The sound of crashing waves slowly intruded on my senses, almost overshadowing the strident call of the seagulls. A gentle warmth permeated my skin and combined with the soothing noise of the ocean to fill my body with a pleasant lethargy.
Cracking open my eyes, I could see the glorious azure sea straight ahead, stretching as far as the horizon and gently lapping at the powdery white sand that lay beneath me. The sky was cloudless and brilliantly blue, the sun high and the temperature perfectly balanced with the cooling breeze that traveled off the water, playing with my hair, causing the brunette locks to dance across my shoulders.
Above me and slightly to the side, a red and yellow beach umbrella rose up, creating shade for the wicker table next to my lounger. Delicious looking drinks, in glasses dewed with condensation, sat on the table, begging to be sipped. Looking down at myself, I noticed the modest black bikini covering me, my legs silky and hair free, my toenails painted a bright candy apple red and I could feel the weight of the sunglasses resting on my nose.
My last recollection had been of Gabe, of standing in his kitchen, his concerned gaze on my face. I remembered my anxiety, panic, and rage. I remember looking down. My thoughts skittered away from the memory.
After that, there was nothing. Considering I had no memory of how I came to be sitting on the beach in the middle of an apparently perfect day, I probably should’ve been more alarmed. But the calm, soothing sound of the ocean seemed almost hypnotic, making it impossible to worry.
Movement brought my attention to the left and I looked past the wicker table to see a lounger that mirrored my own. And there I saw me. At least I thought it was me, I’d only seen myself in the mirror once since I’d lost all my earlier memories, but I was pretty sure it was me. Frowning, I studied the other me, sitting across the table. The figure opposite had the same brown hair resting just below her shoulders, her long slender body also covered in a black bikini, though was I mistaken or did there seem to be a bit more cleavage on the other side of the table? The figure couldn’t be me though, not a reflection anyway. The other woman relaxed back in the chair, arms thrown lazily above her head, a slight smile gracing her face. She looked happy, enjoying the moment in the sun, and I was pretty sure I had nothing but confusion written across my own face. I sat upright in the chair.
“What am I doing here?” Probably should’ve been weird that I was talking to myself, at least another physical being that was me, but hey who didn’t talk to themselves once in a while?
“So you’re awake, huh? I thought you were going to be out forever.” It was weird hearing my voice come from the woman across the table, odder still to watch myself stretch, turning to the side to face me. You think it sounds confusing? Try living it. The other me tilted her head and smiled at me. “We love the beach, you know that?”
“Ah, no,” I responded, bemused. “There seems to be a lot of data missing up here,” I said, tapping my temple, referring to my memory loss.
“Yeah,” she grimaced ruefully. “But for the moment, that’s for the best.”
When she didn’t volunteer anything more I raised an eyebrow. “Care to explain that?”
Sighing, she/I propped her/our head on her/my hand. Damn it, I was getting dizzy.
“You’re going to have enough to deal with learning who you are now,” the other me said, waving the hand that wasn’t holding her head, gesturing towards my own hands.
“Huh,” I said, also looking down at the polished and manicured nails. This was not what my hands had looked like the last time I’d studied them. “Yeah, you may have a point.”
She simply smiled and rolled over onto her back, stretching out again to let the warming rays of the sun do their work.
But my curiosity wasn’t sated just yet.
“So, will I ever have the answers? Will I ever remember who I was?” Since I’d woken in that hospital room with some form of amnesia, I’d struggled constantly for the return of my memories.
“When you’re ready.” She rolled her head to the side, her eyes hidden by dark glasses that I’d bet matched mine. “But I’d focus more on learning who you are now, instead of who you were before. Because like it or not, those two are almost mutually exclusive. You’ve got a long road ahead of you. It’s going to be hard. Only you can decide how you’re gonna play the hand you’ve been dealt.”
That was not what I wanted to hear, though why I was putting so much stock in the words of the woman who could possibly be myself, I didn’t know. Mulling over the minimal information I’d been given, I lay back to enjoy the sun as well.
Essentially, I was a new person. Maybe the other me was right. Maybe it would be easier to learn to deal with the future if I had no memory of the past. What if the person I remembered being was the total opposite of the person I was becoming?
With my new name, Emma, the one I’d borrowed as I couldn’t remember my own, my life was being remade; not just because of the memory loss, but because what had been done to me made it necessary. I already struggled with the changes I faced, how much harder would it be to fight my natural reticence if it were compounded by my past prejudices?
The question was, could I stand not knowing? Did I have it in me to just accept that all I’d been before was lost and I could only move forward?
Gah, it was all so freaking opaque. I felt like I was doing a jigsaw puzzle, with half the pieces missing and no picture to guide me.
“Can’t I just stay like this forever?” The calm lassitude invading every inch of me took the edge off my concerns. Something told me my questions were urgent and vital to know, but with the sound of the water, ebbing and flowing, the sense of peace infusing my consciousness was stronger. I didn’t want to go anywhere I couldn’t feel this calm. “It seems like a pretty cool place here.”
The other me laughed, tossing her head back in uninhibited abandon. “Yeah, it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here.” She/I turned to face me. “Might get a bit boring after a while. Needs some hot, half-naked guys playing volleyball. Then I might consider staying.”
Well, that was certainly an idea.
“So, what happens now?”
“You go back to the real world and you deal. How you do that is up to you. But I can tell you, you’re not alone. Don’t fuck it up by trying to be too independent.”
“Yeah,” I brooded, ignoring her less than stellar opinion of my character, thinking of Gabe. “Will I see you again?”
Facing me once more with a gentle smile, I inexplicably felt an incredible, overwhelming loss.
“Maybe. If you need me.”
Gasping, I bolted upright, bringing my hands up in front of my face. As expected, there were eight fingers and two thumbs, all with ripped and chipped nails, overwhelming in their normalness. Definitely not the hands that I’d looked at just before I’d lost consciousness.
“Gabe!” Laura called and I looked past my hands to find that I was a) once again in bed and b) Laura had taken up her usual post beside it. Didn’t this woman work?
“I work from home,” she said turning back to frown at me. Shit, had I said that out loud?
Gabe came barrelling into the room and paused when he saw me awake, giving me the chance to look at him. His dark hair disheveled and his lower face was darkened with several days growth of beard. There were also bags under his concerned, blue eyes. Dealing with the disruption to his life caused by my arrival had obviously put Gabe through a lot of stress, something I probably should remember next time I was being a raving bitch to him. Despite how exhausted he looked, a tug of overwhelming attraction towards him clenched things lower in my body. Why was I so drawn to this man?
“Em,” he sighed, and came around to sit on the bed, opposite from Laura, facing me.
“You know, this is becoming a bad habit,” I said in a failed effort to lighten the mood. It seemed like I was always waking up in bed with one, or both, of them, watching over me with concern.
The siblings shared a glance, but other than that didn’t acknowledge my attempt at humor, instead continued to look at me, probably wondering how I was going to react next. It’s not like I had a very good track record with rational behavior since I’d been here, so I couldn’t really blame them for waiting for the other hysterical shoe to drop.
When the silence became oppressive, I realized I couldn’t stall any longer and finally addressed the elephant in the room. “So. Claws. Pretty weird, huh? Is that normal?”
I was, of course, referring to the moment in the kitchen earlier, after they’d revealed to me that werewolves, or shifters, did in fact exist, and through some freaky genetic experiments, I too was now the proud owner of a supernatural ability.
Naturally, I took the news exceptionally well; which is to say I freaked the fuck out and had a full-blown panic attack, culminating in some unexpected body changes and a sudden loss of consciousness. Followed by a strange dream about drinks with myself on the beach. What the hell had that been all about?
Gabe and Laura exchanged another look, and my sense of foreboding told me I wasn’t going to like what they were going to say next.
“Yeah, umm, no, not really,” said Laura.
Sighing, I lay back on the pillows. Great, so werewolves were real, but growing claws out of the top of human fingers was weird. That seemed unfair. The siblings sat, watching as I processed. It was understandable why they weren’t volunteering any new information, considering how badly I’d handled it last time they’d tried. Bracing myself with another deep breath, I nodded.
“Okay. I’m ready to listen now. I know you’ve tried to explain it to me before, I’m sorry I made it so hard. I’m going to sit here in silence and eat my humble pie while you teach me Werewolves: 101.”
To their credit, neither of them started the tutorial with ‘I told you so!’ which was very mature of them. Though it’s possible they were thinking it.
Laura went first. “Well, I think James probably gave you the broadest overview of our race. We’re born, not bitten. Some of us can change, some can’t, there’s no rhyme or reason as to who gets the ability and who doesn’t.” Was I detecting a slight bitterness in her tone? Was Laura not a full werewolf?
Gabe gave Laura an unreadable look but took over the explanation. “For those of us that can change, it’s a complete shift. You’re either a wolf or a human, there’s no in-between. It’s physically impossible.” He said the last bit with a degree of disbelief in his voice.
“Oh, and turning into a wolf isn’t a stretch?” Despite my assurances that I’d sit quietly as they explained, there was no stopping my smart ass comment
Gabe raised an eyebrow, and I ducked my head, raising my hands in surrender. “Sorry, sorry. Apparently, I have a sarcasm problem. Please continue.”
“As I was saying,” Gabe went on with a pointed tone, “the change is instantaneous. There’s none of this breaking bone and popping joints. We go from human to wolf, or vice versa, in a moment. There’s no point along the way that we could stop and hold a partial shift. We have two separate and distinct forms, not one form that morphs and changes.”
God, I was more confused than ever. “What the hell happened to me, then? I’m pretty sure I wasn’t furry in the kitchen, but I definitely had claws.” It was terrifying to say out loud. Forget the fact that everyone had seen, forming the words just made it more real. In the kitchen, as I’d panicked and looked for a way out, my hands had shifted, growing black claws from my fingertips.
“That’s not all that changed.” Laura’s soft words hit me like bullets.
“What? What else changed?”
“Your eyes,” Gabe answered.
“My eyes? How?” Panic was starting to leak into my voice.
“Well,” she hedged, shifting uncomfortably. “They kinda turned gold. Like a wolf’s eyes.” She grimaced as if she’d just given me bad news. Hell, maybe she had. “Did you notice if your vision was clearer?”
Shaking my head, I tried to make sense of the murky memories of my earlier panic attack. “Shit, I don’t know. Maybe? I wasn’t really focusing.” I pondered the info for a moment. “So you’re saying my hands and eyes changed, but nothing else?” They both nodded their agreement. “And this is weird?”
Gabe snorted. “Weird? It’s unprecedented. Never heard of.”
Words slipped from my mouth before my brain could stop me. “Oh really? Is that what unprecedented means? Wow, thank goodness you took the time to explain that one to me.” Okay, so not only did I have a sarcasm addiction, apparently it was my number one go-to coping mechanism.
“Children! Timeout!” Laura slashed a hand between us as if we’d been about to start brawling. Hey, that could be kind of fun. If it was the naked variety, then maybe… Sadly Laura’s voice cut into the nude wrestling fantasy before it started getting really good. “Let’s stop sniping at each other and figure out what we’re going to do.”
Gabe shot Laura an expression that plainly said ‘Well, duh’ and I rolled my eyes. It was a good thing he was so damned attractive because he was sure turning out to be one obnoxious SOB. Then again, he was probably thinking the same thing about me. The obnoxious part, not the attractive part. Although it would be nice if he did find me attractive. Stupid, I know, there were so many things to be more concerned about than whether Gabe liked the way I looked, but there it was. I wanted him to think I was pretty. I wanted him to be as desperately attracted to me as I was to him
Gabe spoke slowly, addressing his sister as if talking to a child, unaware of my mental detour of lust. “It’s simple, Laura. Emma stays here with us. We protect her. What’s to figure out?”
Damn. I shook my head. Could he really be that oblivious, that he didn’t hear how overbearing and condescending his statement was? Laura clearly agreed, shooting him an incredulous look.
“That’s it? We found her so we keep her? She’s not some lost puppy, Gabe! She’s a fully grown woman, who most likely has a life of her own out there waiting for her memory to return. What about Emma’s family, huh? Don’t you think there might be people out there who are missing her? Someone who’s desperate for some news, to know whether she’s alive and okay? Jeez, you can be such an idiot sometimes,” she said, her disgust clear.
“Hey, I never said she was a lost puppy,” Gabe responded. “For your information, I’ve already contacted Davis to get him to start searching through the missing person’s reports next time he’s on duty, to see if there’s anyone out there looking for her. But it’s not like we can pat her on the head and send her out into the world to deal with her new abilities with no knowledge or training. It only makes sense that Em stays here with us, where she can be protected while we all learn how to deal with the changes. And I’m not an idiot. I wasn’t the one who dropped out of college, was I?”
Choking on my laughter, my hand crept up to cover my smile. It seemed I’d been forgotten in the heat of what I was guessing was a long-standing family argument.
“You rat bastard, how long are you going to keep throwing that in my face? You know why I came home and it had nothing to do with not being able to cut it academically!”
“Mum and Dad have been dead for four years, Laura,” Gabe retorted hotly. “How long are you going to stay here hiding from the real world, huh? You’re doing a job you’re grossly overqualified for. It’s about time you went back to school and finished your degree. You can’t hide behind grief any longer. It’s not fair to Mum and Dad’s memory.”
Laura sucked in a breath and rocked back as if she’d been hit, which she kind of had been. Using someone’s dead parents against them was a pretty crappy thing to do. I may not have any memories, but even I knew that. No longer wanting to laugh at a sibling squabble, I felt like an intruder in a deeply personal issue.
“That was a low blow, Gabe,” Laura said in a ragged tone. “And now is not the time or place to get into this. We’re here to help Emma, not debate our issues.”
“Hey, you’re the one that started this train to crazy town. I was just dumb enough to buy a ticket. Em’s safety is my priority right now and my plan is the best thing for her. Do you have a better idea? If so, let’s hear it.” The challenge in his tone was the breaking point for my patience.
“Hey,’ I said loudly, gaining their attention. “Have either of you actually considered asking ‘her’ what ‘her’ opinion is?” Okay, yes, I did use my fingers to do air quotes as I said the word ‘her’. Tacky, but I was making a point.
Laura got it and had the decency to look shamefaced about the incident. Gabe, however, raised an eyebrow.
“Do you have somewhere else to be?” His tone held a distinct undercurrent of snideness.
“Number one,” I said holding up a finger, “lose the attitude. I don’t know what crawled up your ass, but you’re being a dick and it’s counterproductive.” I saw Laura smile out of the corner of my eye, but kept my attention focused on Gabe. “Number two, I presume I’m not a prisoner here?”
Gabe looked confused. “No. You know you’re not, but where on earth are you going to go?”
“Not the point,” I said. “Do I need help? Yes. Do I have to take it from you? Not if you keep being a dick.”
Gabe started to smirk.
Seeing where his thoughts were going from the expression on his face, I held up a hand. “So help me god, Gabe, if you make one joke about me loving your dick if I got to know it, you’ll be missing your beloved appendage, because I’m gonna test out my new superpowers, and it’s a handy target.” Okay, truthfully, given the attraction I felt to the man, I was pretty sure I probably would be fond of his dick if I ever got to meet it, but I was in no mood for smutty jokes or flirting.
This time Laura snorted and Gabe’s expression changed to offended. Too damn bad. I was going to make him understand my position even if I had to insult everything he held dear. My gaze was intense as I met his eyes and continued.
“I want to get this clear right from the very start, so there are no misunderstandings. I recognize that I’m not at my full potential because of the number of things I don’t currently know. But I’m not an invalid or a child, and I will not stand to be treated like one. I will make my own decisions, based on my own judgments. If you don’t like that, then you either live with it or tell me to leave. Because I’m not going to have you dictating exactly how things will be from here on out.” I looked at both Gabe and Laura, so they could both see the intent on my face.
“Now if you want to have a serious discussion where we can all make suggestions and decide on our plan of attack, then I’m for it. The only thing I’ll ask, for the love of all that is holy, can we please move to another room? I’m starting to feel like I’m gonna to break out in bed sores at any moment. If you’re not interested in those terms then say the word and I’ll get out of your hair.”
There was silence as they contemplated my ultimatum. Then Gabe rolled his eyes and heaved a put-upon sigh.
“Jeez, are you always this much of a pain in the ass?”
Screwing up my face at the stupidity of the question, I looked at him as if he were an idiot. “How the hell would I know? Suffering from memory loss here, you big jerk! Are you always this much of an insensitive smart ass?”
“Actually, no,” Laura answered before Gabe could respond. “He’s usually pretty quiet and reserved. This is something new and improved since you came along.”
Great. “Well skippy for me then,” I muttered and Gabe just grinned. The muffled ringing of a phone sounded and Gabe reached into his back pocket, pulling out a phone. A quick glance at the screen and he grimaced slightly.
“This is work, sorry, I’ve gotta take it. Meet you in the living room?” Without waiting for a response, he pushed off the bed, answering the call with a deep, authoritative “Gabe speaking.” He must’ve been using his professional tone.
Laura and I watched as he left the room. As his voice faded down the hall, Laura turned back to me with a wary expression.
“What?” I asked defensively.
“I meant what I just said. Usually, Gabe is completely self-controlled, serious to the point of boring.” She shook her head in disbelief. “I’ve never seen him so…” she trailed off.
“Immature?” I supplied helpfully.
“I was going to say playful, but yeah, immature works better.” She glanced at the door her brother had just exited. “I’m just hoping this isn’t a permanent change.”
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