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Chapter One of SHIFTER’S WISH
My sister could talk me into anything. Case in point, it was Friday night and I was parking my beat-up Kia Rio on a mansion-lined street in Rancho Bernardo. Every house had a four-car garage, lush landscaping—despite the brutal Southern California drought—and security signs that warned unwelcome intruders about premium alarm systems. This wasn’t a neighborhood where people like my sister and me belonged.
“Do you really want to hang out with a bunch of rich assholes?” I asked Dory. “It’s not too late to change your mind. There’s an outdoor screening of The Godfather in Balboa Park. Let’s go there instead.”
“Forget it, Rolf. You promised.” Dory touched up her lipstick in the side mirror. She was fifteen-year-old jailbait, thanks to the figure she inherited from Mom, and the thick, brown hair she’d gotten from Dad. Dory danced jazz, modern, and tap four times a week at a local studio, and that contributed to her trim physique. “I don’t know why you’d want to watch The Godfather again anyway. You’ve seen it a million times.”
“It’s only one of the best movies in history.” I engaged the parking brake and took my keys out of the ignition. “The Godfather is right up there with Citizen Kane.”
Dory capped her lipstick and stuffed it in her purse. “You can obsess about the golden age of cinema another time. I want to go to Lenox’s party. He invited me specifically.”
I clenched my jaw at the mention of Lenox’s name. “He’s a senior and you’re a sophomore. Lenox is friends with Zach, and Zach’s a known douchebag. I don’t think—”
“Don’t back out on me now.” Dory punched me lightly in the shoulder. “You promised.”
“Yeah, well, you promised, too. First thing tomorrow morning, you’ll design the wardrobe for Desperate Dawn. I have $150 dollars in the costume budget, and I realize that’s tight, but it should be plenty if you shop at Goodwill.”
“Can we please not talk about your stupid movie? I’m late.”
“Desperate Dawn isn’t stupid and it’s not a movie. It’s a short film that’s going to win me a scholarship to The University of Southern California’s film school.”
“Whatever.” Dory opened the door to the Rio and slung her purse over her shoulder. “You can pick me up at 10:45 p.m. That will just barely give us time to get back home before curfew.”
“You’re not going into that party alone. There might be booze.” I climbed out of the car and slammed the door behind me. I wasn’t about to let my sister put herself into a risky situation. I was two and a half years older than Dory and had been watching out for her ever since our dad had been murdered right in front of us in a carjacking gone wrong. Dory had been a toddler at the time and didn’t remember the details—thank god—but I did.
“You can’t come with me,” said Dory. “Lenox didn’t invite drama geeks.”
“Are you saying I’m not cool?” I licked my fingertips and slicked back my eyebrows. That always made her laugh.
But Dory wasn’t laughing now. She straightened her miniskirt and flicked back her hair. “Get back in the car, Rolf. You’re not coming with me.”
“Oh, I’m coming with you. The question is, how would you like me to accompany you, as myself or a dog?”
“I hate you right now.” Dory pounded her fist on the car. “I really hate you.”
I walked around the hood and stood next to her. “This is for your own good. You know I love you and would do anything to keep you safe.”
“I’ll be perfectly safe, idiot.”
I shook my head. “We don’t know that. Lenox’s obnoxious friends will be there, and they’ll see a sophomore like you as fresh meat.”
“Just leave me here and go.”
“Do you want me to call Mom? She and her cop friends could show up and close down the party pretty fast.”
Dory glared at me. “You wouldn’t.”
“Fine.” Dory shrugged. “But you’re not coming as yourself. Lenox didn’t invite you, and even if he had, I wouldn’t want to show up with my older brother. Shift into something small and inconspicuous, like a Chihuahua.”
“A Chihuahua?” I fake-gagged. “No way. I’ve got something better in mind.”
I closed my eyes, sniffed the air, and shifted all of my cells into a pool of light that reformed a few seconds later into a beagle. I pawed out of my Levis and white T-shirt and left them on the sidewalk next to my flip-flops.
“A beagle?” Dory groaned. “I said to pick something portable.”
Shifting was in my blood. My father was a shifter, just like his father before him. They were bird shifters, but I was canine. I could transform into any dog I wanted—almost any dog, that is. I’d never mastered a large breed like a St. Bernard or Great Dane. Granddad thought that was because as a human, I was five feet, five inches—the shortest guy in my high school. But I didn’t need to become a big animal to protect my sister.
Hounds were my favorite breeds to shift into because they allowed me to look for things that other people couldn’t see. My nose smashed against the sidewalk. Something about Dory’s shoes smelled delicious. I sniffed around the bottom of her sandals and discovered a tiny morsel of dried-up pizza.
“You don’t need to be a drug-sniffing beagle.” Dory nudged me away with her toe. “Lenox doesn’t do shit like that. Pick something else that won’t be so obvious.”
I closed my eyes, took a deep whiff of the night air, and shifted into something smaller.
“A pocket beagle?” Dory crossed her arms. “The deal’s off. Find yourself a new wardrobe assistant because I’d rather miss the party then show up with—”
“Hey, Dory,” said a friendly voice. “Cute dog.”
A slim brunette in a skirt and cowboy boots walked up to us. It was Rain Hathaway, who had the good fortune to be the younger sister of Summer Hathaway, the girl I was going to marry.
“Hi, Rain.” Dory plastered a smile on her face and fiddled with the tassel on her purse. “Is that your Lexus?”
“I wish. It’s my mom’s. I’m staying at her house this weekend.” Rain smelled like Tide Pods and soy sauce. She bent down on the pavement. “Is it okay if I pet your dog?”
“Sure,” Dory said in a higher-than-normal voice.
“What a cutie.” Rain held her hand up to my nose so I could sniff it. Now that she was closer, I smelled other things on her too. She’d eaten tuna rolls for dinner, followed by a Dr. Pepper. Her mom’s Lexus was relatively new and still off-gassing chemicals.
I nuzzled Rain’s hand and sniffed deeper. There was a dog at her house, a female Shih Tzu. As Rain ran her hand down my back, I closed my eyes, enjoying the massage. My tail wagged. I couldn’t help it. She scratched me behind the ears and I groaned. I looked up at Rain with my puppy-dog eyes, and she giggled.
“Your dog is adorable,” she said. “I’ve never seen a beagle so small before. What’s his name?”
“Trouble.” Dory glared down at me. “His name is Trouble because he is a pain in the ass.” She swooped down and picked me up, even though she knew I hated when she did that.
Being smooshed against my sister’s armpit was bad enough, but what was worse was that I had to hold my paws at an awkward angle so I avoided accidentally touching her chest.
“I brought Trouble with me tonight because he hardly has any friends.” Dory walked down the sidewalk to Lenox’s house. “School and movies, that’s all he cares about.”
“You mean like dog obedience school?” Rain asked. “He must be well-trained. You don’t even have a collar or leash on him.”
“Trouble loves school. He’d stay there all day if he could.”
“Is Rolf with you?”
“No. He wanted to go to some old movie they were showing at Balboa Park.” Dory’s eyes drifted up to the mansion in front of us. It was a two-story Spanish ranch house with a five-car garage. Music pulsed, and the front yard was littered with people making out or vaping. I smelled anxiety leach out of Dory’s pores. She paused on the driveway, not moving a muscle.
“What are you waiting for?” Rain elbowed her lightly in the shoulder. “I know Lenox was hoping you’d come tonight. He mentioned you at lunch.”
“Really?” Dory asked, her pulse racing. A second later she stopped smiling, like she was trying to appear nonchalant. “Whatever. But yeah, let’s go inside.”
Rain didn’t bother knocking; she pushed open the door and walked right in. Dory followed, clutching me so tight that I nipped her so she’d loosen her hold.
The entryway was packed with people and the room smelled like a thousand types of deodorant mixed together. I smelled beer coming from one direction and peppermint schnapps from the other. But I didn’t smell any drugs.
“Hey, let’s go find my sister.” Rain grabbed Dory’s elbow and pulled her through the crowd of people. Most of them were juniors and seniors from the baseball team that I knew but didn’t really know. This was my senior year, and I was president of the drama club, but I’d never played sports.
“And there’s Summer.” Dory looked at me from the corner of her eye. “Now I know why you wanted to come.”
I should have blasted Dory with dog breath like she deserved, but I was too busy trying to hold myself together—literally. When I became overexcited I lost the ability to maintain a shift. The last thing I needed was to pop back into my human form, completely naked, in front of my dream girl. Every inch of me wiggled with excitement and my tail whirled like a propeller.
Summer sat on the couch wearing a lacy white sundress and high heels. Her blonde hair fell in curls around her shoulders, and long golden earrings brushed against the spaghetti straps of her dress. She laughed at something her friend Ansley said, and her brown eyes gleamed. Most guys at school thought that Ansley was the hot one. She had curves and a wiggle-walk like Kim Kardashian. But Summer was Emma Watson. Cool, elegant, and unfortunately for me, untouchable. Unless you were her douchebag boyfriend, Zach.
But I wasn’t myself right now—Rolf Byrd the short but adorable star of every school play Poway High had staged for the past three years. I was Trouble, and I could climb into any lap I wanted. Not that I would of course, unless I was invited. I wasn’t a pervert and I knew the importance of consent. In my experience, though, consent was a lot easier to acquire when you weighed fourteen pounds.
Summer’s scent drifted over to me, rose shampoo and minty gum. When she crossed and uncrossed her legs I started to pant. The canine in me wanted to lick her ankles. The seventeen-year-old human in me fought to not let my dog senses take over.
Dory set me on the ground. “Don’t pee on anything,” she said sternly.
“Careful!” Rain bent down and slid her hands under my feet and belly. “He might get stepped on.” She lifted me up into the air and turned me to face her. Rain had brown eyes like her sister, fringed by thick lashes that were magnified by the red glasses she wore. “You’re such a cutie pie!” she said before pulling me to her shoulder like she was burping a baby.
I squirmed, trying not to step on something I shouldn’t. This was my future sister-in-law, after all.
“Rain, that’s not how you hold a dog. You’ll hurt his back,” said Summer.
“Oh my god, who brought a dog to the party?” Ansley asked.
“It’s Dory’s beagle,” said Rain as she carried me over to the couch. “Isn’t he adorable?”
“Is he a puppy?” Ansley asked.
“Nope. He’s a pocket beagle,” said Dory. She walked over to where the girls were sitting, but there was no room for her to sit down, so she perched on the couch’s arm next to Ansley.
“Can I hold him?” Summer asked with a huge smile on her face. “What’s his name?”
“Trouble,” Dory said. “Just be careful he doesn’t hump your leg.”
I’d make my sister pay for that remark, but right now I had more important things to deal with, like holding myself together so I didn’t contort back into my naked human form in Summer’s lap. Because I was in her lap now—sweet mercy, I was in her lap. It was soft, warm, and inviting, and I was the perfect fit. Summer’s long fingers stroked my fur and made my tail wag. My paws pushed against her dress and my claws caught on lace, giving me the traction I needed to nuzzle up against her stomach.
“What a handsome dog,” said Summer. “If I had a dog like this, I’d never put him down.”
“He’s a handful, all right,” said Dory.
“Does he sleep in bed with you?” asked Rain.
“No way.” Dory wrinkled her nose. “That would be gross.”
“I don’t think so.” Summer slid one hand all the way down my front and the other picked up my rear. She raised me up until I was inches from her lips. “If I had this little guy, I’d let him sleep right next to me.” Summer pressed her nose to mine and she puckered up. “How about a kiss?”
My tongue slipped out of my mouth involuntarily—I couldn’t help it. I’d dreamt of kissing Summer a million times, but never like this. Before I knew what was happening, Summer was Frenching me back. I had no idea she was the type of Static—a human who couldn’t shift— who kissed dogs on the mouth, but there she was, encouraging me to slip my tongue between her parted lips. It made me love her even more.
“Yuck!” Dory screeched. “That’s disgusting!”
“Me next,” said Rain.
“No!” Dory said. “Don’t kiss Trouble. You have no idea where his tongue has been.”
“Yeah,” said Ansley, “that’s nasty.”
Summer laughed and nestled me back down in her lap. “Well, Trouble doesn’t know where my tongue’s been lately, either. I was just kissing Zach a few minutes ago.”
Barf. The thought of that meathead slobbering over Summer made me want to growl.
“Dory,” called a voice from across the room. “You came!” Lenox stood in the corner holding a Red Bull. He wore ripped jeans, a pale-yellow shirt, and checkered Vans. I didn’t need my hound-dog senses to smell the Polo cologne he’d bathed in.
“Hey, Lenox.” Dory slid off the arm of the couch and propped her hand on one hip. “Cool party.”
He strode across the room and looked at her intently. “Can I get you a soda?”
Make sure you open the can yourself, I tried to say, but it came out as a bark.
“Settle down, Trouble. It’s just Lenox,” said Summer. “He’ll take good care of your girl.”
“You bet I will.” Lenox selected a lock of Dory’s hair and slid it behind her ear. Then he reached down and took her hand. “Let’s go to the kitchen and get you hooked up.”
I growled and tried to spring off of Summer’s lap.
“Oh no you don’t,” Summer said, holding me with a firm grip. “You’re my boy tonight.”
Shit. This was all types of confusing. It was definitely one of those ‘be careful what you wish for’ situations. Here I was, trapped in Summer’s arms, watching helplessly as Lenox led Dory into the kitchen. At least that room was likely to be crowded. If Lenox started mauling my sister, there’d be lots of people to intervene. Now that they were out of my line of sight, I would have needed cocker spaniel ears to keep track of Dory.
“So why’d you kiss Zach?” Ansley asked. “I thought you were going to dump his sorry ass.”
Summer’s hand froze on my fur for a moment, but then she started petting me again. “He said that he was only texting Candace because they were doing a group project in history.”
“And you believed him?” Ansley rolled her eyes. “How many times is he going to cheat on you before you stand up for yourself and walk away?”
“It’s not that simple,” said Summer. “And this time he didn’t cheat.”
“This time,” said Rain with a snort.
“Stay out of it,” Summer snapped.
I looked up at her and saw that irritation had made her more beautiful. Her cheeks were flushed red, and her eyes flashed fire. “Zach and I have been together since middle school. We go all the way back to eighth grade. There’s history between us that neither of you would understand.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ansley asked. Her off-the-shoulder sweater smelled like cats and perfume.
“You’ve never dated the same guy for two months, let alone five years,” said Summer, “and Rain’s—”
“I’m what?” Rain asked. “Inexperienced? Is that what you were going to say?”
“No.” Summer bit her lip. “I was going to say ‘choosy.’ You’re still waiting for Mr. Right.”
“Yeah, well, I’d rather wait for Mr. Right than settle for someone who only called me back when he felt like it.” Rain pushed her glasses up.
“Zach calls me back,” Summer protested.
I tensed in Summer’s lap. I smelled douchebag coming our way.
“If Zach calls you back regularly, then why do you always dive for your phone and answer on the first ring, like he’ll self-destruct if you make him wait longer than thirty seconds for you to pick up?”
“I do not do that.” Summer slouched. “I hope you don’t have a little sister, Trouble, because they can be incredibly annoying.”
I doggie-sighed and looked up at her with agreement.
“Hey, ladies. What’s up?” Zach swaggered into the room reeking of Cheetos and something else I couldn’t distinguish. He wore a tight-fitting Poway High baseball T-shirt and a backwards cap. Zach’s father was Ted Grant, the owner of a retirement home in Poway. Zach’s eyes roamed over all three girls on the couch before settling on me. “Where’d you get the rat?”
Summer giggled. “It’s not a rat; it’s a beagle.”
“Hopefully that puppy doesn’t piss all over the place.” Zach wedged himself in between Summer and Ansley and threw his arms around the back of the couch like he was claiming both girls.
“It’s a pocket beagle, not a puppy,” said Rain. “And his name’s Trouble.”
“Yeah?” Zach smacked the gum he was chewing. That was the other scent I hadn’t been able to pinpoint. Cinnamon mixed with dip—and not of the ranch variety. Zach was chewing tobacco. “Who brought a runt like that to the party?”
“It’s Dory’s dog,” said Summer. “Isn’t he the sweetest?”
“Dory Byrd? I just saw her and Lenox go upstairs to his room.” Zach wiggled his eyebrows. “Lenox said they were doing homework.”
I jumped out of Summer’s lap so fast, I flopped on the floor. My nose hit the carpet, hunting for Dory’s trail.
“Trouble!” Summer called after me.
“Let him go,” said Rain. “He must have heard Dory’s name.”
Dust, body odor, and a whole household of smells infiltrated my nostrils. I closed off the human part of my brain and concentrated intently. I could just make it out, that faint smell of Dory that she’d always carried with her, ever since she’d been a baby. It was sunshine and cactus mixed together. The red clay dirt of our backyard. The manzanita that grew in the canyons. Dory smelled like home.
I tracked her scent to the kitchen and through a formal dining room. I found Lenox’s trail right along with it, the Polo cologne assaulting me so hard, I felt nauseous. I climbed the stairs, my tiny legs bounding up them. The bedroom door was in sight, and thankfully it was ajar, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to open it.
“Lenox.” Dory’s breathy voice carried through the crack in the door. “You are amazing. This is so big. I can’t believe you carry it around with you every day.”
I howled with anger and burst into the room. Dory was sitting on a four-poster bed, and Lenox was right in front of her. I didn’t stop to think. I leapt through the air as high as I could and bit that jerk on the ass. My teeth sank through denim but weren’t strong enough to reach skin.
“What the hell!” Lenox spun around to see what had got him, and I swung around with him, hanging on by the jaw.
“Trouble! Let him go!” Dory screeched. “Lenox was just showing me his math book.” She grabbed me by the middle and yanked me off of him. “I’m so sorry, Lenox. Are you okay?”
Lenox looked back at his ass. “He didn’t break the skin. All I see is dog slobber.”
Dog slobber? That was a lie! I bit through denim, I growled, and Dory shushed me.
“I better go.” Dory picked up a folder off the bed. “Thank you for sharing your AP European history notes with me. It’s really nice of you.”
“You don’t have to go,” Lenox pleaded. “I don’t mind psycho dogs. You should see Summer’s Shih Tzu. Now that animal is a piece of work.” He sat down on the bed and patted the seat next to him. “Stay? And we can just talk?”
“I’d love to, but…” The scent of Dory’s sweat prickled at my nostrils. “Maybe another time. It’s almost my curfew.”
“Do you need a ride home?”
Dory giggled. “You’d leave your own party to drive me?”
“Sure.” Lenox stood up and swiped his keys off his desk. “It’s not a big deal. I haven’t had one drop of liquor.”
“Thanks,” Dory said. “But my brother is picking me up. We agreed to meet at 10:45.”
“Rolf? You should bring him next time. I loved watching him in Oklahoma.”
“Thanks. I’ll tell him you said that,” said Dory.
“Let me at least walk you to the door.” Lenox placed his hand on the small of Dory’s back and kept it there the entire trip downstairs. “See you at school on Monday?” he asked when they stood by the front door.
“Yeah,” said Dory, smiling. “That would be great.” She kept that smile on her face the entire way back to the car. But when we reached my pile of clothes she dropped me on the ground and let me have it. “I hate you right now!” Dory said through gritted teeth. She spun on her heel so I could have privacy while I transformed.
“So what if I bit him?” I pulled on my boxers and jeans and slid into my shirt. “You don’t really believe Lenox only wanted to talk to you?” I unlocked the door for her and hustled over to the driver’s side.
“No,” said Dory, “I don’t. I was hoping that Lenox wanted to kiss me, but that wasn’t going to happen when my brother was biting him on the butt, now was it?”
“Kissing. Yeah, right.” I turned the key in the ignition. “Guys like Lenox wouldn’t stop with one kiss.”
“He’s student council president, not an animal!”
“Hey,” I said, “there’s no need to sling insults.”
“You don’t know Lenox; you just think you do.”
“I know who he hangs out with, and that’s all I need to know.”
“You’re such a jerk, Rolf. Here you go off on me for talking with Lenox about homework when you were down stairs tonguing someone else’s girlfriend.”
“I was not ‘tonguing’ Summer.”
“It looked French to me. Maybe you should have been a poodle.”
“Shut up, Dory.”
We drove the rest of the way home to Poway in silence, neither of us willing to concede that the other had a point. The sky was inky black and covered in stars. The air was chilly, the heat from the October day gone. We passed housing development after housing development, each one fancier than the last. Finally, we reached Old Poway, where the homes were modest and spoke of a different era. Our house was on the top of a canyon surrounded by three acres of brush. It was the perfect place for shifters because I could change shapes in the front yard unnoticed by neighbors. Our house was also a mile away—as the crow flies—from my Grandma and Granddad Byrd’s estate.
I parked the car in the driveway and shut the car door harder than I’d intended. Dory slammed her door with such force that I cringed. The porchlight was on, and we both stomped towards the house. Then we stopped, right in our tracks, too horrified to move.
On the front steps, pooled in blood, were two dozen dead ravens.