Authors: Sterling Rivers
Rudy’s vision sharpened and the figure’s form came into view… he knew this man! Knew those sparkling blue eyes that glittered like glaciers and lips that looked as soft as velvet set against a strong cut jaw…
Skidding to a stop just in time, Rudy blinked wide-eyed… what was going on?
Someone was talking to him, calling his name, but… Graham forced his lids open, the image of Doc Snowden coming into focus. He was looking at Graham with worried filled eyes, his long, grey hair wild around his face.
“Graham? Can you hear me, son?”
“What happened?” Graham said, touching the back of his head as the man helped him sit up. When he hit a sore spot, he hissed and searched his hand for blood, but it was clean.
“You fell. Hit your head, but just a bump,” Doc Snowden explained, suddenly looking very weary. “But I would suggest you see Martin in the morning to make sure all okay.”
Graham simply blinked at the man, realizing he was at the animal clinic… in the middle of a trashed room, that—As images of everything that had transpired flipped through his brain, his eyes found the body of a young man lying unconscious in the middle of the devastation, a blanket around his naked body, his face twisted in an expression of discomfort…
Rudy? Why would he be—?
“My God!” Graham croaked, a chill racing across his skin.
“Now Graham, I explain,” the Doc started, holding his hands up. “Please, don’t panic or you might hit your head again.”
“No,” Graham refuted. “No, no way. No! This is a hallucination.”
He couldn’t accept what he had witnessed—it had to be some weird delusion due to the fall. If his brain had correctly translated the scene, then it explained why Doc Snowden had been so anxious to get him good and gone… because the caribou he’d run over wasn’t really an animal… but a man?
“No,” he said again, because this couldn’t possibly be real.
A blanket was thrown around his shoulders, and the elderly Snowden helped Graham out of the room, but his attention was solely on Rudy who lay motionless on the floor, dirty and disheveled.
“Come,” the man said, guiding Graham passed the door that hung off a hinge. “I explain everything.”
“But what about him?” Graham asked, glancing over his shoulder at Rudy’s motionless frame.
“Grandson be fine. He’s tough cookie, okay?”
Graham turned his attention to the man, his jaw slackened in disbelief. Before he knew it, his ass was in a chair and he was glad to get his weight off his feet. He was unsteady, the head-bump and the possibility of some strange magic going on sending his mind reeling. He relaxed his muscles, finding he had little strength to do much else. A bottle of water was shoved in his face and he accepted it. He drained the bottle until his stomach swished with fluid.
“Graham,” Doc Snowden started, but he seemed at a loss for words as he pulled up a chair in front of Graham.
“Please tell me I didn’t see what I think I did,” he said, because he needed some validation that he was in fact, coo-coo.
“I am sorry. You were not meant to see,” the man said, leaning in, his grey eyes so like Rudy’s.
“What exactly did I see?” Graham asked.
Doc Snowden sighed. “I tell you a story, okay? A story my people passed down from parent to child, over many, many years. One day, when the race of men were young and still crawled around the Earth like animals, the Great Spirit came from the heavens and took onto his breast, a boy. This boy grew up to become the Caribou Man, father of my people. With the knowledge of the Great Spirit, he taught Innu people to hunt the caribou for food and warmth. He became our protector, using the enduring strength of the caribou to destroy our enemies. When Great Spirit saw how good Caribou Man was, he blessed other Innu with the gift.”
Eying the man warily, Graham would have thought him senile if he hadn’t witnessed what he had. Shaking his head, he said, “I can’t comprehend this. You’re telling me Rudy is a descendant of this Caribou Man?”
“Yes. As I am.”
Graham swallowed a lump, regarding Doc Snowden in a new light. The fall must have slowed his mind because he hadn’t thought passed anything but Rudy being half animal. “I think I’m going to pass out. My brain can’t process this. There is no way you and Rudy grow fur and antlers and gallop under the moonlight whenever you feel like it. This is crazy.”
The man made a dismissive sound. “This normal for me. But would you distrust your eyes so easily?”
“Eyes can play tricks,” he refuted.
Doc Snowden patted Graham on his knee. “Then this is just a dream. Go home, Graham and put all this behind you. No worries.”
Graham didn’t move. He refused to be so easily dismissed. Chuckling, he admitted, “I suppose I need more convincing this is all real. How is it even possible?”
The man sat back in his chair, a flicker of frustration crossing his face. “All peoples have their stories and all are grounded in truth, but over time they become twisted.” He glanced to the side as if something caught his attention. After a moment, he looked at Graham, his eyes seeming to glow with an otherworldly knowledge. “We are called Elementir, the children of the Great Spirit than came from the sky and gifted us with the strength of our animal brothers. This is the truth I and my family chooses to believe, but we are what we are and that will not change. We have coexisted with humanity for thousands of years and hope to continue.”
Graham’s brain sorted itself out and he sighed. “You’re afraid I’m going to say something? Really, no one would believe me, but I’ve known your family since I was a baby. Do you sacrifice virgins around a campfire? Do you steal kids from their bedroom? I guess, as long as no one gets hurt, I have no issue. Jesus, am I really accepting this?”
“We live as you do. We seek what you seek. We are not so different, young Graham,” the man said, rising to his feet. “You go home now, and I take care of grandson. Should I call for your sister?”
Graham blinked up at the Doc, the man seeming tall and imposing. The fierceness in his eyes belied his age and Graham could picture antlers growing out of his head and thick fur spanning his body. His voice was hoarse as he spoke. “Better call my sister. My windshield is cracked. Besides, I don’t think I can make it five feet right now.”
Rudy tried to open his eyes, but his body protested the simple movement. His ankle hurt and his chest stabbed him with every breath. He could hear his name on his grandfather’s lips, but he had trouble getting his lids to obey his command.
“You are safe,” the man said, his voice gentle. “All is okay. Nothing will hurt you.”
Grabbing on to Grandfather’s reassuring tone, he pulled himself back into the realm of consciousness. He forced his eyes open and found the man peering over him, exhaustion creasing his face. Memories slowly trickled back into Rudy’s skull and he made a pathetic sound. He’d been so joyous, so free, but he hadn’t paid attention to where he was running—how could he have made such a childish mistake? The moment his body impacted the car raced to the front of his mind and he gripped his chest, panic setting in.
Grandfather gripped his wrist. “Your well is intact.”
Relief slammed into Rudy as hard as the truck had and he let out a big breath. He had been lucky enough to inherit a
, the repository where a single gift of creation rested. It could be stolen, or ruptured and the
wasted. It was his most precious possession and the realization that he could have lost it nearly shattered him.
Wiping away the tear that dislodged from the corner of his eye, he muttered, “I’m sorry, Grandfather. Did I make a mess?”
“You are safe and whole and that is all that matters. But child, what were you thinking?” the man chastised, his voice growing hard. “What if Graham had been injured?”
“Graham!” Rudy snapped up, nearly clocking himself on the corner of a trashed table.
Grandfather barked a harsh command in their native language. Rudy obeyed and relaxed his body, Grandfather’s position as head of the family hitting right to the instinct. He pulled the blanket close and watched as Grandfather moved to look at his ankle.
“Ankle broken, but healing. Bumps and bruises, but not too bad,” he said, his fingers running over the top of Rudy’s foot. “You be fine but your mother won’t be happy.”
Rudy looked at him meekly. “Who says she will have to know?”
Grandfather tossed him a dissatisfied expression. “When you heal, you will clean this up. All must go into the trash and you will purchase new equipment with your savings. Floors swept and mopped. Cages cleaned. Parking lot and front shoveled.”
Sighing, Rudy accepted his punishment stoically, glad no one was hurt. When the man was done rattling off chores, Rudy inquired, “Graham?”
“Graham is a good man. I am certain he will not tell anyone what he has seen.”
“He saw everything?”
Letting his head fall back against the hard floor, Rudy closed his eyes. His heritage had been a big reason he hadn’t asked Graham out, but now that the man knew what he was, Rudy was sure the possibility of them would die a slow, painful death.
Two days later…
Graham smiled at his niece as she hung an ornament on one of the branches. The kids had been disheartened that their Christmas tree had been abandoned on the road somewhere, but when he had gotten up in the morning, the tree had been sitting on the front porch, safely bundled. He couldn’t help wondering who had dropped it off—Rudy, or his grandfather.
“Hey, are you okay?” his sister asked as she handed him a cup of coffee.
“Sure,” he said simply, smiling faintly as his niece’s faces lit up. “Just got banged up a little.”
“I’m just glad you weren’t seriously injured. But that’s not what I meant. You seem distracted.”
“Yeah.” Physically he was fine, just a little sore spot on the back of his head. The source of his miserable mood stemmed from what he had seen and more importantly, Rudy’s condition. He wanted to call the Snowden residence to see if Rudy was okay, but he had no idea what to say.
Uh, hi, is Rudy okay? How hard is that?
But he was a wimp. He didn’t know how to talk to the man now that he knew the guy wasn’t human.
But what has changed?
Rudy had still been Rudy all this time.
“Graham?” his sister prompted. “Maybe you should go see Martin. You might have a concussion.”
“That’s not it, Sue. I feel like shit for killing the animal,” he said, taking a sip of coffee, the liquid tasting like acid though he knew it was top notch. Although he was aware Rudy had survived—at least, he was sure he had, the whole situation was depressing.
“You and me both,” she muttered. “I was the one that called you.”
He shook his head at her misguided blame. “I keep telling myself I wouldn’t have been able to stop even if I’d seen him…
coming, but it doesn’t make me feel any better.”
Touching him gently on the arm, Sue planted a kiss on his cheek then went to go deal with the kids arguing over who got to hang the Snoopy ornament. He watched his sister handle them, feeling as if he’d lost an opportunity. Rudy was the kind of guy Graham could see himself marrying and having some kids with. Now, that future with a family of his own was slipping through his fingers and it hurt.
Why hadn’t the man called, or something…
to let Graham know he was okay. Maybe Doc Snowden was worried further interaction would put their secret in jeopardy? But Graham had promised not to say anything. Something hot and potent rose up in him. He was tired of being a coward. It was time to step up and be a man. He needed to talk to Rudy and let him know everything was okay between them… and he needed to make his feelings obvious.
Graham set into action and slipped his jacket on. He grabbed the keys to Sue’s truck and yanked the door open. He froze in his tracks and he expected to be knocked on his ass from the sheer force of shock. Rudy blinked at him with wide eyes, his hand raised in a knocking gesture. They stared at each other for a long while as if Rudy was as lost as Graham felt. The man’s cheeks colored beautifully and he eventually lowered his hand.
“Hey,” he croaked then cleared his throat. “You got the tree, I see.”
“You left it?” Graham asked.
“Yeah, I went back for it.” Rudy scratched the back of his neck, his eyes looking at everything but Graham. “Were you headed somewhere? I didn’t meant to interrupt.”
Parting his lips to respond, Graham drew a blank. He wasn’t sure why Rudy bringing the tree back meant so much to him. Shrugging it off, he stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind him. “You’re okay?”
The man’s expression brightened for an instant. “Yeah I’m fine. A little sore, but I’m good. We… ah, we…”
Rudy put distance between them and Graham’s heart jolted from pain. “I told your grandfather I won’t say anything.”
Snapping his attention to Graham, Rudy’s eyes glittered as they searched his face. Graham could see the fear and sadness in them and it broke his heart the Rudy thought he couldn’t trust him.
Shaking his head, Rudy looked away, the morning sun catching his dark hair, coloring it a cobalt blue. Graham took a moment to admire the guy’s beauty from his fine bone structure to his creamy, caramel colored skin. “Grandfather said I should leave you alone and that seeing me would just remind you of everything. But I needed to talk to you and see if you are okay.”
A smile ticked at Graham’s lips. “I’m not the one that got hit by a truck.”
Those marvelous eyes returned to him and they lingered a little longer this time. Rudy sputtered a laugh. “I don’t know how to do this. I just want you to know I’m still me and that I’m sorry you had to find out the way you did. I wish things could have been different.”
The distance in his voice startled Graham. “Are you leaving again?”
Sighing visibly, Rudy offered him a rueful smile. “That was different, but maybe if I keep my distance, things can get back to normal for you.”
Graham frowned. “You’re acting as if I lost a part of my body or something, Rudy. Yeah, this is weird and new, but that doesn’t mean you have to go into hiding.”
“Really?” Rudy pegged him with a deep, pleading look, his body shifting toward Graham. “This has to be disturbing for you.”
“Disturbing is arguable. Weird, definitely, but weird doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”
Rudy fidgeted and he seemed so small and weak, nothing like the big, majestic creature he was capable of becoming. “Do you want to take a walk with me?”
They headed around the house and toward the meadow without a word exchanged between them. Rudy’s attention was on the evergreens in the distance, his expression troubled.
Biting his lip, Graham glanced down Rudy’s body—he seemed to be walking fine. “Your ankle is okay?”
Rudy looked down as if the appendage was unfamiliar to him. “Yeah. We heal… pretty fast. How is your head? Grandfather told me what happened. I was lost in the instinct and don’t remember everything.”
“It’s good, just a little bump,” he said, unable to keep his mind from wandering into the technical details of Rudy becoming a caribou. Would it be impolite to ask? He figured it couldn’t strain their relationship any more than it already was. “Can I ask you something?”
Rudy’s interest peeked and he nodded enthusiastically. “I want to be open about this with you. I don’t want you to be disgusted with me—”
“How can you think that?” Graham asked, exacerbated.
“Maybe that was the wrong word?” he said sheepishly.
“Rudy, I don’t think that at all. In fact, I don’t understand how that even crossed your mind. We were good friends before you left and I thought we might be drifting back into that territory again.” Graham acted without thinking, his desire toward Rudy riding him. He reached out a hand and ran has palm down the man’s plaid covered arm. Rudy gaped and Graham snatched his arm back. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he said, “You need to help me understand this whole thing, is what I’m saying.”
“I would like that, Graham. Please, ask me anything. I want to be honest with you. I want us to be friends again, and…”
Graham arched a brow at him, Rudy’s cheeks doing that adorable flushing thing again. “And?”
“I like you, Graham. And everything tells me you might feel the same way. But it’s not easy for Elementir and humans to be together. I wanted to ask you out, but I abstained because I knew you would be more than my other boyfriends. They were just for sex, but you… I want more. And in order for that to happen, you would have to know about me.”
Graham was floored by Rudy’s honesty. It was finally coming out and he was momentarily blown away by his feelings reflected. Now he understood Rudy’s reluctance, but what excuse did he have? Shaking his head at the whole situation, he tried not to smile. “And now I know.”
That brightness that Graham loved about Rudy returned. His eyes crinkled in the corners, and his irises shined like icicles reflecting the sun. “I don’t want to scare you. Perhaps we can do this slowly. Graham Miller, would you like to go out some time?”
Graham smiled so hard, his cheeks ached. “Yeah, I’d like that. What did you have in mind?”
Pursing his lips, Rudy glanced at the sky. “Nothing heavy. Dinner and a movie? We can talk and you can ask me anything and I will be completely honest with you.”
Something warm filtered through Graham, his heart fluttering with excitement. “Sounds fair. Name the place and time, and I’m there.”