CHAPTER ONE: NATHAN
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
"There was another body in the bathroom tonight," Sophie announced, dropping her keys on the battered Army trunk that served as a hall table. A skirl of cold air swept past her, its shrill piccolo chill lingering even after she'd shut the door and taken off her jacket. "That's the third guy who's passed out back there in two weeks. Chuck's scared to death that someone's going to freak out and call the cops."
Jess, straight off a double ER shift and gray with exhaustion, kept eating. Nathan doubted that he could even taste his food.
"I'm surprised someone hasn't called them already," he said, pushing out a kitchen chair for Sophie. "Sounds like a drug thing. You'd think Chuck would be picking up the phone himself."
"I don't think it's drugs," Sophie said. "I'd smell them, you know?" She glanced at their plates, her snub nose wrinkling. "Speaking of smell. Hamburger again?"
"It's cheap, it's fast, it's red meat," Nathan said. "Want some?"
"No thanks. And if you'd seen that YouTube clip about pink slime, you wouldn't touch it either. I'm going to make eggs."
Nathan took another bite, leaned back in his chair, and watched her puddle olive oil into a skillet. "It's weird for anyone to be a vegetarian," he remarked, "but it doesn't make any sense at all for you. You're going to get sick if you keep it up."
"Eggs are a complete protein," Sophie said, her response automatic. The oil bubbled; she cracked in the last three eggs in the carton and turned the gas down to low. "So are rice and lentils. So is yogurt."
Nathan raised a dubious eyebrow. "Don't come crying to me when you get anemic," he said. "So - no drug smell, huh? Think there's a gas leak?"
She tipped the eggs onto a plate and joined him at the table. They were pale and barely-cooked, the yolks still half-liquid and jiggling in their membranes. "I don't think so," she said, digging in with the side of her spoon. "They don't smell like gas. They smell like - well, they smell Mutable. But not like us."
Nathan's other eyebrow shot up. "It's not even close to full moon," he said. "Two weeks left to go. Nobody's taken a nibble from them?"
Sophie shook her head around a mouthful of eggs. "No," she said. "And like I said, it's nothing I recognize. No one we know. But there's that thing there, that shifting thing. One smell and then another. And it's got Chuck completely weirded out."
"I bet." Nathan glanced over at Jess, whose fork had stilled. "Hey," he said, nudging his brother's scrub-covered shoulder. "Rise and shine. If you don't get to bed under your own steam, neither one of us is going to be able to put you there."
Jess opened his eyes, blinking muzzily, and set down his fork. "What time are you waking up tomorrow?"
"I have work at eight, same as always. You have early-morning class, Sophe?"
"Tomorrow's Friday. Nothing till eleven."
"I have to be in at seven," Jess said. "Do you mind setting your alarm early, just in case I turn mine off by accident?"
"I'll do it," Nathan said. "Get some sleep, buddy."
"Being on call sucks," Jess said. Nathan suspected that he wasn't quite awake even now. "I don't know how the humans do it. Okay, I'm going. See you in April, the next time I have a day off."
"I hope being a doctor someday is worth him having to do this now," Sophie said under her breath. "He looks awful."
"Some people might say the same about bartending at a strip club to pay for college."
"Because dealing with high school kids all day is so much more pleasant."
"At least they don't hit on me."
"From what I hear, some of them would like to."
"Name your source."
He laughed and pretended not to notice that she was mopping up the last of the egg yolk with the side of her forefinger. Sophie might be little and cute and an avowed vegetarian, but there was no getting around it.
She'd still been raised by wolves.
"Morning, Counselor," said Ivy, the front-desk secretary, as Nathan pushed through the glass doors into the school office. "And how are we today?"
"Morning, Ivy. We're just fine, thanks."
"Stamp that snow off your shoes before you walk on the carpet. Bob just vacuumed. And when you have a minute, Mr. Adams would like a word."
Les Adams was the vice-principal in charge of discipline. "In regards to what?"
"He didn't say," Ivy said primly, cutting her eyes sideways at a row of chairs opposite the desk. A scrawny, sullen ninth-grader lounged in the far chair, skinny knees on display through the holes in his deliberately tattered blue jeans, the backpack on his lap not quite obscuring the smart phone he wasn't supposed to be using. He smirked and waggled his fingers at Nathan.
Nathan sighed. "Good morning, Caden."
"I called the mother," Ivy said under her breath. "Both at home and on her cell. No answer."
"I'm sure she's busy," Nathan said, noncommittal.
Ivy snorted. "She's got this number blocked, more like. It's not like I ever call with good news. Well, have at it, Counselor."
"Have a nice day, Ivy," Nathan said, and crossed the office to knock on Les Adams' door.
It was ten-thirty before he got to his voice mail. Three messages: one from Caden's mom asking him not to let Ivy call her at work again, one from Sophie's boss Chuck, and the third from Selma Whitaker, the Mutable community's mole at DSS. He called Selma back first.
"You're going to be processing a new student this afternoon," she said without preamble. "Masaharu Satou, age 14, grade 9, transferring in from South Boston. Goes by 'Mase'. I suspect that he may be Mutable and not yet realize it. He'll bear watching."
"Trouble at his old school?"
"None that he caused," Selma said. "He fits the profile, though - small for his age, frequent illness-related absence, complaints of monthly migraines, delayed puberty. He didn't open up to me much, but the report from his former school says he was bullied unmercifully. Japanese father, location unknown; American mother, deceased - he's been staying with an elderly great-aunt who just went into assisted living." Nathan heard her rustling papers on her end of the line. "He was briefly in foster care, but now there's an older half-sister in the picture who's acting as his guardian. Eiko Satou. According to her, she hasn't seen their father for years. I couldn't detect Mutability on her during our interview, but that's not surprising, considering how guarded they both were."
"I'll keep an eye out."
"Do that," Selma said. "The kid is fragile enough as it is. If I'm right about him and he's gearing up to Change, he's going to need a mentor. Maybe an advocate, too, if the sister doesn't know about him already."
"Thanks for the heads up, Selma."
He hung up and called Caden's mother on her cell phone. She didn't answer.
One more call to return, and Nathan was almost positive he knew what Chuck wanted. He closed his office door, took out his cell phone, and pulled up Chuck's home number from memory.
"How's school, Teach?"
"Let me see," Nathan said. "So far this morning I've written twelve letters of college recommendation, printed half a ream of paper's worth of scholarship forms that most of the kids won't bother to fill out or send in if they do, rearranged two schedules to accommodate former best friends who are no longer speaking to each other and refuse to attend the same classes, rewritten six IEPs using the new state-mandated format, mailed out the senior transcripts, and attempted to counsel a young man who was unwise enough to refer to his vice principal by a derogatory term. I would have counseled his mother as well, but she won't pick up the phone."
"Which derogatory term would that be?"
"'Fat Curly-Sue motherfucker'," Nathan said. "Quite poetic, really. I wrote it down in his file."
Chuck guffawed, and Nathan - checking to make sure the door was still tightly closed - allowed himself a guilty snicker.
"Poor Les," he said. "Even I could barely keep a straight face the first time I heard it. The kids are going to be repeating that for months."
"Yeah, well," Chuck said. "There's a reason they call it the gene-pool lottery; most people lose. We can't all be pretty boys like you."
"So, did you just call to chat?" Nathan wanted to know. "Because some of us have to inspire the youth of America for another couple of hours today."
"Sophie told you about the guys passed out in the bathroom?"
"Weirdest thing. No drugs, barely any alcohol. One of 'em was stone cold sober - he'd only been in the club ten minutes, according to his friend. Beer still untouched on the bar. Went to the bathroom to drain the lizard and poof, we find him flat on his back on the floor twenty minutes later, dead to the world and smiling in his sleep."
"Sophie said there was a … smell," Nathan said carefully.
"Sex," Chuck supplied. "Musk so hot and heavy you could put it in a bottle and sell it. Definitely Mutable, definitely predatory. Beats me what kind, though. Not wolf, not cat, not bear. Not furry at all, come to think of it, but it's not one of the big birds either. Nothing I know."
"Have the victims all been human?"
Chuck thought for a minute. "So far, yeah."
"I'll come by tonight and sniff around," Nathan said. "That's what you're after, right?"
"Yeah. All these guys, they look like you. Young, clean-shaven, off-duty white-collar professionals. This thing has a type, maybe it'll come on to you and we can figure out what it is."
"Always happy to help a friend," Nathan said, and hung up.
The rest of his morning passed in a haze of activity: more IEPs, prep work for next week's standardized testing, mediating a lunchroom scuffle between two junior girls who were both hung up on the same oblivious boy. Nathan barely had a moment to think about his conversation with Selma, but he couldn't deny the empathy that lanced through him at her recital of Mace Satou's woes. She could have been describing Nathan himself at fourteen: slightly built, bookish, voice not yet fully changed, plagued with the debilitating full-moon headaches that descended on every Mutable kid at the onset of puberty. He couldn't imagine going through that without having Jess two years ahead of him, living proof that one magical moonlit night the headaches would cease and the Change would occur, catapulting him from scrawny-weakling to alpha-male in a crazy two-month growth spurt during which he could sit in class and literally feel himself getting taller, feel the hair sprouting on his chest and the tightening of his clothes against his skin as his body added bulk with every breath he took.
Kiddie Mutables were hardy little specimens, and adult Mutables damn near impossible to kill. But everything in between was a nightmare. If this kid didn't know what was happening to him, he probably thought he was about to die.
Inclined as he was toward sympathy, Nathan found himself surprised at Mace Satou's self-possession. He saw where Selma got her diagnosis – the kid was barely five feet tall and looked much younger than his fourteen years. He understood the bullying, too; Mace was too pretty to fly under the locker-room radar. Silky-straight black hair long enough to brush his collar and streaked a defiant crimson at the tips, pale golden skin, knife-edge cheekbones, sulky emerald-green eyes that he must have inherited from his Caucasian mother – in his skinny jeans and shrunken alt-band T-shirt, he looked like a miniature version of a Bollywood teen actor. No wonder he got beaten up all the time in Southie – and this respectable but working-class North Shore suburb wasn't likely to be much more forgiving.
Luckily for Mase, Nathan had a trump card or two.
"That's the last of the paperwork," he said, scanning down the page to be sure the section marked 'Parent-Guardian Contact Information' was complete. "I hope you'll be happy here at Roosevelt, Mase. It's bound to be different from South Boston in some ways, but we like to think we're big enough to provide you with a full complement of class and extracurricular choices, yet small enough to know your name and customize your experience in a way that's optimal for all concerned."
"Let me guess," Mase said under his breath. "That means you'll be watching me."
Nathan inhaled and held his breath for a moment. Not to control his temper – it took more than one smart-ass comment from a high-school freshman to get him going, after six years at this job – but as a diagnostic. The kid's hackles had raised momentarily, and Nathan could swear that in that split second of uncontrolled emotion, he'd exuded a faint whiff of Mutability.
What kind it was, he didn't know – nor would he, until Mase made it through the Change. Maybe not even then, if the kid kept a tight enough lid on his emotions. Judging from the eyes, though, he'd say cat. Wolf eyes tended to look like his own – light brown, edging subtly to amber near the pupils.
He had to hand it to Selma. She called it right nine times out of ten.
"I'm responsible for nearly four hundred students, Mase," he said now. "I don't have time to watch anyone. I do, however, have time to talk, should you decide you'd like that."
"Don't hold your breath," Mase muttered. Nathan ignored him.
"For the time being," he continued, "I've assigned you to a pair of student mentors. Ty Johnson is a senior and Leanne Ellis is a junior. You'll be shadowing one or the other of them for the rest of the week, when you aren't in class."
"They'll help you find your classes and introduce you around." Nathan stood up and nudged his door open. "Come on in, you two."
Mase's pupils dilated when he saw the newcomers, and Nathan didn't blame him. Mutable teenagers, once they got over the awkward pre-Change years, exuded an animal vitality that people who didn't know better usually referred to as 'charisma'. These two were a year into their Change and glowing with confident health: Leanne tawny and golden in her cheerleader's uniform, Ty mocha-skinned and lanky, with lean basketball muscles and the cool hazel gaze of a young tiger.
More to the point, Nathan thought, they were just nice kids – civic-minded, comfortable with themselves, instinctively sociable – and it didn't hurt that they were popular and influential; Mase could use all the protection he could get. And they would protect him, because of that whiff of Mutability. They would remember, and empathize.
Rule One: shifters stuck together. Their secrets were always too big to keep alone.
He dismissed all three of them to lunch, mentally congratulating himself for handling the situation as neatly as he had, and was about to close his office door when he looked up and saw Ivy watching him.
"That one's going to be trouble," she said, her eyes hooded and speculative. "I can always tell."
"He seems like a nice enough kid."
"I've been sitting at this desk for thirty years, Counselor," Ivy said. "I know a bad seed when I see one."
"He reminds me of myself at that age," Nathan said without thinking, and instantly regretted having spoken. Ivy was a one-woman Smithsonian of personal information about her co-workers, and he avoided adding to her collection when he could. Mutables couldn't afford to be open books, outside their circle of intimates.
"I can see that," she said. "But then, I had you pegged from the beginning, too."
Nathan stared at her for a minute. She smiled at him – a funny, knowing half-smile that engaged only one corner of her mouth – then drew her flowered cardigan more firmly around her plump shoulders and turned her attention back to her desk.
It was a long time before he could concentrate on the rest of his IEPs.