Book excerpt

Shapeshifted

An Edie Spence Novel

Cassie Alexander

St. Martin's Press

CHAPTER ONE
 
 
I’d lost fifteen pounds in six months.
Being a nurse, I’d run through the worst-case scenarios first: cancer, diabetes, TB. When I’d checked my blood sugars and cleared myself of coughs and suspicious lumps, I was left with the much more likely diagnosis of depression. Which was why I was here, even though here was an awkward place to be.
“I can tell you anything, right?” I asked as I sat down across from the psychologist.
“Of course you can, Edie.” She gave me a comforting smile, and adjusted her long skirt over her knees. “What do you feel like talking about today?”
I inhaled and exhaled a few times. There didn’t seem to be any good way to launch into my story. Hi, I used to work with vampire-exposed humans. Once upon a time, I dated a zombie and a werewolf. So, you know, the usual. I snorted to myself, and admitted: “I’m not sure where to begin.”
“Anything that feels comfortable for you is fine. Sometimes it takes a few sessions to rev up.”
“Heh.” Six months was a long time—I should be getting over things already. Things like being fired … well, shunned, which felt a lot like firing. Maybe I should have let them wipe my memory when I’d had the chance. Figured I would make the wrong decision. “I’ve just been through a rough time lately.”
“How so?”
“I had this job that I really enjoyed. And I had to leave it. To go elsewhere. Ever since then, my life just feels … plain.” I’d spent the end of winter up to now, July, working the full-time night shift in a sleep apnea clinic, monitoring patients while they slept. It was dull. My skin was paler than ever, and my social life was long gone.
There was a pause while she attempted to wait me out. When I didn’t continue, she filled the gap. “Let’s talk about what you used to enjoy. Maybe we can figure out what you enjoyed about it, and think how you can bring those qualities over into your current situation.”
“Well. My co-workers were good people. And my job was exciting.” I paused, chewing on the inside of my cheek.
“What was exciting about it?” she encouraged me.
I looked at her, at her nice office, nice couch, nice shelves with nice things. It must be nice to be a psychologist. I looked back at her. She smiled, and opportunity blossomed inside my heart. We, she and I, had patient–therapist privilege. As a registered nurse, I knew the boundaries. As long as I wasn’t a danger to myself, or to anyone else, she’d have to keep what I told her quiet. It wasn’t like she was going to believe me, besides.
I leaned forward, my elbows on my knees. “What do you think about vampires?”
The smile on her face tightened for just a fraction of a second. “It’s more important that I know what you think, not the other way around. So, tell me, Edie. What do you think about vampires?”
“What if I told you they actually existed?” I said. Her smile appeared increasingly strained. “Here, I won’t make it into a question. I’ll tell you what I think. They do exist. There’s quite a few of them out there, actually. They have human servants, some to do their dirty work, and others just to get blood from, like human cattle.”
The words poured out. I knew I wasn’t supposed to say anything, and I knew from looking at her that she didn’t want to hear it—but it felt so good to finally talk about it. The dam had broken. I couldn’t stop now.
“And there’s werewolves too. There were two big packs, but now there’s just one, and they race around on full moon nights in the parks outside of town, and then there’s also zombies, and I dated this zombie for reals once—I knew he was a zombie going into things, and I still dated him. You know how I knew? He told me. I was his nurse one night. At the hospital where I used to work.”
I sank back into the world’s most comfortable couch and pressed a hand to my chest. “I cannot believe I just told you all that. That felt so good.” Looking up, it was clear my confessions hadn’t had the same effect on both of us.
She gave me a tight high smile. “Do the vampires tell you to hurt yourself?”
Not lately! was the wiseass answer that I wanted to give—but everything I told her was going into a file. If I was going to abuse her listening skills, the least I could do would be to take things seriously, and stay polite. “No. They don’t. They’re not in my head either.”
She tried a different tack. “Do the vampires tell you to hurt other people?”
Not anymore! “No. They’re not allowed to talk to me anymore.”
I could see her measuring me, weighing my sanity. It was pull up now and laugh, like everything I’d said had been part of a prank or crazy joke, and wasn’t I hilarious? Or sink like a stone—which was the direction I was heading in. It could be said I lacked the gene for self-preservation that most people came installed with.
“There was this one vampire that I was really close to. She kicked me out to protect me, after I destroyed all the extra vampire blood in the county. I saved everyone … but I ruined everything too.”
The therapist inhaled and exhaled deeply. “Edie, at twenty-five you’re a little old to be having a schizophrenic break. But we need to do some reality testing here.”
Reality testing. Like everything that’d happened to me this past winter wasn’t real. I stared at the patterned carpeting beneath my feet. “That’s the thing. It was all real. All of it. But I can’t tell anyone about it. You know what’ll happen to you when I leave this room? If you believe me?”
“No.” Her face looked like she was sucking on an increasingly sour candy. “Why don’t you tell me?”
“The Shadows will come out of the ground and erase your memory of everything I said. Maybe even of me.” I nudged the carpet with my toe.
“Edie, how long have you been having these delusions?”
I didn’t answer her.
“I know you’re a nurse, and no one wants to put you on meds less than I do, but my co-worker next door—he’s a psychiatrist. We can go together and check in with him. He could get you in as an emergency visit, and then you can go fill your prescription. Risperdal does wonders for people.”
“Risperdal?” I startled and looked up. I was crazy … but I wasn’t crazy. “No.”
“Edie—” Her voice went low. I grabbed my bag and started walking toward the door. “You’re not going to hurt yourself, are you?”
“Not if I don’t stay here,” I said as I shut the door behind me.
*   *   *
In nursing school I’d done a psych rotation. The nurse I was following and I ate Risperdal-endorsed microwave popcorn out of a brand-new plastic bedpan. It was incongruous at the time, participating in even a small part of the pharmaceutical promotion machine, and eating out of bedpans like they were bowls for food. After that, I’d always made sure to bring my own Tupperware, and limited my brand endorsement to using whatever med-of-the-month-themed pens were lying around.
I didn’t want to be on the med of the month, though. Even though I knew meds were helpful—vital, in some cases—for depression. It was just that … well, my problems felt situational. You would have thought that it was the stress of working with vampires and werecreatures that did me in, but no, my depression had come after that, with the onset of spring.
I drove home with the windows down, hoping that the fresh air flowing over my face would make me feel more alive. It did—until I thought about the fact that I had to work tonight. My stomach curdled, and I finally put two and two together. Working at the sleep clinic was killing my soul.
There’re only so many nights you can watch someone sleep on a video monitor and stay sane. I had two years of intensive-care-level experience, and yet I’d spent the last six months watching people sleep, listening to them snore. It was like going from being a fighter pilot to a model-airplane captain—the joyless kind glued to the ceiling at a Toys “R” Us.
My phone rang. I saw the picture of my mom, and picked it up like you’re not supposed to in the car. “Hey, Momma—”
“Hey, Edie! Can you come over?”
A lifetime of being my mother’s child meant I could tell from her voice that something was wrong. “Um, sure. Why?”
She attempted to deflect me. “You’re not on the phone in your car, are you?”
“No,” I completely lied. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing—I just—” She hesitated. My mother was good at many things, but lying was not among them.
As I waited her out, my brain itemized every bad thing it could be. The list was shorter than it’d been six months ago, since the supernatural community was now shunning me—back then, if she’d called me up like this, I might have panicked and hung up to call the cops, for whatever good they could do.
Thank goodness she’d never known where I’d been working, who I’d been hanging out with, or what I’d been up to.
Now the first spot on my reasons-my-mother-could-call-me-in-the-middle-of-the-day list was occupied squarely by my brother. Jake had had a brief reprieve from his heroin addiction when I’d been working at the hospital. As long as I was employed there, the Shadows worked their weird magic to keep him immune to heroin’s effects, no matter how much he shot up.
He’d been clean up until I’d gotten shunned, when his protection abruptly ended. And sure enough, Jake had been hooked again soon after. I tried not to think about him most times now. Thinking about him only made me sad.
I stopped at a red light as the awkward lull on the phone continued. “I just got some bad news is all,” my mother finally went on. “You’re pulled over, right?”
“Of course I am,” I totally lied again. Whatever it was, it must be bad. I prepared myself for the worst. Jake, found facedown in some gutter. The image came too readily to mind, followed by sadness and shameful relief.
“Good. Well. I have cancer,” she went on, matter-of-factly.
“What?” The car behind me started honking. I looked up. The light had changed. “What—where?”
“I was thinking maybe you could come over and join Peter and me for dinner? And then we could talk about things.” The car behind me honked louder.
Talk about things. Sure. Wait until dinner? Oh, hell no. “I’m coming right over, Mom.”
At least she didn’t fight me. “Sounds good, honey. See you soon.”
Throughout my entire life, my mother had been my rock. My childhood had been crazy, and while as a teen I’d resented that, now that I’d grown up I realized she was human, and she’d done the best she could. Knowing she was frail and sometimes fallible made me love her all the more. I couldn’t lose her now. My heart was racing in my chest, and I felt like I’d been punched. I drove through the light and pulled to a stop on the next side street to gather myself.
I looked down, and my mom’s picture was still up on my phone’s screen. It was blurry—I smudged it with my thumb, then realized it wasn’t sunscreen transferred from my face; I was crying. I inhaled deeply and swallowed it down. No. Not yet.
I needed to figure out how bad things were first. There were tons of different kinds of cancer. Thousands, really. There were all the chances in the world that this was an easy one, right? Tons of things that doctors could do. Chemo, radiation, or surgery. My mom was tough, she could get through it. She had a great support system: her church, her husband, me.
But that might not be enough, a small terrified voice whispered inside me. No one knows better than a nurse that sometimes, despite the best interventions and intentions, good people die.
I turned the screen off on my phone and carefully set it down on my passenger seat so I wouldn’t be tempted to throw it out the window.
Up until recently, I’d known creatures that lived—barring holy water showers or tripping into wooden stakes—forever.
If I had to, I’d make them make my mom live forever too.


 
Copyright © 2013 by Erin Cashier

In addition to being a writer, Cassie Alexander is an active registered nurse. She is the author of two previous Edie Spence novels and is currently working on the next book in the series.  All of her patients are of the human variety…she thinks.