Authors: Lily Cahill
Tags: #Romance, #New Adult & College, #Paranormal, #Science Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Superheroes, #Werewolves & Shifters
Charlie watched car after car of able-bodied, physically capable people pass him as a black mood settled around him like a cloak. No one needed him out at the rockslide. He would only be in the way. What use was he as a man if he couldn’t even help his fellow townspeople in a time of disaster?
His cane was laying innocently on the seat next to him, glinting as headlights rolled by. He wanted to smash it, crush it, throw it in a fire. Logically he knew it was just a piece of metal and wood, designed to help and support him. But that didn’t stop the raging tide of fury rising inside him—knowing that without that cane, he would never walk again.
Except as a mountain lion.
The yearning to transform rushed through him. He never felt weak and inadequate as a mountain lion. He never felt resentful of his lot, or ashamed of his short-comings.
It made it so much harder to return to life as a useless, crippled man.
Maybe if he told people what he could do … but no. He had seen the way people with power were treated. Some people thought they were sick or damaged. Some people thought they were dangerous. But no one seemed to think that the outbreak of superpowers amongst the citizens of Independence Falls was a good thing.
Charlie had been diligent about keeping his secret—always transforming in private, always well away from prying eyes. Months of caution, of circumspection. Then he had given in to the desire to cheer up a pretty girl and made the monumental mistake of transforming in front of her.
What had he been thinking? He never should have approached her in the first place, let alone reveal his biggest secret. When he’d seen that crushed car, all logic had left him. All he’d been thinking about was rescuing the person inside. And now he had put himself at risk. If she told ….
He wouldn’t put it past her. Briar Steele had a reputation for telling fantastic stories, all of which were obviously made up. The girl clearly had more imagination than sense. They were in the same grade, lived next door to each other, but Charlie had always avoided her. He preferred straight shooters, and Briar was anything but.
She’d moved to Independence Falls when they both were eleven. Charlie still remembered the first time he’d seen her. He’d been playing catch in his front yard, as he did every chance he got. He was just starting to come into his height, then; just discovering that his long limbs seemed made to play baseball. His partner that night was Frank Greg, who didn’t have much of an arm but made up for it with enthusiasm. They’d been pitching to each other when Patrice Staples, his next-door neighbor, pulled into her driveway.
Charlie raised his hand to wave, then froze when he saw a small girl get out of the backseat.
She was shivering in the brisk fall air, wearing only a thin dress and sandals. Her wild blond curls were haloed around her thin, vacant face. Charlie was staring at her when he heard Frank’s shout. He turned, but he wasn’t fast enough to stop Frank’s pitch from punching him in the gut.
That’s how he usually felt around her, come to think of it. As if something had struck him and he couldn’t quite get his breath.
She’d grown up into a beauty, that was for sure. In high school, guys had come sniffing around her house. Because of her tendency to make things up, not to mention her perpetual status as the school dunce, no one really took her seriously as a girlfriend. Instead, there was plenty of locker room talk about what she was willing to do for someone who listened to her silly stories.
Charlie tried not to pay attention to rumors, but in a small town like Independence Falls they were impossible to ignore. How many of the stories about her were true? There was something about the way she had touched his fur that made him think about the way her hands would feel on his skin.
But that, he reminded himself, was ridiculous. As a cat, she had stroked his body. But as a man, she had been horrified by his scars.
Charlie pulled into his driveway just as the garage door rattled open. A moment later Charlie’s father stepped out, wearing blue plaid flannel pajamas tucked into work boots. He waved hello to Charlie with the shovel he had clasped in one hand.
Jimmy Huston had the same rangy build as his brother Rick, but lacked the cowboy swagger. “I take it you heard,” he called out as Charlie turned off his engine.
Literally, Charlie thought. He said, “I ran into Rick. He said to come pick you up.”
“Plenty of room in your truck bed to load up some tools,” Jimmy said agreeably. “And your mother is gathering up first aid supplies like she’s Florence Nightingale.”
“Fine,” Charlie said, struggling to remove the shifter pole so he could get out of the truck. “I’ll help you load.”
“Oh, there’s no need for that, son.” Jimmy’s voice was so falsely jovial Charlie wanted to smack him. “You just sit there and rest. Your mother and I can get everything loaded.”
On the heels of Rick’s dismissal, his father’s solicitude burned. Charlie managed to get the pole out with one final yank and shoved his way out of the car. “You’re the one who’s always saying I’ll never get stronger if I don’t push myself.”
“I’m talking about doing your exercises and taking an afternoon constitutional. Not going out to a disaster scene in the middle of the night.” Charlie’s father pushed a hand through his thinning hair. “Maybe you should just stay here and help your mother with the bandage brigade.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” Charlie scoffed.
“It’s important work. Someone has to—”
“It’s women’s work,” Charlie grumbled.
“I heard that,” Charlie’s mother called as she came out of the door to the house. Charlie could barely see her under an armload of blankets.
Just to prove to his father that he wasn’t completely useless, Charlie took the blankets from his mother. She tossed her sleek brown hair and straightened her sweater while Charlie limped around to lay the blankets in the bed of his truck.
“Why, thank you, Charles. But don’t you think for one second that I’m forgetting about what you just said. I think it’s time you learned a little something about women’s work.”
Charlie shifted uncomfortably. “Now, don’t get riled, Momma. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“You can start by bringing the hamper on the counter out to the car.”
“You’re bringing food? Mindy, there’s no need for that,” Charlie’s dad protested.
“Oh, now, we know that no real work is going to get done tonight. You men will get hungry after an hour or so of gawking and flapping your gums, and some cheesy-bake or monkey bread will hit the spot.”
“Cheesy-bake?” Charlie said, perking up for the first time. Transformation took it out of him, and the thought of his mother’s cheesy-bake—a gooey casserole of ground beef, bread crumbs, and layers of melted cheddar—made his mouth water.
“Not until you earn it,” his mother said, one eyebrow arched. “After all, making it was ‘women’s work.’”
She was a full foot shorter than Charlie, and he still felt like a little boy when she looked at him like that. “Not just any women’s work,” he said, with what he hoped was a winning smile. “My momma makes the best cheesy-bake in town.”
“That’s true. And what kind of mother would I be if I didn’t pass my recipes on to my son?”
Charlie felt like he had stepped in a bear trap. “But Mom—”
“I’m liking this idea more and more,” she said, tapping a fingernail to her sharp chin. “It seems you have a hole in your education. You have no idea what it takes to keep a household together.”
Charlie sent a panicked look at his father, who was studiously looking away from him. “What do bandage brigades and whatnot have to do with housework?”
“You said it was women’s work. You don’t think it’s important to make sure we have plenty of supplies in case of a natural disaster?”
“Of course that’s important, Momma, but—”
“You think because you aren’t hoisting a shovel, you aren’t working?”
That was what he thought, but he knew better than to say it to his mother. “No, ma’am.”
Mindy’s smile was devious. “I think it’s time you learned what I do around the house all day.”
“Mom, I’ve got a job. And, uh, the doctor said I shouldn’t be doing anything too strenuous, so ….”
“Hooey,” she pronounced. “You’ve had it easy, son. I let you get away with it when you were younger because you were so busy playing ball, but you’re an adult now, and it’s time you learned how to run a house. Someday you’ll want a place of your own, and you ought to be able to take care of it.”
“Yeah, right,” Charlie mumbled as a weight of despair set in his stomach. “By the time I pay off all my medical bills, I’ll be too old to take care of anything.”
“Oh, hush,” his mother said with her usual briskness. “Your lessons start right now. Come help me with the casserole dishes.”
She turned back to the house, skirt flouncing. When Charlie was sure she was out of earshot, he murmured to his father, “What’s going on with her?”
His father sighed heavily. “She’s been like a tornado since the Firelight Festival, trying to keep her mind occupied. She’s worried about all this stuff that’s been going on in town. People getting sick, kids with these crazy abilities. I tell you, son, when you were sick after that fog, we thought we might lose you.”
The fact that Jimmy’s voice thickened helped to soften Charlie’s black mood. Jimmy had to swallow hard before he continued. “After the accident, at least we knew right away that you had survived. And then there was so much to do, with your rehab and getting the house ready for you to come home. But after the fog … all we could do was wait and wonder if you were going to die, like poor Jan Clarkson.”
Charlie couldn’t remember anything from those three days. One minute, he’d been sitting at a picnic table during the Firelight Festival with his old baseball teammate Teddy Dickinson, taking discreet nips from Teddy’s flask; the next, he’d been blinking awake in a cot set up in town hall, with his parents’ worried faces hanging over him. “I’m fine, Dad. Well, as fine as I’m ever going to be.”
Charlie’s father looked like he wanted to say more, but just then a shout came from the kitchen. “Charles Wallace Huston, you get your butt in here right now!”
The two men cringed as one. “Go on,” Charlie said. “Get that stuff loaded up. Let’s get on the road before Mom finds an apron for me to wear.”
“I’m sure you’ll look very pretty in it,” Jimmy deadpanned, then backpedaled, hooting with laughter, when Charlie took a swipe at him. He jogged toward the back of the truck and hopped up into the bed in one fluid motion.
For a moment, Charlie watched. He and his father shared the same lanky frame. In the shadow cast by the light of the garage, their roles could have been reversed. His father was the young man, willing and eager to put his physical skills to use. Charlie was the old man, forced by infirmity to watch life pass him by.
Sighing, he turned and walked into the house.
Briar didn’t know what to do with herself, and neither did anyone else. Men stood around with shovels in their hands as they watched Col. Deacon’s men swarm over the rockslide. They had already established a perimeter, telling the townspeople it wasn’t safe to approach beyond the yellow line they had hastily painted on the asphalt. They were now using the helicopter to spread giant nets over the loose rock.
The sight of so many men in uniform was wreaking havoc on Briar’s nerves. It reminded her of the army post where she lived before coming to Independence Falls. It reminded her of her father, of that awful night when her life had changed forever. She could barely stand to look at them.
Mayor Watkins-Price was engrossed in conversation with Col. Deacon. They made an odd picture. The mayor was no more than five feet tall, even with her sensible pumps and puffball of teased white hair. Deacon towered over her. He seemed to be made entirely of angles—stiff spine, square jaw, a high and tight crewcut that looked like it didn’t dare grow beyond Deacon’s chosen dimensions.
The mayor seemed like a hummingbird next to him as she gestured and pointed. Deacon kept his arms firmly crossed over his chest.
Norine was huddled with Mitzi and Rhonda, her two best friends. Briar had once been part of that group, but since she lost the ability to lie she couldn’t seem to stop offending the girls. Had she once been interested in their vapid gossip and rampant speculation? It seemed impossible now.
Although, of course, Briar probably needed to be better about controlling her tongue. Mitzi was still furious at Briar for casually commenting that Mitzi laughed liked a goose. Sure, it was true, but it definitely wasn’t nice.
It had been a while since “nice” had been on Briar’s priority list. Ever since the Firelight Festival, she had been reeling with the consequences of her new ability. Her entire life, it had been easy for her to make things up, tell the sort of comforting lies that Aunt Patrice was so good at. But now, her real thoughts slipped through so much easier. But maybe she could learn something from Aunt Patrice’s ability to massage the truth. Could she have gotten away without pain if, for example, she said Mitzi laughed like a bird instead?
One of the army medics was tending to Ruth. She didn’t seem to be burned, but she had cuts and scrapes from climbing over the rocks. Nearby, Clayton Briggs stood with his wife, Cora, talking to June Powell and Ivan Sokolov. Teddy Dickinson was pacing behind them, taking anxious puffs off a cigarette.
Briar’s eyes kept coming back to Ruth. She had been so courageous, first with her father and now during the rockslide. If Ruth could face the truth abut herself and still stand tall, maybe Briar could do the same. She took a deep breath and steeled herself to walk up to the group.
She overheard Clayton saying, “We haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Like that matters,” said Ivan. “You heard them at the town meeting. They think we’re freaks.”
“But we helped,” June added. “We used our powers for the greater good.”