PART EIGHTEEN

Late For His Shift

By Peter G. Reynolds


Part 18


No red door. No carved sign. No second-floor window overflowing with flowers.


Ron circled the block, his pursuer a heartbeat behind him. He knew this was the right place; his nose told him so.


What's going on? It should be there.


Left at a flower stall, another at a busy outdoor cafe, and a third at a Viking-themed gift shop brought Ron again to the misty, cobblestone street of the Scratch & Sniff Inn. But as he made the final turn sharply, his left shoulder scraping against rough-hewn stone, he could still see no sign of what he knew should be there.


"Hey! Watch where you're going."


The voice was followed by a crash, and Ron dared a quick glance behind him. His shadow had collided with a short man, his fiery hair perfectly matching his current mood.


"Ya goddam gobshite. This ain't the M50!"


But the man's words fell on deaf ears as Ron's shadow stood up and continued her pursuit, ignoring the contents of what the man was carrying, which were now strewn across the street.


Ron now had a slight head start and had every intention of taking advantage of it. Going back to the dock was out of the question. He knew the fishing trawler they arrived in had a tight schedule and would have left already.


May and…. her sister. That seemed to Ron like his best bet, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember where in town they lived. He was pretty sure it was North of the river, but then again….


With some distance between them, Ron turned a corner and entered the first door he came to. He cursed as the door rang a small bell that hung above it.


"Welcome to NoteWorthy," said a cheerful, lilting voice from behind a glass counter. Ron ignored the voice and focused on dodging between the vast collection of used musical instruments he found himself surrounded by. He just made it to the back door before hearing the bell ring again.


The door led to an alley where Ron surprised three teenagers, who tried looking as nonchalantly as possible as smoke slowly rose from behind their backs.


The first two doors he came to were locked; the third was propped open with a brick, a thick stench of bleach coming from within. Entering, Ron kicked the brick away, and the door closed behind him with a satisfying click. He stopped and listened. Nothing. He put his ear to the door. Nothing.


Then the shouts of children, followed by the rattle of the doorknob inches below Ron's ear. He stumbled back, startled, then turned and ran down a long hallway. He was in an office building of some kind. The mosaic-tiled floors were slippery from recent mopping, and Ron found himself half running, half sliding as he made his way to the stairwell. As he climbed three steps at a time, muscle memory took over decision-making, giving him time to think.


He was beyond exhausted, having given everything he had to reach the Inn before his shadow caught him. His clothes were plastered to his body, sweat coming from places Ron didn't know he had. His arms and legs were on autopilot, but he could still feel them burning, each flight of stairs bringing a new level of torment.


Where is that Inn?


The question repeated over and over in Ron's mind. But he had no answer. It didn't make sense, but this whole trip hadn't made sense since the moment he was chosen.


#


"You're asking the wrong question."


Ron hadn't expected that answer from his brother, who stood in front of the family barbecue, surrounded by smoke and waves of heat that floated in the air.


"I don't understand."


Gary flipped the steaks on the grill with a practiced hand, tongs moving like a conductor's baton.


"The question isn't why I want you to come."


Ron coughed as the wind pushed the smoke directly into his face. He stepped to the left, but the smoke seemed to follow him, burning his eyes.


"Of course, it is." Argued Ron. He tried moving to the right, but the smoke seemed to anticipate his movements. "There are so many others here that would be a better choice."


With his head, Ron motioned to the crowd behind him. Aunts, uncles and cousins were spread out across the backyard. Some were holding beers, others plastic glasses of wine. Most balanced flimsy plastic plates on their laps, piled high with very un-werewolf-like dishes, including corn on the cob, zucchini casserole and an unending variety of salads.


The annual family BBQ. It was a ridiculous ritual, considering all they really wanted were the blue-rare steaks cooking on the grill or, better yet, a fresh kill from the cow they came from. Still, their father had insisted they do it every year. Even five years after his death, his edict of Look Human. Act Human. was still the law, and Gary, as the new Alpha, clearly had no intention of changing it.


Ron walked away from his brother, knowing he wasn't going to change his mind. He was going to Ireland, and that was that. The heat from the grill was replaced by the tempers of his family, whose stares followed him as he made his way to the buffet table. They hated him for being chosen to help fulfil the prophecy. They already barely tolerated a "shiftless loser" being a member of their family. Ron knew he'd probably be the one roasting on that grill if it wasn't for Gary.


The Conclave was the governing body of all werewolf clans around the world. Ron knew almost nothing about them except for two things. It was they who banished his clan nearly twenty years ago, forcing his family into hiding, and it was they who his brother had recently brokered an uneasy peace with.


The recent deaths of clan medicine women and the lack of live births in over a year had forced the Conclave to ask for help. Ron's family was the foremost authority on the Dead Wolf Prophecy, which foretold these signs as warnings of a coming apocalypse.


The Conclave had decreed five members of each of the thirteen clans would travel to Ireland to investigate. Sixty-Five was a symbolic number for the Faoladh, appearing throughout the clan's shared history. It was also decided that any more would be too conspicuous. The problem was that with so few spots, every able-bodied male wanted to be selected. Many clans held contests. The Livonian Clan of Northern Latvia had males swim out into the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea, the last four to return to shore, securing their spot. The Skin Walker Clan of the Navajo performed ancient rituals to determine who among them was the purist of spirit. And the Wulvers of Shetland played a particularly ferocious game of Rock Paper Scissors.


For Ron's clan however, there were no puzzles, no contests of endurance, no fights to the death, only choices made by Gary, their clan Alpha. The first was obvious; Carl was not only the second oldest; he was the biggest, strongest and most capable of any clan member. Next was Ron's uncle Brian, a man whose advanced years did not betray his strength or cunning. He had been Ron's father's advisor for decades and continued to council Gary.


Gary’s third choice should have been the most controversial. Kira, Ron’s cousin, was female, which normally would have automatically disqualified her. The Conclave was an unyielding patriarchy, and had systematically, through tradition, superstition and even force, kept the power of the clans in the hands of males for centuries. Even though females had the strongest connection with the Veil, and in fact were the only ones able to effectively use its energy, they were not considered warriors, and therefore not entitled to any say in clan affairs.


Ron’s father Sam though, thought differently. As Alpha, his decisions were made based on merit, not sex, which frequently put him at odds with the Conclave. When their clan was expelled, Sam tasked Kira to travel the world in secret, reporting back on the activities of the other clans. As a female, she was mostly ignored and able to hide in plain sight, making her an effective spy. It was still however, hazardous work, and her face showed the scars of many close encounters. Though those she encountered weren’t so lucky. Gary believed as his father believed and had chosen Kira without hesitation.


But it was Gary's final choice that would cause the most controversy and surprising. Particularly for Ron.


"I need you, brother." Gary had said early that day as Ron's cousins unfolded colourful lawn chairs and set up tables in the garden.


"Yes," Ron replied without hesitation. "I've created a great playlist on Spotify. I figure we start with a little Marley, then shift to some Beach Boys…."


"No." His brother said solemnly, placing a hand on Ron's shoulder. "I need you to come with us."


"Of course." Replied Ron. Awkwardly placing his own hand on his brother's shoulder. "Is it a beer run? Or do we need more nachos and salsa? I warned Sally we needed more…."


Ron had known what his brother really meant; he just didn't want to believe it. He had been raised on stories of the prophesy, how the Dead Wolf would rise and bring his clan glory. He had dreamed of standing beside his brothers, soaked in the light of the blood moon. But you don't get called a loser your whole life without starting to believe some of it, and at seventeen, Ron was a true believer. He tried reasoning with Gary that there were better warriors, better strategists than him, but Gary's decision was unshakable.


You're asking the wrong question. What does that even mean?


Ron angrily piled coleslaw and scalloped potatoes onto his plate. He knew precisely why he shouldn't go. He'd screw it up somehow. He'd get someone killed, and if he was lucky, maybe that person would just be himself.


A hard slap on the shoulder made Ron reassess that last thought.


"Don't be so glum, brother," said Carl with a hearty laugh. His massive frame was stuffed into a pair of tan cargo shorts and a white golf shirt. "If it makes you feel better, I told Gary I thought you were the worst choice for this mission as well."


"Thanks?" Ron winced, his shoulder stinging from his brother's greeting.


Carl looked at the vegetarian offerings on the table and made a face, though it was difficult to see behind his beard, which, like his long tangle of hair, was the colour of dirty straw.


"You look like a Viking forced to go to private school," Ron said loudly, his mood making him braver than he should be. Others standing nearby laughed, including several children.


"Well, I…." Carl stumbled. He wasn't used to being the object of ridicule.


Ron took his plate of food and quickly went inside, kicking off his sandals beforehand. When you're nearly seven feet tall, insults are rare. They're rarer still when they come from your shiftless half-brother. Ron knew Carl's embarrassment would soon turn to anger, and when that happened, he wanted to be as far away from him as possible.


Sliding glass doors led to a bright sunroom. Ron ignored the glares and whispers of even more relatives and made his way upstairs. His mother's bedroom was at the end of the hall. He looked down at his bare feet. Though she's been gone for almost a year now, Ron still found it impossible to wear shoes in the house.


The door opened with a slight creak. The room hadn't been touched since his mother died. Her double bed was still surrounded by safely rails to prevent falling, and a large metal triangle, which his mom would hold to help her sit up, hung over the mattress. The room was musty, and Ron opened a window. He knew every inch of this room. He still visited it almost daily.

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