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“Lexi……” I called over my shoulder to where my sister was sitting in the family room, listening to her music and pointedly ignoring me. “Lex…..” I chimed again, feeling slightly annoyed. Still, there was no reply. Finally, frustrated and exasperated, I shouted “Lexi, will you take those damn things out of your ears!”
From the other room she yelled “Yes I heard you the first time.” and walked into the kitchen, with her outrageously expensive head phones resting around her neck like an elegant, chrome necklace. “You don’t need to yell.” She said with a scowl.
Behind me, the microwave buzzed and I spun around to grab our dinner. Opening the microwave door I smiled and inhaled deeply. Mmmmm instant burrito bowls, by far the best thing I could make in under five minutes. Lexi poured two glasses of water as I set our dinner on the table. She wrinkled her nose at it in disgust and curled her lip back to say “Ugh, that stuff is so gross. I’m sick of eating it all the time.” I plopped down in my seat and picked up my fork.
“Well….” I said as I began to shovel dinner into my mouth “next time mom is out, you can cook. And then I’ll complain about it.” I winced as the hot food burned my tongue, but I didn’t slow down. I had to leave soon. Lexi made an irritated noise and said “Honestly Tori, you need to work on your table manners. They’re some of the worst I’ve ever seen. And I spend my lunch period with half the football team.” I opened my mouth to show her the last of my half chewed food and was rewarded with an ear splitting shriek and several curse words. “Stop, stop! Ahhg! You are so gross! AhIck, it looks like you’re eating cat food.”
With a start I hopped up from my seat and said “Oh thanks, I almost forgot!” and over to our pantry, standing on my tip toes to grab a can of tuna fish from the top shelf. As I riffled through our kitchen drawers, trying to find a can opener, Lexi picked at her food.
“You know you shouldn’t feed that thing.” She said “Tuna fish isn’t good for it. And anyway, it needs to learn how to catch its own food.” I finally found our old can opener and attacked the can of tuna with its rusty edges. “Of course it’s good for him.” I retorted “Cats love fish.” I carefully lifted the lid off, minding its sharp edges and continued. “Besides, I can’t just let him starve.”
Lexi sighed and lifted her head phones back to her ears. “Fine.” She said as she flipped through her Ipod. “But don’t come crying to me when that mangy animal starts following you around.” I stuck my tongue out at my sister as I walked passed her, tuna in hand, and opened the back door. It was still fairly light outside, just bright enough for me to walk to basket ball practice, but I was in a hurry to leave before it got too dark. Strange things had been happening recently, and I didn’t want to be out at night.
I looked around our small, well kept back yard for any sign of my friend, but didn’t see him anywhere. “Here kitty, kitty.” I cooed softly. I walked back towards our flower garden to peak around our battered shed, where he usually waited for me, but he wasn’t there. So far as I could tell he wasn’t anywhere nearby. I sighed disappointedly and turned around to go back inside.
Just then I felt something very familiar brush up against my leg and I jumped in surprise. Looking down, I saw my stray cat looking up at me with pale green, expecting eyes. “There you are!” I said, impressed by how quietly he had snuck up on me, but he was a cat after all. They had a special talent for being silent. “I was hoping you would come by today.” The tom cat seemed to beam up at me and let out a throaty purr as he rubbed his small, brindle body against my leg with enthusiasm. He was a very handsome cat, small and slight. And his coloring was unlike any other that I had ever seen, full of burnt orange, black, and every shade and variation of brown imaginable. “I know, I know you’re hungry.” I said, placing the can of tuna in front of him. He sniffed it for a moment, dark whiskers twitching, before he began to lap the food up with his little pink tongue.
As far as I knew, my brindle cat didn’t have a home. He just wandered around our neighborhood, popping up in unexpected places from time to time. And he wasn’t friendly either, in fact he was actually very shy. I was the only person who he would come near and that was only because I had been feeding him for so long.
As my cat eat, I sat next to him and slowly stroked his back. His fur was soft and his whole body vibrated with his soft purring as I dutifully kept him company. When he was finished with his dinner he swished his tail at me dismissively, done with me now that I had fed him, and began the tedious and time consuming process of washing his face with his paws. Swiping his tongue around to get the last of the tuna flavor, he watched me with narrowed, bright, gray-green eyes, as If he were still deciding what to make of me. In actuality, that was why I had first taken such an interest in him. We both had the same eyes. Now, I took care of him because I thought of him as a friend, of sorts. At least as much as you could consider a stray animal as a friend.
I sighed and checked my watch, than yelped in surprise. If I didn’t hurry up I would be late to practice and I did not want to have to run extra drills just because I couldn’t be on time. As the tom cat finished his bath I leaned forward to scratch him behind the ears “I gotta go now.” I said hurriedly “But I will see you later.” I jumped up and ran back into the house as quickly as I could. “Take care of yourself!” I called to the pair of cool green eyes that watched me until I was through the back door.
I flew past my inattentive sister to where my things sat near the front door. Quickly lacing up my warn out gym shoes, I called to Lexi over my shoulder
“You’ll remember to pick me up after practice right?” I waited for an answer, but didn’t hear anything.
“Lex” I barked, but she didn’t look up from her Ipod. She had the volume tuned up so high that I was surprised she could hear herself think. With a huff, I picked up one of the many abandoned shoes sitting by the back door and hurled it into the kitchen to get her attention. It flew past her right leg and slammed into the side of the kitchen island with a hollow thud. Lexi jumped back in surprise and swore as she ripped off her head phones.
“Jesus Tori, you don’t have to throw things.”She snapped at me. I wasn’t sure if that was true or not, but I let it pass and said “Practice ends at eight thirty. It’s too dark to walk home, I need you to pick me up later.”Lexi waved her hand at me dismissively and said “Sure, I’ll be there.”I picked up my gym bag and slung it over my soulder. “Another kid went missing again this week. I don’t want to be out at night after something like that.”Lexi raised an eyebrow with a worried look and said “Really, I didn’t hear about that.”
“I wonder why.” I mumbled under my breath. “It was on the news Lexi, start paying attention.” I slipped an elastic band off of my wrist and pulled my hair back into a pony tail, eager to get going. “Anyway, just don’t forget.” I said in a firm voice. She gave me a flat look and said incredulously “Do you really think I would?”
“Yes” I said bluntly and walked out the door without looking back, heading toward my high school where practice was held. I quickly walked past rows of well kept lawns and neat houses and as I turned the corner to leave my neighborhood I saw a pair of bright eyes watching me from a garden hedge, before they flashed in the fading light and disappeared.
Basket ball practice went on as it usually did, with my coach making my team mates and I run layups and killers until we were all thoroughly warn out, but I loved every minute of it. When practice regrettably came to an end I followed my friends out of the gym door into the cool night air, scanning the parking lot for my sister’s car. She wasn’t here yet. I checked my watch. It was exactly eight forty five. Practice had run fifteen minutes late and she still wasn’t here.
“Well it looks like Lexi’s a no show.” I said to my friend Kat. Who rolled her dark eyes at me and asked “Are you surprised?” I stretched my arms high above my head, sighed, and answered “No, but I kinda hoped I would be.”
Kat twirled her key ring around her index finger and arched an eyebrow. “Do you want me to give you a ride?” I wrinkled my nose at the idea. Kat had two younger brothers who both played football and felt that it was appropriate to use the family car as a traveling locker room. The vehicle smelled almost as offensive as her brothers mouths were foul. Almost. “No thanks.” I said “I’ll just call my mom, she should be home from work by now.” Kat shrugged, used to me turning down her offers, and waved as she walked towards her car. “Alright then. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.” I waved to her as she started up her car and drove away and pulled out my phone to call for a ride.
I dialed my mom’s number and waited as the phone rang several times. Finally I heard my mother’s voice on the other line “Hello”
“Hey mom, It’s Tori. I need-“
“You have reached Elizabeth Nelson. I am currently unavailable, but please feel free to leave your name, number, and situation and I will call you back as soon as possible. Have a good day.” Beep.
Great. My mother was probably in another meeting or working late again. Figures. I left her a message, telling her that I needed a ride, and stared at my phone for a few moments after hanging up. Darn it, why didn’t I call her before I turned down Kat’s smelly ride? I dialed Lexi’s number, but I wasn’t feeling very optimistic, seeing as she had forgotten about me even though I had nagged her about picking me up all afternoon. She didn’t even have her phone on and it went right to her answering machine. “What is the point of owning a cell phone if you never turn it on?!” I shouted into the phone, before hanging up with an angry jab of a button.
I rubbed my temples in frustration and went over my options. All of my team mates had already left, the school behind me was locked and I doubted there was anyone nearby to let me in, and no one would be coming for me anytime soon. Home was a mile and a half away, which sounded longer than it actually was. If I walked quickly I was sure I could make it home without too much trouble. My thoughts flashed back to the middle school girl from a neighboring county, who had gone missing earlier this week, and the high school freshman who had gone a month before her.
I took a deep breath and pushed that out of my mind. I would be fine. Deephaven was the most uneventfully place in the world. Nothing would happen to me. And standing here in front of the school fretting would somehow feel worse than just sucking it up and heading home. Better to be in motion, and feel like I was doing something, than to wait around for my unreliable sister and worry. Taking a slow, deep breath I clutched my gym bag for support and slowly walked away from the security of the lit school parking lot.
As I walked through the dark neighborhoods and past the down towns closed shops and boutiques I started at every small sound and every shifting shadow. My imagination was running wild, and I didn’t have a good hold of myself. “You’re over reacting.” I mumbled to myself. “Just keep walking. You’re almost home.” I quickened my pace and plowed determinedly through block after block.
I heard a faint rustle behind me and the sound of a twig snapping under foot and I quickly whirled around, my eyes wide with fright. I saw a flash of something small and dark leap into a nearby hedge, but that was all. Probably just a squirrel, I thought to myself and turned to keep walking. I was passed the forest preserve and the row of houses that I passed had soon become few and far between. But I was almost home, just three more blocks to go. As I pressed on, I saw someone on the side walk ahead of me. Leaning casually up against one of the dusky lampposts that lined the side walk was a tall, thin man dressed in a dark jacket and pants, his thin face hidden in shadows. Not far away, a small black car was parked as if it were waiting for something. I slowed down a bit and thought about crossing the street to walk on the other side. But I chastised myself for being paranoid and gritted my teeth to keep my lower lip from trembling. Besides, walking on the other side of the road wouldn’t make a difference anyway. The surrounding forest hugged the road like a dear friend on both sides of the street.
As I approached the man I kept my head down and my pace quick, but even though I wanted desperately for him to ignore me he lifted a hand to get my attention and said “Excuse me, miss, could I ask you something. I’m very lost.” His voice was smooth and soft, like a down blanket. I didn’t stop walking, but slowed down just enough to say “I’m sorry, but I need to be home soon.” staring at his polished black shoes instead of his shadowed face. “It will only take a moment.” said the man, stepping forward to walk with me. “I am in really need of your help.”
“I’m ss-sorry.” I stammered and sped up “I would help you if I could, but I’m not good with directions, and I don’t have a map.” I was painfully aware of the night pressing in all around me and the lack of any nearby house. Leave me alone, I thought to myself, just please leave me alone. “That’s all right” the man said calmly, imploring me to listen. “I have a GPS in my car. If you’ll just come and help me look at it.” He reached out and grabbed my wrist with surprising force, so fast that I barely knew what was happening and had no time to react. One moment he was walking next to me, and the next he had my wrist in an iron grasp that bound me to him as securely as a shackle. I struggled and tried to pull back, but the man was almost twice my size. “What are you doing?” I gasped, I had to get home. That was the only thing I really knew. I had to escape and find my way home.
“Help!” I yelled as loud as I could and let out a passionate shriek, hoping that someone, anyone nearby could hear me. The man jerked my wrist and twisted me around so that his arm was firmly wrapped around my abdomen and the other was clamped over my mouth. “You’re being very uncooperative.” He said his voice perfectly even. “I’m just asking for your help. It will only take a moment.” I kicked and struggled as he half dragged, half carried me towards the small car parked next to the curb. I somehow managed to bite down on his hand, tasting an awful flavor, but his grip slackened only for a moment before his hand pressed against my face even harder than it had been before. How stupid I was to walk home alone. Surely there must have been a better way. But I would never know. Because now I was going to be taken just like those other girls had been before me.
I heard him before I saw him. A fearsome yowl that expanded into something deep and menacing and shook the very ground and trees that surrounded us; something ancient, and primal and trifling. The man who was holding me froze and so did I. I didn’t know what frightened me more, the man who was holding me, about to take me away, or whatever it was that had made that sound and was coming closer.
It erupted from the trees surrounded by a whirl wind of scattered leaves and forest debris. Teeth bared, claws out stretched and green eyes smoldering. The man gasped, releasing me and stumbling in surprise. “No.” he said, his low voice trembling, but somehow cool even in terror. “Them. One of them. It can’t be. It can’t be.”
I was frozen to the ground, my feet glued to the spot where he had released me, but for a different reason. It couldn’t be, but it was. Those luminescent, lupine eyes watching me with a cold intensity. It was my stray tom cat! But he was different beyond belief. The creature before me was larger than an SUV and stood at least twelve feet tall. It’s large, furry paws were equipped with milky white claws that were as long and lethal looking as sharpened knives and its limbs were heavy and well muscled. But as he stood before us, crouching and snarling with his face contorted into a fearsome snarl, the most startling change to his appearance was his face.
His face, which was once covered with soft, fine fur, was now clad in thin, long, elegant scales that rimmed his jade eyes and radiated away from a large, pale gold disk that laid flat on his forehead and gleamed as it caught the moonlight. The scales colors were as bold and diverse as the fur that they had replaced, and they continued down the line of his spine to halfway down his long tail.
He was unbelievable, and in my case, undefeatable. This strange, frightening beast would surely kill me on the spot. The animal tensed, readying itself to spring and I tried to close my eyes, to brace myself for the pain. But in my terror I had lost the capability to do even that. For a heartbeat, the cat remained motionless and then he sprang.
Teeth bared, claws outstretched, limbs ready to grab me and rip me to pieces. I saw him coming towards me as if he moved in slow motion, noticing every tiny detail down to the last brindle scale that clung to his enormous face. He flew towards us and was almost on top of me.
But he jumped over me and landed heavily on the dark man next to me, snarling viciously and sinking his teeth into his torso. The man let out a terrible, unearthly scream as the cat like beast lifted him in his powerful jaws and shook him like an over grown rag doll. Drops of silver liquid poured from the man’s wound and covered the animal’s cheeks and chest, dripping to the ground in an eerie metallic pool that glowed in the pale moon light. I fell to the ground, gasping in terror and shock as my hand slipped into a patch of the strange liquid, which was slick, cold, and thick like melted butter.
The creature grasped the screaming man in its strong paws and with one final, fearsome effort reared back on its hind legs and brought him down, smashing the man with all of its enormous weight into the ground. With one final cry the man fell silent, his body lying mangled and motionless in a pool of silver liquid.
I sat in petrified horror as I looked between the now dead man, if that was what he was, and the elegant but deadly creature that had just brutally ended his life. I hadn’t known that I was holding my breath, but suddenly I felt my lungs burning in my chest, and I gasped desperately for air. Throwing myself forward and leaning on my hands and knees as my body and mind grappled with each other, unable to decide whether or not I should run away or throw up first. What I had just seen was unimaginable. But it had all been real. How could something so clear, no matter how horrifying, not be real. Or was I just going crazy?
From the strange and gory sight before me there came a soft, hissing sound and a pungent, sulfur like smell filled the air. I looked up just in time to see black smoke curling around the man’s body as both he and the silver liquid, which I realized must have somehow been his blood, evaporated into the air. Leaving nothing behind but the strange, curling smoke that was carried away by the wind. The only evidence as to what had happened was the small car, still parked on the curb near the forest, and the large animal that was washing its face with its paws with meticulous care. The creature watched me with its intense, penetrating gaze as it swiped its wickedly strong paws against its strange scaled face.
I didn’t have the vaguest conception of what had just happened. My whole body was shaking and shivering with shock and my breath was rattling in my chest as if my lungs were trying to break free. All I knew was that this animal could and would hurt me, and that I needed to get away. I struggled to get to my feet, but all I could manage to do was sit on my knees with my hands splayed out on the empty street, as I tried to steady myself.
Then it stood up and came towards me, its eyes cool and focused and its gate perfectly balanced and unbelievably graceful. I stared into those great, green eyes, which were so like my own even though they were rimmed with those finely formed scales, and closed my own. Waiting for the end. But I didn’t come. I sat there in fear and disbelief and waited for those sharp teeth to sink into me and sever me in half. But they didn’t come. Instead of sharp claws, I felt a small, soft body brush up against my arm and heard the sound of a familiar purr fill my ears.
I flinched away from the contact and by doing so somehow regained control of my body. I stumbled back several paces, opening my eyes and struggling to my feet, to see my familiar stray cat sitting small and still in front of me. My wonderful brindle cat.
The cat rose to his feet, never taking his sharp eyes off of me and walked towards where I had stumbled back, possessing just as much grace and balance as he had when he was a monster. Now that he had changed back into the form that I knew, I was somewhat less afraid of him, though I still remembered who he was and what he could do. And from somewhere deep inside me I found the courage that I didn’t know I had.
“Don’t you come near me.” I spat at him. I wasn’t even sure if he could understand me, but I didn’t care. I wanted him to get away from me. “You’re a monster….I….” Yes I thought to myself. He was a monster, a strange, beautiful, freighting thing. But he had also saved me form something that could have been far worse. Because as I thought of the strange, dark man with the silver blood I knew that this cat, my friend had, saved me from something that I couldn’t even imagine. I needed to get home. I needed to run away to somewhere safe and familiar, somewhere that I could think.
I backed up slowly, never shifting my gaze away from his brindle face as I yelled “Just stay away from me! Don’t follow me!” Then I took a chance that could save me or kill me. I turned my back on the monster, a beast that could disguise itself as something so small and innocent, and ran away. I didn’t hear anything behind me as I ran home. But all the while I could feel those strange eyes drilling into my back until I reached my house and slammed into the front door. I ripped it open and flung myself into the safety of my home, slamming the door behind me.
Lexi was sitting on the couch, listening to her music, and looked up into the terrified face with shock. “Oh my God Tori, what’s wrong? You look awful. What happened?” Without saying anything I rushed past my sister and flew up the stairs to my room. I could hear her running up the stairs after me, calling out frantic questions, but I ignored her. Instead I thought about the strange beast, one that I thought I had known, that had saved me from an unsafe and uncertain fate.