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Under my skin, p.2

Under My Skin, page 2

 

Under My Skin
 


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  Swearing, I straightened and managed a burst of speed. I decided to worry about the German shepherd on ’roids after I ran his buff master into the ground. The trail widened as the poplar trees thinned near the edge of the woods. In the urgency of the moment, chasing after the shadowy forms darting through the trees, my mind was blank. For a split second I ran without thought or piercing memory. I ran for the thrill.

  By the time I reached the tree line, I couldn’t see the guy or his dog anywhere. I must have overtaken them when they were hidden by the trees. Adrenaline rushing through me, I bolted into the clearing, tore through the school field, and ate up the last few feet. I leapt into the air and hurtled the finish line of faded orange pylons in the ultimate victory-is-mine gesture.

  I swung back to gloat, but my rival was gone. The empty field of yellowing grass and ankle-busting gopher holes seemed to laugh at me. I spun in a slow circle, scanning the edge of the woods, but saw no one.

  That odd, empty feeling I got when I couldn’t remember the exact sound of my mother’s laughter or the precise shade of blue in my father’s eyes was back. I released my breath slowly. Only now I was missing someone I didn’t even know.

  “All right, Eryn!” Brit, possibly Redgrave High’s only goth chick and, therefore, total social leper, bolted from the crowd of gym-challenged kids and other spectators waiting at the finish line. Over the last few days we had latched on to each other out of self-preservation. There was geek safety in geek numbers. “The new girl kicks butt. You’re way ahead of everyone.” She seemed to get a vicarious thrill at the thought.

  “Not everyone,” I said, scanning the tree line over her head. “This guy came out of nowhere. He was all over me.”

  I wish.

  “Who?” Brit stretched to her full five-foot height and peered across the field. “There’s only you. You’re the first one back.”

  “A huge, rather yummy-looking guy was right behind me. He rushed me from way off the trail, totally cheated.” I didn’t tell her about my run in with the werewolf or my chat with the crows. High school was bad enough without everyone thinking I was Looney Tunes. I might know about the paranormal world, and hunters certainly did, but 99.9 percent of the human population had no freaking clue what monsters lurked in the shadows. “Are you blind? He was pretty hard to miss. Way taller than me, probably six four, and he was with a wolf, a huge grayish-silver wolf.”

  Brit blinked at me from behind a dark veil of overgrown bangs. “All I saw was you gunning for the finish line.” Her black-rimmed eyes glittered with interest. A few of her lashes, heavy with mascara, clung together at the corners of her eyes, but she didn’t seem to notice. Brit, in all her wannabe-shocking glory, must have been used to whatever inconveniences her goth uniform caused. I would have given up at the thought of lacing those knee-high Doc Martens.

  “Rewind a sec.” Brit spun her finger in the air counter-clockwise. “Did you say wolf? There’s only one guy in town who thinks wolves are Littlest-Pet-Shop material. Alec Delacroix. He’s hot all right, but all that heat’s fried his brain. You don’t want to go there.”

  “I don’t?” But the image of long dark hair, broad shoulders, and powerful thighs had already registered on my but-I-really-think-I-do-want-to-go-there interest meter.

  Alec Delacroix.

  Now there was a nice romantic name for a potential boyfriend—one who certainly didn’t seem to fit the average psycho profile. And I’d seen a few psychos in my day. Mainly members of my mother’s extended family. They’d drop in unannounced and threaten to kill me—the usual we-want-the-half-breed-dead-because-we’re-afraid-she-might-start-a-trend type thing. Of course, after my dad revealed his latest anti-paranorm cocktail, they wanted us all dead.

  Hunters, guys like my dad, served a useful, if occasionally disturbing, purpose in their elimination of the paranorm rogues. They took care of the deranged and careless, the werewolves, wolven, vamps, or demons who had lost control, given into their baser instincts, and threatened exposure of the paranormal world. For centuries my mother’s people, the wolven, a race of humans who could turn and assume wolf form, had avoided confrontations with hunters. But after Dad agreed to help my mother in her quest to become human, the wolven took notice.

  “If you think I’m weird”—Brit waved her hand dismissively at my second-too-late protest—“and most people do, Alec is way beyond any obsessive-compulsive, medical-nightmare stuff I’ve got. His whole family is crazy.” She leaned into my shoulder. “They think the town is full of monsters, some kind of werewolves or something. That’s why they tame them, the real wolves, so they can help sniff out the bad ones.”

  She checked out my reaction. “Nice, eh?”

  I hoped I looked suitably impressed. At her words all the air had siphoned out of my lungs.

  Alec was a hunter?

  No, he couldn’t be.

  Hunters didn’t go around advertising their existence. The Hunter Council would have shut them down long ago. The truth had to be hidden. It was law. The paranormal world, circling humankind like animals with their prey, must remain secret.

  Besides, no hunter could survive that kind of exposure, no matter how well trained. There would be questions from the townspeople. The police. Maybe even a few lit torches and pitchfork-carrying mobs threatening to run them out of town. Not to mention they’d be easy pickings for any paranorms out for a little revenge.

  The practice of using wolves as trackers was archaic, way beyond old school. Mom had fought that kind of bestial slavery for years. The Hunter Council had a policy against it now—Mom’s crowning achievement. She’d had pretty extreme views on animal rights—ideas that had rubbed off on me—and I could hear the lecture she’d have given me about Alec and his wolf. His having a pet wolf might become a bone of contention between us, but I could educate Alec about the wolf’s right to run wild. If he’d felt half of the sizzle of attraction that I had during our run, he’d soon see things my way.

  I couldn’t be this interested in a guy and have him turn out to be one of those the-world-and-all-its-creatures-are-mine-to-dominate cavemen. The fates weren’t that cruel.

  Were they?

  But if Alec really was a hunter, chances were he’d despise me once he found out I was part wolven. Hunters and paranorms didn’t mix. I was a rarity. So why was I even entertaining the notion of a hunter as a boyfriend?

  No, he couldn’t be a hunter. It was a rumor. Small town gossip mill stuff.

  But what if it wasn’t?

  What if Alec had been out there in the woods because he’d been tracking the werewolf who’d wanted me for a bite-sized snack? My instinctive response was to charge back to the woods to help, but I was under strict orders by the Hunter Council to avoid all paranorm interactions.

  To lay low.

  To blend.

  So, I had two options. I could:

  *****

  A. Avoid contact with Alec and his possibly hunter family at all costs—a.k.a. bury head in sand and hope for best.

  Or…

  B. Do some sniffing around, get to the bottom of the rumors about Alec’s werewolf-nabbing hobby, and perhaps engage in a battle to the death once the Hunter Council heard I had outed myself.

  *****

  Yup. Plan A it was. Boring and safe and totally against my instincts, so it must be what the Hunter Council would want me to do. Staying-out-of-it-girl I would be. For now.

  Groans rang out across the field as Mr. Riggs lead the rest of our class to the finish line of pylons. Then he jogged over to where Brit and I awaited the okay to go back into the school and change.

  “Nice work, McCain,” he said, using my last name in the usual manner of gym teachers and drill sergeants from every war film I’d ever seen. “You play basketball? Got the height.”

  “Ah, no.”

  “Volleyball?”

  “No-o-o.” I wrinkled my nose. “I don’t do team sports.” I didn’t like any sport. Period. End of discussion. The running thing
was a fluke.

  Guys, still panting from the run, gave me The Look, checking out my long go-go-gadget legs. Like I cared. They were midgets-in-training anyway. I straightened from the slight stoop I usually adopted to mask an inch or two and stood proud of my five-feet-eleven inches. In this case, it served as an unspoken shutdown.

  Defeated, they regrouped and sauntered over to a cluster of simpering girls to pursue more approachable fare. Their collective testosterone level proved overwhelming, and a girl squealed as a fight broke out between the beefier guys.

  A smile tugged at my lips. My pulse raced, and I debated joining the scuffle. Or at least grabbing the guys and knocking their heads together. Wouldn’t that scare the crap out of everyone? I struggled to keep from laughing.

  The smile slipped from my mouth. I was enjoying the fight a bit too much. Like a wolven would. I deliberately slowed my heart rate and distanced myself. Sometimes all the changes happening to me physically and to my soul were just plain scary.

  “Thompson! Povich!” Mr. Riggs bellowed, charging at the brawling mass of elbows and fists. “Drop and give me twenty.”

  With loud groans, the guys fell to the ground and assumed the position, but their arms shook by the tenth push-up. Ick, how painful and embarrassing.

  I bet Alec wouldn’t have any trouble.

  Must. Stop. Thinking. About. Hot. Hunter.

  The rest of the class ambled to the gym entrance, but I hung back. Over the field, the sun hung afternoon-low while the pale outline of the full moon crept higher in the sky. Whether in full daylight or in the dead of night, the full moon fascinated me. I could stare, fixated, at that glowing orb and lose all track of time. Though she called to me, the moon didn’t command me in any way.

  Unlike werewolves, wolven—able to turn at will—weren’t ruled by lunar phases, but had an instinctive respect for the moon’s power. A crazy madness ran through all paranorms at the full moon. Even humans experienced stronger emotions during the full moon. They became quick to anger, to love, and to give into impulses—though at a much lower intensity than paranorms. Maybe that explained my connection with the guy in the forest.

  I looked back at the woods.

  I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was there.

  Watching.

  Chapter 2: Har-de-freaking har

  At the rusting metal doors, I balked. I hated locker rooms.

  Brit gave me a shove, and we plunged into the ripe-smelling buffet of all things laid bare. I wove through girls in various stages of dress, opened my locker, and grabbed my backpack. A gossip session started in the far corner. Dark looks, sent my way, made the topic of conversation pretty obvious.

  I ignored the muffled giggles and rifled through my stuff for my black socks. No way was I wearing glowing white anklets for the rest of the day—not with jeans I’d outgrown by half an inch.

  Brit claimed a spot on the glossy wooden bench. Close, but not overstepping our tentative friendship boundaries.

  I wondered if she was hanging around to see what I’d do next. New to town. Rambling about racing a guy with a pet wolf. Freakishly tall—a nice foil for her pocket Venus self. Yup, my entertainment value must be pretty high, although I could have saved her the trouble—I was nothing special. Not much, anyway.

  So far, I’d exhibited few of my mother’s wolven traits except for being a bit stronger and faster than the average kid. I wasn’t sure how much Sebastian, my father’s ex-Hunter-Council boss, knew about my wolven side or that my father had been controlling it with drugs. But he must not have thought I was a threat to the general public, or he never would have sent me to Redgrave to live with my uncle after the funeral.

  The funeral where we’d buried… No. My parents were dead. At least, that’s what I was supposed to tell everyone. Even my father’s brother who had taken me into his home and who had looked so lost when we lowered the coffins into the ground.

  Not that I wasn’t lost too.

  But Uncle Marcus wasn’t as good at hiding his emotions. He hadn’t grown up the way I had. Tracking the paranormal creatures that go bump in the night, wondering when it would be my turn to cling to the shadows. To be hunted.

  I gave a disgusted snort and wiggled my feet free from my cross trainers so I could get changed. Was I the only one who thought the plan—sending me to live with my uncle in the middle of small-town northern Alberta—was stamped certifiably insane?

  Getting cast off the island-that-was-my-life wasn’t my idea. I was merely following Sebastian’s “suggestion.” If I wanted to find out the truth about what had happened to my parents, I had to lay low, stay out of trouble—my kind of trouble—and wait. Well, fine. I’d do as my father’s ex-boss wanted for now. But it might get a whole lot of innocent humans killed.

  So much for the Hunter Council’s code of conduct. Humans first. But then, I wasn’t really human, so maybe I, and the destruction I could cause, didn’t count.

  How ironic that Marcus and his family thought my dad had owned a pharmaceutical company and dabbled in chemicals all day. If they only knew what kind of chemicals he’d mucked around with. I’d been weaned on every batch of anti-paranorm juice my dad created, and one of them must have done the job. I hadn’t shown many signs of being like my mother. Thanks to good ol’ dad, I was a chemically induced anomaly, a half wolven who couldn’t turn. No one knew what would happen if my wolvenness decided to kick in despite Dad’s manipulations.

  I could be lethal. Stronger than any other of my kind. Or…I could be a drooling idiot with excessive back hair and a hankering for raw meat. Oh, the horror! But if I did start to turn, I’d be feared by hunter and wolven alike. So Sebastian decided I’d be safer living in an area with limited paranorm activity.

  Apparently he had Redgrave all wrong.

  After less than a week in town, I’d encountered a rogue werewolf/hot hunter combo. I was back among the paranorms whether he wanted it or not.

  A locker door slammed shut like a gunshot. I jumped, putting a hand to my chest, my heart pounding. I’d been so skittish lately—nightmares, lack of sleep, the moon’s pull—the fates were against me.

  Brit raised an eyebrow at my performance, so I shrugged. “Haven’t had my coffee yet today. I’m a bit jumpy.”

  “I thought having coffee was supposed to give you the jumpies,” Brit said, “not not having any.”

  I smiled weakly as I fished through my backpack. Luckily, I found my socks before the cursed extra pocket in my backpack, the one that ate every cool pair of sunglasses I owned, could suck them into oblivion. While gathering up my clothes, I spotted a girl sitting on the other side of the locker room, crying. She had bloodred hair and the saddest face I’d ever seen.

  “What’s up with her?” I asked Brit, who glanced over at the girl and grimaced.

  “Olivia used to be the most popular girl at Redgrave High. But her boyfriend split town, and she’s been a train wreck ever since. She keeps telling everyone Travis wouldn’t have left without her, but…” Brit grabbed a crayon-sized coal black eyeliner pencil out of her backpack and rimmed her eyes without a mirror. “The guy had a track record, if you know what I mean. A textbook case of relationship A.D.D. But Olivia’s in denial.”

  I avoided looking at the girl again to give her some privacy—not that she seemed to care. Everyone’s attention was divided between the pitiful spectacle she made and my shiny newness, but she seemed oblivious.

  “I guess you’re wondering why I didn’t join in the class sweatfest?” Brit said out of nowhere, although I hadn’t been wondering at all.

  I’d been obsessing over my own weirdness—skipping out of a gym class run didn’t seem so interesting in comparison to missing parents, werewolf attacks, and increasing superhuman strength.

  “It’s a medical-type deal. Want me to read you the doctor’s note?”

  I didn’t, especially if she had something contagious, but Brit was the first student to acknowledge my existence since I’d started at Redgrave High.
I owed her mild interest at least. I shrugged, which was all the invitation she needed. She launched into a complex review of her medical history, a rare condition wherein physical exhaustion caused seizures.

  I tuned out the boring bits.

  Comments from the opposite bench shifted from new-girl-mocking snorts to new-girl-and-school-hypochondriac-unite shrieks of laughter.

  Har-de-freaking har.

  Brit continued. “I have to show up for gym class to get the credits, but I don’t actually do anything. Well, sometimes Mr. Riggs has me keep score, which I like. I’m good with numbers…”

  I tried to keep up, but my attention wasn’t the greatest. I bided my time. After quick glances at the exposed few inches at the bottoms of the bathroom stalls, my heart sank. They were all taken, and the doors stayed firmly shut.

  I’d have to change in front of everyone.

  Brit rambled on, unfazed when I spun, faced the lockers, and quickly stripped off my gym clothes. I worked into my resisting jeans and slid the denim up my legs. A cross-hatching of scars, some red and swollen, others faded to fine white lines, marred the smooth skin at the tops of my thighs. I yanked the jeans over my hips before the other girls noticed.

  Self-mutilation, survivor’s guilt—whatever the shrinks labeled it—I didn’t cut myself.

  Anymore.

  I was better now.

  But my skin bore evidence that I hadn’t always been level-headed.

  “…we can go to the mall, well, it barely gets mall status, there’s like ten shops. Or we could go for coffee. I know this great coffee house,” Brit said. “Hello, Eryn? You listening?”

  “Of course, coffee, sure thing. I like coffee.” I gave an amiable nod, but all I could think about was the werewolf, the hunter Alec.

  And my voice echoing through the woods…I know you are, but what am I?

  Chapter 3: Gothic Pixie on a Mission

  What am I doing? I asked myself for the gajilianth time as I eased my bedroom window open and crept onto the second story roof at precisely one o’clock in the morning. High in the overcast night sky, the moon glowed through heavy clouds.

 
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