I was so not looking forward to our "family time," this summer. Call me crazy, but taking two self professed urbanites out of Baltimore and heading into the wilderness so that they can patch up their marital differences and find the "spark" again doesn't seem like a formula for success. Or like how I'd characterize summer vacation fun. Least of all while I'm supposed to be away from the beach, my pals, the radio and just about everything that I like about being in the city. You wanna see moody, give me a second!
And on top of it all, I wouldn't even get to take Driver's Ed over the summer so I could get my license and drive to school after I turn 16 next July. The 'rents don't think I'm ready for it, you know, not that they have a clue of what I'm ready for, right? What kind of lame ass excuse is that?! Parent's sure know how to put the spoiler on a guy's plans, you know.
Take for example, my mother. At work she's a total perfectionist. She runs a floral delivery business. She's not swimming in business but people are falling in love and dying all the time, so she's not exactly having to rope in customers. I'd have to say that she does pretty well and has a reputation for doing things right the first time. At home, that perfectionist streak carries over 100%. She used to measure my calves in order to get the exactly proportional socks to go with my outfits when I was in grade school. And you thought shopping for your school clothes was tough? My underwear had to match colors with my whole outfit. I kid you not! It's like she thought I was gonna be on some American Eagle Outfitter's catalog cover or something.
I'll bet you're guessing Dad's a total slob. That the reason they can't get along is because they are so diametrically opposed it's scary. Nope. Total neat freak. He's a computer analyst. That means he nitpicks every single little obscure detail to the bone. Everything has its place and there's a place for everything. He's got storage bins at home for his extra storage bins. We spent all of this May making the garage more "efficient" and "ergonomic" for all of our "life accessories." He has tie racks on the coat closet door by front door, and he alphabetized the Dr. Seuss books in my room when I was in kindergarten. Okay, he's such a neat freak and organizationalist that I have three clothes bins in my room. Darks, Whites, Light Colors. For Christmas last year, he bought me a roll-a-way shoe rack to store my "foot gear" under the bed neatly. He designed all of my bed room "personal space" to be functionally incapable of becoming messy. Getting a clear picture here?
How two yuppies had a kid like me, I'll never know. My money is on adoption, but I look too much like both of them. And wouldn't you know it, right after I was born, just to make sure that we were the perfect post-modern family unit, they both got "fixed." No sibs for me. Most kids might have thought that would be great, but I really envy my friends with big families. You know, more than one kid. My parents wont even let me walk near the pet stores in the mall. The perfect post modern, nuclear, American family unit, not overpopulating the planet, staying very much in our own fences, in a model home of efficiency, tidiness and modern convenience. That's my life, a continuing tribute to the horror that is Martha Stewart's legacy. Wanna trade?
So I sat in the back of parents' deluxe super "soccer mom" assault vehicle, trying to tune out the fact that they were arguing about what would be a more "practical" or "efficient" route to the campground. The farther we got from civilization the worse I was thinking this was gonna turn out. I had the sinking feeling that somewhere between 9th grade algebra and next summer, I'd be having to decide which of my parents I was gonna be living with. Yeah, it's that bad. Not exactly what I had in mind for my 14th summer on the planet, but hey, everybody gets screwed outta something good at one point in time or another. With any luck I was just cashing in all my bad tokens now.
The idea was simple enough. Go to the mountains. Get away from it all. Work out our "family problems." Thing was, it wasn't a family problem. It was a Mom and Dad problem. They could have left me with any of my aunts or uncles, even let me stay with either set of grandparents while they were off seeing what needed fixing.
But noooooooooooo. I gotta get dragged into the meat grinder too. Must be really cool to be an adult so that you can have a kid to blame things on when they go bad or have as a release valve if the argument isn't going your way. "What about Cody, huh? Do you ever think about him when you're off blah-blah-blah." I don't know how many times I've heard that line, from both of them, and it cuts me deep each time, ya know?
So now my summer's gonna suck. A lot.
The campground we were "over-landing" to is in the Appalachian foothills, near a little town called Hillsborough, Virginia. It's a lot of driving through most of the state, the long way since we took the Chesapeake Tunnel and split off from the coastal highway instead of going through Maryland and then down. I just sat in the back, zoning out with my music and letting the blur of the landscape depress me into sleep. The only times I really did anything on that trip was when we would stop for burgers, gas and to take a leak, and when I just had to shift positions because my butt was killing me from sitting still for too long.
Occasionally, I'd see other kids in other giant gas guzzlers roaming the open freeways, slaves to their own family's sense of adventure, likewise with their faces pressed against the glass like condemned prisoners, headphones on to at least not have to hear the chaos and frustration surrounding them. Once or twice I waved, or was waved back at. But the code of the road sunk into me pretty quickly. A look, a meeting of eyes, was all the acknowledgment we could truly afford. If the parent's saw us making any other gestures, they'd invade and any sense of privacy or companionship would be lost.
So, after six and a half hours in the car, two wrong turns and one emergency where I just had to make them stop the car so I could, um, water the grass, we finally made it to the campsite… only to discover it was an RV park, and we didn't have an RV. SUV's aren't big enough for some people, I guess. Dad fixed the situation though, pulling out the American Express card and taking a serious hit below the credit belt, renting an RV from a local spot, about three miles from our site. So, again, with no previous knowledge whatsoever of how to drive one of those monsters, my father drove it to the camp and we took our pre-rented spot.
Hooking it up to camp water and power was another matter, but the staffers there were very helpful and understood the situation right away. I got my super tricked-out, freestyle bike off the rack as Mom and Dad went into the nearby town to get supplies for our 3 weeks here. I decided I wanted to know the lay of the land. It was time to explore, without the encumbrance of my trendy, yuppie parents.
Well, the park was mostly populated by old people. The Winnebago riders, the retired, the Canadian snow birds. It was several minutes before I found an RV with other kids in it, and even then, they weren't my age. Most were really young kids, like 8 or 10 or something. My interest there passed for all of a second. I pedaled around the outside perimeter road of the RV park and found another RV that had kids, but they were a big boisterous family of girls, from about my age down, perhaps 7 of them. They were moving around too quickly for an accurate head count. Besides, they seemed to be more into being together as a group than looking for a stranger to pal up with for a while.
I passed another kid, walking. Much older than me, with dark hair and eyes, but he didn't look too friendly. The chip on his shoulder looked more like an engine block. He had a kind of country boy look to him, probably just my initial impression because of how he dressed, but he looked about as happy out here as a shark on dry land. And about as furious. I tried not to meet his eyes, his whole face just had a "don't fuck with me" tude going on. I gave him space and rode on.
I was about to lose hope entirely and just circle back to my RV, see if the folks at least had some grub for us when I saw one last RV with kids. It was near the farthest part of the park from our site, so half of their windows were facing trees and wilderness instead of the next row of lots behind. I almost dismissed it out of turn, looking to just head home when I heard the squeal of laughter coming from the RV.
The side door opened and out poured three girls and a boy. The girls were armed with squirt guns and were just plain all over their brother. He was outnumbered and unarmed and getting thoroughly drenched, but he didn't seem to mind. In fact, he was grinning along with the murderous troupe of female assailants, making bold protests and trying to dodge incoming shots.
I stopped my bike and watched, fascinated. Like I said before, I'm an only child. Families with more than one kid intrigue me. Besides, this group actually looked like fun. The younger two girls could be twins, and the boy seemed to be not far behind the older girl in age. He also looked to be about my age.
The girls ran out of ammunition and ran back inside to reload. The boy just kind of lay there in the scrubby grass and hard packed dirt, soaked and happy, his chest heaving as he recovered his breath. I couldn't take my eyes off him for some reason.
And then I suddenly realized he was looking back at me. I'm not sure how long we were staring, but I had to concentrate to make my mouth close as he stood up, recovered his worn Astros baseball hat from the ground, and walked over to me, smiling and dripping. Keep it cool, Cody, I told myself. I raised one leg, setting my foot on the up pedal on my bike, ready to speed off if necessary, and, um, well, to kinda push the loose fabric of my shorts up to help partly cover something else that was also, strangely, up.
"Hey," he said, his southern accent a little thicker than mine. His smile was friendly, open, held nothing back. He wasn't grinning ear to ear, but it was like he enjoyed meeting other people. I relaxed a little at once, but still felt, um, kinda anxious, ifyaknowhutimean.
"Hey," I said back, feeling my voice catch slightly. I "ahemed" quickly to clear my throat and looked back at him. "I'm Cody Reynolds. Just got to the park here."
"Yeah we did, too, this morning. Nick Belanger, by the way. You parked near here?"
"Clear the other side of the camp. I was cruising around looking the place over. Not a lot of kids here."
"Yeah, it's more of an old people and yuppie park these days. Ain't too many of us round. This is probably the last place anyone wants to go for a family outing."
"Yeah, I guess that's why my folks wanted to come here. They're, you know, fightin' and stuff."
"Oh," he said. The conversation started to run dry and we both kinda looked at each other and then looked away. He had green eyes and almost wheat-golden hair, it stuck out of his baseball cap at odd angles. "This is a really cool bike, Cody. Can ya do tricks on it?"
"I wish! Mom'd have a cow if she even thought I was trying any X-games stuff on this. Dad bought it for me a few years back because it was the latest, greatest thing. I guess he's trying to make up for working such long hours by buying me stuff."
"Wait a minute. This bikes a couple years old? There's not a spot of rust on it, anywhere!"
"Dad's kinda a neat freak. If I leave something in place for too long, it might get covered in plastic." Nick's smile broke wider over his face at that. "He keeps everything in the garage clean, shiny, sharp and perfect. Including my bike. I don't get to ride it often, though, so that might be why it looks so good."
"If Ah had a bike like that, Ah'd ride it all the time."
"Wanna try it?" I offered.
"Naw. Ah can't ride anyways. Never learned how."
"I could teach you."
"Really? That'd be awesome! Uh, how long you guys here for?"
"Three weeks. Then it's back to Baltimore."
"Oh… We're from Baton Rouge."
"Cool." Again a weird silence fell over us both.
"Nick, honey?" came the voice of a woman over by his RV. Her accent was fairly dripping in Mississippi mud. Obviously they were Cajun. "Come on inside, we're gonna have supper."
"Okay, Mom!" he shouted back. "Hey, you wanna do something tomorrow?"
"Ah dunno, go exploring. AH gottah get away frum all them women in my family a while."
"Just gonna leave your dad all by himself?" I grinned.
"Ain't got a dad," he said simply, then sorta turned a giggle into a grin.. "Just me an' the Amazons." I was quietly amazed. He had been kinda sad when he said that, but at the same time, he picked up a bit of funny in it and shared it easily. I began to like him a little more.
"Okay, I guess I can come over tomorrow. Uh when do you guys get up?"
"Normally Ah'd sleep in during the summer, but as hot as it gets here, Ah'll be up real early. Like 8 or so, while the girls is all sleepin'."
"Ugh! I'm not a morning person. It's too much like going to school again."
"We'll, uh what about 9 then."
"Okay, I'll be here."
"Cool. See you then, Cody," he smiled and walked back to his RV. I stared after him right up until he got inside, the sounds of shrieking girls coming out of his RV. Somewhere during our conversation the sun had gone behind the mountains and the world was quite suddenly dark. I felt a prickling in the hairs of my right calf and smacked hard, smashing a mosquito against my leg before it had a chance to sink a drink out of me. I rode quickly back to my RV and hopped inside, alone with my thoughts.
Nick was really cool, but he seemed to be worried about something. Of course, we we're new to each other, so we hadn't really found any common ground in just that short conversation. But he had my imagination. He sounded so different, and he was funny and seemed smart.
I found I was still kinda stiff, you know, down between the thighs. That happens a lot when I ride my bike. The seat hits at just the right spot in your butt to make you get a hard-on for no apparent reason. But normally that goes down after a while. Not this time. I stayed hard for almost a full hour while I was trying to dial in local stations on the TV.
And I knew why, too. I kept thinking about Nick. He wasn't gorgeous or anything. I mean, he wasn't even what you'd call cute. But it was something about his eyes, his voice, his easy manner, the way he was alert and happy most of the time, kinda like a golden retriever, that kept me thinking of him. Actually, that was pretty much a really good way to describe him. He was friendly, happy, and bouncy, just like a big friendly dog.
And, well, I can't describe why I was feeling like I was. I mean, I have tons of friends back home. Mostly I only know them at school, but I never have feelings like this for any of them. Girls or guys. That kinda frightened me and excited me at the same time. I didn't understand it, but I had to find out more. And having a friend around here would be a lot better than just hanging around watching the parents rip into each other all the time.
Which got me thinking about his line about not having a father. Must be rough with nothing but girls around all the time. I mean, they were playing rough just as I came upon them, but that seemed to be by mutual consent. Being the only boy, he must get picked on a lot, and you can probably forget about anything remotely like privacy, especially in the bathroom. In a lot of ways, we were alike. Both alone amongst family.
I mean, Dad was cool sometimes, but it wasn't like with other dads. He wasn't into sports so much, he didn't like rough-housing, and, well, he never had time to teach me stuff, even about what he did know about. Mom wasn't much better, being all into the self made store owner bit. Between the two of them, I don't think they knew what to do with me. We never spent a lot of time together, either as a family or with either of them with me, one on one. I learned very early how to cook with the microwave and to make sure I always carried my house key around my neck. Perhaps that was one of the family problems this trip was supposed to address. That we never do anything with each other. That they don't even know each other or me, and they've had my whole life to try to get to know me. I made a mental note to bring it up when I got the chance.
I was still plagued with the wood in my shorts when Mom and Dad drove up. I hadn't gone and relieved that pressure just because I had no idea when they'd be back. I sat back and watched the TV and hoped that they didn't notice the tent in my shorts as much as I kept thinking about it myself. And even though they came in quietly, bearing bags, I knew that they had been arguing again as they drove back from town. They walked kinda stiffly, you know, like they were still expecting the other to attack. And it was kinda apparent to me that Mom mighta been crying. It wasn't my place to ask though and we weren't the kind of family that just goes up and hugs each other. They'd have thought I was sick or something.
Like I said before, we have problems.
That night I had weird dreams. Not really nightmares and not really anything horny, despite the fact that my horn suddenly had a mind of its own. Just weird. The one I remember best had me running, chasing something through the forest, maybe on my bike, I'm not sure, but far faster than I can run, I know that. It was like flying, but not effortlessly. I could feel, could hear, my heart pumping hard. I could feel the slip and slide and solidity of my muscles. I'm no athlete, aside from some fall soccer stuff I used to do as a kid, mostly so the folks could "network" with the other parents, but in the dream my body was humming with speed. The trees and shrubs were a blur passing me, and I could feel their soft and sharp edges whispering against me as I kept driving on, moving, going. Just leaves, and earth and twigs under foot, and dappled patches of sunlight on the underbrush and the constant, heavy breathing, heart pounding feeling of being alive. And for some reason, everything in the dream had a strong scent. The crushed pine needles, various plants oozing summer sap, flowers, open patches of bare earth, even traces of animal stuff in the wind, were all like totally sharp and vivid in my nose as I woke up. Must be all this clean air.
I woke that morning early, around 6 am, in time to see the sun dig into the shadows of the forest, casting golden light on everything. Mom and Dad were still sleeping on their bunk in the back of the RV. I decided to let them sleep and get out, take my bike and explore more of the campgrounds before I met up with Nick later on. So, I left a note, grabbed a Sunny-D on the way past the small RV fridge and hopped on my bike, looking to see the place a little better. There had to be more to this place than just RV hookups and a central office at the gate.
Well, it seems that there was. The landscape alone was worth the trip. Baltimore, especially the downtown areas where I live, is all rolling hills and city features. You know, buildings, signs, fire plugs, mailboxes, bus stops, parks, streets and miles of sidewalks. Being out in the early morning stillness of the forest just outside the campground was nothing short of amazing for me. It was like I had discovered a whole new world, a brave new world. For a moment, I felt like I was ten again, playing make believe and that my bike was some kind of rocket powered jet bike, me an adventurer on some strange, distant planet.
Anyways. I left the park and rode into the woods near the edge of the park, where there weren't a lot of RV's set up. I should say up front that my parents, being the stalwart, environmentally conscious, and outdoorsy types that they are (note the extreme sarcasm?) made me bring what amounts to a utility belt with me. It had a flashlight on a clip, and a few small pouches with a first aid kit, my bee sting kit, some money, my cell phone and a few bits of candy, and a folded up rain poncho. It probably made me look totally dorky. I mean we weren't like in the deep woods, here. Civilization was less than ten minutes away. It's not like I was gonna have to spend all night alone in the woods by myself. Besides, Mom took off the big hunting knife from the thing before giving it to me. Guess she thought I would do something stupid like cut my own finger off or try to kill a snake or grizzly bear with it.
I only mention this because the flashlight was bumping on my leg as I pedaled around the park. At the same time that I thought about being on a super jet bike cruising alien worlds, I felt like I was in Star Wars, a young Jedi with my lightsaber bouncing on my hip as I rode off into adventure. Then again, it was kinda boring tooling around the RV park like that. I mean, sure no one could see me making all kinds of swooping dodges and acting stoopid on my bike, but it was still lonely, and the park was quiet in the early morning stillness. It seemed a little more serious when I actually turned into the woods, and started paying more attention to stuff around me. But that made it more exciting. I had left make believe and was now actually on an adventure.
I passed by the older kid with the chip on his shoulder again. His glare was almost as greasy as his hair. I don't know why he was paying so much attention to me. It felt a little disturbing. Even as I passed him without a word passing between us, I could feel a sort of enmity. Like he was just dead set against me because of how I looked, maybe my clothes, my haircut, the bike, all the gear Mom made me wear, could have been anything really. I didn't have the guts to look back at him as we passed. My eyes were shielded behind my sunglasses so he couldn't see me eyeing him as we passed. But I can swear I felt his eyes on my back as I kept going past him. Weird. Creepy.
The woods were totally cool. A slight mist drifted low to the ground in some places. Spiderwebs stood out in the high grasses, with drops of dew on them soaking in the early morning sunlight, shinning faintly. All around, the birds were chirping and making swoops through the air. I even saw a raccoon dart up a tree to get out of my way, and I think I saw a dead opossum. Well, it looked dead, but I didn't stop to poke at it. There was too much stuff to see to stop and check for maggots and worms and stuff. I was just like, totally into learning everything I could about the forest as fast as possible.
I found myself riding up beside a stream of fresh water, cascading up from a small pool at the top of a hill. The forest cleared a little near the hill and I jumped off my bike to follow the stream up to its source. The pool wasn't very deep, but it was huge. Probably covered half a soccer field. Well, maybe a third of a soccer field, but still fairly massive. I could see that there was a bubbling, churning spot about halfway across. The pool and the stream that flows from it were fed by an underground spring, welling up through to the top of the hill.
I marveled at it for a moment, trying to remember back to Earth Science class about springs, wondering why it chose to shoot up from the ground at this point. Would have been easier for the font to push through the side of the hill, or to one of the lower areas in the forest, I thought. Perhaps it's ringed by dense rock until it comes up just at the hill? That made a certain sense to me. The rock under the hill could be responsible for the font lifting here. It just seemed logical.
Of course, I'm no scientist, and I only got a B+ in the course for a final grade. Earth Science didn't interest me as much as history and astronomy did. I'm not so much a science kid, I guess. More of a science fiction kid. I prefer to live the dreams that science fictions can bring us instead the realities of making science facts.
And I don't like repeating past mistakes, either.
Anyways, this was becoming more like being in school than being in a magical place, so I let go of the wherefores of practical logic and wisdom and decided to experience this marvel of nature in the most intimate way possible. I quickly stripped down to my boxers (Scooby-Doo print, if it matters) and waded into the water, waist deep. I half walked, half swam out to the fountain in the center and pushed my head under, trying to actually see where the water seeped up out of the earth.
The first thing I should tell you is that as I got closer to the spring, the water got colder. Like, really colder. My ankles went numb and my fingers were tingly. That's how cold it got. As you can imagine, other natural biological reactions to cold happened as well. I felt my groin tighten and try to crawl into my belly. Seriously, in summer time, that only happens to me if I just get out of the ocean and the wind is really strong. That kinda cold.
The water streamed up at me, pressing against my face and chest as I tried to get closer to the font itself. The cold of the water stung at times and there would be bubbles tickling up to catch in pockets in my eye sockets and then slip around my head and away, up. And the water pressed up at me from the font with such force that I had to fight against it just to stay in place underwater. The water was still clear, although obscured with bubbles, but I couldn't see the bottom of the pool here, I couldn't see where the font was pouring up from the ground. I managed to stay under for about twenty seconds before my bursting lungs demanded fresh air. I surfaced and gasped, feeling the cool morning breeze flow in chills across my face.
I decided that discovery could wait until the sun was a little higher in the sky and perhaps could warm the pool up a little. Well, that and that the cold was beginning to get to me more than I'd thought it would. I made my way to the edge of the pool, trying to keep as much of my body below the water as possible so that the wind wouldn't kiss me into shivers.
I got out and realized I should have taken off my boxers as well, since now they stuck to me like cling wrap. Wet and cold, not a good combination in underwear. So, looking around to make sure I was alone, I slipped out of them and then put on my clothes. This was the first time I was glad that my parents insisted I put that stupid orange flag on the bike. I hung my boxers up on the whip end of the fiberglass pole and rode back towards the camp, hoping that the wind would dry them before I got back. I could deal with damp underwear, just not soaked. I at least had a place I could tell Nick about and we could go exploring from here.
I got within a few yards of the campground's perimeter and stopped, just inside a screen of trees and low brush from the pavement. My drawers were still a few steps from dry. Being just at the edge of the camp, I didn't feel like chancing dropping my shorts and putting them on again anyways all of a sudden. By the same token, I had no intention at all of riding through the camp with my underwear flapping in the breeze. I pulled them off the flag whip and tried wringing them out by just twisting. I got a lot of water out that way, and if I'd been smart and thought about it before, they would have been dryer fine flying on the flag pole as I was riding back through the woods. Guess I screwed that one up, huh?
That's a defining character trait for me. I kinda judge myself by my failures. The things I've screwed up are like a litany, and my father with his perfect memory and my mother with her eye for keeping up appearances are both perfectly happy letting me know my own track record, time and again. It's the benchmark for a lot of what I do. I just know how to deal with being wrong or looking foolish, I guess. Sure, it means I can adapt well to tough situations, but it also means I can be a little reckless in unknown territory. The phrase, "what's the worst that could happen?" usually has a concrete answer before too long once I take a stab at it.
Well, I parked my bike by a tall pine tree a few yards back in the woods. It was a pretty safe bet that no one could see it from the street, so it would be safe for me to drop my shorts and get my drawers back over my backside. As soon as I had my ankles free of my pants, I felt a need to pee. You know, it seems to happen almost anytime I'm swimming. Soon as I take off my swim trunks, I gottah piss. Weird, but true. Must go back to the swimming lessons the folks made me take when I was six. "No peeing in the pool," was kinda drilled into my skull and, well, I guess this reflex is just a natural outgrowth of that.
So, there I was, bare assed, holding semi-damp boxeys in one hand, giving the shrubs a shower from my nub, when I hear a rustle in the underbrush, about twenty yards to my right. Bladder still half full, half naked from the ground up (socks to t-shirt, anyways), and something coming at me. I'm not into wilderness stuff, at all. For all I know, it could have been a family of bears coming my way. So, I did what any proper city boy would.
I totally panicked.
One hand gripping my wet unders and one gripping my meat to stop the flow, I jump behind the nearest tree. Fortunately it was a tall pine, thick around the middle and one with a lot of low plants around its base, giving me adequate cover. My heart was beating a million miles a second, afraid to look up, afraid to even breathe. The pressure down my bladder and, um, lower, was growing and I had to press hard in order to keep from peeing all over myself as I frog squatted close to the tree.
About that time, I realized that I had left my shorts out in plain view, not far from my bike. Once again, I'm a city boy. I don't know any boy scout stuff, or things about animals. Just not something my parents are into and well, I don't really like nature all that much. But just then, what was running through my mind was that bear can track me from my shorts, from my scent!
Panic overtook me. Okay, what would you have done? I was thinking that maybe I could outrun a bear, maybe I could get far enough in the other direction if it didn't have my scent yet. Maybe. But I was too scared to get up and streak off into the woods. I mean, I know I sound all glib about it now, but just then, just when I was bare butted and screaming to pee, scared out of my mind, I actually thought I could outrun a bear. I just didn't have the guts to do it.
"Cody?" a voice called out, a voice with a young, male, Cajun accent. I stood up, my back against the pine behind me. My thoughts were racing now, going in ever tightening circles. There was a bear out there, it was after me, Nick was out there, the bear might get him, the bear might track my scent, my pants were still out there, Nick was out there, I'm practically naked, there's a bear, Nick's in danger, Nick might see me naked, there's a bear, a bear, a bear!
Maybe the bear will run off if there's two people there. But I'm naked! But Nick will get killed if I don't do something! Gottah do something!
"Cody? You out here?"
"Nick! Watch out! There's a bear or something!"
"In the woods!" There was a pause that I felt was a little long, a little measured. I guess Nick was looking around.
"Is he takin' a shit? Or are these your shorts?"
He was laughing, making jokes, but I still felt the terror of the unknown. "I'm serious!" I shouted back. The pressure in my bladder was getting worse and I clamped down harder on my private parts. It was starting to get bigger, you know, like all woodied up and all, and that made holding back the pee even worse.
Suddenly, Nick was on me. He had snuck up and tackled me from the side, shoving both of us over into a carpet of pine straw. In doing so, he bumped my hands and both lost hold of what they were holding. I was so shocked and surprised and scared that I totally lost control. I mean, put yourself in my shoes a minute. I thought it was a bear jumping on me. I hadn't seen Nick flank me nor heard him advance. At just that second, I didn't care if I was spewing urine all over the place. As far as I was concerned, I was about to be a short, heavily masked bit on some TV special, like When Animals Attack. Or more like When Dumb Kids Go Camping.
"Aw, man!" Nick shouted, rolling free. As soon as I realized who it was, I quickly turned to the side and grabbed my squirting short hose. I practically jammed my nuts into a bush as I let the rest of my bladder fly. Of course that left my bare ass facing Nick, but it hid my embarrassment. I was blushing brighter than a mirror in the sun. I felt really low just then. Not only was I practically naked, but I had just pissed on a kid I wanted to have as a friend.
Well, there goes any chance I had for a fun time while the 'rents were self destructing their marriage in the wilderness. People generally get pissed when you piss on them. I pretty much just made myself a social pariah with the only possible friend material for 10 miles.
"I'm sorry, Nick. I… I…" Yeah, well, I was stammering. It's not my usual method of talking, but this was a new situation for me.
"Ya thought Ah was a bear coming after you?"
"Sorta. I didn't mean to piss on you. I was, uh, out here when I heard something in the trees and I was naked and I was scared and my underwear was wet and I didn't know what to do and, and, and… uh… and I'm sorry."
"Your underwear was wet?"
"Yeah, uhm, there was this stream and… hey, you can wash up there!"
"Look, Cody, uh, Ah'm sorry Ah jumped you like that. Didn't know ya were nekkid. Although Ah wondered when Ah found your pants. Uh, here."
He kinda sidestepped up to me, not looking over, and handed me both my wet boxers and my shorts. His arm just sorta entered my field of vision from the side, blindly. I reached out and grabbed my clothes, covering my now shriveled and limp boyhood, after giving the bush a full-on case of yellow rain poisoning.
"Thanks," I said, quickly slipping into my boxers. Just as I was pulling them up, I heard a sound of falling liquid behind me. I looked over and saw Nick turned away, his own stream of yellow kicking out, tickling the tall grass near him. I quickly pulled up my shorts and kept my body half turned away from him as he finished. I kinda caught myself looking over, but I quickly turned my face away as I found him glancing over his shoulder.
"Yeah, Ah guess Ah kinda deserved that shower for scarin' ya like that. Wanna show me that stream?" He finished and he slipped his junk back inside his shorts. He was wearing the kinda jogging pants with the bathing suit liner, like what they want you to wear in gym class. You know, gray, got all those tiny holes like a football jersey. Drawstring in the front that comes out so everyone can see it, not like a regular bathing suit where the string is inside. He also had on a green pocket tee on, now with a sprayed line of darker, wet material darting up over the left hip and up to just under his left shoulder, kinda an "s" shaped swoop.
"Uh, sure. I was gonna bring you up to it later anyways. Figured it was something we could explore together."
"Kewl. As long as Ah can spend time away frum the grrrl squad, Ah don't mind."
"Must really suck being the only boy in a house with five chicks," I said, trying to draw out a conversation.
"Eight," he corrected. "Ah got two moms, and six half sisters."
"Yeah. You know. Lesbians."
"What's a lesbian?"
"You know. Dykes on Bikes. Rug munchers. Carpet divers. Women that do it with other women."
"Like gay women?"
"That must be weird." A dozen questions swarmed into my head, but I didn't want to upset Nick by trying to ask any of them just yet. I mean, we'd just met yesterday and I've just pissed on him. It wasn't time to try to pry. Actually, I thought that maybe just questioning his life and the people in it would make him angry, drive him away. He was the only friend I had here at the camp. I didn't want three weeks of loneliness and guilt as well as having to put up with my parents slowly breaking up.
"Yeah, well, they've always been like that, so it's no big deal."
"Well, c'mon, the stream is this way. You can wash up and then we can go to this other place I found. It's really cool, you'll like it."
"Kewl, let's go."
The short walk to the stream seemed longer to me without taking my bike. Had to leave it though, I couldn't pedal with Nick on the handlebars in the grassy terrain, and walking with it between us just meant we'd have to walk back with it too. It wasn't really hot out yet, but high clouds were building and the walk was mostly without wind to cool us down. No need to make stuff hotter than it needs to be, right?
We talked as we walked. It wasn't like earth shattering stuff we talked about. Seems we both had a thing for baseball and were talking about bad sports trades in the last couple seasons, debating the stupidity of some moves and the mutual wish that we wanted to get what some baseball players got paid when we grew up. From there it switched to which cars we'd buy if we had that kinda money, and then we just started talking about cars in general, then to racing, then to car crashes we'd seen, then about plane crashes, then about train wrecks, the kinda morbid stuff guys chat about, ya know?
By the time we got to the stream, we'd pretty much gotten a good sense of each other, and were telling each other dirty jokes and just being kinda stoopid-silly. The swoopy "s" had pretty much dried as we walked. Only a faint spot near the top of the swoop and the middle part showed easily. He still rinsed the shirt out and wrung in with a twisting motion, before draping it across his shoulders.
As I watched him, my tent pole stood back up. I couldn't help it. God, did I ever need that bike again, just so I could sit and raise a knee without it looking too obvious what I was trying to hide. Nick's shoulders and torso weren't sculpted, he wasn't a weight lifter and it was apparent he ate fairly regularly. But his skin was what caught my attention. Golden tanned all over, even his little nipples seemed to blend into his base skin color. I hadn't realized yet how dark his skin was. It was as if he played outside shirtless most of his life.
Watching the way his muscles moved under his skin was just magical. I couldn't wrench my eyes away if I wanted to, which I didn't. His arms just seemed to have some kind of spell to them that captured me. As he twisted that t-shirt, the water dripping out of it with every little gasp and twist of his shoulders, I just felt a need to touch him, to feel how those shoulders moved, how those muscles torqued. And then, when he laid the shirt across his shoulders, letting the trunk part just hang down the back and the sleeves flap against those muscles I had just been so fascinated by, watching the wetness drip down his body, and his expression as he felt the damp shirt cool against his skin…
"Hey, this feels good. You should do it too."
"Like get your shirt wet and wear it like this. Keeps the sun off your back." He smiled at me. "You're kinda dripping in sweat."
"Oh, well, kinda hot out."
"So wet your shirt and just lay it on your back. It's cool."
"Okay." Why hadn't I thought of that. So I stepped to the stream and drew my shirt off over my head. It didn't at that time occur to me that now he had, piece by piece, pretty much seen most of me naked now as I was twisting the shirt out, dripping out the excess water. All I could think was, I wonder if he's watching me as close as I was watching him? And that brought a blush to my face, I know. I tried to look around, like I was interested in something else, distracted, as I twisted the shirt. Bad enough I had a tent in my boxers, but to be blushing as well; that would almost be unforgivable.
You see, guys kinda have a code. You can ignore some stuff, and you can notice other things when it's just you and a good buddy. But you rarely talk about it. It's not written in stone somewheres, at least not that I know of, but it's something that most of us know and understand. Kinda an unspoken understanding. Rules of the road, I guess. Look only if you don't get caught looking.
Anyways, it was cooler like that, with the water trickling down my sides. It kinda tickled and I had to move quickly a few times, as though I were swatting at a bug that I thought was crawling on me. But it was just a water trail, slicking down my skin, and making my shorts damp right at the top. We looked around for a bit, exploring, wondering out loud if like any Indian battles had taken place here, or if there was like some kind of Blair Witch legends about these woods. Nick mostly just "uh hum"-ed in response to a lot of my wild speculations. He laughed at some of the wilder ones, even coming up with spooky sound effects, but for the most part, he was just looking about the area with me.
We kinda wound up at the top of the hill, in the clearing with the pool and it's fountain stretched out before us. The sun had climbed higher in the sky and we both were feeling it. We both dropped to our bellies and drank from the pool, sucking water up like snakes, chin deep to the sandy, gravely bottom. I sat back first, taking a deep breath and rolling onto my back. The sun felt nice on my belly, making all the little muscles there stretch out in the warmth. I closed my eyes against the glare of the sun, letting my arms drift up over my head, just laying back in the tall grass. I sighed loudly, I know, just as I felt a disturbance in the grass to my right, signaling that Nick was doing much the same.
"Ahhh, nice. Ah like this place."
"Yeah," I said, just relaxing. The heat of the day was climbing with the sun, despite the clouds building on the edges of the horizon. I felt that sleepy sort of tired, when you're just a little warmer than necessary and content and not worried. Hard to really put a word to the feeling without sounding like a little kid. It was comfy. And mind you, I'm not a nature friendly kid. I'm more at home with concrete under my feet than with open grassy hilltops and the wonders of the outdoors spread before me like a banquet for the eyes.
"Ah got a tent, you know," Nick said, a certain note in his voice getting my full attention. At first I thought he meant in his pants, like me. That sorta brought me up to full on hard again real fast. My eyes kinda bugged for a second. But then I realized what he was talking about. An actual tent, not just tented shorts.
He didn't want to spend all his time among all his sisters and stepsisters, or whatever the heck they were to him. That much was clear. He felt so out of place there, aside from being the occasional designated target in any given squirt gun battle. And I can't really say I blamed him. Here I was trying my hardest to stay out of my parents' way as they tried to fix themselves. Seems that with our families was about the last place we both wanted to be.
Mind you, I was still kinda stoopid about some stuff at this point. I didn't realize that he was like asking a leading question without asking. My mind was kinda rolling in the same direction but so far nothing had popped in my brain as a way to make stuff happen. So, even if I was still sporting a semi, I wasn't thinking with it quite yet.
Even so, the next thing I said was kinda stoopid. "I didn't see it set up back at your camp."
"Nah, didn't want to make it a target for the girls. They play rough, ya know? They'd be out messing with me all night, playing pranks and stuff."
"Oh. Guess that'd be smart then. Can't put it up right where they'd get to it."
"Yeah. Could put it up at your place?" he hinted, smiling. "It'd be like a sleepover."
"Yeah, I never thought about that. My 'rents got us on the other side of the camp."
"Think they'd go for it?"
"Dunno. Wouldn't be as good as you think though. They fight a lot. It would be… awkward." I kinda frowned thinking of my parents getting all quiet and looking around to see if anyone was watching them argue through their "family problems." I opened my eyes, letting the odd colors of the sky shift back to normal as my eyes readjusted to the sunlight almost coming directly overhead.
"We don't have to set it up there." He sat up, draping his arms over his knees. "We could set it up here, maybe?"
"Next to the spring?"
"Yeah, why not! It'd be an adventure!" His smile was something that caught me up in it, lifted me, and yes even lifted that a little too.
Still, my practical and sometimes pessimistic side crept in. "It's a long way to lug stuff." I sat up in the grass, leaning back on one arm, glancing around the hilltop, thinking of where might be a good place to pitch a tent.
"Naw, we could do it. We don't gotta make it a big deal. Just some sleepin' bags, the tent and us."
"We'll be wearing those as we drag the stuff up here."
"Well, okay, so we make two trips. Don't even say we need to bring up water. Got plenty of that right here."
"Yeah, guess we do."
"So ya wanna try it?"
"Sounds cool. I could ask. My parents will want to see the spot, and meet you, and your… your moms."
"Yeah, figures that they'd wanna talk. But Ah don't think they'd have any trouble with it. Actually, they kinda want me to make friends, ya know? Not a whole lotta guys back home understand about my moms."
"It's not usual, but that's cool too."
"No, it's not," Nick said, looking back at the sky, carrying his weight on his arms behind him, his chest sinking into the valley formed by his shoulders. The frown in his voice was almost written in his eyes as well as on his face. "It's like Ah'm a freak in that house. The only one that pees standing up, the only one that doesn't think the Indigo Girls or Dixie Chicks are the greatest band in history, the only one that doesn't have any friends…"
"Hey, you okay?" I asked. Something made me reach out and touch his shoulder then. The shirts had lost some of their wet adhesion to our skin about that time and mine slipped off my shoulders. His t-shirt partly stuck to his back and sort of got between my hand and his skin as I touched him. But that bit of skin on skin was like a new and old thing all at once. I mean, I was reaching out to a kid on the verge you know. It was just us outside. No one within sight. And it was plain to me that he was lonely, hurting, kinda hoping that I would be his friend. I mean, the camping invitation is something that normal kids do, right? And it was kinda becoming clear to me that while his family loved him, things weren't entirely normal in his house. They just didn't know what his needs were, or weren't able to fill them, I guess.
And that simple invitation had been him reaching out. Looking for a friend, looking for someone else who needed a grounding point. And instead of just jumping on it and saying "sure," which I really wanted to do, I'd turned into my parents, nit picking, looking for little faults and things to prevent me from doing it. Even though I wanted to be as close to him as possible. We hadn't know each other long, but already there was a sense of kinship that was deep. A connection. It's hard to explain. It just was.
"Yeah," he said at length. "Just kinda hoped to get away from stuff for a while. Not much of a vacation if it's just the same thing all over again."
"I know what you mean." And for some reason, I started telling him all about my parents, their work, the things they do at home, the kind of verbal sniping they do to each other and stuff. It just kinda poured out of me. He didn't say much, just sat there nodding, getting curious expressions when I said something he didn't understand, and I'd briefly explain.
And the really weird thing about that was, I'm not usually the type that talks a lot. I'm more the type that listens. But just then, I kinda guess he needed something to compare his life to, ya know? A touchstone. And I think that in that moment, we kinda understood each other a little more. Not like we'd known each other forever, mind you, but we had both taken steps towards a deeper friendship. We'd both opened the door and walked a little ways into each others lives.
So it only goes to figure that before anything else might happen, fate took a stab at our new communion with a less than subtle reminder of how deep into the wilderness we were. A loud snarling sound broke me halfway through the story. The suddenness of it just shot through both of us like a shock and we got dead quiet.
Both of us looked around, nervously. We'd both heard it and both recognized the sound. I probably couldn't put a name to the animal, but anything that growls like that and can still remain out of sight means business. I was glancing around in near panic. I stood up quickly, nearly falling over as I did so. Nick was just a few seconds behind but got up with more grace than I could muster.
"We probably need to go back now," Nick said calmly, his accent going totally flat. I glanced at him and saw his gaze fixed at a point in the forest. I tried to look that way and figure out what it was he was seeing as well, but couldn't. I was too sun addled and my vision still had that odd colors effect that made dark places seem more creepy than they were. A sense of overwhelming foreboding swept through me then and I knew that perhaps leaving was a good idea. I had no intentions of being bear fodder after all.
We slowly walked down the hill, following the stream back into the woods, not making any noise other than the crunch of pine straw and leaves beneath our feet. I saw that Nick spent a lot of time looking back to the way we came in, glancing over his shoulder from time to time as though we were being followed. His expression was one of open fear and worry and doubt.
Curiosity got the better of me. "Did you see what made that growl?" I whispered.
"Keep movin'!" Nick directed me, his accent suddenly thicker, heavier. There was nothing subtle about his intense desire to get away from there. He didn't run, he didn't panic, and he didn't go shouting in terror. It was more like his mom caught Nick staring at his dad's secret stash of magazines and was trudging away with his head hung down, not wanting to be noticed, hurrying away from the scene of the crime. Except he didn't have a dad, and probably didn't have a stash to be embarrassed about either. I decided that asking questions could wait until later.
We got back to my bike and he visibly relaxed. We both plunked down behind the oak tree and partly leaned on the tree's wide massive roots and partly leaned on each other. The walk back hadn't been slow, kinda brisk paced and the heat and humidity of the day finally caught up with us. Gotta admit, if felt good to have his back pressed to mine, feeling his breathing, his skin hot and slick with perspiration pressed to mine. I wasn't getting wood, but it just was a good feeling. Hard to explain, I guess, like a lot of this.
"What didya see out there?" I asked once we both were comfortable. He tensed slightly and then sighed.
"It was big, kinda hairy, like a bear or somethin'. Ya know, like when a bear stands up on it's back legs. That's what Ah saw."
"Didn't sound like a bear," I commented, offhand. Like all of a sudden a buncha Discovery Channel shows and some late night channel surfing on Animal Planet made me an animal noises expert of some kind, right?
"It was a bear, okay!?" he said, a lot of urgency into his voice. I couldn't see his face, but for some reason, I got the impression that he was blushing and frowning at the same time, like he was embarrassed and saddened to be right, all at once. "Ah saw it. Had to be a bear."
"Maybe it was Big Foot?"
"A bear," he said again. "10 foot tall, easily. Had to be a bear."
"Well, I guess we shouldn't think about camping out up there then, huh?"
"Guess not," he said, suddenly standing up. He whipped his shirt up off his shoulders and drew it over his head, still wearing his baseball hat. He readjusted the hat and looked up to the sky for a moment. "Kinda getting late in the day. Better check in with your folks for lunch."
"Yeah, okay. Wanna do something later?"
"Like look for another place to set up your tent?" I asked, still hoping to earn his friendship. There was another reason I wanted to hang out with him too, but for that, first you gotta be friends, I figured. Gotta have trust before you can have other things. Gotta have trust.
Besides, hanging out with my parents all vacation long was about as much fun as doing a year's worth of math homework in one night. I mean, who wants that kinda pressure when you're supposed to be relaxing and having fun. Might as well stick your head in a barrel of raw sewage now and inhale. Like no way!
"Yeah, that would be cool," he says back and starts trotting doggedly to his family's RV. "See ya back here in an hour?" I nodded and smiled watching him head away from me. I quickly picked up my bike and trekked the short way to my family's camp, dodging in between other camper sites, slipping through between lots and generally jumping fences that weren't there. I made great time, getting home just as my watch hit noon.
As I got to our site and jumped from my bike, though, I could hear it. They were arguing again, and this time it was loud and angry. I couldn't make out the words, but I often heard the clipped phrasings of other arguments in the din. They weren't gonna come to physical blows, I know that much. But hearing your folks shred their lives together still hurts a lot. It's not exactly what you want to hear as a kid.
But I did realize one important fact. I didn't have my T-shirt with me. Somewhere between me telling a slice of my life story and the "bear" and the slow, submissive retreat through the woods, I had lost my T-shirt. As if I didn't have enough trouble with my clothing today, right?
Now, the thing is, when you have two perfectionist parents, it makes you question a lotta stuff. Like how your own appearance is like some kinda warped reflection on them or something. I mean, I'm a kid, right, not someone's museum piece. I get messy some times, I like going a few days without a shower if I can't smell corn chips everywhere I go. I got no problems with my room being a quote-unquote pig sty. Only with Mom and Dad, if I suddenly show up without a shirt, even if it was a nasty piece of crap shirt with rips in it and paint stains from art class, it's still suddenly a federal case.
Cause they'll be asking me questions. They'll be bugging me for answers. Why was your shirt off, Cody? Where did you take it off, Cody? What were you doing while your shirt was off, Cody? Did you take other parts of your clothing off, Cody? These aren't questions I want asked right now. Cause as much as I want my folks to stop fighting each other, having them get into ranks to find out my secrets, well, that's not high on my list. Besides, if they find out that there are like bears in the woods, they wont let me explore anymore. And if they find out how much I like just being with Nick, they might restrict the time I can spend with him. Or worse, march us over for a discussion with his moms about the sorts of behavior that proper young boys shouldn't be engaging in.
And, like, we haven't done anything other than just look for and talk about a site for a tent. Honestly!
It's just the stuff between my ears that's in question. Even I can't explain how I feel about Nick. He's just someone that I want to know. Like in every way. We're not alike, but, I guess, in a way we are. We're both trapped by family stuff that we can't control and isn't our fault. And I don't exactly understand this pull he has over me, but I kinda like it, too. And I think maybe he feels something as well.
I know what you're thinking. It's some kinda ploy, right. Every writer thinks that, like, their plots are to difficult to discern and stuff and that I'm just leading you up to a mutual conclusion kinda thing. Like some open confession of love and then hot steamy sex and some kinda close call with the 'rents or something. But don't jump to conclusions yet. It's about to get weirder still.
Um, how'd we get into this tangent… oh, yeah, the shirt. Right.
So I kinda was stuck, I mean, it wasn't like they wouldn't notice. And walking into that battle zone wasn't something that appealed to me anyways. Sooner or later, though, they'd come looking for me. If I wanted any chance at all of going with Nick and tenting out, then I needed to have that shirt. Which meant going back to the pool.
Was it worth risking angering a bear to get my shirt back and keep my parent's happy with me at least? The yelling in the RV was enough to convince me that it was. At least if the bear got me, it would only kill me. The kind of tortures that parents can dish out are inhumane and go on forever.
So I pedaled back to the stream, trying to keep from grunting too hard over the noise of my chain rattling. I ditched the bike in a bush and followed the stream back up the hill, sweating a bunch, and cautiously peered out from the low brush before just running into the clearing to find my shirt. The subtle noises of the pool seemed to be the only sounds I heard. Even the birds stopped chirping.
Yeah, I know, I'm no wilderness guide, but it sounded kinda creepy to me. I mean, there's always some kinda noise in a forest. Bugs, birds, something, ya know?
So I'm like glancing around and then I see my T-shirt, this bright splotch of faded orange against the greens of the grass. Couldn't miss it from orbit, it looked so out of place, but there it was. So, I watch the shadows of the tree line around me, looking for some kinda movement, listening for a sound, anything. But I don't hear anything. So I move forward to the edge of the pool, where my t-shirt lies, inside out and half folded over. I reach down to pick it up and there's a shadow that comes over my body.
A big shadow. Not like a cloud shadow either. It had like strong, clearly defined edges. I actually felt the temperature change as that shadow loomed over me. Not colder from being blocked from the sun, but warmer, hotter even.
I turn and look and…
I've always heard the expression "my jaw dropped." And like I've seen it in old cartoons. But I've never really felt it myself before. Not until that moment.
I coulda stepped into my mouth without raising my foot, my jaw dropped open so hard.
I looked up, and up… and up, at this mountain of fur. Musta been ten foot tall, easily. Dark black fur with a white patch on the chest. And a set of sharp whites that would shame a shark movie or a Jurassic Park remake. For the second time that day, I felt a really strong need to pee. Only this time I didn't have the ability to even push down with my gut to start peeing.
Okay, but what would you do when confronted with a werewolf? I turned and tried to bolt, completely forgetting the T-shirt. The only direction that mattered was away, and in this circumstance, away equaled the pool. So I ran out into the water, almost certain for an instant that I ran ON the water. Got about thigh deep and couldn't really move well when another werewolf jumped some twenty yards from shore and landed directly in front of me. Mighta been a smaller version of the same, but I didn't really have a lot of time to compare since I was screaming my fool head off.
For those out there that don't get the full description, lemme give you a quick primer. Mostly man-shaped, reverse legs like a dog, head like a wolf, only jumbo sized, fingers as thick as cucumbers, with like 4 inch claws on each one, fangs, fur, tail, the whole nine yards. Built like a tank, smells like a petting zoo in the summer sun, and fast as all get out. These aren't creatures you take lightly, even if you don't believe stuff like this. Told you it was gonna get weird.
So this second one lands in front of me. Now if I were gonna brag, I'd tell you I was too fast for it, or too wily-cunning to let it capture me, or worse. Not the case. I tried to turn and run, but the second one grabbed me and lifted me up over its head, ready to smash me against the ground. I wriggled, but it wasn't doing any good. My eyes are temporarily blinded by the flashing of the noonday sun on the water. Guess that this is just the part where something heroic happens, like some other weird thing comes out and saves the day for me, right?
Nope, I just totally lose it. Like, I nearly barf, first of all. Then like the whole world shifts on my ass and I fall the ten or so feet through the air to the ground. Or into the water really. As I sputtered up to the surface, I know I musta swallowed about ten gallons of water.
Naturally, I'm panicking, now. I scramble to get my feet under me and try to stand. I was so into being scared that I couldn't even consider how I was gonna escape. All I knew was that I had to run, run far, run fast, and run hard to get away from these… these things.
I look around wildly as I stand, trying to figure out my next move. Not to many options open for me. Furry to the left, furry to the right. That's when I notice that things have really turned strange.
First off, the werewolves haven't attacked me. I'm still standing thigh high in the pool, only now the water is practically glowing. The sky is sorta dark, like deep overcast, and the moon is up where the sun should be. I know, sounds like a lot to figure out in a second, but my eyes were swinging around pretty fast, trying to figure it out. Then, just when I think it's too weird to be real, the whole thing gets slightly weirder.
The first werewolf speaks. Not in English, but in this woofing language that makes perfect sense to me. I mean, I totally understood everything that these two creatures started saying to each other, even though I've never heard anything like it before.
"He has pierced the gauntlet!" the first one said, seeming totally dumbstruck by it.
"Can he be a lost one?" the other replies, questioningly. I got no clue what they're talking about, but neither of them seems to notice where I am. Nor do they seem to be aware that I can see them, hear them, and understand them.
"He was the one with Nick earlier. We must find out who and what he is." The second one nods and trudges to shore. The first one, who's about a foot taller than the second one glances about as the second reaches dry grass. "He may be the one we are looking for, the one who can save this caern."
"We shall see. I doubt that any male has that much power, but the spirits act in strange ways."
"That much is certain," the first agrees and then, as they start walking towards the trail up from the RV park, they shift. It's kinda gross, I mean, their bodies sorta squirm and pull in and all that hair's gotta go someplace and all, but it was really creepy. I couldn't stop watching though. I just couldn't rip my eyes from it, especially since my breathing was just now kicking back to normal. The loud pounding of my blood in my ears was slowly fading into the background noises of my panting for air.
And as I'm watching them shift into like regular people, I see that the first one is a dead ringer for Nick's mom. Which of course can only mean that she is Nick's mom, and that earlier when we heard the growling in the woods, that was a warning to Nick to get away from this place. And they were gonna rip me to bloody shreds over it, so it must be something important.
But it still all didn't make sense. I slowly pulled myself to shore, still seeing weird stuff that didn't make sense. The sky remained gray, the moon still hung in the sky, and other stuff was out of whack. I didn't know oak trees could smile outside of cartoons.
I scramble back out of the water, turn back to stare at it for a second and then take a step backwards away from it.
And trip over my own big feet.
I open my eyes, wondering what's gonna be nutso now, only to find myself staring back into the sun. My t-shirt, which is what I came back up to the pool in the first place for, lay near me. I scooped it up and beat feet down the hillside, trying to get back to my bike in the woods as quickly as possible, mounted by bike and practically flew back to my parents' RV. I dumped the bike, ran inside, slamming the door, walked right between both of them in the midst of the high point of some argument or other, and collapsed on my small bunk in the side extension of the RV.
All noise in the RV stopped. I could barely hear myself breathing as I lay there, the events of the last few minutes playing out in my head. I just couldn't have seen what I thought I'd seen, right? I mean, there's no such thing as werewolves, trees don't have smiles and the sky just doesn't do all that stuff it just did.
Gotta be something in the water, I thought. There's some kinda drug or chemical or bacteria or something that made me see stuff that I know for a FACT can't be. I mean, it happens all the time in movies, right? Like Stephen King stuff, Robin Cook, guys like that always write about some little known medical thing that can sneak up and make everyone go nutso.
"Cody, you okay, baby?" Mom asked, sitting on the bunk next to me. Dad stood behind her, looking down with the "worried dad" face on. I turned over fully, looking at them and noticed that I was crying. Which is so not like me. I don't cry over nuthin'! Okay, so maybe I wasn't crying, but I had tears on my face. I'd just been scared shitless, what would you do?
Before I could say anything, they both folded me in a hug. It had been a long time since Mom and Dad hugged each other, much less me. But there we were, the three Reynolds, locked in a group hug. Okay, yeah, this time I really did cry. And it felt good to cry. Really good.
But what was I gonna tell them. "Mom, Dad, there's werewolves in the woods. I nearly got pieced by two of them." Oh yeah, that was gonna go over well if I said that. I'd be in one of those teen crisis intervention detox centers faster than you could say "boo!" I mean, it was great that they weren't arguing, but I can't believe what it was that brought us to this moment of weird, silent family unity. Clearly, I couldn't tell them the whole truth. But I couldn't lie to them either.
"Son, what's got you so frightened?" Dad whispered in my ear. I don't know what caused it, but just hearing Dad say that so low, so close to my ear, made me flash on the angry kid I kept seeing in the park. Inspiration!
"Someone, some big kid, tried to throw me on the ground," I said, feeling the blush of shame coming to my face. "I was alone, and like they ambushed me."
"There was two of them, Mom." I felt like hell telling them that, but it was essentially true. I'd only left out the part that it was my new friend's mom that nearly brained me.
"I don't want you going anywhere alone, Cody. From now on. You understand me?"
"Yessir," I replied. He put his finger under my chin and lifted, looking me in the eye.
"Are you hurt?"
"Maybe we should go back to Baltimore?" Mom asked, rubbing my back.
"NO!" I shouted, not sure why. Actually, I did. It meant that I'd never see Nick again.
"Cody, if there are dangerous kids out there looking to hurt you…" Mom started.
"He's got to learn to look out for himself sometime."
"Look, Ryan, he's terrified. We can't expect him to just take a beating from every bully that comes down the pike."
"He can't just run away either. You baby him too much," Dad said, a little too casually, like an afterthought barb, but one too much on target, too hurtful to be ignored.
"And you want him to grow up to be just like you, don't you!" she shouted back, lifting her hands for emphasis on the "just like you," part, slowing her words down as if she was scoring a point.
And just like that, the war was on again. I don't even think they noticed that I had slipped past them and out the back door of the RV to the small porch area under the rollout tarp. I sat in one of the folding chairs that they paid too much money for at the camp store and stared at the distant glow of the neighbor's fire in the next campsite over.
I sat there, feeling sorry for myself, feeling the gnawing grip of hunger start to cramp into my stomach, making me feel even worse. Despite the sounds of the partly muted argument inside, I closed my eyes for a second and started to drift, all the strange images from before filtering through my dreams, almost making it impossible to sleep, if I even did.
And then suddenly I snapped my eyes open to see Nick staring at me, up close, like he was checking my eyes for leaks.
"Gah!" I screamed, falling backwards out of the chair, it folding up near me with a loud snap. I looked over at Nick in horror only to find him laughing on the ground, rolling around like a lunatic.
"Ohmigod, you should have seen your face!" he giggled.
"That wasn't funny," I said, angrily getting up. "Thought you were gonna eat me."
"Nah, Ah didn't bring any hot sauce," he grinned, then looked at the expression on my face and got a worried look all his own. "Hey, you been crying?"
"Geeze, just askin'. Sor-ry." He stood up with surprising grace and reached out a hand to help me up. I took it without thinking, again feeling a strange need to enjoy his skin on mine in any form. I couldn't explain it, but it was just something I had to do, just had to touch him, even if only hand to hand.
"My mom says it's okay if we camp out here, but she wants to meet your folks. If that's okay."
"Um, Nick, I'm kinda worried about that."
"About what, about my mom being a lesbian?"
I shrugged. No answer was better than the real answer. I mean, how do you ask a new friend if his mom's a freakin' werewolf? Just can't be done.
"Don't sweat it. She just want's to make sure you're folks aren't some serial killers or wanted by the FBI or Russian spies or somethin'."
"Or werewolves?" I blurted out. Instantly I covered my mouth, realizing that I'd said what I was thinking. I looked away from him, trying not to seem like I meant anything by it, but by now we both knew the truth.
"So ya saw, huh?" he asked, his voice low.
"Yeah. Kinda hard not to when she's about to make me into puppy chow."
"Then ya deserve to know everythin'." He looked up at my parents' RV, where the war was bogging down into a continuous match of "he said – she said" bickering. "Did you eat?"
"No. They been fighting all this time."
"Thought that was your stomach Ah heard growling. C'mon, Ah'll buy you a cheese burger."
We walked in silence to the camp store. A sort of park office, meeting place, laundromat, trading post and grill all in one. Everything was totally over priced. I mean, four bucks for a cheeseburger? We weren't anywhere's near a highway and we were getting robbed. Nick dropped twelve dollars and some change feeding the two of us, and we wound up splitting the fries. We sat out beside the building, backs to the wall, not looking at each other as we ate, lost to our own thoughts. I couldn't quite finish my burger. Okay, so maybe for such a big cheeseburger it was worth the money. I was still keyed up about the attack of the lesbian flea magnets that Nick's moms turned into. I think I had a right to be a little upset.
"So, ya know?" he said at length. It was a weird way he said it. Like, he was trying to start a conversation about something that was a discovered secret, and like I felt there was some sort of guilt attached to it on his part. Like I had found something in his bedroom he shouldn't have. Like a freakin' Israeli sub-machine gun or something.
"I went back to get my shirt," I explained, telling him about my reasons and all the little rationalizations that went through my head. Then I told him about the attack, the weirdness in the sky when I fell into the water, how I could hear them and understand them. It really freaked me out. Even telling it to him then an their, sitting next to him with my back to a solid cinder block wall made me nervous and I kept looking back and forth to make sure we were alone. Okay, mostly I was expecting someone with fangs and claws to come around the corner or drop out of a tree near us and tear my throat out. About halfway through telling Nick the story I was shivering with fear.
"They'll find me, Nick. They'll hunt me down and eat me."
"Ah don't think so."
"No, they pretty much said so. They know we were at the pool together."
"Yea, Ah shoulda known better than to just stay there with you. That pool is why we're here," he said.
"It's kinda complicated. Werewolf business."
"So… so you're a…"
"Werewolf?" he finished for me. All I could do was nod. The fear that my friend might turn on me and bite my heart out of my chest suddenly had said heart beating wildly.
"Don't be afraid of me, Cody," he said at length. "I'm not even able to change yet, if I even can change. It sometimes skips gen'rations in our clan. Prob'ly wont hit me at all since I'm a boy."
"My mom's clan is all women. That's why I don't got a dad. They only think guys'r only good for making babies, and that only takes a few minutes, least that's what Momma says." He had picked up a leaf and began stripping the stem as he talked. I tried to keep my face locked in a neutral position, but my eyes kept careful watch of him, sideways.
"No other guys in your clan at all?"
"Well, the proper term is tribe, actually. But yea, no males allowed. Momma said in the old days they used to drown boy babies born into the tribe right after birth. Or give 'em away to other tribes to raise."
"That's awful," I said softly. I couldn't believe what we were talking about except for the fact that it had happened to me.
"Ya, well, it's not so bad as all that anymore. Besides… I haven't shown any of the signs of changing. I don't have much truck with spirits, and according to Momma, my blood's too thin to be Garou."
"To be gay roo?" I asked, not sure what I heard with his accent sounding as it did.
"No, Garou. Say it like Gah – Rue. Only faster."
"Better. Man, you sure talk funny. You sure you're from Maryland and not California or somethin'?"
"Sorry, I'm still kinda pissin' my pants here."
"As long as you don't piss on me, again," he grinned. He dropped his arm across my shoulder and I felt my whole body, minus one part, go totally stiff. My shivering stopped, but I was terrified enough that I could have froze in place for good. My heart went from beating wild to complete and total stop. "Jeeze, man, relax. You escaped from two fierce Garou warriors and lived to tell the tale. You gotta be the luckiest guy Ah know."
"I don't feel so lucky," I managed to say, trying to let the warmth of his skin rekindle my own body heat. My breath felt cold in my chest as I felt my heartbeat starting up again.
"Look, chances are they was just tryin' to get you to leave the caern, you know? Scare you off."
"I still dunno how I escaped."
"Well if Jasmine had you by the foot it wouldna have been too hard to slip out. She's got really big paws and you're all scrawny."
"I couldn't tell them apart. I was so disoriented when they had me upside down that I couldn't even tell the sun from the moon and night from day."
"You saw the moon?"
"Yeah. He picked me up…"
"She," Nick corrected, interrupting.
"Okay, she picked me up and like all I could see was the sun flashing on the water, and then it was dark out. Musta been some kinda optical illusion thing, you know? Like the sun flashed in my eyes off the water so bright that I couldn't see right."
"Ya say you saw a bright flash then she suddenly couldn't hold onto you anymore?"
He took his arm from my shoulders and stood up, walking a few steps off, his hands nervously tapping against the big pockets of his carpenter's khakis. He looked back at me suddenly, a strange sort of tension on his face that reminded me of his look back when we made our escape from the pool before.
"Cody, do you have dreams of running? Like chasin' something? In the forest?"
I must have looked at him like he'd suddenly sprouted a third arm from the center of his forehead. We must have stared at each other, unblinking, for almost a solid minute, because when I finally did blink again, my eyes felt thick and rough. He came and sat down in front of me, cross-legged.
"How did you know?" I asked, barely whispering, lowering my eyes from his. It was getting a lot freakier instead of clearer. Nothing was making sense at how much it was all making far too much sense.
"Because Ah have those dreams all the time. And that's one of the traits. One of the marks of the Wolf in you."
"Do you know how you escaped?"
"Cody, look at me," he said. Reluctantly, I raised my eyes back to his. "Cody, werewolves have a power to go to a special place. One that kind of rides the same space as this physical world," he said, gesturing about us. "But this other place is a world of spirits only. Things of the flesh can't go there without special talents and gifts from spirits. But werewolves can get there easily. It's our birthright. You escaped by slipping into the spirit world."
"It's called the Umbra. It's like a shadow of the physical world. It's always semi-dark there. The moon is the only light, not the sun. Spirits are everywhere there, especially of nature stuff, like trees and rocks and stuff."
"Do trees smile there?" I asked, almost feeling totally foolish for asking it.
"Sometimes, yes," he replied in all seriousness. My jaw fell open again. "Ah have the running dreams too."
"Have you gone into the spirit world? The whatchumacallit?"
"Umbra. Yeah, but Ah had to get taken there. Ah couldn't pierce the veil on my own."
"That's what they said I did! Hey, wait a minute! If I jumped into the spirit world thingy, how come they couldn't just follow me there?"
"Dunno. Ah think that the pool is the heart of the caern. That's why we're here. My moms were told by the tribal elders ta find out why the caern here isn't workin'. They normally can pierce the veil without any problems, but they cain't do it near the pool."
"What's a caern?"
His face got a look of concentration for a bit before he spoke up. "Think of it as a holy place of nature. A place where the magic of the universe pours from the spirit world inta the physical world."
"You're not making this up, are you?"
"What does your heart say?" I had to pause when he asked me that. I almost blurted stuff out.
"I can't trust my heart," I said, looking up into his eyes. "It keeps telling me things that shouldn't be. That can't be. Things even weirder than what I think you're saying."
"You think I'm a werewolf." Okay, so I was changing the subject, slightly. My life was at stake here a bit, so I was a little more worried about keeping breathing than answering questions about other feelings.
"Ah know it," he smiled. "You're heart knows it, too."
"My heart," I sighed, "can't be trusted. It tells me things I want to hear. Things that make no sense to my head."
"Bein' a werewolf ain't so bad."
"Nick, are you even hearing what I'm saying. I can't be a werewolf. My parents are a computer geek and a florist. I can't be a werewolf. I have… feelings. Things that I don't understand. A lotta things I don't understand."
"No." File that under L for lie.
"Fear?" That one stopped me cold and I had to take a deep breath.
"Yeah," I replied.
"Rage," he said looking me deeper in the eyes than I ever thought someone could. "Rage that you keep buried inside you?"
All I could do was nod. I crossed my arms over the tops of my knees and dropped my forehead there, unable to raise my eyes. I did feel rage at times. Rage at my parents for all the things that they do to each other, and me. For all their restrictions and yuppie sensibilities and their style over substance lifestyle. I felt rage at how they used me as a sniping tool against each other. I felt deep rage that they didn't respect my mind or my wishes. I was their trophy son, not allowed to be who I wanted to be, who I felt I really was inside. I wasn't even permitted to explore my own dreams, my own individuality.
I had to be the plus sign that kept the family equation together. I didn't contribute to our family, I was just there, between them. Their common point of contention. The perfect kid trapped in the perfect mold; sealed away and put on display. Boy under glass.
"Yes," I murmured up to him. "Rage I have to keep inside."
His hands were on the back of my head then. Not moving, not demanding, just there. Just touching me. And I cried. Yeah, I know, not something a big bad werewolf boy does. But I couldn't help it. It's like years of being that plus sign, of carrying that plus sign like a cross, just swept through me.
"Momma says that a true Garou should always follow his heart. When the heart is true, the mind is pure and the spirit strong, then the path you choose will always be the right path for you."
"What about your heart?" I asked. I don't know why I choose to push the point just then, but I had to try. I had to know.
"What about my heart?"
"Nick, honey!" We both started at the sound of her voice, sounding off in the distance. Nick's mother, calling out to him.
"She's lookin' for me. Prob'ly wants to find out about you."
"You can't tell her! I need to think. I'm so confused."
"She could talk to you about it, Cody. They can help you through your first change."
"Ni-cky!" The voice was closer, although it sounded like her face was pointing in the opposite direction.
"I swear, she can smell me even walkin' round human," he whispered near me.
"Nick, please! Don't tell her about me! I'm scared!"
"Cody, don't be afraid of me. Ah wont tell Momma. Ah promise you, my word of honor."
"Nicholas Marshall Belanger!" she called out, a note of frustration creeping into her voice.
"Ah better go before she has the whole chick pack out lookin' for me. Ah'll try to come by your RV tonight, okay?"
Then he did something that should have felt demeaning and pitying, but I enjoyed it immensely just the same. He scratched the top of my head, more to the left side. And I leaned into it. The thought of his hands on my skin… I just couldn't get enough of it.
And then he left, strolling up to his mother casually, talking as they walked back towards their site on the farther side of the camp. I sat there for several minutes, not so much thinking, as just waiting for Nick's mom to be far enough away that she couldn't smell me too. I walked the long way back to the RV, taking the outer ring road and then cutting across roads, dodging between RV's and stepping around old people playing cards outside near their camps. I ran, even though I didn't feel like anyone might chase me. For some reason, running just suddenly felt right.
As I ran I actually thought. Strange how that happens. I was more alert and aware of things around me than ever I can remember, but I was now suddenly thinking things through. It's like the speed in my feet and the wind in my hair made my brain kick it up a gear too. And the really weird thing is, I can't remember for the life of me all the things I was thinking about. Oh, some of it was like, plans. Like what I could do now that I was a werewolf, what kind of things I could do with my power. What would I do if they found out? Would I wind up chasing chickens at midnight and avoiding anything that even looks silver? Was I going to wind up some moon-maddened lunatic?
But just as I was getting to the RV, I realized two important things. First, I didn't know what my power was. Really, I never had any clues what werewolves could do aside from like turn into different animal shapes and like maybe run up walls like in that Underworld movie I had to sneak down to the TV to watch while Mom and Dad were at a mixer and the babysitter was talking to her flavor of the month on the phone. The second thing was, what could I really do? I mean, if I tell them I'm a werewolf but can't prove it, Mom and Dad will yuppie me away to a "cognition re-education facility," or just a plain old mental institute to the rest of you. If I can prove it, what then? Will my parents freak? Turn violent? Try to kill me?
That last bit I thought up just as I came in through the main door. The argument was still going on, full steam. I'd been out of the RV for almost an hour and they were both still going at it, sniping each others personal habits and personalities. I stopped just inside the door, afraid to step in between them as they shouted back and forth. They were so into smashing each other up verbally that they didn't know I was even there. Rabid Republicans to the hilt!
The atmosphere in the place was instantly so… painful. It shocked me. The words were a blur, a cyclone of invective and recriminations. Like pirate ships trading broadsides. It made me so angry, hot tears tracked down my face. I wasn't even sure what they were shouting about, specifically. But the rage filled me and I had had enough. I had had far too much.
"Why don't you both fuckin' shut up and get a goddamned divorce already?!" I shouted, ran, pushing in between them, into my small bedroom in the RV and slammed the door behind me. I lay down on the bed feeling strangely good at releasing that anger, but also I felt myself wallowing in my simmering feelings. It felt good to feel bad. Like armor. Like a bubble no one could get through to reach me through.
And outside, I could hear that the fighting had stopped. One of them ran out the front door, and the other was silently sobbing in the dinette area. I could tell because occasionally there would be a sniffle and the sound of someone blowing their nose. I didn't know which one, and I didn't care. I had used my rage, I had struck back with my power at long last. And instead of making things better for any of us, we all still felt like crap. But at least they weren't still fighting. The plus sign had become a minus and the equation was now peace, but the peace of being in the last place, not the best place. I remember wrapping myself in my rage and crying a bit until sleep claimed me.
I woke up several hours later. Rage is a tiring thing and with all the events that had happened earlier in the day, I hadn't realized that I was exhausted. I opened my eyes and heard the rapping on the window again, with the sound of crickets in the background. I slid the window shade to the side and opened the window, letting the cool evening forest breezes slide over my skin.
"Hey. Can you come out?"
"What're they gonna do, ground me?" I said, a little more ironically than angrily. I started to slip on my utility belt thing when I realized it was just dead weight. The flashlight wasn't even necessary around the RV park. It wasn't brightly lit outside, but it was mostly open spaces between the campers. And the moon was mostly full, so there wasn't much to worry about. I left the whole kit behind and slipped out through the window.
Outside, Nick kept his back to me, almost as if he were keeping watch or like looking out for cops or something. I dropped to the grass, stumbling a little, since I never went out through a window before, and scrambled over to where Nick stood next to my parents' gas guzzler. He turned his face to me briefly as I came up beside him, then switched his eyes back to a point across the street. His attention was so intense that I had to wonder what had his attention.
"What is it?" I asked.
"You see 'im?" Nick said, his gaze never wavering. "Two streets over, near those motorcycles." I tried to follow his sight line, worried about what it was he was seeing.
"Is it your moms?"
"We ain't that lucky." That sounded a little more made for TV than I wanted to hear just then. Enough drama and changes were already going on in my life, I didn't need Nick going all James Bond on me. "Ah seen him around the park a few times. Just never paid him much mind. My sniffer must be goin' weak if Ah never picked up his smell before."
"You can smell him that far away?"
"Well, just a whiff. Ah'm smellin' you more than anything else so far."
"Could you always smell me?" I asked, abandoning my search of distant shadows to look at his passive face. His lips twitched into a partial smile.
"Yeah. Ah can smell your moods sometimes. You're tough to read like that though. Your scents are kinda… subtle."
Okay, I wasn't sure how to take that one. His eyes remained focused across the streets at someone I couldn't see. I wasn't sure what the deal was, if Nick thought the guy was a threat or just weird. The whole thing was kinda weird to me. I mean, he could smell my moods? Did that mean he could smell like… naw, couldn't be!
"Um, Nick, when you say you can smell my moods, does that mean you know when I'm…"
"He's movin'. Come on. We have to talk." His gaze stayed locked on some distant person for a few steps as he led me off. I noticed my father sleeping in the middle seat of the SUV as we walked past it because I saw his expensive hiking boots sitting beside the sliding door, lined up neatly. He even slept on the couch like a neat freak.
We walked on for a while and wound up behind the trading post again, where we'd sat and ate earlier. It was different this time, though. I don't think either of us was fully ready or able to break the silence. Also, Nick was a little jumpy and I kinda picked up his vibe as well.
"Were we followed?"
"Don't think so. Ah don't smell nuthin'. Ah think we're okay."
"You're kinda freaking me out here, Nick. What's going on?"
"That guy Ah smelled might be a problem. We're okay for now though. Don't think he was watching us. Ah just caught a stray scent offa him and it got me worried."
He looked at me and frowned, and it was a sadness so deep that I almost curled up in a ball and started sucking my thumb like a crazy person. "Because Garou aren't the only shape shifters in this world, Cody. And most of the other shape shifters don't like werewolves too much. Ah'm afraid you're about to be dropped tail first into a war a few million years old."
"I've lived through worse. Try Christmas at my house sometime."
"That an invitation?"
"Of course! If you can handle the cold. Baltimore in winter is a bit cooler than Louisiana."
"Don't tease me. You mean to say it gets cooler in other places?" he smiled, getting into the joke a bit. "Well gawwally! Ya'll must almost be a Yankee."
"Not quite," I countered, relaxing a little. "So, um, what it is we, uh, have to talk about?" I asked. I wasn't sure what to do, sit or stand, so I just leaned back against the wall, crossing one leg over the other. Nick paced a little, keeping his vision sweeping and his nose twitching. The image of him as a big bouncy puppy that I got after first meeting him came back to me then, although now he was more a wolf puppy instead of some bouncing golden retriever chasing Frisbees. I guess sometimes first instincts can be more of a guide than you know.
"Remember how Ah said Ah can smell you. Well it's more than just bein' able to scent your mood. Ah could tell you were one of us right from the start, but Ah didn't know if you were aware of what ya'll were yet." He stuffed his hands into his pockets. "Mom and Jasmine can smell it too."
"So they know?"
"They know you haven't gone through your first change yet. And that you weren't raised in one of the families. That has them worried."
"Worried about me?"
"You have to understand. Werewolves travel in small circles. They don't know every one of our kind, but we tend to fall into certain bloodlines. They want to know about your bloodline. Ah guess they want to know stuff like your tribe and your auspice."
"Auspice?" I noticed something odd. There were mosquitoes and other bugs dancing around, but none of them landed on me or Nick. Weird. I was a bug feast before. Now it's like the bugs couldn't be bothered.
"Well, its kinda like, what phase of the moon you were born under. It determines a lot about your personality in Garou society. And like it defines some of your abilities."
"I don't follow."
"Well, figure it like this, Ah was born under the new moon. That makes me a ragabash."
"A trickster. Kinda a cross between a stand-up comic and a spy."
"I don't understand."
"Look, there's five distinct phases of the moon, okay? Full, quarter, half, three-quarter and new."
"Ah was born under the new moon, that's a ragabash moon. You with me so far?"
"Yeah, I guess." Which translates as "no, but until something makes sense I'll listen."
"Okay well of the other four, each phase has a matching auspice. Quarter moons are theurges, the mystic types. Half moons are the philodoxes, more or less the werewolf lawyers and peace keepers. Three-quarter moons are called galliards. They're like the lore masters and singers and dancers and stuff like that."
"Oh-kay. What about the full moons?"
"Ahhh! The bad-asses. They're called ahroun. They're the super warrior types."
"Wonder which one I am," I said absent-mindedly.
"You don't strike me as ahroun. Or galliard, for that matter, you don't brag and strut enough." He picked up a twig and smoothed out a patch of dirt with his other hand. "What's your birthday?"
"The day you were born, you know. We can figure out the difference between my birthday and yours and figure out which phase you were born under. I was born in the middle of the new moon so all's we have to do is count the days between and then figure it out." I was skeptical, but I decided to go along with it for the moment. At least I was away from Mom and Dad's continuing saga. It was kinda cool to be sneaking around.
Doing the math was a lot more involved than it at first would seem. The cycles of lunar orbit as Nick described don't take into consideration that the cycle goes up from new moon, quarter, half, gibbous and full, and then back down through gibbous, half, quarter and to new again. Which of course doubles the chances of there me being a half, quarter or three quarter moon. Each phase gets roughly 3.5 days. Nick was born under the height of the new moon, right in the middle of the phase so it's fairly easy to do the rest of the math. Count off the 1.5 days to account for the end of his phase then just count phases for every 3.5 days. Oh, and for the record, Nick's older than me by exactly 32 days.
Which, for those of you following at home, makes me a ...
"Theurge," Nick announced, grinning. "Makes sense, Ah guess. You kinda have that deep thinker thing goin' on, but the strong emotions thing too." I couldn't see it. Actually, I couldn't see how he could be so sure about me like that after only a two days knowing each other. Not even two days. Weirder and weirder. "It also explains how you slipped out of Jasmine's hands and into the Umbra."
"I thought you had to be a werewolf to do that. You said that you haven't been able to do it yet."
"Yah, it's true, Ah haven't been able to do it yet. But doesn't mean you cain't."
I slumped against the wall behind us and slid down it to the ground. It was still not properly in my head about how serious all this werewolf stuff was. I had doubts about myself. Honestly, I just wasn't sure it was really me, especially now that Nick is telling me that I'm the kinda werewolf that talks to spirits and does the witch-doctor bit.
"So, how did I do it?"
"Momma said that it's a connection to the moon."
"Yes, sweet Luna, the sister to Mother Earth, Gaia." He said it with a kind of reverence that I'd never heard in church before. Not just a sort of formal devotion and lip service in how he spoke, but a genuine sense of awe and love. I was a little stunned by the emotions that swept over me at just hearing how he spoke. Like he'd just told me something so powerfully true and yet totally secret. I felt, I dunno, tingly. Like whole worlds had been laid at my feet just hearing it.
So naturally, I just pushed past it like he hadn't said it. I dunno why I do that, sometimes. I think I just decided to accept it now and analyze it later.
"But how? I mean, the moon wasn't even out." So saying I looked up to the sky and saw the moon, pregnant but not full, riding a few wisps of clouds in the sea of stars above. So many stars, I'd never seen the like of it in Baltimore before. Not even at the beaches.
"Momma says that sometimes she just looks at something shiny and reaches for it from inside. Like you look through the light and imagine goin' into it. She keeps a mirror on a necklace to help her with that."
"Shiny. Like the sun reflecting off the water up at the pool, maybe?"
"Could be. Maybe you should try it again."
"Thanks, I'll pass. I almost threw up the last time your other mom had me dangling over that pond."
"Ah mean staring into the light. Maybe it'll work again for you."
"Has it worked for you?" I said a little too quickly, and I regretted asking it as soon as I said it. I could feel his eyes flinch away from me.
"There's reasons it might not work for me," he responded. "My mother's tribe are all women. The spirits of my tribe don't like boys."
"Could you find another tribe? One that would, I dunno, help you?"
"It's not unheard of…"
Off in the distance, as I felt Nick move to sit beside me, the cry of the whippoorwill went up in the night, drowning out the other night sounds. Crickets stopped chirping. The wind seemed to still itself in the trees. The very night seemed to shake itself to a halt at that strange warbling bird call. Nick became totally alert beside me, his knees locked halfway between sitting and leaning against the wall. I could just see his knees in the corner of my eye and I swear he was almost trembling.
Then the call of the one whippoorwill became another and another. As far as I was concerned, it was just birds talking to each other. Nick was so terrified, though, that in the silence I could tell he was not breathing. I looked up and the shock of terror in his eyes was enough that I got scared too.
"Nick? What is it?" I whispered.
"Spirals!" he hissed back.
"Enemies of the Garou. Werewolves twisted into evil."
"Now you tell me there are bad werewolves, too? Why didn't you tell me this before?"
"Because, Little Cub," came a voice from the edge of the clearing, "because neither of you can enter the fight. Neither of you are warriors." The voice soon had a form that followed it. He stepped from the shadows like a shadow himself, gliding in silently, not even making the grass crunch under his bare feet as he strode forward confidently. A tall, thin form with a distinctively sharp, hard look to his face. A face I'd seen before. That first day at camp, the older boy with the look of anger in his eyes. His dark hair was still greasy in the yellow sodium light that cast such deep shadows on this side of the trading post. He still had the chip on his shoulder, but other than that and a greasy smile to match his hair, all he wore was a loincloth that hung low on his hips. If I wasn't suddenly so terrified by his appearance and Nick's reaction to him, I might have taken longer looks at his body.
And when I did look at his body… there were marks on his flesh. It's difficult to explain. The skin, every inch of it that I could see except his face and neck, had raised scars, like burn wounds. But unlike melted candle wax, the burn scars looked as if they were drawn on, all spiral patterns. I thought at first that he had been the victim of some horrible kitchen accident where his chest had been burned by an electric heating element on a stove. Then I realized that the patterns merged and changed directions. Those marks were not an accident. They were deliberately carved into his flesh with something white-hot.
And beside me, I could sense Nick trembling in utter terror of this older boy.
"So this is what the chosen one looks like?" the boy said, moving closer. Two other boys and a girl, all similarly naked save for loincloths walked up, each enough alike to be relatives and all of them clearly older than Nick and me. They melted out of the shadows as silently as ghosts, each bearing only a portion of the scars that the first boy did. He was much stronger built than any of the others, yet they all had the slender build of swimmers or tri-athletes. I was beginning to feel as terrified as Nick.
"I've hunted smaller game," one of the newer boys said, behind his leader, "but usually there's more meat on the bone than these two have between them."
"Are we sure one of them is the chosen one?" the other male newcomer spoke. "And this other one is a Fury? Truly the Furies are going as mad as the Fangs if they break their own traditions and start keeping males in their group."
His companion giggled in a way that made me sick with fear, like a hyena on crack with bad ideas and too many sharp toys to play with. Fear with a growing anger because they were insulting Nick. I didn't even understand the insults, just they way they were speaking pissed me off, even if I couldn't do anything about it. Frustrated, oh yeah, that was me!
"Maybe the little he-bitch doesn't have fully male parts under his ape rags?"
"Or both types!"
"The little he-bitch and the chosen one?" the girl said, glancing distastefully at both of us. "Hardly worthy of all four of us. We could have sent pups after these whelps." I was beginning to get the idea that I was the one they kept calling the chosen one.
"Enough!" The older boy, the leader, stepped forwards and shoved Nick to the ground, roughly. "We only need the theurge-cub. Don't do any permanent harm to him." He grabbed a fist full of Nick's shirt and brought his nose down into Nick's face. The scent of urine drifted up and to be honest I couldn't tell if it was Nick's or mine. "This foul weakling you can rip to shreds," the leader growled. And he picked Nick up off the ground and flung him over his head to his back-up band's tender mercies. Just backhand tossed him like dropping a tennis ball behind your shoulder.
This time I'm sure the urine smell came from my pants. These guys might be freaks, but they were freaks with power. Apparently these bad guy werewolves already could change and already had their full powers. And they were about to hurt Nick.
"Nicky!" I screamed, and took a step towards where he landed. I'm not sure if he was caught or allowed to fall. I do know he must have hit something hard because he cried out.
"Run, Cody!" Nick called to me and his voice was immediately blunted when one of the boys landed a punch to Nick's gut so hard it drove the air out of him. These kids were so much bigger than us. The boys alone had almost a whole foot in height over us.
"Yeah, Cody," the leader rasped out, "make it interesting for me. Run." God, his breath reeked. I wonder if he ever saw the friendly side of toothbrush. He leaned in close, his nose twitching. "Run, Cody."
"If you hurt him, I swear, you'll burn for it," I said, feeling equal measures of fear, anger, rage and frustration.
"We wont harm the little he-bitch, Cody," the girl said, mocking me. Nick cried out in pain and his shirt flew in the air, ripped off his torso.
"Nah, we wont harm him. We just wanna weigh his heart," one of the boys said.
"Before we eat it!" the other, the one with the mocking, crazy laugh said, punctuating his joke by hitting Nick hard enough to make him groan.
"Cody, run! Get my mom!"
"Yeah, Cody. Go run away home and get Nicky's mommies," the leader said, grabbing a fist full of my shirt. "We'll keep him alive long enough for them to get pissed off so I can kill them and fuck them both. Then maybe we'll have fun with Nicky, and then you."
"Yeah, we're only supposed to deliver him alive, not intact," one of the boys said, punching Nick again, hard. I could hear him crying and screaming as they tortured him. I could feel my own tears of rage and frustration lining my face. The leader shook me in his grasp, tugging my shirt back and forth. I never wanted my parents to be there for me so much in my life. But like so many other times, they were too busy fighting over who wasn't protecting me to do any actual protecting. Maybe that's a little harsh, since I did sneak out the window, but a lot of what's led me to this point was their doing. They made me do things because it fit their idea of who I was. And because of that, I barely knew who I was for trying so hard to be what they both wanted me to be.
Nick screamed again. That scream. The one every boy knows. The scream that only happens when someone kicks you square down there. Then the sound of a hard, wet punch, and Nick's whimpering stopped.
And my vision turned red. I knew that they had just hit him really hard; hard enough to hurt him badly. These weirdos weren't kidding. They meant to torture him to death with their bare hands! They were hurting my only friend in the world right now, a boy I was having some strange but powerful feelings for. As the leader shook me backwards and I sagged in the slack of my own shirt, I looked up and saw the moon. And the rage flowed in me and did the rest.
I melted into the Umbra, falling to the ground, my shirt still in the leader's hand. He looked around furious, wondering where I'd escaped to. I wasted no time. I jumped forward to where Nick's echo in the Umbra was, laying on the ground, curled up. I reached my arms around him and felt my arms pass through him. His body was still in the physical realm, I was in the Umbra. I couldn't lay a hand on him. I screamed in frustration, almost howling, and threw myself to the exact spot where Nick was, watching as one of the other boys was about to land a kick to Nick's head. I reached for my friend again, desperate to get him and me out of the area before these twisted freaks could get to us.
And this time my arms enveloped him and I was able to pull him completely out of the physical world. I ran through the Umbral forest, no RV's, no camp store complex, nothing but the spirit echoes of trees spread out before me. I was confused by this, but I knew that I had no choice but to run. The Spirals, as Nick had named them, were still disoriented and scrambling to find us in the physical reality. I had no time to look for landmarks. I simply ran in the direction I knew would take me deep into the RV park area. Strangely, I could actually lift Nick. He felt cold in my hands, that sort of jellied, bruised feeling to his skin as I rushed to escape.
I managed to get as far as the outer limit of the part before we both suddenly slipped from the Umbra and I ran face first into Nick's family's camp. Specifically, I ran face first into the broad side of the RV next to the side door. We collapsed in a heap, Nick mostly lying across my chest, unconscious. I was so winded, I almost passed out myself.
The door opened and Nick's mom and Jasmine sprang out, looking like they were ready to deal some pain, Jasmine holding a Louisville Slugger one handed like some major league batter stepping up to the plate. Nick's mom swept down to check on us and two of Nick's sisters came out as well, looking alert and cautious. His mom looked at me as she saw how hurt Nick was and all I could croak out was "Spirals," before I too passed out.
I'm not sure how much time had passed when I woke up, but Nick lay beside me. His wounds had been dressed and an ice pack was laying across the top of his forehead, a blanket that had once been tucked tight around him had been kicked loose several times even though most of it was still draped over him. He was so pale. I had a large bandage taped on my chest. Beneath it I could feel three ripping, burning tracks on my skin. I looked over to Nick, hoping to see him awake, but his eyes were dancing beneath his closed lids, the right side swollen and bruised. I felt my heart pang at seeing him so abused. Abused for my sake.
"So you are awake." I looked around to get my bearings as well find out who the hell was talking. We were at the pool. Nick's mom was there, but she looked bigger. Cave womanish. I swear she could walk into a group of angry sailors and drunk marines and wipe the floor with all of them. We were laid right near where Nick and I had lain the day before, I could see the sun was washing the sky with colors, still hours from rising fully, but beginning to lighten the deep purples of the night with violets and crimsons. I looked up and was acutely aware that Nick's other mom was nowhere in sight, nor were the troupe of his sisters.
"Long were you out? Only a few hours. You and Nicholas are very lucky to still be with us, Cub."
"So you know?"
"Ah have a nose for my own kind," she smiled grimly. "Ah thank you for the life of my son. Ah know he is precious to you as well, but Ah still thank you for his life."
"Will he be okay?"
"That greatly depends on you."
"This is a place of healing. It has been sealed long ago. That is all that Ah can figure out. Ah am no theurge." She stood up and I came to realize how tall she was now, very tall. We're talking about Olympic weightlifter looking power on her now. Clearly, there are some advantages to being a werewolf. "But what Ah do know is this," she said, walking over to squat near me. "In the forty years since this caern was controlled by my tribe, no creature or spirit of any kind, with any gifts, has been able to enter the Umbra. The curse is still in effect."
"Curse?" This was the last place I would ever have thought of to be cursed. The pool was clear and pure. The glen around it was beautiful, lush, green. There were animal noises all around. The air was clean and fresh, carrying no stain of rot like you encounter around standing water in the city.
"Forty years ago, this caern was attacked by our enemies. The Black Spiral Dancers. That tribe of twisted, raving, wyrm-stinking lunatics slaughtered all the defenders of this caern, sparing neither woman nor child. As the last elder of the caern defenders fell, her own heart hanging into the waters over the font in the center, she cursed the caern. She used her dying breath to block the spirit energies from flowing here."
"Her curse cannot be lifted by any but a theurge of the new generation. Two of my daughters are theurges, yet none of them can break the curse. Nick had a vision, though. A vision that he would find a chosen one."
"Me?" She nodded sagaciously.
"As difficult as it is to believe, it must be you. Nick's vision quest was specific. He would not become Garou until he met his soul mate; a theurge that could lift the curse with one act of positive energy. One act of love beyond rage."
"But I don't understand."
"Theurges don't have to understand. They learn and uncover the ways of the spirits and their powers as they go. You can only be trained in some things, but understanding must come from within."
"How is he?" I said, looking back to Nick, stroking a finger over his cheek. The motion of twisting back to face him caused a tremor of pain to slip through my rips in my chest. They burned with heat and felt puffy and gooey. I couldn't help but cringe and hold a hand over the bandage.
"He, like you, suffers from envenomed talons. The Spirals that attacked you stroked their claws into your flesh, leaving their toxins behind in your blood stream. Nick took more poison than you did. And far more pain. So in saving my son you will also affect your own cure. The font is supposed to have healing powers, once the caern is re-energized."
"But I don't know how!" I screamed.
"You are the only one that can enter the Umbra here. You partly tapped into the caern's power once before. I don't know how you did it, but you did. Whatever you began, you must finish. For Nick's sake, Ah beg you, try."
I looked back to Nick. "I would do anything for him."
"Ah don't understand how another male can be his soul mate...."
"I think you understand," I shot back. "You and Jasmine are soul mates. You're just so tribally set against males that you don't expect that two boys can feel the same things you can." It took me three eye blinks before I realized that I had said that to a woman who could rip me in half with just a swipe of her hand. And that she was Nick's mother. Not a good footing to get into. You have to realize, so many things had changed for me in the last day. I no longer felt any connection to my parents. I felt a powerful connection to another boy, a connection that was more then just my soft parts getting hard around him. I was experiencing all sorts of new and undeniable forces and energies and tensions in my life. So much of who I really was had come out. So much more I still couldn't understand yet. Nor did I have time to explore my own feelings deeper.
Her eyes narrowed. I could tell this wasn't the sort of sharp glance before a strike. This was the shrewd gaze of someone trying to find the proper path. Someone weighing the pros and cons of the situation so very carefully.
"Perhaps Ah am blinded by my own expectations about males. Nick has been so unlike my other children, but at times Ah forget his uniqueness is deeper than just his talents. Ah forget at times that he is my son and not my daughter. It is a flaw Ah must work on."
We were both suddenly reminded of how much trouble Nick was in when he moaned loudly and barely turned his head to the side to vomit. The foul liquid that chuffed up from his mouth was thick and mildly green. And not the normal booger-snot green, either. We're talking about like brackish green. His body wracked with several convulsions and he spat out some more unnatural phlegm. I could feel a tickle in the back of my throat as well. I was watching in my friend what likely would happen to me soon.
"Hey, easy Nick. Easy." I scooped some water out of the pool and helped him wash his mouth out. I didn't want him swallowing that stuff back down, even a little bit. His skin was hot to the touch and he was shivering as I helped him lay back in the grass. He barely woke up to puke and fell back to sleep almost as soon as I eased his head down to rest.
"The poison works fast. Cody, please! Even if you chose to turn your back on your Garou heritage and your sacred duties, please, please have the honor to spare my son this agony. Save his life, or take it."
"What must I do?"
"You attuned yourself to the caern center, the font, already. Whatever else must be done to unlock the caern's healing power must be there as well. Nothing else Ah can think of makes sense."
"All's I did before was just try to swim down and touch where the water comes up."
"Did you reach the source?"
"No. It was too strong. I was close, but the current was too strong."
"Try again. Perhaps that is all it takes." About that time, I realized that she had been talking to me the whole time in werewolf language, and I'd been responding in it. There was no doubt in my mind anymore where I belonged. She felt that I could do it, and that I was the only one who could do it. I started to believe it too.
"Bring him with us," I commanded. I held Nick's hand as his cave mom lifted him like a rag doll.
The last time I was out this deep in the pool, I was able to mostly walk out to the center. As I got closer to the center this time, however, the water level rose quickly. It was up to the middle of my chest at only about twenty steps in. It's as though the water had been carving itself deeper into the hill. It was still as clear as air, and even Nick's mom's huge feet weren't stirring up the bottom. She was using a lifeguard grip on Nick's jaw, floating him behind her as she followed me deeper.
Suddenly, I lost my footing entirely. The floor of the pool seemed to open out from under my foot, even as I was sure I had a firm foot on the silty, rocky bottom. I kicked and sputtered back to the surface, coughing up water as I tried to tread water. But the water wasn't cooperating. I couldn't be certain but I felt as though something were twining about my legs.
In a way it was. A surge in the water shifted me suddenly, drawing me in deeper into the pool, directly towards the font. But not in a way that I could have ever anticipated. The font was spouting more and more water. And that water took on a shape.
"Elemental water spirit!" Nick's mom cried out. I risked a glance back at her in time to see her trying to tug Nick's floating, limp form back in her direction, because the water in the pool was sucking up towards the elemental, filling it with more water, making it gigantic. I panicked.
"Get him to dry land!" I shouted back.
"You cannot fight that spirit! It is too powerful for you!" I turned around as my feet touched ground. The elemental had swollen to almost 30 feet tall, looking like a kid dressed as a Halloween ghost, only continually dripping and mostly a transparent grayish blue color. I had no intention of fighting it. Nick had told me that there were things a theurge can do. I was about to try.
"I know you!" I shouted to the elemental. "I know you and I am not impressed!" The elemental rippled and a thick wave of water swept my way, knocking me off my feet and further from the font. Okay, so pissing off a greater spirit of nature isn't a smart thing to do. But it focused the things attention on me and let Nick's mom have a chance to pull him to safety. But the wave that slammed me was vicious. It tumbled me in the water, banging me against the rocky lake bed several times, rolling me feet over knees. I struggled back to the surface. Angry.
But I held my rage inside. Directing it this time, not burying it. I needed strength for later, and that energy would be wasted if I just vented anger. The elemental absorbed the water from the attack it sent my way back into its body, pulling me along as well.
Now, I don't know how or where I got the idiotic idea that I could do like heroic crap, but a plan formed in my mind. And as the elemental was dragging itself back together and me closer, I poked my head above water for a second, took a deep breath, like the instructors at my swimming lessons had taught me when I was 7. With a quick push off the bottom, I tucked and dove, finding that the bottom faded away as I swam deeper under the elemental. I wasn't crazy enough to try to challenge the spirit directly. If almost touching the font before was enough to trigger the caern's defending spirit, then maybe if I got all the way close to the source, then maybe I could actually save Nick's life.
That's when the pain in my chest scratches suddenly shifted from just a mild pressure and burning pain to the point of a soldering iron raked over already tender wounds. The poison was shifting gears on me. About half my air rushed out of me and I doubled up, partly rising to the surface in pain. I never felt anything so sudden and sharp and powerful as that burst of pain. If I only got scratched and it did this to me, what must Nick be going through? He got worked over a lot more than I did, by three sadists.
I grit my teeth underwater and forced myself to stretch out and kick for the bottom of the pool again. I'd floated up a few feet when the pain hit and had lost some ground as well as air. The poison was sapping my strength rapidly, so I knew I had no time to go back up for air.
But the water elemental had other ideas. He surged out with a wavy pulse that ejected me out of the water entirely, flung me several yards through the air and bounced me into a patch of gravely, mostly dry lake bed, butt first. It knocked the wind out of me, and the water that flowed around me from the water tendril kept pushing me, tumbling me yet again. I inhaled some water and sat up coughing, bruised more. I spent about half a minute face down coughing up water and snot, my head hanging low and all my weight on my shoulders and hands.
I looked up and saw Nick's mom cradling Nick against her chest, tears streaming down her face. I was running out of time. Nick was running out of time. The heat in my own wound was spiking again, so whatever Nick was going through was infinitely worse.
I would not let him just die on me! Not now that we had barely found something in each other! Up until now, my whole life was about dealing with my failures. My failure to be the perfect kid my parents wanted. My failure to figure out who I was. My failure to keep my parents together.
I would not fail Nick!
I fought my own body, fought past the cramps in my gut as the poison coursed through me. I fought to stand up and look back at the water elemental. It was reforming its body again, draining water back into its towering presence. Physically, there was no way I was going to reach the font source. The elemental was guarding far too well, and it was just too freaking strong. I ran forward, chasing the retreating waters as close to the elemental as I could. Tears were streaming down my face. The pain was getting to me more and more. I had maybe this one last chance, for both of us.
Screaming in anger I leapt at the elemental and something odd happened. The anger in my body, the pain of the poison ripping me up from inside out and the adrenaline all combined. Before I even knew it was happening, I felt my body shifting. For future reference, changing from kid to kid werewolf while in wet clothes is painful. And the clothes don't really like ripping apart at the seams. It happened so fast I didn't have time to notice all the things that changed.
But the elemental sure did. As soon as it saw me in full werewolf form, it struck out. Previously, it just surged a wave of water at me, tossing me about like a beach ball. This time it was going super soaker mode, shooting at me with fire hose force. Jumping as a werewolf puts you a lot higher into the air, so basically I was a sitting duck for it's attack. High up and unable to dodge. And to the elemental's credit, its blast was right on target, would have smashed me all the way back to the grass, some 30 yards back. That is, if it had hit me.
The moon was out, still bright and shining against the elemental's body. It was shiny enough for me to focus on. And in focusing on it, I reached out to it, through it and into it. And into the Umbra. It hurt this time. The passage into the spirit world was like taking a bad road on my bike at top speed, only instead of just jarring my butt and other parts, it wracked my whole body.
But once I was on the other side, in the Umbra, I fell directly over the center of the font and plunged into the Umbral waters. The cool water caressed through my fur and soothed my inflamed skin. I swam down, exhaling as I went, trying to find the bottom of the pool. As I went down, I shifted back to my human body. Werewolf form has a lot of advantages, like much bigger lung capacity and ferocious strength, but it's not really streamlined or set up for swimming. Plus, as I let the air out of werewolf sized lungs, I started to feel the urge to go back to the surface. The air in my human sized lungs felt more comfortable, like the beginning of a deep dive instead of halfway through it.
Like the first time I went out to the font source, the water pressed up at me, a current of bubbles and cold water. I was mostly dressed in rags this time, my shredded clothes barely holding on to my skin as I struggled against the flow. I had to touch the source. I wasn't sure why but I just knew that was my goal. That the contact of my flesh against the Umbral source would undo the curse. Call it a werewolf instinct, I just knew it was what I had to do.
I was going deep. The air in my lungs was beginning to burn to get out. All of my human common sense and survival instinct was screaming to get up where the air wasn't so wet and heavy. One thought drove me on, though. The only way to save Nick was to get my fingers on the source. I could see the point where the water and bubbles were erupting from the ground, the water cool and inviting all around me, I was so close.
Then the elemental got wise to what had happened in the physical realm and swapped itself over into the Umbra as well. Something like a thick towel of water wrapped around my leg and started pulling back up. It stopped me just a few good kicks from touching the font. Again, the shock of something grabbing me underwater from behind caused me to squirt air out through my lungs. I looked up along my body and could make out the shimmering edges of the elemental's long tendril wrapped around my foot and calf muscle. I tried kicking it off with my other foot, but it was like trying to cut fog. All I did was pass through it.
Frustration and desperation got the better of me. I got seriously pissed. Nick was dying. Three or four kicks through the tendril with no effect just cheesed me off more. So I let the anger and rage flow. I shifted to werewolf form again, still not knowing how I did it, and my body surged the rest of the way down to the font source, smacking my head into the font source, forehead first. And then I passed out.
I woke up laying on the bottom of the pool, still in the Umbra, my skin damp but dry air filling my lungs. The pain in my body from the poisoned wound was gone. I was back in human form again, lying next to a tornado of water lifting up and joining a dome of water over my head. And the tornado had a face!
"You have defeated me, young cub," the water spout spoke to me. "And the curse is thus lifted. This caern once again pulses with the life force of Gaia."
"Nick!" I called out. "He's poisoned! Please help him!"
"He is already healed of his wounds, young theurge. You have done well. This will be a place of healing once again, and your kind will be welcomed here as protectors and honored allies."
"Thank you. I still don't understand all of this," I explained, lifting my hands to the water dome and the filtered light of the moon. Their seemed to be spirits floating in the waters around us, passing between the dome and the open air that surrounded me.
"It was your intentions that inspired the return of this caern. You wanted to help a dear friend. Your honor and depth of emotion brought the first healing back to this place after many moons of anguish and pain. I sense that healing will be part of your calling."
"I don't get it. I basically rammed into the spot where the water and bubbles came out of the ground. I didn't do anything special."
"Perhaps not," the elemental said, it's voice as deep as the ocean. "But you brought spirit and emotion to a place that has been denied both for so long. The gauntlet is lowered here. Garou who defend this place and come here for healing will be able to enter the Umbra again. All because of your deep feelings. This place has healed you as well, spiritually."
"It's changed me."
"More changes are coming for you. You have opened yourself to a world that exists beside the one you grew up to know, but a world those that birthed you do not and can not share."
"They aren't really the sharing type," I admitted.
"You fear for them?"
"I love them. I know I can't be with them anymore. I know that they are tearing each other apart."
The elemental smiled. "For one so young, you have found your strength and wisdom rather quickly."
"Too quickly. I barely know how all of this happened so fast. I guess I've been changing for a while, it just took a less subtle change for me to realize how much I have changed. This is certainly the last place I'd ever expect to find myself." I sat cross-legged, feeling strangely relaxed for someone talking to a greater spirit of nature that had been trying to harm me just moments before.
"The last thing that any of your kind ever expects is to be where they are. Perhaps it is time to simply learn to go with the moment an run where the pack hunt takes you?"
"So, you're saying that I will have to leave my parents?"
"You already knew that this would happen. You have found your destiny. And you may have some good come of this. Your parents may come closer together because of your absence."
"Or it may split them apart."
"As you know, they were already far along that path. Either way, they will follow their destiny through grief of your loss. The choice is yours how you do it."
I looked up to him, although for the life of me I couldn't tell if the elemental was male or female, or if such distinctions even matter to spirits. "I know. Can I go see Nick now? I think he and I and his moms need to talk."
"Yes, you are right. Before you go though, I wish to teach you something. You have healed me, and helped heal this caern. I wish to teach you how to heal others. It will be my second gift to you."
"Second gift?" Okay, at first I thought he was going to say that healing me of the poison and other injuries was his first gift. How wrong I was.
"Yes, you now have the gift of spirit speech. Any spirit can hear your voice and you can hear theirs now. That is how we are able to speak now."
"Any spirit? Like ghosts?"
"Among other spirits. You are about to find that there are spirits in the world that your religious, cultural and scientific upbringing have no understanding of. Things aren't always as they seem. As a theurge, spirits may seek you out."
"Now, let me teach you this gift. It is called Mother's Touch." And we spent several minutes talking about how to sense the healing powers of Mother Earth and channel them into other people. He even had me lay my hands on the font, the heart of this caern, and let the energy flow as he taught me. It was awesome.
I stepped out of the Umbra on the grass beside Nick and his mother. She sat watching the calm waters of the pool, her senses alert. Nick was laying down, relaxing, no evidence of his wounds on his skin other then dried blood in his shirt and a rip down the hem from his neckline to the left sleeve.
"Hi," I said, feeling the Umbra slip off of me and the open air of the glade touching my skin.
"Cody!" he said, leaping to his feet and hugging me tightly. I was shocked at first, gasping. But then, I relaxed, hugging him back. He suddenly meant so much to me. I guess it takes nearly dying for someone to realize how you really feel sometimes. "You did it?!"
"I had help." I looked at Nick's mother. "The caern is healed. I think you'll be able to go to the Umbra now."
"Ah will visit the caern center and pay my respects." She stood and embraced us both. "Thank you for the gift of my son's life, Cody."
"I have selfish reasons for wanting Nick to stay with us a while," I smiled. We let our arms drop from around each other as his mother looked up to the moon and vanished into the spiritual side of reality. I sat down and Nick sat down beside me.
"Tough decisions," I replied. "You were raised in all of this, I'm still learning it. I'm going to need help."
"Ah'll help you."
"I know, but we both also know that you need help, too."
"And I can't stay with my parents. They can't handle this. Hell, I can barely handle things right now."
He looked away, twisting some grass between his fingers. I looked up to the sky, watching as the stars played hide-n-seek with clouds. "Ah love my moms, Cody," he said, "but Ah cain't stay with them. They cain't deal with me anymore. Ah'm becoming a man and that's something that my tribe will never allow. And Mom will never go against her tribe."
"We're both about to be outcasts from all we knew," I said, sadly, linking my fingers in his. He looked back into my eyes. Then he smiled. And I felt myself smiling back. "We're about to become far more than friends too, I think."
"Ah've always known Ah was different, but never had any guy friends. Human or Garou. But Ah think what Ah feel about you ain't just friends either." He looked down then looked back into my eyes. "Momma knows."
"We had a long talk while you were down in the caern. She knew that you were okay when the elemental relaxed and the water settled back. Ah guess watchin' me shift to crinos and all my wounds sealin' up helped convince her, too."
"You changed, too? Wow! I guess I should have guessed it's how you healed up. You know we're both talking in wolf speech?" I asked him.
"Yeah," he replied. "It feels right. Cody?"
"Ah want to be with you, you know, like in all ways. But Ah don't wanna have it all be about just, ya know, sex stuff."
"I know. I… we haven't talked about these feelings, but I think we both knew. Both felt it. And I think we should hold off on serious sex stuff for a while."
"Yeah? Ah mean, Ah want to. Ah just dunno if Ah'm fully ready yet… for like the heavy stuff."
"Nick, we've got a lot to teach each other. We've got to figure out about each other. I guess we still have a lot to learn about ourselves too."
Nick's mom slid back into the physical world. We stayed with our hands together, even when she walked up to us in her cave woman mode. She came over a short distance from us and sat down. But she kept a certain difference from us, as if there were a barrier. I was a little puzzled by this.
"Nicholas," she said, in English. "There are some things that you and Ah and Cody must discuss now. But things that we cannot discuss alone."
"Ah… my son, there are things that Ah cain't teach you. The tribe brought me up a certain way. A way that you cain't follow. And with how you and Cody… feel about each other…" she fumbled for words. "Ah barely understand how women can put up with men, much less raise you right, Nick. Ah just… Ah don't understand."
"Neither do we, completely."
"No. Nick, Ah have to train my daughters in the tribe's ways. But Ah cannot teach you that way. It is forbidden."
"Cody needs to learn the way of the Garou as well."
"He does. He is a lost cub and it is a joy to us all that he has found us in time, before the human's have done things to him." Yes, I know they were talking about me as though I wasn't there, but to hear her praise my existence in one breath and make me worry about what my parents would do if they found out I was a werewolf at the same time. Talk about rock and a hard place.
"That is where I come in." The voice came from behind us and it scared me silly. But Nick's mom didn't go ballistic on the interloper, so either she knew him or he was expected. He walked up next to her and bowed his head slightly, tapping his head, lips and chest in some gesture. His features were sharp, Arabic, and dark. Handsome, I guess, with kind of this easy smile that seemed like he was up to something.
"Yoseph, you came!"
"You are looking well Maeve. The wilderness here clearly likes you." He looked at the two of us, a quick glance into each of our eyes and he saw our still joined hands. He raised an eyebrow, but smiled just the same, and I felt that he was friendly and honest.
"Oh wow! Momma, did you open a moon bridge?"
"Yes, and Ah asked my good friend Joey for a very important favor."
"One that I am happy to oblige," Yoseph or Joey or whatever his name was said. "I have a caern many miles from here, one that is in desperate need of two stalwart young Garou who wish to learn."
"Wait a sec! Time out! What's going on here?" I said at last. It felt like the longest I'd ever kept my mouth closed while people that weren't my parents talked about me.
"Cody, you know that you cannot stay with those that brought you into this world," Maeve said. "They wont understand and you don't understand enough now yourself, despite the great things you have already done." It was so weird how easily we were all slipping back and forth between speaking in American English and then in the wolf tongue. We just spoke how we felt we needed to, from whichever language suited at the time.
"Yeah, I guess."
"And both of you know that Ah cain't be your mentor."
"Yeah, I got that much."
"Joey can be the mentor that both of you need. And because he is so far from here, your parents will not be able to track you. You will start over, essentially." She put a hand on Nick's shoulder in just that way that good Mom's can and my Mom seems to have forgotten long ago. "You both will."
"Only if you want me as your mentor. I will demand obedience and faith, but I will not be a burden that you cannot handle. I will teach you our ways, our customs, our laws. I will help you tap into your own native powers. I will defend you when you need it, lead you when you seek it and guide you when you ask it. And along the way we'll have some fun and maybe kill a few things that try to eat us for breakfast." His grin was fierce and happy at the same time.
I looked at Nick. "Would we be together, then? Both of us learning with you?" I wasn't sure where I was going with that question, but I wanted to see what the future could be.
"You would be my only Garou students. There are others I associate with, but they are of different kinds from us. But in answer to your question, I would not cause you or Nicholas to be apart more than necessary. The Garou run in packs, young cubs. Packs that go beyond the bounds of tribe, of auspice, or even of bonds between parents and cubs." He looked across at Nick and ruffled his hair. "And if would be my honor to be your mentor while you form your pack. If you will have me."
"What do you think Nick?" I asked. It felt like we were being railroaded into doing the right thing, but we still had a choice in the matter. We still could decide. This was Maeve's way of helping her son and Joey's way of letting us know that there were alternatives. But that wasn't the only reason I asked Nick his take on things. Deep down, I was still scared, confused and just a little unsure if this was how things were done among Garou. Well, not exactly. This all sounded like a long term commitment. We've only known each other about three days now. We were talking about… forever, I guess.
Nick looked at me. "It is the Garou way. We don't stay with our parents most times. We sorta get adopted by elders until we can be adults. We might have many mentors after we leave our parents. Like a lot of aunts and uncles and grandparents."
"Well it just depends on the situations, cub," Joey said. "Sometimes you just bump into people that have knowledge you need."
"No. I mean, how do I just leave my parents." Guilt spiked through me. We came up here to get through their problems. As bad as all that was, me up and leaving would not make it better.
"Are you afraid to leave them?"
"A little. They aren't really good together right now. If I go missing or run away, they'll track me down." My eyes were chasing my shoe laces as I admitted that. "They'll see me as the only reason they're still together and… and I dunno, they wont let go."
"You fear change?" Joey asked.
"It's a big change."
"Sounds like stagnation and denial for your parents. I don't think their relationship has grown." Joey had such keen insights for someone who didn't know my situation. Made me wonder what his auspice was. No matter what it might be, he was clearly very wise.
"Cody, we can think about this after some sleep. A lot has happened tonight and the sun will be up soon." Nick squeezed my hand as he said this.
"And we have another problem to deal with as well. Joey, there were Black Spiral Dancers here. They attacked Nick and Cody."
"Hum. Then we may have to deal with them in the time honored and traditional manner," Joey grinned, but this time it was a grin that spoke of a healthy respect for a mortal enemy and a certain cunning. You can't help but like Yoseph. He's funny and kind and understanding all at once. "You cubs sleep here. I think Maeve and I need to have some adult conversation time."
"Don't leave the caern without telling us," Nick's mom warned. Then she and Yoseph transformed into the biggest freaking dogs I've ever seen and they trotted off into the woods.
Nick and I curled up under the blanket, since it was cold out and our clothes had kinda been ripped up something fierce by our own transformations, earlier. We didn't say anything else, nor do anything more interesting than hold hands and lean into each other face to face. I mean, there were probably some thoughts about what we could have done. I know I had more than a few. But for the moment, I was happy and content to just be there with him. Also, I was tired. A lot had happened so far and I was more than ready for some simple sleep.
When I woke up, I was alone under the blanket. My body felt stiff from sleeping on the rocky ground and I sat up carefully. I stretched my arms out, feeling my back tense and flex, loosening up. All of the events of the previous night flooded my mind as I woke up. Talking with Nick, the escape from the Spirals, fighting the elemental and opening the caern. I also remembered my parents fighting. And how I had been so cruel to them. How they didn't know where I was and probably were frantically looking for me even now.
They weren't bad parents, you see. They weren't especially affectionate or showy about it, but they did, and I like to think still do, love me. I was in an odd place. The last place any kid expects to be in, the place where you find yourself about to leave your parents far too early. There was a lot of loyalty in me. There was a lot of emotions I didn't realize were there before all coming up inside me at once. It was too big.
I had to go to them.
I stood and began running and somewhere between where I left the blanket and the edge of the RV park, I had switched to wolf form and ran the whole way. It was so much like my dreams, the scents strong in my nose, the blur of leaves and grass passing beside my head, the sense of wind in my ears. It was so familiar. Although, I have to say that while it felt right to be a wolf and run like that, it felt weird that I was still wearing clothes as a wolf.
I switched back to human pretty quickly, I guess. I ran most of the way back to my parents' RV, only slowing to a walk when I got the street. The SUV was still parked out front. But Dad wasn't in the middle seat asleep anymore. I waited cautiously outside the door, listening. No sound. Which I guess was good because it meant no fighting. But what else it might mean I wasn't sure.
I opened the door, suddenly, on impulse, and rushed up the two steps to get into the RV. "Mom? Dad?" I looked around, expecting to see them suddenly rising to hug or interrogate me about being out all night.
Instead, I saw the Spiral pack in the RV, dressed like regular people for a change. My father was tied up and gagged, stuffed into a corner of the dining area. Mom was sitting on the other bench looking like she'd been down twelve miles of bad road face first. Her shirt was barely staying on her by the stitches and there were bruises visible on her legs. My eyes flew open wide.
"Cody! Run!" Mom shouted. Three figures stood up. That's when I realized that only three of the Spirals were in the RV. The leader, that evil sounding bitch and the smaller of the other two boys. The door opened behind me and the third boy entered. I was outnumbered, surrounded and my parents were captives. As far as traps go, this one seemed to have worked pretty well. They snagged me without much trouble.
"At last, the pup comes home to roost," the Spiral chick said. "Let's bag him and slash these wastes of skin. And then burn it all down."
"Not yet, Brittany. Not quite yet." The leader stood and walked to me. I was stuck in place. Nothing could ever prepare me for what was going on here. Fear again swam up around me, and I couldn't help but shiver a little bit. I felt like I suddenly had to pee, but couldn't. The look on Mom's face said it all. She too was paralyzed with fear. Dad couldn't do anything more than struggle and moan in protest. Both of them looked like they had been slapped around a bunch. Dad had a nasty looking shiner forming over his left eye.
"Nice trick you pulled saving the he-bitch last night, Cody. Very slick." The leader walked up to me slowly. "Very… sneaky!" he said, gut punching me hard. All my wind rushed out and I doubled over his fist. He pulled his fist away and I fell in a heap, staring at his Doc Martins up close. I coughed as I lay there, trying to catch my breath again.
"Oooh, did the lil puppy fall down, go boom?" the boy behind me asked, mocking me. The other two laughed, a short, ugly barking laugh from the girl, Brittany.
The leader grabbed me by the hair and hauled me halfway upright. He then threw me backwards by the hair and the boy behind me caught me, twisting my arm up behind my back. Then he did something totally gross. While keeping me hammer locked, the kid behind me licked the back of my neck. It was so revolting. "His throat tastes sweet," he growled, then whispered savagely, "wonder what you taste like all bloody and broken?"
"Just hold him, Hank," the leader ordered. "We still have to catch the he-bitch."
"Nick?" I blurted out, alarmed.
"Yeah, lil Nicky should be along lookin' fer you in a few shakes, puppy," the last boy said. "And then we'll have the whole set," he finished and laughed at his own joke, sounding like a hyena on meth.
"You'll have to forgive Dean," the leader said. "He doesn't feel right in the head unless he's killing something."
"I still say we throat the apes," Brittany said, angrily. "The he-bitch only wants this runt, not it's kin."
"We lay low. We don't want the whole Fury pack coming down on our necks. We snag the other boy, then we torch the place."
"Then we kill 'em! Right, Gene?" the one called Dean said, with a little more slobber on his lips than most people need. The others were intimidating and tough looking. Dean just looked certifiably insane.
"Yeah, Deano. Then we sac 'em, properly." For some reason, the way Gene said "sac," had me worried. They didn't want to just kill me. They had a purpose. And whatever that purpose was, it involved Nick's blood, and mine. I struggled to get free of Hank's grip, but he was stronger than I'd given him credit for, which was already plenty strong. He pushed up on my wrist and grabbed my other shoulder to pull me tighter. Hank wasn't taking any chances. "If you struggle much harder, I'll have to have Hank break that arm, Cody. You might as well relax until your little boyfriend gets here. And if you keep going after that," Gene grinned like a dope, and leaned over grabbing Mom's chin in his grimy, strong hand. "Well then me and Mommy will get to be really good friends."
Dad nearly jumped out of the couch and Mom tried to squirm away. Brittany smashed Dad hard in the face with a straight left punch. His head snapped back like it was on a spring and he sank back against the couch, stunned. I got pissed. Well, okay, I got more pissed, and frustrated. And worried. It built up in me.
"Smells like lil puppy is getting' a lil cranky," Hank said, torquing my arm some more. I grit my teeth, feeling my arm starting to burn in protest from all the strain and pain. "I can smell his rage grow."
"Embrace the dark side, whooo hooo!" Dean warbled. He was giggling almost inaudibly most of the time, and I get the impression that his eyes didn't always focus properly. Maybe he was drugged, maybe he was just a freakin' whacko. Either way he was a little left of center by a few miles.
"Speaking of the dark side," Gene said, wheeling to look at me, shoving Mom back harshly. "Why can't we enter the Shadow here, puppy?" I felt the anger in me growing. Yesterday I'd had a taste of giving back as good as I get, of not taking it anymore. I learned to let my anger give me strength, but keeping it under my control. It felt good. I was ready to do it again.
"Yeah, pup. Why?"
"Could be your breath, Hank," I snarled back. "You should ask your buddies to wipe first before you kiss their asses." And then there was pain in my arm and shoulder, so I had to shut up for a moment and groan, leaning forward a little.
"The pain can end," Gene said, coming close to me. He threw his chest out, crossing his arms over his pecs, sticking his fists up under his biceps to make himself look bigger. He didn't really need to since he was plenty big enough as it was. "Give us what we want and we'll go away. We'll leave your parents and you alone and we'll never have to see you ever again. Give us the Shadow back. Give us the caern."
"It's not yours."
"It will be," Gene smiled.
"Gene, I'm bored. Let me kill one of them."
"Not yet, Brittany," the leader warned. "All things in due time."
A knock sounded at the door. A simple three tap rapping that silenced all in the RV. Dean wrapped his hand around Mom's throat and put his hand on top of her head with a vice-like eagle claw type grip. The threat was simple. If she makes a sound, he'll twist her head off.
The knocking came again, this time a little louder and more insistent. Gene pointed to Hank and then indicated the door with a sharp gesture. "See who it is and send them off," he ordered me. "No funny business, or Mommy Dearest gets a new twist on life."
I gulped as Hank shoved me over to the door, keeping his hand tight on my arm behind my back. I reluctantly went to the door, wincing the whole way. I slowly opened the door and looked out, praying it wasn't Nick. If he showed up here now, they'd just finish what they started on him last night.
But it was Joey. I hoped that they didn't know who he was. I needed help, and the Spiral pack's ignorance of Joey could only be an advantage. I visibly relaxed, despite the pain in my arm. Nick was still safe.
"Hi, I'm from the park manager's office. I need to speak to your father if I could. There's been a problem with his credit card." Joey winked at me and tried to peek into the RV as best he could. The angle of the door and its position really didn't help that out any, but he tried anyways. Wily as a fox, that Joey.
"Um, my dad's kinda tied up right now," I said, flicking my eyes to the right a few times so that Joey might catch the hint. "I don't think Mom's up to talking either. They're laying down still."
"Ah. Well, no hurry. I'll just come back later. Would you tell them that I came by, it's very important that we take care of this problem soon."
"I'll tell him." I started to close the door but then I snapped it open again. "Sir?"
"Which credit card is it, d'you know? There's four here." And then Hank shoved the door closed, pushing my arm very hard up. I could almost scratch my shoulder blade. The movement shoved me against the door, face first.
"You little fucker!" Hank whispered in my ear. "What d'you think you're doing, punk? You trying to get your family jacked?"
"Hank, bring him here," Gene ordered. I was rudely brought over to Gene, Hank stretching my arm out in an elbow lock, pressing my head lower, keeping pressure on my wrist clear up to my shoulder. I tried to look up defiantly up into the leader's eyes though I think I only managed to come off looking smug and pained at the same time.
"You're a clever boy, Cody. And very resourceful. You could be free, you could be strong, if you choose to join us instead of go against us. You would be treated as a prince."
"Even ruling in hell still means you're in hell," I said. Not sure where I remember that quote from, but it served it's purpose. "And I'd rather fry than help you hurt anyone. So fuck off!" Which apparently was starting to frustrate Gene. He got visibly angrier, his face reddening. I was under the impression he wanted to bitch-slap me into the middle of next month.
"Oh, I'll make sure you do fry, Cody. Chosen one or not, you will burn!"
"You're not exactly a good recruiter," I snarled. I could hear Brittany murmuring things to my mother, hinting at all the pain she was going to dish out. Hank relaxed his grip. Which lead me to believe that Gene was about to strike. Frantically, I looked around and found something shiny to stare at. The spout of the sink was polished chrome. It would have to do. I focused on the gleam of chrome, reaching. "And you hit like a little bitch!" I yelled at Gene, and spat on him.
That was enough for Gene and he changed into crinos, the full wolf-man form, in the blink of an eye, surging forwards with his black claws to rip my throat open. I ducked under, hauling Hank forward as he still had my wrist tightly gripped and I reached for the Umbra. My body slipped free and fell to the ground. Something wet splashed my back and I turned around in time to see that I had pulled Hank with me into the spirit realm, but Gene's claw rake had already done its damage. Hank's head was barely hanging onto his body by threads, the neck broken and the throat slashed open almost three inches deep from ear to ear. I rolled to the side to let Hank's body land in a heap that didn't include me. I might not be the neat freak my parents were, but I wasn't much into wearing some lunatic's blood if I didn't have to.
Arms surged around me, holding me fast. I struggled briefly before the arms let go enough for me to back up and see who it was. It was Nick. Without a word, I wrapped him in my arms, shivering as he held me as well. But I couldn't keep holding for long.
"My parents are in danger."
"I know. Joey has a plan. You kinda jumped the gun some, but he's about to try and draw them out."
"I have to get back in there. Those guy's are frigging crazy." And as if to punctuate that, Dean tried to slip into the Umbra. He stepped into the spirit world, almost as if he were stepping behind a curtain, and for some reason, he got stuck. Laughing maniacally, he struggled to get all the way over to the spirit side. Nick released me, switched into crinos and leapt at Dean, his claws spearing forwards. He cleared my shoulder so fast I barely saw him move.
I turned around to see that Dean had managed to get over to our side and was trading slashes with Nick. I got mad and switched to crinos as well, charging. Dean was laughing the whole time, even when his own fur and flesh and blood went flying from Nick's claw rips. Just as I was getting to the melee, Dean lunged in with his fangs and wrapped them around Nick's throat, tackling both of us to the ground. Nick whined in pain. This maniac was going to crush my boyfriend's larynx!
I lay my paws on Nick's body and concentrated, using my brush with the powers of the caern to try and heal Nick. The struggle continued on top of me as Nick gripped the Spiral's jaws and tried to pull them off his throat. Having his throat almost crushed had frightened Nick and weakened him. But with me pouring healing into him, his strength returned and he managed to kick the insane werewolf off of us. We both stood up about the same time that Dean did. Almost unconsciously, we split up to surround him. Dean continued to giggle insanely, his breath coming out of him in giggling surges as his lungs heaved, drawing in air raggedly.
And then the thing actually pushed his jaw back into joint so he could laugh harder! Nick had dislocated Dean's jaw when prying it off his own throat. Now the beast just popped it back into place like flipping a hoody up. In his werewolf form, Dean was missing patches of fur where massive nasty convoluted burn marks showed the spiral patterns burned into his body. His bulging eyes were a gleaming yellow with sickly veins showing up. Drool dripped almost continually from his mouth and I think from his nose. And his skin glistened with a greasy look.
The Spiral charged right at me. His jaw dropped open showing me rows of fangs and his tongue was pointed, more like a worm or tentacle than a tongue. I stared in sort of a morbid fascination until I realized he was about to make me into puppy chow.
So as he came in, diving and spearing his claws at my belly, I jumped up as high over him as I could and did a Three Stooges eye poke thing with my first two claws. He didn't much like it. Especially when my middle finger still had his left eye stuck on my claw. But you see, the problem is, while I suddenly had plenty of strength and power, I was not a gymnast. And I kinda landed like a dropped rock, head first onto the ground.
Even half blinded, Dean was fast and he landed on me hard, biting deep into my left bicep, which was amazingly huge. Both of his hands, huge and sinewy and gnarled all at once, wrapped around my throat and he began squeezing, all the while laughing like mad. I struggled to try and punch him, but his body was so much heavier than mine, and he knew how to fight.
Nick was suddenly there, smashing an overhand punch onto the top of Dean's head, driving his teeth deeper into my bicep but also making the bigger werewolf whine in pain before backing off of me and laughing again. I stepped back, my arm hanging slack. It was all pins and needles down my arm. I looked down and was distracted yet again, watching as my own flesh rapidly healed itself, smoothed over and the fur settled back into place!
Apparently we werewolves heal fast.
But not fast enough for Dean. He was getting into the losing end of a slugging match with Nick. A match I was only too happy to help end. The maniac took a desperate claw swipe at Nick's face, which made Nick back up just enough for Dean to trip him with a fast leg sweep. And as the laughing Spiral stood and shifted weight to attack Nick while he was down, I tackled right into Dean's kidney and bit the opposite one. Dean stopped laughing. I should have realized that was a problem right away.
Dean popped his elbow backwards, hard, catching me right between the eyes. My teeth slipped back out of his flesh and I hit the ground hard. There was no doubt about it, these Spirals were used to fighting. I wasn't. And it showed in how easily I was getting my clock cleaned here.
Nick jumped back onto Dean, spearing down with his claws. But Dean was so much bigger than Nick. He had almost a foot in reach. Dean's hand easily wrapped around Nick's throat, he pivoted and slammed my boyfriend to the ground. Right next to me no less. I kicked hard, hoping to hit Dean's groin. But he twisted, making me miss, and then he released Nick and just plain backhand me about eight feet. I scrambled back to me feet, having a hard time breathing. My nose felt wrong.
Dean was sitting on Nick's chest now, laughing again as he strangled my boyfriend. I had had enough. The rage swelled in me and I let it out. I charged hard and leapt, slashing in with both sets of paw claws. The rest is a red blur. I'm not saying that to imply that I was just too fast and brutal for Dean to counter-attack. I'm not saying it to imply that I had developed enough savvy in a fight to just completely overwhelm Dean's training and natural abilities. All I'm saying is that my rage took over and I don't know for sure what I did to him. I know that after my attack, my muzzle, chest, thighs, belly and arms up to my elbows were dripping the thick, heavy, black-red stuff that passed for Dean's blood, and his head and spine were separate from the rest of his body by a few feet, both in different directions.
Nick recovered quickly enough, and I stood near him, panting hard, waiting for something else to attack him. He shifted back to human form as he lay there, healed and reached for me. I shifted as well, feeling the blood dripping through my ripped clothes against skin. I held Nick close then, both of us shivering slightly.
I'd never killed anything before. Well, okay, ants and spiders and bugs don't count. My violence limits to that point all dealt with video game titles. I'd never even been in a fight more brutal than an accidental tripping in soccer as a little kid, and we didn't know what we were doing on that field anyways. This was the first time I'd intentionally taken a life that had value to me. Granted, it wasn't' a positive value, but still, Dean was Garou. And I had just taken his life.
"You okay?" I asked, feeling Nick holding me as tightly as I held him.
"Yeah. Ah'm okay. You?"
"I never killed nobody before," was all I could manage.
"Momma says it's the hardest thing she has to do. She says that you can never take it lightly that we have to kill evil things."
"Your mom sure knows what she's talking about." I let go of him only to find him taking my hand. Two mostly disrobed boys covered in the blood of another being, lucky as sin to be alive and momentarily grieving over the death of someone that wanted us both for breakfast. I'm not going to tell you that I'm any better than Dean, but I will say this, I never wanted to kill him. I had to, but I didn't want to.
"So what's the plan?"
"You said Joey had a plan. What do we do?"
"Hop back into the RV. Try to come back in some way that allows you to appear to have never left."
"Mom was distracted and Dad was out of sight."
"Good. Be ready to crinos again in a' instant. We're gonna bum rush the two still in 'ere and try to make them do something stupid." He grinned and then un-grinned. "Cody, this is a' important moment that's about to happen. Get your rents out of the RV quick as you can, without showing your fur if you can."
"Because these two left in the RV with your parents, they're famous for burning things, and people." He paused. "If you want to stay with them, when you get them out, go with them. Don't look back, because Ah wont be there."
"Cody, if you choose the Garou way, then you have to leave them. They'd be under constant danger from what it is that we go through. Ya'll know this." And now I knew, he was talking about my parents and me and… leaving.
"I do, but, I can't just leave them."
Nick looked me straight in the eyes, taking his hand out of mine. "Cody, Ah wont push you to decide. But if you stay with them, you cain't be who you really are. You cain't protect them from your own rage and other powers. And… and Ah cain't jeopardize them by comin' out to see you. Ah cain't do that to you either."
"So in order to be who I really am, in order for us to be together, I have to give up everything?"
"Not everything. Just everything you've known so far. There's more out there than you ever dreamed, Cody. More than anyone you know could ever do. You have a choice. Hide in what you know, or thrive in what you can be."
A big tear ripped out of my eye. I don't know if anyone ever felt like that, like just a huge tear spurts out of your eye so hard and heavy. I barely knew that I was crying and was surprised by the wetness on my face. I closed my eyes a second and felt every part of my body get tight.
"There's no other way?" I managed to squeak out.
"This is the best time, the best way. If the place goes up in a fire and you supposedly die in the blaze, then they're safe and free, and so are you." He took my hands together in his. "It's for the best. It's not perfect…"
"But you have to get back now." He squeezed my hands a moment and then turned to head off to join Joey and Maeve.
"I want to do what's right. I know what I must do. I wish it didn't have to be this way, but I will follow the Garou way."
"Ah'll tell Joey." He grinned at me. "It'll be alright."
"I know. I love you Nick." He blinked. He bit his lower lip. He stepped up against me, holding me tightly.
"I love you too, Cody. I'm sorry it has to be this way."
I couldn't think of what I could say. It just was the way it was. I wasn't happy about it. I held him back, just as fiercely. Things were moving so fast. I was beginning to learn that how you adjust to fast moving things was how you survived, either as a werewolf or as a regular human. You have to take the tough choices and make the best of it. Sure, you get beaten up from time to time, but if you keep true to yourself, you tend to get through things.
I let go of Nick, very reluctantly. He walked off and switched to wolf form, dashing off far faster than I'd have given him credit for. And yes, I stared at his body as he shifted and was having minor passion attacks about even his wolf body. But for the record, nothing stood up to take notice of it. Too much was going on in my mind. I was just slightly amazed to find myself still attracted to his other forms as well as his human shape. And just for the record as well, Garou have five set shapes. But that's not got anything to do with what's next.
I slide back to about where I jumped into the Umbra from the RV and leap up, switching back into the world of daylight. I manage to do it well enough that I slip and fall on my ass as soon as I hit the floor of the RV, near the entrance. I heard Dad screaming, saw his shoes tossed to the side of the RV drivers seat, one stuck on the steering wheel. I looked over in time to see Gene coming in my direction and Brittany pulling her claw tip back out of my dad's foot. She was in the cave-mannish form, and had pierced the arch of at least one of his feet, deep.
"You bastard!" Gene shouted, rounding on me. "Where's Deano?"
"His blood lies in the Shadow. Spirits are feasting on his flesh now," I said, hoping to get him focused on me. I'd seen enough spy movies to know that whatever Joey had planned, the more I distracted Gene and Brittany, the better chance our guys had to succeed.
Gene was in my face before I knew it and he lashed out. His knee came up and speared me in the stomach. I was too short for him to hit me in the groin. Some survival instinct kicked in and I backed up just enough to catch all of his blow in my solar plexus. I caved over his knee, dropped to my knees and held on to his legs as I sank to the floor of the RV. He stood there, reveling in his having bested me with a single move. I made like I was trying to stand, but stayed with my shoulder on his knee. He grabbed a fistful of my hair, even though I keep it a little short, and started pulling me up. I think he wanted to pull my head back enough to punch me square on the point of my chin. At least that's what it felt like.
So I balled up my fist and rocked him between the thighs. I carefully switched to my own caveman form for the blow and then reverted back, hoping Mom and Dad didn't see me. Gene rolled onto his back and Brittany screamed in anger. She drew a knife from her hip and threw it across the RV. I'd never seen it done except other than in movies and this one time at a circus. It's a totally different experience when the blade is sailing at you.
I tried to dodge it, honestly. But it was a matter of too little, too late. The hunting knife sank into my shoulder, turning me partly around with the force of it. I sank to the ground, lying on my right side. Gene got up. He spat on me, kicked me several times and then ripped the knife out of my shoulder. The pain ripped up my spine. Gene was so clearly pissed he was no longer thinking. Which was where I wanted him.
"Burn them!" Brittany said. "Burn the fuckers to the ground! For Hank and Dean!"
"Yes," Gene said. "Burn them all! Begin the ritual of cleansing flame!" I had no idea exactly what that meant, but I'm imagining a lot of stuff on fire. Gene kicked me again, real, real hard, right at the top of my chest, keeping me from drawing a decent breath. The knife wound was bleeding a lot, but slowly. At least, that's how it was on the outside. Inside, it was probably a lot worse than that. I'm not a doctor, so I'll never know. What I do know is that it hurt like hell.
Brittany stood from over my dad and held out her hands. I could feel something stirring in the air. It's like the air in the RV spiked up the thermometer. Almost instantly if felt muggy in there. She threw back her head and closed her eyes, speaking in the wolf language. "I call on the spirits of fire, the ravager, the devourer! I call on the elements to aid me in destroying my enemies! Burn those that stand against us! In the name of spilt blood I command you! Burn this place to cinders!"
Now, as dramatic and over the top as all that sounds, it worked. Fire dripped off her hands like drops of rain. And then it sprang out from her upraised palms, bouncing like tennis balls on any surface they touched, spreading small fires where they bounced. She aimed and lit the curtains over the sink on fire. Then she tossed two flame balls down the hall into the open door to the bedroom at the very back of the RV. The linens must have taken fire almost at once because a cheery red glow started to build back there. The whole thing was surreal. Fire from nothing, burning everything. It spread with such unnatural speed.
"There shall be no chosen one for the Garou. The prophecy of the Phoenix shall not come to pass. Your kind are finished," Gene growled at me. Smoke began rising in the RV. He looked as evil as the devil himself as he turned to kick me in the guts again. "Your blood will burn in tribute to the Wyrm, and your family shall perish, burning alive. Payment for Hank and Dean."
"You forget one thing," I croaked out as Brittany gave herself over to simply pouring flame out of her hands. The smoke was filling the RV, choking the air. I couldn't believe how fast it was just burning. For such an expensive looking RV, it sure liked being burnt.
"Shut up!" Gene hissed through his teeth. He turned back to Brittany. It was the chance I needed. I surged forward, switching into the cave man shape and tackled Gene into Brittany. They tumbled together down the hall, fire erupting around them.
I shifted back and helped Dad get to his feet. He cringed in pain but he got up. I helped Mom stand as well, the whole time shouting "let's go, c'mon, hurry." With Mom on one side of him and me on the other we managed to get Dad to the door. Fire was licking up the walls, burning through the cabinets and paneling of the RV. We could barely see a few feet for all the smoke. The heat was getting intensified by the second, and I could feel the sweat starting to make my arms slick.
Gene got to his feet and came screaming at me, strangely missing his left arm. He was changing to crinos as I looked back. My hand was forced, so I forced the hands of others. When we reached the entrance, I shoved my parents out the front door. The fire was so intense inside the RV that the air outside felt like hospital air conditioning. I watched as they collected themselves. I could hear Gene cry out in agony behind me. I turned around to see a tall, dark furred, sleek werewolf pull his fist out of Gene's chest and rip the Spiral's heart out.
Then there was a loud buckling sound, a sharp hissing noise and I saw a jet of fire coming up from the gas range top. The roof suddenly buckled under it's own weight, a shrieking of metal coming down on me, melted plastic and burning panels ripping themselves apart in the heat. I turned to look at my parents as they looked back, screaming my name. It was the last place they would ever see me alive.
The roof could take no more, and it caved in, a loud popping sound right behind it as the center sagged and then just fell in. I remember feeling something very heavy hitting me hard in the back and smoke pouring out through the door like the angry breath of some rudely awakened dragon. And then there was an explosion. And then nothing.
I awoke in the Umbra, with Nick looking down at me, holding a wet cloth over my face, wiping soot and ash from me. I smiled up at him and he smiled down, sadly. We sat on a nearby thick branch of an oak tree that overlooked where the camp had been. The RV and my parents' SUV were smoldering wrecks, with people gathered about, police cars and fire trucks and ambulances lined up around the camp, jamming the roads. Then I realized what had happened and how things had played out. My shoulder and for that matter, all of my parts felt no pain. But in my heart and mind and soul, I was hurting. I started to cry a bit, Nick taking me up into his arms.
I imagine how it must have looked to my parents. Me pushing them out of the fire just as the flaming roof of the RV caves in, dropping hot metal and fiberglass and whatever else goes into those roving apartments on wheels right onto me. In the smoke and flame and collapsing structure and flaming tree parts all over the place, the explosion of the natural gas line and the fuel tank, and then the explosion of the SUV, they must have been so confused not to see me beside them. They didn't know that Joey had yanked me back into the Umbra and up a tree as the RV collapsed inwards. They didn't know and I couldn't tell them. Because, as far as I was concerned, they were better off with me dead.
It was the perfect escape for me. I felt like a coward, looking down on my parents as they cried, holding each other. We peeked out of the Umbra from a high tree limb, watching, hidden. And I felt my heart sinking deeper and deeper.
The RV burned steadily until the fire trucks arrived, almost twenty minutes later. Several of the RV's near our site had quickly uncoupled and moved off so the fire would not spread. After nearly an hour of firefighting, the blaze was out. There were so many piles of slagged plastic pools and twisted aluminum spires blackened and reaching up from the RV frame like the fingers of someone dropped into a giant vat of wax. I guess in some way it was a poetic end. In their comfortable city environment, they were merely mean to each other. It took being out in the wilderness, for them to be uncomfortable and to have the worst of all things happen to bring them together. They had to allow themselves to become so wrapped up in hating each other to truly feel loss.
It was such a tragedy. It took me being assumed dead to bring them back together. I could never be their son again. I could never pass jokes to Dad that he wouldn't get. I couldn't sit and watch Mom's hands make a bunch of flowers into something unique and special. I'd never get the chance to be held between them.
We'd never be a family again. Just when they were back together, I had to be gone. It cut me deep. I was the instrument of their reunion and no longer part of it. The plus sign was no longer part of the equation.
And I'd have to live with that. As much as I hated it, as much as I wanted to just step out of the Umbra and slide in between their embrace and never leave, I knew that if I stayed there with them, they'd always be in danger. I didn't know enough about my werewolf heritage, my powers, or what all this "chosen one" crap meant. They were frail humans who had just survived the greatest threat of their lives, had come close to losing their marriage and had just lost their only child. I couldn't throw them back into the fire. I loved them too much. As much crap as we'd gone through together as a family, I still loved them, and I always will.
I watched for hours. Watched as the fire was put out, as the police investigated the fire, watched as people searched around for me. I stayed even when Nick left to go back up to the caern. I stayed, just peeking out of the Umbra, safe in a tree, mostly healed from injuries that would have killed me had I been normal. I stayed and watched as my parents disintegrated and held each other together, realizing that I was gone. It was almost dusk before I knew it. So many tears had streaked my face. So very many.
Joey's hand dropped on my shoulder from behind. I looked up at him and caught his sad, ironic smile. "Time to go, Kiddo," he said. "We have miles to run tonight." He nodded left and then transformed into wolf, dropping to the ground and trotting up towards the caern. Reluctantly, I turned.
"Bye Mom. Bye Dad. I'll miss you terribly. I hope you know that I loved you so much. So much." I felt my tears falling still even after I turned into my own wolf shape, bounded down three thick branches, and trotted after Joey. I don't know when I started howling while I ran, but when I reached the font, I found Nick there, also in wolf form, singing with me. It's impossible for me to describe exactly how awful I felt. I let it all out in the wolf song, though. Crying my pain, my longing, my loss out for sweet Luna to hear.
When my voice started getting hoarse, I lay down, still in wolf form, and Nick lay down with me, nose to nose, side by side. At some point, someone put a blanket over us. I slept fitfully, waking several times to cry.
If you think I'm a pussy just because I cried all night about losing my parents, then fuck you! It's the hardest thing that I've ever had to do. The pain still sears my dreams at night. I'd like to see any of you live through all of this only to have your whole world fade to less than shadows in front of you. My parents were still alive but I couldn't be part of their life now. How do you think that feels? Closest thing that I can think of is that it must be like being in prison. I was trapped and apart from those I have known my whole life. Yeah, I guess that sounds about as close to prison as I've ever been.
That whole next day I spent learning. Joey taught me some of the important things I'd need to know as a Garou. History, more or less, our important laws, the reasons we fight, who we fight, all of that kind of thing. A lot of it was cultural and mystical and more than a little was about changing shapes. I had lots of questions. A lot of it didn't make sense at first. You try cramming a history that predates agriculture into one day and see how much of it you retain. Fortunately, I was told, theurges don't have to worry about history so much. We're more called on to predict the future and call on the spirits for aid. Which I guess makes me the werewolf equivalent to a priest. Of course, in my new religion, I don't have to do the celibacy thing, or worry too much about heaven and hell unless I do a lot of traveling. But that's a different story.
And yeah, I cried a few times during my lessons. I would get distracted and think about how rotten I was making Mom and Dad feel by being "dead." I wanted to die a few times myself that day. I didn't even have Nick there to be with me. He was saying goodbye to his sisters and moms. I was kind of jealous. But at the same time, I couldn't really be. He at least had a chance to see his family again. I was on my own.
Well, not really on my own.
Towards the end of the night, Nick and I escaped and ran through the Umbra. I kept trying to steer us by the RV park to see if my parents were still there. Just for a last look. But Nick knew what was on my mind and he kept me from the spot. We ran in all of our different forms, playing the werewolf version of tag: any touch counts and the person who tags you changes shape into another form and you can't change to match until you tag him. We were at it for a few hours. It helped me get over any fear of being naked around other werewolves. After all, clothing doesn't always survive multiple shape changes.
I know, it's not like the way a lot of you expected, thinking that me and Nick would have been exploring other things right then. Like each other, naked. And I can't say I didn't think about it. We had made a pact though. We'd wait. We'd learn each other slowly, not just jump on each other and see what happens. Gay and in love isn't a formula that says just "git him done," after all. Besides, I don't think we were ever truly alone. Maeve or Yoseph surely were keeping some sort of an eye out on us. They weren't about to let us do something stupid like get killed after all this.
At the height of the moon, with Nick's moms taking charge of the new caern, Yoseph showed me how to perform an important ritual. The moon bridge ritual. I helped him perform it and felt the power of the Earth flow through me to open a path through the Umbra to Joey's caern, way up on the Massachusetts coast. It was our path, to where we'd be living. Nick and me had decided to become Joey's students, full time. It meant that we'd be helping him manage his caern. It was the Garou way. So far from home that I'd have little chance of running into my parents. The pang of leaving it all behind shot through me for a brief moment. Growing up is about doing things for yourself and leaving small ways behind, I guess. Opening that moon bridge was my first step along my path as a shaman of the Garou Nation. My first steps into my new life.
Joey stepped into the moon bridge, speaking to the spirits of his caern, long range, to let them know that two new cubs would be there soon and asking them to accept us as friends. Nick was saying goodbye to his family. I turned away from that moment. I knew that watching them hug and all that would just undo me. I had my closure. This was his. I envied him that last goodbye. That last touch. That last kind word.
I thought back on my parents, and how they were going to deal with my apparent death. I thought that perhaps they would find a need for each other in their grief. That they would find that they still loved each other, despite the heated words and accusations. That perhaps, in a strange way, that my sacrifice would strengthen them. And then, that perhaps they could love each other enough to let all the hate go. I hoped that is what would happen. I guess I'll never know. I never got the chance to tell them how I felt. How deeply I cared for them. I'm still sad about it and miss them very much. I'd have given anything for them to just hold me and each other one last time.
There's times I can't get over how fate can turn on a tragic moment and make beauty return. I love them still, and I hope they can love each other like they once did, as I know they always have, just without the evil. But we can't go back over the Rubicon once it's been boldly crossed. And coming back from the dead should be reserved for ghost stories and soap operas. Cody Reynolds would not find a revolving door in heaven and simply return. As far as the world of men was concerned, Cody Reynolds was dead.
I took Nick's hand as he turned back with me to face the moon bridge. He smiled, despite the tear that dripped over his cheek.
"Yeah. Just gonna miss Ma and the rest of the girl pack."
"I'm gonna miss my parents too," I said, looking away for a second. "But hey, we get to be heroes."
"And we get to be together."
I smiled and he smiled bigger, showing teeth. I leaned forward quick and kissed him on the cheek, right over the track of his tear. As I backed up from that quick peck, I could see him blushing. "You're awesome Nick. I don't know what the future holds, but as long as we're together, we can face it."
"Ah'll be by your side through the end of this world and any other we find together, Cody."
"Boys! The moon bridge wont stay open all night. Come on, your new home in Salisbury awaits," Joey called back. He changed into wolf form before my eyes and started running across the ribbon of moonlight.
"Race ya?" Nick asked, looking down the bridge then back to me.
"You're on!" We both switched to wolf form and chased destiny across the sky, the last place I ever thought I'd be.