“Freak.” I tore off the back brace and threw it on the floor. “Why’d you let him touch you?”
I stared at the brace, anger curling in my gut. It sat tilted on the floor like an ancient broken statue with no head, no arms, no legs.
Oh God, it had happened.
A cute boy had asked me out. And not just any cute boy, but Jake fricking Peters, hottest senior in school, who could have any girl he wanted. He’d not only invited me to the lame-ass dance this weekend, he’d put his hands on my waist as he did it. Only to feel my rock-hard robot contours. I pressed my hands to my heated cheeks. Shame had seared the scene into my memory.
“What’s that?” Jake had asked as his fingers grazed my hip. His eyes lit with surprise.
“Nothing.” I backed away from him, avoiding his gaze. I’d known this would happen. I knew getting close to anyone was a mistake. “I . . . I’ve got to get home. See you later.” The words rattled out of me, and I had scuttled away.
Now I breathed deep, trying to squash my rising frustration. At least I was home where nothing could touch me. Safe in my own room. With Mom and Richard out at work, I was alone, where no one would laugh at me, or pity me, or call me a mutant.
I peeled off the sweaty undershirt I had to wear under the thing and hurled it into the laundry.
God, I hate those stupid shirts.
I slid my hand around my own waist, the waist no boy could ever put his arm around.
I wasn’t that goddamn brace, not anymore.
To hell with the brace!
I looked around for something to hit it with, something to break it, so I’d never have to wear it again.
But there was nothing. Nothing but my bare hands.
Even as I yanked it off the floor, a small part of my brain knew this wasn’t like me. I never flew into rages or whined about the brace. I was a good girl, a nice girl, and tantrums were for people with no self-control.
But I’d worn the damned thing twenty-three hours a day for two years to prevent my spine from curving further, donning baggy clothes to hide it, unable to bend, enduring the agony as it fought against my body, unable to swim or climb trees, avoiding any proximity to boys.
Something had snapped. I pulled and scraped at it with my bare hands, trying to tear it apart, fingernails splintering. But the plastic wouldn’t give. The surface didn’t even scratch.
Rage blazed through me, so hot I thought I’d explode. I screamed. A convulsive thrust of power shot from the center of my chest along my spine, down my limbs, and out of every pore. The scream became a full-throated roar. I dropped my hands to the ground. Only they weren’t hands anymore, but huge paws, orange on top, white around the claws, striped brownish black. I whipped around, trying to see myself.
A long, thickly furred tail knocked the lamp off my nightstand.
This can’t be happening.
The crash of the lamp sounded like an explosion. I crouched, tail tucked between my back legs, and looked up to see my reflection in the mirror on my closet door. Had I gone insane? Great golden eyes blinked back at me. I flinched. The tiger in the mirror winced too, ears back, white whiskers bristling.
I barely had time to take in my orange coat, white underbelly, and wide pattern of dark stripes when a loud thwack sounded from my bedroom window. Something stabbed into my side. A growl of pain and surprise escaped me. A dart lodged in the pale fur beneath my right front leg. Pain ran up my body, too real to be a dream.
I looked up to see a young man, almost angelically blond, dressed all in white, standing outside my window with a rifle. The screen was torn. He’d broken a couple of stakes Mom and I used to get the tomatoes to climb. We stared at each other. His face was alive and hot with anticipation. Burning pain spread through my veins from the dart. Instinctively, I gathered my new body to leap at him. He fired again. Another barb speared my shoulder, and I reeled back.
I snarled at him and tried to stand. But a painful lethargy took over. I shook my head, trying to clear it. Air whipped across my whiskers, a strange sensation.
An older man, also in white, joined the first to observe me through the window. He clapped a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “Good job, son,” he said.
“It’s taking two,” his son said. “She’s strong for one so young.”
The older man had a head of thick silver hair. His even teeth flashed almost blue white as he smiled. “We’ll see about that,” he said.
And everything went black.
I forced my eyes open and stared up at the shiny bars above me.
Turning my head sent spikes of agony into my skull. The pain blotted out my tumbling confusion.
Where was I? I caught a whiff of a burlap pallet beneath me, lumpy as an overused futon. Old animal odors drifted up from it. I looked down. The last thing I remembered couldn’t have happened. A surge of relief ran through me as I saw that my hands were my hands. My arms were long, thin, and pale. Human arms.
The floor beneath the pallet was as shiny as the bars. A strange, high-pitched hum buzzed up from it. I focused on staying calm.
Go slow. First things first. Where am I?
A polished cage squatted around me like a silver spider, less than five feet high and not much longer than my body. Every inch of my skin recoiled from it as if from a hot stove. All my life I’d had a rare allergy to silver. Now I was trapped in a pen made of it.
“You weren’t out long.” A male voice, young, came at me from beyond my cage.
My heart pounded against my ribs as I pushed myself up to sit. “I . . .” Speaking set off a bout of coughing. My body throbbed with pain. I curled into a seated fetal position, careful to stay on the straw pallet and not touch the silver floor. Something about the position felt wrong.
I wasn’t wearing it. Someone had put me in a thin cotton hospital gown that barely covered my bruised knees. Without that shield of plastic and metal around me I felt utterly vulnerable. A deep trembling began in my shoulders and hips and spread out to shake my fingers and toes.
“Take it easy,” said the voice. Something in its tone smoothed out the jagged edges of my fear. “Breathe. You’ll be okay.”
“Oh, sure, I’m great,” I said hoarsely.
The half gloom of the world around me was completely unfamiliar. A single floodlight set into a wall beyond my cage cut a white swath of light across my prison and sent the long shadows of the bars stabbing into the space beyond. My eyes adjusted, and the gaps of darkness opened to me.
About thirty feet from me lay another cage, also shiny, equipped with a cot, and inhabited by a tall boy about my own age in a long black coat, dark pants, and a white shirt smeared with grime. He stood almost touching the bars, staring out at me, hands plunged into his pockets. Eyes black as onyx considered me. His dark hair curled back from his tan forehead in short unruly waves, framing the bold line of his nose, his strong jaw, and a full but severe mouth. He stood with a dangerous sort of grace, as if a coiled strength waited beneath the surface, ready to cause havoc. Even in the shadows I could see an indigo bruise forming around his right eye. His intense stare plus no brace or normal clothes made me feel naked. I looked away from him.
If only I could disappear.
“My name’s Caleb,” he said. I was struck by the harmony woven into his voice. “What’s yours?”
“Desdemona,” I said. “Dez. Where are we?” Trying to remain calm, I looked around and spotted a pile of something in the darkest corner of my cage. “My clothes. Thank God.”
“It’s a shame to cover up those legs of yours,” he said with a small smile.
I startled, flushing.
“But you are looking kind of blue, literally,” he went on. “And you’ll feel better facing them if you’ve got something on.”
I jerked my gaze up from my legs, which were indeed splotched blue and purple from the cold. “Them—who?”
“The ones your parents warned you about,” he said. “Lazar’s their best shot. Was he the one who got you? Tall guy, around my age, blond hair?”
The guy in white with the rifle.
None of it made sense—the striped paws, the crash of the lamp, the tiger in the mirror. I rubbed the spot on my shoulder where the first dart had hit. “He did. But nobody ever warned me. He shot me right after . . .” I couldn’t say it. The cute boy in the neighboring cage would think I was crazy.
How was this now my life?
“After you shifted?” He looked me up and down. “You’ve got the grace of one of the big cats. Let me guess. Mountain lion?”
“Tiger,” I said faintly.
“Really?” His black eyes sparked. “What are you doing here? Your English is very good.”
“Thanks, I’ve been speaking it my whole life,” I said. It came out angrier than I thought it would. Nothing he said made sense, and that didn’t help the rising tide of panic in my chest. “I grew up in fricking Burbank, California. Is this some weird cult or something? God, they must’ve shot me up with hallucinogens.” I pulled the pile of clothes toward me. It contained my undershirt, my billowy dress, and sandals, all lying on top of the back brace. Its familiar boxy shape gave me a weird rush of relief.
“More likely a fast-acting tranquilizer spiked with silver nitrate,” he said. “Are you saying you don’t know what you are?”
“I’m not a
” I said, willing myself to believe it. “I’m a who, and I want to be left alone.”
“Too late for that,” he said.
My imagination was on serious overdrive. I could’ve sworn the silver in the cage wanted to bite me. Caleb was circling the edges of his cage, staring at the bars with a hatred that made me almost feel sorry for them. I said, “So what are you, Captain Blackcoat? A panther?”
He brushed his long black coat with the back of his hand to acknowledge my reference to it. “No, I’m something else.”
“You’re something else, all right. Would you mind . . .” I twirled my finger, asking him to turn around while I dressed.
“Of course.” He smirked, but bowed at the waist, like one of those elegant men in a Jane Austen movie, then turned away.
I pulled open my hospital gown, relieved to find myself wearing my ordinary white bra and underwear. Deep purple bruises grooved along my waist and down in front of my hip bones, but those were normal. Years of wearing the brace had left me with these imprints. The encircling plastic also acted like a corset, squishing my waistline and hips so relentlessly that they’d permanently shrunk by a couple of inches.
I hated the damned thing with every cell in my body. But I had to wear it. Just before I turned fourteen I’d been diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis, fancy talk for curvature of the spine with an unknown cause. Every three months I went in for X-rays and got a big fat reminder from Dr. Mwesi. He’d lean back in his chair, peering over his glasses at me, and tell horrible stories of girls who’d had iron rods placed in their spines because they hadn’t worn their brace.
I slipped on the undershirt, then opened the back of the brace. I sat up on my knees to clamp it around my torso. Thick plastic pads inside corresponded with the bruising at my waist. One rigid arch of plastic came up high under my left arm, then dipped under my breasts, cut low at the waist on my right side, and circled around me to come up high again at my spine. Industrial strength Styrofoam pads pressed up against my vertebrae, shoving them into place. I reached behind and tugged on the first strap, shoving it into the buckle as I did so.
The solid plastic tightened around me, and I felt like an ancient knight, donning his armor before a fight. In the brace I was back to normal, barricaded. But as I tightened the other strap, contrary wings of wrath fanned against my ribs. I tugged at the bottom edge of the brace, trying to find a more comfortable fit. Stubborn body. Stupid spine.
I took a deep breath to squash the anger. If I let it escape it might never stop. My torso expanded as I inhaled. I imagined it swelling until it burst the straps and tore off the buckles.
“I sense shadow,” said Caleb, beginning to turn toward me. “Shouldn’t be possible with all this silver . . .”
“Don’t look at me!” I barked at him, shoving my arms into my dress and pulling it over my head. I couldn’t stand it if he saw me in that thing. Better to be invisible.
“Sorry,” he said, turning away again. “I wish I could help you. It’s just very odd. The silver should keep it from manifesting.”
“Keep what from manifesting?” I awkwardly stretched my arms out and shoved my feet into my sandals. Being unable to bend at the waist made shoes a challenge. “What is it about the silver?” I said. “It’s like . . .” I was ashamed to say it. “Like I can hear it singing. And it makes my head hurt.”
He turned back around, his dark eyes intent. “It does sing, but usually only to a caller like me. I’ve never heard a shifter say they heard it too.”
“What the hell . . .” I tried to stand and slammed my head into the top of the cage. I sat down hard. Part of the brace cut up into the soft flesh of my underarm. “What are you talking about?” I rubbed the crown of my head.
“You really don’t know, do you?” He crossed his arms and looked down at me. “It doesn’t make any sense. No shifter would ever let their child grow up without knowing their heritage.”
I took a deep breath.
“What the hell are you talking about? What is this place? And why is my goddamn cage so much smaller than yours?”
Caleb resumed pacing. “The Tribunal is more afraid of you than they are of me,” he said. “Your cage is smaller because they need to get the silver as close to you as possible, to keep you from shifting.”
“What’s the Tribunal?”
“The ones who captured us. They hate people like you and me, and they’ll do whatever they can to strip away everything we are.” He looked more like a wild animal than I did, pacing like that. “You and I are otherkin,” he said. “We’re human, yes, but we are also other. The silver suppresses your shifting abilities and prevents me from seeing your shadow self. I felt shadow vibrating from you a moment ago. But that shouldn’t be possible. All the silver around us should keep me from sensing anything, and render you barely conscious, let alone able to shift.”
“Shift,” I said. “You mean, into . . .”
“Abomination.” A different voice echoed off the bare walls. “Demon.”
“Fiend,” said another, female. “Filth. Perhaps we can wash you clean.”
The young man who’d shot me walked toward my cage, his gold hair catching the light. He had perfect cheekbones, thick brows, and deep-set brown eyes straight out of a Romantic painting of some implacable archangel. A large gold cross over a snowy white shirt completed the picture of vengeful purity. He didn’t look older than eighteen, but he carried an authority that seemed more man than boy. Something jingled slightly as he walked. Then I saw a ring of keys, half tucked into his right pants pocket.
Behind him a girl about my age glided in a long white gown that covered her modestly from neck to toes. But it couldn’t hide the luscious curves beneath it. I felt a stab of envy. I could never wear a dress like that. It would show every contour of the brace. Her hair lay stick straight and pale over her shoulders. She had the same deep-set, brown eyes as the boy with her. They had to be brother and sister, bright as morning in a meadow, or the harsh glare of a flashlight in the face.
“Desdemona,” said Caleb. “Meet our hosts, Lazar and Amaris, acolytes of the Tribunal.”
The girl, Amaris, glanced over at him, her face shuttered. He gazed back at her, blank. “Does he have to be here?” she asked. “Couldn’t we . . .”
“When Father gets back he’ll decide what to do with him,” said Lazar. He also had a musical voice, but harsher than Caleb’s. “Until then, he stays in the cage.”
I saw a flash of defiance as Amaris opened her mouth to argue. But in a heartbeat she crushed it down. I felt an instant of kinship; I knew how it felt to squash down your feelings.
She came close to my cage, hunkering down gracefully. Her gaze traveled over me as if I were a curious specimen. “The demon is remarkably awake,” she said of me. “Are you sure she can’t shift?”
So much for kinship.
“I’m right here,” I said. “And I can talk.”
They looked at me as if the couch had spoken. “The silver makes it impossible for her to shift now, just as it keeps Caleb from calling to shadow.” Lazar squatted down next to her, scrutinizing me. “We may have to drug her again before we remove her though. Her system purified itself more quickly than we anticipated.”
“When I get out of here,” I said, “you’d better run. Fast.”
Had I really said that?
Lazar and Amaris drew back an inch.
“You heard the girl,” said Caleb. “You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into, Lazar. Without Daddy around, you’re not up to the job.”
“Shut up, Caleb,” Lazar said, his voice deepening into a grand chord of command.
Caleb’s eyes narrowed derisively. “Doesn’t work on me, remember?”
“Are you sure Father would want him in the cage?” Amaris asked.
Lazar’s pure face clouded with anger. “I’m in charge while Father’s away. He trusts me.”
“You don’t sound like you mean that,” Caleb said. “You sure you’re worthy?”
“Be silent, or I’ll have you gagged.” Lazar’s face when he looked at Caleb was pure fury.
Caleb bowed, the corners of his mouth deepening in a mocking smile.
Amaris moved her face close to the bars of my cage, staring at me.
How easy it would be to tear her throat out.
I blinked. Had that thought come from me?