Catherine has published many informative articles and also enjoys creative writing. This is her second short story.
Polly Whitfield had been living at Meridian Gardens for three years now. Originally from New Haven, Connecticut, she and her husband had moved to Sarasota, Florida after reading that it was a top spot for retirees.
After she was widowed, a health scare pushed her to sell the condo and move into a senior living facility. The tiered care offered at Meridian gave her peace of mind, and the amenities were wonderful.
Darius Taylor chose Sarasota to be nearer to the few very distant relatives on his paternal side. They were all he had. His parents had met in Brisbane in 1942 when U.S. soldiers were mobilized there for the fight in the Pacific. They married and settled in Fitzroy Crossing, a town on the edge of the Kimberley.
Darius was ruggedly attractive with a squared jaw and intent hazel eyes, bordering on gold. Even after retiring to the land of aloha shirts, he still opted for the camo drab colors of his native Australian outback.
As an only child, he kept to himself and often ventured into the nearby wilderness to escape the summer heat in scenic El Questro Gorge and its nearby caves.
He had never been interested in settling down, preferring instead his retreats in the outback, especially those in the lush areas of the Kimberley. Any serious interest in women was soon eclipsed by his love for the outdoors and the solitude he found there.
When Polly and Darius had first met in the Meridian's library, she was reading an account of the missionaries, the aboriginal people, and the difficulty in converting them to white Christianity. As the daughter of a Methodist minister, this was a topic she wanted to further explore. Darius was more than ready to chime in about the resilient nature of the indigenous people in his native country.
He was drawn toward her inquisitive and searching eyes. She wasn't one to look away from his gaze, but rather met it straight on as if in challenge.
They enjoyed their discussions and often chatted while walking the grounds of the Selby Botanical Gardens, a place that reminded Darius of his favorite environs as a young man, the tropical rain forests of the Kimberley with the beautiful tree ferns and prehistoric cycads.
In the solarium, Darius was stretched out on a chaise in the dappled sunlight of late afternoon. It would soon be time for dinner, and he looked forward to sharing his table with Polly.
There was something complex and intriguing about her that Darius couldn't quite overlook. He found himself thinking of her bird-like features and her long slender fingers on the piano keys when she played at Vespers and after dinner. She had an inner strength that belied her physical frailty.
Something in him was changing. Darius could feel it. He was dreaming more frequently of his days at the gorge and the caves.. the shaman. . the trance. . the ancient stories of shape-shifters, part man, part animal. Those images stirred primal feelings and seemed so real.
At dinner that evening, when the waiter leaned over Polly, Darius felt his neck tighten in an awkward spasm, and he had to gasp for air and quickly exhale. He was very self-conscious over the hissing noise that had escaped his lips
His dreams escalated to trances of his own, the cave, the gold eyes, the scaly claws. What had happened in that darkness?
It was now early September, and the long afternoon shadows in the solarium told Darius that summer was at a close.
Humidity was heavy as thunderstorms briefly moved in and out of foreboding clouds.
NOAA was on hurricane watch, but Sarasota had always managed to dodge the bullet.
After dinner, the residence management called a meeting in the lobby to discuss emergency protocols in case of an uptick in the hurricane level or changes in its trajectory. Regular residents would take the stairs to the lower levels of another annex and wait out the storm in the underground bunker. Those with disabilities and wheelchairs would be assisted in using a ramp access point at the other end of the storm bunker.
Polly and Darius stayed close and followed the storm watch on WWSB. Their concern was heightened now since the Meridian had battened down the hatches. They could still hear the wind and rain attack the roof and walls. Within minutes the lights flickered, and the TV went dead. The generators hummed to life and the emergency wall sconces dimly lit the hallways. Evacuation was now under way.
Darius led Polly to the emergency exit and helped her down the steps in the faint light. They found a recess in the stairwell and hunkered down in the darkness there. It was cool and heavy with dampness much like the caves at El Questro.
The primal feeling came upon Darius like a power surge, and he felt his skin crawl. There was a tightening at the base of his spine, and he recoiled as his hands and feet morphed into claws. This was happening so fast, but to Darius it felt like a time lapse. The muscle spasm in his throat was there. . that muscle spasm.. hissss. . hisss. The dreams, the gold eyes, the cave. . . he was becoming the being. .
His forked tongue was searching the air, he pivoted, tail lashing, and opened his squared jaw. The screams echoed throughout the concrete basement, and Darius, the shape-shifter, charged down the corridor, his yellow-tipped tail whipping around the corner.