I stared out at the shoreline; gentle waves crashed in front of me while the quaint little town where I’d grown up stood behind me.
Sometimes it was hard to believe this was actually my job. To stare out at the ocean, keeping an eye on the shoreline while taking in the beauty that was Santo Oso. It didn’t feel much like work.
And yet, it was one of the most respected jobs in Santo Oso.
Working for the Stell Shore Guard was a great honor, something I’d dreamed of doing since I was a little boy. Those that worked for the guard were some of the toughest shifters in our society. It was their job to make sure that there were no threats on the horizon and, if ever there were, to address those threats themselves to protect the civilians of Stell and the surrounding area.
Though, obviously, there weren’t many threats here in Santa Oso. In my entire career as a member of the guard—and I’d joined the guard right out of the high school—we’d never encountered any serious problems. There were a few false alarms, as there would be when you were being hyper vigilant, but no real problems.
I was always prepared for that possibility, though. I woke up ready for it. But that was ingrained in my nature, being an alpha wolf shifter. I was always on high alert, ready to protect and serve.
It wasn’t just alpha wolf shifters that made up the guard, though. We were a diverse group. Though it was often the more dominant species that wanted to join, the wolves and the bears, we accepted all kinds of recruits.
I always knew I was made for it, though. Maybe it was a little stereotypical, alpha wolf shifter going for the guard, and I did hate the stereotypes that were so often pushed on us, but I couldn’t deny that some of those stereotypes were true. And my innate desire to protect those around me was one of them.
I kicked up a little sand in my boots when I heard a familiar voice behind me.
“Jesse, you see that boat out there?” Finn asked me, his curious eyes on the horizon.
I looked at the direction of his gaze and sure enough, far in the distance, there was a small boat coming in.
“Look for the official Stell City symbol,” I told him, my hand on my walkie, prepared to call in if this boat wasn’t painted with it.
It was one of the rules of owning any boat that you wanted to take out on the ocean. It had to be officially painted to let us, the Stell Shore Guard, know that you came in peace.
Occasionally, someone tried to get by without painting their boat. See, it cost money to get it registered with one of the official painters of the city so when people wanted to cheap out, they skipped it. But inevitably, those boats that weren’t painted always forced us to call in a possible threat and when we ended up swarming their boat, they got hit with a fine for failure to comply in addition to being full of embarrassment. I didn’t know why people still tried it, it didn’t seem worth the hassle to me.
“Yep, it's got it,” Finn said to me. I still didn’t see it, but I trusted him. He had better eyesight than me as a fox, he was always seeing things that I wasn’t. I let go of my walkie. I wasn’t expecting it to actually be a threat but I was always prepared nonetheless.
“So, drinks after work?” Finn smiled at me.
“You betcha,” I told him.
Finn was more than just another member of the guard, although I was friends with all the members I worked with. But our history went way back, far beyond our careers.
We met in kindergarten and were instantly the best of friends. And it was a friendship that continued on through elementary school, middle school, high school… We’d always been inseparable. Some people even thought we were brothers. Although once you knew that he was a fox and I was a wolf, it made it pretty clear we weren’t. But it wasn’t immediately obvious to people that we were shifters so as humans, we passed as siblings.
And we didn’t make a big show of being shifters; even as kids we were taught to downplay our heritage to a degree. Talking about being a shifter was kind of like bragging, it just wasn’t a thing you did except with other shifters. Not that we thought humans were below us or anything, of course we didn’t.
The wind was blowing gently through Finn’s soft red hair and I caught myself staring for a moment. His eyes met mine, and he looked a little confused.
“What is it?” he asked.
I brought myself back down to reality and blushed a little when I realized I’d been shamelessly staring.
“Oh, nothing, just zoning out.” I shrugged.
But I wasn’t zoning out. I caught myself doing this a lot lately.
It was a strange feeling, being captivated by Finn. He’d always been my best friend and I cared about him dearly but lately I had these moments where I couldn’t stop staring at him and I had no idea why.
It was like something shifted within me. I stared at Finn and I didn’t just think oh, hey, there’s my old friend, the guy I’ve known all my life. No, I looked at him and I thought man, Finn is looking gorgeous today…
Then I’d immediately catch myself in the intrusive thought and I did my best to snap back to the real world.
It wasn’t like I was gay. I mean, I’d never liked a man before. And I’d been with women, plenty of women. Not to brag, but I was kind of a good-looking guy and women really dug the alpha wolf thing. It was another stereotype that us alphas were better in bed… I couldn’t speak to that stereotype as a whole but I could say I definitely was great in bed.
Still, I was confused because despite never having interest in any men before, I couldn’t explain why these thoughts were popping up for me, why Finn had caught my attention lately.
I couldn’t dig into that too much right now, though. I was at work, so was Finn, and I had to push these thoughts out of my mind to do my job.
But that was what I told myself every day, that I had to avoid thinking of him because of work. But then when the job was over, I went and hung out with Finn and avoided those thoughts even during our leisure time and basically never dealt with it. We drank a lot and often, which made it easy to bury anything uncomfortable, and that was what I would repeatedly do. Even though I should probably actually have dealt with these feelings…
“Hey, does it look like he’s flagging us down?” Finn asked me.
Again, I couldn’t see as well as he could. So though I tried to look out at the boat, I mostly kept looking back at him and waited until he figured it out.
“He is,” he told me. “Come on, let’s grab a motorboat and make our way to him.”
I nodded. “You got it.”
We ran over to the nearest dock, where we had emergency boats located across the shoreline, and hopped in. I grabbed my master key out of my pocket, which started up any of our official security boats, and I started riding over to him. Finn was sitting behind me, leaning in so he could get a good glimpse at the boat, but he was hovering over my shoulder… practically breathing on my neck…
Again, intrusive thoughts leaked in.
When we got closer I could see that yes, this man definitely was flagging us down. At first, I didn’t think much of it. Maybe he was low on gas or something—that was what we were flagged down for most often.
But as we approached I could see a look of worry on his face, one so serious that it wouldn’t be warranted by a simple low gas signal.
“Are you all right, sir?” I asked him.
“I’m… I’m fine, I just… Are you the Stell Shore Guard?” he asked.
“That’s right,” Finn answered, and he pointed to his chest, where our badges were. “What seems to be the problem?”
“I just saw something really weird, pretty far out into the ocean… I can’t really explain it, but there was this fog… But it looked really unnatural. I don’t know if there’s some weird storm coming that I don’t know about or…” He allowed his sentence to trail off.
He seemed genuinely bothered. “No, no storms in the forecast today,” I told him.
“I don’t know, now that I’m saying it to you it sounds silly, just… it really didn’t seem normal. Maybe it’s nothing, what do I know?”
“Well, we can definitely go check it out,” Finn said, “it’s our job.”
“Right, we’ll get on it. Where about do you think it was, this fog?” I asked.
"Oh… damn, I’d have no idea now. I got a little turned around trying to go around it and just headed for shore… I’m sorry.”
“It’s not a problem,” Finn told him. “We’ll figure it out, thanks.”
“Okay… thank you.” The man looked a little more at ease after we agreed to look into it… but not by much. It was clear something was still really bothering him.
It seemed like a weird reaction to some unexpected weather.
“Hey, what about Jake?” Finn asked me, referring to a seagull shifter friend we had. “I bet he could do a quick fly through over the ocean and tell us if he sees anything.”
We weren’t terribly close to Jake, but he’d probably do us this favor.
“Yeah, hold on, I’ll give him a call,” I said as I pulled out my cell phone.
“Hello?” Jake answered.
“Hey, Jake, it’s Jesse. Look, I know this is a little unexpected but I’m out here on the ocean on patrol and this fisherman just told me he ran into a weird fog but can’t tell me where it is. I know it’s probably nothing, but do you think you could soar around a little bit, see if you see anything.”
“Not a problem!” Jake answered happily. “Always happy to help out the guard. I’ll be there in ten, I’ll call you if I see anything.”
“Great, thanks, we appreciate it,” I told him before hanging up.
I looked over at Finn. “He said he’ll be here in ten and he’ll call us.”
Finn shrugged. “I mean, it’s probably nothing. The guy probably has an overactive imagination. A little fog on the water is nothing to be concerned with.”
“At least it’ll make the shift go by a little faster now that we’re out on the water, though.” It was always so boring going up and down the shore with nothing to do. I found myself actually wishing for false alarms sometimes to make the time pass. Today, I got my wish.
“True,” Finn sighed, “I do prefer being out on the ocean rather than patrolling the land.”
I looked back at him, his hair blowing in the ocean wind, leaned back with his hands behind his head. Once again, thoughts of how handsome he looked intruded in my mind.
“What?” he questioned me.
Damnit, this was the second time he’d caught me staring just today!
“It’s nothing,” I told him and turned back around.
He laughed. “Man, you’re so weird lately. Is something going on?”
Yes, something was… I was doubting my heterosexuality and was horridly confused about my feelings for my long time best friend.
But that wasn’t something I could explain to him. If he knew what I was thinking, what I really felt, it would ruin our friendship.
That was the thing, it wasn’t really worth exploring how I felt about him. Because even if I waded through my confusion to find that I did indeed like him, it wasn’t like there was anything I could do about that.
He didn’t like me. He wasn’t gay, I knew that, I’d seen him with enough women. So I couldn’t risk ruining our lifelong friendship by bringing my romantic feelings into the mix. It was better to shut this down internally and never let these feelings surface.
But lately that felt harder and harder to do.
My phone began vibrating in my pocket and I answered it quickly, knowing it was Jake again.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Hey, so I’m back on land and your fisherman was right, there’s something really weird going on.”
This surprised me. I was expecting a false alarm. “Weird how?” I asked.
“There’s this perfectly circular column of steam coming out from one section of the ocean. Its like one big steam cylinder but like I said, it’s a perfect circle. Just in one area.”
I tried to search for rational reasons for this. “Well, maybe there’s a reason for the water to heat up right there, right? Causing the steam?”
“In a perfect circle? No, man, I’m telling you, this was not natural. You guys really need to check it out. I saw your boat while flying back to shore, you’re with Finn, right?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“Okay, yeah, thought that was you two. Okay, if you keep going dead straight, you’ll find it. But I wouldn’t go into that fog. Who knows what it is? But I’m telling you, you’ll be able to make a perfect circle around it. You’ll see what I mean.”
I felt a knot at the bottom of my stomach. Though I’d been praying for a false alarm, I didn’t really want something that was actually worrisome to be happening.
I told myself this still was a false alarm, though. That the fisherman and Jake were overreacting. But Jake was a calm, level headed guy and he probably got the best vision of it that anyone could, being up in the sky and all. And he thought it was really weird…
“What did he say?” Finn asked, clearly anxious from the look on my face.
I tended to wear my emotions on my sleeve and I knew I must have appeared really uneasy right about now.
“He said that there was this column of steam coming out from the ocean. We’ve got to go check it out.”
“That’s it?” Finn laughed. “Just some steam? You had me worried there for a second.”
“It wasn’t just some steam,” I continued to explain. “He said that it was perfectly cylindrical. Like, one big circle of steam going straight up to the sky. The way he described it made it seem… really unnatural.”
The smile on Finn’s face faded. “Well, I’m sure it’s nothing, right?”
“Yeah…” I said, unsure. “I’m sure it’s nothing. But we’ve got to go check it out.”
I started up the boat and did what Jake told me to. I went perfectly straight, my eyes peeled for any fog.
It was about ten minutes until it came into my vision and when I finally saw it, that knot in my stomach only grew.
I glanced over at Finn, his eyes widened.
The fisherman had seriously underplayed this by calling it fog because Jake was right, it was steam that went straight up. From our angle, it only looked like a semi circle, but the edges were perfect. This was no normal fog.
“Grab your phone, start taking pictures and then a video,” I instructed Finn. “I don’t know what the hell this is but we should bring it back to base immediately, get their opinion on it.”
“Right,” Finn agreed, grabbing his phone and snapping a few pictures.
When he had it set to video, I began to steer the boat around in a circle, as Jake suggested, so we’d have the shape recorded. Driving around it made me a little nauseated. The more clearly I could see its shape the more unsettled I became. Seriously, what the hell was this thing?
“You got it?” I asked as we were facing the shore again.
“Yeah, got it.” He put his phone away.
“Good, let’s get the hell away from this thing then,” I told him as I headed back to shore.
“Wait, are you bothered by it?” he asked me.
“Uh, yeah! This thing is freaky as hell. Aren’t you?”
“I’m fascinated!” Finn said with excitement.
Of course, leave it to the fox to be fascinated.
I wasn’t. There was nothing interesting about that thing.
It filled me with a sense of dread.