“I’m sorry,” the doctor told us, “we weren’t able to save her.” He went on to explain more details to my stunned parents, while I just tuned him out.
This didn’t seem possible. This wasn’t how today was supposed to go. Yesterday was the big school dance and my sister had gone with some of her friends. I hadn’t bothered to go because of senior projects and things that were more important than a simple dance – at least to me. Lori texted us when she was leaving, sometime after midnight, only to have us get called in by the hospital some hours later when her car was discovered along one of the back roads, crashed into a tree. It wasn’t a road she would normally take to get home, but apparently she’d decided to drop off another kid and on the way back, she’d swerved to avoid hitting an animal. At least, that’s what the police were guessing – all they could tell for sure was that she’d swerved but there was no sign of another vehicle. The police seemed concerned about whether she was possibly intoxicated – I knew she wasn’t – but at the end of the day, did it matter? All that mattered was she’d run off the road, into a tree, and now she was dead.
An accident which threw our lives into confusion.
It was several days after the funeral before I felt emotionally stable enough to go back to school. Mom and Dad were being extra protective of me, no surprise there, but I just wasn’t sure I was up to dealing with all the looks from the students and teachers. All the looks saying they didn’t know what to tell me, all the empty words of condolence, all of – all of that.
Still, I couldn’t avoid it forever if I still wanted to graduate and so I eventually found myself back in the high school hallways, grimacing as I attempted to ignore the other students.
I only welcomed the arrival of one of them. Ollie, my best and oldest friend. He was kind of a nerdy guy, always a little on the nervous side, but today he seemed to be even worse. It felt like he was reluctant to come over and join me, which kind of hurt. He knew Lori – did he really feel so bad about the accident and so awkward about what to say that he didn’t even want to come talk to me? That bugged me. Weren’t real friends supposed to support you in a time like this?
I was pissed off with him for about half a period, but after that I quit caring. I was too busy just being grateful that he, at least, was trying to be normal instead of treating me like I was fragile and easily breakable like everyone else.
It wasn’t until the next day that I noticed that Ollie wasn’t speaking much and would just kind of mumble responses without looking at me. He actually almost looked nauseous a couple of times, but assured me he wasn’t sick when I asked. I once caught him out of the corner of my eye taking a deep breath like he wanted to say something, but he chickened out when I turned to look at him.
He probably just wanted to say sorry about what happened, same as everyone else. Maybe even ask me how I was doing. It was weird to see him so uncertain about whatever it was he wanted to say, but I was too wrapped up in my own problems to really try to figure out what was going on with him.
That changed when he approached me when we were alone after class the following week, just before final exams.
“Auggie, I really – I need to tell you something.” He gulped as he looked at me nervously.
I was still gathering up my books, but I glanced up at him. “Yeah, okay.” Just get it over with, I thought. Give your condolences and then our friendship could go back to normal. I could use some more normal in my life. Between Lori’s death and finals around the corner, having my best friend not being so weird would be at least one thing I could count on.
Apparently, what I could not count on was predicting what Ollie was going to say.
“It was my fault!” He burst out. “I mean, it was still an accident, but – well, I can, uh, shapeshift into a moose, and I was out running that night, and I didn’t think anyone would be on that road because like no one takes it, so I was using it for a shortcut to get back and then there were these headlights and I just sort of froze in shock and – and it was me Lori served to avoid hitting. She didn’t know it, but…it was. I – I – I’m sorry,” he whispered in a broken voice.
I had stopped gathering my stuff during this speech and just sat there, kind of staring at him. Then I started to feel some anger rising and grabbed the last of my things, shoved it in my backpack, and rose to glare at him.
“So the takeaway is that you’re either crazy and need some help or that you think this is some sort of joke?” Ollie had never been the kind to joke like this, but this stung. Why on earth would he pretend something like this? Or did he actually believe it? That might be worse, because maybe he needed psychiatric help if so.
“It’s not a joke, and I’m not crazy, either. But it really was an accident!” He pleaded. His expression was surprisingly sincere – I could usually tell when Ollie was lying, and this…this wasn’t his lying face. But what alternative did that leave? I couldn’t even begin to comprehend what he was trying to suggest, and shapeshifters, well, that wasn’t real, so it was either a joke or insanity, right?
“Please, Auggie,” he begged as I started for the door.
I spun back to face him. “Please what? You want me to forgive you for Lori’s death, since you are claiming you caused that?” If he was somehow blaming himself for that because of some psychiatric break, maybe I needed to get his parents involved. “Or forgive you for being crazy and trying to get attention from her death?” I glared at him. “I don’t know what to even believe here or which one would be better! This is crazy, or worse – I don’t even know. I think you might need some help, Ollie.”
I went home and made a beeline to my room. Mom and Dad probably assumed I was still dealing with Lori’s death – which was true enough – or starting studying for finals, while in actuality I was staring at my ceiling, trying to decide if Ollie had been joking or was crazy. And which would I prefer?
I mean, if he wasn’t lying, if it was real…I wouldn’t blame him for Lori’s death, not if what he said happened was the truth. But it couldn’t be real, could it? Because…that was just stuff for stories, not for real life. But was there even a chance it was? Ollie had never struck me as someone that lost from reality, and he didn’t seem to be hallucinating or anything, but then…what he claimed was impossible, so there was that.
When I ended up more confused than I’d started, I sighed and got up, flipping on my computer and then going to a search engine to ask whether shapeshifters are real. Because maybe if they were real, Ollie wasn’t crazy and he wasn’t trying to make a really poor joke out of Lori’s death, either. If shapeshifters were real, then maybe that would be less crazy than the alternatives.
The answers were, predictably, a mess. Some people reporting how they’d seen shapeshifters, others claiming that it was all fraud, and the arguments would go back and forth.
I found some forums, though, that seemed more interesting. Slightly different stories from the rest, ones that sounded almost more…real. Like someone reportedly watched their friend dive into a lake and not surface for hours, but then show up again later just fine. Weird stories, but stories that just…make you wonder.
I spent hours poring over the forums before finally – feeling a little like an idiot – posting on a couple of the discussions that talked about shapeshifters, asking whether there was any real proof for it.
Over the next week, this question actually preoccupied my mind a lot more than the materials for my final exams. My teachers probably thought I was just distracted over Lori’s death, but honestly, this was kind of a distraction to me from her death. I spent a lot of time chatting with others on the forums, asking about what they’d seen and admitting that I had a friend who claimed to be a shapeshifter, though I hadn’t seen proof, and I wanted to know if it could be real.
I only saw Ollie once that week. Somehow he managed to actively avoid me, despite our sharing several classes, and I ended up only catching a distant glimpse of him at graduation itself. Even from across the room, however, I could see how miserable he looked as he returned to his family – parents, younger brother in middle school, and twin sisters who were about to start kindergarten – and I felt guilty over that. If he was telling the truth, if all of this about shapeshifting was real…it was an accident, right? I couldn’t hold Lori’s death against him. And if it wasn’t real, well then, he needed help, and as his best friend, I ought to be providing that.
I wasn’t able to catch him at graduation, so I made a promise to myself that I would go over to his house that week, maybe talk to his parents about getting him psych help. After some thought, I ended up texting him, telling him congratulations and asking if we could talk. I could tell he read my message, but he didn’t respond to it right away, which was…probably fair. My response had probably hurt him, claiming I didn’t believe him – if he was crazy or telling the truth, that would bother him a lot. It might take some work to repair this.Late the next morning, I got a notification and hurried to my phone, hoping Ollie had responded, when instead I realized it was a direct message from one of the people I’d been talking to on the forums.
Can we talk? The message read. It was from someone with the username HforLife. I think I might have some answers for you.
I clicked into the message box. Can we not talk here?
Online’s always risky, came the response. You never know who might be listening in.
Riiiight. Paranoid much?
I looked back at the first message, hesitant. Shouldn’t meet strangers from the internet, right? I mean, I wasn’t exactly an easy target – I had a black belt in karate and had taken some judo as well, not to mention I had a concealed weapon’s permit and my own gun, so…I could probably protect myself. Meet in a public place, though, that should be safe, maybe? And it would be nice to get some answers. Maybe before I talked to Ollie, so I knew what to say when I spoke to him.
Very hesitantly, I clicked back into the message box. What did you have in mind?
Which was how I came to be at an outdoor diner a town away a few hours later, watching warily as other people wandered around. I was crazy for doing this, wasn’t I? Meeting a stranger like this? Maybe I should just go.
And then a woman sat down across from me, a few years older than me, but she carried herself like someone in the military. “ASenior?” She asked.
Okay, that might have been a stupid username, but I hadn’t had any bright ideas that night when I’d had to enter what I wanted for a username. “You’re HforLife?” I was kind of surprised. She didn’t strike me as the conspiracy theory type. Which was kind of what I assumed most of these people were.
“Yes.” She smiled in a professional sort of way. “I came to answer your questions. For starters, your friend who said they were a shapeshifter? Doubtless are. Yes, shapeshifters exist. A variety of people like them exist, some with different magical powers, some with different shapeshifter forms, but the bottom line is they are all monsters.” Her eyes grew hard, calculated. “They are a threat to humanity, Augustine, and their only goal is to kill all of us.”
I frowned, my defenses going up. “How did you know my name?”
“It wasn’t that hard to figure it out,” she explained. “Based on your location listed on your profile and the username. Plus, you recently experienced a family tragedy, no? Something you happen to think is connected to this shapeshifter even if official reports say otherwise?” She nodded knowingly. “Your sister’s death was no accident, Augustine. They enjoy watching us die, even if it’s in more casual ways such as car accidents. They truly are monsters, incapable of feeling any sort of sympathy for us or deserving of our pity.”
She leaned forward. “But that isn’t to say they get away with it. I’m part of an organization that seeks to protect humans. We take care of these monsters, remove the threat as soon as we become aware of one.”
My head was spinning. I was so confused. Monsters? Ollie – Ollie wasn’t a monster, was he?
“Remove the threat?” I managed to ask.
“Eh, well,” she rolled her eyes and shrugged a bit, “if you’re faced down by a rabid dog, what do you do? Only one thing under the circumstances. We do the same. We protect people from a very real, very dangerous threat.”
I tried to figure out what all this meant but I found myself still struggling over the concept she presented. “What – why are you telling me this?”
“Because you have questions. You’ve started to put together the truth, now I’m providing you some answers. And an opportunity.” She reached into her purse, then pulled out a business card which she pushed across the table at me. “People like you and me, who’ve lost someone due to these monsters – we get it. We put ourselves on the line to protect all those we care about. Monster police, if you will. It’s not an easy life, but it’s rewarding, knowing we’re protecting people. Give it a thought, would you? And if not, well,” she shrugged, “no harm done. At least you know the truth. At least you can be careful from now on.”
I drove back to my hometown, silent and utterly confused. Monsters? Ollie – but no. That just wasn’t right. I knew Ollie. I’d known him since we were, what, a couple years old? We’d grown up together, spent almost every day together for most of our lives. And Ollie wasn’t out to hurt anyone. He had a passion for non-profit projects and every year we’d been in high school, he’d organized and run a benefit event for one of the non-profits he loved. He might be a nerd and awkward at times, but he’d taken his own time to tutor some students, free of charge, when he heard they were close to failing. He helped out with his little brother and sisters and was always available when he came over to lend a hand with chores.
Ollie…couldn’t be a monster. No, that just – that wasn’t right. Okay, he’d apparently caused Lori’s accident, but he’d said it was a literal accident and he wasn’t lying. I knew that. And Ollie’s family, I mean – they didn’t seem like monsters, either. Nice people, friendly, nothing at all to suggest they would ever harm anyone. I didn’t know what was going on, but I did know the lady was wrong about one thing. Not all of the inhumans were monsters.
I pulled up to my house, intent on running upstairs and calling Ollie. Enough waiting, I needed to talk to him, I needed some answers from him.