn’t sure what it meant. The feeling I’d had when I first saw him in furry form peaked. My voice shook. “I think I rather liked being the only one of my kind.”
Rick smiled. He looked amused. “I think you’ll like having company better.”