They packed their bags and collapsed the tent. Sleep had done the pack good. They were in a relatively jovial mood as they walked farther and farther from Portland and the sights of war. The highways had been destroyed to an extent, but there were still fragments of road leading them into potato country. They followed route eighty-four until they got into Ioda.
“Ioda potatoes, food for that matter,” Yeller mumbled.
“Please don’t talk about food.” Deck rubbed at his stomach.
“Careful, you might start drooling.” Zola shifted her pack for the third time in the last ten minutes.
“I already am.” Deck paused her to help adjust the straps to the hiking bag.
Flutter. A caw overhead startled their mutual commiseration. A murder of crows cast shadows on the ground, sending a shiver down Nat’s back. The creature beneath his skin urged him to follow them. He pushed the beast down, not keen on feeding on carrion.
“How long have all of you been friends?” Hana asked the group at large. Nat shrugged his shoulders as his wolf continued watching the flock.
“I’ve been in Jenton since the suburb was built so, since kindergarten, but I lived in the area all my life,” Deck supplied.
“Middle school?” Yeller asked Deck.
“Yeah, at least, I know we started hanging out in sixth grade, so at least middle school,” Deck confirmed Yeller’s question.
“He was into sports even then. Tried to pull me into football and realised how much of a klutz I am,” Yeller whispered conspiratorially.
“We got to Jenton in the middle of the summer before fifth grade,” Sun Hee spoke up, motioning to Benj.
“I moved to my cousin’s mid-way through seventh grade,” Zola said. Yeller patted her on her shoulder, gently reassuring her.
“What about you, Nat?” Hana turned to the brooding walking ball of angst.
“Homeschooled by a pair of Roman Catholics until mom got a job at the university. Joined up with the rest of the pack in middle school.” Nat looked up at the sky, praying the impending clouds would still the roaring in his head. With no reprieve, he put his back to the wind-swept plains and hills, willing his mind to calm, for his wolf to settle. The whip of grasses along the road bobbed, calling to him to run.
If I stay near this woman any longer, you’re gonna force me into meltdown.
Hold out, dječak. There’s still many a puzzle here that must be understood.
Hey, what was that about the other night, Sven, when you mentioned that Hana was hiding something?
I’m not sure yet, dječak, but we’ll find out, won’t we?
The dirt road, more a game trail than land fit for vehicles, they found themselves on, ran parallel with a bombed-out highway. A field of rotting grain lay between the highway and the dirt road. Smoke drifted from the destroyed skyscrapers far off in the distance. Hazy in the mid-afternoon air floated at the edge of the skyline. A pack of vultures took wing, sending eddies and whirls into the settling particulate.
“Do you know how to get to your parents’ lab?” Zola asked.
“Not really, no. It’s in Neo York, in one of the burrows, that’s about as much as I know. I know I’ve been there, but without GPS, I couldn’t get from the bridge to Broadway.” She studied the circling vultures, a look of longing passing through her eyes.
“They set up a lab for radioactive waste study in one of the burrows?” Zola scoffed at the idea.
“Burrows have banks and grocery stores in them. Let’s say that there was a particularly large motel not in use during that point in time. It could house up to twenty different rooms worth of lab equipment, then there were sixteen rooms for all the lab workers to reside in,” Hana retorted.
“Sor-ry didn’t mean to raise your hackles,” Zola snarled.
“I didn’t mean to get upset. It’s just… I haven’t seen them for a long time, and I don’t even know if they’re still alive because of all the bombings.” Hana backed down, stuffing her hands as deep into her pockets as they could go. A crinkling at the edge of her fingers pricked Nat’s ears. She dug into her pocket and pulled it inside out. There was a hole in the material in the corner. She shoved the pocket back into the coat and wiggled her fingers into the hole to find the edge of a piece of paper. Pulling it out, she swallowed.
“Uh, guys, ‘think we got our first clue to where we’re heading,” Hana whispered, handing the sheet to Deck.
Number’s on the fridge. In an emergency,
call Uncle Gershwin
Flipping the paper over, he noted a small aerial picture of a sprawling campus and a little red bubble. “Know where this is?” He pointed to the red bubble.
“Sort of. I don’t know any Uncle Gershwin. Mom and dad were weird. Adopted parents, kinda. I don’t have the number,” Hana murmured to herself.
“Not like the phone system was working anyway. Think this is where we can go to get this fixed?” He handed the slip of paper back to the black-haired woman.
“Maybe. But what if this is the wrong place?” Hana asked him, searching his face, her eyes darker than usual in the grey afternoon.
“If they’re still there, then we get it fixed. If they’re not, then they’re not there, and we find another way,” Nat tried for reassuring. She caught his eye and gave him a soft smile.
The wolf, ever-present, watched her interaction with interest. In a flash, it pushed, demanding to be forward. Nat turned from her gaze and swore under his breath. He would need to formulate a defence against the creature to keep her safe from himself. The screaming headache at the back of his skull as the wolf raged inside of him caused his heart to stutter.
They trotted through the wavers in the hills, chipped asphalt and blasted concrete twisting treads. The plains and hills of rotting grass passed with the rotation of the sun veiled by cold clouds. Pine sentries interspersed with giant oak guardians pierced the cape of darkness rising on the ridge.
Hana shifted her coat against the hump of her shoulders, her eyes darting through the woods like a rabbit escaping a hawk. The wolf nudged Nat to watch her furtive movements, her displeased fixation. Her unease slipped his spine as needles on a vine.
The group wound through game trails, deep into creeks and gullies. Freshwater dribbled beneath thin ice, and washed down moss faces to swirl in frozen stalagmites. Steam rose near the end of the ravine, an outcrop of flat land sat in the cloud beneath the top of the gully. Approaching the steam, ice melted, and the temperature thawed their fingers.
“Looks like we hit heaven, guys!” Benj approached the water, dipping a finger in to find the spring that met the melt to be hot. Deck caught him by the back of the coat collar before he could fall in.
“We need to be careful in times like these, Benj. What if that’s contaminated, or we contaminate it?” Deck hissed. “We need to set up the tent, get a fire built, and find food if we can before we get comfortable.”
“So, we strip out of clothes and then go swimming. I don’t think that anything dangerous is going to be able to live in such a hot environment for any sustained period of time; anyways, we all need a good bath. I mean, archeaos could live in it, but they’ll die once we get out in the cold.” Benj shrugged out his grasp to take the ground tarp Yeller held out to him. The guys scuttled up the side of the outcropping to the flat land and pegged down the tent while the women poked around the edges of the hot spring for out-of-season crawdads.
“All right, Mr Scientist, but if anyone dies, it’s on your head,” Deck grumbled. “Yeller, Nat, you two get a fire started. I’ll see about some food, hopefully,” he commanded. Under his breath, he whispered to Benj, “Are all of us going to bathe at once?”
Tension ran through Benj’s shoulders as the words fell along his backbone. He drove a tent stake into the soil. “Hell, why not?”
Zola and Sun Hee flashed by both of them, butt naked, to splash into the steaming pool. Benj’s jaw dropped as he twisted to see what was happening. The women chortled in glee at the warmth.
Deck patted him on the shoulder, “I think they answered that question for you,” he chuckled. “I’ll go hunt for a bit. Maybe if I let the creature out, I can get a bit of rest.”
Nat fought with the fire while Yeller headed out to the perimeter of the clearing to collect more sticks. Deck left to the forest, dropping his clothing at the edge of the gully. The brindled creature padded into the dense shrub, following a scent.
Benj, halfway through linking the pipes for the tent canopy, looked up to the quiet. “Hey, where’d Hana get off to?”
Nat’s heart skipped as the wolf tossed him back into the darkness. He went to the edge of the clearing and paced off the perimeter, searching for her scent. The smell of fresh blood dripped down his tongue. Herbivore. Nat pushed at the pitch-black, stretching the tightness inside of himself, scuffling for leverage in the slippery cold.
The wolf found the woman hunched over a fresh deer carcass, working the skin off with her pocket knife. She had already disembowelled the beast. The smell ricocheted inside Nat’s skull, sending shivers through his core as the wolf fixated. He gained purchase at that deviation, pulling the wolf from front to shove him to the back of his head. The scene in front of him when he gained his sight back dropped his stomach. “What the…?”
“Dinner?” She tried to smile, her teeth a disgusted clench under a smear of dirt and grime.
“Come on,” he swung the carcass onto his shoulders, “let’s get cleaned up and let this drain.” He led her back down the game path, letting the wolf drift to her clipped steps in the brush. The creature shifted inside him, rubbing at his insides, raising the hairs on his arms. There was that unsettling smell of bird again.
Go to sleep, mutt. I’m not letting you out again if you keep fixating on her.
Like you can stop me.
Yeller greeted them at the edge of the clearing, his eyes flat at the sight of them. He collected the carcass, displeased with the butchered pelt. Hana shrunk under his dismissive scrutiny. A shot of anxiety bunched at the base of Nat’s neck. Sven rolled under the swell of emotions, his ears pricking at the turmoil.
“Hey guys, you joining us or not?” Zola sent a wave of water at Benj. It rippled under along the shore below him. He looked down to catch her laugh.
“It’s not that deep; you can stand in the deepest area!” Sun Hee said proudly, her shoulders showing at the line of the water. Hana shrunk back at the boisterous invitation.
“Be there in a minute. Just about done!” Benj called down. Deck dropped from the gulley edge onto the outcropping, setting a pair of turkeys next to Yeller’s workstation. Feathers. Blood. The wolf scratched and tore. Demanding it’s due.
“Are you gonna join us, mali gavran?” The creature whispered in her ear, his heat brushing against her back.
“Um…no, that’s okay, maybe later…after we eat and that stuff,” she stuttered back.
“A quick dip. You’ve got blood all over you anyway.” He had slipped out of his clothes and waded into the pool by his last sentence.
“I think I’ll help Yeller with dinner.” She thumbed over her shoulder. She turned, swallowing, into a black sweater pulled across a muscular chest. Gasping, she looked up to meet Yeller’s eyes.
He grinned down at her, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. “I’ve already got it draining.” He motioned back to the stretched-out meat.
“Come on, it’s warm in there.” Yeller pulled her to the pool. It pained him to do so, but Nat was fascinated with the woman. Who was he to stand in the way? He shrugged his shirt and pants off before he realised that she wasn’t following.
“Come on!” yelled everyone from the water. Yeller stood at the edge of the pool, an embarrassed grin on his face. “It’s warm. You’d rather go to bed clean, right?” he laughed. She stared at the group in startled horror.
“Ah, bring her in the pool, clothes and all Yeller! We need to wash them anyway,” Zola called to her cousin.
“If you say so, Zo. You’re dealing with her.” He shrugged with a playful smirk. Nat’s wolf watched, jealousy burning below his sternum when Yeller caught her.
Down, mutt. You don’t know shit.
He hurts her-
You’ll hurt her before she takes a step, you damn hyena.
I would never.
Bull. You’re barely leashed, and the thing in the background only makes you more volatile.
Sven stilled his restless pacing at that accusation. You feel something else?
Only when you’re particularly dangerous. So, if you don’t want to go lay in the icy river, put your horndog ways away and let me have my emotions back for a damn minute. Jeez, I hate feeling like I’m fourteen again and stuck in a locker room. Go away!
“Put me down!” Hana demanded, swatting Yeller’s chest. He let her down all right, into really hot water. Her clothing and shoes soaked it up. She pulled them off in the water and chucked them to shore, barely missing Yeller’s head, swearing all the while. Turning to her shirt, she got trapped in the fabric. Zola and Sun Hee came to her aid, pulling the hoody free to reveal a pair of long sleeve compression shirts underneath.
“You’ve got blood all over this thing, jeez. Hopefully, the water can pull most of it out,” Sun Hee grumbled to her while Zola rubbed the smear off her forehead. Sun Hee and Hana fought with the last of the compression shirts. It snagged, the hunch to her back shifting. She grunted at the twist as the material came free. The women splashed back in confusion.
Nat approached her first. He brushed at a feather, its silk rippling along his arm. Her black wings spread out at least fourteen, maybe fifteen feet. Deck whistled. How had she been hiding them under the compression tops? Hana was so much smaller than Nat had initially thought, at least half the size. She had wrapped them about her in such a way as to hide them and make her appear larger than she was.
“So, the RWE bomb that fell near your neighbourhood…?” Nat asked as he analysed the massive length of the span. He ran along one of the ridge bones, feeling the muscle tension under it. Hana nodded, chewing her lip. He tripped against hooks and barbs in wonder. A claw wound around his heart, and the creature stole his senses.
The wolf snapped around to settle his acid green gaze on Deck. “Can she be reinfected? Will she really turn wolf?” he hissed, his pitch and octave lower and his vowels accented. Nat pushed desperately to have his place back from the creature.
“I have no idea, dude. This is all kinds of trippy.” Deck shrugged, his eyes wide on the contrast of albino white skin against Hana’s feathers.
“What happened?” Benj asked her.
“Well, I …didn’t want anyone to know. I…” she trailed off when Nat found an open wound on a knuckle bone. Sucking in a gasp, she tried to slide beneath the water, but he had caught the joint carefully, stalling her escape.
“Hold up. What’s this?” The wolf demanded.
She gritted her teeth, seeking to rest her gaze anywhere other than on the people around her. “They do that if I leave them cramped together for too long. The cloth rubs them raw.” She tugged to have him release her. He gave her freedom, backing up to provide some room.
“We’ve got bandages; we’ll put them on when we get out,” Deck reassured. “From now on, leave them out. It’ll be fine. No one’ll hurt you,” Deck soothed as he relaxed against a bank of the pool. She nodded mutely, curling a wing around herself protectively.
The group quieted to find seats on rocks and relax into the soft burble of heat. Yeller emerged a couple of times into the whipping cold to poke at the fire. He dragged over everyone’s clothing at the prodding of the women. They all proceeded to rub out the grime as best they could. Sticks paced around the roaring bonfire acted as clotheslines, helping to dry them out somewhat. Eventually, they set up the deer to cook when some of the lightweight clothing were dry enough to be considered wearable. No one was overly eager to emerge permanently from the hot pool.
With meat finished cooking and heavier clothing dry, they left the shelter of the pool for a meal. Gathering around the roar, they tucked in with a less than polite gusto. Glowing eyes all around twinkled in the night.
“Something’s wrong,” Benj whispered to Nat, nodding to Stitch’s trembling fingers. They waited, watching as she picked at her meal. She rubbed at her side, a grimace seeping at the edges of her eyes.
“Oh, shit,” Nat spat, dropping his slab of meat to the ground as he rushed to her. She fell face first toward the fire, her eyes losing focus.
“Help, now!” Nat hissed. Yeller scrambled for the woman’s trench coat to lay her on. Benj ran a finger down her neck to find her pulse. Nat watched numbers tumble on his lips and an odd pause here and there. Eyebrows knotting, Benj shook his head in confusion.
“What the fuck?” Nat laid the woman down on the ground. The wolf was struggling under him, but he wasn’t putting up with the creature’s jealousy right now. The shadows in the glen deepened with his frustration, the clouds of steam crystalizing to dust the rock and moss in a thin sheen of frost.
“Her rhythm is unsteady. My bet, with being exposed to us, and the hot bath, and little food, she probably fainted.” Benj studied her, pulling an eyelid open and looked at her pupil, not sure of what he had said. The deep black of her iris shifted, bleeding out to a stark grey-blue before seeping back. Nat and Benj shared a questioning glance.
“What’s wrong with Hana?” Zola crouched, her voice crinkling on the ice. Yeller wrapped his arm around his cousin protectively as he gave the winged-woman a once-over. “She’s trying to change, isn’t she?”
Benj bit down on his lip, nodding. “How fragile she is; bird bones and avians aren’t known for having great immune systems; she’ll probably die if she changes into one of us.”
“Unacceptable,” the creature growled, baring his teeth at the threat.
Benj shook his head, “It won’t be that easy, Nat. She’s changed once, and with this new contaminant in her system, she may not be able to prevent it. If that thing takes over, she might not survive the transition.”
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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