Shiver, page 15part #1 of The Wolves of Mercy Falls Series
Carefully I pushed them open, then inhaled sharply.
The massive foyer in front of me was filled with animals. Stuffed ones. And not the cuddly kind. The dim, high-ceilinged room had the feel of a museum exhibit: Animals of North America, or some sort of shrine to death. My mind snatched for song lyrics, but could only settle on a single line: We bear the grins of the smiling dead.
In the half-light that filtered through the round windows high above my head, it seemed as though there were enough animals to populate Noah’s ark. Here was a fox, stiffly holding a stuffed quail in its mouth. There, a black bear, rising above me with claws outstretched. A lynx, creeping eternally along a log. And a polar bear, complete with stuffed fish in his paws. Could you stuff a fish? I hadn’t ever considered it.
And then, amidst a herd of deer of all sizes and shapes, I saw the source of the smell I had detected earlier: A wolf stared over its shoulder at me, teeth bared, glass eyes menacing. I walked toward it, reaching out to touch its brittle fur. Under my fingers, the stale smell blossomed, releasing secrets in my nostrils, and I recognized the unique scent of my woods. I curled my fingers into a fist, stepping back from the wolf with crawling skin. One of us. Maybe not. Maybe just a wolf. Except I’d never met a normal wolf in our woods before.
“Who were you?” I whispered. But the only common feature between a werewolf’s two forms—the eyes—had long since been gouged out in favor of a pair of glass ones. I wondered whether Derek, riddled with bullets the night I was shot, would join this wolf in this macabre menagerie. The thought twisted my stomach.
I glanced around the hall once more and retreated toward the front door. Every bit of animal still left in me was screaming to get away from the dull odor of death that filled the hall. Jack wasn’t here. I didn’t have any reason to stay.
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE • GRACE
“Good morning. ” Dad glanced at me as he poured coffee into a travel mug. He was very sharply dressed for a Saturday; he must be trying to sell a resort to some rich investor. “I have to meet Ralph at the office at eight-thirty. About the Wyndhaven resort. ”
I blinked a few times, eyes bleary. My whole body felt sticky and slow from sleep. “Don’t talk to me yet. I’m not awake. ” Through my fog, I felt a twinge of guilt for not being more friendly; I hadn’t really seen him for days, much less properly spoken with him. Sam and I had spent last night talking about the strange room of stuffed animals at the Culpepers’ and wondering, with the constant irritation of a scratchy sweater, where Jack was going to make his next appearance. This ordinary morning with Dad felt like an abrupt return to my pre-Sam life.
Dad gestured at me with the coffeepot. “Want some of this?”
I cupped my hands and held them toward him. “Just pour it in there. I’ll splash some on my face. Where’s Mom?” I didn’t hear her crashing around upstairs. Mom’s getting ready to leave the house normally required a lot of indiscriminate banging and shoe-scraping noises from the bedroom.
“Some gallery down in Minneapolis. ”
“Why’d she leave so early? It’s practically yesterday. ” Dad didn’t answer; he was looking over the top of my head at the TV, which was blaring some morning talk show. The show’s guest, dressed in khaki, was surrounded by all sorts of baby animals in boxes and cages. It reminded me vividly of the room of animals that Sam had described. Dad frowned as one of the two hosts gingerly petted a baby possum, who hissed. I cleared my throat. “Dad. Focus. Get me a coffee mug and fill it or I’ll die. And I’m not cleaning up my body if I do. ”
Dad, still watching the TV, felt around in the cabinet for a mug. His fingers found my favorite—a robin egg’s blue mug that one of Mom’s friends had made—and pushed it and the coffeepot across the counter to me. The steam rushed into my face as I poured.
“So, Grace, how’s school?” I asked myself.
Dad nodded, eyes on the baby koala now struggling in the guest’s arms.
“Oh, it’s fine,” I continued, and Dad made a mumbling noise of agreement. I added, “Nothing special, aside from the load of pandas they brought in, and the teachers abandoning us to cannibalistic savages—” I paused to see if I’d caught his attention yet, then pressed on. “The whole building caught fire, then I failed drama, and then sex sex sex sex. ”
Dad’s eyes abruptly focused, and he turned to me and frowned. “What did you say they were teaching you in school?”
Well, at least he’d caught more of the beginning than I’d given him credit for. “Nothing interesting. We’re writing short stories for English. They’re hateful. I have absolutely no talent for writing fiction. ”
“Fiction about sex?” he asked doubtfully.
I shook my head. “Go to work, Dad. You’re going to be late. ”
Dad scratched his chin; he’d missed a hair shaving. “That reminds me. I need to take that cleaner back to Tom. Have you seen it?”
“You need to take cleaner back to who?”
“The gun cleaner. I think I put it on the counter. Or maybe under it—” He crouched and began to rummage in the cabinet under the sink.
I frowned at him. “Why did you have gun cleaner?”
He gestured toward his study. “For the gun. ”
Little warning bells were going off in my head. I knew my dad had a rifle; it hung on the wall in his study. But I couldn’t remember him ever cleaning it before. You cleaned guns after you’d used them, right? “Why were you borrowing cleaner?”
“Tom loaned it to me to clean my rifle after we were out. I know I should clean it more, but I just don’t think about it when I’m not using it. ”
“Tom Culpeper?” I said.
He withdrew his head from the cabinet, bottle in hand. “Yes. ”
“You went shooting with Tom Culpeper? That was you the other day?” My cheeks were beginning to feel hot. I prayed for him to say no.
Dad gave me a look. The sort that was usually followed by him saying something like Grace, you’re usually so reasonable. “Something had to be done, Grace. ”
“You were part of that hunting party? The one that went after the wolves?” I demanded. “I can’t believe that you—” The image of Dad creeping through the trees, rifle in hand, the wolves fleeing before him, was suddenly too strong, and I had to stop.
“Grace, I did it for you, too,” he said.
My voice came out very low. “Did you shoot any of them?”
Dad seemed to realize that the question was important. “Warning shots,” he said.
I didn’t know if it was true or not, but I didn’t want to talk to him anymore. I shook my head and turned away.
“Don’t sulk,” Dad said. He kissed my cheek—I remained motionless as he did—and gathered up his coffee and briefcase. “Be good. See you later. ”
Standing in the kitchen, hands cupped around the blue mug, I listened as Dad’s Taurus rumbled to life in the driveway and then faded slowly away. After he’d gone, the house settled into its familiar silence, both comforting and depressing. It could’ve been any other morning, just the quiet and the coffee in my hands—but it wasn’t. Dad’s voice—warning shots—still hung in the air.
He knew how I felt about the wolves, and he’d gone behind my back and made plans with Tom Culpeper, anyway.
The betrayal stung.
A soft noise from the doorway caught my attention. Sam stood in the hallway, his hair wet and spiky from a shower, his eyes on me. There was a question written on his face, but I didn’t say anything. I was wondering what Dad would do if he knew about Sam.
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR • GRACE
I spent the better part of the morning and afternoon slogging through my English homework while Sam stretched on the couch, a novel in hand. It was a vague sort of torture to be in the same room with him but separated quite effectively by an English textbook. After several hours only punctu
“I feel like I’m wasting our time together,” I confessed.
Sam didn’t answer, and I realized he hadn’t heard me. I repeated my statement, and he blinked, eyes slowly focusing on me as he returned from whatever world he’d been in. He said, “I’m happy just to be here with you. That’s enough. ”
I studied his face for a long moment, trying to decide if he really meant it.
Noting his page number, Sam folded the novel shut with careful fingers and said, “Do you want to go somewhere? If you’ve gotten enough done, we can go poke around Beck’s house, to see if Jack’s made his way back over there. ”
I liked the idea. Ever since Jack’s appearance at school, I’d felt uneasy about where and how he might turn up next. “Do you think he’ll be there?”
“I don’t know. The new wolves always seemed to find their way there, and that’s where the pack tends to live, in that stretch of Boundary Wood behind the house,” Sam said. “It’d be nice to think he’d finally found his way to the pack. ” His face looked worried then, but he stopped short of saying why. I knew why I wanted Jack to fit in with the pack—I didn’t want anyone exposing the wolves for what they were. But Sam seemed to be concerned about something more, something bigger and more nameless.
In the golden afternoon light, I drove the Bronco to Beck’s house while Sam navigated. We had to follow the winding road around Boundary Wood for a good thirty-five minutes to get to the house. I hadn’t realized how far the wood stretched until we drove all the way around it. I guess it made sense; how could you hide an entire pack of wolves without hundreds of unpopulated acres to help? I pulled the Bronco into the driveway, squinting up at the brick facade. The dark windows looked like closed eyes; the house was overwhelmingly empty. When Sam cracked his door open, the sweet smell of the pines that stood guard around the yard filled my nostrils.
“Nice house. ” I stared at the tall windows glinting in the afternoon sun. A brick house of this size could easily look imposing, but there was an atmosphere about the property that seemed disarming—maybe the sprawling, unevenly cut hedges out front or the weathered bird feeder that looked as if it had grown out of the lawn. It was a comfortable sort of place. It looked like the sort of place that would create a boy like Sam. I asked, “How did Beck get it?”
He frowned. “The house? He used to be a lawyer for rich old guys, so he’s got money. He bought it for the pack. ”
“That’s awfully generous of him,” I said. I shut the car door. “Crap. ”
Sam leaned over the hood of the Bronco toward me. “What?”
“I just locked the keys in the car. My brain was on autopilot. ”
Sam shrugged dismissively. “Beck’s got a slim-jim in the house. We can get it when we get back from the woods. ”
“A slim-jim? How intriguing,” I said, grinning at him. “I like a man with hidden depths. ”