Vixen

Dakotah knocked wearily on the metal door, her flats were tucked beneath her arm and her hair was matted to her neck with blood. Gage opened the door of his tiny apartment wide when he saw it was Dakotah. "You look like shit," said a voice from inside.

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2. POUND OF FLESH

 

CHAPTER TWO

“Pound of Flesh”

The faded aqua of her father’s Ford truck glared bright even through the dark tint of sunglasses. Once she turned the radio on, she reclined in the cool stitched leather seat; she fell asleep and woke up to someone rapping their knuckles on her window.  Unsurprisingly, it was Gage.

“Yeah?”

She rolled the window down but Gage was already climbing into the passenger seat. “Uhm…What are you doing?” She didn’t try to disguise her confusion or her trepidation.

“You know the park off of Carter Villa and Holly Brook? Drive there,” ordered Gage with a firmness that brooked no argument.

“You assume I know what park you speak of,” said Dakotah, annoyed, even as she reversed and turned onto the main street. Twenty minutes later, Dakotah pulled up to the tiny park. It was fairly secluded and a soft breeze rattled the budding blooms on a cherry tree.

“Why are we here?” asked Dakotah. She cast a sidelong glance at Gage. His cropped hair was a dirty blonde; his crooked nose was almost too big for his face. Hazel eyes stared back at her. Dakotah flushed pink.

“You turn 20 tomorrow, right?” Gage inquired, raising a thick eyebrow. Dakotah smiled and leaned her head against her window.

“Sure do,” she said. “Why?” When she turned the truck off and twisted to look at her companion, she paused. Gage was studying her intently.

“You don’t know, do you?” Some sort of realization dawned on the boy because he shook his head and muttered to himself. “You don’t know, you don’t—” he broke off and grabbed Dakotah’s face between his fingers. She flinched back into the door.

“Gage…”

“Shut-up and look into my eyes.”

“Hey!” barked Dakotah. “There is no need to be a jackass!”

“Look at me,” replied a calm Gage. Dakotah obediently looked into his eyes; she frowned and held his gaze without blinking.

“I don’t understand.”

Gage dropped his hands from Dakotah’s face and sighed. “Come on,” he rubbed the back of his neck apologetically. “You wanna swing?” She grudgingly got out of the truck and trudged over to the metal swing set.

“What’s so special about my eyes?” asked Dakotah as she kicked the air, trying to release some of the tension coursing through her. She’d felt a tension headache coming on since she’d stopped at that gas station.

When Gage looked over at her, he seemed sad somehow. “You felt the jolt this morning,” he stated.

“What are you talking about, Gage?” She glanced away, a quick frown passing over her features.

Gage exhaled loudly. “You know what,” he insisted, a glare punctuated his words.

Dakotah tensed up, “I did. So what?” she said defensively.

“Your eyes have been dilated since then,” he began; Dakotah sensed this would be a drawn out discussion. “Brooke told me about the…animal you saw on the drive home. She also mentioned that you had blood in your hair and on your hands and thighs.” Gage paused and raised his eyebrows. She remained silent, only nodding in affirmation. How had Brooklyn seen the blood? Dakotah had never turned to face her when she—Dakotah’s thoughts were interrupted by Gage.

 “She saw blood on the steering wheel and between your fingers.” Dakotah blinked and looked away; Brooke was smarter than most people gave her credit for, simply because of how she looked. And Dakotah was ashamed to have forgotten that fact. Gage continued. “Your eardrums ruptured when the thing howled,” he continued.”You feel the current that passes from one Skin-walker to another.”

“Wait,” interrupted Dakotah. “Skin-walker?”

He nodded.

“That pulse of electricity is what identifies one Walker to another; it’s how we recognize each other for what we are.”

Gage’s words were clipped, like he was reciting from memory.

“How come I’ve never felt it before?”

Gage sighed and tried to phrase things best he could without causing confusion. He was becoming frustrated. “Each Walker will experience their first Shift on their twentieth birthday, the precise minute of their birth. The signs of being a Skin-walker begin to manifest the week before their first Shift from man to beast.”

“I’m going to be like that…that thing I saw this morning?” whimpered Dakotah. Her stomach clenched and sweat beaded down her neck.

“You’re taking this surprisingly well,” observed Gage. He lifted one corner of his mouth in admiration.

“That beast had my brother’s eyes. It had my eyes,” Dakotah whispered. She stared blankly at the wood chips beneath her toes.

Gage whistled through his teeth in surprise; he hadn’t expected this. He knew Micah enjoyed the macabre shape, but for Dakotah to recognize something so miniscule…

“It was Micah, and it was he who should have told you this.” Gage sounded angry and a glance said the same; his brow was knit together and he picked at dirt beneath his bitten nails. “He didn’t think you would have the gene, because there was only a fifty-fifty chance that either of you would inherit the gene from your father.”

“Papa,” said Dakotah, unnecessarily.

As a side note, Gage added, “Males are more likely to Shift than females due to the...violent...nature of the Shift.”

“You remember when your mother packed you and your brother up before you entered high school?” Dakotah nodded slightly. “She had just found out about your father.”

Dakotah quivered. “What will happen tomorrow night?”

Gage ran a hand through his hair and looked at her for a long moment. “I’ll be there—with help, but you’re going to have to keep tomorrow night free; no party.”

“I’ll be here,” Dakotah said after a moment. “I was born at 10:52 p.m. on the Ides of March.” She grinned sheepishly at her lame reference. Gage smiled too. English majors.

“Let’s get something to eat. We missed lunch.”

***

 

Gage paid for their sandwiches and hugged Dakotah to him before he slipped into his seat. “It’s going to be okay, dude. You’re strong-willed. Hell-bent, on occasion.”

Dakotah smiled a little  in appreciation of Gage’s casualness, however forced it may have been.

“Duh,” she snorted and took a bite of her Ruben.

***

 

Brooke pounced onto Dakotah’s bed and stuck her nose in Dakotah’s face. “Happy Birthday, Boo!” she squealed as Dakotah’s face split into a wide grin.

“I’m twenty!”

Brooke fell back laughing as Dakotah fist-pumped the air. Brooke composed herself and pulled a carefully wrapped box from under Dakotah’s bed.

“Here ya’ go, babe,” said Brooke as she handed it to Dakotah.

Dakotah smiled and eagerly tore into the wrapping; with a twist of her lips, Dakotah said, “Aw, you got me a box!” Brooke smacked her on the arm.

“Smart-ass.”

Inside was a soft leather bag, similar to her worn messenger bag that she’d bought in the seventh grade. It was beautiful. She gathered Brooke into her arms for a bear hug and laughed. “Thank you so, so, so much!”

“Look inside!” said Brooke excitedly, untangling her soft curls with her fingers.

She did; a bottle of her favorite nail polish rolled out: Bubble-Yum Pink.

“I figured since I used the last of it…” said Brooke with a shrug.

Dakotah kissed Brooke on the cheek. “Thank you, again. Hey, I’ve got to meet my brother in—!” A glance at the clock told Dakotah that it was almost one o’clock in the afternoon. “I slept like the dead; I was so exhausted from driving. I said I’d meet him at one-thirty…” Brooke giggled and walked to their shared closet. She tossed a knee-length emerald green dress at Dakotah. “Happy Birthday, again!”

Dakotah grinned at the soft green fabric. Brooke had already snipped off the price tag. It flared out in an empire waist that flattered her figure while the color complemented her skin. The peasant sleeves she pushed up on her elbows before slipping her feet into some brown flats. She ran a comb through her hair, brushed her teeth, and dumped the contents of her messenger bag into the new one before breezing by Brooke with a hurried embrace.

“Have fun!”

“I will! Don’t wait up, I’m gonna chill with Micah tonight!” shouted Dakotah as she jogged down the hall.

Brooke sighed, wondering why Dakotah even bothered trying to include Micah in her celebrations. He was so much like Hanley, her own older brother. Brooke turned to the calendar and made a mental note to give Hanley a happy birthday, belatedly. Maybe she would wait three days before calling this year...

***

Inside the cool cab of her Ford, Dakotah rummaged in her new bag, rearranging her wallet and putting on her sunglasses. It was a minute before she found what she was looking for: a folded envelope. Dakotah took off her shades so she could read the curling script inside the letter. Angela Gray was a master at calligraphy and she had drawn the H in “Happy Birthday!” as two trees with entwined branches. A wolf sat with his tail curled around the trunk of the second tree. Dakotah shuddered and put away the letter, stuffing the twenty dollar bill into her wallet. She quickly phoned Angela and thanked her.

“Yes ma’am. I promise I won’t use it to buy a stripper. Ha-ha! Love you too, Mrs. Gray. Bye.” Dakotah smiled to herself, wondering when her own mother would call. She didn’t have to wait long before her cell began to blast “Belt Loops” by the Films.

“Hey, Mama,” grinned Dakotah.

“Baby, hey, how are you? Happy Birthday!”

“Thanks,” Dakotah giggled. “Oh, I’ve just been missing you these past few months. How was Birmingham?”

“A bore. It was hot and boring. I didn’t have you to navigate and Robert and I got lost because he refuses to ask for directions!” Marie Brigham chuckled to herself and sighed. “I’ve missed you too, baby. Why don’t you come down and visit us? We’ll be back next month.” The unspoken words were still there, questioning. Her mother needed to know if she was still human.

Dakotah thought for a moment before responding.

“Dakotah? You still there?”

“Sorry, Mama. I was just thinking about school. I’ll try to come down soon, I promise. Look, I’m late; I told a friend I would see them today.”

“Oh, I’m sorry; I’ll let you go—Brooklyn?”

“No...Micah,” she answered reluctantly.

Her mother inhaled sharply. “Then I guess I really had better let you then. Bye, dear. Happy Birthday.” She hung up before Dakotah could return the goodbye.

***

Dakotah drove to the library in a dark mood, where she curled up in a plush chair. She had lied about meeting Micah because she couldn’t bear to be around her best friend. She would have said something to give everything away, and that wasn’t a risk she was taking, not today.

Brooklyn Gray knew Dakotah Riley far too well, and that meant she could read Dakotah’s expressions as well as her own. Dakotah was an encyclopedia around Brooke; she found it nearly impossible to keep things from her. And why should she have to? They were very nearly soul sisters.

Wishing her mother hadn’t disowned Micah when he turned twenty didn’t do anybody any good.

Dakotah shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut, exhausted.

Five hours later and Dakotah had read ten volumes of a best-selling manga series. She shook her ankle in anticipation and dialed Gage’s cell number. It went to voicemail, which meant he was with Brooke. Briefly, Dakotah wondered if he was coming clean to his girlfriend about his supernatural tendencies. She quickly dismissed the thought and chewed her lip, back to worrying.

Four hours later the library closed and Dakotah had finished the last volume. At 10:48 p.m Gage arrived at the park to find Dakotah swinging slowly. He wasn’t alone.

The stranger with Gage stared, watching the girl swing; he frowned and looked at his friend. Gage nodded.

The young man strode to where Dakotah was swinging; he stopped in front of her. “Hi there,” he said, ridiculously chipper for the hour.

Dakotah dragged her bare heels to stop her movement. Her shoes sat beside her bag against the metal swing leg. She lurched forward out of the seat and the handsome stranger caught her; his eyes crinkled in a smile. He laughed.

“Clumsy in our human feet, aren’t we?” teased the arrogant asshat in front of her.

Dakotah straightened her dress and glared at the man. Ignoring the smirking stranger, Dakotah turned and called out, “Gage,” she paused, “who is this?” Gage came to stand beside her. “And why did you bring him?” spat Dakotah. Her nerves made her testy and she hated being laughed at. She frowned at the man before her. He winked back. She shivered, the feeling oddly delicious and fluttery.

“This is Brett,” said Gage. “Brett, meet the lovely Dakotah.”

Brett held out a hand and she shook it firmly, turning his wrist over so she could read the time on his watch. She had two human minutes left.

“You should take off your clothes," said Brett. “It’s almost time.”

“Excuse me?” hissed Dakotah, wrenching her hand back from his.

Brett barked a short laugh. "That is a gorgeous dress," he said languidly and not without amusement. "You may want to take it off. Your pelt will ruin it." He was so damned casual! It was infuriating. Maybe he was drunk.

"Pelt?" questioned an anxious Dakotah.

"Yes, your pelt. Don't you know anything?" Brett sounded exasperated. He looked to Gage for some sort of support. "When you Shift, your clothes rip, like your skin, to accommodate your new form. Don't look so shocked."

Dakotah shut her mouth.

"Surely you've read Blood and Chocolate?"

She nodded. Beside her, Gage looked troubled by Brett’s callous words.

"Annette was a werewolf herself, but she was a stupid wolf. She said too much..." Dakotah swallowed while Gage watched on with morbid silence. 

Was this newcomer the pack leader? If it was even called a pack, thought a bewildered Dakotah.

Brett's threat hung in the air like a stagnant pool of water; it tainted the oxygen Dakotah was inhaling. 

With an uncomfortable glance around, Dakotah sighed. "Is there somewhere we can go where nobody will see?" The moon peeked behind a bank of storm clouds and the hair on her body prickled painfully.

"Too late!" Brett began unzipping the dress without a moment’s hesitation, not forgetting her underwear. Gage slipped off her shoes as the first tooth fell.

Dakotah lurched forward and her toes curled in a caricature of a paw. Her skin tore and knit together, forming webbing between her fingers and toes, connecting them as they grew a shadow of fur. Her feet lengthened as bloody claws replaced toenails; she screeched and fell onto her knees, dry heaving in pain. Dakotah was happy she hadn’t had anything to eat since the night before; otherwise she would have been coughing it all up. The guttural sounds were cut short as her vocal cords ripped, threading together a moment later; the muscles in her neck thickened.

Blood dripped from her mouth where long canines pushed the existing teeth up and out; Dakotah choked on the saliva and blood mixture. A snout drew her jaws forward and flattened her nose until it leaked bloody mucous. Fifteen minutes into the Shift, Dakotah had sprouted a downy pelt that now covered most of her body. Her long hair had retracted, supplying tufts of fuzz to cover her naked face.

Her body was quickly shortening and becoming more grotesque. Breasts molded themselves into a furred chest, slipping around to pad her ribcage. With a sickening crunch, her spine snapped and realigned itself; her tailbone extended and coarse fur erupted from the new follicles. Dakotah began to lash her tail back and forth in pain and fear. Her heart stuttered and stopped for a brief moment as her organs modified their selves to fit an animal's body. Feral whimpers and grunts exploded less frequently as her goose-bumps were replaced with the coarse overcoat of a red fox. A vixen.

Gage sat back, impressed. "For a half-breed you Shifted quickly. I'm a full-blooded Walker," said Gage. "I spent an hour writhing in pain my first time; you manage a cool 23 minutes."

Dakotah lay on her belly, panting through her exhaustion. Brett leaned down and unclasped the bra that hung limp around her ribcage. "A bit of comic relief, eh?" He grinned and dangled the cotton fabric before Dakotah's nose. She snapped at his long fingers.

A raindrop splashed onto her nose, startling her into a yelp. Gage laughed and Dakotah relaxed. She barked once and wagged her tail for experiment. It was sore.

Dakotah sniffled and rubbed her bloody snout against the fur of her leg. She tugged the bra from Brett’s hand and tilted her head pointedly towards her dress and shoes and trotted to the door of her blue Ford.

“Come on, Kit,” said Brett. “Let’s see if you’re anything like your Papa.”

Dakotah huffed and sat down, ignoring Brett in favor of Gage. “Dakotah,” he pleaded, “Run with us, if only for an hour.” She looked around and stretched, trying to iron all of the kinks and soreness out, before walking slowly to the tree line. She cocked her head to the side, waiting, with her back to the two men.

“That-a-girl,” whispered a proud Brett. Gage spared him a curious look before unbuttoning his jeans and toeing off his shoes.

***

Three minutes later the boys had tucked theirs and Dakotah’s clothes in her truck and exchanged their human skins for pelts of mottled brown to camouflage their over-large bodies.

The change was as simple as falling forward for the more experienced Walkers; they fell as men and landed in their animal skins.

Gage was a formidable timber wolf and Dakotah noticed that his eyes remained hazel as they turned upwards in a lupine grin. He was forever smiling.

Brett. Now, he was unassuming at first glance. His coat was dirt brown and tinged with patches of slate that wrapped around his lanky form. His wolf had yellow eyes, bright, like a harvest moon.She had seen eyes like those, but only in her nightmares, when her brother used to tell her stories of people dragged off and eaten in the woods behind their Papa’s rural farmhouse.

The two wolves dwarfed Dakotah, flanking her on either side as they herded her into the deep forests of Washington, where unfamiliar scents and noises grappled for her undivided attention.

A staccato bark bubbled up inside of her. She flattened her ears and crowed to the trees and the squirrels chittered back. Raindrops thudded against her face but her pelt deflected them as they hit. Gage joined her and Brett sank onto his haunches, watching and listening. He kept his eyes on Dakotah.

Dakotah perked her ears up, an idea coursing through her mind. After a moment’s deliberation, she sloppily tackled Gage and sprinted off into the trees. From the corner of her eye, she could just make out Brett. He was about fifteen feet to her left and Gage was closing in on her right flank; she barreled toward Brett and leapt over his back. Unfortunately, her back foot caught his shoulder blade and her momentum tumbled them both onto their sides.

Brett growled and his hackles rose, Dakotah pushed at the muzzle in her face with a paw and tried to turn over but Brett rolled her onto her back and pressed a heavy paw against her abdomen. Dakotah whined unhappily and tucked her tail. She would submit even though he wasn’t her pack leader. Gage had said that her father lead the Washington pack.

Gage wandered over to break the tension by boxing Brett’s ear with a velvet paw. Brett turned to defend himself and Dakotah made her move. She wriggled from beneath him and turned tail, running to where a tiny creek bed was rapidly filling with rainwater and drank deeply.

A snapping twig made her flinch slightly but she was still muzzle deep in the fresh water so she didn’t pay the lumbering bear any mind at all. Bad idea.

The bear gnashed its teeth before rearing up; he thrashed the air with his ursine paws and snarled as loudly as he could. The sound ricocheted off the pines and echoed for a few seconds. Dakotah grew rigid, frozen with her nose grazing the surface of the creek. The hair on her neck rose and her claws extended painfully, curving into the soft mud of the bank.

She had never been so frightened than when she turned to face the predatory form of a large black bear. She quivered and thought fast, looking everywhere for a method of escape. The animal inched forward slowly, rather antagonistic in nature. What caught her off guard in that moment she darted beneath the bear’s legs was the lurid yellow of its eyes.


 

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