Anchor—excerpt

Chapter One

Angus sometimes felt like he spent his entire life solving problems. On the upside, this specific issue had been straightforward. On the downside, Eden shouldn’t be calling him over to change her flat tire.

While he dried off his hands, he regarded her sternly. “Next time, you phone the mechanic, not me.”

She was fifty and a little brittle. It hadn’t been easy for her, a single human mom raising a wolf child twenty-five years ago when wolves officially didn’t exist. And that experience, with all the secrets it had entailed, meant she wasn’t comfortable around a lot of people, wolves and non-wolves alike. “Mac doesn’t like me much.”

“Mac is a grump, that’s all. Nothing you should take personally. Plus he’s good at his job. Now—” His phone vibrated in his pocket, and he raised a finger, asking her to wait a moment as he fished out the phone and flipped it open. “Angus here.”

“We’ve got a visitor.” It was his daughter. Among other things, Jancis kept watch on the different video feeds situated on the outskirts of the town. A safety precaution they’d set up after one too many humans became overly curious—and aggressive—about the wolves in Wolf Town.

“Go on.”

“From what I see, there’s a skinny, underfed, underage wolf who can’t decide what to do and doesn’t know he’s being watched.” The strange young wolf could be a female, Angus knew, but males outnumbered females on a scale of about twenty-five to one so it was less likely. Jancis’s voice dropped. “He’s making me sad. I’m a bit worried he’s going to collapse from starvation to be honest.”

Crap, more than underfed. “Where?”

“East side. I can see him from the video feed attached to the barn. He goes into it, gets uncomfortable and leaves before he can manage to grab something to eat. He can’t settle. Not the actions of a wild wolf, I don’t think.”

“I’m on it. Send Rory as backup, but he’s only to approach on my say-so.” Frightened wolves did better if they weren’t outnumbered. On the other hand, Angus wanted someone to help him pin this one down if he was feral. An unfortunate likelihood. He closed the phone and turned back to the woman standing in front of him.

“Eden, I’ve got to go.”

“Is something wrong?” She wasn’t always comfortable around people, but nevertheless she worried about them.

“Don’t know yet.” Angus was constitutionally incapable of lying to his people or he would have said no.

The worry line of her frown deepened, and she gave him a sharp nod as he left.

He ran back to his house, taking all of two minutes, slammed inside and stripped off his clothes. More painful to shift this way, without the full moon calling to his blood and with the sun blazing down outside, but he pulled back his human skin. That’s how he thought of it, though every werewolf’s mental approach to the shift was different. His wolf felt his urgency and surged to the surface. His skin prickled as if retracting. And there it was, the event horizon. He dropped to his hands and knees, let his shift overtake him as the world grayed out.

You didn’t become alpha without decent control and memory, so the confusion that assailed him as he woke from the change—wolf at midday, inside his house, new moon in the sky—was brief. His daughter had phoned him. A starving and possibly feral wolf was hanging around the barn. Angus rose, shook out his body and trotted to his front door. Like every other house in Wolf Town, this had a lever handle, and he pushed down on it with his paw. Jancis would come by to shut it once Angus showed up on the screen.

He loped to the east end of town.

It wasn’t complicated, though Angus made a point of approaching from downwind so his scent didn’t frighten off the newcomer. He saw the young black wolf tentatively approach the barn. From his size, this one was a teenager, and he worried about them the most. It was an easy age to lose your way, but this pup was seeking help. Angus knew the lure of the barn—shelter from the wind and some tasteless if nutritional jerky in packaging that could be torn open with wolf teeth.

Angus also understood the youth would fear becoming trapped inside the building by a stranger—which was exactly what Angus had planned. He had only good intentions. The trick was convincing the young wolf of that.

He moved silently, reaching the door before he stopped to observe the distracted stranger tearing into some food and gulping it down. Angus let him finish the large swallow before he gave a soft woof.

The youth spun around, body going tight and trembling as he cringed. After a pause—probably assessing if he could get past Angus at the wide door—he dropped to his belly, ears going back, and whined.

That’s it, thought Angus, don’t try to flee. Slow and steady, Angus approached. He anticipated fear in this situation, but the boy’s was excessive, as if he expected to be executed for trespassing. Angus whined back reassurance and watched the stranger’s ears lift slightly in hope.

In other situations, Angus would have crouched down to show he was no threat and was not interested in dominating anyone, but the black wolf’s confusion made that pointless. So Angus approached the pup, who remained still and trembling until Angus nuzzled behind his ear and was assailed by whining and feverish licking. He accepted the supplication—as clearly the youth had been around the dominant-submissive pack dynamics that were so common outside of Wolf Town. Angus then retreated and picked up another package of beef jerky from the bin it was kept in, and threw it over. After a moment’s hesitation while eyeing Angus carefully, the wolf couldn’t resist ripping open the wrapping and gulping down the food.

They repeated the ritual a few more times so the strange wolf wouldn’t collapse from lack of food.

The black body kept trembling, if not so violently. Angus had hoped he could lead the boy to his house and they could shift sometime today, but he no longer saw that as a probable outcome. Undergoing a shift in a stranger’s house required a certain level of comfort and trust. Time and patience were needed.

Angus gave an inward sigh. He should have delegated, sent someone else to approach and befriend the boy, because he was going to be out of commission for days on this. Too bad he was crap at delegating. Besides, he wanted this done right for the boy, and he was very good at convincing wolves to trust him.

With a mental shrug, Angus lay down beside the thin wolf to offer him warmth. Though exhausted, the intruder jumped away at that. Angus watched, hoping this wouldn’t turn into a chase. He kept his body relaxed, though, while offering another soft woof of encouragement.

C’mon, boy, you’re not capable of escaping me, you must recognize that.

And he did, for the pup let his head fall in a sign of surrender. He circled around Angus twice before lying down near him. Angus moved over, again offering warmth. It was late winter after all, and this pup was near skeletal. The young wolf’s body shuddered before gingerly pressing against Angus’s side. Lethargic from his first food in who knows how long, the boy fell asleep.

Well, that was gratifying, his relative lack of resistance to sleeping beside Angus—or it indicated a dangerous level of physical and mental fatigue. Either way, Angus was going to be here a few days. He could do with a rest, he supposed, and everyone told him he worked too hard.

So that afternoon and evening, he allowed himself to doze while he kept guard over the newest member of Wolf Town.

*

For four nights, Mala didn’t sleep. She paced, she read, she watched DVDs—and she called in sick. This was how she’d lost her old job, and she saw all the signs of it happening again. But she knew herself. She needed the week off to recover from the nightmare and the insomnia that followed. Finally on the fifth day after the nightmare—why were her nightmares all about murderous wolves?—exhaustion took over and she slept for twelve hours straight.

The waking wasn’t easy, like swimming through thick, difficult water towards the light, but she eventually made it out, back into the real world, and dragged her body off to the bathroom to shower.

She looked at the mirror and saw dark bags under her eyes—no mystery about the cause of that. Sometimes she feared being unable to pull out of those nightmares, being trapped in them forever. There was no way of being reassured it wouldn’t happen when she couldn’t even talk to anyone about the dreams and the terrors.

And this last time, determined that the boy, Caleb, get away, she’d stayed longer than ever before. It hadn’t mattered that it had all been a dream when, as it occurred, it had felt so incredibly real.

At that, a memory stirred from the depths of her latest sleep. It hadn’t been dreamless, and she shivered, unable to release her own gaze in the mirror. The too-skinny black wolf she’d saved had re-entered her dreams, briefly, the previous night. It was like that sometimes. After a sleep terror, her mind would return to the same creature. It had been a calm dream, thank God, no need for action—which always took a toll on her and she couldn’t afford more days off work. But this time, Caleb had been sleeping in a barn, and someone had been watching over him in a fatherly way. He was safe.

Safe.

Another shiver shook her, but good for once. Even if it was all a figment of her imagination, she desperately wanted that dark, panicked wolf to be safe. She couldn’t disengage but she had learned to control the nightmares by attacking the monster—and there was always a monster in these, to accompany the awful fear. Like Caleb’s father, intent on violence.

“In. Your. Dream.” She spoke to her mirror self, attempting to sound ironic. Get a grip, Mala. So you have alarming night terrors—that’s what her parents had called them when, as a child, she’d lie in bed keening until shaken awake by her mother. The point was—it was over.

For now.

She’d once talked to her counselor about her violent dreams, and the well-meaning woman had smiled, her manner condescending. The counselor hadn’t been impressed by Mala’s obsession with wolves either. She’d been more interested in the fact that Mala didn’t make friends easily and had a fraught relationship with her father.

Sure those things weren’t great, but Mala couldn’t manage to convey to this woman that what defined her, what made her what she was today, were the dreams. And the terrors.

*

After her little unplanned sabbatical, Mala had been back at work for a week, catching up on the paperwork and trying to ignore the resentment of her coworkers. She understood. They thought she was milking her sick days for all they were worth when they each had too much work in the office for too little pay. So she put in a few twelve-hour days, got her share under control, helped a couple of other women, took the fall for a mistake someone else had made, and stayed obliging when the boss was kind of an asshole about, well, most things.

If she was lucky, she wouldn’t have another nightmare for months or even a year. It had happened before, a long dry spell. Once she’d had sixteen months of peace and thought her dreams were over and she’d turned normal. She no longer believed that was a possible future for her.

Nevertheless her last dream, when the black wolf slept, was a good omen. She remembered the feel of the fatherly wolf beside him—clearly not his father, given the previous nightmare. This new, older wolf had felt good. Again she shivered at the memory of safety.

“Okay, Mala?”

Her face flamed at the idea her boss had been watching her. As if she could explain her crazy thoughts to him, or anyone.

“Absolutely fine,” she stated with as much self-possession as possible.

“Excellent.” He slammed down a pile of files on her desk with more force than necessary. He wasn’t violent, just dramatic, but it made her jump. “These are for you.”

“Thank you,” she said politely and took them, throwing herself into that work so she wouldn’t think about her dreams. Late in the evening, she dragged herself home.

When she fell into bed that night, she was exhausted but hopeful. It looked like she wasn’t about to lose her job after all. Competent help was hard to find, and she was competent—when not incapacitated. With that not entirely pleasant thought, she started to drift off to sleep. Good omen, she reminded herself, as she pushed away the fear of another night terror.

For all the good it did.

It was a type of waking—at least it felt that way—with the flare of fear like a beacon calling to her. A part of her wanted to ignore it. It was too soon and she was too drained, and the last time she’d see him, Caleb had been safe. But the flare was familiar and compelling, it was hers, and she couldn’t stop herself. She focused.

Her body fell away, and with it, her reluctance. She was dreaming, everywhere and nowhere, with only the boy’s fear her anchor. She arrowed in on Caleb, determined to find him, make him safe. And then she was with him.

He didn’t know where he was, strangely enough. All he knew was confusion. After a few moments of blindness, she settled in to look for him, used his eyes to see until he could calm down and see for himself. It was then, observing his bare arms, she realized with some shock he wasn’t an actual wolf.

She always dreamed wolves, and her surprise reached him.

“I am a wolf,” he told her, and the statement settled him, like he was returning to know himself. He took stock of his situation.

He was in a room, the door not shut, the house quiet, and he breathed in, scenting the presence of two others and trying to figure out how to hide from them.

“I know them.” With this thought, relief swept through Caleb. He did not have to hide.

She waited, letting him sort through his uncertain knowledge, not understanding how he could lack such basic information.

“These two people, they’re not strangers. They’re kind to me.” His confidence built with these assertions.

The worst of his panic had ebbed but, just in case, Mala began to fashion a weapon. It would be a weak blade, nothing like the one that had felled his father, because the boy carried none of that intense terror she required to make it strong. But a defense of some kind might come in useful.

“No weapon.” He hunched at the idea, and straightened again. The next thought was defiant; he expected her to contradict him. “These are my friends.”

She paused, the shine of her work in her hands, and she recalled that he’d felt safe in that barn.

He remembered too, and with that memory her work became futile. She only ever attacked the monsters, not friends, not kindness. She let the weapon spread thin, then dissolve.

“I’m glad,” she told him.

The last of his fear dissipated, a wary hopefulness taking its place, and her heart hurt for him as she sensed his desire to belong here. She looked out through his eyes once more, and he was staring at a beautiful painting. Three wolves were running up a snow-covered hill, the full moon shining down on them. It made him happy to see it, to recognize himself in the picture—not him exactly but creatures like him. She concentrated, wanting to remember this painting, as if it could be a marker of sorts for her. A way to locate this place, if it was a place.

It became critical that she ask.

“Caleb. Where are you?”

He frowned, thinking about the bedroom and the house.

“What city? What town?”

His brow cleared, his confusion now gone, and she could feel him smile just a little. “Wolf Town.”

She held on to the words, praying she’d recall them once she left this dream. It seemed important.

“I can’t stay,” she told him.

He nodded once, unsure what to make of both her presence and her leave-taking.

“But you stay, Caleb. Stay with your friends.”

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