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Relative Problems


Rodford Edmiston

      Lisa looked around the small, neat family room of her cousin's home with feigned interest. It was little changed since her last visit, when her cousin had moved in here with his new wife, nearly eighteen years earlier. Some of the appliances had been replaced, the couch was new, and the walls looked freshly painted, though in the same color she remembered. Her cousin and his wife looked much the same, too. The children hadn't even been born the last time she was here, but they were in school. Except for one.

      Jimmy was moderately prosperous. He'd learned his craft working at the central New Mexico construction business owned by Lisa's father. Later he moved to Artesia and picked up odd jobs there, before settling down, finding a good job with another construction company, and marrying. Helen was a typical modern Navaho housewife. She worked a part-time job as a secretary at the same business where Jimmy was now an assistant manager. Lisa felt both a touch of envy at and a bit embarrassed by all this domesticity. Their lives seemed so... normal. But also very mundane. They had a mortgage, two cars and three children, the oldest of whom was the reason for Lisa's visit.

      "I'm glad your mother called you in on this," sighed Jimmy. "She's a very formidable woman, but in medical matters she doesn't carry much weight. We're pretty sure we need someone with knowledge of both medicine and medical bureaucracy to help us with Molly's problem."

      "She was just so hard to handle," said Helen, embarrassed at her child being non-normal. "When I heard about that new clinic..."

      "What new clinic?" asked Lisa.

      "It's a health clinic, just for Indians," said Jimmy, quietly, leaning forward, also seeming a bit embarrassed. "We took her there mostly just to see if Molly really needed help or was just being a teenager. They ran some tests, and said she had a serious hormone problem and needed to be entered as a patient. And now they won't let us see her."

      Lisa's figurative ears perked up at that. Not letting parents see a child was always a bad sign, not to mention illegal in all but extreme circumstances.

      "What sort of tests?" asked Lisa, as usual showing nothing of her thoughts.

      The parents looked at each other and shrugged, uncertain.

      "We have the papers..." Helen offered.

      "Well, while you find those, can Jimmy show me Molly's room?"

      The girl's bedroom was... strange. Lisa didn't know if the strangeness was typical of modern rebellious teenage girls or if there were something more sinister implied by the clutter, trinkets and posters. The scents she could detect in human form told her less than she liked, but Lisa doubted she'd have the opportunity to explore the room in any other. While Jimmy might suspect Lisa was a shapeshifter she certainly didn't want to confirm that. She had only a vague idea what Helen thought of her, except that the woman had always been cordial and pleasant to Lisa. Jimmy, though, had never been more than distantly polite. When Jimmy's mother had suggested having Lisa's mother contact Lisa, Helen had agreed immediately, Jimmy only reluctantly. Whether Lisa had been asked to help because she was a relative with medical credentials and political influence, or for another reason, she didn't know.

      "Odd," said Lisa, as she turned slowly, frowning.

      "What's odd?" asked Jimmy, seeming ill at ease, being alone with Lisa in this small room.

      "Just... an impression I get." She walked over to a wall and passed her hand over a slight irregularity. There were other such places. Several of them. "This looks like someone knocked a hole in the wall, and it was patched and painted."

      "Yeah," Jimmy replied, embarrassed openly this time. "That was one of the things wrong with Molly. She'd get mad over something - usually nothing important, some odd, little thing - come in here and punch through the wallboard. Broke a knuckle once, hitting a stud."

      Another sign - or perhaps symptom - of something unusual going on...

      "Did the doctors notice anything unusual about her injury?"

      "Well, she healed faster than they were expecting, but that's all."

      From his tone Lisa decided he suspected what she was now suspecting.

      "I found the papers," said Helen, calling from the family room.

      "Good," said Lisa, pushing past the obviously uneasy Jimmy.

      Lisa scanned the documents with a critical eye. There was typical medical institution obfuscation in the paperwork, but nothing out of the ordinary. However, much of what the paperwork authorized most definitely was.

      "Well, they are testing her hormone levels," said Lisa, shifting her gaze between the paper in her hand and another on the coffee table. "Those levels are off normal, though not extremely so. Some of this stuff just isn't standard procedure. How much of the bill are you paying?"

      "Uh, our health insurance pays everything but our deductible," said Jimmy.

      "No, dear, don't you remember?" asked Helen. "They're also getting some government matching funds. That's why our health insurance recommended them."

      "Well, I can't say for sure, but it looks like they're lumping in a bunch of unnecessary tests for someone's research project," muttered Lisa, again sifting through the papers. "That doesn't mean they're doing anything wrong with their treatment of Molly, though. Just that they may be crowding the ethics of the situation, ordering tests for their own benefit instead of hers."

      "What can we do about that?" demanded Jimmy.

      "Give me written authorization to see your daughter," said Lisa. "I'll go check on her, talk to the staff, determine whether she actually does need treatment and, if so, that she's getting the right treatment in the right way. Oh, and you better believe I'll make sure they let you see her, whether she can come home yet or not!"

      Oddly, the smile she gave with that last comment didn't seem to reassure them at all.

                                    *                              *                              *

      The clinic was in a neat, new building on the outskirts of Artesia. Lisa wiped the scowl from her face before exiting her rented car. She didn't like hospitals, mainly due to her experiences as an Army nurse, but she didn't want to start off by making people defensive due to her attitude. She put on her professional face, and walked in through the front door.

      "Yes, Miss Dawnwind, I have your appointment right here," said the smiling receptionist. "If you'll wait just a moment I'll have one of our secretaries escort you to the chief of staff's office."

      That worthy - A Dr. Montressant - was a middle-aged man of reasonable and appropriate qualifications. Lisa found him personable and easy to talk to, if a bit too vague about what was happening to her cousin.

      "Well, our people are well trained and ethical," he commented. "I'm sure they wouldn't do anything to deliberately harm Miss Cordona, and they're very unlikely to make mistakes. As for the extra tests, that's part of how we get our funding. We do research on culture-based and genetic disorders, to try to figure out which is which and develop treatments and cures. All legal and above-board."

      Dr. Montressant had Molly's folder open on his desk. He pulled out a release form.

      "Her parents did sign the consent section for these tests."

      Lisa felt both embarrassed and irritated. She promptly quashed both emotions.

      "So that part was just them misunderstanding - or not completely reading - what they signed," she sighed.

      "It appears so," said Montressant. "However, talk to them. If they feel they were not properly informed let me know and we'll make procedural changes. The last thing we want is to make the sort of bad impression which has plagued other, similar projects."

      Lisa was starting to respect the guy.

      "I certainly will, though I'm satisfied that there's nothing shady going on with the tests. However, what about not letting Jimmy and Helen see their daughter?"

      Dr. Montressant again inspected the papers, eventually frowning and blowing his cheeks out in an expression of irritation.

      "Odd. The notes list that they aren't to see her, but not why. It is signed by a member of the psychological staff, though. Tell you what, the doctors in charge of your cousin's case are all busy seeing patients this morning - our staff is pretty small - but our chief of psychology should be free. I'll introduce you and let him explain the details. He's just up the hall."

      "Thank you," said Lisa, smiling.

      As the two of them walked along Lisa caught traces of a familiar scent, one vague and not quite identifiable, but which had unpleasant connotations. Lisa was just about to put a name to the scent when she noticed it on the sign beside the door she was being led to. Dr. Richard Ohain was chief psychiatrist.

      Lisa barely had time to clamp down on her instinctive response and fix her expression before Dr. Montressant opened the door. Which made Dr. Ohain's reaction all the more enjoyable. He gave one of the few genuine triple-takes Lisa had ever seen, and was left flushed and stammering.

      "Dr. Ohain, this is Lisa Dawnwind, she's... Are you all right?"

      "We've met before," said Lisa, mildly. "I think he disapproves of the entire concept of the nurse practitioner."

      Ohain was speechless, which was probably a good thing from his perspective. Lisa had given him an out, if only to see if he had enough presence of mind to take it. From his continuing reaction, he didn't.

      "Well, I have another appointment in a few minutes. I'll leave you two to discuss the problem. Good day!"

      As Montressant closed the door Lisa moved smoothly to the chair in front of Ohain's desk and sat, in one fluid motion, deliberately exaggerating her cat-like movements.

      "You have a relative of mine here," she stated, smiling. "I want to see her."

      Ohain stared at her for a long moment, then frantically yanked open a desk drawer and pulled out a small automatic pistol. Lisa shook her head as he waved it vaguely in her direction.

      "If I am what you suspect, don't you think that's a little... inadequate?"

      "Yes, but it's loaded with silver bullets..." said Dr. Ohain, smiling as he drew out the last two words, giving them great import.

      Lisa stared at him for a moment, then burst out laughing.

      "Does all your knowledge of shapeshifters come from Hollywood?" she derided. Lisa reached up and touched the jewelry dangling from her right ear lobe. "My Navaho kin would think something was wrong with me if I didn't wear at least some silver and turquoise when I came to visit."

      "No. You can't fool me. No dissembling. What are you doing here? How did you find me?"

      "Your chief of staff led me here. Until I saw the sign on your door I didn't know you were even in this state. As I said, I came to see my cousin."

      "Oh, no... Not this time. I can't believe you used that same, fake name, again!"

      Lisa scowled, irritated. She'd never liked dealing with those disconnected from reality, never had the patience for it. Abruptly, she stood, and moved to the filing cabinet on the left wall.

      "What the Hell are you doing?" shrieked Ohain.

      "Since you refuse to help me, I'm helping myself," replied Lisa, sorting through until she found the right folder.

      She realized that neither she nor Montressant had given her cousin's name. She decided that was probably a good idea; though it would become obvious with a little checking, keeping it secret for now might give her a few minutes, a slight advantage.

      "You can't... Those are confidential records!"

      "So shoot me," said Lisa, absently. She found what she wanted and closed the drawer. "I'm going to see my cousin, now. If you know what's good for you, you'll sit there like a good little psychopath until I'm long gone."

                                    *                              *                              *

      The room was in a secure wing of the facility. Lisa, long familiar with how such institutions worked, flashed the bored guard a photo ID she used for her own medical practice and was buzzed through without incident. She quickly found the room, but walked past it due to a couple of orderlies coming the other way. When they turned a corner she reversed course. The door was locked and sturdy. Lisa had spotted security cameras in the hall already, and knew she couldn't change, and whatever she did had to be as unremarkable, visually, as she could manage. The lock was a heavy security model, quite sturdy. However, there was only one bolt. Lisa used her pack-rat trick and hid the bolt, an unusual application she had only lately mastered.

      Lisa opened the door, and felt a surge of anger at the sight and scents which assaulted her. Her niece was not only drugged unconscious, but in a straightjacket in a darkened, padded room. She clamped down hard on her quickly rising anger. She needed a clear head just now, not the pure, white hot rage her instincts demanded.

      Lisa had several options ready. She selected the one which provided for the quickest exit. She lifted the teenage girl into her arms, deciding to save the straightjacket for later, and stepped to what she hoped was a blind spot for the camera in the room. Lisa took a handful of deep breaths, and performed her fast traveling trick. The physical world faded, becoming a place of muted grays and earth tones. Lisa stepped quickly into the hallway and trotted towards the nearest emergency exit, her niece showing no signs of reaction to all the activity. The exit had an alarm which would sound if the door were opened, but in this out-of-phase state Lisa simply walked through it, experiencing only mild resistance from the sturdy metal security door.

      Once outside she let the trick end, and ran around the building to her car. She opened the passenger door and loaded her cousin in, then hurried around to get behind the wheel.

                                    *                              *                              *

      The car was left at a roadside shelter, straightjacket draped over the wheel. Lisa figured she was going to lose her deposit on this one. Still carrying the unconscious girl, Lisa moved well out into the desert, towards the mountains. Unbound, and with the high desert sun and wind and Lisa's movement providing stimulus, Molly quickly began to stir. Lisa stopped to lay the girl down in the shade of a large boulder. Once still, though, she quickly settled back into a deep sleep. Lisa estimated that even if she were a shapeshifter, Molly wouldn't wake for at least several more minutes. Plenty of time to scout the area for signs of pursuit... or prey.

      When she was perhaps 200 meters away, Lisa heard sleepy, mumbling sounds of protest from behind the boulder. This was followed by a cry of alarm. Lisa hurried back towards Molly, but froze as she rounded the boulder. She swore fulminously. The girl was changing, all right. Into a wolf.

      Lisa stopped, took a deep breath, and strangled her irritation. She recognized, now, what had bothered her about the girl's room; a faint scent of wolf. That had been covered in the hospital, by all the astringent scents there, and washed away by the flowing air during the drive. All this time Lisa had assumed - hoped - that Molly took after Jimmy's side of the family, and now... Well, the girl still needed help.

      "So, Dr. Ohain was right," said Lisa, mildly. "Of course, his problem was never with identifying werewolves, only in handling them."

      The wolf turned and growled at Lisa.

      "There's no need for that," Lisa told her, mildly. "I know several werewolves and I'm not impressed. Although I'm not a werewolf myself, I know far more about them than that quack, Ohain."

      The wolf snarled again, lips peeled back. Lisa sighed.

      "I'm here to help you. I'm your cousin, Lisa Dawnwind. Your grandmother asked that I help rescue you."

      The wolf was not impressed, either, nor was it mollified. It leapt, jaws snapping. Lisa dodged aside, and the werewolf tumbled awkwardly to the ground. When it whirled to renew its attack it was stunned to see a large, female cougar facing it. Lisa laid her ears back and hissed, then gave that eerie, feline growl guaranteed to send a shiver down the spine of anything with functioning spine and ears. The wolf hesitated... and Lisa leapt.

      There was a momentary conflict of instincts. Cats discipline grabbing by the back of the neck; wolves by grabbing the throat. Once Lisa realized this, and let the girl roll over, the fight ended.

      Lisa held Molly for a moment, to reinforce the situation, then let go. She sat back, glaring at the wolf, who was thoroughly cowed. So thoroughly she shifted back to human, and lay where she was, shivering in the few tatters of hospital gown which remained. Lisa considered shifting to her midform, but decided the girl had been intimidated enough for one day, and also resumed being human.

      "I hope this isn't going to set the pattern for our relationship," was Lisa's dry comment.

      "You... you... you said you weren't a werewolf!"

      "Did I look anything like a wolf?" snapped Lisa, irritated.

      "No..." squeaked Molly, shying back.

      Lisa stepped over to the shade and sat. She looked expectantly at Molly, who, after a bit of hesitation, cautiously joined her.

      "If I wanted to harm you, you'd be harmed," said Lisa. "We are blood kin, and I was asked by your family to help get you out of that place. So don't be afraid of me. Respectful, yes, even wary. But there's no need for fear. I'm here to help you."

      "Do Mom and Dad... know?"

      "That you are a shifter? I think your father suspects. That's not why I came for you. Like I said, you're kin."

      Molly relaxed a bit, but continued to huddle, legs drawn up and arms wrapped around them. Lisa suddenly realized the girl was embarrassed at being naked.

      "Ah. Sorry, I didn't think to bring any clothes for you. Most shapeshifters are so used to going without that we forget newcomers might have problems with that."

      "Your clothes..."

      "Yes, that's a trick I learned. You might be able to learn it, if you have enough talent."

      "You said you knew others...?"

      "Several. Some in this area. Right now, I'm planning to stash you at my mother's place and go contact them. They can do a better job of teaching you than my mother or I can."

      "Can they teach me how... not to change?"

      "Of course. Control is the most important lesson."

      "No, I mean... how never to do this again."

      Lisa started, then scowled. She should have anticipated this. But then, maybe not... The girl had probably heard little or nothing of the old teachings. Many of which very sternly warned against dealing with shapeshifters. Though some differentiated between the natural shifters - werewolves, mostly - and those who changed through witchcraft. Depending on what Molly knew about shapeshifters - or thought she knew - that she was terrified to find herself one wasn't surprising. On the other hand, the experience of changing, of being something stronger, faster, more vital, was so exhilarating that most young shifters quickly embraced the process.

      "You are not a monster," said Lisa, firmly. "I won't lie to you; if you let the beast side of your nature control you, you could become one. That is very rare."

      The girl seemed a little reassured, though still far from comfortable.

      "But it's so... strong. The things I feel, the things I think..."

      "Are you talking about shapeshifting or sex?" was Lisa's dry counter.

      Molly started, then actually smiled. Well, smirked.

      "This is something to be proud of," said Lisa, passionately. "You are something more than human, something with a connection to a larger world. Yes, there are disadvantages which come with the ability, but they can minimized through training and discipline."

      "Were you proud, when you learned you could change?" demanded Molly.

      Lisa laughed.

      "Oh, yes. Once I figured out what had happened, I relished my new abilities. My second change was deliberate, and rather exuberant. Not long after, I used my power to save defenseless people from being murdered in their hospital beds."

      Lisa decided not to mention that in the process she had killed several of the NVA attackers.

      The girl still didn't seem convinced. Well, that was something to work on later.

      "How well can you control the changes?"

      "I can change into a wolf pretty much when I want to," said Molly, tentatively, as if still not wanting to admit it. "I... sometimes can't keep from changing. I can change back to human when I want, if I'm not... upset about something."

      "You've already made good progress," said Lisa, nodding. "When did you first change?"

      "About a month an a half ago. I knew there was something... building up inside me, but not what. I thought I was going crazy. Then I changed, after having a big fight with my boyfriend. Then I knew I was crazy."

      "You're not crazy," said Lisa, sternly. "Confused, frightened, unsure, yes. But you're not crazy. Well, not for thinking you can change into a wolf."

      The joke fell flat. Lisa sighed a bit, and leaned back against the boulder.

      "How long are we going to sit here?" asked Molly, almost whining.

      "I don't know, yet. Probably until dark."

      Molly shifted uneasily.

      "I'm hungry," she said, quietly.

      "You'll live," said Lisa. "One of the advantages of being a shifter. You eat more food normally, but when there's none around you suffer less from hunger."

      "Oh," said Molly.

      The quiet of the arid countryside bore in. Lisa was content to just sit for a while, mind empty, drinking it in. Molly, though, was a modern city kid, and having problems just doing nothing. She was also curious, in spite of her doubts and concerns.

      "I noticed that... I heal faster."

      "That's part of it," said Lisa, not elaborating. The more she could get the girl to talk, the better.

      "But... it hurts more. I mean, I feel the pain more."

      "All your senses are keener, including the ability to feel pain. Think of it as being more in tune with the world, more awake, more alive."

      "But... it gets so, sometimes, that even things that used to not bother me do. A lot. How do you stand it?"

      "It's mostly a matter of not minding the pain. Once you know you'll heal that becomes easier."

      "Oh," said Molly, not sounding too reassured.

                                    *                              *                              *

      Night came eventually, and suddenly. Lisa rose, stretched a bit, and looked down at Molly. The girl, shivering from the chill night air, looked up at her with an almost desperate expression. Lisa wondered how long she would have gone before changing into something warmer.

      "Now, come with me. Let the wind sing to your ears, and let the ground caress your pads."

      Without speaking further, Lisa shifted to cougar and began trotting away. When Molly didn't follow, Lisa paused, one paw in the air, to look back over her shoulder at the girl. Reluctantly, and with a bit of difficulty, the girl shifted. Together, the wolf and the cougar headed across the spare landscape, adequately lit by a half Moon.

      Wind-At-Dawn met them at the head of the narrow, steep path, waiting at the boundary to her domain. She was in full ceremonial garb, most likely to impress Molly, and holding a surprisingly ordinary bathrobe. The cougar and the wolf shifted to human, and Wind-At-Dawn handed the girl the robe.

      "Welcome, cousin. I am Wind-At-Dawn."

      "Th-thank you," said Molly, stuttering from a combination of cold and awe.

      "I greet you, honored Mother," said Lisa, formally, in the Acoma tongue.

      Wind-At-Dawn clucked at Lisa with mild criticism.

      "Daughter, why is it that whenever you visit you bring trouble?" said the old woman, in English, as she led her visitors into her valley.

      "Perhaps because I visit when called to deal with a problem," said Lisa, in the same language.

      "I think if you perhaps learned discretion, diplomacy and patience the problems could be handled more smoothly." Wind-At-Dawn scowled at her daughter. "Not to mention that you need to visit your mother more often."

      "We will need to speak with the elders," said Lisa, in Acoma, changing the subject.

      "They have already spoken with me," said Wind-At-Dawn, in the same tongue. "You have stirred a hornet's nest, youngster. Oh, well; some things need to be stirred, so you can see what is at the bottom. For now, we need to get this little one fed and into bed."

      She glared at Lisa, and continued in English.

      "Knowing you, the poor thing hasn't eaten all day."

      Molly snorted, and Lisa rolled her eyes.

                                    *                              *                              *

      Three days later Jimmy answered a knock on the door and gasped as he saw Lisa.

      "Aren't you going to invite me in?" she asked, dryly.

      He was too stunned - and perhaps intimidated - not to. Inside, his wife gasped when she saw who their visitor was.

      "Where is Molly?!" Jimmy demanded, the first of the pair to gain his voice.

      "Safe and well," Lisa, reassuringly.

      "They're saying you kidnapped our daughter!" exclaimed Helen.

      "They would. What I actually did was rescue her. Turns out the chief psychologist is someone I've met before, under very unpleasant circumstances. He illegally imprisoned some people he wanted to study, and tried to forcibly cure them whether they wanted to be cured or not. Unfortunately, the law was not informed, at the request of his victims. He was, though, driven out of the area. Which I guess is how he came to be here. He was doing the same thing as before, though fortunately he had only found one victim so far. We're putting a stop to his 'work,' forcing the clinic to fire him."

      "So where is Molly?" Jimmy asked.

      "She's at my mother's," said Lisa. "And may God - your choice of which - help anyone who tries to take her from there."

      "Oh," said Jimmy, faintly.

      Helen put a hand on her husband's arm.

      "Maybe this will do Molly some good," she told him. "She can get away from all the pressures for a while, and..."

      "You... don't understand," said Jimmy, choking.

      He stared at Lisa, with mixture of revulsion, fear and awe. She met his gaze without blinking, her sphinx-like expression giving away nothing.

      "Mother won't be alone in helping your daughter. I've called in some specialists. She's already over most of the trauma caused by Ohain's 'treatment,' and is making progress with the relatively minor, original problem. She's going to be fine."

      The "specialists" were some select members of the Mushroom Ridge Pack, a group of werewolves Lisa knew from previous encounters. That was a bit of information she was not going to casually reveal.

      "I'm not surprised you and your mother consider her problem minor," snapped Jimmy.

      Helen stared at him, confused.

      "Don't get snappish with me," said Lisa, evenly. "In the first place, I didn't cause this, I'm just helping Molly deal with it. In the second place, you've been overruled by the family elders, given how you've handled the situation so far. If you didn't want this result, you shouldn't have called me."

      "You still haven't told us what 'this' is!" said Helen, desperately.

      "You might say she's suffering from a rather more extreme case of puberty than most teenagers go through," was Lisa's dry reply.

      She sighed, and reached out to put a comforting arm on the woman's shoulder. Jimmy pulled his wife away, hugging her to him while he continued to glare at Lisa. The older woman sighed again, while Helen looked confused.

      "As soon as Molly is ready you can come visit. Shouldn't be too long, probably a few days. Mother will let you know."

      "When will she come back here to live?" demanded Jimmy.

      "That's up to her," said Lisa, firmly.

      "I still don't understand..."

      "Be glad you don't," said Jimmy.

      "If Molly were younger I'd tell you all the details," said Lisa, looking at the wife and ignoring the husband. "However, she's old enough to make this sort of decision for herself. Right now she's understandably upset with you two. If you want her back you're going to have to make her want to come back. I suggest you start by apologizing for not paying more attention to what was happening to her and, later, being done to her. You also better start thinking about how you'll handle your other two kids when they reach the same age."

      That was pure spite; even with a shapeshifter sister the odds were the others would be merely human. Lisa turned and started for the door. She didn't bother saying goodbye. She doubted she'd ever be welcomed in this home again, but that didn't bother her. She wasn't a social creature.

      This document is Copyright 2010 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reprint it may contact me for permission at: stickmaker@usa.net