Excerpt (First 2 Chapters) from FLEDGLING (Book 1, The Shapeshifter Chronicles)
Familiar sterile white walls surrounded Ana, providing a form of anesthesia, leaving her numb. Her legs dangled above the linoleum floor as she sat on the exam table, her hands folded in a neat pile on her lap. Even though she was eighteen and technically an adult, she felt like a six-year-old again; totally powerless.
“Good thing we don’t pay Dr. Wilson by the hour.”
Ana glanced over at her mom, and watched her busily fidgeting with her watch. Permanent worry lines creased her otherwise attractive features, aging her appearance.
“Mom, you should know by now that it always takes longer than you expect. Nothing moves quickly here.” Ana gripped the edge of the padded table and shrugged. A long strand of dark hair slipped over her shoulder and she watched it move like a pendulum until it grew still.
A knock rose from the door and it swung open revealing a tall man with glasses. “Hello ladies, I’m sorry I’m running late today.”
Ana’s mother jumped up, almost knocking her purse onto the floor and reached out to shake the man’s hand.
“Hello, Melissa. Nice seeing you again.”
“Hi, David. It was only the other week we were here. Only difference is, I don’t have a job now.” The strain on Melissa’s face was evident. “Layoffs.”
Dr. Wilson frowned, creating dark shadows under his eyes and cheeks. “I’m sorry to hear that. Any hope for a new job?”
Ana’s mother shrugged, “Well, my sister talked to my old boss and can get my job back at Clark Bend Bank.”
Ana shot her a glare, which she conveniently avoided and kept talking, “Eva’s usually game for anything, but I’m not so sure about dragging Ana to Idaho. What do you think, Dr. Wilson…is it too risky?”
“Well, like I’ve said before, it couldn’t hurt going down to a lower altitude. More available oxygen there- it could make Ana a bit more comfortable.” Dr. Wilson turned around to face Ana, who was tapping her toes together in a nervous rhythm.
“Hi, Ana, didn’t mean to ignore you. How are you feeling?” His frown was such a familiar sight she considered it was probably one of the first faces she saw when she was born. Why did everyone always have to feel sorry for her? She was sick and tired of it. She wasn’t pitiful, like a stray dog dying of starvation you give scraps of food to. Or was she? Ana stared into his eyes and saw the answer.
“Baby, weren’t you complaining about shortness of breath? You were having problems the other day with carrying the laundry upstairs.” Melissa blinked and swallowed hard.
“How is that different from three weeks ago?” Ana whispered.
Dr. Wilson nodded sympathetically and sighed. “Well, things don’t look good. I know you don’t want to hear the word transplant, but I’m afraid that is where we’re going. Your heart is hardening much more rapidly now, and I’m worried you’re approaching congenital heart failure. It could only be weeks now at this rate.”
Silence fell. With each breath Ana took, she counted away the seconds that she would never get back. Each breath closer to surgery, or worse.
Dr. Wilson breached the quiet room with his softened voice, “Although moving may be a bit of an adjustment, it could give you a little more time in the waiting game. When you are placed on the transplant list, it could take a day or a year. Idaho doesn’t have any transplant centers, but Washington does, and I know the division chief at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Where was it in Idaho you were thinking of moving?”
Melissa cleared her throat and answered, “Clark Bend in northern Idaho. It’s not too far from Seattle.”
“Well, it’s up to you ladies. But I would support the move. As long as Ana takes it easy. No carrying heavy boxes or arm chairs. And as long as you get in to the cardiology department within a couple weeks.” He grinned and squeezed Ana’s shoulder.
His wire rimmed glasses gleamed from the florescent lighting and Ana’s reflection stared back at her blankly. It felt like she was having a worst case scenario kind of day. Then she considered it was more like a worst case scenario kind of life.
Her mother caught her eye. The worry was written all over her face. Ana knew her mom only wanted the best for her, and it had just gone from hard to worse after the layoffs. A job with insurance was necessary, and with no family nearby, going through a transplant would be a challenge. Melissa needed her sister’s support.
It never felt like she had the leisure to make decisions based on what she wanted. She never seemed to have a choice. A choice would imply there was more than one option, and there never was. Not really.
As her doctor told her mother all about the state-of-the-art facility in Washington, Ana dropped down to the floor and slipped over to the window. Her long pale fingers tightened into fists and she closed her eyes tight. She was tired of the constraints of her body and the never ending fear that plagued her. She hated her heart. It always ruined everything. Peering from the third story window down to the cars driving past on the streets below, she wished she could trade places with any anonymous, normal person. Boring would be great. If her biggest problems were cars and boys, she would be overjoyed.
Normal. But she would never have the opportunity to be normal.
Ana adjusted in the backseat and yawned, drawing her mother’s attention.
“How’re you holding up back there?”
“Fine. Just tired of sitting,” Ana responded, arching her back.
Long strands of chestnut hair fell loose from her ponytail and she watched them flicking in the breeze from the open window. Each hair so free, she thought, and for a moment a ribbon of jealousy wove its way through her chest, squeezing the air from her lungs.
“We’re almost there, shouldn’t be much longer,” her mother replied, concerned.
Ana rested her head against the window and watched the passing scenery in silence. Evergreen forests shrouded the mountains with dense growth and fields of butter yellow grasses waved in the breeze. The postcard landscape would have soothed her nerves at home in Colorado but instead, with each passing mile she felt isolated and alone.
On the passenger seat was a haphazard pile of food wrappers, magazines and a lumpy pillow that had seen better days. Ana’s reprieve from navigating for her mother up front provided only a fleeting break from those watchful maternal eyes. As she glanced up at the rear-view mirror, she noted the familiar creased frown her mother wore when she didn’t think Ana was watching, and sighed. Always under surveillance.
“Clark Bend’s only a little further ahead. We’ll be able to stretch our legs as soon as we get to the house,” her mom said adjusting her frown into a strained smile.
The flash of sun glinting off a metal sign caught her attention.
“Welcome to Idaho…thanks,” she mumbled.
“What’s that, Baby?” her mother’s voice asked from the front seat.
“Nothing,” Ana murmured.
Ana didn’t think Idaho looked any different from Montana, from where they had just traveled through. The same mysterious dark river curled alongside the highway for what felt like hours now. As it grew wider she knew they were drawing closer to town. Its source, the Lake Pend Oreille was just beyond Clark Bend, a place Ana remembered from her childhood.
“Hey, girls? You want me to drive by your schools real quick?”
Ana sucked in her breath and gave a warning glare at her sister, who had lifted her eyebrows at the prospect. Ana retorted, “No, we definitely don’t need to do that.”
A pain in her chest made her flinch and her heart sputtered. Heat radiated from her face down to her fingers as she thought about the inevitable staring on the first day at school. She drummed her fingers on her leg and shook her head, as if the action could shake her fears free. She tried convincing herself it was an opportunity for a fresh start, but it was a hard sell.
How was it a good thing beginning in a new school at the end of her senior year?
Ana grasped the silver chain around her neck and admired the gift her mother bought her along their travels, a regal bird with wings outstretched. If she could pick an animal that represented freedom, it would be a raptor. She would give anything to fly away and be free.
Her green eyed gaze fell on her sister, who was squirming in her seat. “Eva, you okay?”
Eva’s turquoise eyes crinkled in a frown. “I gotta go.” She tilted her head to the side, squinting at her mom through the rearview mirror, and her tangled brunette hair tumbled over her shoulders.
“Hey, Mom. I don’t think it can wait- better pull over. Quick.” Ana knew her sister had a very weak bladder, and when she said she had to go, it was best to listen.
“Can’t hold it Miss D?”
“It’s an emergency. And Mom, I’m not six anymore, you can stop calling me that now. I’m not a diva.” Eva rolled her eyes.
“Sorry, D. Here we are- there’s a turn out just ahead.” Melissa drove ahead a little further and pulled off the road.
Eva wrenched open her door and got out, and began wandering into some grasses toward a grove of trees.
“Hey, Ana, would you mind getting out and keeping an eye on her? Your sister isn’t at home in the wilderness like you are.”
Ana nodded and slipped outside, walked slowly around the back of the car and sat on the bumper. She could see some movement behind the trees to her left and she heard a loud snap, followed by a startled yelp.
“You okay, Eva?”
“Yeah, this tree is grabbing at me. Give me a minute. Any cars coming?”
“Don’t worry sweetie, I can barely see you. I haven’t seen a car in a bit.”
Ana grabbed a stalk of long grass that rose up at her feet and twisted it around her pointer finger. Movement from the field on the opposite side of the highway caused her to look up. A tuft of red fur flashed from between some bushes. She squinted her eyes and tried to find it again but couldn’t. After another moment of waiting the small furry creature crept out from under a log, and paused.
Ana sucked in her breath. It was a fox. The patch of white fluff on its chest made her imagine how silky soft it was. She wondered what it would feel like to run her fingers through its fur. As she was musing about touching it, it darted across the field, sloping down out of view. When it came back into her line of vision, it leapt up a hillock into the air. It arched down and when it was nearly to the ground a large bird swooped up, taking flight. The dying sunlight allowed her to discern the pointy ‘horns’ of an owl. It appeared unsteady as it rose through the sky and she soon lost sight of it behind the tall trees.
Frowning, she searched the ground for the fox and couldn’t find it. It just disappeared.
Whatever, Ana. You’re just tired.
It was her mind playing tricks on her. The fox was probably just hidden in the grass.
“Well, that’s better.”
Startled, Ana turned to face her sister, who had a twig snagged in her hair. With a snicker, she reached out and removed it from Eva’s head. The both laughed and got back into the car.
“Did you go sightseeing, Eva? I wasn’t sure if you were walking to the house,” Melissa said as she started the engine and slowly pulled back out onto the road.
“I didn’t want anyone to see me.”
“From space?” Ana teased. She turned to her sister who was combing her fingers through her ratty hair, growing agitated with every knot she found. Grumbling to herself Eva said, “I can’t wait for a shower.”
Ana nodded in agreement and touched Eva’s arm. “I’ll let you take the first one- promise.”
Her sister grinned at her, and then Ana returned her attention out the window. After a couple of minutes a ditch in the road jolted the car, alerting her as they passed a dust covered road sign. They were close now.
Then as if on cue, her mother announced, “Alright, here we are. Home sweet home.” Melissa gave both girls a meaningful smile.
They passed a field of tall grasses and turned down a gravel driveway. Before them was Grandma Jo’s home. It had been over five years since they had visited. And the last time wasn’t the happiest of memories. Melissa was reluctant to come home for the funeral, worried about traveling with Ana, but in the end she went to support her sister, Tera.
Sparkling windows peeked out from behind low hanging branches in a grove of fir trees. A modest size to begin with, it was dwarfed by the tall evergreens surrounding it. The cheery pastel blue paint was calming and the bare flower beds lining the walk begged for attention. The lush surroundings were a little overgrown and needed a trim from some pruning sheers. Ana’s thoughts soured. It was familiar, but it wasn’t home. Not hers. Depressed and bitter, she considered the last person that lived there had died.
The silent vacuum in the car was broken when Eva leapt outside, not even waiting for the engine to turn off and sprinted across the shaded lawn. She ran around the house and disappeared from sight. At least Eva was out of her mind excited.
She watched her mom get out of the car to stretch and felt her leaden body sink into the leather seat. Her eyes dropped shut for a moment until Melissa’s voice reached her ears, “Hey Ana, you coming? Don’t you want to come in and say hi to your aunt and uncle?”
Ana’s eyes flicked open and it was then she noticed the maroon sedan parked beside them in the driveway. Slowly reaching for the door she took one last breath before pushing herself out of the car. She sauntered up to the front stoop where her mother was and waited for the onslaught of emotion.
Before Melissa could reach for the door, it swung open and Aunt Tera burst out embracing her sister. The sound of laughter and voices brought Eva from around the house and she joined her family on the stoop.
“Oh my, you girls are gorgeous!” Their aunt gushed.
“Why- you are simply stunning, Ana. Just look at your beautiful figure.” Aunt Tera lifted Ana’s arms to point out her curves, winking at her. Ana extracted herself from her aunt’s grip to wrap her arms around her waist, trying to conceal herself.
“And you! Eva! My…you’re so graceful. Like a ballerina!”
Eva twirled for her adoring aunt, enjoying the attention.
After fussing over her nieces she gave her sister a warm hug and the two of them began chatting about the road trip. As the women spoke, they sauntered inside. While Ana watched her aunt’s tight curls bounce around her cheery face, she heard her say in an undertone, “I am so happy you are here and not a minute too soon. Jace is getting back into fishing, and you know how much I can’t stand the smell of his gear, and not to mention eatin’ fish. Thank goodness I have someone else on my side when it comes to picking dinner…”
Ana shook her head. Things hadn’t changed much. Her aunt was still the same boisterous woman she remembered. Ana had always tried to spot the similarities between her mother and aunt, it was like a game. She studied Melissa’s short brown hair and thin features and compared them to Tera’s curly red hair and round face. Nope, nothing. But as Ana watched them snickering together she noted something: the laugh lines that framed their lips were like parenthesis.
“You all must be so tired and hungry! Don’t worry, I made you spaghetti. And we’ll be out of your hair after dinner. We don’t want to tire you all out.” Aunt Tera’s gaze lingered on Ana and she squeezed her shoulder.
As they sauntered into the house, a booming voice greeted them, “Welcome home!”
Thick as a trunk, Uncle Jace’s towering form was before them, waiting with open arms. He got to Melissa first, then Eva and Ana got caught in a huge bear hug last, taking the breath out of her. She freed herself from his grip and rubbed her sore shoulders.
From the sweat stained band on Uncle Jace’s fishing hat, it appeared it hadn’t left his head for a very long time; Ana wondered if he would be able to remove it if he tried. Then she figured it was probably better it stayed where it was. She guessed he still had blond hair underneath, noticing pale locks trying to free themselves, like saplings searching for light. His blue eyes always sought an open audience, eager to tell a new story or joke that was bubbling below the surface, ready to come out.
“Jace, you’re just a big kid!” Melissa said shaking her head.
“And that’s why we never had any… he keeps me busy enough keeping an eye on ‘im.” Aunt Tera winked at Eva.
The smell of spaghetti hit them, and their stomachs started growling like wild animals.
Aunt Tera heard their bellies, “For heaven’s sake, let these ladies eat! They don’t want to stand around while there’s perfectly good food in the other room!”
As they were shepherded to the kitchen, the smell of the old menthol cigarettes grandma used to smoke hit her. How was that possible? She always hated that smell. Just one more thing to make her feel at home.
In front of their tired, hungry bodies was the old kitchen table set for five, with a huge yellow bowl of spaghetti, a basket of breadsticks, and fresh Parmesan cheese.
“You’re the best, Aunt Tera,” Eva groaned.
Uncle Jace laughed and boomed, “She made enough to feed an army!”
Ana heard Aunt Tera mutter under her breath that spaghetti leftovers were better than eating fish for the next week, and snickered as she sat down next to Eva.
“Now, I wasn’t sure what you were bringing here with you, so I went ahead and brought some extra towels and kitchen utensils. I’ve never really bothered going through anything of Mom’s, so you should have just about anything you need here- you know how she couldn’t get rid of anything.” Tera paused to grasp her sister’s hand and Ana watched as her aunt pinched her tears back.
Regaining her composure, she continued, “So, Mel- Danny over at the bank is expecting you on Monday. He’s got everything set and he seemed a touch eager to see you again too.”
Melissa shook her head and shut her eyes. “I hope you weren’t encouraging him, Tera. You know how he used to annoy me. That man just doesn’t know when to stop talking.”
As Ana removed her napkin from her lap, her aunt turned with a serious expression and asked, “So Ana, when’s your doctors appointment? Where was it…Spokane?”
Before responding Ana exhaled, disappointed she wasn’t able to avoid the question. “Yeah. It’s in a couple weeks in Spokane- somewhere. It’s not too far a drive, right?”
“Yeah. Although it depends on how fast you drive. If you go slow like Jace over here, then it’ll take longer.”
“Hey, now,” Uncle Jace defended himself.
Aunt Tera exchanged a troubled glance with her sister, and then asked, “So, you feeling any better since you got here? I know it’s only been, well, less than an hour, now, but Mel says we’re at a lower altitude than up in Denver. That’s supposed to help you… right?”
“Yeah, that’s what the doctors tell us. I haven’t noticed anything yet. Still kinda soon. It’s been a long day though. Hopefully I’ll start feeling better.”
“If you come out fishing with me, I bet you’ll feel great! Some fresh air and sweet silence- nothing like it,” Uncle Jace smirked as he tore through a breadstick, and mopped up the extra sauce on his plate.
“Well, there should be some real nice kids in town for you to make friends with. I bet they won’t care a thing about your heart condition,” Aunt Tera said, patting Ana’s arm.
“I wasn’t planning on telling anyone,” Ana said and stood up so fast her cup threatened to tip over. Hoping to end the conversation, she collected the empty plates and set them in the sink. She reached her delicate fingers under the faucet as a stream of warm water glimmered over her skin like a translucent glove and began washing the dishes until Aunt Tera stood up and stopped her, “Oh Sweetie, you don’t need to do that, and after the day you’ve had! Don’t you want to see your new car? Well, I guess it isn’t new. We can’t have you hitchhiking to school with Eva.” Tera shooed her with her hands. “Go on, now. Jace, honey- go on and show it to her.”
Ana reluctantly lowered the dish back into the soapy water, and glanced at her mother who returned an encouraging nod.
She strode out the front door and was on the driveway as Uncle Jace pulled up beside her in a yellow VW camper that had been concealed behind the shed.
The shock held her for a moment. She kept telling herself it seemed to be in pretty good condition and it didn’t make too much noise when the engine was running- at least compared to a jet turbine.
But the color. Banana yellow was a good name for it, although it would look better on a banana. Well, who could complain about a free camper?
Uncle Jace opened the door with a loud creak and presented the keys with a wide smile, as though he were presenting her keys to a Porsche.
Ana put on the most appreciative grin possible while avoiding any thoughts about arriving at school on Monday. She didn’t care what people thought about her, but it wouldn’t help her slip in unnoticed driving this on the first day. Grappling with thankfulness, she pushed her worries away over her new groovy camper.
“Thanks, Uncle Jace. It’s…great…I really appreciate it.” She cleared her throat, “Anything I should know about it? Any…problems?” Ana inquired casually. She wanted to know if it was capable of throwing her like a bronco or exploding into a million tiny pieces from over heating.
He answered while caressing the side of the car, “Totally sound. I gave it an oil change, replaced a couple of belts, and gave it a new battery.” Then he added under his breath, “I also took it into the shop and had my mechanic take a thorough look through… Tera insisted.”
Ana made a mental note to thank Aunt Tera.
The van seemed unashamed of its appearance- come as you are. She smiled. Well, it’s unique- just like me, she thought.
“It’s…colorful,” she said, unsure what else to say.
“The paint job’s fifteen years old. Wouldn’t know it looking at it,” he said patting the top.
Ana’s eyebrow arched. She wouldn’t say that. Odd patches of matte paint dotted the glossy finish. And along the edges of the metal was an orange rusty tinge.
Uncle Jace added, “Got an excellent deal from a buddy. He was learning auto painting at the time and did it for free. I lucked out- they had a surplus of yellow paint, don’t know why. Classic.” He reached out and patted the car, with a loving touch.
As her aunt and uncle drove down the gravel driveway waving as they went, Ana sighed. She felt like a tornado survivor. And it wasn’t even over yet. She still had to unpack. Then there was school on Monday. How was this better than staying in Colorado?
“Alright, the movers will be here any time now. Are we still agreed on who gets which room?”
Ana and Eva nodded. Every summer when they visited in the past, Ana had stayed in her mom’s old room, a small dark space with slanted, low ceilings. Eva naturally gravitated towards the large airy room that once housed Aunt Tera’s belongings. There was no need for discussion.
Eva climbed onto the living room couch and plugged her nose as she reached for the large retro TV remote. “Pew, this couch stinks. I wish we hadn’t sold our couch. Mom, did you bring the disinfectant, or some odor-eating spray?”
While Eva and their mom discussed their cleaning plans, Ana’s anxiety level peeked. She needed to get out of the house and see the sky. It was getting dusky out, but she thought she remembered how to find her way out to her special place.
Ana went in search of her jacket, and as she slipped it on she announced, “I’m going outside. Let me know when my stuff gets here.”
Melissa’s frown returned and she looked out the living room window at the sun sinking behind the trees. “I don’t know Baby, it’s getting cold out and you’ve had such a long day already. Can’t it wait until tomorrow night?”
All it took was one look, and Ana turned around, heading into the kitchen. She wrenched open the cupboards searching for a flashlight. When she finally found one, it was tossed onto the white tiled countertop in dismay. Of course after so many years the batteries would be useless. Ana shrugged, she didn’t really need a light anyway. She was at home outdoors and always managed to find her way through the dark. Nothing frightened her when she was in the wilderness, especially when she was star gazing. Under the infinite sky all of her problems seemed so insignificant.
Breezing through the back door, she wandered out onto the small back deck. A dense grove of trees and rocky outcroppings encircled a small lawn, with one great pine in the center. Ana noticed a discreet trail leading away from the yard and grinned. It was still there.
The trail was barely noticeable, but she knew where to look. Berry bushes and scrub grew across it from disuse. She shifted them out of the way as she moved her delicate body through. Sounds from the forest inhabitants warmed her ears and she didn’t feel alone.
Ana enjoyed the terrain; it was a close cousin to her beloved Colorado. Rolling mountains cloaked with deep jade evergreens and grassy valleys seemed to offer her a figurative olive branch in friendship. The only thing missing was the occasional white bark of aspen peering through, but she could adjust to the welcoming landscape. A brisk smell met her and she decided it must have recently rained. She paused and closed her eyes, breathing in the scent like a wine connoisseur tasting a bouquet of flavor.
She meandered on, headed toward an opening up ahead on the trail. With her heart thudding she pushed herself forward into the dying rays of the sun.
A thriving panorama appeared like a watercolor, with wilderness stretching as far as the eye could see. And lying before her was the perfect surface for star gazing- an immense flattened granite stone reaching beyond the grassy fields below. Beyond the meadow, a wild green wilderness rose, with a dark river far in the distance.
Ana walked forward, stepping onto the dark granite and slowly lowered herself on the rock. She stretched flat on her back and closed her eyes. Her special stargazing place in Colorado reached out to her in memory. Hidden in the pines, she had discovered a small field behind their home and had convinced her mother to drag a metal lounge chair there so she would have a place to lie down. When she didn’t want to talk to anyone, or was in one of her moods she went to unwind under the night sky. Her silent companion, Orion, guarded her from the painful thoughts that tried creeping into her mind in the quiet dark. His bright starry constellation lit her imagination and pointed the way to his neighboring wintry friends: the Great Dog, Taurus the Bull and the Twins.
For the first time in days, she allowed herself to breathe. The constant fear and depression that clawed at her soul, which she was careful to keep hidden, was allowed an opening. It burst out of her in the form of salty tears. Curled into the fetal position, her mouth fell open and she began to sob silently. She rarely allowed herself the freedom to break down because it was so tiring and she didn’t like feeling sorry for herself.
As the sky overhead turned a deep blue, stars began to glimmer and pulse singing their nighttime overture. Ana traced the constellations in her mind, soothing her agitated heartbeat to a slower rhythm. The tears dried but she continued to gaze into the abyss.
A rustling noise drew her attention to the meadow, where she caught sight of a lithe dark form. She watched the small animal move through the grasses until she remembered how long she had been gone. Not wanting her mother to worry about her, she rose from the rock a little too quickly, all of the blood rushing out of her head making her dizzy. She knew better than to do that, but she was tired and wasn’t thinking clearly. Before turning away she glanced over her shoulder to look for the silent nighttime visitor, but concluded she must have scared it off.
She was alone again. What a familiar feeling.