I peered through the bushes at my tribe’s camp. It had taken me all day to get back here, and I now was tired and hungry. But when I saw it, I could immediately tell that something was wrong. The entire camp was deserted. Empty.
I came out of the bushes and hastily made my way into the camp. Everybody was gone. Their belongings and shelters were still there, but any signs that people actually lived in them had vanished. I could still smell fresh meat in the shed. Wherever they had gone, they hadn’t left more than a few hours ago. The site looked like a ghost town. In all the years I had lived here, it had never once been this silent. The unnaturalness of it made my fur stand on end.
“So, you came back after all.”
I gasped and spun around to see Orville sitting on a crate near the center of camp, just next to the fire pit. He was hunched over, his head hanging. He was a broken man if I’ve ever seen one- a fact made even more disturbing when I remembered how strong he’d always been.
“Orville, where is everyone?” I asked.
“Edward staged a coup,” the former chief said, his voice low and emotionless. “He’s the new chief now.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “He’s old and can’t fight! Why would the tribe replace you with him?”
“He convinced them that I’d gone senile,” he answered. “Trusting you to hunt down the Ferals was an act of insanity, he said.”
“But it was his idea to begin with,” I argued.
Orville gave a weak nod, “Yes, but he can be very tricky with his words when he wants to be. He managed to turn the tribe against me, and now I no longer have any authority over them.
I looked around the camp again, “But where did everyone go?”
Orville looked up to answer, but froze when he saw my new face. He jumped to his feet, “Good grief, Eve!” he exclaimed. “What happened to you?”
I put my paw on my feline cheek self-consciously, “I went too long without my medicine,” I answered.
“It only took a week and a half for all that to happen?” he asked in wonder, taking a step towards me. “How do you feel?”
“I’m still me, if that’s what you’re asking,” I spat, backing away from him.
Orville paused, and then nodded. Turning, he made his way to Doctor Evan’s tent.
“We need to get some Mercy into you fast,” he said, crouching down and rummaging inside the tent. When he emerged, he carried Evan’s entire bag of Mercy.
I hesitated, and then reached out to take it. The bag was heavy. It probably held enough medicine to keep me in my current form for at least a year. Reaching inside, I plucked one of the pills out and looked at it.
I think you’re beautiful.
Bastian’s voice popped into my head unbidden, and I shuddered. No, I told myself. I have to do this. Just take the pill, and don’t look back. I opened my mouth and raised my paw to it.
Whether you’re a human, Hybrid, or Feral, I still think you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met!
I clenched my eyes shut and shook my head, clearing it of such thoughts. I couldn’t allow myself to go back. Not with what it would mean. Not after what I’d done to Bastian…
I love you too, Eve.
With an agitated groan, I threw the pill away, watching it sail into the distance. Dropping the bag, I sat down heavily on Evan’s stool.
“Eve, what’s wrong?” Orville asked.
“It’s just not meant to be,” I answered, rubbing my scalp just the way I liked it. I needed comfort right now. What had I done? Bastian had been the companion I’d always wanted. He supported me, no matter what I looked like. In fact, the less human I looked, the more he had loved me. Had loved me, I thought, mentally kicking myself. How could he still love me after what I’d done to him?
“Are you all right?” Orville asked, sitting down next to me.
It finally occurred to me that my former chief was being nicer to me now than he ever had before. It was only natural, I suppose. All his life, he was a leader in one form or another, but he was also a caregiver. Without a tribe to take care of, his fatherly instincts were telling him to take care of me instead.
“Orville?” I asked, “What would you do if you loved someone, but being with them would mean you had to give up what was most important to you?”
Orville’s face went red. He was obviously not used to be asked such unmanly questions.
“Well, uh,” he stuttered. “I guess that if you really loved them, they WOULD be the most important thing in your life. I mean, that’s the whole point of love, isn’t it?”
“I guess so,” I agreed, looking down at my feet.
Orville looked at me and kept talking, “Take my tribe, for example. The tribe that used to be mine, I mean. I love the people in that tribe more than life myself. If I had to lose my good fighting arm just to be able to stay with them, you’d better believe that I would.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Without hesitation,” the old man answered, his gruff voice assuring me that he would, indeed, do just that. Perhaps even more.
“Well, I guess that’s that, then,” I said, grabbing my spear and standing up.
“Where are you going?” Orville asked.
“There’s a young man out there,” I answered. “I left him to come back here. Now I’m going back to him.”
I held out my paw for him to shake, “Goodbye, Orville. Thank you for letting me be a part of your tribe.”
Orville took my paw and shook it, “No, Eve, thank you. And I’m sorry for the way you’ve been treated. You were right. Everything this tribe has, we owe it to you. We would have all died a long time ago if you hadn’t been here. So thank you, Eve, and wherever you go, good luck with your new life.”
I felt tears sting my eyes, and I had to resist the urge to hug the brutish old man. Instead, I turned around and began to walk back in the direction I’d come. Back towards the forest. Back towards the pack. Back towards Bastian.
Suddenly, a question popped into my head that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t already thought to ask. Turning around, I faced Orville for the last time.
“Hey, where did the entire tribe go, exactly?”
Orville’s eyes became solemn, “They went to hunt down the wolf pack,” he answered.
My eyes widened with horror, and my fur stood on end. Without another word, I turned and raced away towards the forest, following the scent trail I had made earlier.
I HAD TO SAVE MY PACK!