The next time Aveny woke, she was still caged, still encased in the skin, still in pain. She had no idea how much time had passed, but she could tell by the sunlight streaming through the doorframe, that it was daytime. Which day, she didn’t know.
No matter what, by now, her family knew she was gone. Again. It would be the same trauma all over again – calls to the police, search parties, a litany of unanswered questions. Eventually they’d find the car parked there by the sound. But its discovery would lead nowhere.
She imagined her children – abandoned. Again. Their tears, as Brand tried to comfort them with words he didn’t possess. The helplessness that would hang in the air as they wondered what had befallen her.
But they wouldn’t wonder, she corrected herself. Not this time. This time, they would know that she had left by choice. She’d snuck out the door in the dead of night and told no one she was going. For what? There were no good answers to that question.
What would Brand believe? The thought scalded her.
They might even think she chose not to come back.
Her soul was wracked with guilt. How could she have been so foolish? How could she have put them through this – all over again?
Although she could barely move, Aveny steeled her resolve – she had to get back to them as soon as possible. And when she did, she’d do whatever it took to make things right.
Her mind raced to generate some sort of strategy. Maybe she could transform in the cage and somehow pick the lock. If she could escape, she could at least call Brand and let him know she was alive.
She tried. The pain was immediate and rending; her effort laughable in its futility. She could no more transform than she could compact her cranium to fit through these bars. It felt as though her insides might turn out.
As she lay panting on the floor of her cage, drenched in sweat from her 10-second foray into self-abuse, the door opened and the woman strode through, a bucket in one hand and a canister in the other. She squatted down beside the cage, her khaki pants wrinkling at the joints, and smiled at Aveny. “You’re awake! Are you hungry today? I’ve got something good for you.”
Her eyes sparkled when she smiled and Aveny noticed more than a sprinkling of shining silver hair entwined in her cherry locks.
The woman opened the door and slid her hand inside, brushing a small fish gently at Aveny’s mouth. She opened slightly and tasted the refreshment of moisture on her tongue. Suddenly, she was starving. She gulped it down greedily – and almost immediately regretted it. It came lurching back out in a gut-wrenching spew.
The woman gave a low hum, opened the cage, cleaned up the mess and sat down on the floor beside her, gently running her hand along Aveny’s head and down her neck to where the bandages began. Aveny thought for a brief moment of making a run for it.
It was only a fantasy. She could barely move. And, without the ability to transform, where would she go?
The woman hummed as she stroked Aveny’s skin. The soothing sounds calmed Aveny and reminded her of her grandmother comforting her childhood fears.
Who would comfort her babies? She wondered.
Aveny began to cry again, a soft whimpering sound emitting involuntarily from her throat. The woman stopped, brushed her face gingerly and said, “It’s ok, baby; I know it hurts. It’s going to get better. But we need you to eat and drink so you can heal.”
Aveny clung to her words. She could get better. She wasn’t dead. She could still heal and make this right. It was going to be ok … maybe … someday.
It quickly became evident that someday wasn’t coming soon. Aveny continued slipping in and out of consciousness, blending hours into days.
Finally, she was able to stay awake for more than an hour at a time. Then, she was able to keep down small bits of food and water. Finally, she could even move a little, if she was careful. She had no concept of time, except that it felt like eternity.
One night, Aveny stayed awake after the woman had gone, a plan hatching in her ravaged mind. She had paid close attention and discovered that her cage wasn’t even locked. If she could transform and get her fingers through the bars to the safety latch, she could escape. She could finally go home.
Carefully, she attempted to transform. Nothing happened, aside from a jarring, side-splitting pain.
She tried harder. Sweat poured from her flesh. Her mind fixated on withdrawing from the skin, on escaping the cage, and finally making it home. She strained against the impossible, feeling its bonds stretch against her force.
The unsuccessful attempt almost killed her.
When she finally surrendered, her body felt like a salted slug. Her bones ached like they’d splintered from the pressure. She slept for a long time after that. She didn’t want to wake again.
Still, she was healing. She got a little better and a little stronger every day, and she thought of Brand, Tali, Brecken and Luca with every breath.
One day, the woman presented her with a bright red ball.
Well, this is a whole new low, Aveny thought, burying her nose beneath one flipper.
“Come on, you can do it,” the woman urged, releasing the toy through the bars.
The ball rolled like a clown car across the cage floor and bumped feebly into Aveny’s snout. She stared at it mutely for a moment, sighed and gave it a nudge to show the woman she was improving. It squeaked.
Every night, Aveny tried again to transform. Other animals, housed in surrounding cages like the world’s most bizarre apartment complex, watched her struggle with perplexed interest.
Every night, she failed.
Until one particularly moonlit night.
The pain was excruciating – more intense than giving birth to all three of her children combined. It felt eerily similar, like she was somehow birthing herself. As she pressed forward, she felt the bonds that had constrained her snapping against the force of her will. And then, she was free; shaking and blood-soaked, but free nonetheless.
Aveny clutched the red-stained skin to her chest, rocking back and forth and struggling not to vomit. She desperately longed to sleep but knew she had to move while she had the chance.
She reached her trembling fingers through the bars and gently lifted the dual latches that held her bound. It was ironic how something so small and so simple had contained her so completely.
The cage door swung open and she slid out onto the linoleum floor, pulling the skin behind her. It was cold and alien out there. Aveny was afraid. She stood, unsteady on her unused legs and limped painstakingly toward the door.
I really hope they don’t have a security camera, she thought, as she pushed open the door and gazed into the room beyond.
It looked like a cross between a vet’s office and an emergency room, which, she supposed, it was. But the only thing she cared about was mounted there on the wall – a phone.
She made her way to it and shakily dialed Brand’s number. He answered on the first ring. “It’s me,” she said. And then she slid to the floor and remembered no more.