For Karadel, being a shape-shifter has always been a reality she couldn’t escape. Even though she’s built a safe life as a rural veterinarian, with a close-knit network of shifter and human friends who would do anything for her, she can’t help but wish for a chance at being normal.
When she’s not dealing with her shifts or caring for her animal patients, she attempts to develop a drug that will help shifters control their changes—a drug that might even allow them to remain human forever.
But her comfortable life is threatened by two events: She meets an ordinary man who touches her heart, and her best friend is forced to shift publicly with deadly consequences.
Now Karadel must decide whom to trust: her old friends or her new love.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I’m at the supermarket in town, trying to decide between two brands of apple juice, when the first fiery pains go ripping up my back. I panic. I almost drop one of the bottles in my haste to get it back on the shelf, and I simply abandon my half-full cart in the aisle. By the time I push my way past dawdling shoppers, make it to the parking lot, and stumble into my Jeep, the pains have gone from intermittent to continuous, and the visual migraine has kicked in. It’s as if something has taken a bite out of my right eye’s field of vision, leaving behind a circle of serrated tooth marks. Within five minutes, that circle will uncoil into a straight line of marching Vs and begin pulsing with gray and orange shadows.
Fuck! I think as I try to start the car, my hands so shaky that I almost don’t have the strength to turn the key. This isn’t supposed to happen for at least another week!
Normally I have about an hour between the first tendrils of pain and the onset of transformation, but the timing is off, so who knows what else might be affected? I’m in broad daylight on the busiest street in Quinville on a Wednesday afternoon. Oh God, if I change here, everyone in the world will see me . . .
I finally get the motor to catch and I screech out of the parking lot and onto Highway 159 as fast as I can, cutting off some poor old woman in a beat-up sedan who’s trying to turn left into the grocery store. I’m calculating in my head. Quinville makes a modest clump of civilization along both sides of 159, but within five miles, the road will shake off the urban clutter as it heads back into open Illinois farmland. Say ten minutes to get clear of the worst of the traffic. Another twenty minutes till I reach the County Road W turnoff. If I can make it that far, I can just pull off the road, cut the engine, and wait for disaster to strike. Thirty minutes. Surely my body can hold on that long.
I’m stuck behind three cars at the longest light in town; otherwise, I would have been tempted to run it when it turned red. The back spasms have morphed into a slow, steady thrum, not unbearable, but the migraine is starting to build; I lean my skull against the headrest and let terror and pain fight for dominance. I squint against the sunlight and the flashing visual cues, wishing I had my sunglasses with me. Keeping my left hand on the wheel, I fish in my purse till I find my cell phone. The light changes to green just as I open my list of contacts, so I hurriedly push the first name that comes up.
It happens to be Celeste’s, and of course she doesn’t answer. “Listen, it’s Karadel. I’m heading home, and I’m about to change. Don’t know how far I’ll get. I’m going to need someone to come get me. I’m going to call everybody, so whoever gets there first . . .”
Traffic is slow enough to allow me to call and leave messages with Bonnie and Aurelia as well, but then we clear the last light and cars start moving at the speed limit. I’m too rattled to try to drive and talk at the same time, plus the pulsing lights of the migraine aura are making it hard for me to see the road. I toss the phone onto the passenger’s seat, clench both hands on the wheel, and concentrate on driving.
For about three miles outside of Quinville, Highway 159 maintains two lanes in each direction, divided by a sad strip of prairie grass and flowering weeds, but soon enough it will slim down to two lanes separated only by a double yellow line. Every driver’s goal is to get ahead of the slowest-moving vehicles before those lanes converge. Theoretically, you can pass cars at a dozen spots in the next thirty miles, but practically speaking, those opportunities are few because the oncoming traffic rarely lets up long enough for you to take the chance.
Like the red Camaro ahead of me and the black Escalade behind me, I’m in the inside lane going as fast as road conditions will permit, just praying that no one swerves into my path or comes to a sudden stop, because I’m in no condition to make defensive-driving maneuvers. I’m barely alert enough to recognize that I’m running out of road. The Camaro guns its motor and zips ahead of a rusted-out old Ford pickup, but I don’t react quickly enough, and the truck eases over in front of me at a maddeningly leisurely pace. I brake so hard that the Escalade looms menacingly in my rearview mirror, but nobody hits anybody, and we all continue down the road at a greatly reduced rate of speed.
The near-miss has dumped adrenaline into my veins. Great—now my heart is pounding as well as my head, and my hands feel rubbery on the wheel. I’ve lost much of my peripheral vision, but darkness hasn’t started encroaching on my eyesight yet. How much time left now? Fifteen minutes? Twenty?
Not nearly enough time to get to my house.
I shift my grip, take a deep breath, and stare so fiercely at the road ahead of me that my eyes would start burning if they weren’t already hot. Maybe five minutes to the turnoff. I can make it that far. I have to. The pickup has slowed to something like forty miles an hour, but that might be a good thing; I can sort of keep things together at this speed. To my left, an unbroken line of family cars, 18-wheelers, motorcycles, and SUVs whooshes past. The driver of the Escalade is riding impatiently close to my bumper, and I know he’ll take the first chance he sees to pass both me and the pickup. But even if the oncoming traffic were to thin down to nothing, leaving a straight and empty stretch of road bordered by cornfields on either side, I wouldn’t make the same attempt. I don’t think I have the hand-eye coordination. I don’t think I have the judgment. I’m not sure I could make it back on the road.
Then suddenly—finally—like the mile marker to heaven, I see the green sign for the cutoff to W. I don’t even bother with the turn signal, just peel off from 159 with a faint whine of tires. There’s hardly ever any traffic on W, which leads only to a few isolated homesteads like mine and huge tracts of undeveloped land offering a pretty equal mix of grass and trees. Of course, the isolation of the route is a mixed blessing on most days. The road is well behind on necessary maintenance, and the asphalt is an obstacle course of potholes, cracks, and failed repairs. I’ve increased my speed as much as I can without running the risk of hurtling off the road, but every bump and fissure jars me against the seat belt and slams my head nauseatingly against my spine.
Nausea—that’s usually the last symptom. Five minutes or less by now. The September day is chilly, maybe fifty degrees, but I hit the controls so the four automatic windows roll all the way down. The only thing worse than transforming in a public place in the middle of the day would be transforming in a locked car with all the windows up. No way to get out. I try not to think about what will happen if I change into something too big to crawl out the window. That hasn’t happened for a while now—years, really. Even a deer, even a wolf, would be able to squeeze through a car’s rolled-down window, wouldn’t it? I’ve never been a bear or a giraffe—a moose only a couple of times—and the elephant—well, that’s never happened again—
My stomach clenches and I slap my hand across my mouth. I don’t actually throw up, but I can feel the bile at the back of my throat. Almost time, almost time. I’d love to get another mile down the road, but the trade-off isn’t worth it. The blackness has started to build up at the corner of my vision, little lights are dancing through the pulsating Vs of the visual migraine, and I’m in so much physical pain that it’s hard to tell what’s slamming up from my backbone and what’s jackhammering down from my skull. Stop gambling, I tell myself, and wrench the Jeep to the shoulder. It’s really just a little strip of crumbling asphalt that drops into a low ditch of prickly weeds, but even a semi ought to be able to get past my vehicle without smashing it to pieces.
I leave everything in the front seat—my phone, my purse, my clothes—and exit through the passenger-side door. Immediately, I feel better. No matter what happens next, at least I won’t be trapped. At least I’ll be able to go crashing off into the undergrowth and look for some kind of cover until one of my friends comes to find me.
I’m crouching barefoot on the side of the road, but the pain drives me all the way to my knees. I can feel the dry knife-edges of the weed leaves slicing at my bare toes and ankles; I can feel the broken stone of the asphalt digging into my calves. But I scarcely notice. The migraine has enveloped my whole body. It is cracking my skull in two, it is pummeling my stomach, and I am bent over so far that my nose rests between my knees. If I move a fraction of an inch in any direction, everything on my inside will spill out, in vomit, in blood, in viscous leaking fluids of mucus, saliva, and brains . . .
One more powerful compression, as if a giant hand is squashing me from above with such force that I grunt involuntarily. And then it’s all over.
The pressure, the pain, the nausea. Gone, evaporated. I feel light, almost weightless. I feel lithe and strong and absolutely right. My body has once again survived a violent passage and rebirth and delivered me to a shape that calls to it as seductively as its own.
For a moment, I just revel in the bliss of well-being, then I take a moment to determine what I am. I extend my left arm, to find it covered with fluffy marmalade fur; I’ve unsheathed five impressively sharp claws, and a slinky tail wraps around from behind. A cat then—housecat, probably. I don’t feel large enough to be one of the bigger wild felines. I bunch myself up against the right front tire, but my arched back doesn’t even clear the wheel well.
Good. A cat is the best I can hope for. Mobile, self-sufficient, commonplace. I could fend for myself for weeks if I had to, make my way to my property under my own power, and never raise the slightest bit of curiosity from any passersby I might encounter.
I wonder if this transformation is purely random or if my serums are actually taking effect. I have been trying—with limited success—to guide my body in the choices it makes, to channel it into more socially acceptable creatures when the imperative to change takes it over. I have, in fact, been injecting a specialized concoction for the past few weeks, hoping to become this very animal. Perhaps this is proof that I’ve been successful—to a point. Perhaps the early transformation came about because of that very concoction. Perhaps I have staved off one side effect only to incur another.
Worries for another day.
As always, once I enter animal state, I find it difficult to focus on the everyday, ordinary concerns that usually preoccupy my mind. I’m still me, I have my own memories and my same powers of reasoning, but all the familiar obsessions seem distant and unimportant. New imperatives claim my attention—usually, depending on the shape I’ve taken, revolving around finding food and finding safety. I’m easily distracted by scents, sounds, movements on the periphery. I’m much more focused on the challenges of the immediate present.
Which, I have to confess, is sometimes a relief, considering how much my human brain usually frets over the unsolvable troubles of the future. Sometimes descending into the wild is like a brief vacation from my chaotic and all-too-demanding existence.
But right now I can’t afford to give in to the cat’s impulse to go stalking through the high grass toward the promising rustle of bird wings. I can’t go chasing after butterflies and bees. I’m still far from home, and someone should be on the way to get me. I need to be here and relatively alert whenever that someone arrives.
I face the car, bunch my muscles, and make a smooth leap through the open window on the passenger’s side. I’d forgotten about the purse and phone and clothes I’d left on the seat, so I skid through them in a sloppy landing, then hop over the gear shift to the driver’s side. The afternoon sunlight has painted a golden square on the fabric, and both the warmth and the color are inviting. I pat at the cloth with my left paw, find it suitable, then drop down into a contented curl, wrapping my tail around my head. A nap is the best way to pass the hours, stay out of trouble, and conserve my strength, all at the same time. I feel my narrow jaws open in a gigantic yawn, then I resettle my face against my paws. I am instantly in a light, untroubled sleep from which I know I can wake at a moment’s notice.
Cats really do have the best lives. If I could choose, this is the shape I would always take.
No. If I could choose, I would always stay human.
* * *
I’m not paying close attention, but I think it’s about a half hour before I hear the sound of a car that doesn’t just zoom past, but actually slows down then rumbles to a stop as it pulls over right in front of me on the shoulder. I instantly come awake and scramble up, setting my paws on the top of the steering wheel so I can peer out the windshield. Shapes and colors are weird, distorted, so I have to concentrate to pull out human memories to compare against the images I’m seeing now. But I recognize the battered old station wagon even before the door swings open and the driver steps out.
Bonnie. My luck is in. By far the most reliable of my friends, she has not only shown up to rescue me, she has no doubt phoned everyone else in our circle to let them know their services aren’t required—hell, she probably picked up groceries, paid my electricity bill, and arranged to have Highway W resurfaced while she was at it.
She doesn’t spot me right at first, so as soon as she slams her door, she stands beside the car for a moment, hands on her hips, and looks around, as if wondering where I’ve gotten to. She’s probably six feet tall, 140 pounds if she’s just finished a big meal, angular, knobby, impatient, brilliant, and totally unaffected by anyone else’s opinion. Her short, curly black hair is showing a few singular strands of gray, one of the few clues to the fact that she’s just over sixty. Her eyes are dark brown and even when she’s laughing, her expression is fierce. If she were a shape-shifter, which she’s not, she’d be a bird of prey, I’ve always thought. Hawk. Falcon. Eagle. Something you wouldn’t mess with. Something that rarely, if ever, failed.
I drop to all fours, gather my muscles, and leap through the open window to the street. The motion catches her attention and she sees me. Relief crosses her spare features as I trot over.
“Karadel. Thank heavens,” she says, bending down to pick me up. In human shape, I don’t often seek out casual physical contact, but this particular body craves affection. I like how she cradles me against her thin chest; I respond with a low purr of contentment. She takes a moment to pet my head and scratch my chin, but Bonnie’s not one for lingering on niceties, especially when there’s work to be done.
“Let’s get you home,” she says, opening her car door.
I prepare to jump inside, but my claws catch on Bonnie’s arms to halt my forward motion when I realize there’s somebody in the passenger’s seat. Alonzo looks over with his usual deadly serious expression.
“Hey, Karadel,” he says.
I squirm in Bonnie’s grip, trying to get a look at her face, and attempt to express my opinion. What’s going on? It comes out, of course, as a musical burble. I could as easily be asking for dinner.
“I know, I know, he’s fourteen years old,” she says. She has known shape-shifters for most of her life and never seems ill at ease conversing with them in animal form. “But you know he knows how to drive. He can go on first in the Jeep and we’ll come along behind him. If he has any trouble, well, we’ll just pull over and leave the Jeep on the side of the road.”
Of course I know Alonzo can drive. I taught him myself—in my Jeep, as a matter of fact—but we stayed mostly on my property and were never this close to a well-traveled road. It’s true I’ve never seen cops on W, but they’re constantly patrolling 159, and that’s entirely too close. Bad enough that Alonzo’s too young to get a license; he’s also African-American, and most of the cops in this district are white.
When I try to get this point across to Bonnie, she just shrugs. “She’s worried that you can’t handle it,” she says to Alonzo.
He nods. “I’ll be careful. Keys in the car?”
“That would be my guess.”
He climbs out of the station wagon, unfolding his lanky body with care. He’s taller and skinnier than Bonnie, growing taller and skinnier every day, though I know she and Aurelia feed him enough calories to turn him into a linebacker. But it’s not just adolescent awkwardness that makes him move so stiffly. He was an abused child, a shape-shifter whose father feared and hated him, and I’m not sure we’ll ever know the extent of the damage done to him. Bonnie says his torso and limbs carry dozens of scars, though she hasn’t seen a physical reason for the precise way he moves and holds his body. But I’ve never seen him loosen up, even for a minute. Never seen him dance with abandon or run with joy. I don’t know if he can.
I give up trying to argue and make myself comfortable on the seat still warm from Alonzo’s body. It’s a matter of moments before Alonzo starts the Jeep and edges it past the station wagon and Bonnie takes off after him. In this shape, I can’t accurately judge speed or distance if I’m not moving under my own power, but it seems to me that we’re traveling pretty sedately. If we don’t, in fact, encounter any police, we are home free, because Alonzo is the most careful driver on the planet.
Bonnie talks for the duration of the trip. “I don’t know how long you won’t be human, but I thought I’d leave Alonzo with you for the next few days,” she says. “He can do the chores and feed the animals and call me if you need anything.” She glances over at me. “We’ve taken him out of school for the semester—thought we’d try homeschooling for a year and see if that goes any better,” she adds. “He does have a couple of friends, and they’ve been coming over in the evenings but the classes just weren’t—they weren’t—I don’t think Quinville Middle School is the right place for him.”
Bonnie and Aurelia have been taking care of Alonzo for the past two years, ever since Ryan rescued him and brought him to us. They’re the perfect foster parents. Bonnie’s a retired teacher and Aurelia’s a lawyer, and they’ve fostered kids off and on for the past ten years, so they both know the system. Oh, it might seem like a black kid from an urban neighborhood wouldn’t find the best home with two whiter-than-white lesbians in a rural setting, but I can say this for certain: When he came into our lives, he wouldn’t speak. He was afraid to touch anything. He only ate when no one else was looking. He slept on the floor for the first three months, seeming to believe that climbing into the bed made up in the room set aside for him would result in punishments too dire to describe. And now he eats and sleeps like a normal kid, and he answers direct questions, and once in a while he ducks his head and smiles.
And when he changes shapes into a deer or a badger or a coyote, no one chains him to a pole in the basement and beats him on the head with a metal pipe.
So, yeah. I think he’s where he belongs.
“I left a message with Ryan and actually spoke to Celeste before I found you,” Bonnie goes on. “Celeste says she can come out over the weekend, so maybe I’ll come get Alonzo then and she can take over.” She glances at me again. “Am I wrong, or is this not your usual time to shift?”
Mrrrr, I answer.
“Right. Well. You can tell me later,” she says. “But I’m under the impression that your cycles have been a little out of whack lately. And if that’s the case, you might start thinking about more permanent solutions to your situation.”
Right, I want to say in sarcastic echo. If I had the faintest idea how to come up with a permanent solution to “my situation,” I’d have implemented it long before now.
But I know she’s not referring to my random and unpredictable shifts into alternate shapes. She merely means that someone who’s caring for close to thirty animals on a remote property needs to display a certain level of responsibility—needs to make sure that if she’s not going to be available to put out food and clean out cages every single day, someone else will be around to do the necessary chores.
There’s a lot of irony here. I’ve always been the most responsible person I know. I have never shirked a task. I have never let my own dreams and desires interfere with the duties I knew I had to assume. I’ve never even allowed myself to entertain too many dreams and desires. Mine will be a short life, but a rich one, built around a guiding imperative: to care for a distinct group of wild and exotic creatures who have no one to defend them but me.
It is only on days like this, in shapes like this one, when the buried feral instincts briefly come to the fore, that the traitorous thoughts even have the power to rise to the surface of my mind.
What if? I think on days like this. What if I could just run away?
* * *
It’s still bright afternoon when we arrive at my property. Alonzo, with utmost care, turns from W onto the rutted gravel of my drive. The Jeep doesn’t even jounce along the track as it usually does under my impatient heel. All of us climb out, and Bonnie and Alonzo turn toward the barns and cages. There’s not much I can do to help them, so I just head for the porch of the rambling old farmhouse and hop up on the wooden bench set under the overhang. I sit there, tail curled around my front feet, and take a moment to glance over the property.
From this vantage point, I can only see part of the compound, which consists of about ten buildings clustered together in a relatively cleared and cultivated area, and another fifty acres of land that has been left entirely wild. The house, the barns, the toolshed, and a couple of trailers—housing for visiting shape-shifters—were already here when I arrived eight years ago. At the time, the place was a veterinary office run by a woman named Janet Kassebaum, who specialized in shape-shifters. I inherited her practice when she left. In the past five years, I’ve made some changes: adding corrals, fencing in dog runs, turning one of the barns into a sort of animal dorm. I needed to have places to keep all the creatures I was collecting, the injured birds, the lame dogs, the tortured cats. Sometimes I heal them and let them go. When they’re too badly hurt, I heal them and give them homes for life.
It takes Bonnie and Alonzo about an hour to feed and water the animals, and by then it’s coming on toward sunset. Bonnie ushers Alonzo into the house to make sure I have human food supplies on hand as well, before she pushes back out through the door to tell me good-bye.
“He says he’ll be fine out here on his own for a couple of days, but I’ll call in the morning, of course, to make sure everything’s all right,” she tells me. “As soon as you’re human again, give me a call, and we can talk over a few things.”
I don’t answer, of course, and she sighs. “Known shape-shifters for more than forty years and I still forget that they can’t talk to me,” she says. She comes close enough to scratch the top of my head with her short, blunt fingernails. “Catch you later.” Five minutes later, she’s gone, her car lights sending a brief searching arc of illumination across the barns and trailers and clumps of grass as she makes a U-turn and drives away.
I hear Alonzo rummaging in the kitchen, then I catch the beep of the microwave. I wonder what he’s found in the freezer that appeals to him. I’m not a particularly inventive cook, but I like to make batches of chili and stew and soup and freeze them against the erratic onslaught of company. There are weeks at a time when I’m the only human for five miles. Then there are weeks when I have five or six other people staying on the property. I like to be prepared to feed them, at least till they’ve had a chance to lay in their own groceries.
The door creaks and Alonzo steps outside to join me on the bench. It’s chilly, but that never bothers Alonzo; he likes being outdoors in all kinds of weather. He’s balancing two plates and has stuck a can of soda under his left arm. One plate holds a steaming pile of chili con queso so thick it doesn’t need a bowl. The other features a small mound of canned tuna and a slowly melting scoop of vanilla ice cream.
The chili’s for Alonzo. The tuna and ice cream are for me. I don’t care much for fish when I’m in human form, but this shape loves it—and Alonzo, being Alonzo, remembered that.
Ice cream I love in about ninety out of a hundred of my incarnations.
The thoughtfulness makes me wish I could put my arms around Alonzo and give him a big hug, but instead I rise to my feet and prance around on the bench to show how excited I am about the prospect of a meal. He sits down, placing my plate on the bench where I can easily reach it and resting his own on his knees, then pops the top of his soda. We settle in to eat in companionable and satisfied silence. He must be as hungry as I am, because we’re done in about ten minutes, and—being Alonzo—he straightaway takes the dishes in to wash them.
When he comes back outside, he’s already got his iPod in his hand and his earbuds in place; unlike Bonnie, he’s not going to attempt to make conversation. But he sits next to me again, which for Alonzo is a striking overture of friendship, and he gives my head a cursory pat. I feel my mouth stretch in a huge feline yawn, exposing all my wickedly sharp teeth, and I lick the last trace of ice cream from my whiskers. I’m tired again, and I curl up in a ball beside Alonzo, close enough so my back rests against his thigh. He lays a gentle hand along my rib cage and I hear him laugh out loud when I begin to purr.
I think, for this short period of time, anyway, Alonzo is actually happy. All in all, the day that started so disastrously has brought with it its own extraordinary gifts. Not at all what I expected.
The next two days pass harmoniously enough, with Alonzo taking Bonnie’s phone calls every morning and evening, spending a couple of hours a day caring for the animals, and the rest of the time playing video games or reading. He’s not a natural reader, but Bonnie has insisted he finish a book a month and she’s told me he’s found a few authors that he actually admits to liking. Most of them appear to be horror and science fiction writers, both of which she regards with deep suspicion, but she’d never renege now. My guess is that he’d rather watch television or surf the Internet, but I get crappy reception out here and my selection of DVDs has never held much interest for him in the past. But he makes do. God knows he wouldn’t complain. And he still seems—if not actually happy—content. Which for Alonzo might be the best that it gets.
There’s obviously not much for me to do, but I spend part of each day prowling through the various animal shelters, making sure all is well. None of the avian species like it when I pace past their cages; the songbirds flutter and chirrup, and the birds of prey bridle and fidget. The hawk with the broken wing watches me with unnerving intensity, and I’m just as glad there’s a wire crate between us. I’ve never actually seen a hawk kill or carry off a cat, but I’ve been assured it’s possible, and this particular one looks like he’s ready to make the attempt, broken wing and all.
None of the birds react this strongly when the barn cats stalk through the aviary, eyeing them with longing and calculation. Maybe the birds know the cages keep them safe, but I really don’t think that’s it. I think they can tell there’s something different about me—something wrong—I’m a danger that they can’t identify, so they can’t assess it. I’m not quite cat and I’m not quite human. Not quite prey meat, not quite rival. Something to fear and revile.
It’s even worse in the kennels, where the dogs start barking as soon as I nose through the door. In fact, the three beagle puppies, eight weeks old by now, will not shut up the whole time I’m in the barn. Two of them whine and paw at the gate that holds them in their little enclosure; the third usually stands with his feet on the top of the fencing and barks without ceasing. The short, sharp, indignant sounds are designed to express outrage, raise the alarm, and let me know in no uncertain terms that he is not afraid of me. My plan is to give all three of them away, and soon, but I wouldn’t mind if this little guy found a permanent home with me. He’s got tons of personality and boundless energy, and he’s wriggled his way into my heart.
The only two dogs that never raise a ruckus while I’m visiting the kennels are Scottie, my ancient setter, and Daniel, who’s currently a Doberman but is human about half the time. Daniel spends most of his days lying on his side on a blanket in one of the unlocked enclosures, and he barely looks up whenever I pass. He’s not very social in either of his forms and he’s happiest when everyone leaves him alone. Scottie usually greets me with a faint whuff and comes over to inspect me. He touches my small nose with his big wet one, wagging his tail just enough to show he’s friendly. He was freaked out the first few times he encountered me in an alternate state, but over the past eight years, he’s gotten used to my transformations. Now it seems as if he recognizes me no matter what shape I’ve taken.
I can’t express how comforting I find that to be.
Most of the rest of the animals—the rabbits, the raccoon, even the turtle—don’t seem to notice or care when I stroll by. Either they’re less sensitive or more miserable; sometimes it’s hard to guess. In any case, they all appear to be in good shape, and I assume they will be fine under Alonzo’s careful attention.
I never know how much time I’ll spend in animal shape, but it’s usually not more than four or five days. So surely it won’t be long before I am myself again, before we can all go back to normal.
* * *
If I’ve remembered my calendar correctly, it’s Saturday morning when Celeste arrives, taking the turn onto the gravel driveway way too fast and coming to a halt with a noisy jerk. When she climbs out of the SUV, she’s loaded down with burdens—a laptop carrier, a suitcase, and a couple of bags of groceries. She looks like she’s run away from home or has arrived at the kind of summer camp where you need to feed yourself. At any rate, it’s clear she’s poised to stay for a while.
Alonzo has just let the dogs into their fenced corral, but the minute he locks the gate, he ambles over to greet her. He’s actually smiling; if he was capable of it, he’d be beaming. But his voice is reserved, even a little cool, when he says, “Hey, Celeste.”
“Zo! My man!” she exclaims, slinging her laptop bag farther back over her shoulder so she can free one arm to hug him. “So you drew the short straw, huh? You were the one who had to come babysit Karadel and all her critters.”
“I don’t mind. I like it here.”
She looks around comprehensively, taking in the buildings (some of them a little weatherworn, I admit), the tangled acreage (prairie grass and a few scrubby trees), and the general air of isolation and solitude. She doesn’t have to say the words aloud to make it plain this is the last place she’d want to be stuck for any length of time.
If ever someone was made for a sophisticated urban environment, it’s Celeste. She’s got a thin model’s body, and she wears the most outrageous ensembles with the negligent ease of someone who knows she looks fabulous no matter what she has on. She doesn’t step out of the house without full makeup, brightly polished nails, and the perfect belt for her ensemble.
Plus, she’s gorgeous. Her astonishingly diverse racial heritage has bequeathed her an exquisite face—high-sloped cheekbones, tilted black eyes, full lips, and a smattering of freckles across her café au lait skin. Her dark hair has a tighter curl than Bonnie’s and she wears it longer, so when it’s not pulled back in a ponytail it makes a Medusa-like swirl of shadow around her face. The physical grace notes were gifts from a broad international ancestry. Although some of her antecedents are a little murky, she knows that she has at least one forebear who was Japanese, one who was Nigerian, one who was Scots-Irish, and one who was Sioux.
And one who was a shape-shifter. Can’t forget that.
She’s my best friend, but sometimes when I’m around her I feel gauche and dull and excruciatingly ordinary. My mother used to read me a bedtime story about Country Mouse and City Mouse, and I have long ago repeated it to Celeste. She’s the pampered, pretty city girl; I’m the dogged, homespun country girl. It doesn’t matter that, in the book, Country Mouse learns that there’s no point in envying someone else’s lifestyle. Everyone wants to be City Mouse. Everyone wants to be Celeste.
She finishes her inspection of the property and heaves an exaggerated sigh. “Well, it could be worse, I suppose,” she says. “It could be snowing.”
Alonzo takes the grocery bags and the suitcase and leads Celeste inside. She thoughtfully holds the door open so I can trot in behind them. The front door leads directly into the kitchen, a big warm room paneled in honey wood and hung with copper pans and dried herbs. Janet was responsible for the original decorating, but I’ve added a few touches of my own. More flowerpots in the windows, filled with cheery blooms. New curtains with motifs of fruit and blossoms. A new set of ceramic dishes in bright reds and deep ochres. In human form, I crave color; even in the animal shapes that don’t register hue, I like to look at the varying shapes and textures. They remind the person inside that she will be back one day to take possession of these objects again.
“I didn’t know what kinds of scraps you’d been subsisting on since you came out here, so I brought a bunch of goodies,” Celeste tells Alonzo as she begins pulling groceries out of the bag. She knows perfectly well about the two freezers full of Tupperware containers, but it turns out she hasn’t exactly been shopping for staples. So what we have here are chocolate donuts, gooey butter cake, chocolate-covered raisins, five different kinds of chips, three kinds of cheese dip, and a bottle of premixed margaritas.
“You can’t have any of the booze,” she tells him. “But the rest of it’s all yours if you want it. Oh! And I have a cooler in the car. I picked up some barbecue on the edge of town. We can have that for dinner.”
“What kind of barbecue?” he says. Testing her.
She swats him on the head. Love tap. “Chicken for me, pork for you. Did you think I’d forget?”
He ducks his head and doesn’t answer that. But he’s smiling. “I’ll go get it. Anything else in the car?”
“Uh—yeah. What do you think?”
“About twelve of them! I didn’t know what you’d seen so I checked out, like, half the new releases.”
“Cool,” he says. “I haven’t seen hardly anything.”
I hear Bonnie’s voice in my head. He’ll sit and watch cable all day, movie after movie, but he doesn’t like to go to the theater. At first I thought he just didn’t want to go with us, and then I thought maybe his friends don’t like movies. But then I figured it out. It’s dark. He feels trapped. It triggers all his irrational fears. So we let him rent whatever he wants.
“I haven’t seen anything, either,” she says. “Work work work. That’s all I do. This is like a vacation.” She glances expressively around the kitchen. “Well, the kind of vacation where you go to a dude ranch for the summer and you have to clean out the horse stalls and bale hay or whatever. That kind of vacation. Still. It will make a change.”
Celeste is a freelance writer and editor with a couple of big clients she can work for remotely. She’s said more than once she doesn’t know how shape-shifters ever held down jobs before the advent of the Internet, because being a contract employee who works from home means never having to come face-to-face with your boss or your customers. Of course, her own particular brand of transformation is the best—she can change at will, and she’s always the same animal, a slim bobcat with a golden pelt and unnervingly huge eyes. It would hardly be like having a disability at all to be able to control it so completely. It would almost seem like being normal.
“I fed the dogs this morning, but there’s a lot more to do,” Alonzo tells her. “But I can handle it. You don’t have to help.”
She gives him an incredulous look. “I am the adult here! You are the child! You are the one who is helping me!”
This actually makes him laugh. “Yeah. You keep telling yourself that,” he says and slouches out the door.
Celeste is Alonzo’s favorite person in the world. I’m even more grateful on his behalf than my own that she had the time to come out here this weekend.
The two of them largely ignore me for the rest of the day as they do grinding physical labor around the property. Despite her princess appearance, Celeste is a hard worker; give her a task, no matter how distasteful, and she’ll get it done. Now that there are two of them, they can finish the chores that require four hands, spend a little more quality time with the dogs, and make sure everything is as tidy as a backwoods zoo can be.
Celeste also takes a couple of hours to listen to my voice mail and call back the four or five pet owners who’ve phoned to make appointments for their animals. I don’t have that much retail business anymore—once Janet left, I tried to gently encourage the majority of her clients to switch to one of the vets in town, “So much closer to you in case there’s an emergency.” But there are always people who are too stubborn to make a change—or who develop unreasonable animosities toward certain medical professionals—or who come to the unshakable conclusion that you need their attention, their money, their business, that you are living out here all by yourself and you must surely be lonely, broke, and desperate. Those are the clients who still come to me, and they’ve long ago learned to adjust to my erratic schedule, though they don’t have a clue why I am sometimes available and sometimes not.
“Hi, yes, this is Celeste Saint-Simon, I’m calling on behalf of Dr. Baylor, you left a message? She’s not available right now, but her calendar will open up by next Wednesday if you’d like to make an appointment.”
So many lies in those simple sentences. First of all, I’m not Dr. Baylor. My wildly unpredictable shape-changing patterns made it impossible for me to attend school beyond eighth grade, so I studied with my father and on my own, and I got my GED before I was seventeen. I’ve taken a few online university courses, but naturally I wasn’t able to attend college or vet school; everything I know about animal medicine I learned from Janet before she retired.
Well, before she died—though I allow people to think she’s still alive. Over the years, I’ve paid the fees to renew both Janet’s vet license and the clinic’s facility license so I can continue to buy medical supplies and write prescriptions in her name. I’ve even attended the North American Veterinary Conference as Janet Kassebaum so I could rack up continuing education credits. My clients don’t know this, of course; I let them believe I’ve acquired my degree and passed my boards. It’s just been easier to let them think I’m qualified for the position I’ve gradually assumed.
And, really, I think I know as much about animals as any vet in Quinville. Hell, I’ve been half of those animals at one time or another, which I think gives me peculiar insights into what might be wrong and how it feels. I can’t always fix the animals, but I’ve never failed to make a diagnosis. That’s the real reason some of my customers won’t go anywhere else.
The other lie in Celeste’s statement isn’t so much a falsehood as a guess. She thinks I’ll be back to human state by Monday or Tuesday, but she doesn’t know for sure. And lately I wouldn’t want to be placing any bets on what my body will do next. But I appreciate Celeste’s efforts all the same.
By sundown, she and Alonzo both look tired but a little pleased with themselves, having accomplished everything they set out to do for the day. He flips through her DVD selections, now and then grunting in satisfaction, while she heats up the take-out barbecue, tosses a salad, and opens three bags of chips.
“I know you don’t want to eat the salad, but that’s the price you pay for all the rest of this great stuff, so no complaining,” she tells him when he eyes his plate with disfavor. I think it is a measure of how far Alonzo’s come that he would, even with just an expression, indicate he might not be happy about a food option.
“If I eat the salad, how many donuts can I have?”
She hasn’t forgotten me, either; I have my own plate of barbecue, potato salad, and chipotle cheese dip. They make several trips between the kitchen and the living room, where tray tables are set up in front of the overstuffed sofa and the DVD player has already been cued up, and finally all of our food has been transferred to the viewing area.
“This is the life,” Celeste says, sinking back against the cushion with a tortilla chip in one hand and a margarita in the other. “Hit play.” She takes a sip and sighs with satisfaction. “Here we go.”
* * *
Over the next forty-eight hours, Celeste and Alonzo watch about ten movies and eat about a hundred pounds of food. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but she does drive into town Sunday evening to load up on more junk, and comes back with three pizzas and a bucket of fried chicken. I don’t know why she isn’t fat. Well, certainly this weekend she’s been working off the calories, but I think she eats like this all the time, and I don’t think she hits the gym more than once or twice a week. It’s a mystery.
Alonzo, of course, could stand to gain a little weight, so I don’t think two days of abysmally bad nutrition will hurt him. Though I also don’t think the few apples and salads Celeste requires him to eat will really negate the fat, salt, cholesterol, and crap he’s put in his body under her supervision.
Monday afternoon I wake up from a catnap to find myself human, lying on my side on a tufted rug on the living room floor. I’m naked. I’m also cold and a little stiff, but mostly I’m really, really happy to be back in my own body. I jump up, grab a decorative blanket to wrap around myself in case I run into Alonzo, and hurry to the kitchen to grab a bagel, because transformation always leaves me ravenous. Then I head to my bedroom, which takes up about a third of the second story. I’ve made the big space more manageable by dividing it into zones. A smallish section is a sitting area composed of two chairs and a small table. A larger section holds the bed, an armoire, and a couple of dressers. There are so many windows that the room is filled with light if the sun is anywhere to be seen, and the view is open and calming—acres of uncultivated land dotted with trees and waving with tall prairie grasses.
Used to be the room Janet shared with Cooper, her boyfriend. After they died, it was a year before I could bring myself to move into it. But it’s such a comfortable, welcoming place that I couldn’t let it go to waste. In this room, I never feel trapped or suffocated. I don’t feel like my options have narrowed down so much that there’s only one place in the world I can live and be safe. Or, I still feel that way, but I don’t mind so much.
My feline alter ego was a pretty finicky creature, but I still feel a need to rinse off the residue of my last incarnation, so I take a shower and wash my hair, reveling in the feel of hot water on my bare skin. Once I step out of the shower into the steaming bathroom, I apply extra moisturizer, scented body cream, just a few touches of makeup. Human luxuries. I don’t bother trying to style my shoulder-length hair, which is a dense, heavy brown that takes three hours to dry on its own; I just pull it back into a ponytail. A red sweater, black jeans, tennis shoes, and I am once again my familiar human self.
I hunt down Celeste and Alonzo and find them playing a game of horse at the battered old basketball hoop. It’s stuck in the ground in front of what used to be a patio and is now a broken and crumbled slab of concrete; clumps of grass and weeds have pushed up between the cracks, and they cause the ball to take odd hops when it bounces against them.
At first, neither one sees me, and I watch them take a few shots. From what I can tell, both players are stuck at O, and it’s not because either is politely holding back so the other person won’t feel bad about missing a bucket. Even when she’s facing off against a teenager, Celeste has a competitive streak, and Alonzo can’t bring himself to deliberately miss a shot. He’s a decent basketball player, and one of the few group activities he’ll participate in is a pickup game in his neighborhood. He’s good enough that the other players always welcome him—good enough that I think he’d get better with a little coaching. But Bonnie says he won’t try out for the school team. Too much pressure, maybe. Too much time naked in the locker room, where other kids might see his scars.
Alonzo sinks a basket from the top of the key—well, the back edge of the concrete—and Celeste misses the same shot. “Shit,” she says. “H-O-R for me.”
“Go, Alonzo!” I call, and they both look my way. Alonzo lifts a hand in a casual wave, while Celeste pushes back some stray hair and gives me a quick appraisal.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in—literally,” she says, and then laughs.
“Gee, thanks. Just the sort of positive reinforcement I need,” I reply.
“I think you look pretty good,” Alonzo says.
By this time I’ve crossed the patio and I’m close enough to give him a hug, which he endures more than enjoys. “Thank you, more sincerely,” I say. “You’ve been a lifesaver these past few days! I really appreciate it.”
Celeste dribbles the ball a couple of times, then bounces it over to Alonzo, who catches it one-handed. “Hey, I’ve been mucking around in dirt and dog poop for the past three days, too.”
“Yes, but you’re not as nice about it.”
She grins. “This is me being nice.”
“So did I miss anything important?”
“Daniel changed and left Sunday night,” Alonzo says. “One of the puppies got out, but we found him after a couple of hours.”
“You have two customers coming out Wednesday afternoon, one on Thursday morning,” Celeste adds. “I wrote everything down in your appointment book. Oh, and I put all the bills in a stack on your desk. I would have paid them but I couldn’t find your checkbook.”
“Yeah, plus I couldn’t tell you how much money I have in my bank account anyway, so just as well,” I say. “Okay, great. Thanks again. Are you guys gonna stay for dinner?”
“I will,” Celeste says. “But Bonnie called this morning and says she wants to come back for Alonzo tonight. She misses him.”
Alonzo drops his head and concentrates on bouncing the ball between his feet, but I think he’s smiling.
“I’ll call her. Maybe she can stay for dinner, too, before she takes him back.” I give Celeste a stern look. “A healthy dinner, for a change.”
“What?” she says. “Don’t we look healthy?”
I roll my eyes. “I’m gonna go check on the animals. See you back at the house.”
I head toward the barns. Behind me I hear the satisfying sound of the ball rattling through the hoop. Alonzo has scored again.
I’m halfway across the open area between the patio and the kennels when Scottie bounds up to me, his whole body quivering with excitement. “Hey, boy,” I say, dropping to my knees to wrap my arms around his neck and let him lick my face. “Did you miss me? Here I am. Yeah, boy. Good to see you, too.”
He accompanies me on my rounds, where I cause much less excitement in my human state. The hawk with the broken wing has made steady progress; I might be releasing him within the week. The injured raccoon is gnawing at the cage and looks determined enough to eat his way through it. Fine, he can go, then. I put on a padded vest and heavy gloves, carry him out of the barn and to the edge of the property, and let him go. He takes a few steps into the thick grass, pauses to look back at me, and then runs off as fast as his little feet will take him.
Be careful, I want to call after him. Stay out of trouble. Come back if you need anything. But I don’t, even though no one is listening.
It’s close to five before I’m back in the house and remember I’m supposed to call Bonnie. I cradle the phone between my ear and my shoulder as I move through the kitchen, checking supplies, pulling out ingredients. Bonnie would love to come for dinner, but Aurelia is working late. “Anything I can bring?” she asks.
“Looks like I’m out of milk. Oh, and some fresh tomatoes would be good. You would not believe the junk Celeste has been feeding Alonzo.”
“As long as he’s eating, I don’t mind.”
“You’d mind if you saw the menu.”
My own meal is much healthier—chicken and rice, a salad, fruit, rolls, raspberry sorbet, though I know Alonzo will have another donut for dessert instead. I find myself humming as I mix ingredients and slice strawberries and set the table. The initial disorientation I always feel upon changing states has evaporated, and I feel good. I feel healthy. I have friends around me and meaningful work ahead of me. At times like this I’m able to convince myself that my life is just like everyone else’s.
* * *
As expected, the meal is convivial. Bonnie never drinks if she’s going to get behind a wheel in the next twelve hours, but Celeste and I each have margaritas, and we’re all in pretty mellow moods. Well, for Bonnie, mellow means leaning against the chairback instead of sitting bolt upright, and smiling instead of frowning when someone uses a four-letter word.
Over dessert—which, for Celeste, consists of sorbet sprinkled with the crumpled bits of half a chocolate donut—Celeste points her spoon in Bonnie’s direction. “Here’s something I always forget to ask you. You’re like this legendary ‘friend to shape-shifters,’ but how did that happen? There aren’t that many humans who just suddenly learn about us and want to help us out.”
Bonnie’s eyes rest on Alonzo as she clearly tries to figure out how much detail to give. “My first girlfriend was a shape-shifter,” she says. “Met her in high school.” Her spare features soften as she smiles at a memory. “Beautiful girl. Wilder than you.” She nods in Celeste’s direction.
“How’d you find out she was a shape-shifter?” I ask.
“And was it before or after you were dating?” Celeste adds.
Again, Bonnie’s gaze is on Alonzo. I think this would be a much more revealing conversation if he wasn’t at the table. He appears to be oblivious as he focuses on a chocolate donut and the last of the vanilla ice cream, but my guess is he’s as curious as anyone else.
“We were in a chemistry class together our junior year. We were doing some experiment—I can’t even remember what—mixing together a couple of compounds that created this noxious gas. Our teacher insisted it was harmless,” she says in an aside, her stern face still showing disapproval, “but a couple of people started coughing and one of the boys opened the windows. Derinda was coughing harder than anyone and all of a sudden she jumped out of her chair and said she was going to throw up. Ran out of the room.”
Bonnie lays her spoon aside. “After a few moments, I asked the teacher if I could see if she was all right, but he was so busy trying to wave the fumes out the window that he didn’t answer, so I just went after her. Found her in the girls’ bathroom, crouching in one of the stalls. She kept saying, ‘Don’t come in here, don’t come in here,’ but she sounded really scared. I asked if she wanted me to get the nurse and she said no, and then she started crying. And then she said, ‘Don’t let anyone else come in.’ Of course—school bathroom—there was no lock on the outside door, but I’d brought my backpack with me, and I had a notebook in it. So I made an ‘out of order’ sign and stuck it to the front of the door with a wad of gum. And then I came back in and said, ‘Okay, I think it’s safe.’”
She pauses for a moment. Her wide, dark eyes are a little unfocused as she gazes back at that old memory. I do the math; this must have happened more than forty years ago.
“But she wasn’t there. On the floor of the stall was a pile of clothes and this—this creature. An otter, though at the time, I wasn’t sure what it was. All I knew was that Derinda wasn’t there, and this animal was, and that Derinda had to be the animal. I couldn’t think what to do or what to say. I just stood there staring at her as she came walking out on these—she had the most delicate little feet. I can still hear the sound her claws made on the tile floor of that bathroom. She came mincing out from under the door and then looked up at me.
“I’m sure she was afraid. She told me later that she’d never changed in front of anyone before. She had no idea what I’d do—call the teacher, call the cops, put her in the trash can and take her to the principal’s office. But she knew her fate was in my hands. So she came out and she looked up at me, and she waited for what I’d do next.”
“What did you do?” Celeste asks.
“I got down on the floor and I said, ‘I don’t know what to do to keep you safe. Should I put you outside? Will something eat you if I do that? Should I take you home?’ Well, of course, she couldn’t answer. She started running between me and the window, back and forth. I said, ‘You want me to put you outside?’ and then she came to a stop. I took that as a yes.” Bonnie shrugs. “So I picked her up, careful as I could, and hid her under my jacket. I picked up her clothes, too, and folded them as small as I could. Then I snuck out of the building, and put her down under some trees. And she ran off. I hid her clothes under a bush, then I went back to class. Told the teacher she’d gone home sick.”
Bonnie takes a deep breath. “Two days later she was back in class. Didn’t say anything to me right then, but we walked home together when school was over. And she told me that she was a shape-shifter, and described what her life was like, and said she’d never known anyone outside her family that she could trust. We started dating, and we were together three years.” She stops abruptly. I can tell Celeste is dying to ask the obvious question: Why did you break up? But even Celeste can sometimes tell where the boundaries are.
I’m surprised when it’s Alonzo who speaks up. “Did you love her as much as you love Aurelia?”
I tense up, wondering how Bonnie will answer. A couple of months ago, he’d asked me if I loved Ryan, and I didn’t know what to say. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It’s complicated. I think Alonzo’s experiences with love are so limited that he’s still trying to figure it out.
Well, I suppose all of us are still trying to figure it out.
Bonnie gives him her full attention, not seeming at all alarmed by the necessity of answering the query. “I loved her as much as I knew how, considering I was only seventeen when we met. I don’t think I understood back then how generous you have to be when you love someone else. I don’t think I got all of it right.”
He pushes the donut crumbs around on his plate. “What if you were still dating her, you know, when you met Aurelia? Who would you pick?”
She still doesn’t seem alarmed, though I think this question is even worse. She leans back deeper into her chair and seems to consider. “What a very interesting dilemma. If I’d still been with Derinda . . . I don’t think I’m the kind of woman who leaves one person for another, so I doubt that would have happened. But Aurelia and I would have been very good friends, I think. We would have been special people in each other’s lives. I would always be happy the universe had thrown her in my path.”
That seems to satisfy him; he nods and reaches for another donut. Bonnie straightens in her chair and becomes her usual brisk, no-nonsense self. “That’s the last donut for you, young man. In fact, eat it while you gather up your things. It’s time we were going home.”
She offers to help me do the dishes while Alonzo stuffs his dirty laundry in his gym bag, but I wave her off. “I’ll make Celeste help,” I say. “She hasn’t worked hard enough the past three days.”
Bonnie and Alonzo are gone within fifteen minutes, and I start clearing the table. Celeste pours herself another margarita and stays seated at the table. “I don’t feel like helping,” she informs me.
I grin. “That’s fine. You’ve done enough. In fact, you’ve been uncharacteristically wonderful.”
She snorts. “Comma, bitch.”
Dirty dishes in my hands, I turn back to her, laughing. “What? I didn’t say that.”
“Yeah, but I can hear it in your voice, so you may as well just say it out loud.”
I scrape food into the trash and load the dishwasher. “Well, bitch, I really appreciated you dropping everything and coming here to hang out in the boonies with me and Zo. I’m sure you had to give up dozens of social engagements and dates with hot guys, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
“Hot guys have been in short supply lately,” she says. “But there’s a new bar that opened up in the Square. Supposed to be a lot of fun. So if you want to make it up to me, let’s go out Friday night.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Sharon Shinn and the Shifting Circle novels:
“This series is not to be missed.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Shinn is a master.”—Mary Jo Putney, New York Times bestselling author Not Quite a Wife
“Excellently depicted, interesting, and complex…A fantastic tale.”—Fresh Fiction
“Warm and wonderful…Will keep readers enthralled.”—NewsandSentinel.com
I've been a big fan of Shinn's high fantasy novels, and I wish she would return to that genre. I really dislike the small, mean world she has built around her shapeshifters, with their short lives and uncontrolled changes. The attraction of weres for most people is their enhanced strength and skills, but no one would ever want to be one of Shinn's shapeshifters. I guess that's the point, but it makes for a thoroughly unpleasant read.
I'm a big fan of Sharon Shinn and this book was definitely a good addition to the shapeshifter series. If you've only ever read the elemental blessings series or twelve houses series it is definitely not the same style. If you're looking for twilight or YA were-animal nonsense then I suggest you keep looking! There are no back and forth love triangles, for which I am eternally thankful. Unlike all the super fantasy shiftlings, these feel honest and not too grand, like they could actually exist. Long story short, Sharon has yet again brought us a loveable down to earth fanstasy that will have you hooked!
This book gives a different perspective on shapeshifting dare I say more realistic. Has beautiful moments of depth and understanding how we all carry burdens we wish we didn't secret lives of pain. her main charcter shows glimpses of how to carry on and see the blessings in the curse;)
A tragically beautiful ending to a superb trilogy.