Coming in from the darkened street, Jacks was assaulted by the all-night bodega’s fluorescent lights. Ground-in dirt scored the dull tile floor. Boxed dry goods, probably stocked in another decade, lined grimy, metal shelves. The water-stained drop ceiling encroached in on him from the corners of his vision. As he approached one of the glass refrigerator cabinets, his reflection glared back. Jacks had told himself he was working a grunge look, but he was crossing into vagrant territory. Thick, unwashed hair framed his scruffily bearded face. His black wool cap didn’t make him look hip and counterculture. It made him look destitute and dangerous. He wondered if he traveled in a cloud of body odor, like some comic strip character. Jacks grabbed some things from the refrigerated section, headed to the canned food aisle and dropped an armful of groceries on the checkout counter.
Farzan, the cashier, smiled at him. He was a handsome Persian guy, probably around Jacks’ age. They had made small talk before. Farzan worked the overnight shift while he was going to medical school. His dad owned the shop. He had struck up conversation about American politics and American rock bands, and it turned out they liked a lot of the same music. The guy was cool, but Jacks just wanted to get in and out. He looked like a mess. Besides, he had to be getting back to Benoit.
Farzan’s dark, almond eyes narrowed at the sight of Jacks’ purchases: five packages of hot dogs, two cartons of milk, a graying plastic envelope of assorted cold cuts, and a half dozen cans of Vienna sausages. His tan face flouted a woeful grimace.
“Stocking up on proteins again?”
“Yeah,” Jacks mumbled. He flashed a shy grin and dug into his jeans’ pocket for cash.
Farzan took his time scanning the items at his old, computerized register. He was probably bored and starved for company. The crooked Bud Light clock on the wall behind the register showed three-fifteen in the morning.
“This is no good,” Farzan said. “You need a complex diet or you will develop a vitamin deficiency. Did you know that overconsumption of animal products has been linked to cancer?”
“You sound like a doctor already.”
“It is also a myth that a diet rich in meat will lead to muscle development.”
“I buy other stuff at the market down the street.” Jacks’ eyebrow twitched, and his gaze skimmed his feet.
“I can’t sell you this.” Farzan waved the cold cuts at Jacks. “It’s past its expiration date.”
The package flew into the garbage can behind the counter with a thud.
“I’ll get another one.” Jacks headed over to the refrigerated shelves.
“Don’t bother. They’re all the same. We only restock on Tuesdays.”
Jacks stopped in his tracks and walked back to the register. He realized he had left a crumpled wad of bills and all his loose change on the counter. Luckily, the place was as dead as a morgue. Not many people were out at delis at three in the morning this far uptown.
Farzan was looking around for something behind the counter. When he turned back to Jacks, he had a plastic tub of rice in his hand.
“This is Adas Polo. Basmati rice with lentils and raisins. Very healthy.”
Jacks nodded, though he had no idea why Farzan was showing him the stuff.
“I will give you some.”
Farzan brought out a large size Styrofoam coffee cup and shoveled the rice into it with a plastic spoon.
“No, you don’t have to do that.”
Farzan didn’t seem to hear him. He closed up the cup with a white lid and handed it to Jacks.
“Thanks,” Jacks said. He gathered up his money. “What do I owe you?”
“For the Adas Polo, no charge. For the rest, thirty-four dollars and eighty-nine cents.”
Jacks fished out a twenty and two tens from the bundle in his hand.
“When are you going to give me the download of the Death Cab for Cutie album?”
Jacks’ insides sank. He had been meaning to bring Farzan his memory stick of music downloads. “Sorry, I keep forgetting.”
“That’s OK. I know you will be back.” He took Jacks’ money and gave him his change and his bagged groceries.
On the street, Jacks’ vision sharpened like a photographic lens. He scanned the row of curtain-walled storefronts ahead of him, and peered into the darkened recessed spots along the street. Everything was closed. Farzan’s neon-signed bodega was an oasis amid a desolate world of concrete and aluminum. That counted as both a good and a bad thing. People got mugged in the area, and the police only seemed to pay attention after someone got beat up or stabbed. Jacks had been living in the neighborhood for only a couple of months, and he had heard melees on the street more nights than not. The violent squabbles pulled at him, hearing someone was getting hurt and knowing he could do something to stop it. He never got involved. Watching the cops show up and treat everyone on the street like a criminal ate at Jacks. People had a right to be out at night. It wasn’t their fault they lived in a shitty neighborhood.
Jacks turned off the main strip onto a side street. Up ahead, cloaked in darkness, there was a conversation going on. It was one, maybe two blocks down the street: a group of kids, talking in Spanish. Jacks didn’t speak the language, but the intonation was aggressive and drunk. They would probably heckle him or try something worse. Not that Jacks couldn’t handle himself. Benoit had taught him that. But he didn’t want any trouble that would draw attention.
He fast-tracked down an alley between a pair of slummy apartment buildings. He watched the shadowy borders—rows of garbage cans, an abandoned car picked over to its frame and axles, and one of the resident homeless sloughed against one building by the laundry room vents. Rats rooted around the garbage cans. They were the only life stirring in the alley. His path ended at a fence, topped with barbed wire, enclosing an old loft building that was once a furniture factory. Jacks took a survey of the shadowy space behind him, and then he secured his grocery bag around one shoulder. His hands and legs worked deftly to climb the chain-link fence, making barely any noise. At the top, he angled and stretched his body around the sharp coils of barbed wire as easily as a cinematic jewel thief. His feet hit the ground on the other side, sure and steady.
The back door to the factory was straight ahead. The bolt to the door was broken, and he slipped inside with an eye out for onlookers. A vast space, pitch black, opened up in front of him. The sour smell of sawdust and unfinished wood still lingered, though the furniture and most of the machinery had been cleared out years ago. Jacks’ gaze pierced the darkness. Besides the high-lofted bed where he and Benoit slept, the factory had been gutted. He unhitched the grocery bag from his shoulder.
A phantom force tackled him from the side. The bag flew out of from Jacks’ hand, and he landed on the concrete floor, stunned breathless by the smacking pain in his back. His invisible attacker pinned him by the shoulders with an insuperable weight. He heard a feline growl, and the meaty breath of it fanned his face.
Black as the shuttered factory, an enormous panther lorded over him. The pupils of its green, iridescent eyes were enlivened by the capture of prey. Benoit. Jacks cocked his head. The groceries were strewn across the floor, and the milk cartons had burst into a puddle.
“How’re we supposed to eat when you do stuff like this?”
The black cat gazed at him intently. A man’s voice, Québécois by accent, telepathed into Jacks’ head: “I’m in the mood for something else for dinner.”
His claws ripped open Jacks’ jacket and shirt, and a rough tongue lapped his bare chest. Jacks reeled from the warm, grating sensation against his skin. His nostrils filled with Benoit’s wild and musky scent. A familiar beckoning pulled at every cell of Jacks’ body. His mind closed up in a blur of heat, and he felt himself rearing. His breastbone buckled, and his chest expanded in a feline curve. Hot bursts of pressure raced down his back as his spine extenuated and arched, sprouting an appendage from his tailbone. His shoulder blades flexed backward impossibly while his hips realigned, and the muscles of his shortened limbs broadened and knit together, taut. His nails grew and thickened while his fingers and toes retracted, and the balls of his hands and feet bulged into fist-sized roughened pads. All parts of his skin drew up tight around his muscles, and thick fur burst through his body. He could feel the complex transformation of his head—skull elongating, jaws receding, mouth and nose molding together into a muzzle. Fine shoots of whiskers prickled out of him.
Though his feline senses worked in his human form, they were now multiplied times ten. His surroundings came into newfound focus, the unveiling of a hidden world. A lazy breeze drafted from a shattered pane in one of the factory’s high, whitewashed windows. He could hear and feel a subway car approaching distantly downtown. Benoit’s feral arousal bathed him in a fog of exhilaration. Then he noticed the rich scent of rice and lentils in the air. Jacks turned reflexively to the groceries. Benoit’s gaze followed his, landing on the spilled Styrofoam cup. His tail swung back and forth.
“Flirting with the kid from the bodega again?”