I am a huge fan of the music of Sixx AM–and I am thoroughly enamored with their most recent release Prayers for the Blessed Vol. 2. A line in the song “Wolf at Your Door”–a song about depression–caught my attention and I spent numerous commutes thinking about different ways that line could play out. I decided to challenge myself to write three completely different stories based on that line. This is the first. –Laura Ducolon
“I’ve Seen My Assassin, I’ve Even Held Her Hand”–Sixx AM
I almost missed the emergency signal, so subtle were the two quick taps on my left shoulder followed by a squeeze on my right elbow. By the time my brain registered the message, I could not tell who had delivered it.
Per protocol, I stepped back from my position on the production line. My supervisor, Daciana, approached, her gray neck fur bristling slightly at my unexpected action. I kept my eyes downcast and respectfully requested emergency leave permission. I was a good worker, never late or absent, so it shouldn’t be a problem, but I was also a harassment target because of my family’s legacy in the resistance. But, after a moment, sniffing no fear or deception, Daciana growled her consent. I expressed my gratitude and, per protocol, covered my head with the hood on my red jacket. The red signified my status as an undomesticated human.
i went to the nearest Elimination Station, entered the cubby, locked the door and sat on the pot. Inside the roll of cleansing paper I found the coded message and deciphered it in my head. “Thumbs up for family.” All of our messages were at a minimum triple encoded. The thumb alone meant human, and thumbs up meant the opposite. So the whole message was “Human Family in danger”. Nonni. My Nonni was in danger.
Exiting the Elimination Station, I looked around to get my bearings and see if i was being observed. Foot traffic on this street was neither heavy nor light. I joined the pedestrians, eyes downcast as my rank-status required. I walked for two blocks, then turned down a side street and headed to a park. This park was open to all, so my red jacket was not out of place. I strolled on the path, eyes down when appropriate, but otherwise appearing to admire nature should anyone be watching. I rounded a bend in the path and approached a stand of firs. I knelt and feigned adjusting the buckles on my boots, glancing around to be sure I was alone. Seeing nothing alarming, I slipped the red jacket off and reversed it to black, then stepped off the path and into the trees. The hush and scent both soothed and exhilarated my senses. I consciously slowed my breathing and heart rate and began a deliberate count to thirty as i had been taught. This would ensure I had not been seen, and if I had been, allowed sufficient time to be confronted for my forbidden steps off the path.
Confident I was unobserved, I strode to the largest tree in the stand. At it’s base sat an imposing boulder. This boulder concealed an entry to The Labyrinth. A last look around and I activated the boulder’s hydraulics. As the boulder slid aside to reveal a staircase, I felt an urge to look around one last time. A quick scan revealed nothing, but then I glanced up. A crow. Known spy. I ducked into the staircase and pressed the closure handle. I knew the crow had seen and would report. The entrance was blown. I searched and found the crevice for the emergency klaxon. Fumbling, I pulled the lever sounding the alarm. I should have stayed to assist with walling up and sealing the entrance, but I couldn’t. I ran. Nonni was in danger.
Thoughts raced through my head as my feet raced through the Labyrinth. I didn’t know how the wolves had learned of me and at this point it didn’t matter. I ran through the underground corridors, eyes flicking to the walls and the path marked with a red hand, the sigil of my people. I didn’t really need to check–The Labyrinth was home to me, I had played for hours down here as a child, holding hands and skipping through the corridors and hidey-holes with my best friend, Karinah. Countless times I had followed the route to my Nonni’s house. As a leader of the Human Resistance, Nonni had an entrance to The Labyrinth secreted behind a cupboard in her kitchen. I loved entering the secret world with friends, oblivious to the importance of the subterranean world. We played hide and seek among the crates of food, water, blasters, candles. I was always sad when a playmate stopped coming, but did not understand that meant they had either died or been domesticated.
As a teenager, the system of tunnels provided lots of places to make out with boyfriends, or sit and talk for hours with Karinah, about who we would be mated with, as if we had a choice. Human Resistance was no longer resistance, but a preservation movement. Humans were now an endangered species. My parents had been killed during the Lupine Wars when I was an infant. My Nonni would be making the decision as to who would be my mate, and Nonni wanted the best. She favored Pavel, a strong, intelligent boy–a leader in the youth movement. Pavel was okay, but I liked Jem. Jem wasn’t as smart or as strong as Pavel, but he was kind and gentle and those were qualities I admired.
None of this mattered now. I needed to get to Nonni. My boots thudded in time with my heartbeat as I swiftly maneuvered corridors. I ticked off landmarks as I passed–hall to the planning room, the blanket storage, the dead end that used to have an entrance to a bank before the bank was rubbleized. I reached the corridor that hid Nonni’s entrance and froze. What if there were intruders in Nonni’s house and I blew her entrance? What if I didn’t use it and wasted precious time? My brain raced through scenarios, my feet refusing to move. I decided that one blown entrance was enough damage for the day, and raced to the next nearest portal outside. This entrance had a viewer, and I scoured the area high and low but saw no watchers of any species. I emerged and stood, shadowed, in an alley near a dump. I needed to get to Nonni’s. I also needed to not be noticed. Again, I put on the jacket, red side out, and put the hood up. I walked swiftly on the sidewalk, just a law-abiding worker hurrying home before curfew. As I neared Nonni’s house, I slowed my pace and paid attention to all around me. None of Nonni’s neighbors knew her true identity. To them, she was the sweet lady who sold flowers at the market. Fortunately, other dwellings on the street seemed quiet. I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Nonni’s front yard was neat. Her porch light was on, welcoming visitors. Normal. Heart pounding in my chest, I clambered up the steps, and opened the front door. Unlocked. Not normal.
Inside, I slipped out of my boots and closed the front door noiselessly. I crossed the empty living room in my socks. I peeked into the kitchen–a loaf of bread, plate, stick of butter and jar of jam sat on the counter. No sign of Nonni. I slunk down the hallway towards the bedroom. The bedroom door stood ajar–I inched forward, craning for a view without being seen. Ducking my head in awkward positions, I realized I was able to see the mirror on Nonni’s dresser. I moved my head around trying to see all corners of the room, and nearly gasped aloud. Nonni was in her bed, pillows propped up behind her back, blankets tucked in around her. Her features were carefully arranged in a calm expression–Nonni never wore a calm expression. And over near the window, I could see wolf paws. Nonni was indeed in grave danger.
I slid back towards the kitchen, mind racing. I had to assume the wolf had intelligence from the network of crows that I had been alerted and was on the move. Judging from Nonni’s expression, I was expected shortly. I may have been seen entering the house. I had to think quickly. Entering the kitchen I stifled a shriek as a form appeared–but breathed calmly as I recognized Karinah. She opened her mouth, but I stopped her with a finger to my lips. She nodded her understanding and clamped her lips closed. I went to Nonni’s drawer and pulled out a notepad and pencil she kept on hand for creating recipes. I wrote “wolf” on the pad and Karinah’s eyes widened. She took the pencil and wrote “youth know… on their way.” This should have comforted me, but it did not. I was concerned that wolven backup was on it’s way.
I decided that I needed to be in Nonni’s bedroom to protect her. Although she was a legendary revolutionary, she was also elderly. And, a high value target. I was in no mood to lose my Nonni. I grabbed her shopping basket, and lined it with a kitchen towel. Grabbing food items, I filled the basket with bread, apples, jam, some cheese, and bottle of juice. I put my shoes back on and opened the front door, then slammed it shut.
“Nonni??” I shouted, hoping to disarm the wolven interloper with my brazenness.
“Scarletta?” Nonni answered!! My heart lept with joy. “Scarletta, darling, I am unwell. In my bed.”
I walked back to her bedroom, thrusting the basket of her own food towards her. “Nonni… I bring you food. You should eat!” I plopped the basket on her bed, pretending to completely not see the paws behind the curtains. Nonni cut her eyes towards the window and I gave a slight nod to let her know I knew. I pulled out the bread and ripped off a chunk. “Some good bread, Nonni, will return your health. Let me put some jam on for you–your appetite is important.”
“Hi Scarletta,” Karinah spoke from the doorway. I turned and gave her a puzzled glare. “Karinah! How nice to see you… what brings you to Nonni’s house?” I tried to send Karinah a message with my eyes, but she was oblivious.
“Oh, I always love coming to Nonni’s” Karinah said as she took Nonni’s hand. Nonni did not look happy with this development. I thought it was because she now had two human youth in danger. I was wrong.
At that point, everything began to happen at once, and I remember it in frozen frames of real memory. The wolf sprang out from behind the curtain–no normal she-wolf, this was Ula, head of the Security Forces and responsible for co-opting all domesticated dogs to the Wolves side during the Lupine War and for developing the plan for domesticating humans. Nonni screamed, and rolled off the bed at the sight of the blasters Ula wielded. Simultaneously, I registered a tremendous clatter in the kitchen. My brain could not sort out the sounds. I struggled to stay focused on Nonni. Karinah was behind me. Ula snarled and rushed towards me; I threw the only thing I had available–the jar of jam. It smacked into her forehead, then fell and shattered on the floor, splattering sticky goodness into her leg fur, but also causing her to freeze in place, fearful of stepping on broken glass.
“Nonni! Let’s go!” I whirled to run out of the bedroom as Nonni rolled towards me, but Karinah blocked my path. She stood firm; I turned questioning eyes to Nonni who was pulling herself to standing.
“That’s what I was trying to tell you, Scarletta…. can you not see Karinah has been turned? She is… domesticated.” Nonni’s voice was weary, exhausted with years of rebellion.
“Karinah?” I almost whimpered the sense of betrayal was so great. My best friend. Domesticated. An informant.
Karinah smiled, a smile I had never seen before. She stepped into Nonni’s bedroom. The next thing I remember is Karinah tumbling to the ground, felled like a tree, a blaster flashing green and Ula crumbling into ashes, and Jem appearing in the doorway, blaster smoking, eyes focused with an intensity I had not known he possessed.
I collapsed into Jem, overwhelmed with all that had occurred in the last three minutes. Karinah rose from where she had fallen and ran. Jem started after her, but stopped when I tugged on his hand. Nonni pulled her nightgown off over her head revealing her camoflauge t-shirt and pants tucked into boots. Elderly she might be, but she was still a revolutionary. She took control. “Scarletta, Jem. Let’s go.” We all trooped into the kitchen, where the source of the previous noise became apparent as the entrance to The Labyrinth stood open, dishes from the cupboards smashed onto the floor.
“Well, this entrance is blown.” Nonni’s tone was matter-of-fact, but I knew she had taken pride in how long this entrance had been viable. We all entered the Labyrinth. Nonni located the closing lever and pulled it. She nodded to me, and I sounded the emergency klaxon. This time, we all stayed to wall up and seal the entrance. Nearby humans who heard the klaxon came to assist, somber realization that one of the oldest and most longstanding safe houses was no longer.
After, Nonni, Jem and I walked through the corridors as I told of how I had been alerted, the crow, and my run through the Labyrinth. Nonni decided that we should wall up and seal the other entrance I had utilized. Jem nodded his agreement. We were unsure of the depth of deception Karinah had managed–her turning was the most damaging in at least a decade. She had long resided in The Labyrinth and was familiar with many entrances.
Nonni gathered supplies and settled into her underground quarters. She hadn’t used them for more than long weekends of meetings in quite some time. I helped her store some goods and make up a cot. I looked around questioningly as to where I should set up my own cot. Nonni took my hand and smiled. “I think you and Jem should get your own quarters. It’s time. He’s proven his worth. He was first to come running when he heard you were in danger.” Jem looked down at me and I looked into his eyes. It was time. Time for us to stand by each other. Time to refocus and revitalize the Human Resistance.
Jem had quarters, the rest of his family long deceased. We made our way there, silent with the heaviness of the day. I was unprepared to move forward in the Resistance. Too long I had stayed in Nonni’s shadow and I now realized and understood that my reluctance caused danger to others. I needed to rectify my lack of seriousness.
Entering the spare but homey quarters, Jem’s shoulders relaxed. Safe. I stood in the middle of the room, unsure of what to do next. Jem smiled and asked if I was hungry. I hadn’t thought about it, but I was. He went over to his cupboard of provisions to make a selection. A movement from the back room caught the corner of my eye, and I turned. Karinah came out from the bedroom, a blaster in her hand. Jem froze.
“Do you know there is a price on your head Scarletta?” Karinah nearly slavered with greed. “It has been so difficult to pretend to remain your friend.” The blaster was leveled at my eyes. Jem remained frozen in my peripheral vision. As far as I knew, he had no options.
In a fluid motion, Jem slammed the cupboard door and hurled a tin of rations at Karinah. Her lupine reflexes were too fast–she fired the blaster and ducked. I saw the blaster flash…