Copyright © 2003, 2015 by D'Artagnon
Second Star to the Right
Josh sat at the ledge of the watch, staring out into the dancing waters of the Merrimack River. Late fall colors filtered the sunlight as he tried to come to grips with what had happened to him today. He was fairly certain that the farmers couldn't possibly know his name. He hoped like hell they hadn't seen him flying about. He was proud of his gift, but not sure how other people would react to it.
He kept trying to think about what to do next, but his mind kept repeating the events of the last two days. The crash, his bike a twisted hunk of modern art, the seam in the field, the log truck accident and his ability to fly. It was how he had escaped certain death before, he knew. When he curiously sailed up over that rock that ate his bike, he had somehow tapped into his flying power. Even here at the Watch he had tried it a few times, not certain if he was still dreaming. He had gone from the upper parapet and down to the ledge again half a dozen times, grinning like an idiot with the simple joy of wind in his hair, sun on his face and the Earth so very far below him. It was all blurring into a weird blend in his mind.
He felt giddy. It was a new experience for Josh. Normally his attitude of late had been surly to most, casually cruel to those in his household, even randomly aggressive and spiteful to those at school. Any given Saturday, like today, he'd rather be out, alone, away from people so he could wallow in his loneliness and find the one thing that kept him sane, that made him happy anymore: speed.
The only thing of late that could make him smile had been the rush of his own heartbeat, the scream of leaves passing close by his ears as he shot through the corn field or through the forest. He only felt alive anymore when he was chasing the wind, fighting against the air and the ground at the same time, resisting both, just getting out and moving, going, leaving it all behind him. Leaving the pain.
No, don't want to think about that now, he thought. But he couldn't help it. The images, the memories started coming back up. Remembering the way he began feeling. Remembering…
He had been 12 the first time he can remember feeling that way. Feeling his eyes drawn to other boys. Feeling himself becoming hard. Having romantic dreams about his friends. He remembered wrestling around with buddies and suddenly feeling that it was so much more than just horsing around for him. He remembered asking one of his buddies into an "I'll show you mine if you show me yours," session, and being rejected. Harshly rejected, and then mocked for it. Such things don't last long in 6th grade, especially with more pressing things to talk about. But it had a profound effect on young Joshua. His confidence in others dried up in those spare days after event. His friend circle shrank to his TV, his Gameboy, and his bike. Alone was better than hurt, vulnerable. Alone was safe.
But all that had been before he found his new power. And he had used it almost as instinctively as walking, as wiping his face after crying. He had even used his new ability to save a man's life. That was so much against his normal mode, to help anyone. His parents had to practically harangue him into simple chores around the house. Which, while not necessarily an unusual thing for a teenager, had of late become a major shouting match starter in his home. Josh simply had no patience, charity or concern for anyone but himself. After all, everyone had in one way or another let him down when he needed them most.
But now he could fly. The wonder of it was slowly washing off, but it was still something his alone. No one else ever need know about his power. No one even needed to know he had saved that truck driver's life.
But damn that had felt good. He'd been alive then, when the danger was present. He'd felt alive running from the logs, even as he was prepared to die right then, knowing he was about to, until the flying bit kicked in. It was like parts of his mind and his heart were finally meshing, he felt so good, so in tune with himself for the first time in a long time. Like his soul had centered itself after so very long being out of sync with everything else.
A sudden snap of a twig in the distance alerted Josh that someone was climbing up the rocky pass that lead to the Watch's ledge. Not sure if he wanted anyone to know where he was just yet, Josh quickly zoomed up through the air to the upper parapet. He found a large, smooth rock up there and lay flat on it, only his eyes and his hair sticking out over the edge. The footsteps drew closer, far too heavy to be a squirrel or a raccoon, or god forbid, a skunk. All those mostly came out at night anyways, not in broad daylight.
Josh watched, waiting. With any luck it would just be a couple kids passing though with fishing poles, going down to the sheltered spot at river's edge to try and pull some pike out of the river. Josh almost giggled remembering what his grandfather used to think about fishing in the Merrimack. "Only things swimming in the muddy, murky Merrimack aren't fit to eat these days," he'd say, sitting back and complaining about how rotten the Red Sox were doing to the TV.
But it wasn't just a couple of kids heading out to go waste bait in the river. It was a kid from school. An older boy that Josh knew by name alone. Tom Gabrielli. But he looked devastated, wasted. His hair was wet and stuck out at odd angles in the slight November breezes. The jacket he wore looked three sizes too small. And he was walking about without shoes on. He was searching about frantically for something, and Josh couldn't help but think that he looked frantic, desperate, wild. As if his whole world had also just slipped sideways and become something totally new. But where as Josh's new reality was based on a joy and gift he intended to keep secret, something told Josh that whatever drove Tom was something totally different.
Joshua also suddenly felt that there was a strange kinship between himself and Tom, even though to each other they were only faces in the hallways at school. There was something about the boy that matched something Joshua felt in his own heart. A sense of things being out of sync, being away from center, being unbalanced.
Tom pounded up to the ledge and looked down at the switchbacks and trails far below that led to the river's edge. Somewhere along in there it had happened, the attack, the change, the kill. Somewhere down there he had taken a life, he had become a monster. His breath came out of his face in heaving, billowing gouts of steam as he caught his breath from the frantic climb up to Watching Rocks. He hadn't been up here since he was a child, but that didn't matter. The town and the times might change, but the Watch was eternal, unchanging.
He felt a different desperation, though, now. One not so much tied to the events of last night, but a consequence of them. A proof to himself about whether or not it had even happened. He needed to see the body with his own eyes. He needed some form of proof that he wasn't a monster, that it had all been some bad dream. That the blood on his hands wasn't Dylon Rhymer's.
Tom sat down, thinking about it. Even if he did already know it did happen, and he had killed another boy, albeit in self defense, he still had another mission. Something he had lost had to be found.
His watch. It had been a birthday present from Uncle Terry, only months before the Towers fell. It was the last thing he had to remind him of his beloved uncle. It was Tom's most prized possession.
And it had fallen off his arm during the transformation last night.
He felt the tears as he remembered his uncle giving him the watch, handing it to Tom, ruffling his hair and then pulling him into a strong bear hug. "This is to remind you that time waits for no man, Tommy, miboy," Uncle Terry had said. "Make good use of the time you have, for it will surely slip through your fingers if you don't." His vision blurred and he lifted his head back and unconsciously cried out his anguish, confusion and fear in a long, deep-throated howl. His arms shrugged back as he called into the sky like a wolf, the jacket slipping off his shoulders.
It was a sound Josh understood all to well. Painful and beautiful at the same time, brimming with the agony of loss, the depth of despair and the deep, underlying sense of being totally forlorn and alone. Josh could stare in silence no longer as another kid was in the same kind of pain he had kept locked inside his own chest for so long. He used his power to gently get up from his perch and hover, preparing to silently go down to the ledge and find some way to comfort Tommy. As he started moving out into the open air over the ledge, however, he saw a change occur.
Tom's body shifted, convulsed, seemed to grow thick silvery fur, expanded past the boundaries of his skin, splitting his t-shirt down the back. He flexed and shifted as he continued to howl, his voice becoming deeper, more resonant, projecting harmonics and undertones no human vocal cords were capable of. He had shifted from boy, to wolf-boy, a werewolf, giving his wolf song the whole time.
Josh couldn't believe it. Tom was… was… like me?! He couldn't believe it. Here was another soul that might understand what it meant to be different, to be special, even in that other way that Josh was special and different, maybe. Here was someone he could talk to, and a secret they could share between each other.
Tom's senses returned to him as the night before. Scents assailed his nose, subtle sounds carried to his ears. The tilt of the Earth itself was nearly discernible to him under his knees, toes and the long, bushy tail that dragged the ground behind him. He'd split out the back seam of an old pair of jogging pants, this time, but didn't seem to mind. He had become the monster again. What more proof did he need that God had forsaken him. That he was evil, a brutal killer, a base beast unfit for human affection or forgiveness.
Then his nose told him he wasn't alone. A scent that at once screamed "fear" and "excitement" to him, although he didn't understand the mechanism of that understanding. The long guard hairs around his neck told him that the airflow was from behind and above, and his animal instincts informed him that the scents he was getting came from that direction.
Tommy whirled, his muzzle tracking up to see Josh hanging there in thin air, half leaning forward, his mouth open in awe. His lips peeled back from his teeth in a threat display, and his throat issued a universally understood lupine warning signal, a blood curdling growl.
"Oh, shit," Josh said, barely a whisper. "Uh, can't we talk about this, Tom? I wasn't spying on you, really."
"Who are you?" Tom heard himself say, anger and fear blurring in his own mind. His instincts said "BITE! CLAW! KILL!" but he held them in check, not wanting to step deeper into the well of evil his very life had become.
"Josh. Josh Daniels. I live over on Peabody Street. You used to cut my lawn a few years ago."
"You're… flying?" Tom said, and couldn't help but tilt his head sideways as he stared at Josh.
"Uh, yeah, you noticed," Josh said, trying to turn it into a joke. "Just figured out I could do it today. I guess you're a werewolf, huh?"
"If you tell anyone, I'll kill you too!"
"Hey, I think we both want our secrets kept about th… did you say kill you too?"
"I've killed once, I can do it again," Tom said, summoning his bravado. "I'm a viscous, evil killing machine, and I'll rip your heart out." Something in how Tom said it, though, got to Josh. It was an undercurrent of remorse, regret, even a deep sadness. And Josh's sharp eyes also picked out another clue, written plainly on Tom's face. Even as he made the threat, Tom was streaming tears, gushing hot and salty down his face fur. Josh realized that he was the only person right now that Tommy could turn to. The only one that might understand him.
"You're not a killer, Tom. Anymore than I'm an arrogant asshole," he said, swallowing loudly, a large chunk of his foolish pride evaporating with it. "I've been that to so many people for so long that it's easy to do the act. But it isn't me. I don't think you're a killer either." Josh descended and landed on his feet by Tom's side. "You may have had to do something awful, but I don't think it was a choice you made on purpose. I don't think you have that kind of hate in you."
Tom growled suddenly and leapt forwards, his right arm lashing out to grab Josh by the throat, his large fingers easily encircling the other boy's neck with a crushing grip. "I should kill you right here for knowing my secret," Tom growled, low and dangerous. The fingers of his left hand went rigid, the claws ready to spear into Josh's chest, just like he had done to Dylan last night.
"Yeah, you could. But you know mine as well. That's a fair trade, I think," Josh said, trying hard not to panic. The power in Tom's werewolf fist was enough to squish all Josh's juice out with one sudden squeeze. He respected what that power meant against his weak flesh, but he didn't back down. He wanted to help Tom, and was willing to commit his life to that endeavor. Nothing short of total trust here would cut the mustard.
"You could probably rip me to shreds and then leave me for dead. You could probably bite my head clean off. But that would mean the one person that might understand even a little bit of what you're going through would be dead, by your hands." Josh put his own hand up on Tom's broad forearm, taking a huge chance. He laid the back of his fingers on the inside of Tom's arm and slowly stroked inwards as far as he could reach. "You would be killing the one person that knows your secret and doesn't think you're a monster. That wants to be your… friend." Joshua fumbled a bit saying "friend." It wasn't a word he had a great deal of familiarity with of late. That lack gave it much more significance.
Tom released Josh, closing his eyes and sinking to his knees. His anger and fear abated slightly and he felt himself shifting back to human form. Even as he did, he found himself leaning forwards and falling into Joshua's embrace. The two boys stood together for several seconds, both just leaning on each other, crying, enjoying the comfort of another's arms and the unspoken bond of new friendship between them.
Sammy and Andy pushed open the hinge on the tree stump lid and stepped up into the sunshine. "That was the coolest place I've ever been," Sammy said, energetically as he stepped out of the secret tunnel. "I never knew we had those around here. Are there other tunnels under the river?"
"I'll show you those secrets later. As it is, few people know about these tunnels. They were built in secrecy back before the Revolutionary War. The Minute Men used these tunnels to smuggle supplies to ships in the river from the old Ale House in Rutherford Commons." Andy carefully closed the hatch, making sure it didn't show itself to be the escape hatch it was. "As it is, this tunnel isn't as strong as it once was. We have to be careful using it. Alert, you know?" Andy stopped, his senses straining.
"Kewl! Did you're grandfather teach you about these tunnels?" Sammy asked then noticed the way Andy was staring off into the distance. Sammy waved his hand before the older boy's vision twice before Andy whipped up a hand to keep Sammy from obscuring his view.
"Whatchu looking at?" Sammy whispered, as Andy continued to stare off into space.
"The little bird and the wolf are together at the Watch," Andy replied. "That was unforeseen. At least now we don't have to track down the wolf."
"Wolf? What wolf? Where?"
"Come on," Andy said, shuffling his feet through the leaves. "And make as much noise as you can just walking. We don't want to startle them."
"Huh? Hey, wait up!" Sammy hastened to catch up with the older boy, who seemed to be making an effort to walk loudly as compared to his usual soft tread. Sammy casually kept pace, swinging his arms with almost reckless abandon. "You still didn't tell me who we're meeting."
Andy smiled, a sort of half smirk that lit up the side of his face away from the bouncy boy on his right side. Two images from old cartoons flashed through his mind at the same time: that little dog bouncing beside the big dog walking down the street, and Tigger walking beside Rabbit doing what Tigger's do best. He quickly came to the realization that Sammy was the kind that would need constant information. He was a million questions waiting to come out all at once, curiosity squared. Just like any Kat would be. I'd better at least prepare him, then, Andy thought.
"Two other boys. Both older than you. Both with powers, kinda like you. Well, at least one of them is kinda like you. Sorta."
"One changes similar to how you do, although instead of being a Kat, he turns more, well, lupine."
"That means like a wolf, doesn't it?"
"We learned that in Latin this year."
"The other boy, the little birdy, I wonder if he's figured out how to fly yet?"
"He can fly?!" Sammy said, kicking up a thick spray of leaves for emphasis. "Wow, that's so much more awesome than just being able to change."
Again Andy grinned, but this time with a deeper sense of irony. He turned his head slightly, regarding his young friend. "You might not want to compare relative strengths until you have a sense of what you are comparing to, Samuel."
"Don't call me Samuel. Only Mrs. MacGuillocutty at school and Grammy call me that, and Grammy only does when she's mad."
"I'll keep that in mind, Sammy the Kat."
Sammy stopped, and Andy unconsciously took three steps before realizing Sammy wasn't bouncing and kicking up leaves beside him. He turned to face the younger boy, who was staring at the path ahead of them in deep thought. "Sam?"
"They'll know who we are."
"I hope so. Hard to build trust, to earn trust, if they don't at least know you."
"Wont we need like superhero code names and stuff? Masks and things like that?"
"This isn't a comic book, Sammy. It's real life."
"Still, I mean, this is kinda weird. Wont they freak?"
"We'll just play it by ear. Besides, this is important to all of us. We're in a lot of danger. Even the safety of these woods has already been compromised. The strongest of us fell here."
"I'll explain up at the Watch. We better get moving before the wolf and hawk decide to hide on us. Make noise with your feet like before, so they hear us coming up the path."
"I still don't understand," Sammy whined, picking up the pace again, falling into step beside Andy.
"You will, but we have to hurry."
"Okay," Sammy said, stuffing his hands in the kangaroo pouch of his sweatshirt. "Andy?"
"Thanks for helping me today. I don't have too many friends."
"That's all about to change."
"Sammy, there are a lot of kids like us around. Scared, worried about someone finding out our secrets, worried how knowing those secrets will change how they feel about us. It's scary. But at the same time, it's a brave new world."
"Because, in that secrecy, there's a common bond between us all. And there's a kind of freedom to operating under everyone else's noses. We can do things to change the world, Sammy, and no one will even see it coming until they all accept it all."
"By being true to ourselves."
"By being… being gay?" he asked tentatively.
"By not being stereotypes. By not being fools. By proving there are other ways."
"Oh. Sounds like a lot of work."
"It will be, Sammy. But in the end, it will all be worth it. In the meantime, we have a little bit of business called survival to attend to. Survival that's better assured by helping each other out."
"Safety in numbers?"
"And awareness. There's thing we all need to know. And quite possibly one of our own to help out this very day."
"One step at a time Sammy." As they reached the foot of Watching Rocks, Andy craned his neck upwards, listening. "Let's go up, slowly, and make noise. Don't want to startle them."
"What are they doing up there?" Sammy said, straining to hear what Andy heard.
"Just some healthy crying and trust."
"You'll see. Let's climb."
Many miles away, Kyle dug in his heals, hauling a load of fresh cut logs to his father's trailer The rope was taut against his straining arms as he pulled the makeshift sledge along the ground, fully loaded with over two hundred pounds of wood. The slight rise was easily negotiable for him, but the car and the trailer hitched to the back of it would never make it down the hill. Not for the slope, but for the many tree stumps along the way. In the distance, Kyle could hear his father's chain saw hacking into another tree, easily tearing into thick bark and sappy heartwood.
They worked like this every weekend. Kyle's father worked during the times Kyle was in school, cutting down the trees, clearing land for old man Smith. On the weekends, they took the felled trees and converted them into firewood. Old Smith didn't care what happened to the timber; he just wanted the land cleared by springtime so he could build a new condo complex for the growing town. Between the land clearing work, all under the table, and selling off the firewood, Kyle and his father managed to make the bills work out, with enough left over to keep food on the table and Kyle in clothes. Things like Christmas and birthdays had fallen by the wayside years ago, when Kyle's Mom had died from breast cancer, two years before.
But even just pulling the sled loaded with logs was part of Kyle's training. Everything seemed to revolve around his hockey ability ever since his father had given Kyle his beating. Since the world turned colder to Kyle. Nothing was ever good enough. Any time Kyle showed an interest in something other than being a full on, tough guy, super-sport hockey all-star slash future rink god was quashed almost at once. No video games. No internet. Even cable was reduced in the house to nothing but news and sports channels. Nothing remained of anything that might put Kyle back on the evil path his father had found him on with Johnny that day long ago.
Only hockey and manly pursuits remained. Even learning skating techniques like jumps and balance shifting from figure skating was frowned on. It was all a gimmick to Dad, not traditional sports training. That was pansy stuff.
All pictures of Kyle's mom had been taken down. Kyle didn't know where they were anymore. He'd stopped looking after Dad had even barred his grandparents from visiting. Looking over the shoulder, he felt just like the logs he was hauling. Cut up. Disconnected. Organized to someone else's pattern. Knocked down, piled up and sent on his merry way. Tossed aside and owned, bought and sold to someone else's needs.
He navigated the hill with his usual ease. He'd taken loads heavier than this before, his strong, fast legs used to such lifting. His arms twisted and pulled from his chest, shoulders and biceps as he went, even partly curling his flat, washboard stomach against the dragging weight behind himself. While he resented the old man for all the crap that both their lives had become, he stuck to his job. He persevered. Every day in training, he told himself, is one day closer to being out. To being on my own. To breaking free.
Near the base of the trailer's open bed was a thick tree stump from young maple, severed just low enough to the ground that Kyle could drop the loop of the sled over, effectively tying it down. Then he could unload the wood into the trailer bed and not worry about the sled taking off down the hill when the weight of logs in front wasn't enough to balance the weight of logs in back on the slight rise. He started chucking the heavier pieces in first, after a while he'd climb into the trailer to stack them neatly so more wood could be fit inside and then under the tarp. It was a pattern as well drilled into his head as times tables or spelling words.
He got halfway through the load when he heard a distinct sound in the distance. The sound of the chainsaw coming to a complete stop. Kyle thought nothing of it at first, keeping his mind on his work, trying hard not to think about Johnny, what he must look like now, if Johnny had touched another boy after they had separated. His breath billowed out in rhythmic gouts as he dropped the heavy logs into the trailer.
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