Authors: Patricia D. Eddy
She turned around and picked up a piece of steak the size of a dinner plate. Cade raised his head. Katerina unlocked the chain-link door, threw the steak with all her might, and relocked the door. The meat landed a few feet away from the concrete pad and immediately started to sizzle.
“Well, go get it, dog. It’s all you get for a few days. Wouldn’t want it to turn to charcoal.” Katerina whirled around and stalked back to the house.
Cade raced as fast as he could out onto the dirt. A high-pitched wail escaped his lupine mouth as the blisters on his paw pads broke open again, but he soon had the steak in his mouth and sped back to the concrete. Once on the safety of the pad, he dropped the meat in front of him. It was half rancid. Gray, mottled, and disgusting. He sniffed and immediately turned his head away. He couldn’t do it. He took the meat gingerly in his jaws and laid it on the dirt beyond the pad. It sizzled as it cooked. When he feared it was about to turn black, he snatched it back and gulped it down. He lapped up the water that had gathered in pools on the concrete. He had to stay alive so his pack—if they lived—could find him.
After the sun went down, Cade curled up in the center of the pad. His mind wandered. He’d been a wolf now for at least two days. He’d never suppressed the man he was for so long. What would happen to him? Would he ever see his pack again? His woodworking shop? His paws itched. Memories swirled. His hands running over intricate whorls and cuts in cedar, the scent of wood dust in his nose. The last project he’d worked on was a carved headboard for his elderly neighbor, Maggie. She was close to eighty and had taken to bringing Cade casseroles a few times a month. Her husband had passed several years ago and Cade kept an eye on her place at night. Who would look after her now? Perhaps it was foolish to worry about a neighbor when he was trapped in his wolf form by a psychotic elemental. But Cade had to grab hold of anything he could to remember the man he once was.
It rained that night—a summer storm that whipped pine needles and leaves against Cade’s pelt. The wind howled through the trees. He couldn’t sleep. He paced. Every step was agony on his blistered paws, but the pain kept him focused. He had to find a way out.
Mara shivered in the thin blue hospital gown.
I’m going to have to talk to Sheila about ratcheting up the temp in here,
she thought. The paper spread out on the hard examination table rustled beneath her as she tried to get comfortable. It was no use. Doctors and nurses made terrible patients. Her fingers and toes were pale, the nail beds almost blue. Mara blew on her hands. Her fingers trembled. It was nothing. It had to be. The flu. Mono. It couldn’t be anything else.
A brisk knock and the
of the door made Mara flinch. The paper rustled again.
“Miss Taylor, it’s been a while.” Doctor Pendergast frowned as he read her chart over a pair of half-height spectacles balanced on his sharp nose. “Headaches, blurry vision, dizziness, weakness, loss of appetite. These are serious symptoms.”
“Are you going to chastise me or examine me?” Mara asked.
“Both. How long has this been going on?” Doctor Pendergast set down Mara’s chart and palpated her lymph nodes. “Slightly swollen,” he mused. The stethoscope was cold against her back. “Breathe in,” he said. She was quiet while he listened to her lungs. “Well?”
“I’ve had this my whole life. Off and on. Doctors could never find anything. But it never lasted this long before.”
“How long do the symptoms usually last?”
Mara bit her lip. The doctor’s pale blue eyes pierced her. “A few days. A week at most.”
“And how long has it been this time?” He held the stethoscope and cocked an eyebrow.
“Six weeks,” Mara said, dropping her eyes. She shouldn’t have let it go this far, but her job left her little free time. As a neonatal nurse, she often worked ten or twelve hour shifts. By the time she got her daily swim in, she was rarely home. The only reason she was here now was that she’d passed out at the nurses’ station three days ago and her supervisor insisted she have an exam before her next shift.
“Breathe in and out again.” The stethoscope moved to her chest.
“It used to only happen when it was hot, but lately, it’s been constant. It’s why I moved up to Washington in the first place. Sacramento was way too hard in the summers. I lived in the pool.” She wanted to laugh, to babble, but the doctor shone a light down her throat and then into her eyes.
“Well, we’ll run some tests. A full blood workup, maybe a CT scan. Vitamins?”
“C, D, and B12. I don’t smoke, never have more than two drinks a night, four drinks or less a week. I have too much coffee, but caffeine never really seemed to affect me. I really like the taste. I don’t do any illegal drugs, I swim two miles nearly every day, and I love vegetables.” Mara knew she was rambling again. But she did everything right. She had ever since her adoptive mother had died. Wendy’s heart attack had frightened her. Before that, she’d existed on her mother’s fried chicken, creamed spinach, and bread for weeks at a time.
If she’d known her biological mother, she could have turned to her for answers about her mysterious condition, but she’d died when Mara was just a baby. She had a sister, a dozen years her senior, but the only time the two had met, Mara had kicked her out of her family’s house. The woman was a bitch.
“Relax, Miss Taylor. You’re at a healthy weight, your last routine physical showed nothing out of the ordinary and your blood pressure is stellar. Likely this is exhaustion or some sort of hormone imbalance. Pregnancies, children?”
“Not in a long time. Years. My ex-fiancé cheated on me and so I had a full STD workup not long after that.”
Doctor Pendergast examined under her arms, her stomach, and returned his attentions to her neck. “I don’t like how your nodes feel. But it could be a touch of the flu. You’re a nurse, right?”
“Okay. You should take a few days off until we make sure it’s not anything contagious. But other than that, try to relax. Here’s a lab sheet. Take this down to the basement and they’ll draw your blood. Then go home and rest.” Doctor Pendergast patted Mara’s arm, handed her the lab sheet and walked out, leaving her alone.
Mara shivered again. This wasn’t the flu. She’d dealt with these symptoms for years, but they’d always gone away quickly provided she could get into the pool or out into the rain. Lately, neither of those cures had done a damn thing. Her thirtieth birthday had come and gone and all of a sudden, her body went batshit crazy.
She hopped off the table and winced as the cold floor froze her toes. After she dressed, she took the sky bridge over to the hospital and up to the neonatal ward. She knew she wasn’t contagious, but she did want a week off and the doctor’s orders would be the perfect excuse.
A short talk with her direct supervisor to secure her vacation days and six vials of blood later, Mara slid behind the wheel of her Prius. It was only a twenty minute drive home, but the thought of staying awake that long made her head hurt. She rolled up the windows, turned on the air conditioning full blast, and cranked up the radio. Great Big Sea’s pounding drums kept her company on the short drive. She pulled into her garage and rolled her head around, cracking her neck as the door shut behind her. A nap. She could really do with a nap.
First thing the next morning, Mara filled her thermos with coffee, packed a few changes of clothing, her wetsuit, goggles, swim cap, and her Kindle. Ninety minutes later, she pulled into the ferry line. She’d be swimming by noon. Even the thought of getting back into the icy waters of Puget Sound had her heart beating faster and a smile curving her lips. She loved swimming off of Orcas Island. The water was a lot cleaner than the waters around Seattle and the beaches were always deserted on the north side. May in Seattle was cool, breezy, and a bit rainy, though they’d had an unseasonably hot spate of days last week. Today, the skies were gray. The tourist season on Orcas didn’t start until for another few weeks. Mara booked a room with a fireplace and a view of the water. She spent the ferry ride bundled up in a blanket, face pressed to the glass so she could see the waves.
The moment she drove off the ferry, she felt better. Her exhaustion started to abate. Her hands steadied. She wasted next to no time in her hotel room. She shed her clothes and yanked on her wetsuit. The beach was only fifty steps from the door. Carefully, she tucked her long red braid into the swim cap. The goggles sat on top of her head. Tugging her water booties on, she wiggled her toes. A smile broke out on her face. She couldn’t help it. Everything about this day was perfect. Everything except for the dark pall of a serious illness hanging over her head. But she wasn’t going to dwell on that now. She was alive and in moments, she’d be gliding through the water, free and happy.
The tiny waves that lapped against the shore carried a faint tune to her ears. Did someone nearby have a radio? Mara closed her eyes and tried to listen, to pick out the source of the notes that coalesced into a comforting song as she stood with her toes in the water. After a few minutes, despite turning, listening, and turning again, she’d been unable to discern where the sound was coming from. “It’s pretty,” she murmured.
Long swims, room service, and plenty of sleep usually restored Mara’s energy. But three days later, she felt only marginally better. Wrapped in a blanket out on the patio, she hummed that same tune she’d heard her first afternoon here. She felt lighter now. Until the shrill ring of the phone disrupted the peaceful evening. “Hello?”
“Mara Taylor?” Doctor Pendergast’s voice spiked Mara’s heart rate.
“I have your blood work back and I’d like to schedule a time for you to come in and talk with me.”
Mara’s stomach flipped. If it had been the flu, the doctor would have told her over the phone. “Okay. Can you tell me anything now?”
“I’d rather you come in. We need to run some more tests. How’s tomorrow at two?”
“Doctor, please. I’m a nurse. I’m not going to sleep, eat, or think straight until you can tell me something. I know how this all goes. If it was the flu, you’d tell me. So it must be something serious.” Mara fiddled with the blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
The doctor paused. Papers rustled. “Your blood work showed some highly irregular results. Both your red and white blood cell counts are low. Your white blood cells are slightly denatured. I need to run another round of tests and I want to give you a transfusion. The good news is that you’re not contagious. You’re of no danger to your patients, friends, or family. But until I run more tests, I have no idea what it could be and I don’t want to speculate. You don’t have the markers for leukemia, lymphoma, or myeloma, but beyond that, I don’t know.”
“Okay,” Mara rubbed the back of her neck. “I’ll see you tomorrow at two.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Taylor. I wish I had better news for you. But you’re young and you’ve been healthy up until now. You work at one of the best research hospitals in the nation. Whatever this is, we’ll figure it out.”
At two the next day, Mara sat across from Doctor Pendergast. He showed her the test results from behind his cherry wood desk. She nodded as she flipped through pages upon pages of numbers. “None of my other doctors reported this sort of thing. Every time I move to a new city, I try again to pinpoint what this is. No one’s ever found anything like this. Usually I get told to up my vitamins and see a sleep specialist or something like that.”