The Broken Veil - Chapter One
It was hard to say which emotion would win the wrestling match in my gut: disappointment or embarrassment. I needed that job and now it was gone for good. I bit back the mixture of terror, shame and sorrow building into tears and growled instead. Nobody would hear it out here in my North Carolina woods except for my twin, Andy, who was behind me on the path. Maybe some of the more exotic residents could hear me, but they wouldn’t care.
I reached the top of a grueling hill and waited for Andy. His auburn crown peered back at me from where he was still climbing. Wuffers, my black wolf Labrador, or Wolador, trotted past him and to me, panting far less than my brother. I ruffled the fur on the top of her head and scratched behind her ear. She peered up at me with orange eyes, smiling to reveal her wolfy canines.
Spring had sprung and the vegetation was budding with new life. The air smelled like sunshine and leaf litter and empty acorn shells. I sucked in a long, deep breath and let it soothe my mood. Andy finished the climb, stood beside me and wiped at his glistening brow.
“Whoo,” he managed. His head shook in a slow back and forth motion that said to me, “no, this is so not fun.” Wuffers whined and bumped my hand with her head. I scratched at her fur absently.
“Oh yeah, just, ya know, trying to not die.” He emphasized the word “die”. I chuckled and slapped his arm. He clapped a hand to the spot and made an “ow” face.
“Maybe you need to get out more,” I said and stretched a quad. The warm pull was delicious.
“Well. Med school,” he explained with a shrug. He was visiting me for spring break. I switched to the other leg. “So, now quit trying to kill me with mountainous hills and talk to me. What’s going on? Why did they let you go?” He pursed his lips, tilting his head down so I could catch the full effect of his mismatched stare. Our eyes were the same: one an animal gold color, the other sea-green.
“Just couldn’t do it,” I said, unwilling to say more. I crossed my arms. He looked confused for a moment and I thought I’d have to explain. My thumbnail found its way to my mouth and I chewed. Understanding dawned on his face and he nodded.
“I can understand that.” The last time I’d been at work was months ago and I’d lost my baby there. Walking in today had been… an experience. I’d barely made it through the door before I started hyperventilating. The memories slapped me in the face. I couldn’t take it. I’d simply walked out again. The owner had called me on my cell an hour later and apologized that he’d have to take me off the schedule. So, here I was: hiking, working my other job, instead of whipping clients into shape.
“I’m sorry, sis. It’ll be okay though. You’ll find another job.” He took out the water from the waist pack I’d loaned him. The bottle made a glug-glug noise as he slurped down the cold liquid, his eyes watering after a few seconds.
“Jameson wants me to stay home,” I said experimentally before sticking my thumbnail back into my mouth. My husband had recommended that reducing the workout routine by staying home might be the trick to our pregnancy issue. An issue I’d flat avoided after the last miscarriage. “I can’t afford the fancy fertility specialist if I don’t have a job though.”
“It might be worth a shot to take it easy while you try again,” Andy said way too casually for my taste. He looked down, his eyebrows arched as he flicked an invisible particle of dust from his University of Washington sweatshirt – which coordinated with his black athletic pants striped with UW purple.
“I can’t do it,” I breathed, my cheeks burning. I crossed my arms over my torso and gripped my shoulder. I rocked from left to right and back again. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to have something living inside of you and then see its spirit leave?” My heart trilled in a collection of staccato percussions that obeyed no metronome. Meanwhile my brain flipped through the images of that day.
“Oh, sis,” he said and wrapped me in a hug. “I’m sorry. It’s going to be okay.”
“How can you say that? You don’t know. I have no proof that it will be. I’m a failure at this.”
“Rori,” Andy took my shoulders and looked me in the face. “It’s going to be okay. You’ll see. Take a deep, slow breath.” I obeyed, shaking away the embarrassment creeping up in me.
“Okay, okay. I’m okay.” He released me. I righted myself, pulling my body into a straight line and shaking back my hair.
“Good,” he drawled. “Glad you’re back with us.” He opened his mouth to say something else, but then, his eyes went out of focus and his eyebrows nettled. I knew that look. I jerked my head around, looking, listening and smelling.
“What is it?” I asked. Wuffers whined and trotted off trail. Whatever had triggered Andy’s abilities was upwind so my nose gave me nothing. I can smell about half as good as my wolador, which is really something compared to most humans. I couldn’t do what Andy was doing right now: listening with another set of ears to the thoughts of creatures.
“Well, I’d say it’s something smaller and it feels… hurt. It’s in pain. She’s in pain,” Andy explained to me after a while.
I closed the door on the ache in my soul and was rewarded with a numb curiosity for the creature’s danger. Oh sure, being a personal trainer might have been my day job, but this was my real job and I loved it. I was made for it. Unlike being made for making babies. I guessed I wasn’t made for that.
Andy strode forward, silent as a snake through the leaves. He had grace where I had strength. He reached the skirting trees of a small clearing and paused. From behind him, I could see his head tilt before he looked back and pointed to a moss-covered log.
I opened my mouth and pulled air softly over my tongue, using the acute sensors to gather chemicals floating around me, and then pressed it to the roof of my mouth. The taste filtered up, transferring as scent to my nose.
I shuffled through the leaf litter, stepping carefully over a collection of spindly tree roots to stand next to my twin. “Dreamcatcher,” I whispered to Andy. He nodded. The air didn’t just smell like dreamcatcher. It also smelled like blood. I closed my left eye and looked into the forest with the right one – the one that could see the kind of creatures whose protection was my charge.
Wuffers stalked the opposite side of the clearing. The soft huff of the creature’s breath pricked my ears. Guided by the sound, I caught sight of the telltale black fluff of the dreamcatcher peeking from under the felled tree. The creature wasn’t much smaller than my wolador.
My left sea-green eye opened and nausea washed over me. I let the rolling of my stomach subside, slightly put off by its intensity. My mundane eye saw nothing near the log. It slid over the spot, refusing to focus on what the right golden eye knew was there.
Andy put a hand on my shoulder and followed suit, closing his right, mundane sea-green eye, watching the dreamcatcher scrabble for a moment before opening it again. After a pause, in which I felt his body sway, he released me and moved softly into the clearing, whispering soothing words to the animal.
He was always better with approaching creatures. They were drawn to him in a way I hadn’t inherited through the passing of our very unique genetic makeup. Wuffers approached slowly at the sound of Andy’s deep, quieting whispers of comfort. She lay down near the dreamcatcher, lowering her head to her paws. Andy knelt near the log and the injured dreamcatcher. I shuffled into the clearing and stood behind Andy, giving him the closest proximity to the creature. In the patch of sunshine leaking into the forest, the air warmed. I hiked up the sleeves of my black workout jacket and unzipped it partway to cool the skin on my neck and chest.
The dreamcatcher had wedged itself in a dip in the ground under the fallen tree. Andy looked up at me. “Little help?”
“You betchya.” I knelt down next to the log. Pressing my hands into the rough bark, I pushed against it. My muscles strained against the effort. The log rolled slowly back, groaning for having been woken from its slumber. The moist underside wriggled in a collection of worms and beetles. Andy backed away from it until the bugs had scurried.
The creature nestled in the earth looked from me to Andy. The two largest of its eight blue eyes glinted like sapphires dropped in a well. The eyes took up most of the soft, rounded square head that hovered between two of its many legs. It had a set of antennae perched above its eyes that looked like an expanse of overly long and curled eyelashes.
The dreamcatcher was flat on its thorax and head, its legs pushed close to its body as if it were trying to make itself smaller. Anyone with arachnophobia would probably have a full on panic attack with the sight of a dreamcatcher because of its size. Smaller than Wuffers, but bigger than a house cat. Luckily, the veil spell kept them hidden from those who could misunderstand them.
If normal people could hear them, they would be comforted by the hush of its breath. Its exhalations sounded exactly like the lull and crash of an ocean tide. It looked up at Andy through its antennae, its two front appendages covered in black fur wiped at the side of its reddish orange head.
“Aren’t you just the cutest?” Andy crooned, hunched forward and surveying the animal with calculating eyes.
I peered at it closer from over Andy’s shoulder. A long, gaping wound opened the creature’s head and sliced through the eye to the right of the biggest set. An injury to a dreamcatcher seemed odd. They usually found a place to gather the dreams of the sleeping and stayed there. It was a mutually agreeable arrangement. The sleeper was protected from nightmares and the dreamcatcher captured the dreams in their web, stored them and fed from the dream energy.
“What do you think happened?” I asked. Andy pulled out his second, full water bottle and poured a bit of it into a cupped hand. He shut his eyes and closed his fingers on the liquid. He inhaled and exhaled slowly. His champagne skin, owing to our very old Native American roots mixed with Irish, soaked in the sunshine.
“It’s not a natural wound,” Andy said. I waited while he continued his slow inhale and exhale. “Someone did this. A person.”
“Why? Who could see - ?” I stood, looking around for the perpetrator, as if he was there and I’d simply overlooked him.
“Whoever it was is gone now, Rori,” Andy said. I slowly crouched back down. Andy’s eyebrows nettled. “Okay, now be quiet so I can focus.”
“Yeah, yeah. Do that thing you do,” I said and settled into trying to be quiet and not impatient. Who would hurt a dreamcatcher purposefully? And how? The only people who could see them were me, Andy and Mom. Mom wouldn’t hurt a creature. She was as much a protector as me. I shifted in the dirt. Andy’s hand glowed with a soft blue light that pulsed, escaping the chinks of his closed hand.
He opened his eyes and reached toward the dreamcatcher. She shifted away. I scooted closer on my knees and captured her by the abdomen. She didn’t fight, but her breath wheezed a little quicker under my fingers.
Andy shuffled closer, his knees swish-swishing through the dirt and dead leaves. He reached forward and opened his hand over the wound. The light bathing his palm dripped into the wound, the blue hue sparkling and iridescent as it nestled into the open flesh. The dreamcatcher tried jerking away, but with my firm grip she didn’t move. “Shh…” Andy whispered, “this will be all better in just a moment.” Before he could even finish his sentence the gap soaked in the blue light and began to fill with flesh and eye material. The goop and blood mixed and mashed until it was completely reconstructed and the dreamcatcher stopped wriggling and stilled.
I crab crawled to the front of the creature and took a look at my brother’s handiwork. It was as if nothing had happened. “Nice,” I said, and held up my knuckles to him, which he bumped with his own.
“Thanks,” he said shyly. “You know, I think it helps having an understanding of anatomy.”
“I wish you’d consider coming back when you’re done with med school.” I just couldn’t heal creatures the same way. If he were here, he could help with that. He didn’t answer, but the sudden chill to my left gave me a clear indication of his thoughts about moving back home. “I know you have good reasons to stay in Washington.” I dropped it. He didn’t need pressure from me.
“Rori, are you paying attention?” I wasn’t. I looked at him and he gestured to the dreamcatcher. It reached a furry leg toward me, its big, deeply sapphire eyes wide and glinting. The dreamcatcher purred like the trill of a bird and the hum of crickets. It half-closed its eyes and almost seemed to smile. Then, it relaxed until it was lying down and retracted its leg.
“What was that?” I asked, looking to Andy for creature reading abilities.
“Sorry, sis, the healing leaves me fuzzy for a bit afterwards. I couldn’t catch it.”
“Well, can I pass that good juju on to you? Because you’re the one that did the healing.”
“Maybe it wasn’t about that.”
“What then?” I asked. Andy shrugged, his eyebrows rising before they rested and he smiled at me. “What’s that look for?”
“You seem different today.” He crossed his arms over his sweatshirt and cocked his head to one side.
“Could it be the depression and disappointment shining through? Mixed with a little unemployment?” I tried to keep the hurt out of my voice, but I don’t think it worked. Andy ignored it though.
“No,” he said and huffed. He looked me over with a dissecting mismatched gaze. “It’s something, though.”
I shrugged. “Been a weird day so far. It’s probably just that. Let’s walk a little ways more up the trail. I want to check out the rest of the property.” Was it possible to hike this day away? I wasn’t sure, but I’d try.
We traveled northwest on the trail cutting through the trees for another half mile before it took a dive south and closer to the lake. As the trail began to dip, Wuffers trotted past me. Her ears strained forward, nose weaving back and forth, head extended.
“What’s she got up her nose?” I wondered out loud. Andy watched her as she wended up the dirt path.
“She smells something new,” he told me.
Ahead of us, Wuffers stopped in the path. She padded forward and with each step her hackles sprang to life. “What’s going on?” I asked, never tearing my gaze from my wolador.
“I think there might be someone on your property.” My hand reached for the knife strapped to my thigh.
“Hunters?” I asked aloud, but the wounded dreamcatcher popped into my head. I ran down the trail, climbing the slight incline with ease. The trees whipped by me until I skidded to a halt by Wuffers. She growled as she looked into the peeling trunks of yellow birch and bare, twiggy legs of hemlock. The hair on my arms and legs sprang to attention. My spine tingled.
“Rori, wait!” Andy’s voice jostled as he ran toward me. I barreled into the woods, readying myself for a confrontation. Undergrowth clawed at my black workout pants. I had no subtlety; the crunching of twigs and pinecones under my feet gave me away.
I followed the direction of my wolador’s trained gaze. The air cooled with each step. Mist caressed my skin. The scent of water and wintergreen from the birch washed over me. Of course, even charging in I knew where I was. If a hunter were on this part of my property he would soon become the hunted.
It wasn’t just my job to protect creatures hidden by the veil to normal people. It was our job to protect the normal people from stumbling into (and possibly getting eaten by) the creatures that had resided in the Appalachian Mountains since before the first people started populating this end of the earth. Whoever was on my property was in for a surprise.
I raised my nose to the air, picking through scents to identify who was out there. A whiff of the trespasser stopped me dead in my tracks. Recognition caught up to my blind charge.
That was no ordinary hunter.