|The Long Night's Journey Into Morning
by Raven Blackmane
© Raven Blackmane -- all rights reserved
Raven opened the door to her apartment, walked inside, and promptly crashed on the nearby couch, letting her briefcase fall to the floor beside her. A small "why me?" groan mixed with a sigh escaped her short lupine muzzle, as she kicked off her shoes and rubbed her feet against the coarse fabric of the couch's armrest.
She'd just returned from her new job at the university-her official title was "research assistant," but what this amounted to was doing all the menial work the tenured scientists detested. It also occasionally meant teaching a section of Biology 101 that none of the professors were interested in-such as the late afternoon session, when sensible people who weren't concerned about earning brownie points with the faculty were off eating dinner. Considering that her lab work and graduate classes combined kept her at the university from six in the morning to about four in the afternoon anyway, it was no surprise that she returned home each day hungry and exhausted.
When she'd recovered her strength a little, Raven got up and slowly walked over to the apartment's little kitchen area. Grabbing a cup of lowfat yogurt from the refrigerator and warming up a cup of herbal tea, she sat down at the small table next to the window and looked over the newspaper while she ate.
The city's main paper, The Daily Sentinel, had no serious competition in the metropolitan area, though there were a few smaller local papers that managed to survive in its shadow. The Sentinel had long established itself as a model of outstanding, credible journalism, and the paper prided itself on its unbiased reporting. Since the paper had started publication in the 1970s, it had come to be regarded on a par with such prestigious publications as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The city was proud of the Sentinel, and for good reason-the paper had earned its respect.
Today's headline caught Raven by surprise, insulated as she had been from the rest of the world since about six o'clock this morning:
EX-PRESIDENT WILLIAMS DIES AT 81
Blinking once at this, Raven read further:
#MINERSVILLE, PA-Jefferey Beauregard
# The passing of Mr. Williams occurred
# Mr. Williams served the first fifteen
# In remarking on the passing of Mr.
# President Williams was impeached after
#Though formal charges were never brought
Raven shook her head in amazement. The impeachment of Jefferey B. Williams had occurred a just few months after her birth, his conviction early in 2004-well before she was a year old. Even today, though, the effects were still being felt. The impeachment of Williams and Stewart had led to a major shakeup in Washington politics, even bigger than that caused by Watergate more than twenty years prior. The disgust at government corruption, she'd learned in her modern history and political science classes, reached critical mass at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Political scandals that had long been thought forgotten by the national media came roaring back with a vengeance. The November 2004 elections saw a turning out of incumbents throughout the United States, on virtually every level of governance, that had never been seen before or since. Political scientists of the mid-Nils had called it "a return to statesmanship."
She snorted derisively at that thought. Some statesmanship. How long was it before these "statesmen" sent 600,000 young men and women off to their deaths in the Indochinese "Police Action"? The only thing that ensured the war's popular support was that the New Indochinese State was arguably even more evil than the Communist governments of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China that we were fighting to protect. The fact that the NIS was led by Huang Singh Li, a fascist dictator roughly on a par with Adolf Hitler in terms of sanity, probably did wonders in upholding public support of the action. People would even fight to protect Communists if you waved the specter of Nazism before their eyes.
The "statesmanship" didn't end with the war, either. More recently, the city had very nearly elected Robert Atwell Barnes to the mayorship. Senator Van der Waals nearly became the state governor. How ironic, thought Raven, that the United States had sacrificed more than half a million lives to fight the racist government of the NIS-and then promptly returned home and placed a bunch of racists in the highest echelons of government. Give people a decade or two and they'd forget anything ... especially with SCABS around to attract their attention away from the lessons they'd learned.
Flipping to the Metro section, Raven saw a headline article on the West Street Shelter. The story featured a large central photograph of Splendor reading to one of the shelter's younger tenants, a scene Raven had to smile about. Since her rescue back in June, Raven had been spending more time at the shelter, helping out and getting to know the woman who had saved her life. Splendor tried to put on a tough persona, but whenever she was around the children ... well, she melted like a Hershey bar on a hot summer day. Naturally when somebody caught this on camera, the image was just too touching not to print-somewhat to Splendor's dismay.
By now she had finished her evening snack, so Raven tossed the empty yogurt cup in the recycling bin, set her mug in the sink, and went to get ready for bed. It was still early, but she would be up early as well; best to get the sleep while she could. Within minutes of hitting the mattress, Raven Blackmane was dead to the world.
At 8:15, she began to change.
When the wolf awoke, she was hungry.
Not hungry in her stomach; that was still full. The wolf was hungry for action.
Hungry for the hunt.
Kicking off the coverings that entrapped her, she jumped off of the soft place and trotted over to where the water was. There was a shiny place on the ground that always held water, she'd learned that from many nights alone in this cage. She drank long and deep, licked her chops, and padded over to the part of the cage which opened and closed.
Looking up at the opener/closer, she saw the shiny lever that came out from it. She knew the shiny lever opened the cage, but when she climbed up on her hindlegs and pawed it, the cage did not open. Once, twice, three times she tried it, to no avail. Sitting down again on her haunches, she whined in frustration.
She could smell exciting things outside the cage-the smell of Human and Cat and Wolf-no, that was Dog, not Wolf. Dog was like Wolf, but it had a sickening smell of subservience and immaturity that the wolf found distasteful. Most of all, she smelled freedom.
Out. Must get out.
MUST GET OUT MUST GET OUT MUST GET OUT
The wolf snarled and clawed at the opener/closer, clawed the ground beneath it, threw her body against it, all without effect.
Then the wolf remembered the other special part of the cage.
The place that let light in but kept smells out. The see-through place.
The wolf ran back through the cage, up onto the little cliff that stood beside the see-through place in the cage wall. She saw lights outside, trees and bushes and other plants, and a fence that surrounded all. It was not far to the ground, maybe a body-length. If she could open the see-through place, she would be able to jump out to freedom.
But she could not open the see-through place. She had seen herself do it, when Other Self was in control, but Other Self had human legs and paws and could move things in a way the wolf could not. If she gave control to Other Self, she could open it, but then Other Self would make her stop, and the wolf would not be able to leave her cage and go to freedom.
The wolf sat down and thought. Maybe she didn't have to give all her control to Other Self. Other Self was sleeping now. Maybe the wolf could convince Other Self to let her out if she gave her a little bit of control.
Concentrating, the wolf called out to Other Self.
In her dreams, Raven saw herself in a prison cell. Concrete walls confined her, closed her in. She tried to open the door, but she was locked inside. And the walls seemed to be getting closer, the cell smaller. She would be crushed! She had to get out!
It was then that she saw the window before her. It was a rather ordinary window, much like those in her own ground-floor apartment, with two latches and tracks that let the window slide open sideways, to allow quick escape in case of a fire in the apartment building. Amazingly, the latches were on the inside-not exactly expected in a prison cell. Beyond the window she saw the cool October night beckoning her.
Reaching out her hand to release the latches, she saw that her hand was in fact a paw. Momentarily confused, she soon remembered her SCABS and realized that she must have become more wolfish than usual. She willed her paw to change shape, watching as the digits lengthened, the claws turned to nails, and a much more human-if still furry-hand took form.
The wolf watched as the paw she held out toward the see-through place became like the humans' paws, her foreleg like a human foreleg. In a rush of understanding, she knew what she had to do...
Raven released the latches on the window and slid it to the right, exposing her to the chill autumn night. She lowered her hand, and it immediately re-formed back into a wolfish paw. In the surreal domain of her dreams, without any thought for the waking world, Raven stepped out into the night ... into freedom...
It had worked! The wolf's heart leaped in her chest for joy, as she jumped to the ground below and ran out into the night, thrilling at the chill bite of the evening wind against her wet black nose. There was excitement on that wind, and freedom...
... and prey.
The wolf ran off in pursuit of an interesting scent, oblivious to the fact that she was running the streets of a city suburb on the night of All Hallow's Eve.
Brian Coe pulled his coat around him tighter, as another freezing October wind blew through the streets. Walking beside him, his old friend Jon Sleeper paid no heed to the icy blast, though in his fullmorph whitetail deer form he had far less protection from the elements than Brian currently did. Jon's whole attention was focused on the girl skipping merrily ahead of them, a bag full of candies clutched in her hand.
Grace Sleeper. Her name and her being were one; the little fawn-girl-still so young, yet already a nearly-physically mature whitetail morph-was the embodiment of grace and beauty. Another warm smile came unbidden to Brian's face, as it had thousands of times since Grace had entered his life. If all the innocence and childlike beauty in the history of the universe could be distilled and infused into the soul of one being, Brian could not imagine that person looking much different from the child who pranced before him now.
To say Jon was protective of his stepdaughter would be an understatement of laughable proportions. Late October was the height of the Rut-that breeding season when hormones overrode a deermorph's logical mind, and short tempers were the order of the day. Naturally, Jon and Brian had both been concerned when Grace announced that she wanted to go trick-or-treating: Jon because he was worried for Grace's safety, and Brian because he was worried about the safety of anyone who got within twenty yards of Grace and her currently irritable stepfather. He volunteered to accompany them on the outing, as a precaution against misunderstandings and tempers flaring out of control.
"Awfully cold tonight, isn't it?" Brian remarked casually.
"Mmph." An animalistic grunt was all he got in reply.
"What do you think it'll be like tomorrow?" Brian persisted, trying to get his meteorologist companion interested in what was usually his passion. "Can we expect any sun?"
::Huh?:: Jon said through his vodor, turning his head abruptly to look at Brian. ::I'm sorry, Brian. What were you saying?::
Brian smiled. "Just trying to get your attention, Jon. You've had tunnel vision ever since we left the house."
Jon exhaled loudly, his nostrils shooting two puffs of steam in the cold night air.
::I suppose you're right,:: he said, as they stopped at the end of a driveway, while Grace walked up to the door to petition for more junk food. ::I just worry, is all. Grace and the twins are the best thing that ever happened to me. I'm afraid I'm going to lose them if I'm not careful.::
"You are careful, Jon. You have been from the moment we found Grace in the forest." His lip twisted wryly. "Sometimes to a fault."
::I know. It's just the Rut, Brian, you know that. Sometimes ... I just can't think straight. It's like my instincts co-opt my brain-all my senses, all my concerns and emotions are magnified a hundred times over. It's ... frustrating, sometimes.::
"I know what you mean," Brian said, watching as Grace returned to them with her goodies in hand. She smiled and took up the lead once more, taking the bag in her mouth and going to full deer form, running and bounding with adolescent energy and childlike enthusiasm. They continued walking, but Grace was getting a little farther ahead of them now.
::Slow down a little, Big Ears,:: Jon called. ::Don't get too far ahead.::
::Okay, Dad,:: Grace called back, slowing her pace to a trot.
The wolf peered through the bushes at the long, wide clearing of hard black ground. She had followed the scent here, and as she looked out to the far side of the clearing, she saw the target of her hunt:
A small, young fawn-well, a yearling, actually, but young nonetheless. The prey animal was trotting along the hard black ground of the clearing, without the protection of the herd. How had this young one gotten separated from her elders?
It did not matter. Prey was prey, and easy prey was best of all. And this easy prey was coming closer.
The wind shifted, and the wolf caught another scent-no, two scents. One was another deer, a large, strong buck. The other was a raccoon. The raccoon was not a threat, but the buck ... the buck could cause trouble. He would be protective of the fawn. Fortunately, as she looked out at the prey animals, she saw that the buck was many body lengths away from the fawn. If she was quick, the wolf could make her kill and be off before the buck could stop her. But the timing would have to be just right...
The wolf crouched beneath the bushes, and waited.
Raven came abruptly awake, when three familiar scents penetrated her brain. Brian. Jon. Grace. She tried to open her eyes, look around...
... and then she realized that the wolf was already awake.
The wolf was awake, and in control of her body.
Through the wolf's eyes, Raven saw and immediately understood: The wolf was on the hunt.
Oh, God, no, Raven thought. Please don't do this. Please.
The wolf heard her, but it did not listen.
The wind shifted, and suddenly Jon and Grace both stopped dead in their tracks. Brian looked up at his friend, who was flicking his ears this way and that.
"What is it?" Brian asked quietly.
::Smell that,:: Jon murmured. ::Does that smell seem ... familiar to you?::
Obligingly, Brian allowed his face to shape into a more raccoonish muzzle, and a fresh explosion of scents burst into his brain. One of them seemed vaguely familiar...
"It reminds me of Wanderer and the Lupine Boys," he remarked, shifting back to a humanoid mouth so he could speak again. "But it's different, somehow. Is that wolf?"
::Exactly like wolf. Pure wolf,:: Jon said. ::But it's not just that. It seems like I know that scent from somewhere before.:: He was beginning to step closer to Grace.
Then a movement in the shadows caught Brian's eye, and he saw the wolf.
"Oh God," he whispered. "Raven."
::What?:: Jon said.
"Grace, get back here!" Brian shouted. "Run, as fast as you can!"
The wolf bolted from the bushes, streaking straight for the fawn like a bolt from a crossbow.
And there was nothing Raven could do about it.
Don't do this, she begged the wolf again. Please don't.
But all the wolf knew was the hunt.
For her part, Grace tried to run. But for a few, critical seconds, her natural fawn reaction took hold.
And she froze.
"GRACE!" Brian shouted again, as the wolf continued its approach.
This time it sank in. She ran, back toward the protection of her father, back toward those antlers and hooves that would keep the wolf at bay.
She didn't realize that she was still carrying her trick-or-treat bag in her mouth until it tripped up her forelegs.
Grace stumbled, falling to the asphalt and tumbling over the bag.
Jon broke into a full run, but the wolf was closer and just as fast.
Grace scrabbled to her feet immediately, but the fall had given the wolf the opportunity she needed. Lunging, she opened her jaws wide and clamped down hard on the fawn-girl's right rear leg. A quick jerk of the wolf's head, and Grace was yanked into the air and back onto the pavement with a terrified yelp.
There was a sickening sound of crunching bone and rending flesh, accompanied by screams of anguish from the deer-child. Brian could only look on in horrified fascination...
Suddenly Jon was there at Grace's side, bellowing like a mad thing. The wolf looked up in alarm, as the buck lashed out with both hooves at her left flank. The wolf yiped as she went flying like a rag doll...
... and then Brian remembered who was inside that wolf's body.
"JON, WAIT!" he shouted, running to his friend's side. "DON'T KILL HER!"
Jon was oblivious, his rational mind departed for parts unknown. He bellowed in rage as he lashed out, again and again, at the wolf that lay crumpled before him. Desperately, Brian darted between them screamed in the whitetail's face.
The whitetail stopped, puzzled at the intervention of this strange raccoon. Then his human mind seeped back in from the corners of his brain, and recognition dawned.
::Brian?:: he asked.
"Yes, Brian!" the coonish man answered, his voice somewhere between desperation and hysteria. "What are you doing?! Raven Blackmane is inside that wolf, and you just nearly killed her!"
Jon looked down at the body on the ground before him. He blinked in surprise, as the battered wolf took Raven's familiar humanoid shape. After a moment, he realized she was saying something.
"Forgive me ... oh, God, forgive me ... what have I done?"
Two pools of blood formed in the street.
"... lost almost a liter of blood..."
"... unconscious for nearly three..."
"... fairly stable at this point, but..."
"... see her..."
"... no admittance except family..."
"... doesn't have any family, you bloody..."
"... will be all, doctor. Let him through..."
"... seen you in a while, sir. Thank..."
"... insurance refusing to cover..."
"... wake up? ..."
Raven's eyes snapped open wide, compelled by some inner directive. What she saw was a nondescript paneled ceiling with a ventilation fan and a smoke detector ... a view that almost immediately began spinning on her.
The lupine woman groaned and clamped her eyes shut again, turning her attention to her more stable senses. There were still three or four voices talking nearby, and innumerable others not far off in any direction. The voices she'd heard before had grown quieter now, the source of their argument apparently settled.
Raven sniffed the air once to get a better picture of the surroundings. She almost immediately regretted it. The predominant smell was an antiseptic odor with a strong lemon tint ... Nilosol, if her experience as a "research assistant" told her anything.
But that was just the first smell that assaulted her senses-the odors the antiseptic was covering up soon sprang to vivid life behind it:
Urine. Sweat. Body odor. Vomit.
Then there were the other scents, the ones no deodorizer could remove:
Fear. Pain. Sorrow. Sickness. Despair.
Hospitals. Gotta love 'em.
Raven opened her eyes again, and this time the view was fairly stable. Looking around, she saw that she was in a small, one-patient room, with a bed, some machines, a small bedside table, two chairs, a door, a remarkably tasteful artificial plant, and not much else. Looking at herself, she saw an IV tube running from her arm to a bag which probably contained a nutrient solution ... and liberal amounts of painkillers, if the bandages that covered her arms, legs, chest and abdomen were any indication.
There was one other thing she noticed, too:
She was handcuffed to the bed.
She couldn't really blame them, of course. After what her wolfen half had done to Grace...
God, please let her be all right.
Morosely, Raven slumped back against her pillow. It had finally happened. The nightmare she'd always prayed would never come true had finally strode onto the scene of her life, laughing mockingly at her naivete like the villain of an old melodrama. A fellow human being-a child-was injured now, maybe dead ... and it was all her fault.
I, Raven Blackmane, am a predator. It was a sickening thought.
Where would it go from here? Would the police get involved? Would she be arrested for assault and battery-or murder? What would the law say? What was the legal status of a person who shared her body with a deadly hunter?
It didn't matter. She already knew the answer.
I, Raven Blackmane, am a killer.
Idly, she wondered if she was handcuffed as a security measure or a suicide watch.
A knock sounded on the doorframe.
"Mind if I come in?"
She turned her head, feeling only slight pain in doing so. A familiar lupine figure stood in the doorway, his long black cape fluttering with the movements of his tail. One of his hands was concealed behind his back.
Raven smiled. "Hey, Wanderer. Thought I heard you talking out there."
"Yes, well ... suffice it to say that getting in here was quite an ordeal," he said, with only the faintest trace of his faux English accent. He brought his hand out from behind his back, and Raven saw he was holding a small vase with a bouquet of roses in it. He walked in and set it on the table, close to her side.
"Here. The Boys and Lady D and I all chipped in and got these for you," he said, smiling. "Figured this dismal place could use a bit of cheering up."
Raven leaned close to the flowers and sniffed, closing her eyes and savoring the aroma. Compared to the stink of the hospital, this was olfactory ambrosia.
"Thanks, Wand," she said, looking up at him. "Tell Lady D and the others I appreciate it. I'm glad to know I haven't been completely relegated to leper status," she added, with a wry twist of her lip.
Wanderer frowned, pulling up a chair to the bedside and sitting down.
"Is that what you expected to happen?" he asked softly. "That everyone would desert you when you ran into a problem? That we'd forget you, abandon you?" His eyes, bright and shining as always, nonetheless carried deep shades of concern and sorrow.
Raven sighed, lowered her gaze. "I'm sorry, Wanderer. I didn't mean anything by it. It's just, with what I did to Grace..."
"Grace Sleeper is going to be fine." The voice was even, calm, and deep, coming from another figure who was now entering the room. He was a tall reptilian man, in a doctor's lab coat, and carried a presence with him that exuded placidity. He also looked vaguely familiar.
"Ms. Blackmane, I'm Doctor Jerome Standards," the man said, coming to the foot of her bed. "I'm the director of the Scab treatment wing of this hospital. I've been keeping a close eye on both you and Miss Sleeper throughout your stay here."
"I see." A pause. "Don't I know you from somewhere, Dr. Standards?"
Standards returned a small, polite smile. "I once visited the Blind Pig Gin Mill, an establishment I understand you visit frequently. You may have seen me while I was there."
"Yeah, that's it," Raven said, nodding slightly. "Weren't you with that blind guy, the wolf with the guide dog? The one who wanted to talk to Dr. Bob?"
Standards grimaced. "I was briefly affiliated with Mr. Darkwolf, yes. Mercifully, that time has now passed."
"You were saying something about Grace?" Wanderer prompted.
The crocodilian man nodded once. "As I was saying, Grace Sleeper is going to be fine. She suffered severe trauma to one leg, slight fractures in a few other places and a mild concussion, but we anticipate a full recovery in time. Miss Sleeper, in fact, was in better shape when she arrived than you were, Ms. Blackmane."
Raven's eyebrows went up. "How bad was it?"
Standards sighed. "Eight broken ribs, a punctured lung, internal bleeding, moderate damage to the liver, a pierced diaphragm, one kidney completely inoperative, a moderate concussion..."
"... and a partridge in a pear tree. I get the idea."
"Thirty years ago, you probably would have been a lost cause, Ms. Blackmane. Being mauled by a full-grown whitetail buck is not an easy thing to endure under any circumstances, but your low body mass in wolf form made it even worse. You have been in a coma for the past three weeks while we worked to stabilize your condition."
Raven whistled softly. "That must have racked up a pretty large bill," she noted.
"Your medical fees will not be a concern, Ms. Blackmane." Yet another new voice from the door. Wanderer turned to look, and a growl sounded low in his throat.
The man was dressed in a dark pinstriped wool suit, a matching beret, and appropriately stylish dress shoes. A pair of very dark sunglasses sat on the bridge of his lupine muzzle.
"You? What are you doing here?" Raven demanded, confused.
"And a pleasant hello to you, too, Raven," the lupine man said, striding into the room. He turned his attention momentarily to Dr. Standards.
"Good to see you again, Jerome," he said, with false tones of warmth. "I trust you're enjoying your work here."
"It suits my purposes," Standards said evenly.
"What do you want, Darkwolf?" Wanderer demanded.
Darkwolf removed his sunglasses and placed them in his jacket pocket.
"As I was saying, Mr. Wanderer, Raven's hospital bill has been handled... as have the reporters and the police. As far as everyone is concerned, Grace Sleeper was attacked by a wolf hybrid which escaped from a private breeder."
"Everyone except Brian Coe and the Sleepers, you mean," Raven answered harshly.
"Mr. and Mrs. Sleeper have declined to press charges, Ms. Blackmane," Darkwolf replied, fixing her with those piercing eyes of his. "Rest assured that my associates and I had nothing to do with that decision," he said seriously.
Raven studied him for a moment.
"Why are you helping me?" she asked at last.
Darkwolf took a step forward and sat down on the edge of the bed opposite Wanderer.
"Can you imagine what would happen if the news media got word that a wolf Scab-a woman who otherwise seemed perfectly normal, sane, and rational-had attacked a child?" he asked, a quiet intensity behind his words. "Can you picture the way this would be portrayed by anti-Scab activists? Your particular case seems to be the exception to the rule, Raven, but that would hardly stop groups like Humans First from reappearing-boldly declaring that this was proof that every Scab was a lethal weapon in disguise. That every Scab, no matter how passive he or she may seem, is really a living powder keg-just waiting to ignite."
"And here we thought Barnes was bad," Wanderer murmured.
"Barnes couldn't have held a candle to what this would bring forth," Darkwolf laughed bitterly. "We might very well see a rebirth of the Japanese-American 'Relocation Centers' of the Second World War."
"Concentration camps?" Raven breathed, incredulous. "Because of me?"
"The world's eye is on this metropolis, Raven," Darkwolf said. "You've progressed farther here in the area of norm/Scab relations than any other major city on Earth. Governments of a hundred different nations have operatives here, watching. Waiting to see if the great experiment of Scab assimilation will work." He glanced down at his clawed hands, folded on his lap before him. "Naturally," he added, looking back up at her, "I intend to do everything in my considerable power to make sure that it does."
Darkwolf leaned back against the foot-board of the bed, looking directly into Raven's eyes. Unconsciously, she found herself returning the gaze with the same intensity. There was something in this man's eyes which she found highly disturbing-the spark of some unimaginable fire that burned deep within him. Raven didn't know quite what to make of it, but the effect was both enchanting and frightening.
"Of course," Darkwolf added smoothly, his gaze not wavering an inch, "there are other reasons I do this."
The words didn't register for a moment; Raven found herself lost, entrapped in those eyes. They were beautiful-a combination of the best qualities of human and lupine eyes-but they glinted with an inner power that she could not hope to fathom. It seemed as if the fire just behind those shining orbs threatened to burst forth and consume her.
Finally shaking herself from Darkwolf's hypnotic power, she asked, "What reasons?"
"Personal ones," the man replied softly, lowering his gaze a little. "Don't worry about them."
Was that a sigh Raven just heard escape Darkwolf's muzzle?
Wanderer looked at Raven, seeing the emotional confusion written on her face, then back at Darkwolf. There, he saw something he'd never seen in this man before-nothing he would have expected from a man whose infrequent visits to the Blind Pig invariably rode a knife's edge between intrigue and open disaster.
He saw actual, real emotion.
It was just a glimmer-quickly concealed again by the man's polished facade, so quickly that Raven probably didn't even notice-but it was real emotion, nonetheless. In a flash of insight, Wanderer knew that, on some level, Darkwolf actually cared about Raven. Maybe not for any reason but the preservation of the Scab race, but in some way he did care. Could it be that this man wasn't completely the reprehensible fellow he seemed to be?
Don't hold your breath, old boy, Wanderer quickly told himself. But we'll see.
His composure now fully recovered, Darkwolf rose to his feet and headed for the door.
As he passed Dr. Standards, he casually said, "Charge Ms. Blackmane's bill to my account, won't you Jerome?" He turned to go.
"Wait." Raven's voice was firm. Apparently she had recovered her composure, as well.
Slowly, Darkwolf's head turned, until he fixed Raven with one of those bright, cold eyes.
"What about Grace?" Raven demanded. "Do you think that her parents can afford the costs of reconstructive surgery? She's the victim here, not me. I don't want your help if you won't help her as well."
There was an uncomfortable silence, as Darkwolf continued to watch her. Raven noticed something about the way he was looking at her, this time-something that had changed as he continued to hold her in his gaze. Before the man's eyes had seemed fiery, intense, and insurmountable, but now-now they seemed...
Why a man like Darkwolf would feel vulnerable, especially in a setting like this, Raven had no idea-but she had no intention of wasting such an opportunity. She stared back at him, her pale blue eyes matching every strength, confronting every weakness.
The lupine man turned abruptly away, breaking the link that had formed between them. For a moment, he looked like he was going to say something to Wanderer, but he stopped before any word emerged from his throat. Instead, he nodded once in acknowledgement to the caped lupine. Wanderer returned the gesture politely, his eyes never departing from the dark-suited man.
Darkwolf turned his eyes to the doctor, who had remained virtually motionless through the entire exchange. When he spoke, it was in an uncharacteristically low voice.
"Dr. Standards," he said quietly, slowly. "See that Miss Sleeper's bill is also charged to my account."
The man left without another word.
"'Briefly' acquainted, eh?" Wanderer asked, eyeing Dr. Standards.
The reptilian man said nothing, but he looked distinctly uncomfortable.
Another awkward silence.
"Doctor Standards?" Raven asked, looking up at him. "Is there a chance you can unlatch these cuffs?"
Standards started, as if from a daydream, then calmly walked to her bed, took a key from his coat pocket, and unlocked the handcuffs. Raven rubbed each of her wrists a few times, then swung her legs over the side of the bed. Carefully, she rose to her feet, testing to see if they would still support her weight. Amazingly, they did. Her arms, legs, and everything else were sore, but she could apparently stand up.
"I would recommend that you restrict your activity level for the next month or so, Ms. Blackmane," Standards said. "For the next week, in particular, I would recommend no more than six hours of being up and about at a time. You should take naps frequently, and under no circumstances should you attempt to drive or operate heavy machinery."
"What if the wolf comes back?" Raven asked. "How am I supposed to sleep without her taking control?"
"Your wolf mind operates on a separate brainwave pattern from your human mind," Standards explained. "It's isolated to specific areas of your cerebral cortex. For the next two weeks, when you'll need to spend the most time in recovery, I can give you a medication that will suppress the wolfen centers of your brain."
"But it isn't a permanent answer. Prolonged usage of the drug will cause lasting damage to your nervous system. You have two weeks to find a way to control or contain the wolf."
Raven nodded, but she inwardly wondered if such a thing was possible. If the wolf had used Raven's intelligence to escape as easily as Raven used the wolf's senses, what short of prison would keep the wolf inside?
"What about painkillers?" she asked, changing the subject.
"We've been slowly reducing your feed of morphine for the past week," Standards said. "Despite your well-wrapped appearance, most of the initial healing is done. Any pain you have from this point on can be handled with normal prescription analgesics. I'll be sure to give you a prescription before you check out."
"Sounds good," Raven said, sitting down again on the bed. Gesturing at the IV, she smiled and asked: "Now, could you unplug me here, Doc? And Wanderer-see if you can find me some decent clothes, willya?"
Raven stood at the hospital reception desk, her tail twitching nervously as she clutched the vase full of roses close to her chest. Wanderer and Lady Death had graciously gone out to her apartment and collected enough clean clothes to get Raven back on the right side of decency again. Their selection was sensible enough-jeans, sneakers, and a purple mock turtleneck-and now Lady D had offered to let Raven stay at her apartment until she'd finished recovering.
"After all," she'd said, "what if you had a relapse or something, and needed to get to the hospital? You won't be able to drive with the medicines you're taking."
Raven smiled, thinking of how much like a mother or a big sister Antoinette had become since she'd met her back in June. She and Wanderer were perfect for each other, and Raven was glad things were working out well for them.
"Here you go, ma'am," said the receptionist, handing Raven back her driver's license-Raven's purse being another necessity Wanderer and Antoinette had recovered for her. True to his word, the enigmatic Darkwolf had made sure the bill was paid by the time Raven checked out, which was especially important since the insurance company had refused to cover her expenses. Not that she blamed them; after all, the story that she'd been attacked by a white-tailed deer in the middle of the city strained credulity, to say the least. And since she wasn't about to turn in Jon Sleeper for attempted murder, any more than he was going to turn in Raven for attacking Grace ... well, Darkwolf's machinations made things much easier for everyone.
Everyone, except maybe Grace.
Raven felt another pang of guilt. "Thank you," she told the receptionist, adding, "Can you tell me what room Grace Sleeper is in?"
"Let me see," the receptionist replied, typing something into her computer. "Are you a friend of the family?"
Another twist of the knife. "I hope so," Raven murmured.
The woman behind the desk gave a small frown. "Hmm. Well, it says here that the Sleepers left Grace in the care of one Dr. Brian Coe for today. I'll have to get permission for you to see her."
The receptionist picked up the phone and keyed in for one of the internal lines. After a moment, she said, "Yes, Dr. Coe? A woman named Raven Blackmane is asking if she can see Grace Sleeper."
For a few seconds, there was silence on the other end of the line. Then Raven's ears caught Brian's voice as it came from the handset.
"Send her up," he said.
Raven hesitated outside the door to Grace's room. Closing her eyes, she told herself, Okay. Just remain calm. I can do this. I just need to make sure she's really all right.
As she reached for the door handle, the door opened quietly. Brian, who must have heard or smelled her approach, stood there trying to look calm and collected. The black mask of fur around his eyes, however, clearly showed he was nervous.
He smiled tightly. "Glad to see you're doing better," he said softly. "Come on in, Grace is asleep right now."
Raven took a few uncertain steps into the room, saw the young girl's head sticking out from beneath the covers. Raven immediately took note of the shape of the head.
"She's still in full morph," she observed quietly.
"The doctors were afraid that the leg wouldn't shift properly if she changed form," Brian agreed. "They want to wait until it's completely healed."
"How long do they think that'll take?"
The raccoon morph shrugged. "They aren't sure. It's pretty touch-and-go right now, until they see how the bones heal. Months, certainly, but they figure she'll walk again."
"Can I..." Raven swallowed. "Can I see what it looks like?"
Brian studied her for a moment. "Are you sure you want to do that?"
Raven closed her eyes and nodded. Then, steeling her resolve, she opened her eyes and looked as Brian slowly pulled back the bottom corner of the sheet.
Her breath caught in her throat.
Grace's leg was covered with a monstrous array of bandages, wraps, braces and supports, a conglomeration of gauze and cloth and steel which extended from the tip of her hoof to cover her entire pelvic girdle. A smaller brace and bandage setup was affixed to the girl's left leg. The entire mass of equipment enveloping Grace's little body brought up haunting images of ancient mummies, or the laboratory of Doctor Frankenstein.
And she was responsible for all of it.
"Oh, God..." Raven whispered, tears welling up in her eyes. "Grace..."
Then, as if on cue, the fawn-girl opened her eyes.
And saw her assailant.
For a moment, there was only confusion, a dim sleepiness. But then recognition dawned, and Grace knew the wolf had returned.
Surprisingly, the girl made no sound. But the sight of Grace tightening every muscle of her little body, freezing in her position ... and her eyes ... God, those eyes, fixed wide in horror...
"I ... I'm-sorry," Raven choked as she ran out the door.
"Raven, wait!" Brian called after her, running to the door and looking out down the corridor.
But only a line of teardrops on the floor marked the woman's passing.
"... the latest in a string of baffling animal attacks that have plagued the city since October. The first such attack, on a Scab teenager named Grace Sleeper, was investigated for weeks by local police before it was finally ruled the result of an escaped wolf hybrid. Although there are dozens of dog-wolf hybrids in the metropolitan area, law enforcement officials were never able to find the animal responsible, and some concerned citizens are saying that the more recent attacks-on 25 year-old Jodie Miller the night of November 10th, and 15 year-old Samuel Higgins just yesterday-are the continued killing spree of the same escaped predator. Police spokespersons continue to state that the investigation is ongoing, and the hunt for the animal or animals continues. They emphatically deny that feral Scabs are suspected in the attacks, saying only that the offending creatures will be found and caught. Meanwhile, the people of the city remain locked indoors after dusk, wondering if they will be the next to meet the predator's jaws. Susan Belladonna, WKRC Eyewitness News."
Raven Blackmane rose from her prone position and leaned back into the headrest of the couch, idly wondering if the idiocy of the press was deliberately manufactured or the result of some genetic deficiency in the breed. Three animal attacks over the course of a month. All happen to have the marks of feral or near-feral predators. The victims are a deer Scab child from the suburbs, a young woman from the city's community college, and a 15 year-old Racine Avenue gang member who took a bad turn onto West Street. The three attacks occurred in three completely separate neighborhoods. No leads by police investigators at all.
The press calls it a killing spree and implies the whole bloody city could be in mortal danger. Never mind that the creature responsible for the first attack spent the next three weeks in the ICU at Mercy Medical. Never mind that that arrogant, manipulative lupine who dressed like a Blues Brother had made it a point that no leads would be uncovered, at least in the case of Grace Sleeper. Never mind that the media, as usual, had no clue whatsoever about what was actually going on. No, this was violence, this was mayhem, and by the savage gods of journalistic excellence we must have a story out of all this. Facts? Leads? Actual content? Who cares?! This is about ratings!
Raven blinked once and began studying the flecks and spots on the ceiling. As a rule Lady Death-or Antoinette, as Raven preferred to call her-kept a pretty clean apartment, but this was an old building. Some of those spots probably preceded the turn of the century, and by now were so ingrained into the surface that removing them would be virtually impossible without the aid of a belt sander. Heck, most of them looked like spots of water damage in the drywall, irreparable with any amount of scrubbing, polishing or sanding.
Somewhere in a contemplative corner of her mind, Raven speculated that people were like that ceiling. They may try to clean up the nasty bits in themselves, whether driven by some spiritual imperative or a desire for self-improvement-and on the whole, they might succeed admirably. But still, no matter how hard you scrub and spray and sand and grind, there are always those little dark spots here and there. Vicious moles of nature, Hamlet called them. Tragic flaws, waiting to bring on your destruction...
Pride. Avarice. Arrogance. Rage. Overconfidence. Even curiosity. By these tiny termites has many a great oak been brought low.
Vicious moles of nature.
Like the voice that called inside Raven's mind even now...
Other Self, must get out, the wolf pleaded, its quasi-telepathic voice sounding earnest and pleading. The wolf spoke not so much in words as in concepts, pictures, abstracts. But Raven had no trouble getting the message.
Must hunt together. Must feel wind on our face, smell prey in the air, run, be free.
"Why?" Raven demanded harshly, sitting up straight and speaking aloud as she sent the message inward. "So you can attack my friends again?! So you can hurt the ones I care about?! You are never getting out again if I have anything to say about it!"
All at once, Raven could see the wolf's eyes, staring back at her from inside her mind. Bright, piercing, yellow eyes. The spirit of wild nature was gazing at her from within, as if it could bore its way to the outside world through her brain...
"Yes," Raven whispered, transfixed.
The eyes gleamed.
Against her will, Raven found herself loosening her grip on the wolf, as the eyes in her head burned away her strength. A prickly sensation touched her fingertips, as the nails on her hands became longer, sharper-curved, predatory claws...
Then, her face: she felt her muzzle stretching outward, becoming more pronounced, her canines becoming sharper, longer... Raven felt her rational mind begin to melt away at the edges, giving dominance to the primal...
...and then an image sprang anew to her fading mind: Grace Sleeper, an innocent, her body torn and bleeding in the street under the savage ministrations of the wolf.
And Raven knew she could not allow this to happen again. Ever.
Drawing on some previously undiscovered inner reserve of strength, Raven clenched her fists, opened them, then clenched them again. She pressed so hard into her own hands that her nascent claws drew blood.
"No," she said forcefully, through gritted teeth. "You are not coming out again. Never again!" she shouted.
Getting up from the couch, unsteady on her newly digitigrade feet, she half-stumbled, half-ran to the kitchen, where the vials of medicine provided by Dr. Standards were kept in a drawer next to the sink. Antoinette's bathroom had no medicine cabinet, and the kitchen was more quickly accessible in an emergency. Raven braced herself against the counter and fumbled with the drawer handle, her claws getting in the way.
Not much time left, she thought, as the wolf snarled in the back of her mind. I can't hold onto her forever.
Taking from the drawer one of the prepackaged, sterile hypos, she tore open the plastic shrink-wrap and jabbed the needle into her left arm, ignoring the shriek of protest by her tensed muscles. With grim determination she drained the syringe in one go, pulled it out and grabbed one of the wrap-around gauze bandages designed for Scabs whose fur made normal adhesive bandages unusable. After bandaging her arm, she likewise treated her bleeding palms before disposing of the syringe and the wrapper. By the time she was finished, the wolf's voice in her mind had subsided again, and her body had returned to what passed as normal for her.
Still shaken, Raven leaned on the kitchen table and let out a long, shuddering sigh. Things were not going well.
After running out of Grace's hospital room, she'd continued racing through the corridors of Mercy Medical for some time, not knowing or caring where she was headed. Eventually she'd found the women's bathroom, where she locked herself in a stall and wept for what seemed like hours, until Antoinette showed up and talked her into coming out and going home. When they got to Lady D's apartment, Wanderer had made a few calls and found out that, by coincidence, Dr. Derksen was in the neighborhood this week, and could schedule an appointment with Raven and Dr. Bob Stein at the lab. Derksen was the one who'd stabilized Raven upon her arrival at the West Street Shelter-Dr. Bob had been out of town that day on business-and if anyone could figure out how to deal with Raven's bizarre split personality, it would be Bryan and Posti.
Or so they thought. Raven had gone to the initial appointment, spent several hours undergoing a battery of tests, and was told that they'd bring her back in when and if they found anything. In the meantime she was still on (unpaid) medical leave from her job, by Dr. Standards' orders, which meant that spending the next few weeks as Antoinette's houseguest was a virtual necessity. With no paychecks coming in, Raven couldn't afford to pay for groceries, and had to borrow from her meager savings to keep up the rent on her apartment. Too bad the mysterious fellow who'd "handled" her hospital bills wasn't doing the same for her other financial problems.
Furthermore, her hospitalization had lost Raven three weeks of class time at the university, a hopeless deficit to recover from in a Masters' level science program. Her professors had been kind enough to give her Incompletes on her classes for the semester, so her GPA wasn't at risk, but at least the classes would have given her something to focus on during her recovery. As the situation now stood, there was nothing.
In any event, Raven was stuck at home in an unfamiliar apartment, jobless and school-less, sleeping on a futon, waiting for word from Derksen or Stein. And Raven hated waiting.
For as long as she could remember, Raven had felt a constant need to be doing something with herself. Nature hikes, birdwatching, reading, tinkering at her mother's old Steinway piano, hustling the young toughs down at the pool hall, even just sitting out in the middle of the woods and listening to the stream babble as it went by. Those were activities, things to do. Some were more active, some barely distinguishable from doing nothing, but in Raven's mind they were worthwhile because at least she was choosing to do those things. Quiet times were fine, if she was choosing to be quiet. It was the waiting that got to her-the anticipation of something happening, doing nothing ambitious or substantive or interesting because something important was going to happen. That feeling of being stuck in limbo could drive her insane.
Of course, the fact that she was locked in a small flat with a dangerous wolf didn't help matters at all ... and increasingly, that was how she viewed her situation. She'd overreacted at the hospital, calling herself a killer and a predator. That much was obvious to her now. Inside, she was the same woman she had always been-she was just sharing residence with another creature. Looking back on the situation, she wondered how she'd ever convinced herself otherwise. Granted, her life was totally screwed up at the moment-sharing a body with a predator was not a comforting thought-but still, it wasn't like she had attacked Grace. All she had to do now was hang on until Bryan and Posti came up with a way to suppress the wolf.
At this, one of the more cynical parts of her mind chimed in: And what if you run out of Standard's shots before that happens? What if they can't find a way to help you? The wolf isn't just gonna go away, sister.
Raven sighed. Shaking her head, as if the act would clean out the gossamer threads of fear and uncertainty that clouded her mind, she glanced at the clock on the oven display: 1:13 p.m. Only a few minutes had passed since the timer alarm on the TV set had awakened her from her doctor-prescribed afternoon nap. Antoinette wouldn't be home for hours, and Wanderer was, for once, managing to hold down a steady job with the local theatre group. Okay. What do you do on Monday afternoon when you don't have classes or work to do? she asked herself.
Thanksgiving was coming up on Thursday. Wanderer and Antoinette were putting together a bona fide turkey dinner to celebrate the occasion, and Raven, as their quasi-foster daughter, was going to be there, as well. She could go shopping for groceries, but she had a pathetic amount of money in her wallet and no desire to take anything further from her account. Besides, Antoinette knew far better than Raven what she had in mind for the dinner-and Raven had never been much of a cook. The most complicated meal she'd ever succeeded at preparing was bacon and eggs. Raven had always been her father's girl at heart.
Dad. The lupine woman felt a sudden pang of... regret? guilt? sorrow? ...at the mental image of her father that appeared in her mind now. This brought up a whole new range of conflicted feelings. For all her efforts to fit in with the crowd at the Pig-to find a new family for herself-the cruel fact was that her parents were presumably still alive, and she hadn't seen them since her 22nd birthday, four years ago. The holidays were coming, her first in the civilized world since contracting SCABS, and she would spend them without the company of her family. The guilt and the pain flowed faster now, as she tried to imagine what it must have been like for her father that Christmas, his only daughter missing from the big family dinner for the first time...
What did you do when your little girl never came home again, Dad? she wondered. Did you curse yourself for ever teaching me to love the forest? Did you lie awake at night wondering what happened to me? How long did you stay in denial over it? How long before you gave up hope? How many prayers did you send out in vain, that your daughter would be returned to you? When did you go on with your life?
Did you ever go on with your life?
Two lonely teardrops rolled down a grey-furred face.
"I'm sorry, Dad," she whispered aloud, closing her eyes and bowing her head. "Your little girl died out there in the cold Rocky Mountain forests. All that's left is me. Raven Blackmane. A Scab. Everything you feared would happen to your daughter-your worst nightmare-come to life."
A few tears later, a soft noise sounded at the front door, interrupting Raven's reverie.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
At first she had half a mind to just let whomever it was give up and go away, but something told her that was the wrong decision. Curiously, she straightened herself and walked over to the door, wiping the tears off her face on the way.
Peering out the peephole, Raven saw nothing. She grimaced, the thought of pranksters springing to her mind, but just then it sounded again.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
At last she realized the problem, and opened the door. Sure enough-sitting in the door frame, his diminutive body below the range of the peephole, was the coyote form of Doug Linger-or Wiley, to his friends and cohorts in the Lupine Boys.
Raven smiled. That's it, girl, she told herself. Put on a happy face. Smile. Make a joke. Don't show him your pain, he doesn't deserve to be bothered...
"A bit of trouble with the doorknocker, Mr. Wiley, Super Genius?" she asked, looking amused.
Doug's tongue lolled out in what was Canis latrans' best approximation of a grin.
::If I was a Super Genius, you think I'd have come up with a better way to knock on doors,:: he said through his 'vodor. ::Good thing you've got canine hearing or you might never have noticed my tapping.::
"Probably not," Raven conceded, opening the door wide to let the 'yote in. "Come on in, Doug. Lady D won't mind-she's used to folks shedding around here."
Doug did so, taking a seat up on the couch. As Raven walked into the kitchen, she called back to him, "Can I get you anything? There's soda in the 'fridge."
Good girl. Be the nice houseguest. Keep him busy. You know why he's here, but we don't want to have a repeat of the hospital room, now do we?
::A ginger ale would be great, if you've got it,:: the coyote said after a moment's thought.
Raven gave him a funny look as she walked to the refrigerator for the proper item. "Ginger ale? Doesn't that bother your nose a bit? Heck, the stuff made my sinuses burn when I was a norm."
::Yeah,:: Doug agreed, his eyes glinting contentedly. ::But it's a good kind of burning.::
"So... how are things going at the paper's science desk?" Raven asked casually, as she brought him a bowl of Vernors over ice. "They still have you covering that supposed HIV cure everyone's talking about?"
Doug lowered his head, lapped at the soda, sneezed once, and returned his gaze to Raven. She slid into a chair opposite him as he began to speak. "What else? Now they've got me talking to the debunkers, hearing all about how the immunization shot won't work, how the virus has changed again, how the experimental findings weren't solid enough, blah de blah, yadda yadda yadda. Of course, nobody has any real answers yet, so we're just going round in circles until somebody tries the stuff on a human. Until then it's nothing but an intellectual snot fight." The 'yote snorted in disdain. "For goodness' sake, give me a story on the New York bald eagle comeback any day, next to this stuff."
"Ah, the trials of journalism," Raven noted with a smirk.
Doug took another lap at his drink, then looked up at her again. This time his eyes were carrying something behind them, like he was debating whether to say something.
Brace yourself, sister, her cynical voice warned her. Here it comes.
"Y'know, Raven," he began, "I didn't stop by just to get a drink and have you ask me about my job."
Raven looked down at her hands, folded in her lap. "I know."
"The LB's are pretty worried about you, Raven. It's been three days since you came home from the hospital, and you haven't left this apartment since. I wanted to make sure you were still doing all right."
Raven sighed, a sound that seemed to gently hint that she was at the end of her patience. Her voice was disturbingly calm and detached. "Doug, I have spent the last three days waiting for Derksen and Stein to come up with a way to keep my wolfen side under control. I can't work, I've missed too much class time to catch up, and I'm cooped up in a tiny apartment with a homicidal predator that just happens to share my body. The concern is appreciated, but the truth is I'm pretty bloody far from doing all right."
A long, uncomfortable pause.
"And staying here and drowning in self-pity is going to help how?" Doug asked quietly. "Trust me on this one, Raven: when you're depressed and your life sucks, the last thing you want to do is stay by yourself. A lot of things can come out of that, an' none of 'em are good. It's times like these that you need friends the most."
Raven straightened herself in her seat and chewed her lip thoughtfully. If she stayed here, she'd end up wallowing in tears and regret and wouldn't be any closer to accomplishing anything-except getting a runny nose, which was a heck of a lot more distressing to a lupine than most humans could possibly understand. She really wanted to find a way to apologize to Jon and his family, but the Rut was far from over and she sensed it wasn't the right time for that. She wasn't ready to go back to the Blind Pig-the Sleepers might show up, and there were probably plenty of other folks who wouldn't want to be near her at the moment, either. But she'd just taken her medication, and it should be good for a few hours, at least.
Making her decision, she looked back at her pack-mate.
"What did you have in mind?" she asked.
(with special guest writer J. "Channing" Wells)
Act One. Scene Nine.
TIME: The present day. The evening before Thanksgiving.
SETTING: The Entryway of the Holloway home. A large foyer-type of room extending downstage with very little break to an open sitting area including a couch, a table and a rolltop desk. The main staircase extends back and up.
With a perfunctory "clunk," the door opens and the darkish young man walks through, shaking snow from his coat and muffler. His name is Jonathan Holloway. We know John already, from scenes One through Eight.
His mother is already there. Her name is Caroline. She is also known to us. Wife, mother, matriarch and peacekeeper, dedicated social head of the Holloway Family, and all-around Responsible Adult Before Her Time.
Her world has, very quietly, begun to collapse.
And the expression on John's face suggests that matters aren't about to become appreciably better anytime soon.
"Well?" said Caroline, looking up sharply from her newly polished silver.
John Holloway fixed his mother with a withering gaze.
"He... is going... to pick out... a tree."
The expression on John's face might almost have been considered comical on anyone other than John, right then, right there. As it stood, it was simply frightening.
Caroline set down the final spoon with a faint clink. "For Christmas?"
"YES, for bloody Christmas," said John, tossing his coat haphazardly upon the hall rack. "Why the hell else would he be picking out a tree?"
"The poor thing will be dropping needles like rain, come Epiphany," said Caroline. Patiently, she began packing the silver back into the wooden case from whence it came.
John stepped down into the sitting room, a faint cloud of tension following behind him like heavy perfume.
"That's what I told him. Not in so many words, a'course. Earlier and earlier, every fucking year."
"John." Said Caroline, matter-of-factly.
"I'm not saying it's not true. There are other objectionable things in language besides relative falsehood." Quietly, she rose and began walking towards the hall closet. "I was worried about the two of you. For our sake, I'm glad you managed to settle things relatively peaceably."
John simply blinked at her.
Caroline reached the closet, opened it, and removed from its depths a small folding stepstool. "Ah, well," she said. "Best start breaking out the Ornaments."
"Nothing's settled, mom. What are you doing?"
"The Ornaments. Can't have a tree without ornaments, now can you?"
"Why not?" Remarked John, idly, tossing himself onto a nearby chair.
"Well. It would look foolish, for one thing."
"Mom. You're not even done getting ready for Thanksgiving. Why the hell are you breaking out the Christmas ornaments?"
Caroline leaned heavily upon the open door. "Two hours or so from now, your father is going to come home with a big, sawed-down spruce or something, and is going to promptly set it upright in the middle of the foyer. One huge piece of undecorated vegetable matter, smack-dab in the center of the reception area, right where everyone'll be congregating. Are you picturing it, John?"
"Let him decorate the bloody thing, then. Last thing you need right now is another job..."
"Don't be silly, John," said Caroline, removing from the top shelf a simple box whose cellophane lid revealed only the barest hints of the colorful glass therein. "You know I wouldn't trust your father with the Ornaments..."
From her seat in the Van Sciver Arts Institute auditorium, Raven watched the drama unfold on stage. The play, called The Tender Strands of Love, was written and performed by Shylock's Advocates, a predominantly SCABS community theatre troupe created by Tara Bard, a semi-regular of the Pig who was good friends with Wanderer. Raven wasn't sure what her story was-Wanderer didn't talk about it and she was a little afraid to ask-but Tara was apparently finding her feet again after her bout with the Flu.
According to the program she'd received on the way in, Tara was the producer, director and co-author of the play, in addition to playing the role of Caroline. The fact that an apparent norm woman-and a remarkably beautiful one, at that, even with the age-enhancing makeup she now wore for the motherly role-had surrounded herself with a group of Scab actors gave Raven just a little inkling of what had happened to Bard after the Flu. Yet Tara seemed to move and act with all the mannerisms appropriate to her gender. Either Raven was mistaken, or Tara had adapted to her new condition remarkably well. Raven certainly couldn't imagine handling such a scenario with anything approaching ease or decorum. Her lip twisted. I'd probably join the Benedictines and spend the rest of my life as a monk, she thought ironically. Be thankful for small favors, Raven. At least you didn't end up a gendermorph.
She took a sip of her cola, continuing to divide her attentions between the play up on stage and the inner dialogue she was carrying. Really, this had been a terrific idea on Doug's part. Raven had desperately needed to get out among people again, a trait which she attributed largely to her lupine gregariousness. Even with the wolf suppressed, there were some aspects of her human personality that had been irrevocably changed by Scabs. This suddenly discovered need for companionship was probably only one of many such changes.
Raven shook her head suddenly, smiling to herself. Good night, Raven, do you have to always analyze everything so much? one of her inner voices queried, with what sounded like a mix of exasperation and amusement. Just sit back and watch the play! This is the first time you've enjoyed yourself in over a week.
She took her own advice and returned her attention to the play. Her ears swiveled automatically as Doug lowered his head into a bag of popcorn, creating an unavoidable rustling in doing so. The rest of the folks in the audience probably didn't notice, but with her lupine hearing the sound was clear as day.
"Do you mind?!" she hissed at him, with mock irritation that soon gave way to a grin.
Doug looked up at her, a single popcorn kernel stuck to the end of his nose. Raven stifled a giggle as he licked it off with his long canine tongue.
About two-thirds of a second later, it hit her. She'd almost giggled. She never giggled. She hardly ever did it when she was a norm.
She didn't know whether she wanted slap him or kiss him for that.
With a soft chuckle that was more natural to her contralto voice, Raven turned back to the play.
Things had not been improving.
"Whadd'ya mean, "what."
Caroline sorted casually through her precious Ornaments for a moment, hands trembling ever-so-slightly with repressed tension. When she finally spoke, her voice betrayed the slightest of quavers, a faint and barely noticeable crack in the glass facade of her countenance.
"You always end things like that. With that little 'pfft' sound that means you're dead-set convinced everyone else is at fault and you're not going to even bother to explain why."
"Look, Ma, you don't-"
"I am your mother, after all, John-"
"Forget it! Just forget it. You and Dad obviously have the guilt thing down pat-"
Caroline turned to stare full front at John. "Really, Jonathan. What an awful thing to-"
"It's true. I swear you do all of this just to make the rest of us feel guilty. All the goddamn Christmas Cards, all the goddamn Trees, all the goddamn everything. Two reams of 'Holiday Greetings To All' and the biggest damn Tree in the tri-state area. I swear, between the two of you, you're probably the biggest consumers of wood and wood pulp products in the entire state..."
"John." Said Caroline, seeming more stern now than she ever had since the Playwright's eye had begun following her story. "Your Father lives for the Holidays. You know that."
She paused then, her hands trembling slightly.
"I refuse to deny him that, at least."
"Not after last year..."
John's lip twisted in a sneer. "You're making excuses for him again."
"I am not making excuses."
The glass ornament she had been holding fell quietly from her fingers back into the box. Her voice rasping and brittle, she quietly intoned, "Excuses or no, John. It's simply a question of semantics. He does have reasons. Sometimes there are legitimate personal causes for the way that someone behaves, and whether you're calling them 'excuses' or not, they can be justified..."
John removed a cigarette pack from his pocket and began tamping it, avoiding all eye contact. "Not when you use 'em to avoid taking responsibility for your own actions..."
"Your father has been through a lot, John. Give him a little credit, at least..."
John stopped tamping the cigarettes. "I refuse to give him any credit for acting that way towards Su. Excuses or not, that was totally uncalled-"
"We're back to that, then, are we?" Caroline's voice was colder than the imaginary snow outside.
Caught up as she was in the action, it took Raven some time before she noticed something odd. For some reason, the smells around her seemed a lot stronger all of a sudden. She could pick out at least half a dozen distinct colognes and perfumes in the audience-pick out? Heck, they were practically smothering her.
"Yes, we're back to that. We never left it."
And why did they have the sound system turned up so loud all of a sudden? The actors' voices were booming from the speakers so loud that it was starting to actively hurt.
"He tries hard, dear..."
"Not hard enough to avoid making ambiguous sexual questions at dinner..."
Then, bare seconds later, she could sense the emotions of the people around her in the audience. Body chemistry changes in subtle but noticeable ways with one's emotions, and a creature that can sense and interpret these changes can be remarkably empathic under the right circumstances. Since her transformation, Raven had found that this interpretation process came naturally, if she allowed herself to shift close enough to wolf to pick up the smells and hear the changes in pulse and breathing. Right now the crowd was tense, wrapped up in the confrontation that was taking place on stage. The intermission was approaching, and the play was reaching suitably dramatic heights in preparation for it.
"Well. You do have to admit it's rather strange, John, you being involved with..."
But Raven's mind wasn't on the play anymore. It was on the humans around her, tense and edgy...
"What." Repeated John, slightly more loudly.
"Nothing." Said Caroline, abruptly going back to sorting her Ornaments...
Humans? Raven, what are you thinking? You are a human...
"Say it, Mom. My being involved with...?"
Edgy. Nervous. Humans were dangerous when they were nervous. Unpredictable. Better to stay at a distance and let the mood pass. Too risky, exposing yourself like this...
"My being 'involved' with a SC-"
I'm perfectly safe. These humans ... -crap- ... these people around me are just enjoying a good show. They're tense because they're caught up in the story. I'd be tense, too, if these voices in my head would shut up and let me watch the show...
You only have one pack member with you, and he's too small to help much in a fight. You're outnumbered. You're surrounded. If the humans become violent, you won't have an easy escape route...
I don't need an escape route, blast it! These humans won't hurt me. They wouldn't be here, watching a play by a Scab theatre troupe, if they wanted to hurt me. Now let me watch the play, will you?
The words were coming faster and faster now. Somewhere along the way, John had snatched the box of ornaments from Caroline in some kind of a gesture of wrath. He now held them menacingly above the hard tiles of the entryway.
"John." Said Caroline, her voice even. "Now you're just being childish."
"And if I am?" said John. "I am a licensed 'adult' now, mom. I can act this way if I so choose."
"These little histrionics aren't impressing me, John. What are you trying to prove, here? Oh. Wait. Let me guess. You're trying to make a symbolic statement that the 'material trappings of our l-'"
"DAMN IT! This doesn't have to be an anything anymore! It ISN'T a 'statement.' And you wanna know why?"
"I suspect you're going to tell me-"
"If this was a statement, there'd be a reason for it. But you see, there isn't. You're presupposing that I'm doing this for some ulterior motive. You're assuming that everything that goes on has to have a 'reason.'"
Casually, John removed one of the ornaments from the box, rotating it in his fingers.
"I am sick to bloody death of 'reasons.'"
The ornament fell from his fingers and shattered on the tiles at his feet.
"Now, John. Why did you-"
"Why? WHY? Why anything? Why does there have to be a reason?" Another ornament entered John's tenuous grasp. "Why does there have to ALWAYS be a BLOODY FUCKING REASON?"
Caroline rose from the chair, advancing on her son. "John. Please. Just calm down..."
"Why does there have to be a reason why the damned disease did what it did to Su? Why does there have to be a reason why Dad acts the way he does?" Smash.
"JOHN!" shouted Caroline.
Then- "Your father never forgave himself for what he did to that child..."
Quietly, the cat-like girl appeared at the head of the steps...
"More Excuses!" Bellowed John, throwing his hands up in the air in utter disgust.
"Not 'EXCUSES'! REASONS, John, REASONS!"
"Always a Reason! ALWAYS a Reason! Fifteen million wonderful little stories and experiences and anecdotes completely absolving both you and Dad from any whit of blame for how you've ac-"
"STOP IT!" shrieked a voice from the top of the stairs.
Caroline and John fell silent again.
John looked upwards. Caroline looked away.
"Su..." breathed John.
With feline grace, Su descended the staircase, chin held high. "Look. I'm sorry. It's obvious that coming here at all was a mistake. I thought that maybe we could all just ignore this and go on as though nothing had happened. Pretty silly of me, I guess." She walked to the rack and selected her coat from the midst of the garments thereon.
"Su," said John. "Don't-"
"It's all right," she said. "I understand, John. Seems like we've got a simple case of one too many people with one too many hang-ups in the same location, here. Best thing I could do is remove one from the equation. Good night, Mrs. Holloway. Good night, John."
Raven had never heard the term 'eviscerated expression' before, but it happened to be the only possible phrase to describe exactly what passed across John's actor's face at that moment. "Su..." he croaked. "Wait...!"
But she was gone.
A moment of silence passed.
And then, with a low moan that crescendoed into a unhealthy roar, the spirit of John Holloway-given channel through the body of mortal thespian flesh-screamed.
The box of ornaments slammed to the floor with a dull crashing noise.
And then, he too was gone.
Caroline Holloway remained motionless on stage for a moment.
A brief shudder ran through her form.
Then, she moved with quiet, purposeful stride over to the fallen box of ornaments and picked them up. The box tinkled with the muted bell-like tones of broken glass.
She opened it. And looked inside for a long, long time.
Lights. Curtain. The audience rose to its feet in applause, as the intermission began. Raven stood to join them, and wobbled as she noticed her feet were no longer properly seated in her shoes. A moment later, as she steadied herself by grasping the seat in front of her, she realized that this was because her feet had gone digitigrade on her during the performance.
The applause was roaring in her ears, causing her head to throb with pain. The grey threads in her mind coalesced anew, entwining themselves around that core of sensory torment...
The humans are restless, Raven. Unstable. Get out, quickly, before they turn on you...
No... Raven protested weakly. I'm not ... not in danger ... the humans won't hurt me...
You can't take that chance. The survival of the pack is paramount. You have no right to take risks with your life. Find the pack. Warn them of the danger...
"No danger," Raven whispered, shaking her head. "Won't ... hurt me..."
::Hmm?:: Doug asked, his ears perking up at the sound of Raven's voice. She didn't respond.
Humans hurt you before, the grey shroud in her mind said harshly. They trapped you, beat you, put you in chains, did God knows what else to you when you were sedated...
Raven gripped the seat harshly, not noticing as her claws embedded themselves in the upholstery. "Nothing happened when I was sedated," she hissed angrily. "I would have remembered something by now."
::Raven? You okay?:: Doug asked.
Raven didn't hear him-her mind was caught up completely in the grey haze...
But you do remember something, don't you, Raven? Somewhere deep inside, part of you remembers. Part of you knows. You can feel the bile rise in your throat every time you think of those slavers, can't you? You can feel the unnaturally strong urge to tear out their hearts ... and then emasculate their dying bodies with your teeth and claws. Revenge, for the way they shamed you...
"That's not true!" Raven demurred, even as the tears rolled down her cheeks. "The humans ... didn't shame me ... didn't do anything ... I'd remember, I know I would..." A sob. "I know I would..."
Get out, the voice admonished her. Get to safety. Don't let the humans hurt you again...
::Hey, Raven!:: Doug said, tugging gently on the edge of her shirt with his teeth. ::What's the matter? You don't look so good...::
He must have realized the inherent faux pas, because he trailed off just then. But it was enough for Raven to get the message. It was only then that she realized she was physically shaking where she stood.
"I think..." she said slowly, "I need to get some fresh air..."
Raven placed a hand on Doug's withers for support as he guided her out of the auditorium and into an adjoining alley, one unsteady step at a time. The tennis shoes flopped around haphazardly with each step, just barely escaping being left behind entirely. Other folks in the aisles, perhaps recognizing the difficulty Raven was having, politely cleared the way for this unusual duo to pass through. A medium-degree rat Scab standing near the exit helpfully opened the door for them, allowing Doug to continue moving at a steady pace. The 'yote murmured a word of thanks in passing.
As they stepped through the doorway, a cold blast of late November air rushed through the alley, sweeping the scent of the crowd out of their canine nostrils and replacing it with a cacophony of city-scents-smoke and exhaust and oil and grime and garbage left too long in the cans. Unpleasant smells, perhaps, but at least comparatively free of the emotional charge that had filled the auditorium. Doug watched as Raven stood for several seconds, eyes closed, ears fully forward, taking in her surroundings.
He noticed, somewhat uneasily, that she wasn't looking any more human...
::Better?:: he asked, hopefully.
A long, somewhat more relaxed sigh. "Yes, I think so," she said, her eyes still shut. "I'm still not sure what just happened, though."
::Well, take as much time as you need,:: Doug replied, sitting down on his haunches. ::We won't go anywhere until you're ready. I'm sure after everything you've been through it's not surprising that-::
Doug blinked, looked up at the wolfen woman. Her eyes were fixed in an attentive stare at something over Doug's shoulder-um. Well. What would have been his shoulder, anyway. Her ears were flicking back and forth in small, anxious movements.
Then Doug noticed the faint sound of a plastic bag rustling against a metal trashcan. The smell hit him a nanosecond later.
He turned his head to look. Sure enough, a dirty gray and black tabby was emerging from one of the trashcans that sat against the opposite building in the alley. It had the rancid remains of a pork chop in its mouth, and looked rather satisfied with its find. The cat paused next to the can to observe them, blinking once in a typically sophisticated expression of feline disdain for these intruders on its territory. Apparently the animal had no prior experience with wolves and coyotes...
::Uh, Raven,:: Doug said, turning back to face her, ::what exactly are you...::
The rest of the question was unnecessary. Raven Blackmane was crouched before him, every muscle tensed in case a burst of speed should be needed. Her face had gone full lupine, piercing eyes wide with concentration. Wickedly sharp claws tipped the ends of her fingers. At Doug's voice, she fixed her gaze on him.
Hungry. It wasn't a word, per se. Not even a coherent thought. It was a concept, primal in its simplicity and remarkable in its clarity. The message was conveyed entirely through that eye contact, but it screamed in Doug's mind with a telepathic intensity.
Oh, crap. Again.
Raven crept forward past him, heading for the cat. Considering her earlier unsteadiness, her balance on digitigrade feet was now truly remarkable in its sureness. The cat, sensing something amiss, took a few slow steps toward the alley's exit, all the while keeping its eyes fixed firmly on the woman.
Doug knew he had to do something to get her back to reality. He tried words first.
::Raven, snap out of it!:: he said in as loud a voice as his vodor could manage. ::It's a cat, for heaven's sakes. Let it go.::
Raven growled. Stay back, Doug. Again, the message was anything but verbal, but it was as clear as any word of English he'd ever heard. This wasn't working.
Seeing Raven's tail sticking out straight behind her, like a pointer who's found his prey, he sprang up behind her and took it firmly in his teeth. He gave it a good hard tug for added effect.
The result was not quite what he'd been hoping for. Raven snarled savagely at him, whirled, and in the blink of an eye, threw him bodily across the alley.
Raven turned back instantly to search for the Prey. She hungered. She smelled it, heard it hissing, where was it...
... and then she heard Pack-Mate yelp in pain as he landed behind her with a crash.
Raven's humanity snapped back to her with the force of a released crossbow. Where was she? What was happening? Doug yelped, was he hurt?
She spun on the ball of her bare, plantigrade foot and saw Doug lying in a pile of overturned cans and garbage bags. He sat up with a moan, shook himself, and rose unsteadily to his feet.
"Doug! What happened?" Raven asked.
::I'm all right... I think,:: the coyote said, as he stepped carefully out of the pile of refuse. ::The bags broke the force of the fall. I'm a little bruised, but I'll live. Glad to see it worked, at least.::
::Pulling your tail to make you come around.::
"My tail...?" Raven repeated, puzzled, as she turned back the way she'd been facing...
... and saw the cat, cowering between a trashcan and a dumpster.
And suddenly remembered everything.
She'd been hunting the cat. Doug tried to stop her. She threw him-Dear God, was that possible?-She'd nearly gone feral.
And the truly frightening thing was that the wolf had never taken control.
The more she thought it over, the more she was convinced of it. She'd not heard the wolf's voice, not seen the yellow eyes in her mind. She hadn't ceded control at any point. Her actions and memories were her own.
And yet she'd nearly tried to make Mr. Kitty into an afternoon snack.
She looked back at Doug, realizing now the gravity of the situation. What if her throw had tossed him a few feet to the right? He would have hit the brick wall of the Auditorium, probably broken a few bones. His back could even have been broken.
Because of her.
Not the wolf.
Dear God, what am I doing? Doug was only trying to help, and I could have killed him. And the wolf wasn't even awake.
What's happening to me?
"Doug..." she choked. "I..."
There were no words. There was nothing she could say. She was a danger to him-her pack mate, whom she trusted with her life. She was a danger to everyone.
And so, once again, Raven Blackmane faced her problems in what was rapidly becoming the only way she knew how.
By running from them.
"Fear of self is the greatest of all terrors, the deepest of all dread, the commonest of all mistakes. From it grows failure. Because of it, life is a mockery. Out of it comes despair." - David Seabury
"Hello, Raven! Did you enjoy..." Antoinette's voice trailed off suddenly.
Wanderer turned in his chair to face the door to the apartment.
And saw the expression of desperation and terror on Raven's face.
"Oh, dear," he whispered.
Raven stood transfixed in the doorway for several tension-filled seconds, her eyes wide, her jaw working but no sound coming out.
"I-I'm sorry," she said at last. "I didn't expect you to be home so soon. I'd ... I'd better go..." She started to turn to leave.
In a flash, Wanderer was out of his chair and headed for the door. Somewhere inside, he knew something was deeply wrong. If he didn't stop Raven from leaving now, Heaven alone knew what might happen...
"Raven, wait," he said, reaching out to put a hand to her shoulder.
The younger woman recoiled as if struck by a jolt of electricity. "LET ME GO!" she shrieked, spinning to face him with still-terror-filled eyes. She backed up quickly away from him, only to bump up against the wall at the top of the stairwell. With a panicked expression, her head shot this way and that, looking for a way to escape Wanderer's touch.
The wolfman had both his hands on Raven's shoulders now, trying to keep her from running away again. The woman was panting, hard-on the verge of hyperventilation, it seemed.
"Raven, calm down!" Wanderer said, his voice even but loud in an effort to break through Raven's panic attack.
It didn't work. The lupine woman continued to struggle.
Out of options, Wanderer reached up with one hand, held Raven's head gently but firmly in place, and brought his wolfen eyes close to her own.
Calm down. Now. As in Raven's message to Doug, it was not English, nor was it an actual thought. The command was direct and brilliantly clear-the forceful directive of an Alpha leader to his subordinate.
The response was instantaneous and unquestioning. With a soft gasp, Raven shuddered and sank to the floor, pale blue eyes still keeping that subconscious connection with Wanderer. Her breathing slowed, and the glimmer of human intelligence that returned to her gaze told Wanderer that her rational mind was once again functional.
"That's better," he said gently, kneeling to stay at eye level. "Now. Why don't you come inside, and we'll talk about this?"
Raven closed her eyes, nodded once, twice. Taking her hand, Wanderer rose to his feet and helped her do likewise, guiding her into the apartment to sit on the couch. Antoinette was already there; as Raven slid down to a sitting position, the older woman put her arm around her like a comforting mother.
Cradled in Antoinette's arms, Raven told them all that had happened, her words interspersed with sobs and sniffles.
"When I came home ... and saw you were here ... I was afraid. Afraid I would hurt you, the way I hurt Doug." She looked up at Wanderer, who was sitting next to the couch on a kitchen chair. "I don't think I can control myself anymore," she said. "The wolf didn't take control today-it was me, doing that to Doug." She closed her eyes again. "I'm scared," she whispered.
"I understand," he said. "Fortunately, we may have some good news. Our dear Doctor Cockroach called while you were gone. He says that they've completed the tests they ran on you last week. He'd like you to come in for an appointment-tonight, if possible."
The eyes opened again. "I ... I don't know," she said. "What if I end up hurting him, too?"
Wanderer smiled, just a little. "I don't think you need to worry about that," he assured her. "Derksen's exoskeleton is hard enough to deflect teeth and claws. Besides, I'll go with you. We know that your lupine side listens to me-whether it's the wolf itself or just you operating on instinct. I'll help you maintain your composure."
Raven considered this. Wanderer was right-the Alpha-subordinate connection was strong enough for him to keep her under control. And whatever treatment options Derksen may have in mind, she knew she couldn't keep going like this. She really didn't have any choice.
"All right," she said at last. "Let's do it."
As they ate dinner and got ready to leave, Raven grew more optimistic. After all, she reasoned, Derksen and Stein were the world's foremost experts on SCABS and Scab behavior. If they couldn't come up with a solution to a SCABS-related problem, it was doubtful that anyone could.
Raven sat across the desk from Dr. Derksen, nervous and edgy, unconsciously gripping Wanderer's arm for reassurance and avoiding the roach-morph's unreadable compound eyes. Bryan had long ago learned not to take reactions like that personally-it was something that all doctors had to deal with from their patients on occasion, especially patients expecting bad news.
"Miss Blackmane," he began, his antennae twitching uneasily. He wasn't any more thrilled to be giving this news than Raven would be to receive it. "Uh, Raven. I've consulted with a number of outside experts on the subject of your test results, including Dr. Stein. Your condition is not unknown among other SCABS, or even other wolf-morphs. There was substantial information and experience in the journals regarding how it might respond to various treatments.
"Unfortunately... well, there's basically two potential outcomes here. On the one hand, people with a duality such as yours can continue, perhaps indefinitely, as you have been, switching between the two. It's actually psychologically safe to maintain such a split, as far as we can tell."
"Safe for me, perhaps," Raven muttered, her eyes fixed firmly on the desktop in front of her. "What's the other option?"
"Well ... it is possible to force a resolution of the duality, by repressing one of your two sides. Making the two one, as it were..."
"You can make one side dominant?" She looked up at him suddenly, her eyes filled with something approaching hope.
"Er ... no. What I mean is, the two halves of yourself would reach a compromise. Your personality would become a hybrid of wolf and human."
The lupine woman's eyes did not move, but the temperature of her gaze cooled sharply. Noting Raven's suddenly increased tension, above and beyond what she had already been suffering, Derksen hastily continued in an attempt to smooth her nerves.
"Obviously, this is not a particularly good option in cases such as yours. Your wolf side would carry enough baggage to make life in human society difficult, if not impossible. But fortunately, as I said, it is entirely healthy to keep your wolf side separate from your human one. All we need to do is ensure that it is given safe outlet, so that its pressure on your human psyche will be kept managed at safe levels. You've already had a lot of experience with doing this, with only one slip-"
"A slip? A SLIP?!" Raven bit out, jumping half out of her chair and gripping the edges of the desk with suddenly sharp claws. "Is that what you call attempted murder, Dersken?! A SLIP?!"
"Calm down, Raven," Wanderer murmured.
"Like hell, Wand!" she snapped. Then, turning her eyes on the roach-morph-"Let me tell you something, Doc," she hissed, her blue eyes full of cold fire. "Doug Linger was kind enough to take me to the theatre this afternoon. It was the first chance I've had all week to get out around people again. I was happy-perfectly happy-to just sit and watch the show. But you know something?"
She leaned in towards the expressionless insect face, her nose just a whisker's length from his mandibles.
"My wolf didn't think it was such a good idea. And you know what? My human half apparently decided to compromise." She spat the word out, like a rancid morsel of food. "The next thing I know, I'm in the alley outside the theatre-and Doug nearly has a broken back. Because my compromised little Scab-brain decided to chase a cat. A cat! And when Doug tried to stop me, I threw him out of the way." She paused, took a quiet breath. "A good man-a friend-a packmate-was nearly killed because I had ... a slip."
"Raven, please sit down," Wanderer said quietly.
The wolf-woman ignored him. "Dr. Derksen, we need-I need options. Real options. We can't afford even the possibility of a 'slip'. Because all it's going to take is for one innocent person to get killed by this thing, and it's the gas chamber for the whole bloody lot of us." Her eyes narrowed into an even tighter glare. "You know I'm not exaggerating."
Raven felt a hand on her shoulder, the claws just barely reaching through her fur to touch her skin.
"Raven, sit down. Now," Wanderer said. The volume of his voice had not increased, but the firm edge of the order was unmistakable.
With a quiet growl, Raven returned to her seat.
Bryan shifted nervously, taking several seconds to regain his own composure and raise his antennae from the plastered-back posture they had fallen into under Raven's outburst. "I understand your position," he tried to reassure her. "At least, as well as anyone can hope to without experiencing it. And I know neither option is exactly perfect."
Raven gave a derisive snort and Bryan winced. But she restrained herself even before Wanderer's grip on her arm, letting Bryan continue without interruption. "But I'm afraid those are the only options I can offer, and any advice I could give to help you decide is probably not as qualified as your own opinion on the matter. I can put you in contact with some people that could help you make your house more wolf-proof, if that's the way you want to go, or..." Derksen trailed off uncertainly.
Raven suspected she knew why. "An institution, right? One of those places where they cage SCABS too animalistic to live in human society. Locked away, out of sight and out of mind." This time Wanderer also bristled slightly, echoing Raven's sentiment.
Derksen's mouthparts pulled back in an expression that could easily be distaste. "I'm sorry. I have an obligation to present all possibilities, even ones I don't like. If you force your two halves to integrate into one, I suspect a stay at an institution would probably be necessary. Until you'd relearned how to cope with society again." Derksen sighed. "Which would either happen spontaneously or never. Such places don't really offer much in the way of treatment, I'm afraid. We just don't know how."
Raven looked at the roach-man for a few emotionally charged seconds, her face expressionless. Then she sighed-long, deep, a sound of finality. Her eyebrows arched as a tight smile formed on her lupine face.
"So. That's it, then. 'Perhaps.' 'Probably.' 'I don't know.'" She slid her chair back away from the desk as she spoke, and gracefully rose to her feet. "And this from the people who claim to unlock the mysteries of the universe," she added, equal amounts of resignation and bitterness in her voice. She stepped out from between chair and desk and headed slowly for the door to the hallway. "How ironic."
"That's a little unfair, Raven," Derksen said quietly, with what may have been a hurt tone of voice. "SCABS has only been around for less than thirty years. You can't expect instant success on something of this-"
"Is it unfair, Derksen?" Raven countered, stopping and turning swiftly on her heel to face him. "Is it really? Thirty years ago anyone who questioned the 'laws' of science-" she spoke the word with mock pretentiousness "-would have been labeled a kook. A wacko." Her lip twisted a bit at one corner. "A religious zealot, even. But now where are we? SCABS came along and all of a sudden nothing is certain anymore. Conservation of matter and energy? Polymorphs blow it out of the water. Biogenesis? How does that explain a man who can become a chair and then a man again? The brain as the core of the human being? What's the explanation for a person-say, you, for example-who could change into a fly and still maintain your human consciousness? Spontaneity of reactions? Yet we have millions of people who change into animals without a single erg of energy loss-how's that spontaneous?" As she spoke, she counted off each point with her fingers.
A step towards the desk. Those arched brows again. "Can you explain it, Doctor Dersken, theoretical master of SCABS? Can you explain to me how everything we thought was sure and certain has gone down the crap chute? Can you?!"
Dersken gestured helplessly with his middle arms. "We just don't have the answers yet, Raven. We're doing the best we can."
"They're doing the best they can!" Raven laughed bitterly, raising her hands with palms outward and looking toward the ceiling. "Face it, Derksen! We tried to climb our mighty ladder of knowledge to the stars, and nature ripped it out from under us. We've been played for fools."
She focused her gaze on him, that icy fire blazing in her eyes again. "Look at me, Doctor. A shining star in the world of biological science. Four-point-oh's from freshman to graduate. And now I find out that I could be locked away forever because of a virus that doesn't play by the rules!" She pointed a finger at Derksen accusingly, as her voice built to an angry roar. "I gave my life to science, Dersken! To logic and reason and the bloody objectivist way! And you know what I got in return?! Mother Nature said, "SCREW you, sister!! Your rules don't apply anymore!!!"
The lupine woman was panting now, angry tears welling up in her eyes. "Well ... you ... have your thirty bloody pieces of silver, Science," she breathed, hanging her head as her eyes drifted to the floor. Once more, she turned around, heading for the door. "And if you've betrayed me now ... then I guess I'll handle this alone."
Wanderer looked up at Derksen, gave a helpless shrug and an apologetic look, and rose to follow her. Raven pulled the door open and paused.
"Thanks for trying, Doc. You did the best you could."
Wanderer made his way over to the door. As he gripped the handle, Derksen spoke.
"What do you think she'll do now?" he asked hoarsely.
The wolfman regarded him for a moment. "I don't know, Bryan," he said at last, his voice low and filled with apprehension. "I don't know.
"But I pray to God it's nothing we'll live to regret."
Raven rode home from the office of Dr. Derksen in silence, with Antoinette driving and Wanderer keeping a careful eye on her in the rear-view mirror. They tried to share a few comforting words with her, reassuring her of their support in her unusual situation, but stony silence was their only reply.
And as Raven watched the lights go by in the rolling hills and valleys of the city's outskirts, she quietly wondered how her life had fallen apart so completely, so quickly.
Every hope she'd held onto up to now hinged on Derksen and company finding a remedy for her bizarre split personality. Unfortunately, it sounded as if the only cure was worse than the disease. Did anybody really expect her to voluntarily give up her future for a life of incarceration? Was that the "responsible" thing for her to do?
Derksen didn't seem to think so, for whatever that was worth. Unfortunately the only other option was to try to go on with things as they were. Standards' drugs had proven ineffective at best, dangerous at worst-and even he had conceded they weren't a permanent solution. Derksen had suggested "wolf-proofing" her apartment, but what good would that do against a wolf that could draw on a human intelligence? If ordinary doors and windows couldn't keep her in, what could? Iron bars and doors without indoor handles? Anything Raven could get out of as a human, the wolf could conceivably escape from.
So how do you convince a wolf that it doesn't want to escape?
Raven sighed, the window fogging up from the rush of moist air. It seemed the only way to keep the wolf from escaping was to give it what it wanted-and that meant wide open space, room to run and explore, and prey to hunt. None of which Raven was in any position to provide.
Raven gritted her teeth, closed her eyes. She knew what she had to do. Whether it would work was anybody's guess, but she could think of no other alternative. She had to try.
The lupine woman opened her eyes, and watched as the last glimmer of sunset faded into darkness.
The lupine woman's hand trembles as she scrawls out a carefully planned letter on a piece of her hostess's stationery. After signing the name she has chosen for herself, she looks back over the words she has just written, the lamp above the kitchen range her sole source of light.
"Dear Wanderer and Antoinette," she whispers as she reads back her own words. "Please don't assume the worst. I haven't killed myself..."
Her voice falters. Well. She hopes that won't be the result, anyway.
"I-I'm just going away for a while," she continues, recovering her voice, "I need to take some time to refocus, and figure out what I'm going to do with my life, now that I know I have to live with this..."
The woman scans down the page, seeing the themes mentioned there. Thanking her friends for all of their love and support. Asking them to retrieve the rental car, giving the locations of the dealership and the abandoned vehicle.
She sniffs quietly and bites her lower lip. She chose the site carefully-a forested region about 20 miles to the west of the city, light on people and heavy on wildlife. The winter, she knows, will not be easy-they rarely are in this part of the country-but her thick winter coat of fur has come in and she should be well prepared for the ferocity of the climate.
The letter continues: Don't come looking for me. Remember I spent four years in the wild and did just fine. No matter what happens, don't blame yourselves. Nothing that's happened is your fault.
The lupine woman stops, blinks back a tear, and considers. Then she pens one final postscript.
PS-Please remember that I love all of you-Wanderer, Antoinette, all the Lupine Boys-I love you all very much. You've been like a family to me, and I'll miss you dearly.
And if you ever hear a lone howl out in the forest, don't be afraid to answer.-RB
Slowly the woman rises from her chair in the small upstairs apartment. Folding the note neatly into thirds, she writes "Wanderer & Antoinette" in large, flowing script on the middle third and stands the note up on the small kitchen table.
In the front window, headlights flash from the parking lot below-the rental car has arrived. Walking to the door, the lupine woman takes her coat from the wall rack, pulls it on, hefts the heavy plastic storage box she has purchased for this occasion, takes one last look at her surroundings, and slips quietly out the door.
Raven stood at the side of the narrow county road, gazing into the uncertain future held by the forest before her. Her plastic strongbox, containing emergency rations, water, medical supplies, and enough empty space for all the clothes she was wearing, sat on the ground at her feet. The rental car sat on a small level space off the side of the road, where she hoped it would be safe until someone could come and retrieve it.
She stifled a chuckle. Not as though there were many police officers that came out this way on patrol. Picking up the storage box with one hand, she made her way several yards into the forest, until the trees and undergrowth hid the road from view.
Raven set down the box next to a tall white pine and opened it up. A cold gust of wind blew through the needles and leaves of the trees overhead, echoing a quiet chill that ran through her bones and into her soul.
Solemnly, almost ceremonially, she removed her coat, folding it carefully and placing it inside. Her sweater came next, also lovingly folded and stored. She shivered, once, but not from the cold-her thick lupine fur was more than adequate protection on this chill November evening, and would be through the entire winter.
Shoes, pants and undergarments followed, all stowed with the same careful precision. Finally, she found and removed the combination padlock from within.
Snap. Clack. Turn the dials on the lock. Find a good hiding place for the box ... there, under that fallen log.
Placing the storage box under the log, Raven piled up loose branches around it on either side, sheltering it from casual discovery. There, she thought grimly, straightening her back and stretching her arms skyward. That should give me a contingency plan, at least, in case this doesn't work out.
Now Raven stood once again gazing into the forest. Acres and acres of wilderness spread out before her.
"All right," she spoke softly to the other being within her. "We're here."
A single tear rolled down her face.
Quickly, hands became paws, long black hair vanished from sight, body reformed, watery blue eyes changed to gold...
... and only the beast remained.
Without another look back, the solitary wolf ran off into the night.
Saturday, December 15, 2029.
Darkness falls on the Appalachian woodlands.
A light dusting of snow covers the trees and the ground, as the full moon slowly rises to cast her silvered gaze on the quiet world below. Somewhere, a creek babbles softly to itself, stubbornly refusing to submit to the icy clutches of winter. An owl awakens and spreads its wings, leaving its diurnal resting-place in search of food. A deer pauses in its foraging, flicking an ear toward the soft rustling of branches as the raptor takes flight. And a lone wolf rolls onto her side, oblivious to it all, lost in the depths of slumber.
All things considered, the wolf has done well for herself, in spite of her solitary status. The forest has supplied her with no shortage of mice, muskrats, rabbits, and other small game; the pursuit is sometimes difficult, often exciting, but rarely outside the bounds of her abilities. Certainly, the prey has escaped more often than not, but there are more than enough to go around. Supplemented with the occasional fish, raccoon or elderly bird, her rodent and lagomorph diet has suited her quite well.
And yet, inexplicably, something is wrong.
Everything seemed fine at first, once she got used to the overwhelming newness of it all. The forests of the Appalachian Plateau were nothing like the woodlands of the Northwest. For days the wolf lived in a blur, day following night following day, caught up in the wonder of her newfound liberty. She roamed miles in every direction, staking out her new territory and noting the positions of streams, sheltered areas, and human habitations. The latter were rare, fortunately, at least in the area the wolf found herself in, and there was little need for her to concern herself with them overmuch. Her freedom seemed unbelievable in its sheer vastness.
The dreams started a week or so into her new life. Not that dreams, in themselves, were unusual-all wolves experienced them from time to time-but the nature of these dreams was so positively alien as to leave the wolf lying awake at night, nervous and agitated, ears flitting madly in every direction in a futile search for danger. Details were rarely remembered, but the overall effect was the lingering sensation that something important, deeply important, was about to happen, and she was going to miss it.
The memories, too, haunted her ... memories that could not be her own, for they were filled with the images and experiences of humans. Sometimes the wolf thought it was just Other Self trying to speak to her, but Other Self had been very quiet-sad, even-since the wolf had found herself in this forest. Whatever was happening to the wolf, Other Self didn't seem to be doing it.
Tonight the wolf tosses and turns in restless, disturbing dreams, as the haunting pattern continues. Images come to her from an ice-blue haze that fogs the corners of her mind-an ethereal mist that has hunted her relentlessly from the moment she dropped into slumber...
"Here we come, a caroling, beyond the eaves of green. Here we come, a wand'ring, the fairer to be seen..."
Bright eyes and smiling faces. A tight formation of human children stands in the wood-paneled room, bundled in coats and scarves, mittens and boots. A small gathering of old men and women, clustered around a few round tables, listens with rapt attention, tears coming to the eyes of some.
For many of these elderly people will have no other visitors this season.
The children forge on through the ancient melody with much enthusiasm and little harmony, often clashing but always giving their all.
And one little girl's voice stands out amongst the discordant throng...
"And God bless you and send you a happy new year! And God send you a happy new year!"
The audience applauds, and the little black-haired girl beams widely and executes a grand, artistic bow. A few of her fellows roll their eyes skyward or throw her glares for her overly melodramatic performance, but she just sticks her tongue out at them playfully and continues grinning. She's helped make these nice old people happy for an evening, and their opinions are all that counts.
The wolf whimpers softly in confusion as the image fades. This should not be happening. She should not be seeing these things from a human's eyes. This cannot be happening.
And yet it is happening. And before the wolf can begin to grasp why, a new specter comes to her...
A tree sprouts in the middle of an enclosed room. It is a large tree, a pine tree, heavy with its natural, spicy perfume. Bright lights and glittering strands of garland stretch from its lowest branches to the very top. Shining bulbs of all colors and fragile constructs of golden foil adorn the tree between the lights and the tinsel.
The black-haired girl from the last vision gazes up at the tree, mouth agape in wonder.
"It's so pretty, Daddy!" she exclaims, pale blue eyes wide.
"It sure is," the tall, fair-haired man behind her agrees. "There's just one thing left to do."
"The angel?" the girl asks.
"That's right, Princess. The angel." The man reaches into a large cardboard box and brings out a smaller white one. Opening it with almost reverent care, he removes the protective paper and pulls out the tree's final decoration: a tall, majestic angel, dressed in brilliant white robes accented in gold. A brass trumpet in one hand, a pewter sword in the other, the messenger spreads glorious, eagle-like wings behind him in a position that shouts of triumph. His feet, shod in golden sandals, rest on a blue, green and white sphere made in the likeness of Earth. Below the globe are the clamps and guidance cone for placement at the top of the tree. Rising above the angel's head is a silvered, four-pointed star. The eyes of the angel are silver, as well, and the expression on the carefully sculpted face is one of calm assurance: The Savior has come! Let Heaven and Nature sing!
This year, like every year, the girl smiles broadly at the sight of the familiar messenger. After checking the clamps, the wings, and the star, the man returns the smile, a sparkle in his own crystal blue eyes. As he stands and makes his way to the tree, stepstool at the ready, the girl looks on in rapt attention, joined by a quiet young woman with long dark hair, dusky skin, and equally dark eyes. The woman puts her arm around the girl and watches, as the fair-haired man secures the heavenly figure to the highest point on the tree.
It takes only a minute, and then the man is back with the other two humans, all of them smiling. He reaches down and picks up the girl with strong, gentle hands, lifting her up to see the tree and the angel in all their glory.
"Wow," the girl remarks in hushed tones.
The woman puts her arm around him and rests her head against his shoulder. "You picked a winner this year, hon," she tells him. "I'm glad we decided to go with a live one this year."
"Well, consider it my gift to the forest critters," he replies, still holding the girl tight. "Not that there's any shortage of trees out there, but it never hurts to have one more. Besides, wasn't this your idea in the first place?" he adds, turning to favor her with one his many smiles.
The woman replies with a light kiss on the lips. "Mm. And don't you forget it."
Lowering the little girl carefully to the floor, the man wraps his wife in a warm embrace and softly kisses the side of her neck.
"Mommy? Daddy? Can we make cookies now?" the girl asks hopefully.
The man exchanges a glance with the woman, who shrugs slightly in response. "Now's as good a time as any," he says, and the three of them head off toward the kitchen, leaving the angel a proud sentry in the empty room.
Another scene shimmers out of the pale blue fog. Another black-haired girl-or rather, the same girl, many years older-sits alone in a room in a padded reclining chair, facing a television set. Watching as a story many decades older than she plays out on the screen in black and white imagery.
"... every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings!" the television declares in a young child's voice.
"Are you watching that movie again?" a familiar voice asks, incredulous, as the woman who owns it steps into the room.
"Hey, I like it," the girl says simply, only averting her gaze from the screen for a moment. "You and Dad have seen Star Wars a thousand times, right?"
"So have you," her mother reminds her sardonically. "Or have you forgotten all those years when you insisted on being called Princess Leia?"
"Mom, how long are you going to keep bringing that up?"
"Until the day I die," the older woman declares proudly. "It's every parent's right to embarrass their children. You'll do it to your kids, too."
"They'll be embarrassed enough when you tell them their mother wrote 'Leia Organa' on all her first grade homework," the girl replies sourly.
"Don't forget preschool, second and third," the mother adds with a sly grin.
"All right already!" The girl folds her arms and sticks out her lower lip in mock petulance. "I guess I'll have to come up with stories to embarrass them with, just to blackmail them to be quiet," she says, turning her attention back to the movie.
"I'm going to need your help soon in getting the house cleaned up," the older woman says. "The next time they go to a commercial break, I'd like you to come give me a hand, all right? You can pop in a disc if you want to see the rest of it, but I need you to help me out. Grandma and Grandpa Kepler are coming over and I don't want this house looking like a pig sty."
The girl looks suddenly up in surprise. "They are? When did this happen?" she asks.
"Your father just spoke with them about an hour ago," the mother replies. "Apparently their friends down south are all going to visit their families this Christmas." An ironic grin spreads across her face. "It seems they've decided that being warm isn't as much fun if you're lonely."
"Well that's great for us!" the girl returns, smiling. "They haven't been here for Christmas in like five years. Are we going to have a big family dinner?" she adds hopefully.
"Yes we are," her mother confirms. She pauses. "Of course you realize what else this means," she adds, the wry grin returning.
The girl seems to wilt in her chair. "Mom! You're kidding! Why do they have to sleep in my room?"
"Because the guest bed isn't big enough for two people, dear heart! We've been through this before."
Her daughter gives another fake pouty look. "I'm starting to think I shouldn't have asked for that big bed in the first place," she says, crossly but not really meaning it.
"Oh, come on," the older woman says, in the inimitable way mothers do when encouraging their children to look on the bright side of things. "It's Christmas. You can afford to sacrifice a little, can't you? For your own grandparents?" She leans into the words, making no attempt to disguise the attempted guilt trip.
There is the slightest of sighs. "All right, Mom," the girl acknowledges, then returns her attention to the screen in front of her. At least her grandparents will be here this year.
The wolf awakens suddenly, all senses alert. Sitting up on the snow-covered grass, she listens to the gurgling of the nearby stream.
And suddenly realizes that her mouth is strangely dry.
Padding off in the direction of the stream, the wolf wonders at the strange confusion of her alien dreams and memories. Worse than the confusion, though, is something else-a hollowness, somewhere inside her. Not hunger; at least not hunger for food. An emptiness, gnawing away at her from the inside. The wolf does not have the mental abilities to understand or analyze the sensation, only the emotions that tell her very strongly of its presence.
She is puzzled by this. She is a wolf, born to run and hunt and be free to explore her world. But somehow, it all feels wrong. The wolf does not think in words, but if a human could examine her thoughts, he might describe her current feeling as meaningless. Pointless. Hopeless. The wolf does not understand concepts like "meaning" or "purpose"-but she struggles with them now, nonetheless. Or, more accurately, struggles with their absence.
Perhaps worst of all is the wolf's overwhelming feeling of loneliness. This is a concept the wolf does understand, all too well. As a pack-hunting creature, she has a deeply felt need for others of her own kind. Even freedom is meaningless without one to share it with.
The wolf stops at the edge of the stream, lowers her mouth to the icy waters, and laps up the cool liquid earnestly, restoring moisture to her throat. Leaning farther out over the water, she laps faster and harder, long after her initial thirst is quenched, as if the flood of water might drown the quiet ache inside of her.
Several moments pass before the sound catches her attention-strange and complex vocalizations, somewhat slurred by distance and yet still fairly close by. The wolf looks up from the stream, ears alert once more and focusing on the sound. Yes, there it is-not really far at all, actually. And the sound-
It comes to the wolf in a sudden flash of familiarity. Voices.
If this were another wolf, or a less unusual night, the lupine's first reaction would probably be to put a safe amount of distance between herself and nature's most adaptable predator. A wolf that does not want to be seen or heard will almost assuredly not be, and most members of this species that have been clever enough to survive this long have come to the conclusion that discretion is the better part of valor. But this is not another wolf, and it has certainly been one of the more unusual nights in its short life.
Which may explain the wolf's sudden impulse to seek out the source of the voices.
In a matter of minutes she has done so: There are two of them, both standing in a small clearing a few hundred body-lengths from the edge of the forest. One of them is tall and stocky, with enormous forelimbs covered by a thick, soft-looking protective coating that exaggerates their appearance. The massive human has a roundish, thickly jowled head topped with disorderly brown hair, and an expression that indicates only an average amount of human cleverness. He is holding in one hand a cylindrical metal object that disperses a wide field of light into the clearing from one end. The other hand holds a large and bulky piece of human work that seems vaguely familiar. A label springs suddenly to mind: "chainsaw." The wolf is puzzled at the strange term ... but wait. It must have been Other Self who provided it. Yes, that explains it. Shaking off the momentary confusion, the wolf continues surveying the scene.
The second man, in contrast, is of only average height, but possesses a hunter's build-slim, athletic, moving with an air of predatory confidence. A black cowhide, infused with the humans' chemicals, covers his forelimbs and torso. Well-groomed black hair of medium length frames a face with dusky skin and what Other Self might consider handsome features. The wolf can sense the intelligence in his eyes even from this distance.
The wind shifts, and the wolf stops short. There is something unexpected about this second human-a scent that speaks faintly of ... wolf? Impossible, yet there it is just the same. Indeed, now she can quite clearly see the somewhat elongated, pointed ears poking through the man's mane of black. The light from the metal cylinder momentarily catches the man's eyes in profile, and a second clue appears: for an instant, the brown eyes glow green against the gloom of the night.
As she watches the smaller human, another label springs to the wolf's mind: SCABS. She blinks, uncertain of the thought's significance. As if in response, the quiet ache inside her throbs, once, bringing spontaneous tears to the eyes of the predator. She blinks again to remove the annoying liquid from her eyes, but the strange sensation remains. She finds herself being drawn, ever so slowly, into the clearing...
"Now what's the matter, Mike?"
The larger man looks up at the tree before them. "That's a frickin' hemlock, Jackie. You gonna bring home a hemlock for a Christmas tree?"
The smaller man snorts. "Yeah, what the hell's wrong with that?" he counters.
"Well..." Mike stops to idly scuff his foot once in the snow. "I dunno. Isn't that like sacrilege or something? Choppin' down the state tree an' all?"
Jackie snorts again. "Come on, Mikey. It's not like it's protected or anything. An' why not? Lookit 'er, Mike!" he says, gesturing expressively at the tree before him. "She's beautiful, ain't she? She's big, right? She's a pine tree, right?"
"Well, yeah, but-"
"Papa said bring home a big, beautiful pine tree, somethin' special, right?" Jackie continues animatedly. "This one here's special, ain't she? Ain't nobody else gonna have a twenty foot hemlock for a Christmas tree! You know Papa, he loves to do things bigger than anybody else. He's gonna love it! Now come on already, help me out here. We've wasted enough time already as it is."
The man called Jackie takes the chainsaw from Mike and walks over to the tree. The larger man throws a nervous glance around the clearing, sweeping his beam of light over the trees-
And right into the approaching wolf's eyes.
She stops, a few body-lengths inside the clearing. The man jerks in surprise and nearly drops the light. "J-j-jackie, look!" he stutters, waving his free hand rapidly in the wolf's direction. "I-i-it's a wolf!"
Slowly, Jackie turns to look. His mouth drops open, as he sees the grey wolf standing serenely near the clearing's edge, watching.
The awed expression rapidly becomes a grin.
"Holy Mother a' mercy," he murmurs, his eyes fixed on the animal. "An honest-to-God wolf. In Pennsylvania, for goodness' sakes. I thought they were still supposed to be extinct here."
"Um ... maybe it came over from New York, eh, Jackie? They got wolves there, right?"
"In some places," the smaller man concedes, still not shifting his gaze. "Not many of 'em, though. 'Sides, wolves never hunt alone if they can help it. I wonder what she's doin' out here."
"She? You can tell?" Mike asks, puzzlement creeping in over his fear.
Jackie smirks. "'Course I can tell, Mike. It's all in the scent, remember?"
A brief pause. "Can you, um ... can you, like, talk to it, Jackie?" Mike queries, eyeing the animal nervously. "I mean, you got this animal connection, right?"
"No frickin' idea, Mikey," the other man returns, taking a slow step toward the wolf. When the wolf does not move, he takes another step ... then another.
In a way, it surprises the wolf as much as the humans that she does not turn and run into the forest. But the quiet pain inside her is pressing her to stay. Somehow, the wolf realizes, she needs these curious humans. She needs ... companionship.
The wolf doesn't want to be alone anymore.
She takes a step forward. Then another. Soon, wolf and human are standing only a paw's width apart. Ever so slowly, the man called Jackie lowers himself to one knee, until he is gazing eye to eye with the wolf.
The wolf blinks once but does not shy from him. She can smell the sense of wonder in the man's scent. Slowly, he takes off the black cowhide covering his hand.
"Whadda ya doin', Jackie?" the larger man asks, with equal measures of fright and incredulity.
Jackie does not respond. Slowly, he stretches out his hand, palm upward, just beneath the nose of the wolf.
The wolf looks down and snuffles the hand once. Yes, this man has wolf-scent-there can be no doubt of that now. He smells friendly.
The wolf needs a friend.
The wolf looks up at the man's eyes again. Not understanding her own actions, she raises her left forepaw carefully into the air and rests it gently on the man's palm.
In a flash, paws and legs become hands and arms-the muzzle shrinks inward as the skull expands-long black hair erupts from the head-hips widen and hind legs stretch out and backwards to end in humanoid feet-the chest broadens, as smallish but well-shaped human breasts take form upon it-
-and Raven Blackmane returns to the land of the living.
With her hand still grasping his, Raven fell forward onto the man's knee, where a very startled Jackie caught her. Lowering his knee to the ground, the man held onto Raven as she let her head rest on his lap. He looked down at her, jaw working but no sound coming out.
"Please ... I want to go home," she whispered, her voice almost choked off by a sob.
Mike, still standing a few yards behind them, gasped a particularly colorful oath before remarking, "Sh-she's a friggin' Scab, Jackie!"
"Ey! Show a little respect to the lady, huh?" Jackie scolded him harshly, glaring at him over his shoulder. "Go back to the truck, get 'er a blanket or somethin'. Hurry!"
Without another word the larger man ran off into the woods. Meanwhile Jackie removed his leather jacket and carefully draped it over Raven's shoulders, leaving a thick red sweater as his only protection from the cold. If he was uncomfortable he didn't show it.
"Thanks," Raven managed, sliding her arms into the too-big sleeves and, in the interest of modesty more than protection, zipping up the jacket. Her fur was somewhat thinner in humanoid form, but it still provided ample protection from the elements.
"Don't mention it," the man replied, as Raven straightened up and sat back on her legs. He was wearing a smile that looked more than a little nervous. Then again, it could have just been the profound weirdness of the situation catching up to him. After a moment of silence he released Raven's hand and started putting his gloves back on.
He opened his mouth to say something, closed it again as if reconsidering-and then apparently decided to say it anyway. "I must say, this is quite a pleasant surprise, Miss...?"
"Blackmane," Raven said, smiling. "Raven Blackmane."
"Raven," the man repeated, with a look that seemed to settle halfway between sly and debonair. Raven noticed that the man's almost stereotypical Italian-American accent had thinned dramatically, leaving his rich baritone voice sounding positively urbane. "That's a beautiful name. Mine's Jackie-Jackie DeTomaso. At your humble service," he declared, taking Raven's proffered hand.
"Pleased to meet you, Jackie.-More than you could guess, actually," she added under her breath.
"Likewise. That big fellow who just ran out is my cousin, Michael ... but everyone calls him Little Mike," he said, a wry smile playing on his very human lips. Really, the only things marking him as a Scab were his pointed ears and his scent. And, of course, those eyes, when the light caught them the right way.
"DeTomaso..." Raven repeated, looking closely at Jackie's face. Suddenly it clicked. "Wait a minute! As in Papa DeTomaso's Pizza Paradise?"
Jackie grinned. "Hey, you know it!"
"'Course," she shrugged. "It's the best pizza house in the whole city. And they're pro-Scab, too."
"Well, as long as you're not talking about picket crossers, yeah, you're right," Jackie said. "My grandpapa owns the place."
"So you're from the city too, I take it?"
"Yeah. You need a ride back into town? There's a middle seat in the rig we drove out here. It may be a little crowded with Mikey in there, but I think we could pull it off."
"I'd appreciate that," Raven said. "Just give me ... oh, an hour or so ... to go back and pick up my box-my clothes are in there." A twist of the lip. "Unless somebody's stolen it."
"No problem. Michael and I have a tree to take down here, anyway." Now it was Jackie's turn to examine her for a moment. "You, uh ... you mind telling me what a nice girl like you is doing out here in the forest?" he asked.
Behind him, Raven saw Mike trotting back into the clearing, huffing and puffing, a small thermal blanket under one arm. He gently tossed it to her; she caught it and quickly wrapped it around her waist as she rose to her feet. "I'm sure you'll have plenty of time to hear about that on the ride back into town, Jackie," she smiled thinly. "Go ahead and get your Christmas tree. I'll be back in an hour." She turned and walked back into the forest, leaving Jackie DeTomaso kneeling in the snow.
It was, indeed, somewhat more than a little crowded in the cabin of Jackie's tractor-trailer. The tree, strapped tight to the flatbed and branches carefully bound to the trunk, may have actually been less constricted than the passengers. Still, it was not nearly as bad as it might have been. Jackie and Michael were so thoroughly covered with the tree's fragrant sap that any sweat they may have accumulated was, for the moment, being more or less drowned out, even to Raven's keen senses. And anyway, the DeTomasos seemed to be a fairly clean and well-groomed pair to begin with.
Jackie especially so. He was, indeed, quite handsome, with features that seemed strong while still being gentle. His eyes, she could see now, were far more than just brown-more like amber, with lots of internal reflections and mottling that gave them a crystalline appearance. The overall effect was remarkable and quite beautiful. And then there was his scent...
She started, as if from a dream, as she realized those eyes were watching hers with a sort of amused look. Quickly she turned her head to front and center and focused on the winding road before them, grateful that flushed cheeks didn't show through wolf fur.
Raven wasn't quite sure when she'd first found the male wolf-scent attractive. Not overwhelmingly so, of course-even after months of lupine hormones flooding her body, she wasn't even remotely attracted to normal wolves, and from her knowledge of Scabs she figured that would never be the case anyway. But still, she realized that she found the smell somewhat ... compelling, when it was mixed with a man's normal scent. Which was pretty much the case in all lupine men who were less than fullmorph.
In light of all this, it was perfectly understandable for Raven to be somewhat jarred when the truck climbed out of a valley and straight into a frozen hell.
They came into it from slightly south of due west-a furious winter storm, probably blowing in from Canada after a suitable chilling period in the Arctic Circle. All of a sudden the road was thick with snow, and big, wet flakes were whapping against all sides of the truck. The howling of the wind could be heard clearly even inside the tractor cabin.
"Whoa! What in Mother Nature's frozen world is this?!" Jackie exclaimed as he just barely avoided a skid.
"You guys didn't check the weather report before coming out here today?" Raven asked in disbelief.
"Didn't think of it, I guess," he admitted, slowing the rig to a more appropriate speed. "When Papa tells you he needs a big Christmas tree, you don't stand around and ask questions about the weather."
With a sigh, Raven reached up and turned on the radio, keying to the local news station. It took a few minutes for the message she'd feared to come on:
"And just to remind everyone, there is a Severe Winter Storm Warning in effect for Washington, Green and Fayette Counties until eleven p.m. tonight. Listeners are advised to stay indoors until the storm is over, and if you must go out before the snow is cleared, be sure to watch out for fallen trees and power lines, and be extra careful on those snow-covered roads."
"Now there's insight for you," Raven muttered.
"Well, looks like this is gonna take us a little longer than we thought," Jackie remarked brightly.
"Are you sure this thing's going to be able to handle the hills in this weather?" she asked.
Jackie gently patted the back of her hand in assurance-sending a jolt through Raven's arm with the sudden, unexpected contact. Raven caught her breath and fought back the look of shock that tried to creep onto her face.
"Don't worry, Raven," Jackie was saying. "We just put the snow tires on this rig last week. Long as we go nice and slow, she won't give us any trouble."
Dear God, Raven, she thought to herself, what's with you? You've dealt with handsome guys before. Why is this guy making you flutter like a first date, when you've only just met him?
She didn't have an answer for herself. Jackie DeTomaso's personal magnetism was as mystifying as it was compelling. Stealing another glance at the man pressed up tight beside her, Raven suddenly realized that Jackie was apparently in no hurry to remove his hand from hers. A constant tingling danced across her hand, as the short silky hairs along its back rubbed against the warm firmness of his palm. Curling his fingertips under her hand, Jackie lightly brushed the soft, exposed skin of her own palm. The sensation was both strangely exciting and incredibly disturbing. How long had it been since a man had touched her hand like that?
She decided to let him keep it there. For now.
"So, um," Raven began, as she fought to control her voice. "How slow are we talking about here?"
Jackie chuckled. "Heh. In these hills, I wouldn't risk pushing it much above ten, fifteen maybe on the straight-aways. If it stays like this, we should get there in three or four hours. Assuming we don't get stuck, of course."
Raven swallowed. "Good," she managed at last. "Just great."
Raven spent the rest of the long, slow ride sitting back and trying desperately to relax. Unfortunately, as soon as she managed to get used to one preoccupation, an older one quickly took its place: Wondering how her best-laid plans had once again gone to waste.
So far, all she managed to do was dramatically demonstrate that neither side of her personality could be repressed indefinitely. Repressing her wolfen side led to the catastrophic consequences she'd already inflicted on two people-but at the same time the wolf was unable to remove itself from human companionship and stay content. Apparently her lupine side had suffered the same symptoms of personality integration as Raven herself, leading her to seek out the humans she'd gone to great lengths to avoid.
Strange, she thought. I wonder why it did so well during those years with the pack. Upon further reflection, she decided it was probably due to her new composite personality still being fairly unstable at the time, combined with the basic scientific drive for knowledge that kept her human side preoccupied. After all, she'd had a purpose for staying there, a mission to perform. In the woods, for the past few weeks, her only mission had been staying out of the wolf's way so it could try to survive. Apparently, the longer either side was suppressed, the stronger the backlash was.
None of which answered her basic question: What am I supposed to do now?
And as she thought about it, she came to the disturbing realization that she didn't have the slightest idea.
(with guest writers Mark Van Sciver and Copernicus)
And then I see you there
with your arms open wide, and you try to embrace me
These lonely tears I cry
they keep me in chains, and I wish they'd release me
Cold is the night, but colder still
is the heart made of stone turned from clay
And if you'd follow me
you'd see all the black, all the white, fade to grey
- Haseltine, Odmark, Mason, Lowell, & Bronleewe
There was the muffled groan of the semi-tractor's brakes, and the rig ground to a stop more or less in the middle of Lysette Avenue.
Not that there was anyone around to care; the storm had left a heavy enough blanket of snow on the city that its inhabitants had apparently decided to huddle indoors and wait for the plows to come through. Which wouldn't be very long, in a city this intimately familiar with harsh winter weather. The trucks had probably been on standby since the moment the warning was issued, and would be forging a path through Racine Avenue as this very moment.
Raven glanced at her watch: just about 11:30. Lysette Avenue wasn't exactly at the top of the plows' list of priorities, but they would probably be here in no more than another hour.
Which meant she probably had an hour to wait in The Blind Pig before she could think about going anywhere. Wherever she ended up going-which was by no means decided at this point.
Jackie opened the door, hopped out, and helped Raven out and down to the ground.
"Thank you, kind sir," she said with courtly overtones as he gently took her hand.
"We aim to please, mademoiselle," he replied, only slightly butchering the French pronunciation. He looked at the unassuming restaurant's front facade, complete with the requisite pub-style wooden sign. "Are you sure this is where you wanna be let off? This ain't exactly the best of neighborhoods."
"Maybe not, but I have friends here," Raven smiled. "And anyway, you have a new Christmas tree to put up at the Villa DeTomaso. I'd only get in the way."
Jackie raised her hand to his lips and gave it the softest of kisses, sending shivers up Raven's spine. Dang it, he's good, she thought.
"Miss Blackmane, I would consider it nothing but a pleasure for you to be in my way," he said with just the right mix of humorous flair and serious sentiment. "As a matter of fact, I hope you will endeavor to do so whenever possible." As he walked her to the bar's entrance, he added, "But, as you said, Michael and I have a Christmas tree to deliver to Papa. And so, I leave you in the undoubtedly capable hands of your associates. Bonsoir, mademoiselle." Another perfect kiss of the hand, and that beautiful smile.
"I'm actually better with Spanish than French," Raven said, giving him a "charmed and amused" expression. "But the sentiment is appreciated. Adieu, monsieur."
Jackie gave her a lopsided grin. "Au revoir." He turned and headed back to the truck, the meaning behind his choice of words only too clear. Raven watched as the truck groaningly forged off through the snow, finally disappearing around a street corner.
Raven let out a long, weary sigh. Well, she'd survived that with at least some measure of composure intact. Not much, but enough. Leaving any further issues with Jackie DeTomaso to the uncertain future, she turned her attention back to the here and now.
Looking through one of the main front windows, Raven saw a mere handful of people inside: Copernicus, the writer Fox Cutter, Donnie, Edwina the waitress, and a few people she didn't recognize tucked away in quiet booths near the back.
Oh. And Jack DeMule-Raven could see the telltale hooves sticking out from under the pool table. Apparently Jack had been hitting the sauce early and often today.
Most or all of these people, she realized, had probably been in there since before the storm started, and were simply waiting for the snowplows to come through before leaving. At the same time, the snow had probably kept most of the usual clients trapped in their homes or offices for the last four hours.
That was good news for Raven, anyway. It meant there were that many less people to question her about her recent disappearance.
And that many less people to get hurt if her wolfen side became angry or frightened.
Another sigh. She would have to get this over with sooner or later, and Donnie and Coops were big enough to keep her contained if anything went wrong. Besides, she was starving.
Squaring her shoulders, she pulled the door open and walked inside.
Donnie, standing there and polishing the bar counter, looked up at Raven with his wide brown eyes as she entered the Blind Pig. There was nothing special in his demeanor to indicate that there was anything amiss. Yet, almost immediately, he began moving toward her.
He lumbered slowly to her side, meeting her halfway between the door and the bar. She glanced up at him with a mixture of quiet somberness and curiosity. His eyes said more than words could convey-in them, she could see an entire gamut of emotions, from concern to pity to something she didn't even want to think about.
A few curious people started to move toward her. All it took was one look from the massive auroch's head to deter them. He warded off everyone else just with his presence-not that she minded. Without comment, he led her to a seat at the bar. Then, in a move that surprised her, he moved over to stand at the bar beside her, just a few feet away. Placing one arm on the bar, settling into a relaxed position, he quietly watched her as he signaled Edwina with a hand gesture.
He stared at her until she began to feel distinctly uncomfortable. Edwina brought hot chicken broth and a cup of tea out, setting them on the bar in front of Raven with an unreadable expression. Still chilled from the crisp winter air, Raven tried to gulp the drink down in one shot. She winced, but the tea wasn't as hot as it might have been.
Donnie continued to look on, placidly. He even laughed, without sound, as she yelped in pain when the hot soup burned her palate. Raven stifled a curse-she always tried to eat soup too fast, especially when it was cold out. Even though she should have known better, she found his reaction annoying.
She turned and threw him a short glare, then returned her attention to the soup-watching the bartender out of the corner of her eye. And still he stood at her side, not moving, placid, cow-like ... as if waiting for her to answer a question not yet spoken.
Raven tried her best to ignore him. But how does one ignore a 600-pound man with the head of a bull? It would be one thing if he was asking her questions, trying to get something out of her-she could at least understand that-but this hovering beside her, like some oversized guardian angel, was incomprehensible ... and a little threatening. If he had something to say, why didn't he just scribble on a notepad or something? What was his problem, anyway?
Finally, she could stand it no more.
"WHAT?!? What is it?!? What do you want?!?" she blurted as she dropped her soup spoon into the bowl, her hands literally shaking in anger.
He didn't flinch or move. Slowly, deliberately, he motioned with his hands. The sign language Raven had picked up from half a semester of Ameslan-Splendor had all but insisted she take the class, for her own sake-allowed her to catch what he was saying.
"Just wondering ... cash or charge," he signed.
Raven's mouth opened and closed like a fish. The incongruity of the whole situation-and her response to it-was too much for her carefully placed defenses to handle. The laughter built slowly within her. Soon she was laughing so hard she couldn't breathe.
Then, for the first time in weeks-for the first time ever, in a public place-she finally let go of her emotional wall.
The wall she'd built up for months out of fear and shame.
The wall that she'd thought would keep her from hurting anyone-or anyone from hurting her.
The wall that had stayed up through the teary eyes at the hospital, the choked apologies to Doug in the alley outside the theater, the quiet confession to Wanderer and Antoinette, even the angry outburst at Derksen's office. The wall she kept rebuilding, thicker and higher, whenever pieces began to break off or cracks began to show.
A wall laid with the bricks of self-hatred and the mortar of memories too painful for her to bear-of those terror-filled nights in the hands of the slavers. Of Grace, lying bound up and broken in the hospital. Of Doug, scrabbling up from a pile of trash where she herself had thrown him. Of herself, lost in a cloud of grey, trapped for weeks in the body of a lonely wolf.
And the laughter fell over into tears.
As Raven sobbed-loudly, deeply, desperately-Donnie lowered himself into a thick, sturdy chair beside her and pulled her against his chest. She did not resist him. He patted her as softly as any father, as her own father had comforted her as a child. No words were necessary-only the knowledge of one sharing her pain, offering her his own quiet strength. Saline drops streamed into rivulets that ran down her face for a long, long time.
When her tears subsided, she looked up into his eyes.
"Want to talk about it?" he signed.
And she did.
Copernicus and Fox had long since noted her unexpected arrival, and as she quietly related her experiences of the past six weeks-particularly the two-and-a-half weeks since her disappearance-Raven gathered an audience of three around her. Two of them, of course, were at comfortably removed distances; a glance from Donnie made sure they knew she wasn't to be crowded. Coops sat in a chair a few feet behind her, while Fox settled in front of the bar a couple of stools away.
By the time she'd finished, the clock on the wall read 12:41. She took another mouthful of soup, a sip of tea, then focused her eyes on a slender bottle behind the bar.
"So that's it, then," she concluded wearily, gesturing vaguely with one hand. "I'm out of ideas. If anyone else has any bright ideas, I'll be happy to listen."
For a long moment the only sound was the tinny voice of the old television set up in the corner. The holiday season being in full swing now, she wasn't surprised in the least at what she heard.
"... every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings!"
Which wasn't to say the irony didn't register in her mind. This very film, after all, had contributed to bringing her out of the wolf's control.
Actually, she thought with a smirk, an angel would be pretty welcome company right now. If he didn't have some advice for her from on high, she'd at least get the satisfaction of telling him how ticked off she was at the Lord of Creation right now. I mean, really. A Martian virus that turns people into animals, chairs and bimbos? What in the heavens were you thinking?
Of course, she considered, it was as much NASA's fault as anyone else's. What moron had decided to analyze alien soil on Earth in the first place? Wasn't that what space stations were for? After all, Mir had still been up and running-barely-in 2002. Of course, it fell out of orbit and crashed into the Pacific a year later, but still...
Fox cleared his throat nervously. "Um. What if you could create an enclosure that the wolf wouldn't want to escape from?" he suggested. "Isn't there any way to keep the wolf happy without her running free?"
Raven took another sip of the ice water Eddie had brought her. She did not look at Fox as she spoke.
"If something like that was going to work, it would have to be closed in with ten-foot fencing and hold at least four or five acres of forest," she said. "That's considered the minimum standard for keeping wolves in captivity. A square mile is better. It would have to either have plenty of prey on the grounds, or you'd have to provide game animals on a fairly consistent basis-every two weeks, say. Even if she's sharing my stomach, she'll want to hunt from time to time ... just for the thrill of it." She turned and gave him a significant look. "Unless you know somebody who can provide all that...?"
Fox said nothing. Raven returned her gaze to the bar.
"What if you gave her a small amount of freedom on a daily basis?" Copernicus suggested after a moment of silence. "Say, a run in City Park. That's four square miles of forests, right there."
"How will the park rangers like it if they find a wolf eating the bunny rabbits?" Raven countered.
"Dogs and cats play at hunting all the time," the lizard-man pointed out. "Maybe the wolf would be satisfied with letting the prey escape, as long as she got a good workout."
Raven considered that for a moment. "That might work," she said at last, with what sounded like grudging admission. "Most hunts are unsuccessful, after all. But there would have to be a way to force the wolf to stop if things got out of hand. She won't listen to me, and all it would take is one innocent person getting attacked to start Humans First all over again." She shook her head. "I don't want any more blood on my conscience, Coops. And if the wolf attacked a norm there'd be a lot of it."
A motion in the corner of Raven's eye caught her attention.
Donnie was sliding a notepad over to her.
RAVEN. WHAT DO YOU THINK THE WOLF THINKS OF YOU?
She scoffed. "Not very much, obviously. She never listens to me. Why?"
The notepad disappeared for a few moments before returning:
ISN'T DOMINANCE IN A WOLF PACK BASED ON RESPECT?
Raven looked up at Donnie. He was fishing for something, but it wasn't quite clicking just yet. Maybe her brain was still working up to speed after being stuck in wolf-mode for a few weeks. At any rate, his expression wasn't giving anything away.
"Basically, yes," she said. "Wolves will respect a strong leader and challenge one that's too weak, or hurts the pack's best interests."
As soon as she said it, the pieces fell into place. She knew what to expect when he held up the sign a moment later.
WHAT HAS THE WOLF BEEN DOING TOWARD YOU?
"Challenging me," she whispered.
Raven leaned her chin against both hands, her hair falling down along either side of her face. "Wonderful," she muttered. "So I'm a weak leader. Glad that's all cleared up. Thanks a lot, Donnie."
"You're not weak, Raven," Copernicus said quietly. "Not by any means. You're a very formidable person, with a very strong will. The fact that you've held the wolf back by sheer force for so long is proof of that. I think what Donnie's saying-and correct me if I'm wrong here, Donnie-is that you may be better off putting that energy into directing her actions, instead of keeping her from acting at all. Being a leader, instead of a prison guard."
Raven remained still. On the edge of her vision, she saw Donnie nodding.
"How am I supposed to make her respect me?" she asked, her voice sounding hollow.
"Give her the chance to do something with your approval," Fox suggested. "You can talk to her-ask her what she'd like to do. Let her do something that she enjoys that won't hurt anybody."
"At the same time, be firm with her about things that she shouldn't do," Copernicus added. "You've only been showing her your fear and anger-show her your self-confidence, your abilities. If she sees your strength, she'll follow you ... look up to you as a leader."
With another long sigh, Raven pushed back her bar stool and pulled out her wallet.
"Well, I appreciate the advice and all, guys," she said. "And I know you're just trying to help." She looked up at the ceiling, as if to gaze through the wood paneling to the stars beyond.
Looking for focus. Looking for the center.
The force of her emotions was gone, released with the wall. She had nothing left to use for an angry, self-righteous reply, or a sharp-tongued retort, or much of anything else. She'd laid her soul bare...
... and discovered that the only thing she had left was emptiness.
"But," she continued softly, "it would be pretty hard to make her have confidence in me ... when I don't have any left in myself."
Two bills fluttered onto the bar.
"Please give Eddie the change, Donnie."
Step. Step. Step.
"And thank you for listening."
Quiet steps over to the door.
Shwump. The air seal breaks, and cold winter chill rushes inside.
Quiet steps over the mantle and out into the night.
Flakes blew. Snow crunched. A lone figure traced a path through the storm-blasted streets of the city, up the newly-cleared Lysette Avenue and into the very heart of the downtown commercial center.
Even at the end of the third decade of the twenty-first century, the streets of a good-sized city could still get pretty lonely after one o'clock in the morning. Only the bars still had any clientele at this hour, and even they had been denied most of their patronage by the recent snowstorm. The freshly plowed streets were virtually abandoned, the sidewalks even more so. Raven Blackmane walked on with only the stars and her thoughts for company.
In truth, she didn't know quite where she was going. In all honesty, she didn't quite care. During her childhood, she had often taken long walks in the forest by herself; it had helped her to center her thoughts when she was pensive or upset. Being surrounded by the trees, immersed in the wildness of it all, had often been a therapeutic experience for her.
The urban version of the walk, unfortunately, wasn't doing much for her-which may have had more to do with the specifics of her circumstance than with the surroundings themselves. After all, the skyscrapers and lampposts and abandoned streets had their own kind of quiet serenity at this hour ... but it seemed to do little besides magnify her own feelings of emptiness.
Idly, Raven wondered how long it would be before somebody came after her. Now that she had shown up again at the Blind Pig, it was a foregone conclusion that Donnie would tell Wanderer and the others. At that point, it was only a matter of time before somebody tracked her down by footprints and scent-trail.
She wondered what she would say when they found her.
The lupine woman passed by a darkened alley, its entrance illuminated by a nearby street lamp. The bright green message spray-painted on one of the walls-graffiti left by some passing misanthrope-stuck out before her eyes like an open sore:
DETH 2 FREAKS - HUMANS FIRST
She smirked in spite of herself. Wonderful, she thought sardonically. At least there are still some bigots out there who are honest about what they want. Why settle for discrimination when what you really want is genocide?
The smirk dissolved into a heavy sigh. Some things just never changed. Civil liberties could be protected by Constitutional amendments and discrimination could be prevented by regulation, but the only way to stop racism was to change people's hearts.
Personally, Raven didn't see much heart-changing going on.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the distinctive sound of four padded feet moving over packed-down snow.
::Raven!:: a tinny, electronic voice called out behind her. ::Wait up!::
The wolf-woman smiled. He'd kept himself downwind of her, avoiding her keen sense of smell. Doug Linger could be a sneaky little 'yote when the circumstances called for it.
Despite his pleas, she kept on walking. He would eventually overtake her, she knew, but she wanted to be someplace more open when it happened; that would maximize the escape routes for both of them, should the worst occur.
The open space she headed for was Market Square, a large cobblestone-paved terrace that served as an outdoor food court during the more temperate times of the year. Shops of all sorts faced the square, which itself surrounded a well-manicured flower garden about twenty feet in diameter. It was a safe and atmospheric place to have lunch during most of the year, and in the winter months the flower bed gave way to a large and beautifully-decorated Christmas tree. Raven had already taken a seat on one of the long benches facing the tree by the time Doug caught up with her.
::You're pretty fast for having only two legs,:: the coyote said, jumping up onto the bench beside her.
Raven didn't look at him. Leaning back, clasping her hands in her lap, she focused on the bright, glistening lights of the tree.
"Hey, Doug," she said softly, a sad smile playing across her face. "How you doing?"
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Doug shift somewhat uneasily on the bench. ::I'm fine,:: he said. ::I was kinda wondering about you, though.:: He looked down, his eyes on the wood slats beneath him. ::Everyone has.::
A quiet wind blew through the square, kicking up loose flakes of snow all around them. Raven watched the flecks of white spiral down, down, coming to rest again in the company of their brothers and sisters on the canvas of white.
"Truth be told, Doug, I'm kinda wondering about myself," she said, looking down at her hands. She wrung them a few times, watching the patterns the motion made in the fur. "I suppose Wanderer has been worried sick about me."
The 'yote made a sound like a garbled laugh. ::Oh my, yes. He's about driven Splendor up the wall with daily check-ins. For a while there he had us searching every place he could think of.:: He paused. ::The zoo, the pound, parks, alleys...:: he added, with a mischievous glint in his eye.
Raven smirked, casting Doug a sidelong glance before looking up at the stars again.
::So where were you, anyway?:: Doug asked. ::We were worried about you.::
"... Learning that a wolf can't live without its pack, I guess." Pause. "I'm sitting here ... wondering how I can apologize for what happened," she said at last.
Doug ducked his head slightly, a bit of body language Raven couldn't quite read. ::I can't speak for Jon and Maxine, but you needn't apologize to me,:: he said. ::I get urges too, on occasion.:: He parted his jaws in a canine grin. ::I wonder a lot, how many times I've piddled on my neighbor's front steps. I know what it's like.::
"Do you, Doug?" the lupine woman countered gently, looking over at him. "Do you really? Do you know what it's like to share your body with someone else? What it's like to go to sleep at night not knowing what your body will do while you're unconscious?"
::Um...:: Doug faltered, lowering his head and breaking eye contact. ::No. Not in the sense that I understand you do.::
A lone cloud passed over the moon in silence.
"Do you ever wonder, Doug," Raven asked, "what the point of all this is, anyway?" She turned her eyes once more to the heavens. Cassiopeia sat placidly just above the skyline.
Doug looked at her. ::The point?:: he echoed. ::Of SCABS? You've got to be kidding me.::
"Not SCABS," she said, shaking her head slightly. "Life. What are we doing this for, anyway?"
The coyote waited.
"I mean, look at us, Doug," she said, gesturing feelingly. "We're the victims of the biggest practical joke in the history of civilization. Maybe in the history of life itself." Her mind drifted back to the crudely-drawn message on the alley wall. "People hate us for what we are. Not for our politics. Not for our religion. People hate us for our genes ... the cards life dealt us before we were born."
Raven lowered her gaze to the top of the tree. A simple star was fixed in the place where she always expected to see a warrior angel. The gold electroplating on the ornament glowed warmly in the diffuse light of the street lamps.
"Fate ... has handed us destinies that no one should have to put up with," she continued.
Then, more softly...
"Is all of this even worth it?"
Silence. The thin canine form beside her looked heavenward, as if seeking an answer in the stars.
::Well, I like to think so,:: he said at last. ::Life is more than just existing. You leave a mark.::
"I left plenty of marks on you and Grace, that's for sure," Raven muttered sourly.
::Stop that.:: Doug turned his eyes to Raven; as she glanced over at him, she saw a sharpness in his gaze. ::She will heal,:: he told her. ::And from what I've heard Buck doesn't hate you, either.::
He fell silent for a moment, apparently thinking about what to say next. Somewhere above, a bird flew by on nearly soundless wings.
::Think of it this way,:: Doug said. ::What would you gain from being dead? Compare it to what you can gain from being alive. The balance comes out in favor of life, every time. That alone makes it worth it.:: He looked at her with hopeful eyes.
Raven sighed, sending a wispy plume of breath spiraling upward.
"I hope you're right, Doug," she said, rising from the bench and dusting a few loose flakes from her coat. "I really do."
She paused. "Do me a favor," she told him, her back to the coyote's face. "Don't tell Wanderer that you found me, okay? I'd like to be alone for a while."
Doug hopped down off the bench and stepped to her side, looking up at her face. ::You going to be okay?:: he asked.
"... I don't know, Doug," she said, walking off toward the far edge of Market Square. "Are any of us?"
Are any of us?
Completed in 2013, it was the most majestic suspension bridge in the city. Granted, the rivers that flowed through the metropolis weren't exactly San Francisco Bay-type wide, but the bridge was still pretty impressive to Raven; having never been to San Francisco, or New York, or Japan, or any of countless other places in the world with really long bridges, the Heiffield seemed to her nothing less than an architectural marvel. She'd gone into full-blown Gawk Mode the first time Antoinette had driven them across it.
So why was she here tonight?
Raven walked along the narrow sidewalk that lined the north side of the bridge between the rails and the road. Cold, wet slush squished and sloshed beneath her feet. A lone car drove quietly past, probably on autopilot. There just weren't many people out at this hour, especially after a storm like today's.
Upon reaching the bridge's midpoint she stopped and turned towards the railing. Resting her arms atop the cool metal barrier, Raven leaned over and looked out at the river.
A twinkle of lights, before and below her-Raven could see the flat-bottomed cargo ships loading and unloading their wares at the docks lining either side of the river. The cold, swirling waters rushed by beneath her, somehow calm and full of energy at the same time.
Think of it this way: what would you gain from being dead? Compare it to what you can gain from being alive. The balance comes out in favor of life, every time. That alone makes it worth it.
Raven thought about that.
She thought about Grace, still recovering in the hospital.
She thought about all the times she'd lost control, or nearly lost control.
She thought about the consistent failure of every attempt at keeping wolves in captivity-even wolf hybrids were notoriously unstable...
She thought about her wolf, who had never shown even the slightest inclination to listen to her...
Well. It was theoretically possible that Raven could exert enough dominance over her to force the wolf to respect her. If Raven could somehow prove that she was worthy of the wolf's obedience ... if she could be strong enough...
But I'm not strong enough, she told herself. Tears were beginning to fill her eyes. No matter what they say ... I can't do this. I'm tired of running. I'm tired of fighting. I'm just tired. Even if I try, someday I'm going to slip...
I just can't do it.
I don't have the strength.
The railing really wasn't very high at all.
What would you gain from being dead?
A person who set their mind to it could climb over it pretty easily, actually. There was even about a foot and a half of ledge on the other side. All somebody had to do was just pull herself up and over ... like this ...
What would you gain from being dead?
It was a long way down to the river. Who knew if someone would even survive the fall? Even if she did, the water was so cold that hypothermia would set in ... why, in no time at all...
What would you gain from being dead?
Ding dong, ding dong. The hourly chimes at Market Square rolled eerily out over the water. Raven looked down at the water, so far down...
Ding dong, ding dong. Ding dong, ding dong.
It would be so easy...
Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings...
Every time a bell rings...
A foot stretched out, ever so slowly, into empty space.
... an angel gets her wings...
... an angel...
For an achingly long moment, the world stood still.
Firm hands grasping her shoulders-
A rich baritone voice in her ear-
"There's a shortage of perfect bodies in this world."
Then, suddenly, Raven was flying-no, being lifted-into the air, pulled back over and across the barrier, set firmly on solid concrete...
"Damaging yours like that would be a real pity."
Raven did not turn her head to see the man behind her, who was even now releasing her from his firm, gentle grasp. There was no need. She knew already.
"Why are you here?" she whispered.
Out of the corner of her eye, Raven saw the beret-wearing figure step up to the railing, leaning on it as she had done a moment before.
"It's a lovely night for a walk," he noted quietly. "I don't often take the time to just enjoy the beauty about me."
They both stood in silence for a moment.
"That is one reason why I am here," Darkwolf added at last.
Raven still did not turn to face him. Leaning wearily on the steel guardrail, she looked down at the river once more.
"And the other reason?" she asked.
Darkwolf turned away for a moment, his gaze drifting to the ground. He scratched idly at the back of his neck with one clawed finger. "I was worried."
Raven scoffed-a low, soft, bitter sound. "You? Worried? Tell me another one."
A flicker of movement, and she turned to see Darkwolf staring at her. His eyes flashed with a dangerous harshness, but only for a moment-almost immediately they were soft, sincere, compassionate.
"You hurt. I can see that," he said gently. "Please ... I am not here to be anything but an ear. An ear that will take anything that you want to give it. There is a bench over there by the other side of the bridge-please, sit down, and tell me what is wrong."
Raven crossed her arms and gave the wolfman a measuring gaze. For all the world, he looked sincere ... and it wasn't like she had anything better to do. After a moment, she crossed to the bench and sat down. Darkwolf followed her, sitting down a few feet away to give her some space.
She waited for a moment or two, but he didn't seem to be in any hurry to say something. He was just watching, passively, with those profoundly mysterious eyes of his. He looked, Raven thought, more ... humble, for lack of a better word ... than she had ever seen him before.
"Why did you rescue me?" she asked him, folding her hands in her lap and looking straight into his eyes. "Why all the sudden generosity? Why the intervention in the hospital? Why are you doing all of this?"
The man looked away with something akin to shame. "Raven, I know that I am a terrible man and have done terrible things," he said. "Very few people have ever been able to forgive me. I told you in the hospital that I was doing this for political reasons. I also told you that I had other, more personal reasons." He looked back up at her, and this time there was no mistaking the concern in his eyes. "I don't want to see you get hurt."
Raven let her eyes unfocus, going past Darkwolf to the concrete and steel beyond. "You don't want to see me get hurt," she murmured, mostly to herself.
Somewhere nearby a gull swooped overhead.
"You have killed people in cold blood, Mister Darkwolf," Raven said with almost clinical detachment, focusing on the man before her once more. "Why should I matter to you any more than Dr. Bob, or Dr. Derksen, or Wanderer, or anyone else?"
Darkwolf chuckled-not an entirely pleasant sound. "I thought Wanderer understood," he said. "He did not. Dr. Derksen is a nice enough fellow-I don't really know him well enough to say. Dr. Stein..." He shuddered. "That is a different story.
"You, Raven, are not like them," he told her. "I think you understand ... what pain truly is."
Raven looked away, focusing her gaze on a distant stretch of steel cable above them. Tears began forming anew in her eyes.
"And what would you know about it?" she asked softly.
She watched him out of the corner of her eye. The lupine man looked like he wanted to reach out a hand to comfort her, but the motion aborted itself halfway.
He shuddered again. "Too much," he whispered.
Raven took a deep breath. "You still haven't answered my question," she said. "Why should it have mattered to you if I had stepped off the edge just now?"
Darkwolf lowered his muzzle, his hands clasping uncertainly before him. "That is hard for me to answer," he said. "I did not want to see you die. I don't know why, but ... I thought you have always been somebody who I would like to have known. You remind me of somebody I once knew. I just ... care too much for you to stand by and watch you destroy yourself. Especially over pain like this."
There was a long pause.
"You have a better alternative?" Raven asked hoarsely. "I can't ... do this anymore. I'm just tired." She shook her head. "Too tired to go on like this."
"Please, just get off your chest," Darkwolf urged, leaning toward her slightly. "Get it all off. I will not repeat it."
Raven shook her head wearily. "It's ... a hundred thousand things," she said at last. "I'm sharing my body with a killer who will never listen to me because she'll never respect me. I have no control in my fullmorph form. At least half the people in the world would see me killed or locked away in prison and not care a whit about it." She looked down at her hands again. "Not that I blame them. Everyone I care about ends up getting hurt when I let them get close. And ..." She faltered.
"I miss my mom and dad," she whispered.
Darkwolf nodded. "Are they still alive?" he asked.
"I ... I think so," Raven said, sniffling a little. "But ... I haven't seen them in almost five years. They must think I'm dead by now."
"What's stopping you from seeing them?"
Raven let out an exasperated sigh. "Don't you get it?" she demanded, looking into his eyes. "I'm a threat to everyone I get close to. Going back to them could mean killing them!" She broke the gaze. "And besides ... they've always been afraid of SCABS. Knowing I'd become one would hurt them worse than teeth or claws."
The man nodded again. "So. You are afraid of what you have become," he said.
"Yes," she whispered.
"It terrifies you to the point of nearly jumping from a bridge?"
Raven shivered. Had she done that? Yes, she had ... and she still knew why. "I can't go on like this," she said again, shaking her head. "I don't have the strength."
Darkwolf leaned in a bit closer. "Perhaps I should show you something," he said.
Raven waited. Finally the wolfman got to his feet and extended a pawlike hand toward her.
"Will you come with me?" he asked. "There is something I think you should see."
She considered that for a moment. His eyes were still radiating that sincerity, as if he was absolutely and deadly serious. Of course, Raven's parents had always warned her about deceptive appearances ... ex-President Clinton, they'd say, had once been able to tell you the sky was green with absolute and passionate conviction. But still ... what did she have to lose?
Nothing. That's why I ended up here in the first place, she told herself. I don't have anything left to lose.
She took his hand and rose from the bench.
"You might not like this," Darkwolf warned her, as he helped her to her feet. "But often times we need to see the most ... terrible things ... in order to recover. Do you think you can handle it?"
Raven blinked once and nodded wordlessly. Darkwolf turned and began walking, and she followed behind in silence.
Heiffield Bridge connected the old downtown district to the newer developments on the western side of the river. By virtue of one of the quirks of city growth, the metro area had expanded north, south and eastward before finally sending out tendrils to the Monongahela's western shore. The end result was that the urbanization fell off quite rapidly on the bridge's far side; Raven had only followed Darkwolf a few miles before they were out of the city proper and into the suburbs.
As they walked, Raven continued to regard the man in front of her. He was a killer-she knew that from the testimony of Derksen and Stein, who had watched him murder a man in cold blood. And yet, she also knew that, on some level, this mystery wrapped in an enigma was one of the "good guys." His machinations had succeeded in keeping Senator Van der Waals out of the governor's office. He'd probably been at least partly responsible for keeping the early Scab-human riots from bursting into full-blown genocide-he had indicated to at least a few people around the Pig that his employer was keeping constant vigil over Barnes and the Humans First movement. And only Heaven knew how many threats they'd never heard about had been dispatched by people like Darkwolf.
She frowned. His tactics appalled her, and his arrogance disgusted her ... but he was a heck of a lot better than Barnes and his ilk. Darkwolf at least was sanctioned to do his grisly work-he'd never have survived so long without imprisonment if the law was after him-and he had never killed an innocent ... as far as anyone knew, anyway.
Indeed, Darkwolf seemed to be taking a very serious interest in Raven's own safety-and Raven, to her own mind, was something far less than innocent. She wondered, idly, what was so terrible that he had been so hesitant to show it to her.
Her wondering ceased as soon as she saw where they were going.
The walls were at least ten feet high, made of polished granite. Old-fashioned wrought-iron lanterns protruded from the top of the wall in a regular pattern, casting the place in a soft warm glow. Trees towered overhead just beyond the walls. The bronze lettering of the sign by the gate caught her attention, and at once she understood.
Raven followed Darkwolf inside, down a long, winding path of granite paving stones that led them to a small clearing. The black-suited lupine man came to a stop before a tall, highly polished tombstone, carved from some type of rich, black rock that reminded Raven of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington D.C.
Resting against the base of the headstone, standing in marked contrast to the snow beneath it, was a single, wilted rose.
Raven looked at the inscription carved on the stone.
Love was always what she did best
There was a long, solemn silence, as they both gazed down at the marker. Somewhere overhead, just behind them, the clouds parted.
And in the soft, pale light of the moon, Raven saw herself reflected in the polished, ebon stone.
At the edge of her vision, Raven could see Darkwolf trying his best to breathe slowly, calmly. His eyes glistened with wetness in the ambient moonlight.
"So," she said quietly. "There was someone."
He nodded, raggedly. "Yes," he murmured.
Darkwolf made a sound as if he were about to say more, but his voice caught in his throat.
"What happened to her?" Raven could hear the compassion and concern in her own voice now.
"We ... were among the first to contract the Martian Flu," he said hoarsely. "I happened to become a polymorph ... one of the first of those, too. Elaine, well-" he looked up at her "-she looked very much like you."
The wolfman looked suddenly away again, his eyes drawn to the cruel, impersonal stone before them. His chest heaved as he tried to catch his breath, maintain his composure.
Raven watched and waited, quietly. Finally, he seemed to pull together some scant threads of strength, and spoke again.
"She suffered as you suffer," he explained, shaking his head at the memory. "She could not control the wolf. Only with her ... it was worse. She did something ... that made her walk onto the highway at night and lie down." His voice had risen at least a full octave from his normal baritone, as he fought desperately to maintain control.
"I was on a mission, and didn't know," he said, with a sudden, sniffling breath. "When I got back, her body had been smashed to pieces. Pieces!!" he cried, clenching his fists in anger.
Then, silence, for a few painful seconds.
"I have worn the form of a black wolf ever since," he breathed. "In her memory."
Raven put a hand to his shoulder. "I'm sorry," she said, not sure what else she could say.
Darkwolf turned away, all composure gone now, sobbing openly. Blinking back tears of her own, Raven leaned her head against his arm, sharing in his grief. There were no words-just the shared pain and grief of two lost and disconnected souls.
With one last ragged breath, Darkwolf turned and took Raven in his arms, holding her close to his chest. "I could never let it happen to another I care deeply about," he said, his voice thick with pain and sorrow.
"I'm sorry," Raven whispered again. "I'm so sorry."
Then the poor, broken man-the man whom, until only minutes ago, she had known only as a cold-blooded killer-held her back a few inches from himself and stared into her eyes, his cold, black nose touching hers.
"Raven," he said, tears still running down his muzzle, "I want you to know ... that no matter how much fear you have, I will care for you. I want you ... to be happy. If you need anything, just ask. I will never betray you."
Raven broke the gaze and leaned into his arms. "I believe you," she murmured. "God help me, I believe you. But-" She broke off with a sniffle. "The one thing I need most ... is something even you can't give me-the strength to keep on living.
"There's nothing left for me," she sobbed. "I don't ... have anywhere left to turn."
Darkwolf held her tightly, much the way Donnie had done several hours before. "There are ways we can replenish our strength, Raven," he said softly. "If you don't have the strength to live, you need to find a source for that strength."
"And ... where do I do that?" she asked, choking back a sob.
"... we all have our ways," the man replied, his eyes drifting to the tombstone. Then, he pulled her away from his chest again, and looked down at her. "But right now, on this night? I think your best hope lies at Lexington and Caswell. I have a ... friend, of sorts ... who will be there."
"... what? Now? At this hour?" Raven asked.
"Even now," Darkwolf nodded. "He's a wise old man, who knows many things ... and more people. If he can't help you himself, he can direct you to someone who can. And ... he is much closer to the light than I," he added, momentarily lowering his eyes. "Come, I'll take you there."
Raven took one last look at the headstone. Then, taking his hand, she walked with the broken man once more into the gloom and the darkness.
And headed for the light that awaited them across the river.
It seems it's always the crazy times
You find you'll wake up and realize
It takes more than your saline eyes
To make things right
- Haseltine, Mason, Hudson, Wells
The journey to the corner of Lexington and Caswell was a long and mostly silent affair. Darkwolf strode onward with intensity and purpose, ears moving this way and that for sign of danger, his whole manner seeming as if, for the first time in years, he was doing something worthwhile. Raven walked quietly at his side, occasionally marveling at where this night had taken her-but mostly trying not to think much at all, lest the desperation of a few hours ago should return to her. Darkwolf had promised someone who would help her; she would wait and see, and hope that he was right.
"Here we are," Darkwolf said when they had arrived.
Raven stopped and looked around. There wasn't much here, really; nondescript shops and old office buildings, a few homely apartments, a park bench and some trees on one corner-and an Orthodox synagogue, of all things, on the opposite corner. The latter building was fairly simple in design, and looked quite old. A long, low sign out front identified it for what it was. Raven wondered if this had been an ethnic ghetto at some time in the city's distant past.
The beret-wearing lupine guided her over to the park bench. "Wait here," he said. "I'll go and find my ... friend ... for you. Don't worry," he added, perhaps noticing the expression that came to Raven's face, "I won't be long, or go far. He should join you here in a few minutes, at most."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Raven said, shaking her head. "What, are you saying you're not bringing him back? Where are you going?"
Darkwolf grimaced. "Raven ... the man I'm going to send to you is-perhaps a bit eccentric in his methods," he said at last, apparently choosing his words carefully. "He works best one-on-one. I would really only get in the way." He put a hand on her arm consolingly. "I'll be watching from a distance, to make sure you're all right. But it's important that you take this step on your own."
Raven lowered her head and nodded once, twice. "All right," she said. "Thank you again ... do I still have to call you 'Darkwolf'?" she asked suddenly, looking up at him with something like exasperation. "It's so gloomy. There's gotta be something else...?"
The lupine man sighed. "Perhaps someday, Raven," he said. "But not today. After all, what's the point in your calling me by my given name, when you refuse to carry even your own?" He smiled, sadly. "There are reasons we have chosen to discard our names, Raven. Until those reasons are dealt with ... for both of us ... let them rest in peace."
Leaning over, Darkwolf wrapped Raven in one final embrace, softly kissing her hair as a father might have done. "Good night, Raven," he said, straightening again and stepping back. Giving her one last look, he turned and walked off into the shadows.
Several minutes passed, as Raven closed her eyes and absorbed herself in the sounds and smells of the city. Even after almost seven months living in town, she was amazed at the sheer variety of aromas that were carried on any big-city breeze: oil, gasoline, any of two dozen flavors of rotting garbage, sweat, perfume and cologne, fresh-baked bread, sausages and hamburgers, shoe leather, countless animal scents ... the list was nearly endless, and any twelve of them were in the air at the same time. To a scent-based predator, a large city would mean endless entertainment ... or sensory overload, depending on how well-adjusted the animal was. And then there were the sounds, a cornucopia on their own. Sometimes, in the middle of the night when she couldn't sleep, Raven liked to see how many different noises she could sort out...
Blast it, where is this guy? she wondered. Darkwolf left at least ten minutes ago.
About then, a new sound reached her ears: a deep, quiet voice singing to itself, in a melody that sounded vaguely Russian ... or Slavic, at least. The words were incomprehensible, but the direction of the voice was clear-around the corner, coming toward Raven. She turned and looked-
Just in time to see an old, wrinkled pig-morph come around the turn in the sidewalk, pushing a hot dog cart. He was dressed all in black, wearing a yarmulke...
No, she wasn't hallucinating: the old boar-Scab had a fake beard glued to his chin.
Raven sighed and shook her head, a small smile on her face. SCABS made people do strange things, all right.
Apparently the old fellow was nearsighted-which wouldn't be that surprising, for a boar-because he was within six feet of her when he seemed to notice Raven for the first time. He stopped his cart, paused in mid-verse, and clasped his hands before him.
"Well, well, well," he said, his voice warm and genial in tone. "What have we here, what-have we here? It's a little late to be out here by yourself, isn't it, young lady?"
Raven smiled, more broadly this time. "I could say the same thing about you," she said. "I can't imagine you get much business at this hour."
"Well, that's right, no, I don't," he conceded, tipping his head to one side, his hands spreading outward a little. "But y'know, at my age, with Social Security the way it is these days, you gotta do what you gotta do, right? Excuse me, I'm just going to ... -urgh- have a seat here ... rest my old bones for a minute, hope you don't mind."
Whether she minded or not, the little man was taking a seat next to her as he spoke. Raven scooted over on the bench to make room, finding this stranger somehow endearing.
"Not a problem," she said. "I'm just waiting for somebody. I could use the company."
"Oh, yes, yes, of course. I know what that's like," the man chuckled, gesturing at the synagogue across the street. "Ever since the Flu, when they gave me the old heave-ho, it's been ... it's been kinda lonely." He looked up at her with his dark eyes, and suddenly seemed to remember something. "Oh, forgive me, I'm being terribly rude," he said apologetically. "My name is Avram, I run the wiener stand in this part of town. At your service, Miss."
She took his proffered hand and shook it firmly. "Raven Blackmane," she said. "I'm a graduate student over at McLeod University. Pleased to meet you."
"Oh, likewise, likewise," Avram smiled, his snout wrinkling curiously. "So, Raven-do you mind if I call you Raven? Because if you do, I'll-"
"Raven is fine," she laughed. "What were you saying?"
"Yes, well. Anyway, who is it that you're waiting for, if I might ask?"
"I'm not quite sure, actually," she admitted with a sigh. "A friend of mine was supposed to send a friend of his over here to talk to me, but he's taking his dear sweet time doing it. I thought for a minute it might be you, but..." She shrugged.
There was a pause.
"You mind if I ask you a question, Avram?" Raven asked.
Avram shrugged. "I'm pretty sure you just did," he said.
Raven smirked. "Another one, then."
"You were saying something about getting thrown out of the synagogue?"
"Oh, yes. Well. Before the Flu, I wasn't just a hot dog vendor." He indicated his yarmulke. "I was a rabbi, and headmaster of the city yeshiva. And that-" he gestured to the building across the street "-was where I taught my fellow Jews who lived in this part of the city." He shrugged. "Then God decided it was time for a change. So He made me a walking advertisement for Jimmy Dean."
"Oh, no..." Raven winced. "Are you going to tell me that after you changed, they-"
"Expelled me from the synagogue," Avram nodded. "Because I wasn't kosher."
"Avram, that's terrible!"
"Ah, that's life, Raven," the old man shrugged. "Struggle is what defines our existence. Without trials, what would we have to measure ourselves against? How could we see God's provision for our lives, if He never gave us hard times for Him to deliver us from?"
Raven blinked, again. There was a lot more to this old boar-morph than a silly hot dog vendor. He seemed transformed anew before her eyes-a philosopher, a Socrates for this modern Athens, sharing his thoughts with the people on the streets.
"I don't know," she conceded. "I never thought about it that way before. It seems like an awful lot of suffering for nothing, though."
"Not for nothing, Raven," Avram said, shaking his head. "Nothing that happens to us is ever for nothing. God sends us blessings and suffering alike, so we can see how much He loves us. The Jew has suffered many things throughout history-but it has brought us closer to God. Where would we be today, if not for the exile in Babylon? If not for the Romans burning the Holy City? If not for the constant migrations through all of Europe? If not for the endless wars with the Arabs through the last ninety years?"
"I don't know," Raven said again. "It seems to me you'd have been a lot better off, Rabbi."
"Ah, but that is where you do not yet understand, my child," the porcine man said, his eyes glittering with passion. "Those trials made us who we are. We suffered through them, and some of us even died. A lot of us, actually. But through it all, the Jewish people survived. Countless nations have risen and fallen, Raven, for four thousand years-but the Jews, we survive." He gestured at the night sky above. "God helps us to survive. That's how much He loves us."
"Hmmh." Raven looked at the synagogue across the street, its ancient facade claiming a peace that belied the harsh discrimination that had occurred behind its doors. "Well, you're entitled to your opinion, Rabbi," she said at last.
Avram looked at her in silence for a moment. She could feel his eyes, analyzing, measuring...
"You haven't talked to God recently, have you, Raven?" he asked.
"Heh." A brief glance skyward. "No, Avram, I haven't. God and I haven't really been on speaking terms for a long time."
"Ah. Well. Could I ask why?"
Raven smirked, an expression without humor. "Ironically enough, it was because of science," she said. "When I went off to college to become a biologist, I was immersed in the Church of Science twenty-four hours a day. I took the writings of the great men and women of science as my scriptures, the endless lectures as my sermons. I wanted to understand the world I was living in-to break it down, analyze it, figure out what made it tick. God just sort of ... faded into the background, I guess. I figured that in the world of the Scientific Method there wasn't any room for things like faith." She sighed, wringing her hands absent-mindedly. "Then I started looking deeper into things like SCABS ... and it all fell apart. Everything I thought was sure and certain crumbled to dust in my hands."
She looked up at the sky again. "I found myself asking, 'What's the point of all this, anyway? Why do we bother with life, at all?'-And I realized those were questions that science didn't know how to answer. Now I don't even know where to look for the answers any more ... or whether I'm even asking the right questions."
Avram nodded wisely. "Finding meaning in life is the most important quest anyone can undertake in this world," he said, getting up from the bench and moving in the direction of his vendor's cart. Raven kept her eyes fixed straight ahead, as if her concentration on the building across the street would provide an anchor for her restless mind.
"Some are content-or claim they are-without any such meaning," Avram continued from behind her. "They live, eat, drink, are merry, and die, and think it's worth their while. The rest of us? You? Me?" He paused, and Raven could almost feel the smile on his face. "We know there must be more to existence than 'Will that be with or without onions?' We know there has to be more to it than that. But what that meaning is is a question that only faith can answer. The really important things in life can't be explained by science or logic, Raven. You try to live your life by those things, sooner or later you're going to run into something that you can't handle-because you don't have the strength of knowing there's a purpose through the pain. The really important stuff is what we can't see-but we know in our hearts to be true, anyway." A lid on the vendor's cart closed with a quiet schwump.
"Our hearts," Raven repeated softly, still not looking at him. "I'm not sure if I remember how to listen to my heart, Avram."
"Well. Maybe what you need is a little refresher course, then."
Raven felt something thin and warm pressed into her hands, crinkling in a wrapping of wax paper. Looking down, she saw that it was a hot dog, with mustard, relish, onions-
And a business card.
Light of Hope Christian Fellowship
115 Lexington Ave.
EVERY SATURDAY: ALL-NIGHT INTERCESSION & MINISTRY
"Avram, what's this?" Raven asked, puzzling over the card before her. "I thought you were Jewish. What are you doing with a Christian pastor's business card?"
No response. Raven looked up to see what was the matter-
But the old rabbi was gone-hot dog cart and all.
"Oy vey," Raven murmured. "He must have been Darkwolf's friend, after all. He certainly knows enough of his tricks."
Standing to her feet, hot dog in one hand, business card in the other, Raven looked up toward the sky.
"All right," she said, not particularly caring who heard her. "They say you work in mysterious ways. Well, you've got my attention. If there's something you've got to say to me, I'm listening." She spread her arms outward, like someone checking for the fall of scattered raindrops.
"And if you're really up there..." she added softly-
A moment's hesitation.
"Then show me."
Head held high, eyes forward, Raven Blackmane headed northward on Lexington Avenue toward the Light of Hope Christian Fellowship.
And fervently hoped the place lived up to its name.
("I Hear Your Knock" Copyright 1998 by Jeremy Chambers -- used by permission)
All said and done, I stand alone
-- Dan Haseltine
From the outside, the place really didn't look like all that much. A simple storefront church in a long block of low-rise shops and offices, the only thing that really identified it as a house of worship at all was a simple, unpretentious sign over the doorway. White letters on a blue background read:
LIGHT OF HOPE CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP
A cross and a stylized dove on either side of the lettering completed the placard.
How long had it been since Raven had been inside one of these places?
She realized, after a moment, that she wasn't sure and it didn't matter anyway. The lights inside were on and the front door was unlocked, so Raven pulled it open and stepped through.
Inside she found a small lobby with a windowed receptionist's office on the right, stairs leading up from the far left end of the room, and a doorway straight ahead. Soft, soothing music and indistinct voices floated through the doorway from whatever lay beyond it -- presumably the chapel itself. The air was filled with innumerable people-scents, more than a few of which had enough bestial traits to indicate other Scabs. A potpourri of colognes, perfumes and deodorants rounded out the scene for Raven's lupine senses. Wiping her snow-encrusted boots on the doormat, she headed in the direction of the music.
The passageway led, as expected, to the chapel -- a softly-lit chamber with wood-paneled walls, red carpets and red-upholstered pews. The room was two stories high, with the roof sloping up from the sides to give the impression of a vaulted ceiling. A raised platform at the front held the musicians' equipment, a few pews that must have been for the pastors and singers, and a large wooden podium at center stage. A large wooden cross was mounted on the back wall, with another stylized white dove at the point where the beams crossed.
There were no musicians or speakers on the platform at the moment -- the music, apparently, was coming from a disc playing on the sound system. There were, however, people in this sanctuary -- a lot of people, actually. Some were sitting in the pews, some kneeling at the altar in front of the platform, some walking back and forth in the aisles and the open space up front. All of them were praying -- some loudly, others softly, all earnestly.
Well. I don't suppose you'd come to an all-night prayer meeting unless you were pretty earnest, Raven thought. She glanced at her watch: a little before four o'clock.
A little uncertainly, Raven stepped inside the chapel, looking around for somebody who might be able to tell her where she could find this Alexander Marlow. Or, for that matter, what he was going to do for her.
The song that had been playing in the background came to an end, as Raven walked down the center aisle. A new track came on...
And suddenly, quite out of the blue, the fur on the back of Raven's neck started tingling. She looked at the people around her, but most of them seemed to be murmuring things Raven didn't understand about wind and fire and The Spirit. None of them seemed to have detected anything different in the air around them ... but Raven did.
I hear your voice over the waters, sang the recorded musicians. Calling to me, "Won't you come?"...
Something was tugging at Raven inside, at the very center of her being ... a strange sensation she couldn't quantify.
"Won't you dine with me?"
"Won't you talk with me?"
"Won't you open your heart to me?"
Several men and women in the pews near Raven seemed to echo agreement with the song. Raven looked up at the cross at the far end of the room.
I hear your knock on my door -- you are my Lord and my God.
I gladly open the door -- come into my heart...
... Raven found herself at the foot of the altar...
My love, my first love...
... kneeling before the cross...
... I won't forsake you anymore...
... sobbing her eyes out.
Vaguely, Raven was aware of ... a voice, for lack of a better term ... in the back of her mind, whispering gently to her.
Why did you leave? the voice asked. Why did you walk away from me? I love you, my daughter -- my precious, chosen one. Let me carry your burdens. I love you.
My love, my first love...
I love you.
I won't forsake you anymore...
I love you...
And Raven Blackmane cried.
Raven had no perception of how much time passed before she finally regained her composure. Having wept until the tears would flow no more, she sat back on her knees, took another tissue from the box that someone had so thoughtfully placed in front of the altar, and cleared her eyes and nose of the liquid that had filled them in the time since she had last done this. She sat there quietly for a while, looking up at the simple cross in front of her, not really sure what she was supposed to do next.
She heard someone come up beside her, her ears swiveling to track the sound, but it wasn't until the man spoke that she realized he was looking at her.
"Excuse me," he said, in a soft, quiet tone of voice.
Raven turned her head and looked at him. The man was of about average height, with a slender build. He looked, to Raven's eyes, to be in his late twenties. He wore blue jeans and a simple black long-sleeved shirt that almost looked like it was meant to be worn with a white collar. The man had dark hair, cropped close in a simple style. Overall, he looked rather normal--
Except for the silky white fur that covered all his exposed skin, and the black eyes that glittered like polished obsidian.
Raven took a breath in and caught his scent: human, but with a heavy dose of ermine thrown into the mix. His gentle, rather handsome features radiated compassion and concern.
"Yes?" she asked, her voice equally quiet.
"I was wondering if you've ever been here before," he said, lowering himself to one knee beside her.
"First time," said Raven.
"Okay," the man said, nodding. "Well, my name is Alexander Marlow -- you can call me Alex -- and I'm the care pastor at this church. This is an all-night service we hold every Saturday for people who want to pray, and for people who would like to be prayed for." He paused for a moment, as if choosing his words. "I, uh -- couldn't help but notice that God was really speaking to you here, and I was wondering if you would like me to pray with you about anything."
Raven frowned, noting his choice of words: "God was speaking to you." The metaphor was an ironic one, considering the voices she'd been hearing in her head since arriving here. Dear God, she wondered. Am I losing it? Is the wolf literally driving me insane? Normal people don't hear voices in their heads...
She shrugged noncommittally, sniffling a little from the remaining moisture in her nose. "Maybe," she said at last. "To be honest, I'm not quite sure what I'm doing here, anyway."
Alex nodded, as though this was something he heard often. "All right. If you don't mind my asking..." He spread his hands outward, gesturing vaguely. "Do you have any particular spiritual questions you'd like me to answer for you? Anything I can clear up?"
Raven looked away then, suddenly. Her eyes were drawn back up to the dove on the cross. "Tell me, Pastor Alex," she said slowly, softly. "They say ... when you talk to God, it's prayer ... but when God talks to you, it's schizophrenia. I've been hearing ... voices. In my head. Right here, tonight." She took a deep breath, then let it out, slowly. "SCABS has been causing me a lot of stress lately, and I have to wonder ... if I haven't just totally snapped."
Alex smiled, and there was sympathy in the expression. "Well, God does speak to us from time to time," he said. "It's not a universal, constant thing by any means, but it does happen. It's happened to me on a number of occasions." He paused again, studying Raven closely. "I'm wondering, Miss...?"
"Blackmane. Raven Blackmane."
Alex smiled knowingly. "How would you describe your relationship with God, Raven?"
Raven snorted. "What relationship?" she asked rhetorically, but there was no malice in her words. "I grew up in a little church in a little town out in the boondocks. Church was three songs, a prayer and a sermon that would sometimes go two hours." She bit her lip in thought. "To Mom and Dad, it was important. It was serious, it was real. To me..." She shook her head. "God was always somebody who was just there in the background ... like the uncle you hear about from your mother, who lives on the other side of the country and never comes to visit. People talk about him all the time -- tell you stories about him, show you pictures of him -- but he's never really real to you, y'know?" Alex nodded. "After I left for college and got out on my own, it never seemed so important any more."
"Until now?" Alex asked quietly.
I love you, said the voice in Raven's mind.
"Yeah," Raven breathed.
Alex quietly settled onto both knees beside her. "If it's all right with you, Raven," he said, "I'd like to know how you came to be here tonight."
Quietly, Raven told him everything -- about her transformation ... about the wolf ... about the attacks on Grace and Wiley ... about her self-imposed exile to, and return from, the wilderness ... and about the bridge, the conversations with Darkwolf and Avram, and her subsequent journey to this storefront church.
"I can't handle trying to control this wolf," she told him, wearily. "I'm not strong enough. Darkwolf said that I should find a way to replenish my strength -- that's why he sent me to Avram, probably so he would send me to someone like you." She raised her eyebrows in a sad, apologetic expression. "But I don't really know what you can do for me, pastor. I don't even know what any of this has to do with my problem."
Alex sighed softly -- not in irritation or annoyance, but simply in shared weariness. "Well, Raven," he said softly, "it sounds like you already know about Jesus, and His plan for salvation, right?"
"Heard it all a million times," Raven agreed, nodding.
"That's good. But there's a difference between having a religion ... and having a relationship. God isn't interested in us just coming to church every Sunday and getting preached at for two hours." His dark eyes were pleading, passionate. "God is a real person, Raven, and He wants us to treat Him like a person. He wants us to talk to Him and spend time with Him -- to really know Him, the way He knows us. And I'll tell you the honest truth, because I've seen it happen many, many times: If you have that personal relationship with God -- if you walk with Him, and talk with Him, and give Him your love as well as your time -- then His Holy Spirit will give you the strength to make it through all life's obstacles. He'll help you overcome them, and I'm sure that's what your friend Darkwolf was talking about."
Raven shook her head, more in indecision than denial. "I don't know. I can't imagine having the strength to fight this ... animal inside me."
"Maybe you don't have to fight the wolf," Alex returned. "Maybe that's God's problem. You told me that the wolf sees weakness in you, and doesn't respect you because of that." He smiled. "Well, God's about as strong as they come. With His strength inside you, to give you hope and a reason to keep on living ... maybe then the wolf will be more agreeable to letting you lead her."
Raven lowered her head, silent as she focused her thoughts inward. Do you hear what he's saying? she asked the wolf. Are you just angry at me because I don't have any purpose? Any direction? Any confidence? Is that why I'm a bad leader?
The wolf growled, and gray fog churned in the back of her mind. Other Self is a leader who does not know where to lead, the animal-mind answered, flashing the word-images before her. You run the trail without knowing which prey you seek. The leader's indecision is the death of the pack.
Raven chewed at her lip. And you think this man is right? That this ... relationship with God would remove that indecision?
Yellow eyes glistened. Any path followed steadily is better than no path at all. The only path you seek now is the way toward death. The leader cannot be permitted to lead the pack to destruction. A mental growl reinforced the point.
"I don't know," Raven said again, aloud. "It sounds too easy -- too good to be true."
Alex smiled again. "Raven, there was a poem that was written a long time ago, called 'Footprints'. It tells about a woman who had a dream that she was walking along the beach, with Jesus walking beside her. She looked back along the path she had traveled, and saw that the beach represented her life -- footprints stretched back across the sand, through everything that had ever happened in her life.
"But she noticed something: Though in most places there were two sets of footprints, there were a few spots where only one set of footprints was left in the sand. As she looked closer, she saw that those spots represented the hardest and most painful periods in her life.
"The woman turned to Jesus, asking, 'How could you do this, Lord? How could you leave me every time things were at their worst?'" He smiled. "Then Jesus looked down with a smile and said, 'My child, I love you and will never leave you. The places where you see only one set of footprints -- those were the times when I carried you.'"
I love you, said the voice in Raven's mind. She closed her eyes, wincing, and sobbed once.
Alex leaned forward, eyes sparkling. "God loves you, Raven. He'll be with you all the time, if you'll let Him. I won't tell you it'll always be easy -- it's hard, Raven. Life's almost always hard. But Jesus will carry you when you aren't strong enough to stand on your own -- because He loves you."
Raven let out a sharp breath. "But if God loves me so much, how could He let this happen?!" she asked, her voice somewhere between harsh and desperate. "If He's all-powerful and all-knowing, how could He let us bring back this disease that would violate us like this? What's the reason for this, Alex?! Is this love?" She gestured at herself angrily -- then wilted in exhaustion, sobbing a few times before falling back into soft sniffles.
"None of this is God's plan, Raven," Alex said, once she had grown quiet again. "We live in a universe that was damaged by sin. God doesn't just wave His hand and fix everything because we're an object lesson for the angels and demons, and He has a point to make. God's a redemptive God -- He wants to show His love for us, to bring us back to Him -- but He lets us choose for ourselves what path we will take. So He came and died for us, opened the door for us to have a relationship with Him again, and left the decision up to us. We live in a painful world, and there's a lot of bad things that happen to good people -- but if everything were wonderful, there'd be no reason for us to think we needed God."
It's true. The voice in Raven's head grew suddenly, to an almost shocking intensity. It's true. It's true. It's true. I love you. It's true.
Raven gasped, wobbled a little bit, and regained her balance. Alex looked at her carefully, and she could tell he had seen what happened to her.
"Does that make sense to you?" he asked, gently.
It's true. It's true. I love you. I love you. It's true.
"I think ... it does," Raven breathed, with a sense of wonder in her voice. "As a matter of fact," she added, slowly, "I think it makes more sense than anything I've ever known."
Alex nodded. "Would you like to pray with me now?" he asked. "To ask Jesus for that personal relationship with Him?"
"... Yes," Raven murmured, eyes unfocused as she glanced up at the wooden cross. "I think ... that I'd like that."
"... And Lord, I thank you that you've heard the cry of Raven's heart tonight. I thank you that your Spirit lives within her now, and you will never leave her or forsake her -- she is a child of God now. I pray that you will give her your strength to walk in victory from this day forward, and that you will reveal more of yourself to her with each and every day. We thank you, Lord, for your salvation, your mercy and your love. In Jesus' precious and holy name, Amen."
"Amen," Raven echoed, opening her eyes and smiling as Alex released her hands from his. Picking up the Bible, devotional guide and church welcome packet Alex had given her, Raven rose from the pew and stretched her arms and legs. She glanced at the clock that hung above the chapel exit: about a quarter to six. She and Alex had talked for a long time after her initial prayer for salvation -- about how to pray and how to read the Bible, and the meeting times of the various services and study groups the church offered. Right now, though, what Raven wanted most was a good eight hours' sleep; she was sure God would understand if she held off coming back until the evening service.
"I'll call you periodically to see how you're doing," Alex promised, as he rose to stand beside her. "If you have any questions, don't hesitate to call me, or ask me after service."
"Will do," Raven said, with a small smile.
Alex returned the expression. "I'm also going to put you in touch with some people who can help you stay on course -- help you learn how to live daily in a relationship with God. Is that all right with you?"
Raven nodded, as Alex threw a look around the sanctuary. His eyes landed somewhere near the back, and he gestured beckoningly. "We have several of these support teams who specialize in working with young single adults like yourself," he said, as two people made their way down front. One was a tall, lanky black man, with short curly hair and eyes that sparkled with life. The other was a Latino woman of medium height and build, with hair cropped at shoulder length and a warm smile.
"Raven, this is Jim and Letty Daniels," Alex said in introduction. "Jim, Letty, this is Raven Blackmane. She just gave her life to the Lord tonight."
Both our lives, Raven silently told the wolf. I'm turning you over to a new leader. Can you agree with that?
The wolf howled in her mind. It is acceptable.
After a few pleasantries and some telephone numbers were exchanged, Jim and Letty invited Raven over for dinner. She accepted, and they amicably parted ways.
Raven was just walking up the center aisle toward the exit when she caught a couple familiar scents ahead of her. An instant after she recognized them, two very familiar figures appeared on the other side of the doorway.
"I was wondering how long it would take you to get here," Antoinette said with a smile.
Raven grinned and embraced her "substitute parents" warmly.
"I'm here now," she told them, feeling more hope than in any time she could remember. "It took me long enough ... but I'm here now."
There was a tension in the air as we left the church sanctuary. I didn't know ... couldn't know what Raven and Lady D were feeling. But suddenly, even after all the time I'd spent in prayers that she'd come back ... now, all I could do was feel as though I was dancing on a hot griddle, praying that I didn't make another mistake.
"Are you all right?", whispered my Lady softly to Raven as we passed from beneath the stoop light into a chill winter night that was just beginning to brighten on the eastern horizon. As our returned prodigal turned to her to speak, I saw my chance. Silently, I slipped off into the darkness, knowing from experience that neither one would even notice my leaving until there was a pause in the conversation. Not that there wouldn't be paws in the conversation, said my imagination, trying desperately to jolly me out of my mood. I ignored it.
That was the question that kept burning a hole in the pit of my stomach for want of an answer. Why? Why had she left? What had I said, or done, or not said, or not done, that she couldn't even wait for me to tell her what I knew of the wolf?
I chuckled sadly. The Wolf. As though it was some separate part of us, some section of our soul that SCABS changed as it did our flesh. Sometimes, I wondered at people that talked about it as though ... well, as though there was someone else doing all the living, breathing and dying when that side was at the fore. I suppose I had it easy, mind you.
Not everyone's a berserker.
I chuckled again as the word crossed my mind. If my Norse ancestors could've seen me before I turned into a walking advertisement for the "Free Fenris" campaign, they would've laughed themselves sick at my claiming the title of "berserk". But it fits. Deep in my mind, heart and soul is an animal, waiting for his moments in the sun.
But then, I thought, it isn't as though there isn't an animal inside so-called "normal" humans. It's just that theirs is an ape, a simian that wants to hide away in the treetops when it's frightened, to go up where nothing can reach it. Not a wolf, that never thinks of running away from open battle ... not because of bravery, but because no sensible wolf would turn their back on an opponent. I smiled as an old slogan from the Internet came to mind: "I met my inner child ... he's a puppy."
After what seemed to be a long time, I reached the car, my good old electric. Just like me, I sometimes think. Not glamorous, but there's more than you can see at first glance. I opened the rear door and climbed in the back seat, then reached out and pushed the key into the ignition. I didn't think my silence would surprise Lady Death much. Not under the circumstances.
It's odd, I sometimes think, that she only truly becomes Lady Death to me at moments like these. Moments when I have to defer to her inimitable way of getting people to open up. But then...
But then, this had never happened before.
I had never almost lost someone before.
I managed to hold in the sobs as my sleep-deprived emotions swung like a hanged man in a gale. But I couldn't stop a few tears trickling down my face fur. What did I do wrong? What was it that sent her away?
And still, soft inside me came that scared little voice... Does she hate me?
I wonder. I ... wonder.
I heard their footsteps on the gravel parking lot as they approached the car. I started a little ... then realized that, as lost in thought as I had been, I had no way of knowing how long the conversation lasted. I composed myself, and blotted my tears on my shirtsleeve, then reached over and unlocked the front passenger-side door. Then I just sat back and prayed that my poor silence would keep me from doing anything wrong. If it didn't ... if she vanished again...
I don't know. I just don't know.
The front doors opened, and Raven and my Lady climbed silently into the car. Lady Death turned the key in the ignition, and the instrument panel quietly lit up as the batteries started feeding their noiseless power to the rest of the vehicle.
There were a few moments' silence. Raven exchanged a wordless glance with my Lady, and seemed to come to a decision. Then...
"Wanderer?" Raven asked quietly.
I leaned forward, but couldn't keep from whispering, maybe thinking that I'd take fewer chances with a softer voice. "Yes?"
"I --" Raven broke off, as if considering her next words carefully. "I'm sorry that I did ... what I did to you," she said at last. "I was so focused on my own desperation, I didn't consider how ... my leaving ... might have hurt you." She turned around in the seat and looked up with tears in her eyes. "I never meant to," she added quietly.
As my heart seemed to breathe a great sigh of relief, I leaned forward still further, taking her by the shoulders into as much of a hug as you can give across a universal joint and a seat back. "I know," I said in a choked voice. "I know. That's what scared me. I was afraid ... no. Let's not go there."
Raven returned the hug with a long sigh herself. "Oh, Wand," she said softly. "It wasn't about you. None of this ever had anything to do with you. It was my problem -- and in the process of facing it ... or not facing it, as the case may be ... I let you get caught in the middle. I'm sorry."
I smiled as she used that odd little "pet name", to coin a semi-pun, that she'd given me soon after we met. "Well, now," I said, "What kind of actor would I be if I didn't think I was at the center of everything?"
Raven laughed softly, sniffed back a few tears, and released me from the embrace to look at me eye-to-eye. "Antoinette told me how you've been praying for me," she said. "Thank you. I wouldn't have really thought it was worth much until a few hours ago, but ... thank you."
I released her gently, one hand trailing along the dark silk of her eponymous mane as we parted. "You're more than welcome," I replied, my own emotional exhaustion beginning to tell. "After all ... what's a friend for?"
Raven smiled. "Indeed," she agreed softly, using a little bit of a faux English accent. "Indeed."
I smiled and slipped into my own, though I regret to say it was a bit slippery just then. "And welcome home ... milady."
(with guest writer Jon Sleeper)
December 24, 2029.
Veni, veni Adonai!
Qui populo in Sinai
Legem dedisti vertice,
In Maiestate gloriae.
Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel
Nascetur pro te, Israel!
Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel
Nascetur pro te, Israel!
The eerie harmonies of the Lupine Boys' choir gave way to thoughtful silence. Wolfshead rang the handbell three times -- an item Alex had secured for them from a local monastery, thanks to some connections at Great Ministries -- and all was quiet.
Then the room erupted into applause and cheers.
Wanderer, the conductor, turned to face the audience and bowed with his Christmas choir as the cheering continued. From her position on stage, Raven looked out over the upper room that would, starting tonight, be the official home of the Blind Pig Gin Mill's private club. It was a move Donnie had been contemplating for a while now -- the private hall had been completed in mid-autumn, the last stage of the construction project that had begun with the restaurant downstairs. A week ago Monday, he'd announced that the Christmas Eve party would be the official kickoff for the club. He'd also requested some entertainment for the party, and Wanderer and the LB's had been more than willing to oblige.
Jack DeMule lurched over to Wanderer as he and the other LB's left the stage. "Gotta tell ya, Wand'rer," he said, his speech a little slurred from the four mugs of holiday cheer he'd helped himself to so far, "that was flippin' amazing. A bunch o' wolves, singin' together on key! Think of it!" He patted his friend a little too firmly on the back. "And hey, that finale -- that was beautiful, that was really something special. Only you could have thought to do 'O Come, Emmanuel' as a Gregorian Chant, in the original Latin!"
"Why, thank you, Jack," Wanderer answered brightly. "But I wasn't really the first, you know. A fellow by the name of ... Davis, I believe ... did it about forty years ago. It was quite popular at the time."
"Heh. Well, it was terrific, Wand," the inebriated mule said with a grin. "I 'spect to see you boys up there again nex' year, all right?"
"We'd be delighted to, O mellifluous mule of mine," Wanderer assured him, moving to take his seat as the next act stepped up to the microphone.
The next act just happened to be Raven herself -- alone.
Tapping the microphone experimentally, she leaned over it and asked, "How's everybody enjoying the party so far?"
Raucous cheers and applause in response. Raven smiled, nervously crinkling the sheets of notepaper she clutched in one hand. Reaching down with her other hand, she stretched them out again, smoothing the wrinkles as she spoke.
"I, uh -- I've been going through some pretty hard stuff the last two months, as most of you know by now," she said, letting her eyes sweep the room. Antoinette, Wanderer, Doug, Donnie, Alex, and even Avram, sitting in the front row ... Coops and Fox Cutter midway back on the left ... Lupine Boys scattered throughout ... Brian and the Sleeper family sitting near the back, Grace in a special wheelchair but looking better for an extra month's recovery time.
Nearly everyone who had been involved on this rollercoaster ride with her over the last two months was here tonight.
Most of them wanted an explanation of what had happened to her.
"A little over a week ago, I came back from what was probably the darkest period I've ever had in my life," she continued. "And I've been spending the last week trying to put into words what happened to me ... to try and really get a grip on this thing, to express how I feel about all of it.
"Well ... last Sunday night -- at about one in the morning," she added with a smile, "I finally got it all to come together. A lot of you have been wondering what happened to me. I'd like to tell you ... and at the same time, share my feelings about all of this ... with a poem that I wrote during those lonely hours, late on Sunday night. I -- hope that it helps you to feel ... some of what this experience has done for me."
Raven held up the papers before her, her hands only shaking for a moment. She cleared her throat, as the audience waited patiently for her to begin.
"I Stand Alone," she said, reading the title that she'd scrawled across the top of the first page.
And then, she began to read the poem -- softly, evenly, in the rich alto voice she'd had even before the Flu.
I stand alone, in the morning of my life
She paused, swallowed once, then began the second stanza.
I stand alone, a universe of pain
Raven looked up, her eyes focusing on Grace, Jon, Maxine, and Brian, each in turn.
I stand alone, endrenched with innocent blood
Raven watched him carefully as she spoke the words, but if Jon had any reaction to them she couldn't read it. Swallowing again and blinking back a few tears that threatened to cloud her vision, Raven pressed forward.
I stand alone in valleys filled with guilt
As she read, she gave apologetic looks to each of the Lupine Boys in turn, fixing her gaze at last on Doug. The coyote fullmorph was looking up at her with the big, sad puppy-dog-eyes expression Raven had always found so pitiful as to be inexpressibly cute.
She read the next stanza as matter-of-factly as possible.
I stand alone within the winter forests,
Raven looked to the door off to her right that led out to a fire escape, half expecting to see Darkwolf standing there, looking through the window.
But there was nothing outside but darkness.
I stand alone, my life wholly unraveled
Raven's voice caught suddenly, and she had to fight for control for what seemed like an eternity before she could finish the stanza.
He shows me my reflection in a gravestone
Her eyes drifted to Avram, whose expression seemed to say "Hey, who are you calling ancient?" while still holding a smile. She grinned a little through her tears before continuing her reading.
I stand alone, before the rugged cross
Her gaze focused on Alex, who smiled encouragingly and nodded.
I sit and weep, still not yet believing
Wanderer and Antoinette, together in the front row, were both smiling now. Her heart lifting with an overwhelming peace -- "a peace that passes understanding," Alex had called it -- Raven read the final stanza with the steadfast strength and determination of a solemn oath:
I stand within the rays of newborn sunlight;
Silence, for just a moment.
Tears of joy ran down Raven's cheeks as she lifted her head toward Heaven. "Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you."
As Raven stepped down off the stage she was greeted by several of her lupine brethren.
"That was great, Raven!" Ringwolf told her with a grin. "The Muse was with you on Sunday, eh?"
::Your poem was very nice,:: Lupe agreed, giving her a look that somehow conveyed childlike happiness and childlike sincerity all at once. ::Like you.::
"Aww. Come 'ere, ya big furball," Raven said, giving the big lupine a hug and a scritch behind the ears.
::Hey, guys!:: Jim called, pushing his head under her hand as Raven released Lupe from the hug. ::Raven's giving scritches!::
If possible, the rollicking lupines pushed even closer around her.
::Me next! Me next!::
::Over here, Raven! I've got this terrible itch just above my vodor...::
Laughing, Raven gave quick scritches to each of her friends and finally extricated herself from their clinging. When she broke out of the mob of gray, her eyes scanned automatically across the room--
And came to rest on the Sleepers, where Raven just spotted Maxine leaning over to whisper something to Jon.
The buck-morph gave his wife a frustrated look, as she rose from her seat and began walking in Raven's direction. Their eyes connected for an instant, and Raven knew the moment she'd been dreading was upon her.
"Interesting poem, Raven," Maxine said as she approached.
As one, the other lupines abruptly dissolved away into the crowd. They all knew this was none of their business, and they really didn't look forward to what might happen...
"You might have come to me earlier with your problem," the deer-woman remarked casually. "I might have been able to help."
Raven raised her eyebrows in an apologetic smile. "I appreciate the offer, Mrs. Sleeper -- but you can probably understand why I would have been a little nervous about coming to you."
Maxine nodded. "One can't be angry forever, though," she said. "If I'd known the cause of what had happened, I might not have been so angry for so long."
Raven lowered her head a little. "I'm sorry. I thought everyone at the bar knew about the wolf by now."
"Not as such. At least, I thought it was something like my own condition."
The wolf-woman smiled sadly. "I think your husband is probably the only person around here who has to deal with anything like my wolf," she said. "Fortunately, it doesn't look like she's going to be giving me so much trouble from here on."
The deer-morph nodded again. "Just feel free to see me if you ever have more problems," she said. "But on the other hoof, about Jon -- the Rut's still got him worked up. He's gotten over the worst of his rage, but I'd let him approach you."
"Thanks for the warning," Raven replied, throwing a glance over in the buck's direction. The LB's had steered her, knowingly or not, uncomfortably close to where Jon sat. Raven regarded him carefully, but his expression was unreadable. "I've been trying for a while now to figure out how I would apologize to him -- to all of you, actually." She folded her hands in front of her, her eyes sad and sincere. "I'm afraid that all I can say is I'm sorry ... and that it won't happen again."
"See that it doesn't," Maxine retorted, rather sharply, as a little of the lingering anger leaked through her mask. "You're not alone in this world, you know. All animorph Scabs are a mix of human and animal -- and we all have our own difficulties with these instincts."
Raven nodded, lowering her gaze again. It was a moment before she spoke again. "You have every right to hate me," she said quietly. "I know that. And I realize other animorphs have their own share of instinct problems. --Heck, don't all humans, period? Doesn't everybody have times when their darker side gets through?"
She looked up again, but her eyes were distant and thoughtful. "I'm beginning to see ... we all have a predator inside us, Maxine. Humans are mean and stupid and selfish. It's just a matter of how we choose to deal with that part of ourselves -- whether we give in to it..." Her eyes drifted upward to the ceiling in a meaningful gesture. "Or give it over to the only one who can control it."
There was silence for a moment before Maxine spoke again. "Whatever gave you the idea that I hate you?" she asked softly. "I'm just glad you've found your own way of dealing with your instincts. I might be angry at you, but I don't hate you."
Raven turned her gaze on the older woman. "But Jon does, doesn't he?"
Maxine's ears twitched, and she turned and gave her husband a significant look.
Oh, no, Raven realized suddenly, her eyes going wide. With those ears, he must be able to hear us...
Jon rose from his chair and walked toward the two women. Even with his antlers shed for the winter, he seemed to tower over Raven.
The lupine woman bit her lip anxiously, glancing furtively upward but not meeting his eyes. To her surprise, Jon's expression actually softened.
"Hate you?" he said. "I have to admit, I did at first. Until you nearly died in the hospital."
"... There is that," Raven said quietly.
Finally, she looked up at him. "Jon, I ..." She stopped, swallowed, and tried again. "Nothing I can say will ever undo what I did."
"Can you ever forgive me?"
"Forgive, yes," Jon said, nodding once. "Forget, no. I've been in the same sort of position you just came out of. I know what it's like to be an animal, to live like one. And I'm just as capable of losing control as you are."
A soft whistle came from behind Jon. The stag-morph turned to look back at Grace, sitting in her wheelchair with Brian at the controls. The coonish man motioned for Maxine to come over, and she did so. Jon and Raven were silent for a moment as the fawn-girl conferred with her mother.
Maxine gave the girl a long look, then nodded and walked back to Jon. She whispered so softly that even Raven's sensitive ears couldn't catch it, and Jon turned back to the lupine woman with a surprised look.
It took a nudge in the ribs from Maxine to get Jon's throat working again. "Grace wanted to know ... if you wanted to come over for dinner on Friday night," he said, with a bit of a wondering voice.
Raven was speechless. She looked over at Grace, who smiled a little and nodded.
"I ... I'd love to," she managed at last, her eyes filling a little with tears.
Then, so softly it was nearly a prayer...
Standing on the fire escape outside the club hall, Raven looked up at the star-filled sky. Little wisps of cloud floated past, as the full moon reflected its light off the snow in the streets below.
::So let me get this straight,:: Jim said, sitting beside her on the landing. ::You spent all that time in the woods ... went to the doctors ... talked to the shrinks and the holy men ... and you still didn't find a way to control the wolf?::
"Nope," Raven said, leaning on the rail and idly kicking a bit of snow off the landing. "She's still inside me. She still has the same needs and urges -- she still wants to hunt, to defend the pack, to do all the things wolves do. I haven't heard the last of her, not by a long shot."
::But now she'll listen to you?:: the fullmorph lupine asked.
"Sounds like it. She's accepted the notion of me turning her over to a higher authority, as it were. I'll still have to make sure she gets her chances to run, hunt, and be free -- but now she's willing to do it on my timetable."
::Because now you have a mission, of sorts. A purpose.::
::And that's it?:: Jim pressed. ::You sat in front of an altar and cried for a while and heard the voice of God telling you He loves you? Some people might say that's grounds for institutionalizing you.:: His tongue lolled out in a lupine grin to reinforce the comedic attempt.
The wolf-woman smiled. "It's what I needed, Jim," she said simply. "It doesn't matter if anyone else believes that it happened. It's given me what no doctor ... no therapist ... ever could." She looked down at him, and scritched behind his ear. "It's given me a reason to live. It's given me hope."
Silence. A wind blew somewhere above them, and a swirl of snowflakes drifted down from the roof.
::Merry Christmas, Raven.::
"Merry Christmas, Jim."
"The moon is full."
::Yes, it is.::
"Would you ... howl with me?"
Jim grinned. ::Is that Raven talking, or the wolf?::
Raven smiled. "Both."
And the haunting strains of wolfsong echoed over the city.
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