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The world shrunk beneath her gaze. Pinpricks in the night. City skylines reduced to the size of her palm as she pressed her hand to the glass.
The swell of the ocean was fast disappearing behind them, swallowed up by the clouds as they breached – a whale emerging from deep water.
Karina drew in a deep breath, shifting in her seat to stare blankly at the seat opposite her. There were scuff marks from the black soles of a child’s shoe left on the plastic tray. She wondered how many trips ago that had been.
The stranger beside her shifted. They wore an awkward smile – the sort that portended several hours spent making uncomfortable small talk.
“You heading to Newark?”
“No,” she said, smiling politely. “I have a layover there.”
“Ah, going to New York?”
She smiled. “Yes. But not where you think.”
“Not the city then?”
Her head shook from side to side before the question could even leave her neighbor’s lips. “No. A place called Pleasant Valley.”
“I’ve never heard of it!”
Me either. She smiled politely.
“Going to visit family?”
“Yeah,” she fibbed.
It was easier to lie than tell the truth. That she had packed up everything she had ever known and was on her way to a place she had never been before. At the whim of a complete stranger, no less.
“Well, I’m flying into Alberta. My third cousin—”
She allowed the woman to continue, finding more interest in her appearance in the reflection of her thick, horn-rimmed glasses.
She had never been a vain woman. She remembered enough to know that she had always been quite practical. But the accident had left her hyper-aware – chiefly her shortly cropped chestnut brown hair had once hung belong her ribs – loose, flowing waves that danced wildly in the sea breeze.
But it was more than just the hair they had cut to perform life-saving surgery. It was about the way everything else seemed to change, too. She didn’t remember her gray eyes being so bright. Her olive skin so clear. So smooth. She didn’t recall being strong – but now she could feel the muscles beneath her skin.
Everything had changed. Everything had been thrown into upheaval.
She remembered the nurse too well. The wild look in her eyes. The worry as she fretted over her. In the weeks that followed, her doctors repeated over and over again that she surprised them with her rate of recovery. Perhaps she would regain her memory — maybe even faster than they had previously believed was possible.
Something felt wrong, though. Something deep beneath her skin. A wrongness nipping, biting, twisting, writhing. Sometimes, it felt she wasn’t alone in her body. That there was someone else there. Someone else who wanted wildly different things than her. Someone louder. Incorrigible.
It had been dark when the nurse had come to her. Dark when she hurried Karina into a chair. Dark and darker still as she pushed her through the hospital – through abandoned wings and into what seemed to be a concrete basement. Someplace far beneath the hospital.
She had cried out for help, but no one could hear her. Not when her bones began to break. Not when she felt her skin stretch too thin and rip around her. Not when she saw her flesh laying in a puddle at her feet, and she let out a howl.
“His name is Avery,” the nurse had said, her voice barely above a whisper when the morning broke. She pushed her uneven hair out of her face and smiled apologetically. “He works with people like you.”
“People like me?”
Her face contorted in sympathy. “Werewolves.”
Eventually, she was released. Set back into the world like a fish let go from its trap. The water seemed too vast now. Too deep. Too overwhelming. The undertow caressed her belly – it caught her arms and began to drag her deeper.
She returned to her high-rise overlooking Florida’s waters. She took in the sight of everything she had worked toward. Every nicknack, every bauble. Crystals and finery left strewn about her home. Successes of a woman who felt lifetimes away from her.
With trembling hands, she dialed the number. A comforting, deep voice answered. They were strangers, and yet, he somehow could read her soul.
“You’re not alone,” he promised. “You don’t have to be, either. If you come here, I can help you.”
“But what about work? I can’t just… pack up and go.”
“You can,” he reassured. “And you can return someday, but now, you need to be with people who understand you.”
“And you do?”
“A bit better than you think.”
Despite herself, she felt a smile sprawling across her lips. A manic amusement at his words. “We’ll see.”
“So, you’re coming then?”
“I guess so.” There had been a long, lingering moment of silence. A quiet that spread for eternities.
“I know you’re putting a lot of faith in me. And I’m a complete stranger. I have nothing but my word, but you have it. You will be safe here. I will help you.”
Those words were what convinced her. Though, they likely shouldn’t have.
Karina had made a living debating. She was one of the most skilled lawyers in her area. It was in her nature to dissect everything. To ask questions. To find strategy and syntax where there might not have been any.
Perhaps the fall had scrambled more than just her memory.
She remembered the sterile room. The doctor smiling kindly at her over the scans of her brain.
He pointed out the places that had been badly injured. Traumatized by the fall. There was more than just the lack of memory to contend with. There would likely be changes in her personality – her ability to cope and regulate emotions.
“I will help you.”
She was hinging a lot on a stranger. On the kindness in his voice. The gentleness of his words.
She blinked, her head shaking from side to side.
The woman with the thick glasses frowned in concern. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, sorry,” she smiled weakly.
“You had a thousand-yard stare there for a minute.”
“I was listening,” she fibbed. Again.
It didn’t seem to matter if she really was. Her neighbor was hellbent on returning to her story. Something about her Aunt and Uncle having stumbled upon some genealogical evidence that tied them to some well-to-do family overseas. A family that had only the one heir who was soon to crest the triple digits in age. “Can you imagine? If we are related. Do you think any of that money would go to us?”
Karina offered a tight-lipped smile. A shrug of her shoulders. It took everything in her power to not correct her or go on a tirade about what happened with end-of-life cases.
She was no longer Karina Levy, the attorney. She was Karina Levy. The manager of a car garage. The Ace of Brakes.
“I don’t know,” she managed blithely. “That would be wonderful if they did, huh?”
“Yeah,” the woman said, her tone breathy. Wistful. “You never did answer my question.”
“About why you’re heading to Pleasant Valley.”
“To be with family.”
“Yeah, but… why?”
Karina’s brows furrowed together as she watched her. It was such an invasive question. One she should have dismissed immediately as this woman being near vulgar with her overfamiliarity. But there was something about that blank stare and the upturn of her lips that took her by surprise. It nearly pulled a full confession from her lips.
“I was in an accident,” she said, her words carefully measured. Slow, as if she had never uttered them before. It was then that she realized she hadn’t – Avery had been made aware of what had happened to her and spared her the gruesome retelling. “I fell over a cliff and suffered some pretty significant brain damage. I am going to be with family while I recover.”
“You seem fine.”
She smiled, though it didn’t quite meet her eyes. “My memory was what was most affected.”
“Oh!” The stranger gasped, her hands lifting to cover her mouth. “So you have amnesia?”
“Yes.” She was far less pleased than her companion by the diagnosis.
“You know, one of the shows I watch… There’s a woman who also has amnesia….”
She felt herself being pulled back under. The words coming to her like static. Distorted. Distant.
“What does it all mean? To be… like us?” She asked knees held tight to her chest, her phone burning hot against her ear.
“To be a Werewolf,” he said flatly, refusing to allow her to weasel around the word.
“It means to be… blessed to have another part of ourselves to learn. To adapt to. To accept. We just so happen to have to let them out every full moon.”
“Is there… a way that I can learn to make that not happen?”
The silence had been enough of an indicator. A killer. “No. But it does get less painful.”
“All of this is painful.”
“Remember, this isn’t goodbye forever. It’s only goodbye for now.”
“You sound like some kind of Hallmark card.”
“I speak exclusively in Hallmark card. You’re just now noticing.”
Nothing could take away from the anxiety she felt welling up in the pit of her stomach. Still, she found herself at least excited to meet this Avery character. From what she had gathered, he was older than her. He had a daughter who was her age. A grandson, too. They had shared the basics about their lives – he was a widower. She was a newfound singleton, having terminated her relationship with her fiancé after the accident. She didn’t even have a cat to her name. Or a dog.
It helped to know that there would be someone there. If she had to go through all of these changes on her own, she didn’t know what she would do.
Her friends back home didn’t understand why she wanted to uproot her life. Darren had tried to convince her to stay by sitting atop her luggage. His partner Lance was really no better. Cocktails were offered, a farewell party half-planned.
She had seen their hearts break on their faces when she said she had to leave soon. Within the week.
So they sullenly worked on packing up her entire life instead. Darren and Lance drowned their sorrows in mimosas.
Adelyn, her best friend, had taken the news worse than anyone else. She refused to even come to say her goodbyes. It hurt, but Karina was sure that she would eventually understand her decision. Someday.
Her family had done their best to convince her to rethink her plans, too. But they gave up, knowing what the square set of her jaw meant. “Whatever you feel will be best for your healing,” her mother had prattled in Armenian.
And then the man she had promised her forever to… It hurt too much to think about. To recall the heartbreak in his eyes. The endless questions about what went wrong. How? Why?
A sudden, blinding headache blossomed to life behind her eyes.
She held up her hand, her smile apologetic. Her fingers found the bridge of her nose.
Tell her to shut up.
Karina stiffened, hearing the voice well up from the furthest reaches of her subconscious.
Tell her to, or I will make her.
“Is everything alright? Is it your head?”
“Yeah,” Karina nodded. “I was… I was told that high altitudes could affect my head. I have some medicine. I’m sorry….”
“No, no, of course not,” the woman said, waving her hands between them as if to dispel whatever uncertainty lingered between them. “Don’t you worry about it. Feel better.”
She offered the woman a small, grateful smile. A bottle of pills was pulled from the bowels of her purse. A few were shaken into the palm of her hand and soon after swallowed dry.
Her temple braced against the glass of the window as she watched the cityscapes melt into rural America. Large expanses of farmland sprawling across big, open, green fields.
Before sleep came to claim her, the last thought she had was what Pleasant Valley would look like from overhead. And if she’d see it on the way in.
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