The First Kill
by Raluca Balasa
The den was hazy with smoke from the fire pit. Reuben lounged in his hay bed, one hand gripping his share of the deer carcass and the other scratching the sensitive flesh on his back. It was hot in here, what with the fire and the stuffy, iron smell of blood in the air, else he’d have kept his true form to save himself some discomfort.
Though Father and Uncle sat closest to the fire, they’d maintained their forms: grey fur so sleek it reflected the flames, ears perked for signs of trouble and tongues lolling from black-gummed mouths. Other than Reuben, only Gramps and Other Uncle — the one Reuben avoided because uncles weren’t supposed to be younger than their nephews — had chosen to keep their human forms tonight.
“Hurry up, my boy,” Gramps urged as Reuben chewed. “I’m hungry.”
Reuben spat the meat paste into a wooden bowl, then handed it to the old man and tried not to watch as the latter slurped it up. Gramps preferred his human form because it let him play on the empathy of whichever family members happened to be human at the time; as wolves, they didn’t look twice at an old pack member in need.
Reuben stared ahead at the dancing flames, and the way his father’s shadow played on the walls as he wrestled his brother for the last rib on the carcass. A stab of pain travelled up Reuben’s arm, and he winced.
“You takin’ care of that wound?” Gramps smacked his lips against toothless gums.
Reuben looked down at the cut scaling the length of his arm. It was deep and purple around the edges, but nothing compared to what he’d given his enemy. He’d swiped that tiger’s shoulder right off.
“Just a scratch,” he answered, painfully aware of how high his voice sounded. He pretended to choke so he could clear his throat.
Gramps set down the bowl. “You did well for your first kill, lad. Tough old bastard.”
Reuben just nodded.
“Remember: them cat-folk ain’t like us. Sly and deadly, with no sense of loyalty. They’d scratch a brother’s eyes out ’cause the moon’s glinting in ’em. All them bullies you hate at school — most likely cat-folk. Just ask ’em.”
“We’re not allowed to,” he reminded the old man. Across the den, Uncle howled as Father pushed him into the fire pit and won the rib. “We’re supposed to focus on our human similarities at school, not our differences.”
“Feel-good crap. Watch for the cat-folk, and chew me some more meat while you’re at it.”
* * *
At school, no one broke the human-only rule. Not only was changing impossible on school grounds, thanks to these damned shock collars, but never knowing whom to trust kept things interesting. Friends came and went in cycles. You couldn’t keep anyone around long, because you didn’t know who they really were. Most of the time, it felt like being a spy. Boy or wolf, Reuben had to admit that was pretty cool.
But nothing beat baiting Ellie. She was the short, sturdy type — by no means a beauty — but something about the hardness in her eyes, the way her lips pursed before she smiled, intrigued him. Several times he found himself looking at her from a certain angle, or in a shaft of light streaming through the broken window, and thinking that an ounce more beauty would ruin her.
I ate an owl yesterday. Man, that baby antelope put up a fight. You’re not missing any brothers, are you? All lines he’d used trying to get a reaction from her.
She’d never batted an eye.
Today, though, as he slid into the splintered desk next to hers, he felt a shift in the air around her. His quip withered on his lips. Her muscles were taut, face sharply-angled as though she hadn’t eaten or slept in days. She shifted slightly at his presence, like one wanting to recoil but trying not to seem rude about it. Ellie had always been aloof with him, but never like this.
Her chest rose and fell shallowly. When she turned, he saw that one of her eyes was swollen. Instinctively he reached out — he didn’t know why, what he hoped to do — but she twitched away.
“It’s okay,” she said.
“Who did this?”
Her dark eyes lowered. “You know I can’t talk about it.”
“Just... try to say it vaguely. Maybe the collar won’t pick it up.”
“I don’t want more pain, okay?”
He decided to drop it, but then he caught a hint of red and looked down and saw the two long scratches running down her arm — scratches mirroring his own. Last night’s encounter with the tigers flashed across his mind. He could still smell the blood in his nostrils, feel it sticking to his fur. He’d been the one to swipe a paw across the female tiger’s limb. Funny; not how I’d imagined knocking Ellie off her feet.
For a mad moment, he almost laughed.
But Ellie wasn’t one to let some bruises keep her down. She’d come to school in worse shape than this and laughed about it. His gut clenched. Suddenly he knew this wasn’t about her at all, but the older tiger.
His first kill.
Every joke he had ever made seemed revolting now. Ellie’s eyes were red-rimmed but dry. He wanted to nudge her with his shoulder, to wink at her and call her ugly and hold her back when she hit him for it. Instead, he stared at the blood beneath his nails.
And tugged his sleeve to hide his own wound.
Copyright © 2017 by Raluca Balasa