By the time I made it up to Blind Jack’s it was late afternoon and the sun hid behind the canopy of verdure above me. The small shack the old man lived in looked like it might fall over or just crumble to pieces. The porch creaked and the wind chimes made of bones gave it an eerie look. There was an eerie feel to it too, a smell of death that always lingered.
“Jack?” I knocked. No answer. “Jack, you there?”
I listened instead. He wasn’t one to answer if he didn’t feel like it. The wind blew through the trees in a soft symphony. The chimes hanging from the eaves clattered together. The cats that followed all stayed at the bottom of the hill, all mewling anxiously. Even with the stench of death that surrounded Blind Jack, I could smell them; that same scent that set my hairs standing on end at the Baxter home. It was worse here. My stomach knotted.
“Jack?” I banged on the door this time. The screen recoiled back, rattling. Dust fell off the screen but there was no answer. They’d already been there, I realized. In fact, they were still there. “Shit.”
Running did no good so I just very calmly walked my way back down the hill. Or, as calmly as a knotted stomach and twitchy shoulder blades would allow. At the base of the hill, my pace came to a halt. Ever stood there with the cats circling her feet.
“Do you know that not a single goddamned officer on my squad actually knows where Blind Jack lives?” she said to me. “Not one. They just – and I quote – leave the old coot alone.”
The smell grew stronger and the tattoo on my back burned something fierce. My skin crawled, needing to shed itself for something else. It would be the only way we might stand a chance. Thirteen years ago I’d been too young. Now…
“Well, he is known for violent outbursts,” I said, hooking my arm through hers. “About that drink. I was thinking now.”
“You’re certifiable. How high are you right now?” she said. I looked at her. “Oh yeah, I looked at your record too. Your file is bigger than the files we have for traffic infractions, Mr. Curtis.”
When the burning spread across the whole of my back, I stopped moving. When it shot down my spine, I felt myself go rigid. The cats that had followed from Mrs. Baxter’s hissed and snarled. The wind shifted and the chimes went still. I looked at my chest, at the beads Mrs. Baxter gave me and slipped them off. I put them on Ever instead and shoved her back into her squad car.
“Go to my house. You’ll be safer there. Don’t ask, just do. Dinner and a drink.”
She gave me a look but then blinked as I knew she would. Hazel eyes grew wide with shock, then terror as my skin peeled away and my form shifted. I became one with the world around me, felt the earth beneath me and the sky above. From deep inside my chest came a primal roar that was answered by a series of threatening howls. I dropped to the ground as bones cracked and shifted, the sounds around me resounding in my head.
I thought of my brother and his stupid girlfriend. I thought of Cessa who liked pancakes with sprinkles and was not nearly as stupid as her sister. I thought of Susan and Mike and the countless hours I spent at their bar. I thought of the guitar on my bed and the dreams I’d once had to be a musician instead of a junkie. I thought of the homework for class that was due in two hours; I hadn’t even started it.
“Holy shit!!” I heard though it was an echo into a mind that thought more clearly and along different patterns than it had mere moments before. I stood in front of the squad car, not as a man, but as large cat, facing my enemies with idiotic bravado. Emerging from the woods were three wolves as large as the squad car that roared to life behind me.
I was expecting her to leave. Instead, my now overly sensitive ears rang with the sound of gunshots. She hit all three wolves square in the chest. Not one to overlook a gift, I took advantage of that shock and attacked the leader. I felt the power of my strike across its face. I felt a carnal need to sink teeth into flesh and tear it apart. I came close, tasting the blood of my enemy on my tongue. They’d been trying to get rid of us for ages. I’d be damned if they succeeded on my watch.
Despite Ever’s help, a three-to-one fight was simply not going to go well. They were stronger but I was faster. I lead them on a goose hunt away from Ever and back down the hill. I had the advantage of stalking amongst the trees while they were left to paw at the bark. The closer I got to my home, however, the worse I felt – like a stone of dread that weighed me down.
My nightmares came true when I reached my house ahead of the squad car. I saw my brother beneath one of the wolves still as death. I don’t know that I really thought things through when I jumped on the wretched dog’s back. There were three more still coming down the mountain and I got it in my head to attack a fourth.
It cried out as my claws dug into its flesh and rended it apart. We crashed into the tire towers or rusted cars. This one was far bigger than the other three – the alpha. We had no alpha because we had all forgotten. The only ones left were my brother and I and Blind Jack – – and they’d already gotten Blind Jack. By the looks of my brother, they’d gotten him too so it was just me and I was hardly alpha material. We fought and rolled, the wolf and I. I wondered what nature lovers might make of this fight. A cougar and a wolf the size of small sedans rolling around in a graveyard of old cars and rusted metal skeletons.
I shouldn’t have been thinking about things like that. It gave the wolf the advantage. I felt its’ jaws sink into my shoulder and cried out, wrenching myself around and kicking in a form that was not quite as natural as it should have been. I embraced what I was but skin walking didn’t come easy when one was high; or drunk; or hungover. Either way, I managed to get the stupid wolf off me, knowing it would be mere moments before it gained the upper hand.
Instead, I got to watch my new crush drive her squad car right into the bastard and crush it against the lift in the garage. I panted, limping towards the garage cautiously in case she’d missed. She hadn’t. The bloodied, broken body of a young man was now draped over the hood of her squad car. Perhaps he wasn’t the alpha. Damn.
“I just killed someone,” she said as she stumbled out of the car and leaned against it.
I let a low growl out at Reina as she ran to my brother. He lay in a pool of his own blood, face the color of ash. He was alive, barely, but not well. Reina’s little sister stood sobbing in the doorway with her stuffed bunny clutched in dirty arms. He’d been trying to protect them.
The concern was broken by a series of howls that tore through the area. Ever moved first, then Reina. They struggled but managed to get my brother inside while I remained outside. I needed to focus and recenter. I needed a warding – something that would give me just a little more time.
By the time I got inside, I was covered in dirt, blood, grease, and soot. To my credit, however, I had a wide ring of flames surrounding my house that would burn for a good long while and keep the wolves at bay; might even turn them away with the amount of vinegar I’d poured everywhere.
My arm hurt – no, my arm was numb with pain. That seemed impossible but that was the truth. It just hung there, flesh torn where the wolf had bit down on my shoulder. It showed up differently on my skin than it did in my other form. There were other scratches too, claw marks and bites that would linger.
“Noah needs a doctor,” Reina said. She had tears rolling down her dark face. I just sighed – we weren’t getting out of there any time soon and she knew it. Realistically, my brother would be dead by morning.
“Did he shift?” I asked. She frowned at me.
“What the hell does that -”
“Did he shift?” I repeated with more force. She looked down at him, her face bunching up in pain and disbelief and nodded. I sat on the sofa with my brother and put my hand to his brow. He was cold and clammy, shivering – dying.
Don’t give up on me yet, asshole. You don’t let me give up on you.
Noah twitched but otherwise didn’t move. I looked at the wound and grimaced. It was deep and fatal if not tended to. I sighed, looking at Reina and knew she was entirely useless. I looked at Cessa and saw only fear. I didn’t expect much else out of her – she was only seven.
“Hey,” I said to her. “Do you know where my private box is in my room. The one you found and I made you promise to keep secret?” She nodded. “Can you go find it for me now? Please?”
She nodded again and ran off, eager to do anything but stand there and watch her loved ones fall apart. Reina frowned at me and at the Sheriff who still stood there in silent shock.
“Did you just send my little sister to go get you your drug stash?”
“Yeah and I need you to get me some water and find our first aid kit – or tear up some sheets if we don’t have a kit in here.”
I saw the argument in her golden-brown eyes but shot her a glare of my own that ended the argument before it began. She sneered at me and got up to go do what I asked. That left Ever and my brother. I got more discomfort out of feeling Ever’s eyes on my back than seeing my brother in the state he was in. I knew this was how he had felt when he had found me in the same state thirteen years ago. Our dad had died protecting us from them back then. They were desperate to be rid of us, to take what they wanted. And they would win now that everyone had forgotten and the elders were no longer around to keep the peace that ensured another massacre never happened again.
“Ask,” I said. I didn’t turn around, but the statement was directed at Ever. She flapped her arms at me in exasperation.
“I don’t even know where to start.”
“We all have our secrets, Ever,” I said. “You want to be a girl and I’m really a big cat. Just part of life.”
“That is – – did you really just dumb it down to that level?” she said. I grinned. “There are three GIANT wolves outside! I watched you melt into a giant lion!”
“Cougar,” I corrected, though really it was a form of lion if you read its biological break down but I wasn’t going to get into it with her at that moment. I smelled the vinegar and smoke, heard the howls and sensed their presence. It prickled my shoulder blades too much. I wanted to run out there and rip them all apart but I knew I’d never win. It was a primal need that had existed for time eternal. Somehow, I found myself explaining that to Ever.
There had always been skinwalkers that reached through the Otherworld to this one in order to find a new life by taking over early man. There, in our small little town, we had existed without incident until the massacre of ‘51. Then, suddenly, there needed to be laws and treaties instead of just loosely respected boundaries. It worked for a while. Those laws were broken thirteen years ago. We were the last, my brother and I. Everyone had forgotten because it was too painful to remember and believe. They’d come back to finish the job – and why not? What fight could we possibly put up?
“Everyone in town is like that?” Reina asked. I had not heard her return. She stood with an armful of torn sheets. Cessa had come back too, sitting beside me with a carved wooden box the size of a small footstool.
“They were at one point,” I gruffed. “Most people are still sensitive though. Why do you think they don’t like you? It isn’t cuz of your age, Reina – – you’re one of them. They may not know it, but they feel it.”
“Are you shitting me I cannot-”
“Half-breeds are no less part of the pack,” I cut in. “They can smell you for miles – especially when you’re in heat.”
“You jack-ass.” She tossed the sheets at me and stormed off into the kitchen.
“My sister is always horny,” Cessa explained, looking at Ever. I smiled. I liked Cessa. She was sassy and too smart for seven. She knew what she was and believed instead of running from it like her sister. It was a shame she wasn’t full blooded or she’d have made a great skinwalker. As it was, she’d make a great Seer. She helped me clean Noah’s wound and grind the herbs that would prevent infection and feed him the opioids I had that would take the pain away.
“What’s your favorite restaurant?” I asked, now turning my attention to the wound on my own arm. There was nothing more I could do for my brother. Ever snorted a dry laugh and shook her head.
“Cipriano’s. It’s in the city.” She looked at my arm and cleaned the wound. “Why do you care so much?”
I shrugged. I didn’t want someone from town. I knew them all. It was incestuous and weird. Ever wore a little too much makeup and had an obvious – to me anyway – identity crisis but I wasn’t generally too picky and she was nice besides. I turned into a giant cat and my brother was in a serious relationship with a half-wolf. We had the trifecta on weird in our lives so adding a little more didn’t really hurt any.
At that moment, the snarls and howls outside my house grew louder. I heard hissing from the cats that had stayed on the porch, a warning that my wards were not going to hold until morning like I had hoped. Reina came back into the living room, walking backwards from the kitchen with a bottle of whiskey in her hand.
“They’re kicking dirt up onto the fire,” she said breathlessly. “What the hell do they want?”
“Us,” I said easily. “We’re it. I’m it, really. Noah isn’t a threat to them anymore.”
“Why?” she cried softly. I shrugged. Why not? Wars had been fought for less among men for centuries. We had a lake full of fish and a forest full of good hunting on a ley line. Skinwalkers literally killed for places like this. The wolves were succeeding. Or, so I thought.
We all flinched when we heard the echoing clap of shotguns ringing out into the night. Six shots in rapid succession that could not have possibly come from the same gun.
Ever fumbled for her radio, trying to find the right signal. Not that it was very strong at my house – we barely managed to get cable television.
“This is Sheriff Jackson; Lowry, is that you?”
There was another rain of bullets that were answered by snarls and growls, whimpers or howls. We heard screaming from those that were attacked. I stood to join them but Cessa stopped me, shaking her head. I dropped back down to her level and smiled.
“I have to go, Princess. It isn’t fair for them to fight for us without help. Take care of Noah for me, ok?”
She nodded. I looked at Ever who had the same look of desperation in her hazel eyes. She didn’t want me to go which made me feel a little better.
“Cipriano’s huh?” I said in more of a statement than a question. She smiled. “How ‘bout we start with Denny’s and work our way up to Cipriano’s?”
“Deal,” she chuckled. I walked out my front door after a stern look at Reina. She knew what she had to do. By the time I hit my porch, I’d shed the man and become the animal. To my surprise, there were three more of my kind waiting for me. They had remembered.
Dawn crept up over the edge of the horizon with the fires around my house burning to mere embers. Two of us remained plus five police officers, including Ember and Lowry, and a handful of townsfolk that had come up with shotguns and rifles – Old Man Howard even brought up a pitch fork. Seven wolves were littered across my junk yard, their forms reverted back to the men they walked around as.
Muscles that had been fueled by adrenaline now withered with exhaustion. Pain radiated across my shoulder. I could still smell them on the air, though there were considerably less than there had been a few hours prior. This was not over by any stretch of the word, but it was coming to a draw, at least, for the time being. We all knew it too, waiting on my front porch with solid grips on weapons or twitching tails. The tension still hung in the air, the concern that this was not the only place where a battle had been fought. It went without saying that the click of guns being raised and cocked and the growls of large cats echoed across the junk yard when one of the larger of the wolves stepped forward.
Its fur was grayed, but in a way that gave it a sense of age and wisdom. A large scar ran across its left eye. The other eye was a golden-brown that saw clear through to anyone’s soul. I didn’t want to look at that eye, but I felt like it was my responsibility to be the one to face this wolf. I stepped forward.
I See you, mosi. The voice I Heard was decidedly female. Not sure why that surprised me, but it did.
I See you. I opted not to add a title; no sense pissing her off more. I already felt my lips curl back from sharp teeth that yearned to taste more blood. I couldn’t afford another fight. I would never walk away from it. And then, just like that, she barked and turned back around. The others followed without question, dragging their dead with them.
“Are they leaving?” Ever asked, her voice no louder than a whisper. I had no way to respond to her really. I wasn’t ready to let the beast go, not yet. It felt like a charade. At that moment however, that was what I had. I felt the fur shed off of me, the bones crack and shrink as I lost control of my alternate form. My bare back hit the gravel-pitted ground a few minutes later, ears ringing. Time slowed around me. I felt each granule of dirt and rock beneath me, the coarse threads of my denim jeans against the backs of my legs. I stared up at the sky, watching the sun set it on fire, burning away the darkness.
Had we really won?
Ever spoke to me. I was aware of her on the periphery. My eyes remained focused on the sky above. I had no energy left to move them. Her voice sounded distant to me, overpowered by the continual ringing in my ears. I felt a deep throbbing at my side and across my chest. There was a heaviness that settled around me and blurred my vision until tears rolled out of their edges. I felt them pool in my ears and finally gave in to the weight around me.
It is an odd thing to watch the chaos of panic from an outsider’s perspective, but that was exactly what happened, just as I knew it would. I had no fear of the Otherworld; I walked through it too regularly to fear it. I had no fear of death because we were intimate lovers, constantly courting each other. No one else knew that though. They screamed my name, pounded on my chest, or just clung to each other and waited until the EMTs could get to me; if they got to me.
Things in the Otherworld were different. Colors were brighter in some points, more dull in others. Sounds from the real world did not quite reach through that veil that separated the two realities but the one crystal clear thing that was always heard in the Otherworld was the sound of running water. Not like a shower or waterfall, but a gentle bubbling like that of a creek moving downstream.
I turned to face the creek behind me. Charon waited as He always did. I nodded to him and He nodded back. I’d stood on these shores countless times from my own stupidity.
“Well, well,” came a tantalizingly husky voice. “Elijah Curtis, son of Eloelle; daughter of Omar. Back to Charon’s shores already?”
I bowed to the woman that spoke. It never ceased to amaze me how little we actually knew of the Otherworld. Men fought wars over the right and wrong of their beliefs, hated their neighbor over the pendant on their neck. It was all the same; all of it.
“You come here too often,” she continued. “Too often without guidance. Why?”
I shrugged. I didn’t have a good enough answer. ‘Because I’m a jerk heroine junkie’ just seemed a little … flat.
“Is he here?” I asked. She smirked, dark, full lips no longer just conversational, but predatorial.
“There is a price to pay for all things in the Otherworld, Elijah Curtis, especially for Bast’s children.”
“Has he crossed over yet?” I persisted. She smiled, reaching for my face. Dark fingers caressed my cheek. The scent of her was overwhelming – ginger and dried grass on a damp night. She wore a gown of blood red that simply draped over her perfect form with bangles of gold at her neck and wrists. They shimmered in a light that was neither bright nor dark.
“Will you give payment?” she purred in my ear. I swallowed hard against the sensation it sent down my spine and let out a slow breath.
“Yes,” I whispered. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d struck a deal with spirits of the Otherworld. I did what needed to be done.
She smiled, her hand on my bare shoulder now. Long fingernails were lacquered in black, filed to a point that dug into flesh and then ripped into the muscle with a swift precise motion, drawing my heart into her hand. I cried out, dropping to my knees, watching from above where I would be for the next year, a prisoner to the demons of the Otherworld.
On the sofa, in my living room, beneath a pile of blood-soaked rags, my brother gasped with renewed life.