After a year of solitude, Jay discovers she is not as alone as she thought.
|Note: I'm hoping to expand this and turn it into a longer short story, or perhaps even a novel.|
My stomach churns with hunger as the pungent scent of Jackrabbit seeps into my open mouth, coating my tongue. The rabbit flicks its ears from side to side and nibbles on sweet grass completely unaware of my lurking presence. I take two slow steps forward, the pads of my paws silencing the sound of my movement, and crouch down in the tall, golden grass that so perfectly camouflages my coat.
Just as I prepare to pounce, a massive black form bounds from the trees rimming the grassy field. Shock ripples through me as I realize it is a male jaguar. The rabbit has only a second to register surprise before inch-long fangs close around its neck, ending its life in one clean snap. The giant black beast licks his chops and prepares to feast.
An angry yowl escapes my throat when I see that my meal has been stolen from me. The intruder perks his ears at the sound, and I leap from my hiding place in the grass. My hackles are raised and a low, steady growl rumbles through my chest as I pace towards the thief. He steps back from the rabbit and sinks into a defensive stance, ready to fight for his kill. His ears lay flat against his skull, and he lets loose an angry hiss as he swipes at the air with his paw, unsheathing deadly claws.
We slowly circle around the meat, every muscle tensed, as we wait to see who will make the first move. His eyes are the golden color of ripe wheat, and they glow with restrained violence. He is bigger than I am, almost a foot taller, and he must outweigh me by at least fifty pounds. Massive ropes of muscle are coiled beneath his sleek black coat. His size should give him the advantage in any fight except for one clinching fact - he is an animal and I am a shifter. With the strength of a cougar and the intelligence of a human, I should have the upper hand.
Plus I am starving, and I cannot wait for another chance at a meal; I do not have the energy to find new prey. I let out an angry scream and lunge. My claws find purchase on his thick shoulder muscles and rake through his shiny coat, tearing into warm flesh. The jaguar yowls in pain and throws me off his back with one giant shake. I roll across the ground and stagger back onto all four legs, just in time to dodge a lethal snap of his vise-like jaws.
But the sweep of his paw connects - his claws bite into my cheek like razors, and the metallic taste of blood floods my mouth. The power of the blow leaves me stunned, and he uses the opening to throw his full weight on top of me. He is not prepared when I use the momentum of his attack and send our bodies rolling through the dirt. I land on top and pin him beneath my forepaws, resting my full weight on his shoulders. Silence rings through the meadow as our scrabbling battle comes to a standstill.
I stare down into his golden eyes, waiting for the submissive glance that will mean I won the battle, and the rabbit is mine for the taking. Instead I see the shimmer of intelligence glowing within his round eyes. His gaze is cognizant and far too human. He has the eyes of a shifter.
The shock sends quivers of excitement dancing through my body, and the jaguar senses my distraction. He pushes me to the ground, and I let him pin me beneath his giant paws because I have already begun the shift. Fire lances through my muscles as they ripple and contort, reshaping me into the human girl I was born as. For a moment, I am swept away in an agonizing burn that consumes every other thought. I gasp for breath as the exquisite pain subsides and the blinding white light clears from my vision.
The jaguar’s claws bite into the human flesh of my shoulders, but I barely notice the pain. All I am aware of is the cool caress of the breeze whispering over my naked body and the human awareness visible in the golden eyes that stare down at me.
Those eyes fall closed, and then I feel his muscles tense and vibrate on top of me as they rip and remold themselves. His soft black coat retracts into every pore, leaving behind a smooth expanse of human skin. His paws stretch and elongate until I feel the grasp of human fingers squeezing my shoulders. His jaws sink back into his skull, melting into the angular chin and cheekbones of a human, accented by soft thin lips. A gasp escapes those lips as the last quivers of the shift rake through his body, and I am left looking up into the golden eyes of a young man.
The shock I see in them mirrors the astounding confusion and awe that sweeps through my body, leaving me shivering. My lips fumble as they try to form words. My voice is weak with disuse, but my Irish accent is strong as ever.
“I thought I was the only one.”
He immediately understands that I have never met another shifter. He shakes his head and long strands of matted black hair swing around his face. Like me, it takes him a moment to find his speaking voice. It is low and husky, almost a feral growl; it is the most mesmerizing sound I have ever heard.
“No. There are others. Not many. But I have seen them.”
His words thrill me and a smile spreads across my lips. Confusion clouds his eyes as he stares down at me as if he has never seen the signs of happiness before. I know the feeling. It has been over a year since I have seen another human and almost that long since I have shifted out of beast form. Each tiny movement he makes, each hint of an expression, overwhelms my senses, reminding me what it means to be human.
When his eyes finish drinking in my face, they wander down over my naked breasts. A blush creeps into my cheeks as pleasant fire flickers within me, licking me from the inside. He interprets my blush as embarrassment.
“Sorry,” he mumbles, and hastily pulls away from me, rising to his feet. I immediately miss the touch of his warm skin against mine. Modesty is a human emotion, one I abandoned a long time ago.
I study him as he walks towards the rabbit. At first, he wobbles slightly, unsteady on only two legs, but he quickly falls into a loping gate that reminds me of his prowling jaguar form. His naked body is exquisite. Smooth planes of muscle that glide with liquid grace. He looks like he is a few years older than me - twenty-one, twenty-two maybe.
Red ribbons of blood trickle down his back from the slice of my claws, but I know that the cuts are already knitting together because I can feel the itch of accelerated healing prickling my own wounds. Soon, all marks of our fight will be lost. Everything but the memory.
He bends down and picks up the rabbit, “We should start a fire. It will go farther if we eat in human form.”
I nod my approval; in cat form the rabbit is barely enough for one, but in human form it will sustain us both. More importantly, I realize I am loath to turn back into a beast when I am just beginning to feel human again.
His golden eyes find my green, “What is your name?”
I stare down at my feet and try to remember. “Jay,” I murmur, “Jayden Darmody.” I look back up at him, “What’s yours?”
Later, as the sun begins to sink beneath the sea of trees, we sit around our little fire and feast. The rabbit is succulent and juicy - a deliciously complex meld of flavors that only human tongues can taste. I suck the grease from my fingers, and my eyes travel back to Dylan. Now that my hunger is sated, my curiosity takes center stage.
“So, how long has it been for you?”
“How long since what?” Dylan asks, a crease of confusion knitting his brows.
“Since you left the human world.”
He falls silent as he contemplates my question. There is sadness in his eyes and it takes him too long to answer. “I’m not exactly sure. Around three years.”
My mouth falls open as I imagine living in complete isolation for that long. He shrugs away my empathetic gaze and shines the focus back on me, “How long for you?”
“A little over a year,” I reply, and my mind floods with crystal clear memories of my escape into the woods and my adjustment to the solitary life of a cougar. In beast form memories all blend into one muddied past; the present moment is the only thing that matters. Now that I am human again, all of the emotions that were dulled by the shift come flooding back, sharp, intense and overwhelming.
A chilly evening breeze whispers through the grass and snakes around my naked body. Goosebumps prickle my skin and a small shiver shakes through me. Dylan notices and suddenly his arm slips around my shoulder, pulling me into the warmth of his body. The heat radiating from his skin warms me in a way my fur coat never could.
I rest my head against his chest. The beat of his heart pounds into my ear and I can tell that it is going too fast because it matches the frantic pace of my own. “Tell me about the others,” I whisper.
I close my eyes and listen to the soothing husk of his voice. “There were three of them. Three different times,” he explains. “Two wolves, and a grizzly bear.”
He pauses for a moment, hesitating as if he doesn’t want me to know the next bit of his story, “But they weren’t like you. They were feral. Only the beast was left. I’m not sure they could shift back into human form, even if they wanted to.”
My eyes open again, and as I stare into the star-strewn sky, I imagine what it would be like to be trapped in beast form forever, every hint of humanity lost to the wild. The thought seems unbearably sad. My hand moves to my heart, trying to rub away the insistent ache.
“We have to find them.” My voice is filled with fierce resolution, and the sound surprises me. “We have to find all of them and help them. We could bring them back. They shouldn’t be left alone.”
Dylan is silent for a long time. His fingertips trail up and down my spine as he contemplates my words. Finally a reluctant grunt leaves his lips. “Okay. We’ll find them.”
Warmth settles in my stomach along with an unfamiliar sensation. It takes me a moment to put a word to the feeling. Trust.
Slowly, I drift to sleep in Dylan’s arms. In my dreams we gather the other shifters and remind them how to be human. We build a family for ourselves - a pack - so we will never have to be alone again.
Won 3rd place in the November 2010 round of:
Published in the February 2011 edition of Spectacular Speculations .