by Daifuku Hoyako (惰猪腹ほや子)
The lid of the teapot made the tiniest of rattles as he tipped it. The stream of tea was dark and fragrant, the most solid thing in the whole house. Everything else—curtains, dishes, skinny cat twining around my ankles—was ghost pale, sun bleached, and lacking even the memory of color. I certainly could not recall it ever being different. Uncle placed the first cup in front of me.
“It’s been quite some time. Last I heard, you were in Nevada,” he said.
“Nevada,” when it came from his mouth, suggested that whatever I had been doing out there, it was certainly not wholesome. The family took a dim view of anything that did not involve the artifact we had been charged with protecting.
“Cream? Sugar?” The formality lent a hint of manners that he would not have consciously used on me.
“Thanks, but no,” I said. I reached into the pocket of my leather jacket and took out a lemon. The hotel we were staying in had a sickly tree out front with a few small fruits on it. But the smell was good. So I took out a switch blade as well and reduced it to tidy wedges while Uncle watched with a muscle ticking nervously in his cheek. My jacket felt lopsided, the right pocket empty and the left heavy. I squeezed wedge after wedge of lemon into my cup. My stomach twisted at the look of distaste on Uncle’s face. The twitch moved up to Uncle’s eye when I bit the flesh out of the final wedge. Five, ten years ago, that would have given me the warm glow of a job well done.
“Nice people in Nevada,” I said as I chewed the lemon pulp. “I got caught in a canyon once with this old medicine man and his grandson. We’d gone out there in my Jeep to explore a cave formation. When we went in, the sky was burning white-blue, a ribbon of it carved out by red sandstone on either side.”
I took a sip of tea. It burned my lip and I nursed it with my tongue for a moment before going on. Uncle watched me with his hands folded primly over his gut and his own tea steaming away, untouched. A gold chain disappeared under his collar, faintly visible through the thin white fabric until the vest over it blocked out the glow.
“We came out to clouds violet with rain and lightning; the flash flood had swept the Jeep two miles downstream.” I alone chuckled at the image of my poor Jeep up on its roll bar in a stand of cacti and a silt stream flowing through it. Behind Uncle, the windows displayed a flat gray fog in the lane.
“How long ago was this?” Uncle interrupted.
“Six months ago. I left the next week for even more flooded pastures.” I had spent a year roasting in the desert, usually cooped up in an ancient truck with no AC, while I worked for an animal rescue, shuttling nervous mongrel dogs to and from the local reservation for their free spay/neuter program. Then I listened to an old woman’s stories about Grandfather Bennett, the medicine man, and ended up out in the scrub brush, good and lost and nine out of ten times likely to die. There I found a couple of glossy coyotes sleeping around a campfire; the old woman had not mentioned Grandfather’s other skills. Which was, long story short, the reason why I ended up leaving for the gulf coast right as Hurricane Katrina hit. It was the reason I waded through abandoned houses and corpse-poisoned waters. It was, admittedly, not the reason why I then let myself get sucked into rescuing animals again while I was there; that was all me. But it was the reason I was back in my childhood home, looking for the thing I had run away to avoid.
“I see the news from your mother has been slow about you. Where have you been in the intervening time?”
“Actually, I just flew from New Orleans,” I answered, and tried the tea again.
That set the eye into a fresh round of twitches. If he thought I was behaving badly in Nevada, I could only guess what he imagined I got into down in the bayou. I bit down on the edge of my cup, letting the bottom conceal my face for a moment, unwilling to let him see my wince. If I had behaved like something other than the black-hearted bastard son the family painted me to be, Uncle would never take the time to find out.
“If you flew here, you must be doing well. Working hard? I wonder what common skill led you to both Nevada and New Orleans.”
“Not even a little,” I said at last. “That was the last of my money.” I did not even try to answer his insinuations. Deaf ears and all that. Walking away from my job, my duty, my family, had been betrayal enough for him. I soothed what little guilt I felt at my plan with that thought. I was just living up to expectations, for once.
“So, is this the return of the prodigal then?”
I reached into my left pocket. My hand closed around cool wood and sea shells that had no business being in Nevada and dated further back than a sane person would believe. The weight rumbled against my skin, silent and powerful and with an animal intelligence of its own. My time was short, I knew, and it seemed to be reminding me. Whatever I would take from that house, I knew it would not be reconciliation and well-wishes.
“That’s the end of the story. I’m just getting started,” I said.
I laid the little box on the table, brass hinges facing me. I hooked the latch with a fingernail and flipped it up. The moon and sun motif set into the lid reversed from that angle; the sun now rested in a boat of moon. The box opened the rest of the way on its own and it gushed out dusty air. Uncle coughed and waved his hand at the cloud, but it sparked against his skin, changed colors, and flowed on. The cloud, fully released, engulfed him.
“But I will need my inheritance, Uncle. And I’m here to claim it at last.”
I unlocked and opened the back door. Lace curtains hung in the narrow window. My grandmother’s touch was still evident in the house, long after her death.
Calling-Out shoved his nose against it and pushed his way in. His nails clicked on the hard wood floors. His nostrils flared, taking in the new territory. The cat, which had been following me, froze when she saw him. Her fur levitated out from her body until she looked like a porcupine. The wire-tight muscles in the back of my neck only tensed further as I rubbed a hand across them. The coyote snuffled over to her, ears perked, tail eerily still in the way wild dogs have that sets them apart from pets. She spat and clawed at him. He tipped his nose away from her, keeping his eyes out of reach, and sidled closer. My stomach was burning with acid. I regretted the lemon, the scent of which still lingered on my fingers. It was starting to nauseate me. The cat shrank back on her haunches, one paw extended in warning. Calling-Out made a low keening noise of interest. I realized that I had been staring at them with unfocused eyes, hand still on the door knob.
“Quit baiting her, would you?” I snapped as I slammed the door shut. “You’re the one who said we had to work quickly.” I stepped between them when the staring contest did not stop. The cat stared at my legs like she could see through them. I made a “fsht” noise at her and snapped my fingers. She slunk away, then ran when that did not get her killed. I turned on Calling-Out, sorely tempted to find a newspaper to roll up and hit him with. “Don’t you have a whole respect for elders thing going on? What are you doing picking on that old girl? And that cat used to like me, too.”
He sat directly in front of me and put a dainty paw up on my thigh. He did not look sorry at all.
“Look, would you just go check that the box from Grandfather Bennett worked correctly? The last thing I need is for my uncle to wake up ahead of schedule.”
I up-ended a drawer full of silverware and tossed it aside. Forks pinged off the linoleum. A butter knife whizzed across the floor and under the refrigerator. I reached into the newly empty space in the bank of cabinets and felt around. Nothing. Again. I pulled my hand back and shook off the streamers of cobweb. That was the third one and I still had not found anything that resembled part of the puzzle. I knew it was there somewhere.
Growing up, Grandmother ushered us children out of the kitchen on rare occasions, redirecting our attention with fresh pound cake or a bag of marbles. The others were content, but I knew when adults were keeping secrets, so I found ways to spy on her. And behind one of the drawers in the kitchen, if only I could remember which one, was the first piece you had to move to open a puzzle box. Only the box was the whole house.
“You know, I could really use some help with this,” I shouted to Calling-Out as I wrenched the next drawer off its runners. He was taking his dear sweet time with Uncle. If there was a problem, he would have called me, but I did not feel any better.
I shoved my hand towards the back wall, expecting to come up empty again. So there was a delay before it sank in that something had sliced the tip of my middle finger as I poked around. “Fuck,” I yelped. I rushed to the sink, dripping blood from the short, deep cut on my fingertip. I shoved it under the water and cast around with my other hand for a towel or tissue. “Son of a pig dog,” I growled. “Cal, I need a little help. Seriously this time.”
I felt Calling-Out behind me before I heard him, so I knew he had changed forms. He padded up on bare feet, took one look at me, and fetched the dishtowel that had been out of my reach.
“I’m going to get tetanus,” I whined as he examined my hand.
Out from under the flow of water, the blood pooled up again. He licked it away with a swipe of his broad tongue then wrapped the towel tightly around my finger. “Press,” he said and released my hand.
“Make that tetanus and rabies,” I said.
He ignored me and knelt down in front of the cabinet to peer in. He was naked except for the belt of smooth fur tied around his waist. His dark skin looked strange under the fluorescents; he belonged outside where the sunlight could touch him. His short braid flopped over his bare shoulder. “Razors,” he said finally.
“Booby-trapped for anyone who didn’t know their way by habit. Guess that’s what I get for shirking my destiny of housesitting, huh?”
“Shall I press this?”
“Yeah. That’s the first one.”
When he pressed the little button, there was a faint sound of something moving within the house, as though someone had opened a door or pushed back a chair. I had never seen the internal mechanism that made the house what it was. I imagined hollow walls filled with elaborate pulley systems and Rube Goldberg machines.
“Six to go,” I said.
Calling-Out stood in a ripple of smooth muscle and crowded me back against the kitchen counter. He was thin, all long bones and weirdly feminine hands. But he gave the impression of size and power as he leaned against me. My free hand dropped to his hip, brushed against the soft fur of the belt, and stroked down his thigh. The flip-flops that my stomach had been doing all day took on a new significance. I felt the irrational urge to check for peeping siblings and cousins. He pressed his nose behind my ear. His breath ruffled my short hair. My own breath hitched with the first kicks of arousal. He had one arm curled around my back and a fistful of my shirt clutched in his hand. His other hand was pressed flat just below my chest so that his fingers were grazing my nipple. His lips ghosted across my skin, not quite a kiss.
“What’s all this then?” I asked. I huffed a startled, breathless grunt when he growled and bit down on the meaty part of my neck.
“You smell good,” he said.
Then he was gone, across the room while my brain was still stuttering. I pressed my palm against my cock through my trousers, since it was still decidedly interested, even if he wasn’t. I thought dogs were supposed to sense human emotions. I guessed that meant Calling-Out decided I needed a bit more tension.
“Think any of his clothing will fit me?” Calling-Out asked as he sniffed out Uncle’s bedroom.
I could not believe he was leaving me like that. The bastard probably wasn’t even hard. “You … dog,” I muttered and followed after him.
“You knew where the door was?” Calling-Out asked me hours later.
I was seated in front of a door with a key hole, but no handle, two feet high and one foot wide. I was sweating and covered with streaks of dust and I had seen more of that damn house in one day than in all the years I had lived there. There were buttons hidden between movable double panes of glass in a window, up in a crawlspace in the attic, and behind a dressing table in my grandmother’s old bedroom. There were levers disguised as part of a bed frame, a peg on a coat rack, and a shelf in the pantry above the sack of cat kibble.
“That was the easy part,” I said. “It’s no good if you can’t get it open.” I had been high on the thrill of the chase while searching them out. Once all the buttons had been found, of course, it was trial and error to figure out the right order to press them. I had to rush around the house, triggering them again and again, waiting to hear that final piece slide into place. That had kept me busy enough that I could ignore the tedium and repeated failure. When I had gotten it right that last time and the adrenaline ebbed away, I was tempted to just curl up beside the last trigger (spider-infested crawlspace, as fate would have it) and sleep. Then Calling-Out shouted from below that there was a problem. Which was how I ended up sitting cross-legged in front of that little door, trying to figure out what the last trick could be.
“That would be cheating,” I said. I tried to dig my fingernails into the gap at the edge of the door to slide it sideways, holding my now bandaged middle finger out of the way awkwardly, but there was no give.
“That’s your reason to not use one?”
I sighed and leaned back. “If I was feeling noble, I would say yes, because the challenge is only worth it if you play by the rules,” I said. “But mostly, I don’t think it would work. The house predates chainsaws, but I have to assume, if they would go to all the trouble of building a clockwork house to hide this thing, they would take fire, hatchets, explosives, and other such dishonorable methods into account.”
I stood up on numb feet and paced the short distance between a writing desk and the adjacent wall. Stride, stride, stride, turn. “They used puzzles, things that you had to know about before you could start looking for them, knowledge that favored being passed from one generation to the next.” Stride, stride, turn. I pinched my nose, which was stuffy. I would probably get sick. Damn New England with its damp and cold and brightly colored trees. “I know there are seven triggers; we found that out ourselves.”
Calling-Out sat at the desk with his knees pulled up to his chest and his arms draped over them. He looked like a coyote even then: sharp, hungry face; long, lean limbs. He had on a pair of wool trousers filched from Uncle’s closet and cinched with a belt that trailed six inches too long. His chest was bare and dusky red. “The man should be out for another four hours,” he said.
“Oh, thanks, just keep a running count for me,” I said. “Because I need a little more hanging fire right now.” On the next pass, I kicked the door hard and it gave under my boot. It slid slowly into the wall.
“Guess that did it,” Calling-Out said.
There was a thunk and the whole house started to rattle. The sliding panel that had hidden the little door started to move back over it.
“Or not,” he said placidly.
“Don’t just sit there,” I said as I wedged myself between the wall and the panel and tried to hold it back with my foot. “Help me!”
“You might break it. Better to just go through the switches again.”
I wasn’t going to give up that easily and I shoved at it harder, but the weight was unyielding and it just kept pressing in on me. I switched from pushing at it with my foot to my knee. Two feet of space left. Then I resorted to hands and shoulders. One foot. Calling-Out grabbed me by the arm and pulled me away just as the panel snapped shut.
“You could lose a hand in that,” he said.
I shook his hand off and kicked the panel again. I half expected it to explode on me or make the roof cave in like something out of Indiana Jones. It did not give me the satisfaction. I rolled my shoulders, where the muscles felt like two boulders stacked alongside my neck. “Fuck,” I roared.
“You need to relax.” Calling-Out put a hand between my shoulder blades, narrow and hot.
I turned on him, lashing out like I would hit him, which was a joke, because, really, like I possessed the superior reflexes. But just then the rage felt real. Like I could hurt him and wanted to. “What I need—” I snarled.
He caught my arm easily and used the two points of contact to slam me against the wall. I felt like I was living in freeze frames around him. One minute, I was in control of myself and the next he had me pinned. He shifted his grip to the back of my neck. He pressed just hard enough that I could not twist away and my right cheek was pressed flat to the wood panel, but he never caused me pain. I placed my hands flat against the wall and pushed back. Blood was thundering through my body. Even my sinuses were miraculously cleared by the rush of a fight. He drove his hips against my ass, forcing me forward again. Sure, now he was hard. The folds of his borrowed pants created odd patches of padding between us.
“We don’t have time for this,” I argued.
One-handed, he unbuttoned my trousers then tugged them and my boxers down in a series of little jerks, first one side then the other. The outline of his erection was that much more obvious the next time he pressed into me, nestled just barely between my ass cheeks for a second. Then he pulled away and a moment later I heard the rustle of fabric and the thud of the belt buckle hitting the floor. He pressed against me a third time, skin to skin, and held me there. For long, desperate seconds, I thought he was just going to stay there, unmoving, and make me suffer.
“Anyone ever told you you’re a total cock-tease?”
He ran the back of his hand up the inside of my thigh. My body wanted to press closer. I wanted to get the hell back to work and nothing kills arousal like a ticking clock.
“Spread,” he said.
“Damn it, I told you, I’ve got better things to do,” I said.
He wrapped his arm around my waist and shifted us both, supporting enough of my weight so that he could kick my feet apart. “Not right now, you don’t,” he said. Then his cock was between my thighs, high up and nudging my balls on every forward thrust. The fur tied at his waist brushed against the small of my back in ticklish strokes.
I dropped my head, panting, and watched as he took my cock in his hand with practiced confidence and stroked it in a counter rhythm. It was just hard enough to get me right on the edge, just light enough to keep me from going over. “Then would you just fuck me already?” I felt his braid swish across my shoulders as he shook his head.
“When will you relax?” His mouth was right against my ear, giving the words a distorted sound, as though heard through a sea shell.
I squirmed between his hand and his cock, frantic, still angry. “This is—ah—not exactly helping me relax,” I said.
“You weren’t ready yet,” he said. He gave my neck a warning squeeze and released me. Before I could move—and I was still frustrated enough to just jerk away—he put his hands on the bunched muscles just below my shoulder blades, curving to span around my ribcage, and P R E S S E D. The muscles twitched under the pressure and it hurt, hurt, hurt and then it didn’t hurt at all. Jesus, there weren’t even bones in my back any longer, everything gone liquid and warm.
I let myself collapse against the wall and he surged against me, the first sign that he had a bigger stake in this than just concern for my well-being. He wrapped his hands up over the tops of my shoulders and liquefied those muscles as well.
I reached back with a hand numb from pressing hard against the wall and touched his hip. “Yeah,” I moaned, “yes, okay. I give already.”
He cupped one hand fondly around my balls and gripped my cock with the other. He stroked from base to tip once and I came with a sigh, slumped against the wall. My pulse kicked up again as soon as I saw it: the white splatter across the wall in my wretched family home and god, if that wasn’t my definition of forbidden eroticism. Calling-Out pulled away, leaving me chilled where our sweating bodies had been pressed together. He turned me around and kissed me, a simple, constant pressure of his lips against mine. Calling-Out liked to nuzzle and bite and cuddle, but kissing was something I taught him. His kisses were rare. I clung to him, following his mouth with mine until he bit and licked and leaned in to rumble in my ear:
“You got something?”
“Jacket,” I said.
He left me with a parting stroke to my chest and fished around the pockets of my jacket. I let myself sink to the floor, which had warmed where our feet had been but was still cold everywhere else. He came back with the lube I kept stashed away because, well, I wasn’t likely to deny myself these days. Not once I found him out in the desert I had learned to love. He moved me away from the wall, spread me out on the cold floor, and arranged my limbs. Arms over my head, one leg hooked around his hip, the other pushed up to my chest. Ready, willing, and able. I shivered in the cold. He stroked over my hole with a slick fingertip and pushed in without preamble.
I gasped and arched up towards him. When the man decided to get on with things, he wasted no time. I maintained a litany of yeses as he pushed into me in a single slow thrust, gripping his shoulders and feeling the pressure up to the backs of my eyes. “God, Cal, yes, please.”
He held himself deep inside me and bent his face to mine. “When will you learn to let me in? Or do I have to beat down the door before you answer every time?” It was the most words he ever said at one time and yes, of course, he would choose to have a conversation then. The man had superhuman control.
I held his gaze, dropped my arms and let my body go soft and loose. His nose flared as he took a deep breath and groaned. Then he was driving into me, wild and shuddering and with no rhythm at all.
“Yes,” I said. “Anything. Come on. Give it to me.” If I had ever stopped being hard, it didn’t show now, my cock weeping onto my belly and twitching with every thrust. But there was no way I was going to move, not when Calling-Out had hitched my leg up again and was hitting just the right spot with every goddamn stroke. But maybe his superpowers included reading minds, because he changed the angle again, freeing his hand, and stroked me in time with his thrusts.
“Cal, I—” Coming was like the cessation of an ache after years of pain. My spine whip-cracked, meeting him in one last thrust and forcing him deep into me. The bow of my back opened my chest up further to him. I was a dog baring throat and belly in one move. He came with a shout that was like a howl and rocked against me to draw out the last shudders of feeling. In the following haze, when my mind was empty, I wanted just to remain lying there, with Calling-Out beside me, his nose buried in my hair, and imagine that there was no time left in the world, nothing that demanded our attention.
“Lemon,” he said. He brought one of my hands up to his face and rubbed against it. “I like it.”
“So the way to this man’s heart is through his nose.”
“This house smells too much of cat.”
“Unbelievable. How can you smell her? Pets aren’t even allowed in this room. Heaven help her if she sharpens her claws on the roll-top.”
He mumbled and rubbed his chin across the top of my head, as though he still needed to mark me with his scent. He started to sit up.
“Back to the salt mines, then?” I asked. I sat up and stretched. I looked at the closed wall panel and grimaced. “Well, the key is obviously not optional. You’d think I’d have noticed something like that years ago. They’re good at hiding things, but not that good.” A recalcitrant thought, previously lodged somewhere in the back of my brain, meandered over to greet that other idea. The words key and smell started combining themselves in interesting ways. Oh. Oh, well, yes, of course. Idiot. “Apparently, my muscles weren’t the only things loosened up by your ministrations,” I said.
“If you smell the lock, do you think you could smell the key? Trace the scent, I mean.”
He considered for a moment, head cocked to the side. “If I change, maybe. Probably.”
“Brilliant. Let me just get this panel open again.”
“You ready, big guy?”
Calling-Out, again in the form of a coyote, brushed against my leg and left behind russet and cream fur on my pants. He dipped his muzzle in a nod, which came out as comically earnest when performed by a canine. He pressed his nose to the lock on the hidden door. I held my breath. If he set off the reset mechanism as I had, I was going to sit down and cry. Even knowing where all the triggers were and the order to use them, it had taken me another hour to finish. And Uncle was starting to wake up.
“Well?” I asked. “Can you do it or not?” Without taking his nose away from the lock, Calling-Out turned one ear back to me. I held up my hands in surrender. “Right. Sorry. Relaxing now. No rush. We’re good.”
He breathed in deep then took a few short snorts. He turned away slightly like he was verifying he had the right scent. He sniffed the lock again. Then he turned and trotted out of the room with as much certainty as if he had been looking at the key. He turned the corner into the sitting room. Uncle’s head wobbled on his neck. He slouched in his chair where I had left him. He had been effectively asleep for the first hours. But he was starting to come around: his eyes were open but unfocused; his arms hung at his sides; his mouth was leaking saliva in one corner. Calling-Out jabbed his chest with his nose.
“He has it on him?” I parted Uncle’s collar and hooked a finger around the chain there. I pulled it up and, sure enough, a key hung from it. It glittered razor-bright in the sunset streaming through the bay windows. I twisted the chain around until I could reach the clasp.
He slurred something and flung his arm—dead weight like a log—at me and knocked my hands away. Uncle opened his mouth and contorted it around soundless letters. “Had a responsibility,” he got out at last. “Bigger than yourself.”
“You never learn, do you? Holding the angry gods of duty over my head never worked.” I undid the clasp and lifted away the key. “It was supposed to be mine anyway, right? I just decided to do something different with it.”
Uncle tried to take the key from me but his fingers were immobile and I dodged out of the way. “Knew you would turn on us.” He formed other words, but the sounds eluded him.
Calling-Out started to leave but I hesitated, turning the key over in my palm. It was new. “You added fortifications just for me. You never trusted me at all.” A cold, wet nose nudged my hand. “Yeah, okay. In a minute,” I said to Calling-Out then turned to Uncle again. “I thought I would have some grand parting shot to leave you with if I saw you again.”
I closed my hand around the key. “But I guess I lost the chance to reason with you when I chose the other side. Bye, Uncle.”
The door sprang open when I turned the key. No poisonous gas traps, no flamethrowers, no sixteen-ton weights. Inside was a box similar to a safe deposit box, all metal with a small handle to pull it out of the tight confines of the chamber. There were no additional protections on the box itself. They never thought I would get that far. I looked at Calling-Out from the corner of my eye. I popped the latch and eased up the lid. There was a hiss of released air. Surrounded by copious amounts of padding and insulation, a shard of pottery rested inside.
“This one is large,” I said needlessly as I extracted it with trembling hands. In the light, it was just shy of transparent. It looked like a melding of bone and marble and crystal. The honey and white surface was edged with designs as fine as a fingerprint. Clean and perfect, but I could still tell it was old; older than the box I had brought from Nevada, though not by much. There were mountain ranges with fewer years behind them than that thing.
“Grandfather Bennett will never believe us when we tell him. This is larger than all our other fragments put together.” I traced a fingertip over the designs, pictographs that I recognized but could not decipher. “See, here is the column symbol again. This must be the start of the narrative, if Grandfather is correct. Half the story, right here. No wonder my uncle was paranoid about locking it up.”
Calling-Out sat beside me, stock still with eyes locked on the shard. I rewrapped and eased it back into the box. I latched it and let out the breath I had been holding.
“I’m not going to be able to sleep until we get this home. I can’t, oh, god, if something happened to this. No, no. Not going to think about it.” I narrowed my eyes at Calling-Out.”I think you should change again. We’ll need to drive in shifts. The bill on that rental is going to be astronomical.”
Calling-Out glared back at me. I admit his version was much more menacing.
“Yes, yes, I’m not supposed to stress about these things. I embrace the universe’s will for me.”
Calling-Out opened his mouth in a doggy grin and panted, clearly pleased and just as clearly not noticing my sarcasm.
“But when it’s your turn to sleep, I’m going to regale you with everything I know about Zen. No doubt you will have a few pointers for them in the future.” I picked up the box, cradling it in my arms, and took one last look at my childhood home. The study was a disaster, torn apart in our search and smelling like a brothel. I felt sixteen again, full of myself, eager to spit in anyone’s eye.
I suppressed my grin. Mostly. It had been, I decided, a good reunion.
“Right. That’s just about enough of that. We’ll need to buy food before we start,” I said as we walked out. “I wonder how much lemons are selling for this far east.”