Shiftless, Chapter 2, Scene 2

Continued from Chapter 2 Scene 1

Chapter 2 Scene 2

It seemed like poetic justice that I would be forced to call upon my wolf at last in order to save another little girl alone in the cold autumn woods. I was terrified to even touch my wolf brain, let alone to bring an impulse-control-challenged wolf out to hunt a tasty toddler. I could imagine getting in touch with my wolf brain, tracking down the child, and then doing something unspeakable. But if I didn’t find the toddler, would a slow descent into hypothermia be any worse for Melony?

So I closed my eyes, ignored the way the wet ground was soaking through the seat of my pants, and began to count my breaths. In and out, slowing down, until I could hear past the rain dripping off the trees. The metallic chip of a cardinal settling onto its perch punctuated the evening. The musky scent of a fox coming out of its daytime den drifted toward my nose. I heard the snort and stamp of a deer as she pounded her forefoot against the ground to determine whether a strange object was danger, or just a fallen tree.

It had been so long since I’d changed that I almost didn’t recognize the first symptom: the sensation of hairs pushing out of my skin at a thousand times their normal speed. As a teenage werewolf, I remember shifting nightly to tempt the hair on my head to grow longer after a bad trim, never mind that I’d always have to shave my legs afterwards, even if the skin had felt smooth as a baby’s bottom before the change. Now the tickling itch was so unfamiliar, it almost pulled me out of my meditative trance.

In and out, counting breaths, I forced my focus back onto the shift. For some werewolves, the next sign of the change was the reason they stayed in human form whenever possible. Itching gave way to shooting pains as my bones became malleable, ready to morph into wolf shape. But I had a high pain threshold, and the invisible daggers were a welcome hint that I might actually shift this time, might actually find my wolf (and Melony) before it was too late.

But hope faded as I felt the wolf brain taking over my thoughts. No, erasing my thoughts and replacing them with wordless visions and drifts of feelings. I wanted to shift so badly…but I was terrified of the loss of control. Maybe when I’d lived back in Haven, isolated in our werewolf-only community, I could have let my inner wolf loose. There, if my wolf had gone feral, a dozen stronger wolves would have taken me down. Here, I was surrounded only by weak humans, their scent already making me salivate. I could sense the two-footers all around me, the closest one no more than a hundred feet away. His nose was running and he was out of breath, but I could tell he’d eaten pizza for lunch, the tomato sauce providing a piquant addition to his already enticing odor.

I jerked myself out of the wolf brain as abruptly as I often woke from a night’s sleep, but this time the reason was terror of my wolf’s appetites. With the wolf brain’s retreat came an absence of the extra senses my darker side had made possible, and the woods around me once again seemed muffled by the quiet fall of rain. Dropping my head into my hands, I knew I’d failed. I had hoped to find that happy middle ground between wolf and human, where I could take advantage of the wolf’s intuitive understanding of the woods without risking letting a predator loose on the unsuspecting human world. Instead, I’d gone too far and lost it all. Now I was back to 100% human, no intuition, and Venus already visible in the darkening sky.

One of the few good things about being an obsessively controlled werewolf, though, is that if I told myself despair wasn’t an option, I actually believed my own lie. Might as well keep stumbling around out here like everyone else, I thought. After all, my co-workers hadn’t given up, and they never even had the possible backup of a sharp canine nose to aid them. In human form, I could trick myself into believing that I wasn’t any further behind than I’d started, even if I had lost the one skill that might have saved Melony’s life.

“The poor dear,” my older co-worker Maddie had said when Melony’s father showed up at the ticket-purchasing counter. Why her words came into my head now was a mystery, but if Maddie—pushing seventy if she was a day—could head out into the sodden woods with hope in her eyes, so could I.

Wait a minute. The poor dear? Or…the poor deer? The stamping hoof, the startled deer, something where it didn’t belong. I could almost believe my nonlinear wolf brain was communicating with me in the best way it could from within its iron-barred prison cell deep in my subconscious. A deer would have run away from a walking adult searcher, but might stamp at a small child huddled on the ground, trying to stay warm and dry. I turned toward my memory of the sound, and could almost imagine the scent of baby shampoo wafting toward me from a bit right of my current trajectory. Leaving my designated sector to follow the imagined smell, I drifted into the near-sleeping state I sometimes enter after hiking for hours, where the world is both distant and present in a way it can’t be when my human brain is entirely awake.

A tiny cry of alarm made me turn ever so slightly further to the right. I knew I should switch on my flashlight, but instead I walked gingerly, using the rods in the corners of my eyes to soak up the last dregs of daylight. And to see the dark shape of the child curled into a ball at the base of a beech tree.

That was when I realized that the wolf brain was guiding me, was winning over my human brain. I gasped, alarm freezing me in place even as Melony looked up at the sound and cooed a welcome. I was terrified the wolf would parse the toddler as easy prey and tear into her, killing the child I had come so far to save, and that fear held me in place as effectively as the iron bars I so often hid my wolf behind.

You think we could tear into her with these puny human teeth?

The words seemed to drift through my head with a silent chuckle. Whether or not my wolf brain had a sense of humor, though, the human brain had woken enough that I was able to close and lock the wolf’s prison door, drop to my knees, and collect the little girl into my arms. Tucking her chilled body beneath my raincoat, I fiddled with my cell phone one-handed and pushed the device against my wet ear.

“I’ve found her,” I said, and dropped my chin onto Melony’s baby-shampoo-scented hair. Relief never smelled so sweet.

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