“Alex, breakfast!” a shout drifted from the ground floor and through the ajar door into a small, messy room.
With her face still buried deep into the pillow Alex pushed her hand out from under the blanket, revealing patches of the light brown fur with black dots that covered her skin and the disfigurement of the bones. Her fingers slid over the ground, searching, until they grazed against the small bottle. She picked it up and rolled on her side, sighing at the soreness in her limbs and at the ache in her joints.
She opened the flask and took a sip. The transparent liquid burned her throat and made her cough. She should have been used to alcohol by now. She took another gulp of the vodka before she shoved it under the mattress and cautiously opened one eye. She focused on the clock on the night-stand. She still had at least half an hour.
“Alex,” a woman's voice said before the warning squeak of the door being pushed open. “You should get up.”
“It's still early.” Alex pulled the blanket over her head, hoping that that would hide the smell of vodka from her mother.
The steps drew closer and the mattress dipped as a hand patted her head. “You have been running again.”
In her dreams, yes. She used to like those dreams, which she’d had since she was little. She liked the liberating feeling of the breeze on her face and the blur of the greenery passing her by as her feet thundered against the earth. But then two months ago, her feet and hands had become paws for the first time. The dream started to induce the Change, pulling out the animal that until now had hidden deep inside her. Only partially, though. Not like on the nights of the Moon’s phases when at its first quarter, full moon, its last quarter and new moon, she fully become a lynx, her family’s Werefeline form.
It hurt, the Change. She hated the sharp, burning pain inflicted by the alteration of the bones and the way her skin felt too tight, as if it would burst open at the first move. She would never get used to it. Never. “Yes.” She didn't need to ask how her mother knew about the dream; the tug on her short tail told her. She flicked it in annoyance.
“And you have been drinking again.” Her mother pulled the blanket away.
“I have not.”
“Don't lie to me. We agreed that you would stop.”
Alex’s eyes flew open and she grabbed the edge of the blanket, tugging on it, her claws tearing the fabric. She hadn’t agreed to anything and she only drank because they hid all the painkillers; the drugs harmed the Werefeline form, and without a prescription she couldn't get anything strong enough to help her with the pain.
“You are drinking too much. It worries me.”
“But it hurts.”
Mother shifted closer and slid her hand over the side of her face. “I know, darling, I know. But you will just have to bear it.”
“For one year?” Alex narrowed her eyes at her then her gaze slid to her hands -- at her paw and her mother’s hand would be more precise. “Grandma told me how you handled your Change; by drinking and taking drugs.”
“She also told you how they put a stop to that behaviour.”
Her grandparents had isolated her mother and grandma had home-schooled her. Alex nodded. Her parents would probably do the same with her if they could, but with her father's demotion and their mortgage, his income wasn't high enough to provide for all of their costs.
Mother took her arm and massaged it, pressing her fingers softly against the protruding bones until they gave in to her gentle persuasion, shrank or grew, then popped into place.
Between her gritting teeth Alex managed to squeeze out, “Can I stay home today?”
“No.” Mother pulled her up and started to work on her back. Legs were next. The patches of fur and bulges of bones disappeared under her touch. After she finished, Alex stretched and thanked her.
“I wish I could do this for you every morning.” Mother rose up, a soft clack telling Alex that she must have bumped her foot against something. She bent down and picked up a half-empty bottle of vodka from the floor. She rose up, shaking her head in disapproval.
Alex stretched, ignoring her mother.
“Alex!” her father's voice drifted into the room. “Get up already.”
“We won't mention this to Father.” Mother lifted the bottle. “But when Edward arrives, I don't want to hear any complaints. And no more drinking!”
Alex rolled her eyes, grimacing. After her mother had smelled alcohol on her breath for the first time, she had confiscated her red VW Beetle, the car she had gotten for her sixteenth birthday, and arranged for her to be delivered to school like some sort of a package. Her cousin Edward, the golden boy of the Garnet family, picked her up every school day. She didn't get along well with Edward, so she usually escaped his company by bicycling to school. That is, if she managed to find the bike, which her mother liked to hide before she went to work. For her safety, she always said, as if Alex were some drunkard that had trouble keeping her balance. In the morning she never drank more than a few sips and those only made her slightly tipsy.
Alex did obey this time and when Edward honked, she stuffed the last piece of toast in her mouth, pressed a sloppy kiss on her mother's cheek and hung her messenger bag across her chest then rushed out.
She grimaced at the sight of the boy with short hair, the same colour of dry straw as hers, sitting behind the wheel of an old grey Chevrolet Camaro. She opened the car door and murmured a grumpy hello as she slid into the passenger seat.
The boy greeted her back and they drove off.
Alex stretched her sore limbs and focused on the scenery made up mostly of houses, their driveways and front yards. She glimpsed at Edward. He might not be the most popular guy, but girls liked his easy, friendly attitude and his toned body, the result of being on the track and field team. They might have gotten along just fine if not for the incident in elementary school when she had lost her best friend because of him and the fact of his academic accomplishment, which his mother liked to advertise as if she were working a sale with her son the only product. She had heard ‘Edward is going to be a lawyer like his father’ or ‘a doctor like his uncle’ too many times.
They turned in to the school parking lot. The car slowed down and drove parallel to the black-haired boy dressed in an olive-grey army jacket and jeans riding on a moped. Ryan, Edward’s good friend since Ryan's family had become a part of their little community and Ryan had joined the track team a year ago.
Great. Alex glared at boy's messy low ponytail. Some of the girls from school would probably jump at the possibility of being in the boys' company. Ryan, who was in Alex's humble opinion more handsome than her cousin, didn't get as much attention as Edward though. The moped and his withdrawn behaviour probably had something to do with it.
Ryan leaned his hand on the edge of the car door on Edward's side as the car rolled to the end of the parking lot. He nodded to her before the boys started to talk about track. They continued their chat even after they parked their vehicles, and went toward the white, one floor high building stretching on the lawn behind the parking lot. They ignored her, which was fine with Alex, who trotted behind them. She had nothing to say to them, anyway, not that that kept her from casting quick glances in Ryan's direction. There was something about him that drew her eyes no matter how she resisted the pull. Another thing that irritated her. Maybe it was the combination of his hotness and nerdiness.
A brunette appeared from the side and latched herself onto Alex's arm, greeting them all with a cheerful voice.
Alex grinned back at Robin, her best friend.
The boys nodded to her then returned to their conversation about yesterday track's results as if there was nothing else in the world worth talking about.
“Hey,” Robin whispered as she poked her. “Ask them if they are going to Susan's party.”
“What party?” Alex inquired, having no intention of asking Edward anything. Robin had had a crush on Edward since forever and despite Alex's objections she still tried from time to time to get Alex to help her arrange ways to spend more time in Edward's company. If Alex could have had her way, Robin would have professed her affection to Edward months ago; Edward would probably have rejected her, and that would have been the end of it already.
“Saturday's party. Don't tell me you haven't heard?”
Alex shrugged, her gaze gliding over the groups of students dotting the lawn in front of the school, waiting for the first bell.
“We are going, of course,” Robin said. “Eric will be there. You like him, right?”
Another shrug. Eric wasn't bad, but he wasn't someone who made her heart race.
“You are going?” Robin looked past Alex, a shy smile blooming on her face.
Alex followed Robin's gaze and her eyes met blue eyes, half-hiding behind the black strands falling on his temple and forehead.
“Saturday? I don't think so,” Edward said.
“Oh.” Robin looked disappointed.
“I might,” Ryan said, still staring at Alex.
Alex heart sped up -- what was with that? She averted her gaze.
“You will? But isn't this Saturday...?”
“Oh, yeah. I almost forgot.” Ryan nodded.
“What is this Saturday?” Alex asked.
“A thing. Nothing special,” Edward answered Alex. “And I doubt that you can go. The last I heard you have been forbidden to go to parties since the last family gathering where you threw up on grandmother’s shoes.”
That wasn't something she was proud of, but it had been a full moon the night before and to push through it she had used vodka, lots of it, to comfort herself. “So?” What did he care? And it wasn’t like she couldn't slip away if she wanted to. “Whatever.” Alex grabbed Robin's arm and quickened her step, dragging the stupidly smiling girl with her.
“He's so hot,” Robin breathed out before she wiggled her arm out of Alex's hold and draped it around Alex's shoulder. “You are going, right?”
Alex wasn't in the mood for a party, but as so many times before, Robin spent the rest of the week that followed persuading her to sneak out of the house Friday night.
Two hours into the party she cursed her stupidity as she stumbled across the crowded room looking for a way out. She followed the wall to the balcony door, elbowing her way past people as she went. She forced her way outside, almost falling onto the pavement that wove around the two-story house. She didn't know where she had left Robin and she didn't care, nor did she care that she had cut short Eric's conversation, not when the bones under her thin white shirt had shifted and bulged as if she had inside an alien trying to rip its way out.
She tottered past couples making out and groups smoking, ignoring the taunts tossed her way. She went around the corner then as soon as she was out of sight, she dove into the nearest bush and curled into a ball.
She had completely forgotten that today was the first quarter moon. She never paid attention to the cycle of the moon, she always counted on her parents to do it for her. But her parents probably didn't see any reason to warn her, not when she should have been safely tucked in her bed.
Her body arched as her spine extended and her ribs grew. She cursed, her fingers fisted around the branches, snapping the wood. Its pieces cut into her palms.
Her senses heightened. The smell of the earth, grass and wood underneath her laced with wisps of cigarettes and pot. The thud of her heartbeat, the sound of laughter and conversation coming from the opened windows and from the back of the house. Goosebumps broke over her skin and the buzz from the vodka she had poured down her throat become more boisterous.
She bit into the inside of her mouth as the bones in her upper arm, thighs, fingers and toes reduced while the bones in her forearms, hands, shanks and feet extended, and light brown fur with black dots and lines covered her skin. Her clothes, loose and baggy in some places and tight and binding in others, restricted her movement.
“I saw her coming this way. She looked completely wasted. Let’s play a joke on her.”
She cursed the transformation, the pain and the fact that she was lying in the bushes when people were coming her way. She crawled deeper among the branches and squeezed herself between the bush and the iron fence, hoping that they wouldn’t notice her. She needed time to rip her way out of the restricting fabric.
The voices became louder and with it her struggle to get out of the white shirt intensified. She could even distinguish steps now, the soft thud of soles against the grass. They were near. Too near. Somebody was there. She turned around, painfully slowly.
Black sneakers four steps away, three, two...
She cursed, the sound coming out of her throat as a groan. She had to get away. She surged forward and slipped alongside the fence, every move tearing her clothes.
The steps rushed after her.
She peeked backwards at the pursuer, a dark silhouette, then forward. Her head slammed against the iron pole. She yelped and staggered, her vision blurred.
Fingers wrapped around her back paws and hauled her out of the bush.
Her chin collided with the dry earth, hard. She hissed, twisted her body and swung her paws, claws in, at the dark blur. She turned too fast. Pain exploded inside her skull and redness filled her vision. She cried out and froze in the middle of the attack, then went limp.
Cold fingers combed through the fur on her forehead before she was lifted up and a quiet, slightly familiar male voice murmured soothing words.
She tried to see him, she strained her eyes, but all she could see were dark dots dominating her vision torn by the red lightning of pain as it hammered in her head. Being captured was the thing that the Werefelines dreaded the most, but as her eyelids fluttered closed, she knew somehow that she was going to be okay.
Something soft nudged Alex under her ribs. Once. Twice. She swatted it away, but it returned. This time it poked her in the head then when she turned away a wet caress slid over the side of her head and ear.
She pushed her head under her arm, the fur tickling her muzzle.
The wet touch returned. She could feel it on top of her head before something pinched the sensitive skin covering her ear.
Hissing, her eyes flew open and her paw, which she instinctively brandished, hit something solid and smooth. In the next second she found herself pressed against the tree trunk, frozen as she stared at the hypnotic blue eyes of a black panther. But black panthers didn't exist. It could only be a cougar or a jaguar or maybe a leopard. And they didn’t have those in their country, let alone in their little city.
This was not an animal, this was a Werefeline.
The big cat tilted its head, but otherwise made no movement, just continued to stare at her as if it were waiting for something, like it wanted something from her.
But how could there be another Werefeline? Except for her family, there were no other Werefelines around.
The big cat moved closer and slowly, as if to show her that it meant no harm, it put its paw on her head.
She shook it off. How could she distinguish between a cougar and a jaguar when she had never seen one up close? And what was it, a boy or a girl?
The cat set its paw on her head again.
'Stop it', she wanted to say, but it came out a meow.
It returned the meow before it turned around, waving its paw as in, ‘follow me.’
Alex surveyed her surroundings for the first time; the small clearing, the blackness of the forest that stretched beyond it and the lights of the residential part of the city that spread underneath the small slope. They were on the hill, part of the park a half-hour’s walk from her house. Why were they here? How did he -- it had to be a he to carry her for fifteen minutes, the distance between the hill and the Suzan’s house.
He looked over his shoulder, his paw again inviting her to join him.
She stepped off the blanket on which she sat and hesitatingly followed him. Every move she made added a tension to her skin, stretching it.
He waited until she had almost reached him then sprang forward toward the trees, out of the weak light of the moon and into the darkness, melting with it.
She sat down.
He jumped back on the clearing and ran a circle around her, twice, then charged at her.
She bent her shoulders, ready to move out of his way.
He leaped over her then made another circle around her before he again disappeared into the forest.
He wanted to play. Alex strolled toward the edge of the clearing.
He waited there for her. He again waved his paw and stepped between the trees.
For a moment Alex couldn't see him anymore, not even with the night vision of her cat form, but she didn't need to when she could smell him, a human scent, not an animal's, and hear the rustling of the grass betraying his position. She followed him into the darkness.
His pace accelerated.
The forest at night was scary. Don't leave me here, she thought as she hurried after him.
He started to run.
She matched his pace, her muscles flexing, her skin stretching. The ground layered with leaves was soft and warm under her paws and the hushed crackle of dry sticks almost comforting. Then the sound of his movement ceased. She slowed down too until she stopped. She tilted her head and listened, but she couldn't hear anything beyond the cracking of the wood and the rustle of the treetops. He was there, watching her. Maybe she should be afraid, but nothing screamed danger to her and even the dark forest didn't look scary to her anymore. It felt more as if he wanted to play hide and seek.
She lowered her body while she lifted her head, sniffing the air. Left. He was somewhere to her left. She strained her eyes as she turned, then moved forward, low over the ground, wincing when a twig snapped under her paw.
She noticed the shifting of a bulky outline half-hidden behind a large trunk to her right. She dipped her front and lifted her butt, wiggling it before she pounced.
He didn’t evade her and her attack was more of a tumble. They rolled over the ground and then bumped against the tree.
He lay on her, his dark eyes staring at her. He licked her again, his wet, slightly rough tongue glided over her muzzle.
It was like a kiss, wasn't it? And she didn't kiss on the first date. She would have giggled at that thought, instead she made a short half-squeak, half-meow. She wiggled under him and this time she was the one leading. Not for long though, he overtook her quite quickly. She didn't have any stamina and the alcohol she had drunk not long before didn't help, either. Her breath, shallow and fast, rushed in and out of her chest. She sounded like an underpowered steam engine trying to climb a hill.
She dragged herself back to the clearing around which they had played their tag game and slumped onto the blanket. While in her animal form she had never played with other Werefeline, not even with her mother. Not that her mother hadn't tried, but Alex prefer to spend the nights of Moon's phases in her room, curled in bed, drowning the pain of the Change with vodka.
The black cat joined her in the glade. He sat down beside her.
Alex stretched, surprised at the absence of burning pain that always not only accompanied the change into the cat, but which lasted through the whole ordeal until the next morning when it became a dull ache. Her mother had been right when she’d said that the exercise in the cat form would help her with the pain. (Mothers always know best, huh?)
Her companion lay down, resting his head on his paws.
Alex looked at the dark sky scattered with stars, speculating how long it was before the dawn. The Change always started around eleven and lasted until first light. She would have to leave soon. As interested as she was in who hid beneath the black cat, she would hate to be seen without clothes. Where were her clothes anyway?
She surveyed her surroundings until she noticed two plastic bags set on the edge of the blanket. She rose up and walked to them, peering inside. In one of them were her clothes. If she had dared, she would have focused on the one with his clothes more thoroughly, to see if they might tell her something about their owner, but she didn't want to appear too curious or to embarrass herself by sticking her head into the bag.
She glanced at him, frowning when she found him standing behind her. If she could have spoken, she would have told him that it was time to go, but with the way he pushed the bag toward her, it seemed that he knew. She flashed her canine teeth at him before she grabbed the bag with her mouth.
He patted her back.
Was this his way of saying goodbye? Probably. She patted him back then turned away, toward the lighted city stretched below. She should only need ten to fifteen minutes to get home.
Another glance at the cat who now sat on the ground, watching her. She lifted her paw then she was off, running down the hill toward the edge of the residential area. Avoiding the light of the street lamps she hurried alongside the fences, stopping and diving into the shadows at every sudden noise.
Her path crossed that of three drunken teenagers staggering across the alley. She had to wait for them to pass the entrance into her street, then she continued until she got to her own backyard. Using the rose trellis, she climbed up on the narrow ledge, then onto the windowsill. With her head she pushed the window open and jumped into the room. She released the bag she had until now carried in her teeth and worked her stiff jaw.
A soft click and the weak light of the lamp on the desk lit the room.
Alex wheeled around.
“Where have you been?” Her mother sat in the armchair between the desk and the bookshelves.
Her mother voice sounded calm, but Alex knew her well enough to recognise the anger bubbling underneath. She silently cursed then did the only thing she could. She lay down on the belly and crawled toward her mother, trying to appear as small and cute as she could.
“And you stink. You have been drinking again.”
Alex stopped before her mother, her head buried between her paws.
Mother stood up, her words sharp as the snap of a whip. “No more hanging out with friends. No more anything. From now on, there will be only school and home.”
With the heel of her foot Alex rubbed her calf and glanced at Robin who stared, transfixed, at Edward from their third row of the gallery. Alex poked her under her ribs.
Robin gave her a wide smile. “You know, I quite like your punishment.”
Her punishment being having Edward take her to school every day and then taking her straight home afterward, with the exception of Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays when she had to wait for him to finish practice. Robin usually joined her. “I bet you do.”
Robin shifted forward, her elbows on her knees. “If we could only go out for drinks or to eat afterwards.”
“I'm grounded, you know.” Alex leaned back on the bench, her eyes sliding over the other track and field athletes, stopping with Ryan, who stood on the grass at the edge of the red track, wiping his neck and face with a towel draped around his neck.
With one ear she heard Robin say something and she made a sound of agreement, her focus on the black-haired boy in olive green baggy slacks who lifted his arms above his head, the simple white shirt rising up with his move and exposing a toned abdomen. Since the night of her frolicking with the black panther she had been preoccupied with the question of who had been hidden behind the black fur and blue eyes.
She had seen the black cat quite a few times now. She had sneaked out at every moon Change and he was always waiting for her in that clearing on the hill above the city. It was fun running around, playing tag and rolling over in the grass. And exertion soothed the pain. The Change itself now actually hurt less than it had before, as if her body had grown used to it. It was all because of him, Panther, as she called him. Now if she could only discover who he was.
If it was somebody from her school she would have noticed, right? However, none of the black-haired boys with blue eyes she managed to sniff had the Panther’s scent, the smell of earth, musk and him.
Ryan looked up and their eyes met. He winked at her before he bent down, his hands touching the ground.
A shiver zigzagged up her spine. She bit her lip. Despite his hair and eyes being the right colouring, it couldn’t be him, he hadn’t been at the party, he’d had that thing with Edward.
The runners finished their practice and the girls went down the gallery and to the parking lot, where Alex and Robin waited for Edward.
“Do you think Edward would give me a ride too?” Robin's fingers followed the line of the Camaro’s roof.
“Why would he? You have your own car. And you live in the opposite direction.” Alex adjusted the strap of her black messenger bag, frowning at the sight of Edward, who was coming from behind the school, Ryan beside him.
“I could go to your house.”
“I'm not allowed to have visitors.” Her mother was really strict about it and the way she hovered over Alex, it was a miracle Alex was able to slip out on the nights of the Change.
“Oh, yeah.” Robin glanced at boys who were a couple steps away from the car. She combed her fingers through her short brown hair, spiking it, then smoothed the long strands that covered her temples and forehead. “How do I look?”
“Hi,” Edward greeted them while Ryan nodded.
“Hey.” Robin leaned on the hood, puffing out her chest.
Alex rolled her eyes and went around the car to the passenger seat, scowling when Ryan followed her.
“He's going with us.” Edward unlocked the car and tossed his sports bag and his backpack onto the backseat.
“My means of transport broke down,” Ryan added as he opened the car door and slipped onto passenger seat past her, then pushed his things into the back of the car.
The wrinkle of Alex's forehead deepened. Great, just great. She waved goodbye to Robin and joined the boys in the car. As soon as she buckled the seatbelt they drove off.
The boys started to chat about the day's practice and about the classes they shared, with Ryan asking her random questions here and there.
“Edward told me that you play guitar.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Oh...” His blue eye flashed in the rear-view mirror before he shifted in his seat so that he faced her.
She would have gotten carsick really quickly sitting like that. She frowned. Why did they talk about her?
“I said that she wanted to,” Edward said. “She found this old guitar in our grandparents’ attic and tried to learn how to play it from books.”
She had actually been making progress. Why had she stopped? She couldn’t remember.
“You still have it?” Ryan brushed strands of black hair back from his face and tucked them behind his ear.
“The guitar? I think so.” Somewhere.
“I can teach you if you want,” Ryan said, a soft smile playing on his face. “I’m not an expert, but I can teach you a chord or two.”
“No, that’s okay.”
Ryan’s forehead wrinkled. “Well, if you change your mind...” He turned forward.
They dropped off Ryan first -- Alex didn't know that he lived so close, just a few streets away from her.
At Ryan's request she passed him his backpack and the bag. Their eyes meet and held.
His fingers touch hers as he took the bag from her.
If only it were him, the thought flashed in her mind and she stomped on it. He wasn’t. He couldn’t be. She hauled her hand away, feeling the warmth crawl into her.
In the days that followed Ryan became even nicer, friendlier to her, acting as if he were trying to get to know her better. Even the gazes Ryan cast her way became more frequent and more intense, they scalded her skin and coloured her cheeks pink. Because of that she usually spent the drives with her eyes fixed on the scenery outside, not that she noticed it at all.
“Why do you hate him?” Edward asked her one day as he parked the car at her house, a two-story yellowish building with patches of grass at its front and its sides that led into the backyard, all framed with a simple brown wooden fence.
Alex, who had already opened the car door, turned toward Edward. “Hate him?” By “him” he had to mean Ryan. “I don't hate him.”
“Why are you so cold to him then?” Edward wrapped his arm around the head-rest as he gazed at Alex over the seat.
“I'm not cold to him, I'm just... slightly ignoring him.”
Because every time she looked at him she stared to feel... weird. But she couldn't say that to Edward. “Well... He's your friend, not mine, and it's not like we have anything in common.” Not like she had with Panther -- she still hadn’t found out who he was, unfortunately.
Could Edward know who Panther was? She scrutinized him. No, not likely, not when he never discussed anything Werefeline with her. Her mother had told her that since Edward’s father was kept in the dark about his wife and son, Werefeline was a taboo theme in his family.
“I asked Aunt Maud if she would allow you out on Friday evening with Ryan, Robin and me. She said yes, but only if I bring you home before eleven and if you promise you won't drink.”
“I thought we could go bowling.”
That sounded suspiciously like a double date. A date with Ryan? Her chest tightened. “I'm not going.” She couldn’t go. What if the Panther learned about it? She pushed the car door open.
“I haven't asked Robin yet, but I’m going to, tomorrow.”
“You know that she likes you?” Alex narrowed her eyes at him. What a jerk; if he knew that Robin liked him, he could at least have told her properly that he wasn’t interested.
“Look, I'm just doing a favour for a friend. As you should.”
“Are you trying to blackmail me?” She had already lost one friend because of him, Lara, who after Edward’s rejection had cut all ties with Alex as if it were Alex's fault that Edward didn't like her. Her mother had told her that if the girl broke up their friendship over that, she wasn't her friend in the first place. Because of that Alex chose her friends – well, her only friend -- very carefully. Robin might be a pain and too carefree, but she wouldn’t hold it against Alex, aware that Alex had to have a solid reason to deny her an opportunity like that. “Why would I want to set you up with Robin when you don't even like her?”
“I like her well enough. She's fun.”
“And I'm sure that you have a good reason why you haven't asked her out before, right?”
“I'm not looking for a girlfriend. I don't have time for one; I'm too busy fulfilling my mother's expectations.” He grimaced and rolled his eyes. “You know how she is.”
“But you will take time now?”
And Robin should settle for only one date? “I'll pass.” Alex climbed out of the car and went toward the house.
Edward slid to the passenger seat, rolled down the window and pushed his head out. “Come on.”
“No,” she said without turning around. She couldn't go on a date with Ryan. Doing that would be like betraying Panther.
“What are you doing?” Alex dug her heels into the green linoleum floor, glowering at Ryan's back. She hadn't expected him to ambush her on her way to the cafeteria. And he looked sort of scary with a dark scowl that made his features sharp and harsh.
“I just want to talk to you.”
“Fine.” She doubted the rightness of her decision, but she let him pull her forward anyway. He led her across the hallway, out into the inner yard and then alongside the wall until they came into the shelter of the lime tree. “So what is it?”
He tilted his head down and strands of the black shoulder-length hair that he usually had tied in a low ponytail hid his face. “Edward told me that you refused to go on a date with me.” He looked her, frowning. “Why? I don’t understand. I thought we got along quite well.”
She couldn’t tell him she was already seeing somebody, could she? “Look, you are a nice guy...” Very nice guy and good-looking too.
“Well...” This time it was she who lowered her gaze. She did like Ryan, she had since the moment she’d laid eyes on him, but in the year since he had moved here he had never shown an interest in her before. And now, she sort of wasn’t available anymore. “Why now?”
“Why now?” she repeated.
“I didn’t know you before, did I?” he said. “You make me feel good and... I want to spend more time with, you know, not just at night.”
“Yeah.” His brows rose and he stared at her, making her feel stupid.
What did that ‘oh’ mean?
“You can’t feel me? Of course. When did your Change start?”
The Change. She blinked at him. He knew. How did he know? Her eyes widened and she pointed a finger at him. “You are... You are... But -- You said that you weren’t at that party.”
“I wasn’t. I just passed by and sort of rescued you.”
“You should really mind the moon better.”
“It wasn’t my fault.” It had been, but she was not going to admit that to him.
“At least you stopped drinking.”
“Maybe I still do.”
“No, you don’t. If you did I would have smelled it on you.”
She narrowed her eyes. It wasn’t fair. He had let her roam around the school sniffing all the blue-eyed, black-haired guys. What a jerk. “You didn’t tell me it was you!”
“Sorry.” He tried to grab her hand, but she evaded him and his arm fell to his side. “I thought you knew. I thought you were just shy.”
Shy! When not only had she allowed him to lick her, she had licked him too. She could feel her cheeks burning and her heart slamming against her ribs. She buried her face in her hands. She would never be able to look him in the eye again.
“Alex.” He put his fingers over hers and gently pulled them off her face.
“I have to go.” She shoved his hand away and before he could move, ran away. For the rest of the day she sneaked like a shadow through the hallways, and then at the end of school after she made Robin drive her home, she sent a short text message to Edward not to wait for her.
She thought that maybe Ryan would try to call her or text her, but the phone stayed silent even after the fall of night. Jerk. And on the night of the full moon, too. She was looking forward to it, actually. But she couldn’t appear in the glade now.
She should at least intoxicate herself enough to spend the night in a cloud of comfortable dizziness. She glanced at her watch. Past eleven.
She rolled onto her belly, her forehead furrowed, as she pushed her hand under her mattress. She still had a flat metal flask of vodka hidden there. She hadn’t used it in almost a month. She pulled it out then glowered at it for some time before she shoved it back where she had found it. She didn’t need it anymore.
She shifted onto her back and with her breathing shallow and laboured, she stared at the ceiling in the darkness while her body transformed into the cat's. The pain had become slightly bearable now, but it still burned through her. She stretched, testing her limbs, her tongue going over her serrated teeth. When she was little, she could hardly wait for her year of Change, having imagined how much fun the animal form was going to be. However, when the Change began she discovered that it wasn't what she expected it to be.
She hated the Change, praying for the year of it to pass as fast as it could, and then she won’t change in the lynx ever again. It's not like she would have to, the days when Werefelines used the gift of their animal form to hunt to feed their families had long passed. But being with Ryan made her see that it wasn’t that bad. If only he had told her from the start who he was.
She moved onto her side, groaning at the ache in her bones. She wiggled out of her pyjamas, crawled down from the bed and stumbled into her parent’s bedroom. With her front paws she leaned on the bed and under the coverlet found mother’s hand. She nibbled on it.
It took some time before her mother rose up. “Alex, darling, what is it?” she asked with a sluggish voice threaded with sleep.
Mother lifted up the cover.
Alex climbed under it and pressed herself against her mother, whimpering.
Mother buried her fingers into Alex's mane. “Does it hurt so much?”
“What is it?” a man’s voice asked and the mattress dipped.
“It's Alex,” Mother said.
“In her cat form?”
Father pushed the cover away and patted the place between him and Mother. “Here, kitty, kitty.”
Alex hissed, her ears flattened against her skull. Her father adored cats and if he hadn't had a wife that could change into one at will, their house would probably have been full of small, meowing furry balls. He wanted to have a cat or two even now, but Mother said that with a Werefeline in the house they had enough trouble with shedding hair as it was.
“Stop it.” Mother sat up.
“I just want to pet her.” Father leaned over Mother and his hand slid over Alex's spine. “She’s so adorable.”
“She's in pain. And annoyed by your 'kitty, kitty'. You know how she hates it when you call her that.”
“But you don't mind it.”
“I do, but I also like to indulge my beloved hubby.”
Couldn’t they stop? Alex bit her mother's arm, enough that it hurt, but not enough to draw blood.
Mother yelped and frowned at Alex. “That will leave bruises.” She crawled over Alex and off the bed and put on her bathrobe. “Come.” She waved to Alex to follow her. “Some exercise would do you good.”
On the rare occasions when Alex came to her parents for distraction from the pain Mother always said that, but Alex never followed her. She preferred to stay in bed, stretched out on her belly while her parents massaged her. But this time she dragged herself out from under the covers and down onto the floor.
A smile bloomed on Mother's face as she opened the door wider, letting Alex go past her into the hallway.
Alex padded down the stairs, across the hall and through the arch into the living room where she stopped by the balcony door.
Mother joined her. She opened the balcony door while Father went to the wooden chest beside the couch. He put the lamp that stood on it on the ground and took from the chest a ball made out of foam.
Alex narrowed her eyes at him. There was no way she was going to play fetch with him. She was not a Werewolf, she was a Werefeline.
“Do you want me to join you?” Mother asked.
Alex nodded and went outside.
A ball flew past her. It bumped against the grass and rolled toward the wooden fence.
Alex couldn’t help it, she hurried after it and then just before she would have reached it she leaped on it, her claws digging into it. She fell on her side and her front paws pressed the ball closer while her back paws kicked it away.
A rustle interrupted her game and she arched her neck to locate its source.
There behind the planks of the fence a large black cat stared at her.
Her eyes widened. She jumped up and stared at him.
A paw landed on her back.
Alex flinched and wheeled around, bristling.
Her mother in her lynx form and her father stood beside her.
“What do we have here?” Father said. “Another Werefeline, and a cougar at that. Is that the new addition to our little community you told me about?”
Her mother nodded.
They knew about Ryan? Alex frowned. Yes, of course they knew. Her grandfather, as leader of their little pack had always been in contact with other Werefelines, and her mother as his successor had to be aware of all Werefeline related matters. Why hadn’t she thought of that before? Stupid, she was so stupid.
Father went toward the fence. “Should we ask him to join us?”
Alex grabbed the edge of her father’s robe.
“Somebody is being shy.” Father gently swatted her away.
Shy! Why was everybody calling her shy? Alex flashed her canines, tempted to bite into Father’s leg.
“You are welcome to join us,” Father said to Ryan.
Ryan tilted his head, his blue eyes burning through her. He walked away from the fence then, taking a short running start, he elegantly flew over the fence and landed before Alex.
What was he doing here anyway? Alex stepped backwards.
Ryan pushed the ball toward her. It bumped against her paws.
“Oh, he wants to play,” her father said. “How sweet.”
When Alex didn’t move, Ryan padded closer and with his nose rolled the ball forward until it pressed it against her paws.
She liked Ryan, in his true form and as a cat. And she had secretly wished for the black cat to be him, hadn’t she? But then when her wish came true, she felt betrayed.
He said that he thought she had felt him; feeling other Werefelines and communicating with them was something that came along about six months into the Change. She wasn’t there yet. But at least now she didn’t dread and hate the Change as she had before. Thanks to him. He had shown her how to make it bearable, even enjoyable. She should thank him, not hold a grudge against him.
She pushed the ball toward him. She would go on that double date with him, it would make Robin happy. It would make her happy. And then at the next moon’s phase they could race through the woods again.
With his teeth he grabbed the ball and tossed it in the air.
She leaped up, caught it and then raced around the house with it.
“Look at her go,” Father said.
Alex could hardly hear him though, too
busy making a circle around the house, with a black cat in hot
pursuit. She would have to tell Ryan about her decision tomorrow at
school, but he probably already knew, so there was nothing to do but
now enjoy the freedom of being a Werefeline.
* The End*