Published By: Dreamspinner Press
Published: Dec 17, 2012
ISBN # 9781623802431
Available in: Epub, Mobipocket (.mobi), Adobe Acrobat
Click here for the print version
As Irene’s second-in-command, Dustin Livingston has two choices: assume control of the passel or select another replacement. Unfortunately, the other candidates are either heartless or clueless. Dustin’s best hope to dodge the responsibility is to deliver a crash course in leadership to his childhood pal Seth, a man he hasn’t seen in twenty years. However, while Dustin's mind is set on his task, his heart is set on his old friend.
Seth’s quest for answers yields more questions instead. What’s with the tiny gray hairs littering his aunt’s house? Why do the townsfolk call each other “Jack” and “Jill”? Do Dustin’s attentions come with ulterior motives? And why is Seth suddenly craving crickets?
EIGHT-year-old Seth McDaniel drew in his knees and elbows, completely concealing himself behind a massive armchair. He’d been scolded often enough for sneaking uninvited into his great-aunt’s bedroom, where Auntie Irene and Nana disappeared to have grown-up talks. But he’d overheard his name mentioned more than once and, worried he’d gotten into some kind of trouble (again), couldn’t help his curiosity. Whenever his parents spoke his name when they believed him out of hearing range, he’d either later been punished or received a surprise. Seth swallowed past the lump in his throat. I won’t cry like a baby! he told himself.
Footsteps grew ever closer, the slow, shuffling gait of Auntie’s sensible shoes, followed by the clip-clop of his grandmother’s high heels against the polished wooden floor. “Tomorrow morning I’m taking Seth home with me to Chicago, away from this place.” Nana’s words struck fear in Seth’s heart. What? Chicago? Why?
“You cannot deny the child his heritage,” Auntie Irene stated, far sterner than normal.
“If not for that… that man!” Nana spat the word like something vile. “If not for that man, my daughter would still be alive! Hit by a car! At thirty-one years old! Run over by a damned Buick like a stray dog!”
“That man was my nephew Aaron, and he went back for her. Gave his life trying to save your daughter!” Irene snapped back. Her voice softened, taking on the same gentle tone she used to comfort Seth when he’d skinned a knee or woken from a bad dream. “Please. Your grandson also happens to be my nephew’s son, and the last living member of my family. Don’t take him away from me.”
Seth took a chance and peered around the back of his refuge, normally the anchor post of tent forts. The black stuff his nana wore around her eyes now ran down her face, leaving blotchy trails. Both women brushed back tears with their fingertips, only Auntie’s were clear, not black. “I’m sorry,” Nana said. “I cannot allow my daughter’s tragic end to happen to Seth. He’s coming back to Chicago with me.”
Auntie asked, barely above a whisper, “Summer? School holidays? Can he at least visit me occasionally?”
Nana sniffed, steel leaching into her words. “I don’t believe contact with any of your kind is in the boy’s best interest.”
Seth’s heart sank. “Your kind”? What did she mean by “your kind”? No visiting Auntie? No playing fort with his friend Dustin? Nana didn’t play fort, and anyway, her apartment wasn’t big enough for a soldier to hide in. He choked back a sob.
“How is denying who he is, who his parents are… were… serving his interests?”
“I’m sorry, Irene. But I’ve made up my mind and I won’t let you or anyone else convince me otherwise. He’ll live with me, and that’s final. None of this… this… nonsense.”
“But I have visitation rights! He’s my great-nephew!”
“In light of your family’s… issues, I’m afraid I’ll have to say no. And if you make any attempt to contact him without my permission, I’ll guarantee your entire family’s dirty laundry becomes public knowledge. Do I make myself clear? How my daughter ever….” Nana’s voice rose again. “How she ever allowed some freak of nature to change her!” Between sobs, she added, “I won’t let you corrupt my grandson! I won’t, I won’t, I won’t!”
“Victoria, Seth’s only half blood; chances are he’ll never change. He’s not at risk….”
“My daughter wasn’t any blood, until… until….”
Auntie dug her heels in. “My nephew didn’t force her. Your daughter made a choice.”
Seth suddenly wished he’d stayed in the living room with the others who’d come to his parents’ memorial service, even if they had confused him by saying, “There was barely even enough to bury.”
“And she chose wrong! Why couldn’t she return to Chicago after college? What brought her here to this godforsaken place?”
“She and Aaron fell in love.”
“Love! Ha! You see where their love got them.”
“Yes, it got them Seth.”
The rest of the conversation was lost on Seth, who fought the urge to both comfort his grandmother and demand that she not keep him from Auntie’s house. Who’d feed the hens and help gather the eggs? Who would Dustin tell secrets to if Seth lived in Chicago?
The two women left the room, one after the other, Auntie’s pleas apparently falling on deaf ears. Seth spread his legs out in front of him, tears dripping down his cheeks. First he’d lost his parents, now it appeared he’d lose Auntie and Dustin too. What did Nana mean about Daddy’s family?
“Seth? You in here?”
Dustin made a beeline for the chair. He always seemed to sense where Seth was, making hide-and-seek an unwinnable game.
“Oh, Seth. Are you alright?” Dustin squatted beside the chair, wiping tears from Seth’s face with the tail of his Sunday best shirt.
Red-haired, freckle-faced, and green-eyed, ten-year-old Dustin Livingston was Seth’s best friend. Many nights they’d stayed at each other’s houses, chatting until the rooster crowed. The prospect of never seeing Dustin again broke what little remained of Seth’s heart.
“I want Mama and Daddy back!” Seth wailed, afraid to tell what he’d overheard. If he didn’t tell, it might not be true, right?
“Shhh….” The hands normally used to tickle him, give noogies, or playfully punch an arm lifted Seth’s sopping face. “You got me. I ain’t going nowhere.”
The dam broke and Seth wailed in earnest. “Nana’s taking me away! Says I can’t come back here, ever!”
Dustin held him while he cried, murmuring, “You’ll come back one day. And when you do, I’ll still be here—waiting.” He reached into his pocket and then pressed something into Seth’s palm.
Through a glaze of tears, Seth stared at his friend’s prized possession. “I can’t take your lucky arrowhead. What will you do without your luck?”
“You need luck right now worse than I do, I reckon. Maybe it’ll make you lucky enough to get to stay.”
The arrowhead didn’t work.
The next morning Auntie Irene woke Seth early and made his favorite pancakes, served with homemade blackberry syrup. She didn’t smile or sing like usual, and the corners of her mouth turned down in a frown.
Seth finally worked up enough nerve to ask, “Am I in trouble?”
Auntie looked up from the fork she pushed around her plate, rearranging her meal without actually eating. “In trouble? What on earth gave you that idea?”
“I dunno.” Seth shrugged. “You don’t look happy, and when I’m bad I make you sad.”
“Oh, you sweet boy. You sweet, sweet boy. No, you haven’t done anything wrong.” She dropped her fork to the plate with a clatter and scooped Seth into her arms, sniffling into his hair. “Oh, baby. I love you so much. Never forget that. Promise me.”
“I promise, Auntie.”
A car horn sounded outside and Auntie Irene straightened, wiping her cheek with the back of her hand. “Your grandmother is here. We have to get you ready to go.”
“Go? Why can’t I stay here with you?”
“I want you to, but you can’t. You have to go with your grandmother.”
Panic seized Seth’s heart. “Why, Auntie? I don’t want to go! I wanna stay here with you and Dustin! I’ll be good, I promise! Please don’t make me go! Please!” Tears flooded his eyes, spilling over onto his cheeks.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. I really am. But you have to go.”
Nothing more was said as they loaded Seth’s suitcases into Nana’s rental car. Auntie dropped to her knees and pulled him close one more time, squeezing the breath out of him. “I love you, sweetie,” she whispered into his hair. She buried her face in his neck, whiffing deeply.
“Love you too, Auntie,” he mumbled weakly, his heart about to split in two.
Auntie Irene released her hold and stood, giving Seth a strained smile. Nana bustled him into the car, ignoring Seth’s, “No! I wanna stay here! I don’t wanna go!”
Nana kicked up dust from the red Georgia clay in her hurry to get to the Atlanta airport. Seth spotted Dustin on the side of the road on his bicycle as they whizzed by. Dustin turned when he saw the car, pumping the pedals to try to keep up. Through the back window, Seth watched a copper-crowned head growing smaller and smaller, finally fading from view. He didn’t stop crying until he reached Chicago.
DR. DUSTIN LIVINGSTON finished his shower, slightly amused at the irony of showering and grooming when in a few hours he’d be ambling on four legs through weeds, hunting earthworms and other munchable critters, and exploring vacant burrows. “If you’re going to act like an animal, at least be civilized about it,” his mother always said. Of course, his mother would likely root around the yard of her Florida retirement home tonight too.
He missed his mother, yet missed his dad more, for a simple phone call connected him with Mom, but Dad was beyond reaching out to now. Dustin sighed. After tonight, he’d have one more person to miss, one who directly affected the path of his future.
Since his birth, Irene McDaniel had played a huge role in his life: mentor, leader, teacher, friend. Tonight would be her last. After far more years than most folks realized, her strength had reached an end. She’d not survive another full moon.
Heart heavy, he drove to Irene’s in silence. Several cars crowded the yard of the old woman’s farmhouse, and Monica Sims’s beat-up Silverado proved a welcome sight. He’d need her support tonight.
He parked next to Monica’s truck and entered the house he’d practically grown up in, his eyes automatically landing on the photos displayed on the mantel. By rights, Irene’s great-nephew should assume the torch at her passing, but Seth McDaniel hadn’t darkened her door in twenty years. Out of long habit, Dustin paused a moment by Seth’s picture, a knife twisting in his heart. Damn, but he wished his childhood friend were here.
Through a crowd much too large for even the spacious farmhouse, Dustin sought out a familiar blonde. He found her in the kitchen. Normally Monica kept her thigh-length tresses bound in neat braids, but not tonight. Tonight her hair, like the woman, would run free, golden waves flowing over her broad shoulders. Even without the beacon of her shiny locks, the six-foot nursing assistant towered head and shoulders over many gathered tonight.
She noticed Dustin and fought her way through the crowd, pressing her lips tightly together.
“Hey!” shouted a red-faced man, industriously slapping sandwiches together in an assembly line for a woman to place on the floor. “Mine’s the one with mustard and pimiento. Don’t step on it!”
Monica ignored him. Every eye turned to her, even while young and old scrambled out of the way of a woman on a mission. “The tension in here’s so thick you can cut it with a knife,” she said after finally elbowing her way to Dustin’s side.
Dustin, at five foot seven, rose on his toes to hear her better over the others’ chatter. “Well, it’s not every day the passel loses a leader after fifty years.” If the shifters who made up the passel were a family, tonight they’d lose their mother.
Dustin and Monica shared a quiet, eye-to-eye moment, tuning out the chaos around them. Monica’s “all business” expression softened. “She’s asking for you.”
“I’d best not keep the lady waiting. Can you manage things out here?”
“Short term? Yes. In a few hours? Not on your life. I wish we’d shift in the field. Less mess and a whole lot more room.”
Dustin agreed wholeheartedly. Soon, all hell would break loose, turning Irene’s house into a disaster zone. “Yeah, but tonight will be her last. She wants the passel with her, and she wants to spend her last night in the house she grew up in.”
Dozens of eyes followed Dustin’s progress down the hall, where he quietly knocked and then entered Irene’s room before closing the door behind him.
“Ralph.” He nodded to the elderly man sitting at Irene’s beside, tenderly stroking her arthritic fingers.
“Doctor.” Ralph Mason, county coroner, rose from his chair. Dustin didn’t miss the bittersweet smile the two seniors shared. Though not passel, Ralph and Irene’s friendship ran deep; the old man would miss her upon her passing—as would half the county.
“Is everything in order?” Dustin pretended not to notice Ralph drawing Irene’s hand to his lips.
“Yes. I’ve got the papers ready, waiting for your signature.” The coroner reached his free hand over and tapped a manila envelope lying on a dresser. “And per Irene’s instructions, I’ll wait until after her official burial to contact her next of kin. Less explaining to do that way.”
“It’d be a whole lot easier if what we see in movies was real and we turned back human if we die in shifter form.”
“Yeah, Doc, but you know as well as I do that this is how she’d want it. The moon will help her make the change, but she’s too weak to change back on her own.”
In a few short hours, Dustin, a medical doctor, would pronounce Irene legally dead, verified by the county coroner. They would bury her body in the wild, with the funeral parlor in town providing documentation of a burial in the local churchyard, should any curious parties ask questions.
Such had been the way of Possum Kingdom since the town’s creation. A world within a world, playing fast and loose with human laws while hiding in plain sight.
“Promise me?” Irene’s raspy voice ended both the spoken and unspoken conversations taking place between the two men.
Dustin stepped closer to the bed, bending his slight frame to better hear Irene’s whispered plea. “Promise you what, my Jill?” he asked, though already suspecting the nature of her request.
“It must be you; there’s no one else.”
Dustin’s heart sank. “But the title should be passed to your family. I love you like my own mother, but we’re not blood kin. What will the passel think?” The passel, one-hundred-fifty-odd strong, were a fickle bunch, ranging from the easily led to die-hard traditionalists. His leadership wouldn’t be accepted without a challenge or two. Challenges became messy, as he’d witnessed before with other groups. No one had ever second-guessed his Jill, however.
“They’ll agree with my decision. You’re the best man for the job.” The wizened lady lying in the bed, formidable despite her advanced years, leveled him with her steely eyed gaze, the same one that had backed down many a young joey.
“Besides, the only kin I have is partial blood. Had that woman allowed contact over the years, it might be a different story. Because of her meddling, Seth grew up with no idea of his legacy. Even if he did, he’d have a decision to make. Not every half blood chooses to become a full-fledged passel member, especially at his age.”
Dustin clearly remembered Seth’s tear-streaked face the day his maternal grandmother had taken him away from the house twenty years ago. Twenty years. Had it truly been two decades since they’d last seen each other? “She’s been gone for a couple of years now. Have you even contacted Seth and asked him to come home?” Dustin clutched at one last straw, his heart filled with longing. Thoughts of Seth McDaniel brought to mind shaggy brown-and-gold hair and dark-brown eyes, hazed by tears. Even now, after twenty years, the memory brought a lump to Dustin’s throat. Seth, ripped away from his life by “the evil harpy from the north,” the label Dustin had given Seth’s closed-minded grandmother. Oh, how he’d cried, wanting his friend back.
“He comes from a different world and has his own life there. We can’t expect him to understand his true path since no one’s been there to teach him who he really is.” Irene lifted a trembling hand to stroke Dustin’s cheek. “He doesn’t even know about the passel, so how can he love them like you do?” One heavy-lidded eye winked. “Though he might make a good coleader one day, if his inheritance manages to lure him down from Chicago.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve left him the house in hopes he’ll decide to live here. If he’s here, he’ll need a friend.” She lowered her voice, adding, “And possibly more.”
“Are you telling me Seth’s gay? How could you know such a thing?” No matter how strong her power to know the truth in people, truths most others would never see, surely her reach couldn’t extend to someone so far removed.
The weak sound she made could have been a chuckle. “Down at the library, the Johnson boys showed me what they call a ‘social media site’ on the Internet. Seth is a photographer and takes lovely photos, he’s interested in men, and he’s single.” A crease appeared above her brow. “He changed his status to ‘it’s complicated’, once, whatever that means. Although I can’t understand why folks tell everything about themselves for strangers to read, I did learn a thing or two about my great-nephew.” An expression of sheer satisfaction momentarily smoothed her wrinkles. “He’s the spitting image of his daddy.”
What? The old lady lay on her deathbed, trying to play matchmaker? “Are you suggesting I date your great-nephew? The passel won’t accept such a thing! Remember what happened to the fox shifters when their leader chose a male mate.”
Back in the sixties a handful of independent foxes had shown up seeking protection and guidance to form their own skulk. Their ranks swelled, close to fifty now, but without Irene’s intervention, a battle for command of the skulk a few years ago might have raged out of control.
“Ah, but the old Reynard wasn’t strong enough to retain power. Andy Coleman is much better suited for the job.”
Dustin’s stomach churned, as it always did when someone reminded him of the skulk’s current Reynard, and what Dustin had personally given up to secure Andy’s leadership. The vixen Andy had married to appease his people was expecting twins, due in late fall.
“You could always do as leaders have in the past,” Irene murmured. “Name Monica your official mate and keep a male lover. If he doesn’t interfere with passel politics, they’d accept such an arrangement. Plus, Seth’s a McDaniel. They have to respect the name.”
“Such an arrangement wouldn’t be fair to me, him, or Monica.”
“Ah!” The lady smiled, the uplifting of her mouth easing pain lines from her face. “You admit there is someone?”
“Not anymore,” Dustin murmured.
Irene ran her knotted fingers gently against Dustin’s cheek. “You still miss your Reynard.”
No use denying. “Yes, ma’am.”
“He chose tradition, took a vixen for his mate. It wasn’t personal, and he still thinks highly of you.”
Dustin nodded. “We remain friends, nothing more.”
Irene tugged Dustin down to swipe her chapped lips against his cheek and whisper, “You deserve better.”
Picturing Andy and his missus, laughing, happy, and planning the arrival of their twins, Dustin closed his eyes, willing the residual hurt from his mind and heart. “Yes, I do.”
Dustin stayed at Irene’s bedside until the sun began to set. He didn’t need to see the moon edging over the rim of the world—lunar power pulsed deep within him. Irene’s widened eyes and her fingertips scrabbling against Dustin’s face told him she sensed the moonrise too.
“One more time,” she whispered. “Help me!”
Having seen her naked on most full moons, and being her doctor, Dustin didn’t hesitate to help the elderly lady disrobe. The coroner, on the other hand, suddenly found the drapes of great interest.
“I have to go,” Dustin said, slipping off his jeans and T-shirt. He wore nothing underneath. The less clothes the better. The passel had no problems with public nudity.
“Dusty! You better get out here!” Monica shrieked from outside the door.
Torn between his duty to the passel and the need to be with his leader when she breathed her last, Dustin hesitated.
Irene relieved him of a tough decision. “You go on. In a few moments, they’ll need you more than I.”
“I’ll be with her,” Ralph said, stepping up to the bed.
Pressing his lips to Irene’s forehead, Dustin replied, “Until we meet again, my Jill.”
A transformation that years of med school couldn’t explain rippled through Dustin’s body, shortening his limbs, elongating his snout, multiplying his teeth, and judiciously applying a tail. He squeaked and scurried off, grateful to Monica for pulling the door ajar while she still possessed human hands.
Outside the door pandemonium reigned, furry bodies scampering around Irene’s kitchen, devouring any food in sight. Two fat, gray possums scuffled over an olive. Dustin ordered, “Follow me,” and barreled through the hole in the wall, sidestepping a puddle of water from the leaky water heater. He blazed a trail outside, where the passel would engage their beastly sides until dawn. “June bugs beware!” Dustin chirped, wading into a moveable, or rather, moving, feast.
From sundown to sunrise, Dustin reveled in his animal nature, keeping a cautious eye out for others of his kind. Unseen, nonshifting guards hovered around the perimeter, alert for predators.
The sixteen-year-old Johnson boys, the passel’s newest full-fledged members, had shifted for the first time six months prior. They’d proudly visited Dustin’s office to show off their recently learned ability to shift at will. Dustin only hoped he wouldn’t be called to the county high school anymore to explain when one accidently lost control in gym class. He’d done a heck of a lot of lying to the other students to convince them the three brothers had merely played a prank, and Eddy Johnson hadn’t actually turned into an animal during a volleyball game. A bit of fast-talking and a little smoke and mirrors involving the football team’s mascot, Petey the Possum, had effectively covered the trio’s shenanigans—for the time being.
One other needed watching over too, and Dustin moseyed over to the spot where he’d sensed a relatively new member snuffling around in the grass. One night a pretty young bride, wanting to share everything with her new husband, had said, “Bite me,” a phrase with a literal meaning in Possum Kingdom.
Those not born with the Channing-Frost virus—colloquially referred to as the changeling virus—in their blood were prone to more animalistic instincts, resulting in unfortunate accidents like the one involving Seth’s mother. Without her human knowledge, she’d merely stood in the middle of the road, mesmerized by a car’s headlights. Seth’s father had raced back to save her, too late. Both died in possum form. Empty caskets lay buried in the First Baptist Church of Possum Kingdom’s cemetery, a proper burial held to appease Seth’s “Yankee” grandmother. As an added precaution against history repeating itself, Dustin had put this bride to work in his practice as his receptionist, maintaining an ever-watchful eye.
Not for the first time, Dustin wondered where Seth was, what he was doing, and hoped he was happy doing it.
Daylight came and Dustin straggled back to the house. He crept naked into Irene’s bedroom and slipped on his jeans.
Ralph sat beside the bed in a brocaded chair, eyes red from a combination of tears and lack of sleep. He stroked a still, furry body on the bed. “She went quickly,” he said. “Without pain.”
A stack of forms lay on the dresser, and Dustin, heart heavy, signed on the appropriate lines, making Irene’s death official before shoving the documents back into the envelope and handing them to Ralph.
“Would you like to come with me?” Dustin scooped up the tiny body, hugging his beloved leader’s remains to his chest and lightly stroking an ear. A single tear slipped down his nose, splashing against her fur.
Together the two men stepped out into an early summer day. Men and women in varying degrees of nakedness fell in stride beside them. Dustin’s steps slowed as he trudged toward his destination, a small pond situated on the back of Irene’s property. Beneath a pin oak, he placed the body into a prepared hole and then paused to take a deep breath. While her second-in-command had every right to tend her body, the moment Dustin lifted the waiting shovel and tossed the first bit of earth into the hole, he announced his intention to provide a successor for Irene, either by choosing a viable candidate or assuming the role himself. He heard a few murmurs from various passel members, some favorable, some not, but chose to ignore them for the time being.
After flinging in the ceremonial shovel full of dirt, he relinquished the tool to Monica, who vouchsafed him by adding her own contribution to Irene’s burial.
The elders stepped up, one by one, saying their good-byes. After each member of the passel had spoken their piece and tossed in dirt, they drifted away, leaving only Dustin, Monica, and the coroner. Dustin placed a stone marker over the grave, to keep other creatures from digging up the remains, and then stood, brushing his hands on his jeans.
A light breeze cooled his sweaty brow and he gazed down at the new grave, kept company by several others. Though gravestones in a cemetery in town bore the names of Seth’s parents, their actual bodies rested here, along with Irene’s brother and his wife, Irene’s father and mother, and an uncle. Dustin had paid for a marker for Irene in town, in keeping with tradition, to preserve shifter ways from the blissfully ignorant.
“It’s peaceful here,” Monica murmured.
“The family chose this spot for a reason,” Dustin replied.
“What do you suppose will happen if Irene’s great-nephew inherits and sells the farm? What will happen to her and the rest buried here?”
“I reckon I’ll have to buy the place.” He’d go in debt up to his eyeballs to keep Irene’s heritage from falling into the wrong hands.
Dustin, Monica, and Ralph stood over the grave, each lost in their own thoughts, sniffles and the occasional sob marking their shared mourning.
PICKING his way through tall grass back to his truck, Dustin spotted one of the Johnson boys. “Hey,” he said. “How about you and your brothers clean up Irene’s house before her nephew arrives?”
“Sure,” the boy said. “Let me go find ’em.”