by Diana A. Hart
The squeals of the horde grew closer. I pulled in a breath, thick with wood and old newsprint, and reared onto my hind legs. My knees ached as I staggered to the center of the room. Standing upright was a breeze as a woman, but I was in bear-form, and grizzlies sure as hell aren’t meant to walk that way. My muzzle wrinkled as I pawed my wide-brimmed hat into place and braced for impact.
A pack of first-graders rounded the corner, flapping coloring books and screeching like howler monkeys on espresso. I snorted. They made a beeline for the menagerie of stuffed wildlife that lined the visitor center walls. Somehow the National Park Service expected coarse rope and a burnt wood “Do Not Touch” sign to stem the tide. It never worked. I cleared my throat as the grade-school piranhas reached for their taxidermied victims. The horde turned toward me, and eyes and mouths went wide.
A girl with mussed hair and a Last Unicorn t-shirt raised a chubby finger. “It’s—”
“That’s right,” I said. Well, rumbled, really. Being a grizzly kind of screws your “inside voice.” I jabbed a paw at them. “Remember, kids: Only you can prevent forest fires.”
A collective screech hit my ears. I winced and then they were on me. Most were well behaved, content to bounce up and down and jabber at me as if I were some woodland Santa Claus, but there’s always those few who mistake me for a jungle gym. By the time Kelsi and the chaperones arrived, a pair of boys clung to my shoulders and somebody dangled from my ruff. Their prim, proper, perfectly human teacher just laughed and took pictures.
I clenched my jaw and glowered at the woman. Her heavily moussed curls showed no signs of abuse, and her dress was shoeprint-free. Oh no, her little angels wouldn’t dare treat a normie like this, but shifters? A boy stuck his finger in my nose. I sneezed and wrestled him off my shoulder and plopped him on the floor. According to the President, we’re just animals. And thanks to his Supernatural Registration Act, I’d been downgraded from NOAA researcher to Park Service mascot.
The remaining shoulder-percher tried to steal my hat. Cooing over his cuteness, one of the chaperones blinded me with a camera flash. My pulse rose. I slapped a paw on top of my hat and weighed mentioning they were technically photographing a topless woman. I knew from experience it’d stop the pictures. I also knew it shrank my paycheck.
Instead I bit my tongue and locked eyes with Kelsi. The humanoid, five-foot-six raccoon had a child wrapped around each leg and her Stetson hung akimbo. My brow creased. What the heck is it with kids and hats? She shook her head and mouthed “Get on with it.”
I took a deep breath and bellowed over the din, “Do you know what the number-one cause of forest fires is, Ranger Rick?”
One of Kelsi’s leg-limpets wiped his nose on her calf. Her tail puffed from irritated to “just-shoot-me-now.”
“I dunno, Smokey,” she said, sticking to the godawful script.
I put a paw on my hip and frowned. It didn’t take much acting. My knees were screaming. “Well, that’s no good.” I flashed a sharp-toothed grin at the pair still yanking my fur. Their faces paled. “Do you know?” They just slid to the floor. My muscles unknotted. Finally. I rolled my shoulders and turned to the horde. “Can anybody tell Ranger Rick the number-one cause of fires?”
All of the kids babbled their guesses, including a shrill cry of “dragons.” My smile turned just a bit real.
The teacher finally settled her class in neat, cross-legged rows so Kelsi and I could give our presentation on fire safety, conservation, and how feeding the bears got people mauled. I’d done the routine so many times my brain just clicked to autopilot and let me watch the crowd during our show. Usually when Kelsi started juggling cans and tossing them in a recycle bin, the kids’ attention would drift, but every once in a while, you’d get that one child whose gaze stayed bright, boring into us with a hungry fire. Most wanted to be Rangers or scientists. Others were happy just seeing fellow shifters flash fur after the Registry.
My shoulders slumped. Today was just window-gazers and coloring enthusiasts.
* * *
After the Hoh Visitor’s Center closed, I shifted back to human form. Having thumbs and an athletic build was a welcome change from “nature’s tank.” I traded oversized trousers for human garb, grabbed my gear from my locker, and dashed for the trail, my grizzly-brown locks whipping in the wind. I grinned as the air kissed my face. There were a few hours of daylight left, enough to take some readings of the river if I hurried.
By the time I reached my favorite spot — a fast-flowing curve of water, shielded from intrusion by a steep hike and moss-covered hemlocks — the light had faded to a pale orange blush. Looming night and the glacier-fed river chilled the summer air. Goosebumps spread over my skin as I crunched along the gravel bar. A goldfinch sang somewhere along the far bank and the scent of evergreens and wet earth flooded my senses. My muscles relaxed as nature’s perfume washed away memories of pulled fur, sticky fingers, and painfully boring scripts.
I headed for a fire-downed hemlock. The charred tree was over a hundred feet long, trailing through the woods, across the bank, and into the river. I set my pack beside the dead giant and admired its blanket of ferns and spindly saplings. My breath slowed in quiet awe. Even in death the trees give life. Snags like this one allowed fresh growth and, when they dipped into the water, sheltered fish and other aquatic fauna. It was the latter I was really interested in.
I pulled out a flow meter and stake, then waded into the river. Liquid ice hit my calves. I gasped. Good money said it was about fifty degrees, but I’d check that last. My brain didn’t need any help on the “this stuff will give you hypothermia” front. I waded mid-stream, teeth chattering.
“You should be watching around you, Lily,” a deep voice rumbled. I clutched my chest and wheeled toward the sound. A black grizzly sat at the end of the snag, camouflaged by the tangle of branches, munching a trout as the water churned about his belly. He fixed me with moss-green eyes. “Dangerous, startling bears.”
“Jesus, Michail!” I said. My heart was stuck on ‘seizuring rabbit.’ “What are you doing here?”
His brow furrowed. “I was missing you,” he said, Russian accent deepening his rumble.
My chest squeezed. It’s been, what, three weeks? Four? Long enough I couldn’t remember. Guilt bowed my shoulders. I knew he couldn’t come by the visitor’s center — dodging the Registry had ended that years ago — so on my days off I was supposed to hike up Mount Tom Creek and meet him at our arch. I buried my face in my palm. “I’m sorry. It’s fieldtrip season…” The excuse tasted sour, yet I kept babbling. “They’re splitting my days off and I had to get readings before—”
Michail clicked his tongue. “Lyubov moya, no apologies for your research.” I heard the lip-curl in his voice. “You are more than carnival exhibit.”
I lifted my chin. “That’s Interpretive Ranger, thank you.” I was aiming for offended, but judging by the tilt of Michail’s head, I’d landed somewhere between ‘pouty’ and ‘pitiful.’ My lips tightened. Great. He dropped his trout and waded toward me. Double great. I averted my eyes and drove the flow meter’s stake into the riverbed. The last thing I needed right now was distraction and Michail was delightfully good at that.
I attached a temperature probe to the post. “Bit busy, Michail.”
Small waves lapped my waist. His muzzle slid under my jaw in a cool caress. Eau de wet fur spiced the air. Most people would find the odor off-putting, but when you can turn into a bear — and have shared god remembers how many showers with one — it’s comforting. Homey, even. I inhaled despite myself.
“Zoloste.” His voice vibrated my bones. “I worry for you.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. This script was as familiar as my Smokey routine. He would start with “I escaped Motherland, fled Soviet persecution,” then move on to “Registry is seed of American tyranny,” and finish with another plea for me to join him as a nature-preserve-nudist. My chest lurched. Would it really be that bad? Wandering the mists, plucking fish straight from the rivers, dew settling on our fur in the mornings… I huffed and skipped to the end of our verbal dance.
“Running tells the normies harassment works. Makes it harder for the next shifter.” Checking my cables one last time, I slogged out of the river, shivering as wet clothes clung to my skin. Michail strode after me. “Besides.” I turned around and shrugged. “Playing Smokey earns brownie points, means Park Manager Dawson publishes my data.” Bitterness clung to my tongue. These days it was the only way I could get something in print.
Michail frowned. Well, as much as a grizzly can, anyway. “Appeasement only means you are on knees when knife comes out.”
My mouth went dry. I put my hand on my hip, as much to banish fear as to halt protest. “Did you come to argue with me or what?”
His jaw tightened. “…no.” Michail never liked backing down but after a few years and a couple of bear-brawls, he’d learned to let things drop. Still, it took a few seconds for his gaze to cool from ‘pissed’ to ‘smolder.’ He grinned. Paced closer. “There are better things to do.”
I laughed as he loomed over me. Lord, don’t let a hiker see us now. They’d think Michail was attacking and jump in to save me. “You’re terrible,” I said. “I have to take readings, remember?”
Hot breath brushed my neck. Water dripped on my skin in cool contrast. “As you Americans say, ‘all work and no play’…”
“You could help, medved,” I said and swatted his nose. “Make it go faster.”
He rolled his eyes playfully. “If I must.” A hearty shake sent water everywhere. I squeaked and threw my hands up.
Michail grimaced as the shift began. Soft pops of bone echoed over the river’s churn. Midnight fur gave way to rosy skin, exquisitely toned muscles steaming with shift-fever. His muzzle shortened and twisted back to the square jaw and high cheekbones I’d loved to trace in the mornings. Fading scratches and a thin new scar granted him a feral look.
I didn’t gape. Just… flushed more than I cared to admit.
Michail let out a whoosh of air and brushed back now-untamed hair. Warmth lurched through me. While I was stunned, he leaned in for a kiss. His tongue still carried the light, gamey tang of fish. Our lips parted, and he gently hooked my chin. “You were staring again, zoloste.” Hot-faced, I sputtered some excuse, but he just laughed and headed for my backpack.
While he rummaged through my gear, I touched my lips and rolled the taste of fish in my mouth. My eyes narrowed. Cutthroat trout? The sneak knew it was my favorite. He was tempting me, reminding me what civilization lacked. I crossed my arms. I wasn’t sure if I should beam or growl.
Michail produced my battered notebook. “I will record data for you, yes?” he said, leafing through the pages
I let my arms drop. It was too nice a night, the company too pretty, to stay stressed. “Yeah. Sure.”
He turned around and took up a wide-footed stance. A rakish grin left no doubt that the view was intentional. “So,” he said, twirling a pen. “Where is it you want it?”
* * *
Dawn brought crisp air and cold rain. Soaked and breathing hard, I jogged into the dingy locker room and threw my pack on the bench. Currently human, Kelsi peeked around her locker door. Minus raccoon-gray hair and mottled eyebrows, she reminded me of an Octoberfest ad: econo-sized bosoms, ample curves, and a smile that could heatstroke a penguin.
“Decided to camp out, huh?” she said.
I mumbled an affirmative and spun my lock.
“Hold still.” Kelsi plucked a leaf from my hair. “You brought a souvenir.”
Heat crept up my neck. Traces of Michail’s bear musk clung to my skin. Add in twiggy locks and any shifter with a decent nose would know exactly what I’d been up to. Still, Kelsi didn’t cock an eyebrow or anything. Either she had the best poker face ever — unlikely, given her delighted squeals during Uno — or she had the nose of a normie.
Acting as if nothing was amiss, I opened my dented locker. “Just getting some early readings.”
“You should have taken longer,” she said and pulled up her sweater. Fabric muffled her voice. “Missed the first bus.”
“The job’s not that bad,” I said. Water dripped from my nose. A quick puff blew it away. “Free park admission, free uniform…” I pulled out my oversized pair of trousers. “Well, part of one, anyway.”
“It’d be better if the kids gave a crap,” Kelsi said and traded pants for short-shorts. Ranger Rick was always drawn commando, but she’d talked Dawson into letting her keep some semblance of dignity. “If I were you, I’d take a gig at the zoo.”
I paused. “…what?”
“Yeah, Woodland Zoo? They pay shifters to hang out in the enclosures.” She plopped her Stetson on her head. “If I wasn’t a hybrid-form, I’d do it. Put some glass between me and the little monsters.”
I nodded to the clock over the door. “The ones here in seven minutes?”
Kelsi’s eyes widened. “Crap!” She threw on her vest and the scent of raccoon filled the air. A pained gasp escaped as her tailbone popped and stretched to four feet of plume. Fur in place, she dashed into the darkened visitor’s center, shouting “I have to get the coloring books ready!”
I wasn’t expected to lay out activities for the kids, bears lacking thumbs and all, but I still hastily peeled off my clothes. When the kids arrived I needed to be in place with my back to a wall. Walking through the visitor center only turned the horde into piggy-back-hungry velociraptors. I waded into my pants and summoned the change.
An inferno swept through my blood, turning it to a furnace. Pain sledgehammered me into an ursine shape. Once the heat and shakiness faded, I lumbered for the door, claws clicking on the tile. A draft made me stop. Uh oh. I peered down. Sure enough, I’d forgotten to close my fly. I lolled my head back. Having thumbs would save my dignity but a wardrobe adjustment wasn’t worth shifting to human and back.
“Kelsi?” I called. Turns out swallowing pride makes your ears droop. “I need a zip.”
The next few hours continued to slide into what we called ‘retirement impetus:’ no eager learners, Q&A mostly focused on if we pooped in the woods, somebody turned our six point buck into a five-and-a-half, and a rug-rat spilled apple juice on me.
During a lull I went to the bathroom, pawed the water on, and wasted a tree’s worth of paper towels trying to get clean. All I really accomplished was soaking the front of my trousers. I grumbled and swatted the faucet shut. No kids, Smokey just gets super excited putting out fires!
Padding back into the visitor’s center, a wave of newsprint-scented air hit me. Gun-oil and fear came with it.
Ice whispered up my spine. Appeasement only means you are on knees when knife comes out. Pushing back Michail’s warning, I snuffled the air, certain there was a less-paranoid explanation. Dawson’s cologne teased my nose. I loped toward the scent, taxidermy animals staring after me with dead eyes.
Three Law Enforcement Rangers waited in the lobby. The trio projected that ‘everything’s under control’ vibe, but the tightness of their jaws told a different story. Dawson, back military straight, talked with Kelsi in a low and furtive tone. Her eyes were wide and her tail tucked.
I cleared my throat. “Everything okay?”
They turned. Worry darkened Kelsi’s gaze. Dawson’s was a flat, cold gray.
“There’s been an attack,” she squeaked.
“Hikers, near Mount Tom Creek,” Dawson said. His grip tightened on a Ziploc full of rags. Even sealed, I whiffed blood and grizzly. My throat constricted. Michail.
“Casualties?” I asked.
“One dead, two injured.”
My pulse thudded in my ears. He had to have a reason. “What happened?”
Dawson shook his head. “Group stepped off the trail, black bear charged them—”
“Grizzly,” one of the guards interrupted. “Said it was nine feet when it reared.”
“That’s impossible,” I said. My insides were a leaden mass. “There’re no grizzlies in the Olympics.”
“And Lily was here all morning,” Kelsi said quickly.
Dawson sniffed. “Misjudged size in the confusion. Standard fear response.” He took off his Stetson and rubbed his buzz cut. “Still. Bear that’ll attack people. . .” His unspoken intent roared in my ears. It needs to be put down. Nausea washed over me. Dawson kept talking. “When the next class comes, escort them on and off the bus and keep them in the visitor’s center.”
“What’s your plan?” I asked, voice shaking. Hopefully they would misread my concern and think I was fretting over the visitors.
“For now we’re closing the trail and escorting hikers to safer areas.” He waggled the bag of rags. “In the meantime, we’ve asked local hunters to bring their dogs.”
Bile filled my throat. Dogs. My legs ached, screamed with the need to run and find Michail before the law did. They’re bringing dogs. If I could just talk to him, let him explain, we might be able to convince Dawson that the attack had been provoked, an act of self-preservation. But if the dogs found him first—
“Lily.” Dawson put a hand on my shoulder. I jerked. “Until we bag this thing, no more readings, okay?” he said, trying to give me a little shake. Didn’t work. I was over eight hundred pounds. “We can’t lose Smokey.”
I nodded. Inside I was growling. “Yeah. Sure.”
* * *
Branches whipped my face as I ran. Rain pounded my Gore-Tex and roared in my ears. My pulse was louder. He has to be there. I kept running, lungs burning as I dodged roots and night-shrouded trees. Being a shifter let me see in the dark, but with hunters on the way I had to stay human, dulling my senses. Still, my nose was sharp enough so I could smell Michail.
His trail, sweet, musky, and male, twined along Mount Tom Creek, quickly eroding in the rain. A coppery tang knotted my gut. Blood. Shifters were spectacular healers, able to close most wounds in a few days, but we could still bleed to death. And in this storm there was no telling how much Michail had lost. I scrambled upstream, fear lancing my heart.
He has to be there.
A pair of familiar hemlocks loomed in the night. I let out a sobbing, foggy breath. The ancient trees straddled the water, undercut by the river ages ago, but instead of toppling into the currents they’d fallen against each other, their combined strength resisting the elements until time had fused them together. Branches reached as one for the sky while conjoined roots formed a slight shelter. I spied Michail inside the ancient tangle, hunkered over in human form.
“Michail!” I called, staggering closer.
His head snapped up. Pain rasped his voice. “Lily?”
I ducked under the roots, frigid water pouring into my shoes. Blood-tang filled my nose. Michail sat on a tangle of driftwood clutching a denuded, gore-coated stick. An unusual pallor haunted his skin.
His brow wrinkled. “Lyubov moya, why—”
“I smelled you on those hiker’s clothes,” I said. My throat constricted. There were… holes in him. On his side. His back. In the dark they wept black.
“Poachers, zoloste,” he hissed and dug the stick into a hip wound. I yelped and darted for the branch. A flash of metal stopped me. Michail held up the deformed slug, fingers stained. “Thought I was a prize black-bear.” He flicked the bullet into the gurgling stream. “Mudak.”
I swallowed bile. Self-defense. They’d tried to shoot him, and he’d fought back. I threw my arms around him, shaking. It was self-defense. “We have to get you to the Ranger’s Station.” From there we could summon a doctor, call the police—
The word hit like a punch. I pulled back. “What?”
“I go back, my name is in Registry as bear.”
Temper warmed my blood. I grabbed him by the shoulders. “Damn it, Michail! You’re not running from Stalin anymore!”
“Chernenko,” Michail corrected. He shrugged. Winced. “And doesn’t matter. Judge says innocent, someone always says guilty. They find me by Registry and…” He put his fingers to his head and mimed a gunshot.
My jaw dropped. “People aren’t like that!”
Michail’s eyes narrowed. “Zoloste. My father died for raising me Orthodox.” His words were sharp as a blade. “Because friends told Special Committee.” He set aside his stick and twined his bloodied fingers in mine. “Poachers will demand bear. Vengeance.” He squeezed. “You must come, run to Mount Tom.”
I pulled loose and pinched the bridge of my nose. “Michail, I can’t—” He lolled his head back and started to rumble. It died with a wince. My retort withered on my tongue. I touched his arm and waited while he expelled the pain in short, foggy bursts.
“What’s wrong?” I asked once he’d regained composure. Stupid question, really, but my brain was still rebooting.
“Shoulder,” he said, resting against a gargantuan root. It was the same one he’d carved our initials into years ago. “Cannot reach.”
My lips tightened. “Turn around.”
Moving gingerly, Michail presented his well-muscled shoulder. I pushed back my hood and leaned in close, fighting nausea as I gently manipulated savaged flesh. At least he’s human now. Translational injury would leave the bullet a centimeter or two below the skin, rather than inches deep in a bear’s beefy shoulder.
“They will never respect you, Zoloste.”
Dawson’s voice rang in my ears. We can’t lose Smokey. “I know,” I murmured. “But that’s not why I stay.”
Metal glistened in the wound. I fished the hunk out with the stick, Michail’s fists clenched the whole time, and flicked the bullet aside. I slid off the root, bark catching my jeans, and scrubbed my hands in the frigid stream. Michail just watched with sad, tired eyes.
“Then why?” he asked.
As I sat in the dark with blood on my clothes, the answer seemed… weak. And so very faraway. I took a deep breath. “Not everyone can run. Some of those kids—”
A howl drifted through the woods. My breath caught. Dogs. I whipped around. Michail was no fool. He’d already gotten to his feet, scanning the trees with narrowed eyes. “One, maybe one-and-half kilometers,” he said.
My chest squeezed. Not his first man hunt. I touched his cheek. Stubble pricked my fingers. “Dawson brought hunters.” My voice shook. “Go. The rain…” Stones filled my throat, but I choked them down. “The rain’ll wash out your trail.”
He grabbed my arm, nails lengthening into points. “No.” He nodded to my stained Gore-Tex. “Blood all over you. Dogs will come to you.”
“I know.” I flashed a smile I didn’t feel. “But they’re hunting a bear, right? Not like they’ll shoot a human.” Please, please God let that be true.
Michail’s grip constricted, his nails puncturing my jacket. Fear and anger warred in his eyes. I held my breath. Another howl rang in the distance. He grimaced and squeezed his eyes shut. His fingers fell from my arm. “Chert voz’mi,” he whispered. He leaned in and kissed me deeply. This time I tasted only him. “Spring, if hunt is over…”
I rested my forehead against his. Pain raked my heart. “…I’ll meet you here.”
He breathed into my hair. Kissed the top of my head. Fur sprouted from his skin, and he stepped into the river, using the water to hide his trail. I caught a whiff of fresh grizzly and then he was gone, swallowed up by rain and night.
Tears burned down my cheeks. “Run fast, medved.” I sniffed and wiped an arm across my face. It just smeared mud and bark everywhere.
Shivering, I waited and listened to the dogs. Their tone grew excited. Frenetic. Let them get right on top of you. I’d get only one chance, and the rain would strip Michail’s scent fast. I shucked my coat and picked up the gore-coated stick. Then I’d better leave a big damn trail.
Downstream, a flashlight winked between the trees. My pulse quickened. They’re here.
I leapt from the shelter, dragging my blood-stained coat behind me. Rain hit like cold, hard bullets. I ran into the wind and up a ridge, jumped over roots and crashed through every fern and huckleberry, lashing the foliage with Michail’s surgery-stick. By God, if those dogs couldn’t follow this mess they were useless.
Bays soon turned to keening barks. Branches snapped as the hounds gained behind me. My heart lurched. Not yet! I veered down a steep slope. Adrenaline surged through my body and spurred me on like some sort of daredevil mountain goat. I gasped for air. Wet dog hit my nose.
A huge mutt angled into my path, teeth flashing. I yelped and changed course. In my panic I smacked into a tree. I went ass-over-tea-kettle, bouncing off rocks and plowing down saplings, until my leg caught a boulder. Something crunched and pain exploded across my senses.
I screamed. Or vomited. Not sure which, but something definitely came out.
Agony throbbed through me, kept me on the ground until the hounds came. Hot breath and warm noses snuffled over me. One mutt kept barking in my ear. I just kept my eyes shut and gritted my teeth against the pain until somebody shined a flashlight in my face.
“Holy shit,” Dawson said. I groaned and blocked the glare, squinting between my fingers. His jaw hung slack. “Lily?”
* * *
While Kelsi juggled and sang to the kids about recycling, I sat in my own personal hell, claws twitching as I endured the twelfth day of Itch-toberfest. Dawson wasn’t able to replace Smokey and I needed to eat, so I’d agreed to heal up as a grizzly and had the cast applied in bear-form. I stifled a whimper. Stupid move, really. Fur took the itching from ‘torture’ to ‘Circle of Hell,’ and my painkillers weren’t doing squat. My ears flattened. The only plus to it all was that Dawson and the hunters had dragged me back to the visitor’s center, cancelling the hunt until an ambulance showed.
I glanced out the visitor’s center window, slumping like a fern in the rain. Hope you’re in better shape, Michail. It’d be another five months before I knew. A Law Enforcement Ranger, reeking of cheap cologne and gun-oil, loitered by the stuffed deer, examining Kelsi’s glue-job. I sighed and held up a recycling bin, doing my best to ignore him. And that’s if I can ditch my escort.
When Dawson had asked how I’d wound up in the woods covered in blood, I’d made something up about not having readings during heavy rainfall, slipping out, and running into the ‘Big Bad Bear.’ She’d been a mother with cubs, bloodied by her earlier run-in with the ‘hikers,’ so she’d attacked and chased me until I’d crashed down the hill and broke my leg. I stifled a huff. Dawson smells a rat, though. Officially Ranger Cheap-Cologne or one of his buddies were here so I didn’t sneak off and get hurt again, but a twenty-four-hour-shadow was less ‘caring’ and more ‘surveillance.’ Doubly so when you added in cold glances and high-caliber side arms. The whole affair had left me with whiplash; I’d been looking over my shoulder constantly and Michail’s warnings haunted me like perpetual swansong.
Kelsi pitched her cans into my bin one by one, punctuating her act. A few kids clapped. The rest popped up despite the protest of the teacher and swarmed me to croon get-betters and sign my cast with crayons.
“Aw, thank you, kids.” I wriggled in my seat, trying to relieve my aching rump. Turns out bear-butts aren’t designed to sit on wood crates all day. Who knew?
A girl with orange and black hair shouldered through the crowd. A faint scent of tiger wafted from her, spicy and sharp. Her yellow eyes were bright. “Miss Smokey,” she said.
The weight on my shoulders lifted. Finally.
“Smokey’s a boy, Whiskers,” one of the kids snapped.
Tiger-girl put her hands on her hips and shot them a withering glare. “Smokey’s a boar. She’s clearly a sow.”
“That’s right,” I said, surprise creeping into my voice. She knows her animal terms. I smiled and cocked my head. “Did you have a question?”
She nodded. “Well, you said fires were bad, but—”
A blonde boy, tall for his age, stopped signing my cast. His face pinched as he studied me. “You’re a shifter?” Disgust marinated every syllable. He flicked his head toward tiger-girl. “Like her?”
My muzzle wrinkled. How do you think I’m talking, kiddo? “Yeah . . . And?”
Kelsi shook a bag of candy and shouted over the buzz. “Who can name a native fish?” Chocolate proved more exciting than talking bears. The locusts moved to Kelsi, squealing ‘pink-eye salmon’ and other imaginary species. Only tiger-girl remained, glowering down at her sandals and clenching her coloring book, knuckles white.
My chest squeezed. God, how many times had I been in the same position? At her age I’d wanted to run away, hide from it all like Michail. Stones filled my gut. Of course she doesn’t have that choice. Tigers weren’t exactly local wildlife. “What’s your name?” I asked.
She sniffed and glanced at me. “…Antimony.”
“So, Antimony, what was this about fires?”
Dark clouds faded from her vision, letting some sparkle back in. “Well, Douglas-firs and fireweed need fire for their babies to grow…” That was an oversimplification, but she was in what, fourth grade? I nodded. Her posture slowly straightened. “And different animals need them for food and homes, right?”
Antimony’s brow furrowed. “So fires are good.” She frowned and chewed her lip. “Well, sometimes.”
“That’s true,” I said, voice upbeat. “In fact, that’s part of my research.”
Her mouth formed a tiny little ‘O.’ “Shifters can do that?”
Hearing her disbelief, the raw strength of it, made my throat constrict. “Of course!” I leaned in conspiratorially and braced my paws on my knees. Bad move, really. Fresh pain shot through my leg. I grimaced. Antimony’s eyebrows rose, but thankfully she didn’t change the topic. I let out a slow breath and transferred all my weight to the other knee. “Some people told me that I can’t do research, or that because I’m a shifter it won’t go anywhere, but you know what?”
Antimony leaned closer, voice dropping to a whisper. “What?”
“I do it anyway.”
Her lips twitched with the start of a smile. She jabbed a thumb toward the rest of her class. “So when they say I can’t be a scientist ’cause I’m a shifter…?”
I plopped the Stetson on her head. It seemed the right thing to do. Kids were obsessed with that hat. “You can be anything, Antimony, fur or not.”
She grinned so big I caught a glimpse of fangs. Pain, sweet and sharp, filled my heart and washed away the days until spring. I smiled too. This, Michail… this is why I stay.
* * *
“Miss Smokey” was originally published in Writers of the Future
About the Author
Diana A. Hart lives in Washington State, speaks fluent dog, and escapes whenever somebody leaves the gate open—if lost, she can be found rolling dice at her friendly local game store. Her passion for storytelling stems from a well-used library card and years immersed in the oral traditions of the Navajo. She was previously published in Writers of the Future, Vol. 34.
Follow her on Twitter: @ DianaAHart