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Fiction – “Caretaker” by Marilou Goodwin

“So werewolves are stronger than people?” Dinnie asked. The note that had come with her had named her Denise, but for some reason that name just hadn’t stuck. Too formal maybe? No one seemed to go by their full names here.

It was like the full names were for the happier times, before the many mutations of flu virus caught on and killed off so many humans that the Others couldn’t hide amongst us anymore. Before they realized they no longer had to be afraid of our superior numbers and they could come out into the open and do what they liked. And we couldn’t do anything about it.

Before the war had begun.

Circled around me were Eddie, Janie, Mikey, Trish, Lissie, and David, also known as Fat Boy, but I’d never been able to call him that. As the oldest, it had always seemed that I needed to do better than name-calling. Not that David was fat anymore. No one was. But he had been when his mother had dropped him at our door, later than all the others. Only two years ago.

No, three.

Had it really been that long?

Dinnie had moved closer, waving her hand in front of my face. I was caught by the motion and surprised when she skillfully slid her hand by her face, transferring my attention to her eyes. They were pinched at the corner. She was so worried. It was my fault. I couldn’t remember why I thought so, but they were all my responsibility so if she was worried it was probably my fault.

“I’m sorry, Dinnie.” My voice didn’t sound like my own. It was deeper, more gravelly. I tried to raise my hands to my throat, but they caught with a metallic clank. Bands of steel pinched my wrists and several places up my arms. I looked down to find myself chained to the chair with my legs wrapped in several layers of thick metal links.

Oh.

I didn’t remember getting attacked. What did that mean? What was I going to become? How long did I have? Worse was that I hadn’t trained them to take care of themselves.

For years, I had mostly worried about hiding and staying safe. Only us older few would go hunting. The Caretakers, we called ourselves. But we’d been slowly absorbed into this new monster world, one at a time over the last six years.

I had worried some when it had gotten down to just me and Joe, but that was last year. We’d needed more time. Dinnie had been eleven then, and still seemed so young. She was ten years younger than me, and four years younger than I’d been when the world had gone to hell and I’d had to grow up fast. She should have had a few more years before taking on the responsibility of eight children. They all should. They were all too young for this and she was the oldest. Other than David, and he didn’t count because he was so new to us. I should have found them another adult to help, but when Joe had died last month I’d been too busy doing both our jobs to look.

My chains rattled again when I slipped a little sideways in my chair. Janie, Mikey, and Trish backed away a few steps. Dinnie’s eyes tightened more and she pinched her lips together. Her eyes were shiny, but she didn’t cry.

I was amazed at how big she’d gotten; how big they’d all gotten.

“Oh, Dinnie, I’m so sorry.”

“Werewolves are stronger than people?” she asked, ignoring my apology. She swayed back and forth to hold my attention and I had to admit the slow movement was fascinating. I thought I’d heard that question before, but I couldn’t remember when. Why was she asking about werewolves? What could I tell them that I might have forgotten? What did they need to know?

“Yes. Werewolves. They have to change at the full moon. Every twenty-nine days. Don’t go out on a full moon night, even if you can’t see the moon, even if it’s cloudy.”

Her eyes closed and she breathed deep. She knew that. Of course she knew that. Everyone knew that. How could I help them when the million things I hadn’t told them wouldn’t let me choose just one?

What had she asked again?

“They’re stronger. I haven’t seen one lift a car by itself, but I have seen one flip one. Does that help?”

The shiny eyes were back, and a tight smile. She nodded. That was what she wanted to know. She glanced down at the chains holding me and I started to worry. She was judging whether the chains could hold a car.

“You can’t keep me tied up. It’s too dangerous.” I might get out. I might eat someone I had loved.

She shook her head, already sure of her path. “We love you, Sophie. We have to try this. We have to know. What happens when someone goes wolf?”

“I don’t know.” I could feel the tears tracking down my cheeks and I twisted my face into my shoulder to wipe away the moisture. I hadn’t cried since my parents had been lost in the original infection. I’d learned to be strong for the kids. Taking care of them had made me strong. Now I’d become the enemy.

There was so much I hadn’t told them. I should have been taking them with me for the smaller foraging trips. I should have told them where the vampires tended to gather and which buildings were safe. They didn’t even know the best places to find water.

How could I have let this happen? How could I have left them alone like this?

There was nothing left to do but tell them everything I could before I was gone. Had I done it already? I couldn’t remember. Thoughts kept slipping away, scrambling over one another as I searched for words to explain everything they needed all at once. I had to choose something to start with.

“Vampires are stronger too. Even stronger than werewolves. They’ll lift and throw a car. Both of them can smell us out, but usually won’t with the war going on. If it ever ends….”

I shook my head, worried. I wouldn’t see it end. I wouldn’t be able to protect them from whatever changes happened when we had a new top dog. Did it matter who won when humans weren’t even in the running anymore?

Yes.

Vampires would raise us like farm animals, keeping the remaining humans alive. We’d be endangered species for them, but they’d want to keep us. We were food. The best food. And better yet, without humans there would be no new vampires. They needed us to continue to live.

Wolves didn’t care. They could eat and reproduce without us. For them we were nothing more than tokens in a game. They killed us to prove their superiority over the vampires since vampires were the stronger of the races – as long as they kept their daytime resting spots secret. Stake, behead, and burn was so much more involved than silver bullets.

Dinnie’s face was close to mine, sniffing.

No, that was me. I was smelling Dinnie.

Odd.

But she smelled so good, I wanted to taste her. My mouth was open and I was trying to lick her before her recoil reminded me it was wrong. People didn’t lick each other. It was both obvious and wrong at the same time. How could you know someone if you didn’t taste them?

“Dinnie,” I whimpered. I never whimpered. I hated that sound in my voice, but my heart hurt and I couldn’t stop it. “What’s happening? What’s wrong with me?”

Her eyes were huge when she turned away from the children who had jumped up to offer comfort. They spread out, circling protectively behind her. Fatboy looked ready to cry, but I didn’t recognize the others. Two of them had revolvers pointed resolutely at me, braced and ready for shooting. They looked like they knew what they were doing. Had I trained them? I could smell the silver slotted in those round holes, burning my nose.

“It’s nearly the full moon, Sophie.” Dinnie stayed carefully away from me.

“Don’t call it Sophie.” One of the other girls muttered from behind her. Her voice caught on the words and she wiped at her cheek. Did I know her? She smelled familiar, but I couldn’t name her. “It’ll be easier if you don’t call it Sophie.”

“What will be easier?” I ignored the girl and tried to raise my hand. I wanted to know why Dinnie stared at my face but my arms were chained to the chair in several places. How had I not noticed that before? “I’m tied up, Dinnie, what happened?”

She knelt before me, getting closer to my level, but not close enough for me to touch even if my arms hadn’t been tied. I leaned as much as I could though, pulling on the chains to get a few inches closer. Her eyes flew wide, but she didn’t retreat as much as an inch. “You were attacked, Sophie, two weeks ago on a food run. David found you. He brought you back.”

I scanned the faces behind her. She seemed to expect me to know, but I couldn’t remember. Which one was David? Which one was Sophie? There was something there—for a second I knew them—then it was gone.

They looked worried, huddled together behind lowered brows and tight faces, shifting back and forth on small feet and staring at me. The scent of sweat and fear rose up, teasing my nose around the burn of the silver.

And the meat.

Beneath everything else was the meat. Huge slabs of soft, delicious, raw meat. I didn’t know how long I’d been tied to the chair, but I was suddenly so very hungry. My stomach growled so loudly they all took a small half-step backward. Except the one on her knees before me. She hadn’t moved. She didn’t smell scared either. She smelled sad. And determined. Did I know her?

Her eyes bored into mine, searching for something. My face itched, but I didn’t turn away even to smear my cheeks across my shoulder like I wanted to do so badly. Instead I met her challenge with my own determined glare. Several minutes later she looked away first, but her scent was off and I was still tied to the chair. It didn’t feel like I’d won.

“You’re getting furry.” She climbed slowly to her feet as the smell of despair thickened and clogged my nostrils. Pain emanated from her as her hand floated toward me, pale and calloused, with that rounded pad by her thumb coming close to my cheek. I didn’t move. I did nothing to scare her away, but my stomach growled again, moments too soon. Her hand fell to her side without ever coming close enough for me to reach. She turned away.

“Wait.” I called, barely able to form the words. My tongue felt large and unwieldy. Flat and wide. I licked my nose, smoothing my short fur, feeling the prickle of new whiskers. Then I had to do the same for the other side. She waited while I tried to remember the word I needed.

“Hungry.” It came out like a whine. Pleading. I didn’t like being submissive. It didn’t come natural to me, but she’d proven herself to be the one in charge. The pack surrounding her seemed to agree, deferring to her at every step. Then there were the weapons, burning my nose with silver, and the chains holding me in place. They scraped my wrists as I moved, itching at this skin. They proved she’d bested me at some point.

“I’m so sorry, Sophie.”

And she was. I could smell it on her. But she still walked away.

I howled after her, jerking the chair as I tried to stand. Those that she left behind jumped back several inches. Revolvers were cocked. Children braced themselves, prepared to shoot me. I’d been tied well enough it was all over in seconds. The chair barely even rocked before settling back down solidly on the floor.

A growl started low in my throat, and I licked my nose again. It pushed out from my face now, getting longer each second. My face bones creaked as they shifted and my joints started twisting.

“What do we do now?” The blonde one asked the skinny boy.

“We wait. If she lives through the night, we ask who she is tomorrow.” He was calm, pointing his revolver straight at my heart. He’d do it too. I could smell it on him. Bastard.

“But she’s Sophie, isn’t she?” The girl stood close to the door, ready to run. Others had cycled out, leaving me with only three. The redhead girl and the skinny blonde boy were both pointing silver-laden weapons at me, and the girl with the questions hovered near the door. “Under that. When she’s human again tomorrow. She’ll be Sophie again, won’t she?”

“Dinnie hopes so too, but my mother never came back,” Skinny Boy answered with a resigned shake of his head. “She would have come back if she was still in there.”

I’d have to take him out first when I got free. He was too calm. The girl was barely holding herself together. She let out a broken sob at Skinny Boy’s one-sentence story. She was too weak to live, but she would be fun to chase. Would she even make it out the door? My mouth watered with the thought.

A moth battered against the back of my brain suggesting there might be something wrong with eating her. Some memory wanted to be free but I couldn’t smell it or taste it. It cried out such loss I didn’t know what to make of it, but before I could figure it out my bones began to break.

My body struggled for its proper shape, but the chains pulled my paws above my spine, ripping at newly formed muscles, tearing connective tissue. I screamed, jerking my head back and throwing myself away from the pain. The chair flipped this time.

It didn’t help. I yelped again, and whined, biting at the air, the floor, and the chair. My paws were caught under the wood frame, my shoulder joints breaking as they formed and reformed. These bones weren’t created to bend that direction. My tail broke with all my weight centered on it, adding another small pain, so much smaller than the rest. The chains loosened sliding easily along my fur, but the weight of the chair and my body on my broken forelegs held me still. I thrashed from side to side, rocking the chair back and forth over my broken limbs, and howling out my pain.

The sounds brought running feet. My room was full again. I could smell so much meat, almost close enough to touch, but the hunger was less than the pain.

“Hurt,” I howled, but they stood there, watching me. Afraid to close the distance. Unsure how to help, or if they even could. Some of them cried, holding each other. The weapons remained steady. Blondie had taken the gun from the frightened girl. She wouldn’t miss.

Skinny Boy and The Girl In Charge argued.

“She’s not Sophie anymore,” he growled, challenging her.

“She might be tomorrow.” Girl in Charge held back tears. She wasn’t as tough as she thought she was. I could take her down easy, if I could only get free.

“This is torturing her today, and we can’t let her out of those chains. She’d kill us all. What would Sophie say?” He’d switched to pleading in the end, allowing her to stay in charge. He’d kill them all in kindness by letting the weakest of them lead.

I hurt too much to hear anything more. I couldn’t control my forelegs. I couldn’t get them out from under the wood. I couldn’t change position. With my legs in the air there was no leverage to be found. Getting frantic wouldn’t help, but I couldn’t stop myself.

It all hurt so much.

I twisted and clawed and whined and pulled, forgetting about everyone and everything else in the room. I licked at my shoulders, feeling the swelling and the bruises under the fur and skin. One hindleg popped free of the chains, giving hope the other could too.

“For God’s sake, just let me put it out of its misery!” Skinny Boy’s voice cut through the pain, quieting the whole room. Even the walking meat stopped sobbing.

“No,” The Girl In Charge snapped. “I’ll do it if it needs to be done.”

“It needs to be done,” he returned. “Look at her!”

I began chewing at my chains again and catching my teeth along the wooden back of the chair. Every movement ripped at my shoulders and wood shavings filled my mouth. Then she was standing over me, with silver in her hand. Too close, but I was still trapped, still lying on broken forelegs.

“Sophie,” she called softly. Tears were in her voice even if they weren’t in her eyes. She must have cared for that Sophie. “If you’re in there, give me a sign. Something. Anything? Tell me about vampires.”

I bit at her, missing her ankle by less than an inch. If I ever got out of these chains I would kick her ass and then we’d see who would be in charge around here. She didn’t step back, so I twisted my head and scrabbled with my free leg to make up the distance. It ripped at my shoulders, but I wanted to bleed her as much as I wanted to get free. How dare she put me in this position.

I felt the burning in my chest before I heard the bang. The silver ripped through me, twisting my body out of shape, tearing me apart. I couldn’t breathe.

But I remembered Sophie.

That was enough.


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About the Author

Marilou Goodwin spends her real-life time in Florida with her laptop, her two children, and her husband – possibly in that order, says the husband. She spends her online time as Clothdragon. See more from Marilou at http://clothdragon.blogspot.com/.

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