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Cowboy Bear's Fate
Author: Harmony Raines

Chapter One – Monica

“This is the last of the boxes. Shall I start unpacking?” Monica asked her mom. She lifted the box, heavy with crockery, and placed it on the counter in the kitchen, where her mom was trying to make order out of the chaotic mess created by their move.

“Yes, please. Thanks, Monica.” Her mom tried to fix a smile on her strained face, but Monica saw right through it. The move had taken its toll on her mom and dad. Monica could only hope that when everything was unpacked and they had settled in, they could find peace and happiness here in Black Bear Ford.

A move to the country was supposed to be done for good reasons, such as fulfilling a lifelong dream, a chance to enjoy a slower pace of life. This move had been made out of complete desperation.

It had all happened so suddenly, and Monica was doing her best to be supportive of something she didn’t quite understand. There were changes going on inside her brother, and not the usual hormonal chaos of puberty. This was something more. Something else. Something otherworldly. The kind of thing you saw in a sci-fi movie, or read about in one of those magazines, along with the bearded lady or the sheep with two heads. Things that to anyone outside, looking in, would seem impossible.

But Monica had seen the impossible firsthand.

That same impossible had caused her parents to suddenly uproot themselves from perfectly happy lives and move to the wilds of Black Bear Ford. Yes, the scenery was exquisite, and the stream running along the bottom of the property was pretty. But this wasn’t the reason her parents had left their good, steady jobs to buy a house in the country and a hardware store in the local town.

What did her parents even know about hardware? Her mom was a dental assistant, and her father worked as a realtor. The whole thing was crazy. All their friends had figured it was a midlife crisis, or that their marriage was in trouble. Luckily, none of them guessed the real truth.

Her mom stopped unwrapping the coffee mugs and went to the back door, which looked out over the garden. Monica joined her, placing a hand on her mom’s shoulder. They stood in silence, watching her younger brother, Ethan, run around the lawn like a thing possessed.

“It will be OK. He will be OK,” Monica assured her mom.

“I hope so,” her mom replied. “I hope we’ve done the right thing.”

“There’s plenty of space here for him to run. The trail leads from the back yard up into the mountains. Dad can take him for a good run up there. Teach him how to control himself. I’m sure this is natural.”

She kept her expression neutral while her brain screamed, this is the most unnatural thing I’ve ever seen. But Ethan was still her brother.

And her dad was still her dad. Monica looked sideways at her mom briefly, and wondered what other secrets her mom and dad had kept from her. A wave of shame passed over Monica. Her parents were wonderful, always there for her; even now, as a grown woman, she knew she could always pick up the phone if she had a problem, and one of them would be there.

Not anymore, she reminded herself. Yes, they would still be at the end of the phone, but no more calling her dad if her car wouldn’t start, no more turning up on the doorstep for a cup of coffee and a chat with her mom whenever Monica was passing by. Even their regular family meal together on a Sunday evening was gone. Unless she wanted to make a six-hour round trip to visit Black Bear Ford.

A sudden noise from the garden made Monica jump, and she looked worriedly at her mom. “I think Ethan needs you.”

“What’s he doing?” her mom asked, and headed out of the house. “Ethan!” She went outside, practically running, before grabbing hold of the boy and talking to him quietly. Ethan nodded and then cast a look at Monica before going to sit by the stream, taking off his shoes and dangling his feet into the water.

“Everything OK?” Monica asked as her mom came back into the kitchen.

“Yes, he’s overexcited, wants to get out onto the mountains. He’s almost feral sometimes,” her mom said, a worried glance cast toward Ethan before she went back to unpacking.

Monica looked out of the kitchen door to where Ethan was still seated beside the stream. Maybe if she had gone through the same thing, this shift, she would be able to understand the changes taking place in him. But she hadn’t. Her dad, when he had finally outed himself as a shifter too, had explained it away. He told Monica, that sometimes the shifter gene skipped a child, or even a whole generation.

Monica wanted to believe that. And she did—kind of. Yet something didn’t sit right. Maybe it was the way her dad had kept this side of himself a secret, hidden from her all her life. Monica had a feeling that if Ethan’s shift had been easy, instead of making him the mixed-up teenager he had turned into, that they would have tried to keep that a secret from Monica and the rest of the world too.

Why would she think that? Because keeping it from her was exactly what they had done.

Her brother had been acting weird for a few months before they finally told her. Normally a laid back kid, he had gotten himself into fights at school, fallen out with many of his old friends, and generally become a stubborn pain in the ass. His energy levels and his temper were off the charts. It was why he was outside playing now, rather than helping unpack. He simply couldn’t be trusted around anything breakable, or precious.

Monica had stumbled on the family secret by chance. She’d stopped over at her parents’ house for coffee. Arriving unexpectedly, she had walked around to the back door, only to find a bear in her parents’ back yard. A big, black, frickin’ bear. Her screams had alerted her mom, who had called her dad, and they had sat her down and had that talk.

Not the birds and the bees: this was your brother is a bear.

“Shall I make some coffee?” Monica’s mom asked, as she unearthed the coffee pot.

“I’d love some,” Monica said, glancing at her mom. Everything had changed.

The change in her mom was particularly hard to take. In among all the upheaval of the move, she had begun to look old and tired. As if she had spent night after night not sleeping. Her eyes were permanently bloodshot, and Monica was sure her mom cried every day, although she tried to hide it. “Are you OK, Mom?”

Monica knew the answer. Her mom put her face on. It reminded Monica of a sports star’s game face. Everything was good. Everything would work out for the best. That did not stop her asking, or worrying.

Her mom smiled, not enough to lift the sadness she carried, but it was an attempt to ease Monica’s worry. “Everything will be, once we get settled in.” She put the coffee on and then left the unpacking to come over to Monica, who was hanging up the saucepans. “We just have some things to iron out.”

“Things you don’t need me around for?” Monica smiled sadly. So much sadness these days. It was almost as if there had been a death in the family, and yet everyone was still alive and breathing.

“It’s not like that.”

“Then what is it like?” Monica asked.

“You have a life, a good job. We don’t want you to give that up. You love your work at the museum.”

“I love you guys more.” Monica tilted her head to one side. “Say the word, and I’ll come work in your hardware store for room and board.”

“We don’t want you giving up your career. We have moved to the perfect place for Ethan. And I feel guilty enough leaving you behind. But not as guilty as if we let you move here and give up everything you’ve worked for.”

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