I rounded the corner of the house, my arms loaded with firewood, to find my cousin Kayden loping up the walk.
“Is it Christmas break already?” I teased. Even if I hadn’t kept regular tabs on Kayden and the half dozen or so others attending the university a few hours south, I would have known they were coming based on the amount of cooking my mother had been doing all week. Everyone came to the lodge for Christmas.
“Yeah,” he grinned. “Did you get a tree for the common room yet?”
“Not yet. I’ve been waiting on you.”
His eyes glittered. “Awesome. Thanks.”
“Go on, throw your gear inside and say hi to Ma. I’ll pull out the sleigh.”
He lumbered toward the lodge and I went out to the massive barn to ready the sleigh. It was the same one my father used, and his father before him. Now the task fell to me while my father and grandfather sat by the hearth bouncing cubs on their knees and telling ridiculous stories. We were big on tradition that way.
Someday, the task would fall to my son, and I would be the one resting his paws by the fire. Maybe. I had yet to find a mate.
That’s not true, my bear growled inside me. We met our mate a long time ago.
I sighed, thinking of Chloe as I tested the reins. That had been what, twenty years ago? Though we’d looked for years, we’d never found her. I knew she was still out there, somewhere. I felt it in my heart. But where she was, I didn’t know.
She probably still hated me. Hated us. We promised her she would be safe, and we’d failed her.
My father did what he thought was the right thing, calling the town sheriff to let him know that Chloe had been found, and that she was alive and safe with us. He hadn’t expected the sheriff to show up with Chloe’s father, especially since everyone – including the sheriff – suspected something was wrong with that whole situation.
The sheriff said his hands were tied. Legally, her father was her guardian, and without proof, there was little he could do. Chloe had refused to admit anything. I remember her sitting there in the kitchen, her piece of shit father glaring at her as the sheriff asked why she had run away. Where her bruises had come from. If she had enough to eat. She had answered all of his questions quietly with well-rehearsed answers, while staring at the floor.
She had been lying. I knew it. My parents knew it. The sheriff knew it. Yet there was nothing he could do, not without evidence, and with reluctance, had said Chloe had to go with her father.
I didn’t understand it at the time. How could a man sworn to serve and protect just hand her over like that? My father tried explaining it to me, talking about things like politics and fragile shifter-human relations. What it came down to, I think, was that the sheriff had been afraid of upsetting the delicate balance we had with the humans. Most of us, shifters and full-humans alike, coexisted peacefully, but there were always a few on both sides who would have preferred segregation. One small human female who refused to open her mouth in her own defense wasn’t worth a war or the exposure it would bring, the sheriff had said.
My father didn’t believe that any more than I did, and that day, well, it changed him. I think it changed all of us. The sheriff retired shortly afterward and moved away, and the shifter community grew even closer.
The thing I will always remember most about that day was those few moments when Chloe looked at me. She wouldn’t look at anyone else, but she had looked at me. I’d been yelling at them to stop, and she turned back, just that once. “It’s okay, Sam,” she’d said.
And then the sheriff put her in the back of his car and they were gone. It was the last time I ever saw her.
Not a day goes by when I don’t think about her. When I don’t think of the way she used to follow me around, skulking in the shadows, thinking I didn’t know. I knew. My bear knew.
Because she was ours.
Copyright © 2017 Abbie Zanders.
Written by Abbie Zanders.
All rights reserved.