Harder to Love Than Blood .9. A Change in Light

I ran down the stairs to the kitchen, in case Clive had decided on a midnight snack, but no luck. And the rest of downstairs was empty, too.

There was a huffing at the sliding glass door that lead out to the backyard.

A chill crawled up my spine.

"Dear god, don't let me get hatcheted," was all I could say as I slowly reached for the blinds. I chanted a litany to myself. "No axe murderers. No psycho butcherers. No crazy old guys flashing their johnsons." After all, the axe murderer would be traumatic enough.

Pulling the blinds to the side, all I saw was my own reflection, backlit by the overhead light for the dining area.

I gave an exasperated sigh and flipped off the light at the switch next to the door—

I screamed. The face that appeared was the size of my whole head, level with my chest, and golden-fur–covered. It was a jungle cat of some kind, either cheetah or jaguar or cougar or whatever—it was freakin' huge!

"Amanda! Amanda!"

DJ grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me around. I didn't realize I was still screaming until he slapped and hand over my mouth.

"Amanda, calm down." He took his hand away slowly. "Are you alright?"

I shook my head, maybe a little too quickly. "Ca-ca-ca-cat-t-t. Very big cat. Way too big. Outside. It's outside. Need to call 911."

I went to rush past him, to hunt down a phone, but he grabbed my wrist and pulled me back. "Just wait. You don't need to go calling anyone."

I spun to him, a little hopeful. "You already called?"

He took in a breath. "Sure."

There was something in the way he hesitated before answering; something in the way he wouldn't look at me that had me looking a little more closely at him.

"DJ, if you didn't call anyone, I'm going to."

He stopped me again from leaving. "Please, don't."

I frowned at him. "Are you serious? Are you keeping that thing here as a pet or something? Aren't there laws against wild animals within the city or neighborhood or something?" Which having a guard-cheetah, I would have to admit, would be awesome, if you didn't have to worry about your pet eating you.

I mean, really, who just wants a dog? I do!

There was a slight tightening around DJ's eyes, like I'd struck a nerve…or something. "Just leave him alone."

"Leave him alone!? It's a freakin' wild animal that could eat your face! It needs to be taken care of—by the right people. And where's Clive? Is he out there with that- that- that…thing?"

Okay, so maybe I was getting a little hysterical, but the way anger clouded over DJ's expression before abruptly closing off, made it seem as if I'd just told him I took his whole retirement fund and bet it all on Santa's Little Helper.

Simpsons reference anybody? Come on, give me a Doh!

"He's not a wild animal, Amanda," he bit out. "Don't judge something you don't understand."

"Understand what, exactly? What is there to understand, DJ? There is a goddamn cougar—"

"Cheetah, and watch your language."

"—in the backyard and you're over here telling me not to worry about it? It can freakin' eat us!"

The beast in question gave a sudden bark that had me screaming again. Goddamnit, I hated acting like a girl.

When I glared over at the beast, I could have sworn there was amusement in its eyes. Either that or I was just projecting my insecurity. Pssh, nah.

DJ drew my attention back to him. "This isn't how I wanted you to find out."

My eyes nearly bugged out of my skull. "Exactly how did you want me to find out about this? You wanted me to go out in the backyard and when I came in with a missing limb you were going to jump out from behind the couch saying, Surprise! Hah, I got you good! Should have seen the look on your face when that thing RIPPED YOUR FREAKIN' ARM OFF!"

Come to think of it, that totally sounded like something Jonathan would do. And I was just about to voice that opinion when I saw the look on DJ's face, and the molten anger suffusing his features. Either he was really, really, really pissed off or he was showing me his impression of a ripening tomato.

There was a moment when everything was quiet between us. DJ took in a deep breath that expanded his rib cage. Then he closed his eyes and let it out slowly. I had a CCD teacher who used to do that. She said I had been her test from God. Never understood what she meant, but at least she never strangled me. That had to have been a good thing, right?

When the last molecules of air left his lungs, he held that state of rest for a moment longer before taking in another breath. "Okay, I know you're scared right now, and I can only imagine how this might feel from your point of view."

I opened my mouth to make some kind of thoughtless comment but he held up his hand and cut me off.

"I need you to at least hear out the facts before you go on another rampage. Please."

My body was still shaking and I could swear the damn cat had its eyes glued to my back, but I was afraid that if I pulled another of those horror-movie-slow-turn-around moves, it'd be in the house and two inches from my face. So instead of looking back at the thing, I settled for glaring at DJ with all the fear-fueled anger I could muster while pressing my lips tight enough together to make them go numb.

Or maybe they were numbed from the fear. Whatever.

Satisfied with my non-verbal response, DJ took a couple more breaths before releasing a slow one. "Okay," he said. Then he opened his eyes and looked at me.

I think I peed myself at that point, but I didn't quite remember. I was too busy hyperventilating and trying to scramble away from a guy who looked like my brother if it wouldn't have been for large, solid golden-yellow eyes that were looking at me from his face. And when a jaguar came from around the stairs towards us—

I woke up in a sweat in my room, the covers twisted around my legs and light pouring in through the window blinds.

Holy shit, I thought. That was one freaky ass dream. I tried to move my hands over my face but, being naturally uncoordinated and having just woken up, my hands did more flop than anything and I ended up popping myself in the nose.

"Ow." With a roll of my eyes, I rubbed the sleep from my face. I groaned. "That was…ugh!" There were no words to describe how flipped out that dream was. I could only imagine what a psychologist could come up with to explain the meaning behind such a vivid, entirely impractical dream like that.

With a disgusted grunt, I threw off the covers and stepped out of bed—

The scream of the cat as I stepped on its tail was drowned out by my own scream as I landed hard on my ass. The beast before me jumped to its feet and swung around, growling low as it paced slowly towards me.

"Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god," I rasped as I tried to scramble backwards like a crab. It wasn't a freakin' dream!

I was shaking and I think tears were falling down my cheeks, but I couldn't get away from the thing. It was in my bedroom with me and it was looking at me, and I'm pretty sure it was thinking that I would be good with a little ketchup.

With a quick flick of my eyes, I noticed the door to my room was opened. I had to get passed this thing. Had to get help.

Why weren't my brothers here?

Oh, shit, it must have eaten my brothers! That was my first thought, until DJ was suddenly at the door. I looked up at his worried face as he gripped the doorframe, was ready to yell at him to get help…until I remembered him looking at me with something else's eyes.

"DJ…" my voice scraped, pretty sure he was going to hurt me.

I had to find my other brothers. Had to see them. Had to know they were okay—

"Clive, no!" DJ's growling voice had my eyes widening more.

Then I looked to the…cheetah…in front of me.

It was sitting down, leaning forward. As I looked at its golden-yellow eyes, it cocked its head to the side, and in a flash I was reminded of the way Clive had looked at me in the kitchen when we were talking about his friend and the game.

Clive… This was Clive?

I passed out again.