Shiver, page 14part #1 of The Wolves of Mercy Falls Series
“Sounds great. ”
“He’s a lot of fun. ” Actually, I should’ve said was a lot of fun. I didn’t know if this had been his last year, or if he might still have another summer in him. I remembered his laugh, like a flock of crows taking off, and the way he held on to his German accent, like he couldn’t be Ulrik without it.
“Are you okay?” Grace asked, frowning at me.
I shook my head, staring at the wolves in the photographs, so clearly animals when seen through my human eyes. My family. Me. My future. Somehow, the photographs blurred a line I wasn’t ready to cross yet.
I realized Grace had her arm around my shoulder, her cheek leaning against me, comforting me even though she couldn’t possibly understand what was bothering me.
“I wish you could’ve met them,” I said, “when everybody was human. ” I didn’t know how to explain to her what an enormous part of me they were, their voices and faces as humans, and their scents and forms as wolves. How lost I felt now, the only one wearing human skin.
“Tell me something about them,” Grace said, her voice muffled against my T-shirt.
I let my mind flit over memories. “Beck taught me how to hunt when I was eight. I hated it. ” I remembered standing in Beck’s living room, staring out at the first ice-covered tree branches of the winter, brilliant and winking in the morning sun. The backyard seemed like a dangerous and alien planet.
“Why did you hate it?” Grace asked.
“I didn’t like the sight of blood. I didn’t like hurting things. I was eight. ” In my memories, I seemed small, ribby, innocent. I had spent all of the previous summer letting myself believe that this winter, with Beck, would be different, that I wouldn’t change and that I’d go on eating the eggs Beck cooked for me forever. But as the nights grew colder and even short trips outside made my muscles shake, I knew the time was coming soon when I wouldn’t be able to avoid the change, and that Beck wouldn’t be around to cook much longer. But that didn’t mean I would go willingly.
“Why hunt, then?” Grace asked, ever logical. “Why not just leave food out for yourselves?”
“Ha. I asked Beck that same question, and Ulrik said, ‘Ja, and the raccoons and possums, too?’”
Grace laughed, unduly delighted by my lousy impression of Ulrik’s accent.
I felt a rush of warmth in my cheeks; it felt good to talk to her about the pack. I loved the glow in her eyes, the curious quirk in her mouth—she knew what I was and she wanted to know more. But that didn’t mean it was right to tell her, someone outside the pack. Beck had always said, The only people we have to protect us is us. But Beck didn’t know Grace. And Grace wasn’t only human. She may not have changed, but she had been bitten. She was wolf on the inside. She had to be.
“So what happened?” Grace asked. “What did you hunt?”
“Bunnies, of course,” I replied. “Beck took me out while Paul waited in a van to collect me afterward in case I was unstable enough to change back. ” I couldn’t forget how Beck had stopped me by the door before we went out, bending double so he could look into my face. I was motionless, trying not to think about changing bodies and snapping a rabbit’s neck between my teeth. About saying good-bye to Beck for the winter. He had taken my thin shoulder in his hand and said, “Sam, I’m sorry. Don’t be scared. ”
I hadn’t said anything, because I was thinking it was cold, and Beck wouldn’t change back after the hunt, and then I’d have no one who knew how to cook my eggs right. Beck made perfect eggs. More than that. Beck kept me Sam. Back then, with the scars on my wrists still so fresh, I’d been so dangerously close to fracturing into something that was neither human nor wolf.
“What are you thinking about?” Grace asked. “You stopped talking. ”
I looked up; I hadn’t realized I’d looked away from her. “Changing. ”
Grace’s chin pressed into my shoulder as she looked into my face; her voice was hesitant. She asked me a question she’d asked me before. “Does it hurt?”
I thought of the slow, agonizing process of the change, the bending of muscles, the bulging of skin, the grinding of bones. The adults had always tried to hide their shifts from me, wanting to protect me. But it wasn’t seeing them change that scared me—the sight only made me pity them, since even Beck groaned with the pain of it. It was changing myself that terrified me, even now. Forgetting Sam.
I was a bad liar, so I didn’t bother to try. “Yes. ”
“It kind of makes me sad to think of you having to do that as a little kid,” Grace said. She was frowning at me, blinking too-shiny eyes. “Actually, it bothers me a lot. Poor little Sam. ” She touched my chin with a finger; I leaned into her hand.
I remembered being so proud that I hadn’t cried while I changed that time, unlike when I was younger and my parents had watched me, eyes round with horror. I remembered Beck the wolf, bounding away and leading me into the woods, and I remembered the warm, bitter sensation of my first kill on my muzzle. I had changed back again after Paul, bundled up in a coat and hat, had retrieved me. It was in the van on the way home that loneliness hit me. I was alone; Beck wouldn’t be human again that year.
Now, it was like I was eight years old all over again, alone and newly scarred. My chest ached, my breath squeezed out of me.
“Show me what I look like,” I asked Grace, tilting the photos toward her. “Please. ”
I let her take the stack from my hand and watched her face light up as she flipped through the pictures, looking for one in particular. “There. That one’s my favorite of you. ”
I looked at the photo she had handed me. A wolf looked back at me, wearing my eyes, a still wolf watching from the woods, sunlight touching the edges of its fur. I looked and looked, waiting for it to mean something. Waiting for a prickling of recognition. It seemed unfair that the other wolves’ identities were so clear to me in their photographs, but that mine was hidden. What was it in this photo, in that wolf, that made Grace’s eyes light up?
What if it wasn’t me? What if she was in love with some other wolf and she only thought it was me? How would I ever know?
Grace was oblivious to my doubts and misread my silence for fascination. She unfolded her legs and stood up, facing me, then ran a hand through my hair. She lifted her palm to her nose, inhaling deeply. “You know, you still smell like you do when you’re a wolf. ”
And just like that, she’d said maybe the one thing that could’ve made me feel better. I handed her the photo on her way out.
Grace stopped in the door, dimly silhouetted by the dull gray morning light, and looked back at me, at my eyes, my mouth, my hands, in a way that made something inside me knot and unknot unbearably.
I didn’t think I belonged here in her world, a boy stuck between two lives, dragging the dangers of the wolves with me, but when she said my name, waiting for me to follow, I knew I’d do anything to stay with her.
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO • SAM
I spent too long after dropping Grace off circling the parking lot, frustrated with Jack, frustrated with the rain, frustrated with the limitations of my human body. I could smell that a wolf had been there—just a faint, musky trace of wolf odor—but I couldn’t pinpoint a direction or even say for sure that it had been Jack. It was like being blind.
I gave up finally and, after sitting in the car for several minutes, decided to give in to the pull of Beck’s house. I couldn’t think of anywhere else in particular to start a search for Jack, but the woods behind the house were a logical place to find wolves in general. So I headed back toward my old summer home.
I didn’t know if Beck had been a human at all this year; I couldn’t even clearly recall my own summer months. Memories blurred into each other until they became a composite of seasons and scents, their origins obscured.
Beck had been shifting for more years than I had, so it seemed unlikely that he’d been human this year when I hadn’t. Bu
I wanted Beck. I wanted his guidance. I wanted to know why the gunshot had made me human. I wanted to know how long I had with Grace. I wanted to know if this was the end.
“You’re the best of them,” he had told me once, and I still remembered the way his face looked when he said it. Square, trustworthy, solid. An anchor in a churning sea. I had known what he meant: the most human of the pack. That was after they’d pulled Grace from her tire swing.
But when I drove up to the house, it was still empty and dark, and my hopes dissipated. It occurred to me that all of the other wolves must’ve already shifted for the winter; there weren’t many young wolves left. Except for Jack, now. The mailbox was stuffed with envelopes and slips from the post office advising Beck to pick up more at the main office. I took all of it out and put it in Grace’s car. I had a key for his post office box, but I’d get it later.
I refused to think I wouldn’t see Beck again.
But the fact remained that if Beck wasn’t around, Jack hadn’t been shown the ropes. And someone had to get him away from the school and civilization until he stopped the unpredictable shifting that came with being a new wolf. His death had done enough damage to the pack. I wasn’t going to let him expose us, either through shifting in public or through biting someone.
Since Jack had already paid a visit to the school, I decided to operate under the assumption that he had tried going home as well, and so I headed over toward the Culpepers’ place. It wasn’t any secret where they lived; everybody in town knew the gigantic Tudor mansion that could be just glimpsed from the highway. The only mansion in MercyFalls. I didn’t think anybody would be home at this time of the day, but I parked Grace’s Bronco about a half mile away just in case and cut through the pine woods on foot.
Sure enough, the house was empty, towering over me like a massive structure out of an old folktale. A quick poking around the doors turned up the unmistakable odor of wolf.
I couldn’t tell whether he’d gotten inside already, or if, like me, he’d come while everyone was away and returned to the woods already. Remembering how vulnerable I was in my human form, I whirled around and sniffed the air, scanning the surrounding pines for signs of life. Nothing. Or at least nothing close enough that my human senses could pick it up.
In the cause of thoroughness, I broke into the house to see whether Jack was there, already sequestered in a locked room reserved for monsters. I wasn’t tidy about my breaking- and-entering job, either; I shattered a window in the back door with a brick and reached through the jagged hole to turn the knob.
Inside, I scented the air again. I thought I smelled wolf, but it was faint and somewhat stale. I wasn’t sure why Jack would smell that way, but I followed the scent through the house. My path led to a massive set of oak doors; I felt sure the trail was leading to the other side.