Caleb slammed the car door, stabbed his key into the ignition, and peeled out of the driveway as fast as he could. Ignoring his mother’s worried screams from the front door and the piercing glare of his sister from the passenger seat.
They drove in silence for the first hour, until Aidey could no longer stand the tension, “Why didn't you want to take me?”
“I hate Uncle Adam,” Caleb pulled into a gas station and disappeared before Aidey had a chance to ask another question. He took his time, the longer he took, the more chance Aidey would leave him alone when he returned to the truck.
Adiey didn't wait for Caleb’s buttocks to touch his seat before she spoke, “Hate is a strong word you know.”
“I know,” Caleb avoided looking at her by taking more caution than usual in pulling back onto the highway, “And I mean it for what it is.”
“There is a chance you could turn too.” Aidey avoided the heated gaze by staring out of her own window. She lurched forwards when Caleb slammed on the breaks to avoid slamming into the rear of the vehicle ahead. “Be careful, I would like to reach Uncle Adam’s house in one piece.”
“Then sit there and shut up.” Caleb overtook the slower vehicle, tires churning up a plume of dust as they left the road.
“I'm not going to sit in silence for the next two and a half hours,” Aidey set her jaw, “I know you want to be able to join in at hunts.”
“You know nothing about me, let alone what I want.”
“Come off it, you mope around the house whenever we leave you behind.”
“I don’t mope,” Caleb pushed his foot harder on the gas.
“And if you don’t slow down I will call mom right now.”
“Like I care,”
“You will when she kicks you out,” Aidey pulled the phone out of her pocket.
“Spoilt brat.” Caleb eased off the gas.
“Says the one who still lives at home with his parents because he doesn't want to have to take care of himself.” Aidey put her feet up on the dash, “So what’s the real problem here?”
“Nice.” She pushed the AC up a little higher, “So jealousy, you want what is coming to me so bad that you feel the need to push me away, I understand it must be difficult for you.”
“Maybe you are also secretly hoping that I will have the same problems you have had?” She smiled, “I understand and I will not judge you for it, you feel so alone, and I'm the closest person to you.”
“But there is the chance you will be able to shift this time.”
“You have run with wolves, perhaps you will connect to the coyotes better.”
“I hate Uncle Adam for a reason.”
“You’ve already tried?” Aidey’s smile faltered, her voice lost its confidance, “Well Anne is a eagle, so maybe you could try that this time, Dad’s family is mixed so there is no guarantee which animal you get.”
“Mom's is too, and apparently there were a few humans in the mix.”
“Centuries ago, we haven’t had a human born into our family for over a hundred and fifty years, trust me you are not that special.”
“Auntie Raven and Deryn are both birds, so there is a strong chance that you could be too.”
“If I agree with you, will you shut up and listen to your music?” Caleb avoided his reflection in the mirror, he could feel the emotions swirling in his chest, it was only a matter of time before Aidey caused them to explode from him.
“Fine, live in your black cloud, ignore reality I give up.”She plugged her ear-buds into her ears and dissolved into the world of pop songs.
She kept her promise, not another un-requested word was uttered until they reached their uncle’s driveway. The house was nestled in a small clearing in the forest that sprawled out across a small mountain range. Clad in native wood it camouflaged into the surrounding trees, only those who knew its whereabouts would be able to spot it. “Finally, I thought it would only take three and a half hours, but now it’s almost nightfall already.” She unclipped her seatbelt. No sooner had Caleb killed the engine she was climbing out of the door and running into the outstretched arms of her Aunt.
“Great the welcoming committee are out already,” Caleb muttered as he slowly unfastened his seatbelt, “Go on into the house and give her everything she wants, I’ll grab her giant bag of useless crap, just do me a favour and forget I’m even here.”
“Caleb!” His Aunt, Nina, ushered him towards her outstretched arms, “Come here, I want to thank you for bringing Aidey, after the disaster of our last family outing I was worried you might refuse.”
“No choice,” Caleb walked over and accepted the loose hug, “My father would never allow me to come between Aidey and her spirit animal.”
“It’s exciting isn't it?” Nina gave her niece another tight hug, “What animal will it be?”
“Dad says coyote, he says I'm a lot like Uncle Adam.” Aidey smiled, her eyes bright with excitement. “I can’t wait until tomorrow night, my first fullmoon shift.”
“Now don’t get too excited, sometimes it takes a couple of family runs before you can shift,” She gave Aidey's shoulder a gentle squeeze and ushered her into the house. “Caleb, Aidey is going into the guest room, you are sharing with Connor.”
“Okay.” Caleb heaved his sister’s suitcase out of the bed of his truck, the weight forcing him to lean heavily to counterbalance, he nudged the door open with his foot and stepped into the house.
It was deceptively small on the outside. The lobby was just the start in this luxurious home; decked out in hunting trophies, from both river and land. The eyes seemed to follow Caleb as he climbed the wide staircase. A chill shot down his spine as he locked eyes with his ancestors, the oil painted portrait of his father’s family hung at the top of the stairs, laying judgement on all that passed.
His sister’s room was reasonably sized, but instead of the dark blue accents that had been present when he had occupied the space, it was now pink. He set her suitcase on the wooden chair by the desk.
“So you’re back.” Anne flicked her long brown hair over her shoulder, “I'm surprised you agreed to it, I thought the crybaby had had enough of trying to become anything more than a human.”
“Wow, and to think I thought you were a bitch four years ago.” Caleb kept his back to her, his attention held by the two men walking up the driveway towards the house.
“Watch your back,” Anne closed the door behind her as she stepped into the room, “Dad doesn’t like you, and things he doesn’t like tend to end up broken.”
“Thanks for the warning.” Caleb turned to face her. He scanned her body, looking for the faintest trace of deception, something about her was putting him on edge. Without another word she let herself out of the room. “I’m already broken.” Caleb muttered.
He had barely put his foot on the bottom step when his uncle’s booming call summoned him into the lounge. He noticed that there were a few new portraits on the mantelpiece, the old black leather couches had been replaced with a sultry red leather ‘L’ shaped sofa, and the walls had been painted minimalist cream.
“So I guess this is take two?” His uncle took a swig of lemonade from the glass that Nina had dutifully put beside him.
“I'm just here to drop off Aidey.”
“So you have given up?” He set his glass down and eyed up his nephew, “A quitter too.” He tutted and shook his head. “My poor brother, to have a human as his only son is bad enough, but one as weak as this is such a shame.”
“I'm not weak.” Caleb shot his uncle a heated glare.
“You can give me all the crazy eyes you want boy, it don’t change nothing, you are human.” A satisfied smile crept from the corners of his mouth, “Nothing you can say to counter that is there boy?”
“Aidey has arrived safely, please see to it she calls home so mom doesn't worry, I'm going to find a hotel to stay at.” Caleb turned his back on his uncle and walked towards the door.
“Yeah walking away is the best thing for you to do, stay away if you know what’s good for you, don’t need someone like you lurking around.” His uncle rocked back in his recliner, “Wouldn't want some young shifter girl falling for a human with mixed heritage, we don’t want no more humans in our lines.”
“Caleb,” Aidey was stood with her aunt behind Adam, “I don’t want you to leave me here, how will I get home?”
“I’ll come back when you are ready.”
“You know it could be months, these things are not exactly set in stone, and you can’t afford to stay in the hotels round here for that long.” Aidey pleaded with him, using her big brown eyes to pull on his heartstrings. “If you leave me I will call mom.”
“Then you have to at least try to be one of us.” Adam smirked.
“I’ll do whatever I have to do for my sister, but once this is over. I’m gone.” Caleb marched out of the house and snatched his bag out of the truck.
Moonlight poured through the holes in the canopy of leaves above their heads, bathing everything in an ethereal glow. The troupe moved almost silently through one of the hidden trails, only the occasional twig snapping underfoot and the rustling as either Caleb or Aidey freed their clothes from the groping undergrowth. They were the only humans in the procession, two coyotes had the lead, a fox took up position at the rear, while an eagle circled overhead.
When they reached the clearing the eagle swooped low and settled on the largest of the stones that laid in an almost perfect circle. Adam pulled his body back into human form and encouraged Aidey to take up position in the centre. Family legend had said that this circle had existed before the shifters claimed the land. Caleb coughed, his uncle shot him the look of death.
“We have about an hour before the apex, you might feel the pulling already, but do not try to push until I say so.” Adam sat on one of the toppled stones. “Your body will react when the time is right and not before.”
“Is there anything I can do to make it easier?” Aidey avoided looking at her Uncle’s naked form.
“You are too shy,” Adam shook his head, “There is nothing sexual here, I am naked only so that I can be closer to nature, closer to the spirits. You would find it easier if you would allow yourself that level of closeness.”
“Both my children have done it,” Adam looked to his family for support.
Nina shook off the body of the fox and took up a reassuring position behind Aidey, “She hasn't lived in the wilds all her life, you can’t just strip off in the city, they have laws against it.”
“There ain't nothing sexual about it!”
“We all know that, but humans don’t get it.”
“How do you feel about it Caleb?” His uncle turned to look at him.
“We were born naked, to procreate we are usually naked, some of us die naked.” Caleb tried to shrink back into the shadows.
“Stupid human.” His uncle turned back towards Aidey.
She had doubled over, sunk to the ground slowly and toppled onto her side. Her breaths shallow and eyes full of fear. Pain seared in her chest, fire shot down her spine and into her limbs. Cramp twisted her muscles, sapping her strength. Until finally her eyes rolled into the back of her head and her breathing stopped completely.
It happened rapidly, limbs re-articulated, skin stretched over sinewy legs. Then a flurry of fur spreading across the delicate flesh until it was a full dust brown coyote coat. The wind picked up for an instant, swirling around the body of the ‘newborn’ coyote, as if drawing fresh air into her lungs. Slowly the ribcage ascended, then deflated, rippling the plants millimetres from her nose.
Caleb couldn't watch any more, bitter jealousy burned in his gut, he had to escape before he ruined the best day in Aidey's life so far. He knew he would regret walking out on such an important family occasion, his uncle would see to that.
Caleb couldn't believe his uncle's harsh words, they buzzed in his head like a swarm of angry bees, the noise growing until he wanted to cleave his head open. The ground was hard under his knees as he collapsed, his body buckled, he tumbled onto his side. He pressed his eyes shut, not wanting to see the ghostlike image of Uncle Adam's taunting face, his nails bit into the skin of his face. Welts appeared within seconds, the blood took longer, but neither stopped him.
He wasn't sure when he started screaming, or when he stopped, but when he finally fell silent his throat was raw. His chest heaved, and his eyes watered so badly he had to wipe them in his scratchy sweater. The pain in his temples throbbed, almost robbing him of vision.
Something in the trees behind him snapped a twig; he twisted his head so fast the headache made his stomach flip. Fear pricked at his skin. Breath held, he strained to hear any hint of the animal. Relief. He let his breath out slowly, picked his weary body from the dirt, and resumed his walk to safety.
Hours passed, the pain in his limbs increased with every step, until he reached the edge of the forest. The ground was drier, sandier in texture, making it more of a challenge to climb up the hillside. Several medium sized rocks tumbled as he slipped, sharp edges slicing into the soft flesh of his arms and thighs, bloodying his clothes even further.
Everything spun, he had misplaced his foot on the crest of the hill, the best he could do to protect his face from the rough terrain was sacrifice the skin on his arms. His head stopped first, colliding with a large granite boulder, his neck cracked as his body lost momentum. Dazed and confused he stared up at the early morning sun. The moon illuminated against an indigo canvas bejewelled with fading starlight. A honking sound called him back to the earth on which he lay, he turned towards the sound.
Not too far in the distance stood a band of horses, the chestnut stallion craned his neck, and took two tentative steps towards Caleb. Ears pinned flat against his neck, teeth bared, he snorted. Wild eyes scanned the object at the foot of the hill, only minute movements indicating any life within the creature. He tossed his great head and snaked his mares away from the danger.
Caleb watched the magnificent creature in amazement, such a powerful animal, able to control his whole family without the need for a single spoken word. He lay as still as he could, so as to not scare the herd, and to prevent the pain from consuming him whole. A smile spread across his face as the horses settled.
The mares dropped their noses to the ground, agile lips working the tough grasses into their mouths, tails swishing as their foals suckled. A leggy buckskin foal had decided to investigate the strange object; he walked slowly, head lowered and teeth clacking towards it. He blew hard through his nostrils, small puffs of dust whirling in the current. He didn't notice his mother's concern, and he was too curious to hear her worried cry.
The palomino mare trotted towards her rogue offspring, ears back and eyes wild, she cut him off before he got close enough for Caleb to touch. Her teeth closed around the foal's rump and he gave her a small buck of defiance before surrendering to her request. Like a bodyguard the stallion drove them both back to the safety of the herd, but not before he gave Caleb another wary look.
"I mean you no harm." Caleb whispered, scared that sudden vocalisation may spook him. "I know I am trespassing."
The stallion tossed his head and snorted in response, it looked as though he understood the words spoken. He lowered his head and pawed at the ground.
"I do not challenge your position," Caleb slowly raised himself up onto one elbow;"I will not interfere." He cocked his head as the horse offered him a small nod, before he turned and walked back to his family.
Something in Caleb's chest burned, he clutched it tight, as if trying to pull his heart out. The heat was spreading, shooting pain down his spine and into his limbs. His breath caught in his chest, there wasn't enough air left for him to scream. Cramp pulled his muscles, compounding the burning pain, until he was nothing more than a writhing mass. He couldn't see, hear or sense anything.
Fifteen minutes of agony and nothingness ended as quickly as the episode began. Caleb slowly became aware of himself, the slow but loud beating of his heart, and the rapid in-and-out of his lungs. But something had changed, everything sounded louder, he could hear the horses grazing as if they were right next to his head. It was enough to make him open his eyes.
The world had changed colour. It was harder to focus on any kind of detail, he had to lift and tilt his head. Every part of his body felt heavier. He craned his neck to see how bad the damage was. But the body he saw was no longer human, long equine legs curled under him, a thick black tail swished behind him.
He tried to stand, his long legs wobbling under him precariously, fear sent his skin quivering. Everything seemed to take forever to learn, walking with four limbs, balancing the heaviness of his head, coordinating the motion of his tail to swat the flies. When he needed guidance he looked over to the herd to see how the older horses used themselves. Slowly he learnt to feed himself, groom himself with his teeth, and the most interesting was the fun of dust bathing.
The chestnut stallion eyed him from time to time, usually if he got too close to the herd, but made very little effort to drive him away. Days passed and the distance maintained between him and Caleb, with his buckskin stallion body, was decreased until to the untrained eye they may well have been one family unit.
Caleb was dosing in the early morning sunlight, his hip cocked and left leg resting. Some distance away a buzzing sound began to grow, until it was undeniably heading in the direction of the herd. His ears sprang to life, orbiting wildly until he pinpointed the origin, the whites of his eyes showing as he struggled to focus on the object in the distance. It hovered in the sky like a giant predatory bird, swooping, climbing and twisting, as if perusing a large animal. The thrumming of the engine made his ears ache as it closed in on his new family.
Hooves, hundreds if not thousands of hooves, thundering on the dry earth kicking up a monstrous cloud of dust that choked any animal unable to raise his head above it. Caleb flared his nostrils, snorting his contempt at the helicopter, but it did no good. The torrent of wild horses swallowed his small family, pushing them from their home and into the seemingly endless stream of equine bodies. He had no choice, even less sense of where they were heading and no one could tell him who had launched this assault on nature.
Crest after crest, over numerous rocky outcrops that bruised his feet, sweat slicked sides, and breathing hard the pursuit continued. He was almost deaf to the sound that chased them, pain and fear was all he had left. The ground changed, it was dryer and more barren than he had ever seen, nothing seemed to live here any more. Sunlight rebounded off of several large trucks and livestock trailers, he tried to stop, but several horses behind him collided with his rear and kept him moving towards the mouth of the trap. These horses were about to lose their freedom.
Caleb screamed a warning, he tried to twist and run away. He hoped that he could lead at least a few of the graceful creatures to safety. But panic had deafened them and fear blinded them to the fence panels and flag waving humans. Bottlenecked at the corral opening he saw his one and only chance of escape, he launched into a punchy trot snapping his legs up against his sternum at the last minute. The flight seemed to last forever, but gravity pulled him back to earth with a bump. The ground on this side of the fence sloped away sharply, his legs buckled under the strain and he crashed to the ground.
Dazed and winded he lay there, numb to the pain in his limbs and side. He could still hear the helicopter and the thundering feet of his friends, but it sounded distant, like listening through a closed door. Motion above his head triggered his adrenalin, he swatted the ground with his legs and tossed his head until he had enough momentum to pick himself up from the ground. Every part of him trembled, his eyes locked onto the man and his dead broke steed, he pressed his ears flats against his neck and bared his teeth menacingly.
“You are mine mustang,” He stretched for his rope, “So don’t fight, or else I’ll be sure that you go to Mexico.”
Caleb could feel the blood trickling from his scraped knees, the heat radiating from his ribcage, and the ache that threatened to consume every inch of his flesh. But he pushed past it all, he launched at the docile horse, teeth clamping shut around the back of the horse’s knee. A weak spot. The man cursed as his steed knelt, the motion almost forcing him from the saddle. The distraction was enough to see Caleb far enough away to avoid the angry man’s bullet.
The heat of the day was harsh on his back, the rough ground was tough on his feet, and his mouth was so dry he thought his tongue might turn to dust. But he placed one foot in front of the other, the need for distance overriding his desire to rest. Everything around him was starting to change, the odd house jutted out from the starkness of the plane. He could hear the odd car working its way through the desert tracks, golf carts and ATVs working round the recreational facilities he could just pick up in the distance.
The bright green of the golf course stuck out like a sore thumb in the middle of the dried brown planes grasses, sun-bleached barns and houses. Caleb paused a little distance from the edge of humanity, he raised his head and called out. Several replies reverberated through the still air, it gave him the strength he needed to jog towards his familiars. He let out a low snort when he saw them, covered head to tail in cotton blankets and tails braided into a thick whip that hung heavy between their back legs.
One of the horses ran up to the pasture fence, nose stretched to try and establish a connection. Only the pink tip of its muzzle and nostrils visible under the mesh fabric of the fly mask. It blew warm air towards Caleb, waiting patiently for him to reciprocate.
Caleb took his time, one tentative step after another, until he was close enough to exchange pleasantries with his tamed cousin. The sweet smell of alfalfa hay filled his nose and his stomach rumbled in reply. He shook his neck to send the cloud of biting flies away from his face. He watched the second horse wander arthriticly over to a large black tub, the horse dunked its nose into the water, slurping and splashing the water with its mobile lips.
Caleb followed the line of barbed wire and wood boards until he was level with the tub, the strange horse squealed at him, banging her hoof against the plastic. He flicked his ears back and snapped his teeth twice, it was enough to see the horse back away slowly. His head slipped through the gap between the boards, he dipped his dry muzzle into the lukewarm water, slowly pulling it into his mouth and down his throat. Time seemed to stand still as the warm water began the magic of re-hydration, he didn't hear the barn door slide open or the rapidly approaching footsteps.
“Get away from here!” The man threw his arms wide, waving them up and down. He rushed to the fence line forcing Caleb to back away so fast he almost caught himself on the top line of barbed wire. “There isn't anything here for you, now go away, go find your herd.”
Caleb snorted, his head as high as it would go. He pawed the ground once before the crippling pain in his knees and feet rendered him lame. The man pushed at him again, he wanted to run, he wanted to find safety, but his body was too broken. He tried to stand his ground, but every time he changed his stance pain shot up his legs and through his spine.
The stranger looked at the young stallion, its buckskin coat stained with dry sweat, knees bloody and hooves chipped, and he let out a string of cuss words. “You would die if I left you out there, those knees would cripple you in days, and if that frigging helicopter sees you they will run you to death.” He walked along the fence line, to an intersection, ducked through the gap and opened a gate. “To do this is illegal, but to see you harassed would hurt me more, I will give you time to heal and then you must go.”
Caleb blew warm air, a low nickering sound, and made the painful journey towards to gate. He questioned himself as he stood before the threshold, his eyes wandering to the two pampered ponies in the neighbouring pasture, he wouldn't allow this man to do that to him. The man backed away, ducking back through the fence towards a large metal tank, he dropped his hand into it and pulled up a section of half eaten hay.
“Come on boy, I mean you no harm, here have some hay.” He pulled it apart and dropped it into the metal tub on Caleb’s side of the fence. “I can’t stay here all day, you either come in now or I close the gate.”
A loud snort of protest and another painful stomp of the hoof, Caleb shook his thick crest and held firm on the free side of the gate.
The man sighed in exasperation, shook his head and walked back towards the barn. He appeared a little while later with a full section of hay and a purple bucket that rattled with food. He paused at the fence and turned on the faucet, the sound of running water was the persuasion Caleb needed. The man smiled and tossed the hay into a second tub, he poured the pelleted food over the top. “I’ll leave the gate open for now, but I can’t feed everyone.”
Caleb waited for the man to leave before he dared to get close enough to the metal trough to smell the sweetness of the alfalfa hay. Slowly he worked his lips around the fluffed up flake, picking out individual strands of sweet dried grass, he nosed the pellets out of his way. Whilst the act of chewing calmed his nerves he still reacted every time the wind slammed the feed room door closed.