Shiver, page 2part #1 of The Wolves of Mercy Falls Series
CHAPTER FIVE • GRACE
I didn’t realize that the wolves in the wood were all werewolves until Jack Culpeper was killed.
September of my junior year, when it happened, Jack was all anybody in our small town could talk about. It wasn’t as though Jack had been this amazing kid when he was alive—apart from owning the most expensive car in the parking lot, principal’s car included. Actually, he’d been kind of a jerk. But when he was killed—instant sainthood. With a gruesome and sensational undertow, because of the way it had happened. Within five days of his death, I’d heard a thousand versions of the story in the school halls.
The upshot was this: Everyone was terrified of the wolves now.
Because Mom didn’t usually watch the news and Dad was terminally not home, the communal anxiety trickled down to our household slowly, taking a few days to really gain momentum. My incident with the wolves had faded from my mother’s mind over the past six years, replaced by turpentine fumes and complementary colors, but Jack’s attack seemed to refresh it perfectly.
Far be it from Mom to funnel her growing anxiety into something logical like spending more quality time with her only daughter, the one who had been attacked by wolves in the first place. Instead, she just used it to become even more scatter-brained than usual.
“Mom, do you need some help with dinner?”
My mother looked guiltily at me, turning her attention from the television that she could just see from the kitchen back to the mushrooms she was obliterating on the cutting board.
“It was so close to here. Where they found him,” Mom said, pointing toward the television with the knife. The news anchor looked insincerely sincere as a map of our county appeared next to a blurry photo of a wolf in the upper right corner of the screen. The hunt for the truth, he said, continued. You’d think that after a week of reporting the same story over and over again, they’d at least get their simple facts straight. Their photo wasn’t even the same species as my wolf, with his stormy gray coat and tawny yellow eyes.
“I still can’t believe it,” Mom went on. “Just on the other side of Boundary Wood. That’s where he was killed. ”
“Or died. ”
Mom frowned at me, delicately frazzled and beautiful as usual. “What?”
I looked back up from my homework—comforting, orderly lines of numbers and symbols. “He could’ve just passed out by the side of the road and been dragged into the woods while he was unconscious. It’s not the same. You can’t just go around trying to cause a panic. ”
Mom’s attention had wandered back to the screen as she chopped the mushrooms into pieces small enough for amoeba consumption. She shook her head. “They attacked him, Grace. ”
I glanced out the window at the woods, the pale lines of the trees phantoms against the dark. If my wolf was out there, I couldn’t see him. “Mom, you’re the one who told me over and over and over again: Wolves are usually peaceful. ”
Wolves are peaceful creatures. This had been Mom’s refrain for years. I think the only way she could keep living in this house was by convincing herself of the wolves’ relative harmlessness and insisting that my attack was a one-time event. I don’t know if she really believed that they were peaceful, but I did. Gazing into the woods, I’d watched the wolves every year of my life, memorizing their faces and their personalities. Sure, there was the lean, sickly-looking brindle wolf who hung well back in the woods, only visible in the coldest of months. Everything about him—his dull scraggly coat, his notched ear, his one foul running eye—shouted an ill body, and the rolling whites of his wild eyes whispered of a diseased mind. I remembered his teeth grazing my skin. I could imagine him attacking a human in the woods again.
And there was the white she-wolf. I had read that wolves mated for life, and I’d seen her with the pack leader, a heavyset wolf that was as black as she was white. I’d watched him nose her muzzle and lead her through the skeleton trees, fur flashing like fish in water. She had a sort of savage, restless beauty to her; I could imagine her attacking a human, too. But the rest of them? They were silent, beautiful ghosts in the woods. I didn’t fear them.
“Right, peaceful. ” Mom hacked at the cutting board. “Maybe they should just trap them all and dump them in Canada or something. ”
I frowned at my homework. Summers without my wolf were bad enough. As a child, those months had seemed impossibly long, just time spent waiting for the wolves to reappear. They’d only gotten worse after I noticed my yellow-eyed wolf. During those long months, I had imagined great adventures where I became a wolf by night and ran away with my wolf to a golden wood where it never snowed. I knew now that the golden wood didn’t exist, but the pack—and my yellow-eyed wolf—did.
Sighing, I pushed my math book across the kitchen table and joined Mom at the cutting board. “Let me do it. You’re just messing it up. ”
She didn’t protest, and I hadn’t expected her to. Instead, she rewarded me with a smile and whirled away as if she’d been waiting for me to notice the pitiful job she was doing. “If you finish making dinner,” she said, “I’ll love you forever. ”
I made a face and took the knife from her. Mom was permanently paint-spattered and absentminded. She would never be my friends’ moms: apron-wearing, meal-cooking, vacuuming, Betty Crocker. I didn’t really want her to be like them. But seriously—I needed to get my homework done.
“Thanks, sweetie. I’ll be in the studio. ” If Mom had been one of those dolls that say five or six different things when you push their tummy, that would’ve been one of her prerecorded phrases.
“Don’t pass out from the fumes,” I told her, but she was already running up the stairs. Shoving the mutilated mushrooms into a bowl, I looked at the clock hanging on the bright yellow wall. Still an hour until Dad would be home from work. I had plenty of time to make dinner and maybe, afterward, to try to catch a glimpse of my wolf.
There was some sort of cut of beef in the fridge that was probably supposed to go with the mangled mushrooms. I pulled it out and slapped it on the cutting board. In the background, an “expert” on the news asked whether the wolf population in Minnesota should be limited or moved. The whole thing just put me in a bad mood.
The phone rang. “Hello?”
“Hiya. What’s up?”
Rachel. I was glad to hear from her; she was the exact opposite of my mother—totally organized and great on followthrough. She made me feel less like an alien. I shoved the phone between my ear and my shoulder and chopped the beef as I talked, saving a piece the size of my fist for later. “Just making dinner and watching the stupid news. ”
She knew immediately what I was talking about. “I know. Talk about surreal, right? It seems like they just can’t get enough of it. It’s kind of gross, really—I mean, why can’t they just shut up and let us get over it? It’s bad enough going to school and hearing about it all the time. And you with the wolves and everything, it’s got to be really bothering you—and, seriously, Jack’s parents have got to be just wanting the reporters to shut up. ” Rachel was babbling so fast I could barely understand her. I missed a bunch of what she said in the middle, and then she asked, “Has Olivia called tonight?”
Olivia was the third side of our trio, the only one who came anywhere near understanding my fascination with the wolves. It was a rare night when I didn’t talk to either her or Rachel by phone. “She’s probably out shooting photos. Isn’t there a meteor shower tonight?” I said. Olivia saw the world through her camera; half of my school memories seemed to be in four-by-six-inch glossy black-and-white form.
Rachel said, “I think you’re right. Olivia will definitely want a piece of that hot asteroid action. Got a moment to talk?”
I glanced at the clock. “Sorta. Just while I finish up dinner, then I have homework. ”
“Okay. Just a second then. Two words, baby, try them out: es. cape. ”
I started the beef brownin
She paused. “Yeah. It sounded better in my head. Anyway, so here’s the thing: My parents said if I want to go someplace over Christmas break this year, they’ll pay for it. I so want to go somewhere. Anywhere but MercyFalls. God, anywhere but MercyFalls! Will you and Olivia come over and help me pick something after school tomorrow?”
“Yeah, sure. ”
“If it’s someplace really cool, maybe you and Olivia could come, too,” Rachel said.
I didn’t answer right away. The word Christmas immediately evoked memories of the scent of our Christmas tree, the dark infinity of the starry December sky above the backyard, and my wolf’s eyes watching me from behind the snow-covered trees. No matter how absent he was for the rest of the year, I always had my wolf for Christmas.
Rachel groaned. “Don’t do that silent staring-off-into-the- distance-thinking look, Grace! I can tell you’re doing it! You can’t tell me you don’t want to get out of this place!”
I sort of didn’t. I sort of belonged here. “I didn’t say no,” I protested.
“You also didn’t say omigod yes, either. That’s what you were supposed to say. ” Rachel sighed. “But you will come over, right?”
“You know I will,” I said, craning my neck to squint out the back window. “Now, I really have to go. ”
“Yeah yeah yeah,” Rachel said. “Bring cookies. Don’t forget. Love ya. Bye. ” She laughed and hung up.
I hurried to get the pot of stew simmering on the stove so it could occupy itself without me. Grabbing my coat from the hooks on the wall, I pulled open the sliding door to the deck.
Cool air bit my cheeks and pinched at the tops of my ears, reminding me that summer was officially over. My stocking cap was stuffed in the pocket of my coat, but I knew my wolf didn’t always recognize me when I was wearing it, so I left it off. I squinted at the edge of the yard and stepped off the deck, trying to look nonchalant as I did. The piece of beef in my hand felt cold and slick.
I crunched out across the brittle, colorless grass into the middle of the yard and stopped, momentarily dazzled by the violent pink of the sunset through the fluttering black leaves of the trees. This stark landscape was a world away from the small, warm kitchen with its comforting smells of easy survival. Where I was supposed to belong. Where I should’ve wanted to be. But the trees called to me, urging me to abandon what I knew and vanish into the oncoming night. It was a desire that had been tugging me with disconcerting frequency these days.
The darkness at the edge of the wood shifted, and I saw my wolf standing beside a tree, nostrils sniffing toward the meat in my hand. My relief at seeing him was cut short as he shifted his head, letting the yellow square of light from the sliding door fall across his face. I could see now that his chin was crusted with old, dried blood. Days old.
His nostrils worked; he could smell the bit of beef in my hand. Either the beef or the familiarity of my presence was enough to lure him a few steps out of the wood. Then a few steps more. Closer than he’d ever been before.