Zave had never been happier to see the sun. It rose above the treetops to chase away the night, bringing with it a light fog to gently envelope the forest. He paused, standing on the edge of the cliffside road, to look out over the woods below. Mist reached up from between the trees with long tendrils, curling in the wind as they strained to touch the clouds above.
After the night they’d just had, watching the swirling fog was inexplicably comforting.
“Move it, human, or we’ll leave you behind!” Fey snapped from up ahead.
With a sigh, Zave tore his gaze away from the mist-shrouded forest, and looked instead at the two women waiting for him farther down the road. One of them was Fey, back in her human form and just as cranky as ever.
The other was both familiar and unfamiliar. He had never seen her face before, but at the same time he felt like he could have recognized her anywhere. Clueless had, with Fey’s help, taken on her human form for the first time that morning. It was incredible, Zave thought, how she could go from a golden retriever to a young woman, and somehow still look the same. Her fur was gone, but the long, golden hair on her head was the same as it had ever been. If it weren’t for the slightly vacant look in her eyes, she could have passed off as a normal human being.
Of course, being human for the first time brought its own set of problems—first and foremost among them being the matter of clothes.
“Clueless!” Fey snapped.
Clueless froze, the shirt Fey had given her halfway over her head. Reluctantly, she lowered it back down again. “Don’t like it!”
“I know you don’t,” their guide said for what had to be the hundredth time, “but you have to do it. People can’t go around naked like animals do.”
Zave smirked. “Yeah, Fey, why not?”
Fey glared at him, but didn’t answer. They walked in silence for a few minutes, until Clueless began fidgeting with the waistband of her sweatpants.
“Why can’t she just turn back into a dog?” Zave suggested. “She won’t have to wear clothes, and she already knows how to act like one.”
Zave jumped in surprise. Fey hadn’t been the one to yell at him—it was Clueless. She rounded on him, hands curled into fists, and Zave took a step backwards.
“O- Okay,” he said, holding up his hands in surrender. “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”
“Don’t want to!”
“Sure, that’s fine. But…why don’t you want to?”
Clueless looked at him, and then looked away. Zave took a hesitant step forward, and was shocked to see Clueless’ cheeks turn red. Her first ever blush, and he didn’t even know what he’d done to embarrass her.
“She needs to get a handle on being human,” Fey answered for her. “As soon as we get to the next town, we’re going to take a bus the rest of the way. Dogs aren’t allowed on the buses, so she’ll need to know how to blend in well enough to not attract attention.”
Zave hesitated, then nodded. They started walking again, the temperature slowly rising the higher the sun got in the sky. This was an old road, weaving snakelike through the wooded hills, and wasn’t commonly used. In the hour or so they’d been walking, only two cars had passed them, both going the opposite way. Still, Fey promised that the monsters, whatever and wherever they were, were less likely to attack them out in the open like this. Zave wasn’t sure he believed her, but since he had no better ideas of his own, he’d kept quiet.
The roar of an engine came from behind them, and they turned to see a bright red pickup truck coming up the road.
“Perfect,” said Fey.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Zave asked as it got closer. “How do we know the driver isn’t one of those things?”
“Because I’d be able to feel it,” she answered.
Zave frowned. She hadn’t “felt” them when they’d ambushed their camp the night before, so how could she be so sure that this wasn’t another trap? The truck rose over the last hill between them and it, and Fey extended her arm and stuck out her thumb. The truck rumbled as it came closer, and Zave found himself hoping it would just keep going. Then they wouldn’t have to worry about if…
The truck coasted to a stop next to them, and the passenger side window rolled down. “Where y’all headed?”
“Just to the next town,” Fey said.
“You can ride in the back if you want.” The driver, a bearded, middle aged man, jerked his thumb toward the truck’s bed. “Just don’t break nothin’, hear?”
“Thank you so much!” Fey gave him a smile, something Zave didn’t think he’d seen before, and she clambered into the back of the truck. “Come here, Clueless!”
“Car ride?” Clueless exclaimed. “Car ride!”
Zave gave the driver a look as Fey helped Clueless in. He looked normal enough, Zave supposed. So had the four men back at the old lady’s house, but there had been a strange sense of wrongness to them. It was easy to miss when he hadn’t been looking for it, but looking at the truck driver now…
“All right, fine,” he muttered, climbing into the back with the two girls. He would never call himself an expert, but something inside him told him this guy wasn’t a monster.
The truck started moving again, and Zave settled in for the ride. Fey had gotten Clueless to sit next to her, but as soon as Zave sat down she squirmed her way over to sit next to him instead. Soon they were making their way down the forest road at a good pace. The cool wind was a soothing sensation as it washed over Zave’s face. The ride was a little bumpy, and every turn the truck made threatened to send him sliding across the bed, but all things considered he couldn’t complain. He closed his eyes, wondering if he’d be able to get any sleep on the way—
“Clueless! Cut that out!”
His eyes snapped open, and he looked to see Clueless leaning over the side of the truck. The wind was blowing her hair into a tangled mess, and her tongue was hanging out of her mouth. He burst out laughing, earning himself another glare as Fey grabbed Clueless by the shirt and yanked her back into the truck.
“Car ride!” Clueless shouted in ecstasy.
“You can’t do that,” Fey said sternly. “You’re acting like a human now, remember? Not a dog!”
Clueless looked from Fey, to Zave, then back to Fey. “Car ride!”
Fey sighed. “Okay, pop quiz time. Clueless, where do you go to the bathroom when you’re a human?”
“Tree!” she answered without hesitation.
“No, that’s where dogs go to the bathroom! We talked about this earlier, remember? Where do people go?”
Clueless cocked her head. “Fire hydrant?”
Fey groaned in exasperation, and Zave couldn’t help but laugh again. It was like watching something out of a cartoon. Fey gave him yet another glare, her face turning red with anger.
“How can you laugh at this?” she demanded. “You realize it’s your fault Clueless is so…” She glanced at the other skinwalker. “…so mentally handicapped, don’t you?”
Zave sat up straighter. “Excuse me? What was I supposed to do? Teach a dog to use a toilet?”
“Clueless isn’t a—”
“Until yesterday she was!”
“Mental-al-al-al-alllll,” Clueless mumbled, experimenting with her new mouth and tongue. “Han-deeee-cap!”
“See?” Fey gestured toward her. “Even as a dog, you clearly didn’t respect her. If you really cared, you would never have named her Clueless!”
Zave opened his mouth, but before he could respond…
“What does Clueless mean?” asked Clueless.
Zave’s mouth snapped shut.
This time it was Fey’s turn to smirk at Zave. “Yeah, Zave, what does it mean?”
He looked at Clueless, trying to think of an answer that would sound satisfying without having to lie to her. When he’d first adopted Clueless as a puppy, the way she’d bumbled around, oblivious to everything except what was right in front of her nose, had been what had drawn him to her. The name had seemed funny to him then, an endearing way of accepting her for who she was. But now that she was a person, and not just a dog…
“That’s why she’ll be better off with other skinwalkers,” Fey said, smugly folding her arms. “Once she’s part of a real pack, she’ll finally get some damn respect!”
Zave looked down at his feet. Basking in her triumph, Fey went back to quizzing Clueless.
He hated to think about it, but what if she was right? Had he been a bad owner? Did he really not respect Clueless, either as a dog or whatever it was she had become? He thought back to all the dumb things she’d done. And what had he done in response? He’d laughed at her. Fey was right about one thing: Clueless was mentally handicapped, to put it nicely. If he had treated her more like an equal, and not just a dumb animal—a dumb animal he loved, but a dumb animal nonetheless—would she still be in the condition she was in now? Even if he had never found out the truth about her, didn’t she deserve an owner who didn’t look down on her? One who wouldn’t give her a degrading name like Clueless?
A pit formed in his stomach, and suddenly the morning didn’t seem nearly as bright.
He was a bad owner. And Clueless would be better off without him.