Shiver, page 16part #1 of The Wolves of Mercy Falls Series
“Well, you’ve got one,” Sam replied. He jerked his head toward the trees in the backyard. “Are you ready to head in?”
The idea was both compelling and terrifying. I hadn’t been in the woods since the night of the hunt, and before that, the evening I’d seen Jack pinned by the other wolves. It seemed like my only memories of these woods were of violence.
I realized Sam was holding his hand out toward me. “Are you afraid?”
I wondered if there was a way to take his hand without admitting my fear. Not fear, really. Just some emotion that crawled along my skin and lifted the hairs on my arms. It was cool weather, not the barren dead of winter. Plenty of food for the wolves without them having to attack us. Wolves are shy creatures.
Sam took my hand; his grip was firm and his skin warm against mine in the cool autumn air. His eyes studied me, large and luminescent in the afternoon glow, and for a moment I was caught in his gaze, remembering those eyes studying me from a wolf’s face. “We don’t have to look for him now,” he said.
“I want to go. ” It was true. Part of me wanted to see where Sam lived in these cold months, when he wasn’t lingering at the edge of our yard. And part of me, the part that ached with loss when the pack howled at night, was begging to follow that faint scent of the pack into the woods. All of that outweighed any bit of me that was anxious. To prove my willingness, I headed toward the backyard, nearing the edge of the woods, still holding Sam’s hand.
“They’ll stay away from us,” Sam said, as if he still had to convince me. “Jack’s the only one who would approach us. ”
I looked over to him with a crooked eyebrow. “Yeah, about that. He’s not going to come at us all slathering and horror movie, is he?”
“It doesn’t make you a monster. It just takes away your inhi- bitions,” Sam said. “Did he slather a lot when he was in school?”
Like the rest of the school, I had heard the story about how Jack had put some kid in the hospital after a party; I had dismissed it as gossip until I’d seen the guy for myself, walking the halls with half his face still swollen. Jack didn’t need a transformation to become a monster.
I made a face. “He slathered a bit, yeah. ”
“If it makes you feel any better,” Sam said, “I don’t think he’s here. But I still hope he is. ”
So we went into the woods. This was a different sort of forest from the one that bordered my parents’ yard. These trees were pressed tightly together, the underbrush crammed between the trunks as if holding them upright. Brambles caught on my jeans, and Sam kept stopping to pick burrs off our ankles. We saw no sign of Jack, or any of the wolves, during our slow progress. In truth, I didn’t think Sam was doing a very good job of scanning the woods around us. I made a big show of looking around so I could pretend I didn’t notice him glancing at me every few seconds.
It didn’t take me long to get a headful of burrs, tugging my hairs painfully as they worked their way into knots.
Sam stopped me to pick at the burrs. “It gets better,” he promised. It was sweet that he thought I would get put out enough to go back to the car. As if I had anything better to do than feel him carefully worry the barbs of the burrs out of my hair.
“I’m not worried about that,” I assured him. “I’m just thinking we’d never know if there was anyone else here. The woods go on forever. ”
Sam ran his fingers through my hair as if he were checking for more burrs, though I knew they were all gone, and he probably did, too. He paused, smiling at me, and then inhaled deeply. “Doesn’t smell like we’re alone. ”
He looked at me, and I knew he was waiting for me to verify—to admit that if I tried, I could smell the scent of the pack’s hidden life all around us. Instead, I reached for his hand again. “Lead the way, bloodhound. ”
Sam’s expression turned a bit wistful, but he led me through the underbrush, up a gradual hill. As he promised, it got better. The thorns thinned out and the trees grew taller and straighter, their branches not beginning until a few feet over our heads. The white, peeled bark of the birches looked buttery in the long, slanting afternoon light, and their leaves were a delicate gold. I turned to Sam, and his eyes reflected the same brilliant yellow back at me.
I stopped in my tracks. It was my woods. The golden woods I’d always imagined running away to. Sam, watching my face, dropped his hand out of mine and stepped back to look at me.
“Home,” he said. I think he was waiting for me to say something. Or maybe he wasn’t waiting for me to say something. Maybe he saw it on my face. I didn’t have anything to say—I just looked around at the shimmering light and the leaves hanging on the branches like feathers.
“Hey. ” Sam caught my arm, looking at my face sideways, as if searching for tears. “You look sad. ”
I turned in a slow circle; the air seemed dappled and vibrant around me. I said, “I used to always imagine coming here, when I was younger. I just can’t figure out how I would’ve seen it. ” I probably wasn’t making any sense, but I kept talking, trying to reason it out. “The woods behind my house don’t look like this. No birches. No yellow leaves. I don’t know how I would recognize it. ”
“Maybe someone told you about it. ”
“I think I would remember someone telling me every little detail about this part of the woods, down to the color of the glittering air. I don’t even know how someone could’ve told me all that. ”
Sam said, “I told you. Wolves have funny ways of communicating. Showing each other pictures when they’re close to one another. ”
I turned back to where he was standing, a dark blot against the light, and gave him a look. “You aren’t going to stop, are you?”
Sam just gazed at me steadily, the silent lupine stare that I knew so well, sad and intent.
“Why do you keep bringing it back up?”
“You were bitten. ” He walked in a slow circle around me, scuffing up leaves with his foot, glancing at me underneath his dark eyebrows.
“So it’s about who you are. It’s about you being one of us. You couldn’t have recognized this place if you weren’t a wolf, too, Grace. Only one of us would’ve been able to see what I showed you. ” His voice was so serious, his eyes so intense. “I couldn’t—I couldn’t even talk to you right now if you weren’t like us. We aren’t supposed to talk about who we are with regular people. It’s not as if we have a ton of rules to live by, but Beck told me that’s one rule we just don’t break. ”
That didn’t make sense to me. “Why not?”
Sam didn’t say anything, but his fingers touched his neck where he’d been shot; as he did, I saw the pale, shiny scars on his wrist. It seemed wrong for someone as gentle as Sam to have to always wear evidence of human violence. I shivered in the growing chill of the afternoon. Sam’s voice was soft. “Beck’s told me stories. People kill us in all kinds of awful ways. We die in labs and we get shot and we get poisoned. It might be science that changes us, Grace, but all people see is magic. I believe Beck. We can’t tell people who aren’t like us. ”
I said, “I don’t change, Sam. I’m not really like you. ” Disappointment stuck a lump in my throat that I couldn’t swallow.
He didn’t answer. We stood together in the wood for a long moment before he sighed and spoke again.
“After you were bitten, I knew what would happen. I waited for you to change, every night, so I could bring you back and keep you from getting hurt. ” A chilly gust of wind lifted his hair and sent a shower of golden leaves glimmering down around him. He spread out his arms, letting them fall into his hands. He looked like a dark angel in an eternal autumn wood. “Did you know you get one happy day for every one you catch?”
I didn’t know what he meant, even after he opened his fist to show me the quivering leaves crumpled in his palm.
“One happy day for every falling leaf you catch. ” Sam’s voice was low.
It would’ve been unbearably romantic if he’d had the courage to look into my face and say it, but instead, he dropped his eyes to the ground and scuffed his boot in the leaves—countless possibilities for happy days—on the ground. “I haven’t stopped. ”
And I should’ve said something romantic, too, but I didn’t have the courage, either. So instead, I watched the shy way he was chewing his lip and studying the leaves, and said, “That must’ve been very boring. ”
Sam laughed, a funny, self-deprecating laugh. “You did read a lot. And spent too much time just inside the kitchen window, where I couldn’t see you very well. ”
“And not enough time mostly naked in front of my bedroom window?” I teased.
Sam turned bright red. “That,” he said, “is so not the point of this conversation. ”
I smiled sweetly at his embarrassment, beginning to walk again, kicking up golden leaves. I heard him scuffing leaves behind me. “And what was the point of it again?”
“Forget it!” Sam said. “Do you like this place or not?”
I stopped in my tracks, spinning to face him. “Hey. ” I pointed at him; he raised his eyebrows and stopped in his tracks. “You didn’t think Jack would be here at all, did you?”
His thick dark eyebrows went up even farther.
“Did you really intend to look for him at all?”
He held his hands up as if in surrender. “What do you want me to say?”
“You were trying to see if I would recognize it, weren’t you?” I took another step, closing the distance between us. I could feel the heat of his body, even without touching him, in the increasing cold of the day. “You told me about this wood somehow. How did you show it to me?”
“I keep trying to tell you. You won’t listen. Because you’re stubborn. It’s how we speak—it’s the only words we have. Just pictures. Just simple little pictures. You have changed, Grace. Just not your skin. I want you to believe me. ” His hands were still raised, but he was starting to grin at me in the failing light.
“So you only brought me here to see this. ” I stepped forward again, and he stepped back.
“Do you like it?”
“Under false pretenses. ” Another step forward; another back. The grin widened.
“So do you like it?”
“When you knew we wouldn’t come across anybody else. ”
His teeth flashed in his grin. “Do you like it?”
I punched my hands into his chest. “You know I love it. You knew I would. ” I went to punch him again, and he grabbed my wrists. For a moment we stood there like that, him looking down at me with the grin half-caught on his face, and me looking up at him: Still Life with Boy and Girl. It would’ve been the perfect moment to kiss me, but he didn’t. He just looked at me and looked at me, and by the time I realized I could just as easily kiss him, I noticed that his grin was slipping away.