Maximus walked over to her and put his hand on her shoulder. “Want some help getting through the trees?”
She brushed off his hand. “Do I look like an invalid to you, white boy?”
I almost laughed at his taken aback expression. He ran his hand through his red hair and gave us a shrug. She began to walk again, quicker, as if to prove she wasn’t an invalid. Not that we doubted that anyway.
I limped after her, the boys following.
“But if he’s a medicine man, can’t he heal himself?” I asked innocently.
Sarah laughed. “You really know nothing about the Navajo, do you? A healer cannot heal himself. He must find another medicine man to do that.”
She sounded quite grave but her tone became more flippant when she added, “Anyway, it’s nothing that some Aspirin won’t fix. Maybe tomorrow you can have a talk with him about this medicine man stuff. I’m sure he would love to enlighten you all.”
We followed her to the house in silence but came to a halt outside the door. After she went inside, I turned to the guys and told them I was starving.
And I did not want to eat lunch in the house. I wanted to get out of there for a bit.
Maximus nodded and headed up the stairs. “I’ll just tell them we are getting lunch in town before they start making us stuff.”
I looked at Dex.
“Need anything from inside. Books, perhaps?”
He shook his head No and walked over to the Jeep. “There’s a few books in here I got from the library while you were out on your little, uh, hike. I think we’re going to want to read them. As soon as possible.”
We ended up driving a little ways out of town, to one of the gas stations on the outskirts that doubled as a greasy spoon diner.
We piled into a small booth, Maximus squished up against me, and quickly ordered our food from the indifferent waitress before getting down to business. She didn’t even bat an eye at my bandaged hands.
After she brought us our much-needed meals, Dex had the books out and pushed one of them towards us.
“I think this is what we are dealing with here,” he said, eyeing the book. He glanced at me quickly and then looked away, giving the impression that though he was serious, he was still a bit apprehensive of what I might think.
I looked at the title. “Navajo myths and folklore?”
“All myths come from somewhere,” Dex said.
I flipped open the book to the index. “Any particular chapter?”
Maximus laid his well-groomed fingertip beneath Chapter Two: Skinwalkers and poked it hard for emphasis.
I looked at Dex for assurance. He nodded. I flipped to the chapter and skimmed through it.
I had heard of skinwalkers before, or shapeshifters, as they are called in other cultures. But I mean, that really was a myth. Like the werewolf. And trolls. And leprechauns.
It was all so strange and fantastic that I stopped after a few pages and gave Dex the most disbelieving look I could muster.
“Are you kidding me? You think we are dealing with skinwalkers?”
“Shhhh!” Maximus shushed me, glancing around the near empty diner. The few truck drivers and the waitress didn’t seem to notice. “We shouldn’t be talking too loudly about this.”
“Why?” I snorted.
Dex leaned across the table, his voice low, “Because the people here, they really do believe in this. And if they hear a bunch of white people talking about it, that could cause some problems.”
I got that but still…
“I know they believe it but I mean…it’s impossible.”
“What I do is impossible,” Maximus said through a neat mouthful of his BLT.
“What we’ve seen is impossible,” Dex added. “What’s the difference?”
The difference was that ghosts could be explained. To me, anyway, it almost made scientific sense. After you died, it was inherently possible that you could still exist in some form…whether it was not moving on, getting stuck in some limbo alternate universe, leftover electric energy, or some other kind of “force”, the concept of having something survive after you die didn’t really seem like that much of a stretch when you thought about it. But the fact that a person could physically become an animal, at will, and then revert back to human form was just ridiculous.
“I hate to get all Scully on your Mulder asses but I just don’t think this is what’s happening,” I said. Maximus laughed at that, appreciating the X-Files reference.
“But you’d believe a curse?” Dex questioned.
“I don’t know,” I admitted and tucked into my overtly salty French onion soup. “I don’t know what I believe anymore. I mean, if it’s so obvious to you guys that this a skinwalker situation, then why hasn’t anyone else, any of the actual Navajo people, said anything about it?”
“Because they don’t discuss it with non-believers if they don’t have to,” Dex explained. “I think Bird knows exactly what is going on, he’s just waiting for the time to tell us. Or maybe waiting for the right person to tell us.”
“And he knows Will and Sarah wouldn’t have any of it if that’s what it came down to,” said Maximus. “Could you imagine it? After all their forsaking of their beliefs and heritage, it turns out to be the very thing that is causing all their problems.”
Actually, what he said made perfect sense. It was a little too ironic. I told them that.
“But maybe it’s someone tormenting them for turning their backs on the Navajo. Maybe someone wants to teach them a lesson.”
“If it’s a skinwalker, it’s someone,” Dex lowered his voice even more, as if that someone could be in the diner with us. “If it’s a curse, it’s also someone. I don’t think we are dealing with ghosts here. Not at all.”
“I agree with you, brother,” said Maximus, pushing his empty plate away.
Dex narrowed his eyes at him. “Don’t call me brother.”
Maximus met his eyes and a testosterone staring contest ensued.
“Oh come on, knock it off you two,” I sighed. “Put whatever weirdass bullshit you have aside, at least for this weekend, all right?”
“Easy there, kiddo” Dex said, reaching across the table and patting my hand. “We’re just playing.”
Maximus smiled at me with an Elvis-like lip curl. “If we aren’t dealing with ghosts per se, it could be why I can’t sense anything. There’s no death here.”
“Not yet,” I said without thinking, as the biggest sense of déjà vu slammed into me like hailstorm. The room seemed to vibrate and shift, the drone of a fly on the dirty window became louder and louder. Dex squeezed my hand.
“Perry,” he whispered.
I tried to focus on my soup, on the drowning bits of sodden bread in the briny broth. The buzz of the fly became so loud, it was as if it were burrowing in my ear, an audio root canal. Dex squeezed my hand harder and it stopped. I looked at him, his eyes were full of knowing, knowing more than I did. The room stopped spinning but the feeling of déjà vu still lingered.
“Sorry,” I gasped, not sure of what just happened. Was that a panic attack? Or just a dizzy spell?
“Do you realize what you just said?” he asked quietly.
He kept his hand on mine and looked at Maximus. “And what you just said?”
I looked at Maximus. His strong face was as puzzled as mine.
“Perry had a dream a few days ago,” Dex started and proceeded to tell Maximus all of it. My mind caught up quickly. No wonder I had déjà vu, Maximus and I just spoke to each other the dialogue in the dream. “There is no death here,” I said slowly to myself. “Not yet.”
If everything in my dream was slowly coming true…what was next, for coyotes to start walking on two legs and then…? I shuddered. Perhaps the skinwalker conclusion wasn’t too far off.
I pushed my bowl of soup away, my appetite gone. I suddenly missed my old job. Working in the safe, sterile ad agency didn’t seem so bad anymore.
After we finished up our food, we made our way back to the ranch. I sat in the back of the Jeep and listened absently to Dex and Maximus talk about what their chums from the old college days were doing now. My attention flitted in and out as I flipped through the book to feed my overstuffed mind. If skinwalkers were a possibility, I needed to know exactly what we were dealing with.
According to the book, skinwalkers were “evil” Navajo witches who could shapeshift into any animal form, usually something local like a coyote, a fox, a bird or a bear. Sometimes they tormented their victims by throwing stones or banging on the walls, other times they would attack you in your car or they’d do some other sort of malicious prank. It didn’t say too much about disfigured livestock, nor did it mention any cases of anyone actually being physically hurt by the skinwalkers, which was a relief of sorts. Not that I had even begun to accept it, but it was good to know. If my dreams were some sort of foreshadowing of events to come, I definitely did not want the part where the coyote people ripped me from limb to limb to come true.
“How are you doing?” Maximus asked, turning around in the passenger seat, his warm voice slinking off the walls.
I shut the book and put on a brave face. “I’m OK.”
He had such a sexy energy at times that I couldn’t help but want to put up a front around him. Me, scared of skinwalkers? Nonsense.
He pursed his lips for a second and then grinned in his aw shucks way. “You’re braver than I am.”
I leaned in closer and made sure to speak a bit breathier, “I have a hard time believing you’d buy into this skinwalker business, let alone be scared of it. You look like you could take on a grizzly bear with your own hands.”
Yes, that’s right. I was flirting with him. I couldn’t help it. I think my nerves needed a pleasant diversion. So, I flashed him a smile that made the cut on my cheek sting. I could see Dex’s eyes float up to the rear view mirror and glance at me curiously. I remembered what he said about Maximus wanting to get in my pants. I wanted to test that theory and part of me wanted to do it to see if Dex would care. Why he would, I don’t know, but I was going to do it anyway.
Maximus actually blushed. Or at least the tops of his forehead were starting to match his hair.
“I am not about to wrestle no bears, but I did used to catch baby gators for my cousin back in Louisiana,” he said. “They were easy once you got their mouths clamped shut.”
“Just like Perry,” Dex chimed in cheerfully.
“Shut up.” I glared at him. He gave me a skeezy look in the mirror and laughed.
I shook my head and looked back at Maximus who was trying not to laugh himself. I rolled my eyes. “Anyway…”
“Anyway,” Maximus repeated, still grinning at me, “just because I’m 6’4” doesn’t mean I can’t get scared every once in a while.”
I cocked my head. “Do you ever get scared on the job. You know, doing a reading?”
He nodded, his green eyes sobering. “Oh, of course. How can you not? The most terrifying moment is the one right before I do it. I don’t know how these people died. I mean, I know to some extent but to feel what people feel when they go…it is God awful. It hits you like brick. Every time. I can’t even prepare for it. I reckon I never will. You think you know death, you think you have some idea of what happens, of how you’ll feel but you don’t know. And I only feel, probably, fifty per cent of what they went through. The terror. The… questions they had. It’s always, why? Why now? Why me? It is so powerful, it leaves a fucking imprint that some hillbilly like me can pick up on. And each time I do it…”