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A Shifter Dream (Part 1 of 2)
She knew what he was…how he could make others like himself...what he’d gone through…she said she wouldn’t want this, unless she had no choice. But she didn’t. She had known this was going to happen. She was in his arms, dying and there was no one to save her.
James was eighteen. The four long white wooden boxes in front of him did not seem imposing, but were filled with a lifelessness that echoed in his empty eyes. The reverend’s voice was a low thrum, peaceful, slow.
The day was dreary and cold, fitting the occasion. Pale white faces of people clothed in black. Some faces were wet, others hard. The Whitrey family had lived many generations in this town, and were known to all as virtuous, friendly, and respectable. It was a heartbreaking and impossible truth, the sudden, horrific death of four people, leaving the younger son alone in the world.
As the gravediggers patted down the soil, people exchanged words and patted James’ shoulder. They muttered condolences, at a loss for anything else to say to a boy who had just lost his entire family. James’ face was blank and pale. He was the middle child in a family of five, three years apart from both his siblings. With an older brother who was his hero and idol, and a perfect younger sister he protected unavailingly, it made others wonder how he could stand there, emotionless. But there was so much they didn’t understand. Only James alone knew what had happened. He would never hear his brother’s cheery, deep laugh. His sister’s heavenly voice would never again sing joyously. He remembered his youth, when his mother would comfort him when he fell, and when his father would hoist him onto his broad shoulders. Mother, Father, Cora, Robert, he thought. I didn’t want this... The last memory he would ever have of them was their terrified shrieking as his father and brother placed themselves in front of his mother and sister defensively, their eyes wide with fear and…hatred. He couldn’t blame them, could never blame them. And this was what hurt the most.
As he walked down the worn-away path homewards, the memories he tried to push away were only magnified and became even more painful as the house came into view. It was old and large, with a fair interior and furnishings; a lush forest stood, proud and ancient, behind it. He gritted his teeth. He would not have come here if it wasn’t necessary. There were a few things he needed. After that, he would burn his home to the ground and leave the town before any other accidents could occur. As he trudged up the stairs to his room, the tears came. He hated himself for what had happened and it hurt him so much when he thought of their faces. In their last moments alive, they had hated him. He pushed away the thoughts and tears, and opened the drawer of his writing desk, popping out the false bottom. It was more of a notch he had made to hide things he did not wish for others to see. He pulled out two things: an old book and a small oval portrait that fit in his palm. The photo inside of it was a family portrait, but it was different from the usual kind; they were all smiling. There was a date written on the back, January 1, 1775. That was little more than ten years ago. His father had hired a photographer to take it, but it had never been displayed. Instead, they put up a more solemn photo, similar to what their neighbors had, with the edges of their mouths turning down, matching their blank eyes. “People should not look like the dead.” That was what his father had said when they had taken the picture. Every Whitrey in his family had their own copy of the miniature photo, but now only one would ever really be able look at it. These objects were all he brought with him, along with a few other necessities. He didn’t want anything else to remind him of Finch once he’d gone. With a dark laugh he remembered his brother saying, “James is the only one of us who’s ever going to travel past Finch.” Ironically, now he was the only one who ever could. He shut the drawer, and left the room. One thought dominated his mind. He would reverse his mistake, himself.
Without thinking twice, he splashed oil in the rooms. Lighting a match, he tossed it through the front door and slammed it shut. As he stood and watched his home burn, he wished he could simply throw himself into the fire and end everything. Placing his hand in the flames, he watched as they parted, licking around his flesh. The flames surrounded his hand in a ball and turned black as he watched, the dark fire roiling around his fingers. He sighed, then snapped his fingers. The flame snuffed out, leaving his hand unscorched, and he disappeared through the trees as the house collapsed with a cloud of dark smoke that rose slowly, blotting out the sun.
Five days later. On the way to Gloucester, a nearby town.
The sun rose over the trees. It was much cooler in the forest and he was glad he had taken the wood path to shield him from midday heat. For the past week he had been living on the surrounding vegetation, eating sweet grass and mushrooms. He had gone on hunting trips with his father and learned a good deal about plants and animals. But now he had no weapons, and did not plan on killing anything for meat. Not that he needed a weapon to do that.
He’d just woken, and was packing his things when he heard the sound of running. He could tell they were off the main road. Squinting, he saw two figures. It was a girl and a small child. He could hear their hard breathing and hearts hammering against ribs. Then he sensed another presence…and deadly purpose. He didn’t stop to think. Flinging his things into a bush, he ran toward the thick trees, praying it wasn’t too late.
Everything happened so fast. He must have been thinking about his sister as he dodged past the trees, and if her soul would forgive him if he could save someone, when he couldn’t save her. He saw the child trip, saw the girl stumble and fall, as the cougar lunged, claws out, its jaws wide and its eyes fiercely bright.
And then James’ form shifted.
He did not need to focus anymore; it was now in his instincts. His body seemed to turn liquid, then solidify into a black cougar to match his opponent. He landed on silent paws and crouched over the girl and child, shielding them, and faced the charging cougar. It seemed to pause for a moment, contemplating the new foe. This was a mistake--James may have looked like a cougar, but he was far more lethal. He leapt at the cougar, which rose to meet him. They collided together in midair, and James heard the cougar’s bones snap against his rock-hard body. Its claws dug into his back. He threw it off and rammed the cougar against a boulder, breaking its body. He slammed a huge onyx paw into its throat, strangling it. He could hear its screaming and he reveled in the sound; adrenaline rushed through him, blocking all of his senses, and his reason. Memories flashed painfully from his subconscious as he remembered the last time this happened. Suddenly instead of an animal, he saw his sister gasping in front of him, broken and bleeding, her eyes begging him to stop, as they glazed over and a red river pooled beneath her into the cracks of the wood floor.
He had already changed back, but his hand still held the throat of the cougar; its eyes were milky, filmed over by death. He dropped it, walking slowly to the terrified pair and crouching in front of them.
“Please,” he said, his voice rough from lack of use, “Are you hurt?”
The girl looked at him blankly, then began screaming.
“Am I hurt?! You’ve ruined my dress and broken my wrist!” she shrieked.
He looked down, the white dress was covered with mud and torn at the hem, and her wrist was at an odd angle as she cradled it. Her wavy red hair and bright green eyes added to her wildness.
“I’m sorry,” he replied, “Is the child alright?” James glanced at the small figure. It was a little boy with raven hair and large, piercing blue eyes. Something in them made him uncomfortable, as if the little boy was reading his soul like a book. He looked away. The child nodded, mouthing words, and James felt confused.
The girl spoke for him, “He doesn’t talk much, but don’t think you can underestimate him.” Her tone held something, a suggestion, or a warning. She didn’t return James’ questioning look.
“Well then,” he said as he stood up, “If you can handle yourselves fine, I’ll be leaving.”
“Wait, the least you can do accompany us to the next town and help me fix this.” she said, getting up and indicating her wrist.
He stared at her. She was asking him surprisingly normally--not afraid at all. He wondered if she had seen him shift. “If that’s all,” he agreed.
She nodded, “My name is Celia Baldorn, and this is Bobby Karter.”
“I’m James Whitrey.”
The little boy squeezed the girl’s hand and she looked down; something passed between them. She looked at James and said sincerely, “Thank you.”
They went to the lodge in the next town, far from the incident. It was already past seven when they saw the lights through the darkness. When they went in, the innkeeper was very kind to them and gave Celia a change of clothes to wear while hers were being cleaned. They slept well that night, exhausted from the day’s events. The traveling pair stayed on the bed and James snored lightly on the floor.
The next morning, while they ate a simple meal of bread and soup and ginger ale, Celia began to talk about herself and Bobby. They were both orphans; after Celia’s parents had passed away, she was cast out of her hometown. Bobby had found her one night in an alley and helped her; he’d also been cast out after his parents’ deaths. She didn’t know much about him, except that she trusted him. Now they were vagabonds, traveling from place to place, looking for somewhere to belong, somewhere people could accept them. James listened to her talk about her life so openly, and it made him feel guilty that he could not do the same. She must have noticed his discomfort and surprised him with her frankness and familiarity because she laughed and said, “It’s alright if you don’t want to talk about anything, but we want to help you. And we can’t do that if you won’t throw us something to work with. At least tell us enough.”
James was silent. She stared defiantly at him, waiting; he glared back silently. She took a breath.
“What are you?” she shot at him.
He blanched. “I thought you said I could talk when I felt like it?”
Celia shrugged, “I was trying to be courteous, but this is a case where we have to know. You can tell us willingly or not,” she glanced sideways at Bobby; something James didn’t miss. “But we will find out either way.”
“Wait a minute, when you said not to underestimate him,” he pointed at the diminutive, but now frightening little boy, who had an undeniable devious little smile on his angelic face, “What did you mean by that?”
She shook her head, “Not until you talk.”
He sighed, looking at their persistent faces. Knowing there was no chance of escape he began, “About five and a half years ago, a magician stopped in town. He brought a traveling show. When the children were giving him pennies afterwards and he came around to me, I promised him anything in return if he would teach me. He was hesitant at first, but I pleaded, until he agreed. He gave me a book, but wouldn’t take anything in return, saying that he did not want to be responsible if anything happened. I thought he was giving it to me and thanked him for doing so, but he shook his head and told me that even if I didn’t pay him, I would still pay. I didn’t understand what he meant. I brought the book to my room secretly and began reading it. ‘Read it aloud,’ he told me, ‘You’ll get what you’re looking for.’ It was fascinating and I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t sleep until I had finished it. It took over my every thought, consuming my mind.
Then it happened for the first time when I was swimming with my brother. I dived from a rock and when I hit the water, both my legs cramped and I panicked, releasing the air I had left and swallowing water. I tried screaming for help, but no sound came out. I didn’t notice that I did not need to breathe. My brother was right in front of me underwater. Why can’t he see me?! I thought. Then, as he swam by, I felt as if he had pushed me aside. I looked down at my hands, but I didn’t see them. I was amazed! It was incredible! I had become WATER! I drifted downstream and after a while, I changed back. I loved my new powers.” His head sunk into his hands, miserable.
“Well, what’s so bad about that?” Celia asked, confused, “I mean, why do you hate it if you think it’s so great?”
“You don’t get it, do you?” He was suddenly angry. “Yesterday morning, when I killed that animal…I thought I was killing my sister…again.”
“…‘again’?…You’ve lost me.”
“That cougar I killed was just as scared of me as my sister was when I had a change I couldn’t control. I made a big mistake. It happened just a few months ago. I thought I could control myself since I had been practicing a lot.
I was reclusive after my first episode, preferring my own company to others. My family was worried about me, but I didn’t want to talk to them about it. I was so selfish. I didn’t want to share my gift with them. Why should I? Robert was always better than me at everything and Cora had a voice that could make an angel cry. This was MY gift. If there were others like me, how could I be unique? At last, they confronted me about it. I was livid that day. So when they prodded me, meaning well, wanting to know if anything was wrong, that tipped me over the edge. I snapped. I lost all control, any restraint I’d held on to…The next thing I knew was that I had killed everyone I loved. That’s when I understood the magician. I realized what had happened to me; that this was the price. After I had finished the book, I paid for my foolishness…with my normality, my sanity, and the lives of the people I loved most.” He stopped, but not before his voice broke.
Celia stared at him, not knowing what to say. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” he said, with a bitter laugh. “Me too.” They were silent for a while. Celia looked away, and James took the chance to swipe at his eyes. Celia sighed, then cleared her throat tentatively.
“So,” she asked slowly. “You are a…what, exactly?”
“I’m a Shifter. I change to my surroundings, or to whatever shape I am concentrating on.”
“Hmm, I think I know someone who can help you. He lives in Gloucester. He is a librarian, but he used to be a magician.” She waited for the words to sink in.
James stood, shoving his chair out. “…We’re leaving right now.”