Seb’s room was actually tinier than it’d looked from the outside. With both of us sitting on the edge of the rickety cot, it was even more cramped. I watched impatiently as Seb booted up his laptop and then struggled for another several minutes with the internet, which was stubbornly refusing to cooperate. Frankly, I was still surprised we could even get a connection at all, so I was doing my best not to complain.
Seb on the other hand cursed up a storm until the icon in the corner of the screen suddenly flashed white instead of red, and showed one pathetically tiny bar.
“That’s gonna have to do,” Seb muttered as he opened a video chat application I’d never had a reason to use before, and clicked on Muri’s name in the sidebar.
I watched nervously as we waited for the call to connect.
The mess of foggy pixels comprising Muri’s features was only vaguely recognizable, the brusque “Hello?” the only real evidence it had gone through.
“Can you hear me?” Seb asked.
“Yeah. You look like shit though.”
“Yeah, well so do you,” he replied good-naturedly. “Internet sucks up here.”
“I bet. What do you want?”
“Just thought we’d check in,” Seb told her, adjusting the position of the laptop so I was a bit more visible, as opposed to a ginger-topped blob on the side of the screen. “Any luck with Letuch?”
I still couldn’t make out the details of her face, but the tone of her reply made it clear she wasn’t happy. “No one at Karma’s seen or heard from him since before your scuffle. I checked up on Talya too; she’s gone. Their place looked like it’d been empty for weeks. Whatever Letuch’s up to, she’s in on it.”
Seb frowned deeply, the crease between his eyebrows becoming more prominent with every word. “What about Sal and the others? Any purchases?”
“No recent activity,” she said. “At least none that anyone would tell me about. They’ve gotten a lot less friendly these days.”
“That’s not a good sign.”
“How’s Joel?” I interjected quietly, hoping Seb would steer the conversation to a topic I could actually follow.
“Muri, can you put Joel on?” Seb asked. “Peaches wants to talk to him.”
I glared at him. “That’s not what I said,” I hissed.
“That’s what I heard,” he replied with a shrug. “You want to know how your brother’s doing, you can ask him yourself.” He rolled off of the cot and walked over to his bags, rummaging around for something so noisily it drowned out the static emanating from the laptop speakers as Muri walked with her computer to another room.
“It’s your sister,” I heard her say faintly, before Joel’s fuzzy features suddenly popped up in the chat window.
“I was expecting a phone call,” he said.
“It’s nice to see you too,” I replied. “Seb’s letting me borrow his laptop.”
“You’re welcome,” Seb said from the opposite corner, though it was muffled under the mountain of luggage he’d buried his head in.
Joel made a face at the mention of Seb’s name, but thankfully didn’t make any potentially antagonistic comment. “Making any progress up there?” he asked. “I still don’t really get what you guys are up to, but Muri said it had something to do with some bird.”
“A thunderbird,” I clarified. “Someone took one from the preserve. We’re pretty much just waiting around for them to try it again at this point.”
“Sounds exciting,” Joel replied with a note of sarcasm.
“Yeah, it’s pretty boring right now,” I admitted, carefully leaving out the part where I’d nearly been taken out by one of the thunderbirds just a few hours earlier, as well as the raging conflict between Seb and me. “How are things on your end?”
I let Joel prattle on about work and Muri’s freakishly well-organized day planners and schedules, and something about video games, while I nodded and said “yeah” every few minutes so it didn’t seem like I wasn’t listening. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Seb straightening with a bundle of clothes in one hand, and then suddenly he was taking his shirt off.
“Seriously?” I said, interrupting Joel mid-sentence.
Seb glared at me. “It’s my room, not yours.”
I rolled my eyes and turned back to Joel. “Sorry about that. Someone decided to put on a private show.”
Joel guffawed and the sound echoed loudly out of the tinny laptop speakers, making me wince. “He knows you’re not into that, right?”
“Yes, he’s well aware. Apparently some people just don’t have any sense of common courtesy.”
Joel laughed again. “Muri says she’s not surprised.”
I squinted suspiciously at the screen. “Are you guys all like buddy-buddy now or whatever?”
Joel shrugged, a nearly imperceptible shift in the hodgepodge of pixels as he moved. “She’s all right.”
“She’s ‘all right’?”
“What?” Joel said defensively. “We got to know each other. She’s fine. She’s definitely a step up from Toolbag McDouche over there.”
“I heard that!” Seb said loudly. He was taking off his pants now, and I quickly turned my focus back to Joel.
“Did you—what’s that?” A sudden spike in connectivity made the picture crystal clear for just a second, allowing me to make out the video game controller on the table next to Joel.
We’d never in our lives owned a piece of technology capable of running a video game. Did someone give Joel an early Christmas present?
“What? Oh this?” He held up the controller casually. “It’s Muri’s. She likes shooters.”
I stared up at the rafters and sighed. Of course Joel gets stuck in a safe house all alone with a beautiful girl who shares his taste in video games. Where was the justice?
“So that’s why you like her now?” I assumed.
Joel sounded slightly guilty as he answered. “It doesn’t hurt,” he offered. “Besides, it’s not like there’s anything else to do around here.”
Seb had walked back over before I could reply and took the laptop back from me, waggling his fingers at Joel. “Hiya,” he said. “Let’s wrap things up, it’s almost lights out.” He handed the computer back to me and then flopped down onto his stomach, his face perilously close to my ass now that he was sprawled across the miniscule cot.
“They have a weird curfew thing because they rely so much on solar,” I explained. “We kind of get screwed since it’s fall.”
Joel nodded. “I’ll call you sometime tomorrow maybe?” he asked.
“Sure, if you have time.”
The chat made a loud ‘bloop’ as he hung up and I carefully closed the laptop before passing it back to Seb, who shook his head and pushed it back toward me.
“Just set it next to my bags on your way out.”
Taking that as my cue to leave, I tip-toed over to the other side of the room and put the computer down next to the rest of Seb’s things. His eyes were closed when I opened the door to leave, chest rising every couple seconds as he breathed slow and deep, like he was already asleep, even though I knew that couldn’t be the case. I hit the light switch and closed the door quietly behind me before heading back to Genevieve’s room.
She was already in bed herself, not bothering to spare a glance at me from under the covers when I flicked on the lights for just a second to get my bearings. I drifted off within minutes, finally ending up in a contented slumber for the first time since I’d arrived.
When I woke in the middle of the night feeling groggy and disoriented, it was a few minutes before I realized why. The door was wide open, the light from the hall cutting through the darkness inside and illuminating a figure crouched next to Genevieve’s bunk.
“What’s going on?” I asked through a yawn.
Eva looked up, her dark eyes glinting as she glanced at me. “Don’t worry about it, Pemberly. Just go back to bed.”
But her refusal to answer piqued my curiosity. I watched quietly as she exited the room with Genevieve in tow, the latter having taken just enough time to put on boots and a jacket before following Eva out into the hall. They didn’t bother to close the door. Something wasn’t right.
I’d already faced Seb’s wrath once; I could do it again.
I jogged down the hall, ignoring the wide open bedroom doors blocking nearly half the corridor. I shouldered open the main doors that led outside and stumbled over the steps leading down, my knees hitting the thin layer of frost on the ground with a loud crunch as I took in the utter chaos that lay before me.
The doors to the pens had all been opened, and above the screeching of dozens of creatures I couldn’t have identified even if my life depended on it, Eva and the others were shouting instructions to each other, herding the creatures as methodically as possible back into their pens.
I rushed forward to try and help and found myself flat on my back in the snow, with several hundred pounds of snarling fur and teeth keeping me pinned down. This wasn’t the even-tempered creature I’d petted on Cece’s examination table. This wolf, a dark charcoal gray in color, could be better described as a hellhound.
I threw my arm up against the creature’s exposed throat, panting desperately as I exerted every ounce of strength I possessed to keep its snarling jaws away from my face.
Then there was a loud sound, like a firework going off just over my head, and the wolf leaped up off of me. I rolled over onto my stomach and watched as it ran straight for what looked like two human forms, wrestling in the snow. I quickly got to my feet, ignoring the searing pain in my leg as I stood, and followed the wolf, afraid it was going to attack someone else.
It slammed into one of the people on the ground before I could get to them, and the two forms skidded across the ground in a cloud of snow. Now that I was closer, I could see that the remaining figure was Tayo and I offered him a hand. He took it without a word, pulling himself into a standing position before darting over to the wolf, which now stood over the other person growling menacingly.
I watched as Tayo gently pushed the wolf off of the stranger lying in the snow and then kicked them solidly in the ribs. Apparently whoever it was didn’t exactly need to be rescued.
Turning back toward the pens, I could see that things were starting to settle down, most of the small scurrying creatures having vanished back into their enclosures. Eva was still standing in the middle of it all, futilely trying to get Iglu, who was sitting on his haunches and whining up at the sky, back into his own pen. I ran over to her, careful to avoid colliding with Genevieve, who was chasing a tiny brown furry thing that looked sort of like a cat crossed with an otter.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” I asked Eva, staying a few feet away from her and Iglu just to be safe.
She whipped around to face me with a surprised expression, and for a moment, I thought I was going to get chewed out again right then and there. “There’s a blanket in his pen,” she said evenly. “Help me cover him.”
I quickly grabbed the blanket from the cabinet inside the wolves’ enclosure and carried the massive wool monstrosity back over to Eva. Together we delicately draped the blanket over Iglu’s shoulders as he continued to shake and whine. I stroked the fur above his nose gently, letting him sniff my hand for a moment until Eva covered my hand with her own and slowly pushed me away.
“I got him,” she said. “Make sure the other pens are locked?”
I nodded and jogged over to the first pen, testing the latch and door and resisting the urge to take a closer look inside. I’d caught glimpses of the other creatures during the round-up, but it was too dark to make out any details.
After making the rounds, I eventually ended up at the final enclosure near the fence, where I could see the barbed wire at the top had been ripped free in a few places. As I approached the last pen, I could see Genevieve crouched down low next to the sacks of feed, trying to coax something out from in between them.
“Move,” she hissed. “You’re scaring it.”
I backed away without protest, and turned back to see Eva leading Iglu into his pen. Tayo and Seb were standing nearby, with the charcoal gray wolf still assuming an attack position as it circled the huddled figure still sitting in the dirt outside the lodge. I walked over, fully intending to keep my distance from the gray wolf, but what I saw when I reached Eva and Iglu stopped me in my tracks.
The figure was sitting with its arms behind its back, and while its silhouette appeared human, the face was anything but.
It looked like the middle stage of a transformation from dog to man, or woman in this case, as the body shape was very distinctly feminine. The ears were canine, covered in reddish-brown fur that perfectly matched the color of her shoulder length hair. I stared completely transfixed as Seb’s explanation of hybrids suddenly became very real.
I heard the sound of the pen door closing behind me, but I didn’t turn to see who it was until I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“You’re hurt,” Eva said, concerned.
“What?” I glanced down to see the right leg of my pants stained dark red with blood. “I must’ve cut myself on a rock or something,” I guessed. “It’s not a big deal.” It barely even hurt now, all but forgotten in the excitement.
“Well we should still take a look at it,” she said, and then cupped her hands around her mouth to yell, “Tayo!”
He turned slightly, so as to not fully take his eyes off of the dog-like woman still sitting in the snow. “We got it under control,” he called back, and Eva nodded.
“All right,” she said. “Come on. We’ve got human first aid supplies too.”
I followed her to the vet stating, my knee starting to pulse with pain now that Eva had brought attention to it. She led me into the examination room again, holding the door open for me and then allowing me to use her shoulder for support so I could hop up onto the table. I sat there with my legs dangling over the edge as she went through the cabinets for supplies.
“Can you roll up your pant leg?” she asked, kneeling down to take a better look. There was a tear in the pants where you could see the skin peeking through, and I delicately pulled at the edges of the ripped fabric, making sure it wasn’t stuck to the cut. “Or I can do it,” she said, crouching down to yank at the right leg of my pants. I watched her nervously as she slowly exposed my shin, blood streaks staining the skin from knee to ankle.
As a rule, I tried not to be too self-conscious about my appearance. But I couldn’t help feeling slightly insecure about the prickly red stubble on my legs, still growing back after I’d shaved it before my trip to Karma. It was one of the things Lila had never let me be comfortable with, and in Eva’s presence, as dignified and elegant and well...older as she was, it made me feel like a prepubescent kid.
But Eva didn’t say anything about it. Because she wasn’t Lila. And when was I going to stop comparing every woman who so much as acknowledged my existence to my dead best friend?
“This is probably going to sting,” Eva warned me, hissing sympathetically as she took in the gash across my knee, shallow but wide and with bits of grit and gravel packed into the raw exposed skin.
I nodded. “Oka—shit!” She pressed the alcohol-soaked pad to my skin before I could even get the full word out, and rubbed hard. I tightened my grip on the edge of the table as the pain in my knee flared to just this side of unbearable before gradually fading to a dull throb.
“This is the only injury, right?” she asked, taking out a half-used tube of antiseptic ointment and dabbing delicately at the wound. “Eris didn’t bite you?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I mean, yes, this is the only one.”
Eva hummed under her breath as she peeled a bandage from its wrapper and carefully placed it over the wound, gently patting down the adhesive edges all around it to make sure it would stick.
“Try bending it?” she said.
I slowly extended my leg out in front of me and then relaxed. Eva straightened, apparently satisfied with her handiwork, and smiled at me.
“All better,” she told me, but didn’t move away, even though we were closer than appropriate for two near-strangers.
I blinked up her, feeling suddenly dazed. “Thanks,” I managed.
The seconds dragged on as we stared at each other, but Eva didn’t budge. Finally, I broke eye contact, gazing down at the floor instead as I scratched at the back of my neck in discomfort. “Sorry for uh, getting in the way again.”
Eva was silent for a minute, and then took a step back before replying, turning her back to me. I wasn’t sure if I felt relieved or disappointed the moment was over. “I’m not sure where you got the impression I approved in the slightest of Seb’s behavior.”
“Well I mean, I can’t really do much to help,” I said meekly. “I don’t know what to do.”
Eva glanced back at me before turning back to the cabinets, neatly returning the first aid supplies to their proper places. “You know, I didn’t get involved with NIMA for almost two years after finding out monsters were real. Some might say you’re already on the fast-track.”
“How’d you get involved?” I asked.
She laughed, whirling around to lean back against the counters. She crossed her arms over her chest and sighed. “A girlfriend,” she said. Apparently I hadn’t been misreading the signs. “Ex-girlfriend now. She worked for NIMA’s food bank,” she added with a bitter laugh.
“They have a food bank?” I said skeptically.
“Not like what you’re thinking,” she said. “It’s for inhumans who would normally need to…kill humans to eat. I worked there for a few months but...eventually I couldn’t do it anymore. Drawing blood from people knowing your girlfriend might be drinking it for dinner later? It takes a toll.”
I grimaced. “Your girlfriend was a vampire?”
Eva nodded slowly. “Just one of the many reasons we didn’t last. But after that I met Casey, who worked in a research lab, and they suggested I try out an internship up here at Zara. It ended up being a good fit.”
“So the animals here, they don’t bother you?” I asked.
“Why would they?” Eva looked genuinely nonplussed. “I don’t have a problem with predators who kill to eat. I have an issue when those predators use their intelligence to torture and kill human beings for sport. When it’s in their nature to do bad things.” Upon seeing my expression, she laughed. “Come on, you can’t tell me you’re a sympathizer.”
“I don’t know what that even is,” I confessed.
“People who think monsters should be able to walk freely amongst the humans with no monitoring whatsoever,” she replied. “Basically the sort of thing that would put Seb out of a job. Luckily for him, it’s not a very popular point of view, mostly because it would involve telling every human on the planet that monsters exist.”
“Uh….” I picked at the frayed fabric of my ripped pants. “I don’t think that would work out very well.”
“Neither does anyone with an ounce of sense,” Eva said. “Look, Pemberly, it’s not up to me to tell you how to feel about inhumans, but let me just say this: you and I have something very important in common with each other.” She took a step toward me, putting her hands on either side of the table, so that we were looking straight into each other’s eyes. “I lost people I cared about because a monster killed them. You lost someone you cared about because a monster killed them. There are thousands and thousands just like us. Innocent people killed every day because it was in something’s ‘nature’. Now tell me I’m wrong.”
I couldn’t. I thought about Lila lying on the floor, with blood pouring out of her, and remembered how long it had taken me to scrub it out from under my fingernails.. I thought about the feeling of plunging the knife into Dan’s chest, about seeing the terrifying visage of the mermaid dragging me under the water, about Letuch haunting my nightmares. And I couldn’t say a word.