It wasn’t my name, at least not the one I was given at birth. But David Smith was not a name I found suited my life as a member of one of the recognized tribes of the Southwest. Being separated from my people until adolescence, I’d jumped into life with my extended family with enthusiasm from that point forward.
But now, as I forced my weary wings to flap onward, my heart, both the avian and human versions, was shattered. The landscape below was nothing like the sere earth tones of my home. If anything, it resembled the area I’d spend the first fourteen years of my life, before the tragedy that stole my adopted parents’ lives and nearly my own.
My aunt Serena’s home had replaced that one and provided a place for a rebellious youth to grow into a strong, responsible man. To earn his wings because, in our tribe, not everyone flew.
The green trees, blue lakes, and wide silty rivers I passed offered no rest for my eyes. I grieved the loss of home. But I’d left to protect my family. Had I stayed, my presence would have led to war. Loss of life. Loss of people dear to me. My sadness was little enough to guarantee peace.
Although sure I’d never find that peace for myself, much less any happiness, I could not plunge into the abyss. My death would cause more grief. Even if Aunt Serena did not know where I’d gone, and I was under onus not to contact her or anyone, I’d promised my beloved auntie, sister of the father who’d died before my birth, to make the best life I could. Stumbling from her simple, neat home, past the chicken coop and extensive summer vegetable gardens. Past her field of sunflowers and lavender, I’d brushed away the first tears since my adopted parents’ death, my throat swollen with the sobs I refused to release. Aunt Serena would cry enough for us both.
The rest of the tribe would think me dead. Well, all but one elder. Those two alone were privy to the arrangements I’d made to ensure my “death.” This was not a temporary leave-taking but a one-way trip into the far distance.
I’d heard of the town from a man dining in the restaurant my aunt and some of her friends operated in the truck stop where our lands fronted the highway. Our desert location, on an interstate billed as “The Loneliest Highway in America,” made us the only services for over 90 miles in either direction. So, although the traffic was not heavy, we did a nice little business. And it provided a window to the outside world for our children who, otherwise, only encountered people from other areas on the Internet.
We actually served more tourists than truck drivers, and some of the kids had made lifelong friends with whom they communicated online nearly every day. A small group was spending the summer backpacking across Europe with some of those friends before starting college in the fall.
We’d worked hard and come a long way in the years since I’d found my family.
When the man sat down next to me at the restaurant counter, I’d automatically glanced to the left and right. At this time of night, the dark hours before dawn, the diner was nearly empty, the counter completely so. The scruffy wolf shifter in a faded, disreputable flannel and boot-cut jeans could have sat anywhere in the place, but he chose to join me.
Exhausted from spending the last eighteen hours repairing a broken fuel pump at the gas station, I just wanted to finish my belated dinner and get some sleep. So, when he leaned in close and began to speak in a low, urgent growl, my tired brain almost missed what he was saying.
But something caught my ear.
“You will need to know. Soon.”
Blinking, I set down a fry and turned to face him. “What are you talking about?”
I so didn’t need a crazy traveler to deal with. Outside, only an SUV with a trailer hooked to it, a semi—whose driver was in a booth by the window gobbling chicken-fried steak—and a motorcycle stood.
Since I’d seen the SUV pull in and the two couples in their twenties climb out and since they were in another booth far from the semi driver, my unwelcome, possibly off-balance companion had ridden in on the ancient Indian bike.
Interesting choice, and something almost never seen in these parts. A bike so old was a terrible choice for a long ride across the unforgiving desert.
Carnie, an older waitress who’d worked in Reno doing the same job until the diner opened, offering her employment close to home, stood in front of us, her stylus poised over her tablet.
My companion flashed her a broad, white smile, canines gleaming in the fluorescent lights. “What do you recommend, pretty lady?”
Carnie lit up brighter than anything in the room. “I get off in an hour, wolfie boy.” She tossed her head, eyes flashing in invitation.
He let out a sigh. “If only, but I am here only for a few moments, so I’d better order coffee and ham and eggs with sourdough toast and decline with regret your kind suggestions.”
“Your loss.” She tapped his order into her electronic pad and shrugged then headed away to check on the other customers.
“You know, I believe she’s right,” he muttered, watching her sashay across the hardwood laminate floor.
“Oh, I think so.” Watching their banter had restored a little of my brain activity. “I hear she’s a firecracker.”
“Don’t know yourself, huh?” he asked, facing me.
“Not my type. But if you ever come through here again, she won’t offer a second time, but you might consider begging.”
He chuckled. “I don’t come in this direction often, but if I do, you can bet I’ll take your advice. Some things are worth begging for.”
Carnie brought him coffee and winked before she left.
I gave a low whistle. “Okay...she really likes you.”
“Makes it even harder to come and go so fast.” He sipped his coffee and, in a few minutes, dove into the plate piled with breakfast she set in front of him. We talked some, mostly about road conditions and his bike, and I relaxed a little. Maybe I’d misjudged his mental condition. A long ride across the desert could make anyone a little spacy at first.
I finished my burger and set some money on the counter, but, before I could stand, the wolf put a hand on my arm.
“Haven.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and tucked it in my front jeans pocket. If I hadn’t already seen where his interests lay, I’d have thought it was a come on. “Everyone goes there for a reason, but nobody asks why.”
“O-okay.” So back to my first opinion. “Thanks.”
“Memorize the directions then burn them.”
“All right.” Because what else could I say? I didn’t want to get into a pissing contest with a wolf who might not have his act together. I stared at his hand on my forearm until he removed it then patted him on the back and started for the door.
Next time I saw him, he was riding into Haven, just as I landed.
He dropped the kickstand and strode up to me. I waited for him to say I told you so, but he only gave me a sad smile. “I have an extra bedroom. And pants.”
Yeah, so I was naked in the street.
In a shifter town, nobody even looked twice.