Closeted in a toilet cubicle, willing myself not to puke, I remembered what I’d done that morning. I saw myself open the cages, saw the wild cat jump out gracefully, pausing to rub itself against my leg before stalking into the undergrowth. I saw the baby possum look up at me with huge round eyes, then run up my leg. Reaching down, I had plucked it from its clinging hold on my pants, and carried it in cupped hands across to a tree. Placing it on a branch just above my head, I’d muttered, “Sometimes people have to be kicked out of home for their own good.”
I felt embarrassed all over again. You didn’t have to be Sigmund Freud to work out where those words had come from.
Mike had sat there, watching me, not saying anything. Not even when I made that muttered remark, although there was no hope whatsoever that his keen ears wouldn’t have heard exactly what I’d said. I knew he wouldn’t understand it. Heck, I didn’t understand it myself.
No surprise there. You’re three for three — don’t understand you and your dad, don’t understand you and Mike, don’t understand why you do any of the stupid things you do.
The thought wasn’t exactly helpful.
When I finally emerged from the toilet, Mike didn’t make any comment then either. For which I was grateful. I felt stupid enough.
I couldn’t bring myself to ask how the talk with Lin had gone, what he’d told her, how she’d reacted. I wanted to know, but every time I started phrasing the question in my head, my guts knotted.
She’d seemed calm enough when they rejoined us, long as you didn’t notice the stunned shock in her eyes, and the way the space between her and Mike had widened. I wished I thought those signs were too subtle for Sue to read.
Fat chance. I could tell she was desperate to get Lin alone to pump her. No problem there; none of us were anxious to prolong the encounter. Mike and I left immediately, and I headed straight for the toilets.
And here we were, in the shadows of the science block, in a grotty little nook that had the sole advantage of being reasonably private. I leaned against the cold brick wall and closed my eyes.
Mike said softly, “I told her what I was. I told her about the memories and how I’d let First Brother take me over. I told her about slashing my wrists. I didn’t say anything about you, and I didn’t give her any details about the memories. Okay?”
I swallowed, feeling the vomit rise in my throat again. This was so not like me. I didn’t understand why I was freaking out like this. What was him telling Lin, compared to the rest of it?
Mike said, “Everything’s coming out, all the secrets. And now someone outside the family knows part of it, and you’re afraid everyone’s going to know everything. That’s why you’re freaking.”
Okay, I didn’t understand what was going on with me, but that didn’t mean I wanted to be analyzed. Not that I could tell him that.
“She thinks I’m crazy, of course. Can’t blame her for that. But she couldn’t deny the claws and the hair. So. Crazy and some kind of horrible mutant. But I don’t think she’ll tell anyone. Even Sue.” There he went again, answering my fears. Okay, maybe that wasn’t as bad as all that. Long as he didn’t confront me with them, and long as I didn’t think about how he knew what I needed, I wasn’t unhappy that he knew what to say to make me feel better.
And I really hoped his insight into Lin was as good as his reading of me, but I wondered how long Lin would be able to resist telling such a juicy secret to her best friend.
No, that wasn’t fair. But I knew the weight of this secret, and I didn’t think she’d be able to resist sharing it with someone eventually. And I was damn sure, if she told Sue, that would be an end to secrecy.
We got through the rest of the day somehow.
* * *
Mike started eating as soon as we got home. All this time barely eating, now … I stared in amazement as he went through a big bag of chops. He paused, looking up at me. “Is this grossing you out?” There was trepidation in his face.
I shook my head. “Course not. It’s just … you haven’t eaten much till now.” He shrugged. “Got to build back my strength. And we’re usually pretty hungry when we’re in Change. I’ve just been … too stressed. Y’know?” His eyes watched me intently over his raw chop.
“Mm. Um … aren’t they … cold?”
He made a face. “Yeah. They’d be better at room temperature, but I can’t wait.” His eyes still watched me. He was worried about my reaction, I realized.
Like I had enough room in my head to care about what he ate.
I said, “Some people like their meat raw. There’s even a word for it.” I thought. “Tartare. Steak tartare.” I managed to lift one side of my mouth. “Gourmet food.”
He grinned. Then frowned at my mug. “That all you having?” I shrugged. He studied me, his tongue flicking out to taste the air. I was getting used to that, though I worried that he’d forget himself in public sometime. He sighed. “I’m sorry, little brother. I wish I —.”
“It’s okay,” I interrupted. I didn’t think I could bear to hear him apologize again. I knew it was my fault he’d done what he did. “I’m just … It’s the future I’m stressed about.” Which was more than I wanted to say, but … Honesty. That was what Mike had said. We had to be honest with each other.
I trusted Mike like I trusted no one else on the planet; why was it so difficult to do that?
Mike asked gently, “Talking about it?”
I managed a nod, concentrated on my hot chocolate. Prayed he wouldn’t say anymore. Not here.
Not here, not now, not ever.
I was saved. Becky bounced into the kitchen, greeting us cheerfully, though she stopped and stared when she saw what Mike was eating. He crunched down hard on the last chop, splintering the bone, and grimaced.
Becky said curiously, “What does it taste like?”
“Not very nice,” he grumbled. “The bones are too old.” Then something changed in his face. “You mean eating them raw?”
“Yes.” Her eyes were wide, but there was no shock or distaste that I could see. I guess she was young enough to accept what people did without judging. Or maybe it was just her.
Mike shrugged. “It’s better fresh-killed.” He looked at the bones in front of him, then stood up and went into the laundry.
Becky looked at me. I thought maybe she wanted someone to explain it to her, but before I could find the words, she said earnestly, “He won’t do it again. He promised.” As if she thought I needed reassuring.
I flushed. I must be really transparent if even the ten-year-olds wanted to comfort me. I said, “I know,” and was saved from having to say anything more by Mike coming back in with some newspaper. He wrapped the bones and chucked them in the rubbish.
Then he turned to Becky. “You’re right, little sister. I won’t do it again. We keep our promises.”
Her eyes flicked from him to me. She looked puzzled. Mike closed his eyes briefly, opened them and said, still with that peculiar gentleness that was only in his voice when he spoke to his little sister, or, I suddenly realized in embarrassment, me, sometimes. “I mean the Pack. When I say “we” like that, I generally mean, my Pack-brothers and me.” He looked at her questioningly, not sure how much she’d been told about the Pack.
She nodded uncertainly. Mike hesitated, then looked at me, tipping his head toward the hall door. I guess he’d had enough too. I nodded, and we went upstairs.
When we reached his room, he went straight to the window and leaned his forehead against the glass. I dropped my bag and put my mug of hot chocolate on the desk, watching him. I wasn’t sure what to do, what was wrong with him, other than the obvious. Even a Pack-brother would surely still feel the effects of that blood loss.
Or maybe not. He turned around, a hand in his hair. “Long day.” He grimaced. “Without them.”
Oh. I looked away.
“It bothers you?” His voice was hesitant.
“No. Of course not.” I tried to sound firm, though why I bothered I don’t know. He must be smelling what I was feeling. I made myself meet his steel-gray eyes. “I’m feeling weird about everything right now, Mike. I’ll get used to it.”
He nodded slowly, then moved with his usual predatory grace to his bed. He stripped and stretched out.
“You people don’t have a nudity taboo, huh?”
He turned his head and stared at me. “Why would we? Clothes are really uncomfortable over all this hair. And we sure don’t need them for warmth.”
“I was joking.”
“Oh.” He studied me a while longer. I sat down at the desk, feeling the heat rise in my face. “Does it make you uncomfortable?”
“Of course not.” I could feel his eyes still on me, waiting. I grimaced. “Yeah, well, maybe a bit.” I swiveled to look at him. “When you take your clothes off, all your hair springs out. I can see it must be a bind having to cover it. Don’t sweat it, I’ll get used to it.” I grinned. “It’s not as if you’re really naked. I swear to you that hair is twice as long and heavy as it was only a few days ago.”
He grinned. I was exaggerating, but not by much. “It’s the Change. It’ll settle down eventually.” His face sobered. “Brother? Is it okay if I call them?”
“Of course.” I said it quickly, dipping my head to my mug. I drained the cooling chocolate to the bottom, and put the mug down. “Mike, I said you shouldn’t call them in public. I can’t say don’t call them in your own room.”
“Our room. And I don’t want to call them if it’s going to freak you out.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not that fragile, Mike. It’s not like I can even see them.” I thought about that a while, watching as his eyes took on that silvery cast I’d learned to associate with his other world. “Tell me about them.” I knew he heard me, despite that look. How he did that — straddling two worlds, keeping part of himself in this one, while part of his mind was with his long-dead brothers, I didn’t know. “Are they always the same ones?”
He tilted his head. His body shifted as if accommodating others on his bed, his hands drifting to touch something, someone, I couldn’t see. When he spoke, his voice was low and dreamy. “There’s about twelve in my Pack.”
“I thought there were hundreds.”
He made a low rumble of agreement, then, with an obvious effort, pulled himself out of it enough to say, “There are hundreds of brothers in my memory, and I can call any of them. And I guess sometimes, when I talk about the Pack, I mean all of us. But other times … I’m not sure how to describe it. Maybe … You know how people talk about families? Sometimes they mean cousins and aunts and uncles and relatives like that, and other times they just mean their parents and siblings.” I nodded, although I doubted he could see me. “Well, it’s the same sort of thing. There’s the Pack that’s all the brothers held in memory, and there’s our own close Pack. The people I see every day. The people I live with.”
I wasn’t sure how to take that. Mike must have sensed my reaction, because his eyes lost their other-world focus, and fixed on me. He said carefully, “There’s you, and me, and Paul, and Mom, and Becky, and … um … eight ghost-brothers.”
I wondered about Kathryn, but decided this wasn’t the time to get into that. “Tell me about them.” Because, yeah, I wasn’t quite sure what I felt about these brothers that existed only in his mind, but it was fascinating. I mean, if I bought into Mike’s whole these-people-really-existed, what-I-remember-really-happened thing, then this was a window into the deep past. People who’d lived thousands and thousands of years ago.
Mike looked around the room, as if not sure where to start. After a moment I prompted, “I know you said you don’t have names, but you must have some way of telling each other apart? How do you know who you’re talking to? Who you’re talking about? You talk about each other, don’t you?”
He looked confused. “Every brother is different.”
“But how do you refer to them, without names?”
He tilted his head, studying something I couldn’t see. At last he offered, “It’s . . . a smell, a feeling . . . an image.”
“So you do have names.” I managed a smile. Easier than I’d thought it’d be; this really was fascinating, if I could just keep away from the emotional tangle. “They’re just not expressed as words.”
He twitched a shoulder in a minimal shrug. “I suppose.”
“Can you put the names into words for me?”
He frowned, then gestured to the space on his left. “This is,” he paused, visibly searching for words, “Brother drowning in the snow when the mammoth falls on him.”
“Is that how he died?”
His eyes widened, the expression of appalled shock unmistakable. “He’s not dead!”
He stopped abruptly. Maybe he sensed my reaction, maybe he just realized what he’d said. After a moment, he said carefully, “They live in our minds at the age they were when they passed on their memories, when they conceived the brother of our line. The incident of the mammoth occurred when our brother was newly Changed, on his ritual mammoth hunt. It captures something important about this brother. It was funny. This brother is like a clown. Things happen to him. Accidents. He appears clumsy, and then he saves himself. He is quick and strong and … lucky.” He shrugged, as if to say the words were inadequate.
I said, cautiously, not sure how it would be taken, “I’ll call him Snowfall.” I looked at Mike, then, thinking about it, at the empty space beside him. “Is that okay?”
Mike grinned widely. “He likes that.” His eyes slid to the side of me and he growled. I tensed.
“A brother was touching you. Sorry.”
I rolled my eyes. “You serious?” Shit. Of course he was. I said more carefully, “Sorry. But you know, Mike, I can’t feel it. I really don’t mind.”
Mike slid off the bed and crossed the room. He reached down and put his hand on my belly. “That is where his hand was,” he growled. “But his was under your shirt.” I felt my stomach muscles tense. He pulled his hand away quickly, then, sighing, patted the air near us. “They don’t understand. They’ve never had a human brother. They’ve never touched a human male except to hurt.” He looked back at me, his worry for me clear in his face. Maybe I was getting the hang of his expressions. “They’re fascinated by you. By your skin, by your hair. And they have no boundaries, little brother. No concept of privacy.”
I wasn’t sure how to deal with this, but … honesty, that’s what Mike had said. “I know they’re real to you, Mike, but they’re not real to me. Why should it matter to me what they do?” What you imagine they do, I thought, but didn’t say.
He looked … confused, uncertain. Instincts at war with logic, maybe. After a moment he said, “They won’t touch you without permission. I’ll make sure they respect your boundaries.”
He went back to his bed, pushing a little at the air as if making room for himself. When he was comfortable, he said, “Snowfall is about ten winters past his Change.” He paused. “About twenty-two, twenty-three, I guess that makes him. They came to their Change earlier back then. He’s quite solid — a little shorter than me, and quite a bit heavier. His hair’s really thick. The climate’s really cold in his time. His . . . I’m not sure how to describe it. The brother who’s closest to him, the one he spends most time with …” He frowned, looking for the words.
“We spend a lot of time grooming each other, but we don’t spend the same amount of time with each brother. Some brothers we spend more time with and there’s always one we spend most time with. It doesn’t have to be a line-brother. In fact, it’s nicer if it isn’t.” He shut his eyes. “I guess you could call that brother a brother of the heart. The one we love the most, the one we need the most.” He opened his eyes and stared at me. “You’re my heart-brother.”
The muscles tightened in my chest. I felt myself suddenly short of breath.
Mike went on evenly, as if unaware of my reaction though I knew he wasn’t. I was grateful for that. “Snowfall’s heart-brother is proud of Snowfall, proud of the way he lightens our spirits.” He shook his head. “His heart-brother isn’t part of our line, of course. But I know how he feels about Snowfall. His feelings for Snowfall are an important part of Snowfall’s image of himself.” He looked at me. I understood what he was saying. He was talking about us as much as Snowfall and his brother.
“There’s one with many scars, fifteen winters past his Change. He is … Brother alone against the lion, blood in the air, a brother in pain. And there’s a younger one, from more recent times. He is …” He frowned, looked into the air above the rug, his eyes intent on someone I couldn’t see. “He’s really young, about our age.”
“You said your brothers are remembered from the time when they conceived your line-brother.” I realized my stupidity as soon as I said it. It wasn’t something I ever thought about — that we were old enough to father kids.
Mike knew what I was getting at. He shrugged. “Old enough to fuck.” The crudity made me flinch, don’t know why. Or maybe I did, but it wasn’t something I wanted to think about. Mike noticed of course. I saw his jaw tighten, but he went on evenly, “We don’t usually father children this young. Because memories are so important to us, we like brothers to be at least five years past Change, and preferably closer to ten. This brother —” He grinned suddenly. “Brother rape among the wildflowers in the sun.”
He flinched then. “I’m sorry. This brother was … wild. Well, we’re all pretty wild, but this brother … when we were children we all went through a stage of sneaking off in twos or threes to watch the humans during the day. But this brother had no brother close in age to him. He’d sneak off alone. Watch the humans for hours. One day, long before he’d Changed, he found a girl alone, in a high meadow.” His eyes had that silvery sheen to them again, and the focus of his gaze left me no doubt he was reliving that moment. “The grass is so green,” he said dreamily. “The flowers are thickly scattered paint-blots of color. The woman has only recently finished bleeding, and the smell of her blood is a bright metallic edge to the scent of her musk.”
I felt ill. Mike said, “Shit.” He pulled himself out of it, and looked at me, his eyes darkening. “I’m sorry, brother, I —.”
I cut him off, not wanting to discuss this. I didn’t doubt that he was sickened by the memories he had. But he enjoyed them too. How could he not? The brothers whose memories they were had no doubt enjoyed the experiences. I said neutrally, “I’ll call him Wildflower.” I took a breath, re-capped. “Snowfall, Lion-alone, and Wildflower. Who else?”
He looked around again. “One brother has only two fingers on his left hand. Two fingers and the thumb were bitten off.”
He nodded. “We’re all left-handed. Our brother cannot hunt.”
“Is that what names him? His inability to hunt?” I was shocked by the bitter edge to my voice. Where did that come from? Fallout from the wildflower thing, I guessed. I started to apologize, cut myself off and bit my lip.
Mike said steadily, “It’s an important part of what defines him. His inability to do what his brothers do.” He met my eyes squarely. “But dependence on our brothers isn’t something that worries us. We all depend on our brothers. His disability is a sorrow shared among us all.”
“You really mean that, don’t you?”
“What’s felt by one of us is felt by all.” He stared at me. “I know we can’t echo your feelings the way we do each other’s, but you’re our brother, Dave. We share your pain. We don’t feel superior, or pitying, or even sympathetic. We simply hurt.”
My eyes filled suddenly with tears. I closed them tight, willing Mike not to move, not to say anything. It must have worked, because he didn’t, and eventually I opened my eyes and took a breath and said, “I’ll call him Right-hand.” I managed a tired grin. “For the hand he has, not the one he’s lost.”
He looked somewhere to the right of me and said, “He likes that.”
I felt my grin widening, becoming more real. “Who else then?”
He told me about two brothers who had been born at one birth. Twins were apparently rare, but when they happened the brothers were inseparable, hardly able to have a thought the other didn’t share. Only one could be Mike’s line-brother of course, but their minds were so close he claimed both were there, captured in memory, in his cells. That depth of closeness freaked me out, but Mike seemed to find it comforting. It worried me, sometimes, how much he’d changed. I tried not to think about it.
He told me about his oldest brothers. One was as old as his dad. Another, rare among the brothers, was a good ten winters older.
I noted that, how he said “winters” instead of years. Sixteen years growing up with me, in a world of computers and planes and TV, and now he counted in winters survived.
When he’d finished, I listed them. “Snowfall, Lion-alone, Wildflower, Right-hand, the Twins, Traveler, Summer-fruit.” I grinned at him, feeling comfortable enough now to say, “You’re very weird.”
“Yeah, I know.” His lips twitched in a token acknowledgment that I was teasing, but his eyes were fixed on me anxiously. I wasn’t sure what he wanted from me, but I got the message that there was something.
I said hesitantly, “I can’t see them, Mike. It’s up to you to make them real for me.” He nodded, eyes still fixed on me. I tried again. “You can talk about them as much as you like. I want to know your brothers better.” I didn’t know if there was really any difference between Mike’s fantasies and schizophrenia — even if the people in his head had once been alive that didn’t alter the fact that their presence in Mike’s world was pure fantasy — but he was my brother, my best friend, and this was important to him. And he wasn’t human. Paul had shown me what it was like for a Pack-brother to deny the ghosts, however unreal they might be.
He relaxed. “I want to know you better.”
I tensed. “You know me better than anyone else in the world.”
“I want to know you as well as I know my other brothers.”
“Mike —” I stopped, breathed out heavily, trying to squash the panic twisting in my gut again. “I’m trying.”
He sighed, flapped a hand apologetically. “I know. I’m sorry.” He looked around the room, than back at me. “How long do you reckon?”