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Chapter 1



Tonight I finally bare myself —my whole self —to Benjamin Bloom.

“You wanted to tell me something?” he nudges, impatient.

I do. I insisted on our meeting here this evening at Town Park, supposedly to drink in the glorious violet and peach sunset, before moving this cozy party of two up the hill to my house, to my bedroom, to be precise. It’s my parents’ twenty-fifth anniversary, so they’re celebrating this weekend at the fancy four-star resort off Highway 71.

Meanwhile, we’re indulging in a celebration of our own.

Unsupervised at Casa Kayla, I might’ve lost myself in the heat and slick boy muscles before getting the truth out.

Being sort of in public will guarantee I control my animal urges, at least up to a point. The fine hairs on my skin are already quivering.

Taking a breath, I gently set a gold cat’s-eye gemstone in the center of Ben’s palm.

“That’s it?” His laugh is gentle. “I was worried you were going to break up with me.”

“On Valentine’s Day?” I exclaim, touched by his rare show of vulnerability.

We’ve talked about tonight, planned it. I ordered a sheer white mesh-and-lace baby-doll nightie online — and then hovered over my mailbox to snag the package the moment it arrived. He picked up protection at the grocery store off the highway. We sent each other texts that counted down the days . . . and nights. As we touched ourselves, we imagined touching each other.

Ben uses the flashlight app on his phone to examine my gift. “What’s this?”

I glance at the historic bridge and the state highway bridge beyond it. “A secret.”

“Sweet.” Ben sets down his phone and unties the slim leather cord from around his neck. He slides off the shark-tooth pendant and tosses it into the river. Then he threads the mounted cat’s-eye and puts the cord back on again. Remembering his manners, he adds, “Thanks.”

Ben clearly thinks the gemstone is his Valentine’s Day present, my equivalent of the dozen glittery blue roses he had delivered to my house this morning. “Listen,” he begins, “I won’t be upset . . . disappointed, of course, but

not mad . . . if you changed your mind about —”

“No, no,” I assure him. “It’s nothing like that.”

My memories of Ben go all the way back to bilingual Montessori school, though in a town this small, I’m sure we met earlier. At church or Doc Petrie’s office or the annual Pine Ridge Founders’ Day weekend festival. My constant competition, he beat me by one day for best attendance in second grade, by one vote for freshman class president. But every year, I took first place in the district science fair. As sophomores, we both made all-state in our sports — me in track and cross-country, him in football and baseball. I was keeping score, and so was he. We relished it.

Then the news hit that his dad wouldn’t be returning from Afghanistan, that the body was being shipped home in a flag-covered box. It was our town’s first military loss in generations.

The day after, Ben disappeared. He did that when he was upset. It was the same when he overshot that pass and we lost to Spirit High, only this time his mother was at her wit’s end.

I told myself I wasn’t worried, that I’d scold him for being selfish. Well, maybe not scold, given the circumstances. But I’d drag his hot hiney home so Mrs. Bloom could start trying to breathe again. The least I could do, I’d thought, practically my responsibility.

I tracked Ben to the top of the water tower, where he was half drunk on a bottle of Cuervo and smoking a pack of Marlboros, even though he didn’t drink, even though he’d never smoked before. Losing his father changed Ben. It made him less trusting of authority figures, of the way the world worked. He was proud of his father’s sacrifice, but he still struggled with the meaning of it. It took six more months before I saw his smile again. Finally, it was aimed at me.

Ben and I first kissed last Fourth of July, seated on this same Mexican blanket at this same spot on the matted, dry grass between the water and the park. He said he’d been thinking about doing that for a long time. Kissing, letting his fingertips fall, seeking, between my thighs.

Our first real date was Austin City Limits. He’s wearing the black concert T-shirt tonight.

Before long, kids at school started calling us “Kayben” like we were celebrities.

It’s been so perfect. Okay, an eyebrow or two may have lifted at him being white and me black, but our parents had been best friends since before we were born, and nobody dared to say “boo” about it in public. I only hope what I’m about to tell him next won’t ruin everything.

“Then what is it?” he presses, leaning closer on the blanket. “What’s wrong?”

“I . . .” The speech I rehearsed sticks in my throat. “You see . . .”

I’m being ridiculous. Ben loves me. I should come right out and say it.

I will. I do. “I’m a Cat.”

Ben slides his palm alongside my hip and squeezes. “Meow.”

Typical. “An actual Cat, you know, with whiskers and a tail.”

As he moves in for a kiss, I stop him with two firm fingertips to the chest. “An Acinonyx jubatus sapiens, a spotted werecat. Not my parents, just me.”

I can deal with being the First Daughter of Pine Ridge, with my father being one the few African-American mayors in Texas, and how much talk there is about all of that, especially since Dad hinted to the Capital City News that he might run for the Texas statehouse.

It gets tedious, but fine. I’m used to it. But what on earth would I do if the fact that I’m a werecat went not only public but viral? It’s the kind of thing that would make INN. And my Homo sapiens mom and dad would be ruined, all because of me.

Just in case, I spell it out for Ben. “My parents are human beings like you.”

I’m an only child, and he knows I’m adopted. Everybody knows. When we were babies, our church held a town-wide fund-raiser to help pay for my parents’ trip to Ethiopia to bring me home. As much as I trust Ben, I’d never risk their safety. Worst-case scenario, I’ll lie and say they didn’t know my species. I’ll claim that I managed to hide it, even from them.

Ben pinches his brow. It’s not horror — he’s confused. “You’re kidding.”

The sun is all the way down, and my night vision is so much better than his. He can’t read my expression. I angle myself so I’m facing the water. The river walk, the park, and, up the hill, our small town’s historic district are all behind me. That seems appropriate somehow.

From here, I can study the dense forest across the river where I sometimes run wild, all heat and instinct, in animal form. I love that. I live for it.

More than anything, I want to share that side of myself with him.

God, please let him be okay with this. I owe him the truth first, before we . . .

I risk a sideways glance. Bang-up job, Kayla. He still looks baffled.

Fine. I’ll show him, then. Lighting up his phone, I angle it at my face and partially free my animal form, releasing my saber teeth, my gold-spotted black fur, and my matching gold Cat eyes. He’s in no danger. My control is excellent. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be afraid.

I hear his sharp intake of breath.

I pray Ben recognizes me. Sure, I’m from another branch on the family tree, but I’m still his Kayla, the girl he’s known his whole life, the first girl he’s ever truly loved.

And I’m as naturally born as he is.

He can’t believe what the media says about us, the lies in books and movies. He must know that when our minister condemns shape-shifters, he’s preaching politics, not Gospel.

But does he? Ben is a good Christian boy. When we decided to take our relationship to the naked level, we had to pray about it first.

It doesn’t mean he won’t, but there’s no real reason for him to freak out. Shifters aren’t magical or demonic. Many of the Lord’s creatures can transform. Frogs can change their gender. Snakes can change their skins. So what if we can change on the cellular level? Creation is ever the more glorious for its variety. Ever more miraculous.

Ben reaches to touch the gemstone around his neck, and I feel a flicker of doubt.

I’d feel less vulnerable starkers and spread for his approval.

The hopeful part of me is still looking forward to that.

“Say something,” I whisper, fully retracting the shift. “Please.”

Ben kisses me instead, brushing his lips against my lips and his insistent tongue against my uncertain one. It’s as much reassurance as passion. “I’m so proud of you,” he says. “You’re incredibly brave to confide in me like this. I won’t let you down.”

Relief loosens my muscles. I couldn’t have asked for a better response.

“I’m glad that you trust me.” Ben rises to his knees, reaching for my hands, and I position myself, likewise, facing him. He says, “This doesn’t change anything between us.”

Having braced myself for his next declaration of love, it comes as a shock when he adds, “we’ll find a cure, Kayla, a way to end this nightmare. You don’t have to go on like this.”

Oh, sweet baby Jesus. Ben not only thinks it’s possible to “fix” me, to somehow transform me into a human girl, he’s already trying to figure out how to make that happen. “You don’t understand,” I say. “I like who I am. I was born a Cat. That’s a good thing.”

Ben stands, and the air chills between us. “No, that’s the devil talking.”

With that, he leaves, sprinting across the park, past the picnic tables, barbecue grills, and antique western carousel, abandoning me in the darkness, kneeling and alone.

The next morning, in a state of near panic, I text Ben: We’re finished.

There, it’s done. What was I thinking? Why should he be different from anyone else?

What if he tells someone? What if he tells everyone?

My shattered heart be damned. The stakes are enormous. I have to protect my parents, my college plans, my entire future. I could have ruined my whole life.

Then again, what if he feels differently today? What if he panicked and doesn’t know how to apologize? What if I’m only making things worse?

I key in another message: Call me. Erase it without sending.

I key it in again, erase it again — a hundred times, a thousand.

I fall asleep with the phone still in my hand, wondering if he hates me now, if we were ever real or something I hallucinated, if the feral part of me he rejected is worthless anyway.

The day after that I’m convinced he never really loved me.

I still love him. I admit it. Who knows? Maybe I always will. Maybe that’s the price of true love, the forever ache that comes after it’s over. But enough. I’m done. Done, done, done. I have to shut this down before it drives me crazy.

I gather up absolutely everything Ben ever gave me, every single memento of our time together, and toss it all in a cardboard box. I glance down at the toy tricorder, the Houston Astros ball cap, the embossed napkin from Lurie’s

Steakhouse, a few dried long-stemmed red roses, the still-fresh bouquet of glittery blue ones, and a photo of us at Homecoming.

I dump the contents in the round concrete fire pit in my backyard, drench it with lighter fluid, and drop in a match. The whoosh of flame is bigger than I expected, and my Chihuahua, Peso, freaks out, barking like it’s a hell-born fiend, rising to devour us.

I can’t avoid Ben. This town’s too small for that. And I can’t avoid the gossip that’ll start once people find out we’ve broken up. But it’s only months until I leave for college.

I can stand it. I can keep breathing. I can keep moving forward.

I’ll have to.

“Kayla, love?” It’s Mom at the back door.

I expect her to holler at me for nearly setting the yard on fire. I’m almost looking forward to the distraction. Maybe she’ll ground me and I’ll have a legitimate excuse to hide out at home. Maybe . . .

Something’s wrong. Very, very wrong.

Tears haunt her light-brown eyes.

Pine Ridge Herald Online, Feb. 16

PRHS Quarterback Benjamin Bloom Dead from Lightning Strike

By Geraldine Ackerman

Pine Ridge, Texas—PRHS quarterback Benjamin Jacob Bloom, age 18, was killed by a lightning strike at around midnight on Feb. 15 on the antique “Western” carousel in Town Park.

His body was discovered shortly after 6 a.m. that morning by twin sisters Eleanor and Lula Stubblefield, both age 74, while out for their morning power walk.

Benjamin’s mother, Constance Bloom, said she did not realize that her son was missing from their home until the sheriff’s office informed her of his death at approximately 7:15 a.m.

“He seemed preoccupied the day before,” Mrs. Bloom said. “You know how moody teenagers can be. All I can think is that he snuck out to clear his head and got caught in the thunderstorm.”

She added that he’d been known to run off by himself when he was upset.

Coach Floyd Williams said that Benjamin was a talented athlete and honor-roll student who had already accepted a baseball scholarship from Texas Christian University. “All the boys on the team looked up to Ben,” the coach said. “He’ll never been forgotten at PRHS.”

Visitation is scheduled for 7 P.m. Feb. 20 at Mayfield Mortuary. The service will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at Church of the Savior, followed by the burial at Dogwood Trails Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the PRHS booster club.

by by Cynthia Leitich Smith

  • Genres: Paranormal
  • hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Candlewick
  • ISBN-10: 076365910X
  • ISBN-13: 9780763659103