When Tonya stepped into the doorway of the office, she saw her aunt picking three stems off of a peppermint plant. Amanda deSanti had a window office, which was unusual for someone in her position, but necessary to grow a variety of plants: the scented ones that she used as anchors for trance work, the aloes and other healing plants to treat wounds, as well as the African violets she'd planted for the sheer joy of their beauty. She could have requisitioned any plant her job required, as most of her colleagues did, but Mandi insisted that her own plants were more attuned to her needs, having grown in her presence.
While Mandi would have appeared poised and unruffled to the untrained eye, Tonya caught the sharp glance that her aunt laid on the leopard print hair-band. As Tonya self-consciously, and unnecessarily, brushed back her hair, gold bangles flashed against her brown skin. For her most recent assignment, pretending to be a high-school senior, Tonya had needed to look a good three or four years younger than she actually was. She'd acquired a more youthful and colorful wardrobe than she was accustomed to wearing and had tucked back her halo of black hair. Her aunt hadn't been commenting on the hairstyle but on the leopard print, which was Tonya's signature. She always worked it into her outfits, even her uniforms, if only in some small way.
Tonya had uncharacteristically not wondered why she'd kept the hair-band on even after the assignment had ended so badly. Oh, it wasn't the worst possible disaster, far from it, but things hadn't gone well. If pressed, she could have given any number of excuses for keeping the hair-band, the easiest being that Helen was used to seeing her in it. Not that it was certain, yet, which team would be sent after Helen.
Her aunt passed one peppermint stem to Tonya. While Mandi dropped peppermint leaves, from the other two stems, into a teapot, Tonya held the stem of peppermint to her face and inhaled it's scent as she recalled specific events from her childhood: one, two, buckle your shoe; the exact flick of the wrist to send the ball bouncing just high enough that she could pick up all the jacks; at Red Rover, the first time she'd broken through the line, how fast she'd had to run, and how she'd thrown herself between Bobby and Paula. The ancestors in her profession, even long before they'd called themselves psychologists, had known that scents, memories, and emotions could be used to anchor certain desired states of mind and, with enough repetition, make them easier to slip back into. Tonya let the peppermint drop into her lap as she felt her mind split into three parts: one to relive her memories, another to observe and analyze, and the final to report on the experiences and thoughts of the first two.
"Tell me about Helen," Mandi directed. Tonya didn't start with impersonal details; there was plenty of documentation to provide that type of information and, besides, that wasn't the type of detail the trance work was there to provide. "The first time I saw Helen was in the hallway of her new school. She's tall enough that she should have stood out above the other students, but she'd hunched herself over, as if her emotional pain had physically hurt her. I made myself highly visible at the center of the crowd and avoided eye contact, so that she would know who I was but didn't expect me to know her. Every time I saw Helen, she was alone." Tonya knew how much her aunt would read into that statement. She, herself, had found it quite telling, almost shocking to tell the truth, given that Helen's bio had stated she'd consistently been part of a crowd almost from birth.
As Tonya heard her aunt swirl the water around in the teapot, she felt herself slipping more deeply into her memories. Helen's ash-blond hair looked scraggly, as if she hadn't brushed it that morning, and her glance darted around the chaos of the hallway while three boys ran past, chasing each other and laughing. Helen pulled away when one of the boys brushed against her, and then she looked down towards the ground, as if she couldn't take in one more thing. Seeing Helen's reaction, Tonya realized that, if she didn't dramatically tone down the brash personality she'd been wearing, she'd scare the girl off.
Two days later, after school, Tonya made the first approach. She'd noticed that Helen took her time leaving the schoolyard, as if reluctant to return to her grandmother's house, and so knew she had time to make a quick run to a nearby 7-11.
"Hi," Tonya said, walking up to Helen and holding out a Slurpee. "Would you like one? They were on sale so I brought two back, but it looks like everybody's split." Tonya looked around as if expecting to find her friends.
Helen clutched her backpack to her chest. "No thanks," she whispered so quietly that Tonya could barely make it out.
"Come on," Tonya said enticingly. Oops, time to back away, Tonya thought, noticing that Helen seemed ready to bolt. "You'd be doing me a favor," she added. "I can't drink this much. Look, you don't even have to hang with me. I'll go sit over there." Tonya looked towards a bench under the shade of a couple of palm trees and held the Slurpee out towards Helen. "Take it," she ordered, knowing that her words would get Helen past the hump. As she felt the drink being taken from her hand, Tonya thanked Helen and walked away, sipping her own drink and not looking back. A few minutes later, Helen joined her on the bench, as Tonya had known she would. Helen didn't want to go home, and Tonya had made herself too much of a distraction to resist.
"I'm Helen," the girl said, looking down at her drink. Tonya reviewed what they'd been able to determine about Helen's situation. The grandmother, originally from a rural area of Poland, had recognized the signs after Helen had been slashed by a werewolf, five months earlier. The woman had been trying to contact the Domuti, to find someone who could control the werewolf, but so far luck hadn't been with her. Tonya thought Helen should be pulled out of the mess and be given proper training, but her assignment was to monitor the situation. Policy was to allow the family to deal with it if they were able to.
Giving her own name in response, Tonya held out her hand. Physical contact led to a tighter bond. With an awkwardness she didn't have to pretend to, Tonya said, "I hear you haven't been here long." Her arm swept towards the school building.
"I bet you heard a lot more than that," Helen replied, with more spirit that Tonya would have given her credit for.
"Hey," Tonya said, reaching out a hand but not quite touching Helen. This was a tricky part; she didn't want Helen to think she'd been singled out deliberately. "I, um, you're not the only one who's lost somebody."
Helen looked up sharply.
"I mean, for me it was my uncle, my favorite uncle, and I know that's not the same as my whole family, but I do understand. Kinda." Even as she was reliving her memories, Tonya could feel Aunt Mandi take her hand. That uncle had been the man Mandi had married.
Apparently it had been the right thing to say. Words rushed out of Helen like water from a burst dam. "Everyone is acting like it can't happen to them, but I can tell from the way they act around me that they know it can. They back away, like my bad luck'll rub off on them or something, but it's not luck, it just– it just happened." When Tonya didn't speak, Helen added. "And it's not getting better. All the time I feel like I'm ready to burst out screaming." Helen was almost panting when she finished. She glared at Tonya defiantly.
"It does get better," Tonya said, taking Helen's hand. "I promise. It never goes away, not entirely, but there will be– it'll be like a veil has dropped down between you and the memories. Some days you'll hardly notice it's there, but other days, well, the veil will rip itself open, and you'll feel like you're drowning, but only for a little while. Then it'll draw over the memories again, and you'll be, not quite OK, but you'll be able to live with it."
"But it's taking so long, longer than it should."
"There is no should or shouldn't," Tonya said with all the confidence of her training. "It's different for everybody." And most people aren't turned into a werewolf on the day their family is killed by one. God, I can't even begin to imagine the guilt of that. I'm sure your grandmother is taking the worst possible tack, probably telling you it's a curse, and that you need to keep your evil self away from normal God-fearing folk. All the old-country nonsense.
"Hey Tonya," came a shout from a couple of girls standing by the school doors. Damn, Tonya thought, watching Helen pull back into herself.
Helen stood, almost dropping her Slurpee in her haste. "I've gotta go." Helen dashed along the side of the building and turned the corner at the edge of the school, disappearing from Tonya's sight.
Still fully in trance, after Tonya had finished describing the scene, she waited for instructions from her aunt. "Tell me about the tracer," Mandi's voice directed.
"Because the situation was unstable, Sergeant Ramon wanted a GPS tracer on Helen," Tonya said.
"That showed foresight," Mandi said.
"Even when we were kids, she believed in being prepared," Tonya replied.
"How was it hidden?" Mandi asked, even though she must have read the details in the reports.
"Wayne found a leopard-print snake, a small stuffed animal that was also a keychain. Helen and I had formed a close bond by then, and she was unlikely to throw away any gift I'd given her," Tonya replied.
"And the leopard-print would remind her of you, strengthening that trust," Mandi said.
"Tell me," Mandi said.
"I was brushing her hair. It was always so scraggly, as if she didn't take care of it, but the blond highlights shone beautifully once it was brushed out. She was teasing me about it, saying it was fine, but when I showed her in the mirror, she gasped and brushed her hand through it, as if she'd forgotten how good her hair could look. She kept it combed after that day and started coming out of her shell, even around other kids, by talking up more and hanging in the hallways between classes."
"You were telling me about the tracer."
"I gave it to her after we'd finished with her hair. She was feeling pretty, probably for the first time in seven months, and I judged she was likely to accept the gift. I handed her the keychain," Tonya said, sinking further into her memories.
"I saw this in the store," Tonya told Helen, her gestures filling the space around her, "and I couldn't resist, but when I got it home, I found I just couldn't replace Leo." Tonya pulled out her Leonardo diCaprio keychain and gave the picture a kiss.
Helen snickered and shook her head. "I can't believe you've got it that bad for diCaprio."
"You're just jealous because I claimed him first."
"Yeah right," Helen said, wrapping the coils of the snake around her finger. "What is this anyway, some kind of boa constrictor?"
"He'd better not be," Tonya said as she grabbed the stuffed snake out of Helen's hand. "Nah, he's just a harmless garter snake."
"With leopard fur," Helen said, smirking as Tonya tossed her the snake.
"So he's stylish."
Mandi interrupted Tonya's description of the scene. "The GPS tracer was hidden in the snake you gave Helen. How does that make you feel?"
In her tranced state, Tonya couldn't have lied, not that she would have to her aunt. "Guilty, as if I'd betrayed her." Tonya's analytical side added, "But I do understand that everything I've done is meant to help her. I just wish we could have been more open in our approach."
"Initial contact with new werewolves is never easy," Mandi told her. "Why don't you come back and we'll have tea." As Tonya heard her aunt pour the peppermint tea, her three minds started merging into a single consciousness.
Amanda deSanti had one more question. "Who should be sent after Helen?"
"My team," Tonya said as she opened her eyes. In response to her aunt's raised eyebrow, Tonya added, "We've formed a bond" She's on the run. She'll be more likely to trust a friend."
Tonya shrugged. "I'll look after her best interests."
"Other teams wouldn't?"
"There's still prejudice against demons in the ranks," Tonya countered.
"Are you suggesting we'd send a prejudiced team after her?" Mandi asked, with a snap in her voice.
After a long silence, Tonya answered. "I'm her friend." It was an unprofessional response, but it was also the truth.