Oath Sworn – Kristen Banet

Summer in East Texas was never easy. When it wasn’t over ninety degrees, it was humid and sticky, where sweat just made life miserable, even if it was cooling down a little. The pine trees that covered the area and the shade they provided weren’t all that amazing. Normally, the pine needles had a tendency to get in places they shouldn’t when someone tried to use the shade that was offered. The heat was all I could think about as I stood behind the bar, closing my eyes and trying to ignore the pounding in my head. I could hear the news, which was the source of my growing headache, from the television in the corner of the room. I didn’t want to think about what was being said, so I focused on the heat and wondering if it would ever end, like I did every summer just outside the small town of Jacksonville. It was ninety-five degrees and well past dusk. It didn’t have the right to be this hot after the sun went down. Only Hell had the right to be this fucking hot, and East Texas wasn’t Hell, no matter how hard it tried to be sometimes. “For those who are just tuning in, we’ve got breaking news. Earlier today, the DallasFort Worth Pack experienced a hostile takeover, unsanctioned by the Werewolf Council of North America. The Council is telling people to stay in their homes and not approach any werewolves that they may see, stating that during events like this one, a werewolf can be prone to lashing out at any perceived threats. Our Governor here in Texas is also asking people of the Metroplex to use caution and lock their doors tonight.” And the werewolves in DFW didn’t have the right to be so stupid, but they were wolves.

I kind of figured they were always that stupid, whether they had right to be or not. My head throbbed in annoyance. Do they not understand that just because humans know about them, they can’t run off and start small wars in the middle of big cities? “Jacky! Can I get another beer?” a rough voice called across the dimly-lit room. With a sigh, I stopped staring out of the window and looked back over my patrons, wondering how long I had until I could toss everyone out. Because Joey, the man across the bar, was calling for me. Jacky Leon. Sometimes I loved when Joey, my most wonderful and consistent regular, called out for me, and sometimes I hated it. Tonight, I hated it. I wasn’t in the mood, and it was mostly because of the werewolves running around just about two hours away from me. Sadly, I had a job to do.

“Yeah. I got you, Joey,” I said back, sighing heavily. I didn’t need to ask what he was drinking or what he could possibly want. I already knew. See, Kick Shot was my bar and had been for six years. Joey was the most regular of the regulars. He never changed. He always wanted Blue Moon—ironic, really. I held it up. “I’m not coming to you.

Get off your ass and come get your own damn beer.” “Ah, Jacky, don’t you love me anymore? My knee hurts, and—” “No. Six years now, Joey, and still you’re asking me to play waitress. It’s never going to happen. Get up, come get your beer, go sit back down.” I shook the beer just a little, hoping he would just get up and do it without another comment. There were five other people in the bar tonight, slow for a Thursday, but that didn’t mean I was suddenly also the waitress. He groaned and pushed away from his buddies. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Joey, but I wasn’t a waitress. I was the owner of the damn bar and I didn’t run around and give people drinks.

Not that there’s anything wrong with waitressing, but I had tried that when I first opened the place and it hadn’t gone well. I’d caught people grabbing their own drinks for free while I was running around. Now, I could have fixed the problem by hiring servers—or really, anyone—to help out, but I didn’t. I was stubborn like that. I had wanted to own a bar by myself and work in it alone, so I did. If that meant my patrons had to walk twenty feet to get their drink, then so be it. His friends were laughing at him as he walked to me, like always. Joey’s friends were all locals like him and I knew all their names. Sometimes it felt like I knew everyone’s name. John grew up in Jacksonville, the son of a couple of teachers at the high school.

He’d gone to college and followed in their footsteps, becoming a teacher himself. Mark was new, at least by Jacksonville’s standards. He’d lived there for five years and still was considered the new face. Adam was another local, and like Joey, once played football at the high school, dreaming of the pros. He married his high school sweetheart and just never left. But Joey’s special. I liked him more than most of my patrons, which was why I took a second beer out and put it next to the first. “So you don’t need to make the walk again any time soon. On the house,” I explained, smiling kindly. He gave me a worried expression, looking over the two bottles.

He picked up one, cracked it open, and took a swig before continuing to examine me. “You okay, Jacky? Seems like something’s bothering you.” “Why do you say that?” This was why Joey was special. He cared a bit more than most. I didn’t know why and I probably never would, but he noticed things. He noticed when I was having an off day or needed some space. He sometimes stayed to help me close up, shooing people out when they wouldn’t leave at closing. He was just too good of a guy, and sometimes I wanted to strangle him for it. Tonight was one of those nights. “You seem distant, Jacky.

Is this about the werewolves in the city? I mean, DFW is just down the road…” “It’s nearly two hours away,” I countered. “And why would the werewolves in Dallas have anything to do with me?” “Oh come on, Jacky! Admit it already! You’re a werewolf! We’ve known for years!” Adam called out from across the bar. It started right there. Every voice in the bar rose, all asking or demanding for me to admit to something that I couldn’t. “I’m not a werewolf,” I said politely, for probably the fifth time in the last twenty-four hours. Whenever the werewolves had drama that hit the news, I ran into the same question, the same accusation. “I’m not even sure where you keep getting this idea, Joey, but I’m not a werewolf.” I had to fight the deadly urge to go over the bar and smack the closest human to me, poor Joey, though I couldn’t shake the feeling he deserved it for starting this up again. If I’ve told them once, I’ve told them a thousand times. I wasn’t a werewolf.

I would never be a werewolf. They just refused to drop it, much to my annoyance. Sadly, I couldn’t hit Joey over the head. It would probably kill him. “You’re always closed on a full moon. Let’s just be honest here.” He had a point. He had a very good point, but lots of places were now closed on full moons. No one, human or otherwise, wanted to go out when the werewolves were running. “Lots of places are closed on full moons, including half of town.

It’s the only thing that interrupts Friday night football at the Tomato Bowl. Speaking of, why aren’t you down there tonight? You never miss a game, even the odd Thursday game.” I grabbed a rag and began wiping down my bar, hoping the physical work would help me ignore the fools. Hoping. It didn’t. It never did. “It’s an away game tonight, Jacky. You would know that if you kept up with the schedule. I bring you one every year, and you never do. You should, if you ever want anyone in town to think you belong.

” He gave me one of those mock glares that was supposed to make me think he was mad, but all I could do was laugh. There was nothing scary about Joey and there never would be. “I’m not a werewolf, so trying to belong and fit in with the local community isn’t on my political agenda, so…I have the right not to care about the local high school football team and their ridiculously-named stadium in the middle of town,” I retorted, shaking my head. They called the thing the Tomato Bowl. How was I ever supposed to take that seriously, or be remotely interested in it past making fun of it? “At least I remembered there was a game today…on a Thursday. Be proud of me.” It was one of the reasons my bar was so empty when normally I could get ten or so people in on a weeknight, more the closer the weekend got. “Go drink your beer, Joey, and-” I looked over to my clock on the wall above the window I had previously been staring out of, “-I close in an hour.” “Fine, fine.” He waved a dismissive hand at me, then grabbed both his drinks and sauntered off.

In another life, I would have found a saunter like that attractive, but Joey was absolutely not my type. Physically, he was fine, except the beginning of a beer gut. He was an average five foot nine, only an inch taller than myself, with a decent build. He had clean brown hair and nice brown eyes. He kept a perpetual scruff that didn’t turn me off. Like always, though, there were some problems. Off the top of my head, I could think of three. One, he was a blazing alcoholic, and that had always been a turn off for me. Two, I didn’t fix men, and Joey was the type who needed a woman to come in and fix him. Desperately.

I didn’t have it in me. So, while he might have been attractive, I wouldn’t overstep friendly bartender, no matter how kind he was. He could be attractive and kind might work with other women, but I was never going to fall for it. I couldn’t. Three? My kind didn’t date humans. Never. Not even for a fling. Not even a one night stand. It was completely out of the question. An hour later, and the news was still talking about the werewolves in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

I still had a throbbing headache, which wasn’t normal since I almost never got headaches, and Joey was long gone, earlier than normal. “All right, everyone! Time to get the fuck up and get the fuck out!” I yelled over the news and the quiet country music that I naturally blocked out. I hated country, but the regulars didn’t and it paid to keep them happy. “Move!” It was what I said every night, and like a good little herd of sheep, everyone, all of the three people left in my bar, stood up. “G’night, Jacky!” one called, followed by the other two. I waved towards the door, continuing to try and usher them out. I still had to clean up before I could leave and they were taking their sweet-ass time. “Goodbye, boys! Drive home safe or call Ubers!” If they even knew what Uber was, I’d be amazed. Does Uber even get to this area? I have no idea. When I could finally lock the door behind them, I sighed.

It was a normal Thursday night, really. I let my head fall against the door thinking about it. Another Thursday night in a tiny dive bar named Kick Shot off US-175. It was the life I had wanted six years ago when I opened it. It was still the life I wanted, but it was lonely, and I wasn’t afraid to admit that. It was lonely and tiring. I was open five nights a week, Tuesday through Saturday. Five to one. No one helping out, no one to go home to. I was worse than Joey.

“Fuck. None of that thinking, Jacky. Think of the alternatives.” Even saying the word alternatives made me remember exactly why I had chosen the life of bar owner outside a small town in Texas. The other options I had made me want to gag. I cleaned up my tiny bar quickly. It wasn’t much work on the quiet nights. I didn’t balance the books until Sunday, so once I was done loading my dishwasher in the back and sweeping the floor, I had nothing to do except go home, if I even wanted to. I had a small apartment above the bar, along with my office, but I really only used it on the long nights when going home and coming back didn’t seem worth it. Tonight wasn’t one of those nights, something I was thankful for.

My skin itched, which was a sign I needed to head home and stay there for the evening. I walked out the back, locking the last door behind me. I didn’t really need to, since I had no fear of anyone breaking in, but I didn’t like taking chances. Turning away from the building, I dismissed the idea of driving home. It wasn’t very far to my house. Kick Shot was surrounded by the pine forest that marked the area. Pine trees for miles, endless amounts of them going over the horizon. I nestled my bar in them so that I could hide a house out in the middle of my property. Most thought I never left the bar at all, and the few who knew my house was in the middle of my property didn’t know how to get to it. There was a reason for that.

My skin kept itching and I rolled my shoulders, trying to loosen them up. It wasn’t a full moon, but it didn’t matter, because it was close enough to one, which made all of this a bit easier and explained the small itch I had. I stripped slowly, dropping my clothes into a gym bag. Some women kept purses. Me? I kept a gym bag on me at all times. Normally it was tucked behind the bar where the boys never saw it, but I always took it with me when I left. Once I was naked, I zipped the bag up, making sure the strap was in a good position for me to grab. Joey and his friends, always asking me if I was a werewolf. Always wondering what the mysterious woman behind the bar could possibly be. They had no idea.

If I lived my life right, they never would. Unlike the werewolves, my kind were very private. The change flew over me the moment I asked it to, taking me down onto all fours. For less than thirty seconds, my bones broke and rearranged themselves, my muscles and tendons moving to fit over the new structure, the new body. It was over in less than a minute, amazingly fast by werewolf standards. They took nearly twenty minutes to shift, the poor mangy bastards. See, Joey and his friends were half wrong and half right, but that wasn’t something I could ever tell them. I wasn’t a werewolf. I was a werecat. Now, werewolves? They looked like wolves.

Big wolves, but still wolves. Werecats? I looked like something out of a prehistoric documentary with bad CGI and some scientist talking over it. I had five inch saber fangs and a strange tan and spotted pattern. Whatever cat werecats were supposed to be was long extinct. It made things very interesting when people caught us out and about, which was exactly why that could never happen. The werewolves were out to the world, but not the werecats. We couldn’t be. And if people thought werewolves were big, they had no idea. I was just about as large as a male lion, which was to say, incredibly big. Human, I was five foot eight, weighing all of one hundred and fifty pounds, with a little bit of curve to me.

Just a little, but I was proud of it, since getting any sort of curve as a werecat was practically impossible. As a werecat, I was four feet at the shoulder and roughly four hundred and fifty pounds. Massive, and roughly two hundred pounds heavier than most werewolves. I gingerly grabbed the strap of my bag with my clothing and started to trot away, sniffing the air as I went. There were no humans anywhere near me or where I could see. I dove into the pine trees, heading straight for home. It was fun, more freeing than anything I could have ever imagined. I could really run when I wanted to, and while I sometimes hated what I was, I never hated this. There would never be a time when I hated the run. As I went, my magic connected with the land, telling me everything I could ever want to know, like where potential prey was.

I generally hunted whitetail since their population was always at risk of running amok in the region. I did my part, and it helped that even when I was human, I had a serious love for venison. Werecats have a special magic with the land. We’re a part of it and it’s a part of us. We claim territory, which could be huge or very small depending on our strength and needs. Our connection with our territory means everything, from the day we claim it to the day we lose it. Mine was thirty miles in every direction from my home, a large circle if I ever bothered to draw it on a map. It was a sizable plot, but not the biggest I could potentially hold. I knew deep down I should have claimed a larger territory, but I never wanted to. I wanted a safe plot of land that was mine and didn’t feel too threatening to any other werecats in the state.

I didn’t want to give anyone a reason to look in my direction, so I kept my magic close, never letting it reach out to try to claim more than I wanted. Six years before, I had claimed even less than what I had now, but had very slowly spread it out until I was comfortable. There were a few reasons for that. I needed the leg room, for one. Two, a werecat could only safely hunt on his or her territory. I had been warned that trying to keep my territory while roaming away from it would bite me in the ass. Like the idea of leaving my bar unattended, it was something I had learned quickly to correct. It only took two minutes for me to find myself on my back porch. It took less than that for me to turn back around and run off, wanting to keep stretching my legs. It felt so good.

I didn’t shift often enough, not nearly often enough. I tried for once a week, and there was really no excuse for me not to, but I was bad like that. I had never been a good werecat; I would never be a good werecat. I could only try, and even that felt too hard most of the time. In the attempt to be a good werecat tonight, I sniffed out a whitetail deer nearly ten miles from home and took it down without thinking. Hunting came naturally, as I was ridden by animal instincts I couldn’t control sometimes. It saw prey, and the feline beast I shared my body with wanted that prey. I had to be careful, thanks to that beast. The werewolves didn’t admit it to the humans, but our animals thought they were prey too. It made things dangerous and was why I didn’t worry about being closed on full moons.

Everyone was. No one wanted to be out when the monsters were. Joey didn’t know it, but it kept him safe too. I could never risk them visiting while some employee I didn’t want was at the bar. It made them easy prey. I don’t know how long I ran, really. I could see the dangerous tinge of dawn just beginning to creep over the horizon when I was back on my front porch and triggered the change back into my human form. “Fuck,” I groaned, leaning against my back door. It was always painful, and the faster I could do it every year, the more it felt like it hurt. Maybe the pain was just too concentrated; I had no idea, but it wasn’t pleasant.

There was no fairy dust and seamless shifting for the moon cursed, wolf or cat. Our bodies just broke and healed into new bodies. It fucking hurt. Every time, it fucking hurt. For me, it’d been hurting worse, and my shifts had only been getting faster. With that on my mind, I knew I needed to make a call. A call I would continue to avoid, because it was the worst call. It was a call to family. “Tomorrow,” I promised myself half-heartedly.

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