I peered through the windshield of my ’93 Mustang. The Buzzard Highway stretched before me, a narrow line of crumbling pavement vanishing into the dusk. Below it ran the Scratches, a twisted labyrinth of narrow ravines gouged out of the ground by magic three decades ago, when our world began to end. The old road skimmed the top of the ravines, rolling far into the distance, where the sunset glowed gold, red, and finally turquoise. There was something vaguely wrong with this picture, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
The Buzzard Highway took no prisoners. Step too hard on the accelerator, turn the wheel half an inch too far, and Boom! Pow! Fiery crash! To the bottom of the ravine you went. Only Atlanta’s best and craziest raced here.
That’s why I liked it. When a girl weighs a hundred pounds soaking wet, her glasses are thicker than Sherlock Holmes’ loupe, and everybody under the sun makes fun of her because she’s a vegetarian and blood makes her vomit, she has to do something to prove that she isn’t a wimp. The wild deafening chaos of the Friday night Buzzard race was a strictly no-wimps-allowed kind of fun..
It was so peaceful now. So quiet. Just me and the Mustang. I had named it Rambo. It was a sweet car, built from the ground up for one purpose: to go fast. We understood each other, Rambo and I. Rambo liked to kick ass, and I made sure it had a chance to show off.
My body was so light. It was an odd feeling, almost like I was swimming or floating through some feathery cloud.
A familiar face appeared in the windshield: pale skin, dark eyes, the long tattoo of a dragon wrapped around his neck, snaking its way down under the blue tank top. Kasen. Decent enough guy as wererats went. He operated a tow truck and liked to hang out and watch the races at Buzzard Highway. They were good for his business.
Kasen’s lips moved, but no sound came out. He looked kind of funny there, sideways, flapping his lips in silence. What is it you want, silly person?
Kasen was sideways.
The sunset behind him was sideways too, the highway running to the left the sky.
Crap, crap, crap.
The phantom cotton clogging my ears vanished and the world rushed at me in an explosion of sound: the distant roar of car engines, the groaning of metal, and Kasen’s voice.
“Dali? You okay, baby girl?”
I tried to talk and my mouth worked. “Cool like a cucumber.”
He grinned. “You know the drill. Hold tight, I’m gonna set you upright.”
I clamped the edges of my seat.
Kasen stepped out of my view, and I could hear him grunt as he grabbed hold of the bumper, lifted and twisted. Rambo screeched. Metal clanged. I winced. Rambo, you poor baby.
The sunset turned and dropped into its rightful place with a shudder. Rambo’s tires hit the pavement and bounced once. The left lens of my glasses popped out of the frame and plunked onto my lap. I swiped it off my jeans, squeezed my left eye shut, and climbed out of the car.
Hot damn! Rambo’s front end looked like a crushed coke can. Water soaked the asphalt, leaking from the hood — the enchanted water tank that let the car run during magic waves had ruptured. I must’ve taken the turn too fast.
Kasen peered at me. “Why is your eye closed? Did you hurt yourself?”
“No, it’s closed because my glasses are broken, and looking through one lens makes me dizzy.”
“Situation normal, all fucked up.” Kasen rubbed the back of his head.
Thank you, Captain Obvious. “It’s not that bad!”
“You want Rambo towed to the usual place?”
“Yeah.” My races would be cancelled for a month. Bummer.
Kasen nodded at the Mustang. “That’s your second crash in three weeks.”
“Didn’t Jim forbid you to race?”
Jim was my alpha. The shapeshifter Pack was segregated into seven clans, by the family of the animal, and Jim headed Felidae with a big Jaguar paw hiding awesome claws. He was smart, and strong, and incredibly hot — and the only time Jim noticed my existence was when I made myself into a pain in the ass or when he needed an expert on the ancient Far East. Otherwise, I might just as well have been invisible.
I raised my head to let Kasen know I meant business. “Jim isn’t the boss of me.”
“Actually yes, yes he is.”
It’s good that I wasn’t a wereporcupine, or his mouth would be full of quills. “Are you going to snitch on me?”
“That depends. When you die, can I have your car?”
Kasen sighed. “I’m trying to make a point here. I’ve been watching this race for six years now and I’ve never seen anyone crash as much as you. You’re my number one customer. You can barely see, Dali, and you take stupid chances. No offense.”
No offense, right. ‘No offense’ stood for ‘I’m going to insult you but you can’t be mad at me’. I bared my teeth at him. When it came down to it, he was a rat and I was a tiger.
Kasen raised his hands up. “Fine. Forget I said anything.”
The world blinked. The colors turned slightly brighter, the scents grew sharper, as if someone had dialed the picture’s resolution up a notch. A welcome warmth spread through my body — a magic wave had flooded the world. The distant roar of the gasoline engines choked and died. It would take fifteen minutes of chanting to get the enchanted engines to start. The race was dead.
“What if I take you to dinner?” Kasen said. “I know this really nice place down on Manticore…”
Wererats always knew this nice place to eat. They munched constantly or they went twitchy, meaning they suffered attacks of hypoglycemia: cold sweat, headaches, and convulsions, accompanied by nervousness and bouts of aggression. Not fun.
I squinted my open eye at Kasen. There was no reason for him to offer me dinner. Most likely, he just wanted to butter me up so he could get a shot at Rambo after my demise. Too bad for him — I might not have been the strongest weretiger or the most bloodthirsty, but my bloodline was pretty damn old. Lyc-V, the shapeshifter virus, and my family were good friends and the levels of virus in my body ran higher than they did in most shapeshifters. The higher the concentration of the virus, the faster the regeneration. Normally higher levels of Lyc-V also meant a greater risk of losing your mind and turning into a crazed loup killer, but so far I hadn’t had to worry about that.
I was hard to kill. Nothing short of a fiery crash complete with a giant explosion at the end would send me into the afterlife, so if Kasen was hoping to inherit my car, he would get a smoking wreck for his trouble.
I wrinkled my nose at Kasen. “Thanks, but no thanks. I need to get home.” And get my spare glasses out of Pooki’s glove compartment.
He heaved a sigh. “Maybe next time.”
“Sure. Maybe next time.”
I drove through the tangled streets of Atlanta with the windows down. The wind swirled with scents: a hint of wood fire, a dog marking his territory, horses, one, two, three, four, something tart and spicy… The streets were deserted. Most people hid at night. The dark was when the monsters came out to play. Even nice monsters like me. Rawr.
The magic flowed full force, and Pooki, my Plymouth Prowler, made enough noise to shake the gods in their celestial palace. I’d modified him to run on gasoline when the tech was up and on enchanted water when the magic was running the show Pooki didn’t go very fast during magic waves and he was so loud, he made me wince even with the earplugs, but that was the best I could do.
About three decades ago, Atlanta was the happening place in the South: all skyscrapers, trendy restaurants, and modern conveniences. Tons of money and people moved through the city. And then the first magic wave hit. Magic ripped through the world. For three days it raged, making complicated technological marvels fail. Planes dropped out of the sky. Satellites plummeted to the ground. Guns jammed or misfired. Electricity vanished and the cities went dark. Three days later, the technology returned but the world was never the same.
People said the magic came out of nowhere, but my grandmother told me she felt it building for years. It made total sense, considering the historical pattern of the First Shift, the one that was lost in antiquity. Approximately six thousand years ago, Homo Sapiens had built a great civilization based solely on magic. It generated so much magic that the balance between technology and magic was permanently disrupted. The world seesawed way over to the technology side to compensate. The ancient civilization suffered an apocalypse, and the human race began rebuilding, this time using technology as its base. Of course, they created a civilization so technologically advanced, that the seesaw shifted once again. The magic had to come back and crash the party. Now it flooded the world in waves, one moment here, eating tall buildings, fueling spells, permitting manifestations, and the next gone. Apocalypse in slow motion.
It just goes to show that no matter how a great a nail you give humanity, we’ll manage to hammer it into the ground crooked. We suck. It’s the nature of our species.
My house sat in a large wooded lot, all by its lonesome. The street to the left led to a ruined apartment building, now little more than a heap of rubble, and the neighbors to the back of me had fled the city a long time ago. I bought their land for a grand before they took off, busted the house up, hired contractors to build me an extra tall privacy fence, and now I had an awesome back yard. With the trees and the fence, I could even go out in my natural form, roll around in the grass, and nap in the sun without anybody pointing and yelling, “Hey, look, a white tiger!”
I maneuvered Pooki into my driveway, got out, raised the garage door, and carefully eased Pooki inside. Of all the cars I ever had, the Prowler was my favorite. I loved the Indie-style wheels. That’s why I never raced it. As much as I hated to admit it, Kasen was right — I wrecked. A lot.
I lowered the garage door and stepped into my kitchen. A scent floated past me on the draft. I inhaled it and froze. It smelled of sandalwood and amber, spiced with a hint of tangy sweat and male musk. A shiver dashed down my spine, setting every nerve on high alert.
The masculine fragrance filled my house, screaming “Mate!” at me so loud that I held my breath for a second to get a grip.
Jim was here, waiting for me. In my wildest dreams, I would walk into the room and he would kiss me. The picture was so vivid in my head, I shivered. It would never happen. Come on, ugly blind girl, snap out of it. Let’s try to be less pathetic. Jim was here because Kasen snitched on me, or because he needed some obscure scroll identified. He wasn’t here to make my sad little dreams come true.
I marched out into my living room. “Jim?”
The scent was hot and alive. He was still here, or he had been here just a second ago.
“Jim? It’s not funny.”
Fine. I followed the scent, moving softly on my toes. Living room, hallway, bathroom, bedroom. The scent sparked here. He was in my bedroom.
Oh my gods. What if I walked in and he was naked on my bed?
I would lose it. I would lose it right there and never get it back, whatever “it” was.
Get a grip, get a grip, get a grip. I padded into the bedroom.