My ear was still aching by the time dinner rolled around. And everybody had matching earrings now: single, flat, bright red disks, rimmed in silver, shining like beacons in the newly inflamed cartilage of everybody’s right ear.
Beside me, Collin’s toes were tapping out a rhythm under the table. On my other side, John’s fingers were drumming the table top. For my part, my fingers continued to tap against my thumb, playing an imaginary song on an imaginary piano—the only difference now was that the tempo was a little faster than it had been before. The stress was palpable at the table. Hell, the entire room was emanating stress. Without thought, my hand went to my belly, but as soon as I realized what I was doing, I closed my fingers like I was scratching an itch.
I looked to see Collin looking at me. There was a look in his eyes I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen before. It wasn’t fear, and it wasn’t sadness, but whatever it was had both of those ingredients within it.
But before I could say anything in response, Collin’s attention was pulled away. I followed his gaze to see a woman approaching our table. A shifter—a fellow prisoner.
Nobody ever approached our table. I’d seen people talking, moving table to table and sitting with different people during dinner each night, but not our table. We all sat together, and nobody generally approached us. I’d seen Harris go over to another table once, and Harris and Sam together another time. I’d assumed they were talking to a friend or someone they knew, but nobody had ever come up to our table before—at least not that I’d seen.
Collin drew a slow sigh as the woman approached Samantha, who turned in her seat so she could face the new comer.
“We all feel it,” the woman said. “Is it Cecelia Brayton?”
Nobody at the table moved or even breathed as Samantha appeared to force a swallow. She nodded and, after pressing her lips together a couple of times, then looking away and drawing a breath, she looked to the woman again and nodded. “We don’t know for certain—it may be. It’s the only person who makes—“ her voice broke, and her applied calm fractured along with it. Hand to her mouth, she turned back to the table, shoulders shaking and tears falling into her food.
Harris put a hand on his wife’s shoulder and looked at the woman. “Yes, we think it may be Cecelia. Please let word spread so those who know her can prepare themselves.”
The woman looked so genuinely sad, so genuinely concerned for Samantha. She nodded in response to Harris, then put a hand on Sam’s other shoulder. “I’m so sorry. She is a great woman, and she will be missed.”
It wasn’t until Samantha began pulling herself together and the woman looked up and saw me that I realized I had been staring. When the woman saw me, she smiled—but I averted my eyes, embarrassed to have been caught staring no matter how odd the scene had been to witness. It had just been such a strangely open, surreally genuine interaction.
After a moment, the woman went down that side of the table. Trying to look like I wasn’t looking, I watched as she took each person’s hands in her own and wordlessly held them for a moment at a time. She’d smile sadly, give a nod, and then move on to the next person. Before long, others were coming to the table and following suit, taking the hands of those of us sitting, especially Samantha, Harris, and John, giving a nod, or saying a few words.
“Do you know Cecelia Brayton?”
I looked up to see a girl, not much older than me. She was looking at me like she expected me to respond. “Uh…” I had to clear my throat. This was all way bizarre. “Yeah. I just met her this summer. But her niece is my best friend.”
The girl reached for my hands and I found myself lifting them to meet her. Her fingers were thin but when she squeezed my hands there was strength there. Her warmth was subtle. “I’ve never met her, but everyone says she’s wonderful. My grandmother died last year, so my heart goes out to you.”
Words skated right out of my head. “Uh… thank you.”
The girl smiled and moved on, leaving me frozen.
“It’s a show of solidarity and sympathy,” John said quietly, apparently seeing my confusion.
“Huh?” I felt sort of lost, like a child stepping into the unknown.
John smiled like he could see I was feeling that way. “Everyone here knows of Cecelia, and many of them know her by warmth, even if they don’t know her personally,” he said. “Traditionally, shifters took one another’s hands as a loved one passed as a way to share their warmth, share the burden. Like giving those closest to the one passing a bank of warmth to pull from. They know that the Kings are very close to Cecelia.”
“Wait—how do any of them know she’s so sick?” I asked. I only knew because she’d told me—and then asked me to keep it to myself. I hadn’t told anybody. So how did anyone else know she was dying?
“The fidgeting,” Collin said, having been listening on. His voice was low. When I turned to look at him, his eyes still held that same haunted look as they had before. “You see how nobody can sit still? You feel the tremor in your skin—your fingers won’t stop moving.”
I looked around like I needed confirmation—but I didn’t, I’d already noticed it. And of course, I felt it. “Yeah but… I don’t understand.” What did any of that have to do with Cecelia being sick?
“That’s the feeling of a shifter you know by warmth passing. The closer you are to them, the more intense it will be as they go.”