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Title: Earning My Spots
Author: Mark Eastburn
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Pub. Date: November 1st, 2016
Sam and his family are the only werehyenas in their town, and they do their best to keep up their cover in front of the humans while the other more aggressive shifters mock the werehyena family for being weak and passive. But Sam sees no other life for himself, as he believes what he is told: he is inferior to the other shifters.
One night, a pack of shifters raids Sam’s house and takes his family, leaving him all alone. With the help of some new friends, Sam sets off on a journey from Vermont to South America to rescue his family. Along the way, he meets various shifters who aid him on his quest. He even meets a tribe of werehyenas in Louisiana who teach him how powerful his kind actually is and how far his ancestry goes back. From them, Sam learns he has a great destiny to fulfill.
As Sam draws closer to finding his family, he begins to understand how different the world of shifters is that exists outside of his small hometown. Shifters are tired of humans destroying their homes, and they want not only revenge but also to force humans into submission. It becomes clear that Sam is the only one who can stop a war that’s on the brink of erupting.
Fans of the Spirit Animals and Warriors series will enjoy accompanying Sam on his quest as he discovers not only that his destiny and inner strength are greater than he thought, but also that being a werehyena is not as laughable as he assumed.
Chapter 1 Excerpt
Stupid werewolves. They think they’re so superior. Everywhere I go, they push me around. And why do they do it? Because I change into a different animal than they do. That’s all. I should be their leader, since I’m practically bigger than Joe Loup and Will Andris put together, but nobody respects hyenas. That’s the way it’s always been.
Take the other day at recess, for example, when everybody was in human form. A new kid arrived that morning, and the pack didn’t waste any time showing him who was in charge. Not five minutes after we’d gotten outside, the pack had the new kid pressed against a wall.
As usual, I wasn’t part of the crowd but just a spectator.
“Beat it, hyena boy!” Joe Loup snarled. “This is wolf business. Go chew on roadkill or something.” Scrunching his nose in disgust, he added, “You filthy scavenger.”
I was pacing behind the group, trying to get a glimpse of the boy they’d trapped. Recess was the wolves’ first chance to ask questions of the new kid, since they couldn’t exactly surround him in class without a teacher noticing.
Joe had the keenest senses in the pack; his job was to sound the alarm if any no-tails (our word for nonshifter humans) came near.
“Come on, guys; leave him alone,” I said, standing on my tiptoes to peek over their shoulders.
“What are you doing here?” Will Andris snarled at the new kid. Will was pack leader, at least at my school. His dad also led the adult wolves for miles around.
The new kid shrugged, his eyes narrowing into slits. “I’m not supposed to say.”
Will could be dangerous if he didn’t get answers to his questions, and I didn’t want the new kid to get pummeled, so I pushed my way into the circle to keep Will from causing harm. Yelps of surprise echoed around me.
An instant later, all eyes turned on me.
Uh-oh. Sometimes I’m impulsive, and it usually gets me in trouble.
Like right now.
Will’s lips curled back to expose his teeth. “What’s your problem, hyena boy?”
Low growls came from every direction. That’s the danger with packs—the whole group attacks at once. Nervous energy surged through my body, which made me giggle. It’s how hyenas respond to threats, but it doesn’t usually work against the wolves.
“What’s so funny?” asked Joe.
Another chuckle escaped my mouth. I always wished I could growl like other carnivores. My high-pitched, girl-at-a-slumber-party laugh never scared anyone, and the wolves never understood it meant “back off.”
Will pushed me hard, and I tripped over Joe’s foot. Next thing I knew, I was sprawled on the blacktop.
“You’d better remember your place,” said Will. “It’s hunters like us who run things around here, and scavengers like you can’t call the shots.” He sneered. “I don’t care how tough you think you are; you’ll never match a wolf.”
“And speaking of tough . . .” Joe flashed a cruel smile. “Your mom’s more of a man than you’ll ever be.”
The other kids howled with laughter. They always busted on my mom, and it always got me riled. I mean . . . who were they to talk? Their closest relatives were butt-sniffing dogs.
Time to teach Joe a lesson, I thought. My muscles tensed, my hair began to uncurl, and my fingertips pulled back to expose the claws underneath.
“Whoa, he’s getting all spotty,” said one kid in the pack.
Fear wilted Joe’s smile. He understood exactly what I wanted to do.
Will stepped forward with a flash of yellow in his eyes. “You’re forgetting about tonight, hyena boy.”
Oh crap. Full moon tonight. That’s when wolves hunt. If I started trouble now, they’d come hunting for me. The pack was famous for being really nasty, especially to other shape shifters.
Then again, I couldn’t just retreat. My teeth started to sharpen and grow thicker.
“No-tail!” Joe shouted, right before I leaped for his throat.
I figured he was stalling for time, but then I smelled the no-tail and knew I’d have to calm down. We always have to be careful around those humans who can’t change form, because they’d freak if they learned about the shape shifters all around them. Back in the olden days, no-tails used to chase us with torches and pitchforks—that’s what I’ve been told, anyway. Nowadays, they hardly even notice, because we work hard to stay hidden. Or we’re supposed to, at least.
The approaching no-tail was female. Adult. She came from behind and a little to the left.
“What’s the problem over here?” asked Mrs. Tompkins, a recess aide at John’s Gore Elementary School.
Elementary school. It sounds so childish. I’m in sixth grade, and Will Andris is in seventh. So is Joe Loup. We should be in middle school, but our town’s too small to have one. Kids who live in John’s Gore stay in elementary school through eighth grade. Rough luck for us, I guess.
“No problem here,” Will said, exchanging glances with the others.
Mrs. Tompkins pointed at me. “Then who pushed this boy over?”
“He fell,” said Joe.
“That’s right,” Will agreed, his eyes now back to blue. “You fell, didn’t you, boot—” He caught himself and said, “You just fell.”
If I could growl, this would’ve been the perfect moment to let out a slow, guttural sound. Those stupid wolves are always busting on my last name, which is Budovich. Even no-tails call me “booty-itch” when grown-ups aren’t nearby.
Unfortunately, in that situation, all I could do was back down. Mrs. Tompkins couldn’t know that I wasn’t fully human; keeping the shifter secret was the most important rule, for wolves and hyenas alike.
Even if I’d almost broken that rule for the hundredth time.
“Do you need to go to the nurse?” Mrs. Tompkins asked me.
“I’m fine,” I said.
She looked at the new kid. “Did those boys do anything to you?”
He shook his head in reply.
Mrs. Tompkins leveled her gaze at the pack. “You’d better stay away from each other from now on. If something like this happens again, you’re all going to the office, and your parents will be called.”
Will and the rest of the pack strolled away without any argument, although one of them muttered “booty-itch” while they were still within earshot. I watched Will’s back as he swaggered toward the soccer field, thinking how good it would feel to crush his spine in my jaws. But would that make me pack leader? I didn’t think so. The wolves would find some excuse not to let me into their group.
The new kid stepped away from the wall and offered me a hand. He was big for his age—like me—and definitely a shape shifter. I can always sense when another shifter is close; it’s like some kind of built-in detector.
And my detector was going crazy right then.
“You’re one of us, aren’t you?” I asked as soon as the pack was far enough away.
“What do you mean?” he asked, giving me a shifty look.
I lowered my voice and said, “You’re not a regular human, right?”
He glanced around. “Um . . . no . . . I guess not.”
“Don’t worry. You can trust me,” I assured him. “My name’s Sam.”
I stuck out my hand for a shake, but he didn’t move a muscle.
“I’m Manuel,” he said, uncertainty in his voice. “But people call me Manny.” His eyes were darting around as he spoke.
Dropping my hand, I said, “I was just going to toss Joe around a little, not go full-out animal or anything. It’s just time somebody taught him some respect, you know?”
Manny kicked the ground and sighed. When he looked up, he asked in a low voice, “What lives around here? Besides regular people.”
“In John’s Gore?” I shrugged. “The shape shifters are mostly wolves, I guess. And some bears in the forest, but they usually don’t come into town.”
He peered at me for a moment. “Nothing else?” He didn’t sound too interested in bears or wolves.
“Well, I’m a hyena,” I said softly.
Manny didn’t even react. His eyes started wandering again.
“So, what are you?” I asked, hoping to continue the conversation.
“Come on,” I said. “You know The Code, right?”
His shoulders popped up together, quickly. “No, not really.”
“It’s the set of rules we’re supposed to live by,” I told him. “Didn’t anybody ever teach you about The Code?”
Manny’s gaze returned to the blacktop. “We never spent much time around other . . .” He trailed off.
“Shape shifters?” I kept my voice as quiet as possible.
Nodding slowly, Manny said, “Most of the time, it’s just been me and my mom.”
“Well,” I said, “The Code lets you tell anyone who isn’t a no-tail what you are, so you can tell me.”
“Tell you what?” He cast a quick glance in my direction.
“What you change into.”
Manny kicked the ground again.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” I said. “Like I told you—there’s lots of shape shifters around here.”
“Yeah, but most of them are wolves.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Actually, he didn’t need to answer. There was plenty wrong with wolves, as far as I was concerned.
“I need to find something else,” he said.
“Find something else?” I took a step closer. “Like what?”
“It’s actually somebody else. Somebody whose ancestors were great hunters.”
“Oh,” I said. Clearly he didn’t mean me. Or anyone else I could think of—especially if Manny wasn’t interested in wolves.
Silence fell between us.
“Can I guess what you are?” I asked, trying to break the silence.
Studying his feet, Manny didn’t respond. It was close enough to “yes” for me.
I took a deep breath through my nose. Some shape shifters are easy to identify by scent—bears, for example, smell like roots and berries, which are the foods they usually eat. Wolves also have a distinct odor, similar to a wet dog, but there are so many in town that I barely notice the scent anymore. This kid was different, though. He smelled and looked clean, like a feline. And his dark eyes, black hair, and tan skin reminded me of visitors who’d come from a reservation in Canada a few years back.
“You must be a cougar,” I decided.
He shook his head.
“But aren’t you First Nations?” I asked.
His face puckered in confusion. “First Nations?”
“I mean American Indian. Or Native American. You know—the ones who lived here before white people showed up. And before those dumb werewolves invaded everything.”
“Well, I guess I’m part Indian,” he said, “like most people in my country.”
He nodded. “I’m from Mexico.”
“Whoa.” I didn’t know anything about shape shifters down there. He might be something I’d never seen.
The recess bell rang abruptly. Manny slinked off without another word; it seemed like typical feline behavior.
“See ya,” I called after him. He didn’t seem to want to be friends. And let me tell you—rejection sucked for a social animal like me. At least, I thought hyenas were social. The problem was that I’d never met any other of my kind outside the Budovich clan. No other werehyenas lived anywhere nearby, and we didn’t leave town—ever.
Back in class, my senses were on high alert: partly because the wolves were mad at me and partly because of something Jeff Schwartzman was saying.
“I saw it this morning,” he whispered to Doug Felton. “Bigger than any bird I’ve seen.”
“It was just an eagle,” said Doug.
“No way. It was huge.”
My hearing’s about fifteen times better than the average no-tail, so their conversation was easy to follow, even with Mrs. Petticone droning on about the Louisiana Purchase or Gadsden Purchase or some other piece of land the United States bought a long time ago. I used to think history was interesting until she started teaching it.
“The weirdest thing was the head,” Jeff continued. “I didn’t see a beak.”
“Maybe it was too far away,” said Doug.
“No, it flew right over my house.”
“But it was still dark out. You couldn’t have seen it that clearly.”
“Not that dark. Its head was round, like a person’s.”
That last statement made me wonder. A bird with a human head? There were stories about shape shifters who could transform into birds, except I’d never seen one. They were usually monsters in scary stories nobody believed—harpies and sirens and such.
All of a sudden, another sound caught my attention. A rumbling werrrrrrt came from the seat of Tom Cummings’s chair. At first I thought it was a creaky joint, but then I saw how he glanced at his neighbors to see who’d noticed. And that’s when I realized what he’d done. He’d played the trouser trumpet . . . let a toot out the shoot . . . floated an air biscuit . . . you get the idea.
Now, there are two situations when I laugh, each caused by a different side of my nature. The hyena side giggles when I’m nervous or frustrated, but the human side cracks up when something’s funny. And Tom’s butt burp was definitely the second kind.
I tried to keep from laughing out loud—I really did— but after a few seconds, I felt like I was going to burst. Tears streamed from my eyes, right before that pent-up energy blew out in an ear-blowing cackle.
“AAAAA HA HA HA HA!”
Everyone in the classroom turned toward me. Everyone except Tom Cummings, who stared rigidly at his desk. The back of his neck flushed bright red, and when I thought about why he was so embarrassed, it made me laugh even harder.
“Samuel Budovich!” Mrs. Petticone shouted. “What’s gotten into you?”
Every last bit of air had escaped my lungs, so I sucked in a new breath, snorting while I did so. That made other kids laugh. Not Tom Cummings, though. He looked like he wanted to bolt from the room.
Mrs. Petticone’s anger focused on me like a spotlight. “That’s enough out of you, young man! Go to the office right now!” Her finger stabbed straight at the classroom door.
Now, I’d been sent to the office too many times to count, so I knew it wasn’t anything to fuss over. Mrs. Hazel, our principal, was probably the nicest person on earth. She’d talk about my feelings and what I could do to help Mrs. Petticone feel better, and then I’d read a book until the end of the class period.
If only everything in my life could be so easy.
Guest Post: Mark Eastburn, EARNING MY SPOTS
“The first flicker of an idea for Earning My Spots came while I was walking my dog (a giant Newfoundland), watching how he moved, and I wondered what it might feel like to have that sort of body. The thought sparked interest in a possible shape shifter story, but I didn’t want to go the old werewolf route. I’ve always been fascinated with the cultures and history of sub-Saharan Africa, especially the Jewish people of Ethiopia, who have been called the bouda, or “hyena people,” and so I decided to do more research. It turns out that “werehyenas,” or hyena shape shifters, appear in several different mythologies, and that hyena society is completely different from most other hunting species, especially in contrast to the lion–their main competitor on the African plains. Among hyenas, females are dominant. They are larger and stronger than males, and even the lowest-ranking female has more power than the highest-ranking male. The first line of my book, about Sam’s relationship with his hometown’s werewolves, popped into my head shortly thereafter, and I knew he’d start as a misfit who never quite fit in. Over the course of the story, he’d learn about his African roots, and take pride in his true nature. Spotted hyenas are actually accomplished hunters; they aren’t the cowardly scavengers that one might commonly think. In some parts of Africa, hyenas do most of the hunting, and lions chase them off of their kills. That was going to be the main theme of my story, but for reasons I still can’t explain, the story needed to start in Vermont. And so it did. I also wanted to have two characters who’d represent the time I spent living and studying in Mexico, and that’s how Manny (the jaguar) and Rosa (the macaw) were born.
Once I had the basic framework of a story, a lot of scenes quickly popped into place. The main characters would need to travel in order to save Sam’s family, and South America has a lot of fascinating mythology–especially surrounding birds like the condor and an underwater world called El Encante, where pink river dolphins are said to dwell. There’s even a magical creature who walks around the rainforest with backwards feet, and that’s where I knew my characters would have to end up. After those parts came together for Sam’s journey, I decided to include a message about preserving and protecting the environment–a theme close to my heart–and my editor encouraged me to build it throughout the book. In the end, I was very happy with how it all tied together, and I’d definitely like to write a sequel, since Sam, Manny, and Rosa still have plenty of adventure left in them!”
I teach science, study spiders, turtles, and carnivorous plants, and love to write and spend time out in nature. I also have a strong interest in world cultures and speak Spanish. From 1999 to 2001, I served in the United States Peace Corps as an Agroforestry Volunteer, where I showed rural farmers in Panama how to ranch iguanas, garden vegetables, and conserve soil on hillside plots. My agent is the amazing Lisa Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency, and Earning my Spots is my first published novel. Several others are in the works!