So continues my September Stories project! If you missed any of them, you can find the full list here.
Loyalty By Danielle Davis
Mike stepped lightly over to her side of the bed. For a long time, he watched her sleep, frowning at the small furrow between her eyes. She never slept well the night before the anniversary of her mother’s death. He sighed. Tomorrow was always taxing on both of them. He wished, after five years, she could come to terms with it, but she was never one to let go of an idea. It was a habit of hers he both admired and disliked.
One over her hands hung over the edge of the bed, but he didn’t touch it until she started to murmur. No words, always just anxious-sounding noises that told him she was having another nightmare. They always got stronger closer to the anniversary.
He hesitated, then placed her hand in his, palm to palm upside-down so that his fingers could curl around the delicate bones of her wrist. It was risky, touching her like this, but he needed to touch her as much as she needed to touch someone else. In her sleep, she squeezed his hand and he matched the pressure of her squeeze. It was the best he could do in human form. He silently mouthed her name, Marie, as he gazed down at her. He wished he’d already shifted, so that he could crawl into bed with her—she slept best when she could throw an arm over him and dig her fingers into his fur. But he’d gotten back later than he’d expected and had barely remembered to set the timer on the coffee pot before he’d come upstairs. He knew she’d probably assume she’d set it sometime ago and had forgotten, and that was fine with him.
He watched his hand holding hers, savoring the touch of her soft skin on his. Their hands looked good, he decided. Almost normal. As a human, especially one she’d never actually met as a human, it was always risky to do anything more than watch her. He swallowed hard against the tingle of adrenaline he felt from the rush of breaking his self-imposed don’t touch rule. Just this once, he promised himself. Because of the anniversary.
After a few long moments, her breathing eased and she rolled over. He let her hand slide from his, ignoring the small wrench his heart gave as he had to let her go. With one last glance around the room to make sure there wasn’t anything else he needed to do for the night, he allowed himself a final, guilty glance at the curve of her shoulder. Even with his night-adjusted eyes, it was difficult to make out details of her sleeping form.
As he stepped into her closet, he saw the red numbers of the clock on her bedside table that told him it was three thirty in the morning. She’d be up in another two hours, which meant he would be, too. He stripped off his shirt and jeans and slid them into the bottom of the plastic storage bin she kept in a corner of her closet. She called the clothes in them her “someday clothes,” the ones she said she didn’t want to give up on in case she was able to fit into them again. She never looked into it, but he knew she couldn’t bear to give them up either—it was a safe place for the few random pieces of mens’ clothing she’d probably never find.
A naked man stepped from the closet, holding the knob so that it didn’t make a click as it latched. He took two steps and then tumbled noiselessly to the floor, his body twisting and shrinking. A dog landed, a wiry Irish wolfhound that trotted to the empty side of the bed and hopped up. It turned a few circles in the bed, then plopped down with a loud grunt. Its back nudged the woman enough to jostle her, but she didn’t wake. Instead, she rolled over towards the dog and threw an arm over its shoulders.
“Good boy, Prince” she murmured, and that time her words were understandable. He craned his head to give her hand a gentle nudge and she responded by twitching her fingers a few times in the bristly fur at his scruff. Then he put his head down and slept.
The next morning, he'd just settled down to sleep again after she'd left for church, when there was a knock at the door. Growling low to himself, he peered out the window only to find a scruffy-looking man in a dirty college hoodie peering into one of the windows on either side of the door.
"Prepbeater," Mike grumbled to himself. He changed in the foyer, wincing as it pulled at the still tender muscles from last night's change—changing form too frequently left him very sore.
He opened the door naked and ushered the other man inside.
"Hey, man," Prepbeater said with a nod. "I heard this was where you were staying now." He glanced around the entryway and nodded appreciatively. "Nice digs."
"What's up, Prepbeater? You passing through? And how'd you know I was here?"
"Word on the street. And yeah, I was passing through, but something happened yesterday that I needed to tell you about. Can we do it over breakfast?" He gave a pointed look at Mike's nakedness. "And preferably with some pants on?"
Mike glanced at his wrist, then shook his head at the sight of bare skin—it was a habit left over from when he was fully human to always have his watch on him. But when one spent most of their time as a dog, wristwatches didn't really help one blend in.
"Give me five. There's a McDonald's up the street."
Ten minutes later,he was dressed and they were sitting in Prepbeater's car in the drive thru. After a few taciturn minutes of introductory chit-chat and monosyllabic answers, they settled into more substantive topics in the manner only good friends are able to do after being separated for a while.
“I don’t get what she sees in him,” Mike said with a disgusted sneer. “His pants always smell mildewed, you know, like gym socks? All the time! What kind of grown ass man doesn’t know how to do laundry properly?”
“Are you still on that? Dude, let it go. She can date who she wants.” Prepbeater passed the money to the drive-through cashier, then pulled forward to the next window to get their food.
“Of course she can. I just wish she could smell what I smell.”
“That reminds me—“ Prepbeater stopped at the window and grabbed the paper bag from the fast food worker. “Hot mustard, right?” he confirmed, but the uniformed teen inside shook her head.
“We only have Bar-B-Que.”
“How do you run out of hot mustard?” Prepbeater grumbled.
“Popular choice,” the girl said, then shut the window.
Prepbeater gave Mike an incredulous can you believe her? look before he drove off. He parked in the parking lot of the grocery store next door, near the back, and Mike pulled the food out of the bag.
“You said that reminded you of something?” Mike prompted. He took a bite of his breakfast sandwich while Prepbeater crammed two chicken nuggets into his mouth, one after the other. “Good God, man. You’re going to choke like that.”
“What reminded me of something?” Prepbeater asked. It was hard to understand him around the wad of chicken in his mouth.
“I said I wished she could smell what I—“
“Oh! Right. Smells.” Prepbeater waited while he finished chewing, while Mike bobbed his head impatiently. With a loud gulp, Prepbeater finally swallowed. “I caught a whiff of those folks you were asking me about. The ones that smelled like a hospital?”
Mike’s mouth stopped chewing and hung slightly open, revealing the slimy mass of his sandwich. For a moment his mind was blank, unable to focus on anything but the fear rising in his chest. Oblivious, Prepbeater crammed another chicken nugget into his mouth, but Mike swallowed his mouthful with difficulty. He rewrapped the rest of his meal and dropped it back in the bag. “Where?”
“Around Tinderhall. Near the coffee shop. I was dumpster-diving in that trash can near the bike rack and got a quick catch of it on a breeze."
"That's only a few miles from the house," Mike murmured.
"I tried to follow it," Prepbeater continued, "but some folks eating at the outside tables thought I was a stray begging for food and shooed me off. When I came back a little later, I couldn’t smell it anymore.”
Mike leaned forward and put his forehead in his hands. “Of all times for Birchfield to catch up, it’s now.”
“Hey man, relax. It could have been my imagination.”
Mike turned his head to peek at Prepbeater around the edge of his hands. “You think a stray whiff of hospital is a normal occurrence near a coffee shop? I walk by that place once and I’ve got coffee beans stuck in my nose for an hour.”
“Maybe someone was on lunch from the minor med?”
“That’s a good two miles away, Prepbeater.” Mike leaned back with a heavy sigh. His eyes stared bleakly out the windshield, but he didn’t see the parking lot in front of him. His mind was busy tracking his options.
Prepbeater readjusted in his seat so he could face Mike. “But it could be possible, right?”
Mike gave him a doubtful look, but nodded his head. A few locks of oily brown hair fell forward, tickling his eyebrows, and he brushed them irritably back with one hand. He hadn’t been able to shower last night because he’d gotten in so late, but that didn’t excuse how long he’d gone without a haircut. “Yeah, I guess,” he admitted.
Prepbeater nodded as if that settled something. “So, let’s just both be extra watchful and see if anything else unusual comes up. Which I doubt, since it’s been… How long have you been here?”
Prepbeater whistled. “That’s the longest you’ve landed anywhere, right?”
Mike nodded. “You?”
“Longest anywhere was in Vicksburg. I stayed there, maybe a month, month and a half. Been here about six weeks, and I’m starting to feel that itch again. Know what I mean?”
At first Mike nodded, then shook his head. “I don’t have the wanderlust you do. Only itch I’ve felt was that Birchfield noose tightening up.” He sighed. “I really thought this town might change that. I mean, who’s ever heard of Carerro, Omaha? But if it is them, then a whole year means I must’ve really screwed up their radar here.”
“Why haven’t you left before now?”
Mike frowned and looked away. “Oh, you know. I get tired of running all the time, never settling down anywhere.” He gave Prepbeater a pointed look. “Dumpster diving for my next meal.”
Prepbeater pretended not to notice as he gobbled more chicken nuggets. "Sure. And I'm sure the hot paralegal you're hiding out with has nothing to do with it, huh?"
"I'm just making sure she's safe," Mike growled. "She's so busy she doesn't have much time for a social life. I'm all she's got--"
Prepbeater let out a hoot of laughter. "Man, have you got it bad!" He flashed a wolfish grin that revealed unchewed bits of meat in his mouth. Mike grimaced.
"Just drop it, ok?" he said, suddenly tired.He glanced at the dashboard clock. "Hey, she should be back from church in about a half hour. I should be getting back home. Thanks for meeting me."
"Hey, you know, any time a free meal's in it for me, I'm there,"Prepbeater grinned as he chewed. Then he sobered. "But seriously, dude, watch out. It was good catching up to you, but they've gotten a little too close to me a few too many times—I'm headed out of town as soon as I drop you back home. And I would recommend you do the same shortly after, girl or no girl." He gave Mike a pointed look, but Mike sighed and looked out the window.
"I can't leave her now," he whispered. "Not....not just yet."
"Even if Birchfield is an inch away from catching you again? Do you not remember what it was like in that facility? The tests? The needles? The...experiments?" With a sour grimace, Prepbeater pushed away the remainder of his nuggets. "See? Just remembering that mess made me lose my appetite. C'mon, let's get you back. I'm suddenly itching to get out of this town."
As Prepbeaterput the car in gear, Mike looked out the window. Though he appeared to be watching the scenery flash by, his mind was racing. The smart thing was obviously to take Prepbeater's suggestion. Just leave. Pack a bag when he got home, something light he could carry in his dog form, and head out. He'd been running from Birchfield for four years now. It wasn't like this would be the first safe house he'd suddenly disappear from, with the humans none the wiser.
But he thought of the way Marie clung to him last night, like she had so many other nights before. She was like a soothing anchor unlike any he'd ever found. It wasn't just leaving a place anymore. It had ceased to be that a few months in. Even then, he'd known this was someone different.
When they pulled into the driveway, Prepbeater handed him the fast food bag. "Hey, pitch this for me, would ya?"
"Man, Marie doesn't eat that crap. She'll wonder where the bag came from."
"Then hide it under some other trash. Who actually looks inside the can once it's in there?" Mike cast a doubtful glance around. At his hesitation, Prepbeater scowled at him. "C'mon, dude. I'm not asking for your soul. I don't want trash in my car."
Mike took the bag, with a wry glare at Prepbeater's large grin, then got out and waved as the car backed down the drive and drove off. Inside he stuffed the bag inside a few spare grocery sacks, then stuffed the wad of material down the side of the trashcan.
He glanced at the clock and saw that he still had a while before Marie returned. The talk of Birchfield made his brain feel too weary to contemplate the implications, so he went back upstairs to finish his nap.
Prince was waiting for Marie when she came home. He greeted her in the doorway, not even able to let her get all the way in before he rushed her, all wagging body and panting kisses, able to express his affection for her as much as he liked. It was easy to let himself be that expressive--he felt so much more reserved in human form than he ever felt as a dog. It was as if something in his altered genes suppressed that human instinct for emotional protection when he was a dog, as a survival skill that made him more able to mimic dog behavior.
He leaned into her hands as she rubbed the soft fluff behind his ears, laughing and murmuring her hellos back.
Then he became aware of another scent behind her--mildewed cloth and fabric softener. He curved his long body around her hip to growl at the man behind her, Jared, the guy she'd been seeing a for the last month and a half.
"Don't worry, he won't hurt you," Marie said laughingly to Jared. But Mike just growled louder in response and flashed his teeth in a fearsome snarl. "You're all noise, aren't you, my big beast?" She cooed at him while she smoothed her palms in long strokes down either side of his ribs. It was enough to quiet his growl, and he was surprised at the sudden desire to feel her hands on the flesh of his ribs instead of on fur. It wasn't an unusual feeling, or the first time he'd felt it, but it was the first time he'd had it distract him so completely.
But Jared just laughed in a nervous falsetto. Mike was pleased to see the man waiting on the concrete step and not crossing the threshold.
"You sure you don't want me to come, baby?" he asked, pointedly ignoring the dog. Mike let a thin growl loose again.
Marie pushed the dog aside with her hip and moved to place her hands on Jared's shoulders. Mike sat down and fixed Jared with an intent glare. Don't you dare, he thought.
"You're sweet," Marie said in a low voice. "But I wouldn't make very good company today."
"But I know this is a tough day for you," he countered. His hands crept up to run down Marie's shoulders, bare from her sleeveless summer dress, but dropped when Mike's growl reappeared. "Maybe it would be easier with--"
"No," she said more firmly, and Mike grinned in dog fashion. "I'll be fine. Besides, Prince'll be with me." She turned a fond glance to the dog, making her miss the disdainful grimace Jared also threw his way. "He likes the cemetery."
"Well, if you need me..." Jared sounded lame even to Mike's ears. But then, everything he said sounded lame to Mike. Even if he hadn't been in dog-form, he'd have no patience for a slimeball like this.
Mike looked away unhappily as Marie kissed Jared goodbye. But as soon as the door closed, he was back to his wagging, joyful self.
It was impossible to be any other way when he had her all to himself again.
The ride to the cemetery was nothing but joy--head resting on the firmness of her thigh, able to regard her as much as he liked. He held his whines in as he thought about how much better off she'd be if he left. The sooner the better, really. It would be very bad for her if Birchfield caught up to him while he was still with her.
To them, there were only two kinds of people in these situations: the guilty and accomplices. Mike knew of safe houses being razed to the ground--later reported as random arson cases on the news--once Birchfield found out about them.
It would be so much better for her if he left now.
But it would break him. He'd be alive, for however long he managed to stay ahead of them, but h0w could he live without seeing her everyday, without being her companion. As a dog was the closest he could come, but he felt powerful, important even, knowing he was able to protect her and keep her safe.
That would change if Birchfield came.
As they pulled into the cemetery drive, he realized there was no other choice. The only way to keep her safe now, with Birchfield this close, was to leave.
The thought made his body feel sluggish and heavy-pawed. His mind felt sore, unable to move from one thought to the other without pain. The idea of leaving her was a knife held to the very vein of himself--to move beyond it was to cut.
She had to call his name several times to get him out of the car. Each step to the gravesite seemed to chip a piece of his soul away.
As was their usual habit, he lay down quietly next to her as she sat cross-legged in front of the headstone and talked. She told her mother about things that had happened earlier in the year. About her job stresses and new friends she met. Mike barely noticed that Jared hadn't even rated high enough on the list to be mentioned, other than for her to admit she'd been seeing "someone."
Then a slight breeze carried the scent of fall to his nose, moldering leaves and wet earth and something else, something like rubbing alcohol, that made him sit up and scan the area around them.
At first he didn't see anything other than the headstones matched in orderly rows like grey teeth amid the blanket of well-manicured green grass. Then he saw the man, leaning casually next to a river birch tree. The man's dark suit appeared distinctly out of place next to the tree, with its curls of bark like sheets of white paper. The man watched them with his hands at rest inside his jacket pockets.
As Mike's gaze met his, the man nodded once.
He whined, trembling, and Marie glanced at him. When he gave a low moaning growl, she murmured soothingly to him and rubbed the fur that had raised along his back. She followed his gaze to the tree.
"What's the matter, fellow? What do you see?"
He stood and barked, low and urgent. Already his mind was racing, analyzing their options: runwe could run, I could drag her if I have to, what if I have to kill him in front of her...
"Do you see a squirrel, Prince? Is that what's got you riled up?"
He looked at her, startled that she couldn't see the man, then back toward the tree. The man had begun to walk toward them. Mike jumped to his feet, barking and snarling, his desire to run warring with his terror at the thought of Marie getting hurt.
But when he looked back at Marie, wishing desperately that she'd recognize the danger and run, she was gazing at him with a sad but amused expression. "Easy, baby, easy. There's nothing there."
Mike nudged her shoulder hard enough to push her off balance, then turned to confront the approaching man. As he watched, the man reached one hand inside his suit and withdrew a gun. With his other hand, he reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a silencing attachment.
It was Mike's worst fears come true. Birchfield was here. Birchfield was going to kill him. Birchfield was going to kill Marie.
His instinct to protect her surged through his body like a rush of adrenaline, fueling his legs forward as he lunged to attack first. He knew he wouldn't be faster than the gun, but he thought he might do enough damage to ensure Marie's escape.
One step, then two as the killer took aim. Then he felt a choking jerk as his body slammed to the ground. Still trying to growl, though they sounded like hacking barks, he struggled to his feet and looked back to see Marie standing on the end of his leash.
"Bad dog!" she cried. "What's gotten into you? You can't go racing off after shadows!"
He could almost feel the presence of the man with the gun, so close behind him now he imagined he felt body heat. But when he turned...nothing.
No suited man. No gun. No slouching silhouette underneath the river birch.
He glanced wildly around, certain the man had changed his attack pattern. But no. They were alone in the grassy graveyard, surrounded by fall and headstones and dead leaves and memories.
Confused, he slunk back to Marie and endured her scolding. Eventually she gave his neck a playful scratch--to improve his mood, he knew--then she sat back down to finish her visit.
It was like every nightmare he'd ever had since leaving Birchfield. That they'd appear, that they'd try to hurt him or Marie. But those had always been nightmares, fantasies that happened in the black parts of the night. Never during the day before.
He wondered if he could have imagined it.
When they got home, he barely contained himself long enough for her to unclip the leash before he streaked into the kitchen. Mindless of her surprised cry, he overturned the trashcan and used his massive paws to dig out the contents. Trash flew between his legs to scatter the kitchen floor in a shower of torn paper, plastic wrappings, and decomposing bits of food. But in seconds, he saw what he was looking for: the wadded up ball of grocery sacks he'd hidden Prepbeater's trash in.
Pinning the ball between his front paws, he tore into it with his teeth, ignoring Marie's angry voice as she discovered the mess he'd made. The plastic shredded easily as he went through the first and second layers to get to the inside.
But there was nothing there. Where he'd expected to find a wadded up fast food bag, there was nothing. He sniffed carefully at the plastic scraps he'd shredded, but they just smelled like trash. No leftover smells of burger grease or fries or any of the scents that should have been left behind.
It was as if the bag had never been there at all.
After Marie had banished him to the living room as she cursed her way through the kitchen cleanup, Mike wondered what was happening to him.
He had the memories of the meal with Prepbeater and hiding the trash afterward. And the man at the cemetery had certainly seemed real. Real enough to smell. Real enough to be a threat.
From the kitchen, he heard Marie's voice. "...I don't know, Jared. It was like, like he just went crazy. And then when we got home, he tore into the trash like it offended him. But for nothing! I can't put up with behavior like this. If he doesn't get out of whatever mood he's in..."
Mike stopped listening. It didn't matter. He knew he wasn't crazy.
He couldn't be. He had a job to do. He just had to figure out how to do it and keep his sanity in the process. No matter the cost.