Benj knew for a fact that Nat and Sun Hee needed to get medical attention. He had always been overly protective of his younger sister and considered Nat a close friend, but this innate feeling that dwelled within him, the sense of utter protection to the end, was something entirely foreign to him. It resided in the beast’s mind. He mulled this over as the group searched up and down for an open hospital. The animal’s instincts were beginning to entwine with his emotions in a deadly combination. It was a creeping weed that drew its tendrils into the soft spots of his mind and sucked the nutrients from it. He could feel it, a red haze that burned low, the desire to let the animal loose. It cooed to him, coddled him, told him that everything would be better, more manageable in the animal form. He shook it away and continued with the group, searching in the bitter cold for medical aid.
The group, with Deck and Yeller supporting Nat, stumbled down a promising-looking road. Help was within reach at the bottom level of a five-story building. Lights glared out onto the black ice street. A generator wheezed and chortled. A yellowed sign swung over the door, announcing the place as a walk-in clinic. A burly man in a massive parka stood guard at the door.
“Will that work?” Zola asked Benj. The group continued walking in the direction of the shop while Benj considered the possibility. He nodded with a slight grunt. Hopefully, Nat and Sun Hee could keep themselves together while they were being examined. By the way he was feeling, Benj knew that if he had another person examining him, he might let the animal off its leash.
Terse words were exchanged with the bouncer and one hundred dollars dropped into his hand before they could pass. It had only tempted them for a second to take the man down, but they needed help at that moment and probably wouldn’t get it if they dismembered the guy. The bell above the door clanged loudly, startling the group. The man ran off as soon as they were inside. Their hearts fell, realising they had been scammed.
The walls in the clinic were ruined with watermarks and nicotine. The place reeked of iron and tobacco with an underlying ting of iodine and urine. The pungent odours engulfed the group like a vile cape. Deck seated himself in an old red plastic chair with Sun Hee barely awake on his lap, and Yeller helped Nat to a yellow chair that tilted and lurched. They waited for the doc in quiet discomfort.
Nat’s colour went from green to yellow when he had settled in his chair. He slowly eased himself to the ground and laid his head on the cool tile. His head was spinning, and a roaring in his ears deafened his senses as the animal fought for supremacy in his mind. Resting there on the cold, dry floor eased him a little, and the room stopped rotating about his head. Yeller rested a hand on his shoulder, wanting the reassurance that he was still breathing.
There was a jingle of little bells attached to a side door. “What do you want?” a tall, slim woman asked as she came out of one of the doors. Lines rimmed her mouth and eyes. Her stained shift drooped from her body in many folds. Her skin was stained a putrid yellow black around the tips of her fingers. Hair bristled on the back of Nat’s neck when he glanced her way. If Deck and Benj honestly thought that he would let that lady touch him, they were going to get a swift kick where the sun didn’t shine.
“We can’t find any hospitals; would you be able to stitch up our friend and maybe see if she’s okay?” Deck quietly asked. He motioned to Nat lying stiffly on the floor and drew attention to the sleeping woman.
“I don’t do charity,” the lady sneered. She sniffed in their general direction and moved to leave.
“Leave,” the lady snapped, turned around, and left through the door.
Benj and Deck looked at each other, trying to think of what to do next. “Let’s go. Find somewhere else,” Sun Hee coughed. She had come out of her stupor to catch the woman leaving. The other door jingled. A small woman peeked out shyly. She peered around, eyeing the door through which the other woman had disappeared. Once satisfied, she crept from the door, careful to keep it from jingling again. Short black hair hugged the line of her chin. Deep brown, almost convincingly black eyes stared out from under the crop of hair like a startled doe. She took account of the group before motioning them to follow her. She tossed Deck a brown prescription bottle. He analysed it quickly before popping the lid and handing Sun Hee a pill to dry swallow.
“Let me see his hand,” the woman commanded with a soft velvet voice. Nat went utterly still. All of his senses pushed forward all at once, all of the ones that should have stayed submerged in his subconscious, ones that the wolf in him should not have been given the ability to access. Desire, need, lust. Her floral skin called to the wolf circling in his gut. The creature needed to touch her, to taste her. The fixation was all-consuming and not his. Nat’s stomach growled. His head throbbed at the dissonance of his body, part of it shutting down, going cold, the other turning on, revelling in life coursing through his blood. The human side suddenly feared for woman. This was not his hunger but the wolf. The creature’s hunger, Nat stressed, might become a bad thing if he remained there.
“Who are you?” Benj whispered suspiciously.
“My name’s Haniel. Please call me Hana. I’m an assistant to Miss- I mean Doctor Gurty. I’ve had some practice stitching up a few people. Right now, I can tell that this is not the time for formalities,” Hana whispered back as she led them into a small room. The smell, when everyone was in the room, was horrendous. They smelled as if they had gone swimming in a sewage plant. Hana cleared her throat, eyes watering.
“Are you all right?” Deck asked.
“Fine.” Hana held her clenched hand to her mouth and held her breath. She tried clearing her throat again, instead falling into a fit of coughs. Everyone moved back from her. “Sorry, not sick, just allergic to something in the room.” Calming her cough, she found the roll of thread and a fire sterilized needle.
Nat had his hand on the stainless-steel table, waiting.
“We have no numbing meds, and that’s a lot of damage. This is going to hurt… a lot,” Hana told him, watching him flinch in the knowledge of what was to come. She directed Deck to hold his hand still and Yeller to hold him down. Yeller circled his shoulders and held his other hand. Nat tensed against Yeller’s chest, gripping his wrist in silent terror. The wolf backed down at the contact.
“Anáil,” Yeller whispered in his ear. Nat grunted in reply and clenched his jaw.
In a grey plastic tub, Hana flushed out the wound with a bag of saline. She swabbed it heavily with bacitracin. A shot of doxycycline prepped him for more pain to come. He trembled with the first pinprick at his wound. Gripping down hard on Yeller’s hand, he fought with his body to hold still. It took Hana another five minutes to suture up the damage. It felt like a lifetime. The wolf slunk away into the dark recesses of Nat’s mind.
“Haniel! What are you doing, you miserable child? Get out. I won’t have it anymore. Get out!” the doc screeched at the young woman, trembling with wrath in the doorway. Hana defiantly finished with the stitches. Doctor Gurty was venting her anger in a trembling high squeaky litany of foul words that coated the whole western part of Portland. Hana replaced the card of wire that she hadn’t used and calmly slipped a bottle of antibiotics and carprofen into her pocket.
“Get out!” Doctor Gurty shrieked once more for good measure.
The young woman went out to the front desk, and from her pocket, she took out a one-hundred-dollar bill. She had only five of the bills left in her pocket. Doctor Gurty huffed and puffed as she put the bill in the register and pointed the group and the woman out the door.
“You – you didn’t have – have to-” Sun Hee tried to protest as they crowded out the door behind her. She coughed around breathless gasps.
“Save your breath,” Hana hissed as she bundled her hands up in the long sleeves of her trench coat. She looked at the one that she had stitched up. He was staring at her in horror. “Oh, no,” he whispered.
She put her hand to her face, “What?” she whispered.
“Benj, is this stuff a contaminant?” The white-haired man Hana had sewn up was panicking. The tall blond kept him from collapsing. The one he called Benj answered after a moment of staring at her. “She started coughing when we all got in there. It’s our clothes; it’s got the chemical on it.”
“Wha – what are you talking about?” Hana asked, shrinking away from them.
“You’ll have to come with us; we’ll explain on the way,” Benj told her, grabbing her hand. She jerked away and scowled at him. She stomped back toward the shop.
“It’s okay, Hana. We won’t hurt you, I swear. We think you might have caught something from us. We’re heading for Neo York to get it fixed,” Deck prodded.
“On the way to where? We haven’t found any shelter,” the woman with the gold patch of skin around her eyes asked.
“Just keep your eyes open,” Deck commanded. The group subconsciously herded the doctor’s assistant down the alley.
“Yeah, but what does all of this have to do with me?” Hana asked, trying to find a way around them. Sun Hee and Nat looked to be the worst for wear of the bunch. Sun Hee’s cough had gotten worse over the dry, chill evening. Yeller carried Nat piggyback as he went in and out of sleep.
“This contaminate, it must be an airborne chemical that will cling to most anything, I guess. These clothes, we brought it with us. When we were all in the same room together, there must have been enough to…to ….”
“To turn me into a wolf? Come on, please. I don’t think that this wolf virus thing even exists. You’re all doped. Probably on some bad combo of hallucinogens. You guys are looking for a place to stay warm, and you lost your town. You figure that you can get me to feel sorry for y’all and help you find somewhere to stay,” Hana said doubtfully. “Well, good luck, ’cause it ain’t gonna be with me.” She turned to leave, spotting a familiar road that would take her home. Yeller shifted to block her exit, and Benj blocked in the other side. Nat slipped off Yeller’s back to lean against the cold wall to wait. His hand was throbbing, and the numbing cold of the brick was a welcome reprieve.
Deck grabbed Hana’s arm as she stepped away and pulled her into a darkened alcove. His solid frame pushed up against her, pressing her to the wall. He was too heavy, his hands enormous. To her horror, his face contorted, and his jaw bone cracked as it elongated. His eyes shifted and reformed as his hair became a heavy matting across the back of his neck and whiskers pressed through the skin on his cheek. His sternum and ribs popped and shifted. Nails bit through her jacket.
An acidic scent permeated the alcove, washing over the group. He released her, knowing it had worked. Trembling, she backed out of the nook. In the light again, Deck was back to normal.
“Do you believe us now?” he menaced with a snap of his teeth. Hana nodded silently.
The wolf beneath Nat’s skin followed her every movement. He wrinkled his nose at the sharp acid stench vaporising from her skin. Nat padded up next to her, completely silent. “You fear us…” he hissed, appalled that he could tell how much Deck had scared her. Her heart jumped, and he heard it.
She squealed at his sudden appearance and shied away, putting herself against the wall protectively. “Mutant freaks,” she hissed, her hand going to her pocket.
The wolf stepped in, overriding his movements. Nat was tossed back to watch, his heart in his throat. The creature reached for her wrist before it could slip into her pocket. He shifted, blocking her from the rest of the group as he leaned into her. “Leave the knife, crna ptica. We aren’t the only animals here,” the beast whispered in her ear, low enough no one else would hear him.
Wolf? Nat demanded in horror. The wolf slipped away, leaving Nat staring at a pair of startled doe eyes. Her cheeks had lost all colour. A tremble ran through his body as another throb of pain from his hand threatened to put him under. He let her go and returned to Yeller. What had the wolf called her? The accent had been heavy at the back of his throat.
“Your eyes were glowing,” Yeller muttered under his breath as he hefted Nat back up. Nat laid his head against Yeller’s shoulder and closed his eyes, wishing desperately for sleep.
“This is happening to me?” She bundled her hands into her sleeves and shoved them under her armpits.
The group watched her, wary. Zola nodded. “It’s…it’ll be okay. I’m sorry, Hana. Really. We didn’t know. We’re. We’d like to help, for what it’s worth.”
Hana looked up at the darkened sky, shifting her toe against the gravel. She bit down on her lip and turned her gaze across the alley. The slight woman brushed a hand through her hair. “I know where you guys can stay the night.”
“Really?” Deck eased back a step to take Sun Hee’s hand.
“Keep up,” Hana demanded. She scampered down a thin alley and took a quick sharp turn at the end. They dashed after her as she led them down several streets and up the rickety stairs of a two-story building.
At the top of the stairs, she slid out of a broken window pane and up a fire escape. From there, she nimbly tiptoed across the disintegrating asphalt roof and over a set of boards that crossed that building with another. She turned to look back at the expectant group. They were at her heels. Yeller let Nat down, puffing hard.
They watched her, waiting for her next signal. She stood in front of a broken skylight. She went to the edge, jumped, pointed her toes, and acted real thin. Benj skittered to the skylight and peered down through the dirty pane to find several gym mats stacked under it to catch her. She was already at the other end of the room, pressed into a corner. The grey room that met them was bare except for a dusty carpet that covered most of the floor.
“I know that it’s not much, but it’ll keep you outta the cold,” she called up to them. She rubbed her arms briskly. Her stomach growled, echoing around the empty room.
“Guess we’ll come in then,” Deck called back.
The first down was Benj, lean and supple; he landed with barely a sound. He reached up to catch Zola. “You okay?” he asked her.
“Tired. It’s nice to be out of the wind. Thank you, Hana.” Zola moved out of the way of the mats.
“Yeah. Um. No problem, I guess,” she shrugged.
Yeller waved Benj out of the way and dropped in next, holding his arms out. Deck helped Sun Hee in through the broken skylight. Yeller took her to a corner away from the window. She curled into herself, suffering through a coughing fit. Zola sat down next to her and wrapped her into her coat. “Go to sleep, Sunny.”
Yeller returned to the skylight. “Can you make it?” he asked Nat, who was standing over the hole, his body swaying.
“Would have said yes yesterday,” Nat told him as he stepped through the expanse. Yeller caught him. “Buachaill, you weigh a feather,” he growled in his ear.
“I was in the featherweight division in wrestling for a reason. I also sucked at it for a reason,” Nat grouched. Yeller unhanded him and directed him to the wall next to the women.
“You didn’t suck. You helped the team go to regionals,” Yeller protested.
“Basketball was much better.”
“Okay, yes, you were better at juggling balls.” Yeller returned to the skylight to see if Deck needed help. Deck, the last to make it down, tossed in the group’s packs and waited for Yeller and Benj to move the bags before tumbling in. Hana watched in amazement as Deck extracted food rations and insulated blankets. He passed them around, even giving her an MRE.
Nat’s wolf had been watching her since he had landed in the room. She had slowly inched herself along the side of the wall to the little alcove meant to be the kitchen. He gently touched her arm to draw her attention. “Hey, thanks for everything.” He backed up a step as she flinched.
“Sure. Oh, I got these for you.” Hana tossed a small vile of antibiotics to him.
Nat left her alone after that. The acid that oozed from her skin was pungent, and the wolf tended to push for more control during those outbursts. He worried for the woman’s safety with the beast so close to the edge. He sat down with Zola and Sun Hee, who burrowed into his sides while Benj and Deck looked over a worn paper map of the US highway system.
He closed his eyes and counted between the throbbing beat of his hand. Shifting, he glanced down at the bottle in his hand, wishing he had something to dull the pain. He popped a pill and dry swallowed. The MRE he had eaten would keep him from retching. He squirmed again, Zola and Sun Hee crowding closer to his warmth. He found Yeller sweeping his gaze across the room in boredom. “You okay?” Nat croaked.
Yeller shrugged. “How’s the hand?”
“Could be better.”
“You should sleep.”
“Would like to.”
“Meh. The women are warm.”
“Don’t get too cosy there with my sister, Nat,” Benj warned.
“I’m about as comfortable as I’m gonna get,” Nat grumbled back.
“Shut up. I was asleep,” Sun Hee coughed.
“Sorry,” The men all whispered.
Hana shifted at their noise. The wolf glanced her way. She had eased into a groove she had worn in the wall. Her head lolled on her knees, the hunch to her back more evident in the moonlight.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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