One

 

 

A DULL strand of coppery red hair worked loose from the haphazard bun at the back of her neck, and with a sigh, Eva brushed it back behind her ear. It was early morning, but the heaviness of the air promised another scorcher.

“’Ranny! ’Ranny!”

A delighted smile lit Eva’s face as the precocious three-year-old came running around the corner of the house. He couldn’t quite pronounce the “G” sound, so instead of Granny he called her Ranny. The bright morning sun hit the little boy, and his light auburn hair once again reminded her of a living flame. He had inherited her red tresses and moss-green eyes.

“Over here, Chipper.”

Her grandson was her pride and joy… and more special than anyone knew. It was a shame his mother and father couldn’t see that, but her daughter didn’t care for anyone but herself. Their relationship was stilted, at best. Chip’s father was more concerned with making money than having anything to do with his son. Eva hated to admit it, but she didn’t have much use for either of her grandson’s parents. As a result of both parents neglecting Chip, the older the little boy became, the more time he ended up spending with her. Which, secretly, relieved her. Fate had big plans for the little guy; she had seen that firsthand in one of her visions.

“Go fish now?”

She had promised him last night they’d fish in the pond close to her house. It was just the two of them now; her husband Ed had died of a heart attack a year ago. The man had been in his late fifties, active, didn’t drink or smoke—and one morning had dropped dead of a heart attack. Eva grieved that Chip would never remember his grandfather.

“Yes, sweetie, we’ll go to the pond and fish for a while.”

Eva had the poles, a small tackle box, and a picnic basket ready to go. With any luck, they’d be having catfish for dinner. Of course, that depended on how soon the little bundle of energy dancing around her tired out.

“Ride horsey?”

“Oh, sweetie, remember? I told you that Horsey may or may not show up today.” Eva glanced at the tree line as the animal Chip called “horsey” moved toward them. “Although something told me he’d be here.” The large, black cat moved nearer with a grace that belied the strength and deadliness he possessed. Keen, humanlike intelligence showed in his eyes. Eva was unsurprised. She knew full well this animal was more than what he appeared. “Horsey!” Chip squealed and raced in the direction of the animal.

“Had a feeling you wouldn’t miss this.” Eva, a smile on her lips, shook her head as a happy rumble sounded from deep within the animal’s chest. He lowered himself to the ground so Chip could climb on his back. “Okay, come along you two. Daylight’s a-wasting.”

Eva followed the huge cat, her grandson babbling merrily to the animal about whatever hit his fertile mind. The trip to the pond was a short one, and soon they arrived. But even with the small child riding on his back and talking nonstop, the creature never lowered his guard. His ears twitched as he listened to the woodland creatures, alert for any signs of danger. Eva trusted his instincts—in fact, trusted him with her and her grandson’s lives. Without him, she wouldn’t be alive. The beast had proven his loyalty to her and her parents a long time ago, and a friendship had been born.

Eva found a shady spot by the pond and laid out an old sheet she’d brought. There she laid the picnic basket, along with a few towels. After she cast out her line, she turned to watch as the animal and Chip played by the bank.

“Go get it!” Chip hollered as he threw a small ball she had brought.

The creature chased after the ball, and Chip ran after the beast. They pursued each other, the animal allowing the small child to catch him. He was always careful to keep his claws retracted as they played. Giggles and an occasional yip drifted to her.

Chip made his way to her side after he grew tired of the game. “Ranny, go swim?”

“Sure, sweetie.” Eva reeled in her line and helped the little boy take off his shoes, socks, and shirt. The beast waited patiently as she readied Chip, then followed the youngster to the water. “Have fun, boys.”

The water wasn’t deep where they splashed and frolicked. Anytime Chip wandered too deep, the cat herded him back to shallower water. Eva giggled like a young girl when the beast splashed Chip with his paw.

Chip wiped the water from his eyes. “No fair!”

“Oh, you’ve done it now.” Eva chuckled.

The beast turned his head to look at her and a sound rumbled from it that sounded amazingly like a laugh. When he turned back to the little boy, his greenish-yellow eyes widened. Chip floated on his back, kicking furiously. A tidal wave of water crashed down on the animal. Soft, playful growls and shrieks of laughter could be heard echoing through the woods as the beast and the small human child mock-fought. With a gentle nudge of his head, the animal ushered Chip from the water.

“Think it’s rest time, Chipper. You hungry?”

“Uh-huh.”

Chip rubbed his eyes with his fists as Eva dried him off. To the side, the beast licked his coat dry. Eva laid out the sandwiches and poured a cup of juice for Chip. A bowl filled with fresh water sat near her grandson’s plate. Chip and the creature settled down on the sheet to eat lunch. The animal took breaks from slurping water from his bowl to eat bits and pieces of the sandwich Chip fed him. Soon the little boy was curled up next to the creature.

“I’m going to try to get a little fishing done,” Eva whispered as her grandson slipped off to sleep. Purring softly, the beast nodded his head. “I won’t be far.”

When Eva returned a short time later with her catch, she stopped and watched the huge, black animal and the little boy sleeping next to each other.

“I’m back.” Eva sat down next to the beast. A long black tail rested across Chip’s legs, and greenish-yellow eyes focused on Eva. “You know this can’t go on much longer, my friend. He’s smart for a child his age, and soon he’s going to ask questions about you.”

The creature rumbled in agreement.

“I know it’ll be hard for you. But another year—maybe two—and you’ll have to disappear from his life. The time isn’t right yet for you to make yourself known.”

The creature rumbled again, sadness in his eyes.

Eva ran her hand over the thick black coat. “I know, dear. But the time will come. You and I both know that. It will come, and he’s going to need you. Take care of him for me, okay?”

The beast nodded his head again. His time would come, but not for many years yet. The little boy had to grow into a man first.

 

 

Twenty years later

 

 

CHIP had just finished clearing his desk when his boss, Mr. James, walked up to him. “Mr. Riley, could you please come to my office?”

“Well, shit,” Chip mumbled as his boss left. He slowly stood. The last month had been a nightmare. The global shipping company he worked for had started downsizing, and people were getting laid off coming and going. Sounded like he was next. The business degree he’d spent years getting wasn’t going to save his ass this time around.

Fifteen minutes later, he clocked out and trudged into the warm spring air. He loved springtime in the south… while it lasted. Before long, the humidity would be so thick you could cut it with a knife. He’d picked this small town in Mississippi because it wasn’t too far from his granny or from his workplace in Memphis, Tennessee. It was Friday afternoon, and his world had just been turned on its ear. His job in middle management was just another casualty, hacked to pieces by the ax the economy was wielding with such deadly force.

Chip fought this way through rush hour traffic as he headed home. Time slipped by as he followed the line of cars down the interstate, his mind blank. At last his exit came up and he turned. Another twenty minutes passed while he inched across town toward home. At last, he turned into his apartment complex and parked. Fidgeting with his keys, he unlocked his apartment door and let himself inside. He had planned to meet some friends after work for a few drinks but was no longer in the mood. He had two weeks left to work, and then he was out on his ass. Yeah, his mood sucked.

“What am I going to do?” Chip threw his keys on the bar and strode down the hall to his bedroom.

He quickly stripped out of his suit. After throwing his clothes over a chair, he pulled on a pair of old gray sweat pants. He made a beeline for the kitchen, grabbed a beer, and dropped down on the couch. He clicked on the TV and stared blankly at the lit screen as the last reporter on the five o’clock news signed off. Why was nothing in his life easy? He’d spent his childhood being ignored by both parents, school had been an endless bore, and college had been a repeat of the same.

He hadn’t been overly fond of his job—it had been a paycheck, nothing more. He hated working in an office. What he really wanted was to be outside. He wanted to work at something where he could use his hands, build and repair things. Why he had gone into business was beyond him. Chip sprawled on the couch, channel surfing mindlessly.

An hour later, his phone rang. The familiar ring tone blared out, and Chip seriously debated not answering. The ringing stopped. Well, decision made… until the ringing started again.

Giving up, he unlocked the cell phone and answered. “Hey, Simon.”

“Where are you at, Chip? You’re late.”

Chip scowled at the phone as he sipped his warm, forgotten beer. Well now, that was just plain gross. “Tonight’s not good. I think I’m just going to hang out here.”

“On a Friday night? Have you lost your mind?”

Chip leaned back, feet on the coffee table, and turned the volume down on the TV. “I’ve lost something, but it’s not my mind.”

“Explain, dude.”

After a short, intense conversation, he hung up. Once he’d explained what had happened, Simon tried nicely to talk him into coming on to the bar. When that hadn’t worked, Simon threatened to show up at his apartment with all their friends in tow. Knowing Simon meant it, Chip promised to come to the bar. The last thing he needed was for all of them to show up at his home. He’d been friends with the blond-haired, brown-eyed man since college. Simon was what Chip called a twink. He was a little on the short side, skinny, and young-looking, even though they were both twenty-three.

Chip showered quickly and dressed in an old, ripped-up, faded pair of black Levi’s and a black, short-sleeved knit shirt. He slipped his feet into his cowboy boots and grabbed his keys. Thirty minutes later, he was seated at the table with his friends. The bar was nothing fancy, but it had an open and relaxed atmosphere. It was clean, the food was cheap but good, and the drinks weren’t watered down. Apparently, Simon had passed the word about him losing his job, because no sooner did he sit down than the owner, Gus Hawkins, placed a beer in front of him.

“I heard what happened. Sorry, man, it sucks all the way around. This one, and the next if you want it, is on the house.”

Chip didn’t know the owner well, but they had spoken a few times. Most everyone called Gus “Hawk.” He liked the guy, and his friend Simon was in lust with him. “Thanks, Hawk. I guess bad news travels fast, huh?”

“Yeah, it does. Simon told me.” Hawk shrugged as he glanced back at someone sitting at the main bar. “But things have a way of working out.”

“Hope they work out in the next few weeks.” Chip raised the glass and nodded at Hawk. “Thanks, again.”

“No problem.” Hawk left after quickly running his eyes over Simon.

“Oh my God, he’s so damn sexy,” Simon breathed to Chip. “I swear, I don’t know what kind of aftershave or whatever he uses, but the scent drives me nuts. Makes me what to climb in his lap and lick him all over.”

“Down, boy.” Chip took a sip of his beer. Funny, he hadn’t smelled anything. Hawk was a big man, tall and well defined with muscular arms. He had short dark-brown hair with natural red highlights and hazel eyes. There was a tattoo on his right bicep of a bird. “Why not make a play for him? For the past two weekends you’ve sat in here and made googly eyes at the man, but done nothing.”

Simon looked down at his glass, and for a moment the carefree, happy attitude that was so him, slipped. “I’ve seen the guys he talks to, Chip. All big guys, just like him. And older too. See that one he’s talking to now—the one with the long black hair?”

Chip turned to the bar. Oh yeah, he’d seen the guy earlier. He had his back to them, though, so Chip couldn’t get a good look at him. “So?”

“He’s as far away from being a twink as you can get.” Simon frowned at the dark-headed man. “If that’s what interests Hawk, then I don’t have a chance. That guy’s tall, built, and I swear, there’s this air of danger about him. Just like Hawk.”

“Yeah, Hawk does have this… I don’t know what to call it. Edge might be a good word.” Chip glanced back at the bar. The guy talking to Hawk had caught his attention from the moment he’d entered the bar. That hair alone had Chip itching to run his fingers through it—it reminded him of a black silken waterfall. No one he knew had hair that long, and this man had hair down to the middle of his back. From what he could see, the stranger had nicely tanned arms. He wished the guy would turn around so he could see his face.

“That’s as good a word as any.” Simon sighed. “However you want to put it, the fact is Hawk intimidates me. I want to talk to him, but….”

Chip dragged his attention away from the guy at the bar. “Yeah, well, don’t go giving up just yet. I saw that look he gave you before he walked away.”

Simon perked up. “He did, didn’t he? Wonder if….”

Chip picked up the menu and ordered a couple of appetizers. If he was going to have a beer or two, then they needed food. He split his time between trying to catch a glance of the guy at the bar, talking to his friends, watching the big screen TVs, and listening to Simon plot and plan how to catch Hawk’s attention—and if Hawk was gay or bi. There were times he wanted to beat Simon’s head on the table, then maybe his own. Hell, at this point, maybe even Hawk’s. This game these two played was getting old, and Simon just wasn’t brave enough to make the first move. No straight man looked at another man the way Hawk’s eyes seared into Simon—that’s a fact.

By midnight, Chip was tired and ready to go home. Simon and the rest of their little gang tried to talk him into staying longer, but he’d had enough. As he was leaving, he glanced back at the main bar. The man he’d been eyeing all night had left at some point when he wasn’t looking. Disappointed, Chip made his good-byes, thanked Hawk again, and left.

He drove home, paying careful attention to the speed limit. He’d had maybe a beer and a half and plenty to eat, but still… the last thing he needed was a damn ticket. When he arrived at the apartment building, he parked in his usual spot. Immediately he noticed the antique truck several vehicles down from him.

“Huh, wonder who this beauty belongs to?” The damn thing looked as good as the day it was built. “Never seen it here before.”

Chip admired the truck a few minutes before heading down the breezeway to the back of the complex where his apartment was located. As his luck would have it, the light was out.

“Well, great, isn’t this just nice and dark?” Chip made a mental note to call the manager in the morning and report it.

This part of the apartment building was isolated, and having no light back here was not a good idea. It was already dark enough with the light on. He’d wanted an apartment in the back because there was a small ravine with woods close by. He’d actually seen a fair amount of wildlife back there, which brought back nice memories. It reminded him of his granny’s home where he’d spent most of his summers. Of course, that meant he didn’t get light from the street.

“Whew. Smells like we got ourselves a tomcat around here.” Chip wrinkled his nose as he opened his door. The smell of ammonia was heavy. “I think it’s taken a shine to my little patio area. Wow, that’s strong. God, I hope someone around here isn’t feeding it.”

Chip made a mental note to ask the manager if they could do something about the smell. He locked the door and threw his keys on the bar. He cleaned up his little living area and turned out the lights. With nothing else to do, he got ready for bed.

 

 

THE outline of something big and dark moved out of the ravine and crept up the small bank to the back of the apartment buildings. After sniffing the air for danger, it approached Chip’s apartment. He knew what a chance it was taking, but the need to check on the one he wanted drove him to take the risk. Chip hadn’t drunk much that night, but still….

Tomcat… really? The creature shook his massive head. At least you didn’t drink yourself silly tonight over losing your job, then get behind the wheel.

The animal knew where Chip lived, thanks to his granny. For years, he’d kept a check on the human. He was tired of waiting, dammit, but he had promised Chip’s granny he’d give the human time. Little did Chip know the time limit on that promise was about to run out. Death stalked the land; he sensed it. And when death struck, Chip would grieve—for that matter, so would he—but the time was approaching.

He peeked through the blinds of Chip’s bedroom window. Chip was a sheet-covered lump in the middle of the bed, hugging a pillow. The big cat’s heart ached. He could feel Chip’s desperation from where he stood.

Hang in there. It won’t be much longer now. Unfortunately, things are going to get worse before they get better.