I’m not thinking. I’m barely processing the sights and sounds around me. My feet are charging as fast as they can go down the halls. All my other belongings forgotten, I burst through the doors to the school building and out into the early evening sunlight… and freeze.
I’ve felt paranoid before—like, how many times have we almost gotten caught smoking, right?—but never something like this. An instinctual urge I’ve never felt before harnesses the adrenaline from my flight. Vigilance whips my head to the sky, searching the clouds. Caution has me backing up toward the building’s walls, seeking the shadows. Wariness makes me wait, sensing my surroundings.
It doesn’t make sense, but I’m shivering with fright. I can’t for the life of me explain why I feel scared. Even though there is no one around and nothing to fear, that new instinct craves shelter.
I stick to the shadows and run along the walls. Somehow I know I shouldn’t be out in the direct light, but again, I can’t tell you how I know it just like I can’t quite explain why I’m scared or why the muscles in my lower back are starting to feel extra sore.
I’m panting by the time I’ve circled the building back to the stinky main composter where I snuck out earlier. The composter itself is big and bulky, but I can’t fit between it and the wall, and it is way too heavy for me to move it. Along with the composter, there’s a few stacks of pallets under a tarp, three large bins full of glass bottles, and one bin that’s only a quarter full.
For a moment, I have the stupid desire to dump the remaining bottle bin and curl up inside, but there’s no way I can actually fit in there. So dumb. I crouch to the ground and tuck myself under the edge of the tarp and up onto the shortest stack of pallets. The wood feels rough under my fingers, and even though it’s dry, there’s an unpleasant musty stink wafting around me, and it’s not coming from me even though I’m sweating.
Is it shelter? Not really, but the water-proof fabric, as flimsy a barrier as it is, gives me the illusion of privacy and isolation I need.
I huddle on the balls of my feet, pressing close to the smelly pallets so my outline is as inconspicuous as possible. I try not to rock back and forth or rub my sides or shake my head but it’s so, so hard to keep still. I’m practically shaking from all the stress and now that I’m not running, my brain is starting to catch up with the rest of me.
She’d said tiger. I know she did.
My phone vibrates. My fingers are trembling so badly that I fumble the phone and drop it, for the second time in—I don’t know—call it fifteen minutes? Max.
You replied. You’re actually online.
I call you instantly.
You sound so happy. It’s a funny thing to remember about that specific moment, when everything else is going totally bonkers and I’m freaking out, but I can close my eyes and recall the exact inflection and pitch of your voice. I also remember that I didn’t say anything about that—or even ask you why you were so cheerful later on. Maybe you found one of those tablets intact this time or the popsicle kid actually had chocolate. I’ll have to ask you sometime if you remember—and just started blabbering.
“Woah, woah, woah,” you say. “Slow down. What’s wrong?”
I take a few deep breaths. “It happened. It actually happened. I… I shifted.”
Silence. “Did… I’m sorry, say that again?”
“I shifted. For real. But I’m a tiger.”
You start cheering so loudly I pull the phone away from my ear and turn the volume way down. Even though you’re celebrating, I finally start crying.
“Wait, babe, what’s wrong? This is amazing—“
“I’m a tiger, Serena.” The tears are pouring down my face. “Not… not…”
“Oh my gosh, babe, I’m sorry. I didn’t even think about it like that.” The sudden worry makes the words come out fast, but I’m used to the way you can go a mile-a-minute.“I’m happy for you, but it’s okay if you’re not. This is… A lot to take in, no matter what your second skin is. I’m sorry if I made you feel worse about it. I hope—“
I hear croaking in the distance, and my unexplainable fear latches on to the distinctive raven sound. I clutch my phone down to my chest, smothering your words, my neck and ears straining so I can hear better. I can’t make out wing beats or more croaking. Can’t even say how many ravens had croaked or where, but that doesn’t matter to my hyperactive instincts. My tarp camouflage isn’t enough to pretend I’m hidden anymore.
I pull my phone back up to my face and I cut you off.
“I’m sorry to interrupt. Every instinct is screaming at me to stay away from everyone and the Elders and… and I don’t think I can stay here.”
“Hold on, where are you?” Alarm makes your tone shoot up an octave.
“I need to go. I love you and I’ll call as soon as I can.”
“I’m sorry, babe.”
“Please, don’t go, we—”
I hang up on you and slide my phone back into my pocket. I stretch up just enough to give myself room to maneuver off the stack without making noise, and then I hear a squawk. I freeze, knowing that motion will catch a raven’s sight quicker than an odd shape under the tarp.
There’s a response. At least two ravens are nearby, probably working together. It’s too early for patrols to sweep the school grounds; they only keep an eye on it at night when no one is supposed to be there. It’s too late for a pair of parents to come to pick up their kids.
It’s probably Elders, and there are plenty of reasons for Elders to pass over the school that have nothing to do with me, but I don’t remember that until now, in hindsight. My instincts are convinced they are out looking for me, and I can’t explain why, but I have a very uneasy feeling about being around any of the ravens.
While I’m holding myself as still as a mouse—my thighs are cramping up but with all the adrenaline in my system I don’t budge an inch—I feel my phone vibrate against me. Right after, two dark shadows cross the blue tarp over my head.
I hold my breath and start counting to thirty. Unless they circle above me, in which case I’ll see their shadows again, the ravens will be out of visual range by then, even if they are flying at their slowest.
I get to fifteen and I hear more croaking, farther off.
I get to twenty five, and the silence hasn’t broken again.
I get to thirty, and go an extra ten, just to be sure.
When I’m as certain as can be that the ravens are not doubling back, I sink back onto the pallet, wincing as my aching knees bend. I pull my phone back out, and there’s a new DM from you.
My movements are sloppy as I click through the familiar pathways through the app, but I at least don’t drop my phone this time. I’m too stimulated to read, so the first time my eyes skim through the words without processing. I have to reread it. And then a third time.
I don’t know what you think about this because it’s never come up, but I’m contacting Jason Kachina
it’s hard to coordinate with his people since I’m so far away
I have no idea if he can help but I don’t think it can hurt
Please call me ASAP. Stay safe XX
The Golden Bear, the first and used-to-be-only other mythic shifter. The man is a legend among shifter kin and human kind alike. I don’t actively like or dislike Kachina, though his TV personality comes off as arrogant. He’s a tangential phenomenon in a world that already awes me. He’s as distant in my mind as the ravens who soar above, but their black wings always used to seem more in reach than his golden fur.
I wonder why I didn’t think of the only other person in the world like me, but that you do. Am I really so self absorbed that it hadn’t occurred to me?
If I’m honest with myself, I don’t think of the other mythic shifter because I don’t want to be a tiger in the raven flock. I don’t want to accept that the second skin I’ve been dreaming about will always keep me ground-bound with four paws.
No matter that I’m finally, truly kin, no matter that I have two skins, I’ll never fly. I’ll never ride the warm winds, dive from terrifying heights, or soar through fluffy clouds. I’ll never make it to the true canopy, the thin branches that can only bear feathers, not fur. There will never be a real sunset with my kin.
I know it’s selfish. So, so selfish, but I’m ashamed. Ashamed that I can be so obsessed with going sky-high that I can’t see how to pick up the fragments of my dreams. I wonder if you could be there at my side if I wouldn’t be numb-stuck, but all I can think about is how everything has gone wrong.
No part of me feels grateful. No part of me feels happy. No part of me wanted this.
I wonder if Jason felt this way when he got his bear skin. So angry and resentful and ashamed… all the same feelings I’ve been shouldering this whole time, but bigger, stickier, and blockier. These newer feelings carry echoes of what I felt since Alpha spoke to me, but I don’t know how to stretch myself through one more day until you come home this time.
My fingers type: J, A, S, O, then the algorithm does the rest. It’s not like I don’t recognize Kachina—how can anyone with a pulse not know his face?—but I don’t think I’ve ever paid attention to him when I see his photo online or in advertising. He’s got nice features, a big smile, blue eyes, and bright blonde hair. He looks so charming and confident and sure of his place in the world in his profile picture that I can’t imagine he could understand my rage. My sorrow. My bitterness.
My finger moves to the top right of the screen and presses the DM icon anyway.
My name is Erikhó:wa. Serena contacted you about me?
I hit send before I can hesitate. I’m expecting to kill time hidden away, but I am shocked when my notification pings almost instantly.
It’s a phone number. Obviously I know what it means, but it seems odd. Just a number? Nothing else? Normally, I’d never dial a number from a rando on the internet without a very good reason. This time, though, stranger danger doesn’t keep me from calling.
A calm and clear voice responds on the other end of the line.
“Hello, you’ve reached the Good As Gold Company. How may I help you?”
I whisper, “Yeah, uh, hi. I’m calling because… Well, I guess I’m trying to talk to Jason Kachina? I was given this phone number.”
“Of course, ma’am. Would you like to schedule an appointment?”
“I don’t think so? I think I need to talk to him now.”
There’s a pause on the other end of the line. “What is your name, ma’am?”
A suspicious feeling in my gut makes me cautious. For some reason, the sense of impending danger is growing, but I’m not sure why. I haven’t heard any more raven sounds or seen shadows.
“I’m from the raven flock,” I say, instead of giving my personal info.
“Oh,” she says. Then, “Oh!” There’s muffled sounds on the other end of the line. “Can you please confirm your handle is ‘flyskyhygh420,’ with all Ys?”
Yeah, you were right. That’s super embarrassing hearing it out loud.
“Unfortunately, yeah,” I whisper. “That’s me.”
“I’m patching you through right away. Please stay on the line.”
I hear a click, then a deeper, strained voice picks up.
“This is Jason Kachina,” the man says.
The kind of high-energy making his tone so intense makes me nervous, but I try not to overreact in my panicky state of mind.
“You sent me a random number without any explanation,” I say.
He ignores me. “Why are you whispering? Are you safe?”
“I’m not…” But I’m wary of sharing the truth, my instincts alert and alarmed. “I’m whispering because I’m trying to keep this a secret.”
“Right.” His tone sounds suspicious. “Is there anyone who can confirm your claims?”
“My claims? What do you mean?”
“A very persistent and annoying woman has been calling nonstop for the last eight minutes demanding that I get in touch with you. You’re supposedly a human who shifted in the middle of raven lands, into a… What was it this time?” I hear the slap of paper on a hard surface. “Oh right, a tiger.”
His tone is getting more and more patronizing, and I really don’t appreciate it.
“The thing is,” he continues, “most who try this come up with a better story. At least more believable ones. A tiger? Seriously? In America? Earth magic doesn’t work like that.”
Even panicked, scared, confused, frustrated, angry, ashamed, and sad, I cannot stand it when people speak down to me. I let my tone get defensive, but I still keep the volume to a whisper.
“I don’t know what you’re on about, but I shifted today for the first time in my life, and I’m a tiger. At least I think so. I was pretty… I was inside and it got really claustrophobic and I never really saw myself, but I definitely saw paws. I mean, my paws.”
“Do you have a picture?” Kachina continues in a disinterested tone.
“Kinda hard to snap a selfie when you suddenly lose your opposable thumbs,” I snap back.
“Listen, kid.” His tone drops low and mean. “I don’t know who you think you are, but you better explain yourself real quick before I trace this call and sue you for harassment.”
I don’t think he can do that, but in that moment my hyperactive instincts and his irritating tone mix about as well as oil and water.
I make a deep rumbling sound in the back of my throat.
I’ve never communicated like that—without words or shouts. I’ve never used those guttural sounds to express myself. Ever. But here I am, growling at the only other mythic shifter on the planet because I’m feeling insecure and defensive—and it feels so natural to use my voice this way.
“I don’t want to be a tiger,” I say, the sound of my voice deeper and heavier with the feral sound I’m creating in the back of my throat. “I don’t want to be different. I don’t…” I pause, but Kachina doesn’t interrupt. I stop making the guttural noises, the pain of the dreams I had to let go pushing through my instinctual fright and frustration with Kachina.
“I wanted to fly,” I admit. “That’s all I wanted.”
Kachina’s quiet for a moment. “If you really are a tiger in the raven flock, how are you calling me? Isn’t your Alpha with you?”
“No,” I say. “I was doing community service when it happened, and after, I ran off. I don’t know why, but I just got this sudden urge that I can’t trust anyone.”
“That’s normal, if you really are a tiger surrounded by birds in bird territory. It’s all wrong for your second skin, that’s all. Stop being melodramatic and don’t do anything stupid.”
I don’t like the way Kachina’s voice gets so authoritative and I really don’t like the advice he’s giving me, even if his words do validate the completely unexplainable fear I feel. He sounds like a bossy, know-it-all, and he definitely sounds like he doesn’t really care about me. Maybe about my second skin, but not me.
“Does anyone else know?” Kachina asks.
“There was another girl—”
“Then we have to act fast,” he cuts me off. “Listen to me. Don’t tell anyone else—not your parents, not your friends, and not the woman who keeps clogging up my phone lines. No one is going to hurt you, but try to stay away from your flockmates, and especially Ojistah, if you can help it. I’ll be there as quickly as I can.”
I muffle my involuntary scoff. “Are you kidding?”
“If you really are the second mythic shifter on Earth, then you need me,” he says. “Do not speak with your Alpha, and most importantly, do not make eye contact with her. This is very important.”
Kachina is a mythic shifter who doesn’t belong to any kin; he has no right to come to raven lands. More importantly, he has no right to come to raven lands on my behalf.
“You are not part one of the flock, you’re not allowed in our lands, and I don’t need you,” I snap at him, barely keeping my voice to a whisper.
“Do not worry about me, but you? You might not be in physical danger, but you’re not free. You’re not even part of the flock. You do need me, whether you like it or not.”
I have nothing to say to that, and I start rumbling in the back of my throat again.
“Oh, quit it,” Kachina snaps. “Can you get somewhere private? Somewhere secret?”
I glance around my makeshift hide-out. “Not really.”
“That’s less than ideal. Where are you?”
A shadow cuts across the top of the tarp, moving fast. My reply dies in my throat and my speeding heartrate thuds through me as I stare up at the blue fabric. I’m hoping, wishing, and praying that there isn’t another shadow.
“Where are you?” Jason repeats.
The shadow returns, crossing directly back over the same spot—an immediate circle. I hang up on the Golden Bear, completely focused on my surroundings, clinging to the tiny hope that I haven’t been found.
I don’t have to wait in suspense for long. Loud wing flaps signal a raven landing nearby, then there’s a pop as the shifter goes across the veil.
I can’t see from where I’m hiding, but I know it will be better to face the fallout than to be caught with my tail between my legs, or as Kachina put it in his rude way, I should stop being ‘melodramatic.’
I crawl out from under the tarp, alone, ashamed, and angry, and still feeling unnaturally scared of the raven I know will pop back across the veil, but I’m not running away anymore, for better or worse.