At some point, during the early morning, my exhausted mind succumbed to a dreamless slumber.
I didn't hear Dad calling me from the doorway, or him stalking into my room to shake my shoulder. It was the shock of the cold liquid drenching me that ripped me from my serene-like state.
"Huh? Dad! What the hell?" I spluttered, aghast.
He gave a gruff 'hmph' scowling down at me, clutching an empty glass in his hand. "I've been calling you for the past twenty minutes," he complained.
"Sorry," I grumbled, rolling out of bed.
"We leave in ten," he mentioned, widening his eyes seriously before stalking out of the room.
I rolled to sit on the edge of my bed, hearing the front door open and Dad's Jeep engine roar to life. The guy had zero patience, and I knew better than to keep him waiting. After hurrying into the bathroom to do by business, I grabbed a hands and face wash, scrubbed my teeth, then dressed quickly. Mom was still sound asleep when we left.
"First things first," Dad mumbled as we were nearing the center of town. "You need fuel in that belly of yours." He glanced down at me. "Have you been skipping meals? You're skin and bone, boy."
It took me a while to figure out what to say to him. As I thought, my eyes fixated on the passing scenery. One side of town was being restored back to its former glory and resembled a construction site. The old town hall was having a major overhaul. There was scaffolding all around the clock tower. Workers were shoveling sand and cement into big yellow mixers, making the necessary preparations before they began repointing all the century-old brickwork.
The skilled craftsmanship of our community was out on display in both bricks and mortar and the wooden structures that had been expertly carved and constructed by hand. My eyes flared wide with all the wonder and intrigue of a child's ambition. All I ever wanted was to use these hands to create something extraordinary, not to cause pain and destruction. I wish Dad could see that.
"A boy your age should be cleaning out the kitchen. I was twice your build at your age. You sure as hell don't look like much," he continued the lecture in his usual gruff tone.
This time, I answered. "There's never anything in the kitchen, Dad. Mrs. Bennett knows, and she's been feeding me. She started making me breakfast and packing my lunch for school," I told him all that he ought to know. I saw how his fingers gripped the steering wheel, turning his knuckles white. He was the provider of the family. It was only right that he knew just how far his hard earned money went.
Dad had side-lines to pay for his drinking habit. Whether it be from gambling or busting it out in the cage. As far as he knew, the full pay checks he was sending home every month were being used to run the household. It mitigated some of the guilt he felt, for all the time he spent away from home.
"What?" He sounded almost disgusted but the shock in his voice masked it.
He glanced back down at me, horrified. "Your mom hasn't been feeding you?"
When I shook my head, a series of profanities spewed from his mouth.
"I didn't know that, son," Dad spoke in all honesty. "Rest assured, things are gonna start changing or so help me, Goddess!"
"It's better when you're home," I told him. "Mom's different when you're around."
Dad's shoulders drooped with a heavy sigh. "Your momma's complicated, son. She's fine for a week or two, but then she's climbing the walls." He shook whatever thoughts away, then shot me a rueful smile. Those were rare. It meant that he was sorry. I knew that. But it also meant that he would be leaving again soon, and that sucked.
"You know I have to go to work." He spared me the sugar-coated version that he used to give to me when I was a little younger. Now he chose to cut straight to the point. "The bills don't pay themselves. I gotta keep a roof over our heads and by Christ, I oughta be putting food in your belly. It fucks me off to high heaven, hearing that my own boy ain't bein' taken care of. This is why I gotta train you up good. You gotta hold the fort while I'm gone. In my absence, you're the man of the house. You gotta put your momma straight and take for none of her shit, do you hear?"
"Yes, sir," I replied, relieved that he cared so much. It was all the reassurance I needed to hear.
"Let me worry about fixing all of your momma's mess before I leave. We'll go eat breakfast first, then we'll begin your training," he sounded exhausted, like this was a huge dent in his pride.
Telling Dad was the right thing to do, even though he would probably drink himself into a coma later tonight. Better he heard it now than when our house gets repossessed. At least he could set right any damage that may have incurred through Mom not paying bills. It might mean a few extra nights in the cage, but I knew I could count on Dad to pull us straight.
We got breakfast to go, then drove into Hawcroft, straight to the cage. Everything looked different in broad daylight. Less intimidating and much more relaxed. We left the Jeep parked up by the marina, then headed through the back streets of the town.
Even in the picturesque lakeside town of Hawcroft, there were sketchy areas hidden from view. Beyond the cute little tea rooms and quaint little boutiques was the underbelly of Satan himself. Rundown buildings stood side by side like a mouth full of broken teeth. Garbage cans overflowed onto the sidewalks, and gangs stood around menacingly, looking to start trouble.
Dad steered me through the narrow streets, down a flight of uneven concrete steps with graffitied walls on either side. The scent of stale piss carried on the air, making it unpleasant to inhale. The grim sight of hypodermic needles laying on the ground brought a whole other level of unsanitary. We were walking amongst the filth. This was the smell of desperation and hopelessness. No place for anyone to be. Let alone me.
"Stay close to me, Kian," Dad warned, as we came out onto a low-level street. Rough-looking guys wearing leather waistcoats, jeans, and heavy boots, stood around a row of parked motorcycles. The ink up their arms could rival the tags along the walls, leaving not a trace of bare skin to be seen.
They turned in our direction as we approached, ending their conversation abruptly. Dad flicked the butt of his cigarette, then gripped the top of my arm, pulling me along to match his strides. I saw for myself the dangers all around us, but next to him, I knew that I was safe.
We arrived at the old abandoned warehouse that stood above the cage. Dad knocked on the heavy Iron door in some secret code, then waited.
There was a scraping of metal, then a strange pair of eyes appeared behind the open slit in the door.
"State your name and your business here," a male voice commanded in a blunt, gruff tone.
"Razor, and I brought my boy for the inauguration," Dad replied.
The viewing hole was slammed shut, and a moment later, the door was pulled open. "Go on through," the same guy spoke. He had a Hispanic accent and was dark and exotic with cat-like slits for pupils, encased in pools of amber.
"Is he a..." I whispered to Dad.
"Shh, Kian, yes, he's a cat shifter," Dad answered, keeping his voice low. "Mind your manners," he reprimanded.
"I've never seen one before," I chatted excitedly.
That was the truth, I hadn't. From what I had learned at school about the cat community was that their numbers were few. They were highly religious, worshipping the Moon Goddess faith the same as a Christian devotes themselves to their God. Bears were more relaxed when it came to our beliefs. We were predominantly atheists, choosing to believe in what we could see and touch. Wolves worshipped the Goddess too but were not as fanatical as the cats. The fox shifter community worshipped money and not much else. I couldn't blame them. Given half a chance, I think I would too.
"What's a cat shifter doing in a place like this? I thought they were against gambling?" I questioned, looking up to my father with inquisitive eyes.
Dad answered me, like any father feeding knowledge into the innocent mind of his young offspring, "Faith doesn't put food in your belly, son. A man's gotta eat. The cats have it worse than most. Sure, they pool their resources together and ration it out fairly. But where there's easy money to be made, men turn a blind eye to faith and focus on a fist full of green," he answered, patting my shoulder.
We walked down a dingy industrial staircase that spiraled down into Satan's asshole. That was how it looked from the top, peering down the center cavity, right down to the bottom level. The hazy red lighting from the room beneath filtered out through the doorway like the fiery pits of hell. Raised voices and laughter could be heard as well as the sickening sound of flesh colliding against flesh.
"You okay, son?" Dad inquired, probably noticing me stiffen.
"Yes, Dad," I stammered, a little unsure. "I mean, I think so."
He ruffled my hair. "I got you, alright?" He reassured. "You may not think so now but you'll thank me for this someday. Times are changing, Kian. You gotta be prepared to defend yourself at all costs. I may not always be around to defend you. Hunters are coming into these parts thick and fast. You have to be prepared for a surprise attack," he forewarned.
We reached the lower level, the home of the Cage. The coppery smell of blood and sweat filled my nostrils, almost causing me to gag. Bodies stood around me as tall as my old man, obscuring my view. Dad muscled his way through, pushing past with his broad shoulders with me in hot pursuit. Finally, he stopped where he needed to be, shaking hands with a couple of guys I didn't recognize.
"Hey, Razor, I see you brought your boy," one of the shady looking guys spoke.
Right from the get-go, I pegged him as a hustler. The kind of guy who had the gift of the gab and enough confidence to power a rocket ship to the moon. I bet if he told folks he had shook hands with the Goddess herself, they'd believe him.
Dad pulled me in front of him, bringing his shovel-sized hands down on my shoulders. I felt my knees give way with the impact. "Sure did, Chance," Dad answered with a distinct air of pride.
It figures a guy like him was named Chance. I could tell by the fickle look in his eyes that he was a walking probability. I waited for him to speak as his eyes flashed down to me in a twisted game of 'What the fuck does he want? Roulette'.
He must've sensed the distrust, seeping through my narrowed eyes and he breathed out a chuckle. "The resemblance is uncanny, Razor," he remarked, grinning up at Dad.
Dad nudged my head from side to side as he affectionately scruffed up my hair. "He's gonna be the best there ever was. Even greater than me and his grandpappy."
Metaphoric dollar signs lit up Chance's eyes. He clicked his tongue and some heavily made-up chick, wearing the smallest pair of denim cut-off shorts, a glitzy bra top, and silver heeled sandals strutted over and planted a kiss to his cheek.
"What do you want, Chance?" She asked, in a voice that was sweet but far from innocent.
"Lexi, this is Razor's boy..." He paused, waiting for me to give my name.
I scowled. "Kian."
Chance flashed me a grin. "We'll have to change that, but it'll do for now." He turned to the woman, whose blue eyes raked up and down me with something that resembled pity.
She shook whatever thoughts she had away, giving a prolonged blink, then popped her gum, sucking it back inside her glossy red lips then smoothed down her peroxide blonde hair. "You want it cut short to the scalp like the others?" She cocked a questioning brow to Chance.
"Yeah, make it quick. We don't have all morning," he jerked his head, signaling for her to hurry her ass along.
She rolled her eyes, holding out her hand for me to grasp like I was some five-year-old. I ignored the gesture and walked alongside her.
"You're gonna be a handful around here, I can tell," she commented, dryly.
My behavior was coming off as rude, but the truth was... I was scared shitless. It was a mask I wore like a suit of armor. This was Kian Jones shutting down and letting fuck knows what take over the driver's seat. Something dark manifesting inside me was Scratching at the door and itching to get out.