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Under my skin, p.6

Under My Skin, page 6

 

Under My Skin
 


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  I leaned back from the rage she spitballed across the table. Anger seeped from her pores and darkened her scent from its normal citrusy glow to a dank odor.

  “Guess who else is in that hockey team picture I showed you? Blake, my brother. Every werewolf we take down, I think it’s going to be him.”

  I sucked in a startled breath. So that’s why she’d been so devastated when Ethan turned back into his human form last night. She’d thought the beast might be her brother. I couldn’t imagine hunting under that kind of emotional turmoil.

  “Brit, I’m sorry about your brother. I really am. But I don’t think my help is the kind you need right now.

  “Well, I do,” Brit said simply. “And so does Alec.”

  I sighed. Then snorted. “What about your boyfriend, Matt? He doesn’t want me around.”

  Brit waved her hand. “You leave Matt to me. Next period, biology,” she said with false cheerfulness as if we’d been discussing the weather. “We get Mr. Riggs again—imagine a gym teacher and a bio teacher all rolled into one. Aren’t we lucky?” She picked up her tray. “He’s a real stickler about being on time. Every minute you’re late is worth ten push-ups. And the only push-ups I like are the leather corset kind you get online.” Her laughter bordered on hysteria.

  Oh, this was so getting personal. Brit was in the exact same situation as I was. Both searching for the truth, both afraid of what we’d find. I knew how much she hurt. How confused and sad she felt. Wasn’t I grasping at Sebastian’s offer of help the same way Brit was grasping at me?

  How could I possibly tell her I couldn’t help now?

  Chapter 4: I Was Born This Way. What’s Your Excuse?

  Brit’s revelation about her brother haunted me the rest of the day. We spoke no more about it, but she expected me to join Alec’s crew. She didn’t get why I hadn’t immediately announced I was in like sin.

  She didn’t know how much I had to hide.

  I stewed over my current predicament on the walk home.

  Sebastian had warned me to stay out of trouble and avoid paranorms. But he hadn’t said anything about paranorms finding me. I had no rules of engagement to follow. I wasn’t officially under the Council’s control, because I wasn’t officially a hunter. Could I put my parents at risk by helping Alec’s crew with Redgrave’s werewolf infestation?

  Would the crew welcome me into their inner circle if they knew I was half wolven? It would be hard enough for a group of hunters to accept a full-blooded wolven in their midst, someone who could turn into a wolf at will, someone who retained certain wolfie abilities in human form—speed, agility, heightened senses, strength.

  I hadn’t shifted yet. No one knew if I had it in me, or if I’d be able to shift back.

  I was only half wolven, but I’d been taking my father’s drugs for years. And then I’d stopped taking them—ripped the bandage off so to speak. Now I was jumping off buildings, sniffing out werewolves, experiencing pangs of bloodlust.

  Ugh. High school wasn’t supposed to be this complicated. I should be worried about who to ask to the Harvest Moon Dance at the end of the month—not concerned for the souls of every person in Redgrave. But I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t at least try. For now, I’d stay on the sidelines and observe, keeping my wolven eyes open to help Brit and the crew. But I had to keep my nose clean, keep Alec at a distance, and avoid Wade...easy enough, right?

  I could do it all. I didn’t have much of a choice. Now if only I were ready for that stupid physics exam next week.

  The neighbor’s yellow Lab heralded my arrival with a few extra-shrill barks. I plodded up my uncle’s porch stairs and shouldered my way through the front door, marveling that I didn’t need a key. No one in Redgrave locked their doors. Given the werewolf activity, people in this town were overly optimistic. If they only knew. By the time the werewolves were done with this town, people would be installing deadbolts and security systems, maybe having priests bless their homes.

  Aunt Sammi cornered me in the hall as I tiptoed past the kitchen. I’d hoped to sneak up to my room and hide, but I couldn’t very well knock her over to get there, even if she was a foot shorter. In her cotton-candy-pink sweater set and black dress pants, with her sleek, auburn chin-length hair, she looked fresh and perky. Very kindergarten teacherish.

  “Eryn. There’s the girl we’ve been waiting for.” She smiled at me as if I were a six-year-old on the first day of school, rather than the niece who’d been living with her for a week. “Marcus and I were deciding what to make for dinner. Since Paige is at a friend’s, you can be the swing vote.” She opened her arms wide for a hug.

  She was the huggy type.

  Normally I wasn’t, but this once I wanted to fall into Sammi’s arms and cry. Instead, I leaned back on my heels, feeling mean as Sammi flushed. Her arms dropped to her sides, her welcoming, big-toothed smile collapsed.

  So I had some tough decisions to make. That wasn’t an excuse for letting my guard down in front of my human relatives. What choice did I have but to act normal, even if it felt like playing dead?

  Brit was right. Hunters lied. We lied to the people around us, and we lied to ourselves. Every time a norm tried to make an honest connection with us, we could only return their kindness with a con, an angle that would protect them from the paranorm world. The REAL world. I was my hunter father’s half-wolven daughter. I had even more to lie about. I had to hide my wolven nature—my very self—by building a lopsided wall of untruths between me and everyone else.

  “Is that Eryn?” Uncle Marcus’ hulking form filled the kitchen doorway, as well as the silence that had settled between us. Sammi and Marcus stood together, presenting a united front, even though Sammi only came up to his shoulder. Marcus was tall like my dad, but spongy through the middle. He had none of my father’s commanding presence. He did, however, look every bit the successful real estate lawyer. Well-fed and indulged. I studied their identical, innocent expressions. Had they been talking about me, their problem child?

  “Hey kiddo, how was school?” Marcus asked, loosening his tie, his rounded face carefully casual.

  I shrugged. What else could I do? Get into the nitty-gritty details? Tell him, I’m flunking physics and I found out werewolves are terrorizing the town and my only friend is trying to exterminate them? Not unless I wanted a tête-à-tête with every psychologist from here to Toronto.

  “That good, eh?” Marcus and Sammi exchanged a look.

  Sammi rolled her finger in the air like a movie director as if prompting Marcus to keep up the conversation.

  “About dinner. What do you feel like tonight?” Marcus asked, sniffling a bit. “Italian?” He held up a box of pasta, rattling the contents. Then he heaved in a breath and let out an enormous sneeze.

  “Goodness.” Sammi patted him on the arm.

  “There I go again,” Marcus said with a laugh, swiping at his puffy eyes. “I swear it’s as if I’m allergic to you, Eryn. Same thing when I met your mother.”

  I grimaced. Unfortunately, that was true. Marcus was allergic to dogs. Poor guy, I’d been setting him off ever since I moved in, even though I tried to keep my distance.

  I gave a weak laugh. “Probably our shampoo. Dad hootched up a special formula for Mom and me.”

  “Whatever formula it is”—Sammi reached up to pat my thick, dark locks, but dropped her hand abruptly as if remembering my anti-hug reaction—“it’s fantastic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such beautiful, healthy hair. Have you, honey?”

  When Marcus didn’t say anything, Sammi elbowed him. Hard.

  “No, I have not.” Marcus glared at her and rubbed his ribs. He looked at me. “Your hair is very pretty, so don’t mind me. I know beauty comes at a price.” He held a finger under his nose to hold off another sneeze.

  I mentally sighed. They were always like this. Trying too hard. They meant well, but I wasn’t sure I could keep up happy family pretences tonight. My talk with Brit had left me raw.

&
nbsp; “If Italian doesn’t appeal, how about we check out that new Chinese place downtown?” Sammi said, the wide smile pasted on her face again. The restaurant was right beside Polly’s Pet Emporium. I couldn’t eat there without gagging over the memory of last night and Ethan’s all-you-can-eat bunny buffet.

  I put a hand to my stomach. “I don’t feel very good.” Not a complete lie. My stomach had been in knots since my doomsday chat with Brit. “You guys do whatever and if I feel up to it, I’ll fend for myself later.”

  Didn’t I always?

  I took a step forward, forcing Sammi to lean back into Marcus. That gap in the hall was all I needed to escape up the stairs.

  “Your luggage finally arrived from the airport,” Marcus called after me. “It went all the way to Montana before they tracked it and shipped it here. I picked it up at the bus depot this morning. One bag, right? It’s on your bed.”

  “Thanks.” Halfway up the stairs I turned and looked down at them.

  Marcus had his arm around Sammi’s shoulders. They presented a united front of concern, and confusion about how to handle this strange girl they’d been asked to care for. I almost went back downstairs.

  Then Marcus released another deafening sneeze.

  So I kept climbing…one stair at a time.

  In my room, lime green walls closed in on me like a fly slowly being digested alive by one of those creepy Venus Flytrap plants. If that wasn’t scary enough, my bed, complete with heart-shaped pillows and eye-popping, daisy print comforter, looked more conducive to an epileptic fit than an invitation to snooze. No wonder I hadn’t been sleeping.

  Then I saw it. There in the middle of the bed. A little bit of home.

  I hopped onto the springy mattress and hugged my suitcase. The suitcase I thought I’d lost forever, shipped off to Tunisia or some other exotic destination. I’d have felt really dumb if Paige had walked into my room at that moment, but in my world, luggage was okay to hug. It didn’t have any expectations.

  I’d wrapped a green headband around its handle so I would recognize it on the airport’s baggage-conveyor-belt thingy with so many similar black cases. The cotton material was almost completely ripped off. The hard plastic case had a new dent in the side and grease stains on it. The thing had been on an adventure, that was clear.

  But it was mine.

  I snapped the latches and flipped back the lid.

  My own stuff. I ran a hand over my favorite I was born this way. What’s your excuse? T-shirt. No more borrowing from Paige and being subjected to public humiliation when she told everyone I was wearing her castoffs. No more suffering through Sammi’s impromptu visits to the mall. Shopping always made me cranky. Especially clothes shopping, a time honored mother-daughter thing. With Sammi and Paige, I turned into the orphaned third wheel.

  I dug through the bag looking for the good stuff—my treasures—the few books and photos I had brought from home that I couldn’t live without. Eager to imprint myself on Sammi’s lime-green guest room, I propped a picture of my parents on the nightstand. I’d taken the photo of them after we’d made the long hike up Rundle Mountain.

  Dad, impressive despite a layer of grime from the hike, looked too brawny to be the owner of a major pharmaceutical company—kind of a giveaway, really. Mom stood with an arm around his waist, and they faced the camera with adrenaline-charged grins.

  In wolven form, Mom was strong and graceful, but in human guise, she was achingly beautiful. At least I had some of her looks: the dark hair and the hazel eyes accented with flecks of gold. I was thin and more than passably pretty, a watered-down version of Mom. Her tanned skin, dark hair, and delicate build gave her a timeless beauty. The dust-jacket photos her fellow treehugging readers fawned over, moody black and whites, couldn’t quite capture it—although they sold a ton of her save-the-animal-world-it’s-not-too-late books.

  I gripped the glass frame and stared down at my parents’ faces, glowing with joy, exuding life. A part of me, the raw, gaping, hole-in-my-heart part, refused to believe they were dead. They were alive here in my hands. Jubilant, with no idea what the future had in store. No clue it would all go so wrong.

  Mom had always hated having her picture taken. Believed bits of your soul would be captured on film, lost forever to those brief flashes of light and shadow. Now plastic-framed pieces of my parents’ souls were all that kept me sane.

  They’d wanted what they thought would be the best life for me. I understood their motives, but I questioned their methods. I shouldn’t have been a lab rat. I should have only been Eryn. Their child. No matter how noble their intentions, my parents had made a huge mistake in messing around with my wolven abilities, denying me my birthright.

  But I still loved them.

  They were my parents.

  I blinked back tears and placed the photo on the bedside table. Better to unpack than unravel. Since nothing I owned needed a hanger, I loaded up the dresser. I shoved my disemboweled suitcase under the bed and sat cross-legged in the middle of the spongy mattress.

  The pungent smell of frying onions drifted up the stairs to my room.

  Onions always made me cry.

  I lay down and buried my face in a pillow.

  My tears drowned the daisies.

  *****

  I stood alone in a mountain clearing, dressed for a hike in my boots, cargo pants, and long-sleeved shirt, a backpack heavy on my shoulders. I walked through long-stemmed wild flowers in brilliant shades—fuchsia, purplish blue, and mustard yellow, their sweet scents blending—nature’s perfume. The drone of honeybees and other insects harmonized with the gentle swoosh of the breeze bending the tall grass.

  I was safe.

  And then I wasn’t.

  Clouds, brooding and dark, gathered over the mountains. Thunder rumbled in the distance. A fat drop of rain struck my face and ran down my cheek like a single, devastated tear. I ducked into the dense shrubs edging the clearing, scanning the grass.

  They would come.

  They always did.

  They were here.

  Charging from the shrubs across the field, a large gray wolf bolted through the grass. He howled out to his mate. A jet-black wolf, her coat in stark relief against the fading sun, stepped gracefully into the clearing, howled in answer, and rushed to him. When she was midway through the clearing, the first shot rang out.

  I cupped my mouth, screaming into my shaking hands, terrified to leave the safety of the shrubs. I should help them. Why did I never try to help them? Why was I frozen here, unable to move?

  The female wolf advanced, her wound forcing her into an awkward lope. She fell. Heedless of the danger, the male raced to her side. He stood above her, keening low in his throat. The second round took him down. He staggered and fell to the earth—nose to nose with his lifeless mate. A gentle mist descended from the heavens.

  God…no…they were my parents. And they were dead.

  I dropped to the earth, sobbing.

  Violent tremors of grief rocked my body.

  Long moments passed.

  I stilled. I waited to wake, for this was where the dream always ended—where I woke to fear and guilt.

  But this time, something was different. I held my breath and listened. Only the whistle of the wind broke the silence.

  I gasped when a hand rested on my shoulder.

  “We have to hurry, child,” a woman’s voice said. “They’re coming.”

  The hair on my neck quivered. I was kneeling on the dust-covered plank floor of a rustic cabin. I peered through murky lighting filtered through a smoky haze. No, not a cabin—a house. A historic home, filled with antiques still in their prime, except for the heavy film of dust coating each surface. A vacuum-tube radio of solid cherry wood shaped like a church window, a cast iron stove in the corner, colored-glass jars and bottles in a curio cabinet.

  I stood and brushed the dust from my pants, coughing as I inhaled some of the fine grit.

  She thrust a wet rag into my hand. “Breathe
through this. It will keep the sand out.”

  I pressed the rag to cover my mouth and nose. She was right. It was easier to breathe now.

  “Where am I?” I asked through the cloth.

  “Ah, child, the question is: when are you?” The woman’s sad smile lightened grey eyes that shone above hollowed cheeks. Her gaze mesmerized despite her fine features smudged with dust, the collarbone that jutted through the lace at her neck.

  She glanced from my cargo pants, my T-shirt, and backpack to her own muslin dress. Ankle length, pleated. Her dark hair wrapped around her head in an intricate braid. The weight of all that hair too much for that slim neck. Forget the mint-condition antiques in the house, our clothes alone screamed that we were from different times, different worlds.

  The woman circled her hands in the air, drawing ancient symbols with smooth movements. Gesture magic. A witch, working a spell.

  Odd how I didn’t feel panicked. My pulse beat steady. Her magic settled over me like a shroud. My body, light. There…but not really.

  “You are cloaked. They cannot see or hear you,” the woman said. “Nor will they catch your scent.” Her eyes darkened. “What happens here is in the past. No deed can stop it. What you see has already come to pass.” She gripped my arms, her fingers strong. “You are my witness. The only hope for my boy. I risked more than I should have to bring you here. Don’t fail me.”

  With that the witch spun to face the door at the end of the parlor. The pine slab splintered, the wood was sucked out and up into the air. Outside, thick red sand swirled the entire height of the gaping entrance. The world had submerged into a sandy sea.

  A tall, dark form filled the doorway. The wind carried the smell of decay and rotting flesh. Slow-cooked death with all the trimmings.

 
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