Blind Date (stand-alone short)
Iago had lived aboard this spaceship for thirteen years, and today that was officially half his life. In that time, he had been called many things: property, fool, servant, pilot. He still didn’t know what three quarters of the buttons did, but that was fine. No one else knew either.
Technically, his name was Santiago, but he had dropped the first syllable a few years back. When clawed pincers had first dragged him aboard as a whiny, confused barely-a-teen, he’d thought perhaps he was meant to be a missionary. But what was God’s message for eyeless extraterrestrial amalgams of crab and octopus? No, he wasn’t a saint, and the shortened name was easier.
The ship had changed hands—or pincers—often, and the hierarchy shuffled like a deck of cards. Iago was always the lowest of the low—sometimes even the mold outranked him—but Boss57 was the friendliest. No, Iago didn’t bother saying their names any more than most of them bothered saying his.
When Boss57 said he had a surprise, Iago was intrigued but not worried. This boss was eccentric but not cruel. He followed through the dark corridors until Boss57 stopped before the door of the smallest cargo bay and clamped a pincer on the junction of Iago’s shoulder and neck. It hurt, but it was supposed to be a comradely gesture, so he didn’t balk.
“I will tell you what is behind the door, for I do not wish your heart to give out due to insufficient preparation,” Boss57 said in English because he liked to say things the others wouldn’t understand.
A tingle of apprehension took up residence in Iago’s throat, ready to drop into his stomach and explode like a firework, but he placed his hand at the base of the alien’s neck in acceptance.
“I found a female from your world. I am told she is very fertile, and I hope you will get along very well.”
Yep, that apprehension found his stomach, and it was like when one firework lands in the box. On the inside, he was chaos, smoke, and scorched pavement. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry. As Boss57 removed his grip to toggle the door controls, Iago ran a hand over his hair and smoothed his sweaty shirt. It was always sweaty—the crab-topi preferred rain forest-like conditions—but it was suddenly extra sweaty in the smelly kind of way.
It was nothing compared to the smell that hit him when the door opened. She reeked like mulch, and it was definitely her, not just the air, because the stench moved with her. Iago had never been good with manners, but he knew better than to mention her ode du manure. Recalling his own first moments aboard, he steeled himself to be welcoming.
She took another step, and it clicked. Literally, it made a clicking sound, and not like his mother’s heels. He was also fairly certain she had more than two feet and was massive.
Iago scrambled though his pockets for an item he had made long ago and rarely used anymore. With a smaller click, a beam of light shone on this female earthling, and she mooed. She had small horns, cloven hooves, a spotted leathery hide, and utters that weren’t as prominent as in cartoons but still clearly there.
“Sh-she’s a cow.”
Boss57 placed a pincer atop Iago’s head in blessing. “I hope you will be good mates.”
“No, she’s a cow. We’re not the same species.”
Boss57’s tentacles rustled, and he retracted his claw. “I acquired her at great cost for your happiness, for it can be difficult to have no company of your kind. Was I deceived, and she is not from your world?”
“She is, but she’s not my kind. Earth has lots of species, and most of them can’t talk.”
Boss57 didn’t give up the search, and they stood before the cargo door again in a similar ritual.
“I have found a more suitable bride for you.”
Iago cringed, and sure enough, this time she was a parrot. Next, a turtle, a small dinosaur-like creature he was sure was supposed to be extinct, and a goldfish, though how Boss57 thought that was supposed to work when Iago was clearly a land animal was a mystery.
Iago stopped straightening his hair and shirt and thinking up pickup lines. He really wished he hadn’t tried out any of them on the parrot.
“I was certain I was correct this time. You have such similar genetic material,” Boss57 said about the bear.
“You think we look alike?”
It was probably true despite the unfortunate wording. Boss57 didn’t have eyes, so nothing looked like anything to him. Iago should probably learn to shave, but he was proud of his few beard hairs.
He sighed as he stood before the cargo bay door again. He didn’t have time for this, and he didn’t want to be responsible for another pet. On the bright side, the mold no longer outranked him because “one of the earthling females” had eaten it, and no he wasn’t sure which one. Nearly one hundred percent of his earnings went toward their feed and upkeep.
Yet, this time when the door opened, she was human. He clicked on his flashlight to make sure, and yes, she was still human.
“Females of your species are very wrinkly.”
Iago shushed him. She was probably in her eighties, but it had been so long since he had seen another human. He extended a hand to her and meant to say welcome. He meant to say a million friendly things, but none made it through his tight throat. His eyes stung, and his vision blurred.
He turned off the light, found her fingers, and led her shuffling into the ship.
“Well, let’s introduce her to the rest of your harem,” Boss57 announced.
Iago wished he were a puddle on the floor. He had no more romantic attraction to her than he did for the others or for his grandma, but he very much wanted her to think well of him. “Please don’t call them that.”
Boss57 turned, tentacles rustling, and performed a facsimile of a curtsy toward the octogenarian. “Ah, I forget Pilot takes issue with that term. He has yet to reproduce with any of them, I assure you, despite how Genie sleeps curled at his feet every night.”
“Genie is a collie,” Iago said quickly, hands raised and invisible in the dark.
“She is very beautiful, and I want puppies. I am assured puppies are adorable.”
Not even being a puddle would save him from this humiliation. Was it possible to switch places with the mold?
“I am never having puppies, and before he says anything else, Sabrina is a python, Raquel is a bunny, and Xena is a jaguar, and she owns all of cargo bay twenty. I suggest not going in there because if she’s in a mood, she will literally eat you.”
The woman grabbed his waving hands. “Cálmate hijo, ¿qué te pasa?”
Wait, could it be true? She didn’t know what Boss57 had said?
“D-do you not understand English?”
“Me niego hablar un lenguaje tan estúpido.”
Iago couldn’t argue with that. English was a stupid language a lot of times. He straightened and put on a grin. This might work out after all. He just had to brush up on his Spanish.
Mar ch 8| The Last of His Strength
I lie facedown on the floor, drooling again. I have no idea how long I’ve been unconscious, but my surroundings have changed. This cage is barely tall enough to allow me to sit up. It’s as long as I am and half as wide.
Asher’s scent is permeating. He’s in the cage above mine. Its square holes dig into his back as he lies so very still. His knees bend because he is too long for the space allotted. Blood drips through the bars and pools on the floor around me. No wonder Asher’s scent is everywhere.
Best I can tell, the knife has been removed, but they did nothing more to aid his recovery. I smell no antiseptic on him, no bandages, though my right arm is wrapped and reeks of their serums. It’s ridiculous. Asher’s wound is obviously much more serious.
I call his name but know he won’t answer. According to Mrs. Plunker’s biology lessons, several important things are in a human’s chest. Heart, of course. Lungs.
Asher’s breaths wheeze. His heart thuds.
Nabal appears. Growling, I pull my feet under me. The cage will not allow me to stand, so this is the most readied stance I can take.
“I strove to garner your cooperation, coaxing and threatening, beating and starving you. At times, it seemed you wanted to die, but I knew you would fight.” The laugh grows in his voice. He holds a mini lightning staff, like one of Mother’s knitting needles but with fork-like prongs on the end. Blue lightning crawls between them. “Looks like we finally found your motivation.” He pokes the staff through the bars and nudges Asher’s arm.
Asher’s body jerks, and my growl grows louder.
“Snarling at me gets you nowhere, Mar. First, we’ll see if he survives. If he does, I have such interesting plans. After all, my army needs a hierarchy. If I can turn a dog into what you are now, how much simpler it would be for a boy to make that same transformation. He’ll outrank you, naturally, and have a better grasp of complex language and situations. I just have to find a way to erase who he thinks he is.” The mini staff pokes Asher again.
“Don’t touch him!”
“So you can speak.” Nabal sneers. “Now understand that you do not give orders to me, nor does Asher. He is mine. If not for me, he would not exist.”
“You’ll let him die?”
Nabal pauses. His finger strokes the thin line that serves as his mustache. “When I found him in town—he was searching for you, ironically—and I lured him here, I fully intended to kill him. I hoped to get something useful out of him in his final moments, but I didn’t expect it to have such connection to you. All of this was his idea, you know.”
My eyes narrow. I don’t know what he means, but I don’t like it. It’s slander.
“I’ll return in a few hours to check up on you, but I have one last gift before I go.” As he pulls a capped needle and syringe from his coat pocket, I press against the back wall of my cage. He slides it through the bars. It drops to the floor and rolls toward me.
“This will ease some of his pain and force him awake, but it might use up the last of his strength.”
“You mean it’ll kill him?”
“It gives you a choice, Mar. The chances are slim he will ever awaken without it.”
* * *
Forever trudges on like molasses dripping over a table’s edge as I fret over what to do. I’ve checked the locks: bio-locks, impossible to pick. They require not only the correctly shaped key, but also whatever blood fills that key. It’s as precise as my nose. Tiny particles allow gears to turn or not.
It’s also too thick for me to break. I’d have better luck gnawing through the cage bars, and from watching others try, I know this to be a futile and damaging idea.
I stare at the syringe on the floor. I can awaken Asher, but that might kill him. Still, he’s dying while I do nothing. I want him to tell me what to do, but there’s a paradox in that wish.
Asher sinks further into unconsciousness. Instead of the pounding of a charging bull, his heartbeat sounds like the leisurely steps of cows in the pasture, grass the most boring prey in the world. His raspy gasps are inconsistent, and his scent has acquired an earthy tang.
I tell myself a hero would pull Asher up out of that, would give him a chance to figure out how to save us. Asher is smart. He’ll know what to do.
I am a hero.
That bold thought steadies me as my fingers curl around the syringe, but as I pull off the cap and expose the needle, I tremble. For as long as I live, I will take issue with needles. Beyond that, I have only Nabal’s word as to what this is and what it will do to Asher. This liquid danger smells like nothing I’ve ever encountered.
Holding the syringe with both hands, I plunge it upward into Asher’s back.
Supreme disappointment drapes over me as the spent syringe drops back to the floor. Tears fill my eyes again, but after a few moments, Asher’s breaths change.
Like dawn, his awakening is slow but undeniable. The hand resting on his stomach slides up to find the wound on his chest, and he releases a sound that is not quite a yelp.
“Asher? Asher, don’t die!” I lace my fingers through the top of my cage and touch his arm.
He turns his head and slides narrow eyes toward me. The angle grants him a poor view, so he rolls onto his side, which hurts. He cinches his eyes shut again. His position is awkward and twisted, part facedown, part sideways. His heart races.
As his gray-green eyes open, they hold my reflection again, but they look past me. “Is all that my blood?”
“And I’m not dead yet?”
I shake my head.
“And you’re really Mar?”
I nod again and tell him everything. My words are a river after a spring gulley-washer. I speak of this place, of my change, of my escape, of the Plunkers and their kindness. Asher listens, distracted by the task of ripping his sleeve into bandages, an endeavor his teeth aid him in. Before the wadded cloth covers it, I catch sight of his bared wound: to the right of his sternum, a horizontal line as long as my pinky finger. It still seeps.
Near the end of my tale, a wry smile glides onto Asher’s face.
“To think I didn’t believe Esperanza when she said she’d seen you. Qué maravilla, Mar.”
“You get in trouble when you use Esperanza’s words.”
He grunts. “I’m in a lot more trouble than that.”
“Now admit I’m always right.” Esperanza approaches from the door side of the cage, out of Asher’s line of sight.
He mustn’t have heard her coming because he flinches. “Don’t tell me you came here alone, Esperanza.”
She’s dressed as a warden, her silky, black hair tucked up under a cap. No one’s with her, though whiffs of Uncle swirl and tease my nose. Even here, Esperanza smells of adventure and fun. Golden eyes large and bright, she’s pretty for a human, even dressed in ugly clothes that don’t fit her right.
“I was alone when I followed you the first time,” she confesses. “Then I took Fengari because they couldn’t doubt me if I had your hum-horse. He’s fast, but he also glows in the dark, so I was quite the spectacle riding up to the sheriff’s house.”
“Yes, but they won’t admit they have you. He has more deputies on the way, but time always being crucial, I snatched your grandfather’s keys and snuck in.” She already has the lock off Asher’s cage and searches through the bundle for mine. “Can you carry him, Mar?”
She pops the lock off my cage and swings open the door. I’m confused by her story, surprised Fengari let her ride him. A hum-horse is trained to take commands only from his master. Maybe Fengari realized it was an emergency, though Fengari hasn’t ever displayed the level of intelligence that implies.
Asher tries to help as we pull him out of the cage, but every movement hurts him. We strive to be as gentle and swift as possible, but Asher is heavier than I thought he’d be. I nearly drop him and apologize profusely as Esperanza slides him sideways onto my shoulders. We run with Esperanza leading the way.
We are deep underground, near the arena. The first time I ran out of here, the lofty ladders weren’t so taxing. I try to be fast and careful, avoiding unnecessary jostling. Asher is as pale as mashed potatoes, and I haven’t heard anything out of him in a while. His heart still races, though.
Continued in chapter 9
Thank you for reading!
Mar ch 7| Belief Can Make Anything Real
I lie tucked into bed beneath blankets that were once patient yellow and are now a deep, hopeful blue. This difference I can see even in the murky moonlight.
I am exhausted, but my mind will not rest. Mrs. Plunker thinks running was the right thing, but my conscience will not agree. Pungent guilt cakes my skin. I keep seeing those last images of Asher as echoes of Father shout my worthlessness and Nabal laughs.
“I am not worthless,” I whisper to myself. Every muscle shakes, and my voice wavers. A lie, my conscience claims.
I cling to a different memory, one of Dr. Plunker’s lectures as we worked in the barn.
“You’re not a monster, Mar. Change how you view yourself. Belief can make anything real.”
My face twisted, and my hands stilled on the half-oiled saddle. “You mean if I believe I’m a monster, then that’s what I’ll be?”
“Exactly. If you believe no one will accept you, then they won’t because you’ll never give them a chance to.”
If I don’t want to be a coward, I can’t think of myself that way. If I want to be a hero, I must believe I am one.
My heart pounds as if it will escape my chest and confront Nabal on its own if I don’t get up. I know my way back to the facility where I’ll find him. I’m stronger now than when I left, wiser, and with justice as my partner.
My silent feet trek to the window. It slides open with barely a sound, and I slip through. I’ll return to the Plunkers a hero.
* * *
Shadows dance as the wind tickles trees deep in the woods surrounding the Azuré estate. The facility looms ahead, a multi-storied building camouflaged by fast-growing vines and clever paint. A warden walks on either side of me, generous in displaying their weapons. Between the two of them, I count four knives, two pistols, one rifle, and one lightning staff. Why didn’t I bring any weapons?
I am a weapon, and I can take their weapons if I want, but first, they have to lead me to Nabal. Words have been my tools thus far, convincing these watchmen that Master Nabal would want to see me right away. They know who and what I am, of my escape and their master’s desperation to recover me.
They bring me in the same door I left by. I had torn through these halls, lost, pursued, and determined to break free. Only minutes before that, they had again thrown me into the arena against Brute, but I had escaped. Now, that memory prods my heart into racing. I march through these halls in the wrong direction, away from freedom, flanked by gloating wardens. It smells like defeat. Then, another fragrance catches my attention, and I become a statue.
The wardens shove at me, but instead of hearing their taunts and threats, my ears focus on the voice around the corner.
“You think I won’t turn you in, that Uncle won’t investigate because you’re family? You haven’t been family to us for most of my life!”
“Be reasonable, Asher,” Nabal warns. “You know I’ll not let you leave with that attitude.”
“And those who come looking for me? Will you lock everyone away, one by one?” As he speaks, Asher limps nearer. His footfalls are staggered but determined and hurried, aided by a cane. He rounds the corner and stops short, face-to-face with me.
Instinct calls for me to spin circles, tail wagging, or to jump on him. Surely, the latter would be met with more disapproval than before now that I weigh as much as he does. His curiosity sweeps across me. As Nabal appears behind him and calls me by name, Asher’s gray-green eyes widen.
I step toward him, but he stumbles back. The wardens grab me.
Asher’s glare whips to his grandfather. “Mar? What did you do to him?”
“If the great prodigy can’t figure it out, why should I tell him?”
Asher frowns, but Nabal grins.
With a snap of his fingers, he summons another subordinate to his side. “Bring Brute to the arena. I’d like my grandson to meet him.”
As the lackey nods and takes off, my heart sinks to my toes, frozen and heavy with dread. More wardens seize Asher, and I growl.
“Who would you like to bet on, Mar?” Nabal asks. I don’t know if he intends for Brute’s opponent to be me or Asher, but either scenario is unacceptable. Asher is alive, and I’ll keep him that way.
I slam into the warden on my right, and he hits the rough granite wall with a cry. Ripping free of his grasp, I kick his comrade into the opposite wall and lunge at Asher’s captors. I take one to the floor with me as a lightning staff swings over my head. The man I pin slides a knife from his sleeve, and I bash his hand against the stone floor. The granite chips, the weapon bends, and the man’s hand breaks. He cries as I leap at my next target and grab the handle of a lightning staff.
The first two wardens rise and plague Asher. He swats at them with his cane, holding his own. It’s like his fencing lessons, only his left leg can barely support him.
I tackle one of his foes from behind and sink my teeth into his shoulder, evoking an ear-splitting scream. Before we hit the ground, Brute crushes us against the wall. The warden is out before he can acknowledge the pain of whatever broke. I’m not alright either.
The smells of blood and anger clog my nose. Brute’s teeth clamp into my right forearm. I claw at his face, kick at his gut and chest, but he bites down harder, head shaking as he drags me away from the wall. A solid kick to his jaw gains my freedom, but it doesn’t do my arm any favors.
Asher aims a captured pistol at Nabal. “Call them off!”
Brute is on me again. He is big, too tall to stand erect in this hallway. Combining his size, strength, and experience, I won’t survive a direct battle with him.
Squirming free of his hold, I cling to his back and search for Asher in this chaos. I find him at the wrong moment. A knife in his chest, he crumples to the floor. It’s me who screams.
A lightning staff stabs between my shoulder blades. I leap away, trying to run to Asher, but another staff burns my side, and I fall. Another strike finds me, then another, until I can’t feel them anymore.
Continued in chapter 8
Thank you for reading!
Mar ch 6| We Can Be Heroes
I am a coward. As I reach the edge of town and plunge through a cedar grove, regret weighs on my feet and slows each step until I no longer move. I drop to my knees, palms on the rocky ground and stomach churning.
Master Nabal’s laugh reverberates in my head like ricocheting bullets. It triggers a replay of words once spoken to me.
“I know you understand much more than you let on, Mar,” Evil boomed.
Thick chains shackled my wrists, ankles, and neck to a high-backed chair. I glared through the thick glass between us. He held the bandana Esperanza wove for me—a deep blue in imitation of my left eye, my name scrawled in black thread to match my right. It reminded me too much of home.
“Is there nothing you want to say to me?”
No. I wanted to see the wardens stabbing him for a change, but words from me would only bolster his pride. I did not want to be fertilizer for his smile.
“You’re not even going to ask why? I hoped you would gain enough intelligence to wonder your purpose, especially in light of your stubbornness. Brute doesn’t question it either, but nor does he defy my orders.”
With a sigh, he pocketed the bandana and steepled his hands before him.
“Do you know of message bugs and hum-horses, Mar? Living creatures and inventions of one man. Though he is gone now, his legacy lives on. Everyone uses message bugs, and there are only a dozen hum-horses in the world, each one worth a fortune. I am trapped in that man’s shadow until I present the world with something of greater value. Something just as remarkable.” He chuckled. “That something is you.”
I bared my teeth a little, and his chortle rattled the glass.
“I admit, one is simply an interesting pet, but think of what you’re capable of. You can hear me through this glass while none of the wardens can. You can track a scent days old. Your vision is as good at night as it is in day. Your endurance is extraordinary. Yet, your instinct drives you to work as a team and follow a master. Imagine an army with your skills and the loyalty of a dog.”
His smile was as wide as my eyes narrow. He had yet to say anything I deemed good. I wanted no part of the fighting they kept thrusting upon me: other dogs, heavily armed and armored wardens, Brute once, and he took a chunk out of my leg. Always in that dank, dismal arena to the tune of Nabal’s laugh. I outran and out climbed my opponents, learning to use new muscles, always searching for escape.
“How scary, that glare. Can you see yourself?”
My ghostly double loomed in the glass, his eyes the reciprocal of mine: the right blue with a dark bruise around it. I didn’t want to see him. I could look through him, so I did. Like an arrow, my glare pierced Master Nabal, but he remained unaffected.
“A representative of the president will arrive tomorrow. You need to be impressive.” He leaned closer to the glass. “We can be heroes, Mar, or you can be worthless.”
I flinched. That last word stung, but it didn’t hurt as much as his next admission.
“Had I known you were Asher’s mutt, I’d have destroyed you immediately. I cannot have that boy’s name attached to this in any way.” A wagging finger punctuated this statement before curling into a fist. His grip held dreams I could not share. “Lucky for us both I didn’t know, because you turned out to be one of only two successes. That helps us narrow down why you survived, Mar. Genetics can be so tricky. I’ll have to find more pups with mismatched eyes.”
His triumphant grin is seared into my mind even now in the woods outside town. I can’t turn away or banish it by closing my eyes. Ashamed, the sun sinks as I run, and darkness engulfs the forest.
The door crashes open, admitting the night’s frigid breeze along with me. In my wake, the alarm barrel screeches a warning that someone—me—has stepped on the porch. I don’t know how Dr. Plunker rigged it to do that, but it needs to learn the difference between friend and foe and stop screaming at me.
“Mar?” Mrs. Plunker dries her hands on her apron as she leaves the kitchen. Her welcome falls into a frown. “What’s wrong? Where is Dr. Plunker?”
I left him behind. More guilt rains down on me, and I am soaked in it. I ran, leaving Esperanza in the same room as Master Nabal. I abandoned those pups he wants. I am a coward who flees when my comrades need me.
I left Asher in the gorge.
“Mar?” Mrs. Plunker’s gentle grip tows me out of the doorway. “Did something happen to Dr. Plunker?”
My thoughts are still on Asher, and Master Nabal’s boasts rant along.
“Why doesn’t he want there to be a connection?” I whisper as Mrs. Plunker pushes me onto a kitchen chair. “They’re related.” Family is important to humans. Mother always says so.
“Enough nonsense, Mar. Throw me a clue.” Her hands cradle my face and force me to look at her mahogany eyes. Anxiety hangs in the air, and my nose twitches.
“Dr. Plunker had to help somebody,” I tell her. “He doesn’t know I ran.”
I catch only one whiff of relief before she questions, “Because you don’t want us to adopt you?” Worry’s stench grows, pervaded now with confusion and fear of loss.
I cannot assure her in this regard, so I explain, “I ran because Master Nabal was there.”
Calculation whirs behind her eyes as it so often does. “Nabal Azuré. He’s not been seen around here for many years, not since…” Her sentence stops short as if encountering a deadly precipice. “Did he mention your Asher at all?”
“Not today. He was buying pups.”
Realization shines over her worry, a sharp scent that makes my nose twitch again. “He changed you.”
I nod, eyes lowered in shame I cannot explain.
“Look at me, Mar.”
She has her lecturing face on, even more serious than the one that touts the importance of forks. “Understand that I love you as you are. I would not wish to change things if it meant never meeting the Mar that sits before me. But neither do I condone what Nabal Azuré has done. You owe him nothing. You did right by running.”
She takes a bio-packet from her apron pocket and twists it as she stands and walks toward the door. I flinch as it snaps and chemicals rush together. By the time she reaches the lantern hanging by the doorframe, the packet glows a bright green.
“In my history lessons, there are heroes,” I say, “those who stand up for justice. They aren’t cowards.”
“Often safety and cowardice go hand and hand.” She shoves the luminescent packet into the bottom section of the lantern. A scent-chip slides into the top: Dr. Plunker. I smell it from across the room. Message bugs swarm in the middle. As she slides a panel in and out, flashing a message to the insects, their stench tickles my nose. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
No doubt she tells the doctor I am here and safe. That I left him behind like I left Asher.
Father’s words echo. “You worthless mutt!” The buzz repeats the same denouncement and etches it into my brain. I put my hands over my ears, but it doesn’t stop.
“I’m not worthless!” I cry, eyes cinched shut. Tears escape anyway. Mrs. Plunker embraces me, but I do not move. I am so small in her arms.
Her voice rumbles in her chest. “That man deserves a devil’s fate. One day his actions will come back to bite him.”
“I’ve never bitten anybody.”
“Except for that squirrel you brought me. You shouldn’t have mangled him so.”
“He shouldn’t have taunted me.”
She chuckles softly and shakes her head. “Do you know of Felix Azuré?”
“Yes.” He is a picture on the wall at home, larger than anyone I’ve ever met. He glowers at me when I slink down the hall.
“A bona fide genius, that man. But Nabal didn’t inherit such intellect, much to the frustration of both father and son. Nabal’s life goal is to outshine his father’s shadow. His ambition is expensive, and his father’s fortune enough to buy the entire world, yet when the judge read out Felix’s will, everything was passed to Nabal’s grandson, Asher.”
She nods. “He was a toddler, but Felix saw his potential, claimed Asher was a more worthy heir than Nabal would ever be. Nabal did not take it well.”
“Did he hurt Asher?” I pull away so I can see her solemn expression.
“Nothing was officially proven, but I am certain Nabal was behind the series of accidents that stalked that child.” She sighs, the breath full of old concern and resignation. “Lucky for Asher, Nabal is not the mastermind he would like to be.”
Still, how dare he? Protectiveness flares in my gut and sets a scowl on my face. My lip curls.
A rebuke slides into Mrs. Plunker’s stare. “I see that fire in you, Mar. But I tell you all this because I want you to stay away from Nabal Azuré. If his grandson is nothing but a liability to him, what are you?”
Continued in chapter 7
Thank you for reading!
Mar ch 5| That’s Some Stare
I meander through the streets in no hurry to arrive at our rendezvous. I know exactly where the saloon is. It was one of the places where I sat outside and guarded the horses. Not normal horses. Hum-horses. The crown jewels of the Azuré estate.
Like the message bugs, they have no place in nature. They claim the size, strength, and speed of a Thoroughbred. Instead of hooves, they have talons and huge wings. Their entire mass appears to be raging flames, though they are no warmer than an average horse.
They smell nothing like an average horse, and I have always been wary of them.
I’m like them now. Nature has no idea what to do with me.
Dr. Plunker’s words echo in my thoughts. I belong to Asher. As a dog, not as a boy. My eyes are too conspicuous. Memorable. Recognizable.
I scowl at the black cloth in my hand, though I understand the doctor’s reason. I know only one Judge, a cousin to Father and Uncle. Ao, my brother, shares my coloring, though he has two blue eyes and is never missing from Judge’s side. Judge always makes a big deal of how disconcerting my gaze is.
My familiar eyes and merle hair would prompt him to look closer. Judge is a discerning man, and given enough clues, he’ll solve this puzzle. My gaze isn’t all that will disturb him now.
When Brute’s attack becomes known, it won’t matter he only did as he was told. They will hunt him, me as well, even if I’m nothing like him.
I understand that fear. I share it. Instinct doesn’t allow me to trust the hum-horses or the message bugs. Instinct doesn’t know what I should think of myself.
The disguise is yet another product of Dr. Plunker’s wisdom, yet it is more betrayal. My mismatched eyes are a part of who I am and the reason Asher chose me. While so much of me changed, they remained. To deny how they are is to deny the last part of myself.
Still, Brute’s eyes are as unique a pair as mine: one golden and the other dark green.
These conflicting thoughts ring between my ears as I wander into the saloon. Curious stares greet me, and I keep my head down, though curiosity pulls at me, too. A menagerie of smells competes for my attention. Climbing onto the stool at the end of the bar, I listen, breathe, and focus my thoughts.
“What’ll you have?” the bartender asks.
I glance up.
He flinches. “That’s some stare you’ve got.”
My mouth quirks into a mirthless grin. “So I’ve been told.”
“What can I get you? Booze? Coffee? Steak?”
“Steak,” I repeat before his list continues.
“Steak it is.” He fishes a fork and knife from a bucket and sets them on the counter. “Anything to drink with that?”
“Water,” I say like that should be obvious. Despite all that Mrs. Plunker has introduced to me, I prefer water over everything besides gravy, which she claims is not a beverage.
The bartender nods. Doubt clouds his expression, but he says nothing as he slips into the kitchen.
As I listen to the other patrons, a fragrance catches my attention and stops my heart. A scent so much like Asher’s, but it is not him, I realize as I take another breath. This must be a close relative, though.
I look around and locate my target on the first sweep. He stands by the door, hands clutching the lapels of his beige, three-piece suit as he converses with another man.
“You want the whole litter?” this one questions.
His associate responds with a jovial laugh. I know that laugh. It is the harbinger of cruelty. My hackles rise, and I drop off the stool, ready to run the moment he looks in my direction.
“Any pup you’re willing to part with for that generous price.”
My ears snap up. Buying pups?
“I’ll pay you double for any with mismatched eyes.”
My gaze narrows on this enemy. Instinct commands I run. Something else deep within my gut, quieter but no less insistent, demands I protect those pups and stop this incarnation of evil.
Memory reels in my mind. How many times I saw this man during my imprisonment. The wardens called him Master Nabal. He was their alpha, and under his gaze their whips were faster, their needles deeper, their touch crueler. Everything they did was at his bidding, but he was always beyond my reach. He watched from behind glass or a walkway high above, never giving my nose opportunity to discover his relation to Asher.
That means little at this moment. I hate him.
That laugh strikes my ears again. It’s a human sound designed to radiate innocence and joy, but from him it is praise for the wardens. The larger our reaction—the scream, the terror—the louder the laugh.
My hand glides onto the counter behind me and wraps the knife’s wooden handle. On silent feet, I stalk forward, but a different perfume renders me motionless.
She steps in my path, honey-gold eyes filled with confusion. Her bronze skin glistens in the dusty afternoon light straining through the small windows: Esperanza, my second-favorite person, a cattle hand’s daughter. Though Asher was many times scolded for “spending too much time with her,” I preferred it when I could watch over them both at once.
“Mar?” Her hands fly toward my shoulders but cup my face instead and sweep my hair from my eyes.
I have no words, no voice. The knife falls from my grasp and rattles a cacophony on the floor. I cannot move. Her stare pins me.
“Qué maravilla, Mar,” she breathes. “What happened?”
How to explain? Words claw through my throat like a sea of scorpions—the horrors, the hurt, the worry, the good things too—all vying to be the first to emerge. None reach my lips. Mute, I only stare as my muddled thoughts coalesce: They changed what I am. I knew who I was. Now I don’t, and I wonder if there is any place for me in this world. If there is, how can I find it?
I want Asher here. I want Esperanza to tell me everything will be fine.
Before either of us speaks, Master Nabal starts toward us. His purposeful footfalls thunder in my ears, and I twist away from Esperanza. As instinct screams, I scramble over a barrel-supported table and through a narrow window. Glass shatters at my shoulder’s insistence, and I land amongst its shards, Death’s thick cloak a protection.
While those within the saloon race to better vantage points, I roll to my feet and round a corner, sprinting, heart pounding, nose and ears on alert.
Continued in chapter 6
Thank you for reading!
Mar ch 4| An Old Hole in Our Lives
Dr. Plunker finds me leaning against a thick oak on the outskirts of town.
“I didn’t bite him.”
“I never thought you did, but I think you know who it was.”
Caution weighs my gaze as it swivels toward him. I say nothing. I don’t like Brute. I’d like to forget he exists.
“Can you tell me how many there are like you?”
I turn away, temple against the tree trunk, shoulders hunched, and eyes unfocused but vaguely pointed in the direction of the oak’s gnarled bark.
“They tried it on coyotes first. They want us to be wild. No, they want us to be ruthless and obedient at the same time.” The cloak catches on the bark with tiny snapping noises as I slide to the ground, arms wrapped around myself. “I think to become human you have to want to understand humans. Who wants to understand humans more than a dog, right?” I trail off, voice so quiet I barely hear myself.
Despite his near deafness sometimes, Dr. Plunker catches every word. “How many dogs, Mar?”
“How many have they tried it on? I have no idea. The subjects all die. All except me and one other.”
“Not an army, then.” He sighs in relief.
I look up. “That’s what they want.” He is a yard away, yet everything blurs. Excess tears burn in my eyes and spill as I blink over them. They multiply. A silly human reaction. It clogs my nose. At least a drooping tail and folded ears don’t impair one’s sight and smell.
“I’m sorry, Mar.” Even through the smeared panorama, he lacks Asher’s youthful agility and Uncle’s finesse. With the resigned movements of the elderly, he plops beside me, shaky knees refusing a gentler landing. His arm slides around my shoulders. “This isn’t why I brought you to town, you know.”
A jittery warmth fills me and impedes the tears a little.
“Do you remember what the room looked like where you first woke up in our house?”
I nod. “Everything was yellow.” A slight hyperbole. The walls remain white, and Mrs. Plunker has since dyed the yellow curtains and bed covers to a deep blue. She knitted a matching throw for the chair. Its wood, the bedside table, and the dresser are brown. Silk bluebonnets replaced silk sunflowers.
“Yellow is the color of hope and remembrance, of waiting for return.”
Doubt lowers my ears and eyes.
The doctor plunges on. “The room used to belong to Matthew Plunker, my son, but a storm took him from us many years ago. Mrs. Plunker knows he cannot return, yet she insists on the abundance of hopeful yellow.”
“But she changed it. The room is blue now.”
With a wan smile, Dr. Plunker nods. “Because we have you, Mar. You fill an old hole in our lives. We’d like to adopt you. Officially. Legally.”
“But I belong to the Azurés. To Asher.”
“As a dog, yes, but not as a boy.”
I frown. I’m still me. I slide away from him—a subtle movement, but not unnoticed.
“I’m not asking you to take this lightly,” Dr. Plunker says. “I’m giving you a choice and asking you to think. You know you cannot go back to Asher.”
I know, but I don’t want to hear anyone say it.
As I rise, he grabs my wrist. “Help me up.”
I do. I shouldn’t run from him. I know the offer means a great deal. I can be happy with them. This is my best chance.
“What would a legal adoption involve?”
“We’ve already drawn up most of the paperwork,” he answers hastily. “We said you’re fourteen, an orphaned relative from the far northern territories. But the judge wants to meet you, Mar.”
“So, that’s why you brought me to town. I can meet the judge today and go home as part of your family?” Though I’m still torn, I can’t keep excitement from creeping into my voice, and the doctor’s smile broadens.
“Yes.” He fishes in his vest pocket and pulls out a black cloth that smells like the bandage cabinet. “However, we’ll tell the judge nothing of the Azurés. We can’t let him have any connection between you and whatever bit that cattleman.”
He hands me the cloth. I don’t know what he intends for me to do with it.
“Your hair covers your ears well enough, and your teeth aren’t noticeable when you’re not smiling or eating, but your eyes are conspicuous: a memorable sapphire mismatched with unsettling black. You’ll have to cover one.”
I retreat, cloth held at arm’s length, hoping he’ll take it back.
Before either of us moves, a swarm of message bugs comes for the doctor. Beetle-like, their buzz makes my ears itch. I retreat further as they swirl around Dr. Plunker. Their bloated bodies blink in a code I have not yet been taught.
“I’m needed elsewhere,” my doctor says. His body language tells me not to follow before his words do. “Wait for me at the saloon in the center of town.”
Continued in chapter 5
Thank you for reading!
Mar ch 3| Forks are Useless
Weeks pass, and I remain with the Plunkers. I cannot convince the doctor that Asher had nothing to do with my transformation, so I stop trying.
They argue over if they should report me. I belong to the Azurés. Discovery will bring harm. I can’t tell who’s on what side, but they say nothing to me about it.
Both are aware of my nightmares, though I reveal nothing of their content: days of chains and cages, needles and liquid danger.
“Did it hurt?” Mrs. Plunker asks as I help swab out the topmost cabinets. I’m short for a human but agile and good at climbing.
I do not respond, but my face gives her the answer. Transforming was agony incarnate, yet the pain did not come unaccompanied. Terror held me in a death grip, as it still does in the nightmares.
I didn’t understand what was happening or why. The subjects in the cages around mine died, some from no reason I could fathom, some from the insanity that drove them to gnaw at their changing limbs. Others took their place only to meet the same fate.
Besides myself, the only constant was Brute, a big, dumb mutt who became a big, dumb man. He listened to me practice speech, but he never tried it. He never escaped from his cage to spite the progression of intricate locks. The wardens never stabbed him with their lightning staves, leaving him sprawled on the ground, drooling. A position I held much too often. Brute did whatever they commanded.
The memory of terror on the faces of the two wardens who chased me into the Plunkers’ yard brings an ironic pleasure, and a smile breaks across my face.
“Is it a good or bad thing when I see your teeth?” Dr. Plunker asks.
I help him muck out the barn, a job full of intriguing smells, and he has tasked me with all the heavy lifting after discovering I can carry a greater ratio to my weight than he can.
“The wardens were never afraid of me before.” I grunt as I haul another bale onto the hayloft. “They have their lightning staves and guns. Why were they scared when I fell off your porch?”
“They didn’t know you were you.”
I drop the bale. “Their noses should have told them.”
“Human noses don’t work like that. Humans rely on their eyes more than anything else.”
“And intelligence. That’s what Mrs. Plunker says.”
“Humans too often rely on what they’ve been told.” The doctor leans on his broom. “I kept that mannequin on the porch to scare away troublemakers, but it didn’t scare you because you didn’t know the stories I based it on. I rigged the screaming barrel to fill a similar role, but that didn’t deter you either.”
“They thought I was from a scary story?” I wrinkle my nose.
Asher would tell horror tales sometimes. He had a running wager he could make Esperanza scream. As she listened, I would sit on her lap, and I never caught a whiff of any worry from her. Sometimes Asher would speak in a weird voice, and that disturbed me, but I was mostly unaffected as well.
“Because the stories aren’t real,” Esperanza once explained.
“Belief is a powerful thing,” the doctor tells me now. “Belief can make anything real.”
* * *
Autumn days grow shorter and colder. Mrs. Plunker insists on teaching me school lessons. They’re difficult, but not as incomprehensible as what I recall of Asher’s, and I thrive on the challenge. She says I do well for a two-and-a-half-year-old.
I like the school lessons better than the etiquette training, so when asked to pen a sample sentence, I write, “Forks are useless.”
Disapproval clouds Mrs. Plunker’s face, but this sentiment doesn’t dishearten me as it once did. In fact, I find it funny. A warm feeling expands in my chest, and a chuckle escapes. It’s somewhere between a bark and a hiccup but so much more delightful.
“Is that really what you think, Mar?”
“Humans have a lot of useless things.” My smile slips, and I scrawl my next sentence. “Humans make a lot of worthless things.”
With careful slowness, I lift my gaze to Mrs. Plunker’s and find calculation in her eyes. Before she chooses her argument, the doctor summons me outside. I heed his call, not willing to indulge the discussion Mrs. Plunker plans.
Via message bugs, someone in town has sent for the doctor to aid a wounded man. While not a rare occurrence, this is the first time he invites me along. The speckled, white mare doesn’t notice my added weight as I ride behind Dr. Plunker. My fingers dig into his shoulders, certain I’ll fall the instant my grip wavers.
Though wrapped tightly around me, Death’s cloak billows in the wind. The doctor thinks it silly I insist on wearing it, but as winter draws closer, I miss my fur. If I must don someone else’s coat, why can’t it be one the wardens fear?
I have been to town before, though I was never allowed inside the buildings. My duty was to stay outside and make a fuss if anyone came near the horses. Curiosity keeps me at the doctor’s heels now, and no one stops me as I follow him through a crooked doorway.
We leave most of the sunlight outside. My eyes adjust quickly, but my nose has already told me what I’ll see: sweat, blood, and pain.
Scent claims the man on the gurney is a relative of Esperanza’s, perhaps a cousin, but I don’t recognize him. He’s a cattle hand like his kin, though. They spend too much time with those bovines, sitting atop trained herd members called scape-steers. Too often they smell like the sitting arrangement went the other way around. I wouldn’t want to lick my wounds either if I stunk like that.
Wisdom waltzes around Dr. Plunker and exudes calm. Silent and invisible, I hand him whatever he asks for and watch as he cleans and inspects the gashes on the man’s shoulders. The doctor’s every touch elicits a gasp, grunt, or cry. Some of the wounds are deep enough to need stitching, but the doctor moves and speaks with patience. His serenity staves off the others’ panic.
“These are from a canine’s bite,” he confirms, and I think of Asher’s coyote attackers. I don’t smell them, though. So many scents compete in here, but even searching for it, I cannot detect their stench. Putrescence like that can’t be hidden.
“Not. A dog.” Frustration spurs the patient’s heart. He smells like helpless prey.
I back off.
“A coyote. A wolf,” the doctor offers. “Be rational. The sheriff won’t want to hear nonsense.”
“I know. What I saw. He was wild. He latched onto my shoulder. Dragged me across the ground. Like a dog. But a man.”
“A human didn’t maul you,” Dr. Plunker says, calm but firm.
“A gorilla?” another cattleman suggests. “A sasquatch?”
The doctor shakes his head. “Shock takes a toll on anyone’s mind. There is no such creature.” His eyes flicker to me, and I sink into a readied stance, though I don’t know what I ready myself for.
“Rest. We’ll talk again when your mind has had time to settle.” Dr. Plunker produces a vial and needle from his bag.
My eyes widen.
“It was a man beast!” The patient repeats it over and over. His shrieks soften as the liquid danger steals his consciousness. Before he’s out, I identify the smell. I know what attacked him.
I race outside and stumble down the stairs. Not so long ago, I had a similar wound on my leg. Because Brute does whatever they command.
Continued in chapter 4
Thank you for reading!
Mar ch 2| He Speaks. Nonsense, but He Speaks
My eyes snap open and drown in sunlight pouring through an open window. Sheer yellow curtains dance in the sweet breeze. I jump, intent on fleeing through that window, but my side protests. Pain knocks me down before my feet find traction on the feather mattress. A hand lands on my shoulder, insisting I stay down.
“Easy, kid. You’re safe here.” It’s the old man’s voice. He has washed his hands, but the scent of my blood lingers on his skin.
I lie motionless, wary eyes trained on him.
His lips break in a crooked grin and release a chuckle. “You don’t believe me? I pulled a bullet from your side, you know. Saved your life. The least you could do is say thank you.”
I say nothing.
“Oh? Is our handsome guest awake?” An older woman waltzes in with a treat-laden tray. She brings the fragrance of toast and fried eggs, all smothered in beef gravy, and my mouth waters.
The man props his fists on his generous waist. “Mrs. Plunker, I told you to stay out of this room until I called.”
Mrs. Plunker straightens and glares at him through the tiny spectacles on the tip of her nose. “I told you, Dr. Plunker, that the boy needs solid food and a grandmother’s concern. Besides, look how cute he is.”
My ears perk at that. I would wag my tail if I still had one. The word “cute” from elderly ladies precludes tasty kitchen scraps if I respond right.
“Have you gotten him to say anything yet?”
“You gave me all of ten seconds before barging in here. You expect miracles of me, Mrs. Plunker.” The doctor folds his arms across his broad chest.
Mrs. Plunker sets the tray on the bedside table between me and the window, and I stare at it in wide-eyed wonder. With strong, gentle hands, she helps me sit up.
“Let’s see what we can figure out about you. For starters, you’re too young to have such silver hair.” Her fingers comb my wild locks. Like the brilliance of the moon, my bangs gleam platinum white. The rest is shining silver with black streaks. Merle, Asher calls it. “How old are you, child? Fifteen?”
My face scrunches. How dare she think me so old. “Two and a half!”
“There, you see, Dr. Plunker? He speaks. Nonsense, but he speaks.”
I glower at her, but she slides the tray onto my lap. The steaming breakfast lassos my stare.
“Look at his ears,” the doctor says. I haven’t even looked at my ears.
She brushes my hair aside and gasps. “They’re like a shepherd pup’s with the softest, spotted fur.”
I take that as a compliment but don’t move, drooling over the tray in my lap. What kind of test is this?
“You ever see a boy with ears like that?”
“Dr. Plunker, you’ve known me my entire life and know I haven’t.”
“So, what do you think he is?”
“I’ve already proven he can speak. Why don’t you ask him?”
Both stare at me expectantly as if the conversation flying over my head is a direct command and I’m supposed to perform my trick now.
“Can I have it?”
The doctor frowns. “Have what?”
“The eggs, the toast, the gravy, and the milk. I don’t want the coffee.” I nod at each item mentioned.
Mrs. Plunker giggles. “Of course, dear. I wouldn’t bring you food if I didn’t mean for you to eat it.”
My face dives onto the plate, and they both let out startled guffaws.
“He eats like a pup, too, completely ignoring the fork you put on there.”
Why would I want the fork? It smells like metal and soap and doesn’t have any food on it.
Mrs. Plunker’s eyes widen. “His teeth aren’t like a boy’s either.”
“Skin’s odd, too. It’s an unremarkable pale pink on his arms and face, but his back is purply-gray with ebony inkblots like a Dalmatian’s.”
“I am not a Dalmatian!” I know a Dalmatian, a snooty old guy who thinks he can get away with snapping at Asher.
The doctor holds out his hands in a motionless shrug. “Then what are you?”
“You protect sheep?”
I lower my head. “No, just Asher, and he’s a human.”
The doctor’s eyes rake me as if I look like a tree but smell like a cat, and he doesn’t know which to believe. “You have a name?”
“Mar.” The word rolls growl-like and odd in my mouth. I’ve never said my name before. In those endless, caged hours, I practiced speaking and attempted to pronounce words like Asher had. I never spoke to the wardens, though I learned from them. That focus helped me keep my sanity.
“Mar,” Dr. Plunker repeats, “because you break things?”
My ears pull back, insulted. “The cattle hands said it meant ocean.”
His chin follows an exaggerated arc. “You were named for that blue eye of yours. What happened to the other one?”
My left eye claims a deep blue like the ocean I’ve never seen. Everyone always says so. The other releases no light, darker than a moonless night.
“They’ve always been different colors. Uncle said it was I sign I’d be the smartest pup in the litter. It’s why he let Asher keep me.”
Mrs. Plunker claps. “He means he’s a shepherd dog!”
My ears jump, both startled and glad she understands. Talking to humans is difficult. Asher always said so, but now I know what he meant.
The doctor reeks of confusion, and Mrs. Plunker must smell it, too, because she elaborates. “Remember, the sheriff’s little red border shepherd had a litter about three years back. We were going to take the runt, but some foreigners spoke for her before I got a yes out of you. And if he calls the sheriff Uncle, then Asher must be…”
“Asher Azuré, heir to the Azuré fortune.” The doctor grunts. “This all makes sense now.”
I shake with excitement. They know Asher!
A colder shiver crashes into me and whispers why I can’t go back to him. Asher is dead, and if I return, Father will shoot me. My ears droop, and my stomach roils with threats to return the food I gobbled.
The doctor doesn’t acknowledge my gloom. “Asher is a genius, even more than his great-grandfather, some say. I wouldn’t have expected him to experiment on his own dog, though.”
“Asher would never hurt me!”
“Would you run into a burning building if he told you to?”
“Yes. He would have a good reason.”
The doctor snorts. “That would be your last thought as you burned.”
A snarl rises in my throat and curls my lip, but Mrs. Plunker’s gentle hand on my shoulder stills me.
A warning sits in the stare she trains on the doctor. “A dog’s loyalty is unparalleled.”
Continued in chapter 3
Thank you for reading!
Mar ch 1| Don’t Fire at Death
I run, fire in my side where their bullet found me. Running is all I have left. Those that pursue me will never stop, but I can’t run forever.
A tangle of thorns catches my bare foot, and I tumble through a cluster of ferns. Their sharp leaves slice my exposed arms and face. The trees end, spaced respectfully from a small cabin.
On the rickety stairs rests a mannequin. Its black cloak billows in the wind, and a mask glows pale green in the moonlight. A stupid plan takes root in my mind, and I am too tired to refute it.
As I start up the stairs, a barrel by the backdoor shrieks. Bio-lights flash as it staggers toward me. I kick it, and it shatters, but the pain in my side explodes. I fall on the porch, panting.
The cloak flutters against my arm, and I grab the heavy fabric. It flows over my shoulders, and my arms slide through wide sleeves. The belt of my jerkin ties the cloak, too. I’m not used to clothes, so I can only hope it looks natural.
The mask stretches up over my face. Its material is similar to Mother’s hose but more opaque. It smells like feet, but I’m not in a position to complain.
Cowl pulled over my head, I roll onto my uninjured side at the top of the stairs and calm my breathing. The shouts and steps of those tracking me draw close. They are within sight, emerging from the tree line. The door flies open, and an old man with a large rifle stomps to the edge of the porch.
“Stay off my property, you rotten troublemakers!”
The rifle aims at my face, and I leap to my feet. The cloak whips around me like black flames.
The men from the woods scramble back. “Death’s come for old Plunker!”
I don’t know what he means, but I know of death and how closely it’s related to rifles.
I jump aside. The stair beneath my foot snaps, and I stumble, arms outstretched.
“Stay away, Death!” A man raises his shotgun, but his companion smacks it down.
“Don’t fire at Death, you idiot. Let’s get out of here.”
They retreat. I also try to flee, but I trip. I lie curled on the ground in pain.
The old man approaches, yanks the mask down, and shines a bio-light in my face. “You look like Death’s coming for you.”
The rifle is still in his hand. I kick at it and at him. The man backs off and disappears in the darkness. Unable to rise, I lie here. Any moment, the man will shoot me in the back.
Gunfire echoes in my ears, and images flash in my fading vision: how I tore through the forest, a dozen wardens chasing me. I was faster than them, but their bullets were faster still, their bite worse than any creature’s. When I was hit, one voice rose above the clamor.
“Imbeciles! I need him alive!”
Is death my surest escape, then?
A cloth-covered hand clamps over my mouth and nose. It reeks of danger. I claw at my foe’s arm, but unconsciousness drags my limbs down, closes my eyes, and pushes pain far away.
* * *
Agony flares in my side, as if I have become something’s meal, yet I cannot move. Uneasy dreams rerun memories, the last I saw of Asher.
“Come on, Mar. Let’s check our traps by the gorge.”
Father chided him for always speaking to me like a person. “That dog can’t understand you.”
“Sure he can, right Mar?”
I sat and cocked my head to show I listened. I didn’t always understand everything Asher said, but I would learn. Asher smiled, and my reflection shone in his gray-green eyes. He saw me.
Near the ravine, our trap had sprung, but all that remained of our prey was shredded gore. Asher’s confused disgust was not enough to mask the thieves’ scent. They hadn’t gone far. To them, Asher seemed a better catch than the measly rabbit they stole. They surrounded us.
I growled, and Asher’s hunting bow snapped up, arrow nocked. Its tip smelled of liquid danger.
They lunged. Asher’s arrow flew, and they were upon us, snarling frenzies of teeth and claws. Another arrow stabbed and sliced at them. I sunk my teeth into their pungent hides, but they thought nothing of me. They smelled of ruthlessness, and they wanted Asher.
Though they resembled coyotes, they were too big—at least thrice my forty pounds—and there was definitely something wrong with them.
“Mar, run! Get help.” Asher scrambled toward the edge of the gorge.
I did as he commanded and sprinted faster than I had ever run, following my nose and ears back to Father and Uncle. My bloodied appearance and Asher’s absence caught their concern, and they trailed my barking, panicked dash back to my boy. They shouted his name all the way.
The coyote monsters were gone when we arrived. Asher lay still at the bottom of the gorge. We hurried through blood-soaked leaves—Asher’s blood. He didn’t move, eyes open but glassy. They captured my reflection, but he didn’t see me. Before I got close, Father kicked me.
“You worthless mutt! You did nothing.” He hoisted his rifle and fired.
Uncle’s reflexes saved me. He pushed Father, and the shot swung wide. Father shoved Uncle back, but I already ran. Away from Asher.
I am a coward. I should never have left him.
None of Father’s rounds found me, though his and Uncle’s shouts followed a long time. I reached the edge of our property and plunged into unfamiliar territory. The woods crowded close, shooing away light. The wind shrieked and hissed. I scratched together some leaves and lay down to lick my wounds.
Then, they came for me.
Continued in chapter 2
Thank you for reading!
This is How My Brain Works
At work, we have a key that opens (almost) all the doors. We call it the A key, which was always something that bothered me to say aloud. “The” and “a” are two separate particles. Yes, it is a key, and yes, it is the key, but we don’t say both. Plus, when I say it too fast, it sounds like, “Can you hand me the achy, please,” as if I’m asking for arthritis to afflict me. (Please don’t.)
Why is it called an A key anyway? Probably because it’s a primary key, and A is first in the alphabet. “All Access” also begins with A. However, this key has had a lot of aliases over the years. It used to be on a keychain with Donald Duck, and I would ask for Donald so I could go down the secret back door and clear the basement before closing. I would also have to take the Pig, another key that turned off the alarm on said secret door. The pig keychain was fitting because the alarm would squeal if you didn’t take him.
The A key also had Kermit the Frog as its keychain for a while. He didn’t survive the fall down the elevator, though. Now, it has a plush octopus keychain, and because he doesn’t have a famous name, we’ve reverted to calling it the A key. Yet, here I am, trying to justify the existence of the octopus and the current nomenclature.
Octopus starts with O, but what if it didn’t? Actopus. He’s not a real octopus. He’s an actor pretending to be an octopus. I’m coming up with a whole backstory for this keychain. He might be a spy.