He reached out for me, but I sidestepped back onto the road, then started down the quarter-mile lane to the house. Liam followed. A breeze of cool, dry night airlifted a tendril of hair from my neck, and with it came a dusting of scents--the sharp tang of cedar, the faint perfume of apple blossoms, and the teasing smell of long-devoured dinner.
Each smell loosened my tense muscles.
I shook myself, throwing off the feeling, and forced myself to keep my eyes on the road, concentrating on doing nothing, not talking to Liam, not smelling anything, not looking left or right. I didn dare ask Liam what was going on.
That would mean engaging him in conversation, which would imply that I wanted to talk to him. With Liam, even the simplest overtures were dangerous. As much as I wanted to know what was happening, Id have to hear it from Alfred.
When I reached the house, I paused at the door and looked up. The Chavez manor seemed not to loom over me, but to lean back, expectant. The welcome was there, but muted, waiting for me to make the first move.
So very much like its owner. I touched one of the cool stones and felt a rush of memory leap out to greet me. Pulling away, I flung open the door, threw my overnight bag to the floor, and headed for the study, expecting to find Alfred reading by the fireplace. He was always there when I came home, not waiting at the gate like Liam, but waiting nonetheless.
The room was empty. Stacks of Liams anthropology magazines and research publications covered the couch and desk. The main phone rested on the desk and appeared to be intact and plugged in.
"I called," I said. "Why wasn anyone here?"
"We were here," Liam
said. "Around, anyway. You should have left a message."
"I did. Two hours ago."
"Well, that explains it. Ive been out by the gate all day waiting for you, and you know Al never checks the machine."
I didn ask how Liam knew I was coming back today when I hadn left a message. Nor did I question why hed spent the entire day sitting at the gate. Liams behavior couldn be measured by human standards of normalcy ... or by any standards of normalcy at all.
"So where is he?" I asked.
"Dunno. I haven seen him since he brought out my dinner a few hours ago. He must have gone out."
I didn need to check the garage for Alfreds car to know Liam didn mean hed gone out in the usual sense. Common human phrases took on new meanings at Vine-Valley. Going out meant hed gone for a run--and that didn mean hed gone jogging.
Did Alfred expect me to fly all the way here, then wait at his convenience? Of course, he did. Was it punishment for ignoring his summons? Part of me wished I could accuse him of that, but Alfred was never petty. If hed planned a run for tonight, hed have gone, regardless of whether I was coming or not.
A sliver of hurt ran through my anger, but I tried to disown it. Did I expect Alfred to be waiting for me like Liam? Of course not. Didn expect it and didn care about it. Really. I was pissed off, nothing more. Two could play this game. Alfred valued his privacy when he ran. So what was I going to do? Invade that privacy, of course. Alfred may never be petty, but I sure as hell could be.
"Out?" I said. "Well then, Ill just have to find him."
I swerved to pass Liam, heading for the door. He stepped in front of me.
"Hell be back soon. Sit down and well--"
I sidestepped Liam on my way to the rear hall and the half-open back door. Liam followed at my heels, keeping pace a step behind. I walked through the walled garden to the path leading into the forest.
The wood-chip path crunched underfoot. From beyond, the night smells began to sift in burning leaves, distant cattle, wet soil--myriad inviting scents. Somewhere in the distance, a mouse shrieked as an owl snatched it from the forest floor.
I kept walking. Within fifty feet the trail dwindled to a thin path of trodden grass, then disappeared into the undergrowth. I paused and sniffed the air. Nothing. No scent, no sound, no sign of Alfred. At that moment, I realized I heard no sound at all, not even the clomp of Liams footsteps behind me. I turned and saw only trees.
"Liam!" I shouted.
A moment later the reply came back in a crashing of distant bushes. He was off to warn Alfred. I slammed my hand into the nearest tree trunk. Had I expected Liam to let me intrude on Alfreds privacy that easily? If so, Id forgotten a few things in the past year.
I pushed through the trees. Twigs lashed at my face and vines grabbed my feet. I stumbled forward, feeling huge, clumsy, and most unwelcome out here. The path wasn made for people. I didn stand a chance of heading off Liam like this, so I found a clearing and prepared for the Change.
My Change was rushed, making it awkward and torturous and afterward, I had to rest, panting on the ground. As I got to my feet, I closed my eyes and inhaled the smell of Vine Valley. A shiver of elation started in my paws, raced up my legs, and quivered through my entire body.
In its wake, it left an indescribable blend of excitement and calm that made me want to tear through the forest and collapse in blissful peace at the same time. I was home. As a human, I could deny that Vine-Valley
was my home, that the people here were my Pack, that the woods here were anything more than a patch of someone elses land. But as a wolf in Vine-Valleys forest, one chorus trumpeted through my head.
This forest was mine. It was Pack territory and therefore it was mine. Mine to run in and hunt in and play in without fear of partying teenagers, overeager hunters, or rabid foxes and raccoons. No discarded sofas to block my path, no rusty cans to slice open my paws, no stinking garbage bags to foul the air I breathed, or dumped chemicals to pollute the water I drank.
This wasn some patch of woods claimed for an hour or two. This was five hundred acres of forest, every acre crisscrossed with familiar paths and stocked with rabbits and deer, a smorgasbord supplied for my pleasure. My pleasure. I downed huge gulps of air. Mine. I darted out of the thicket to the well-worn path. Mine.
I rubbed against an oak tree, feeling the bark scratch and pull away tickling clumps of dead fur. Mine. The ground shuddered in three low vibrations--a rabbit thumping somewhere to my left. Mine. My legs ached to run, to rediscover the intricate world of my forest. Somewhere deep in my brain, a tiny human voice shouted No, no, no! This isn yours. You gave it up. You don want it! I ignored it.