Lips of Rust | Chapter 2

Chapter 2

The sky wasn’t completely black yet—it was dusk; that strange, nautical phase of twilight where the sun had already dipped below the horizon and yet still managed to give off the faintest bit of light.

As I turned onto South Cedar Road, I came across what had to be the accident Elaine told us about.

“What the hell?”  I jogged over, my eyes not believing the scene in front of me.  I skipped over a curb to get a good look at the damage.  My mouth fell open.

A handful of police officers gathered around an SUV that had veered off-course.  It collapsed from the back-end forward, but I could tell it hadn’t been just rear-ended—it was literally crushed.  Like someone stomped on an aluminum can of Sprite.  But that’s impossible.  What on God’s green earth could have possibly done that to a two-ton car?

Any passengers would have likely died instantaneously.  I tried to concentrate on the license plate but the damage rendered it unrecognizable.  Every cell in my body vibrated with urgency to get home.

I hurried toward my house.  The size of the accident put a damper on my usual route, though, so I had to make my way through some bushes in the underbrush to get past it.  Good thing my neighbors are laid-back.  My breathing came out jagged as I pushed through the sharp, pointed branches.  They scraped against my skin and scratches quickly accumulated all over my hands, ankles, and neck.

So briefly I wasn’t even sure it happened, I heard a hiss from somewhere beneath me.  Surprised and gasping, I pushed on faster through the brush.  I had just begun to convince myself that I imagined it when I heard it again, closer this time.

I didn’t have time to wonder what it was.  Suddenly, the hissing seemed to stop, but that didn’t make me move any slower.  I glimpsed the promising luminescence of a street lamp and urgently pushed through, no longer caring about the sting of branches and thorns against my skin.

Just before I was about to break out of the brush and reach the road—just before relief could settle in—I was abruptly yanked backward.  My mouth opened, ready to scream, but nothing came out.  I found myself on the ground, dazed.  My fingers instinctively, detachedly, moved to touch the right side of my head, which both pounded and stung strongly, and came back covered in blood that glistened bright black in the darkness.

My eyes wandered upwards, where I could sense the presence of—of something.  I tried to make a sound—to move, anything—but my head wound slowed everything down dumbly, and my legs refused to move.  All I could make out was slight, crescent moonlight reflecting toward me in a pair of enormous green eyes.

Am I having a psychotic break?

That certainly seemed more plausible than this—whatever this was.

I tried to get up again, but the world was spinning too fast.  The enormous green eyes were both nowhere and everywhere.  A deep growl, distinctively canine, sounded somewhere near my ear.  Adrenaline filled my bloodstream.  I intended on using it to try to escape,  but when I tried I was too slow, and was certainly no match for whatever this animal was.  I’d barely moved when it struck again.

The throbbing pain became lost to me as blackness saturated my vision.

Voices . . . there were so many voices.

They seemed to get tangled up as they criss-crossed past each other in the air.  I heard a woman’s voice in particular, but it didn’t belong to my mom.  I felt uneasy.  If it wasn’t my mom, who was it?  I tried to move my head or arms or legs, but could achieve nothing more than wriggling my fingers.

Where the hell am I?

Nothing was adding up.  Not the dozens of unknown voices, nor the unfamiliar smells I just noticed then: pine and antiseptic.

I finally felt the extreme pounding on the right side of my head.  I gasped aloud.  My hands, which I finally gained some control over, automatically moved to feel my head.  It was bandaged.  I shook off the underlying confusion surrounding that.  I gasped again, louder this time, at the acute pain the pressure from my fingers caused.  My eyes flung open.

I was lying unrestrained in a strange bed.  Two blankets were draped over me.  I shook off the confusion about that, too, and tried to get out of the bed.  I didn’t make it very far because of my head, which throbbed like mad the second I’d moved it.  I didn’t know how long I was out for, but judging by the total darkness in the room, I guessed it was only a couple of hours.

My breathing quickened to a shallow pant.  Adrenaline, accompanied by panic, settled in as my last moments of consciousness came back: Alek’s hug before I headed home; the car accident, so bizarre it must have been a dream; the mysterious hissing underneath my feet; the enormous, round green eyes and the growl that came from it.

A hundred questions passed through my mind.  Where was Alek?  What about my parents?  Did they know what happened?  Were they looking for me?

I didn’t know where I was, whom the voices belonged to, or what exactly had happened in the underbrush, but I was leaving, now.

Slowly, I sat upright.  My head struggled to keep up, but I didn’t push myself too hard in fear of passing out again.  I’d never had a concussion before but I was fairly sure I did now.

The voices were still there (in another room, I realized) more comprehensible than before.  Along with the woman, whose voice easily stood out the most, I heard an indeterminate amount of males’.

Soon I was finally standing.  I peered through the darkness for my drawstring bag, where my phone was buried somewhere inside, but with one quick sweep around the room I knew it wasn’t here.  My pink ankle socks were slippery against the hardwood floor, and I realized with bewilderment that someone had taken my shoes off.  Whomever, or whatever, had evidently brought me here put in the effort to make me comfortable.

Not that it changed anything.

I shuffled across the floor while trying to be as noiseless as possible.  My head wound made that difficult, as it made me weakened and slightly nauseous, but I pushed through it.  The door wasn’t an option, with so many people right outside it.  I scoured the room for an escape route.

Aha!

There was a window on the other side of the room.  I wouldn’t have noticed it had it not been for the only source of light in the room—the light that leaked through the bottom of the door—reflecting at me in the glass.  I shuffled across the room faster.

I braced my hands against the bottom of the window and pushed upward.  Nothing happened.  I checked the lock on the window to make sure it was open and then pushed upward again, my head throbbing sporadically from the effort.  It wasn’t budging.

I exhaled in frustration.  The voices appeared to be arguing in the other room, all evidently unaware of my efforts.

I spun around.  There had to be something in this room I could use to defend myself.

After some groping in the dark I found a small, ancient-looking lamp sitting beside an armoire.  The stand was very sturdy and would leave a nasty bruise with enough force behind it.  There wasn’t much else except books so heavy I didn’t think I was capable of carrying them around.  I snuck up to the door as silently as I could, but the floorboards were old and creaked under my weight.  I winced at the sound.

The voices got louder by the minute.

“I just really don’t know what the hell you were thinking—,” a gruff voice said.

“I had to,” another shot back.  “For the tenth time: if I didn’t, they were going—”

“We do not need this right now!”

“That is NOT the point—”

“Quiet!” one of them hollered.  The rest fell silent immediately.

Three excruciating seconds passed before he said, “She’s awake.  She’s standing behind the door.”

All of the blood drained from my face.  My lips trembled in fear; I tightened my grip on the lamp.

I heard heavy footsteps coming toward the door.

“Absolutely not!” the woman hissed.

The footsteps stopped.  Apparently they didn’t feel like arguing with her.  Then I heard lighter, softer footsteps this time coming toward me, and guessed the woman was coming to deal with me herself.  I crept behind the door, where maybe she wouldn’t see me.

There was a light knock on the door.  “Hello?”

It was definitely the woman.  Her voice was soft and serene and completely void of the poison that had been present before.  I flattened my back against the wall and didn’t make a sound.

“Hello?” she repeated.  “Just listen to me.  I know you’re scared.  No, that’s an understatement.  You’re terrified.  And you have every right to be.  But I swear—I swear on my life—that we are not going to hurt you.  Can I please come in?”

A voice grumbled in the background.  She ignored them.

“My name is Eve Hanson.  I’ll answer any questions you have.  You can trust me.”

At this point, I was a mess.  My head still pounded, I felt physically sick, and I was frightened for my life.  But against my better judgment, I wanted answers as much as I wanted to escape, so I pressed my lips to my fist to keep quiet.

“Forget it,” someone in the back said.  “Leave her for now.”

“No,” Eve told him firmly.  Her voice was slightly muffled.  “I want to at least make sure she’s okay.”  Then she asked me directly, “I don’t know what your name is.  You don’t have to tell me right now.  But let me know how your head feels.  We were worried you got a concussion.”

The pounding got worse.  My legs felt far away; I swayed a little.  I bit the inside of my cheek, weighing my options.  Do I give them the satisfaction of my cooperation for the benefit of my health?  Or do I refuse to cooperate and take the chance of ignorantly dealing with the concussion myself?

“I do,” I finally got out.  I cringed at the sound of my voice.  It didn’t feel like my own.  “Think I have a concussion.”

“Can I have a look?” She paused for a moment.  “Sorry.  Do you give me permission to have a look?”

I hesitated, then said, “Yes, but just you.”

I could probably afford to negotiate a little, couldn’t I?

“Certainly.”

Slowly, the door opened.  I backed away from it, letting myself stumble back to the edge of the bed.

Eve Hanson stood three or so inches taller than me.  That’s all I could make out at first.  She flickered on a light switch I hadn’t noticed before beside the door, and in a heartbeat I connected her face to the person I heard before.

She had long, naturally-red hair and green eyes that reminded me of leaf buds in spring.  Freckles were splashed across her cheeks.  She was very pretty, even with the anxious expression on her face as she stepped into the room.

Meanwhile, I was sure I looked terrible, covered in scratches and dried blood and wearing dirty clothes.  Good.  Perhaps I’d be lucky enough to induce some guilt inside them for kidnapping me..

Eve closed the door behind her and approached me.  She held her hands open and outstretched to show me she was unarmed.

“Sit down, please,” she said, gesturing to the bed.

I obeyed, but kept the lamp on my lap.  She sat down on her knees and smiled tightly.

“May I?” she murmured, holding her hand up.  I nodded.  She rested the back of her hand on my forehead.

“Well, you’re not hot,” she mused.  “Are you dizzy?  In pain?”

“Yes . . . to both.”

She chewed on her lip thoughtfully and her eyes glazed over.  Evidently having a conversation inside her head.

“The concussion is a little concerning, but you’ll be okay.  We’ll just have to be careful the next 24 hours that you don’t sleep too long.”

“That much I knew already,” I said brusquely.

“I’m glad to see you’ve still got your wits about you,” she said as she grabbed a new bandage and more antiseptic from the nightstand.  So she was the one that cleaned me up and covered me in blankets.  “Okay, this is going to hurt.”

Well, at least she’s not a bullshitter.  I grit my teeth in pain as she cleaned the side of my head of dried blood and applied a new bandage lined with antiseptic over it.

“Please believe me when I say that I am so, so sorry for what’s happened.”

And what do you think has happened? I wanted to ask.  But as I looked at her, really looked, something struck that told me she wasn’t lying.  “Where am I?”

Finally, the words come out.

“You’re right outside Reds Brook.”

A pause.

“What?” I asked flatly.

“The woods that border Reds Brook, to be exact.”

So my house is right around the freaking corner?

“Reds Brook, Massachusetts?”

“That’s the one,” Eve said lightly.  She was very patient.  At least with me; I can’t say the same for whomever else was standing outside.

I exploded before I could think twice.

“What happened to me?” I demanded.  Everything tumbled out then, spitting and venomous. “Who are you?  There was—something—there with me.  Some kind of animal.  Do you know anything about that?  What do you plan to do with me?  Because I’ll tell you what, if you plan on killing me at some point in the future, please for the love of God just do it now.”

A single chuckling remark floated in through the door.  “She’s quite feisty.”

My anger escalated, sending my hands clenching and my teeth grinding.

Eve’s face was sullen.  “We’ll explain now.  Daniel?”

The door opened.  I shot to my feet reflexively.  A man well over six feet tall walked inside.  His skin was rich brown and he was one hundred percent toned muscle.  His age was hard to estimate, but I guessed in the mid twenties.

Daniel nodded to Eve once and stopped several feet in front of me.  As he studied me, he tilted his head and a corner of his mouth turned downwards.  He appeared to be unhappy.

“What’s your name?”

“Gabriella,” I said stiffly.

“So, Gabriella . . . hmm . . . now how do I explain this to you?”

I stared at Daniel skeptically as he did something interesting: he paced across the room and muttered under his breath.  I glanced at Eve, who watched him in silence.

We waited, but he seemed to grow even less decided by the minute.

“Maybe you should just say it,” Eve finally suggested.  “And don’t beat around the bush.  Like how you did with me.”

Daniel and I both whipped our heads to look at her.  She shrugged in defense.

I wanted to ask her what she meant, but it didn’t seem to be the right time.  Some unknown force was keeping me still, observing.  Daniel shook his head a couple of times, paced a little more, and finally came to a stop.

“Levi and Tobias, please come here,” he called out.

Two more men came into the room.  Then, so quietly I almost didn’t notice him, a third came through the door wearing a huge grin on his face.

Daniel turned to talk to Levi and Tobias, but abruptly cut himself short.

“I didn’t call for you, Blaise,” he scolded.

“I wanted to meet her,” Blaise insisted.  He saw me standing by the bed and flashed his grin at me.  It reminded me of Alek’s own goofy smile and left me slightly shocked.

He was a few inches shorter than Daniel.  Between his tousled brown hair and the stubble on his face, he looked ruffled.  His muscles were large, almost as toned as Daniel’s.  I looked at Levi and Tobias and saw that they too also had that type of physique.

Who are these people?  Something told me they’re not all together for a gym membership.

It clearly seemed there was more going on here than just your standard, regular kidnapping.  What exactly, I didn’t know, but the adrenaline still running through my body told me to stand my ground just in case.

Daniel shook his head.  “Whatever, Blaise, fine.  Just help me out here.”  Then he looked me square in the face and asked, “Gabriella, how much do you remember?”

I wasn’t sure what he hoped to hear.  “I was walking home from a friend’s house and took a detour through the brush in someone’s yard when I heard hisses and growls inside it with me.  I was hit on the head—twice—by I don’t know what, it gave me a concussion, and now I’m here.” I glared pointedly.

A voice blurted, “I am so, so sorry about that.”

“You didn’t mean it, Tobias,” Eve said.

Tobias shook his head at her, then at me.  “Doesn’t matter.  I still feel awful.”

I said nothing in response—what exactly could I say?  It’s cool bro, no harm done?

“You remember more than I thought you would,” Daniel broke in. “That’s good though, it makes things easier.  Now, hmm . . . Okay.  Okay.  This will be a hard pill to swallow, I know, but if you can believe me, we were saving your life back there.”

“Saving my life?  From what?” I asked.

My words hung suspended in the air.  Daniel’s mouth twisted into that half-frown again.

“You said you remembered hissing?”

I nodded.

Daniel took a deep breath. “It’s a species, sentient like you and me.  Only one you’ve never heard of before.  It’s called a bandishere.  And it wouldn’t have killed you, oh no.” He laughed darkly.  “Instead, something altogether worse.  It would have kept you as its pet for the duration of your life.”

It was quiet for a moment.

“Eve, wanna look at my head again?”

“Your head is fine,” Daniel said, “believe me.  You’re not crazy, you’re not sick, and you’re not having a bad dream.  There are creatures on this planet not meant for humans to see.  It isn’t your fault, either.  It’s because they evolved that way.

“Let me explain what I mean.  As humans were creating civilizations and becoming established at their place on the top of the food chain, specific species had taken on different routes of evolution.  To evade humans for their own survival, most importantly.  Bandisheres were one of these species.  They’re cold-blooded, possess a very effective built-in camouflage, and utterly cunning.  They can’t exactly help it as it’s in their very nature to be.

“They’ve grown to despise humans.  Humans are destroying the environment with disturbing efficiency with no one, not even their rising sea levels or poisoned children, can stop. The bandisheres believe that having become the ultimate defensive, they’re best prepared for the ultimate offensive.  Some of them believe that mother nature intended it to be this way, like when the comet wiped out the dinosaurs.  Reasoning with them is useless.  We know, we’ve tried.  Several times.”

“ ‘We?’ ” I echoed.  “You do realize you’re delusional, right?”

“Think about it,” Daniel pressed.  “There’s so much scientists don’t know about evolution and the creation of the Earth.  While modern science is impressive, much of it is a mystery.”

The cogs in my head raced.  “I guess it’s . . .” My mumbling trailed off, and I internally kicked myself.

Why?  Why did this actually seem plausible to me?

“You’re crazy,” I proclaimed, but Daniel noticed my self-doubt.

“It’s okay to feel scared,” Blaise suddenly said, all traces of his grin gone.  “This shit is terrifying, because it does seem possible.  It goes against being human to believe in it.  Trust me, we understand.”

I trembled a little.  “Okay, so let’s say—hypothetically—that you saved me from this bandishere thing.  How do you know about it?”

“Because, well . . . we also evolved differently.” Daniel grimaced.

The enormous green eyes, dancing all around me as I lay on the ground, struggling to make sense of all the hissing and growling and the shiny black blood on my fingers. . .

“Was that you?” I whispered.

“Not me personally,” Daniel said, and glanced at Tobias, whose face was that of utmost guilt.

“Oh, my God.  Shit.  What exactly are you?”

That question was the real trigger.

Daniel, Tobias, Eve, and Blaise exchanged looks.  Levi, whom I still hadn’t heard speak yet, stared into space somewhere beyond me.

“We’re lycanthropes,” Daniel eventually said.

That word sounded familiar.  I was sure I’d heard of it before somewhere.

“Lycanthropes?” I repeated, feeling slow again, either from my concussion or from this discussion.

Daniel smiled slightly and nodded.  “Tobias, Levi, Blaise, the others outside, and myself all have what’s called the lycanthrope virus.  It’s thought to be a highly mutated version of the Epstein-Barr virus.  Nobody knows for sure how people actually get the virus, though the most popular theory is during fertilization.  What’s really interesting is that the virus is dormant for much of its life.  Depending on the circumstances, it becomes active in our bodies and either dies during replication or gets stronger, infecting the host with lycanthropia.  Then the first change occurs.

“Specifically, we gain the ability to transform into a wolf.  I guess in layman’s terms, lycanthropia means—”

“Werewolves.”

The word reverberated in the air like the strum of a guitar, resonating for moments on end and all the while dissipating into thin air.

I remembered why the word had sounded familiar.  Leave it to Alek and Lycanthropia in Medieval England.

He got his artistic inspiration from fantasy creatures and urban legends often, honing in on its intrigue and surrealism.  Sometimes he liked to debate over them and argue for their existence, along with aliens.  Every time I’d flick him and tell him to accept they were simply urban legends.

Maybe he and his goddamned imagination had actually been onto something. . .

“The bandisheres are sort of our responsibility.  We’ve been in a one-hundred-and-six-

year long war against them, our main goal being to contain them.  At first the Council told us that we should be the ones fighting, given our proximity to their main colony,” Daniel continued, ignoring the clueless look I gave him,  “and we agreed because we wanted to protect this little town, or the whole of Massachusetts, or even New England if need be.  As angry as I am by climate change, violence and completely jeopardizing our way of life isn’t the answer.  After years of constant tugging and pulling, with nothing really happening, we asked the Council for some assistance.  They refused, saying the time wasn’t right to intervene.  Well it’s been seventy years, and we’re still playing by the same rules first set out,” he finished bitterly. “Which is where you come in.”

Me?” I said incredulously.

“And me,” Eve added.  “I’m completely human like you.”

“What could I possibly have to do with all of this?” I doubted aloud.  Then I had a thought.  “Wait, that car.  That car I saw that was crushed like an aluminum can.  Is that what this is about?”

“Largely, yes.  A bandishere crushed the car, then it waited for witnesses to snag.

“The thing is, the Lycan-Bandishere Laws didn’t permit him to do that, because you didn’t actually see it occur.  Maybe it was your curiosity, or the cover of the brush, so perfectly concealed to whisk you away from, or it just couldn’t resist a young human female like yourself.”

It felt like ice cold water had been dumped all over my body.  I shuddered slightly.  Real or not real, I didn’t want to think about that.

“Which is why we fought it and brought you here,” Daniel continued.  “One of the first rules the Council established when this war began was the right to take human witnesses.  It was with the intent to protect our identities, but the lines have been getting blurrier as the war went on.  Tobias hadn’t planned on it, but he couldn’t stand the idea of bandisheres having any more witnesses than the poor souls gone already.  He meant to merely knock you out but gave you a concussion by accident.”

“I’m sorry,” Tobias apologized again.

I wanted this to be a bad dream.  To actually be home, snuggled inside my blankets, wearing my fuzzy socks, and passed out from too many hours perusing the internet.

A part of me, one that I hated at that moment, told me last night was no coincidence.  It told me to believe them, that for some reason I needed to.  The other part that maintained the last bit of my sanity remained in furious denial.

“How do I know you’re not screwing with me?” I challenged.

“Would you rather we show you?”

I mechanically shook my head back and forth, completely unknowing of what I wanted.  I sat down on the bed and bent over, resting my head in my hands.

“Let it sink in first,” Eve told them.  “When she’s ready, you can.”

“You must remain with us until the war ends,” Levi spoke for the first time.  I looked up at once.  The hard edge to his voice told me he was no-nonsense and all business.  “That’s what the established Lycan-Bandishere War laws state.”

“What?  No way, you guys said—,” I spluttered.  “You said you’ve been fighting for over a hundred years!  I’ll be dead by that time!”  My throat closed up.  “Please, please tell me this is isn’t actually happening.”

“I really wish I could,” Daniel replied quietly.  All of them softly murmured in agreement.  “It isn’t fair to anyone.  However, I do promise we’ll make it as easy as possible for you.” His brown irises held mine. “You have to stay here, hopefully only for a while, but you’ll be treated well.  When your concussion wears off and you’re well-rested, we’ll introduce you to everyone else and show you around the house.”

“So you’re telling me I can’t leave?” I asked in a small voice.

The silence confirmed it.

I couldn’t speak for a few moments, but I didn’t quite believe him.  I thought to myself, I’ll be damned if I have to stay in this place.  But for right now, all I could really do was ride the current.

I finally said, “I hate Gabriella.”

Sometime after, I felt a strange, dull pang inside my chest, and knew that those two disputing parts of me reached the end of their brawl.  One of them sulked away, and turned in for the night.

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