Spring was coming.
Cooper Reynolds could smell the change of seasons in the air. Every day the cold clung to him a little less, and as the hours of daylight grew longer, he spent more and more time agonizing over the calendar hanging on his kitchen wall.
It was already late February, which gave him six months.
Six months until he had to forfeit his claims to humanity and spend the rest of his life in the body of a four-legged canine. Fittingly, the calendar was from the local veterinarian’s office, so the picture for August was of a shaggy sheepdog, adding insult to injury.
Cooper tugged a hoodie over his threadbare Poisonfoot Padres T-shirt and double-checked the laces on his sneakers. The last time he’d gone for a run he’d almost tripped over his own two feet thanks to the traitorous loose laces.
Outside it was still dark, but hints of sunrise clung on the horizon, just the faintest glow to tell him daylight was on its way. He liked running before the sun came up. It made him feel like he was the only person alive in the entire town, with the exception of Hank Perdue, the milkman, who started his rounds even earlier than Cooper did. Sometimes the two would cross paths and give each other a nod, but Cooper figured Hank was suspicious of him.
Everyone else in town was.
Sucking in a big lungful of fresh, cool air, Cooper set out on his normal route, towards Main Street. They’d started rebuilding the library a month earlier, but the process was taking a lot longer than they’d anticipated thanks to the giant fissure in the ground from the explosion.
The explosion Lou had caused.
Sometimes he’d take a rest across the street and look at the new building, its bare walls and unfinished siding, and he would think back to the day the old library had been destroyed. He didn’t necessarily like to think of his girlfriend as dangerous, but it couldn’t hurt to remind himself how powerful she was.
Now that Lou had her memory back, they were inseparable again. No warnings from his mother or scolding from Lou’s Granny Elle could get between them. Too much had happened since they first met, and it was nice to finally have someone standing in his corner. For his whole life the town had made him feel like the enemy, but Lou made him feel like a hero.
This morning, before he reached the library, he stopped across from the sheriff’s office a block away, trying to decide if he wanted to keep going or if he’d turn and try a different route, avoiding the building altogether. On most days his mom might be at work by now, but she had agreed to do evening shifts for a few days that week, meaning she was still home in bed. Considering how little she’d been sleeping recently, Cooper hoped she took advantage of the shift change and got as much extra rest as she could. Sometimes he’d hear her get up in the middle of the night and wander through the house. The hardest nights were the ones where he hadn’t drifted off yet and she opened his bedroom door—keeping quiet so as not to wake him—and she just watched him sleep for a while.
He figured she was counting the months down as well. She’d already lost one son to the curse, and now his days were numbered.
Picking up his pace, he jogged down one of the residential streets, avoiding the library entirely. If people started noticing him out there too often, they might think he was up to something. Might be a better idea if he varied his routine somewhat.
The music on his phone changed to an up-tempo rock song, and he matched his footfalls to the beat. His breaths started to come harder, but he pushed through the burning, running faster and faster. He ran until it felt like his blood had been replaced with battery acid and his throat was roughened by sandpaper. But his limbs seemed to be acting freely of his brain, and he continued to run as though his life depended on it.
He ran through one song, then another, until the playlist came to an end and the only thing he could hear was his rough, panting breath. The sun was up now, turning the sky a gray-orange color that was too muted to be pretty, but told him he’d been out much too long.
Where was he?
In his hazy runner’s high he’d ventured well out of the town proper and was a good two miles down the main highway, towards the lake.
He’d been running to the woods.
“Son of a…” He trailed off, reversing direction and angling himself back towards home. When he got back, he’d either need to skip a shower or breakfast. There was no way he’d have time to do both and still hope to make it to school on time. And he had no intention of being late to Mr. Price’s chemistry class. He’d rather stink like sweat and bad cologne than get stuck wearing the Goggles of Shame for an entire class.
He jogged back, keeping his music off to avoid getting distracted again. How had he managed to run so far without realizing what he was doing? That sort of thing was happening more and more often lately. He’d be doing something, and his mind would wander, and the next thing he realized he was somewhere else. Literally.
It was like the coyote was starting to take control early, and he was steadily becoming less and less himself.
Not for the first time, Cooper wished Jeremy were still around. This was the kind of situation where some older-brother wisdom would come in handy. Except his brother had four legs and a tail, so he wasn’t doing Cooper much good in the advice department.
When the Reynolds’ house came back into view twenty minutes later, the lights were on. Mia and his mom would both be awake by now, and they’d probably be pissed he hadn’t left a note. That was why he liked to go before the sun was up. Most days he could run and be home before either of them got out of bed, or he could leave after his mom was already gone.
Across the street, Cooper’s middle-aged neighbor Buck was loading a bag into the back of his pickup.
“Up early?” Cooper called, not sure why he bothered. Buck wasn’t affable at the best of times, let alone before eight a.m. on a Tuesday. Cooper was convinced the only reason the man was passingly polite was because he lived across the street from the sheriff.
Buck, in typical chatty fashion, grunted. He tossed the rifle he’d been wearing slung over his shoulder into the bag. Cooper eyeballed the weapon warily.
“Going hunting?” he asked. This was neither the time of day nor the right season for hunting, which made Cooper wonder if Buck was up to something.
“Dey extended da coyote season. Ona count of dat girl who done got chewed up at da lake.”
Cooper’s stomach bottomed out. Were they still blaming that on coyotes?
Buck scratched his huge belly through the strained material of his ill-fitting shirt. “Ain’t doin’ nothin’ wrong. Yer mama knows. ’S’all legal.” His beady eyes were fixed on Cooper like Buck expected him to run inside and tattle.
“Happy hunting,” Cooper said at last, though the words made him want to vomit. There had to be a way he could find Jeremy and warn him. But Jeremy wasn’t human, he was an animal, and there was no telling what he understood anymore. Cooper thought his brother still recognized him, but maybe that had more to do with a familiar scent than a real memory.
He wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his sleeve, deciding a shower was vastly more essential than breakfast. He could always grab something at the cafeteria between classes. At least in the shower he’d have five minutes alone to think about what Buck was up to and maybe come up with a way to protect Jeremy.
Right. In five minutes he’d be lucky if he remembered to rinse the shampoo out of his hair.
After banging through the front door, he kicked off his shoes and was already in the process of stripping off his sweaty hoodie when his mother came into the living room. It was strange to see her out of her sheriff’s uniform, wearing a plain sweater and jeans. She looked younger, somehow. Maybe it was because she projected less authority this way.
Though as far as Cooper was concerned, she was scarier in Mom mode than in sheriff mode.
“Where have you been?” she asked, her tone tight with worry, but she had a serious, menacing scowl on her face.
Holding out the sweatshirt in one hand, he pointed to his shoes with the other. “Running.” She was a cop, so she’d probably appreciate having tangible evidence presented to her right up front.
“This early in the morning?”
“Uh. Yeah?” Cooper didn’t see what the time had to do with it.
“He goes every morning,” Mia called from the kitchen.
Cooper hadn’t realized his sister was aware of his daily exercise routine. He’d assumed she was asleep whenever he went out, but apparently Mia was keeping a closer eye on him than he’d ever suspected.
“Did you have your phone with you?” his mother asked, needling for a reason she should lecture him.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket and showed it to her.
She frowned, then waved him off. “Go get ready for school. I’ll make you something to take on the way.”
Cooper should have gone without saying another word, having managed to get through the interaction without a fight, but he couldn’t help himself. “Buck was loading a gun into his car. He said he was going coyote hunting.”
His mother let out a quivery sigh and nodded, her expression grim and sad. “I can’t do much about that, Coop. I want to, but I can’t.”
“Do you think there’s a way we can help Jer?”
“Like what? Build a dog run in the backyard and keep him there under lock and key?” Her voice was angry now, and all the goodwill he’d managed to bank from earlier was gone. “I don’t want to talk about your brother.”
“No. I don’t want to talk about your brother. Now get ready so you can take your sister with you.”
She stomped back into the kitchen, successfully ending the conversation.
So much for getting his mother’s help.
He’d need to figure it out on his own. Just like everything else.