Metamorphosis by Jennifer Carole Lewis
Publication date: February 2016
Genres: New Adult, Paranormal Romance
Ron McBride thought his life couldn’t possibly get any worse. He’s been physically transformed, hunted across most of North America and is haunted by the failures of his past. Now it looks like he’s about to die in the Canadian wilderness.
When he wakes up in the tiny community of Bear Claw, he thinks he’s died and gone to heaven. Particularly when he meets Lily Charging Bull, a beautiful young woman whose family runs almost everything. But there’s a reason why no one has found Bear Claw before.
Lily and her family are skinwalkers, able to shift between human and animal form. For generations, they’ve protected the lalassu who can’t blend easily with human society, often lethally. The question is, will they offer Ron sanctuary or will he vanish like last year’s snow?
Snow’s ethereal silvery beauty was best appreciated by someone who wasn’t having to slog through it, Ron McBride decided, pushing his way through clinging white drifts. Halloween might be a few weeks away but this far north, winter already had a solid grip. Light-headed and dizzy, he shook his head against the illusion of the dark trees merging with the sky, forming a cage around him.
Without the strength of his enhanced muscles, this cross-country detour would have dropped him hours ago. As it was, he began to wonder if he’d made a fatal mistake. Hell of a thing if his paranoia ended up killing him.
Four months of running. Four months of carrying the burden which weighed down his jacket pocket. Never staying in any one place for more than a few days. Always making his way further north and west, searching for the tiny community Virginia Harris had told him about. He’d already learned the fine art of scrounging for cash-only day labor but after his captivity he needed to be extra careful. It was too easy to accidentally lift more than he should have been able to or move faster than human reflexes allowed. People noticed and then he had to leave quickly before his hunters showed up on his trail.
He’d been moving steadily, trying to fulfill a promise with little more than one name which didn’t appear on any maps and another name which had been an alias. He’d been forced to try and research both without drawing any attention to himself. All he could do is keep moving forward and hoping that he would eventually find someone who would recognize one or the other. He was exhausted, worn out from constantly being on edge. He’d had a few lapses, blackouts which ended with mad scrambles to escape. Just a few days to rest. If he could get them, maybe he could finally start planning rather than reacting. Find a way to fulfill his promise and then find a way home.
Yesterday, he’d hitched a ride with a trucker who’d promised to take him to one of the remote supply towns in northern Canada, near the Alaska border. Ron couldn’t even remember the name through the fatigue fog drowning his brain. It had been lost but he did remember the man at the rest stop, poking at the collection of sunglasses, candy and toiletries under the harsh fluorescent lights. The one dressed in plaid and jeans, with a baseball cap pulled low over his features. There had been a jarring addition to the traditional trucker uniform. Expensive leather boots.
He didn’t know who the man was or what he was doing there, but he wasn’t about to take the chance. He ducked back out the door and began to walk. The snow fell lightly on him, promising to cover his tracks in fluffy obfuscation. His dark clothes would help him to disappear into the dense woods.
Nearly twenty hours later, his choice didn’t seem so brilliant anymore. There was a lot of wilderness up here. He could wander for weeks and never come across another human being. He only had a few basic survival rations in his backpack. Without warmth and shelter, he wasn’t going to have to worry about his former captor finding him. His corpse would vanish without a trace.
The picturesque puffs of snow floating down from the sky might make a lovely postcard but they clung to his hat, hair and clothes, melting and refreezing into dense chunks of ice, weighing him down. His fingers shook with cold despite being pressed into his armpits as he walked. He needed to stop soon and take a chance of pursuit catching up to him if he wanted to survive. Just a little further.
The light faded rapidly into grey-blue twilight. Ron knew he needed to stop and build a shelter except his body seemed to have acquired a terrible inertia, plodding endlessly. It took more effort than he wanted to believe to force himself to stop and actually look at his surroundings.
Black silhouettes of pine trees jutted into the sky all around him. The steadily falling snow piled into waist high drifts. He needed some bare ground and a fire. Numbly, he remembered a lesson in survival training. Birch bark burned, even when wet. Staggering through the snow, he peered into the forest, searching for tell-tale white trunks.
His frozen fingers bled as he pried strips of bark from a birch and broke branches to burn from a nearby pine. He found a small gap in the snow, blocked by three large trees growing close together. He used a branch to sweep away the sparse accumulation of snow and laid out the supplies for his fire. It took him three tries to get a match to light and another three before he got a piece of birch bark alight. Luckily the branches he’d broken were relatively dry and pitchy, catching easily and flaming brightly.
The warmth hit him like a truck, sparking an irrational temptation to crawl directly into the tiny fire to thaw his frozen body. He clenched his jaw against the pain of blood returning to numb extremities. He’d give himself a little time to warm up and then he’d go collect more wood and see about a shelter. Just a little time.
His weariness seduced him into dangerous unconsciousness. Ron felt as if he’d only closed his eyes for a moment when a snuffling sound popped them back open. His fire had burned out and the cold ground had leached the remaining warmth from his legs. It was dark, far too dark.
His body wanted to collapse back into sleep. A tiny piece of his brain shrieked warning that if he did, he would never wake again. He needed to get up and get moving again.
As he rocked back, preparing to rise, the darkness in front of him moved.
Adrenaline cleared away the twin clinging cobwebs of exhaustion and cold. The image in front of him suddenly resolved into perfect terrifying clarity.
A bear stood less than five feet away from him.
Ron’s hands trembled as he watched the animal. It was monstrous, the shaggy head easily the size of his torso. Even on all fours, the shoulders would reach his waist and the massive hump over them would be halfway up his chest. If it stood, he guessed it would measure ten feet. Dark brown shaggy fur blended into the darkness, except for a short slash of golden brown over its shoulder, like a crescent moon.
The bear huffed at him, clacking its jaws together. Controlling his fear, Ron slowly moved up, using the tree trunks for balance. If he could go slowly enough, maybe he could get out of range before it took an interest in him. His legs were numb and sore, ensuring he would have no chance of outrunning the creature.
Except it didn’t seem aggressive.
It kept looking at him as if trying to figure out what he was. Perhaps it hadn’t seen a human before. If ignorance kept it from trying to eat him, Ron could happily let it continue. He thought bears were supposed to hibernate in winter, though. He vaguely remembered reading that a bear who was awake in winter was considered especially dangerous.
“Good bear. Nice bear,” he croaked.
The bear’s ears went flat against its skull, exactly like an annoyed cat. It snorted and shook its head.
“You don’t want to eat me, Mr. Bear,” Ron continued. “Go on and find a pik-i-nik basket somewhere.” He stopped as the creature let out a low growl.
Okay, so much for the human-voice-calms-wild-animals theory. The bear reached out with an enormous paw and raked through the remains of his fire. A few glowing coals shone amid the ashy flakes. Then it poked at the remaining crisped fragments of birch bark, growling again.
When it turned and began to amble away across the clearing, Ron saw his chance. He eased himself around the trees and started walking slowly out of the bear’s sight. A good plan and one which might have worked if his legs had cooperated.
His stiff limbs collapsed under him, dropping him to the ground with a massive thud. The bear’s attention immediately swung back to him and primitive instinct took over. It didn’t matter how many times he’d been told to never run from a wild animal, his feet were pumping before his brain could consciously give instruction.
Running wildly through the woods, he heard the bear crashing behind him. This is it, he told himself. I’m going to die now. He tried to summon his enhanced strength for a leap into a tree but his abused muscles had already had enough. He slammed into the trunk and then rolled down the hill on the far side, his backpack flying off and scattering his belongings across the snow.
A tree graciously halted his downward tumble, catching his head and shoulders with a tooth-rattling abrupt stop. Stunned, he could only stare at the top of the ridge as the bear looked down on him.
The life of Ron McBride, ended by Canadian wildlife. Embarrassing, but at least no one would ever know. He braced himself for the inevitable crunch of jaws.
The bear stared at him, outlined against the inky sky. Then it turned and walked away.
He couldn’t believe his luck. Instead of being a bear’s before-bedtime snack, he was going to get to die of a combination of exposure and a concussion. He patted his jacket, feeling for the hard lump he carried. Still intact. He tried to force himself to his feet but he was too weak. Wearily, he stared at the green and blue lights floating in the sky above. Maybe this was for the best. All the things he’d done and seen. Maybe they should go to his grave with him.
Resignation pulled him down into the darkness.
Jennifer Carole Lewis is a full-time mom, a full-time administrator and a full-time writer, which means she is very much interested in speaking to anyone who comes up with any form of functional time-travel devices or practical cloning methods. Meanwhile, she spends her most of her time alternating between organizing and typing.
She is a devoted comic book geek and Marvel movie enthusiast. She spends far too much of her precious free time watching TV, especially police procedural dramas. Her enthusiasm outstrips her talent in karaoke, cross-stitch and jigsaw puzzles. She is a voracious reader of a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction and always enjoys seeking out new suggestions.