I find the memory coiled in the depths of my mind like a lurking beast waiting for the right moment to strike. As soon as I touch on it, it springs to the forefront of my mind and I tense.
After so many years, you'd think that the details of the memory would have faded, but in reality, every terrible, confusing, tiny detail is there.
I'm in the kitchen with my parents. It's an average night, tomorrow I have school and I'm looking forward to my woodcrafting lesson, Mother is cooking our dinner and Father is talking to her from his weaving while she's stirring the vegetables.
Daniel Hidden is a man of about thirty, with dark hair and forest green eyes identical to mine. He's a basket weaver, and he's quite lucky to have the job, or we'd be so poor we'd live in the very edges of the Ferna Living Quarters, out near the wilderness of the southernmost forests. He's a great father and a family man through and through. He always spares time for James and me even though most other fathers can't or won't do that for their children. Katherine Dire is a typical mother, she'll stay at home permanently until I'm old enough to earn money for the family, then she'll go back to work. That won't be for some few years yet, but she seems content with home life. She's not as friendly or cheerful as my father, and it's obvious that James is her favourite, but I've got my father, and my family couldn't be closer.
I'm sat on the low windowsill, overlooking the garden and my tree that look so inviting this evening, bathed in the orange half-light of the setting sun. It's about an hour and a half before nightfall, and the urge to go outside is pulling at my young mind like a rope tied around the waist.
"Dad, can I go and climb my tree?" I ask, and he smiles down at me from where he's sitting at the kitchen table with all sorts of different types of twigs. His hands are scratched from the sharp twigs and he looks a bit tired, but he always looks that way yet he's always the most cheerful man you could ever hope to meet.
"Only if you stay where your mother and I can see you." He says warmly, and my mother smiles at me and nods in agreement. Immediately I jump to my feet and am out of the door, sprinting for my tree. My parents laugh at my enthusiasm; I can hear it from here. I've always had great hearing, and my father often calls me a fennec fox. I don't know what a fennec fox is, but he says they have big ears and can hear well. I'm sure it's meant as a compliment.
I reach my tree and start climbing, listening to the birds in the nearby trees. I see a sparrow go to flutter away and pause. I stay quite still and it hops closer and closer, until I could reach out and stroke it if I wanted. It actually hops onto my hand, and I gasp quietly with delight. It chirps and appears at ease, then with a flurry of feathers, it flies off in search of a good roost. I sit in my tree and watch the woods, even manage to glimpse a deer as it bounds by gracefully.
I love my home, especially my tree, it's peaceful here and my family is a happy one, happier than most. The clouds are gathering above now, but I'm not worried, a little rain never hurt anyone. Before I even realise it, I've fallen asleep on my branch.
I wake to find that something isn't right. It's dark, though I can tell it's still day time because of the amount of light. I see that the clouds are thick overhead, but the sun won't be down for just under half an hour. I try to figure out what's wrong, and listen hard. I realise that the birds have stopped singing, meaning that a predator or person is nearby. I assume it's my father and open my eyes fully, rubbing them with the heels of my hands and looking around.
Two big green eyes stare at me from the canopy above, and I freeze. The tree cat drops down to my branch and regards me with hunger in its eyes. Slowly, like my father taught me, I lower my legs off the side of the branch, close my eyes to hide the intent and gather air into my lungs to scream. It pounces and I drop, but for some reason, halfway down, my scream changes, like my vocal chords have been twisted, and I hit the ground strangely. But I don't have time for wondering, my father is running out of the house and the tree cat is right behind me.
Without thinking, I sprint for the trees, hoping to hide somewhere from my pursuer. I hear it growling with hungry anticipation and speed up, running faster than I ever have. The ground is closer to my face than usual, I note, and it feels like I'm running on four legs and not two, while ducking under logs and branches and trying to get away. The sounds of pursuit get fainter and I slow a little, listening hard.
There's a bright flash of lightning, followed by a deafening crash of thunder, and I yelp at the unexpected pain in my ears at the loud sound. I skid to a halt, sure now that the tree cat has given up, or perhaps found easier prey. I look down as another fork of lightning shoots across the sky and gasp as instead of my hands, I see paws covered in sand-coloured fur, fading to a pale cream as it reaches the tiny paw. No way!
I run for the nearest pool of water and look down at myself. I see a tiny, dog like creature with huge sandy coloured ears that are creamy white at the tips, a long snout, with fine black whiskers and a tiny black nose. What is this? What's going on?! I look around and see a bushy, sand-coloured tail with a creamy-white tip, and connect the shape of it to a fox. A fox? But foxes are red, not this colour, right? But wait, what did my father say I was… a Fennec Fox? Is this what they look like? I study my reflection in the pool, and jump as the next crash of thunder sounds. After the thunder, my sharp ears pick up somebody shouting something, no, somebody shouting my name!
"Layla!" The person yells, and I shrink back into the undergrowth. My father runs into the clearing and looks so worried, so terrified, that it takes all of my willpower not to run to him. If he sees me, he won't recognise me, and besides, this is probably a dream anyway. It has to be, right? Nobody can turn into an animal! "Layla, where are you?!" He yells, and I try to stay hidden. But he sees the strange colouring of my fur easily through the green ferns, and walks a little closer. "Is that you, Layla?" He murmurs, holding his hand out to me. I hesitate, but fear takes over as lightning shoots across the sky, and I find myself running away.
"Come back!" He screams, crashing along after me. The trees and ferns swing wildly in the gale-force wind that has begun to blow; it rips by me as if it too is running from the storm. I'm so confused now; it is all I can do not to crash into a tree or something. "Layla, where are you? It's dangerous out here, come back!" He yells after me, I can hear his clumsy attempt to follow me through the undergrowth. I yelp at every crack of thunder and keep running without direction. Why can't I wake up? Why, why, WHY?!
Lightning splits the sky in two, I scream at the biggest clap of thunder yet and scramble for cover, any cover I can find. "LAYLA!" My father shouts, but it just adds to the fear and confusion. I see a tree with a small gap in its roots and dive into it. It's enough for me to curl up in, but that's about it. I'm trembling wildly, unable to comprehend anything anymore. How is this possible?
He staggers into view, and looks around hopelessly for me. It takes him two attempts to spot me in my hiding place, and he approaches slowly, carefully, noting how I flinch at every flash of lightning and crash of thunder. He crouches down in front of me.
"You've always hated storms, haven't you, sweetheart?" He asks quietly, trying to look calm. I look up at him and wonder how he could possibly know it's me. Then again, if this is a dream, he probably would. "Layla, the cat's gone now, I promise." He says, and he holds his hand out to me, as if to help me out of the roots. "Come on, I've got some explaining to do, it seems." Hesitantly, I crawl out of my hiding place, flinching again at the thunder. Father picks me up and hides me in his jacket, and I try to stop shaking. He walks a while, and when he stops and takes me out, I see we're under a huge oak tree, it looks easy to climb.
I look at my father and see the tension in his face. I sit close to him and curl my tail around my paws, trying to ignore the crashing storm raging on above us. I want to know what's going on. "First off, to turn back, you need to concentrate hard on your spirit, feel it, know it to be a fennec fox. Then, you need to will it to change the shape of your body, will it back to human form. Don't do it yet though, you need to go behind the tree and take these with you." He says, and holds out some of my clothes, black ones. Confused, I nod and take them in my mouth and go the other side of the huge oak tree. I do as he said, and black smoke smothers me. I'm so surprised I nearly cry out, but something tells me that isn't a very good idea. I pull on the clothes, and go back to my waiting father, who smiles proudly at me. The storm isn't as loud to me as it was before, but then again, fennec foxes do have very sensitive ears.
"Layla, I've known this day was coming for a long time, I just didn't think it would come so soon. I want you to remember that you mustn't do that again, you need to hide that ability deep inside you, do you understand?" He says, green eyes locked on my identical ones. I nod, and he smiles weakly. "It's imperative you remember this, because one day the second part of our song is going to be very important. That ability will be forced to the fore one day, and after that day, you will need it. But now, it's too dangerous. I'm so proud of you, my little fennec fox. Do you promise me you'll keep it secret?" He asks, and I try to ignore the raging weather as I answer.
"I promise, Dad." I whisper, and he nods. "But how is this possible if it's not a dream? Why is this happening?"
"Come on, Layla, I'll tell you on the way home. You're soaking wet and scared." He takes my hand and leads me back through the forest towards our home. I notice that my senses are even sharper than before, which is astounding considering how heightened they were in the first place. I look at my father expectantly, and he chuckles before starting his explanations.
"Layla, at the moment you can only turn into a fennec fox but one day, you'll be able to change into anything you want, though that was your true form. It won't be for some years, but it will happen, and that ability is going to be very, very important."
"How do you know, Dad?" I ask, interrupting him. He laughs quietly.
"Impatient as ever." He observes, amused. "I know all this because-"
There is a flash of lightning, the brightest yet, and a terrible crunching, screeching, splitting noise that will forever haunt my nightmares. My father yells with horror and shock and throws me aside as a huge elm comes crashing down on top of him. I land in a bramble patch, but the thorns that tear into my skin are nothing compared to the ripping I feel in my chest as I watch my father, in slow motion, fall under the weight of the huge tree.
"DAD!" I shriek and sprint towards him, ignoring the brambles that try to keep hold of me and draw blood as I escape their clutches. I reach him and see almost immediately that it's hopeless. His legs are at unnatural angles, and I don't look too closely in case I see any bones sticking out. His left arm is trapped under the tree, most likely crushed beyond repair. His chest is under the tree trunk and he's covered in blood. I think I see a branch stabbed into his chest and wail with fear and horror. He's barely conscious, but seems to see me, his face covered in blood and scratched all over. He smiles at me weakly through the pain, and his right hand, covered with blood and with two fingers broken like twigs, comes up to touch my face. "My little fennec fox." He murmurs. "I'm so proud of you." He looks like he wants to say more, but instead his hand drops limply to the ground and he simply gasps a final time before falling utterly still.
"Dad!" I sob, and the storm is suddenly the least of my worries. I hear my mother's scared voice through the trees-
"Stop! No more!" I cry, my head falling into my hands. Luke looks absolutely mortified, as he damn well should. It's his fault I had to relive that night! I can't hold back my tears anymore, and I cry openly in front of him, not caring about my dignity anymore. I didn't cry after my father died, I was too shocked. I didn't speak for a week, I wouldn't eat and I didn't move from my room. My mother's open hostility towards me had started during that time, it hung from the ceiling like icicles, and seeped through the floor like a noxious gas. I hadn't understood what had made her so cold towards me back then, but my grief and horror had rendered me both catatonic and unable to care. I woke up screaming every night, reaching out to try and stop him from getting crushed, but never fast enough, never strong enough. I'd even woken up as a fennec fox a few times, though I was careful to turn back before anyone saw. I had no idea what was going on, and I honestly thought I'd gone insane, that maybe I was dreaming it or a branch had hit my head and confused my memory. His last words echoed in my mind every day, "My little fennec fox. I'm so proud of you." And I was never able to escape the huge, raw void inside me that used to contain my father's love and acceptance. My mother's hatred of me grew every day, and I was unable to understand why, until she'd screamed at me one night and told me it was my fault he was dead. I've blamed myself ever since.
I miss my father more than anything now, he was what made my life a good one. Ever since he died, I've had misfortune after misfortune.
"Layla..." Luke whispers finally, "I'm so sorry, I... I had no idea-"
"That it would be so bad?" I snap, and he winces. "Well it was. Why the hell would I keep it hidden if it wasn't?" I take a deep, ragged breath, and run a hand through my hair, scrunching it up so tight that it pulls the roots so hard it hurts. "You have no idea how much changed that night. My family, my life, myself. My mother hates me, blames me for what happened. My brother's never been the same since. And to this day I don't know how he knew what he knew, or why I turned." I fall silent as the anger suddenly and totally disappears from my system, all of a sudden I can't be angry, my energy depleted. He doesn't meet my gaze, doesn't dare look me in the eye for several minutes. The horror of that night, while hardly new to me, it a terrible thing for him to have witnessed, even through my memories. I almost apologise, but then I think: it's not my fault my father died... right?
There are times when I ask myself whether it was my fault or not that he was killed in that storm. Maybe if I hadn't gone out to my tree, or not fallen asleep on the branch, or perhaps if I just ran straight to him as a fennec fox instead of hiding for no good reason... maybe I'd still have my father, alive and well. Maybe my mother was right, maybe it was my fault. But no amount of thought as to where the blame lies is going to bring him back to me, no amount of grief or pain will ever replace what has been lost now.
"It wasn't your fault." Luke murmurs quietly. I glance up and bristle slightly at his look of pity. I hate that expression, it makes me feel weak. "You were a child, and you were completely disoriented. Don't blame yourself." He ignores my anti-pity thoughts, conveniently. I roll my eyes and concentrate on pushing the memory back down into the back of my head. Luke glares at me when I try to do this, and I glare right back. My memory, my choice. I think, and he scowls.
"Look, I think you're missing the big question here." He says finally, after several minutes of silent stand-off.
"And what might that be?"
"How the hell did you turn into a fennec fox if you hadn't Changed yet?" He asks, and I raise an eyebrow. "What? You can't honestly have never asked yourself that question."
"I've wondered about it, but try to put the past where it belongs." I say icily. I can't help being a little bitter with Mr Mind-Reader-Object-Mover able to hear everything in my head. He glares at me when I think this, and my annoyance sparks all over again.
"Look Layla," He snaps, "it's not my fault I can hear thoughts any more than it's your fault you're a Shifter. I try not to get inside your head to protect your privacy, but it's not always possible, ok? When you were having that episode earlier, I couldn't have not seen it if I tried. It was like being pulled into a whirlpool, it was that strong." His silver eyes bore into my gold ones, and I try not to flinch. "Now we need to work out what the hell happened to you on that night, because it might just help us work out what happened to your father."
"What do you mean? It was an-"
"Accident?" He cuts me short. "It was a very well-timed accident if you ask me. It cut him off just before he could explain anything, yet what he did manage to say came true, didn't it? You can turn into anything you want, at will. He knew! He knew exactly what you were and why, don't you find that even a little intriguing?" I mull that over for a moment. I guess that's a fair point, though I never really gave it that much thought, after all, fathers are meant to know their children.
"So what do you propose we do?" I ask him, and he smiles for the first time in ages.
"First off, we need to do something so extremely dangerous there is a chance we may not survive." He pauses dramatically, and I begin to feel a little nervous.
"What is it?"
"We need to wake Katie." He chuckles. In spite of myself, I grin at him for the first time in ages, and agree that we are indeed doing something more dangerous than fighting a tree cat.
I duck to avoid the fist that lashes out at me from the huddled heap that is Katie sleeping. Glowing green eyes fly open and sharp pearly teeth are bared in a quiet snarl. When her eyes focus on us and she realises she's not in danger, Katie glares at us cuttingly.
"What the hell did you do that for, huh?" She hisses, and Luke looks profoundly guilty.
"Sorry Katie, you know we wouldn't wake you if it wasn't urgent."
"We could have waited until morning, Luke." I snort, and he narrows his eyes at me.
"Oh, I'm sorry, do you want another episode, fennec fox girl?" He snaps, and immediately looks horrified at what he's said. Katie gapes at him, unsure of the implications of what he just said, but clued in enough to see that it hurt me. Luke reaches out to touch my arm, but I jerk back, blinking back tears. "Layla, I didn't mean-" I slap him then, and can't even find pleasure in his shocked yelp.
"Shut up, Telepath!" I snarl, then I shift and run. I don't even realise I've subconsciously gone for fennec fox until I'm behind a rock, lying down and keening. How could he? After seeing the terror of that night, after seeing the pain it causes me, even after all these years, he has the audacity to say that?! I whine and cry for a long time, feeling the raw ache where my father should be. He didn't even get to tell me how he knew or what he knew, didn't even get to say goodbye, not really. The child in me wants to call out to him, keeps thinking that this is all just a very long and terrible nightmare, but I know it isn't. This is reality, and that is ten times worse than any night terror.
You can wake up from a dream, a dream is easy to forget and leave behind, an dis often not remembered in waking. But from reality, there is no escape, no forgetting or leaving it behind. Reality is awful, reality is painful, reality destroys you.
"Layla!" I hear him yelling, and I growl at the dusty earth, not loud enough for him to hear though. "Layla? I'm so sorry, please come back!" I silently get to my feet and crouch, ready to spring if he finds me. I notice that I'm most comfortable in this form, it's like I'm meant to be a fennec fox. I bare my teeth as a shadow slowly moves into view, and get ready to pounce. I'll tear a gash in his leg and call it even. My tail flicks side to side with agitation as the shadow grows and he gets closer.