The Baby Shift: South Carolina by Becca Fanning

Chapter 1

Riding the motorbike was almost too much for Tim.

Every piece of muscle and bone in his body ached. The pain was so fierce that he had no worries of falling asleep while driving or falling asleep at all for the next couple of weeks. It didn’t matter how he held his body or how he laid at night. The pain was constant, always there, always nagging at the back of his mind. He couldn’t escape it.

Tim knew that it was his own fault, at least partially. If he hadn’t gotten involved, then he wouldn’t have been beaten within an inch of his life.

How could I ignore it? Tim wondered.

He’d seen a bunch of men—a huge gang of them—surrounding a young girl. They’d gotten caught up in the riots. They were like him, one of his kind. It made his stomach curl up at the mere sight of them around this petrified girl.

She was only a young thing, fifteen at the most, and she was coming home from her shitty retail job. She didn’t need that terror, the fear for her life.

Tim stepped in. Told them to back off. The girl saw her chance and broke free of them, rushing away into the night. With her gone, all of the men were free to focus on him.

And focus they did. Tim could still feel where their fists landed on his body. He could still feel the twinge of pain when their steel-capped boots slammed into his ribs and legs.

Tim was too afraid to even look at the damage—he slept in a t-shirt now, something he hadn’t done since enduring those cold Minnesota winters in his childhood.

The bike below him growled as he wound through the eerie streets. Ever since the trouble started, people had been hiding in their homes. It had been going on for weeks now, spreading across the country like a plague.

Soon the military would be involved, and all the rioters would be removed. Where? Tim didn’t know, but he knew he needed to get out of dodge.

After all, he was a shifter too. The military wasn’t going to sit and listen to some random guy on the street. They were going to grab everyone and take them away. Tim needed not to be involved in that.

The orange street lights above him beamed down in wide circles. Tim rode through them, shifting in and out of the darkness as he passed down the deserted road.

It looked so wrong to him. The sun was barely setting on the horizon, yet everyone was gone. The more he looked at the dead surroundings, the more he thought it was the end of times.

That was complete bullshit, of course. People always retreated into the safety of their own homes when trouble struck. Tim knew that, but he still couldn’t shake that feeling.

On the outskirts of town, he slowed down to a crawl and began looking for somewhere to bunk down for the night. The town he’d come through was smaller than he had expected, and for a while, he thought that maybe he’d just have to keep on driving through the night.

There were only a couple of stores in the center of town, and even then, most were boarded up. He wasn’t sure if it was because of the riots, or because of the economy.

He kept on riding, keeping his eyes peeled, and eventually found a motel a ways off the road, almost hidden from view. Tim knew that if he had been speeding past, he would have missed this place.

Tim pulled into the turn and slowed his bike to a crawl, looking at the place. It was run down, with paint peeling off the walls and lights flickering in the signs.

He reminded himself that the looks didn’t matter. It was away from the road and, probably, safe from most harm. All he needed was a space to ride out the night so he could continue on his way in the morning.

Tim parked his bike in one of the spaces and unloaded himself from the seat, making sure to move his bruised legs slowly. As he felt his muscles painfully spasm, he couldn’t help but feel sorry for himself.

It took him almost five minutes to gather all his belongings from the bike and sling his bag over his shoulder, careful not to strain himself more.

Tim lugged his things all the way to the reception area. Really, it was more like a booth. The desk was behind a thick layer of glass that was covered in specks of dust and scratches.

The middle-aged man sitting behind the desk looked up to Tim with a bored expression. That all changed when his eyes settled on Tim’s. He sat up straight behind the desk and eyed Tim suspiciously, looking him up and down while squinting.

“I’d like to book a room, please,” Tim said gently.

His eyes gave him away. And now, with all the shifter crime going on, people were understandably worried by those lot with the golden eyes. The man behind the desk didn’t say a word. He just stared right into Tim’s eyes.

“Please,” Tim repeated. “A room?”

“I don’t know about that,” the man said, sighing deeply.

He never took his eyes off Tim’s face, though. Constantly staring up at him. It was as if he was scared that Tim would start destroying everything the moment he looked away.

“I won’t be no trouble,” Tim said.

There was no point beating around the bush. They both knew what was up, and why he was being denied a place to sleep.

“I’m just trying to get away from it all,” Tim said. “I’ve been running from it for weeks now.”

The man tilted his head. “Why you gotta run?” he asked. “Surely, your brothers and sisters would welcome you with open arms.”

“I ain’t like that,” Tim said. “I don’t want no trouble. Just somewhere safe to sleep.”

For whatever reason, the man accepted this. He leaned back in his chair, causing it to rock backward.

“Hundred bucks,” the man stated.

Tim reeled. “For one night?”

“Call it a shifter surcharge,” the man stated.

Tim had no other choice, and the man knew it too.

“Surcharge is a mighty fancy word for a hick,” Tim muttered.

Reluctantly, he pulled out his wallet and slammed five twenty’s onto the counter. The man slipped his hand out of the plastic to grab the money. He gave it a cursory glance to check it was all there, then grabbed a key from the wall behind him and slipped it beneath the plastic in return.

“Check out’s at ten,” the man snapped. “Don’t fuck me about, boy. I ain’t afraid to call the cops.”

“I’m sure you’re not,” Tim sighed.

He left the reception booth and walked back into the humid air. With the keys in his hand, he looked down at the number on the key-ring.

Room twenty-four.

Tim let his eyes drift over the room numbers, searching for the one he’d been assigned. He had to climb the stairs and walk along the walkway to get to his room. But, when he finally found it, he swung the door open and let his body collapse inside.

He didn’t even make it to the bed. He just dropped his bags onto the floor and fell down onto all fours, his hands pressing painfully into the prickly carpet beneath.

“Jesus,” Tim whispered, heavily panting as sweat dripped down his forehead.

His whole body felt like it was on fire, and not in the good, tingly, happy way. He could feel every bruise, every shattered bone, every hurt that he’d been given. All of it was piling up, merging into a deep cloud that was stuck inside his mind, making sure it was the only thing he could concentrate on.

Tim knew he just had to wait it out. The pain would subside enough for him to move, and once he started moving, he just wouldn’t stop. He’d march right out of the motel room and walk to find himself a late-night diner.

It took almost half an hour for Tim to be able to shift his weight onto his ass and sit down on the floor, still panting heavily. It took almost another half hour for him to be able to get up onto his feet. He quickly searched through his bag, found his wallet, and eased himself out of the room.

Once he started walking, Tim felt a lot better. The aching in the muscles started to lessen the more he forced himself to move. By the time he reached the diner, he could barely feel the throbbing in his legs anymore.

Tim climbed into a booth and instantly began looking through the small laminated menu. He didn’t care what he ate; he just needed something to get him through. Something cheap, something full of calories, something big to tide him over until the late morning.

He doubted he would be able to have breakfast before he left, so he’d have to ride out to the next town and stop there. If the motel owner were a kinder man, he would have let Tim check out later.

He sighed heavily and rubbed his fingers into his eyes. It’s not his fault, Tim told himself. He just wants to protect what’s his.

Tim dropped the menu and continued to rub his eyes. He could feel a headache coming on with a deep pressure building in his brain. He shook his head slowly from side to side, hoping that it wouldn’t turn into a migraine.

Behind him, he could hear another customer sniffling. He tried to tune out the sound, fearing it would make his head worse if he actively listened to it.

The wet, snotty sounds didn’t stop. If anything, they continued to get louder. Tim was in half a mind to whip around and tell them to shut up, but when he glanced over his shoulder, he saw a tiny woman sitting in the booth. She was crying, with large fat tears rolling down her reddened cheeks.

Tim frowned as he stared at her, wondering what was wrong. He wanted to talk to her but wasn’t sure if she’d even acknowledge him. Why would some random crying woman want to even give him the time of day?

He turned around and listened to the sound of her pained sobs. She was trying to stifle them, to cover her mouth with her hands, but it wasn’t working very well. Tim could still hear her, crystal clear.

She was young, only in her early twenties at the most, and she looked like she’d been having a rough time. Her clothes weren’t exactly clean, and her hair looked a little on the greasy side.

Whatever life had thrown at her, she clearly wasn’t handling it well. Tim restrained himself—refused to look over, no matter how loud her sobs became—because he didn’t want to interfere in her business.

On the road, he’d learned that lesson the hard way. No matter how much he wanted to help other people, no matter how good his intentions, sometimes people just needed to help themselves.

He’d gotten himself in trouble more than enough times to know that he should just leave other people alone and not butt his nose into their business. After all, how much would he appreciate some random dude telling him how to live his life, how to sort out his problems?

He looked over his shoulder again, to the sobbing girl, and saw that she had buried her face in her hands. His heart sank through his chest as he looked at her.

It was clear that she was in trouble, struggling to survive. Her wrists were all bones, as were her forearms. She probably wasn’t eating enough, didn’t have a safe place to stay.

“Excuse me,” Tim said, the words pouring out of his mouth before he could stop them, “would you care to join me?”

The girl’s hands dropped away from her face, revealing her blue eyes. They were red from crying and staring at him with confusion.

“Join you?” she asked, her voice gentle and barely more than a whisper.

Tim nodded. “Just some company while I eat,” he said. “I’ll pay for your meal. Whatever you want. It’s on me.”

The girl scowled at him. “That’s it?” she asked. “Just company while you eat?”

“Yep,” Tim nodded. “I been driving alone for weeks, and I could use some conversation.”

She was clearly flustered, confused why he was doing this, but Tim knew that if he gave her the idea that he pitied her, she’d be less inclined to take his offer of a meal.

How could he let her continue to starve? He had enough money, and he was able to pick up work pretty easily. Her, though? No one would want to hire her for manual labor. Not only was she skinny as a rake, but she was a woman. People often thought that they couldn’t do men’s work, no matter how many times they were proved otherwise.

Tim knew she would have a hard time doing anything in this world, especially if she were all alone and without a support system. The least he could do was give her a hot meal for the night.

Reluctantly, the girl gathered her coat and purse and moved into his booth.